25 Jan 2010
London’s Rambunctious Rake
Covent Garden has revived director Robert Lepage’s popular and well-traveled version of The Rake’s Progress with often thrilling results.
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.
Covent Garden has revived director Robert Lepage’s popular and well-traveled version of The Rake’s Progress with often thrilling results.
First and foremost, the Royal Opera House’s Rake boasts an A-list cast that is as fine as can currently be assembled. Of especial interest to me was young bass Kyle Ketelsen’s role debut as Nick Shadow. He definitely did not disappoint. Mr. Ketelsen always offers a consistent, rich, and suave tonal delivery and he is possessed of one of the most secure techniques of any voice heard before the public today.
His is a sizable instrument which can easily ring out in the house one minute, and scale back to a hushed, intense sotto voce the next. He bought his usual intelligence and superb musicianship to bear in what has to be considered a major role assumption in his growing repertoire (and reputation). As wonderful as is his vocalizing, Kyle also scores big — make that waaaaaay big — as an actor. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of any male singer active that is his equal for stage presence, character delineation, vocal color, uninhibited movement, and dramatic understanding. The card scene could have served as Masters Class in theatrical nuance.
Repeated performances and even more experience will only deepen his already commendable interpretation. You heard it from me: Kyle Ketelsen will be the Nick Shadow of choice for future productions. I am not alone, the entire audience roared its approval with a vociferous ovation.
Happily, he was in great company. Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell served up splendid, secure singing all evening, and he managed to touch me deeply in his final scene as no one has before. My previous outing with the staged opera was limited to two disparate but troublesome productions in Aix and Salzburg respectively, but both starring the late Jerry Hadley in one of his best roles.
Although Jerry had more squillo in his voice, the concepts sadly kept him on the surface of the role. Mr. Spence was able to delve deeply into the character’s psyche, and while he appears and acts suitably boyish, his real-time maturity has been deployed effectively in defining Tom’s life journey and descent into madness.
He is a highly accomplished lyric tenor to be sure, but like many such well-schooled light voices, the artist can be counted upon to deliver more in the area of consistency of pleasing tone, than can be easily offered in terms of varied dramatic utterance. It is to his credit that he used his considerable acting skill to create a plausible illusion of varied tonal color.
Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell and Rosemary Joshua as Anne Trulove
Another brilliant lyric voice and vibrant stage presence was on hand in the person of Rosemary Joshua’s Anne. This wonderful artist goes from strength to strength and she, too, has an awesome arsenal of technical skills at her command. Just listen to her soaring fearlessly through the most angular phrases and meandering melismas, and then turn around to melt our hearts with utterly focused limpid singing of the first order. Kate Royal had been advertised for the part, but while Ms. Joshua offers a slightly more mature take on the role, she is slim, lovely, and still has the Wow Factor for me, as when I first heard her Cleopatra in Miami and said “Wow, who is this fabulous soprano?”
Patricia Bardon, a veteran of the 2008 mounting of this production, returned as Baba the Turk and successfully managed her rich bottom range and ringing top to deliver a fully committed traversal of one of opera’s most unique characters. She looked smashing, too, pulling off the difficult task of being bearded but yet seeming alluringly sexy. Stalwart comprimario Graham Clark treated us to a vocally secure and theatrically vibrant turn as the auctioneer Sellem, and company principal Jeremy White was solid of voice and stature as Trulove. Frances McCafferty seemed game to do anything (and did) as a randy Mother Goose, although there were a few frayed notes at the extremes of the range.
The orchestra had a remarkably fine night, not only playing the rhythmically challenging score cleanly, but also investing Stravinsky’s masterpiece with all the vibrant panache and passion it needs to make its mark. This can be attributed to the controlled baton of Ingo Metzmacher. I have encountered the maestro’s work on several occasions now. He is never less than inspired, and his musical stewardship is never less than remarkable. It is pleasure to watch his star on the rise.
Kyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow
Stage director Rober Lepage is always preceded by his large reputation, and for once it is a reputation founded on thoughtful experimentation informed by a respect for the original work. Mr. Lepage’s interpretation of this challenging piece is never less than hugely entertaining and ultimately it is enormously affecting. He has managed to find the honesty in Auden’s dark humor, and delivered some well-calculated laughs all the while retaining the underlying serious narrative. He was ably abetted in this fanciful pursuit by the witty set design of Carl Fillion; the colorful, characterful costumes by François Barbeau; and the evocative lighting devised by Boris Firquet. (It should be noted that Sybille Wilson has directed the revival, presumably with fidelity to the original staging.)
The production team has loosely devised their vision around a concept of Hollywood in its (now-) glorified heyday, with nods to such iconic films as Sunset Boulevard, The Snake Pit, Destry Rides Again, A Star is Born, among others. Nick Shadow is presented as an old school film director, a veritable Cecil B. De-vil, often riding herd and riding high over the proceedings from a camera crane and therefrom controlling the fates of his players.
This decidedly allowed for many images of great resonance, and some wholly engaging set changes which we came to anticipate with relish. I will never forget the slow inflation of Tom’s blow-up Hollywood star dressing trailer, or the disappearance of the lasciviously poised Goose and Tom as they sunk through the center of the red draped bed to the depths of the trap door, nor Anne’s goofy convertible car ride with scarf billowing in the breeze.
However, it has to also be said…it didn’t quite work as a totally integrated piece of theatre. At the end of the day, had I not read the program notes I might not have grasped this overall conceit until we were well into the piece. Unlike the recent Fanciulla in Amsterdam that established its intent early on to tap into Old Hollywood images, this Rake apparently began on a flat plain with an oil derrick in …where? Texas? Oklahoma? I was willing to go with that, but it soon seemed a red herring of sorts. When we finally start to get it, we wasted some time and attention playing catch-up in retrospect.
Patricia Bardon as Baba the Turk and Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell
Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that The Rake’s Progress was a highly diverting, conscientiously considered, and wholly professional evening at the opera. By assembling a world class cast and pairing them with its usual awesome musical and theatrical assets, the Royal Opera House has once again reminded me that it is Europe’s premiere company.