Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
11 Feb 2011
Egyptian Queen in Parisian Rubble
Although Paris Opéra's Dream Team of soprano Natalie Dessay and director Laurent Pelly promised much for the SRO run of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, for the moment we will have to keep dreaming of what might have been.
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?