11 Dec 2009
A Streetcar Named Desire at Opera Australia
Musically, Australia looks to Britain and Europe, especially for its operatic diet and America’s considerable operatic output has been overlooked.
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Musically, Australia looks to Britain and Europe, especially for its operatic diet and America’s considerable operatic output has been overlooked.
Despite the sensational impact Menotti’s The Consul had when it premiered in Australia in 1953 — making a star out of Marie Collier — it was revived professionally only once more in 1985. Even Menotti’s perennial Christmas favourite Amahl and the Night Visitors has had few professional productions. Consequently the 2007 production of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire was a significant event.
Previn has composed vocal music and music theatre often during his long career but for his first, fully-fledged opera, he has approached the task from an area he knows better than most other opera composers. When the work premiered in 1998 commentators considered the music and approach, with its many jazz references, to be more akin to cinema in style and form. Listening to the way Previn’s score fits the stage action and libretto it is indeed very cinematic and works in the same way a skilled screen composer (which Previn is) underscores action, giving the visuals a musically dramatic undercurrent equal to the emotional content of the scene. Musically it is very approachable, with overtones of Copland, Barber, Menotti, Britten and Previn’s very knowledgeable synthesis of American jazz in its make up but never as derivative as some commentators would make it out to be. Very soon one becomes accustomed to the music and style and it appears that vocal lines are created out of the musical undercurrent rather accompanied by it. Not that Previn does not create arias per se. There are many solo moments or aria and arioso, the earliest being when Stella (Antoinette Halloran) describes to the astonished Blance (Yvonne Kenny) her unconditional love for the brutish Stanley (Teddy Tahu Rhodes). Cradled in music of great beauty and lyricism Previn creates a mood within the orchestra as an arching and aching commentary under Stella’s attempt to make Blanche understand her love. As important as the sung music are Previns’s preludes and interludes. The prelude includes jazzy chords that recur and represent, like a motive, Blance Du Bois doom. The interludes, like those in Menotti’s The Consul, hold or develop the action of a scene and seamlessly develop it into the next.
Tackling such a landmark drama as A Streetcar Named Desire was a brave and almost heroic undertaking but Previn’s confidence and skill have made it one of the better American operas of the last twenty years, if not one of the best since Samuel Barber’s Vanessa of half a century ago. Like Barber, Previn has the compositional nouse to make time stand still, even when the imminent tragedy is piling up. Blanche’s “I Can Smell the Sea Air” — in the play just another Blanche’s hopeless and self-deluding rambles — appears in the opera as moment of stillness and beauty (as well as a tragic indicator) and not surprisingly started to gather as much popularity as a stand-alone concert item as the more outgoing “I Want Magic”.
Antoinette Halloran as Stella Kowalski, Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois
Blanche is opera’s tragic protagonist, just as she is in the play but, as with the play, her antagonist, Stanley Kowalski almost overtakes her. Teddy Tahu Rhodes has made something of a name for himself in the role both physically and vocally. He first undertook the role in Washington and later in the Viennese premiere in March 2007 and then in the Australian later that year. His well-known physical credentials are perfectly suited to the role as is his deep and well-focussed baritone. Here he lessens that focus giving it a blunt edge for Stanley’s frequent and violent outbursts. Philip Littell’s libretto follows the play text with often slavish faithfulness and Little retains enormous amounts of the original text in, what can sound when it sung rather than spoken, rather banal. In his earliest appearance, and already displaying his contempt for Blanche’s pretentious mannerism, Rhode’s voice sounds almost cavernous in darkness and depth. That their relationship will end in one of the most frightening assaults in theatrical literature seems almost pre-ordained from the moment Rhodes opens his mouth. In the scene leading to Blanche’s assault he goads and threatens her while Previn’s music, now keenly integrating the vocal and orchestral fabric into an explosive scene with the same cathartic power as the verismo operas of the early twentieth century. These final two scenes are a genuinely disturbing experience to watch. Even the though the opera has been served well by a recording taken from the premiere, it really needs to be re-recorded to preserve the boiling, aggressiveness of Rhodes’s interpretation.
Blanche is rightly the opera’s heroine and Yvonne Kenny achieves her best work in the many introspective moments. Only the most dramatic moments appear to tax her voice but her interpretation of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” is ravishing. Mad women and mad scenes are noting new to opera and the pathos of Blanche Du Bois’s final scene is as good as any of them. Caressing the final floating high notes of “I Can Smell the Sea Air” she is minutes later pinned to floor by the madhouse nurse and finally lead away in final scene as disturbing in its pathos as the brutality of the rape scene that precedes it.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Stanley Kowalski and Yvonne Kenny as Blanche DuBois
Stuart Skelton is another singer of international status. Fresh from a recent triumph in Sydney as Peter Grimes, he brought the same naivety to his interpretation of Mitch. The hopeless desire for and then cruel rejection of Blanche even harks back to the scenes between Grimes and Ellen Orford in Britten’s opera.
As Stella Antoinette Halloran is in the same vocal league as her internationally known colleagues. Her singing is constantly subtle and is beautifully supported soprano. Halloran features in a disc on the Australian label ABC Classics of Puccini arias and duets and which is worth seeking out, hers is a voice to listen out for.
The opera’s hothouse atmosphere is well captured by John Stoddart sets; seeming to be mouldering through years of damp and neglect although there is no suggestion of Blanche’s cramped and curtained sleeping quarters. The State Theatre stage is larger than its more famous Sydney counterpart and the revolving set sits within the larger area concentrating the attention to stage action. The director, Bruce Beresford, has, like Previn, had a long in motion pictures and, as a film director, understands the importance of a musical undercurrent. He achieves many detailed effects despite working on a large stage and even employs film projections in key moments to clever effect.
This current revival is a significant event in the company’s repertoire development and hopefully signals that the production will now remain Opera Australia’s permanent repertoire.