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 Performances

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.

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).

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.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)
02 Feb 2016

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

A review by Rebecca Lentjes

Above: Quicksand by Robert Ashley (Burning Books)

 

The voice of the late Robert Ashley—a recognizable mumble of a low yet crisp American drawl—filled the immense performance space at the Kitchen with a distinct presence, despite the empty stage and his March 2014 death. Some might have perceived the experience of Ashley’s recorded voice reciting the words of his detective novel Quicksand as somewhat akin to listening to an audiobook; yet for any Ashley aficionado the experience only affirmed the composer’s ability to draw novel experiences (no pun intended) out of American speech patterns. The spoken words of Ashley’s “television operas” and this “opera-novel”, unlike the sung texts of “normal” operas, do not have their meaning obscured by the voice as an aesthetic object; instead the narrative sentiment and aural rhythms of speech become intricately bound as a vehicle not only for musical but for philosophical contemplation. The world première of Quicksand, produced by Ashley’s widow Mimi Johnson, highlights the ability of voice, and of vocal storytelling, to animate words and sentiments even in the form of an unsung, unassuming murmur: even in the physical absence of a human body.

In the last few years of his life, Ashley wrote a novel, Quicksand (Burning Books, 2011), recorded himself reading it out loud, and collaborated with composer and audio producer Tom Hamilton on the transformation from novel to opera-novel. After an original version that was more in the tradition of Ashley’s television operas, involving a “strictly metered and very stylized” vocal ensemble, Ashley and Hamilton broke away from conventional musical time altogether, and Ashley instead read the 150-page book as quickly as he could, with Hamilton editing out the silence between the words. Hamilton also composed an electronic orchestra accompaniment which is based on a 16-chord sequence from Ashley’s earlier opera eL/Aficionado (1993), his goal being to personify the quicksand of the title with “an unstable harmonic landscape, never fully grounded in any familiar context.” Instead, the sounds flit around the audience’s ears, a solitary fly buzzing and multiplying into a swarm of electronics and drones, smoky in texture as the air in the performance space, which became filled with the acrid scent of smoke at the beginning and end of each act.

Another Ashley collaborator, choreographer Steve Paxton, had a similar approach. Dancers Maura Gahan and Jurij Konjar wander around the stage in a series of mostly irrelevant motions, their bodies frequently obscured by a massive parachute quilt, under which their muffled human forms twisting the colors and folds into new shapes and designs. Paxton notes that Ashley “did not anticipate illustration of the elements of the text”; his divertissements are meant to be subtle, abstract accompaniments to the plot and never to overwhelm the texts. A recurring formation is Konjar seated and typing in thin air while Gahan stands next to him, folding her arms across her body, at times wearing a plant on her head so that she resembles a palm tree.

At times the two dancers pace across the stage, their movements ranging from measured and careful to gracefully spastic. At others, the dancers are nowhere in sight, and instead a choreography of lights and colors provides the visual backdrop for Ashley’s wry mumble. David Moodey’s lighting shows rather than tells, with colors materializing as an externalization of emotion or mood rather than indicators of time of day or location. Sometimes colors waft across the quilt, floating from green into blue into pink, while at others a divertissement of spotlights and darkness plays out across the quilt. The opera’s central visual component, at times the quilt hangs from the ceiling like a flag, while at others it crumbles and collapses, snatching Konjar and Gahan into its deflated obscurity.

The only other prop in the opera is a giant cardboard gun, which makes a few key appearances and seems to aptly serve Ashley’s larger points. Of course, the opera-novel isn’t really just a spy story, as most of Ashley’s works are “about” much more than what appears on the surface. In Quicksand, the fictionalized version of Ashley (an opera composer who periodically receives assignments involving guns, watches, secret passports sewn into his carry-on, and the dismantling of dictatorships) has been sent to a fictionalized South Asian country by “the Company”. Ashley uses his trademark irony and self-deprecating humor as the fictionalized version of himself joins his wife for a yoga retreat but ends up hiding on the hotel bathroom floor, clutching the gun that mysteriously appeared in the drawer next to his bed. I say “ends up”, but this is the scene with which the story begins, filling in some gaps but leaving others to the imagination.

The plot hops through time as witticisms abound, keeping the listener engaged despite the detachment of the visual and aural elements. The hitmen sidekicks assigned to him by the Company are referred to as “the Steelers” due to their resemblance to pro football players. Ashley’s incredulity over his missing bag and the questioning of the air hostess—“What is she talking about? It’s a carry-on. I carried it on.”—is delivered much more fittingly when spoken rather than in print. (The audience cracked up both nights I attended.) Although Ashley explores global issues with a gripping (if anything but linear) spy narrative, at heart this is an opera about different kinds of people and different kinds of love: “You can see it and maybe you can touch it. Maybe you can talk to it, but you can never have it.”

Rebecca Lentjes

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):