19 Jul 2009
Amsterdam: Old Wine in New Bull Rings
A roster of exciting young artists supported by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit, ensured that Amsterdam’s Carmen worked its usual spell.
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.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
A roster of exciting young artists supported by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit, ensured that Amsterdam’s Carmen worked its usual spell.
A local favorite in Vienna, Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva is a rapidly rising star specializing in such roles as Eboli, Ulrica, and Preziosilla (preserved on DVD from Vienna got up in a Dale Evans cowgirl outfit for the “Rat-a-plan”). None of those Verdi ladies is as complex as Carmen, of course, nor do they carry nearly the baggage of audience expectations as does Bizet’s heroine.
Wiggle your hips too much and you are deemed too vulgar, vamp the tenor too much and you are too obvious, do neither and you are too unengaged. There are as many spectators’ opinions on this famous dame as there are fannies in the seats. Miss Krasteva wisely chose a middle road, with a blend of energized, leonine physicality; and a transparent, fatalistic acceptance of her probable demise.
Our mezzo has a fine vocal instrument, with an especially plummy lower range. She also let loose with any number of searing phrases in the upper reaches, and sang with sensitivity and dramatic involvement throughout. Her good sense of line and inexorable build of tension, arguably made the card scene her very finest moment. If she occasionally seemed a little more Italianate than French (Spanish really, but you know what I mean), and if she descended once or twice into ersatz hootchy-kootchy-girl tricks that were not quite derived from the dramatic moment, well, see my paragraph above about ‘damned-if you-do.’ Ms. Krasteva is already a leading proponent of this complicated heroine, and she will only get better as her impersonation matures. Watch for her.
Another wonderful discovery for me was Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee as Don Jose. The boyish Mr. Lee effortlessly looked the dispirited young recruit, which brought into high relief his emotional bond with his mother, and his bedazzlement by Carmen’s sexual allure. Seldom has this seduction seemed so inevitable, or played so well.
His singing was of a very high standard. I don’t know where all that sound comes from out of such a slight frame, but he has ample gold in his full-throated, driving top phrases. Aside from his sizable voice, he has a well-schooled technique, and a well-coached style. There were several astonishingly beautiful uses of voix-mixe, alas, however, not at the end of the Flower Aria (nonetheless, gorgeously sung). Yonghoon acts admirably with his voice and in all vocal moments, he is fully engaged. As he develops, he is sure to loosen up more in his “book scenes” and internalize the dialogue as effectively as he does the vocal line.Yonghoon Lee (Don José), Genia Kühmeier (Micaëla), Nadia Krasteva (Carmen)
I am not sure what eluded me about Genia Kühmeier’s perfectly well-sung Micaela, but there seemed to be a warmth missing from her stage presence, and well, the character is the one that should be nothing but sympathetic. Perhaps it was her rather pristine Mozartean tone and delivery? I have seen this role steal the show entirely, and if she didn’t quite manage that, in fairness, the audience gave her polished performance an enthusiastic ovation.
Kyle Ketelsen made every minute of his stage time count with his swaggering, cock-sure traversal of Escamillo. Mr. Ketelsen is one of those performers who has star presence to spare, and happily he has a resonant, highly-responsive bass instrument that can carry out his intentions very impressively indeed. An imaginative actor, he brings insight and variety to even such a well-known set piece as the “Toreador Song.” It is small wonder that his highly-charged persona turns our mezzo from her troubled soldier boy.
Robert Accurso (Dancairo), Marcel Reijans (Remendado), Renate Arends (Frasquita), and Nora Sourouzian (Mercédès) entertained us mightly in a breathless quintet. While all four contributed solid work throughout, Ms. Sourouzian was especially noteworthy. Nicolas Testé’s pleasing baritone made a fine impression as Zuniga.
Conductor Marc Albrecht led the familiar score with obvious affection, attention to detail, and propulsive fire. It was a true luxury to have an orchestra of the Concertgebouw’s caliber in the pit and they played with sensitivity and commitment.
One US company promoted their Carmen with the hype: “Number One on the Opera Hit Parade.” Yes, it is indeed familiar. Overly familiar? Who can say? But on the premise of familiarity breeding contempt, some producers seek to re-interpret it, or to fit it into a concept, rather than fitting the concept into it.
I have long admired stage director Robert Carsen, who is responsible for several of the very best opera productions I have ever seen. I also find him incapable of doing something that is uninteresting. And “interesting” this show is. As the audience enters the Muziektheater to take their seats, so does the “audience” on stage (aka the chorus members) who assemble randomly in semi-circular, tiered seating upstage, the whole of which embraces a sand-covered bull ring front and center. So far so good.
When the Prelude plays, first the male spectators come down to fill the ring and assume mock macho poses (think SNL’s “We’re gonna pump you up”). Then the female chorus joins them and they get all “sexy.” Oops. So far so bad. Suffice it to say that Act One does not ever substantially improve on this amateurish posturing.Nora Sourouzian (Mercédès), Renate Arends (Frasquita)
The soldiers sort of come off as soldiers, but the tobacco workers never do. There is nothing to suggest Seville’s architecture or visually underscore the plot points. There is really not much color at all save the grab-bag of Falk Bauer’s variable costumes. Worse, the performers are directed to tromp up, over, and about these chairs like singing mountain goats. If there was a dramatic motivation for marching down rows of chairs, upending them, sitting in them, or hanging around on the fringes of them, it was lost on me.
This rather dispiriting beginning propelled me to the wine bar at intermission, and perhaps the Merlot had exceptional powers because, well, damn if the rest of the evening didn’t work (and not just “after a fashion”). The stadium (Michael Levine, set design) was still there in the background but a single long row of fluorescent lights was flown in that created a suitably defined playing space for the inn. Indeed, the lighting (design by Carsen and Peter van Praet) that had been blunt and competent in One, began to play a more important role in creating atmosphere and isolating dramatic beats.
The back-lighting of Act Three’s mountain pass (that stadium again with seats scattered and irregular) was downright dramatically galvanizing. By the time we came back to the bull ring in Four, with its every seat now filled by hundreds of extras, it was like we were at whole different quality show. I worried that the final Jose-Carmen encounter might not play in the “ring” but it positively crackled, with the two of them alone in the light and the rest in blackness. And when the chorus suddenly rose in blazing down-light to sing their first interjection, the moment was chills-inducing.
Perhaps all of this would not have worked so well had it not been set up by the foolishness and vagaries of Act One. Perhaps. But to all directors of “familiar” works I say: there is always someone in the audience to whom the work is new. Always. Without having read the synopsis, could a neophyte have begun to understand the first act of this Carmen?