04 Jun 2007
“La Traviata” from the Volksoper Wien
In Verdi’s beloved opera, love does not conquer all but the sweet-taste of what “might have been” lingers on our lips forever when we think of the beautiful Violetta.
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.
In Verdi’s beloved opera, love does not conquer all but the sweet-taste of what “might have been” lingers on our lips forever when we think of the beautiful Violetta.
Before attending the Volksoper’s season première of La Traviata, I had only days before visited the tomb of the great man in Milan. As I stood at the foot of Verdi’s grave, it became a vibrant reality that here lay one of the greatest musical dramatists in history and what’s more, he was human; made of flesh like the rest of us and left us with a legacy of operas that have withstood the test of time and continued to influence and instruct us on human behaviour and emotion. The Traviata presented at the Volksoper was not at all what Signor Verdi would have had in mind for his beloved Violetta.
The stage was pre-set with soprano, Roxana Briban, lying on a white bed in full view of the audience for at least half-an-hour prior to the Prelude. The stage was minimalist, and at first it seemed acceptable to use a minimalistic set since this opera is really about characters and the depths of their emotions, not visual displays and spectacular props. Maestro Leopold Hager and the Orchester der Volksoper Wien opened the opera with a precise tempo and inflection in the Prelude, but it perhaps lacked the dramatic intensity that Verdi’s “high strings” should produce. Meanwhile, Violetta stretched her hand out toward a little girl standing behind a scrim, tossing a large plastic ball up and down. It was evident that Violetta was hallucinating and seeing herself as a child during the Prelude, a concept that may have worked well, but ended up failing in the end.
The dramatic opening was immediately interrupted by a masquerade complete with “masks” and clown-like costumes; obviously, a different perspective from the typical ballroom party with flowing gowns and tuxedos. The orchestra here began its slow and painful detachment from the vocal component of the opera and unfortunately Maestro Hager never fully regained a sense of unity. The “Brindisi” was rather boring in this masquerade-like conception; with young tenor, Ismael Jordi trying his best to produce a sense of gaiety and excitement. A very handsome and sincere performer, his tenor was very light for a role of this intensity and often imprecise; especially taking Verdi’s orchestral support into consideration. Verdi differs from Puccini in that he often leaves the tenor exposed at the ends of passages and in the higher tessitura with little orchestral foundation. Mr. Jordi would have made a better Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia than an Alfredo at this point in his career.
Most disturbing was the stage direction for the party-scene, with Violetta changing, on-stage, into a clown outfit. Verdi’s intention was to have the audience witness her at her most exquisite: beautiful, full-of-life, and healthy (or so we believe…or maybe want to believe); but here, the direction casts her in a pantomime outfit and in the same pale white in which she would later die. Her entrances in Un dì felice were detached from the orchestral fabric and she lacked any sense of legato singing whatsoever. The orchestra was almost in another realm from Alfredo and Violetta here, and the duet was spastic and unfocused rather than the intended display of profound passion. The pair did not once look at each other throughout the duet and the necessary spark that audiences crave between Alfredo and Violetta would never be ignited in this production.
The first exhilarating moment…or what should have been, comes in Violetta’s Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima, however it was not Violetta’s persona that became apparent here; rather, it was Ms. Briban’s vocal and technical instability. It became clear that Maestro Hager and she were not in sync and this aria became a fight for control. She stood in the center of the stage with the rotating set moving around her. Her Italian enunciation was less than acceptable and she was often out-of-tune on her pianissimi. It was as if Ms. Briban sang with three different voices rather than the type of unified voice most vocal pedagogues and technicians impress upon the young singers of today. Her low tessitura was extremely heavy for a Violetta, the middle was pushed and strident. Her well-publicized pianissimi were so fabricated that one could hardly hear them because she was, in fact, closing off the throat and air supply rather than using proper breath support and an open throat to float them in a resonant place alla Leontyne Price or, more recently, Renée Fleming. The bell-like quality of Violetta’s singing was missing. The Sempre Libera was painful, and Ms. Briban was exuding huge waves of voice and then it would cut out without transition from one part of the voice to another. Her missed entrance of Violetta’s “Follie! Follie!” was enough to make any aficionado cringe and an embarrassment to the Volksoper as a whole.
Once this disaster was over, the drama ceased to one ignited scream of “Brava!” and immediately the entire audience mimicked the audience member. WHAT HAS THE OPERA WORLD COME TO? Have we all succumbed to the glamour of beautiful faces and forgotten what this art is really about? In my opinion, we have conformed to mediocrity and this performance of Traviata would have had Signor Verdi rolling around in his grave. Who are we if we do not stand up and protect the wishes and aesthetics of the composer who creates with such diligence and precision? This production seemed more of a parody of Traviata than an actual presentation of it. Is it acceptable to stage anything as long as we stage it in half-inflected Italian, with loud and uneven voices and lots of clown outfits?! I stand in defense of Verdi’s honour and am appalled that a Viennese opera house would stage something of this mediocre caliber. Had this staging been performed somewhere where Verdi is seen as a national hero, like La Scala let’s say, there would have surely been a scandal in the streets.
Mr. Jordi entered to try and save what had been a disastrous competition between conductor and soprano and unfortunately made it sound even more like an undergraduate performance by students. The only glimmer of light in this production was Baritone, Morten Frank Larsen, who was at least in character and dramatic. His Italian was better than his colleagues, although not where it should have been. His Pura siccome un angelo was somewhat strictly sung with a stagnant orchestral accompaniment. There was not much room for rubato or any shading and Maestro Hager kept it as strict as possible. Unfortunately, because of Mr. Larsen’s acting capabilities and his colleagues lack thereof, it seemed that he was more in love with Violetta than Alfredo was.
The chorus of Gypsies was the icing on the cake for this production imbued with clown-costumes and more of a Pagliacci-like atmosphere than anything. All at once the chorus from Carmen entered the stage!!!…well, they weren’t singing Bizet’s music but the chorus was decked out in red and black Spanish outfits and the men were bullfighters flirting nonsensically with the women. The chorus, although representative of Matadors, was very much detached from the music and the actions seemed to have nothing to do with the text that was being sung. Again, the audience seemed to accept this mish-mash of ideas that was incoherently held together by a struggling orchestra and conductor.
Act III of Traviata should be a display of what Verdi does best. He pulls at our heartstrings and in a moment of luscious melodrama he allows Violetta to read her letter to the sounds of the orchestra. Briban spoke in a harsh and violent chest voice and let out a yelp that resembled something that an Elektra would scream, rather than a Violetta. Her Addio del passato, the highest point of Violetta’s dramatic personae was spastic and her actions seemed more like a Lucia (mad) than a consumptive Violetta. I felt no sympathy for her character as the uneven and imprecise singing was enhanced by Ms. Briban’s throwing herself violently on the stage with such a thud that I wondered if she had hurt herself. There was no saving Violetta by this point, or the production for that matter.
The end had Violetta, who had remained in her white negligee throughout, lying back on her bed with her outstretched hand motioning to the little girl tossing the big plastic ball up in the air.
In the end, she threw the ball and it went high into the rafters, representative of Violetta’s soul leaving her body. How Violetta’s soul can possibly be represented by a ball is beyond me. In all, this production could have been saved had the singing been at least precise and had Ms. Briban and Maestro Hager agreed on “one” way to perform this opera. It was an example of how two conflicting opinions can create havoc on-stage. What’s more, audiences of today seem to accept anything as long as it’s presented in an “opera house.” Just because something is performed on a stage does not necessarily mean that it deserves a scream of “Bravo.” At one time, the term “Bravo,” or “Brava” was used for fantastic and outstanding performances; the type that one remembers for years and years afterwards because of the immense talents of the performers, musicians, and directors. This performance of La Traviata did not deserve such accolades.
PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B