When video makes the opera star


IF YOU’VE BEEN to the Wexford Festival Opera in recent years you’ll have encountered video in opera, with projected imagery, including documentary footage, used to enrich the stagings. If you’ve been following the work of Steve Reich, you’ll know of his “documentary digital video opera”, Three Tales (1998-2002), with visuals by Beryl Korot replacing stage action in musical and moral treatments of the destruction of the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg airship, the atomic tests at Bikini Atoll, and the cloning of the sheep Dolly.

If you were at the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles international conference in Killarney five years ago, you will have come across Shostakovich’s early attempt to marry film and opera. He teamed up with director Mikhail Tsekhanovsky to create an animated film on Pushkin’s The Priest and his Servant Balda. Only six minutes of the film survived the Siege of Leningrad. A Norwegian team brought together by the Nanset Wind Ensemble gave the work a new lease of life, integrating life-size puppets into a production that included the surviving film.

Video has now come to Oliver Knussen’s 1980s double bill of Maurice Sendak operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! These were staged together by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1984 using puppets, with Sendak himself the designer. They opened this year’s Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk on Friday with video by Netia Jones, who was able to consult with Sendak on the ideas she had for animating his images and integrating them with live action.

The Maltings in Snape, where the festival performances took place, is not an opera house, and later performances by the show’s co-producers, the Barbican in London and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will not bring this production into an opera house.

In the absence of a pit, the chosen layout has the orchestra (an on-form Britten Sinfonia under Ryan Wigglesworth) at the front of the stage, with the action raised up behind them, and the video projected behind that again.

There is something absurdly magical about having a real human being appear to pluck a leaf from a video image, or throw a non-physical object across the screen. It’s a simple conceit, but one which retains a sense of wonder, especially when the imagery involved is pure Sendak. That’s what Jones offers here: all the familiar fine-lined fantasy and grotesquerie, but with moving parts, eyes that roll, jaws that open, a horse that trots.

There is a price to be paid for all the visual freshness. The sound of the on-stage orchestra is powerful enough that it threatens to overwhelm the voices. And the Aldeburgh solution of amplification causes degradation of vocal tone while at the same time often failing to keep the words clear. That failing, of course, is partly inbuilt. Knussen’s orchestral writing in Where the Wild Things Are is ambitiously, extravagantly, intoxicatingly free in a child in a toyshop, everything but the kitchen sink way. The enjoyable extravagance extends to the wealth of musical references that the music works its way through. But the voices and words have to struggle.

Wild Things was the first of the pair to be completed, and seems to have helped the composer work a lot out of his system. The later Higglety Pigglety Pop! is lighter and more judicious in its handling of the orchestra, with obvious benefits for the vocal writing.

Aldeburgh’s two leads, Claire Booth’s Max, the child who conjures up and controls the Wild Things, and Lucy Schaufer’s Jennie, the terrier who has nothing and everything and longs to be a leading lady, were both energetic and exuberant, and the supporting cast, whether behind the scenes or visibly present, threw themselves into their characters with gusto.

* The contrast with Aldeburgh’s second programme could hardly have been greater; from opera in a concert hall to Bach on solo cello in a church. Hungarian cellist Miklós Perényi is giving three concerts, two Bach suites in each, with 20th-century works by Sándor Veress, Witold Lutoslawski, György Kurtág, Bernd Alois Zimmermann and György Ligeti in between.

In the first concert, in the dry but perfectly clear acoustic of Aldeburgh Church, Perényi played Bach as if for himself, eyes closed for concentration, the tone unforced, the manner private rather than demonstrative. He almost completely eschewed the practice of rhetoricising this music by imposing on it a style involving emphatic hesitations that are intended to dramatise musical shape. Instead he played it straight, often in long lines that seemed all the more lucid for the lack of apparent intervention. It was one of those occasions where not only was the player rapt, but the audience was, too. You would have heard the proverbial pin, had one been dropped.

* There’s no Oliver Knussen in Perényi’s programmes. But Knussen was ever-present over the rest of the opening weekend. He conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with typical insight in Ives, Stravinsky, Berg and Alexander Goehr’s Marching to Carcassonne, a serenade for piano (Peter Serkin) and chamber orchestra, whose dryly energised, fractured neo-classicism was substituting for the new work for piano and orchestra that Knussen had failed to finish in time. There was no preparation involved, and he seemed genuinely taken aback, when, at the end of the concert, and just days before his 60th birthday, he was given the Critics’ Circle Outstanding Musician Award for 2012. He also gave a public interview with fellow-composer Julian Anderson, where he spoke with exceptional frankness about the gestation of the Sendak operas, and criticised his own work with an openness that went a long way to explaining the delay in the piece he failed to deliver.

* Knussen’s 1989 Variations and 1997 Prayer Bell Sketch featured in a solo recital by Peter Serkin, whose playing was at once fascinatingly and frustratingly cerebral, as if the performer were managing to impose demands on his listener that were as extreme as those he was imposing on himself. At the opposite end of the scale was a recital by Gabriela Montero, a pianist who gave the impression that she might in every moment be deciding how the next phrase might be shaped, or how long the expressive delay on any particular note might be. Her trademark improvisations on tunes invited from the audience worked better than her handling of pieces by Chopin and Brahms.

* The weekend also included Sea Change, a project in which guitarist James Boyd is sailing on a voyage to inspire new music. This will take him up to the Orkney Islands, and the programme he gave in Aldeburgh Yacht Club featured Britten’s Songs from the Chinese and new works by Elspeth Brooke (Where the Land Lies) and Jonathan Dove (The Immortal Ship). All were sung by Irish tenor Robin Tritschler with exquisite clarity and poise, and accompanied by Boyd in a style to match.

The Aldeburgh Festival continues until June 24th. mdervan@irishtimes.com

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