February 27, 2011

Il Trovatore, WNO

By Rian Evans [The Guardian, 27 February 2011]
This opera by Verdi was always notorious for having a complicated, if not incomprehensible, plot, but surtitles help fix that - sort of. In 15th-century Spain, a baritone and a tenor who don't know they're brothers are rivals both in war and love. The outcome can only be tragic, but the music is middle-period Verdi at his most flowing and this cast delivered with real conviction.

Posted by Gary at 4:52 PM

Iphigénie en Tauride, New York

It is not a greater or lesser tradition than the Italian style, but it achieves different dramatic effects, or the same effects by different means, and individual singers are often more proficient in one than in the other. Specialists in Gluck being rare (though he is, happily, going through one of his periodic revivals just now), one must seek great Gluck singers in other branches of the repertory. Those trained for Wagner, not too surprisingly, often fit well in the Gluckian glove. Thus, back in the 1950s, Flagstad and Farrell were both superb as Gluck’s Alceste and would probably have been exciting as his Iphigénie.

Elizabeth_Bishop_02.gifElizabeth Bishop [Photo by Sasha Vasiljev courtesy of Barrett Vantage Artists]

With this in mind, I was intrigued to learn that Susan Graham was indisposed on the night I attended Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met and would be replaced by Elizabeth Bishop. I had last heard Bishop as Venus in Tannhäuser (also a last-minute replacement) and have fond memories of that performance: a young singer of great authority and potential in dramatic roles. But Iphigénie is a less one-note conception than Venus; too, she is the epitome of restraint where Venus is just the opposite.

Gluck’s Iphigénie, taken from Euripides, is a dignified priestess, torn between her personal, humane, Greek sense of ethics and the demands of the barbaric society in which she finds herself trapped, demands that include performing human sacrifices. The screw turns its final gyre when two proposed victims are her long-lost brother, Oreste, and his friend Pylade. Tension is provided by the fact that, after fifteen years apart, the siblings do not recognize each other and somehow never ask each other’s name. Wouldn’t you tell a priestess your name before she cut your throat?

The situation is resolved in antique high style by the appearance of the deity, Diane, who rescues the Greeks and abolishes human sacrifice—but she takes her time to show up (at the end of Act IV), allowing us to comprehend the noble natures of our legendary characters as they face their predicament. In Gluck’s stately score dignity is the watchword, though at the Met, in Stephen Wadsworth’s excessively busy production, Iphigénie is inclined to hysterical fits and hallucinations. So, for that matter, is Oreste, but he has an excuse—the Furies drove him mad for his brief fit of matricide back in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

IPHIGENIE_Groves_and_Doming.gifPaul Groves as Pylade and Plácido Domingo as Oreste

Bishop sang the priestess-princess with the right stately propriety and a large, burnished mezzo, but with occasional lapses of evenness, of control, that suggested she had not fully gauged the demands of this long role. It was not a fully crafted performance, though a promising one; if Ms. Graham remains under the weather (Bishop has sung at least one other evening since the one I attended), another excursion or two should pull it all together. Plácido Domingo, too, had a cold (and had the Met say so) but, canny codger that he is, concealed his discomfort behind the craziness Oreste calls for. Not until Bishop had him on his back on the altar, knife poised above, did the familiar Domingo sound pour miraculously forth. Paul Groves, as Pylade, had much the best night of the three leading singers, with an ardent, gleaming sound and acting that made this two-dimensional sidekick role seem genuinely heroic. Mr. Groves has usually been regarded as a lightweight, Mozartean tenor, but his singing here implied that he could take on weightier assignments rewardingly: Florestan or Samson or (in Domingo’s footsteps) light Wagner. Gordon Hawkins sang Thoas unimpressively, Julie Boulianne was acceptable as Diane, and I must say a word about Lei Xu and Cecelia Hall, who made a genuine and joyous impression in the small roles of Iphigénie’s assisting priestesses. Gluck obscures no one; his score allows everyone to shine if she or he is able to. The Met chorus did a tidy a job and Patrick Summers brought out the many felicities of this gracious, unusual score that sums up so much of where drama and opera had led by 1779 and predicts so much of what was to come.

IPHIGENIE_Graham_and_Hawkin.gifSusan Graham as Iphigénie and Gordon Hawkins as Thoas

The Wadsworth production accompanies the “Janissary” percussion Gluck composed so that we’d know we were in a land of barbarians with inane and frantic dancing here and there in nooks and landings and crannies of the set to make us think wild orgies were going on next door. There are also pointless and tiresome intrusions of the ghosts of persons sung about who have no business being on stage, where they confuse the casual viewer and annoy the knowing one. All these things, and Iphigénie’s hysteria could be altered with a simple restaging. Less easy to comprehend and impossible to forgive is the positioning of the statue of the goddess in her temple: In all the long millennia of religious faith, this is surely the only occasion anyone has ever offered prayers, sacrifices and hymns to the backside of a deity. Couldn’t they turn her at least ninety degrees and have them offer sacrifice beside her?

All that aside, it’s a good show.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IPHIGENIE_Domingo_as_Oreste.gif image_description=Plácido Domingo as Oreste [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride product_by=Iphigénie: Elizabeth Bishop; Oreste: Plácido Domingo; Pylade: Paul Groves; Thoas: Gordon Hawkins; Diane: Julie Boulianne; Priestesses: Lei Xu, Cecelia Hall. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Patrick Summers. Performance of February 16. product_id=Above: Plácido Domingo as Oreste

Except as otherwise indicated, all photos by Ken Howard courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:00 PM

February 25, 2011

All Cried Out, ‘Lucia’ Cedes Emotion to Men

By Zachary Woolfe [NY Times, 25 February 2011]
Deep in Act II of Donizetti’s opera “Lucia di Lammermoor,” the desperate and doomed title character, deserted by everyone she has trusted and about to be married against her will, cries out that even the ability to weep has left her. “My own tears have abandoned me,” she pathetically laments.

Posted by Gary at 4:55 PM

February 23, 2011

György Kurtág Kafka Fragments, Banse and Keller

Juliane Banse and András Keller made the seminal recording of Kafka Fragments in 2006, on new music label ECM. Kurtág himself worked with them and was present throughout the recording so it's almsot definitive. So hearing Banse and Keller perform it live at the Wigmore Hall, London this week was a salutary experience.

Kurtág’s music needs specialized, well-informed performance. It is deceptively simple on the surface but requires highly intuitive interpretation. Because he writes aphoristically, his miniatures seem simple. But Kurtág likes puzzles. His music opens out like a complex maze entered through a tiny door. Its secrets lie not so much in what’s on the page, but what’s not. His notations are unorthodox, so it can’t be followed on autopilot. Instead, Kurtág’s performance depends on the innate musicality of those who perform the work, and how well they intuit his idiom.

Most music only “becomes” music when played by those who understand what’s happening, but much more so with an idiom as elusive as Kurtág’s. For all the inventive freedom and whimsy he embodies, Kurtág’s music requires superlative discipline and attentiveness. The Wigmore Hall recently hosted a series of workshops on Kurtág led by Julian Phillips, where artists of the calibre of Marino Formenti and Rolf Hinds discussed their experience of working with the composer.

Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments are intense, homeopathic distillations of ideas from Kafka’s letters and diaries. The gist is that they are “fragments” not whole quotations. What is not said is every bit as important as what is. Meaning doesn’t depend on words alone; hence the absolute importance of well-informed, intuitive performance. András Keller has worked with Kurtág for decades and is one of his primary interpreters. He heads the Keller Quartet which has performed many Kurtág works, and knows the composer's idiom thoroughly.

Indeed, the very idea that the Kafka Fragments are a song cycle is misleading. Hearing Banse and Keller interact live, showed just how much the work is a delicately-poised balance between singer and player. Primarily, it’s a musical dialogue, for Kurtág’s expression comes from the way he sculpts sound and uses intervals, regardless of whether the instrument is voice or violin. Text setting this isn’t, rather a sophisticated use of sound and silence to evolve an impressionistic panorama of diffuse feelings and ideas.

The first sound you hear is the violin, creating a swaying zig zag. Like a door swinging open? Banse’s voice enters, completely in synch with Keller’s playing. Die Guten gehn in gleichen Schritt, personified. Significantly, the nest line refers to “others” who dance around them, unaware. Immediately, Kurtág establishes a sense of movement and purpose. Perhaps the central image in the Kafka Fragments is that of an esoteric pathway, deliberately obscured. The violin soars in wild frenzy. Banse simply has to speak the title of the fourth song, Ruhelos. No need for elaboration. The “song” happens when Keller comments, without words.

Keller and Banse bring out the musicality in the piece to an extraordinary degree because they understand the internal logic. For example, Banse leaps up and down the scale within the words Nimmermehr, Niummermehr. By replicating the swaying zig zag with which the violin began the piece, she’s showing how the structure of the work is evolving. It’s a quick Ruckblick befiore the next stage in the journey, In the next fragment, she sings “Immer, Immer”, with a similar but subtly different sweep: voice as violin again. Keller’s playing intensifies the wild swings, Banse’s voice responding with force. Then, suddenly silence.

The two Berceuses aren’t restful, even though they refer to sleep. Quietness doesn’t mean repose. Intervals are carefully placed so the word “Aufgewacht” leaps out. Banse spits the word out almost in a single syllable. Her voice sounds like a violin string being pulled tautly. Vibration but tightly controlled. Ticking patterns, as Keller taps bow against the neck of the violin. Banse sings staccato, not sharp but resonant, like wood on wood.

The idea of voice/violin balance is further explored in the fragment that refers to Balzac. Banse enunciates the first words in each sentence, with vaguely Sprechstimme deliberation, but leaps in tune with Keller’s violin on the word “Hindernisse”, both times it’s repeated. Another echo of the swaying imagery. Then the violin creates a bizarre sound like that of a door that has long been closed stiff, being slowly pried open. A metaphor? Entirely apt.

Keller unleashes brilliantly virtuosic leaps and elisions. The singing becomes abstract,, following the patterns in the music. The last thing you’d want to hear here is a voice as “persona”, I think, for what matters is the smooth integration of two instruments, one string, one wind. This intense intimacy reminded me of the way Kurtág and his wife Marta play together, as if they’re a single organism operating in two halves. Banse turns Keller’s sheets for him so he doesn’t miss a second, which makes a difference in music as finely poised as this. Although the gesture is made without sound, it is very much part of the true meaning of the piece.

Then just as you’ve got into the elliptical vibe, Kurtág cuts it off. Tapping sounds, the word “Nichts” squeaked shrilly so it doesn’t sound human, but violin like. “Nichts dergliechen”. Take nothing for granted.

The second part consists of a single song in the piece, though there are barely three lines in the text. Keller’s playing is exquisite, for this is a stage in the journey that must be savoured. The violin dominates, with a languid almost-melody that snakes round the voice. The Kafka Fragments aren’t just a dialogue between voice and violin, but between two violins. Keller’s primary instrument has a bright, positive timbre, while the second is warmer, more languid. Because Keller’s playing is so subtle the difference is remarkable.

More musical puzzles. In the third section, violin and voice imitate other instruments. In Schmutzig bin ich, Milena, the violin sounds relatively conventional, imitating voice. The words refer to dirt and cleansing but that’s deceptive. Most of this fragment is taken up by the image of voices in deepest hell. Specifically, the text says that what we take for the song of angels is the song of the doomed. Later, Banse’s voice sounds like a clarion bell, or murmurs like an oboe, and the violin shimmers like an ethereal flute. The words “Aufgewacht” surface again. Pay attention, and to the underlying seams that course below.

The mood in part four changes again, taking up the languid stillness of part two. How Keller’s violin seems to wail, as if in mourning. Then, suddenly he reverts to notes plucked at spaced intervals, and awkward, angular scatterings in contrast to Banse’s fluid lines. Part way he changes violins again, augmenting the disconcerting effect. Banse’s voice swoops wildly: Leoparden brechen in der Tempel - what an image, hinting at some unknowable savagery. Yet immediately after, another Kurtág contradiction. “Ich kann…(long pause) nicht eigentlich erzahlen” (I can’t…really tell a story). The hesitations in the intervals, and in the text underline the idea that Fragments cannot tell a story. Proof, if any were needed, that Peter Sellars’ staging of this work was an anti-musical abomination. Avoid it, even in audio, as the balance between voice and violin is all wrong.

Kurtág ends equivocally. Wiederum, wiederum, round and round, like a circle. Banse’s voice and Keller’s violin twining round each other. But it’s the final fragment that opens out onto new vistas. Es bendetet uns die Mondnacht : moonlight casts spells, transforming daytime reality into something magical. Otherworldly sounds from the violin, part gypsy demonry, part Jewish lament. Banse’s voice traces huge, expansive shapes that extend the idea of circles spreading outward. As her voice goes quiet, the ripples resonate endlessly into the void.

Perhaps this wasn’t Banse and Keller’s finest performance, for which I can’t blame them.The house was half empty, unfortunately, as there were major opera premieres the day before and after, drawing away the audience. But it was a wonderful masterclass that showed why Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments are so remarkable. And believe me, even not at their best, Keller and Banse are way ahead of any competition.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Juliane Banse [Photo by Susie Knoll courtesy of www.julianebanse.com]

product_title=György Kurtág : Kafka-Fragmente [Kafka Fragments], op. 24
product_by=Juliane Banse, soprano; András Keller, violin. Wigmore Hall, London, 18th February 2011.
product_id=Above: Juliane Banse [Photo by Susie Knoll courtesy of www.julianebanse.com]

Posted by anne_o at 5:14 PM

February 22, 2011

The Bartered Bride, New York

The national opera was often based on national legends and national folk tunes; when possible, national folk dances made an appearance.

Bedřich Smetana resolved to create the Czech national opera at a time when Czech nationhood was subsumed in that of the Austrian Empire, and he chose a legend about a Czech dynast. Scenes from this opera adorn the walls of the National Theater in Prague, which was constructed at that time, to this day. The opera is called Libuše (the name of the prophetess who founded both Prague and the Czech royal house); it is rarely performed in the Czech lands and obscure outside them. Instead, to both the Czechs and the rest of the world, the national opera is Smetana’s light, merry Prodaná Nevěsta, to the English-speaking world (for it is seldom given in Czech here) The Bartered Bride. In this guise it has long been in the category of occasional revivals, the overture almost too familiar (orchestras love it for the rhythmic workout it gives the strings: it’s a charming showoff piece). The Met and Juilliard chose it for the first of what one hopes will become a tradition of collaborations between the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists and the Juilliard opera program in their nifty little opera theater, the Peter J. Sharp. The omens look good.

One did wonder, though, at the performance, what Smetana’s charming folk opera was doing in a Central European café in doom-laden 1938? Was some ideological point intended? Or (one sneered) was it just that they couldn’t afford costumes of the proper era? A program note by director Stephen Wadsworth cleared things up: No, they couldn’t afford a full stage of fancy peasant costumes. He gets applause from me for not trying to make some political point of this, and for clear storytelling though, as usual with Wadsworth, it’s a bit fussy. Something is always going on, people are always dancing outside the window when the action should focus on one character’s solo distress. All the performers were expected to insert bits of folk-dance into their arias, just to ground us in Czech-ness, which they did with varying skill—but being able to dance credibly while they sing is part of the skill-set evidently being taught the Lindemann Young Artists at the Met. But I still can’t believe parents in Central Europe in 1938 would dare to arrange a marriage for their daughter without consulting her any more than they would today.

Opera translations into English come in at least four varieties: Risible, unendurable, irritating and inaudible. Inaudible—ENO’s Wagner, for example—is my favorite. Sandy McClatchy’s new version of Bartered Bride (an opera I have never heard sung in Czech) was mildly irritating: lots of false rhymes and false accents (the heroine’s name, at least, should fall with the proper emphasis), but many of those attending seemed to enjoy it and it was so clearly sung that surtitles should not have been necessary. The stuttering Vašek got laughs from those who find disabilities hilarious. (In Smetana’s day, no doubt, that was a larger group.)

5148Bride_0377c.pngJennifer Johnson Cano as Ludmila, Layla Claire as Mařenka, Donovan Singletary as Krusina, and Jordan Bisch as Kecal

Among the singers, slim, red-haired Layla Claire made the biggest impression as Mařenka, the bartered bride. She is a talented, affecting actress, both flirting and sorrowing, and her voice has a Central European sort of vibrato and a winning, plangent smoothness and rose on occasion to an opulent high C. Too, she worked her irritations out in dance steps that seemed unusually well integrated into her character. Paul Appleby, as her Jeník, displayed the several colors of his attractive tenor well, though he was unattractively costumed and obliged to use precious breath dancing with rage. Alexander Lewis had the part of Vašek, Jeník’s stuttering half-brother, and his well-supported light, high tenor made a nice contrast between the suitors; he also dances winningly and acts ably: a comic scene-stealer. I see Rossini and Donizetti leading roles in his future. Jordan Bisch was also an audience favorite in the buffo role of the pompous marriage broker, Kecal. His perfect diction and command of blowhard nuance (Kecal thinks he’s smarter than anybody, even when he loses the barter of the title) were as enduring as his rounded low notes. Noah Baetge’s star turn as the Ringmaster of a convenient carnival invasion was not vocally impressive, but that was all right since his part is written to be upstaged by ridiculous circus acts—the bearded “lady” ballerina and the contortionist were particular crowd-pleasers. The four annoying parents who clutter the plot proved their worth when they joined distraught Mařenka for the quintet that was the evening’s vocal peak. James Levine conducted the Juilliard Opera Orchestra, and the thrilling, rushing string writing gave no problems and great delight.

John Yohalem


image=http://www.operatoday.com/5148Bride_0258c.png image_description=Paul Appleby as Jenik and Layla Claire as Marenka. [Photo by Nan Melville courtesy of The Julliard School] product=yes product_title=Bedřich Smetana: Prodaná nevěsta [The Bartered Bride] product_by=Mařenka: Layla Claire; Esmeralda: Joyce El-Khoury; Jeník: Paul Appleby; Vašek: Alexander Lewis; Kecal: Jordan Bisch; Ringmaster: Noah Baetge. The Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Program in partnership with the Juilliard Opera program, Juilliard Orchestra conducted by James Levine at the Peter J. Sharp Theater. Performance of February 17. product_id=Above: Paul Appleby as Jenik and Layla Claire as Mařenka

All photos by Nan Melville courtesy of The Julliard School.
Posted by Gary at 3:46 PM

February 21, 2011

Der zerbrochene Krug / Der Zwerg

It is set in the Netherlands: a woman sues the fiancé of her daughter Eve for having broken a precious jug, in a court presided over by Judge Adam; as it happens Judge Adam himself broke the jug while sneaking into Eve’s room in an attempt to seduce her, and was severely injured trying to escape. As the (excellent) conductor, James Conlon, says in the liner notes, the jug represents Eve’s virginity. One might think of Pope’s famous couplet: “Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law, / Or some frail China jar receive a flaw…” But the jug has far greater symbolic import, too: Eve’s mother points out that famous figures from Dutch history were depicted on the jug, and to Kleist the jug represents history itself, a tale shattered by human vice. As Kafka says, the Last Judgment in a court in perpetual session.

The staging of the opera (directed by Darko Tresnjak, with sets by Ralph Funicello) is good. The sky and the background windmills are colored like sin, ranging from lurid red to livid blue; during the overture, in an especially nice touch, dancers in silhouette, framed by a huge jug-arch, pantomime the events preliminary to the action. It is as if the drama were itself taking place on a great delft vase. The singing and the acting are enjoyably competent, but not more.

Ullmann’s opera is not one of his better works. In places there is rhythmic pungency, sometimes in a finely Prokofiev-like manner, but much of the music is generally peppy or generally mock-serious—there is none of blackness found in his other operas, Der Sturz des Antichrist and Der Kaiser von Atlantis. It would have better if the music had cut deeper, as Kleist’s play does, despite its cheerfulness. On the other hand, Kleist once wrote that we need to eat the apple of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil a second time, to recover our lost innocence, to become pure, as a puppet or a god is pure; and maybe Ullmann has tried to restore something of the innocence that was lost in the fall of man.

Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg is on an altogether different plane of achievement. The plot, derived from an Oscar Wilde fairy tale, is simple: on the Infantin’s eighteenth birthday her playmates frolic about her, and she receives many gorgeous gifts; the chamberlain tells us that the most beautiful of all is also the most abominable, a dwarf whose hideousness has been concealed from him all his life, for he has never been allowed to see a mirror; for sport the Infantin pretends to fall in love with him, but comes to think it would be still better sport to show him what he looks like; he peers into a mirror, and shrieks; the Infantin tells him that she never loved him—who could love a grotesque little hunchback?—and he dies of a broken heart; the Infanta notes that a favorite toy is broken, and returns to the land of tra-la-la.

The plot sounds like a version or perversion of the first scene of Das Rheingold: here, when the ugly dwarf falls in love with the beautiful maiden, we feel pity for the dwarf and contempt for the maiden. And there is even a moment of musical resemblance, when the orchestra plays limping figures as the chamberlain describes the dwarf, similar to those we hear in the earlier opera at Alberich’s entrance. But what Zemlinsky’s music tells us is that his opera is a version or perversion of the Olympia act in Les contes d’Hoffmann, for the Infantin is like a mechanical doll, and the dwarf is a poet who considers her a creature straight from a romantic poem.

This performance (also designed by Tresnjak and Funicello) is somewhat unsatisfactory. The set is handsome, with its black marble walls and golden stairs. But this very dark, spare set isn’t right for an opera where, especially at the beginning, all should be bejeweled, glittery, full of sunlight. It would have been better to look to Velázquez for inspiration, not Zurbarán. Mary Dunleavy, the Infantin, has a potent voice, a little shrill at times; she makes her character less a spoiled horror in a pretty dress than a playfully self-indulgent girl, caught up in a game whose consequences she doesn’t understand. I wouldn’t have guess that a production could go a ways toward exculpating the Infantin, but I was intrigued by this idea. What seemed wrong to me was Dunleavy’s naturalness, her smiling ease as she played her game: she might have been Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier talking demurely with Octavian.

I understand the Infantin (as I believe Wilde understood her) as pure artifice—better to have her move jerkily like a robot than to make her a character with an interesting personality. As the dwarf, Rodrick Dixon was superb, a figure of energy and a sort of supple pathos, ready to accommodate himself to the shifting viciousnesses around him.

But still, this is an opera that I find intensely moving. I have loved it for many years, and my life would have been poorer without it.

Daniel Albright


image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus101528.gif image_description=Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug product=yes product_title=Alexander Zemlinsky: Der Zwerg; Viktor Ullmann: Der zerbrochene Krug product_by=DerZwerg — The Dwarf: Rodrick Dixon; Donna Clara: Mary Dunleavy; Ghita: Susan B. Anthony; Don Estoban: James Johnson; First Maid: Melody Moore; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; Third Maid: Elizabeth Bishop; First Playmate: Karen Vuong; Second Playmate: Rena Harms.

Der zerbrochene Krug — Adam: James Johnson; Licht: Bonaventura Bottone; Walter: Steven Humes; Frau Marthe Rull: Elizabeth Bishop; Eve: Melody Moore; Veit Tümpel: Jason Stearns; Ruprecht: Richard Cox; Frau Brigitte: Natasha Flores; First Maid: Rena Harms; Second Maid: Lauren McNeese; A Servant: Ryan McKinny.

Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus. James Conlon, conductor. Darko Tresnjak, stage director. Ralph Funicello, set designer. Linda Cho, costume designer. David Weiner, lighting designer. Peggy Hickey, choreographer. Recorded live at the Los Angeles Opera, 2008. product_id=ArtHaus Musik 101528 [Blu-Ray] price=$39.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=519510
Posted by Gary at 3:34 PM

February 20, 2011

The Turk in Italy, LA Opera

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 20 February 2011]
“The Turk in Italy.” The title sounds tired. Milanese operagoers in Italy thought so when Rossini’s “Il Turco in Italia” had its premiere at La Scala 1814. The idea was old, already used by other composers, and "Turco" was a flop.

Posted by Gary at 4:59 PM

Thomas Arne, Bampton Classical Opera

Frederick, Prince of Wales, eldest son of George II, had married in 1736 but, rebellious and alienated from his parents, when his wife became pregnant, Frederick concealed the fact. At the last moment, the Princess of Wales was rushed to St James’s Palace, where no preparations had been made, and gave birth to a daughter, almost as soon as the King and Queen knew a grandchild was on the way. The little girl was known as Augusta, Princess of Brunswick, and for her third birthday, or rather one day later on 1 August 1740, her father arranged a grand entertainment in the garden of Cliveden consisting of two masques and some pantomime scenes, all performed by the best London professionals that money could buy. The entertainments were enjoyed by such a throng of society guests that they had to be repeated on the following night — when a rainstorm drove everyone indoors, and Alfred had to be finished in the Hall.

In the eighteenth century, the characters and storyline of a masque would be familiar to all with a knowledge of classical mythology. The early-eighteenth century was a ‘classical age’, in which assumptions were seldom challenged, and people believed that their way of life and artistic tastes were not a passing phase but, in the words of the great English historian, G.M. Trevelyan, “permanent habitations, the final outcome of reason and experience. Such an age does not aspire to progress though it may in fact be progressing, it regards itself not as setting out but as having arrived …And therefore the men of this ‘classical’ age looked backed with a sense of kinship to the far-off ancient world. The upper class regarded the Greeks and Romans as honorary Englishmen, their precursors in liberty and culture.”*

Thus, Alfred, ostensibly set in the distant ninth century and telling the story of maurading, godless Danes who met their match in Alfred, a scholarly and benevolent ruler, had significant contemporary relevance, obvious no doubt to all of Frederick’s guests. For, just as the legendary King Alfred sought refuge in a country refuge, from whence he launched the freeing of his nation, so Frederick resided in his rural retreat, estranged from his father, waiting for the day when his values of liberty and honour would prevail and ‘free’ his nation.

At the time of Alfred’s composition, inventions in the masque form were acceptable if they were fairly mild in character; sometimes they may have been barely intentional, and thus Arne, though he transformed English opera in the 1740s-60s, may scarcely have been conscious of his originality, being more concerned to ‘recapture the past’ than to forge new paths into the future.

In fact, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778) was the most important figure in the world of English theatre music in the middle part of the eighteenth century, fighting vehemently for the cause of native creativity at a time when the fashion for foreign culture prevailed. With a brilliant gift for melody, Arne was able to turn his hand to the whole range of theatre music, from incidental music and comic 'afterpieces', to complex masques and opera seria on the scale of those by his great rival, Handel.

Alfred has the innovation of both spoken dialogue and a historical plot. At this time, James Thomas, the author of The Seasons, was receiving an allowance from Frederick — much needed for only shortly before he had been languishing in a debtors’ prison! Anxious to raise the literary level of the masque, Arne found in Thomas a poet of merit. Arne may well have been looking back to the Purcellian masque with his deployment of spoken dialogue but at the same time, it may also have conveniently excused him from the obligation to write ‘dramatic music’, in recognition that his compositional gifts were primarily lyrical. In this performance by Bampton Classical Opera, the text was narrated crisply by Bampton director Jeremy Gray; the transitions between spoken and sung text were swift and wholly convincing, effectively binding the individual numbers into a fluent narrative.

Originally Alfred and his wife, Eltruda, were non-singing parts; the airs were sung by the two shepherds, Corin and his wife Emma, and by the Spirit, sung originally by Mrs Arne — aka Cecilia Young, one of the foremost sopranos of the age. Presented in a bewildering number of versions in its day, textually Alfred is one of the most confused of all eighteenth-century ‘operas’. Arne continued to revise and reshape it, composing up to seventy numbers in all. Many of the revisions were pragmatic: initially scored with great lavishness, it was subsequently impossible to accommodate the work in any of the London playhouses, and therefore economising modification was necessary. None of the music was published for more than a decade after the first performance, and then only in much altered form. Bampton Classical Opera first tackled the work in 1998, giving what may have been the first fully-staged performance since the eighteenth century. On this occasion, they presented excerpts from the 1753 version, in which the dialogue was reduced to a minimum.

Alfred is a stirring tale of Anglo-Saxon warfare and rustic love, complete with ‘an offstage British victory of overwhelming proportions’. The music may be unfamiliar, but it was pleasing to see several Bampton ‘regulars’ return for this performance. The dramatic focus and musical accuracy of Corin’s opening solo air, ‘Though to a desert Isle confin’d’, sung with confident assurance by Mark Chaundy, flowed naturally to the Trio ‘Let not those who love, complain’, in which the voices of Joana Seara, Serena Kay and John-Colyn Gyeanty blended perfectly with the instrumental support. Having recently performed the Count in Bampton’s 2010 The Marriage of Figaro by Marcos Portugal, Gyeanty employed his flexibile, warm tenor with admirable control in the eponymous hero’s beautiful air, ‘From the Dawn of early Morning’, displaying an array of colours and dispatching the rapid scalic runs with aplomb. Making effective use of pianissimo, he shaped the phrases gracefully and projected the words clearly. As Edward (performed in 1753 by the renowned castrato, Guadagni), Kay brought dramatic energy to her air, ‘Vengeance, O come, inspire me!’, while Seara delivered Eltruda’s ‘Gracious Heav’n, O hear me!’ with precision and finesse. Ilona Domnich was a bright, clear shepherdess, Emma, and also sang the Spirit’s air with directness and assurance, adeptly capturing the mood of the situation.

‘Rule Britannia’ — a ‘Grand Ode in Honour of Great Britain’ — ends the work. Dynamic instrumental playing from the Bampton Classical Players accompanied King Alfred’s and Queen Eltruda’s prayer that our shores be protected from foreign invasion, a prayer which, for all its modern ‘vainglory’, expresses not unreasonable sentiments for a constantly invaded island in the ninth century, and had topical relevance for 1740. Brilliantly scored for oboes, bassoons, trumpets, drums and strings, it was an overnight sensation on its first performance, and was soon sung everywhere; in 1742 the full score was published as an appendix to Arne’s The Judgement of Paris, a work which was undoubtedly influenced by Sammartini’s Judgement of Paris also given at Cliveden in the summer of 1740.

At the time it was felt that ‘masque’ was not the appropriate category for Alfred, and it was later advertised as a serenata, an opera, and even an oratorio. Similarly, while Arne’s The Judgement of Paris — an irreverent account of the famous mythological beauty contest which led to the Trojan War — was also described as a masque when first performed at Drury Lane on 12 March 1742, there is no spoken dialogue and it is effectively a one-act opera for five soloists and chorus.

Bampton Classical Opera certainly made a strong case for its dramatic as well as musical merits. Conductor Benjamin Bayl deftly captured the character of the piece, inspiring vigorous playing from the period instrumental orchestra and drawing out the distinctive woodwind colourings in particular numbers. Tempi were well chosen and the recitatives sustained forward momentum.

Gyeanty’s even legato and sensitivity to the text were again in evidence in Paris’s air, ‘I faint, I fall’, as he used changes of pace and rich ornamentation to convey drama and emotion. Mark Chaundy’s light voice and superb breath control aptly conveyed the swift airiness of Mercury in ‘Fear not, mortal, none shall harm thee’; and the two men enjoyed the joyful jauntiness of their duet, ‘Happy thou of human race’.

Arne’s music for the three goddesses is nicely differentiated. Serena Kay presented a powerful, athletic impression of Pallas in ‘O what joys does conquest yield’, an elaborate, full-scale Italianate da capo aria, which also drew fine playing from the oboes, trumpets and drums. In contrast, Joana Seara emphasised the steadfastness of Juno in a simple strophic air, ‘Let ambition fire the mind’. In Venus’s ‘Nature framed thee sure for Loving’, Ilona Domnich floated the high notes sweetly, while the two violins enjoyed their dialogue and echo effects. Venus’s first air, ‘Hither turn thee gentle swain’, includes a delightful cello obbligato, here beautifully played by Natasha Kraemer. It leads to an amusing ‘rivalry trio’ for the three goddesses; Kay, Seara and Domnich clearly relished the gentle humour as Pallas and Juno take turns to ironically adapt the first line of Venus’s preceding air.

This may have been a concert performance, but the singers were uniformly effective in conveying not just character but dramatic relationships and momentum. Indeed, the stage directions, reproduced in the programme, describe the moment when Paris sees the three goddesses, who then descend briskly from the sky on mechanical contraptions — a useful reminder of the theatrical origins of the work.

Once again, Bampton Classical Opera not only brought justly deserving but little known repertoire to a highly appreciative audience’s attention, but performed it with commitment, intelligence and significant musical accomplishment. In so doing, the company made a strong and convincing case for both the musical and the dramatic potential of these early English ‘operas’.

Claire Seymour

* G.M. Trevelyan, Illustrated English Social History: 3 (The Eighteenth Century), Pelican, pp.85-6.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Thomas_Augustine_Arne_portrait_by_Zoffany.png image_description=Thomas Augustine Arne by Johann Zoffany [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Thomas Arne: Alfred (excerpts); The Judgement of Paris product_by=Alfred — Alfred: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Eltruda, his queen: Joana Seara; Edward, his son: Serena Kay; Corin, a peasant: Mark Chaundy; Emma, his wife: Ilona Domnich; The Spirit: Ilona Domnich.

The Judgement of Paris — Mercury: Mark Chaundy; Paris, a shepherd: John-Colyn Gyeanty; Juno: Joana Seara; Pallas: Serena Kay; Venus: Ilona Domnich.

Bampton Classical Opera. The Bampton Classical Players. Conductor: Benjamin Bayl. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday 12th February 2011. product_id=Above: Thomas Augustine Arne by Johann Zoffany [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 4:16 PM

Virginia Arts recalls Civil War

In history, however, it’s more than a river; it defined a big stretch of the boundary between North and South in the Civil War. Now — the name of a county as well — it’s being written in big letters on a larger map as Rappahannock County, a theatrical song cycle to be premiered at the 2011 Virginia Arts Festival on April 12, which — not coincidentally — is the 150 anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter that launched the Civil War.

The composer of the work is Ricky Lee Gordon, widely praised for the opera that he made of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath; author of the 30 poems in the cycle is Mark Campbell, noted for his collaborations with several significant composers. “The Rappahannock remains a symbol of the division between North and South,” Gordon says. “And the songs are snapshots of life and loss during the war.”

In making the commission festival director Robert Cross asked only for a work on the Civil War. What exactly it would be was up to Gordon and Campbell. “I couldn’t see a big three-act opera on the war,” Gordon says. “The challenge was to make the subject manageable — to cut it down.”

Gordon brought Campbell on board, and they both started reading. “Virginia was so central to the war — and so divided!” Gordon says. “We decided to focus on just one county in the state: Rappahannock.” The two decided on music theater as their genre, and Gordon thought in terms of a cycle of songs to be performed by a small group of singers, each of whom plays a number of roles. Although the final score is divided into five acts — one for each year of the war — they are performed without interruption. The work lasts 85 minutes.

“Although the poems offer no cohesive narrative, they must be performed without intermission,” the composer says. “That would break the mounting intensity of the cycle.” Campbell’s texts draw on letters, diaries and other documents from a group of people — both black and white — who experienced the impact of war first hand. The goal of the creative team was a work in which individuals speak with intimacy. “But the personal is political,” Gordon says, “and the political is personal.” The piece has the sense of a lens closing in on a spectrum of individuals and their feelings around slavery and morality in a profound and poignant way. “Mark’s libretto shows what everyone has to lose — or has lost.”

A preacher opens the cycle:

“For slavery is not a sin,
It’s sanctified…
By God!”

A map maker decries the abuse of his profession:

“Making these maps
Is not to orient a man,
But parcel to a plan
For spoiling valleys, for torching forests,
For bloodying rivers, for rupturing ridges,
Fields, farms, paths, groves, all lost—
Leveled into an ashen heap.”

A soldier — unidentified by side — dies:

“And what the Hell for?
All I wanted
Was to die the Good death,
The noble death,
A death both brave and bold.
Not this slow withering away.”

In a duet former slaves ask what the future holds, and a young black woman buries her infant child, while the dying soldier concludes:

“For fin’lly only cruelty reigns.
My heart is dead, my soul has left me,
So now let’s finish what remains.”

Rappahannock County is a work of great economy, but immense emotional breadth — and depth. As he completed the poems Campbell sent them to University of Richmond historian Edward Ayres, a leading Civil War scholar. Ayers served as consultant on the project. “He has been our godfather!” Gordon says. “He checked the texts for historical and sociological accuracy.”

VAF_01.gifRicky Ian Gordon, composer and Mark Campbell, lyrics and concept [Photo by Rachel Greenberg courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival]

Gordon, in his understanding of the voice, is too often compared with Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein. Rappahannock County will correct that view and underscore the unique and original voice with which he writes. (Edgar Lee Master’s 1915 Spoon River Anthology, a collection of free-form poems describing life in a fictional small town served Campbell and Gordon as a model.) The work is scored for a chamber ensemble of 17. Wendell Harrington has designed minimal sets that rely on projections for power. Kevin Newbury directs the premiere; Rob Fischer conducts.

Members of the Norfolk cast are soprano Aundi Marie Moore, mezzo Faith Sherman, tenor Matthew Tuell and baritones Charles Freeman and Mark Walters.

Rappahannock County is a co-commission of the 2011 Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the University of Richmond and the University of Texas in Austin, The Norfolk production will be staged at both universities in September 2011.

Repeat performances of Rapphannock County during this 14th season of the Virginia Arts Festival, are scheduled for Norfolk’s Harrison Opera House on April 16 and 17. For information and tickets from $33.95 to $8.50. call 1-877-741-2787 or visit www.vafest.org.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ricky-Ian-Gordon-%28c%29-Greg-D.gif image_description=Ricky Ian Gordon [Photo by Greg Downer courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival] product=yes product_title=Ricky Ian Gordon: Rappahannock County product_by=Virginia Arts Festival, Tuesday, April 12, 8:00 PM (World Premiere), Saturday, April 16, 8:00 PM and Sunday, April 17, 2:30 PM, Harrison Opera House, Norfolk. Co-commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Opera, the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, and Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. product_id=Above: Ricky Ian Gordon [Photo by Greg Downer courtesy of Virginia Arts Festival]
Posted by Gary at 8:30 AM

Parsifal, ENO

Even though I began to harbour doubts about some aspects of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production, above all its ending, it remains preferable to many I have seen in the meantime. Stefan Herheim’s astounding Bayreuth version stands in a class of its own. Leaving that aside, however, Lehnhoff is immeasurably superior, say, to the pitiful, incoherent offeringsfrom Klaus Michael Grüber for Covent Garden — why on earth did the Royal Opera revive a universally derided non-production? — or Bernd Eichinger’s confused effort for the Berlin State Opera, let alone glimpses of Tony Palmer’s cod-mediævalism for the Mariinsky. Lehnhoff’s conception, powerfully aided by Raimund Bauer’s stage designs, stands very much in the shadow of the Holocaust, taking as a further, generally productive cue the Waste Land’s ‘heap of broken images’. Apposite both to Wagner’s drama ‘in itself’ and to how we may now feel compelled to consider it, we encounter in the first act a community clearly in need of rejuvenation; by the time of the third act, much has turned to rubble and stone, it not being clear until the end whether there should remain any hope at all, even under Parsifal, of that rejuvenation. The second act seems less sure of itself, its abiding images being the bizarre costumes Andrea Schmidt-Futterer allots to Klingsor (weirdly space-age) and Kundry (a strange chrysalis, out of and into which she awkwardly squeezes herself). But compared to the horrors of Grüber’s Covent Garden production, we perhaps should not concern ourselves unduly with that. What the whole lacked, I thought, was more incisive direction on stage, doubtless a consequence of Lehnhoff’s absence through illness: there was more than the occasional hint of a routine ‘revival’, a great pity given the ideas presented.

The broken railway line present during the whole of the third act is a powerful ‘broken image’, presumably intended to refer to Auschwitz. But what is being said there? That the variety of revival offered by the community’s new leader leads to racial rather than Schopenhauerian annihilation? That would be wrong-headed in the extreme, but a point of view at least, yet it seems undercut by the joy with which Kundry — she does not die — and Parsifal begin their journey along the line. The implication seems to be that they are wandering off to initiate a sexual relationship: bewildering, and arguably offensive, in the production’s context. The production, understandably, appears to waver between a quasi-Adornian attempt to ‘rescue’ Wagner and a desire to condemn him. Part of the reason, I suspect, why this conundrum presents itself is the production’s absolute refusal to engage with the work’s complex relationship towards Christianity. (I should direct anyone interested in my thoughts on the latter to an article in The Wagner Journal, 3/3, pp.29-59.) Simply to ignore the issue seems to me an unduly easy way out. And yes, that includes the deflating absence of any substitute for the second-act Sign of the Cross; text and music cry out for something, whatever it might be.

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was for the most part something to savour. Parsifal is by any standards a tough proposition, but the structure was largely in place, most impressively of all in the first act, which opened with a beautifully slow yet sustained prelude. The third act occasionally dragged: not a matter of tempo as such, but of faltering line; however, I should not wish to exaggerate. The score’s dialectic between horizontal and vertical demands was more surely navigated than I have often heard. Moreover, the ENO orchestra gave perhaps the finest performance I have ever heard from it; I have certainly never heard it finer. Strings had weight, sweetness, and silkiness, as required, whilst the rounded tone of the brass, sepulchral and never brash, proved exemplary.

Parsifal_Stuart_Skelton_Jane_Dutton_3_credit_Richard_Hubert_Smith.pngStuart Skelton as Parsifal and Jane Dutton as Kundry

Allowances had to be made for some of the vocal portrayals — and for almost all of Richard Stokes’s English translation. The latter is doubtless an horrendously difficult task to undertake, but some of the inaccuracies — why change a gander to a ‘duckling’, making nonsense of the relationship to a goose? — and banalities could surely have been improved upon. Choral singing was generally very good. Jane Dutton’s Kundry was sadly below par; one could only regret the absence, owing to ‘artistic differences’, of the originally advertised Iréne Theorin. Sir John Tomlinson’s voice is becoming increasingly threadbare at the top, but there was no denying the overall majesty of his Gurnemanz, however impoverished the great narrations may have been by the act of translation. Iain Paterson had a slightly shaky start as Amfortas, but recovered well, soon erasing unfortunate memories of his bizarre miscasting by ENO as Don Giovanni; here, instead, we had a typically detailed response to text and music, and a credible dramatic assumption, for the most part finely acted on stage. Tom Fox and Andrew Greenan made their respective marks without blemish as Klingsor and Titurel, both rising vocally above the handicap of their strange costumes. Stuart Skelton displayed a fine Heldentenor in the title role, very much in the baritonal, ‘Bayreuth’ tradition. As with many of the best exponents of the role, he left one initially a little disappointed, an apparent disappointment rectified by the appreciation of dramatic strategy: the first act Parsifal should sound somewhat vacant, in order to allow for the extraordinary development the character undergoes. (Even ‘extraordinary’ is to put it mildly.) The voice lacks nothing in power; if anything, the thought occurred that it might have benefited from a larger space.

Parsifal_Iain_Patterson_Adrian_Dwyer_Robert_Winslade_Anderson_2_.pngIain Patterson as Amfortas, Adrian Dwyer as First Knight and Robert Winslade Anderson as Second Knight

Indeed, I still wonder whether a theatre other than the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a suitable venue for staging Parsifal at all: not out of misplaced ‘Bayreuth Idealist’ piety, but rather because I think other, non-theatrical spaces, from Siena Cathedral to the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, might prove much more appropriate. A work that has so far transcended the narrow horizons of the Italianate opera house — or, in the case of the Coliseum case, the music hall! — jars somewhat in such a setting. Whether one considers that jarring productive may be a matter of taste, however, and the problem, such as it is, is not ENO’s alone; far from it.

Mark Berry

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Parsifal_Stuart_Skelton_credit_Richard_Hubert_Smith.png image_description=Stuart Skelton as Parsifal [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title= product_by=Amfortas: Iain Paterson; Titurel: Andrew Greenan; Gurnemanz: Sir John Tomlinson; Klingsor: Tom Fox; Parsifal: Stuart Skelton; Kundry: Jane Dutton; First Knight: Adrian Dwyer; Second Knight: Robert Winslade Anderson; First Squire: Julia Sporsén; Second Squire: Stephanie Marshall; Third Squire: Christopher Turner; Fourth Squire: Michael Bracegirdle; Voice from Above: Amy Kerenza Sedgwick; First Group of Flowermaidens: Sarah-Jane Davies, Julia Sporsén, Helena Dix; Second Group of Flowermaidens: Meeta Ravel, Sarah Jane Brandon, Stephanie Marshall. Director: Nikolaus Lehnhoff; Associate Director: Dan Dooner; Designer: Raimund Bauer; Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer; Lighting: Duane Schuler; Choreography: Denni Sayers. Orchestra of the English National Opera; Chorus of the English National Opera and additional chorus (chorus master: Martin Merry); Mark Wigglesworth (conductor). Coliseum, London, Wednesday 16 February 2011. product_id=Above: Stuart Skelton as Parsifal

All photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:49 AM

February 19, 2011

Sure, they can sing (opera), but can they act?

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 19 February 2011]
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is known for working with subjects who aren't actual film actors. His latest movie, "Certified Copy," which comes to American theaters March 11, is a departure: It stars Juliette Binoche, chosen as best actress at Cannes last year for her performance.

Posted by Gary at 4:08 PM

The Met’s ‘Nixon in China’ offers food for thought but ultimately leaves you hungry

By David Abrams [CNY Café Momus, 19 February 2011]

Nixon in China opens with Air Force One making its historic descent into Beijing. Once the Presidential party disembarks and the singing begins, it soon becomes apparent that the opera’s libretto is still up in the clouds.

Posted by Gary at 11:43 AM

February 18, 2011

Anna Nicole, London

It would be difficult to come up with a more contrasting work than Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, not simply, nor even principally, from a gendered standpoint. Written in collaboration with librettist, Richard Thomas, we have a new opera, which, as almost everyone by now will be aware, is based upon the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Having spoken to a considerable number of people over what must be approaching a year, I can only recall one having heard of her, but apparently she is more celebrated in other quarters. A woman who physically suffered and financially gained from excessive breast enhancement, Smith ‘apparently’ died from a drug overdose. Such is not the inspiration for Anna Nicole, in that little effort seems to have been expended to produce an independent artwork; rather we have something akin to a report of what the lawyers have permitted Thomas and Turnage to reproduce. Apparently changes had to be made very late in the day indeed, which may or may not be connected with the setting aside in January of this year of Howard K Stern’s conviction for providing Smith with controlled substances.

The music is more or less entirely without interest. One barely notices it, beyond dubious pastiche, in the first act. At best, it aurally resembles sub-sub-Broadway Weill, with hints of even further sub-sub-Berg. Closed forms are the order of the day, but they come across as short-winded, formulaic even, rather than polemical. Weirdly selected near-bits of Stravinsky are thrown in, for instance, passages for woodwind almost straight out of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. And a parody that is barely a parody, of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, covers over the cracks for Anna Nicole’s wedding to Old Man Marshall. The music for the second act, supposedly more tragic in tone, is mawkishly sentimental and, like everything else about the act, sounds over extended by at least half an hour. (Both acts last for about an hour.) Puccini might just have made something of this; Turnage cannot. Moreover, the writing for chorus, which makes up so much of the first act, suddenly disappears. Doubtless the claim will be that that ever so subtly marks a tightening of tragic focus. However, like the increasingly tired feel of the sets — even Richard Jones and his design team can only do so much with such material — the impression is of an attempt to spin out something that has long since been exhausted.

The jokey-cum-profane libretto is worse, attention-seeking and utterly banal. One tires of its childish provocations quickly, indeed within a few seconds. Incessant swearing tires rather than shocks. Perhaps someone finds a litany of alleged synonyms for breasts amusing; perhaps that would be the same person who has a real-life interest in this sorry tale. Nothing is remotely erotic; the opera is more akin to The Benny Hill Show. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, Lulu. The legal wranglings arising from the deaths of Marshall and Smith might have made useful dramatic fodder, but these are not explored. Perhaps it as well, for one cannot imagine, to put it mildly, Anna Nicole becoming The Makropulos Case.

I am suspicious of any work that seems designed to disallow almost any adverse criticism. Stravinsky accomplished that magnificently in The Rake’s Progress; yet, as so often, he seems to be a glorious exception. Anna Nicole is not, etc. If one complains about the ‘musical’ element, one will doubtless be assailed as ‘élitist’, as if somehow wishing for the best were something of which to be ashamed. Likewise all the popular culture elements. If one questions the banality of the libretto, not only ‘élitism’ but prudishness will also be alleged. Far from it, in my case: I find much of what is said straightforwardly puerile, and not in the slightest shocking, let alone hilarious. (An audience that laughs uproariously at crudely rhyming ‘profanities’ may need to get out a little more.) Puerility will then doubtless be part of ‘the point’, but one can say that about anything. This seems merely trashy rather than ‘about trashiness’. Question the musical language, insofar as it may exist, and one will be accused of ideological ‘élitism’: the horror — the ghost of Darmstadt!

Anna_Nicole_03.pngAlan Oke as J. Howard Marshall, Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole, Gerald Finley as Stern and, in the background, Marshall’s family (from left to right: Grant Doyle, Loré Lixenberg, Jeremy White and Rebecca de Pont Davies)

Whether dealing with music or text, true characterisation approaches zero; everything is simply a matter of plot and situation. Is that the point? Again, if so, ‘the point’ is surely wrong. Certain works can operate very well, even achieve greatness, without conventional characterisation at their heart, instantiating in its place an idea. However, Anna Nicole, is not, to put it mildly, Fidelio. Not only Stern but even Anna Nicole herself seems a mere caricature, without the caricature making a dramatic point. Nor is there anything of interest in the way the story is told. Hopes rise when Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie, dissents from the way Stern tells a part of the story — the death of Anna Nicole’s son, Daniel — and it seems as though we might be in for some sort of re-telling from a different perspective. It is really just a matter, however, of recounting her dissent. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Mask of Orpheus.

The opera — it actually seems more like an attempt at a musical — is also offensively and, frankly, childishly anti-American. Many of the rest of us have noticed that capitalism is not a solely American phenomenon. The use of ‘American’ accents, sometimes more successfully Texan or indeed American than at others, is odd at best. We do not ask singers in an opera with a French setting to sing as if they were Inspector Clouseau. It all seems intended to make fun of a cultural setting of which the writers seem to have little more knowledge and understanding than many of the rest of us. Imagine the horror that would rightly be expressed, were someone to decide to do something similar about India, Zimbabwe, Argentina, or indeed just about anywhere else. This is, with apologies to Edward Said, Occidentalism that is not even interesting.

Everything, moreover, seems to hang on the fact that this is ‘based on a true story’. We seem to be led to believe — and I tend to believe it myself — that it would be of no interest to anyone, if the story were presented fictionally. At best, then, the work becomes reportage, concerning an unfortunate soul to be cruelly mocked; for those of us who have little or no interest in the life story of the aforesaid unfortunate soul, it is not clear what the point might be. At least an opera such as John Adams’s Nixon in China deals with a political event of considerable importance, whilst remaining musically negligible. In ‘historical’ operas worth their salt, the ‘history’ is not the sole point, but a spur to artistic invention. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, L’incoronazione di Poppea. Perhaps worst of all, the treatment of Smith herself and, still more, her son seems straightforwardly exploitative. Is this a proper way to memorialise Daniel Wayne Smith? (I am unsure even whether to mention him here.) Does he deserve to be served up as entertainment? These people’s predicament is not, despite the presence of a press pack, really explored, let alone analysed; it is just retold.

Anna_Nicole_02.pngGerald Finley as Stern and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole

Jones does what he can, with great attention to detail, and colourful sets, especially during the first half. Moreover, the opera is truly cast from strength, whether with respect to members of the Royal Opera Chorus, such as the Four Lap Dancers and the Meat Rack Quartet, or the starring roles. The cast is huge, putting one in mind of another recent Jones production, though Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Gambler. Yet the unsubtle amplification, whilst ensuring that every word can be heard, crystal-clear, begins to tire as much as the melodramatic antics of the plot. The ever-reliable Susan Bickley makes the best of what she is given as Virgie. Alan Oke proves frighteningly credible in age as Old Man Marshall and sings as well as we have come to expect — which is very well indeed. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a truly bravura performance in the title role; the lack of characterisation is not hers. If Westbroek’s gifts were wasted, then I do not know what the term would be for the squandering of Finley’s resources. Antonio Pappano seemed to have the measure of the score, marshalling his forces with tight rhythmic control. The orchestra played with verve, as well drilled as one could imagine. To what end, though?

Was the increasing high pitch of the promotion — it seems to have worked, for performances have sold out — possibly related to a fear that the music and text were so weak? One has to take risks with new works; it is heartening that the Royal Opera was willing to do so. Let us hope that the next new work will prove more fruitful, and perhaps — dare I suggest it? — take the world, not just this country, as its compositional oyster. Previous commissions include works by Henze, Goehr, Birtwistle, and Berio. Just think of the time — I wish I could have been there — when Stockhausen’s Donnerstag received its premiere at Covent Garden. Better luck next time, I suppose…

Mark Berry

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Anna_Nicole_01.png image_description=Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes productd_title=Mark-Anthony Turnage: Anna Nicole (world premiere) product_by=Anna Nicole: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Old Man Marshall: Alan Oke; The Lawyer Stern: Gerald Finley; Virgie: Susan Bickley; Cousin Shelley: Loré Lixenberg; Larry King: Peter Hoare; Aunt Kay: Rebecca de Pont Davies; Older Daniel: Dominic Rowntree; Blossom: Allison Cook; Doctor: Andrew Rees; Billy: Grant Doyle; Mayor: Wynne Evans; Runner: ZhengZhong Zhou; Daddy Hogan: Jeremy White; Gentleman: Dominic Peckham; Trucker: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts; Deputy Mayor: Damian Thantrey; Four Lap Dancers: Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Amy Catt, Amanda Floyd; Four Meat Rack Girls: Kiera Lyness, Marianne Cotterill, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell; Onstage Band: John Parricelli (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass guitar), Peter Erskine (drums). Director: Richard Jones; Set designs: Miriam Buether; Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand; Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin and D M Wood; Choreography: Aletta Collins. Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 17 February 2011. product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by Gary at 10:37 AM

February 17, 2011

Opera Colorado’s ‘mermaid’ tremendous

Yet, despite the enchantment of the hyper-romantic staging and the mesmerizing quality of the singing, there was something discomfortingly contemporary about Rusalka in the Opera Colorado production of the Dvořák classic that opened at the Ellie here on Saturday. And it wasn`t only the carefully thought-out direction of Eric Simonson and Bill Murray, with the staging since it was new in Boston, that made it that. It was rather that timeless something in a great work of art that picks up on what`s happening in the present world and comments on it. Humans, Rusalka makes clear, are not all they`re cracked up to be; they`re selfish, self-centered, fickle and at times mean little animals who do each other no good.

Rusalka_002.gifCatherine Cook as Jezibaba

Okay, okay; even when played to perfection by Kelly Kaduce, as the role was on Saturday, Rusalka contributes markedly to her own undoing. She`s made mute by the witch`s potion that allows her to emerge from her watery realm to marry her Prince, and — more fish than Frau — she brings with her the coldness of the depths. (A shrink would immediately shout “frigid!” ) Nonetheless, the statement by Rusalka`s father to his disillusioned daughter “Humans are scum” hit an open nerve Saturday as an acute observation on the mess they have made of the present world.

Like Kaduce, principals in the cast — all amazingly fluent in Czech! — sing superbly. With his resonant bass Stefan Szkafarowsky made father Vodnik an unusually sympathetic figure. And although Catherine Cook, long a powerful presence at San Francisco Opera, got a little too much Marjorie Main into her act, she portrays witch Jezibaba as figure to be feared.

The immensely popular Met movies have put new emphasis on the visual side of opera. The result, someone observed, is that a wig now can be more important than a voice. It follows that although he has a winning instrument, as the lover Prince Avgust Amonov is simply no match for the awesome beauty of this staging. He is a leaden actor, who further prompts one to ask how any woman can love a tenor whose tummy pops a button on his tunic in Act One.

Rusalka_007.gifAvgust Amonov as The Prince and Dana Beth Miller as The Foreign Princess

Dana Beth Miller — a mezzo of auburn radiance — slightly overdoes the vulgarity of the Foreign Princess who vamps the Prince — and one wishes OC had been able to find that white dress in her size.

Wood Sprites Nicolle Foland, Anna Noggle and Megan Marino would be the pride of any production of Wagner’s Rheingold.

John Baril prepared the chorus that sings largely off stage.

Wendell K. Harrrington handles the transitions from the world of water to that of mortals with projections fully in harmony with Dvořák`s score, and University of Colorado graduate Rachael Harding elevates the enchantment of the staging with her choreography for the ten talented dancers involved.

Rusalka_006.gifKelly Kaduce as Rusalka and Stefan Szkafarowsky as Vodnik

While Erhard Rom designed winning sets for the outer acts, the pseudo-Bauhaus simplicity of Act Two is banal by comparison.

Rusalka, premiered in 1900, is a Romantic opera of the first order, and there is not one weak measure in the three hours that it takes to perform it. Russian conductor Alexander Polianichko is totally at home in Dvořák`s well-wrought score and extracts both heavily dramatic and delicately sensitive playing from the Colorado Symphony.

Courtney Hershey Bress plays Hell out of that harp!

Even in the midst of so much excellence, however, it is Kelly Kaduce who makes this production the triumph that it is. The truly lovely small-town Minnesota woman is no longer a singer on the rise. She’s there! Small wonder that when she appeared for her curtain call on Saturday someone in the comfortably packed Elli joyfully called out in joyous spontaneity: “Move over, Renée!”

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rusalka_004a.gif image_description=Kelly Kaduce as Rusalka [Photo by Matthew Staver courtesy of Opera Colorado] product=yes product_title=Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka product_by=Kelly Kaduce: Rusalka; Avgust Amonov: The Prince; Catherine Cook: Jezibaba; Dana Beth Miller: The Foreign Princess; Stefan Szkafarowsky: Vodnik. Opera Colorado. Alexander Polianichko, conductor. Eric Simonson, director. product_id=Above: Kelly Kaduce as Rusalka

All photos by Matthew Staver courtesy of Opera Colorado
Posted by Gary at 1:31 PM

February 15, 2011

Werther in Lyon

This unusual casting was the crucial element of an astonishing concept production. Director Rolando Villazón mined the delicate moments of transition between childhood, adolescence and the first revelatory moments of maturity that he divined in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe himself could not argue with Mr. Villazón.

The delicacy of Mr. Villazón's concept was exacerbated by his metaphor. The action of opera's most turgid tale was transferred to the big top — yes, a circus! and narrated in the language of clowning. If all this sounds off-putting, it was. For about three minutes. It became first fascinating, and finally convincing.

DSC_4132_werther_MCavalca.gifThe opera wore the concept well, Massenet's local drunks Schmidt and Johann were singing clowns (very good ones) and a couple of young town folk, Katchen and Bruhlmann, were in fact very real circus clowns. Mr. Villazón's clowns were always on or never far from the stage. They complicated the opera's world of childish delights — Massenet's Yuletide begins and ends his opera — by framing the opera's story with the sadness that is inherent in all clowns. They also imposed a blatantly simple language of storytelling.

They cavorted as clowns do (Schmidt's teared clown-face hovered behind Charlotte as she delivered her Va, laisse couler mes larmes, marking its moments with his clown-hand miming). They exploited the clowning technique to use a simple prop to represent a fare more complicated image (a black dress for Charlotte's dead mother, and finally Werther's frock coat for the dying then dead Werther).

Two identical Werthers moved in simultaneous motions on the stage, one the 10-year-old child Werther, the other the Werther who now faces a different world. Mr. Villazón knows that Charlotte is the victim of the opera Werther, suffering the overwhelming forces of maternal love in conflict with nearly equal forces of romantic love. Werther himself has only to cope with the realization that Werther the child no longer exists, but it is Charlotte who must place his tiny frock coat into the small, coffin shaped box of clowning props.

The clowning metaphor was relentlessly pursued, not for a moment did the concept waiver within the appropriate decors designed by François Séguin — the big-top made of many masts supporting flowing cloth, cages, the toys clowns use and an abstracted harpsichord that mimed the church organ sounds of resigned and contented lives. Costume design by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck [sic] underscored the depth of the concept in its deft mixture of period costume and clowning tradition.


This startling concept insisted that we hear this masterpiece as we never had heard it before. And that we did in a very present (loud) orchestral reading that magnified the scores more vivid colors. Austrian conductor Lionel Hager had obvious respect for the concept. He found inspired orchestral realization for the love that flowed though a long red, clown scarf pulled between the Charlotte and Werther. He brought a multitude of fortissimo climaxes to the outpourings of the young Werther. And no real gunshot shocked the musical torrent of the suicide (the gun was merely a prop from the box of toys).

Famed hautecontre tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt stole the clowning show as Schmid, well matched by Lyon Opera regular, Syrian baritone Nabil Suliman as Johann. Katchen and Bruhlmann (Marie-Laure Cloarec and Gregory Escolin) managed their few lines somehow and otherwise added artistic sheen as professional clowns. Mr.Escolin embodied yet a third Werther, this one a clown imprisoned in a cage.

Usually the province of a mature, read matronly, artist here Charlotte was gracefully embodied by young French mezzo soprano Karine Deshayes. She is a finished artist with a bright and vibrant voice, a revelation in this role. American tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz substituted youth and good looks for the refinement associated with Massenet's singer (and Goethe's poet), and had an abundant supply of secure and powerful high notes to win over those not taken in by looks alone. Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote was a gentile, sympathetic young Albert not yet made hard by worldly success. Though obviously far from fifteen Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet nonetheless captured the accents of incipient adolescence far more than the usual vocal brilliance of Sophie, and this innocence made her endearing.


Rolando Villazón is a tenor of enormous reputation, and obviously a man of directorial vision. At the same time much credit must go to the Opéra de Lyon for seeing this remarkable production through to the end and for adding exceptional polish to such a problemic endeavor.

Mr. Villazón is an admitted amateur clown. Let us hope he has not blown his directorial wad with this bizarre first production. And that he may have other hidden talents to theatrically exploit in future productions. Hopefully some daring opera house will find out.

Michael Milenski


product_title=Jules Massenet: Werther
product_by=Arturo Chacon-Cruz: Werther; Karine Deshayes: Charlotte; Lionel Lhote: Albert; Alain Vernhes: Le Bailli; Anne-Catherine Gillet: Sophie; Jean-Paul Fouchécourt: Schmidt; Nabil Suliman: Johann; Marie-Laure Cloarec: Kätchen; Grégory Escolin: Bruhlmann; Orchestre et Maîtrise de l'Opéra de Lyon. Direction musicale: Leopold Hager; Mise en scène: Rolando Villazòn; Décors: François Séguin; Costumes: Thibault Vancraenenbroeck; Lumières: Wolfgang Goebbel; Mise en mouvement: Nola Rae.
product_id=All photos by Michel Cavalca courtesy of Opéra de Lyon

Posted by michael_m at 10:45 AM

Andrea Bocelli/Plácido Domingo, Lincoln Center, New York

By Martin Berheimer [Financial Times, 15 February 2011]

Two tenors. Two sold-out halls. Two clap-happy audiences. Two weird concerts.

Posted by Gary at 9:28 AM

The Chill of Grace: A Winter Weekend at COC

James Robinson’s stylish and imaginative production from 2004, revived this season by the Canadian Opera Company, illustrates that this opera indeed has a life beyond that imagined by its creators. In fact, viewing Robinson’s Nixon in quick succession with creator Peter Sellars’ recent restaging at the Metropolitan Opera confirms the impression from 2004 that this opera will provide inspiration for creative teams for generations to come. In the instance of Robinson’s production (originally designed for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis), the integrative video design revolutionizes the use of projections within opera by timing visual sequences so intimately with the music that the result is practically a new visual libretto. The chosen images are astute as well as visually stunning, as in the top of Act II when static on the television screens created a snowy landscape. The televisions themselves were used as modular architecture throughout the opera; descending from the sky en mass, acting as a dais for speeches, and evoking individual spaces (perhaps even headboards) for each of the characters during Act III.

Nixon05.gifMarisol Montalvo as Chiang Ch’ing (Madam Mao) (front) and Megan Latham as Third Secretary to Mao (behind)

Robinson, his design team, and the cast have struck a fine balance that divides the story-telling between the live action onstage and the use of video while simultaneously blurring the distinctions between the two elements. At times, the characters strike poses as if captured within a snapshot and these moments of heightened realism integrate beautiful with the meta-commentary both on the screens and built into Adams’ score. Furthermore, despite the inherent challenge of portraying historical figures, the majority of the cast does an excellent job of breathing inner life into what could become caricatures. Robert Orth could scarcely act the role of Nixon better, but he could have afforded to sing with more beauty of tone at least some of the time. In particular, the moment when Nixon speaks of fathers and sons joining hands in peace would have been even more effective had Orth sung more like a baritone and less like a president. As the Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, Chen-Ye Yuan was quietly compelling from the very beginning through the opera’s haunting last line.

Like the real Henry Kissinger, Thomas Hammons was a strange mixture of enigmatic power and allure. He also seemed to embrace his role as Lao Szu within the ballet with real gusto. Maria Kanyova found both the lyrical and coquettish moments as Pat Nixon and her diction was impressive throughout. Her middle voice could be more attractive, but her floated top notes were so easily suspended that it seemed a shame for conductor Pablo Heras-Casado to rush through them. As Mao Tse-tung and his wife Chiang Ch’ing, Adrian Thompson and Marisol Montalvo were both committed dramatically but lacked the vocal goods to back up what could have been splendid performances.

Nixon07.gifAdrian Thompson as Mao Tse-tung, Chen Ye-Yuan as Chou En-lai and Robert Orth as Richard Nixon

Even though most of the action onstage was well synchronized with Adam’s music, there were several moments of dynamic imbalance between the orchestra and the singers that cannot be attributed to the use of amplification in Adam’s score. Rather, the orchestra was plagued by imprecise playing and pacing throughout, which became distracting and detracted from Adam’s astute choices of orchestration. That said, the chorus was impeccably rehearsed by Sandra Horst and it seems very likely that some of the musical missteps will be corrected during the course of the run.

The lighting by Paul Palazzo was some of the most effective work I have ever seen in any theatre — ranging from the eerie glow of an unseen television flickering on the faces of the typical American family to use of Chinese lanterns on the television screens as a light source. Allen Moyer’s set design provided several layers of visual and semiotic interest, especially for Pat Nixon’s tour of sites during Act II, and James Schuette’s costumes were rhetorically effective while maintaining a strong sense of the opera’s place and time.

flute10.gifIsabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina and Michael Schade as Tamino

Ultimately, the success of Saturday evening’s performance was largely due to Robinson’s creative staging which faced the challenges of the libretto while allowing the quality of the music to speak for itself. In this respect, Diane Paulus’ new production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was an entirely fitting companion piece for Nixon in China. Paulus reimagined the opera’s action taking place on the grounds of a beautiful 18th century estate as an entertainment on the occasion of the name day of Pamina. The resulting play-within-a-play scenario worked incredibly well for the first half of the opera. The staging of the overture introduced the new framework of Mozart’s familiar characters with uncanny clarity. Papageno took charge of last-minute rehearsals with some of the estate’s ruder mechanicals while Sarastro, as lord of the manor, oversaw the entire operation.

From the moment the curtain went up, the cast embraced their dual roles as characters within the festivities and their “real life” counterparts. Betty Waynne Allison, Wallis Giunta, and Lauren Segal were as strong individually as they were as a trio. Rather than portraying Tamino as a bland hero, tenor Michael Schade embraced the ambiguity of his role. He sang and acted like a lover and prince (even to the point of being overly precious vocally) but occasionally revealed a more human impatience or even harshness. Rodion Pogossov and Lisa DiMaria were ideally matched as Papageno and Papagena. They were both as generous with their vocalism and musicality as they were with their spirited comedic performances. Isabel Bayrakdarian may not have been ideally cast as Pamina, but her acting had the strength of purpose and conviction necessary to turn the role into the opera’s true heroine. As her mother, Aline Kutan delivered a one-two punch with the Queen of the Night’s arias that won’t soon be forgotten.

Flute1.gifLauren Segal as the Third Lady, Wallis Giunta as the Second Lady, Betty Waynne Allison as the First Lady and Michael Schade as Tamino (lying down)

House Music Director Johannes Debus led the orchestra in a brisk and lively performance. With the exception of a slightly scrappy final chorus, the choristers were as excellent as they had been the night before. Furthermore, Paulus’ new context for the opera finally allowed for a female chorus contingent that didn’t seem totally superfluous to the action. The production’s concept was not as fully realized in the second half, but the significant strengths of Act I and the pure charm throughout (enhanced at every turn by set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho) made the production a joy to behold.

As for the Canadian Opera Company itself, to paraphrase Alice Goodman’s excellent, beguiling libretto for Nixon in China, how much of what they did last weekend was good? Most of it was good, and some of it was even great.

Alison Moritz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Nixon06.gif image_description=Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company] product=yes product_title=John Adams: Nixon in China; W.A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte product_by=Nixon in China — Click here for cast list and other production information
Die Zauberflöte — Click here for cast list and other production information product_id=Above: Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon

All photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company
Posted by Gary at 7:58 AM

Life After the Opera

By David Mermelstein [WSJ, 15 February 2011]
The beloved American soprano Dawn Upshaw has always followed her own star. When few singers of her stature championed new music, she made a cottage industry of the practice, a commitment that has only increased with the years. At the same time, her growing interest in more intimate forms of music making has led her to forge new associations away from the opera house, including one here with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

February 12, 2011

Parsifal in Brussels

Unlike most avant-garde artists Sig. Castellucci has earned mainstream credibility and recognition (France’s major daily newspaper Le Monde named his Divine Comedy cycle the best theatrical event dans le monde for the first decade of the twenty-first century!).

Here in the south of France Sig. Castellucci created one of his eleven-piece cycle La Tragedia Endogonidia for Marseille (each part was created in different cities). We were led, blind, into a black space and left standing, lights illuminated a huge pile of furniture, a brutal action occurred, meanwhile the mess of furniture disappeared and a survivor of the action sat at a piano and played the Gymnopédie #3 (the one everyone knows). Twenty minutes after we had entered the space we left.

In Brussels it was into the splendor of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie that we entered and some four hours plus later we emerged. What had happened was that a kinetic mess of a forest (trees kept falling) gave way to a brutal action and the survivor then marched to the Holy Grail. And, uhm, that is more or less what happens in Dante’s Divine Comedy too.

While Sig. Castellucci may be stuck in his story telling he is not stuck in the imagery, and that is of course what his art is all about. The Parsifal at the Monnaie was not about Wagner’s Parsifal but about Sig. Castellucci’s art. And that art is considerable and there is no shortage of self congratulation. To wit, Klingsor is a chef d’orchestre, the holy lance is his baton but Parsifal does not catch it because Klingsor lays it on the floor and walks off the stage. Thus in this improvised second act contest between stage and pit Mr. Castellucci seems to be the winner.

Not to mention that for the entire overture a huge image of Nietsche was projected above the orchestra. FYI Nietsche detested Wagner.

Sig. Castellucci’s imagistic language is rife with reference, and like most music the images are not metaphors of ideas or translated spaces but superimpositions of impressions. When examined these vast impressions lead to so many conceptual conclusions that no one may be identified as the absolute. Though it is fun to try.

The first unveiling of the Holy Grail is a clue to Sig. Castellucci’s artistic intuition. A huge white sheet suddenly covered the kinetic forest, thus all motion stopped as we were confronted only with one small, black quotation mark in this void of white — the word of God? As the final vision of the Grail was unfolding Parsifal and the multitudes marched relentlessly forward it (a rolling stage floor allowed the perpetual forward marching). The lights in auditorium were illuminated — we knew that we are not only a part of the multitudes, we were the Grail itself. Well, why not refer this magnificent affirmation of existence to Satie’s insipid ditty.


Too bad for Sig. Castellucci, but the pit won after all. Wagner’s magnetic score received a magnificent reading at the baton of German conductor Hartmut Haenchen who was clearly sympathetic to this reduction of Wagner’s holy rite to visual images — his task was now purely musical rather than dramatic. Never before have such sounds emerged from a pit, the antagonistic guttural attacks of the string bows, shattering fortes, earth shaking fortissimos. Most striking of all innovations were the nymphs of the garden scene placed in the pit which gave the maestro opportunity to transform the sweetness of this music into loud music of inexorable persuasiveness. Mo. Haenchen too abstracted Wagner’s opera.

For all the brilliance of the imagery and the discovery and superlative implementation of a myriad of scenic techniques, for all the visual excitement created by the plasticity (constant movement) of these images and for the intuitive sense of a supra-eternal artistic presence, those four hours seemed long. The slow succession of Sig. Castellucci’s depth images impeded the dramatic flow of Wagner’s opera, visual and musical climaxes seldom coincided.

The casting of young American tenor Andrew Richards was a coup de théâtre in itself. This neophyte Wagnerian embodied a Parsifal of genuine innocence, and managed its delivery effectively if with far more sweetness than heldentenor brilliance. Because Sig. Castellucci art is visual rather than dramatic the singers rarely had the support of creating and developing character. Thus much of their success was dependent on sheer vocal artistry. The performances of Kundry (Anna Larsson), Amfortas (Thomas Johannes Mayer) and particularly Gurnemanz (Jan-Hendrik Rootering) missed creating sufficient presence. Klingson (Tómas Tomasson) had much to do — conducting as well as trussing and hanging ballerinas — and thus made a big impression.


The production is huge and magnificent, and, hear/tell, a bit compromised in execution. It is the idealized stuff of the Aix Festival. May it arrive at the Grand Théâtre de Provence! I would like a second look.

Michael Milenski

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

image_description=Anna Larsson as Kundry [Photo by Bernd Uhlig courtesy of La Monnaie | De Munt]

product_title=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_by=Amfortas: Thomas Johannes Mayer: Titurel: Victor von Halem; Gurnemanz:Jan-Hendrik Rootering; Parsifal: Andrew Richards; Klingsor: Tómas Tómasson; Kundry: Anna Larsson; Gralsritter: Willem Van der Heyden, Friedemann Röhlig. Orchestre symphonique, chœurs et chœur de jeunes de la Monnaie. Direction musicale: Hartmut Haenchen. Mise en scène: Romeo Castellucci. Chorégraphie: Cindy Van Acker. Décors, costumes et éclairages: Romeo Castellucci.
product_id=Above: Anna Larsson as Kundry

All photos by Bernd Uhlig courtesy of La Monnaie | De Munt

Posted by michael_m at 10:27 AM

February 11, 2011

Welsh National Opera’s new production Die Fledermaus

By Mike Smith [Western Mail, 11 February 2011]
As Welsh National Opera prepares to open its Spring season with a new production of Die Fledermaus, director John Copley takes time out of rehearsals to share some anecdotes with Mike Smith.

Posted by Gary at 9:59 AM

Egyptian Queen in Parisian Rubble

I have more often than not greatly enjoyed Monsieur Pelly’s theatrical inventiveness, and he started out with a clever enough conceit. In tandem with set designer Chantal Thomas, Pelly has set the whole shebang in a Cairo Museum warehouse. Industrial shelving is chock full of ancient inventory, the male chorus are maintenance workers and caretakers, and the overture serves as accompaniment to a large statue of Caesar ascending imperiously from the depths via a freight elevator. This likeness is received with awe and deference by the massed workers who lovingly roll it to a focal point upstage amid the other ruins.

The character Caesar bursts forth from behind the image to start the action, and having completed his opening aria, a shelf full of singing ancient busts regale us with the chorus, their cartoonish lips mouthing the words. Fun fun fun. Little did we know that, ten minutes into the show, we had seen the last really witty staging idea of the long evening.

Mostly the visuals wore poorly, vying with each other over which was dull, duller, or dullest. Have you ever tried staring at industrial storage structures for four hours? I mean, other than at Costco? If they could bottle this look, they could take Sominex off the market. There were half-hearted attempts to vary the nondescript setting by having things roll. A gigantic prone Pharaoh rolls on and off, then panels with paintings, the aforementioned busts, potted plants, museum cases, even Cleo-as-Lydia gets wheeled on rather unceremoniously on a dolly. So much was in motion that the “Rawhide ” theme came to mind (“Rollin,’ rollin,’ rollin’…Keep those mummies rollin’…”)

The one minor variation occurred when the back loading doors rolled(!) open to reveal the pyramids at Giza, which are on the edge of town while the museum is in the city center, but hey, we were grateful for the sandy color and the faux sunshine that broke the intermittent dingy gloom. Among the oddities of the design was the parade of famous large oil paintings of 17th century bucolic scenes, the Queen of the Nile, and even Handel himself that are assuredly not in the Cairo collection. When Caesar performed “Al lampo dell’armi” he pranced around a pastoral backdrop reminiscent of Watteau, and “accompanied” by a corresponding seated sextet of frilly-frocked lady musicians.

Pelly made his best contribution of the night with his telling costumes, which found the principals in period dress and the chorus in their contemporary work clothes. The fey Tolomeo was seemingly got up as a sinister Sister-Man in a floor length tunic with sparkly bodice and slits up the skirt that allowed him to showcase his splayed bare legs at will for the amusement of a certain audience demographic. Caesar, Cornelia, Sesto at al were beautifully outfitted in character-specific attire. The ‘little shocker’ (although not shabby) was Cleopatra’s diaphanous, sexy white frock. Merely form-fitting (and flattering) in Act One, it was subsequently re-arranged so that “Lydia” flashed a bare left breast for the entirety of Act Two.

Joël Adam’s lighting design was hard to evaluate. It seemed to be well intended, but all evening long the illumination was plagued by unpredictable flickering, disco style ghosting, and worst, a self-motivated color scroller which went plumb crazy during Cleopatra’s first entrance.

Most damaging to the concept was the rampant inconsistency of the real-time relationship of the various cast members. For example, it is first established that the museum workers are unaware of the statuary coming to life to tell the story. Indeed, during Sesto’s “Svegliatevi nel core”, the closing time whistle must sound because the laborers rush out of the place en masse not paying one whit of attention to the mezzo warblings. Later, they not only observed the heroine ‘en déshabillé,’ they lustily chased her offstage. Then again the men roll on museum cases bearing chairs, completely ignoring Caesar and Tolomeo as they sit in them and sing like performance art on display. Shortly after, they roll on another case and enthusiastically participate in “V’adoro pupille” by relentlessly polishing the glass as the soprano competes for attention. This copious busy-ness most usually had nothing to do with the moment. When a (chemical smoke) sandstorm suddenly swirls around the upstage pyramids, workers dutifully cover the stored statuary with dust covers. What does that mean anyway? What plane(s) are we operating in? Where the hell are we? Or rather, are we in Concept Hell?

I kept wondering if this staging meant to view the piece as Comedy? Tragedy? Fantasy? What is needed is a core of emotional truth and consistency of approach. I can recall Frankfurt’s cheeky Asterix and Cleopatra comic book take on the piece which did not fulfill every moment but was unwavering in its vision. This Paris edition lost the courage of its slim convictions early on.

Not everything misfired. Having Cleopatra clamber over the giant prone Pharaoh like a minx-as-mountain goat, towering over Tolomeo as she sang “Non disperar, chi sa?” was quite brilliant. Cornelia’s sobbing as she rolls on a box containing two potted palms, and then recovering to subsequently water and weed them during her big Act Two moment was oddly endearing. Best of all, Pelly continues to be a master of stage placement which allows his singer to be heard to maximum advantage.

Musically, the redoubtable Emmanuelle Haïm led with her customary zest and finesse and her band of period players responded with luminous, assured music-making throughout the long evening. The horn solo in Caesar’s Act Two set piece was so resplendent as to threaten to upstage the singer! Unless my ears deceived me, the tuning was lower than contemporary concert pitch. And this proved problematic.

Lawrence Zazzo is clearly an experienced Giulio Cesare, and has been highly praised in other major venues. While our counter-tenor displayed lots of pi-Zazzo in the upper reaches, and though he clearly has this music well in his voice, the lower stretches occasionally sounded muddy and muted. His stage persona was assured, his timbre individualized, and you could tell he has all the goods, but I did wish for more oomph in the bottom voice. While Varduhi Abrahamyan’s Cornelia also labored (just) a bit in the lower passages, I found her dusky, throbbing tone to be uncommonly affecting and immediate. Would that she had not been directed to clutch-lurch-and-stagger inappropriately through “Priva son d’ogni conforto. ”

Christophe Dumeaux just goes from strength to strength and he made a powerful impression as Tolomeo with his dazzling, bright counter-tenor, his assured florid vocalizing, and his take-no-prisoners physical antics. Isabel Leonard was a secure and persuasive Sesto, her flutey instrument ideally suited to this repertoire.

Nathan Berg showed off a rich and secure middle voice as Achilla, although his lowest notes sometimes spread when he landed on them too forcefully. Aimery Lefèvre was a solid Curio, and Dominique Visse proved a zesty comprimario counter-tenor who gave a real little star turn as Nireno.

And that leaves our world famous Natalie Dessay, no doubt the raison d’être for the whole enterprise. Ms. Dessay most assuredly deserves her reputation. She has prodigious interpretive gifts, she is fearless in her artistic curiosity, she pushes her boundaries just up to the edge of her comfort level, and she is in complete command of her skill set. Her slender, pointed voice is well-schooled, pliable, affecting, and spot-on in stratospheric fireworks. What the voice may lack in color and variety, Ms. Dessay makes up for in spontaneity and honest utterance.

That said, Natalie is perhaps most affected by the lower tuning. The celebrated staccato clarity of her work above the staff loses some brilliance, and her showpieces suffer from a bit of sameness. That said, she acquits herself quite commendably in her first outing with this star vehicle. Arguably her finest moment of the night was in a superbly voiced “Se pietà,” plangent, limpid, and utterly heartfelt. It was at infrequent moments like these when you knew you were in the presence of greatness. Having seen her roll in a fetal position and sing as Ophelia, and again as Violetta in Pelly’s Traviata, I do wish she had not done the same in “Se pietà. ” But, why mess with success…?

To whit, the potent combination of that established Star Power (and a small house) accounted for the pre-sold out run at the Palais Garnier. Natalie Dessay paired with Laurent Pelly together again! What could go wrong? The real question is, with this awesome collection of first rate talent, how could so little go right?

James Sohre

image_description=Giovanni Pedrini Giampietrino: "The Death of Cleopatra"

product_title=G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare
product_by=Giulio Cesare: Lawrence Zazzo; Tolomeo: Christophe Dumeaux; Cornelia: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Sesto: Isabel Leonard; Cleopatra: Natalie Dessay; Achilla: Nathan Berg; Nireno: Dominique Visse; Curio: Aimery Lefèvre. Conductor: Emmanuelle Haïm. Direction and Costumes: Laurent Pelly. Set Design: Chantal Thomas. Dramaturg and Assistant Director: Agathe Mélinande Lighting Design: Joël Adam. Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano.
product_id=Above: Giovanni Pedrini Giampietrino: “The Death of Cleopatra”

Posted by james_s at 8:00 AM

February 10, 2011

Strauss: Orchestral Songs

By Tim Ashley [Guardian, 10 February 2011]
This is a fine album, though ideally it needs reprogramming before you listen. Diana Damrau bravely builds her Strauss recital round the Brentano Lieder, a group widely believed to be beyond the reach of a single singer so that complete performances are rare.

Posted by Gary at 10:47 AM

Opera That Bridges the Divide

By Judith H. Dobrzynski [WSJ, 10 February 2011]
In the music world, it's now axiomatic that opera companies must change, that they can't just keep staging the same old productions of "Tosca" and "Carmen," that they must shed their snooty image if they want to thrive. But how?

Posted by Gary at 10:45 AM

Composer Ana Sokolovic taps contemporary opera’s taboo emotion with Love Songs

By Alexander Varty [Straight.com, 10 February 2011]

If there’s anything that links the various contemporary operas that have been produced in Vancouver over the past few years, it’s the diversity of their subject matter. Architecture, astronomy, diplomacy, and madness have all come under librettists’ scrutiny, showing that the operatic form is not afraid to tackle big issues. However, there’s one big issue that modern-day operatic composers seem reluctant to explore—and that’s surprising, given that it was the topic of choice for some of the best-loved operas ever written.

Posted by Gary at 9:07 AM

February 8, 2011

Parsifal, La Monnaie, Brussels

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 8 February 2011]

Despite Japanese bondage, contortion, army camouflage, a long view up a supernumerary’s vagina, and a large albino python, Romeo Castellucci’s new Parsifal for Brussels’ La Monnaie is not particularly shocking. This is the radical Italian theatre director’s first venture into the world of large-scale opera, and he approaches it with his characteristically anti-dramatic abstraction.

Posted by Gary at 1:32 PM

Don Pasquale, New York

He was 47, managing opera houses in Vienna and Paris, introducing new talents like Verdi, and could still turn out melodies to beat the band—so to speak—with ever more of a nod to tight scripts and psychological subtleties. With Rossini in retirement, Bellini dead, Verdi a tyro and Mercadante about to withdraw into academe, Donizetti was the most popular Italian composer in the world. Who knows where this would have led him had his career gone on (as Verdi’s, Mercadante’s, Pacini’s, Meyerbeer’s, Auber’s all did) till he was 65? Would he have composed operas for St. Petersburg, Berlin, London and New York? Can we doubt it?

Given the proper performers (Donizetti’s operas, even more than most, depend on the performer to put them over), Don Pasquale remains almost irresistible. The Met has had great success with Otto Schenk’s moderately updated production (O’Hearn-Merrill’s was better, funnier, lighter), and it is clear from last Friday’s performance that the touch-ups required for last fall’s HDTV movie theater broadcast have made it more stage-ready than ever. James Levine, in the pit, seemed especially to enjoy himself but the entire cast is infectiously frolicsome.

I had quibbles, however, with some of the singers: all good, but some a little graceless in their approach to this pearl-icing confection. Anna Netrebko is a prima donna, and her voice has gotten steadily larger and thicker while losing a top note or two. This makes her a good candidate for Anna Bolena, for example, a Donizetti role she is singing in its Met premiere next season, and even likelier as Bellini’s Sonnambula or Giulietta, in both of which roles she has been broadcast from Vienna. But the voice’s thickness, its inability to lighten up, is uncomfortable in a Norina. The lady must be laughing all the time, or we are disinclined to forgive her rather calculated assault on the wealth of the title character. Reri Grist, my first Met Norina, floated about the stage, almost pirouetting around a lovably flummoxed Fernando Corena, and the instant of her slap, the moment when she goes too far and knows it, was an instant transformation not merely in the music but in her attitude, as she pulled her hands to her cheeks in horror at what she’d done, and a genuine personality was displayed—as also affection for the old man. Netrebko can no longer manage that lightness, that speediness, and she cannot manage the top notes of her runs, which rise prettily only to stop short every time. (What is that note? D? She hasn’t even got a D?) The glittering final waltz did not glitter or twirl; Netrebko offered it … dutifully. Ljuba Petrova, who sang one performance of the opera here during the present production’s first season, was rather more what we are looking for: Not a dramatic prima donna but an old-fashioned canary coloratura whose charm and wit match her voice. And she had all the high notes!

PASQUALE_Don_Carlo_and_Netr.gifJohn Del Carlo as the title role and Anna Netrebko as Norina

Ernesto was sung by Barry Banks, whose voice has also changed over the years, from the spectacular instrument of the Flute/Thisbe in the Met’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and the heroic Oreste in Ermione that amazed New York. His legato line no longer flows comfortably; it is a tolerable but charmless substitute for the proper tenor elegance.

Buffo basses can get by for years with far less voice than John Del Carlo still possesses. He wittily deploys his great height and bulk and mugs in the very finest fettle. You can’t have Don Pasquale without a Pasquale, and the Met is right to hang on to this one.

The star of the show for dapper farce-performance, suave vocalism and bring-down-the-house sex appeal was Mariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta. There is nothing to object to in his singing (he doesn’t scream in this opera, as he tends to in Lucia or L’Italiana) or his scampering or his appeal, except that this is Dr. Malatesta and the opera is called Don Pasquale and the lovers are Ernesto and Norina. Why is the doctor the one we wait for, listen to, watch on stage? Most Malatestas “feed” their Norinas (without picking them up and tossing them about like throw pillows), accompany their Pasquales, take a line in the concerted passages. The character is a catalyst, not the focus of the opera, but Otto Schenk has got nothing so wrong as building this character up. If Malatesta is the center of attention, and has such a rich relationship with Norina … why do we need the tenor at all? He fades into the woodwork if Malatesta does not.

PASQUALE_Kwecien_and_Don_Ca.gifMariusz Kwiecien as Dr. Malatesta and John Del Carlo in the title role

But all these objections seemed to occur to few others in the audience last Friday, who all seemed to be tickled that they were having such fun, enjoying such a sparkling score in such an animated, Broadway-worthy performance, without having to drop a tear or think a thought at all. And isn’t that the sort of pleasure farce is supposed to provide?

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PASQUALE_Netrebko_and_Polen.gif image_description=Anna Netrebko as Norina and Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=G. Donizetti: Don Pasquale product_by=Norina: Anna Netrebko; Don Pasquale: John Del Carlo; Ernesto: Barry Banks; Dr. Malatesta: Mariusz Kwiecien. Metropolitan Opera, chorus and orchestra, conducted by James Levine. Performance of February 4. product_id=Above: Anna Netrebko as Norina and Matthew Polenzani as Ernesto

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:22 PM

February 7, 2011

Turandot, Florida Grand Opera

On hand to join in the festivities was the great American baritone Sherrill Milnes who named Florida Grand Opera among the nation’s top regional companies. Compliment or challenge? The ultimate challenge for FGO in this, its 70th season may be to maximize efficiency without sacrificing quality. Dusting off thirty-year-old Turandot sets for the season opener (seen November 13th) speaks to the former and maintains a streak begun in 2009 of presenting productions designed and created for FGO.

Two features were immediately identifiable on curtain: a stage-covering set, the aft section of which molds the Forbidden City into a dragon, and the plush atmosphere that are quintessential Bliss Hebert (Staging) and Allen Charles Klein (Sets, costumes and lighting). A flash point in this scene is a sharpening wheel setting off sparks as the many executioners run swords across it. Act Three brings a particularly dark and dank garden, as Calaf and townspeople contemplate a sleepless night. Fine points in the work of Klein and Michelle Diamantides (Wigs and Makeup) include Ping, Pang and Pong wearing Kabuki face paint, and a wide palette of costume variations (Sumo gear on executioners, Samurai outfits on soldiers, and Sages of caricatured pre-frontal cortexes).

Familiarity was also supplied by the musical direction of Ramon Tebar, wielding baton here again, having led FGO’s Lucia last season. Tebar seems to prefer slow, deliberate beats that were quite successful in this Turandot, if taxing on some singers. The orchestra met crucial moments head on, playing chords strongly — with powerful horns and hammered, note-perfect percussions; the Riddle Scene simmered in mystery. Less successful was the over-bright harp playing following Turandot’s lines and a general slackening of musical structure in Act Two.

Lise Lindstrom is in exclusive company: singers that can easily clear the steep crests of Turandot. Her voice is penetrating and interesting, warming to the ears as the night progressed. Lindstrom excelled in Alfano’s passages, possibliy presaging a move into Wagner. In currying the Emperor’s sympathy and hinting at curiosity over Liu’s devotion, Lindstrom delved into La Principessa’s internal struggles. Where Lindstrom’s voice is pointed in focus, Frank Porretta’s is spread, making for shaky balancing with the orchestra. Still, Porretta’s Calaf stayed the course with well-taken but inconsistent legato and game attempts at varying expressiveness.

FGOLiutCalafTimur.gifFrank Porretta as Calaf, Elizabeth Caballero as Liu and Kevin Langan as Timur

Elizabeth Caballero’s vocal glamour is well-known to audiences here and on that reputation she did not renege as Liu. Refined musical accents abounded — pianissimo in the correct places and generous outpourings of sound from notes in the meat of her voice. Kevin Langan’s Timur - fragile, sincere and strong of heart - was perhaps the most complete characterization of the evening. Robert Dundas is a youthful voiced Emperor of noble spirit. All supporting parts came off aptly, with a vote of vocal promise for the second handmaiden Emilia Acon, a distinctly rich sound. Hebert’s blocking and Rosa Mercedes’ fine and uniform choreography cushion production elements that verge on excessive. In Puccini’s final work, impact rests greatly on the chorus and FGO’s group is polished and disciplined under the direction of John Keene; Timothy A. Sharp drew a solid performance from Miami Children’s Chorus.

Robert Carreras

FGOTurandotCalaf.gifLise Lindstrom as Turandot and Frank Porretta as Calaf

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lise-Lindstrom-in-FGO-Turan.gif image_description=Lise Lindstrom as Turandot [Photo by Gaston De Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot product_by=Turandot: Lise Lindstrom; Calaf: Frank Porretta; Liù: Elizabeth Caballero; Timur: Kevin Langan. Conductor: Ramon Tebar. Stage Director: Bliss Hebert. Set and Costume Designer: Allen Charles Klein. Choreographer: Rosa Mercedes. product_id=Above: Lise Lindstrom as Turandot

All photos by Gaston De Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:55 PM

Nixon in China, New York

to convince myself I knew no more about them than I do about, say, the Doges of Genoa or the Kings of Sweden (to recall other operas that mingle the political with the personal), and to attempt to appreciate the drama presented on stage, the music emanating from it (far too much of it coming through microphones), on that disinterested level.

This made for an intriguing but confusing evening: I suspect composer John Adams and his librettist, Alice Goodman, actually do want you to dwell on your recollections of Nixon, Mao, et al., to allow these to color their operatic take on events. Nixon is a meditation on the events of its era through the medium of opera, which is a new sort of focus to put on the form.

Nixon in China is not my kind of opera, but let us examine what kind of opera it is, and why the audience at the Met’s premiere—and at its earlier performances, in Houston, Brooklyn and around the world—have received it with enthusiasm.

There were, first of all, the performances, and for so many performances to delight an audience for three and a half hours argues that the composer has created parts that can be inventively sung, that give scope to the artist and joy to the listener. (This was not the case in the same composer’s Dr. Atomic, with its unconvincing dramatic trajectory and sidelong meditations.) True, all the singers were mic’d, at the composer’s insistence, as in all his operas, but some of them sounded mic’d and others—especially the women—did not.

Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao stole the show with her coloratura flights in the bravura number that concludes Act II, and was amusing in her down-and-dirty duet with the Chairman. Robert Brubaker, as Mao, sang rather too forcefully for a man tottering on the brink of the grave, brusquely demolishing every attempt at flattery offered him by the unconvincing Americans. (In an amusing touch, his statements are “translated” by three secretaries, producing just about the only vocal harmonies of the evening.) Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon was affectingly hopeful, singing almost conversationally, enduring the tedium of a First Lady’s tour and an unemotional marriage in an appealing, almost tragic performance. Richard Paul Fink made a deliciously sinister pixie of Henry Kissinger and also sang the brutal landlord figure in a Chinese Revolutionary opera. Russell Braun sang a fading, dignified, melancholy Chou En-lai. Only James Maddalena, who has sung the title role in most performances of the opera since its premiere in 1987, sounded, on his Met debut, either long past major roles or under a severe unannounced cold. All these except Mr. Maddalena held our attention, sinking their teeth into roles the composer had filled with juicy meat. There is not much in this opera of confrontation, of music that erupts from vocal interaction; it is, rather, a series of static narratives, drama almost in the Handelian manner, singing heads for talking heads, if you will.

For me, though, the vocal stars of the performance were the Met chorus, which has been extraordinary in everything for the last couple of years. Their pronunciation of words was especially crisp and clear, their enthusiasm of mood infectious when, say, abruptly transformed from Party guests to pig farmers. I think I’d enjoy the Met chorus if they were singing the phonebook. The Chinese phonebook.

NIXON_Act_1_scene_4195a.gifJanis Kelly as Pat Nixon, Teresa S. Herold as the Second Secretary to Mao, James Maddalena as Richard Nixon, Ginger Costa Jackson as the First Secretary to Mao, Russell Braun as Chou En-lai

The Peter Sellars production is very faithful to those shots I dimly remember of the original telecast of an earlier Sellars production. Those who saw Nixon in Brooklyn twenty years ago do not recall that Pat and Dick became so involved in the “Wicked Landlord Whips Peasant Girl” ballet in the Peking Opera scene, to the point of interfering with the characters onstage, but by that point in the story the naturalism of the first half of the opera was beginning to evaporate, borne on the wings of Adams’s repetitive, hypnotic accompaniments to unheard melodies. His mastery of suggestion became especially witty in the last act, the presentation of a row of beds occupied by all the characters as they suffer, chat, hallucinate, meditate, have sex or die: Pat recollects the dance music of forties films (two dancers oblige by reproducing such steps—Mark Morris created the witty choreography) and the orchestra plays no such tune but, rather, the tingling accompaniment that might lie beneath it, suggesting a step or a mood of elegance such as might linger in Pat’s mind from those forgotten, forgettable films and their hallucinations of romance. This in turn leads to a highly erotic reverie for the dying Mao and Chiang Ch’ing, whose marriage, however bloody it has become (and if we did not know all the hideous details twenty-five years ago, we certainly know them now), was once based upon a lustful and illicit affair, recalled joyously here.

The curious thing is that the audience for three or four hours of classical entertainment has come to delight in this sort of tableau, this elevation of the humans we have actually known to an archetypal status, and that opera is today considered the proper accolade to the achievement of a certain sort of celebrity, political or otherwise. This makes one wonder what opera, what singing rather than living, now implies to us. In the eighteenth century, operas seldom dealt with historical figures, and those that did dealt with ancient ones—Caesar, Cleopatra, Alfred the Great—in whom the monarchs of the day could see their own powers idealized, virtue rewarded, villainy dissipated. In the nineteenth century, when the bourgeois came to power, historical figures were shown in a lurid light, tainted by their power—and if they were not quite so antique, still, they were seldom closer in time than the previous century.

NIXON_Brubaker_and_Maddalen.gifRobert Brubaker as Mao Tse-tung and James Maddalena as Richard Nixon

Since World War II, especially in the United States, the operatic gift that has never quite seemed rooted in our soil has flowered into operatic treatments of Susan B. Anthony, Lizzie Borden, Carrie Nation, Malcolm X, Harvey Milk and J. Robert Oppenheimer—with Anna Nicole Smith soon to come. Whatever Ms. Smith’s charms, her celebrity seems of the most tendentious sort. Does anything about it call for gorgeous celebration? Is the whole idea not a spoof of opera to begin with? Do any of these pieces have the potential for a theatrical life removed from our memories of headlines? Yes: Susan B. Anthony had the luck to have an opera of genius written about her, The Mother of Us All. But the other works did not deal in archetypes; they are the musical equivalent of reportage, their substance gone once half the audience no longer knows what Nixon actually did. Modern celebrity opera is a sort of oral history if you like.

Returning to Nixon in China, one should mention that the piece was conducted by the composer, making his house debut, and that on several occasions it seemed to me that brasses and saxophones intruded a bit off-kilter and that certain rhythms were ragged—but I do not know the score well enough to be sure these moments were not intentional. There were moments of magic, especially in the “Peking Opera” ballet, and the final act was very beautiful, an extended concerted passage that never quite concerted: Nearly all the singers continued to sing alone, perhaps stressing their isolation in the drama, in the world. Or perhaps that was not the intent.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/NIXON_Maddalena_as_Nixon_57.gif image_description=James Maddalena as Richard Nixon in Adam's "Nixon in China." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera product=yes product_title=John Adams: Nixon in China product_by=Chou En-lai: Russell Braun; Nancy T’ang: Ginger Costa-Jackson; Richard Nixon: James Maddalena; Pat Nixon: Janis Kelly; Kissinger/Corrupt Landowner: Richard Paul Fink; Mao Tse-tung: Robert Brubaker; Chiang Ch’ing (Madame Mao): Kathleen Kim. Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by John Adams. Performance of February 2. product_id=Above: James Maddalena as Richard Nixon

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:41 PM

Turandot, San Diego

In 1710, French author François Pétis de la Croix made her into Turandot, the so-called ice princess, who ordered the beheading of prospective consorts who could not solve riddles she posed. Half a century later, Italian playwright Carlo Gozzi transformed the Pétis story into a work for the theater.*

Turandot was Giacomo Puccini’s last opera. He first looked at it in March 1920 when he met with librettists Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni to choose a subject for his next work. Having selected Turandot, he composed most of it between 1921 and 1924, a time when impressionism along with the sounds of Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss were most influential.** When he had completed all but the last few minutes of the score, he went abroad for cancer treatment and, unfortunately, died of a heart attack there. The finale was completed by Franco Alfano and the new opera was premiered at La Scala in Milan on Sunday 25 April 1926, seventeen months after Puccini’s death. It was very quickly accepted by European and American theaters and was performed in New York, Vienna, Dresden and Buenos Aires during the same year as its world premiere.*** It was seen in London the following year. China, however, has taken many decades to accept this work because it once thought the libretto painted its people in a poor light. Performances there did not take place until the 1990s.

On 29 January, San Diego Opera opened its 2011 season with a gala performance of Turandot featuring brightly colored sets by the well-known artist David Hockney. Similarly colored costumes were designed by Ian Falconer. Although the scenery is stylized in a simplified Chinesemanner, for the San Diego Opera performances, inventive, Iranian-born stage director Lotfi Mansouri had his principals move with realistic reactions to the story’s situations.

For Lise Lindstrom, Turandot has become a signature role ever since her Met debut last season. After San Diego, she will sing it at La Scala and the Deutsche Oper in Berlin before returning to the United States and yet another rendition of the role at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. She sings it with a smooth delivery that belies the difficulty of the part. Her radiant technique is reminiscent of Birgit Nilsson, but although her voice had a great deal of gleaming steel that could cut through the orchestral tapestry like a laser, this ice princess melted into a passionate lover in Act III. She was not the only soprano star on that stage, however.

Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who has been heard in San Diego as Maria Stuarda, was a magnificently poignant Liù. She really brought tears to everyone’s eyes when she sang her aria, ‘Tu che di gel sei cinta’. She is a lyric soprano with a rainbow of warm, glowing colors in her voice and the ability to involve the emotions of the audience with her stagecraft.

Turandot_SD_2011_02.gifA scene from Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]

As Calàf, Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre was a patient suitor who sang all the notes in the right places with a warm, well-bronzed sound. His interpretation could have been a little bit more energetic and passionate, but his rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ brought down the house. Having Reinhold Hagen sing Timur was definitely luxury casting. His smoky-toned mellifluous voice and accomplished interpretation made his character a major player in this drama.

The trio of Ping, Pang and Pong add a bit of comic relief in Act I and a pastoral note to the second act. Baritone Jeff Mattsey as Ping, with tenors Joel Sorensen and Joseph Hu as Pang and Pong, sang with distinctive colors as they combined dramatic coherence with visual piquancy. As the Mandarin, veteran comprimario Scott Sikon commanded the stage with his proclamations. Seated at the top rear of the set, Joseph Frank as Emperor Altoum sang with a quivering reedy tone that denoted his great age.

Acting chorus master Charles Prestinari drew skillfully blended harmonies from San Diego Opera’s excellent group of choristers while they played their parts as the People of Peking. Ebullient and energetic Italian conductor Edoardo Müller led the excellent orchestra in Puccini’s somewhat impressionistic and thoroughly complex score. When the performance ended the applause was thunderous as once again the San Diego audience welcomed the opening of its opera season.

Maria Nockin
(This review also appears at Music & Vision)

* Puccini based his libretto upon Turandot, Prinzessin von China, an adaptation of Gozzi by Schiller.

** Julian Budden wrote:

Despite its unfinished state Turandot is rightly regarded as the summit of Puccini’s achievement, bearing witness to a capacity for self-renewal unsurpassed by that of still greater composers. The style remains true to the composer’s 19th-century roots, but it is toughened and amplified by the assimilation of uncompromisingly modern elements, including bitonality and an adventurous use of whole-tone, pentatonic and modal harmony. The resulting synthesis commands a new range of expression (the pentatonic scale, no longer a mere orientalism as in Madama Butterfly, conveys the full depth of Liù’s pathos in ‘Signore, ascolta’). The music is organized in massive blocks, each motivically based – a system which shows to particular advantage in Act 1, arguably the most perfectly constructed act in Puccini’s output; while the scoring shows a rare imagination in the handling of large forces (the writing for xylophone alone immediately attracts the attention). These attributes, combined with Puccini’s unfailing ability to communicate directly with an audience, have established Turandot as a classic of 20th-century opera.
Julian Budden. “Turandot (ii).” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/O905166 (accessed February 7, 2011).

*** Yet, as late as 1959, one critic observed that Turandot was rarely performed because of “a certain harshness that sets it apart from the big Puccini favorites (Tosca, Bohème, Butterfly), some devilishly difficult vocal parts, and a need for sumptuous staging.”

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Turandot_SD_2011_01.gif image_description=Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot product_by=Turandot: Lise Lindstrom; Calaf: Carlo Ventre; Liu: Ermonela Jaho; Timur: Reinhard Hagen; Ping: Jeff Matsey; Pang: Joel Sorensen; Pong: Joseph Hu; Mandarin: Scott Sikon. Conductor: Edoardo Müller. Director: Lotfi Mansouri. Scenery: David Hockney. Costumes: Ian Falconer. product_id=Above: Turandot [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

February 6, 2011

Opera Company of Philadelphia sets 'Romeo et Juliette' in modern fashion world

By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 February 2011]

Though the story of Romeo and Juliet never goes out of fashion, the question posed by the Opera Company of Philadelphia is this: Can it be about fashion? And on a less-than-Armani budget?

Posted by Gary at 9:37 PM

The Sunday Conversation: Dmitri Hvorostovsky

By Irene Lacher [LA Times, 6 February 2011]
Silver-haired Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a celebrated operatic baritone from Siberia, returns to Los Angeles Opera on Thursday for a recital of classical music from his native Russia and Western Europe.

Posted by Gary at 9:35 PM

La Boheme

By Jack Goodstein [Seattle PI, 6 February 2011]

I don't know if Puccini's La Boheme is the most often recorded opera ever written, but if it isn't, it has got to be one of the prime contenders for that honor. The tragic lovers have been sung by most every significant soprano and tenor of the past century, many more than once: Callas and Freni, Victoria de Los Angeles and Montserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo and Jussi Bjorling, and Gigli and Pavarotti. And these are only a few.

Posted by Gary at 9:29 PM

Magdalena Kozená, Wigmore Hall

Wandering nonchalantly on the Wigmore Hall stage, as they strummed and struck the opening bars of Filippo’s Vitali’s fiery ‘O bel lumi’ (‘O beautiful eyes’), Private Musicke resembled a band of medieval minstrels, relaxed troubadours enjoying and celebrating their art. They and Kozená proceeded to entertain, surprise and seduce us with a performance of seventeenth-century songs and instrumental works by Monteverdi and his lesser known contemporaries. Variations of tone and colour, pace and texture — created as much by Kozená’s vocal variety as by the ever-changing, inventively-enriching combinations of violone, guitar, colascione, theorbo, harp, lira da gamba and myriad percussion — delineated all possible shades of passion, pleasure, poignancy and pain. The love of which these ‘letters’ speak is multifaceted and protean, transmuting from religious to maternal, from fraternal to amatory, from unrequited to erotic; moreover, Kozená relished the exploration of the boundaries where affection modulates to disdain or obsessive desire turns to vengeful hatred.

Many of these songs possess both a sweet simplicity and more troubling complexity, none more so than Tarquino Merula’s ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra all nanna’, ostensibly a gentle lullaby sung by the Virgin Mary, but, as it evolves into a anguished lament, revealing disturbing fear of impending loss and dark portents of death and despair. Dissonant semitones which rustle the sparse serenity of the opening grow to become insistent hammer blows in the bass, evoking both the mother’s racking sobs and the alarmingly violent rocking of the cradle: ‘Ah, in your divine breast/ my sweet love and delight,/ a cruel, treacherous spear/ will strike a fatal blow.’ As the mother’s distress overwhelms her, so the accompaniment texture is augmented, taking on a distinctly Moorish colouring; the refrain, ‘My beloved, my love’, echoes through the song, increasingly imploring and inconsolable. Surprising dynamic surges inject further unrest, but in the final lines — ‘what shall I do?/ I shall gaze on my love:/ I shall stay with my head bowed/ as long as my Baby sleeps.’ — the translucency of Kozená’s upper register brings about an uneasy peace.

These songs may not be technically ‘difficult’, but Kozená is able to explore their textual and emotional intricacy, and one senses that the ‘meaning’ she finds is often personal. However, pain and poignancy are certainly balanced by pleasure and joy, and if there is much aggrieved reflection there is also excitement and energy, not least because of the way that the songs segued into one another. Thus, the exclamatory tone and rhythmic vitality of Caccini’s lover’s lament, ‘Odi, Euterpe’ (‘Hear, Euterpe’), culminated in a joyous cry which overspilled into the boisterous instrumental ‘Caravanda Ciacona’ by Luis de Briçeño; and, Giovanni de Macque’s ‘Capriccio stravagante’ formed a seamless link with the subsequent ‘Aurilla mia’ (‘My Aurilla’) by Girolamo Kapsberger, triplets and syncopations effortlessly creating forward momentum.

Renowned for her rich, resonant beauty of tone and seamless legato phrasing, Kozená is not afraid to experiment, and to place sincerity of expression above ‘mere’ vocal loveliness. And, there could be no doubting the pain experienced by the poet-speaker of Sigismondo D’India’s ‘Cruda Amarylli’, as the soprano swelled sharply through the opening syllable, ‘Cruda’ (‘cruel’), and injected a bitter irony as she described Amaryllis, ‘purer and more lovely/ than a snow-white flower’. Twists to the minor tonality, enhanced by vocal emphasis, suggested the elusiveness of the ‘unhearing viper’, and surprising harmonic diversions brought drama and rhetoric to the singer’s provocative and self-defining assertion, ‘I’ mi morrò tacendo’ (‘In silence I shall die’).

Similarly, D'India's ‘Ma Che? Squallido e Oscuro’ (‘Though you are Wretched’) is a rhetorical tour de force: major/minor oscillations, a declamatory style ornamented with melismatic flourishes (‘il furto e ‘l temerario ardire’ — ‘my bold desires and reckless daring’), enriching orchestrations (‘Che sì caldi sperai, vuo’ pur rapire’ — ‘the cold kisses that I hoped would be warm’) and startling chromaticism combined to communicate the lover’s agony at the impending death of his beloved. The astonishing contra-motion which concludes the song, the bass descending as the voice makes a winding chromatic ascent, was rendered even more astonishing as it was breathlessly followed by the lightness and joy of Kapsberger’s ‘Felici gl’animi’ (Happy the souls’) which, despite its rhythmic pleasure and animation, could not quite dispel the disquieting echoes of the former song.

Kozená rose to the peak of her powers in Barbara Strozzi's ‘L'Eraclito Amoroso’ (‘Amorous Heraclitus’) in which the ancient Greek philosopher’s sobs and sighs of anger and despair alternate alarmingly. Kozená exploited every dissonance, every textural or dynamic variation, every opportunity for rubato and flexibility, exaggerating and manipulating each element and using thrilling ornamentation to communicate the protagonist’s distress. An astonishing descent to the brooding, resonant depths of her register was frightening in its unalleviated melancholy: ‘Let all sorrow assail me,/ all grief last for ever,/ let all misfortune so afflict me/ tha tit kills and buries me.’

The instrumental dances which were interspersed throughout the programme did much more than simply vary the pace and mood. Led by guitarist Pierre Pitzl, the players missed no occasion to draw the tiny threads of the song to the surface of the accompaniment; one can only marvel at the patterns and motifs they located and exploited, improvising and inventing with effortless skill and insight — one sensed that they could go on spinning these songs for eternity.

In the CD note which accompanies the recent Deutsche Grammophon recording of these Lettere Amorose, Kozená reminds us that she “grew up with this music”, joining with a lutenist to perform these secular songs while studying at Brno University and revelling in the creative freedom the music, with its lack of strict notational instructions, allowed her. She and Private Musicke certainly achieve their intention to take us back to the popular origins of the songs: “It comes from a time when there was no equivalent to our divide between classical and pop music; it was simply the music everyone heard and sang.” Certainly, she and her colleagues convincingly conveyed the universality of the sentiments and the ‘naturalness’ of their expression. Indeed, at times, the emotional intensity combined with imaginative liberty was astonishingly reminiscent of the modern-day rock concert, as the music seemed to capture and, by turns, ease, intrigue and bewitch the souls of the listeners in the Wigmore Hall.

There are, of course, other ways of performing this repertoire — after all, Kozená stresses that they have deliberately made their own arrangements, freely exploring different instrumentations — and some may prefer less overt showmanship and a more reflective exploration of text and music. On occasion Kozená retreated to the rear of the platform, her voice one among many; but elsewhere she advanced to the very forefront of the centre stage, and occasionally her voice seemed almost too large for the performance space and context, as if her own performance threatened to take precedence over the material itself. However, the collaborators’ obvious delight in each other’s performances and in the collectivity of such music-making was infections. Kozená and Private Musicke presented a wholly committed and coherent vision, one which flourished and grew in a live, evolving exchange with the audience. And, in so doing, they released the latent drama in these small, intimate forms, in an astonishingly rich and rewarding performance.

Claire Seymour


Vitali: ‘O bei lumi’
D’India: ‘Cruda Amarilli’
Caccini: ‘Odi, Euterpe, il dolce canto’
Briceno: Caravanda Ciacona
Merula: ‘Canzonetta spirituale sopra alla nonna’
Sanz: Canarios
D’India: ‘Torna il sereno Zefiro’
Marini: ‘Con le stelle in ciel che mai’
Foscarini: Passamezzo
Monteverdi: ‘Sí dolce è’l tormento’
Macque: Capriccio stravagante
Kapsberger: ‘Aurilla mia’
D’India ‘Ma che? squallid'e oscuro’
Kapsberger: ‘Felici gl'animi’
Foscarini: Ciaccona
Strozzi: ‘L'Eraclito amoroso’
Ribayaz: Espanioletta
Merula: ‘Folle è ben che si crede’
Monteverdi: ‘Quel sguardo sdegnosetto’

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kozena_i360.gif image_description=Magdalena Kozená [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon] product=yes product_title=Magdalena Kozená, Wigmore Hall product_by=Magdalena Kozená, mezzo-soprano; Private Musicke. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 2 February 2011. product_id=Above: Magdalena Kozená [Photo by Mathias Bothor / Deutsche Grammophon]
Posted by Gary at 8:45 PM

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Florida Grand Opera

If both of those roles are taken up by such the rarified performer, it would behoove you to stage a sit-in at the box office. Florida Grand Opera can boast to the latter situation with its production of Hoffmann (seen opening night, January 22).

The detail in three of Bradley Garvin’s four villains, each with oodles of personal stamp, made it easy to forget that he has taken the roles up only 15 times, covering them at the Met last season. This was the bass-baritione’s FGO debut. Lindorf was a less developed, more ambiguous character for Garvin — a bother for certain, probably not evil incarnate. By turns, Garvin’s Dr. Miracle was cruelly insinuating and, knowing Antonia’s heart, ruthlessly played on her weaknesses. Garvin’s transformation included a more backward vocal placement and an eerie French brogue, adding a backward leaning stance and the creepy pointing of bony digits; this Dr. Miracle exorcised the living force within Antonia with quiet mayhem.

FGO_Hoffmann_05.gifDavid Pomeroy as Hoffmann and Katherine Rohrer as The Muse/Nicklausse

In Elizabeth Futral’s first essaying of the four heroines, her greatest challenge may well be making a believable woman-as-object out of Olympia in a production that plays up the phantasmagorical in Offenbach’s story. Olympia’s costume is a cumbersome cubed-patterned dress, with an exaggerated petticoat that gives way to a box and keyhole — her cranking mechanism. Futral darkened her voice, her word texturing the stuff of magic itself, as she became a helpless and aimless Antonia, on breakneck course to lose her soul.

Hoffmann was the role of David Pomeroy’s Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009 and the Canadian tenor did many things right in his opera debut with FGO. The tale of the dwarf Kleinzach was finished well, his singing in the duet with Antonia was impassioned, and by the epilogue, Pomeroy had plenty in reserve to return to the final revelation of the Kleinzach legend. His voice is a husky one that he covers or not at will below the passagio — this is Hoffmann as a bit of a brute.

In another company debut, Conductor Lucy Arner seemed at home in the French Romantic repertoire. Arner’s keen sense of tempi and firm hand made rhythmic timing with singers — one of Hoffmann’s musical moguls — look easy. The type of delicate instrument playing elicited for Nicklausse’s short solo in Antonia’s Act reminded that the conductor has extensive experience in chamber music. Katherine Rohrer (The Muse/Nicklausse) is a real sprite, most memorable in the latter song and in serially mocking Hoffmann’s attraction for Olympia. Matthew Dibattista took on Offenbach, Cochenille, Frantz and Pitchinaccio, carrying on especially heartily in Frantz’s aria. Phillip Skinner made both Luther and Crespel relevant. FGO was rewarded by entrusting the roles of Henri Meilhac, Wolframm, and Schlemil to Young Artist Craig Colclouch. Other Young Artists that acquitted themselves favorably were James Barbato (Wilhelm), Jonathan G.Michie (Hermann), Daniel Shirley (Nathanail); Young Artist Courtney McKeown’s assignment as Antonia’s mother is rather unorthodox here, from the inside of a huge male action figure, she moved the thing about as she sang.

FGO_Hoffmann_04.gifElizabeth Futral as Antonia, Bradley Garvin as Dr. Miracle and Courtney McKeown as Antonia’s mother

This joint production of Opera Colorado, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Boston Lyric Opera emphasizes the “dreamlike” over the cerebral in Hoffmann’s tales. It was as if Andre Barbe (sets and costumes) and Guy Simard (lighting) heaved mixed chunks of Willy Wonka and Dr. Who on the Olympia and Giulietta Acts. A stage-sized screen with sliding doors opens to an Offenbach shrine in gold in the middle of Spalanzani’s workshop. Lime green lab coats and garbage-pail-inspired robots are the stuff at the workshop and serpentine seahorse headdresses, and rolling staircase gondolas, a nod to the ‘Barcarolle’ and Venice. If M.C. Escher etching look-a-likes behind the doors in each act seemed out of place, they did much to draw the eye downstage. Renaud Doucet’s meticulous consideration of blocking and movement — each person, down to the last super, had a place to be and executed some purposeful action — was total. Lastly, FGO’s ensemble singing overall was as good as it has been since 2005 and John Keene’s chorus put on a performance of all-around distinction.

Robert Carreras

image=http://www.operatoday.com/FGO_Hoffmann_01.gif image_description=David Pomeroy as Hoffmann and Elizabeth Futral as Giulietta [Photo by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera] product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann product_by=Hoffmann: David Pomeroy; Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella: Elizabeth Futral; Counsellor Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr. Miracle/Dapertutto: Bradley Garvin; The Muse/Nicklausse: Katherine Rohrer; Offenbach/Cochenille/Frantz/ Pitichinaccio: Matthew DiBattista; Luther/Crespel: Philip Skinner; Andrès/Spalanzani: Neal Ferreira; Antonia’s Mother: Courtney McKeown. Conductor: Lucy Arner. Stage Director: Renaud Doucet. Set and Costume Designer: André Barbe. Lighting Designer: Guy Simard. Production: Original co-production of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Opera Colorado, and Boston Lyric Opera. product_id=Above: David Pomeroy as Hoffmann and Elizabeth Futral as Giulietta

All photos by Gaston de Cardenas courtesy of Florida Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:42 PM

Randy Rossini Romp in Z-Town

And like everything else about her meticulously managed career, La Bartoli has chosen her house wisely since this jewel of a theatre is a perfect size to showcase her prodigious vocal skills. She exudes star quality to be sure, and her acting is fearless and assured, but she also sings up a perfect storm with some of the best damn’ coloratura (rhymes with bravura) fireworks to be heard in this (or any other) galaxy.

The Divine Miss B knows her assets, and her limitations, well and she unerringly maximizes the former and beguiles us into ignoring the latter, by which I mean…the voice is not large. It will never pin us in our seats like Gabriela Schnuat in full Geschrei (Gott sei dank…). But Cecelia is crafty enough not to try, concentrating instead on dazzling with the afore-mentioned pyrotechnical melismas, and by making every phrase supremely meaningful. Some find her minute attention to detail and nuance irritatingly over-reaching and mannered. Not so.

For an example of truly fussy calculations I invite you to listen to the late (late) Schwarzkopf recordings where every syllable has a different life and color (make that “lah-EEF an-duh Cuh-LOoooouuur”). To my ear, our Ms. Bartoli invests each phrase with subtext, and finds exactly the right dramatic modulation within the context of the overall musical moment. As she has matured, her pliable upper voice seems to have become even more flexible all the while it has gotten a little darker, more bronzed now than silvery. The chest tones remain rich, the lower-middle full and responsive, and the role of Countess Adele was superbly realized by a diva in full command of all her resources.

Call it another triumph by this treasurable artist who has gifted the company with another definitive performance. Zurich Opera has repaid our star in kind by surrounding her with a cast of highly talented colleagues and a scintillating production.

Young tenor Javier Camarena was almost all one could wish for in the title role. He sports a secure and easy top, solid technique, decent heft in mid-range, good agility in the florid passage work, and a willingness to throw himself into the stage antics with abandon. True, his forte high notes get quite straight-toned, but they never miss. And he sings very musically with arching line, projecting his well-focused slender voice to the furthest reaches of the house, no matter what comic business he may be doing simultaneously. Mr. Camarena is a highly valuable asset to the repertoire, and he is needed. But damn Juan Diego Florez! Anyone who has experienced JDF in one of these Rossini roles has had the bar of expectation raised impossibly high, not only vocally, but also because he is gorgeous and. . .he can be effortlessly funny. Javier works a little too hard to get har-de-har-laffs and thus distances himself from us. And it has to be said when he peels off his shirt, well, the moment is more Pillsbury Doughboy than Casanova.

Rebeca Olvera was such a secure, perky Isolier and she had such a spot-on delivery that I wanted to love her even more than I did. But I kept thinking what a wonderful Oscar she would make, and wondering if I should be thinking that while she was in front of me essaying the meatier role of Isolier. She strutted and prowled the environment with great conviction, and everything about her crystal-clear bell-like soprano was absolutely first rate. Her duets, singing often in thirds with Bartoli, were among the evening’s most sublime moments. But ultimately, for all her talent and conscientious music-making, we ended up with Isolier-Lite.

ory-81590.gifJavier Camarena as Count Ory and Cecilia Bartoli as Countess Adele

Not so with the plummy mezzo contribution from Liliana Nikiteanu as Ragonde. Her tone is like a rich cream sauce, and her grounded vocal character was a perfect foil for the other two high flying ladies. Oliver Widmer was a dramatically involved, vocally secure Raimbaud, and he made the most out of his lengthy celebration of wine’s virtues. The ageless veteran Carlos Chausson made his usual solid effort, his ripe bass rolling out securely as the Governor. What a wonderful career he continues to have.

The production was cleverly directed by Moshe Leiser and Patric Caurier, the duo who also scored with Ms. Bartoli’s Clari in this house. Here are two people who know how to direct singers. They know where to place them on stage to be heard. They know how to keep them still (or still enough) to be able to sing well. And they know how to group the chorus and move them so they can maintain good ensemble singing. And…dramatically they know how to use placement of characters and meaningful blocking to properly focus a scene. And Messrs. Leiser and Caurier have created inventive and personalized business while still trusting the material. Sadly, on the international circuit, this is not all that common.

The piece has been set in post-war France and it works surprisingly well. Of course, having the plot hinge around ladies anxiously awaiting their troops coming home from the war invites bitchy comments about not realizing the French ever actually fought in that war…but perhaps that is a little Swiss in-joke. The lovely realistic village setting from designer Christian Fenouillat includes an upper street level that accommodates a number of vehicles to drive across it including a jeep for Isolier and the Governor, and a Citroen for the Countess. A steep set of stairs center stage brings performers to the main level where the Hermit (Ory) is hiding not in a cave, but in a white trash trailer. It later spins and unfolds like a dime store pop up greeting card to reveal a leopard skin and red lamé campy camper interior.

Act Two’s palace interior was a brilliantly detailed drawing room with overstuffed sofas and chairs, dining table, copious noveau light fixtures, a balcony, and even a grand piano (which Ory ‘plays’ to accompany himself at one point) . The goof of having the women taking their tea as only one sewed during the ‘sewing chorus’ was charming. Indeed, as Ragonde sloooooooowly threaded the needle while the rest of the ladies hung suspended in silence until the deed was done (to great general relief) , it was an inspired moment of comic invention. And having the chandelier sway during the storm, and various light bulbs “explode” and blow out was one of the many deft touches from lighting designers Christophe Forey and Martin Gebbhardt. The choice of period also allowed for a color-riot of ‘busy’ costumes: day dresses, uniforms, business suits and, of course drag nuns, all of which were lovingly devised by Agostino Cavalca.

ory-81830.gifCecilia Bartoli as Countess Adele and Rebeca Olvera as Isolier

All of the plot points and machinations were extremely well presented, not least of which is Ory’s attempted false seduction of the Countess (in the guise of Isolier). Having the Countess on the floor down stage of the chaise that bears Isolier, the both covered with a blanket, and having Ory approach from upstage was absolutely the right placement, and it allowed good variety in the lengthy scene to boot. The team worked hard and well at filling the repetitive arias (especially Raimbaud’s and Governor’s) with meaningful movement and varied positioning.

The one miscalculation in the concept was that of the character of Count Ory himself. He is sexually adventurous and somewhat insatiable, clear. And he is focused on his pursuits. But he is not a perverted, promiscuous boor with a constant erection. Here, the Count came off as the obnoxious frat boy who was the bane of every party, ogling buttocks, pawing penitents, and even looking up the Countess’ skirt. Mr. Camarena was also oddly costumed in flip-flops, cargo pants and a tee shirt (when he wasn’t the blind hermit). A little finesse would go a long way in fine-tuning Javier’s considerable efforts. A little heart would make him the heart of the show. How ‘bout it, guys? Please?

Conductor Muhai Tang elicited wonderful ensemble playing from the orchestra, finding real rubato and dramatic personality in the odd little overture. He partnered his singers with great aplomb, and the solo work, especially from the winds, was demonstrative and effervescent. Jőrg Hämmerli’s chorus was polished to a fare-thee-well and the many Opera Studio soloists distinguished themselves, notably young tenor Ilker Alcaryűrek, a talent to watch.

What a joy it was to see such a seriously well crafted mounting of this seldom encountered comic piece. Rare Rossini, well done!

James Sohre

image_description=Javier Camarena as Count Ory and Liliana Nikiteanu as Ragonde [Photo by Jef Rabillon courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich]

product_title=G. Rossini: Le Comte Ory
product_by=Count Ory: Javier Camarena; Countess Adele: Cecilia Bartoli; Isolier: Rebeca Olvera; Ragonde: Liliana Nikiteanu; The Governor: Carlos Chausson; Raimbaud: Oliver Widmer. Conductor: Muhai Tang. Stage Direction: Moshe Leiser and Patric Caurier. Set Design: Christian Fenouillat. Costumes: Agostino Cavalca. Ligthing Design: Christophe Forey and Martin Gebbhardt. Chorus Master: Jőrg Hämmerli.
product_id=Above: Javier Camarena as Count Ory and Liliana Nikiteanu as Ragonde

All photos by Jef Rabillon courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich

Posted by james_s at 5:49 PM

Jurowski, Das klagende Lied

In 1880, while still a student at the Vienna Conservatoire, Mahler wrote the libretto for his cantata Das klagende Lied, an early work that he would later describe as his Opus 1. Part 1 (Waldmarchen) tells of two brothers — young knights — the elder one murdering the younger in order to win the hand of a queen. Part 2 (Der Spielmann) tells how a wandering minstrel finds a bone from the dead knight’s body and carves a flute from it. When he plays the instrument the voice of the dead brother emerges, recounting how he had been murdered. In part 3 (Hochzeitstuck), the guilty brother’s crime is exposed to the whole court when he borrows the visiting minstrel’s flute and tries to play it during the wedding revelries. The shock causes the queen to faint, at which point the castle collapses. Based on a folk-tale retold by Ludwig Bechstein and the brothers Grimm, this brooding Romantic tale drew a suitably full-blooded score from Mahler, looking back to Wagner on the one hand, and forward to his own First Symphony on the other.

The composer completed the 3-movement score in 1880 but had no luck in getting it performed. Only in 1901, and after Mahler had twice revised the orchestration and abandoned Part 1 altogether, did a performance take place in Vienna under the composer’s direction. These days, performances are sometimes given of Part 1 coupled with Parts 2 and 3 in Mahler’s revision, but in this reading by the LPO under Jurowski we heard the whole cantata as first conceived by Mahler, and with his original orchestration. Back in 2007 it seemed as though Jurowski was still finding his way into the Mahler idiom. There were many vivid incidents, but rather less a sense of dramatic cohesion.

Three years on, it was striking how much Jurowski’s understanding of the piece had matured, as he expertly charted the drama’s progress, integrating the various episodes and vividly capturing every mood, whether of sylvan charm or of treacherous murder and its consequences. Amongst many instances one could cite, there was the intense energy of the opening pages of Part 2 and the Wedding Scene, the touching sense of repose as the younger brother lays down to rest; and the dark tones that accompanied the flute’s revelation of the murder.

In achieving this success, Jurowski was superbly abetted by the LPO (every department playing with total commitment) and the London Philharmonic Choir singing wonderfully. Members of Glyndebourne Chorus sang solo parts from within the chorus ranks, and centrally positioned at the front of the choir were the soloists: the well-focused and fine-toned Melanie Diener (soprano) and Christopher Purves (baritone); plus Christianne Stotijn (mezzo) and Michael Konig (tenor) singing confidently. The parts of the young knights were divided between a highly assured Jacob Thorn and the valiant Leopold Benedict.

The placing of these singers at centre-front of the choir, however good an idea it may have seemed in theory, was arguably an error of judgment, for none of the singers was able to make a proper impact, which they surely would have done had they been positioned at the front of the platform. Likewise, the off-stage band (here incorporating shrill E flat clarinets, military flugelhorns, and cornet, again in accordance with Mahler’s initial intentions) seemed more distant than was perhaps intended.

Such qualifications aside, there can be no gainsaying that, from first note to last, Jurowski and his assembled forces produced a most compelling and exhilarating performance, full of myriad theatrical touches. And while Mahler, during the 1890s, may have decided that Part 1 was superfluous, a performance as vivid and as integrated as this made a very strong case for his original vision.

The first half of the concert opened with Ligeti’s Lontano for large orchestra, which was used by Stanley Kubrick in his film The Shining. Jurowski balanced the strings, wind and brass for which Lontano is scored, with notable refinement, creating continuously fascinating textures. Overall, though, the result was less shadowy, less nebulous, than the piece ideally requires.

Lontano was followed by Bartok’s First Violin Concerto, in which the soloist was the Hungarian Barnabás Kelemen, who played a 1742 Guarneri (ex Denes Kovacs), an instrument blessed with a gratifyingly rich tone. This two-movement (as never completed) work, written in 1907-8 when Bartok was in love with his student Stefi Geyer, was given a performance fully attuned to the work’s folk roots and emotional impulses. Kelemen’s view of the piece happily wedded earthiness to lyricism and reached right into the heart of the piece. The success of this reading owed an equal debt to the alert and idiomatic accompaniment of Jurowski and the orchestra.

Clearly delighted to offer his audience further evidence of his remarkable talents, Kelemen gave two encores: the Presto from Bartok’s Sonata for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from JS Bach’s Sonata in D minor. All the qualities observable in the concerto, plus a heightened virtuosity, were evident in the Presto, whilst in the Partita there was a fusion of deep emotion and nobility, as well as a beauty of phrasing, which made a deep impression on a clearly much affected audience.

Richard Landau

image_description=Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]

product_title=György Ligeti: Lontano; Béla Bartók: Concerto for Violin no. 1; Gustav Mahler: Das klagende Lied
product_by=Barnabás Kelemen (violin), Melanie Deiner( soprano), Christianne Stotijn (mezzo soprano), Michael König (baritone), Christopher Purves (tenor). Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Chorus and memebers of the Glyndebourne Festival Chorus. Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 29th January 2011.
product_id=Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]

Posted by anne_o at 4:28 PM

Die Zauberflöte, Covent Garden

This production’s first and only Sarastro, Franz-Josef Selig, steps back into the High Priest’s hallowed shoes; several esteemed soloists from the 2008 run return - Christopher Maltman reprising his confident, mischievous Papageno, and Kate Royal once again presenting a dignified and elegant Pamina. With the original conductor, Sir Colin Davis, at the helm, a smooth sailing should be guaranteed; however, there were a few unexpected wobbles on this opening night, and if the ship didn’t hit the rocks it certainly lost its moorings on occasion.

John Macfarlane’s designs are still strikingly sumptuous: effortless transitions between lavish tableaux, packed with period details and evocatively lit by Paule Constable, transport one — as if gliding aloft a magic carpet — to other worlds. Die Zauberflöte is a compendium of styles, forms and moods: Masonic mysticism rubs shoulders with pantomime farce; erudite Enlightenment philosophy sits alongside an earthy tale of human endeavour and love. And McVicar and his designer, John Macfarlane, skilfully conjure and combine these domains: scientific astronomical apparatus whisk us back to an empirical eighteenth-century, the sweeping glare of an outsized crescent moon casts a supernatural spell. So, it is perhaps all the more surprising that a few ‘false notes’ are allowed to creep in.

ZAUBER-1024_0508-MALTMAN&RO.gifChristopher Maltman as Papageno and Kate Royal as Pamina

Maltman’s Papageno is warm-hearted and exuberant. Although perhaps not exploiting the full colour range and power of his increasingly varied palette and rich baritonal resonance, Maltman revelled in the moments of comedic flippancy and fun; admittedly this was sometimes at the expense of rhythmic precision, and he occasionally lost touch with the pit — thereby unintentionally emphasising the bird-catcher’s anarchic streak.

As Sarastro, Franz-Josef Selig, struck an imposing physical figure: regal, poised and self-possessed. His diction was impressive (alone among the cast, his is singing in his native tongue), and although he took a little while to settle down in, particularly in the middle range, his performance was commanding and secure.

Kate Royal’s soprano is strong, sure and gorgeous in tone, but while gracious and composed, I feel that physically and vocally she lacks some of the child-like naivety which is integral to the role of Pamina. There was no doubting the beauty and grace of her vocal line. Her duet with Papageno, ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen’, was achingly touching, but was equalled in affecting loveliness by ‘Ach, ich fühl's’. Royal’s strength and control were not quite matched by her Tamino, Joseph Kaiser, and this was particularly noticeable in the lover’s ‘reunion scene’. Kaiser’s portrayal was rather one-dimensional but he compensated for some occasionally wooden acting with a flexible, light voice aptly conveying the youthful optimism and bravery of the idealistic hero.

ZAUBER-1024_0148-(C)MIKE-HO.gifFrom Left To Right: Elisabeth Meister as First Lady, Jessica Pratt as Queen of the Night, Kai Rüütel as Second Lady and at the back, Gaynor Keeble as Third Lady

As the Queen of the Night, Jessica Pratt, making her role and house debut, had all the notes, and hit them cleanly. While her top notes were warm and true, without a hint of stridency or loss of power, her lower register projected less well and she did not really convey the menace of the would-be murderer. A general lack of dramatic and musical subtlety, as in the recitative to her first aria, ‘O zittre nicht’, diluted the impact of the Queen’s vengeful terrorising.

British tenor, Peter Hoare, was an eccentric Monostatos, who in this production is made to bear the bulk of the burden for creating comedy and lightness. A caricature villain, he is less dangerous racial threat, the embodiment of ‘otherness’, and more a harmless, if ridiculous, be-wigged dandy, the epitome of vanity. Matthew Best was an authoritative Speaker, imperiously directing Tamino to the ‘right path’, effectively establishing a moment of dramatic gravitas at the end of Act 1.

Several Jette Parker Young Artists were given opportunities to shine. The First and Second Ladies, Elisabeth Meister and Kai Rüütel respectively, were joined by the more experienced Gaynor Keeble to form a well-blended trio. Their stage-craft, however, seemed rather undirected, particularly in the opening scene where, given that the hand-manipulated, puppet serpent (just one of many of McVicar’s overt debts to eighteenth-century theatrical paraphernalia), though wonderfully charming, hardly chills the blood. Thus, the black-clad Ladies need to generate an air of peril and intimidation; but, rhythmic co-ordination was a little wayward and there was a lack of projection. As Papagena, JPYA Anna Devin — attractive both vocally and physically — should have been an irresistible ‘catch’ for Papageno. But, inexplicably, she was presented not as a beauty disguised as a beggar, but in attire more fitting for a bordello boudoir — no wonder Papageno looked away in disgust.

The chorus was rather ragged and some of the responsibility for the poor ensemble must rest with Sir Colin Davis, a supremely experienced Mozartian, but who nevertheless failed to pace this production effectively. After a wonderfully stately start to the overture — where the warm weight, focused intonation and glossy sheen of the horns powerfully established the mood of Masonic majesty — the Allegro failed to catch fire, and the spark of conflict and contrast which should drive the opera forward was never quite ignited. (Moreover, the orb-carrying extras wandering rather purposelessly through the stalls hardly helped matters.) Davis chooses to ignore the period performance specialists’ preference for pace and nimbleness; but while this should not prevent an effective dramatic momentum being achieved, some of the tempi were overly ponderous — particularly the Priests’ March and Sarastro’s ‘O Isis and Osiris’ at the opening of Act 2 which was decidedly sluggish. Indeed, even Selig lost contact with the pit, a rare moment of discomposure. Davis was however sensitive to the soloists, controlling dynamics and texture to provide appropriate accompanying support, especially in the case of the Three Boys (Jacob Ramsay-Patel, Harry Stanton and Harry Manton) who shone through — and stayed in time …

Overall this was an enjoyable, if slightly unsatisfactory, opening night. Perhaps insufficient time was allotted to this well-known revival; if so, things should improve as the run progresses.

[Die Zauberflöte continues in repertory until Saturday 19 February.]

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ZAUBER-1024_0580-KAISER-AS-.gif image_description=Joseph Kaiser as Tamino [Photo by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte product_by=Tamino: Joseph Kaiser; Pamina: Kate Royal; Papageno: Christopher Maltman; Queen of the Night: Jessica Pratt; Sarastro: Franz-Josef Selig; Monostatos: Peter Hoare; Speaker of the Temple: Matthew Best; Papagena: Anna Devin; First Lady: Elisabeth Meister; Second Lady: Kai Rüütel; Tird Lady: Gaynor Keeble. David McVicar, Director. Colin Davis, Conductor. John Macfarlane, Designer. Paule Constable, Lighting designer. Leah Hausmann, Movement director. Lee Blakeley, Revival director. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 1 February 2011. product_id=Above: Joseph Kaiser as Tamino

All photos by Mike Hoban courtesy of The Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 10:37 AM

Heggie’s Dead Man Walking triumphs at HGO

Staged by more than a handful of American companies since its 2000 premiere at San Francisco Opera, Dead Man Walking has been seen in Dresden and Vienna — and in distant Australia. It is the most popular of American operas in decades — perhaps since Porgy and Bess. But that only states the obvious.

More important is the universality the HGO staging brings to the true story of Sister Helen Prejean’s encounter with death-row damned Joe De Rocher. For here the work — and the bare-bones libretto by Terrence McNally — is no longer an argument about capital punishment — if this ever was its central concern. It is now rather an essay — a careful balance of ideas and emotions — on the quest for compassion — and love — in a world poor in compassion, chilled by loneliness and loathe to grant redemption.

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted the SFO premiere of DMW and has been with it constantly. In Houston he demonstrates how much he has grown in a decade distinguished by further Heggie achievements. Indeed, the Houston staging takes DMW full circle, underscoring a network of friendships that reaches beyond the stage and contrasts warmly with the lonely despair that darkens this story.

In addition to the long collaboration between Heggie and Summers, in the pit for the Dallas premiere of the composer’s Moby Dick last season, this staging gains through the return to the cast of Frederica von Stade who — repeating her SFO role — sings Joe’s mother. Adding to the weight of her still superb singing is the fact that Heggie has long prized the mezzo as his personal Muse, together with that the tug at the heart prompted by the knowledge that the HGO performances mark her last appearance on the opera stage.

John Packard, the first Joe and now an internationally recognized baritone, is now in Houston to sing his father. Older opera buffs are delighted to find in the cast singers of note edged off stage by today’s quest for new talent.

Cheryl Parrish, loved for many performances of Despina and Gilda, and Suzanne Mentzer, only a decade ago a leading Octavian, sing supporting roles. (Both are now voice teachers in Texas.) New to the cast — and the HGO — is Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman, who makes Sister Rose an alter ego of Sister Helen.

At the top of this list of notables, of course, is Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen. An alumna of the HGO studio, DiDonato, now the world’s leading mezzo, has long been Houston’s “own.” Having appeared in a wide variety of roles here, she has just been named the company’s Lynn Wyatt Great Artist for 2011-12. (She will sing the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the end of the next season.) DiDonato, who sang the role at New York City Opera in 2002, is a vulnerably feminine Sister Helen without the grit of Susan Graham who created the role at the SFO. By internalizing the conflict, however, DiDonato brings new intensity to the independent nun. She makes clear that Sister Helen gets more than she bargained for in seeking to counsel Joe. DMW is, after all her opera — her story and her journey. DiDonata makes her a delicately refined woman who underscores how porous the boundary between eros and agape is.

DMW_HGO_2011_02.gifJoyce DiDonato (Sister Helen Prejean) and Measha Brueggergosman (Sister Rose)

Philip Cutlip is an unrelentingly macho Joe — still obsessed by sex — who makes Sister Helen’s mission doubly difficult.

Jake Heggie began his career as a composer of songs, and DMW profits greatly from his understanding of the voice and his ability to set words with transparent clarity. But, as Summers brings home, Heggie is also a master of orchestration. There are interludes in this score that rival Bergs Woyzeck in drama of hurricane force.Sixty years ago DMW would have been taught in courses on Existentialism, for the story is as complex in sins of omission as in their opposite.

And God? Despite Sister Helen’s frequent — and fervent — prayers, Heggie and McNally leave that question to the audience, free to answer it according to the degree of their belief. More significant perhaps is the experience of “King” Elvis Pressley that Joe and Sister Helen share and — recalled by both — leads to the breakthrough in their relationship.

While Dead Man Walking has grown in significance during its decade of enviably popularity, the world — in the eyes of many — has gone downhill. As chaos grows, a society largely with a moral compass and ethical rudder seems doomed to produce more and more souls equal in loss to Joe De Rocher, while the supply of Sister Helens diminishes.

This was brought home by the near-capacity audience in the Brown Theater in Houston’s impressive Wortham Center on January 29. They were totally — and actively — engaged in DMW. Indeed, one might speak of a Jungian mystique of participation, something for which art strives, but all too rarely achieves. (This was the second of five performances of the work that began on January 22.)

DMW_HGO_2011_03.gifFrederica von Stade as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher

Although Jake Heggie, born in 1961, has done significant things during the past decade, a direct line connects his two big — indeed, grand operas: Dead Man Walking and Moby Dick, premiered by Dallas Opera last April. In his overwhelmingly successful capturing of the epic sweep and scope of one of the world’s major novels, Heggie makes clear that it is time to liberate him from the “post-Sondheim” category and cherish him as the equal of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov, America’s two major masters of opera. Heggie writes with a voice as original, powerful and emotionally convincing as his slightly older contemporaries. The Houston Grand Opera production of Dead Man Walking leaves no doubt about this. Indeed, the staging of this now-classic work is a well-deserved celebration of Jake Heggie’s stature and significance.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DMW_HGO_2011_01.gif image_description=Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera] product=yes product_title=Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking product_by=Sister Helen Prejean: Joyce DiDonato; Joseph De Rocher: Philip Cutlip; Joseph’s mother: Frederica von Stade; Sister Rose: Measha Brueggergosman; Owen and Kitty Hart, parents of murdered girl: John Packard and Cheryl Parrish; Jade Boucher, mother of murdered boy: Susanne Mentzer. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Leonard Foglia. Sets: Michael McGarty. Costumes: Jess Goldstein. Lighting: Brian Nason. Chorus master: Richard Bado. A co-production with Opera Pacific, Cincinnati Opera, New York City Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera and Baltimore Opera. product_id=Above: Philip Cutlip as Joseph De Rocher

All photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:47 AM

Der Freischütz, Toulon

In his memoirs Hector Berlioz heaps condemnation upon its 1824 premiere in Paris where it had been made over to appeal to Parisian (French) taste. Le Freischütz according to Berlioz was “mutilé, vulgarisé, torturé, insulté” — it had in fact even become Robin des Bois.

The usual sarcastic bombast of the memoirs is however absent when Berlioz describes his own transformation of the work. He composed sung recitatives to replace its spoken dialogues for its performances at the Paris Opera in 1841 — no spoken words at this altar of musical art!

Von Weber’s Romantic masterpiece has had a very hard time of it just now in Toulon (home of the French Mediterranean fleet, its magnificent opera house said the be the model for the Paris Opéra Garnier). Its extensive spoken dialogues had been somewhat restored (delivered in German by an international cast [there was one German] to this French speaking audience).

The metteur en scène in Toulon was sixty-three-year-old Jean-Louis Benoit, director of the Théâtre National La Creee-Marseille. He too re-wrote von Weber’s delicate masterpiece, translocating it from the enchanted forests of a mythical Germany to inside Max’s head, a space “urbanisé, métallique, no longer in need of a forest”[!] according to Mr. Benoit.

These days one has learned that it is dangerous to question the visions of stage directors, and anyway it is indeed true that all human perception occurs in someone’s head. Unfortunately Mr. Benoit and his scenic collaborator Laurent Pedruzzi did not have the vocabulary or technique to realize such a concept — the enchanted forest was reduced to a huge hanging circle, presumably a moon, the Wolf Glen was an empty stage, the forest ranger’s home was a bed.

Mr. Benoit’s actors moved presentationally in costumes that identified their character (some of the chorus wore metallic gray great coats), addressing themselves directly to the audience. Chorus movement was geometric and in direct relationship to the musical structure. The metallic urbanization seemed to make this production no more than a concert performance of one of the repertory’s most splendid scores.

Laurence Equilbey is one of the rare females admitted into the fraternity of conductors. Mme. or Ma. Equilbey took a very literal approach to this score, marking its beat stolidly and seldom allowed its music to take flight. In fact Ma. Equilbey seemed to be in contention with the stage from time to time when the music wanted it to take flight all by itself and she insisted on the beat.


This is not to say that we did not hear von Weber’s opera. The orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon approached the score with obvious respect, and responded to its conductor’s talents by giving a clean performance, if one lacking the tonal splendor of, let’s say, the Berlin Philharmonic.

Grave responsibility to create both character and music rests on the shoulders of concert singers. Berlioz noted that the Agathe of Robin des Bois was a lovely singer who delivered her great second act aria with “imperturbable sang-froid” and with all the charm of a vocalise. Much the same thing can be said of the performance of the Toulon Agathe, American soprano Jacqueline Wagner who applied the same sang-froid to Agathe’s lovely third act prayer as well.

Max, Agathe’s misguided fiancé, was entrusted to German tenor Jürgen Müller who combined sturdy singing with believable character. He managed to recover from some vocal malaise that marred the third act trio with Agathe and Ännchen to finish the opera in fine form. All in all he offered a splendid performance.


The Kaspar was sung by Moldovian bass-baritone Roman Ialcic who discovered the cunning of von Weber’s evil paysan but did not project its force. Mr. Ialcic too is a fine singer. Georgian bass Nika Guliashvili was too young to be Agathe’s father, and too green to portray the gravity the head forest ranger Kuno, Canadian soubrette Mélanie Boisvert was an appropriate Ânnchen.

Michael Milenski

image_description=Carl Maria Von Weber

product_title=Carl Maria Von Weber: Le Freischütz [Der Freischütz]
product_by=Agathe: Jacquelyn Wagner; Aennchen: Mélanie Boisvert; Max: Jürgen Müller; Kaspar: Roman Ialcic; Kuno: Nika Guliashvili; Kilian: Igor Gnidii; Ottokar: Bartolomiej Misiuda; L’Ermite: Fernand Bernadi; Samiel: Jean-Michel Fournereau. Orchestre, chœur et ballet de l’Opéra. Direction musicale: Laurence Equilbey. Mise en scène: Jean-Louis Benoit. Chorégraphie: Erick Margouet. Décors: Laurent Peduzzi. Costumes: Marie Sartoux. Lumières: Joel Hourbeigt.
product_id=Above: Carl Maria Von Weber

Photos courtesy of Opéra de Toulon

Posted by michael_m at 5:35 AM

February 4, 2011

Lucrezia Borgia, ENO

At last the ENO experiment of using directors from fields other than opera has been vindicated. Mike Figgis is not an opera director so the opera, which proceeds with minimal intervention. But Figgis is an innovative film-maker, so he knows what makes good drama. This production at the Coliseum, London operates on two parallel levels: film and opera, which done together expand the experience.

Few stories could have more dramatic potential than the legend of Lucrezia Borgia. Incest, violence, political intrigue, orgies. Even Anna Nicole Smith, subject of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera, doesn’t come close. Yet Donizetti seems less interested in Lucrezia than in her supposed son, Gennaro. Cesare Borgia and Pope Alexander VI don’t even appear in the opera. Yet the plot predicates on the fact that the Borgia clan cause extreme fear and hatred. Surely Lucrezia alone can’t have been solely responsible for their terrible reputation? There are other loose ends in the drama. Gennaro fixates on his mother but doesn’t wonder who his father might be. His friends are out for bloodthirsty vengeance. Yet they’re easily distracted when invited to a party. Even when Gennaro is fleeing for his life after escaping from the Duke of Ferrara, he stops to join his friends carousing. So much for dramatic logic! Donizetti’s aim was to write lovely arias fto showcase his singer’s abilities, and in that sense he succeeds. But apart from the bel canto displays, it’s psychologically and dramatically inert.

Significantly, Figgis is under no delusions that anyone can become an opera director overnight. That’s refreshingly honest, since good opera direction requires some musical nous. (In fact, Figgis is a musician). But because he understands drama, he adds to the production in the way he does best, by making films that encase the opera, adding commentary and background without impinging on the stage action itself.

The films are sumptuously lavish, shot on location in Italy. The extravagant Renaissance settings dazzle, but Figgis knows that the reality behind this glamour was brutal. The Borgias operated in an era of depravity and corruption. Figgis’s films start quietly, with the actresses discussing the period while getting into costume. They speak of horrific things, like prostitutes being brutalized and Jews being castrated. You flinch, but you should, for the world Lucrezia lived in wasn’t pretty. Then the actresses transform into role, like savage animals. A metaphor for the times.

Donizetti presents Lucrezia without much explanation, so her evil deeds seem to spring from nowhere. Thus the films act as reminders of Lucrezia’s past. Wealthy and powerful as she is, she’s been abused herself, and grew up surrounded by treachery. In the films, she witnesses how ruthless her father and brother can be when they murder a servant in cold blood, thinking he’s her lover. Lucrezia relives the birth of her son, who is taken from her. This brings Gennaro into the story, for he didn’t exist as historic fact. Before she marries the Duke of Ferrara she’s got to prove she’s a virgin, which everyone (including the Duke) knows is a humiliating farce. The films give psychological depth to Lucrezia’s character. Donizetti, for whatever reason, may have avoided this, but modern audiences are more accustomed to dramatic nuance.

Borgia_ENO_2011_01.gifClaire Rutter, Elizabeth DeShong, James Gower, Gerard Collett, Jonathan Stoughton and Tyler Clarke

Frames are a recurring theme throughout. Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong) converse under a proscenium arch. Later Lucrezia (Claire Rutter) and her husband Alfonso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara (Alastair Miles) appear on an ornate, golden throne. It’s stunning. But look carefully, it’s a giant version of the tabernacle on a Catholic altar, which opens to reveal sacred objects. Lucrezia’s father was the Pope. When Gennaro and his friends celebrate, they’re shown seated in a line around a long table. It’s a direct reference to The Last Supper, In fact, it is their last supper as soon they’ll all die. The audience gasps at the audacity, but it reminds us that the Borgias were far more blasphemous.

Because the films are so luscious, the opera itself appears one dimensional. Movements are static. Apart from the main images on stage, backgrounds are flat, no attempt at realism. Since this looks like opera without direction, those who hate directors ought to love this. Though Figgis is not an opera man, he’s telling us that image and substance are never quite the same. Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia is art, not reality.

Innovative as this approach is, it probably wouldn’t work with a less stylized opera. Nor, perhaps, one more expressive orchestrally. Donizetti wrote the opera as vehicles for the singers off his time to display their vocal prowess. The soprano part is a delight, and Claire Rutter sings it with radiant richness. Her part is easily the most rewarding and she makes her presence felt. Michael Fabiano, as Gennaro, also sings more convincingly than his role allows. Elizabeth DeShong, Alastair Miles and supporting singers are good, too, but this isn’t the most demanding of operas, despite moments of beauty.

Borgia_ENO_2011_04.gifMichael Fabiano, Elizabeth DeShong, Tyler Clarke, Jonathan Stoughton, James Gower and Gerrard Collett

Translation into English doesn’t help, though. At times it felt that the singers were obeying their natural sense of line and intonation, but drawing back to fit the text. That’s a problem with English in general, which isn’t as melodic as Italian. The overall sound of an opera communicates, not just words. There were some horrible rhymes that tried to be funny but weren’t. Orsini’s lines, on the other hand, were so wacky that they worked in an anarchic way. “Let’s respect the protocol, and not indulge in alcohol” and “Chianti! the wine of Dante!”. DeShong’s delivery was so lively that I realized at last what Orsini’s role in this opera might be. The silliness is deliberate, like whistling in a graveyard. Oddly enough, it makes sense of the idea that theatre can be divorced from drama. Donizetti may not have done much to develop Lucrezia Borgia as a personality in her own right, but thanks to Mike Figgis and ENO, we can approach her story in parallel ways. Presumably the films and opera could be experienced separately, but together they enhance each other.

For more details refer to the ENO website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Claire Rutter as Lucrezia Borgia [Photo by Stephen Cummisky courtesy of English National Opera]

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia
product_by=Lucrezia Borgia: Claire Rutter; Alfonso d'Este; Duke of Ferrara: Alastair Miles; Gennaro: Michael Fabiano; Orsini: Elizabth DeShong; Liverotto: Tyler Clarke; Vitellozzo: Jonathan Stoughton; Petrucci: Gerard Collet; Gazella: James Gower; Rustighello: Richard Roberts; Gubetta: Matthew Hargreaves; Voice: Michael Burke. Director: Mike Figgis; Set Designer: Es Devlin; Costumes: Brigitte Reifenstuel; Lighting: Peter Mumford. Conductor: Paul Daniel; Chorus master: Martin Merry. English National Opera; Coliseum, London, 31st January 2011.
product_id=Above: Claire Rutter as Lucrezia Borgia

All photos by Stephen Cummisky courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by anne_o at 10:00 AM

February 3, 2011

President and Opera, on Unexpected Stages

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 3 February 2011]

During a panel discussion about “Nixon in China” on Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb turned to the team of onetime artistic rebels who created this work for its Houston Grand Opera premiere in 1987 and suggested that back then, surely, no one involved had had any ambitions for the Met. Other than “for its dismantlement,” Mr. Gelb added.

Posted by Gary at 9:33 PM

Lucrezia Borgia, London Coliseum

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 3 February 2011]

Later in the run, this production will be the first live opera to be seen in 3D when it is broadcast to cinemas and on satellite television. With the advance publicity warning of “scenes of a sexual nature”, everything seemed to be in place for a show as three-dimensionally lurid on stage as the story of Lucrezia Borgia is said to have been in real life.

Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

Mosheh, a VideOpera

Mosheh contains most of what we’ve come to expect from new operas in the twenty-first century: video and film, of course, and also gamelan-derived percussive scoring, surtitles to obviate the need for a coherent drama, and naked male bodies, in this case the non-singing title role. (Trivia: Name other title characters who do not sing in their own opera. There’s La Muette de Portici, of course.)

What Mosheh has that I seldom expect is respectable melody. Miriam’s serenade to her baby brother as she places him in the Nile is an especially lovely number; Zipporah’s harsh aria about inventing circumcision to save her new husband from the Angel of Death is less immediately attractive. Too, the quartet at the conclusion of the opera when the women narrate the twelve plagues that fall upon Egypt has an eerie harmony that calls Benjamin Britten to mind.

What Mosheh, the opera, did not have was a coherent, stageworthy way of telling its more or less familiar story. Without some Bible reading (or a viewing of The Ten Commandments) and surtitles, I don’t think an audience would find the action at all clear. It is rather a costumed series of individual scenes, all for voices of too striking a sameness. Gal writes well for the voice, without straining the instrument as the atonal opera composers were prone to do—because, unlike them, he has not renounced melody as an expressive tool—also, I suspect, he has studied voice writing and respects the instrument and its capabilities. His four well-chosen soloists had no trouble filling HERE’s admittedly small space with thrilling sound that never made us wince.

But because the vocalism accompanied so little action and no dialogue, the evening never became a dramatic event, that is, an opera. Were sets and costumes (wild costumes!) even necessary? Were the tremendously elaborate and often beautiful projections, which led us, for example, through rows upon rows of columns into Pharaoh’s throne room, or beside the muddy pools of the Nile required? Is Mosheh’s presence called for by the music, or would any naked man (a volunteer from the audience, say) do just as well? Or could we dispense with him too?

Soprano Hai-Ting Chinn, well known among fans of New York’s odder opera scenes (she was the Wooster Group’s splendid Didone Abbandonata), made the most striking impression here as Miriam, acting as well as singing her lovely music.

John Yohalem

GreenHattonBarnesChinn-Cred.gifHeather Green as Bitia, Beth Anne Hatton as Zipporah, Judith Barnes as Yocheved and Hai-Ting Chinn as Miriam [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Green-Guinsinger-Credit-Hun.gif image_description=Heather Green as Bitia and Nathan Guinsinger as Mosheh [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations] product=yes product_title=Mosheh — A VideOpera, composition and design by Yoav Gal product_by=Miriam: Hai-Ting Chinn; Bitia: Heather Green; Yocheved: Judith Barnes; Zipporah: Beth Anne Hatton; Mosheh: Nathan Guinsinger; Voice of God: Wesley Chinn. At HERE, performance of January 29. product_id=Above: Heather Green as Bita and Nathan Guinsinger as Mosheh [Photo by Hunter Canning courtesy of seven17 public relations]
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

February 2, 2011

Bérénice, Carnegie Hall

He was a virtuoso of his particular instrument: the later romantic orchestra in all its excess of size and sonority and varieties of color, and like many a virtuoso he tended to ignore other aspects of the compositions he worked on. When one is composing an opera, after all, one wants a clear story or at least clearly “musicable” (as Verdi put it) situations, and to have the music emerge from those situations and characters. Magnard’s Bérénice features long, powerful lead parts with rich orchestral accompaniment but very little of all its music (some three hours’ worth) is effectively theatrical or illuminates the famous play from which he drew his libretto.

In the days when classical culture meant something, the romance of Emperor Titus and Queen Bérénice was the very type of Noble Renunciation: Duty before Love. The lovers met when Titus commanded the Roman army besieging Jerusalem in 69 A.D.; Bérénice and her brother, Herod Agrippa II, took the Roman side against the Jewish rebels. When the war was over and the Second Temple destroyed, Bérénice followed Titus to Rome, where his father, Vespasian, had become emperor. For nearly ten years, older woman and younger man were the talk of Roman society—a Rome that had not forgotten Marc Antony and his loss of self-control, of empire, of life on account of another oriental queen. When Titus succeeded his father, he felt it to be his duty to send Bérénice away. This tragedy without bloodshed challenged Jean Racine, who made a drama out of the situation by adding a third character, a great friend of Titus who (unknown to the others) is also in love with Bérénice. All three, as Dudley Moore would put it, bemoan and bemoan and bemoan—and then separate for good. It is exquisite but, at five acts, a bit much for modern audiences. (Red Bull Theater, which specializes in Jacobean drama, gave a delicious staged reading of Racine’s play last winter.) Metastasio’s libretto on noble Titus, familiar from Mozart’s setting, begins on the day of Bérénice’s exile from Rome, therefore omitting her as a character. Magnard omitted the friend and reduced his cast to four, so that his hero and heroine would each have someone to argue with between love duets or recrimination duets with one another.

This was presented at Carnegie Hall by the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leon Botstein, who has a sweet tooth for neglected music, especially late romantic scores of more grandiloquence than substance (Le Roi Arthus, anybody? or Ariane et Barbe-Bleu? or Fervaal?), but who has rendered great services to New York opera-lovers by his explorations of obscure repertory (The Wreckers! Die Ferne Klang! Le Roi d’Ys! or Die Liebe der Danäe—which last, by the way, will be his staged offering at Bard this summer). From one hearing, one is inclined to place Bérénice in the former group, of worthy technical exercises low on appeal to those who like drama with their künst.

Enriching a full afternoon of music, however, was an exceptional cast of four singers worthily sinking their teeth into Magnard’s Wagnerian vocal lines. Michaela Martens, in the title role, calls herself a mezzo soprano. She has a voice that hovers between soprano and mezzo, if anything brighter and fuller on top than bottom, and might evolve to dramatic soprano heights in time. The Met has regularly miscast her in the tiny role of Alisa in Lucia di Lammermoor—where she not only outsings whoever the Lucia may be but, during the sextet, the entire remainder of the cast plus the chorus. She has been winning praise from Chicago to Graz in the arduous role of the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten—which, the Met being the Met, probably means she will be assigned Flora Bervoix there next season (Violettas, beware!), when a voice like this deserves Ortrud or Waltraute if not Didon. At Carnegie Hall, she demonstrated that she can indeed sing softly, though clearly, when required, murmuring of love or sinking into recriminations, but it is the fierce, brassy color and tireless, unwavering solidity of Martens’ voice that Wagnerians will find exciting. Margaret Lattimore gave a distinguished performance as Lia, Bérénice’s confidante.

Brian Mulligan, an effective Prometheus in the Los Angeles performances of Die Vögel, sang Titus. He is a baritone but, just as Magnard pushed Bérénice’s mezzo soprano limits, he pushed Titus to the top of a baritone’s comfort level; some of those present thought he must be a tenor. That he managed this music with so little audible discomfort was most impressive; on the other hand, his French diction was atrocious and calls for some heavy coaching if he considers other roles in that language. Bass Gregory Reinhart, as Mucien, the Voice of Duty (as it were), was sonorous, thrilling and a little scary—in a good way.

The Collegiate Chorale had very little to do but provide scenic “color” to scenes of the luxurious imperial court, rioting mobs and cheerful sailors. The ASO demonstrated its familiar aptitude for this sort of score, its swift changes of tempo, its tonal painting of scenes that all added up to a demonstration of technique without compositorial inspiration. Could one request Mr. Botstein to give us more Schreker or Zemlinsky or Smyth and skip the French dilettantes in the future? Or how about Janáček’s Osud, which he once presented at Bard but which has never been performed in New York? With the same composer’s Excursions of Mr. Brouček, that would make a double bill of most uncommon interest.

John Yohalem

Click here for program notes relating to this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/berenice.gif image_description=Albéric Magnard: Bérénice product=yes product_title=Albéric Magnard: Bérénice product_by=Bérénice: Michaela Martens; Lia: Margaret Lattimore; Titus: Brian Mulligan; Mucien: Gregory Reinhart. American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein. At Carnegie Hall. Performance of January 30. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 10:39 PM

I Puritani, Glyndebourne 1960

By that time she knew where each note should be placed and how to make it land there, how to prepare, how to hold back, when to launch, what would make her tired, what she could get away with. Even so, on the first night of the run, she was visibly exhausted at the final curtain, grateful for our ovations but more grateful that it was over. By the final performance she was in clover, dancing on the stage (after the repeat of the cabaletta, too!), extracting individual roses from the bouquet she’d caught to bestow one on Pavarotti, another on Bonynge. Then, laughing, she tossed a few our way and blew us kisses. Of course, by then, I knew her first commercial recording of the opera, the one from 1963 with Pierre Duval shrilling those wild falsetto E’s to try to match her in the duet.

But the recording at hand, from Glyndebourne in 1960, is her first essay at the role. Although Nicola Filiacuridi is by no means disgraceful as Arturo (he simply omits the highest phrases, allowing Sutherland to take them alone) and John Kentish sings “Ah! per sempre io ti perdei” with enviable velvet, purchasers of this set will be Sutherland fans eager to hear her first attempt on the part. They won’t be disappointed, but this won’t be the Elvira they remember.

There is the omission of the final cabaletta, “Ah! sento al mio bell’angelo” for one thing. The number was a Bellini afterthought in any case, and Muti and other “prima la littera” conductors have preferred to do without it. The finale may sound strange to those familiar with the Bonynge version, for there is not a peep from the soprano through the entire concluding rejoicing.

But that’s not significant. What is fascinating is that, throughout the performance, Sutherland is not sure of herself when she goes for the E-flats and D’s. A friend of mine used to scoff at those of us who only heard her in the seventies and eighties: “The chances she used to take! She was fearless!” He referred particularly to a Puritani he had heard her sing with the American Opera Society. That may be the most exciting pirate Puritani to have; I don’t know if it’s even available.

Glyndebourne was not her first exposure to the music, at least of the Act II Mad Scene. She had studied that in her first days of working with Bonynge, her first approaches to bel canto; famously she sang it as part of her audition for Covent Garden—to the management’s bewilderment. They thought they were getting a dramatic soprano, which had been her stated objective hitherto; they had no experience of a dramatic coloratura. Aside from Callas, who had performed Puritani with Serafin in Venice a few years earlier but was unknown in London, no one had. The revival and renewal of this repertory seemed a very long shot to anyone in the business. They had no idea what to make of Sutherland, and they made very little for several years.

Sutherland’s first Bellini role was, notoriously, Clotilda to Callas’s first Norma at Covent Garden. Glyndebourne, where she had earlier sung Donna Anna, the Countess and Madame Hertz in Der Schauspieldirektor, was her first crack at any Bellini lead. She is strong here in the angry music of her duet in scene 2 and her voice has the heavier quality, what I call the “golden” voice, that would become most familiar to the world by the end of the decade. The “silver” voice appears with “Son vergin vezzosa” in scene 3, and it is here that she seems tentative, as if she could not as yet believe that it was easy to sing this music. It wasn’t easy for anybody else, after all. She does not seem certain when she glides to the top of a run that the proper note will come out, and she is therefore audibly nervous about putting full weight on it. There is a flutter where we are used (in Sutherland Elviras) to certainty. But this is not inappropriate to the airy, fantastical nature of Elvira Walton in these early scenes.

Where Sutherland comes into her own is the often ignored first Mad Scene, the one at the conclusion of Act I, beginning with “Oh! vieni al tempio.” This is as exquisite a piece of simple singing as she ever did, caressing the line, breathing it, without overdoing the melodrama of the situation. (The choral comment takes care of that.) Too, admirers will treasure the different qualities she brings to Elvira’s changes of mood in Act II—and regret Maestro Gui’s decision to cut repeats and what would no doubt have been extraordinary bursts of ornament. The very highest points of the Act III duet are marked by a certain effort to scoop up to the note that will be faulted by purists, and this tendency, alas, would become the rule in her last decade of singing. By the time she sang Puritani at the Met for the last time, late in 1986, her performance was somewhat painful to those who remembered her great days. She still sang much of it beautifully (and had the sense to lower the line here and there), but the lazy pitch and rhythm were considerably more marked. She was no longer herself, and she no longer seemed to be enjoying herself singing it.

It is fascinating, as well as a vocal delight, to have this document of her first essay. Dare one hope that her Mozart essays also linger somewhere in the Glyndebourne archives?

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/519cGoIB%2BVL._SS400_.gif image_description=Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani product=yes product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani product_by=Elvira: Joan Sutherland; Queen: Monica Sinclair; Arturo: Nicola Filiacuridi; Riccardo: John Kentish; Giorgio: Giuseppe Modesti. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vittorio Gui. Glyndebourne Festival, 5 June, 1960. product_id=Glyndebourne Festival Opera 9-60 [3CDs] price=$29.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?comp_id=10999&bcorder=8&opera=Y&label_id=11258
Posted by Gary at 9:50 PM

Jurowski conducts Zemlinsky

It was, Jurowski told us, to be considered as part of a larger programme in conjunction with the London Philharmonic’s Saturday concert (Ligeti’s Lontano, Bartók’s First Violin Concerto, and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied). Anniversary boys Liszt and Mahler would be celebrated and contextualised. One might make too much of that; Jurowski mentioned the extraordinary late works of Liszt, but the Second Piano Concerto is not among them. (Most are for piano solo, in any case.) Likewise, though he lamented the neglect of so much of Liszt’s œuvre, as opposed to Mahler’s, we heard neither a choral work nor a symphonic poem, but a relatively mainstream piece, albeit one I was hearing for the first time in concert. Nevertheless, the sense of Liszt, Mahler, and three Hungarian composers sharing a continuum into which it would not be so very difficult also to fit Zemlinsky, offered much to think about. It was a pity that the planned repeat performances in Budapest had to be cancelled in light of economic circumstances, but at the very least Hungary’s Presidency of the European Union could be celebrated.

That conversation took place between the first and second works, since Péter Eötvös’s Shadows (1996) required an unusual seating arrangement, necessitating considerable rearrangement for the Liszt concerto. Shadows, for flute, amplified clarinet, and ensemble or orchestra, here received the first British performance of its orchestral performance. On a first hearing, it did not overstay its welcome, though I am not sure that it proved a revelation either. It seemed well performed, not least by the two soloists, flautist Sue Thomas and clarinettist Nicholas Carpenter. They held centre stage, along with Jurowski, two percussionists and celeste player, Catherine Edwards. Two groups of wind instruments, backs to the audience, acted as ‘shadows’ to the soloists, whilst two groups of strings, sparingly deployed, made up the rear (facing forwards). In three movements, the work opens with dance-music: so far, so typically or stereotypically ‘Hungarian’. Contrast between regularity and irregularity caught the ear. Neo-Bartókian string and percussion sonorities proved attractive in the second part, at least two mobile telephones less so. The arabesque dialogue between flute and clarinet, with which the third movement opens, also brought Bartók, this time his ‘night music’, to mind, the prominent part for celesta doing nothing to dispel — and why should it? — that association. Space and time are clearly preoccupations here, though Boulez and Stockhausen, for instance, would seem to have gone further, earlier. I may well, however, have missed the point.

Alexander Markovich joined the orchestra for the Liszt work. This was not to be a flawless performance — there were a few occasions on which soloist and orchestra fell out of sync — but its spirit impressed. The white heat of Sviatoslav Richter’s astounding recording with the equally astounding LSO and Kirill Kondrashin — a Liszt Desert Island disc, especially coupled with the B minor Sonata — may not have been felt, but this was arguably a more exploratory performance, doubtless aided by Jurowski’s conception of the work as more a symphonic poem with piano than a typical concerto. (He referred to its single movement and monothematicism.) The LPO players responded with verve and subtlety — yes, you read that word correctly. They ensured, for instance, that the all-important woodwind opening struck just the right, neo-Mozartian serenading note. To that, Markovich could respond with due delicacy, rapture even, all performers making clear the unorthodox nature of what could so easily resemble a mere virtuoso showpiece. The fluidity of the pianist’s response to the score was especially noteworthy, though all players were careful to ensure that this never descended into formlessness. Virtuosity was present, of course, for instance in Markovich’s thundering octave passages, but always, it seemed, at the music’s service. Sharply profiled rhythmically where necessary, the performance never became hard-driven; indeed, there was always plenty of light and shade. Lower strings impressed with depth of tone in the lead up to the beautiful duet between piano and cello (Kristine Blaumane). Liszt’s chamber music, like Wagner’s, tended to form part of other works, but it is no less chamber music for that. The march transformation, which some puritans have condemned as ‘vulgar’, sounded nothing of the sort; instead, it was dramatically stirring — and, more important, clear in its thematic derivation. Liszt suffers terribly from poor or mediocre performances; he did not here. As a sparkling encore, virtuosic in every sense, Markovich offered a transcription of the ‘Skaters’ Waltz’ from Les patineurs. I assume that it was Liszt’s, but not having heard it before, cannot be sure.

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, which I have long thought close to a masterpiece, formed the second half to the concert. It is not so long since the Royal Festival Hall heard what remains a relative rarity; Esa-Pekka Salonen led a truly outstanding performance from the Philharmonia in March 2009. If ultimately Jurowski’s reading did not quite convince me as Salonen’s had, it was interestingly different and proved in many respects complementary. The opening drum rolls resounded magnificently, but I felt much of the first movement unsettled in the wrong way, Jurowski’s direction rendering the bar lines all too audible, however fine the orchestral contribution in itself. Even in this movement, however, the music settled down, and many instrumental details proved sharply etched, not least the crucial flute lines. (The flute is as important to Rabindranath Tagore’s verse as it is to Das Lied von der Erde, a dangerous comparison, which often obscures as much as it reveals, yet which retains some validity when drawn with care.) Moreover, Jurowski proved alert to the teeming of those lines in combination, a combination that edged towards Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was by no means a merely backward-looking composer in 1923.

What of the baritone soloist, Thomas Hampson? Response would largely, I suspect, be a matter of taste. There could be no doubting the intelligence of his verbal response, nor the quality of his diction. (The latter left no one in doubt that he had, in the fifth movement, substituted ‘diesem Zauber’ for ‘deinem Zauber’.) However, for those for whom this is more important, there could be no doubting the vanished lustre of his voice as a voice. The contrast is not quite so simple as that, for sometimes — the final movement was a particularly notable example — the voice had gained a pronounced beat; moreover, pitch could sometimes be more hinted at than centred. Nevertheless, Hampson’s sincerity remained a palpable constant.

Melanie Diener, likewise, did not impress in terms of vocal beauty. However, her performance, in tandem with Jurowski’s, hinted at an operatic quality, perhaps frustrated, to Zemlinsky’s inspiration. It is certainly not the only way to perform the work, and sometimes lessened the importance of song and symphony, but at its best, it revealed aspects one might not have suspected. For instance, the fourth movement, ‘Sprich zu mir, Geliebter!’, was taken daringly slowly, yet it soon became apparent that its reimagination almost as an operatic scene could draw attention to the dark malevolence (Die Frau ohne Schatten?) of Zemlinsky’s writing. As for much of the performance, Jurowski highlighted modernistic timbres, where Salonen had emphasised the work’s sometimes overwhelming — and undoubtedly sincere — late-Romanticism. Flutes glanced towards Pierrot lunaire, perhaps even to Le marteau sans maître. (Now there is a thought: Boulez conducts Zemlinsky? Probably not, though he has recently been performing Szymanowski.) The dialogue between solo violin (leader, Pieter Schoeman) and cello (Blaumane again), which introduces the fourth movement, not only granted an opportunity, well taken, for soloists to shine, but was musically captured as a dissonant yet still tonal turning point.

There was drama, too, quite in keeping with, indeed necessary to, the operatic conception. The interlude following the young girl’s song (no.2), in which she laments to her mother the passing of the young prince’s carriage and its crushing of her ruby chain, displayed real anger, putting this listener in mind of passages and attitudes from Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. And yet, for all the tugging away from a symphonic conception, when the voices fell silent, the final movement’s coda proved integrative in properly symphonic fashion: thematic and dramatic concerns now sounded as one. If I did not quite feel convinced that the different approaches always cohered, there was much to admire and much to consider.

The concert was recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 1 February. Readers may therefore make up their own minds, and are warmly encouraged to do so.

Mark Berry

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Vladimir_Jurowski.gif image_description=Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists] product=yes product_title=Péter Eötvös: Shadows (British premiere of orchestral version); Franz Liszt: Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125; Alexander von Zemlinsky: Lyric Symphony, op.18 product_by=Alexander Markovich (piano); Melanie Diener (soprano); Thomas Hampson (baritone); London Philharmonic Orchestra; Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 26 January 2011. product_id=Above: Vladimir Jurowski [Dressed by Ermenegildo Zegna; Photo by Sheila Rock courtesy of IMG Artists]
Posted by Gary at 2:20 PM

La Fanciulla in its Anniversary at Lyric Opera of Chicago

As elsewhere during the past year Deborah Voigt sings the role of Minnie, who manages the Polka tavern in a California mining camp. The man who wins her heart, and is identified alternately as Dick Johnson or Ramerrez, is sung by Marcello Giordani. The baritone Marco Vratogna, in his debut at Lyric Opera, takes on the role of Jack Rance, the Sheriff who also develops an emotional attachment to Minnie. Sir Andrew Davis conducts with enthusiastic vigor the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Fanciulla_Chicago_05.gifMarco Vratogna as Jack Rance and Marcello Giordani as Dick Johnson (Ramerrez)

In the brief orchestral prelude to Act I Davis emphasizes sweeping gestures with hints of the West looking toward the action of the opera. Credit must be given to the ensemble of performers making up the cast of miners in the opening scene. Under the direction of chorus master Donald Nally members of the Ryan Opera Center executed both solo and group parts convincingly in their dramatic and vocal involvement. The tavern is first depicted as a relatively dark set with painted flats or backdrops signifying the California mountains of the 1849 Gold Rush. Once the miners are gathered inside the Polka, the set brightens and the stage is devoted to an appropriately busy series of exchanges. The manipulative bartender Nick, here portrayed and sung with just the right amount of dash by David Cangelosi, proclaims, “Whisky per tutti;” all then settle to hear a nostalgic ballad sung by the character Jake Wallace, movingly performed by Paul Corona. When an argument erupts over a game of cards, only the intercession of Sheriff Rance halts the possibility of further violence. Mr. Vratogna cuts an imposing figure as Jack Rance, his snarling demeanor commanding respect as he tosses off lines with angry menace. Vratogna’s declamatory force is more effective than his lines in the middle register of his vocal range, where he seems to depend on a recurring tremulous approach. Yet even Rance is not immune to a good fight, as one breaks out against a miner who vies — like the Sheriff — for the love of Minnie. In her first dramatic entrance, accompanied by pistol shots, she indeed stops the fight and settles any confusion brewing in her saloon. Ms. Voigt proves herself comfortable in the role of Minnie. She is able to combine swagger, as she tosses back a drink, with the mothering care she feels for the miners. Further, Voigt invests her character with a tender emotionalism , as she explains to Rance what she hopes to find in love with an ideal partner. In the only solo part of this act which could be deemed an aria for Minnie, Voigt states her case movingly if at times with some insecurity in notes that are taken forte. Soon after her statement the figure identifying himself as Dick Johnson enters the tavern, and their emotional bond develops in an extended scene of dialogue and shared lyricism. Mr. Giordani fulfills the vocal demands of the role admirably in his abilities to sing at varying expressive levels while shading his voice to emphasize his character’s personality. In the identity of Ramerrez he is, of course, the leader of a criminal gang who collectively plan to rob Minnie’s tavern. The love which springs up in their scene together causes Dick/Ramerrez to abandon this plan as Minnie declares at the close of the act that she guards the gold belonging to the miners. Whoever wants it will first have to kill her.

Fanciulla_Chicago_04.gifMarcello Giordani as Dick Johnson (Ramerrez) and Deborah Voigt as the Girl

In Act II Dick has responded to an invitation to visit Minnie at her cabin. At the opening Minnie’s Indian maidservant agrees that she will follow the moral suggestion of her mistress and marry the father of her young child. She helps Minnie to change into more domestic attire and withdraws to her teepee following the introduction of Dick’s visit. At first Minnie resists Dick’s advances, then she surrenders yielding to him her first kiss. Because of the falling snow Dick is allowed to stay the night and is given space at a respectable distance. When the Sheriff and his guard awaken the pair, Dick hides during a confrontational scene in which Minnie must accept the news of her lover’s criminal association. Once they are again alone, Minnie releases her bitter resentment in a series of outbursts that show Voigt in her best form of the performance. Her top notes are convincingly delivered with the stirring communication of a deceived soul. Despite Dick’s touching self-defense Minnie forces him out of the cabin, where his is wounded by the law. When Jack Rance returns and discovers his bleeding prey returned to Minnie’s protection, a card-game determines the hero’s fate. In her well-acted stint at poker Voigt proves Minnie’s devotion to Dick by cheating and, when left alone, casting her bogus cards into the air to celebrate her win.

The short Act III of Puccini’s opera provides resolution of both emotions and individual characters as portrayed. When Dick is caught by a posse and threatened with punishment by hanging, he begs that Minnie not be informed of his shameful death. Giordani’s aria as the tenor’s highlight of this performance is an impressive appeal to spare the feelings of his beloved. Minnie’s entrance while riding and plying a mining cart is as show-stopping as her pistol shots in the first act. At the same time, her sincere reminders now that Dick has been blessed by God, who has changed him, recalls her readings from the Bible in that opening scene. She succeeds through dint of her persuasive tone in freeing the reformed Dick. As they look forward to a life elsewhere, Voigt and Giordani sing a stirringly united “Addio” to California and the Sierras.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fanciulla_Chicago_01.gif image_description=Deborah Voigt as the Girl [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West product_by=Minnie: Deborah Voigt; Dick Johnson (Ramerrez): Marcello Giordani; Jack Rance: Marco Vratogna; Nick: David Cangelosi; Sonora: Daniel Sutin; Ashby: Craig Irvin; Jake Wallace: Paul Corona; Harry: René Barbera; Joe: James Kryshak; Trin: David Portillo; Larkens: Corey Crider; Sid: Philip Kraus; Handsome: Paul La Rosa; Happy: Paul Scholten; Wowkle: Katherine Lerner. Also Featuring: Evan Boyer, Sam Handley. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Original Production: Harold Prince. Director: Vincent Liotta. Original Set Designer: Eugene Lee. Original Costume Designer: Franne Lee. New Scenery and Costumes: Scott Marr. Lighting Designer: Jason Brown. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. product_id=Above: Deborah Voigt as the Girl

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 12:03 PM

February 1, 2011

Real Opera In New Jersey

As Lyman turns to leave, he waxes hopeful, “If I see the real thing in Nashua, should I tell you about it?”Just south of New England today, there just might be one of opera management’s versions of the “real thing.” Donors, colleagues, singers, and employees — as well as business associates from his past life as business consultant — are all represented on Richard Russell’s Facebook page: greeting him, telling him of their lives, reminding him of good times, and wishing him well in his ascent from marketing director of Sarasota Opera to General Director at Opera New Jersey (ONJ).

Russell is known for how he carries himself. Warm, affable, and genuine, ONJ’s vetting of Russell uncovers another facet of his personality: he is exceptionally resourceful, giving as much to his work as to relationships. “It is difficult for me to be insincere,” Russell asserts, shedding light on how — along with his approach of “creating an atmosphere” artistically — he inspires results managerially. He gains trust and builds friendships with those he works with. In opera management, these traits would seem essential — a general director is as likely to be figuring out repertory details with musical personnel as hosting a cotillion for sponsors, discussing ticket sales with a publicist over breakfast, or telling a stage hand to secure a scrim. Work comes in many forms, job description margins fade — this in wide-ranging social circles. Russell, with backgrounds in both performance and finance, chuckles that these were a modest preparation for the skill set development that is required of general director.

At Indiana University in a dual degree program (Russell holds a graduate degree in voice performance and choral conducting), he could hardly have imagined ending up in opera administration. In fact, he suspects that his attunement to matters artistic emanate from a yearning to perform that remains even today. Not long after graduation, he spent four seasons as an apprentice at what has become a wellspring of opera management talent. Sarasota Opera boasts five administration alumni as current general directors of regional companies. It is at this point that Russell's life took a course away from opera. He went through a lengthy and disheartening bout of acid reflux that, “took the sails out of the momentum for making a career.” He did not realize it then but the schooling he had received and his performance experience were setting him up for what leadership at Sarasota Opera (Artistic administrator Greg Tupiano and conductor Victor DeRenzi) had already seen in Russell.

It took a stint at Citigroup to round out and turn Russell’s life trajectory back to opera. He found that the work of business consultant, “developing online information and transactional products for use by our institutional clients in the emerging market countries,” called on elements of his creative side. Neither was the compensation package a small part of the appeal. “It turns out that I was gaining skills that coalesced with those I had learned in Sarasota as a performer.”

Russell cites his background in finance as directly responsible for two distinct qualities he brings to the position of general director: (1) Practical and profound budgeting expertise and, (2) managerial experience. “Credibility. Credibility with funders,...I can speak to board members. That is valuable. I know the numbers and can model them when putting a season together.” Russell's finance background means that he constantly weighs costs and rewards and considers revenue. His thoughts today are trained on Opera New Jersey and strengthening its fiscal health.

“It seems like the right opportunity,” remarks Russell, as he contemplates the state of ONJ. The support of the administration at Sarasota Opera (they understood Russell wanted more than to be marketing head) and his hankering to return home (“I missed the North East”) are two other reasons that make the move to New Jersey feel right. Now, Russell percolates with ideas on where to take the company. The top of that list is occupied by a matter of concern of most arts organizations: generating revenue. Specifically, Russell isolates “unearned” money as a main priority for the company, “we are looking at the long-term, building an endowment to solidify the company over the next year or two. We need to bring in individual donors.”

The artistic side of the future of the company is not far from Russell’s mind. He envisions moving a mostly conservative repertory forward, mixing 20th century works with more standard pieces. In 2011, NJO’s beginning fare will be Barber and Trovatore, swinging out to close with Menotti’s The Consul. That Russell considers Trovatore a “conservative” venture might say a little about his confidence in fielding the talent necessary to put on such a work. Slated to conduct the Verdi is none other than Maestro DeRenzi. Decisions like this are evidence that Russell also has artistic quality on his mind. Already, Russell says, “ONJ had been putting on solid productions,” adding, “The quality of regional opera [in general] in the United States is very high.” Russell thinks the company can draw audiences from Philadelphia, Upper New Jersey and New York City.

“There are customers from outside. I see the summer as an opportunity. There is a lot to do in Princeton.” Palpable excitement and eagerness enters into Russell’s voice as he foretells of ONJ being a Summer Festival favorite for opera devotee and novice alike. “People are still becoming aware of us.” Russell recounts that at a Princeton Arts Fair in summer 2010 — just after he took the helm — there were those that approached the ONJ booth to ask where the company performs. Russell sees this as an example of a groundswell of support waiting to surface. If that is the case, Russell’s infectious attitude may be the very “real thing” that attracts opera flocks to New Jersey. “I love opera, and that comes from a very honest place. I like the people in the business…I want to have an impact on the audience.”

Robert Carreras

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Richard_Russell.png image_description=Richard Russell [Photo by Jeff Reeder courtesy of New Jersey Opera] product=yes product_title=Real Opera In New Jersey product_by=By Robert Carreras product_id=Above: Richard Russell [Photo by Jeff Reeder courtesy of New Jersey Opera]
Posted by Gary at 9:53 PM

Maria Stuarda, Minnesota Opera

The current production of Maria Stuarda is the company’s second installment of the Donizetti Tudor trilogy, with a production of Roberto Devereax in the 2009-2010 season.

The casting of dueling sopranos, Judith Howarth (Mary Stuart) and Brenda Harris (Elizabeth I), was spot on. Harris’ golden soprano houses a steely core, which captured both the warmth and terror of the strong-willed queen in perfect balance. Her opening cavatina and cabaletta, “Ah! quando all’ara sorgemi…Ah dal ciel discenda un raggio” boasted incredibly fierce coloratura, and ascents into the heights of her voice that both thrilled and terrified. Harris is clearly at home in the Bel Canto repertoire, though her performance with Minnesota Opera was her debut of Queen Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda.

1335.gifMichael Nyby as Lord Cecil, Elizabeth's councilor and Brenda Harris as Elizabeth I, Queen of England

Judith Howarth’s silvery, spinning soprano was a wonderful juxtaposition to Harris’ Elizabeth. Howarth gave Maria great depth of character, vocally with amazing vocal and dramatic finesse and flexibility. In the finale of Act I, Howarth’s biting Italian diction and metallic high notes struck lightning during her quarrel with Elizabeth, while her sustained B-flat sustained over the chorus in Act III seemed to emerge out of the ether.

Both Howarth and Harris are seasoned veterans of the Bel Canto repertory, and both approached these women with strong and meaningful dramatic and vocal choices. Tenor Bruch Sledge (Earl of Leicester) nailed Donizetti’s style musically, but his overall dramatic execution of the role paled in comparison to the two queens. Sledge was quite awkward in his Act I duet with Howarth, not connecting to her musical phrasing or even the dramatic conversation. His stage deportment was impotent, and the love triangle plot became quite implausible.

Victoria Vargas’ Anne sparked with complete ease in the coloratura and line, and infused a fullness and warmth that easily cut through the orchestration. This is certainly the best singing from this Resident Artist so far this season.

Performances: Feb. 1, 3, 5, and 6 at Ordway

Sarah Luebke

image=http://www.operatoday.com/1545.gif image_description=Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots [Photo by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera] product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda product_by=Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots: Judith Howarth; Elizabeth I, Queen of England: Brenda Harris; Robert, Earl of Leicester: Bruce Sledge; Lord Cecil, Elizabeth's councilor: Michael Nyby; Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury: Jonathan Kimple; Anne, Maria's nurse: Victoria Vargas. Conductor: Anne Manson. Stage Director: Kevin Newbury. Set Designer: Neil Patel. Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn. Lighting Designer: D. M. Wood. product_id=Above: Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

All photos by Michal Daniel courtesy of Minnesota Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:25 PM

Simon Boccanegra, New York

The high jinks of opera were a thing he could never quite take seriously as music-making, perhaps because the melodramatic aspects of it, the colorful costumes and all that, offended him. He was also said to have a serious drinking problem, but let that pass. Simon Boccanegra, on its not infrequent Met revivals, came in for especial opprobrium: Drunk or sober, he could never make head or tail of the plot, and yet he would spend three or four paragraphs puzzling it through, mentioning the singers as an afterthought.

BOCCANEGRA_Frittoli_as_Amel.gifBarbara Frittoli as Amelia

There probably aren’t many people who go to Verdi operas for the sake of the plot, and if there are, Simon Boccanegra, which has a great deal of plot but doesn’t tie neatly together, is not the work to begin with. Verdi was intrigued by its moments of charged drama but he didn’t bother to fit the rest into a clear pattern. Those high points (Simon stumbling on his lover’s body in the dark and, a moment later, being acclaimed as Doge; Simon realizing that Amelia is his long-lost daughter; Simon quelling his riotous subjects in the Council Chamber scene while Amelia trills gorgeously over a ground bass of crowd noise; Simon dying of poison just as his daughter and son-in-law return from the nuptial altar) should be sufficiently exciting to quash your questions and carry you along. If they are not—if they are not well sung and played, or if you insist on puzzling through untied ravels of story—you are not going to have fun at Simon Boccanegra.

In recent years, Boccanegra has not always been cast to strength. There have certainly been worse Amelias than Barbara Frittoli, whose voice has the proper weight for a Verdi soprano, but her tone turns white and flat up top and she cannot sing softly up there (as every later Verdi heroine must be able to do). Too, she lacks that all-important trill. Ramón Vargas sings Gabriele Adorno with impressive urgency and well-judged voice placement, but the voice itself is no longer the lovely lyric tenor of ten years ago. Dmitri Hvorostovsky (in black wig for the prologue, his natural white locks for the remainder of the opera, set twenty-six years later) sings Simon the way he sings all Verdi: beautiful phrases with highly inappropriate gasping for breath in between them. This was not true when I first heard him sing this role, in Houston, a hall half the size of the Met, but it is always true when he sings Verdi at the Met. The house is too big for him or he just has not grasped how to produce Italian line here. But what other Verdi baritone does the Met have nowadays to take on the role?

Simon is a feast for low male voices. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Fiesco had the same effect on the occasion that his King Philip had on the recent Don Carlo: Whenever he opened his mouth, the entire remainder of the cast seemed to sink into a provincial background, and we found ourselves in the presence of world-class singing. His acting, too, is full of dignity and pointed gesture, in the teeth of the absurdities required of Fiesco by director Giancarlo del Monaco. Fiesco is all about darkness and dignity, but del Monaco missed that memo and makes him a hysterical lout, raising his sword and roaring ineffectively around the stage at any opportunity. Furlanetto, purely by his low, velvet tones, reminded us that Fiesco is much more than that. Question to the Met: Why not give him Boris Godunov, a role that calls for just this sort of patriarchal authority? He sings the part to acclaim in out-of-the-way towns like Vienna and Venice.

BOCCANEGRA_Hvorostovsky_and.gifDmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role and Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco

The Met has been shorthanded in the Verdi baritone field of late, but Nicola Alaimo, who made his first Met appearances as the murderous Paolo in this run of Boccanegra, is a most impressive addition to the field. His voice is dark and sizable, and he has no trouble projecting Paolo’s cynicism, his humor and, later, his vengeful rage. Pietro, his cohort, was sung effectively by the ever-useful Richard Bernstein.

James Levine had conducted the season’s first performance of this opera last week, but by the next one, which I attended, he was evidently done in by the previous day’s thrilling account of Das Lied von der Erde with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, and he cancelled his second Boccanegra. Standing in was John Keenan, new to me and in perfect charge of the score: Each of Verdi’s sinister brass snarls came across vigorously (Verdi invented this effect for Boccanegra and maintained it for thirty years, through Otello). The flutes sounded lustrous as clarinets in the father-daughter music, and quarreled nobly with the strings in the daring disharmonies that underline civil dissent in Genoa. Keenan gave us all the power and excitement required for Verdi but he never once drowned out the singers.

Simon Boccanegra is set in fourteenth-century Genoa, indeed was composed in part as Verdi’s tribute to one of his favorite cities, but you’d never guess that from Giancarlo del Monaco’s colorful production—which jumps over centuries in order to add color to a backdrop here, a ceiling there, and even hops to Venice now and then for the sake of a prettier set design. Different stage directors have reworked it over the years, clumsily by and large. Peter McClintock, who was in charge this time, has rid us of several awkward touches, and has persuaded the chorus not to move as if they were a junior high school assembly when, in fact, they are rushing onto the stage in a fury in order to overthrow the government.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BOCCANEGRA_Hvorostovsky_as_.gif image_description=Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra product_by=Amelia: Barbara Frittoli; Simon: Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Gabriele: Ramón Vargas; Fiesco: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Paolo: Nicola Alaimo; Pietro: Richard Bernstein. Metropolitan Opera, conducted by John Keenan. Performance of January 24. product_id=Above: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 5:45 PM

Interview with Eva-Maria Westbroek

By Hugh Canning [Opera, February 2011]

In a relatively short time, the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has established herself as one of the Royal Opera's most versatile and exciting guest stars. She made her Covent Garden debut in 2006 as Katerina Ismailova in the first revival of Richard Jones's production of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, returning the following year as Sieglinde in the first complete cycles of Keith Warner's Ring staging.

Posted by Gary at 8:55 AM

Gustav Mahler: Symphonies nos. 1 & 9

The pairing is optimal in terms of the timings and also the relationship between the two works, with the reminiscences from the earlier work in the later one contributing some aspects of unit to the set. As with Gerard Schwarz’s other recent Artek release of his recording of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, these performances offer solid interpretations of two very different works.

The recording of Mahler’s Ninth offers a fine interpretation, with a particularly well conceived reading of the first movement. As spacious as his conception of this piece may be, it is also possesses a dynamism that makes it compelling. Schwarz clearly knows the score in his attention to the details found in it, and in adhering to them allows the composer’s intentions to be heard clearly. The tutti passages are nicely voiced, with full-sounding chords that are rich in harmonic nuance and timbre; yet the sections that Mahler scored in a more intimate manner are nonetheless compelling for the way the smaller combinations of instruments emerge.

The paired Scherzo movements at the core of the Ninth almost merit attention for the ways in which Schwarz allowed each to have its individual character. The first of the two offers a contrast to the opening movement and if fault can be found, it is in the relatively quick transition between the movements. A minor quibble left to engineering, it should not reflect on the performance preserved here. With the second Scherzo Schwarz meets the rhythmic challenges of the music well, and from the outset distinguishes its character from the movement that precedes it. The brass are prominent in the second Scherzo, and Schwarz is good never to let them become unnecessarily raucous. Rather, there is a deft touch that emerges in this interpretation, a touch that allows for fluid transitions between the sections of the Rondo-Burleske. More than that, details, like the string glissandi are neither slightly nor over-accentuated.

Given the sustained mood of the recording, it is unfortunate that the final movement is separated through its placement on the second of the two discs. Again, this is a physical reality of the issue, not a fault in the performance. Here Schwarz sets the tone of the movement from the start, and the strings of the Liverpool Philharmonic respond well to his leadership. The rich textures emerge well in this recording, with the divisi scoring augmenting the tone colors and never obscuring them. Schwarz is good not to linger prematurely in this movement, but to maintain the logic of the musical structure in taking the piece to its conclusion. When the scoring thins, the voicing is never wanting, as the musical line unravels in the final section of this movement. The concluding passage is convincing and, in the atmosphere of the live performances that are the basis of the recording, would benefit from the inclusion of the audience’s applause at the end of the piece.

Recorded several years before, Schwarz’s interpretation of Mahler’s First Symphony is as convincing as the Ninth. As he would do later with the Ninth, Schwarz maintains a sense of direction that allows the structure to emerge in the opening movement of the First Symphony. It is good to hear the rhythmic precision of the various imitation bird-calls, such that the play of duple and triple figures is distinct. When it comes to the quotation from second song from Mahler’s cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Schwarz offers a fine sense of line that contrasts the motivic treatment of the music that preceded it. Such distinctions characterize this interpretation of the movement, and lead the listener to its conclusion.

With the Scherzo, Schwarz takes a brisk tempo from the start, a stylistic choice when the ensemble responds as well as this one. The horns, a prominent part of the scoring, have an appropriately blending sound that works well with the good woodwind ensemble. Likewise, the low strings are clear throughout, and support the rhythmic play that occurs above them. In the middle section, though, Schwarz’s relaxed tempos complement the more impetuous pace of the Scherzo.

Yet it is in the third movement that Schwarz leaves a strong impression, with a well-conceived interpretation of the slow movement. The klezmer-like sounds are distinct and never a caricature, and the quotation from the final song of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is prominent but not overstated, beginning with the subtly voiced harp that leads well to the transcription of the vocal line in the strings, a theme taken up by the woodwinds. As the line moves through the orchestra, Schwarz maintains the continuity that is implicit in the score.

The Finale is equally strong, with the quick tempos that open the movement creating a nice tension with the passages that Schwarz allows to linger. Those contrasts are more clearly defined in this movement than in some of the earlier ones, with the result satisfying for the dramatic result in this recording. When the motives from the first movement reprise, Schwarz evokes the same atmospheric mood he achieved earlier in the performance, thus, bringing out the cyclic style of this Symphony. As cleanly played as it is, the recording conveys a sense of the live performances from which it was taken. Thus, in bringing the movement to its conclusion, Schwarz allows the gestures to build naturally and convincingly to a well-paced and powerful conclusion. This is a fine recording of the First that deserves attention alongside the accompanying reading of the Ninth.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphonies nos. 1 & 9

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphonies nos. 1 & 9
product_by=Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Gerard Schwarz, conductor.
product_id=Artek Artek AR-0041-2 [2CDs]

Posted by jim_z at 12:04 AM