Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
12 May 2012
Bartók and Szymanowski, Barbican Hall
In this, the second of two LSO concerts in which Péter Eötvös replaced
Pierre Boulez, one continued to feel the loss of the latter in his repertoire,
yet one equally continued to value his replacement, very much his own
first concert had inserted Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto
between Debussy’s Images and Scriabin’s Poem of
Ecstasy, here Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the ‘Song of the
Night’ was preceded by two Bartók works.The Szymanowski symphony provided
a fitting climax, and made for an interesting contrast with another recent
London performance, from Vladimir
Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In almost every respect,
Eötvös’s performance proved superior. Eötvös’s, or rather
Boulez’s, programme made a great deal more sense too. (There will,
extraordinarily, be a third London performance later in the year, or rather two
performances on 11 and 18 December, again from the LSO, conducted by Valery
In the opening bars, Eötvös imparted a fine sense of purpose, of onward
tread, which had often been lacking in Jurowski’s somewhat meandering
account. Yet there was no loss of delight in sonority, nor of fantasy from an
LSO very much on top form. Steve Davislim in his opening line, ‘O nie
śpij, druhu, nocy tej,’ (‘O! Sleep not, my dearest friend,
this night’) immediately announced himself more commandingly than
Jurowski’s tenor, more fervent, even possessed, for there was here and
elsewhere a fine sense of mysticism to the performances of all concerned. Where
Jurowski had often skated over the surface and had misplaced one particular
climax, here one truly felt that Eötvös knew where he was going, climaxes
expertly prepared and executed. Orchestrally and chorally – for the
London Symphony Chorus was on equally wonderful form – this was not just
a magic carpet of sound; it was a carpet that took us somewhere. Eötvös was, in
that typically Wagnerian dialectic, both more ‘symphonic’ and more
‘musico-dramatic,’ the one quality contributing to the other. Not
only did he exhibit a fine command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm; he
also communicated musical ‘character’, whether or no
Szymanowski’s ‘song’ embodies an actual ‘story’.
The opening of the second stanza was again noteworthy for Davislim’s
mystical yet commanding performance: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpia.’
(‘How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping.’) However, it was
equally remarkable for the Nietzschean stillness (hints of Also sprach
Zarathustra, both in Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s versions,
perhaps of Mahler’s Third Symphony too) from the orchestra and a duly
awestruck chorus. Orchestral memories of Tristan und Isolde soon
verged upon the overwhelming: this is Night, after all. And the chorus sounded
explosions in the heavens. Yes, contra Nietzsche, one can, indeed must,
transcend, even if only momentarily. And was that an echo of another
transfiguration, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in the orchestral
Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had found
the LSO’s strings and percussion on fine form too. I very much liked the
questing opening, violas going so far as to evoke the stirrings of
Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was a true darkness to Eötvös’s
performance, almost Romantic, but avowedly of the twentieth century, a darkness
that characterised both mood and trajectory, ‘fearful symmetry’
indeed. And how splendid it was to benefit from a full orchestral string
section, with no half-way house of a chamber compromise. That certainly enabled
a highly dramatic performance of the fugue to emerge, as enveloping, as
arresting a drama, so it seemed, as Bluebeard’s Castle itself.
The second movement benefited from the placing of the violins – crucial
in this of all works – to the extent that one had a sense of versicle and
response, properly ‘antiphonal’ (a word seemingly often employed by
people not entirely sure what it means). Rhythms were sharp without a hint of
showiness. The contrapuntal delights of both work and performance seemed to
evoke Bachian ‘invention’ in more than one sense. (One could hardly
fail to think of Mikrokosmos.) The slow movement was wonderfully
eerie, ‘night music’ that suggested as much a menacing toy kingdom,
a Nutcracker turned sour, as ‘mere’ Nature. And there was
a Bluebeard-like sadness underlying the violence, a vale of tears that
had no need of staging. The finale was taken at quite a lick, though there were
a few tempo adjustments later on that did not entirely convince. For the most
part, however, this was a performance secure in direction. Again, Bachian
antecedents were to the fore: a Transylvanian Brandenburg Concerto
Of the three performances, it was that of Bartók’s Second Violin
Concerto that slightly disappointed, mostly on account of the first movement,
in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed curiously disconnected from the
orchestra. Znaider is a musician I admire greatly, but here his approach seemed
somewhat sectional, and lacked a real sense of interplay with the LSO, whose
musicians could hardly be faulted. Perhaps it was telling that it was only
really in the cadenza that Znaider’s first-movement performance ignited.
What came thereafter, including the conclusion to that movement, seemed far
more responsive, far better integrated, giving a sense of what might have been.
The slow movement continued in that vein; the violin sang soulfully, nobly, but
now sounded infinitely better ‘connected’. Its central scherzando
material was sharply etched. The finale, though it had occasional reminders of
earlier disengagement, proved highly successful in voicing the sheer range of
Bartók’s thematic expression, in both solo and orchestral parts.
Znaider’s tone was seductive, but never for its own sake. Here was a
foretaste of the emotional commitment we should fully experience in