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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Opera finds a new world

By Norman Lebrecht / November 22, 2006

At the climax of an interminable Mozart Year, the city of Vienna has switched off the little night music and splashed ten million Euros (£6.8 million) on a festival of new commissions that will be seen halfway around the world.

New Crowned Hope, as the festival is called, takes its name from the Masonic lodge where Mozart picked up his late commissions. Its purpose is to reflect the spirit of three valedictions – Magic Flute, La Clemenza da Tito and the unfinished Requiem - but since the project is the brainchild of wild-child director Peter Sellars and the budget is huge, one-third of Austria’s Mozart Year outlay, there is room for variation on the official menu and Sellars, characteristically, avoids anything by Mozart.

Instead, the festival flourishes six feature films by directors from Iran, Chad, Taiwan, Indonesia, Thailand and Paraguay. There is a hall of sound installations curated by an Ethiopian, an architectural exhibition on refugee issues, a socio-economic project on women and homelessness, a concert by asylum seekers and a presentation by an organic chef on ‘culture and agriculture’. Vienna, in case you hadn’t guessed, is run (like London) by the doctrinaire Left, and every box in its lexicon of political issues has been correctly ticked in the name of contemporary art.

Don’t think you have heard the last of it. Much of the festival is coming to London’s Barbican next summer, moving on to New York’s Lincoln Center. New Crowned Hope may be the biggest travelling circus of high art and hocus-pocus since Phineas T. Barnum toured the opera diva Jenny Lind in his transcontinental freak show.

That, at any rate, is the first impression from an ecologically ruinous programme of 330 cliché-packed pages and garish street-corner posters. Art, however, is usually larger than the forces behind it. Three of the films picked up big awards at Cannes, Venice and San Sebastian ahead of the festival’s opening last week and two of the operas are going to be with us for the rest of our lives.

Sellars, who has power-driven the multifarious vision in a very hands-on fashion for the past four years, dresses for his premieres in a flowery shirt, amber necklace and vertically electrified hair. ‘What I asked all these artists,’ he explains, ‘was to deal with three issues from the last year of Mozart’s life – magic and transformation from Magic Flute; truth and reconciliation, Mandela-style, from Clemenza di Tito; and ceremonies for the dead from the Requiem.’

Stop right there, I object: Mandela in Mozart? ‘It’s the last 20 minutes of Clemenza,’ beams Sellars, ‘a leader who says I’ve brought it this far and now the next generation has to take over. Mandela is one of the few who had the wisdom to do that.’

And the Third World film-makers? ‘Mozart was a man of the enlightenment, interested in all the world’s discoveries. I put these topics to artists who come from areas of the world where - as it was for Mozart’s generation, the time of the French revolution – the stakes are very high. They are fighting every day at the moment in Kinshasa, where Faustin Linyekula is rehearsing his New Crowned Hope dance piece. Mahamat Saleh-Haroun is shooting in Chad, which has gone into a state of emergency just last night. These are parts of the world where the cultural debate is urgent, and only in culture do you have the space to express things. Something can’t become a political reality until it has first been imagined.’

Sellars, 49, has been pushing out cultural boundaries ever since, fresh out of college in 1984, he took control of the American National Theater in Washington, D.C. He overturned Glyndebourne in the 1990s with sex-in-the-city Mozart and overwhelmed Salzburg with operas by Messiaen, Ligeti, Kaija Saariaho and John Adams, whom he has partnered ever since Nixon in China. He teaches a course in Art as Moral Action at UCLA and passionately believes that, pace Mozart, the best in opera is yet to come.

That faith is being put to the test in New Crowned Hope with centrepiece operas by Saariaho, La Passion de Simone and A Flowering Tree by Adams, based on a South Indian fable of a girl who sprouts leaves and branches, wins the hand of a prince, is betrayed by a mob and is redeemed by love. Simple stuff, but Adams at the top of his form could probably make a convincing two-acter out of the A-D telephone directory.

A Flowering Tree (which he also conducts) contains two of his most lyrical passages – the first chorus and the second-act love music – and an emotional subtlety that deepens as the work proceeds. The ear never tires and the eye is gripped by a riot of colours and ritualised dance with which Sellars propels an essentially static plot. A Venezuelan orchestra peppers up the post-minimalist para-melodies and the chorus is woven sinuously by Sellars into, around and out of the action, like the serpent in Eden. Three Americans who sing the protagonist roles - Jessica Rivera, Eric Owens and Russell Thomas – are shadowed by Indonesian dancers Rusini Sidi, Astri Kusuma Wardani and Eko Supriyanto.

The effect is more Singspiel than opera, a throwback to the primal forms of Mozart’s youth, but it is decidedly post-modern in its generic fusions and confusion. This may well be the opera of the future, and it does work. I came out wanting to see A Flowering Tree immediately again, and soon will. It is to be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle in December and then in San Francisco, Adams’ hometown, before coming to the Barbican unstaged; English National Opera have booked the UK stage premiere for 2009. Political clichés aside, Vienna has come up with a winner of an opera – and how often, since Mozart died, has that happened?

CD Frank Peter Zimmermann/Heinrich Schiff ***

Music for violin and cello duo normally counts as cruel and unusual punishment, the scraping of hair on gut matching the drip-drip of a faulty tap for aural torture. Not here, though. The Austro-German pair have worked together between high-class solo gigs for 20 years and have chosen their pieces well. Honegger and Martinu, two of the most prolifically uneven modernists, are represented by closely-argued Socratic dialogues, the timing as sharp as club comedy. Matthias Pintscher, in his early 30s, provides a 21st century shimmer of shifting textures in Treatise on the Veil while the main item on the menu is a sinuous 1922 sonata by Ravel, deliciously suggestive after a stern canon by JS Bach. This is perfect music for a winter’s night, warming and reflective.


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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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