29 Apr 2011
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
But, despite what you may have read, Stephen Schwartz’s new opera is far from all wet. In fact, last weekend’s matinee at the David H. Koch Theatre was as much a success as it was a séance. NYCO’s East Coast premiere production of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based upon the novel by Mark McShane, epitomizes what the company stands for and points towards what opera in America can be. The staging is smart and engaging, the music is used to forward the drama, the singers are equally talented as actors and musicians, and the result is both emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking. So why, when there are $12 tickets available, are there empty seats?
For opera lovers, there is plenty to enjoy— pathos, demanding vocalism, and lush orchestration unlike what you would find on a Broadway stage. The music is accessible (yes, perhaps overly so), the acting polished, and the show definitely benefits from its Broadway pedigree. Whatever your proclivities or demographic, this art is meaningful and relevant, and it should not be missed.
Together, father and son team Stephen and Scott Schwartz (acting as composer/librettist and director, respectively) have created a compelling theatrical event. From the moment the curtain rises during the highly cinematic overture to reveal a stage hung with black metal chains, the audience is swept along in suspense by the music and drama (thanks, in large part, to the efforts of conductor George Manahan). Much of the first act takes place inside the home of the Bill and Myra Foster, and Heidi Ettinger’s set struck an ideal balance between an appropriately prosaic environment for the domestic drama and a space where uncanny things can happen. The transparent walls suffuse with color and light, then disappear altogether, and the audience’s perspective on the drama is allowed to shift as the house itself rotates.
As Myra and Bill Foster, a couple who conspires to kidnap a child in order to boost Myra’s career as a medium, Lauren Flanigan and Kim Josephson are ideally matched to both the material itself and to each other. It should come as no surprise that Flanigan excels here— she is a NYCO veteran and a powerhouse singing-actress. Kim Josephson, in his NYCO debut, matches her intensity and makes good use of the opera’s best material. Melody Moore, in the role of the kidnapped child’s mother, stands out as well. Were this production mounted on Broadway, Ms. Moore would undoubtedly be nominated for a Tony award. She meets every vocal and dramatic challenge and breathes life and individuality into a role which could easily be reduced to a trite stereotype. As with Mr. Josephson, Ms. Moore is making her company debut with this production and both artists exemplify the company’s success in its mission to bring compelling performances of new works to New York City audiences. Unfortunately, as Charles Clayton, tenor Todd Wilander did not live up to the standard set by his partner. He was vocally cautious and played every obvious emotion rather than establishing a connection with his excellent partner.
As a quartet of Myra Foster’s regular clients, Jane Shaulis, Pamela Jones, Doug Purcell, and Boyd Schlaefer played their individual parts with plenty of verve and worked well as an ensemble. Phillip Boykin brought vocal and physical gravitas to his role as the Inspector. The two children in the cast, Michael Kepler Meo and Bailey Grey, are both veterans on the stage and their performances were on par with their adult cohorts. The chorus of reporters was well-rehearsed by both chorus master Charles F. Prestinari and choreographer Matt Williams, but their material was largely irrelevant and repetitive.
As previously mentioned, this production is not without flaws. Inevitably, the singing is not as good as one would hear at the Metropolitan Opera next door, nor is the diction as good as that heard on Broadway. While there are many effective bits of theatrical magic (including bodies coming together to form a streetcar and a black-and-white portrait that gains color during an emotional aria), the overall drama of the piece is often undermined by Schwartz’s own libretto. For the most part, every bit of suspense in the plot is used to maximum effect but the scene in which Myra is in the room when the kidnapper (his own husband) calls the Claytons falls flat. Furthermore, Myra’s aria at the top of the second act hardly serves to develop the drama, the music, or her character and it could easily be cut.
All in all, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an exciting opera to watch, not only because of the suspenseful plot, but also because it speaks to the future of opera in America. Yes, the music lacks complexity but, just as not every movie is made to win an Academy Award, not every opera is meant to stand up to repeated listening. Séance is not an opera for the future in the sense that it will remain in the repertoire forever. Rather, the work itself and the quality of this production speak to a democratization of opera itself and the encouraging trend that, finally, American artists are adopting the genre as their own.