20 Jun 2011
Geneva’s Juicy Oranges
Need something remedial for “what ails you?”
Baritone Gareth John is rapidly accumulating a war-chest of honours. Winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier Award, he recently won the Royal Academy of Music Patrons’ Award and was presented the Silver Medal by the Worshipful Company of Musicians.
This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.
It’s Verdi’s bicentenary year and Rolando Villazón has two new CDs to plug — titled somewhat confusingly, ‘Villazón: Verdi’ and ‘Villazón’s Verdi’, the latter a ‘personal selection’ of favourite numbers performed by stars of the past and present.
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Need something remedial for “what ails you?”
You would do no better than to scurry to the Grand Theatre of Geneva where this first rate ensemble is producing a snazzy, energetic, in-your-face production of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. Just like the opera’s hapless Prince we all could use a therapeutic laugh, and this the Swiss company decidedly delivers.
Although it is billed as a “co-production” with Deutsche Oper am Rhein and La Fenice, in truth, the physical design is so definitively reproductive of the Venice Theatre’s architectural elements that is is hard to consider this re-mounting as more than a “rental.” Consider this: the massive masking “legs” stage right and left are photographic copies of the boxes in La Fenice, clearly meant to “extend” that ‘teatro’s’ structure onto the stage. Too, the ‘stage-within-a-stage’ up center has a replica of the Fenice grand drape, and the stucco elements in the backdrop are derived from those in the Italian house. While it does not wholly matter, it does seem to stifle any of the ‘local’ resonance that was clearly intended.
Heikki Kilpeläinen and Jean Teitgen as the King
That said, Ezio Toffolutti’s scenery functioned well, was handsome to look at, and contributed a smooth-moving parade of inventive visual delights required by the libretto. I did wish that the “stage” had not been so far upstage as it served to distance us visually, if not aurally, from the two-thirds of the action that was played there. There was just that big empty expanse of prime “real” stage area unused for much of the time. Maybe shuttering the lighting to more tightly encompass the false stage might have focused the action more and edited the dead space out, although I found Volker Weinhart’s varied lighting design quite well-judged, with good area isolation, effective specials, smooth cross-fades and on the whole, very tightly cued.
Patricia Toffolutti’s fashion parade of meaty, varied, multi-faceted costumes (a ‘char-couture-y’?) provided constant colorful delight. Moreover, her creations were character-specific, greatly helping the actors in embodying their (largely) stock characters. The stage direction by Benno Besson and Ezio Toffolutti managed the large crowd scenes well enough, although the traffic patterns became repetitive. The pair seemed less interested in directorial distinction in the more personal scenes where they contented themselves with getting characters on and offstage with ease and pace. Power loves a vacuum, and absent a scintillating directorial hand, the cast filled in the dramatic blanks with savvy and imagination.
The hardest-working cast member had to be Emilio Pons, whose Truffaldino was not only a master of invention, but also was exceedingly well sung. Mr. Pons is almost never still as he leaps, kicks his heels, spins, cowers, beseeches, minces, and prances with more infectious energy than a Billy Blanks Tae-Bo session. His fearless, manic, even demented, cavorting during the playing of the famous March was a scintillating high point. Too, Emilio deployed his secure lyric tenor to fine effect, pouring out secure, arching phrases on demand, and ‘speechifying’ with good purpose, presence and diction on the many parlando passages. A definitive impersonation from this talented young tenor.
Chad Shelton gave us first a sympathetic and, later, a self-assured Prince. Mr. Shelton has just a hint of a ‘bite’ in his well-schooled tenor which stood him in good stead as the phrases got higher-flying and the instrumental density ratcheted up. His tireless, solid upper extension recalled the young Chris Merritt, and his command of the stage is already even better. On the distaff side, it was a distinct pleasure for me to encounter anew the (apparently) ageless mezzo of Jeanne Piland. I first took notice of Ms. Piland at New York City Opera as Orisini and Smeton in the year…well…we were all younger then. I caught up with her a few years ago as a riveting Sara in Munich’s Roberto Devereux. And here she was again engaging us with a real star turn as Fata Morgana, her rich, plummy voice in fine estate and skillfully deployed; still treading the boards as if born to the stage; still glamorous and vibrant. This was luxury casting and the opening nighters responded enthusiastically.
Chad Shelton as the Prince, Katherine Rohrer as Princess Clarisse, Nicolas Testé as Leandro and Michail Milanov as Tchelio
Jean Teitgen was a positively splendid King of Clubs. His rich, mature bass rolled out line after line of imposing phrases. And Mr. Teitgen devised an exceptionally well-rounded characterization, one moment amusing us as the exasperated buffoon-royal, and the next truly breaking our hearts after his son slaps him — a moment every bit as genuine and touching as the Pasquale equivalent.
Katherine Rohrer (Princess Clarice) and Nicolas Testé (Leandro) sang with solid panache, and prowled the environment with suitable relish of their evil intent. Smeraldina was as over-the-top and vibrant as her co-conspirators, but Carine Séchaye’s sizable mezzo-soprano, when pressed at forte, was occasionally marred by an overly generous vibrato that resulted in approximation of pitches above the staff. Heikki Kilpeläinen was a reliable Pantalone, Thomas Dear stood out with his virile baritone and committed stage action as Farfarello, and Christopher Stamboglis made a strong impression as the Cook. Some artists would be content to let the drag costume do all the work, but Mr. Stamboglis not only sang the role beautifully with a soft grained, weighty bass, but also imbued the part with considerable sensitivity.
The Princesses Linette, Nicolette and Ninette are usually as individual as Huey, Dewey and Louie. Here however, there was good distinction offered by three young sopranos: Susanne Gritschneder with her limpid, lyric Linette; Agnieszka Adamczak with a slightly darker, urgent Nicolette; and Clémence Tilquin in the more extended role of Linette. Ms. Tilquin was just lovely — slim as a ballerina, but with a sizable soprano with a hint of metal that sailed over the orchestra and proved a good partner to Mr. Shelton’s pointed tenor.
The seasoned bass Michail Milanov may not be producing the most fresh-voiced or roundly sung performance of the evening. But, damn if his demonstrative Tchelio didn’t score every point as he brought his years of experience to bear, husbanding his resources to make the most of every dramatic statement. The Geneva public lavished Mr. Milanov with a warmly appreciative ovation for his efforts.
Chad Shelton as the Prince and Katherine Rohrer as Princess Clarisse
Arguably the star of the evening was conductor Michail Jurowski. Never have I heard such fire in this score tempered by such nuance. Maestro Jurowski not only had all the angular, rhythmic flash and dazzle abundantly in place, but he also lovingly inspired contrasting moments of transparency, tenderness, and mellow rumination. This was as deeply felt, stylistically impeccable, personalized and persuasive a reading as you might be lucky enough to encounter once every ten years. The Maestro was ably abetted by Ching-Lien Wu’s meticulously prepared chorus.