09 Aug 2006
SANTA FE OPERA: Golden Oldies
Carmen and The Magic Flute have finally made it onto my calendar, a nice way to end the summer opera festival at Santa Fe.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
Carmen and The Magic Flute have finally made it onto my calendar, a nice way to end the summer opera festival at Santa Fe.
Both shows badly needed a better viewing here, for over the last decade or more each has been ill served, either by bad singing, poor productions or both. Not so Season 2006.
The appearance of Anne Sophie von Otter as Carmen is said to have derived from Santa Fe Music Director Alan Gilbert’s friendship with her in Sweden where, during the winter season, he is music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. We should have more conductors with such resources! Von Otter was immediately tagged “a thinking man’s Carmen” by local cognoscenti – a good description. She is entirely into the role; she’s in charge of it and presents it for its musicality and not its sluttish tossing about; of that there was none. Von Otter’s Carmen was single minded – she wanted what she wanted, period. She was calm and self-assured; she looked well but not extravagant or deranged. The tall slim mezzo could simply stand still and smile, show her eyes, and her thoughts were immediately clear. Best of all, von Otter sang with the crystalline precision and expressiveness of a fine lieder singer, or in this case a singer of mélodies. The voice was always easy, well-supported and colorful; her diction precise, and even quietly spoken dialogue was heard. This Carmen was good humored and had fun – right up to the final scene. Who could ask for anything more? Well, one thing, a return engagement.
The other chief interest of the August 1 performance, was the role assumption by Laurent Naouri, Paris-born baritone appearing as Escamillo with easy assurance and authority, in his American debut. Naouri had everything needed: the right age, a trim build, a well produced bass-baritone that moved evenly through the scale, and plentiful masculine charm. Needless to say, his language was idiomatic, his singing with von Otter of the Act IV duet was a meeting of high professional equals – thrillingly so. Naouri sang the Toreador song freshly and without manner; for once, the right approach! Carmen has been waiting for a Toreador of this caliber.
The balance of the cast was of lesser stripe and I wont dwell on it, except two young smugglers, Remendado and Dancaire, sung by Keith Jameson and David Giuliano, respectively, both excellent and deserve recognition. The production was agreeable in a mild sort of way, the naturalistic stage direction by Lars Rudolfsson. Action was updated to Spain of the 1960s, which did nothing special for the grand old piece, but at the same time did no harm. If Franco’s fascism were just around the corner, I never saw it. The smugglers’ mountain pass became a transportation staging area filled with freight containers in process of unloading – not illogical. But it counted for little. Frankly, I’ve seen Carmen played on an empty stage and it was fine. It’s that kind of well-stocked operatic masterpiece. Some in the audience wanted more gypsies and more color; I was so content with the fine singing and music making, little else mattered.
The Santa Fe Opera orchestra is playing better this season than I have heard them, and August 1 was no exception. Alan Gilbert’s tempos were mainly just (one or two spots dragged), and he had good ideas about clarity and balance. This is a Carmen for Santa Fe to repeat.
The good news does not stop there: The Magic Flute, sung in German, spoken in modernized English, returned for the first time since 1998 in an innovative and charming new production by Tim Albury. Mozart’s thrice-familiar tunes and set pieces are hard to keep fresh, but the one true way to do so, is to play them honestly and with confident musicality; here honors must go to music director William Lacey, who has conducted at Houston, Utah and his native England. He was the spark plug of this Flute, which he kept brisk and clear as a cup of tea (lemon, please).
He was much assisted by Tim Albury’s clean natural direction and an innovative production concept the hallmarks of which were simplicity and elegance. Magical props and refreshingly dynamic lighting (by Jennifer Tipton who has worked well before at Santa Fe with Albury), graced an always-lively and engaging show. I’ll not give away the stage events, but the audience was at one point applauding the scenery, unusual at Santa Fe. Tobias Hoheisel’s visual designs were another strong element of this Flute’s success.
Added to all this excellence, Santa Fe assembled a cast of splendid equals to sing and play Mozart’s near-vaudeville entertainment: Toby Spence and Natalie Dessay as the young lovers, fresh and lyric and enjoying themselves; Andrea Silvestrelli’s full mellow basso and his kindly avuncular persona graced Sarastro; Heather Buck was a spot-on Queen of the Night (who reentered the action on Sarastro’s arm at the every end – a novel if controversial touch); young baritone Joshua Hopkins won hearts with his winsomely comic Papageno, the snarly Monostatos of the engaging David Cangelosi whose bark was worse than his bite – these and many others in the large cast betokened quality casting throughout.
Some voice aficionados wondered how California soprano Heather Buck could manage to sing Queen of the Night’s great vengeance aria with Natalie Dessay standing near her on the same stage, Dessay having been a reigning Queen of the Night only a few years ago? The answer: Buck sang confidently, brilliantly – the singers’ juxtaposition, with the slender young-looking Dessay as her daughter Pamina, lending a certain frisson to the occasion. It is always nice to play from strength, and this Magic Flute had it!
©2006 J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico