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.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
Ossia Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why waste a good tune.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Both by default and by merit Il barbiere di Siviglia is the hit of the thirty-fifth Rossini Opera Festival. But did anyone really want, and did the world really need yet another production of this old warhorse?
Armida (1817) is the third of Rossini’s nine operas for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, all serious. The first was Elisabetta, regina di Inghilterra (1815), the second was Otello (1816), the last was Zelmira (1822).
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
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.