15 Feb 2011
The Chill of Grace: A Winter Weekend at COC
At the moment, it seems inevitable that John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China will become a fixture in the repertoire.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
At the moment, it seems inevitable that John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China will become a fixture in the repertoire.
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.
Marisol 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.
Adrian 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.
Isabel 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.
Lauren 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.