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.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Written at a time when both his theatrical business and physical health were in a bad way, Handel’s Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1738, fared badly and sank rapidly into obscurity where it languished until the late-twentieth century.
Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").at the Barbican Hall, London.
The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.
Each March France's splendid Opéra de Lyon mounts a cycle of operas that speak to a chosen theme. Just now the theme is Mémoires -- mythic productions of famed, now dead, late 20th century stage directors. These directors are Klaus Michael Grüber (1941-2008), Ruth Berghaus (1927-1996), and Heiner Müller (1929-1995).
The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).
For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.
The dramatic strength that Stage Director Michael Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot.
On February 25, 2017, in Tucson and on the following March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona Opera presented its first world premiere, Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn’s Riders of the Purple Sage.
During the past few seasons, English Touring Opera has confirmed its triple-value: it takes opera to the parts of the UK that other companies frequently fail to reach; its inventive, often theme-based, programming and willingness to take risks shine a light on unfamiliar repertory which invariably offers unanticipated pleasures; the company provides a platform for young British singers who are easing their way into the ‘industry’, assuming a role that latterly ENO might have been expected to fulfil.
A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London. Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony. Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing.
On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.
In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.
Patricia Racette’s Salome is an impetuous teenage princess who interrupts the royal routine on a cloudy night by demanding to see her stepfather’s famous prisoner. Racette’s interpretation makes her Salome younger than the characters portrayed by many of her famous colleagues of the past. This princess plays mental games with Jochanaan and with Herod. Later, she plays a physical game with the gruesome, natural-looking head of the prophet.
On February 17, 2017 Pacific Opera Project performed Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore at the Ebell Club in Los Angeles. After that night, it can be said that neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can stay this company from putting on a fine show. Earlier in the day the Los Angeles area was deluged with heavy rain that dropped up to an inch of water per hour. That evening, because of a blown transformer, there was no electricity in the Ebell Club area.
There has been much reconstruction of Marseille’s magnificent Opera Municipal since it opened in 1787. Most recently a huge fire in 1919 provoked a major, five-year renovation of the hall and stage that reopened in 1924.
With her irresistible cocktail of spontaneity and virtuosity, Cecilia Bartoli is a beloved favourite of Amsterdam audiences. In triple celebratory mode, the Italian mezzo-soprano chose Rossini’s La Cenerentola, whose bicentenary is this year, to mark twenty years of performing at the Concertgebouw, and her twenty-fifth performance at its Main Hall.
Matthew Rose and Gary Matthewman Winterreise: a Parallel Journey at the Wigmore Hall, a recital with extras. Schubert's winter journey reflects the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, where images act as signposts mapping the protagonist's psychological journey.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.
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