It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
An opera called Where the Wild Things Are based on a libretto by Maurice Sendak may sound like a mere treat for children, but when paired with the music of Oliver Knussen, as performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a new and unique production by Netia Jones, it makes for a forty minute joy ride into fantasy land for adults as well.
Sendak’s original book has been around for a long time. Published in 1963, it was immediately criticized by child psychologists for arousing possibly traumatic wild animal feelings within children, and set off a great public debate on the subject. By 1979 however, the work had not only become a canon of children’s literature, but the Opéra National in Brussels commissioned Knussen to compose a work based on the story, in celebration of UNESCO’s International Year of the Child. The opera premiered there in 1980. But Knussen didn’t complete the work to his satisfaction until 1984. This version of the score, with costumes designed by Sendak, was performed in London by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera, that same year.
For anyone, who may not know the story, it’s about a boy named Max, whom we meet when he is wearing his wolf suit, bushy tale and all, and hammering away at everything that annoys him — causing such havoc at home that his mother calls him a “wilde chaya”, Yiddish for wild animal. Max repeats these Yiddish words to himself in an ongoing frenzy, when his mother orders him to bed without dinner. Miraculously, his room is transformed into a jungle and Max sets off on a long sail into a land full of wild animals who at first threaten him, then crown him their King, which occasion is celebrated with a wild “rumpus.” (Such a 1960s word!) Suddenly hungry, Max begins longing for home, and wonders whether he’ll find any food there. Sure enough, back in his own bedroom, after his return sail, he finds his supper — still hot.
In Jones’ restrained but elegant production, Sendak’s own illustrations are projected on a large screen and animated on a offstage keyboard by Jones. Max, the only live character on stage, except for the momentary appearance of his mother, interacts with the projections. Figures representing Max’s family in their ordinary clothes, are silhouetted behind an offstage screen, from where they sing and act their wild animal parts. A small orchestra is clearly visible performing this marvelously orchestrated score. Added to its usual ranks are a tinkling two handed piano part, a rumbling contra bassoon and among too many other percussion instruments to list, clogs, sizzle cymbals, a spring coil, and “balloon with pin.”
The opera has had many stagings — three new ones just this year in Germany and Holland. But my guess is that charming and inventive as other productions may be, Jones’ vision, which uses Sendak’s own cross-hatched drawings of sharp clawed, fuzzy footed beasts, with facial expressions that only he could create, offers a simplicity and kind of purity that no other will match.
The cast was headed by Claire Booth, a slight, vivacious soprano, with voice enough to rise over the orchestral rumblings and energy enough to rumpus for forty minutes. Booth, as well as the rest of the cast, sang the production’s premier last June at the Aldeburgh Music Festival. They will repeat their performances in November at London’s Barbican Hall.
Along with the brief opera, the orchestra performed Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, accompanied by Jones’ more traditional silhouettes projected as though in a story book. Though Ravel’s work is a ballet, which implies constant movement to the music, Jones’ projections were fairly still, but added an interesting dimension to the orchestral story-telling. The star of this performance was the orchestra and the wonderful variations of sound it produced within its subdued, but silken rendering of the French score.
The Disney Concert Hall is not an ideal venue for producing opera. When a side of the orchestral space is used for staging, as it was here, the audience seated above that space, cannot see what is happening directly below them. I sat above the screen behind which the Max’s silhouetted family was acting and singing, and didn’t know that they were there until they came out for their curtain call. I hope some way can be found to improve sight lines for producing the expanded repertory including staged vocal works that the Orchestra is planning to offer in the Hall.
Max:Claire Booth; Mama/Female Wild Thing:Susan Bickley; Moyshe/Wild Thing with Beard:Christopher Lemmings; Aaron/Wild Thing with Horns:Jonathan Gunthorpe; Emil/Rooster Wild Thing:Graeme Broadbent; Bernard/Bull Wild Thing:Graeme Danby; Tzippy:Charlotte McDougal. Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel. Director, Designer and Video Artist: Netia Jones. Lighting Design: Ian Scott.