29 Apr 2011
Rigoletto, New York
Rigoletto is the perfect opera. Even Verdi, who wrote so many wonderful scores, never created anything more flawless.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
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.