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The Nose: Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”

Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.



Faust at HGO
08 Feb 2007

Houston stages a provocative “Faust”

A literary critic once recalled the day when a German could not clear his throat “without finding pithy precedent in Goethe.”

Yet, although the long-lived author’s “Faust” is without question one of the great works of world literature, the drama — near-impossible to render in verse in another language — is also among the most unread.

Indeed, most non-Germans who know the Faust story today are familiar with it through the re-telling of the horrors resulting from an aged professor’s pact with the Devil through Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera, billed in Germany for its focus on the Faust-Gretchen relationship as “Marguerite.”

Clearly a chestnut of the repertory, “Faust” is on stage this season for some 200 performances by 18 opera companies around the world. It is viewed, however, with feelings ranging from amusement to scorn by those who know the original; for them the opera offers at best an echo of Goethe’s protein-rich profundity.

The production of Gounod’s score currently on stage at the Houston Grand Opera contradicts them sharply. This is due in large part to the superlative conducting of Germany’s youthful Sebastian Lang-Lessing, now top maestro in both Nancy and Tasmania. He lays bare in this music a gravity and an undertow of sadness usually inaudible behind the glitter of the score and the many “hits” that explain its popularity.

Lang-Lessing, a frequent Houston guest, evokes superb playing from the ensemble that HGO music director Patrick Summers has so carefully built over the past several seasons. He makes a meaningful whole of Gounod’s somewhat disparate scenes, bringing both cohesion and dramatic intensity to the work.

The well-traveled production, when new here in 1985, was directed by Francesca Zambello; it has been revived by Elizabeth Bachman, who underscores the correctness of the conductor’s approach.

Drawing card of its return to the Brown Theater in the Wortham Center is Samuel Ramey as Mephistopheles, only one of the darkly Satanic figures among his signature roles.

Aside from an occasional wobble in the lowest notes, Ramey, well into his 60s, remains in his prime and accounts for much of the energy that drives the staging, seen on 26 January and again on January 28. There is no sign of wear in the voice, and the joy that he brings to his work infects all in the cast. The world’s reigning Don Giovanni for decades, Ramey remains a dashing presence.

The first act with Mephistopheles’ celebration of the Golden Calf is, of course, Ramey’s. He knows, however, that it is the love story that is the heart of “Faust” and takes care in Acts Two and Three not to steal the show..

Indeed, the scholars who interpret Goethe’s text have often suggested that Mephistopheles is not a separate being, but rather that “other soul” in the Faustian breast — that daemonic force that so often proves destructive both to its owner and those who fall to his force.

On January 26 an indisposed William Burden, a trifle sophomoric after his rejuvenation, surrendered the title role to veteran American tenor Gregory Kunde, last heard at the HGO as Pinkerton in 1983. Kunde, a gentle and sensitive Faust, took over the role completely for the matinee on January 29.

Tamasr Iveri from once-Soviet Georgia, is an un-Germanic Marguerite, happily freed from the blond braids and dirndl that — for those old enough to remember that era — often make her seem a survivor of the Hitler Youth. Overflowing with youthful elan as the work opens, Iveri is deeply feminine and movingly vulnerable as she moves through love to tragedy.

She explores the wonder of passion touchingly in the ballad “King in Thule.” Her “Jewel Song” is both jubilant and pensive, and she portrays Marguerite’s Ophelia-inspired derangement in the prison scene with Shakespearean pathos.

As Valentine Earle Patriarco avoids the tin-soldier trappings once thought essential to the role and sings the famous “Prayer” with melting warmth.

And in the mass military scene surrounding his return from battle it was a contemporary “bring-the-troops-home-now” touch to haul a badly wounded returnee on stage on a stretcher.

Gounod’s first made his mark as a composer for the church, and one might wish that he had concluded “Faust” with the powerful “Dies irae” from the Requiem for brother Valentine.

This is haunting music, obviously the work of a man of faith, and Earl Staley did well to break with the opulent naturalism of the staging to set it on a bleak and darkened stage dominated by an immense cross..

“Faust,” even when performed — as it is here — without the apocryphal “Walp;urgis Night.” is a long opera, and would be effective without the final Prison scene, although it is, of course, taken directly from Goethe.

In conclusion, a reminiscence: the music of “Faust” first came my way in my South Dakota childhood during the Great Depression. An early-morning Minneapolis disc jockey, sponsored by Dayton’s, played this final scene with a frequency that I found uncalled for.

The recording was in English and the claim that marguerite was “saved” versus the certainty that she was “damned” recalled Salvation Army Saturday night curb-side musicales, a further source of music in that distant, dismal day.

Perhaps it is for that reason that I still feel today that Gounod bathed somewhat excessively in the Blood of the Lamb.

And, finally, a moment of happy recall.

Sam Ramey, then just a kid from Colby, Kansas, first stood on an opera stage as an apprentice at the Central City Opera in 1963. He was in the chorus of a fine “Don Giovanni.”

Not surprising, perhaps, that he was to rule the Mozart world in that role for decades of his long career.

Wes Blomster

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