29 Aug 2011
Don Giovanni, Salzburg
When discussing the evolution of opera as a genre, the towering figure of Richard Wagner cannot be ignored.
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.
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.