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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.