Krystyna Zywulska was a Polish resistance fighter who was captured and sent to Auschwitz. She took to writing lyrics and setting them to an eclectic mix of tunes as a way of coping with the horror of the camp. Somehow this was pleasing to the powers that be and she found herself with a relatively soft job processing the possessions of arriving prisoners. She survived to write a number of memoirs about her experience. The story is oddly similar to that of Zofia Posmysz, who inspired Weinberg’s The Passenger. This time the opera is Another Sunrise; a collaboration of Gene Scheer and Jake Heggie commissioned by Music of Remembrance and premiered in 2012. There’s a companion piece by the same team; Farewell Auschwitz, which sets some of the Zywulska texts, in translation and reworking by Scheer, to a wide range of the kinds of music that Zywulska used. Last night both pieces got their Canadian premiers in a production by Electric Bond Ensemble at Beth Tzedec directed by Aaron Willis.
The New American Art Song is a CD of, unsurprisingly, American art songs. Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch is accompanied by the composers in four contrasting sets. The first set is Quiet Lives by Ricky Ian Gordon; eight songs setting texts by various poets. The music is tonal with occasional elements of minimalism but overall a bit of a retro “piano lounge” feel that didn’t particularly excite me.
Second up were two songs, Of Gods and Cats, by Jake Heggie to texts by Gavin Geoffrey Gillard. These are sly, witty, jazzy and much more contemporary sounding. Much more musically inventive too. It’s easy to see why Heggie is in the upper tier of contemporary American composers. The disc also has a bonus Heggie song; a setting of Browning’s Grow Old Along With Me, that I really liked.
Yesterday’s concert in the Songmasters Series at Mazzoleni Hall featured Mireille Asselin and Brett Polegato with Peter Tiefenbach and Rachel Andrist in a program of songs more or less related to painting and painters. The first half of the program was all French; Fauré and Debussy. Mireille and Peter gave us two songs from Fauré’s Cinq mélodies de Venise plus three pieces from Debussy’s Fêtes galantes and Pantomime from Quatre chansons de jeunesse. I thought the Debussy generally suited Mireille’s voice rather better than the Fauré. The first three songs were beautifully and charmingly sung while Pantomime gave full rein to Mireille’s considerable comedic talents. The highlight of the first half for me though was Brett’s singing of the Poulenc work that gave the concert its title. Seven songs by Paul Eluard; each a brief portrait of a painter. Written at the same time as Dialogues des Carmélites, these pieces have the same sort of intensity and drive (and decided non trivial piano parts!). They were most expertly sung with fine diction and legato and a keen sense of the varied moods of each piece.
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:
So what was I most impressed with on the opera and related scene in in 2013?
Big house opera
The COC had a pretty good twelve months. I enjoyed everything I saw except, maybe, Lucia di Lammermoor. Making a choice between Christopher Alden’s probing La Clemenza di Tito, the searing opening night of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde; the night when I really “got” why people fly across oceans to see this piece, Robert Carsen’s spare and intensely moving Dialogues des Carmélites or Tony Dean Griffey’s intense and lyrical portrayal of the title character in Peter Grimes is beyond me. So, I shall be intensely disloyal to my home company and name as my pick in this category the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Die Frau ohne Schatten. Wernicke’s production is pure magic and Anna Schwanewilms was a revelation.
Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick has been successful in a way few contemporary operas are. Since its Dallas premiere in 2010 it has been given in Adelaide, Calgary, San Diego and, most recently, San Francisco where it was recorded in 2012. It’s not hard to see why it has been a success. The subject is dramatic and has been skilfully compressed into a little over two hours by librettist Gene Scheer and the score steers the fine line between accessibility and triviality. Add to that a visually appealing production and it’s a winning package.
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 →