Opera Feed

American Symphony Orchestra Performs Bohuslav Martinu's Opera "Julietta" at Carnegie Hall

by Steven Pisano

46743421314_d51c3a1921_o(All photos by Steven Pisano)

The conductor Leon Botstein has led the American Symphony Orchestra for more than 25 years, and has developed a reputation for championing works that have sometimes been neglected by other maestros. This past Friday at Carnegie Hall, Botstein conducted the American premiere of Bohuslav Martinu's surrealist opera Julietta, which received its world premiere in 1938 in Prague. It is based on the French play Juliette, ou La cle des songes ("The Key of Dreams") by Georges Neveaux.

Botstein strongly believes that the opera is a lost masterpiece which deserves to be a part of the modern repertory, and certainly the opera has a lot to offer. Long criticized for its "episodic" music, which jumps sometimes from style to style and at times feels a little jittery, the score actually does not seem out of place in today's contemporary music scene. So, maybe Martinu was just ahead of his time.

The basic story line concerns Michel, a bookseller from Paris who three years earlier had somewhere heard a woman's voice singing that has haunted him ever since. One day he decides to go in search of the voice, and he finds himself in a seaside town where all the people living there have lost their memories. They live perpetually in the present and have no recollection or appreciation of the past. When Michel tells a policeman that he can actually remember all the way back to his childhood--a toy duck he owned--the policeman congratulates him on his extraordinary memory and proclaims that by virtue of that memory the townspeople will make him the Captain of the town. Michel is naturally bewildered by this strange town, and only more so when some hours later Michel meets the policeman again, except now he is a mailman and he cannot remember his meeting Michel earlier or his vow to have him be the leader of the town.

Numerous comical episodes like this ensue, and at times the town seems like a mixture of the Marx Brothers and Franz Kafka. In a concert version such as this one, it was hard to imagine how this might be presented had it been staged, but one can easily picture a phantasmagoric setting for the opera to play out in.

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Les Arts Florissants, “Rameau, Maître à Danser,” at BAM

by Steven Pisano

33377413548_186fdf8c24_o(All photos by Steven Pisano)

William Christie founded Les Arts Florissants in 1979 as a way to celebrate his love of Baroque music from the 1700s, and for the last forty years he and his fellow musicians have been performing and recording music on original period instruments that had not always been played much before. Much of this music was written for the royal family of France.

At the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, Les Arts Florissants is presenting two rarely performed opera-ballets by Jean-Philippe Rameau, "Daphnis et Egle" from 1753, and "La Naissance d'Osiris" from 1754. Both works were originally performed for the royal court of King Louis XV at his summer palace at Fontainebleau outside Paris, where the royal family went on hunting expeditions.

For New York audiences accustomed to the cutting-edge, very modern productions that BAM is deservedly known for, this blast into the past takes a little bit of getting used to. The music by Rameau does not immediately impress the ear. It is very pretty to listen to, but a far cry from the masterworks of the soon-to-come classical period (Mozart, Rossini, etc.) But as a chance to enjoy music from the Baroque, by such a top-flight ensemble, this opportunity should not be missed.

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Robert Ashley's "Improvement (Don Leaves Linda)" at The Kitchen

by Steven Pisano

20190209-DSC01732(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Robert Ashley's opera Improvement (Don Leaves Linda) is an interesting case as an opera because it was not conceived traditionally as a work of theater with music, to be presented live on a stage, but as a sonic production, to be presented as a recording. There are characters, yes. There is a story (of sorts), yes. But the beauty of the work--and the beauty is often quite extraordinary--is in the sound, particularly of the voices.

In the new production of this late 1980s work now playing at The Kitchen, produced by Mimi Johnson, Ashley's widow, the central defining voice is the smooth, sinewy instrument of Gelsey Bell, who has been a notable presence on the new music scene for many years. She is perfectly cast to deliver Linda's low-key West Coast-inflected torrent of words about her life. Bell has appeared in other Ashley works before, including the TV opera Perfect Lives (with the group Varispeed, which has championed Ashley's work on several fronts) and one of his last works, Crash.

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"Greek" at the Brooklyn Academy of Music

by Steven Pisano

20181204-DSC02063(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The composer Mark-Anthony Turnage made his mark in London almost 20 years ago with his second opera, which was based on the Sean O'Casey play about Word War I, The Silver Tassie. He came more immediately to the attention of New York opera lovers five years ago with the splashy and sensationalistic Anna Nicole, based on the colorful true story of Anna Nicole Smith.

But Turnage's first opera, Greek, based on Steven Berkoff's play of the same name (which itself was based on the Sophocles drama) has never been seen in New York. Until now. The production now playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival (with one cast change) is the same Scottish Opera production that played earlier this year in Glasgow, and before that at the Edinburgh Festival, to glowing reviews.

It is always interesting to see the early work of artists who have gone on to produce larger and more mature works, and Greek is no exception. Written in 1988 during the years of Margaret Thatcher's tumultuous governance in Britain, there is a strong political undercurrent to the story, and thirty years on, none of it sounds dated in today's tedentious political climate.

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