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

An English Winter Journey

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.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

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.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

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’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

Falstaff at Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.

Gothic Schubert : Wigmore Hall, London

Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.

Rusalka, AZ Opera

On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.

First new Ring Cycle in 40 Years, Leipzig

Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.

San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber

You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.

Manon Lescaut at Covent Garden

If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.

Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw

Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.

Simplicius Simplicissimus

I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.

Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.

Akhnaten Offers L A Operagoers Both Ear and Eye Candy

Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.

Shakespeare in the Late Baroque - Bampton Classical Opera

Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sierva Maria (Allison Bell) and Father Caytano Delaura (Nathan Gunn) in the 2008 Festival production of <em>Love and Other Demons</em>. (Photo: Mike Hoban)
17 Aug 2008

At Glyndbourne, more "Other Demons" than "Love"

The haunting, unsettling opening moments of the Glyndebourne premiere of Peter Eötvös’ “Love and Other Demons” promised much, with sensitive playing by the solo celesta and harp, flutter-tongued flutes, and jarring bass stings.

Peter Eötvös: Love and Other Demons

Above: Sierva Maria (Allison Bell) and Father Caytano Delaura (Nathan Gunn) in the 2008 Festival production of Love and Other Demons. (Photo: Mike Hoban)

 

Another plus: the piece is based on Pulitzer prize winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s compact novella of (almost) the same name. Alas, for me the promise was not completely fulfilled. To go straight to the heart(burn) of my problem with it, I found the libretto sorely lacking focus.

For in the process of reducing the emotionally complex 170-some-page story to a stage piece, librettist Kornel Hamvai (dramaturgy by Edward Kemp) lost sight of the heart of the story: the personal journey, obsession, and damnation of the young priest “Father Cayetano Delaura.” And the creators have compacted to the point of incomprehension, the rich combination of personal experiences that inform our understanding of the 12-year old child-victim “Sierva Maria,” and fail to engage our sympathies for her misunderstood erratic behavior.

The importance of the rabies scare after the girl is bitten by a mad dog, her deeply internalized immersion in two different theological worlds (one accepted, one condemned), the fatal effect of paternal neglect, the misinterpretation of pagan/folk ritual influences as “possession,” the controlling hypocrisy of the church -- all of this is compacted to the point of trivialization, giving our heroine precious little to do in Act I, save being perfunctorily committed to a nunnery-cum-asylum.

The creators seem to have been tempted to devise diversions with other secondary characters. “Don Ygnacio,” the un-engaged father, is given a long, ranting monologue which summons up shades of “Psycho” when he mournfully dons his long-dead, beloved wife’s bridal (?) dress. Tenor Robert Brubaker gave 110% to this angular, leaping vocal display, when 100% might have been better, as the tone sometimes spread or frayed.

It is easy to see why the writers would want to give “Josefa Miranda, the Mother Abbess” a disproportionate amount of stage time, since they had luxury casting of the always wonderful Felicity Palmer who typically offered firm, rich tone at all volumes, and supreme musicality even in jagged writing. But the “Abbess” arrived too early in the story, and stayed too late, upstaging the eye-popping exorcism scene of the heroine with an extended Mama-Abbess-Mad-Meltdown (no kidding) where she tears off her wimpel and veil and is backed by five non-singing, masked dancing goons straight out of the bar scene in “Star Wars.” The “Abbess”! Right, like it’s all about her? Huh?

Far better scaled, and more subtly drawn was the (truly) mad character of “Martina Laborde.” Veteran Jean Rigby was full-voiced, and compelling in her acting. Almost half of her role was spoken. While “Martina” was not drawn as the complete helpmate she was in the book, Rigby made the most of every moment and had scarily complete concentration as this nut case. Also satisfying was Marietta Simpson as “Dominga de Adviento,” the servant woman who abets “Sierva’s” immersion in the folk world. Ms. Simpson’s rich, focussed chest voice spoiled us. Her lower middle range and the softer tones in upper reaches got a bit grainy and diffuse, but never mind, as all this suited the character of the indigenous native servant.

Mats Almgren as the bishop “Don Toribio” had many powerfully booming moments, especially in the exorcism, although he also had some momentary phrases when his bass turned a tad woolly. If the agnostic doctor “Abrenuncio” was under-developed, John Graham-Hall made the most of what he was given to do.

That leaves our two principals. Remember them? I wouldn’t blame you if you lost sight of them. We did. For while their relationship unfolded slowly in the book, with great nuance and tragic inevitability, this adaptation transformed the pair’s plight into big, clumsy unmotivated chunks, with too little set-up dramatically or musically.

Nathan Gunn sang the demanding role of the tortured priest beautifully (including well modulated head voice phrases), and acted the part with abandon. After an overall restless, somewhat relentlessly twitching and declamatory Act I, suddenly Gunn was given a scena to close the act with the first real arioso singing of the night and he rewarded us handsomely. Introspective and soaring by turns, the baritone was at the top of his game. And yes, the familiar chiseled pecs were on full display as he peeled off his jacket in a sultry fantasy scene with “Sierva” above on a balcony, visually dominating him. Although the character peters out (as it were) halfway to the end after their illicit love is discovered, Mr. Gunn had made such a significant contribution to the piece that he was the most cheered singer at the call.

The talented Allison Bell had her work cut out for her as “Sierva,” challenged both by the supposed youth and dichotomy of the character, and the often ungrateful staccato shrieking she was required to execute. Indeed, two unintentional laughs came at her expense, first when her father declares her to be only 12 years old which (the nevertheless attractive and youthful) Ms. Bell clearly is not. And the other after “Sierva” has had a musical tantrum of unholy moans and high pitched yelps, to which the “Abbess” comments: “What a lovely voice.”

The soprano worked hard, very hard, and I had nothing but admiration for her pluck, her technique, the underlying sweet tone, and her willingness to do just about anything to make an effect. Still, I found the musicalization of the role to be defeating, and the unpleasant sounds that were required of her to be alienating. Maybe a wholly unique performer, say the waif-like Teresa Stratas could really embody this strange role and make it “work.” At the end of the day, in spite of Ms. Bell’s conscientious and professional best effort, I was unmoved. Not her fault.

Designer Helmut Stuermer’s physical production counted for a lot and really, I doubt it could be bettered. The unit set of a religious institution interior was complete with tomb floor plates that could be removed, allowing charcters to appear, descend, or wallow in them. A trough running from up center to down center first suggested a source of water, and later turned into a river of fire as “Father Delaura’s” passions were ignited.

The addition of well-chosen set pieces worked wonders in creating the right sense of place and mood. For example, the opening folk ritual was augmented by a primitive chandelier dressed with wild animals, monkeys, etc. A cubicle dressed with white drapes descended to enclose the lovers until looming shadows of approaching nuns appeared on the cloth, which they then tore away, aborting the affair, and turning the safe haven into a cage. The Hieronymous Bosch-like exorcism was a visual tour-de-force, culminating with “Sierva’s” mock crucifixion. This was stunning stuff.

Stuermer’s lighting design was equally exceptional, witness such effects as the “cells” of light for “Sierva” and “Martina Laborde,” the spot from the upstage “porthole,” the sudden dramatic down-lighting of a headless statue, the tasteful back-lighting of the love-making scene, and the important “solar eclipse” effect, to name but a few.

Love_Demons_Glyndebourne.pngFather Cayetano Delaura (Nathan Gunn) and Sierva Maria (Allison Bell) with the Glyndebourne Chorus in the 2008 Festival Prodction. (Photo: Mike Hoban)

Also making a notable contribution were the still and video projections designed by Andu Dumitrescu. The larger than life dog, the pagan symbols, the lavish jungle, were all wonderful contributions. The titular demons were well suggested with unsettling video projections of a naked man and woman who were separately writhing and rolling in tortured contemplation each time the forbiddne fruit was mentioned.

Silviu Purcaretes’ superb direction perfectly complemented the design and worked mightly and well in clarifying the story. Purcaretes elicited finely etched, honest performances from his first rate cast, and he managed the group scenes with imagination and efficiency. From the simple finger-snapping of the dance scene, to the complex gyrations of a Fellini-esque religious ritual, to the freeze-frame exit of the nuns evading the recently arrived possessed child, he infused the problematic adaptation with clarity, meaning, movement, and interest.

Not to say that the music was wanting or uninteresting. Emphatically not! There was much to enjoy, and some fantastic orchestral moments. While there were some familiar “modern” effects like lots of glissandi in the string writing, there were many unique touches such as the wind noises created aurally by the players. There was excellent variety within the various banks of instrumenets, and solos were well deployed. A prominent tuba solo late in Act II was phenomenal. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, who played remarkably the entire performance under Vladimir Jurowski’s inspired command, got the largest ovation of the night.

All told, there was some truly beautiful vocal and instrumental writing that fell easily and melodically on the ear. And then there were some miscalculations. Witness the high-high-high singing often asked of “Sierva.” Probably intententionally written to be sung as high as humanly possible, but why? And some of those leaps and plummets were just plain, well, gratuitous, unnecessarily ugly, and more instrumental than vocal in their conception.

There is so much that was so fine about “Lovers and Other Demons” that I would hope the team would re-visit it. I would encourage them to re-look the exposition and invest more in the development of the complex circumstances and develpoment of the priest-girl liaison so that it does not appear to be merely male physical lust, as it does now. I would ask that they take a critical look at the over-represented minor roles that are distracting us from the central tragedy. And I would hope that the vocal personailty of the girl could be tempered to make her more sympathetic to an opera audience that, like it or not, enjoys a good tune or two with their dissonances. I would also look forward to seeing the work in a performance with a normal intermission as I thought the hour and twenty-five minute dinner pause really took the steam out of the momentum that had finally just started building.

Still the excellent cast, the flawless design, the compelling playing, imaginative direction, seriousness of purpose, glorious musical moments, and sense of “event” seemed to combine powerfully enough to sweep aside my reservations, as the composer was roundly cheered for his efforts. “Lovers and Other Demons” is already a supremely interesting work. But I would enjoy seeing it become a great one.

James Sohre

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):