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

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Christian Gerhaher Wolfgang Rihm Wigmore Hall

For their first of two recitals at the Wigmore Hall, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber devised an interesting programme - popular Schubert mixed with songs by Wolfgang Rihm and by Huber himself.

Götterdämmerung in Palermo

There are not many opera productions that you would cross oceans to see. Graham Vick’s Götterdämmerung in Sicily however compelled such a voyage.

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

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):