09 Mar 2010
The Elixir of Love at ENO
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
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.
As a medic with a keen knowledge of psychology, Jonathan Miller probably knows a thing or two about elixirs and placebos.
On the evidence of this production, first aired by New York City Opera, he’s not too concerned about the ‘dark side’ of medical charlatanry; for here Miller invites us to enjoy a light-hearted evening of music and food, mischief and fun, at ‘Adina’s Diner’ — a popular stopping place way out in the America Midwest, beloved by homespun yokels and travelling tricksters alike. We lap up the aural and visual candyfloss and, after a charming evening, skip home, refreshed by the reassuring spirit of innocence and optimism which prevails.
Isabella Bywater’s set is a superbly naturalistic recreation of the era. The rolling yellow plains and flawless blue sky evoke the landscapes of Edmund Hopper, and Bywater’s bubblegum pink and lime green diner recreates Hopper’s ‘Nighthawk’, albeit with a more golden, ambient glow. The revolving set is ingenious, but the dusty exterior is more successful than the interior, the latter seeming cramped and overcrowded. Despite Miller’s detailed direction of the chorus, there was simply too little room, forcing many to remain seated — including, in the opening scene, Nemorino, who, set back and enclosed by the set, was swamped by the chorus and orchestra.John Tessier as Nemorino
Into this rural eatery waltzed the confident proprietor, Adina. Sarah Tynan, sporting a peroxide bob, was perky and coquettish rather than a vamp. Her voice was as agile as her wiggling hips, and bright and warm; and she offered a lively, engaging performance, perfectly conveying the mannerisms of a 1950s blond bombshell. However, there was no sense of ’depth’ beneath the flighty surface and Tynan offered little to mitigate her cruel treatment of Nemorino.
Indeed, there was a disappointing lack of chemistry between the Adina and Nemorino, the latter presented here as a gauche garage hand. Canadian tenor John Tessier was a naïve and trusting yokel, but while his clear, true rendering was well-received, his voice is fairly light-weight and lacks an Italianate warmth and colour that hints at passionate depths beneath. Tessier’s ‘miraculous’ transformation from garage dunce to matinee idol was not entirely credible and too often he sang to the audience, rather than to the other characters on stage. However, the production did create a dramatic context for ‘Una furtive lagrima’, which for once did not seem like a convenient ‘add-on’.Andrew Shore as Dulcamara and company
The real star of the show was the experienced Andrew Shore, as the oleaginous quack doctor, Dulcamara. He slid in, seated in an ostentatious open-top Cadillac cabriolet (its shine a little sullied after a journey across the dusty plains), looking sharp but shifty in white suit, shades and brogues, panama hat perched rakishly on ill-fitting wig. Shore’s swindler was confident, assured, and crafty. [The automatic dispenser for Coca-Cola — that ‘pure refreshment’ that ‘revives and sustains’ — was cleverly positioned ...] Indeed, for Shore’s sparkling salesman’s pitch the surtitles disappeared — one assumes this was an intentional acknowledgement of Shore’s prowess rather than a technical hitch — but every word of Kelley Rourke’s clever libretto was crystal clear. Shore presented Rourke’s wittily rhymed medicinal claims — “You reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses” — with consummate mastery, although (if one was being harsh) one might accuse him of trying a little too hard at the risk of straining the voice. The subsequent wedding celebrations were pure MGM gold. Impersonating Elvis, Shore’s line ‘I’ve got a little ditty’, drew the largest laugh of the night; and when Adina joined him ‘on-stage’ in the diner, there was considerably more knowing interaction between them than was apparent in her exchanges with the younger heart-throb Nemorino. Adina’s Marilyn drawl might have been a bit too self-knowing, but Tynan, and Miller, pulled it off, just staying short of overkill.
As a gum-chewing GI, David Kempster’s Belcore swaggered and boasted his way, temporarily to Adina’s heart. Julia Sporsén’s Gianetta was sparkling and full of life.David Kempster as Belcore and company
Miller and Bywater had clearly, and effectively, thought hard about the realism of this production. But there was one incongruity: the inconsistency between the text and its delivery, with regard to accent. It was decided (so the programme told us) to use Americanisms (‘a knuckle sandwich’, ‘hello cupcake’), to pay homage to Porter and Sondheim (‘an elixir with a kick, sir’), and to attempt American accents throughout. The problem was that no one seemed to have told the chorus, and the principals frequently only remembered at the ends of phrases, which made Tessier’s native Canadian burr seem rather out of place.
Another problem was the over-enthusiasm of the conductor. Spaniard Pablo Heras-Casado, who enjoyed himself just a bit too much, encouraging the orchestra too excitedly and destroying the balance between stage and pit. Moreover, the tempi were often too slow: fine for the patter songs but fatal in the acts’ final choruses which should whip up a froth.Sarah Tynan as Adina and Julia Sporsén as Gianetta
So, this was a charming, folksy show. Miller’s humour was of the gentle kind — Nemorino turning momentarily into a bass-baritone when swigging the elixir, the outside loo flushing incongruously as Gianetti announced Nemorino’s financial good fortune. Dulcamara’s slugging of his own elixir when he observed the ladies chasing after Nemorino drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience. However, despite its ‘silliness’, there are some shades of darkness in this work — innocence is threatened by deception, guileless by guilt, and love seems indissolubly linked to money; but such shadows were kept well under wraps in this affectionate, enjoyable show.