08 Dec 2008
Elektra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
“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.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
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.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
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.
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
Strauss, world-famous, by 1907, for his orchestra-straining tone poems and, furthermore, the arch-hero-villain of the opera stage for his Salome, was looking for something still more monstrous, more gut-wrenching and soul-stopping and blood-chilling for a sequel — and having, in Elektra, explored ancient history’s most dysfunctional family, drew back from the pandemoniac abyss for the remainder of his long, largely placid career.
Elektra is extreme opera-going, its single act of an adamantine intensity and focus. And if opera companies can distract you by doing something grand or monstrous with the sets or the costumes or the final matricidal dance of triumph by the shattered, emotionally eviscerated heroine, to give the thing in concert, with nothing between you and the musical shock but a titling machine (which, if anything, enhances the horror of the story, the everyday terms of hate and vengeance), calls for a cast, an orchestra, a conductor willing to submit to the demands of horror to produce art.
The four performances of Elektra given by the New York Philharmonic this month achieved that horror, that intensity, that focus, that elevating shock. It was a performance to send chills up the spine. And, though concert it was, it was in a sense staged, for there was a bit of playing area around the conductor (and a ledge stage left for the serving maids and other walk-on parts — each with its brief but extreme demands), and the singers clearly had acted these roles before and gave us thrilling, fully acted performances (the final dance aside) of their ghastly roles.
Loren Maazel was the hero of the hour, a man in total control of his material and his instrument (hundred-headed, like the primeval giants mastered by Zeus). Each taut rhythm, each gristly underlying motif had its crisp, proper place, and yet each one sounded wild, impulsive, impromptu when it came; each bark or bleat or snarl of untamed animal concealed within the score (I’d never noticed before how many there are): dogs baying, wolves howling, cows pleading as they are rushed to slaughter, carrion birds exulting, snakes twining, horses screaming (they are said to have torn Orestes apart), to say nothing of the nameless horrors that fill Clytemnestra’s dreams (described by her in succulent, gruesome detail, as if confided not to a daughter but a psychoanalyst with an unfortunate agenda) and furies of every variety filling the air with contagious hysteria. Each accent of the stage action, illustrated by the score, fell into place with the implacable precision of one’s secret terrors. The orchestra played like gods of our inner underworlds, knowing just where to stretch and threaten and pretend to console.
Deborah Polaski, who has sung most of the more haggard ladies of the heroic repertory, from Kundry to Brunnhilde, knows where the dramatic hysteria lies in the title role and where it can relax. Her looks of scorn, of pretend sympathy, of self-pity when the return of Orestes recalls her to the innocent girl she once was enhanced her vocal portrayal of these facets of character. Her voice is still in fine shape, only the whispers of the duet with Orestes betraying a certain wear and tear. Never before had I noticed how very similar the sexless Elektra is to her artistic sister, Salome — another innocent who takes vengeance on the world for too terrible, too abrupt a knowledge of the evil lurking in a mother’s soul, a stepfather’s lust, a cruel, selfish society.
Anne Schwanewilms, who has made a name for herself singing Strauss and his contemporaries in such European capitals as Berlin, London and Chicago, sang Chrysothemis. It was especially enjoyable to note the interaction between her and Polaski, the latter’s contempt, the former’s exasperation and “must-she-go-on-like-this?” glances to heaven and earth to save her from her manic sister. She is a tall, handsome woman with a clear but light soprano, not an instrument (I would guess) to hold its own with the orchestra-combating extremes of Wagner or Verdi or even Strauss (Ariadne, say) but very right for Strauss’s soaring, less earthy roles: the Marschallin, Arabella, Aithra, Daphne. Chrysothemis’s yearning for simple life, her horror of the mythic emotions of the rest of her family, are intended to set those emotions in proper context, and she sang them with the feeling of a woman who knows she is trapped: she has mythologized the ordinary, and she lets us feel the pleasure of not being stuck in an epic ourselves.
Jane Henschel sang Clytemnestra. The role — a woman slowly being driven mad by guilt and apprehension — is often performed with an eldritch wreck of a voice, but Henschel, who has a beautiful low mezzo of heroic size (her Met debut was as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten), reminded us of the lady’s past as a queen and a woman of passion; she did not wallow in sickly torment but projected her fear, her confusion, her tragedy in graceful, phrases that lost nothing in shock value by being beautiful. Elektra can see only evil in her mother, but Strauss saw something else, something once noble and womanly, the woman who gave birth to beautiful daughters, and Henschel gave us that woman as no Clytemnestra of my experience has done since Christa Ludwig.
The lesser roles were cast with care. Julian Tovey, making his New York debut, sings with a cool glamour but did not quite equal the ominous alarm awakened by the brasses at Orestes’s appearance, and Richard Margison sang ably but somewhat missed the comical quality that James King brought to the part in his final New York appearance, as Aegisthus in a concert Elektra at Carnegie Hall — a comedy the more troubling because we know he will be murdered the moment he leaves the stage. Among the many small parts, I especially enjoyed Matt Boehler as Orestes’s nervous tutor and Linda Pavelka’s surging phrases among the usually too-anonymous maidservants.
This concert will be repeated on Tuesday and Saturday, and broadcast on WQXR on December 18.