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."
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.