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

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The Queen's Lace Handkerchief: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

Billed as the ‘First British Performance’ - though it had had a prior, quasi-private outing at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe in July - Opera della Luna’s production of Johann Strauss Jnr’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (Das Spitzentuch der Königin) at Wilton’s Music Hall began to sound pretty familiar half-way through the overture (which was played with spark and elegance by conductor Toby Purser’s twelve-piece orchestra).

Glyndebourne perform La clemenza di Tito at the Proms

The advantage of Glyndebourne Opera’s performances at the BBC Proms is that they give us a chance to concentrate on the music making. And there was plenty of high-quality music-making on offer at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 28 August 2017 when Glyndebourne Opera performed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska in Pesaro

The rare and somewhat interesting Rossini! Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815) comes just after Elisabetta, Regina di Ingleterra (the first of his nineteen operas for Naples) — a huge success, and just before Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rome — a failure.

Jakub Hrůša : Bohemian Reformation Prom

At Prom 56, Jakub Hrůša conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme on the theme of the Hussite Wars and their place in Bohemian culture showing how the Hussite hymn was incorporated into music by Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Josef Suk.

Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival

South African actor, artist, multimedia artist, film and theater, now opera director William Kentridge has taken the world by storm over the past few years. In my experience The Magic Flute in Brussels, The Return of Ulysses (puppets) in San Francisco, The Nose in Aix, Lulu at the Met, Die Winterreise and his “One Man Show” in Aix. And now Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Bejun Mehta as Boy and Christopher Purves as The Protector [Photo by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]
27 Oct 2012

Amsterdam’s Skin Show

Netherlands Opera is surely to be numbered among the world’s most adventurous international companies.

Amsterdam’s Skin Show

A review by James Sohre

Above: Bejun Mehta as Boy and Christopher Purves as The Protector

Photos by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

 

This was amply evidenced by the striking new production of Written on Skin, from composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp. There is nothing “easy” about this enigmatic work, and yet it is richly rewarding for those who are willing to revel in its intriguing complexities.

The piece is based on a 12th century Occitan legend (oh that again!) but is framed by 21st-century “spiritual” sensibilities as it considers the dynamics of co-dependent personal relationships, life-changing decisions, and mind-altering entanglements. The slender plot concerns a ruthless, rich lord who brutally controls his childishly obedient young wife Agnes. The brute commissions an artist (The Boy) who he welcomes into his house to complete a book of “illuminations” (text and illustrations on parchment = skin). The despot wishes to have his political prowess and domestic “bliss” immortalized in flattering terms.

Instead, the creation of the book incites his wife’s rebellion, which manifests itself in her seduction of the artist. The wife then exploits her intimacy with the visitor and coerces his alteration of the book’s content to expose her husband with truthful revelations of his despicable character and deplorable misdeeds. When the artist candidly (foolishly) documents his passionate affair with the wife, the cuckold stabs him, cuts out his heart and serves it to his unsuspecting wife for dinner. When she is informed of what she is ingesting, she defiantly keeps eating and praising its flavorful taste.

As the husband makes to stab his wife, she runs up the tower and hurls herself off of it, remaining suspended in mid-drop, hovering in one final “illustration” that leaves her between heaven and earth. This slowly unfolding, nay churning of the emotional sub-text makes Pelléas seem a model of cogent expeditiousness. Factor in a trio of 21st century “angels” who periodically offer such contemporary commentary as “erase the Saturday car-park from the market place,” and you have a richly enigmatic, Pinter-esque concoction. And perhaps its vague juxtaposition of images is its greatest asset since it not only commands our rapt attention, but encourages us to speculate. I was riveted by the performance from first to last.

This was owing in no small part to Mr. Benjamin’s hauntingly beautiful score, with its layers of orchestral colors and unusually grateful vocal writing. The composer also presided on the podium, eliciting thrilling results from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. The group met every challenge of this opaque work’s masterful orchestrations. Although there are many influences evident in the musical results (Britten, Messiaen, Berg, among others), Benjamin has found his own style, and his own palette of effects, one that includes vocal lines meant to please the ear, and not just the intellect, as in many another contemporary opera.

writtenonskin0001.pngChristopher Purves as The Protector, Bejun Mehta as Boy and Elin Rombo as Agnès

The singers were uniformly first-rate, starting with Christopher Purves who scored a tour-de-force with his nuanced impersonation of the Protector. Mr. Purves is possessed of a powerful, incisive bass-baritone that was supremely well-controlled. Even when his character was called upon to snarl or bark musical statements, Mr. Purves kept his instrument focused and refined. He was also capable of meaningful introspective musings, and colored his voice with menace for bone-chilling, sinister insinuations.

Bejun Mehta proves yet again why he is numbered among the top echelon of current day counter-tenors. From his first long sustained note that slowly built in volume, he regaled us with beautifully modulated singing that had all the richness of a resonant viola. Mr. Mehta not only has uncommonly fine diction, but also has an unusually wide range of colors in his warmly ingratiating instrument. Bejun found a perfectly judged obscurity as the Boy, with his physical abandon Flower-Child-like in its naiveté. After his demise, the Boy returns as an Angel, an apt metaphor since Mehta sang like an angel all night long.

Lovely Elin Rombo scored all the right dramatic beats as the dominated wife. Her reliable, gleaming soprano was used with great skill and absolute service to the writing, and Ms. Rombo was equally effective whether whispering hushed exchanges, wringing out every bit of pathos from arching flights above the staff, or forcefully propositioning her pliable house guest. Her cool, even vocal delivery after she learns what (or rather whom) she is ‘eating’ was a model of control.

Victoria Simmonds was a firm-voiced Marie (Agnes’s sister) and she made a substantial contribution to the ensemble as Angel 2. Allan Clayton was quite fine as Marie’s husband John, and his suave tenor made a memorable impression as Angel 3. Although not credited, the concentrated work of several added supers was important to the milieu of the concept.

And the production’s “concept” provided quite a massive, spectacular architectural setting that was at once solidly realistic, and nebulously spiritual. The brilliance of the visual realization was that it managed to suggest a green room, wings, a fly loft and stage performance space while at the same time suggesting limbo, heaven, and most certainly, hell. A sturdy two story structure, the ground floor left contained a period drawing room out of some austere Dutch Masters painting flanked far left by a moody grove of trees. Through the room’s stage right door was a brilliantly white “green” room, or waiting room, or dressing room, or…well your take is as good as mine.

writtenonskin0195.png Bejun Mehta as Angel 1, Victoria Simmonds as Angel 2 and Allan Clayton as Angel 3

Upstairs, the trees have burrowed upward through the left floor, a dated ante room center has a window that opens on the great outdoors, and a white ‘office’ on right suggests a corporate nerve center as easily as it implies ‘heaven.’ The married pair are clad in time neutral interpretations of medieval garb while the Angels trade off contemporary business wear for their period attire as required. Vicki Mortimer’s thought-provoking set and wholly appropriate costumes were masterfully lit by Jon Clark, whose brooding color choices were integrated into a lighting design which perfectly balanced tight specialty spots, moody washes, looming shadows, and pointed brilliance.

Best of all, director Katie Mitchell was able to knit together the many (deliberately) disparate dramatic conventions into a convincing, unified whole. Mr. Crimp’s libretto is an especial challenge since characters often speak of themselves in the third person, and recite stage directions even as they perform them. It is to Ms. Mitchell’s great credit that far from distancing us from the soul of the tale, her stagecraft intrigues us, envelopes us, consumes us.

When characters are emotionally spent at the end of selected scenes, they shrink or collapse into the waiting arms of the omnipresent stage hands/angels/supers, to be comforted even as they are moved around like another stage property to be re-set in its proper place. I cannot remember the last time I have been so engaged by such overt theatricality from both writers and producers. Katie has also managed to draw incisive, highly charged character relationships from her cast, and the whole is meticulously paced, blocked, and coached.

I shall not soon forget the coup de theatre at opera’s end as the misused wife flees her murderous spouse up a white staircase extending into the loft, running to leap to her death, pursued by the rest of the cast, all in excruciatingly. Slow. Motion. Ironically, this is one of the few instances where the production fails the script since it calls for her to leap but be suspended mid-air, but then who has ever seen Brűnnhilde ride Grane onto the pyre? (So there.) Never you mind, it is spell-binding nonetheless.

Written on Skin was that all-too-rare treat, a compelling new piece of writing that spoke with its own affecting voice, performed by a peerless cast and band, matched by an enthralling stage production that served to make for a potent evening of musical drama. Here’s wishing it many more successful first nights and an enduring presence in the repertoire.

James Sohre


Production

The Protector: Christopher Purves; Agnes: Elin Rombo; Angel 1/Boy: Bejun Mehta; Angel 2/Marie: Victoria Simmonds; Angel 3/John: Allan Clayton; Composer: George Benjamin; Libretto: Martin Crimp; Conductor: George Benjamin; Director: Katie Mitchell; Set and Costume Design Vicki Mortimer; Lighting Design: Jon Clark; Netherland Chamber Orchestra

Co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro dei Maggio Musicale Florence, and Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse

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):