28 Jan 2008
Two Queens in Full Cry
What constitutes an “international opera star” these days, anyway?
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
What constitutes an “international opera star” these days, anyway?
Mariella Devia may not be the flavor-of-the-month in “au courant” operatic circles; she may not be giving come-hither looks in the current round of air-brushed Rolex ads; nor may recording companies be promoting her in hyper-drive as the next “diva du jour” (read: meal ticket).
Nevertheless, in La Scala’s new and highly effective “Maria Stuarda,” Signora Devia scored her considerable artistic triumph the old-fashioned way, free of hype and extra-musical baggage, by simply showing up and singing the living hell out of the titular queen, like any truly great star surely should.
I first heard this wonderful artist. . .well, a number of years ago, and I remembered hers to be a full, flexible, accomplished lyric voice with good thrust. Not a fussy, artsy interpreter, she made fine effect with heartfelt, well-studied vocalizing, sound technique, and simplicity of gesture. The good news is that, lo, these many years later, although time has darkened the instrument a bit, this accomplished soprano is still singing superlatively well. And she still looks petite and lovely, to boot.
Ms. Devia has all the requisite assets at her command to make a most persuasive case for our heroine. She negotiates even the trickiest coloratura with skill and accuracy, and imbues it with dramatic meaning. She scores every single time with spot-on, thrilling notes “in alt.” Indeed at opera’s end, she sang what seemed like a “q” above high “z” sounding as fresh as at the start, beginning the note at moderate volume and swelling to a full-bodied forte. Throughout, she displayed masterful use of portamento, crafting arching lines which were often achingly beautiful. And she called forth some steel in her tone and starch in her demeanor as needed to drive the drama forward in her important confrontational declamations.
If this seasoned soprano seems to employ a few small “tricks” these days, like slightly veiling soft high notes that are approached with a leap rather than a scale progression, and pacing her volume here and there to conserve her full arsenal for the “money” sections, it is very minor quibbling. Mariella Devia has all of the goods (and some to spare) to successfully take on this demanding role and make a notable star turn out of it. The Milanese public rewarded her with a deafening appreciation at final curtain.
Mariella Devia, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Francesco Meli, Carlo Cigni (Act I)
Happily, we were just as lucky with our other queen, in the guise of Anna Caterina Antonacci’s “Elisabetta.” The tall, lanky, and beautiful Ms. Antonacci was every bit her rival’s equal, proving to be a perfect foil physically and musically. For ACA has a rangy, disciplined, highly individual, and powerful voice, with a fair measure of metal -- and a big measure of mettle -- driven by technical mastery. This “seconda donna” also scored big with the vociferously appreciative crowd for her imposing glamorous star presence as much as for an imperious outpouring of focused sound.
The program book referred to a past successful (1971) Scala production of “Maria Stuarda” with the established stars Shirley Verrett and Montserrat Cabelle. It couldn’t help but provoke my comparing “what was” to “what is” and I have to say that Mesdames Devia and Antonacci seemed to more than hold their own up against such a previous fabled pairing. Blessed is the house that can find two complementary divas of such stature, not once, but now twice in its recent history. Bravi.
The scheduled tenor Francesco Meli was indisposed, so “Leicester” was capably assumed by Dario Schmunck. Mr. Schmunck is currently singing such things as “Elvino,” “Alfredo, “ and “Leicester” around European houses, and was already scheduled for it at La Scala later in the run. He is possessed of a perfectly pleasant lyric voice which he uses intelligently.
In a major house as this, I thought he would be, say, a perfect “Cassio,” but “Leicester” is decidedly a much bigger “sing,” calling for leading man star quality and panache that he does not yet quite fully possess.
His first aria was greeted with a derogatory comment (shouted by one of the claquers?), and he certainly did not deserve that. His enjoyable performance does still seem a work in progress, and while unfailingly pleasant and well-sung, Schmunck was not quite on a level of fire power with our two queens, from whom he notably took considerable inspiration in each of the separate duets.
Piero Terranova’s “Cecil” began somewhat tentatively. Indeed in Act One, his important solo rants were curiously weak-voiced and covered by the orchestra. Thankfully, he progressively found his stride, and by Act Three he was offering compelling, full-throated singing. “Cecil” may be a comparatively small role, but he fuels so much of the conflict that it was welcome for Terranova to come to the party in due course.
Carlo Cigni brought beauty and amplitude of tone, fine vocal presence, and sincere acting to “Talbot.” In the minor role of “Anna,” Paola Gardina displayed an uncommonly beautiful voice, one not usually lavished on such a small part. I look forward to encountering both Cigni and Gardina in future performances and larger assignments. The exemplary choral work was prepared by Bruno Casoni.
Musical values were of a very high standard. Maestro Antonio Fogliani led the excellent resident orchestra in a taut, largely unsentimental reading, that still allowed for breadth of utterance as well as touching, highly introspective musings such as in the famous Act III prayer. Especially in the sextet and the larger choral moments, Fogliani commanded admirably clean control of his assembled forces to exciting musical effect.
The venerable Pier Luigi Pizzi did his usual triple duty as set designer, costume designer, and director. The costumes were sumptuous, character-specific, evocative if not slavishly “period-correct,” and meaningful. His Elizabeth-as-Fashionista “take” worked well, and Antonacci seemed to revel in her spiffy duds. Mary’s silvery-black frock may have had the required austerity but it was elegantly handsome; and topping all else in the show, her spectacular red dress for the final prayer and execution (forgive me) was to die for.
The handsome, functional set was framed within a sort of “box” of industrial scaffolding that suggested a prison. Centered within it were gradated stepped platforms, shaped rather like an Incan pyramid, the top level of which was joined to perimeter walkways by three symmetrical ramps. By using different lighting washes on the cyclorama, many evocative silhouettes could be created. However, Mr. Pizzi’s floor plan did tend to restrict traffic patterns to a certain sameness of movement for the larger scenes.
Pizzi created a truly brilliant effect for the garden, in which we first encounter Queen Mary. The “pyramid” having been surreptitiously retracted, a full grove of life-like trees rises from underneath the stage like a veritable “dawn” of greenery, including an astro-turfed “bank” on which Mary can luxuriate and stroll. Other than this beautifully calculated forest, the overall unit setting was not intended to communicate a literal sense of time or place, but it was very pleasing to look at and functional.
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Elisabetta)
The prison metaphor not only worked for the obvious enclosure of Mary, but suggested that “Elisabetta” was perhaps in her own “prison,” being constrained by the royal behavior and sometimes unpleasant duties expected of rulers. Part of the design concept was creating a sort of “living sculpture,” peopling this setting with omnipresent guards who prowled the structure brandishing torches. This leather clad, eye candy ensemble of strapping young men may not have added all that much, but neither did it unduly distract.
The high accomplishments of Pizzi the designer were not quite matched by Pizzi the director. I am grateful indeed that there was no bizarre “concept” imposed, that the groupings and stage placement were always serviceable and the movement cleanly competent, all of which told the story and allowed the artists to sing their best. And, yes, that famously bitchy duet scene between the two queens certainly made its full mark, and there were some lovely personalized touches overall.
Still, I had the feeling that there was more to be mined dramatically out of two such wonderful sopranos, especially the always creative Ms. Antonacci, whose “Elisabetta” seemed to settle for two-dimensions when my experience with her in past performances has shown she is fully capable of three (or more).
The one concession to modest “innovation” was that during the opening bars of the first scene, a pantomime was created in which our heroine is given communion by “Talbot,” effectively establishing her faith-based credentials and defining her predicament. (Although, since she later unceremoniously and rousingly calls her cousin a “vile bastard,” I was thinking: “And you take communion with that mouth, Miss Mary?”)
It has been said that acting is really listening. . .and re-acting. And here I think lay a (fixable) minor shortcoming of the production. Characters aren’t consistently listening to each other. And reacting. The above mentioned epithet may be the most glaring (but not only) example, for after “Maria” hurled “Vil bastarda!” at “Elisabetta,” there was scant-to-no-reaction, with “Anna” actually just remaining complacently seated. I mean, the take-no-prisoners Queen has just been insulted (all right, all right, she has taken one or there would be no story)! I would hope that some minor tweaking and enhanced character interplay could be instilled that could make an already fine evening even finer.
In past years, much ink has been spilled and hands wrung about the state of the art at La Scala. At least based on this visit, its reputation as one of the world’s leading opera houses has emphatically been sustained. A tour of their adjacent museum was revelatory as to how this lofty regard came to be established in the first place, since it contains numerous terrific portraits, photos, mementos, props, scores, letters, and instruments touched by many (perhaps most) of the greatest composers and interpreters of the last 200 years of operatic history, all of whom gifted their musical talents to La Scala.
Scene from Act II
It is also telling that, currently on view, there is a special display of costumes worn by Maria Callas for all the roles she performed at the house. This remembrance of the thirtieth anniversary of her death offered a reminder, should any be needed, that we would not perhaps be hearing “Maria Stuarda” and a good deal of the bel canto repertoire in wide performance today were it not for La Divina’s blinding talent and trail-blazing musical advocacy.
Maria may be gone but it seems La Scala can still summon up greatness, as Mariella Devia and company aptly demonstrated. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen.