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.
Grange Park prepares for UK Premiere of Cavalli Opera
1 May 2009
Michael White looks forward to one of the summer's most lively operatic premieres...
Scandalous misdeeds in Ancient Rome, cross-dressing, slap-and-tickle sex.... Cavalli's Eliogabolo, written for the Venice Carnival of 1668 and due for a belated UK premiere at Grange Park opera festival in Hampshire this summer, sounds like a TV script for Frankie Howerd in the 1970s and is, as its director David Fielding admits, 'a sort of romp’.
‘But not so much in the way of Up Pompei as I Claudius' adds Christian Curnyn who'll be conducting. ‘There’s tragedy as well as comedy in this piece: after all, the central character ends up assassinated, so it's not all laughs. And in a loose sense it’s based on history, although the character of Heliogabolus has been cleaned up here and there in the process of turning him into opera.’
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sums up Heliogabolus’s reign as ‘inexpressible infamy, beyond that of any other place or time’. Among the many counts on Heliogabolus's charge-sheet are that he drowned his enemies in poisonous petals (a creative death, you'd have to agree), boasted that he never wore the same clothes twice or slept with the same woman, set up an all-female senate for sole purpose of molesting its members, and nonetheless pursued a robustly bi-sexual interest in transvestitism.
This may explain why the piece was apparently never performed during Cavalli's lifetime, though the reasons for its absence from the stage are obscure. What is known is that it's one of the last Cavalli' operas, composed when Cavalli was in his mid-60s with long experience as one of the world's first true professionals in opera.
The Grange has seen few performances of Baroque opera beyond Handel’s Rinaldo, and it's a genre that scarcely features on the radar of the company's director Wasfi Kani. ‘But she agreed to Eliogabolo largely because in many ways it isn't quite Baroque,’ says Curnyn. You don't get all those rigid conventions. But you do get very attractive, flowing arioso – though it doesn’t culminate in quite so many tragic laments as you get in earlier Cavalli. There's a lot more comedy...’
Michael White’s full account of Grange Park’s Eliogabolo will appear in the July/August issue of opera Now. Cavalli's opera will receive its UK premiere run at The Grange, Northington (near Winchester) from 4 June to 5 July.
For details of all this year's Grange Park Festival productions, visit www.grangeparkopera.co.uk
Festival Choice: Lu Festival ti tri Culuri
28 April 2014
Rustic charm: setting the scene for Puglia's new Festival of Three Colours(Photo: Mark Glanville)
Report by Mark Glanville
Lu Festival ti tri Culuri (The Festival of Three Colours in Pugliese dialect) is a celebration of the music of a region long blessed by remarkable cultural diversity, from the Greek-speaking and gypsy peoples of Italy's south-east corner, to the Albanians near Taranto and the Provençale speakers in the north of the province. Arabs, Normans, Jews, Angevins and Aragonese have all spent time in Puglia and left their mark there.
Paisiello, Giordano and Piccinni all hail from the region and their works have frequently featured in the programmes of the established Festival della Valle d’Itria which takes place in the noble courtyard of the ducal palace in Martina Franca. Performances at Lu Festival ti Tri Culuri will be given in the grounds of my own rather more rustic country mansion near the beautiful medieval town of Oria.
The original intention had been to run a course where mainly amateur participants would rehearse and perform a production of Carmen, learn local dances such as the pizzica-pizzica and perform a piece of their own choosing (the third colour). But I couldn’t have anticipated the quality of those who came to audition. More used to standing in front of the table of an audition panel than sitting behind one, it was an afternoon of sheer delight for me, beginning with a superb rendition by Rebecca Goulden (our Micaëla) of the Jewel Song from Faust worthy to be heard on any major operatic stage. Another highlight was Liszt’s ‘O quand je dors’ performed by the remarkably mature 20-year-old RCM student Kelly Mathiesson, so poised and moving that I was forced to conceal embarrassed tears. Nor can I quite believe that we have managed to engage the services of our outstanding musical director, Philip Sunderland who has recently been conducting ETO’s Paul Bunyan. Jos Vantyler, a prodigiously talented young actor, will make his directorial debut, moving cast and chorus around the mansion's orange grove, church, courtyard and, of course, garage (a perfect smugglers’ haunt.)
Some may find Carmen an odd or perhaps even uninspired choice, but we didn’t want to overstretch ourselves first time around and given Puglia’s own historic tobacco-growing tradition and not always welcome Spanish presence, it seemed only right to transfer the opera’s action to the region itself.
It’s going to be a crazy week of opera, pizzica, Yiddish song, G & S and whatever other flavours our participants plan to share with us. There are still places available in the chorus and one or two small parts, so if you’re up for a week of sheer diversity and madness, one which, I guarantee, will leave you floating on air a lot more uplifting than Ryan’s, then get in touch!
Mark Glanville's full preview feature about Lu Festival ti tri Culuri will appear in the July/August issue of Opera Now. The inaugural Festival runs from 6 to 12 July 2014
Opera North scores a hit with Puccini's La fanciulla del West
22 January 2014, Leeds, UK
‘Stick’em up’: Alwyn Mellor as Minnie and Rafael Rojas as Dick Johnson(Photo: Clive Barda)
Review by Anthony Arblaster
Of the mature Puccini's seven full-length operas, his tale of the American Gold Rush is probably the most neglected. When you see and hear it well performed and well produced, as it is in this new staging for Opera North by Aletta Collins, you wonder why.
Puccini’s La fanciulla del West has fewer of the self-contained arias that you find in more popular operas. It is not a work of pathos, and it is not notably sentimental, even though it does have a happy ending. However, it abounds in an outpouring of Puccinian melody, and offers three fine singing roles as well as a host of rewarding smaller roles for men.
This is a story with plenty of topical resonances: the Gold Rush miners in the opera are working far from home seeking their fortune, like today’s migrants from eastern Europe, and their homesickness is beautifully expressed in the Act I song of travelling cowboy-minstrel Jake Wallace (baritone Gavan Ring). The threat of lawless violence is always present, and in Act III, the miners turn into a lynch mob ready to string up Ramerrez, the ‘Mexican’ bandit who arouses their racist hostility.
Aletta Collins wisely sticks with the opera's original Californian setting, which is evoked in Giles Cadle's simple but effective sets and in Gabrielle Dalton's subtly varied costumes. Collins's handling of the ensemble scenes which open and close the action is masterly, and rich with significant detail.
Much hangs on the casting of the three principal roles, and here Opera North has come up trumps. The Sheriff, Jack Rance (in effect the local Scarpia), is ruthless, unscrupulous and consumed with desire for feisty saloon proprietor Minnie. Robert Hayward has all the vocal power needed for the role, and invests it with spine-chilling menace.
Minnie finds the man she really wants in Ramerrez, who disguises himself by the name of Dick Johnson. Rafael Rojas – Mexican by birth – makes him an entirely credible and sympathetic character. His Italianate tenor has really blossomed and is a treat to hear.
Soprano Alwyn Mellor takes the title role, the lone woman who rescues Ramerrrez and brings out the better side in the miners whom she tries to educate. She fills it splendidly, and makes a believable heroine. The scenes at the heart of the opera, in which she and Ramerrez get to know each other, are beautifully sung and acted.
This show deserves to become something of a classic, especially under the dynamic yet sensitive conducting of Richard Farnes.
Opera North's The Girl of the Golden West continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 21 February. The production then tours to Nottingham, Salford Quays and Newcastle between 5 and 21 March.
The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013
29 November 2013, Melbourne, Australia
Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried(Photos: Jeff Busby)
Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner
The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'
Review by Ashutosh Khandekar
An air of expectation hung heavily around this Ring cycle, Opera Australia’s first, staged in the wake of the runaway critical success of the 2004 Adelaide Festival production, exuberantly directed by Elke Reinhardt (who, in a cruel twist of irony, died in Sydney after a battle with cancer during the run of this current cycle).
A year-long international publicity campaign delivered a clear, confident message: this new production of the Ring would have a strong Australian identity, with an all-Australian creative team, establishing the credentials of Melbourne, rather than Sydney, as Australia’s top opera destination.
The result was a sell-out for all three cycles within 24 hours of the box office opening. Self-styled ‘Wagneroos’ from all over the world descended on the Melbourne Arts Centre for what was the last significant production of the Ring in Wagner’s jubilee year. A street parade through the centre of Melbourne, with celebrities and citizens in horned helmets and blond plaits, launched the event with a real air of celebration.
This outward confidence hid a somewhat less secure genesis. This Australian Ring actually started life in Houston, where the Grand Opera was looking for a co-producer for a new cycle. Opera Australia came on board, but then Houston decided to place its allegiances elsewhere. That left the Australians holding the baby – but they ran with it, turning a problem into an opportunity. In stepped Maureen Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guides, who backed the project to the hilt, both financially and as a tireless advocate garnering support both at home and abroad.
Neil Armfield, one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and an experienced opera hand, was invited to direct, assembling a design team who had worked together on several significant projects; composer/conductor Richard Mills, a distinguished figure in the Australian opera world, was given his first shot at the Ring. Mills, in the end, stepped down, citing a ‘lack of chemistry’ between him and the cast; and before curtain up, there was some last-minute shuffling of the cast itself.
Mills’ replacement was the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, due to conduct a new Ring cycle in Sicily, a troubled affair which self-destructed when funding ran dry. Melbourne came to the rescue, snapping him up for his first staged cycle.
So, there we have the backdrop to this new cycle. What started out as an out-and-out Australian Ring ended up being an altogether more eclectic undertaking, featuring home-grown talent and international names, bringing a curious mix of experience and naivety to the project.
Armfield and his set designer Robert Cousins had already scored an international hit with another saga of a dysfunctional family in their five-hour theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s quintessentially Australian novel, Cloudstreet. Using the same ‘Poor Theatre’ approach in the Ring, Armfield subverted Wagner’s grandiloquence at every turn. This was an understated, everyday Ring, inspired by a world of end-of-pier entertainments and bourgeois aspirations, with the gods in sharply tailored suits and furs, and mortals in baggy, ill-fitting leisurewear (costumes by Alice Babidge).
There are half-remembered allusions to the Ring’s performance history: exquisite recreations of painted backdrops from the 1896 Bayreuth production of the Ring, showing romantic landscapes of rivers and forests with Valhalla looming in the distance. Nostalgia reigns in Das Rheingold, with its simple pleasures of beach holidays and variety shows. The Rhinemaidens are showgirls in aquamarine ostrich feathers entertaining the chorus who cheer on with golden pompoms; Alberich is a magician with a box of tricks; Wotan meanwhile, is found assembling the remnants of an old world that is in the process of self-annihilation – stuffed animals either extinct or on the verge, packed into cases, ready to move to their new home as exhibits from a lost era. Fasolt and Fafner make their entrance on forklift trucks, contractors insisting on their fees. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla is a team of cheerleaders brandishing yet more pompoms.
Die Walküre depicts a world of innocence lost, full of threat and menace. Oppressed peoples wander over the landscape as drab refugees. The maiden-warriors in combat gear descend from the flies on steel wires, an air ambulance team clearing the battlefield of the dead.
This was where Armfield’s production began to get a bit lost. What was this all adding up to? Walküre began to make me think that this Ring had no overarching vision – a series of disconnected ideas, evocative as tableaux, perhaps, but at odds with the unified dramatic sweep and rapture of Wagner’s score.
Siegfried hinted at something more thoughtful, though Armfield remained grimly determined to avoid any epic gestures. Only the image of Fafner, a sinister actor making up his face, projected in terrifying close-up on a large screen, provided any sense of a superhuman dimension where the imagination could be unleashed. Götterdämmerung delivered some pyrotechnics by the end, but was for the most part resolutely unheroic with its backdrop of a kitsch suburban wedding.
The underwhelming staging was enlivened by some fine performances. Memorable among them was Warwick Fyfe’s engaging pantomime villain of an Alberich; Heyseoung Kwon’s fragile, touching Freia; Jud Arthur as a violent Hunding and a vicious but strangely vulnerable Fafner; the big-hearted Siegmund of Stuart Skelton, riveting our attention with his emotional incandescence; Stefan Vinke’s stalwart, indefatigable Siegfried, full of adolescent ardour; and an intense, fulminating Deborah Humble as Erda and Waltraute.
Susan Bullock, exhausted perhaps at the end of a long Wagnerian year, fell short of the big moments as Brünnhilde, scuppered by rather static direction that left her to rely on histrionics of her own devising. Terje Stensvold grew in stature to become a satisfying Wotan, though once again, any notion of a heroic aspect to the king of gods was kept firmly reined in.
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra played exquisitely and expansively over much of this cycle. Pietari Inkinen’s interpretation was strong on beauty, poise and balance, but his tempi were often excruciatingly slow and deliberate, killing any dramatic momentum.
Armfield and his team have given Opera Australia a Ring that tells the story clearly and free of directorial clutter. That is a huge asset. However, the first cycle felt like a Ring-in-progress, a self-consciously unassuming, introspective staging, strong in narrative power, but struggling to find a coherent, expressive language of imagery and imagination to match Wagner’s sublime blend of music and metaphysics.
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