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

Birtwistle's The Mask of Orpheus: English National Opera

‘All opera is Orpheus,’ Adorno once declared - although, typically, what he meant by that was rather more complicated than mere quotation would suggest. Perhaps, in some sense, all music in the Western tradition is too - again, so long as we take care, as Harrison Birtwistle always has, never to confuse starkness with over-simplification.

The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera rolled out the first installment of its new Mozart/DaPonte trilogy, a handsome Nozze, by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh to lively if mixed result.

Puccini's Le Willis: a fine new recording from Opera Rara

The 23-year-old Giacomo Puccini was still three months from the end of his studies at the Conservatoire in Milan when, in April 1883, he spotted an announcement of a competition for a one-act opera in Il teatro illustrato, a journal was published by Edoardo Sonzogno, the Italian publisher of Bizet's Carmen.

Little magic in Zauberland at the ROH's Linbury Theatre

To try to conceive of Schumann’s Dichterliebe as a unified formal entity is to deny the song cycle its essential meaning. For, its formal ambiguities, its disintegrations, its sudden breaks in both textual image and musical sound are the very embodiment of the early Romantic aesthetic of fragmentation.

Donizetti's Don Pasquale packs a psychological punch at the ROH

Is Donizetti’s Don Pasquale a charming comedy with a satirical punch, or a sharp psychological study of the irresolvable conflicts of human existence?

Chelsea Opera Group perform Verdi's first comic opera: Un giorno di regno

Until Verdi turned his attention to Shakespeare’s Fat Knight in 1893, Il giorno di regno (A King for a Day), first performed at La Scala in 1840, was the composer’s only comic opera.

Liszt: O lieb! – Lieder and Mélodie

O Lieb! presents the lieder of Franz Liszt with a distinctive spark from Cyrille Dubois and Tristan Raës, from Aparté. Though young, Dubois is very highly regarded. His voice has a luminous natural elegance, ideal for the Mélodie and French operatic repertoire he does so well. With these settings by Franz Liszt, Dubois brings out the refinement and sophistication of Liszt’s approach to song.

A humourless hike to Hades: Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld at ENO

Q. “Is there an art form you don't relate to?” A. “Opera. It's a dreadful sound - it just doesn't sound like the human voice.”

Welsh National Opera revive glorious Cunning Little Vixen

First unveiled in 1980, this celebrated WNO production shows no sign of running out of steam. Thanks to director David Pountney and revival director Elaine Tyler-Hall, this Vixen has become a classic, its wide appeal owing much to the late Maria Bjørnson’s colourful costumes and picture book designs (superbly lit by Nick Chelton) which still gladden the eye after nearly forty years with their cinematic detail and pre-echoes of Teletubbies.

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia at Lyric Opera of Chicago

With a charmingly detailed revival of Gioachino Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia Lyric Opera of Chicago has opened its 2019-2020 season. The company has assembled a cast clearly well-schooled in the craft of stage movement, the action tumbling with lively motion throughout individual solo numbers and ensembles.

Romantic lieder at Wigmore Hall: Elizabeth Watts and Julius Drake

When she won the Rosenblatt Recital Song Prize in the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition, soprano Elizabeth Watts placed rarely performed songs by a female composer, Elizabeth Maconchy, alongside Austro-German lieder from the late nineteenth century.

ETO's The Silver Lake at the Hackney Empire

‘If the present is already lost, then I want to save the future.’

Roméo et Juliette in San Francisco (bis)

The final performance of San Francisco Opera’s deeply flawed production of the Gounod masterpiece became, in fact, a triumph — for the Romeo of Pene Pati, the Juliet of Amina Edris, and for Charles Gounod in the hands of conductor Yves Abel.

William Alwyn's Miss Julie at the Barbican Hall

“Opera is not a play”, or so William Alwyn wrote when faced with criticism that his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie wasn’t purist enough. The plot is, in fact, largely intact; what Alwyn tends to strip out is some of Strindberg’s symbolism, especially that which links to what were (then) revolutionary nineteenth-century ideas based around social Darwinism. What the opera and play do share, however, is a view of class - of both its mobility and immobility - and this was something this BBC concert performance very much played on.

The Academy of Ancient Music's superb recording of Handel's Brockes-Passion

The Academy of Ancient Music’s new release of Handel’s Brockes-Passion - recorded around the AAM's live performance at the Barbican Hall on the 300th anniversary of the first performance in 1719 - combines serious musicological and historical scholarship with vibrant musicianship and artistry.

Cast salvages unfunny Così fan tutte at Dutch National Opera

Dutch National Opera’s October offering is Così fan tutte, a revival of a 2006 production directed by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito, originally part of a Mozart triptych that elicited strong audience reactions. This Così, set in a hotel, was the most positively received.

English Touring Opera's Autumn Tour 2019 opens with a stylish Seraglio

As the cheerfully optimistic opening bars of the overture to Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (here The Seraglio) sailed buoyantly from the Hackney Empire pit, it was clear that this would be a youthful, fresh-spirited Ottoman escapade - charming, elegant and stylishly exuberant, if not always plumbing the humanist depths of the opera.

Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice: Wayne McGregor's dance-opera opens ENO's 2019-20 season

ENO’s 2019-20 season opens by going back to opera’s roots, so to speak, presenting four explorations of the mythical status of that most powerful of musicians and singers, Orpheus.

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - Denelle & Tom Ellis
15 May 2019

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.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II, a world premiere at the Royal Festival Hall

A review by Marc Bridle

Above: Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II

Photo credit: Denelle & Tom Ellis

 

Taking as it root inspiration Stockhausen’s Welt-Parlament, the first scene from his opera Mittwoch aus Licht, Actress (or, Darren Cunningham) has undoubtedly composed something impressively large-scale - though it is clearly neither Stockhausen nor conventional opera. I don’t think you feel short changed because of that, but over its 70 minutes it misses the mark on several fronts while being of quite a high order on others. The revelation here was often to be found in the vocal writing - as obliterated, and pixelated, as it often comes across - rather than the tremendous blocks of sound which ebb and flow with a semi-volcanic force, though they can ultimately seem quite restrained. Cunningham might have looked to the Stockhausen of COSMIC PULSES for that pyroclastic, cosmological power for a more penetrating effect built on his AI and electronica - instead, one often felt trapped beneath a thunderstorm or in a wind tunnel.

Welt-Parlament is not specifically sectional - though the complexity of the layered writing for the voices and the subdivisional way in which Stockhausen modulates rhythm, alternates between registers and creates multiple densities of sound to different choir groups can give it that impression. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II is obviously a more sectional work, and needs to be, given it is almost twice the length. It takes considerable time for Cunningham’s piece to even become a sung work - one could argue if it is an opera it has one of the longest preludes of any - but the debt to Stockhausen when you get to hear the voices is quite apparent. There is a spatial aura, a sense of the unknown about where those voices first emerge from. They finally come, somewhat penitently, in white robes, down the steps of the stalls only to leave the auditorium and then reappear on stage without the robes.

Stockhausen is rather more concerned in Welt-Parlament (as he was in so much of his music for the voice) with exploring the limits to which it could be stretched and used as an instrument; the use of vowel sounds in Welt-Parlament is almost repetitively obsessive. Cunningham has largely avoided this approach - though not entirely because by using AI he has been able to tangibly change the structure of syllables and use linguistics in a specific way. You can barely make out that the words are German - and a libretto might have been more than helpful here. In the end it probably doesn’t matter because the quality of writing for the soloists is very impressive, and it was often indelibly striking enough to resonate. The sheer range of the vocal register is huge, stretching right from the bottom of the scale to the upper-most reaches. Cunningham has kept some of the effects which Stockhausen uses in Welt-Parlament - blocking, long tones, clicking, rushing sounds, the occasional click and the use of kisses. But thematically, this is very close to what Stockhausen intended - even if dramatically it departs significantly from what the composer asks for. I believe only two or three rehearsals may have taken place - but the sheer quality of the singing from Nederlands Kamerkoor seemed to have a lifetime’s experience of this music behind it.

Denelle & Tom Ellis Stockhausen Sin {x} II.jpgPhoto credit: Denelle & Tom Ellis.

This is, of course, a parliament about love - albeit one where its people have been abandoned to make way for the brutal pursuit of power. A World Parliament is convened to debate the nature of love and to sign into law a universal treaty which will protect it because life cannot exist or be sustained without love. Like Stockhausen’s original, it is the “meaning” of the word love which is to be debated - though what Cunningham tries to achieve is a broader, more modern discussion that tries to focus on contemporary issues of gender, equality, identity and race. He fuses British and Dutch politicians - and if what emerges is sometimes a little stilted it’s probably because of the unorthodox subject for protagonists a little unfamiliar with debating something other than politics.

The roles of Eve (The Romantic), Michael (The Rationalist) and Lucifer (The Antagonist) are taken from within the choir - and were magnificently sung. However, the sectional - even fragmentary way - in which this work disintegrates, and the way in which the staging is designed, left me with a somewhat different impression as to who Eve, Michael and Lucifer might sometimes have been. A stenographer/pianist (Vanessa Benelli Mosell), the conductor (Robert Ames) and Cunningham himself (with a rather malevolent Darth Vaderish figure on screen behind him) seemed viable shadows of these three key roles.

Staging any Stockhausen work is fraught with difficulty - or, even staging a work which owes a debt to one of his pieces as Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II does. I remember the Birmingham Opera Company staging this particular scene in a factory with the parliament perched high up on ladders - a very different vision to what Stockhausen intended which is a glass dome on top of a skyscraper. The approach here in the Royal Festival Hall was ultimately more pragmatic (though it may well be staged slightly differently in the magnificent, and vast, gas building which will house this work’s next performance at the end of the month at the Holland Festival). If the strips of lighting across the top of the stage did give a semblance of the cosmos to it all, the actual parliament seemed as conventional as a session at The Hague. Lighting was almost minimal - especially during the vast opening and closing electronica sections which were played in a kind of tenebrous darkness. A video screen behind Actress proved less distracting than I imagined - though there was something fascinating about watching the pixels collapse until the colours deepen into red and finally it just blanks out.

The most notable weakness in this work is the piano part - which I simply failed to comprehend. Cunningham had mentioned during a discussion before Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II’s premiere that the only composer for piano with whom he really identifies is Ravel - and yet, oddly, almost nothing of Ravel came through in the writing for this part at all. This just felt whimsical, added nothing particularly revealing to the work and felt tonally out of context with the rest of it. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II might have left an almost universally favourable impression without this entire section.

I don’t think this is a piece which challenges listeners in many of the ways that Stockhausen’s works do - twenty-five years after Welt-Parlament was composed the dynamics and complexity of that music are out of reach for many composers. Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II is an interesting diversion into a multi-format sound world - though perhaps not an opera - but at its best it is an impressive achievement for this young composer.

Marc Bridle

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II , a co-commission with the Southbank and the Holland Festival

Premiere given by Actress, Young Paint, Robert Ames, Vanessa Benelli Moselli and Nederlands Kamerkoor.

Royal Festival Hall, London; 14th May 2019.

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):