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.
19 Apr 2011
Handel’s Hercules when the Music is Paramount
In Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Handel’s
Hercules there is an undeniable interpretive strategy which prompts
the viewer to consider recurring elements of human emotion, e.g. jealousy,
rage, pity, among others.
Further, the setting, costumes, and gestures suggest,
alternately, the concept of the hero returning from military successes and the
accompanying domestic reconciliations which must also be confronted. The
specific associations with modern political and military conflicts, under Peter
Sellars’ direction, are, to be sure, communicated in such a way that more
elemental affects predominate. Hence although some costuming is admittedly tied
to recent struggles in Iraq, the resultant application speaks for universal
emotions beyond any single war. This dramatic success may be ascribed in part,
to the musical direction but at the same time to the extraordinary collection
of vocal talent assembled for this production.
In his attempt to shape “the piece with a view to bringing
Händel’s oratorio closer to Sophocles original play,” Mr. Sellars
divides the work into two parts rather than three acts. The sets remain
generally simple, several benches affording the performers opportunity to sit
or lie while broken columns suggest a neglected domestic court. In the overture
to the first part Harry Bicket led with agile tempos and managed the
integration of individual orchestral sections into a seamless whole. As the
first participants to appear in the initial part David Daniels as the herald
Lichas and Alice Coote as Dejanira, the wife of Hercules, inhabit their roles
with conviction and dignity. Dejanira enters as the colors on the backdrop of
the stage change to indicate day’s arrival. She seems weary and hugs
herself as if to ward off the cold, or solitude. In his comment on observing
the state of Dejanira Mr. Daniels performs the first of Lichas’s solo
pieces with skilled and tasteful decoration. His emphasis on
“relentless” in the aria “No longer, Fate” communicates
the mood of the court as mirrored in Dejanira’s gestures. Further, in his
plea to Jove, Daniels uses discreet trills alternately on “the
hero’s life” and “weeping wife” as a means to join or
contrast the two figures musically who are kept physically apart by war. In her
own self-distracted and pessimistic musing in the aria “The world, when
day’s career is run,” Coote gives appropriately expressive color to
low notes on “darkness” and “thickest gloom.” She sings
her final lines here, in echo of the sentiment of Lichas, with decorative and
emphatic trills on “absence” as key to her emotional anguish.
In the following several scenes the fate of Hercules is presented,
alternately, in negative and in optimistic lights, as the remaining characters
of the piece are introduced. At first, Hyllus, son of Hercules and Dejanira,
vows to search for his father after he consulted an oracle that predicted death
for the hero. In order to assuage his mother’s mood at this news, Hyllus
swears his conviction in the recitative and heroic aria, “Despair not
… Where congealed the northern streams.” In the role of Hyllus
Richard Croft gave a supremely assured performance of the loyal son and future
leader. His vocal embellishments, presented in the most natural manner,
describe “With advent’rous steps” the path he will tread
until discovering the fate of his father. As accompanied by the chorus’s
thoughtfully choreographed “O filial piety,” Hyllus is on the point
of leaving when Lichas interrupts with news of his master’s success.
Hercules has defeated the king of Oechalia and returns with the princess as his
captive. In Dejanira’s reaction, “Begone, my fears,” Ms.
Coote applies excited touches of decoration on “the morning ray”
and concludes with a dramatic top note at the phrase “swell my
soul” to signal her recovery.
(Left to right) Alice Coote, Eric Owens, Lucy Crowe, Marckarthur Johnson and Richard Croft
In the following scene the characters Hercules and Iole, the captive
princess, enter and establish their dramatic and vocal personalities. The two
initial arias performed by Lucy Crowe as Iole were exemplars of character
portrayal and Handelian decoration. While Hyllus looked on with growing
interest Ms. Crowe performed “Daughter of Gods” with a seamless
line and flute-like, rapid high notes on “a thousand graces.” Her
saddened memories in “My father! Ah! Methinks I see” were equally
expressive with noted ornaments touchingly applied on “Dying he bites the
crimson ground.” The role of Hercules, sung by Eric Owens, remains at
this narrative juncture implicitly understated. Mr. Owens communicates the
introspection and detachment of the hero returned in “The god of battle
quits the bloody field,” while also tracing a lyrically embellished line
for the bass-baritone. From this point until the close of the first part the
growing rift between Hercules and Dejanira is detailed in the latter’s
reaction to Iole’s presence. As if to highlight her innocence, the aria
“How blest the maid” is performed by Ms. Crowe with near pastoral
effect as she uses delicate high notes with crystalline effect. By contrast,
Dejanira’s anger and jealousy are expressed by Ms. Coote’s negative
emphases in “Love dips his arrows … and sends them pointed to the
heart.” The emotional violence implied, as well as her own reactions, is
captured by Coote’s contrastive embellishments opposing her role to that
of Iole. As the chorus appropriately concludes the first part of the drama, the
participants remind with hushed tones that “Jealousy” is
“Tyrant of the human heart.”
Just as Hercules and Dejanira stand in this production at the close of Part
I at opposite sides of the stage, in order to signify their continued emotional
distance, Hyllus and Iole appear together at the start of Part II. In answer to
Iole’s protests that love between them cannot prosper, since Hercules
slew her father, Mr. Croft expresses the growing passion of Hyllus with
eloquent lyricism. His downward decorations on the first line of the aria
“From celestial sets descending” are matched by embellishments in
the thematic line “To taste the sweeter heav’n of love.” The
following scenes signal a further separation between Hercules and Dejanira, as
Coote mocks him with growing intensity in the aria “Resign thy club and
lion’s spoils.” As Hercules departs for a ceremony of honors
Dejanira recalls a method in her possession to restore a flagging love. The
dying centaur Nessus had convinced her that his blood would revivify love gone
astray. Not realizing that it is poisonous, she smears it onto a garment which
she entrusts to the herald Lichas to bring as a gift to Hercules. The horrified
report of Lichas ensues, in which the suffering and death of Hercules resulting
from the poisoned garment is related. The hero is depicted lying on a stone
slab from which Mr. Owens sings the aria “I rage” with rapid and
expressive runs in the vocal line. The following two scenes bring to a dramatic
and lyrical climax the sentiments defining both lead female characters.
Dejanira is beset by guilt which Coote declaims with moving fervor in
“Where shall I fly?” Her embellishments on the “skies”
as witness to her guilt conclude with memorable dramatic high notes on
“the pursuing furies of the mind.” Iole’s aria in response,
“My breast with tender pity swells,” reiterates the tone of
reconciliation which characterized her role in this foreign household from the
start. Ms. Crowe’s simple yet decorative trills on “breast”
and “pity” served as a means to deflect the harsh feelings of
enmity and guilt which had preceded the demise of the hero. The final duet of
love “O prince … O princess,” sung by Iole and Hyllus,
brings now full circle the constellation of emotions as survivors and chorus
pass the bier of honor with Hercules’s remains.