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

Il turco in Norwegia

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“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller

11/03/2017

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

Straight talk

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Let’s be perfectly clear: there are many, many terrific and talented Norwegian singers working all over Norway. There are a smaller number working on the world’s main stages, in addition to many excellent Norwegian early music or music theatre singers working in more intimate theatres. The current debate is fuelled in part by sound bites, and it surely makes sense to lay out the bigger picture from Bergen National Opera’s specific point of view.

The discussion is based on BNO’s perceived casting of non-Norwegian singers. As our company works with large numbers of Norwegian singers when in smaller venues, let us concentrate on our productions in Grieghallen, Norway’s largest concert hall, where we mount at most 3 fully staged shows a year, each for up to four performances. When we start to cast, our aim is simple: find the best most appropriate singers for the opera. Sometimes there are special circumstances, as when we presented an Eastern opera in Chinese, or one written for ethnic voices.

Like every opera company, our priority will always be quality. We want to give our audience the best possible experience of opera, and of the magic of the human voice combined with great theatre. So when we cast, we want to build a team where the combination of voices and personalities tells the most believable and captivating story.  It is a much more complex task than just picking a perfect soprano or a spectacular tenor – we need, every time, to build an ensemble which functions like a dynamic family. Ideally, we would like our casts to be a mix of our top national singers, and those of similar talent from overseas: the aim is a mix which is mutually inspiring, brings new talent to Norway, and shows Norwegian talent to the world.

We cannot escape from the fact that there are important practical issues when we work in Grieghallen with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. The hall has a large fan-shaped construction, and the back row is 45 metres from the stage. So we must always find voices with the power and bloom to carry to the back. For young singers other than the exceptional – like Lise Davidsen or Elisabeth Teige (both of whom have been offered opportunities with BNO) – Grieghallen is a challenge, and as operasjef, I would not put a young gifted singer of any nationality in a position which might render them vulnerable to confidence-sapping criticism – “we were at the back and couldn’t hear her” or “she wasn’t ready for that role” etc.

As a company, BNO has made a decision to present slightly less usual main stage repertoire amongst more known operas. Because we live in a small city and have a huge hall, each opera is given only four performances. Let’s take Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which we are currently presenting, happily with great success. We offered 5 major roles to a number of Norwegians. It is understandable that to learn a new role in a complex opera with only four performances is a major undertaking. As it turns out, it’s a great pity for these singers, as the majority of the cast we have created here in Bergen will now take the opera to both Beijing and Bahrain. One of the major Norwegian names we approached was offered a top role in Dream, but then offered a long run of performances in a top American house. Which would you choose, as a young international singer building a huge career?

Bergen National Opera is a young company which has grown its reputation very fast – and has worked very hard – to become a significant player both internationally and locally. We don’t have an ensemble, which gives us considerable flexibility. We work on productions of every scale and also are committed to the development of young Norwegian singers, from children upwards. We routinely hire Norwegians for our chamber-scale creations. We accept that, in terms of our main scale productions with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in Grieghallen, the balance of Norwegian to international singers is unequal for reasons expressed above. We hope that now that we are more established, the Norwegian singers to whom we make offers will begin to accept the roles we suggest. Even though we now plan up to four years ahead, our top singers have choices.

So, despite our best intentions, things don’t always work out. It is only recently that BNO has been viewed as “desirable” for Norway’s best singers. Over the last few years we have found ourselves reviewed as a matter of course in the international press; we’ve started to be approached by the “big players” like Lyon and the London houses as co-producers, and to be chased by agents offering us glamorous names. Of course the financial downturn means that everyone is searching more widely for partners, but the kind of reviews we have been receiving don’t lie. Now, too, we are selling our productions made in Bergen overseas.

But developing the reputation of opera in Norway is far more that just concentrating on main roles on the main stage. Talent development is critical. BNO is making a major effort to develop young singers. Starting with choirs for young children – 20 of whom play a major role in our current production – we have concentrated and strategic programmes for around 100 young people, including for our 9 Unge Stemmer: students from Hordaland who are studying overseas, and who we have locked into a five-year programme of mentoring so that on graduation, they return to Norway to build their careers. Every main stage opera that we present has around it a development programme for up to 700 children and young people who then come to the dress rehearsal, integrated masterclasses or lessons with cast members, our Opera Pub where chorus, students and cast soloists all perform etc. We have been midwives to Edvard Grieg Kor, now contracted singers who sing a capella, but also for both BNO and BFO.

We have countless other activities in the community, and are increasingly creating more output. We have a new relationship with Barokksolistene which will result in major projects in Norway, UK, Germany and USA. Our new festival in collaboration with Åmot Operagard already featured eight marvellous Norwegian voices. Now we are working on the beginnings of a small and larger scale touring programme which will greatly increase opportunities for our young singers. We have new collaborations with main Norwegian partners.

For us right now, it is interesting that BNO finds itself in the centre of a topical debate – don’t let’s imagine that Norway is the only land which ponders these issues. We are very happy that singers from so many countries – and in particular Norway – want to sing with us. But first of all, those of you who are commenting, come to Bergen and experience our work so that you know who we are and what we do. Then our dialogue can become even more dynamic – and further advance our common love for opera.

Mary Miller

How Flying Beds changed the world of opera

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When Robert Carsen first devised his production of Benjamin Britten´s Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1991 – Bergen National Opera´s recreation opens on Saturday 7th – the opera world reeled with shock. The curtain opened onto a giant bed occupying the whole stage, with pillows the size of an average truck, and a bedspread in brilliant green unrolling like a football pitch.

Characters bounced across the bedclothes, tumbled and twirled, the twenty small boys playing pompous, grumpy fairies marched across the set like badly-behaved toy soldiers, and just as those surprises settled, the third act opened onto a skyscape with three huge flying double beds. Opera, in the early 90’s, simply wasn´t like this. Furniture onstage was roughly the size you would expect it to be, and it stayed on the ground. Choruses were adult and unlikely to have blue hair. And outside Baroque music, no-one expected the hero to be a spectacular counter-tenor with a deeply cynical grin.

This was not Shakespeare – or an opera – as anyone knew it. Plenty of opera directors had produced the work beautifully since its first showing in 1960: Britten had written it for the celebrations surrounding the new town hall in his English seaside home, Aldeburgh. The premiere there had caused enough surprise – this was not the sombre-minded composer who had riveted the UK with disturbing operas about misfits in the community, dark goings on at sea and more than a hint of obsession with beautiful youth. Taking Shakespeare’s text much as in the original, Dream burst into life as a great riot of human feelings – passionate love, cruel mirth – jostling with the glittering dark mischief of the fairy kingdom.

The opera has never had a professional performance in Norway, and BNO and partners BFO felt strongly that to perform the opera, chosen by both as part of Bergen Philharmonic´s Jubileum Season would be a fine thing. It seemed to be the moment for Carsen´s startling, iconic setting to be seen in Norway. The music is magical, shimmering, melodic and enticing, and the assembled cast is stupendous. There’s the sense that the humans are reckless intruders into dangerous fairyland where romps a whole realm of naughtness.

Right now in rehearsal, behind real-life scenes, all kinds of dramas are unfolding. How does a 2metre high bass-baritone sing with a massive hairy donkey-head obscuring his skull? How do twenty small boys with bright blue violins and scarlet gloves all pluck the strings in time? And what about the soprano who isn´t too keen on heights lying on that flying bed?

Meanwhile BNO´s Puck, the super-bouncy fencing master from Game of Thrones, Miltos Yerolemou (look out for him too in a small part in the new Star Wars) is enchanting everyone as he sprints from disaster to joy.

So the production may startle you, excite you have you shout with laughter just as Britten, reinvented by Carsen intended. Midsummer Night´s Dream does just what opera can do like nothing else – it tells you an unforgettable story.