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

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

'So sweet is the pain': Roberta Invernizzi at Wigmore Hall

In this BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at the Wigmore Hall, soprano Roberta Invernizzi presented Italian songs from the first half of seventeenth-century, exploring love and loyalty, loss and lies, and demonstrating consummate declamatory mastery.

Staging Britten's War Requiem

“The best music to listen to in a great Gothic church is the polyphony which was written for it, and was calculated for its resonance: this was my approach in the War Requiem - I calculated it for a big, reverberant acoustic and that is where it sounds best.”

Moshinsky's Simon Boccanegra returns to Covent Garden

Despite the flaming torches of the plebeian plotters which, in the Prologue, etched chiaroscuro omens within the Palladian porticos of Michael Yeargan’s imposing and impressive set, this was a rather slow-burn revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1991 production of Simon Boccanegra.

Royal Academy's Semele offers 'endless pleasures'

Self-adoring ‘celebrities’ beware. That smart-phone which feeds your narcissism might just prove your nemesis.

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):