15 Dec 2010
Karlsruhe Tosca: Guns ‘n’ Jesus
Badisches Staastheater’s production of Tosca starts off with a bang.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Badisches Staastheater’s production of Tosca starts off with a bang.
A cardinal’s face appears upstage in the skylight hole of a tromp l’oeil baroque church cupola and several men are lined up on a slightly elevated platform (just a step up), facing him upstage. Then gunshots ring out and the men fall dead to the ground. And the famous opening chords ring out as a drop cuts off the sight of their corpses.
Bear with me here, and trust me as I say if this is perhaps not the Tosca of your dreams, nor does it turn out to be the Tosca of your worst nightmares. There is much to recommend in the pared down scenic approach. If you reveled in the excesses of Zeffirelli’s Met-ravaganza, stay far away from this one, because Heinz Balthes’s church scene is largely played “in one” in front of the above mentioned drop. Panels eventually part to reveal multiple Mylar-mirrored images of the Virgin (that Cavaradossi never touches with a paint brush), but somehow the imagery is apt, handsome even honest.
There is no visible gate to the side chapel where Angelotti hides, only a statue of Mary down left that remains there throughout. Down right is a well we’ll get to that later. John Dew’s direction is full of quirks, most of them fresh, some of them downright frech, all of them (save one) uncommonly intriguing. Our diva and the tenor are playfully frisky and ardent to the point that they actually spend some time lounging about on the floor of the chapel! (Honey, don’t you worry about kissing him in front of the Madonna when you were pressing against him on the tiles!)
Arguably the most sensational innovation was having Scarpia portrayed (are you seated?) as a cardinal of the church. Yes, you read it here. And well, think about it, why not? Highly placed civilians like a police chief could buy their way into position in the church, and within the context of today’s sexual misbehavior within the clergy, it added a whole extra Creep Factor to his lustful pursuit of the leading lady. Ewwwwwwwwww. Instead of merely attending the service of the Eucharist, Scarpia led it even as he plotted his sordid seduction. Double Eeeeeeeeeeeeew. In moments like these Mr. Dew provided a complex spontaneity to this Puccini War Horse that I no longer thought possible.
And Balthes’ simple sets focused the whole shebang right where it should be, on the characters. The Farnese Palace featured only a long banquet table and some doors, and that was all that was needed. What an effective cat and mouse pursuit was facilitated around that ample table. Jose Manuel Vasquez contrived vividly appropriate costumes, from the vibrant red of the cardinal’s cassock, to Tosca’s steely blue Act II satin gown, to her Norma Desmond white entrance dress with red turban and over-jacket. Gorgeously detailed, character-specific attire. Gerd Meier’s lighting was not called upon to do much more than area isolation and general washes but they were even, well colored, and for once, we saw the perfomers’ faces. And what performers they were! If you wanted you could pay ten times the ticket prices in New York or Vienna and still not see a cast this good.
Keith Ikaia-Purdy as Cavaradossi and Barbara Dobrzanska as Tosca [Photo by Jochen Klenk courtesy of Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe]
Barbara Dobrzanska is a local treasure who seems content to remain so, for she could conquer many an international house with her secure spinto soprano. I am not sure that I have heard anyone nail the role’s high notes with greater skill. They definitely rated a ten on the Thrill-O-Meter. Her middle and lower voice are uniform and seamless, and she never faltered in musical excellence or dramatic concentration. I did have the feeling that Ms. Dobrzanska is still somewhat feeling her way through this iconic role. There aren’t many parts that have more baggage than this one are there? I mean, to include the ghost of La Callas hovering over it. Barbara has all the skill sets in place, but as of yet there seemed to be too much control in a character than is explosive passion incarnate. Oddly, her least effective moment was probably Vissi d’arte. Oh it was exceedingly well sung, but it seemed almost an out of body experience for her. For sheer sound, stamina, and power, though, hers was a notable role assumption. And she looked as glamorous as I have ever seen her (although her gait could glide a bit more). Barbara Dobrzanska is already a very fine Tosca and as she internalizes it more, she can likely develop into one of the greats.
Keith Ikaia-Purdy was born to sing Cavaradossi, the vocal line fitting him like a glove and highlighting all his strengths. Although announced as indisposed, he called upon his solid technique to fill the house with idiomatic, heartfelt Puccinian vocalism of a very high standard indeed. His steely top notes can assuredly thrill with a ringing Vittoria and the like, but what sets him apart is his sensitivity to text and his ability to scale back his voice for nuanced phrasings. When he and his soprano got revved up in their duets, they were smokin’ and you knew you had come to the right address!
Barbara Dobrzanska as Tosca [Photo by Jochen Klenk courtesy of Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe]
Stefan Stoll was a fine foil as Scarpia, his solid, stentorian baritone fulfilling all of the demands of the part with none of the cliches. His Te Deum was memorable and a high point of the performance. His varied banter with Tosca was laden with sub-text, his character three-dimensional. Ulrich Schneider was a more sober Sacristan than is usual and while his virile baritone was pleasing to hear, the role lost some of the comic definition that usually enriches these scenes. Luiz Molz sang nicely as Angelotti but lacked that final bit of honest urgency. Hans-Jörg Weinschenk’s Spoletta and (especially) Alexander Huck’s Sciarrone were not the usual comprimario turns, but very well sung indeed with ringing tone -- welcome portrayals by two skilled performers. I somewhat missed the purity of a boy soprano as the Shepherd, but Őzgecan Gençer won me over with her sweet account of the Act III opening.
Conductor Jochem Hochstenbach had the band in good order, and the ensemble between stage and pit was commendable. There might have been a little more indulgence in give and take with the principles but the whole performance was tidy and stylistically sound. Hans-Jörg Kalmbach’s childrens’ chorus was notably well prepared.
The one mega-major-mucho miscalculation was alas, saved for last. First off (and this is not it), instead of jumping to her death, Tosca instead gets shot dead like the line-up of extras in the opening. You are thinking: “That’s not it????” Admit it. You are.
No, after her “different” demise, a statue of scourged Jesus that had been placed down right suddenly comes to life. Clad in what seems to be Depends, a diaphanous red cloak, and a crown of thorns out of Martha Stewart Living,our Lord sprints over to the corpse. This was undoubtedly meant to somehow be an avanti a Dio moment but really, the way the super flitted, it came off more: “Gurl, waddamaddawidyougetupoffadatfloorandrun!” Where was another bullet when you needed it ?