21 Sep 2011
The Elixir of Love, ENO
It’s easy to dismiss the undoubted charms of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love with a wry smile and a dash of condescension.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
It’s easy to dismiss the undoubted charms of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love with a wry smile and a dash of condescension.
But, if we imagine that love potions, placebos and quackery, are a thing of the past, we only have to remember that there’s still a vibrant market for Viagra and rhino horn.
So, it’s clear that the follies and frailties which are gently lampooned in Donizetti’s tale have not yet been eradicated, and Jonathan Miller’s production, while indulgently charming, never lets the cynical gaze drop: Nemorino’s transfiguration from simple-minded mechanic to James Dean look-a-like is effected by a lusty swig of cheap Kentucky bourbon; the gushing adoration of the female population is motivated more by his recent monetary good fortune than any sudden recognition of his innate qualities as a lover and husband. Human gullibility is still going strong.
First seen at ENO in February 2010, Miller’s 1950s Mid-Western re-location works a treat — the rolling golden plains and sky-blue expanse which stretch as far as the eye can see evoke an innocent place far from modern urbanity; the homespun folk are just ripe for exploitation by an itinerant charlatan.
We are invited to relax and enjoy ourselves at ‘Adina’s Diner’, a bustling watering hole superbly imagined by Isabella Bywater, in a naturalist recreation of the era, all clashing complementary tones of vibrant pink and green. This revival hasn’t managed to overcome an innate challenge presented by the set, however; for while the resourceful rotation of the design is inventive, the interior itself is rather too cramped. When the whole town crowd inside there’s barely room to breathe, let alone sing and dance, and the chorus are often static and unengaging. That said, in the opening scene Nemorino (Ben Johnson) seemed further forward than I remembered from the previous run, enabling him to be more clearly heard above orchestra and chorus, and effectively drawing the audience’s attention to his downheartedness and romantic dilemma from the start.
Andrew Shore’s performance as the nattily dressed Dr Dulcamara, equipped with a silken tongue and a sharp nose for commercial opportunities, won him an Olivier nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Opera in 2010, and he’s certainly the star of the show. Gliding into the town in a gleaming Cadillac cabriolet — even the desert dust can’t dampen the dazzle of his entrance — this slick fraudster so genuinely relishes his own ingenuity, warmly encouraging all who dash to sample his wares that he’s almost impossible to dislike. As usual, Shore’s diction is exemplary — no need for surtitles as he assuredly launches into his glib advertising sales pitch: “If you reek of halitosis/ Then take a couple of doses”.
He’s undoubtedly the star-turn, but there is a danger that it might seem as if the whole production has been designed as a Shore-showcase, were it not for the impressive performance of Sarah Tynan returning to the role of Adina. The pert blonde bob flawlessly coiffed, the Monroe-wiggle honed to perfection, Tynan evinces confidence and allure, her voice luscious and full.
As the naïve, nerdy, love-struck Nemorino, Ben Johnson certainly pulled the heartstrings. He is in full command of the Italianate style, his phrases elegantly shaped; and his attractive tone is complemented by convincing acting, the comic gestures discreet but telling. The ardent yearnings of “Una furtiva lagrima” can seem a little out of place after the preceding light-hearted mischief, and I found Johnson rather too intense: it seemed impossible that this garage dunce could feel passions so profound, and express sentiments so earnest. However, Johnson had all the notes — although there were a few rough edges as he strove for depth of feeling — and the aria was well-received; it evidently moved the hearts of the audience, if not the money-grabbing girls of the town.
Benedict Nelson, as Belcore, demonstrated a pleasing, focused tone, although his voice is a little too light-weight for this auditorium and did not always carry. Nelson’s was an intelligent dramatic interpretation: he did not overdo the brash blustering, and for once it did not seem incredible that Adina might fall for Belcore’s charms. And, in his Act 2 confrontation with Nemorino the two men worked effectively together.
Despite fine performances from all the principals — including Ella Kirkpatrick as an alert, smart Giannetta — the show did not always sparkle, however. Russ Macdonald’s tempi were simply too slow, the instrumental playing too leaden; and the overall effect was more toffee apple than candyfloss. That said, the astuteness of Miller’s perceptions, aided by Kelley Rourke’s witty ‘translation’ (although while the Americanisms — “knuckle sandwich”, “hello cupcake” - pay effective homage to Porter and Sondheim, the cast’s American accents are less consistent), and impressive performances in the central roles, make for a highly agreeable, satisfying evening.