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.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.
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.