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

Bampton Classical Opera: Bride & Gloom at St John's Smith Square

Last week the Office of National Statistics published figures showing that in the UK the number of women getting married has fallen below 50%.

La traviata at the Palais Garnier

The clatter of information was overwhelmed by soaring bel canto, Verdi’s domestic tragedy destroyed by director Simon Stone, resurrected by conductor Michele Mariotti, a tour de force for South African soprano Pretty Yende.

San Jose Pops the Cork With Fledermaus

Opera San Jose vivaciously kicked off its 2019–2020 season with a heady version of Strauss’ immortal Die Fledermaus that had all the effervescence of vintage champagne.

Tempestuous Francesca da Rimini opens Concertgebouw Saturday matinee series

Two Russian love letters to the tragic thirteenth century noblewoman Francesca da Rimini inaugurated the Saturday matinee series at the Concertgebouw.

Immortal Beloved: Beethoven Festival at Wigmore Hall

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park 2019

Lyric Opera of Chicago presented this year’s annual concert, Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park. The evening’s program featured a range of selections from works to be presented in the 2019–2020 season along with arias and scenes from other notable and representative operas.

Prom 74: Uplifting Beethoven from Andrew Manze and the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover

Ceremony, drama and passion: this Beethoven Night by the NDR Radiophilharmonie Hannover under their Chief Conductor Andrew Manze had all three and served them up with vigour and a compelling freshness, giving Prommers at this eve-of-Last-Night concert an exciting and uplifting evening.

Prom 69: Elena Stikhina’s auspicious UK debut in a dazzling Czech Philharmonic concert

Rarely can any singer have made such an unforgettable UK debut in just twelve minutes of music. That was unquestionably the case with the Russian soprano, Elena Stikhina, who in a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin, sang with such compelling stage magnetism and with a voice that has everything you could possibly want.

Prom 68: Wagner Abend - Christine Goerke overwhelms as Brünnhilde

Wagner Nights at the Proms were once enormously popular, especially on the programmes of Sir Henry Wood. They have become less so, perhaps because they are simply unfashionable today, but this one given by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht steered clear of the ‘bleeding chunk’ format which was usually the norm. It was still chunky, but in an almost linear, logical way and benefited hugely from being operatic (when we got to the Wagner) rather than predominantly orchestral.

Prom 65: Danae Kontora excels in Mozart and Strauss

On the page this looked rather a ‘pick-and-mix’ sort of Prom from the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen under Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis, who was making his Proms debut. In the event, it was not so much a Chinese take-away as a Michelin-starred feast for musical gourmands.

British Youth Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Stendhal (as recorded in his Life of Rossini) was not a fan of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, complaining that after the first few bars of the Introduzione he was already suffering from a ‘faint feeling of nausea’, a condition which ‘never entirely dissipated, [recurring] periodically throughout the opera, and with increasing violence’.

La traviata at the Arena di Verona

There is esoteric opera — 16,500 spectators at this year’s Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, and there is pop opera — upwards of 500,000 spectators for the opera festival at the Arena di Verona, one quarter of them for an over-the-top new production of La traviata, designed and directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner brings Benvenuto Cellini to the Proms

Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini is quite rarity on UK stages. Covent Garden last performed it in 1976 and English National Opera performed it for the first time in 2014 (in Terry Gilliam's riotous production), and yet the opera never quite goes away either.

Prom 58: varied narratives from the BBCSSO and Ilan Volkov

There are many ways and means to tell a story: through prose, poetry, sounds, pictures, colours, movement.

Prom 53: Elgar’s emotionally charged Music Makers

British music with an English and strong European accent marked this Prom featuring three well-wrought works, stylistically worlds apart but each characterised by a highly individual musical personality.

Scoring a Century: British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre

‘It is well known that Eisler was a master of the art of self-contradiction, using non-sequitur, change of tack and playing devil’s advocate in a brilliantly ironic way in an attempt to look at a problem from every angle, to expose it fully to the gaze of his interlocutor. For an ordinary person to take part in this, let alone keep up with the pace and fully appreciate the wide range of references, which his enormous reading threw out, was wonderfully stimulating, and exhausting.’

Prom 55: Handel's Jephtha

‘For many it is the masterpiece among his oratorios.’

Opera della Luna's HMS Pinafore sails the seas at Wilton's Music Hall

The original production of HMS Pinafore opened at the Opera Comique in London on 25th May 1878 and ran for an astonishing 571 performances. Opera della Luna’s HMS Pinafore, which has been cresting the operatic oceans for over twenty years now, has notched up almost as many performances.

Spectra Ensemble present Treemonisha at Grimeborn

‘We see him now as one of the most important creators of his generation, certainly comparable to Schoenberg.’ T.J. Anderson, who reconstructed the score of Scott Joplin’s only surviving opera, Treemonisha, for its first staged production in 1972, was probably rather over-enthusiastic in his assessment.

Fortieth Anniversary Gala of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro

Earlier this month I reported from the Macerata Opera Festival – a largely Italian affair frequented by few foreigners. One week later I attended the 40th anniversary gala of the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, about 100 km north in the same region of Le Marche and a prominent stop on the international circuit. One one hears much English, French, German and Japanese, and the printed program features a long list of non-Italian financial sponsors.

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):