It’s been quite an opera season in the old Northern Powerhouse.
We’ve seen a troika of triumphs from Opera North followed by a new streaming venture at Manchester’s HOME and a great production of Kurt Weill, not to mention a timely resurrection of Joan of Arc at RNCM. Not to be too morbid about it but the common thread that holds all the productions together is death. And not just ‘quietly passing away at home in the loving arms of your family’ kind of death but the bloody, gruesome, violent, murderous kind of death that wouldn’t go amiss in a Jim Thompson dime store novel. In opera, death is usually fairly genteel, self-inflicted or incurable, but here it is all stabbings, shootings and at least one burning at the stake.
Alban Berg’s Lulu was left unfinished at his death in 1935 and not completed until 1977 by Friedrich Cerha. Using Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, it’s a difficult listen. At nearly four hours of atonality, it is carried by a powerful central performance by Marlis Peterson as Lulu. She is, as Freud would put it, polymorphously perverse, oozing pleasure from every part of her being. She is a sexual predator feeding off male and female to satiate her every whim, need and desire and, ultimately, she is the victim of her own libido.
The modernity of the story, composition and libretto are enhanced by William Kentridge’s startling cubist production, full of angular angst and knowing references. When I saw it at HOME, there was even a glimpse of Louise Brook’s performance of Lulu in Pabst’s Pandora’s Box which provided the story for Berg’s Lulu. Her decline and downfall lead her eventually to prostitution in Victorian London and death at the hands of Jack the Ripper. Perhaps life isn’t a cabaret, old chum.
While not strictly opera, I was intrigued to see the Orlando Consort’s live score to Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent film Le Passion de Jeanne D’Arc at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. I do like the combination of live music and film and certainly I’ve seen many an opera that includes film footage in the set design, Lulu being a good example. The two forms are interchangeable and all the more fun for that. Indeed, Lulu was streamed live into a cinema from the Metropolitan in New York, a brave new world of exhibition and distribution.
Dreyer’s film contains the finest performance by any actor in the history of cinema. Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s central and mesmerising portrayal of the doomed Joan of Arc as she is stripped first of her faith and dignity, then her life, is astonishing. Even more astonishing is that it was her only lead role on screen in a movie career that spanned two films. Consort’s fine and haunting score supported her rendering of the tragic life of Joan, but it was Falconetti’s night.
A week later I returned to the college to see its production of Weill’s Street Scene. Set in a New York tenement during a brutal heat wave, it tells the tragic tale of love and death of the multi-ethnic tenants as they struggle to survive the inherent contradictions of capitalism and the weather.
Bookish and forlorn Sam Kaplan (Alexander Grainger) is in love with fellow tenant Rose Maurrant (Michaela Parry). Their attempt at escape and happiness is thwarted by the ‘moider’ of her mother Anna (Katie Lowe) and milkman lover, Sam Sankey (Matt Mears) by her cuckholded and distraught father, Frank (Aiden Edwards). If I have oversimplified the narrative, I apologise to the wonderful ensemble cast who brought Weill’s complex story to life in an assured and entertaining production. Highlights included Ice-Cream Sextet (with real ice-cream), the song and dance routine Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed and the morbidly witty Lullaby. I cannot fail to mention an Oscar-winning performance by Oscar, the dog. In a world of debt, conflict and climate change, Weill’s moral lesson that there can be no happiness under capital still resonates.
By this time, I was being kept afloat on this sea of operatic blood thanks to a liferaft of gin. Suitably fortified, I headed to HOME for the Royal Opera House’s streamed double production of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Traditionally performed together, these ‘verismo’ (realistic) operas are set in a small Sicilian village during Easter when emotions run high and the scent of death is in the air.
In Cavalleria Rusticana, Santuzza (Eva-Maria Westbrook) is pregnant by the village lothario, Turiddu (Aleksandrs Antonenko) who happens to be squiring the local bigwig’s wife (respectively Alfio played by Dimitri Platanias and Lola, performed by Martina Belli). It is beautifully sung and compellingly acted under the direction of Damiano Micheletto and the ever-assured baton of Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera. As the Easter celebrations are under way, Alfio returns home from a business trip to find the village awash with gossip about Turiddu and Lola’s re-enactment of what God did to Mary (sorry, that’s nine months from Christmas, hold on, that is Easter!). In a further re-enactment of religious iconography, Alfio crucifies Turiddu. Well, shoots him stone dead. Another opera, another body.
Pagliacci is cleverly set in the same village, where a travelling troupe is in town to perform Pagliacci. Leading lady Nedda (Carmen Giannattasio) has fallen for humble village baker, Silvio (Dionysos Sourbis). The only hindrance to their everlasting happiness is that Nedda is married to leading man, Canio (Aleksandrs Antonenko). Nedda is coveted by Tonio (Dimitri Platanas) who informs Canio of his wife’s wandering eye. Before you know it, Nedda and Silvio are both dead at the jealous hands of Canio. There are enough bodies in the village to keep Inspector Montalbano busy for an entire series. Heady stuff indeed and powerfully played.
I’m not sure if you can have post-opera trauma but seven bodies in four productions left me wanting to seek help and call Frasier.