29 Sep 2008
Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Washington National Opera
The second offering of the current WNO season is a San Diego Opera production of Georges Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (1863).
Die Meistersinger at the theatre in which it was premiered, on Wagner’s birthday: an inviting prospect by any standards, still more so given the director, conductor, and cast, still more so given the opportunity to see three different productions within little more than a couple of months).
Opera houses’ neglect of Janáček remains one of the most baffling of the many baffling aspects of the ‘repertoire’. At least three of the composer’s operas would be perfect introductions to the art form: Jenůfa, Katya Kabanova, or The Cunning Little Vixen would surely hook most for life. From the House of the Dead might do likewise for someone of a rather different disposition, sceptical of opera’s claims and conventions.
Director Annabel Arden believes that Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is ‘all about playfulness, theatricality, light and movement’. It’s certainly ‘about’ those things and they are, as Arden suggests, ‘based in the music’.
George Enescu’s Oedipe was premiered in Paris 1936 but it has taken 80 years for the opera to reach the stage of Covent Garden. This production by Àlex Ollé (a member of the Catalan theatrical group, La Fura Dels Baus) and Valentina Carrasco, which arrives in London via La Monnaie where it was presented in 2011, was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint.
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
The second offering of the current WNO season is a San Diego Opera production of Georges Bizet’s Pearl Fishers (1863).
The 24-year old composer’s sixth and his second to be staged, this opera is a relatively little-known example of 19th-century French opera’s obsession with exotica. Its mostly Oriental stories are populated by savage primitives, and sexy virgin priestesses who in the course of the plot would invariably fall victim to forbidden love. In The Pearl Fishers, Bizet and his librettists were evidently feeling charitable: the guilty passion for once does not prove fatal for the soprano. Instead, she is saved by the villainous baritone, who belatedly discovers his inner hero, and of course gets himself shot for his trouble.
The 25 September performance was generally of good quality. The orchestra did well under the baton of Ciuseppe Grazioli. So did the chorus— when it was on stage and was able to watch the maestro’s baton, that is; the timing in the off-stage numbers was sometimes shaky.
Among the soloists, tenor Charles Castronovo as Nadir definitely stood out from the ensemble. His popular Act 1 romance “Je crois entendre encore” showcased the singer’s strong metallic timbre with excellent projection in all registers. His softly beautiful high notes might perhaps be criticized as too thin; I personally liked the pianos and thought they were stylistically appropriate for a French opéra lyrique, which really should sound different from middle-period Verdi, although it rarely does.
Baritone Trevor Scheunemann as Zurga offered a rich vocal timbre and good blending in the ensembles, of which the famous Act 1 duet “Au fond du temple saint” was a particular highlight of the evening. Scheunemann’s solos were solid, but not particularly memorable. It seemed to me that his concentration on the dramatic aspects of his part— specifically, his character’s inability to decide whether to play a village Count di Luna or Marquis di Poza of Ceylon— sometimes got in the way of sound production.
French soprano Norah Amsellem as Leila was another solid choice in casting. Despite her vocal excellence, however, the singer, like her colleague Mr. Scheunemann, also seemed trapped in the inner contradictions of her character. This time, the issue is not young Bizet’s inexperience as a dramatist, but rather the ideological “baggage” attached to the female lead in French Orientalist opera. Is she a virginal victim or an exotic seductress? One of these two favored clichés demands pure, crystalline high register and “floating” timbre with not much support; the other calls for a throaty, rich low and middle range, with rare but powerful highs. Although Ms Amsellem herself seemed to try charting some sort of middle ground, the casting of this singer, a dramatic soprano, indicates the director’s preference for the seductress image. As a result, in my opinion, this Leila often sounded much too heavy for Bizet’s delicate creation who, after all, is more Michaela than Carmen.
Norah Amsellem as Leila and Denis Sedov as Nourabad
Bass Denis Sedov as high priest Nouraband cut an imposing figure, but despite occasionally powerful sound did not impress with either diction or articulation. In this production, however, the very tall singer’s towering physique was evidently more in demand than his vocal prowess. The stage director, Australian Andrew Sinclair, has attempted to both dramatize and modernize the story by superimposing a political intrigue à la Boris Godunov onto Bizet’s unsuspecting characters, with Mr Sedov’s Nouraband serving as the evil “old order” genius who masterminds the collapse of “liberal” Zurga’s rule. Since no one told the composer about this particular plot twist, there was little in the score to support it. Instead, it was delivered entirely via stage business, which required a lot of “extra-curricular” wandering about the stage from Mr Sedov who did manage to look suitably menacing most of the time.
Another directorial attempt to make Bizet’s dramatically challenging early work more palatable to modern audiences included the revamping of Act 3. It used neither the original love duet nor its common trio substitute, but did entail Leila partially disrobing, then getting assaulted during her duet with Zurga. Alas, the tedious scene was not at all improved by that spectacle. It did, however, allow Ms. Amsellem to showcase once again Leila’s fanciful costume of an orange sari wrapped around a classic “Oriental” ensemble of a skimpy pink top with bare midriff and the see-through harem pants.
The bright palette of reds, oranges, pinks, and turquoise greens dominated the vibrant décor by celebrated British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Among the often striking visual effects she created, enhanced by the excellent lighting by Ron Vodicka, particularly notable was the scene of Leila’s first appearance— carried on a live chariot by six men, immobile like a Buddha statue, her orange and gold veil spotlighted against deep purple backdrop. Rhodes’ design ideas were always vivid and always intriguing. What bothered me in her vision was the stylistic discontinuity between the sets and costumes. The latter were colorful, with a nod to geographic authenticity, and in tune with the production’s realist acting and staging. The former— deliberately perspective-less, two-dimensional, with fauvist-leaning color palette and a neo-primitivism-inspired images— were anything but “real.”
The designer’s closest stylistic ally in this production was John Malashock’s choreography, on display so much that it became almost as ubiquitous as Ms Rhodes’ sets. Indeed, even by dance-crazy French standards, ballet was often entirely superfluous, such as the number for what was evidently the “spirits of fire” that provided the background for the introduction to Leila’s Act 1 prayer. When staging The Pearl Fishers, Mr. Sinclair outlawed “proper” ballet as unsuitable for the subject; thus, there was not a pointed shoe in sight (or any kind of shoe, for that matter, as all the dancers performed barefoot). Rare nods to “Oriental” choreography were confined to women’s numbers, which unfortunately suffered from weak execution (this specifically refers to the quartet of Leila’s attendants). The male dances, in a counterpart to Bizet’s imaginary Ceylon, offered a picture of the “imaginary primitives” brandishing fighting pikes: their movements were athletic, aggressive, and purposefully inelegant, with ground stomping, angular hand and feet positions; pirouettes replaced by cartwheels. The Act 3 finale opened with a pas de trois in The Lion King-size animal masks— which was perhaps a little much, but it did save the director a major headache of having to come up with stage business for the endless choruses of this scene.
Norah Amsellem (top, veiled) as Leila, Trevor Scheunemann (foreground) as Zurga
Overall, the Washington audiences were presented with a solid, colorful, mostly traditional Les Pêcheurs de perles, well performed (despite some misgivings on my part) by a consistently good cast. The production, which runs through 7 October, offers few vocal fireworks; nor can it boast a truly new word in staging. Yet, for an old-fashioned opera lover, after last season’s symbolist Dutchman and Nazi-fied Tamerlano, these realistic and suitably “Oriental” Pearl Fishers might be a welcome relief.