Ekstasis is a multi-media collaboration between Kaija Saariaho and Jean-Baptiste Barrière. There are six pieces on the Blu-ray disk. Three were written by Saariaho with the visual elements added later by her husband. The Barrière works were conceived from the outset as multi-media pieces.
The three Saariaho pieces come first. There’s Nocturne for solo violin which is the only piece that doesn’t include electronics. It’s played by Allisa Neige Barrière and is a kind of meditation for extended violin techniques. The video element is the violinist sort of semi superposed on a rippling pond. It’s typical of all the visuals. An image, often the player, is combined with another image, often, as here, of a landscape element. The images merge and flicker in a sort of kaleidoscopic way.
Only the Sound Remains is a chamber opera by Kaija Sariaho based on two Noh plays translated by Ernest Fenellosa and Ezra Pound. The piece was premiered in Amsterdam in 2016 by Dutch National Opera, where it was recorded. It’s a co-pro with Teatro Real, Finnish National Opera and the COC so Toronto audiences will likely get a look at it eventually. Which is good because it’s really hard to figure out much of it from the video recording. As he so often does, peter Sellars directs for both stage and camera and while I like his stage work here I find his video direction quite annoying, especially in the first piece.
Averse as I have become to the Met’s HD broadcasts the lure of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in a new production by Robert Lepage proved too strong. I’m glad I went. In fact this was probably the best Live in HD broadcast that I’ve seen. Lepage’s production is magical and absolutely at one with the libretto and the score. It’s deceptive simplicity mirrors the same qualities in both. Basically we are face with bands of light (32000 LEDs) across the stage which change colour as required and provide an ethereal shimmering backdrop. The chorus, rarely more than their heads or hands or both, appear in tight ranks from among the lights. There’s a sort of swivelling gantry with a platform at each end that configures to be the various settings for Jaufré and Clémence and there is the Pilgrim and his/her boat. Simple, configurable, effective and very, very beautiful. Indeed, Lepage and his team at the top of their game.
The last Songmasters concert of the season featured a selection of works that sorta kinda had a Finnish or Hungarian connection. The first part of the prgram featured songs by Sibelius, all but one to Swedish texts, and piano pieces by Selim Palmgren, whose music sounds like a sort of cross between Debussy and Sibelius. The songs were sung Stephen Hegedus with plenty of power and quite a bit of subtlety. We had been told he was quite ill but one wouldn’t have known it. Fine, delicate work at the piano by Robert Kortgaard. Continue reading →
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:
Last night the line up for this year’s 21C Music festival was announced. The featured composer is Kaija Saariaho and there are plenty of new works on show. I’m just going to run through some of the highlights.
In February I attended a brilliant lunchtime concert of vocal music by Kaija Saariaho sung by three singers from the COC Ensemble Studio. I wasn’t the only one who was impressed. The composer was so taken with the standard of performance that she has arranged for them to perform a slightly different selection of her works in Washington DC in February.
If you aren’t from Toronto or Montreal (or perhaps Paris, Lyon, Dublin or Belgrade) you probably haven’t heard much about Mireille Asselin, Rihab Chaieb or Jacqueline Woodley (except maybe on this blog) but you will! Strongly recommended both for the music and the singers.
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.
I put off watching Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin on DVD until after the run at the Canadian Opera Company because I didn’t want to prejudge the piece. Now, having seen it live twice and listened to Kent Nagano’s Berlin CD recording it seemed like time to look at the DVD. The DVD is of the original Salzburg production directed by Peter Sellars but it was recorded at Finnish National Opera in Helsinki. It features the original cast of Gerald Finley (Jaufré Rudel), Dawn Upshaw (Clémence) and Monica Groop (Pilgrim). Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts with the Orchestra and Chorus of Finnish National Opera. If you are unfamiliar with the piece you might want to check out my review of the COC production which gives a plot summary etc.
The production concept is simple enough. At each side of the stage is a spiral tower representing Jaufré’s castle in Blaye and the Citadel in Tripoli. The towers stand in a lake which the Pilgrim traverses in a sort of crystal boat. It’s simple and effective but much less spectacular than Daniele Finzi Pasca’s production seen at COC. Colour is used to symbolise the two sides and the journey; blues and greens for Blaye, reds and oranges for Tripoli and black and white for the journey. In typical Sellars style there is a fair amount of stylized and elaborate gesturing. It all seems to work pretty well.
The performances are excellent. All three singers have complete mastery of their parts and can act vocally as well as sing. Some of the acting is a bit overwrought but I think that’s Sellars. At key moments, and especially in the beautiful final scene, this very intense approach works much less well than the more understated approach taken in Toronto which seems more at one with what the music is doing. The Orchestra and, off-stage, chorus are just fine. Salonen has worked a lot with Saariaho and knows what’s required.
Where I have serious reservations with this recording is the video direction. Sellars directs this himself and like his Nixon in China Met HD broadcast it’s really quite bizarre. All video directors use close ups. Most use too many of them. Sellars takes this to extremes with bizarre partial face shots or body extremities filling the whole screen. Coupled with the exaggerated acting style, which might just be OK at a distance, this makes for a very overwrought effect that is at serious odds with the music. I’ve included four entirely typical screen caps at the end of the post to show what I mean.
Technically the disk is OK. The picture is European TV quality 16:9. One might have expected a little better for a 2004 disk. The sound is decent DTS 5.1 (Dolby 5.1 and PCM stereo alternatives). It’s quite vivid though I think the voices are balanced artificially forward. Documentation is pretty decent and the subtitle options are English, French, German and Spanish. There are very informative interviews with Sellars, Saariaho and Salonen that are all well worth watching. This is the only DVD of the piece and it’s pretty adequate. I wish someone would film Daniele Finzi Pasca’s production though.
OK, here are some screen caps of close ups. These are not cropped. This is the screen you see watching the DVD.