Recently in Performances
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
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.
19 Dec 2010
Susan Bullock, Wigmore Hall
It may have been five years since Susan Bullock last performed at the Wigmore Hall, as her prominence on the world operatic stage has taken her away from the recital hall, but she wasted no time getting into her stride in this charming and musically varied concert.
Performing works by diverse composers
hailing from many countries, Bullock reminded us of her imposing and engaging
stage presence, and that her musical and dramatic talents are just as suited to
interpreting the song repertoire as to embodying the Wagnerian and Straussian
heroines who have made her name of late.
Bullock and her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, constructed a thoughtful
programme containing many unfamiliar and intriguing offerings.
‘Banquo’s Buried’ by Australian composer, Alison Bauld, made
a striking opening to the second half of the recital. Drawn from her ballad
opera, Nelland, which comprises a series of what Bauld terms
‘dramatic scenas’ based on texts from Shakespeare’s plays,
this piece revealed the composer’s sure theatrical instincts. Not
surprisingly, Bullock relished the dramatic tension and operatic gestures.
Bauld has commented on the origins of this setting of text from Lady
Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, which owes to the “memory of a
powerful and idiosyncratic performance of the role by Sybil Thorndike. The
manner was operatic and perhaps, even then, unfashionable, but there was a
‘go-for-broke’ spirit which made sense of the tragedy. The piece
was conceived for all sopranos who enjoy a sense of theatre.” One cannot
imagine a soprano better suited to the role than Bullock.
From Australia to France, and four songs by Henri Duparc. ‘Au pays où
se fait la guerre’ (‘To the land where there is war’) is all
that remains of Duparc’s long-held, and regretfully abandoned, ambitions
for an opera based on Pushkin’s Rusalka. With its juxtaposition
of expansive lyrical melody and recitative, the song combines traits of the
operatic scena and French mélodie; Bullock effectively conveyed the
dramatic heights of the closing section as the poet-speaker hopes to conquer
the embracing darkness, sustained by “so many kisses and so much love/
that perhaps I shall be healed”.
Then, home to England, with Warlock, Bridge and Quilter all represented.
Bullock’s diction was consistently clear in each of the languages she
explored, but particularly so in Quilter’s rhapsodic ‘Fair house of
joy’ and plaintive ‘Autumn evening’; in the latter,
Martineau’s melancholy prelude compellingly haunted the song, before
returning in full in the affecting, elegiac postlude.
Indeed, Martineau was a superb accompanist to Bullock’s dramatic
presentations. Supportive and thoughtful, he enjoyed the piano’s own
musical narratives, effectively entering the drama but never overwhelming the
voice, as in the contrapuntal interweavings of the third stanza of
Duparc’s ‘Chanson triste’ (‘Song of sadness’):
“You will rest my poor head,/ ah! sometimes on your lap,/ and recite to
it a ballad/ that will seem to speak of us.” Particularly touching was
Martineau’s communication of harmonic nuance which intimated feeling and
meaning, subtly but persuasively, as in Duparc’s ‘Romance de
Mignon’ and, especially in Warlock’s ‘Pretty ring
time’, an idiomatic setting of Shakespeare’s ‘It was a lover
and her lass’. Moreover, in the composer’s freely structured
‘Phidylé’, it was the piano’s melodic refrain, rhythmic
control and harmonic sureness, as the song passed through a myriad of tonal
centres, that provided coherence through the emotional extremes.
It was however in the first half of the recital, with the songs by Grieg,
Rimsky Korsakov and Brahms, that Bullock’s vocal control and relaxed
confidence were most on display. Throughout these songs she used her strong,
ample voice with sensitivity and restraint, only unleashing its full power in
moments of real intensity and preferring to convey meaning through colour and
the exuberance of her personality. Grieg’s ‘Sechs Lieder
Op.48’ were dedicated to the Swedish soprano Ellen Gulbranson who, like
Bullock, was a prominent performer in Wagnerian roles. ‘Dereinst, Gedanke
mein’ (‘One day, my thoughts’) is complex both formally and
harmonically, and the performers were perfectly united in their reading of the
rich harmonic colourings of the song, framed as they are by the reflective
stillness of the piano’s opening bars and the simple octave falls of the
close. In contrast, ‘Lauf der Welt’ (‘The way of the
world’) possesses a folksy energy and insouciance, and voice and
accompanist coordinated delightfully throughout, playfully enjoying the
rhythmic flexibilities. Bullock’s fresh open sound and unaffected shaping
of the poetic phrases was outstanding in ‘Die verschwiegene
Nachtigall’ (‘The secretive nightingale’) and ‘Ein
Traum’ (‘A dream’) was characterised by a focused tone of
real warmth and depth; while Martineau’s subtle syncopations endowed
‘Zur Rosenzelt’ (‘Time of roses’) with a suitably
understated intensity and urgency, the delayed final cadence being particularly
Three songs by Rimsky Korsakov followed, moving from the lament-like shadows
of ‘Na kholmakh Gruzii’ (‘The hills of Georgia’), with
its ponderous piano pedals, to the explosive exuberance of ‘Zvonvhe
zhavoronka penye’ (‘The lark sings louder’). But it was in
six songs by Brahms that the real power and precision of Bullock’s voice
became wonderfully evident. Both performers shaped the extreme contrasts within
‘Meine Liebe ist grün’ Op.63 No.5 (‘My love is green’)
with consummate skill and sensitivity; Martineau relished the rhythmic
complexities of ‘Simmer leiser wird mein Schlummer’ Op.105 No.2
(‘My sleep grows ever quieter’) while Bullock opened her voice to
its expressive heights in the final cry, “If you would see me once
again,/ come soon, some soon!” The control of dramatic tension in
‘O wüßt ich doch den Weg zurück’ Op. 63 No.8 (‘Ah! if I but
knew the way back’) was outstanding: and, as the poet-speaker longs to
regain his childhood’s vision – “not to see the times
change,/ to be a child a second time” – Bullock’s lyricism
was heart-melting. The gentle, easeful fluency of ‘Wir wandelten’
Op.96 No.2 (‘We were walking’) contrasted with the infectious
vivacity of ‘Das Mädchen spricht’ Op. 107 No.3 (‘The maiden
speaks’), whose sprightly, springing rhythms brought the first half of
the recital to such a vibrant close.
The chilling evening frost and the lure of Christmas shopping may have
accounted for the rather reduced audience numbers, but this was a real treat
and one hopes that another five years do not pass before Bullock returns to the
Wigmore Hall stage.