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.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
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.