01 Aug 2009
‘Opera Noir’ Entertains at Santa Fe
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
Santa Fe Opera has made it happen with William Wyler’s 1940 motion picture, The Letter based on Somerset Maugham’s 1920s short story and play, and now an opera. It may well be the sleeper of the Santa Fe season, unusual for a newly commissioned opera.
Within a dark toned sparsely furnished residential stage set, four collapsing palm trees grimly lowering in the background of a hot and smelly Malay rubber plantation house, a bored housewife is carrying on a torrid affair with a local dandy, her often absent and somewhat dull husband unaware. In the Wyler movie, the main feature of which is Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie the erring wife, moments after the show opens we hear gunfire as her lover Geoff Hammond staggers across the verandah, Leslie emptying her six-shooter into him in a jealous rage. Bette Davis did it with fervor, and believe me, Santa Fe’s soprano Patricia Racette does the deed with equal vehemence. We were off to a strong start, and the intensity rarely lets up over the 100-minute opera.
Anthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie) and James Maddalena (Howard Joyce)
The Santa Fe team, led by composer Paul Moravec with librettist Terry Teachout, musical director Patrick Summers and stage director Jonathan Kent, took a chance patterning their new opera so closely on the ‘noir’ qualities of old movies, but that was exactly the tone they wanted to establish for this sordid little story, and they got it right. Even more successful is the musical score by Paul Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University. Worry not, this is no academician’s tepid exercise — it’s a rip-snorting adventure in high-class movie music with the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Eric Korngold and Max Steiner hovering in the background. Moravec’s music is fluent and beautifully orchestrated. The tonal score is through-composed, no pauses for arias or set pieces aside from brief moments, with a good sense of storytelling and excitement resulting.
It turns out Moravec, in his first opera, is a wise and able theatre composer who knows to keep his orchestra subdued for key passages of exposition and musical dialogue, but can unleash his violins and woodwinds in romantic mood music to evoke the sweeping “love me forever passages” of Leslie and Geoff’s affair. Don’t laugh, but when it comes to writing music and vocal lines that can narrate and sustain mood, Moravec impressed me as having it all over the cognoscenti’s current darlings, Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov, also lately heard in new works at Santa Fe. Sometimes it feels good just to get down to storytelling without trying to make musical history.James Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Mika Shigematsu (A Chinese Woman) and Rodell Rosel (Ong Chi Seng)
Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Leslie has been caught out not only in her affair with Goeff, but his murder as well. Once she discovered Geoff was through with her, preferring his new Chinese mistress, Leslie popped him off, a woman scorned. But that’s not all: her husband Robert has to come up with a lot of cash to buy back a letter Leslie stupidly wrote to Geoff inviting him over the night she shot him, a piece of evidence that would convict the lady. The letter fell into the hands of Geoff’s mistress, and now the Chinese woman wants to cash in. Of course it will ruin husband Robert Crosbie, played and sung with great effectiveness by Anthony Michaels-Moore, using his life’s savings to redeem his adulteress wife. Sticky, eh?
Roger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond)
Coming to the rescue is Howard Joyce, Robert’s lawyer friend, who manages to buy and repress the letter, and convince a Singapore British jury to let Leslie off, claiming she was the victim of Geoff’s violent attempt to rape her. The one-act opera ends in a big mess, romance gone, careers compromised, and then in a coupe-de-theatre, Leslie takes matters into her own hands and resolves her dilemma. I’ll not reveal the quick denouement.
Ms. Racette, Michaels-Moore, James Maddalena as the lawyer, and assorted secondary role singers could not have been any better. Roger Honeywell, Rodell Rosel and Keith Jameson, all tenors, played key parts in the show’s success, with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers wonderfully effective in their central role. Patricia Racette is a marvel; her full lyric soprano voice is in solid shape, used with skill and much dramatic effect. She has an expressive face, and is an actor of the first order. It was a pleasure to encounter her strengths in this prima donna role. For now, she owns the part. Others will soon want to.
The Letter may to some degree be a work in progress; it seems fairly well finished, if a few minutes too long. The intensity of the Maupassant-esque plotting with all its ironies is well maintained, with good rhythm and tempo, rhetorically and musically. But in a departure from Maugham and Wyler, Morevec added a short scene in which the Chinese woman (the fine Japanese mezzo Mika Shigematsu), comes to the lawyer to deliver the letter and collect her cash. Unfortunately she is given not only a voice in the proceedings with a short aria, but brings up issues that only obfuscate and delay. I hope the authors will rethink that scene. Much effect was gained by Wyler in keeping his mysterious Chinese woman quiet — a strong presence but generalized. There can be too many ‘specifics,’ sometimes in dramatic plotting, and The Letter has a few. In the main it is unusually engaging, well-paced entertainment, handsomely performed.
J. A. Van Sant ©2009