24 Mar 2009
Katya Kabanova/The Magic Flute — English Touring Opera, Hackney Empire Theatre
English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
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.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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.
English Touring Opera is 30 years old this year, and has never been more adventurous.
Later this year the company will be dispensing with the usual two- or three-opera tour format, as well as their now-regular opening venue of the Hackney Empire, in favour of a five-opera Handel festival at the Britten Theatre in this 250th anniversary year of the composer’s death.
For the spring tour, though, the format is largely the familiar one: an opera from the borderline of the standard repertoire paired with a popular hit that will guarantee consistent ticket revenues. As this is a major birthday for the company, there are a few concert performances of Norma thrown in for good measure — about which more in late April.
James Conway’s production of Katya Kabanova, with a set design by Adam Wiltshire, looks a little like a miniature version of Trevor Nunn’s 1994 production for Covent Garden, all grey colours and sloping wooden walkways. My only real complaint here would be that neither ETO’s production nor the orchestra made much of an attempt to evoke the Volga, whose presence is so central to the opera that it is virtually a character in its own right. As a minimum, Katya’s death plunge (a cramped and unconvincing affair) really needs sorting out before the tour goes much further.
In a fairly small space and with a reduced orchestra, the full lyrical power of Janacek’s scoring was never really going to be a possibility, though one could hardly have asked for better playing from the forces available. Conductor Michael Rosewell ensured that the the musical line was tautly controlled and powerfully driven, and paid detailed attention to the expressiveness of the more transparent and intimate moments.
But here the vocal performances made the greatest impression. The title role was compellingly and radiantly sung by soprano Linda Richardson, who managed to convey the essence of the lively spirit and physical beauty trapped behind the dowdy façade Katya has been forced to adopt. Mezzo Fiona Kimm was a truly despicable Kabanicha — and I mean that in the most complimentary sense. Like her Jezibaba in last autumn’s Rusalka, there was a grandeur to her stage presence which defied her petite stature; the physical contrast between her and Dikoy — the immensely tall and broad Welsh bass Sion Goronwy — made the nature of their relationship all the more telling. Colin Judson’s Tichon was a perfect portrait of a man who wouldn’t know how to stand up to his mother even if he wanted to.
Jane Harrington was an ideal Varvara, her voice and manner warm, lively and straightforward; together with Michael Bracegirdle’s Kudryash and Richard Roberts’s Boris, they made a vivacious trio of youngsters who served to highlight only too plainly how Katya’s own life might have been.
Onto the next night, and there was predictably a full house for The Magic Flute. When the curtain went up, it at first seemed that the production might be quite unconventional: Tamino’s serpent is a writhing chain of contemporary(ish) whores and playboys, his wilderness a human one. A clean-cut youth dressed smartly in a pale jacket, the prince (Mark Wilde) is an obvious outsider to the black and silver lace of the figures which dominate his nightmare world. There’s even some suggestion that Papageno (complete with fluttering birds borne by scurrying members of the chorus) might be a drug-induced hallucination, and Tamino is rightly unsure where vision ends and reality begins. The Queen of the Night makes her first appearance from the rear centre stage with an immense royal-blue train which fills the entire set; as she sings, it has rolling waves like a nocturnal sea. But as she turns to make her exit, the train disappears through a trapdoor leaving her clad in black; from then on, reality stabilises somewhat, and Tamino’s quest of self-discovery continues along more conventional lines.
Scene from The Magic Flute [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of English Touring Opera]
The production remains slightly surreal throughout, being set in an enclosed room with panelled walls painted a deep blue, several doors and trap-doors, and an aperture at the rear which is used for grand entrances and whenever a visual focal point is required. The guiding role of the three boys (here sung by women, as is practical for a touring production) is underlined by their surprising costumes, with skirts made of lit lamp-shades. There are a lot of lights and lamps in this dark-coloured staging, but these are often confusing to the adventurers rather than illuminating; at one point a forest of standard-lamps springs up around Papageno as he searches for his Papagena. The young American soprano Paula Sides was a passionate Pamina, her soprano richer and more complex than is often heard in this role. Other than a slight hardness under pressure at the top of her voice, she sounded truly glorious, with some beautifully controlled pianissimo singing towards the end of ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’. Also vocally impressive was Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night, again with a fuller and more refulgent tone than many; however, although she cut an imposing and elegant figure, her body language conveyed little in the way of rage and fury. Andrew Slater’s Sarastro had physical presence aplenty, but vocally he lacked weight and authority. Daniel Grice’s Papageno had energy and good humour although his bright and forward baritone was rather monochrome and unvarying in volume.
A little more variety would have been welcome in other areas too. In the pit, Paul McGrath started the overture with such pointed deliberation that I feared it could be a long evening, but if anything he tended towards the other extreme; ‘In diesen heil’gen Hallen’ had a folk-tune feel to it, and if ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ had been any faster it would have been one-in-a-bar. Generally his approach succeeded in maintaining momentum, but it sidelined the moments of grandeur, reflection and calm.
Singing in Jeremy Sams’s gently humorous English translation (well-known to London audiences from ENO’s popular production), the cast generally did an excellent job with the English text.
Ruth Elleson © 2009