03 Jan 2008
Oppenheimer opera charts new course in music
In this country art and politics are rarely bedfellows — strange or otherwise; indeed, it’s seldom that the two meet under the same roof.
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.
In this country art and politics are rarely bedfellows — strange or otherwise; indeed, it’s seldom that the two meet under the same roof.
That is one thing that makes John Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” unique among recent American operas. At the same time, the success of the work gives hope that the national ear is not totally deaf to the urgency that speaks so strongly from this account of the anxious hours leading up to the first explosion of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945. “Doctor Atomic,” directed by sometimes enfant terrible Peter Sellars, who also wrote the libretto, was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2005. Following performances in Amsterdam last summer, the Chicago Lyric Opera has revived the SFO staging as a major event of its current season.
Adams first tried his hand at contemporary history in 1987 with “Nixon in China.” And Sellars — as Edward Said commented on his work with Hindemith’s “Mathis der Mahler” in London in 1986 — is one of the few in this country “who connect opera to an ongoing social political debate” in an effort to combat “the prevailing belief that operas are essentially harmless, if not completely antiseptic.” There is obviously nothing either harmless or antiseptic about “Doctor Atomic,” defined by Adams as “an unflinching drama of contemporary humanity in crisis.” And the acute sense of crisis in today’s world, where leaders threaten the use of nuclear weapons with the ease that their forefathers played with tin soldiers, underscores the sense of urgency felt in the audiences that pack the city’s Lyric Theatre for eight performances beginning in December and continuing on into January.
The 1945 detonation of “the Gadget,” as those involved in the Manhattan Project called that first bomb, stands as the major turning point in all of human history, for with it mankind unleashed a power capable not only of heretofore unknown destruction, but able even to destroy the earth itself. The fear shared of igniting the atmosphere that haunted Robert J. Oppenheimer, father of the first bomb, informs “Doctor Atomic” from beginning to end, and Adams has done an incredible job of expressing it — in part through electronically generated sounds woven seamlessly into the score — to create what he has called “a post-nuclear holocaust landscape.” The opera ends openly at “zero minus one,” leaving the audience to deal with the consequences of the scientists’ “success” in the desert. It is thus an intentionally discomforting work about events, the relevance of which has grown immensely over the past half century.
Gerald Finley (l.) stars as Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Paul Fink (r.) stars as Edward Teller in the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Sellars, drawing deftly upon documentary material — much of it only recently made public — and poetry to which deeply intellectual Oppenheimer and his troubled wife Kitty were attached — stresses that the physicist in his challenge of the unknown was the Faust of the 20th century, and he pairs him tellingly with Mephistophelean Edward Teller, later famous as the mastermind of the hydrogen bomb. It is the confrontation of Oppenheimer’s intellectual honesty with Teller’s lust for power that elevates “Doctor Atomic” beyond “mere” art in its concert for moral and ethical issues.
The Lyric is fortunate in having five of the SFO principles in its cast, and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley is even more of a dead ringer for nervous, chain-smoking Oppenheimer than he was at the premiere. And Richard Paul Fink, the reigning Alberich in today’s “Ring” cycles, makes Teller more threatening that he was two years ago. Highlight of the Chicago staging, seen on December 18, was Finley’s delivery of the haunting “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” that concludes Act One. (The text is by John Donne.)
Jessica Rivera stars as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Peter Sellars-directed Doctor Atomic, a Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere for the 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In extensive revisions of the score Kitty Oppenheimer is now a soprano, warmly sung by Jessica Rivera, who has made her mark as both as both Nuria and Margarita in Osvaldo Golijov’s “Ainadamar.” One critic called “Am I in your light?,” her Act-One “serenade” of her husband “a bundled Mahlerian adagietto of emotion,” and in Act Two she brings Cassandra-like insight into her exchange with Native-American nursemaid, sung with earthy sensuousness by Lyric studio artist Meredith Arwady.
Despite revisions since the premiere, however, the tension that has the audience writhing in Act One is lost in Act Two, in which the score loses its impulse. It will be interesting to see what further revisions are made when Penny Woolcock directs a totally new production of “Doctor Atomic” at the Met next season.
Conductor Robert Spano, enviously at home with contemporary scores, brings a sharp focus to Adams’ score. Questionable, however, are the largely aimless gyrations of an octet of dancers choreographed by Lucinda Childs.
Peter Sellars sums up “Doctor Atomic” as “a reality that we’re living with every minute,” and the overall excellence of the Chicago staging left no doubt about. Indeed, as Thomas Mann once wrote in another context, the opera focuses attention on a time in which “so much began that has not yet left off beginning.”
The positive response of the Chicago audience is encouraging, for it indicates a willingness — indeed, perhaps a need — for opera that is unafraid to engage itself in compelling and complex issue. True, “Doctor Atomic” will never replace “Carmen” and “Butterfly” in public favor, but its success indicates the existence of a vast number of opera-goers who seek more than mere entertainment. It is a work that demands a critical response from all who see it. And the opera is of particular relevance to Chicago, for it was beneath the football field at the University of Chicago that Enrico Fermi set off the first controlled nuclear chain reaction in history.
A film to watch for
It is sad indeed that a major companion piece to “Doctor Atomic” is largely unavailable to the current audience of the opera. Although “Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic” has been shown at several film festivals, it is not yet available through regular DVD channels.
Made for public television, word is that the film will not be distributed until it has been seen on PBS, and at present no date has been set for its showing there. An engaging counterpoint of details from Oppenheimer’s life and career and the creation of “Doctor Atomic,” the film reflects the same anxiety that accounts for the on-stage apprehension so compellingly portrayed by Sellars and Adams. It is the work of filmmaker Jon Else, whose credits include award-winning documentary on Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project “The Day After Trinity” Those who see “Doctor Atomic” should watch PBS schedules.