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
Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the Staatsoper Berlin
Recent seasons have seen a surge in so-called ‘Holocaust
operas,’ from Peter Androsch’s Spiegelrund, which
premiered in Vienna last week, to Mieczysław Weinberg’s The
Passenger, unveiled with a half-century of delay in Bregenz in 2010.
topic of Nazi politics may be bone-chilling, but when written by survivors,
allows for some emotional distance and reflection. Meanwhile, history has
bequeathed us what may be considered a Holocaust opera in the true sense of the
word. The Staatsoper Berlin is currently performing Viktor Ullmann’s
Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis),which was penned at
the concentration camp Theresienstadt to a libretto by Peter Kien just before
the authors were transported to Auschwitz in 1944. The chamber opera premiered
in Amsterdam 31 years after their death.
Theresienstadt served as both a transit post and a kind of sham for the
extent of the SS forces’ brutality. Leo Baeck, Pavel Haas, and Gideon
Klein count among the conscripted intelligentsia at the ‘model
ghetto,’ where Ullmann was engaged as an official music critic. A
freelance musician schooled in Schönbergian composition, the Silesian native
found himself with more time to compose than ever before. His score creates a
dizzying, but organic blend of serialist passages, sardonic cabaret, and
Mahleresque harmonies while subversively weaving in melodies such as ‘Ein
feste Burg ist unser Gott’ in the final chorus. It is an at once
harrowing and uplifting setting of Kien’s libretto, which provides a
vivid depiction of the inner turmoil but resignation a prisoner found in the
end of life as he knew it.
The story in some ways calls to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in
its montage-like structure and ambiguous treatment of death. A Loudspeaker
announces in the prologue that the living can no longer laugh and the dying can
no longer lament. Harlekin, better known as Arlecchino, the commedia
dell’arte stock character, is so bored that he begs Death to his
duty. But Death has decided to condemn mortals to eternal life. Kaiser Overall,
whose resemblance to Hitler prevented further rehearsals of the opera in the
summer of 1944, is informed by telephone of a plague whereby none of his
soldiers can die. Only when the war is over does Death, “the
gardener…the final lullaby,” deliver the world from pestilence.
The story further includes a drummer, a soldier and a girl named Bubbikopf.
Kyungho Kim as Harlekin | Ein Soldat, Gyula Orendt as Kaiser Overall and Alin Anca as Der Lautsprecher | Der Tod
The Staatsoper staging by Mascha Pörzgen, seen January 29 at the
company’s Werkstatt, a small wing used for new music theater,
recreates the opera’s surreal qualities while maintaining a tasteful dose
of aesthetic restraint. The roles of Death and the Loudspeaker are cast with a
single bass-baritone (the tireless Alin Anca), who is wheeled in on a
motor-driven stool before revealing the garb of terrorist-like solider. His
exchanges with the sad clown-faced Harlekin are appropriately ambivalent, while
the Drummer assumes the presence of a caricature as she walks through the scene
beating wooden spoons mid-air. Kaiser Overall is a psychotic bureaucrat who
occupies the only hollow space in an all-white set (designs by Cordelia
Matthes). The proscenium moves in closer to the audience following
Harlekin’s eerie lullaby “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf.”
The cast, all members of the Staatsoper’s international opera studio,
gave a tight, convincing performance despite vocal unevenness. Anca carried the
show with theatrical verve and a booming bass that at times risked being too
loud for the space. As Harlekin and the soldier in the third scene, Kyungho Kim
did not rise to the same standards of sound quality and diction but was a
moving presence. The soprano Rowan Hellier gave a stand-out performance as the
Drummer, while Narine Yeghiyan, in the role of Bubbikopf, at times sounded
strained. Gyula Orendt gave an earnest performance as the Kaiser. Felix Krieger
led an elegant reading of the score with an ensemble of the Staatskapelle,
although the musicians’ position on a landing to the side of the stage
was not always ideal acoustically (drowning out Orendt in his final aria, the
very Mahlerian ‘Von allem, was geschieht’).The unearthly final
chorus could have been drawn out with more nostalgia, while the counterpoint of
a repeated, descending violin melody gave chills down the spine.
Der Kaiser von Atlantis runs through February 9.