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.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
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