27 Mar 2009
In Sarasota the composer is king
In the world of opera it’s now the director who is the top banana.
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..
In the world of opera it’s now the director who is the top banana.
He moves Figaro into Trump Towers and has Giovanni — light headed after two centuries of champagne — shoot up on cocaine in the South Bronx. Caesar courts Cleopatra — or is it the other way around? — poolside at the Cairo Hilton. Elixir — cross bred with The Music Man — plays at the Iowa State fair. It’s fun now and then, but in the long run it’s opera that suffers from this mayhem and madness. And thus in the midst of all this it’s reassuring to know that there is an opera company where it’s still the composer who comes first: the Sarasota Opera that just wound up its 50th anniversary season on the Florida coast.
“Our mission is to produce outstanding opera true to the vision of the composer,” says Victor DeRenzi, SO artistic director for half its history. “Here each production is based on one approach: the view of the work that comes from the composer.” The result is opera as envisioned by those who created it; no one else gets in the way.
Suzel : Catherine Cangiano
Those who have never attended one of the 500 performances that DeRenzi has conducted in Sarasota might find this the conservative credo of a man who looks back in history. But those who know the perfection and excitement of every opera staged at the SO relish the authenticity — and respect — that DeRenzi brings to SO productions.
In Sarasota it’s Verdi’s Verdi and Puccini’s Puccini that is on stage — not a flight of the imagination imposed upon their work by the Wunderkinder of Regieoper — director’s opera, the European import that currently prevails elsewhere. The major triumph of the 2009 season that ran for eight late-winter weeks in the intimate SO house that was handsomely rebuilt a year ago was Verdi’s Don Carlo. With it DeRenzi as conductor again confirmed his stature as a leading interpreter of this composer.
Don Carlo isn’t merely Verdi at his best, it is also the best of his operas based on a drama by Germany’s Friedrich Schiller. Here the Italian patriot underscores the parallels between the struggle for freedom in Inquisition-ridden Spain and the Italy of his own day.Eboli : Stella Zambalis; Don Carlos : Gustavo López Manzitti; Rodrigue : Marco Nisticò
Kevin Short was a deeply human Philippe II, unable to assert himself against the intolerance of a church chillingly represented by Jeffrey Tucker as the Grand Inquisitor. Panamanian Reyna Carguill was a full-blooded Elizabeth, beautifully balanced by the searing mezzo of Stella Zambalis as Eboli. And as Rodrigue Marco Nistico` was the very fiber from which revolutionaries are made.Elisabeth : Reyna Carguill; Don Carlos : Gustavo López Manzitti; Philippe : Kevin Short; Grand Inquisitor : Jeffrey Tucker
It was only Argentina’s Gustavo López Manzitti who in the title role failed to reach the level of passion of his colleagues. Stephanie Sundine directed this first North-American production of the four-act French version of the opera. Sets were by David P. Gordon, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan was responsible for lavish costumes that enhanced the realism of Verdi’s 16th-century Spaniards. Indeed, Kaplan who created costumes for all four operas of the SO season is a major asset of the company.
Each season Sarasota revives a work that has disappeared from the repertory, and the reaction to the first act of L’Amico Fritz, the 2009 “masterpiece,” was that works residing in oblivion are perhaps right where they belong. By the second act Mascagni’s 1891 score dispelled such doubts as vintage verismo warmed the heart. Swiss tenor Benjamin Warschawski and American soprano Catherine Cangiano were a winning lovers, while Heather Johnson earned high marks in the trouser role of Beppe. And although a rabbi seemed somewhat out of place in late 19th-century Alsace baritone Michael Corvino made him a winning figure. David Neely conducted; Michael Unger was stage director. Sets were by Michael Schweikardt.Suzel : Catherine Cangiano; Beppe : Heather Johnson; Fritz Kobus : Benjamin Warschawski; David : Michael Corvino
The popularity of Donizetti’s Elixir of Love easily leads to overplayed and exaggerated stagings. Happily, however, director Martha Collins kept everything under careful control to make the SO production unusually engaging. She was helped by an ideal cast led by youthful Mexico’s Edgar Ernesto Ramirez, a tenor who might well have the makings of a future Pavarotti.Adina : Mara Bonde; Nemorino : Edgar Ernesto Ramirez; Giannetta : Jo Ellen Miller
Michael Redding obviously relished the lover-boy image of soldier Belcore, and Stephen Eisenhard was a delight as an understated snake-oil salesman Dulcamara. As Adina Mara Bonde was all sugar and spice. John Mario Di Constanza conducted. Roger Hanna signed for sets.
Floria Tosca : Kara Shay Thomson
One would search far today to find a better trio of singers than the three brought to Sarasota for Tosca, which opened the season on February 7. In her SO debut Kara Shay Thomson was a Floria Tosca even younger than the years of the established singer that Puccini’s heroine is. She sang the famous “Vissi d’arte” with tender and internalized emotion.
Rafael Dávila, a splendid Cavaradossi, is a native of Puerto Rico and yet another of the richly talented tenors now coming from Latin countries. Yet it was the Scarpia of Grant Youngblood that brought new dimensions to this staging. Long a signature role of the American baritone, Youngblood downplays the tyrant that Scarpia is to make the appeal of Tosca to him far more than a passing sexual fantasy. DeRenzi conducted; Sundine was the director.Floria Tosca : Kara Shay Thomson; Mario Cavaradossi : Rafael Dávila
Of special interest was the March 20 performance of opera choruses by the Sarasota Youth Opera, an ensemble open to kids from the third grade up. The thoroughly professional conduct of these 75 singers was as amazing as it was impressive. Lance Inouye, their major mentor, conducted the full SO orchestra for the event. This is the only such opera program in the United States.