Samuel Barber’s Vanessa doesn’t get performed much and the recently released recording of the 2018 Glyndebourne production is the only video version available. It’s pretty interesting, if perplexing at times, and I’m not as convinced as many of the people interviewed in the “extras” portion of the disk that this is an “under-rated masterpiece”.
There’s been a lot of opera related programming broadcast on BBC TV recently. Probably the biggest event was Jonas Kaufmann’s role debut as Otello in the Verdi opera conducted by Antonio Pappano but there’s also been a 90 minute documentary on Kaufmann and a two part series called Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera and a broadcast of Brett Dean’s new Hamlet from Glyndebourne. I haven’t yet watched the Hamlet but here are some thoughts on the other three shows, plus an extra bonus.
André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice was written in the years leading up to his premature death in 1982 but, despite interest from ENO in the 1980s, it did not get a full performance until David Pountney decided to stage it at the the 2013 Bregenz Festival with Keith Warner directing. It’s hard to explain the neglect though Pountney ascribes it some degree as the fate of the emigré (the composer being a Polish Jew domiciled in the UK). The Merchant of Venice is a really solid piece. It’s got all the elements; a strong story, a really interesting but not overly intimidating score and really good writing for voice (it really is singable). It’s the right length at around two and a half hours and it doesn’t call for unreasonable orchestral or vocal forces. John O’Brien’s libretto even manages to overcome some of the objections to staging Shakespeare’s play. While one might consider the Shakespeare piece to be antisemitic, O’Brien’s libretto is much more clearly about anti-semitism. There’s also a clear homoerotic element in the Antonio – Bassanio relationship and perhaps too in Portia – Nerissa.
Last night in an aerialist loft in the grittier part of the west end FAWN presented Synesthesia IV part 1. Six short pieces by different composers were choreographed by Jenn Nichols and presented in an art installation by Kathryn Francis Warner. It was an interesting and enjoyable show but it left me wondering how it was going to help select a composer for a future opera. I may be old fashioned but I would want to hear how the composer wrote for voice before making that call and only two pieces last night did that.
This Saturday FAWN Chamber Creative are presenting the first part of Synesthesia IV. Yesterday I sat down with artistic director Amanda Smith and singer Jonathan MacArthur to find out what it’s all about. It’s basically a building block in a longer term project to create a contemporary ballet lyrique. Now normally, for me, this term summons up the ghost of Lully and has me running for the hills humming “diddly, diddly; diddly, twiddly” but Amanda explained that they were using it as shorthand for an extended piece combining vocal music and dance so I calmed down. Now one thing I’ve noticed about FAWN is that they don’t rush works to market. There’s usually an extensive process of workshopping and refining. This ballet lyrique project seems to take that one step further and Synesthesia is a first step along the way. Continue reading →
Deborah Warner’s entry point to Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the, almost certainly apocryphal, story about it premiering in a girls’ boarding school. At various points in the action we get a chorus of schoolgirls in modernish uniforms commenting silently on the action. They are on stage during the overture, are seen in dance class during some of the dance music and queue up for the Sailor’s autograph. It’s quite touching and adds to the pathos of the basic, simple, tragic story. Warner also adds a prologue (the original is lost). In Warner’s version Fiona Shaw declaims, and acts out, poems by Ovid/Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and WB Yeats. These additions aside the piece is presented fairly straightforwardly in a sort of “stage 18th century” aesthetic. The witch scenes are quite well handled with Hilary Summers as a quite statuesque sorceress backed up by fairly diminutive (and, for witches, quite cute) Céline Ricci and Ana Quintans. Their first appearance is quite restrained but they go to town quite effectively in their second appearance.
La tragédie de Carmen is a stripped down version of Bizet’s opera originally created by Peter Brook some thirty years ago. It dispenses with the chorus and most of the minor characters to focus in on the central drama of Carmen, Micaëla, Don José and Escamillo with some support from Zuniga and Lillas Pastia. In Loose TEA Theatre’s version the action is transferred to New York in the 1920s and given a night club/mob setting which stretches the libretto but allows the rather striking Cassandra Warner to appear in some quite stunning outfits.
The piece is very condensed. It runs maybe 80 minutes. Presented in a small space like Buddies in bad times it becomes almost unbearably intense, especially when presented by fine actors as it was here. Central to the whole thing is Warner’s stunning Carmen. She is very good looking in a rather angular 1920s sort of way. She can act and she has a really good voice. The tone is genuine mezzo but she seems quite comfortable well up into soprano territory. The overall effect was extremely sexy.