21 Mar 2010
The Cunning Little Vixen, London
An enchanting evening at Covent Garden:
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
An enchanting evening at Covent Garden:
what with this and The
Gambler, things seem to be looking up, following a dispiriting spell
in the Christof Loy doldrums. Indeed, the theatrical and musical magic woven
here could not stand further removed from the pretentious dreariness inflicted
upon new productions of Lulu
und Isolde. Bill Bryden’s production of The Cunning Little
Vixen was first staged in 1990 but, twenty years on, it is yet to look
tired. For this, William Dudley’s designs deserve a great deal of credit.
There is to action and staging a crucial sense of life, in all its complexity,
never more ambiguous than when it is apparently straightforward. The
life-cycle, human or animal — should the distinction even be made?
— is the guiding force, in every sense, of Janáček’s drama,
and so, appropriately enough, one sees a huge circle on stage, which provides a
treadmill for walking as well as a frame in which the first act’s
acrobatic ‘Spirit of the Vixen’ may swing. Here, form is wondrously
imparted to the Vixen’s dream, both for the eye and the ear. Humour,
arguably more immediate, if less idiomatic, when sung in English, was present
too, for instance in the portrayal of the clannish farmyard hens, large and
contented, unable to heed the Vixen’s siren-voice of feminist revolt. It
is, however, the interplay between wondrous machinery and Nature that
penetrates to the very heart of the opera. This both highlighted such
relationships in the score and put me in mind of another Royal Opera
production: David McVicar’s Magic Flute — never more
magical than when heard under Sir Colin Davis (available on DVD). Lighting
(Paule Johnson), colours, and scenery ensure that Nature is present,
overflowing in her abundance, without being domesticated or prettified; for
there is wildness aplenty in Janáček’s score, and this must be
reflected in the action.
(Left to Right) Christopher Maltman as Forester, Jeremy White as Priest and Robin Leggate as Schoolmaster
It must, of course, above all be expressed by the orchestra, and so it was here. The name of Sir Charles Mackerras is so indelibly associated with Janáček’s music that one might take for granted his excellence. However, I doubt that even the most jaded listener — note that one must listen, rather than passively consume — could have done so in this case. The angularities of Janáček’s score, so often ironed out by conductors not so intimately attuned to the idiom, were immediate and telling, but they were always integrated into a longer line, never aggressive, let alone exhibitionistic, for their own sake: the opposing temptation to smoothing out. Equally apparent, and again never merely for their own sake, were the ravishing beauties of the score’s extraordinary sound-world — extraordinary even by Janáček’s standards. One example would be that utterly characteristic high string sound, split into several parts, which one might be tempted to call Straussian, but which is in reality quite different, if anything more akin to the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder. (Janáček was greatly interested in the music of the Second Viennese School.) Building of climaxes was masterly, above all in the great, pantheistic conclusion, so redolent, or rather prophetic, of the Glagolitic Mass. Life goes on, yet is transformed, transfigured. Tension had sagged slightly, I thought, both on stage and in the musical performance, during the first half of the third act, but this conclusion certainly compensated. As Sir Charles’s aforementioned knighted colleague sounds so effortlessly right in Mozart, so does Mackerras in Janáček. How odd, then, that this was the first time he had conducted the work at Covent Garden, though not quite so odd as the fact that Bryden’s production has no predecessors in the house. (Having said that, The Cunning Little Vixen received its Paris premiere as recently as 2008, and then in a production borrowed from Lyons.)
A scene from The Cunning Little Vixen
If Mackerras and the orchestra, which throughout played superlatively, a match for any other ensemble, were the brightest stars in the firmament, then they were ably supported by much of the cast. Most impressive of all was Christopher Maltman, whose Forester grew in stature, as he should, as the work progressed. The final transfiguration was as much his as the natural world’s. Elisabeth Meister, a Jette Paker Young Artist, had originally been slated to sing the roles of the Rooster and the Jay, but had to replace Emma Bell at very short notice, the latter having been rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Meister proved a winning replacement, moving in her love for the Vixen: an anthropomorphic fantasy, maybe, but an irresistible one. Sadly, Emma Matthews brought no especial individuality to the title role, though she did nothing especially wrong either. Many of the smaller roles, however, were sharply etched, most memorably Matthew Rose’s poacher, Harašta, Robin Leggate’s lovelorn Schoolmaster, and Jeremy White, both as priest and badger. The children, drawn from various London schools, did not disappoint either.
Performance in English did not disconcert me as much as I had feared. There is loss, of course, in terms of the music’s relationship to the language’s speech-rhythms, but this registered less than it had during ENO’s Katya Kabanova earlier in the week. Perhaps it was a better translation; there was certainly more opportunity, often very well taken, for wit. Banking jokes may be easy, but sometimes we should be grateful for any weapon we have. One gripe though: why start at 8 p.m.? It made no especial difference to me, but a 7.30 start would have been of help to those who had to travel out of London, or who simply wished to dine a little earlier. Such practical reservations should not detract, however, from a triumphant return to form for the Royal Opera.
The Cunning Little Vixen will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15 May at 6 p.m.