Recently in Performances
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.
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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.
05 Nov 2011
Bluebeard’s Castle, Royal Festival Hall
Bartók’s only opera, a masterpiece to rank with other sole works in
the genre such as Fidelio and Pelléas et Mélisande, was
chosen for the climax of the Philharmonia’s year-long series,
‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’.
It was the
obvious and fitting choice, both as idea and reality. But first came a far from
negligible opening to the concert: a visit from Debussy, albeit in still
earlier guise than the composer of Pelléas, and the third of
Bartók’s three piano concertos, the soloist again Yefim Bronfman.
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune is pretty much
universally considered to mark the dawn of twentieth-century music. (The
programme note by Malcom Gillies presented Debussy’s work as a candidate,
but oddly claimed ‘some date it as late as 1913, with Stravinsky’s
Le sacre du printemps.’ No one would gainsay the importance of
The Rite of Spring, yet, by the same token, surely no one would date
the beginning of twentieth-century music after Schoenberg’s
emancipation of the dissonance.) In the hands of Esa-Pekka Salonen — he
only picked up a baton later, preferring to mould the music here more freely
— Prélude à l’après-midi received a fine performance.
Samuel Coles’s opening flute solo was not only not conducted by Salonen;
he did not even herald it, leaving Coles to begin in his own time. He did not
disappoint; nor did Chris Cowie’s equally fine oboe solo work. Salonen
shaped an initially languid reading, soon bathed in the warm glow of the
Philharmonia strings. There was certainly a sense of the novelty of form we can
all too readily take for granted, but which would point the way not only to
later Debussy and to a number of works by Bartók and other composers of his
generation, but even to post-war composers such as Boulez, as conductor one of
Debussy’s — and Bartók’s — foremost interpreters.
Flexibility of tempo proved the key that unlocked malleability of form. Finally
came that undefinable, ineffable magic that marks a distinguished performance
of this great work.
Such lyricism also informed the opening of the piano concerto, Bronfman
presenting it as if in a single breath, foretelling an over-arching melodic
approach. The tempo adopted, however, sounded slower than usual; moreover, the
general style adopted was more classical, post-Mozartian even, than one often
hears. Sometimes I wanted a little more fire from both soloist and orchestra in
the first movement: though an interesting reading, it was ultimately a little
underwhelming. The cool but not cold dignity with which Bronfman announced his
opening statements in the slow movement was striking. Thereafter, the
extraordinary night-music — surely the most interesting part of a
concerto that does not always show Bartók at his best — was piquant and
lively under Salonen. He clearly relished the colours that point back to Ravel
but also look forward to Messiaen. A relatively cool classicism paid dividends
with the counterpoint of the finale, but elsewhere much sounded a little too
relaxed, at times verging on the lethargic. At one point, the pace noticeably
picked up, but it seemed more of a correction than an intensification. I have
no idea why the lights were dimmed at one point and then turned back up; it was
probably a mistake, but it would be nice to think that it was a warning shot to
the serried ranks of coughers.
Bluebeard’s Castle was performed in a semi-staged version,
directed by Nick Hillel. Bartók’s opera is a strange case, in that in
many respects it seems almost made to be performed in concert: its interiority,
as heralded by the prologue, may even work better if it compels the listener to
direct the work in his head. I am not sure that the production, based upon
projections onto a ‘motorised shape’ above the orchestra and a
simple enough design around the borders of the stage, added very much, but if
it liberated the imagination of some unimaginative souls then it will have done
some good and little harm. So far as I could tell, the designs, projections,
and lighting all worked as they should.
Woodland film rendered the opening music more than usually
Pelléas-like; that seemed to suit Salonen’s strategy too, at
this stage characterised by what one might paradoxically call a subdued teeming
of orchestral life, rendering contrast of Judit’s viewing the torture
chamber all the greater. What we saw here was rather literally representative:
some instruments of torture, followed by red for blood — though oddly,
the red seemed more redolent of socialist propaganda posters, which,
Bartók’s politics notwithstanding, I cannot believe was the intention.
Such a colour-based approach might actually have worked better with
Schoenberg’s contemporary Die glückliche Hand. On the other
hand, visual evocation of diamonds complemented the fantasy so finely painted
by the Philharmonia’s harps and celesta. Even then, however, Michelle
DeYoung’s facial expressions, let alone her vocalism, had much more to
say than any film projection, and still more so in the subsequent case of the
flowers. DeYoung offered more than ample compensation for the previously
advertised Measha Brueggergosman; hers was a powerfully dramatic and
beautifully sung performance, equally alert to the demands of text and melodic
line. She was formidable, not in the slightest pathetic; one could readily
understand how she had her fateful way. Bluebeard’s defiant pride in the
splendours of his kingdom was far better expressed by Sir John
Tomlinson’s performance, noble yet wounded, than by turning the lights on
and showing a few clouds on the move.
I took a while to be convinced by Salonen’s reading, wondering if the
tension was sagging a little in the middle; this was certainly not a
razor-sharp Bluebard’s Castle in the manner of Boulez. And yet,
matters would become clearer, the greater strategy paying off handsomely, when
the cold menace of the increasingly modernist-sounding orchestral palette
asserted itself as Judit learned of her predecessors, likewise in the
cumulative terror leading up to the final revelation. (DeYoung was superb here
too.) The post-Wagnerian orchestral glory of the final climax put me in mind of
Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, but it was the desolation of Tomlinson
thereafter that moved most of all. As with so much of the production, the
appearance of Judit as an apparition at the back of stage did no violence to
the work, but might better have been discarded.