Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal) [Photo by Catherine Ashmore]
14 Nov 2007

“The Sacrifice” – Welsh National World Premiere Tour

Welsh National Opera’s new opera “The Sacrifice”, composed by James MacMillan with libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, and directed by Katie Mitchell, is an emotionally raw and compelling study of the nature of conflict, and how humans are changed by it.

James MacMillan: The Sacrifice
Welsh National Opera

Above: Lisa Milne (Sian) and Peter Hoare (Mal)
Photo by Catherine Ashmore

 

Based on the Branwen story from the ancient Welsh collection of folktales known as the The Mabinogion, it is nevertheless uncompromising in its attempt to bring the opera into a 21st century context. Whether this works is open to question and, on first acquaintance, the answer would seem to be a regretful “no”. Not for the fact of its contemporary-looking setting, (supposedly a few decades in the future but actually reminding one more of an East German hotel circa 1985) but because it confuses an audience as to what and when that world is meant to be. Here, the the storyline follows a politically arranged wedding of two significant members of opposing armed political camps which is intended to bring together the two warring factions and, seven years later, the investiture of their son which is meant to cement the union. This is a timeless story, and as such it needs no making “relevant” to our recent experiences of Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Palestine. Indeed, in so doing, the authors have weakened the strongest points it is trying to make. Some ten years in the making, perhaps The Sacrifice has suffered the perennial problem that besets all long-winded projects, be they artistic or commercial: what seemed vital and relevant a decade ago now projects to today’s audience as predictable and, worse, disappointing.

However, what does work in a devastatingly effective way is MacMillan’s visceral and multi-textured score where every aspect of the modern orchestra is used in imaginative and compelling ways: the strange opening triad chords of the overture immediately evoke an atmosphere that captures the essence of the piece and this magic continues throughout. Robert’s ingenious libretto of semi-rhyming couplets gives the music plenty of space and expertly conveys the tensions and uncertainties of the protagonists. Over 70 musicians and percussionists of the WNO Orchestra are conducted by the composer in this inaugural run, and they play with intense musicality and commitment, obviously relishing the detailed chromatic sound world he has created. Equally successful is his writing for the WNO Chorus and the solo singers and it was on hearing some of the most potent arias and ensembles for the first time that one was struck by how very traditional, in some ways, this opera is: full orchestra, a substantial acting Chorus, a soprano heroine, a second soprano sub-plot character, tenor and baritone opposing male leads and a “father figure” bass-baritone. The only slight difference, on paper, between this and any 19th century mainstream opera is that our heroine loves the baritone, not the tenor, who turns out to be the nearest thing to the traditional “baddie” – although no-one in the story is morally clear cut.

Act One sets the scene of the two warring “tribes” or factions, holed up in the same depressing, shoddy hotel, scarred by the occasional bullet hole, and awaiting the fateful wedding of Sian, the first faction’s General’s daughter to Mal, the opposing faction’s famed “freedom” fighter. Sian’s real love, Evan, a soldier in the General’s army, watches with increasing bitterness and jealousy as the woman he loves appears ready to betray both him and their faction in the cause of a peace brokered by her father, in what will be an attempt to end the decades, or maybe centuries, of conflict. The final scene ends in violence with Evan attempting to kill Mal, but only succeeding in wounding him.

In Act Two, seven years having passed and Sian and Mal now have two small boys, but with Evan newly released from captivity the semi-crippled Mal is convinced his wife is still seeing her old love. He is right – they do meet, and sing the marvellously emotive and soaring duet “Your heart is my homeland” before Evan is again forced to flee. Meanwhile, the first born son of the unhappy couple is due to be crowned “regent” – a new king in waiting who will, the General hopes, finally confirm the transition from uneasy truce to unified nation. Again violence and horror dash all such hope in a way all too familiar in the history of human conflict.

The final Act begins with a funeral, and some sumptuous choral writing that is communicative of all the longing and distress of any war-torn nation. In a final act of sacrifice to his dream of a unified country and an end to the eternal conflict, the General opens up the possibility of hope, although the auguries are not good.

Many people have commented on MacMillan’s use of musical “signposts” in his writing, his quotations and borrowings of musical forms and ideas. Nothing new in that of course, and in The Sacrifice, many of these quotes work extremely well and indeed suggest aural landmarks in the wider landscape of the score. Echoes of a Bach passacaglia, Purcell word-setting (especially noticeable in Sian’s funeral lament) and even some Wagnerian-style leitmotifs on the percussion and strings all float in and out of our conscious perception without ever compromising the essence of the original music which is in turns richly melodic and tangentially percussive. Boring or repetitive it is not.

The score is lit from within by the solo work of the excellent singers who without exception give fine readings of both their music and their characterisations. There was no weak link, although probably one must single out the opulent-voiced Lisa Milne as Sian who rose magnificently to the challenge of some difficult yet rewarding writing. Her duet with Leigh Melrose as Evan was eloquent and fine-spun, working well with Melrose’s warm yet appropriately edged baritone. He was able to suggest the knife-edge character of Evan – a Celtic split personality capable of great love and great hatred at one and the same time. Christopher Purves was deeply convincing as the General, his voice easy in the lowest registers, and able to communicate the desperate hope, and final realisation, of what he has to do. As her possibly-autistic, certainly not “normal” sister Megan, Ailish Tynan had the most pure physical acting to do, but she also was able to subtly shade her bright soprano to suggest an underlying fear and fore-knowledge of events as she chanted lines of runic verse and obscure forecasts. The most complex role is that of Mal – freedom fighter/guerrilla, killer turned political leader, jealous husband and loving father, desperately trying to understand a changing world, and changing moralities. Peter Hoare’s highly-charged and robust tenor was a perfect instrument for Mal, flying high with rage but also able to colour and darken with emotional intensity. Rosie Hay, Samantha Hay, Amanda Baldwin sang the supporting roles of the Three Birds with conviction, even if one might question their necessity in the drama. All the soloists were superbly supported and enhanced by the WNO Chorus, who seemed completely at home with their music with some nuanced singing, producing an admirable amalgam of light and shade.

The caveats regarding setting aside, it was a tremendous evening of music theatre, and Welsh National, MacMillan and Roberts are to be congratulated on a work that is, without doubt, an important one, and one that will take its rightful place in the repertory.

© Sue Loder 2007

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):