Recently in Performances
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
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.
05 Sep 2007
Netherlands Opera — New Wine in Old Bottles
The unmistakable fanfare that opens Monteverdi’s seminal L’Orfeo rang out from the top of the crowded foyer of the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam last Friday night to signal not only the start of the opera, but also the opening night of their celebratory 2007 Monteverdi Cycle.
All three of Monteverdi’s great works — L’Orfeo, Il ritorno
d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea are being
given in this anniversary year of his ground-breaking leap forward for the
art-form, along with three more minor works later in the season. However,
this cycle can also be seen as a celebration of a rather more contemporary
master, albeit one synonymous with Netherlands Opera itself as well as with
the old master’s works, director Pierre Audi. What Audi does, particularly
with these very early works, is to achieve the near-impossible: he takes an
audience back to a time before time, to a place that might be no-place, but
which communicates to us through visual textures and stage architecture that
never confuses, always make sense. A set or prop may prompt an initial “I
wonder why….”, but invariably the question is soon answered and we are
the wiser for it. He is a director who illuminates, rather than obscures. On
the downside, as he loves to use fire as exclamation points in his
productions, giving us three of his operas on successive nights did rather
devalue the currency: what, another explosion and burst into flaming torches?
But that would be to quibble with the scheduling, not the pieces themselves.
As would be to query the order of the weekend’s offerings: why not in
chronological order rather than putting “Poppea” before “Ulisse”?
Some reasons suggest themselves, and the noticeably emptier house on the
final Sunday could be either cause or effect: “Ulisse” is certainly the
least accessible and immediately engaging of the trio where even Monteverdi
seems to struggle with the essentially static nature of the libretto.
All three of these productions are well known now around the world, and
have been available on DVD for some time. The local opera-goers have also had
several opportunities over the past 17 years to see them fine-tuned to their
present state, so can their re-emergence be justified? Certainly it makes
sense in this Monteverdi anniversary year, as we’ve seen elsewhere on both
sides of the Atlantic, but productions of this quality have a second, even
more important role. Netherlands Opera has always prided itself on the
strength-in-depth of its ensemble singers and with these three pieces they
shrewdly mixed in many of their younger talent with visiting big names and
often gave them opportunities in more than one.
Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Arnalta) and Danielle de Niese (Poppea)
“L’Orfeo” is quintessential Audi where all three natural
elements of earth, fire and water combine in sets of tangible solidity and
exceptional beauty. They were matched by singing of a similar calibre with
not a single disappointing voice on display — standouts being the
experienced countertenor David Cordier as a ringing La Musica, Alan Ewing’s
deeply expressive and mellifluous bass as Coronte and the two exciting
younger voices of Tania Kross (La Messagiera) and Anders J. Dahlin (Pastore
1, Eco/Spirito). Tenor Jeremy Ovenden was giving his debut performance in the
title role and if his vocal resources were occasionally tested by
“Possente spirto”, with some rough edges here and there, overall
it was a very satisfactory performance showing an expression and intelligence
that will surely develop further.
One very positive aspect of the scheduling of all three operas on
successive nights was the opportunity to contrast and compare several of the
younger singers in different roles. Dahlin shone again in “Poppea”, his
beautifully produced light lyric tenor floating serenely around the music of
the first Soldier and Lucano, whilst the bigger names of de Niese, Mehta and
Stotijn gave expressive and fully-rounded performances that didn’t
disappoint. De Niese continues to extend her capacity to express the darker
emotions and passions and there was less shrillness in her top, more gentle
colour, than I have heard before from her. I doubt we have ever seen a more
seductive or believable Poppea. Malena Ernman, one of today’s more
versatile sopranos, seemed uncomfortable at times in the role of the
despicable Nerone, her statuesque Nordic beauty rather at odds with the
character’s requirements. She has a good range, although the gear-changes
sounded less than smooth on Saturday night and it took most of Act 1 for her
to settle vocally. By the final scenes she was entirely credible, even
disturbing, in her vocal and dramatic commitment. Bejun Mehta, as the
luckless Ottone, brought his usual assertive dark countertenor to the role
with admirable effect, if not much fine-tuning of expression. Christianne
Stotijn was deeply affecting as the wronged and vengeful Ottavia — her
lovely chocolate tones could colour and caress the notes at will. Yet, it was
another young singer new to this writer that perhaps left the strongest
impression. The Chilean-born tenor Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro gave an outstanding
and very promising performance as the comic/pathetic governess Arnalta, his
final gorgeous lullaby to the sleeping Poppea a model of legato line and
sheer vocal beauty. Let us hope his talent is nurtured and guided in the
All the singers were of course aided immensely by inhabiting Emi Wada’s
amazing costumes. These works of art — no better term — could carry the
opera on an empty stage and are rightly renowned. Textures that intrigue the
eye, materials that merge from shade to shade in the changing lights, fabrics
that shimmer and float. They evolve with the story, they almost become the
Paul Nilon as Ulisse
Such heights of visual and musical delight are hard to follow and that is
where the decision to place “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” at
the end of the three works must be questioned. It is a much darker work, it
comes well before “Poppea” in terms of composition, and although
it has some lovely music, it is essentially much more static and almost
entirely given over to examinations of the protagonists’ psychological
states of mind whilst grappling with the whims of interfering deities. It
needs the best singers, and luckily it mostly had them — in particular Paul
Nilon in the title role, as expressive and idiomatic as ever, and totally
convincing as the struggling hero. Here too, we had a chance to admire again
other singers from earlier on: Ewing, Agnew, Cordier and Kross. And in
particular the excellent Wilke te Brummelstroete as Minerva — with a
searing soprano, crisply enunciated text and strong presence she lit up the
stage most effectively. Matching Nilon in emotional vocalism was Irish
mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as the grieving Queen Penelope, like the
Englishman an experienced baroque singer. Her dark and silky tones revealed
grief, anger and confusion with total surety. As so little happens
dramatically for most of the story, Audi keeps his “big guns” for one
major coup de théâtre when our hero pulls the bow to convince his
queen who he is. Then, with a massive explosion of light, fire and thunderous
noise the house shakes and any guilty “nappers” in the 15th row are
rudely awakened. Then, gently and almost apologetically, the opera winds down
again through the final, loving duet between husband and wife, back into
darkness and quiet.
One final aspect of this trio of Monteverdian genius must be mentioned —
Netherlands Opera invited three separate period instrument bands in to
provide the music (although some players mixed and matched in at least two)
and it was interesting to compare the approaches of each director/conductor.
Stephen Stubbs and his Tragicomedia/Concerto Palatino took command of the
“L’Orfeo”, Stubbs playing from both harpsichord and his best
known instrument, the theorbo (chittarone). His other harpsichordist was none
other than Christophe Rousset, making up the nine other continuo players.
They were supported at dramatic moments by another 16 players of brass, wind
and strings, including some outstanding playing of the difficult cornet by
Bruce Dickey and Doron David Sherwin. This band offered subtle and virtuosic
playing at the service of the drama. The next night it was Rousset in charge
of his own Talens Lyriques for “Poppea”, only 14 in number but
with a warm sound and obvious total familiarity with each other and the
piece. Now Stubbs withdrew to lute/theorbo/baroque guitar and was matched in
the continuo group by the likes of Erin Headley on viola da gamba and
Stéphane Fuget on harpsichord and organ. On the final night the even smaller
forces of Glen Wilson’s “Esxatos” tried to hold the musical interest of
“Ulisse” but sadly failed to succeed entirely. Just eleven players was
perhaps a risk too far for this medium sized house, and it must be said that
although Wilson expended much energy and commitment to his singers from the
harpsichord, the total sound world was pinched and meagre in comparison to
the previous nights. Having said that, it is always a pleasure to see so many
young players in these period groups and like the less experienced singers on
the stage above them, they can only continue to stretch their skills with
these magnificent stagings of Monteverdi.
© Sue Loder 2007