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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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.