One benefit of the COVID-inflicted world we live in is that opera companies who would normally be wrapping their seasons ahead of the northern hemisphere summer season are still popping content online. And so, for this concluding week of our In Your Living Room series, I’d like to recommend a couple of visual treats from New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Closer to home, Opera Australia have posted my second favourite Handa Opera, 2016’s bravura staging of Puccini’s Turandot. And for my final hurrah I thought I would mention good old OperaVision who are streaming Deborah Warner’s marvellous 2013 English National Opera Death in Venice before winding up with a few final gems tucked away on their wonderfully curated site.
Sunday June 21 at 7:30 pm ET (Australian audiences can watch it Monday June 22)
Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch are founder members of British theatre company Improbable, an outfit acclaimed for its use of imaginative and unexpected visuals to illuminate a text, even on occasion creating something out of seemingly nothing at all. Back in 2008, they brought their talents to bear on Satyagraha, the second of Philip Glass’s “Portrait Trilogy”. A hypnotic musical masterpiece, the opera’s title is a Sanskrit word meaning “truth force,” and the narrative takes snapshots of Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa showing the way he came to use non-violent protest as a political tool.
McDermott conceives the opera as half ritual, half pageant, with Crouch’s spectacular puppets, and endless projections of isolated words adding to the sense of storytelling on a giant scale. The cast includes a “Skills Ensemble,” who manipulate puppets and props as well as playing historical figures. A fine cast includes Richard Croft as a sensitive, lyrical Gandhi, Aussie soprano Rachelle Durkin as his secretary, Miss Schlesen, Maria Zifchak as his wife, Kasturbai, Alfred Walker as his Indian co-worker Parsi Rustomji, and Kim Josephson as Gandhi’s German colleague Mr. Kallenbach. The live stream is of the 2011 revival.
Saturday June 20 at 7:30 pm ET (Australian audiences can watch it Sunday June 21)
In 2019, McDermott and Crouch were back to tackle Glass’s Akhnaten, the most popular of the composer’s 28 operas. Originally known as Amonhotep IV, the Pharaoh Akhnaten reigned from 1353 to 1336 BCE, during which time he famously attempted to turn his people from the worship of the traditional animal-headed pantheon focusing instead on a single deity: the Aten (aka the sun). Relocating his capital to a barren strip of land in the middle of nowhere he built the city of Amarna and shut himself up in it with his wife Nefertiti and his mother Tye. Alas, it all went horribly wrong and his vengeful successors branded Akhnaten “the great criminal” before attempting to eliminate all traces of him from the historical record.
McDermott views Akhnaten through the eyes of the Victorians and their obsession with all things Egyptian. The old order is a glittering court bogged down in mindless ritual. The new king, whose freshness and vulnerability is stressed by his appearing at first completely naked, is encased in golden robes that resemble a gilded cage. The “Skills Ensemble” are back, this time as busy jugglers, and visually it’s all a little OTT, but musically it’s the real deal with Anthony Roth Costanzo a strong dramatic presence as the Pharaoh, J’Nai Bridges a sumptuous-toned Nefertiti, and Dísella Lárusdóttir as a slightly strident Queen Tye. Best of all is Zachary James as the spirit of Akhnaten’s father Amenhotep III who pops up to deliver portentous texts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and letters from the Amarna period.
For Opera Australia’s fifth Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Lyndon Terracini hired China-born, New York-based director Chen Shi-Zhen, a man skilled in Chinese theatrical disciplines and epic theatre, to create a memorably grand night of operatic spectacle that held the eye through design and movement rather than by gimmickry and technical sleight of hand.
Dan Potra came up with a wicked-looking barbed pagoda (reflecting the frigid Princess with her penchant for diabolical whips and hooks), and a sly Chinese dragon crouching low on stage right, its curled tongue almost within licking distance of the audience. At one point its terrifying head exhaled an impressive burst of fire, which I recall feeling at 50 metres.
Chen’s whirling, martial arts-inspired choreography makes for a fine, traditional feeling Turandot with discerning costumes that glitter without being gaudy. There are the usual Handa Opera bonbons and crackers – both the Mandarin and the Emperor Altoum fly – but thanks to a director who has clearly thought hard about balancing the intimate with the ‘in your face’ it all adds up to a fine piece of music drama.
As the frosty Princess, the marvellously named Dragana Radaković is a real find, a singer of fearsome power and laser beam intonation. Italian tenor Riccardo Massi is her Prince Calaf in a stylish performance of enormous vocal passion. His bronzed lower register rises to a secure, tastefully produced upper register and his rendition of you-know-what aria is textbook, culminating in a perfectly judged top B. Hyeseoung Kwon’s Liù instantly wins the hearts of the audience with an elegant interpretation and refined singing of great delicacy. As Ping, Pang and Pong, Luke Gabbedy, Benjamin Rasheed and John Longmuir are outstanding, singing with style and mastering their busy choreography with aplomb. The 48-strong OA Chorus powers its way through the most demanding passages with energy, strength and musicality.
Before I go, I wanted to revisit OperaVision, my lockdown operatic discovery and new musical drug of choice. First, an up-and-coming highlight.
Friday June 26 at 7 pm CET (Aussies can see it Saturday June 27 but it’s also on demand for the following three months)
Death in Venice was Benjamin Britten’s last opera composed at a time when his own health was under threat. That makes his identification with the writer/hero of Thomas Mann’s novella especially personal and poignant. One of his most enthralling scores, but not his easiest on first hearing, it’s a work that repays repeated listening. Deborah Warner’s intelligent and elegantly stylish staging for English national Opera back in 2013 is matched musically by conductor Edward Gardner, with John Graham Hall as an intensely intellectual Gustav von Aschenbach, Andrew Shore in the diabolical roles of Traveller, Elderly Fop, Gondolier, Barber etc., and countertenor Tim Mead as Apollo. View here.
Stick with OperaVision, and there are some gems still available for viewing that are well worth catching. The first one I’ll mention is Franz Schreker’s Der Schmied von Gent (The Smith from Ghent). Opera Ballet Vlaanderen staged it only this year and it’s a must for anyone who likes the lush sound world that typified German opera in the early 20th century. A “grand magical opera” in three acts, our hero is Smee, a bloody-minded smith caught up in the turmoil of the Eighty Years War. Losing his livelihood when he’s denounced to the authorities by a rival, he makes a pact with the devil to reclaim his livelihood. Once back in business, Smee offers hospitality to the Holy family (without knowing it) and a grateful Joseph grants him three wishes. These allow Smee to subsequently escape the clutches of the three emissaries of Hell: an executioner, the Duke of Alba, and Satan’s mistress Astarte. After he dies, Smee is rejected by St Peter at the pearly gates, but refusing to go to hell he stubbornly sets up a refreshment stand outside heaven. It’s left to his resourceful wife to finally earn him admission. Leigh Melrose makes a winning Smee with Kai Rüütel as his wife and the gorgeous South African soprano Vuvu Mpofu as the wicked Astarte. View here.
And if that doesn’t float your boat, try Guillaume Tell from the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2013. Conducted by Michele Mariotti and directed by the ever-thoughtful Graham Vick, it has a starry cast that includes Nicola Alaimo in the title role, Juan Diego Flórez as Arnold, Marina Rebeka as Mathilde and Amanda Forsythe in the trouser-role of Jemmy. View here.
Finally, Finnish composer Sebastian Fagerlund’s Autumn Sonata is a fine contemporary opera adapted from the screenplay to Ingmar Bergman’s film. With a brooding score, the outstanding cast is led by mezzo-soprano Anne-Sophie von Otter in the role of Charlotte, a retired concert pianist with two adult daughters, Eva and Helena, each of whom has been damaged by their self-absorbed artistic mother. This recording captures the world premiere at Finnish National Opera in 2017. View here.