11 Jan 2011
Il barbiere di Siviglia in Montpellier
There is more than one way to skin a cat.
‘[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.
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.
The Feast at Solhaug : Henrik Ibsen's play Gildet paa Solhaug (1856) inspired Wilhelm Stenhammer's opera Gillet på Solhaug. The world premiere recording is now available via Sterling CD, in a 3 disc set which includes full libretto and background history.
There is more than one way to skin a cat.
Montpellier’s old Comedie would have been a perfect venue for Rossini’s most famous comedy, but this fine, late-nineteenth century Italian style theater is closed for renovation. This left the huge, ultra-modern Théâtre Berlioz, a barn-of-a-theater that the Opéra National de Montpellier often makes work against all odds.
The solution for presenting Le Barbier de Seville in this vast space was to import an existing production from another barn-of-a-theater, the Deutsche Oper Berlin. The Deutsch Oper had some solutions of its own for blowing up Rossini’s diminutive masterwork to sufficient size to fill up its vast space.
To wit, performing it as a sort of commedia dell’arte on a stage wagon pulled by a tractor onto a beachfront esplanade in front of a lively square that was perhaps Seville. Though of course Seville is nowhere near any sea. There was a beach, and we presumably sat on it to watch the show, together with various little families, lovers, same-sex lovers and a donkey all of whom from time to time were doing their own thing.
It is Berlin after all, where artistic choices are sometimes questionable though usually amusing. The Deutsche Oper had hired Katharina Thalbach, a protégé of Brecht’s theatrically chic Berliner Ensemble, to stage the opera. Thus Rossini’s hyper-sophisticated early nineteenth century opera would have the gloss of hyper-sophisticated mid-twentieth century theater. It was simply the old-hat trick of a play within a play.
If you are getting the idea that all this could not possibly work you are absolutely right. And worse placing Rossini’s opera within quotation marks distanced us from Rossini’s inimitable musical immediacy. The theatrics were indeed clever (and there were abundant antics by the crowd watching [or not] the silly play to keep us amused). The great Rossini was reduced to a small stage on the stage. And the pit.
The Opéra National de Montpellier had made its choices too. A big theater demands a big conductor, and the Italian maestro Stefano Ranzani was an obvious choice, with credits of the biggest repertory in the biggest theaters. A lot of big music resulted, and of course some weird tempi. And there was even some Rossini to be heard though this was perhaps the first Rossini this maestro ever conducted — no Rossini credits were listed in his program biography.
There were even a few times when a modest Rossini boil was achieved, but those were moments when the maestro was aided by the two veteran Rossinians in the cast, Simone Alaimo as Basilio and Alberto Rinaldi as Bartolo. It was a hint of what Rossini can be but almost never is in great big theaters.
Bartolo’s ward and intended bride Rosina was Georgian mezzo soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze, a recent winner of the Placido Domingo competition (among many other competitions). Appropriately for winning competitions and for Rossini’s Rosina, Mlle. Kemoklidze exhibited boundless confidence. She possesses an unusually bright mezzo voice, a winning stage presence and obviously sings quite well.
Her lover Almaviva was Italian tenor Filippo Adami who sang very well too, and attacked Rossini’s fioratura with cool bravura. Mr. Adami possesses a voice with a fine edge and not much sweetness, attributes that would be more appreciated in productions with specific Rossini musico-dramatic values.
If Mlle. Kemoklidze and Mr. Adami came across as sophisticated performers, young French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, the Figaro, presented himself as a consummately charming performer, but one who does not yet possess the finesse and bravura to fully anchor Rossini’s comedy.
These three young performers are representative of a fine new generation of opera singers, well prepared vocally and musically, and willing and able to fit themselves into whatever directorial visions may occur. This Montpellier staging was obtuse, complex and demanding. These performers made all possible effort to pull it off, and they did. Bravo!
The mid-winter holidays are festive, and entertainments are meant to be festive. If nothing else Le Barbier de Seville in Montpellier was just that. Unlike Berlin, there are actually fine beaches not far away where we will soon find ourselves. All said and done this production was maybe right at home in Montpellier.