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

Semiramide at the Rossini Opera Festival

The pleasures (immense) and pain of Gioachino Rossini’s Semiramide (Venice, 1823). Uncut.

L’equivoco stravagante in Pesaro

L’equivoco stravagante (The Bizarre Misunderstanding), the 18 year-old Gioachino Rossini's first opera buffa, is indeed bizarre. Its heroine Ernestina is obsessed by literature and philosophy and the grandiose language of opera seria.

BBC Prom 44: Rattle conjures a blistering Belshazzar’s Feast

This was a notable occasion for offering three colossal scores whose execution filled the Albert Hall’s stage with over 150 members of the London Symphony Orchestra and 300 singers drawn from the Barcelona-based Orfeó Català and Orfeó Català Youth Choir, along with the London Symphony Chorus.

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

Sincerity, sentimentality and sorrow from Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake at Snape Maltings

‘Abwärts rinnen die Ströme ins Meer.’ Down flow the rivers, down into the sea. These are the ‘sadly-resigned words in the consciousness of his declining years’ that, as reported by The Athenaeum in February 1866 upon the death of Friedrich Rückert, the poet had written ‘some time ago, in the album of a friend of ours, then visiting him at his rural retreat near Neuses’. Such melancholy foreboding - simultaneously sincere and sentimental - infused this recital at Snape Maltings by Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake.

Glimmerglass’ Showboat Sails to Glory

For the annual production of a classic American musical that has become part of Glimmerglass Festival’s mission, the company mounted a wholly winning version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s immortal Showboat.

Proms at ... Cadogan Hall 5: Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman

“On the wings of song, I’ll bear you away …” So sings the poet-speaker in Mendelssohn’s 1835 setting of Heine’s ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’. And, borne aloft we were during this lunchtime Prom by Louise Alder and Gary Matthewman which soared progressively higher as the performers took us on a journey through a spectrum of lieder from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Glowing Verdi at Glimmerglass

From the first haunting, glistening sound of the orchestral strings to the ponderous final strokes in the score that echoed the dying heartbeats of a doomed heroine, Glimmerglass Festival’s superior La Traviata was an indelible achievement.

Médée in Salzburg

Though Luigi Cherubini long outlived the carnage of the French Revolution his 1797 opéra comique [with spoken dialogue] Médée fell well within the “horror opera” genre that responded to the spirit of its time. These days however Médée is but an esoteric and extremely challenging late addition to the international repertory.

Queen: A Royal Jewel at Glimmerglass

Tchaikovsky’s grand opera The Queen of Spades might seem an unlikely fit for the multi-purpose room of the Pavilion on the Glimmerglass campus but that qualm would fail to reckon with the superior creative gifts of the production team at this prestigious festival.

Blue Diversifies Glimmerglass Fare

Glimmerglass Festival has commendably taken on a potent social theme in producing the World Premiere of composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tazewell Thompson’s Blue.

Vibrant Versailles Dazzles In Upstate New York

From the shimmering first sounds and alluring opening visual effects of Glimmerglass Festival’s The Ghosts of Versailles, it was apparent that we were in for an evening of aural and theatrical splendors worthy of its namesake palace.

Gilda: “G for glorious”

For months we were threatened with a “feminist take” on Verdi’s boiling 1851 melodrama; the program essay was a classic mashup of contemporary psychobabble perfectly captured in its all-caps headline: DESTRUCTIVE PARENTS, TOXIC MASCULINITY, AND BAD DECISIONS.

Simon Boccanegra in Salzburg

It’s an inescapable reference. Among the myriad "Viva Genova!" tweets the Genovese populace shared celebrating its new doge, the pirate Simon Boccanegra, one stood out — “Make Genoa Great Again!” A hell of a mess ensued for years and years and the drinking water was poisonous as well.

Rigoletto at Macerata Opera Festival

In this era of operatic globalization, I don’t recall ever attending a summer opera festival where no one around me uttered a single word of spoken English all night. Yet I recently had this experience at the Macerata Opera Festival. This festival is not only a pure Italian experience, in the best sense, but one of the undiscovered gems of the European summer season.

BBC Prom 37: A transcendent L’enfance du Christ at the Albert Hall

Notwithstanding the cancellation of Dame Sarah Connolly and Sir Mark Elder, due to ill health, and an inconsiderate audience in moments of heightened emotion, this performance was an unequivocal joy, wonderfully paced and marked by first class accounts from four soloists and orchestral playing from the Hallé that was the last word in refinement.

Tannhäuser at Bayreuth

Stage director Tobias Kratzer sorely tempts destruction in his Bayreuth deconstruction of Wagner’s delicate Tannhäuser, though he was soundly thwarted at the third performance by conductor Christian Thielemann pinch hitting for Valery Gergiev.

Opera in the Quarry: Die Zauberflöte at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt, Austria

Oper im Steinbruch (Opera in the Quarry) presents opera in the 2000 quarry at St Margarethen near Eisenstadt in Austria. Opera has been performed there since the late 1990s, but there was no opera last year and this year is the first under the new artistic director Daniel Serafin, himself a former singer but with a degree in business administration and something of a minor Austrian celebrity as he has been on the country's equivalent of Strictly Come Dancing twice.

BBC Prom 39: Sea Pictures from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales

Sea Pictures: both the name of Elgar’s five-song cycle for contralto and orchestra, performed at this BBC Prom by Catriona Morison, winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World Main Prize in 2017, and a fitting title for this whole concert by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Elim Chan, which juxtaposed a first half of songs of the sea, fair and fraught, with, post-interval, compositions inspired by paintings.

BBC Prom 32: DiDonato spellbinds in Berlioz and the NYO of the USA magnificently scales Strauss

As much as the Proms strives to stand above the events of its time, that doesn’t mean the musicians, conductors or composers who perform there should necessarily do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Marietta  Simpson  as  Martha  and  Frederica  von  Stade as Danny [Photo by  Steven  Pisan]
23 Sep 2018

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

A review by James Sohre

Above: Marietta Simpson as Martha and Frederica von Stade as Danny [Photo by Steven Pisan]

 

Former composer in residence Lembit Beecher is well known in the city, not least for last year’s intriguing staging of I Have No Stories To Tell You. He has grown considerably even since that commendable accomplishment.

While that piece was driven by flashbacks, Sky on Wings is a surreal journey into Alzheimer’s in which there are fewer if any memories. The (in-)action is moving into an uninformed future, which in actuality becomes just a muddled “now.” Hannah Moscovitch has crafted a lean libretto that cunningly contrasts the condition of the institutionalized, hallucinatory Martha with the still occasionally lucid, but desperately degenerating Danny.

But this is anything but a maudlin wallow, thanks to the wit and clarity of Ms. Moscovitch’s cogent dialogue and monologues, and owing to Mr. Beecher’s skittering scoring that occasionally settles into lush, serene moments that can take your breath away. Too, the scripting allows the two main characters to inevitably develop a satisfying co-dependence that blessedly eschews cliché.

SKY ON SWINGS 04.jpgSharleen Joynt as Winnie [Photo by Dominic M. Mercier]

There is a four-person chorus of Elders that not only contributes to the unease of the sound world, but also performs smaller featured moments. There are many sound palettes in the composer’s arsenal that evoke echoes of Stockhausen, the layered dissonances, the muttered gibberish, the occasional Sprechstimme, the leaping vocals. But the conversational rhythms and vocal lines are distinctly Beecher’s. The masterful orchestration with its exposed solo winds, rackety brass, slithering strings, manic keyboard licks, and tricky ensemble requirements made a vibrant impression in the intimate Perelman Theatre.

That is perhaps largely owing to conductor Geoffrey McDonald whose concise, minimalist baton work unleashed accuracy and fire from his players and vocalists. This is such a tightly interwoven, often restless creation that one slip could be fatal, but Maestro McDonald’s laser focused attention to detail brought the score thrillingly to life. That the cast could not have been bettered was probably because the roles were created with (at least two of) them in mind.

Beloved star mezzo Frederica von Stade as Danny takes the most linear journey in the show. Her character is an accomplished professional, admired for her intellect and her writing, who is woefully aware of her debilitating affliction. I don’t personally know Ms. von Stade’s age but I do know that she wowed me as a definitive Cherubino in the 1970’s and well, I know how much older I am now.

Remarkably, her singing has lost little of the fresh, immediately ingratiating quality of her earlier career. While there is a noticeable break between registers today, she still commands secure tone and admirable technique. Indeed, when vocal lines carry her to impassioned, sustained outbursts above the staff, Flicka can still pour out heated, gleaming high notes. Moreover, she remains a superb actress. Her conflicted state runs the gamut from anger to self-pity to determination to defiance, but never to acceptance of her fate.

One of the most affecting moments is when “Danny” insists she can remember the name of her dog, then can’t, then tentatively calls for “Sparky,” with neither she nor we being sure that is really his name. The perfection of that horrifying moment sent a chill racing down my spine (there it is again just recollecting it). Frederica von Stade is still assuredly at the top of her game.

SKY ON SWINGS 03 SP.jpgDanny (mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade) and son Ira (tenor Daniel Taylor) realize she has Alzheimer’s [Photo by Steven Pisano]

As her contrasting acquaintance Martha, Marietta Simpson is her artistic equal, albeit with a very different assignment. “Martha” is already well down the path to dementia, not fighting it as hard since she doesn’t even quite know what the fight is. Consequently, much of her vocalizing is more incoherent, more diffuse, often evolving into stammered nonsense and non sequiturs.

I never heard this acclaimed artist live before, but it is my pleasure to encounter her even late in her career. She has incredible concentration and effortlessly meets all the demands of this difficult role. The substantial voice does have a slight huskiness, but it is a warm patina that serves the aging character well. Ms. Simpson is unstinting in her commitment to represent the warts of the character and the debilitating effects of the condition, succeeding in encompassing all the demands of wide-ranging vocal lines.

Singly or in tandem, the two ladies are giving true star performances, by turns heart wrenching and heart warming. It is subtly ironic that these two women need absolute presence of mind to portray two women who have lost theirs. Bravi!

As Martha’s resigned, if impatiently tolerant daughter, Sharleen Joynt’s pure, glinting soprano ably tossed off the angular writing assigned to her. As Danny’s sympathetic son, Daniel Taylor showed off a solid, ringing tenor that was rich and intense. The quartet of Elders (Veronica Chapman-Smith, Maren Montalbano, George Somerville, Frank Mitchell) were simply phenomenal in their concerted focus and execution. A Greek Chorus gone wrong, they prowled the stage like caged animals one moment and framed meaningful “still” stage pictures they next. They raged, they howled, they moaned, they stuttered, and they provided a disturbingly complex aural commentary and background for this tragic story.

In another irony for a piece where everything is unsettled, the accomplished director’s name is Joanna Settle. Ms. Settle has worked miracles with her gifted collaborators, creating an engrossing stage piece out of a horrible “accident” we can’t look away from. Her unerring skill at blocking is coupled with a total commitment to character explorations that are unnerving in their honesty and variation. By the end of the piece we know these people, and suffer with them. In a brilliant touch, the director deploys actual old supernumeraries in an unending single file parade upstage, visually underscoring that there is no end to this scourge that knows no demographic.

Andrew Lieberman contributed a spare, accomplished set design, a half a white “box” stage right and upstage, with two oversized door frames, with a wall of white gauzy drapes stage left. The set pieces consisted merely of a large heavy table and two white chairs that were moved about to suggest various locales. For effect, a pipe flew in with a stage-width tubular squiggle attached. The pipe adjusted to various heights, and the scribble changed color to reflect the emotional states of the characters. Spoiler alert: it finally crashes and short-circuits at a crucial moment. The only other set element was a mid-stage pipe that flew in, on which an 8 foot high scrim was able to be drawn to bisect the action.

Tilly Grimes has designed spot-on contemporary costumes that brilliantly represent the characters wearing them. Rarely has modern day stage dress been so unobtrusive yet so revelatory. Pat Collin’s magnificent lighting design is ably complemented by Daniel Perelstein’s subtle, effective projections. Together, the pair has crafted a tellingly subliminal suggestion of shifting moods and altered reality. David Zimmerman’s apt hair and make-up design was especially affective with the weathered look of the Elders.

Sky on Swings is an important, innovative new work mounted with such obvious skill and care that it emphatically embodies all that Opera Philadelphia is attempting to achieve with their bold festival concept. Its triumph sheds glory on all concerned.

James Sohre



Sky on Swings
Music by Lembit Beecher
Libretto by Hannah Moscovitch

Danny: Frederica von Stade; Martha: Marietta Simpson; Winnie: Sharleen Joynt; Ira: Daniel Taylor; Elder #1: Veronica Chapman-Smith; Elder #2/Elderly Woman: Maren Montalbano; Elder #3: George Somerville; Elder #4/Administrator: Frank Mitchell; Conductor: Geoffrey McDonald; Director: Joanna Settle; Set Design: Andrew Lieberman; Costume Design: Tilly Grimes; Lighting Design: Pat Collins; Projection Design: Jorge Cousineau; Sound Design: Daniel Perelstein; Wig and Make-up Design: David Zimmerman

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):