15 Jun 2012
Oliver Knussen’s Sendak operas launch the Aldeburgh Music festival
Oliver Knussen’s two operas based on books by Maurice Sendak opened this year’s Aldeburgh Music Festival in exuberant style.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Oliver Knussen’s two operas based on books by Maurice Sendak opened this year’s Aldeburgh Music Festival in exuberant style.
Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop! are based on the books by Maurice Sendak, which presumably Knussen read with his daughter, Sonya. But Sendak’s books themselves spring from primeval sources. Nursery stories aren’t lullabies. They’re sinister. But children are fascinated. Perhaps when they go to sleep they need to be reassured that the dreams they encounter are just “stories” that they’ll wake from. Fantasy stimulates creativity. Knussen’s operas are for anyone of any age, who values imagination. Operas like these are good for our artistic (and mental) health. Britten wanted Aldeburgh to stimulate creative growth. Whether Knussen completes new work or not, he makes it possible for others to catch the spark.
In Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a boy called Max is punished for dressing up as a wolf and escapes to a world of monsters. Sendak’s illustrations tell the story even more than the words do, so Netia Jones’s staging uses projections straight from the book. The staging’s not literal though, and incorporates the reality of theatre. Figures appear in silhouette and in ordinary clothes, but act and sing in character, so the video projections aren’t obscured. The orchestra can be seen clearly, so you can close your eyes and absorb the music, which is strikingly inventive. Four double basses and contrabassoon make the Wild Things roar, but Max (the vivacious Claire Booth) stands up to them. They look fierce but are rather cuddly. A bit like Knussen himself.
There were many children at the matinee I attended (ironically on what would have been Sendak’s 84th birthday), all of them attentive and well behaved. I asked two lads (8 and 11) how they felt. “I loved it when they appeared behind the screen” said one, while the other was fascinated by the instrumentation. They seem to have got a lot out of the experience. These are the kind of audiences we need, people who enjoy without prejudgement and respond imaginatively. Even when some children shouted, it added to the atmosphere.
Higgelty Piggelty Pop! was more subtle and communicated on many levels. It starts with a Pig-in-Sandwich Boards (Graeme Danby) offering ham sandwiches to those in the audience too young to appreciate the irony. The sandwiches also serve to keep the kids occupied when Jenny the Sealyham Terrier (Lucy Schaufer) sings a long, sophisticated aria, wondering if there’s “More to Life”. The projection behind shows the cartoon Jenny with a film of Schaufer’s mouth singing. Gradually voice and image begin singing different lines: fascinating, and musically astute. Jenny can’t get a job in the Mother Goose World Theatre until she gets “experience” whatever that might be. Whatever the Mother Goose World Theatre may be, for that matter. Logic is the enemy of imagination! Knussen fills the music with loony cross-references, like bits from Tchaikovsky and Mozart, barbershop quartets, brass bands evoking circuses. all woven into his distinctively intricate multi-layers. Like Birtwistle, Knussen loves mind games and multi levels. The effect is manic, the images anarchic, but the music is elegantly crafted, and played with complete conviction by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.
Claire Booth as Max in Where the Wild Things Are
Jenny’s transported by a cat (Christopher Lemmings) in a milk float to nurse a baby with a savage, demented glare. At least on the Sendak illustration. The Baby (Susana Andersson) is an adult with a piercing scream. How can Jenny placate this beast? Sendak’s images may be pretend Victorian, but these aren’t Victorian values. The Baby’s Mother (Claire Booth) tells Jenny to let a Lion (Graeme Broadbent) bring the Baby back to her, and so the story ends happily ever after. Or does it? Three surprise “endings” to whip up excitement. It’s perfectly in order to laugh and clap as we emerge from the fantasy of the story to the fantasy of the mock toy theatre proscenium. Has Jenny, and have we, found the Mother Goose World Theatre?
This Knussen double bill will be repeated at the Barbican Hall, London in November, with Netia Jones’s multimedia presentation. Don’t be put off if you can’t go with a child. Go with the Child in Yourself, and benefit even more. Netia Jones’s Before Life and After comes to Aldeburgh from 20 to 22nd June and moves to the Cheltenham Music Festival thereafter. This is a show built round Britten’s Winter Words, Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation and Tippett’s Boyhood’s End. James Gilchrist sings. It’s a tour de force.
Lucy Schaufer as Jennie in Higgelty Piggelty Pop!
Oliver Knussen conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the previous evening in a typically intricate puzzle of a programme. Charles Ives’s Washington’s Birthday, rather appropriate as Aldeburgh’s celebrating Knussen’s birthday this year. Diaphanous textures, exquisitely defined by this excellent orchestra. Very similar orchestration (harp and piano on concerto) to Alexander Goehr’s Marching to Carcassonne (2002 rev 2005) with Peter Serkin, with whom Knussen has been closely connected for many years. Serkin understands the Don Quixote spirit of the piece, where Knights march into battle but go round in circles, never reaching their goal. The harpist is Serkin’s Sancho Panza, the harp’s pedal held down so the strings play tautly, like a medieval stringed instrument. Goehr’s sense of humour, which Knussen has inherited. Surprise non-endings, as in Higgelty Piggelty Pop! Goehr was roundly applauded, and beamed.
Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra followed, and three movements from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, superbly played. We don’t hear the SCO nearly often enough in London (though there’s a lot about them on this site, as they are favourites). Then Geoffrey Norris appeared and presented Knussen with a Critics’ Circle award for Outstanding Musician. “But I didn’t finish the piece I was planning” said Knussen. It hardly matters. Quality is better than quantity, and there are many ways of being a true musician.