11 Oct 2010
Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco (and Los Angeles)
No question that Nicola Luisotti is a conducting genius, and no question that genius runs amuck from time to time. In the case of Mo. Luisotti fairly often.
On Thursday evening October 13, Los Angeles Opera transmitted Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth live from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in the center of the city, to a pier in Santa Monica and to South Gate Park in Southeastern Los Angeles County. My companion and I saw the opera in High Definition on a twenty-five foot high screen at the park.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
No question that Nicola Luisotti is a conducting genius, and no question that genius runs amuck from time to time. In the case of Mo. Luisotti fairly often.
The September 23 performance teetered on the edge of madness with the overture used as a projectile to ignite the eighteenth century social unrest that is Le nozze di Figaro. The unrest was not only social, it was also musical for the porcelain-like figurines who embodied Mozart’s by now mythical characters. Their struggle, usually successful, to keep apace with the musical force was heroic, with even unexpected fruits — beautiful agogic accents occurring when a voice fell slightly behind the beat.
If Mo. Luisotti unabashedly strives for effect, its motivation is musical and not mere showmanship. The maestro here met his match in the case of his Susanna, Danielle de Niese and his Figaro Luca Pisaroni, the play of tempos with vocal line was even sublime. The exposition of the story in the first scene was a masterpiece.
Ellie Dehn as the Countess and Lucas Meachem as the Count
John Copley staged the opera. Mr. Copley is the most musical of directors, merging word and vocal line with movement in perfect concert with storytelling. It is manifest in continuous movement and dramatic flow which was exemplary Copley in the performances of this Susanna and Figaro. Indeed throughout much of the first act and with all of the cast a sense of uneasy perfection prevailed amongst pit, voice and stage.
The maestro’s illumination of musical line and the visual artifice supplied by Mr. Copley created the abundance of detail that resulted in the figurine quality of the cast. Gracefully dominated on September 23 by Mlle. de Niese and Mr. Pisaroni it was otherwise an ensemble cast of gifted singing actors — Michèle Losier as Cherubino, Lucas Meachem as the Count and Ellie Dehn as the Countess, with grand, experienced performances by Catherine Cook as Marcellina, John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo and Greg Fedderly as a stylistically exact Basilio.
The sense of exquisite detail that prevailed extended to the smallest roles — a rashly drunk Antonio sung by Bojan Knezevic and the Don Curzio sung by Robert MacNeil.
All this surface artifice played against a vaguely house-like wooden structure that was vaguely indoors/outdoors as needed, and it could also be used for Barber and Falstaff or Turn of the Screw for that matter (best not to mention this to SFO MBA David Gockley). It was built in 1982 for another director and already once visited by Mr. Copley before being taken over by legendary Susanna, Graziella Sciutti turned stage director. Surely it will now go directly from the War Memorial to the dump.
Mo. Luisotti exposed very nimble fingers at the continuo fortepiano, and nimble musicality superimposing a bit of Lohengrin, snatches of Mozart piano sonatas plus a touch of Eine kleine Nachtmusik (and who knows what else) from time to time. Everyone was having so much fun that when things got serious things fell apart. The second part (the third act) brings the big showpiece arias that require big artists to command big theaters. It was beyond the scope of this fine cast who had so brilliantly executed the ensembles of the first part (acts one and two).
Danielle de Niese as Susanna and Michèle Losier as Cherubino
To the delight of everyone the maestro and the director exploited the agility of this responsive cast to the degree that when Count Almaviva knelt to beg forgiveness we all laughed because we were so used to being amused by the musical and physical antics. Of course this moment is deadly serious, and after the fact the maestro did try to save the day by imposing a sudden largo. It was too much too late.
After its Ring cycle last spring Los Angeles seemed like the big time, operatically speaking. Its concurrent (to San Francisco) Marriage of Figaro has confused this perception. Seen October 6 three new cast members (Susanna, Marcellina and Barbarina) were being integrated into the cast. This situation alone was sufficient to distort its staging rhythm.
The Marriage of Figaro is central to the repertory of all opera companies. In 2004 L.A. Opera unveiled this Ian Judge production (in its initial years L.A. had relied on the Peter Hall production from Chicago). Now six years later the Judge production still passes as a contemporary statement, needing only a cast and conductor to bring it alive.
Designed by Tim Goodchild (a Brit with extensive theater credentials, like Mr. Judge) it is business like — a back wall of a different saturated color for each scene, a few chandeliers coming and going, and sensibly enough a house on an horizon (like TV’s Dallas) overlooking an extensive dark park illuminated by a huge moon (yes, it is very Halloween though surely this is not its intention).
The costumes, designed by Diedre Clancy, another of our mainstream British cousins, made up in slickness what they may have lacked in inspiration. Clever and surprisingly harmonious was the mix of styles and periods. Not to mention Mr. Judge’s tricky use of a telephone in the Countess’ bedroom and flashlights in the garden in this predominantly period production.
All this high style was not requited by either the conducting or the singing. Placido Domingo was in the pit, by now a very beloved L.A. personage it seems judging from the huge ovation awarded him. In the first part (acts one and two) he imposed tempos that were quite convenient for the singers but lacked the Mozartian impudence that keeps Figaro forever alive.
If the first part of Figaro is about Mozart the second part (acts three and four) is about singers as each are awarded a showpiece aria. Here Domingo was right on with the evening’s stars — Bo Skovhus as the Count and Martina Serafin as the Countess — giving them everything they needed to tear up the stage. And that they did, Mr. Skovhus, though small of voice managed some elegant musicianship rushing back and forth across the stage. Mme. Serafin, of big, very big voice, musically well controlled to be sure was a far more determined Countess than a reflective one (after all la Serafin is usually a Tosca).
These larger scaled performances established an emotional focus for Mozart’s comedy that brought to mind the silly notion that The Marriage of Figaro is the perfect opera. But to subvert any attempt at a perfect realization L.A. Opera succumbed to the too prevalent practice of sending boys in to do men’s work, i.e. expecting talented young singers from an apprentice artist program to embody important Mozartian personalities, and otherwise entrusting character roles to unseasoned artists.
Rebekah Camm gave a fine performance as Susanna, though she does not look like a typical Susanna, and as well she was stepping into a part already staged for another singer (Marlis Petersen sang the first three performances). Daniel Okulitch fulfilled the basic needs of the Count’s major factotum without imparting grand personality and Renata Pokupic made a convincingly adolescent Cherubino.
On October 10 San Francisco Opera introduced four new singers into the last three of its nine performances of Le Nozze — Kostas Smoriginas as Figaro, Heidi Stober as Susanna, Trevor Scheunemann as Almaviva and Dale Travis as Bartolo.
For messieurs Scheunemann and Travis the transition was seamless, both artists blending into the ensemble and upholding its precision. Mr. Smoriginas and Mlle. Stober introduced their own particular tonalities. Both are very warm performers with strong voices, who found themselves at odds with the maestro in the opening scene. A compromise seemed to be reached soon enough resulting in convincingly human performances from these two artists that took the Copley production to another level.
In the end we still did laugh when the Count knelt to beg the Countess’ forgiveness, but in this performance Mo. Luisotti grasped the depth of meaning in this gesture, and infused a warmth and understanding into Mozart’s music that exponentially complicated the situations of the four sets of lovers lined across the stage. This unexpected realization spread slowly through the audience as the last ensemble unfolded, leaving us again smitten by this astonishing work of art.
Los Angeles Cast:
Figaro: Daniel Okulitch; Susanna: Rebekah Camm; Count Almaviva: Bo Skovhus; Countess Almaviva: Martina Serafin; Cherubino: Renata Pokupic; Marcellina: Tracy Cox; Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Guerzoni; Don Basilio: Christopher Gillett; Antonio: Phiilip Cokorinos. Conductor: Plácido Domingo. Director: Ian Judge. Scenery Designer: Tim Goodchild. Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy. Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday. Choreographer: Sergio Trujillo