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

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from Jeanne d'Arc - Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna [Photo by Thomas Aurin courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin]
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.

Joan of Arc as Atheist Heroine

By Rebecca Schmid

Above: Scene from Jeanne d’Arc — Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna

Photos by Thomas Aurin courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin

 

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.

Joan_318.gif 

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.

Rebecca Schmid

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):