19 Sep 2010
Un ballo in maschera at the Washington National Opera
Verdi’s 1859 hit Un ballo in maschera is an inspired choice to open an operatic season.
‘[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.
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.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Verdi’s 1859 hit Un ballo in maschera is an inspired choice to open an operatic season.
Intrigue, jealousy, murder and mayhem amid the sparkle of a masked ball certainly provide all the ingredients necessary for a successful inaugural gala. Yet director James Robinson’s version of the Ballo that has opened Washington National Opera’s 2010-2011 season is for the most part a gloomy affair, deliberately bereft of pageantry and panache. The color palette is mostly silver, eggshell, and beige; the chorus is dressed in identical drab gray, their steel-gray masks completing the picture of cold, faceless mannequins. Perhaps the director wanted to set the passionate principals of the drama (who — both heroes and villains — are permitted color) in sharper relief against the bland complicity of the chorus that tends to break into sycophantic hymns of praise at every opportunity - a habit that both the conspirators of the story and quite a few members of the audience, in my experience, tend to find extremely irritating.
As is fashionable nowadays, the action in this Ballo has been moved back to the 18th-century Swedish court of Gustav III, Verdi’s original location, which spares an American audience from the torment of imagining the 17th-century Boston, MA, populated by the very un-pilgrim-like Renato and Riccardo. Otherwise, this production is almost entirely traditional, which seemed to suit most of the principals I saw on Tuesday, September 14th, quite well. The Italian imports (tenor Salvatore Licitra as Gustavo and baritone Luca Salsi as Renato, Count Anckarström) in particular tended to gravitate towards the footlights at every opportunity, singing to the audience rather than to each other. Soprano Tamara Wilson as Amelia also tended to limit her acting to an occasional turn of the head. Yet, especially toward the end of the opera, it somehow worked for her, lending her tragic character dignity and poise that, in her predicament, Amelia could certainly use.
The only person in the production whom I spied having any fun at all was Micaëla Oeste’s lovable page Oscar. Oeste’s light, pure tone and her fast, precise, flexible coloratura made short work of the difficult part. She also monopolized virtually all the stage business in this Masked Ball, dancing, flirting, and mischief-making her way through the performance and keeping alive the bubbly spirit of French comedy, which Verdi so carefully planted into his score and which the other performers occasionally seemed to have misplaced. The one exception was the tasty “laughing chorus” at the end of Act 2, led with a suave nonchalance by Kenneth Kellogg and Julien Robbins as Count Ribbing and Count Horn respectively.
One of the highlights of the evening was Salvatore Licitra, who will surely not lack for admirers in the DC area after his performance as Gustavo. Licitra’s is a powerful, metallic tenore di forza that we demand of our Dukes, Alfredos, and Radameses; it carried without strain, easily taking and holding the mandatory high Bs of Gustavo’s part. The singer was at his best in the bel canto strains of his cantabile arias, and as their prominence in his part increased in Acts 2 and 3, his performance soared, the famous grand duet with Amelia and the Act 3 romance Ma se m’è forza perderti garnering plenty of well-deserved applause. All that power, however, seems to come at the expense of flexibility, which made for a few awkward moments in Act 1, in which Gustavo must be at his comic best. While the opening La rivedrà nell’ estasi was lovely, Licitra’s solos in the stretta, Ogni cura si doni al diletto and particularly in the fabulous quintet, È scherzo od è follia in Act 1 Scene 2, lacked not only an articulate coloratura, but occasionally the basic pitch and rhythm, especially at the break-neck tempi chosen by the conductor, Licitra’s compatriot Daniele Callegari. The bright spot in that scene was the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina, who stole the show as the fortune-teller Ulrica (that is, Mam’zelle Arvidson, according to Verdi’s original cast list). Manistina’s deep, rich, darkly powerful voice carried easily, with perhaps only a little too much vibrato - an echo of the Moscow singing school that nurtured the singer, a former Operalia winner. Immediately impressive was the opening invocation; despite the distraction of her unfortunate costume and wig (a cross between Macbeth and The Witches of Eastwick), one could hear both the menace of Azucena and the mystery of the Pique Dame, Ms. Manistina’s two signature parts.
Salvatore Licitra as King Gustavus III and Elena Manistina as Ulrica
As is so often the case, the overall impression of an opera production is either ruined or redeemed by the decisions of its design team, and the WNO’s Ballo was no exception (sets by Allen Moyer; original lighting by Duane Schuler; lighting by Jeff Bruckerhoff). The set for the fortune-telling scene, for instance, features the back panel of the palace ballroom, raised to hover diagonally over the stage, while Gustavo is forced to hide, in a most undignified fashion, behind a pile of left-over ballroom furniture. The choice of the ballroom’s fancy candelabra, partially covered with strips of cloth, somehow made to illuminate the Act 2 graveyard scene, is also rather puzzling. And alas, the pitiful sight of the choristers carrying their own chairs does make one reflect upon the depth of WNO’s budget woes. The “less is more” approach, however, works wonders in the opening scene of Act 3: set between the two panels - the floor and the much-too-low ceiling, with the sides draped in black, the austere design projects the oppressive and menacing atmosphere of the Anckarström household with spectacular power. Luca Salsi was equally spot-on with his Eri tu, one of Renato’s signature pieces and undoubtedly Salsi’s best contribution on Tuesday - his opening Alla vita che t’arride was shaky enough to make one wonder whether the part was too high for him. Like Salsi, Tamara Wilson’s Amelia grew on me as the evening progressed: her first act was unremarkable; the grand scena in Act 2 was better, although I was not entirely convinced by the duet; but the heart-breaking Morrò ma prima in grazia in Act 3 Scene 1, with its subtle mezzo voce, was truly memorable. That scene indeed proved one of the most potent in the production, if not for the orchestra - the timpani so loud and the brass so stunningly off-pitch, one could almost understand Amelia’s desire to end it all.
Salvatore Licrita as King Gustavus III and Tamara Wilson as Amelia
In the final analysis, this WNO production of Un ballo in maschera, although uneven, is worth seeing, both for the highlights in the cast and for some powerful moments in direction and design. After all, the company is not spoiling us for choice this season, with only one other production — Salome — between now and March. Stay tuned!