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Věc Makropulos in San Francisco

A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.

The Pearl Fishers at English National Opera

Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.

Academy of Ancient Music: The Fairy Queen at the Barbican Hall

At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.

Vaughan Williams and Friends: St John's Smith Square

Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.

Bloodless Manon Lescaut at DNO

Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.

English Touring Opera: Xerxes

It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.

English National Opera: Tosca

Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.

Don Pasquale in San Francisco

With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).

“Written in fire”: Momenta Quartet blazes through an Indonesian chamber opera

“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.

English National Opera: Don Giovanni

Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.

World Premiere Eötvös, Wigmore Hall, London

Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.

Manitoba Underground Opera: Mozart and Offenbach

Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.

Stars of Lyric Opera 2016, Millennium Park, Chicago

On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).



Mikhail Kazakov as Boris Godunov [Photo © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera]
13 Apr 2011

Dallas Boris a monument to Tarkovsky

In those dark days before VCR and DVD, knowledgeable film buffs craved the return of Solaris and Stalker to a local art house screen.

Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov: Mikhail Kazakov; Marina: Elena Bocharova; The Pretender: Yevgeny Akimov; Pimen: Vitaly Efanov; Varlaam: Mikhail Kolelishvili; Rangoni: Sergei Leiferkus; Shuysky: David Cangelosi; Xenia: Oxana Shilova; Shchelkalov: Andrei Spekhov; The Hostess: Meredith Arwady; A Simpleton: Keith Jameson; Missail: Steven Haal; Fyodor: Rebecca Jo Loeb; A Nurse: Susan Nicely; Nikitich, a police officer: Mark McCrory; Mityukha: Stefan Szkafarowsky; Boyar-in-attendance: Aaron Blake; Khrushchov: Dan Crowell. Conductor: Graeme Jenkins. Original Production: Andrei Tarkovsky. Stage Director: Stephen Lawless. Production Designer: Nicolas Dvigubsky. Lighting Designer: Robert Bryan. Choreographer: Nicola Bowie. Chorus Master: Alexander Rom. Assistant Director: Matthew Ferraro. Children's Chorus Master: Melinda Cotten. Dallas Opera; Winspear Opera House, April 9, 2011.

Above: Mikhail Kazakov as Boris Godunov

Photos © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera


The films — Solaris, allegedly a reaction to Kubrick’s 2001, and Stalker, a major meditation in science fiction — were the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, then widely celebrated as the greatest genius of Russian film since Eisenstein.

BG_18.gifElena Bocharova as Marina Mnishek

Today, alas, Tarkovsky seems largely forgotten despite a further pair of masterpieces made after his defection from the then-still Soviet Union: Nostalghia [sic], made in Italy in 1983, and Sacrifice, in Sweden, in 1986, the year of his death. (For the latter he had the help of several Ingmar Bergman regulars.)

It was also in 1983 that Tarkovsky directed Boris Godunov at Covent Garden, and Dallas Opera is to be praised — and thanked — for bringing this production to its Winspear Opera House to conclude its current season. Stephen Lawless, who recreated the London staging in Dallas, had been Tarkovsky’s assistant at Covent Garden. His essay in the Dallas program is a tribute — both fitting and moving — to this late master. (Tarkovsky, by the way, had been the choice of Claudio Abbado who conducted the British Boris.)

Lawless speaks of this Boris as the product of “a unique apostolic succession of Russian artists,” pointing out that while Tarkovsky was influenced by Eisenstein, Eisenstein, in turn, was inspired by the epic sweep of Boris. Mussorgsky, of course, turned for his libretto to Pushkin, the father of Russian literature who had defined the Russian language.

BG_05.gifVitaly Efanov as the monk/historian Pimen and Evgeny Akimov as Grigory

This revival of Tarkovsky’s Boris might well have run aground on so much scholarship, but — happily — it did not, thanks largely to Lawless’ understanding — and appreciation — of the heritage of which he became a part in his work with this production. For it, designer Nicholas Dvigubsky has built a single set focused on a huge arch at the rear of the stage. All action flows through it. Still a work in progress, it arises out of the debris of earlier projects.

In the Coronation Scene a bell is suspended from the arch; at other times a huge ball swings ominously behind it. The people, the helpless victims of history, reside largely in darkness before the arch. A profound expression of his views, the set magnificently complements the counterpoint of the personal and political at the heart of Tarkovsky’s concept.

Born in 1932, he experienced the worst of history: the terror and deprivation of the Stalin years, the sufferings of the Great Fatherland War — as the Russians called it — and the Orwellian machinations of the post-war era. (Small wonder that — once permitted to work in the West — the director chose not to return home, even though it meant separation from his only child for his remaining years.) His Boris is both a loving father and — no matter how he got there — a leader who would be just. But — as Bert Brecht said — “the conditions just aren’t right.” Surrounded by petty ambition on all sides, he can only fail.

BG_07.gifMeredith Arwady as the cheeky Hostess of the Inn shares a lighter moment with Mikhail Kolelishvili as Varlaam, a vagabond monk.

One might wish that the production — “Boris” is presented largely as Mussorgsky intended- ended with the agonized death of the tsar, but that would leave him a sympathetic — even tragic — hero. Thus the lengthy final scene with the people — defeated again in their hopes — gather around the Simpleton — a “holy fool” in Russian — who removes his hood to stare at a shining apparition of a better world high on the stage. Tarkovsky’s view of the hopelessness of history make this a shattering — and uncomfortably contemporary — experience.

This extensive description of the production — seen on many stages since it was new — in no way overlooks the musical excellence — indeed, the musical perfection — achieved in Dallas. As its conductor DO music director Graeme Jenkins has raised his orchestra to a new level of richness and technical ease, and it must be his growing international reputation that accounts for the assembly of a mostly-Russian cast without one weak link. (Most were making Dallas Opera debuts.)

BG_29.gifThe mad Tsar Boris (Mikhail Kazakov), sensing that death is imminent, prepares his son (Rebecca Jo Loeb) to assume the throne.

Mikhail Kazarov was a Boris of unusual depth and warmth. He brought grandeur to the Coronation and made his later suffering near-palpable to the audience. Tenor Yevgeny Akimov moved the growing ambition and shifting fate of pretender Dmitri beyond theatrics, while in her selfish lust for power mezzo Elena Bocharova made Lady Macbeth an amateur. Bass Vitaly Efanov’s account of Russian history from Pimen’s chronicle radiated lyric beauty, and Sergei Leiferkus — the only member of the cast previously well known in the US- was an appropriately cunning Jesuit Rangoni. In this august constellation tenor David Cangeloni acquitted himself admirably as Shuisky, Boris’ No. 1 enemy among the Boyars. For his preparation of the many and massive chorus scenes Alexander Rom would win acclaim at the Bolshoi, and Melinda Cotton had the kids of the Opera’s Children’s Chorus singing Russian as if it were Texan slang.

In sum, an extraordinary performance of a production of Boris so earth-shaking that — one hopes — it will survive many more decades in the world’s opera houses.

Wes Blomster

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