Recently in Performances
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.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
21 Nov 2012
Joan of Arc as Atheist Heroine
Jeanne D’Arc—Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna, the last stage work of the German composer Walter Braunfels, documents a passage in music history that has only recently begun to break through the surface.
Although the composer enjoyed widespread popularity in the mid-1920s with his
opera Die Vögel and religious works such as his Te Deum
which curried favour with the devout statesman Konrad Adenauer, Braunfels’
antagonism toward the Nazis and half-Jewish heritage led to a ban on his music
starting in 1933. It was not until 2001 that Jeanne D’Arc, written
at the height of the war between 1938-43, was unveiled to the public with a
concert performance in Stockholm starring Juliane Banse and conducted by
Manfred Honneck. Seven years later, the Deutsche Oper engaged the late
directing provocateur Christoph Schlingensief to conceive what would be the
opera’s staged premiere.
Often interpreted as a reaction to the brutality of the Holocaust,
Jeanne D’Arc expresses a desperate belief in the powers of the
divine to redeem the spiritually pure from the persecution of a society blinded
by false values. The French martyr and Catholic saint Joan of Arc had of course
already conjured operas by Giuseppe Verdi and Arthur Honegger, yet it was a
performance of Hindemith’s subversive Mathis der Maler that moved
Braunfels to pen his own libretto and carry forth with a religiously laden
opera. Choruses lifted from Passion oratorios intermingle with blocks of
extended tonality that evoke Wagner and Strauss without creating a hypnotic
sense of inebriation. The most interesting passages emerge in the unpredictable
harmonic development and sardonic trumpet fanfares at the start of the second
act that give full expression to Braunfels’ unassuaged frustration.
It is a shame that Schlingensief’s production, revived for three
performances this season and seen November 16, adopts an atheist critique of
western Christianity that is subsequently drowned in silly, morbid gags and
distracting video projections (executed with Anna-Sophie Mahler and Søren
Schuhmacher). Footage ranging from shots of a Nepalese village, where a
wreathed corpse is burned in a religious process, to the juxtaposition of
church boys with references to Mafia activity only misconstrues Braunfels’
simple allegory. Images of Schlingensief himself among the Nepalese and the
oversized anatomical set of lungs that descend downstage may make this staging
a fascinating historical document (the director died of lung cancer in 2010),
but he imposes more on this opera than he illuminates. Ultimately, it is hard
to justify the expense that went into the rotating stage’s convolution of
scenes (designs by Thomas George and Thekla von Müllheim).
A live cow emerges as an ostensible symbol for Johanna when the wife of the
Knight Baudricourt insists that she should be set free to bring an end to
pestilence in the village, accompanied by a nonsensical sign reading “Tote
Kuh fällt vom Schnurrbart” (the dead cow falls from its whiskers). Gaggles
of midgets in nun suits and projections of animal insides are enough to make
one cringe, but the distaste reaches its peak in an extra with cerebral palsy
who, dressed in a crown and gymnast’s suit (costumes by Aino Laberenz),
writhes in spasms with the music until he is smothered in fake blood and chokes
with suicidal gags for what felt like much too long. Although the character’s
symbolic presence as an extension of the King’s suffering eventually makes
itself clear, the exploitation of a disabled individual to this artistic end is
questionable at best. Schlingensief surely intended to make a statement in
favour of tolerance for all human beings, but his warped concept of social
activism only undermines the historical value of Braunfels’ opera. The
director also replaces some of the Inquisitor’s seminal lines with the spoken
words of a midget, such as the final “We have burned a holy being!” The
effect is perverse and detracts from the weight of the story. Just as
ridiculous is the moment when Joan of Arc emerges as a black-faced death angel
from an oversized birthday cake, only to light flickering candles as a symbol
of her burning at the stake.
Despite the tremendous stamina and purity of tone American soprano Mary
Mills brought to the title character, she was hampered by the stilted stage
concept. Rarely has there been a better example of Regietheater’s
power to undermine the presence of impeccable, if not so thespian-oriented,
musicianship. The rich-voiced English baritone Simon Neal gave a standout
performance as Joan’s ally, Gilles de Rais, and Kim-Lilian Strebel and Annie
Rosen made for a prettily sung, homogeneous pair as her female patron saints
Katharina and Margarete. In the role of St. Michael, the tenor Paul McNamara
gave an earnest delivery but suffered from a somewhat swallowed timbre; the
orchestra of the Deutsche Oper under Matthias Foremny also could have helped
matters by producing more restrained pianissimi.
Clemens Bieber made for an affecting King, even if one had to avert one’s
eyes from the cartoonish portrayal Schlingensief set out to achieve. Tobias
Kehrer gave a warm portrayal of Johanna’s father, Jacob, entering the stage
in bishop garb on a reindeer sled, and the nasal timbre of Paul Kaufmann made
for an appropriately pathetic portrait of the shepherd Colin. Jörg Schörner
gave a fine performance in the role of the sympathizing Duke of Alençon, while
Lenus Carlson made for an imposing Duke de la Trémouille. Yosep Kang also
stood out as Bertrand de Poulengy. The orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was stronger in soaring lyric lines than complex polyphony, with the brass especially smudged. The
house chorus also did not sound as rehearsed as usual despite its reliably
strong performance. Several seats were empty after intermission, a rare
occurrence in Berlin. Perhaps it would have made more sense to focus on this
musical specimen in concert performance, which is exactly what the Salzburg
Festival has planned for 2013.