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.
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.
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?