Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Great Globe Itself: The Tempest Songbook

Photo (c) Gotham Chamber Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera's latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more. A co-production with The Martha Graham Dance Company, the evening's program was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti. The narrative of The Tempest is so deliberately surrealistic that I found the resistance of narrative in the program engaging, rather than the reverse. To this Shakespeare aficionado, the interpolations by Dryden sounded strange, but it was these interpolations that much of the 1712 incidental music, attributed to Henry Purcell, was designed to set. The Purcell and Kaija Saariaho's 2004 Tempest Songbook for soprano, baritone and period instrument ensemble intertwined in fascinating ways. In this version, it was receiving its world premiere, and I loved the textures of harpsichord, recorder, and archlute (archlute!) in Saariaho's unconventional harmonies. It was at Saariaho's suggestion that the two pieces appeared thus interwoven, and the dialogue between them was musically rich and intellectually stimulating.

The creative set design was by Clifton Taylor. It seems almost a misnomer to call it minimalist, so richly multivalent was the globe that hung elegantly suspended by ropes reminiscent of the fated ship's rigging. Video projections onto it, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, were skillfully used to evoke globes of the kind so beloved at the courts of early modern Europe, with seas and continents shifting under maps of the zodiac, charts of the stars. Images of the singers and dancers also often appeared there, mirroring and amplifying the action on the stage. The music of Purcell and Saariaho appeared in alternate sections throughout most of the evening, with a suite of Saariaho's songs in the second half of the hour-long program, which was performed without intermission. From a fairly straightforward presentation of the initial scenes of The Tempest, with the panic and anger of the Bosun, and the terror and sorrow of Miranda, the structure became increasingly impressionistic, with Saariaho's music allowing Ariel and Caliban (for instance) much more time than the source material gives them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Manon: c'est la l'histoire...

Rooting for these crazy kids: Manon and her Chevalier, Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
I attended the opening performance of this season's Manon at the Met, and for fans of stylish, passionate singing, the rest of the run promises to be magnificent. Laurent Pelly's stylish, sinister production I found even more effective in revival than (apparently) I did in its first run. The bourgeois brutality and hypocrisy of which Manon and Des Grieux fall afoul were apparent from the first. And the setting in the fin-de-siècle, with its bustling urban spaces, conspicuous consumption, and religious anxiety (to say nothing of precarious social mobility and the precarious position of women in the public sphere,) really does work remarkably well. My customary raptures over the orchestra must in this case be modified. Their sound, while aptly lush, could be unfocused, and there were occasional lapses in stage-pit synchronization over the course of the evening. Emmanuel Villaume was, however, responsive to the singers in their (many!) challenging arias, and ensembles were well-supported, so matters may improve over the course of the run.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Hoffmann (Grigolo), struggling with writing and the human condition. Photo (c) Met Opera
Gentle Readers, I am the most delinquent of bloggers. I saw this season's Contes d'Hoffmann twice, and wrote of it neither after the first performance in the run, nor after the last. I took enough notes here, though, that I'd rather not let them (longer) languish, especially as the performances at the beginning and end of the run yielded rather different experiences, both interesting, and both engaging. I am almost the last person to wish to praise Bartlett Sher, whose productions have so oversaturated recent seasons at the Met (and will, alas, apparently continue to do so.) However, I really do like this Contes d'Hoffmann production, in its gaudy shamelessness, in its willingness to let disturbing images sit unexplained. I hadn't seen it live since 2010, and I enjoyed it again. The Kleinzach song, of course, remains a problem--callous young men mocking a dwarf as a ludicrous figure--but there was a brief moment, at the end of the first performance, when it suddenly appeared as a despairing, horrifying commentary on the human condition.


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