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

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’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

John Dee [Source: Wikipedia]
26 Jun 2012

Dr Dee, ENO

First staged at Manchester’s 2011 international festival, Dr Dee is a theatrical work based on the life of Renaissance cosmographer and charlatan, John Dee.

Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris: Dr Dee

John Dee: Paul Hilton; Katherine, Dee’s daughter: Anna Dennis; Kelley/Bishop: Christopher Robson; Walsingham: Steven Page; Elizabeth / Spirit: Melanie Pappenheim; Young Dee: Rebecca Sutherland; Young Katherine: Victoria Couper; Jane: Clemmie Sveaas. Musicians: Damon Albarn (vocals, guitar, harmonium); Ann Allen (reeds, recorders); Tony Allen (drums); Liam Byrne (viol); Mamadou diabate (kora); David Hatcher (reeds, recorders, viol); Arngeir Hauksson (lute, hurdy-gurdy); William Lyons (reeds, recorders); Mike Smith (keyboards). Co-creator/Composer: Damon Albarn. Co-creator/Director: Rufus Norris. Conductor: Stephen Higgins. Orchestra of English National Opera. Set Designer: Paul Atkinson. Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Video Designer: Lysander Ashton. Sound Designer: Paul Arditti.

Above: John Dee [Source: Wikipedia]

 

A polymath whose knowledge and skill brought him political and financial reward and renown, but whose over-reaching ambition and fascination with alchemy and the occult brought about his downfall, Dr Dee is a good choice of operatic subject — and, as a celebration of man’s creative powers and a warning of the dangers of hubris, a fitting subject also for the Cultural Olympiad.

The libretto is episodic, as we witness Dee’s early studies and book collecting, his commission to identify the most auspicious coronation date for Gloriana, his love affair with Jane, a lady-in-waiting at the court, and his first steps into occult practices as he attempts to translate the Enochian language — literally the language of the angels. While the basic scenarios are made clear, often by visual aspects and the staging of the scene, the specifics of action, character and relationship are not sufficiently defined, reducing the potential dramatic tension as Dee’s pride and ambition lead him ever closer to conflicts with his faith and love, and ultimately to a fatal fall from grace.

There is much stylisation of image and choreography, often engaging but sometimes repetitive. Birdsong provides a frame, an aural evocation of the pastoral. A wordless pageant of embodiments of England and Englishness, accompanied by Albarn’s lyrical if rather shapeless pop vocals, traverses the raised gantry which houses Albarn’s musicians: a Doc-Martined, crimson-Mohicaned 70s punk is followed by a bowler-hatter 50s gent; Emily Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, Wellington give way to Morris Dancers, as we move deeper into the past, culminating with the appearance Dr Dee himself. Such strategies can serve as economical and effective focusing devices. But why does each character in turn fling him/herself backwards from the gantry, pantomime style? A nudge towards English self-deprecation and irony, perhaps? Several flags of St. George flutter at the far end of the gantry: they later transform into the billowing sails which carry Dr Dee on his overseas missions, but initially they look like optimistic relics from Euro 2012.

There is no doubting Albarn’s genuine engagement with the eclectic idioms and musical sources which are juxtaposed in the score. Easy pop blends into pastiche Renaissance dance and song; African rhythms interrupt folk-derived modality. 16th and 21st centuries are juxtaposed and integrated; and, it’s true to say that the movement between them is pretty seamless. But, unfortunately, this is not generally because of formal dexterity but rather because the only thing that really distinguishes the idioms is instrumental colour and the odd harmonic ‘tint’ -a brief false relation or a tierce de Picardie. The melodic and harmonic language is unvarying and limited: progressions are repetitive and fairly stable, melodic phrases narrow in compass and confined in contour. Rhythmic repetitions cast a minimalist hue over the various musical shades. The result is that there is little dynamic drive within the music itself, and the work relies on vibrant choreography and technical effects for its forward momentum.

The voices are amplified (probably necessarily so, given the size and nature of the accompanying forces), with the result that they lose some of their individual character, and seem rather disembodied. Although there is some confident, focused singing from Anna Dennis, Katherine (Dee’s daughter) and Steven Pagel as Walsingham, only Christopher Robson — as Dee’s dark nemesis, Bishop John Kelley — demonstrated the ability to use the voice with real dramatic impact, faintly recalling Benjamin’s Britten vengeful, other-worldly Oberon. Paul Hilton works hard and with some success to impose himself musically and dramatically upon the action.

Despite this rather negative account, I would not deny that there are some impressive visual motifs and virtuosic dramatic climaxes. The technical team have created some pyrotechnic wizardry of which Dr Dee would himself be proud: strikingly animated geometrical, algebraic and cosmographical light-shows which conjure up the mythical expanse and thrilling enchantment of the Doctor’s knowledge and creativity. Set-pieces are similarly imposing: Elizabeth I is raised aloft, her gleaming golden dress, an icon of the Golden Age, draped like a gilded curtain, embracing and inspiring her kingdom.

But, effective motifs are sometimes over-laboured. Thus the concertina-like books which superbly suggest Dee’s thirst and capacity for limitless knowledge, are born in flight by the ensemble and literally seem to dance around the stage in the opening scene; but the passage is overly long, the routines endlessly repeated, underpinned by similarly repetitive harmonic patterns, as the books become larger — screens, carpets, walls. The simple motif gains nothing from such elongation and magnification.

Albarn has explained that while he was happy with the Manchester performance, “It’s never a problem to reassess because we have never said, ‘This is it’. And if it doesn’t work we can return or go down another path…But it will never be finished. I would sincerely like to have it translated into French, that’s my next ambition.” There’s certainly nothing wrong with revisiting and revising, but it feels to me that this work, which was still evolving 10 days before the ENO first night, wanders down rather too many paths without having a clear sense of the final destination.

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):