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.
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.
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.