Recently in Performances
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman
theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or
amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators
or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in
other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard
Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014
by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine
Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
07 Apr 2007
A bride for sale at the Baltimore Lyric
The latest offering from the Baltimore Lyric Opera was Bedrich Smetana’s sparkling comedy Prodana Nevesta (“Bartered Bride”), a little gem of Czech Romantic nationalism that one does not see live very often these days.
The occasion not only ensured a packed house at the premiere, but also drew attention of the local chapter of the Czech-Slovak Heritage Association. Its members, in national costumes, attended en masse, making for a colorful and slightly surreal theater lobby.
Among the production’s international cast, Dana Buresova’s Marenka appropriately enough turned out to be the true star of Smetana’s charming little village. The Czech soprano laughed, pouted, and schemed her way triumphantly through the evening, and fully deserved her standing ovation at the end of it. The singer’s voice was strong, pure, and even in all registers; it carried easily, and she even thrilled the audience with a couple of impressive – albeit not entirely necessary in Smetana’s score – high Cs. The only thing of which I could not quite approve in this Marenka was her taste in men, for between the two sons of the honorable Tobias Micha (portrayed honorably by Ukrainian-Canadian bass Alexander Savtchenko) I might have chosen the younger one. American tenor Doug Jones offered an engaging and endearing portrait of the stammering village fool Vasek, and in the process revealed not only a lovely lyric tenor voice, but a genuine comic gift. Meanwhile, contrary to my own expectations, I was not that impressed with the heavily advertised talents of the Czech tenor Valentin Prolat as Jenek. Prolat wowed the audience sufficiently in a couple of powerful scenes in which his strong high register was impressively on display; he acted well, and blended very sweetly with Marenka in the duets, but far too often his sound felt somehow “switched off,” making it difficult to be completely satisfied with his performance.
Despite at times sounding a little thin (particularly in the string section), the orchestra was excellent, conducted impeccably by yet another Czech import, Oliver von Dohnányi. Throughout the performance he kept good balance, asserting his presence but letting the singers dominate as they should in a score such as this one. The tour-de-force of an overture (those unfamiliar with the music should imagine the fugue from Zauberflöte mixed with Mendelssohn’s elves at three times the speed) was particularly impressive – vigorous and energetic, yet clean and rhythmically precise.
Rheinhard Heinrich’s décor took a fold-out children’s book as inspiration, creating a set of white-and-brown cardboard dollhouses (with removable front walls allowing one to see their interiors) that were “folded” in and out throughout the performance in full view of the audience. Unfortunately, this clever and efficient design proved much too bulky for the small stage of the Baltimore Lyric, which made for an uncomfortably crowded marketplace with close to forty choristers on stage trying (not always convincingly) to approximate a polka. The Act 2 furiant turned out much better, as the space dilemma was resolved by sidelining the chorus and leaving what was left of center stage to three pairs of professional dancers.
The stage director, James McNamara evidently found The Bartered Bride, a slow-moving number opera, to be a challenge, and his approach was somewhat a stylistic mixture. Most scenes were staged realistically and packed full with stage business, perhaps too aggressively at times (e.g., while distraught Marenka was pouring out her heart into an opening “Where are you from?” aria, oblivious groom-to-be Jenek busied himself with first breaking and then fixing a wooden stool he had first conveniently dragged out of a nearby house). Meanwhile, several key numbers for the principals were presented as cinematic close-ups, with lights dimmed, soloists spotlighted (Jenek’s Act 2 aria was even performed in front of the lowered curtain), and “stage realism” suspended in favor of slightly old-fashioned symbolism, Hollywood-style. Not that the staging solution for each specific scene was necessarily unsuccessful (although I do take exception to the Act 3 sextet – a comic family disagreement made to project supernatural terror), but at times I found myself wishing that the director would just make up his mind.
To the audience, however, one of the most memorable moments in the whole production was undoubtedly the circus scene. Taking cue from the geographical provenance of the Indian and the fake grizzly bear, McNamara decided to turn the entire troupe, introduced by the (deliberately?) out-of-tune trumpet fanfares, into a Wild Wild West show. The Circus Master, sporting a Texas accent and a cowboy hat, resurrected for this occasion the spoken dialog tradition from the first version of Smetana’s score, although I doubt that the text of his opening announcement would have been recognized by the composer. Among other things, everyone in this original-language production were suddenly speaking English, including the chorus that reacted with evident comprehension to the Circus Master’s advertisement, and Vasek who during his comic attempts to woo the dancer Esmeralda somehow managed to lose his Czech if not his stammer. The public was treated to a parade of jugglers, acrobats, clowns on stilts, a grunting Indian, a bearded lady weightlifter, and a badly trained but brightly costumed dog (yes, a real one) that jumped through one large hula hoop, missed the other, but would have its chance at a curtain call nonetheless...
After a fashion, the misadventures of the circus mirrored the fortunes of the larger show of which it was a part. The bride was sold with some panache, a few unfortunate accidents, and some questionable decisions that warranted raised eyebrows from the purists such as myself. Yet, at the end of it all, Baltimore Lyric did manage to put on a good show – and fundamentally, a good show is what opera production is all about.