15 Jun 2012
The Magic Flute in San Francisco
A feast for the eyes, a feast for the ears, a Flute from America’s heartland that goes directly to your heart.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
A feast for the eyes, a feast for the ears, a Flute from America’s heartland that goes directly to your heart.
Maybe it’s those three boy sopranos who impeccably deliver the words and tones of Mozart’s three spirits and in their innocence make the hopes of mankind so real.
Nathan Gunn as Papageno and Nadine Sierra as Papagena
Maybe it’s the rhyming couplets of David Gockley’s new translation of the lyrics, and the rhythm and flow, and the internal and period rhymes of his dialogues that harmonize like square dance calls. It’s somewhere between cradle, pub and couch and makes you feel really good.
Certainly it’s the kaleidoscope of lines and dots and a thousand colors, maybe more that percolate across the proscenium canvas in always changing, never ending orders that make you feel that the good life will never end, and that, well, even if life may not always be that simple it keeps moving. Finally all those lines and all those dots will become a perfect circle!
This new Magic Flute is indeed a perfect circle, a masterpiece of conception and execution. There is even an illustrated book that engagingly documents the massive scope of a production process that traces the circle from idea to fact and makes artistic creation seem like a piece of cake.
Some of us like to think of San Francisco Opera as synonymous with Covent Garden and Vienna, like sharing productions with, uhm, La Scala (Attila for example) so it comes as a bit of a shock to realize that SFO is sharing productions with Omaha and Kansas City. In fact Japanese born artist Jun Kaneko, the creative force behind the sets and costumes of this production, makes his home in Omaha where he makes ceramics, conceives massive public art projects and designed Madama Butterfly for Opera Omaha.
San Francisco Opera has distinguished precedent for productions based on visual rather than theatrical art, like David Hockney’s Turandot, and even like Marc Chagall’s Magic Flute. And speaking of the Flute, South African artist William Kentridge created one for Brussels' Monnaie about a decade ago that set the benchmark pretty high.
Greg Fedderly as Monostatos
But middle America has its own things to say these days, like Picasso’s French Riviera had its things to say a hundred years ago at the Opéra de Monte Carlo. Maybe it says most about the America that looks westward to Asia for so much of its persona that remains so hidden. Artist Kaneko who emigrated to the U.S. in 1961 creates an endless landscape, like the American Midwest, but in Asian lines and colors. He constructs a Chinese puppet dragon and draws costumes that seem made of glazed clay or painted porcelain. In fact we felt quite at home as all of this is so much a part of our national heritage. Come to think of it.
Within this visual realm stage director Harry Silverstein finds constant movements and antics to enliven Gockley’s earthy contemporary banter. Things are left pretty basic, the cosmic conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night has the weight of a domestic spat. It is taken for granted that women need to be put in their place, not to mention that people of color exhibit libidos that are not philosophic and that love conquers all obstacles, like fire and water.
Casting was young and fun. Rather than attempt the more usual and appropriate jugendliche dramatic voices for Tamino and Pamina, San Francisco Opera cast light lyric tenor Alex Shrader and soubrette Heidi Stober. The fine singers brought youth and lightness and consummate charm to Mozart’s young lovers, plus they seemed the very embodiment of corporate promise. Baritone Nathan Gunn was Tamino’s cool sidekick Papageno, everyone’s good friend who isn’t going to make it out of the warehouse.
Russian dramatic coloratura Albina Shagimuratova with her threatening accent (even if slight — she is an alumna of the Houston Opera Studio) was the appropriately toned Queen of the Night. Like nearly always this role gets the biggest ovation because she has the highest notes, and of course the niftiest arias as well. Mlle. Shagimuratova well earned her ovation with extraordinarily clean delivery of her stratospheric notes. Iceland born bass Kristinn Sigmundsson used his Germanic accented English to add more imperative to righteousness though vocally he no longer has the equipment to embody such depth and authority.
Heidi Stober as Pamina, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Sarastro and Alek Shrader as Tamino
Baritone Greg Fedderly made Monostatos absolutely delightfully unthreatening, because as we all now know libido is fun after all. Mr. Fedderly is in good voice. Melody Moore Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum were First, Second and Third Ladies, lighter voiced than the usual specimens, appropriate to convey the Valley Girl syndrome they knowingly managed.
Not least were the Three Spirits, Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reinier and John Walsh who have to have been the best Three Spirits that ever hit the earth.
Where was the music in all of this, you ask. Well, we were having so much fun that we almost didn’t notice it. But when we did it seemed to support the words with grace and ease and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra did play with lovely sterling tone. British Conductor Rory Macdonald felt tempos that seemed quite slow, but they were tempos that allowed the words to sail across the pit and amuse us. Mozart’s ultimate symphonic thrust, the sublime musical process that propels Tamino and Pamina to an advanced humanity sadly did not happen.