25 Oct 2009
Achim Freyer's production of Wagner's Siegfried at Los Angeles Opera
Saturday October 17th found the Los Angeles Dodgers out of town for the weekend, but traffic still clogged the freeways leading to their stadium.
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.
Saturday October 17th found the Los Angeles Dodgers out of town for the weekend, but traffic still clogged the freeways leading to their stadium.
After all, those same freeways lead to the Music Center and its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of Los Angeles Opera. Those commuters who made it to the house for the 5:30 curtain had their vehicular efforts rewarded. In the last of five regular season performances of Wagner’s Siegfried, Achim Freyer’s performance art aesthetic and conductor James Conlon’s mastery of the music and his orchestra combined for a riveting, charged evening of operatic theatre.
Freyer’s approach to Siegfried built on motifs and designs already established in the Das Rheingold and Die Walküre seen last season. A circular platform serves as the foundation for eerily costumed figures who play out the action of Wagner’s narrative in a limbo of archetypes (and their doubles). Outlandish limbs swivel like tentacles; giant heads top the dwarf figures; a furry jacket, embedded with keys and the size of a woolly mammoth, stands for Wotan’s enlarged ego. Wotan himself appears most often almost immobile in a stiff, dirty white-and-gray-barred outfit, as if jailed by his own ambition and hypocrisy. But when Wotan as Wanderer meets his match in Siegfried in act three, a shrunken double (perhaps a child?) straggles despondently across the stage, clutching the broken remnants of his “light-sabre” staff.
And Siegfried himself is literally the muscle-bound clown that many observers consider Wagner’s hero to be. With an outrageous blond wig of tight curls like so many pigtails and a blue muscle shirt chest above the furry pants apparently made from the bear referenced at his entrance, this is a Siegfried who may be laughable at times but who is always resolute in his focus. He wants to know who he is and where he came from, so that he can discern where he is going.
Freyer’s set seems inspired from a line near the end of the opera about “the race being almost run” (paraphrasing, obviously). So white lines divide the set into track lanes, and the singers often position themselves on starter blocks. This interpretation doesn’t really open up the opera to any new insights, but it does bring a degree of coherence to the action. What really matters is that Freyer’s imagination keeps the stage picture continually alive, a quality especially appreciated in an opera that takes a very long time to tell not really all that much story. A couple of moments disappoint, however. The crucial confrontation when Siegfried uses Nothung to shatter the Wanderer’s staff is awkwardly handled, with Wotan simply turning to a figure clad in a black leotard (one of several omnipresent staging facilitators) to exchange his long white light sabre for a clutch of fragmented light sabers. The dragon is played more for comic effect, with a Godzilla puppet that only reached to Siegfried’s knees. It’s funny, and considering Siegfried’s oblivious response to this supposedly mortal threat, that works. But when it comes time for the fatal blow, Siegfried turns to face the back half of the revolving disc, which has risen up with a small opening through which smoke billows. Siegfried casts his Nothung/light sabre through there, and the giant Fafner stumbles through, mortally wounded. It’s as if Freyer had two ideas for the dragon, both of which he liked so much he couldn’t choose one or the other. Well, better too many ideas than too few.
Where Freyer really succeeds is in making the connections between all the themes and characters. An impressive example in this Siegfried came at the end, when the huge Wotan coat stood in for the rock on which Brünnhilde slumbers (and perhaps her armor as well). Just as Siegfried the hero will break her free from her father’s domination, he pushed aside the jacket to release her. Their long duet became as much as hymn to freedom as an erotic celebration, producing the happiest moment in the cycle.
John Treleavan and Linda Watson have sung Wagner before for Los Angeles Opera, but neither was impressive in a recent season’s Tristan und Isolde. They both needed more beauty to their tones for the long passages of heroic lyricism of those doomed lovers. As Siegfried, Treleavan’s penetrating timbre, like that of a beefed-up character tenor, seemed fearless and inexhaustible (although he did eventually struggle with a final high note near the end of the duet). Watson doesn’t wield her substantial instrument with much subtlety, but she can make exciting sounds, and appearing only at the climax of the opera means a certain stridency in her delivery doesn’t wear out her welcome. Her upcoming Götterdämmrung appearance may be a different matter.
Vitalij Kowaljow continues to impress as Wotan. His costuming makes it all but impossible to evaluate him as an actor, but the voice has a most impressive combination of authority and attractiveness. His Wotan will be missed in the last of the cycle. Graham Clark has always been an athletic stage presence, and his hunched, big-bottomed Mime scrambled and sprawled across the stage. No one expects a Mime to sound pretty, and Clark probably couldn’t if he wanted to, but this is a characterization to treasure - repellent, and yet creepily sympathetic. Stacy Tappan’s Forest Bird sang from inside Wotan’s coat, with little claw hands grasping a branch. Her sweet-toned soprano has surprising resonance. Erich Halfvarson returned briefly as Fafner, sounding better when not over-amplified (as he was in his first off-stage lines). Oleg Bryjak will be back in Götterdämmerung as Alberich, and his solid performance Saturday night makes that a very good thing. Jill Grove’s Erda rose up from below stage in an inflating, globe-shaped dress, and Grove’s voice seemed as expansive as her dress. This scene can drag in a tepid production, but Freyer’s stagecraft and Grove’s artistry made it surprisingly exciting.
Hidden away in a closed pit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed like heroes and heroines for James Conlon, who conducted like a giant. He let the musicians loose for the instrumental passages, producing a rush of sound that would probably shake the rafters if the pit were open. Of course the singers were always supported, and Conlon’s theatrical sense of pacing contributed a great deal to the success of Freyer’s staging. This is world-class work, and more than makes understandable the LAO’s audience besotted infatuation with their music director.
The first two productions of Freyer’s cycle had many inspired moments, but neither evening quite pulled together as this Siegfried did. Anyone not sure about the complete cycles, to run in early summer next year, should be reassured - Freyer’s eccentric but potent vision is powerful theater, and should only get stronger in effect as all the performers get accustomed to his approach. Before that, in April, comes the first look at Freyer’s Götterdämmerung. Those few who left the Siegfried after the end of act one Saturday night - probably at the absence of an anvil - should return their tickets so that opera goers who love both Wagner’s masterpiece and an innovative, committed performance can grab onto them.