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

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

Gerald Barry's The Intelligence Park at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

Walk for 10 minutes or so due north of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and you come to Brunswick Square, home to the Foundling Museum which was established in 1739 by the philanthropist Thomas Coram to care for children lost but lucky.

O19’s Phat Philly Phantasy

It is hard to imagine a more animated, engaging, and musically accomplished night at the Academy of Music than with Opera Philadelphia’s winning new staging of The Love for Three Oranges.

Agrippina: Barrie Kosky brings farce and frolics to the ROH

She makes a virtue of her deceit, her own accusers come to her defence, and her crime brings her reward. Agrippina - great-granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, sister of Caligula, wife of Emperor Claudius - might seem to offer those present-day politicians hungry for power an object lesson in how to satisfy their ambition.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Photo by Mahogany Opera
08 Jul 2013

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

Poised between ritual and drama, between East and West, between Zen-Buddhist symbolism and Christian medieval morality play, Britten’s three church parables pose some tricky problems — including a deliberately objectivised framing device which can distance the work from the audience, and, unusually for Britten, some less than effective musico-dramatic pacing.

Britten’s Curlew River and The Prodigal Son

A review by Claire Seymour

Above photo by Mahogany Opera

 

So, it is perhaps not surprising that the triptych is rarely performed as a unified entity.

This triple bill, performed over two nights, by Mahogany Opera directed by Frederic Wake-Walker was therefore a welcome proposition. Commencing their tour in Russia, at the Hermitage and the Church of St Catherine in St Petersburg (presumably because the former was where Britten and Pears first saw the Rembrandt painting, ‘The Prodigal Son’, which inspired the third parable), Mahogany have since visited the venue of the first production, Orford Church Aldeburgh, and will conclude their performances in Buxton in mid-July.

The long, narrow nave of Southwark Cathedral was the venue for this round of performances, as part of the City of London Festival — a suitably solemn setting, especially as these interpretations emphasised the sombre, religious gravity of the works.

Curlew River , performed on Wednesday 3rd July, transfers the narrative of the Japanese Nō play, Sumidagawa. A Noblewoman, driven made by grief when her son is kidnapped, comes to a ferry. The Ferryman refuses to take her across to the shrine on the further bank, until her despair moves him and the other pilgrims to feelings of guilt. During the journey, he relates the miracles that have occurred at the shrine, the grave of a young boy, and the Madwoman recognises that her son is the boy in these stories. Upon reaching the tomb, the mother is confronted by a vision of her child, and is relieved of her madness.

All the principals were on fine form. Samuel Evan’s Traveller’s Prayer was full of restive yearning; Rodney Earl Clarke’s Ferryman offered a moving counsel to the Madwoman to pray for her child.

But it was tenor James Gilchrist who was the musical and dramatic linchpin of these performances. From his opening, Grimes-like, fragmented cries, he was entirely in sympathy with the role of the Madwoman — and in tremendous voice, his vocal exclamations simultaneously dramatically agitated and vocally focused. The tenor soared in pitch and dynamic, at times angry, elsewhere full of doubts; this performance was an impressively controlled rendition of intense love and inner crisis.

Unfortunately, Gilchrist was draped from head to foot in an assemblage of dishevelled, grey rags which would not have disgraced a 1940s BBC ghost-costume department. Robert Tear — who was Pears’ understudy at the first performance — remembers Pears complaining, “Really, Ben, I just can’t work in this frock”, to which Ben replied to Colin Graham, “Oh for Christ’s sake, Colin, give her a crin”, but even the composer can’t have envisaged that such a clichéd visual statement of psychological distress was necessary. [1]

There was some assured playing from the small band of instruments, performing without a conductor, supported by Roger Vignoles’ well-shaped chamber organ accompaniment. Alex Jakeman’s flute flutter-tonguing perfectly complemented the unstable psyche of the Madwoman, and the glissandi and portamenti of the cadenza that accompanies her arrival at the ferry ramp, were expertly executed. The flute’s symbolic curlew cries were poignantly lyrical, and flute and voice came together affectingly during the mother’s sparse soliloquy before her son’s tomb. There was some warm, expressive playing from violist Max Baillie, and the percussive colours of the score were ably and evocatively executed by Scott Lumsdaine.

The following evening Gilchrist was similarly fine as the Lucifer-like Abbot-Tempter in The Prodigal Son, the most overtly ‘Christian’ of the three parables, and perhaps the ‘weakest’ in terms of musical concision and tightness. As the Abbot, addressing “people, listening here today”, he disturbingly intoned the disconcertingly simple modal line, “Do not think I bid you kneel and pray … I bring you no sermon/ What I bring you is evil”, accompanied by the liturgical resonances of the organ and exotic cymbal whisperings. As Gilchrist urged the Young Son to ‘Imagine, imagine/What you are missing. … High living, secret delights,/ And beauty, beauty/ To kindle your senses”, glistening harp textures (Tanya Houghton) and chilling double bass portamenti (Ben Griffiths) added a portentous sheen. The instrumentalists were technically assured throughout: during the journey to and arrival at the city, when the Young Son is accompanied on his path to dissolution by the Tempter, was marked by a virtuosic palette of striking orchestral colours.

Rodney Earl Clarke was a strong presence as the heartless Elder Son. John McMunn’s Young Son was full of persuasive self-confidence as he justified his desire for freedom, but this was replaced by a melancholy introversion and despair when he realised the extent of his errors, in a moving duet with the viola.

The over-riding sentiment throughout these performances was earnest solemnity, with the emphasis on the moral framework of the works, rather than their emotional or dramatic dimension.

Yet, despite some fine instrumental playing, an accurate and resonant Chorus of Pilgrims, and some arresting designs by Kitty Callister which were as economical yet impressive as Britten’s own orchestration, things felt just a little too controlled and repressed — the restless uneasiness which permeates the score was not always present.

Moreover, the elongated nave further distanced many of the audience from the action, and the acoustics of the venue played havoc with the text. On the first evening, I was seated at the rear of the nave, and the only singer whose words were on occasion audible was Gilchrist — and in this regard he was not helped by the rags which covered his head and face throughout the performance. Things improved when a front nave seat on the second evening permitted many more of the words to come through but, even so, the action still seemed overly remote.

The processionals and rituals certainly emphasised the renewal of faith which is achieved in each parable. But, the pace seemed overly ponderous, the choreography too stylised; it’s worth remembering that Britten himself express his concerns “lest the work should seem a pastiche of a Noh play, which however well done, would seem false and thin”. [2]

Exiting the dimly lit cathedral into the urban clutter of London Bridge Station and the Shard was a rather dislocating experience; mystic power gave way to modernity all too quickly.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

James Gilchrist (tenor); Rodney Earl Clarke (bass); Samuel Evans (bass); Lukas Jakobski (bass); John McMunn (tenor); Frederic Wake-Walker (director); Roger Vignoles (musical director); Principal Players of Aurora Orchestra. Mahogany Opera. City of London Festival, Southwark Cathedral, Wednesday 3rd and Thursday 4th July 2013.

Notes:

[1] Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten: A Biography (Faber, 1982), p.430.

[2] Letter to William Plomer, 15 April 1959.

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):