29 Apr 2011
Rigoletto, New York
Rigoletto is the perfect opera. Even Verdi, who wrote so many wonderful scores, never created anything more flawless.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
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.