05 Jan 2011
Un ballo in maschera at its roots
In its production this season of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged the work in its original locale at the royal court of Sweden.
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.
In its production this season of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged the work in its original locale at the royal court of Sweden.
Stage director Renata Scotto has achieved a believably dignified and fluid progression of scenes leading up to the tragedy of misunderstandings. The role of King Gustavus III of Sweden is taken by Frank Lopardo, while that of Amelia his beloved features soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. Baritone Mark Delavan sings Count Anckarström, husband of Amelia as well as close friend of the King. The travesti role of the page Oscar is sung by Kathleen Kim and Mme. Arvidson signaled the debut at Lyric Opera of Stephanie Blythe. Through a sensitive approach to tempos Asher Fisch conducted a meaningful account of one of Verdi’s most lyrical scores.
Mark Delavan as Renato
The principals in the first scene of Act I establish themselves immediately in the movements and dramatic interchange of this production. The ballo of the final scene is, of course, foreshadowed now by means of a list of invited guests for the event of the present evening. As the curtain opens on the reception room of an eighteenth-century court, both supporters and detractors of Gustavus give vent to their feelings. The page Oscar, so often in this work a dramatic hinge, announces the King’s arrival with the famous line, “S’avanza il Re.” [“The King approaches”] In the role of Oscar Ms. Kim moves nimbly and projects her lines with a delighted urgency. The event of this evening’s ballo is now used as a means to stir the King’s emotions in the first of that character’s arias. When Gustavus sees in the list his beloved Amelia’s name, he sings rapturously of expecting her presence that night. Mr. Lopardo’s introductory declamation and performance of “La rivedrà nell’estasi” [“what ecstasy to see her again”] are exemplary: in both parts of the scene he demonstrates an assured skill in legato with effective touches of vocal color on significant phrases, such as “E qui sonar d’amore.” [“and music of love.”] When the petitioners are instructed to leave, Oscar shows in Count Anckarström who now advises the King on matters of the court. As he warns Gustavus of a plot against his life, Anckarström’s lines rise upward with dramatic force. A similar vocal technique is needed in the baritone Anckarström’s first solo piece, “Alla vita che t’arride,” [“To your life so promising”], which occurs before Oscar reenters. It is in such transitional moments that Mr. Delavan’s interpretation falls short. His reach to an upper register becomes noticeably detached from the preceding lines so that dramatic effects do not match his intended goal. The conclusion of this scene, devoted to varying opinions of the fortuneteller Mme. Arvidson, highlights both individual and ensemble work. Once the judge declares that Mme. Arvidson should be banished because of witchcraft, Oscar issues a spirited defense of the woman in that character’s first solo aria, “Volta la terrea” [“the sallow one turned”]. Ms. Kim tosses off this piece with secure vocal agility, while she acts out the noted appeal of the sorceress with movement and dramatic gesture. Gustavus resolves to visit her hovel despite the protestations of individual courtiers, the plan for this adventure being affirmed in a rousing conclusion.
Frank Lopardo as Gustavo and Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica
The second scene of the act introduces both the characters Mme. Arvidson and Amelia. In her interpretation of the fortuneteller Ms. Blythe uses all facets of her rich vocal range. Her hushed, piano intonations in the first part of her incantation to Lucifer are followed by excitingly ringing top notes, while she signals her enhanced communication with the forces beyond. As she concludes with a thrilling and extended chest note on “Silenzio!”, Ms. Blythe’s disheveled persona looks truly possessed. She prophesies riches and rank for the sailor Cristiano, who is convincingly sung and acted in this production by Paul La Rosa. After he is sent off — the entire scene being observed from a distance by the disguised King Gustavus — Amelia enters and solicits the intercession for her part of Mme. Arvidson. She begs for a solution to her emotional attraction to Gustavus, which has distracted her from duty. Mme. Arvidson tells her to pick at night a magic herb growing at an isolated gallows outside the city. Even in this relatively brief exchange Ms. Radvanovsky communicates in her liquid vocal lines a sense of urgency, hinting at her extended prayer in the subsequent act. The trio which now follows indeed features her first prayer to God, while Mme. Arvidson encourages her daring to find the herb and Gustavus, still unseen, simultaneously promises to follow. [“Consentimi, o Signore” (“Grant to me, o Lord”)]. Here Ms. Radvanovsky’s voice soars in her appeals for help, such that she effectively binds the trio into a crescendo of determination. In the final part of the scene following Amelia’s departure Gustavus emerges and demands that the fortuneteller predict his future. When Mme. Arvidson sees the sign of death in his palm, the reaction “Presto morrai” [“Soon you will die”] is delivered by Ms. Blythe with chilling certainty in her intonation. Gustavus laughs off the divination and clasps the hand of Anckarström, hence sealing the prediction that he will die by the hand of the next person whom he thus greets.
In the constellation of beloved and spouse which makes up the shorter second act of Un ballo the emotions and conflicts introduced earlier develop into a turning point for the principals. After appropriately fast and bright tempi under Fisch’s direction, Amelia enters at the isolated gallows while snow falls. As she reaches for the herb, she recoils in fear, which Radvanovsky emphasizes with a distinct intonation on “terrore.” In her following aria, “Ma dall’irido stelo” [“But when from the dry stem”], she sings with great pathos, her tone moving from lament to self-encouragement and ending in the touching prayer for divine support. Throughout the aria, and notably in the final ascent and following “Miserere,” Radvanovsky exhibits the ideal Verdian soprano range, assured middle and upper registers bound seamlessly with admirable breath control. When Gustavus enters and declares “Teco io sto” [“I am here with you”], the subsequent duet allows both to admit their love. At first Amelia protests that the King should leave her, a line that Radvanovsky sings with telling diminuendo on “Mi lasciate.” During the well-known scene Lopardo’s voice blooms in lyrical abandon as Gustavus is transported by the assurance of Amelia’s love. Lopardo’s tasteful performance of top notes in the duet is matched by Radvanovsky’s line as the two singers blend vocally toward each other. Soon after the declaration of love a warning alerts the King of Cout Anckarström’s approach. Gustavus entrusts the veiled Amelia to Anckarström and asks his friend to accompany the unnamed woman back to the court. Although Anckarström had come to warn the King of a plot against his life, loyalties soon shift: Amelia’s veil drops when she tries to protect her husband and the latter perceives his wife’s emotional betrayal. In the final ensemble, at which the Count is mocked by the courtiers returning to court, Amelia’s final notes, as here performed, give expression to her sense of an undeniable love with a tragic outcome.
Sondra Radvanovsky as Amelia and Frank Lopardo as Gustavo
In Act III the Count gives vent to his anger as the two arias of the first scene reflect on the couple’s marriage. When the Count threatens to have Amelia killed, she begs for the opportunity to see her child one last time. Radvanovsky’s approach to the aria, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” [“I shall die, but first in mercy”], evinces a number of vocal touches that blend ideally with the orchestra to express her character’s suffering. Once she leaves, the Count sings of his own anguish and the betrayal he feels at the King’s behavior. In Delavan’s approach to “Eri tu” [“It was you”] an admirable sense of legato is marred by an attack stronger than necessary at the beginning of lines. The conspirators now enter and the Count throws in his lot with them against the King. When Amelia returns, she is forced to choose the name of the one privileged to slay the King. As the scene ends with the Count’s name selected and the venue of the ball announced, the vocal ensemble rises in excitement to the fateful evening.
In the final scene before the ball, when the Count indeed shoots the King fatally, Gustavus performs his last aria alone, while musing on his devotion for Amelia yet his resolve to send the couple away from court. As his voice moves here through successive phrases with an exquisite sense of line, Lopardo echoes the love expressed in his earlier scenes but now with an appropriate foreboding on “del nostro amor” [“of our love”]. His inevitable death at the hands of the Count is accompanied by a moving declaration of Amelia’s innocence, her own voice then rising expressively in horror at the turn of events.