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.
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.
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.