Andre Previn's new opera - a report from the Houston world premiere
4 May 2009, Houston, USA
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.
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.
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.
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
Grange Park prepares for UK Premiere of Cavalli Opera
1 May 2009
Michael White looks forward to one of the summer's most lively operatic premieres...
Scandalous misdeeds in Ancient Rome, cross-dressing, slap-and-tickle sex.... Cavalli's Eliogabolo, written for the Venice Carnival of 1668 and due for a belated UK premiere at Grange Park opera festival in Hampshire this summer, sounds like a TV script for Frankie Howerd in the 1970s and is, as its director David Fielding admits, 'a sort of romp’.
‘But not so much in the way of Up Pompei as I Claudius' adds Christian Curnyn who'll be conducting. ‘There’s tragedy as well as comedy in this piece: after all, the central character ends up assassinated, so it's not all laughs. And in a loose sense it’s based on history, although the character of Heliogabolus has been cleaned up here and there in the process of turning him into opera.’
Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire sums up Heliogabolus’s reign as ‘inexpressible infamy, beyond that of any other place or time’. Among the many counts on Heliogabolus's charge-sheet are that he drowned his enemies in poisonous petals (a creative death, you'd have to agree), boasted that he never wore the same clothes twice or slept with the same woman, set up an all-female senate for sole purpose of molesting its members, and nonetheless pursued a robustly bi-sexual interest in transvestitism.
This may explain why the piece was apparently never performed during Cavalli's lifetime, though the reasons for its absence from the stage are obscure. What is known is that it's one of the last Cavalli' operas, composed when Cavalli was in his mid-60s with long experience as one of the world's first true professionals in opera.
The Grange has seen few performances of Baroque opera beyond Handel’s Rinaldo, and it's a genre that scarcely features on the radar of the company's director Wasfi Kani. ‘But she agreed to Eliogabolo largely because in many ways it isn't quite Baroque,’ says Curnyn. You don't get all those rigid conventions. But you do get very attractive, flowing arioso – though it doesn’t culminate in quite so many tragic laments as you get in earlier Cavalli. There's a lot more comedy...’
Michael White’s full account of Grange Park’s Eliogabolo will appear in the July/August issue of opera Now. Cavalli's opera will receive its UK premiere run at The Grange, Northington (near Winchester) from 4 June to 5 July.
For details of all this year's Grange Park Festival productions, visit www.grangeparkopera.co.uk
The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013
29 November 2013, Melbourne, Australia
Stalwart: Stefan Vinke as Siegfried(Photos: Jeff Busby)
Jud Arthur, terrifying as Fafner
The final scene from 'Götterdämmerung'
Review by Ashutosh Khandekar
An air of expectation hung heavily around this Ring cycle, Opera Australia’s first, staged in the wake of the runaway critical success of the 2004 Adelaide Festival production, exuberantly directed by Elke Reinhardt (who, in a cruel twist of irony, died in Sydney after a battle with cancer during the run of this current cycle).
A year-long international publicity campaign delivered a clear, confident message: this new production of the Ring would have a strong Australian identity, with an all-Australian creative team, establishing the credentials of Melbourne, rather than Sydney, as Australia’s top opera destination.
The result was a sell-out for all three cycles within 24 hours of the box office opening. Self-styled ‘Wagneroos’ from all over the world descended on the Melbourne Arts Centre for what was the last significant production of the Ring in Wagner’s jubilee year. A street parade through the centre of Melbourne, with celebrities and citizens in horned helmets and blond plaits, launched the event with a real air of celebration.
This outward confidence hid a somewhat less secure genesis. This Australian Ring actually started life in Houston, where the Grand Opera was looking for a co-producer for a new cycle. Opera Australia came on board, but then Houston decided to place its allegiances elsewhere. That left the Australians holding the baby – but they ran with it, turning a problem into an opportunity. In stepped Maureen Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guides, who backed the project to the hilt, both financially and as a tireless advocate garnering support both at home and abroad.
Neil Armfield, one of Australia’s leading theatre directors and an experienced opera hand, was invited to direct, assembling a design team who had worked together on several significant projects; composer/conductor Richard Mills, a distinguished figure in the Australian opera world, was given his first shot at the Ring. Mills, in the end, stepped down, citing a ‘lack of chemistry’ between him and the cast; and before curtain up, there was some last-minute shuffling of the cast itself.
Mills’ replacement was the young Finnish conductor Pietari Inkinen, due to conduct a new Ring cycle in Sicily, a troubled affair which self-destructed when funding ran dry. Melbourne came to the rescue, snapping him up for his first staged cycle.
So, there we have the backdrop to this new cycle. What started out as an out-and-out Australian Ring ended up being an altogether more eclectic undertaking, featuring home-grown talent and international names, bringing a curious mix of experience and naivety to the project.
Armfield and his set designer Robert Cousins had already scored an international hit with another saga of a dysfunctional family in their five-hour theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s quintessentially Australian novel, Cloudstreet. Using the same ‘Poor Theatre’ approach in the Ring, Armfield subverted Wagner’s grandiloquence at every turn. This was an understated, everyday Ring, inspired by a world of end-of-pier entertainments and bourgeois aspirations, with the gods in sharply tailored suits and furs, and mortals in baggy, ill-fitting leisurewear (costumes by Alice Babidge).
There are half-remembered allusions to the Ring’s performance history: exquisite recreations of painted backdrops from the 1896 Bayreuth production of the Ring, showing romantic landscapes of rivers and forests with Valhalla looming in the distance. Nostalgia reigns in Das Rheingold, with its simple pleasures of beach holidays and variety shows. The Rhinemaidens are showgirls in aquamarine ostrich feathers entertaining the chorus who cheer on with golden pompoms; Alberich is a magician with a box of tricks; Wotan meanwhile, is found assembling the remnants of an old world that is in the process of self-annihilation – stuffed animals either extinct or on the verge, packed into cases, ready to move to their new home as exhibits from a lost era. Fasolt and Fafner make their entrance on forklift trucks, contractors insisting on their fees. The rainbow bridge to Valhalla is a team of cheerleaders brandishing yet more pompoms.
Die Walküre depicts a world of innocence lost, full of threat and menace. Oppressed peoples wander over the landscape as drab refugees. The maiden-warriors in combat gear descend from the flies on steel wires, an air ambulance team clearing the battlefield of the dead.
This was where Armfield’s production began to get a bit lost. What was this all adding up to? Walküre began to make me think that this Ring had no overarching vision – a series of disconnected ideas, evocative as tableaux, perhaps, but at odds with the unified dramatic sweep and rapture of Wagner’s score.
Siegfried hinted at something more thoughtful, though Armfield remained grimly determined to avoid any epic gestures. Only the image of Fafner, a sinister actor making up his face, projected in terrifying close-up on a large screen, provided any sense of a superhuman dimension where the imagination could be unleashed. Götterdämmerung delivered some pyrotechnics by the end, but was for the most part resolutely unheroic with its backdrop of a kitsch suburban wedding.
The underwhelming staging was enlivened by some fine performances. Memorable among them was Warwick Fyfe’s engaging pantomime villain of an Alberich; Heyseoung Kwon’s fragile, touching Freia; Jud Arthur as a violent Hunding and a vicious but strangely vulnerable Fafner; the big-hearted Siegmund of Stuart Skelton, riveting our attention with his emotional incandescence; Stefan Vinke’s stalwart, indefatigable Siegfried, full of adolescent ardour; and an intense, fulminating Deborah Humble as Erda and Waltraute.
Susan Bullock, exhausted perhaps at the end of a long Wagnerian year, fell short of the big moments as Brünnhilde, scuppered by rather static direction that left her to rely on histrionics of her own devising. Terje Stensvold grew in stature to become a satisfying Wotan, though once again, any notion of a heroic aspect to the king of gods was kept firmly reined in.
The Melbourne Ring Orchestra played exquisitely and expansively over much of this cycle. Pietari Inkinen’s interpretation was strong on beauty, poise and balance, but his tempi were often excruciatingly slow and deliberate, killing any dramatic momentum.
Armfield and his team have given Opera Australia a Ring that tells the story clearly and free of directorial clutter. That is a huge asset. However, the first cycle felt like a Ring-in-progress, a self-consciously unassuming, introspective staging, strong in narrative power, but struggling to find a coherent, expressive language of imagery and imagination to match Wagner’s sublime blend of music and metaphysics.
Runners-up in the Opera Now Montblanc competition
15 October 2013
Thank you to our many readers from all over the world who sent in their memorable encounters of opera.
My first time
I first experienced opera in an Iowa City living room. A friend of mine asked me to accompany him to a DVD screening at the home of an Austrian couple. I would be the only person who wasn’t, in his words, an ‘opera fanatic.’
I was anxious. I searched for opera information online. I learned new phrases: opera buffa and libretto and bel canto. I researched the history of the show we were watching, then listened to various renditions of the music we would be hearing.
The internet had no answers for one of my biggest concerns: what do you wear to a living room opera? I decided jeans and a sweater were fine.
The night came, and the four of us had a home-cooked Austrian dinner and then watched Così fan tutte on a flat-screen TV. I enjoyed the music, the production, and the acting (even though I didn’t understand a word of what I was watching).
Before that night, opera was something I thought I could only appreciate during opening ceremonies of the Olympics or when an opera singer released a new Christmas album. Before that night, I thought someone like me could never be cultured enough to ‘get’ opera.
To be fair, I still don’t ‘get’ opera. I’m not comfortable discussing the relative merits of the Italian and German style. I’m not interested in comparing Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Anna Netrebko. They’re all great, to me.
I’m an uneducated beginner, but watching my first opera in an Iowa living room taught me to appreciate opera on my own terms. Feel like switching between arias and Jay Z on YouTube? Go for it! Don’t have enough money to visit the Lyric Opera for every show? Do what you can.
The lesson was: enjoy opera in living rooms, in theatres, or through live broadcasts of the Met at your local cinema. Rent a tux when you have to; but, if you enjoy it, find ways to experience opera on your terms.
Maybe someday I’ll feel educated enough to choose between modern or traditional stagings of classic operas (I think I prefer modern stagings ... but I love traditional too). Until then, I’ll enjoy it however I can.
Drew Cummings-Peterson, Iowa USA
A lingering memory
It was Nabucco in 1953, performed by what was at the time the pro-am Welsh National Opera company. It was at the Grand Theatre Swansea and I was just 14. My father persuaded me to go; he was a good amateur tenor of concert standard, but he couldn’t go with me as he was working night shifts at the local steelworks.
I caught the bus for an eight-mile ride into Swansea and queued. There was some advance publicity but we couldn’t book as we had no phone. It was a long queue and I was kept busy by looking at pictures of the stars – Ruth Packer as Abigaille and Tano Ferendinos as Ismaele. I can’t remember the others sadly. One comment in the queue was ‘any good tunes in this one?’ We also saw the chorus arriving at the stage door, many still in their work clothes.
The box office opened and I bought my ticket which was way up in the ‘gods’. The opera began. I was stunned; the colour, the sound, the costumes, the exoticism of Nebuchadnezzar’s Mesopotamia, couldn’t be further removed from the coal mining and steelmaking grimness of the lower Swansea Valley in the early ’50s. How did they manage to get the massive and monumental sets up there? How did the singers sing over the orchestra? When ‘Va, pensiero’ ended, there was silence and then a crash of sound I have never heard since – even when Wales beat England at rugby!
Then it was over. I left the theatre in a daze, got to the bus stop and found I had spent all my money on a programme and a drink. So I walked home, all eight miles, humming and singing all I could remember. I got home shattered and my mother frantic as it was after 11 at night and I had school the next day.
It was unforgettable, however, and I became an instant operaphile – and I still am at 74 years of age.
David Price, Tonbridge, Kent
A star is born
Cape Town as a venue for operatic productions is by no means a rival for the great companies operating at Covent Garden, the Met and other famous houses. Our currency is too weak, and our shores too distant to attract booked-to-the-hilt stars like Netrebko and Kaufmann.
Fortunately we have some enviable home-grown talent, though admittedly they operate out of more conveniently located cities like London and Milan. Thus it was that local opera lovers girded their loins and dusted off their finery when Pretty Yende and Colin Lee rolled into town for a concert performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. Front row seats were the only sensible choice
Colin Lee is a favourite in Cape Town, but it must be said that the evening was Pretty’s. She trained at the University of Cape Town some years ago, and it was clear from the start that here was an exceptional talent. Even so, her meteoric rise has taken our breath away. Is this the little girl inspired by a British Airways ad? There was a palpable sense of excitement. She just had to walk onto the stage to have us in the palm of her hand. And what a performance it was, her soaring lyric soprano washing over us, her clarion top notes sending shivers down our spines. I glanced at the audience behind me. The word swooning came to mind. During her mad aria I struggled to suppress hysterical giggles: it was so…well…insane. The standing ovation went on and on, and when Richard Bonynge warmly congratulated her, I couldn’t help wondering if he was remembering his late wife Joan Sutherland’s benchmark performances of this aria.
What an impossible task Colin Lee had, with so much of his role still to come, and after such a climax. So here’s my confession: Lee’s Edgardo stole the show. I’m a sucker for a lyric tenor, and what a lyric tenor we had! A friend commented to me afterwards that this thought kept on flicking through her brain: he sings like an accountant. She didn’t know that he is one, and it was meant (believe it or not) as a compliment. His passionate, effortless lyricism was so precisely rendered that I immediately understood why my friend had thought accountant. I’m sure that was Pretty’s mother sitting three seats down from me (didn’t have the courage to ask). She was the first to leap to her feet to give him the standing ovation he deserved.
I don’t need to tell you the rest: the clap clap, bow bow, trooping in and out, smile smile. The race to the car park. There’s something about world-class opera: it stays with you forever.
Rose-Mary Hyslop, Cape Town, South Africa
NI Opera scores a hit with Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore
9 October 2013, Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland
Unaffected and heart-warming: Anna Patalong and John Molloy in NI Opera’s 'Elixir of Love'(Photo: Paul Moane)
Recasting Donizetti’s comedy of gullible hicks as Grease set in a dowdy Irish high school might sound odd, but Oliver Mears’s production for NI Opera pulled off the trick with witty charm (helped along by Arthur Jacobs’s lovely old translation).
So well pitched was Mears’s staging of this bel canto classic, that the unpretentious crowd in the spanking new Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, a few miles north of Belfast, awarded it one of the most spontaneous standing ovations I’ve seen.
The tiny orchestra of 17, soloists of the Ulster Orchestra, could have had a bit more zing but David Brophy conducted with a lilting elegance that conjured Schubert in chamber-mode in the overture before reverting to the strumming accompaniments of Donizetti’s graceful, pathos-laden idiom; the (mostly) single instruments revelled in the chaste detailing of this affectionate score.
It may not have been strict social realism, but Mears treated his personnel like real people, letting relationships develop and creating familiar characters without cliché. Anna Patalong’s teacher Adina was a buttoned-up, repressed romantic just waiting for someone to melt her ice, and her beautifully controlled singing brought many shades and a rare ardour to what can be a chilly character. There was a palpable sense here of someone growing up and admitting her true nature to herself.
Anthony Flaum sang Nemorino, rather squeezed at the top but altogether very fluent. This geeky no-hoper actually turned out to be a pretty snappy mover, and Flaum caught the mix of baffled innocence, droopy defeatism and childlike glee brilliantly; teased, beaten up, rejected, he just bounced back like a beach ball.
The beating-up was administered by James McOran-Campbell as bluff chancer Belcore, with his army-recruitment gang the object of much cooing admiration from the sixth-form girls. Inevitably stealing the show was John Molloy as Dulcamara, a slippery customer equipped with a chemistry set and stage-Oirish asides that were, for once, actually quite funny. From his first insulting greeting to the ‘provincial folk’ patsies, this Dulcamara was a ball of opportunistic energy, resourceful and adept, creating a proper relationship with Adina (their ‘Senator’ cameo was particularly smart) and the happy vehicle for Donizetti’s optimistic contention that human nature can create good out of the most unlikely motivation.
Mears’s fast-moving, inventive and sensitive staging was full of good things: I particularly liked a foolish wedding-feast parade of historical lovers. There weren’t too many subtexts here, but this was among the most unaffectedly heart-warming and well-thought-out Elisirs you could hope for.
NI Opera’s Elixir of Love will tour to the Republic of Ireland from 25 January to 8 February 2014, visiting Navan, Sligo, Dun Laoghaire, Letterkenny, Dublin, Tralee and Galway.
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