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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
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.