02 Mar 2008
Peter Grimes by Opera North
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Opera North is one of the most innovative opera companies in Britain.
It doesn’t get quite the international attention it deserves, however, because it’s based “up North”, as Londoners would say, in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland. This award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes shows why the company earns its excellent reputation.
Opera North has a real affinity for Britten, so with Phyllida Lloyd as director, this production is something of a milestone in Peter Grimes performance. Lloyd’s style grows from the inner dynamic of the opera. Everything focuses on the music, nothing distracts. The curtain lifts to reveal the corpse of the apprentice who died of thirst while lost at sea. It’s a metaphor for the whole opera. In the trial scene, Grimes is fenced in, claustrophobically, by a wall of pallets, held up by the townsfolk. Later these pallets are the bastions of the church, and the walls of the pub. It’s a simple device but effective, underlining the fundamental conflict between Grimes and the populace who inoculate themselves from the outside world with prayer and drink. Britten embeds this dichotomy firmly within his music. The “church” chorus and Ellen Orford’s monologue with the boy exist in parallel, without interaction. There’s drama enough in the orchestra, so Lloyd keeps things simple. Similarly, she doesn’t need to depict the sea, as such. Britten’s cadences sweep upwards and down like waves. “A ceaseless motion”, goes the text, “comes and goes like the tide,…rolls and ebbs, terrible and deep”.
This uncompromising focus on the drama in the music intensifies the disturbing psychological aspects of the opera. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Grimes was perceptive : he’s not meant to be sympathetic, but neither is he an object of hate. He may be cruelly insensitive, but both boys died of natural causes. This role requires a wide range, which Lloyd-Roberts delivers. He created Grimes when this production was premièred in October 2006, and much of the depth of the characterisation is due to him. If on this particular evening, his voice was a little tired at first, he vindicated himself totally in the “What is home” scene, when Grimes confronts the horror of his situation. This time, “the tide will not turn”, he will not “begin again”. The intensity of Lloyd-Roberts performance makes his decision to die at sea completely logical. That last scene, where the townsfolk sing of the tide pulling back out to sea “with string magnetic speed” was magical. Grimes is absorbed into the sea, and for a few moments, something quite magical happens in the orchestra, as the strings surge and the flute rises luminously above. This ending was brilliant, for Lloyd understands that, throughout the opera, Britten has stressed the relentless hard grind of the fishermen’s lives. “This unrelenting work”, as Ellen sings, that lets up for no man. So as the music fades, but on stage, the rhythm of life continues…..it’s a small detail, but expressing the spirit of the opera very perceptively.
Unlike some more matronly Ellen Orfords, Giselle Allen‘s vibrant characterisation gave a strong sexual charge to her relationship with Grimes. This is important to the interpretation of the opera, because it shows why Grimes drives himself so hard, because he wants to make a new life with Ellen, whom he sees as his redemption. He pushes his apprentices harshly because life at sea is harsh, as no doubt he learned himself a boy. Sexuality is a theme in this opera, from which this production bravely does not shirk away. The townsfolk hint that there’s something unhealthy about Grimes and his boys, so they mount a witch hunt. The chorus “Bring the branding iron and fire” was sung with frenzied energy, hinting that perhaps Grimes wasn’t the only person with desires to suppress. Indeed, Britten makes this clear in the text. Auntie and her “nieces” most certainly provide an outlet for some. As Auntie says, she and her girls say, “we comfort men”. One of the more disturbing, but entirely trenchant, aspects of this production was that the nieces were portrayed as children, one wearing pink and blue with white knee
socks. She’s underage, just like the boys Grimes is hunted down for harming. When she’s propositioned by the town lawyer, that pillar of society, the text is painfully explicit, but some productions shy away. Currently in the UK news, there’s a huge story about child abuse in Jersey, apparently covered up by official whitewash, so watching this production was decidedly uncomfortable. But it serves to show that Britten knew far more about hypocrisy and sexual bullying than he was able to articulate. In 1945, productions couldn’t really confront these issues openly. Now, we are unfortunately more able to appreciate just how deeply Britten understood the pain.
Yet Britten doesn’t judge. In contrast, Mrs Smedley delights in judging. “Crime is my hobby” she says. Although she’s right to be concerned about the boys, her motivation isn’t their welfare, but her own enjoyment of misery. Ethna Robinson’s Mrs Smedley bristles with barely contained hysteria, in contrast to Jonathan Summer’s Captain Balstrode, who stands for common sense. Good vignette parts all round, especially Yvonne Howard’s Auntie and Roderick Williams’s Ned Keene.
Claire Booth as Niece 2, Yvonne Howard as Auntie and Amy Freston as Niece 1.
Britten valued the orchestral elements in this opera so much that the Sea Interludes are often performed on their own as concert pieces. Farnes’s conducting was precise and muscular : there’s ambiguity aplenty in the music, so there shouldn’t be in performance. The solos, flute, violin and oboe were particularly moving, like extra voices, commenting on the action. What made this production, however, was the way it was built around the music. A lot of fuss is made of directing style, but in this case, the direction served totally to reveal deeper levels of meaning. The secret, I suspect, is “know your composer” and “know your opera”, through and through. Anyone wanting further evidence of Lloyd’s work with Opera North on Britten might be interested in their DVD of Gloriana.
Anne Ozorio © 2008