20 Jun 2009
Bach's St. Matthew Passion at BAM
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
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’.
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
He does not seem to have had any interest in the operatic form and, too, he never lived in a major court city (such as Dresden or Berlin), where an opera company would have been part of any composer’s focus — much less an urban center with its own opera tradition, such as Hamburg, Venice or London. Why, then, would we want to have one of his grander compositions — in this case, the St. Matthew Passion — enacted on stage, with the singers playing parts, when Bach seems to have intended the music and the message to reach our ears without benefit of stage pictures at all?
Handel’s oratorios are sometimes based on stage plays (Esther, Athalia, Hercules), and the laws against staging Bible stories in England were only withdrawn in the twentieth century — the arguments for presenting them fully staged are clear and often convincing, as are staged productions. Besides, Handel had plenty of stage experience and knew how to run the machine as well as anybody. Bach never got that experience.
What has been achieved in Jonathan Miller’s long-celebrated staging of St. Matthew, recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is an emphasis on the story to vie with the music, an urgency to the unfolding drama, an intensification of the (perhaps obscure) message of the crucifixion. The singers are acting, and they are catching our eyes, and they are putting a force behind the meaning of the music that is rare in even the most intense concert or church performance — they are underlining the theatricality of ritual, the ritual nature of theater — they are pulling us into an event of two thousand years ago with the intent of obliging us to think about it, take it seriously, of not permitting us to pass it off, whether we agree with Bach’s (and St. Matthew’s) interpretation or not. Further to bring it home to an Anglophone audience, the work is sung not in Bach’s German but in Robert Shaw’s singable English translation.
Since the singers are in street clothes of our era (who ever thought of Jesus as a rather pudgy fellow in a red sweatshirt? — the dignified Curtis Streetman), the result is to make the story very “lived,” very immediate, to highlight the emotions of which Bach’s melodies sing. My date, a Christian lady of a certain age, said it added to her appreciation of the story that so many of the chorales were hymns she is used to singing in church. I associate them with concerts of Bach — but perhaps this ties us to something like the feelings of the audience for the original classical tragedies, when the Aeschylean chorus interrupts the action to sing of some relevant myth or other. We were getting an active story, portrayed by modern-dress “actors,” while the chorus gave us their asides as well as their active participation in the drama’s many small roles. But this theatricality was intentionally undercut, not only by costume but by positioning — the players, orchestra and singers, sat in the center of the stage, and audience members were seated around them, indistinguishable — except they were the ones with programs. We were asked to see this as a tale of the people, of ourselves, being told among ourselves, by performers who were also ourselves. Theater and ritual alike were deemphasized.
We could imagine that we were in Jerusalem that holy week, seeing these things as they happened — as Bach perhaps wished us to imagine ourselves. This called for singers (chorus as well as soloists) capable of acting out the story as well as singing it, and the self-deception allowing us to imagine we could sing as well as Rufus Müller (the Evangelist), Suzie LeBlanc and Daniel Taylor. I mention LeBlanc and Taylor particularly, because I am familiar with their work in various early music venues, and because both of them were exceptionally fine in their arias in St. Matthew: clear, focused voices so clear and full of belief as to give the illusion they were singing at no more than conversational volume.
For believers, I imagine, this approach would pack a thrilling punch. For those of any faith who believe in Bach and in the expressive possibilities of the voice, it was a joy to be part of so powerful a performance.