Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

European premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles, with works by Biber and Beethoven

Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’)

Rising Stars in Concert 2018 at Lyric Opera of Chicago

On a recent weekend evening the performers in the current roster of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago presented a concert of operatic selections showcasing their musical talents. The Lyric Opera Orchestra accompanied the performers and was conducted by Edwin Outwater.

Arizona Opera Presents a Glittering Rheingold

On April 6, 2018, Arizona Opera presented an uncut performance of Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. It was the first time in two decades that this company had staged a Ring opera.

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

The Moderate Soprano

The Moderate Soprano and the story of Glyndebourne: love, opera and Nazism in David Hare’s moving play

The Spirit of England: the BBCSO mark the centenary of the end of the Great War

Well, it was Friday 13th. I returned home from this moving and inspiring British-themed concert at the Barbican Hall in which the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Sir Andrew Davis had marked the centenary of the end of World War I, to turn on my lap-top and discover that the British Prime Minister had authorised UK armed forces to participate with French and US forces in attacks on Syrian chemical weapon sites.

Thomas Adès conducts Stravinsky's Perséphone at the Royal Festival Hall

This seemed a timely moment for a performance of Stravinsky’s choral ballet, Perséphone. April, Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’, has brought rather too many of Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers [to] pierce the ‘drought of March to the root’, but as the weather finally begins to warms and nature stirs, what better than the classical myth of the eponymous goddess’s rape by Pluto and subsequent rescue from Hades, begetting the eternal rotation of the seasons, to reassure us that winter is indeed over and the spirit of spring is engendering the earth.

Dido and Aeneas: La Nuova Musica at Wigmore Hall

This performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by La Nuova Musica, directed by David Bates, was, characteristically for this ensemble, alert to musical details, vividly etched and imaginatively conceived.

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Hans Werner Henze : The Raft of the Medusa, Amsterdam

This is a landmark production of Hans Werner Henze's Das Floß der Medusa (The Raft of the Medusa) conducted by Ingo Metzmacher in Amsterdam earlier this month, with Dale Duesing (Charon), Bo Skovhus and Lenneke Ruiten, with Cappella Amsterdam, the Nieuw Amsterdams Kinderen Jeugdkoor, and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, in a powerfully perceptive staging by Romeo Castellucci.

Johann Sebastian Bach, St John Passion, BWV 245

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here.

Easter Voices, including mass settings by Mozart and Stravinsky

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Academy of Ancient Music: St John Passion at the Barbican Hall

‘In order to preserve the good order in the Churches, so arrange the music that it shall not last too long, and shall be of such nature as not to make an operatic impression, but rather incite the listeners to devotion.’

Fiona Shaw's The Marriage of Figaro returns to the London Coliseum

The white walls of designer Peter McKintosh’s Ikea-maze are still spinning, the ox-skulls are still louring, and the servants are still eavesdropping, as Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production of The Marriage of Figaro returns to English National Opera for its second revival. Or, perhaps one should say that the servants are still sleeping - slumped in corridors, snoozing in chairs, snuggled under work-tables - for at times this did seem a rather soporific Figaro under Martyn Brabbins’ baton.

Lenten Choral Music from the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.)

A New Faust at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s innovative, new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust succeeds on multiple levels of musical and dramatic representation. The title role is sung by Benjamin Bernheim, his companion in adventure Méphistophélès is performed by Christian Van Horn.

Netrebko rules at the ROH in revival of Phyllida Lloyd's Macbeth

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play of the night: of dark interiors and shadowy forests. ‘Light thickens, and the crow/Makes wing to th’ rooky wood,’ says Macbeth, welcoming the darkness which, whether literal or figurative, is thrillingly and threateningly palpable.

San Diego’s Ravishing Florencia

Daniel Catán’s widely celebrated opera, Florencia en el Amazonas received a top tier production at the wholly rejuvenated San Diego Opera company.

Samantha Hankey wins Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Four singers were awarded prizes at the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup, which reached its closing stage at Glyndebourne on 24th March. The Glyndebourne Opera Cup focuses on a different single composer or strand of the repertoire each time it is held. In 2018 the featured composer was Mozart and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment accompanied the ten finalists.

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree [Photo by Liz Lauren]
28 May 2008

Tree-mendous in Chicago

Chicago Opera Theater scored a resounding success with its area premiere of John Adams’ newest stage piece, “A Flowering Tree.”

John Adams: Flowering Tree

Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl), Prince (Noah Stewart), Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan). Conductor: John Adams (May 14,17); Joana Carneiro (May 20, 23, 25). Director: Nicola Raab. Choreographer: Renato Zanella. Production Designer: George Souglides.

Above: Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree
All photos by Liz Lauren courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater.

 

And it did so with a completely different take on the piece than that devised by Peter Sellars for Vienna’s world premiere in November 2006 at the Festival of New Crowned Hope.

The original concept had the large orchestra on stage, with minimal stage action relegated to small elevated playing spaces, more semi-staged oratorio than a full-fledged dramatic rendering. It is perhaps no accident that this Chicago company has “theater” prominently included in its name, for they have put the band back in the pit, and with consummate stagecraft, they fleshed out this folk tale’s libretto which was crafted by Sellars and the composer based on a story translated by A.K. Ramanujan from the Kannada language of southern India.

the-king.pngThe king (James Johnson, dancer).
The tale concerns two sisters, one of whom, “Kumudha,” is able to transform herself into “A Flowering Tree” and back again. However, her jealous sibling’s wicked friends break the spell, trapping the heroine in her tree-state, breaking her limbs, and leaving her in the gutter as a pitiful grub-like torso. After her disappearance, the “Prince,” having already wedded her for her bewitching beauty and powers, wanders disconsolately until his love restores her and reunites them in marital bliss. The only other singing principal is a “Storyteller.”

The minimalist set and costume design by George Souglides scored big, with simple yet highly imaginative effects. The first important transformation scene was accomplished with “Kumudha’s” sister (dancer Karla Victum) stretching hidden, over-long sleeves from her costume and extending and twisting the “branches” into various shapes. Each subsequent transfiguration was larger then the previous, magically accomplished with colored ropes.

Whether descending from the flies or rising from the stage floor, these were presented in artfully tied designs that would be the envy of any advanced macrame class. Indeed, the curtain rise of Act Two stunningly coincided with a “growing tree” emanating from “Kumudha” down center stage that ultimately filled the entire proscenium opening. The few set pieces and props (a veil-covered over-sized wedding bed, a gilt throne, primitive masks on poles) were selected with attentive care.

the-storyteller.pngThe Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan).
The evocative and colorful costume design was effectively based on traditional Indian and Asian street and stage garb, with a couple of the specialty dance turns being dazzlingly outfitted. I wish that same attention had been lavished on our heroine, who looked quite plain; well, too plain by comparison. Indeed, the rather lumpy and shapeless white coat she wore in the wedding scene was promisingly removed to reveal only more of the same look, if better fitted. All of this was well-served by Aaron Black’s terrific lighting, artfully combining lustrous washes of color with well-calculated and flawlessly executed specials, gobos, and area lighting.

If all this was gorgeous to behold, it would not have impacted us as strongly as it did without Nicola Raab’s masterful direction. First, without ever unduly cluttering the stage, Ms. Raab has devised meaningful and poetic movement for the large chorus and corps de ballet. As we entered the theatre, the white-garbed “Storyteller” was already seated, immobile on a chair stage right. Slowly, the chorus in reddish-orange filed on from various points and seated themselves on the stage around him, ultimately creating a visual “island” that captivates us before a note is played. We couldn’t wait to hear what he has to say.

Similarly, meaningful character relationships are defined with ethereal subtlety. The mating scene with our newlyweds walking/stalking on the bridal bed was a study in sensuous restraint, as the pair never quite touched but conveyed the impression of love-making nonetheless by tracing the head and torso with slow sweeping gestures, and intertwining their arms (well, almost) in ever inventive combinations.

Perhaps the most problematic scene of all, the dismemberment of the tree-trapped “Kumudha” was beautifully solved by having two dancers wrap her in a cocoon of a vibrant red cloth. Leaving one arm free, the actress could recline, sit up, and drag herself around the stage as a sympathetic outcast.

The ritualistic choreography by Renato Zanello was well-executed by not only his trained dancers, but also pleasingly performed by the singing chorus. The clean, thrilling choral work (most of them are in the COT Young Artists Program) was complemented by the group’s exceptional ability to transform themselves at will from commentators, to bystanders, to relatives, to royal subjects, all the while doing some amazing staged business, not the least of which was crawling from the wings on their bellies to pick up folded boards that were used in any number of combinations to create everything from a village of houses to a penultimate pop-up back-drop for the lovers’ reunion.

COT assembled a fine trio of singers as its principals. Natasha Jouhl proved an affecting “Kumudha,” singing with a well-schooled, ample lyric soprano that easily encompassed all the wide ranging demands and soaring lines of this difficult role. Originally written with Dawn Upshaw in mind, the part was taken over in Vienna (and several other locations) by rising star Jessica Rivera (who recently triumphed locally in another Adams piece, Chicago Lyric’s “Dr. Atomic”). Dawn and Jessica are two artists who really “get” this music and don’t just sing it, but embody it. That said, although she vocalized it splendidly, looked attractive, and acted with commitment, I did not yet feel that Ms. Jouhl has fully integrated the piece into her voice, or more particularly, her artistry. I would love to see her again after she has the experience of some more performances.

With Noah Stewart’s “Prince” I felt that we were experiencing an artist on the verge of a major career. He brought a regal bearing to the portrayal, and a polished, weighty lyric voice with excellent thrust on the high phrases, and wonderful presence throughout the range. Excellent diction, handsome good looks, beautiful instrument, wonderful musical instincts, sound technique, stage savvy — he’s got the goods.

I have long admired the fine artist Sanford Sylvan, but I found that his soft-grained approach was initially a little too lieder-based and subtle for the task at hand as the “Storyteller.” Seated a third of the way upstage for the first act, while I could hear his beautiful sounds and sensitive phrasing, I too often had real trouble understanding the text and found my gaze drifting to the surtitles. When he came forward to the side of the proscenium in Act Two, there was an immediate difference. This would be a quick fix by just telling him to “Sing out, Louise” when he is upstage. Still, he is a treasureable baritone and was an audience favorite.

kumudha-and-prince.pngKumudha (Natasha Jouhl) and the Prince (Noah Stewart).
Diminutive Joana Carneiro had taken over conducting duties from Mr. Adams and this was a tour-de-force assumption. “Tree” is a monster-piece that calls for split second rhythmic changes, quicksilver mood-altering shifts, lyrical outpouring, percussive tirades, and well, the kitchen sink just may have been in there somewhere. Above all, this stuff must be clean-clean-clean to make its hypnotic effect and save a few squishy moments in the opening bars’ undulating strings, Ms. Carneiro was in full command of her forces. As if she was driving a car at 120 miles an hour, there was no room for error. And she negotiated every twist and turn of this challenging piece with concentrated inspiration. Brava Maestra!

It seems as though Mr. Adams may have developed the score a bit since Vienna, where I remember thinking that perhaps the heroine should have a set piece up front to announce her character. It seems that “Kumudha” had more exposition to sing at COT. Or maybe the staging was just that much more compelling. For all its glories, and they are many and they are ravishing, I still found myself wishing that the long chanted choral dance in Act Two (sort of Rap-Lite) was a bit shorter. And I sorta wanted a radiant final duet for the reunited lovers. Have I seen “Turandot” too many times? Perhaps.

Still, this was in toto a welcome and notable achievement. Chicago is a world class musical city and with Chicago Opera Theater’s “A Flowering Tree” we have been treated to a sampling of the very best the town has to offer.

James Sohre

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):