07 Nov 2010
Intermezzo, New York City Opera
Pace Tolstoy, happy marriages are not all alike, but they require a lot of work.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
Pace Tolstoy, happy marriages are not all alike, but they require a lot of work.
I am not referring to the hectic happy marriage of Richard and Pauline Strauss, the model on which Strauss constructed Intermezzo, his portrait of the composer at home with the non-stop assault of his termagant wife accusing and blaming and admitting she’d find it dull to live with someone who didn’t fight back. I’m referring to the supremely happy marriage of artist and role (which, like any happy marriage, calls for luck and hard work) now on offer at the New York City Opera, where Mary Dunleavy has taken on the shrewish coloratura flights and turn-on-a-dime changes of mood that are Christine Storch.
Dunleavy’s honeyed voice resembles that of Renée Fleming before that grande dame became so affected and spoiled. I first heard Dunleavy’s sturdy lyric soprano as that roughest of dramatic coloratura workouts, Konstanze in Mozart’s Seraglio, and a woman who can handle Konstanze with credit can probably wrestle tigers. More recently she has been an admired Violetta (which I did not see). I wouldn’t have thought of Christine as a Dunleavy vehicle, perhaps because the part was created for the more opulent vocal charms of Lotte Lehmann, perhaps because the last time the City Opera presented it, the role was taken by Lauren Flanigan. Flanigan’s lyric skills were severely tested by the Strauss orchestra but her voice has a dangerous edge to it that made her an exciting Christine.
Mary Dunleavy as Christine Storch and Nicholas Pallesen as Robert Storch
Dunleavy lacks that edge, but her girlish qualities are stronger than they seem (as was probably also true of Pauline Strauss, for whom her husband wrote so many of his loveliest songs), and she has no problem riding the full blast of a lush orchestra. At moments of stress, a metallic sheen (very Strauss, very Jugendstil, like the gold slathered on a Klimt portrait) gleams through the instrumental texture, which argues not merely ability but craft: Dunleavy knows just how to slice through a heavy orchestra without putting herself under undue strain. Nor did it hurt that, with her marcelled hair and suave twenties costumes, her pert, imperious manner recalled the slangy heroines played by Myrna Loy and Jean Arthur. Add to this a balletic figure and a charm that almost persuades you Christine would be endurable, and you have the finest achievement of a singing actress on New York’s opera stages this fall.
Intermezzo is one of Strauss’s conversational operas—the Prologue to Ariadne and Die Schweigsame Frau are similar—in that, though the score is full of melody, the voice seldom flows into easy, relaxing song. This is a major reason for the opera’s rarity in non-German-speaking lands, but with Dunleavy’s lyricism joining the fragments of sprechstimme and endearment and tirade, I felt as I do with a good Handel or Verdi recitativo accompagnato, that this was more interesting, more full of character, than song would be. Strauss uses the same richly symphonic language for the mythic and grandiose (in operas like Die Frau ohne Schatten and the “operatic” portions of Ariadne auf Naxos) as he does for the day-to-day domesticity of the “Sinfonia Domestica” and Intermezzo. Perhaps he saw no difference between the mythic and day-to-day family discord. Today, with a flood of new operas loosed upon the world dealing with messy everyday lives, neglecting antique myth or historical pageant, perhaps Intermezzo will prove to have been a harbinger of a change in operatic style, just as Strauss’s Elektra was a harbinger of new musical looks at classical Greece.
Mary Dunleavy as Christine Storch and Andrew Bidlack as Baron Lummer
The other triumph, musically speaking, was the lush Strauss score as led by George Manahan, which swept the evening’s welter of events along like the ice skater’s waltz mimed (on in-line skates) in one of Intermezzo’s many locales without drowning the singers. Vocally, the entire cast seemed well chosen and on their toes, as Pauline Strauss (a terror to her housemaids) would no doubt have imperiously insisted. Nicholas Pallesen sang the not quite credible saintly Robert Storch—Strauss’s self-portrait—with suave dignity, though some stretching for high notes implied that he might not have handled a full-sized leading role so easily. Andrew Bidlack as the young parasitical baron that snobby Christine unwarily picks up showed a fine, easy lyric tenor one hopes to hear more of. Jessica Klein was a pleasure as the most put-upon of the maids. A debutante named Tharanga Goonetilleke gave the three lines of the Baron’s girlfriend a deep, sexy contralto throb that made everyone’s ears open wider.
The handsome, stage-smart production was by Leon Major. Andrew Jackness’s sets and Martha Mann’s costumes looked handsome and in period (which is early, respectable Weimar) without evidently straining the budget.