29 Apr 2011
Séance on a Wet Afternoon
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
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.
Saturday, April 23 was indeed a rainy afternoon in New York City.
But, despite what you may have read, Stephen Schwartz’s new opera is far from all wet. In fact, last weekend’s matinee at the David H. Koch Theatre was as much a success as it was a séance. NYCO’s East Coast premiere production of Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based upon the novel by Mark McShane, epitomizes what the company stands for and points towards what opera in America can be. The staging is smart and engaging, the music is used to forward the drama, the singers are equally talented as actors and musicians, and the result is both emotionally satisfying and thought-provoking. So why, when there are $12 tickets available, are there empty seats?
For opera lovers, there is plenty to enjoy— pathos, demanding vocalism, and lush orchestration unlike what you would find on a Broadway stage. The music is accessible (yes, perhaps overly so), the acting polished, and the show definitely benefits from its Broadway pedigree. Whatever your proclivities or demographic, this art is meaningful and relevant, and it should not be missed.
Together, father and son team Stephen and Scott Schwartz (acting as composer/librettist and director, respectively) have created a compelling theatrical event. From the moment the curtain rises during the highly cinematic overture to reveal a stage hung with black metal chains, the audience is swept along in suspense by the music and drama (thanks, in large part, to the efforts of conductor George Manahan). Much of the first act takes place inside the home of the Bill and Myra Foster, and Heidi Ettinger’s set struck an ideal balance between an appropriately prosaic environment for the domestic drama and a space where uncanny things can happen. The transparent walls suffuse with color and light, then disappear altogether, and the audience’s perspective on the drama is allowed to shift as the house itself rotates.
As Myra and Bill Foster, a couple who conspires to kidnap a child in order to boost Myra’s career as a medium, Lauren Flanigan and Kim Josephson are ideally matched to both the material itself and to each other. It should come as no surprise that Flanigan excels here— she is a NYCO veteran and a powerhouse singing-actress. Kim Josephson, in his NYCO debut, matches her intensity and makes good use of the opera’s best material. Melody Moore, in the role of the kidnapped child’s mother, stands out as well. Were this production mounted on Broadway, Ms. Moore would undoubtedly be nominated for a Tony award. She meets every vocal and dramatic challenge and breathes life and individuality into a role which could easily be reduced to a trite stereotype. As with Mr. Josephson, Ms. Moore is making her company debut with this production and both artists exemplify the company’s success in its mission to bring compelling performances of new works to New York City audiences. Unfortunately, as Charles Clayton, tenor Todd Wilander did not live up to the standard set by his partner. He was vocally cautious and played every obvious emotion rather than establishing a connection with his excellent partner.
As a quartet of Myra Foster’s regular clients, Jane Shaulis, Pamela Jones, Doug Purcell, and Boyd Schlaefer played their individual parts with plenty of verve and worked well as an ensemble. Phillip Boykin brought vocal and physical gravitas to his role as the Inspector. The two children in the cast, Michael Kepler Meo and Bailey Grey, are both veterans on the stage and their performances were on par with their adult cohorts. The chorus of reporters was well-rehearsed by both chorus master Charles F. Prestinari and choreographer Matt Williams, but their material was largely irrelevant and repetitive.
As previously mentioned, this production is not without flaws. Inevitably, the singing is not as good as one would hear at the Metropolitan Opera next door, nor is the diction as good as that heard on Broadway. While there are many effective bits of theatrical magic (including bodies coming together to form a streetcar and a black-and-white portrait that gains color during an emotional aria), the overall drama of the piece is often undermined by Schwartz’s own libretto. For the most part, every bit of suspense in the plot is used to maximum effect but the scene in which Myra is in the room when the kidnapper (his own husband) calls the Claytons falls flat. Furthermore, Myra’s aria at the top of the second act hardly serves to develop the drama, the music, or her character and it could easily be cut.
All in all, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is an exciting opera to watch, not only because of the suspenseful plot, but also because it speaks to the future of opera in America. Yes, the music lacks complexity but, just as not every movie is made to win an Academy Award, not every opera is meant to stand up to repeated listening. Séance is not an opera for the future in the sense that it will remain in the repertoire forever. Rather, the work itself and the quality of this production speak to a democratization of opera itself and the encouraging trend that, finally, American artists are adopting the genre as their own.