This week I thought I’d focus on some of the bigger guns still blazing online despite the devastating effects of the COVID-19 crisis on live events. The Met, of course, continues to lead the field with its nightly streams, so I thought I’d start with two of its more modern offerings in the form of Thomas Adès’s hyperactive The Exterminating Angel and William Kentridge’s highly individual take on Alban Berg’s Lulu. Over the pond, the LSO offers a pair of concerts each week, and coming up is a chance to watch Berlioz’s occasionally staged take on Goethe’s Faust. Sailing back to the U. S. of A., a previously unreleased 1962 concert, hosted by JFK no less, features not only Leonard Bernstein, Marian Anderson, Richard Tucker and Danny Kaye, but watch out for the seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma.

Thoroughly modern Met
The Exterminating Angel Photo © Ken Howard Metropolitan Opera

Saturday June 6 at 9:30 am (and available to watch for 24 hours)

Here’s one for the diary. For me – and that year I sat through all 26 productions – the highlight of the Met’s 2017/2018 season was Thomas Adès’s The Exterminating Angel. Based on the Buñuel film of the same name, I’ll admit I was glad to have seen the film first as otherwise I might have been a tad confused by this fantastical tale of a handful of snarky dinner party guests who find themselves unable to leave their host’s house. In the auditorium, the ear took a while to pick up any recognisable text – partly because Adès sets much of it ungratefully – but on screen where I saw it later in the run that was far less of a problem. In fact, there’s a logic to the demanding vocal lines as these are women (and men) on the verge of various nervous breakdowns. Sets, sheep (yes, there’s a small flock onstage) and costumes all look fabulously retro and the standard of acting is particularly high. Amanda Echalaz is fiery, if often incomprehensible as the hostess, Audrey Luna fabulous and surprisingly understandable as the stratospheric diva. Alice Coote is superb as an unhinged old bat, and Christine Rice is even better as the other decaying harridan. Sophie Bevan is sweetly depraved as the incestuous sister of a bitchy Iestyn Davies. Joseph Kaiser makes a strong host and the immortal Sir John Tomlinson is magnificently crusty as the doctor. If the rest of the men rather blend into one another, David Portillo makes his mark by singing prettily while taking his shirt off and having sex in a cupboard. Adès leads the Met Orchestra with great authority.

Wednesday June 3 at 9:30 am (and available to watch for 24 hours)

If you can’t wait a week, or if you enjoy 20th-century opera but find Adès a stretch, why not try Berg’s Lulu filtered through the hyper-visual brain of South African artist-cum-director William Kentridge. If you liked his Wozzeck for Opera Australia, this 2015 outing for Berg’s other operatic masterpiece will definitely be for you. Conducted by Lothar Koenigs, it stars the fabulously poised – both vocally and dramatically – Marlis Petersen in the title role, with Susan Graham sympathetic as her would-be lesbian lover Countess Geshwitz. Daniel Brenna is Alwa, Johan Reuter is Doctor Schön, and the mighty Franz Grundheber delivers a memorable turn as the wheezing old rogue Schigolch.

Rattling good Faust
Sir Simon Rattle

Monday June 1 at 4 am (and on demand afterwards)

Berlioz was obsessed with Faust all of his life. In 1828, as a young (and apathetic) medical student, he devoured the first part of Goethe’s poem, immortalising it in the Huit Scènes de Faust. Many components of that early work in one form or another found their way 20 years later into his mature masterpiece La Damnation de Faust. Neither fish nor fowl – Berlioz called it a “légende dramatique,” La Damnation was written for the concert hall and boasts four solo voices, a full seven-part chorus, a large choir of children and a sizable orchestra by the standards of the day. Sadly it flopped when first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris in December 1846 and Berlioz lost his shirt. Happily, the work was soon picked up and has held its own, both as a concert work and a “staged” opera, the French mounting a production as early as 1893.  

This 2018 concert by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle features some stylish singing, especially from Karen Cargill as a warm, lyrical Marguerite. Bryan Hymel is a decent Faust with Christopher Purves a sly, occasionally husky Méphistophélès. Finest of all is the incisive singing of the London Symphony Chorus with support from all three Tiffin School Choirs and a marvellously flexible reading of the score by Rattle. Just listen to his delicious suspensions in the famous Hungarian March, or his spacious way with love music, or that furious Ride to the Abyss.

Friday June 5 at 4:30 am (and on demand afterwards)

While I’m on the subject of hybrid works, a few days later the London Symphony Orchestra presents a 2015 recording of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale from its intimate venue at LSO St Luke’s. Led by concertmaster Roman Simovic, Malcolm Sinclair (who Aussie audience’s may recall as the Headmaster in Alan Bennett’s The History Boys when it played Sydney) is a most interesting narrator in that he attempts to speak the text in strict rhythm rather than the usual trick of gliding over it. The LSO Chamber Ensemble is truly outstanding.

Once upon a time in America

Saturday May 30 at 8 am (and on demand afterwards)

Here’s a real step-back-in-time and a nostalgia-fest for opera, dance and music lovers. In celebration of President John F. Kennedy’s birthday on May 29, Washington’s Kennedy Center is broadcasting a previously unreleased archival 1962 concert entitled “An American Pageant of the Arts”.

The occasion was a swanky fundraiser for the National Cultural Center and one of the first examples of a live simulcast from three different locations across the U.S. Hosted by President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy, the event at the National Guard Armory saw five thousand of the great and the good fork out $100 a plate (that’s around $850 in today’s money). It was on this occasion the President delivered his timeless speech about the importance of the arts, while former president Dwight D. Eisenhower, the originator of the Center, speaks from Augusta, Georgia about his desire to create an “artistic Mecca” – ah, those heady days when bipartisanship reigned…

Leonard Bernstein is the Master of Ceremonies with performances by opera singers Marian Anderson and Richard Tucker, Danny Kaye – who grabs the baton for some on-platform funny business – pianists Van Cliburn and André Previn, actor Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, comedian Bob Newhart, singer Harry Belafonte, the United States Navy Band… oh, and a star turn by seven-year-old cello prodigy Yo-Yo Ma.

Two months after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the U.S. Congress passed legislation renaming the National Cultural Center as a “living memorial” to Kennedy. So sit back and enjoy a genuine slice of arts history.