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.
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.
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.”