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.
Written at a time when both his theatrical business and physical health were in a bad way, Handel’s Faramondo was premiered at the King’s Theatre in January 1738, fared badly and sank rapidly into obscurity where it languished until the late-twentieth century.
Fabio Luisi conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Brahms A German Requiem op 45 and Schubert, Symphony no 8 in B minor D759 ("Unfinished").at the Barbican Hall, London.
The atmosphere was a bit electric on February 25 for the opening night of Leoš Janàček’s 1921 domestic tragedy, and not entirely in a good way.
Applications are now open for the Bampton Classical Opera Young Singers’ Competition 2017. This biennial competition was first launched in 2013 to celebrate the company’s 20th birthday, and is aimed at identifying the finest emerging young opera singers currently working in the UK.
Each March France's splendid Opéra de Lyon mounts a cycle of operas that speak to a chosen theme. Just now the theme is Mémoires -- mythic productions of famed, now dead, late 20th century stage directors. These directors are Klaus Michael Grüber (1941-2008), Ruth Berghaus (1927-1996), and Heiner Müller (1929-1995).
Handel’s Partenope (1730), written for his first season at the King’s Theatre, is a paradox: an anti-heroic opera seria. It recounts a fictional historic episode with a healthy dose of buffa humour as heroism is held up to ridicule. Musicologist Edward Dent suggested that there was something Shakespearean about Partenope - and with its complex (nonsensical?) inter-relationships, cross-dressing disguises and concluding double-wedding it certainly has a touch of Twelfth Night about it. But, while the ‘plot’ may seem inconsequential or superficial, Handel’s music, as ever, probes the profundities of human nature.
The latest instalment of Wigmore Hall’s ambitious two-year project, ‘Schubert: The Complete Songs’, was presented by German tenor Christoph Prégardien and pianist Julius Drake.
On March 10, 2017, San Diego Opera presented an unusual version of Georges Bizet’s Carmen called La Tragédie de Carmen (The Tragedy of Carmen).
For his farewell production as director of opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten has chosen Wagner’s only ‘comedy’, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: an opera about the very medium in which it is written.
The dramatic strength that Stage Director Michael Scarola drew from his Pagliacci cast was absolutely amazing. He gave us a sizzling rendition of the libretto, pointing out every bit of foreshadowing built into the plot.
A skewering of the preening pretentiousness of the Pre-Raphaelites and Aesthetes of the late-nineteenth century, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience outlives the fashion that fashioned it, and makes mincemeat of mincing dandies and divas, of whatever period, who value style over substance, art over life.
Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught demonstrated a relaxed, easy manner and obvious enjoyment of both the music itself and its communication to the audience during this varied Rosenblatt Series concert at the Wigmore Hall. Erraught and her musical partners for the evening - clarinettist Ulrich Pluta and pianist James Baillieu - were equally adept at capturing both the fresh lyricism of the exchanges between voice and clarinet in the concert arias of the first half of the programme and clinching precise dramatic moods and moments in the operatic arias that followed the interval.
This Sunday the Metropolitan Opera will feature as part of the BBC Radio 3 documentary, Opera Across the Waves, in which critic and academic Flora Willson explores how opera is engaging new audiences. The 45-minute programme explores the roots of global opera broadcasting and how in particular, New York’s Metropolitan Opera became one of the most iconic and powerful producers of opera.
On February 25, 2017, in Tucson and on the following March 3 in Phoenix, Arizona Opera presented its first world premiere, Craig Bohmler and Steven Mark Kohn’s Riders of the Purple Sage.
During the past few seasons, English Touring Opera has confirmed its triple-value: it takes opera to the parts of the UK that other companies frequently fail to reach; its inventive, often theme-based, programming and willingness to take risks shine a light on unfamiliar repertory which invariably offers unanticipated pleasures; the company provides a platform for young British singers who are easing their way into the ‘industry’, assuming a role that latterly ENO might have been expected to fulfil.
The first production of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera, based upon Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, is clearly a major event in English National Opera’s somewhat trimmed-down season. Wigglesworth, who serves also as conductor and librettist, professes to have been obsessed with the play for more than twenty years, and one can see why The Winter’s Tale, with its theatrical ‘set-pieces’ - the oracle scene, the tempest, the miracle of a moving statue - and its grandiose emotions, dominated as the play is by Leontes’ obsessively articulated, over-intellectualized jealousy, would invite operatic adaptation.
Today, Wexford Festival Opera announced the programme and principal casting details for the forthcoming 2017 festival. Now in its 66th year, this internationally renowned festival will run over an extended 18-day period, from Thursday, 19 October to Sunday, 5 November.
A song cycle within a song symphony - Matthias Goerne's intriuging approach to Mahler song, with Marcus Hinterhäuser, at the Wigmore Hall, London. Mahler's entire output can be described as one vast symphony, spanning an arc that stretches from his earliest songs to the sketches for what would have been his tenth symphony. Song was integral to Mahler's compositional process, germinating ideas that could be used even in symphonies which don't employ conventional singing.
Gustav Mahler and fin-de-siècle Vienna will be the focus of the Oxford Lieder Festival (13-28 October 2017), exploring his influences, contemporaries and legacy. Mahler was a dominant musical personality: composer and preeminent conductor, steeped in tradition but a champion of the new. During this Festival, his complete songs with piano will be heard, inviting a fresh look at this ’symphonic’ composer and the enduring place of song in the musical landscape.
On February 21, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s last composition, Falstaff, at the Civic Theater. Although this was the second performance in the run and the 21st was a Tuesday, there were no empty seats to be seen. General Director David Bennett assembled a stellar international cast that included baritone Roberto de Candia in the title role and mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti singing her first Mistress Quickly.
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?