03 Jan 2008
Oppenheimer opera charts new course in music
In this country art and politics are rarely bedfellows — strange or otherwise; indeed, it’s seldom that the two meet under the same roof.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
In this country art and politics are rarely bedfellows — strange or otherwise; indeed, it’s seldom that the two meet under the same roof.
That is one thing that makes John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” unique among recent American operas. At the same time, the success of the work gives hope that the national ear is not totally deaf to the urgency that speaks so strongly from this account of the anxious hours leading up to the first explosion of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. “Doctor Atomic,” directed by sometimes enfant terrible Peter Sellars, who also wrote the libretto, was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2005. Following performances in Amsterdam last summer, the Chicago Lyric Opera has revived the SFO staging as a major event of its current season.
Adams first tried his hand at contemporary history in 1987 with “Nixon in China.” And Sellars — as Edward Said commented on his work with Hindemith’s “Mathis der Mahler” in London in 1986 — is one of the few in this country “who connect opera to an ongoing social political debate” in an effort to combat “the prevailing belief that operas are essentially harmless, if not completely antiseptic.” There is obviously nothing either harmless or antiseptic about “Doctor Atomic,” defined by Adams as “an unflinching drama of contemporary humanity in crisis.” And the acute sense of crisis in today’s world, where leaders threaten the use of nuclear weapons with the ease that their forefathers played with tin soldiers, underscores the sense of urgency felt in the audiences that pack the city’s Lyric Theatre for eight performances beginning in December and continuing on into January.
The 1945 detonation of “the Gadget,” as those involved in the Manhattan Project called that first bomb, stands as the major turning point in all of human history, for with it mankind unleashed a power capable not only of heretofore unknown destruction, but able even to destroy the earth itself. The fear shared of igniting the atmosphere that haunted Robert J. Oppenheimer, father of the first bomb, informs “Doctor Atomic” from beginning to end, and Adams has done an incredible job of expressing it — in part through electronically generated sounds woven seamlessly into the score — to create what he has called “a post-nuclear holocaust landscape.” The opera ends openly at “zero minus one,” leaving the audience to deal with the consequences of the scientists’ “success” in the desert. It is thus an intentionally discomforting work about events, the relevance of which has grown immensely over the past half century.
Gerald Finley (l.) stars as Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Paul Fink (r.) stars as Edward Teller in the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Sellars, drawing deftly upon documentary material — much of it only recently made public — and poetry to which deeply intellectual Oppenheimer and his troubled wife Kitty were attached — stresses that the physicist in his challenge of the unknown was the Faust of the 20th century, and he pairs him tellingly with Mephistophelean Edward Teller, later famous as the mastermind of the hydrogen bomb. It is the confrontation of Oppenheimer’s intellectual honesty with Teller’s lust for power that elevates “Doctor Atomic” beyond “mere” art in its concert for moral and ethical issues.
The Lyric is fortunate in having five of the SFO principles in its cast, and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley is even more of a dead ringer for nervous, chain-smoking Oppenheimer than he was at the premiere. And Richard Paul Fink, the reigning Alberich in today’s “Ring” cycles, makes Teller more threatening that he was two years ago. Highlight of the Chicago staging, seen on December 18, was Finley’s delivery of the haunting “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” that concludes Act One. (The text is by John Donne.)
Jessica Rivera stars as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In extensive revisions of the score Kitty Oppenheimer is now a soprano, warmly sung by Jessica Rivera, who has made her mark as both as both Nuria and Margarita in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar.” One critic called “Am I in your light?,” her Act-One “serenade” of her husband “a bundled Mahlerian adagietto of emotion,” and in Act Two she brings Cassandra-like insight into her exchange with Native-American nursemaid, sung with earthy sensuousness by Lyric studio artist Meredith Arwady.
Despite revisions since the premiere, however, the tension that has the audience writhing in Act One is lost in Act Two, in which the score loses its impulse. It will be interesting to see what further revisions are made when Penny Woolcock directs a totally new production of “Doctor Atomic” at the Met next season.
Conductor Robert Spano, enviously at home with contemporary scores, brings a sharp focus to Adams’ score. Questionable, however, are the largely aimless gyrations of an octet of dancers choreographed by Lucinda Childs.
Peter Sellars sums up “Doctor Atomic” as “a reality that we’re living with every minute,” and the overall excellence of the Chicago staging left no doubt about. Indeed, as Thomas Mann once wrote in another context, the opera focuses attention on a time in which “so much began that has not yet left off beginning.”
The positive response of the Chicago audience is encouraging, for it indicates a willingness — indeed, perhaps a need — for opera that is unafraid to engage itself in compelling and complex issue. True, “Doctor Atomic” will never replace “Carmen” and “Butterfly” in public favor, but its success indicates the existence of a vast number of opera-goers who seek more than mere entertainment. It is a work that demands a critical response from all who see it. And the opera is of particular relevance to Chicago, for it was beneath the football field at the University of Chicago that Enrico Fermi set off the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in history.
A film to watch for
It is sad indeed that a major companion piece to “Doctor Atomic” is largely unavailable to the current audience of the opera. Although “Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic” has been shown at several film festivals, it is not yet available through regular DVD channels.
Made for public television, word is that the film will not be distributed until it has been seen on PBS, and at present no date has been set for its showing there. An engaging counterpoint of details from Oppenheimer’s life and career and the creation of “Doctor Atomic,” the film reflects the same anxiety that accounts for the on-stage apprehension so compellingly portrayed by Sellars and Adams. It is the work of filmmaker Jon Else, whose credits include award-winning documentary on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project “The Day After Trinity” Those who see “Doctor Atomic” should watch PBS schedules.