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

Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall
21 Aug 2016

Two Tales of Offenbach: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

‘Two outrageous operas in one crazy evening,’ reads the bill. Hyperbole? Certainly not when the operas are two of Jacques Offenbach’s more off-the-wall bouffoneries and when the company is Opera della Luna whose artistic director, Jeff Clarke, is blessed with the comic imagination and theatrical nous to turn even the most vacuous trivia into a sharp and sassy riotous romp.

Opera della Luna at Wilton’s Music Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Anthony Flaum (Headstong) and Caroline Kennedy (Fireball)

Photo credit: Jeff Clarke.

 

And, where better to perform these exuberant burlesques than Wilton’s Music Hall - the earliest surviving Grand Music Hall, set in the historic East End of London.

Founded by Clarke in 1994, Opera della Luna has garnered well-deserved praise for its zany, zippy productions of operatta, comic opera and pantomime. Its touring productions might notionally be ‘small-scale’ - performed by a troupe of actor-singers, without chorus, and accompanied by a small orchestral ensemble - but there’s nothing ‘miniature’ about their ambition or their theatrical impact.

Charmed as we are by Offenbach’s full-scale operatic gems - such Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Orphée aux enfers and La vie parisienne - we often forget that he was the composer of some 90 operettas, more than 50 of which comprise just a single act. Sometimes employing a full cast and chorus, elsewhere just two singers, they ranged from brief curtain-raisers to hour-long works, and reveal Offenbach’s delight in farce, fantasy, cloak-and-dagger melodrama and the exotic.

Having striven in vain to get his work performed at the Opéra-Comique and other lyric theatres in Paris, in 1855 at the age of 35, Offenbach obtained a license to open a small wooden theatre in the Champs Elysees - the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens - for the performance of one-act pieces typically comprising a brief orchestral prelude followed by half-dozen or so solos and duets.

Railing against the dull pretentiousness of the operatic fare on offer at the Opéra-Comique, Offenbach promoted the tiny new theatre which had lain empty between two trees on the Champs-Élysées, declaring: ‘In an opera which lasts only three quarters of an hour, in which only four characters are allowed and an orchestra of at most thirty persons is employed, one must have ideas and tunes that are as genuine as hard cash.’ The same might be said of a modern-day independent opera company - particularly in the absence of much ‘hard cash’ in the form of government support for artistic innovation and accomplishment.

Fortunately, Clarke is a cornucopia of ideas and theatrical masterstrokes. These two productions overflow with a glut of side-splitting gimmicks and gags. The guffaws came thick and fast from the first, and did not stop. Clarke appreciates the affection with which Offenbach lays bare human eccentricities, delusions and shortcomings. And, with a knowing nudge-wink which steers just the right side of vulgarity and excess, the director shows that he is genuinely fond of these preposterous characters while at the same time nailing their bizarre flaws and foibles.

Croquefer lampoons the violent immorality of the Crusades and sends up the arrogant affectations of medieval knighthood. Croquefer, ‘an immodest and faithless knight’, has imprisoned Peasblossom, the daughter of his arch-enemy, Rattlebone. Their enmity has lasted for 23 years, financially ruining Croquefer and depriving Rattlebone of arm, leg and tongue. Yet the latter remains a formidable, fear-inducing opponent, and Croquefer swallows his last weapon, his beloved sword of Toledo, willing to accept an inglorious peace.

He orders his nephew, Headstrong, to guard their hostage. From her cell, Peasblossom recognises her guard as her beloved, and in their ensuing love-duet they dream of running off together to Paris, imagining the delights they will enjoy at the Opéra. When Rattlebone arrives, Croquefer gives him a choice: either he must permit Peasblossom to become Croquefer’s wife, or she will be killed. To evade this fate, Peasblossom and her amour poison the wine and plot to murder the two adversaries, who are preparing to do battle. As the duel commences, the spiked drinks take effect and the sword-play is interrupted for a swift dash to the thrones-turned-commodes. The violent purgation returns both Croquefer’s sword and Rattlebone’s tongue to their owners. Differences are settled, Croquefer begs the audience’s indulgence - and the composer and librettist of the piece (or in this case, conductor Toby Purser) are dragged off to the asylum!

The exposed bricks of Wilton’s, shrouded in wafting smoke, were a fitting back-drop for Croquefer’s dilapidated black tower which thrust up into a storm-cloud strewn sky. Elroy Ashmore’s economical set designs had a Gothic edge - the arms of Croquefer’s throne curling out like grotesque hands - which was complemented by Nic Holdridge’s bold lighting design.

Attired in leather breeches and sporting straggly black locks, Carl Sanderson made an immediate impression as the eponymous villain - self-important, blustering and snarling, and equipt with a powerful tenor with which to lament the disintegration of his once-modish castle. He was aided with apt ineptitude by Caroline Kennedy’s goofy Fireball - a cross-between the Artful Dodger and a circus clown. Eager to please, Kennedy shone with feverish excitement as she peered through her telescope at the advancing Rattlebone, or lined up model Crusaders to imitate the beleaguered Croquefer’s diminished army. The role of Fireball was originally composed for tenor, but Kennedy’s bright, sweet-toned soprano added freshness and air to the macho mix, especially in the spirited Trio in which Headstrong’s eagerness for combat encourages Croquefer to renew his struggle against his foe.

Anthony Flaum’s lovely lyric tenor blended melodiously with Lynsey Docherty’s ingénue Peasblossom in their mock-dramatic love duet, as they scaled the parodic heights of Offenbach’s comedic quotations from the hits of the day: Jacques Halévy’s La Juive and Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable and Les Huguenots.

Offenbach and his librettists cocked-a-snook at the Parisian authorities, evading the regulation forbidding more than four characters to appear on stage at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, by making their fifth character a mute who has sacrificed his tongue in his battles with the Saracens, and whose contribution to the final quintet is limited to grunts and howls. One-armed and one-legged, Paul Featherstone staggered valiantly and lop-sidedly on crutches, worn down by his over-size helmet and basket of placards as he sought to rescue his captive daughter. He and Sanderson had plenty of fun during the pantomime-joust and sword-fights (choreography, Jenny Arnold), their perfectly timed faux-amateurism paradoxically highly polished and professional.

Known as the ‘Mozart of the Champs-Élysées’ and the ‘Napoleon of the operetta’ - and living in Paris under Napoleon III, a time when few in society, from high to low, were really what they claimed to be - in some ways Offenbach’s whole life was a mask-wearing charade, and it’s no surprise that so many of his characters do nothing but pretend to be what they are not. Offenbach’s The Isle of Tulipatan takes this role-playing to a new level of Wildean absurdity. A double-en travesti farce of identity-crisis and quid pro quo, in which Nature triumphs over human presumption and foolishness, this ‘bouffonerie’ takes place ‘at 25,000 kilometres from Nanterre, 473 years before the invention of the chamber pot’.

On the island of Tulipatan, King Cacatois XXII is unaware that his only son, Alexis - whose gentle disposition dismays him - is in fact biologically, his daughter, disguised as such by his wife who refused to have another attempt at producing the heir to the throne so craved for by her husband. Coincidentally, in order to avoid her child being conscripted into the army, Theodorine, the wife of the Duke’s steward, Field Marshall Rhomboid, has also deceived her husband: their daughter, Hermosa, is in fact a boy, because the anxious mother could not bear the thought of losing him to military service. Alexis and Hermosa are engaged to be married but their ignorance of their true sex spawns a string of misunderstandings until self-awakening and gender-realignment ensue, to the satisfaction of all. But, not before a multitude of farcical opportunities which neither Offenbach nor Clarke neglect to exploit to the full.

Carl Sanderson (Field Marshall Romboid) and Caroline Kennedy (Prince Alexis).pngCarl Sanderson (Field Marshall Romboid) and Caroline Kennedy (Prince Alexis). Photo Credit: Jeff Clarke.

Caroline Kennedy’s emerald-frock-coated Prince Alexis delivered ‘his’ sentimental romance on the death of his pet bird with bell-like purity, touching sincerity, not a hint of mockery and just the right amount of mawkishness. After the tomfooleries of Croquefer, Kennedy really showed her dramatic range here using her voice and face most expressively. Her naïve curiosity when faced with the veracity of her femininity - ironically dressed in a green and purple gown with black Doc Martins - was heart-winning.

Costumer Isobel Fellow supplemented the absurdities of the plot with costumes of garish complementary hue and Hermosa’s lurid pink frock with zebra accessories made for a wonderfully incongruous clash with the swaggering sentiments of Hermosa’s military song. This was a terrific performance from Flaum who, in drag, seemed to have taken inspiration from the late Les Dawson’s pantomime-dame arm-folding, hand-bag clutching and gurning grimaces.

Hermosa etc Opera della Luna.pngAnthony Flaum (Hermosa) and Carl Sanderson (Field Marshall Romboid). Photo Credit: Jeff Clarke.

Ashmore’s crenellated tower had been stripped of its battlements to reveal the crimson and gold flock-wallpaper of Rhomboid’s shabby-chic chateaux: a fitting setting for Lynsey Docherty’s Theodorine who had clearly wandered off the set of Ab Fab and whose lugubrious inebriation would have given Edina a good run for her money. Docherty’s insouciant indifference when she sweetened the Duke’s tea with a sugar-lump salvaged from his foot-bath was priceless.

Carl Sanderson’s Field Marshall and Paul Featherstone’s Duke were once again a superb double-act: their performances were full of vitality. Featherstone minced with ludicrous pomposity, resplendent in red velvet knickerbockers and diamond-patterned stockings. This was Alice in Wonderland meets Oscar Wilde: the Knave of Hearts had somehow found himself in The Importance of Being Earnest. Featherstone may have ‘delivered’ his numbers - a political satire with animal imitations, and a tongue-in-cheek ‘bacarolle’ - rather than sung them, but that didn’t lessen their spiciness or éclat.

Offenbach’s two scores may not be sparkling with musical invention - indeed, sometimes the music seemed to play second fiddle to the farcical comedy - but the composer had an innate flair for heightening theatrical comedy with a catchy tune and a touch of musical twinkle, and the nine instrumentalists played the score with evident enjoyment and vibrancy. Purser kept things whipping along, but judiciously allowed the cast to make the comic moments tell.

In any case, Clarke’s playful improprieties and droll rhyming couplets could turn even the most mundane melody into a memorable ear-tickler: “So here’s a happy ending to our curious farce/ A tale of gender-bending in the upper class.” In this delicious double-bill, Clarke entwined madness and merriment, and coated both with tenderness: quite simply, irresistible.

Claire Seymour

Jacques Offenbach: Croquefer, or The Last of the Paladins (1857)
Libretto: Adolphe Jaime and Etienne Trefeu
New English Version: Jeff Clarke - first performance July 23 2016
First performance: Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens, February 12, 1857

Croquefer, Carl Sanderson; Fireball (Boutefeu), Caroline Kennedy; Headstrong (Ramasse-ta-Tête), Anthony Flaum; Rattlebone (Mousse-à-Mort), Paul Featherstone; Peasblossom, (Fleur-de-Soufre), Lynsey Docherty.

Jacques Offenbach: The Isle of Tulipatan
Libretto: Henri Chivot and Alfred Duru
New English Version: Jeff Clarke - first performance July 23 2016
First performance: Theatre des Bouffes-Parisiens September 13 1868

Cacatois XXII, Duke of Tulipatan, Paul Featherstone; Prince Alexis, his son, Caroline Kennedy; Field Marshall Rhomboid, Carl Sanderson; Theodorine, his wife, Lynsey Docherty; Hermosa, his daughter, Anthony Flaum.

Director, Jeff Clarke; Conductor, Toby Purser; Set Designer, Elroy Ashmore; Costume Designer, Isobel Pellow; Lighting Designer, Nic Holdridge; Choreographer, Jenny Arnold; Orchestra of Opera della Luna.

Wilton’s Music Hall, London; Friday 19th August 2016.

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):