The end of all human dignity

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?


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Brett Dean’s Hamlet

A new opera by Australian Brett Dean based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet premiered at Glyndebourne this summer.  A recording of it was broadcast on BBC television on 22nd October.  I’ve now had a chance to watch it in full.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as it get somewhat mixed reviews.  I was impressed.  Very impressed.  First off, Matthew Jocelyn, who wrote the libretto, and Dean know how to turn a play into an opera.  They understand that it’s not just about taking a bunch of dialogue and giving it a soundtrack.  What they do is very clever.  All the text is Shakespeare but it’s split up and moved around.  There’s repetition and sometimes words are reassigned to different characters. Characters sing parallel lines. Then, of course, there’s a chorus.  A good example is when the players appear before performing The Death of Gonzago.  They get lines taken from various of Hamlet’s soliloquies chopped up and rearranged.  It’s effective and allows the main elements of the story to be told in under three hours of opera.  The main bit that’s missing is the whole Fortinbras and the Norwegians thing but that often gets cut anyway.


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Sweet prince

192996050Just been checking out the Glyndebourne 2017 season announcement.  Not that I’ll be going or anything but one production did catch my eye.  There’s a new Hamlet opera from Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn to be directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski which sounds promising enough but look at this cast: Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia), Rod Gilfry (Claudius), Kim Begley (Polonius), John Tomlinson (Ghost of Old Hamlet).  There had better be a DVD.

Oh yes and they’ve unearthed yet another previously (more or less) unheard of Cavalli.

Has it really been forty years?

ingmar_bergman_seventh_seal_2a_5The recently announced death of Jon Vickers has had me thinking a lot about connections.  Vickers sang the title role in the second opera I saw live; Peter Grimes at Covent Garden in July 1975.  Oddly, the first was The Rhinegold, at ENO, conducted by Reginald Goodall who also conducted the premiere performance of Peter Grimes in 1945.  The summers of 1975 and 1976 were the first real chance, and the last for a while, that I had to see opera live.  I worked those summer vacations in banks in central London which meant that I could use my lunchbreak to get a rush ticket for the evening performance.  Living thirty miles out with a train to catch meant it wasn’t something I could do often but I did catch a couple of performances in each of those summers and, as I look back, there are so many beginnings and endings and connections.

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Kupfer/Barenboim Ring – 3. Siegfried

We seem to be in some kind of post apocalyptic wasteland.  Mime’s hut looks like a re-purposed storage tank but the bear and the forest are more or less realistic.  It’s all very dark and there’s quite a lot of use of pyrotechnics.  This is also our first look at Siegfried Jerusalem’s Siegfried and he is very good indeed.  He captures the hero’s youthful vigour and arrogance extremely well.  There is a strong performance too from a rather manic Graham Clark as Mime and John Tomlinson continues as a reckless and wild Wanderer.

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Kupfer/Barenboim Ring – 2. Die Walküre

The Kupfer/Barenboim Ring continues very strongly with the second instalment, Die Walküre.  It opens in quite a straightforward, more or less realistic way.  Hunding’s hall is slightly abstracted with a recognizable tree.  It’s quite spare though which creates space for the strong interpersonal dynamics between Siegmund and Sieglinde.  Poul Elming is a very physical, almost manic Siegmund and Nadine Secunde’s Sieglinde is almost as physical.  It’s all very intense and beautifully sung.  Matthias Hölle as Hunding is no slouch either.

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Kupfer/Barenboim Ring – 1. Das Rheingold

The 1991 Bayreuth Ring cycle is one of those productions that has become a historical landmark, as much as Chereau and Boulez’ 1976 effort, or maybe even more so.  For many people it is the Ring.  So what is it like?  The staging is very bare and much reliance is placed on effects like lasers and smoke.  It also makes considerable acting and athletic demands on the singers.  It is, in many ways, a very modern production for 1991.

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The Vickers Grimes

When the Royal Opera House mounted a new production of Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1975 with Canadian heldentenor Jon Vickers in the title role it was controversial. Whatever else one could say about it Vickers’ interpretation of Grimes was very different from that of Peter Pears for whom the part was written. Britten, it was said, hated it. I saw it that summer and was pretty impressed but then seventeen year olds impress easily. I certainly never expected that the young baritone singing Ned Keene would end up as a knight and Chancellor of the university where I began my degree a few weeks later. When the production was revived in 1981 there were some significant cast changes. Norman Bailey had replaced the retired Geraint Evans as Balstrode, Philip Gelling was in for Thomas Allen as Ned Keene and one John Tomlinson had taken over as Hobson the carter. The incomparable Heather Harper remained as Ellen Orford. It’s the revival cast that was recorded and broadcast by the BBC and which is available on DVD from Kultur in the Americas and Warner Video elsewhere.


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The gods look down and laugh

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.

Magic Flutes

This afternoon I was listening to the CBC radio broadcast of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Zauberflöte from earlier this year. During the interval there was an interview with Michael Schade, the Tamino, where it was pointed out that he had sung the role, in English, in the famous 1991 Opera Atelier production in Toronto and, also, that Russell Braun had sung Papageno in that show. It was the first opera I saw in Toronto, having moved here only a very short time before. I don’t recall who else was in that production and I can’t find a cast list anywhere. Certainly revivals of the production, which I also saw, weren’t quite so packed with future stars. Curiously, the very first Magic Flute I saw, at the Coliseum in August 1975, also featured future stars, then fairly unknown. Felicity Palmer sang Pamina and John Tomlinson sang one of the Men in Armour. It makes me wonder whether we were seeing any stars of the future at the COC this time. Perhaps not with the “A” cast where all the main roles were sung by well established singers but I might watch out for Wallis Giunta, a very talented mezzo, who sang one of the Three Ladies. Also singing as the alternate to Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina was Simone Osborne (I saw her in Ensemble Studio performance). She’s also one to watch. You can catch her as Gilda in Rigoletto at the COC starting September 30th.