Recently in Performances
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value
a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
29 Mar 2006
Hit and miss in Amsterdam’s Cavalleria and Pagliacci
Guy Joosten, who recently directed the Met’s new Roméo et Juliette, reworked an attempt of Cav and Pag presented at the Essen Opera for the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. I cannot say he succeeded or to put it more plainly: Cav was bad and Pagliacci suffered too.
As productions of these operas go nowadays, it is almost impossible to find an eternal twin that is not intermingled. It has become almost a law unto itself that the players of Pagliacci have to be present during the performance of Cavalleria looking at a tragedy in the same place at the same time where they too, unknowingly, will suffer. That was the way the operas were directed some years ago at De Munt in Brussels and that’s the cliché Joosten cannot do without. Well, it would be more or less acceptable if there would be any consistency in his production; but that’s the one feature that’s conspicuously lacking.
Cavalleria is, of course I almost say, not played in a village but in a Sicilian city market place with dozens of apartments in the background. It clearly plays at the end of the sixties or during the seventies as there are playbills for a movie by Fellini. Moreover all men and women are clothed in black, a phenomenon now almost completely gone from Sicily. But at the same time those men and women make a series of lewd gestures telling Alfio he is a cuckold during his aria, which no Sicilian woman in those days would ever have dared to think of. Alfio is clearly too dumb to understand these clear implications and has to wait another half hour before Santuzza tells him what fifty others have graphically showed him earlier.
Pagliacci is performed in the same venues, still with the Fellini playbill. Nevertheless, during the foolery in the second act, Nedda lies stretched on a table with Beppe climbing on her and mothers speeding their children away. Until a few years ago, any wandering troupe performing these acts in Sicily would have been in jail in the shortest time. I howled with delight when Joosten had someone cycling on the scene. There are people with bicycles in Sicily preparing for competition; but I have yet to see the first Sicilian riding a bike as if he is in Amsterdam. Then anybody vaguely familiar with Italy knows all too well the balcony scenes that always take place. Still, while murder and adultery is taking place in front of all those balconies, nobody is ever watching. Joosten, who is as Flemish as this reviewer, may be an unbeliever (as is this reviewer). But, as all Flemings, he has a catholic background and, therefore, he shouldn’t ask the whole chorus to kneel down when the statue of Our Lady is carried along in procession. Catholics indeed kneel, but only at the moment the priest appears with the Sacrament.
Allow me some leeway as recently there was a long discussion on a well-known operatic forum on Santuzza’s twice-repeated phrase, “I’m ex-communicated”. The reason for ex-communication may be twofold but a first one is highly improbable. I cannot imagine the Church officially repudiating Santuzza so that she may not receive sacraments unless she repents and is once again accepted. A young peasant girl is too unimportant for such treatment. A more reasonable explanation is the fact that in Mascagni’s time catholic theology made a clear distinction between daily and deathly sins (if you died unexpectedly you went straight to hell). Such a heavy sinner was not allowed to receive the Holy Communion unless he or she had confessed and received absolution. Sex before marriage was such a deathly sin—though in Sicily men easily got away with it while women were really damned. Even if nobody knew about it, the sinner herself knew it and, therefore, couldn’t receive communion as that would only have made her position worse in the eyes of God. Santuzza cannot hide from her problems as it is Easter and that is the only time in the year a Catholic has to receive communion or otherwise he/she adds another deathly sin to his tab. “Povera Santa” thus really feels utterly desolate and betrayed. Of course, she may confess; but there is a fat chance that the priest will refuse absolution as in his Mediterranean view women are always at fault. She doesn’t want to cheat and receive communion and thinks herself ex-communicated. And that’s another problem with updating Cavalleria. During Mascagni’s time people really suffered when they thought they had sinned and refusal of redemption was a modern theme. My grandmother and her whole generation had those horrible fears of hell and damnation but by the seventies, even in Italy, youngsters of Santuzza’s age (around 20) already thought hell was risible.
Back to Joosten’s ideas. Judging by her dress, Santuzza is four or five months pregnant, without all those sharp ladies and gents noting it. But the absolute innovation of this production is the “grande finale.” While Turiddu acknowledges his mistakes, he clearly announces he will kill Alfio “come un cane (like a dog)” as he has to look after “povera Santa.” And how does Turiddu punish Alfio? He voluntary hands over his knife to the cuckolded husband and then falls upon it with Alfio’s looking sheepishly at Turiddu’s suicide. At least in Pagliacci we were spared such innovative directing and the opera ran its normal traditional course.
The musical aspect clearly showed some parallels with the production. Carol Vaness (sorry to say, but looking her age) still has a fine medium but wobbles and shrieks the moment she has to sing above the staff. The real fly in the ointment was Zoran Todorovich. He consistently sang flat with big beefy tones utterly devoid of beauty. The show had to be saved by baritone Zeljko Lucic, who had a good stage presence and the dark brown voice, though slightly underpowered, that belong to the role. Dutch Tania Kross was a splendid, sensuous (voice and figure)Lola and veteran Livia Budai a convincing mamma Lucia. Carlo Rizzi conducted the fine Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Rizzi is very popular in Amsterdam while he is very adept at choosing correct tempi and he never tries to drown his singers. Still there were a few moments when pit and stage were not coordinated.
Baritone Zelkjo Lucic was even better as Tonio and Joosten allowed him to sing the Prologue before the curtain, a now almost defunct tradition that nevertheless proved its worth. The voice was by far fuller and had splendid high notes. Canio was sung very professionally by Dennis O’Neill. The Welsh tenor has now been singing for 34 years and the voice slowly changed from an almost tenore di grazia into a big lyric. On record the least one can say is that the voice is not much kissed by the mike and his Dick Johnson must be one of the worst recordings around. In the flesh, however, I was surprised by the fresh sound he produces. He is now 58 and his breath has become somewhat short. Therefore his “Vesti la giubba” was more impressive than “No, Pagliacci o non son” where he often had to break the line. He is very small and very fat and though this may be somewhat cruel he completely looks the part. Riccardo Botta made the most of the role of Beppe.
And then there were the redeeming features of this performance. Several years ago I first heard Ana María Martínez on German TV when she and another artist gave a big open air concert, Placido Domingo conducting. I was dumb-struck by the beauty of the voice in several zarzuela pieces. Not since young Pilar Lorengar had anybody sung so beautiful in that wonderful music. For a few years, it seemed as if this Puerto Rican lady wouldn’t make it to the big leagues but this, too, has changed. For her Met début, Naxos has brought out her first CD, already recorded 6 years ago. But the voice is now far richer and colourful. In the medium, it is probably the most beautiful sound around. Though she has good high notes as well, I hope she will succeed in enlarging somewhat the volume above the staff without damaging the rest of the voice. And yes she can act, too. Her duet with Silvio was one of the best experiences I had in opera for many years. And Rizzi and Martínez opened the cut in “Nedda ! Silvio!” and one wonders why those few beautiful bars for soprano are always left out. My luck went even further because young American Kyle Pfortmiller proved himself to be a find, too. A young slender man with a big booming, but very lyric and smooth, baritone should go far. Maybe some will find his vibrato a little bit exaggerated but not this reviewer. In a few years time this is a voice that could give us a father Germont and other lyric roles in the great American baritone tradition of Robert Merrill.