28 May 2008
Tree-mendous in Chicago
Chicago Opera Theater scored a resounding success with its area premiere of John Adams’ newest stage piece, “A Flowering Tree.”
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
Chicago Opera Theater scored a resounding success with its area premiere of John Adams’ newest stage piece, “A Flowering Tree.”
And it did so with a completely different take on the piece than that devised by Peter Sellars for Vienna’s world premiere in November 2006 at the Festival of New Crowned Hope.
The original concept had the large orchestra on stage, with minimal stage action relegated to small elevated playing spaces, more semi-staged oratorio than a full-fledged dramatic rendering. It is perhaps no accident that this Chicago company has “theater” prominently included in its name, for they have put the band back in the pit, and with consummate stagecraft, they fleshed out this folk tale’s libretto which was crafted by Sellars and the composer based on a story translated by A.K. Ramanujan from the Kannada language of southern India.
The king (James Johnson, dancer).
The tale concerns two sisters, one of whom, “Kumudha,” is able to transform herself into “A Flowering Tree” and back again. However, her jealous sibling’s wicked friends break the spell, trapping the heroine in her tree-state, breaking her limbs, and leaving her in the gutter as a pitiful grub-like torso. After her disappearance, the “Prince,” having already wedded her for her bewitching beauty and powers, wanders disconsolately until his love restores her and reunites them in marital bliss. The only other singing principal is a “Storyteller.”
The minimalist set and costume design by George Souglides scored big, with simple yet highly imaginative effects. The first important transformation scene was accomplished with “Kumudha’s” sister (dancer Karla Victum) stretching hidden, over-long sleeves from her costume and extending and twisting the “branches” into various shapes. Each subsequent transfiguration was larger then the previous, magically accomplished with colored ropes.
Whether descending from the flies or rising from the stage floor, these were presented in artfully tied designs that would be the envy of any advanced macrame class. Indeed, the curtain rise of Act Two stunningly coincided with a “growing tree” emanating from “Kumudha” down center stage that ultimately filled the entire proscenium opening. The few set pieces and props (a veil-covered over-sized wedding bed, a gilt throne, primitive masks on poles) were selected with attentive care.
The Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan).
The evocative and colorful costume design was effectively based on traditional Indian and Asian street and stage garb, with a couple of the specialty dance turns being dazzlingly outfitted. I wish that same attention had been lavished on our heroine, who looked quite plain; well, too plain by comparison. Indeed, the rather lumpy and shapeless white coat she wore in the wedding scene was promisingly removed to reveal only more of the same look, if better fitted. All of this was well-served by Aaron Black’s terrific lighting, artfully combining lustrous washes of color with well-calculated and flawlessly executed specials, gobos, and area lighting.
If all this was gorgeous to behold, it would not have impacted us as strongly as it did without Nicola Raab’s masterful direction. First, without ever unduly cluttering the stage, Ms. Raab has devised meaningful and poetic movement for the large chorus and corps de ballet. As we entered the theatre, the white-garbed “Storyteller” was already seated, immobile on a chair stage right. Slowly, the chorus in reddish-orange filed on from various points and seated themselves on the stage around him, ultimately creating a visual “island” that captivates us before a note is played. We couldn’t wait to hear what he has to say.
Similarly, meaningful character relationships are defined with ethereal subtlety. The mating scene with our newlyweds walking/stalking on the bridal bed was a study in sensuous restraint, as the pair never quite touched but conveyed the impression of love-making nonetheless by tracing the head and torso with slow sweeping gestures, and intertwining their arms (well, almost) in ever inventive combinations.
Perhaps the most problematic scene of all, the dismemberment of the tree-trapped “Kumudha” was beautifully solved by having two dancers wrap her in a cocoon of a vibrant red cloth. Leaving one arm free, the actress could recline, sit up, and drag herself around the stage as a sympathetic outcast.
The ritualistic choreography by Renato Zanello was well-executed by not only his trained dancers, but also pleasingly performed by the singing chorus. The clean, thrilling choral work (most of them are in the COT Young Artists Program) was complemented by the group’s exceptional ability to transform themselves at will from commentators, to bystanders, to relatives, to royal subjects, all the while doing some amazing staged business, not the least of which was crawling from the wings on their bellies to pick up folded boards that were used in any number of combinations to create everything from a village of houses to a penultimate pop-up back-drop for the lovers’ reunion.
COT assembled a fine trio of singers as its principals. Natasha Jouhl proved an affecting “Kumudha,” singing with a well-schooled, ample lyric soprano that easily encompassed all the wide ranging demands and soaring lines of this difficult role. Originally written with Dawn Upshaw in mind, the part was taken over in Vienna (and several other locations) by rising star Jessica Rivera (who recently triumphed locally in another Adams piece, Chicago Lyric’s “Dr. Atomic”). Dawn and Jessica are two artists who really “get” this music and don’t just sing it, but embody it. That said, although she vocalized it splendidly, looked attractive, and acted with commitment, I did not yet feel that Ms. Jouhl has fully integrated the piece into her voice, or more particularly, her artistry. I would love to see her again after she has the experience of some more performances.
With Noah Stewart’s “Prince” I felt that we were experiencing an artist on the verge of a major career. He brought a regal bearing to the portrayal, and a polished, weighty lyric voice with excellent thrust on the high phrases, and wonderful presence throughout the range. Excellent diction, handsome good looks, beautiful instrument, wonderful musical instincts, sound technique, stage savvy — he’s got the goods.
I have long admired the fine artist Sanford Sylvan, but I found that his soft-grained approach was initially a little too lieder-based and subtle for the task at hand as the “Storyteller.” Seated a third of the way upstage for the first act, while I could hear his beautiful sounds and sensitive phrasing, I too often had real trouble understanding the text and found my gaze drifting to the surtitles. When he came forward to the side of the proscenium in Act Two, there was an immediate difference. This would be a quick fix by just telling him to “Sing out, Louise” when he is upstage. Still, he is a treasureable baritone and was an audience favorite.
Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) and the Prince (Noah Stewart).
Diminutive Joana Carneiro had taken over conducting duties from Mr. Adams and this was a tour-de-force assumption. “Tree” is a monster-piece that calls for split second rhythmic changes, quicksilver mood-altering shifts, lyrical outpouring, percussive tirades, and well, the kitchen sink just may have been in there somewhere. Above all, this stuff must be clean-clean-clean to make its hypnotic effect and save a few squishy moments in the opening bars’ undulating strings, Ms. Carneiro was in full command of her forces. As if she was driving a car at 120 miles an hour, there was no room for error. And she negotiated every twist and turn of this challenging piece with concentrated inspiration. Brava Maestra!
It seems as though Mr. Adams may have developed the score a bit since Vienna, where I remember thinking that perhaps the heroine should have a set piece up front to announce her character. It seems that “Kumudha” had more exposition to sing at COT. Or maybe the staging was just that much more compelling. For all its glories, and they are many and they are ravishing, I still found myself wishing that the long chanted choral dance in Act Two (sort of Rap-Lite) was a bit shorter. And I sorta wanted a radiant final duet for the reunited lovers. Have I seen “Turandot” too many times? Perhaps.
Still, this was in toto a welcome and notable achievement. Chicago is a world class musical city and with Chicago Opera Theater’s “A Flowering Tree” we have been treated to a sampling of the very best the town has to offer.