19 Apr 2009
Iphigénie en Aulide at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma
Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
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.
Rome’s opera house was built in 1880, in the explosion of building that followed the unification of Italy with Rome as its capital.
A sleepy papal city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims) in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the “leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a “futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an improbably grandiose ceiling mural — what opera features a charioteer mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas — who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic from this very stage.
The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said, “You’re lucky you came tonight — it was probably your last chance — they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I got to a second performance.
In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged (conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece.
Iphigénie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience — the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias, and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by applause on two occasions — an outburst for Iphigénie’s great Act III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,” near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled. As for the younger ones — at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.
Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again (Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape, tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than Gluck’s stately verses permitted — since I’d spent the day observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in 1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.
Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in the portico of the house — and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the 26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the house — this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to, and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.
However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira Stoyanova — little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller and La Juive.
Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of Iphigénie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that Iphigénie has proved heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the dignity of the Comédie Française. There was a lovely moment when, having been presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, Iphigénie, in private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up à la Grecque. (She looked far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)
Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of the stage whenever they have a lot to sing — a courtesy singers delight in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one, to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or angry choruses was very well managed.
Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists (in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of Iphigénie’s transference to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the occasion — from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the conclusion of Tannhäuser — but left those of us familiar with Iphigénie en Tauride more comfortable.