18 Aug 2008
Lucky star over the Arena
“Stage direction should not follow fashion, for fashion is the sister of death”.
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’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
“Stage direction should not follow fashion, for fashion is the sister of death”.
This solemn statement, drawing from Italy’s poet laureate Giacomo Leopardi, is ostensibly the key to Denis Krief’s vision of Nabucco, unveiled last year as the inaugural show for the 85th opera season at L’Arena di Verona and now being revived from late June to late August. By signing all alone direction, scenery, costumes and light design, the French-Italian polymath provided a consistent, almost austere, staging; one relying more on the clash of ideas than on traditional melodramatic gestures. Jerusalem and Babylon, two hostile worlds, are summarized by means of abstract symbols facing each other from opposite sides of the stage. On the left, huge pentagons in white metal resembling a library: Jehovah’s Word incorporated in long rows of books. On the right, gilded cylinder slices boldly pointing towards the sky: the tower of Babylon, obviously. As the conquering Assyrian king storms the Temple on horseback — a real horse, Arena-style, and a pretty skittish one at that — all the books abruptly fall from the shelves and tumble down to the ground with an ominous roar. The Temple is then plunged into the dark, with the Jews singing as if behind the bars of a multi-storied penitentiary. No less destitute in their ankle-length grayish overcoats, Assyrian troopers march to and fro along a steep platform stretching between both monuments. Their queer parade-step, an operette-ish caricature of the German Wehrmacht or the Soviet Red Army, conveys a touch of (unintentional?) humor, though.
After a first controversial reception from the popular outdoor audience, this production is now being paid growing success. Pity that, right on the first sold-out night on July 27, a meeting of stagehands called for a strike in support to a fired colleague and pitch-black clouds were amassing over the beautiful town on the green Adige river. “A stormy night at the Arena — past GM Claudio Orazi once told me — amounts to a thrilling experience. Challenging occasional downpours is part of the excitement, as long as they don’t wholly disrupt the performance. A much seldom occurrence, inasmuch we believe that a lucky star shines over the Arena”. Yet at 9.15 p.m., when Daniel Oren raised his baton for the overture, few among the 14,000-odd patrons filling the stone crater to the brink would bet on a happy end. True, this particular production could not suffer much from the desertion of stagehands. The books were not there, and that was nearly all the damage.
Scene from Act III of Nabucco
To make up for it, the acid colors and the gloomy atmosphere of Krief’s lighting, that plunged most of the rear-stage into darkness, were stirred by a continuous battery of natural flashes and rumbles from above. Whether accompanying Nabucco’s acts of blasphemy, the Jews’ hymn to “Immenso Jehovah”, or the fall of the idol of Belo, such serendipitous effects conveyed a grandeur that no human director could afford. Eight minutes past midnight, with the company still bowing in return of applause, a gentle drizzle started falling, turning into a flood as soon as the last opera tourists had climbed their coaches heading to Switzerland, Austria and Germany — an amazingly tactful timing. As to the music itself, a credible title-role was provided by Ambrogio Maestri, equally royal in bodily appearance and breath consumption. His main opponent Zaccaria (Paata Burchuladze) did not yield an inch and triumphed with beautiful legato singing in “Dio di Giuda”. Maria Guleghina, still an awe-inspiring Abigaille, was at her most affecting in her lyrical and repentant moments, particularly in her final “Su me morente, esanime”, while suffering from occasional strain at high-pitched cabalettas, such as “Salgo già sul trono aurato”. Ismaele (Giorgio Casciarri) and Fenena (Eufemia Tufano) sketched an elegant couple of lovers, with uncommon bel canto potential and enough power to be heard above the thunderbolts. The house’s chorus reaped wild applause for its rendering of “Va’ pensiero”, once a battle anthem during Italy’s independence wars against the Austrian empire. That 19th-century tradition lives on, as shown in the customary calls for encore, this time full-heartedly granted by Oren. The mercurial Israeli maestro is a welcome guest here. His nuanced touch is even more praiseworthy given the dimensions of this unique venue; if only he could restrain from humming and roaring into his microphone during the climactic orchestral tutti…
A panoramic view of Nabucco.