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.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
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.
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.
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’.
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