Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

The 2017 Glyndebourne Tour arrives in Canterbury with a satisfying Così fan tutte

A Così fan tutte set in the 18th century, in Naples, beside the sea: what, no meddling with Mozart? Whatever next! First seen in 2006, and now on its final run before ‘retirement’, Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward account (revived by Bruno Ravella) of Mozart’s part-playful, part-piquant tale of amorous entanglements was a refreshing opener at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where Glyndebourne Festival Opera arrived this week for the first sojourn of the 2017 tour.

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

Shameless grabs for power; vicious, self-destructive dynastic in-fighting; a self-righteous and unwavering sense of entitlement; bruised egos and integrity jettisoned. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was the current Tory government that was being described. However, we are not in twenty-first-century Westminster, but rather in seventh-century Lombardy, the setting for Handel’s 1725 opera, Rodelinda, Richard Jones’s 2014 production of which is currently being revived at English National Opera.

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

Director Mario Bava’s motion picture, Hercules in the Haunted World, was released in Italy in November 1961, and in the United States in April 1964. In 2010 composer Patrick Morganelli wrote a chamber opera entitled Hercules vs. Vampires for Opera Theater Oregon.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

The Genius of Purcell: Carolyn Sampson and The King's Consort at the Wigmore Hall

This celebration of The Genius of Purcell by Carolyn Sampson and The King’s Consort at the Wigmore Hall was music-making of the most absorbing and invigorating kind: unmannered, direct and refreshing.

Classical Opera/The Mozartists celebrate 20 years of music-making

Classical Opera celebrated 20 years of music-making and story-telling with a characteristically ambitious and eclectic sequence of musical works at the Barbican Hall. Themes of creation and renewal were to the fore, and after a first half comprising a variety of vocal works and short poems, ‘Classical Opera’ were succeeded by their complementary alter ego, ‘The Mozartists’, in the second part of the concert for a rousing performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony - a work described by Page as ‘in many ways the most iconic work in the repertoire’.

Back to Baroque and to the battle lines with English Touring Opera

Romeo and Juliet, Rinaldo and Armida, Ramadès and Aida: love thwarted by warring countries and families is a perennial trope of literature, myth and history. Indeed, ‘Love and war are all one,’ declared Miguel de Cervantes in Don Quixote, a sentiment which seems to be particularly exemplified by the world of baroque opera with its penchant for plundering Classical Greek and Roman myths for their extreme passions and conflicts. English Touring Opera’s 2017 autumn tour takes us back to the Baroque and back to the battle-lines.

Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christoph Willibald von Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice opened the 2017–18 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Michelle DeYoung, Mahler Symphony no 3 London

The Third Coming ! Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Philharmonia at the Royal Festival Hall with Michelle DeYoung, the Philharmonia Voices and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It was live streamed worldwide, an indication of just how important this concert was, for it marks the Philharmonia's 34-year relationship with Salonen.

King Arthur at the Barbican: a semi-opera for the 'Brexit Age'

Purcell’s and Dryden’s King Arthur: or the British Worthy presents ‘problems’ for directors. It began life as a propaganda piece, Albion and Albanius, in 1683, during the reign of Charles II, but did not appear on stage as King Arthur until 1691 when William of Orange had ascended to the British Throne to rule as William III alongside his wife Mary and the political climate had changed significantly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
30 Dec 2007

Chicago stages fantastic “Frau” --- Another View

Do we too easily take Richard Strauss for granted? The question is prompted by the superlative production of “Frau ohne Schatten” that was the highlight of the fall season at the Chicago Lyric Opera.

Above: Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season.
Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

 

Although clearly an indispensable presence both in concert hall and opera house, one pauses only rarely to consider the truly monumental dimensions of Strauss’ achievement. And thus one is doubly grateful to the Lyric for the impressive “Frau” directed by Scotland’s brilliantly perceptive Paul Curran. Its excellence both musically and scenically call for reassessment of the debt that owed this composer.

Part of the problem with Strauss — if a problem it is — is that, although he was actively alive during half of the 20th century, he is unthinkingly relegated to the century before, labeled somewhat too easily of “the last Romantic.” It is wiser perhaps to think of Strauss not as “the” end of an age, but rather “an” end of an era still unashamed to sing the “unending melodies” of Wagner. As Edward Said, writing about the 1993 Strauss festival at Bard College observed: “Few composers other than Strauss have lived so undistractedly through so many conflicting upheavals in musical style and conception and at the same time remained so ostensibly unaffected by them.” Indeed, Strauss in his fidelity to the tonal tradition is sometimes compared with his close contemporary Jean Sibelius as a man oblivious to the eruptions on the musical landscape caused by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The parallels, however, are severely limited in scope. Sibelius worked in a remote corner of Europe, celebrated for his national idiom by a people still waiting political recognition of their identity. Strauss, on the other hand, spent his career deeply involved in the musical life of Munich, Vienna and Dresden and Berlin, each in its way a frontrunner in the musical grandeur of Europe until darkness descended upon the continent with the advent of National Socialism.

It is, however, surprising to read in the largely positive commentary on the Lyric’s production that “Frau” is the “best,” the “major” or the “greatest” product of Strauss’ lengthy collaboration with writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for although it can be seen every few years in this country, it lies far behind “Elektra,” “Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne” in the number of performances on American stages. “Frau” is a formidable work, and the infrequency of productions is due in large part to the Wagnerian demands of the work. Thus the degree, to which the Lyric met them, makes the staging, designed by Kevin Knight and lighted by David Jacques all the more praiseworthy. The five major roles in the opera call for voices that can sing out over an orchestra of 100 players and have the endurance for a performance that runs — with two intermissions — over four hours.

Although the “Frau” of the title is the Empress, the fairy-tale creature from another realm, it is clearly the wife of dyer Barak who is the central figure of the opera. And in her debut in the role Christine Brewer, heard on December 20 in the Lyric Opera House, was a triumph of legendary level. Brewer, who long ago made Ariadne a signature role, is now a major Wagnerian. Her Isolde has been praised on disc and on stage, and she recently sang her first Bru”nnhilde in a London concert performance of “Go”tterda”mmerung.” She is a fascinating singer, for although she has the voice of neither Flagstad nor Nilsson, she brings a humane warmth to her work that causes listeners to identify with the characters she portrays. Although she in no way overlooked the shrew that the Wife is in her scorn for her husband in the first half of “Frau,” even there she evoked sympathy for a very modern woman in an unhappy marriage. And when at her most vehement she sang [italics]; she never shouted or barked. Her suffering was palpable, and when change came, the heart of the audience was torn with her own in her pain-wrought confession to Barak.

And the Lyric could not have cast her next to a better Empress than Deborah Voigt, a veteran in the role. Friendly rivals perhaps as Ariadne, the voices of the two sopranos blended beautifully in this staging — despite the feeling that Voigt no longer sings with quite the radiant ease that made her famous. She understands the Empress fully and gave full vent to the despair that she feels when told that unless she finds a shadow — i.e. becomes a mother to one of the ensemble of children crying for incarnation — her husband will turn to stone. Her opposition to the Nurse’s designs, her confrontation of her father Keikobad and finally her refusal to acquire a shadow at the expense of the Dyer’s Wife were played with genuine feeling.

Inspired perhaps by Brewer, Franz Hawlata, the only non-American among the five leads, sang a singularly sympathetic Barak, a role strictly secondary in most productions. There was nothing one dimensional about Hawlata’s often too self-effacing dyer, and his love for his wife came across as genuinely enduring — despite her treatment of him. He renewed his pledge to her, recalling: “She was placed in my care for me to cherish, to protect in my hands, to look after her and respect her for the sake of her young heart.” He made clear that the words had meaning for him — and for those who heard them. And his three handicapped brothers, usually caricatures of offish bearing, were winningly played by Daniel Sutin, Andrew Funk and John Easterlin. Tenor Robert Dean Smith, a current Bayreuth Tristan, was a strong-voiced and attractive Emperor, especially when he swept down from above on a white stallion. As the Nurse mezzo Jean Grove almost stole the show with her portrayal of a woman essentially in alliance with the “bad guys” of the story. In a comment in the Lyric’s program Grove described the Nurse as “a Type A personality from Hell,” but cautioned: “If she were singing ugly all the time, no one would pay any attention to her.”

Lamentation over the complex and convoluted plot of “Frau” is commonplace, but here the leading roles were all sung with such insight that they became credible women and men in a story in no way beyond everyday imagination. It is much to Curran’s credit that he brought “Frau” down to earth, stressing that despite their roots in fantasy Strauss has made flesh-and-blood humans of Hofmannsthal’s somewhat fantastic figures. Adding to the unforced fluency of the production was the skilled hand of conductor Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric’s music director, in whom Strauss has a firm friend and ally. Davis stressed not only the drama of “Frau,” but also the melting beauty of a score that almost a century after its 1919 Vienna premiere stands as the valedictory outpouring of the supreme talent of the last great Romantic. In those magic moments when Strauss reduced the orchestra to chamber-music transparency Davis brought true enchantment to the production. Indeed, the playing that Davis evoked from the Lyric’s orchestra gave meaning to Glenn Gould’s designation of Strauss’ product as “ecstatic music.”

Finally, in a personal perspective on the opening remarks on the degree to which Strauss is taken for granted without adequate appreciation of his achievement. The opulence of Chicago’s “Frau” returned me to the Vienna of 1951, where it was my great good fortune to be a student. I saw my first “Rosenkavalier” in the historic 900-seat Theater an der Wien, the home of the Vienna State Opera while the company awaited reconstruction of its war-devastated house on the Ringstrasse.

I thought often of that distant day after the Chicago “Frau,” for Strauss had then been dead for only two years. My first Marschallin was Viorica Ursuleac who had sung the first Arabella in Dresden in 1933. And on the podium — as he had been in Dresden — was her husband Clemens Krauss, closely associated with Strauss not only as a conductor, but further as the librettist for “Capriccio.” I must have seen Ursuleac in the role four times during that year — with little sense of the music history that played before my eyes. Perhaps it is this early experience that accounts for the enduring role that Strauss has played in over half a century of opera, and validates the gratitude that I feel for this production.

Wes Blomster

Click here for another view of Chicago’s Frau.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):