23 Oct 2013
Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek
After the bitter disappointment of
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
After the bitter disappointment of
Anna Nicole, came this reminder — both sad and hopeful- that Mark-Anthony Turnage was once capable of writing urgent, exciting music theatre. Indeed, from this composer I have heard nothing finer, perhaps nothing to match, this, his first opera, to Steven Berkoff’s libretto after his own Oedipal play, Greek. Adverse circumstances notwithstanding, this performance and production from Music Theatre Wales offered everything one could reasonably hope for, and more. Marcus Farnsworth, who had been ailing on the first night, had awoken with no voice, to be replaced by an heroic combination of the flown-in-from-Berlin-that-afternoon Alastair Shelton-Smith to sing the part on stage and Michael McCarthy to act, to mime the sung passages, and to deliver the spoken text. If anything, the practice added to the feeling of alienation, social and theatrical, but it would have come to nothing without such committed performances. From the word go, or rather a somewhat bluer word than that, when McCarthy hastened toward the stage, scarily impersonating an irate member of the audience hurling abuse at the audience, he inhabited the role visually and gesturally. His own production frames the performance convincingly, offering a return into the audience as Eddy is rejected by his family, those who supposedly love him unable to stomach his desire to ‘climb back inside my mum’. Shelton-Smith’s assuredly protean yet deeply felt vocal performance fully deserved the rapturous reception it received from audience and fellow cast-members alike, and would have done so even if it had not been for the particular circumstances.
But the other performances were equally assured. Sally Silver and Louise Winter proved as versatile in vocal as in acting terms, their combination as lesbian separatist sphinx being sleazy and savagely humorous in equal measure. Gwion Thomas was just as impressive in the other male roles, the sad would-be patriarch as much as the brutal police chief. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under Michael Rafferty played Turnage’s score as to the manner born: angry and soulful, biting and tender, urgent and yet offering oases for reflection. Whether called upon to play in conventional terms, to shout, to stamp, or even to strike a pose, there could be no gainsaying the level of artistry on offer from players and conductor alike.
McCarthy’s production places the work firmly in the tradition of music theatre — doubtless partly out of necessity, but, unlike in the opera, virtue certainly arises out of fate. Props are minimal but used to full effect, the cast in proper post-Brechtian fashion undertaking the stage business too. Video projections of key words, not least Berkoff’s inevitable ‘Motherfucker’, heightens both drama and alienation. But perhaps the principal virtue is that of allowing the anger of Berkoff and Turnage’s drama to unfold, within an intelligent yet far from attention-seeking frame. The transposition of the Oedipus myth to 1980s London now seems both of its time and yet relevant to ours. It works as a far more daring version of the original EastEnders might have done, yet with injection of magic realism. Both Berkoff’s ear for language — the ability to forge a stylised ‘vernacular’, which yet can occasionally shift into knowingly would-be Shakespearean poetry — and Turnage’s response and intensification, whether his pounding protest rhythms or the jazzy seduction of his beloved saxophone, work just as McCarthy’s staging does: they grip and yet they will also, if not always, distance. Above all, one continues to feel and indeed to reiterate the anger felt by outcasts in the brutal Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Incest offers not only its own story, but stands or can come to stand also for other forms of social and sexual exclusion. Hearing of the plague, one can think of it as Thatcherism and the ignorant, hypocritical right-wing populism that continues to infest political discourse, or one can turn it round and view it as the guardians of morality most certainly would have done at the time of the 1988 premiere, as the fruits of sexual ‘deviance’: the tragedy of HIV/AIDS.
That space to think, to interpret is not the least of the work’s virtues, fully realised in performance. Its musical lineage is distinguished; on this occasion, those coming to mind included Stravinsky, Andriessen, magical shards of Knussen, and, alongside the music theatre of the Manchester School, that of Henze too, especially the angry social protest of Natascha Ungeheuer. But it is its own work, now with its own performance tradition, of which Music Theatre Wales’s contribution is heartily to be welcomed.
Cast and production information:
Eddy: Alastair Shelton-Smith/Michael McCarthy; Eddy’s Mum/Waitress/Sphinx: Sally Silver; Eddy’s Sister/Waitress who becomes Eddy’s Wife/Sphinx: Louise Winter; Dad/Café Manager/Chief of Police: Gwion Thomas. Director: Michael McCarthy; Designs: Simon Banham; Lighting: Ace McCarron, Jon Turtle. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 22 October 2013.