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.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
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.