Recently in Performances
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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
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
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’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus
tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra
from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement,
but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment
“is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga
Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
29 Sep 2010
Faust by ENO
Perhaps because the rather stolidly Victorian character of both its music
and its morality, Gounod’s Faust has been out of fashion in the
UK in recent decades, and owes a debt to David McVicar and his darkly Gothic
production for the Royal Opera in 2004 (now, at last, available on DVD) for the
restoration of its footing in the standard repertoire.
ENO has entrusted its new production to Des McAnuff, best-known in London
for the musical Jersey Boys which is currently enjoying a long run at the
Prince Edward Theatre. The only toe he has thus far dipped in the operatic
water was a production of Wozzeck in San Diego last year — not a
piece that would come automatically to mind for a novice opera director. An
eclectic history, promising more than some of the guest directors engaged by
ENO in the recent past. McAnuff fixes the starting point of the opera in a WW2
atomic bomb laboratory. It is easy to believe how an ageing scientist would be
left feeling unfulfilled after devoting his life and career to an inherently
cold-blooded and inhuman vocation.
Faust’s reversion to youth appears to take him back to the early days
of WW1 — though a few obviously intentional anachronisms make the period
somewhat indistinct — and initially it is a romanticised vision of jolly
carousing soldiers with their girls in dirndl skirts and flouncy blouses. The
love scene is idealised even further, with intense coloured lighting, and
flowers appearing to spring up at will on the projected backdrop. From that
point forwards the scales start to fall from Faust’s eyes and time seems
to be sped up; the colour is blanched from the scene, Marguerite seems to age
several years in the few months that elapse between Acts 3 and 4, and even more
between then and the final scene. The perky soldiers of the Act 2 tavern scene
are almost unrecognisable when they return from duty, old and bent and going
crazy with shell-shock.
Melody Moore and Iain Paterson
In the title role, Toby Spence was a revelation. His attractive stage
presence, clarity of delivery and impeccable diction have never been in
question, but Faust is a fuller lyric role than Spence has been used to, and I
feared his voice may simply be swamped by the orchestra or vanish into the
further reaches of the Coliseum’s vast auditorium. But in the event, the
fullness of his sound at the very beginning had me worried that he might be
over-singing, and I was relieved when the sound seemed to settle down, easily
big enough for the occasion but retaining his trademark bright, youthful sound,
right up to a splendidly confident high C in ‘Salut, demeure’. It
is not the most flexible or nuanced sound, nor does it sound French —
I’m not sure it’s possible to when singing in English translation
— but it was confident, romantic and hugely enjoyable.
Iain Paterson was a congenial Mephistopheles, more gentleman than devil I
felt, and he’s got the stage presence for the role. Although his lowest
notes lack power (he’s a bass-baritone rather than a bass) he turned in
an exceptionally stylish vocal performance.
Melody Moore and Toby Spence
The American soprano Melody Moore made a disappointing first impression as
Marguerite (rendered in the surtitles as Margarita, though the principals
seemed to be approximating the French pronunciation); there is something
invulnerable and unyielding about her vocal quality which makes her difficult
to engage with, and she made hard work of the Jewel Song. She did come into her
own in the final scene, where the same qualities that had earlier been
frustrating made for an effectively steadfast ‘Anges purs’.
Benedict Nelson’s Valentin was secure and simply effective in
‘Avant de quitter ces lieux’, and Anna Grevelius’s charmingly
androgynous Siebel was beautifully-sung.
Iain Paterson and Pamela Helen Stephen
Ed Gardner struck the right balance with the score, neither too heavy-handed
in the rhythmic numbers nor too over-indulgent in the lyrical ones. Only
‘Le veau d’or’ didn’t quite have the drive to take
McAnuff’s production worked for me for the most part, though it was
disappointing that he opted to cut the Walpurgisnacht ballet altogether —
all that remained of the scene was an episode in which Mephistopheles shows
Faust a group of tortured souls writhing round a table. If going down the
historically-informed opera ballet route doesn’t appeal (and frankly, why
would it?) surely the ballet is the greatest opportunity for a director and his
choreographer to add to the audience’s understanding, or to crystallize
their production concept in the form of a vignette?
At the end, with Marguerite redeemed and Faust dragged down by
Mephistopheles through a Don Giovanni-style trapdoor, we see the elderly Faust
appearing in his laboratory, collapsing after apparently having drained the cup
of poison from the start of the opera. Was his whole adventure into youth and
corruption, then, just the hallucination of a poisoned and dying man? The
elixir of youth to which Mephistopheles transforms Faust’s deadly draught
is poison of one sort or another, whether its effect be physical or moral, and
either way, Faust ends up back where he started.
Ruth Elleson © 2010