22 Dec 2008
Berg’s Lulu at Lyric Opera of Chicago
In its new production this fall season of Alban Berg’s Lulu, Lyric Opera of Chicago has achieved a near ideal synthesis of music and drama.
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.
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.
In its new production this fall season of Alban Berg’s Lulu, Lyric Opera of Chicago has achieved a near ideal synthesis of music and drama.
The psychological complexities linked to the depiction not only of the title character but also of her numerous admirers and associates could pose a daunting task to any company undertaking a new production of Berg’s final operatic work. Lyric Opera has met these challenges with respect both to Berg’s score and to his intentions for staging the opera as dramatic event. Under the musical direction of Sir Andrew Davis the complex score moves from passages of suspense and dramatic intensity to segments of lyrical beauty, the transitions forming a seamless bridge to both action and introspection. The new production commissioned by Lyric Opera is staged by Paul Curran who had scored a noteworthy triumph here with his production of Die Frau ohne Schatten in the previous season. In Curran’s vision for Lulu, the stage highlights traditional interior settings while using innovative lighting and projections in order to suggest developments in the portrayal of individual characters.
The figure of Lulu, as hinted in the prologue by the animal trainer and his menagerie, will represent female aspects of temptation, here taking on the simulation of a snake. A transition from the representative or symbolic tone of the prologue to a detailed realism of the first act demonstrates the creative approach of this production in combining the abstract and the concrete. Lulu, as sung by Marlis Petersen, is depicted in the opening scene of Act I surrounded by male figures who will play increasingly significant roles in her various transformations. Here Lulu sits for her portrait while listening to the self-motivated discussions initiated by Dr. Schön, a leading journalist, and by his son Alwa, who composes for musical theater.
In this first scene the primary male roles are not only introduced but also given skillful characterization by the singers in this production. As Dr. Schön the bass-baritone Wolfgang Schöne communicates the two-fold personality of a callous businessman whose determined authority nevertheless suffers from glints of weakness. Schöne has performed this role in other significant productions of Lulu, such familiarity surely elucidating the depth of his interpretation and his ability to interact on varying levels with individual characters. The role of Alwa is invested here by William Burden with a revelatory performance: as one of the characters — along with Lulu — who survives from the opening until nearly the end of the work, Alwa must remain vocally incisive and dramatically convincing in a variety of situations. Burden’s committed performance meets fully the taxing vocal demands of the tenor role. At the same time, while depicting the yearning musical writer who eventually succumbs to Lulu’s attractions, Burden’s dramatic skills add further to a memorable characterization. But it is the painter working on Lulu’s portrait who achieves amorous success with the title character in this initial scene. In the first of several roles that he covers in this production Scott Ramsay as the painter presses Lulu in a physically ardent, if vocally understated, plea for her affections. Shortly after she concedes to these advances, Lulu’s husband enters. As soon as the Medizinalrat comes upon this scene of marital disloyalty, he collapses dead of heart failure. Lulu’s reaction to the shock and sudden death of her husband is a gauge of the complexity of emotions that will continue to infuse Marlis Petersen’s portrayal throughout the production. A mix of curiosity and consternation indicates a character that is far from one-dimensional. The figure of Lulu — inhabited and communicated so effectively by Ms. Petersen — revels in adventure, suggesting at once a naïve lack of guile yet also a measure of complicity in the deeds and decisions to which she draws her suitors.
Marlis Petersen (title role) and Wolfgang Schöne (Dr. Schön) in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Lulu, directed by Paul Curran for the 2008-09 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
The musical and visual interlude between the first and following scenes establishes a technique which Curran uses to great effect in subsequent dramatic transitions throughout the production. During Berg’s orchestral interlude projections of images onto a screen suggest, by their change of shape or color, the progression of emotional, physical, or intellectual change in both individual characters and the constellation of the same. At the start of the second scene Lulu, who has inherited a respectable sum as widow, is now married to the painter. Countless sketches examples of her portrait adorn the walls. The figure of Schigolch — a character never fully identified from Lulu’s past — is introduced near the start of the scene when he knocks at the door of Lulu’s home and is presented with money by the heroine. In much the same way as the character Alwa, Schigolch will resurface periodically until near the close of the opera. In both solo and ensemble work bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Schigolch proved to be an effective foil to Lulu’s carefree attitude. In their interactions a mutual enhancement could readily be perceived. Indeed Ms. Petersen’s impassioned singing of the repetition on “blind” in this scene with Schigolch underlined her dramatic involvement with exquisite controlled agility in the upper register of her voice. By the close of the scene Dr. Schön has revealed to the painter his ongoing liaison with Lulu, in this production a psychologically riveting exchange, the realization of which drives the artist to take his own life in a separate, enclosed room. The final scene of Act I reveals Lulu as a theatrical dancer thanks to the patronage of her former suitor Dr. Schön. Lullu’s effect on Schön and his impending marriage to another illustrates how Berg intends the lead character not only as a display of herself but also as a means to bare the true character of others. Ms. Petersen is especially effective here in showing Lulu’s vulnerability as well as her strength, both of which cause reactions among those surrounding her. Dr. Schön—- while referring to Lulu’s indestructibility — is now indeed persuaded to compose a written renunciation of his engagement.
The second act highlights Lulu’s marriage to Dr. Schön, his death by her hand, Lulu’s incarceration and time also spent in a medical ward, and finally her liberation and physical union with Alwa, the son of her dead husband. Throughout this act Lulu’s devoted female companion, the Countess Geschwitz, demonstrates her willingness to compromise and even to sacrifice her own well-being in order to save Lulu. As the Countess, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove sings with an appropriate and convincing dramatic urgency, lending her character’s personality aspects already encountered in the roles of Dr. Schön and Alwa. The interlude between scenes one and two takes place after Lulu has shot her husband and before the plans to release her from prison are realized. Berg’s musical interlude serves as the accompaniment to a black-and-white film of the arrest, trial, and subsequent confinement of Lulu. This extension of the projected images used between other scenes is a dramatic masterstroke, in which the actual singers are filmed and displayed in the cinematic style of the period.
In Act III of the opera the two scenes take place in Paris and London respectively. Lulu’s successful escape has led to reunion with the Countess Geschwitz and Alwa, although the search for Lulu as criminal has not abated. In their Parisian home Lulu and Alwa are surrounded by characters of questionable reputation and less than stable profiles in matters of finance. Lulu’s narrow escape from this atmosphere, as their investments collapse, brings her to London and the true realm of the underworld. She spends her time as a prostitute, living together with Schigolch, Alwa, and the Countess Geschwitz — before dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper, her final client. The last words belong here to the Countess Geschwitz, who has fallen as the second victim to Jack, before he leaves the London flat. With extraordinary pathos Ms. Grove intones, in her dying words, an unwavering feeling of the Countess’s devotion and love for the cherished Lulu.