08 Dec 2008
Elektra, Avery Fisher Hall, New York
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
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.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Elektra begins with an explosion and remains, with a few lyric interludes, on that extreme pitch throughout its two hours.
Strauss, world-famous, by 1907, for his orchestra-straining tone poems and, furthermore, the arch-hero-villain of the opera stage for his Salome, was looking for something still more monstrous, more gut-wrenching and soul-stopping and blood-chilling for a sequel — and having, in Elektra, explored ancient history’s most dysfunctional family, drew back from the pandemoniac abyss for the remainder of his long, largely placid career.
Elektra is extreme opera-going, its single act of an adamantine intensity and focus. And if opera companies can distract you by doing something grand or monstrous with the sets or the costumes or the final matricidal dance of triumph by the shattered, emotionally eviscerated heroine, to give the thing in concert, with nothing between you and the musical shock but a titling machine (which, if anything, enhances the horror of the story, the everyday terms of hate and vengeance), calls for a cast, an orchestra, a conductor willing to submit to the demands of horror to produce art.
The four performances of Elektra given by the New York Philharmonic this month achieved that horror, that intensity, that focus, that elevating shock. It was a performance to send chills up the spine. And, though concert it was, it was in a sense staged, for there was a bit of playing area around the conductor (and a ledge stage left for the serving maids and other walk-on parts — each with its brief but extreme demands), and the singers clearly had acted these roles before and gave us thrilling, fully acted performances (the final dance aside) of their ghastly roles.
Loren Maazel was the hero of the hour, a man in total control of his material and his instrument (hundred-headed, like the primeval giants mastered by Zeus). Each taut rhythm, each gristly underlying motif had its crisp, proper place, and yet each one sounded wild, impulsive, impromptu when it came; each bark or bleat or snarl of untamed animal concealed within the score (I’d never noticed before how many there are): dogs baying, wolves howling, cows pleading as they are rushed to slaughter, carrion birds exulting, snakes twining, horses screaming (they are said to have torn Orestes apart), to say nothing of the nameless horrors that fill Clytemnestra’s dreams (described by her in succulent, gruesome detail, as if confided not to a daughter but a psychoanalyst with an unfortunate agenda) and furies of every variety filling the air with contagious hysteria. Each accent of the stage action, illustrated by the score, fell into place with the implacable precision of one’s secret terrors. The orchestra played like gods of our inner underworlds, knowing just where to stretch and threaten and pretend to console.
Deborah Polaski, who has sung most of the more haggard ladies of the heroic repertory, from Kundry to Brunnhilde, knows where the dramatic hysteria lies in the title role and where it can relax. Her looks of scorn, of pretend sympathy, of self-pity when the return of Orestes recalls her to the innocent girl she once was enhanced her vocal portrayal of these facets of character. Her voice is still in fine shape, only the whispers of the duet with Orestes betraying a certain wear and tear. Never before had I noticed how very similar the sexless Elektra is to her artistic sister, Salome — another innocent who takes vengeance on the world for too terrible, too abrupt a knowledge of the evil lurking in a mother’s soul, a stepfather’s lust, a cruel, selfish society.
Anne Schwanewilms, who has made a name for herself singing Strauss and his contemporaries in such European capitals as Berlin, London and Chicago, sang Chrysothemis. It was especially enjoyable to note the interaction between her and Polaski, the latter’s contempt, the former’s exasperation and “must-she-go-on-like-this?” glances to heaven and earth to save her from her manic sister. She is a tall, handsome woman with a clear but light soprano, not an instrument (I would guess) to hold its own with the orchestra-combating extremes of Wagner or Verdi or even Strauss (Ariadne, say) but very right for Strauss’s soaring, less earthy roles: the Marschallin, Arabella, Aithra, Daphne. Chrysothemis’s yearning for simple life, her horror of the mythic emotions of the rest of her family, are intended to set those emotions in proper context, and she sang them with the feeling of a woman who knows she is trapped: she has mythologized the ordinary, and she lets us feel the pleasure of not being stuck in an epic ourselves.
Jane Henschel sang Clytemnestra. The role — a woman slowly being driven mad by guilt and apprehension — is often performed with an eldritch wreck of a voice, but Henschel, who has a beautiful low mezzo of heroic size (her Met debut was as the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten), reminded us of the lady’s past as a queen and a woman of passion; she did not wallow in sickly torment but projected her fear, her confusion, her tragedy in graceful, phrases that lost nothing in shock value by being beautiful. Elektra can see only evil in her mother, but Strauss saw something else, something once noble and womanly, the woman who gave birth to beautiful daughters, and Henschel gave us that woman as no Clytemnestra of my experience has done since Christa Ludwig.
The lesser roles were cast with care. Julian Tovey, making his New York debut, sings with a cool glamour but did not quite equal the ominous alarm awakened by the brasses at Orestes’s appearance, and Richard Margison sang ably but somewhat missed the comical quality that James King brought to the part in his final New York appearance, as Aegisthus in a concert Elektra at Carnegie Hall — a comedy the more troubling because we know he will be murdered the moment he leaves the stage. Among the many small parts, I especially enjoyed Matt Boehler as Orestes’s nervous tutor and Linda Pavelka’s surging phrases among the usually too-anonymous maidservants.
This concert will be repeated on Tuesday and Saturday, and broadcast on WQXR on December 18.