As November 11th comes around for the 94th time since the guns were, very temporarily, silenced I thought it might be interesting to look at how war has been seen by librettists and composers over the years. Very early on we get a very gritty take on the subject in Monteverdi’s extremely compact Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda but not so long after the path for the next three centuries is set with Purcell’s broadly comic King Arthur. As far as I can see from Purcell to 1945, with very minor exceptions, the message is largely “war is fun”. War is an excuse for a big parade (Aida; unless Tim Albery is directing!), an excuse for a drinking song (Faust), just plain comedic (La Fille du Regiment), a plot device (Cosí fan tutte) or a background event (Tosca, various versions of the Armida story). The only opera, pre 1945, that I can think of that deals with the horror of war is Les Troyens, and that of course takes place in a distant, mythical, past.
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?
Last night we headed out to that part of the formerly industrial west end much beloved by tiny arts organizations to see a thoroughly eclectic series of performances by Against the Grain Theatre. This is the company that previously brought us a genuinely Bohemian La Bohème at the Tranzac club. Last night’s show cunningly built on that success by using the undoubted crowd pleaser, Lindsay Boa-Sutherland, to headline a performance of Weill’s Die sieben Todsüngen. Since the orchestra was replaced by two superbly virtuosic pianists in Daniel Pesca and AtG music director Christopher Mokrzewski it made sense to include two fiendish pieces for two pianos; Steve Reich’s Piano Phase and John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction. The program was balanced up for “virtue” with Britten’s Abraham and Isaac. So, a thoroughly eclectic but oddly coherent line up.
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.
Herewith a personal take on the best things that came my way operatically in 2011.
It was a pretty good year for live opera in Toronto. I’m certainly not going to complain about two Robert Carsen productions in the same calendar year. Good though the Gluck was though top honours in the fully staged opera in a real theatre go to the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Neil Armfield’s production was fairly conventional but the music making was superb. Adrienne Pieczonka, Jane Archibald and Alice Coote headlined with strong support from Richard Margison and a whole bunch of past and present Studio Ensemble members. The orchestral playing too was absolutely first class and Sir Andrew Davis conducting looked like he was enjoying it as much as the audience. Later in the year I think we had a bit of “a star is born moment”. Christopher Alden’s Rigoletto was challenging enough that I wanted to see it a second time so took the chance to get a cheap ticket for the B cast. Thus I got to see the extraordinary chemistry between two very fine young singers; David Lomeli and Simone Osborne. Go see them if you get a chance. Actually, nothing at the COC seriously disappointed in 2011 (well maybe the The Magic Flute had a bit of a 200th performance of my career feel to it.) It looks like we are moving at last into an era when Toronto gets consistently high class singers and conductors in decent or better productions. It’s a shame there are only seven productions per year.
As for smaller venues, highlights included Against the Grain’s funky La Boheme in the highly outlandish setting of the Tranzac Club and Queen of Puddings’ world premiere of Ana Sokolov’s Svadba – Wedding; an hour long piece for six unaccompanied female voices. There were also any number of excellent free lunchtime concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.
The surprise highlight of the year for me was the restored print of the 1961 Rosenkavalier from Salzburg. Everything about it is surprising and wonderful and undermines a great deal of received wisdom about opera in that era. Other personal discoveries were the Salzburg King Arthur (who knew Germans could be funny?) and Calixto Bieito’s truly disturbing Wozzeck starring Franz Hawlata at his very considerable best.
I started the year thinking I didn’t really like John Adams much. I had hated the Met broadcast of Doctor Atomic and while I liked some of the non-operatic stuff rather more I wasn’t a fan. After watching Nixon in China twice in 24 hours (COC on the Friday night followed by the Met broadcast on the Saturday) and attending a lunchtime concert of arias introduced by the composer and sung by Peter McGillivray and Betty Wayne Allison I was converted. I even went back and watched the Amsterdam production of Doctor Atomic on DVD. I still think Doctor Atomic has its weaknesses but Nixon in China is pretty much a masterpiece.
I started this blog as a way of keeping up writing analytically while I wasn’t working. It’s helped keep me sane. Through this and Twitter and other on-line stuff I’ve met some really cool people in 2011; some in meatspace including Lydia of Definitely the Opera, Cicely Carver from COC, couturier Rosemary Uhmetsu and up and coming soprano Simone Osborne. On-line folks who have helped this year along are really too numerous to mention individually but thanks anyway!
Other stuff that happened
I met Lawrence Brownlee and Leonardo Vordoni in the cinema at a MetHD broadcast! I discovered that baritone Brett Polegato (one of the funniest people in opera) has a little grey cat called Lady Jane Grey just like my little grey monster.
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?
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.
John Adams is in Toronto for the TSO’s New Creations Festival. Today he MC’d a free concert of extracts from his operas at the Four Seasons Centre. I feel really privileged to have been able to attend. Adams’ introductions for each piece were thoughtful, informative and deeply human. We had arias from A Flowering Tree, Nixon in China, Dr. Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer performed by Peter McGillivray (baritone) and Betty Waynne Allison (soprano) with Anne Larlee at the piano. They both did very well with McGillivray being particularly effective, especially in Nixon’s “Mister Premier, distinguished guests”. To be fair to Ms. Allison, Adams’ writing for soprano is fiendish and throttling back a big voice in a fairly small space can’t have been easy.
I’m starting to feel a bit more at home with Adams’ music and to understand better why I like what I do like. Adams’ music seems to work best when it is fairly up tempo and has real rhythmic drive to it. Adams said that very little of his non operatic music is as slow as much of his operatic music and I think that’s significant. He doesn’t do relaxed and/or lyrical as well as the more driven stuff. So Nixon in China works pretty well because it is driven along at a pretty relentless pace and even the set piece arias are mostly fairly brisk. Dr. Atomic drags, has slow passages that lack any other real interest and is correspondingly less effective.
What looked like a bit of a nuisance turned out instead to be an interesting opportunity. By chance, the Friday evening performance of the COC’s Nixon in China (our season tickets are for Friday nights) fell the evening before the Met’s HD broadcast of its production of the same piece affording me the opportunity to see two contrasting productions in less than 24 hours.
I went into this less than totally convinced about John Adams’ music but came out converted to the view that Nixon in China, at least, is a very fine opera indeed. It’s not flawless though most of my reservations probably relate to my need to find a deeper meaning in a piece like this. If I’d just got on with enjoying it even those reservations would likely disappear. So, we have a work with some wonderful music, albeit more for the orchestra than the singers, intriguing opportunities for visual interest, human drama and some wry humour. The libretto also repays repeat listening. It’s very skilled indeed. What’s not to like?
So how did Toronto and New York compare? Let me say first of all that my comparison is conditioned by having seen the COC production from the Orchestra Ring at the Four Seasons Centre and the Met production via HD broadcast. In my opinion the Met broadcast didn’t do full justice to what was happening on stage. Peter Sellars fell into the too many close ups trap that seems endemic to directors of these broadcasts. This was particularly egregious during the ballet in Act 2. Focussing in gruesome close up on three singers standing stock still while there are dancers on stage doing their thing is just perverse. Also, the voices were balanced much further forward at the Met which rather underplayed the orchestra’s contribution. The balance at the COC (unusually for opera this work is always miked and amplified) was, where i was sitting, just about ideal. This meant that the singers were more obviously showcased at the Met and that may be colouring some of my judgements.
Act 1 – the Nixons arrive, meeting with Mao, state banquet. The Met’s staging is very literal and based on contemporary photographs; the COC’s more allegorical with use of multiple television sets, an American family watching TV and a silent peasant wandering the sets. Certainly the COC version gives more sense of the “made for TV” nature of the visit. The COC set is also sparser (why does the Met love “stuff” so much?) which is easier on the eye, allows for more dynamic movement of characters and faster scene changes. Advantage COC here. The singing in both productions was good with the obvious exception of James Maddelena in New York. He clearly had a bad cold and his voice got very shaky towards the end of the first act. Not his fault of course and he soldiered on manfully. Russell Braun’s Chou was the stand out in either house; just marvellous. The two Mao’s were an interesting contrast Robert Brubaker in New York more the heldentenor and dominating, Adrian Thompson in Toronto more enigmatic. Of course some of that could be the balance issue.
Act 2 – Pat’s tour and Mme Mao’s ballet. Act 2 Scene 1 was played fairly straight in both houses. More stuff at the Met of course and the COC added an interesting touch in having Pat carried from location to location but they were pretty similar. Excellent performances from both Pats.
The ballet scene was done very differently. Toronto gave us a more obviously sexually sadistic version performed by dancers who looked like their focus was modern dance. The involvement of the on stage audience was limited to Pat’s reactions, Dick’s attempts to calm her down and the later involvement of Mme Mao cuing the execution (or not) scene. New York gave us really excellent classically trained dancers (the women dancing en point) and much more confusion between audience and dancers with a “reeducation session” going on on one side of the stage and the audience finally breaking up the furniture while waving The Thoughts. There was also a very explicit confrontation between Mme. Mao and Chou at the end of the scene which had me thinking that we are seeing the tensions between the Cultural Revolution and the forces of stability played out here. Advantage New York here I think. Both Mme Mao’s did well with the fiendish “I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung” aria. Marisol Montalvo in Toronto was fine but Kathleen Kim in New York was truly amazing. Again, my judgement may be being affected by sound balance issues.
(As an aside, it occurred to me that if one wanted to stage a Dadaist event, leaping out of the audience and kidnapping Pat Nixon in this scene would have a certain logic)
Act 3 – the last evening in Peking. This is an odd scene and the one where I grope most for meaning. Why do both couples revert to memories of the war and the Long March? Is it that nothing since is really real for them? I don’t know. Also what’s with Adams/Sellars and banal lyrics about food? Doctor Atomic gave us a discourse on calories and chocolate cake. Here we get tips for grilling burgers. Both houses played this scene pretty straight. There was a bit more make out action in New York (perhaps surprisingly) but differences were slight.
Orchestral playing in both houses was first rate (at least what I could tell of the New York playing given the backward balancing of the orchestra). I didn’t get exact times on the acts but I think Adams in New York took things a bit slower than Heras-Casado in Toronto. Toronto had one, shorter, interval and swifter scene changes (less stuff). New York had two intermissions and the mandatory Met “let’s rebuild the opera house” between acts so we got out of the Four Seasons centre in a little under three hours versus around four for the Met version.
Bottom line, I thoroughly enjoyed both versions and I strongly suspect I’d have like the New York one even more if I had been in the house.
Next week I’ll be seeing the COC’s Die Zauberflöte on both Thursday and Friday evenings; the first with the Ensemble Studio cast and the second with the main cast. Watch this space.