09 Jun 2008
St. Francis in Amsterdam
It is a bit hard to know what to make of Olivier Messiaen’s colossal piece “Saint François d’Assise,” beautifully mounted by Netherlands Opera.
Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, composed in 1830, didn’t make it to Lisbon until 1843 when there were 14 performances at its magnificent Teatro São Carlos (opened 1793), and there were 17 more performances spread over the next two decades. The entire twentieth century saw but three (3) performances in this European capital.
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
Like Carmen, Billy Budd is an operatic personage of such breadth and depth that he becomes unique to everyone. This signals that there is no Billy Budd (or Carmen) who will satisfy everyone. And like Carmen, Billy Budd may be indestructible because the opera will always mean something to someone.
American composer John Adams turns 70 this year. By way of celebration no less than seven concerts in this season’s NTR ZaterdagMatinee series feature works by Adams, including this concert version of his first opera, Nixon in China.
Despite the freshness, passion and directness, and occasional wry quirkiness, of many of the works which formed this lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall - given by mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, pianist James Baillieu and viola player Guy Pomeroy - a shadow lingered over the quiet nostalgia and pastoral eloquence of the quintessentially ‘English’ works performed.
'Nobody does Gilbert and Sullivan anymore.’ This was the comment from many of my friends when I mentioned the revival of Mike Leigh's 2015 production of The Pirates of Penzance at English National Opera (ENO). Whilst not completely true (English Touring Opera is doing Patience next month), this reflects the way performances of G&S have rather dropped out of the mainstream. That Leigh's production takes the opera on its own terms and does not try to send it up, made it doubly welcome.
On Feb 3, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s dramatic opera Madama Butterfly. Sandra Lopez was the naive fifteen-year-old who falls hopelessly in love with the American Naval Officer.
In the last of my three day adventure, I headed to Vienna for the Wiener Philharmoniker at the Musikverein (my first time!) for Mahler and Brahms.
In Amsterdam legend Janine Jansen and the seventh Principal Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw, Daniele Gatti, came together for their first engagement in a ravishing performance of Berg’s Violin Concerto.
I extravagantly scheduled hearing the Berliner, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Wiener Philharmoniker, to hear these three top orchestra perform their series programmes opening the New Year.
There is no bigger or more prestigious name in avant-garde French theater than Romeo Castellucci (b. 1960), the Italian metteur en scène of this revival of Arthur Honegger’s mystère lyrique, Joan of Arc at the Stake (1938) at the Opéra Nouvel in Lyon.
On January 28, 2017, Los Angeles Opera premiered James Robinson’s nineteen twenties production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which places the story on the Orient Express. Since Abduction is a work with spoken dialogue like The Magic Flute, the cast sang their music in German and spoke their lines in English.
Fecund Jason, father of his wife Isifile’s twins and as well father of his seductress Medea’s twins, does indeed have a problem — he prefers to sleep with and wed Medea. In this resurrection of the most famous opera of the seventeenth century he evidently also sleeps with Hercules.
A Falstaff that raised-the-bar ever higher, this was a posthumous resurrection of Luca Ronconi’s masterful staging of Verdi’s last opera, the third from last of the 83 operas Ronconi staged during his lifetime (1933-2015). And his third staging of Falstaff following Salzburg in 1993 and Florence in 2006.
One of Aidan Lang’s first initiatives as artistic director of Seattle Opera was to encourage his board to formulate a “mission statement” for the fifty-year old company. The document produced was clear, simple, and anodyne. Seattle Opera would aim above all to create work appealing both to the emotions and reason of the audience.
Contrary to Stolzi’s multidimensional Parsifal, Holten’s simple setting of Lohengrin felt timeless with its focus on the drama between characters. Premiering in 2012, nothing too flashy and with a clever twist,
Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) consistently serves up superlatively sung Wagner productions. This Fall, its productions of Philipp Stölzl's Parsifal and Kasper Holten's Lohengrin offered intoxicating musical affairs. Annette Dasch, Klaus Florian Vogt, and Peter Seiffert reached for the stars. Even when it comes down to last minute replacements, the casting is topnotch.
Donna abbandonata would have been a good title for the first concert of Temple Music’s 2017 Song Series. Indeed, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice seems to be making a habit of playing abandoned women.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
It is a bit hard to know what to make of Olivier Messiaen’s colossal piece “Saint François d’Assise,” beautifully mounted by Netherlands Opera.
Nearly everything about the writing seems over the top. Its incredible length. Its massive orchestral forces. Its sanctimonious religious posturings. All seems calculated not just to merely impress or to move, but to wallop you over the head with some quasi-spiritual revelation.
In assessing the stage worthiness of lyric theatre pieces, Joseph Kernan wrote “the best operas are dramatic, the failures are no proof at all.” Let’s just say that “Saint François” is to my taste, well, not dramatic. Most everything about it resembled a cleverly staged oratorio. To that end, the gigantic orchestra was placed on stage (it probably wouldn’t fit in the pit!). Scaffolding and ramps and a huge balcony are built around the band, intentionally including it in the stage picture.
That leaves the simple story to play out on the huge apron in front of it which covered the unused pit. And the dramatic content of that story goes something like this: Saint counsels fearful monks. Saint heals leper. Saint talks to birds. Saint receives stigmata. And dies.
Oh, yeah, and a busybody angel visits and spooks the bejesus out of the scaredy-cat monks. I joke — slightly — but this thin plot is stretched out of all proportion into well over five hours. What almost energizes and sustains the story-telling is the masterful stagecraft of designer Jean Kalman and director Pierre Audi, for they have devised some beautifully evocative effects.
Act One finds a pile of simple (mostly black) wooden crosses center stage, a lone bench, and a “reveal” of a pulpit on an elevated platform. As other crosses are added to the pile, the imagery suggested so many possibilities. Do they represent of martyrs’ bodies? A pyre created by religious fanaticism? Holocaust victims? It raised expectations (unfulfilled, alas) that the piece might have something to say beyond presenting a public face of the composer’s private, deeply felt Catholicism.
Although that imagery was never fully developed, Act Two’s stylized rolling trees made of bare planks always reminded us that the cross of Christ was in fact made from a tree, and the slightly raked black platform center stage allowed for some beautiful artistic groupings which were put into fine dramatic relief against the ground cloth. In Act Three, the crosses were piled up in a semi-circle at the base of a lone rude tree, like so much concertina wire forming a base of thorns. The simple small wooden platform in front of this was a perfect focus for “François’” last moments.
Audi is a master at slowly building visual tension; and delving deep into characters’ souls to devise complex relationships, varied stage movement, and evolving pictures of complete inevitability. He did his level best to wring every last viable possibility out of the repetitive moments of the repetitive moments of the repetitive moments of the . . .stop me!
The well-crafted straight forward confrontation between “Saint François” and the “Leper” fairly crackled. A wonderfully tender relationship was developed between “François” and the fearful “Léon,” which seethed with subtext. “The Angel’s” every scene had a haunting visual beauty and meaningful interaction, with excellent use of levels for psychological impact.
That said, even Mr. Audi and his design team could not salvage the interminable final scene of Act Two with the children and the birds. Long after we got the point, and got it again, like the Energizer Bunny it went on and on and on. Oh, they made a good stab at maintaining our interest with some playful writing of the birds’ names on the bare trees with Magic Marker, and the genial waving about of colorful paper birds. But long after the Marker was dry and arms were dead tired of bird-play, it kept churning, not in a mesmerizing Phillip Glass sort of way, just. ..churning in fits and starts.
Critically, it seemed that “François’” death went for too little. Perhaps we waited too long for it? Or perhaps a better visual solution could have been found other than having the dead man file off between the choristers. Although the lighting was excellent throughout, the script says the final lighting effect should glow blindingly brighter where “François” had lain. Instead, a truncated bank of orange lights glared from behind the upstage scrim like back lighting left over from the Vegas scene of “Dreamgirls.”
Happily, Netherlands Opera’s reliably high quality visuals were matched by a truly wonderful cast. Camilla Tilling’s engaging “Angel” walked off with the show and it is easy to see why. She is possessed of a clear, lovely soprano with plenty of point in all registers. She sings the role with great understanding, masterful phrasing, and complete control of the musical challenges. And, she quite simply has the most beautiful and accessible music in the piece, which she serves very well.
Hubert Delamboye has only once scene as “The Leper” but he wrung every ounce out of it with fiery, securely voiced declamation. The effect of his being cured was magically created by his simply peeling off one of his garish gold and black sleeves to reveal his pure flesh unadorned. Both baritone Henk Neven (“Frére Léon”) and tenor Tom Randle (“Frére Massée”) turned in performances that could not be bettered. In a piece of luxury casting, heroic leading tenor Donald Kaasch sang a fine “Frére Elie.” Armand Arapian, Jan Willem Baljet, and Andre Morsch contributed solid singing in their smaller parts. The excellent chorus was tremendous in their powerful, meticulously schooled phrasing.
That leaves our “Saint François.” Although he was not announced as indisposed, popular baritone Rod Gilfry seemed at times like he might have been a little tired in this first performance after the premiere. He is a fine singer (as well as actor) and he certainly commands a secure technique. But this role is a huge step forward from his core repertoire of “Dulcamara” and “Marcello” and “Papageno.” The rangey writing for a dramatic baritone (or high bass) who seldom leaves the stage, calls on every trick in the singer’s bag. I commend Mr. Gilfry for the considerable success he has had with this assumption, and the fact that he has learned this demanding part speaks well for him as a serious artist.
Indeed, he always displayed utter commitment and total concentration, and lavished us with beautiful outpouring of sound. But it did push him to the limit. For all his success with it, I wonder if he might not retire the role from his repertoire for a few years until age provides a bit more heft and stamina? With his chiseled good looks and designer white robe, he did not look the ascetic monk so much as a very caring fashion model (is there such a thing?) before a Prada ad shoot. Other than that, I found Angelo Figus’ costumes highly creative and character-specific. The “Angel’s” several apparitions were beautifully attired, especially her knock-out plastic gown that looked like a Kandinsky had collided with a shower curtain. No kidding. Wild and wonderful!
It is hard to over-praise Ingo Metzmacher and his superb Resident Orchestra for their thrilling reading of this gigantic score. Their attention, concentration and musicality never flagged over an exceedingly long evening. For all my reservations about the dramatic viability of the piece, there is some remarkable writing in it. All of the “Angel’s” scenes, including her motif are ravishing; the “Leper” is well characterized; the choral writing is compelling; and “François’” solo and duet scenes with “Léon” and “Massée” contain many serenely beautiful musical themes and haunting melodies.
But that jittery wind section repeats about ten times too often, and what seem to be logical musical climaxes simply frustrate us by morphing into another repetitive section, or more jittery winds. To me, it seemed that Messiaen the Catholic sometimes indulgently eclipsed Messiaen the musical crafts smith.
Is “Saint François d’Assise” a viable opera? Kernan be damned, Netherlands Opera thinks it is. And they are to be congratulated for coming to grips with it with well-considered solutions, and for treating us to a thoroughly engaging and uncompromisingly professional production.