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

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May I594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

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.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

<em>Collision</em>, Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre
19 Aug 2017

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Collision, Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

Bethany Horak-Hallett, Alexander Gebhard, Henry George Page and Juliet Wallace in Collision.

 

The conspiracy theorists are ever vigilant for signs of impending apocalypse. Only a few days ago, a NASA tweet about a solar eclipse due to occur later this month triggered declarations from evangelical Christians that humanity will be wiped out by the event. Given that terrorist atrocities and nuclear stand-offs currently seem to be every-day fare, one might be forgiven for occasionally feeling as if the end of the world is indeed nigh.

These are dark days and such times are ripe for exploitation by both doomsday-sayers and artists. Jack Stanley’s new play, Catastrophists asks us to reflect upon how we would behave if the social order collapsed, alienation and conflict ensued, and we had to fight to survive. But German avant-gardist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was posing the same question 90 years ago, in his ‘grotesque opera in 10 pictures’, Collision (Der Zusammenstoss).

Paradoxically, montage seems to have been the underlying principle uniting Schwitters’ fragmentary art. He engaged with every artistic current of his day: German Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Constructivism and Bauhaus. His art work included dramatic large-scale assemblages, installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings and advertising designs, but today he is best known for his collages - of tram tickets, newspaper shreds, scraps of cloth, and other ‘remnants’ of everyday life.

Schwitters and his collaborator, the German-American artist and art historian Kate Trauman Steinitz, seem to have applied the same montage approach to the opera libretto upon which they embarked in April 1927.

Based on one of Schwitters’ own short stories, Collision was to be a sort of ‘multi-media’ opera - a blend of play, cabaret and opera which mixed words, music and rhythm in new ways. The ‘plot’ juxtaposed different social types, switching rapidly between place - an observatory, an airport, a broadcasting station - and character, and charted the responses of his bizarre medley of dramatis personae to the news that the end of the world was looming.

When astronomer Virmula espies a new ‘Green Globe’, the euphoria of his planetary discovery is tempered by the realisation that it is heading straight for the Potsdamerplatz in Berlin. The media spread word of the imminent apocalypse, but rather than fear and frenzy the news incites opportunism and exploitation. Virmula sees not catastrophe but fame and fortune on the horizon, while his lover, Alma, exults in the projected honour he will earn. The High Commissioner of Order, aptly named Masterly, dons his uniform and attempts to assert his authority - over the city and the comet - by organising the preparations for the final sunset. Big Business sees the chance to make a quick buck, as journalists and radio presenters use hyperbole to stoke hysteria and sell another newspaper or song. Led by the janitor, Rommel, the homeless rehearse for Revolution, while the rich, such as the concert singer Paulsen, are indifferent to the threat to their lives of luxury and leisure.

This ‘Science-Fiction Opera Libretto in Banalities’ won second prize (300 reichsmarks) in a competition in Vienna in August 1928, but the score remained uncompleted. The project fell victim to the fiscal crisis triggered by the Wall Street Crash and ultimately the Director of the Berliners Staatsoper, who had considered staging the work, declared it ‘too ultramodern and much too comic’. Ironically, the opera-that-never-was embodies both the context which informed it and the very question that it asks: after the collapse of the Dream and amid the ruins of the glorious roaring Twenties, how will the world survive?

In collaboration with director Cecilia Stinton and the other members of Spectra Ensemble, composer Lewis Coenen-Rowe has rescued Schwitters’ music-drama from oblivion by composing a new score which he describes as ‘heavily influenced by the music of Kurt Schwitters’ 1920s Germany, combining elements of contemporary art music, popular song, jazz and cabaret’. That’s a bit misleading, as Collision is not really a ‘cabaret opera’, and there’s not really any ‘popular song’; but, Coenen-Rowe has crafted strong vocal lines and evocative instrumental moods which capture the darkness and bitterness of so much of the music of the Weimar era, with its experimental intermingling of the ‘popular’ and the ‘classical’. And, the through-sung structure does have some aria and ensemble ‘moments’, including an intense paean to ‘Organisation’, mankind’s last hope in the face of the imminent cosmic crash.

Juliet Wallace (Masterly) and Bethany Hawk-Hallett (Taa).jpgJuliet Wallace (Masterly) and Bethany Horak-Hallett (Taa).

The score’s distortions - tremors, thunderings, twisting swoops and screeches - are an effective aural embodiment of a chaos in which panic is juxtaposed with partying. And, the music is adeptly played by the band of five musicians - pianist Erchao Gu, violinist Carlos Yeung, cellist Harvey Gibbons, saxophonist Claudia Baum and clarinettist Robert Winup - who are conducted efficiently by musical director Sean Morris.

In the small Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre, however, the music overwhelms the singers, further exacerbating the uneven diction and the lack of directorial clarity. Schwitters’ story is both wry and sly, humorous and bitter; but, it’s also fragmented and Stinton - admittedly hampered by the limitations of space - hasn’t found a way to show how the parts of the collage ‘cohere’. Schwitters’ discontinuities convey the social upheaval of the time, but here the ‘gaps’ don’t reflect such confusion, they aggravate it. Even though the action was ‘up close’, much of the text was inaudible and apart from the fact that Barnaby Beer’s Virmula had spotted an earth-bound solar body, it was impossible to discern what was happening other than that, whatever events were unfolding, they were taking place at fever pitch.

This was a pity, as the young cast are talented and committed, and one senses that the more detailed set, staging and choreography that would be possible in a larger venue would enable the singers to develop their characterisations beyond the grotesque.

Beer’s focused baritone communicates Virmula’s zeal while as his girlfriend, Alma, Olivia Sjöberg uses her soft-edged mezzo to convey her affection and adulation. Made to prance about in black hot-pants, suspenders and cut-away velvet waist-coast, Bethany Horak-Hallett has strong presence as Taa, Mastery’s girlfriend, infusing her mezzo with both sultriness and shine. Alexander Gebhard’s attractive lyric tenor emphasised Paulsen’s smug complacency. Juliet Wallace had all the high notes for Masterly’s stratosphere-surfing but unfortunately the volume was as unremittingly high as the register, and the charm of the unrelenting petulant posing and saucy posturing quickly wore off.

Schwitters’ artistic credo was the equality of all the elements in the collage - word, music, movement, sets, costume, lighting. But, with the acting space accommodating barely a couple of chairs and a broom, the music inevitably dominated, at the expense of dramatic coherence and interest, and theatrical breadth and depth. Moreover, the through-composed score actually negates Schwitters’ aim for parity of all the ‘available materials’ which are combined ‘for artistic purposes’. Perhaps balancing instrumental and sung episodes with spoken dialogue would have created a more dramatically engaging and communicative idiom?

At the close, when the collision - by this point, both feared and craved - fails to materialise, the bated breaths give way to the bathos of survival. ‘What if it’s not the end, what if it’s pretend?’ they have sung. Well, if it’s not the end of the world after all, then life will go on as usual, the contradictions of human nature unchanged.

Claire Seymour

Collision: a cabaret opera - by Kurt Schwitters and Lewis Coenen-Rowe

Spectra Ensemble

Barnaby Beer (Virmula, and astronomer/Jailbird), Olivia Sjöberg (Alma/Paperboy/Saleslady/School Principal), Henry George Page (Rommel, a janitor/Schmitt, a radio announcer), Juliet Wallace (Masterly, High Commissioner of Order), Bethany Horak-Hallett (Taa, a dancer, Masterly’s girlfriend), Alexander Gebhard (Paulsen, a concert singer); director - Cecilia Stinton, musical director - Sean Morris, designer - Holly Muir, lighting designer - John Pham.

Studio 2, Arcola Theatre, London; Friday 18th July 2017.

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):