31 Oct 2008
Lucia di Lammermoor at the MET
Mary Zimmerman’s unmusical production of Lucia certainly improves if you give it a cast of singers who know what Donizetti is about.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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.
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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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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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.
Mary Zimmerman’s unmusical production of Lucia certainly improves if you give it a cast of singers who know what Donizetti is about.
This was true in the autumn revival (the cast will change again come spring), but some of the dopier director’s touches have been toned down a bit, and to top it off, there was a major set malfunction at the Saturday performance: the great spiral staircase that is the center of the action in Act III was a no-show, and the chorus and soloists were obliged to invent new business on a bare stage on the spur of the moment – which they did, improving markedly on last year’s skit.
The stars of the night – who brought the audience to its feet, and kept them cheering, though it was already half an hour past midnight – were Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala. Damrau is a full-voiced dramatic coloratura, a type we haven’t heard much of late (who was the last one? June Anderson, perhaps), and her cool, beautifully straightforward soprano is carved from golden ore not unlike Joan Sutherland’s. She imitated that lady in several Mad Scene touches, and though lacking a genuine trill and a perfectly secure top, gave a credible version of her style of Lucia, adding many dramatic touches, perhaps just because she was feeling the part and the occasion. She can certainly improvise on stage, never one of La Stupenda’s skills.
Item: During her first cabaletta, “Quando rapito in estasi,” when her luscious high legato was being amusingly shushed by Michaela Martens’s Alisa, Damrau occasionally sacrificed flawless phrasing to cute little jokes. This gave us an idea of Lucia as a person, a Scottish girl with a sense of humor – but as that is not the Lucia she played in later acts (or that Donizetti wrote), I couldn’t quite see the point of it, and would have preferred more of that easy, purling legato.
Item: Damrau showed rather more fire in confronting brother Enrico – Dessay played a feather in the wind, with no fight at all – but the music says “fire,” and Damrau played fire. But I think it an error to have her palm a dagger at the end of the scene – she is not planning bloodshed; she will do it on the spur of the moment.
Item: She did not seem oblivious to everything around her during the sextet, as Dessay did. That never made any sense. (Wouldn’t Arturo notice?) Damrau tried to keep an eye on the violence while posing for the photographer. She sang it beautifully, too. The photographer was not so obtrusive as last year, but still unnecessary – Zimmerman put him in because she thinks there is nothing happening when people are merely standing about singing. That is fundamentally not the case in bel canto opera, or we wouldn’t be at the opera – in bel canto, singing is the action, is the point. Zimmerman was the person who shouldn’t be here. Neither should the photographer. Or the ghost. Or the doctor in the Mad Scene. Or the distracting servants changing the scenery when Raimondo sings his cabaletta. But mostly Mary Zimmerman.
Diana Damrau in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
Item: The shocked turn of the head when the flute solo intrudes in the Mad Scene, Sutherland’s signature, was well achieved, and the craziness was lower key, more integral, than Dessay’s, but what really thrilled in this long stretch of bravura singing was the dramatic variety and color Damrau brought to Lucia’s mad changes of mood: elegiac (with a truly ghostly glass harmonica accompaniment) during the wedding hallucination, cries of grief defending herself to the imaginary Edgardo, and then, after (in this production) the doctor has injected her with a sedative, singing the second verse of the cabaletta in an ever more woozy, weavy way, like an exhausted bird spiraling down to the floor. It was a complete characterization.
Damrau’s voice, large, suave, cool, lovely, after a few wooden phrases in the lower ranges in her opening scene, filled the house with no trouble at all, and turned into glittering silver cascades at Lucia’s dreamy moments. It was the prettiest Lucia at the Met since the heyday of Ruth Ann Swenson, and first-rate bravura acting as well.
Piotr Beczala as Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
The evening’s second star – by a hair (and because Donizetti designed the opera for prima donna) – was the Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala. He has a rich, liquid tenor of exceptional quality, top to bottom, with a never overstated sob when necessary, and urgency when the dramatic moment demands. Too, he fills the house with it, without pushing or barking. Edgardo is a plum for the tenor who knows how to seize it, and Beczala did not waste anything. Withal, he cuts a slim, handsome figure, is a good actor, and his Italian diction is impeccable. It was easy (if a pity) to shut one’s eyes and enjoy oneself whenever the direction demanded he do something stupid. The one thing I might have wanted that was not here, vocally, was a bit more maddened forza during the famous Curse after the Sextet, a moment that can make or break a tenor’s reputation.
Vladimir Stoyanov’s baritone sounded a bit hollow in the opening scene, but he sang it, not screamed it, and that is a good thing. He warmed up by Act II, but (aided by a plain face and an unattractive pre-Raphaelite haircut) he always remembered he was the nasty in this opera. Ildar Abdrazakov used his height and sturdiness to enhance the impression his singing gave that Raimondo is the still, sane center of this damnfool family. Sean Panikkar – much too tall and strapping for a fellow who is knocked over and dispatched by a slip of a girl in thirty seconds flat – sang a promising Arturo, matching the impression he made as Edmondo in Manon Lescaut last year. (Don’t blame Donizetti for the folly of this: it was Zimmerman’s idea to cut the murder to thirty seconds by having bride and groom climb the staircase at the scene’s opening. Donizetti and his librettis, Romani, would never have been so dumb.)
A scene from Donizett’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Diana Damrau in the title role.
Damrau seemed especially delighted to run off stage during the curtain calls to bring on conductor Marco Armiliato; she hugged him, and he waved a bit of bloody veil at us. Doing a staircase Mad Scene impromptu, with no staircase, calls for reliability in the pit, and he was happy to stand in for the rickety stairs. Certainly he propelled things capably, kept cool while those on stage invented, and the ghostly orchestral effects that can fade for lack of attention were on this occasion exceptionally noteworthy, moody and striking.
The crowd, rather small for a Saturday night, stuck it out, and responded with enthusiasm. You have to wonder what the effect on the audience would have been with such a first-rate cast if they had been performing in a decent, old-fashioned staging of an opera that, after 175 years of success, really doesn’t need a tyro director’s helping hand.