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.
23 Jan 2012
Five Boroughs Songbook
What does it say about New York that, in the songs of the city commissioned by the Five Boroughs Music Festival and given performances in Brooklyn, Queens and, now, Manhattan, the poets (often the composers themselves) rarely refer to life in that central part of the city, Rodgers and Hart’s “isle of joy”?
These twenty songs by as many composers are largely concerned with the city as an abstraction, a beloved object, a universal core, or else they address the outer boroughs. Composers, poets, songwriters can no longer afford Manhattan perhaps. They live in Brooklyn’s lovely and not-so-lovely neighborhoods, or in the recuperating Bronx, or even Staten Island. They no longer even dream about Manhattan. Larry Hart wouldn’t recognize the place. Greenwich Village was not mentioned all evening—nor Chinatown, nor Harlem, nor even Inwood. Times Square, in Richard Pearson Thomas’s “The Center of the Universe,” was invoked to “remember the bad old days.” It is no use asking (though I do ask) how much longer New York will be “the center of the country, the world, the universe,” when none of the young, the adventurous, the energetic and creative immigrants can afford to live closer in than Bushwick or Newark.
This has an understandable effect on song output. In the gaudy days of Tin Pan Alley, songwriters stumped for inspiration could look out the window and come up with “Lullaby of Broadway” or “Way Out West on West End Avenue” or “When Love Beckoned on Fifty-Second Street.” But there is no Tin Pan Alley any more. Musically, there’s barely a Broadway. Few of the twenty composers on this program write that kind of theater (at least four of them have composed operas), but on this occasion they often seemed to channel the wisecracking New York wit and the nostalgic art largely missing from Broadway for the last generation. Requested by the Five Boroughs Music Festival to write about some aspect of New York, they have not been parochial in their choice of subject or text—some were old, some were modern, some were the composers themselves. Two of the songs were poems by the ever-exultant Walt Whitman, who retired in New Jersey but drew his universal point of view from his Brooklyn youth.
A lot of numbers in the Songbook boasted rumbling piano accompaniments to symbolize the constant basso continuo throb of the city. There were jazz inflections and dance rhythms, passing in and out of a song as if overheard while ambling by in the darkness. There were songs made up of fragments—fragments of overheard conversations, fragments of overheard melody (Harold Arlen, Giuseppe Verdi), fragments of dying or undying love affairs, fragmentary impressions of Brooklyn on a summer night or the odor of the garbage dumps on Staten Island, fragments of gnomic subway announcements.
Van Eyck, Guth, Richardson, McFerrin, Bagwell, Dueck and Rhodes
There seemed to be quite a lot of songs about the subway. Glen Roven’s “F from DUMBO” seemed to consist of glances at the crowds by a numbly daydreaming straphanger. Gilda Lyons’ “rapid transit” invoked and celebrated the whole crazy system, its changeable schedules and half-audible warnings. Tom Cipullo’s “G is for Grimy: An Ode to the G Train” celebrated (and trashed) the one line in the system that never enters Manhattan at all. John Glover’s “8:46 AM, Five Years Later” unsensationally presented memories of being caught on the N train beneath the city on the morning of 9/11. There had to be one such song, just one, and this was one’s felt unforced and meaningful.
Yotam Haber’s exquisite setting of “On Leaving Brooklyn” made the very syllables of Julia Kasdorf’s revision of Psalm 137 into musical tones, “borough” and “Babylon” and “Jerusalem” becoming harmonized values and nostalgic wisps of melody. Scott Wheeler’s “At Home in Staten Island,” from an old poem by Charles Mackay, became a parlor ballad concealing its ache in an old-fashioned tune. Mohammed Fairouz’s ambitious “Refugee Blues” (which describes a more general situation rather than one specific to New York), builds on W.H. Auden’s use of a repetitive, folk song-like refrain, to achieve a gathering power. Jorge Martin set Whitman’s “City of Orgies, Walks and Joys!” to an irresistible boogie-woogie rich with the delight of simply romping about the town, while a solo violin gave the fantasy a piquant turn by chiming in just “off” the harmonies we had been led to expect.
Harumi Rhodes was the violinist. The pianists, Thomas Bagwell and Jocelyn Dueck, were both fine, but Rhodes played with almost vocal inflections of intricate participation rather than accompaniment: the violin as lieder singer. This speaks well of the composers who provided for her as well as her own poetic technique.
The songs were arranged for four contrasting voices, and the program varied and balanced their duties. Soprano Martha Guth and mezzo Jamie Van Eyck partnered well in the deadpan wit of “rapid transit.” Guth, having plumbed near-alto depths earlier, suddenly became a high, keening opera soprano for the melancholy of “At Home In Staten Island,” mated here with Rhodes’s violin, and (on the other side of that large borough) deplored the air of Christina Courtin’s “Fresh Kills.” Van Eyck brought drama to the mourning, accusing “Refugee Blues” and wistfulness to Renée Favand-See’s “Looking West on a Humid Summer Evening,” and lightly aired the brittle wit of Gabriel Kahane’s “Coney Island Avenue.” Tenor Alex Richardson was the yearning, regretting lover of Russell Platt’s “The Avenue” and Christopher Berg’s “OuLiPo in the Bronx.” David McFerrin’s grainy baritone gave us Martin Hennessy’s love song to the mothering city itself, “The City’s Love,” partnered Guth in Ricky Ian Gordon’s setting of Whitman’s invocation, “City of Ships,” and quietly made the point of “8:46 AM.” Texts were provided but the diction of all four was impeccable in the intimate confines of the Baruch Performing Arts Center.
The Songbook was recorded at an earlier performance with different singers, and the two-CD set is available from GPR Records on the Five Boroughs Music Festival web site.
Click here to purchase the CD.