02 Nov 2013
Two Boys at the Brave New Met
Whatever you think of some of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent productions, you cannot fault the Gelb administration for fearing to take risks.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
Whatever you think of some of the Metropolitan Opera’s recent productions, you cannot fault the Gelb administration for fearing to take risks.
Along with controversial new productions of pre 20th century works, the company recently performed John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest and this season it is presenting its first commissioned opera, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys.
And you can’t have had the most casual relationship with opera without having heard or read about the Muhly work. In fact, you needn’t have had any idea that opera even exists as an art form, to have heard about it. Its libretto, based on an incident of Internet deception which took place in Manchester, England, had a Page One murky resonance recently for Americans in the romantic hoax perpetrated on San Diego Chargers’ linebacker Manti Te’o. To attract the young, hip and internet knowledgeable to the premiere, the Met advertised in real and virtual nooks and crannies of New York that had never seen opera ads, previews or posters before.
Two Boys is the first fruit of the Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, a commissioning project instituted in 2006 in which composers are paired with librettists, and eventually directors and designers, to develop new works for the two theaters. It’s a long, laborious process, which includes repeated workshops. For his first full length opera, Muhly was paired with a veteran writer Craig Lucas and producer Bartlett Sher. Yet even Two Boys’, world premier at the English National Opera in 2011, turned out to be a workshop. Since then the three have made numerous revisions of the libretto, music and staging. Fortunately the black clad spiky haired Muhly, now 32, and a prolific composer of classical works, as well as of pop, and movie music, is cooperatively inclined. “I’m so happy to change stuff “ he is quoted as saying, “I think most operas after their first performance get revised, since the beginning of time."
The libretto of Two Boys is presented as a police drama taking place in an industrial British city. Black and white cam tapes reveal 16 year old Brian, stabbing 13 year old Jake, and leaving him for dead. The task of unraveling how and why this happened is left to Anne Strawson, an oddly dense career detective, who strangely knows nothing about computers, and who is responsible for her mother’s care. It is a chance remark by her mother, which eventually leads her to understand the dimensions of the crime. Eventually, Strawson gets Brian to reveal an almost unbelievable story of the various people he met through a chat room, who led him to commit the crime. First there is Rebecca, then her brother, Jake, Fiona, their mother’s friend and a secret agent, the sinister gardener named Peter, all of whom drive him to the crime. They turn out to be the names of real people, recreated as inventions by the 13 year-old victim, the real Jake, who has engineered his own death.
The gist of the opera is in the manner in which these scenes unfold to reveal the characters’ backgrounds, as well as their real and imaginary encounters. “I go to school, I do my homework, I eat supper,” Brian tells Strawson as we follow his first tentative approach to a chat room, and his increasingly enticing, entangling, relationships with young Rebecca, seductive Fiona, frightening Peter, and finally with Jake himself. In Strawson’s first scene with her mother, we see her mother nag her about neglecting her appearance, and learn that in order to pursue her career, she had given up an infant son, who would now be Brian’s age.
Two Boys, with worried looking Strawson, conniving Jake, befuddled Brian, and an anonymous horde of chat room cohorts seeking they know not what of the Internet, is a dark tale with an undercurrent of delirium. Bartlett Sher’s production and Nico Muhly’s music capture its moods perfectly. Grayish blank panels shift from Strawson’s home to Brian’s, to Jake’s hospital room, with the silent rapidity of movie or television screens -and alternately serve as projection screens for wildly repetitive iterations of chat room dialogue. Textual representations and droning choral repetitions of fragments of internet “speech” such as “r u there?” appear repeatedly and fade, in flashing sometimes ominous animations created by 59 Productions. Muhly’s intriguing rhythmic orchestral patterns and striking harmonies, underline the delirium of the chatters’ amorphous yearnings. Costumes are drab and dull except for those imaginary characters, who seem real to Brian. Hofesh Shechter’s choreography of the chat room scenes illuminates the dull lives of the participants and the lurid possibilities offered by the Internet, as twisting, writhing dancers, perhaps portending evil, weave in out of the ranks of the massed “chatters’’.
In a brilliantly contrasting scene, ominous darkness gives way to peace as a stained glass window glows quietly in an Anglican Church. Here as the congregants sing and Brian comes face to face with the real Jake for the first time, Muhly’s music glows as well, with a kind of peace and limpidity. “Music of the English Renaissance and Tudor Music has been a cantus firmus through everything I do, not just musically, but also as a sort of philosophy of how to make music and think of yourself as a composer,” Muhly said in an interview.
Sandra Piques Eddy as Fiona and Andrew Pulver as the Boy soprano
Muhly’s large, imaginative musical palette includes pacing of vocal lines to understandable natural speech, and remarkable choral music. "Shimmering" is the word one most often encounters in reviews of Muhly’s chorales. There is a kind of dry Britten-like lyricism in his melodic writing, particularly in Strawson’s concluding aria, and intermittent patches of minimalism throughout the work, which Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass, prefers to call "repetitively structured" music.
The Met gave us an excellent cast. Mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, who made a moving Anne Strawson, Paul Appleby, a youthful 30 year old tenor, whose acting and singing were convincing as 16 year old Brian, and Andrew Pulver, an 11 year old boy soprano, coolly in command of his role as Jake. Their supporting cast was equally memorable.
Nico Muhly has written a potentially haunting opera — yet one that does not haunt enough — that neither seeks, nor achieves a climax, and whose passionless protagonists accede too easily to death and loss and pain.
One wonders whether Muhly or librettist Craig Lucas knew their characters well enough to understand the powerful emotions that drove two children to suicide and murder, and trapped a young police woman responsible for the care of a nagging mother without any visible disabilities, into a life of sexual and emotional repression.
Nevertheless, Two Boys gives reason to believe that Nico Muhly’s next opera — it has already been commissioned by the Met — will haunt viewers long after its last curtain drops.
And yes, however the Met did it, the audience at the opera’s second performance, which I attended, was young, hip and enthusiastic, particularly when the beaming composer appeared to acknowledge its cheers.
Cast and production information:
Brian: Paul Appleby; Anne Strawson:Alice Coote; Cynthia, Jake’s mother: Caitlin Lynch; Rebecca: Jennifer Zetlan; Brian’s mother: Maria Zifchak; 13 year old Jake: Andrew Pulver; Anne’s Mum: Judith Forst; Fiona: Sandra Piques Eddy; Jake: Christopher Bolduc; Peter: Keith Miller. Conductor: David Richardson. Production: Bartlett Sher. Set Designer: Michael Yeargan. Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber. Lighting Designer: Donald Holder. Animation: 59 Productions. Choreographer: Hofesh Shechter.