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.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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.”