Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
07 Dec 2004
Rigoletto at Amsterdam (and an appraisal of tenor Joseph Calleja)
How does it come about that "modern" productions date so quickly while "traditional" ones can go on for ages ? Probably, because ideas that once were fresh and innovative are immediately picked up by everybody in the business, copied (sometimes...
How does it come about that "modern" productions date so quickly while "traditional" ones can go on for ages ? Probably, because ideas that once were fresh and innovative are immediately picked up by everybody in the business, copied (sometimes ad nauseam) and seem stale when they reappear some years later.
For one moment I thought that the great recycler-of-the-one-idea-he-ever-had, Mr. Robert Wilson, had directed the Amsterdam Rigoletto. During the prelude the chorus slowly raised their arms in the well known tai-chi manner while the ugliness of their red unisex penguin costumes reminded me of the horrors during the second act of Aida at De Munt in Brussels (later spewed out at London's Covent Garden). A few whispered words told me that the director actually was the Dutch Monique Wagemakers, best known for her work as director of a regional company, and that the production had first been shown in 1996. Miss Wagemakers succeeded exceedingly well in rehashing all clichés of Das Regietheater. The chorus was not only a company of courtiers but of course were viewers as well from high on at the events in the last act. A normal floor is out of the question when one can use an inclined plane that is a comment on its own on what's happening. And to top it all (pun intended) Rigoletto's house is somewhat reduced to one very high steep and rather small flight of steps. There Gilda may sing her Caro nome and there she is kidnapped. One could almost sense the fear of soprano and chorus when they had to wrap her in and then lower her down after Zitti, ziti. And the poor baritone had to run up quite a few steps before able to launch his Ah ! La Maledizione and as could be expected, the voice had no air left and it was only a tiny curse. In short Miss Wagemakers only succeeded while trying to free us from old clichés in giving us new ones.
Mind you, I realize only too well that an old war-horse as Rigoletto is difficult to renovate; especially after Jonathan Miller's updating to Little Italy in the fifties at the English National Opera some 20 years ago. That was an example of a well thought out production that made the opera seem like new to me and I admit, made it difficult for this reviewer to accept the traditional court of Mantua. Still give me the court any day if the alternative is a box of clichés. The one positive aspect of this Rigoletto was the treatment of the singers. No impossible gestures and the face firm to the public.
Conductor Daniele Callegari is a man who knows his Verdi and I was somewhat surprised he chose the easy option to make an impression now and then: either too slow tempi (the prelude) or too fast ones (Cortiginani vil razza). But most of the time he kept a firm rein on the orchestra and was not above indulging his singers. Anthony Michaels-Moore was Rigoletto. I wonder if he could make the same excellent impression in a theatre a size bigger (say Covent Garden). Michaels-Moore is excellent in early Verdi and I liked his Doge in I due Foscari at De Munt very much. He is no roaring madman as Bastianini was and for a moment I wondered if Rigoletto is not a shade too heavy a role. But he succeeded admirably. The voice is smooth, well-rounded and used very stylishly. He often reminded me of Fischer-Dieskau's famous DG-recording in the way he treated words and phrases. But Michaels-Moore 's voice is not a short tenor manqué but a real baritone with a firm brown core and a strong secure top.
Young Italian soprano Cinzia Forte sang Gilda. She has a nice lirico with a firm coloratura technique; somewhat like Rosanna Carteri or young Moffo. The first act she remained a little too bland, too colourless. Just a nice but not too distinct voice. But this changed in the second act when the voice bloomed and took colour. She will probably go far. Roles like Sparafucile and Maddalena are sometimes not cast from strength but one realizes the importance of good voices in these roles as well when one has suffered the hollow ugly tones of both Mario Luperi and Graciela Araya.
And then there was tenor Joseph Calleja whom I had heard a few years back at De Munt in Don Pasquale. In the meantime his career is going fast, maybe even a little too fast. There is a first recital on Decca where he sings a lot of stuff that is simply unsuitable for the voice like Adriana Lecouvreur. So I wondered how much he had improved on his very fine Ernesto of a few years ago. First of all, the voice has gained in strength and volume without damaging the basic colour. Imagine a little bit of young Björling mixed with parts of young Pavarotti and add a healthy dose of young Tagliavini while the small fluttery vibrato is all Calleja's own. In short, a mellifluous and exciting lyric tenor sound in the very best Italian tradition. The voice is maybe not over big but carries extremely well in a difficult theatre like Amsterdam. The only weakness for the moment lies at the very top of the range and that is somewhat unlike Pavarotti and Björling but more than one tenore di grazia had a short top. Still that has improved too. The high B in La donna è mobile rang out freely, courtesy of Maestro Callegari who allowed his tenor a deep breath before attacking the note. Calleja (please pronounce his name as if he would be Spanish, thus Calle- ch- a) for the moment has not got a high C and he should refrain from taking the high option in Addio, addio which he sang in falsetto. There is one Pavarotti-feature he should better not emulate. He will be only 27 next January and already has got weight problems which make costume designers looking for solutions so as not to accentuate his girth. So, please Mr. Calleja, try to rein in your appetite after a performance and it will be better for your breath too.
Now having heard both Calleja and Villazon at Amsterdam in a few months time (and Florez at De Munt), how do they compare ? Villazon is definitely the better actor though as a singer he has his weaknesses too: not much of a piano and not a shameless top note hunter either as is Florez. Calleja definitely has the more beautiful voice, the most exciting rich timbre of all three. His is a golden sound that reminds us of the very best Italian lyric tenors. Villazon is an exciting performer and an impressive voice with his dark smooth sound sometimes quivering from emotion like the fine verismo tenors before the war. Florez lacks either the exquisite sound of Calleja or the big sound of Villazon but is nevertheless a miracle in his repertoire. Personally and this is personal indeed I'd place Calleja nr. 1, followed by Villazon and Florez on third place. But how lucky we are that after the dreary lean years of the late eighties and nineties we have once more such three fascinating tenor voices.