Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
25 Jan 2012
Charpentier and Purcell by Early Opera Company
Composed during the spring hunting season of 1684, for a patron and performance venue unknown, Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s brief six-scene Opera de Chasse (‘Hunting Opera’), Actéon, has remained seldom performed and something of a mystery.
Based upon a story from Ovid’s
Metamorphoses, this ‘pastorale en musique’ tells the tragic tale
of the unfortunate eponymous hunter who unwittingly stumbles upon the secluded
bathing haunt of the goddess Diana and her attendant nymphs. He attempts to
conceal himself but to no avail, and he is punished severely for his trespass
by the angry goddess. Diana transforms him into a stag and Actéon is pursued
and torn apart by his own hunting hounds.
It is a fairly lightweight piece, with some dramatic variety and pleasing
emotional contrasts; Charpentier’s score is typically elegant, with regard to
melodic phrasing, and rhythmically robust, most especially in the bucolic
scenes enlivened by dance-like instrumental forms and textures. Here, the
assembled soloists emerged from the one-per-part chorus, deftly moving to the
forestage at appropriate points, skilfully diverting and sustaining the
audience’s attention. All produced a fairly idiomatic pronunciation of the
French text; but, while a graceful phrasing of the exquisite yearning phrases
was achieved, there was little attempt to render the authentic ornamentation of
the French baroque style.
Charpentier, an accomplished tenor, probably composed the title role for
himself. Here, Ed Lyon, singing confidently and with obvious commitment to the
drama, produced a beautiful youthful tenor, surely sufficiently warm and tender
to melt even the most glacial goddess’s heart. If Lyon’s upper register
sometimes lacked a little weight and substance, the touching vulnerability of
his tender pianissimo in his transformation scene more than
compensated; and, he exalted Diana’s loveliness with wondrous awe. His
transformation aria was followed by a trio sonata for violins and continuo,
exquisitely played by violinists Kati Debretzeni and Huw Daniel supported by
Reiko Ichise on viola da gamba.
As Diana, Claire Booth sang with focus and clarity, but while she was
admirably reliable in pitch and tone, at times she seemed a little too forceful
for the role. The heart-rending action was rudely interrupted by the
interjections of Juno (Hilary Summers), who confesses that, in a jealous rage
aroused by Jupiter’s infidelity, she has brought about Actéon’s death.
Summers enjoyed the extravagant dramatic aspects of the part, projecting
powerfully from the Wigmore Hall balcony; but, her tone was rather strident and
somewhat undid the mood of elegiac pathos.
Ciara Hendrick and Elizabeth Weisberg completed the line up of competent
soloists; the seven singers joined to form a chorus characterised by neat
ensemble, and clean, airy textures. After Actéon’s death, his hunting
companions lament “the beautiful days cut short” of this invincible hero
“in the springtime of his age”; unfortunately some poor flute intonation
unsettled the overall tuning at the close of what had been an appealing and
convincing performance of an attractive and stirring score.
Charpentier’s Actéon is an unusual yet complementary pairing
with Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, the latter being inconveniently
succinct and requiring a partnering work. Yet, Charpentier’s score preceded
Purcell’s by only five years, and there are many affinities between them, not
only of musical style - Purcell’s dance-textures and rhythms often sound
distinctly French - but also of situation and mythic context, for
Charpentier’s narrative is also related by one of Dido’s ladies-in-waiting
in the aria “Oft she visits this lone mountain” in Purcell’s opera.
If Charpentier’s pastoral drama is ultimately rather frivolous, Purcell
inspires considerably greater emotional weight and intensity. With Anna
Stephany, the advertised Dido, indisposed, Susan Bickley stepped into the role
at short notice, presenting a controlled, poised interpretation of regal
bearing, betrayal and distress. If her early arias seemed overly guarded and
reserved, a little lacking in affective gesture, by the closing lament her
noble dignity was firmly established and her portrayal deeply poignant.
Claire Booth was a deliciously rich-toned Belinda, and Hilary Summers’
vocal exaggerations were more apt for the disconcerting devilry of the
Sorceress. As Aeneas, baritone Marcus Farnsworth, made as much as is possible
of the slim part.
Christian Curmyn led the ensemble in typically controlled and elegant
fashion; perhaps his rendering was a little too restrained, more suitable for
Charpentier’s relatively inconsequential drama, than for the emotional peaks
and troughs of Purcell. There was grace and discipline, but few musical or
dramatic surprises; in the Purcell especially, the emotional peaks were
somewhat muted, the protagonists a little too self-possessed. Even in the
Charpentier the dances lacked spontaneity; one longed for a looser rein which
would permit the instrumental players the necessary freedom to inject an
improvisatory quality. Purcell’s drunken sailors and grotesque witches were
Although we don’t know the circumstances and venue of the first
performance of Charpentier’s Actéon, its brevity and intimacy, and
the courtly ambience of the French baroque idiom, suggest a private setting.
Similarly, while it was once firmly believed that Purcell’s opera was
composed for girls’ school in Chelsea run by dancing master Josiah Priest,
critics now question whether it was not in fact modelled upon John Blow’s
masque, Venus and Adonis, and first performed at court in the 1680s.
Whatever their origins, both works are ideally suited to the intimacy of the
Wigmore Hall, and the Early Opera Group’s thoughtful, if rather conservative,
performance, heightened the grace and eloquence of these elegant, affecting