Saturday, 5 November 2016

Armel Omnibus Opera (Armel, 2016)

Gian Carlo Menotti - The Telephone
Samuel Barber - A Hand of Bridge
Paul Hindemith - There and Back

Serbian National Theatre Novi Sad, 2016

Aleksandar Kojic, Ksenija Krnajski, Richard Rittelmann, Darija Olajos Cizmic, Zeljko R. Aandric, Jelena Koncar, Igor Ksionzik, Violeta Sreckovic, Sasa Stulic, Danijela Jovanovic

Armel Opera Festival/ARTE Concert - 1 July 2016

As well as being an advocate for the new media of radio and television as a means to promote opera and make it more accessible for a wide audience, Gian Carlo Menotti could also be critical of other forms of communication that he evidently felt didn't offer the same opportunities, such as the telephone. Somewhat ironically and quite inadvertently - it was just the most convenient option at the time - I watched this streamed recording of the Armel Opera Festival performance of Menotti's short one-act opera The Telephone on my smart phone. Perhaps since it is no lesser a medium for experiencing opera now than CD, TV or radio, Menotti might not be so quick to disparage the telephone today.

This kind of sums up both the vision of Menotti to look beyond the traditional role of opera, but also the limitations of his thinking - although he can hardly be criticised for not having foreseen the advent of the internet and smart phones 70 years ago when he composed The Telephone in 1947. Similarly, the themes in The Telephone are still universal and adaptable to the modern media - how much more of our lives are consumed with technological communication and less with physical contact with people? - but the nature of the work is also limited in its observations, which it has to be said are obvious and banal.

But essentially, that's the partly the purpose of The Telephone and also part of Menotti's observations on ordinary life as being worthy as subjects for opera. Menotti recognised in 1947 how much of a role the telephone would play in our lives, how impersonal it was as a means of communication and - depending on how we adapt to it - how it could be either a destructive force or a positive one. It might not seem all that original an observation but clearly it's still a problem that everyone continues to struggle to resolve in our ordinary daily lives.

As far as Ben is concerned in Menotti's short piece, the telephone is a great nuisance. He's going off on a trip and has decided to propose to his girlfriend Lucy before he goes. Unfortunately, he can't manage to pop the question as he is interrupted constantly by Lucy's friends calling her up on the phone, or by Lucy suddenly feeling the urge to exchange gossip or enquire about the health of her friend Margaret's cat and dog. Even a wrong number intrudes on this moment much to Ben's frustration. Eventually, showing that the phone can also serve a more useful function, Ben is finally able to propose to Lucy when he isn't even there by calling her up and proposing over the phone.

As a short 25 minute piece, The Telephone is by no means a terribly deep exploration of its subject, but it's still relevant and a universal concern that can be easily updated to a modern context. As it is evidently here in the Serbian National Theatre Novi Sad's production for the Armel opera festival, with Lucy using a mobile phone for her calls. The nature of the trivia discussed and even the comic nature of Ben trying to propose doesn't open it up to any greater purpose, and the only anachronism the production has to work around is that there is no cable that Ben threatens to cut. I'm not sure him producing a gun to shoot the thing - raising questions about Ben as a 'nice guy' - is entirely in keeping with the lighter nature of the work either.

It's a bright and colourful production however that motors along nicely, buoyed along by Menotti's jaunty chamber compositions with piano and flute, the rhythms playful in the manner of a lighter Puccini touch in something like Gianni Schicchi. The singing is mostly recitative-based - and sung in Serbian here - but that's tricky enough with the acting and movement required, not to mention bringing come character to the roles, which is done well here by Richard Rittelmann and Darija Olajos Cizmic. The work closes with a pleasant duet between one person on the stage and the other present only over the phone which perfectly illustrates the simple message of the opera that there is "you're never alone when you have a phone" but it's no substitute for real physical presence.

There are several connections that unite The Telephone with Samuel Barber's one-act opera A Hand of Bridge. The libretto was written by Gian Carlo Menotti, who was Barber's partner in life, and it also has the purpose of finding ordinary lives and everyday behaviour to be a suitable subject for accessible opera. Even playing a game of cards, there is evidently much more going on beneath the surface in the inner lives of the people gathered around the table. When you put two couples together, two men and two women each with their own personal concerns, you create a certain dynamic and a different kind of gameplay than just that of Bridge. But how much of that can you really express in a 10 minute opera?

In truth, not a lot, but - such is the nature of opera, staging and music composition - more than you might think. On face value, there's nothing surprising in the revelations of each of the couples as they each in turn set away from the table and tell us what is one their minds. Sally and Bill, David and Geraldine are concerned with trivial matters, Sally about buying a feather hat, David fantasising over wealth, power and sex; romantic notions, disillusionment and infidelity - there's nothing that is going to surprise anyone here, and despite some contemporary references in this updating to '50 Shades of Grey', there's less here that provides opportunities to make it feel more relevant.

Except, of course, that these trivialities, banal domestic matters and fantasies are still what preoccupy the minds of most people, and they can be dramatic, beautiful and funny in an opera, as Richard Strauss recognised and managed to orchestrate so well in Intermezzo (which as I recall, also has a game of Bridge in it). With only ten minutes to work with Samuel Barber obviously can't compete with that, but for all it is A Hand of Bridge can be brightly entertaining and imbued with character, and this production demonstrates that well.

As such a short piece it's also a work that obviously needs to be programmed with complementary works. Here, as part of the Armel Festival's 'Omnibus Opera' it comes between Menotti's The Telephone and Paul Hindemith's There and Back, the three combined barely adding up to 50 minutes in length. Hindemith's 10-minute piece is another little domestic incident, a scene between a husband and wife having a dispute over a letter he believes comes from her lover. Hindemith's twist however is a clever one, the scene ending with the husband shooting the wife, only for the entire scene to be straightaway played out again backwards on the intervention of a wise man with mystical powers.

Hindemith's palindrome structure for the short piece plays around with time to highlight the impact of cause and effect. If we knew an action might lead to an unhappy outcome, would we not modify our actions? Mainly however, the piece is just pure entertainment, a dramatic exercise that provides good opportunities for a small troupe of singers and musicians to run through their paces. The Novi Sad Theatre production doesn't attempt to do a lot with it, settling for a bold colourful cartoon version instead of the usual ordinary domestic setting. It takes its lead in this respect from the other two works, the letter of suspected infidelity in this case updated to a text message on a mobile phone, making it a familiar scene that will doubtless have been played out many times, although without the benefit of being able to take it all back. The musical performance is buoyant and playful, capturing the exuberance and richness of the piece.

Links: ARTE Concert, Armel Opera Festival