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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
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.