Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Puccini’s Tosca at the Royal Opera House

Now on its ninth revival, Jonathan Kent’s classic Tosca for Covent Garden is a study in art, beauty and passion but also darkness, power and empire. Part of the production’s lasting greatness, and contemporary value, is that it looks inwards towards the malignancy of a great empire (in this case a Napoleonic one), whilst looking outward towards a city-nation in terminal decline (Rome).

ROH Return to the Roundhouse

Opera transcends time and place. An anonymous letter, printed with the libretto of Monteverdi’s Le nozze d’Enea con Lavinia and written two years before his death, assures the reader that Monteverdi’s music will continue to affect and entrance future generations:

London Schools Symphony Orchestra celebrates Bernstein and Holst anniversaries

One recent survey suggested that in 1981, the average age of a classical concertgoer was 36, whereas now it is 60-plus. So, how pleasing it was to see the Barbican Centre foyers, cafes and the Hall itself crowded with young people, as members of the London Schools Symphony Orchestra prepared to perform with soprano Louise Alder and conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, in a well-balanced programme that culminated with an ‘anniversary’ performance of Holst’s The Planets.

Salome at the Royal Opera House

In De Profundis, his long epistle to ‘Dear Bosie’, Oscar Wilde speaks literally ‘from the depths’, incarcerated in his prison cell in Reading Gaol. As he challenges the young lover who has betrayed him and excoriates Society for its wrong and unjust laws, Wilde also subjects his own aesthetic ethos to some hard questioning, re-evaluating a life lived in avowal of the amorality of luxury and beauty.

In the Beginning ... Time Unwrapped at Kings Place

Epic, innovative and bold, Haydn’s The Creation epitomises the grandeur and spirit of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.

The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its recent production of Georges Bizet’s Les pêcheurs de perles Lyric Opera of Chicago assembled an ideal cast of performers who blend well into an imaginative and colorful production.

New Cinderella SRO in San Jose

Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella is most remarkable for one reason and one reason alone: It was composed by a 12-year old girl.

La Cenerentola in Lyon

Like Stendhal when he first saw Rossini’s Cenerentola in Trieste in 1823, I was left stone cold by Rossini’s Cendrillon last night in Lyon. Stendhal complained that in Trieste nothing had been left to the imagination. As well, in Lyon nothing, absolutely nothing was left to the imagination.

Messiah, who?: The Academy of Ancient Music bring old and new voices together

Christmas isn’t Christmas without a Messiah. And, at the Barbican Hall, the Academy of Ancient Music reminded us why … while never letting us settle into complacency.

The Golden Cockerel Bedazzles in Amsterdam

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s fairy tale The Golden Cockerel was this holiday season’s ZaterdagMatinee operatic treat at the Concertgebouw. There was real magic to this concert performance, chiefly thanks to Vasily Petrenko’s dazzling conducting and the enchanting soprano Venera Gimadieva.

Mahler Das Lied von der Erde, London - Rattle, O'Neill, Gerhaher

By pairing Mahler Das Lied von der Erde (Simon O'Neill, Christian Gerhaher) with Strauss Metamorphosen, Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra were making a truly powerful statement. The Barbican performance last night was no ordinary concert. This performance was extraordinary because it carried a message.

David McVicar's Rigoletto returns to the ROH

This was a rather disconcerting performance of David McVicar’s 2001 production of Rigoletto. Not only because of the portentous murkiness with which Paule Constable’s lighting shrouds designer Michael Vale’s ramshackle scaffolding; nor, the fact that stage and pit frequently seemed to be tugging in different directions. But also, because some of the cast seemed rather out of sorts.

Verdi Otello, Bergen - Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, Lester Lynch

Verdi Otello livestream from Norway with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Garner with a superb cast, led by Stuart Skelton, Latonia Moore, and Lester Lynch and a good cast, with four choirs, the Bergen Philharmonic Chorus, the Edvard Grieg Kor, Collegiûm Mûsicûm Kor, the Bergen pikekor and Bergen guttekor (Children’s Choruses) with chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1765, just a few years after the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra : Scandinavian musical culture has very strong roots, and is thriving still. Tucked away in the far north, Bergen may be a hidden treasure, but, as this performance proved, it's world class.

Temple Winter Festival: the Gesualdo Six

‘Gaudete, gaudete!’ - Rejoice, rejoice! - was certainly the underlying spirit of this lunchtime concert at Temple Church, part of the 5th Temple Winter Festival. Whether it was vigorous joy or peaceful contemplation, the Gesualdo Six communicate a reassuring and affirmative celebration of Christ’s birth in a concert which fused medieval and modern concerns, illuminating surprising affinities.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Turandot in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wrapped up its 95th fall opera season just now with a bang up Turandot. It has been a season of hopeful hints that this venerable company may regain some of its former luster.

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Alek Shrader as Albert Herring [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]
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.

Benjamin Britten: Albert Herring

Lady Billows: Christine Brewer; Miss Wordsworth: Celena Shafer; Florence Pike: Jill Grove; Nancy: Kate Lindsey; Mrs. Herring: Judith Christin; Albert Herring: Alek Shrader; Mayor: Mark Schowalter; Sid: Joshua Hopkins; Vicar: Jonathan Hopkins; Budd: Dale Travis. Sir Andrew Davis, conducting. Paul Curran, director. Kevin Knight: scenic and costume designer. Rick Fisher, lighting designer.

Above: Alek Shrader as Albert Herring

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of 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.)

_MG_2701.pngJoshua 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.

_MG_2391.pngCelena 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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):