26 Jan 2009
Orfeo ed Euridice at the MET
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
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.
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
The voice emerges easily, and is of exceptional beauty from top to bottom, at any size you like, Wagnerian power in the very grandest houses, light and quick in coloratura filigree or lieder delicacy as called for. She is also a highly intelligent woman and an effective actress. Stout in a svelte age, she moves with assurance and dignity on stage, and she can cut up deliciously in comedies like Italiana in Algeri and Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse. She is always conscious of differences of style between Handel and Donizetti or Broadway and the avant-garde, and she suits her sound to the music on her plate, light or heavy, intellectual or humorous, baroque or grand operatic or modern. Sincerity and majesty — or, in comedy, irony — are her long suits: she creates a sublime Fricka or Handel’s morbid Cornelia or Poulenc’s Mère Marie or Puccini’s Zia Principessa and wicked Zita . One longs to hear her Amneris and Dalila and Isabella — roles she has won kudos for in other cities, but has never sung in New York — not to mention daydreams of what an Alceste or Fidès or Ortrud she would be.
All of this being so, and the glory of the many times she has thrilled me in the past, I am puzzled by her beautiful but superficial, unmoving performance as Gluck’s Orfeo at the Met. Every note was beautiful but none of it touched the heart, hers or mine — as David Daniels so unerringly did two years ago. Somehow Daniels found the trembling, uncertain, bewildered soul at the heart of this desperate lover, humanizing him, but Blythe makes Orpheus too formal, too rigid — an actor portraying grief because grief is expected of a widowed hero. Coupled with James Levine’s rather quick, unvarying tempi — a bit of a surprise considering his tendency to slow down in Wagner — this was an unemotional, unfeeling Orfeo.
In startling contrast, Danielle de Niese, whose pretty, tireless soprano sometimes leaves me cold, projected all the desperation and confusion of Euridice’s plight without distorting any of its usual beauty. (Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor, was a cipher with bad technique.)
I should mention that, like many no doubt, I had been worried about Blythe’s appearance and movement in some version of the man-in-black (-with-pointless-guitar) costume worn by Daniels, but here she has been well-served (and has served herself well): she looked massive in a dignified and masculine way, like one of our turn-of-the-century presidents, she moves with the proper gravity. For an opera to be telecast, this sort of thing is important — but not all-important.
Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Heidi
Grant Murphy as Amor with chorus in background
The myth of Orpheus is not a theatrical story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy has a chance to get her back but blows it. There is very little for the girl to do, and hardly anything for anyone else: it is practically a monodrama, though it has never (to my knowledge) been set to music that way. To the ancients, it was a tale of death and mystical rebirth, and if you joined the cult of the Orphic Mysteries, you could enter the Members Only section after death — but that won’t do today: we need a more universal message, like “Love conquers all,” even though it clearly doesn’t. (Has anyone you loved come back from the dead? Was that because you didn’t love them enough? Does anyone dead come back? Mythologically, Eurydice never did.)
But as Orpheus was the mythic type of the musician, whenever opera remembers its classical roots (not that they have much to do with what opera turned into), Orpheus gets updated and some theatrical sense must be made of his quest. In Offenbach’s operetta (a send-up of Gluck), the two lovers have irreconcilable differences over his old-fashioned taste in music. In Sarah Ruhl’s recent play, Eurydice, the girl tricks Orpheus into looking back because she doesn’t want to rejoin him: she prefers cozy death to chancy life.
Danielle de Niese as Euridice
When Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, approached the subject, in a self-consciously “reforming” mood, they started out by omitting “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” — these events have already occurred at curtain rise. They then expanded Orfeo’s quest to the Underworld into several great solo, chorus and dance opportunities. Then came their big alteration of the legend: instead of going so quietly that Orfeo isn’t sure she’s there, begins to doubt the word of his gods, and betrays his oath, this Euridice is a nag who never shuts up, and Orfeo (who is barred, in this version, from telling her why he cannot turn to look at her), is finally driven to violate his word. Euridice is lost and Orfeo gets his most famous aria, “Che faro.” This is followed by alteration two: The gods change their minds and give her back anyway. If you have read the synopsis before you go in, this will undercut the tragic level of what has gone before, but it does allow for extended dances of rejoicing and a happy hymn to triumphant Love for us to hum going home.
I’ll admit I’ve never been entirely happy with any staging I’ve seen of Gluck’s opera (six and counting) — though from what I read, the current Viennese one sounds promising, austere and grand. The opera is so tightly focused on Orfeo’s feelings that there should be as little opportunity for wandering attention as possible, and I’ve been most pleased when, for example, the chorus were out of sight, in the orchestra pit, and dancers mimed their feelings. The Mark Morris staging at the Met seems mostly to be about Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes (creating far too much individuation precisely where it was not wanted), so that the rhythmic gestures of the corps de ballet miming grief and sympathy (and, in the finale, rejoicing), are distractingly individual, while the hundred historic “witnesses” of the chorus who look on at this (and who become without change of costume furies or whatever the libretto needs) seem a pointless extravagance.
We always knew Blythe could sing the music; she can sing anything. But the role does not play to her strengths, and I eagerly await her appearance in something that does.