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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.