17 May 2010
Mefistofele in Montpellier
Back in 1989 Ken Russell opened his Genovese Mefistofele with heavenly choirs contemplating the divinity of a praying mantis.
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 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.
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.
Back in 1989 Ken Russell opened his Genovese Mefistofele with heavenly choirs contemplating the divinity of a praying mantis.
Earlier this spring Jean-Louis Grimpa had a flock of chickens perform his Falstaff in Monaco, though just now messieur Grimpa resurrected his 2007 Liège (Belgium) Mefistofele in Montpellier (May 4) with actual homo sapiens to embody Goethe’s Faustian characters.
Not that these humans brought any deep humanity to Boito’s highly concocted version of the Goethe Faust as Jean-Louis Grimpa rendered this austere battle of the here and the hereafter as pure farce. Mr. Grimpa does have valid claim to knowing earthly pleasures as he was born in Monaco and is now the intendant of the Monte Carlo opera, his treatment of this Faust opera however quells speculation as to any possible spiritual credentials.
The Opéra National de Montpellier was a willing partner in the project, assembling a fine cast that brought added dimension to operatic farce, notably tenor Argentine Gustavo Porta as Faust who exploits the complete catalogue of tenor mannerisms in unrelenting spinto projection, and young American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart as Margherita who shows herself a committed student of diva mannerisms that she is instinctively placing in the service of her fine Italianate instrument.
Boito’s opera gave these two singers ample opportunity to show their stuff and that they did, strutting as singers might but coming close to giving us the splendid, over-ripe vocalism that will flower in post Verdian opera. Mlle. Meshé Kizart delivered the vivid prison scene that heralds her salvation moving effectively between chest and head voice, and ultimately arriving at a qualified artistic salvation of her incipient diva mannerisms. Mr. Porta knew that he was artistically saved all along because we are all suckers for Italian tenors.
In its program booklet Montpellier pronounced the Mefistofole premiere to be in 1868 at La Scala, though what we heard was the much modified (and significantly shortened) 1881 version that pleased audiences who preferred real Italian opera and cared little about Teutonic philosophy. Like its reviled predecessor (Gounod’s 1859 version) its operatic heart winds up in the tempestuous Faust/Margarite encounter. Boito was however undaunted by the Goethe Book II which he incorporates in the last two of his opera’s seven scenes — Helen of Troy’s seduction of Faust and finally the salvation of Faust.
The oblique progression of Faust’s salvation and Mefistofele’s defeat in this final version lends itself to farce because its story became so simply told in such brief terms. Where Ken Russell’s brilliant metaphors deepened an audience’s intellectual involvement and thereby retained Goethe’s seriousness Jean-Louis Grimpa realizes Mefistofele as an arch-villain who materializes dressed in a red velvet suit and bathed in red light. He parades himself in front of the heavenly choirs seated on bleachers amidst floating clouds.
And from this moment on Mr. Grimpa with Boito demand that their Mefisto tower over every scene. The name of the opera after all is Mefistofele. That he did. Russian bass Konstantin Gorny made the Mefisto of your dreams, charming and seductive he exuded a irresistible commitment to pleasure that never flagged. His grandest moment occurred when, banned from the ancient world (because he did not yet exist) he exulted in Grecian beauty from the audience, perched on a balcony railing, legs dangling into the void.
Mr. Grimpa and his accomplices, set designer Rudi Sabounghi and costume designer Buki Shiff, are theatrically savvy indeed. The set was minimalism at its most eloquent, a downstage false proscenium made of worldly wood against heavens rendered by projected clouds and mists, and mirrors to make it infinite. Though Mefisto simply changed into a black leather suit to become Faust’s mentor chorus costuming was quite elaborate They were first white robed angels, then a huge variety of circus players, then black and white spirits later becoming toga draped Greeks, and once again white robed angels, a hundred or so of them. No expense spared to create this spectacle.
This witty costuming more than anything else created the farce, and the movements of the players effected by director Grimpa complemented these costuming abstractions. Mr. Grimpa consistently utilized extended diagonal movement that accelerated Boito’s already sketchy story telling. Faust’s seduction of Margarite as example was a masterpiece of stage direction interweaving Mefisto resisting Martha’s advances with Faust pursuing Margarite in movement that was linearly musical (in perfect step with Boito’s complex quartet) rather than theatrically dramatic.
The pit was entrusted to French conductor Patrick Davin who kept the massive choral and orchestral forces required by Boito in absolute control without neglecting the construction of the opera’s huge climactic moments. That these climaxes were rarely satisfying can possibly be blamed on Boito’s compositional naivete, as perhaps the thwarted musical resolutions of some of the arias can be as well. Or maybe Mo. Davin is just not Italian.
The stars of this show were the choruses, one hundred or so (the chorus from Wallonie journeyed down to join the Montpellier chorus) plus thirty or so singing cherubs. While Boito’s grand choruses did sometimes expose naivete, at other times he pulled out the stops to create complex choral structures, notably the giant fugue in witches‘ Sabbat scene, impeccably executed with appropriate glee. To the aplomb of this choral accomplishment you can add that of the children’s chorus, delivering difficult part writing never out of sync with Mo. Davin.
And finally, Faust saved, Mefistofele was driven from the scene, pelted with rose petals hurled [!] by three innocent cherubim, as clouds of rose pedals floated down from the Opéra Berlioz ceiling coating the audience with one last bit of heavenly fun.