18 Dec 2009
Pénélope in Manhattan
The one thing certain about the judgment of history is that history will change its mind.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[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 one thing certain about the judgment of history is that history will change its mind.
The standard operatic repertory today is not the standard repertory of fifty years ago — when such now popular works as Idomeneo, Maria Stuarda, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Semiramide, Katya Kabanova and Les Troyens were obscure or unknown, and Handel, Cavalli and Monteverdi languished in scholarly footnotes. Today, therefore, when so carefully composed a work as Fauré’s Pénélope has failed to find an audience, one is apt to wonder why and whether it is another candidate to join the canon.
Fauré was almost new to the opera game when, at sixty-two, he was finally attracted to a libretto, and it took him six summers (he was busy at the Conservatoire most of the year) to complete the piece. My conclusion, however, after attending the New York premiere of the work at the Manhattan School of Music, a performance by an orchestra of remarkable professionalism, sung by attractive young voices, is that the composer did not possess a gift for the theatrical among his many great talents. There is much beauty here, especially in the orchestration, but very little excitement.
It is interesting to contrast Pénélope (of 1913) with its near contemporary, Vincent d’Indy’s Fervaal, a work of 1897, also brought to Paris in 1913, and introduced to New York last October. Like Fauré, d’Indy was an academician under Wagnerian shadow in his choice of ancient legend, his use of leitmotiv and his rejection of closed forms within the grand arc of a scene. But d’Indy’s impossible epic contains no personalities — the leading characters declaim at each other, but in his musical setting, have no humanity. We never know who these people are, prolix though they be; the music never makes them individual. On the other hand, the burly chorales, the “Druidic” ceremonies, the tone poems that set the various scenes contain thrilling music of high quality.
Fauré’s Pénélope clearly sets up its personalities, both the leading figures, faithful, anguished Pénélope and the disguised, yearning Ulisse, and minor figures are individuated, often entertainingly — but very little of the music packs a punch. We are never brought to the edge of our seats, much less inclined to jump out of them. Not only does Fauré reject closed forms (arias, duets), he also rejects ensemble — his characters never indicate their relationships or inner thoughts by singing together. True, Wagner denounced the excesses of such things, praising the “drama” of individual speech, but, being Wagner, he ignored his own injunctions as soon as a duet or a quintet seemed to be required. Fauré never notices when the drama might call for such things — he is no showman. From situation to situation in Pénélope, all is dignity and refinement — the thing plods, though beautifully. This is not a work of stagecraft, of variety, and it will not follow Les Troyens, for example, a work packed with vivid character and incident, into popular favor.
What we have here, then, in Pénélope, is a stately piece on an ancient, stately story. The orchestration is exquisite, and the Manhattan School of Music orchestra, which has sometimes offered dodgy renditions of complex scores, played this one lovingly, with impressive polish and attention to detail under Laurent Pillot, who plainly loves this score. The vocal lines, too, are well placed — Fauré could express deep emotion without straining the voice to extremes, a skill lacking in many composers who dabbled in opera. But the music rarely becomes fast or loud or agitated, even when one of the characters is murdering several of the others. I found myself thinking — and not only because of Fauré’s way of wandering from theme to theme, doubling back and twining them again — of Act III of Tristan und Isolde. But even that tone poem to a bedridden invalid includes a couple of climaxes to vary the pace.
The title role of Pénélope was taken by Lori Guilbeau. From the buzz around me opening night, I gather she is much prized at the school as their budding dramatic soprano. She has a pretty, sizable voice, easy in its production though immature at fortissimo. Her soft singing was beautiful, her diction clear, and though her figure is robust, she is a handsome woman with a dignified stage presence — opera producers are no longer tolerant of singers who cannot move, and Guilbeau gives evidence that the Manhattan School takes such things seriously when launching careers. Too, Pénélope is just the sort of music she should be singing at this stage — her mid twenties. She should not sing heavy dramatic parts for another decade, while her body and her control over it both mature, but she was joyously received in Pénélope.
Tenor Cooper Nolan sang Ulisse with beautiful phrasing and without strain. Frankly, his situation could have used some strain now and then, but the fault there was Fauré’s. Robert E. Mellon made a striking impression as the gruff shepherd Eumée — wasn’t he a swineherd in Homer? Several of Pénélope’s obnoxious suitors sang quite well, but it was difficult to tell them apart.
Martin T. Lopez’s set was cleverly compartmentalized, with different levels and segmented rooms so that the story could move without pause and without the need to change scenes. Attractive scrims covered areas that could be lit to reveal iconic or choral personages. Pénélope sang much of her part through the warp of a loom at which she was supposedly weaving the famous tapestry she unraveled each night, Ulisse sang his role through a mask (being in disguise until the climax). My only real quibble with Lawrence Edelson’s admirably simple and clear staging concerned the bow — the suitors are supposed to find it impossible to string the bow, which Ulisse does do, thereupon assaulting them with arrows. Is no one at Manhattan School aware of what stringing a bow means? It was already strung, giving the suitors nothing to do but sing at it, and there were no arrows at all.