28 Jan 2010
Simon Boccanegra, New York
The Times used to have a music critic who seemed to feel that singing, especially in costume, didn’t count as serious music, though he reviewed opera anyway.
Wigmore Hall has announced the 25 young singer and pianist duos from around the world who have been shortlisted for this prestigious competition, which takes place at Wigmore Hall in September with the generous support of the Kohn Foundation. Details were announced on 27 April during a recital by Milan Siljanov, who won top prize in the 2015 Competition.
Garsington Opera's thrilling new commission for the 2017 Season, Silver Birch, will feature over 180 participants from the local community aged 8-80, including students from primary and secondary schools, members of the local military community, student Foley artists under the guidance of Pinewood Studios and members of Wycombe Women’s Aid.
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.
The Times used to have a music critic who seemed to feel that singing, especially in costume, didn’t count as serious music, though he reviewed opera anyway.
Simon Boccanegra excited his particular ire: he would waste three or four paragraphs trying to figure out the plot and then toss out the name of a singer or two. How many people do go to a Verdi opera for the sake of the plot? I hoped he was the only one — but the other night, on the bus down Broadway after this latest Met Simon, I heard a couple of opera-goers complaining that they found Simon more incomprehensible than Trovatore (I find Trovatore crystal clear, by the way), and an old friend said, “How come Fiesco, after twenty-five years in disguise, just happens to become the guardian of an orphan who just happens to be his lost granddaughter?” This is, of course, a stumbling block, what the French call, translating another Verdi opera, La force de la coïncidence. You should do what Verdi did with such absurdities: Ignore them and focus on the music. The plot is not what the opera is about — not this opera.
What Simon is about — besides the father-daughter theme (here also grandfather-granddaughter) always explosive in the operas of the childless Verdi — is color. The prologue, for instance, set in an alleyway in fourteenth-century Genoa, includes confrontations among four characters, not one of them of a higher voice than baritone. Even the offstage women’s prayers for the dead are offset by a basso Miserere. All the murky political and personal doings are shrouded in shadow, and this shadow only dissipates in Act I against the shimmering dawn-over-the-sea music of Amelia’s aria, yet even her happiness at the beauty of the scene and at finding true love is intruded upon by minor-key forebodings. The whole opera is prevailingly dark, with only the shimmer of the sea, the warmth of the glorious father-daughter duet and the occasional beacon of the one soprano voice in the great crowd scenes that end Acts I and III.
I call this Verdi’s “light-in-the-darkness” period, a series of experiments he made in tonal color by setting a single soprano to shine out over massed crowds of dark sound. Thus we have Leonora’s “Vergine degli angeli” in Forza, Oscar’s high melody in “E scherzo od e follia” in Ballo in Maschera, the Celestial Voice in Don Carlos, the priestess in Aida. The effect is to make the drama personal, to remind us that amidst the mobs carrying us along in life’s big events, the individual soul is suffering individual anguish. Leonora de Vargas isn’t just joining the monks in prayer — she has her own guilt to expiate, her own questioning of God’s purpose; Oscar is not merely apprehensive at the witch’s prophecy, he is a believer in her powers, which suddenly seem to threaten his beloved sovereign; the priestess does not merely hope for the triumph of the choral manhood of Egypt, she seems to be making a direct appeal to “immenso Ftha” for divine favor.
Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi
In Simon Boccanegra, God is not the problem; politics are — to the point that Amelia’s personal problems could be overwhelmed in mob violence, here vocalized. But all politics are local, and Verdi presents the individual point of view by having her soprano trill through the dark concertato that ends Act I, her descending arpeggio of mourning riding free beside her father’s deathbed in Act III. Verdi has evoked the darkness of grim scheming and civil conflict, but Amelia’s voice reminds us of individual experience and personal loss.
My Amelias go back to Gabriela Tucci and have included Maliponte, Arroyo, Te Kanawa, Mattila, Guryakova and Gheorghiu — all superb except the last, whose voice seemed small for Verdi in a room the size of the Met. On this occasion, Amelia was sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, a handsome woman whose voice is cool, lovely, and sizable without audible effort, but her “Com’e in quest’ora bruna” was uneven, with a swoopiness whenever she leaped above the staff that was also present for the rest of Act I. In her duet with Domingo (is there a lovelier father-daughter duet in all Verdi?), she was better when leaps were not required of her, but the great trill in the concertato was mud. She warmed up in Act II, and the arpeggios that must gleam at Simon’s deathbed did so. It was not clear whether the Canadian soprano was having a difficult night or was simply miscast. The Met needs a Verdi soprano with a voice this big and beautiful, but she should be in better control of her instrument.
Plácido Domingo’s decision to take on the baritone doge’s role (not his first such exploration at the Met — he has sung Gluck’s Oreste here) was surely the reason the Met was packed, and the crowd was so unfamiliar with the opera and with the baritone color in which he sang that they failed to greet his initial entrance with intrusive applause — bravos all round for that! The applause (and flowers) at evening’s end made up for that to be sure. His performance was more than satisfactory — from a tenor-out-of-water at nearly seventy, it was a far more finished a vocal interpretation than, say, José Cura’s Stiffelio. Domingo has always been a baritonal tenor — to the frustration of those tenor-lovers who like the near-desperation certain voices make in attaining high notes. Domingo recorded bits of Rossini’s Figaro and Verdi’s Posa long ago, but Simon is one of Verdi’s signature baritone parts. There was a sense that the lower depths, the baritonal resonance, the depth and echo, were not well served, that he does not resonate there — but he was on pitch and in character, clearly enjoying his interactions with old friends like James Morris and James Levine.
Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi, Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno and James Morris as Fiesco
Marcello Giordani sang like a god in Act I and grew a little sloppy thereafter, though without the strain and pitch problems that have sometimes dogged him in Donizetti. Verdi is the right place for him.
James Morris no longer sings Wotan or Hans Sachs, but his Fiesco reminds us that in his early decades he was known for his Mozart and bel canto. No longer having great caverns of voice to draw upon, he husbanded his resources well and sang on the lighter side of this dark role, without wobble and without disgrace. Patrick Carfizzi made an appropriately histrionic Paolo, the slimy fixer of Genoa, catching the character’s inner torments and rages with a serene Verdi line. Paolo is often an apprentice Simon, as Ford is an apprentice Falstaff, and Carfizzi should be interesting when he takes up the title role.
In James Levine’s capable hands, all the parts of this subtle score interacted smoothly whether the singer was staring only at him — as Domingo usually did — or not. The music of the great duet seemed to breathe with the surf rolling into Genoa, and Verdi’s intricate games with strings and winds created a sense of symphonic mood, a pervading unease highlighted by the thundering brasses he would use again and again in the operas that followed.
Giancarlo del Monaco’s production in Michael Scott’s colorful sets does not clarify the complicated plot, beginning as it does in fourteenth-century Genoa (as Verdi desired) and then apparently lurching to seventeenth-century Venice in the Council Chamber scene for no reason except that Tintoretto on the ceiling looks pretty and nobody knows what the Genovese council chamber did look like. Peter McClintock has elided some of Del Monaco’s more hamhanded bits of direction — crowds move naturalistically, a happy change, and Fiesco no longer draws a sword to rush at Simon three times in the course of the opera; only once. Still, as he never does lay a paw on him, these madcap outbursts tend to make Fiesco look ineffectual at best. Verdi intended Fiesco to possess a dignity evidently beyond Del Monaco’s narrow imagination.