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.
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.
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.