03 Mar 2008
Los Angeles Opera: March 1 & 2, 2008
James Conlon has become the artistic heart and soul of Los Angeles Opera in his second season as music director.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
James Conlon has become the artistic heart and soul of Los Angeles Opera in his second season as music director.
He almost unfailingly appears at the pre-lecture of every opera he conducts, to speak with keen intelligence and insight about the particular opera and its composer. As a conductor, although he may not have the most distinctive interpretative profile, he has the LAO orchestra unfailingly play for him with passion and precision.
For years Conlon has cherished a dream of staging some of the works of those composers whose careers - and often, lives - were devastated by the Nazi regime. Last season, the "Recovered Voices" series began with a concert of excerpts from several of these composers, as well as a semi-staged performance of Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy. For 2007/08, LAO scheduled four performances of a double-bill: Viktor Ullman's The Broken Jug, a comic piece that runs for under 40 minutes, and Zemlinsky's The Dwarf, an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story. The third of four performances took place Saturday, March 1st.
The program notes highlight the tragic irony that Ullman wrote the comic The Broken Jug in a concentration camp, not too long before his death. At the pre-lecture Conlon's interviewer tried to suggest a deeper theme of the corruption of power in the story of a judge who turns out to be the culprit in the case of the shattered family heirloom of the title. The judge seems to have basically planned a sexual assault on a beautiful young girl, only fleeing the scene (and in the process breaking the jug and losing his powdered wig) when her burly fiance showed up. Although Ullman's music bubbles cheerfully, very little that is actually amusing occurs, and the story plays out like a pale copy of Chaucer. James Johnson tried to ham it up as the Judge; there just wasn't much for him to work with. In fact, the show was at its best in a clever dumbshow played out in silhouette during the overture.
At 80 minutes, Zemlinsky's The Dwarf would not have made for a full evening in a temporal sense, but artistically, it more than compensates for its relative brevity. Wilde's story echoes elements of his Salome. A beautiful, spoiled princess, accustomed to getting what she wants, ends up destroying the object she claims to cherish above any other. Instead of being crushed by the shields of Roman soldiers, the Princess of The Dwarf walks callously away from the body of the broken-hearted dwarf, a birthday gift from a Sultan. The dwarf has made it through life deluding himself about his misshapen appearance, believing the reflection he has caught glimpses of to be that of an evil nemesis. When the princess cruelly provides him with a mirror that denies him the refuge of his delusion, the dwarf, who has fallen in love with the princess, collapses in horror.
Ralph Funicello's gorgeous set stacked a tiered outer ring of gray and green marble, with gold gilt highlights, around a lower center platform. Staging the appearance of the dwarf makes for a tricky challenge for the director. For quite a while, Darko Tresnjak kept Rodrick Dixon, a man of typical tenor stature, crouched in the silver crate that serves as his gift box. Eventually Dixon emerges, but by then he has established his character through his singing, and the other performers can takes their places on the higher levels of the tiers surrounding the lower center stage. Zemlinky's incredibly rich, imaginative scoring sometimes proved too heavy in texture for Dixon, especially when the singing line dropped into his weaker low range. But Dixon's top notes were solid and powerful, and as an actor he surmounted the role's challenge of blending the audience's predisposition for sympathy toward the character with the sharp depiction of the dwarf's warped self-perception. Simply put, Dixon triumphed.
Mary Dunleavy sang with the appropriately bright, superficial beauty of her role: a shallow, pretty princess. As her favorite maid, Susan B. Anthony etched a strong character in just a few moments, a woman who knows the defects of her mistress and sees the tragedy coming, while being helpless to prevent it. The audience rewarded her performance with a very warm reception at final curtain. But the biggest hand went to Conlon, who appeared not from the wings but from the rear of the set, a choice that highlighted his "starring" role in the show. Though not melodically memorable, Zemlinsky's score meets every challenge of the drama, with orchestral color and drama. One acts are notoriously difficult to program, but Zemlinky's The Dwarf surely should be staged more often. Though it would make for a longish evening, a pairing with Straass's Salome would surely make an amazing evening.
The next afternoon Conlon returned to conduct Verdi and Boito's Otello, using a Johan Engels staging borrowed from Monte Carlo and Parma, directed by John Cox. Conlon started the storm music with brash volume, and unfortunately, no subtlety followed in the performance that followed. Engels's set suggests the bowl-shaped floor of a ship, with two concrete culverts on either side for entrances and exits. The basic set gets dressed up for each scene change but remained static and uncommunicative, though not without a decorative visual appeal.
Anyone who has seen video clips of Ian Storey in the recent La Scala Tristan und Isolde, under the direction of Patrice Chereau, knows that the man can be an potent actor, although his capable vocal instrument lacks any interesting colors. However, Cox did not find a way to bring out Storey's best. A large man, Storey never seemed imposing, and from the beginning his Otello proved to be no match for Mark Delavan's malevolent, brutal Iago. Even Cristina Gallardo-Domas, a couple feet shorter than Storey, had more presence. The resulting imbalance drained much drama from the afternoon, with that deadly "going through the motions" feeling settling in. Despite some impressive notes here and there, Storey could not deliver with consistency. While effective as an actress, Gallardo-Domas's voice too easily slipped into a dismaying vibrato. Delavan powered his way through Iago's music, effectively if unsubtly.
In a program note, Conlon writes that "despite all the possible dramatic misadventures or vocal inadequacies, [Otello] cannot fail because it is so perfectly conceived..." So if this LAO Otello cannot be called a failure by those terms, at least it has to be called a disappointment.
But The Dwarf made the weekend at the Dorothy Chandler worthwhile. In next year's Recovered Voices program, Conlon conducts Walter Braunfel's The Birds. Anticipation builds from this moment.