23 Jun 2011
The Cunning Little Vixen, New York
One of Richard Wagner’s most enduring contributions to music history is a concept known as gesamtkunstwerk.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
One of Richard Wagner’s most enduring contributions to music history is a concept known as gesamtkunstwerk.
In Wagner’s day, the idea that the operatic experience should be the sum of all its parts was revolutionary. Today, the conception of opera as a total theatrical experience is de rigeur, and as a consequence, is at the heart of the revival of New York’s classical music scene. This is evident in the figures of Alan Gilbert and Peter Gelb, who recently took hold of the helms of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, respectively.
The past two years have seen the presentation of two fully staged operas at the Philharmonic. In both cases, the choice of repertoire has been less than conventional. This year, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen continues what seems to be an auspicious tradition begun by Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre.
Gilbert has stated that his main reason for presenting such unfamiliar repertoire is his desire to demonstrate the prowess of the Philharmonic orchestra, as opposed to solely the singers. However, both The Cunning Little Vixen and Le Grand Macabre were treated in such a way that depicted these works not only as great music but also as great theater. Furthermore, Gilbert can congratulate himself on the large number of young people who have attended these performances.
The Philharmonic’s Cunning Little Vixen is certainly a star-studded event. The well-known Grammy-winning soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is the eponymous heroine. The production is directed by Doug Fitch, who directed Le Grand Macabre to great acclaim. However, the true star of the evening was Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
As usual, Gilbert proved himself to be adroit in handling both dynamics and textures. Additionally, he frequently highlighted the rhythmic pulse behind the music. This was especially apt as folk melodies served as inspiration for much Eastern European music.
As the opera progressed, Gilbert also managed to expose the audience to similarities between Janáček and Puccini as well as Richard Strauss . As Janáček was influenced by Puccini, this was especially relevant. Still, it must be acknowledged that in his zeal to show off the Philharmonic in all its glory, there were times when the Tim Burtonesque nature of the score seemed to suffer. However, those moments were few and fleeting.
As Sharp Ears, Miss Bayrakdarian conceived the vixen as the type of strong, independent heroine opera audiences have come to know and love. Her portrayal pointed at a central facet of the opera, which has endeared it to audiences through the decades. Despite its short duration, Janáček’s music depicts the vixen at all stages of life and growth. The audience gets the chance to see a character grow not just physically, but emotionally, and mature into adulthood. Miss Bayrakdarian’s performance was dynamic and demonstrates all facets of this deceptively simple yet complex character.
Miss Bayrakdarian’s voice has a smooth silvery quality to it. This is thrilling to experience in performance. Unfortunately, her diction and ability to project left much to be desired. It was very difficult to hear her in the back row. What is more unfortunate is that this problem was symptomatic of most women in the cast. That said, there were many wonderful performances. Kelley O’Connor, as the dog Lapák, demonstrated the extent of her rich mezzo voice. Her lovelorn howls added a tragicomic element to the character, which served to great effect. Marie Lenormand portrayed the fox as a boyish bon vivant who was at the same time charming.
In terms of diction, the men fared much better. As the Forester, Alan Opie gave a nuanced portrayal. He brought pathos to his closing aria, which drew parallels between the despair of the human characters and the felicity and fulfillment of their animal counterparts. Also, his stentorian voice was a joy to listen to.
However, there was a confusing inconsistency in the portrayal of his character. The Forester is supposed to protect the animals from poachers. This seemed at odds with his harsh treatment of the vixen. As the poultry dealer, Joshua Bloom sang lyrically and brought nonchalance to the role.
Doug Fitch, who directed the production, presented the opera in an imaginative and eco-friendly light. Many of the costumes were made of recycled objects. The beetle costume, for instance, was made out of a garbage can. More importantly, they used Avery Fisher Hall as a performance space. An extension was put onto the proscenium, which allowed the singers to sing from the middle of the orchestra.
Performers also entered and exited through the auditorium’s center aisle, as opposed to solely on stage. To aid in this aspect, the lights were used to create the illusion of sun shining through treetops on the center aisle. Additionally, the English translation was immensely funny and full of jokes that appealed to kids and adults alike. Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that the translation fit the music.
Despite occasional flaws, the New York Philharmonic can congratulate itself on concluding its season in grand style. The fact that the auditorium was nearly full attests to the success of Gilbert’s initiative, yet there is another goal that is also being met in this production. The Cunning Little Vixen has not been seen in New York in twenty years, perhaps not since Beverly Sills commissioned a production of it for City Opera. That this opera is part of the standard repertory is not to be disputed, but the fact remains, it does not have the reputation it should. It can only be hoped that the Philharmonic’s imaginative production brings this opera one step closer to garnering more popularity.