Wednesday, 11 March 2009

... and 10 operas you've never heard of.

As a corollary to the previous 10 Best Operas in the History of the World, Ever, Fact (etc.), here's an esoteric aside. In no particular order:

10. Fosca (Carlos Gomes, 1873)

"Surely you mean Tosca?"



9. Layla and Majnun The best known Azerbaijani traditional opera, which is essentially a Middle Eastern tale interspersed with the traditional song of Azerbaijan, the Mugham.

8. Flammen (Edwin Schulhoff, 1901)

You've heard of Don Giovanni by Mozart. The music buffs among you will have heard of Gazzaniga's Don Giovanni which predates Mozart (just). You probably haven't heard of the Czech Edwin Schulhoff who had a crack at Don Juan with Flammen and who perished in the Holocaust.

7. Licht (Kalheinz Stockhausen, 1977-2003) a 29hr long opera performed piecemeal as it has been completed over a 20 year period. Phew.

6. María de Buenos Aires (Astor Piazzola, 1968) - tango operita.



5. Japanese Noh drama (traditional). You might well have heard of Curlew River, a single act 'church' parable by Benjamin Britten. However it is unlikely that you will have heard of a famous Japanese Noh composition, from which Curlew River takes its form. The performers do not rehearse together and the performance and drama is dictated only by the traditional story upon which a performance is based.

4. Ariane et Barbe-bleu (Paul Dukas, 1907) You've probably heard of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and you've surely heard of Pelleas et Melisande, Debussy's only opera, to a text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Ariane is a feminist Bluebeard's Castle to a Maeterlinck text. Make of that what you will...

3. Doña Francisquita (Amadeo Vives, 1923) The 'classic' of the (romantic) zarzuela genre.

2. Oscar (Mike Read, 2004) This musical on the life of Oscar Wilde managed one performance.

1. Anything written since the war. It's almost impossible to conjure the memory of an opera written since the war that has impacted on the general consciousness, let alone entered the repertory. Britten's compositions are almost an exception. Music drama by the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Michael Nyman are familiar through their piecemeal use in the commercial sector. Serious operatic composers (i.e. more than one or two operas) such as Hans Werner Henze and Sir Harrison Birtwistle could monopolise this list single-handedly the same way that Verdi could saturate a '10 Best' list. And of course, there's the list of failure or folly: Madonna reportedly bought a ticket for the premiere of Nicholas Maw's critically mauled version of Sophie's Choice (2002); nobody was really particularly interested in Lorin Maazel's self-serving 1984 (2005); and simply trying to make novelty happen of its own accord by shock or wholesale-import modernism is always going to fail.

It's essential that people don't stop trying though. If sump-lists such as this fail to fill up with contemporary novelties, its a worrying indicator of the trail-and-error rate of current composers.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The 10 Best Operas - EVER!

This afternoon I listened to Der Rosenkavalier for the first time in a long time and got emotionally mugged. Reminded of what a good opera is capable of, I had a think about the best ones and this is my Top Ten:

10. Peter Grimes (Benjamin Britten, 1945)

Britten was the most celebrated British composer of the 20th century and arguably the best since Henry Purcell (17th century). Grimes was his first and best opera, a Verdian essay on a socially outcast fisherman.



*if you liked this you might like Billy Budd

9. Tosca (Giacomo Puccini, 1990)

Puccini wrote the best Italian Opera of the 19th century. That's not to say he wrote the most authentic Italian opera, as that accolade is more properly laid upon Verdi. However, as far as opera has mutated into a modern subgenre that typifies the trappings of 'opera' as a modernist would understand it Puccini is the exemplar. Doubt of this was vaporised when Marc Forster used the climatic close of the first Act to underscore a particularly melodramatic sequence in the centre of his Bond blockbuster, Quantum of Solace (2008). This bit, in fact:



*if you liked this you might like La Boheme

8. Così fan tutte ('They're all like that', WA Mozart, 1790)

It was banned/performed in bits in the 19th century because people thought it was subversive. They were right. It starts as sweet, innocent fun and ends in horror.



*if you liked this you might like The Marriage of Figaro

7. Der Rosenkavalier ('The Knight of the Rose', Richard Strauss, 1911)

As discussed. Actually, it's a bit of a cheat this as Der Rosenkavalier is overlong, certainly compared to the great, dramatically punchy predecessor masterpieces Salome and Elektra. However, it does have Elysian music, a post-Wagnerian flood of glory that doesn't subside until you're a wreck, as I re-discovered five hours ago.



*if you liked this you might like Ariadne auf Naxos

6. Jenůfa (Leoš Janáček, 1904)

What? say those of you who've never heard of Janáček... and those who have. Well, if a test of a great opera composer is to have completed at least three masterpieces in the genre, then he makes the grade. Jenůfa is the most violent, passionate, tragic and cathartic of his output.

*if you liked this you might like Katya Kabanova

5. Otello (Giuseppe Verdi, 1887)

Really, it's possible to complete this list using only the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. To paraphrase the former editor of Opera Magazine, Rodney Milnes, to dismiss Verdi is to misunderstand the nature of opera. Verdi also had a thing about Shakespeare which meant that the plots were ace too and his setting of Otello has all the quintessence of opera: love, jealousy, Machiavellian deceit and melody.



*if you liked this you might like Rigoletto

4. Wozzeck (Alban Berg, 1925)

The only truly 20th century opera on this list, with all the themes and lush lyricism of what had gone before but with the sounds and sensibility of what was to come.



*if you liked this you might like Lulu

3. Carmen (Georges Bizet, 1875)

Sex and death with great tunes. People use it for ringtones. 'nuff said.



*if you liked this you might like Cavalleria Rusticana

2. Don Giovanni (WA Mozart, 1787)

Don Giovanni is a rapist, a violent tyrant and a liar. He's also the hero of Mozart's best opera and so we can't help but love him even when he's being dragged into hell.



*if you liked this you might like The Magic Flute

1. Tristan und Isolde (Tristan and Isolde, Richard Wagner, 1856)

It's rather long and the principals spend five minutes discussing the word 'and' in the second act. Yet it's arguably the greatest piece of music ever written, let alone opera, and if you're really tuned into it it hurts.



*if you liked this you might like Die Walküre

Consequently, I would be prepared to say that the greatest three operas ever written are TristanDon Giovanni and Carmen. I'd like to make a further assertion, also from this list, namely that the three greatest 20th century operas are Wozzeck, Jenůfa and Peter Grimes (Der Rosenkavalier was completed in 1911 but it is firmly in the tradition of its previous century).

I am aware that the earliest opera on this list is Don Giovanni, completed 1787, and that the basically knowledgeable will be scratching their head, mouthing 'no Monteverdi?'... to which I can only plead ignorance/a self-evident limit of 10, and counter with 'hey, no Handel!'.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Dr Atomic at ENO

I saw the 4th performance of this new opera by John Adams last night:



It's a big disappointment in that it is remarkably inert

(OK, quick aside... I can see the endless possibilities for puns queueing around the block. Here it's a periodic table gag, i.e. inert gas, from the familiar chart that forms the safety curtain for this production. I'll be neither pointing them up nor apologising for them.)

and perversely, given that the subject matter is physically the most dramatic thing of which we can conceive, it has no drama in it at all.

What is opera if not drama? That's meant to be a rhetorical question, although I suspect a reasonable response is 'music'. Well the music is good,
particularly in the first half. Lyrical without being melodically pungent, it serves as a reasonable conduit for a cast emoting as they wait for the weather to clear and allow their test explosion to go ahead.

But here's the thing. That's it. That's the whole story. Cast wait for text explosion, cast get test explosion. At one point the central figure of the thing,
Robert Oppenheimer, goes home to his wife... but she talks to us, not to him. There's no argument, no metaphor, no cause and effect. The opera doesn't so much lean as stand upon the basis that we all know all about the subsequent, dispiritng history of nuclear proliferation, detterence and, most immediately, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It does nothing (OK, little, if one takes this production in the subset of 'the opera') to provide information or dramatic bias for these themes. Just like the ill-conceived The Minotaur that the ROH put on last year, the opera is simply a meditation on a known event. Like The Minotaur I would rather hear it in concert. It's entireyly possible that this misdirection is in no small part spawned in the libretto - written by Peter Sellars, no less. Moonlighting, tsk.

If one does get to hear it on the radio then, probably the best place for it, then it would be just fine to have the cast I did on Saturday. James Cleverton was standing in for an indisposed Gerald Finley (who has been honing the role internationally) and did a good job, although I wonder how much of my wandering interest in the whole was due to this unavoidable substitution... Brindley Sherratt was clearly the most impressive of the principals. The band played this coloured but often relentless score very well under Lawrence Renes.

I could talk about other things but they don't matter there's no point in having great design, choreography and lighting if you don't have a drama to enhance. The first dud of the 08-09 season.