12 Jun 2009
Tosca in San Francisco
Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.
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.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
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.