22 May 2011
James MacMillan’s Clemency, Royal Opera
James MacMillan has reunited with his librettist, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, to produce his new opera Clemency.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
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.
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.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
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.’
James MacMillan has reunited with his librettist, the poet Michael Symmons Roberts, to produce his new opera Clemency.
As with their two previous operatic collaborations, The Sacrifice (WNO, 2007) and Parthenogenesis (Royal Opera, 2009) the work was directed by Katie Mitchell. Clemency premièred at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre on 6th May 2011 (seen 7th May), and the work is a co-commission with Scottish Opera, the Britten Sinfonia and Boston Lyric Opera.
Like the previous two works, the opera examines the interaction between the mythic and the everyday. MacMillan and Symmons Roberts have turned to a slightly curious biblical episode for their source. Abraham and Sarah are visited by 3 strangers, they offer hospitality to the strangers, who inform Sarah that when they return in a year’s time Sarah will have a son, something she disbelieves because of her age. The three then reveal themselves as angels. When asked where they are going the strangers say they are going to the twin towns by the lake (Sodom and Gomorrah), that their business is vengeance. Abraham and Sarah dispute with the angels to try and save the townspeople.
MacMillan, Symmons Roberts and Mitchell have set the opera firmly in the downtrodden present. Alex Eales set showed three rooms side by side, enclosed by picture frames like a religious triptych. The opera opened in silence as Sarah (Janis Kelly, looking suitably dowdy), prepared lunch in the shabby kitchen (stage right) as Abraham (Grant Doyle) entered the living space (stage centre) and busied himself counting money and singing Hebrew to himself unaccompanied. Only after some time did MacMillan bring in the accompaniment of the Britten Sinfonia in a wonderful gesture of expanding the textures.
Abraham and Sarah share lunch, developing Abraham’s blessing into a lovely duet. 3 strangers appear, looking like migrant workers, named the Triplets in the programme (Adam Green, Eamonn Mulhall and Andrew Tortise). Though Abraham and Sarah do not recognise them, they offer hospitality, providing lunch. But MacMillan uses musical means to ensure that we do recognise them. The three sing in the sort of modified homophony familiar from MacMillan’s sacred music. He gives the Triplets their own sound-world which has a wonderfully transfigurative effect, contrasting with Abraham and Sarah with their rich string accompaniment.
The opera was accompanied just by the strings of the Britten Sinfonia, numbering 24 in all. They formed more than a simple accompaniment to the dialogue, the multi-textured strings seemed to lie very much in the rich tradition of British string music. The warm, resonant, interlinked textures seemed to speak much of Abraham and Sarah’s long, warm relationship.
When the Triplets reveal themselves they did so by fire and by speaking in tongues. Here MacMillan’s music took on a numinous quality and Mitchell’s deceptively natural production captured their strangeness and the disturbing effect the presence of three angels had on Abraham and Sarah’s routine existence.
The realisation that the news of the impending baby is a revelation from God was too much for Sarah who went back into the kitchen, contemplating the news in an ecstatic solo.
In a brilliant piece of stage-craft the room shown stage left, is not a separate room but the other half of the centre room, so that when the Triplets, Abraham and Sarah sit round the table we see them facing us in the two rooms. This enabled Doyle and Kelly to react to the men whilst all remained facing us. The Triplets changed into business suits, looking like hit-men complete with guns and to a horrified Abraham and Sarah revealed the sins of the cities (complete with images on their mobile phones) and their planned retribution.
Abraham and Sarah attempted to stop the Triplets, trying to bargain with them on the number of good inhabitants necessary to stop the planned retribution. Here the musical and dramatic set up of the earlier scenes became important as our belief in numinous nature of the Triplets, helped by both MacMillan’s music and Doyle and Kelly’s vividly natural reaction, fed into our understanding of the nature of what Abraham was doing, arguing with the word of God.
The opera finished not in a blaze, but in a quiet contemplation mirroring the opening. As Abraham rushed out after the departed Triplets, Kelly’s Sarah was left contemplating the future of her baby in a world where the twin town had been destroyed.
This was the third opera of MacMillan’s that I had seen and for me it felt the most accessible. MacMillan’s musical language relied quite heavily on the ornamentally inflected chant figures which can be found in much of his sacred music. Owing much to Scottish Gaelic influences, here they took on a Middle-Eastern flavour without ever approaching pastiche. The vocal lines were approachably lyric, full of interest and, where necessary, filled with a sense of the numinous. The principal thing I brought away from the performance was the fine sense of contrast between the music for the Triplets and the multi-layered string accompaniment.
This did not feel like a première run, the performances from all the principals felt so natural and complete, that it seemed as if they had been performing the piece for ever. Doyle and Kelly were completely absorbing as the settled married couple. Green, Mulhall and Tortise as young men only half aware of the disturbance their presence created, were suitably ambiguous as to who the trio really were.. Macmillan used the Tortise’s high tenor register to brilliant effect, and the singer coped admirably with the role’s challenging tessitura. All three formed a finely balanced ensemble.
With no surtitles we relied on the singers diction to enlighten us and generally the diction was excellent, the words crystal clear. Only in the more ecstatic sections did Janis Kelly rather leave us behind.
In the pit, the Britten Sinfonia under conductor Clark Rundell, made a fine rich sound, sonorously expressive. Like the singers, it felt as if the group had been playing this music all their lives.
At only 50 minutes this was quite a short evening’s entertainment, though MacMillan and Symmons Robert’s work is quite intense and will be tricky to place in a longer programme. Our hope must be that now MacMillan will create a companion piece for this wonderful work. The piece is scheduled to be seen in Scotland in 2012.