08 Jan 2010
Quality opera just round the corner
Well into the 1960s, ‘provincial theaters’ were the backbone of Italy’s operatic culture.
‘[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.
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.
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.