Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[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.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

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.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

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.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

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”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

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.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

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.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

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.

Bampton Classical Opera 2017

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.

The nature of narropera?

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).

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

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.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

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.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

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!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

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.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

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.

An English Winter Journey

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.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

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.

Early Swedish opera - Stenhammer world premiere

The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (Nathan Gunn) in Brief Encounter [Photo by Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
12 May 2009

Subtle Previn world premiere in Houston

As far as world premieres go, Houston Grand Opera is in elite company in the United States, having performed thirty-eight new works prior to opening night of André Previn’s new opera Brief Encounter.

André Previn: Brief Encounter

Laura Jesson: Elizabeth Futral; Alec Harvey: Nathan Gunn; Fred Jesson: Kim Josephson; Dolly Messiter: Rebekah Camm; Myrtle Bagot: Meredith Arwady; Albert Godby: Robert Orth; Dr Graves: James J. Kee; Mary Norton: Jamie Barton; Ms Rolandson: Faith Sherman; Stanley: Adam Cioffari; Beryl: Alioia Gianni. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: John Caird. Set Designs: Bunny Christie. Costumes: Bunny Christie. Lighting: Paul Pyant.

Above: Laura (Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (Nathan Gunn) in Brief Encounter [Photo by Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]

 

Where the German-American composer’s oeuvre will rank among the other thirty eight remains to be seen, but its subtly gives it a shot at longevity its predecessors didn’t enjoy.

Based jointly on the Noël Coward play Still Life and the 1945 film from which the opera took its title, Brief Encounter is a simple story. Two married parents, Laura (soprano Elizabeth Futral) and Alec (baritone Nathan Gunn) run into each other in a train station. Since Laura makes a trip to the city where Alec works once a week, the pair fortuitously find each other several times and develop an infatuation that turns into an affair. Both struggle with the moral implications of their relationship, and Fred, Laura’s loving yet aloof husband (sung by bass-baritone Kim Josephson) remains ignorant to her deception. Ultimately, the couple ends the fling for their families’ sake, not for a lack of mutual desire.

As theater, Brief Encounter didn’t qualify as compelling drama. The story began in an anachronistic fashion, amid the final goodbyes after the couple ended the affair—Laura then told the story of what preceded the farewell. Yet after the two hour opera finished and the story was recounted, nothing really had happened. Part of the problem is that no one cared about their affair—the only “risk” the couple faced was their own internal strife. Once Fred sensed something different in Laura, the opera was almost over and Laura had long since decided not to continue the affair. Over the course of the performance, the lovers talked about themselves, talked about their affair, talked about their families, kissed once, and then talked some more. Despite all this talking, the characters weren’t developed—they seemed only to have relevant existences within the context of the affair. John Caird’s odd libretto didn’t help much, seeming at times more like a movie script than an operatic text: on more than one occasion Previn’s music leaned towards a deliberate, romantic sound while the lovers sang verbose, chatty lines. Caird also ended several scenes with trite, pithy emotional outbursts that watered down any real sentiments the characters expressed.

Previn’s occasionally dense instrumental orchestration firmly fits in the through-composed film score tradition of the 1940s and 1950s. The German-American composer utilized a litany of styles in this mostly tonal opera, none of which overpowered the others. The vocal line, however, was more difficult to categorize. Futral had several ariosi where she showed soaring fortissimi and dramatic pathos, yet in other sections (notably her scenes with Gunn), the vocal construction resembled very light musical theater composition. Previn’s score included much swelling in the strings with very little release, mirroring the events on stage. In the end, the orchestra served a bel canto function of supporting the singers without drowning them out or drawing attention away from their lines. It would be difficult to pinpoint any outstanding suites or excerptable arias, but in the end that may very well be how Previn sees the story. Not a lot happens in Brief Encounter, musically or dramatically. Alec and Laura are restrained, always bordering on allowing themselves to give in to their desires. A score that somehow indicated a world that contradicted their own would be confusing. Theirs is a subtle environment—a world of coming home to children and spouses with little to no excitement, just steady presences. The steady presence of Previn’s orchestration mirrors this reality throughout the opera.

Brief_Encounter02.gifLaura (Elizabeth Futral) and Fred (Kim Josephson) [Felix Sanchez, Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]

Futral as Laura gave a splendid performance, although she pushed during some of her heavier sections. Nathan Gunn’s Alec was not seductive vocally or theatrically—he was a regular man in love with a regular woman. At times out of place in large scale works, Gunn disproved any critics by giving a smooth, clear performance that never resorted to blustering. Despite the strange vocal lines, credit should go to Previn for knowing the strengths of these two main characters. Bass-baritone Kim Josephson was a steady presence as Laura’s husband, Fred, providing a more mature voice that contrasted well with Gunn’s lighter baritone. Meredith Arwady as Myrtle Bagot showed a shockingly deep and dark contralto, almost so dark at times as to lose clarity. All cast members could have worked a little more on their English diction, though. The confusing half-American-half-English accents resulted in more than several indistinguishable phrases. Music director Patrick Summers led an appropriately restrained performance and showed much deference to Previn during the curtain calls.

The most innovation was shown by the direction and design team of John Caird (who directed in addition to writing the libretto), Bunny Christie (set/costumes), and Paul Pyant (lighting). The train station where Alec and Laura first meet served as the backdrop for the rest of the production, with elegant, seamless sets dropping in from above to create Laura’s home, a public plaza, a boathouse, and a riverbank. Extensive use of fog kept the train station theme present, and (very loud) dry ice machines created a believable river setting. Christie’s assignment was not easy—over eight scenes in the eighty minute first act alone—but his scene changes were fast, credible, and not distracting. Pre-war furniture and costumes were utilized well, inculcating the subtle lives led by the characters. Nothing stood out, but that was the point—these stories could happen to anyone, anywhere.

Brief Encounter isn’t the next great American opera. It is, above all, a subtle work that serves as a snapshot of the lives of two everyday people. The fact that it doesn’t resort to heavy drama makes it somehow more relevant, though, and Previn’s orchestration underscores this fact. Opera can be subtle, and so can the stories the art form relates. Brief Encounter gets that point across, to an overall positive effect.

Paul Wooley

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):