Rod Gilfry is Saint Francis

Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise is an astonishing piece of music theatre and Pierre Audi’s Amsterdam staging of it is equally extraordinary.  There is very little “plot”.  The work consists of eight loosely linked tableaux taken from 16th century accounts of St. Francis’ life and ministry.  There is theology and leprosy and ornithology and it goes on for four and a quarter hours.  It ought not to work but it does.  Continue reading

You should have hoped us

I’ve watched John Adams’ Doctor Atomic three times now. The first time; a MetHD broadcast, I wasn’t impressed at all.  The second time; an AVI rip of the Dutch television broadcast, I started to come around.  Having now watched the Opus Arte DVD based on the Dutch TV broadcasts I’m converted.  This piece is every bit as good as Nixon in China and probably surpasses it in emotional impact due to the more visceral nature of the material.  The orchestral writing is classic Adams.  The musical argument is swept along on a strong rhythmic pulse and overlapping waves of colour.  In contrast the vocal line often seems duller though there are passages of great lyricism, notably Oppenheimer’s big Act 1 aria Batter my heart, three personed God.  Kitty Oppenheimer and the native woman, Pasqualita, also get some good singing.  I also found myself warming to the libretto.  Some rather self conscious passages of Donne and Baudelaire aside, it lacks the poetry of Goodman’s libretti for Adams but Peter Sellars’ selection of words taken from the documentary record is, in its way, quite compelling; reflecting the mix of high and banal concerns that people under great tension express.  It’s particularly interesting to see the relatively high level of respect for and confidence in the moral judgement of politicians displayed by the scientists.  One doubts whether that would be the case today.  In total, it’s a strong additiion to the repertoire of 21st century operas.

Gerald Finley (Oppenheimer) and Richard Fink (Teller) do physics

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L’Amour des Trois Oranges – Amsterdam 2005

Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges is a really peculiar work. It’s like an adult fairy tale crossed with a Dario Fo farce. A hypochondriac prince can only be cured by laughter. Conventional attempts fail but he is highly amused by the evil sorceress Fata Morgana. She’s offended and curses him to seek out the three oranges which are guarded by a giant ladle wielding cook. She is overcome by a magic ribbon only for the prince and his sidekick Truffaldino to get stuck in the desert with the oranges, by now grown huge, but without water. Trouffaldino taps two of the oranges for a drink and out pop two princesses who promptly die of thirst. The third princess is rescued from the same fate by the intervention of the chorus and the Ten Eccentrics who have been commenting on the action throughout. While the prince is off getting help, the princess is turned into a giant rat and Fata Morgana’s sidekick substituted for her. But back at the palace the good magician turns the rat back into the princess, the baddies are unmasked and the goodies live happily ever after. And all this takes less than two hours. There are Russian and French versions of the libretto. This production uses the French.

Laurent Pelly’s 2005 production for De Nederlandse Opera with sets by Chantal Thomas is a wonderful piece of direction supported by really slick stagecraft. The basic theme is of playing cards as we are in the realm of the King of Clubs. There are playing card moving flats creating the necessary farce like entries and exits, playing card dancers in the attempts to amuse the prince, a high level game of cards between the magician Tchelio and Fata Morgana. Giant card houses collapse to signify chaos at the end of act two and so on. It all moves at a breakneck pace with set changes on the fly and is very engaging.

Pelly is backed up by a strong cast of singing actors. The vocal lines are mostly not very interesting but the acting demands on the principals are up there for an opera production. This cast pulls it off really well. The full cast is listed below and it’s a bit invidious to single out individual efforts as this is very much an ensemble performance. That said, I would single out for special praise the acting of Serghei Khomov as Trouffaldino and Anna Shafajinskaya as Fata Morgana. Singing honours go to the prince and princess; Martial Defontaine and Sandrine Piau, who get one of the few lyrical bits to sing in Act 3.

Most of the musical interest in this piece is in the orchestra. Here we have the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Stéphane Denève. It’s a brisk and lively idiomatic reading. At times the orchestra tends to overwhelm the singers but I think that’s the score rather than the conducting. I’m mildly amused that one theme, a march, recurs throughout the piece and it appears to be what John Williams borrowed for the March of the Imperial Stormtroopers!

Direction for TV and video is by Misjel Vermeiren and it’s very good indeed. There’s a lot going on on stage, on the approaches to the stage and even in the pit. Vermeiren doesn’t miss anything and gives us a very good idea of the stagecraft and what the audience in the theatre saw. First rate! There’s a cast gallery, a useful synopsis some interviews as bonus material. On DVD the sound options are DTS 5.1 and LPCM stereo. The surround track is clear with decent spatial awareness. The picture is 16:9 anamorphic and really pretty good helped by the fact that, although quite short, the work is spread over two discs. There are English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Dutch subtitles. This performance is also available on Blu-ray disc and based on previous Opus Arte DVD/Blu-ray productions I’d go that way if I was buying.

All in all this is a very satisfying and entertaining package.

Doctor Atomic revisited

I watched John Adams’ Doctor Atomic again yesterday. Actually this was the first time I’d seen it in its entirety since we left at the interval when it played in the Met “Live in HD” series. This time I was watching a recording of the Nederlandse Opera’s production as broadcast on NPS2 (complete with Dutch subtitles). I think this is the same performance that is available on DVD and Blu Ray; certainly the same cast/production.

I’ve seen and listened to a lot of John Adams’ music since my first exposure to Doctor Atomic including two productions of Nixon in China and a concert compered by the composer so I feel a lot more at home with the style Adams composes in. Also, like many modern works, Doctor Atomic gets easier to grasp musically once heard a couple of times. I found myself liking it quite a lot. I still think the libretto is problematic though I think I see the point of some of the dull bits; the diet scene for example. It seems to be a way of showing how people under great strain behave. I guess it sorta/kinda works. The vocal line can still be a bit dull but the antidote is to let the orchestral accompaniment wash over you. There seems to be a way of listening, not overly analytical, that works for this kind of music.

The Amsterdam (also seen in Chicago and San Francisco) production seemed more dynamic than I remember the Met production being. There’s a lot of use of dance and some pretty garish colour choices. That said, the recording was very heavy on super closeups which made it quite hard to figure out what was going on on stage much of the time. Also, it seemed as if the start and finish had been edited for TV so it wasn’t entirely clear what the audience in the house saw. Needless to say the performances were exemplary as one expects with essentially the cast that created the work and with the very consistent Netherlands Opera Chorus and the Netherlands Philharmonic backing them up.

I guess my revised judgement is that this one of the first significant operas of the century and will likely stay in the repertoire.

So now, an aside. Given that for 300 years Italian and German composers dominated opera composition how come those two countries have produced essentially nothing since 1945? Italy is pretty much batting zero and Germany has a handful of operas by Henze that occasionally get performed. That’s pretty much it. The modern opera stage is dominated by Brits (Britten, Tippett, Maxwell Davies, Weir, Birtwistle, Ades) and Americans (Adams, Glass, Barber, Menotti) with the odd Russian, Frenchman, Argentine and Finn kicking in. The last Italian opera of any consequence premiered in 1926. I think that’s really weird.