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.”
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.
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.