Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Marriage of Figaro, LA Opera

On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.

The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

Die Meistersinger and The Indian Queen
at the ENO

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, Royal Opera

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Barbican, London

Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?

Welsh National Opera: The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel

Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.

Double bill at Guildhall

Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.

LA Opera: Barber of Seville

Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Wigmore Hall

Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me … I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.

Eine florentinische Tragödie and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

Carmen, Pacific Symphony

On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, ENO

Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.

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):