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

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

Semyon Bychkov heading to NYC and DC with Glanert and Mahler

Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.

Lost Stravinsky re-united with Rimsky-Korsakov, Gergiev, Mariinsky

Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.

Philippe Jaroussky at the Wigmore Hall: Baroque cantatas by Telemann and J.S.Bach

On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.

The new Queen of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

The
10 Nov 2012

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

After a slow, long period of gestation, commencing with a short dramatization at Reigate Priory in 1906 and spanning more than 40 years, the first performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress took place at Covent Garden on 26 April 1951, as part of the Festival of Britain.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim’s Progress

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: The “Vanity Fair” scene [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of English National Opera]

 

Oft criticised for its lack of dramatic shape, it has taken a similarly long of time for this meditative, visionary opera, or ‘Morality’ as the composer termed it, with its patchwork libretto drawn from Bunyan’s allegory, the Psalms and other biblical texts, to receive a subsequent theatrical hearing: indeed, ENO claim that this is the first fully staged professional production for 60 years.

Director Yoshi Oïda and his designer Tom Schenk present us with a sombre vista: distressed buttress-like doors topped by metal cages, which twist and reconfigure in flexible combinations to suggest the infinite, labyrinthine corridors of incarceration. Bunyan does not leave his prison, but his dream enables him to escape physical confinement through spiritual liberation and transcendence, and Vaughan Williams indicates this in a Prologue and Epilogue in which Bunyan is seen in his cell, his back bearing a weighty burden. Further developing this frame, Oïda compels his Pilgrim to wander ceaselessly through various prison chambers, accompanied by fellow prisoners who become first his accompanying pilgrims and later the doleful creatures of the Valley of Humiliation and the lecherous debauchees of Vanity Fair. As the staging is shifted and turned, a thickly encrusted backdrop of deep ochres rising to smoky turquoises is momentarily revealed, like a Renaissance fresco. It is perhaps a glimpse of more ethereal worlds; but, elsewhere Oïda and Schenk offer few visual consolations and put their faith in Vaughan Williams’ radiant score to communicate the inspiring force of Bunyan’s dream and transport us to higher realms.

In Acts 1 and 2 the music certainly fulfils this task. All of Vaughan Williams is contained within this richly self-allusive score: the majestic dignity of the Sea Symphony, the dissonant conflicts of the Fourth, the meditative contemplations of the Fifth, the gentle pastoralism of the Third and Flos Campi, the spiritual consolations of the Serenade to Music. Conductor Martyn Brabbins conjured from the ENO orchestra music of epic grandeur and sweep, and of tender, diaphanous beauty. The opulent brass chords which chime out the opening psalm-tune modulated to a more mysterious, profound choir of trombones underpinning the arrival of the Evangelist. Similarly, the flashing trumpet fanfares which jubilantly herald the King’s Highway suggested hope for the world to come. The Evangelist was sung convincingly and with calm composure by Benedict Nelson, who subsequently, in Watchful’s Intermezzo between Acts 1 and 2, ‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit’, conveyed the peaceful simplicity of the monadic baritone line.

Oïda makes interesting use of the aesthetic concepts of Japanese theatre, drawing on the stylised gestures and ritualism of Noh and Kyogen. In a striking coup de théâtre the Pilgrim wields a bunraku miniature of himself to defeat the giant monster Apollyan — which rises like a gargantuan tower of rotting detritus from the deep, topped with a garish gas mask — as his howls (resonantly intoned by Mark Richardson) mingle with the doleful cries of the inhabitants of his oppressive realm.

The stark contrast of the immediately succeeding scene is first disconcerting then reassuring. The discordant orchestral turmoil is salved by soothing harp and strings, heralding the arrival of Two Heavenly Beings, sung by Kitty Whaley and Aoife O’Sullivan, whose simple lyricism relieved and comforted the Pilgrim with Tree of Life and the Water of Life.

Sadly, both musical and dramatic momentum flagged in Act 3 and 4. Vaughan William’s musical idiom is less varied here, perhaps because fundamentally there is no real dramatic conflict: the Pilgrim’s struggles are essentially internal, philosophical. Having backed minimalist visual intervention, Oïda stuck to his guns, but at times the result was bland and monotonous.

The rot actually set in (and the low point was reached) in the Vanity Fair episode. The scene presents unfortunate echoes of the ‘progress’ of Stravinsky’s Rake, but Vaughan Williams’ music lacks Stravinsky’s wit and sensuality, and the sharp satire of Hogarth and Auden is entirely absent. Stale, derivative and ultimately neither shocking nor sensuous, Oïda’s clichéd staging of a realm riddled with transvestism and endemic hermaphroditism certainly provided a visual contrast but was bizarrely incongruous with the world and ‘meaning’ of the rest of the opera. Faced with a parade of Cabaret copies and gyrating fairground grotesques it was not surprising that Pilgrim did not find himself tempted.

In Act 4, woodwind and horns conjure a restorative pastoral serenity, and the mood of tranquillity was enhanced by the song of the Woodcutter’s Boy, ‘He that is down need fear no fall’, sung with sweet composure by Kitty Whately — and repeated at the close with touching instrumental counterpoint by clarinet and viola. But, although the Delectable Mountains can be seen on the horizon, the promised end to the Pilgrim’s journey is still some distance away! There is little musical connection between this passage and the next, marked by the arrival of the comical duo, Mr and Mrs By-Ends, and Oïda made no attempt to provide organic visual or dramatic threads.

Indeed, throughout Oïda relished disparity, combining realism and period authenticity with symbolism and eclectic historical and cultural references. This heterogeneity was sometimes jarring. In a ritual robing at the start of his quest, the Pilgrim is dressed in seventeenth-century breastplate and helmet but arrested by English soldiers in the uniforms of WWII. When the Evangelist blesses the Pilgrim at the end of Act 2, he gives him the Roll of the Word, the Key of Promise, and a staff —the latter, here, a gent’s 1930’s umbrella. Such juxtapositions may serve to emphasise the universality of the work; but, a sense of embracing cohesion was diminished by the precise and increasingly frequent allusions to the world wars of the twentieth century — a tiny screen projected film footage of the war — in the aftermath of which the opera was first performed. Thus, in the closing moments, Eleanor Dennis as The Voice of a Bird, clutches an outsize white feather, which then transmutes into the white quill with which the Pilgrim’s death warrant is signed: is he accused of cowardice? And, the electric chair with which the Pilgrim is threatened in Vanity Fair is the medium of his final transfiguration: placed aloft, mid-stage, are we to imagine it is the gate to Heaven?

This work needs a baritone protagonist of considerable prowess and stamina — the Pilgrim is on stage throughout almost every scene — to provide dramatic focus and, in this particular production, to hold Oida’s disparate parts together. Fortunately it has one, in Roland Wood who, from slightly uncertain beginnings grew in musical and dramatic stature, reaching rapturous heights in his Act 3 aria, ‘Show me the way, O Lord, teach me Thy paths’, his progress culminating in a wonderfully moving final aria which shone with emotional intensity. There was an outstanding performance too from Timothy Robinson, who engaging adopted an array of disparate guises.

Forced into camp cliché in the Vanity Fair scene, the ENO chorus were nevertheless in outstanding voice: they relished the rhythmic vigour and nobility of the setting of ‘Who would true valour see’ that interpolates the dialogue between the Herald and Pilgrim in Act 2; and the exultations of the heavenly chorus, bathed in blinding light, of the closing moments were enrapturing.

There is no doubt of the sincerity of Vaughan Williams’ expression of humanity’s search for spiritual redemption. But, this production provided little evidence that the composer was correct in his insistence that it should be staged in the theatre, and not presented as a sort of church pageant or oratorio. Oïda invites us to view the allegorical events through the contextual prism of modern conflict; but then scatters a host of, admittedly sometimes imaginative and suggestive, visual allusions, which dilute the concept. The static qualities of the work are in fact deepened, not allayed, by the minimal set and frequent wide open expanses, as well as by the intermittent ritualistic gestures and motions. Ironically, perhaps a counter-intuitive visual radicalism might have been more effective.

That said, in addition to its ‘rarity value’, this production is worth catching for Roland Wood’s performance which communicates both human fallibility and divine holiness, and is complemented by the unfailing commitment and sensitivity of the whole cast.

Claire Seymour


Cast and Production:

Pilgrim/John Bunyan: Roland Wood; Evangelist/Watchful/First Shepherd: Benedict Nelson; Obstinate/Herald/Lord Hate-Good: George von Bergen; Interpreter/Usher/Mr By-Ends/Second Shepherd: Tim Robinson; Timorous/Lord Lechery/Messenger: Colin Judson; Pliable/Superstition/Celestial Voice 1: Alexander Sprague; Mistrust/Apollyon/Envy/Third Shepherd: Mark Richardson ; First Shining One/Madam Wanton/Voice of a Bird/Celestial Voice 3: Eleanor Dennis; 2nd Shining One/ Branch-Bearer/ Malice: Aoife O’Sullivan; Third Shining One/Cup-bearer/Pickthank/Woodcutter’s Boy: Kitty Whately; Madam Bubble/Mrs By-Ends/Celestial Voice 2: Ann Murray.

Conductor: Martyn Brabbins; Director: Yoshi Oïda; Set and Video Designer: Tom Schenk; Costume Designer: Sue Willmington; Lighting Designer: Lutz Deppe; Choreographer: Carolyn Choa.

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):