05 Mar 2012
Zurich’s Magnificent ‘Other’ Moor
Right to the musical ‘score’ board: Zurich Opera stared down the mighty challenge posed by Rossini’s Otello ossia il moro di Venezia, and knocked it out of the ballpark.
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.
Right to the musical ‘score’ board: Zurich Opera stared down the mighty challenge posed by Rossini’s Otello ossia il moro di Venezia, and knocked it out of the ballpark.
Way, way out.
The reasons for this unqualified success are many, beginning with superb casting that no house could better.
Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona
As Desdemona, Cecilia Bartoli remains at the top of her game. This was my first live experience with La Bartoli in a dramatic role, and well, to frame the experience in a highly complicated, technical way: she sang the living snot out of it. There seemed nothing Cecilia couldn’t do. Her throbbing soprano summoned forth a gutsy fury one moment, and the next could spin out a pianissississimo so achingly delicate we scarce could breathe. The impeccable vocal fireworks we have come to expect were securely on display to be sure, but this night there was less aspiration on the runs and roulades with no loss of color or accuracy. Her unflinching, fierce commitment and her consummate musical imagination were always in evidence, constantly imbued with an unforced, innate musicality.
Since Signora B had considered every dramatic variant possible in the role, she took us on a richly complicated dramatic journey. Along the way, our Diva gave us a searing finish to Act II as she held the penultimate high note with pointed conviction and incredible duration. A short while later, her Willow Song was a master’s class in meticulously crafted, tonally limp, beautifully judged pathos. Our star has made a happy marriage indeed between her medium-sized voice and this jewel of a medium sized house. She performs staged opera most often here, and her public clearly adores her. And why not? With her immensely satisfying catalogue of recordings, her highly personal performing style, and her glamorous persona, there is no international star bigger than Cecilia Bartoli, and damn’ few her equal.
She was splendidly matched with her Otello, John Osborn. He had paired very ably with her in 2010’s Clari but nothing in that lighter piece showed off his awesome skill set. For Mr. Osborn boasts an usually wide range of tessitura, from the expected ‘very high’ to the unexpected ‘very low indeed.’ The richness, responsiveness and directness of his burnished tenor are a joy; and the precision and meaningfulness of his florid singing are not normally expected from a voice of such generous amplitude. Our Moor took the role by storm (as it were) with a potent, bravura vocal display. Moreover, John and Cecilia worked musical magic together, blending seamlessly as their world class instruments intertwined in the extended duet. (A handful of the tenor’s phrases in middle voice were colored with a slightly grainy cast that recalled James McCracken, a bygone — albeit entirely different — Moor.)
One of the stellar singers on the Zurich house roster, Javier Camarena (Rodrigo) summoned forth a marvelous blend of honeyed tone and technical razzle dazzle. Mr. Camerena’s even, secure, warm lyric tenor brought pleasure all evening, and we got the added bonus of the producers assimilating the final cameo of Lucio into his role, giving this talented performer a final scene to steal. Young Edgardo Rocha has grown enormously since I heard him last November in Wexford. His tenor rang out with élan, and his gleaming, bright sound was all the more effective for its confounding our concept of the usual dark voice types we imagine for Iago. Mr. Rocha’s singing was bright, lean and mean, and effectively insinuating. He and Javier conspired to ravish us with a zinger of a duet that fairly crackled with intensity, and reveled in pyrotechnic coloratura displays.
Peter Kálmán as Elmiro and Nicola Pamio as the Doge
In the smaller role of Emilia, Liliana Nikiteanu was a beautiful vocal presence. Her somewhat cooler, reasoned, haunting mezzo provided a good balance, and the two ladies manufactured a seamless blend on the plaintive duets. Peter Kálmán showed off an ample, searing bass as an authoritarian Elmiro, sounding as imposing as many a Don Carlo Filippo. Nicola Pamio created a visually senile and doddering, though vocally solid, Doge. Young Artist Ilker Arcayürek’s lovely off-stage tenor brought a mellifluous serenity to the Gondolier’s arietta, so lovely it made us wish for more.
These outstanding soloists were matched in excellence note for note from the pit, populated by the nonpareil ensemble “Orchestra La Scintilla” of the Zurich Opera. Of course, such Early Music evenings begin as they must. They tuned and tuned. And tuned. And then tuned. But then this period instrument band tore into this infrequently heard opus as though it were a masterpiece deserving of their finest efforts. Conductor Muhai Tang was a revelation as he elicited unstinting, dramatically informed playing from his instrumentalists. Maestro Tang brought to bear notably fine pacing and exquisite attention to color and detail. He accommodated the soloists effectively, breathing with them, urging them on one minute, indulging them in elastic phrasing the next. The reading was driving yet highly responsive, a consummately controlled performance. While the entire band was magnificent, there was standout partnering from the solo horn (Glen Borling) and clarinet (Robert Pickup) who assumed real personalities as they helped underline the psychological state of the singers.
Javier Camarena as Rodrigo and Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona
No less engaging was the well-considered physical production (set design by Christian Fenouillat). At opening, Otello was being celebrated at a formal indoor ceremony in a huge, late 19th century drawing room, cool blue with oversize oak doors. Up stage left, very tall double doors open (and close) to a formal dining room where the guests retire after the opening chorus. A huge white Murano glass chandelier dominates the room, the only other furnishings a deep blue damask settee up center, and matching chairs down left. A large window, left, afforded wonderful lighting effects from designers Hans-Rudolf Kunz and Christophe Forey. The duo suffused the room with a warm orangey sunlight which later morphed to a harsher cross-lighting that made the ominous faces of the lined up chorus visually ‘pop’.
Agostino Cavalca’s clean, modern day costumes also serve the concept well, the chorus in suits and formal wear, Otello in dress blues (later in military work clothes like Iago’s), the Doge in religious drag. Ms. Bartoli looked fetching in a simple black cocktail dress, to which fitted lace sleeves and a pearl necklace were added to good effect. Emilia appeared to be a social secretary, business casual in slacks and a draping gray silk knit top. Desdemona sheds the dress, to end the night in a satiny white slip. Simple. Effective. Each costume told us who the character was.
Desdemona’s bedroom was a vibrant burnt orange, furnished only with a double bed up left and a settee just inside the door stage right, both again blue damask. The other setting was the servants’ cantina, with violently green colored walls, mismatched furniture, a pool table with chairs upended upon it, and two large cold metal doors up right that open onto the street. Within these re-imagined locales, directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier crafted a persuasive case not only for their vision, but also for Rossini’s drama.
Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona, Edgardo Rocha as Iago and Peter Kálmán as Elmiro
They accomplished this with unfussy, fluid blocking that placed singers in advantageous stage positions to be able to be seen and heard. (It sounds simple but you have no idea how often that is not the case in Euro-Concept productions.) Next, they kept their singers tightly focused on each other, exploring the dramatic truth that was the underpinning for the need to sing their emotions in the first place. Next, they knew when to get their performers into an effective picture and then stay relatively still, allowing them to sing complicated ensembles (like the fiendishly difficult sextet) to maximum effect. And finally, they contrived just enough unique business to inject a bit of edginess into the proceedings. A few examples:
The thinly disguised racism of the court is pointed up by having a pair of servants appear at the dining room doors with trays of food. The white server is allowed in with his tray, the black server is relieved of his and turned back to the kitchen. When he reappears with a coffee service, it is knocked out of his hands as Elmiro storms through the doors from the dinner. His seething look withers the poor servant into an apologetic mopping up of the mess.
In Two, Otello is presented hanging out drinking beer in the servants’ recreation area, underlining his social status. At that act’s end, as Elmiro discredits his daughter, Desdemona, barefoot now (trapped down left between the pool table, the refrigerator, and the Deep Blue Sea) deliberately and oh-so-slowly reaches into the fridge and pulls out a beer with which she sarcastically toasts her father. She plays the scene a bit unhinged which works sensationally well, climaxing with a crawl up to stand on the pool table. As she towers over dad, screaming the afore-mentioned searing high note at him, she dementedly pours the beer all over herself. Nuts. Brilliant. Meaningful. They all scramble to grab her down to stop her making a display of the family business in front of the servants.
In the final act, a resplendent treatment of the Willow Song began with Desdemona hauling out an old phonograph from under her bad. She knelt and placed it downstage in silence, lifted and set the needle, and the tune began to play through the speakers. Julie Palloc’s wonderful recorded harp-playing was a little LP-scratchy at first, but as the live orchestra snuck in when Bartoli began singing, we had experienced a luminous effect indeed. The final visual coup: after Otello had stabbed Desdemona and she lay bloodied and lifeless against the back wall, the stage right wall (with locked door) tracked toward center creating a split stage. On the outside were the (now) forgiving, conciliatory forces, while in the bedroom our trapped hero careened helplessly, unlocking the door and stabbing himself just as the optimistic court flooded in. As Elmiro and Rodrigo came upon Desdemona’s corpse, they found an outlet for their shock and grief by kicking the Moor’s crumpled body, reminding us of the racism that had, after all, started the plot’s inexorable descent into tragedy.
To sum up: If this thrilling evening in the opera house was not theatrical and musical perfection, well, then I don’t know what is.