19 Apr 2009
Cavalli’s La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn
Perhaps I’d better just describe what I experienced, Captain.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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?