Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Jean Sibelius: Kullervo

Why did Jean Sibelius suppress Kullervo (Op. 7, 1892)? There are many theories why he didn’t allow it to be heard after its initial performances, though he referred to it fondly in private. This new recording, from Hyperion with Thomas Dausgaard conducting the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, soloists Helena Juntunen and Benjamin Appl and the Lund Male Chorus, is a good new addition to the ever-growing awareness of Kullervo, on recording and in live performance.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Mahler: Titan, Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform – François-Xavier Roth, Les Siècles

Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony no 1, but the “real” Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg/Weimar performances of 1893-94. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E.Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Verdi: Messa da Requiem - Staatskapelle Dresden, Christian Thielemann (Profil)

It has often been the case that the destruction wrought by wars, especially the Second World War, has been treated unevenly by composers. Theodor Adorno’s often quoted remark, from his essay Prisms, that “to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric” - if widely misinterpreted - is limited by its scope and in a somewhat profound way composers have looked on the events of World War II in the same way.

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

21 Jul 2015

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Iolanta and Persephone in Aix

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon, Sandrine Plau as Tytania
Photo copyright Patrick Berger courtesy of the Aix Festival

 

A far cry from Christopher Alden’s controversial 2012 Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO where 0beron is the headmaster of a boys school and Theseus is his former lover, Robert Carsen’s 1991 production of Le Songe d’une nuit d’été for the Aix Festival floats high above the sexual and social complexities of Shakespeare’s raciest play.

The Carsen production however has become a classic because of the simplicity of its exposition, the intellectual innocence of its concept and the maximal minimalism of its execution. Thus twenty-five years later the Aix Festival has brought this splendid production back to its theater of origin, the Archevêché in a co-production with the Opéra de Lyon where it was staged in 2008.

The excellent Orchestre of the Opéra de Lyon was in the Archevêché pit with its music director Kazushi Ono to illuminate this complex 1960 Britten score, sculpting its lovers, whispering the mysteries of its fairy world, and teasing its rustic actors and opera itself. As often in Britten human actions are played out in an atmosphere of innocence, created just now in Aix by 20 boys from London’s Trinity Boys Choir.

Director Robert Carsen has often collaborated with designer Michael Levine (notably for Boito’s Mefistofele, another Carsen production that has achieved classic stature). The Midsummer Nights Dream exploits a favorite Robert Carsen texture — cloth. The entire stage is a bed complete with huge pillows covered with a brilliant saturated green coverlet. The night sky is another huge mass of saturated color — blue.

Dream_Aix2 - 1.pngTwo pairs of lovers in beds, Tytania and Bottom in far right bed, Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon, Miltos Yerolemou as Puck
Photo copyright Patrick Berger courtesy of the Aix Festival

The fairies are dressed in identical blue and green suits, their hands covered in brilliant red gloves, a color that betrays the hidden and maybe dangerous mysterious of the fairy world. The coup de théâtre is when the fairy world instantly vanishes (whooshed into the lofts by cables) and the blank golden lighted stage has become Athens. No hidden digital magic, just overt mechanical human ingenuity — and it is sublime theater.

Nothing could be simpler, and that is the Carsen brilliance. Here this simplicity transforms the absurdities of Shakespeare’s 17th century world into the absolute normal for Britten’s premonition of the psychedelic ’60’s, no questions asked. It is a distilled theatrical language that was new to the operatic stage in the ‘90‘s. It has withstood the test of time, and for this Midsummer Night’s Dream it once again it effectively stripped away layers of insignificant complications to reveal an unusual innocence in the complicated artistic soul of Benjamin Britten.

The Aix Festival provided a splendid cast led by the green wigged Oberon of American counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo who boasts a male colored alto voice that he used to musical perfection. Tytania was sung by French soprano Sandrine Plau in a shimmering and smooth high voice that made her magical. Bottom was sung by British bass Brindley Sherratt with welcomed authority and wit. Central to the success of this edition of the Carsen production was the Puck played by well known actor Miltos Yerolemou (Star Wars VII - the Force Awakens, Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall) whose 5’3” height left him in the world of boys but whose forty-some years added what seemed to be innocent depravity.

One has come to expect excellent casts at the Aix Festival, and this expectation was upheld throughout the huge cast.

A Peter Sellars production is expected to be off-the-wall, as was his Zaïde (2010) at the Aix Festival (a remount of the 2006 Lincoln Center production) where a huge sheet metal wall was pounded on throughout the performance. Just now the maximally gifted, perpetual adolescent (he is 57 years old) has remounted his 2012 stagings for Madrid’s Teatro Real of Stravinsky’s Persephone and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Once again it is all about walls, this time though they are full stage flat backdrops that rise and fall throughout the two brief operas, lighted in various hues and intensities.

Usually Mr. Sellars collaborates with off-beat (though firmly in the publicly-supported-art mainstream), culturally diverse designers (like for Perm Opera’s [and ENO’s] recent Indian Queen). But for this production Sellars’ set designer was George Tsypin, an designer fully vetted by virtually every mainstream stage director who toys with advanced theatrical ideas.

We entered the Grand Théâtre de Provence to an a vista set — a few black door frames construed center stage topped by primitive bird heads. We left more than three hours later and it was still sitting there, only by then all of the usual maskings that created the stage picture had disappeared revealing the fully open stage space, Mr. Sellars and Mr. Tsypin stubbornly reveling in this hackneyed image.

Iolanta_Aix - 1.pngMaxim Aniskin as Robert, Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Iolanta, Arnold Rutkowski as Vaudémont
Photo by Pascal Victor courtesy of the Aix Festival

Mr. Sellars has long held a fascination for Oriental theater forms thus the black covered stagehands of Noh theater were transformed into concert-black dressed choristers who assisted in the storytelling in both operas, construing themselves in geometric shapes from time to time on the stage to sing while they made the uniform, formalized arm motions typical of the abstractions of Asian theater.

Like Zaïde, neither Persephone nor Iolanta are masterpieces, all the better for Mr. Sellars theatrical explorations, here light and dark. In Iolanta it was transcending blindness into sight, in Persephone it was the light of earthly life to the darkness of hell, and back again and back again.

Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, is more in the music theater genre than it is opera, its simple story (blind girl regains sight) told in a series of songs and a couple of duets that forlornly replay the great Tchaikovsky moments. Mr. Sellars mostly kept his actors standing in the doorways and relegated his romantic leads to mostly lying still on the floor when not rolling on the floor.

Persephone_Aix - 1.pngDominique Blanc (in blue) as Persephone, Paul Groves (lying) as Eumolpe, dancers left of principals, plus chorus
Photo by Pascal Victor courtesy of the Aix Festival

Persephone (1933) comes from Stravinsky’s neo-classic period where much use is made of formalized tableau. It is circus-like theater of catatonic rhythmic repetition according to Stravinsky contemporary Theodor Adorno (a philosopher and aficionado of Schöneberg). Considering Persephone from this point of view it becomes a perfect vehicle for Mr. Sellars’ theatrical genius.

When not done as a concert performance Persephone is danced, a sort of pantomime. Mr. Sellars used four Cambodian dancers who naively imitated André Gide’s narrated and sung poem. One recalled the two Cambodian dancers who wandered aimlessly around the stage for the duration of his 1997 Salzburg staging of Le Grand Macabre.

Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis did not conduct the performance I attended due to illness. It was ably conducted by his assistant, and maybe it was this inexperience that hindered any sense of musical sweep to the evening. Mo. Currentzis is director of the Perm (Russia) Opera (about 800 miles east of Moscow) and is now a frequent collaborator with Mr. Sellars.

The strong voiced, Russian speaking cast for Iolanta sang loudly in fine Russian un-nuanced voices and style. The lone foreigner was American bass Willard White who was the tale’s elegantly voiced Muslim doctor. American tenor Paul Groves was splendid as the Eumolpus, priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Persephone abducted into Hades by Pluto). The musical highpoint of the evening was the lovely Tchaikovsky a cappella prayer sung by the chorus of the Opéra de Lyon. It is very rare to hear a 48-voice choir of trained operatic voices singing beautiful, soft music. Simply stunning.

The 2010 Aix audience had no patience for Sellars’ Zaïde. The 2015 audience greatly appreciated this boring double bill. Maybe you had to be French.

Michael Milenski


Casts and production information:

Oberon: Lawrence Zazzo;: Sandrine Piau; Puck: Miltos Yerolemou; Theseus: Scott Conner; Hippolyta: Allyson McHardy; Lysander: Rupert Charlesworth; Demetrius: John Chest; Hermia: Elizabeth DeShong; Helena: Layla Claire; Bottom: Brindley Sherratt; Quince: Henry Waddington; Flute: Michael Slattery; Snout: Christopher Gillett; Starveling: Simon Butterriss; Snug: Brian Bannatyne-Scott; Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed et Moth: Benedict Hill, Lucas Pinto, Andrew Sinclair-Knopp et Jérémie de Rijk (members of the Trinity Boys Choir. Trinity Boys Choir; Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kazushi Ono; Mise en scène: Robert Carsen; Décors et costumes: Michael Levine; Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet; Choreography: Matthew Bourne. Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 16, 2015.

Iolanta: Ekaterina Scherbachenko; René: Dmitry Ulianov; Robert: Maxim Aniskin; Vaudémont: Arnold Rutkowski; Ibn-Hakia: Willard White; Alméric: Vasily Efimov; Bertrand: Pavel Kudinov; Marta: Diana Montague; Brigita: Maria Bochmanova;
Laura: Karina Demurova. Perséphone: Dominique Blanc; Eumolpe: Paul Groves; Perséphone: Sathya Sam; Déméter: Sodhachivy Chumvan (Belle); Pluton: Chan Sithyka Khon (Mo); Mercure, Démophoon, Tripolème: Narim Nam. Direction musicale: Teodor Currentzis; Mise en scène: Peter Sellars; Décors: George Tsypin: Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz et Helene Siebrits; Lighting: James F. Ingalls. Orchestra, Chorus and Childrens Chorus of the Opéra national de Lyon. Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, July 17, 2015.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):