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

Arabella in San Francisco

A great big guy in a great big fur coat falls in love with the photo of the worldly daughter of a compulsive gambler. A great big conductor promotes the maelstrom of great big music that shepherds all this to ecstatic conclusion.

Two falls out of three for Britten in Seattle Screw

The miasma of doom that pervades the air of the great house of Bly seems to seep slowly into the auditorium, dulling the senses, weighing down the mind. What evil lurks here? Can these people be saved? Do we care?

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

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):