13 Nov 2011
Adriana Lecouvreur, Carnegie Hall
What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
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 .