21 May 2012
Semele, Canadian Opera Company
You never can tell. I would never have predicted which opera would be my favourite of the seven operas programmed this season by the Canadian Opera Company.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“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.
You never can tell. I would never have predicted which opera would be my favourite of the seven operas programmed this season by the Canadian Opera Company.
Both the adventurous staging and the consistently brilliant singing make Handel’s Semele by far the best opera production I’ve seen from the COC.
Luckily I had my backstage preview of the opera that gave me a chance to wrap my head around this most original approach to Semele in the piece I posted a few days ago. My expectations were confirmed, the production doing pretty much what I’d expected. I had wondered if the COC would allow the liberties with Handel that (director) Zhang Huan took in the two previous incarnations (in Belgium & later China). They did indeed.
I am going to explain where I am coming from. Opera purists who come to a performance expecting -or demanding—that the usual procedures be followed might take issue with this production, as they have in New York with the Lepage Ring cycle. Just as Lepage strove to get back to the original text -albeit via an expensive modern production—so it would appear do Zhang.and his team.
But how, you may wonder, can a production using a dancing horse, a Tibetan singer, sumo wrestlers, puppets and finishing with a version of the Internationale, be in any sense faithful? I think the problem is in how we understand the work.
Semele began as a Lenten oratorio, making it a bit of an oxymoron if one considers that this erotically charged work was fashioned to premiere in the season of restraint. It’s in the most curious balance between the rational and the passionate, frequently stepping back to make detached commentaries about its action through its chorus, then giving one of the principals the opportunity to explore their feelings. The schizophrenic push-me pull-you style of baroque oratorio (or opera) is hyper-repressive, in the way that action moves in discreet chunks, followed by a lengthy exploration of a passion in the stasis of an aria. To a Martian -or come to think of it, a Chinese installation artist such as Zhang—Handel’s oratorio would seem very odd. It doesn’t really have a native performance style, having been uprooted from the beginning, in the almost immediate rejection of this style by the London public, a kind of exile that’s never really had a proper home, but was always something of a fish out of water. The worst thing one could do is stage it as though it were realistic, as some have attempted.
In the 18th century, opera was a very different experience from what we get now. If you had Juno & Semele onstage together they would both be dressed in lovely attire, but without any clear indication what century they were to portray, let alone the kind of precisely coded costuming and set one frequently encounters nowadays. I believe that were a baroque performer suddenly resurrected in Toronto and shown the three operatic programs currently being staged, they’d find Zhang’s approach - where the set is merely a context rather than an attempt to simulate a world—highly congenial and recognizable, while feeling a bit odd on a set from a specific time (as you find in Gianni Schicchi or Contes d’hoffmann). I believe this production is far more congenial to the work than the conventional / purely representational approaches.
(l - r) Allyson McHardy as Juno and Katherine Whyte as Iris
That Zhang chose to substitute parts of the opera might also upset purists, but in the 18th century it was the way opera was done. I’m not saying Zhang read about suitcase arias, but I applaud his choices on the grounds that any purist defending Handel on grounds of textual integrity needs to remember that such principles are always relative to the century you’re working in.
Sigh. I did run into a couple in the elevator who left at the intermission. Of course I was grinning like a 5 year old and said “how did you like it,” not expecting that anyone felt different than I did (and the house had erupted in applause at the end). When I talked to them they were pleasant but seemed mystified by the production, which mixes serious (a 450 year old Buddhist temple, a tale of gods and mortals) and silly (an inflatable puppet, a dancing horse, sumo wrestlers), and couldn’t understand my enthusiasm, which I was unable to conceal.
For me, Zhang’s production feels like a production from first principles, addressing fundamental questions about what it is to be human or immortal, to be incarnated in a body or concealed in another form (and this is true of both of the gods as well as the temple that is the set). Those thoughtful arias and choruses that seem too rational for real life make sense in this inter-life place, a temple where souls come to be incarnated, or comment afterwards (as Semele does). The odd mix of styles and cultures-of Handel in English, a Tibetan song, a pair of sumo wrestlers, and to finish, the Internationale—are properly multi-cultural, as if in a magical place that is all cultures and no cultures, a forgiving mix that is a reflection of this oddball opera.
In a more typical production of Semele I’d be feeling a bit strange about Juno, Jupiter and Semele, who would look like opera singers onstage, even though one purports to be mortal, while the other two are supposedly gods. If, however, we’re in this odd space suggesting souls seeking peace, the abstract conversation makes much more sense. I no longer mind that a god and a mortal are side by side, because they’re in a virtual space for the incarnation of souls, as we might see for example in Noh theatre.
This is the most sensual opera I have ever seen. There’s more touching, more allusions to sexuality, more pure passion than I’ve ever seen in a production of Tristan und Isolde (Wagner lovers take note). The chorus were often pressed into service as if they were illustrations in a sex-ed textbook, or failing that, used for their voyeuristic potential when Jupiter & Semele were at it.
Tenor William Burden was a very believable Jupiter, singing the opera’s best known tune, “Where e’er ye walk”, a concretely sensual exploration of Semele, massaging and washing the feet of Jane Archibald as she lay on her back before him. Elsewhere, his cadenzas were opportunities to teasingly manhandle her, the god bewildering her with his physical dominance.
Semele is also very funny. Juno is jealous of Semele, and because we’re seeing a production unafraid of the text, the humour is very close to the surface. Allyson McHardy has no remorse leading Semele to her doom, gleefully celebrating. The voice reminds me of Janet Baker, with consistent richness well below middle C, and wonderful musicianship. I would have been happy had she been the star, thrilled by her singing.
(l - r) Anthony Roth Costanzo as Athamas, Allyson McHardy as Ino, Steven Humes as Cadmus and Jane Archibald as Semele
The cast is one of the strongest seen at the Four Seasons Centre in recent years, with no weaknesses, Semele was especially strong, as played by Jane Archibald. There are several arias that stop the show, particularly the third act aria “My self I shall adore”. A disguised Juno presents Semele with a mirror that makes her ever more vain & self-loving. The set design made the entire stage a colossal mirror, reflecting the theatre back to itself. Archibald coyly played to this huge mirror, never seeming at all taxed in this most difficult of arias. I suddenly remembered: they premiered the opera two nights ago, yet Archibald was singing effortlessly, popping out what sounded like a high F above a couple of Cs in that aria, a D in another aria, and showing several different types of singing. Archibald all by herself is actually better than any opera presented this season, perhaps the best coloratura in the world right now, a gorgeous, witty actress playing the part with such complete ease that we get lost in her humour or her pathos.
Archibald and McHardy are still quite young, so that we can hope to see their talents re-united again. They sound wonderful together.
The COC orchestra played like a period ensemble due to the leadership of conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini. There was a time that the only way to get a particular timbre was with one of the historically informed performance ensembles such as Tafelmusik. While there’s no real substitute for the gentle sounds of such an orchestra, conductors are now able to bring their scholarship to the performance of modern instruments. The COC orchestra had a previous experience like this with Harry Bicket leading them in Orfeo ed Euridice a couple of years ago. Then as now, you might have wondered whether they were playing on different instruments.
I am thrilled that I already have tickets to another later performance. You must see this, if only for Archibald’s heroics in that amazing aria, but also for the lovely sound of Allyson McHardy, the playing of the COC orchestra, the COC chorus’ outstanding performance, and the beautiful set.
The Canadian Opera Company production of Semele continues until May 26 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.
[This review first appeared at barczablog. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]