22 Apr 2011
Minnesota Opera rescues Herrmann work
There’s more Byron than Brontë in Bernard Herrmann’s 1951 Wuthering Heights.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
There’s more Byron than Brontë in Bernard Herrmann’s 1951 Wuthering Heights.
That’s the case at least in the Minnesota Opera’s mesmerizing production of the largely forgotten work that opened at St. Paul’s Ordway Center on April 16. Herrmann’s score, completed in neighboring Minneapolis in 1951, is Romanticism writ large and saturated with Weltschmerz. And it all hurts so good!
With the help of librettist — and first wife — Lucille Fletcher Herrmann took much of the agony — but none of the angst — out of Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel. It is now a gentler story; they have softened the narrative line and made these forlorn credible in their passions — and their frustrations. The frame of the 19th-century social novel is still there, but these are people who would have a hard time building meaningful relationships even without the barriers of caste. To make this clear, MO assembled a great production team for a staging that — one hopes — will be seen on other companies.
Only someone with a heart of stone could resist loving Heathcliff as played by Lee Poulis, a Hollywood-handsome baritone who must be spectacular Don Giovanni, a role he has played at Sarasota Opera. He’s moody, to be sure, but Simonson does not place great emphasis on Heathcliff’s origins as a Gypsy foundling taken into the stuffy and inhibited Earnshaw family. And his problems are explained only in part by the social structure of the day. Poulis shrouds him in darkness — that’s what makes him fascinating to women (and at some point in the past to the elder Earnshaw who brought him home from Liverpool).
Ben Wager as Hindley Earnshaw and Victoria Vargas as Nelly Dean
It’s clear that Heathcliff is an unlikely candidate for an enduring Mr. Right in any era. He’s a complex guy — even when “sanitized” and gussied up in fancy duds. (How he comes to wealth so suddenly is left a secret by Brontë.) Thus it’s unavoidable that Catherine Earnshaw will love Heathcliff even after her marriage to colorless Edgar Litton, and that there’s no way out of this dilemma for her.
As Catherine Sara Jakubiac replaced Kelly Kaduce, originally slated to sing the role. Although she might not yet have Kaduce’s polish, Jakubiac may have an even richer and larger voice than Kaduce, the MO favorite who returns to the company as Madama Butterfly next season. Jakubiac made the long solo scene in which Catherine faces the hopelessness of her situation both gripping and engaging.
Equally touching was mezzo Adriana Zabala in writing the confessional letter that leaves no doubt about the miseries of her life with Hindley Earnshaw, sung by bass Ben Wager. Wager, on the other hand, somewhat overplays his addiction to alcohol in a scene that breaks with the overall resolute calm of Herrmann’s score.
Adriana Zabala as Isabella Linton, Victoria Vargas as Nelly Dean, Sara Jakubiak as Catherine Earnshaw and Eric Margiore as Edgar Linton
It’s a pity that as Edgar, Eric Margiore, the only tenor in the cast, has so little to sing. His one aria was lovingly delivered.
Although the part is small, bass-baritone Rodolfo Nieto brought one of the strongest voices in the cast to farmhand — and religious fanatic — Joseph.
One wishes one might have heard more of Jesse Blumberg — one of America’s great young baritones and a MO regular — than was allotted him as Mr. Lockwood in the opening scene.
Herrmann — most famous for such film scores as Citizen Cane and Psycho —otherwise spent his life largely as a conductor. It is not surprising, then, that Wuthering Heights is in concept orchestral, and in Michael Christie MO chose a conductor who knew how to make the most of this fact. Punctuated by many solo moments, Wuthering Heights as drama is essentially through-composed, in light of which Christie kept a sensitive finger on the pulse of the score.
Despite a staging at Portland in 1981 and a concert performance in France last summer, Wuthering Heights has never found its way into the repertory, because — allegedly — Herrmann was offended by any suggestion that he shorten the 3.5 hour work. That the MO performance lasted less than three hours seems to indicate that significant cuts were made in this production. Despite the length of the performance Christie kept attention riveted on the opera.
The sets and costumes by Neil Patel and Jane Greenwood, respectively, were predictable, Wendall K. Harrington brought visual enchantment to the production with the projections of which she now seems the national master. (She was equally successful with her contribution to Ricky Ian Gordon’s Rappahannock County, premiered at the Virginia Arts Festival on April 12.)
This production is part of Minnesota’s New Works Initiative, designed to focus attention on new or neglected work. A “first” for the company, the staging will be filmed in high definitive for digital distribution. (Confession: I set out to read Brontë’s novel for the first time in 65 years, but put it aside half way through. Herrmann’s version of the story is far better entertainment.) Dates for broadcasts and showing have not been set at this time.