13 Nov 2011
Jonas Kaufmann as Werther and Cavaradossi
For some years now the opera world has reveled in the appearance of many fine lyric tenors, with Juan Diego Florez leading the charge.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
For some years now the opera world has reveled in the appearance of many fine lyric tenors, with Juan Diego Florez leading the charge.
The sad corollary has been a feeling that the more heroic tenor sound — often called “spinto” — has gone lacking for fresh talent. Rolando Villazon tried to move from the light roles into the heavier, and a vocal crisis ensued. And just recently we lost to a tragic accident Salvatore Licitra, who a few years ago had seemed poised to attain true stardom in spinto roles.
Now comes Jonas Kaufmann, German by birth, and in his early 40s. He established himself on European stages and has gone on to make some notable appearances in the U.S. His is a strong, masculine sound, as handsome as the man himself. The vocal colors include deeper hues, as with Placido Domingo, but his top seems to be more reliable than Domingo’s often was. So far the greatest acclaim has come to Kaufman in Wagner, but he is by no means limiting himself to Lohengrin and Siegmund. His Don José for Covent Garden made it to DVD, and now Decca has released a Werther from Paris in 2010 and a 2009 Zürich Tosca with Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi. Both DVDs put on display a confident, poised tenor whose stardom obviously stems from a lot more than his good looks. For some he may never be a true spinto in Italian repertory, due to his nationality, but then those same fans (or their “ancestors”) felt the same about Jussi Bjorling. His is a different type of voice, larger and darker, but Kaufmann probably has no qualms in following the great Swedish tenor’s path.
Film director Benoît Jacquot’s Werther staging for Paris (although initially presented at Covent Garden) leaves wide open spaces for Kaufmann to fill with his stage presence, which the tenor has no problem doing. The set for the first half vaguely resembles a strand near a seashore on an overcast day, while the second half is staged in a vast study, dark and masculine in appearance. Director Jacquot uses these simple surroundings as platforms for emotional interaction, rather than symbolic display. Unfortunately, Jacquot, working with Louise Narboni, indulges in some odd camera angles as a video director, and he also makes use of backstage footage in a gambit that proves initially interesting but ultimately annoying.
Massenet’s opera respects the Goethe source material almost too much, as two hours with a dreary emotional wreck amounts to around 119 minutes more than most people would want to spend, even with such gorgeous music. Kaufmann’s Werther shines in his opening paean to nature, the character’s only few minutes in the opera not spent being a moody, lovesick drip. Even more impressive, though, is Kaufmann’s ability to draw the audience into Werther’s plight, so that the intolerable self-pity is muted by a sense of larger social forces oppressing the anti-hero. A big part of Kaufmann’s success lies with the sheer power and authority of his voice. There is no resorting to sobs or ostentatious drooping of the vocal line. Kaufmann lets the inherent pathos of Massenet’s score fill out the emotional picture.
As the object of Werther’s passion, Sophie Koch plays too much to Charlotte’s modest beauty, both in demeanor and voice — there must be some passion there to make us understand the depth of Werther’s attraction. Ludovic Tezier, on the other hand, is almost aggressively bland and prosaic as Albert, the man Charlotte must marry to fulfill a promise she had made. The veteran conductor Michel Plasson and the Paris musicians unfurl gorgeous swaths of color and texture in Massenet’s score. Decca’s two disc set has no bonus feature, though the booklet does have more original material than the usual DVD set booklet offers these days.
Robert Carsen’s Tosca for Zürich would make the NY audiences that bayed at Luc Bondy’s production for the Metropolitan howl and foam as if rabid. Carsen sees Puccini’s take on the Sardou play as anticipating the glory years of the American film studios, so the sets and costumes (by Anthony Ward) play upon the libretto’s settings to create a sort of mock film set, and at times a stage proscenium. Most of it works quite well, as Tosca and Scarpia are both inherently theatrical creatures, and Kaufmann’s Cavaradossi is more in line with the strong, though not so silent, type of leading man. A couple of bolder touches will not work well for all viewers — whether it’s having Cavardossi’s Madonna painting appear in Scarpia’s office during act two or having Scarpia attack it with a knife. Your reviewer got a big kick out of Tosca’s fatal leap taking place over the footlights at the edge of a stage, topped with Emily Magee taking her solo call in character. Others may not be amused. But the test of any Tosca is if it can find the emotional truth of the drama while breaking through the calcified stage directions that make the drama too clichéd to make any impact, and Carsen does so, with the invaluable assistance of his excellent leads.
Vocally, Kaufmann takes the prize. His solo pieces are gorgeous, and he can roar out a “Vittoria” with the best of them. Magee’s Tosca is best in the dramatic exchanges. Her large voice grows gritty and unpleasant in extended lines, and though Carsen has Thomas Hampson’s Scarpia applaud Magee’s “Vissi d’arte,” his sarcastic look is unfortunately understandable. Hampson’s take on Scarpia has freshness and edge, but it seems unlikely he will take on this role at any of the larger American houses. By the middle of act two, hoarseness scratches at the edge of his voice. Taken together, though, all three leads are successful enough to make this a very worthy competitor in the very crowded field of Tosca on DVD.
An unfamiliar name, conductor Paolo Carignani treats the score to a fresh approach, with expansive pacing and an expert selection of orchestral detail. The Zürich forces follow his lead beautifully. Decca’s single disc set has a basic essay and synopsis in the booklet and no on-disc bonus features.
Kaufmann will be in huge demand for years to come, and US audiences will have to wait their turn for his future appearances here. With two fine DVDs such as these, at least we have something of the tenor’s to watch while we wait.