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.
14 Nov 2007
“The Sacrifice” – Welsh National World Premiere Tour
Welsh National Opera’s new opera “The Sacrifice”, composed by James MacMillan with libretto by Michael Symmons Roberts, and directed by Katie Mitchell, is an emotionally raw and compelling study of the nature of conflict, and how humans are changed by it.
Based on the Branwen story from
the ancient Welsh collection of folktales known as the The Mabinogion, it is
nevertheless uncompromising in its attempt to bring the opera into a 21st
century context. Whether this works is open to question and, on first
acquaintance, the answer would seem to be a regretful “no”. Not for the
fact of its contemporary-looking setting, (supposedly a few decades in the
future but actually reminding one more of an East German hotel circa 1985)
but because it confuses an audience as to what and when that world is meant
to be. Here, the the storyline follows a politically arranged wedding of two
significant members of opposing armed political camps which is intended to
bring together the two warring factions and, seven years later, the
investiture of their son which is meant to cement the union. This is a
timeless story, and as such it needs no making “relevant” to our recent
experiences of Northern Ireland, Bosnia or Palestine. Indeed, in so doing,
the authors have weakened the strongest points it is trying to make. Some ten
years in the making, perhaps The Sacrifice has suffered the perennial problem
that besets all long-winded projects, be they artistic or commercial: what
seemed vital and relevant a decade ago now projects to today’s audience as
predictable and, worse, disappointing.
However, what does work in a devastatingly effective way is MacMillan’s
visceral and multi-textured score where every aspect of the modern orchestra
is used in imaginative and compelling ways: the strange opening triad chords
of the overture immediately evoke an atmosphere that captures the essence of
the piece and this magic continues throughout. Robert’s ingenious libretto
of semi-rhyming couplets gives the music plenty of space and expertly conveys
the tensions and uncertainties of the protagonists. Over 70 musicians and
percussionists of the WNO Orchestra are conducted by the composer in this
inaugural run, and they play with intense musicality and commitment,
obviously relishing the detailed chromatic sound world he has created.
Equally successful is his writing for the WNO Chorus and the solo singers and
it was on hearing some of the most potent arias and ensembles for the first
time that one was struck by how very traditional, in some ways, this opera
is: full orchestra, a substantial acting Chorus, a soprano heroine, a second
soprano sub-plot character, tenor and baritone opposing male leads and a
“father figure” bass-baritone. The only slight difference, on paper,
between this and any 19th century mainstream opera is that our heroine loves
the baritone, not the tenor, who turns out to be the nearest thing to the
traditional “baddie” – although no-one in the story is morally clear
Act One sets the scene of the two warring “tribes” or factions, holed
up in the same depressing, shoddy hotel, scarred by the occasional bullet
hole, and awaiting the fateful wedding of Sian, the first faction’s
General’s daughter to Mal, the opposing faction’s famed “freedom”
fighter. Sian’s real love, Evan, a soldier in the General’s army, watches
with increasing bitterness and jealousy as the woman he loves appears ready
to betray both him and their faction in the cause of a peace brokered by her
father, in what will be an attempt to end the decades, or maybe centuries, of
conflict. The final scene ends in violence with Evan attempting to kill Mal,
but only succeeding in wounding him.
In Act Two, seven years having passed and Sian and Mal now have two small
boys, but with Evan newly released from captivity the semi-crippled Mal is
convinced his wife is still seeing her old love. He is right – they do
meet, and sing the marvellously emotive and soaring duet “Your heart is my
homeland” before Evan is again forced to flee. Meanwhile, the first born
son of the unhappy couple is due to be crowned “regent” – a new king in
waiting who will, the General hopes, finally confirm the transition from
uneasy truce to unified nation. Again violence and horror dash all such hope
in a way all too familiar in the history of human conflict.
The final Act begins with a funeral, and some sumptuous choral writing
that is communicative of all the longing and distress of any war-torn nation.
In a final act of sacrifice to his dream of a unified country and an end to
the eternal conflict, the General opens up the possibility of hope, although
the auguries are not good.
Many people have commented on MacMillan’s use of musical “signposts”
in his writing, his quotations and borrowings of musical forms and ideas.
Nothing new in that of course, and in The Sacrifice, many of these quotes
work extremely well and indeed suggest aural landmarks in the wider landscape
of the score. Echoes of a Bach passacaglia, Purcell word-setting (especially
noticeable in Sian’s funeral lament) and even some Wagnerian-style
leitmotifs on the percussion and strings all float in and out of our
conscious perception without ever compromising the essence of the original
music which is in turns richly melodic and tangentially percussive. Boring or
repetitive it is not.
The score is lit from within by the solo work of the excellent singers who
without exception give fine readings of both their music and their
characterisations. There was no weak link, although probably one must single
out the opulent-voiced Lisa Milne as Sian who rose magnificently to the
challenge of some difficult yet rewarding writing. Her duet with Leigh
Melrose as Evan was eloquent and fine-spun, working well with Melrose’s
warm yet appropriately edged baritone. He was able to suggest the knife-edge
character of Evan – a Celtic split personality capable of great love and
great hatred at one and the same time. Christopher Purves was deeply
convincing as the General, his voice easy in the lowest registers, and able
to communicate the desperate hope, and final realisation, of what he has to
do. As her possibly-autistic, certainly not “normal” sister Megan, Ailish
Tynan had the most pure physical acting to do, but she also was able to
subtly shade her bright soprano to suggest an underlying fear and
fore-knowledge of events as she chanted lines of runic verse and obscure
forecasts. The most complex role is that of Mal – freedom
fighter/guerrilla, killer turned political leader, jealous husband and loving
father, desperately trying to understand a changing world, and changing
moralities. Peter Hoare’s highly-charged and robust tenor was a perfect
instrument for Mal, flying high with rage but also able to colour and darken
with emotional intensity. Rosie Hay, Samantha Hay, Amanda Baldwin sang the
supporting roles of the Three Birds with conviction, even if one might
question their necessity in the drama. All the soloists were superbly
supported and enhanced by the WNO Chorus, who seemed completely at home with
their music with some nuanced singing, producing an admirable amalgam of
light and shade.
The caveats regarding setting aside, it was a tremendous evening of music
theatre, and Welsh National, MacMillan and Roberts are to be congratulated on
a work that is, without doubt, an important one, and one that will take its
rightful place in the repertory.
© Sue Loder 2007