Recently in Performances
I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value
a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
02 Dec 2011
Antwerp’s Puzzling Tchaikovsky Rarity
From the moment the curtain rose to reveal a loony bin instead of the 15th Century Inn of the libretto, it seemed likely the Flemish Opera was going to raise more questions than it answered about Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed The Enchantress.
I certainly applaud the enterprising company for the adventurous season on offer during which locals can also take in Il Viaggio a Reims, Il Duca d’Alba and Mahagonny along with the slightly more mainstream Forza and a lone bread-and-butter run of Carmen. The overall high quality of productions here and the excellent caliber of the singers has won the loyalty and trust of a public who will clearly embrace new experiences beyond the standard repertoire. That said, The Enchantress was, for me, an opportunity missed.
Back to the afore-mentioned nut house: the first act was populated by an ensemble dressed in a ragtag, indecipherable array of (mostly) contemporary costumes (by Marc Weeger and Silke Willrett) that included mismatched track suits, letter jackets, medical wear, shorts, mix-and-match gowns, drag, military, terrorists, a large polar bear ‘mascot,’ and yes, even a female chorister in a giant white knit penis costume with removable ‘cap.’ There were real genitals on display as well, with two naked muscled ballerinos jiggle-flopping their way through the proceedings, one sporting a design of body-paint and wearing a surgical mask, the other disguised by a full rubber head of a green alien seemingly out of the bar scene in the original Star Wars. (Perhaps this was to protect the innocent.) The box set (designer Klaus Grűnberg) was a white tiled asylum (with some more penis images graffiti’d on the walls), packed with ‘choral risers’ built of overturned white plastic bottle crates. At rise, an acrobat is discovered balancing horizontally on his stomach atop an aluminum A-frame ladder center stage, while the inmates revel manically in the crowded playing space.
Did no one see the problem of presenting a virtually unknown work in such a radical ‘interpretation’? An audience hungry to know the piece has read a program synopsis and surtitles that are completely at odds with what is being presented visually. And while we are wondering how it all reconciles, what it might ‘mean,’ and what the hell the dancing polar bear is doing up there, we are mightily distracted from the full impact of some worthy music, well performed. The title refers to the central character of Nastasia (nicknamed ‘Kuma’), dubbed by some historians as "the Russian Carmen," so potent is her sensual appeal. It is not the lovely soprano Ausrine Stundyte’s fault that director Tatjana Gűrbaca has imagined her as more ‘floozy’ than ‘fatale.’ Decked out in a Sally Bowles spaghetti strap cocktail dress and black suit jacket, black hose, and a head piece that looks like a Beefeater black furry hat with a serious feathered cowlick, Kuma comes off visually about as ‘irresistible’ as a roadside hooker at 6:00 am. It doesn’t help that Ausrine is made to sashay and shimmy and stroke and pout with every Vamp cliché in the catalogue. What Ms. Stundyte does accomplish is singing very beautifully indeed, with a sizable lyrico-spinto instrument that encompasses a robust mid-register and a potent top with just a hint of steel. Previous encounters with her have revealed her to be capable of much more personalized, inventive acting than was asked of her here.
The crowd management seemed mostly designed to get masses out of the way as best as possible, in order for the principals to get on stage through the double doors, far upstage center. A couple of soloists (Prince Nikita, Deacon Mamirov) were brought downstage, but others were not, including young Prince Yuri whose lingering in the door made a weak first impression, distanced as he was from the audience. Although the upper class were in business suits, it was hard to guess what their relationships were owing to the lack of specificity in the stage groupings.
Mercifully, the obstructive ladder was finally struck and the space was freed for more varied pictures. There was a wonderful sense of repose in Act One’s great ‘a capella’ ensemble, but the lighting (Mr. Grűnberg again), having been adequate this far, was suddenly cued to throw the whole stage into very dim shadows. Very. Dim. Faces-Lost-Dim. Like this effect, the entire Act was littered with un-illuminated generalities and a conspicuous lack of focus. By the time One ended with Mamirov being pummeled with the knit penis head wielded by the Star Wars nude (laughing silently-if-demonically), I was worried — very worried — where else this could go. And then
Act Two, set in a non-specific, elegant grey-curtained office-cum-dining-room showed some startling dramatic bite and unexpected character development. Turns out we are in Soviet Russia, and the privileged class are powerful apparatchiks. Princess Jevpraxija is rubber-stamping documents at her desk as she laments abandonment by her husband Nikita. Irina Makarova, looking regal in a tailored State uniform, turned in a performance of searing intensity and vibrant, polished vocalism. My immediate thought as the mezzo poured out impressively controlled chest tones as well as unstinting, ringing phrases above the staff was "wow, what a Verdi singer she would be." And sure enough, the thrilling Ms. Makarova has the full arsenal of those Italian roles in her repertoire. Hers was a deeply felt, varied interpretation, ranging from buttoned-down acceptance of her situation; to ranting, clothes-shedding defiance; to heartfelt, melting phrases of mourning and loss. Hers was arguably ‘the’ performance of the night, although to be fair, Ms. Stundyte become much more engaged (and better used) later in the evening, and her Act IV aria was beautifully judged and exceptionally moving.
The son, Prince Yuri was well-taken by Dimitri Polkopin, although his straight-forward tenor bullies its way through more than a few high phrases, concerned a bit more with volume than with suavity. Still, he displayed good theatrical instincts and even contributed some wit to the plot machinations as he played Mama’s Boy to Ms. Makarova’s Diva Mother. The cat-and-mouse, give-and-take staging of Act Two showed good use of the stage, and displayed a real search for dramatic motivation. Valery Alexeev was heard to best advantage paired up with these two co-stars, and his rather blustery delivery that began the show transformed into a focused, forward-placed, no-nonsense performance of real import. Taras Shtonda made the most potent vocal impression of the men, his naturally booming, orotund bass impressing all evening long. Mr. Shtonda was hampered a bit by the Mr. Magoo-like demeanor and presence that were imposed on him, but he got around that with his solid, meaningful, arching phrasing. As the intruder Paisi (a vagabond disguised as monk), Nikolai Gassiev offered a spirited, consistent portrayal, but on this evening his reliable comprimario tenor sounded just a bit raspy.
Director and design team showed a real clarity now. Some meaningful stage business was mined to good effect as the desk is re-dressed as a formal dining table, and set with dinnerware and accoutrements for the "royal" family to sup together. Physical and emotional relationships were revealed through well-considered movement, and there was a conscientious search for dramatic truth. Just as I was basking in all this honesty, taking in the affecting score, and marveling that we were now at another show freed of the prior absurdities, damn if the upstage curtain didn’t part, and a wagon full of milk-crate-mountains, scruffy protesters, and that damn bear, come rolling downstage at us! Truthfulness? Poof! Gone! (However, as Kittsjiga in this scene, Thomas Muerkas offered some exceptional singing as he denounced the aristocracy). And so the show careened willy-nilly from honesty to self-indulgent distraction, ultimately leaving us with no cogent over-all impression except wondering what the composer’s Enchantress might really be like.
In the pit, the Flemish band played cleanly, enthusiastically, and responsively, although I have heard Dmitri Jurowksi elicit more passion and commitment on other occasions. The maestro seemed a bit detached, perhaps a bit hamstrung by the excesses of the production. Certainly, Chorus Master Yannis Pouspourikas ably coached his ensemble to pour out long stretches of full-throated phrases, and they scored big in the unaccompanied scene. But owing to the rambunctious motion often asked of them, phrase endings were not always clean, and on one occasion, there were internal rhythmic coordination problems.
In the end, while the first act music came off as most characterful, on my first hearing the writing became more generic, even gratuitous, as the show wore on. While it was a welcome opportunity to experience The Enchantress at long last and at a company of fine repute, whatever good intentions Flemish Opera had, it must remain to another enterprising theatre to more fully make its case.
Click here for cast and other production information