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.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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!