02 Jun 2014
Sir Harrison Birtwistle — Yan Tan Tethera: A Mechanical Pastoral
A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
A month in which London, or indeed anywhere else, saw one performances of a Birtwistle drama would be something.
To have two, plus three associated concerts, all at the same venue, is something very special indeed. The Barbican has certainly done the composer proud with its ‘Birtwistle at 80’ series. Would that Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell were regularly so honoured; the contrast with the absurd overkill of last year’s Britten anniversary is instructive. At any rate, Yan Tan Tethera, written in 1983-4, first performed in 1986, and very rarely heard since — might Channel 4 make available its television broadcast? — shone both on its account and for the fuller sense it offered of Birtwistle’s musico-dramatic development.
To a libretto by Tony Harrison — any chance of seeing and hearing their Oresteia, someone? — this may perhaps seem more conventionally a chamber opera than Birtwistle’s earlier music-theatre pieces. And yet, listen more closely, and this tale of North and South, of shepherds counting sheep, of a malevolent piper, becomes more complex. There is a linear story, yes. Alan, the good, northern shepherd, who adheres to the old counting system, ‘yan, tan, tethera, ’ is drawn into the great hill — a precursor to Benjamin’s ‘little hill’? — by the piper and Caleb seems about to triumph, but the tables are turned. A modern, yet timeless, folk-like version of Virgil’s first Eclogue, Alan and Caleb the new Meliboeus and Tityrus, is far, however, from the whole, or perhaps better the only, story. The interaction, and at times apparent lack of it, between Harrison’s words and Birtwistle’s score are at least as much the story.
We are, as it were, in a ‘secret theatre’ once again. The ‘mechanics’ of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ tell of a story perhaps deeper than Virgil, even than Theocritus. Counting itself is both external and internal drama, which repeats, is broken, is reconstructed, yet is never the same. The choral sheep are counted and ultimately they too count. Birtwistle’s division of the ensemble into groups is part of that story, so is the journey towards unison, but, as Paul Griffiths noted in the final line of his helpful programme synopsis: ‘Alan leads his family and flock: Everyone is counting, eventually including Caleb underground, as the musical machinery moves on, now set aright.’ Who knows, however, whether the different perspectives, different pulses, different landscapes, different soundworlds we have passed through, will reassert themselves once again? Interestingly, and tellingly, Birtwistle (quoted in Michael Hall’s book on the composer, likened the structuring of his response to the libretto to that of Stravinsky to Auden. Yan Tan Tethera
has things I’ve never done before and I’m really quite excited about it. Did you know that it was Stravinsky who divided Auden’s text for The Rake’s Progress into recitatives and arias? Auden wrote his libretto without the divisions. Well, I’m imposing something on Tony Harrison’s libretto. Had I asked Tony to provide it for me, it wouldn’t have worked; the result would be too formal in the wrong sense, too predictable.
As so often with this composer, anything but a Stravinsky epigone — there have been more than enough of those — but rather a true successor, the musical drama has a good deal of inspiration, conscious or otherwise, in his great predecessor. As Jonathan Cross has noted, the very notion of the ‘mechanical pastoral’ is rooted in ‘the imaginary song of a mechanical bird,’ just like Stravinsky’s Nightingale. The opposition between North and South, country and the town that encroaches upon it, above all natural and mechanical, may perhaps prove a further kinship between the two composers.
If at first, then, I was a little disappointed by the necessarily basic nature of John Lloyd Davies’s ‘concert hall staging’, I realised after the event that the concentration necessity had thrown upon the music had very much its own ‘dramatic’ virtues too, enabling me to experience and indeed to conceptualise crucial oppositions in a work I had never heard before. For that, of course, a great deal of praise must be accorded the excellent performances. Baldur Brönnimann’s leadership of the equally fine Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices was assured and (mechanically) expressive throughout. String glissandi — are they echoes of Tippett perhaps? — embodying, to quote David Beard, ‘both Alan’s subjective expression and the representative pastoral anecdote’ evoke both human acts and, perhaps still more so, that of the landscape, as ever with Birtwistle a potent force indeed. Such was undoubtedly apparent even from this, my first acquaintance with the work. Likewise the distinction between the almost conventionally haunting piper’s melody — still lodged in my memory — and the dramatic mechanisms surrounding it. The scintillating brilliance of the Britten Sinfonia’s response to the score was not the least of the evening’s revelations.
Roderick Williams’s Alan and Omar Ebrahim’s Caleb — extraordinary to think he appeared also in the premiere — led a fine cast, all attentive to words, music, and disjuncture. William’s naïve, northern sincerity — flat vowels and all, though sometimes they came and went — contrasted just as it should with Ebrahim’s ‘southern’ malevolence. Claire Booth offered a typically fine performance as Alan’s wife, Hannah, beautiful of tone, dignified and assured of purpose. Daniel Norman’s Piper or Bad’Un, and four boys from Tiffin School, Kingston, all made their mark very well too. Above all, this was a splendid ensemble performance. Now, may we hope for a fully staged version, in which dramatic oppositions receive some degree of visualisation from an aurally alert director?
Cast and production information:
Alan: Roderick Williams; Caleb Raven: Omar Ebrahim; Hannah: Claire Booth; Piper/Bad’Un: Daniel Norman; Jack: Ben Knight; Dick: Benjamin Clegg; Davie: Joe Gooding; Rob: Duncan Tarboton; John Lloyd Davies (director, design, lighting). Britten Sinfonia Voices (director: Eamonn Dougan)/Britten Sinfonia/Baldur Brönnimann (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, Thursday 29 May 2014.