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.
22 Feb 2011
The Bartered Bride, New York
In the mid-nineteenth century, every nationality that did not possess a
national state felt a need to prove itself, to square its shoulders and claim
nationhood with all the identifying marks of a nation: a language with a
literature, a tricolor flag, a national anthem extolling the people’s
stalwart character and the country’s landscape (inevitably the loveliest
in the world), a national theater and a national opera to be performed there.
The national opera was often based on national legends and national folk tunes;
when possible, national folk dances made an appearance.
Bedřich Smetana resolved to create the Czech national opera at a time
when Czech nationhood was subsumed in that of the Austrian Empire, and he chose
a legend about a Czech dynast. Scenes from this opera adorn the walls of the
National Theater in Prague, which was constructed at that time, to this day.
The opera is called Libuše (the name of the prophetess who
founded both Prague and the Czech royal house); it is rarely performed in the
Czech lands and obscure outside them. Instead, to both the Czechs and the rest
of the world, the national opera is Smetana’s light, merry Prodaná
Nevěsta, to the English-speaking world (for it is seldom given in
Czech here) The Bartered Bride. In this guise it has long been in the
category of occasional revivals, the overture almost too familiar (orchestras
love it for the rhythmic workout it gives the strings: it’s a charming
showoff piece). The Met and Juilliard chose it for the first of what one hopes
will become a tradition of collaborations between the Met’s Lindemann
Young Artists and the Juilliard opera program in their nifty little opera
theater, the Peter J. Sharp. The omens look good.
One did wonder, though, at the performance, what Smetana’s charming
folk opera was doing in a Central European café in doom-laden 1938? Was some
ideological point intended? Or (one sneered) was it just that they
couldn’t afford costumes of the proper era? A program note by director
Stephen Wadsworth cleared things up: No, they couldn’t afford a full
stage of fancy peasant costumes. He gets applause from me for not trying to
make some political point of this, and for clear storytelling though, as usual
with Wadsworth, it’s a bit fussy. Something is always going on,
people are always dancing outside the window when the action should focus on
one character’s solo distress. All the performers were expected to insert
bits of folk-dance into their arias, just to ground us in Czech-ness, which
they did with varying skill—but being able to dance credibly while
they sing is part of the skill-set evidently being taught the Lindemann
Young Artists at the Met. But I still can’t believe parents in Central
Europe in 1938 would dare to arrange a marriage for their daughter without
consulting her any more than they would today.
Opera translations into English come in at least four varieties: Risible,
unendurable, irritating and inaudible. Inaudible—ENO’s Wagner, for
example—is my favorite. Sandy McClatchy’s new version of
Bartered Bride (an opera I have never heard sung in Czech) was mildly
irritating: lots of false rhymes and false accents (the heroine’s name,
at least, should fall with the proper emphasis), but many of those attending
seemed to enjoy it and it was so clearly sung that surtitles should not have
been necessary. The stuttering Vašek got laughs from those who find
disabilities hilarious. (In Smetana’s day, no doubt, that was a larger
Jennifer Johnson Cano as Ludmila, Layla Claire as Mařenka, Donovan Singletary as Krusina, and Jordan Bisch as Kecal
Among the singers, slim, red-haired Layla Claire made the biggest impression
as Mařenka, the bartered bride. She is a talented, affecting actress,
both flirting and sorrowing, and her voice has a Central European sort of
vibrato and a winning, plangent smoothness and rose on occasion to an opulent
high C. Too, she worked her irritations out in dance steps that seemed
unusually well integrated into her character. Paul Appleby, as her Jeník,
displayed the several colors of his attractive tenor well, though he was
unattractively costumed and obliged to use precious breath dancing with rage.
Alexander Lewis had the part of Vašek, Jeník’s stuttering
half-brother, and his well-supported light, high tenor made a nice contrast
between the suitors; he also dances winningly and acts ably: a comic
scene-stealer. I see Rossini and Donizetti leading roles in his future. Jordan
Bisch was also an audience favorite in the buffo role of the pompous marriage
broker, Kecal. His perfect diction and command of blowhard nuance (Kecal thinks
he’s smarter than anybody, even when he loses the barter of the title)
were as enduring as his rounded low notes. Noah Baetge’s star turn as the
Ringmaster of a convenient carnival invasion was not vocally impressive, but
that was all right since his part is written to be upstaged by ridiculous
circus acts—the bearded “lady” ballerina and the
contortionist were particular crowd-pleasers. The four annoying parents who
clutter the plot proved their worth when they joined distraught Mařenka
for the quintet that was the evening’s vocal peak. James Levine conducted
the Juilliard Opera Orchestra, and the thrilling, rushing string writing gave
no problems and great delight.