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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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.