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.
31 Jul 2006
Strong Tempest at Santa Fe
The news from Santa Fe Opera last week-end is good, unexpectedly so. The British composer Thomas Ades’ new (2004) opera, a riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, has been rumored hard to perform and harder to hear.
Sitting in at the final dress rehearsal Thursday night, this auditor tended to agree, and departed after Act I to rest his ears. The first act had seemed dense musically, over-loaded with exposition and narrative line and unrelieved by much lyric beauty. The much-hyped Ades has been criticized widely for ‘singing with the voices of others,’ and his prickly and disdainful outbursts against other composers, especially Johannes Brahms, have left a sour impression with many classical music audiences. “He’s not out to please,” one BBC official told me.
All negatives vanished Saturday (July 29) at the opening. The Tempest showed itself, in a masterful Santa Fe Opera production, a valid and even moving theatre piece, with a score that slowly develops into one of considerable beauty and emotional power. Ades, and his librettist Meredith Oakes, have condensed and somewhat rearranged the Shakespeare play, removed virtually all of its poetry, and made room for their own music to tell the story of the magician Prospero, more in love with his books than with life (perhaps), his innocent daughter Miranda and their adventures on a magical isle with the servant sprite Ariel and the earthy monster Caliban — figures much beloved in English literature over the centuries. You may still love them, as the comedy and humanity of the sweet old play remain and are reinforced by Ades’ beautiful and elegant music.
In terms of ‘singing with the voices of others,’ I will stick with that description of Ades, but not in any negative way. As the opera proceeds it increases in lyric quality, especially beginning with the Miranda/Ferdinand love scene closing Act II, and throughout Act III to its eloquent resolutions at the end. His inspiration is clearly Benjamin Britten — and the more ‘Britten’ we hear, the better the piece sounds.
Ades has his own way with harmonics and the musical rhetoric, but it is certainly sired by Wagner out of Britten, for without those two ancestors this score would not exist. The particular characteristics we hear are the uses of voice as another instrument of the orchestra, so to speak, and the moving back and forth between orchestra and stage of the special elements of musical drama. Wagner often claimed the real drama of his operas was in the orchestra; there is much of that here. But the colors and patterns of speech and line, familiar from Britten (especially Peter Grimes), inhabit this work and give it human scale and emotional availability. As one of the singers said of the closing pages of Act III, “in the end, it’s just open intervals and air.” The results are magical. The final act runs about ten minutes too long; I would have been happy to have Prospero close the piece with his benediction of the young lovers and acceptance of his need to forgive in life, but the creators wanted a reprieve for Caliban. “I have refocussed Caliban,” Ades said in a panel discussion before The Tempest’s opening, “and while Shakespeare was not looking, changed him a bit.”
There is so much more to say, and no room here. But the Santa Fe production team has to be given credit — and a major debt of gratitude it is! The unit set is an ingenious raked golden beach giving off into an edge of blue water at the footlights. Characters appear and disappear in surprising places — up from the sand or out of the water. A single barren tree overhangs the beach as a perch for Ariel and Prospero, while props and trappings come and go as if by magic. Costumes range from modern formal wear and stylish dresses for the court and chorus of survivors of the shipwreck that starts the action, to a magician’s robe for Prospero, and blue paint and not much else for the high soprano singing Ariel. The mise-en-scène delights, but it does not overshadow, for the music saturates everything and properly dominates the mood. Jonathan Kent’s direction and Paul Brown’s visual design are worthy supporting players in the scheme, as is Duane Schuler’s intense lighting.
The cast is uniformly strong, but out of a company of peers Rod Gilfry’s winning playing and resilient baritone singing as Prospero, as well as the high-pitched antics of Cyndia Sieden‘s Ariel predominate — as they should; their characters run the play and the opera. Young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand are attractive in the charge of Patricia Risley and Toby Spence, while familiar figures such as Chris Merritt and Gwynne Howell handle their lesser assignments well enough. Caliban is a nasty little brute energetically played and sung with a strong if reedy tenor by William Ferguson.
Much laud and glory are due Santa Fe Music Director Alan Gilbert for his musical control of the enterprise. He commanded the complex Ades score brilliantly; the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, which has thriven under Gilbert’s management, played with great effect. One regrets hearing this is Gilbert’s last season in his position with Santa Fe Opera, not yet officially announced, but much discussed in the community. He will be hard to replace. Gilbert, chief conductor of the Stockholm, Sweden Philharmonic, is said to be ambitious, and it’s to be regretted his aims may not include more Santa Fe seasons, for his contribution could be highly valuable to the long-term health of the opera company. Starting with his very first operatic assignment (Falstaff), in his Santa Fe debut (2001), Gilbert has developed into an eloquent operatic talent in only a few seasons.
General Director Richard Gaddes and his UK team of producers are to be complimented for presenting the North American premiere of an important new opera. It is in the best historic tradition of the pioneering festival company.
J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Note: After posting this commenatry, your reporter received a telephone call from Richard Gaddes, General Director of the Santa Fe Opera, who reads Opera Today. He wanted to make the point that he is perfectly delighted to have Alan Gilbert as Music Director of the opera company, and further that Gilbert has never told Gaddes he will not continue to serve. When I mentioned that Gilbert’s contract is said to have run out this season, Gaddes responded, “Yes, we do have some talking to do.” He said further, “Alan and I have an excellent relationship.” I thought these facts were worth adding to
my review. J.A.V.S.