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.
06 Jul 2005
Mitridate, re di Ponto at Covent Garden
I can only dimly imagine how this singular and arresting production was first greeted at Covent Garden back in 1991. To this newcomer’s eye it is still both amazingly original in its design and concept, and yet also oddly frustrating. Essentially, director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown and their team created a world, half historic, half fantastic, and one is left with a visual memory replete with starkly simple blood-red sets, kaleidoscopically coloured bizarrely shaped costumes and arrowed shafts of silver light, almost painfully reflecting from armoured breastplates. The time is about 65 BC and the world is one of an old Asia Minor versus a rising Rome, with an ageing King Mitridate fighting off both martial and sexual invasions of his territories. The heavy, stylised, costumes — extravagant to the point of caricature — are in themselves a theatrical tool that both enable and yet also constrain the drama of this young Mozart’s early work. If the singers were disadvantaged physically by what they were wearing, they didn’t seem to show it — although to be fair none had to move at anything more than a dignified pace. It was the supporting actors/dancers, Kabuki-like, who supplied the human activity — including a memorable “a capella” rhythmic foot-stamping war-interlude. All other dramatic extremes — be it fevered love declaration, jealous rage or elegant death — was conducted in an almost balletic minimalism of physical effort.
Bruce Ford (Photo: Clive Barda)
SKIRTS TO DIE FOR
Mozart's "Mitridate, re di Ponto" — July 9th, Covent Garden.
I can only dimly imagine how this singular and arresting production was first greeted at Covent Garden back in 1991. To this newcomer's eye it is still both amazingly original in its design and concept, and yet also oddly frustrating. Essentially, director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown and their team created a world, half historic, half fantastic, and one is left with a visual memory replete with starkly simple blood-red sets, kaleidoscopically coloured bizarrely shaped costumes and arrowed shafts of silver light, almost painfully reflecting from armoured breastplates. The time is about 65 BC and the world is one of an old Asia Minor versus a rising Rome, with an ageing King Mitridate fighting off both martial and sexual invasions of his territories. The heavy, stylised, costumes — extravagant to the point of caricature — are in themselves a theatrical tool that both enable and yet also constrain the drama of this young Mozart's early work. If the singers were disadvantaged physically by what they were wearing, they didn't seem to show it — although to be fair none had to move at anything more than a dignified pace. It was the supporting actors/dancers, Kabuki-like, who supplied the human activity — including a memorable "a capella" rhythmic foot-stamping war-interlude. All other dramatic extremes — be it fevered love declaration, jealous rage or elegant death — was conducted in an almost balletic minimalism of physical effort.
This suited some singers more than others: it was obvious that Bruce Ford was completely at home in this role that he was reprising here in London. He made a fine and oddly sympathetic tyrant bringing both inner energy and elegant singing to his mainly fairly short arias. It's generally agreed now that Mozart, only 14 years of age, wrote this opera almost entirely to suit his individual singers — possibly even more so than was usually the case at the time - and his King Mitridate then was an ageing tenor called Signor d'Ettore who pestered the young composer continually through rehearsals with his amendments and adjustments. Consequently, Ford's arias tend to be high impact but short, with fewer "da capos", or rather, "dal segnos" compared to his colleagues'. The demanding octave leaps and scales were particularly impressive although I thought I detected a slight straining by the end of Act 3 in his highest register. Perhaps a case of one high C too many that night as it's a most demanding tessitura for any high tenor.
Contrary to some oft- reported opinion, Mozart didn't, unlike with d'Ettore, have a particularly hard time dealing with his high-flying castrato singers this time - despite having to deal with the problem of a late-arriving primo uomo. Some things never change.
The king's two warring sons, Sifare (the "good" guy) and Farnace, (the conniving "baddy" son) were sung here by the British soprano Sally Matthews and the American star countertenor David Daniels, the latter best known for his Handel but singing in, I believe, his first staged Mozart opera and making a rare appearance as a countertenor on the Royal Opera stage. Today's incumbent at Covent Garden, Mr. Pappano, is not noted for his appreciation of baroque opera, and so those of us who do love it are sadly disenfranchised under his current artistic control and countertenors of Mr. Daniels stature are much missed at this venue.
Both singers were almost unrecognisable under layers of white make-up, bald-caps, long flowing tresses and over-wrought powdered wigs of terrifying dimension. However, compared to other "Mitridate" performances I have heard, here there was a very clear and very distinct vocal difference in both timbre and colour that worked extremely effectively to delineate these two pivotal characters. Matthew's ringing agile soprano, with a slight and appropriate edge to it, gave Daniels the chance to bring out his warm and mellifluous alto to contrast in a most dramatic paradox. Matthews was consistently excellent throughout, and her Mozart experience certainly showed: her resigned "Lungi da te, mio bene" was a beautifully executed example and deserved its warm reception. Daniels seemed a little less than his normal fluent self in the early scenes (as a normally very agile actor-singer was he subconsciously constrained by the heavy martial costume?) and although always wonderfully musical and correct, his Act 1 "Venga pur, manacci e frema" could have displayed a little more bite I thought. However, he quickly warmed in both voice and persona until, in his final aria of regret and reconciliation with his dying father "Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto" he let Covent Garden hear the full glory of his uniquely beautiful voice, and rightly received the ovation of the night in return.
A singer quite new to me, Aleksandra Kurzak, Polish born but working recently mainly in Germany, most successfully took on the testing role of leading lady, Aspasia, beloved by all three of the Royal house but in very different ways. She has a wonderful easy high top and truly sparkled in her Act 1 and Act 2 arias, although I felt she flagged a little in the final scenes. Her upcoming Queen of the Night at Chicago Lyric will be a much-anticipated event I would imagine. She seemed a natural actress and her dark expressive eyes and mobile face made up for a necessary lack of physical action, imprisoned as she was in huge pannier'd hooped skirts throughout. How the singers coped in the busy backstage area, not to mention in the canteen, is beyond me — talk about "exclusion zones will apply"!
Susan Gritton sang the sadly-wronged but dutifully faithful Ismene with her typical exquisite control and elegance, so obviously at home in the late baroque idiom. She, like Matthews, kept up an admirable consistency in both technique and control and although her arias couldn't make the same impact as some of the other singers' she was impeccable and musical throughout. The cast was completed by two promising young singers in the supporting roles of Arbate (Katie van Kooten) and Marzio (Colin Lee). Van Kooten had most to do, and did it well both vocally and dramatically. Lee had less to play with, and had to cope with an almost comic character of a late-arriving Roman general, but he has a clear strong voice and there will be more to come from him I hope in this sort of arena.
Richard Hickox was very much in command of the ROH orchestra who were, if not exactly inspired, certainly workmanlike and effective. Individual horn and oboe solos were neatly and idiomatically played but to be frank, my musical attention was scarcely aroused either way by the orchestra last night.
The almost-full Garden was warm in its final applause and each singer was kindly received, with the volume competition going, by a neck, to the American countertenor. I've heard that the ROH is selling remaining tickets at a discount — believe me this is a bargain and one that should be taken up whilst you can.
© Sue Loder 2005