Recently in Performances
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value
a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
13 Nov 2007
Macbeth at the Met
Verdi, a born skeptic where the supernatural is concerned, did not seem to know quite what to do with the witches in Macbeth and was far too loyal to Shakespeare to reduce their role – he knew how closely the play was bound to them, famous for them.
(Shakespeare wrote the play, remember,
for James I, a descendant of Banquo’s, a passionate believer in witchcraft
and the author of a book on demonology. There’s no way to know how much of
this credence the author shared.) In the opera, the witches’ off-kilter
polka in the opening scene is peculiar but not exactly sinister; their
whirling waltz in the cauldron scene is not music for a ballroom but does not
stink of black magic. He does much better with the ghostly evocations of
bagpipes (bassoons and oboes) for the apparitions of the kings.
Stage directors tend to share Verdi’s ambivalence (if that’s what it
was), and they have the additional problem of making sense of what modern
audiences no longer take seriously. In a recent production in Istanbul, the
witches were humorless demonic forces motivating all the wicked actions of
the opera – which I think is a mistake. Ludicrous witches, however, were
the great flaw in Adrian Noble’s new production at the Met – an enormous
crowd of bedraggled park bench ladies in ratty housecoats, clunky shoes and
socks, pin-on hats, and handbags wielded like the weapons of Monty Python
drag queens. Are they intended to be funny or eldritch? Though this is a
puzzlement Verdi may have shared, it seemed a desperate attempt to find a
modern equivalent in gooseflesh to Shakespeare’s voices of Fate who vanish
into thin air. (The Met’s witches do not vanish at all; they run
The scenes that tend to stump the average director stumped Noble as well:
Banquo the soldier vet sings his haunted aria to Fleance after acknowledging
the tramps gathered around a steel-drum fire; their casual friendliness then
turns inexplicably to menace. The omission of a forest of cut branches for
ambulatory Birnam Wood is regrettable. The sensuality at the core of the
Macbeth marriage is clear enough from their duets and complete trust in each
other; it isn’t necessary to have every encounter conclude rolling into
bed. The Sleepwalking has been cued by Verdi’s highly original choice to
have the Lady’s snatches of dream uttered while the orchestra plays – but
no one ever sings – the melody; this is undercut when the two witnesses’
interjections of horror come from seated psychiatrists observing the patient
from a therapeutic distance.
Noble’s production achieved most when it tried least hard. The gloomy
forest semicircling the stage area gave an appropriate mood to the tale, and
the sequoia-sized columns that move about to become Duncan’s trapping
bedchamber or an imperial banquet hall (with the splendid addition of
grotesque chandeliers and grotesque choreography) are highly effective uses
of the Met’s enormous stage. The blazing light show (probably only visible
from downstairs) that accompanies the apparitions is a thrill, as are the
mouthing faces in glass bubble monitors.
And the singing, you ask? Well, after October’s underpowered
Lucias (both casts), it was a great pleasure to hear five (yes,
five) Met-sized voices easily filling the cavernous theater. Maria Guleghina
sang a sumptuous “Vieni t’affretta,” filling one with anticipation for
her Norma, but followed it with a cabaletta that was sloppily all over the
place to fill one with alarm at the thought of her as Norma. The coloratura
of the drinking song also lurched, but for this scene it’s appropriate; she
acted the woman who loves being the life of her parties – and seemed
humiliated when the her husband’s hysteria ruined her moment. The murky
suspense of “Le luce langue,” sung on her back on a couch as she idly
daydreams of power, curdled the blood, but the Sleepwalking Scene was a
distraction, delivered full voice as she histrionically clambered over chairs
and played with a rocking ceiling light – perhaps she can deliver this
climactic scene introspectively, with some exposure of character, but as
staged, it went for very little.
A scene from Act IV of Verdi's "Macbeth."
To Guleghina’s weird, wet and wild bra-popping Lady, Željko Lučić’s
Macbeth made a contrast and a complement, brooding where she was flamboyant.
This is appropriate: action is taken by Macbeth, but only after long
consideration (and wifely exhortation), the great soliloquies state the point
of the play, of Shakespeare’s essay on the self-destructions of ambition.
Stout and weary in formal clothes already drenched in the sweat of ghostly
visitations at his big party, he sits disconsolate, exhausted, an
impersonation of has-it-all-been-worth-it? success. Lučić has a voice of
true Verdian warmth and heft, though a few sustained notes troubled him. The
beauty of his singing underscored the tragedy here: Macbeth is not
intrinsically evil; he’s an ambitious man who knows he is doing wrong but
cannot stop himself. Lučić should prove an elegant interpreter of many
another of Verdi’s introspective baritones.
John Relyea, a bit young and sexy for a role that sounds and usually looks
patriarchal, sang an impressive Banquo. (He makes a sexy ghost, too.) Dimitri
Pittas, a New Yorker who’s been coming up through the Met ranks, sang
Macduff with a brash but interesting sound, a clarion Verdi tenor with a
youthful ping. Macduff, with his one aria and one-fourth of a finale, is a
popular spot for a not-yet-star-Verdi tenor to make a first impression, and
Pittas made it. Richard Thomas was impressive in Malcolm’s few lines:
another bright, focused tenor.
John Relyea as the ghost of Banquo and Zeljko Lucic in the title role of Verdi’s “Macbeth.”
James Levine is said to have campaigned for the new production of this
opera: the charm for anyone with an appreciation for Verdi’s mastery, his
originality, in this breakthrough score was clear in his guidance of
its many shivery effects. My only objection was the battle fugue and the
“bardic” finale, which did not sweep the theater with an arc of relief
as, after three hours of horror, they should.
Despite its imperfections, this was a production that (unlike the
Lucia) inspired me to wish to see it again. That will be possible in
May with very different singers, among them Gruber’s Lady, Alvarez’s
Macbeth, Pape’s Banquo and Calleja’s Macduff – and I wouldn’t miss