Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart
12 Aug 2007

Bieito Does La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart

Staatsoper Stuttgart presented its new production of The Girl of the Golden West, directed by Calixto Bieito. And, well, it began with an added dialogue scene to establish the “concept.”

Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Staatsoper Stuttgart, 23 June – 25 July 2007

 

Okay, here is an Italian opera played to German speakers, and they chose to do this scene in English. We were apparently at stag night on a Universal studios tour of the Wild West sound stage.

A young woman dressed as a dance hall hostess (think Miss Kitty), tells them to take their seats in the bleachers, chats them up, telling them they are going to see a piece by Gee-Ah-Koh-Moh Puke-Chee-Nee, and then finally (with a Texas accent that is lost in print) shouts [I am not making this up!!]:

Would y’all like to see some Indians? (Yeeeeeaaaah)

Would y’all like to see some . . .cowboys? (Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaah)

Would y’all like to see. . . . some motherfuckin’ GUNS?!?! (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaah)

Then the music began.

It was all but impossible to tell who was who at first. The Wild West sound stage crew were enacting a mish-mosh “show” for these tourists that had precious little to do with the story or character relationships. Minnie arrived on a trapeze flown in from above, dressed as a blond circus girl in tights and spangly bodice, not unlike Mae West in “Diamond Lil.”

She sang her bible reading scene without bible, from the trapeze, making no sense. Dick Johnson arrived on a horse, and just sat around for a long time, and since there was another guy on a horse next to him, no one paid him any mind.

Rance was an Asian baritone (this becomes important later), in fact there were lots of Asians in the Stuttgart cast. Maybe they work cheap? There were so many distractions, I don't know where to begin: Uncle Sam on stilts with a cane that shot confetti repeatedly, a living Statue of Liberty, minor soloists amplified with hand held mikes like a lounge act, a stunning cowgirl “extra” who turns out to be Wowkle, the sullen Indian squaw, for God’s sake. At one point a miner had an extended solo and I could not find him on the stage. Could not. I heard him, but could not find him in the melee.

During Johnson’s extended solo during the duet, a Union soldier (!) does a handstand and then walks on his hands across the entire apron of the stage. When Minnie sings, a giant crate is delivered center stage, and the miners (or whoever they are) open it, and then one by one they mug and camp and “take” their way down a trapdoor while she and Johnson are singing their duet. Oh, and they shot cap guns a lot. And there were confederate flags hung all over the house. (It’s the California Gold Rush (1849-50)! Hellooooooo!!)

And one miner got hung by the neck but instead of staying dead, they gave him a guitar which he played. There is a “well-hung” joke there somewhere but I haven't figured it out yet.

When the waltz started, first two quite amorous men started dancing, then others, and then some sound stage director (I guess), started making amplified German announcements/directions of what they should do, over the music.

By Act II, we are in the split level dressing trailer of Miss Minnie. First, party girl Wowkle enters with a miner and a huge carnival teddy bear, with which she has sex on the sofa. This turns into a three-way when Miner Man pulls down teddy’s boxers (although not his own), and enters teddy from the rear. When Minnie comes in and throws them out, the duo become paparazzi, annoyingly photographing everything for the rest of the act. Everything. Did I mention for the rest of the act?

Minnie changes into a silver lame dress slit up to her hip, and swaps wigs to complete a redheaded Rita Hayworth look. She has apparently invited Johnson over to dinner which, she proudly shows him, is a green Jello mold. Which she puts in the microwave. Sing sing sing sing – DING! The cooking is finished. It looks none the worse for wear, so she carves it and serves it as though it were a roast. And they eat it with knives and forks like good Europeans.

Then, obviously she has another culinary surprise in store for him, and she brings out an identical red Jello mold which they giggle over like middle schoolers, poking it and pulling bits loose with their fingers. Of course, then all hell breaks loose, and some 50’s Vegas thugs (including Rance) arrive brandishing pistols. Costumes get a little weirder here with lots of “Gangsta Wrap.”

One of Rance’s side kicks sits down and starts enjoying leftover Jello, which annoys the hell out of the Sheriff. So he picks up handfuls of it and stuffs it in the guy’s mouth and holds it shut until he swallows. (I am not making this up.) This may be the very first time in operatic history that Jello was a major prop.

The famous poker scene consists of Minne and Rance staring each other down while Minne throws cards at him and in the air, until she throws the remainder at him as she exclaims “Three aces and a pair.” And then they both break character and laugh laugh laugh laugh laugh, like they had some “in” joke. Then Minnie sobs uncontrollably until we transition to some nether region for Act III.

All the cast save the leads are now wearing colorful Mexican tourist sombreros, and are shrouded in a mist. Uncle Sam on stilts is back as some miner or another on stilts, in a tuxedo. He must be a symbol. Of. . .?????

Johnson is finally captured house right with three red ropes, and dragged on stage. As he sings his gallows aria (nowhere near one), the rest of the cast shoot and kill each other rather noisily in pantomimed slo-mo and drop dead to the floor. The tenor could have had a sparkler in his teeth and no one would have noticed. Stilts Man sprinkles them all with glitter. Fairy Dust? Who knows?

Finally, Rance (here’s the Asian motif) starts to execute Johnson with a Samurai sword, but lo, Minnie appears with her own Samurai sword, dressed like she had just come from a callback audition for the “The Fantastic Four.” They spar and she kills him, with Rance lingering a long time with the damn sword stuck under his armpit. The dead all sing (to audience laughs), then get up.

They all exit, leaving Minnie and Johnson splitting and singing how they are together.

Lights out. Audience boos.

What a mess. I think there actually may be a workable concept in all this, but it is so busy, so unfocused, and so self-indulgent that it does not come close to being representative of this piece. Fanciulla is still a caviar piece, and needs to be attractively produced to win favor with an audience. Being all over the map did not win this work any new fans.

And sadly, the leads were not up to par. The Russian soprano should stop and fix her problems. The baritone was okay, and the Asian tenor was the best of the lot, but lisped much of his Italian like he was Castilian. I have a hard time believing that any one of them would have gotten to the Met Council finals. And the conducting was dry and correct, when it needed to have Puccini Passion.

Anyhow, there is my take on Bieito’s “Fanciulla.” I wouId not be in a hurry to see a production of his again. Or to go to Stuttgart Opera again anytime soon.

James Sohre

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):