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World Premiere: Nico Muhly's Two Boys at English National Opera

28 June 2011, London, UK

Susan Bickley (DI Anne Strawson) in ENO's 'Two Boys'
Susan Bickley (DI Anne Strawson) in ENO's 'Two Boys'(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Review by Ashutosh Khandekar

Nico Muhly, at 28, has just had his first opera premiered at English National Opera. Two Boys tackles the dark, complex subject of the malign influence of the internet on teenage sexuality and, in a virtual world, the difficulties of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Susan Bickley is in superb form as the beleagured police officer investigating a grizzly crime (think of Helen Mirren in TV’s Prime Suspect). Bartlett Sher’s production is atmospheric, with effective use of video, at times turning the stage into a huge computer screen.

There are memorable performances from the two boys – Nicky Spence as the troubled Brian and treble Joseph Beesley as the manipulative young Jake.  Heather Shipp, Jonathan McGovern and Valerie Reid provide strong support among a uniformly excellent, convincing cast.

Nico Muhly’s music has shades of Benjamin Britten and dollops of Philip Glass. There is some accomplished choral and orchestral composing, but his writing for solo voice still lacks personality.

Muhly can certainly ‘paint’ with sound, describing the worlds his characters inhabit in great detail. He engages us in the story, building the tension well,  but with such a limited vocal palette, he misses the emotional heartbeat of his characters. This is, nonetheless, a creditable operatic debut from a talented young composer.

Two Boys runs at the London Coliseum until 8 July 2011.

 

San Francisco Opera presents three complete Ring cycles

24 June 2011, San Francisco, US

Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Die Walküre'
Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Die Walküre'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) - 'Siegfried'
Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) - 'Siegfried'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Götterdämmerung'
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Götterdämmerung'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

When the lead (premiering) producing company for Götterdämmerung changed from Washington National Opera to San Francisco Opera due to financial difficulties at the former, director Francesco Zambello shifted the emphasis of her production from abuse of power, corruption, and greed to the destruction of the environment and female power – themes more germane to California than Washington DC.

Currently being presented in three full cycles at San Francisco Opera, Zambello's Ring production began at WNO in 2006 with Das Rheingold set during the 1849 Gold Rush and continuing to the 1920s Great Gatsby era of greed, corruption and broken promises.

The Die Walküre, premiered in 2007, saw the beginnings of the environmental pollution and female power themes with a set depicting the trash-strewn underbelly of a decaying expressway and the Valkyries, dressed as paratroopers, arriving by parachute.

When Siegfried was premiered in 2009, it continued the journey through American History to the disenfranchised of contemporary American society, and the plague of industrial pollution with its menacing high voltage power lines. Mime lived in a junk-filled trailer home in a trash-filled trailer park. Piles of rubbish, discarded tires, empty bottles, junked cars, and overflowing trash cans led to the antechamber of Fafner's cave in the bowels of a underground bunker. Siegfried was a trailer park punk in leather jacket, struggling as a rebellious kid, not knowing who he was or where he came from. 

Zambello’s concept of paralleling the 'haves' and 'have-nots' of today's contemporary American society with the struggles of Mime, Alberich, Wanderer (Wotan), Siegfried, and Brünnhilde, was insightful and relevant. One only had to read the newspaper to know how many powerful and wealthy moguls fell during the global economic downturn, a result of their greed and arrogance (Wotan), or that a young, optimistic, outsider of mixed race (who had become the leader of the free world) wanted to overthrow the old order (Siegfried). It was a chillingly accurate assessment of the price paid for wealth, greed, power, and ambition, and why a new order was necessary.

The only new production, that of Götterdämmerung, opened with the three Norms, clad in indescribably ugly green work clothes, hopelessly trying to 'weave' tangled miles of unsightly black cables (updated rope of fate) that short-circuited when connected to a screen-projected mother board. By Act III the Rhinemaidens, carrying yellow trash bags, were plucking tons of discarded plastic bottles and other debris from the banks of the polluted Rhine. Every scene had backdrop projections of billowing black smoke from what appeared to be oil refineries. In this production the twilight of the gods was caused by pollution.

Gutrune was transformed into a buxom blond sexpot, and Hagan, a gangster, strutted around with a machine gun in a three-quarter length black leather coat. When he reminded Gutrude that she has no husband, she stuck her tongue out, eliciting laughs from the audience in one of the production's many 'humanizing' character interactions.

Act II opened with Gutrune and Hagan remotely switching television channels followed by Hagan taking a sleeping pill (both of which elicited abundant laughs from the audience), only to have Alberich awaken him with “Schläfts du, Hagen, mein Sohn? Du schläfts und horst mich nicht, den Ruh und Schlaf verriet?” And when Siegfired was murdered, rather than being carried off stage majestically, he was carted away like an animal killed in the hunt, and Hagan was suffocated by a yellow trash bag.

Zambello instead made women the true heroes of this opera. Only Brünnhilde, Gutrune, and the Rhinemaidens were on stage in the final scene, followed by a massive women’s chorus. It was almost as an afterhought that men appeared at the final moment.  

This raises the question, is this the way to make the Ring relevant for today’s audiences – by integrating contemporary issues into the production and humanizing (with human foibles) the characters, to the extent that all traces of godliness are removed from the gods and goddesses, making them no different from you or I? Or is this a passing fad? Only time will tell.

There’s no doubt that the character humanization and continual interactions gave the opera a momentum that made the five and a half hours fly by, and Zambello's overarching concepts and its complex execution were brilliant. But it also detracted from experiencing those spine-chilling moments (like Siegfried’s Funeral March and Brünhilde’s Immolation Scene) that transcend a superbly executed performance and thrust the spectator into that elusive realm of sublime emotion and passionate ecstasy.

Ian Storey captured Siegfried’s innocence, naivety, and simplistic wonder at civilization foreign to him. Although not a powerful instrument, he acquitted himself respectably, despite a "sudden vocal indisposition" during Act II. Andrea Silvestrelli made a suitably evil Hagan, only his nasal tone and gruffness was slightly distracting. Melissa Citro was a visually alluring and seductive Gutrune, and Gerd Grochowsky sang with aplomb.

The focal point of the performance was Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde, reminiscent of another Swedish Wagnerian soprano, Birgit Nilsson. Although lacking Nilsson’s incredible power and ability to slice through the loudest chords a Wagnerian orchestra can muster, she sang with power and precision, secure in a role that she will surely inhabit for many years to come. Donald Runnicles elicited magnificent and sweeping sounds from the orchestra.

San Francicso Opera's Ring cycle productions run until 3 July 2011.

 

Opéra de Marseille presents Massenet’s Le Cid

22 June 2011, Marseille, France

Roberto Alagna as Rodrigue
Roberto Alagna as Rodrigue

Review by Francis Carlin

You cannot help liking Roberto Alagna despite his irritating stage antics. The voice is superb and his famous diction is still enjoying insolent good health, but he cannot resist beaming like a schoolboy overjoyed at winning a race.

This rare staging of Massenet’s Le Cid (1885) was a perfect example of his performance style. Filmed by no less than two TV channels and relayed direct on a giant screen to a crowd of 8,000 people in front of the town hall (a first in Marseilles), the event was an open invitation to Alagna to sing to the cameras. And so he did, arms outstretched and a radiant Star Academy expression on his face. It may have done the trick on the giant screen but it looked cheap in the theatre itself.

This inability to get inside a character and put himself entirely at the service of a work has always been Alagna’s weakness. He could have been today’s Georges Thill but seeks popularity, not artistic integrity. So although his exquisite phrasing massaged our ears and Rodrigue’s famous number ‘Ô souverain, ô juge, ô père’ brought the show to a standstill as the audience clamoured for an encore, it always felt like an Alagna TV special and not an operatic version of Corneille’s play.

Charles Roubaud’s production seemed to have given his star a free rein, preferring to hide behind Emmanuelle Favre’s superb arts deco sets, an agreeable if somewhat meaningless update to 1920s Spain. Apart from Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s proud but horribly squally Chimène, the rest of the cast featured as inert props for Alagna, standing stiffly to attention. Franco Pomponi is too young to sing the king, but did so with sturdy voice and impressive French pronunciation. Francesco Ellero d’Artegna’s Don Diègue was in contrast worn and tuneless.

After a noisy start, Jacques Lacombe’s conducting managed to elicit some nuance but was clearly having difficulty keeping up with Alagna’s whims. Not a great night for a neglected Massenet work, but at least Alagna’s personal triumph put the arts minister in his place. The locals had choked over their bouillabaisse when he suggested their opera house was no good and should merge with Avignon, a criticism incidentally not supported by any firsthand experience. But there he was, sitting in a box next to the city’s mayor as the ovations went on and on. Something tells me Marseilles will be safe for the time being.

 

ENO concert to pay tribute to Sir Charles Mackerras

21 June 2011, London, UK

Sir Charles Mackerras
Sir Charles Mackerras(Photo: Felicity Palmer)

(Photo: Z Chrapek)

On 26 June, a special tribute concert by English National Opera will celebrate the life and work of Sir Charles Mackerras, who passed away last year.

Described as one of the great polymath conductors of the 20th century, Mackerras enjoyed an international career spanning six decades and held the post of music director at ENO from 1970-77.

The programme for Sunday’s concert has been put together with the Mackerras family, and highlights repertoire championed by Sir Charles during his lifetime.

Sir John Tomlinson, Dame Felicity Palmer, Lesley Garrett and numerous other stars will perform with the company’s orchestra and chorus under three ENO music directors past and present – Sir Mark Elder, Paul Daniel and Edward Gardner.

Speaking to Opera Now about this special event, Mark Elder paid tribute to Mackerras’ “unique sense of style and wonderful ability to know how to make different composers sound different. He was an unforgettable pioneer in the music of Handel, Mozart and, above all, Janáček, but also adored conducting Verdi, Richard Strauss and Gilbert & Sullivan. Sunday's programme reflects all this and more.”

Elder himself became the music director at ENO in 1979, just two years after Mackerras' tenure ended. Describing the orchestra that he inherited from his distinguished predecessor, Elder says:

“It must be remembered that when Sir Charles joined ENO, he was the captain of a very new ship. Previously, when the company was resident at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, there were actually two orchestras – one for the venue and the other for touring. It was a very difficult task to bring these musicians together and combine them in one big orchestra, whilst also getting them used to the much larger acoustic of the Coliseum. But Sir Charles achieved this with great energy and professionalism, and led the company through some really extraordinary performances.”

ENO’s concert in honour of Sir Charles Mackerras take places on Sunday 26 June 2011 at 7pm. All proceeds will go to the ENO Benevolent Fund.

 

Moldavian soprano wins BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011

20 June 2011, Cardiff, Wales

Valentina Naforniţă
Valentina Naforniţă(Photo: Brian Tarr)

This year’s BBC Cardiff Singer of the World has been won by Valentina Naforniţă, a 24-year-old soprano from Moldavia.

Naforniţă performed a programme of arias by Donizetti, Dvořak and Gounod that not only garnered praise from the jury, but also saw her take home the Dame Joan Sutherland Audience Prize.

She was presented with her awards by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who recently became the competition’s new Patron.

Commenting on her success, Naforniţă said: “I am so happy; I feel I’m in heaven right now. It is everything to me.”

Naforniţă was the youngest of five singers to reach Sunday’s televised final at St David’s Hall, Cardiff. Her fellow finalists were Meeta Raval from England, Olesya Petrova from Russia, Hye Jung Lee from South Korea and Andrei Bondarenko from Ukraine.

The jury was chaired by former chief executive and artistic director of Welsh National Opera, John Fisher, and included mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, tenor Dennis O’Neill, and baritone Håkan Hagegård.

“I'm delighted that we had such an expert jury for the competition”, said Dame Kiri. “They are all world famous, but also hugely dedicated to the nurturing of young talent.”

The next BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition will run from 16 to 23 June 2013.

 


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