75 years old - and still plenty of life in the old dog
22 May 2009, Glyndeboure, UK
Christopher Purves makes a splash as FalstaffPhoto: Alastair Muir
Ash Khandekar reports from Glyndebourne's 75th anniversary season opener, Verdi's Falstaff
Opening night at Glyndebourne marks the start of the summer opera season in Britain, but though rain never stops play as far as performances are concerned, it more often than not puts a dampener on things outside the opera house: most opening nights in recent years have been notable for scenes of picnickers having to resort to sitting under their rugs rather than on them.
As the Glyndebourne Festival launched its 75th anniversary season on Thursday, however, the sun shone on the proceedings and all seemed right with the world. Things were equally sunny on stage, with Richard Jones’s triumphant new staging of Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff.
Jones has a chequered history at Glyndebourne, where his productions have tended to favour a subversive approach: his ‘Planet of the Zombies’ Euryanthe in 2002 turned Weber’s uber-chivalric Romanticism into B-movie schlock. In 2007, Jones shocked and tickled Glyndebourne audiences in equal measure with his determinedly low-life Macbeth, dressing Verdi’s admittedly jaunty heroics in naff Scots clichés, abetted by a welter of tartan and Highland kitsch from favoured designer, Ultz.
The pair returned to Verdi and Glyndebourne in a much less hyperactive mode for this Falstaff. The aristocratic aspects of the story are expunged to bring it into a more domestic focus. Shakespeare’s Royal Windsor is transposed to Neo-Elizabethan suburbs at the end of World War II, a period of austerity (flowerbeds dug up for cabbage beds), but also hope. Falstaff is full of the affectionate nostalgia of an old man saying farewell to a fond world. Jones and Ultz capture the mood of Verdi’s score perfectly, embroidering a Betjemin-esque vision of a half-timbered England with images of warm beer, busty barmaids and Eton schoolboys boating on the Thames. Falstaff’s rooms above the Garter Inn are flanked by shops selling wedding dresses and novelty jokes – Love is, after all, a charming prank that leaves a bitter-sweet aftertaste.
This is one of the most evenly cast ensembles that Glyndebourne has put together in recent years – not the starriest of voices, but all beautifully finished and somehow just right for this production. Christopher Purves portrays the self-delusional Falstaff not as one of nature’s grotesques, but as a preening petty official gently hoisted by his own petard.
Other highlights include the young lovers, touchingly sung by Bülent Bedüz (Fenton) and Adriana Kucerová (Nanetta). Dina Kuznetsova, meanwhile, is a delightful tour de force as an Alice who radiates good-natured intelligence and Marie-Nicole Lemieux hams it up beautifully as Mistress Quickly. In the pit, Vladimir Jurowski proves that he does possess a lightness of touch which is sometimes missing from his comic turns, and the London Philharmonic rises playfully to the occasion.
All proof that Glyndebourne can still charm the pants off its audience, even at the venerable age of 75.
New opera proves an asset to the Abbey in St Albans
22 May 2009, St Alban's Abbey, Hertfordshire, UK
Opera Now’s Roderic Dunnett reports from the world premiere an accomplished chamber opera that recalls the church parables of Benjamin Britten . . .
With last Wednesday's world premiere of Alban, young British composer Tom Wiggall has served up a cogent chamber opera worthy of Britten’s Church Parables. Admirably structured around a wittily unsentimental libretto by award-winning poet John Mole, Wiggall’s score freshly persuades at every turn, from the haunting initial oboe and strings motif to the forcefully designed confrontations/mishaps that engineer a cogent dramatic build-up, thanks to conductor David Ireson. Director Beckie Mills had her alert large chorus marshalled in impressive detail: slyly plotted, all action relevant, strikingly well-clad (beiges, russets, browns) by Ann Hollowood.
Dominique Thiebaud (Alban’s wife) shines amid six strong principals and a bevy of believable youngsters (notably Alban’s Miles and Flora-like children), drilled to perfection. Thanks to a shrewdly judged text and Wiggall’s fertile, assured composing, Alban, full of absorbing storytelling echoing the Gospels, easily rose far above a kitsch local-historical piece of amateur dramatics.
Set against the ancient stone-clad backdrop of St Albans Abbey, the ecclesiastical ambience was sensuously lit by Colin Innes-Hopkins, yards from Alban’s martyrdom. This may be harder to recreate in a theatre context, but the strength of the work should mean that it’s eminently viable. This piece should travel (Buxton, York, the Linbury Studio in Covent Garden). It betokens great expectations of composer and producers alike.
Opera gets into the swim of things
19 May 2009, Manchester, UK
The world’s first underwater opera, You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, had its premiere in one of Manchester’s half-derelict architectural gems, the Victoria Baths. 86,000 gallons of water were pumped in for a single performance of this new ‘operella’ devised by the Los Angeles-based soprano Juliana Snapper and the Parisian composer Andrew Infanti, and presented as part of the city’s gay and lesbian festival Queer Up North.
Adorned with swathes of white fishnet and silver sequins, Snapper impressed in the role of Blorkra – a genetically engineered aquatic ‘posthuman’ living 500,000 years in the future. She is used to challenging situations having previously worked with the extreme performance artist Ron Athey on The Judas Tree in which she hung upside down singing until her voice collapsed. But on this occasion a faulty underwater microphone rendered at least half of her underwater vocal sequences inaudible so that the unique sound of Snapper’s voice filtered through water, accompanied by percussive bubbles, was drowned out before it could surface.
What was left was a ululating warble, with snatches of intense soprano tones as Snapper glided through a sea of words by Wedekind, Wagner (Erda’s Warning) and Brecht, sung in German and the forgotten, constructed language of Volapük. Infanti’s watered-down score began promisingly enough, drawing on obscure musical systems and pitches, but ended up burbling on inconsequentially. Film footage featured some live projections of Snapper while the Sing or Swim Choir provided a suitably aqueous background to this soggy night at the ‘operella’. As a piece of performance art, You Who… had distinct potential which was somewhat thwarted by the technical difficulties.
The experiment is not going to spawn a new genre of underwater ‘operellas’, however, and while Juliana Snapper is clearly committed to expanding the boundaries of music theatre, neither the bland pre-recorded score nor the predominantly unengaging visuals seemed to match that keen seriousness of purpose. As a work I think it is likely to sink without trace.
The Queer Up North festival continues in Manchester until 25 May.
Start them young on Wagner, says arts chief
13 May 2009, London, UK
Dame Liz Forgan: making no apologies for Wagner
‘Throwing children alive into a boiling vat of great music does them no harm at all,’ said Dame Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England in a robust speech delivered at the Royal Philharmonic Society awards for classical music which took place at the Dorchester Hotel in London last night.
Dame Liz was recalling her own introduction, aged six, to the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, swiftly followed by a performance of Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius. Her introduction to music from her passionately motivated grandfather was, she said, the ‘equivalent of loading a baby’s bottle with Napoleon brandy’.
In a clear broadside against 'dumbing down' delivered to the great and good of the classical music industry, Dame Liz went on to say that there was no need to apologise for classical music as a 'difficult' and advocated a policy of introducing children to 'what might appear to be entirely unsuitable masterpieces at an early age’.
She added that it was this ‘chronicle of unsuitability’ in her own childhood that culminated in an abiding love of classical music: ‘If I had been forced to start with clapping games, or tooting Frère Jacques on the recorder,' Dame Liz said, 'I fear I might have turned to crime or even netball as more exciting alternatives.’
Opera scored well at last night’s event, with English National Opera winning the ‘Opera and Music Theatre’ award from Sir Charles Mackerras, who presented trophies to winners in 13 categories. British soprano Susan Bullock received the ‘Singer’ award for her performances as Strauss’s Elektra [see video clip below from Washington National Opera]. George Benjamin’s opera Into the Little Hill took the award for ‘Large-Scale Composition’ (See Opera Now’s current issue for our review). Two leading operatic community and outreach projects received acclaim at the awards: Hackney Music Development Trust won the ‘Education’ category for Confucius Says, a new opera that involved 3,000 schoolchildren; and Streetwise Opera took the ‘Audience Development’ award for its innovative project My Secret Heart, by composer Mira Calix and video artists Flat-e and staged by 101 people from the homeless community.
Meanwhile, the Royal Philharmonic Society’s prestigious medal went to the German baritone Thomas Quasthoff.
Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere
4 May 2009, Houston, USA
Sir Andre Previn has composed his second opera, this time a bittersweet English romance based on Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean's Brief Encounter, drawn from Coward's one-act play Still Life. Our US-based opera critic Charles Ward gives his first impressions of the opera which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on 1 May.
Sir Andre Previn's Brief
Encounter proves to be an engaging, well-crafted and touching addition to the contemporary opera repertoire.
‘Well-crafted’ can be critics’ code for an honourable effort the writer doesn’t want to pan. Not so in this case.
his libretto, John Caird deftly kept the movie’s story line about the ill-fated affair of the housewife Laura and the doctor Alec while
compressing incidents in the film, folding in elements from the play and,
crucially, expanding the character of Laura’s husband Fred.
that, composer Andre Previn has added a cinematic score, reminiscent of Korngold. Quick-cut,
chromatic shifts underline the text moment to moment. At the drama's peaks, the
music swelled with seething emotion within an unfailingly tonal style.
Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who portrayed Stella in the San Francisco world premiere of Previn’s first opera Streetcar Named Desire, had a tour de force role in Laura. She was on stage for the entire opera as she related her experiences in flashback form. Futral was impressive for the intensity she brought to the role, displaying an astonishing range of emotions as Laura was convulsed by pleasure and guilt, all delivered in vivid sound. Baritone Nathan Gunn , meanwhile, was vocally radiant and equally ardent as the more shallowly drawn doctor.
Encounter was not an unalloyed triumph. Caird and Previn stumbled on
things that bedevil opera, such as long swaths of interior dialogue or
subplots that drift to an end – even though the pair devised an effective
and moving conclusion to the opera as a whole.
Accustomed to a world premiere most seasons, the opening night audience in Houston responded generously, especially for Futral, and then ratcheted up its response further when a spotlight highlighted Previn in his seat near the stage.
However, without the iconic cultural hook that Streetcar Named Desire had for an American public, Brief Encounter is likely to join many recent new American operas in a state of limbo. Uncharacteristically, HGO had lined up no co-commissioning companies before opening night (though the company said it has received several inquiries since then).
See Charles Ward's complete review of Brief Encounter in Opera Now's forthcoming July/August 2009 issue
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