Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Christine Goerke - Strauss Elektra BBC Proms London

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Christine Goerke - Strauss Elektra BBC Proms London

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Powerful Mahler Symphony no 2 Harding, BBC Proms London

Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.

Nina Stemme's stunning Strauss Salome, BBC Proms London

The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings

Santa Fe Opera Presents Updated, at One Point Up-ended, Don Pasquale

On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!

Dolora Zajick Premieres Composition

At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.

Santa Fe Opera Presents Huang Ruo's Sun Yat-sen

By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.

Britten War Requiem - Andris Nelsons, CBSO, BBC Prom 47

In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.

Santa Fe Opera Presents an Imaginative Carmen

Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.

Elgar Sea Pictures : Alice Coote, Mark Elder Prom 31

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.

Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms

Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.

Four countertenors : Handel Rinaldo Glyndebourne

Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.

Santa Fe Opera Presents The Impresario and Le Rossignol

On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.

Barber in the Beehive State

Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.

Stravinsky : Oedipus Rex, BBC Proms

In typical Proms fashion, BBC Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo,was making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Santa Fe Opera Presents a Passionate Fidelio

Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Rameau Grand Motets, BBC Proms

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17.

Adriana Lecouvreur, Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

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.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Herman Melville
26 Jun 2012

Billy Budd, ENO

Billy Budd, foretopman — and self-styled ‘King of the Birds’ — may yearn for premonition to captain of the mizzen top, but there few spirits that fly afloat or soar in David Alden’s dark, oppressive new production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd.

Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd

Billy Budd: Benedict Nelson; Captain Vere: Kim Begley; Claggart: Matthew Rose; Mr Redburn: Jonathan Summers; Mr Flint: Darren Jeffery; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Henry Waddington; Red Whiskers: Michael Colvin; Donald Duncan: Rock; Dansker: Gwynne Howell; Novice: Nicky Spence; Squeak: Daniel Norman; Bosun: Andrew Rupp; The Novice’s Friend: Marcus Farnsworth; First Mate: Oliver Dunn; Second Mate: Gerard Collett; Maintop: Jonathan Stoughton. Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: David Alden. Designer: Paul Steinberg. Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Movement Director: Maxine Braham. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 18th June 2012.

Above: Herman Melville

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

 

Indeed, we might start with what Alden’s reading of the opera is not. It is not a naturalist depiction of sea-faring life at a particular historical moment of naval conflict; nor is it an exploration of the psychological and emotional effects of the constraints and isolation on board a naval vessel in time of war. Crozier’s and Forster’s painstaking research into naval history — echoed in the surfeit of realistic detail exhibited in many productions of the work — is here eschewed in favour of a more universal time and setting (with nods towards modernism and beyond).

In fact, there is little even to suggest that we are at sea: the black leather trenchcoats sported by the officers and the sailors’ shapeless boiler suits are suggestive of an early-twentieth century fascist military and an industrial dystopia respectively, and the men cower beside a stark, steel edifice — more dystopian skyscraper than belly of a ship. Vere is worshipped by his crew, with naïve patriotic fervour, for his ability to blast the ‘Frenchies’ from the waters; but, clad in a debonair white suit and hunched over his philosophy books in his white tubular-shaped cabin, which resembles a futuristic office, he hardly convinces as a skilful naval strategist and veteran man-of-action.

Neither is Alden’s production really a classic Miltonic conflict, pitching the forces of good and evil. For this Billy, while exuberant and innocent, is not really a shining beacon of innocence and naivety: boisterous and prone to brawl, he does not quite rise to the heroic stature which would inspire his crewmates to insurgency in the moments following his death.

Moreover, while Claggart’s viciousness is clearly fed by his sexual desire for Billy — signalled, in case we had missed it, by his caressing of Billy’s scarlet neckerchief, which he clutches to his groin as he contemplates how he will annihilate this embodiment of beauty, handsomeness and goodness) — even the homosexual subtext of the opera (which draws upon the undefined homoerotic sub-currents latent in Melville’s text) is played down. For surely Vere is also disturbed and damaged by his love for Billy, a love which leads him to condemn Billy to death and himself to eternal remorse. And, while Forster rescued Vere, and his passion, in an Epilogue which transmutes Billy’s benediction, ‘God bless Starry Vere’, into an epiphanic Christian redemption, Alden avoids any crucifixion imagery during Billy’s hanging and brings the drama to a bleak close, the frail, elderly Vere juxtaposed with a blunt image of the brutal events he oversaw in a tableau which fuses the desolate present with the heartless past.

So, shunning both realism and the narrative equivocation which pervades both Melville’s novella and Britten’s score, what does Alden present us with? Not a ‘concept’ perhaps, but rather the depiction of a single mood - claustrophobic oppression — and the physical and emotional fear it engenders in both victim and persecutor.

This repressive ambience is forcefully generated by Paul Steinberg’s fore-shortened stage which forces the men into suffocating physical proximity where lashing violence is permanently on the point of erupting. And it is enhanced by lighting designer Adam Silverman’s dramatic oppositions of prevailing black obscurity and dazzling flashes of illumination.

Most forcefully, though, it is conveyed through the painfully slow movements of the massed seamen as they carry out their duties under the shadow of police baton and yard-arm gallows. Movement Director Maxine Braham ignores the huge rhythmic surges in Britten’s score which intimate both the powerful motions of the sea and the aching repressed emotions within the ship, in favour of severely constrained, stylised choreography: inch-by-inch the men haul a rope or scour the deck, the movements microscopic and quasi-ritualistic. At times this is effective: the injustice and horror of the final assault upon the mutinous crew by a truncheon-wielding militia is heightened by the cinematic slow-motion. Elsewhere, stage action and score seem incongruously at odds, as in the opening scene when the sailor’s propelling cry, ‘O heave’ — so suggestive of the muscular strength which shipboard life physically demands and of the emotional energy which must simultaneously be repressed — is answered visually by near stagnation.

As Vere, Kim Begley took a little while to warm up, and the slight tension in his voice during the Prologue did not help win sympathy for the Captain, who in this production often seems weak, even abhorrent, in his leadership of ‘The Indomitable’. But Begley got into his stride in Act 2: his physical portrayal of Vere’s mental agony during the trial scene was deeply affecting and the anguish of the closing Epilogue was finely portrayed, the slight dryness in the voice suggesting the waning of life and spirit. Benedict Nelson’s Billy was physically buoyant and nimble, freely waving his limbs in boyish exuberance, and shaking his flowing curls, in striking contrast to the rigid restraint of all those around him. But he lacked a similar sturdiness in the voice, and struggled at times to cut through the texture in his numbers with the chorus. However, ‘Billy in the Darbies’ was sweet and mellow, one of the opera’s few moments of intimacy.

Matthew Rose’s Claggart was fittingly satanic; called upon to oversee the arrival of three newly press-ganged recruits, he climbed ponderously and ominously from the belly of the ship like Hades rising from Tartarus. Poised, with rigid self-control, Rose’s dark bass chilled; the force of Claggart’s malignity was disturbingly expressed, as he communicated what Forster (in ‘What I Believe’) called the ‘something incalculable in each of us, which may at any moment rise to the surface and destroy our normal balance’.

All of the smaller roles were well executed. Jonathan Summers was an authoritarian Mr Redburn, immediately establishing his authority through voice and manner; Darren Jeffery as Mr Flint and Henry Waddington as Lieutenant Ratcliffe were similarly secure, projecting well. As the old sea dog, Dansker, Gwynne Howell excelled: he tenderly conveyed a weary wisdom and a true compassion — the latter a welcome touch of humanity in this community characterised by mercilessness. Nicky Spence’s Novice dramatically brought the fear and suffering shared but unvoiced by others into the open; he expressively shaped his vocal lines to expose the shame and self-pity of the flogged sailor. But, a minor point perhaps, visually he seemed much too advanced in years for a raw recruit whose lack of stoicism and self-control seem to suggest youthful immaturity and vulnerability.

Edward Gardner brought these competent parts together into an even more impressive whole; he truly understands Britten’s orchestrations and knows how to sharpen the dramatic characterisation through clarity of instrumental colour. Thus, the lyrical swoons of the saxophone deepened the sorrow of the Novice’s dirge and, when recalled at the close of Claggart’s aria of confession and avowal, indicated the master-at-arm’s unshakable hold over the young boy. Gleaming trumpet fanfares added a resonance of warfare and suggested Billy’s bright optimism; piercing piccolo squeals enhanced the emotional tension.

The large choral scenes were superb. Gardner whipped up a musical and military maelstrom during the pursuit of the French frigate which melodramatically opens Act 2, while subduing his forces in the singing of the sea shanties to achieve textual clarity and rhythmic buoyancy.

Overall, Alden’s reading is an interesting one, but lacking in something which lies at the heart of both Melville and Britten: ambiguity. Melville deliberately cultivated an air of inconclusiveness in both content and form, declaring, ‘Truth uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges’. Thus, the mists which literally spare the French ship from destruction and metaphorically cloud Vere’s vision, are never lifted. This production is just a bit too unequivocal and clear-cut.

Claire Seymour

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):