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.
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. Under the neon-glare of laboratory strip-lights, the scientists and literary archeologists rout through the relics, scrape away palimpsests, shatter the printing presses, and uncover a shocking tale of violence, sex, suicide and cannibalism. ‘Strip the cities of brick,’ they cry; ‘Cancel all flights from the international airport.’ Yet, despite its ‘distance’ - both historical and aesthetic - this disturbing juxtaposition of innocence and monstrosity unsettles and seeps into our modern consciousness, like ink staining parchment.
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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
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.