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 Reviews

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

Camille Saint-Saens: Mélodies avec orchestra

Saint-Saëns Mélodies avec orchestra with Yann Beuron and Tassis Christoyannis with the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana conducted by Markus Poschner.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Death in Venice [La Monnaie/De Munt]
08 Feb 2009

Brussels’ Definitive Death

Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie / De Munt started 2009 by serving up a real New Year's treat for the Belgian capital's opera enthusiasts: a near-perfect staging of Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice.

Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice

Gustav von Aschenbach: Ian Bostridge; Traveller/Elderly Fop/Old Gondolier/Hotel Manager/Hotel Barber/Leader of the Players/Voice of Dionysus: Andrew Shore; Voice of Apollo: William Towers; Hotel Porter: Peter Van Hulle; Strawberry Seller: Anna Dennis; Strolling Player: Donal Byrne; Lace Seller: Constance Novis; Glass Maker: Richard Edgar-Wilson; Beggar Woman: Madeleine Shaw; English Clerk: Jonathan Gunthorpe; Restaurant Waiter: Benoît De Leersnyder; Guide in Venice: Charles Johnston. La Monnaie Chorus Solists. La Monnaie Symphony Orchestra & Chorus. Music Direction: Paul Daniel. Staging: Deborah Warner.

 

Before I enthuse about any other of the many wonders that combined to make this night an indisputable artistic triumph, pride of place simply must go to the superlative lighting design created by Jean Kalman. Were one to want to attend an unrivaled Masters Class in stage illumination, this would be the address. His perfectly judged effects were not only an integral part of the whole, but they seemed to inform and motivate the piece’s performance style with their chiaroscuro beauty.

Indeed, I will not soon forget the magical effect of a down-lit gondolier rocking in and out of focus as a shadow projection on the white mid-stage drop, as though the unraveling Aschenbach could almost, but not quite, remember. The back lighting of the boys’ Apollonian games was “brilliant,” in every sense. The intense white down-lighting of Tadzio’s dance solo, searing through his opaque clothing and temptingly silhouetting his lithe body, was genius. The complement of beautiful projections included shimmering waves, a blurry visualization of the famed Venetian skyline, and at times, a stage-wide wash of Aschenbach’s hand-written notes. This was arguably the finest lighting design I have experienced inside an opera house.

Tom Pye’s set design was no less remarkable, achieving marvelous results in the rapid succession of shifting locales with a very few carefully chosen pieces. Gondolas are suggested by a character simply sitting on luggage or the lip of the stage platform, with a pole-wielding gondolier standing behind and gently steering the imaginary boat. The utter simplicity of the three billowing diaphanous white curtains, perfectly suggested the airy hotel lobby with only the addition of a couple of potted plants and chairs. The no-man’s land of the dark opening scene, with its isolated lighting, black-draped furniture, and the lone word “Muenchen” projected on a suspended white square, soon enough gave way to a breathtaking “reveal” as the back drapes opened, and we were assaulted by a blinding amber lit sky.

The requisite ship’s deck was dominated by a huge smoke stack belching chemical smoke, a hanging net laden with cargo, and benches that were instantaneously disengaged from the black crepe of the opening moments. The all-important beach setting was wonderfully suggested with only the cyclorama and rolling black frame outlines of clothes-changing cabins. The stage for Act II’s show-within-a-show in the hotel was achieved with a simple platform and a backdrop on a pole hung between two supports. The threat of cholera was ominously represented by the shadow of a sliding black panel that traveled behind the mid-stage drape, coupled with a choking fog that oozed forth from the flies.

It is hard to overpraise the fluid scene change work by the stage crew and supers. Although one of the “sailors” did get caught in the cargo net as it began to fly, prompting another super to hiss “descends, descends” to the wings in a momentary departure from Myfawny Piper’s script!

One or two minor scenic miscalculations might yet be addressed in future performances. There was an odd display of low-hanging bare battens that slowly rose at the start of each act with an irrelevant piece of black drape attached stage left. Odd effect that at least quickly disappeared. And, please spike Aschenbach’s beach chair a few inches further upstage so that it doesn’t hang up the act curtain as it falls. But these are insignificant blips on the radar of a magnificent design achievement that includes the luscious black, grey and varied cream costumes by Chloe Obolensky.

Deborah Warner’s clean, forthright, and telling direction surely influenced the design choices and vice versa. This was a seamless collaborative effort from a production team that included a mighty contribution from choreographer Kim Brandstrup. It is difficult to know who developed the physicalized familial relationships with Tadzio, his mother and sisters, but they were lovely, and richly detailed. Branstrup chose to let the beach movement evolve, beginning with the boys playing ball rather randomly, and gradually morphing into more playful, dancerly moves which were always grounded in the coltish behavior of post-pubescent young men.

Among Ms. Warner’s many fine staging choices was having Aschenbach doze in his chair, “dreaming” the extended fantastical game/dance sequence at the end of Act I. There was a subtle, innocently homo-sexed undertone to the relationship between Tadzio (the vibrant Leon Cooke) and his roughhousing buddy Jaschiu (Riccardo Franco, also fine). The two of them made much of the critical scene of Tadzio’s rejection and defeat, which motivated Aschenbach to leap up, cry out, fumble his cane, and fall to a prone position, exactly mirroring the fallen youth. Beautiful.

As the dying Aschenbach crawls effortfully back into his chair, as Tadzio dances with new resolution toward the sea, as a Turner-worthy gold sunset fades ever so painfully slowly to black, this brought to a close a memorable artistic achievement. I did wonder if it was wise for Aschenbach to already appear a bit unhinged in the opening scene. And during the second barber visit when our leading character is persuaded to succumb to a makeover, I am not sure that handing him a drink was a good idea, as the prop ultimately gave the odd visual impression that he is drunk, rather than suffering from cholera or mad obsessions. In the “general housekeeping” category, it was an avoidable pity to have the work lights come up so we saw the just-dead Aschenbach get up behind the curtain, rather unceremoniously fetch his cane off the floor, and strike a pose to be revealed for his solo bow. But these are minuscule quibbles in what was a brilliant night.

All this stagecraft would have been for naught, had it not been matched by an equally marvelous musical achievement. The role of Aschenbach could have been written for the at times eccentric but considerable gifts of tenor Ian Bostridge. In fact, Britten created the role for the eccentric talents of his life partner, Peter Pears, who premiered it at the age of sixty-three (if my math is correct). Mr. Bostridge has a sizable enough lyric voice, produced with ease and clarity, capable of fine gradations of shade and volume. At least based upon this performance, he must be numbered among the finest actors in opera today, and if he sometimes rasps a bit, or shouts in heated passages, or spreads the tone for effect, it is wholly in service to the drama. While I can occasionally find his over-weighted word pointing and erratic musical phrasing problematic in some of his recorded standard recital repertoire, in this quirky role it proves a mighty asset.

For the composer seems to have created a marathon monologue, interrupted by scene work. It is heavily centered on declamatory, conversational presentation from our lead. Perhaps because lyrical outpourings and arching lines were not Pears’ forte, especially not at that stage in his career, Aschenbach is virtually all “talk” at which, happily, Bostridge excels. Indeed, I cannot imagine a finer current exponent of this role than Ian Bostridge.

The tour de force of the combined seven bass-baritone roles to be sung by one performer finds a willing accomplice in the excellent Andrew Shore. Throughout the evening, Mr. Shore is secure of voice, fleet of foot, and game for anything. He found a unique approach within each diverse character by creating inventive stage business, not the least of which was his provocative Leader of the Players who deployed his unruly concertina to various comic ends, including suggesting a dangling phallus.

Of the many minor roles, standouts include counter-tenor William Towers for his secure and pure Apollo; baritone Jonathan Gunthorpe, for his urgent, intensely voiced warnings as the English Clerk; and the sympathetic Beggar Woman of Madeleine Shaw. All of the many smaller parts were uniformly well-sung by soloists drawn from the fine Monnaie/Munt chorus, well-schooled by Piers Maxim.

The whole of this complex, often spare, rhythmically challenging score was conducted with a sure stylistic hand by Paul Daniel. The talented pit musicians responded with inspired results, not least of which was the exposed piano work by Martin Pacey, restlessly and characterfully churning under so many of the recitative segments.

If I still find this piece to be more cerebral than emotionally engaging; more dramatically interesting than tuneful; more to be admired than loved, that is not the fault of this definitive production, the company’s latest opus in a seriously adventurous season. Can you name any American company that could survive (and sell out) a succession of Pelleas, Cenerentola, Rusalka, La Calisto, Le Grand Macabre? (Nope, didn’t think so…)

What with the dire economic news, and the need (real or imagined) to appeal to subscribers and new patrons alike with more and more bread and butter operas, perhaps the days of encountering such caviar fare as Britten’s last major theatre piece are numbered.

But for now, Happy New Year! Woo-hoo! We have been treated to a sensational interpretation of Death in Venice that would just be pretty damn hard to beat.

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):