September 28, 2012

Good News for Opera in Barcelona

The Spanish government’s support for the arts has been waivering and the last season saw a very public cancellation of a series of presentations. Dire predictions filled the air.

Yet, announcing the results of the season just ended, the theater counted 268,715 attendees with a healthy 84.5% of the hall filled (75.7% for ballet) — numbers higher that the previous season. The halls were full for Linda di Chamounix, Le Nozze di Figaro, Aida, La Bohème and the Magic Flute, the recitals of Juan Diego Florez and Philippe Jaroussky and the concert in honor of Montserrat Caballé.

The new season starts October 2 with Verdi’s LaForza del Destino and the theater notes that they have more than a thousand new subscribers.

Frank Cadenhead

image= image_description=Gran Teatre del Liceu [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Good News for Opera in Barcelona product_by=By Frank Cadenhead product_id=Above: Gran Teatre del Liceu [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 12:01 PM

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Major support for this San Francisco operatic extravaganza is provided by, among others, the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund. Hyperbole, or not?

It is a qualified answer. That conductor Nicola Luisotti may join the ranks of, let us say, Toscanini and von Karajan (et al.) is yet to be determined. Luisotti is however Italian and this alone endows him with integrity as an interpreter of Italian opera. Based on the September 19 performance the maestro did indeed achieve some greatness.

Rigoletto may be the quintessential Italian opera sitting on the cusp between the glories of bel canto and the agonies of Romantic realism. Formally it is pure bel canto, the individual blocks (“numbers”), arias and duets are interrupted, then capped with a fast, determined “cabaletta.” The trios and quartets are vocally splendid and dramatically static. Finales (when things get done) are brief and to the point.

But add to bel canto the pathos of a cripple’s love for his daughter, the philosophic examination of love and the malevolence of fate. Francesco Piave’s libretto uses Monterone’s curse to close each act and explain why. It is rapid and violent melodrama.

Maestro Luisotti knows that Rigoletto is about beautiful singing, and he gives his singers all needed support based on the supposition that any aria is really a duet — for him and the singer. At its most dramatic were paroxysms of podium involvement in Gilda’s stunning Caro nome, and in the next act Rigoletto and Gilda’s wrenching duet that ends with Rigoletto’s Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta. All this, needless to say, elicited paroxysms of instrumental involvement (the oboe obbligato in Gilda’s Tutte le feste al tempio as example). Tempos, always slower or faster than anticipated, served to generate genuine emotional immediacy obliterating the suspicion of conductorial willfulness. And hardly to be outdone in bel canto by the stage, the maestro imposed an full-voiced orchestral lyricism that took unrelenting flight throughout the evening.

Houston trained, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova without qualification is a great interpreter of Gilda. While she has gained her international fame as Queen of the Night, her vocal endowment well encompasses much of the lyric repertoire. The facility and agility of her voice is enriched by a sizable palette of color and delivery that matches her dramatic concentration. Rarely has a singer so completely embodied the Gilda character. Time stood still in the adolescent musings of the young girl who had just had melismatic sex with the Duke (yes, the second act love duet was mesmerizing).

05-Rigoletto.gifArturo Chacón-Cruz as The Duke of Mantua and San Francisco Opera dancers

San Francisco trained, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was the over-sexed, heart-throb Duke of Mantua. With a voice that resides in color somewhere between the French and Italian repertoire and a technique that belies his youthfulness, he constructed Verdi’s vocal lines with precision and the hint of spinto that make tenors desirable lovers, ably seducing the splendidly drawn Countess Ceprano of Adler Fellow Laura Krumm as well as the production’s sympathetic, sexually ripe Maddalena, former Adler Fellow Kendall Gladden.

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna too achieves status as a great interpreter of Rigoletto, given that this twisted human is more, and in Mr. Vratogna’s case much more than a big voice who rages at the cortigiani. Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto is small in scale but, and maybe therefore, large in insinuation that more than a victim, Rigoletto is indeed an ugly soul in an ugly body. This compromises the blatant pathos that might be awarded a big voiced Rigoletto who will seem righteous by sheer volume. Mr. Vratogna uses his medium scaled voice of many colors and much Italianate style to make Rigoletto sinister, unsympathetic, maybe pitiful.

And very interesting.

On the other hand Canadian bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone roared his curses, quivering with rage, well anchoring the conciseness of the drama by sheer volume, abetted by Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the honest murderer Sparafucile, incomparable casting in both cases.

This San Francisco Opera production, designed by veteran American scenographer, now Yale professor, Michael Yeargan, debuted in 1997. Mr. Yeargan too assumes stature as a great interpreter of Italian opera with a set that echoes the conciseness of the dramatic action of Rigoletto in an abstracted, classically forced-perspective Italian street. Hard edge, repeated porticos are obsessive, sinister and overwhelming. Colors are saturated, basic and bright when not cast as dim, sinister washes on the buildings. The set is minimal, no props (save one chair in the third act). The set functions with almost machine-like precision. Like Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Michael Milenski

Post Script

Because of the number and proximity of performances San Francisco Opera must provide two sets of principals. On September 11 I saw Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda and Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke. Mr. Lucic is a big voiced Rigoletto whose well focused tone did not waver over the course of events resulting in a hunchback of little interest, though Cortigiani, vil razza dannata was hurled with maximum vehemence. Mme. Kurzak is a brilliant singer whose musicianship is abstract rather than dramatic, and while she did make music with maestro Luisotti she made no attempt whatsoever to impersonate Verdi’s vulnerable heroine. Mr. Demuro is an ideal Duke, good looking with a bona fide tenorial swagger. He possesses a light voice that too easily negotiates the Duke’s high tessitura with little of the vocal excitement that makes the Duke musically and dramatically alive.

At this performance the brilliant colors of the set seemed abrasive, the costumes seemed ridiculous and the staging by Harry Silverstein seemed to try too hard to make something out of nothing. In retrospect this reaction was caused by the non-involvement of the principals in their characters.

On September 12 I saw the cast described in the body of this review. At this performance the staging by Mr. Silverstein redeemed itself as a totally competent management of the chorus scenes, if more complicated than Verdi’s direct story telling ideally requires. The principal scenes seemed more detailed than the incipient realism of middle-period Verdi provokes (but, hey, opera these days is supposed to be “acted” — the exception was Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto effected with minimum gesture and maximum vocal physicality). In particular the Gilda of Mme. Shagimuratova seemed artful rather than felt in her final scenes.

On September 15 the Lucic/Kurzak/Demuro cast was again on stage at the War Memorial opera house and on the scoreboard of the local ball park, home of the SF Giants, where 27,000 spectators and I braved the cold for the duration (other years have been far warmer in temperature and far warmer musically). The format requires much focus on faces and acoustical manipulation of voices exposing the limitations of this cast. Mr. Demuro however seemed a natural born TV actor, to the degree that there was the suspicion he might be playing himself.

On September 19, above, it was all pure magic. Go figure. There are four more performances but I’m stopping while I’m ahead.

image_description=Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto and Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
product_by=Rigoletto: Marco Vratogna; Gilda: Albina Shagimuratova; The Duke of Mantua: Arturo Chacón-Cruz; Maddalena: Kendall Gladen; Count Monterone: Robert Pomakov; Sparafucile: Andrea Silvestrelli; Borsa: Daniel Montenegro; Marullo: Joo Won Kang; A Page: Laura Krumm; Countess Ceprano: Laura Krumm; Giovanna: Renée Rapier; Count Ceprano: Ryan Kuster; An Usher: Jere Torkelsen. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Harry Silverstein; Set Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman; Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich; Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, September 19, 2012.
product_id=Above: Marco Vratogna as Rigoletto and Albina Shagimuratova as GildaBr/>
Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 11:32 AM

Nixon in China at the BBC Proms

The opera’s success owes something to Adams’s very personal musical style, with its inspirations from minimalism but with a liking for dramatic juxtapositions and willingness to embraces singable lines and individual characterisation. But the opera also owes a lot to Adams’s collaborators, director Peter Sellers and librettist Alice Goodman. It was Sellers who helped ensure that the opera was dramatically and dramaturgically sound, and Goodman who created the beautifully poetic libretto. One of the great tragedies of contemporary opera is that the furore surrounding The Death of Klinghoffer prevented the three from collaborating again. For the Prom on Wednesday5 September, the BBC had invited John Adams to conduct Nixon in China at the Royal Albert Hall.

Adams conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers with predominantly transatlantic principals. There was a staging of sorts by Paul Curran, with dramatic lighting. But this was an interesting opportunity to hear the work divorced from the iconic Peter Sellers production. The soloists were placed in front of the orchestra and were reliant on TV monitors and a repetiteur placed in the arena for communication with Adams, so not quite ideal circumstances.

Another drawback was that the acoustic intervention, that every Adams event like this has, was less than perfect. All the singers had individual microphones but the projection of each was rather variable; an effect perhaps of the infamous Royal Albert Hall acoustic. The singers used scores, but were certainly not static and Paul Curran managed to create both drama and humour, even the BBC Singers were involved, shouting, waving flags, manipulating a model of ‘The Spirit of 76’ and holding up Mao’s little red book.

Robert Orth as Nixon was new to me, though he was played the role on numerous occasions in the USA and is on the Naxos recording. As a visual and dramatic representation of Richard Nixon he was excellent, giving us a convincing visual simulacrum. Musically, I was less convinced and had rather wished that the BBC had had the courage to employ a singer who did not look like Nixon. In a non-representational semi-staging, all of Orth’s tics and visual mannerisms became wearing. Orth is an experienced singer, very experienced, his career dates back to the 1970’s; quite whether he was the best person for the role I am not sure.

His iconic opening aria was sung well enough, but it was far less than imposing. Without a life size representation of ‘The Spirit of 76’ behind him (we had to make to with a tiny model), he needed much more authority. Without authority and gravitas, there was a danger of Nixon being simply a buffoon. That this could be done was shown but Gerald Finley who managed to imbue every note of Chou En-lai’s statements with authority and commitment, making the role seem far more than it really is. I’d even begun to wonder what Finley might have been like as Nixon.

Where Orth came over well was in the quieter more intimate scenes with Jessica Rivera’s Pat Nixon. US born Rivera has appeared in a number of Adams’s operas, making her European debut in Doctor Atomic with Netherlands Opera. She made a poised, sympathetic Pat Nixon. Singing with a lovely rich toned lyric voice which brought radiance to the more purple passages.

James Rutherford played Kissinger with energy and gravitas but didn’t quite succeed in making complete sense of what is rather a diffuse and diverse role. I think that it is the role of Kissinger that most benefits from a detailed full staging.

Gerald Finley made Chou En-lai the central role of the opera, without appearing to actually do anything. He certainly brought convincing commitment to the rather densely purple philosophising, and was profoundly touching in the final monologue. It was an object lesson in how character can be created in this opera without over doing things.

Alan Oke brought similar commitment, and fearlessness, to Chairman Mao. His delivery of the role, with its high tessitura, was masterly. And he made Mao’s odd philosophical statements seem coherent, bringing real anger at the right moments. The irony of this role is that Adams has given wickedly high music to a character that is ailing (at least in the first act). Oke did not sound ailing, but he looked convincingly so.

Oke was ably supported by Louise Poole, Stephanie Marshall and Susan Platts as the three secretaries. They managed to sing and perform in neat unison and executed all of Curran’s comic moments with wonderful, dead-pan aplomb.

Curran could not manage to disguise the fact that the ballet sequence in act two out-stayed its welcome. Without a dance troop and Mark Morris’s choreography to cheer things up, the lack of real drama began to tell. This satirical sequence, based on one of Madam Mao’s infamous workers ballets has always seemed a saggy part of the opera.

So it was with more than usual relief that we welcomed the appearance of Korean soprano Kathleen Kim as Madam Mao and her stunning delivery of the showpiece aria ‘I am the wife of Mao Tse-tung’. Kim’s command of the coloratura and acuti was impressive. It has to be admitted that her tone seemed a little hard, but then this is in keeping with the character.

The final act would, I think, have benefited from not being staged. As it was Curran’s staging did not match many of the stage directions. And the characters are not really doing anything, I just wanted to be able to sit back and listen.

Bringing the orchestra out of the pit meant that we could appreciate even more the amazing and luminous effects Adams gets with his orchestration, especially as the BBC Symphony Orchestra were on such strong form. Adams seemed to take a moderately steady view of the work, concerned perhaps that everything could be heard clearly. This meant that come of the more dramatic passages lacked the visceral thrill that other conductors bring to them. The timings of Adams’s performance seemed to indicate that he was overall marginally slower than Marin Alsop on the Naxos recording, and Alsop’s speeds are marginally slower than those of Edo de Waart on the premiere recording.

Also, some sequences seemed oddly stilted with gaps between the in a way that I don’t think I have heard before. But then, I’ve never heard the composer conduct the work, nor was I following it with a score.

This was quite a long evening (7pm to 10.30pm with two 20 minute intervals) and there were times when I thought that the piece might benefit from cutting. But it was a pleasure and a privilege to hear Adams conducting his own work.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Richard Nixon [Source: Wikipedia]

product_title=John Adams : NIxon in China
product_by=Madame Mao: Kathleen Kim, Chairman Mao: Alan Oke, Chou En-Lai: Gerald Finley, President Nixon: Robert Orth, Pat Nixon: Jessica Rivera, Kissinger: James Rutherford, Secretary: Stephanie Marshall, Secretary: Louise Poole, Secretary: Susan Platts, Stage Director: Paul Curran, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers, Conductor: John Adams

Royal Albert Hall, London 5th September 2012
product_id=Above: Richard Nixon [Source: Wikipedia]

Posted by anne_o at 10:18 AM

Marriage of Figaro at the BBC Proms

In Michael Grandage’s original production at Glyndebourne, there was a raised acting area behind the orchestra, with cast and chorus sitting in semi darkness behind this, whilst not performing. In theis BBC Proms performance (Prom 60), there was no set as such, just rudimentary door frames for entrances and exits.

There were no surprises about the version we heard, the traditional secondary arias were cut to ensure that the drama flowed. And flow it did. The dramatic and farcical elements move The opera was given in an abbreviated staging by Ian Rutherford based on efficiently and swiftly. Humorously too of course, though the boisterousness in act two got dangerously close to real farce. It was part of the way through act two that I thought, who are these people? And basically, the production didn’t really tell me.

Grandage and his designer Christopher Oram had move the action to the 1960’s. Oram’s costumes were all pitch-perfect with velvet suits, liberty print shirts, floaty dresses complete with awful period hairstyles. But this period does not necessarily give a secure dramatic basis for the piece, in fact by rather smudging the hierarchical relationships Grandage rather reduced the drama. In an era of free-love, the relationship of the Count (Audun Iversen) with Figaro (Vito Priante) and Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) was just too friendly. We need to believe that the count almost has the power of life and death over his servants. Without this, he is reduced to a hypocrite in a Whitehall farce.

Perhaps the situation could have been remedied by distinctive, strongly characterised individual performances. But Glyndebourne had assembled a young, enthusiastic cast who work well as an ensemble, conveying Grandage’s intentions, but failed to establish a personal stamp on the characters.

Audun Iversen as the count was personable and promising, but I defy anyone to be imperious when wearing a wig like that and a wine coloured velvet suit. Nor did he exude a particular sexual magnetism, which is surely a necessity. Iversen’s count seemed just too nice, there wasn’t the element of steel in the portrayal, the feeling that he has real power in his fief-dom and enjoys it.

Iversen was, I think, a little too matey with Vito Priante’s Figaro. Priante sang the role well enough but any hint at being revolutionary or subversive was rather nullified by the period. The Marriage of Figaro needs to be a dangerous piece, with real characters trapped in power relationships.

Sally Matthews as the countess was a Celia Birtwell sort of figure, elegant and slightly melancholy. She sang beautifully, "Dove Sono" was ravishing, but did not quite mine the vein of heartbreak at the aria’s heart. This was also noticeable at the end of the opera where the countess’s forgiveness of the count was lovely, but not yet heart-stopping.

Robert Hugill

image_description=Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

product_title=W A Mozart : The Miarriage of Figaro
product_by=Figaro : Vito Priante, Susanna : Lydia Teuscher, Countess Almaviva : Sally Matthews, Count Almaviva :Audun Iversen, Bartolo : Andrew Shore, Marcellina : Ann Murray, Cherubino : Isabel Leonard, Don Basilio : Alan Oke, Antonio : Nicholas Folwell, Don Curzio : Colin Judson, Barbarina : Sarah Shafer, First Bridesmaid : Ellie Laugharne, Second Bridesmaid : Katie Bray, Glyndebourne Festival Chorus, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Ian Rutherford (stage director), Robin Ticciati (conductor)

Royal Albert Hall, London 28th August 2012.
product_id=Above: Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Posted by anne_o at 9:47 AM

Peter Grimes BBC Prom 55

Somewhat paradoxically, in a Proms performance of the 2009 ENO production which could not be classed as either a concert performance or semi-staged, Skelton’s dramatically intelligent and musically affecting rendition crystallised Grimes’ essential ambiguity: the bitter, vicious anger which arises from Grimes’ frustration with his own failings and his community’s hypocritical lack of compassion, was as credible as his creative visions and lyric outpourings. When he gruffly clasped his shivering new apprentice boy (Jacob Mason-White), there was both concern and callousness in the impulsive gesture. Skelton’s Grimes is not brutal fisherman or visionary dreamer, rather a convincing amalgam of the self-doubts, ambitions, flaws and injustices of which all men are comprised.

With the ENO chorus seated behind the orchestra, there was little room at the front of the stage platform for any expansive physical movement or actions; however, Skelton’s unbridgeable separation from the Borough was evident from the first, alienation and hostility resonating from every ounce of his slouching bulk as he took his place in the dock to face the murder charged intoned gravely by Swallow (Mark Richardson, standing in at very short notice for the indisposed Matthew Best). The extremes of the limited stage area were well used. As he tied and re-tied his capstan rope while the Borough gossiped salaciously about Grimes’ brutal treatment of his apprentice boys, Skelton seemed to be compulsively and ceaselessly wringing his hands in outer defiance and inner despair at his alienation and impotence. And, recklessly setting off into the rough weather in pursuit of a profitable catch and ultimately Ellen Orford’s hand in marriage, Grimes’ descent beneath the stage seemed to indicate his existential loneliness and his final doomed fate.

And then there was the singing. Skelton employed the full panoply of shades and timbres to convey Grimes’ inherent contradictions and unpredictability. A slightly reticent tone in the Prologue, suggesting his annoyance and unwillingness to co-operate, blossomed at the end of the scene to reveal the sincerity of his love for Ellen and the fragility of his hopes for the future. Emotionally committed, holding nothing back, the occasional catch in Skelton’s voice exposed the burly fisherman’s essential vulnerability, and how close he was to breakdown; at other times, a rebellious, ringing bellow reminded the Borough of the defiance and danger he posed to their own hypocritical smugness and complacency.

But it was in the lyrical moments of self-revelation that Skelton’s Grimes really revealed the pain of his inner struggles. From the soaring aspirations of the Act 1 cry, “What harbour shelters peace?”, to the still beauty of Grimes’ mysterious appeal to the heavens in Act 2, “The Great Bear and Pleiades”, Skelton’s firm tone, now sweet and pure, then intimating the weight of his inner agony, ensured our sympathies lay with the outsider, whatever his suspected misdemeanours. The subtle rallentando and controlled legato line of the pianissimo scalic descent, “Who can turn skies back and begin again?”, was heartrending; and in the Act 3 ‘mad aria’, when haunted by echoes of the Borough’s accusations and his own regrets, Skelton managed to convey the disintegration of man whose psyche and future are fragmenting but also one who retains an inner core of self-reliance and insolence.

Although initially a little strident, Amanda Roocroft credibly portrayed Ellen Orford’s strong resistance to the Borough’s hypocrisy and oppressive mores, and a genuine feeling for her unlikely soul mate. An overly wide vibrato caused some initial problems (Skelton had to work hard to overcome these in the unaccompanied duet which closes the Prologue), but Roocroft relaxed into the role and summoned a warm tone and flexible lyricism, most notably at the opening of Act 2 when she first tries to reassure the young apprentice of Grimes’ essential goodness, and then pleads with Peter to cease from work and remember their dreams. Roocroft’s characterisation grew in strength as her voice became more focused, and by the end her rich sonority was a powerful indictment of the Borough’s insincerity.

Iain Paterson’s Balstrode was authoritative and compassionate, his diction superb, his melodic phrasing thoughtful and, like Skelton, Paterson economically clarified Balstrode’s ambiguous role in Grimes’ experience and fate: his resonant command - “We live and let live, and look-/ We keep our hands to ourselves” - immediately quelled the Borough’s scandal-mongering but their insistent repetitions of his reminder grew ever more menacing, laden with insinuations.

The minor portraits were deftly drawn, not without humour but generally avoiding caricature. As Mrs Sedley, Dame Felicity Palmer enunciated every word crisply and with self-justifying emphasis, just as one imagines this self-righteous laudanum addict would pontificate. But, Palmer injected another dimension, conveying Mrs Sedley’s essential isolation from the Borough whose moral position she assumes she articulates. Seated in the chorus, alone at the end of a role, during the Sunday Morning scene, she struck a rather pitiful figure. Stuart Kale’s Reverend made a strong impact, especially in this Sunday church scene: positioned in the middle of the chorus, he led the community in their devotions, their backs turned on the more genuine, human interaction between Ellen and Peter on the beach below, the disjuncture between stale, insensate convention and the difficult, painful but ultimately life-giving interactions of humanity laid bare.

Michael Colvin was a lively, rakish Bob Boles, while Leigh Melrose’s Ned Keene was fittingly dark and sinister. In the 2009 ENO production, Auntie and her two Nieces were, like many of the Borough, depicted as grotesques, but - excepting the dubious retention of the straggly rag dolls which the mature Niece’s incessantly trailed behind them, seeming joined at the hip - there were fewer exaggerations here. Rebecca de Pont Davies’ Auntie was a woman clearly in control of her customers and her own destiny; and, in their Act 3 duet, Gillian Ramm and Mairéad Buicke sang with warmth and character.

Edward Gardner’s mastery of Britten’s orchestral and operatic language is undisputed, but even by his own lofty standards Gardner excelled. Confidently adopting a slow, spacious tempo in the first orchestra Interlude, he conjured both the stillness of the dawn and the massive apocalyptic forces latent beneath the shimmering surface, as surge after surge swelled to break the translucent glistenings of the high strings; the transition into the chorus which opens Act 1 was seamless, powerfully revealing the unbreakable bond between the sea and the community who depend upon the volatile waters for the lives and livelihoods. The Storm interlude was frighteningly ferocious, every nuance of orchestral colour summoned to evoke the elemental forces. In the Passacaglia, the texture thinned to allow the plaintive searchings of Amélie Roussel’s viola solo to sing soulfully of the apprentice’s melancholy and loneliness.

The ENO chorus were a little ragged and hesitant at first, their raised fists during the trial scene rather convincing and stilted. But, the ensemble settled and, despite a slight imbalance between men’s and women’s voices, they represented a fearsome and intransigent force for Grimes to defeat. At times involved in the action, as in the church scene mentioned above, elsewhere adopting a more distanced role as moral commentator, they were a telling reminder to us all of our own implication in the fates of individuals whom we judge and condemn.

From the first flick of his baton to summon the self-righteous mutterings of the bassoon, to the final shadowy whispers of the held strings and trombones, Gardner did not once allow the dramatic and emotional tension to slip. As the inevitable conclusion was reached, Skelton, commanded by a resolved Balstrode to scuttle his boat and escape the accusations which he could never answer, slipped reluctantly but resignedly away through the standing Promenaders. The full audience in the Albert Hall held its breath; and there was little emotional respite as the daily life of the Borough resumed, Grimes erased from their memories and their consciences by the majestic sea, which “rolls in ebb yet terrible and deep”.

Claire Seymour

Click here for cast and production information.

image_description=Benjamin Britten

product_title=Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Benjamin Britten

Posted by anne_o at 5:04 AM

September 27, 2012

Santa Fe 2012

Rossini’s longish opera seria Maometto II seemed a dark horse to become the runaway hit of the summer but once you consider the bravura singing from highly gifted soloists, the piece swept all before it. Not even Mother Nature’s sustained torrential downpour during Act One could dampen the powerful impact.

Soprano Leah Crocetto (Anna) is on the verge of a major career. Her sizable, poised soprano has spinto leanings and showed commanding presence at forte, balanced with the ability to gently caress introspective passages. When demanded, Ms. Crocetto fired off expressive and accurate coloratura with flexibility most admirable for this size voice. She is an unmannered actress, honest and ‘in the moment,’ although she could aspire to a more graceful gait. The opera revolves around Anna, and Leah made the most of every opportunity, becoming the summer’s breakout sensation in the process.

Bruce Sledge was a revelation as Anna’s father Erisso, evoking the tone and vocal character of a very young Chris Merrit (although I am not sure Chris ever sang this sweetly). Mr. Sledge has a freely produced, warm lyric tone. His rock-solid technique allows him to zing out robust high notes, negotiate complex melismas, and spin melting legato phrases with equal success. He is a fine musician and a solid actor, and this very special combination of gifts is sure to win him wider fame in very short order.

Patricia Bardon’s ripe mezzo defines the word ‘plummy.’ Make that ‘über -plummy.’ Ms. Bardon was a bit slow to warm up and the role of Calbo demands much rangy outpouring from the git-go. But in short order she settled into a groove and was pinging high notes, belting low notes, and making short work of the florid demands. The first trio with Mmes. Crocetto, Bardon, and Mr. Sledge, was a pyrotechnical dazzler of the anything-you-can-zing-I-zing-better variety. We were all winners in this brilliant showdown.

I have greatly enjoyed Luca Pisaroni in other productions but nothing I have experienced to date prepared me for the ferocious intensity of his performance in the title role, nor for the blazing accuracy of his coloratura. Mr. Pisaroni has an uncommonly wide-ranging, virile bass baritone, and he delivered the goods in every register, at every volume. His commanding impersonation dominated his every scene, while he also proved a generous and collegial team player.

Frédéric Chaslin not only led a taut, propulsive reading of the score, but also breathed with his soloists as they essayed the fiendish florid challenges Rossini set out for them. Maestro Chaslin created a satisfying overall arc and nurtured a commendable spirit of collaboration.

John Morrell‘s clever set design suggested ancient ruins with two rounded stone walls in a sort of “S” shaped rotunda (is that architecturally possible?) with a main entrance nestled between them. These marble walls backed a black and white tiled, raked floor. Best of all, we kept getting surprised by scenic treats that got revealed as panels rolled aside, or cloths were ripped away. The coup de theatre was Maometto’s going off to battle in a chariot drawn by three sculpted horses. Also excellent was the suggestion of the ruler’s tent by a simple red diagonal cloth, with the veiled heads of his harem women poked in a row above it like chickens in a hen house.

Mr. Morrell’s costumes were colorful and evocative if perhaps a bit too eclectic. Turkish Mutant Ninja Soldiers squared off with Venetian troops with bayonets in 19th Century military get ups, the former led by Maometto in proper period Turkish garments. Still they made a statement, and looked dramatic in front of the neutral gray background. Duane Schuler proved a true company asset as he gave us eloquently detailed lighting designs for this and two other productions this summer. His beautifully considered and cued illumination with its careful choice of colors and moods is always a pleasure to see.

If director David Alden is not careful he may lose his Bad Boy status, for here his work was inspired by the text and not by some “concept.” The character relationships were telling, the plot clear, and the blocking well-motivated. His management of the large choral forces was fluid, and he was wise to allow lovely stage pictures to remain relatively still while the singers coped with complicated ensembles. If occasionally some more inventive business may have fleshed out the characters a bit, it is to Mr. Alden’s great credit that he largely allowed the piece to speak with its own voice.

It seemed as though Arabella set designer Tobias Hoheisel may have been in cahoots with Maometto’s Morrell for the Strauss had a drawing room that was defined by more curving dove gray walls with another great focus on the entrance/exit points. But for the difference in texture and the elegant molding, the two designs succeeded in parallel visions.

For Act Two, Mr. Hoheisel located the action on the second floor of the mansion, at the top landing of a grand staircase center stage that disappeared down to the floor below. This ingenious device allowed lighting designer David Finn to manufacture all manner of shadows and intrigue with the warm light emanating up the staircase from the party below.

Hoheisel also excelled at designing sumptuous period costumes that were the final word in Viennese elegance. His lavish white traveling suit for Arabella defined with black accents and accessorized with flamboyant hat perfectly announced: “Star Soprano.”

Tim Albery directed a wonderfully internalized staging that was rife with subtext. Mr. Albery also managed to reveal the substantial humor in the piece without resorting to caricature. The truthfulness of his approach was a powerful ingredient in the overall impact of what is essentially a slight yet touching character study.

Conductor Sir Andrew Davis elicited a glowing reading which didn’t miss a trick in this tricky score. The grand Straussian sweep was there to be sure, but Arabella can rise or fall on the strength of its exposed solo work, and the Santa Fe instrumentalists were virtuosic both individually and as a well-oiled ensemble.

For the opera to succeed, the title role must win us over with her first entrance or we can be in for a long sit. The moment lovely Erin Wall uttered Arabella’s first phrase, we knew we were in for a treat. Ms. Wall had a big success here a few years back with her assured performance in Daphne but how she has grown since then!

The voice has acquired a lustrous sheen and while it blooms and soars at louder volumes, it is in the delicate introspective phrases that she arguably makes her biggest impact. Not for her the cloying Art-Song-Approach as if every syllable might break if not carefully couched. No, Erin keeps the conversational utterances on the breath and floats them out over the band in lilting, Viennese-tinged German. There is nothing in the role that eludes her. Her resounding achievement puts her on the fast track as a decidedly worthy successor to Kiri, Karita, and yes, even Renee.

Arabella’s rather placid nature can be threatened with upstaging by the volatile, anguished Zdenka, and the delectable Heidi Stober very nearly accomplished just that. Ms. Stober has a radiant lyric soprano that is matched by superior interpretive gifts. Her flawless Act One duet with Ms. Wall was one of the evening’s highlights. Heidi is also a real creature of the stage and does not so much impersonate characters as inhabit them. Her trim figure and feigned manly gait in Act I gave way to the hopeful romantic young woman in Act Two with compelling urgency.

At first, Mark Delavan’s Mandryka seemed to owe more to the boorish Baron Ochs that I might have liked, marked by bark and bluster. His sizable, dark bass-baritone has been acclaimed as Wotan in recent years, but the trade-off has been that now swifter moving legato finds his voice lumbering a bit. However, Mr. Delavan won me over completely in Act Two when he settled into communicating the meaning of the text rather than the volume of it.

He was especially fine in the schizophrenic vacillation as he rationalized why Matteo was given the key to Arabella’s room, careening between acceptance and tortured outbursts of great comic variety. By opera’s end Mark had morphed into such a sympathetic Mandryka, I only wished he might invest his Act One interpretation with more of a preview of where he was going with it.

As Matteo, Zach Borichevsky seemed challenged by the higher tessitura in Act One, but then his bright, somewhat open tenor found its focus thereafter and he contributed an enjoyable performance, pairing well with his Zdenka. Victoria Livengood’s Adelaide impacted as much for her seasoned and sassy impersonation as for her no-nonsense soprano, which had an unruly moment or two. Dale Travis was a solid Count Waldner, offering a firm-voiced traversal of the delusional and compulsive paterfamilias.

Brian Jagde made a good impression with his stentorian top notes and over-the-top take on Count Elemer. Apprentice Artist Jonathan Michie displayed a pleasing baritone as Dominik and AA Joseph Beutel’s lovely baritone promises much as he contributed a good Lamoral. Fiakermilli is such an ungrateful, overly-complicated, extraneous role (but how do I really feel?) that it is high praise indeed to say that delightful Kiri Deonarine made a fine impact in the part. Her astounding ascents into the stratosphere were effortless and the tone never lost appeal as it meandered thought the insanely difficult melismatic writing. And Ms. Deonarine has an assured presence, firing off complicated figures while desporting around the stage with animation.

I have seen King Roger on two previous occasions in wildly different productions (Amsterdam, Paris) but this summer’s SF mounting was easily the finest. The piece is knotty and complex of course, with thrilling orchestral textures and awesome aural effects, but with less inspiration in the vocal writing, and a bare bones ‘suggestion’ of a libretto.

The production team turned these vagaries into an asset with an unnerving, troubling dramatic creation that was as spooky as it was oddly serene. Who is the Shepherd anyway? The Messiah? An angel? A hippie wandered in from Haight-Ashbury? Why is he fixated on King Roger? And why does he easily usurp authority and leadership of a fractured populace?

His arrival portends change and raises many questions; questions the production slyly does not aspire to answer. It is to director Stephen Wadsworth’s great credit that from beginning to end, he allows us to speculate, thereby cleverly drawing us into the moody puzzle. Freedom of the spirit seems to be the overriding message, but free to do/be what?

Mr. Wadsworth skillfully guides his ensemble as if they are slowly but willingly succumbing to the intoxicating effects of human intimacy. Their eerie commingling espouses more than its share on homo-eroticism. There is an aching, highly charged moment near opera’s end with the Shepherd and King leaning into each other, lingering without touching, that was as tense and electric as the gap between God’s and Adam’s fingers in Michelangelo’s Creation of Man. The entire evening was irresistibly unsettling.

Thomas Lynch’s spare set design featured a platform, a modest throne, some chairs, and at the very rear, a series of painted panels suspended 10 feet above the full width of the gaping upstage entrance. The first was red, orange and yellow evocations of Byzantine church iconography; the second featured hues and dabs of purple, green and blue that looked somewhat like an enlarged detail of a Monet Water Lilies; the last a vague textured wash of white and cream. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes started out as efficient court wear and loosened and lightened up as the bacchanalian co-mingling progressed.

Mariusz Kwiecien is simply tremendous in the title role, a part he virtually “owns” at this point. Throughout the piece, he offered up beautifully modulated phrases whether hushed and understated, tinged with questioning despair, or unleashed with potent confrontation. Mr. Kwiecien’s manly, buzzy baritone is a well-known commodity on world stages but in no other opera does he deploy it with more variety and dramatic meaning. Producers, please take note and build a production around this tour de force in your venue while Mariusz is in his prime.

William Burden is a tenor who defies categorization. With his well-schooled technique, lovely lyric tone, and superb musicianship, I have seen him succeed equally well in diverse styles. He does not disappoint as the Shepherd, although he seemed to be uncharacteristically holding back on the top, clearly a choice he made. This effect did fit well with the semi-religious flower child he created. In addition to his effortless singing, Mr. Burden made bold, abandoned choices and his aggressive, unembarrassed sensuality was a key component in the evening’s success.

The third principal, Roxana, has less to sing but Erin Morley’s assured, shimmering soprano contributed a haunting beauty, especially as it glided effortlessly through several exposed, ornamented descants. In smaller parts, Laura Wilde was the sure-voiced Deaconess, Raymond Aceto was an imposing Archbishop, and Dennis Petersen made every line count as Edrisi.

Evan Rogister worked magic in the pit, his conducting finding every color and illuminating every passage of this highly atmospheric masterpiece. Indeed, I believe Maestro Rogister may have just drawn out the finest playing I have yet heard from a Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. Not to be outdone, Susanne Sheston’s chorus was coached to a fare-thee-well, and produced thrilling results.

Handsome as was Jean-Marc Puissant’s set design for The Pearl Fishers, and much as I admired many of the lovely visuals conjured by director Lee Blakeley, I had a hard time working out the concept. A huge gold picture frame bisected the stage, with the front half apparently a crumbling drawing room from a mansion in the period of the work’s composition. Upstage of the frame, the back half was a stone walled terrace of a ruined Hindu temple on the bank of the sea, in the period of the opera’s setting.

I imagined, falsely, that the picture might afford possibilities for a living tableau that might spill into the drawing room. But from the beginning, the placement of characters was inconsistent and poorly defined. At curtain the corpse of the community’s leader is borne from the seaside and placed downstage to underline how perilous a pursuit is pearl diving. Zurga is anointed the new leader. The clan and culture are well defined by Brigitte Reifenstuel’s characterful costumes.

But when Nadir arrives, inexplicably attired like Indiana Jones lost from raiding the ark, the concept gets even muddier. This juxtaposition of societies clouded the rather sweetly simple story. By the time Leïla is carried in reverentially on a litter (ravishingly costumed in red traditional Ceylonese -inspired garb), we have been distanced by the inconsistencies. Indeed, she seems more a dea ex machina to perhaps clarify and salvage the narrative, than the virgin priestess who crucially ensures the safety of the divers.

When the fragile plot gets confrontational at the end of One, the giant gold frame suddenly falls forward slightly as if to suggest, lest we miss it, ‘discord.’ At the end of Two as all is resolved, it rights itself again. Awwwwww, thanks for the help, guys, I might have missed that. Never mind surtitles, ‘helpful’ effects like this are Captioning for the Clinically Bewildered.

In spite of these staging inventions, to be fair the director and cast nailed most of the key musical moments. This is owing in no small part to the stylistically accurate, meticulously phrased, deeply sensitive conducting from Emmanuel Villaume. The Maestro and his finely honed instrumental ensemble made a potent case for this youthful score. And the stellar cast of vocalists wholly succeeded in enlivening Bizet’s creation.

As Leïla, Nicole Cabell was as vocally assured, as she was physically alluring. Ms. Cabell slightly covers her seamless, wide-ranging soprano (think: Joan-Lite) resulting in a silky tone that is plush and seductive. Her total mastery of the numerous arching and winding phrases above the staff was particularly pleasing.

Eric Cutler presented a solidly reliable Nadir, his strapping physicality and generous, honeyed tenor serving the role well. Je crois entendre encore was well crafted and wove its spell, although we were occasionally more aware of Eric’s good technique as he negotiated the aria’s perils, than of the music itself. Further experience will surely imbue more of a feeling of spontaneity from this talented young artist.

Coming back to Santa Fe after his success as last summer’s Valentin, Christopher Magiera’s Zurga has a lot going for it: a mellow, throbbing baritone with an exceptionally free and easy high register, fine musicianship, good French, and a handsome ‘physique du role.’ While the voice is not particularly large, he communicated well when downstage. Mr. Magiera’s impact was muted when he was directed further upstage, which could be easily remedied by a few blocking adjustments. He and Mr. Cutler offered a mellifluous account of Au fond du temple saint. Rounding out the cast, Wayne Tigges delivered a forceful, mature Nourabad.

As is too often the case, the bread-and-butter opera of the festival was its least effective. Considering how much I have admired Maestro Chaslin in many other outings (see “Maometto,” above) his leadership of Tosca was uncharacteristically weak. Slow passages were often too slow, faster segments too rushed. There were odd orchestral highlights of seldom heard figurations and there was weak dramatic collaboration between singers and orchestra. Ah well, to paraphrase an old saw about comedy, “Death is easy, Puccini is hard.”

Soprano Amanda Echalaz has all the goods to make for a successful Tosca, including an enjoyable spinto that is responsive and ample. Her beautifully couched “Vissi d’arte” earned a deserved enthusiastic ovation. Young Brian Jagde assumed the part of Cavaradossi on short notice when the originally scheduled performer withdrew. He brought many assets to the show, including Corelli-worthy top notes of ringing splendor. His large-voiced, take-no-prisoners approach was unsubtle at times, and he tired a bit after his Act Three aria, but Mr. Jagde is a major talent making an auspicious role debut. While his Italianate music-making falls easily enough on the ear, I wonder if his future might not lie in the lighter Wagnerian roles.

Thomas Hampson is such an intelligent , conscientious artist that he was able to bring a good deal of craft to bear essaying Scarpia, which is not a natural fit for his vocal gifts. On this occasion, there was little bloom in the upper register, but he did bluster his way through the heavier passages effectively enough. Never uninteresting, always highly musical, I nevertheless thought Mr. Hampson was miscast as the malevolent Baron.

Dale Travis was a coarser than usual Sacristan, although his booming voice and aggressive search for the punch line did earn more than a few chuckles (or was it the surtitles?). Stefan Biller’s Shepherd was well-tutored, Dennis Petersen was a distinctive Spoletta, and Christian Bowers did all that was required as Sciarrone. Zachary Nelson was not only one of the youngest Angelotti’s I have ever seen, he also lavished the part with one of the most wonderfully warm, rolling bass-baritone’s I have heard in this small but crucial role.

In attempting to do something different with the physical production, set designer Yannis Thavoris offers a series of rather deconstructed impressions of some of opera’s (and Rome’s) most famous locales.

The focal point of Act One’s church is a huge raked platform occupying the middle third of the stage, which is actually a giant work-in-progress, framed painting of the Magdalene. Yes, that’s right, it’s like the Face on the Bar Room Floor, with Mario painting it there, Tosca obsessing about it there, and the amassed chorus tromping all over it in the Te Deum. The focal problems with this idea are complicated by having the platform proving a real obstacle to sensible blocking, with every movement having to go around it, or worse, over it.

The upstage image was a forced perspective look up at the cupola, with brass gates and fences in real perspective stage right and left. After the vocal cut-off at the act’s end, the front third of the platform flipped up, isolating Scarpia in front of a painting that turned out to be the Farnese Palace, probably unknowable to all but scholars of Italian art.

For Act Two, the obligatory window, torture chamber door and office entrance were added, with Scarpia’s desk the only other decoration in the vast expanse. The top of the Castel Sant’Angelo found us stuck again with the raked painting of Act One, the Magdelene image replaced by a hole in the floor for Mario’s entrance and some added architectural components hung upstage. Duane Schuler’s lighting really came into its own in this setting with dramatic hot light coming up from the cells, and glowing illumination of the suspended back-drop. Mr. Thavoris had considerably more success designing the apt and glamorous costumes.

I have to applaud many of director Stephen Barlow’s intentions. The first scene between Tosca and Mario was exceptionally coquettish, teasing, and flirtatious, with a good chemistry generated between the two. But MIA were the depth of passion and fierce jealousy that really drive the action. There needed to be more at stake, but after a fashion the scene was engagingly different.

The great cat-and-mouse confrontation of Act Two found Scarpia and Tosca somewhat stymied by tepid blocking. Having her dispatch her tormentor by stabbing him in the neck with a hatpin was, well, unusual to say the least. I didn’t so much mind Scarpia staggering and dying just inside the torture room door, although we were then robbed of the powerful melodramatic business dictated by the stage directions and underscored by the music.

The Shepherd’s solo starts offstage but then he appears with a broom to sweep Scarpia’s office, now devoid of the desk, and oh, BTW, the lad discovers the body after he sings. Where is there one bar of body-discovering-music in the score? After Cavaradossi had to sit rather awkwardly on the stage to write his farewell letter, the rest of Three picked up to provided the opera’s best moments, including Mario’s death as he first fell to his knees, then pitched to the side landing hard as a ton of . . .um, tenor. . .on the stage, provoking a palpable reaction in the house.

At first I thought that Spoletto was going to merely handcuff Tosca and (oh no) simply lead her away. But then she roughly pushed him down, ran to the upstage end of the rake, sang her famous final line, turned upstage chillingly backlit (thanks, Duane!), held high her shackled hands and in silhouette, violently hurled herself into the abyss.

It took them most of the night for the team to get us there, but ultimately we were riveted by the old familiar Tosca thrills.

James Sohre

Maometto II

Erisson: Bruce Sledge; Condulmiero: Matthew Newlin; Calbo: Patricia Bardon: Anna: Leah Crocetto; Maometto II: Luca Pisaroni; Selimo: Michael Dailey; Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin; Director: David Alden; Set and Costume Design: John Morrell; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Choreography: Peggy Hickey; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston


Fortune Teller: Susanne Hendrix; Adelaide: Victoria Livengood; Zdenka: Heidi Stober; Matteo: Zach Borichevsky; Arbella: Erin Wall; Count Elemer: Brian Jagde; Count Waldner: Dale Travis; Mandryka: Mark Delavan; Welko: Christian Sanders; Dominik: Jonathan Michie; Lamoral: Joseph Beutel; Fiakermilli: Kiri Deonarine; Djura: Ryan Milstead: Jankel: Matthew Newlin; Servant: Edwin Vega; Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis; Director: Tim Albery; Set and Costume Designer: Tobias Hoheisel; Lighting Design: David Finn; Chorus Master: Susanne Heston

King Roger

Deaconess: Laura Wilde; Archbishop: Raymond Aceto; King Roger: Mariusz Kwiecien; Edrisi: Dennis Petersen; Roxana: Erin Morley; Shepherd: William Burden; Conductor: Evan Rogister; Director: Stephen Wadsworth; Set Design: Thomas Lynch; Costume Design: Ann Hould-Ward; Lighting Design; Duane Schuler; Choreographer: Peggy Hickey; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

The Pearl Fishers

Zurga: Christopher Magiera; Nadir: Eric Cutler; Leïla: Nicole Cabell; Nourabad: Wayne Tigges; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Director: Lee Blakeley; Set Design: Jean-Marc Puissant; Costume Design: Brigitte Reifenstuel; Lighting Design: Rick Fisher; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston


Angelotti: Zachary Nelson; Sacristan: Dale Travis; Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde; Tosca: Amanda Echalaz; Scarpia: Thomas Hampson; Spoletta: Dennis Petersen; Sciarrone: Christian Bowers; Shepherd: Stefan Biller; Jailer: Christopher Remmel; Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin; Director: Stephen Barlow; Set and Costume Design: Yannis Thavoris; Lighting Design: Duane Schuler; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston

image_description=Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II with Chorus [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

product_title=Santa Fe 2012
product_by=By James Sohre
product_id=Above: Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II with Chorus [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

Posted by james_s at 9:00 AM

September 17, 2012

The Singer’s Appetite!

“The Singer’s Appetite!,” created by Matthew Swensen and Paige Kiefner, is a food blogging website that publishes recipes (by Swensen himself or other credited individuals) of dishes inspired by the some of the most beloved singers of the past and present. Dishes include Chicken Tetrazzini, Bucatini di Caruso, and many others!

Posted by Gary at 11:31 AM

September 12, 2012

Record Attendance at Salzburg

By Frank Cadenhead [Opera Today, 12 September 2012]

A record 278,978 people attended events of the 2012 edition of the famed Salzburg Festival in Austria, the largest number since its founding 92 years ago.

Posted by Gary at 9:14 AM

New Attendance Record for Salzburg

In the 45 days of the festival there were 256 performances. These include 48 opera performances of nine operas, including two operas in concert. There were also 95 concerts and 12 theater productions with a total of 76 performances. Box office receipts totaled some 28 million euros (35.2 million US

Dollars) and the several venues operated at 90% capacity with many sold out before the festival opened.

Working with Unitel Classica, the Salzburg Festival 2012 transmitted eleven productions over nine television stations but also including, available on the Internet. Five productions were shown in European movie houses with two, the productions of La Bohème and Die Zauberflöte, seen in more than 00 cinemas Europe-wide.

Frank Cadenhead

image= image_description=View of Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg courtesy of Salzburger Festival product=yes product_title=New Attendance Record for Salzburg product_by=By Frank Cadenhead product_id=Above: View of Salzburg © Tourismus Salzburg courtesy of Salzburger Festival
Posted by Gary at 9:00 AM