02 Mar 2008
Short on the sides and Full On Top
Perhaps the most beloved comic opera, Rossini’s Il barbière di Siviglia has never left the repertoire.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Perhaps the most beloved comic opera, Rossini’s Il barbière di Siviglia has never left the repertoire.
With its struggle between love and greed, youth and age, its general joie de vivre, along with gem after gem of “hummable” musical numbers, it is an audience favorite. Myriad opportunities for sheer technical dazzle give connoisseurs an opportunity to savor the more refined vocal moments of the evening. Lyric Opera’s current run of Barbiere, seemingly like Opera itself at the turn of the Millennium strives to please all of the people all of the time, succeeding both as high art and as showpiece. The opera’s elements seem traditional enough, and yet, even a perfunctory glance beneath the surface yields deeper levels of meaning. John Conklin’s sets, which were inspired by the work of Magritte are representational, with surrealist elements. Likewise, Michael Stennets’ costumes were both traditional and whimsical.
A Barbiere resounds or thuds because of style, comic insight, and vocal ingenuity. Lyric’s Barbiere managed to sparkle mostly because of the immense talent of Joyce DiDonato, who, in her house debut as Rosina, was both vocally and dramatically a perfect fit for the role. It must be said that DiDonato is a revelation. Her cavatina, “Una voce poco fa” was a lesson in bel canto tradition. DiDonato’s ornaments were rapid-fire and athletic, inspired, appropriate. The voice was exciting in the top with warmth to spare in the lower and middle registers. It must also be said that DiDonato is an engaging actress; her Rosina was sympathetic and charming. During “Una voce poco fa”, when the text returns, “Io son docile”, in an inspired moment, DiDonato threw a mini-tantrum, juxtaposing Rosina’s outward subservience with her inward rebellion. “Contra un cor”, Rosina’s second act aria, was staged as a “voice lesson” and DiDonato was uproariously funny in her impersonation of an amateur singer, placing her hands on various parts of the body to simulate physicalized learning. When DiDonato’s Rosina looks to Bartolo for approval, Bartolo furthers the joke by making hand gestures that suggested voice placement and grace. DiDonato’s triumph was complete when, immediately before the cadenza, she mimed exaggeratedly deep breathing.
Opposite DiDonato is John Osborn, who replaced Juan Diego Florez, the scheduled Almaviva, at the 11th hour. Florez’s return had been much anticipated by Chicago operagoers, and so Osborn’s bravery in assuming the star mantle should be commended. Osborn does not suffer greatly by comparison to the singer he replaces. His leggero voice coasts easily through the score, which is notoriously difficult for singers who are less equipped for this specialty role. In fact, the finale “Cessa di più resitere” is often cut because of its fiendish difficulty. The tenor wins the audience with his agility and stratosphereic finale. If criticism must be given, it is that Osborn’s voice takes a moment to warm up; his “Ecco ridente in cielo” is perhaps a little heavier than the rest of his singing in the evening, but he sails through the cabaletta with only a little effort and by the second scene, sighs through the recit with a lyricism not often heard from singers in major houses.
Sung by American pin-up baritone Nathan Gunn, the production’s Figaro is a treat, not only for the sporty physique, which the actor proudly displays during his “Largo al factotum” (staged as a dressing scene), but also for his generous singing. Contrary to some critical opinion, this listener finds Gunn’s voice to be adequate of weight for such a large venue as the Civic Opera House. Gunn had no trouble projecting over full orchestra for his arias and duets, but, surprisingly, he drops several syllables of his recitatives, with only a harpsichord to balance. A little more careful detail to vocal energy may be in order, but the singer’s execution is enjoyable, and Gunn’s relaxed air on stage is very welcome.
Joyce DiDonato as Rosina and John Osborn as Count Almaviva
Baritone Philip Krauss gives a serviceable Doctor Bartolo. His reading paled in comparison to the lovers; however, his diction is crisp, and his aria “La calunnia è un venticello” was richer for it. Also of note is his lovely falsetto that we enjoyed in the opening bars of “Quando mi sei vicina”. In spite of his best efforts, Maestro Donato Renzetti fails in his attempt to encourage the orchestra to play so loud as to cover the singers during the quintet, and the overture, surprisingly slow, was out of tune.
Still, this Barbière is a must see for anyone who loves this comic work, and anyone who treasures the bel canto tradition is foolish to ignore the opportunity to hear Ms. DiDonato teach us how Rossini must be sung.
Gregory Peebles © 2008