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Festival Focus | Opéra de Québec

7 September 2012, Quebec, Canada

Visually stunning: Robert Lepage's new 'Tempest' in Quebec
Visually stunning: Robert Lepage's new 'Tempest' in Quebec(Photo: Louise Leblanc)

Report by Karyl Charna Lynn

Only in its second year, the Festival d’opéra de Québec showed itself to be a world-class event with its primary draw, British composer Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest.

The Festival is conceived and run by the visionary director of Opéra de Québec, Grégoire Legendre and Quebec native Robert Lepage, best known for directing the Met’s controversial Ring cycle. It was Lepage who managed to convince the Met’s general director Peter Gelb not only to co-produce The Tempest but to allow Quebec to premiere his radical new staging.

The production relocates Caliban’s island to the 18th-century stage of La Scala. (The theatre as a quintessential place of allegory and magic is a key theme in Shakespeare’s play.) The sense of fantasy and transformation was reinforced as the audience’s perspective changed through each act of the opera, starting backstage at La Scala, moving into the auditorium and then to a cross-section of both.

Although the melodic lines are few and climaxes scarce, Adès’ music maintains a narrative flow by conjuring very precise ‘sound worlds’, brilliantly explored by Lepage with spectacular effects and acrobatic movements. The striking production was organically united with the music, allowing the atmosphere of the island to emerge very naturally on stage.
The Tempest opens with one of opera’s great storm scenes: fiery, tempestuous music to which Lepage conjured up brilliant visuals – the focal point of which was an enormous, wildly spinning chandelier, onto which Ariel climbed and to which some shipwrecked souls frantically clung, trying to escape the violent and turbulent seas beneath.

Once on the island (La Scala’s backstage), the opera turned static as Prospero stood Wotan-like  with flowing, native robes, elaborate headdress and staff (which shattered at the end), narrating his life story to his daughter, Miranda. His treacherous brother Antonio (Roger Honeywell) and the King of Naples (Gregory Schmidt) in royal dress were spotlighted in La Scala’s royal box.

The action moves on in Act II, set in a fantastical forest of diaphanous trees where Ariel flies around, executing Prospero’s commands. The monstrous Caliban, whose island Prospero has usurped, enters under the stage floorboards, crawling like a beast.

Act III has a dynamic opening: scaffolds filled with a disorderly ‘shipwrecked’ chorus, showing the magnitude of the power struggle at hand.

The cast was top-notch, and Audrey Luna as Ariel was quite amazing. Aside from her extraordinary acrobatic feats, she aced the stratospheric shrills, shrieks, and exceptionally high vocal line. Rod Gilfry made a majestic Prospero both vocally and visually, and Frédéric Antoun brought a believable human side to Caliban. Julie Boulianne sang Miranda with a beautiful delicacy, laced with power; Antonio Fugueora as her lover Ferdinand displayed a fine tenor voice. The biggest applause went to Lepage for his extraordinary vision and to Adès for his impeccable musical direction.

Although The Tempest was the primary attraction, the Festival also offered a broad spectrum of opera-related events, from a clever recreation of a late 13th-century pastoral, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion, to a late 20th-century piece of profoundly moving musical theatre, Nelligan, about the tragic life of Quebec’s greatest poet. Less successful were Tangopéra and Mozart à l’opéra, a disappointing concert of Mozart arias by soprano Karina Gauvin and Les violins du Roy. Opera was even taken into the community with the Brigade Lyrique, a group of young singers who sang outdoors at various public places during the Festival. It was, however, the flawless execution of The Tempest that has set the standard so incredibly high: the challenge for Legendre will be to maintain it.

Robert Lepage’s new production of The Tempest opens at the New York Metropolitan Opera on 23 October, conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside as Prospero, Audrey Luna as Ariel and Alan Oke as Caliban.


Join English National Opera this autumn...

7 September 2012, London, UK

ENO's 'The Magic Flute'
ENO's 'The Magic Flute'(Photo: Richard Smith)

English National Opera has just opened their 2012/13 Season with Nicholas Hytner’s ever popular imagining of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. In 2012 the company won every UK opera award, including an Olivier in recognition of the diversity and breadth of their artistic programming. 

ENO's commitment to creating the future of opera by staging more new, distinctive and exciting opera productions than any other UK opera company continues with future season highlights including Carmen with Ruxandra Donose in the title role; Julius Caesar directed by Michael Keegan-Dolan; and the first professionally staged production of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s The Pilgrim’s Progress in sixty years. Visit www.eno.org to book your tickets.

Why not get involved and support the work of this award-winning company by joining the ENO Friends from just £50 a year? Friends enjoy many exclusive privileges including access to dress rehearsal tickets from just £7, priority booking for ENO performances and invitations to attend special events with company artists, as well as regular mailings and the Friends magazine Inside ENO.  ENO Friends membership also makes the ideal Christmas present for any opera lover.  Visit www.eno.org/support-us or call +44 (0)20 7845 9420 for more information and to join.

A miracle at the grass roots

15 August 2012, London, UK

The Jette Parker Young Artists in concert at London's Royal Opera House
The Jette Parker Young Artists in concert at London's Royal Opera House(Photo: Clive Barda)

Tom Sutcliffe laments the behind-the-scenes voyeurism that passes for talent-spotting in today’s opera world, and calls for more live performances of opera at a local level, where fresh talent can emerge unforced.

Of course Britain’s got talent. Music is universal, and you can be a fabulous singer without any training at all – at least that is what today’s media, and especially television, tells us.

Competitions and prizes have become a substitute in Britain for what always used to be the path taken by new talent to train and develop voices, namely the experience of working in small-scale, provincial opera companies. Nowadays it seems that the less real work we have around to help young artists grow, the more we want to hand out prizes and hold competitions that denote ‘instant’ success.

The opportunities for developing talent within British opera companies are diminishing. At the Royal Opera House, for instance, instead of having an in-house ensemble of experienced comprimario singers, there is the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme, operating as a ‘finishing school’ for international artists who are awarded scholarships on a competitive basis. The Programme provides the ROH with a steady supply of singers in small roles, who then move on to bigger things.

Meanwhile, most British singers and conductors have a dreadful time getting started in an opera career. We lack opera companies with positions for gifted youngsters to start learning the repertory, such as I have seen and heard in the German-speaking world. There, the norm is for an aspiring opera conductor, for instance, to start as a repetiteur, become a second Kapellmeister, and often to have the chance of conducting a certain number of performances during a season. I would argue that even extremely gifted conductors such as Simon Rattle and Daniel Harding would have developed their talents in a more valuable way, and, yes, matured better, if they had not got a rocket to fame but instead had been required to work for some years within an opera company in this way.

Performers at all stages need a public who are listening and looking seriously at what they do – not in the ‘quick-fix’ context of a rehearsal, a competition or a masterclass, but in live performances on a professional stage, preferably at a local level and over time. After all, it’s through going to performances that audiences learn their job too, developing their imaginative powers and a taste for great artistry as well as building local loyalties with young talent that will continue for years to come.

Meanwhile, most aspects of behind-the-scenes preparation are a private grief and should remain so. Everybody loves young artists who have not yet acquired the patina of professional ease, or been laminated by experience. Watching singers being rehearsed and listening to voices being coached in a masterclass environment can be very interesting; but the voyeuristic appetite stimulated by the likes of Britain's Got Talent and the overpaid dictators who make sweeping judgements about ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ is not healthy.

What builds a good opera business is providing audiences and singers with the 'Full Monty': namely, performances of opera on stage and concerts that stick in the memory and nourish the soul. Artists need to work with real directors and conductors in a proper, well-equipped theatre – not just some lovely country house environment without a backstage, which is more or less all that Britain can offer as a nursery for its young talent these days.

You only have to look, as I frequently do, at the fantastic quality of work in Germany, Austria and Switzerland to see what can be achieved by maintaining a range of opera ensembles operating professionally at a local level. Singers from all over the world – Ukrainians, Brazilians, Koreans as well as Brits and Aussies – are there learning the trade, and seeing how old hands do it.

It’s not about tricks of the trade. It’s about nurturing skills in the presence of a supportive audience that recognises that miraculous moment when greatness suddenly shines bright in the backstreet. It’s the miracle of opera at the grassroots. The German world has it. We in Britain need it too.


Critical mass

5 July 2012, London, UK

Watching the sparks fly: Jay Hunter Morris in the Met’s 'Ring'
Watching the sparks fly: Jay Hunter Morris in the Met’s 'Ring'(Photo: Ken Howard)

Ashutosh Khandekar considers the fallout from recent trouble down at the Met...

It’s not the sort of behaviour you’d expect of Peter Gelb: the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera normally exudes a cool, unruffled air of competence and calm. Recent events, however, have revealed a surprising strand of paranoia in a man who is charged with steering America’s largest performing arts institution through tough economic times, while presiding over some of the most ambitious expansion in the company’s history.

The problem began with Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle, stuffed with expensive technical wizardry but, most commentators have agreed, lacking in any attempt to grapple with the deeper meaning of one of opera’s most epic and enduring masterpieces: a  classic case of style (all US$16 million of it) over substance.

The critics hated it; the public, initially wowed by Lepage’s dazzling hydraulics, finally got irritated with all the creaking and banging, not to mention the palpable discomfiture of the singers as they ducked and dodged their way around the treacherous machinery on stage.

Reviewing the Met’s Ring in the New Yorker magazine, the highly respected journalist and author Alex Ross roundly damned the whole enterprise as ‘the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history’. To add to the humiliation, Opera News magazine, funded by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, summed up the situation by saying ‘we are in the midst of a very bad period’.

Jitters were in the air: Gelb had already wrapped the knuckles of WQXR radio for publishing a blog that criticised him for his lack of artistic judgement. In his view, Opera News was biting the very hand that fed it, and his response was to bar the magazine from publishing reviews of any of the Met’s productions. It was a curious move from a man with impeccably liberal credentials, who has made a point of democratising opera through new media, and whose father, Arthur Gelb, was managing editor of the New York Times, a beacon of independent reporting.

The media and opera’s chat-rooms were swift to condemn Gelb for his act of censorship. Realising that his stance was untenable, it only took the general manager one day to change his mind and reverse the ban, admitting that he had ‘made a mistake’.

You have to sympathise with Gelb. He is, at heart, a reformer and a revolutionary who has taken huge risks at the Met, which had a reputation as a bastion of conservatism when he became its boss in 2006. Here is a major artistic institution in one of the most creative and progressive cities in the world, and yet just a few years ago, programming the works of Berg, Stravinsky or Britten (core repertoire for most international opera companies these days) would have been considered risqué for New York audiences. Gelb has put his reputation on the line by bringing contemporary productions with modern design aesthetics to the Lincoln Center stage, as well as pushing for technological innovation across the board.
Gelb is seen, however, as an empire builder who is trying to corner the market for opera in the US in an unhealthy way. His inability to engage in any debate about the artistic quality of what he presents has made people question his role at the Met.
The Opera News episode has been something of a personal PR disaster for Gelb. He has put a message out that the Met should get special treatment when it comes to criticism of its productions. This comes at a time when Opera News has been trying to shake off the perception of a Met bias in its coverage of the American opera scene as a whole. Gelb's pronouncement will only fuel the suspicions of many in the US opera world that the magazine is uneven in its treatment of the nation's opera companies.

Today, the Met's influence in the way opera is presented and perceived around the world is greater than ever, broadcasting opera to millions through its radio and cinema relays. All this is testament to the scale of Gelb’s ambition. In view of this influence, however, the Met, more than any international opera company, should be encouraging healthy, vigorous debate around opera, not gagging the very people who are best placed to give a considered and mature critique of its work.

Ashutosh Khandekar is the Editor of Opera Now.


Damon Albarn's Dr Dee

16 May 2012, Manchester, UK

Scene from the world premiere of 'Dr Dee' at Manchester International Festival
Scene from the world premiere of 'Dr Dee' at Manchester International Festival(Photo: Howard Barlow)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

I caught the world premiere of Dr Dee in Manchester last year, but I imagine it will have changed a bit by the time it comes to English National Opera later this month. It’s worth considering the strengths and weaknesses of a new work that naturally creates a buzz, with a popular celebrity at its heart.

It hardly matters that this ‘English Opera’ is no particular opera at all, nor that Damon Albarn’s meditation on bits of the life of John Dee – astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I  – is as fractured as a broken mirror and tells us little except that Dee kindly lent his wife to a freak called Edward Kelley.

It doesn’t much matter that the instruments – theorbo, viols, shawm, Malian kora and African drums – were underwhelmingly used, nor that the orchestra sounded like a synthesiser. It doesn’t matter that Albarn’s own songs lapsed into the sort of mystical whimsy that befalls old rockers when they start thinking about England, viz Marc Bolan and Led Zep’s forays into 12-string elf-ballads, nobly satirised by Spinal Tap (‘Stowne’enge: children dancin’ to the Pipes of Pan…’).

The real question is only whether the result is musically and theatrically worthwhile, to which the ringingly positive answer is: ish.

Most of the work in Manchester was done by director Rufus Norris, imposing a shape and story onto the text and decorating it in the sumptuous manner of an Elizabethan masque. André de Ridder (the musical arranger) and a gang of designers and movement directors came up with brilliant, tireless, imaginative work.

It’s ceaselessly visually inventive, from the parade of ‘English stereotypes’ at the beginning (Morris Man, silly-walks minister, punk), through the big concertina’d screens that shoot across the stage like mad caterpillars to shut off one scene and magically reveal another, to Queen Bess floating above the stage and canopying the world in her golden train. As intended, this distracts the attention from what is actually happening dramatically and musically.

Dee has one big scene (doing a maths problem set to a thunderous drum set) but is overshadowed by Kelley, sung by a countertenor: the writing recalls Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and is quite effective. The dramatic core of Dee’s Faust destroyed by Kelley’s cut-price Mephisto could be a strong one, though all was too diffuse in Manchester.

It’s more than acceptable musically, aiming to induce that hypnotised state where critical faculties are suspended. There’s some nice polyphony pastiche too. However, it doesn’t add up to a great deal. The I-can-do-minimalism! climax was a misjudgement, and some of the words hardly withstand analysis: ‘Love is the astrolabe of God’s mysteries’? Whatevz.

English National Opera’s production of Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee runs from 25 June to 7 July as part of this year's London 2012 Festival.


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