Recently in Performances
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to
explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs
that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and
theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican,
London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony
Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating
a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens
or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me
I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
On Friday February 20, 2015, San Diego Opera presented Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a production by Nicholas Muni originally seen at Cincinnati Opera.
27 Jun 2012
Les Troyens, Royal Opera House London
A sensational Les Troyens at the Royal Opera House, London. Berlioz, who understood theatrical gestures so well, builds his opera around the most audacious dramatic device in ancient history: the Trojan Horse.
The population of Troy delights in the spectacle, but then all hell breaks loose and the city is destroyed. David McVicar’s new production is similarly audacious. The orchestra roars full tilt. Even the instrumentation is extravagant — the ophicleide wails like a strange monster. Then the Horse looms into view, moving in a surprisingly realistic way. its eyes shining as if the creature were alive, which adds a poignant twist.
Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra
The Greeks and Trojans had much in common with the age of Napoleon III. David McVicar and his team (Es Devlin, Moritz Junge, Wolgang Göbbel) brilliantly capture the expansive, extravagant spirit of Berlioz’s time. France at its imperial peak, colonizing Africa and Asia. Paris was being rebuilt on a grand scale. Berlioz wasn’t doing history re-enactment but writing to stun Paris with its audacity. His orchestration isn’t the music of antiquity, but the most advanced and adventurous of its time. Berlioz isn’t doing history re-enactment, and his audiences interpreted Virgil through the filters of Claude and Poussin.
Grecian pottery depicts figures with minimal background: in Berlioz, the background is extreme and densely textured. The principals and secondary parts have to be strongly cast to stand out. Berlioz writes psychological depth in the music rather than in the text, so a strong casting and good direction are of the essence. At The Royal Opera House, the singing and acting was superb, thus expanding the spirit of the roles for maximum dramatic impact.
Bryan Hymel as Aeneas
Anna Caterina Antonacci created the part of Cassandre with John Eliot Gardiner in Paris in 2003. She’s pitted, alone, against the hysteria in the chorus, and the militaristic violence in the orchestra, but her voice holds its own and soars through with dark intensity. Cassandre and Chorèbe (Fabio Capitanucci) are counterparts to Didon and Énée, but Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Didon and Bryan Hymel’s Enée were more than a match for the sheer passion of their characterization.
Eva-Marie Westbroek sang Cassandre in the Amsterdam Les Troyens in 2011 (Pierre Audi). She’s also a natural for the warm, happy Didon we see in Carthage (the desert city brilliantly depicted in multi dimensions so we get a sense of its teeming activity). This throws her portrayal of Didon’s extreme grief into sharp relief. When Westbroek sings of her anguish, the set is bare but for blue-grey curtain, the staging speaking for her as much as the orchestration. Westbroek’s such a sympathetic Didon, we feel her agony.
Bryan Hymel sang Énée in the Amsterdam production last year, and brings experience to the role. Anyone who bought tickets expecting Jonas Kaufmann would not have been disappointed. If anything, Hymel’s bright lyric tenor suits the part better. In the duet “Nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie!” he conveyed such beauty and sensitivity that he fleshed out the action man hero side of Énée, and the role became a real personality. Hymel’s Farewell aria was stunning, and ended with an exuberant flourish that was both heroic and tragic. The audience burst into spontaneous applause for the first time. Some audiences clap at anything, but this audience was far more sophisticated. You don’t do a demanding five-hour opera unless you really care. Hymel is still only 32, and has years of potential ahead.
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Dido and Hanna Hipp as Anna
Brindley Sherratt’s Nabal was powerful, setting the opera in context. Duty, fate and tragedy, love cannot compete except in death. Also outstanding was Ji-min Park as Iopas, singing the plangently lovely “O Blonde Cérès”. Park is only two years out of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme but a singer who should go far. Indeed, all the singing and acting was top notch, the entire cast on message, the chorus well blocked and expressive.
Coming from a background in Berlioz songs, I can’t bear the bombast some like in Les Troyens, but Antonio Pappano’s approach is more perceptive. He understand that what makes this opera work is its variety. Berlioz is flashing his virtuosity. The carnage music must be strident, but Berlioz writes music of surprising delicacy, and even humour. Pappano characterized the ballet scenes sensitively. These are important, not mere filler, for they set the context of the opera. Berlioz’s Paris audiences would have liked this exotic orientalism had they heard it, for it fitted their image of themselves as rulers of North Africa and beyond. Wisely, McVicar and his team used the exotic theme in the set, where the “world” (ie the model of Carthage) floats in a magical cosmos of blue, green and red light, illuminated by stars. Perfect union of music, staging and meaning.
This Berlioz Les Troyens is an experience no-one should miss. Alas, performances are sold out solid and you might have to pay way over the odds to get in. Luckily, it’s being filmed and will be in cinemas in November and hopefully out on DVD. it’s a milestone for the Royal Opera House and they’d be mad not to revive it soon. View it live on Mezzo TV on 5th July here and listen to the Proms semi-staging on 22nd July.
Scene from Les Troyens