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.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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.