Category Archives: contemporary operas
I went to see Adès’ latest offering mostly on the strength of the cast. Then I thought the Bunuel connection could be interesting. Also it’s good to know what’s being written these days, although the vocal writing makes Baroque vocals sound positively natural by comparison. Pehaps this artificiality is intentional.
Leonora Palma (Dr Conde’s patient/stalker): Anne Sofie von Otter
Blanca Delgado (pianist, wife of Roc): Christine Rice
Edmundo, Marques de Nobile (party host): Charles Workman
Lucia, Marquesa de Nobile (his wife): Amanda Echalaz
Count Raúl Yebenes (explorer): Frédéric Antoun
Doctor Carlos Conde (GP/Psychiatrist): John Tomlinson
Alberto Roc (conductor): Thomas Allen
Francisco de Avila (Silvia’s younger brother): Iestyn Davies
Eduardo (Beatriz’ boyfriend): Ed Lyon
Leticia (opera singer): Audrey Luna
Silvia de Avila (young, widowed mother): Sally Matthews
Beatriz (Eduardo’s girlfriend): Sophie Bevan
Lucas (footman): Hubert Francis
Enrique (waiter): Thomas Atkins
Señor Russell (dude who dies): Sten Byriel
Colonel Alvaro Gomez (Marquesa’s lover): David Adam Moore
Julio (butler): Morgan Moody
Conductor: Thomas Adès | Royal Opera Choir and Orchestra
Ondes martenot: Cynthia Millar
Librettist/Director: Tom Cairns
Co-production with Salzburger Festspiele, Metropolitan Opera and The Royal Danish Opera
Seeing the composer himself conduct is another interesting angle. I had the kind of seat (on the right arm of the trusty horseshoe, where I’ve sat many times) from where I could see him at work. His style of conducting struck me as very clear, though what do I know? As far as sound levels he did not go easy on his singers, though the whole (wall of sound) benefitted in my ears. It’s pretty much just Sprechgesang so it’s not like you’re missing some beautiful ppp lines. That’s not to say singers didn’t indulge in dynamic variation, they did (I remember some nice work from Workman and Rice) and these were sometimes swallowed by the whole. Which was rather fitting.
It turned out Cairns’ libretto was wickedly funny.
“I slept worse than that time on the train to Nice that derailed!” and “Perhaps I’m insensitive but the fate of those squashed common people [3rd class carriage] didn’t affect me at all”. These are gems from Silvia de Avila, who also boasts “I love this oddness! I don’t like anything normal!” or words to that effect. The answer to that is “We’ve all noticed that [in reference to her overly maternal (Oedipal) relationship with her whingy/neurotic brother] but we never said anything because we’re polite!” – this by the opera singer character (soprano), Leticia Maynar, who speaks in acuti only. Luckily Luna wasn’t pingy, because she had quite a bit to say.
As you can tell from the Surrealist connection, the shadow of Freud looms large. The voice of reason is the Doctor, who is GP and Psychoterapist rolled in one. This gives him funny lines like “In 5 days s/he will go completely bald” – his answer to any medical question posed to him. But even that has a funny answer “That’s not bad, she has a very fine skull!”
The libretto offers one of the most positive portrayals of Psychiatrists I’ve seen, with the Doctor reminding everyone of the need to preserve their humanity. The day is, however, saved by the soprano, who organises a reenactment of the moment everything went pearshaped, which in turn restores order. So music fixes everything. But it also screws things up (that’s sopranos for you).
It sounds like the host’s enthusiastic/polite quip that “you can’t leave now! This is the most intimate hour!” trapped them all in his drawing room for what seemed like an eternity (sounds like most parties after about 3am). I enjoyed both sides of the conversation – with the hosts complaining about being tired or bored and the hosts – subtly – trying to get them to leave already (“Give them breakfast and they’ll leave”).
The libretto boasts astute observervations along the way, such as people’s transition from abject hunger to contradictory complaints about the cooked meat when sheep appear out of thin air. Speaking of sheep, there were live (and very docile) sheep on stage when we were allowed into the auditorium and I could only relate their presence to their connection with sleep/dreaming.
So I took this as a meditation on human condition via a “very bad trip”, from luxury to degradation and back. The Ondes Martenot (related to the Theremin) was the anchoring instrument of the evening, with its eerie, early electronica sounds. Millar played it from the left Dress Circle (the orchestra is so big it takes the entire pit, with a few instruments spilling below and above) and I had a very good view at her work and got to appreciate it.
It wasn’t an easy evening but it kept me constantly engaged, even though I had had a long (and very cold) day, which included some flitting about in the ROH vicinity, because I had time to kill and I realised I knew very little about the area beside tube station – opera house – Covent Garden Market, which all in all comprises about 200m. Because of this I had the
misfortune chance to hear a busking opera singer whose chief tool was a heavily undulating vibrato which rivaled that Martenot but completely obscured the tune of whatever he was attempting to sing shout.
The singing in the opera was more conversational but it’s still not easy for me to gauge how the singers fared. With so many characters it was initially a challenge to figure out who was who and what they were on about. It seemed like a marathon of dramatic intensity and focus rather than one of singing prowess. Everyone appeared engaged and did their thing when called for it – sometimes after long periods of not singing, though they were all stuck on stage at all times. Thomas Allen as conductor Roc had it easiest, one would say, as his character slept through most of the drama. As someone quipped, “why did Sr Russel die, why not the conductor? What difference does one conductor less make?” There were other such in-jokes in the libretto, not the least Francisco’s (I think?) reccurent cry “play us something by Adès, I implore you!” when the pianist, Blanca, regales them with a few phrases on the piano.
Dramatically, I really enjoyed the way Silvia was drawn as a character (obsessed with oddness, caricaturally overprotective of her brother + ambiguously close to him whilst potentially oblivious of Padre Sanson’s intentions towards her son, homeschooled by him. Though considering it’s her brother Francisco who voices doubts about Padre Sanson’s saintliness it was hard to tell whether she was negligent or he was paranoid. Matthews showed some top comedic timing when delivering her lines. Davies as Francisco also did a very good job acting neurotic/infantilised. Tomlinson as Dr Conde was very credible as the well intentioned “saviour of humanity”.
In conclusion, it was highly entertaining, though I think I need to see/hear it a couple of times before I can form a more coherent idea about the whole. Also seeing the original Bunuel film might help.
- Padre Sanson (Yoli’s teacher): Wyn Pencarreg | Yoli (Silvia’s son): Joshua Abrams | Pablo (cook): James Cleverton | Meni (maid): Elizabeth Atherton | Camila (maid): Anne Marie Gibbons ↩
Given that I haven’t been to Glyndebourne in a few years, I don’t know if this general booking system is new or not. In any case, you apparently can’t sneak in before the appointed time. Though I got in 14secs after 6pm, I was #622 in the queue. Luckily I was tag-teaming with Baroque Bird, who was in the 300s already. So Team London will be there for La clemenza di Tito on 31 July (Glyndebourne will broadcast the 3 August performance) and yours truly will see a couple more shows (Hipermestra and Hamlet in June plus another go at Tito in August). Let’s hope for clement weather 🙂
edit: we now have Annio (Anna Stéphany) and Publio (Clive Bayley). Interesting that Stéphany is Annio, seeing as how she’s already sung Sesto. But I do rather see her as Annio. You may remember I saw Bayley as Aye in Akhnaten last year and when I say saw I mean it. It’s going to be nice actually hearing him 😉
tl;dr: barely any Mozart, no Baroque (though some might trickle through nearer to the time) but some tempting things nonetheless. Here‘s your source.
New productions 2017-18
La Vestale (Spontini) La Gheorghiu continues her work to keep the rep traditional
Julia: Angela Gheorghiu
La Boheme (Puccini)
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Production: Richard Jones
Mimi: ? keeping the suspense
Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano
Marcello: Mariusz Kwiecien
The Queen of Spades (Tchaikovsky) – Co-Production with De Nederlandse Opera
Production: Stefan Herheim I like it, I’ll go
Der Freischutz (Weber) I don’t quite like it but I might go because how often does it come around?
Conductor: Edward Gardner
Production: Kasper Holten
Max: Jonas Kaufmann / Stuart Skelton
Semiramide (Rossini) bring it on! I might go twice
Production: David Alden
Semiramide: Joyce DiDonato
Assur: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo
Arsace: Daniela Barcellona
Katya Kabanova (Janacek) tempting
Production: Ivo van Hove
Kabanicha: Rosalind Plowright
Katya: Amanda Majeski
Lessons in Love and Violence (George Benjamin, World Premiere)
Director: Katie Mitchell
Barbara Hannigan ❤ I’ll take the chance with her
Les Vepres Siciliennes (Verdi) October – November 2017
Rachele Stanisci (Helene), two performances who’s she? I missed the Vepres the last time around, might go this time
Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) / Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) Dec 2017
Nedda: Carmen Giannattasio
Silvio: Artur Rucinski
Santuzza: Elina Garanca I’d go for comparison purposes but it’s a bit soon
Tosca (Puccini) January 2018
Caravadossi: Vittorio Grigolo yes, but who is Tosca?
Lucia di Lammermor (Donizetti) November 2017? So soon?!
Lucia: Olga Peretyatko
Raimondo: Michele Pertusi
Juan Diego Flórez he doesn’t want to!
Don Giovanni (Mozart) July 2018
Donna Anna: Chen Reiss
Don Ottavio: Pavol Breslik
Andrea Chenier (Giordano) ?2018 never too soon 😉
Andrea Chenier: Jonas Kaufmann
Salome (Strauss) Yay! Hope it’s good.
Peter Grimes (Britten)
Peter Grimes: Stuart Skelton
Ellen Orford: Emma Bell
New Productions 2018-19
Königskinder (Humperdinck) 13, 17, 21, 27, December 2018, 1 January 2019
Production: David Bosch
Der Königssohn: Daniel Behle ❤
Fedora: Angela Gheorghiu
From the House of the Dead (Janacek) I’ll go
Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski
Through the Looking Glass (Unsuk Chin) World Premiere (?)
Don Pasquale (Donizetti) I really don’t see the appeal of this one
Production: Damiano Michieletto
La Forza Del Destino (Verdi) – 2019 not unless we get Harteros
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Death in Venice (Britten) I like the story, I might go
Conductor: Mark Elder
Production: David McVicar
Der Ring des Nibelungen (Wagner)
Brunnhilde: Nina Stemme should yours truly make an effort?
Siegfried: Stefan Vinke
Siegmund: Stuart Skelton
Carmen November- December 2018
Micaela: Eleonora Buratto
Faust (Gounod) should go this time
Written on Skin had its premiere at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012 and ran at ROH in 2013 under the baton of the composer (so we can settle what the composer really wanted in this case). This month it had its first ROH revival, also conducted by Benjamin.
Though I’m not a contemporary opera afficionado I do enjoy keeping abreast at least partially with what’s being written these days. When I first heard it I didn’t like it; not because I found it unlistenable (it’s not); I just didn’t like the vibe. The lack of visuals didn’t help. I wasn’t going to see it this time around either although I really wanted to see Barbara Hannigan live in anything modern and when her date at Wiggy went MIA last Autumn I was at a loss. John suggested this was a good opportunity for just that so I booked a ticket. At £19 what’s one got to lose?
The Protector: Christopher Purves
Agnès: Barbara Hannigan
Angel 1 / The Boy: Iestyn Davies
Angel 2 / Marie: Victoria Simmonds
Angel 3 / John: Mark Padmore
Conductor: George Benjamin | Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
A co-commission and co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Netherlands Opera Amsterdam and Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse
I know by now that there are operas you like just by listening to the music, others where you need visuals to spur you on and some yet that you might only appreciate if you get your arse into the designated space for this type of entertainment. This is one of them (for me). I liked the performance/production a lot; I was not bored for a moment but I don’t know that I’d rush to just listen to it again. I would go see it again but not tomorrow.
However I can see why some have really got into it – it’s got a lot going for it – especially the libretto, with its very compact/concise style, which somehow mixes a lot of poetry in and because of this interesting combo it’s actually rather difficult to discuss. Characters speak as themselves as well as the narrator, modernity and old skool attitudes alternate when you least expect it, as if past and present are running at the same time whilst people live and watch themselves do the act of living.
It is good to see women taking control of their lives in opera, even when the only control they can have is over their own death. Or maybe I’m a miser here, Agnes did have her fun before that. I also liked that she didn’t want to live a lie.
The production, with its interesting mix of modern and ancient, which in this case is as according to the libretto, fits the mood of the work perfectly. (When I was at uni I used to work in the library, where I got to see how books are mended/made. As a result I developed a slight fascination with the process so I was very pleased to see it play an important role in this production.)
I like stage designs that compartimentalise the space because those compartments speak for themselves. Here we had the house where the couple lives (ancient) and the space where the book about them is being written (modern), plus “the woods”, which in some ways is the space where wild things brew.
This is an opera that heavily relies on acting – voice (in many ways it’s an ode to the written/spoken word) and movement alike. The high quality of the production relied on the choice of performers, some of whom have created the roles1. Right off the bat Benjamin’s writing for the voice reminded me of lieder. I bet you this cast is worth hearing in recital as well. It was gripping word drama. Hannigan had the most intense role – a woman awakening to herself – and her highly charismatic stage presence was captivating even in this half-ethereal role but the men + Simmonds (reprising her 2013 ROH role) were all in high form as well.
With a libretto so strongly focused on words, you notice things like diction and pitch and Hannigan’s were both impressive. Agnes, who is quiet and meek (and illiterate) to begin with but very soon blossoms, emboldened by desire – desire to know the world both physically and intellectually – is a refreshing female role.
Davies as The Boy was in very fine voice and he had no problems making himself heard in the amphitheatre over the slender accompaniment, which makes me think ROH can accomodate Baroque/voice all right. The Boy is another interesting role, as he entirely supportive of Agnes on her journey to personhood, as opposed to The Protector (the husband), who’s basically a backwoods bigot, the type who wants his woman barefoot in the kitchen.
He does commission the book The Boy writes/draws about their righteous life (bigots are usually righteous), which I guess means he’s interested in leaving a very good (albeit hypocritical) impression about himself to the rest of the world. So The Boy is somewhere between personal PR and investigative journalist, as he ends up digging the truth about the so-called righteous couple as is promptly assassinated. Purves as the villainous husband had just the right edge and the appealing lied-narration style fit his voice as well as his temper real well.
The performance ran for ~135min without an interval, save for a couple of breaks for scenery change, which the audience used to expel all the pentup coughing (an impressive amount, considering there were no extraneous noises during the performance; in fact the domino effect of dumping air via the mouth likely caused hilarity among the public). I often praise other houses for their atmosphere, but these breaks gave me the opportunity to remember just how enjoyable the ROH auditorium is as well. I do take it for granted and with good reason: it felt like an extension of my personal space.
- Purves and Hannigan. ↩
(Accidents happen or don’t buy opera tickets when very tired/distracted)
I set my alarm for 8am this morning then when the intro to ‘giardiniera started I kicked it and went back to sleep which tells you this ROH Spring brings slim pickings for me.
But when I returned from work I decided to scavenge for anything cheap for The Exterminating Angel (I
don’t like didn’t like Bunuel when I was 19, but based on my very positive experience with Written on Skin I thought I’d try another comtemporary opera) and L’elisir d’amore because of secret soprano crush Kurzak (here with hubby Alagna)… and then I accidentally ended up with Yende and Villazon (they were team A but perhaps unsurprisingly team B sold faster). Now I was curious about Yende anyway but oh dear god, Villazon. Come on, Sr V, prove me wrong 😛
absurd panoply of foul-mouthed tenors, dominatrix mezzos, hell-raising basses and weak countertenor politicians
I’m on board with Ligeti 😉 but yea, Le grand macabre is a bit of a headache for the listener and apparently even more for the performer. Funny soprano Watts makes it all sound… well, not exactly easy but crackable. Yours truly considered attending one of the two Barbican dates but ended up prefering to read the story on account of one contemporary opera per month being about enough of a self-challenge.
ps: three Guardian references in one week? – well, yes, sometimes there are good articles on opera in the Guardian.
The Winter Season at the ROH usually eludes me but this year I wanted to specifically catch two productions: the first revival of McVicar’s Adriana Lecouvreur and a new Der Rosenkavalier. Though I had work training today at the very time the tickets went on sale, I managed to sneak out for a 10min break and book tickets to said shows 😀
Some of you might know I have a soft spot for Adriana (and have never seen La Gheorghiu yet). As for Der Rosenkavalier, if it’s in town I’ll go. Probably still the most sensible thing to experience Renee Fleming in.
…and that’s my old skool diva loot for the year 😉 Now let’s hope no one catches a cold at that time of the year (me included).
I also thought about getting tickets to Written on Skin to hear Babs Hannigan. I’ve been vacillating because 1) I didn’t like the music the one time I listened to it and 2) is seeing Hannigan in an opera the best way to get her complex personality? As in, is this not too stifling and boxed-in?
edit 19/10: based on John’s recommendation below, I booked a ticket to Written on Skin as well.
Back to contemporary opera, this time Rautavaara’s Rasputin. Title character’s entrance aria shoots for hypnotic and then there are the beautiful lyrics about the handsome wild lands of Siberia with which he “heals” the Tsarevich. I like Matti Salminen’s acting a lot and there’s something alluring about his singing. It’s rather pleasant; grand opera for the 21st century perhaps.
- We often hear singers talk about their roles, but most of us aren’t aware of what accompanying instrumentalists think. Today I found this snippet in which Principal Clarinetist Anthony McGill talks about that
amazing gorgeous sexybeautiful moment in Tito known to us as Parto:
- In other news, let me remind you that tickets for ENO’s Akhnaten have gone on general sale yesterday. As usual I got enthusiastic and decided to go for two Secret Seats (4 and 8 March). I’m almost as curious about what seats I get as about the production! I also have a feeling thadieu can’t wait to book her seat for La forza del destino 😉