Jake Heggie’s first opera, ‘Dead Man Walking’, just had its UK première. It forms part of the Barbican’s ‘Art of Change’ season, which explores how artists reflect, respond to, and may affect, society. It’s a work which deserves to be shown more widely. For my review of it for Seen and Heard International click here.
Why write two articles about it? Because the Kepler’s Trial project is and does so much of what I think contemporary opera is capable of being and doing. It delves into the past to engage with the present.
For the review of Kepler’s Trial on Seen And Heard International, click here.
For the article in Talking Humanities on the unusual process behind the opera, click here.
My latest article for Seen And Heard International covers L’Arpeggiata and Giuseppina Bridelli. Their intelligent, exciting programme at Wigmore Hall revealed just how musically innovative the early Baroque was. Astoundingly beautiful and expressive music, gloriously performed. You can access the full review by clicking here.
Kepler’s Trial is a remarkable example of opera firmly engaging with the present – a characteristic of this art form since its earliest days. It does so in two interrelated ways: by condensing and conveying the results of uncompromising scholarship; and by revisiting the past. It tells the story of Katharina Kepler (1546-1622), accused of witchcraft in 1615, and of her son Johannes (1571-1630), the famous astronomer, who defended her during her six-year trial. By shedding light on true historical events, it confronts us with present-day attitudes towards big themes, as if a magical telescope which can probe the past had hit upon a mirror and found its own image hazily but surely reflected back.
The panel discussion which preceded the sold-out performance at the V&A highlighted some of the themes. Prof. Ulinka Rublack, whose The Astronomer and the Witch offers the basis for the opera, spoke about old women’s vulnerability to injurious representations. Prof. Simon Schaffer provided insights into Kepler’s complexity as a man rooted in his time and yet also transcending it (no surprise the space observatory launched by Nasa to discover Earth-like planets is named after Kepler). Dame Marina Warner placed the astronomer’s youthful The Dream in the context of wonder tales and representations of ‘wise women’. The composer Tim Watts and the video artist Aura Satz shared some of the considerations which went into the music, libretto and film elements (see review).
Behind Kepler’s Trial is a multi-disciplinary effort involving scholars from the University of Cambridge and other institutions, across several faculties. A successful synthesis of that effort into a compelling outcome is worth shouting about and being brought to a wider public.
In October this year, the European Literature Network published The Nordic Riveter, a compendium of writing about contemporary Nordic fiction in English translation. It’s available in bookshops, embassies, universities, libraries and arts organisations – and now also for download from http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-nordic-riveter-to-download/ . Whether you are a ‘Nordic Noir’ addict, a newbie to literature from the region, or are curious to discover its different strands and what they offer, you’ll find much to inspire and inform your reading.
This is the third of the European Literature Network’s Riveters. The first was devoted to literature from Poland, on the occasion of the 2017 London Book Fair’s Polish focus. The second, on literature from Russia, coincided with ELNet’s Russian events at the British Library. This time, five countries are represented: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
I normally review English-language editions of novels originally written in Italian, German and French, the languages and cultures I grew up with. But the editor of The Nordic Riveter asked whether I might take a look at Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo’s The Core of the Sun, which had come highly recommended. I’m very grateful for his suggestion: the book is highly engaging and thought-provoking. You can find my review here: http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/rivetingreviews-valeria-vescina-reviews-the-core-of-the-sun-by-johanna-sinisalo/. I hope it will intrigue you and encourage you to discover this and more of the literature discussed in The Nordic Riveter.
All images from the European Literature Network website.
The length and writing style of this novella might, at first, suggest a quick read, but take your time and you’ll be rewarded. Laurain has reflected on the many profound meanings of the words ‘portrait’ and ‘collecting’, and distilled those thoughts into a literary creation of exquisite grace. Witty, whimsical, poignant, thought-provoking… Highly recommended.
The two operas formed part of the engaged and engaging programming of the Festival della Valle d’Itria, one of Italy’s oldest opera festivals. Located in Puglia and now in its forty-third edition, this year it adopted the theme ‘Love and Mars’ – not the more usual ‘Venus and Mars’ because one of the programme’s fils rouges was the querying of gender roles. That querying was not an anachronistic re-interpreting of the relevant operas by their directors, but faithful to their texts and music.
A square in Martina Franca
Ducal Palace, Martina Franca
Basilica of St. Martin, Martina Franca
The first of the two operas is Le Donne Vendicate (The Women’s Revenge) by Niccoló Piccinni (1728-1800), with a libretto derived from the Enlightenment playwright, Carlo Goldoni (1707-1793). See review here.
The second is Orlando Furioso by Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), with a libretto by Grazio Braccioli (1682-1752) based on the eponymous work by the Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533). See review here.
Both works are steeped in the experimentation and questioning of the Enlightenment (and, in Ariosto’s case, in that current of Renaissance humanism which sided with women in the Querelle des Femmes but lost out during the Counter Reformation), but periods of significant cultural ferment have, historically, alternated with others of retrenchment, resulting in historical discontinuities.
Both operas were born of a spirit of respect for the worth of all human beings, which by definition is irrespective of gender, social class, race or religion. The Goldoni behind Le Donne Vendicate is representative of – whilst also being influential on – that aspect of his era. In his oeuvre, morality rests not in time-honoured hierarchies, mores and tenets, but in a psychologically profounder sense of what is just, good and wise. Meanwhile, the hero of Braccioli’s Orlando is Astolfo, whose blend of mildness and courage enable the overcoming of all manner of obstacles. Maybe we should be rediscovering early operas more frequently, for the shock of the old to inform the new.
The third opera reviewed at the Festival della Valle d’Itria for Seen And Heard International is Margherita d’Anjou by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864) with libretto by Felice Romani (1788-1865). See review here.
Photo of Barbara Massaro as Aurelia in Le Donne Vendicate, courtesy of Festival della Valle d’Itria.
Photos of the town of Martina Franca (home of the Festival della Valle d’Itria) by the author. All rights reserved.
Images of reviews of Le Donne Vendicate, Orlando Furioso and Margherita d’Anjou from Seen And Heard International website.