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.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
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