12 May 2009
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk — Opera Australia
For two years following its premiere Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk was one of the most often performed contemporary operas.
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.
For two years following its premiere Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsesnk was one of the most often performed contemporary operas.
With simultaneous premieres in Leningrad and Moscow followed, at one point, by simultaneous productions in three Moscow theatres alone foreign productions followed. After the American premiere the sensational opera became topical enough to be mentioned in the Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes and in London, where it was performed in concert in 1936 followed by BBC broadcast, the young Benjamin Britten heard it and was impressed by its powerful interludes (and also by one of the singers, Peter Pears, who had a minor role). The came Stalin’s visit to a performance in Moscow and the subsequent attacks in Pravda on the opera, the ballet The Limpid Stream and the composer himself. The opera was withdrawn immediately. There was difficulty obtaining the music for that London concert in 1936 and after then it disappeared from every stage until 1959 when the Dusseldorf Opera managed to wrangle the orchestral music from the Soviet authorities. By then Shostakovich was testing the waters: Stalin had died and Kruschev had made public the extent of Stalin’s terror: by issuing a revised version of the opera. Only slowly, and not until after Shostakovich’s death, did the original version regain its fame.
For Opera Australia’s production, director Francesca Zambello updates the story to the Soviet era where overbearing male sexuality is just another form of oppression. The bored and sexually unfulfilled Katerina (Susan Bullock) is married to an impotent weakling Zinovy (David Corcoran) while all around her there is an environment of rampaging male sexuality. Even her lecherous father-in-law Boris (Daniel Sumegi) constantly prowls around her bedroom fantasising about doing Zinovy’s matrimonial duty for him.
After seventy years Shostakovich’s music is still exuberant and irreverent but with astonishing power in places, like those cathartic interludes that so impressed Britten. The first two acts, leading up Katerina and her lover Sergei (Richard Berkeley-Steele) murdering her husband seethe with threatening or raucous music that explode in the scenes of sex or violence that are still very confronting. In the opening scene trombones blurt slyly as Boris insinuates that she is looking for a lover and again in a later scene when he predicts her infidelity. Finally, alone in her room with Sergei the notorious on-stage sex scene, those trombones now grunt wildly along with every thrust in music that reaches a literal climax and aftermath that has to be heard to be believed! Zambello has their lovemaking as frenzied and confronting as the frenzied music and in the other notorious scene where the cook Aksinya (Jacqueline Dark) is attacked by the workmen is turned into a near mass rape, the near naked workmen groping her and themselves in a scene that begins during the linking interlude where the sleazy music accompanies Sergei signalling the workmen to gather in the wash house and making it obvious the attack is well planned and that Sergei is the ringleader. The coarseness of the male sexuality as played here sets Katerina’s ecstatic sexual awakening in sharp relief. Even though it is very confrontingly depicted it looks positively virtuous in comparison with the Boris and his worker’s lechery.Susan Bullock as Katerina Ismailova [Photo by Jeff Busby]
Bullock is astounding in this most difficult role. A notable Elektra, her voice rides the huge orchestra in the dramatic scenes with a cut and edge that remains clean and steady at all times. Her recent success in the Chandos recording of Salome, where she scales down her tone to an insinuating whisper is no studio trick either. In the opening scene and later, in the plaintive about animals mating happily but not her, she can spin her voice into a mournful whisper. In the same way she projects the aria in the last act about the black lake out into the auditorium while draining her voice of colour to suggest Katerina numb from both cold and Sergei’s rejection. She acts the highly charged scenes with the same conviction she invests in every other scene right down to weary resignation with which she drowns herself and Sergei’s new mistress. I suspect now that the lulling, romantic and otherwise polite repertoire she chose for her recital was to show her vocal nice side.
Berkeley-Steele copes magnificently the short, jabbing vocal lines Shostakovich gives Sergei, as though he were — appropriately: a cock crowing. Sumegi, looking like Stalin and groping himself as often as his vodka bottle is an unashamedly disgusting Boris. All thee have excellent diction and project the text well.
Sung in English the translation is by the opera producer David Pountney for his English National Opera production which is coy in places other translations are not and forthright in places others are tamer. Katerina’s aria about animals mating, for instance, uses more sexualised language than the translations accompanying either of the two commercial CD recordings of the opera.
The smaller but necessary roles have been cast from strength. Shostakovich drives his buffo tenors hard it seems; the tenor singing the Police Captain in his earlier opera The Nose is required to sing in alt and reach an E above top C. As the shabby peasant Kanen Breen is taxed by the orchestral tsunami Shostakovich sets against the scene in which he discovers Zinovy’s body. As a result he is barely audible against the wild mazurka played forte by the full orchestra and resorts to a frenzied semaphore for the scene.
Deputising for the late Richard Hickox, who was to conduct the Sydney and Melbourne seasons this year, Richard Armstrong had apparently not conducted the work before. With the same authority he brings to Richard Strauss, he scored point after point of the music’s Janus nature, colouring the lyrical passages for Katerina, the quirky but sinister little violin passage as Boris eats the fatal mushrooms and, most importantly, exploding the interludes with shattering force. The orchestra responded superbly to the full barrage of the young and uncensored Shostakovich.
Zambello’s update appears to be roughly the same time that the opera was written. Like Patrice Chereau, who set a trend (most famously in his 1976 Ring cycle at Bayreuth) for setting an opera in the time it was written rather the time it is set, this simple action often contextualises a work in rewarding ways, even without imposing many social or political references from the time. As the Marxist overtones pervaded Chereau’s interpretation of Wagner, the ruthlessness of the purges and oppressions that were beginning in the Soviet Union underpin the story, giving some idea of what was really disturbing to Stalin and his committee. The sudden sighting of a portable television, however, spoiled the otherwise compelling concept. The poverty of regional Russia under Soviet collectivisation was superbly conveyed and gives the Ismailova’s a level of desperation not in Leskov’s original story of comfortable bourgeoisie. Here the sordid environment is both physical and metaphorical.