Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

The 2019 Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

This year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance offered a veritable operatic smörgåsbord, presenting sizable excerpts from operas ranging from Gluck to Saint-Saëns, from Mozart to Debussy, by way of some Italian masterpieces, courtesy of Rossini and Verdi.

Cilea's L'arlesiana at Opera Holland Park

In a rank order of suicidal depressives, Federico - the Provençal peasant besotted with ‘the woman from Arles’, L’arlesiana, who yearns to break free from his mother’s claustrophobic grasp, who seeks solace from betrayal and disillusionment in the arms of a patient childhood sweetheart, but who is ultimately broken by deluded dreams and unrequited passion - would surely give many a Thomas Hardy protagonist a run for their money.

Prom 1: Karina Canellakis makes history on the opening night of the Proms 2019

The young American conductor Karina Canellakis made history as the first woman to conduct the First Night of the Proms last night (19 July 2019) as she conducted the BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall with soloists Asmik Grigorian (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Ladislav Elgr (tenor), Jan Martiník (bass) and Peter Holder (organ) in Zosha Di Castri's Long is the Journey, Short Is the Memory (the world premiere of a BBC commission), Antonin Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel and Leoš Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass.

Barbe & Doucet's new production of Die Zauberflöte at Glyndebourne

No one would pretend that Emanuel Schikaneder’s libretto for Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte would go down well with the #MeToo generation. Or with first, second or third wave feminists for that matter.

Pavarotti: A Film by Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s latest music documentary after The Beatles: Eight Days a Week and Made in America is a poignant tribute that allows viewers into key moments of Pavarotti’s career – but lacks a deeper, more well-rounded view of the artist.

Three Chamber Operas at the Aix Festival

Along with the celestial Mozart Requiem, a doomed Tosca and a gloriously witty Mahagonny the Aix Festival’s new artistic director Pierre Audi regaled us with three chamber operas — the premiere of a brilliant Les Mille Endormis, the technically playful Blank Out (on a turgid subject), and a heavy-duty Jakob Lenz.

Herbert Howells: Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge has played a role in the evolution of British music. This recording honours this heritage and Stephen Cleobury’s contribution in particular by focusing on Herbert Howells, who transformed the British liturgical repertoire in the 20th century.

Laurent Pelly's production of La Fille du régiment returns to Covent Garden

French soprano Sabine Devieilhe seems to find feisty adolescence a neat fit. I first encountered her when she assumed the role of a pill-popping nightclubbing ‘Beauty’ - raced from ecstasy-induced wonder to emergency ward - when I reviewed the DVD of Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno at Aix-en-Provence in 2016.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny in Aix

Make no mistake, this is about you! Jim laid-out dead on the stage floor, conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his very loud orchestra (London’s Philharmonia) to an abrupt halt. Black out. The maestro then turned his spotlighted face to confront us and he held his stare. There was no mistake, the music was about us.

Mozart's Travels: Classical Opera and The Mozartists at Wigmore Hall

There was a full house at Wigmore Hall for Classical Opera’s/The Mozartists’ final concert of the 2018-19 season: a musical paysage which chartered, largely chronologically, Mozart’s youthful travels from London to The Hague, on to Paris, then Rome, concluding - following stop-overs in European cultural cities such as Munich and Vienna - with an arrival at his final destination, Prague.

Tosca in Aix

From the sublime — the Mozart Requiem — to the ridiculous, namely stage director Christophe Honoré's Tosca. A ridiculous waste of operatic resources.

A terrific, and terrifying, The Turn of the Screw at Garsington

One might describe Christopher Oram’s set for Louisa Muller’s new production of The Turn of the Screw at Garsington as ‘shabby chic’ … if it wasn’t so sinister.

Mozart Requiem in Aix

Pierre Audi, now the directeur général of the Festival d’Aix as well as the artistic director of New York City’s Park Avenue Armory opens a new era for this distinguished opera festival in the south of France with a new work by the Festival’s signature composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

A Rachmaninov Drama at Middle Temple Hall

It is Rachmaninov’s major works for orchestra - the Second and Third Piano Concertos, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, the Symphonic Dances - alongside the All-Night Vespers and the music for solo piano, which have earned the composer a permanent place in the concert repertoire today.

Fun, Frothy, and Frivolous: L’elisir d’amore at Las Vegas

There are a dizzying array of choices for music entertainment in Las Vegas ranging from Celine Dion and Cher to Paul McCartney and Aerosmith. Admittedly, these performers are a far cry from opera, but the point is that Las Vegas residents have many options when it comes to live music.

McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro returns to the Royal Opera House

David McVicar's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has been a remarkable success since it debuted in 2006. Set with the Count of Almaviva's fearfully grand household in 1830, McVicar's trick is to surround the principals by servants in a supra-naturalistic production which emphasises how privacy is at a premium.

The Cunning Little Vixen at the Barbican Hall

The presence of a large cast of ‘animals’ in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can encourage directors and designers to create costume-confections ranging from Disney-esque schmaltz to grim naturalism.

Barbe-Bleue in Lyon

Stage director Laurent Pelly is famed for his Offenbach stagings, above all others his masterful rendering of Les Contes d’Hoffmann as a nightmare. Mr. Pelly has staged eleven of Offenbach’s ninety-nine operettas over the years (coincidently this production of Barbe-Bleue is Mr. Pelly’s ninety-eighth opera staging).

Mieczysław Weinberg: Symphony no. 21 (“Kaddish”)

Mieczysław Weinberg witnessed the Holocaust firsthand. He survived, though millions didn’t, including his family. His Symphony no. 21 “Kaddish” (Op. 152) is a deeply personal statement. Yet its musical qualities are such that they make it a milestone in modern repertoire.

The Princeton Festival Presents Nixon in China

The Princeton Festival has adopted a successful and sophisticated operatic programming strategy, whereby the annual opera alternates between a standard warhorse and a less known, more challenging work. Last year Princeton presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year the choice is Nixon in China by modern American composer John Adams, which opened before a nearly full house of appreciative listeners.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Harrison Birtwistle
17 Aug 2009

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Mask of Orpheus at the Proms

What drives Harrison Birtwistle to Greek myth? Orpheus is a primal archetype. When he played his lyre he tamed wild beasts and made mountains move. But he suffered. He journeyed into Hades but could not bring Eurydice, his beloved, back to life. In some versions of the myth, his talent enraged the jealous who tore him apart. Yet even then, his head remained intact, still singing. He symbolizes the power of music, and the fate of an artist.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Igor Stravinsky: Apollo
Jonny Greenwood Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Alan Oke (Orpheus the man), Thomas Walker (Orpheus the Myth,) Christine Rice (Euridice the woman Anna Stephany (Euridice the myth, Persephone), Claron McFadden (Hecate), Andrew Slater (Charon/Caller/Hades), Rachel Nichoills, Anna Dennis, Luoise Poole (the Furies), Chrsitopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo, Tim Mirfin (the Judges), Ian Dearden (Sound Projection)(, Tim Hopkins (Director), BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge chorus master, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductors)

Prom 39 Royal Albert Hall, 14th August 2009

Above: Harrison Birtwistle

 

But Birtwistle’s early opera, “The Mask of Orpheus” isn’t narrative, but an intuitive experience. The full work has only been heard once in production, at the English National Opera in 1986. The recording on NMC was made at a concert performance some years later. At this Prom only the second Act was performed. In isolation, then, we were thrown into Orpheus’s journey in full flow. In some ways, it doesn’t matter so much that we don’t know the past or future. The act unfolds in realtime, so we’re experiencing it on its own terms. This reflects Birtwistle’s concept of different layers of time, identity and action, each operating semi-independently and in parallel.

Each persona has its shadows, Orpheus is both Alan Oke the “man” (whatever that might signify) and Thomas Walker the “myth”. Euridice is both Christine Rice the “woman” and Anna Stéphany (outstanding) as Euridice the “myth” and later Persephone, like Euridice, stolen from life by the underworld. In the original (and only) production, puppets were used, to further fragment the idea of persona. In myths, personas change. They are symbols, like images in a dream. Against these multi-faceted roles, Birtwistle juxtaposes multiple choruses, the Furies (Rachel Nicholls, Anna Dennis and Louise Poole), and the judges (Christopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo and Tim Mirfin) and a Greek Chorus of BBC Singers. Intricate patterns are embedded in their music too. The Furies’ and Judges’ lines waver in a rolling sequence of pitches, replicated on a wider scale by the chorus. Birtwistle is doing his puzzles and mazes thing again, his “secret geometry”.

Over the singers towers the Voice of Apollo, which Birtwistle describes as an aura. It is an invisible presence but infuses the whole opera with another, unearthly dimension, even when it can’t be heard. It’s a sound projection, created in IRCAM and here realized by Tim Dearden, who does so much of this work in London. The Voice boomed from beneath the towering dome of the Royal Albert Hall into the vast auditorium, an extraordinary use of space and physics as theatre. When the eerie Voice sounds, members of the orchestra greet it by holding up mirrors to catch light. Tiny particles of light project into the building, like extra-terrestrial fireflies. The mirrors are a pun on what’s happening in the music itself. This “mirroring” also captures the connection between Gods and mortals, between stage reality and artistic vision. Tim Hopkins’ semi-staging is intelligent, giving maximum impact with minimal effort, like myths themselves which expand in the mind though the original sources are but fragments.

Complex interrelationships suffuse the whole work. The only really distinct presence is that of Hecate, the ambiguous goddess of death and rebirth, wonderfully sung by Claron McFadden high in the orchestra loft, but even Hecate is a multiple figure, often depicted as a trinity. There are two conductors, Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, for the overlapping threads in the orchestration. The small vocal choruses are echoed by the harps, mirroring the spirit of Orpheus and his lyre. The music for large chorus reflects the voice of Apollo. The semi-silent Song of Magic in the first Arch gives way to a “chorus of Hell”, a percussion ensemble that gradually dominates with noisy persistence. It adds important tension, like “reality” (whatever that means) banging on the doors of the dream. Indeed, the gradual awakening gives rise to some of the most striking passages in the whole work.

In the 15th Arch, Orpheus’s vocal line totally shatters into clipped fragments, heard against the impenetrable wail of chorus and sound projection. After a few seconds of silence it dawns on Orpheus that he isn’t going to bring Euridice out of Hades, for the forces against him are too great. All he can do is call out “Euridice!”, endlessly, extending the syllables as if making the word whole can draw her back. No wonder this is the “Arch of Ropes” where legato is broken, twined and stretched like rope: a strong image of connection, but a connection that is broken.

This is the moment Birtwistle freeze frames in The Corridor, the fifteen minute scena premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2009. It is the critical point in the whole saga. To miss its significance is to miss the whole point, which is why Birtwistle returned to it, 35 years after first embarking on his Orpheus odyssey. Indeed, “”The Corridor is “The Mask of Orpheus” condensed into sharpest focus :it is a much more powerful work than generally appreciated. Since “The Mask of Orpheus” is so difficult to stage and perhaps to follow, “The Corridor ” will stand as Birtwistle’s moment of lucid clarity.

Oke stands alone, at the top of the platform, while Apollo groans from the skies: a true moment of Greek tragedy. How amazing it must be in full production, after all the images of puppets and multiple personas, intricate musical patterns and elaborations.

The 17th Arch, the Arch of Fear is extraordinarily beautiful in its stark simplicity. Orpheus is in the “real” world again but he’s still unable to comprehend. “Did I build this stone shelter over the dark cave?” he asks. “Above my head is stone, Under my feet is rock”. Birtwistle sets the simple words with amazing cadences, leaping out of an almost staccato, half-spoken baseline. The words “rock”, “summer grass”, “stream” and “nightmares” jump outwards as if they had a life of their own. Then the Other Orpheus sings single words “Fear. Caught. Time. Lost”. Between each word, silence but for the rising sounds of the orchestra. Suddenly, this Orpheus takes off into shining lyricism: two words : “Tide moan”. Their meaning is too deep to express by rational logic.

Euridice calls Orpheus’s name, but the syllables break up, as if lost in transmission across the void that now keeps them apart. No more words. Only elusive music, possibly the Voice of Apollo. In the original, uhe plot is complicated, and Orpheus hangs himself. Here, instead, Alan Oke walks round the stage and into the audience, silently touching people on the shoulder, in an echo of the 9th Arch, the “arch of awareness. Meaning to touch”. Those who get touched in the orchestra and choir pass it on to others. This symbolizes the concept that life and death are a continuum. It also fits better with the idea that Orpheus’s spirit, which is music, lives on whenever people communicate. The suicide solution might have been an option in 1973/5 but in view of everything Birtwistle has done since then, it’s a cop-out. This new “ending” is aesthetically more satisfying.

The performance was preceded by Stravinsky’s ballet “Apollo” which was a good idea, for Apollo was Orpheus’s father, who gave him the Lyre and the gift of Music. It’s surprisngly austere Stravinsky, presaging his interest in classicism and the baroque. Not really so very different from Birtwistle, the “wild man” of British music, whose notorious image belies music of sensitivity and poise, which also harks back to early music. Apollo was preceded by Jonny Greenwood’s “!Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” which uses similar orchestration, and has the whole violin section standing to attention.

Anne Ozorio

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):