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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
This is an opera written with a cannon and a feather. There is sensory
overload—an overload of sensory overload: lights that shine into your face in
the manner of an ophthalmologist scanning your retina; eerie, too-loud sounds
that invade you from every direction; dancing patterns of light that may
resolve into huge words or huge faces; a great chandelier-harp that sometimes
descends to be played, a strumming like the sounds of the sirens in Plato’s
parable of the concentric crystalline spheres.
Tod Machover: Death and the Powers
Simon Powers: James Maddalena; Evvy: Emily Albrink, Patricia Risley (Monaco Premiere); Miranda: Sara Heaton, Joélle Harvey (Monaco Premiere); Nicholas: Hal Cazalet. The United Way: Doug Dodson, Frank Kelley (Monaco Premiere); The United Nations: David Kravitz; The Administration: Tom McNichols, Daniel Cole (September 2009 Workshop). Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Conductor: Gil Rose. Principal Keyboard: John McDonald. Second Keyboard: Linda Osborn-Blaschke, Simone Ovsey (September 2009 Workshop). Director: Diane Paulus. Production Designer: Alex Mcdowell. Choreographer: Karole Armitage. MIT Media Lab.
But there are also moments of
fragile lyricism, pretty melodies that sing of the old values of love and
touch. The opera vacillates between the loud future of silicon and solenoid,
and the quietly humane past.
Like certain other short operas, such as Rachmaninov’s Francesca da
Rimini, this is an opera in the past tense: the prologue shows us robots
in a post-organic world, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the nonsensical
word death. (There is something too cute about these robots, who look like the
sly agile desk lamps in the old Pixar animation, and who sound like the
apotheosis of R2D2.) The robots put on a skit—the opera itself—about the
transformation of the human into the post-human: a billionaire named Simon
Powers decides to abandon his dying body and place his consciousness, his
identity, into The System, a motile all-encompassing electrical structure that
is slowly replacing a dematerializing world. In this quest he is aided by
Nicholas, a young assistant with a prosthetic arm, and resisted, at least
partly, by his third wife Evvie and his daughter Miranda.
The name Miranda of course brings to mind Shakespeare’s The
Tempest, and makes us wonder whether Powers is just another name for
Prospero. In Dryden’s adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero never
forswears magic and retains his mastery over the elements; and Simon Powers is
a magician who keeps his power, although he may be a wizard lost in his own
labyrinth. Nicholas, who dances and prances around the stage, and climbs up the
grid of lights, is his affable Ariel.
Robert Pinsky’s text is more clumsy that one would expect from a
distinguished poet, full of lame puns and overextended parallels: he keeps
hitting you over the head with quotations from Yeats’s “Sailing to
Byzantium” (a poem about an old man who muses on his possible transfiguration
into a mechanical bird) and with plugs for poetry itself as something Important
to the Human Soul. But the text does have the virtue of a certain moral
ambiguity: it would have been easy to deplore the robots and to uphold the
grand old human world of tears and joy; but Pinsky refuses this easy simple
conflict, and makes The System a seductive place with at least partially real
delights, and makes the human world a place of evil as well as good. At one
point the delegates from the United Way, the United Nations, and the United
States (the last a superb bass, Tom McNichols, maybe the best singer in the
cast) visit the virtualized Simon to plead with him not to ruin the global
economy. But these are not figures of pathos, but officious fools, somewhat
like the Jews in Strauss’s Salome. And when the starving multitudes
thrust themselves onto the stage toward the end of the opera, they seem like a
bloodthirsty mob about to tear Miranda limb from limb. Only Miranda and Evvie
place the warm world of sorrow and devotion in a favorable light; and Evvie, at
least, herself decides to enter The System. In his interesting program note,
Pinsky implicitly compares his text to “a robot that performs the work of
meaning and emotion the robots [in the opera] are in a sense returning the
favor of creation”; and intelligence and sensitivity of robots constitute an
important theme here.
Rendering of Operabots interacting with each other
It is an odd opera in that there is little romantic love, and little
conflict beyond the cerebral pondering of robot vs. human cerebration. In this
way it resembles Das Rheingold, another opera with little romantic
love, and a good deal of thinking about the values of the wet old healthy
elemental world vs. the values of a futuristic society built by robots (or, as
Wagner called them, giants). In the scene where Simon gloats over his
successful assimilation into The System, Machover bases the music on a
triumphalist Naturthema not out of place in Wagner; and the sustained roar of
certain episodes near the end might call to mind another great moment of
sensory overload, the final bars of Das Rheingold.
The singing was satisfactory and evidently accurate, but unremarkable. James
Maddalena, the Simon, was not in excellent voice, but his forceful baritone
made for a potent stage presence—Alberich the billionaire, invisible in his
Tarnhelm but dominating the world.