Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
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.