12 Sep 2011
Munich’s Dialogues des Carmélites
Dialogues des Carmélites is a magnificently anti-operatic opera.
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.
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 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.
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.
Dialogues des Carmélites is a magnificently anti-operatic opera.
It requires little in the way of vocal prowess or even acting ability, though a great Old Prioress (such as Rita Gorr, whom I once saw in Toronto) can make her death scene a thing of terrible beauty. Much of the musical and dramatic weight falls not on the characters or even the situations but on verbal formulae—sometimes poor ones (God tries not your strength but your weakness), sometimes ones worth pondering a little (what we call chance is just God’s logic), sometimes ones of some profundity (you might wind up dying someone else’s death by mistake—an idea that touches the heart of one of the mysteries of the faith, the divine surrogacy, Christ as vicar). Poulenc may have been more interested in these thoughts than in incising characters: they’re all prophetesses, though one, the Old Prioress,, is a sibyl as tyrant, and another, Sister Constance, is a sibyl as cheerleader, and the heroine, Sister Blanche, is a sibyl as nervous wreck. Indeed the opera has something in common with another religious opera, the Stein / Thomson Four Saints in Three Acts, with its interchangeable throng of saints—Stein said her inspiration was a series of photos of a novice turning into a nun, not far from the plot of Poulenc’s opera.
This production opens on a empty grayish-blue space, in which Blanche de la Force and her father and brother converse in modern clothes—here, the secular world is simply a desert. The convent, on the other hand, is a place, a screened bare room lit with electric lights strung from bare wires. The director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, springs his first major surprise here: there are no Christian emblems anywhere; and the ostentatiously dowdy modern dress, coupled with the fact that Poulenc’s text came from a screenplay that Georges Bernanos wrote in 1949, makes you wonder if there might be something about Jews and Nazis in the director’s mind. On the other hand, there are no Jewish emblems either.
It is fascinating to watch how this tease plays out. There are two occasions when it is impossible to ignore Christian visual elements: one is when the soldiers (dressed in generic police costumes, though with German lettering on their shoulder patches) order the nuns to doff their habits (Mother Marie strips to her bra at this point); and another when an effigy of the infant Jesus is passed around (a putto doll with a sunburst around his head, neither Christian nor unchristian).
The matter isn’t settled completely until the prison turns out to be full of cylinders of poison gas, a disappointingly obvious touch, I thought. And the final scene is comically outrageous, on the level of Ken Russell’s firing off a hydrogen bomb at the end of Madama Butterfly: Sister Blanche, far from joining the nuns in their Farewell Symphony Salve regina, as they’re executed one by one, breaks down the door, saves her gasping sisters from death, and perishes in an explosion. And yet: Poulenc borrowed the music for this intensely moving final scene from a strange orchestral piece he wrote in 1937, Deux marches et un intermède, in which the first piece is labeled “Marche” (1889) and contains a dainty quotation from The Nutcracker, and the second is labeled “Marche” (1937) and is all harrow. So, Poulenc may have considered his music pertinent to the difficult political situation of a harrowing age.
Kent Nagano’s conducting is even finer than in his audio recording, gesturally intent to the highest degree. None of the singing seemed to deserve special comment, except for Susan Gritton’s Blanche, by turns sweet-voiced and heady and hysterical, and yet with a sort of implacability in the background, like the calm at the center of Blanche’s storm.