05 Mar 2012
Paris: Tenors Trump Befuddled Productions
Two recent outings at the Paris Opéra might have been subtitled: “Max Bialystock is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
Two recent outings at the Paris Opéra might have been subtitled: “Max Bialystock is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”
Remember Max, the hapless impresario in Mel Brooks’ The Producers? His auditor opines that no one investigates where the money goes after a show flops, so if he over sold the shares to investors, he could pocket the money with virtual impunity. Max puts on the worst possible, sure-fire flop, Springtime for Hitler. Except somehow, it becomes a hit. Based on the SRO status of the current egregiously misrepresented Manon maybe an accountant should be called to investigate where our ticket money was spent. ‘Cause it sure ain’t in the service of Massenet.
It can only be owing to Natalie Dessay’s star power that ‘the producers’ felt this Manon could possibly merit approval/interest. For those who remember the near flawless, Fragonard-inspired version late of New York City Opera, which was all of a (period) piece, this mixed bag of a design was as alienating and angering as it was confusing.
Elsa Pavanel’s eclectic costumes were perhaps the worst visual polluters. For no good reason, Lescaut was Almighty Goth, a leather-wrapped, chain-weighted, spiky-haired thug. Bretigny’s evening was spent in the burgundy palette, first in a satin disco suit, then Goth-icized in Act II, and later Goth-damn-it-all, in a swishy frock coat. Des Grieux first swam upstream in a tailored salmon-hued 40’s suit. Trixie, Dixie and Nixie (um, I mean Pousette, Javotte, Rosette) were each adorned in completely different period garb. In real time it was Mardi Gras, so maybe Ms. Pavanel was suggesting that this grab bag of motley variety just — ‘oopsie’ — spilled from the streets onto the Bastille stage. What else could explain first attiring the Chorus in (the correct) period court dress, then having them appear to have wandered in straight out of Meistersinger, then having the ladies got up in early 20th century day dresses? It may have still been Carnival in the real world but in the theatre we were already mired in Lent, the production awaiting redemption in vain.
There was nothing so awfully wrong about the massive set design created by Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine. It just never added anything atmospherically to the effort. The huge staircase and upper landing of Act I seemed more indoor castle hall than outdoor courtyard, this in spite of the entrance of a 1950’s tour bus announcing its destination as Amiens.
Act Two’s simple garret has a seriously confused sense of architecture, with the one door up center used only by Des Grieux and a Concierge (who, no kidding, delivers pizza in a box just before the hero leaves to post his letter). Others entered from the wings, seemingly walking through the ‘walls.’ Nor was any of this helped by Hervé Gary’s sputtering, bluntly cued lighting effects, which many times left actors unlit. In what had to have been a miscue, all illumination abruptly went out on Manon at the end of Act II and she was left to make a long, arching exit off stage in the dim reflected glow of the pit’s music stand lights.
The Cours la Reine scene was arguably the least offensive with its pillars of flora and fauna set in a conservatory. If only the costumes had not evoked ‘Alt-Nürnberg.’ Having the foliage fold up and the pillars turn to become the interior of St. Sulpice was a decent enough effect, until the chorus ladies appeared on contemporary roller skates in the afore-mentioned 1920’s day dresses, like some demented, cut-from-the-final-print, what-were-we-thinking production number from “Xanadu.” (There’s a “Filles on Wheels” joke here somewhere but I can’t quite figure it out ). By the time we got to the Oh-My-Goth Casino all bets were off, as Manon flounced in looking like “Tommy’s” Acid Queen in her jeweled, distressed dress and a shock of a red fright wig.
As if it could get any worse, key moments were “captioned for the clinically bewildered.” Manon sings of jewelry, and a spot lit portrait of a beauty queen wearing a ‘Miss Arras’ banner and tiara flies in. As Des Grieux intones his reverie, he is upstaged by a framed paint-by-numbers front yard landscape, then (as if distracting us once was not enough) adding a mom with a frying pan, with dad and the kids in a Thunderbird straight out of a 1950’s magazine ad. When Daddy Des Grieux sings, his wedding photo descends, and on and on ad nauseam. Willfully provocative.
Director Coline Serreau must bear the brunt of the blame for these avoidable mis-steps, and more. Her placement of singers was most usually in total disregard of both the high caliber of her starry cast and the script’s requirements. All applause after set pieces is discouraged/eliminated (example: the priest speaks added comments and squelches the end of “Ah, fuyez ”). Seldom does anyone look at another character, but rather sings straight front. As Manon intones “N’est-ce plus ma main que cette main presse?” she is as far away from her intended press-ee as the space allowed (short of actually being off stage).
Mme. Serreau also injects coordinated moves into certain sections that are more “Folies Bergère” than Massenet, witness the girls’ trio, hopping, bopping, and moving their heads from side to side as they gestured wildly like demented Supremes. Indeed, there is so much extra-musical “invention” that it seems like Coline was hell-bent to throw so many ideas at us that she hoped one might stick. Having the Love Couple escape to Paris on a motorcycle at the end of One was a decent idea, but it was utter nonsense when Lescaut drove the cycle into St. Sulpice and plucked up the couple after their impassioned duet.
Did we need to be ‘entertained’ by guys in laborer jumpsuits rolling on shopping carts of groceries and tossing them to other workers up the stairs and off stage as the Innkeeper sang of the food? And while much of the ballet was (in this case) mercifully cut, it is hard to know what the runway fashion parade was all about, with lithe models got up in Victoria’s Secret, three male hunks hung with chiffon ballet skirts, a smattering of S&M accessories, and the whole lot of them silenced with tape over their mouths. Hmmmm. Perhaps they attempted to tell the director what they really thought of it all? Hmmmmm.
One final unfortunate consequence of the massed milling about in group scenes is that Patrick Marie Aubert’s usually fine chorus, was atypically raggy and at times, downright muted. Serreau has a lot of explaining to do
At this point in her successful career, the oft-sensational lyric-coloratura Natalie Dessay has branched out to heavier roles with somewhat variable results. Ms. Dessay is a supremely talented actress with few equals, however Manon demands more than dramatic acumen. These days, Ms. Dessay affects a slightly fuller, more pointed sound which serves her well in the upper, and upper middle range. She still reigns supreme in forays above the staff where her tightly-focused soprano can soar above the orchestra.
Alas, the more the phrasing dips into the lower middle, the less ‘present’ it becomes, and a (very) slight rasp can creep into lower phrases when she infrequently presses them. Still, her upper full voiced singing was free and clear, and possessed all the accustomed vitality and zing. Best of all, she looked petite, lovely and utterly believable, even when got up in improbable attire. Her golden blonde wig looked lovely, and when she stole into Sainte Sulpice in a diaphanous, hooded black cape she suggested the ultra -glam Witch from Into the Woods. While Manon is certainly a more comfortable fit than her recent encounters with Violetta, I keep wishing Mme. Dessay would go back to her former territory, in which she was always queen of the night.
Though Giuseppe Filianoti may not be a natural stage creature, he strives (to mostly fine effect) to be theatrically engaging. But there is no denying his was the star vocal presence of the night. Not for him the suave styling and crooning of say, Alfredo Kraus. Signor Filianoti can spin a tender line to be sure, but he is happiest when he can go for the jugular, and when he delivers the impetuous top notes he lands them right between your eyes. To his credit, his full-bodied approach complemented his leading lady quite well, and he was a generous and deferential colleague. But when firepower was required, Giuseppe provided salvo after salvo. He deserved a far better costume than the unflattering slacks and clinging knit top that he got stuck into for the last third of the opera. But never mind, by that point we were closing our eyes, and what we were hearing from him was uniformly exciting.
Franck Ferrari’s Lescaut was so solidly sung it helped us overlook his irritating get-up. Paul Gay contributed a sympathetic, clear-voiced Count des Grieux. Luca Lombardo was a sassy, un-stereotypical Guillot, and André Heyboer contributed a wholly competent de Brétigny. The often forgettable ladies trio was here made memorable by the clear-voiced, evenly matched, excitingly delivered solos and harmonies from Olivia Doray (Pousette), Carol García (Javotte), and Alisa Kolosova (Rosette). An unexpected delight.
I have admired conductor Evelino Pidò on other occasions, but on this evening he did not exude his usual presence, personalized point of view, or control. There was nothing wrong with the orchestra’s efforts, but the result was lacking in the last measure of effervescence that can lift Manon to a higher plane. I had the overall impression that the assembled artists might be trapped in an endeavor not wholly to their liking. Indeed, Natalie Dessay said as much, announcing her withdrawal from opera for a year owing in part to her experience with this production. When internationally applauded star singers are pushed to these measures, perhaps producers might look at what really draws patrons to buy opera tickets? (Hint: It is not to see the likes of Coline Serreau’s self-indulgent, inept direction. Just sayin’ )
Things were happily in far better order the next day with the mesmerizing musical execution of The Queen of Spades. Once again, and perhaps not unsurprising, the tenor took the laurels, this time owing to the muscular, rapturous, balls-to-the-wall vocal outpouring from Vladimir Galouzine. His is one of the biggest natural voices on display today, but that is not to imply that Mr. Galouzine does not also have finesse. Indeed, he created a multi-faceted Hermann, completely capable of sensitive, controlled vocalism at moderate and soft volumes. But when the money notes are called for, he can pour on the stentorian steam like few others. Vladimir sustained this spell over the audience for the entire piece, no small feat since, in this concept, he never leaves the stage.
Olga Guryakova was a secure, if a bit cautious Lisa. The hint of metal in her full-voiced top notes served her quite well, and in the more conversational middle passages her instrument assumed a richer, vibrant sheen. But on this occasion, Ms. Guryakova came across as on the outside of the role looking in, well-voiced but unengaged. Not so home boy Ludovic Tézier whose rich baritone ravished us with gleaming, deeply felt phrasings as a powerful Prince Yeletski. The celebrated mezzo Larissa Diadkova confirmed her reputation with a vocally distinctive Countess that was at once plush velvet and barbed commentary. Count Tomski was ably taken by Evgeny Nikitin, who commanded his every scene.
Best of all, conductor Dmitry Jurowski drew stylistically informed, dynamic ensemble playing from the orchestra; supremely responsive singing from the soloists; and full-throated vocalism from a chorus confidently back on form (Chorus Master, Alessandro di Stefano). There was no musical effect that escaped Maestro Jurowski’s detailed attention, and the shaping of the entire opera was wonderfully calibrated.
The good news is that the setting (David Borovsky) was most professionally executed and highly realistic in detail. The bad news is that the Concept sets the entire piece in a Soviet era asylum, where a bed-ridden Hermann is what dreaming? Hallucinating? Reminiscing? Small matter, since the bottom line is we are stuck looking at a slime green, paint-peeling, bare bones loony bin, and it is unsurpassingly ugly. Make that “Fugly.” (Figure it out )
Still, with this as a (depressing) ‘given,’ the dramatic conceit works after a fashion. Since Hermann is crazed (even more so than I was having spent €180 to look at this dreariness), anything goes. Nothing has to make linear sense or observe the Unities, right? Chloé Obolensky’s costumes can veer all over the place, sometimes finding characters in ‘civilian’ clothes, others playing dress-me-up, many in hospital worker uniforms. The chorus initially comes on to a wide, shallow platform upstage about five feet off the floor. It is not clear why, but see “nothing has to make sense,” above. Hermann spends the first act in the bed, behind the bed, on top of the bed, left or right of the bed, and in a bold move, he leaves the bed and very very deliberately crosses to the other side of the empty stage.
I can’t recall when, but the shallow platform sunk to floor level, and the upstage walls parted to reveal a kinda wintery, ersatz sculpture garden with a large staircase in profile up stage left. I would like to say this was the pretty setting we had been desperately hoping for, but I would be lying. I ‘get’ that this is part of the recollection, but it does not offer any real visual relief. The one designer to emerge unsullied was Jean Kalman, whose well-considered lighting brought some vibrant color and definition to the playing space. Ah well, it is short-lived as the walls eventually close back up and we wind up where we began. (What is Russian for “Bedlam,” anyway?)
I have to say that once certain interpretive decisions were made at least director Lev Dodin was consistent about them. But having Lisa faint to the stage after her suicide aria instead of jumping in the river, immeasurably lessened Tchaikovsky’s great moment. Especially after the ‘dead’ Countess comes on to help her get back up and walk offstage. Not a ghostly apparition she, our Countess was a nurse, coming to check on her patient. Whoa, Lev, dude, that is so not the same thing!
There is nothing quite like the communal experience of a fully, expertly realized musical theatre performance. And this weekend, I was elated to have had my goose bumps raised by two top notch tenors who definitely delivered the goods. But after having often sat with my eyes closed through two stumbling high-profile shows which could not even seriously claim good intentions, I have to wonder:
Might a fine CD really be preferable?
Manon: Natalie Dessay; Des Grieux: Giuseppe Filianoti; Lescaut: Franck Ferrari; Count des Grieux: Paul Gay; Guillot de Morfontaine: Luca Lombardo; de Brétigny: André Heyboer; Pousette: Olivia Doray; Javotte: Carol García; Rosette: Alisa Kolosova; Conductor: Evelino Pidò; Director: Coline Serreau; Set Design: Jean-Marc Stehlé and Antoine Fontaine; Costume Design: Elsa Pavanel; Lighting Design: Hervé Gary; Chorus Master Patrick Marie Aubert
The Queen of Spades (La dame de pique)
Hermann: Vladimir Galouzine; Count Tomski: Evgeny Nikitin; Prince Yeletski: Ludovic Tézier; Tchekalinski: Martin Mühle; Sourine: Salint Szabo; Tchapalitski: Fernando Velasquez; Naroumov: Yves Cochois; The Countess: Larissa Diadkova; Lisa: Olga Guryakova; Macha: Nona Javakhidze; Master of Ceremonies: Robert Catania; Conductor: Dmitri Jurowski; Director: Lev Dodin; Set Design: David Borovsky; Costume Design: Chloé Obolensky; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman; Choreography: Yuri Vasilkov; Chorus Master: Alessandro di Stefano.