19 Apr 2009
Cavalli’s La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn
Perhaps I’d better just describe what I experienced, Captain.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
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.
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?