Lisa Hirsch asked on Twitter the other day for suggestions for the five most important operas written since 1965 (i.e. in the last fifty years). It’s a really interesting question and I pinged off a quick, semi-considered response. Thinking about it some more I think I would stick with my choices. (Obviously I haven’t seen every eligible opera but it surprises me a bit how many I have seen live or on DVD). So here are my picks:
Saddened by the news of the death of the great Seamus Heaney, I took some time out from opera last night to listen to the man reading his translation of Beowulf. Some scholars may disparage the freedom of the translation but I love it. I own, I think, four different translations of Beowulf and the Heaney is much my favourite.
Later this month I’ll be attending a double bill of Barber’s A Hand of Bridge and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos. The latter, for those who don’t know the play, is the one with the famous line “L’Enfer; c’est les autres”. I posted the details earlier. Anyway, this led me on a train of thought that ended with the idea of Nihilist Night at the Opera; a sort of antidote to Rossini. Ideally Nihilist Night would feature a double or triple bill of unrelievedly depressing operas and should leave the audience with no hope at all for humanity.
What might qualify? Wozzeck coupled with Moses und Aron seems just about ideal. Want something more contemporary? How about Turnage’s Greek coupled with Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy?
The lines are open.
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.
Intermezzo reports that Harrison Birtwistle’s 1991 (revised 1994) opera Gawain is to be performed at the
2014 2013 Salzburg Festival. I saw this when originally broadcast on TV in the UK and really want to see it again. I’m hoping that there will be a DVD release as it’s unlikely(!) that I will make it to Salzburg. I’m half surprised that it hasn’t been performed again or spread beyond Covent Garden (same is true of The Minotaur of course). But only half surprised. There seems to be a real reluctance currently to produce work that is seen as less “accessible”. There are exceptions of course. Saariaho seems to be quite fashionable for example but overall, and especially on this side of the Atlantic, the modernist tradition seems to have been firmly rejected.
There are an awful lot of opera DVDs about. It sometimes seems like there’s a new Tosca or Traviata out every week, often for no apparent reason. It’s perhaps surprising then that some works don’t make it to DVD. One particularly egregious case would seem to be John Adams’ Nixon in China. It’s a good piece and has had plenty of productions both in North America and elsewhere. A couple of years ago I saw it twice in 24 hours; on a Friday evening at COC followed by the HD broadcast from the Met the following afternoon and I’ve been listening to an audio recording of the COC version on my walk to and from work. But there’s no DVD! I guess that the Met probably planned to release the HD recording but James Maddalena, the Nixon in the recording, was so obviously ill I was actually surprised that he continued after the interval and I guess that scuppered that. Continue reading
I believe in new opera. I think it’s vital to the survival of the genre and I like quite a lot of it. Most of what I like has come from European or British composers or John Adams. I love Reimann’s Lear and Birtwistle’s The Minotaur and Sariaaho’s L’Amour de Loin. I’m equally impressed by Nixon in China and, maybe to a lesser extent, Doctor Atomic. All of these, it seems to me, lie within the range of idiom of contemporary symphonic or chamber music. I’ve had much less luck finding contemporary American opera, Adams aside, that I enjoy or even find interesting. I loathed A Streetcar Named Desire and five minutes of Adamo’s Little Women had me reaching for the barf bucket. It’s a combination of cloying sentimentality and music that sounds like South Pacific minus the good tunes. It’s certainly not the sort of music one could imagine hearing at a symphony concert. Am I missing something? What should I try to see if I want to see intelligent, musically interesting contemporary American opera?
Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2008 and got a DVD and Blu-ray release on Opus Arte not long after. It’s the sort of work I’m susceptible to. It’s a truly integrated music drama based on a classical, indeed universal, theme carried off without any kowtowing to current ideas of trendiness. I’ve watched it a few times now and like most modern works of substance it reveals more with a bit of time and effort.
Librettist David Harsent’s take on the Minotaur myth is not at odds with versions many people will be familiar with (though whether in this day and age I’m not at all sure it’s safe to assume, as Harsent does, that “people are going in with a basic knowledge of the story”) but it does add some interesting ideas. His Minotaur, Asterios in this story, is articulate as a human only in his dreams and his dying moments. At these times he sings in English. As the awake monster in the Labyrinth he is restricted to inarticulate grunts. Also original is Harsent’s take on the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne. He sees this as a thoroughly corrupt relationship based on mutual need but riddles with disgust rather than love and so looking forward to the abandonment on Naxos. It works rather well. With those concepts in place we get a pretty straightforward account of the standard myth with some thoroughly brutal scenes of Asterios killing (and in one case raping) the Innocents in the Labyrinth to the blood curdling encouragement of a masked chorus of spectators. Another non-canonical addition at this point is the introduction of the truly horrific Keres who appear to feast on the bodies and the souls of the victims. It all leads up naturally to the death of Asterios at the hands of Theseus.
Birtwistle’s score is dense, multilayered and uncompromising. It’s clearly Birtwistle and makes no concessions to the current trend to try and make opera sound like a Broadway show. It’s not an easy listen but it repays a bit of effort and contains many interesting and deft ideas. For example Ariadne is paired throughout with the alto saxophone. Sometimes it takes up her singing line and carries it forward, sometimes it doubles her line and so on but nowhere does the saxophone interact with any other character. There’s a similar relationship between Theseus and the more conventional woodwind elements of the orchestra.
The design and direction; Alison Chitty and Stephen Langridge respectively, are very well integrated and are brilliantly supported by the lighting design of Paul Pyant. The result is some quite striking stage imagery that supports the changing moods of the piece really well. They also give us the mask that Asterios wears. It’s a framework affair so depending on the lighting Asterios can be fully beast or his human face under the mask can be made more present. It’s subtle and effective.
The performances are pretty much flawless. John Tomlinson, as Asterios, excels in a piece created for him. Christine Rice as Ariadne manages some really difficult music and a really long sing (she’s on stage nearly all the time) equally well. Johan Reuter (Theseus) has slightly off English intonation but sings powerfully and acts well. There are some excellent performances in the minor roles. For my money the best of these is the First Innocent of Rebecca Bottone who manages to look incredibly fragile but totally convincing during what is perhaps the most visceral scene of all where she is raped and killed by Asterios. There are very good cameos too from Amanda Echalaz as Ker and Philip Langridge as Hiereus. Antonio Pappano conducts and gets the necessary out of both orchestra and chorus.
The video direction is very good indeed. It appears to be a joint effort by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. The balance of setting shots and close ups is judicious and the close ups aren’t too close. They eschew silly camera angles. The picture on Blu-ray is 16:9 1080i and very good indeed. Sound is DTS 5.0 HD Master Audio and presents a vivid sound picture with good depth and breadth (PCM stereo also available). There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation includes a useful essay on the music and the disk has a 32 minute “Making of” documentary that is more informative than most of its kind.
All in all, this is a very impressive work, beautifully realised on stage and well presented on disk.
For the record the Opus Arte trailer and the whole piece are available on YouTube but the AV quality is appalling.
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?
Thoughts good people?