Recently in Performances
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.
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 town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
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.
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
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.
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.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
10 May 2010
Heggie’s Moby-Dick a whale of an opera
It’s glorious and it’s gripping; it’s grand — and
it’s good! Indeed, Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick,
premiered by Dallas Opera in its handsome new Winspear Opera House on April 30,
is a work that restores meaning to basic vocabulary made banal by overuse
through the decades.
Heggie — assisted by his seasoned librettist Gene Scheer — has
achieved something with Moby Dick that American opera has
not experienced in a long time: they have created a work of quality that should
garner itself an immediate place in the repertory of opera houses around the
Announcement of the commission — Dallas Opera’s first for the
Wiinspear — raised eyebrows, for few could imagine a less operatic novel
than Hermann Melville’s 1851 detailed account of sailing and whaling.
Running 500 to 700 pages in standard editions, the book is often dark and
diffuse — everything that an opera cannot be, if it is to reach an
audience with its story. In a sense, of course, Melville made it easy for
Sheer, for the many exegesis on whaling were easily excised as the librettist
laid bare the soul of the novel in his focus on its characters.
As told in the opera Moby Dick is now a story that
explores the raw basic forces of life, underscoring the darkness that drives
men and sends them to perdition. The Great White Whale is only a means to that
end. Indeed, Sheer’s Ahab, the man who has lost a leg to the animal upon
whom he seeks revenge, is yet another Faust out to defy the
less-than-benevolent god embodied in the whale.
It is this confrontation with “the basics,” the unembellished
dark drives that send men on impossible adventures, that the audience feels
first-hand in this three-hour opera. “Feels,” one emphasizes, for
Heggie has written music — always accessible — that requires no
major act of mediation through performers. The score speaks always with telling
directness. There is never “time out” to be mere opera. It is
visceral music; now and then one puts up one’s hand in defense.
That’s why one is wrung out at the end of Moby Dick,
for one has been through it all with the many sailors on the Pequod. The opera
keeps attention riveted on the stage; the mind is not allowed to wander. Most
amazing aspect of the opera is that there is no feeling of condensation or that
anything has been left out. Heggie more than compensates in mesmerizing music
for the liberties taken with Melville’s text.
Heggie’s progress as a composer is documented throughout the score,
which is largely through-composed with arias and ensembles seamlessly woven
into it. The orchestral interludes are destined to take their place next to the
Sea Interludes from Benjamin’s Peter
Moby Dick is a Dallas co-commission with San Francisco,
San Diego and Calgary Operas and State Opera of South Australia, and one can
only hope that the other companies have the high-tech facilities that enabled
the Winspear to take full advantage of an awesome world of effects —
photos, projections and sets — that added so much to this initial
Director Leonard Foglia worked with the hand of a sorcerer to blend
projection designs by Elaine McCarthy into an overpowering and effective whole
with designs by Robert Brill and lighting by Donald Holder. Never did these
visual aspects threaten the primacy of Heggie’s score, in which there is
not one superfluous note.
Scheer achieved dramatic concentration by pairing Ahab — sung to
perfection by veteran Ben Heppner - with first mate Starbuck — stunningly
portrayed by Morgan Smith, a baritone at home in top German opera houses. They
interlock with a second pairing: native and noble Queequeg, engrossingly
portrayed by New Zealand Samoan Jonathan Lemalu, and Greenhorn, the young man
out — Parsifal-like — to learn fear — so touchingly sung by
young American tenor Stephen Costello.
Only in the final minutes of the work does Costello reveal that he is the
man called Ishmael who opens the novel. He is of special interest as the one
character who — in confronting fear — develops. The other three of
this basic quartet remain what they were when the curtain rose.
Sole female in the cast was Talise Trevigne, whose touching incarnation of
Cabin Boy Pip offered little hint of the successful Violetta, Lucia and Pamina
that have made her famous in Europe.
Moby Dick is rich in powerful choruses — the
major show-stoppers of the debut performance — admirable prepared by
Patrick Summers, Heggie perennial collaborator, evoked magnificent playing
from the Dallas Opera Orchestra in giving birth to what is obviously a modern
masterpiece of music theater.
(The opera will enlighten a young generation by revealing the source of the
name Starbuck — even if it fails to explain the coffee company’s
aversion to apostrophes.)