02 Jul 2012
The Marriage of Figaro in Montpellier
Perfection. A seldom used term in critiques of opera performances. There it was, almost (and will be, maybe).
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.
Perfection. A seldom used term in critiques of opera performances. There it was, almost (and will be, maybe).
Haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier created costumes for Mozart’s masterpiece in this new production of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Opéra National de Montpellier with set design and stage direction by Jean-Paul Scarpita. The most theatrical among haute couture stars Gaultier is uniquely suited to Mozart comedy, sharing with the venerated composer both sharp wit and a preoccupation and fascination for women.
Gaultier had a particular fascination for his grandmother’s underclothes, structural corsets above all, and this preoccupation with structure permeates his oeuvre (currently on exposition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, through August 19). In Montpellier he literally exposed the understructure of late 18th century couture in visible linear sculptures that resonated wittily with Mozartian musical structures.
Like all haute couture that of Gaultier is elegant and luxurious. In Montpellier (France’s most elegant city) Mozart too became haute couture of rarefied elegance and luxury. The reduced Orchestra National de Montpellier was in splendid form responding to Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel’s delicate and obsessive shaping of the multiple instrumental voices that sang out in flights of studied splendor. Mo. Goetzel evoked a multitude of unusual colors and musical shapes by exploiting the sharper sounds we associate with early music rendered by the virtuoso forces of this exceptionally fine modern French orchestra.
Now let us talk about true perfection (and the suspicion that you had to fit the clothes to get the role). Czech baritone Adam Plachetka was the epitome of the libidinous Almaviva, in a costume masterpiece that resonated with the darkness of a Don Juan figure. Mr. Plachetka towered as the male, thirty-ish libido in full force, his voice with a sharp, maybe sadistic edge, and power, know-how and vulnerability. Svelte blond Italian soprano Erkia Grimaldi countered with a precociously full lyric thirty-ish Rosina and an astounding vocal technique (the reprise of Dove sono sung in a sleepy pianissimo). When not the sensuous woman in a form-fitting white early Hollywood gown lying on the floor or petting in a corner with Cherubino she donned a towering white wig-like construction to become the Countess.
Cherubino, young Israeli soprano Rachel Frenkel entered in white underclothes eschewing all trouser affectation. She was soon dressed by Rosina and Susanna to be Cupid himself as he remained for the rest of the opera. This Cherubino sung in an unusually lyric fashion was an ephemeral blue presence. Bartolo, Italian basso Antonio Abete, and Marcellina, svelte, not-at-all tall French mezzo Virginie Pochon were dressed in brilliant crimsons and were colorful rather than buffo objects, as was the brilliant yellow Basilio of French tenor Loîc Félix.
Loïc Félix as Basilio, Rachel Frenkel as Cherubino and Adam Plachetka as Count Almaviva
Both Figaro and Susanna were light on their feet, German baritone Konstantin Wolff effecting a few very graceful full body falls (not to ignore a spectacular body roll over the fourth act bench by Almavia himself). Mr. Wolff was in black leather pants and white shirt with criss crossing details that hinted Harlequin. An exquisite actor and fine singer he created a Figaro of genuine, even moving innocence, assuming finally the fetal position next to Marcellina during her fourth act aria. Québécoise soprano Hélène Guilmette, Susanna, carried an exposed traverse bustle under construction on her hips for most of the opera. The opera’s catalyst, its constructive and destructive forces she delivered her Deh, vieni alla fenestra with consummate innocence, its words emerging with such vocal naturalness that it seemed nearly spoken.
Designer and stage director Scarpita offered a vaguely detailed architectural space of neutral color in which the vividly costumed actors assumed high relief. There were very few props — an abstracted Susanna/Figaro bed subsequently also served as the chair for the first act trio (though the only idea of a bed in the Countess’ boudoir was the Countess lying on the floor). There was no window for Cherubino’s escape (he ran off stage right), and there was no shrubbery to hide behind in the fourth act. This minimalism was strikingly elegant, and carried into Mr. Scarpita’s story telling by his omission of most gestural detail, streamlining the action into fleet, sometimes abstractly narrative lines.
There were some real problems in the performance on June 26. Conductor Goetzel concentrated his attention on his instrumental voices, the stage voices left to fend for themselves. But sometimes these brilliant young artists missed the dramatic and musical confidence to be on their own, and, well, maybe opera does need an opera conductor after all. At the worst moments, and there were many, the pit and stage seemed absolutely unconnected (at best, in the fourth act, Mozart was more magical than ever).
Peter Longauer as Antonio, Konstantin Wolff as Figaro, Erika Grimaldi as Countess Almaviva and Hélène Guilmette as Susanna
The brilliance of the costume design and the refinement of the staging seemed to overwhelm the simple humanity of the repertoire’s most succinctly human opera.
It could be that everyone’s game was a bit off that evening. The performance was postponed for 30 minutes so that the chorus, orchestra and stage hands could make the audience aware of their dissatisfaction with Jean-Paul Scarpita as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier. Among the complaints was that Mr. Scarpita had banished the chorus to the pit for this production because he did not want “fat cows” (des vaches grasses they said he said) on the stage, replacing them with the lithe bodies of supernumeraries who presumably fit more suitably into haute couture.
Such artistic considerations would have been more commendable had Mr. Scarpita used a corps de ballet (even better bodies than his supernumeraries) and a choreographer for his servants and peasants. These scenes were regretful, clumsy moments.
There are two more performances as part of the Montpellier Radio France Festival, July 14 and 15. It is quite possible that stars may align and forces may converge to achieve the perfection we imagined on June 26.