15 Mar 2009
Haydn’s L’Isola Disabitata by Gotham Chamber Opera
Had a misunderstanding with your truelove lately? Tough job straightening things out?
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George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
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This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
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Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
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I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
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On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
Had a misunderstanding with your truelove lately? Tough job straightening things out?
Lovers, consider Gernando’s problem: He and his Costanza were visiting a desert island one day, thirteen years ago, when, without a word of warning, he vanished. Naturally she is peeved. When getting food and shelter (for herself and an infant sister, her only companion) have not distracted her, she has spent her spare time carving diatribes against the male sex in the rock. But he has a perfectly reasonable excuse — he was kidnapped by pirates! At last he has returned to the uninhabited island (“l’isola disabitata”) to see if she survives — she does! In sound health, good looks and a rather chic grass skirt! (Nothing like a healthy diet and lots of sleep to keep a diva limber.)
You can imagine what Mozart would have made of this absurd situation: He’d have gone wild, ten minutes at least of bitter reproaches, intricate descriptions (sung and orchestral) of his agonies, of her agonies, then joyous resolution as she gradually succumbs to his desperate pleas of enduring love . Things would get completely out of hand, the duet would become a thing ungainly, unbalancing the brief exposition allowed by Metastasio’s libretto — but, by Thalia, it would be fun! It would be melodrama! In a Haydn opera, however, nothing is out of proportion and hardly anything is ever fun, or dramatic, or exciting. The singers are supposed to supply that, if they can, and the half-fledged cast of the Gotham Chamber Opera presentation are just not up to it, though they sound pleasant enough.
They probably trained on Mozart and Handel, and Mozart and Handel were men whose eyes lit up at the word “theatre” — they knew how to tell a story on the stage. It was in their blood somehow, and it passed right by Haydn. An opera to him might as well have been a string quartet with scenery. Hardly any of his operas were performed in urban centers in his lifetime — they were composed for the court theater at the country estate of Esterháza (a homey little 400-seat affair which today hosts a festival), and at Esterháza they remained. That meant they were not written for the great singers of the day, and also that the scores did not have to woo a popular audience — as Gluck did, or Mozart, or Paisiello, Martín y Soler, Salieri, Grétry. One learns things about opera construction if one’s listeners are paying customers, throwing tomatoes or simply not returning for more. Modern opera composers, mostly academics, suffer the same lack of apprenticeship that afflicted Haydn, with the same effect. Haydn knew it, too — when asked by a Prague producer for one of his opere buffe, he replied that none of his works for Esterháza was suitable for public presentation, and that he would be wary in any case of trying to compete on Mozart’s territory.(Left to Right) Valerie Ogbonnaya, Tom Corbeil, Takesha Meshé Kizart and Vale Rideout
But back to L’Isola Disabitata, which has just been presented by Gotham Chamber Opera, with great fanfare, in a staging by Mark Morris. The piece was composed in 1779 (the year of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride), shortly after a fire at Esterháza, and apparently the reconstruction budget permitted just one set, four characters, and no chorus. The opera is a succession of arias for four characters whose emotions are both predictable and shallow. There is one striking novelty, probably inspired by Gluck’s reforms: the singing is accompanied by orchestra throughout; there is no continuo to set off dialogue from arias. But Gluck knew how to build tension and how to bully his librettist into supplying the occasion for such tension. There is little tension in the score of L’Isola Disabitata. The opera concludes after a few predictable encounters with a vaudeville quartet in the French style: each character sings of what she or he has learned, to variants of a rondo melody, and they depart enlightened. The most famous such finale is that of Mozart’s Seraglio (1782), which states the moral clearly, but is enriched by the explosive intrusion (in an unsatisfied minor key) of the one character who has never changed and never will — to our thorough delight. Haydn would never have introduced something so tasteless, even in a farce. (He wrote several; none are performed very often.)Takesha Meshé Kizart and Tom Corbeil
The GCO set was a revolving rock. One problem the cast may have had was in performing while maintaining balance on this thing, and the contortions involved in seeing or pretending not to see other characters, as called for by the script, surely did not help. The only obvious sign of Mark Morris influence came in hand-jive charades performed by each character in turn during the final quartet — this was charming, keeping our attention, heightening the individuality of Haydn’s generic characters, settling the plot happily.
The young, attractive performers may have left school a few years ago, but they all sounded like promising music students here. This is not a compliment: there was little that was “finished” about these performances and nothing that was deep. Perhaps, again, it is Haydn’s fault: Mozart gives you characters to play, with human quirks and expressions; so does Rossini; so does Paisiello. Haydn does not. It’s only play-acting, right? Why try to make these people real? (An apocryphal story has it that when Haydn attended the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, he realized how very out of his depth he was and gave up composing opera then and there. It may be true; Haydn had taste, judgment and good sense; he admired Mozart and would have grasped his achievement better than just about anyone else alive.)
For Takesha Meshé Kizart, the Costanza, company artistic director Neil Goren replaced the opening aria with one of Haydn’s many concert arias — that is, a piece written to suit the talents of an individual singer in the revival of a longer work written for someone else, a perfectly canonical practice. But the effect here was not good, as her performance was lackluster — only her second, rather more agitated aria seemed to wake her up, and her situation (thirteen years in solitary?) led us to expect rather more fireworks than she cared to offer. Her spousal unit, Vale Rideout, and his half-naked sidekick, Tom Corbeil, made pleasant, uninteresting sounds perhaps awkwardly placed due to their distance from the floor when singing. The only performer with much charm or distinction was the soubrette, Valerie Ogbonnaya, as Costanza’s naïve sister, a “Miranda” figure, whose innocence of the world (and of men) are intended to give us a thrill of contrast: she gave her character the light, fresh sound and airy coloratura proper to the dainty drama. The character is absurd, a sophisticated fantasy, but she sang and acted it as if it were something worth putting over.
I’m delighted at the notion of a chamber opera company in New York, and in the idea of exploring lesser-known crannies of the eighteenth century, but Haydn’s operas are not where his heart, or his genius, lay. With all possible good wishes for Gotham’s success in its downright heroic work in the current economic times, the company has made some weird repertory choices over the years; in the eighteenth century, for one thing, they would be better advised to examine composers like Paisiello and Grétry and Martín y Soler who knew how to write for the stage.