12 Jun 2009
Tosca in San Francisco
Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
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.