20 Jun 2011
Geneva’s Juicy Oranges
Need something remedial for “what ails you?”
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.
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.