01 Aug 2009
‘Opera Noir’ Entertains at Santa Fe
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
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 new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Can a famously successful movie be made into an effective opera? A quick answer is: yes!
Santa Fe Opera has made it happen with William Wyler’s 1940 motion picture, The Letter based on Somerset Maugham’s 1920s short story and play, and now an opera. It may well be the sleeper of the Santa Fe season, unusual for a newly commissioned opera.
Within a dark toned sparsely furnished residential stage set, four collapsing palm trees grimly lowering in the background of a hot and smelly Malay rubber plantation house, a bored housewife is carrying on a torrid affair with a local dandy, her often absent and somewhat dull husband unaware. In the Wyler movie, the main feature of which is Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie the erring wife, moments after the show opens we hear gunfire as her lover Geoff Hammond staggers across the verandah, Leslie emptying her six-shooter into him in a jealous rage. Bette Davis did it with fervor, and believe me, Santa Fe’s soprano Patricia Racette does the deed with equal vehemence. We were off to a strong start, and the intensity rarely lets up over the 100-minute opera.
Anthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie) and James Maddalena (Howard Joyce)
The Santa Fe team, led by composer Paul Moravec with librettist Terry Teachout, musical director Patrick Summers and stage director Jonathan Kent, took a chance patterning their new opera so closely on the ‘noir’ qualities of old movies, but that was exactly the tone they wanted to establish for this sordid little story, and they got it right. Even more successful is the musical score by Paul Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University. Worry not, this is no academician’s tepid exercise — it’s a rip-snorting adventure in high-class movie music with the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Eric Korngold and Max Steiner hovering in the background. Moravec’s music is fluent and beautifully orchestrated. The tonal score is through-composed, no pauses for arias or set pieces aside from brief moments, with a good sense of storytelling and excitement resulting.
It turns out Moravec, in his first opera, is a wise and able theatre composer who knows to keep his orchestra subdued for key passages of exposition and musical dialogue, but can unleash his violins and woodwinds in romantic mood music to evoke the sweeping “love me forever passages” of Leslie and Geoff’s affair. Don’t laugh, but when it comes to writing music and vocal lines that can narrate and sustain mood, Moravec impressed me as having it all over the cognoscenti’s current darlings, Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov, also lately heard in new works at Santa Fe. Sometimes it feels good just to get down to storytelling without trying to make musical history.James Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Mika Shigematsu (A Chinese Woman) and Rodell Rosel (Ong Chi Seng)
Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Leslie has been caught out not only in her affair with Goeff, but his murder as well. Once she discovered Geoff was through with her, preferring his new Chinese mistress, Leslie popped him off, a woman scorned. But that’s not all: her husband Robert has to come up with a lot of cash to buy back a letter Leslie stupidly wrote to Geoff inviting him over the night she shot him, a piece of evidence that would convict the lady. The letter fell into the hands of Geoff’s mistress, and now the Chinese woman wants to cash in. Of course it will ruin husband Robert Crosbie, played and sung with great effectiveness by Anthony Michaels-Moore, using his life’s savings to redeem his adulteress wife. Sticky, eh?
Roger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond)
Coming to the rescue is Howard Joyce, Robert’s lawyer friend, who manages to buy and repress the letter, and convince a Singapore British jury to let Leslie off, claiming she was the victim of Geoff’s violent attempt to rape her. The one-act opera ends in a big mess, romance gone, careers compromised, and then in a coupe-de-theatre, Leslie takes matters into her own hands and resolves her dilemma. I’ll not reveal the quick denouement.
Ms. Racette, Michaels-Moore, James Maddalena as the lawyer, and assorted secondary role singers could not have been any better. Roger Honeywell, Rodell Rosel and Keith Jameson, all tenors, played key parts in the show’s success, with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers wonderfully effective in their central role. Patricia Racette is a marvel; her full lyric soprano voice is in solid shape, used with skill and much dramatic effect. She has an expressive face, and is an actor of the first order. It was a pleasure to encounter her strengths in this prima donna role. For now, she owns the part. Others will soon want to.
The Letter may to some degree be a work in progress; it seems fairly well finished, if a few minutes too long. The intensity of the Maupassant-esque plotting with all its ironies is well maintained, with good rhythm and tempo, rhetorically and musically. But in a departure from Maugham and Wyler, Morevec added a short scene in which the Chinese woman (the fine Japanese mezzo Mika Shigematsu), comes to the lawyer to deliver the letter and collect her cash. Unfortunately she is given not only a voice in the proceedings with a short aria, but brings up issues that only obfuscate and delay. I hope the authors will rethink that scene. Much effect was gained by Wyler in keeping his mysterious Chinese woman quiet — a strong presence but generalized. There can be too many ‘specifics,’ sometimes in dramatic plotting, and The Letter has a few. In the main it is unusually engaging, well-paced entertainment, handsomely performed.
J. A. Van Sant ©2009