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

Fortepiano Schubert : Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.

MOZART 250: the year 1767

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’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[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.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

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.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

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.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

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.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

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”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

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.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

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.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

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.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

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.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

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.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

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!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

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.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

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.

An English Winter Journey

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.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

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.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

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’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
19 May 2012

Billy Budd — Metropolitan Opera

The Met saved the best of the season for the end of it, revivals of their first-rate productions of two twentieth-century masterpieces, Jánaček’s Makropoulos Case and Britten’s Billy Budd.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Captain Vere: John Daszak; Billy Budd: Nathan Gunn; Claggart: James Morris; Dansker: John Cheek; Mr. Flint: Kyle Ketelsen; Novice: Keith Jameson; Squeak: Scott Sculley; Mr. Redburn: Dwayne Croft; Red Whiskers: Allan Glassman; Arthur Jones: Mark Schowalter. Production by John Dexter. Chorus and orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by David Robertson. Performance of May 4.

Above: Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd

Photos by Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera

 

New Yorkers have been preparing for this all season—longer in the case of Karita Mattila’s Emilia Marty, a role she undertook for the first time only last autumn in San Francisco. The Met’s production, designed to showcase Jessye Norman’s majestic figure and presence, may not quite suit Mattila’s more athletic performing style and Nordic looks (neither of them seems especially Greek, the nationality of Elina Makropoulos), but the mating of Jánaček and Mattila is very near ideal, and if she no longer sounds like the young, idealistic Jenufa or Katya Kabanova, well, Elina/Emilia is 337 and should give some evidence of wear and tear. It was a thrilling occasion, and the Met surrounded her with a fine supporting cast led by Jiří Bělohlávek, perhaps the finest conductor of Jánaček since Sir Charles Mackerras.

John Dexter’s production of Billy Budd is always welcome. This is one of the rare occasions a producer has made proper use of the size and proportions of the Met stage, its stage machinery and its lighting effects, filling it without crushing the life out of the human beings singing the drama, everything in proportion, with an excitement that suits the composer’s intentions at every turn. Dexter also achieved this sublime match of score and production in his far simpler (and cheaper to mount) version of another masterpiece of the 1950s, Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmelites, which will return next season. In Billy, the crowded cast has no problem staying out of each other’s way and William Dudley’s multi-leveled ship rises and descends noiselessly, highlighting the confrontations and interactions necessary to the plot—as Scott Pask’s sets for John Doyle’s production of Peter Grimes so conspicuously failed to do.

I had not noticed before that Dudley’s costume for Billy, a gleaming white, highlights him against the dirtier or grayer costumes of the other sailors, in or out of the spotlight. No matter what else is going on, we always know where Billy is and what he is doing—and, importantly for a hero unjustly accused of crime, what he has not done. It has also never been clearer to me that Billy is something of a Savior figure here for the deeply Christian Britten, his goodness and beauty calling immediately to the goodness in every other character and arousing the furious hate (and, one naturally guesses, unassuageable lust) of the evil one, Claggart. Captain Vere’s regret that he did not devise some way to save Billy is a link, in Britten’s view, to the Fall of Man through inaction to prevent evil.

Billy_Budd_Met_2012_04.gifJames Morris as Claggart and Keith Jameson as the Novice

Billy Budd is a grand opera (the second of Britten’s three) composed in the manner of a chamber setting, with each instrument set conspicuously separate rather than the romantic, sensuous, string-heavy texture of turn-of-the-century opera. Actions are accompanied by twittering figures for flute, keening figures for saxophone, outbursts for brasses in astringent combinations, tidal cellos and basses under the great tragic meditations. Even the all-male chorus seems to bring light, instrumental color to the story rather than the choral mass we expect of a nautical story, such that their wordless, gut-deep reaction to Billy’s unjust execution seems to come from a surprising emotional place, a place the story has not yet explored, that we had not thought Britten would explore. We are shocked and impotent at the crime, just as the sailors are, just as we are intended to be; we are drawn into the tale, unable to be mere spectators to it.

Billy Budd is a very personal work, the creation of a Christian, a homosexual, a pacifist and an ironist. An artist who was not all these things could not have done justice to the moral clarity and the absence of clarity in Melville’s tale. Claggart’s credo is modeled on that of Verdi’s Iago, whose “motiveless malignity” seems to emerge from a sheer love of the power to do harm. Nothing Iago tells us of his reasons to hate Otello (and he never suggests any personal dislike of Desdemona, his tool to destroy her husband)

Britten’s pacifism is the message of the great war scene when the sailors (and those hearing and watching them) are thrilled by the great action after inaction, a “stock” war scene from so many grand operas—only to have the enemy escape after a single shot is fired and the heavily symbolic mist closes in, frustrating everyone but the evil Claggart, whose trap for Billy can now be sprung. We are meant to take the fog, the confusion, as the moral mess of any mob howling for the blood of strangers. That none of these simple sailors lost in a moral fog gets quite what he bargained for in the scenes that follow the thrilling buildup is Britten the ironist and moralist, whose bitter settings of Wilfred Owen’s poetry would soon enhance his setting of the Requiem text for the inauguration of the reconstructed Coventry Cathedral.

Billy_Budd_Met_2012_02.gifJohn Daszak as Captain Vere, Dwayne Croft as Mr. Redburn, Ryan McKinny as Mr. Ratcliffe, and Kyle Ketelsen as Mr. Flint

In the current Met run, Nathan Gunn, a singer of little subtlety and a rather crooning style more appropriate to old Broadway than to opera, takes on the role of Billy for the first time at the Met. After a gruff opening scene, he inhabits the “handsome sailor’s” naïve physicality, dancing, fighting, suspecting no evil, grateful for (and inclined to return) everyone’s affection. His resigned final monologue was his most moving work, though his diction was sometimes indistinct. Claggart is a role that has long belonged to James Morris at the Met, but his voice has dried out considerably and the sensuous menace he used to suggest has faded with it. John Daszak, an English tenor, made his company debut as Vere, too weak to respond to Billy’s plea to for salvation and insufficiently ruthless to suppress his doubts. In the monologues that open and close the opera Daszak’s every word rang clear. He was also visibly shaken at having to preside over Billy’s execution.

The opera’s many smaller roles were ably filled by both old-timers and newcomers. Veteran John Cheek was a delight as the Dansker; Dwayne Croft (a sometime Billy) and Kyle Ketelsen excellent as Captain Vere’s supporting officers; Allan Glassman and Mark Schowalter did good work as Billy’s fellow impressed seamen. Scott Scully as the treacherous Squeak and Scott Jameson as the self-hating Novice sang beautifully and were riveting in their scenes of corruption and weakness.

There is something very satisfying about attending so familiar a production of so intriguing an opera and knowing from the first mysterious notes that all will go well, that the opera is right for the stage, that the staging is right for the opera, that the performers are itching to get at our ears and eyes and hearts, as the sailors in the great “This is the moment” set piece are itching to get at the French enemy. I almost envy those who came to Billy Budd not knowing the opera or the production and were astonished by its excitement.

John Yohalem

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):