06 Dec 2009
A Faust of Distinction at Lyric Opera of Chicago
For its second production of the 2009-10 season Lyric Opera of Chicago staged a revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust, last seen here in 2003-04.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For its second production of the 2009-10 season Lyric Opera of Chicago staged a revival of Charles Gounod’s Faust, last seen here in 2003-04.
The assembled cast of principals and the chorus interacted so convincingly — on both vocal and dramatic grounds — that these performances will serve as a benchmark of performing Gounod’s opera for some time to come. Making his Lyric Opera debut in these performances was Piotr Beczala, who has recently sung the role of Faust to much acclaim at a number of European venues. Marguerite was sung by Ana María Martínez, who portrayed a dramatically and lyrically incisive heroine in this her first assumption of the role. René Pape brought his considerable skills to the role of Mephistopheles, and Lucas Meachem made a great impression as a lyrical and committed Valentin.
Even before the action began on stage the orchestra under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis set the tone with a taut, controlled performance of the overture. A carefully conceived balance was achieved between strings, woodwinds, and brass with the harp then leading smoothly into a statement of Valentin’s theme. A reprise of the strings signaled then the ultimate move toward a subdued resolution.
At the start of Act I in this traditional production Faust truly looks both fatigued and aged. In his dusty laboratory corpses lay under sheets, and the newly dead are being carried in to join the others. Faust is surrounded then by death and the futility of knowledge, prompting him hence to consider suicide. His scene beginning on the word “Rien” (“Nothing”) sets the tone of resignation in the doctor’s famous soliloquy. Only the voices of peasants and youths heard from outdoors prevent Faust from drinking a goblet filled with poison to end his life in desperation. Still these glimmers of happiness and reminders of God’s bounty cause Faust only to curse human endeavor and to cry out for the support of Satan (“Satan à moi!” [“Satan appear to me!”]). From this point till near the end of the opera Mephistopheles and Faust are inexorably linked. In his movements through the set Beczala gives the impression of aging futility, while his committed singing underlines the yearning of so much not experienced in this mortal life. His delivery of the toast to this final day on earth unleashes an emotional conviction to die, highlighted by ringing and extended top notes on “Salût” (“To you”). When Mephistopheles arises, here as a vivified corpse from a laboratory table, Pape’s opening lines are sung in the stylish and effective guise of the “gentilhomme” (“cavalier”), as he describes himself with great melismatic fervor. His ensuing dialogue with Faust, in which he coaxes the doctor to reveal his desire, is performed with a lyrical ease, so that Pape assumes a likeable pose both to the hero and to the audience. When Faust confesses his desire for “la jeunesse” (“youth”), Mephistopheles produces the contract, by which Faust will sign away his soul, along with an apparition of Marguerite to secure the doctor’s commitment. At this point the vocal interaction between Beczala and Pape, in varying each other’s lines and singing in duet, was flawless and dramatically executed. Beczala’s transformation into a young man induced a lyrical enthusiasm for worldly pleasure (“À moi la plaisir” [“For me the pleasure”]) and the quest for adventure. As both figures declare “En route” (“Let us be on our way”), they abandon the confines of the musty laboratory.
René Pape as Méphistophélès
Act II in Gounod’s opera moves from the collective and crowded to the individual At the start a village fair has begun with participants including students, soldiers, young women, and townspeople. Here the Lyric Opera Chorus gave an exceptional performance in its rendition of the paean to wine. Immediately following the choral delights the young soldier Valentin becomes the center of attention. Before he leaves for battle Valentin sings of his concern for his sister Marguerite and begs God to protect her. In this role Lucas Meachem has proven his exceptional agility in the lyric baritone repertoire. From the start of his cavatina “Avant de quitter ces lieux” (“Before departing from this homeland”) Meachem imbued his words with emotional tension, showing exquisite ascending notes on “a toi” (“to You, Lord”) and “ma soeur” (“my sister”). He introduced military imagery in the middle section without bluster and concluded the cavatina on a securely extended pitch at “Roi” (“King of heaven”). The pendant aria to Valentin in this act is “Le Veau d’Or” (“The Golden Calf”) sung by Mephistopheles. Pape’s acting was equally important as he transformed the piece into a dramatic as well as lyrical turning point. Although the villagers marvel at the stranger’s tricks, Valentin becomes suspicious. Faust himself enters and, at last, has an opportunity to address Marguerite. Although she does not accept his overtures, Faust realizes that he loves her. At the close of the act Mephistopheles assures him of continued assistance in gaining Marguerite’s devotion.
The preliminaries of Acts I and II set the ground for the following two acts. In Act III the role of Siébel, sung in this production by Katherine Lerner, shows a further development of her rapt devotion for Marguerite. Ms. Lerner gave an appropriately infatuated rendition of Siébel’s entrance aria while she intoned the verses with care and lush expression. As Mephistopheles and Faust re-enter they make plans for Faust’s further pursuit of Marguerite. Faust’s cavatina “Quel trouble inconnu me pénètre?” (“What unknown care oppresses me?”) was yet another highpoint of the performance. Beczala’s voice remains strong and convincingly produced in all registers, his characterization of the love-stricken hero showing polished, graceful tones and well-placed breath control. At Marguerite’s entrance into the garden she sings the ballad of the “Roi de Thulé” (“King of Thule”), followed almost immediately by the famous jewel song in response to finding the tempting jewel case left by Mephistopheles. Ms. Martínez’s voice is here well suited to the role, her piano notes being securely projected and a burnished quality infusing the voice when she sings forte. Her performance of the trills and roulades in the second aria show also a strong technique for coloratura. After this scene the couples are paired in counterpoint: Marguerite and Faust, Marthe and Mephistopheles. The arrangement will return again later and is especially well staged in the current production. In the final duet of Act III Beczala and Martínez gave a touching rendition of the blossoming love which must, at first, wait and then can be halted no longer. (“O nuit d’amour!” [“Oh, night of love!”]). Mephistopheles laughs loudly as the two are finally united.
In Acts IV and V the earthly downfall of Marguerite becomes increasingly apparent. In the first scene of Act IV she stands at a loom lamenting in her aria this abandoned position and the scorn she senses from her former associates. Despite the faithful devotion expressed by Siébel in his following aria, Marguerite simply questions Faust’s wandering. Throughout this scene and the following, in which she prays in church for forgiveness, Martínez displays a keen sense of dramatic commitment while maintaining a lyrical command of line. In the next scene Valentin returns from the war and learns of his sister’s transgression. The dueling scene that is staged between him and the drunken Faust is a marvel of choreographic daring culminating in the soldier’s being mortally wounded. Meachem sang a convincing scene of Valentin’s death ending with a chilling curse of Marguerite as being responsible for her own dishonor as well as his death (“Marguerite! Sois maudite!” [“Marguerite, be accursed!”]).
In the final act Faust comes, with the help of Mephistopheles, to visit Marguerite in prison where she awaits execution for having murdered the child she bore to Faust. The madness communicated by Martínez is heart-wrenching as she clutches a blanket rolled up as though it were an infant. A last idyllic illusion of happiness between the lovers is sung with great fervor, as Beczala and Martínez participate in an emotional duet, enhanced by both with well executed decoration and melismas. This idyll is, however, interrupted as Mephistopheles steps forward. Marguerite’s soul is saved, as announced by voices from heaven. In this production the contract signed by Faust to serve Mephistopheles after death bursts into flames. The curtain then falls with, at least in this instance, the end of the devil’s power.