07 Jul 2009
Saariaho’s sumptuous L’amour de loin at the ENO, London
Absence of plot is by no means an impediment in opera.
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’.
Absence of plot is by no means an impediment in opera.
This new production at The English National Opera, created by noted circus director Daniele Finzi Pasca proves that superlative staging can make up for weak narrative. Through visual images, the spirit of L’Amour de loin is invoked to express the drama beneath the music, better than the text itself.
Kaija Saariaho’s music wavers in a langorous swoon. Cadences rise and fall away, legato rippling upwards and down without regard to syntax. This is lavishly sensual, complete with faint echoes of the French medieval world of the troubadour, Jaufré Rudel (Roderick Williams), and the “Moorish” exoticism of Tripoli where the heroine Clémence (Joan Rodgers), resides. It’s the musical equivalent of intoxicating fumes, perfume or perhaps some strange potion inhaled through a hookah. Dramatic structure isn’t relevant to mood music as dream-like as this.
Love, after all, is an “altered state” where logic doesn’t apply, particularly in the case of idealized troubadour love, where artistic indulgence is as much an impetus as the love object. No wonder Jaufré panics and becomes fatally ill when he crosses the sea to meet Clémence for the first time. Unlike Tristan und Isolde where strong characters are transformed by a potion, to the horror of those around them, everyone in L’amour de loin, even the Pilgrim, is complicit in the dream state, so intensity dissolves in romantic washes of chromatic color.
Saariaho’s writing works best describing images like the ocean crossing, one of the most brilliant scenes in this production where light images are projected onto waving expanses of silk. It’s less suited to dramatic rationale. Jaufré and The Pilgrim debate endlessly whether he’s mad but the point’s already made in the music. Narrative meaning is further obscured by the distortion of natural rhythm and by dropping single spoken words into lines that are otherwise sung. Richard Stokes’s translation is lucid but retains the unworldly illogic of the original.
Roderick Williams, Joan Rodgers and Faith Sherman sing well, but this isn’t an opera where character development matters much. Its energies lie in the non-vocal writing, giving Edward Gardner and the ENO Orchestra a chance to luxuriate in lush orchestral texture.
The last scenes, where Clémence curses God, then quite quickly gives in to His will, might afford great opportunities for drama had the libretto engaged seriously with ideas. This is where the staging proved itself completely. As Clémence rages at God, Roderick Williams as the dead Jaufré descends from the roof on a wire, his white shroud trailing to the ground. At his side are the two “spirit Jaufrés” who had been doubling him as he lay “dying”. Is it a reference to Christ flanked by the two thieves at the crucifixion ? Perhaps not, but the idea is just as sacrilegious as Clémence’s curse and vaguely logical in the same sense. But as pure theatre it’s undeniably dramatic. The stage is lit up in colors as gorgeous as the music, while the chorus shine searchlights upwards towards the ceiling. Gradually the number of searchlight beams increase until the whole auditorium is bathed in unearthly white light. Whatever the image may mean, it’s a magnificent statement.
Joan Rodgers as Clémence and the spirits of Jaufré [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera]
In an opera where ideas are so loosely defined, moments like this make all the difference. Finzi Pasca uses the specialist circus skills to extend the range of effects possible on stage. Acrobats dressed in strange headless garb “swim” in the air against a background of silk and colored lights. Huge planes of blue silk zoom onto the platform released on flywires from the upper balconies. Cutout transparencies and panels create illusions of space. Even the costumes act. Sleeves are made with huge silken extensions manipulated by actors, so it seems the singers are surrounded by huge, winged beings. It turns the opera into something truly magical.