08 Jan 2010
Quality opera just round the corner
Well into the 1960s, ‘provincial theaters’ were the backbone of Italy’s operatic culture.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
In the first of pianist Julius Drake’s three-part series, ‘Perspectives’, our gaze was directed at Gustav Mahler’s eclectic musical responses to human experiences: from the trauma and distress of anguished love to the sweet contentment of true friendship, from the agonised introspection of the artist to the diverse dramas of human interaction.
The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.
The Paris Opéra has not staged a full Ring Cycle since 1957, but its current season will conclude with a correction of this grand operatic gap.
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.