27 Aug 2011
Santa Fe: Best of Show 2011
As this is written, the third week of August, the Santa Fe music season is winding down.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
As this is written, the third week of August, the Santa Fe music season is winding down.
Best of the summer for this observer included the closing performance of Alban Berg’s magical expressionist tragedy, Wozzeck. It was a complete realization of the 2001 production by Daniel Slater and Robert Innes Hopkins, which captivated everyone at the time and has remained in memory as an historic highlight of the company’s quality. So it was again this season through only four performances (La bohème enjoyed ten). Under the music direction of St Louis Symphony’s superlative conductor David Robertson, the musical quality was, if anything, improved over 2001. I attended the first and final performances, and the show grew and developed into musical-dramatic tour de force — a deeply touching one.
Berg’s 1925 masterwork was not professionally staged in its entirety in this country until 1959 at the New York Met, though excerpts had been heard in concert form in 1951, presented by Dmitri Mitropoulos at Carnegie Hall and issued on Columbia records (some will argue that the 1931 Leopold Stokowski presentation of Wozzeck in Philadelphia was the North American premiere, though it was a semi-professional company, derived out of patroness Mrs Bok’s local conservatory with, remarkably, Nelson Eddy in the title role). Nowadays, the complicated score is relatively easily listenable so one can turn to matters of message and dramatic effect — and the elegance of its deeply beautiful, if complex orchestral music. As in Wagner’s famous quip about his own operas, here “the drama is in the orchestra.” Berg’s innovative atonal writing, with its remarkable orchestration and colors, right up to a thunderous held chord on B for the full orchestra, a kind of massive punctuation mark, followed by a tonal interlude centered on D-minor, seduces the audience into thinking the worst is over. The cruelties dealt to Wozzeck by life, in the person of virtually all his associates, are too much for him; his mind finally snaps and he, along with his mistress, die. After the healing surprise of the D-minor interlude near the end of the opera, we suddenly find Wozzeck’s young son riding his stick horse across the stage, murmuring ‘hip hop, hip hop.” With his parents dead, there is no one to hear him — and now the atonal patterns return, the tragedy of life starts all over again.
A fine cast was led by the strong baritone Richard Paul Fink, memorable in the intense title role, with debutante German soprano, the skilled Nicola Beller Carbone, fascinating as Marie. The pungency of Slater’s staging — it’s tension and release, aided by Hopkins’ remarkable set that leans and dips according to the action — never ceases until the final shattering moments of the 90-minute opera. In secondary but important roles, the proven talents of Robert Brubaker, Eric Owens and Stuart Skelton, along with Patricia Risley and Jason Slayden, gave much reward. The Santa Fe orchestra was entirely up to its task, with, I’ll say again, David Robertson the master of the evening. I could go to this opera with much enjoyment many more times, most especially in Santa Fe’s heightened expressionistic production.
Nicola Beller Carbone (Marie), Stuart Skelton (Drum Major) & Richard Paul Fink (Wozzeck)
A common denominator between the opera and a new voice recital series, played over three concerts in August at the Scottish Rite Temple in downtown Santa Fe, was the memorable talent of basso-cantante Eric Owens. The singer, known especially to opera audiences as General Leslie Groves in Adams’ Dr Atomic, proved a pleasant surprise as a proponent of German lied. The dramatic statements of several of Schubert’s largest lied lay easily within the eloquent basso’s grasp; yet he could spin a piano tone in Duparc, or crisply deliver a merry old English song. Ironically, perhaps the greatest achievement of his hour’s recital was a stunningly vocalized and moving encore of King Philip’s monologue from Verdi’s Don Carlos. In German, French and Italian, this splendid artist is a man for all seasons; the voice fine-grained but purposeful, the musicality secure, the diction square on.
Mr. Owens has it all, and may fate grant him a long and fruitful artistic life. Appreciation is due Santa Fe conductor and concert promoter Joseph Illick for developing the new vocal series, which we hear will return next season. It is nice to see life breathed back into the art of the art song!
Finally, and in some ways most enjoyable of all, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival presented in a noontime recital at the resonant St. Francis Auditorium, the young Korean-American pianist Joyce Yang. I had heard this artist play in California during the Spring and found her exceptional. All expectations were fulfilled in a program based on Lowell Liebermann’s Gargoyles (1989), a jaunty, layered showpiece of pianistic technique, which was a breeze for Miss Yang. Debussy’s Estampes followed, flowing richly from her big Steinway, a riot of impressionistic nuance, color and fleet image-making from the young Debussy’s inspired imagination. Miss Yang took one’s breath away with her ease and maturity of phrasing, the mistress of resourcefulness and thrilling resolve. I know, but it really was that good!
The climax of the event was the great and glorious Carnival of Robert Schumann, a landmark of romantic invention, and a strong test of any pianist. Miss Yang seemed to approach the 20-some scenes of Schumann’s storytelling with absolute certainty of what she was about, playing with reserves of power, tasteful musicality and poise, that were most vivifying for this old masterwork. The audience went crazy, as they should have, and encores were offered. The best possible encore is to have this young sorceress back as soon and often as possible!
Any three ‘best’ choices are bound to be arbitrary; but with the bountiful offerings of the music and opera festivals in Santa Fe’s high season, I suggest these selections, out of dozens of other wonderful moments, as a taste of what “America’s Salzburg” is all about.
James A. Van Sant © 2011