27 Mar 2009
In Sarasota the composer is king
In the world of opera it’s now the director who is the top banana.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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.