Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Glyndebourne Festival Opera at the Proms

For its annual visit to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, Glyndebourne brought its new production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, an opera which premiered 200 years ago.

Béatrice and Bénédict at Glyndebourne

‘A caprice written with the point of a needle’: so Berlioz described his opera Béatrice and Bénédict, which pares down Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to its comic quintessence, shorn of the sub-plots, destroyed reputations and near-bloodshed of Shakespeare’s original.

Der fliegende Holländer, Bavarian State Opera

‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects.

Evergreen Baby in Colorado

Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.

Lean and Mean Tosca in Colorado

Someone forgot to tell Central City Opera that it would be difficult to fit Puccini’s (usually) architecturally large Tosca on their small stage.

Die Walküre, Baden-Baden

A cast worthy of Bayreuth made for an unforgettable Wagnerian experience at the Sommer Festspiele in Baden-Baden.

Des Moines’ Elusive Manon

Loving attention to the highest quality was everywhere evident in Des Moines Metro Opera’s Manon.

Falstaff in Iowa: A Big Fat Hit

Des Moines Metro Opera had (almost) all the laughs in the right places, and certainly had all the right singers in these meaty roles to make for an enjoyable outing with Verdi’s masterpiece

Die Fledermaus, Opera Holland Park

With the thermometers reaching boiling point, there’s no doubt that summer has finally arrived in London. But, the sun seems to have been shining over the large marquee in Holland Park all summer.

Nice, July 14, and then . . .

J.S. Bach’s cerebral Art of the Fugue in Aix, Verdi’s massive Requiem in Orange, Ibn al-Muqaffa’ ‘s fable of the camel, jackal, wolf and crow, Sophocles’ blind Oedipus Rex and the Bible’s triumphant Psalm No. 150 in Aix.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance

The champagne corks popped at the close of this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at the Royal Opera House, with Prince Orlofsky’s celebratory toast forming a fitting conclusion to some superb singing.

Prom 2: Boris Godunov, ROH

Bryn Terfel is making a habit of performing Russian patriarchs at the Proms.

Des Moines’ Gluck Sets the Standard

What happens when just everything about an operatic performance goes joyously right?

Des Moines: Jewels in Perfect Settings

Two years ago, the well-established Des Moines Metro Opera experimented with a 2nd Stages program, with performances programmed outside of their home stage at Simpson College.

First Night of the Proms 2016

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that.

La Cenerentola, Opera Holland Park

In a fairy-tale, it can sometimes feel as if one is living a dream but on the verge of being awoken to a shock. Such is life in these dark and uncertain days.

Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno in Aix

The tense, three hour knock-down-drag-out seduction of Beauty by Pleasure consumed our souls in this triumphal evening. Forget Time and Disillusion as destructors, they were the very constructors of the beauty and pleasure found in this miniature oratorio.

Pelleas et Mélisande in Aix

Three parallel universes (before losing count) — the ephemeral Debussy/Maeterlinck masterpiece, the Debussy symphonic tone poem, and the twisted intricacies of a moldy, parochially English country estate.

Siegfried, Opera North

This, alas, was where I had to sign off. A weekend conference on Parsifal (including, on the Saturday, a showing of Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Parsifal film) mean that I missed Götterdämmerung, skipping straight to the sequel.

Götterdämmerung, Opera North

The culmination of Opera North’s “Ring for Everyone”, this Götterdämmerung showed the power of the condensed movement so necessary in a staged performance - each gesture of each character was perfectly judged - as well as the visceral power of having Wagner’s huge orchestra on stage as opposed to the pit.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Giacomo Meyerbeer
06 Mar 2011

L’Africaine, OONY

Eugène Scribe and Giacomo Meyerbeer were in the business of creating proto-cinematic spectacles of drama and music, the formula being to take a historical incident in some exotic country or era, put in a tormented love story to hold our attention, and resolve the whole in catastrophe.

Giacomo Meyerbeer: L’Africaine

Sélika: Chiara Taigi; Inèz: Ellie Dehn; Vasco da Gama: Marcello Giordani; Nélusko: Fikile Mvinjelwa; Don Pedro: Daniel Mobbs; Grand Inquisitor: Djoré Nance; High Priest: Harold Wilson. Opera Orchestra of New York and New York Choral Ensemble conducted by Eve Queler. Performance of March 2.

Above: Giacomo Meyerbeer

 

Hollywood’s historical style, especially the epics with spiritual content, took its cue from Scribe, and the idea of accompanying the pageant with a thrilling but shallow score may also derive from these operas. In any case, the Scribe-Meyerbeer firm achieved this very well; their operas, expensive as they were to produce properly, were much loved for a hundred years. Changes in the style of singing, the onset of highfalutin Wagnerian music-drama, which outclassed grand opera, and the sheer cost of putting this grandeur on stage (six or seven leading singers were not the least of it—but ballets of ice skaters or ghostly nuns, sixteenth-century bathing beauties with pool, a full-rigged galleon overwhelmed by a typhoon—don’t none of it come cheap) fell victim to the Crash of 1929.

Revivals of their four grandest collaborations, not to mention the lesser ones, have been so rare since World War II that it is easy to keep track (and own pirates) of most of the grandest (the Sutherland-Corelli-Simionato Gli Ugonotti in Milan, the Ramey-Anderson Robert le Diable in Paris, the Leech-Lorengar Des Hugenotten in Berlin, the Horne-McCracken Prophète at the Met, the Verrett-Domingo L’Africaine in San Francisco). L’Africaine, the final (and posthumous) Scribe-Meyerbeer creation (premiere 1865), was last staged in New York in 1934 with Rethberg, Martinelli and Pinza. It was last heard here in concert in 1972, when the brand new Opera Orchestra of New York gave it for Richard Tucker to show off his stalwart ut de poitrine as Vasco da Gama. Eve Queler, who is standing down as maestra for the company she has steered through so many shoals past so many Capes of Good Hope, presented it again last week as her farewell to the podium.

Marcello Giordani [Photo by Dario Acosta]

L’Africaine has everything—except Africa or Africans. (The plot changed over years of rewriting but they forgot to change the title, and both men had died before the premiere.) L’Africaine certainly had everything Meyerbeer’s audiences expected: big arias and loud duets for singers with range and staying power, orchestral variety, insane stage effects, local color run riot, chorale, ballet. There are so many characters in Act I that we are relieved when a catastrophe in Act III reduces the story to manageable size, their stage-filling Portuguese galleon having hit a reef (thanks to an invocation of a god of the winds) where bloodthirsty savages overwhelm the crew. This still leaves two acts of romantic mayhem, oriental religious rituals and the opera’s most famous aria, “O Paradis” before a bittersweet conclusion: The savage but noble queen sends her adored Vasco and his Portuguese sweetheart home, then eats poisoned crimson flowers on a cliff overlooking the sea. (Yes, this situation was borrowed for Aida and Gioconda.) Unfortunately for the peoples of the Orient, the lovesick queen also gives Vasco navigational secrets with which to found a colonial empire, but in 1865 that was just what all the opera-loving countries wanted to do. “O Paradiso” (as it was sung in Italian, by Caruso, Gigli, Martinelli et al.) became, in a way, the theme song of the age.

L’Africaine’s rare full revivals (most recently, in this country, in San Francisco in 1988, with Shirley Verrett, Plácido Domingo, Ruth Ann Swenson and Justino Diaz, a production available on video) never fail to delight those audiences who like their opera grand, with big tunes, big voices, long nights and manic spectacle. Its repute (both good and bad) pretty much guarantees an audience of the curious, and Avery Fisher Hall was packed to the rafters on the present occasion, despite the lack of well-known singers other than Marcello Giordani. Just, you know, to hear the thing. Most of us were still hanging on three and a half hours after Maestra Queler raised her baton (and there was only one intermission). And as soon as we heard a massed basso chorus threatening violence in the name of intolerant religion (a familiar Scribe trope), accompanied by a piccolo, we knew we were in Meyerbeer country. (Scribe gets it twice in L’Africaine—the raging basses are Catholics in Act I, when they wish to kill Vasco for attempting to circumnavigate Africa, and they’re bloodthirsty Brahmins in Act IV, when they want to kill him lest he go home and reveal the secret route.)

Taigi.gifChiara Taigi

Eve Queler has been running this show for forty years and her conducting style isn’t going to change. How dancers would follow her languid beat through Meyerbeer’s exotic ballets is hard to imagine, but happily this is not a requirement in concert performances; the singers had merely to stand out and declaim. The pace of the evening did not flag, the climaxes and confrontations were a thrill. For example, the xenophobic Brahmins inserting cries of “No!” into Vasco’s pleas for mercy were a nice Meyerbeerian touch, though of course stolen from Gluck’s Orfeo, which the Opéra had recently revived for Pauline Viardot. The tenor-bass duet in Act III, as Vasco and slimy Don Pedro nearly come to blows over the lovely Inèz, is even more exciting because we know the typhoon is blowing up. The soprano-mezzo battle over the tenor (again: Verdi and Ponchielli were paying heed) enlivens Act V while the conclusion is still in doubt. It was an evening of crowd-pleasers.

Besides showing off scores we are unlikely to encounter staged, Opera Orchestra’s other great function has been to introduce New York to singers we may not otherwise encounter. OONY’s alumni are quite a roster. That last L’Africaine, for example, paired Tucker with Antonietta Stella. OONY’s Les Huguenots, a triumphant occasion and a rare performance of nearly the entire score, gave us not only the New York debut of Krassimira Stoyanova as Valentine but the superb Raoul of Marcello Giordani. Giordani, for whatever reason, never sounds so good, so heroic, at the Met (where he sometimes sings the same roles) as he does when performing with OONY, and L’Africaine showcased his Vasco da Gama, some of the noblest, most robust singing he has given New York in many years, though not without an occasional bobble.

Giordani was joined by a curious roster of strangers and familiar faces in unusual roles. Among the strangers was Chiara Taigi, an Italian soprano of striking looks and high melodrama in the acting department, showing off three different costumes to suit Sélika’s three roles of lovelorn slave girl, restored queen and suicidal abandoned lover. The role is as juicy as, well, a Meyerbeer heroine, but sits awkwardly for the voice, mostly high mezzo with some soprano extension. Rosa Ponselle, whose voice ran precisely there, had a tremendous success with it, but no one living has the technique, much less the gift, of a Ponselle. Taigi’s top notes were rough and the joints sometimes showed, but it is a prima donna-sized instrument with some very beautiful material in it. I’d be curious to see her in more basic repertory, but I’m not sure which—the list of roles in her bio is all over the map, and her emoting may not suit the modern “realistic” school. In an OONY evening, she was just what we wanted.

Ellie_Dehn.gifEllie Dehn [Photo by Dario Acosta]
Ellie Dehn, who sings an odd assortment of parts at the Met (I loved her in Satyagraha), sang the role of Vasco’s girlfriend, Inèz, with some brilliant color but imperfect coloratura. A South African baritone named Fikile Mvinjelwa—short, barrel-chested, dark-skinned, a voice to reckon with and an actor to his fingertips—took advantage of all the quirks of Nélusko’s sinister-heroic personality without reticence and brought down the house with his “Adamastor, roi des vagues.” (He’s been covering roles like Rigoletto at the Met; I say: Turn him loose to sing them.) Daniel Mobbs, ever reliable and elegant, sang selfish Don Pedro suavely. Ezio Pinza was wont to sing both the Grand Inquisitor and the High Priest in the old days—more Scribean commentary on the universality of religious intolerance—but Queler gave them to sturdy rival basses.

It was a performance to make us all hope to be around the next time L’Africaine comes back—and more eager still to hear a Robert le Diable or Dinorah or Crociato in Egitto.

John Yohalem

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):