07 Oct 2011
There are two ways to sing the role of Carmen: as a “grand opera” heroine and as a character from opéra-comique.
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.
There are two ways to sing the role of Carmen: as a “grand opera” heroine and as a character from opéra-comique.
The grand opera version requires a voluptuous dramatic mezzo voice with a menacing flash of steel and booming chest tones. This musical style lends itself to a dramatic portrayal of the gypsy as a dangerous, snarling man-eater—a tigress capable of drawing a knife on Don José, had he not drawn one on her first. In the end, this Carmen seeks to seduce us by overwhelming us. This ideal is approximated by Grace Bumbry, Maria Ewing, Marilyn Horne, and, though she is always unique, Maria Callas.
The second type of Carmen, which reflects Georges Bizet’s roots in the French opéra-comique, calls for a smaller, more lyrical voice with a gentler timbre, smooth projection, and precise attention to delicate inflections of language and line. On this view, the gypsy is not a tigress but (as the libretto says of love) a bird. This Carmen is less blatantly threatening than her dramatic twin, yet her flirtatious, exotic, distantly self-absorbed manner poses just as great a danger to our hearts. She seduces not by overpowering but by mesmerizing. This approach is taken by Victoria de los Angeles and Teresa Berganza.
Most who sing Carmen these days aspire to the dramatic ideal, but Rinat Shaham, Philadelphia’s choice, fits the lyric model. Shaham is a Haifa-born mezzo who trained at the local Curtis Institute, debuted with the company as Zerlina in 1994, and has sung the role of Carmen to acclaim in theaters across the world, notably Glyndebourne. Shaham’s voice is not enormous, but it is focused, possesses an attractive sheen, and is articulated very evenly top to bottom. She phrases with understatement, a virtue lamentably absent among modern-day Carmen’s. Some quieter moments were memorable: the interposed “L’amour” in the “Toreador Aria” comes to mind, as does the Act III (“card”) trio, which suits her lovely low notes and contemplative manner. With black curls, flashing eyes, and slender curves popping out of the corset all Carmen’s seem to wear these days, she cuts an alluring figure on stage—and on posters throughout Philadelphia.
The result was in many respects agreeable. Absent throughout, however, were musical-dramatic subtleties essential for a lyric portrayal of Bizet’s gypsy to aspire to artistic greatness: the delicate use of glissando, rubato, rhythmic accent, idiomatic diction, timbre and color, and phrasing through the line. The “Habanera” was deadened by breathiness and an unyielding tempo, whether the fault of the conductor or singer. Shaham seemed to focus in the “Seguidilla” more on movement than voice, concluding with a needlessly strident cry. In the final scene, Shaham did not—vocally speaking—push herself to the edge of either desperation or fatalism. Without the extra interpretive effort, the performance seemed much blander than this artist’s potential, let alone the very best historical counterparts.
David Pomeroy as Don Jose and Ailyn Perez as Micaela
Ailyn Pérez, the young Academy of Vocal Arts-trained soprano, posed a striking contrast as Michaëla. Pérez’s voice, pleasant and precise if slightly metallic, is no match for Shaham’s. Moreover, the plot turns in part on the obvious fact that neither the personality or music of Michaëla, the nice god-fearing girl from the country, can match that of Carmen. Yet Pérez imbued every line with creative imagination, especially the famous aria, where subtle dynamics, precise diction and firm sense of the where it was all going conjured up the evening’s most memorable moments and greatest applause.
Canadian tenor David Pomeroy made a solid Don José. Though his voice lacks the ring, precision or the sweetness some bring to the part, he phrased with intelligence and precision, improving as the night went on, and he looks the part of a proud, if unimaginative, Basque. Another young Curtis alum, Jonathan Beyer, cut an imposing figure as Escamillo, though his voice, though well-produced, is a bit less grand—a problem in a part where one wants to be overpowered by testosterone. Well-trained if uneven young voices, mostly the products of local institutions, appeared in the smaller roles.
The conducting by Philadelphia’s music director, Bergamo-born Corrado Rovaris, displayed what I have come to think are his characteristic strengths and weaknesses. He imbues performances with energy. The music moves along, and achieves a certain excitement in hard-driving, straight-forward passages—as in the famous Prélude. Yet the result can sound unimaginative where the score calls for flexibility, ambiguity, or shifts in mood.
Rinat Shaham (center) as Carmen, Tammy Coil (left) as Mercedes and Greta Ball (right) as Frasquita, with Jeremy Milner as Zuniga
Visually, the production by Allen Charles Klein cleaves to a formula that has helped to make opera in Philadelphia popular and financially solvent: a grand unit set in traditional style, accessorized for each act with different props, costumes, and lighting—the latter sometimes tending toward slightly garish blues and oranges, courtesy of Drew Billiau. Outside of Act I, none of this adds much atmosphere or insight, but the audience seems to enjoy it. The stage direction, by David Gately, follows the formulas of previous productions, but enlivens them with a few fine touches: several suggestions of Carmen as a caged animal and liberty with the libretto, whereby she never finds the second-act castanets, dancing the duet instead with the (usually discarded) pieces of cracked plate.