14 Aug 2011
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Wolf Trap
For opera lovers who are serious enough to even think of a performing career, the path is an arduous one.
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.
For opera lovers who are serious enough to even think of a performing career, the path is an arduous one.
The modern operatic world is extremely competitive and the audience, while widening due to the recent plethora of audience-building initiatives, is still to an extent comprised of a small portion of the general population who believes in this art form with something akin to religious fervor. The chances of success are small, yet still, the prospect of immortal glory, as won by Joan Sutherland or Beverly Sills, is tantalising. This is where organisations such as Wolf Trap Opera serve an invaluable purpose in the modern classical music world. Like vocal competitions or alliances between fine art academies and performing institutions, it is designed to outfit participants with the skills to succeed in the modern operatic world.
This season, Wolf Trap closes with Offenbach’s popular opéra fantastique, Les Contes d’Hoffmann. At first glance, Les Contes d’Hoffmann may seem like an improper vehicle through which to present student singers. Its principal roles verge on the epic, each placing a unique set of demands on the singer, which seem to increase as the opera progresses.
The opera’s performance history is convoluted. After Offenbach finished the opera itself, the delay required for him to rewrite and raise the tessituras of the four heroines was quite literally fatal; he died before he was able to orchestrate the opera. This, combined with a string of fires in opera houses performing the piece, leaves modern organizations with a dearth of materials and a wealth of questions. I am happy to report that despite it all, Wolf Trap’s decision to perform Les Contes d’Hoffmann was a risk that, on the whole, paid off.
Conductor Israel Gursky managed to bring out all facets of Offenbach’s majestic score. His reading, which presented the opera in the tradition of French Grand Opera from the turn of the 20th century, was not at all hindered by the decision to use spoken dialogue instead of recitative. At times, his choice of tempo seemed a little slow, as in the case of Councilor Lindorf’s opening aria, as well as the ever-popular “Les Oiseaux dans la Charmille” by Olympia. However, in each case, he seemed to sacrifice speed in order to gain a deeper understanding, either of the character or of the music in general.
Wolf Trap’s production is commendable for several reasons. Offenbach had originally conceived the four heroines to be sung by a single soprano. Since the opera’s creation, few sopranos, Sills and Sutherland among them, have done so. Personally, I prefer each heroine to be sung by a different soprano, as each character is so complex, both vocally and psychologically, that it is very hard to imagine a soprano so gifted as to be able to bring out the complexities of each character. Additionally, the decision to divide the heroines among four sopranos allowed for more students to participate.
In this case, each heroine did a commendable job. As Olympia, coloratura Jamie-Rose Guarrine sang with polish, yet the timbre of her voice suggested that she was capable of doing more than just a series of vocal acrobatics. Although, it must be said that she lacked physical presence. She lacked the precise physical movements needed to execute the role, making this Olympia more humanoid than automaton.
As Antonia, Marcy Stonikas sang with power and lyricism. Toward the end of the act’s closing trio, she seemed to lose stamina, but recovered. Her capable physical acting deserves mention because she was 37 weeks pregnant while doing it.
Eve Gigliotti made for a noteworthy Guilietta, as she is perhaps the most lyrical singer I’ve heard in the role. At times, her acting bordered on the demonic. She clearly seemed to relish Hoffmann’s pain, which only turned to sorrow after Hoffmann killed her beloved companion, Pitichinaccio.
There were several caprimarios who deserve mention. Edward Mout, as Frantz, commanded attention, both vocally and physically. This is quite extraordinary, as Frantz doesn’t seem to have a purpose outside of comic relief. Kenneth Kellogg made a strong vocal case for both Crespel and Schlémil.
This production can also take credit for presenting a version of Hoffmann that was true to the work’s dramatic potential, while at the same time unearthing other previously unseen complexities. The acts followed the order of Olympia, Antonia, then Guilietta. Some Hoffmann scholars, like Richard Bonynge, believe in placing the Antonia act last as a way of strengthening Hoffmann’s belief in idealized poetic love. However, placing the courtesan last emphasizes the idea that Hoffmann’s three relationships form a trajectory that rises and falls.
This strengthens the contrast between poetic idealism and reality, and Nathaniel Peake brought this aspect of the leading role to life with painstaking clarity. He also deserves credit for controlling his stamina through this marathon role, not to mention singing a part whose performance history includes Plácido Domingo and Nikolai Gedda. His strong performance made one forget his occasional difficulties with the French language.
The crowning achievement of this production is the conception of Niklausse, played so deftly by Catherine Martin. As Hoffmannn’s poetic muse, she was far more than the androgynous confidant of other productions. Like Craig Irvin, who played the four villians, she brought a mix of severity and comedy to the role. One got the feeling that she was along for the ride waiting for Hoffmannn to realize that the woman who was there all along was the love of his life. Hoffmannn’s realization at the end brought a sense of closure that other productions lack.
The works of E.T.A Hoffmannn are no stranger to classical music. Tchaikovsky based his ballet, The Nutcracker, on Hoffmannn’s work as well. The problems these works present depends largely on the composer’s ability to see past the maze of lifelike automatons, demonic courtesans, and oversized rats to the essential humanity of the story being told. Wolf Trap Opera can congratulate itself on meeting all the demands that Les Contes d’Hoffmann poses and presenting a fluid, dramatic conception of the opera, which is perhaps the most human yet.