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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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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
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.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
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
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
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.
21 Sep 2011
Heart of a Soldier, San Francisco
The house lights dimmed, SFO General Director David Gockley instructed us to stand and sing the Star Spangled Banner. This crucial moment revealed the intentions and complexities of this fine production at San Francisco Opera.
We immediately knew that we were not before San Francisco’s altar to operatic art but rather at an altar of national sentiment. Christopher Theofanidis and Donna di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier is not great art, nor is it political or historical tragedy. It is what it sets out to be — an account. Strangely, and perhaps this was its hidden intention, it distills the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center to some very small components — a few men and women whose lives were and are simply insignificant to the larger historical perspectives of the twenty-first century.
San Francisco Opera pulled out its biggest guns to accomplish this task. Ring director Francesca Zambello created a slick and smart production, minimal in concept though maximal in execution (it was complex). It toyed with a few levels of two white high rise towers, a few scenic screens, some with projections, and a couple of sliding platforms.
The libretto held thirty named roles that San Francisco Opera covered with fourteen singers, led by no less than American baritone Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, security chief at the WTC. Mr. Hampson obviously reveled in portraying this more colorful than interesting character who was, might we say, more headstrong than heroic.
SFO principal guest conductor Patrick Summers was at the helm of all these folks, plus a standard sized chorus and a modestly endowed Romantic era orchestra. There was remarkably little percussion limited to the service of orchestral color. Battle sounds were modest electronic reproductions of the real thing.
The key to understanding this remarkable evening is to take yourself back to that terrible day, as you could not help but do in anticipation of the performance. Thus it was already emotionally laden before the fact.
For most of us the destruction of the World Trade Center was a small event, which is to way it was the size of our television screen. What were certainly awesome roars emitted by the collapsing towers were no louder than the voices of those begging for news of loved ones, the visual images of the still standing towers were even smaller than these anonymous tortured faces.
Heart of a Soldier captured the anonymity of this calamity by recounting the life of but one of its 3000 victims, a life however that was fulfilled by its death in battle. This victim, Rick, was a soldier, his story was told in scenes in which he was among many soldiers on the many battlefields on which they fought. Justness of cause was never mentioned. It was simply life on a battlefield, the battlefield of life where finally you too will die. It was a metaphor for all its victims, at once huge and minuscule.
There was huge art involved in creating this opera. Donna di Novelli’s libretto was the structure, stating its themes and images, developing them and recapitulating all these themes on that fateful September 11, 2001. It might have seemed contrived except we soon perceived that these conceits were in fact structural, creating brief lyric musical spaces as well as the arc of the story. The lyric moments were however always too brief, never indulging in what were the inherently wrenching emotions we had braced ourselves to endure and maybe finally wished we had.
The score by Christopher Theofanidis was based on American musical vocabulary, our open fifths and fourths, our primitive dance forms and our chugging minimalism. Its musical sophistication was stratospheric — Mr. Theofanidis’ brilliant orchestration would have made Berlioz green with envy, his harmonic transports would have cowed Richard Strauss.
While the premise of Heart of a Soldier was challenging on so many levels, Mr. Theofanidis’ score simply was not. One longed for a fugue or at least some sense of music taking on a life of its own, music that transcended the word and the literal and pushed us to the edge of our sensibilities and our endurance, like 9/11 had. This splendidly beautiful music did not.
Rick Rescorla’s best friend Dan Hill was portrayed by tenor William Burden in a quite convincing and moving characterization of this simple American mercenary who converted to Islam. Rick’s second wife Susan was enacted by Melody Moore who achieved the simple vivacity of character asked by the libretto in vibrant voice. The opera’s lack of emotional indulgence was echoed by its absence of vocal indulgence, even Mr. Hampson was given but one small opportunity to place his operatic art before Rick’s swagger. Of the secondary roles only the medic Tom beautifully sung by Michael Sumuel and his girlfriend Juliet sung by Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra were offered somewhat extended opportunities for lyric expansion.
The final image was neither word nor music, it was simply the tableau of Dan Hill knelt in Islamic prayer and Susan Rescorla, arms uplifted sifting the dust of 9/11 through her fingers. It was the only emotionally overpowering moment of the performance.
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