15 Aug 2010
To Loxford with Love
There was a time when the works of Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th-Century’s supreme composers, were not welcome at Santa Fe Opera.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
There was a time when the works of Benjamin Britten, one of the 20th-Century’s supreme composers, were not welcome at Santa Fe Opera.
Under founding director John O. Crosby’s regime only two minor Britten operas were heard over many years. Today, Santa Fe is something of a ‘Britten house’ — long over due — under the recent directorship of Richard Gaddes and now Charles MacKay whose new production of Albert Herring is playing through August. Word is about that Santa Fe’s observance of Britten will continue, with more of his operas planned in seasons ahead. Delightful news!
The time is circa 1900, Loxford, a mythic English village, with an era just ending and a new one about to emerge. But old ways die hard, and in tiny Loxford Victorian ‘morals’ (they were hardly that), are slow to change. When the local autocrat Lady Billows learns there is not a virgin girl available for Loxford’s annual May fete where she plans to give a prize celebrating ‘purity,’ she is outraged. What has the world come to? These country girls “think too little and see too much!” Hold on, says Police Commissioner Budd! There is Albert Herring, 22, pure as the driven snow, the virtuous hard working son of the widow Herring, village greengrocer. Would Lady B. accept a King of the May this year? Harrumph! Very well, if we must. So the plot is set in motion and we find that for Loxford, as well as Victorian-Edwardian England, public morality will soon enough be changed. (I must add a small criticism here: Santa Fe sets the opera in 1947, its debut year, and a cultural disconnect results. By 1947, England had gone through two world wars and a back-breaking depression since the time of Britten’s tale, and pious moralizing of the Loxfordians, entirely suitable in 1900, was out of tune after WWII. I had thought the ‘set in the time of composition’ fad had faded, as indeed it should.)
Joshua Hopkins as Sid and Kate Lindsey as Nancy
Britten’s singular music and the wonderfully singable text of librettist Eric Crozier (adapted from a story of Guy de Maupassant), are the basis for what may very well be the best operatic comedy since Verdi’s Falstaff. Albert Herring is a perfect blending of a simple story with endlessly sophisticated music that supports and elaborates every word of the text and falls easily upon the ear. Melodies abound amidst orchestration of much color and freshness. True, there is a bit of mocking satire, but withal Britten’s villagers are treated gently. ‘Tis a gift to be simple!’
[However, let me add that even today Britten’s opera is somewhat controversial. I was at a performance of it once where an audience member had a heart attack and died, his wife later sued the opera company for “that awful Britten’s music” causing the problem! Several people, and not opera neophytes, have complained after seeing Albert Herring , that it was boring as it’s meant for “high-school or college workshop” production. I could not disagree more! I will say that the piece is quite ‘literary,’ and appeals most to those who especially appreciate form and music. All is restrained and contained, but as contrasted to the repressive formalities of early 20th C. English village life, the music yields up an unusual expressivity, to my perception, producing as it does a rare measure of ironic humor, musical humor as well as rhetorical, for Haydn-like Britten is somehow always able to make a little musical joke or unexpected commentary with a quirky change of harmony, a quote from other sources (Tristan!) given a moment’s special treatment, the strict formality of the Threnody, for example, shattered by the chaos of complaints that immediately follows Albert’s final entry — these techniques all mean something, but admittedly may appeal more to formalists than to those who want a less obviously rhetorical approach to music — Puccini, for example; Britten falls into the same school as Mozart and a few other good companions.]
Santa Fe Opera showed proper respect for Britten’s little masterpiece by engaging Lyric Opera of Chicago’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, to lead Britten’s musical forces. With an expert 13-piece chamber orchestra in the pit, Sir Andrew on the podium and a cast including Christine Brewer, Joshua Hopkins, Celena Shafer, Alek Shrader, Jill Grove, Kate Lindsey and Judith Christin we were bound to enjoy a memorable evening of Britten. The English village settings by Kevin Knight and, especially Paul Curran’s clarifying stage direction, simply added icing to the confection — all ready and waiting for Lady Billows to serve at tea!
The show’s opening night was a victim of one of Santa Fe’s famous monsoon rains, with horrendous storm noise virtually covering the stage and pit. For purposes of this review I was fortunate to attend the second performance, August 4, a perfect evening, quiet and cool with a brilliant Venus glowing prominently, and appropriately, in the evening sky.
Mme. Brewer, long a Santa Fe favorite and something of a specialist in Britten’s music, dominated every scene as the imperious grande dame of Loxford. With adroit wit, understated playing and a bright soprano voice she became Lady Billows. Her side-kick maid, Florence Pike, was nicely achieved by contralto Jill Grove. The town leaders were capably handled by Dale Travis as Commissioner Budd, Mark Showalter as Mayor Upfold, a fine young bass Jonathan Michie as Vicar Mr Gedge, while the local head teacher was chirped brightly by Celena Shafer who must have been a nervous wreck by the end of the evening as director Curran had her in frantic motion at all times (a tad distracting).
Theirs was good ensemble acting and singing, and in several of the great musical moments, especially the nine-part Threnody of mourning for Albert in the opera’s penultimate scene, Davis and his forces created some genuinely magical musical beauty. He played the Threnody in a hushed pianissimo, then Bang! The lost and “dead” Albert suddenly pops through a trap door and in an instant the mourned becomes the beleaguered, as all hands castigate him for taking his prize money, skipping town and having a helluva good drunken time, returning covered in muddy dishevelment. After all this, Albert’s defining moment arrives, when he sings to his domineering parent, “That’ll do, mum.” And the opera is over.
Celena Shafer (Miss Wordsworth), Jonathan Michie (Mr. Gedge), Dale Travis (Mr. Budd), Alek Shrader (Albert Herring), Mark Schowalter (Mayor Upfold), Christine Brewer (Lady Billows), Jill Grove (Florence Pike) and Judith Christin (Mrs. Herring)
But not quite: As Mum Herring disappears through a door in her store, she looks back, that is the wizardly Judy Christin does, at the audience and gives the show away -- she bestows upon Sid, Nancy and Albert the most wicked little smile you have ever seen, which tells the whole story. You can imagine her thinking, “My boy did it after all, good for him!” If there is a better comic actor in all of opera than Judy Christen, whom I first heard sing Mrs. Herring 32-years ago at the St. Louis opera, I don’t know who it would be.
The brief story of a repressed lad who has escaped Mum, the oppressive town and the fury of Lady Billows thus ended on a note of high amusement before a delighted audience. This show is too good to quit; I hope it plays at other venues and ultimately returns for another season. It is that good.
© J. A. Van Sant 2010