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.
It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”
Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?
Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s ﬁrst great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.
The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.
This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’
Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
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.