01 Dec 2008
Carmen at the Washington National Opera
From the director’s point of view, there are two ways to approach staging an opera.
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.
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.
From the director’s point of view, there are two ways to approach staging an opera.
It can be an ensemble work, with the main roles given relatively equal weight, and interaction between the characters central to plot development. An opera production can also be a star vehicle, in which a single principal (or more rarely, a pair of leads) carries the performance, while the rest of the cast plays supporting roles that sets off the drama of the “stars.” Some operas may be conceptualized either way, while others lend themselves naturally to one staging type or another: La bohème, for instance, works best as an ensemble piece, while Boris Godunov, particularly in its 1869 version, revolves around its protagonist. Arguably, so does Carmen whose femme fatale heroine writes not only her own tragic fate, but those of at least two other principals, Don José and Micaëla (the self-involved matador Escamillo will probably get over her death soon enough).
Sabina Cvilak as Micaela, Thiago Arancam as Don Jose. [Photo by Karin Cooper]
The absolute necessity of mezzo star power for a successful Carmen has once again been demonstrated by the Washington National Opera’s current production of Bizet’s classic. The fabulous DC native Denyce Graves completely dominated on stage as the seductive gypsy, with both her colleagues and the audience content to let her rule not only Don José’s heart, but also Georges Bizet’s score. Ms Graves allowed herself quite a few liberties in text projection, pitches, and timing of her part. Yet somehow, even the most fastidious purist would not have minded such an open desire for “liberty,” to quote the lady herself. She was utterly convincing in her interpretation; and if the locals saw more a fast-talking broad from South-East DC than a factory girl from the gutters of Seville, well, so much the better. Of much help were the gorgeous reds and oranges of Lennart Mark’s flamenco-inspired costumes, and the percussion section of the orchestra, which thankfully did not follow Ms Graves’s pliable relationship with time, and accompanied her dancing tastefully and precisely. Most importantly, to the singer’s credit, she has crafted her heroine’s image beautifully, knowing when to seize the limelight and when to fade into the background. The Act 2 quintet turned out to be one of the most successful moments in the production precisely because Ms Graves stepped back and blended with the ensemble. Yet later in the scene, her pitch-perfect, richly textured call “Amour ,” thrown to Escamillo from across the stage, turned not only the matador’s head, but everyone else’s in the building.
Denyce Graves as Carmen with WNO Chorus. [Photo by Karin Cooper]
Of course, with Denyce Graves, acclaimed as “the definitive Carmen,” on the playbill, a powerful protagonist in this WNO production was to be expected. More unusual was the fact that the sentimental lyrical soprano Micaëla, traditionally the weakest link in Bizet’s quartet of leads, almost managed to stand up to her rival. This thanks to Sabina Cvilak’s convincing performance, still a little shaky in Act 1, but seemingly having grown with her heroine toward a strong, powerful Act 3 finale. The men of the cast, on the other hand, were almost invariably unimpressive. Not that they did not try to make their mark. Both Thiago Arancam as José and Jorge Lagunes as Escamillo struck the right poses and delivered their high notes with panache; the Flower aria turned out quite well as a result, the torero’s infamous couplets rather less so. For the most part, however, the two male leads sounded weak and much too easily dominated by their ladies. Carmen’s derisive laugh moments before her demise seemed therefore right on target - John Marcus Bindel as Zuniga, and hilarious James Shaffran and Peter Burroughs as Le Dancaire and Le Remendado respectively all left her poor tenor in the dust The solid support cast and the girl power, however, were enough to ensure a quality production and an enjoyable evening of “all about Carmen.”