17 Nov 2008
La Damnation de Faust at the MET
The Met has not staged La Damnation de Faust in a hundred years, since 1906, when it clocked a mere five performances.
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
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.
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.
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.
The Met has not staged La Damnation de Faust in a hundred years, since 1906, when it clocked a mere five performances.
There are excellent reasons for this reluctance. Berlioz’s magical setting of scenes from Part I of Goethe’s Faust (in de Nerval’s translation, also the basis for Gounod’s opera) focuses hardly at all on the scenes of action that might be cobbled into a stage drama, but almost entirely on the poetic “background” of peasants dancing, students drinking, soldiers marching, fairies flying, devils cavorting, lords a-leaping, maids a-milking. This scene-setting and the fascinating and novel effects Berlioz drew from orchestra and chorus to depict it make up most of the evening, and traditional opera houses, even those equipped with elaborate stage machinery and full corps de ballet, seldom find it worth the effort. If you know Damnation at all, from live performance, it is probably from the concert hall, where the march and the sylphs are favorite show-off numbers, and two of its arias are greatly loved, Marguerite’s “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” and Méphistophélès’s serenade. Damnation fares a poor fourth in dramatic success as an operatic Faust, to works of Gounod, Boito and Busoni – but as a concert piece, it is rather better known than Schumann’s even less stageable Scenes from Faust. (Louis Spohr also composed a Faust, even before Goethe published his poem; one wonders what it can be like.)
As a masterpiece unwieldy by traditional means, Damnation is just the sort of opera the Met, with its spectacular stage and newly upgraded technical pizzazz ought to be putting on, rather than twisted interpretations of operas that worked just fine the old way, such as Peter Grimes, Lucia or (for that matter) Gounod’s Faust. And now the Met has done it, and done it to a turn, in a staging by Robert Lepage (of Cirque de Soleil fame, not irrelevantly), aided by “software artist” Holger Förterer.
The enormous stage is subdivided into fifteen boxes that become alleys in a library, rooms in a tavern, a moonlit bridge over a river (and the depths of that river, and Faust swimming under water), the windows of Marguerite’s house (no rural cottage for this kid, but the street-long palace of the Hohenzollerns), the stained glass windows of a church (with five naked crucifixions) and, at last, the fiery pits of Hell, filled with naked choristers. Nor are three dimensions enough for this production – red-coated demonic lizards crawl about on the surface of it, defying gravity, and soldiers march from stage bottom to top, perpendicular to the wall, before falling, wounded, three stories, into the arms of lamenting sweethearts. Marcello Giordani has to climb a ladder down from the top of the stage (four stories or so) at the evening’s beginning, when Faust is an old man, not yet satanically rejuvenated, and Susan Graham must climb up it at the end, to reach salvation. (No one ever said that route was easy.) The long musical or choral interludes between Damnation’s few action scenes are danced or acted or mimed by enormous non-singing forces (and also the Met chorus, which has seldom had so much to accomplish, while singing to boot), to so busy an extent that I found it, while thrilling, a sometimes unfortunate distraction from the luxurious musical performance Donald Palumbo’s chorus and James Levine’s orchestra were giving to Berlioz’s constantly fascinating concoctions.
While a very young crowd, accustomed to MTV style in which every note has its accompanying video image (and to never shutting their eyes and letting the music make its own image in your head), may be entranced by this production, especially when it comes to movie theaters, there may be too much of a muchness for old-fashioned movie lovers who would like to revel in sheer Berlioz. That curdled opinion only came to me two or three times, but I found little difficulty concentrating on the evening’s musical delights when they were set before me.
John Relyea (left) as Mephistopheles and Marcello Giordani as Faust
These musical honors, once the dancers, acrobats, and circus and lighting technicians had all been squared away, were neatly shared. Susan Graham may not be the most sensuous of mezzos – what would “D’amour, l’ardente flamme” have been like with Troyanos’s throb in her voice? – but it was splendid to have her back in her element rather than, as her Donna Elvira demonstrated, out of it: she sings Marguerite with total assurance, and fills the hall with the aria’s yearning message. John Relyea, who is obliged to do many athletic tricks in this production (but then, he flew at his debut, in Cenerentola, and mounted and rode a horse in Rodelinda), has a sizable if gruff instrument in which Méphistophélès’s wit and slimy charm if not his malice were always evident. He can win hearts by tossing a feathery leather cap, which he does at every opportunity. The only less than excellent work came from Marcello Giordani, who has made a specialty of heroic French roles (Raoul, Cellini, Enée), but here took half the evening to steady his voice, and was obliged to slide into falsetto once or twice for Faust’s punishing tessitura.
A scene from Part IV of Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust" with Marcello Giordani in the title role (top) and John Relyea as Mephistopheles (bottom, in red)
The stars, however, were James Levine and the orchestra that he has honed to diamond fineness, tricking out every brilliant detail and glow of Berlioz’s matchless ingenuity, giving us sensual pleasure to survive any distraction. The acrobats and the special effects were a treat, but I don’t think I’m the only one who found the evening’s real delight in the score itself, given such a performance.
This, surely, is as it should be.