18 Dec 2009
Amsterdam: Minnie, Get Your Gun
It is hard to know where to start to adequately laud Netherlands Opera’s witty new La Fanciulla del West.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
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.
It is hard to know where to start to adequately laud Netherlands Opera’s witty new La Fanciulla del West.
So, let’s begin with the wholly idiomatic and beautifully judged conducting from Carlo Rizzi, shall we? From the first downbeat Maestro Rizzi savored every varied detail of Puccini’s masterful orchestration. He not only reveled in its lush lyrical moments but also put real spunk into the intentioned rambunctiousness and occasional silliness. The house is privileged to have several “resident” orchestras, and on this occasion the estimable Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra played with fire (as it were), sumptuous beauty (when called for) and a dynamic color palette.
Chorus Master Martin Wright coached his lusty-voiced, silver-throated boys to a fare-thee-well, or rather a ‘doo-dah-doo-dah-day.’ The chorus also contributed some wonderfully sensitive, mellow ensemble vocals, especially in the score’s closing moments. And what an exuberant and frequently giddy score it is. (I always forget that Lloyd Weber stole…I mean “borrowed” that swelling lyrical phrase for the climatic section of “Music of the Night.”)
The entire cast seemed to be having the time of their lives. First and foremost, the sublime Eva-Maria Westbroek could “own” the part of Minnie if she so desired. She has a thorough understanding of the arc of the role, and after her gun-slinging entrance, comfortably settles into Act One as a socially naïve love object. Her phrasing and delivery were beautifully modulated to suggest insecurity and uncertainty as her attraction to Johnson progresses. However, her revulsion for Rance nevertheless had all the required steeliness without caricatured meanness, a starchy resolve that she broadened in Act II.
As her feelings for Johnson became more and more pronounced, the Dutch diva plumbed deep emotional reserves, offering some beautiful warm, womanly singing as she surrendered to her attraction. As her desperation to save her lover escalated, Ms. Westbroek unleashed molten phrases above the staff that glanced through the house like laser beams. Her assured return in Act III found her transformed by the ordeal, resolved to win over the minds of the assembled on-stage forces and fully prepared to embrace her role as Dea Ex Machina/heroine - of the plot as well as the heart.
Her last lengthy “appeal” to her beloved boys was as heart-rendingly acted as it was impeccably vocalized. Eva-Maria may not have the final Italianate sheen of a Tebaldi on the very top, but she has the style down pat to include a commendable use of portamento. She is in every sense poised to be the leading exponent of this role today. Let’s call her a Minnie-miracle.
Since last I heard Zoran Todorovich, his meaty tenor has gotten bigger and more imposing. He not only cut a good figure as Johnson, but he also provided some really fine acting in the bargain. His way caressing a Puccinian phrase was masterful, witness his heart-stopping, sotto voce plea to Minnie for “solo un bacio…” (so persuasive that there seemed to be several willing takers seated around me…)
Mr. Todorovich could also really pour on the steam, and he was a very considerate collaborator for his soprano with whom he had substantial chemistry. The trade-off in having put some weight and fullness into his technique is that the (always secure) uppermost top became a bit broad and straight-toned. Small matter, our tenor gifted us with top notch singing all night and contributed a memorable version of his last arioso.
As the Sheriff-We-Love-To-Hate, Lucio Gallo delivered a winning hand with his assured Jack Rance. His baritone is not exceptionally large (not Milnes-ian, say) but it is very well-focused and cleanly produced, creating the aural result that it is quite imposing indeed. He rode the orchestra with ease and offered a well-rounded, smoldering characterization rather than a cartoonish cad.
Lucio Gallo (Jack Rance), Zoran Todorovich (Dick Johnson), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie)
The featured male principals were cast from strength, with Roman Sadnik’s Nick a real stand out. Andre Morsch contributed a nice moment with Jake Wallace’s solo, and Tijl Faveyts made the most of his stage time as Billy Jackrabbit. Ellen Rabiner is without a doubt the most petite Wowkle I have ever seen, but her contralto was anything but — it rang out in the Muziektheater with polished presence. Patrick Schramm’s homesick Larkens was sweetly touching. The entire ensemble acquitted themselves with honor.
Set Designer Raimund Bauer devised tremendously effective playing environments. Act One’s Saloon would not have been out of place as the Guys and Dolls crap game sewer, save for the addition of slot machines and a Wells Fargo Bank safe down center. Judging from program book “research” photos, the look was meant to approximate a DC Metro platform, but for a large rectangle cut out to reveal a Wall Street-like skyscraper projection above (the excellent video work was devised by Jonas Gerberding). Director Nikolaus Lehnhoff and his team used the underlying themes of greed and the power of money to create a staging that took the piss out of American obsession with wealth, guns, cars, status, sex, and Hollywood celebrity.
While it is hardly “news” for European productions to satirize the US, surely Fanciulla is the fairest of fair game since it already parodies so much of the stereo-typical American western life of legend. Metro station be damned, with the saloon’s trippy pink and blue fluorescent-lit bar, and the miners in Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s hip Western leather wear, it could have as easily summoned up Happy Hour at the Mineshaft!
This was an endlessly entertaining and eye-filling production. The stylized gesticulating and frozen poses of the gambling were visually arresting, with total involvement from the large male cast. Jake’s solo offered a wonderful interpretive goof, having him clad in a white outfit with white guitar, jacket fringe rippling, looking for all the world like an apparition of The Singing Cowboy (well, sort of Liberace meets Gene Autry) atop the saloon entrance as the cityscape changed to a stylized bucolic scene that scrolled lazily behind him. It was here that Minnie later made her very effective first (star) entrance in red leather overcoat, black cowboy hat, and relentlessly smoking gun, before she strode to stage level down a staircase that seemed to appear from nowhere.
Eva-Maria Westbroek (Minnie)
Act II’s curtain opened to reveal a Hollywood-style luxury dressing trailer of the kind-that-never-was except in fantasy. All pink-tufted walls, and cheekily accessorized (Disney’s Pocohantas was playing on the kitchen counter TV), this was a brilliant re-invention of the usual log cabin affair. A pink teddy bear on the bed provided an amusing moment when Johnson reacted to having absent-mindedly picked it up. The hiding place for the wounded outlaw was atop the whole shebang, accessed by a telescoping ladder than Minnie yanked down to good comic effect. Later, when Rance did the same with brutish malintent, it was a chilling, truly disturbing moment.
There was awesome attention to detail. Two large deer lawn ornaments graced the snowy yard and as the lights dimmed during the romantic moments, their eyes lit up and glowed a warm orange. An American flag was frozen in flight, unfurled on the flag-pole, and a lighted statue of the Virgin Mary was in the window. Once revealed, the faltering Johnson collapsed and fainted on the bed. Rance, having lost at cards, is further humiliated by having to pry and pull his coat out from where he had left it, now pinned under the unconscious Johnson. Dynamite stuff. Telling dramatic moments. Flat out superbly inventive direction from a supremely gifted director.
Act III starts with a reveal of an automobile graveyard, an enormous sculptured pile of realistic cars, prompting spontaneous audience applause. As cast members crawled out of cars, it was like a stoned, leather, C/W version of the junkyard scene in Cats, except with good music. The applause meter went off again a bit later when the whole damn thing turned to reveal Minnie as a Jean Harlow-like movie star in dazzling sequined gown atop a Busby Berkley staircase. When the MGM logo ultimately lit up behind her (yes, the lion roared at the very end) the send-up (and our joy) was near complete. Perhaps the final moments risked gilding an already golden lily. For the front scrim flew in and the miners grasped the air to collect falling (projected) paper money, with the Love Couple posed wedding-cake-like atop the staircase. Then a giant twenty dollar bill image grew larger and larger and finally obscured it all while Rance pointed his pistol at us, guarding the safe as the lights dimmed. Gilding? Perhaps. Effective? You betcha.
The redoubtable Duane Schuler’s lighting was of the highest caliber throughout. Witness the atmospheric isolated spot at the close of One on a contemplative Minnie, an image floating dreamily among the twilight of the gaming machines. And the moody shadows cast in the trailer. And the starlight poking through the wintry sky. And and and…fine work as usual, Mr. Schuler.
There are those who are bothered if every line of text is not enacted with absolute faithfulness, or treated with utmost literalism. Those are the same dreary tut-tutters who still expect to see a three hundred pound soprano ride “Grane” onto the pyre. Get over it! Lighten up! Let’er snap!
For those with a taste for an inventive, wholly successful, personalized, humor-infused interpretation that still honestly represents Puccini’s creative achievement and embraces his blatant sentimentality, then hurry at top speed to Amsterdam for their La Fanciulla del West is a shining model of its kind.