Recently in Performances
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
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.
26 Jul 2011
Verdi’s Requiem, BBC Proms
Not only did Verdi’s Requiem make its debut, rather remarkably, in the church of San Marco in Milan but the performance was as a liturgical one; Verdi’s intentions were quite firmly to provide a memorial mass for the Italian patriot, Manzoni.
But following this sacred premiere, the work went on
to have 3 further performances at La Scala and Verdi then took it on tour round
theatrical venues in Europe. So from the word go, the piece has been poised
between the sacred and the secular. It is this which gives the piece some of
its fascination and difficulty. Verdi’s writing mixes operatic elements with
some which are more sacred. For soloists he calls for 4 experienced Verdians,
but then he writes unaccompanied ensemble passages for them which are some way
from what he would have written in an opera.
At the BBC Proms on Sunday 24th July, Semyon Bychkov conducted BBC forces in
a very large scale performance. There were 3 choirs (BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC
National Chorus of Wales and the London Philharmonic Choir) with the BBC
Symphony Orchestra and a quartet of soloists all with strong Verdian
credentials (Marina Poplavskaya, Mariana Pentcheva, Joseph Calleja and Ferrucio
Furlanetto). The three choirs numbered around 450 singers and the orchestra was
similarly large scale, complete with a cimbasso on the brass bass line (instead
of the modern tuba or euphonium)
This issue of size is an interesting one, which can also be traced back to
Verdi’s original performances. Though the 1874 performances at La Scala used
a choir of 120, when Verdi took the work on tour round Europe his attitude
seems to have been flexible. So that whilst he performed the piece in Paris at
the Opéra-Comique (not a large theatre), in London it was performed at the
Royal Albert Hall in 1875 with huge forces. Clearly Verdi was not dogmatic
about the forces involved, so we should not be either. Instead we can sit back
and revel in the sheer sound that Bychkov conjured from his Proms forces.
The opening demonstrated what a wonderful sound can be created by a
disciplined large choir singing in hushed tones. Though big in scale, this
wasn’t a driven or a bombastic performance, Bychkov drew some beautifully
quiet and detailed singing from his choristers. The difficulty of combining 450
singers in such a space should not be underestimated and it is to the three
choirs’ credit that their choristers combined in such a powerful and
All was not quiet, of course. Come the ‘Dies Irae’ then all hell was let
loose in appropriate fashion. Here we were able to take stock of Bychkov’s
flexible tempi. He did not drive the piece forward manically, but let
it expand at a rate suitable for the Albert Hall’s problematic acoustic. The
‘Dies Irae’ was not the fastest performance that I have experienced, but
even when letting the music breathe Bychkov kept up the power and momentum in
an impressive fashion.
The chorus’s big solo moment, of course, comes in the ‘Sanctus’ where
they perform without the soloists. Here we got some beautifully detailed
singing, and fine dancing tone.
The soloists were an interesting bunch, each with a distinctive and
particular voice. Mezzo-soprano Pentcheva was a last-minute replacement for
Sonia Ganassi. Pentcheva has proven Verdi credentials; her voice combines a
distinctive dark hued lower register with a flexible upper, capable of some
lovely quiet singing. She has a strong vibrato which might not be to
everyone’s taste. She proved tasteful and flexible in her singing and brought
some great beauty to her quiet moments, along with vivid projection of
Calleja sang the tenor part with full tone and a fine sense of line; he
brought a fine sense of quiet rapture to the ‘Hostias’. Perhaps he missed
the more bravura elements of the part, but he was a fine ensemble singer
contributing intelligently to the many concerted solo moments. Ferrucio
Furlanetto brought a world-weary grandeur to the bass part; lacking the
ultimate in power, he showed commitment and discipline along with a fine sense
Finally, of course, we come to the soprano; whilst all the soloists have
their moments, Verdi’s use of the soprano in the final ‘Libera me’
ensures that it is the soprano who we remember best. Poplavskaya brought her
familiar plangent tones and beautifully expressive line to the role, singing
with a commitment which suggested she was living the part rather than just
singing a soprano solo. She floated some supremely lovely lines during the
piece, but these were always intelligently placed and not just vocalism for its
own sake. In the ‘Libera me’ she took the drama to the point where she was
in danger of becoming manner, but the ‘Requiem’ section where she sang just
accompanied by the unaccompanied choir was simply beautiful. Though I must
admit to having a slight reservation, Poplavskaya’s quiet plangency
threatened to push the notes below pitch, but this was a small point in what
was a very fine performance.
The soloists are more than just 4 individuals, Verdi asks them to sing in
ensemble rather a lot and to do so unaccompanied. Poplavskaya, Pentcheva,
Calleja and Furlanetto patently listened to each other and though their voices
were very different, created a real ensemble. Most people who have heard the
Requiem quite a few times have stories about the intonation problems
in these ensemble passages. But not here. And in the ‘Agnus Dei
‘Poplavskaya and Pentcheva sang in octaves in a way which, whilst not quite
of one voice, came pretty close.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra provided sterling support and some brilliant
playing. Granted their string tone does not approach the vibrancy of the best
bands in this music, but they brought commitment, intelligence and delicacy.
Bychkov controlled all in a way which allowed the detail of the work to be
felt without compromising the big moments. This was certainly a performance of
contrasts. Inevitably some detail gets lost in the Albert Hall, but Bychkov
brought out much that was finely wrought, then contrasted it with some
spectacularly loud moments. The ‘Dies Irae’ and the ‘Tuba Mirum’ are
not the be all and end all of a performance of Verdi’s Requiem; here
these big moments were big indeed but contrasted with some moments of nicely