With little sign that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to let us into an opera house any time soon, we will have to continue to look online for our fix. Fortunately streams and available archival material is growing apace, so this week I thought I’d look at what’s available at either end of the musical timeline in terms of baroque and contemporary opera. And for those who prefer the middle ground, I’ll suggest not just one, but three ways to put a ‘Ring’ on it as directors find new ways to endlessly reinvent Richard Wagner’s grand tetralogy.
One of the first companies to hop online was the UK-based Academy of Ancient Music, an outfit that, contrary to its name, has embraced plenty of new ideas in recent years.
The British composer John Eccles is known today for finishing second in Lord Halifax’s 1700 competition to promote the work of British composers by setting William Congreve’s masque The Judgement of Paris. Eccles – the hot favourite – entered, along with John Weldon, Daniel Purcell (brother of Henry) and Gottfried Finger. In a turn up for the books, Weldon triumphed, while Finger, who came last, left the country in high dudgeon. The same year Eccles became Master of the King’s Musick and holds the distinction of being the only composer in the history of the post to serve four monarchs (William III, Queen Anne, George I and George II). Alongside a host of fine theatre music and a contribution for the coronation of Queen Anne, Eccles wrote an operatic version of Semele in 1706 to another libretto by Congreve, much the same text that would be pressed into service by Handel when he came to write his famous version in 1744. Here, the Academy of Ancient Music joins forces with Cambridge Handel Opera Company and Cambridge Early Music in a concert version due for album release in early 2021. It’s the old, old tale: boy meets girl, but girl is already in love with supreme deity. Deity spirits girl away, but deity’s jealous wife tricks girl into insisting he reveals his true form, thus burning her to a crisp. C’est la vie, as they say. Anna Dennis is a wonderful Semele with Richard Burkhard as Jupiter – in Eccles’ version he’s a baritone who doesn’t sing “Where’er you walk” – with Helen Charlston a fine Juno.
The Academy will be online again on May 31 when they join forces with Grange Festival for a 2018 staged performance of Handel’s Agrippina with Anna Bonitatibus in the title role, but if you can’t wait for more baroque opera, why not check out Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole Amante in a riotous, colourful staging from Paris’s Opéra Comique available on the Arte.tv website. The opera was written in 1662 for the marriage of Louix XIV and Marie-Thérèse of Austria. With mythical characters, ballets, and all sorts of stage machinery, Nahuel di Pierro sings the title role of Hercules with Anna Bonitatibus in Juno and Giuseppina Bridelli playing Dejanira. Raphaël Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion are on top form, and if the glorious picture above doesn’t tempt you nothing will!
John Adams started the trend back in the 1980s and 1990s with Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, but the last two decades have seen an explosion of successful new American operas, a charge led by composer Jake Heggie whose Dead Man Walking found its way to Australia as part of the Adelaide Festival back in 2003. This week San Francisco Opera, who premiered Dead Man, are streaming their staging of Heggie’s take on Moby Dick (State Opera of South Australia were one of the co-producers and this staging was seen in Adelaide in 2011). Once again, Heggie demonstrates why he’s one of today’s go-to composers for thoughtful, yet accessible music theatre. His imaginative score glitters with an impressionistic sheen, its motor rhythms paying a minor debt to minimalism. His intricate, effective, melismatic (when it pays to be), and most of all singable vocal lines always puts comprehensibility ahead of demanding effect. For Australian viewers it is available for 24 hours from 3am on the morning of Monday May 25. The 2010 staging is conducted by Patrick Summers with a bravura staging – whale hunts and all – by Leonard Foglia. Jay Hunter Morris (the first Siegfried in the Met Opera’s Lepage Ring) as Captain Ahab, Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg, Morgan Smith as Starbuck and Talise Trevigne as Pip.
Opera Philadelphia’s September Festival has become a date for the diary thanks to a string of bold new operatic works receiving their premieres in recent years. Given the average age of classical music attendees, a chamber opera about Alzheimer’s might appear a little close to the bone but Lembit Beecher’s richly reflective Sky on Swings offers food for thought in more ways than one. Choosing to focus on the patients rather than on the families is, perhaps, the most powerful aspect of the work; that it provides plum roles for a pair of ‘senior’ opera singers – the immensely sympathetic Marietta Simpson and the seemingly ageless Frederica von Stade – in a repertoire that usually relegates them to “witches and bitches” comes a close second. Beecher’s score latches on to the way music rattles around in the brain when people are put under mental strain. Fundamentally tonal, it’s flecked with bursts of dissonance like shocks travelling through synaptic nerves and driven by motoric rhythms to match the endless mantras that run around a mind in meltdown. If you like your opera less ‘grand’ you should try this (available from May 22 until August 31).
If you like nothing better than deep-diving into Wagner’s Ring, the good news is there are three doing the rounds online right now.
The first is the starriest and you’ll have to look smart to catch it. The Vienna State Opera has been valiantly trying to replicate what would have been playing in the house by streaming matching content from previous seasons. Here, it’s the Sven-Eric Bechtolf Ring, a mostly minimalist, semi-modern looking affair that’s thoughtful and light on grand effect. It’s been around for over a decade, but in the right hands the roles can shine. Das Rheingold – a performance from 2019 – is conducted by Axel Kober and has a fine Wotan in Tomasz Konieczny and an excellent Alberich in Jochen Schmeckenbecher. Die Walküre from 2018 is conducted by Adam Fischer with Christopher Ventris (Siegmund), Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Simone Schneider (Sieglinde) and Iréne Theorin (Brünnhilde). Siegfried from 2015 is conducted by Simon Rattle with Stephen Gould (Siegfried), Evelyn Herlitzius (Brünnhilde) and Tomasz Konieczny (Der Wanderer). Götterdämmerung from 2017 is conducted by Peter Schneider with Stefan Vinke (Siegfried), Petra Lang (Brünnhilde) and Falk Struckmann (Hagen). You need to register here – it’s free for now – but each stream is available for three days. Rheingold launches on May 14, Walküre on May 15, Siegfried May 16 and Götterdämmerung on May 17.
If you are after a more musically consistent approach, one of Britain’s most respected smaller opera companies, Opera North, has put its acclaimed semi-staged concerts of Wagner’s epic online with Wagner expert Richard Farnes the seriously impressive conductor. “Beg, borrow, or be like Wotan and steal a ticket for this show,” said the UK’s Times of Das Rheingold. Watch here.
And finally, if you hang on a week or so, Dutch National Opera will be streaming Pierre Audi’s thought-rich Ring Cycle from May 21 through May 24 with the whole thing available for two weeks after that. The casts have not yet been announced (the production has been running for over a decade now so they have choice I guess), but the staging has long had its fans (myself included). Das Rheingold kicks off on May 21 with each of the subsequent operas following day by day. Check out the trailer and see if you can resist.