I found it a bit shocking that John Adam’s Nixon in China wasn’t released on DVD until after the MetHD broadcast in 2011. I was even more shocked when I found out that the original 1987 Houston production had been recorded and broadcast on PBS. Just recently, thanks to a kind reader of this blog, I’ve been able to watch that original broadcast. It’s TV from 1988 recorded on VHS and then digitized so the picture quality isn’t state of the art but the sound is surprisingly good. Continue reading
Well not so much “best of” as the good stuff that really made my year. It was a pretty good year overall. On the opera front there was much to like from the COC as well as notable contributions from the many smaller ensembles and opera programs. The one that will stick longest with me was Peter Sellars’ searing staging of Handel’s Hercules at the COC. It wasn’t a popular favourite and (predictably) upset the traditionalists but it was real theatre and proof that 250 year old works can seem frighteningly modern and relevant. Two other COC productions featured notable bass-baritone COC debuts and really rather good looking casts. Atom Egoyan’s slightly disturbing Cosí fan tutte not only brought Tom Allen to town but featured a gorgeous set of lovers, with Wallis Giunta and Layla Claire almost identical twins, as well as a welcome return for Tracy Dahl. Later in the year Gerry Finley made his company debut in the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff in an incredibly detailed Robert Carsen production. I saw it three times and I’m still pretty sure I missed stuff.
John Adams’ El Niño was conceived as an oratorio but thoughts turned to it being staged early in the creative process. The final result, as staged at Paris’ Châtelet in 2000, defies easy characterization. There are singers and dancers on stage but they don’t represent unique characters. So, for example, at one moment Willard White is Herod and at another Joseph. To further complicate matters video is constantly projected onto a screen above the stage space. It was specially created for the piece being shot on location in Super 8. There’s no clear narrative either. To some extent it tells the Christmas story but it’s at least as much about the feminine experience of giving birth as anything from Isiah or the Gospels. It also uses a very eclectic mix of texts; from the Bible, from the Apocrypha, from female Latin American poets, from Hildegard of Bingen and so on. There are lots off Sellars’ trademarks in the staging too; semaphore and so on. Does it work? I don’t really know as it’s really hard to tell from the video recording (see para 3).
Maybe this should be titled “The bear and lemur freak show”. Anyway, no surprise to anyone who knows us or reads this blog, the classic 19th century Italian rep is not our sweet spot. Give us Handel or Berg or Britten over Rossini or Verdi (let alone Donizetti) most days. (We’ll make an exception for Don Carlos!). So, last night as the Four Seasons Centre erupted in frenzied applause I couldn’t really share the wild enthusiasm, fine as the performance was, but what startled me was when I heard a smug, female voice to my left say “Well that makes up for Hercules”. I restrained an urge to remonstrate violently (I’ve been taking lessons from Peter Sellars) but I did leave the theatre puzzled and a bit upset; a feeling shared by the lemur and subject of much conversation on the subway home.
Making a film of an opera rather than filming an opera involves interesting choices and one of the strengths of the DVD of Penny Woolcock’s film of John Adams’ and Alice Goodman’s The Death of Klinghoffer is that includes 47 minutes of Woolcock, Adams and others discussing just how one takes a rather abstractly staged opera (the original staging was, inevitably, by Peter Sellars) and turn it into an essentially naturalistic film. Of course, naturalism will only go so far with opera but this goes a long way in that direction. The soloists are filmed mainly on location and they sing to the camera. The choruses, mainly backed by documentary footage, and the orchestra were recorded in the studio but the actors sing ‘live’. The one concession to “being operatic” is having a mezzo voice one of the Palestinians though he is played by a male actor.
Back to the Four Seasons Centre last night for a second look at Peter Sellars’ production of Handel’s Hercules. This time we were sitting lower down in the house, in the front, left of the orchestra ring. As predicted the set wasn’t as effective as when seen from higher up but in some ways the lighting effects were more successful. Given the house’s acoustic properties favour the rings I’d say this is definitely one to see from somewhere other than the orchestra.
What did I particularly notice compared to opening night? First off, Richard Croft. I think I was so wrapped up in Lucy Crowe and Eric Owen’s singing the first time around that I almost failed to notice what a fine performance he gave. His voice is very mature for a tenor now but he’s a terrific interpreter of text and has flawless technique. His intensity remains remarkable. And the schtick with the crutches? It turns out he recently had hip surgery.
There’s a unit set; some marble flags, a few broken columns surrounding a “fire pit”. Even this is stripped down for much of Act 2 which takes place on the stage apron in front of a plain curtain. There are five singers, a chorus and an orchestra. That, plus Peter Sellars, is all it takes to produce an extraordinary piece of music drama.