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

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

James Maddalena as John Brown at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City
12 May 2008

John Brown lives again in Kansas City

John Brown might have been a’mouldering in his grave since he was hanged in 1859, but he was resurrected — in body and spirit — on May 3, when the Lyric Opera of Kansas City staged the world premiere of Kirke Mechem’s John Brown.

Kirke Mechem: John Brown

Above: James Maddalena as John Brown
All photos by Douglas Hamer courtesy of Lyric Opera of Kansas City

 

Like the nursery rhymes of childhood, Dred Scott, Harper’s Ferry and John Brown are words that resonate only indistinctly in the minds of today’s elders; an ahistorical younger generation knows them not at all. Thus the astonishment that prevailed in the Lyric’s aged venue at the contemporary relevance — indeed, the urgency — of the story of the man determined to end slavery in this country — even by force, if necessary.

Although decades in the making Mechem’s monumental score — it runs slightly over three hours, less two intermissions — comes to the stage as racism rumbles beneath the surface of a major political campaign. Brown, if not totally a’mouldered, would turn nervously in its grave at the sight of current events.

Brown_Douglass.pngJames Maddalena as John Brown and Donnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass.

Mechem, author of the Brown libretto as well, has done his homework in his use of the archives in what is in many ways a documentary drama. Furthermore, for Mechem Brown is a family matter, for his historian father once attempted to tailor this story for the opera stage. Much to his credit, the younger Mechem, born in 1925, has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass, the eloquent black leader who insisted upon abolition by legal and peaceful means. Brown, on the other hand, killed no one, but approved the murder of six men to achieve his goal. Thus questions of violence and terrorism, ghosts that lingers from the years of opposition to the Vietnam war, add weight — and darkness — to Mechem’s tale.

The Lyric could hardly have done better than casting James Maddalena and veteran black baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Brown and Douglass. Maddalena, on stage almost without interruption, makes of Brown a towering and commanding figure, and although Mechem portrays him positively in sometimes mesmerizing music, he never evades the complex issues encountered in Brown’s position. Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar in the middle of this story. Indeed, this role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career.

Death_Oliver.pngDeath of Oliver at Harper’s Ferry: James Maddalena as John Brown and Patrick Miller as Oliver Brown.

Mechem adds a person dimension to Brown’s story with a sub-plot involving his family and the hesitation of those next to him to support his plans for the raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, the attempt to free slaves that failed and resulted in his arrest and execution. Son Oliver Brown, movingly sung by tenor Patrick Miller, and daughter-in-law Martha, sensitively played by soprano Jennifer Aylmer, underscore the human toll taken by history.

Mechem’s lush score abounds in moments of richness, such as the love duet between Oliver and Martha that opens Act Two, when Vanessa Thomas steps forth from the wings to read a letter by a young slave’s wife and when Oliver dies in his father’s arms. The score is often marvelous both in sound and emotion, yet it is always measured. It is tonal and lyric throughout, but never trite, and a major strength lies in Mechem’s experienced hand as a choral composer. In many especially moving moments he concludes a crucial scene with a chorus that never stands by itself, but is always an integral continuation of what has gone before. The choruses “I’m Free” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote.

Mechem makes no secret of the deep religious convictions that motivate Brown, who sees himself doing God’s work in fighting slavery. However, he treats this aspect of his hero’s character with reserve, never allowing him to seem a zealot — despite many Biblical references and the inclusion of hymn tunes in his score. There are points in the opera at which Mechem hauntingly recalls Bach’s passions in his portrayal of Brown’s agony. Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist conducted members of the Kansas City Symphony to fine effect.

It is clear that John Brown, a commission that celebrates the Lyric’s 50th anniversary, should move on to other stages. Before it does so, however, revision is needed. The opera now runs over three hours; and, word from within was that considerable cuts had already been made.

The first act is totally absorbing in its dramatic force. The final act, on the other hand, wanders and lacks focus. It could end at a number of places, and the contribution of the post-scripted Apotheosis to the score is questionable. One knows by then what Brown’s fate is to be, and to have him swing visibly above the stage on the hangman’s rope is — well — overkill and even raises questions of taste.

Douglass_Cast.pngDonnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass with cast

The Lyric, set to move into a new performing arts center next year, has outdone itself in staging John Brown in its current outdated home. Book — and flag-burning — to mention only two special effects — are staged credibly. One does not often seek a message in opera, but there is one here and it is of particular urgency today. “One of the uncomfortable truths this opera asks us to confront,” writes director Kristine McIntyre in comments in the program, “is that most people, even when confronted with a great wrong, are simply afraid to stand up and be counted. We don’t want to be stirred out of our complacency and we aren’t ready to have our preconceptions challenged.”

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):