08 Mar 2009
Korngold Thrills in Venice
It is not often that the team of stage director, set and costume designer get the biggest, most boisterously rowdy roar of approval at opera's end.
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
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.
It is not often that the team of stage director, set and costume designer get the biggest, most boisterously rowdy roar of approval at opera's end.
But then, La Fenice’s extraordinary Die Tote Stadt was helmed on all three counts by the venerable triple threat Pier Luigi Pizzi in another of his masterful displays of how to perfectly showcase and (gasp) serve the work at hand. At this point in his long and illustrious career, Signor Pizzi is deservedly a veritable national treasure.
His atmospheric setting consisted largely of two angled black platforms mid-stage, headed by a door on each side, dipping from the wings, and coming to rest one on top of the other center stage, serving as the wherewithal for the entrances and exits in the “realistic” scenes.
This rather shallow space was dressed with two black-draped tables, sporting vases stuffed profusions of white flowers. Stacks of plump, over-sized black pillows were strewn on the floor, perfect for lounging. The stage right table also bore the all-important silver box-cum-reliquary containing the dead wife’s braid of hair. A full-length black and white oil painting of the deceased Marie was propped on the stage right wall, flanked by large candlesticks, and complemented with a corresponding full length mirror stage left.
This whole elegant “prison” of Paul’s own creation, is framed by a mirrored proscenium, and backed by black drapes, but no ordinary backdrop was this. For the cloth was able to trim into fourths (making three vertical openings) and/or fly into the loft, revealing all or part of a fantasy land of water and set pieces that were perfectly calculated to suggest the various locales in our hero’s troubled mind.
This upstage nether world was slightly skewed by a giant tilted overhead mirror which reflected the pool of water and all that was in it from a disorienting perspective. The tourist postcard town of Bruges never looked like this! After Marietta’s first appearance in which she teased and left, the drapes then revealed her upstage as the dead Marie, clad in white, and subsequently outlined by a spectral white frame that tilted up at us out of the water, creating a living double for the oil painting. Chilling.
After Marie glided off, she soon came back in a taunting mood, clad in a devastatingly dazzling red gown, replete with long train and diaphanous capes that she trailed in the water as she twirled and flung red roses willy nilly, roses from an identical bouquet that had figured so prominently in Marietta’s first scene.
L’entrée du Béguinage by Fernand Khnopff (1904).
Act Two’s carnival featured a canal boat, a silvery denuded cypress tree, two rotating buildings, Bruges’ bell tower, and, well…truly gorgeous designer costumes, another of Pizzi’s masterful accomplishments. To name one, there was a knockout nudie black lace number that evoked the same peak-a-boo naughtiness that adorned Anita Morris in Nine. Marietta was resplendent in yet another star-worthy, drop dead sequined red dress.
The most creative costume design effect was arguably the white clad funeral procession, which began respectfully enough slogging through the water, and ended with a profane parody of a religious ceremony, with the celebrants revealed to be naked under their chasubles. Their frenzied religious-sexual fervor as they kicked and hurled water about, costumes akimbo, in a demented tarantella was powerful imagery indeed. (Vincenzo Raponi contributed the excellent lighting design, and Marco Berriel the free-wheeling choreography.)
Nor did Pizzi falter in his directorial accomplishment with a gifted cast of singers pulled from the front ranks of the world’s roster. Stefan Vinke, in the punishing role of Paul, experienced a bit of spreading at times, but he is also in command of stentorian high notes that are as thrilling as you are likely to hear today. Man, he slams them home!
True, he sometimes did not recover quickly from the effort, the voice getting brittle in mezzo forte mid-range passages, and there were a few rough releases. However, he gets all the notes and more in this killer part, and even manages some wonderful messa di voce effects. I do worry that he muscled up for the big outpourings — I have never seen anyone open his mouth that wide — no, never — provoking concern for just how relaxed his jaw might be. But Herr Vinke delivered the musical goods, and he is also a committed actor with an appealing “bear” look. He is singing Siegfried later in the season here, and it should hold no terrors for him.
Solveig Kringleborn as Marie/Marietta confirmed my wonderful previous impressions of her artistry with an assured impersonation that was beautiful, blond, sexy, fearless, and vibrantly sung. Mariettas Lied, the opera’s best known tune, was voiced with silvery tone and lovely limpid phrasing. Her full-throated, arching phrases also gave much pleasure and if her vibrato got a bit (but just a bit) generous in pressed lower passages, it was more womanly than off-putting.
The roles of Frank-Fritz were well-served by the very musical baritone Stephan Genz, even though the voice occasionally got a little croony and hooty as is the wont of some German baritones. It must be said his Pierrot’s Song (the other famous melody) was pleasantly taken. All of the featured ensemble solos were uniformly secure. Special mention must go to mezzo Christa Mayer, whose Brigitta was a piece of luxury casting that showcased a rich, full-bodied instrument that would be a pleasure to encounter as, say, the Nurse in “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”
The orchestra regaled us with professional playing of the highest order, easily the best effort from the pit I have yet experienced at La Fenice. Under Maestro Eliahu Inbal, they embraced every demand of Korngold’s sprawling score, capable at will of being tender, passionate, delicate, agitated, percussive, melodic, and most important, sensitively supportive of the singers.
Still, for all the radiant musical accomplishments, it was Pier Luigi’s day. His sure hand was evident in so many ways: beautiful use of the levels to define character relationships, excellent variety of blocking using the entire space in a psychologically meaningful way, and the ability and willingness to simply serve the creators’ intentions. When Marietta taunted Paul with Marie’s braid and he strangled her with it, it was not only highly effective drama, it was also just as called for in the script.
The final image found Paul walking slowly out of his “prison” and into the fantasy world upstage, literally walking into a sea of possibilities. He had shed his demons at last.
This was stunning lyric theatre. Mr. Pizzi, we should be cheering you still.