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

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

OSJ: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Harem

Opera San Jose kicked off its 35th anniversary season with a delectably effervescent production of their first-ever mounting of Mozart’s youthful opus, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Isouard's Cinderella: Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square

A good fairy-tale sweeps us away on a magic carpet while never letting us forget that for all the enchanting transformations, beneath the sorcery lie essential truths.

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):