Händel and Humanity

 

In Grieghallen´s basement rehearsal room, figures in tattered grey sing Händel as they shuffle towards a table where soup is ladled from a vast battered pot. The scene is bleak. We are in Ireland – or it could be Norway – in some kind of timeless misery with freezing weather and famine, where the country´s distant officials have long ceased to care, and where the church is struggling between old-school hell-fire authority and its need to offer succour.

So, here at Bergen National Opera we are creating a staged version of The Messiah for Festspillene i Bergen in a special edition by Malcolm Bruno, created from the original material which Händel took to Dublin for the oratorio´s premiere. The director, Netia Jones, acclaimed for her layering of stage direction, film and live video, is talking with passion and extraordinary clarity about the circumstances in which the oratorio was first performed: about the text – its writer, Charles Jennens was a devout Anglican and unflinching believer in scriptural authenticity – and about 18th century English snootiness towards a religious work being intended for the theatre. She talks about hypocrisy, about rural communities where a fundamentalist priest thunders about divine retribution as his congregation sickens and starves, about political representatives turning their backs and returning to warm well-fed firesides, about Godly but kind folk with a belief in hope tending the needy. She muses on Händel, newly settled in London, writing music of genius at furious speed as public opinion turned against showy Italian opera towards a near-craze for English-text oratorios.

But in creating the Messiah, Händel swerved from what had become his norm. For this new work, there were to be no highly dramatic roles for the singers; no individual narrator and no quoted speech. Though Jennens didn´t intend his text to be a dramatization of Jesus´s life and teachings, he did want to present (as opposed to explore) what he described as the “Mystery of Godliness” through extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For Netia Jones, the Messiah tells a deeply human story. The four soloists can hardly be said to have theatrical roles as such, but their characters are distinctly drawn. Soprano Kateryna Kasper is an angelic voice, a figure of innocence and purity. Mezzo Renata Pokupic is a mother – a shy, little known member of the community with a very sick child for whom she is seeking help; urgent help, as he is stricken with typhus. Our tenor is a curate – a young, naïve, idealistic priest in his first parish, struggling with the seeming brutality of his Lord and the flickering questions which torture the basis of his faith. Meanwhile, fire, brimstone, Godliness and prejudice define our bass, an old fundamentalist priest with the Old Testament emblazoned on his brow, and anger surging in his heart at the sin of his parishioners who have brought such devastation upon themselves. The chorus personifies the village, a mix of kindness, lost hope, burning zeal and raw survival. We see them in church, in icy limb-freezing weather, and, at the soup kitchen.

So the atmosphere, in rehearsal, is extraordinary. It seems that we hear Händel´s music unfold for the first time. Freed from the bulging choral extravaganza of the British concert hall, the music seems at once extremely intimate and frighteningly spacious. We are working with Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene and the gut-stringed mewing sound with chittering harpsichord is acutely human. The compact chorus – a mix of our own fine Edvard Grieg Kor and Washington Cathedra´s elite Cathedra vocal ensemble – produces fantastic sounds: blazing, glowing, gasping, and what seems, at times, like an end of life breath.

There are tough questions both to Bjarte – for the singers, it´s not straightforward to follow a skittering violin bow, as opposed to a conductor´s baton – and to Cathedra´s Michael McCarthy whose beat leads the most complex, contrapuntal material. For this is chamber music on the move – hard lines to sing in ensemble while navigating all kinds of instructions on stage.

In the weeks to come, we move to Den Nationale Scene as the work takes shape for performance; from the Great Music Hall in Dublin 1742 premiere for charitable causes – prisoner debt and aid to hospitals – where because of over-crowding, the audience were requested to wear neither swords or hooped skirts – to London´s Covent Garden Theatre, where the reception was chilly (such exalted outpourings should surely be heard in a church) to a small, beautiful Norwegian theatre.

There, after weeks in a grey airless room, Handel will take the stage. And why his masterpiece has endured, through theological questioning, public adulation and disenchantment, multiple editions and orchestrations, overcharged performance and countless Christmas bawlings, will become gleamingly, movingly clear.

To Jennens´ words, Händel will spell out his own glory. In some way, we shall all be changed – by great music shown to us as humans, and by a staging of consummate humanity.

Mary Miller

5th May 2017

Our anniversary season

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A new season, a special season – our 10th anniversary as a company – and a great deal to celebrate.

Two days ago, our new brochure landed in the office, filling the air with that curious acrid new print smell which both excites and intoxicates. We dived into its gold-wrapped pages, flipped through the pages, ooh-ed at the photographs and aah-ed at the events. We may say it ourselves, but our sense of achievement is enormous.

Bergen National Opera is a small company. Its output is enormous and our pride in the quality therein gigantic. 10 years old is perhaps still babyhood compared to some of our European colleague companies, but it´s so good – so satisfying – to be able to read our brochure and see that certain directors are back after major successes, that favourite singers return, and that work created here in Bergen is impacting companies far beyond our shores; that kids who started in our children´s choirs are now BNO Unge Stemmer at prestigious conservatoires; that Rame Lahaj, a star in last season´s Madama Butterfly has now been asked to Opera de Paris for two major roles; that a composer and librettist who met at a BNO/AdOpera Akademi now have a 7-country hit co-production; that our productions are now in repertoire far afield and our casts are cropping up on world-wide tours.

Looking forward, from August onwards, it´s all go. At Mimi Goes Glamping, our boutique festival of opera in nature, septuagenarian Sir Thomas Allen makes his debut as a troll. Yes! He´ll star alongside a dozen local Sogn og Fjordane singers in a new community opera based regional fairytale. Unmissable in an altogether astonishing programme of events. On the main stage, super-smart duo, director Nicola Raab and designer Ashley Martin Davies make BNO debuts in our new production of Bellini´s I Capuleti e Montechi – our season is greatly centered on celebration of the voice, so bel canto opera is a must – with our Georgian/Russian Romeo and Guilleta, Nino Surguladze and Kristina Mkhitaryan.

Then, hurrah, we are off on tour with Dama til Mozart, a new eccentric little chamber piece premiering at Larvik Baroque Festival and Mimi Goes Glamping, before heading to nine West Coast Norwegian venues. Director Tom Guthrie explores Constanze Mozart´s volcanic life as a composer´s wife – lots of hilarity, but also a deeply touching piece.

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A new concert series next in atmospheric Håkonsallen: great voices, Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene, dancer Steve Player, a Korean Koto soloist… not your average recitals.

Then on to flying cupcakes, Comedia del Arte puppets, ballroom scenes by the beach: fabulous creative team Mark Lamos, George Souglides and Guiseppe Di Iorio return (remember their astounding Golden Cockerel in 2013?) for a new Il turco in Italia with a lithe and lovely young Mediterranean cast in gorgeous clothes behaving – as Rossini dictates – with wicked abandon. Meanwhile, at the theatre, we present something different. Norwegian soprano Eli Kristin Hanssveen turns vampish in Eli sings Ella.

Another star returns – Netia Jones – whose productions for BNO with Festspillene i Bergen have changed our city, and many others’ perception of opera for ever. With film, real-time video, stage direction and design, she weaves together stories which quicken our breathing. Now she tackles the iconic: Händel´s Messiah, albeit in a new edition by Malcolm Bruno and Caroline Ritchie which takes the work back to its original conception as a secular, theatrical operatic experience. We´re collaborating on the adventure with singers from Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Belgium, Russia and the USA. Hurrah for the universality of art. And, also for Festspillene, we combine with wonderful Edward Gardner and Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra on a concert performance of Britten´s Peter Grimes. The cast, with towering Stuart Skelton as Grimes, is fantastic: Roderick Williams sings his first Balstrode with Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford.

Around all this, BNO´s schedule buzzes with school projects, development academies for composers and librettists, performances in off-the-wall places, discussion groups, all the below-radar activities at the heartbeat of the company. And of course, our Opera Pub, the most joyful, most including, most fun evening of every month, where Bergen and beyond joins to sing, to listen, to adventure and to celebrate the human voice.

In ten years that operatic voice here in our city has grown to a resonant shining fortissimo. Happy birthday to us. And happy listening to all of you.

Mary Miller

24th June 2016

See the program for 2016/17 here

Marco Polo @ Festspillene, backstage drama and fine beer in Riga

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Tan Dun´s music always attracts a polemic clash between those who love the exotic carpet of sounds, and those who take issue with his East/West collision of styles and his unabashed contradictions in expressing musical traditions. The argument has long raged between cultural commentators: whether East and West should attempt to blur the edges of their vast cultural differences in the interests of a new fusion, or remain deliberately and distinctively different. So, it was challenging – and exciting – to open Bergen International Festival with Tan Dun´s little performed opera Marco Polo in its Scandinavian premiere. The piece, whatever its swerves between familiar Western sounds and Asian exotica does emphasise the totally different Eastern conception of time passing. The music, despite its moments of theatricality, breathes slowly and creates a kind of miasma. This is not an opera which grips its audience by virtue of its narrative, nor in truth by a coherent libretto. But its soundworld is fantastical and intriguing, swerving from lush long phrases to tinkling, whirring insect-like sounds to brittle pipa and tabla riffs.

Designer and video artist Netia Jones´s production created a piece of installation art in stunning pictures, gloriously eccentric costumes, a chorus in black and white like cartoon piano keys, and few props. Her team were a joy to work with – precise, reliable, friendly, they used their highly limited preparation time (eight days, start to finish) without a wasted moment. The cast, a mix of American and Chinese, were perhaps a little less accommodating, with some fine diva moments around dresses and dressing rooms and absent arias – we had cut the opera by 40 minutes – but hurrah for conductor Baldur Brönniman for his no-messing-about approach to rehearsals, for Fredrika Brillembourg for her fabulous voice and attitude, and for Zhang Yun for astonishing vocal and physical acrobatics. Ultimately, whatever the initial grumbles and jet-lagged emotions, we ended up with an intense sense of ensemble, and we found a lot of new friends.

The previous week I`d been in Aarhus, Denmark talking about developing new opera, and taking part, along with a fine mix of young composers and opera/theatre  practitioners  at the city´s theatre festival and coOperate development lab, in an interesting ’critical response’ process led by the London Sinfonietta´s CEO, Andrew Burke. We also saw work in progress by Lasse Piasecki which will be continued at Bergen National Opera´s September academy on dramaturgy, to be led by composer Judith Weir and Berlin Staatsoper´s Jens Schroth.

And, we set our new opera Alt om min Familie (All about my Family) on course with a four day workshop for the young singers, working with director Pernille Elimar, composer Atle Halstensen, conductor Kjell Seim and chorus master Håkon Matti Skrede. After months of volatile conversations, fretting about scores, production dramas and general anxiety, the days passed with a growing sense of rising spirit. It’s a fantastic piece. Writing for youth about teenage angst is for sure a minefield, but 18yr-old librettist Astrid Niebuhr has created a brilliant balance of fun-poking and pathos, balanced by Atle´s clever, witty and rhythm-rich music. More workshops in September, to which we´ll invite possible co-producers and interested parties.  We´re all still singing the tunes. I can´t wait.

But right now, BNO´s staff is just back from a study trip to Riga. Study trip…. Hm. Well, we debated our strategy, programming and processes long and hard, saw two productions at Latvian National Opera which generated much opinion, criticism and general mouthing off, spent an afternoon on Jurmala´s long white pristine beach and sampled, long into the night, Riga´s formidable selection of native beers. But I´d defend the leisure time to anyone. It´s great to talk, argue, eat and digest together – and even to congratulate ourselves on what a good team we have. And we do.

Now we have to tackle next season, budget issues, arguments with the orchestra about a surfeit of Carl Nielsen, lack of air in the office, and whether the set model just presented for a Verdi opera in 2014 will fit in the hall. Business as usual; this week without any beer.

(Picture: Thor Brødreskift)