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Summer Opera: Braunfels and Grétry

The other interesting opera at the Spoleto Festival USA (see Summer Opera: Respighi in Spoleto, June 11) was Walter Braunfels's Die Vögel (The Birds, 1920). It was mentioned by James R. Oestreich in his article (A Don Giovanni Close to the Edge, Like Everyone Else, June 7) for the New York Times:

"Die Vögel," a 1920 work based on "The Birds" by Aristophanes, is notable mainly for the lush score by Braunfels, a German composer who fell into obscurity after his music was banned by the Nazis. Despite unmistakable traces of Wagner (especially when the birds' valhalla undergoes a sort of Vögeldämmerung) and Richard Strauss in the music, Braunfels speaks in a bold, confident and appealing voice. The basic problem is the static libretto, also by Braunfels. No amount of outlandish costuming or upper-body twitching (presumably meant to be birdlike) in Jonathan Eaton's production can compensate for a lack of real action.
Another review of that production comes from T. D. Mobley-Martinez ('Die Voegel' an airy performance that takes flight in fantasy, June 1) for The State:
The story, based on the Aristophanes play, is a chewy little bonbon in which two bumbling travelers, Good Hope (Roy Cornelius Smith) and Loyal Friend (Dale Travis), search for a legendary kingdom of birds where they can be free of their "earthly burdens." They stumble into this Utopia, which is centered on a priapic, 16-foot tree (one sliver of designer Danila Korodgodsky’s genius on this production). An officious Wren (Olivia Gorra) finds them first, taking them to the Hoopoe (Weston Hurt). Soon the stage is aflutter with birds, strange, staring, twitchy things; painted and coifed and corseted and equipped with twiggy appliances that graft a backpack frame with a dreamcatcher. Two carry purses. One has wooden wings and another recalls a jittery Mozart with Moonpie eyes and jaundice. Curiously, they all carry (wear, pet, hug) rocks on strings like prehistoric necklaces — a metaphor, perhaps, for survival in a flinty world of not very much.
The choral parts of the Spoleto operas have been performed by the Westminster Choir, which has received high marks. The next opera on our list of interesting summer operas (Opera in the Summer 2005, June 2) is an all too rare performance of Andre-Ernest-Modeste Grétry's Zémire et Azor, in an English version being called Beauty and the Beast, at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The only review I could find is by Sarah Bryan Miller (Beauty and the Beast, June 6) for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
From the model ship that tosses and then sinks beneath silken waves to the bushmen - "invisible" servants, clothed in grassy green that blends in with the set's formal French gardens, who operate the thunder sheet and wind machine and waft singers about with seeming ease - the director-designer team of Renaud Doucet and Andre Barbe have given us a production that delights. Originally entitled Zemire et Azor, this score from 1771 was a favorite of Mozart's, and its influences on him are readily identifiable. The comic servant Ali has definite Papageno-esque tendencies. This is not an opera that makes enormous dramatic demands on its cast; most of the characters just about make it to the two-dimensional. Rather than going ironic and cynical with the piece, Barbe and Doucet have instead elected to emphasize an innocent sense of wonder. It was the right choice.

The production's other pleasures include a cloud tricycle, a great serpent that unfolds from above, an unfolding house and a homage to French film director Jean Cocteau. Barbe's costumes give us the Beast, Azor, as an owl-like bird of prey, in a marvelous feathered costume adorned with fierce talons. He is complemented by a sextet of dancers in gaudily plumed bird heads, who perform a courtly ballet.
It sounds like fun, which is a good thing for opera to be. (Washington Concert Opera, is it too late to replace the Cavalleria/Tabarro double-bill with Grétry? Probably.) Ionarts will be in St. Louis later this month, to hear Britten's Gloriana with the vocally luscious Christine Brewer. So, more about that later.

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