Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht

Stockhausen was one of the most visionary of composers, and no more so than in his Licht operas, but what you see can often get in the way of what you hear. I’ve often found fully staged productions of his operas a distraction to the major revelation in them - notably the sonorities he explores, of the blossoming, almost magical acoustical chrysalis, between voices and instruments.

David McVicar's Andrea Chénier returns to Covent Garden

Is Umberto’s Giordano’s Andrea Chenier a verismo opera? Certainly, he is often grouped with Mascagni, Cilea, Leoncavallo and Puccini as a representative of this ‘school’. And, the composer described his 1876 opera as a dramma de ambiente storico.

Glyndebourne presents Richard Jones's new staging of La damnation de Faust

Oratorio? Opera? Cantata? A debate about the genre to which Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, La damnation de Faust, should be assigned could never be ‘resolved’.

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

John Osborn as Otello [Photo by Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich]
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.

Gioachino Rossini: Otello

Otello: John Osborn; Desdemona: Cecilia Bartoli; Elmiro: Peter Kálmán; Rodrigo: Javier Camarena; Iago: Edgardo Rocha; Emilia: Liliana Nikiteanu; Lucio: Javier Camarena; Doge: Nicola Pamio; Gondolier: Ilker Arcayürek; Conductor: Muhai Tang; Director: Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier; Set Design: Christian Fenouillat; Costume Design: Agostino Cavalca; Lighting Design: Hans-Rudolf Kunz, Christophe Forey; Chorus Master: Jürg Hämmerli.

Above: John Osborn as Otello

Photos by Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Opernhaus Zürich

 

Way, way out.

The reasons for this unqualified success are many, beginning with superb casting that no house could better.

Otello_Zurich_06.gifCecilia 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.

Otello_Zurich_04.gifPeter 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.

Otello_Zurich_05.gifJavier 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.

Otello_Zurich_02.gifCecilia 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.

James Sohre

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):