29 Apr 2011
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
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.