17 Jan 2010
Carmen at the MET
Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Elina Garanča conceals her gleaming gold tresses beneath a curly black wig to sing Carmen.
Nearly everything else is on display, from the legs she bathes shamelessly while singing the “Habañera” to the shoulders she bares — in daylight hours? in Spain? — in her ruffled Act IV gown. As the Latvian mezzo soprano is a beautiful woman, a fine actress and dancer with a voice of great warmth and sheen — and fill-the-house power when she chooses to unleash it — no one could object to her performance as Bizet’s eternal Gypsy. True, she is on the sexually aggressive side among Carmens and I find more convincing the casual approach of Olga Borodina, unimpressed by the ogling men around her. Borodina’s Carmen seemed her own woman, making her own choices, one of which might be love. This seems a less cliché way of playing the character. Most Carmens work too hard, as if men’s opinions mattered to them, and Garanča, though with her looks she hardly has to work — anyone would stare — edges towards that sort of show-off Carmen. I presume she does things like snap her cleavage from stage center because she has been directed to do so and because the performance was the camera-dress, the last before the live high-definition telecast.
>Mariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo
Nor did Garanča’s self-conscious sex appeal get in the way of her singing: The “Habañera” was a parade, the “Seguidilla” intimate, the dance for Don José very hot, the fortune-telling very earthy — crouched over her cards, lacking any sort of glamour, she held every eye and ear in the house. She was not only the centerpiece but the only vocally irreproachable star of the performance. Roberto Alagna, who used to be a first-rate Don José, sounded strained, flat on exposed notes (such as the last of “Dragon d’Alcala”), and ill-adjusted to register breaks, though of course he had the best French of the evening. His acting was passionate, and he pulled himself together for a murderous final confrontation. Barbara Frittoli had trouble placing her notes in the Act I duet with Alagna, sounding uncertain and lacking force, though she brought down the house in Act III. Mariusz Kwiecien looked elegant as Escamillo, but sang with that rough bark he often uses these days, instead of the wonderful — often wonderfully sinister — leggiero sound he makes when singing Mozart. Small roles were filled ably and, in the case of Keith Miller, a commanding Zuniga, rather better than that.
I’ve been bitching for some time about new Met productions that are not only weird but whimsically so, so that future performers will be straitjacketed into their weirdness; so when a new production like this comes along of one of the repertory staples, a production that could easily be inhabited by the varying interpretations of many singers, I’d be rank ungrateful to complain that it lacks a point of view. Richard Eyre has chosen to tell Bizet’s story — not his own irrelevant story — in handsome stage pictures with no interpolated funny business, and I applaud. Even posing for a photographer in Act IV comes at a moment when it does not interrupt the music and the character — Escamillo — might believably pose for a photographer.
Barbara Frittoli as Micaela and Roberto Alagna as Don José
What did irritate me a bit — but this is part of the standard approach to the classics in our era — is that the direction has tightened the screws of sexual and other kinds of brutality. Soldiers cannot casually flirt with naïve Micaela — they threaten to rape her the moment she appears, and she narrowly escapes. The smugglers do not gallantly tie Zuniga up in their den — they torture him a bit just for the hell of it, while singing the gallant phrases of the superb Meilhac and Halévy libretto. The period of the piece has been advanced, it seems, to the era of Spain’s Second Republic, just before the Civil War, and perhaps we are to understand the tension between soldiers and civilians, smugglers and the law, as a foretaste of the horrors to come — I don’t know.
Elina Garanča as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don José
Two dancers, perhaps representing archetypal Male and Female or Yang and Yin or the infertile stage director and his Muse or a desperate attempt to give Christopher Wheeldon something to do, make a nuisance of themselves during the preludes to Acts I and III.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with terrific verve and snap, and I would have preferred to concentrate on his music-making when those dancers were making such a spectacle of themselves. The Act III prelude, in particular, is such a lovely, graceful mountain pastorale and leads so perfectly into the scene of shattering bliss that follows that staging it seems wildly intrusive.