Recently in Performances
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
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.
15 Mar 2011
Strict courtly hierarchies and the repressed formality of ritual juxtaposed
with violent sexual jealousy and lurid erotic excess … a stage-world
more suited to the Straussian insalubrity of Salomé than to the epic
grandeur of Verdi’s Aida, perhaps?
production, first seen in 2010 and here given its first revival, never wavers
in its presentation of grotesque barbarism and sexual abandon —
blood-thirsty gladiators run amok among nubile, naked maidens etc. — and
while such goings-on may not be to everyone’s taste (indeed, some might
argue that ‘taste’ doesn’t feature strongly in the
proceedings), McVicar certainly injects freshness into Verdi’s old
warhorse, thankfully avoiding the kitsch of cod-Egyptiana.
The first challenge for the audience is a visual one: for Jean-Marc
Puissant's sets reject the beauty and exoticism of ancient Egypt in favour of
dull modern industrialism: a huge wall of scaffolding, harshly illuminated by
diagonal strip lights, dominates the stage. Not an elephant or sphinx in sight;
but also little visual beauty to complement the tenderness of the delicate
lines that open Verdi’s magical prelude. We are among a barbaric,
theocratic society, one driven by human sacrifice: salacious human slaughter
blesses Radamès’ departure for war, and the victims’ bloodied
bodies are hoisted to form a canopy of carcasses to celebrate his return.
Clearly McVicar wants to emphasise the soullessness of this brutal,
compassionless community. But, at times he struggles to sustain consistency;
for example, the eclectic, international selection of primitive tribal dress
worn by the cast seems to have little to do with the gloomy dystopian
In the absence of a coherent mise-en-scène, it’s left to the
singers themselves to provide dramatic logic and focus; and here the problems
start, for the cast, while rich in musical talents, display a dearth of
interest in communicating narrative or engaging emotionally with each other,
preferring the stand-and-deliver approach, bellowing into the auditorium
apparently impervious to the manic action occurring behind them.
There are two casts for this revival. Only one member of the original cast,
Micaela Carosi, was expected to reprise her role, as the eponymous princess in
the ‘Cast A’ performances; however, due to pregnancy (the official
line goes …) she withdrew and was replaced at short notice by the
Ukrainian soprano, Liudmyla Monastyrska. Making her house debut — she is
to return in May as Lady Macbeth in Phyllida Lloyd’s production —
Monastyrska revealed a powerful, opulent voice, firm and controlled in the
lower register (in ‘Presago il core’, for example), and full in
tone right to the top; in her great Nile scene aria, ‘O patria
mia’, she floated the fiendish final phrases with ease, her breath
control superb. At times, she made effective use of a dusky, exotic colouring,
but it’s a shame that it was impossible to distinguish a single word of
the text, and she didn’t quite have the confidence to risk the true
pianissimos that the score demands.
Roberto Alagna as Radames and Priestesses
Roberto Alagna has an uneven history in the role of Radamès (audience
displeasure with his ‘Celeste Aida’ led to his infamous walk-out at
La Scala in 2006), and some have judged his voice too small for the part.
However, here he showed that he now has the required vocal power; brimming with
confidence, he never once lessened the ardour. Indeed, this was a puffed-up,
machismo reading of Radamès, and again there was little in the way of what one
might call acting. He opted out of the morendo on the high B♭
at the close of ‘Celeste Aida’, choosing instead the less risky
alternative of repeating the final phrase slightly less loudly. A lack of
nuance diminished the poignancy of the final duet (and the bare stage suggested
that McVicar had run out of ideas by the later acts), but overall there was
plenty of heroic strength and earnestness, which seemed to satisfy the
As Amneris, Russian mezzo soprano Olga Borodina was similarly impressive in
vocal stature, and she achieved a true Verdian colour and warmth. She shared
the theatrical weaknesses of the other principals, but her stunning, burnished
tone was apt compensation. Dramatic credibility was restored by Michael Volle,
a resonant and commanding Amonasro whose Act 3 duet with Aida was a rare and
moving moment of engagement, interaction and insight; here, Volle truly
communicated the father’s appreciation and regret that his own public
actions and concerns will cause his daughter to suffer such deep private pain.
In the smaller roles, Vitalij Kowaljow was underwhelming as Ramfis —
perhaps his voice was muffled by his ridiculously over-sized headdress? —
but Brindley Sherratt, an imperious King of Egypt, was in fine voice.
Olga Borodina as Amneris and The Royal Opera Chorus
Apart from one or two places where singers and orchestra momentary came
adrift, Fabio Luisi did an excellent job in the pit, whipping up the players in
the climactic moments, and demonstrating a strong sense of the shape and pace
of the whole.
Overall, despite its musical strengths and potentially intriguing concept,
this production remains unsatisfying. Part of the problem is that McVicar is
absorbed primarily by the ‘love triangle’ but does not connect the
protagonists’ experience with the wider context. In contrast to the
dynamic dramatic swiftness of Verdi’s other political intrigues, Aida is
unwieldy and often downright static. One can’t get away from the fact
that Verdi’s opera is a big, bold beast; the challenge is to both
juxtapose and integrate the moments of private intimacy with the grand ceremony
and pageantry of public triumphal processions and dances. McVicar gives us only
one half of the show; Radamès’ commanding entry at the commencement of
the Grand March, stage-enveloping train majestically trailing in his wake, is a
rare and arresting moment of grandeur. More usually, the crowd scenes are
under-directed — why have extra chorus members if you don’t know
what to do with them, or simply aren’t interested? And there’s just
too much standing about and arm waving: ironically, in striving for the shock
of the new, McVicar has lapsed into the clichés of old.