07 Nov 2010
Intermezzo, New York City Opera
Pace Tolstoy, happy marriages are not all alike, but they require a lot of work.
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.
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.