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.
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