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.
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent. Holten connects Der fliegende Holländer to Der Meistersinger von Nürnberg and even to Parsifal by bringing out sub-texts on artistic creativity and metaphysics. And what amazing theatre this is, too, and very sensitive to the abstract cues in the music. . ,
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
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.