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.
16 Jan 2011
The Art of the Countertenor
Since he first came to notice a few years ago — in Messiah in this very hall, as Creonte at Covent Garden, and as Arsace in Partenope at New York City Opera, to name by a few recently acclaimed performances — many a starry accolade has been heaped upon young Welsh countertenor, Iestyn Davies: “achingly beautiful tone”,“unforgettable focus and poignancy” and “compelling sense of rhetoric” are typical of the bountiful superlatives.
This recital of gems
from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries undoubtedly confirmed why Davies
deserves such acclamations. Moreover, a concert of two distinct halves, it
demonstrated the extraordinary range of his technical accomplishments, musical
insights and dramatic embodiments. Unaffected and assured, he does not seek to
impose himself upon the music; rather, his easeful stage presence and innate
appreciation of the requirements of each particular musical medium allows the
music itself to rise to the fore. The voice never distracts; it is only at the
final cadence that one realises how supremely the song has been served.
We began in the seventeenth century with an exquisitely compiled and
meticulously researched programme. Not only were the names unfamiliar but works
were chosen to demonstrate idiosyncratic, and often unusual, qualities.
Benedetto Ferrari’s triple-time, ‘Voglio di vita uscir’
(‘I want to depart this life’) introduced us to the Italian court
musician, librettist and theorbo player’s penchant for the chaconne bass.
Davies’ fresh, unaffected voice moved effortlessly between registers,
particularly in the expressive recitative with which the song closes.
In ‘Figlio dormi’ (‘Sleep son’) by Giovanni Girolami
Kapsberger — a celebrated virtuoso on the lute and theorbo —
accompanist Richard Egarr’s gentle introduction and delicate instrumental
episodes summoned to mind the affectionate, tender strumming of the lute.
Embellishments were relished by both performers, and perfectly judged. This
traditional ‘Ninna la nanna’ lullaby charmed and calmed; in
contrast, the continuous, oscillating, two-note motif which underpins Tarquinio
Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’ bewitched
and disconcerted, before the consoling serenity of the final major key
Listening to Richard Egarr’s accompaniments was the aural equivalent
of watching a painter at work. Relaxed and confident, instinctively attuned to
the ‘colours’ of each song, Egarr selected just the right tints and
shades from an extraordinarily rich palette of tones and textures. The ground
bass in Ferrari’s devotional cantata, ‘Quest pungenti spine’
was superbly realised; the surprising dissonances between voice and harpsichord
were piquantly emphasised but never exaggerated. Davies’ breath control
is extraordinary and was on display in a variety of contexts: in the
extravagant vocal gymnastics of the more elaborate coloratura episodes of
cantatas by Porpora and Vivaldi; in Antonio’s Cesti’s intricate,
freely exploratory lines in ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ (‘Gape
open, ye abysses’); and also here in Ferrari’s long-held, tender
opening notes. From the initial lyrical tranquillity, the countertenor found
just the right sentiment of yearning and ‘sweet torment’, building
as the lines become more florid and impassioned, to an ecstatic conclusion:
“my Lord and God;/ they are the divine arrows/ that, softened and
tempered/ by heaven’s fire/ attract and delight — ”. The
chaconne bass is interrupted four times by recitative refrains, and the
performers’ mastery of the formal structure more than matched their
command of musical detail — and their delight in the harmonic
The second half saw us on the more familiar terrain of the eighteenth
century. In Porpora’s cantata, ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
(‘Ah, if only my heart’), Davies revealed his dramatic poise,
moving effortlessly between the moods of the successive recitatives and arias.
Vivaldi’s ‘Pianti, sospiri’ (‘Weeping, sighing’)
drew forth the peaks of Davies’ technical armoury — his projection,
pacing, ornamental invention and virtuosic elasticity quite simply took
one’s breath away. However complicated the line, the voice remained
unhindered and light.
In between the vocal treasures, Egarr offered readings of
Frescobaldi’s ‘Se l’aura spira’ and ‘Capriccio
sopra Ut re mi fa sol la’, and Handel’s Suite in D (HMV428),
exploiting texture to create a remarkable ‘dynamic’ variety; the
pianissimo passages were particularly beautiful. Expertly shaping
harmonic sequences and cadences, Egarr assembled the architectural forms of
Handel’s Suite like a master builder.
The encores — an athletic showcase from Partenope and the
lovely Irish folksong, ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ —
demonstrated the performers’ unpretentious, genuine and infectious joy in
the music and its performance. This recital celebrated Director John
Gilhooly’s 10 years at Wigmore Hall. He could not have wished for a more
glorious musical tribute.
Ferrari‘Voglio di vita uscir’
Kapsberger ‘Figlio dormi’
Frescobaldi Toccata Settima from Il secondo libro (solo harpsichord)
Frescobaldi ‘Se l’aura spira’
Ferrari ‘Queste pungenti spine’
Frescobaldi ‘Capriccio sopra Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la’ (solo
Cesti Selino’s Lament: ‘Disseratevi, abissi’ from
Merula ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nanna’
Porpora Cantata: ‘Oh se fosse il mio core’
Handel Suite No.3 in D minor HWV428 (solo harpsichord)
Vivaldi Cantata: Pianti, sospiri e dimandar mercede