Recently in Performances
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican,
London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony
Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating
a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens
or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me
I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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?