25 Nov 2011
Saul, Barbican Hall
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
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 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.
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.
Handel’s oratorio Saul was the first dramatic oratorio that he wrote with a strong libretto.
Charles Jennens compilation, based on biblical sources, created a powerful structure which enabled Handel to create a work which became the first of his English music dramas. The work was performed at the Barbican on Tuesday 21st November by The Sixteen under conductor Harry Christophers, in a concert performance which brought out the essential drama of the piece.
The title role is a remarkable portrait of a conflicted personality, and Handel emphasised this by reducing the characters arias and concentrating on recitative (both secco and accompanied). This means that it can be tricky role to bring off, fatally easy to under play in a concert performance. Peter Purves brought both Handelian bravura and drama to the role, no only acting but reacting, his performance continuing when others were performing, so that Purves showed Saul’s furious reaction to the Israelites praise for David. Purves is perhaps not the tidiest Handelian singer and he did have a tendency to distort the vocal line for expressive purposes. But this was a performance where music and drama went grippingly hand in hand.
The role of David was written for a woman to sing, but in recent years there has been a tendency for it to be sung by counter-tenors. Sarah Connolly demonstrated that in the right hands, the richness, depth and flexibility of a female mezzo-soprano voice can work wonders in the role. Though known for her Handel roles, Connolly’s voice has developed into quite a big instrument. Here she gave a finely moulded, intelligent performance of great beauty.
Robert Murray made an affable Jonathan, with a nicely turned phrase but not quite the purity of line that I would have liked. More importantly, I didn’t feel that there was much drama in the relationship between Murray’s Jonathan and Connolly’s David, though Murray’s individual contributions were finely done.
The drama isn’t perfect, Jennens libretto spends a little too much time on Saul’s daughters Merab and Michal. Elizabeth Atherton as Merab didn’t display quite such a firm line as I would have liked; but the role is a gift for an actress and Atherton displayed a nice line in temperament as the haughty Merab. Joelle Harvey was sweet as Michal, but the role doesn’t really call for much more. Harvey and Connolly duetted delightfully, but even they couldn’t quite convince that two duets in Act 2 is one duet too many.
But Act 2 closed in dramatic fashion with Purves’s powerful delivery of Saul’s accompagnato and a strong closing chorus, ‘O fatal consequence’. The drama continued to be vividly played in the final act, with Christophers encouraging the orchestra to bring out the rawness of Handel’s wonderful scene with the Witch of Endor. All closing with a strongly felt final Elegy.
The smaller roles (of which there are quite a few) were all taken by members of the Sixteen choir, with Jeremy Budd as an edgy, mysterious Witch of Endor, Mark Dobell as the High Priest, Stuart Young as an eerie Ghost of Samuel, Ben Davies as Does, Eamonn Dougan as a strongly characterised Abner and Tom Raskin as the unfortunate Amelkite killed by David at the end. All were strong and more than a credit to the group. Dobell did not always manage to make the rather prosy part of the High Priest interesting, but he was certainly had a good go.
The work was not strictly staged, and everyone sang from scores, but some thought had been put into elements of staging, entrances and exits so that the results contributed immensely to the feeling of drama. Though we had the libretto, diction was uniformly excellent and you hardly needed the words.
The 18 person choir (male altos, female sopranos) brought conviction and enthusiasm to their usually polished delivery. The chorus is called on to sometimes embody the Israelite people and sometimes simply comment; in whichever role the Sixteen was dramatically involved.
Handel’s orchestra is quite a large one, he uses trumpets, trombones and kettledrums. The work has a number of symphonies, describing off-stage action such as battles and funeral corteges so that Handel gives the orchestra a number of solo moments, with some lovely playing from harpist Frances Kelly; Handel also used a Carillon/Glockenspiel to great effect. The Sixteen Orchestra was clearly enthused by the work and by Christophers direction as they played with infection conviction. Christophers went for a rather rich continuo sound, using harp, theorbo, harpsichord and organ as part of the continuo group, which is understandable given the breadth of Handel’s orchestration in the piece. It was performed in Anthony Hicks’s edition.
Christophers ran each act without breaks, so that we had chance to feel how the drama flowed. He encouraged both cast and orchestra to produce vividly dramatic performances and the results were immensely engaging. There is a recording coming out next year and I look forward to it.