08 Jan 2010
Quality opera just round the corner
Well into the 1960s, ‘provincial theaters’ were the backbone of Italy’s operatic culture.
Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
Well into the 1960s, ‘provincial theaters’ were the backbone of Italy’s operatic culture.
Typically seating 200 to 600, offering reduced seasons of just a few popular titles, hosting strolling companies and partly drawing from semiprofessional forces as to orchestras and choirs, they worked as an efficient low-entry circuit nationwide, so that young talents might be discovered and acquire stage experience, while mature professionals could age gracefully while waiting for retirement.
That pattern went nearly lost during the following decades, as growing travel opportunities on one side, and multimedia diffusion of grand opera productions on the other, compelled many a minor house to shut up shop. However, part of it is resurfacing in a more sophisticated form. Aware of unavoidable competition from opera DVDs and cheap live beaming in neighborhood cinemas, provincial opera theaters now reopen under the aegis of local Councilors for Culture and Education, putting a premium on artistic quality rather than on business, albeit within the constraint of limited public budgets.
Padua’s Teatro Comunale, named for Giuseppe Verdi, is one such example. “Less is more” is the motto for this small but savvy house that offers two productions a season, with fashionable directors, elegant but essential sets and emerging musical talents from the world over. Coproductions with its peers in the area, Rovigo and Bassano del Grappa, multiply the impact and grant Padua denizens the experience of live opera just round the corner — for ludicrous investments. This lovely production of Trovatore, for example, did cost the local taxpayer a mere Euro 105,134.06 — all included.Anna Smirnova as Azucena
It updates the action from Medieval Spain to some unspecified episode of modern class warfare, or, according to the director’s notes, to the days of Resistenza, the anti-Nazi guerrilla in Italy during the 1940s. While the consistency of this metamorphosis remains questionable under several viewpoints, it allows director Denis Krief — in charge of costume design as well as of sets and lighting — to contrast the rival parties by outfitting Count di Luna and his troopers in military uniforms resembling an early version of today’s Italian Polizia di Stato and Manrico’s forces (including the hard-working Gypsies) in casual civilian clothing. Simple, clear and low-budget enough. Both Leonora and her lady-in-waiting Ines wear elegant evening gowns befitting their social rank; as to Azucena, she stands midway between a punk star and the German diva Brigitte Helm featuring the Whore of Babylon in the 1927 cult movie Metropolis.
Even though the stage is rather large, Krief uses the space well and moves his people within the framework of a gigantic book, whose wooden pages, around 5.50 meters tall, are meant to remind that Verdi’s gloomy narration is both historic and a fairy tale. Their diversely carved surfaces, turned by the stagehands after each scene, also provide an ever-changing enhancement to the hall’s acoustic. Sound wizardry through a frugal technology not involving any electronic equipment.Vitaliy Biliy as Conte di Luna, Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Kristin Lewis as Leonora
Conductor Omer Meir Wellber clearly appreciates how fine an orchestrator Verdi was, as I heard many woodwind colors that often go overlooked, while the strategic role of the offstage choir and band was given due prominence. The young Israeli maestro, still in his late twenties, is a wonderful talent. His debut at Padua, in late 2008 with Aida, got him no less than the Toscanini Award from the Italian association of music critics. A similar story to Kristin Lewis’, a budding soprano from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose appearance as Aida on said production won her a row of international invitations for the same role. From her first phrase as Leonora she gave the impression of an almost ideal Verdian performer — indeed her ample, soft-grained lyrical tone and generous chest notes made her singing the delight of the evening.
As Azucena, the Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova impressed with her vast range of vocal color and dramatic accents of uncommon intensity. Ferrando, a somewhat perfunctory character who opens the opera by explaining the background that sets the plot in motion, then practically disappears, was impersonated by Roberto Tagliavini. With his big, solid voice and strong stage presence, he offered a preview of the vocal treasures he has in store, leaving me with the desire to hear more.
The two leading men, tenor Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Ukraine’s baritone Vitaliy Biliy as Count di Luna, are both good singers who interpret their roles with much ardor. Both have some dramatic shortcomings, though. In Biliy’s case the problem lies in acting. Even though he’s tall and commands the stage as a military leader should, his gestures are stock, failing to convey the character’s moments of doubt, brief repentance, and final desperation.