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
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Gil Shohat, now 35 and Israeli’s top classical composer, was 15 when
in the ‘80s he saw Hanoch Levin’s The Child Dream on stage in his native Tel Aviv. Shohat, of course, knew Levin’s work well, for throughout early decades in the history of Israel he — its outstanding dramatist — had served somewhat as the conscience of a nation tormented defining itself within its pain-wrought beginnings.
Gil Shohat: The Child Dreams Libretto based on a play by Hanoch Levin
“I knew then that I would compose Dream, said Shohat in a post-performance interview in the Tel Aviv Opera House, where
the premiere of the opera had taken place on January 18. Shohat’s plans
were seconded by Israeli Opera general director Hanna Munitz, who had also
sensed the operatic potential of drama when she saw it on stage.
Touched by the deep despair of the story and the genuine poetry of the text,
Munitz commissioned Dream for her company. It is the first opera
composed on any Levin text. Point of departure for Levin was the 1977 film
Voyage of the Damned, the story of the St. Louis, the ship unable
to attain landing rights for its fleeing refugees during World War II. But
this, it must be stressed, is no more than raw material for what is now
True, the opera underscores the degree to which the Holocaust remains today
a defining experience for the Israeli consciousness, yet the local critic who
placed the new opera “among the most depressing and despair-radiating
operas of the repertoire” missed the point of the transformation of the
story through music achieved by Shohat and his director Omri Nizan. (Nizan, an
old hand at the Cameri Theater, helped Shohat with minor changes in the text
— nothing was added — and then served in the vastly more important
role as director of the production.)
For through music the child at the center of the drama becomes much more
than a single child and his story is far greater than the tale of one
individual example of injustice. The Child is now a young Everyman with hopes
for a better and more just world. That this world is closed to him — and
not just by the near-criminality of captain of the ship that might have brought
salvation — elevates Dream to the level of mythic
universality. The story is quickly told. The Mother hopes to escape with her
son on the ship. The Captain demands payment “in the flesh.” The
ship reaches a ghost-like island, but passengers are not allowed to disembark
by the despotic governor, the second evil figure in the story.
In one of the most moving moments in the score — 2 hours and 30
minutes with one intermission — a crippled child — mezzo Shira Raz
I’m a poet.
I write about you who come out of the fog
and return and disappear in it. I weep over your fate
and sketch it.
your faces approaching tell the tale of delusion;
but all human failure is stamped on the back of your
The Crippled Child speaks above and across the play for Levin himself who
sees little but frustration and failure in the attempted escape.
The final act — an apotheosis of sorts — breaks with the seeming
realism of the earlier three acts (and it was wise, therefore, to insert the
intermission at this point). Dozens of “dead” children suspended
above the stage whisper of their fate while the female nonet that opened the
opera sings again of their sorry situation.
There is a Straussian sadness about this conclusion; it its muted melancholy
it recalls the elder composer’s Metamorphosen, the
“mourning for Munich” that he wrote after the destruction of his
native city. It is deeply felt and moving music that might well become a
concert piece in its own right.
And as the many who visit the memorial to children victims of the Holocaust
in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem experience not consolation but rather the hope
beyond hopelessness so essential in any confrontation with the vast inhumanity
of the 20th century, here too there is an elevation beyond meaningless
Child Dream is an ambitious work calling for a cast
of 20, all drawn from the roster of the resident company. Outstanding among
them were Larissa Tetuev as the Mother, a role she shared later with Ira
Bertman, Hila Baggio as the child and Noah Briger as the Captain.
In only his second season as IO music director, David Stern extracted
exemplary playing from the Rishon Le-Zion Orchestra, the company’s pit
band. Sets and costumes were effectively designed by Austrian-born Gottried
Helnwein. Lighting by Avi Yonah Bueno contributes to making this a colorful
show engaging to the eye.
Shohat has documented his superlative command of the composer’s craft
in an incredible long and diverse catalgue. In Dream, however, he
travels on no new turf, but concentrates rather on giving musical meaning to an
unusually demanding text.
Dream is written for reduced orchestra, and outstanding is the
manner in which Shohat has woven the piano into the ensemble to achieve unusual
effects. (The composer is a concretizing pianist as well.)
It is unavoidable that some find the opera with its focus on the death of
children depressing and even morbid. In so doing, they overlook the strong
element of empathy that Shohat’s music brings to Levin’s turgid
story. In the final analysis, Child Dream is an
affirmative work that deserves to be seen outside Israel.
The production celebrates the 35th anniversary of Israeli Opera; it further
marks the 10th anniversary of Hanoch Levin’s death and the centennial of
the founding of Tel Aviv.