12 May 2009
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — Opera Australia
For two years following its premiere Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk was one of the most often performed contemporary operas.
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.
For two years following its premiere Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk was one of the most often performed contemporary operas.
With simultaneous premieres in Leningrad and Moscow followed, at one point, by simultaneous productions in three Moscow theatres alone foreign productions followed. After the American premiere the sensational opera became topical enough to be mentioned in the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes and in London, where it was performed in concert in 1936 followed by BBC broadcast, the young Benjamin Britten heard it and was impressed by its powerful interludes (and also by one of the singers, Peter Pears, who had a minor role). The came Stalin’s visit to a performance in Moscow and the subsequent attacks in Pravda on the opera, the ballet The Limpid Stream and the composer himself. The opera was withdrawn immediately. There was difficulty obtaining the music for that London concert in 1936 and after then it disappeared from every stage until 1959 when the Dusseldorf Opera managed to wrangle the orchestral music from the Soviet authorities. By then Shostakovich was testing the waters: Stalin had died and Kruschev had made public the extent of Stalin’s terror: by issuing a revised version of the opera. Only slowly, and not until after Shostakovich’s death, did the original version regain its fame.
For Opera Australia’s production, director Francesca Zambello updates the story to the Soviet era where overbearing male sexuality is just another form of oppression. The bored and sexually unfulfilled Katerina (Susan Bullock) is married to an impotent weakling Zinovy (David Corcoran) while all around her there is an environment of rampaging male sexuality. Even her lecherous father-in-law Boris (Daniel Sumegi) constantly prowls around her bedroom fantasising about doing Zinovy’s matrimonial duty for him.
After seventy years Shostakovich’s music is still exuberant and irreverent but with astonishing power in places, like those cathartic interludes that so impressed Britten. The first two acts, leading up Katerina and her lover Sergei (Richard Berkeley-Steele) murdering her husband seethe with threatening or raucous music that explode in the scenes of sex or violence that are still very confronting. In the opening scene trombones blurt slyly as Boris insinuates that she is looking for a lover and again in a later scene when he predicts her infidelity. Finally, alone in her room with Sergei the notorious on-stage sex scene, those trombones now grunt wildly along with every thrust in music that reaches a literal climax and aftermath that has to be heard to be believed! Zambello has their lovemaking as frenzied and confronting as the frenzied music and in the other notorious scene where the cook Aksinya (Jacqueline Dark) is attacked by the workmen is turned into a near mass rape, the near naked workmen groping her and themselves in a scene that begins during the linking interlude where the sleazy music accompanies Sergei signalling the workmen to gather in the wash house and making it obvious the attack is well planned and that Sergei is the ringleader. The coarseness of the male sexuality as played here sets Katerina’s ecstatic sexual awakening in sharp relief. Even though it is very confrontingly depicted it looks positively virtuous in comparison with the Boris and his worker’s lechery.Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo by Jeff Busby]
Bullock is astounding in this most difficult role. A notable Elektra, her voice rides the huge orchestra in the dramatic scenes with a cut and edge that remains clean and steady at all times. Her recent success in the Chandos recording of Salome, where she scales down her tone to an insinuating whisper is no studio trick either. In the opening scene and later, in the plaintive about animals mating happily but not her, she can spin her voice into a mournful whisper. In the same way she projects the aria in the last act about the black lake out into the auditorium while draining her voice of colour to suggest Katerina numb from both cold and Sergei’s rejection. She acts the highly charged scenes with the same conviction she invests in every other scene right down to weary resignation with which she drowns herself and Sergei’s new mistress. I suspect now that the lulling, romantic and otherwise polite repertoire she chose for her recital was to show her vocal nice side.
Berkeley-Steele copes magnificently the short, jabbing vocal lines Shostakovich gives Sergei, as though he were — appropriately: a cock crowing. Sumegi, looking like Stalin and groping himself as often as his vodka bottle is an unashamedly disgusting Boris. All thee have excellent diction and project the text well.
Sung in English the translation is by the opera producer David Pountney for his English National Opera production which is coy in places other translations are not and forthright in places others are tamer. Katerina’s aria about animals mating, for instance, uses more sexualised language than the translations accompanying either of the two commercial CD recordings of the opera.
The smaller but necessary roles have been cast from strength. Shostakovich drives his buffo tenors hard it seems; the tenor singing the Police Captain in his earlier opera The Nose is required to sing in alt and reach an E above top C. As the shabby peasant Kanen Breen is taxed by the orchestral tsunami Shostakovich sets against the scene in which he discovers Zinovy’s body. As a result he is barely audible against the wild mazurka played forte by the full orchestra and resorts to a frenzied semaphore for the scene.
Deputising for the late Richard Hickox, who was to conduct the Sydney and Melbourne seasons this year, Richard Armstrong had apparently not conducted the work before. With the same authority he brings to Richard Strauss, he scored point after point of the music’s Janus nature, colouring the lyrical passages for Katerina, the quirky but sinister little violin passage as Boris eats the fatal mushrooms and, most importantly, exploding the interludes with shattering force. The orchestra responded superbly to the full barrage of the young and uncensored Shostakovich.
Zambello’s update appears to be roughly the same time that the opera was written. Like Patrice Chereau, who set a trend (most famously in his 1976 Ring cycle at Bayreuth) for setting an opera in the time it was written rather the time it is set, this simple action often contextualises a work in rewarding ways, even without imposing many social or political references from the time. As the Marxist overtones pervaded Chereau’s interpretation of Wagner, the ruthlessness of the purges and oppressions that were beginning in the Soviet Union underpin the story, giving some idea of what was really disturbing to Stalin and his committee. The sudden sighting of a portable television, however, spoiled the otherwise compelling concept. The poverty of regional Russia under Soviet collectivisation was superbly conveyed and gives the Ismailova’s a level of desperation not in Leskov’s original story of comfortable bourgeoisie. Here the sordid environment is both physical and metaphorical.