13 Nov 2011
Adriana Lecouvreur, Carnegie Hall
What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
In a production first seen in Houston several years ago, and now revised by its director John Caird, Puccini’s Tosca has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago with two casts, partially different, scheduled into March of the present season.
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 .