16 Feb 2012
The Barber of Seville, Metropolitan Opera
It was a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the late 90’s that marked my first visit to the Met.
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.
Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.
It was a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in the late 90’s that marked my first visit to the Met.
As a young opera lover under the age of ten, my awe at the occasion requires no explanation. Needless to say, as I took my seat with the rest of my family in the Grand Tier, I felt like the ever-elusive “big kid” that young boys aspire to be. However, as soon as the conductor commenced the overture, to my consternation, I felt an overpowering urge to laugh. Therefore, what began as a potentially magical evening when a kid gets his first taste of adulthood was threatened by the possibility of immediately degenerating into a travesty. I was sure that if I had dared to laugh, some bejeweled grand dame would have given an inscrutable nod, leading directly to my removal from the auditorium.
My reason for laughing is quite simple: from the first bars of the overture, my brain immediately equated the music coming from the pit with the soundtrack of The Rabbit of Seville, the Looney Tunes cartoon starring Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Looking back on my first night at the Metropolitan Opera, I realize I must not be the only person that made that connection. Indeed, it is the very fact of the overture’s frenetic pacing, so characteristic of both Looney Tunes and Rossini, that allows the opera to speak so vividly to our modern times, just short of 200 years since the opera’s composition.
Diana Damrau as Rosina and John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
According to Benjamin Walton, author of the book Rossini in Restoration Paris, Rossini can be classified as a Romantic composer, not because he offers grand philosophical statements on human nature like Wagner does, but rather because his music inhabits a domain that is utterly sensuous. The sensuousness of his music combined with its ebullient pace makes the composer’s work the embodiment of rushed modernity. Walton’s book, however, only utilizes this framework to analyze musical political developments in 1820’s Paris. I believe, however, that in this light, Rossini’s sense of modernity is perennial. His indulgent musical language describes the hyperactive 21st century just as easily as it described a world trying to make sense of the French Revolution and its consequences.
With this in mind, it makes sense that Peter Gelb would contract acclaimed Broadway director Bartlett Sher, of The Light in the Piazza and South Pacific fame, to direct a new production of The Barber of Seville. This production, which was revived again earlier this season, was recently brought back for its Spring run. In the cast, Diana Damrau and John Del Carlo reprised their respective roles as Rosina and Dr. Bartolo. Figaro was played by Rodion Pogossov, while Colin Lee sang the Count. The team was led by acclaimed Rossini interpreter Maurizio Benini.
Mr. Benini has proven himself adept in Rossini operas. In recent years, he has conducted both Barber and La Cerentola. He has even led the company’s recent debut of Le Conte Ory. In every case, he has shown he is quite adept at Rossini’s fast-paced orchestration. Here, however, he also demonstrated his ability to match speed with lyricism. He aptly demonstrated the composer’s facility with creating instrumental blends. However, once or twice, most notably during Don Basilio’s “La Calunia” and the Count’s “Cessa di piu resistere,” he seemed to lose his stamina, but that in no way diminished his reading.
As the Count, Colin Lee was the definition of Bel Canto singing. He showcased a delightfully streamlined vibrato as well as stunning legato. It was a joy to experience a coloratura tenor who actually availed himself of every opportunity to demonstrate every facet of his vocal technique. He also depicted a sharper side of the traditionally lovestruck Count. This allowed the Count and not just Bartolo and Basilio to be the noble objects of satire in this opera buffa. He demonstrated this by plucking a guitar from the hands of one of the musicians accompanying him in his opening serenade to Rosina, as well as smacking Figaro with a guitar later on in Act I.
In the hands of Diana Damrau, Rosina is not another role, she is a phenomenon. As a critic, familiarizing oneself with various interpretations of the same role is part of the job description. However, when Damrau exploded onto the stage for “Una voce poco fa,” she managed to sprint out of the gates, leaving Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, Lily Pons, and Roberta Peters breathless in her wake. Opera fans are no doubt well acquainted with the text of “Voce.” In a section lauded for technical prowess, Rosina states that although she can be docile, loving, and obedient, if her affections should be abused, she can bite with the sting of a viper and before admitting defeat, she can play one hundred tricks.
Rodion Pogossov as Figaro, Diana Damrau as Rosina, and Colin Lee as Almaviva [Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera]
In the hands of any other soprano, these are just words, and no matter how well they are interpreted, they are confined to that one aria. In Damrau’s hands, she physically and vocally turned that text into a credo, something her Rosina didn’t state but rather lived for the entirety of the role. Her attention to text was breathtaking. She bounced onto the word “vipera” (viper). Her runs at the end of “Voce” had a slow build. This was a very audible demonstration that she could turn anyone, perhaps even the audience, into mincemeat. Additionally, her trills in “Dunque io son,” reflected a whole new light on the character.
In Damrau’s hands, these runs were less an expression of joy at requited love and more an affirmation of determination to win the day. It was plain to see that now that she knew her love was reciprocated, she would redouble her attacks on Bartolo. Despite her brilliance at portraying Rosina as a vindictive ward, the true mastery of her interpretation showed through in the character’s intrinsic humanity. There were moments, such as the recitative immediately following “Voce,” as well as the Act II aria “Contro un cor,” which illustrated that despite the tough veneer, she was perhaps an innocent girl who was seriously afraid of getting hurt by the men around her. During “Contro un cor,” her statements of “Darling, I’m begging you to save me” were true pleas for help.
John Del Carlo was an appropriately self-important Bartolo. His adroit Rossinian patter was a joy to hear. Ferruccio Furlanetto was a marvelously theatrical Don Basilio. As Figaro, Rodion Pogossov was a true team player in an opera predicated on ensembles. Unfortunately, while his amazing physicality was an asset in this bubbling comedy, his rendition of the famous “Largo al factotum” was a little weak. While other baritones such as Sherrill Milnes avail themselves of the musical comedy of this opera through such techniques as falsetto, Pogossov was a decidedly physical comedian. Despite his stentorian voice, the musical comedy of this aria went largely untouched.
Since The Barber of Seville, Bartlett Sher has come back to the Met to revive Les Contes d’Hoffman and to debut Le Conte Ory. Barber remains a decent harbinger of what was to come. The comedy of this production is largely predicated on elementary tricks of theater, which use their obvious nature to increase the comic effect. He also incorporated images from the text. The set is dominated by doors, representing Rosina’s trapped lifestyle. Also, from his very first appearance sleeping under a sheet in an armchair while the overture is still being played, Dr. Bartolo receives his full treatment as the satirized nobleman that is such a hallmark of opera buffa. However, this production has one major flaw: the lighting design, done by Christopher Akerlind, was a bit off. It was clear he was going for the look of a sun-drenched Andalusian atmosphere; however, most notably in the opening scene, the lights, consisting primarily of overpowering yellows and greens, were harsh and off the mark.
Despite a few blemishes, the Met’s Barber of Seville has demonstrated the staying power of this opera by disclosing certain aspects that have previously been hidden. When I left the opera house, I had new respect for the piece. I was reminded of why audiences return to this beloved opera again and again, while at the same time, I discovered new depth to the work. In short, I left with the respect for the work’s humanity, as well as its effervescent joy.