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I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
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.
03 Jul 2009
Porgy and Bess in San Francisco
For Americans of older generations Porgy and Bess is surely a primal experience, formed by the 1959 Otto Preminger film with Sammy Davis Jr. as Sportin’ Life, the audio recording derived from the 1952 London production with Leontyne Price as Bess, and a first encounter with Porgy and Bess as an opera in the artistically satisfying, and well traveled 1976 Houston production (was it twenty-five performances in the War Memorial Opera House?).
Maybe even some Americans were lucky enough to see the 1986 Glyndebourne production or its 1993 televised version, fabled as the best Porgy ever. Thus, with some help from its several Broadway-type attempts, the Gershwin Porgy has become a sing-along — we know every word and every note.
The San Francisco performances are a reprise of the 2005 Washington Opera production directed by Francesca Zambello, a production that has recently stopped off at the operas of Los Angeles and Chicago as well. Ms. Zambello is a noted director of large-scale opera, the Ring currently underway at the San Francisco and Washington operas, and War and Peace at the Seattle and Metropolitan operas, Billy Budd at Covent Garden as examples.
Mounting a Porgy is no small task, it has a huge cast, nine principal singers, sixteen named and solo roles that derive from an ensemble in San Francisco of forty-six [!] Black singers, not to mention three White speaking roles. Three (or more) fight scenes must be staged, plus three (or more) production numbers must be choreographed. It is scored for a full symphony orchestra that wails with the sonic abandon of big band. Can Porgy be crushed under its own weight?
The answer is an emphatic yes! Putting Porgy in the charge of a big time opera director, albeit a theatrically and operatically savvy one, magnified its weight, as did the absolute top operatic quality of its protagonists and ensemble singers (do not say chorus) placed in the hands of John DeMain, the world’s most experienced Porgy conductor. And all this thrust onto a major American opera stage where it is in de facto competition with the sophisticated operas of Benjamin Britten (maybe its closest foreign relative), not to mention the verismo of Puccini.
The end result of all this operatic know how simply lays bare the weaknesses of this Gershwin masterpiece. It does not know if it is an opera of sorts or a Broadway musical, and there is simply too much of it. Its original four hours were mercifully reduced to three hours fifteen minutes in this production, however its original two intermissions were reduced to one, making each of the two parts nearly an hour and a half. One might have preferred the longer version, but in three parts, i.e. a second pit stop. It was a long haul.
Chauncey Packer (Sportin’ Life) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
The decision to unify its disparate stories and elements within the confines of a single unit set was a laudable, theatrically valid solution to objectify Gershwin’s well crafted dramatic structure, but it also brought visual boredom. The intimacy needed to make small scale, essentially jazz based vocals real was lost in the vast spaces of the omnipresent two level Catfish Row with a monumental warehouse door stage left (Jake’s fishing boat was pushed in and out from here as was the interior of Porgy’s hovel). Several extraordinary moments though stand out in this generally solid staging, the Kittiwah Island departure as one example, the hurricane, and particularly the moment when Bess, high on heroin is seduced by Sportin’ Life.
Strangely moving was the sense that Gershwin’s Blacks, the 1930’s Blacks, have become not only mainstream American culture but are fully realized performers of international musical arts, led in opera by some of our greatest Porgy interpreters, like Willard White (the Glyndebourne Porgy) and a host of others. The cast for the San Francisco production gave convincing if not definitive performances, led by the Porgy of baritone Eric Owens who bestowed elegant phrasing onto Gershwin’s lines. Laquita Mitchell gave a moving and real performance, vocally and physically, as Bess. Once past mourning Sammy Davis, Jr., Chauncey Packer delivered the goods as Sportin’ Life. We wanted more physical and sexual charisma from the Crown played by Lester Lynch, and in general more distinct personalities from the other principal singers as well.
The underpinnings of Porgy are humble. It is an intimate, uncomplicated story of love and lust in an ambience of poverty well known to operatic verismo, though in Porgy there are no issues, no complaint of injustice, no philosophic formulation of fate, and finally only desperate hope. It can be and is everyone’s story at distinct moments in human history. The challenge is to create an atmosphere for this humility in what is, pure and simple, an extravagant art form, and it was here that this production failed.
The copyright for this American operatic masterpiece (who cares if it has short comings, and is not really stage worthy, at least in this version) expires in 2012. The iron fist exercised by the Gershwin family over its productions will relax, the stiff royalty fees will no longer inhibit production, the insistence that its actors be black and that its locales be specific will no longer hold. Producers will be able to experiment with making this document of main-stream American culture (hardly Black-American culture) into viable theater.
Click here for a photo gallery of this production.