29 Apr 2011
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
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.
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.