Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Emmanuel Chabrier L’Étoile — Royal Opera House London

Premièred in 1877 at Offenbach’s own Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’Étoile has a libretto, by Eugène Leterrier and Albert Vanloo, which stirs the blackly comic, the farcical and the bizarre into a surreal melange, blending contemporary satire with the frankly outlandish.

Robert Ashley’s Quicksand at the Kitchen

Robert Ashley’s opera-novel Quicksand makes for a novel experience

Premiere of Raskatov’s Green Mass

One of the leading Russian composers of his generation, Alexander Raskatov’s reputation in the UK and western Europe derives from several, recent large-scale compositions, such as his reconstruction of Alfred Schnittke’s Ninth Symphony from a barely legible manuscript (the work was first performed in 2007 in the Dresden Frauenkirche by the Dresden Philharmonic under Dennis Russell Davies), and his 2010 opera A Dog’s Heart, based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire (which was directed by Simon McBurney at English National Opera in 2010, following the opera’s premiere at Netherlands Opera earlier that year).

Orpheus in the Underworld, Opera Danube

I’m not sure that St John’s Smith Square was the most appropriate venue for Opera Danube’s latest production: Jacques Offenbach’s satirical frolic, Orpheus in the Underworld.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Lyon

This nasty little opera evening in Lyon lived up to the opera’s initial reputation as pure pornophony. This is the erotic Shostakovich of the D minor cello sonata, it is the sarcastic and complicated Shostakovich of The Nose . . .

Bel Canto: A World Premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago

During December 2015 and presently in January Lyric Opera of Chicago has featured the world premiere of the opera Bel Canto, with music by Jimmy López and libretto by Nilo Cruz, based on the novel by Ann Patchett.

Tosca, Royal Opera

Christmas at the Royal Opera House is all about magic, mystery and miracles: as represented by the conjuror’s exploits in The Nutcracker — with its Kingdom of Sweets and Sugar Plum Fairy — or, as in the Linbury Theatre this year, the fantastical adventures of the Firework-Maker’s Daughter, Lila, and her companions — a lovesick elephant, swashbuckling pirates, tropical beasts and Fire-Fiends.

Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw

The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.

Classical Opera: MOZART 250 — 1766: A Retrospective

With this performance of vocal and instrumental works composed by the 10-year-old Mozart and his contemporaries during 1766, Classical Opera entered the second year of their 27-year project, MOZART 250, which is designed to ‘contextualise the development and influences of [sic] the composer’s artistic personality’ and, more audaciously, to ‘follow the path that subsequently led to some of the greatest cornerstones of our civilisation’.

Benjamin Appl — Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware. Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Ferrier Awards Winners’ Recital

The phrase ‘Sunday afternoon concert’ may suggest light, post-prandial entertainment, but soprano Gemma Lois Summerfield and her accompanist, Simon Lepper, swept away any such conceptions in this demanding programme at St. John’s Smith Square.

Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican

When, o when, will someone put Peter Sellars and his compendium of clichés out of our misery?

L'Arpeggiata: La dama d’Aragó, Wigmore Hall

Having recently followed some by-ways through the music of Purcell, Monteverdi and Cavalli, L’Arpeggiata turned the spotlight on traditional folk music in this characteristically vibrant and high-spirited performance at the Wigmore Hall.

Tippett : A Child of Our Time, London

Edward Gardner brought all his experience as a choral and opera conductor to bear in this stirring performance of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time at the Barbican Hall, with a fine cast of soloists, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Taverner and Tavener, Fretwork, London

‘Apt for voices or viols’: eager to maximise sales among the domestic market in Elizabethan England, publishers emphasised that the music contained in collections such as Thomas Morley’s First Book of Madrigals to Four Voices of 1594 was suitable for performance by any combination of singers and players.

Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The Merry Widow at Lyric Opera of Chicago

For its latest production of the current season Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow (Die lustige Witwe) featuring Renée Fleming /Nicole Cabell as the widow Hanna Glawari and Thomas Hampson as Count Danilo Danilovich.

Kindred Spirits: Cecilia Bartoli and Rolando Villazón at the Concertgebouw

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli has been a regular favourite at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam since 1996. Her verastile concerts are always carefully constructed and delivered with irrepressible energy and artistic commitment.

Cav/Pag at Royal Opera

When Italian director Damiano Michieletto visited Covent Garden in June this year, he spiced Rossini’s Guillaume Tell with a graphic and, many felt, gratuitous rape scene that caused outrage and protest.

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Verdi Giovanna d'Arco at Teatro alla Scala, Milan, starting the new season. Primas at La Scala are a state occasion, attended by the President of Italy and other dignitaries.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und MatthiasBaus]
05 Sep 2008

Shadowless in Amsterdam

The Netherlands Opera opened its season at the Muziektheater with a stunning new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, setting the bar very high indeed for all that is to follow in the repertoire.

Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Der Kaiser (Klaus Florian Vogt), Die Kaiserin (Gabriele Fontana), Die Amme (Doris Soffel), Der Geisterbote (Peteris Eglitis), Der Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels / Die Stimme des Falken (Lenneke Ruiten), Eine Stimme von oben (Corinne Romijn), Erscheinung eines Jünglings (Jean-Léon Klostermann), Barak der Färber (Terje Stensvold), Sein Weib (Evelyn Herlitzius), Der Einäugige (Roger Smeets), Der Einarmige (Alexander Vassiliev), Der Bucklige (Torsten Hofmann), Dienerinnen (Lenneke Ruiten), Anneleen Bijnen (Inez Hafkamp), Die Stimmen der Wächter der Stadt (Peter Arink), Leo Geers (Harry Teeuwen), Kinderstimmen (Tomoko Makuuchi, Jeanneke van Buul, Ineke Berends, Bernadette Bouthoorn, Hiroko Mogaki). Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Koor van De Nederlandse Opera. Marc Albrecht (cond.).

Above: Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und Matthias Baus]

 

What made it so great? Well, for starters, the DNO had the excellent Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit under the superb leadership of Marc Albrecht.

One of the many assets of the Muziektheater house is that, with its thrust-like stage, it is wide but not all that deep. And while the orchestra never gets in the visual “way” of the show, the pit is somewhat shallow and therefore affords an “immediate” presence that, with monster scores such as Frau, seems to immerse the listener in the fabric of the sound. This was further heightened by placing the “offstage” voices at the finale somewhere behind the audience, enveloping us in those glorious soaring pages like no other rendition I have ever heard.

But then, the band offered sensational playing all night, with evocative reed work (all those bird cries so characterful, so anguished), a world-class unaccompanied cello solo in Act Two (he got his own roundly cheered bow at the top of Three), rich and throbbing string ensemble work, and some of the best brass tooting this side of heaven’s gates (especially the spot-on horn section). The proximity of the players to us spectators allowed us to revel in illuminating details of the score rarely heard with such clarity, even at the Mighty Met.

But then of course, Strauss’s wonderfully varied and complex score demands not only a virtuoso orchestra to make its effect, but also a commanding conductor who can pull such a performance out of them. And this DNO had in spades with Mighty Maestro Albrecht. Currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, he is not known that widely outside of a small musical axis in Germany and environs. He should be. Make that “he will be.” Or even “he must be.” He and the orchestra were the triumphant stars of the night, their ovation before the start of each succeeding act growing in intensity until a veritable shouting match of approval ensued at the final call.

On to the next “strength”: the singers could hardly have been bettered. As the Emperor, Klaus Florian Vogt, having just finished another run of Walther’s in Bayreuth showed off all those qualities that I had so admired in his Meistersinger: a clearly and evenly produced instrument, with just enough heft and bite in the tone to ride the large orchestra, but enough sweetness that you might yet want to hear him do one more Tamino. And, he is young, strapping, and handsome to boot. When is the last time you saw that whole package in this role?

My only regret about Terje Stenfold’s Barak is that it took me this long to catch a performance by this fine baritone, who has spent much of his long career in his home company the Norwegian National Opera. His rich Heldenbariton never barked, was always “easy listening,” and had the all the oomph needed to make this a memorable assumption. His charismatic smile and youthful demeanor were totally engaging, making his darker scenes of threatened violence even more powerful by contrast.

Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

Veteran mezzo Doris Soffel should surely own the role of the Nurse by now. If not I will put a down payment on it for her, for there seems to be nothing in this treacherous and rangy role that eludes her. It goes without saying that any successful interpreter must command powerful declamatory skills and consummate dramatic insights (and boyohboyohboy does she ever have those!), but what really took my breath away was her controlled legato singing, especially at hushed volumes. Out of full rant, she could pull back to caress a phrase with an unearthly beauty. Ms. Soffel’s performance was a study in pacing, technique, and a perfect marriage of her considerable talents with explosive material.

Petite Evelyn Herlitzius packs a wallop belying her stature as the Dyer’s Wife. I encountered her Brünnhilde a few years ago in a Cologne Götterdämmerung and was impressed “enough.” The reservations I had then about her often metallic tone seem to have been addressed by time and experience. Her voice has acquired a patina and good deal of roundness in those intervening years, with no loss of fullness or precision. She hurled herself into an impassioned performance that was one part bitterness, two parts frustration, three parts desperate longing, and four parts loving spouse. To me, the Wife has the greatest emotional journey, and she played her sort of like a tomboyish “Unsinkable Molly Brown” who loses the rough edges of her brash youth and who tames her consuming ego to defer to a true loving partnership. Ms. Herlitzius not only has the goods, she served them up (very) “special delivery.”

Even with having the last big solo scena, the Empress can sometimes pale a bit in interest with the rest of these colorful and demonstrative stage partners. Not so when embodied by radiant soprano Gabriele Fontana. There is a glow in her generous, womanly tone that could in fact melt an emperor-of-stone were it required. At the very start I thought she was maybe working a bit hard, especially with the staccato leaps, all of which landed but seemed more technical than musical. And then Ms. Fontana’s gifts just took off and never looked back, pouring out one melting Straussian phrase after another. I have heard this fine artist several times in this house, but never to better advantage.

Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

In smaller roles, tenor Jean-Léon Klostermann was honey-voiced and handsome as the tempting barefoot and bare-chested, white satin-suited Apparition of a Young Man; and soprano Lenneke Ruiten was an effective Falke among her other assignments. Only Peteris Eglitis’s slightly under-powered Spirit Messenger lacked the final vocal and dramatic fire that could have made the most of his brief but important appearances.

On to the last “strength”. . .well. . .let me just ask, when was the last time you heard a production teamed cheered to the rafters? Really and truly cheered? That it happened here was in response to the creation of a beautifully contemporary and conscientious, not “self-conscious,” work of art by director Andreas Homoki, set and costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann, and lighting designer Franck Evin. When the mechanics of the stagecraft so ably partner the thrilling execution of the music and ennoble the intent of the writers, this transcends the moniker “Regie-Theater,” and becomes “Musical Theatre.” (Although new, it is based on a production in Geneva in the early 90’s.)

I have had the privilege of admiring Herr Gussmann’s designs once before with DNO’s memorable Capriccio, an intimate piece. The vast scope of Frau demands so much more, and he has accommodated us with some stunning visuals.

The curtain rises to reveal a giant white wall, floor to ceiling, encrypted with well-spaced black hieroglyphics fronted by the Nurse (back to us) who is attired in a white gown and flowing outer garment with similar markings, her skull-capped head blended with white make-up, and sporting a sort of Kabuki look (an appearance shared by all the serving ladies). When she “parts” the thick wall in the middle, it reveals the basic structure: a raked triangular stage backed by two sharply angled walls that converge upstage, also white, with progressively denser “black-ro-glyphics” as the pattern moves upstage, ultimately becoming totally black where the walls join.

This beautiful unit-set-as-work-of-art with its smoothly moving front walls is effectively deployed with sort of old-fashioned “in one” changes, where action is played in front of the closed walls while the unit is re-dressed behind.

The Emperor’s realm is dominated by giant red arrows that are impaled in the set. At first, the regals (dressed in sumptuous midnight blue) are discovered asleep under a lone red shaft. As his plight becomes more intense, we discover randomly stuck arrows through which he stumbles blindfolded, then later, a loose “prison” of arrows encloses him, and finally he is in a tightly placed containment way upstage in the walls’ “V.” What colorful and meaningful abstractions these arrows are!

The commoners’ realm is started off visually by only the revelation of an enormous school-bus yellow box. Suddenly. . .BOOM. . .the front cover comes crashing to the stage floor and reveals the inhabitants inside among other varied yellow boxes which they proceed to place around the stage to create their environment. The rude costumes appear patched together with slight variations on the golden yellow, their signature color (and apparently the only one they use for their dying).

For the journey to the Dye” the Nurse strips the Empress of her blue coat, revealing her in a strapless, fitted white-’n’-squiggles variation. When they disguise themselves, it is merely with the addition of a yellow scarf (“N”) and short fitted yellow jacket (“E”). So simple, and yet, enough that we believe. When the Wife gives up her shadow, she is surrounded by gesticulating serving ladies who part to reveal her transformed into a sort of “white-ro-glyphic” cocktail dress with black farm boots and a skull cap, resembling the Nurse.

This stunning reveal is surpassed by the instantaneous change after the Empress’s climactic “Ich will. . .nicht.” The Nurse had previously removed her own long-sleeved cape-like covering and draped it on the Empress. At this point the soprano struggles to keep the walls from closing, like Samson between the pillars, and just as she cries out, there is a change to dim back-lighting, she falls forward with a thud, the walls close, blackout, the lights come right back up, and she is discovered prone in a gorgeous midnight blue strapless gown. Magic.

Perhaps the best visual coup is the mysteriously ominous white globe (with black symbols, natch) that descends at the end of Act II, retreats a bit in Act III, then when the stage is cleared, lowers fully and centers in place at the apex of the stage triangle to create a final memorable playing environment. Is it a planet? A kingdom? Life force? Human egg? Riddle? Deus ex machina? It allows us, and the characters, to speculate that it could be anything, everything, or even nothing. Powerful.

Mr. Evin made a tremendous contribution with his well-judged lighting, not only with effective isolations, but also with even and colorful washes well accommodated by the white set. I had briefly wished that the stage floor itself might have been black with white symbols which would have made the shadowless Empress effect easier to achieve (yes, there were some fleeting smallish shadows, but hey, we ran with it.)

All these dazzling visuals would mean little, had stage director Homoki not displayed such an unerring instinct for good singer placement and meaningful, well motivated movement. He used every inch of the stage with imagination and variety. This Die Frau ohne Schatten was overwhelming proof, should any be needed, that a production can successfully be cutting edge, contemporary, and hip while still telling the story and enhancing, nay respecting, the musical values.

This fine achievement gave me cause to reflect that in all the many years I have seen selected performances in this house, I can count on one finger the number of times I thought they missed the mark. Once! The Netherlands Opera has an enviable history of compelling theatre; highly interesting, vibrant, and polished. “Modern” art, yes, but not “Art” without regard to its audience.

Add to that the consistently high musical values here and . . .doink!. . .this seems to be my favorite place to attend opera, beyond the “Shadow” of a doubt.

James Sohre

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):