02 Mar 2014
LA Opera Presents a Parable of Good and Evil
Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
His nemesis, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, played by the equally charismatic Greer Grimsley, hates him because of it. The director could have introduced a homoerotic element of hatred born of rejection, but she chose not to. Instead, the evil Claggart is a first cousin to Verdi and Shakespeare’s Iago.
Herman Melville’s works have become the basis for two modern operas, Benjamin Britten’s 1951 Billy Budd and Jake Heggie’s 2010 Moby Dick. When Melville died in 1891, he left the novella Billy Budd unfinished, so it was not published until 1924. His first biographer, Raymond Weaver, unearthed its manuscript when he read through Melville's papers. In 1951, a play made from the novella by Louis Coxe and Robert Chapman was a major success on Broadway. That same year saw the premiere of Benjamin Britten’s opera, which has a libretto by English novelist E. M. Forster who worked with frequent Britten collaborator, Eric Crozier.
Richard Croft as Captain Vere
The title role was intended for Geraint Evans, but he found its tessitura too high. At the opera’s monumentally successful premiere at Covent Garden on December 1, 1951, Theodore Uppman sang Budd and Evans sang Mr. Flint. The performance received seventeen curtain calls and rave reviews.
The current Los Angeles Opera production by Francesca Zambello was first seen at London’s Covent Garden on May 30, 1995. Los Angeles Opera originally mounted her austere, relatively traditional production in 2000 and brought it back on February 22, 2014, under the direction of Julia Pevzner. Alison Chitty’s set is a steeply raked, angular deck that can be raised to reveal a crew area below. Above the deck is a slanted mast with an arm that becomes reminiscent of a cross when Billy stretches his arms out on it.
Billy, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence. His nemesis, Master-at-Arms John Claggart, played by the equally charismatic Greer Grimsley, hates him because of it. The director could have introduced a homoerotic element of hatred born of rejection, but she chose not to. Instead, the evil Claggart is a first cousin to Verdi and Shakespeare’s Iago.
Caught in the middle of this drama is the ship’s captain, Vere, beautifully sung and movingly interpreted by Richard Croft. He is seen as an old man in both the prologue and the epilogue. He is still uneasy looking back on his role in Billy’s conviction and execution at sea for assaulting a superior officer. That is Britten’s way of expressing his discontent with the harsh laws of wartime. This production pulled the drama taut and propelled the action forward. Many singers created notable character portrayals in this performance. Greg Fedderly was a raucous Red Whiskers, James Creswell a wise Dansker, and Anthony Michaels-Moore an obsequious Redburn. Members of the Los Angeles Opera chorus sang with precise harmony while making the audience realize how many hundreds of men it took to man sailing ships.
Although the opera does not send the audience out humming its tunes, it is consummate music drama and the orchestra makes the audience feel Billy’s pain when he is betrayed. Britten’s sophisticated musical structure sets the listener up for the coup de grace, Billy’s inability to speak at the crucial moment and his resulting assault on Claggart. The composer has created an evocative phrase for each thing that happens in the opera and conductor James Conlon brought them all out with the brilliant colors and the stark clarity of the score. Conlon was the prime mover for bringing more Britten to Los Angeles and with this performance he demonstrated the powerful emotional appeal of that composer’s work.
Cast and production information:
Billy Budd, Liam Bonner; Captain Edward Vere, Richard Croft; John Claggart, Greer Grimsley; Mr. Redburn, Anthony Michaels-Moore; Mr. Flint, Daniel Sumegi; Lieutenant Ratcliffe, Patrick Blackwell; Red Whiskers, James Creswell; Bosun, Craig Colclough; Novice, Keith Jameson; First Mate, Paul LaRosa; Second Mate, Daniel Armstrong; Novice's Friend, Valentin Anikin; Maintop, Vladimir Dmitruk; Squeak, Matthew O'Neill; Cabin Boy, Rory Hemmings; Conductor, James Conlon; Production, Francesca Zambello; Director, Julia Pevzner; Set and Costume Design, Alison Chitty; Lighting, Alan Burrett; Chorus Master, Grant Gershon; Fight Director, Ed Douglas.