Thomas Adès’ latest opera, The Exterminating Angel, is probably his most ambitious and best to date. It received its US premiere at the Met in 2017 and was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series, subsequently being released on DVD and Blu-ray. It’s based on the surrealist 1962 Buñuel film. It’s a very strange plot. A group of more or less upper class guests attend a dinner after an opera performance. All the servants except the butler have (inexplicably) left the house. The guests seem unable to leave the room they are in nor can anyone from outside enter it. This goes on for days(??) during which the guests accuse each other of various perversions including incest and paedophilia and turn violent while still expressing delicate aristocratic sensibilities like an inability to stir one’s coffee with a teaspoon. There’s a suicide pact, a bear and several sheep involved before the “spell” to escape the room is discovered. What happens afterwards is unclear. (The opera omits the closing scenes of the film). It’s very weird and quite unsettling; Huis Clos meets Lord of the Flies?
Thomas Adès’ 2004 opera The Tempest was given at the Metropolitan Opera in 2012 in a new production by Robert Lepage. It got an HD broadcast and a subsequent DVD release. It’s an interesting work which, on happening, was compared to Peter Grimes as the “next great English opera”. Whether this early hype will turn into a sustained place in the repertoire is yet to be seen. Musically it’s not easy to characterize. Adès very much has his own style; mixing lyricism with atonality and, in this piece, setting one of the roles, Ariel, so high it’s surprising anyone has been found to sing it. Certainly it’s a more aggressively modern style than most of the work currently being produced in North America. The libretto two is unusual. Shakespeare’s own words were, apparently, considered too difficult to sing though, of course, Britten famously set great screeds of unadulterated bard in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the Tempest, Meredith Oakes has rendered the text into couplets; rhymed or half rhymed. It works quite well with only the occasional touch of Jeremy Sams like banality.
So riffing off an idea raised in comments over at Likely Impossibilities, what books, films, plays, stories or other source material would you like to see made into an opera? Feel free to suggest a composer and librettist and even cast it if you so wish! To start the ball rolling I’ll offer up a few suggestions.
The latest episode of the Big COC Podcast is up on iTunes. This one features Gianmarco Segato of the COC plus three bloggers; myself, Lydia Perovic of Definitely the Opera and Leslie Barcza of barczablog. We talked about Henze and European modernism segging into the differences between modern opera in Europe and America. And that led to a discussion of Adès’ The Tempest, American conservatism, the Met and it’s audience, parties at Christopher Alden’s place and much more. Then it was on to Lydia’s new novel, Incidental Music(go buy it). There was also an interview with Nina Draganić about the free concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. When we came back it was for a discussion about the difference about men and women, action and feeling in opera and, ultimately, why the soprano always gets a raw deal! I really enjoyed recording this one. It really felt like a conversation between good friends (which it was) and it’s not been edited down too much. I think there may have been a segment on the Opera Atelier Der Freischütz that got chopped.
Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has had something like eight runs since its premiere at Covent Garden in 2004. It recently opened at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by Robert Lepage which was broadcast as part of the Met in HD series this afternoon. It’s an interesting work musically. Some of the vocal writing is reminiscent of Britten. It all tends to a high tessitura for the voice type concerned and goes to extremes in that direction for the soprano part of Ariel where parts are so high that clear articulation of the words is impossible. Writing for voice and orchestra ranges from dissonant to extremely lyrical (the act 2 duet between Miranda and Ferdinand). Key and time signature changes are legion and many of the intervals for the singers are extreme. It must be extremely difficult to perform but it’s rather lovely to listen to.
The leaves have turned and the Canadian Opera Company Season is underway so winter can’t be far away. I’ve now seen both the COC fall productions so I need to find alternative fare between now and February when things kick off again. So far I’ve found two live shows of interest in town. At the end of October Opera Atelier is putting on Weber’s Der Freischütz. This is a departure for OA who have previously (bar once) not put on anything later than Mozart and that in a rather idiosyncratic style. I think it’s an interesting move and I hope it stimulates the creative juices at OA and sparks some of the innovation that made OA such an exciting company ten or twenty years ago. If it turns into an exercise in persuading us that 19th century Romanticism is really just an extension of the Baroque I shall probably be feeling like the guy in the picture. The other live show is Essential Opera’s The Threepenny Opera being presented in concert at Heliconian Hall on November 7th. Essential Opera I suppose is a semi-pro outfit operating on very small budgets and The Threepenny Opera seems like a good fit. I felt that last year’s attempt at something grander was rather a case of biting off more than they could chew. Continue reading →
As 2011 draws to a close I got to thinking about which, if any, “new” operas might survive infancy (for the survival rate of new operas seems to be roughly comparable to newborns in an 18th century foundlings hospital). My knowledge of new opera isn’t comprehensive and it’s biased to the English speaking world. Is it my imagination or is there a major split in this area between continental Europe and the angloverse? Or is there simply not much new work being produced on the Continent? Anyway here’s a far from complete list of operas that premiered in 2000 or after and my thoughts on their likely longevity.
John Adams Doctor Atomic 2005. Not Adams’ best work in my opinion. The libretto is pretty awful but there are some good orchestral lines and it’s a great subject. It probably has a future because it’s by Adams.
Harrison Birtwistle Minotaur 2008. Early days but the equally good (IMO) Gawain never got any traction. It’s also a pretty uncompromisingly atonal approach to a classical subject in a world where “tabloid opera” seems to be the thing. It’s probably undeservedly doomed though the fact that a really good video recording is available may help it.
Thomas Adès Tempest 2009. Already scheduled for the Met with a starry cast so has good survival chances.
Marc Anthony Turnage Anna Nicole 2011. I hate it but it fits the contemporary Zeitgeist.
Oswaldo Golijov Ainadamar 2003. A brilliant score but I bet it’s a bugger to stage. Probably doomed.
Jake Heggie Dead Man Walking 2000. This is well established in the US and has, crucially, been performed a few times outside the angloverse. Probably a survivor.
Kaija Saariaho L’Amour de Loin 2000. One of only two non English language opera on the list. Seems to have traction in both Europe and North America. Survivor?