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.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.
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.