25 Nov 2008
La Bohème in San Francisco
The show curtain was an illustration of the typical Parisian skyline.
The Importance of Being Earnest , Gerald Barry’s fifth opera, was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Barbican, and was first performed in concert, Thomas Adès conducting the London premiere.
‘Beauty is the one form of spirituality that we experience through the senses.’ In Thomas Mann’s, Death in Venice, Plato’s axiom stirs the hopes of the aging, intellectually stale poet, Gustav von Aschenbach, that he may rekindle his creativity.
What better way for Masonic brothers, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emmanuel Shikaneder to disseminate Masonic virtues, than through the most popular musical entertainment of their age, a happy ending folktale that features a dragon, enchanting flutes and bells, mixed-up parentage, and a beautiful young princess in distress?
There is a sense in which it all began in London, Puccini having been seized in 1900 with the idea of an opera on this subject after watching David Belasco’s play here.
The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra.
Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Così fan tutte from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.
Rossini's Maometto Secondo is a major coup for Garsington Opera at Wormsley, confirming its status as the leading specialist Rossini house in Britain. Maometto Secondo is a masterpiece, yet rarely performed because it's formidably difficult to sing. It's a saga with some of the most intense music Rossini ever wrote, expressing a drama so powerful that one can understand why early audiences needed "happy endings" to water down its impact
I suppose it was inevitable that, in this Britten Centenary year, the 66th Aldeburgh Festival would open with Peter Grimes.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Garsington Opera at Wormsley isn’t Mozart as you’d expect but it’s true to the spirit of Mozart who loved witty, madcap japes.
What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Since its first performance at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo during Venice’s 1643 Carnevale, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea has been one of the most important milestones in the genesis of modern opera despite its 250 years of unmerited obscurity.
“I wrote it almost without noticing.” So Verdi declared when reminded of his eighth — and perhaps least frequently performed, opera, Alzira. One might say that, since he composed the work, no-one else has much noticed either.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
When is verismo verily veristic? Or what is a virginal girl dressed in communion white doing in the two murderous acts of the Los Angeles Opera’s current production of Tosca? And why does she sing the shepherd's song?
Though 2013 is the bicentennial of the births of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, the releases of Cecilia Bartoli’s recording of Bellini’s Norma on DECCA, a new studio recording of Donizetti’s Caterina Cornaro from Opera Rara, and this première recording of Saverio Mercadante’s forgotten I due Figaro, suggest that this is the start of a summer of bel canto.
Wagner’s Lohengrin is not an unfamiliar visitor to the UK thanks, in the main, to Elijah Moshinsky’s perennial production at Covent Garden.
Philip Glass's The Perfect American at the ENO in London is a visual treat, but the libretto is mind-numbingly anodyne.
Recording Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is for a record label equivalent to a climber reaching the summit of Mount Everest: it is the zenith from which a label surveys its position among its rivals and appreciates an achievement that can define its reputation for a generation.
Few people who love opera in general and bel canto in particular have never heard the comment made by Lilli Lehmann, veteran of the inaugural Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, that singing all three of Wagner’s Brünnhildes—in Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung, respectively, all of which she sang to great acclaim—pales in comparison with singing the title rôle in Bellini’s Norma.
The show curtain was an illustration of the typical Parisian skyline.
On the downbeat it quickly parted to reveal a scenic contraption that was a garret of sorts, its mattress elevated on a pile (illustrated, not real) of books, and an admonition written on the wall Se plaindre c’est un perdre du temps (for those of the audience who didn’t know French or were sitting too far away to read it, this told us that complaining is a waste of time).
So, let us not waste time on what we found lacking, and get right to what we liked. San Francisco Opera Music Director designate, Nicola Luisotti, participated with every syllable uttered on the stage, literally quivered with every emotion, and wrenched very grand pathos out of Puccini’s sad little story. Donald Runicles’ San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded full bore to their new maestro with renewed lyricism and resplendent tone proving itself again one of the world’s fine operatic ensembles.
Moments of extraordinary verismo abounded. The monochromatic tenor of Piotr Beczala made sudden sense in the third act when Mo. Luisotti orchestrally evoked the naïve, adolescent recognition of new feelings by what seemed to be an emotionally retarded tenor. The fourth act duet of reconciliation shivered with tiny flashes of love, and finally the sudden, overwhelming orchestral cry, joined by that of Rodolfo, shattered the silence of death.
Norah Amsellem (Musetta)
Back at the first act, Mimi and Rodolfo sustained full throated high “C’s” offstage as the garret contraption disappeared into kinetic openness of a Parisian place. Illustrated hotels de la ville materialized in front of our eyes in a surprisingly simple, and pleasing a vista transformation of scene. The Cafe Momus later materialized much less elegantly, to become populated suddenly and a little strangely by a noisy crowd of youngsters — the amazing San Francisco Boys Chorus (with some members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus) singing boisterously and joyfully, and always on the beat.
The big house extravagance of a real marching band (two drums, four trumpets, two piccolos) parading noisily across the stage at the end of Act II was deeply satisfying too. Some of the best Boheme’s understandably occur in provincial theaters where resources are usually as humble as are the opera’s protagonists, and where it is far more cost efficient to render this lively musical climax from the pit.
If Maestro Luisotti gave us the very real if overscaled emotions of verismo, Angela Gheorghiu gave us simplicity itself as the ill-fated Mimi. She was the evening’s only believable and real character, achieved by la Gheorghiu with true artistry, artistry that often tested, and sometimes even teased her considerable, sophisticated vocal technique. Madame Gheorghiu (she is an officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) indeed creates a vocally complex Mimi. That it is so physically manifest (acted out) is another matter, understandably irritating to the uninitiated, and irritating to stage directors who are almost universally not among her fans.
One can only sympathize with Mme. Gheorghiu in her trials with Lyric Opera of Chicago regarding an AWOL from her Chicago Boheme manquée rehearsals to visit Roberto who was singing Faust just then at the Met (if there is possibly anyone who does not yet know, the French tenorissimo Roberto Alagna is her husband). As Mme. Gheorghiu knows, Mimi is the calm center of the maelstrom of emotions that are La Boheme. What more is there for her to do than walk on stage at the end of Act I and sit on the bed while Rodolfo sings, sit at a table at the Cafe Momus while Musetta sings, hover in the background in Act III while Rodolfo and Marcello sing, and lie in bed in Act IV while her friends emote one by one. Quite obviously it is Mimi’s friends, not Mimi, who need rehearsal time as they are the ones who complete the show.
Scene from Act II
These San Francisco Opera performances of La Boheme (the last one will mark the two hundred twenty third SFO performance of Puccini’s little opera) bare the delicacy of this masterpiece when attempted with extravagant operatic resources. In San Francisco the problem was integrating smaller scale artists — singers, directors and designers - with great artists and with grand opera scale choral, orchestral and technical resources.