Saturday, January 26, 2019

Il Ritorno d'Ulisse: Henze takes on Monteverdi

Monteverdi/Henze - "Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria" Thomas Allen, Kathleen Kuhlmann - Salzburg Festival. I’ve gotten sworn at, swung at and nearly hit for including this on a list of favorites, always the usual arguments, “this is NOT Monteverdi” – “I can see Claudio turning in his grave” – “Henze has murdered Monteverdi” and on and on. Yawn. Nonetheless, to that end and before proceeding further, I include the following warning:


Henze has taken the basic score of Monteverdi’s masterpiece (some will even argue about which of his surviving operas holds that title) and instead of reconstructing it in scholarly, period perfection has, instead, reconfigured the opera for modern audiences whose ears have been exposed to Stravinsky, Orff, Shostakovich and Strauss. His realizations present us a new portrait of Monteverdi’s vision, one painted in broadly sweeping post-Mahlerian strokes. Nearly everything about Henze’s "new opera” is grand and enormous, yet at its heart it does no more than serve the master, ultimately doing what Monteverdi wished; sharing one of the most beautiful, romantic and fantastic tales in human fiction, a story which resonates as strongly today as it did nearly 3,000 years ago.

Although the soundscape can be immense, there are more moment when Henze engages a smaller sound, grouping a few instruments together in a Baroque manner, if not the style we’re used to, in representing the very intimate family drama at the core of Homer. The employment of this yields enormous, theatrical results that have an emotional impact as grand as anything from Puccini or Wagner. Jeffrey Tate leads the massive ORF forces in a reading that is difficult to imagine being bettered in any way.

One example of this is the revelation of Ulisse to Telemaco, the child whose boyhood he missed entirely, now a young man. Telemaco, has for twenty years ached for his father as Penelope has her husband. At the proper moment, assured of its rightness, we witness the swift, dramatic change from old man to armor-garbed warrior which, in its own right is startling. More startling still however, is the way Henze punches up the musical impact, as Ulisse commands his son to race home and prepare Penelope for her husband’s return. Quietly tender in Monteverdi’s original, the moment now also becomes an emotional charge; no longer merely a son telling his mother of her husband’s return, but carrying out an order to prepare the way for the return of her King! Thomas Allen’s Ulisse presents all of this powerfully both in presence and voice as, with restored dignity, he watches his child race towards his beloved Ithaca. It is a scene that, no matter how many times I watch it, leaves me with a lump in my throat and my skin tingling with excitement.

The entirety of the physical production and Michael Hempe’s direction brings ratchets the work up to Festival level, and is nothing but splendid. Chariots and gods, Neptune rising from the sea, with intimations of baroque spectacle and stage machinery bringing us into a world where anything is possible. Allen’s assumption, not only of the title role, but also of Human Frailty where, in the Prologue the nearly naked singer sets the tone for the whimsical and merciless abuse even a hero may suffer at the hands of the gods.

As Penelope, Kathleen Kuhlmann is every bit Mr. Allen’s match with a cool reserve that belies the churning of the queen’s ever shifting emotions. She seems both prone towards begging, praying yet cursing the gods and her fate. She also reveals a woman who, alone for so many years has grown to appreciate her role and her status and the attention she commands. Penelope has many sides to her, and Kuhlmann shows each of them and all we can do is watch, respect and, if you’re like me, fall in love with her.

Henze, wrote about his examination of the Monteverdi score fragments (making sure to note how none were in Monteverdi’s own hand) as well as the nearly torturous details he pored over in order to arrive at this reconstruction. All of it comes through, resplendently, as we hear how he treated every aspect of Monteverdi’s magnificent opera with respect, lavishing upon it detail upon detail resulting in a work which, in its own way, is as emotionally satisfying as Monteverdi’s original . . . or the scholarly reconstructions purporting so to be. Throughout, there is never a false moment or anything rote, mechanical or uninspired.

This Salzburg Festival production holds one in its thrall, from its moving prologue, right up through Ulisse and Penelope's final duet, as glorious to see as it is to hear.

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Minnesota Opera's Great Doubt

I was starteled - in the best possible way - to turn on the TV tonight in time to see Great Performances was offering Minnesota Opera's premiere production of Douglas Cuomo's opera Doubt with John Patrick Shanley serving as librettist, having adapating his well known play, and screenplay, for the operatic stage. I'd missed any pre-publicity of this, and found it a return to the good old days with Maine PBS presenting two Friday nights in a row with opera! I somehow also missed ever hearing anything at all about this opera and initially thought it a brand new work, filmed perhaps this past season. Wrong again; Doubt the opera premiered in 2013 meaning it went unaired nearly six years until tonight's presentation. It was well worth the wait.

One of the first things I noticed is the Ordway Theatre must have the largest orchestra pit I've ever seen, or perhaps just a trick of the cameras? From that pit, Christopher Franklin conducted Cuomo's enormous score which, even through home speakers, thundered, cajoled, wove and hypnotized in a most impressive way, particularly for a first time operatic composer.

There were some standard New American Opera issues, the composer seemingly grabbing everything from that particular aisle at the musical supermarket with cans of Adams, Barber, Bernstein and Copland and mixing it with Glass. Even Menotti seemed to show up if only libretto-wise, Shanley turning some awkward phrases and purple prose into the mix.

While I had to supress the occasional groan at a Bernstein, clarinet "jazz" riff, or muted trumpet, Cuomo proved he was capable of creating something original, and when "borrowing" invoked more than just the Americans ; there was, for instance an almost Brittenesque quality to his use of percussion and equally impressive. There were also full-on blasts of sound and structure evoking the symphonies of Shostakovich. Despite all of this, I would hope that both librettist and composer will (if they've not already done so in the ensuing six years since) find some kindly editor and prune a bit of the unnecessary wordy text to remove some music more earthbound than inspired.

Vocally, it would have been difficult to assemble a finer cast, Christine Brewer showing her Wagnerian chops in decidedly un-Wagner-like music, and digging deep into the surpressed emotions of the troubled Sister Aloysius. Baritone Matthew Worth was boyishly handsome and a fine physical actor which worked to his interpretation of Father Flynn. Vocally, Worth is in command of a truly beautiful, almost sensuous baritone, and sang with great authority and commanding presence which contrasted brilliantly with his darker side almost completely hidden. Adriana Zabala struck all the right notes as the innocent young Sister James, naive yet knowing, and soaring, when appropriately, as both balance and catalyst between her superiors. Denyce Graves, as the troubled mother of the boy at the center of the tale, was given the least interesting music of the score, yet sank her formidable chops into it and presented a portrait of a conflicted mother just trying to keep her young, gay son alive to see another day.

At his best, Cuomo knows how to make magic and Father Flynn's sermons and church scenes are among them, one in particularly a true coup de théâtre. As Father Flynn shares a parable to the congregation, the enormous crucifix and the altar disappear as the parable comes to life before our eyes in a stunning moment both musically and emotionally profound.

The work from the Minnesota Opera Chorus, and the children in the cast were all, likewise, first rate, adding complexity and occasional humor to the proceedings.

Robert Brill's sets moved with cinematic sweep, literally allowing scenes sometimes no longer than a minute to flow seamlessly from one to the next, moving the story swiftly through the classroom, locker room, , board room, garden, darkened corridors, offices, church, each believable and with a sense of the elaborate found in Catholic schools of the era. Director Kevin Newbury moved everyone with that same cinematic ease, drawing direct, emotional performances from his exceptional cast.

I look forward to revisiting this work again, and while it may not have the immediate appeal of some of the new American operas that have grabbed the heart, such as Kevin Puts' "Silent Night," it certainly deserves that chance. For that, I'm grateful PBS dared take this chance and make it an opportunity . . . . or should I say, "opera-tune-ity?"

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