21 Apr 2008
OONY Performs Puccini's Edgar
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
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.
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.
It was one of Queler’s good nights.
You know the bad ones, the reputedly great unknown score that, like a defective Frankenstein’s monster, refuses to come to life under her listless thunderbolt, the overparted “name” star, the clueless newbies – but there have also been great Queler nights, where a forgotten masterpiece made everybody’s eyes shine (while we wonder why on earth this is obscure), familiar singers do things you never dreamed they could do, and the unknown names are names everyone will know someday, are, well, great opera nights. Edgar was a blend of familiar (Puccini melody) and unfamiliar (but those tunes were better in other scores), with a star giving a star performance, a couple of promising youngsters, and an oldster out of depth and style but camping it up to thrill us.
Edgar is like some disreputable relation you always enjoy running into for their exuberance and oddity, and are grateful not to meet at every family party. Puccini’s second opera and first full-length effort deserves its obscurity (which is legend); one hears it nowadays mostly from a lack of anything else to scrape from the exhausted barrel of the later Italian line. (Though another association, Teatro Gratticielo, has done an impressive job resuscitating verismo works of unexpected worthiness and charm.)
The problem for Puccini – as no one knew at the time but we easily detect in hindsight – is that he didn’t quite know how to tug our heartstrings with a male protagonist. The women here are a study in contrast (goody-goody soprano, wicked, sexy mezzo), but neither has enough room, musically or dramatically, to become a living, memorable figure. Why is Tigrana such a shallow sensualist? Because she’s a Gypsy foundling? But Carmen, to take another such, has a range, an inner life, a distinctive outlook in any single act of Bizet’s opera that makes Tigrana seem an irritable child. Why is Fidelia so loving, no matter the provocation? Is it because of her name? The story takes us no deeper than that. (Again: compare Bizet’s Micaela, a fully-rounded person with a comprehensible inner life.) Puccini could make a drama out of sympathetic or unsympathetic women – but he could not (at this early stage) make one from a pair of cardboard shadows.
Therefore the outpourings of self-disgusted melody from Puccini’s protagonist (though they produce a terrific night for the right tenor, and Marcello Giordani, our best Puccini tenor nowadays, was in clover) may arouse applause but they never create interest in the outcome of this bitter little story of a man caught between a saint and a whore. The only question: will Tigrana stab herself? Or will she stab the neurotic Edgar? Or the innocent Fidelia? is not very interesting. (Which would you choose, if your objective was to shock your audience? And that was always Puccini’s aspiration.)
Queler has conducted this score before, an occasion I barely remember: it is difficult to imagine Renata Scotto sinking her teeth into Fidelia to any great degree (there’s so little meat), but Grace Bumbry surely had fun with Tigrana and we missed her on Sunday. Edgar is a lush score with verismo outpourings but also a grand concertato near the end of Act I left over from bel canto style (Puccini never wrote such a thing again) and several “ecclesiastical” numbers (vespers, a requiem) that were perfect for his family tradition.
Giordani sang with a bright, metallic sheen and an ease conspicuously lacking in his Met Ernani. It was a performance of little variety, agreeably loud (and OONY regulars like it loud), but with some interesting colors during the character’s scenes of teeth-gnash self-loathing, which include a sermon in disguise at his own funeral.
Latonia Moore, one of Queler’s stable of rising young sopranos, has a sumptuous, beautiful, crowd-pleasing voice, but it was not clear from separate, limpid, often wonderful phrases if she can put things together into a fully rounded presentation because sweet Fidelia offers such slight opportunity to do so. But the notes themselves were so wonderfully produced that one longed to hear her in more familiar repertory to see if she’s the real thing – too many ladies have fallen by the wayside in recent years as the Verdi/Puccini soprano we all long to die for.
Jennifer Larmore, alarmingly pudgy a couple of years ago, is now alarmingly rail-thin. Her acting was suitably over the top for Tigrana the heartless vamp (Theda Bara couldn’t have outplayed her), but the voice (never a Puccini-verismo voice) was not up to the role: the luscious dark colors that floored us when she first came on the scene are completely gone, and she sounded thin, overstretched, unsensuous. This role was written for a blockbuster mezzo – where was Dolora Zajick when we needed her? (Stephanie Blythe or Olga Borodina would have had fun with it, too. And all three have sung with Queler.) Larmore was all pose and gown, and she appeared to have stolen the gown from Karita Mattila’s recital wardrobe.
Stephen Gaertner, a frequent figure in concert operas and a recent Met debutante (Enrico, Melot), was impressive as Fidelia’s manic brother, Frank. “Parli il pugnale,” he and Giordani cried at one point – “Our swords will speak for us!” – when they are about to do dubious battle over Tigrana’s much contested (living) body. That tells us right there that the story is too archaic for the era Puccini lived in.
Fortunately, the swords did not do the singing.