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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
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.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
16 Nov 2008
Lucrezia Borgia at the Washington National Opera
After a somewhat shaky start to the season, as my recently posted review of La traviata attests, Washington National Opera has added considerable luster to its roster this November with the infusion of spectacle and star power in two new productions.
My subject today is the
first of these, Donizetti’s perpetually underperformed 1833 masterpiece
Lucrezia Borgia. The next installment, to appear in a few days, will
comment on the second – Bizet’s perennial favorite, the 1875
Lucrezia is a fiendishly difficult work for all involved.
Spectacular settings of Renaissance Venice and Ferrara require the expensive
kind of luxury in staging – luxury without ostentation. The director
must create a sympathetic figure out of a legendary mass murderess, whose
grit Donizetti evidently admired enough to make her a soprano, a victim, a
mother, and a girl with a heart – most of the time… Meanwhile,
the lead singer has to survive the endless bel canto lines and the
head-spinning coloratura of her dramatic role written for a lyrical voice,
all the while staying “in character” – and a character that
psychologically is barely comprehensible to most of us. This was a tall
order, and the result was worth the price of admission, which at the
Washington National is always memorable in and of itself.
Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini.
A major ingredient in the production’s success was the fact that it
was a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, with both stage direction and visual
design in the excellent hands of the admirable John Pascoe. The stunning
visuals, a fusion of old-world luxury with edgy and abstract modern lines,
were sophisticated yet not overbearing. Central to the design were gigantic
stone walls, first parting in welcome to the carnival atmosphere of Venice,
the endless party town, then closing ominously to lock the characters and the
audience in. Together with the fabulous lighting, a persistently excellent
WNO feature (designer Jeff Bruckerhoff), these sets enhanced the complex
psychological drama woven by Mr Pascoe the stage director. His reading of the
libretto explained (if not entirely justified) Lucrezia’s bloodthirsty
nature and reputation for promiscuity by casting her as a victim of incest
and sexual abuse – an interpretation for which there is a valid
historical precedent, as well as some veiled hints in the Donizetti score.
Just to top it off, the historical heroine’s fictional son, Gennaro, is
torn between an oedipal passion for his mother and a homoerotic one for his
best friend Orsini – it is almost hard to believe Lucrezia has
not yet joined The Tudors as a prime-time show on Cinemax!
Renée Fleming was billed as the star attraction of the show, and so she
was. The singer’s famously buttery voice was on full display, even in
Donizetti’s inhumane coloratura passages, which not only seemed easy,
but were – a rare treat indeed – musical. Ms Fleming’s
formidable acting skills served her best through the sections of the drama in
which Lucrezia comes across as a sympathetic victim, fighting desperately for
survival and the remaining shreds of her feminine dignity. It was harder to
appear sympathetic in her Act 3 Scene 2 entrance, clad in male warrior attire
(an unfortunate costume choice, in my opinion) and rejoicing in having just
poisoned a group of admittedly foolish but basically harmless young men.
Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsini, Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Renée Fleming as Lucrezia Borgia
Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro had an easier task. His character’s
sexual ambiguity is defined situationally, in relation to others throughout
the opera, while Gennaro himself essentially remains unchanged – a
young, passionate, straightforward (if not totally straight) macho warrior.
Mostly what is required to strike the right tenor here is, forgive the
obvious pun, the right tenor. Mr Grigolo is in a possession of a fantastic
one: sonorous, yet crisp and metallic, a highly appropriate timbre for
Donizetti’s character. Despite his youth, the singer was a worthy
partner to Ms Fleming. Then again, he started performing professionally at
age thirteen, and his first solo gig was at the Sistine Chapel – not
your average résumé!
Vittorio Grigolo was not the only young singer in the cast. He was
partnered with mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich in the travesti role of
Maffio Orsini. One of the least experienced members of the ensemble, Miss
Aldrich did an admirable job, which under normal circumstances would have
garnered her well-deserved accolades. However, she was cursed by proximity.
She simply could not quite hold her own in this all-star production and came
across, undeservedly perhaps, as only adequate. On the other hand, the
performance of the most venerable member of the line-up, the legendary
Verdian bass-baritone Ruggero Raimondi, demonstrated both the advantages and
pitfalls of experience. The 67-year-old singer appeared in a role with a
significantly lower tessitura than those he performed in his early years. The
part was shorn of most of its coloratura in an effort to accommodate the lack
of flexibility in the voice, particularly conspicuous against Ms
Fleming’s nonchalant virtuosity. Yet, unencumbered by the customary
technical fireworks, Mr Raimondi was free to unleash his impressive dramatic
talent, arguably more important than vocal prowess in the role of villainous
Duke Alfonso. It was an honor to watch the old master at work.
Another master, Raimondi’s old partner Placido Domingo, was also
involved in the production as the conductor of the performance.
Unfortunately, on that front I have few laurel wreaths to award. Just as
visual spectacle has consistently been one of the strongest elements of
WNO’s productions, the company’s orchestra is almost always the
weakest link. Donizetti’s score for Lucrezia Borgia is quite
difficult for its time and genre; it contains, for instance, an unusual
amount of brass writing, both in the pit and off-stage. Mr Domingo did a good
job as a conductor, and the orchestra sounded better than the last time I
heard it (in La traviata), but that is a very low bar to hurdle. In
comparison with the level of artistry displayed by the singers and the
director-designer in this production, the orchestral performance was barely
passable, and I wish Mr Domingo, as the artistic director as well as
conductor of the Washington National Opera could do something to improve a
situation that surely cannot satisfy him. Other than that, Lucrezia
is a world-class production, and the company is to be congratulated on its