06 Sep 2009
Aspen stages a Don to die for
“Can it be?”
“But it is; he looks just like him…”
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
“Can it be?”
“But it is; he looks just like him…”
A gasp went up when the curtain rose on Mozart‘s Don Giovanni in Aspen’s intimate Wheeler Opera House on August 21. Even at close range the Don — tall, lean, handsome and black — was a dead ringer for Barack Obama. It was, of course, not the president of the United States doubling as the legendary lover, but Donavan Singletary, a current member of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, who played the Don. Although there is no knowing how adeptly Singletary, already the winner of numerous awards and competitions, might deal with health care, he is — it seems safe to say — the greatest Giovanni to come along since Italy’s Cesare Siepi brought new dimensions of sensuality to the character in the 1950’s.
In erudite notes for this final Aspen Opera Theater production of the 2009 60th anniversary season of the Aspen Music Festival, Edward Berkeley, director both of the program and of this production, discussed Giovanni as the Greek god Dionysus returned to earth. “He’s life force,” Berkeley wrote. “His sensuality and his sex drive has such energy that the rest of this society feels it doesn’t have it’s own energy without Giovanni.” Unable to equal him, however, the others, who are what they are only through their relationship with him, must destroy the Don in order to continue their own trivial lives. Even if he is hauled off to Hell at the end of the opera, there’s clearly more to the story that librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte assembled for Mozart than the Sunday-school tale of a destructive wrong-doer justly punished.
For in Giovanni the audience confronts what Robert A. Johnson in his book Ecstasy called “the irrational wisdom of the senses.” It’s heady stuff, and Berkeley staged one of the best Giovannis ever seen anywhere. To do so, he answered a question open to debate since the opera was new in Prague in 1788: just what had happened in Donna Anna’s room before the drama begins on stage? She was raped, the director says, and that leaves her with feelings of guilt for her father’s death at the Don’s hands and yet irrevocably attracted to the rapist. Anna, in short, knows a good thing when she has experienced it and she knows that Don Ottavio, the aristocratic Milquetoast whom she is to marry, is no match for the Don.A scene from Don Giovanni
This view brings a tension to the opera lacking in less perceptive stagings, and in Aspen Berkeley had a cast of talented young singers to make his production exceptional. Singletary, equally fluent in voice and body language; moved and sang with an elegance that made him carnality incarnate — a force the equal of a hurricane before which everyday mortals bow their heads.
Yet even more perfect in Aspen was his servant Leporello, portrayed with breathtaking immediacy by Adam Paul Lau, now a graduate student at Rice University. Too often reduced to a merely comic character, Lau understood the serious side of Leporello, his disgust with his master’s devious way and — at the same time — the desire to be like him. He really is the Don’s double.
Yoosun Park and Rachel Sliker were ideally paired as Anna and Elvira, two women unable to turn their backs totally on the attraction of the Don. Sliker played an Elvira ever willing to forgive with a nervous edge that hinted of hysteria, while as Anna Park had her heart set on revenge. Her account of what happened in that crucial night — incomplete as it might have been in detail — was not mere narrative; it was a flesh-and-blood reliving of that fateful hour.
In appearance Aspen’s Ottavio Samuel Read Levine recalled the youthful Jussi Bjoerling; however, his voice, still badly in need of refining discipline, was far more robust than that of the late Swede. As the Commandatore, bass Paul An struck cosmic fear in the hearts of everyone in the Cemetery and final Banquet scenes. Adrian Rosas was a delightfully boyish Mazetto, and it was only Debra Stanley, his Zerlina, who fell below the across-the-board excellence of the cast. Already vocally too mature to be a peasant girl convincing in her innocence, as an actress Stanley took no cues from her colleagues.A scene from Don Giovanni
As conductor, James Gaffigan, since 2006 associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, showed all the markings of a major Mozartean, working with an ensemble that richly displayed the gifts of many Aspen student instrumentalists. Sets by John Kasarda and largely non-descript modern costumes by Marina Reti were functional and, staying out of the way of the music, allowed an interrupted flow of Giovanni’s many scenes. Most significant, however, was Berkeley’s telling of the story of this opera. Rather than answering all the questions about Giovanni, he confronted the audience with the fact that great art dwells in that abyss that lies between human aspiration and achievement. For Giovanni — not unlike his brothers Faust and Tristan — is a man out to know life to its fullest — usually, alas, at the expense of women. As ever-hungry and never-sated Dionysian man, the Don is shattered by the wall of limitations placed in his way by this thing called “reality.” Giovanni pays the price demanded by his many acts of hubris — and one regrets that that is the way things are in this world.
While the Aspen Opera Theater might be regarded primarily as a training program, it is much more than that. Indeed, this production exceeded by far the expectations that one brings to the country’s regional companies and, this — in turn — should prompt them to rethink the role they are too often content to play with yet another run-of-the-mill Carmen or Butterfly.
Finally, as the world this summer celebrates Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 concert at Lincoln Memorial one cheers the Aspen performance in which the first four people to appear on stage were one black and three Asians.