Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

The Threepenny Opera, London

‘Mack does bad things.’ The tabloid headline that convinces Rory Kinnear’s surly, sharp-suited Macheath that it might be time to take a short holiday epitomizes the cold, understated menace of Rufus Norris’s production of Simon Stephens’ new adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre.

La bohème, LA Opera

On May 25, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented a revival of the Herbert Ross production of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, La bohème. Stage director, Peter Kazaras, made use of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s wide stage by setting some scenes usually seen inside the garret on the surrounding roof instead.

Amazons Enchant San Francisco

On May 21, 2016, Ars Minerva presented The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles (Le Amazzoni nelle Isole Fortunate), an opera consisting of a prologue and three acts by seventeenth century Venetian composer Carlo Pallavicino.

Mathis der Maler, Dresden

While Pegida anti-refugee demonstrations have been taking place for a while now in Dresden, there was something noble about the Semperoper with its banners declaring all are welcome, listing Othello, the Turk, and the hedon Papageno as examples.

The Makropulos Case, Munich

Opera houses’ neglect of Leoš Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life.

Orphée et Euridice, Seattle

It’s not easy for critics to hit the right note when they write about musical collaborations between students and professionals. We have to allow for inevitable lack of polish and inexperience while maintaining an overall high standard of judgment.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Munich

Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).

Il barbiere di Siviglia at Glyndebourne

Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.

Oedipe at Covent Garden

George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.

Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette at Lyric Opera, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.

L’incoronazione di Poppea, RAO

‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’

Madame Butterfly , ENO

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.

Valiant but tentative: La straniera at the Concertgebouw

This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.

London Festival of Baroque Music 2016: Words with Purcell

As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.

The Dark Mirror: Zender’s Winterreise

From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.

Great Scott Wows San Diego

On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.

Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini, London

A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.

Manitoba Opera: Of Mice and Men

Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.

The Rose and the Ring

Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.

The Lighthouse at San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle

What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Kurt Streit and Susan Graham
06 Dec 2006

“Poppea” - Heartless in L.A.

After the successful première of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea” (Saturday, November 25th) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, General Director Placido Domingo spoke warmly and cogently about this early Italian masterpiece, about its free-flowing music and the perfect relevance of the text to today’s world with all its greed, ambition and self-seeking.

Above: Kurt Streit (Nerone) and Susan Graham (Poppea)

Below: David Daniels (Ottone) and Christine Brandes (Drusilla)

All photos courtesy of LA Opera

 

He might also have added that it was an opera that suited this particular city so very well: a web of drama and danger, political ambivalence and lack of moral centre. The baddies come out on top; the goodies, if they exist at all, fade into the sunset.

Los Angeles has become synonymous with downtown decay, the inhumanity of its suburban landscapes and an artistic immorality crystallized over decades by the Hollywood film machine. Today, as the city fights its own traditions to restore and renew what used to be good and worthwhile, the formerly conservative LA Opera has been making its own statement of change by allowing and encouraging productions that challenge audiences to leave their comfort zone. “Poppea” was an inspired choice, and although originally envisaged as a new production, it became necessary to import Pierre Audi’s celebrated staging for Netherlands Opera. To sell this to their less adventurous patrons LA Opera engaged world-class performers like Susan Graham (Poppea), Kurt Streit (Nerone), David Daniels (Ottone), Frederica von Stade (Ottavia) and got Harry Bicket to lead a thirteen-strong period band, complete with theorbos, lirone, and baroque cello, from the harpsichord. For many in the audience on first night, this was a revelation indeed: to be able to hear a vocal line with absolute clarity, where the words were everything, the music supporting rather than over-whelming.

In the early 1640’s, as opera was moving from the ducal palaces to public theatres, Monteverdi emphasised plot, drama and virtuoso vocal writing, leaving the gods and mythological creatures behind and concentrating on real human beings for the first time. With “Poppea”, opera entered a new age. Today, his problematic drama still causes an audience to stop and think: can these two rather awful people really win it all - and deserve that happy ending and sublime duet? Of course Monteverdi’s audience knew as well as we do (and probably better in many cases) what was to come later in the story of Nero and Poppea - the vicious violence, the bloody nadir of a tyrant’s rule. They knew that this was a snapshot in time, and that Virtue didn’t always conquer, that Fortune and Love were powers as fickle as dice.

These last three characters, opening the proceedings to set the stage and give warning of what is to come, were well sung by young singers Stacey Tappan, Tonna Miller and Hanan Alattar respectively, although the latter sounded least convincing stylistically. Throughout the opera the minor roles were mixed and matched between some very promising young artists with not a single voice sounding ill-tuned, nor a character looking under-rehearsed. Outstanding among them were tenor Nicholas Phan (Lucano/soldier/friend) and Keith Jameson, another young tenor, singing the role of page Valetto. Jill Groves gave an outstanding performance as Ottavia’s ancient Nutrice.

The roles of philosopher/poet Seneca and Drusilla, hopefully in love with Ottone, were taken by Reinhard Hagen, bass, and Christine Brandes, soprano. Hagen possesses a deep, warm bass that reverberated convincingly around the theatre, giving substance to a character that Monteverdi suggests is essentially morally weak, and even pretentious in his stoicism. Brandes is a baroque singer with world-class credentials and she made the most of the slightly put-upon character of Drusilla, making every word count with a pure soprano that sounded completely at ease in the idiom. Veteran performer Frederica von Stage might not be known for her Handel or Monteverdi, but she showed her immense versatility with a finely-drawn portrayal of Ottavia, vengeful spurned wife of Nerone. The voice might not be what it was in terms of sheer vocal beauty, but it still had power and a fine dramatic sense.

Singing the traditionally “travesti” role of Arnalta, Poppea’s foolish old nurse, British tenor Chris Gillett was a great success with the local audience, as he played the part with a fine balance between farce and pathos. This opera is full of wonderful comic moments, vignettes and asides, that lighten the overall gravity of what is going on “main stage” - and the ridiculous old snob is a major source of that light relief.

But the centre of this opera lies in a triangle of love, ambition and power, represented by Ottone, Poppea and Nerone himself. With David Daniels singing his first (and not last, we hope) Ottone, the audience was treated to a real baroque specialist at work. His exquisitely beautiful instrument is perfectly suited to the melismas and tonal contrasts of the work, not to mention the idiomatic musical style of the period - something not always quite so well accomplished by others. If the part doesn’t allow him to soar to where his voice really blooms, it certainly displays his other vocal and dramatic talents at their eloquent best. One of Audi’s adjustments this time around was to allow Daniels to extend the character from the rather one-dimensional and droopy “spurned lover” into something much edgier, much more scheming. One had only to watch Ottone’s eyes, whilst assuring Drusilla of his suspiciously new “love” for her, to know that she was being cruelly misled.

Ambition, impure and simple, is what the character of Poppea is all about and if Monteverdi had any sympathy for her, it doesn’t show. But there is a kind of awful magnificence about so driven a soul, so determined a woman in the man’s world that was ancient Rome, and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham was in many ways the perfect embodiment of those arguable virtues. Her pinpoint intonation, and expressive and assured control of dynamics ensured that she dominated scenes where Poppea set out her stall to become the most powerful woman in the land; there were also gorgeous pianissimo notes reflecting her occasional inner self-doubts. If there was any doubt in Nerone’s mind, it could only have been “when” not “if” he would gain Poppea as his empress. Kurt Streit is an immensely accomplished dramatic singer and he engaged all his abilities in this portrayal of the despotic emperor who uses absolute power with complete disregard for consequence. If his rich tenor seemed sometimes stretched beyond comfort, it was never to the extent of pain for either singer or audience. He too was able on première night to display some beautiful high soft notes that almost convinced us of his character’s ability to love. Baroque aficionados might argue about the decision to transpose the role of Nerone down from the high alto/male soprano range, as it certainly changes the musical balance between him and Poppea and Seneca, losing those delicious dissonances and “crunches” in the big duets. However, now that Daniels no longer sings Nerone, there are precious few male singers able to cope with the tessitura of this role at the original pitch - and fewer still with a name big enough to fill the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Before long, would it be too much to ask for a big house to use both Daniels as Ottone and perhaps young Michael Maniaci as Nerone? The one thing that the two principal singers could not offer in this production of “Poppea” was youth - and we therefore lost an essential element in the story, that of youthful arrogance and bravura. This Nerone was unpleasant, but he wasn’t the brattish young killer of history. This Poppea was beautiful and scheming, but she wasn’t the teenage temptress, nurse in tow, for whom Monteverdi wrote his melodious lines. This is where financial reality, in the form of box office receipts, meets artistic vision - a modern dilemma that the composer would have recognised full well even in the 1640’s.

One cannot leave this production without mentioning the superb costumes, for they were in fact the major scenic vehicles of story and character progression that gave focus and colour within Audi’s stark metallic sets. David Daniels (Ottone) and Christine Brandes (Drusilla) The renowned Japanese designer Emi Wada recreated many of the costumes for LA Opera, as the originals were too complex to re-size and each was a masterpiece in textural and expressive design. Both colour and complexity of materials are used to mark the moral and social rise and fall of the characters - for instance Poppea starts out in almost virginal cream and progresses through richer red and gold until she matches Nerone in imperial magnificence for her coronation. Much like Monteverdi’s great gift to modern opera as we know it today, Wada’s costumes are not time specific; they defy categorisation and remain as a work of art in themselves. In a city that is busy trying to re-invent itself, such timelessness shines out like a beacon of hope for the future.

© Sue Loder 2006

Remaining performances at 7pm on December 7th, 13th and 16th; matinee at 2pm December 10th.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):