Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Moved Takes on Philadelphia Headlines

There‘s a powerful new force in the opera world and its name is O17.

Philly Flute’s Fast and Furious Frills

If you never thought opera could make your eyes cross with visual sensory over load, you never saw Opera Philadelphia’s razzle-dazzle The Magic Flute.

At War With Philadelphia

Enterprising Opera Philadelphia has included a couple of intriguing site-specific events in their O17 Festival line-up.

The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall

Three years into their MOZART 250 project, Classical Opera have launched a new venture, The Mozartists, which is designed to allow the company to broaden its exploration of the concert and symphonic works of Mozart and his contemporaries.

Philadelphia: Putting On Great Opera Can Be Murder

Composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have gifted Opera Philadelphia (and by extension, the world) with a crackling and melodious new stage piece, Elizabeth Cree.

Mansfield Park at The Grange

In her 200th anniversary year, in the county of her birth and in which she spent much of her life, and two days after she became the first female writer to feature on a banknote - the new polymer £10 note - Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park made a timely appearance, in operatic form, at The Grange in Hampshire.

Elektra in San Francisco

Among the myriad of artistic innovation during the Kurt Herbert Adler era at San Francisco Opera was the expansion of the War Memorial Opera House pit. Thus there could be 100 players in the pit for this current edition of Strauss’ beloved opera, Elektra!

Turandot in San Francisco

Mega famous L.A. artist David Hockney is no stranger at San Francisco Opera. Of his six designs for opera only the Met’s Parade and Covent Garden’s Die Frau ohne Schatten have not found their way onto the War Memorial stage.

The School of Jealousy: Bampton Classical Opera bring Salieri to London

In addition to fond memories of previous beguiling productions, I had two specific reasons for eagerly anticipating this annual visit by Bampton Classical Opera to St John’s Smith Square. First, it offered the chance to enjoy again the tunefulness and wit of Salieri’s dramma giocoso, La scuola de’ gelosi (The School of Jealousy), which I’d seen the company perform so stylishly at Bampton in July.

Richard Jones' new La bohème opens ROH season

There was a decided nip in the air as I made my way to the opening night of the Royal Opera House’s 2017/18 season, eagerly anticipating the House’s first new production of La bohème for over forty years. But, inside the theatre in took just a few moments of magic for director Richard Jones and his designer, Stewart Laing, to convince me that I had left autumnal London far behind.

Robin Tritschler and Julius Drake open
Wigmore Hall's 2017/18 season

It must be a Director’s nightmare. After all the months of planning, co-ordinating and facilitating, you are approaching the opening night of a new concert season, at which one of the world’s leading baritones is due to perform, accompanied by a pianist who is one of the world’s leading chamber musicians. And, then, appendicitis strikes. You have 24 hours to find a replacement vocal soloist or else the expectant patrons will be disappointed.

The Opera Box at the Brunel Museum

The courtly palace may have been opera’s first home but nowadays it gets out and about, popping up in tram-sheds, car-parks, night-clubs, on the beach, even under canal bridges. So, I wasn’t that surprised to find myself following The Opera Box down the shaft of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at Rotherhithe for a double bill which brought together the gothic and the farcical.

Proms at Wiltons: Eight Songs for a Mad King

It’s hard to imagine that Peter Maxwell Davies’ dramatic monologue, Eight Songs for a Mad King, can bear, or needs, any further contextualisation or intensification, so traumatic is its depiction - part public history, part private drama - of the descent into madness of King George III. It is a painful exposure of the fracture which separates the Sovereign King from the human mortal.

Prokofiev: Cantata for the 20th Anniversary of the October Revolution: Gergiev, Mariinsky

Sergei Prokofiev's Cantata for the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, Op 74, with Valery Gergiev conducting the Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus. One Day That Shook the World to borrow the subtitle from Sergei Eisenstein's epic film October : Ten Days that Shook the World.

A Prom of Transformation and Transcendence: Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra

This Prom was all about places: geographical, physical, pictorial, poetic, psychological. And, as we journeyed through these landscapes of the mind, there was plenty of reminiscence and nostalgia too, not least in Samuel Barber’s depiction of early twentieth-century Tennessee - Knoxville: Summer of 1915.

The Queen's Lace Handkerchief: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

Billed as the ‘First British Performance’ - though it had had a prior, quasi-private outing at the Roxburgh Theatre, Stowe in July - Opera della Luna’s production of Johann Strauss Jnr’s The Queen’s Lace Handkerchief (Das Spitzentuch der Königin) at Wilton’s Music Hall began to sound pretty familiar half-way through the overture (which was played with spark and elegance by conductor Toby Purser’s twelve-piece orchestra).

Glyndebourne perform La clemenza di Tito at the Proms

The advantage of Glyndebourne Opera’s performances at the BBC Proms is that they give us a chance to concentrate on the music making. And there was plenty of high-quality music-making on offer at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday 28 August 2017 when Glyndebourne Opera performed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.

Rossini’s Torvaldo e Dorliska in Pesaro

The rare and somewhat interesting Rossini! Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815) comes just after Elisabetta, Regina di Ingleterra (the first of his nineteen operas for Naples) — a huge success, and just before Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rome — a failure.

Jakub Hrůša : Bohemian Reformation Prom

At Prom 56, Jakub Hrůša conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a programme on the theme of the Hussite Wars and their place in Bohemian culture showing how the Hussite hymn was incorporated into music by Smetana, Martinů, Dvořák, Janáček and Josef Suk.

Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival

South African actor, artist, multimedia artist, film and theater, now opera director William Kentridge has taken the world by storm over the past few years. In my experience The Magic Flute in Brussels, The Return of Ulysses (puppets) in San Francisco, The Nose in Aix, Lulu at the Met, Die Winterreise and his “One Man Show” in Aix. And now Wozzeck at the Salzburg Festival.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Scene from La Muette de Portici [Photo by E. Carecchio courtesy of Opéra Comique]
15 Apr 2012

Opéra Comique’s Muted Auber

Paris’ Opéra Comique has summoned forth a respectable (if spare) set design for Bluebeard’s Castle, but unfortunately the opera they were performing was Auber’s La Muette de Portici.

Daniel-François-Esprit Auber: La Muette de Portici

Fenella: Elena Borgogni; Alphonse: Maxim Mironov; Elvire: Eglise Gutierrez; Masaniello: Michael Spyres; Pietro: Laurent Alvaro; Borella: Tomislav Lavoie; Selva: Jean Teitgen; Lorenzo: Martial Defontaine; Conductor : Patrick Devan; Director: Emma Dante; Set Design: Carmine Maringola; Set and Costume Design: Vanessa Sannino; Lighting Design: Dominique Bruguiere; Choreography: Sandro Maria Campagna; Orchestra and Chorus of the Theatre Royal de La Monnaie.

Above: Scene from La Muette de Portici

Photos by E. Carecchio courtesy of Opéra Comique

 

The eight doors confronting us at curtain rise (nine with the huge floating door upstage, but who’s counting?) were somehow intended to help visualize Auber’s ground-breaking Granddaddy of All Grand Opera. Not that scenic artists Carmine Maringola and Vanessa Sannino completely fail in their intentions, it was just a frustratingly unspecific start with a structurally muddled playing space for a piece that calls for such highly detailed Neapolitan locales and effects as, well, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to name but one.

While the individual door wagons were rolled around by (almost) unseen supers, they seemed to be choreographed more for intentional distraction than coherent dramatic purpose. What the heck was that door doing on the fishing docks, for one thing? And why did the leading tenor and bass jump on the unit and get spun around by the extras at duet’s end?

Otherwise, the use of rippling drapes to suggest the balmy atmosphere of the seaside provided an apt environment (at least until that errant door intruded stage left). That said, the veiled opening of the act with the half-dressed male extras cavorting about rather intimately behind the gauze had just a hint of ‘Twink Night at the Continental Baths’ about it. But there was also effective use of an enormous red banner that flies in, becoming not only the backdrop for the church wedding’s suspended crucifix, but continuing to unfurl, creating a red carpet running from far up- to far down-stage. Much is made of such imagery: the fisherman drag and perform synchronized gathering and unrolling of oversize nets; they cast and re-coil nautical ropes; and they deploy an incredibly long wedding veil to create a series of canopies through which the titular heroine darted to and fro rather madly.

There was a commendably consistent train of creative thought at work here that more often than not rang true. Or true enough. I have to say that the re-appearance of the eight rolling doors in the palace scene, now re-dressed and tufted with red velvet, made us roll our eyes with an “oh-that-again” sense of resignation. Although I quite liked the addition of the well known paintings of Spanish royalty which flew in to frame the action. And since confession is good for the soul, when the poor mute swathed herself in the bolt of copious red carpet as she graphically communicated the tale of her abduction I did fleetingly, churlishly try to work out some witticism around “The Drape of the Sabine Women.”

The only utter miscalculation of the setting was the finale in which the heroine is meant to commit suicide by hurling herself into the erupting volcano. Or second best concept, into a lava flow. Third best, I nominate a Senta-like suicide into the Mediterranean. But the production team was having none of this and instead the girl mounted stairs (so far so good) and then disappeared behind a drape. When it lifts, she is revealed in stasis decked out as a primitive Virgin Mary of the gaudy simplicity reserved for South American folk museums. Hard to conjure up any subtext that would suggest any eruption, literal, figurative, or even absurd. It just didn’t play.

Muette_02.png

Ms. Sannino’s variable costumes were all over the map, excepting perhaps Portici. The men were rather generic peasants, everyone barefoot. The ladies later followed suit, but began the show in period hoop skirts with peek-a-boo draping revealing the hoop frame as well as legs in brightly colored tights. Then there were the curious life-sized Spanish lady porcelain dolls-on-wheels, each of whom, instead of legs, have a miniature Spanish male royal seated on a throne under her skirts (make up your own comment). The principals were rather more traditional nobility in richly detailed costumes. Lighting designer Dominique Bruguiere has created some decent effects, but should be cautioned to always ensure we see the leading singers’ faces.

Easily, the star performance of the night was from actress-dancer Elena Borgogni as a febrile, feline, coiled spring of a mute Fenella. From the moment we entered the auditorium she was prowling the apron of the stage like a caged animal. Her indefatigable energy and focused intensity were palpable every second she was in view. Her re-living of the abduction was raw and highly affecting. I cannot imagine a finer impersonation. ‘Electric’ and ‘mesmerizing’ seem to fall short in describing her accomplishment.

Eglise Gutierrez arguably brought the biggest reputation to the production, having sung major roles at respectable houses. On my first encounter with her, I found the voice to be veiled, somewhat restricted, and without much presence in the lower reaches. Coloratura in the upper third of the instrument made its mark, but it got smudgy as the line descended. But while she started off with limited vocal color, she was nonetheless a vibrant star presence. Her medium-sized lirico-spinto freed up substantially as the evening progressed and by Act Four Ms. Gutierrez was firing on all cylinders turning in a personalized and truly moving account of her aria.

Maxim Mironov was a perfectly decent Alphonse, his pleasing slender tenor showing off a sound technique and encompassing the role’s requirements with ease and acumen. Laurent Alvaro was a menacing, compelling Pietro, his ripe dark bass-baritone ricocheting through the house. In fact, at first I thought he might be over-singing until I realized that down stage left is an acoustic “hot spot” with everyone sounding almost ‘amplified’ from there. Mr. Alvaro sang with full-throated abandon when needed, but also with sensitive musicality and nuanced phrasing.

Muette_03.png

Rising star tenor Michael Spyres finally came on stage in Two and immediately elevated the entire performance by a notch (or two or three). First, he ‘gets’ French style and is as good at it as anyone currently in the business. And then there is the beauty and richness of his substantial lyric tenor itself. He has the high-flying top notes to be sure, but a real glory of his singing to me is the robust presence of his lower register and his accomplished presentation of the parlando phrases. Mr. Spyres seemed to be pacing himself in the sustained upper reaches at times, but the voice is freely and clearly produced in all registers and at all volumes. His extended aria featured some exquisite ‘piano’ passages although he is still finding his way through (just) a few less steady moments. Time and experience will even all that out. Michael is young, he is talented, and he is making a serious case for ownership of this repertoire.

In smaller roles, the house cast them from strength with Tomislav Lavoie intoning a solid Borella, Jean Teitgen contributing a memorable and characterful Selva, and Martial Defontaine showing off a substantial baritone as Lorenzo.

Stage Director Emma Dante produced mixed results, meandering through undefined scenes one minute and knocking our socks off the next. In general the interaction of the principals was woefully underdeveloped with much sung straight forward, and the singing chorus was often too unengaged, or in the case of the opening chorus, not even on stage! But then there was the highly detailed, meticulous direction of Fenella. And the often thrilling incorporation of the corps of male dancer-actors-extras that, when they were good, were truly great.

Muette_04.png

Indeed, the character-based, non-balletic dance staging by Sandro Maria Campagna was one of the most consistently exciting production elements. Eschewing the traditional classical ballet approach, the assembled group of men were earthy, primordial, and threatening. Their group dynamic informed the entire show, and provided a brutal provocation to goad Fenella’s neurotic terpsichorean outbursts. The quasi-folk steps the boys execute are athletic and passionate. And in a stunning visual coup, as the battle ensues in Act Three, these men, violently wounded, brutally killed fell to the floor, shucked their clothes and twitched like Bonnie and Clyde being riddled with bullets until they lay stone dead. This imagery of the shedding of earthy trappings and ultimate repose was not something I will soon forget.

Ms. Dante capitalizes further on this moment by having the abused Fenella pass through the killing field and shut the unseeing eyes of the corpses who are now unable to harm her further, as the chorus intones the melting a capella prayer. I urge our director to infuse the rest of the proceedings with this same intense, clear-headed vision. Moreover, I dearly wish the entire team could imbue the piece with a truer sense of time and place that Auber deserves.

For his part, Patrick Devan conducted at first with commendable precision and efficiency if little give and take. But he soon became more involved and accommodating, eliciting ever more detailed and expansive playing from the pit. The responsive orchestra and full-throated chorus were from Brussels’ Theatre Royal de La Monnaie who co-produced.

La Muette de Portici, with its populist sentiments, of course literally sparked a revolution when it premiered in the Belgian capital. I am not sure the current embodiment may have the same effect, In fact, perhaps Auber’s greatest accomplishment was having inspired everything (better) that followed. My one and only other experience with the piece was an enjoyable enough outing in Wiesbaden, Germany in the early 1980’s. I have come to think that seeing “La Muette de Portici” every thirty years is, well, quite enough.

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):