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.
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about 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.