15 Sep 2009
Return to the Origins — Chamber Opera in Crisis Times
Chamber opera is coming back after a period when it appeared to be confined to experimental works.
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.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Chamber opera is coming back after a period when it appeared to be confined to experimental works.
It is a return to the origins of Opera, because, at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, Opera started out as a private musical entertainment, to be performed in the large hall of a Palace for the enjoyment of a limited number of friends and guests. Thus, it was chamber opera in the most literal sense.
There are several determinants at the roots of the return. Firstly, chamber opera requires a light budget with few soloists, an instrumental ensemble and simple sets and costumes; also, the production is generally suitable for touring and the costs can be shared. Secondly, it attracts a new and younger audience, partly because it charges lower ticket prices that a regular opera performance. Thirdly, and perhaps more significantly, chamber opera fits crisis times. In his Minima Moralia, Theodor A. Adorno considers Stravinsky’s chamber opera A Soldier’s Tale as one of the best expressions of World War I: the chamber group battered by shocks whose dreamlike compulsiveness simultaneously expresses real and symbolic destruction. This explains also Benjamin Britten’s emphasis on chamber opera in the years immediately after World War II.
An interesting feature of the return of chamber opera is the tendency to be addressed to an international audience. This is a new dimension: even Britten’s chamber operas were thought of primarily for an Anglo-Saxon public (although one of his masterpieces was premièred at La Fenice Opera House in Venice). In the last few weeks, two “international” chamber operas have had their première in Italy with plans of extensive European tours: Le Malentendu by Matteo D’Amico and Kafka Fragmente by György Kurtág . Neither of the two operas is in Italian; the former is in French, the latter in German. Both have been entrusted to an international cast.
The two composers are very different in age – D’Amico is in early 50s, Kurtág (in his 80s) just received the “Golden Lion” for his career at the Venice 2009 Biennale of Contemporary Music. D’Amico and Kurtág belong to different schools; in D’Amico’s work the listener feels the flavour and the colour of Henze. and those of Boulez in Kurtág’s. Both operas can be performed in a regular theatre of comparatively small dimensions (an audience of 400-600) but they are much more effective in an unusual space. For Le Malentendu a small center stage arena was chosen; for Kafka Fragmente the half destroyed main hall of a Convent bombed during World War II and never reconstructed.
Le Malentendu was premiered in Macerata. Its text is after Camus’ play, shortened so that the performance has a total 90 minutes’ duration without intermission. The four singers come from different European countries: the mother (Elena Zilio) is Italian, the daughter Martha (Sofia Solovij) Ukrainian, the son Jean (Mark Milhofer) British, his wife Maria (Davinia Rodrìguez) from Las Palmas. There is also a fifth character, the servant (Marco Iacomelli) - silent throughout the performance until his final explosion (a very loud “No!”). The orchestra, conducted by the French Guillaume Tournaire, is made up of five strings, a clarinet/bass clarinet, and an accordion.
The plot is simple: after many years, Jean goes back to his family and rents a room in the small B & B which his mother and his sisters operate. He does not unveil himself as he wishes to be recognized by his family; he gives his passport to the servant who keeps the information strictly to himself. As a result of this malentendu (misunderstanding), he is killed by the two women, who intend to steal his money. When the servant finally shows them Jan’s document, they are in despair. In tears, his wife asks God if there is a meaning to all this. The until-then-silent servant explodes with a loud “No!”A scene from Le Malentendu
Camus wrote Le Malentendu in 1941, when France was under occupation. The play is pervaded with symbolism, expressionism and existentialism. It is theater of the absurd, or of the absurdity of life. It mirrors a deep crisis in Europe. To enhance full understanding of the text, singing is harsh declamation sliding into melodic intervals, a couple of arioso and duets. The orchestration is rich; the accordion is the link between the strings and clarinet/bass clarinet, and conveys anguish and loneliness in the voyage to nowhere by the protagonists. Singing and acting is of high quality, and because nearly all the four singers have perfect French diction – a rarity in opera performances in Italy. The only exception is Sofia Solovij: she excels dramatically but her French is barely understandable. A special mention to Elena Zilio, for the difficult role she takes at her not quite so young age.
Kafka Fragmente was also premiered in a comparatively small town, Rimini. Kurtág composed it nearly 20 years ago .Until last year it had only concert performances, although its author considers it “a street opera” – viz, a real opera (not a lieder cycle) to be “staged” in the street, in a tramway, in the midst of the crowd of a city. It lasts 50 minutes. It is made up of four scenes (without intermission) and requires only two interpreters: a soprano and a violinist –both young and attractive. Last year, a staged version toured France and part of Germany; it was conceived for regular theatres with a proper stage, stalls and balconies or boxes. It did not really fit Kurtág’s design of a “street opera”. This new production places the stage in a high Plexiglas and wood structure at the centre of the dilapidated hall: it shows the small apartment of a youngster at the beginning of the twentieth Century. The public sits on both sides of this unusual stage – perfect for any comparatively large hall. On the Plexiglas walls, footage of old movies is projected, to provide the colour of the four scenes. The footage is skilfully mixed in order not to allow the audience to identify the individual films.
The staging is international. Denis Krief , the mastermind (stage director and also responsible for costumes and lighting) was born in Tunisia, is a resident of Rome and has in his veins Jewish, Arab, French, Italian and Austro-Hungarian blood. The soprano is the Italian Sara Allegretta, the violinist the French Jeanne Marie Conquer.
Based on fragments of Kafka’s diary as well as of his first novel (Amerika), the four scenes have a development: the growing up to age of a fragile young person. The musical tension is between the voice and the instrument, heightened by the fact that the soprano and the violinist cannot see one another. Kurtág’ s vocal and instrumental writing is elegant - there is no minimalism at all in the intense 50 minutes, even though there are only two interpreters. They both have virtuoso roles. Sara Allegretta is a soprano assoluto with the full gamut of lyric, dramatic and even coloratura nuances; personally, in certain moments, I would have liked also a Wagnerian pitch. Jeanne Marie Conquer was simply exquisite.