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Royal Opera's contemporary arm to close

20 August 2012, London, UK

London's Royal Opera House
London's Royal Opera House

London’s Royal Opera House has announced that it is closing its contemporary and commissioning arm, ROH2, which has developed new programming strands for the ROH’s black-box Linbury Theatre, the Clore Studio and the Paul Hamlyn Hall.

The decision has been precipitated by the departure of Deborah Bull, ROH2’s creative director and Alison Duthie, its head of programming, both of whom are now working with King’s Cultural Partners at King’s College, London. The move has also resulted in two redundancies from ROH2’s eight-strong team, including head of development, John Lloyd-Davies.

ROH2 has struggled to find an artistic identity of its own since it was established in 2001. Although it has developed small-scale, experimental work through partnerships with organisations such as the Genesis Foundation, it has tended to act as a receiving house for the UK’s leading contemporary opera touring companies such as Music Theatre Wales and the Opera Group.

With the appointment of a new, artistically experienced management team at the Royal Opera and Ballet, it was felt that ROH2’s remit should be integrated into programming and development at the Royal Opera House itself.

The ROH’s new director of opera, Kasper Holten (formerly boss of the Royal Danish Opera), will lead the team responsible for commissioning and developing opera and music in the alternative spaces, working with John Fulljames (former director of the Opera Group).  Ballet and dance will be overseen by the new director of ballet, Kevin O’Hare.

In spite of a 15 per cent cut in its annual grant, the ROH has insisted that the decision to axe ROH2 is not financially motivated.  The company issued a statement saying, ‘The reorganisation does not effect Royal Opera House’s commitment to commissioning innovative and challenging new work and collaborating with other creative organisations.’


Festival Focus – Opera Saratoga, US

6 August 2012, Saratoga Springs, US

Alexander Orthwein steps up to bat as The Mighty Casey
Alexander Orthwein steps up to bat as The Mighty Casey

Joshua Kohl holding court as the Duke of Mantua in 'Rigoletto'
Joshua Kohl holding court as the Duke of Mantua in 'Rigoletto'(Photos courtesy of Opera Saratoga)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Opera Saratoga has been known as Lake George Opera for the past half a century, but recently changed its name to reflect the company’s relocation to Saratoga Springs, where it has been based since 1998. Alongside this rebranding, the company acquired a new staff, board, and a third opera in its schedule, having been forced by financial constraints to cut its offering to two over the past few seasons. Curtis Tucker, once again at the helm, metamorphosed the company into a 10-day festival format, with overarching themes, obscure works and director-driven-concept productions.
This season’s theme was versatility. Tucker wanted to show the company’s three performance categories:19th century masterpieces, with Rigoletto; comic works, with a double bill of Offenbach’s obscure Le 66 and the one act satire on Britain’s legal system by Gilbert & Sullivan, Trial by Jury; and rarely performed contemporary American classics, with Schuman’s 1953 opera The Mighty Casey, which deals with America’s favorite pastime – baseball.

Mighty Casey was also the festival’s highlight. Based on Lawrence Thayer’s 1888-poem 'Casey at the Bat', it is a portrait of small-town America (Mudville) in 1917: an entertaining work with a serious undertone dealing with the downfall of Mudville’s hero Casey, who when his moment of greatness fades (he loses the championship game by striking out) finds redemption through love. The opera was musically stimulating and visually exciting. Only director Helene Binder’s insertion of a mini-vaudeville show (1917 was the heyday of vaudeville) at the start of Act II almost ruined the work by interrupting the action, breaking the story’s thread and detracting from Schuman’s glorious music. Set against a backdrop of the team’s hometown Main Street and its ball park, complete with dugout and stands, the opera was narrated by The Watchman (Mark Womack in a matter-of-fact manner), which  included Thayer’s entire poem, of which the last stanzas were set to a funereal chromatic chorale, sung by the spectators/townspeople at the game. 

The music, slightly dissonant, sounded like a fusion of Copland and Bernstein. It was rhythmical with heavy brass and percussion, and reflected the mood and emotions of the story, by turns lively and melodic, peaceful and neo-romantic, and mournful. The orchestra played a major role in driving the work, because there were long stretches with no singing or spoken dialogue. The music, building in parallel triads, ended where it began, so there were no climatic moments à la Verdi, but it was engrossing nevertheless. A range of character motifs clearly delineated the different characters, but caused the dialogue to suffer through the frequent repetition of phrases, harking back to Baroque era traditions.

Ironically, Alexander Orthwein in the title role (Casey) neither sang nor spoke, but did a great pantomime of Mudville’s last hope for a championship. The singing cast, a mixture of apprentice and studio artists, assayed their roles with aplomb. Tucker admirably conducted from the ‘skypit’ (it is always on top of the set since the theatre has no orchestra pit) capturing the nuances and details of the music.

Director Chuck Hudson’s updated Rigoletto to contemporary Italy, although it could stand for any country where male politicians amuse themselves by paying for sex then denigrating and abusing the women. The Duke of Mantua, transformed into an egocentric, womanizing politician, was modelled after Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose alleged sexual orgies were legendary. The Duke’s court was metamorphosed into a bordello with explicit sexual acts and excessive violence against scantily-attired women. Although it took an act for Joshua Kohl to warm up, it was worth the wait. His voice, deliciously lyrical and emotionally nuanced, offered a beautiful timbre, if occasionally forced. Guido Lebron assayed Rigoletto with a powerful, booming voice that was blunt, a reflection of his character. Marie-Eva Munger was a standout, imbuing Gilda with a golden-hued sound, beautifully melodic, and finely nuanced with a touch of vibrato and thrilling high notes. Maestro Jim Caraher kept the performance tight.

The double bill of Le 66 (Number 66) and Trial by Jury were fluff pieces – light, silly and fun.  Le 66 involved a young couple’s journey through the Alps, where they met a salesman, and explored the humorous consequences of holding a lottery ticket upside down. (‘Le 66’ refers to the number of the winning lottery ticket.)

The overarching theme for next year’s Opera Saratoga festival season will be operas inspired by Shakespeare.


Australian Traviata comes to UK cinemas

25 July 2012, Sydney, Australia

Stunning spectacle: OA's 'La traviata'
Stunning spectacle: OA's 'La traviata'(Photo: Lisa Tomasetti)

Cinemas around the UK will be screening Opera Australia's innovative staging of Verdi's La traviata, which took place on a purpose-built floating stage, against a backdrop of the world famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House. The stage in Francesca Zambello's spectacular production is fashioned to resemble an ornate and massive silver salver, and features a 9-metre chandelier suspended above the stage, together with fireworks in the harbour.

The cast includes leading Australian soprano Emma Matthews as Violeta,  Gianluca Terranova as Alfredo, and Jonathan Summers as Giorgio Germont. The performance is conducted by Brian Castles-Onion.

Artistic Director for Opera Australia, Lyndon Terracini said of the event, 'I'm delighted that we now have the opportunity for opera lovers in the UK to be able to enjoy some of Opera Australia's most wonderful productions'.

The performance of Opera Australia's La traviata will be in cinemas in the UK on 31 July. Visit the CinemaLive website for details of a screening near you.


Festival Focus – Luminato Festival, Toronto, Canada

29 June 2012, Toronto, Canada

Theory of light: 'Einstein on the Beach'
Theory of light: 'Einstein on the Beach'(Photo: Lucie Jansch)

A scene from 'Laura's Cow'
A scene from 'Laura's Cow'(Photo: Michael Cooper)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

As the Luminato festival entered its 6th season, it began a new chapter with welcoming a new artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt, who believes the Festival should include all artistic fields, where artists and intellectuals join together in cross-cultural performances and dialogue, as well as making the festival an integral part of Toronto itself.

Although the theme this year was Anglo-centric, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Anglo-American War of 1812, the Festival itself was cosmopolitan and encompassed all aspects of the visual and performing arts: from Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach to the world premiere of Laura’s Cow; from the play La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling, which combined holographic 3D animals, scenery and actors with live ones, to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Music also came from many genres, spanning the gamut from a marathon piano recital by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who played all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one (long) day to a Rufus Wainwright concert at Windscape, Luminato’s artfully transformed hub in Toronto’s Pecaut Square where thousands flocked for his and many other free outdoor concerts. The Royal Ontario Museum offered Jorinde Voight’s ink drawing interpretations of Beethoven’s sonatas, while the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited a rare collection of Picasso’s paintings from the artist’s personal collection. Showcasing the Festival’s theme was an innovative exhibition in Fort York called The Encampment, which retold the personal toll of the War of 1812. Literary discussions, movies, magic shows, and ‘1000 Tastes of Toronto’ culinary delights in the Distillery Historic District rounded off the gamut of activities.

The two operatic offerings couldn’t have been more diverse: Glass’ four-and-a-half hour Einstein on the Beach, part of the composer’s 75th birthday celebration world tour, juxtaposed with a new children’s opera, Laura’s Cow by Errol Gay and Michael Albano. Based on an historical event from the Anglo-American War of 1812, which was the last time America attacked Canada, Laura's Cow follows the story of Laura Secord (the wife of a Canadian solider wounded in battle) who walked 32km to warn the British of an impending American attack. That simple deed, which led to the defeat of the American forces, defined the future and changed the course of history. Legend has it she passed through enemy lines with her cow, giving the impression of doing domestic chores. In the opera, the cow – a talking cow – became Laura’s conscience.

Taking place in a black box theater inside a former power plant, the opera opened in a classroom where the children were taught about Laura’s historic deed, which then unfolded amidst cleverly executed child-like sets denoting the different locations of Laura’s journey. A narrator tied the various threads of the opera together by periodically explaining the historic events. Spoken dialogue alternated with melodic singing and expressive musical chords, painting the atmosphere and expressing the character’s moods, which ranged from rumbling and threatening to lyrical and soothing. There was humour too: the talking cow emerged from an authentic reproduction of one, initially singing ‘moo, moo’ in a melodic and seductive manner; and beavers built a dam following instructions from a book, Dam Building for Dummies. The talking animals also warned that ‘humans don’t listen’, until Laura did, when her cow sang ‘you have a chance to change the world around us’.   

Anyone expecting to see Einstein amidst sun, sand, and surf at Einstein on the Beach, which inaugurated Luminato, was in for a big surprise. Except for a couple of photos of Einstein, and a violinist (Jennifer Koh) who was seated at the front of the stage wearing a big, bushy, white wig, Einstein was nowhere else to be seen. He was not the main attraction. It was his concepts of time, travel, space, distance, and movement that were. They were transformed into metaphoric images drawn from his life’s interests: light, a space machine, nuclear reactor, trains, airplanes, and ending with a bus that propelled the opera, along with themes of technical progress and nuclear annihilation.

Although called an opera at its premiere in 1976, none of the elements one associates with that art form are present in Einstein. There is no storyline, climax, or denouement, and not even any singing – unless you count endless repetition of numbers singing. Instead, it is a parade of theatre, dance, and vignette visualizations of Einstein’s concepts, seen in a series of tableaux joined together by ‘knee plays’ or intermezzos.

In this revival of Robert Wilson's original 1976 production, one tableaux showed a formally dressed couple standing on a train for an entire moon cycle, which ended with the women pointing a gun at her companion. In another, a rectangular white light slowly moved from horizontal to vertical position, while the orchestra endlessly repeated the same few notes. There were courtroom scenes, a fairly-tale like creature in a modern tower, a spaceship machine with pulsating lights, and frenzied repetitive dancing that went on too long. Temporary moments of fascination punctuated interminable stretches of tedium. Some loved it; others walked out and didn’t return. It was avant garde in 1976. Today, sections appeared dated, others still relevant. Yet it is still an experience, and a unique way to express Einstein’s contribution to mankind.
Although Luminato is only a half a decade old, it has already made its mark as a cutting edge, avant garde festival poised to enter the ranks of those top-notch international festivals that not only offer new and rarely performed operas, but a myriad of other unusual and stimulating art forms.

Next year’s Luminato Festival runs from 14 to 23 June 2013.

Les Troyens at Covent Garden

26 June 2012, London, UK

Histrionics to perfection: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre
Histrionics to perfection: Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandre(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Review by Francis Muzzu

The Royal Opera has undertaken the Olympian task of performing Les Troyens as part of this year's London 2012 Festival. Designer Es Devlin could do worse than transfer her stunning Trojan horse to the Olympic Closing Ceremony, which she is also designing: a flaming mesh of weaponry, it certainly has the scale and dramatic impact required.  It also means that everyone else involved has to work hard to stay in the picture.  The chorus certainly does, on top form throughout, and Antonio Pappano’s conducting, structured and tensile, ensures that the orchestra matches them.

Anna Caterina Antonacci’s Cassandre has the histrionics to perfection, but without quite the matching glamour of tone.  Eva-Maria Westbroek enjoys more vocal refulgence, but her Didon tended to the maternal rather than regal.  Bryan Hymel, unenviably substituting for Jonas Kaufmann as Enée, offers less theatricality but a voice that thrills more as it ascends.  A solid supporting cast offered much to enjoy though sometimes lacked direction from David McVicar – at times the more intimate moments lost a sense of focus.

Les Troyens runs at Covent Garden until 11 July.


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