17 May 2009
Turandot — Washington National Opera
Bringing Andrei Şerban’s Turandot to the Washington National Opera as a season finale really means finishing the year with a bang.
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.
Bringing Andrei Şerban’s Turandot to the Washington National Opera as a season finale really means finishing the year with a bang.
Created by the Royal Opera House in 1984, with the current WNO director Placido Domingo as Calaf and Gwyneth Jones in the title role, the production has since been revived there fifteen times, staged over fifty times by opera houses around the world, and celebrates its 25th season this year. With all due respect to the original cast, this unprecedented success has nothing to do with them, but rather with the interpretive genius of the director Andrei Şerban, and the fantastic inventiveness of the set and costume designer Sally Jacobs, whose original ideas were presented last night at the WNO stage.
Şerban’s Turandot is staged: literally staged, as the opera is played out in a traditional Chinese theater, with the chorus occupying the galleries as it comments and participates in the action. The theater is decorated by gigantic masks, representing the heads of Turandot’s slain suitors. The characters are also masked (most also wear a white-face make-up, creating a mask-over-mask effect), their gestures deliberate and stylized. The colors are vibrant, with the crimson reds dominating. The emperor’s golden throne, lowered from the ceiling to hover above the crowd in Acts 2 and 3, is a striking effect, and the sword-wielding female dancers in white masks are so chilling, they are downright creepy.
Sabina Cvilak (fore) as Liu, Maria Guleghina (back) as Turandot
The opening night was the usual spectacle of tuxes and gowns. My husband really liked the live Terracotta Warrior in the lobby; I thought it was, perhaps, a tad over the top. There were inevitable first-night kinks; and no, I am not talking about an unidentified heavy object crashing backstage half-way through Turandot’s opening aria, which all those present have been determined to forget. The kinks concerned the issues of balance and timing, as the conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson tried to keep various sections of the large orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a perfect synchronicity required by Puccini’s famously complex score. The first act in particular occasionally felt like a gigantic house of cards, shaking slightly, just on the verge of collapse. Thankfully, it never quite did, and as the performance progressed, the tremors mostly subsided, save for only an occasional aftershock.
Argentine tenor Dario Volonté as Calaf hit every note; he demonstrated the fiery metallic timbre, and the alternatively aggressive and brooding personality essential for his character. Yet, his voice had no lyricism, no warmth, and most importantly, no sustaining power — at least not last night — that would have allowed the listener time to appreciate all those head-spinning highs before they sputtered and died like wet Chinese fireworks. His Act 3 pièce de resistance, “Nessun dorma”, was so rushed that the orchestra had trouble keeping up. There was no cantilena, no luxurious lingering on the final “Vincero!”, and consequently, Turandot’s most glorious moment and one of Puccini’s best-known tunes, probably for the first time in its history, evaporated without even a smattering of applause.Scene from Act I
The first applause of the night belonged to Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak as Liù, and deservedly so. Her tiny, brittle figure, dwarfed by the scenery and the other characters, was an embodiment of Puccini’s fragile, tragic heroine, the most human character in Turandot (in a stroke of directorial inventiveness, Liù is never masked). And the vocal interpretation was spot-on: pure, crystalline highs; easy, unforced delivery; power to soar above the orchestra at will, but exercised sparingly, in preference to the heart-breaking pianissimo that somehow, miraculously, was perfectly audible (kudos here also to Ms Wilson for her sensitive conducting).
There could have been no greater contrast between Ms Cvilak’s Liù and Princess Turandot as presented by celebrated Russian dramatic soprano Maria Guleghina. Here, everything was the opposite: tall, imposing figure; stylized kabuki gestures; earth-shattering power of the voice that waited until the opera’s finale to drop below fortissimo and was meanwhile so intimidating, one barely noticed that it was almost impossible to discern the words that came out of Ms Guleghina’s mouth. Like the “citizens of Peking,” we simply submitted to the iron will of the Daughter of Heaven, and waited for precise instructions from her Mandarin.Norman Shankle, Nathan Herfindal, Yingxi Zhang as Ping, Pang and Pong
The Mandarin, Ukrainian Okeskandr Pushniak, was acceptable if not at all intimidating in his tiny part, and was much more interesting to look at than to hear, clad as he was in one of Sally Jacobs’ fabulously colorful creations. Much better — a highlight of the evening, in fact — were Ping, Pang, and Pong (Nathan Herfindahl, Norman Shankle, and Yingxi Zhang, respectively), who garnered accolades for their nice comic timing, and delivering strong vocal performances while endlessly moving, dancing, and literally doing cartwheels around the stage. Indeed, the choreography created by Kate Flatt for their parts and throughout Turandot proved to be one of the strongest elements of the production. Particularly interesting was the fluid continuity of stylized gestures and movements that all performers shared. Blurring the boundaries between the soloists, the chorus, and the dancers, the technique delivered a stunningly unified visual effect.
This unity was clearly the stage director’s goal, realized with the support of Jacobs’ designs, Flatt’s choreography, and F. Mitchell Dana’s lighting. For this alone, it is worth seeing Andrei Şerban’s magnificent interpretation of the Puccini classic — now, at 25, a classic in its own right.