19 Mar 2012
Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert
A major part of the rejuvenation of opera in the 21st century is the cultivation of young singers.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
A major part of the rejuvenation of opera in the 21st century is the cultivation of young singers.
There are a variety of organizations that use different methods to ensure that the next generation of singers is equipped with the experience they need to have a fruitful career in an extremely competitive environment.
Last year, for instance, Juliard’s opera department teamed up with the Met for their first annual co-production. In this case, Smetna’s The Bartered Bride allowed young singers to acquire stage experience as well as to work with big name officials such as James Levine. Other organizations such as Virginia’s Wolf Trap Opera Company dedicate themselves to cultivating new singers by designing entire seasons around them.
Still, the most popular method is the Evergreen Vocal Competition. The Met’s National Council Auditions are a fine example of such a vocal competition. Each March, less than ten finalists, selected from across America, are flown to New York for a concert, hosted by a famous singer and conducted by a well-known conductor. The concert also includes a surprise guest. The event, open to the public, is designed in such a way as to grant participants an invaluable experience while at the same time allowing the audience a sneak peek at upcoming talent. For the five chosen winners, the prize is $15,000 each and the opportunity to join in the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.
This year, the Grand Finals Concert of the National Council Auditions took place on Sunday, March 18th. It was hosted by bass-baritone Eric Owens, who has been making waves in the role of Albrecht in the Met’s new Robert Lepage Ring cycle. Owens also fulfilled the role of guest artist. The five winners were baritone Anthony Clark Evans, tenor Matthew Grills, mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa, soprano Janai Brugger, and countertenor Andrey Nemzer. The Metropolitan Opera orchestra was led adroitly by Andrew Davis.
All the participants, regardless of whether they won or lost, should congratulate themselves on making the concert an extremely close competition. In past years, there were clearly defined winners and losers. This wasn’t the case this year. Anthony Clark Evans sang magnificently. Both his arias, “Si puo? Si puo?” from Pagliacci, and “Hai gia vinta la causa,” from Le Nozze di Figaro, proved that despite the lack of such baritones as Sherrill Milnes, true Italianate singing is thankfully not dead. Although, it must be said that his portrayal of the angry yet risible count in the latter case came up a little short.
Despite the extraneous vibrato in her rendition of “O ma lyre immortelle,” from Gounod’s Sappho, Margaret Mezzacappa was able to showcase her warm chest tones. Also, her rendition of “Hence, Iris, hence away!” from Handel’s Semele, showcased her adaptability with baroque ornamentation. Countertenor Andrey Nemzer showcased his ability as a fine-singing actor in Giulio Cesare’s “Domero la tua firezza,” while his interpretation of “Ratmir’s Aria,” from Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, was an utter joy to hear.
Soprano Janai Brugger, a crowd favorite, is clearly someone to watch. In both her arias, the famous “Depuis le jour,” from Louise, and Die Zauberflote’s “Ach, ich fuhl’s,” demonstrated warm tone and command of legato and ornamentation. The highlight of Matthew Grills’ two performances was the always-popular, “Ah! mes amis!” from La Fille Du Regiment. It was eye-opening; so many tenors go for the champagne aspect of the aria, a la Pavarotti, but his interpretation had a more day-dreamlike quality. His Tonio was definitely thrilled with his amorous success, but was lost in daydreams of love, as opposed to pouring forth ebullient expressions of joy.
The joy of this concert was that so many of those who didn’t win deserved compensations for their performances. Soprano Lauren Snouffer sang excellently in her second aria, “Air du Feu,” from Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges. However, I was very impressed with her ability to handle the seemingly endless recitative of “Padre, germani, addio!” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Kevin Ray proved himself versatile, both as a Helden tenor in “Ein Schwert verhiess mir der Vater,” from Walküre, and as an Italianate singer in “Durch die Walder,” from Weber’s Der Freischutz.
Michael Sumuel was a superb actor in Leporello’s catalogue aria, yet he was also moving in Aleko’s cavatina from Rachmaninoff’s Aleko. Despite the concert’s short duration, Andrew Davis and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra can congratulate themselves on splendidly navigating a wide range of repertoire that extended from Handel to John Adams, and along the way, incorporated seldom-performed composers such as Rachmaninoff and Weber. Eric Owens sang splendidly in King Philip’s showpiece, “Ella giammai m’amo,” from Verdi’s Don Carlo. His adept ability at phrasing was especially noteworthy during the repetitions of “Amore, per me non ha” (She never loved me).
Lastly, the audience was blessed with an appearance by Peter Gelb as Eric Owens was getting ready to sing. As he spoke, he reminded the audience that even if a certain singer didn’t win, it did not mean that they would not be seen again on the Metropolitan Opera stage. After all, it is important to keep in mind that such singers as Richard Tucker, Patricia Racette, and Joyce DiDonato did not win. Still, I am happy to say that all of them deserved to be there, regardless of whether or not they won. I look forward to seeing them all on the Met stage again.