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

MOZART 250: the year 1767

Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos … this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.

Monteverdi, Masters and Poets - Imitation and Emulation

‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’

Visionary Wagner - The Flying Dutchman, Finnish National Opera

An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.

Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric

A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.

Written on Skin: Royal Opera House

800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.

Madama Butterfly at Staatsoper im Schiller Theater

It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.

It’s the end of the world as we know it: Hannigan & Rattle sing of Death

For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.

A Vocally Extravagant Saturday Night with Berliner Philharmoniker

One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.

Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock

The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.

A Christmas Festival: La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square

Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.

Fleming's Farewell to London: Der Rosenkavalier at the ROH

As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.

Loft Opera’s Macbeth: Go for the Singing, Not the Experience

Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!

A clipped Walküre in Amsterdam

Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.

A Leonard Bernstein Delight

When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.

An English Winter Journey

Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.

History Repeating Itself: Prokofiev’s Semyon Kotko, Amsterdam Concertgebouw

A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.

L’amour de loin at the Metropolitan Opera

Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.

La finta giardiniera at the Royal College of Music

For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.

Lust for Revenge: Barenboim and Herlitzius fire up Strauss’s Elektra in Berlin

As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.

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):