13 Dec 2011
Drapes ‘n’ Drops in Paris Forza
Paris Opera has lavished quite a monumental staging on Verdi’s musically rich (and Piave’s dramatically vapid) La Forza del Destino.
“Hi! 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.
Paris Opera has lavished quite a monumental staging on Verdi’s musically rich (and Piave’s dramatically vapid) La Forza del Destino.
Forza is performed seldom enough that my one and only other encounter with it was Houston's 1973 production. I figure that once about every forty years, I can sit through the illogicalities of — why not say it — a patently stupid story with plot holes big enough to drive a Lamborghini through, in order to savor some of Verdi's auspicious writing. Oddly enough, there were two surprising similarities between the two versions I encountered. Both were played on a raked rectangular platform unit set that twisted up to form a back wall to the playing space, and both opted to begin the piece with Scene One and interpolate the overture after it.
Set designer Alain Chambon has skillfully managed to create an epic sense of stagecraft with economy of means, and has drawn on a color palette and textures that evoke the Golden Age of Spanish painting (Murillo, Velasquez, Zurbaran). This was largely achieved with beautifully painted drops and artfully draped heavy curtains. A singularly haunting Corpus Christi hovered over one scene above center stage (with its back to us) only to later have the same over-sized plaster image discarded absently on the mountainside as Leonora huddles under a huge fabric (her "cave") on the opposite site. Gorgeous imagery. The opening scene was not in the heroine's bedroom, but rather played out at the conclusion of a stiff, tense family formal dinner. The stunningly painted drop backing the impossibly long dining table seemed to announce that we would be seeing a traditional theatrical presentation. However, when the Marchese returned to discover the lovers, he angrily ripped the whole thing down off its pipe, and visually the piece was jump started into a splendidly suggestive approximation of subsequent locales.
Laurent Castaingt designed elegantly atmospheric soft-edged lighting, which contributed mightily to the chiaroscuro effect. Maria-Chiara Donato devised uncommonly flattering costumes for her principals, notably for Violeta Urmana's Leonora whom was first treated to a sumptuous, figure flattering dark federal blue gown, with a draped shawl conveying social status and femininity. Her male disguise was similarly well-tailored, aptly representing the effect without being slavishly "masculine." I have never seen the soprano costumed to better effect. While the Dons and the Calatrava household were all muted, jewel-toned elegance and the clerics all earth-toned, sober penitence, Ms. Donato unleashed a welcome extravagant riot of colors for the crowd scenes including a vividly clad, uninhibited Preziosilla.
For his part, director Jean-Claude Auvray told the implausible story as though he was totally convinced by it. In service to the characters, Mr. Auvray mined whatever drama was in the given situation and presented it clearly and with focus. He managed the traffic in the crowd scenes with considerable skill, and for once, we always knew where we should be looking. If characterizations were a little generic, well, the creators made them so. And if Jean-Claude slipped into a cliché or two or operatic groupings, well, they became clichés because they worked! The only truly ineffective moment of the night came with the ineffectual sword fight between the tenor and baritone which was little more than a half-hearted, clinking purse fight. (Actually, that is to insult purse fights, so lame the effort was.) The staging was all that was needed, then, and the technical elements were more surpassingly beautiful than expected, but where the company scored biggest was where it really counted. Prima la musica!
Conductor Philippe Jordan just goes from strength to strength. His passionately felt, resplendent reading urged all concerned to summon up one of the most musically exciting nights I have spent in the Bastille. The thrice-familiar overture crackled, popped, churned and soared with a burning intensity, and it elicited such a sustained roar of approval that it threatened to keep us from ever hearing the rest of the score! And so it went all evening long, Maestro Jordan giving the impression that the piece might have been written to the strengths of his responsive orchestra and his first rate soloists.
Marcelo Alvarez was indeed a forza to be reckoned with as Don Alvaro. His meaty tone soared above the staff with full, gleaming Verdian presence. He also commands a rich middle voice that was put to excellent use in this tricky role. Everything about his technique seemed hooked up and well founded, and he brought a seamless beauty to the numerous phrases that arc through the passaggio to above the staff. I don't know who the leading Verdi tenor might be these days, but Marcelo deserves serious consideration. Violeta Urmana may have staked her Fach transition from mezzo to soprano on the gamble that we needed more accomplished divas who could sing these spinto parts. She was right. And Leonora fits her like a glove. Having admired her in Vienna's Chenier I was less happy with last year's Paris Macbeth. But no equivocation here, Ms. Urmana has all the ripe low notes in place, her middle is vibrant, and her forays in higher territory encompass every demand from floating, pure pianos, to the hurled curse at the end of Pace, mio Dio. What a shame the composer gave the lovers so little to sing together, since Violeta and Marcello were exceptionally well-paired.
As Don Carlo, Vladimir Stoyanov showed off a forward-placed, imposing baritone that excelled in all but the highest notes. Here, he used a ‘poosh-em-uppa-Tony’ sort of approach that was more about reliable volume than complete control. A little rounding of the tone might stand him in better stead, but Mr. Stoyanov was nevertheless a solid Carlo. Kwangchul Youn brought his warm, mellifluous bass to Padre Guardiano, and his accomplished vocalism helped make the final trio one of the show's high points. The animated Nicola Alaimo wrung every bit of buffo humor out of Fra Melitone as he dominated his every scene. His solid, brassy bass was a nice contrast to Mr. Youn. Nadia Krasteva's ripe, sultry mezzo was a perfect fit for Preziosilla and she knew every inch of the role, giving it her all in an assured portrayal. However, I always feel that the poor mezzo sings her lungs out, prances and pouts, ‘rat-a-plans’ herself into a stupor and in the end, nothing adds up to anything substantial. Mario Luperi's authoritative, secure bass sounded appropriately paternal as the Marchese. Rodolphe Briand contributed a memorable turn as Trabuco.
No one will ever make La Forza del Destino work completely. But thanks to Paris Opera's exciting design concepts, no-nonsense direction, and abundant musical wealth, this is surely as good as it gets.