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.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
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.
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