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.
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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.