16 Aug 2007
Michael Maniaci Flies High as Orphée at Glimmerglass
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has come down through the centuries to us, on the way inspiring some sixty-four other known operas.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.
On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice has come down through the centuries to us, on the way inspiring some sixty-four other known operas.
Beginning with the art form’s pro-genitor, Peri’s L’Euridice written in 1600, that list of sixty-five includes two great masterpieces but only one that has never really left the world’s stages for a record 245 years.
That masterpiece is, of course, Gluck’s version of the timeless tale, “Orphée et Eurydice”, and in itself it has, over the years, been the subject of re-writings for different voices, genders and vocal ranges for the hero: from alto castrato (the original 1762 Italian version) through soprano castrato to high tenor, and then to Berlioz’s renowned arrangement in 1859, transposed by him for the great mezzo soprano of the time, Pauline Viardot. This was based on Gluck’s 1774 Paris version for “haute-contre” (high tenor, not countertenor) and transposed up to Viardot’s mezzo range.
A bewildering vocal history indeed; and, in the great tradition of this opera’s many vicissitudes, Glimmerglass Opera have achieved another two firsts. This summer’s new production by director Lillian Groag is using the new Bärenreiter edition of the Viardot/Berlioz arrangement for the first time in the USA and, perhaps more significantly, the title role is being sung by the exciting young American male soprano Michael Maniaci, who recently made waves at La Fenice with his performances of the title role in Meyerbeer’s “Il crociato in Egitto”, followed closely by his well-received Nireno in the Met’s “Giulio Cesare”.
Recent operatic history tells us that the demanding role of Orfeo has been sung usually by females — mezzo-sopranos and contraltos — and only recently have we seen a return to the male domain with CD recordings by tenors David Hobson and Richard Croft, and live performances such as countertenor David Daniels’ magisterial performance in Mark Morris’s new staging of the Italian version for alto at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year — the first time a man has sung the role there. However, it is doubtful if there has ever been a professional staging of the Berlioz arrangement using a male soprano, and Glimmerglass are to be congratulated on their desire to push boundaries and to continue the writing of this iconic opera’s life story.
When it came to the new staging, I wondered if director Lillian Groag felt any pressure from the weight of history behind this opera? “I feel that with the great plays and operas in our canon everybody “knows” how they should be done and yet no one agrees as to what that “right” way is — so instead I always ask why this play or opera right here and now? In this opera I am looking at how the 4 characters — Orphée, Eurydice, l’Amour and the Chorus, or community, are affected by the process of grief, solace and return to life.”
For Groag, the hardest dramaturgical question was if Eurydice comes back to life, then the truly iconic myth is dismantled and apparently loses all meaning. However, in consultation with her costume designer Constance Hoffman, she came to the conclusion that it came down to religion or, in this case with the fatal look back, a failure of faith, the great sin in all theologies. “Calzabigi’s (the librettist of the original Italian version) and Gluck’s worldview was Christian and the Christian theology is the only one that has, to my knowledge, the possibility of redemption through suffering. This links directly to Eurydice’s final resurrection — through Orphée’s appalling suffering - which is gently remindful of the hope by which Christianity contrived to thrive in the Western World. I am an atheist, but I do see this as a profoundly Christian work.”
A hint as to Groag’s surprising, and ironic conclusion to this production can be found in her words above. She chooses to see the cycle of Life, Nature and man’s Redemption through Love as the key to this myth’s relevance today. The peasants cheerily celebrating yet another harvest in the opening scene comes full circle as our reunited lovers survey the chilling sight of their story starting over at the opera’s conclusion.
The opera opens here in some hypothetical 18th century world of rural bliss, with earth-toned costumed peasants set amongst the abandoned ruins of some Greek temples. The reference to time passing is one that recurs more than once. The Elysium Fields scene is another idea that works well: the Enlightenment’s vision of the Good Life — all arts, sciences and crafts applied in a peaceful society where harmony was the goal — was lit gracefully by Robert Wierzel. However, although Groag’s and her team’s initiatives often succeed well enough visually, there are considerable longueurs both here and in the opening scenes where singers and actors were apparently left to their own devices to the detriment of the cohesive whole. Luckily, John Conklin’s evocative neo-classical sets and Wierzel’s subtle lighting helped hold the whole thing together and, with Michael Maniaci drawing upon all his reserves of dramatic insight, directorial gaps are largely disguised.
It is this insight, coupled with the growing ability to move both body and voice into whatever realm is required by the text and music that makes Maniaci such a convincing and exciting stage performer. Here, he is the epitome of vulnerable young love — wounded by grief and at the mercy of the Gods. The voice, that of a true male soprano rather than countertenor using falsetto, is strong, centred and controlled throughout the range, and is one of today’s most interesting operatic phenomena, taking the high male instrument another step further to mainstream operatic “normality”. In this work he is required to sing, full and true, from G below middle C right up to soprano high C. It may not be his perfect vocal vehicle as it lies lower than ideal for him, but with the exception of the two lowest notes which take him beyond his current comfort zone, he operates with élan and strong dramatic sense. His full-throated soprano can float above the staff with ease, yet retains a difficult-to-describe but essential maleness about it.
Despite his avowed preference for simplicity Glück permitted a certain amount of ornamentation in his French revision; for instance in the mesmerising extended aria for Orphée, 'Amour, viens render a mon âme' that closes Act 1. Berlioz’s later arrangement for Viardot also encompassed a hair-raising cadenza written by the singer herself. Maniaci revels in the vocal challenge, displaying both technical brilliance and sense of style, with some amazing vocal gymnastics that set the hall alight.
Balancing this bravura performance, in Act 2, when Orphée descends to Hades we hear his heartfelt legato singing of Orphée’s plea to the Furies, 'Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs', which brought 'the demigod of music' to life and made us believe in his mystical powers of persuasion. Here the excellently demonic chorus rebut him time and again with their “Non!”s until at last they fall victim to his music. The iconic tune “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” was elegantly yet powerfully sung; no mistaking this hero’s mental anguish as both singer and orchestra upped the tempo in the final repeat bringing an almost desperate quality to the aria.
Maniaci’s colleagues were equally convincing and committed: the sparkling soprano of Brenda Rae as L’Amour and the full vibrant singing of Amanda Pabyan as Eurydice were nuanced and distinctively phrased. Pabyan in particular was most affecting in her portrayal of the young woman too quick to blame her lover for his apparent indifference. In her reading of the part, we felt Eurydice to be the catalyst for disaster, rather than Orphée. Young Caitlin Lynch made a good impression as the Happy Shade, as did the two dancers, Trey Gillen and Katarzyna Skarpetowska, who led the choral movement sequences eloquently in elegant choreography by Nicola Bowie. Julian Wachner led the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra in a fluent and pleasing reading of the score.
A “genuine classical drama” was what Gluck and Calzabigi originally wanted the audiences to see, and you could argue that the physical and vocal matching of role to character is crucial to make this happen. With a mezzo soprano singing this Berlioz arrangement, that equivalence is lost — would it be going to far to suggest that at last we have the thought-provoking realisation of Berlioz’s true musical intentions: the great mythic hero sung in the mezzo soprano range by a man? Probably it is, but that doesn’t undermine or diminish what Michael Maniaci has achieved. Another small piece of operatic history has been written here at Glimmerglass in 2007.
© Sue Loder 2007
Performances continue August 11th, 19th, 25th and 28th.
For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office (607) 547-2255 and more information from the website: http://www.glimmerglass.org