Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Covent Garden’s Otello: Superb singing defies Warner’s uneven production

I have seen productions of Verdi’s Otello which have been revolutionary, even subversive. I have now seen one which is the complete antithesis of that.

Solomon’s Knot: Charpentier - A Christmas Oratorio

When Marc-Antoine Charpentier returned from Rome to Paris in 1669 or 1670, he found a musical culture in his native city that was beginning to reject the Italian style, which he had spent several years studying with the Jesuit composer Giacomo Carissimi, in favour of a new national style of music.

A Baroque Odyssey: 40 Years of Les Arts Florissants

In 1979, the Franco-American harpsichordist and conductor, William Christie, founded an early music ensemble, naming it Les Arts Florissants, after a short opera by Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

Miracle on Ninth Avenue

Gian Carlo Menotti’s holiday classic, Amahl and the Night Visitors, was the first recorded opera I ever heard. Each Christmas Eve, while decorating the tree, our family sang along with the (still unmatched) original cast version. We knew the recording by heart, right down to the nicks in the LP. Ever since, no matter what the setting or the quality of a performance, I cannot get through it without tearing up.

Detlev Glanert: Requiem for Hieronymus Bosch (UK premiere)

It is perhaps not surprising that the Hamburg-born composer Detlev Glanert should count Hans Werner Henze as one of the formative influences on his work - he did, after all, study with him between 1984 to 1988.

Death in Venice at Deutsche Oper Berlin

This death in Venice is not the end, but the beginning.

Saint Cecilia: The Sixteen at Kings Place

There were eighteen rather than sixteen singers. And, though the concert was entitled Saint Cecilia the repertoire paid homage more emphatically to Mary, Mother of Jesus, and to the spirit of Christmas.

Insights on Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen

At the Wigmore Hall, Andrè Schuen and Daniel Heide in a recital of Schubert and Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Rückert-Lieder. Schuen has most definitely arrived, at least among the long-term cognoscenti at the Wigmore Hall who appreciate the intelligence and sensitivity that marks true Lieder interpretation.

Ermelinda by San Francisco's Ars Minerva

It’s an opera by Vicentino composer Domenico Freschi that premiered in 1681 at the country home of the son of the doge of Venice. Villa Contarini is a couple of hours on horseback from Vicenza, and a few hours by gondola from Venice).

Wozzeck in Munich

It would be an extraordinary, even an unimaginable Wozzeck that failed to move, to chill one to the bone. This was certainly no such Wozzeck; Marie’s reading from the Bible, Wozzeck’s demise, the final scene with their son and the other children: all brought that particular Wozzeck combination of tears and horror.

Korngold's Die tote Stadt in Munich

I approached this evening as something of a sceptic regarding work and director. My sole prior encounter with Simon Stone’s work had not been, to put it mildly, a happy one. Nor do I count myself a subscriber or even affiliate to the Korngold fan club, considerable in number and still more considerable in fervency.

Exceptional song recital from Hurn Court Opera at Salisbury Arts Centre

Thanks to the enterprise and vision of Lynton Atkinson - Artistic Director of Dorset-based Hurn Court Opera - two promising young singers on the threshold of glittering careers gave an outstanding recital at Salisbury’s prestigious Art Centre.

Lohengrin in Munich

An exceptional Lohengrin, this. I had better explain. Yes, it was exceptional in the quality of much of the singing, especially the two principal female roles, yet also in luxury casting such as Martin Gantner as the King’s Herald.

Hansel and Gretel in San Francisco

This Grimm’s fairytale in its operatic version found its way onto the War Memorial stage in the guise of a new “family friendly” production first seen last holiday season at London’s Royal Opera House.

An hypnotic Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House

Spot-lit in the prevailing darkness, Gustav von Aschenbach frowns restively as he picks up an hour-glass from a desk strewn with literary paraphernalia, objects d’art, time-pieces and a pair of tall candles in silver holders - by the light of which, so Thomas Mann tells us in his novella Death in Venice, the elderly writer ‘would offer up to art, for two or three ardently conscientious morning hours, the strength he had garnered during sleep’.

Philip Glass's Orphée at English National Opera

Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orphée - and Philip Glass’s chamber opera based on the film - are so closely intertwined it should not be a surprise that this new production for English National Opera often seems unable to distinguish the two. There is never a shred of ambiguity that cinema and theatre are like mirrors, a recurring feature of this production; and nor is there much doubt that this is as opera noir it gets.

Rapt audience at Dutch National Opera’s riveting Walküre

“Don’t miss this final chance – ever! – to see Die Walküre”, urges the Dutch National Opera website.

Sarah Wegener sings Strauss and Jurowski’s shattering Mahler

A little under a month ago, I reflected on Vladimir Jurowski’s tempi in Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’. That willingness to range between extremes, often within the same work, was a very striking feature of this second concert, which also fielded a Mahler symphony - this time the Fifth. But we also had a Wagner prelude and Strauss songs to leave some of us scratching our heads.

Manon Lescaut in San Francisco

Of the San Francisco Opera Manon Lescauts (in past seasons Leontyne Price, Mirella Freni, Karita Mattila among others, all in their full maturity) the latest is Armenian born Parisian finished soprano Lianna Haroutounian in her role debut. And Mme. Haroutounian is surely the finest of them all.

A lukewarm performance of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette from the LSO and Tilson Thomas

A double celebration was the occasion for a packed house at the Barbican: the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s birth, alongside Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifty-year association with the London Symphony Orchestra.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Stockhausen's Helicopter
05 Oct 2012

Stockhausen’s Mittwoch, Birmingham Opera Company

The first performances of Stockhausen’s Mittwoch — the world premiere took place on Mittwoch 22 August, the composer’s birthday, whilst I attended the last of four performances on Samstag — could hardly have failed to be an ‘event’ of the highest order: the last of the Licht cycle, in duration roughly twice the length of Wagner’s Ring, to receive its first full performance, though it was the sixth of the seven days to be composed.

Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mittwoch

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Stockhausen’s Helicopter

 

These performances were, if possible, rendered all the more extraordinary by being given not by an established opera house and company, but by the heroic Birmingham Opera Company, founded by director, Graham Vick, as a community project, run from an office comprised of just three full-time workers in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Productions are site-specific: ‘We don't have an opera house and we don't work in conventional theatres. We conjure our theatres out of spaces used for other purposes or maybe just abandoned. A brief period of illumination and then we move on — not tied to bricks and mortar.’ But then Stockhausen was hardly a conventional composer, let alone a conventional opera composer. The Argyle Works, a disused chemical factory, proved an excellent setting, not only in terms of its large, adaptable spaces, but also on account of a fine acoustic, doubtless testament to a great deal of expert preparation by sound engineers.

Despite its use of a ‘super-formula’, Mittwoch is not easy — certainly far less so than, say Donnerstag — to consider as a unified work, especially in terms of narrative. Perhaps it would be more so as part of a complete cycle, perhaps not. But musically, the opening Greeting and Farewell, sound projection by the tireless Kathinka Pasveer, provide electronic material employed, if not throughout, then in two of the four intervening scenes, ‘Orchestra Finalists’ and ‘Michaelion’. In a sense, it is up to the individual whether he should construct his own Mittwoch narrative, but in a sense, that is always the case; the situation, as so often with Stockhausen, is simply more extreme here. Mittwoch was first intended to be the only opera in which the cycle’s three principal protagonists, for want of a better word than characters, (Eve, Lucifer, Michael) cooperate. As it happened, none of them actually appears in straightforward fashion, though Eve and Lucifer are represented by ‘emanations’ (the latter in the bizarre form of ‘Lucicamel’ (German, ‘Luzicamel’), yes, a pantomime camel), and the name of Michael is frequently invoked with apparent awe. Yet the idea of ‘cooperation’, related to the idea of ‘love’, remains: as Richard Toop points out, ‘almost uniquely in Stockhausen’s work, this collaboration is political, in a parliamentary sense; in the inner ones, it is more specifically musical’. Even when it is political, it seems a hundred light-years, or whatever measurement Stockhausen would employ, from the political commitment of contemporaries such as Henze and Nono, let alone the younger Lachenmann. Stockhausen’s (quasi?-)theological cosmogony remains the thing, for better and/or worse.

With ‘Wednesday Greeting’ (‘Mittwochs-Gruss), which originates from the electronic music of ‘Michaelion’ rather than the other way round, we were plunged into darkness, at least visually, whilst a four-track (quadraphonic) performance of music ‘very seldom reminiscent of this world and which awakens the universe of the fantasy’ (Stockhausen) unfolded. ‘Listening to music in the dark will become much more important in the future than it is today,’ Stockhausen wrote in Electronic Art Music (2006), going on to say, ‘The main function of art music will be to make the souls of the listeners fly freely through the universes, with infinite new surprises.’ Whatever one thinks of that, the darkness certainly made one concentrate, and brought into relief choreographed moments — in a scenic rather than musical sense — that appeared all around us, just like the sounding of the music. Aspects of creation myths, old and new, flashed before our eyes, all superbly executed by a fine team of dancers. It is difficult not to respond favourably to the intense seriousness of Stockhausen’s vision, if, at the same time, it is difficult — at least for this viewer and listener — not to find an unintentional absurdity to it too. ‘Yellow is the colour’, apparently, so we left the first hall to progress to the ‘World Parliament’, passing an artist apparently pleasurably writhing in yellow paint that he poured over himself, perhaps the closest we came to conventional eroticism.

‘World Parliament’ (‘Welt-Parlament’) proved, apart from anything else, quite beautiful in an almost conventional a cappella choral sense. Praise could not be too high for the representatives, members of Ex Cathedra, conducted by the President, Ben Thapa. Love is the subject for debate, its meaning discussed in a manner that perhaps came easier to a child of the sixties than to many of us today. But even if sentiments, sometimes in invented tongues, sometimes in the vernacular, such as ‘Love resounds in your voice. Listen to your tone, to the sound of your voice, to GOD, because love must be in it,’ might be a little difficult to take for us, however beautifully sung by tenors joining forces, let alone the President’s ‘Positive thinking — that’s it!’, the ritual, choral and visual, was entrancing. Perched high on yellow stools, representatives with different world flags emblazoned upon their faces — I saw them in make-up when entering the factory — interacted, debated, apparently learned from each other. The substitute President, an ‘Eve emanation’, her coloratura wonderfully despatched by soprano Elizabeth Drury, takes office after a janitor called out the President on account of his car being towed away. Stockhausen admitted that he ‘very consciously made it that banal.’ Quite: perhaps it is a matter of that ‘German humour’ even we Teutonophiles find baffling in the extreme. However, it was the beauties of Stockhausen’s choral writing, apparently not entirely removed from some of his earliest works, that offered greater sustenance.

‘Orchestra Finalists’ (‘Orchester-Finalisten’) had us turn to the often staggering instrumental prowess of a fine group of musicians named above, octophonic electronic music following the progress of the instrumentalists. Again, Pavseer’s expertise here was crucial to the scene’s success. Suspended from the ceiling, splashing in a paddling pool, shouting, even, according to Stockhausen, ‘moving in an individual way and projecting their personal aura’, this extends ‘the way musicians publicly perform during music competitions’. You can say that again. In addition to the musicians’ antics, there was much else to divert the eye: dance, processional, including men in top hats with billowing smoke, a man with an aeroplane on his head...

The ‘Helicopter String Quartet’, premiered by the Ardittis but here performed by the Elysian Quartet, has become so notorious that it is difficult to know what to say about it. It is probably best to understand it as further evidence of Stockhausen’s extraordinary imagination, somehow both naïve and incredibly complex. As theatre it is quite a thing — and one should remember that Mittwoch is theatre, not ‘absolute’ music, whatever that might mean. Reports I had read were highly critical of Radio 1 DJ Nihal as Moderator. Perhaps anyone who was not Stockhausen himself would have come in for considerable criticism here. Yet the role is prescribed in the work and our Moderator offered at least one sound piece of advice, to try to listen to the music, that is, not simply to be wowed by the effect, relayed to us via four screens. That is difficult to do, but especially towards the end, I found myself increasingly able to listen to the notes, to hear the passing of notes, even lines, as well as the shouted numbers of the Lucifer formula, between the players, as well as hearing the interaction of instruments and helicopters. In the post-quartet discussion, the pilots acquitted themselves very well indeed, one of them (Nigel Burton, I think) revealing a gift for dry wit.

The final scene, ‘Michaelion’, perhaps brings us closer to something more operatic as genuinely understood, though we remain distant indeed from The Marriage of Figaro. Indeed, at times we seem closer to the world of Dr Who. The name ‘Michaelion’ pays reference to Constantine’s fourth-century temple at Chalcedon in honour of the archangel Michael, but the ‘World Parliament’ has now turned inter-galactic, with absurdity whose humour may or may not be intentional. Cosmological solidarity is summarised by the uniquely cooperative role played by Lucifer’s ‘emanation’, Lucicamel, though passages such as the ‘Shoe-Shine Serenade’, the appearance of a huge bottle of champagne, and of course Lucicamel’s defecation of seven planet-globes, paralleling the seven days of the week, tend to linger longer in the memory. Luca, who arises out of the camel, is appointed Operator and responds to delegates’ concern in a short-wave form that harks back to 1960s works such as Kurzwellen. Once again the choral singing, this time from London Voices, was beyond reproach, similarly Pasveer’s sound projection and the expert instrumental playing, including a ‘Bassetsu-Trio’ for basset horn, trumpeter and trombonist, symbolising Eve, Michael, and Lucifer, but I wondered, perhaps echoing in its way the eighteenth-century, Mozartian serenade ‘entertainment’, albeit this time for delegates. Emerging from this strange yet compelling tableau-cum-drama, we were offered ‘a cup of yellow’ to the strains of the electronic ‘Wednesday Farewell’ (‘Mittwochs-Abschied’).

An extraordinary experience, by any standards, for which all concerned, from Vick to the musicians and other artists to the Arts Council deserve a huge round of whatever passes for applause on Sirius. Now we need someone to stage Licht in its entirety.

Mark Berry


Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mittwoch: Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection: Wednesday Greeting, World Parliament, Michaelion, music direction); Igor Kavulek (sound engineer)

BALANCE Audio-Media, Cologne (sound equipment); Graham Vick (director); Paul Brown (designs); Giuseppe di Iorio (lighting); Ron Howell (choreography) Sheelagh Barnard (technical director); Richard Willacy (executive producer). World Parliament: Representatives: Ex Cathedra (chorus master: Jeffery Skidmore); President: Ben Thapa; Substitute President: Elizabeth Drury. Orchestra Finalists: Dan Bates (oboe), Jonathan Rees (cello), Vicky Wright (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Debs White (violin), Ian Foster (tuba), Karin de Fleyt (flute), Andrew Connington (trombone), Bridget Carey (viola), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Jeremy Watt (double bass), Mark Smith (French horn), David Waring (percussion. Helicopter String Quartet: Elysian Quartet (Emma Smith, Jennymay Logan (violins), Vincent Sipprell (viola), Laura Moody (cello); Moderator — DJ Nihal; Ian Dearden (sound projection); Miles Fletcher, Will Samuelson, Alistair Badman, Nigel Burton, Chris Holland, Peter Driver (pilots). Michaelion: Delegates — London Voices (chorus director: Ben Parry); Operator — Michael Leibendgut; Chloé l’Abbé (flute), Fie Schouten (basset horn), Marco Blauuw (trumpet), Stephen Menotti (trombone), Antonio Pérez Abelián (synthesiser); Lucicamel — Marie-Louise Crawley, Nathan Lafayette. Argyle Works, Birmingham, Saturday 25 August 2012

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):