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.
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’.
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.