23 Jun 2011
The Cunning Little Vixen, New York
One of Richard Wagner’s most enduring contributions to music history is a concept known as gesamtkunstwerk.
At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.
The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.
An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.
On April 10, 2015, Arizona Opera ended its season with La Fille du Régiment at Phoenix Symphony Hall. A passionate Marie, Susannah Biller was a veritable energizer bunny onstage. Her voice is bright and flexible with a good bloom on top and a tiny bit of steel in it. Having created an exciting character, she sang with agility as well as passion.
This second revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 2005 production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia seems to have every going for it: excellent principals comprising experienced old-hands and exciting new voices, infinite gags and japes, and the visual éclat of Agostino Cavalca’s colour-bursting costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s sunny sets which evoke the style, glamour and ease of La Dolce Vita.
English Touring Opera’s 2015 Spring Tour is audacious and thought-provoking. Alongside La Bohème the company have programmed a revival of their acclaimed 2013 production of Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) and the composer’s equally rare The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo).
Mary Zimmerman’s still-fresh production is made fresher still by Shagimuratova’s glimmering voice, but the acting disappoints
When WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced Meredith Monk’s beloved Panda Chant II, which concluded the four-and-a-half hour Meredith Monk & Friends celebration at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he described it as “an expression of joy and musicality” before lamenting the fact that playing it on his radio show could never quite compete with a live performance.
This year’s concert of the Chicago Bach Project, under the aegis of the Soli Deo Gloria Music Foundation, was a presentation of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
One of Richard Wagner’s most enduring contributions to music history is a concept known as gesamtkunstwerk.
In Wagner’s day, the idea that the operatic experience should be the sum of all its parts was revolutionary. Today, the conception of opera as a total theatrical experience is de rigeur, and as a consequence, is at the heart of the revival of New York’s classical music scene. This is evident in the figures of Alan Gilbert and Peter Gelb, who recently took hold of the helms of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, respectively.
The past two years have seen the presentation of two fully staged operas at the Philharmonic. In both cases, the choice of repertoire has been less than conventional. This year, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen continues what seems to be an auspicious tradition begun by Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre.
Gilbert has stated that his main reason for presenting such unfamiliar repertoire is his desire to demonstrate the prowess of the Philharmonic orchestra, as opposed to solely the singers. However, both The Cunning Little Vixen and Le Grand Macabre were treated in such a way that depicted these works not only as great music but also as great theater. Furthermore, Gilbert can congratulate himself on the large number of young people who have attended these performances.
The Philharmonic’s Cunning Little Vixen is certainly a star-studded event. The well-known Grammy-winning soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian is the eponymous heroine. The production is directed by Doug Fitch, who directed Le Grand Macabre to great acclaim. However, the true star of the evening was Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic.
As usual, Gilbert proved himself to be adroit in handling both dynamics and textures. Additionally, he frequently highlighted the rhythmic pulse behind the music. This was especially apt as folk melodies served as inspiration for much Eastern European music.
As the opera progressed, Gilbert also managed to expose the audience to similarities between Janáček and Puccini as well as Richard Strauss . As Janáček was influenced by Puccini, this was especially relevant. Still, it must be acknowledged that in his zeal to show off the Philharmonic in all its glory, there were times when the Tim Burtonesque nature of the score seemed to suffer. However, those moments were few and fleeting.
As Sharp Ears, Miss Bayrakdarian conceived the vixen as the type of strong, independent heroine opera audiences have come to know and love. Her portrayal pointed at a central facet of the opera, which has endeared it to audiences through the decades. Despite its short duration, Janáček’s music depicts the vixen at all stages of life and growth. The audience gets the chance to see a character grow not just physically, but emotionally, and mature into adulthood. Miss Bayrakdarian’s performance was dynamic and demonstrates all facets of this deceptively simple yet complex character.
Miss Bayrakdarian’s voice has a smooth silvery quality to it. This is thrilling to experience in performance. Unfortunately, her diction and ability to project left much to be desired. It was very difficult to hear her in the back row. What is more unfortunate is that this problem was symptomatic of most women in the cast. That said, there were many wonderful performances. Kelley O’Connor, as the dog Lapák, demonstrated the extent of her rich mezzo voice. Her lovelorn howls added a tragicomic element to the character, which served to great effect. Marie Lenormand portrayed the fox as a boyish bon vivant who was at the same time charming.
In terms of diction, the men fared much better. As the Forester, Alan Opie gave a nuanced portrayal. He brought pathos to his closing aria, which drew parallels between the despair of the human characters and the felicity and fulfillment of their animal counterparts. Also, his stentorian voice was a joy to listen to.
However, there was a confusing inconsistency in the portrayal of his character. The Forester is supposed to protect the animals from poachers. This seemed at odds with his harsh treatment of the vixen. As the poultry dealer, Joshua Bloom sang lyrically and brought nonchalance to the role.
Doug Fitch, who directed the production, presented the opera in an imaginative and eco-friendly light. Many of the costumes were made of recycled objects. The beetle costume, for instance, was made out of a garbage can. More importantly, they used Avery Fisher Hall as a performance space. An extension was put onto the proscenium, which allowed the singers to sing from the middle of the orchestra.
Performers also entered and exited through the auditorium’s center aisle, as opposed to solely on stage. To aid in this aspect, the lights were used to create the illusion of sun shining through treetops on the center aisle. Additionally, the English translation was immensely funny and full of jokes that appealed to kids and adults alike. Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that the translation fit the music.
Despite occasional flaws, the New York Philharmonic can congratulate itself on concluding its season in grand style. The fact that the auditorium was nearly full attests to the success of Gilbert’s initiative, yet there is another goal that is also being met in this production. The Cunning Little Vixen has not been seen in New York in twenty years, perhaps not since Beverly Sills commissioned a production of it for City Opera. That this opera is part of the standard repertory is not to be disputed, but the fact remains, it does not have the reputation it should. It can only be hoped that the Philharmonic’s imaginative production brings this opera one step closer to garnering more popularity.