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 might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
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.