Two co-production premieres in one week

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It´s a mystery to me why Opera Vlaanderen use the strange Hotel Lindner in Antwerp as its go-to accommodation for guests. It’s one of those hotels where you are jolted awake at dawn by over-zealous housekeeping hoovering the corridor, with no clues about what city you are in and your chin mildly chafed by super-scrubbed sheets. Emerging into Antwerp´s diamond quarter, elderly Jewish men in huge hats are poking each other in the chest and squabbling gently in the street while smiling police are silently removing a protesting drunk.

Premiere 1: Private View – an opera born in Bergen

The opera house is hosting the world premiere of composer Annelies Van Parys and poet Jen Hadfield´s first collaboration Private View – an opera which began when the two were introduced by Bergen National Opera at one of the development academies which the organisation runs for Norway´s AdOpera network, aimed at enhancing all aspects of creation and production.

Based on Hitchcock´s Rear Window, the work has made a considerable journey. Irish director Tom Creed came on board early, followed by the Dutch video collective 33 1/3. With Hadfield, a T. S. Eliot prizewinner, based in the Shetland Isles and Van Parys in Belgium, the video team in Amsterdam and the ’midwives’ BNO and Musiektheater Transparant in Bergen and Antwerp respectively, nothing was simple.

But the premiere, attended by the great and good from Opera Europa and all six co-producing cities including Berlin and Luxembourg, was a startling success. Three singers manipulate three large boxes, each of which presents an individual video screen. These then periodically combine to create one large surface. The film shows clips of Rear Window, but also multiple voyeuristic images of scenes framed in New York windows: couples arguing, a solitary anxious figure; a frustrated wife.

The music is exquisitely scored, with wonderful sounds from the ensemble (the pristine Asko Schönberg ensemble) and marvellous characterful singing from three singers from Stuttgart´s Neue Vocalsolisten. It is mysterious, dark, funny and elegant.

At the reception, as champagne circulates, Opera Europa´s Nicholas Payne tells me a terrible story about a well-known singer who has just had to murder her children onstage in a performance of Cherubini´s Medea. What, he had asked her, did she think about when having to enact such a scene? She had replied, looking at him icily, ”I think about my children´s father”.

Premiere 2: Beethoven´s Fidelio in Vilnius

Leaving these various murders behind, I head to Vilnius, where the production which Oskaras Korsunovas created for Bergen National Opera in 2013 is to premiere with our co-producers at Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. It’s a formidable occasion. Black ties and ball gowns in the crowded auditorium. Vicious green and pink cocktails on the bar, along with tiny cups of thick hot chocolate – the kind which guarantees long nights of insomnia.

I sit next to the Prime Minister, who has a smile of dazed brilliance. Behind sit two armed bodyguards and the Culture Minister. Oskaras has worked intensely on the production adding video and tightening the dramaturgy. Our Leonore from Bergen, English soprano Rachel Nicholls sings astoundingly. The Prisoners´ Chorus is heartbreaking, and the finale, where it seems that the whole world has erupted onto the stage in all its myriad diversity, is made profoundly moving by the addition of monochrome film of Vilnius´s all too recent liberation from Russian oppression. The audience is silent and stunned. Then exultant.

Mozart and the Eurovision Song Contest

On then to Vienna, for auditions and to listen to Theater an der Wien´s accomplished young ensemble. At the airport, there appears to be an infestation of strange green elves, before I clock that the Eurovision Song Contest opens next weekend. The hoppy-skippy elves are distributing information and seem mildly embarrassed and (correctly) are not entirely convinced that those stumbling off dawn flights will appreciate the intended irony. A group of jolly students is gurgling through Thank you for the Music at the baggage carousel.

But I´m off to listen to Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Britten, Massenet and to talk to much respected colleagues. Vienna, most songful of cities, is bathed in sunshine and ready to sing. Coffee, then I´m more than happy to listen.

Mary Miller

18th May, 2015

A week of Opera Europa, Benjamin Britten and two exciting set models

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I spent Sunday with Benjamin Britten. Two very different concerts, the first with the inspirational Jan Bjøranger´s marvellous 1B1 ensemble, a mix of high level conservatoire students from Kristiansand, Stavanger and Bergen, mentored by players from those cities´ symphony orchestras (and frequently by top-level European players). Now, the initiative is expanding to include 1B1 ’junior’ – younger players who are developing fast. The core group played Britten´s Lachrymae with violist Lars Anders Tomter as lyrical, sensitive soloist – the viola surely is the string instrument most like the human voice – and a beautiful, thoughtful accompaniment. What characterises 1B1 is, perhaps, the quality of the players´ listening. This music-making is not about bravura or soloistic pzazz, more about true ensemble, emulsified sound and detailed attack.

Then to Collegium Musicum´s concert of Britten choral music, with the brilliant Frank Bridge Variations thrown into the mix, and smartly played. The two Hymns – to St Cecilia, and to the Virgin – were sung with delicacy and lucid sound, followed by Britten´s early work originally written for radio, The Company of Heaven. It´s a strange piece, with somewhat over-the-top texts for speaker and two soloists, but the singing was terrific. All credit, too to conductor Håkon Matti Skrede for a really elegantly designed programme.

Last weekend and the preceding days meant the Opera Europa conference in Vienna, the principal schmoozing event for opera leaders and also a fierce marketplace for production trading. In fact, it turned out to be fun. I missed the introductory speeches – from Jose Manuel Barroso, and by the four Viennese opera house directors whose formidable temples sit decently distanced from each other round the Ringstrasse. Barroso was said to have been terrific, the others alarmingly dusty on new work, and initiatives for children – but on consequent days there were some great interventions on the conference´s weighty theme ’citizenship’. Whether we emerged committed to nobler endeavours is doubtful, but there were some splendid conversations and inspiring meetings.  Welsh National Opera/Bregenz Festival director David Pountney and I did get into somewhat of a brawl over the respective influences of Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass (Pountney was directing Glass´s new opera, which opened Linz´s new opera house last Monday) but order was restored by Musiektheater Transparant´s artistic director Guy Coolen.

Back on the plane on Tuesday night for a meeting at Lithuanian National Opera re possible co-production, and a showing of the set model for our new Fidelio by Vilnius-born director Oskaras Korsunovas, which we open at the start of November. The model is superb, a structure of bars and columns on three tiers, with the orchestra enclosed on the stage, and broad steps running down into the pit, where Florestan lies in chains. Oskaras´s concept looks at freedom in the widest sense, and it is clear that his thinking goes far beyond his own personal experience of growing up in an occupied country. It´s good, too, to meet all the LNO team in their astonishing canteen, which looks like the dining room in a small 60s cruise ship – and also to eat outrageous chocolate cake with Audra, Oskaras´s touring manager and a long-time friend and colleague.

Sjokolade

In Bergen, another director, designer and set model are waiting – the team for this September´s All about my Family. This is altogether another story. Teenage librettist Astrid Louisa Niebuhr has taken the ’perfect’ Bergen family and lifted the lid on their orderly life. The emerging chaos is both chilling and entertaining. We will work in tiny Logen, and the issues are all about placing the musical ensemble, making the set effective yet uncluttered, and clothing the family in question  – particularly the teenagers – in believable garb. How to predict what H&M will be showcasing this autumn?

Mary Miller

April 15, 3013