15 Jul 2011
Seven Angels, London
Luke Bedford’s first opera, Seven Angels, had its London premiere at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London.
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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Luke Bedford’s first opera, Seven Angels, had its London premiere at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London.
Bedford is one of the most promising British composers, some of whose work has almost become basic repertoire, by new music standards. He’s the first composer-in-residence at the Wigmore Hall. For more background, please read the interview he gave recently to Opera Today.
Seven Angels is loosely based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, but it’s not a literal, or even literary account. It’s not even a typical opera where singing leads music. Instead, the drama unfolds from the music, almost more like an extended tone poem, with voices. This is a work by a composer who is primarily a musician, although he has a special affinity for writing for voice.
Seven Angels is allegory, and like allegory, it works obliquely. Seven angels descend to earth and find it barren. What has happened to the Garden of Eden? The angels don’t know, so they use their intuition to imagine backwards how things might have come to pass. It’s not narrative in the usual sense, as the characters are building the story as they go along. They don’t know the answers but work towards them by listening and using their instincts, as should we. This is more than just a tale about of environmental ruin. The noisiest section in the work was inspired by a real conference where politicians debated what to do with starving nations, while they themselves feasted and made empty promises. Because the vocal writing here is so dramatic, it’s easy to mistake this posturing for the message of the opera. The angels are imagining themselves as conference delegates and shout worthy slogans. But the point is that the politicians’ words are hollow.
Like the expressive markings on a score, words are an aid to interpretation but they aren’t the music itself. Because the staging, by John Fulljames and The Opera Group, was devised as the music itself developed, the production gives fairly strong clues as to what this opera is really about. The stage is covered in books — hundreds of books, millions of words. The background is a filmed projection of printed pages. Sometimes the words are legible, sometimes not — quantity rather than quality. The subjects are irrelevant. This is a deluge of unprocessed data, a cacophony of text without meaning.
Significantly, the angels don’t read books to find out the history of the planet. They follow their instincts and act out in role-play. Two angels become King and Queen! If there were two, they made a third. So another angel becomes The Prince. He’s voracious, obsessively tearing pages from books and stuffing them into his mouth, until his belly grows so large it seems he’ll burst. He’s consuming, but consuming what? Is it content that he’s consuming, or paper and pages, irrespective of sustenance?
Only when the books start to run out does the Prince see himself, reflected in the metal at the bottom of his plate. Later, the angels act out a Conference where authority figures opine piously about environmental waste, in stylized declamation. The table they’re sitting at is made of books, piled high. Then the books begin to topple, like the Tower of Babel. Yet again, the point is that words alone fail to communicate.
Rhona McKail as the Waitress and Christopher Lemmings as the Prince
Bedford’s Seven Angels as a musical evolution whose secrets are encoded in the orchestration, both vocal and instrumental. It should be studied in concert performance to focus on the musical logic, for this writing is subtle and inventive. The opera starts with a mysteriously opaque murmur that gradually takes shape. Just as the Bible describes Seven Days of Creation, the music moves in plateaux, ideas developing in groups, then moving onwards to new planes. Great contrasts. As the angels get into their imaginative stride, the pace quickens with brightly agitated ostinato, moments of wit and exuberance, before the angels gradually come to realize the tragedy that has happened.
The orchestration is quite singular. Low-pitched winds and trumpet, four violas, contrabass and bassoon/contrabassoon, piano and a panoply of percussion and sound effects. Darkness, mystery, ambiguity. What is that mournful wailing towards the end? It is the song of the contrabassoon, bizarre but surprisingly beautiful. Percussion and sound effects like the analogue radio create atmospheric complexity. In this context, even the familiar sound of a violin seems shocking, when we’ve been lulled by the four viola chorus.
There is a strong integration between vocal and non-vocal forces. The violas rumble, a singer snores. The angels stand in line, snapping the pages of books, so the sound becomes another form of percussion. It’s remarkably effective, and might be an element of staging that survives into future productions. When the angels return to the heavens, there’s a wild whirring sound as if time itself were being reversed. Extraordinarily vivid.
(Left to Right) Christopher Lemmings as the Prince, Owen Gilhooly as the General, Keel Watson as the King, Emma Selway as the Queen, Joseph Shovelton as the Industrialist
This libretto, by Glyn Maxwell, “sings” even on the page, for text that is sung is music, not mere shapes on a page. Bedford translates it extremely sensitively. Each angel is distinctive, and lines can be heard clearly when needed, retreating into the whole as instruments do, when a more diffuse effect is needed. No heroic feats of gymnastic singing needed. These angels are feeling their way into human situations. The lines are semi-conversational, with occasional flights of wild fantasy (the queen in particular — a telling psychological touch). This gives expressive freedom and must make it a pleasure to sing. I can imagine whatSeven Angels might be like with truly top rank singers, but these communicate well. It’s almost an anachronism to refer to these singers as “cast” because they function like the musicians of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Ensemble do, individuals as part of a whole unit. Nicholas Collon conducts.
For an opera where musical values mean so much, the staging is integral to the production. I specially loved the images of the cosmos, white specks of light flickering in darkness, replicated in filmed projections and in the costumes the singers wear. Grey jackets, like the ash on the barren desert they visit. Books are lined up in rainbow colours: an image of the Paradise that’s been lost. Luke Bedford’s Seven Angels is how opera should be done, libretto and staging growing with the music from an early stage. It’s an extremely rewarding experience, much more emotionally satisfying than a lot of recent new opera. It’s not, however, quick-fix like musical fast food, to be consumed mindlessly. The finest meals are the ones that nourish, not the ones that come in fancy plastic packaging.