21 May 2013
La bohème at ENO
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
Miller has often been over-praised, particularly by those ‘of a certain age’, apparently unaware or unwilling to accept that the world has moved on from the 1960s of their youth; indeed, Miller’s Royal Opera Così fan tutte is not simply bad, but one of the most objectionable stagings I have seen of anything. This Bohème, whilst hardly groundbreaking, does its job reasonably enough. For some reason, the action is updated to the Paris of the 1930s. Beyond imparting a certain cinematic quality — though not necessarily nearly so much as Miller and his designer, Isabella Bywater seem to think it does — it is not clear what is gained, but nor for that matter is a great deal lost. An individual’s fondness for the photography of George Brassaï does not in itself seem to me justification for a production, but anyway... The characters are for well directed on stage, for which revival director, Natascha Metherell should doubtless receive much of the credit. (Both Metherell and Miller appeared on stage to take a bow.) Occasionally, I wondered whether the action were a little too prey to domestification of the wrong way; the meeting between Rodolfo and Mimì is decidedly low-key, more akin to a neighbourhood watch meeting than an ignition of passion. However, the selfishness of ‘Bohemian’ youth comes across at least as strongly as I can recall upon other occasions: are not these boys to some extent playing at poverty, whilst Mimì’s suffering is the real thing?
Described in the publicity blurb as a ‘cast of young British talent’, that is for the most part what it is. I have little patience with those who castigate ENO — or Covent Garden, for that matter — for ‘failing to promote British artists’. The arts world has, let us be grateful, yet to capitulate to the insidious yet hysterical nationalism pervading much of our political class and media. What we want are singers, artists in general, who are good, and preferably more than that. With the exception of Gwyn Hughes Jones, we did pretty well. Though his Rodolfo improved somewhat during the third and fourth acts, and was not without sensitivity, there was too much that was simply crude, almost an allegedly ‘Italianate’ parody, or strangely faceless. The vacuum extended to stage presence too; it would have been well-nigh impossible to believe in him as a Romantic lead. Kate Valentine’s Mimì, on the other hand, was a credit to her and to ENO. Nobility of spirit was allied to sterling, necessary musical values of phrasing and tonal variegation. It was a delight to make the acquaintance of the charismatic American singer, the splendidly named Angel Blue (an exception in terms of nationality, but certainly not quality). She sang as well as she acted, holding the stage without effort, imparting both ‘artistic’ superiority to Musetta as singer and, increasingly, warm humanity to her as woman. Richard Burkhard’s Marcello impressed too, as did the excellently sung — and acted — Colline of Andrew Craig Brown and Schaunard of Duncan Rock. It was a pity that Simon Butteriss over-acted — ‘silly voice’ rather than expression of the text through singing — in the role of Benoit; maybe he was doing so under orders. A greater pity was the banality of Amanda Holden’s translation; making Puccini sound satisfactory in English is not the easiest of tasks, but too often, a tin ear revealed itself in the straightforward incompatibility of words and vocal line.
Oleg Caetani made a very welcome return to the Coliseum. His direction of the ENO Orchestra was splendid, rich in tone — sometimes, a little more, alla Daniele Gatti, would have been appreciated there, but then Gatti, last summer, had the Vienna Philharmonic — but above all, dramatically alert. Temptations to linger, to sentimentalise, were eschewed, without draining the drama of its lifeblood. Wagnerisms — I noticed some especially Tristan-esque progressions — and modernisms were not necessarily underlined, yet, given Caetani’s ear for balance and line, caught one’s ear nevertheless. I should love one day to hear a properly modernistic Bohème — or Tosca. This was not it, but refusal to play to the gallery, and underlining of solid, yet certainly not stolid, musical virtues proved a great relief for a work in which superficial gloss can all too readily hold sway. Choral singing and direction of the chorus also proved estimable throughout.
Cast and production information:
Marcello: Richard Burkhard; Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Colline: Andrew Craig Brown; Schaunard: Duncan Rock; Benoit: Simon Butteriss; Mimì: Kate Valentine; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Angel Blue; Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman; Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater (designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis) of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 29.4.2013.