04 May 2008
Ned Rorem's Our Town
Martha Graham used to say, “In order for there to be dance, there must be something that needs to be danced.”
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“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.
Martha Graham used to say, “In order for there to be dance, there must be something that needs to be danced.”
This occurred to me while attending Ned Rorem’s spare, elegant, uninteresting full-length opera (his first after a lifetime composing nearly every other sort of thing) derived from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play as rooted in the poetry of the ordinary (pre-World War I New England variety) as the operatic form seems calculated to enhance and transcend it. Mr. Rorem himself has said that when he first took on this project (here receiving its New York premiere — the world premiere took place two years ago) he pondered whether Our Town called for operatic treatment, and whether he was the man to set it. My guess is the answers in both cases are clearly negative, but he blithely went right ahead.
Is there anything in Our Town, a play in which God is the most prosaic of stage managers (agnostic to boot, as Wilder was), and death is restfully preferable to even the pleasantest sort of living, that could be enhanced by song? Perhaps — but not the sort of song Mr. Rorem has provided, the through-composed recitative of mid-twentieth-century opera without those embarrassing tune thingies that bear unfortunate comparison with weak Broadway musicals. When Mr. Rorem requires a real tune — a hymn for the burial of Emily, his heroine, say, or her wedding march — what we get is a traditional hymn sung against ironic orchestral discords, or a few bars of Mendelssohn — because Mr. Rorem can’t really be trusted (by his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, or by himself, evidently) to come up with anything that would conjure the notion of “hymn” or “wedding march” on his own bat. The dialogue of the opera — or should I say play? — is offered without emotion either because the play does not call for much of it or because the idiom in use does not. (I wasn’t sure.) The most appealing and interesting portions of Mr. Rorem’s contribution were the few — very few — times he allowed more than one person to sing together: a trio of taunting baseball players calling “George!” when the hero pays too much attention to the girl he is sweet on, or the chorale of the dead that opens Act II. Otherwise, there isn’t much here here. If you’re going to make an opera, you really ought to let people let loose to sing a bit.
We do get singable vocal lines — after half a century producing beloved art songs, there isn’t much about writing graciously for the voice that Mr. Rorem does not know. It can’t be an accident that the large cast of Juilliard students with a considerable and varied level of experience all sounded able and grateful. The opera gives each one his or her moment — which no doubt will win it a future in the repertory of music schools if nowhere else. That’s too bad if it gets in the way of productions of better works for large casts, such as The Mother of Us All or The Ballad of Baby Doe.
The Mother of Us All gives us a hint about what went wrong in Our Town: Thomson took Gertrude Stein’s text, as he had the earlier Four Saints in Three Acts, and set it just as he found it, using the hymn tune background of his Missouri upbringing to create a nostalgic rather than referential score, full of original flavor. Rorem, though he comes from the same part of the country and, like Thomson, was educated in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, has self-consciously divorced himself from Americana and can find no way to link back to it. His hymn is not a charming in-the-style-of, but an intrusion. Nothing downhome permeates the background here. As for the play, it is typical of the libretto that the witty sidelong touches, geological and statistical “newsbreaks” quoted by one character or another, find no answering wit in Rorem’s music — they appear only in the surtitles. If the opera were produced without them, they’d have to go. Wilder’s balance of the quotidian with the eternal is unsprung, here and elsewhere. McClatchy and Rorem simply did not trust their material. Or (very likely) Our Town is a play requiring no song at all — it’s got its own, as much as it could ever need.
It was difficult not to compare Our Town to another American opera I’d seen recently: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Did this stage work respond adequately to, or even explicate, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy? There’s no way for me, only vaguely familiar with that philosophy or that life, to judge, but what Satyagraha did do was concoct so pleasing a musical language for that life that audiences are drawn to contemplate its meaning and achievement, both of which are undoubtedly worthy of operatic grandiloquence — rather the way Stein and Thomson meditated on Susan B. Anthony’s achievement in The Mother of Us All. Our Town may or may not deserve musicalization on some level, but the musical language Rorem has provided is inadequate to draw us in, to make us think the question worth resolving. We simply don’t want to spend time with this music. We’d rather hear Mendelssohn straight.
The expert Juilliard cast was led by Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily at the premiere, whose unsettlingly bright smile when she meets the other dead folks in the graveyard was presumably approved by the composer, and whose big bright soprano seems destined to fill larger houses in the very near future. I especially liked the voice and poise of Jessica Klein as Mrs. Gibbs and Julie Boulianne as a nosey neighbor, Marc Webster and David McFerrin as the two fathers (both given charming, self-involved monologues), and Alex Mansoori’s regal calm as the almighty Stage Manager. If there was an unappealing voice in all the large cast, it passed me completely. Now if only they’d been singing something that needed to be sung.