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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
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.