19 Apr 2009
Cavalli’s La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn
Perhaps I’d better just describe what I experienced, Captain.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Perhaps I’d better just describe what I experienced, Captain.
It wasn’t something I can summarize in the ways we were taught at the Space Academy. It was entirely outside the range of human experience in this department. The senses of “sight” and “hearing” don’t really cover the phenomena. Not all the phenomena.
There were monitors, Captain — monitors, everywhere! Two at the back of the stage showed a forgotten (well, I never head of it!) 1965 Italian sci-fi-horror flick dubbed into English, with cheap-o special effects and a predictable Twilight Zone-style switcheroo ending. And when I say they showed it on two monitors, I should mention that they had fixed it so one monitor showed it left-to-right, the other right-to-left (mirror images, you see), and they were side by side, so intimate scenes between two people seemed to involve four, and guys who were alone on the eerie planet seemed to have doppelgangers. Two other monitors near the front showed props that were seen, discussed, important to the story (swords, daggers, mirrors, anti-meteor colliders) but not actually present on the stage. When Queen Dido (did I mention her? Well, she was very much there, impersonated and sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, who has a lovely clear sexy soprano without that prissy baroque groove), overwhelmed with guilt, looked in a mirror, it was a monitor that showed her face decaying before our eyes (and, presumably, hers), that is: the mirror showed us what she was thinking!
In front of the monitors showing the movie (which was also performed by live actors), singers with genuine operatic voices (it was difficult to tell if they were enhanced or not — usually, I thought, not) performing Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera, La Didone. That’s right, Captain — arms and the man they sang. Aeneas, son of Venus, fleeing the destruction of Troy, crossed the seas on winds summoned by the vengeful goddess Juno (can immortal beings feel such wrath? — you tell me), to be shipwrecked near the city of Carthage, where he won the love of the widowed Queen Dido, aided her in a war against her rejected suitor, King Jarbas (driven mad by love), seduced her (with his brother Cupid’s help) during a wild boar hunt (shown), and then left for Italy, abandoning the poor lady (at Jove’s command, because fun’s fun but someone has to found the Roman Empire), whereupon Dido contemplates suicide. Happily (in this version, unlike Vergil’s, and Purcell’s, and Berlioz’s, with which you may be more familiar), the sword is only an image on a monitor, so Dido is rescued by King Jarbas, and they defy the Fates, the gods, the poets, and live happily ever after. (The ending of the background movie, Terrore nello spazio, or Planet of the Vampires, isn’t quite so happy, but it does tie in to the refugees-colonizing-the-locals theme.)
Stage right was a pit band — the usual suspects — keyboards, theorbo, accordion, electric ukulele, throbbing feedback that sometimes (especially when gods were singing — you know, Juno, Jove, Neptune — gods, goddammit!) threatened to drown out the music, but the gods all had microphones so in fact they could be heard through the jumble. Anyway who expects gods to be comprehensible? Even in outer space? And once, when Cupid took the form of Ascanius and sat in Dido’s lap, enabling him to wound her with the dart of love (for his brother Aeneas), an actor (Ari Flakos, who was also the starship captain) played the cherub while a soprano (Kamala Sankaram) sang his music in little-boy voice.
There were two sets of surtitles: one the text of the opera as it was being sung, the other the text of the movie as it was being spoken, looped, repeated, played with. The opera text, I’m glad to say, was sung “straight.” Sometimes singers spoke lines from the film (and even began to play characters in it); sometimes actors spoke lines from the opera (and even began to play characters in that). It was easy to keep the two sets of performers and the two sets of titles from getting mixed up, if you knew both stories. I mean, most of us read Vergil’s Aeniad in Space Cadet School, right? But who remembers that stupid movie? However, Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, as Mrs. Shaw, my old Flight Training Instructor, used to say.
Among the singers, the standout was certainly Hai-Ting Chinn in the title role — I also have fond memories of her Poppaea last summer at the Poisson Rouge (that asteroid we landed on in Greenwich Village, Captain). She has a curiously vibrato-less sound in a voice of great beauty, and she is a fine actress — I would like to hear what she can do without microphones and over a real orchestra. Tenor John Young made a worthy, sexy Aeneas and Andrew Nolen’s voice, difficult to appreciate when he sang basso deities through microphones, was also well deployed as a love-maddened countertenor Jarbas. (I know countertenors all have deeper voices when not singing, but I don’t think I’ve heard one use both voices to sing in the same performance before.) Kamala Sankaram has a character soprano, more tricky than attractive, but she can play the accordion too. Other performers included Scott Shepherd as an identity-wracked spaceman, Ari Flakos as the pensive captain, Hank Heijink (what a great name!) as the ghost of Dido’s husband, and the Wooster Group’s ever-deadpan first lady, Kate Valk, strolling in and out of jokes and genres with her usual grave laughter. Jennifer Griesbach appears to have been in charge of the musical side of things, and there was so much beauty in the score that the distractions only seemed to enhance it.
The experience was enjoyable on many different sensual planes, but — this sort of thing could get out of hand. These creatures — do we understand what their intentions are? They may be feeding on our inner, human craving for opera in ways scientists do not perfectly comprehend. If we do not take a firm stand, they may absorb us, control us, rewire us, detach us from our original natures, create a new sort of art-work of the future. This could be the look of opera in ages to come. This could be the end of music-drama as we know it.
Fact is, Captain — I’m afraid. Do you hear something — strange?