13 Dec 2011
Kurt Weill’s Magical Night, Linbury Studio Theatre, London
Buzz Lightyear Meets Hansel and Gretel! Most children who have grown up in the Toy Story era know that toys come alive when left to their own devices.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
Buzz Lightyear Meets Hansel and Gretel! Most children who have grown up in the Toy Story era know that toys come alive when left to their own devices.
But the celebrated Pixar films paradoxically avoid the question of what would happen if children unexpectedly encountered their own toys in a state of animation. Kurt Weill’s fascinating 1920s ballet, or more correctly “Children’s Pantomime” (Kinderpantomime), Magical Night (Zaubernacht), his earliest surviving work for the stage, takes that moment as its imaginative starting point.
Kurt Weill's Magical Night now on at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House, London, has a remarkable history. Written to a scenario supplied by the original choreographer, the otherwise obscure Wladimir Boritsch, it was given three performances at the Theater am Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, in November 1922. In 1925 it received a second production at the Garrick Theatre, New York, but the score was subsequently lost. In the 1990s Meirion Bowen bravely attempted a reconstruction from an incomplete piano rehearsal score, and his version was premiered in Germany in 2000.
But then in 2005 a set of original orchestral parts was discovered in a vault in Yale University Library, and this allowed a much more authentic version of the score to be reconstructed for the Kurt Weill Edition (2008). This was premiered at the Musikfest Stuttgart in September 2010. The ROH production thus represents a bold investment in a largely forgotten work which has only recently become available for performance. It is fair to assume, of course, that Magical Night would almost certainly not have been revived if, by some chance, Weill had died before he composed Die Dreigroschenoper. It is Weill’s name and the knowledge of what he achieved later that generates initial interest and makes revival commercially viable. But this is less a comment on the intrinsic merits of Magical Night than it is on the difficulty of building up a head of steam behind any unknown ballet. Magical Night is not a rediscovered masterpiece, but it is felicitous music with a vital rhythmic pulse that, matched with appropriate choreography, can be an arresting and enchanting theatrical experience: which is exactly what the ROH production offers.
Not that much is known of the original scenario for which Weill wrote his music. In his invaluable Kurt Weill: A Handbook, David Drew was able to suggest (mainly on the basis of press reports) that it went something like this: “As ‘the Girl’ and ‘the Boy’ fall asleep, the Fairy enters and sings her magic spell. One by one the children’s toys, and the characters from their storybooks, are brought to life. Presently, the children themselves become involved in a phantasmagoria where, for instance, Anderson’s Tin Soldier helps rescue Hansel and Gretel. At the end, the Witch is hunted by the assembled company, and at last disposed of. The Fairy then vanishes, the children sink back into a dreamless sleep, and their mother tiptoes into the room to close the curtains.” The Kurt Weill Foundation states that “Directors and choreographers are encouraged to create their own scenarios that are appropriate to the music.”
The scenario Aletta Collins has devised for the Linbury production follows the broad outline of Drew’s reconstruction, but also makes some telling changes. Anyone wishing to remain in ignorance of the story now being staged should skip the rest of this paragraph. Two young children, Megan and Jason, are playing with their toys just before bedtime; they quarrel, and Megan pulls the tail off Chimpy, Jason’s favorite toy. Their mother tells them to go to bed. At midnight the Pink Fairy comes to life and casts a spell that animates various other toys, too. The toys dance together, not always in perfect accord. The children wake up and get drawn into the dance. Chimpy accuses Megan of pulling off his tail. Megan, upset, withdraws from the group and draws a picture of a witch. The toys try to warn her that this is unwise, but it is too late, and Sarah Good, an evil witch, appears as the physical embodiment of the picture. What happens next is a little unclear, but gradually it becomes obvious that the witch is using her magic to take control of the other characters. She lures Jason into a cooker, and throws in the Pink Fairy for good measure. But the other toys manage to distract the witch and stage a rescue; there is some superb comedy here as Mighty Robot, a Buzz Lightyear-like character, woos the witch through dance. Finally the two children realize that by manipulating Megan’s picture they can take control of the witch. After screwing it up, and throwing her into convulsions, they tear it to pieces, at which point Sarah Good spectacularly explodes in a shower of paper.
Even young children are likely to be reminded of Hansel and Gretel, the story expressly referenced in the original ballet; older ones will probably see a connection to Harry Potter, and adults may recollect The Picture of Dorian Gray and similar tales. The fact that the new Magical Night is so strongly evocative of earlier stories does not diminish it, though; rather it makes it powerfully familiar, expressing ideas which have become part of our collective imagination, our modern myths of evil and possession. It appears to be rather deeper than Boritsch’s playful fantasy, with a more obvious psychological message: just as we can easily create the objects of our fears, so we can destroy them. The ballet enacts the “explanation” of fairy stories that has often been put forward: they help children understand and master their fears.
The new story is not exactly “in” the music. There is no obvious darkening of the sonic landscape as the witch exerts her baleful influence. But Weill’s music throughout has a certain edgy, threatening feel to it—at no point can it be called jolly—and allows, from the beginning, some sinister potential. It is also music that seems to require rather than demand visual realization, supporting rather than dominating the represented action. In this sense visual cues influence what is heard at least as much as auditory cues condition what is seen.
Weill’s original orchestration is brighter, bolder and more percussive than Bowen’s version (which has been recorded). It is less subtle and studied, perhaps not surprisingly, but this works to its advantage. In the early 1920s Weill, who was studying with Busoni, experienced what Richard Taruskin has taught us to regard as the quintessential dilemma of the modern composer: torn between writing “art” music for the cognoscenti in the concert hall or more accessible music for the larger audience at the theatre. Some of that tension is felt in Magical Night, a remarkably sophisticated score for a Kinderpantomime, and it would be fascinating to know what the mature Weill thought of it. But Bowen pushed it too far towards the “art” music side of the dilemma, and it was refreshing to hear that the young Weill actually wanted something brasher and livelier, more popular in tone.
Magical Night is beautifully staged in the perfectly-sized Linbury Studio Theatre. The first part, and the last, take place in a very realistic-looking children’s bedroom. This is literally split in two for the witch’s dramatic entrance, and when her power is at its zenith it is turned inside out, revealing a black shadow-world with all the necessary equipment for her fiendish culinary arts. The dancers and the choreography are superb, with lots of customized moves to distinguish the characters, and abilities, of the different toys.
To get the expert opinion of a child, I brought along my five-year-old daughter, Annie Ashizu, for a second opinion. Being well acquainted with the Toy Story trilogy, as well as Hansel and Gretel, she had more than enough imaginative equipment to be able to grasp, and be absorbed by, Magical Night. Her first words at the end were of the kind to delight any parent keen to introduce their child to the magic of live entertainment: “Papa, I love this theatre [work]. I wish I could see it two times!” She hadn’t said that after The Lion King, her previous benchmark for theatrical greatness, and as we left Covent Garden I couldn’t resist asking her if she thought Magical Night as good as Disney’s epic. “Yes,” she replied unhesitatingly; “actually, it was better!” This may turn out to be the greatest tribute to the success of ROH’s production to be found in any of the reviews. Annie instinctively loved the Pink Fairy and clearly experienced the end of the story as empowering. She talked about the characters all the way home, when she fell asleep her head was still full of them, and she woke up talking of how she had dreamed of being the Pink Fairy. We’ll be going again.