15 Dec 2009
Zürich’s Riveting ‘Corsaro’
Il Corsaro, the Verdi rarity currently on display at Zürich Opera, is the best of both possible worlds.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
Il Corsaro, the Verdi rarity currently on display at Zürich Opera, is the best of both possible worlds.
For starters, it is uncommonly well sung and played with authentic style and real Italian ardor. One has come to expect such top tier musical quality from this marvelous Swiss company. But the surprising marvel of the evening was a wholly modern “concept” production that not only offered thrilling visiuals, but also uncompromising clarity.
Anyone who reads the pages of virtually any opera-related publication is well aware of the profusion of so-called “Eurotrash” productions that litter (word chosen carefully) the theatrical landscape, willfully undermining the work of art they are meant to serve, running perversely counter to the authors’ intentions, or just plain setting out to create an entirely un-related work casually relegating the music and drama to second banana status as a means to some sort of arrogantly pretentious “end.”
All the more remarkable then, that such a surreal production could pack such a wallop. How? Set designer Paolo Fantin used the ‘‘elements” as a basis for his breath-taking design. The island of the opening scene consisted of a weighty, over-sized, tilted writing desk, littered with books, and bearing its lone citizen: our troubled hero Corrado. Mr. C attempts to script letter after letter to his beloved only to crumple them and discard them in the sea. The desk floated and spun on a water-filled stage, backed by a huge tilted mirror wall that reflected the assembled forces as if from above. This provided a sensational kaleidoscopic effect that combined the best efforts of ‘performance art’ and contemporary ‘living’ sculpture.
The side mirrors could rise and fall when necessary to admit choristers or other scenic elements, chief of which was a huge floating/spinning bed that bore our soon-to-be-unhinged heroine Medora. ‘Earth’ consisted of a long narrow platform that tracked in to intersect the water, and occasionaly bringing with it an enormous dining table put to good use as a symbolic prop and another level as a playing area.
The front of the stage was outfitted with gas jets, so when the invaders set the town on fire, Corrado summoned the flames Wotan-like to appear, and appear they did, creating a dazzling wall of fire between us and the players, brilliantly multiplied by the mirrors.
Mr. Fantin had a willing accomplice in costume designer Carla Teti, who not only handsomely outfitted her male cast in rather traditional period attire, but served up some fantastical robes for the chorus, and eye-popping, shiny red plastic ball gowns for Gulnara and the Damenchor’s first scene. The riot of color and movement created by these crimson reflections was evocative of strewn poppies being carried by the wind. Wow!
I am not sure how difficult it must be to light all of this effectively, what with all the possibilities for blinding the audience with all those shiny surfaces, but Martin Gebhardt’s lighting design was just remarkable in its many effects, not the least of which was a really decent general wash when required.
Carmen Giannattasio as Gulnara
Director Damiano Michieletto provided an assured staging that was lean and mean. He chose to confine the action to a smallish playing space for each scene, and to concentrate on intensely personal and specific interactions between the characters. What a concept! Actors listening to, and reacting to each other! If just this basic tenet caught on, many a Euro-trash production could improve 50%!
The tense duet between Seim and Gulnara was heightened to searing proportions by having the baritone unceremoniously heave her onto the dining table and begin to strangle her amid the fine china and flower arrangements, a shocking juxtaposition of uncivil behavior amid all the trappings of civility. Having Corrado and Medora play their entire first duet on her careening bed, not only added a hint of a carnal dimension, but more important, underscored and presaged her character’s fragility and instability. Throughout the night, Mr. Michieletto’s sure hand gave us telling stage pictures, focused drama, and (not inconsequential) wonderful traffic management of the large choral forces (singing dynamically under Chorus Master Jürg Hämmerli).
But all this would have been for naught had the music been ill-served, and here we were equally favored. For, as the Corsair of the title, Vittorio Grigolo is the real deal. There was not one moment that Mr. Grigolo was not fully committed to his portrayal, dramatically engaged, and interacting deferentially with his colleagues. He has a clean lyric tenor with some heft in the core sound, and while he is often singing at the limit of his current resources, the good news is he never attempts to exceed his capabilities. He is young, he is handsome, he is gifted with a meltingly beautiful instrument, and he is pacing himself well without ever stinting on emotionally-charged, arching lines. It is hoped that he does not just yet sing this role too often, or attempt such parts in a larger house, but note for note, this was star singing with superstar potential. Vittorio is a tenor to watch.
As Medora the reliable Elena Mosuc provided some bell-like fioriture and seamless flights above the staff. Her limpid tone was a terrific match for Grigolo’s in the warmly lyrical passages and she offered a very clear understanding of our heroine’s dramatic journey. In one of the few minor staging miscalculations, Ms. Mosuc’s superb vocalizing in her final mad scene was unnecessarily competing with the ladies sloshing through the water, strewing flowers (as noiselessly as they could, but distracting nonetheless). I would challenge the director to find a way to keep the wonderful effect but perhaps move it to a different moment.
Juan Pons as Seid
Carmen Giannattasio (Gulnara) was new to me and what discovery she was, taking the stage from her first entrance and commanding our attention with ravishing phrasing, assured histrionics, and complete command of early Verdi. Ms. Giannattasio’s dusky soprano has a hint of metal, meaning she crested the climaxes with fine effect. Early on, I worried I might tire of her no-nonsense delivery. But she soon proved herself capable of well-controlled introspective phrases and moments of hushed, haunting piannissimi. I hope to encounter her again.
Stalwart veteran Juan Pons as Seid is in the autumn of a long and distinguished career. Mr. Pons is still a formidable figure and consummate professional, and he performs with fearless bravado. If his substantial baritone still has the presence and volume of old, it has to be conceded that years of Scarpia’s and Tonio’s et al. have left the instrument a little woolly around the edges. But his imposing artistry proved a perfect foil for the three fresh-voiced “youngsters” in the cast.
And speaking of youth: in the pit young Eivind Gullberg Jensen led quite a stylish account of this equally youthful score. At all times, he displayed a real flair for the genre, and the maestro inspired his talented performers with an evident love of the piece. His belief in Verdi’s early effort was infectious and we all willingly succumbed to his committed rendition.
This hit performance of Il Corsaro (wildly cheered) offered sure-handed direction in a visually pleasing physical production married to superlative playing and singing that included a rising star tenor: the best of both worlds, indeed.