In Quest of Britten – A 2010 Itinerary

In midyear 2008, I highlighted the operatic works of Benjamin Britten in a “Quests and Anticipations” feature, entitled In Quest of Britten – A 2008-09 Itinerary. During that period, I reviewed performances of Britten works at the Santa Fe Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Hamburg Staatsoper and my colleague Tom reviewed another at the San Diego Opera.

The new year 2010 begins the countdown to the year 2013 in which the bicentennials of the births of Wagner and Verdi and the centennial of the birth of Britten will strongly influence the operatic repertory of the world’s major opera houses.

This year, the Britten quest highlights revivals in Hamburg and Paris. Also, we note the initiatives of the Houston Grand Opera and Santa Fe Opera this year to delve into Britten’s works beyond the four standard operatic works (“Peter Grimes”, “Billy Budd”, “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Death in Venice”) that appear with reasonable regularity in the repertories of the larger houses.

The selected productions are not meant to be an exhaustive list of Britten performances. (For that, see the Britten-Pears Foundation website at Much of Britten is designed for small venues, such as the 400 seat Cultural and Performing Arts (CAPA) High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Pittsburgh Opera will present four performances of Britten’s “Rape of Lucretia” between January 30 and February 7, 2010. For several of Britten’s works, one expects intimate surroundings such as the small theater being used by the Pittsburgh Opera.

But each of the four operas I have highlighted in this post are productions intended for opera companies’ large “main stages”. Each are new productions or important revivals in opera houses whose work I have previously reviewed and where one might expects performances that meet world class standards.

Turn of the Screw (Britten), Houston Grand Opera, January 29, 31(m), February 6, 10 and 13, 2010.

Henry James’ novella “Turn of the Screw” is one of the most elegant and controversial ghost stories ever written, evoking literary debates as to whether readers should regard the mysterious and mute Peter Quint and Mrs Jessel as figments of the Governess’ imagination or actual spirits in communication with the Governess’ young charges, Miles and Flora.

Britten gave the ghosts voices, and even dialogue with each other, but, if anything made the story even more mysterious than James did. Those who believe with conviction they know what is going on in that house in Bly, will find others who will provide eloquent arguments as to why they are wrong.

[Below: the Houston Grand Opera’s promotional poster for “Turn of the Screw”, designed by Pattima Singhalaka.]

Stage and film director Neil Armfield  is in the third year of a collaborative effort with the Houston Grand Opera to stage a “Britten cycle”, conducted by Patrick Summers, and supported in part by the Britten-Pears Foundation. Already “Billy Budd” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream” have appeared in Houston. (For my review of the latter, see: Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009.)

The “Turn of the Screw” will import Stephen Curtis’ sets and costumes and Neil Levings’ lighting designs for Armfield’s successful production for the South Australia Company. British soprano Amanda Roocroft will be celebrating both her role debut as the Governess and her first Houston Grand Opera appearances. Andrew Kennedy and Tamara Wilson are the ghosts, and Michael Kepler Meo and Joelle Harvey are the children, Flora and Miles. Judith Forst is cast as Mrs Grose. (For the subsequent performance review, see: Houston’s Haunting, Inscrutable “Turn of the Screw” – January 29, 2010.)

Death in Venice (Britten), Hamburg Staatsoper, February 21, 26 and 28, 2010.

Yet another Britten cycle is taking place at the Hamburg Staatsoper, under the baton of principal conductor and Staatsoper intendant Simone Young. Last year Staatsoper enlisted British stage director Ramin Gray to mount a new production of “Death of Venice”, starring Michael Schade as Aschenbach, Nmon Ford as the Traveler, and ballet dancer Gabriele Frola as Tadzio. Ford and Frola return in February 2010 for a three performance revival, with British tenor John Daxzak, assaying the part of Aschenbach in his Staatsoper debut.

[Below: in one of his dream sequences, Aschenbach (first row, far left, here played by Michael Schade) takes notes on the games of the leaping Tadzio (Gabriele Frola); edited image, based on a Joerg Landsberg photograph, courtesy of the Hamburg Staatsoper.]

(For my review of the opening night of the new production, see: Michael Schade, Nmon Ford, Gabriele Frola Brilliant in Hamburg’s New “Death in Venice” – April 19, 2009.)

Billy Budd (Britten), Opera National de Paris, April 24, 27, 29, March 3, 8, 10, 13 and 15, 2010.

Although Francesca Zambello’s conceptualization of “Billy Budd” has been seen in Geneva, London, Parma and Pittsburgh, it is most closely associated with the Opera National de Paris, where it was presented in 1996 and 2001, with Rod Gilfry in the title role.  In Paris, it won the Grand Prix des Critiques for best opera production. Alison Chitty was set and costume designer with Alan Burrett devised the lighting.

[Below: the execution of Billy Budd (here, Rod Gilfry); resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph from Francesca Zambello’s website.]

Zambello’s production returns to the Bastille in April 2010, starring Lucas Meachem in the title role, with Kurt Rydl as Claggart and Kim Begley as Captain Vere. Jeffrey Tate is the conductor.

Albert Herring (Britten), Santa Fe Opera, July 31, August 4, 13, 18, 21 and 25, 2010.

The Santa Fe Opera is presenting a new production of “Albert Herring”, Britten’s comedy about what happens when moralistic community elders think they can guess which of the community’s young people best conforms to their views of how the young should behave.  Manipulating Herring’s election to the post of “May King”, the committee is surprised and outraged when they learn how he celebrated his reign.

The new production is the conception of Paul Curran, now director of the Norwegian Opera in Oslo. Curran is one of the most consistently interesting of contemporary opera stage directors. This website proclaimed his production of “Billy Budd” in Santa Fe as “superlative” (See Superlative: Original 1951 “Billy Budd” Catches the Santa Fe Wind – August 14, 2008) and gave a glowing review of his production of Berg’s “Lulu” at Chicago’s Lyric Opera also (See “Lulu” at the Lyric – November 19, 2008).

[Below: Lady Billows (Christine Brewer, standing at table, center) leads the festivities for the Loxford May Day Festival; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The opera’s cast is led by Alek Schrader as Albert Herring and Christine Brewer as Lady Billows. Also in the cast are Kate Lindsey, Jill Grove, Celena Schafer, Anthony Laciura, Joshua Hopkins, Wayne Tigges and Dale Travis. The new production’s sets and costumes are by Kevin Knight, with lighting by Rick Fisher. Sir Andrew Davis conducts. (For the subsequent performance review, see: Superlative: Britten’s “Albert Herring” Brings Big Time Laugh-in to Santa Fe Opera – August 25, 2010.)