29 Aug 2011
Don Giovanni, Salzburg
When discussing the evolution of opera as a genre, the towering figure of Richard Wagner cannot be ignored.
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.
When discussing the evolution of opera as a genre, the towering figure of Richard Wagner cannot be ignored.
His radical conception of the connection between opera and philosophy is seen all throughout his work; this is especially clear in his four part Ring cycle. In the popular imagination, the Ring cycle has become the most recognizable multi-part operatic work. This is why this year’s Salzburg Festival’s presentation of all three of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas as a continuous trilogy is eyebrow-raising. Although it may seem strange on paper, Claus Guth’s choice to present these operas (Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte) as a continuous statement on the dark side of human nature makes sense. However, during the transition from creative concept to stageds production, something went awry. As a result, this production was a potpourri of fleeting inspirations.
Guth’s conception of the trilogy is to be commended for stagings of reasonable merit. His production of Così fan tutte used elements from both Figaro and Don Giovanni to present the libretto as if it were a social experiment gone wrong. His stage pictures illustrated the deteriorating relationships between the characters as well as the evil inherent in Don Alfonso’s scheme. On the whole, this gave refreshing depth to Così. The problem however, is Guth’s staging of Don Giovanni only hints at its place in the trilogy as a bridge between the mostly safe world of Figaro to the tumultuous world of Così.
Malin Byström as Donna Anna and Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni occupies a unique place in the Da Ponte trilogy. Unlike Figaro where the potential for evil is never fully in the foreground, Giovanni is evil personified. While ultimately, Giovanni is vanquished by death, the characters of Così are forced to confront their own imperfections. If Guth wanted to view the three operas as an evil trilogy, this is the direction he should have taken. Instead, he took liberties with the libretto of Don Giovanni that ultimately caused some confusion with character development as well as with the progression of the drama.
As Giovanni, Gerald Finley gave a searing performance which carries on the mantle of Sir Thomas Allen. What would have been an otherwise electric performance, was hindered by Guth’s decision to have Giovanni “fatally” wounded at the outset; limiting his ability to inhabit the strong body of the slimy villain . This gives rise to another more unfortunate question: if Don Giovanni is so near death, what makes him a force to be reckoned with? This also left me with mixed emotions regarding the character. Take for example, “Fin ch’han dal vino”, whereby Finley poured a can of beer over himself and then proceeded to shake like a ferocious wet dog. This was scary to watch. Needless to say, his singing enhanced his actions. Yet at the end of the aria, he collapsed to the floor. The message here is unclear. It would have been better if he ended the aria with the typical maniacal laugh.
As Donna Anna, Malin Byström sang in the big-voiced tradition of Sharon Sweet. The most interesting facet of her performance was her rendition of “Or sai chi l’onore”. Here Donna Anna became someone who was exposed and vulnerable due to the murder of her father, as opposed to the more typical strong woman who screams at her fiancé in order to avenge this death. However, in this production, Donna Anna played into another flaw: Giovanni’s attempted rape of Donna Anna which normally begins the opera was portrayed as a consensual affair. Under this circumstance the whole rasion d’etre of the rage of Donna Anna and the villainy of Giovanni remain unsubstantiated. Despite the opera’s tragic elements, this is still an opera buffa. A key feature of opera buffa is the unflattering portrayal of the aristocracy. In this production, the aristocracy, which is symbolized by Don Giovanni, does not experience the ridicule to the same degree as there is a deficiency of the villainy Don Giovanni.
Gerald Finley as Don Giovanni, Dorothea Röschmann as Donna Elvira and Erwin Schrott as Leporello
Dorothea Röschmann, as Donna Elvira, sang powerfully, giving an excellent case for Donna Elvira as a tragic heroine, which was strengthened in synergy by Byström’s portrayal of Donna Anna as a weak character. Christiane Karg was a girlish Zerlina who could also show great concern and substantial depth of character as necessary. Adam Plachetka, as Masetto, made it clear that he understood the evil Giovanni from the very beginning. Both Don Ottavio and Leporello, played by Joel Priesto and Adrian Sâmpetrean, respectively were admirably sung.
Under the direction of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Vienna Philharmonic made a fine case for the symphonic capabilities of Mozart’s score. However, his tempos were slow at the beginning, and the numerous florid accompaniments to the recitatives were distracting. That said, he brought a romantic expansiveness to certain pieces, including “Là ci darem la mano”.
It remains to be said that some of the humor of the production diminished the overall dramatic effect. The humor of Mozart’s tragic comedy should arise from situations that are detailed in the libretto, not from the staging. There were several instances, such as Giovanni taunting Zerlina and Masetto while on a swing, that were humorous, while at the same time illustrating the Don’s capacity for villainy. Yet, other gags consisted of elaborate stage movements that were difficult to follow and at times disrupted the flow of the drama. The imbalance produced by these attempts at comedy was symbolic of the overall effect of Guth’s production. In this adaptation, there were moments of inspiration that were somehow lost.