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.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
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.
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.