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30.4.07

New Opera Notes

Franz Schreker's Der ferne Klang (1912) was performed in a concert version by the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. Here is part of the review by Martin Bernheimer (Der ferne Klang, Avery Fisher Hall, New York, April 16) in the Financial Times:

The plot, a quaint fusion of 19th-century fantasy and petty-bourgeois morality, concerns a composer, Fritz, who abandons his beloved Grete in obsessive quest of an elusive ideal – the “distant sound” of the title. In his absence Grete endures gross degradation. Fritz returns and realises too late that the spiritual tones he sought emanated from the woman he left behind.

The mystical motive emerges from the celesta. Schreker wrapped his idealistic narrative in a score that throbs with passion one moment, floats in reverie the next, and occasionally succumbs to trite formulas. His language is predicated on bold harmonic and thematic juxtapositions punctuated with percussive pomp. Vast orchestral outpourings envelope extended Sprechgesang exchanges and arioso indulgences. The inspirations are staggering, and even the lapses are fascinating.
Covent Garden's next season will include the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Minotaur [Opera News]

The British Empire abolished slavery 200 years ago, an anniversary which has already motivated the release of a Hollywood film, Amazing Grace. London's Pegasus Opera Company has also mounted a production of a little-known opera by Delius, Koanga, set on a slave plantation in Louisiana in the late 1700s. Here is part of a review by Richard Fairman (Koanga, Sadler’s Wells, London, April 16) in the Financial Times:
Any number of hands have had a go at improving the libretto, but nobody has succeeded in bringing its main characters to life – not even the strongly cast central couple here, with Leonard Rowe the embodiment of the enslaved population as an imposing and noble Koanga and Alison Buchanan singing with heartfelt, sometimes vibrato-heavy, commitment as Palmyra. Admittedly, it did not help that so few of the words could be heard.

The communal scenes featuring the slave population fare better, and were lustily sung, but the opera’s main claim on our attention lies in Delius’s atmospheric scene painting. Making use of native black American songs, he created an aural landscape that is part banks of the Mississippi, part banks of the Thames English pastoral, but always headily suggestive of sun-soaked, oppressive afternoons.
On April 22, the Prague National Theater opened a production of A Walk Worthwhile, a 1960s Czech jazz opera by Jiri Suchy and Jiri Slitr, staged by Milos Forman [Associated Press]

Benjamin Britten's Owen Wingrave was produced at London's Linbury Studio. Here is part of the review by Andrew Clark (Owen Wingrave, Linbury Studio, London, April 27) in the Financial Times:
The problem with Owen Wingrave is not that it was made for television, for Benjamin Britten always had a staged performance in mind. Nor is there any problem with the music: it’s all insidiously top-drawer, with a percussion orchestra that ranks as one of the 20th century’s most expressive achievements. No, the real problem is ambiguity. The opposing forces are too bluntly defined to lure us into the mystique that envelops the anti-heroes of Britten’s other operas. The Wingrave family is a caricature – Owen’s fate is sealed from the start. I don’t see Owen Wingrave as a pacifist tract – Britten was too clever for that – nor as an opera about a gay coming-out. It’s just one-sided and melodramatic.

But with the right treatment it can exert a fascinating grip – as it does in this new staging, part of a Britten series that the Royal Opera is presenting in its uncomfortable studio theatre. Brilliantly conducted by Rory Macdonald (a real find) and staged by Tim Hopkins with cinematic projections that remind us of the opera’s TV origins, Owen Wingrave comes across as swifter and meatier than before – in no small part due to a new chamber orchestration by David Matthews, one of Britten’s former assistants. Matthews’ version is actually an improvement on the original because we hear all the essentials of the instrumental score in better profile, while being able to hear every word: in my experience it was always a problem that the ensembles and even some of the solos, notably Owen’s climactic Peace aria, were overwhelmed by the surging gamelan-intensities of Britten’s orchestra. Now the woodwind motifs exert an even greater magic, the rustling percussion a more beguiling mystique.
Lost Highway, the 2004 opera by Olga Neuwirth and Elfriede Jelinek, based on the 1997 David Lynch film, is being co-produced by English National Opera and Young Vic Theater. [What's on Stage]

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