Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

A Donizetti world premiere: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House

There may be sixty or so operas by Donizetti to choose from, but if you’ve put together the remnants of another one, why not give everyone a chance to hear it? And so, Opera Rara brought L’Ange de Nisida to the concert stage last night, 180 years after it was composed for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, conductor Sir Mark Elder leading a team of bel canto soloists and the Choir and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a committed and at times stirring performance.

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Thought-Provoking Concert in Honor of Bastille Day

Sopranos Elise Brancheau and Shannon Jones, along with pianists Martin Néron and Keith Chambers, presented a thrilling evening of French-themed music in an evening entitled: “Salut à la France,” at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn this past Saturday, July 14th.

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Summer madness and madcap high jinxs from the Jette Parker Young Artists

The operatic extracts which comprised this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance seemed to be joined by a connecting thread - madness: whether that was the mischievousness of Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe, the insanity of Tom Rakewell, the metaphysical distress of Hamlet, or the mayhem prompted by Isabella’s arrival at Mustafà’s Ottoman palace, the ‘insanity’ was equally compelling.

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

The Princeton Festival brings a run of three high-quality opera performances to town each summer, alternating between a modern opera and a traditional warhorse. John Adams’ Nixon in China has been announced for next summer. So this year Princeton got Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for which the Festival assembled an impressive cast and delivered a polished performance.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Melos Sinfonia perform <em>Written on Skin</em> in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg
15 Oct 2017

Written on Skin: the Melos Sinfonia take George Benjamin's opera to St Petersburg

As I approach St Cyprian’s Church in Marylebone, musical sounds which are at once strange and sensuous surf the air. Inside I find seventy or so instrumentalists and singers nestled somewhat crowdedly between the pillars of the nave, rehearsing George Benjamin’s much praised 2012 opera, Written on Skin.

Melos Sinfonia perform Written on Skin in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg

Above: Oliver Zeffman

Photo credit: Andy Staples

 

Conductor Oliver Zeffman is taking the members of the Melos Sinfonia - the ensemble which he founded at the age of just sixteen - and a cast of young soloists (Lauren Fagan, Ross Ramgobin, Patrick Terry, Bethan Langford and Nick Pritchard) through their paces as they prepare the concert staging of the opera that they will present in Cambridge, London and St Petersburg in the coming days.

In contrast to many new operas, Written on Skin has not been condemned to post-premiere obscurity and since the first production at Aix in 2012 it has travelled far and wide, receiving two stagings at Covent Garden, in 2013 and earlier this year . I ask Oliver Zeffman what drew him to the opera - which, with its large orchestra which includes a panoply of percussion, glass harmonica and bass viol among its coloristic palette, presents considerable logistical challenges. A semi-staged performance at the Barbican in 2016 with composer Benjamin conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra evidently had him hooked: Oliver passionately extols - at the breakneck tempo which is evidently his default mode - the riches of the score and, most especially, the disturbing ‘precision’ of Martin Crimp’s visceral libretto, offering snatches to illustrate: ‘Strip the cities of brick’, ‘Push our love into that man’s eye like a hot needle. Blind him with it! Make him cry blood!’

Reviewing Written on Skin at the ROH in January this year, I described it as ‘spare, harrowing and unsettling’. Crimp’s tale blends sensuality and sadism, retelling a medieval Provence legend from a contemporary vantage point. The librettist himself has described his ‘instinctive desire to allow our contemporary world to bleed through the drama. Hence my invention of the 21st century angels who initiate and provoke the action and even - in the case of the Boy enter into it’, and we are constantly shifted from medieval to modern by reference to contemporary settings such as a shopping mall or a ‘Saturday car park’. The text juxtaposes the religious with the erotic and conjures a poetic register which is both timeless and of our time; refined yet ruthless. The shocking close of the opera perfectly illustrates this, as Agnes taunts her abusive husband, The Protector, who has just forced her to eat her lover’s heart: ‘No force you use, nothing you forbid, can take away the pictures that Boy’s hands draw on this skin. He can unfold the tight green bud, unwrap the tree, darken the wood, lighten the sky, blacken the dust with rain - each mark he makes on me is good - each colour clear.’

I enquire about the particulars of the Melos’ planned staging. Oliver seems happy to leave the dramatic decisions to Jack Furness, founder and Artistic Director of Shadwell Opera - he says that it’s important to trust the people with whom you’ve chosen to work - but explains that although the Melos Sinfonia will present a ‘concert staging’, the direction will delineate the action of the text precisely for the audience. It strikes me that there is a ‘quasi-ceremonial’ quality about Written in Skin, as the vocal arioso slowly unfolds, as incisive as the text itself, which lends itself to a concert staging format. Indeed, the libretto incorporates narrative, as the characters explain and describe their own actions: ‘The Boy takes from his satchel an illuminated page’, or ‘The Protector wakes up …’

Nick Rutter.jpgOliver Zeffman. Photo credit: Nick Rutter.

It seems apt, too, for Oliver - still only twenty-five - to be performing the music of George Benjamin, who was himself similarly precocious and full of initiative, travelling - at the age of sixteen - to Paris each month to study with Messiaen at the Conservatoire, and earning a contract with Faber when still a teenager. Benjamin went on to studies at Cambridge with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway. Oliver’s undergraduate life began at Durham University where he initially studied History, before adding Russian, a move which saw him spend a year in St Petersburg where he became fluent in the language and studied at the Conservatory under the direction of Alexander Polishchuk: ‘harmony, analysis and useful things like that’, he says, ‘I had had very little proper grounding in those kind of things before SPB and they were incredibly important for me to study, both there and at RAM.’ He also made the sort of contacts which have clearly been crucial in determining his future path.

After graduation, further studies followed at the Royal Academy of Music; he was the youngest of eight nominees for the Néstle-Salzburg Young Conductor’s Award in 2015, though he makes light of the question of ‘technique’, telling me that if a conductor really knows the score then their baton will communicate. He admires the work of Valery Gergiev - who has been an important mentor and who has invited the Melos to perform Written on Skin at the Mariinsky Theatre - and when I criticise the Russian maestro’s ‘hand-fluttering’ gesture which I struggle to interpret when watching Gergiev conduct, Oliver immediately rebukes me for, he says, it can really work. ‘If you have your own way of communicating something to the orchestra, however unconventional, and it succeeds in communicating what you want, then it shouldn’t matter what it looks like to the audience. It’s about the resultant sound - which is the main goal - and whether you can affect the sound the orchestra makes in the ways you want with your gestures, whatever these might be.’

I ask Oliver why he felt the need to establish his own orchestral ensemble at such a young age. As a violinist (‘not very good’ he says - though these things are surely relative!) in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, he wanted to try his hand at conducting, but as no-one is going to ask a sixteen-year-old to conduct he just got on with things for himself. Originally, the ensemble comprised chiefly musical ‘friends and family’, but gradually his musical network expanded. Casting an eye over the programmes performed during past seasons, it’s interesting to see how the scope, ambition and innovativeness of the Melos’ music-making have evolved. Operas have included Mozart’s The Impresario, Walton’s The Bear and Rachmaninov’s Aleko. There have been world premieres of music by Philip Ashworth, Joel Rust, Edward Nesbit, Arthur Wabel and others. Unusual works are paired together. Oliver introduces a culinary metaphor: it’s like when you’re cooking at home and you’ve got the basic dish and you think, ‘what would go with this?’, and experiment a bit. So, Andrzej Panufnik’s Cello Concerto might be programmed alongside the UK premiere of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No.27; or, Walton’s Façade might share the billing with Peter Maxwell Davies Eight Songs for a Mad King.

One of the Melos Sinfonia’s major projects has been the fostering of a ‘cultural dialogue’ between the UK and Russia, which has involved several tours to Russia - the ensemble has appeared as part of the International Conservatories Festival and the Sound Ways Festival, and performed in venues including the Mariinsky Theatre, the St Petersburg Philharmonia and St Petersburg State Conservatory - and the commissioning of new works from both British and Russian young composers. An important element of this exchange has been giving Russian audiences the opportunity to hear unfamiliar works: thus, Russian premieres have been plentiful and eclectic - Ligeti’s Aventures & Nouvelles Aventures, Dmitri Smirnov’s Dream Journey, Alexander Goehr’s Triptych, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lo spazio inverso, Holst’s Savitri and Colin Matthews’ Divertimento, to name but a few. Oliver insists that Russian audiences are more open-minded than those in the UK: the latter tend to opt for programmes of music with which they are already familiar, or whose composers are personal favourites, whereas Russian audiences are eager to open their ears to the new - although, paradoxically, he says that he encountered little contemporary Russian music in concert halls during his one-year sojourn in the country.

For a twenty-five-year old, Oliver has built up an impressive list of achievements and experience. He has worked with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, assisting conductors such as Ed Gardner, David Zinman and Manfred Honeck, rehearsed Mahler’s Symphony No.8 with the New Japan Philharmonic for Daniel Harding, and recently prepared the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra for concerts with Valery Gergiev in a programme including Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. 2017 has been a busy and exciting year. In the summer, he made debuts both at West Green House Opera conducting Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and with the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. In the coming months he will again work with Gergiev, preparing the Rotterdam Philharmonic for performances of Mahler’s Symphony No.7, and in the summer of 2018 he will work with the LA Philharmonic, assisting Gustavo Dudamel and others, at the Hollywood Bowl.

To be honest, one hour in Oliver’s company was exhilarating but exhausting! The cliché ‘force of nature’ really does seem apposite. No sooner had the rehearsal at St Cyprian’s ended than he was among his players, chatting and thanking them as he collected in parts, folded music stands, disassembled percussion instruments. Alongside concert-planning and conducting, he adds administration and fundraising to his responsibilities. He seems genuinely surprised when I suggest that taking seventy musicians to Russia is an adventurous logistical exercise. After our meeting, I reflect back on Oliver’s response when I had asked about his music-making activities at Durham: he doesn’t seem to have been heavily involved in the undergraduate music scene, and explained that there was a prevailing attitude of ‘this is the way it’s always been’. Oliver is clearly not one to let ‘convention’ stand in his way; if there is music that he wants to play - more Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss’s tone poems are on his wish-list - then you can be sure that he will, and to acclaim.

Claire Seymour

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):