On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
Choral symphony, oratorio, symphonic poem — Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette does not fit into any mould. It has the potential to work as an opera-ballet, but incoherent storytelling and uninspired conducting undermined this production.
When Kasper Holten took the precaution of pre-warning ticket-holders that the Royal Opera House’s new production of Lucia di Lammermoor featured scene portraying ‘sexual acts’ and ‘violence’, one assumed that he was aiming to avert a re-run of the jeering and hectoring that accompanied last season’s Guillaume Tell. He even went so far as to offer concerned patrons a refund.
‘Remember me, the one who is Pia;/ Siena made me, Maremma undid me.’ The speaker is Pia de’ Tolomei. She appears in a brief episode of Dante’s Divine Comedy (Purgatorio V, 130-136) which was the source for Gaetano Donizetti’s Pia de’ Tolomei - by way of Bartolomeo Sestini’s verse-novella of 1825.
"The large measure of formalism which forms the basis of De Materie does not in itself offer any guarantee that the work will be beautiful," says Dutch composer Louis Andriessen of his four-movement opera.
On April 1, 2016, Arizona Opera presented Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) in Phoenix. Although Boito based most of his libretto on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, he used material from Henry IV as well. Verdi wrote the music when he was close to the age of eighty. He was concerned about his ability at that advanced age, but he was immensely pleased with Boito’s text and decided to compose his second comedy, despite the fact that his first, Un giorno di regno, had not been successful.
The brand new SF Opera Lab opened last month with artist William Kentridge’s staged Schubert Winterreise. Its second production just now, Svadba-Wedding — an a cappella opera for six female voices — unabashedly exposes the space in a different, non-theatrical configuration.
One may think of Tosca as the most Roman of all operas, after all it has been performed at the Teatro Costanzi (Rome’s opera house) well over a thousand times since 1900. Though equally, maybe even more Roman is Hector Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini that has had only a dozen or so performances in Rome since 1838.
Roll up! A new opera by Handel is to be performed, L’Elpidia overo li rivali generosi. It is based upon a libretto by Apostolo Zeno with music by Leonardo Vinci - excepting a couple of arias by Giuseppe Orlandini and, additionally, two from Antonio Lotti’s Teofane (which the star bass, Giuseppe Maria Boschi , on bringing with him from the Dresden production of 1719).
Radvanovsky in New York, Devia in Genoa — Donizetti queens are indeed in the news! Just now in Genoa Mariella Devia was the Elizabeth I for her beloved Roberto Devereux in a new trilogy of Donizetti queens (Maria Stuarda and Anne Bolena) directed by baritone Alfonso Antoniozzi.
Philip Glass: Einstein on the Beach, Barbican, London
Any performance of Philip Glass’ epic Einstein on the Beach (1976) is a major event. The work’s duration is around five hours and it is directed to be performed without interval (although see below — we had one).
Philip Glass : Einstein on the Beach
Einstein / Solo Violinist: Antoine Silverman; Featured Performer: Helga Davis; Featured Performer: Kate Moran; Boy: Jasper Newell; Mr Johnson: Charles Williams. Philip Glass Ensemble. Conductor: Michael Riesman. Director: Robert Wilson. Choreography: Lucinda Childs. Barbican Theatre, London, Friday, May 4th 2012.
Members of the audience are invited to come and go as they please (and some went and didn’t then come back, arguably with some justification). The programme for the event is high-class in itself, lavishly illustrated and includes the libretto, itself remarkably succinct, and a host of other information. None of which helps, really.
The booklet is adorned by a single shaft of white light against a black background— actually from the segment ‘Bed’, in which the shaft moves ever so slowly (tortuously, one might say) towards and upright position before it ascends. All very symbolic— but of what?. The answer is to drop the search for meaning and enjoy the ride and, as a sequence of beautifully executed dances (there is far more dancing than singing) and comedic soap operas (the Trial Scenes, in which one character bore a spooky resemblance to Margaret Thatcher), it works a lot better. Or rather it works differently, for to drop the search for meaning means either to let it all wash over you, or to open a gateway to the subconscious. Injecting Glass into your brain in that way (pardon the pun) might work for some (and probably worked a whole lot better thirty-odd years ago), but alas these days it all comes out as rather dated.
And that sequence of whats— of what?, in what?, to what?— is one that hovers over the entire evening, culminating, at least immediately, in a huge ‘so what?’. Glass’ music rarely moves the listener, except to induce a state of trance, perhaps. So at the end of this sequence of scenes (narrative trajectory really isn’t the point here)— one leaves the Barbican Theatre in a state of some frustration. Just like when you can’t sleep but you know you’re achingly tired. That sort of frustration.
Glass worked with Robert Wilson to produce this minimalist behemoth, taking a series of drawings by Wilson and adding his own characteristic music. There is a sort of willful obfuscation that runs through the piece, and Glass and Wilson seem to make this explicit through the image of a clock running backwards— here, truly, nothing is as it seems.
That it was even longer than it should have been only added to the problems. There was a hiatus (I don’t really want to call it an interval) of what was promised to be ten minutes and ended up being some twenty. This was to fix a succession of glitches that had affected the production, from bits of set really not being where they should be to stage hands with torches in full visibility wondering around, looking as baffled as the audience probably was about the production anyway. It was Wilson himself that came out to apologise— and also to tell us that figures in the final scene wouldn’t be flying around as originally intended.
The standard of performance was remarkably high, as one would perhaps expect from Glass specialists. Antoine Silverman, as Einstein, was jaw-droppingly good. Dressed as Einstein and sitting on the corner of the stage, his violinistic pyrotechnics were magnificent. One shudders to think how long it must have taken to learn Glass’ horribly fast repetitions— one also has to ask was it worth it though. The scenes which were good, were good— the Knee Plays (Helga Davis and Kate Moran) were dispatched with a superb sense of fascinating detachment. The chorus, too, was exemplary, as were the seasoned instrumentalists. But it was the dancers that impressed most— it was impossible to take one’s eyes off them, whether whirling around the stage like dervishes or in stylized movement that evoked Noh theatre.
Einstein on the Beach is the first of three operas Glass wrote on historical figures (the other two are Akhnaten— memorably staged in the 1980s by ENO and centering on the Pharoah who introduced monotheism a long time before Christians jumped on the bandwagon— and Satyagraha, based on the life and teaching of Gandhi). In fairness, some of the excitement of this novelly-constructed work came through, but that was duet to the excellence of performance and dancing. And Glass still has the ability to refract time— in an analogous way to Wagner, for in both cases we experience time differently, yet in a different way (in Glass through mesmeric repetition rather than via Wagnerian extended harmonic plateaux). Try the Entrance Music for Trial 1 to see what I mean.
And yet, and yet as I write some three days on from the evening of performance, there is the niggling feeling that, despite its shortcomings and frustrations, Einstein on the Beach has affected me ins some deep but as yet unlabelled way. Yes, it sounds like Glass should, but it also has a sound-aura all of its own. Images of the Trial Scenes, with their cutesy comedy, reappear and resonate. The impeccable dancers continue to cast a spell. Hence the frustration of the end of the experience slowly transforming itself over the course of the past few days. I’m not sure I’d like to hear it again in the near future, though. Perhaps in another thirty years?