Category Archives: 20th century
1 August was the date Glyndebourne reserved for people under 30 to flock to this production of Pelléas et Mélisande – I’ve never seen so many truly young people at the opera! It was disconcerting until I realised what was going on. My first thought was why does Debussy bring out so many young people as opposed to Handel? 😉 Heh. Once I will make a point to go for the under 30 performance of a Handel opera.
My relationship with Debussy is generally positive, reason for which I attended. It was the same in this case. Musically I find much to appreciate about his anti-opera, though I can’t say I ever get to the point of loving it like I do Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle1. To my ears it’s always very listenable, though a bit too loose structurally to grip me.
Golaud: Christopher Purves
Mélisande: Christina Gansch
Geneviève: Karen Cargill
Arkel: Brindley Sherratt
Pelléas: John Chest
Yniold: Chloé Briot
Doctor: Michael Mofidian
Shepherd: Michael Wallace
Conductor: Robin Ticciati | London Philharmonic Orchestra and The Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Stefan Herheim
The subject is a more complicated matter. Obsessive jealousy isn’t a favourite plot, and the woman character as cipher is tedious as far as I’m concerned. I do understand the validity of presenting characters who never quite get each other’s motives (that’s rather realistic for an opera interested in the elusiveness of emotion) and I think my reaction to the cipher woman comes out of the frustration of having seen so many men insist on writing about women without bothering to communicate with them long enough to start making sense of them. Though making sense is hardly what Debussy had in mind here, so even if it irks me, it’s not fair to bitch too much about it in this case.
The three main characters (Pelléas, Mélisande and Golaud) are all presented via their emotions first and foremost. When Golaud and and Mélisande first meet, she’s acting severely traumatised, but we of course never find out why. He’s lost in the woods. Pelléas falls deeply in love with Mélisande as soon as he sees her. Later on, she tells Golaud that she’s unhappy in their relationship (which, duh! he saves her and immediately marries her because what other course of action can there be? Plus his wife has died and his father says in so many words that a wife will distract him from “unsavoury actions”) but puts it in a it’s not you, it’s me way, that rings true to this day – people only say that when they’re afraid of the other one’s reaction to the truth. He, of course, flies off the handle and starts suspecting Pelléas, who, by virtue of being young, is more suited to her.
As the opera goes on we learn that we’re dealing with unreliable witnesses and Golaud’s frustration with pushing for
his the truth culminates with him directly asking Mélisande(‘s ghost?) whether there was anything between her and Pelléas, to which the answer is, of course, inconclusive. This was my favourite scene in the entire opera. We can never know, especially when we push for a certain answer which has more to do with our insecurities than with evidence. But at this point it’s not even clear whether the whole thing plays only in his mind or if it actually happened (Herheim does a good job at keeping it unclear).
If this was the high point of the opera, the lowest – for me – was the romantic scene between Pelléas and Mélisande, where he comes to – so to speak – serenade her below the tower when Golaud has locked her (ie, their bedroom). He asks her to let her hair down so he can touch it and basically make out with it. Ok. This scene goes on for quite some time and I did realise, after a while, that it’s supposed to be really romantic and sexy. Dear reader, I have a romantic deficiency and I actually fell asleep on my feet, to the point I was about to fall down, but luckily was jolted awake midfall. No joke 😉
And, indeed, this is an opera where everything is deadly serious, aside from a rather unintentionally comic moment when Pelléas says that his grandfather, who has been gravely ill, has woken up and upon seeing him commented that he (Pelléas) looks like someone who doesn’t have long to live, so he’d better go travelling.
The production by Herheim seemed fine to me but I have never seen another one for this opera, neither do I know it enough to have thought about it before. I think it covers everything and deals with the issues at the heart of the plot. He says in the Glyndebourne interview printed in the booklet that he has incorporated the organ from the Glyndebourne Organ Room because it looks so ominous, even more so because it is not used at all for its music making in the opera, just as a visual symbol (gothic, oppresive, old school mores etc.). I would argue that making every production Glyndebourne related can turn into a bit of a gimmick but, fair enough, why not use the organ if it makes sense? Whether having Glyndebourne goers show up in the last scene is closer to gimmick or not depends on your feelings.
I wasn’t invested enough to feel one way or another, but that’s more Debussy’s fault than Herheim’s – or my detachment from this particular plot2. I did enjoy how he used the sets (the dining-drawing room of the big, old house) for every scene, with only certain lighting details to signify a dream sequence or walls retracting for literally more space. Also the central pedestal-well-sarcophagus-grotto was another aptly used multifunctional symbol.
Purves as Golaud was great, but I guess to no surprise, as his role in Written on Skin is very similar and it really suits him dramatically. In fact, before the intermission I kept thinking of parallels between the two3. Things do change quite a bit (for the better) in the last two acts. The others were good, too, though in spite of its name, this opera is mostly about Golaud (or like Hippolyte at Aricie, where they main characters just go on and on – she ❤ him, he ❤ her – and other more interesting things happen around them).
Speaking of its long ranging influence on 20th and 21st operas, the beginning of Bluebeard is very similar (for my taste Bartók improved on whatever Debussy tried with Pelléas et Mélisande) and I swear the distinctive flute part in Akhnaten comes right out of here. The libretto must be made up of 80% words of Latin origin, as I could never follow a French text to such a degree before (also thanks to the clear – if not always very French – diction employed by the singers).
A wonderful Summer day wrapped up my 2018 G-season. A welcome surprise this year was the Southernrail trains, who gave me no trouble whatsoever4. Looks like I’ll be less G-busy next year, but you never know…
- But then I really like the plot in that case and the language is a lot more poetic and the music much more structured. ↩
- You may not be surprised to remember that I did like how Guth used the Glyndebourne grounds for Tito. The grass is indeed a very important feature of the local landscape and the pond at the very back of the garden is mysterious enough to fuel the imagination. ↩
- What is considered scary in entertaiment has changed a lot in the past 100 years, interesting since our actual life is a lot more sheltered. ↩
- Unlike bloody Ryanair, who has added really unnecessary stress for the past month and a detour via Munich for my next outing. ↩
We all want magic
Carly Owen soprano
“I want magic” from A Streetcar named Desire
A good aria to start off with, even though during a masterclass we’re actually hoping to disassemble the magic and see what makes it tick. That’s the curious thing about their appeal: you’re going all cerebral about things that make you feel. Understanding why you feel something (or hoping you do) often enhances the feeling. And masterclasses have an uncanny way of making you (me?) like even things I don’t normally like. Sometimes for a very short period of time, other times for good, you do catch a glimpse of the composer’s reasons. (I don’t think you ever quite get what makes it tick, but picking the composer’s brain for a few moments is the next best thing).
Hannigan advised Owen to show Blanche’s vulnerability without losing her strength, which I think is very good goal to strive for, as it asks for a lot of maturity from a performer.
The pros and cons of being a decent person
Edmund Danon baritone
“Within this frail crucible of light” from The Rape of Lucretia
pro: the world needs more of you
con: doesn’t come in handy when you’re playing the bad guy
It’s interesing observing someone who’s picked a bad guy aria but then turns out to be not particularly comfortable being creepy. I mean this aria is Creepology 101 (but brilliantly written, chapeau, Mr Britten).
Q & A (paraphrase): should we go all method actor on something like this?
Q & A (tl:dr): when you’re young and don’t have much experience with the (big, bad) world, you can use anything at all that works for you to get in that place where people believe what they see/hear, even if for you it’s all abstract. But playing an antagonist will bring out the not so nice side of you (for the time you have to play said character – hopefully, only for that time).
The common sense advice given to anyone interested in acting is: watch/listen to people. There are going to be all sorts of people around with, with all sorts of reactions and MOs. You don’t have to be them but remembering them when needed will be of great help to build a character that is far from your usual self.
For instance: I mentioned elsewhere that I happen to know a very unsavory character. Now the most important thing I take from our (thankfully) occasional interactions that would be of use here is the tension he carries with him. If you could transfer even half of that tension to your public I think you’d be doing a very good job at portraying a creep. I’m not saying it would be easy – especially doing it in front of others – but then you did pick an intensely unplesant person to inhabit… and actually, it is interesting testing your own limitations of “bad” – unless you find out they extend much further than expected. But at least you’d be aware you have a problem.
The pros and cons of presenting an aria the singer had created
Lorena Paz Nieto soprano
The mad scene from Written on Skin
pro: being able to talk to the person who’s created the role.
con: it must be so much harder to have only one option out there if your imagination is running low.
pro: it must be so exhilirating not to have 348638578436 other singers to be compared against or be blocked by there not being all that much new to say with this role.
It’s useful, I think, especially for a young singer, because it reminds you that a successful performance goes beyond technique. Hannigan advised to bark out those lines, which perhaps doesn’t sound nice to a young singer who has thus far been instructed to make sure their performance in front of an audience is neatly packaged. Though, again, you did pick a mad scene. Going overboard in a mad scene I think is generally approved by all audiences – especially if you made sure your high Cs remain intact.
She mentioned being smart about picking your audition aria (ie: short, expressive). She went on to imply you don’t have to worry too much about the second one, as they would’ve made their decision after the first 30secs but if you have something cool and way out there, do put it in (basically to show off your mad skillz). So, mezzos going in with Parto: stop after the second parto and go home, nobody’s going to listen to you for 6min+ 😉 that being, said, Parto has been a staple for a long time, so someone’s listening, at least for a while. For sopranos she actually recommended S’altro che lagrime – I, of course, was happy to hear a Tito nod from her. I also agreed – as a young soprano, you probably have everything you need to show in that aria.
The tenor still gets the most attention from the public
Satryia Krisna tenor
“Here I stand” from The Rake’s Progress
Here’s the short and sweet aria where it’s going to be immediately obvious if you’re right for it. Krisna sure looks the part and I for one liked his interpretation. Smooth but not overly polished because, hey, this Rake is in progress 😉 I can’t remember what Hannigan told him to work on but I’m sure you’ve already got the gist of her wisdom if you made it this far.
As a general piece of advice she told students to try and be very desciplined and organised in the way they approach their career. Ah, don’t we all wish we could’ve followed that advice at that age? I hope this crop of students do because Hannigan is a living example of how far you can get if you do (and are a bit lucky, too).
This Masterclass was held at the Linden Studio at the Royal Opera Ballet School, which is a very fine space.
You know how I always say that if the singer is French, the Wiggy audience gets a major influx of French speaking people, if the pianist is Korean – etc. Well, in this case there was an extra reason everybody seemed to speak Polish – the concert was broadcast on Polish TV and it was part of the celebrations around a century of Polish independence. It was a bit weird being there casually, as a lot of people around me seemed to be patriotically invested in the event.
I do actually have a personal story to go with this, and it’s as usual rather amusing. You know how we in Eastern Europe are always mixed with this and that. Well, so am I. For the longest time the story – told by mum – was that I was part Polish on my dad’s side. A couple of years ago she goes “oh, Czech, like your people”. Of course I was like :-O! “wait a second, didn’t you say we were Polish?” And she was like “oh, one of those!” She, who makes a way bigger deal about her heritage than I do, was so casual about my heritage! You can imagine that for a moment or two the pillars of my identity got a good shake. I may not make a bog deal about it but I do care about accuracy. Anyway, I’m none the wiser (due to complicated communication issues within my family), but thanks to the confusion I felt a bit (more?) Polish that night.
Jakub Józef Orlinski countertenor
Michal Biel piano
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Inumano fratel … Stille amare Tolomeo HWV25
Henry Purcell (c.1659-1695)
Music for a while Z583
If music be the food of love Z379c
What power art thou (Cold Genius aria) Z628
Strike the viol Z323
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Auf der Donau D553
Die Stadt Schwanengesang D957
Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947)
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Kurpie Songs Op. 58
Tadeusz Baird (1928-1981)
Four Love Sonnets
George Frideric Handel
Agitato da fiere tempeste Riccardo Primo, re d’Inghilterra HWV23
And indeed, in spite of the Handel arias, I actually enjoyed the Polish songs best, as Orlinski sounded to me very relaxed and at home in them. He has style (including versatility), intelligence and sensitivity, as well as presence and a very bright and enjoyable top, only lacking a wider range. There are a few countertenors I’ve heard so far who have a certain segment of their voice where things are top notch and they, quite understandably, march on arias and parts that showcase that particular segment. It’s not hard at all to figure out what that is, as you will hear it again and again during a recital. It’s of course, pleasant like witnessing a homerun, but it does also point to the limitations of a voice.
Because 35C degree London really needs heating up! 8-0
But it’s true that Grimeborn is back (as every year) and there are some interesting things happening, among which some old school choice bits like Cavalli’s Xerse, Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain’s Mate and some new, low key (and hopefully off beat) takes on repertory operas – Onegin, Lucia and Carmen.
But there are some other pieces that might catch someone’s interest, such as Turnage’s Greek. or a Mexican setting/reinvention of Offenbach’s Hoffmann (which I can’t quite imagine but it exists, so). There are two pieces for kids, one featuring a singing mouse (who loves Puccini and Mozart) and another a singing-challenged cat (who loves jazz). Then there’s The Rape of Lucretia directed by Julia Burbach, probably a good idea to have a woman’s view and see how much can be salvaged… On the other hand, Elephant Steps sounds patchouli mad:
If you like gangster films, rock bands, gypsy violinists, incense or The Sound Of Music then come and see Elephant Steps. Or if you prefer ragtime, silent movies, psychedelic lights or madrigals? You’ll find them in Elephant Steps too.
I like the things in green and dislike the others (I’m ambivalent about silent movies) so I don’t know if I should dare.
I don’t quite know how this works out but then again:
Thoughts on the teenager’s body based on Buxtehude’s Membra Jesu Nostri. A cycle of cantates for five voices, an actor and an instrumental ensemble, featuring live music and movement.
Arcola Theatre is rather shady cool from what I remember, so choosing something off the roster might be a better idea than idling at home, half comatose for lack of AC in this country (not that I like it but at 35C you start to think in novel ways).
Der Rosenkavalier is, in many ways, the ultimate trouser role opera. Octavian is a mezzo with not one but two sopranos to choose from. That could be the end right there but s/he also gets to humiliate the ridiculous villain out of the opera, just to doubly underline the point.
What’s more, it’s actually funny. In Richard Jones’ hands that’s very silly. The second time around it seems even more hilarious.
I was sort of swept by peer pressure (that’s actually a strong term, peer enthusiasm rather) and went again, on the strength of the daring wallpaper in Marschallin’s salon. It was also because Carsen’s production from ROH was a bit too heavy on its own meaning and way, way too light on the comedy for me. I don’t want to overthink things when it comes to DR, I want to have a silly couple of 3 hours.
Octavian: Kate Lindsey
Die Marschallin: Michaela Kaune
Ochs: Brindley Sherratt
Sophie: Louise Alder
Faninal: Michael Kraus
Annina and Valzacchi: Stephanie Lauricella and Alun Rhys-Jenkins
Italian tenor: Sehoon Moon
Marianne Leimetzerin: Garniele Rossmanith
… and others
Conductor: Robin Ticciati | London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus
Director: Richard Jones / Revival Director: Sarah Fahey
Whilst the production still stands 4 years later and acting across the board served it very well, the singing was a bit more approximative. We appreciated Lindsey’s ability to project over the orchestra and the Kaune’s… acting ability. She wasn’t quite as comfortable as Kate Royal during the “manhandling Mariandel” scene (when Ochs is merely boasting about his “female hunting”1 techniques and says oh, yea, you only know how it is to be pursued, but, omg, to be on the prowl every season of the year like me! – and the Marschallin is playfully trying some fun hunting moves on Mariandel for a change), but she was game most of the rest of the time.
The monologue scene wasn’t particularly memorable and the last trio was marred by Ticci allowing the jets in the orchestra to finally take off, so that the singers were left to fend for themselves. The result was more akin to an enthusiastic racket rather than smooth and alluring. Yo, Ticci, I guess you don’t know the one about trouser role operas and threesome epilogues. Someone should send him the memo.
Alder as Sophie has finally come into her own as far as I’m concerned. That’s a voice that begs to soar over something, and she’s ready to move on from sinking a delicate Baroque mezzo/contralto. She was the epitome of modern woman when it came to scolding Ochs for his ochsnoxiousness or generally being outraged at what is going on around her when Octavian isn’t there. Her interaction with Lindsey’s Octavian was very good in the Presentation of the Rose (this production has them sway back and forth, languishing in the arms of budding teenage desire).
Sherratt’s Ochs was more Ochsish than last run’s Rose (who was rather the bumbling English country cousin type) and was probably in possession of the best suited voice for Strauss on that stage, at this particular moment.
None of the rest or the orchestra stood out for any kind of faults as far as I can remember, but then we don’t go to DR for Faninal or the Italian Singer ™, do we?
On the way back from Glyndebourne we caught an earlier train and spent the ride back into Victoria thinking about scenarios regarding the fictitious act IV. Put a bunch of WS together and pretty soon discussions about whether Octavian would or would not (and under which conditions) return to the Marschallin arise.
Forgot to say: at Cesare, crows and magpies thieved our blackberries (and were well on their way to make off with the celery)!!! :p so this time we got clever and put all the fruit away. And then at the short interval we only had time to move the blanket into the sun before we had to go back to the opera. I ended up very thirsty.
Crow: what are you doing this summer?
Magpie: I’m going to Glyndebourne.
Crow: trying to get famous, are you?
Magpie: I heard the catering is fabulous. Then again, if I get offered a cameo I’m not going to say no…
The lawn was mobbed with picnic-ers even more so than at Cesare‘s, so we (this time Mon, Anna and I) ended up also pondering if the Cesare and DR crowds are different or the same. I think we agreed they should more or less be the same. It was also amusing to note that DR is 30min shorter. Baroque operas mean business.
This year it was very smooth sailing as far as trains were concerned (knock on wood from now on). If anyone is interested, the recommended train is going to Ore/Littlehampton and you need to be in the 4 front (Ore) carriages. It (usually) runs from track 15 during the week and track 12 at the weekend.
- you just know he would call women females. ↩
I’m all for privacy but what is going in in the Rice camp, y’all? This year alone I was supposed to see her three times (January, March and June) and everything ended up cancelled. I hope things are on the mend, for everyone’s sake.
Wiggy presented us with a young upstart instead, namely baritone Julien Van Mallaerts, who is about to go to Bayreuth for some Wagnerian schooling. He did sound like that. The end.
With Rice we were expecting a French programme (La voix humaine) so we at least got that (not La voix humaine – but wouldn’t it be fun to hear a baritone sing it?). You know I like ze French songse. His French diction is good (or I had a very good seat) and he seemed like he really got into it interpretively. Pity we didn’t know what was so funny, though based on the titles I’m sure it was. I need to get a bit more culture (not just about Madama Butterfly). I thought he had a nice, run-of-the-mill baritone but Anna wasn’t so sure it was a bari-tone after all (his low notes were a bit cloudy to me, especially if he wanted to do pp. He was at his best when he could employ bright and loud highs).
Whatever it is, it wasn’t offensive but nothing much to write home about as far as I’m concerned. How about a picture of Camden instead1? It was such a warm and gorgeous day on Monday, Anna and I decided to walk along the Regent Canal (yes, I wanted to take some pictures like I couldn’t after the last Lunchtime Concert when the battery died after two measly shots 😉 ).
Julius Drake was a treat twice within less than 24hours, though I thought he was a lot more interesting (like super cool) in the German programme. I commend that work ethic!
Julien Van Mallaerts baritone
Julius Drake piano
Henri Duparc (1848-1933)
La vie antérieure
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Fêtes galantes Book II
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
Chanson a boire
- It has come to my attention that I don’t post enough pictures, so there you go, nautical London. ↩
From the comment section of Guardian’s fluff piece of Glyndebourne boost:
Retroactively applying current moral sensibilities to older artistic works is naively dismissing cultural context, in the same way that dubbing something as ‘problematic’ is an intellectual cop-out, actually shutting down avenues for meaningful conversation and reverting to moral sanctimony that is less about actual progressiveness and more about moralistic posturing. (says alives)
Hm. Maybe it’s early(ish) morning after a night shift and I can’t think straight (has happened before) but I don’t quite see it that way. We always apply modern sensibilities to older artistic works, whether we give them passes or not. If we didn’t I guess we’d still be doing the same thing (cave paintings?) and study the same things in school like they did in Moses’ time.
Just because I think this is a dumb story that has yet another damsel in mortal distress in the title role to go with the schmalzy sentiments/music does not mean I don’t get cultural context (ie: that’s mid 19th century to early 20th for ya; but, dehggi, Puccini is actually criticising Pinkerton/colonialists! Fair enough but I think it’s fair to say women are sick and tired of being the designated object of pity in yet another opera).
Not calling a lot of things problematic has lead to said things being swept under the rug and considered the way of the world for aeons (ie, I didn’t know there was a problem! You should’ve said so!) rather than encourage discussion. Saying something is morally abhorent does not automatically lead to moralistic posturing – it actually is opening dialogue on a tough subject. Talk about getting into a hissy fit over other people’s opinions…
I should mention that the Guardian opera section’s comments are usually frequented either by folks who want all subsidy removed from opera posthaste or dinosaurs who like to reminisce about how it was at Covent Garden before Daylight Savings Time was introduced. This fluff piece has given a good chunk an opportunity to bash #metoo.
personal hobby horse: someone in the comments worries that this opera might end up shelved for its problematic nature and how that would not be fair. Well, tell that to all the 17th and 18th century Baroque works that are still lesser known that this one – and for no better reason than subsequent time periods found them old fashioned and not in line with their moral sensibilities… Poppea vs Butterfly, anyone?
Fantastic ROH news:
During this extended period there will be 2 (yes, two) new Handel productions! The very brand new one by Kosky! The other one – new to ROH – you know and love by Loy (not that one, the other one). Scroll down 😉
Tl;dr: this is turning into a really excting period at ROH and not just because of Handel (but especially). I am also expecting Poppea cca Januray 2020, after the first two Monteverdi instalments. Very low on Mozart, though. You know there is more to him than the DaPonte stuff (and Mitridate).
It’s that time of the year people are eager to find out what’s coming up, so here are some updates from the ever reliable source. I put a NEW next to the information that’s transpired since my last post on the subject:
late 2018 – 2019
Katya Kabanova (Janacek)
NEW Fall 2018 | Production: Richard Jones all the Janacek! from Jones!
The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera | Production: Stefan Herheim
NEW January 2019 | Polina: Anna Goryachova <- will they keep the trouser role scene?
La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) February 2019 | Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Production: Christof Loy <- Leo gets a white shirt?
Don Alvaro: Jonas Kaufmann
Leonora: Anna Netrebko
Fra Melitone: Alessandro Corbelli
NEW Das Liebesverbot (Wagner) coproduction with Teatro Real-Madrid
Spring 2019 | Director: Kasper Holten
NEW Billy Budd (Britten)
Conductor: Richard Farnes | Director: David McVicar hm, why not?
NEW Le nozze di Figaro (Mozart)
2019 La Contessa: Julia Kleiter
NEW March 2019 | Marguérite: Diana Damrau I might go
NEW Otello (Verdi)
Desdemona: Ermonela Jaho
Andrea Chénier (Giordano)
NEW Spring 2019 (pushed back)
2019 – 2020
NEW Jenufa (Janacek)
Director: Claus Guth
Kostelnicka: Karita Mattila yes to more Mattila and more Janacek. Hope Guth will be on form.
Death in Venice (Britten)
Conductor: Mark Elder | Production: David McVicar
Production: Barrie Kosky ❤ you know you want to come to London!
[edit: debuting in Munich this Summer with Coote in the title role and Fagioli and Davies as Nerone and Ottone]
Elektra (Strauss) 2020
Klytemnestra: Karita Mattila I’ll go see her!
Parsifal (Wagner) 2020
Conductor: Semyon Bychkov
Madama Butterfly (Puccini) Summer 2020
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Goro: Carlo Bosi
NEW 2020 – 2021
Les Contes d’Hoffmann (Offenbach) Fall 2020
Hoffmann: Juan Diego Florez
So they’re chucking out their ancient Hoffmann? Good riddance! I hope Michieletto does something with this sexist story. On the other hand, there’s a lot of Hoffmann in just a few years, chap wrote other fun stuff (like his take of Orphee).
Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck)
Production: Antony McDonald I wonder if it’s replacing the cancelled Konigskinder?
4 new works inspired by Slavoj Zizek’s writings (Saariaho, Turnage, Francesconi, Widmann) heh, interesting idea
Librettist: Sofi Oksanen
Alcina (Händel) ❤ ❤ ❤
Production: Christof Loy (from Zurich)
Bradamante: Varduhi Abrahamyan ❤
I’m expecting everyone to London for an extended Alcina party!
Věc Makropulos (Janacek) ❤ Mattila, right? She sang it at Southbank a couple of years back ❤
For me, Janáček is singular among composers in that he had the ability, unlike others who tried way too hard, to write some wickedly thoughful libretti on themes other than the same old operatic fodder – and the music isn’t bad either, especially after you get used to Sprechgesang.
I first came across him via Glyndebourne’s production of Cunning Little Vixen and although I found the singing a bit hard going, I genuinely enjoyed the fable-like libretto (I’m also fond of foxes; London is their playground, pretty much every neighbourhood has a den and they even walk along with you on the pavement in daylight). Then I heard The Makropulos Case, easier music to take (or perhaps I was a bit less green), again with a libretto that discusses a subject I find fascinating (immortality) and another very strong female character.
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this production, based on all this, a curiousity about Warlikowski and my longterm interest in psychology.
Alexandr Gorjancikov: Willard W. White
Aljeja: Pascal Charbonneau
Luka Kuzmič: Štefan Margita
Skuratov: Ladislav Elgr
Šiškov/Priest: Johan Reuter
Prison Governor: Alexander Vassiliev
Big Prisoner/Nikita: Nicky Spence
Small Prisoner/Cook: Grant Doyle
Elderly Prisoner: Graham Clark
Voice: Konu Kim
Drunk Prisoner: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin: Peter Hoare
Prisoner/Kedril: John Graham-Hall
Prisoner/Don Juan/Brahmin: Aleš Jenis
Young Prisoner: Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute: Allison Cook
Čerevin: Alexander Kravets
Guard: Andrew O’Connor
Conductor: Mark Wigglesworth | Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Co-production with La Monnaie and Opera de Lyon
Janáček adapted Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel of life in a 19th century Siberian prison into a series of scenes rather than the kind of linear narrative libretto we know and love. Each of the characters has the centre stage for the purpose of sharing the events that lead to his index offence. The wider point of each story is to illustrate that a grain of humanity exists even within the most despicable characters – or, as the Foucault quote during the overture tells us, what society considers despicable.
(Well, it’s admirable (and desirable) to look at every person beyond their worst actions, but with some people it’s really hard to be optimistic. Still, ever since the performance I’ve been thinking from the point of view that justice is a system organised to apportion blame and dish out what is currently deemed as appropriate punishment; it’s far from perfect and it should continuously be bettered but it’s necessary – and it’s not entirely about making ourselves feel better/superior as it’s implied here; but our sentenced (and unsentenced) offenders do tell us a lot about ourselves as society).
The story begins with the arrival of a new prisoner (Alexandr Gorjancikov), who claims he is there for political reasons, thus setting himself apart from the run of the mill prison population. He functions as the narrator and the opera ends once he is, quite unexpectedly, discharged. (This is similar to what actually happened to Dostoevsky, who spent years on death row after which he was suddenly pardoned.)
Interestingly, although he is the narrator (for the sake of a minimal narrative), his role isn’t bigger than the others’ (we also never hear his backstory), which highlights one of the lines in the libretto – “we are all equal in prison”. He befriends a young prisoner (Aljeja, in for something that sounds like common theft) and tries to help him by defending him from vicious inmates and teaching him how to read and write. The other prisoners go about their usual (rather boring) routines and stand out randomly, for instance when they get into scuffles with each other.
A play is put on for the higher ups (all of which are portrayed as cruel, venal and grandiose and get some right on verbal beating from Kuzmič (aka, eternal rebel Filka Morozov, slyly portrayed by Margita), in which the prisoners perform their (very violent) version of pantomine and opera (a crudely funny take on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, a character which rightly resonates with the inmates; I like how Janáček refrained from pastiche and used only a few short phrases reminding of Mozart). Prisoners’ personal threads are woven into the plot of the play and they are later developed into characters’ testimonies.
As you can imagine, the drama could be rather static. Warlikowski and his team give us a basic set, which looks like a prison gym with plastic chairs to the right and a glass-walled office for the guards to the left of the stage. The office revolves later to accommodate the stage for the play and also for the stories, which are acted out as they are being told. Everyone is always on stage, even when they (apparently) have nothing to contribute to the drama. But that comes in handy when characters are called to sing random lines. Also, their acting out other inmates stories keeps the entire world interconnected. You can imagine the prisoners have heard these stories before and have their own versions of what and how things went down.
This is one of the most (if not the most) Personenregie detailed opera productions I’ve seen so far, to the point where sometimes what was happening on stage made it hard to focus on the music. In a good way, though. I’m normally a fan of very contained dramas and the classic up to 6 characters, but getting a theatre director really enhanced the performance in this case. There were a lot of things going on but it never felt like clutter or unnecessary fussiness. Each character was defined as soon as the curtain went up, by having a personal thread to follow even when “idle”.
As far as performances I can say dramatically the standard was very high. Vocally I was especially impressed by Reuter’s Šiškov, whose story takes up something like 20min of singing in one chunk in act III. This is Sprechgesang, so success comes down to singers’ handling of text. I think the term “gripping” has been overused but that was pretty much how I felt about Reuter’s intervention – clear and solid and emotional (the story moves from cold violence to humbling sentiment and back again, which, according to Mum, is typically Russian). I don’t know this repertoire enough to talk further and, as I was saying ealier, I often felt it difficult to focus on stage action, singing and orchestra at once, but I will tell you there are many unusual objects played aside from usual instruments, my favourite being a real saw and plank of wood. Check out what Tim Ashley has to say, he heard more than I did.
Though quite a bit went over my head I’m really glad I went. Janáček’s voice is unique and interesting and speaks as much to one’s intellect as to their emotions. If you can get to at least like him it’s well worth it. I think I’m starting to feel him a bit of a hero.
what sticks in the mind above all is McVicar’s conception of Salome as a petulant pseudo-teen. She’s a riot of overwrought pouting, wheedling, sulking and foot-stamping. The gap between her mundane histrionics and her extraordinary desires could hardly be larger. – Flora Wilson for The Guardian
A pseudo-teen? Why, she’s supposed to be a
petulant teenager, n’est-ce pas? There is no gap between her histrionics and her desires! Going for the extreme version of anything is exactly what a petulant teen would do.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Salome. She finds Jokanaan interesting because her elders are so scared of him. And when she – literally – possesses him, she scores the supreme goal against her parents. That’s quintessentially adolescent 😀
Salome: Malin Byström
Jokanaan: Michael Volle
Herod: John Daszak
Herodias: Michaela Schuster
Narraboth: David Butt Philip
Page of Herodias: Christina Bock
Conductor: Henrik Nánási | Choir and Orchestra of the ROH
Director: David McVicar
This 2008 Salome is one of those good McVicar productions, it makes its point and doesn’t overdo anything. The stage has two levels but focuses on the lower tier, which is the seedy area underneath the banquet hall above, aka the dungeon. I liked that – at least from my seat in the gods (£19!) – you could only see the legs of those attending the banquet.
Hells, yea, that’s exactly what a girl like Salome would like, and she says that much when she descends: I like it here, it’s so breezy. I bet it was really stuffy upstairs.
I admit I didn’t get the dance of the seven veils scene, which was all intellectualised with no nudity whatsoever. In fact the nudity present in the production did not involve Salome at all. I don’t mind that, perhaps on the contrary. But I also don’t quite know what to say about the dance. With its threshhold and/or mirror it seemed to me like something having to do more with Herod’s boundaries rather than having us all part of the male gaze. If that’s what it was then good but I’m not sure; all of this is stuff I rationalised since, not something that hit me at the time.
But, as we all know, Salome’s interaction with Herod isn’t what makes this opera. Here Byström makes the boredom mixed with apprehension and uneasiness with Herod very apparent and comes alive (as Salome should) in her exploratory interactions with Jokanaan. He, rather than Herod, stands in for the unwavering, demeaning authority of the patriarchy, with his decrying of her mother’s debauchery and basically calling Salome an abomination by virtue of existing. She seems amused (and emboldened) by all this – as a teen would. She goes on to tell him she wants his various body parts and when he turns her down in disgust she says she hates the above mentioned body parts 😀 I don’t know about others but I remember those petulant reactions so well (and so fondly, now that I have just turned into a “respectable” 40 year old).
Salome herself gets the ax in the end (from supreme local authority Herod’s order) but it feels perfunctory. The bourgeoisie/parents/male authority (both secular and religious) has been dully riled up and the opera is named after her.
I’m not necessary a Malin Byström fan (my last encounter with her was as the Countess in Nozze, where she sang very well but came off very cold) but I liked her better here. Her embodiment of a willful teenager wasn’t bad from my faraway seat and her singing was good, her commitment even better. I guess I have a bit of a hard time warming up to her. Everybody else was good, no complaints from me, though not earth shattering. As far as Jokanaan, I really liked Samuel Youn a couple of years ago at the Proms and Michael Volle didn’t make a more interesting impression.
I loved Michaela Schuster as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten and so I was thrilled to have her back here, though Herodias does not require much vocally beside shrillness. She still did a great job as a woman living her frustrations with the patriarchy through her rebellious daughter whilst realising she’s lost any grip on her. Points to Christina Bock who looked really cute and miserable as Herodias rather conflicted (and possibly bisexual) page. I also liked John Daszak’s Herod, especially his acting, as a very sophisticatedly depraved Herod.
I didn’t quite get Henrik Nánási’s take, which was, in my opinion, low on drama. Perhaps, volume-wise, he let the singers come forward? But still there was the matter of tempi, which were super relaxed, especially in the dance of the seven veils (and that added to my confusion regarding that scene). The libretto is so edgy, you want the music to have some bite.
It was a good night, just short of great. There is a 2008 DVD of this production (different cast), if anyone wants to check it out (this run has just finished).
First Jew: Dietmar Kerschbaum
Second Jew: Paul Curievici
Third Jew: Hubert Francis
Fourth Jew: Konu Kim
Fifth Jew: Jeremy White
First Soldier: Levente Páll
Second Soldier: Alan Ewing
First Nazarene: Kihwan Sim
Second Nazarene: Dominic Sedgwick
Cappadocian: John Cunningham ↩