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Christmas 2014

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Krzysztof Meyer’s Cyberiada receives rare staging in Poznań

28 May 2013, Poznań, Poland

'Cyberiada' at Poznan’s Teatr Wielki
'Cyberiada' at Poznan’s Teatr Wielki(Photo: K Zalewska)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Based on short stories by the Polish writer Stanisław Lem, Cyberiada (The Cyberiad) is an allegorical dark comedy with serious overtones, dealing with the evils of totalitarianism, oppression, greed, deception, sexual addiction and the mysteries of life.

Using a story-within-a-story format, the opera fuses the science fiction idea of space travel with a pseudo-Medieval world populated by kings, queens, witches, knights and obedient subjects encased in identical multi-coloured boxes. A fiery red-haired inventor called Trull journeys from planet to planet building machines, which narrate three different allegorical tales symbolized by huge suspended masks.

Conceived as a Theatre of the Absurd by director Ran Arthur Braun and designer Justin Arienti, this precisely-executed production unfolded on a stage dominated by five huge batteries of percussion located on two levels. Each group incorporated 12 different instruments, which in turn produced 60 different types of sounds and noises (noise being as integral a part of the opera as the musical tones). The percussionists were dressed as astronauts and a parade of characters in over-the-top costumes acted with exaggerated and stilted mannerisms, parodying societal roles.

From breath-taking acrobatics, including two red-clad ballerinas pantomiming erotic dreams for King Zipperupus, to the finale in which Trull killed a clone of himself, the opera was simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking. Although composed during the 1960s, the final message touched on 21st century technology: nothing is eternal, not even machines. 

The music included serial, sonoristic and aleatoric techniques, resulting in a work with unconventional sounds and vocal lines almost devoid of melody, harmony or rhythm in the traditional sense. Instead, the action and feelings of the characters were expressed through a unique soundscape combining jazz, repeated chords, sound clusters and grotesque elements. Extensive sections of spoken dialogue were delivered melodically, ranging from rhythmical recitation to story-telling.

The singers, acrobats, dancers, chorus and orchestra of Poznań’s Teatr Wielki under maestro Krzysztof Słowiński did a superb job in keeping the complex elements of the work together, offering a worthwhile and admirable execution of this multi-faceted opera.

 

RPS Award winners announced in London

15 May 2013, London, UK

Sarah Connolly, winner of the 2013 RPS Award for Singer
Sarah Connolly, winner of the 2013 RPS Award for Singer(Photo: Simon Jay Price)

Opera put in a strong showing at this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards in London, with a total of four categories bagged by leading lights from the UK opera sector.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly took the Award for Singer, with Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest named as best large-scale composition. Three events that formed part of last summer’s Cultural Olympiad were also amongst the winners, including Birmingham Opera Company’s staging of Mittwoch aus Licht by Stockhausen, and the North Lincolnshire community opera Cycle Song about former Olympic cyclist Albert White.

RPS Chairman, John Gilhooly, opened proceedings with a celebratory but also hard-hitting speech, in which he hailed 2012 as ‘an extraordinary year for live classical music in the UK … despite a difficult political and economic climate’.

Referring to the recent call by UK Secretary of State for Culture, Maria Miller, that arts organisations should ‘hammer home the value of culture to our economy’, Gilhooly said: ‘Making money never has, and never should be, the driving force for great art. Whilst mindful of the absolute need to unite with the government and funders in framing the positive economic arguments for expenditure on the arts, I want to make a direct plea to Maria Miller and the government: please let’s not allow creativity, vision, excellence, enjoyment and culture’s potential to change lives to be lost in the debate, even in times of austerity.’

 

Die Zauberflöte at London’s Royal Opera House

10 May 2013, London, UK

Albina Shagimuratova as Covent Garden's showstopping Queen of the Night
Albina Shagimuratova as Covent Garden's showstopping Queen of the Night(Photo: Mike Hoban)

Review by Luis Dias

As someone visiting the UK from India after a gap of five years, I was struck by the richness of London’s cultural life, especially when it comes to classical music. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is undoubtedly the jewel in this cultural crown.

So it felt especially good to be back there, for a shining performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute. Lavish productions like these are impossible to come by in India, perhaps understandably so. I was watching the audience reaction and some people were obviously ‘regulars’, but there were also others like me, for whom every moment of the visual spectacle and glorious music were being savoured hungrily, greedily.

Albina Shagimuratova was very convincing as the Queen of the Night, and her showpiece aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was perhaps the highlight of the evening, getting several rounds of well-deserved applause. Bass Matthew Rose made a similarly riveting Sarastro, looking and sounding every inch the evil sorcerer/enlightened sovereign. His ‘O Isis und Osiris’ was particularly outstanding.

Simon Keenlyside also stood out as Papageno, not merely for his smooth vocal delivery and gorgeous voice, but for his easy, almost natural command of this ‘strictly-for-the-birds’ role. His Papagena, Susana Gaspar, was vivacious, funny, and their ‘Pa … pa … pa …’ duet crackled with mirth and wit.

Supporting this top-notch cast, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded spectacular under conductor Julia Jones, whose brisk tempi kept energy levels high.

Dr Luis Dias is a musician and writer who recently returned to India after a decade working in the UK. Visit his blog for more details: http://luisdias.wordpress.com

 

Kaufmann triumphs as Don Carlo at Covent Garden

7 May 2013, London, UK

Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo with Anja Harteros as Elizabeth de Valois
Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlo with Anja Harteros as Elizabeth de Valois(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Lucky the audience that attended the opening night of this revival.  Let’s gloss over Nicholas Hytner’s patchy and unattractive production, for this was a musical feast, not least for Antonio Pappano’s vibrant and idiomatic conducting and the strong orchestral and choral work.
 
Jonas Kaufmann’s Carlo started slightly hesitantly but soon gained focus, his tone burnished and rich.  He blended perfectly with Mariusz Kwiecień’s Rodrigo, also elegantly sung and a far warmer personality than we usually see in this role.  Likewise Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Filippo emphasised the character’s humanity and loneliness with a large-scale performance and his cavernous bass remains undimmed, likewise his stage presence.
 
Béatrice Uria-Monzon looked suitably gorgeous as Eboli but her high-lying and tangy mezzo was slightly over-parted in this house.  Perhaps best of all was Anja Harteros, whose elegance of person and voice, impeccable musicality and technique combined with sumptuous tone to create an Elizabeth de Valois that may remain peerless for many.  She has created a potentially legendary assumption with just one London performance, for alas she cancelled all further showings (some announced well in advance, some not).  Let’s hope that this was not an inadvertent farewell to the house, at which apparently she has no further appearances planned.

 

Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere

4 May 2013, Houston, USA

(Photo: Felix Sanchez)

Sir Andre Previn has composed his second opera, this time a bittersweet English romance based on Noel Coward’s screenplay for David Lean's Brief Encounter, drawn from Coward's one-act play Still Life. Our US-based opera critic Charles Ward gives his first impressions of the opera which received its world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on 1 May.


Sir Andre Previn's Brief Encounter  proves to be an engaging, well-crafted and touching addition to the contemporary opera repertoire.

‘Well-crafted’ can be critics’ code for an honourable effort the writer doesn’t want to pan. Not so in this case.

In his libretto, John Caird deftly kept the movie’s story line about the ill-fated affair of the housewife Laura and the doctor Alec while compressing incidents in the film, folding in elements from the play and, crucially, expanding the character of Laura’s husband Fred.

To that, composer Andre Previn has added a cinematic score, reminiscent of Korngold. Quick-cut, chromatic shifts underline the text moment to moment. At the drama's peaks, the music swelled with seething emotion within an unfailingly tonal style.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who portrayed Stella in the San Francisco world premiere of Previn’s first opera Streetcar Named Desire, had a tour de force role in Laura. She was on stage for the entire opera as she related her experiences in flashback form. Futral was impressive for the intensity she brought to the role, displaying an astonishing range of emotions as Laura was convulsed by pleasure and guilt, all delivered in vivid sound. Baritone Nathan Gunn , meanwhile, was  vocally radiant and equally ardent as the more shallowly drawn doctor.

Brief Encounter was not an unalloyed triumph. Caird and Previn stumbled on things that bedevil opera, such as long swaths of interior dialogue or subplots that drift to an end – even though the pair devised an effective and moving conclusion to the opera as a whole.

Accustomed to a world premiere most seasons, the opening night audience in Houston responded generously, especially for Futral, and then ratcheted up its response further when a spotlight highlighted Previn in his seat near the stage.

However, without the iconic cultural hook that Streetcar Named Desire had for an American public, Brief Encounter is likely to join many recent new American operas in a state of limbo. Uncharacteristically, HGO had lined up no co-commissioning companies before opening night (though the company said it has received several inquiries since then).

See Charles Ward's complete review of Brief Encounter in Opera Now's forthcoming July/August 2009 issue


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