If It’s Baroque, Don’t Fix It

Tonight I’m going to see Händel‘s 1743 opera Semele, which I adore, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in a production created by La Monnaie in Brussels and the KT Wong Foundation.  It’s being performed by the Canadian Opera Company in a reprisal of their performances in the 2011/2012 season, with Canadian soprano Jane Archibald resuming the title role.

Looks pretty crazy, right?  The key to this unusual production is the KT Wong Foundation, devoted to fostering dialogue in the arts and education between China and the West, which approached Chinese artist Zhang Huan with the idea of directing an opera.  His inspiration was a 450 year old Chinese temple he bought and wound up using as the centerpiece of the production (watch it being assembled at BAM here).

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Three Heads Six Arms by Zhang Huan in Florence, 2013

KT Wong has several videos about the project on Youtube and it’s certainly an interesting one!  Besides performances at Brussels and Toronto, the show was also taken to Beijing (where it was censored, natch)

Now, as a first-time opera director, Chinese person unfamiliar with Western opera, and a fancy-shmancy artist, Zhang is not beholden to opera’s sacred cows and has taken a pretty radical approach.  Besides the weirdo stage elements, he’s omitted some of Handel’s music (a capital offense in my book) and inserted several anachronistic Chinese elements.  So some weird hybrid of baroque opera and modern performance piece which I’m admittedly having a hard time preparing myself for…  I’ve seen reviews run the gamut from negative to glowingly positive, so we’ll see which what side I’ll land on…

In any other situation calling this concurrent production of Semele at the Seattle Opera the more traditional one might seem strange, but heck, this is just old school in comparison!  Opera News seemed to like this one a lot more, at least…

It’s great to see Semele performed by a smaller, regional companies, and if Zhang Huan’s production spurs renewed interest in this very deserving opera, than that’s a good thing!

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The stage maquette for Semele by Zhang Huan at La Monnaie

And for no other reason than because I like their Digital Archive, here is a set maquette from La Monnaie!

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I Guess Opera can still Shock…

This weekend, the Met Opera gave it’s last performance of what became the hot button cultural event of the season here in New York, John Adam‘s 1991 Death of Klinghoffer.

Death of Klinghoffer premiere at La Monnaie, photo by Baus Hermann J.

Death of Klinghoffer premiere at La Monnaie, 1991, photo by Baus Hermann J.

The opera is about the the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by four members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, during which a 69 year old Jewish American passenger was murdered.  As you might imagine, controversy has dogged the work since it’s premiere at La Monnaie, in Belgium, just six years after the original events.  That being said, the reception in New York seemed especially strong compared to other recent productions in the US.

Having seen the piece myself last week, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts on its merits.

Musically, the opera is known for its choral pieces, which are mostly quite lovely/striking, ranging from peacefully meditative to distressingly aggressive.  Besides the choral music though, I found the music pretty flat at the beginning.  The second part had more diverse music though, from agressive expressions of anger to one weirdly 90s commercial jingle interlude…  All in all though, that diversity I thought included stronger music and made for a more interesting musical experience.

Textually, the libretto by Alice Goodman alternates between poetic and more concrete language, which I found problematic…  Given the reality of not just this particular hijacking and murder, but of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any time someone’s given obtuse poetry to recite feels like a missed opportunity.  Furthermore, it seemed that the Jewish characters were more frequently given poetic lines than the Palestinians, so the Palestinians had more concrete things to say, while the Jews were just harder to understand…

All that said, I don’t think the opera is antisemitic or glorifies terrorism, two critiques often thrown at it.  It obviously depicts hatred, and I think that’s done heart-wrenchingly well.  While Palestinians are given a voice in the choruses, and allowed to express their grievances as displaced people, the terrorists aren’t really sympathetic.  But that comes to another critique, about humanizing the terrorists…  And of course, they are indeed human, not pure avatars of evil, so I think that aspect was pulled off alright…  Despite some glimpses of underlying shared humanity, their actions are never sugarcoated.

All in all, a  gutsy albeit ultimately imperfect attempt to analyze an unapproachably taboo subject through opera…

Now for some totally inappropriate emotional whiplash!

In an infinitely more light-hearted case of operatic culture clash, Juilliard is presenting Rossini‘s 1814 comic opera Turco in Italia starting this Thursday (tickets $30).  Below, the full opera from Zurich Opera in 2001:

Too Hot to Handel

It was a good week for Händel fans in New York, with the 1720 Radamisto at Juilliard and the Mark Morris Dance Group‘s setting of his 1740 oratorio L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the White Light Festival.

Radamisto at Juilliard

Radamisto at Juilliard, photo by Ruby Washington

I was lucky enough to see both, starting with Radamisto on Wednesday.  The New York Times review doesn’t do it justice in my opinion, I guess I have a high tolerance for nonstop da capo arias…  And the performers were all great, very impressive.  Since then I’ve been reliving it with this full performance from Salzburg in 2002.

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L’Allegro’s premiere at La Monnaie in 1988

As for L’Allegro, etc., I learned last night that it was created when Mark Morris was choreographer in residence at La Monnaie, the opera house in Brussels.  And since they have such a great digital archive, I was able to find photographs and costume designs from the premiere performance; even as still images, they bring back the joy of the performance, so lovely.

Here’s a featurette on  L’Allegro, etc. (is there some acronym for this?  LAIPEIM?) from MMDG themselves.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPakF1dNcs8&w=350&h=250]

Clemenza Comes and Goes

Sticking with the Metropolitan Opera today, NYC PBS stations will be airing this season’s production of Mozart‘s 1791 La Clemenza di Tito tonight at 8:30, with a repeat airing nationwide on  Sunday at noon.

Poster by Karl-Ernst Herrmann

1982 Poster from La Monnaie, Brussels; By Karl-Ernst Herrmann

If you can’t see it tonight, you can revisit my last post on La Clemenza for three free streaming performances courtesy of Opera Today and their collection of streaming audio.

I got the poster elsewhere entirely, by revisiting the digital archives of La Monnaie, which I’ve also mentioned before here.  Definitely a fun resource…  This poster in particular is based on a design by German set designer Karl-Ernst Herrmann.  Coincidentally, La Monnaie will present a new production of La Clemenza next season, a great reminder that these digital archives are the perfect place to see bygone productions…

1982 performance of La Clemenza di Tito at La Monnaie

1982 performance at La Monnaie; Photo by Oliver Herrmann.