Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Of Animals and Insects: a musical menagerie at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall was transformed into a musical menagerie earlier this week, when bass-baritone Ashley Riches, a Radio 3 New Generation Artist, and pianist Joseph Middleton took us on a pan-European lunchtime stroll through a gallery of birds and beasts, blooms and bugs.

Hugo Wolf, Italienisches Liederbuch

Nationality is a complicated thing at the best of times. (At the worst of times: well, none of us needs reminding about that.) What, if anything, might it mean for Hugo Wolf’s Italian Songbook? Almost whatever you want it to mean, or not to mean.

San Jose’s Dutchman Treat

At my advanced age, I have now experienced ten different productions of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in my opera-going lifetime, but Opera San Jose’s just might be the finest.

Mortal Voices: the Academy of Ancient Music at Milton Court

The relationship between music and money is long-standing, complex and inextricable. In the Baroque era it was symbiotically advantageous.

I Puritani at Lyric Opera of Chicago

What better evocation of bel canto than an opera which uses the power of song to dispel madness and to reunite the heroine with her banished fiancé? Such is the final premise of Vincenzo Bellini’s I puritani, currently in performance at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Iolanthe: English National Opera

The current government’s unfathomable handling of the Brexit negotiations might tempt one to conclude that the entire Conservative Party are living in the land of the fairies. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s 1882 operetta Iolanthe, the arcane and Arcadia really do conflate, and Cal McCrystal’s new production for English National Opera relishes this topsy-turvy world where peris consort with peri-wigs.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in Marseille

Any Laurent Pelly production is news, any role undertaken by soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac is news. Here’s the news from Marseille.

Riveting Maria de San Diego

As part of its continuing, adventurous “Detour” series, San Diego Opera mounted a deliciously moody, proudly pulsating, wholly evocative presentation of Astor Piazzolla’s “nuevo tango” opera, Maria de Buenos Aires.

La Walkyrie in Toulouse

The Nicolas Joel 1999 production of Die Walküre seen just now in Toulouse well upholds the Airbus city’s fame as Bayreuth-su-Garonne (the river that passes through this quite beautiful, rich city).

Barrie Kosky's Carmen at Covent Garden

Carmen is dead. Long live Carmen. In a sense, both Bizet’s opera and his gypsy diva have been ‘done to death’, but in this new production at the ROH (first seen at Frankfurt in 2016) Barrie Kosky attempts to find ways to breathe new life into the show and resurrect, quite literally, the eponymous temptress.

Candide at Arizona Opera

On Friday February 2, 2018, Arizona Opera presented Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to honor the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Although all the music was Bernstein’s, the text was written and re-written by numerous authors including Lillian Hellman, Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, and Dorothy Parker, as well as the composer.

Satyagraha at English National Opera

The second of Philip Glass’s so-called 'profile' operas, Satyagraha is magnificent in ENO’s acclaimed staging, with a largely new cast and conductor bringing something very special to this seminal work.

Mahler Symphony no 8—Harding, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality. For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem. Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.

Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday—Angelika Kirchschlager

At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series. The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde. Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.

Ilker Arcayürek at Wigmore Hall

The first thing that struck me in this Wigmore Hall recital was the palpable sincerity of Ilker Arcayürek’s artistry. Sincerity is not everything, of course; what we think of as such may even be carefully constructed artifice, although not, I think, here.

Lisette Oropesa sings at Tucson Desert Song Festival

On January 30, 2018, Arizona Opera and the Tucson Desert Song Festival presented a recital by lyric soprano Lisette Oropesa in the University of Arizona’s Holsclaw Hall. Looking like a high fashion model in her silver trimmed midnight-blue gown, the singer and pianist Michael Borowitz began their program with Pablo Luna’s Zarzuela aria, “De España Vengo.” (“I come from Spain”).

Schubert songs, part-songs and fragments: three young singers at the Wigmore Hall

Youth met experience for this penultimate instalment of the Wigmore Hall’s Schubert: The Complete Songs series, and the results were harmonious and happy. British soprano Harriet Burns, German tenor Ferdinand Keller and American baritone Harrison Hintzsche were supportively partnered by lieder ‘old-hand’, Graham Johnson, and we heard some well-known and less familiar songs in this warmly appreciated early-afternoon recital.

Brent Opera: Nabucco

Brent Opera’s Nabucco was a triumph in that it worked as a piece of music theatre against some odds, and was a good evening out.

LPO: Das Rheingold

It is, of course, quite an achievement in itself for a symphony orchestra to perform Das Rheingold or indeed any of the Ring dramas. It does not happen very often, not nearly so often as it should; for given Wagner’s crucial musico-historical position, this is music that should stand at the very centre of their repertoires – just as Beethoven should at the centre of opera orchestras’.

William Tell in Palermo

This was the infamous production that was booed to extinction at Covent Garden. Palermo’s Teatro Massimo now owns the production.

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):