20 Jun 2011
Geneva’s Juicy Oranges
Need something remedial for “what ails you?”
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.