Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[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.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

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.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

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.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

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”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

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.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

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.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

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.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

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.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

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.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

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!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

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.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

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.

An English Winter Journey

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.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

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.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

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’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

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.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Joseph Conrad
04 Nov 2011

Heart of Darkness, Royal Opera

There are some literary texts which, by dint of their intense compression of incident, their creators’ firm control of structure, and the precision of linguistic nuance, do not naturally seem to lend themselves to operatic treatment.

Tarik O’Regan: Heart of Darkness

Marlow: Alan Oke; Kurtz: Morten Lassenius Kramp; Woman of the River/Fiancée: Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers; Harlequin: Jaewoo Kim; Doctor/Boilermaker: Donald Maxwell; Director of the Thames Boat: Njabulo Madlala; Manager/Secretary: Sipho Fubesi; Chief Accountant/Helmsman: Paul Hopwood. Conductor: Oliver Gooch.Chroma Ensemble. Opera East Productions. Director: Edward Dick. Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher. Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, London, Tuesday, 1st November 2011.

Above: Joseph Conrad

 

The Turn of the Screw and Heart of Darkness might seem to belong in this category; but, as Britten so supremely demonstrated in the case of Henry James’ novella, and Tarik O’Regan has skilfully shown in this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s tale of exploration, obsession and morality, we would be wrong to make such assumptions. Indeed, Conrad himself described the novella in musical terms in his 1917 Preface: “… like another art altogether. That sombre theme had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.”

Echoes of Britten loom large in Tarek’s new opera, performed in the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House by Opera East, directed inventively by Edward Dick. The (almost) exclusively male cast, the ship-bound setting, the exposure of dark, compelling psychological forces, the exploration of guilt and silence, all recall Britten’s Billy Budd. Marlow’s soul-searching self-interrogation parallels the moral dilemmas and regret of Captain Vere. Similarly, O’Regan’s musical means — a fluent melodic idiom which serves the text effectively and expressively, an eclectic chamber instrumentation, the musical articulation and intimation of mysteries and the ‘unknown’ — are reminiscent of Britten’s style and techniques.

Drawing the economical but resonant text exclusively from Conrad’s own words (both the novella and his diaries), librettist Tom Phillips has retained the original device of relating events through a ‘frame’, as Marlow reveals his history to his fellow seafarers as they wait aboard ship for a mist to clear from the Thames and allow them to continue their homeward journey. But, Phillips has also provided a second ‘frame’ to envelope the first, in which Marlow visit’s Kurtz’s European fiancée, the opening brief fragment remaining obscure until the meaning of Marlow’s mysterious encounter is revealed at the close.

Robert Innes Hopkins’ stage designs and Rick Fisher’s lighting skilfully allow for slick, convincing shift between times and locations, the Thames estuary and the Central African interior. The predominantly darkened set is occasionally illuminated or washed by a disturbing glow, as when, for example, a luminous miasma hovers eerily and ominously above the stage. The water-borne platform of the ship’s deck rolls and lurches to the lapping rhythms of the river.

As was the case with The Turn of the Screw, O’Regan and Phillips have had both to distil and clarify some of the ambiguities of the literary text, to achieve a coherent form suited for dramatic presentation, and to create space for musical presentation and expansion of the rich inferences of the original.

O’Regan’s varied and atmospheric orchestration certainly achieves the latter. Avoiding clichés but making use of some sufficiently familiar melodical and timbral associations, the composer has skilfully evoked place and ambience with precision and impact. Harp, celeste, guitar and energetic percussion underscore the heat and mystery of the Congolese jungle. In contrast, the arrival of the long-awaited “rivets” which will enable Marlow and his shipmates to continue their journey to the heart of the interior heralds a riotous dance of glee, a momentary alleviation of the oppressive spirit of anxiety and danger which overshadows their passage.

The-cast-of-Heart-of-Darkne.gifThe cast of The Heart of Darkness [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

The handling of form and pace is superb. Marlow’s journey is swift but the composer allows for moments of repose and reflection, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly altering tempo and metre, register and colour. The complicated score was impressively conducted by Oliver Gooch, who was in full command of the musico-dramatic structure of the work, and alert to the emotional ‘weight’ of significant moments. Gooch was superbly served by the instrumentalists of Chroma, whose accuracy, energy and mastery of various idioms, and sensitivity to the singers and the text, was exemplary.

As Marlow, tenor Alan Oke had the lion’s share of the work, and gave a powerful, moving performance. His diction was clear and eloquent, and he employed contrasting tones to convey the ambivalence of his action and his own moral evaluation of them. Oke was supported by a fine cast. Bass Donald Maxwell was a suspicious-looking Doctor, and a buoyant, lively Boilermaker; Jaewoo Kim’s Harlequin was athletic and intriguing, both physically and orally. A committed performance by Danish bass Morten Lassenius Kramp depicted the full horror and despair of Kurtz’s disintegration. The soaring, wordless vocalisation of Gwenneth-Ann Jeffers, as the River Woman who mournfully laments Kurtz’s passing, provided a welcome timbral counterpart to the lower registers of the male voices, and conjured an ambience of suffering, extremity and the limits of human endurance.

The opera builds to a powerful climactic scene: Kurtz’s death — inarticulate, raving, disillusioned — brings Marlow to the realisation that, “His intelligence was perfectly clear, but his soul was mad”. Here, the vocal expressiveness of O’Regan’s melodic line was expertly utilised by Oke to reveal Marlow’s painful recognition of human failing.

A final frame reveals the significance and meaning of the opening ‘frame’: Marlow is unable to reveal the truth of Kurtz’s ultimate horrific vision to the latter’s fiancée — it is simply “too dark”. This chilling scene is followed by what is perhaps the opera’s only structural weakness; for Marlow commences a short ‘explanation’, offered to his crew and to the audience, of the role played by the exploiting colonialists in Kurtz’s tragedy, explication which adds a slightly distracting ‘footnote’ (highlighting the colonial theme of the original) to what has up until that point been a single-focused “musical psychodrama”, as the creators themselves describe the work.

But that is a minor observation. This is a thrilling new work, in a brilliantly realised production. I hope I get the opportunity to see it again soon.

Claire Seymour

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):