26 Apr 2012
Zagreb’s Wagner Casts Its Spell
Croatian National Opera, in collaboration with Würzburg’s (Germany) Mainfranken Theater has made quite a forceful case for Parsifal.
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.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
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.
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’.
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.
Heading to N.Y.C and D.C. for its annual performances, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra invited Semyon Bychkov to return for his Mahler debut with the Fifth Symphony. Having recently returned from Vienna with praise for their rendition, the orchestra now presented it at their homebase.
Igor Stravinsky's lost Funeral Song, (Chante funèbre) op 5 conducted by Valery Gergiev at the Mariinsky in St Petersburg This extraordinary performance was infinitely more than an ordinary concert, even for a world premiere of an unknown work.
On Tuesday evening this week, I found myself at The Actors Centre in London’s Covent Garden watching a performance of Unknowing, a dramatization of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben and Dichterliebe (in a translation by David Parry, in which Matthew Monaghan directed a baritone and a soprano as they enacted a narrative of love, life and loss. Two days later at the Wigmore Hall I enjoyed a wonderful performance, reviewed here, by countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with Julien Chauvin’s Le Concert de la Loge, of cantatas by Telemann and J.S. Bach.
Here is one of the next new great conductors. That’s a bold statement, but even the L.A. Times agrees: Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla’s appointment “is the biggest news in the conducting world.” But Ms. Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla will be getting a lot of weight on her shoulders.
Manitoba Opera chose to open its 44th season by going for the belly laughs — literally — as it notably presented its inaugural production of Verdi’s Falstaff.
Macabre and moonstruck, Schubert as Goth, with Stuart Jackson, Marcus Farnsworth and James Baillieu at the Wigmore Hall. An exceptionally well-planned programme devised with erudition and wit, executed to equally high standards.
On November 20, 2016, Arizona Opera completed its run of Antonín Dvořák’s fairy Tale opera, Rusalka. Loosely based on Hand Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, Joshua Borths staged it with common objects such as dining room chairs that could be found in the home of a child watching the story unfold.
Consistently overshadowed by the neighboring Bayreuth, the far less stuffy Oper Leipzig (Wagner’s birthplace) programmed after forty years their first complete Ring Cycle.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
If there was ever any doubt that Puccini’s Manon is on a road to nowhere, then the closing image of Jonathan Kent’s 2014 production of Manon Lescaut (revived here for the first time, by Paul Higgins) leaves no uncertainty.
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
I wonder if Karl Amadeus Hartmann saw something of himself in the young Simplicius Simplicissimus, the eponymous protagonist of his three-scene chamber opera of 1936. Simplicius is in a sort of ‘Holy Fool’ who manages to survive the violence and civil strife of the Thirty Years War (1618-48), largely through dumb chance, and whose truthful pronouncements fall upon the ears of the deluded and oppressive.
For its second opera of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has staged Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor in a production seen at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Akhnaten is the third in composer Philip Glass’s trilogy of operas about people who have made important contributions to society: Albert Einstein in science, Mahatma Gandhi in politics, and Akhnaten in religion. Glass’s three operas are: Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, and Akhnaten.
Shakespeare re-imagined for the very Late Baroque, with Bampton Classical Opera at St John's Smith Square. "Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Shakespeare....the God of Our Idolatory". So wrote David Garrick in his Ode to Shakespeare (1759) through which the actor and showman marketed Shakespeare to new audiences, fanning the flames of "Bardolatory". All Europe was soon caught up in the frenzy.
Croatian National Opera, in collaboration with Würzburg’s (Germany) Mainfranken Theater has made quite a forceful case for Parsifal.
They have accomplished this first and foremost by assembling a cast of superlative singers, with pride of place going to the intriguing Kundry as impersonated by Dubravka Šeparović Mušović. She is an artist of great imagination and infinite variety. In Act One, she is a displaced street person, in Two a glamorous seductress who seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she vacillates between being Klingsor’s willing accomplice and a penitent in search of redemption. Free-wheeling moments of unbridled lust give way to nervous, guilty tics and stomach-churning disgust (for the character, not us). This was a valid, fully engaged, undeniably schizophrenic take on the character and Ms. Mušović wholly owned it.
Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as Kundry
Nor did she stint in the vocal arena as she let loose with an awesome arsenal of well-calculated effects including a smoldering low voice, searing top, well knit registers, tenderly caressed phrasings, and superbly controlled dynamics, remarkably all of a piece. There was not a moment that she was not invested in the emotional truth of Kundry’s musical lines as she fully immersed herself in a highly personal traversal of one of opera’s most complex characters.
Anton Keremidchiev served up a commanding Klinsgor possessed of what was easily the most beautiful voice I have ever heard cast in this part. Instead of the usual muscled up ranting and bluster, here was a clean, penetrating instrument deployed with a commendable sense of line and dramatic purpose. No parking, no barking, just forcefully beautiful vocalizing.
Veteran Claudius Muth showed off an orotund bass as Gurnemanz, utilized with a keen understanding of his well-schooled technique. The low and middle range rolled out with an easy presence, and while the very highest notes are just outside his core comfort zone, Mr. Muth managed them with consummate skill. Davor Radić contributed a ringing, secure account of Amfortas. Perhaps a tad too secure since his solid, pointed baritone rarely dipped in volume much below forte. A bit of modulation and color would enhance his somewhat stentorian presentation of the suffering soul.
Ivica Trubić likewise intoned a solid, off-stage Titurel, although it was a bit hard to judge any nuance in his vocals since they were amplified with a good deal of reverb. The excellent Flower Maidens were the best matched, most vibrant, and thrillingly sung of any in my experience.
John Charles Pierce as Parsifal, Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as Kundry and Manfred Hemm as Gurnemanz
That leaves our hero, and John Charles Pierce did not disappoint in the title role. I admit it, I am spoiled. My first Parsifal ever was Jon Vickers, who probably wrecked me for others forever. Mr. Pierce brought complete understanding to bear, and has a pleasant stage manner and a far more than serviceable tenor. Although he seems to cover the sound a bit, when he goes to nail a high phrase, he is able to summon a laser-like clarity. He was never less than thoroughly competent, and often brought joy, but he never quite elevated the role enough to make me forget that his is arguably the least interesting role in the opera.
Conductor Saša Britvić worked musical wonders in the pit helming this musical monster-piece. Predictably, the orchestra fared at its most virtuosic best in the more fiery Act Two, which bubbles and churns along more vividly. In the cruelly demanding expanses of One and Three, the group strove to much good effect in knitting the long, drawn out amblings into a unified whole. There were a few lapses of rhythmic impulse as the piece languidly unfolds (especially in the long rests which sapped the forward motion) and there was a slight dip in accurate intonation ‘round about the 100th minute of Act One, but overall, Maestro Britvić and his players should be duly proud of their achievement. The chorus, too, was trained to a fare-thee-well, and frequently raised goose bumps with their dynamic, poised singing.
To say the production recalls the best of the 1950’s is not to denigrate it in any way. In a nod to Wieland, designer Rudolf Rischer’s basic concept is a circle of Stonehenge-like monoliths that not only revolve at times to interesting new configurations, but also accept all manner of meaningful lighting gobo projections, such as stars, waves, etc. Within this milieu, the addition of a huge, tilted white cross, or the addition of a bridge skirted by red drapes provide all that is needed to adequately communicate Wagner’s intentions.
Gera Graf’s well-considered costumes are also rather timeless, offering a decidedly contemporary twist on the period. Flower maidens burst through the slit red drapes first demurely clad in white nun garb, with the wimples but minus the veils, then change and reappear in glittery, sequined, flesh-colored gowns. The knights are in generic tunics and cowls emblazoned with crosses, each with a sort of red-velvet back-pack that has a metal cross stuck upright in it. These get removed and positioned inventively about the stage, and the crosses later get extracted, upended, and brandished as swords.
Scene from Parsifal
Parsifal is all ‘Heroic Montsalvat Man-in-Black’ and sports a wondrous wig of dreadlocks. Indeed all of the hair treatment was quite inspired, and the make-up plot was of the kind you never see anymore, meant to convey features all the way to the top row of the balcony. Kundry’s genial hippie bag lady attire of One yielded to the second act's generic black gown as she was first unfurled, moaning and blindfolded, out of a cocoon of a red carpet. Soon enough, she was got up in a form-fitting black number with an extravagant blond wig, the whole effect topped with a massive “dust cover” of white chiffon. This piece of cloth gets put to creative dramatic use and gets re-purposed any number of times, not least of which as an ersatz spider web.
Roger Vanoni’s lighting design was effectively varied and gloriously colorful. Best of all, the singers faces were (almost) always fully lit. How cool is that? (Or ‘hot’?) A single caveat is that one of the follow-spot operators needs a brush-up in technique. Either Parsifal was being too spontaneous in his Act Two peregrinations or the operator was inattentive or both, for the light was too often playing catch-up to the actor. The concept that Klingsor was clad in a red suit (a la the Devil in Jerry Springer — The Opera) and operated Vari-lights from a sort of DJ desk on the suspended bridge was a fun conceit. When 'Special K' commanded a disco display of flashing lights, it somehow made sense and underscored his control freak persona.
Director Kurt Josef Schildknecht has invested good intentions in his stage pictures and has created plausible relationships between his characters. There is sometimes a tendency to sing forward for implausibly long stretches, but then the plus side is that the balance between stage and pit was excellent. The seduction in Two was played out on a raised circle (Wieland again!) that was at once bed and altar. I quite liked the many ways the actors found to meaningfully place themselves on it, around it, away from it, and under it, all the while communicating volumes with their relative stage positions.
John Charles Pierce as Parsifal with Blumenmädchen
Did everything work? Well, no. Klingsor’s hurling of the spear was ineffectual with two extras simply carrying it aloft to Parsifal who has absolutely no challenge to feebly raise his hand and grab it. However, I did like that he then used it and his sword to create a “cross,” the sight of which brought Klingsor to his knees like Dracula in submissive revulsion. The contemporary hospital bed for Amfortas remained a distraction for me throughout. And his hobbling around with crutches was dishonest since the actor could not remotely suggest that the character could not walk unassisted. Too, there was one unintentionally humorous moment, when a “page” was required to strike a three foot tall stack of ‘heavy’ over-sized books by just lifting them up and off like the Styrofoam they were!
Still, there are so many riches that were so successfully mined here from the challenging, enigmatic masterpiece that is Parsifal, that Croatian National Opera is to be (and was) loudly cheered for having brought such a thoughtful and committed performance to life.