04 Oct 2009
John Gay: The Beggar's Opera
The only thing truly operatic in this work is the use of the word “opera” in the title.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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.
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.
The only thing truly operatic in this work is the use of the word “opera” in the title.
As the excellent Burkhard Dersch booklet essay, translated into English by Hugh Keith, states, with The Beggar’s Opera librettist John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch “created a new type of musical theater…” Indeed, the work came about at least partly, if not wholly, as a satiric response to the then ruling popularity of the elaborate foreign entertainment known as Italian opera, the most famous proponent of which being Georg Frederich Handel. In Gay’s work, quite a hit in its time, the lower class of England takes the stage, speaking in elevated language about the seedy goings-on in their lives, and occasionally breaking out into song, primarily of a simple, folk-based nature. Perhaps the best way to get to know the essence of this work is to turn to the 20th century adaptation by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera. The tunes are certainly better.
In 1983 the BBC hired Jonathan Miller to film Gay’s work with a strong cast of singing actors, with the exception of the role of Macheath, where Roger Daltrey of The Who proved himself to be a very effective acting singer. Bob Hoskins has a minor role at the work’s opening and closing as he and a “Player” (Graham Crowden) break the fourth wall and discuss the action before and after it takes place. Fans of the sort of British comedies PBS replays for US audiences may recognize Patricia Routledge. All the cast perform with the sort of detailed professionalism one comes to expect from British artists, and they sing well enough, considering the light demands of Pepusch’s music. They have excellent support, at any rate, from The English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s leadership.
The film has been well preserved, both in visual and audio terms. The appeal, however, will probably be limited to those with a keen interest to what turned out to be a passing fad. The success of The Beggar’s Opera seemed to put an end to Handel’s career, but he bounced back. And The Beggar’s Opera then slipped, or perhaps oozed, into obscurity, while eventually Covent Garden returned to being a first-class presenter of Italian opera.
Miller’s film does well by the work, no doubt, but it’s a long two hours. The song interludes are mostly very brief, and none of the characters has much appeal. For the ears of your reviewer, the high-pitched caterwauling of most of the female cast and the tongue-swallowing mumbles of many of the males became tiresome very quickly. Strangely, although most of the dialogue is produced with clarity, the English subtitles provided differ much of the time, being not just shorter but having divergent vocabulary. That becomes a distraction in itself, so better not to have the subtitles on, even at the risk of losing a phrase or two to inaudibility from time to time.
There’s a reason this once very popular work seldom returns to the stage, even in the UK. Nonetheless, this BBC film makes an excellent testament to its historical importance.