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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
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.