02 Dec 2009
Otello in San Francisco
Sir Peter Hall created this production of Otello at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2001.
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.
Sir Peter Hall created this production of Otello at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2001.
While the SFO program booklet credits the production to Mr. Hall it does not provide a biography of his accomplishments, a tool useful for placing a production in context. That Sir Peter founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was the general director of Britain’s National Theatre would tell us that we have a theatrically sophisticated director, that he was the general director of the Glyndebourne Festival well establish him as a sophisticated opera director. It would be interesting to know what Peter Hall opera and theater productions have previously played in San Francisco — Chicago Lyric boasts five Peter Hall productions, Denver premiered his ill-fated Tarquinius, Los Angeles Opera gave us his former wife Maria Ewing as his Salome.
However Peter Hall’s Otello was staged in San Francisco by Australian Stephen Barlow for whom there is a biography that includes assisting many directors at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and staging many revival productions, i.e. originally directed by someone else. Curiosity nags about the original Peter Hall Otello with Ben Heppner and its Glyndebourne revival with David Rendall and if these performances achieved the formidable stature of Mr. Barlow’s San Francisco staging with Johan Botha.
Zvetelina Vassileva (Desdemona)
Perhaps key to understanding this fine San Francisco Otello is the Desdemona of Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, a role she has previously performed only in Sofia (according to the program booklet biography). Mme. Zvetelina possesses a large, quite beautiful Slavic voice, and seems to be a careful musician. She was able to project a waif like, lost presence, and hold these attributes for the duration of the performance, never complicating Verdi’s heroine with an Italianate sweetness and beauty, or the pathos that Verdi imbued into his last act.
Dressed in white, with a blond wig, Mme. Vassileva evoked Bianca, the phantom lover of Cassio and she was the symbol of the vulnerable side of Shakespeare’s fierce fighter, the inflamed warrior who would succumb to the power of Venus. This Desdemona was not presaging verismo’s melodramatic heroine, rather she was the Venus that destroyed Otello, and therefore she was a part of Otello himself. Mme. Vassileva’s quite powerful voice could indeed equate his presence. She was never his victim, as he himself was his victim.
Shakespeare’s Otello is of course black though current custom proscribes black face, but even so the complete whiteness of the cloth draped stage was in absolute conceptual contrast to Verdi’s moor dressed in brown robes, uniquely exotic among the otherwise Victorian clothed cast. The unit set of the first three acts was an abstracted old Globe wooden theater, abstracted shudders and a ceiling fan hinting a southern climate, simple wooden desks or benches placed to accommodate the actors’ moves necessary to inflame and expose Otello’s vulnerability.
Marco Vratogna (Iago)
In contrast to the Met’s massive Zefferelli, grand opera production, the Peter Hall production is an anti-Otello, the storm is only seen in the reaction of the chorus, the beauty of the evening star is realized on the faces and in the voices of Otello and Desdemona. Verdi’s opera became about Shakespeare’s words, his poetry and Otello’s tragedy, and not about the spectacle of nature’s destructive and intoxicating powers.
In the San Francisco staging Iago was embodied by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, small of stature, wily, a shaved head, an archetypical untrustworthy look. If Otello and Desdemona were abstracted black and white characters, Iago was real, and really mean, with strong TV drama body language, his powerful voice in grand theatrical contrast to his affected servile stance. He delivered his “Credo” as a shouted harangue, beautifully sung to be sure, downstage center directly at the audience. Chilling, and eminently satisfying.
South African tenor Johan Botha is a real Otello, vocally and temperamentally, a voice huge enough to overpower a melee of his soldiers and establish himself as the invincible warrior, with sufficient Italianate vocal gestures to supplicate the bacio from Desdemona, his hysteria and temper flaring all the while. It was all there in Verdi’s first act, and played out in the following two, Iago’s snakey treachery slowing engulfing Otello in the second act, the moor’s tormented third act soliloquy delivered sotto voce unmoving, leaning against an upstage column in dim light, marred only by over-excited clarinets and cellos in the pit. Finally in a brilliant moment of complex cowardice Otello suffocated Desdemona with a pillow,
If Cassio, though striking in his Victorian profile, was vocally over-parted (i.e. we needed more), Locovico was gratefully under-parted to veteran Don Carlo Grand Inquisitor Eric Halfvarson (no Adler Fellow here). Mr. Halfvarson, as the production demanded, created the power and spectacle of Venetian authority entirely by his voice and presence (and just one small banner of the Venetian lion). Iago’s wife Emilia was beautifully realized by Adler Fellow Renée Tatum, her servile demeanor unwavering until she unleashed our pent-up response to evil and tragedy, and became in those few lines one of the evening’s principal singers.
A scene from Act III
Teetering on the edge of mannered theatricality, the production made the fazzoletto almost a tongue-in-cheek topic. In fact all evening Mr. Hall’s slick theatricality demanded an admiration that competed with the dramatic honesty of Shakespeare and Verdi, or maybe it simply exposed the virtuosity of Verdi’s challenge to Shakespeare’s obvious theatricality. Whatever detractions one may conjure, Mr. Hall’s superb production can perhaps serve as a versatile platform for whatever resonances individual artists may bring to these iconic roles, open to the interpretive creativity of whoever may stage them.
San Francisco Opera’s excitable music director Nicola Luiscotti was in the pit. As we have well perceived this fall Mo. Luiscotti is smitten with creating effects, and there were all the obvious ones amplified, and many more, not the least of which was the aggressive virtuosity of the mandolin accompaniment to Desdemona’s second act entrance. Musically the production was indeed solid, but the music remained illustrative and theatrical, seldom penetrating the poetry. What contributions Mo. Luisotti may have made to the staging and the individual performances are not possible to know, but finally this theatrically brilliant evening was musically and emotionally cold.