13 Dec 2011
Amsterdam’s Adventurous Idomeneo
Straight to the point: Netherlands Opera has mounted as luminous and emotionally engaging an Idomeneo as is imaginable.
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
Straight to the point: Netherlands Opera has mounted as luminous and emotionally engaging an Idomeneo as is imaginable.
It is difficult to adequately describe the stunning imagery that designer Karl-Ernst Herrmann has put on display with his vivid sets, costumes, and lights (for all I know, he designed the program and swept the stage as well). All of the technical elements embody a profound depth of spirit, are supremely informative, and visually engaging. His colossal floor plan puts a four-foot wide illuminated white pentagonal walkway around the orchestra and right up to the edge of the parterre, and adjoins to it at curtain-line a massive upstage golden-hued beach “peninsula” which narrows as it recedes, and is on a hydraulic that can tilt it towards us quite steeply when so desired. A lone, Arp-inspired rock far upstage seems to be awaiting a mermaid.
Edgaras Montvidas as Arbace and Susan Gritton as Elettra
The sides and top of the proscenium are defined by a large dove-grey “box” which is initially enclosed by a similar panel that covers the entire proscenium opening. This is used to magical effect as a shadow screen to intensify any number of key downstage moments with appropriate moving images, from very small to very large. Surprisingly, the entire massive panel was hinged at the top so its bottom could swing away from us and upward to disappear into the loft, not only revealing the expanse of sand upstage, but also creating ominous lighting effects as the shadow crosses the playing space like a guillotine blade.
Mr. Herrmann has accessorized the space with mysterious poles, each bearing a ritualistic symbol atop, at once suggesting Crete, the origins of dramatic performance itself, and an uncanny timelessness. Carrying out that primitive theme, artful masks for the chorus are judiciously deployed, sometimes worn, sometimes carried aloft by hand, sometimes held aloft atop poles. His costumes are as character-defining as you are likely to see in many a year of opera-going. Just look at the chorus (singing with gusto under Martin Wright’s tutelage) in one scene arrayed in a courtly set of butter-cup yellow double-breasted suits and gowns, in another barefoot and dressed down in generic and timeless black peasant wear, in yet another appearing like a bygone era’s stereotypical tourists.
Edgaras Montvidas as Arbace, Stéphanie d’Oustrac Idamante, Judith van Wanroij as Ilia and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera
Overall, Herrmann the Costumer favors a baggy, loose fitting silhouette, almost suggesting children playing grown-ups. Idomeneo is in a generous white suit with a stray piece of shoulder armor, swaddled one time in a white felt cape and another in a consuming, weighty fur. And, yes he wears the standard issue, spiky European opera “crown.” Idamanate’s look seems inspired by a white sailor uniform, augmented by an unfettered vest and black tie. Neptune is in a mix and match of green pants, overcoat, and laurel wreath, part seaweed, part Emerald City. And best, Elettra is a diva assoluta, with a sort of violet/burgundy strapless push-up bodice top (decorated with vertical black-lacquered boning) and skirt of overlaid fabric that flares out like a funnel. Matching pumps, jacket and hat complete the fashionable persona. The hair design was no less masterful with quirky sweeps of tresses that rivaled a hood ornament on a Chrysler.
His lighting was no less affecting, with its cunning use of shadow play, and its color palette that ranged from stark white, to moody blue, to dusty orange, to vivid yellow. The diffuse sun projection was at times blood red, at others milky white, and during the raging storm, eclipsed by a brooding black disc. The lightening effect was truly unsettling, perfectly enhancing the panicked scattering of rag-clad choristers. The end of Act I was punctuated by a startling’ coup de theatre’ as the waning musical effects decrescendo’d to their last whimper when — BANG! — three giant prongs of Neptune’s trident came thrusting up violently from the stage floor. The audience was snapped to attention as one. So many exciting design choices, but then, what of the work of Herrmann the Director?
In tandem with his wife Ursel, Ehepaar Herrmann have crafted a fluid, constantly evolving series of stage pictures and plot development that are a joy to behold and too numerous to celebrate here. In addition to telling the story with serious dramatic purpose, they have managed to infuse some genuine wit and theatricality into the evening with the lurking appearances of a sometimes aggressive, sometimes bemused Nettuno. One common thread is having the sea-god continue to offer Idomeneo an ax with which to execute Idamante. However, his first entrance has him poking his head up over the ramp from the orchestra pit. Later, during a light hearted moment, he reappears there, places a platter with a cooked fish on the stage, and proceeds to filet and eat it!
Michael Schade as Idomeneo and Dietmar Kerschbaum as Gran sacerdote di Nettuno
The Herrmann’s have done exemplary work with the movement and uses of the industrious chorus. One memorable effect saw the front panel raise to reveal a massive black monolith center of the ‘beach.’ It was only after Idomeneo grabbed (what turned out to be) a piece of the black cloth and pulled away the covering that we realized the monolith was the shoulder-to-shoulder chorus huddled beneath it. A caveat: while all of the action and confrontations were believable and while all of the arias were well internalized, the limitations of the traffic patterns on the ramp did provide challenges in variety of blocking, which were largely overcome. But none of this fruitful physicalization would count for anything had the musical side not matched it, and here Netherlands Opera really scored big.
In the treacherous title role, Michael Schade sang with his accustomed polish, his pleasing grainy tone sounding suave and responsive, and his florid passages secure and fleet. I have always found him rather reserved, even stiff, with his stage deportment, but on this outing Mr. Schade displayed a passion and ferocity that made this a truly memorable role assumption. Matching him, Susan Gritton revealed herself to be an Elettra ne plus ultra. Her richly glamorous tone, interpretive savvy, flawless technique, and ample gleaming fire power dominated every scene she was in (as she must). On the basis of her recent Sesto in Paris and now her assured Idamante here, Stephanie d’Oustrac seems to be laying claim to becoming the pre-eminent Mozart Mezzo of the Moment. Her pliant, bewitching instrument has in its arsenal tremulous outbursts, plangent laments, and utter security with rip-snorting trip hammer coloratura. And she cuts a believable figure in these pants roles, blessedly free of clichéd ‘manly’ posturing.
Michael Schade as Idomeneo and Stéphanie d’Oustrac as Idamante
Having previously quite enjoyed Judith van Wanroij’s pure, silvery soprano in Monteverdi on this stage, I found my admiration well founded since she delivered a haunting, sympathetic Ilia. A pre-performance announcement in Dutch was made that I didn’t really follow, and when I asked about it at intermission I found that the singer performing Arbace was “indisposed.” I had actually already been mightily impressed by Edgardas Montvides for his vibrant tone and convincing delivery. What must he sound like when he is well!? All of the smaller roles were nicely essayed, particularly the delightfully warm soprano of diminutive Fang Fang Kong as a featured Cretan.
John Nelson led an idiomatic, highly detailed reading in the pit, eliciting vibrant colors and textures that made a potent case for Mozart’s opus. Noteworthy, too, were the wonderful contributions from Peter Lockwood with his aptly inventive playing of the continuo keyboard in tandem with the refined cello work from Herre-Jan Stergenga. When all the theatrical and musical planets align as they did with Netherlands Opera’s Idomeneo, you really are wholly drawn into an artistic experience that is, well, out of this world.