Are you game for five acts of Gounod?

Are you game for five acts of Gounod?


norman lebrecht

September 23, 2018

Charles Gounod’s opera La reine de Saba received its US premiere last night in Boston, in the original, unseen five-act version.

Any good?

First review here.

There’s a warning that more Gounod will hit Boston next month.





  • Robert Groen says:

    If it’s as good as Faust, I suppose I could.

  • Lilas Pastia says:

    If one is at all game for Gounod one would certainly be game for five acts of him. Has Norman forgotten that Faust also has five acts?

    • Robert Groen says:

      Hola! Still pouring the manzanilla, Lilas? I agree with you about the Gounod, although I did find Mireille a bit boring.

  • V.Lind says:

    Sounds like a fabulous night. Let’s hope other orchestras or opera companies decide to cash in on this success and get the rights to perform it.

  • william osborne says:

    What if opera were a deeply flawed art form that never solved the problem that nature of time between words and music are very different, and that most operas are thus too long? And what if this problem has never been solved because opera is such a large an unwieldy art form that composers have not been able to do the experimentation to solve this problem? What if this problem were further compounded because classical music theater was so deeply derailed by an excessive focus on the bel canto voice that its theatrical evolution was severely limited?

    What if, as a result of these problems, we learned that the length of many operas need to be reduced by about 30 to 50%, and composers evolved who were very adept at making these revisions — at least in some of the more suitable works? Would this expand the extremely limited repertoire of operas that are regularly performed by making them more artistically effective? (Ah, the sacrilege of the idea…)

    What if we went even farther and began composing smaller forms, perhaps reducing the focus on the bel canto voice, and employed modern theatrical theories and concepts to create a form of classical music theater that brought the time worlds of words and music into a true unity?

    In short, I wonder if Boston which ranks a pathetic 250th in the world for opera performances per year, and which tore down its original opera house in 1958 after years of disuse, and which now works in a cavernous, re-purposed movie theater, is going in the wrong direction with its 3.5 hour production. (Or at least some of the few opera productions are done there. It’s used mostly for traveling shows.)

    In this sense, Philadelphia might be going in a better direction with is new festival of shorter, more modern works, which by the way, is almost a direct knock-off of the Munich Biennale founded in 1988 (30 years ago) by Hans Werner Henze. (This is never mentioned since it would taint the media campaign about Philadephia’s supposedly unique innovation.)

    I doubt, however, many will think about this. The opera world as a whole is, in spite of the common polemic, generally as stagnant and ossified as the genre it performs.

    • william osborne says:

      Sorry for all the errors. Tired today.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Not only tired, also full of misconceptions of what opera actually is. The aim of opera is NOT to get tempi of speech and music unified, because the art form is a stylization of reality, NOT reality. Also it is symbolic of human experience and not an imitation, and bel canto is merely one of the possible forms to express this experience – it’s all in the vocal line. Asking for modernization does not mean that it will be better. And as for naturalness of speech: there are lots of operas which have a surprisingly natural speech tempo: most of Mozart’s operas, most of Strauss’ operas, Bartok’s Bluebeard and Janacek’s operas, and Debussy’s masterwork Pelleas et Melisande. And much of Wagner’s work has a naturalness of speech (Meistersinger in particular). Maybe reading a bit about the art form will help.

        • william osborne says:

          This seems to be in part a semantic argument. If one doesn’t want to call the new developments of classical music theater opera, then call it something else.

          As I’ve noted many times, Americans, however, should not have the wool pulled over their eyes. The US ranks 39th in the world for opera performances per capita. We only have 3 cities in the top 100 for opera performances per year. We only have about 6 genuinely functional houses. Most Americans would have to travel hundreds of miles to see a genuinely professionally staged opera in a real opera houses.

          Many in the US classical community try to rationalize this by stressing contemporary opera and suggest that we do thus do not need real opera houses and real opera companies with genuinely full seasons including traditional repertoires. Hence the Philadelphia Opera model of having a short two or three week festival of mostly small contemporary works performed by pickup musicians in rental facilities and calling that their season.

          I’m sorry, but that is no substitute for a regular opera house with a regular full year, full time season in Philadelphia, the 9th largest metro GDP in the world. If the American classical music community tries to sell us that bill of goods, they are deceiving us. One can’t toss off a central genre of Western culture with such facile rationalizations – at least not if one wants to be intellectually honest. We see, for example, how Munich has its contemporary opera Biennale in addition to two full time, year-round opera houses.

          It is especially troubling when journalists help promote these American delusions about the arts and their support, though given the economic, social, and political structures journalism faces we can hardly expect anything else.

    • JJC says:

      Yes William, I’m sure that we can find a government official that, armed with statistics, can coerce us all into your perfect and necessary world of artistic expression. I’ll pass…

    • Robert Groen says:

      The Colon Ring, issued on DVD, cut Wagner’s great tetralogy to a mere seven hours. Not a success.

      (I know: “Colon Ring” sounds a bit like a scary medical implement, but that’s what they call it.)

    • william osborne says:

      The Met is also moving toward the idea of smaller productions in smaller views spread around the city.

      Many, if not most, larger European houses have small, black box theaters for smaller productions. The USA only has about 6 or 7 genuinely functional opera houses, and not one of them has a smaller studio theater for newer styles of production.

    • Lynn says:

      We live in an era that demands coherent plots, and you will not get such a thing from most of the great operas. Coherence is NOT the point of opera. The point of opera is to attach the deep feelings which one derives from a piece of music to specific situations. A composer and his ‘librettist’ (text writer) make those situations as specific as they can, but coherence must take a backseat to immediacy. Hopefully, those situations hit a nerve in you.

      Everything in opera is now subservient to the visual experience and making opera as coherent a narrative as any movie. Our priorities are fully backwards, and the result is that opera is dumber than ever.

      • william osborne says:

        I think we can set a higher standard for opera where coherence and emotion form a unity. This will lead to a more profound revelation of human identity. Many of the conventions of opera are no longer accepted, and with good reason. We should not bar opera from setting new and deeper goals for itself, especially when it will bring the genre into wider acceptance in the modern world.

        • william osborne says:

          I also wonder if we are entering a new era where the best composers and performers of opera will be those who most clearly understand its weaknesses and problems. It is exactly those people who will invent ways to give opera a new life.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Yes, but if these composers decide to use (post-)modernist means and/or trendy nonsense (to relate it to ‘modern life’), this won’t work. The nature of the art form is a delicate balance which cannot bear intrusions which have nothing to do with it. So, if a truly life-enhancing version of opera would emerge, it would be rooted in the best examples, and these cannot be found post-1945 but much earlier, and no opera house would accept that – given the misunderstandings which circulate there about contemporaneity.

  • Arthur Kaptainis says:

    Footnote: The Hungarian State Opera is bringing Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (1875) to Lincoln Center on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2. Good opera in my view, a hit in its day and revived every so often before the Nazis renovated the repertoire. Unrelated libretto. Only four acts.

  • Paul Mauffray says:

    And yet there is a rare and charming gem of a Bostonian opera (which is even less than 2 and a half hours long) just waiting to be revived once more in Massachusetts since it was last performed there in 1894. After its successful premiere and performances throughout America, the music had been lost for the past 124 years and was only just now reconstructed and performed in New Orleans in January 2018. Look for the wonderfully thorough review by Steven Ledbetter on-line in the Boston Intelligencer of The TABASCO Opera by George Whitefield Chadwick:

  • Alexander Platt says:

    Bravo to Gil Rose! What a great achievement.