17 Mar 2008
Frankfurt's Ship of Fools
As Anna Russell might say: "The three operas of Puccini's 'Il Trittico' take place on a luxury cruise liner. . . . . On it."
In a recent article in BBC Music Magazine tenor James Gilchrist reflected on the reason why early-nineteenth-century England produced no corpus of art song to match the German lieder of Schumann, Schubert and others, despite the great flowering of English Romantic poetry during this period.
With the New York Premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas, the New York City Opera Steps Out of the Shadows of the Past
Opportunities to see Idomeneo are not so frequent as they might be, certainly not so frequent as they should be.
Not merely Don Carlo, but the five-act Don Carlo in the 1886 Modena version! The welcomed esotericism of San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary spring season.
The early summer San Francisco Opera season has the feel of a classy festival. There is an introduction of Spanish director Calixto Bieito to American audiences, a five-act Don Carlo and two awaited, inevitable role debuts, Karita Mattila as Kostelnička and Malin Bystrom as Janacek's Jenůfa.
Now that the curtain has long fallen on the third and last performance of the Ring cycle at the Washington National Opera (WNO), it is safe to say that the long-anticipated production has been an unqualified success for the company, director Francesca Zambello, and conductor Philippe Auguin.
Most of the attention during this revival of Daniele Abbado’s 2013 production of Nabucco has been directed at Plácido Domingo’s reprise of the title role, with the critical reception somewhat mixed.
Four years ago, almost to the day (13th to 12th), I saw Melly Still’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen during its first Glyndebourne run. I found myself surprised how much more warmly I responded to it this time.
This recital celebrated both the work of the Park Lane Group, which has been supporting the careers of outstanding young artists for 60 years, and the 90th birthday of Joseph Horovitz, who was born in Vienna in 1926 and emigrated to England aged 12.
Headed by General Director Luana DeVol, a world-renowned dramatic soprano, Opera Las Vegas is a relatively new company that presents opera with first-rate casts at the University of Las Vegas’s Judy Bayley Theater. In 2014 they presented Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and in 2015, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This year they offered a blazing rendition of Georges Bizet’s Carmen.
Ever since a friend was reported as having said he would like something in return for modern-dress Shakespeare (how quaint that term seems now, as if anyone would bat an eyelid!), namely an Elizabethan-dress staging of Look Back in Anger, I have been curious about the possibilities of ‘down-dating’, as I suppose we might call it. Rarely, if ever, do we see it, though.
Leading a very muscular Dutch Radio Philharmonic, Principal Conductor Markus Stenz brilliantly delivered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck with a superb Florian Boesch in the lead and a mesmerising Asmik Grigorian as Marie his wife.
There can’t be that many operas that start with an extended solo for double bass. At Holland Park, the eerie, angular melody for lone bass player which opens Pietro Mascagni’s Iris immediately unsettled the relaxed mood of the summer evening.
George Souglides’ set for Will Tuckett’s new production of Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri at Garsington would surely have delighted Liberace.
Calixto Bieito is always news, Carmen with a good cast is always news. So here is the news.
Distinguished theatre director Michael Boyd’s first operatic outing was his brilliant re-invention of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo for the Royal Opera at the Roundhouse in 2015, so what he did next was always going to rouse interest.
Although Bohuslav Martinů’s short operas Ariane and Alexandre bis date from 1958 and 1937 respectively, there was a distinct tint of 1920s Parisian surrealism about director Rodula Gaitanou’s double bill, as presented by the postgraduate students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The eyes of the opera world turned recently to Dresden—the city where Wagner premiered his Rienzi, Fliegende Holländer, and Tannhäuser—for an important performance of Lohengrin. For once in Germany it was not about the staging.
Having been privileged already to see in little over two months two great productions of Die Meistersinger, one in Paris (Stefan Herheim) and one in Munich (David Bösch), I was unable to resist the prospect of a third staging, at Glyndebourne.
‘Mack does bad things.’ The tabloid headline that convinces Rory Kinnear’s surly, sharp-suited Macheath that it might be time to take a short holiday epitomizes the cold, understated menace of Rufus Norris’s production of Simon Stephens’ new adaptation of The Threepenny Opera at the Olivier Theatre.
As Anna Russell might say: "The three operas of Puccini's 'Il Trittico' take place on a luxury cruise liner. . . . . On it."
Except they don't. Except, that is, in Frankfurt Opera's new production staged by Claus Guth and designed by Christian Schmidt, with imaginative costumes contributed by Anna Sofie Tuma.
Not that this is frivolously considered. It's not. And not that it's not very handsome indeed to look at. It is. Seldom has the famous Frankfurt turntable been used to better advantage than in swinging this elegant, white, two-level ship back and forth, always smoothly and soundlessly, revealing a suite, a bedroom, a first class bar, a hint of an open deck, a chapel, an imposing stair to the upper level, and a lounge. Messrs. Guth and Schmidt are seeking, nay stretching to find a metaphor here, and the unifying ideas they stress to be common to these three one-acters are, I believe, two:
Let's add a third: In the midst of life we are in the midst of death. Or does this production team consider it the other way around? At one point in the evening, my colleague leaned over and summoned "Sixth Sense," quipping: "I see Dead People." There were enough ghosts floating around to people a decent revival of "Poltergeist."
- People make foolishly bad decisions and have to suffer the consequences, reaping what they sow.
- Coping with the death of a loved one (or "tolerated one," as with "Buoso") is a defining Life Moment.
Back to the ship, just how much about those two "discussion bullets" above actually "floats" in the context of these one-acters? Truth to tell, not so very much. For the first act, Schmidt's elegant setting was assuredly not the original milieu of the score's dock workers and Seine denizens, and the honking and tooting of the industrial river traffic in the score seemed rather comically out of place with the surroundings. And what are those rough-and-tumble stevedores doing in a ship's classy bar anyway?
That said, "Il Tabarro" was exceptionally well-blocked, and the direction of the character relationships throughout the night was nothing short of electrifying. The "Luigi-Giorgietta" duet ('scuse me, Giacomo) is B-level Puccini. But the total commitment of the lovers, and the uninhibited erotic longings of our heroine transformed this passage into one of the hottest operatic encounters I have ever seen. Pawing her prey, this soprano-as-sex-kitten had a powerful itch and wanted it scratched; rubbing and purring, cooing and grinding, and creating heat not usually found on the operatic stage.
This was due in no small measure to the thrilling "discovery" of soprano Elza van den Heever ("Giorgietta"). In her first professional appearances ever, Ms. Heever gave a star-making performance characterized by uninhibited acting, beauty of form, and a highly polished lirico-spinto sound that had a touch of metal in the big declamations. The opera world needs singers of her caliber and she should go far. She was well-partnered by the experienced "Luigi" of Frank van Aken, also quite a fearless performer, who commands a robust. well-schooled, if slightly muscular tenor.
"Michele" and "Giorgietta's" beautifully voiced duet was imagined as a love-hate encounter that too created its own sparks. Among the white-clad spirit figures peopling each act was, in this duet, the couple's dead Love Child, playing with a makeshift folded paper boat, moved portentously in and about the action. As "Michele" forcibly kept his wife wrapped in the cloak, the child got seamlessly trapped with the pair in the garment during, providing an unforgettably haunting, chills-inducing image.
Suor Angelica — Angelina Ruzzafante (Suor Angelica, links oben), Ensemble
Only the critical fight scene when "Michele" chokes "Luigi" was rather meekly staged. Okay, okay, this is tricky stuff, with rapid fire "dialogue" that is not particularly well-timed in the score, and lots of scuffling required between baritone and tenor. Still, it appeared that our tenor was not choked, but rather "lapeled" to death. ("Nooooo, don't go grabbin' my lapels!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh, I am melting, melting, what a world. . .what a world. . .")
No equivocation though that Zeljko Lucic was a first-rate "Michele." This splendid "house singer" has gone on to great acclaim in the world's most prestigious houses, including the Met's recent broadcast "Macbeth." That his success is deserved was evidenced on this occasion by a suavely sung "Michele," no more so than in his big ranting aria near act's end. He brought sound technique, burnished tone, and dramatic fire to bear in equal measure to forge a figure of profound tragedy. Later in the evening, Lucic regaled us anew with a wry, witty, expansively sung "Schicchi."
Julia Juon is a treasurable artist who was a memorable "Frugola," her little "cat arietta" giving much pleasure. She is perhaps too diminutive for the "Principessa," and was not helped by being placed behind the bar for the bulk of her great scene. It made her look even shorter, and served as a real visual barrier to our connection with her arrogance and imperiousness. Too, her tightly focused voice is not the big honking baritonal sound that Maureen Forester and Marilyn Horne have brought to the part. With "Zita" she was on solid ground again, looking eerily evocative of Rue McClanahan in "Golden Girls." Cagey, cool, elegant, steady and characterful of voice, this was nonetheless a wonderful trio turn for the popular Ms. Juon.
Longtime Frankfurt ensemble member Carlos Krause was a fully rounded "Talpa" as well as a delightfully scheming "Simone." The drunken exhortations of "Trincula" were well handled by Hans-Juergen Lazar. Daniel Behle was a sweet-voiced "Song Seller" who would later prove to be a slimy and persuasive "Gherardo."
Although "Tabarro" was shoe-horned into this concept, it still fully made it's case. The gentle "Suor Angelica" had rougher seas to traverse. Again I gotta ask: Is there anything about this simple convent tale that "floats"? Or that can allow for the fact that a strict, reclusive religious order is inexplicably on a luxury cruise? Are these actually the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on a gay holiday? Whaddupwiddat?
The sweet little expository cameos of the rather anonymous and interchangeable sisters went for even less than usual. The setting here was such such a distraction that I spent more time wondering about the anachronisms than I did enjoying the overall wonderful singing and playing.
Within this ill-conceived framework, though, star soprano Danielle Halbwachs served notice that she is a wonderful, commanding, well-rounded artist. She sings with informed nuance, considerable power, and generous tone.
What she does not possess to my taste is a particularly Puccinian sound and therein lies a rub. "Angelica" is a character study (and nothing but) painted in a quintessential Italianate sound vocabulary. Not her fault, but where the voice should spin and gleam, such as in the upper reaches of the luminous climaxes, her technique only touched on the notes before fleeing to more comfortable lower reaches. The final floated high note of "Senza Mamma" did not come easily, and on this occasion, resisted focusing into the requisite finely spun filigree.
Dramatically, the director had her affect a cliched trembling hand a la Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" -- quieted only by death. Truth in Reporting: All my reservations seemed to matter not one whit to the Publikum who received her rapturously, and, well, why not? Our diva did the vast majority of things right, and is a hugely talented performer. So talented that I would love to see her in other, more suitable roles of her core repertoire.
But what a sad mish-mosh "Angelica" turned out to be. Our Singing Nun seemed to have a sideboard/mini-bar in her suite that was very well stocked with herbs, weeds, seeds, Diet Coke (I made that up), and well, um, poisons. Huh? (See the problem here?) If Carnival Cruises ever offers this tour package, I advise you to pass on it. Or at least avoid the herbal teas.
Gianni Schicchi — Željko Lučić (Gianni Schicchi, rechts), Solistenensemble (Verwandte)
With "Gianni Schicchi" we were back in the realm of believability, although the paeans to the vista of Florence were certainly not credible. I have been there. Big ass cruise ships cannot dock in the Arno. But, save that, there is nothing inherently wrong about "Buoso" and "famiglia" being on this boat. Guth found much to revel in and nailed any number of comic moments.
In a startling revelation our "Lauretta" is shown to be pregnant. Whether the singer really is or not, the reveal at the end of "O Mio Babbino Caro" (competently sung by Juanita Lascarro) was a stunner, and it worked. The Pillsbury Doughboy "Rinuccio" of Massimiliano Pisapia was a real crowd pleaser thanks to an ample, pointed, veristic tone and well shaped phrases. Mr. Pisapia is a tenor to watch.
The entire ensemble of greedy relatives made outstanding contributions, not least of which was Nathaniel Webster as "Marco." Angelina Ruzzafante, Franz Mayer, and Claudian Mahnke contributed sparkling jewels of individualized characterizations as "Nella," "Betto," and "Ciesca," respectfully. Throughout the night the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra under Yuval Zorn played very responsively, although (as in "Suor Angelica") occasionally with more passion than precision.
Perhaps the metaphor for the whole Ship of Fools concept came at the end of "Schicchi" when our leading baritone apparently shoots himself off stage. Shoots himself! I mean, Big Bang off stage, and he lumbers back on, bloodied, taking his ghostly time mounting the stairs, as a melancholy voice-over pronounces his final speech to the audience.
My Big Bang Theory? "Schicchi" went off stage and said "Oh damn, I have been playing this Florentine opera on a cruise ship! It's the fifteenth century, for God's sake! I'm a Fool! Onore! Famiglia!. . . .Bang!"
But seriously now, this was a terrific cast in a conscientiously considered, well-staged, musically sound production. The audience cheered it to the rafters. As for me, I admired the skills of the talented and earnest production team so much, that I would welcome the chance to see more of their work. Or. . . to see them put all these excellent elements into a more realistic production. Now there is a radical concept!
If not everything about this "Il Triticco" worked, it was still the product of a healthy and prolific artistic mind. I was always engaged, sometimes led astray, but always hoping to see more from this talented team.