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

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

Only one Shakespeare play has resulted in three operas that get performed today (whether internationally or primarily in one language-region). Perhaps surprisingly, the play in question is a comedy that is sometimes considered a lesser work by the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

Die Frau ohne Schatten at Munich

It was fascinating to see — and of course, to hear — Krzysztof Warlikowsi’s productions of Die Gezeichneten and Die Frau ohne Schatten on consecutive nights of this year’s Munich Opera Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
07 Jul 2009

Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was. . .

With its’ title taken from the composer’s Suite of English Folk Tunes, Op. 90, Tony Palmer’s film Benjamin Britten: A Time There Was… is a solid documentary assembled from interviews, rehearsal clips, photographs and other audio-visual materials to create a vivid portrait of the composer.

Benjamin Britten A Time There Was. . .
A film by Tony Palmer featuring extracts from: Peter Grimes; Billy Budd; A Midsummer Night's Dream; War Requiem; Curlew River; Death in Venice; Nocturne; Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

With: Benjamin Britten; Peter Pears; Leonard Bernstein; Sviatoslav Richter; Janet Baker; Julian Bream; Heather Harper; Imogen Holst; John Shirley-Quirk; Rudolf Bing; Henry Moore; English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Steuart Bedford.

TPDVD125 [DVD]

$26.99  Click to buy

A Time There Was… is refreshingly straightforward, without artifice to alter the emphasis implicit in the documentation itself. The comments of family members are touchingly revealing. Some of the details are remarkably pithy about the environment in which Britten grew up, and Palmer is good not to editorialize. Details take shape within the context of the film. For example, Britten’s cousin Elsie’s comment about the composer’s prescience might sound out of place, but Palmer’s inclusion of it underscores some of Leonard Bernstein’s remarks about Britten’s music, and touches like these are entirely characteristic of the film.

Originally released in 1979, just three years after Britten’s death, this issue on DVD makes the film available to new audiences. (A comprehensive filmography is available at www.tonypalmer.org.) More than that, the release demonstrates the strength of Palmer’s film, which holds up well after three decades. While some of the footage in A Time There Was… has a grainy look, that quality contributes to the overall feel of Palmer’s film in bringing forward firsthand materials to document his subject. In terms of the concept and sense of the whole, A Time There Was… remains a fine, convincing portrait in film. Unlike some more recent film biographies, it lacks some of the aspects of the biopic by remaining close to the subject. The narrative is implicit in the images and pacing Palmer brings to the screen. The director is present in the presentations, not as a rear of a head asking questions in interviews or contributing a narrative to hold the images together. The images lead one to the other, and the narrative is found within the careful editing of the source material.

In addition the rehearsal clips give a sense of Britten working on his music in ways that others could not convey as effectively. In addition, the judicious selection of musical examples helps to anchor the film nicely in the sonic world Britten created. Not everyone would choose the same examples, but Palmer achieved a representative variety, which not only gives those unfamiliar with Britten’s music a useful introduction, but also serves to remind those who know the repertoire to return with renewed interest. For example, Britten’s contributions to film may not be the entire basis for his reputation, but the fact that he worked in this idiom is useful information. More than that, his efforts are not without interest, especially in the clip which Palmer used from the film The Way to the Sea.

At the same time, the treatment of the relationship between Britten and Peter Pears is sensitive and balanced. It is neither condescending nor apologetic, and that is as it should be. As appropriate as it now seems, such a balanced approach seems to be remarkable for its time, and the result stands well, decades after Palmer originally released the documentary.

While a fine body of primary and secondary materials exist in print to document Britten’s life and works, this documentary brings certain aspects of his career to life in ways that film does best. To Palmer’s credit, his films on Ralph Vaughan Williams, Malcolm Arnold, Igor Stravinsky, and others have earned his praise, and the release on DVD of the present documentary about Benjamin Britten stands well with the others. A solid film when it was first issue, this newly issued DVD continues to make available an important and engaging resource on Britten.

James L. Zychowicz

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):