Monday, August 22, 2011

A Tale of Two Operas: experiencing Glyndebourne

While here in the UK for a variety of activities and meetings, had a wonderful invite to attend a performance of Benjamin Britten's opera "Turn of the Screw" at Britain's revered summer opera festival at Glyndebourne last evening. While the story of this opera is harrowing and not exactly pleasant to think about (much less try to perform, I would imagine) the entire production was so artistically crafted and unbelievably perfect in its execution that the excitment it engendered in the hall was both palpable and unforgettable.

Before you get any strange ideas, it is said that the opera's title "Turn of the Screw" refers to a musical/compositional technique where variations on a theme are turned through a set of spiraling key changes, tighter and tighter -  even though the opera in question was actually based on a sort of ghost story of the same name, written by novelist Henry James. The operatic version has a tiny ensemble cast - no chorus and no minor parts; and all six of the roles were filled by star soloists who seemed to be born specifically to sing/act these specific roles. My two personal favorites were the very young soprano Joanna Songi who sang the part of Flora with an unusually beautiful chestnut-colored timbre, and the very very young treble (boy soprano), 12-year old Thomas Parfitt, who played the role of Miles and stood out for his spookily sensitive acting skills as well as his highly musical singing and clarion tone. Looking over the sumptiously produced Festival programme booklet, I came upon a photo of the opera's composer as a school boy and was startled at the striking, uncanny resemblance between Benjamin Britten and Thomas Parfitt at the same age. Not that I imagine that young Thomas was "channeling" the composer in his youth while playing this role, but it could have just added to the eeriness of the entire evening, perhaps. At one critical point in the opera, Thomas is on stage pretending to be playing very technically-demanding music on the piano (which is actually being played by a professional pianist in the pit). We have all seen piano playing mimed relatively well and/or very badly indeed, on various movies, but Thomas' live onstage miming was by far the best execution of that task that any of us had ever seen, anywhere. The program notes do say that he is a pianist and oboist as well as a boy chorister on music scholarship, but his piano skills have to be considerable to have done all of the required hand/arm/finger movements, chord clusters and frequently changing rhythms to such a thoroughly convincing onstage effect, coordinated precisely with the actual pit performance and during a very intricate, complicated piece with other singing and acting going on all around him. Definitely a young talent to rejoice in and watch for!

The other four roles were all sung by major renowned stars of the British opera world: tenor Toby Spence, sopranos Kate Royal and Giselle Allen, and mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley. Mr Spence does have a quintessentially English tenor voice and was the definite crowd favorite, but all four of them did their roles with such total perfection and complete conviction that I cannot possibly imagine seeing this opera with other singers taking their places. But the largest praise (and also gratitude) needs to be heaped on the conductor Jakub Hrusa and to the London Philharmonic's chamber ensemble that played so brilliantly and beautifully under his incredibly sensitive and spine-tingling direction. Every phrase of the opera was expressively shaped and yet tautly driven to a destination. The singers were given both guidance and space, accompanied or responded to with magical, haunting instrumental colors. I kept tearing my eyes away from the stage and soloists in order to watch Maestro Hrusa's sensitive shaping and direction of the orchestra down in the pit, because the combination of tension and beauty he created was positively mesmerizing.

Hrusa made it possible for every one of the opera's stars to exhibit such absolute identification with their roles that the listeners became completely absorbed into the disturbing story -  I overheard various patrons saying at the intermission that they had a strangely difficult time, as they left the theatre for "picnics" on the lawn area (three course meals on china prepared by a world class chef), to pull their minds out of the opera and "back to reality" at this special social event to be enjoyed, traditionally, with both old and new acquaintances.  

And therein lies the tale of the second opera, really....the entire setting and grounds and manor house of Glyndebourne combine to create an ideal opera stage backdrop for the intermingled lives and smilingly scandalous tales of England's most fortunate, and they all gather at Glyndebourne each year for the festival and greet old friends among the linen-covered tablecloths that blow in the evening breeze (or gale, if one is unlucky with the weather). Mozart would have had a field day! But in all seriousness, I met some wonderful people and hope to have made some very special new friends...and Glyndebourne is to be highly commended for its huge success in rolling out a new scheme that makes very inexpensive tickets available for each performance, to anyone under 30. There was ample evidence of that under-30 age group throughout the newly renovated opera house (fabulous, intimate acoustics!) and the extensive gardens and lawns as well. Indeed, throughout Britain's concert halls and opera houses there is a concerted effort being made to make opera both accessible and affordable to youth, and it is paying off hugely, with a large and significant percent of increase in that demographic amongst the audience, and the numbers continue to increase each year.

Other countries should take note! The British are succeeding in getting across to music listeners that opera is definitely "for the masses" and "about the masses", weird spooky tales or not. As I explained to one first-time patron last evening, opera is simply telling a story in a way that heightens your senses and your emotional identification with the characters, because the physical act of singing can express feelings at a depth that the acting alone could never do, while the instrumental music beneath it creates colors and harmonies that open your heart to receive those feelings. That may sound a bit unecessarily complicated now in the retelling, but she seemed to think it made great sense at the time! :)

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