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.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
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.