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.
Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
This elegant, smartly-paced film turns Gluck’s Orfeo into a Dostoevskian study of a guilt-wracked misanthrope, portrayed by American countertenor Bejun Mehta.
Ossia Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why waste a good tune.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Both by default and by merit Il barbiere di Siviglia is the hit of the thirty-fifth Rossini Opera Festival. But did anyone really want, and did the world really need yet another production of this old warhorse?
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.