Recently in Performances
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value
a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
22 Feb 2011
The Bartered Bride, New York
In the mid-nineteenth century, every nationality that did not possess a
national state felt a need to prove itself, to square its shoulders and claim
nationhood with all the identifying marks of a nation: a language with a
literature, a tricolor flag, a national anthem extolling the people’s
stalwart character and the country’s landscape (inevitably the loveliest
in the world), a national theater and a national opera to be performed there.
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
Jennifer 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.