Recently in Performances
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.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘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.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
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.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
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.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
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.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
02 Feb 2013
A Timeless Hänsel und Gretel in Chicago
In remounting its 2001 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel Lyric Opera of Chicago has demonstrated the timeless nature of the score and narrative as well as the ingenuity of the production with its thoughtful and touching updating to a twentieth-century milieu.
The title roles were sung by Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova, the Mother and Father by Julie Makerov and Brian Mulligan, the Witch by Jill Grove, and the Sandman and Dew Fairy by Emily Birsan and Kiri Deonarine. Ward Stare led these performances in his Lyric Opera conducting debut.
In its performance of the overture the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Stare’s sensitive direction exemplified the rich colors and tonal depth of Humperdinck’s score. The initial chords for brass were effectively varied and, when repeated, punctuated by melodic emphases in the strings and percussion. Toward the close of this prelude the softer instrumental textures as here played suggested an age that would follow on the trials of human effort. During the course of the overture the stage was veiled by a scrim depicting an empty plate and utensils. Once the first act begins in this production, the significance of the image becomes clear. The children Hänsel and Gretel face each other while seated at the kitchen’s table. Both Ms. DeShong and Ms. Kanyova communicated a temperament of adolescent irritation coupled with human need. The children are hungry and their facial expressions revealed attempts to deal with their current isolation. The parents have gone off to procure food and have left Hänsel and Gretel with the responsibility of domestic chores. Of course little work is accomplished and their vocal exchanges were more expressive of self-amusement. After a tantalizing melisma performed on “Geheimnis” [“secret”] Kanyova’s Gretel instructed her brother in proper dance steps [“Einmal hin, einmal her”]. While DeShong’s Hänsel proclaimed in a truly joyful spirit that he was committed to “Tanzen und fröhlich sein” [“Dancing and happiness”], the antics of the children reached a crescendo from the floor to the top of the table. At this highpoint the mother returned and chided the two for their irresponsible behavior. Ms. Makerov released powerfully emotional pitches on “Sorgen” while describing these very worries caused by financial hardship. Since the children seem unable to appreciate the family’s plight, the mother sends them out to the forest in search of berries for an evening meal. When left alone Makerov gave full vent to her emotions with expressive yet controlled volume on “Kein Essen im Schrank” [“No food in the cupboard”]. As she prepared to take pills as a means to calming her mid-century nervousness, the voice of the father signals his approach in the familiar “Tra la la la
Hunger ist der beste Koch” [“Hunger is the best cook”]. Mr. Mulligan’s entrance was a model of lyrical and dramatic commitment to character. He sang with robust emphasis on “Kauf Besen” [“Buy brooms”] to explain how he encouraged his customers of the day to buy up his wares. As if to celebrate his financial success the father displayed the foodstuffs which he had purchased for the common meal. Once the parents begin to eat, the mother admits that she has sent the children out alone into the forest. The father berates her carelessness while frightening her with tales of evil in the haunted wood. Mulligan dominated the close of this first act with his noteworthy intonation describing the “Hexenritt” [“witches’ ride”] practiced in the forest.
The orchestral introduction to Act Two with an emphasis on cellos and higher strings matched the calming yet inquisitive mood in the forest as the children searched for and consumed the berries they found. DeShong’s Hänsel accused with striking low notes “Du bist selber schuld” [“It is really your fault”] as they discover that they have eaten their entire yield. After Hänsel claimed “Ich bin ein Bub und fürchte mich nicht” [I am a boy and am not afraid”], both children became apprehensive of their surroundings. In this production Hänsel assumes a protective gesture toward his sister as they sing their evening prayer “Abends will ich schlafen gehen” [“At night I lay myself to sleep”]. Kanyova and DeShong gave a wonderfully moving rendition of the duet, as the Sandmann then lulled them into sleep. The “two times seven angels,” to whom they have prayed, are here visualized in their dreams as servants and cooks at the table to which the children are invited after being helped into properly formal attire. At the close of the act Hänsel and Gretel are served as guests at table by these creatures with wings of angels.
The third act of the opera displays the plate on the scrim now covered more noticeably with red as indication of the berries consumed. Kanyova’s bird-like song with which she awakened Hänsel was sprightly and infused with coloratura touches. As the children compared notes about the angels seen in their respective dreams, an enormous cake emerged from the back of the stage. Gretel is the first to sample the cake until both children hear the voice of the witch, Rosina Leckermaul [aka, Rosina Sweet-tooth] In this role Jill Grove wore a housedress and embodied the busyness of a German domestic yet with the powers and desires associated with magic and evil. Grove caused Hänsel to freeze in movement with her chilling performance of the scene “Hocus, Pocus.” When she prepared food to fatten up the boy, Ms. Grove dived into her pots and bowls with gusto and noticeably energetic voice and arms. Gretel realizes that the magical phrase will release her brother, after which both push the witch into the oven. The subsequent, celebratory waltz for the siblings was well choreographed in preparation for saving the remaining children, who had been held as gingerbread under the witch’s spell. Recitation now of the “Hocus, Pocus” charm restores the children’s sight, the parents appear in the forest, and the family is reunited in prayers of thanksgiving. May future productions of Humperdinck’s work succeed to this degree.