15 Dec 2010
Karlsruhe Tosca: Guns ‘n’ Jesus
Badisches Staastheater’s production of Tosca starts off with a bang.
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.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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 ?