31 Dec 2010
December at Los Angeles Opera: Lohengrin and Rigoletto
At the end of November Los Angeles Opera brought two productions to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
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.
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.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
At the end of November Los Angeles Opera brought two productions to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
At the end of November Los Angeles Opera brought two productions to the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Debuting first was a new production of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, which received one of the most harshly sarcastic reviews from the Los Angeles Times within memory, the writer taking the easy opportunity to equate the premiere over Thanksgiving weekend with the term “turkey.” The Rigoletto that premiered a few nights later earned itself much more a favorable response in the same paper. Seen later in their runs by this reviewer, the impressions were not necessarily reversed, but certainly it can be said that the Lohengrin had settled down into a mostly satisfying show with a few amazing strong points, while the Rigoletto, while enjoyable, provided a decent but not all that memorable night at the opera.
Placido Domingo’s initial year as General Director of Los Angeles Opera began shortly after the terrible events of September 11, 2001, with a new production of Lohengrin. That production was scrapped this season for a new one directed by Lydia Steier, with scenery and costumes by Dirk Hofacker. In Steier’s vision, the action took place in an era reminiscent of World War I, in the ruined shell of a building vaguely governmental or cathedral-like. On a turntable, the set revolved sometimes to place action just outside the over-sized doors to the ruin. Steir has a background in choreography, which was evident in the stylized movement of the Brabant populace — the men either shell-shocked or brutes in uniform, and the women nurses or easy prey for the sexual aggression of the soldiers. In the opening scene, shadow-lit behind a tent, a doctor amputates a leg and seemingly loses the patient — while a nurse brings out the severed appendage for disposal, another nurse inside the tent places a blanket over the body. After Friedrich of Telramund makes his accusation of fratricide against Elsa, it is from this tent that Lohengrin emerges — in soldier’s uniform, with silver-plating from the knee down on one leg.
Clearly Steir is playing with the libretto’s mixture of the miraculous within the context of a militaristic society. Those who complained that a swan never appeared, therefore, had to have ignored the flags of victory festooning the stage in act three — Lohengrin’s prosthetic leg of metal emblazoned on some and a swan on the others. Ultimately, a viewer of any production can decide how deeply he or she wants to consider a director’s vision — in this case, anyone ill-disposed to directorial insight would be expected to dismiss the staging as nonsense, while those more open to alternative visions can decide for themselves whether Steier’s ideas came together or never quite melded into a coherent presentation (and probably an under-rehearsed opening night led to the unfortunate notices referenced above). At any rate, the production had some lovely moments, as snow fell over the ruin and the backscreen projections provided sweeping views of a devastated landscape beneath glowering but gorgeous skyscapes. In a nicely managed theatrical coup, Lohengrin disappears at the end back into the tent from which he emerged, and a moment later, the tent comes down to reveal Elsa’s brother standing on the hospital bed.
Dolora Zajick as Ortrud and Soile Isokoski as Elsa
Ben Heppner’s career has been dogged in recent years by vocal struggles, and he started the evening with an unsupported, wobbly voice that disheartened anyone hoping for a “comeback” evening. He slowly recovered a fair amount of control, and though the voice never reached the beauty of his best years, he was doing quite well until a couple of small breaks in his closing moments diminished his success. The costumes did not flatter him, but otherwise he gave himself over to the concept and portrayed an otherworldly creature who quickly finds himself disenchanted with the more “normal” folk of Brabant.
Soile Isokoski’s overdue debut with the Los Angeles Opera found the soprano in wonderful voice, her gentle Elsa also far from home among the Brabant crowd, and yet not confident enough to give herself over to the man who has come to rescue her. Isokoski’s instrument is not the largest, but in all the big moments the voice was there — controlled yet autonomous, with an aching beauty in the middle. In the classic act two confrontations with Ortrud, Isokoski held her own against the powerhouse performance of the evening, from Dolora Zajick, in an amazing role debut. Zajick’s aggressive top fits the role of Ortrud well, and she threw herself into the strong-willed character's scheming aggression. Zajick’s tour de force did take away somewhat from James Johnston’s Friedrich, a bit more pallid vocally that one would like, but strongly inhabiting the part of a man grasping frantically at the shreds of his dignity.
George Gagnidze as Rigoletto and Sarah Coburn as Gilda
James Conlon and the LAO orchestra took a while to settle themselves, the prelude not having the ideal ethereal quality. But when the score let loose, the orchestra was there, and the horns in particular had a successful night. Rigoletto showed Conlon in total command a few nights later, with all the energy matched by a feel for the rare tender moments in Verdi's masterpiece.
The Mark Lamos production, borrowed from San Francisco, takes the stylistic conceit of appropriating the painter Giorgio de Chirico’s city blocks of ominously muted pastels. The spare sets serve the story well enough, though it seemed odd that minutes-long pauses were required (one in the act on scene change and one after intermission, between the last two acts) when not all that much changed on stage. So in place of interpretation the opera-goer gets a nice looking production, with the important consideration that the sets allow the singers to step forward and project to the audience a great deal of the time.
In the title role George Gagnizde offered a sizable voice and a physique to match one’s expectations. If he lacked that last trace of unique personality that makes for a great portrayal, he still had much to offer. The Chandler audience was as besotted as Rigoletto with his daughter, sung with beauty and taste by Sarah Coburn. In a house not always known to be friendly to lighter voices, Coburn demonstrated that her lyric instrument has an unexpected carrying power. Her Gilda fell for a reasonably good-looking Duke, sung by Gianluca Terranova, who did best with the more energetic numbers that open and close his role. His big act two aria needed more elegance. While not a huge voice, it is ample enough, and he may develop into a more interesting tenor. Andrea Silvestrelli is one of the great Sparafucile’s, his lean physique as perfect for the character as is his menacing, cavernous bass. Kendall Gladen as his sister made the most of her brief time on stage. She has the type of charisma that can make a mezzo a star Carmen or Dalila.
Sarah Coburn as Gilda and Gianluca Terranova as Duke of Mantua
It was a very full and happy house for the Rigoletto, and the mid-week Lohengrin had a substantial attendance as well, and one that mostly stayed until the 11pm conclusion. This year’s shorter season will wrap up by April, after two more productions. In a few weeks, the announcement of the 2011-2012 season for the Los Angeles Opera will reveal just how well the company has come through some times bordering on, if not encroaching into, the desperate. But at least on the stage, as of this December — this is a strong and forward-looking company.