06 Apr 2008
San Diego Opera: Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci
Opera companies often tout new productions as a major attraction of their seasons.
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.
Opera companies often tout new productions as a major attraction of their seasons.
Somehow it had eluded your reviewer that the third program of San Diego Opera's 2008 season, the classic pairing of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, would feature a new staging from director Lotfi Mansouri and designer John Coyne. In fact, only on checking the program at intermission, after the (pardon the abbreviation) Cav, did I notice the words "a new production" tucked away as the fifth bullet point of 8 under the act and intermission breakdown.
Instead, San Diego Opera had trumpeted the show as a mini-tenor festival, with the return of San Diego favorite Richard Leech in his role debut as Turiddu and the house debut of José Cura as Canio. And the company was wise to do so. Both tenors put on very good performances, though far from perfect. And the new production? Sadly, it would hardly have appeared "new" 20 years ago. At least the Cav boasted a passably attractive traditional set, although on the cramped Civic Center stage the tables of Mamma Lucia's tavern are only a couple yards from the steps to the church. The one creative touch here came after the prelude, played before a scrim of passing clouds against a blue sky. For Turiddu's sereande to Lola, a small, elevated room to the rear of the stage became illuminated, and we saw the lover leaving his married partner's bedroom. Since Cav takes its time getting started, this bit of staging actually works well to establish the drama early on. After that, every move and gesture played out pretty much as one would expect. Mansouri's predilection for the obvious revealed itself at Santuzza's entrance. Although she steps around the church and Mamma Lucia is almost immediately in front of her, Mansouri had Carter Scott look left and right, as if confused about her location.
But the direction truly went for the risible in a sort of festival procession for the Easter mass. After the passage of townfolk and some penitents (looking alarmingly like Klansmen in their white robes with red sashes), a couple of Roman centurions wheeled on a platform bearing Jesus on the cross, portrayed by a living man. We know he's living because the "Jesus" comes down off the cross, raises his arms in triumph, and enters the church, escorted by the Roman soldiers. Now research may well have established this as typical of an Italian village of the time of the opera's setting, but putting it on stage is a very different thing. The audience did a commendable job of stifling giggles.
Cav has lasted because it is nearly indestructible, and so it proved at this matinee. In his serenade Leech gave a distressing reading, unsteady and brassy. By the time he reappeared, he seemed to have settled. His big voice filled the hall, and he at least sketched in a credible portrait of a strutting small town cad who finds, as he faces his death, some compassion for the woman who has given herself to him. Turiddu is a role where the absence of a subtlety won't cripple a performance. Carter Scott's Santuzza played up the pathetic side of the character a bit too much. She came off best at the top of her range; the middle voice needs more color. Judith Christin's Mamma Lucia sounded suitably aged, and she managed to made moving the stock staging of falling on top of her son's corpse. Bruno Caproni blustered away as Alfio, a role which doesn't ask for much more. Perhaps the best singing overall came from Sarah Castle's Lola; she possess not only a very attractive voice but the acting skills to make Lola a credible character in her brief confrontation with Santuzza and Turiddu.
The always reliable conductor Edorado Müller reinforced his reputation as such. San Diego Opera boasts a fine chorus, led by Timothy Todd Simmons. Some of the wackier supertitles of a stilted translation went to the ladies of the chorus. "Cease these rural labors," they urged their male counterparts. Yea, and forthwith!
If the drably colored set for Cav hardly appeared new, it still must have taken most of the budget. The spartan Pagliacci set offered a laughably crude painted backdrop, a tree to the left, and a bare platform before a fragment of ancient wall. At least in the second half the platform was dressed up a bit and the "stage" for the comedia had some color. Fortunately the singers didn't lack for inspiration, and Mansouri's work moved to a higher level than that seen in the Cav. Elizabth Futral contrived to make Nedda entirely sympathetic, although Canio may not be all that wrong at the end when he charges her with ingratitude and a well-developed taste for "sensuality." Bruno Caproni, the Tonio, got to show more colors to his voice than he had as Alfio. His evil laugh of triumph when he leads Canio to the discovery of Nedda with her lover Silvio, however, came right out of Snidely Whiplash. Scott Hendricks cut a handsome figure as Silvio, although not much erotic charge developed between him and Futral, who sang attractively throughout. Mansouri did not give Beppe, sung by Simeon Esper, much to do other than pop out for his serenade, which went pleasantly enough.
Cura dominated the performance, with a well-defined portrayal of a still handsome man frustrated into rage by the weakening grasp he has on his wife. In the first half, all the way through "Vesti al giubba," Cura sounded in good voice, with strong projection and a solid top. He does enunciate oddly at times, and "Vesti la giubba" came out a bit like "vedi la duba." Disappointingly, the voice retreated in the second half, and the power needed for the furious climax eluded Cura. But perhaps this was all part of his act; Cura took Tonio's last line and choked it out in such an exhausted whisper that the final "e finita" could hardly be heard. But the audience loved Cura and gave him the only standing ovation of the afternoon (at least from about half the audience in orchestra).
Not a memorable afternoon at the San Diego Civic Center, but an entertaining one. Aida and The Pearlfishers remain in the 2008 season.