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.
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.
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
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.
(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
A 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
(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.
This review first appeared at barczablog. It is reprinted with the