28 Oct 2007
The Coronation of Poppea — English National Opera
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
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.
For some seasons now, ENO has expressed a commitment to reinforce the role of dance within opera.
Having collaborated in the past with choreographers including Mark Morris, the company is now two thirds of the way through a Monteverdi opera cycle in collaboration with Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng, the Orange Blossom Dance Company from Indonesia, and the early-music specialist conductor Laurence Cummings. A precedent was set by the opening opera of the cycle in spring 2005 — an Orfeo of spectacularly hypnotic, fluid beauty.
The company début of rising British singer Kate Royal as Poppea was an additional selling point for this second opera in the cycle. She's a glamorous singer, with a polished sultriness in her low-lying soprano, but the stage directions prevented her from painting a convincing character portrait; she spent much of the first act perched high on the deck of Nerone’s luxury yacht (yes, there was a surreal marine theme to the production, with much of the action apparently taking place underwater) which made her untouchable and aloof. Projected images on the backdrop reinforced this idea; she was an icon, virtually a graven image to be worshipped. Despite Royal’s natural poise and elegance, there was little sense of Poppea’s earthy sexiness nor of her calculating ambition.
Lucy Crowe (Drusilla) and Robert Lloyd (Seneca) had an easier time of it, and managed to make something believable of their roles; Christopher Gillett’s Arnalta looked (intentionally) ridiculous but sang very beautifully at times.
Otherwise, the cast was a bit weak and underpowered. It is, perhaps, unfair to blame the singers for this; Monteverdi operas were not designed for a space the size of the Coliseum. Tim Mead's Ottone started off with that slightly yelpy sound which countertenors get when they over-project (though he sorted this out by the second half). Anna Grevelius, as Nerone, sang very sweetly but didn't project any masculinity either vocally or physically - certainly not enough to convince as an egomaniacal ruler. Doreen Curran’s Ottavia had considerable vocal presence, but her characterisation wasn’t aided by the fact that the director had her languishing on top of what looked like a large white pumpkin at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, the costumes and props seemed incidental to the opera, and at times even a hindrance. Sometimes it was more like a fashion show, with wacky structured haute-couture costumes which made me wonder whether we'd accidentally strayed into the Zandra Rhodes-designed Aida a few weeks early.
Katherine Manley (Fortune) / Sophie Bevan (Love) / Jane Harrington (Virtue) and Orange Blossom Dance Co
The Indonesian dance troupe were usually incidental to — indeed, often distracting from — the action rather than providing the unifying, mesmerising presence they supplied to last year’s wonderful Orfeo. The production did have moments of real beauty - like the dancers in the dragonfly costumes rising slowly into the air during "Pur ti miro". And there was great beauty in the music — is it even possible not to make this score beautiful? Laurence Cummings really understands Monteverdian line and seemed to have taken considerable trouble to share this with the cast.
But compared with Orfeo, with its sense of "flow" and constantly visually-arresting use of colour and movement, this Poppea staging was scrappy and disappointing. In truth, the biggest problems were the failure to communicate the humanity of the characters, and the fundamental sense of division between the musical performance and the visual spectacle. Chen Shi-Zheng has shown himself to be yet another director who allows his personal vision for a production to take priority over the work being performed. ENO still has him lined up to direct Il ritorno d’Ulisse and I really hope he engages more with that than he seems to have done with Poppea.
Ruth Elleson © 2007