Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

J. C. Bach: Adriano in Siria

At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.

Bethan Langford, Wigmore Hall

The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.

Tansy Davies: Between Worlds (world premiere)

An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.

Arizona Opera Ends Season in Fine Style with Fille du Régiment

On April 10, 2015, Arizona Opera ended its season with La Fille du Régiment at Phoenix Symphony Hall. A passionate Marie, Susannah Biller was a veritable energizer bunny onstage. Her voice is bright and flexible with a good bloom on top and a tiny bit of steel in it. Having created an exciting character, she sang with agility as well as passion.

Il turco in Italia, Royal Opera

This second revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 2005 production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia seems to have every going for it: excellent principals comprising experienced old-hands and exciting new voices, infinite gags and japes, and the visual éclat of Agostino Cavalca’s colour-bursting costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s sunny sets which evoke the style, glamour and ease of La Dolce Vita.

The Siege of Calais
——
The Wild Man of the West Indies

English Touring Opera’s 2015 Spring Tour is audacious and thought-provoking. Alongside La Bohème the company have programmed a revival of their acclaimed 2013 production of Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) and the composer’s equally rare The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo).

The Met’s Lucia di Lammermoor

Mary Zimmerman’s still-fresh production is made fresher still by Shagimuratova’s glimmering voice, but the acting disappoints

Voices, voices in space, and spaces: Thoughts on 50 years of Meredith Monk

When WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced Meredith Monk’s beloved Panda Chant II, which concluded the four-and-a-half hour Meredith Monk & Friends celebration at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he described it as “an expression of joy and musicality” before lamenting the fact that playing it on his radio show could never quite compete with a live performance.

St. John Passion by Soli Deo Gloria, Chicago

This year’s concert of the Chicago Bach Project, under the aegis of the Soli Deo Gloria Music Foundation, was a presentation of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.

Fedora in Genoa

It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.

The Marriage of Figaro, LA Opera

On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.

The Tempest Songbook, Gotham Chamber Opera

Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.

San Diego Opera presents Adams’ Riveting Nixon in China

Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.

Ars Minerva presents Castrovillari’s La Cleopatra in San Francisco

It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.

An Ideal Cast in Chicago’s Tannhäuser

Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.

Madame Butterfly, Royal Opera

Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.

Tosca in Marseille

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

Poetry beyond words — Nash Ensemble, Wigmore Hall

The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.

Arizona Opera Presents Magritte Style Magic Flute

On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.

Henry Purcell: A Retrospective

There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

 Frederica von Stade (Madeline) sings a childhood lullaby to Keith Phares (Charlie) to console him in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts.  HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO
17 Mar 2008

Heggie's "Last Acts"

Let me say up front that I like Jake Heggie's work. I feel he has a true gift for soaring and meaningful melody, a great ear for orchestral effects, a talent for picking good source material, and a knack for crafting affecting melodrama (in the best sense of that word) that can move an audience to tears.

Jake Heggie: Last Acts
The Houston Grand Opera

Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) sings a childhood lullaby to Keith Phares (Charlie) to console him in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.

 

Or at least, to think. Plus, he is a darn nice guy.

Having admired both the musical dramas "Dead Man Walking" and the revised "The End of the Affair," as well as any number of his recorded songs, I was greatly looking forward to the Houston Grand Opera premiere of his newest work, "Last Acts." To say the least, I was not disappointed.

Gene Scheer's libretto takes as its inspiration a very short work by Terence McNally, and features only three singers: "Madeline Mitchell," an actress, and "Charlie" and "Beatrice," her children, all of whom seem to live in Dysfunction Junction. There is actually a fourth, if absent character, the late husband/father, whose untimely death informs much of the conflict.

"Madeline" is a consummate stage mother, although not in the "Mama Rose" mold. She lives to be on stage, driven to deriving fulfillment from her approving audiences to the exclusion of the children after the loss of her husband. Although she is the pivotal figure, the emotional journey of "Last Acts" is more that of her gay son (whose partner is dying of AIDS), and alcoholic daughter (whose marriage cannot compensate for the early loss of her father), who long for her acceptance, or well, just plain recognition.

McNally's early piece was conceived for the concert platform (an AIDS benefit with the NYC Gay Men's Chorus) and uses a unifying dramatic device of the mother's annual, appallingly self-centered Christmas letter. As expanded here, the three acts are set a decade apart starting in 1986, at the height of the cataclysmic AIDS casualties here in the US.

Act One begins with baritone Keith Phares (exceedingly handsome of voice and face) and soprano Kristin Clayton (also looking radiant with singing to match), commiserating on the telephone over the contents of this annual letter, and lamenting their mother's detachment.

This act belongs most to "Charlie" as we come to learn of his partner's affliction, his craving of mom's approval, and ultimately, his co-dependence on his sister. A fine actor, Mr. Phares delivered a powerfully affecting, high-flying solo without a trace of self-pity, and joined Ms. Clayton at act's end for a deeply moving, beautifully sung duet about the memory of their father. "Bea" remembers dad (or idealizes him) as a benevolent patriarch in a comfortable easy chair. "Charlie" despairs that he remembers only . . .the chair. This was moving stuff, and arguably one of the high points in a score filled with pleasures.

Act Two gives way to "Beatrice's" demons, and Ms. Clayton is up to the challenge, with a bountiful lyric voice and spot-on projection throughout the range. She makes the most out of an extended scene of trying on mom's dresses (to accompany her to the Tony's), and delights us in a witty duet with her brother, extolling the virtues of "buying shoes" (a metaphor for therapy). Shortly after, she does a turn-about and has a searing confrontation with her mother, hurling powerfully sung phrases, and provoking a dramatic revelation about her idealized dad.

Any opera featuring the luminous mezzo Frederica von Stade ("Madeline Mitchell") at its center already has a lot going for it. This remarkable artist has been favoring us with consistently fine performances for over three decades. In my own experience, I cherish vivid memories of her Hamburg "Rosina," Brussels "Cendrillon," Paris "Octavian," New York "Cherubino," and most recently her "Mother" in San Francisco's "Dead Man Walking." The good news is that she is not only still a classy, beautiful, consummate artist, but she is also still singing very very well.

If the sheen and spin of her younger days is a bit diminished, it is amply compensated for by a hint of full-bodied, mature earthiness that was not there before. And if there is a very slight shifting of gears in and out of the chest voice now, she negotiates this rangy role with knowing skill. And our composer has given her some wonderful musical moments that play to all her interpretive strengths. She charms, she rants, she belts, she caresses, she provokes, she soothes, and she pours out phrase after phrase of plangent sound.

Act Three ultimately made "Madeline" a more fully rounded and sympathetic character, and ended by bringing her to the apron to invoke her philosophy of life which also happens to be the final phrase of her latest Christmas epistle. This act is much shorter than the either of the first two and seems more a postlude. Indeed the program heading says "an opera in two acts" although it later lists three, with an intermission between the first two.

To its credit and benefit, it does not hurt that "Last Acts" had the full arsenal of the HGO's first rate production values at its disposal, starting with director/designer Leonard Foglia. He placed the chamber orchestra on stage at the top level of some stepped platforms, making good, varied use of this playing space, to include raising and lowering actors and set pieces on the hydraulic pit apron.

By also flying in well-chosen minimal set pieces, and factoring in a flawless lighting design from Brian Nason, Mr. Leonard scored a lot of points for focus and variety. Cesar Galinda's wonderfully effective, occasionally dazzling costumes were also a great contribution, not least of which was the "reveal" of our diva's sequined red show gown from under a short cocktail dress as the scene progressed from entertainment at a private party to a Broadway show performance. Not since Effie White's "I Am Changing" turn in "Dreamgirls" has this effect been seen to better, more magical advantage.

But it was not just flash and dazzle and sleight of hand from our director. Add to the above an unerring sense of communicating character relationships, and a clarity in relating the story line, resulting in our being treated to some uncommonly fine acting.

The music was typically tuneful, dramatically engaging Heggie. In addition to the afore-mentioned set pieces, there were several hauntingly lovely motifs that caught the ear, Mme. von Stade had a wonderful scena when she reveals all about dad, and there were two sinuously intertwining trios that were achingly beautiful. Each character had a telling, well-considered monologue. And our composer sure knows how to deliver comedic punch lines with well-paced set-up and accurate pay-offs. The "Shoe Duet" in 3/4 time was reminiscent of Sondheim's "A Little Priest" without the Macabre.

That is not to say that absolutely everything worked, "Madeline's" comic party piece was missing that final "something" that would have made it play like the showstopping Cy Coleman novelty number it aspired to be. And early in Act Two, the libretto occasionally seemed too pat, bringing in a gratuitous reference or two about the father, or lacking clear definition of "Bea's" alcoholism and motivation for her to turn on her mother. But these are points that will be worked out as these talented creators play it for an audience. It remains to be said that this is a lovely chamber opera that greatly pleased its audience.

One quibble: since the three vocalists all had exemplary English diction, why the surtitles? They occasionally trumped the actors in giving away the dramatic and comic lines too soon, and why? They're not singing Polish, for God's sake! Turn that pacifier off when we can damn well hear and understand the words ourselves! (Thanks, I feel better now. . .)

The effective orchestration calls for five strings, oboe/English horn, one woodwind with doublings, percussion, and two keyboards played by the composer himself and HGO Music Director and conductor Patrick Summers. Maestro Summers has been instrumental in championing Heggie, and conducted the premieres of all three of his operas to date. As on other occasions, he led this group of superlative musicians with skill, dramatic savvy, and sensitive support.

"Last Acts" has other productions lined up starting in San Francisco, where it will play under its new title "Three Decembers." A rose by any other name should sound as sweet, especially if it has a cast, orchestra, and production support as top notch as that assembled by Houston Grand Opera. Mssrs. Heggie and Summers are young men. Here's hoping that they collaborate on many many more "Last Acts" of this high quality before their careers are finished.

James Sohre

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):