13 Nov 2011
Adriana Lecouvreur, Carnegie Hall
What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
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.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
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’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
The Opera Orchestra of New York seemed to edge the shadows quite lately, but its return to Carnegie Hall with Cilèa’s fragrant Adriana Lecouvreur was ardently welcomed by something like a sell-out crowd—and why not? The cast, headed by Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, could hardly have been more up-to-the-moment starry. Adriana is not the obscure sort of fare for which New York’s opera lovers have long treasured the company, being an occasional visitor to the Met as well as to OONY in recent seasons, but no one seemed to mind that. Even better news was the remodeled and repeopled orchestra itself under its handsome new conductor, Alberto Veronesi, producing Cilèa’s masterful and dreamy effects all night up to the ethereal harps that accompany the expiring Adriana to the throne of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, on Mount Parnassus. They made one almost eager to hear OONY’s next offering, Wagner’s Rienzi, on January 29th. A maestro of Veronesi’s ability might find elegances in that bombastic work that have previously escaped our attention.
Adriana has its bombastic moments too, but it largely sticks to formal “Verist” manners: continuous song inspired by dialogue and personality; the opera lacks even the audience sop of an act finale of singers in full concerted blast. Adriana is based—it is the last successful opera based—on a script by the indefatigable (but, by 1902, long dead) Eugène Scribe, and like all Scribe historical farragoes, “illustrates” historical problems by placing the feelings of characters, real or fictitious, in the foreground with a claque of intricate skullduggery to surround it and elicit our thrills and chills of sympathy—the technique of “historicality” bequeathed by Scribe to Hollywood. In Adriana, the great actress, in love with a mere officer, learns that he is actually Maurice de Saxe, son of the king of Poland, eventually a marshal of France, and aspirant to the throne of Courland. (Where? Latvia. Same as Latvia. Roughly. But don’t worry; the whole show takes place in Paris.) Maurizio (as he is here) has concealed his identity because, for political reasons (Courland again), he has been courting the passionate wife of the mighty Prince de Bouillon. The Prince never suspects Maurizio is his wife’s lover, but he does suspect the gallant officer of seducing his mistress. That would call for a duel. Add a lot of complications in a darkened room by two desperate women who must not see each other’s faces, and a nastily-wielded speech from Racine, and a bunch of poisoned violets. In life, Maurice and Adrienne had a child, whose great-granddaughter was George Sand, a pal of Scribe’s. And Maurice never did get Courland. Never mind.
Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Opera Orchestra of New York]
Angela Gheorghiu has a lovely voice but her choice of repertory and the way she uses the instrument have seldom delighted me. On this occasion, while her diva mannerisms no doubt recalled the old days to those who missed them (in either sense), she was for me the least satisfying singer. This may be a case of being too busy studying the notes to bother with the story. Adrienne Lecouvreur was the queen of the Comédie Française because she brought naturalism, or what passed for naturalism in 1730, to a stage frozen in the affectations of “high art.” This is the message of Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella,” when, in response to her colleagues’ applause, she assures them she merely inhabits the text as it has been written. Obviously, a great actress does much more than that and a great singer should present the aria as naturalism on her own particular terms—but it must be natural on some terms. Gheorghiu can be many things on stage—pathetic, passionate, sexy, tragic, outraged, outrageous—but she is never natural. That’s all right as long as you sing “Io son l’umile ancella” in a natural fashion, its strophes considered, its raptures and confidences part of a whole (the way Mirella Freni sang it—got that?), but Gheorghiu isolated the phrases into separate Post-It notes on her performing style, never joining them into a whole and demolishing Cilèa’s loveliest melody. Maestro Veronesi followed her devotedly: A star is a star. A friend suggested that he wasn’t conducting the orchestra at all—Gheorghiu was doing it herself with all those tossings and flutterings of her elegant gown.
After a costume change in the interval—divas rule!—Gheorghiu seemed more prepared to sink into the score (which she recently performed in a full staging at Covent Garden). The spoken tirade from Racine’s Phaedra in Act III was, to these ears, her finest vocal moment although one might cavil that it isn’t exactly sung. Her “Poveri fiori,” if once again wayward in tempo, took us closer to the character than anything else all night.
Jonas Kaufmann is not the ideal Latin tenor lover (one reason his Alfredo at the Met was predictably disappointing), but he has such advantages, such a robust, attractive baritonal color to his voice with a seemingly effortless reach to the top, such musicality, such charisma, such devotion to creating his part (which meant here that he had to convince two jealous women of his unflawed fidelity—no trouble for Kaufmann—we all wanted to believe he was in love with us, and it’s easy to believe what you want to believe when it’s sung like that), that I was as starry-eyed as the rest of the house. When I say he lacks “Latinity,” I mean that when he does go for emotional high points, declaring his love or recounting a bold military exploit, though the phrases ring, he does not sound ready to die to take that redoubt, I mean high note. That is the effect of the ideal Verismo tenor. Kaufmann is German: brainless testosterone is just an act for him.
Full cast [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Opera Orchestra New York]
Anita Rachvelishvili has been singing Carmen to acclaim all over the world, and she did not seem to have renounced the street Gypsy when singing the jealous Principessa here. She seems a very young singer, but the Principessa (unlike so many of her interpreters) is not old; she is a disappointed young woman trapped in a marriage to a noble roué; Maurizio has waked a smoldering volcano. Rachvelishvili has a deep, smoky sound with a vibrato that can be thrillingly suggestive or vaguely spooky and wide of pitch. Her Principessa was full of sass. I wonder what her Dalila might be like?
Ambrogio Maestri, resembling a thick-lipped, sentimental concierge in a romantic farce, brought a far more impressive sound to Michonnet, Adriana’s hopeful manager, than the lovesick fellow usually gets. The smaller roles were cast appealingly, especially Nicola Pamio’s mincing abbé and the four twirling actors who cheer Adriana on her birthday. The orchestra sounded reborn, revivified, ready for anything. I hope that means they will take on many scores they have not played for us before—there’s a lot of terrific bel canto that’s just coming to light. Or if they stick to encoring previous O.O.N.Y. successes, may one suggest Robert le Diable? Nerone? Poliuto? Beatrice di Tenda? I missed them last time through, and they’re certainly worth more than one glance. Or Bizet’s Ivan IV. Or Mercadante’s Virginia. Or Gomes’ Maria Tudor or Il Guarany. Or .