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.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.