Recently in Performances
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to
explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs
that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and
theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican,
London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony
Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating
a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens
or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me
I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
16 Feb 2007
Jean-Baptiste Lully, Armide (Opera Lafayette)
The Opera Lafayette of Washington DC has been engaged in a new project this season – the Armide Project, as the group dubbed its ambitious plan, in collaboration with the University of Maryland Opera Studio, to present two great operas set to the same celebrated Philippe Quinault libretto.
On February 4th, the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park MD hosted a
concert performance of the original Armide – the 1686 masterpiece by Jean-Baptiste Lully; in
April, the collaborators will offer a fully staged production of the 1777 Armide by Christoph
Willibald Gluck, who resolved to conquer Paris by confronting the most famous creation of his
Lully’s Armide, an enduring hit on the French operatic stage for a century after its premiere, is
not often heard these days – particularly live. So, even unstaged, Opera Lafayette’s production of
this brilliant, complex score was a rare treat to both the early music fans and the generally
curious who packed the sold-out Dekelboum concert hall last Saturday afternoon. The 16-piece
choir and a period instrument ensemble supported an international – and internationally
acclaimed – group of soloists, some with most impressive baroque opera credentials. The casting
evidently aimed at creating an ingenious mirror to Quinault’s well-known storyline, for it was
dominated by Stephanie Houtzeel’s Armide. Tall, with regal posture, clad in blazing red jacket,
the warrior princess ruled her universe with supreme confidence, commanding both respect and
admiration of the troupes with her vocal power, range, and technique. Almost uncomfortable at
times in its intense expressivity, Houtzeel’s performance was a reminder that the line between
high drama and embarrassing melodrama on the 17th-century French stage would probably
appear rather blurred to us.
In her interactions with other characters, Armide – in yet another hommage to Quinault – found
herself conquered, on occasion, by the “implacable” Renaud of Robert Getchell. His ringing
metallic tone, even in all registers, superb sound production, diction, and articulation were most
appropriate for a hero crusader, while a certain lack of subtlety in phrasing and ornamentation
still kept the audience’s sympathy securely with Armide. Among supporting roles, François Loup
who pulled double duty as Hidraoth and Ubalde won praise for his rich, warm tone and elegant
phrasing. William Sharp, Miriam Dubrow, and Tony Boutté did very well in their multiple roles
(although Dubrow sounded a touch hesitant sometimes). Venerable Ann Monoyios appeared a
little tense and had trouble with her projection in the prologue, but by the end of the evening one
could see why this sought-after artist regularly works with the luminaries of period music.
The chorus did an excellent job throughout the performance, while the enthusiastic baton of
Opera Lafayette’s artistic director Ryan Brown also coaxed some fine playing from the
instrumentalists, including two lovely baroque flutes and a diverse continuo group of French
viola da gamba, guitar, theorbo, cello, and harpsichord. The strings – divided according to French
baroque tradition into five, rather than four parts – were less impressive in my opinion: their
articulations (particularly in double-dotted passages) could have been sharper, and the ornaments
more precise. There were also some issues with tempo changes between duple- and triple-time
passages in the prologue. Yet overall, the ensemble’s rendition of the famously complex score
was admirable, and the applause well deserved.
One of the most fascinating features of this concert performance was the part of it that was not, in
fact, “concert”: close to forty minutes of period dancing performed by members of the New York
Baroque Dance Company and choreographed especially for this production by Catherine Turocy.
Unlike the singers, the dancers were costumed: ladies exhibited a contemporary take on high
baroque fashion, complete with hair and shoes, while male helmets and tunics reminded one
more of ancient Rome than the medieval crusades or Louis XIV’s France (no one – in the
audience, at least – seemed to care). As the choreographer herself explained in a pre-concert Q &
A, very few details of original choreography survive from Lully’s day; with the exception of a
single gigue and two or three versions of the famous Act 5 passacaille, we can only guess what
the dancing in Armide would have been like. So, Turocy made a guess – an educated one. The
dancers offered examples of stylized baroque choreography: symmetrical, filled with traditional
poses, movements, and gestures, and colored with appropriate symbolism as the main characters
and ideas of the opera were reflected in its sister medium of ballet. The good spirits, for instance,
were dressed in light-colored costumes and porcelain white masks, while the evil ones wore
black, with brown masks, and carried long black veils that they would place over the head of
their counterparts to symbolize their transformation into them. Along with the unexpectedly
athletic set dances, there were episodes of pantomime, as the “stand-ins” for main characters
played out the story in movement and gesture (for example, in Renaud’s famous Act 2 air de
sommeil). Turocy clearly mined the score for ideas but treated the information creatively: for
instance, in Act 3 divertissement, the followers of Hate are meant to capture Love and
symbolically break its arrows to free Armide from her feelings for Renaud. In the current
production, both captured Amour and (one) arrow were present, but the 17th-century cupid
would hardly have behaved quite so insolently in front of the opera’s illustrious original
The Opera Lafayette’s production of Armide was a long-awaited premiere of the new and what
surely will be a definitive edition of this opera, prepared by Lois Rosow, a renowned Lully
specialist and a professor of musicology at the Ohio State University. Dr Rosow, who was
present at the performance, shared her expertise with the audience during the pre-concert Q&A
that also included Ms. Turocy and Mr. Brown. Thankfully, this expertise will soon be available
to baroque opera lovers worldwide: recorded for the Naxos label, Opera Lafayette’s performance
of Lully’s masterpiece is due to be released in 2008.