05 Dec 2008
Barcelona: Figaro la, Figaro qua
Like Seville’s peripatetic barber, Gran Teatro del Liceu's new Marriage of Figaro is rather all over the place.
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.
Like Seville’s peripatetic barber, Gran Teatro del Liceu's new Marriage of Figaro is rather all over the place.
Meaning, if there is something you don’t fancy, wait a minute and the artistic gears will likely shift. Not that there is not a great deal to admire.
Updated to the Thirties, Paco Azorin’s exceedingly handsome set design and Franca Squarciapino’s elegant, tailored costumes provide much visual pleasure. The floor space consists of a large square platform, turned so that the downstage corner pokes just over the lip of the stage. In both of the first two acts, handsome white walls with detailed molding vie for prominence with Mylar-mirrored windows, hung with diaphanous drapes. The sleek white, rectangular low “sofas” get re-arranged to make a bed, a faux chaise lounge, etc. But while the handsome fireplace in Act II lent a homey counterpoint to the Countess’ melancholy, the odd inclusion of several ballet barres in the Act I bedroom was just plain “curious.”
Much more Mylar was on display in Act III, and the transparent qualities of these “two-way mirrors” was exploited by the exceptional lighting design from Albert Faura. Later in Act IV’s garden, these mirror panels painted with trees glided and re-grouped fluidly to provide plenty of hiding places for the conspirators. So beautiful were these tree effects it might be worth keeping them and standing up a production of A Little Night Music.
In spite of the quite dazzling physical production, I found the time period somewhat a defeating choice for this comedy. To be sure, the idea of the upper class exploiting servants, pursuing in-house sexual peccadillo’s, and calculating political manipulation works after a fashion in any era. But at its heart there is something decidedly unappealing about spoiled rich folks whose plight seems whiny, insignificant, and un-funny compared to a World War and the Great Depression.
That it took until halfway through Act II to generate any titter of laughter is largely the doing of stage director Lluis Pasqual, who can’t seem to settle on a playing style or a concept. Is it realistic? Commedia dell’Arte? Brechtian presentational? Noel Coward sex farce? For Mr. Pasqual, the answer is “all of the above.” What it is not with enough regularity is Mozart/da Ponte, who knew a few things about comedy timing and wrote them right into the piece, by golly. I used to think Figaro was fool-proof, but then I hadn’t yet met this director.
Kyle Ketelsen as Figaro (standing on the sofa) and Sophie Koch as Cherubino during “Non piu andrai”
Case in point, during a Susanna-Cherubino exchange in the first act, Figaro suddenly just walks off the platform to the darkened apron to “observe them” as an outsider. Just as abruptly, he re-joins the scene, in character. Huh? (This idea doesn’t recur.) During “Aprite un’po quegli occhi, “a silver (basket?-)ball descends on a wire, which our title character unhooks and tosses around and dribbles, albeit skillfully. Is it meant to be…a woman’s head? A planet of miniature cuckolds? A Harlem Globetrotters tryout? It was an entertaining distraction, but I am not sure it meant anything much to the story at hand.
Blocking was ill-considered in supporting the comic set-up and punch line. The Susanna-Marcellina Act I Bitch-Off was, well, just…bitched. Not a laugh to be gotten. Or even a loud smile. Stage pictures were often “all right,” but focus remained a problem throughout the night. When Susanna has her moment in the great Act III sextet of revealed parentage, she is sputtering her “sua madre’s/padre’s” completely blocked as she runs behind the other principals. Too, our director over-used a convention of dragging many solos to the furthest downstage point of the platform, changing the lighting to an isolated dramatic focus one-on-one with the audience, which almost rendered them concert arias. Ah well, happily — very happily — we had at our disposal a first rate cast.
Kyle Ketelsen is a world class Figaro, not only possessed of a healthy, burnished mellifluous bass instrument, even throughout his extensive range, but also gifted as one of the most inventive actors to be seen on an opera stage. His is a richly detailed, solidly acted, individualized impersonation. Ofelia Sala was almost his match as Susanna. Although her dramatic approach seemed more generalized, she displayed good stage savvy, game to try anything, and her well-schooled soprano had a hint more weight to it than many a Susanna. “Deh vieni” may have not had the pristine shimmer of a Kathy Battle, but it was compensated with substantially more thrust. Sidebar: why Mr. Ketelsen (as the title role) and Ms. Sala (who by far has the most stage time) are not getting the final bows is very odd. Those honors fell to…
Emma Bell, her securely sung Countess sleek and elegant of mien, really delivers the goods with sensitively controlled vocalism, meticulous phrasing, and, as needed, a generous fire in dramatic outbursts. Is it quibbling to want her to seem less self-absorbed by re-thinking some slightly-too-precious, cooing introspections? Judicious fine tuning might make the audience pity her more, if she pitied herself less. As the Count, Ludovic Tézier confirmed his growing reputation as today’s leading French baritone. He made good on that promise with a virile, buzzy tone, and solid stylistic command, although he did seem to tire slightly by opera’s end. “Contessa, perdona” was not the melting denouement it should have been, but blame for that moment can be shared with the poorly judged staging and conducting.
I quite liked Sofie Koch’s well-voiced, hard-working Cherubino with the caveat that her slightly covered tone made the lad sound a bit more mature than other, brighter voiced interpreters. A former Susanna, Marie McLaughlin has now graduated to Marcellina, singing it well without quite comfortably fitting the role’s more comic demands. Friedemann Röhlig had considerably more success with a rollicking account of Bartolo, securely sung with panache. Raúl Giménez was luxury casting as the best-sung Basilio I have experienced. Doing all that was required (if no more) as Barbarina and Antonio were Eliana Bayón and Valeriano Lanchas. The truly funny Don Curzio was exceptionally well performed by Roger Padullés.
Emma Bell (center) as the Countess accepting flowers from the peasant girls and Susanna (Ofelia Sala, seated, as maid)
Last, and certainly least, the workaday conducting from Antoni Ros Marbà did little to serve this sparkling, crackling score. This usually fine orchestra sounded muted and uninspired from the git-go, with the cascading wind figures lacking incisive clarity. The horns had a bad first act but improved, while the keyboardist fat-fingered more than a few notes over the course of the recitatives. Worst, the rhythmic propulsion of the individual numbers was sometimes indefinite, resulting in a momentary disruption of coordination between stage and pit. Even at the leisurely pace of the duet “Aprite, presto, aprite,” our Susanna got ahead and there was a scary moment of Swedish until Cherubino got it back on track.
And so the evening went…sometimes too fast…sometimes too slow…sometimes slapstick…sometimes overly serious…always well sung…always nice to look at. “Figaro la, Figaro qua… “ All in all, it was a great pity that the stage director and conductor weren’t at the same high class party as the stellar cast and design team.