Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Joshua Bell offers Hispanic headiness at the Proms

At the start of the 20th century, French composers seemed to be conducting a cultural love affair with Spain, an affair initiated by the Universal Exposition of 1889 where the twenty-five-year old Debussy and the fourteen-year-old Ravel had the opportunity to hear new sounds from East Asia, such as the Javanese gamelan, alongside gypsy flamenco from Granada.

Hibiki: a European premiere by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Proms

Hibiki: sound, noise, echo, reverberation, harmony. Commissioned by the Suntory Hall in Tokyo to celebrate the Hall’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 50-minute Hibiki, for two female soloists, children’s chorus and large orchestra, purports to reflect on the ‘human reverberations’ of the Tohoku earthquake in 2011 and the devastation caused by the subsequent tsunami and radioactive disaster.

Janáček: The Diary of One Who Disappeared, Grimeborn

A great performance of Janáček’s song cycle The Diary of One Who Disappeared can be, allowing for the casting of a superb tenor, an experience on a par with Schoenberg’s Erwartung. That Shadwell Opera’s minimalist, but powerful, staging in the intimate setting of Studio 2 of the Arcola Theatre was a triumph was in no small measure to the magnificent singing of the tenor, Sam Furness.

Khovanshchina: Mussorgsky at the Proms

Remembering the centenary of the Russian Revolution, this Proms performance of Mussorgsky’s mighty Khovanshchina (all four and a quarter hours of it) exceeded all expectations on a musical level. And, while the trademark doorstop Proms opera programme duly arrived containing full text and translation, one should celebrate the fact that - finally - we had surtitles on several screens.

Santa Fe: Entertaining If Not Exactly (R)evolutionary

You know what I loved best about Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?

Longborough Young Artists in London: Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice

For the last three years, Longborough Festival Opera’s repertoire of choice for their Young Artist Programme productions has been Baroque opera seria, more specifically Handel, with last year’s Alcina succeeding Rinaldo in 2014 and Xerxes in 2015.

Full-throated Cockerel at Santa Fe

A tale of a lazy, befuddled world leader that ‘has no clothes on’ and his two dimwit sons, hmmmm, what does that remind me of. . .?

Santa Fe’s Trippy Handel

If you don’t like a given moment in Santa Fe Opera’s staging of Alcina, well, just like the volatile mountain weather, wait two minutes and it will surely change.

Santa Fe’s Crowd-Pleasing Strauss

With Die Fledermaus’ thrice familiar overture still lingering in our ears, it didn’t take long for the assault of hijinks to reduce the audience into guffaws of delight.

Santa Fe: Mad for Lucia

If there is any practitioner currently singing the punishing title role of Lucia di Lammermoor better than Brenda Rae, I am hard-pressed to name her.

Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen at Grimeborn

Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen can be a difficult opera to stage, despite its charm and simplicity. In part it is a good, old-fashioned morality tale about the relationships between humans and animals, and between themselves, but Janáček doesn’t use a sledgehammer to make this point. It is easy for many productions to fall into parody, and many have done, and it is a tribute to The Opera Company’s staging of this work at the Arcola Theatre that they narrowly avoided this pitfall.

Handel's Israel in Egypt at the Proms: William Christie and the OAE

For all its extreme popularity with choirs, Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt is a somewhat problematic work; the scarcity of solos makes hiring professional soloists an extravagant expense, and the standard version of the work starts oddly with a tenor recitative. If we return to the work's history then these issues are put into context, and this is what William Christie did for the performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 1 August 2017.

Sirens and Scheherazade: Prom 18

From Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, to Bruch’s choral-orchestral Odysseus, to Fauré’s Penelope, countless compositions have taken their inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, perhaps not surprisingly given Homer’s emphasis on the power of music in the Greek world.

A new La clemenza di Tito at Glyndebourne

Big birds are looming large at Glyndebourne this year. After Juno’s Peacock, which scooped up the suicidal Hipermestra, Chris Guth’s La clemenza di Tito offers us a huge soaring magpie, symbolic of Tito’s release from the chains of responsibility in Imperial Rome.

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Original illustration by Tomi Um for operamission
08 Jun 2012

Almira, operamission

There are many different ways to analyze the health of New York City. My personal measurements judge the town thus: How many aspiring artsy kids are forced to share a single apartment in an outer borough while they “find themselves” and how many small but immensely able opera companies are functional at any given time.

G. F. Händel: Almira, Königin von Kastilien (Almira, Queen of Castile), HWV 1

Almira: Christy Lombardozzi; Edilia: Nell Snaidas; Bellante: Kristen Plumley; Consalvo: Mark Risinger; Osman: Keith Jameson; Fernando: Michael Weyandt; Raymondo: David Kravitz; Tabaco: Karim Sulayman. Presented by operamission at the Gershwin Hotel in New York with the Operamission Handel Band, conducted by Jennifer Peterson. Performance of May 29.

Above: Original illustration by Tomi Um for operamission

Photos by Mallury Patrick Pollard courtesy of operamission

 

Almira041.gifChristy Lombardozzi as Almira

That latter stat defies all the rest just now: Small opera companies are thriving. My post-Met-season has included Holst, Telemann, Richard Strauss and De Falla; Rossini, Gay, Rachmaninoff, Chabrier and Saint-Saëns lurk in my near future; and now the American professional premiere of Handel’s tyro effort, Almira (1705), has been presented by a youthful group called operamission, providing four hours of pleasure for any Handelian who chanced through the Flatiron District.

Almira was composed by the 19-year-old Saxon who had not yet gone to Italy to have his rough edges planed, for Hamburg’s Theater am Gänsemarkt, the largest and grandest private opera house in Northern Europe, which for a quarter century had been importing works by the likes of Lully, Cavalli and Steffani and “improving” them to the taste of that rich and sophisticated imperial free city, no egotistical royal court being around to interfere. An entirely homegrown school of opera-making had arisen to exploit this setting. Among its charms was a rear wall that could be opened after the celebratory conclusion of a performance for a fireworks display on the River Elbe.

Almira099.gifMichael Weyandt as Fernando

Some Gänsemarkt operas (such as Telemann’s Orpheus, recently given its New York premiere by the City Opera) mixed two or three languages, and the local style was also mongrel in the extreme. There was, if operamission’s Almira is exemplary, far less egotism, less of artists so confident of audience adulation that they stepped out of character to over-ornament the dramatic event. That is the direction opera took in Italy (and, under Handel’s auspices, would move in England), but it had not come to Hamburg. The stories enacted were long and foolish, but the pace was swift, and young Handel was already a tunesmith to rank with the best. The merchants of Hamburg got their money’s worth and so, three hundred years later, did we.

Another local peculiarity in Hamburg was the absence of the Italian custom of using castrati. Heroes and villains were generally sung by tenors and basses, which made the operas a little easier for later generations to perform and to accept—the program for this Almira calls it “the only Handel opera staged during the nineteenth century.” (In Hamburg and Leipzig, “severely truncated.”) Today, however, the lack of male altos or women in trousers may be a hard for the contemporary audience for baroque opera to swallow when attending Almira. Sorry: Tenors and basses is what we got here, though they are required to be considerably more flexible than the male singers of the nineteenth century would be.

Almira029.gifKeith Jameson as Osman and Nell Snaidas as Edilia

Almira, Königin von Kastilien (Almira, Queen of Castile) mixes languages (German and Italian—the libretto is a bit of a hodgepodge) and styles with bits of plot derived from many sources. Winton Dean, the grand authority on Handel’s operas, sounds impatient with it in his study of Handel’s operatic oeuvre, condemning him for not deepening the characters or straightening out the story with its coincidences and contingencies, letters gone awry, confessions overheard and misunderstood. To the lover of Handel’s mature output, however, the score is frankly astonishing for what it does achieve, the way the young genius contrasts his sets of rival lovers in their rival clichés, the way the grandeur demanded by audiences in wealthy Hamburg was worked into the story in procession and dance, the way the manners of the different source schools (French, Italian, German) were maneuvered to create a more or less seamless piece of theater and, most of all, the flood of melody already at his command. To expect the more personal maturity of his greatest works would be churlish. Almira is a delight on its own terms, and its own terms (minus gaudy costumes and sets) are how operamission takes it.

The lobby of the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street (right beside the Sex Museum, you can’t miss it) is a tall room. The 21-piece band of original instruments, recorders, valveless horns, baroque bassoon, cello, harpsichord—was that a viola da gamba joining in the recits?—is stuck at one end of the L-shaped playing space, which permits double doors to open for grand entrances, and there’s some room for court dances by a tiny corps de ballet.

Almira100.gifKeith Jameson as Osman

A single lobby pillar did duty as a tree, an arras, all sorts of concealing partition. The audience had the remainder of the room, so some head-swiveling to follow the action was required. Not the least of the pleasures of the occasion was the absence of titles of any kind. A detailed synopsis in the program included the texts of all the arias (both sung and translation) and the lights were up (as in Handel’s day) so that they could be read, but comprehension of the complicated and unfamiliar plot was left to the expressiveness and acting chops of the singers. None of them had any trouble getting the story across. Free of blinking and distracting translations, we could revel in music and its performance. I do hope operamission retains this tradition.

In brief, Almira (Christy Lombardozzi), newly-crowned Queen of Castile, is in search of a husband. She inclines towards the foundling Fernando (Michael Weyandt) who is, in fact, in love with her, but for typical libretto reasons she thinks he’s in love with her cousin Edilia (Nell Snaidas). This confusion is encouraged by underhanded Osman (Keith Jameson, whom you may recall as the Apprentice in the Met’s recent Billy Budd), who is Fernando’s foster brother and has been flirting with Edilia himself, all of which goes by the board when he hopes to attain the crown matrimonial. His father, the regent Consalvo (Mark Risinger), hopes to marry the queen off to a man of proper birth, that is, not Fernando. That would be more than enough plot for the mature Handel (when he was hiring imported Italian singers for his own company), but on the Gänsemarkt’s thaler, he added Bellante (Kristen Plumley), who is also in love with Osman and therefore spurns Consalvo’s antiquated flirtations, and a Mauretanian king, Raymondo (David Kravitz), who hopes to woo Almira but, happily, falls for Edilia instead. All we need for denouement is the discovery that Fernando is of noble birth, a long-lost son of Consalvo’s, and all three couples may marry—and do.

Almira082.gifMark Risinger as Consalvo and Christy Lombardozzi as Almira

These regal types, honorable or otherwise, are served by Tabarco (Karim Sulayman). The sarcastic servant is another Gänsemarkt tradition (as those who attended Conradi’s Ariadne in Boston will recall); he extols gold and drink, doubts everyone’s high-flown sentiments, cracks wise about insincere young lovers and ridiculous old ones, attempts blackmail and information leakage, and generally cuts the exalted brew. His lineage is actually very exalted, for he traces his ancestry to Pseudolus, Mosca, Juliet’s Nurse, Hamlet’s gravediggers and Sancho Panza, and his operatic descent is grander still: Mozart’s Leporello and Papageno, the Sacristan in Tosca and the Noctambulist in Louise. We need him to remind us (and the other characters) what planet we live on. It isn’t just highfalutin planet opera, or not all the time.

To find a singer or two worthy of attention and able in practice in one of these small companies is nothing unusual; it is one of the joys of going to them. To find eight excellent singers in eight wide-ranging roles in such a company is astonishing, but that was the case with operamission's Almira.

There are three sopranos here, you will note, and (like all characters in opera seria), they are obliged to offer arias of a variety of states of mind: yearning, wrath, flirtation, outrage, tragic renunciation. Operamission’s music director, Jennifer Peterson, who conducted from the harpsichord, figured out how to vary the voices nicely, from Lombardozzi’s long, pure lines of queenly suffering to Snaidas’s high, spiky staccati of merriment or anger and Plumley’s gracious or dubious sentiments. Considering how interchangeable were their feelings (each lady feels amorously misused by someone or other), they individuated nicely.

Almira127.gifDavid Kravitz as Raymondo and Nell Snaidas as Edilia

Square-shouldered and handsome, Michael Weyandt ably deployed his agile baritone to proper stone-faced Dudley Do-Right effect as Fernando, the all-but-uncomplaining (ten arias) object of everybody’s plots and betrayals. Keith Jameson, as his devious brother Osman, had much more fun, skulking and conniving. His tenor seems a bit grainy for leading lover roles in any case, and his stage personality thrives on shifty characters. Mark Risinger sang the grandee Consalvo with poise and dignity but did not quite convince as a despairing lover. David Kravitz’s Raymondo was all sly politician until Edilia stole his heart, when his lyric bass found a warmer element. Karim Sulayman, who specializes in wisecracking servants (I’ve seen him with Vertical Players and Opera Lafayette) had more fun than anybody; plot shenanigans never unsettle his enjoyable light bass. I’m not sure which I’d look forward to more: His Leporello or his Osmin (in Seraglio).

The staging by Jeff Caldwell made witty use of an awkwardly shaped stage and less than grandiose forces to keep us on the proper page of the plot and happy with its impressive length. This was a performance without a single mis-cast singer or actor in eight long roles, which makes one eager to hear whatever operamission comes up with.

Almira121.gifKarim Sulayman as Tabaco

Due perhaps to an audience so intent that it withheld applause until the end of the evening — or perhaps to an absence of da capo repeats with their self-glorifying fireworks — the long score moved swiftly and delightfully through a lengthy score to a joyful conclusion.

John Yohalem

Click here for the program for this production.

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):