Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony at ROH2, Linbury Studio Theatre
1 January 2011, London, UK
Omar Ebrahim as The Officer(Photo: Clive Barda)
Review by Igor Toronyi-Lalic
In the Penal Colony is first and foremost a nightmare opera: a drama of confusion and suffocation, collusion and retribution. A visitor to a penal colony is invited to witness an execution of a condemned man who has had no trial and doesn’t know what crime he has committed. The increasingly ambiguous relationships between visitor and executioner, and executioner and the condemned, force us to confront an evergreen conundrum: how do we deal with violence without being corrupted by it?
Rudolph Wurlitzer's libretto, based on a Franz Kafka short story, is pungent with a Pinteresque smell of power, perversity, fear and blood. Philip Glass's chamber score, on the other hand, smells of little but the salty popcorn and fizzy pop that has inflected most of his music since he started to write for film three decades ago.
The music, written for a string quintet, is heavy with emotion and arpeggios. Mostly it does too much, flattening the words or embroidering them with schmaltz. At times it jars, as in the Fellini-esque springiness near the opening. There is no doubt that Glass can sculpt narrative structures and generate momentum well enough musically but emotionally he is often way off the mark. At Covent Garden, amplification hampered the intimacy and intensity even further, highlighting as it did the frequent intonation problems that the string players were having throughout the performance.
The singers took their cue from Glass and drove home an overwrought interpretation from the start such that there was no possibility of ratcheting up the tension any further. The Officer (Omar Ebrahim) who is charged with executing the Condemned Man was jittery with mania from the word go. The willing onlooker to the execution, the Visitor (Michael Bennett), is a nervous wreck from his first soliloquy.
After a few early intonation problems, Ebrahim sung with great fluency but little tautness or tension, everything being delivered with grand operatic hyperbole. Bennett was better, his soft, light Pélleas-like voice fluttering soulfully above the fray. Indeed, there is more than something Pélleas et Mélisande-ish about the death-soaked world into which he enters.
The directing (Michael McCarthy), set (Simon Banham) and music-making (conductor, Michael Rafferty) left a lot to be desired. The altercations were unrealistic. The silent, Christ-like Condemned Man (Gerald Tyler) was too obviously to be pitied; the Visitor's role was unexplored; and the real dilemma - our desire to torture the torturer - was overlooked.
There is a great opera in here, somewhere: a tight, surreal, tense ride, full of deathly dark comedy and uncomfortable questions about acquiescence and liberal passivity. But it won't be found in this production or musical setting.
Mughal emperor inspires new commission by The Opera Group
24 December 2010, London, UK
Zahir ud-din Muhammad Babur (1483-1530)
A new chamber opera named after India’s first Mughal Emperor, Babur, has been commissioned by the innovative London-based company, The Opera Group.
Combining a libretto by contemporary Indian poet Jeet Thayil with original music by Edward Rushton, the world premiere of Babur will take place in Switzerland in 2012, followed by tours to the UK and India.
At the work’s core is an exploration the complexities of faith and multiculturalism in modern-day Britain. Its action hinges on an imagined encounter between a group of religious fundamentalists and Babur’s ghost, who challenges their plans for suicide with a vision of a more hopeful future.
“We're planning to tour the finished opera to India in 2012, working in partnership with Pro Helvetia, the British Council and Ensemble fur Neue Musik Zurich,” says director, John Fulljames. “We are looking forward to performing the opera in a context within which Babur remains a controversial historical figure and so a potent starting point for contemporary debate.”
San Francisco Opera to stage Heart of a Soldier world premiere
24 December 2010, San Francisco, US
Composer, Christopher Theofanidis(Photo: Alexandra Gardner)
San Francisco Opera has commissioned a new opera by composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna DiNovelli, based on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist James B. Stewart’s Heart of a Soldier: A Story of Love, Heroism, and September 11th.
Starring baritone Thomas Hampson, tenor William Burden and soprano Melody Moore, the world premiere will take place at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on 10 September 2011.
Stewart’s book, published in 2002, draws a sensitive and compelling portrait of Rick Rescorla, a former soldier who died in the World Trade Center attacks. Employed as a security manager for one of the companies in Tower Two, Rescorla successfully evacuated 2,700 colleagues from the burning building before losing his own life when it collapsed.
Theofanidis’ score promises to evoke contemporary idioms of American classical music as well as Cornish ballads and pop-rock influences. Joining the traditional orchestra will be range of added elements that include an electric guitar and synthesizer.
“The tone is lyrical and has a great deal of humour woven throughout, which reflects the humanity brought to this story by its characters,” says Theofanidis. “It is fundamentally a deeply humanistic work, the essence of which comes from a sense of service to others and duty – the heart of a soldier. Another theme is how we honour and remember the dead, how we incorporate them into our own hearts and come to grips with great loss.”
Conducted by Patrick Summers and directed by Francesca Zambello, Heart of a Soldier will receive 7 performances by San Francisco Opera between 10 and 30 September 2011.
News round-up – 22 December 2010
22 December 2010
Nicola Luisotti(Photo: John Martin)
LUISOTTI RECEIVES ‘PREMIO PUCCINI’ AWARD
Italian conductor honoured at the New York Met
Italian conductor, Nicola Luisotti, has been awarded the 39th ‘Premio Puccini’ Award by Italy’s Fondazione Festival Pucciniano. He received the Award during a special reception at New York’s Metropolitan Opera on 10 December, marking the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. “Tonight I am very proud to be Italian,” said Luisotti, “and to share with the people of America the music of this incredible composer from the place where I was born.” Previous recipients of the Award include conductors Lorin Maazel and Riccardo Muti, and opera singers Luciano Pavarotti, Josè Carreras and Mirella Freni.
LONDON THEATRE TO STAGE NEW HUGILL OPERA
When a Man Knows – 31 March 2011
Robert Hugill’s new opera, When a Man Knows, is to receive its world premiere staging at London’s Bridewell Theatre on 31 March 2011. Featuring the popular UK contemporary music group, FifteenB, this new production by Ian Caddy “is designed to challenge the audience as it progresses towards its thrilling denouement,” says Hugill. The opera, based on Alan Richardson's 2003 play of the same name, has already been performed in concert and was described by one critic as “dark, disturbing and imaginative – a compelling and intriguing piece of writing.”
ROYAL DANISH THEATRE SEEKS NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR
Current chief conductor to move on in July 2011
The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen is seeking a new music director to replace chief conductor, Michael Schønwandt, whose contract expires in July 2011. Schønwandt’s successor will work closely with the company’s new opera director, Keith Warner, who is also scheduled to take office in July. The deadline for applications is early February and interviews are scheduled for March.
SOMMER OPER BAMBERG 2011 TRAINING PROGRAMME LAUNCHED
Young singers invited to apply for fully funded places
Applications are now open for the the Sommer Opera Bamberg 4th European Orchestra and Opera Workshop for talented young singers and instrumentalists. Culminating in five performances of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro during October 2011, highlights of the fully funded training programme for singers include a masterclass by Angelika Kirchschlager and the opportunity to win a scholarship from the Richard Wagner Association. Closing deadline: 15 March 2011.
OPERA BOSTON APPOINTS NEW GENERAL DIRECTOR
Lesley Koenig to take office in mid-January 2011
Opera Boston has announced the appointment of stage director, producer and arts administrator, Lesley Koenig, as the company's new general director. She will take office in mid-January 2011 alongside Gil Rose, Opera Boston’s music director since 2003, who now becomes artistic director.
LONG BEACH OPERA LAUNCHES ‘COINCIDENCES’
Insider events introducing the company’s forthcoming productions
Beginning in January 2011, Long Beach Opera has planned a series of five special weekend events designed to illuminate the company’s forthcoming productions. ‘Coincidences’ will include in-depth discussions with composers Philip Glass (12 March 2011) and David Lang (4 June 2011) led by Long Beach Opera artistic and general director, Andreas Mitisek.
Welsh National Opera to make savings in "internal efficiencies"
21 December 2010, Cardiff, Wales
A spokesperson for Welsh National Opera (WNO) has said that the company will continue to make savings next year, despite receiving a funding increase of £250,000 from the Arts Council of Wales (ACW).
The increase follows an earlier cut of £500,000 from the company’s national funding allocation, announced in October by Arts Council England.
WNO managing director, Peter Bellingham, emphasised that savings would be made in "internal efficiencies,” adding that the company’s focus would remain "entirely" on providing an "interesting, varied programme" for the "widest range of audience."
He also said that the savings were necessary to maintain WNO’s reputation for “world-class quality."
Earlier this year, the company came under fire for holding a lavish first night reception in the same week that ACW funding to 32 organisations was stopped.
WNO Chief Executive and Artistic Director, John Fisher, subsequently announced his decision to step down in 2011, stating that the 250-strong company faces “very significant challenges” ahead.
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