29 Apr 2011
Rigoletto, New York
Rigoletto is the perfect opera. Even Verdi, who wrote so many wonderful scores, never created anything more flawless.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
Rigoletto is the perfect opera. Even Verdi, who wrote so many wonderful scores, never created anything more flawless.
Each melody is lovely in itself (except, perhaps, for the court dances of the first scene, which are supposed to seem shallow in any case, and do), but more important each one fulfills its dramatic moment and enhances our understanding of the character who sings it. The dramatic movement is steady and inexorable—and pitiless. Step by step, each important element of the drama takes place before our eyes—nothing is concealed except the Duke’s rape of Gilda, and in some modern stagings we even get to watch that. But the current Met production, thank heavens, designed by Otto Schenk and somewhat vulgarly directed by Gregory Keller, happily spares us that particular debauch. It is a handsome, old-fashioned job, with fine architectural elements and a street in medieval Mantua that, damn it, looks like a street in medieval Mantua. The costumes are rich and attractive. It does the job.
Its third cast this season gave signs, on April 26, of insufficient rehearsal time. This was most clear in Fabio Luisi’s conducting, which throughout the first scene and on several other occasions (notably the murderers’ trio in Act III) raced along far too swiftly for the ability or the experience of the singers. Luisi just didn’t seem to be giving a thought to their vocal situations; a link that should go both ways was only open in one direction. It is not necessary for a conductor to follow his singers, but a certain degree of interaction, of appreciation of the way they are handling their roles and when they are in difficulties, is something one can hope for of a conductor leading a repertory opera of this familiarity.
Giuseppe Filianoti as the Duke
The three leading singers all have excellent reputations to which they all, in part, lived up—the performance hit somewhere around the A-minus, B-plus range. How would this cast sound in a smaller theater, or in a studio with a more relaxed atmosphere? I suspect they’d all have done better.
Željko Lučić has one of the Met’s most beautiful baritone voices just now, but he occasionally sang flat just when one wanted to relax and enjoy it. Still: His “Cortigiani, vil razza” was a jeweled display of Verdi singing, elegantly produced. One might not have noticed, however, that this is a passionate aria, sung in an extreme situation. As an actor, Lučić has much to learn, and the Met might with profit bestir itself to teach him, and not merely how to sing a make-or-break aria with the proper intensity. For one thing, Rigoletto’s hump is not a figure of speech—he’s supposed to be visibly crippled, to have lived all his life with taunts and ill treatment for his condition, to have turned against the human race for this very reason. To stand sturdily upright while those around you mime a cripple to insult you is to miss a big point, and yet this was Lučić’s attitude all night. (His Barnaba in Gioconda omitted personality in the same way.) His joking in Act I lacked point or fury, his behavior in Act II lacked pathos. The courtiers did not toss him about, either—he never seriously tried to break through. One could admire the vocalism; one was never inspired to weep or cringe at the tragic figure. Rigoletto is one of the supreme roles of the baritone repertory; I hope Lučić, who sings it so well, will coach it with someone knowledgeable, or undertake a production with a really inspiring director.
Diana Damrau, in contrast to Mr. Lučić, can act a role and does. She’s studied the libretto as well as she’s studied the music, and she lived every shade of it: Girlish with her father, alarmed and then yielding when alone with her suitor, embarrassed and terrified by the crowd of strange men in Act II, unable to tear her unhappy eyes away, in Act III, from the Duke’s seduction of Maddalena. Her singing, too, was entirely at the service of her dramatic conception—there were vocal fadeouts, muddinesses, thinnesses that I suspect would not have been heard in a rehearsal, the product of her concentration on being Gilda. It was possible to enjoy her “Caro nome” without noticing it was—had ever been—a famous coloratura showpiece, for she made its breathless phrases an expression of girlish ecstasy. She took none of the role’s optional high E’s—which Verdi did not compose—but she also omitted the trills, which he did. Those accustomed to more power at such moments as “Si, vendetta” might also have been disappointed.
Where Rigoletto should be (but Lučić wasn’t) busy, uneasy, concocting and reflecting, the Duke should be graceful, sensuous, at home in his vicious element. Giuseppe Filianoti was a Duke who could not sit still. His pleasing tenor was all over the place, heavily stressed in the first scene, suave and pleasing in the seduction duet, hoarse in the quartet (where the direction demanded far too much activity to permit high notes), and cracking unattractively in his post-coital encore of “La donna è mobile.” He basked in his own and the audience’s affection, so that it was easy to think him a ladies’ man, more difficult to see him as the self-indulgent daydreamer of “Parmi veder.” He often ended phrases with a serene high note, only to be brought up breathlessly short. Was it the unaccommodating conductor or a graceless vision of the part that gave him pause?
One of the most impressive things I’ve ever beheld on any stage was the sight of Ruggiero Raimondi as Sparafucile, singing his lines while holding, over his shoulder, a sack containing Joan Sutherland. After he sang (and he sang well), he slid the sack ever so gently to the floor, where Sherrill Milnes did not even try to lift it, but hauled it to center stage, kicked it a few times, and—out popped Joanie, trilling away! At the next performance I attended, Ivo Vinco did not attempt to carry the sack—an assistant ruffian stood behind him to hold it. Sparafucile in this latest Rigoletto was Stefan Kocán, who sang decently and looked very sporty (hired assassins outdress courtiers in this Mantua, evidently), but whose threats I cannot take seriously—an assassin who needs an assistant to help carry petite Diana Damrau can’t be much good at his job. Kathryn Day, the substitute Giovanna, sang her few phrases with lovely clarity. Someone has told Quinn Kelsey, the Monterone, that this is the Jonathan Miller production set in Little Italy; he sings well but his moves and gestures are those of a low-class Sicilian thug. Monterone is a gentleman at a ducal court and should behave with outraged dignity, a very different thing, at least on the stage.