06 Apr 2009
Nadja Michael as Salome and Tosca
Like Violetta Urmana, Nadja Michael had a substantial career as a mezzo before deciding to venture into soprano territory.
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.
Like Violetta Urmana, Nadja Michael had a substantial career as a mezzo before deciding to venture into soprano territory.
Urmana carries herself with a poise that recalls old-time diva self-possession, and her gorgeous instrument bears a similar glamour. Michael, however, possesses a vocal instrument as slender it its own way as she herself is - lithe, even muscular, but essentially smaller in scale. Two recent DVDs of Michael in iconic roles for soprano - Tosca and Salome - reveal an artist made to be seen as well as heard - a skilled singer, an attractive woman, but most of all, a riveting stage presence.
Staged at the 2007 Bregenz Festival on its famous lake-side stage, millions world-wide have now seen at least parts of this Tosca production, as it was featured (in a confusingly edited action sequence) in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It turns out to be a fairly spectacular visual staging itself, even without Daniel Craig hopping around, capping people. As a line in the booklet essay forthrightly admits, “Philip Himmelmann’s production had to allow for the enormous dimensions of the” Bregenz stage. The gigantic eye that dominates the stage backdrop, essay writer Gerhard Perché suggests, represents an interpretation of Sardou’s melodrama that sees Scarpia as big brother. Maybe, but the eye, which overlooks the action but of course cannot intercede, might just as easily represent the deity that Scarpia claims to worship and to whom Tosca prays in vain (and Cavaradossi declares non-belief in).
At any rate, traditionalists won’t care for any aspect of the staging. Dress is contemporary, with Michael as Tosca so sexy in her red power suit in act one and more contemporary gown for act two. Gidon Saks sports formal wear, and then removes much of it for what is most likely the first strip tease staged during the Te deum. Only Zoran Todorovic spends the opera in fairly dull clothes, even bespattered with his own blood (a stunt double takes a stunning inert dive into the waters in the last moments). Although the physical production looks like no other Tosca throughout acts one and two, most of the stage action remains fairly true to the libretto; for example, Angelotti hides away in a nook/”chapel” where later Scarpia finds a fan and empty lunch basket.
Act three, however, finds Mario imprisoned in the pupil of the eye, a precarious position requiring a visible tether. When Tosca appears, she perches high above him, standing on some ledge behind the top of the “eye” backdrop. Surely director Himmelmann designed this for the audience at Bregenz, where it might have made an impact, reinforcing the delusion of the reunited couple’s hopes for freedom. But cameras and editing dilute any such intended effect. Similarly, the jolt of seeing dozens of other imprisoned victims of Scarpia rejoicing at the news of his death only partially compensates for the distraction from the opera’s proper climax, Tosca’s leap (a filmed sequence projected onto the pupil).
Nadja Michael and Gidon Saks make any quibbles irrelevant. Neither is vocally perfect: Michael can be shrieky in her top range, and Saks sounds hoarse for quite a while. The greater part of their singing does well by Puccini’s score, and their performances do even better by the libretto’s characters. Michael’s Tosca is passionate, flamboyant yet unneurotic, and very physical - one more reason why the third act staging could have been rethought. And though Saks doesn’t bring much that’s new to Scarpia, the modern dress helps to give a fresh spin to his portrayal of the voraciously sexual sadist. Todorovic, as with many another Cavaradossi, manages an affecting third act aria, but otherwise his coarse, rough tone will win few admirers.
Ulf Schirmer gets a powerhouse performance from the Wiener Symphoniker (as opposed to the more famous Philharmonic). Sound and picture are first class. Be advised, however, that the singers all wear unobtrusive but visible mikes, almost in earpiece form, as necessitated by the Bregenz acoustic.
A few months earlier Michael had been in Milan at La Scala for a Luc Bondy staging of Strauss’s Salome, with Falk Struckmann as Jochanaan. Conductor Daniel Harding goes for a hard-edged, tense reading, ignoring Strauss’s arguably disingenuous proclamation that his score should be treated as if it were by Mendelssohn. The result may not be subtle, but it is often exciting, which helps, since Bondy’s monochrome set and purposeless updating don’t produce much of that quality.
A huge crack runs through the foundation of an outer area of the palace, and Jochanaan has been tucked away somewhere in its depths. Plantation shutters form one wall, and on the other side, a stadium-width passage leads to the interior of the palace. Occasionally TV director Emanuele Garofalo films the action from behind the plantation shutters, presumably for a “voyeur” effect, but merely interrupting whatever dramatic flow is in progress.
Susanne Raschig’s costumes neither seem to be biblical nor clearly of one particular epoch, though some look vaguely late 19th century, such as those of the soldiers. Why she clothed Peter Bronder as Herodes in silky cargo pants and tunic never became clear to your reviewer. Bronder, shorter by a good foot than his imperious Herodias (Iris Vermillion), camps it up like the comic relief in an operetta, diluting the dark undercurrents of the story (whose surface is dark enough, agreed). Despite the fine work of the supporting cast, especially Matthias Klink’s painfully deluded Narraboth, the first hour of this Salome drags itself along clumsily. Only with Michael’s dance do sparks of life appear, though mostly due to her efforts; the choreography offers nothing new. Michael manages to make Salome’s contempt for her step-father clear while still projecting the raw sexuality the twisted man desires to see. Vocally, she seems to have saved just the right amount of power in reserve for the long final scene, and it is better singing overall than she manages as Tosca. The wiry nature of her instrument proves deceptive as it fills out nicely for the climaxes. After making some fitful attempts at innovation and reinterpretation, Bondy strangely goes for the “crushed between the shields” for Salome’s exit, final evidence that no cohesive thought lies behind the production.
Neither of these DVDs is likely to earn general approval, but for your reviewer, from start to finish the Tosca at least held his interest, on which the Salome had a weaker grasp. They both serve, however, as strong evidence that Nadja Michael is one of the more interesting sopranos working today.