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.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
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.