Recently in Performances
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
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.
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.