Recently in Performances
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.
04 May 2008
La Fille du Régiment at the Met
When the Met presented La Fille du Régiment for Lily Pons during World War II, she sought permission to wave the Cross of Lorraine, symbol of Charles de Gaulle’s Free French, during the Salut à la France in Act II.
The Met management opposed the idea (what next? setting operas in
contemporary costumes?), but Pons was a diva of the old school, impossible to
discipline or embarrass — she knew the wartime audience would roar and that
Met General Manager Edward Johnson wouldn’t dare reprimand her. As for the
opera — if a diva is cute and funny and has the high notes (Pons, we hear,
scored on all three counts — so, in my own experience, did Sutherland and,
at least in early years, Sills), then nothing can go wrong: Donizetti’s
vehicle is a ’54 Chevy, handsome, unpretentious and unbreakable. Fill ’er
up with high octane and she’ll take you where you want to go.
Too, since Pavarotti revealed the opera as a tenor vehicle as well, the
boys get to share the limelight, and for the last few years (at least since
Hermione Gingold began to camp it up — recent entrants include Montserrat
Caballé at Covent Garden), the two-line speaking role of the Duchess of
Krakenthorp has expanded like an accordion to become a major player. At the
Met these days, Marion Seldes gets two scenes and two outfits, as many
costumes as the prima donna.
Having heard last Saturday’s broadcast (full of audience giggle), I went
to the Met’s new production of La Fille (shared with Covent Garden
and Vienna) expecting to lean back and enjoy myself, and I did. So, as far as
I could tell, did everyone else in the packed house. First of all, there’s
the irresistible Donizetti fable, full of sentimental regret (during the
reign of pacific Louis-Philippe) for the days of Napoleonic gloire,
with march-time send-ups and regimental ditties (what does “rat-a-plan”
mean? It’s not in my Larousse), as well as sentimental
numbers that almost play themselves — the duet where Tonio and Marie
“prove” their love to each other’s exacting specifications, the
delicious trio of old comrades, “Tous les trois réunis” — all
of it melodious, hilarious, touching by turns, a musical with good singing
and no agonized American idols. La Fille couples lack of pretension
with Donizetti’s deft, professional hand at achieving exactly what he wants
to achieve: the characters do not surprise us — they’re much too
straightforward for that — but they’re worthy of the happiness they want,
and our hearts are warm when they get it.
Laurent Pelly’s production has a backdrop concocted by Chantal Thomas
from nineteenth-century European maps that form a mountainous Tyrolean
landscape on which Juan Diego Florez (who grew up in the even steeper Andes,
right?) takes an occasional pratfall while otherwise twirling like a
curly-headed Fred Astaire in lederhosen. If the guy, lately married in the
cathedral of Lima, loves his new bride half as much as he loves cutting up
for 4000 strangers she’s a lucky woman.
Natalie Dessay is charming when singing showpiece roulades while ironing
longjohns, when advancing on the enemy while seated on the floor in a
doll-like position, when striding about the stage with robotic gestures —
the same gestures and movements that tickled us when she played Olympia in
Hoffman and Zerbinetta in Ariadne. But the constant
mugging, intentionally or not, distract from imperfect fioritura and
breathless concluding notes, indeed from vocalism — you have to force
yourself to pay attention to the singing to notice it is being done at all. I
could have done without a great deal of the frenetic business — she never
calmed down long enough to let us enjoy the beautiful music she and Donizetti
might have made together. Charm is undercut by this level of aggression, and
it is possible to charm, even in knockabout farce, without channeling Lucy
Ricardo. Nor is it necessary to make invidious comparisons to the equally
funny but musically richer performances of Sutherland or Sills (or Freni, who
sang the loveliest, purest “Il faut partir” I’ve ever heard). Merely
cast an eye on Florez for balance: yes, he gallivanted adorably, yes he sang
eighteen high C’s — pure, even, perfectly produced high C’s at that —
in order to provide an encore, and stepped out of character to bow when they
were done — but when it was his turn to be Tonio, the naïve and ardent
lover, and to be quietly sincere, then quiet sincerity is what he gave us. He
knows when to turn off the spigot of farce and still be present. Dessay does
not seem to know how to do this, and her constantly jokey performance in due
course tired me out. Perhaps if she’d put a little of that gag energy into
maintaining a bel canto line, we’d have real opera here.
When Florez first set foot on the Met stage a few years back, his rapture
at having an audience to delight was like an electric shock passing visibly
through his body and outwards to tingle everyone present, but though his
Rossini technique was surely the most extraordinary of any tenor in a hundred
years, the voice itself (as he admits) was gruff, unbeautiful, lacking
sensuality. The instrument has lately grown larger and more lyrical, more
capable of sustaining beautiful sound, with no noticeable decline in
flexibility and an ease at filling an enormous theater that can only thrill.
Too, he knows how to act like an oaf so as to win any and every heart. A
Felicity Palmer makes an elegant eldritch marquise (though why her German
schloss of Berkenfeld has added a letter to become the English
Berkenfield is a puzzle) and Alessandro Corbelli a stout, bald Sergeant
Sulpice. After a scrappy slog through the overture, Marco Armiliato shaped up
in the pit, and gave every sign of enjoying himself. Mention should be made
of choreographer Agathe Mélinand, whose four housemaids polishing furniture
while doing ballet exercises had us all in stitches, and who — I presume it
was her idea — had the soldiers keep waltz-time with their helmeted heads
to Florez’s encore.