07 Nov 2008
The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago
The current revival of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago (seen 25 October) brings together an exceptionally strong cast.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
The current revival of Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers at Lyric Opera of Chicago (seen 25 October) brings together an exceptionally strong cast.
Each of the four principals in this production demonstrates a strong sense of character portrayal and interpersonal emotional involvement in both singing and acting. The talents of this cast are essential to the success of the music and drama, since the solo and duet pieces are interwoven by Bizet to highlight individuals interacting with each other or with the chorus throughout the opera. The work is set in ancient Ceylon with Lyric Opera’s staging showing a mixture of images from Eastern religions. The virgin priestess Leïla, who pays a ceremonial visit of several days to the region of the pearl fishers, is sung by soprano Nicole Cabell. The long-standing friendship of two members of this community will be tested again during the course of the action. As the friends with a variable past, marked by loyalty as well as jealousy, Nadir and Zurga are sung, respectively, by tenor Eric Cutler and baritone Nathan Gunn. Finally, the spiritual leader of this society, identified as the high priest of Brahma, is sung by the bass baritone Christian Van Horn. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by John Mauceri.
Zurga (baritone Nathan Gunn) is furious to discover the priestess Leïla (soprano Nicole Cabell) violating her sacred vows with his friend Nadir (tenor Eric Cutler). Act II, The Pearl Fishers. [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]
From the start of the first act, the tensions that will mark a constant shift between peaceful friendship and rivalry in love are established already in the opening music and staging. A scrim covering the stage during the overture suggests a placid tropical setting whereas the initial music, as emphasized skillfully under Mauceri’s direction, contains a multi-layered projection of forthcoming oppositions. As the assembled fishers are reminded by Zurga, they are obligated to choose a new leader. Nathan Gunn, in the role of Zurga, urges the reveling dancers with his supple and convincing vocal lines, just as he accepts their decision to make him their king with a lyrical expression of dignity. Immediately after this choice is settled, the figure of Nadir reappears following a long absence from the fishermen in search of adventure “des savanes et des forêts” (“in savannas and forests”). The role of Nadir is ideally suited to the musical sensibilities of Eric Cutler. From the first notes of his entrance, Cutler’s voice soared in Nadir’s emotional scene of recognition: the challenging upper range of the part was sung consistently on pitch and without a hint of strain. More importantly, the voice communicated at once an exciting narrative of a wandering and curious spirit. Once Nadir is welcomed back into the society of pearl fishers, he finds himself alone with his former friend. As they reminisce on the priestess whom they had both seen years before in a temple at Candi, the emotions of rival attraction vs. renunciation for the sake of friendship are poured into the justly famous duet for tenor and baritone. In both declamation and poetic singing the voices of Cutler and Gunn melded yet remained distinct in exquisite lyrical effect. As Cutler pronounced “Voyez” (“Look”), one sensed that he truly could see the priestess still in his mind’s eye. Gunn’s evocation “O vision, o rêve” (“Oh vision, oh dream”) was equally effective as memory through song. After concluding the duet with the mutual assurance of sacred friendship, the announcement of a vessel landing at shore introduces the remaining two principal figures. In a ceremonial procession the unnamed virgin, whose identity must be concealed by a veil, is led into the community under the protection of Nourabad the high priest. Her duties and the promise she must swear are detailed by Zurga as newly chosen leader. Here the impressive effect of Gunn’s seamless lyrical line was paired with the rapt attention of the assembled chorus of fishers. Leïla the veiled priestess recognizes Nadir; by the same token, Nadir is reminded of his past love, when he hears now the voice of the veiled woman assenting to the conditions of chaste anonymity. The priestess is led into the temple by Nourabad, the community disperses, and Zurga leaves his friend to conclude the day in solitary reflection. The second most familiar number of the opera occurs at this point in the score. Nadir has been greatly moved by the reminder of a voice so similar to that of his beloved Leïla. He recalls the vision of the woman from the past in his “Je crois entendre encore” (“I believe I still hear”), an aria in which Cutler demonstrates not only scrupulous legato and attention to text but also high notes imbued with feeling and sung with a remarkable piano effect. His intonation of the line “O souvenir charmante” (“Oh charming souvenir”) remains in one’s memory long afterward. As Nadir falls asleep, Nourabad returns with the priestess and gives instruction for her continued prayers on an exposed rock. In the concluding scene of the first act, Leïla begins her prayer to the god, “O Dieu Brahma,” and continues, urged on by the alternating voice of the chorus, with her lines “Esprits de l’air” (“Spirits of the air”) and “Dans le ciel sans voile” (“In the cloudless sky”). In the role of the priestess Nicole Cabell sings with beauty of tone and flexibility, her range secure in all the scales and coloratura required at this point of the score. One senses her creation of a character with voice, since she remains stationary at first during her prayer. As Nadir awakens and hears again the once familiar voice, he moves toward the base of the rock. Leïla reveals her identity by lifting momentarily the veil: the mutual recognition — and Nadir’s fervent request — prompts Leïla to continue her song. Here Cabell’s performance excels in varying and decorating the repeated lines, her effortless coloratura including several skillfully executed trills. Before the final chords of the orchestra in the act the listener senses, in this performance, that both characters have been able to use their voices to sing of and to communicate their feelings for the other, yet they must still maintain distance because of oaths sworn by each to Zurga.
The high priest Nourabad (bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, left) prepares for the execution of Nadir (Eric Cutler) and Leïla (Nicole Cabell) in Act III of The Pearl Fishers. [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]
In the second, shorter act of The Pearl Fishers the anticipation and tension established already from the first act develops into both reunion and crisis for the lovers. The priest Nourabad leads Leïla to her shelter for nightly rest. Christian Van Horn sings imposingly and is able to inject a truly credible spirit of authority into his rich and flexible bass baritone. He warns Leïla to remain faithful to her vow and to eschew the temptation of earthly love. When she is alone, Leïla senses that Nadir must be in the immediate area, and she begins her cavatina “Comme autrefois” (“As in the past”). In this piece Cabell exhibits ravishing lyrical control as she combines memories of the past with hints of an imminent reunion. Her song is answered from outside the temple by Nadir so that music serves fittingly as their reintroduction to physical contact. Once they embrace, their duet is a confession of love and loyalty as well as a realization of the conflicts that will follow on their renewed bond. Both Cabell and Cutler give full expression to the complexity of emotion and commitment awaiting them. As a storm begins at the shore, Nourabad enters and sees that a man has defiled the temple by his presence. He sends for guards who capture the fleeing Nadir. Upon Leïla’s surrender in the temple, the fishers return and demand that both lovers be killed. This final scene introduces the dramatic conflicts of the following act once Zurga enters and attempts to mediate. He counsels leniency, which the crowd is prepared to accept until the identity of the priestess is revealed. Zurga’s mood shifts rapidly to rage as he sees that Nadir and Leïla have broken their separate oaths sworn to him.
The final act of the opera is neatly divided into two scenes. At the opening Zurga remains alone in his tent, where he is torn by guilt. Now that his fury has subsided, he regrets that Nadir, his cherished friend, must die at sunrise. In this scene Nathan Gunn sings the aria “Nadir, ami de mon jeune âge” (“Nadir, friend of my youth”) as a dramatically wrenching showpiece. Although the aria is not as interesting musically as other parts of Bizet’s score, Gunn performs it as a telling moment for the character of Zurga. Leïla now enters the tent to ask that he pardon Nadir, yet the rage of Zurga returns when he realizes that she still loves his rival. The exchange here between Cabell and Gunn becomes one of the dramatic highlights of the performance. She leaves the text prepared to die and deposits with a guard a necklace that she has worn since her youth. Zurga recognizes the necklace as one that he had given to a child who had saved his life by hiding him years before. In the final scene Nadir is surrounded by fishers, who prepare for the execution. Leïla is brought in to join him in death, as both sing of their happiness in remaining together. When Zurga declares that fire has broken out in the camp of the fishers, the latter rush off to save their families. Zurga announces to Nadir and Leïla that he himself has started the blaze: he frees the lovers and urges them to escape, returning the generosity that he had experienced from Leïla long before. Although he will surely pay in sacrifice for this act, Zurga has redeemed his friendship.
This production of The Pearl Fishers by Lyric Opera is a revival of the original design and staging from the 1997-98 season. Both sets and costumes have been redesigned under the direction of Scott Marr. This production argues convincingly for more frequent revivals of Bizet’s early opera, with the cast and direction of these performances serving as a model for future productions as well.