06 Apr 2009
Paris: As Good As It Gets
I cursed myself for not having turned on the television sooner.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
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.
I cursed myself for not having turned on the television sooner.
I found myself tuning in way late to the sort of intense, committed, brilliantly sung operatic performance that had me urgently asking “Who is this woman?” And “what is this stunning production?”
Well, the soprano was Eva-Maria Westbroek, and the work was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in what seemed to have perhaps been a definitive staging by the adventurous Netherlands National Opera. Damn, to have missed it, although it is out on DVD. What must it have been like “live,” I was thinking.
And lo, the equally adventurous Paris Opera brought this very same mounting to the Bastille recently, with…the luminous Eva-Maria Westbroek in one of the finest performances I have yet seen. Having experienced her wonderful account of the Frau Empress last year, plus the bit of the televised Lady, I was already in her camp of admirers. But nothing prepared me for the visceral impact of her total immersion into the complex layers of Shostakovitch’s troubled heroine Katerina.
Clad most of the evening only in a satiny silver slip, our diva un-self-consciously threw herself into every dramatic (and usually, sexual) situation like a hungry tigress playing with her food. It does not hurt that she is a striking blond, and that she has a dramatic voice of substance, steely beauty, unerring technique, and stamina. The ear-splitting cheers that rained down on her at curtain call seemed inadequate praise for the definitive musical and dramatic journey with which she gifted us. So loud, so fierce, and so prolonged was the rejoicing that Ms. Westbroek was visibly moved by her reception. It was one of those rare bonding moments that only happen in live theatre when true artistic greatness and the audience’s deep desire to experience it collide. Ya shouldda been there.
Our diva was not alone in her accomplishment, oh no. Holding his own as Sergei, Michael König offered a securely sung performance of brutal power. Vladimir Vaneev had orotund sound to spare as Boris, and the dispiriting husband Zinovy was well served by Ludovit Ludha. The excellent Carole Wilson dominated the stage in her featured moment as Aksinya, fearlessly stripped down by her assailants and put on full display in no more than skimpy panties. Her dramatic commitment almost upstaged the fact that she sang very well indeed, and doubled in the role of the Female Prisoner to good effect.
Valentin Jar’s Schoolmaster, Alexander Vassiliev’s Priest, and Nikita Storojev’s Chief of Police were all solidly voiced. Lani Poulson provided a memorable impersonation of the rival Sonietka, and special mention should be made of Alexander Kravets’ willfully malevolent characterization of the seedy Village Drunk, savoring his momentary importance at having exposed the murder.
The Paris Opera orchestra rose to the challenge of Shostakovitch’s often knotty score with a reading of incomparable fire and melting delicacy as required. Rarely has this fine band been heard to such advantage in a house noted for its variable acoustic. I don’t know what more maestro Hartmut Haenchen can do to get to be the Critic’s Darling or the Queen’s Delight, but based on this evening’s thrilling result (and every other Haenchen performance I have heard) he is way higher up in my conductors’ pantheon than other more highly publicized baton wavers. The all-important chorus, well-prepared by Winfried Maczewski. made solid contributions all evening. Superb.
Stage director Martin Kušej has devised a “concept” production that really cooks. Starting with a big glassed-in room that is Katerina’s symbolic prison, and ending with a nightmarish realistic prison that sinks into the bowels of the earth, set designer Martin Zehetgruber came up with one startlingly correct image after another. The pair of them departed from some specific script locations, true, but…they told the story with clarity, passion, and highly creative visual imagery. The look of that endless row of women’s shoes (Imelda Marcos would be proud) at opera’s start in that expansive, barren, glassed-in room, was so simple and so right. Heide Kastler’s appropriate costuming, and Reinhard Traub’s sensitive lighting were icing on the gateau. This was opera as good as it gets.
Scene from Idomeneo
The riches continued with a beautifully realized production of Idomeneo across town at the sumptuous, and more intimate Palais Garnier. This is a perfect sized house for such works, and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock got fine results from his pit musicians, leading with rhythmic drive, exceptional color, and communicating well the arc of the piece. I would be remiss were I not to single out the superlatively inventive recitative accompaniment provided by Alessandro Pianu at the “clavecin,” a cogent dramatic partner to all that transpired on stage.
I was less taken with the physical production so let’s get that out of the way. Set designer Erich Wonder and director Luc Bondy have collaborated to present a framework idea of modern day refugees on a raked white sandy beach, almost a lunar landscape, that spilled over the pit to the audience box stage left. The built-in knolls allowed for variety of visual groupings, and it was dressed variously with a large bench, a pop-out black wall, rocks positioned diagonally, and most important, the omnipresent sea as backdrop.
The cast seemed to spend an awful lot of time regarding that omnipresent sea, although it was effective and, especially with the tsunami-like storm effect, beautifully lit by Dominique Brugière. Of course, Mr. Bondy has a well-deserved reputation for forging clearly defined characters, interactive relationships, and well motivated stage movement. His Idomeneo was largely successful.
Having Ilia initially bound to the bench by a really long rope attached to her boot was a meaningful visual which underscored her entrapment in an untenable emotional situation. The introduction of a switchblade as a prop was less sure, brandished as it was by Idamante who cuts Ilia’s rope, then sticks it in a dune (huh?), later to be plucked out by Idomeneo and stuck in another dune. There was a lovely picture of Ilia beginning “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” writing a letter, then discarding it and starting again, and then having the breeze gently blow the discarded letters across the sands. But then the effect went astray as beach trash joined the windy parade.
There was a rather odd pacing to the evening, as applause was generally discouraged. Then when it was called for, it didn’t materialize. At one point the chorus tromps on in two lines, surely meant to coincide with applause, but there was none. And there were some odd curtain drops, like the one that closed behind a soloist on the apron, then re-opened to reveal exactly the same set, except our hero had changed from black to red costume.
Overall, Rudy Sabounghi’s eclectic costumes were just fine. I quite liked Elettra’s “period’ black costume with farthingale, and her covering her face with a black veil, a device that is passed on to Ilia who wears the black veil later when she is further distanced from her happiness. And there was a well-judged moment of Idomeneo’s covering Idamante with a white scarf when he made to kill him, only to withdraw it as he later crowned him. But I have to say that overall, by evening’s end, we were seeing re-hashed situations, as though the usually estimable Mr. Bondy had simply run out of fresh ideas.
The singers could hardly have been bettered, starting with the meticulous Camilla Tilling as an unusually starchy Ilia. Ms. Tilling’s pointed, pure, lyric soprano is capable of great subtlety and flexibility. Surely she displayed the best vocal coloring and most emotionally rich recitatives I have heard in this role.
Parisian favorite Joyce DiDonato as Idamante was every bit the centerpiece that the show requires, assured at every moment, throbbing phrases balanced by haunting sotto voce expressions of despair and grief that were a model of their kind. Ms. DiDonato is well established here and received the evening’s largest ovation. This town loves her. And why shouldn’t they? Great.
Personally, I adore Mireille Delunsch. She has an unerring technique that is always in service to the piece at hand, witness her past successes as Iphigenie and Louise which I so relished. On this occasion, her Elettra started off just a little rough around the edges. She almost immediately gained in assurance, and knocked out her first great aria with as much vibrant tone and musicality as ever, and she made truly wonderful contributions to the ensembles. If “Oreste, d’Ajace” was slightly less memorable than other versions I have encountered (Studer and Vaness among them) it was at least partly owing to the slack and uninventive staging. (See “Bondy ran out of ideas,” above.)
For as she sang this great showpiece, our director had the entire assembled cast simply turned upstage and stand stock still, as she sang to a rock. A Rock. As …altar? Therapist? At the end Mireille ran off stage to total silence. Imagine! This may be the first time in operatic history that a major soprano successfully sang a great aria, and got not one iota of applause.
Paul Groves showed off his awesome technique with as much variety of expression as you are likely to encounter from anyone in the title role. His tenor, always secure and reliable, has lost a little of the brilliant sheen of his younger days, and there is on occasion a slightly veiled top note when approach with a leaping phrase. But Mr. Ford is surely one of the best Idomeneo’s currently on world stages.
As Arbace, Johan Weigel deployed his lyric baritone with conviction; Ilya Bannik’s Voice of the Oracle of Neptune was decent, if not overly imposing; and the other four soloists were very finely sung indeed (Two Cretans: Yun-Jung Choi, Anna Wall; Two Trojans: Jason Bridges, Bartolomiej Misiuda). The hard-working chorus was once again well tutored by Winfried Maczewski.
So fine were the musical accomplishments, and so congenial were most of the technical elements, would it be impertinent to urge Bondy to do a re-Luc at staging the last fifth of the show?
Scene from Werther
Rounding out my visit, curiosity was high, and the air was rife with “ will he or won’t he?” — or rather — “can he or can’t he?” anticipation as the recently beleaguered Rolando Villazon was scheduled to take on a series of performances of Werther at the Bastille. Recent cancellations and rampant rumors of Mr. Villazon’s vocal demise aside, the truth is that Rolando did indeed sing, and sang very nicely, merci-beaucoups-messiuers-dames.
It is true that he is alternating shows with baritone Ludovic Tézier, on this evening the wonderful Albert but spelling Villazon on other nights as a baritone Werther. And while our tenor got all the high notes, he didn’t spend any more time on them than necessary, or perhaps prudent. There was a collective relaxation in the house after he made it successfully through his first big scene, and a momentary tightening of the buttocks as he subsequently sang rather hoarsely through a slight frog.
But Rolando Villazon deployed his lyric tenor sensibly throughout, and seemed to have reined in his tendency to over-sing phrases that most singers toss away, saving up energy for the money moments. Perhaps his voice is a quarter-size too light to be ideal as Werther but he is such a complete stage animal that he was impossible to resist. The rumors of his demise are happily premature. Vocally and dramatically he was highly affecting.
Susan Graham was in fine form, full-voiced, intelligent, and with more specificity in her dramatic posturings than is sometimes the case for this fine technician. Her French was spot-on. Over the years, Susan has developed an esteemed reputation in the City of Lights and she did not disappoint her public. Adriana Kucerova was a treasurable Sophie, who not only had all the youthful delicacy required, but also had some real bite that she incorporated into select phrases, suggesting a voice of considerable substance.
The production, shared with the Bavarian State Opera, wore well on me. Indeed, since having reviewed it in Munich last year with Garanca and Giordano, I think my appreciation of the staging has even deepened. For the record, Juergen Rose was the successful director, and also did the colorfully creative sets and costumes. Kent Nagano led an impassioned reading of the score.
But the evening was really going to rise or fall on Mr. Villazon’s contribution, and happily, this revival of Werther became a minor triumph.