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.
12 Oct 2010
Promised End — English Touring Opera
In the final scene of Shakespeare’s King Lear, faced with the dreadful sight of the distraught Lear cradling in his arms the body of his dead daughter Cordelia, the Earl of Kent asks: “Is this the promised end?”
His words perhaps recall the aged Lear’s earlier hope that he
might one day “Unburdened crawl towards death”. Or, as Edgar
interprets, they may evoke the more terrifying image of the Day of Judgement.
Whatever they infer, choosing Kent’s words as the title of an opera which
— its sub-plots stripped away, its minor (and some major) characters
shorn of significance — lasts less 90 minutes but which leaves the
audience longing for the eponymous conclusion, is a potentially dangerous
It’s not that Alexander Goehr’s new opera has no musical or
theatrical merits. Indeed, the first act moves briskly along and, for one
unfamiliar with its poetical predecessor, raises a few interesting ideas. But,
the second act rapidly loses focus; essentially this ‘personal
take’ on Lear has little to say or reveal.
“It’s about old men who get it wrong when they have power and
influence — and then get into a mess. That’s the reason I’m
doing this opera. […] As an incipient old man myself, that’s what
interest me about the story. I mean, I can do Romeo and Juliet now
— I’m past that stage.’”
So Goehr declared in a recent interview in The Guardian, explaining
his decision to tackle one of Shakespeare’s most complex, profound and
disturbing plays, and one which defeated even Verdi and Britten, who abandoned
long-held ambitions to compose an opera based on King Lear. Now aged
78, Goehr professes that the impetus to tackle Lear came when, suffering from
depression upon retiring (reluctantly) from his Professorship at Cambridge
University, he happened to have a dream in which the play was ‘staged as
a Japanese Noh play’. The resulting opera mingles Noh stylizations with
Elizabethan conceits but the sum of the parts lacks substance and coherence.
One is reminded less of the successful cross-cultural integration of Noh
practices with the medieval Mystery Plays in Britten’s church parables
and rather more of the somewhat laboured device of the Male and Female Chorus
in The Rape of Lucretia. Conway’s production — in which
the chorus of principals stand (à la Brecht — another layer of
cultural reference) white-faced and stock-still, motionlessly addressing the
audience, ritually step through boxes of sand, and indulge in stylized dance
movements (for example to accompany the blinding of Gloucester) — taps
into the Noh clichés but offers little illumination.
Indeed, the shadow of Britten hangs over this opera in more ways than one.
The decision to use Shakespeare’s text verbatim recalls the approach of
Britten and Pears when constructing the libretto of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream. In this case, the eminent scholar, the late Frank
Kermode, fashioned a libretto which Goehr has arranged in ’24
preludes’. But, while reducing the work to a manageable length —
excising several (essential?) aspects of the drama and focusing on the central
exchange between Lear and Gloucester — this still leaves the problem of
how to find an appropriate melodic idiom for Shakespeare’s poetry.
Goehr’s rather spiritless arioso simply does not convey the rich depths
and meanings embodied in the sounds and rhythms of the spoken play. Moreover,
the composer’s re-ordering of various episodes destroys the narrative
coherence and makes it near impossible for anyone lacking knowledge of the
original play to follow the psychological development.
The singers and players of English Touring Opera do their best. Lisa
Markeby, playing both Cordelia and the Fool — a now familiar theatrical
device — is appealing, but she is not given the opportunity to develop
and express the full extent of her inner goodness. And, while the expressive
focus of the opera is supposedly the meeting of the two foolish old men, Lear
and Gloucester, now chastened and wiser as they reflect on their short-comings,
the musical fabric fails to convey their supposed transformation. Roderick
Earle bellows and blusters as an aggressive Lear, his scenes with Nigel Robson
(Gloucester) lacking genuine emotional depth and sincerity. As Edgar, Adrian
Dwyer is convincing and impressive. Goneril (Jacqueline Varsey) and Regan
(Julia Sporsen) are not musically differentiated and have little dramatic role
Ryan Wigglesworth draws clear lines and textures from his band, the Aurora
Orchestra. Goehr does create some interesting colours, not least through his
use of the chamber organ and guitar — which evoke fittingly Elizabethan
timbres — but the composite impression is one of episodic, unrelated
colourings designed to fill the gaps between scenes.
In his programme note, Goehr asks for the audience’s indulgence:
“So it remains only for me to say, that you will not be home too late and
ask that by your clapping you show some approval for what has been done
here.” This seems to me to be a patronising appeal to an audience that
may long for a less superficial musical response to a play that interrogates
essential questions of human existence.
Promised End is at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House,
London on 11, 14, 16 October and then tours until 26 November. For touring
details see www.englishtouringopera.org.uk.