The Lincoln Center Festival—now in its 17th year—embraces all the performing arts in various, often surprising combinations and permutations. The festivities begin this summer on July 5 and end on August 5. Seven different venues, on and off the so-called campus at Lincoln Center, host 72 performances by artists and groups from seven countries. Some of the participants come bearing—ok, flaunting—lofty international credentials. Others, leaning toward experimentation rather than proven tradition, arrive as relative unknowns. That occasionally makes quality control unpredictable. It also adds a welcome sense of adventure.
Opera lovers—especially those who do not think the art form died with Puccini—will be drawn to the New York premiere of Émilie, a controversial chamber-opus by the Finnish modernist Kaija Saariaho. A taut, 80-minute monodrama in nine scenes, the music and words (libretto by Amin Maalouf) examine the final, desperate days of the Marquise Émilie du Châtelet, a historic mathematician and physicist who happened to be the mistress of Voltaire. Her study of the essence of fire earned universal scientific recognition and, in the process, a triumph over Gallic sexism.
The opera was commissioned by the Opéra National de Lyon and first performed there in 2010 with Karita Mattila in the demanding title role. Saariaho dedicated Émilie to the Finnish singing actress.
Reviewing the world premiere in analytical terms, Paul Driver reported in the Sunday Times of London that the composer, “like her fellow Paris émigré Samuel Beckett, comfortably unites her cultural origins and a new linguistic environment. An unmistakably Scandinavian feeling for massive but radiant texture, for effects of light, elides in her work with a very French affinity for experimental timbre.” Anna Picard of the Independent admired “the sensuality of the score’s baroque references—the fretful rhythms and verdant trills of Rameau, Purcell, and Scarlatti.”
Subsequent performances took place in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Opera using the same staging apparatus. The U.S. premiere, an entirely different production, was hosted by the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston last June.
In a rather ambivalent review for the New York Times, James R. Oestreich observed that “opera is passion, and there is passion here aplenty.” He also noted the preponderance of “high-flown thought.”
The Lincoln Center performances, which duplicate the Charleston version, feature the virtuosic American soprano Elizabeth Futral in the tour-de-force title role. The opera is directed by Marianne Weems, artistic director of the experimental theater company known as The Builders Association. Video projections serve as the primary scenic device, reportedly reflecting Émilie’s prismatic state of mind. John Kennedy conducts the youthful Ensemble ACJW.
Performances take place on July 19, 21 and 22 (7:30 p.m.) at the intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater. This beautifully renovated auditorium on 10th Avenue, between 58th and 59th Streets, happens to be part of the rather incongruous John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
The same venue hosts another striking novelty on July 26, 27 and 28
(7:30 p.m.): Feng Yi Ting (The Phoenix Pavilion) by the Chinese composer Guo Wenjing. Written in 2004, lasting only 45 minutes, and sung in Chinese with English titles, this potentially provocative mini-opera comes to New York directly from Charleston, where the U.S. premiere took place in late May.
Born 56 years ago in Chongqing, Guo Wenjing began his formal studies at the Central Conservatory of Beijing in 1978, the year that institution reopened. He later headed the composition department, and still teaches there. His music, first heard outside Asia in 1983, reflects a combination of new Western and old Chinese influences, and his output includes concertos for erhu and bamboo flute, an opera based on the life of the Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai, and scores for several films.
Celebrated film and theater director Atom Egoyan stages this production, with video images by Tsang Kin-wah of Hong Kong and sets by the Tony Award winner Derek McLane. The costume designer is Han Feng, best known here for her lavish contributions to Anthony Minghella’s Madama Butterfly at the Met. The cast, which includes a conventional operatic soprano and countertenor, is accompanied by young musicians from Carnegie Hall and Juilliard in addition to four specialists playing traditional Chinese instruments. The conductor is Ken Lam of Montclair State University.
The somewhat convoluted plot involves the vital conflict between two powerful warlords who happen to be in love with the same inscrutable woman, the beauteous Diao Chan. The action takes place during the Eastern Han Dynasty, that is, between 25 and 220 AD. Not incidentally, Nigel Redden, the discerning director of the Lincoln Center Festival, heralds Feng Yi Ting as “an exquisite chamber-opera by a major Chinese composer.”
A primary magnet for those who favor traditional symphonic values must be the concert on July 11 (8 p.m.) uniting the student orchestras of America’s Juilliard and the British Royal Academy. John Adams, probably the world’s most popular quasi-minimalist, serves as conductor for Respighi’s lush Feste Romane and Ravel’s jazzy Piano Concerto in G (with the fine soloist Imogen Cooper). The central attraction, however, is Adams’ own City Noir, a 30-minute essay first performed in 2009 on the other coast, which is inspired, according to Lincoln Center authorities, “by the peculiar ambience and mood of Los Angeles’ noir films, especially those produced in the late ’40s and early ’50s.” It sounds darkly intriguing.