29 Aug 2011
Don Giovanni, Salzburg
When discussing the evolution of opera as a genre, the towering figure of Richard Wagner cannot be ignored.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
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.