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First nights at the opera

It was a good week for new opera -- at least, there was an awful lot of it.

In Munich, Peter Eötvös's "Die Tragödie des Teufels" opened at the Bavarian State Opera, winning praise from Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times and much fainter praise from George Loomis in the New York Times. The Süddeutsche Zeitung called it "mild, colorful, and above all puzzling and in the spirit of the times."

Last week, Opera Boston presented the world premiere of "Madame White Snake," an opera by Zhou Long. Jeremy Eichler, in the Boston Globe, was disappointed, not least because of the overblown libretto by Cerise Lim Jacobs, though he liked parts of the score. The Bostonist offered a review with a lot of description and attitude, but with little sense of what the music was like or whether the piece was any good.
(read more after the jump)

On Sunday, Aribert Reimann, one of Germany's leading composers (though his work has never gained much of a foothold in the U.S.), had a smashing success with the world premiere of his ninth opera "Medea" at the Vienna State Opera; the ovation, according to Manuel Brug's review in Die Welt, lasted for 26 minutes. Reinhard J. Brembeck, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, called Reimann "a specialist" called in "when the job is to get a traditional public excited about something modern." The reviews were generally raves (the Austrian paper Die Presse compared the opera to Mozart). The only write-up I found in English so far, from Agence France Presse, doesn't convey much beyond the bare facts.

And Monday saw the premiere of Kaija Saariaho's "Emilie" in Lyon. Saariaho is a major composer whose "L'amour de loin" was, by new-opera standards, a huge success at and after its premiere at the Salzburg festival in 2000. I found even that static when I saw it in Santa Fe, and "Adriana Mater" (also at Santa Fe) even more so. Now, it seems, Saariaho has fastened on the monodrama as her vehicle of choice. In his review of "Emile," a one-woman opera written for Karita Mattila, Andrew Clark, in his review in the Financial Times, neglects to mention one other dramatic, or not very dramatic, stage work of Saariaho's, "La passion de Simone," which I saw at its premiere in 2006, and found just as underwhelming as he found "Emilie." Saariaho does, however, write wonderful music; and Die Presse liked the piece considerably more than the Financial Times did.

The good news, though, is that there are so many new mainstage works. It's true that there are always more opera premieres in Europe than in America (one benefit of government subsidies), but even a couple of German papers observed what a healthy time it appears to be for new work. Together with the list I compiled of all the new operas going on in the United States in the coming months, it's a positive sign. Of course, hardly any of these pieces will be performed again after their initial productions.

Edited to add: Speaking of Reimann's "Medea": The Metropolitan Opera has just announced that Marlis Petersen, whose performance in the title role has been singled out for particular praise, will be replacing Natalie Dessay as Ophelie for the first six performances of Hamlet, starting on March 16. The last two performances are listed as TBA.

By Anne Midgette  |  March 3, 2010; 6:24 AM ET
Categories:  international , news , opera  
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Thanks for the information. Alas, none of these will play DC soon! The Mariinsky Opera tonight at KenCen has hundreds of unsold tickets for Russian Standards. Heaven forbid anyone should do something new.

Posted by: BethesdaFan | March 3, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I recall attending Aribert Riemann's "Lear" at the San Francisco Opera in 1987, and agreeing with the critics that it was a smashing success.

I don't know why the Opera Society of Washington hasn't staged it -- given that Washington, D.C is a leading world center for Shakespearean performance and research.

On a positive note regarding the visiting Mariinsky Opera, I think that it is great that the visiting company and the Kennedy Center are close to selling out the 20th c. classic, Prokofiev's War and Peace. It shows that Washington opera audiences are tired of being treated with condescension.

I also feel that the public has been poorly served by the Center and the Washington Post in regards to information about the two concerts of Russian national opera highlights (covering 1874 to 1907 -- the pre-Revolutionary golden age of Russian national opera).

How much of the about 90 minute Chaikovsky Iolanta will the Mariinsky actually be performing tomorrow night in concert form? It could be the full opera (as staged fully with Anna Netrebko in Baden-Baden) if the excerpt from previously staged Mazepa is kept short. (The baiting excerpt from Pique Dame is only the short pastoral Zlatogor masque from Act II.)

Posted by: snaketime1 | March 3, 2010 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I heard both of Kaariho's operas at Santa Fe and was frustrated. The first kept my interest I think solely because the flooded stage was so novel and the music gorgeous. The second was frustrating enough that I wrote to the SFO director to say that I simply don't think Kaariho understands how to develop character. As Anne says, it was simply static and despite an interesting staging (not helped by the slow pace of movement). These are things that she could learn if her associates would point them out. No one can write a great opera without experience.

Posted by: roxie3 | March 3, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I was at the premiere of Opera Boston's Madame White Snake last week. I agree with Jeremy Eichler's review. The libretto was the weakest link of the opera. I also did not like the contemporary set/costume. The set looked like an art gallery with a Dan Flavin light installation.

I liked the music, not entirely atonal. Eichler mentioned there is Schoenbergian Sprechstimme in the music; to me, it also sounded very similar to the way Peking Opera is sung. And in parts of the opera, the way the singers confront each other, also is reminiscent of Peking Opera as well. Overall, I enjoyed the performance and wouldn't mind seeing it again.

Posted by: ariadne1 | March 3, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

P.S. Anne, there is one more review on Madame White Snake on the Boston Musical Intelligencer blog site.

Posted by: ariadne1 | March 3, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

I attended the world premiere of Medea in Vienna. The music is fine, very reminiscent of Lear, and the singing is also lyrical and full of coloratura, but no easy task for anyone. Petersen was fine, nothing more. The production, on the other hand, was unbelievable, much more of a success than the music itself.

Posted by: geddaisgod | March 3, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

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