Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Hampstead Garden Opera presents Partenope-on-sea

“Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside! I do like to be beside the sea!” And, it was off to the Victorian seaside that we went for Hampstead Garden Opera’s production of Handel’s Partenope - not so much for a stroll along the prom, rather for boisterous battles on the beach and skirmishes by the shore.

Henze's Phaedra: Linbury Theatre, ROH

A song of love and death, loss and renewal. Opera was born from the ambition of Renaissance humanists to recreate the oratorical and cathartic power of Greek tragedy, so it is no surprise that Greek myths have captivated composers of opera, past and present, offering as they do an opportunity to engage with the essential human questions in contexts removed from both the sacred and the mundane.

Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II - a world premiere

Is it in any sense aspirational to imitate - or even to try to create something original - based on one of Stockhausen’s works? This was a question I tried to grapple with at the world premiere of Actress x Stockhausen Sin {x} II.

The BBC Singers and the Academy of Ancient Music join forces for Handel's Israel in Egypt

The biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is the defining event of Jewish history. By contrast, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt has struggled to find its ‘identity’, hampered as it is by what might be termed the ‘Part 1 conundrum’, and the oratorio has not - despite its repute and the scholarly respect bestowed upon it - consistently or fully satisfied audiences, historic or modern.

Measha Brueggergosman: The Art of Song – Ravel to John Cage

A rather charming story recently appeared in the USA of a nine-year old boy who, at a concert given by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, let out a very audible “wow” at the end of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music. I mention this only because music – whether you are neurotypical or not – leads to people, of any age, expressing themselves in concerts relative to the extraordinary power of the music they hear. Measha Brueggergosman’s recital very much had the “wow” factor, and on many distinct levels.

World premiere of Cecilia McDowall's Da Vinci Requiem

The quincentennial of the death Leonardo da Vinci is one of the major events this year – though it doesn’t noticeably seem to be acknowledged in new music being written for this.

Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear at Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

In 1982, while studying in Germany, I had the good fortune to see Aribert Reimann’s opera Lear sung in München by the original cast, which included Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Júlia Várady and Helga Dernesch. A few years later, I heard it again in San Francisco, with Thomas Stewart in the title role. Despite the luxury casting, the harshly atonal music—filled with quarter-tones, long note rows, and thick chords—utterly baffled my twenty-something self.

Berlioz’s Requiem at the Concertgebouw – earthshakingly stupendous

It was high time the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra programmed Hector Berlioz’s Grande Messe des morts. They hadn’t performed it since 1989, and what better year to take it up again than in 2019, the 150th anniversary of Berlioz’s death?

Matthew Rose and Friends at Temple Church

I was very much looking forward to this concert at Temple Church, curated by bass Matthew Rose and designed to celebrate music for voice commissioned by the Michael Cuddigan Trust, not least because it offered the opportunity to listen again to compositions heard recently - some for the first time - in different settings, and to experience works discussed coming to fruition in performance.

Handel's Athalia: London Handel Festival

There seems little to connect the aesthetics of French neoclassical theatre of the late-seventeenth century and English oratorio of the early-eighteenth. But, in the early 1730s Handel produced several compositions based on Racine’s plays, chief among them his Israelite-oratorios, Esther (1732) and Athalia (1733).

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole: London Symphony Orchestra conducted by François-Xavier Roth

Although this concert was devoted to a single composer, Ravel, I was initially a little surprised by how it had been programmed. Thematically, all the works had the essence of Spain running through them - but chronologically they didn’t logically follow on from each other.

Breaking the Habit: Stile Antico at Kings Place

Renaissance patronage was a phenomenon at once cultural, social, political and economic. Wealthy women played an important part in court culture and in religious and secular life. In particular, music, musical performances and publications offered a female ruler or aristocrat an important means of ‘self-fashioning’. Moreover, such women could exercise significant influence on the shaping of vernacular taste.

The Secrets of Heaven: The Orlando Consort at Wigmore Hall

Leonel Power, Bittering, Roy Henry [‘Henry Roi’?], John Pyamour, John Plummer, John Trouluffe, Walter Lambe: such names are not likely to be well-known to audiences but alongside the more familiar John Dunstaple, they were members of the generation of Englishmen during the Middle Ages whose compositions were greatly admired by their fellow musicians on the continent.

Manitoba Opera: The Barber of Seville

Manitoba Opera capped its season on a high note with its latest production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, sung in the key of goofiness that has inspired even a certain “pesky wabbit,” a.k.a. Bugs Bunny’s The Rabbit of Seville.

Handel and the Rival Queens

From Leonardo vs. Michelangelo to Picasso vs. Matisse; from Mozart vs. Salieri to Reich v. Glass: whether it’s Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi or Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler, the history of culture is also a history of rivalries nurtured and reputations derided - more often by coteries and aficionados than by the artists themselves.

Britten's Billy Budd at the Royal Opera House

“Billy always attracted me, of course, the radiant young figure; I felt there was going to be quite an opportunity for writing nice dark music for Claggart; but I must admit that Vere, who has what seems to me the main moral problem of the whole work, round [him] the drama was going to centre.”

Cool beauty in Dutch National Opera’s Madama Butterfly

It is hard to imagine a more beautifully sung Cio-Cio-San than Elena Stikhina’s.

Kurt Weill’s Street Scene

Kurt Weill’s “American opera,” Street Scene debuted this past weekend in the Kay Theatre at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, with a diverse young cast comprised of students and alumni of the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS).

Handel's Brockes-Passion: The Academy of Ancient Music at the Barbican Hall

Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the German poet Barthold Heinrich Brockes (1680-1747) was the Metastasio of Hamburg?

POP Butterfly: Oooh, Cho-Cho San!

I was decidedly not the only one who thought I was witnessing the birth of a new star, as cover artist Janet Todd stepped in to make a triumphant appearance in the title role of Pacific Opera Project’s absorbing Madama Butterfly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Alan Held as Simone and Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca in the Canadian Opera Company production of A Florentine Tragedy Alan Held as Simone and Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca in the Canadian Opera Company production of <em>A Florentine Tragedy</em> [Photo by Chris Hutcheson courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]
01 May 2012

Two from Florence

The double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company, is a marriage made in heaven, a pair of complementary opposites who seem to belong together.

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy — Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

Click here for cast and other production information.

Above: Alan Held as Simone and Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca in the Canadian Opera Company production of A Florentine Tragedy [Photo by Chris Hutcheson courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]

 

They’re alike in some key ways…

  • Both operas are set in Florence
  • They are roughly contemporary in composition from around 1917-1918
  • Both operas have plots driven by avarice and disparities of wealth

Yet even so, …

  • Zemlinsky is not well-known, while Puccini is arguably the most popular composer of the 20th Century
  • A Florentine Tragedy is dark, while Gianni Schicchi is a comic masterpiece
  • Notwithstanding the date of composition, Zemlinsky’s music is often dissonant and disturbing, whereas Puccini’s occasional dissonances are usually zany rather than disturbing, and serve to set up the luscious melodies he spins. But Zemlinsky does offer a few wonderful climaxes.

Conducted by Andrew Davis, I believe this is the largest COC orchestral complement we’ve seen in a long time, at least in the Zemlinsky. Huge as the assembled forces may have been for most of the work, Davis held them delicately in check, swelling only occasionally, particularly at the volcanic conclusion. The Zemlinsky work sounds a lot like Richard Strauss, with the expressionist flair we find from operas such as Elektra or Salome.

Wilson Chin’s set design captured these two very distinct worlds, allowing them to cohere wonderfully as a satisfying evening of opera. The dark work (called a “tragedy” but maybe not so tragic) unfolds as a love triangle on a big bare stage, while the light comedy takes place in a cramped space full of junk. Although they’re different the worlds of both are so preoccupied with property and materialism that it’s manifested in the physical environment of the set.

Bass-baritone Alan Held had a busy night. As Simone in the tragedy he’s singing a great deal, much of it in a high register, followed by the role of Gianni Schicchi, which isn’t much easier, also lying high. The teutonic style of the Zemlinsky seems to be a better fit for Held’s voice than the Italianate comedy, although true to his name he more than held his own.

        

florentine-COC_02.gif(l - r) Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca, Michael König as Guido Bardi and Alan Held as Simone (background) in the Canadian Opera Company production of A Florentine Tragedy, 2012. [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]

While I laughed throughout the Puccini I enjoyed the dark opera more. For me it’s a brand-new work, full of wonderful moments, luscious orchestral sonorities, unexpected emotional turns, and a wonderful concluding five minutes. Director Catherine Malfitano is to be congratulated for shaping this complex and ambiguous work successfully. Bianca, Simone’s wife, is shown with her husband in an oversize portrait centre stage (you can see it in the photo) with her husband’s hand in a controlling position on her neck. In their first encounter he gently seizes her -if that isn’t a complete oxymoron—by the back of the neck. While this may seem obvious, the story is anything but. Held’s physical presence is threatening even though he is subservient to the Prince, who is busily cuckolding his subject right in Simone’s own home.

Gun-Brit Barkmin makes a wonderfully complex Bianca, surrendering to Michael König’s Prince, yet seemingly in thrall to her husband’s complex dominance. It should be no surprise that this twisted tale comes to us from Oscar Wilde. Malfitano’s conclusion to A Florentine Tragedy provided a wonderful echo of the cloak from one of the original Puccini triptych, namely Il Tabarro ; where the cloak in the Puccini shocker conceals a dead body, in this case the cloak leads to an unexpectedly loving and sensual embrace.

florentine-COC_03.gifA scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Gianni Schicchi, 2012. [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]

While I found the Puccini a huge relief after the darkness of Zemlinsky, I wasn’t sure about the updating. Instead of Medieval Florence we get something closer to Jersey Shore: which is apt I suppose considering that Malfitano is both American and Italian. Sometimes the updating was very good, as for instance when René Barbera as Rinuccio sang his big paean to Florence from atop a pile of junk. I worried for his safety -and no this isn’t to be mistaken for Spiderman—with the young tenor perched easily twenty feet above the stage floor. I reminded myself that while the set appeared rickety of course it was carefully constructed to support him. Overall I found that the modernization made the show warm & fuzzy rather than edgy, defusing some of the laughter that the opera can sometimes generate. It’s still lots of fun though and especially delightful after the Zemlinsky.

Barbera’s singing was one of the highlights of the evening, along with the Lauretta of Simone Osborne, singing “Oh mio babbino caro”. I felt Davis was channelling Toscanini, imbuing the operas with wonderful pace & verve, but also sometimes challenging the singers to perhaps sing faster than they might have wished.

florentine-COC_04.gif(l - r) Simone Osborne as Lauretta, René Barbera as Rinuccio and Alan Held as Gianni Schicchi in the Canadian Opera Company production of Gianni Schicchi, 2012. [Photo by Michael Cooper courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company]

Held, Barbera & Osborne make a loveable family unit, in this crowd-pleaser of an opera. I hope no one is scared off by the opera composed by a guy whose name starts with a Z. This double bill deserves to score well with the Toronto audience.

The Canadian Opera Company production of A Florentine Tragedy andGianni Schicchi continue at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until May 25th.

Leslie Barcza

This review first appeared at barczablog. It is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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):