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.
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
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.”