09 Jun 2008
Opera with a human heart
When the Ringling Brothers folded their tents, opera took over. Aïda with elephants, and Walküre with real horses.
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.
When the Ringling Brothers folded their tents, opera took over. Aïda with elephants, and Walküre with real horses.
Supernumeraries infiltrated the chorus, and sets and costumes went beyond the most extravagant excesses of Hollywood. Eat your heart out, Cecil B. DeMille! Opera — growing in popularity by the season — became the opium of the masses, and directors vied with each other in productions that took the breath away. Forget the plot and the music written for it; the show was the thing!
Texas’ 62-year-old Fort Worth Opera — it’s a senior among American companies — is out to restore a proper balance, and the four productions currently on stage there in the FWO’s second summer festival stress that this is no longer just another regional company, but an enterprise that has defined for itself a special identity through its commitment to fidelity, to composers’ intentions, to perceptive direction and a finely honed sense of what it is that makes opera both grand and great. The Turandot that opened the festival on May 24 made all this clear. For those who wanted awe, it was there in the staging designed by Peter Graves and Allen Charles Klein for Opera Cleveland. However, it was Daniel Pelzig’s sensitive direction that made this refreshingly fascinating Puccini.
Dongwon Shin as Calaf
Turandot is a troubling tale. The eponymous heroine isn’t the girl next door; she’s downright nasty, a trait of character underscored by the ease with which she condones the murder of sweet and innocent Liú, the one genuinely good character in the story. In most productions Turandot is a simplified study in frigidity — an ice sculpture imperially above the masses on stage with half of Beijing’s Imperial City on her head and shoulders. Pelzig made her mobile and an agitated presence in her own story. The prehistory of abuse to a female ancestor became a document of modern feminism as she stood next to Liu’ in the younger woman’s hour of sacrifice. And Carter Scott, who stepped in for an ailing Elizabeth Bennett, has the power, passion and agility of voice to make Turandot a portrait of deeply internalized suffering. (The goodness of Liú, sung with youthful devotion by Sandra Lopez, even lost some of its appeal through this meaningful feminization of the Princess.)
Given the paucity of tremendous tenors today it is astonishing that one has to go to Fort Worth to discover Korean-born Dongwon Shin, whose throbbing “Nessun dorma” would leave the citizens of any city willing to surrender a night of sleep to hear the greatest hit in the opera sung with his ardor. Stephen Dubberly had the massive FWO Chorus making music — not merely noise, and FWO music director Joseph Illick extracted playing from the Fort Worth Symphony that added to the impact of a Turandot that one had hoped one day to hear.
Anthony Dean Griffey, a major success of the season at the Met as Britten’s Peter Grimes, has made Lennie, the retarded central figure of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men a signature role, and it’s wonderful that audiences can expect the young American tenor to sing this role for decades to come.
Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie
Even Griffey’s considerable bulk contributes to his success as Lennie, for he seems at first blush just another overweight kid. But watch his fingers as he seeks solace in “something soft.” Keep an eye on his smile and the little skip that he executes from time to time and you’ll swear that you have a genuine case of arrested mental development in front of you. Griffey makes Lennie loveable and he makes his relationship with his companion George — both migrant workers from the Great Depression — meaningful and beautiful.
George could hardly be better sung than he was by Canadian baritone George Addis, another of astonishing FWO artists to watch for elsewhere. Brandi Icard, true, was one dimensional as Curley’s love-starved wife, while Matt Morgan made Curley the quintessential American macho male, recalling Annie Proulx’ pronouncement that “men are the major victims of American masculinity.”
Phillip Addis as George, Stephen West as Candy, and Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie
The Utah Opera production — sets and costumes by, respectively, Vicki Davis and Susan Memmott-Allred — recalled Grant Wood, and Richard Kagey’s direction upheld the view that this 1971 score is Floyd’s finest work. Illick was again an impressive conductor, especially in the orchestral interludes that put Floyd on a level with the Anton Webern of Wozzeck.
Elizabeth Futral as Lucia
Despite it’s greatest “hits” — the sextet and the Mad Scene — the bel canto melodrama of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammemoor is not everyone’s tankard of ale. A less-than-great performance is uncomfortably close to parody, and its glaring rejection of traditional family values is wasted on those interested only in coloratura acrobatics. How different, however, the FWO Lucia directed by David Gately and conducted by Steven White!
Lucia has rarely had a better interpreter than Elizabeth Futral, cast by the FWO in the title role. She is one of the loveliest singers of her generation, and she makes bel canto seem her mother tongue. She is wonderfully vulnerable — even when one wishes she would take a knife to Brother Enrico. Futral sang the Mad Scene with delicate sensitivity, never reveling that that’s only catsup and not blood on her hands and gown, Yet this show was almost stolen from her by youthful and up-coming tenor Stephen Costello as losing lover Edgardo, a role he has already sung at the Met. In his cemetery lament in the final scene of the opera Costello, lean and handsome at a mere 28, sang his way into this music with a richness of tone, accuracy and articulation that had the audience on its feet, suggesting that the next great tenor is now — and in Fort Worth.
Elizabeth Futral as Lucia and Stephen Costello as Edgardo
The Cincinnati Opera production is traditional and true to the period and it gained color through lavish costumes from near-by Dallas. The chorus seemed to have had one — or two — too many in the orgiastic post-wedding revelry.
Alissa Anderson, Elizabeth Futral, Allison Whetsel and Pamela Grayson
Homosexuality might have come a long way since the day that it was — said Oscar Wilde — “the love that dare not speak its name” to — as someone quipped in the 70s — the love that won’t shut up. Nonetheless, the composition of an AIDS opera is a task far removed from dashing off another Bohème or Butterfly.
Prior’s (David Adam Moore) prophetic visions culminate in the appearance of an imposing and beautiful Angel (Ava Pine) who crashes through the roof of his apartment and proclaims, “The Great Work begins.”
That alone, however, makes Peter Eötvös’ opera based on Tony Kushner’s Angels in America all the more remarkable — and admirable, and the choice of the work to round out the FWO’s second festival season is to be praised as an act of bravery and bravura. This obviously begs the question about the quality of the opera, which received its first full staging during the festival in Fort Worth’s 500-seat Scott Theater in the city’s museum district. (The other three operas were staged in the city’s still new downtown Bass Performance Hall.) In shaving Angels down from a seven-hour stage work to an opera of a mere two hours Mari Mezei has made a noble attempt to transfer the drama — and its discomforting subject matter — to another medium.
Hannah (Janice Hall) helps Prior (David Adam Moore) who is sick with AIDS
Hungarian-born Eötvös, a major European modernist in the wake of the Second Viennese School, has written much music for the opera that is of ethereal beauty and impressive in technique. (Much of it is delivered by musicians screened on either side of the stage.) Yet the result seems a work in which less is much less; too much has been lost in transition. An immense amount of detail obscures the major issues of Kushner’s play.
With the efforts of a brilliant creative team — conductor Christopher Larkin, director David Gately, designers Peter Nigrini and Claudia Stephens — made Angels a work decidedly worth seeing. And the cast, headed by veteran soprano Janice Hall and Erin Elizabeth Smith, delivered lines ranging from speaking to Sprechstimme to singing with amazing aplomb.
Left to Right: Roy Cohn (Kelly Anderson) and Joe Pitt (Craig Verm) talk politics
Kelly Anderson was a brilliantly butch Roy Cohn (but who remembers today who that was?), and studio artist Ave Pine was vocally stunning as the major angel who flew about on wires while singing famously. In all probability Angels will not be done again in this country in a long, long time, and one is grateful to FWO general director Darren K. Woods for his courage in bringing it to the festival.
A bonus of the ’08 season was the inclusion in the season of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, his song cycle for soprano, clarinet and piano. The performance by Gina Browning, virtuoso clarinetist Jonathan Jones and Illick at the piano was part of More Life: The Art & Science of AIDS, a series of concurrent events involving a multitude of Fort Worth community organizations designed to focus attention on the AIDS epidemic.
On stage in Fort Worth in 2009 are Carmen, Cinderella and Dead Man Walking. The season from 25 April through June 10 is followed immediately by the 2009 Van Cliburn International Piano Festival. Visit www.fwopera.org.