11 Nov 2009
Lohengrin in Houston: A long-awaited return
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
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.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Wagner was last on stage in Houston’s Wortham Theater Center in 2001, when the Houston Grand Opera staged Tannhäuser.
That production brought down the curtain on a decade that was a Golden Age for German opera at the HGO. During the previous dozen years Wagner was on stage at the Wortham in nine seasons and Richard Strauss in two.
There was a reason for this richness — and for the dearth that followed. Those were the banner years when Christoph Eschenbach was music director of the Houston Symphony. Not only did he conduct Wagner and Strauss at the HGO; he brought his orchestra into the pit at the Wortham for these performances. Years of transition followed that marked a period of maturation for both the HGO and the HSO. As they grew in quality and significance, the Opera was challenged to build its own ensemble.
Thus the production of Lohengrin that opened at the Wortham on November 30 was not only a “long-awaited return,” as HGO music director Patrick Summers described it in an erudite note in the Lohengrin program. It was further a milestone in the history of the company and in the career of Summers, HGO music director since 1989.
It was to Summers that the building of an opera orchestra was assigned, and — as was gloriously apparent in the new Lohengrin — he has done this with impressive success. Indeed, the hushed celestial silver of the violins that opens the Overture shimmered in warmth as they ascended to the unashamedly erotic heights that launch the first act of the work.
The profound feeling that Summers brought to the Overture and all that followed made it difficult to believe that this was the first complete Wagner opera that he has conducted. All this distinguished this new Lohengrin as a turning point in the history of the 54-year-old HGO. Evaluation of the production itself is a more difficult matter.
This was also the first Wagner for director Daniel Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins and one can only wish that their work had been on the same level as Summer’s achievement with the orchestra. Such — alas — was not the case. The two badly overshot their mark in an arsenal of effects the sum of which was far less than their collected value.
In this co-production with Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève, where the staging debuted in 2007, the British collaborators were perhaps a bit too eager to try their hand at what is known on the continent as Regieoper, the approach that allows the production team free rein in the liberties it takes with what the composer once regarded as a finished work. (The result is often summed up as “Eurotrash.”) Gone — along with the traditional swan — was the knightly medievalism that is traditionally the historic background of Lohengrin.
Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa)
Act One opened in a cavernous library, obviously long neglected. Uniforms — for those old enough to remember them — recalled Eastern Europe in its totalitarian bad days. Things get worse as troops viciously tore books from shelves, recalling — again for those with knowledge of early 20th-century history — the Nazi book burning in Berlin when Hitler came to power. (That conflagration was staged, incidentally, on the square adjacent to the Staatsoper on historic Unter den Linden.)
Simon O’Neill, whose grubby dress, hair and demeanor bore little resemblance to the man in shining armor that Lohengrin, this Knight of the Grail, is supposed to be. O’Neill was vocally disappointing as well, for — although his voice is of some power — it lacks warmth and shading. Indeed, his performance was largely monochromatic.
The Elsa was Canada’s Adrianne Pieczonka, praised throughout Europe today for her interpretation of the women created by Wagner and Richard Strauss. In Act One Pieczonka’s voice seemed a trifle two mature for innocent Elsa, but in Act Two she was a perfect match for Christine Goerke, whose Ortrud was the glory of this staging.
Although Goerke, long an established Wagnerian, might have sued designer Hopkins for the dreadful green cocktail dress in which she first appeared, she soon proved herself the strongest member of this cast, stressing that behind every evil man there is an even more evil woman.
Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich of Telramund) and Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
Richard Paul Fink, long the world’s most sinister Alberich in Wagner’s Ring and the creator of Mephistophelean Edward Teller in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, was a natural as Ortrud’s partner in malice. However, one expected a more significant voice than bass Günther Groissbock brought to King Heinrich. Supporting roles were impressively sung by HGO studio artists.
Lohengrin contains Wagner’s greatest choruses, and HGO chorus master Richard Bado brought home that no American company has a better choral ensemble than Houston. Although the ludicrous aspects of the staging did not necessary detract from the musical excellence of the production, a concert performance by Summers and his forces would have been more satisfactory. The good news associated with this production is that the HGO henceforth promises a German opera — Wagner, Strauss or Beethoven — in each future season.
“Now,” Summers concludes, “HGO rejoins a perpetual journey into one of history’s true, if disquieting visionaries.”