12 Jun 2009
Tosca in San Francisco
Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
Ossia Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why waste a good tune.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Both by default and by merit Il barbiere di Siviglia is the hit of the thirty-fifth Rossini Opera Festival. But did anyone really want, and did the world really need yet another production of this old warhorse?
Armida (1817) is the third of Rossini’s nine operas for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, all serious. The first was Elisabetta, regina di Inghilterra (1815), the second was Otello (1816), the last was Zelmira (1822).
Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.
Over the years some of the performances have even been memorable — fiery Carmens and intense Toscas, mesmerizing conducting, productions that have occasionally been gripping. And there have been those performances that are imminently forgettable.
We may all have had our favorite performance, the one to which we compare all others. Or perhaps none of the productions we have seen have come near our idea of what the perfect Carmen or the perfect Tosca should be. This latest San Francisco Opera rendition of Tosca will be many things to many people, though it is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite, more likely for most of us it is one to be forgotten. The sooner the better.
Carlo Ventre (Cavaradossi) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
Back in 1997 SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri had the kitsch idea of reviving the 1923 San Francisco Opera production (the first SFO season) to reopen the repaired War Memorial Opera House. Kurt Herbert Adler had also once dragged it out for some occasion, maybe it was to commemorate the company’s fiftieth anniversary. Just now David Gockley must have calculated the savings to be had by hanging these old canvases instead of paying for a modern production. And perhaps he believes that these old rags are like an old sweatshirt, just too comfortable and lovable to throw out.
Here in San Francisco we were once promised the Tosca of Maria Callas, but instead we had the brilliant Marie Collier. We had the Tosca of Magda Olivero at age 71 (she is now 99), a holdover from the golden age of verismo to show us how it was supposed to have been done. And we have had a host of lesser and greater Toscas over the years. The latest one is Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose full, rich and even voice makes a plush, comfortable Tosca quite at odds with the quixotic temperament of the high strung murderess who crosses herself and then hurls herself into the void. Need one be reminded that Puccini’s Tosca is a character defined role.
Lado Ataneli (Scarpia) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca)
Cavaradossi was Italian tenor Carlo Ventre who brought bona fide Italianate vocalism, and bona fide stock Italianate acting gestures. Mr. Ventre comes from the Carreras mold, heaving his voice from his throat and chest, igniting an exciting squillo when needed. Preoccupied with tenorial sound he found none of the sweetness Puccini imbued into the arias of his sentimental painter, leaving this tenor under appreciated by a crowd ready to cheer. He was however a strength of the production.
Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli seemed a more versatile artist than his colleagues as he was able to combine singing with character. The sheer power of Puccini’s Scarpia though must tower over the artistic personalities of his victims. He must embody both spiritual and temporal power, and the brute force of pure libido. Mr. Atanel’s more sophisticated approach to his role was instead overwhelmed by the more operatic, less dimensional performances of his colleagues.
Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia)
Both conductor Marco Armilliato and stage director Jose Maria Condemi confused verismo with realism, meticulously illustrating every twist and turn of the text. Verismo is direct, immediate emotion, not elaboration of detail. It is thus that verismo lends itself to melodrama — a sudden shocking action that unleashes a huge emotion. Rather than build to the melodramatic moments that cap each of Puccini’s three acts, this production lost itself in tedious detail, exacerbated by a Tosca and Cavaradossi physically incapable of inhabiting their characters. Mo. Armilliato sometimes took his musical illustration to extremes, forcing his singers to establish and hold the beat of the text while he dragged it emotively. It was here that tedium became torture.
Of the smaller roles, the Spoletta of Joel Sorensen was effective, the scenes involving Scarpia’s henchmen were in fact skillfully drawn by stage director Condemi. The Sacristan of Dale Travis and his scenes were terminally cute, the San Francisco Boys Chorus proving itself once again one of our city’s great treasures.
It is time for a new Tosca in San Francisco, a theatrical one.