17 Aug 2009
Mozart and Gluck — Mixed Results at Santa Fe
It is never easy to revive a success. Audiences will remember the first run of a show and consciously or not, compare a revival with earlier favorable impressions.
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.
It is never easy to revive a success. Audiences will remember the first run of a show and consciously or not, compare a revival with earlier favorable impressions.
So it was with Santa Fe’s current Don Giovanni, which premiered in 2004 under the musical direction of Alan Gilbert with a stylish mise-en-scène and direction by the team of Zinn/Rader-Shieber, and a thoroughly first-rate cast.
This summer Don Giovanni is sharply different, and the problem starts with musical direction of Lawrence Renes, a young conductor from the Netherlands, who does not seem ready to conduct Mozart’s masterpiece. Success was also attenuated by a young lightweight cast, which had little chemistry as an ensemble, and few adequate voices. I am not one to linger over negatives, but some points need to be made. Renes was all motion and nervous energy on the podium, giving cues where none were needed, ignoring shape and elegance, elements that virtually define Don Giovanni. He spent much time shushing the orchestra, probably in favor of a small-voiced cast; too much energy was lost in the process. His tempo for the Champagne Aria was excellent, likewise the Act II Serenade; but like much of the rest of the score, he treated them as isolated events. Missing were both over-all sweep and sufficiently defined details of inner voices of the orchestra that create the aural excitement of this seminal Mozart. Bottom line: de-energized, boring music making, in spite of much fuss and feathers.
Susanna Phillips (Donna Elvira) & Matthew Rose (Leporello)
This translated over the footlights to the stage, where little style and at times almost amateurish performances were evident. Lucas Meachem cast as a swaggering Don, did not swagger — histrionically or vocally. He has a pleasant, if mild musical comedy baritone that most of the time could not be heard; he offered minimal physical style, and little ‘edge’ for a man who likes to conquer women “just for the sake of the list,” (in Santa Fe’s translation): one was much puzzled that he was cast by Santa Fe. The same was true of the vocally lightweight, histrionically shallow Leporello of Matthew Rose, a young singer not yet suited to the big leagues, at least not on this occasion.
Kate Lindsey (Zerlina) and Corey McKern (Masetto)
The pretty Zerlina of Kate Lindsey was too slight of voice and something of a vamp, in a role that usually is more demure. In “Vedrai carino” she began her aria of consolation far from the battered Masetto, and slithered slowly, erotically across the wide stage, exposing and caressing her legs in what amounted to a vulgar re-seduction of her battered groom. The aria was all about her, not about comfort for him. This was likely not Lindsey’s doing — the discredit belonging to director Chas. Rader-Shieber, who seemed often inattentive to details in his revival production. It should be noted the Masetto of Corey McKern was well-enough sung and played, one of the stronger performances among lead singers.
Charles Workman was a competent Ottavio — his voice even-toned and pleasant, but as a player he was Clark Kent without benefit of telephone booth. His movements were stiff and clichéd, his two arias no more than well-routined.
Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna) and Charles Workman (Don Ottavio)
The news gets better with Donna Elvira and Donna Anna. Susanna Phillips is a proven good thing as a Mozart singer and she again made her marks with the opera’s most interesting character, the oft-betrayed Elvira. Phillips’ generous warm soprano easily dispatched the coloratura demands of the role, while her lyric singing was full-bodied and projected well. Perhaps not the greatest actor, she nonetheless was in the spirit of her role and commanded her music and all her scenes; most important, she could be heard! Elza van den Heever, the South African-born, San Francisco-trained ‘baby dramatic soprano’ (as she is called), turned in an intense, driven and rather unsympathetic Donna Anna — often powerful, with a hard-edged bright soprano that mined every note Mozart gave her. But the voice is dynamically uneven, swinging from loud to soft, with awkward transitions. Her tonal quality can be steely, and is rarely warm or especially attractive, yet with further refinement she could be a useful singer in the right roles, as she seems to possess good basic talent. At present van den Heever is house soprano in a major German company, an experience that may be beneficial. She is worth keeping an eye on.
Over-all the red-tinted production, which offers engaging play among many hues and tones of crimson — bright, outraged fuchsia for Elvira, black figurations with somber maroon for Anna — even red tinted trees, walls and windows, still surprises and offers favorable flow and good logistics. With improved musical direction, and a more mature cast, Santa Fe’s Don might recapture former glories.
Christophe Willibald Gluck’s 1776 French-language version of Alceste, the story of a self-sacrificing Thessalonian queen who would give her life for her husband’s, rises or falls on two factors: Dancing and strong dramatic soprano singing of the title role. Santa Fe had both.Paul Groves (Admète) & Christine Brewer (Alceste)
As the queen, Christine Brewer sang with powerful, often glowing tone, commanding a strong top register with unique richness in the mid and lower ranges — qualities that make an ideal voice for a part that is both feminine and heroic. As might be imagined, Alceste is not easy to portray on stage, and Gluck was not, frankly, much of a dramatist, though among the greatest of musicians and composers. Act I is largely lament for the dying king; Act II is lamentation for the dying queen, and Act III is about both, then with a happy quick ending due to the beneficent intervention of legendary strongman Hercules and the god Apollo. The story is a compound of ancient Greek myth and legends, later made into a tragedy by Euripides, then further compounded into a drama for 18th-Century audiences by Gluck’s librettist Calzabigi. It is the work of many hands and seems it. Fortunately the glorious music unifies all into a musical whole, if not dramatic success — it is simply too repetitious.
Tom Corbeil (The Infernal God)
Since Alceste is a stand-about opera, what do you do but dance! Santa Fe brought in a wizardly choreographer and solo dancer from Spain, one Ana Yepes, a tiny woman who twirls and whirls onto the stage with a troupe of seven dancers, and also some choreographed chorus members and even a dancing tenor or two, and stirs up a delightful mélange of movement, motion and gesture, representing — well, whatever you want: the divinities of Hell, the local folk observing the antics of royalty and gods, the moods of the characters and their music, even at one point a little swaying audience of dancing figures for the second verse of Alceste’s mighty defiance aria, “Divinités du Styx,” sung with thrilling power and musical accent by Mme. Brewer. Many a singer would not have allowed that distraction during her principal aria.
What did it all look like? It is not easy to say — the Queen and her King Admète (handsome, musically stylish tenor Paul Groves), were in either stately robes or classic Greek attire; the chorus in non-descript low colored robes, save for the ones that danced who had a touch of color, and the dancers themselves in what I would call ‘comic-book gothic,’ close fitting garb, though another observer offered terms such as ‘Buck Rogers’ or ‘outer-space.’ Apollo was in gold, a bully Hercule showed a lot of skin, and stately Mme. Brewer, fortunately, kept her dignity while grieving mightily for her ailing husband in Act I, and herself in Act II. Happily in the final scene she showed us a beautiful radiant smile.
Matthew Morris (Apollo) & Ana Yepes (Dancer)
The imaginative stage director Francisco Negrin had the audience looking into what could have been the open end of a stage-sized cornucopia, or perhaps a horn of plenty, which curved into to a vanishing point and was sometimes blue, sometimes white — impressionistic and useful as generalized background, with a large ovoid shape, cracked open in the middle and glowing red therefrom, that appeared now and then. An oracular site? The gate to Hell? Google is no help! What really counted was the emotional effect of the music and singing, and here the proponents were strong and convincing. One will not soon forget the beauty and expressivity of the dramatic soprano’s tones in her various arias; nor of the well-modulated chorus; or the orchestra’s elegant playing, so balanced and refined under conductor Kenneth Montgomery, Santa Fe’s long-time and admirable resident classicist. A beautiful, if basically boring opera, well achieved.
J. A. Van Sant © 2009