18 Aug 2008
Lucky star over the Arena
“Stage direction should not follow fashion, for fashion is the sister of death”.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
“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.