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Performances

Photo courtesy Dutch National Opera & Ballet
23 Mar 2018

Probing Bernstein and MacMillan double bill in Amsterdam

The Opera Forward Festival (OFF) in Amsterdam is about new things: new compositions, rediscovered works and new faces. This year’s program included a double bill produced by Dutch National Opera’s talent development wing. Leonard Bernstein’s portrait of a miserable marriage in affluent suburbia, Trouble in Tahiti, was the contrasting companion piece to James McMillan’s Clemency, a study of the sinister side of religious belief.

Probing Bernstein and MacMillan double bill in Amsterdam

Review by Jenny Camilleri

Photo courtesy Dutch National Opera & Ballet

 

Clemency is based on an episode in Genesis in which three strangers visit Abraham and Sarah. They promise that Sarah, who is childless and past her climacteric, will bear a son within a year, but also announce the obliteration of the sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah. In Trouble in Tahiti, Sam and Dinah already have a son, Junior, and everything else they could wish for, but they can’t seem to muster any patience or tenderness for each other, let alone love. Both one-acters deal with barrenness, emotional and biological, and director Ted Huffman stages them symbolically in an empty swimming pool. For Trouble in Tahiti the well-lit pool is cluttered with furniture, accessories and everything money can buy. The soft pastels are then replaced by Clemency’s dim interior. All the stuff is gone, and the bottom of the pool is lined with leaves. Alex Brok lights Abraham and Sarah’s dining table with beams from above, as in paintings depicting visitations from heaven. Set and costume designers Elena Zamparutti and Gisella Cappelli use clean lines and make marked statements with color. Like the rest of the production team and cast, they are young artists with great promise.

In the pit, Duncan Ward conducted the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra with alertness and dash. Musically, the two works are worlds apart. Bernstein uses a wide orchestral palette for his feather-light jazzy tunes and swelling lyricism. MacMillan’s string-only orchestra sounds like an augmented string quartet. His dark, threatening score is imaginatively crafted, with frequent tempo switches and harmonies that toss and turn as in a fever. Perhaps because MacMillan’s chamber opera is the more operatic piece, Clemency was more musically successful. Both the musical theatre idiom and the language of Trouble challenged the singers, most of whom are not North American. Even the orchestra, despite some very accomplished playing, did not sound completely free. In particular, the singers in the jazz Trio that provides a running commentary on suburban vapidity seemed to be working a little too hard. They bravely aimed for, but missed, the called-for powder-puff, breathy effect.

Theatrically, they fleshed out the plot by playing the invisible characters in the opera, such as Dinah’s psychiatrist. Dressed as clowns, they remained constantly onstage, ineffectually trying to direct Sam and Dinah to act like an American dream couple. Sebastià Peris i Marco sang Sam with a lovely, soft-grained baritone. A more assured attack on the words would have given his character more defined contours, especially in Sam’s anthem for alpha manhood and jockhood “There’s a law”. Soprano Turiya Haudenhuyse gave a winning performance as Dinah. Haudenhuyse is not only an expressive singer, but also an inherently natural actress who easily takes possession of the stage. Richly colored at the center and pliant throughout, her voice is a special instrument. For the hit number “What a movie”, Huffman put her on a flower swing, the visual high point of the evening. He dealt with the cultural appropriation and misattribution in Dinah’s plot summary by labeling the scene “Mom sees a racist movie”. The staging was chock-full of such entertaining and insightful touches, but was marred by live black-and-white video of the performers, distractingly out of sync with their movements. Whether this was on purpose or not, the video was superfluous. The libretto makes it clear enough that the silver screen is, for Sam and Dinah, both an ideal to strive for and a form of escapism.

Everything worked in Clemency and it will be among the best productions of DNO’s current season. Resonant bass-baritone Frederik Bergman hijacked the public’s attention with the first, full-bodied notes of Abraham’s Chant, and the rest of the performance followed suit. The orchestra rendered the tense score with horrific splendor. The five excellent soloists, whose voices blended with and overlaid each other perfectly, moved with studied purpose. Soprano Jenny Stafford was a penetrant Sarah, a heroine in a psychological thriller falling to pieces bit by bit. Lucas van Lierop, Stefan Kennedy and Alexander de Jong were the Triplets, the polite visitors who turn out to be suicide bombers on their way to destroy the Twin Towns, an echo of the Twin Towers. Taking his cue from MacMillan’s dissonant warnings, Huffman reveals the travelers’ ambivalent nature much earlier. Their annunciation plays out as a macabre ritual as they put Sarah on the table and lay their hands on her intrusively. From then on the tension started mounting and never let up.

Jenny Camilleri


Cast and production information:

Leonard Bernstein: Trouble in Tahiti

Dinah: Turiya Haudenhuyse; Sam: Sebastià Peris i Marco; The Trio: Kelly Poukens, Lucas van Lierop and Dominic Kraemer; Junior (Actor): Jasper Fleischmann.

James MacMillan: Clemency

Sarah: Jenny Stafford; Abraham: Frederik Bergman; The Triplets: Lucas van Lierop, Stefan Kennedy and Alexander de Jong.

Director: Ted Huffman; Set Design: Elena Zamparutti; Costume Design: Gisella Cappelli; Lighting Design: Alex Brok; Video: Pierre Martin; Conductor: Duncan Ward. Netherlands Chamber Orchestra.

Seen at the De Meervaart Theatre, Amsterdam, on Thursday, 22nd of March 2018.

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