Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

Kindred Spirits: Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón at the Concertgebouw

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has been a regular favourite at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam since 1996. Her verastile concerts are always carefully constructed and delivered with irrepressible energy and artistic commitment.

Cav/Pag at Royal Opera

When Italian director Damiano Michieletto visited Covent Garden in June this year, he spiced Rossini’s Guillaume Tell with a graphic and, many felt, gratuitous rape scene that caused outrage and protest.

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, starting the new season. Primas at La Scala are a state occasion, attended by the President of Italy and other dignitaries.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

 Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts.  HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.
17 Mar 2008

Heggie faces family dilemma in new work

Do dysfunctional families outnumber the ones that move through life untroubled, or is it — to paraphrase Tolstoy — that every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way and thus of greater interest to writers and composers?

Jake Heggie: Last Acts
Houston Grand Opera

Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.

 

Since Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were at their Attic — and antic — best families in a fix have been a major source of raw material for creative artists. Thus it’s easy to understand Jake Heggie’s fascination with the Mitchells — mother “Maddy,” an ageing actress, her gay son Charlie and daughter Bea, wife of a wayward husband, the subject of “Last Acts,” a chamber opera premiered by the Houston Grand Opera on February 29.

The Mitchells are something of a special case, for not only are they a mess as a group, but individually as well. “Maddy” has concealed her husband’s suicide from her estranged children. Charlie, the younger, watches his partner die of AIDS, while Bea — her kids already in college — laments her husband’s philandering. Heggie found the Mitchells — the deceased husband, although absent from the work, is still part of the family — in “Christmas Letters,” a 2001 play by his frequent librettist Terrence McNally that was given a single reading at a New York AIDS benefit. Smitten by the story, the composer asked Gene Scheer to fashion a libretto from McNally’s text.

When Heggie is on stage there’s no “Capriccio”-style clamor — “prima la musica e poi le parole” — about words versus music. He’s a setter of words, a composer first of songs and then of operas and musical scenes, in which the text comes first. The new score is smooth and flows without huge ups and downs; an occasional nudge of dissonance might have made listeners more aware of the finely-wrought music they are hearing. Heggie makes it too easy for the audience, drawing them into the story with his refined sense of theater and allowing them to overlook the sophisticated music that he has written.

A young composer could not have wished for better on-the-job training than Heggie got when he joined the press wing of the San Francisco Opera in 1994. Just out of college with a stack of early songs under his arm, he was immediately involved in the company’s 1994 world premiere of Conrad Susa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” It helped him hone the skills that led to the SFO commission — and premiere — of his “Dead Man Walking” in 2000. (It remains the most successful opera of the new century thus far.) And the star of the Susa cast was Frederica von Stade, who became Heggie’s friend, muse and mentor. Heggie pays homage to the legendary mezzo in “Last Acts,“ a two-hour study of the Mitchells’ woes.

Tailor-made for her, von Stade is in her element in “Last Acts,” performed on a largely bare stage with an ensemble of 11 instrumentalists on risers behind her. Cesar Galindo provided her with sumptuous gowns, and Brian Nason‘s lighting added to the effectiveness of shifting scenes. Von Stade relishes “Maddy” and she accounted for the success that the work was in the eyes — and ears — of the opening-night audience that packed the 1000-seat Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center. Indeed, if there is an inherent weakness in the work, it is in the undiminished vocal splendor and still ravishing beauty of the famous mezzo, for von Stade — now 62 — will never grow old. And although Heggie admits that he can see others in the role, “Last Acts” will survive probably only as long as von Stade is able to sing it, for the work is so uniquely hers.

In his HGO debut youthful baritone Keith Phares was a troubled Charlie, while Kristin Clayton was a trifle too matronly to be the daughter of ageless von Stade. “Last Acts” is more Broadway than Berlioz, and von Stade’s first-act “number” is the “hit” of the work. And while the opening act is somewhat bland, Heggie’s skill comes to the fore as the previously concealed truth about the suicide of husband/father is revealed in the second. In the well-balanced score each of the children has a major solo scene. Heggie writes “big” music, even when composing for chamber forces. “Last Acts” is lush and listenable, warm and warming; it’s accessible and affirmative in gesture. Although “Maddy,” affirming that it’s the truth that makes us free, concludes that everything “is going to be alright,” one must wonder whether Heggie — and Scheer — have not made things a bit too simple.

The audience is asked to accept that “Maddy” went on stage to put food on the table and shoes on little feet. No one asks whether she, convinced that “truth could only be touched by imagination,” was in the beginning the constant wife of which everyone dreams. Did she perhaps conceal too much in finding “a version of our lives that we could all live with?” Does “Last Acts” suggest that there is a [italics] truth, rather than the [italics]? Is this not rather a further “take” on life as a stage, in which fiction substitutes for fact? (Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Heggie’s father killed himself when his son was 10.)

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted from one piano; Heggie was at a second.

Commissioned by the HGO in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, “Last Acts” will be titled “Three Decembers” in future performances. Heggie has been commissioned to write a new work on “Moby-Dick” to open the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the new home of Dallas Opera, on April 30, 2010.

Wes Blomster

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):