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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.