Recently in Performances
Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman
theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or
amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators
or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in
other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard
Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014
by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine
Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
24 Apr 2011
It has long been my belief that the problems of the planet would be resolved
(or move on to their next stage) if only the folk of every ethnicity (nation,
faith, historic minority, tribe) would devote their energy to creating
opera—and perhaps theater or dance—out of its musical and mythical
That would certainly calm a lot of people down at any rate. The
Arabs, for example. They’ve grown understandably restive about the way
their societies have been run lately, and with their capacity for narration
(1001 Nights, anybody?) and distinctive musical heritage, opera ought
to be a natural for them. The more cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world have
developed a rich theatrical scene in the last century, and their films and
music-videos imply the cultural jump would not be an awkward one. There’s
a kebab-and-hookah restaurant near me that shows Egyptian music-videos from the
early Nasser years, or so I infer by the length of the ladies’ skirts.
But we’ll have to be quick before Arab culture is swamped (as youtube is
already swamped) with Bollywood-style Arabic videos, of which Lebanon already
produces quite a trove.
Mohammed Fairouz, who is 26 and was educated in London (his biography in the
program is cagey about where exactly he was born), has already prowled much of
the planet, studying instruments from the oud to the didgeridoo, though the
Mimesis Orchestra that played the premiere of his opera, Sumeida’s
Song, in the hall of the Ethical Culture Society last week was made up of
traditional Western instruments with some enhanced percussion. The use to which
Fairouz put this orchestra demonstrates an impressive control of the varied
textures it can produce. He was careful—perhaps unduly so—to avoid
the trap of relying on “Middle Eastern” motifs in
“Western” orchestration, which could have sounded like
Hollywood’s scores for Arabian Nights movies of the fifties, but he
introduced a phrase or two of Middle Eastern-style drumbeat or oboe riff into a
manner more typical of spiky modern borderline tonalities. Middle Eastern-isms
have been explored in considerably greater detail in John Corigliano’s
wind concerti, but that is the very sentimentality that Fairouz evades.
The character of the score across three brief acts (about eighty minutes)
gave every section of the orchestra something interesting to do. Percussion, as
is true with so many modernist works, was full of interest, but the beats were
not for dancing: Rather, they illustrated references in the text to winds, to
vendetta, to railroads. Woodwinds did not mimic Arabian lament but underlined
phrases in the drama. Thunderous low brasses accompanied deadly events in an
international manner. Yet this very avoidance of anything specifically
“Arabian” may have been a mistake: The most affecting moment of the
score, for me, was the last wail of an implacable mother: The soprano’s
voice, shifting through semitones, seemed to imply a mixture of traditional
keening with an uncertainty about her bloodthirst and its consequences that
went well with the fading, uneasy tremolos of the last bars of the opera and
encapsulates the moral of the story.
All this expert orchestration was, unfortunately, not matched by any gift
for libretto-writing. The story, taken without alteration from a classic play by the modern
Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim, concerns the widowed Asakir, whom we find
awaiting her son’s return from the big city. When his father was murdered
by a rival clan, she smuggled the boy to Cairo, hoping he’d apprentice to
a butcher—in order to learn to use a knife properly. Instead, he went to
college and realized how his rural people have been oppressed. He is 19 now, a
modern man who refuses to consider vendetta—he’d rather organize
the people to improve their dreary lives. His mother, outraged, taunts one of
his cousins into killing her disgrace of a son. The cousin is Sumeida, whose
song, sung twice, signifies first Alwan’s return, then his death.
There are possibilities here, for a librettist of genius, but in the
unaltered play that constitutes the libretto it is rather ploddingly told. It is difficult not to recall such
similarly brutal and elemental stories as those of Cavalleria
Rusticana or Tosca, and how cleverly their librettists slid
back-story into dramatic event. In Sumeida’s Song, everything
is explained at the moment it is said, and none of the music carries us, holds
us melodically, or builds to a satisfying explosion. In eschewing melodramatic
music in a melodramatic tale, Fairouz, like most modern composers, really has
nowhere to turn. His intriguing orchestration is accompaniment, whereas in
opera the music should share the dramatic propulsion. It is not good being told
(as the libretto told us, at several moments) that someone is performing an
aria; either we feel it as an aria, as a statement, as an expression of inner
feeling, or we do not. These arias were indistinguishable from the explicatory
Fairouz’s vocal writing seemed either ungrateful, exploring the
extremes of his prima donna’s range in both directions, or else Jo Ellen
Miller as the murderous Asakir simply wasn’t up to it. Inaudible in the
first act, she pulled some dignified phrases out at as the drama proceeded.
None of the other singers had a fully-formed character to portray, and all were
easily drowned out when the orchestra roused itself, though the composer
politely restrained them whenever some special lyrical message needed to be
Fairouz demonstrated genuine ability and achievement as an orchestral
technician, and he may well have more to offer singers with a more focused text
(he has composed ten song cycles), but nothing about Sumeida’s
Song suggested a mature affinity for opera.