October 28, 2012

La bohème on Tour, WNO, Oxford

As such, larger companies tend to err on the side of caution when creating new productions. Puccini’s La bohème is quite tightly constructed, and it doesn’t take easily to deconstruction or redefinition; the most directors tend to do is to move the period of the action from the mid-1800’s of the original. Annabel Arden’s new production for Welsh National Opera concentrates on telling the story in a clear, direct manner and illuminating the relationships between the characters with telling details. The production was new in June 2012, but WNO has revived it for their autumn tour; as a number of the original cast are in this revival it feels more like an extension of the original run.

I caught it on Thursday 25 October at the New Theatre, in Oxford. The New Theatre was originally a 1930’s cinema, and though the theatre takes large scale musical shows, there seems to be no pit, The WNO orchestra played from the floor of the stalls, which did seem to affect balance slightly though conductor Simon Phillippo did his best to keep the orchestra down and the singers were never overwhelmed. Phillippo is a WNO staff conductor who has taken over from Carlo Rizzi for this revival.

Arden and her designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have set the opera in the Paris of the early 20th century. These Bohemians are some of the young artists who flocked to Paris in these years, Les Annees Folles. The advantage of this is that we no longer have to think of the men as students. Though WNO’s singers were all young, this relieved the men of some of the more embarrassing antics which can mar acts 1 and 3. Here the men were skittish, but believable.

The setting for act 1 was rather cool. The set was a fixed structure, with a ramp at the back and doors on from the sides, all in metal. For act 1 these were disguised by translucent drops which depicted a Parisian roof-scape (in white), along with projections to add atmosphere. The flat had no walls, which combined with the translucent nature of the drops, meant that Arden could create some magical effects. The moment when Marcello (David Kempster), Colline (Piotr Lempa) and Schaunard (Daniel Grice) appear in the street and shout up to Rodolfo (Alex Vicens) and Mimi (Giselle Allen) was magical.

For act 2, the entire setting was in the open air, with waiters coming and going through the big metal doors at the side of stage. Projections on the back enlivened things, adding detail to what could have been a stark setting. I felt that Arden’s handling of the crowds in the busier parts of the scene seemed a little stilted, as if she was feeling constrained by the need to make a busy stage out of not quite enough people. She relied quite heavily on the excellent childrens chorus and on Michael Clifton-Thompson’s Parpignal (in a monkey mask!) to create movement. But from the moment when Musetta (Kate Valentine) struck up the waltz song, it was spell-binding. It seemed that Arden was best at illuminating individual details in the opera.

Boheme_WNO_2012_05.gifMichael Clifton-Thompson as Parpignol with cast

During this scene, the playing of the time period was, I think, a little heavy handed with one woman dressed as a man, another looking like Gertrude Stein or Frida Kahlo and two men in drag. Perhaps Paris was really like this at that time, but it felt a bit over done.

For act 3 the set was reduced to its simple basics, forming a bleak cold backdrop to the action. In the final act, though we were back in the flat, there were no drops of streetscapes, everything was bleaker, cooler, simpler; a rather elegant use of naturalism and stylisation to aid the story telling.

Spanish tenor Alex Vicens was in the original production but his Mimi, Giselle Allen, was new for this revival. Vicens has an appealing stage manner, his Rodolfo was endearing and involving in ways that do not always happen. Vicens had a tendency to semaphore with his hands, a habit that the director had clearly not been able to break him of, but he conveyed Rodolfo’s charm. You could understand why Mimi might fall for him. It has to be admitted that Vicens voice was a bit dry at the top, so that the famous moments in act 1 did not flower, quite the way they should have done. But Vicens was ardent and intense, shaping the music nicely.

Giselle Allen did not seem entirely comfortable in act 1 either. She and Vicens generated real tension and real attraction during their scene, the action was dramatically believable but musically it did not quite blossom. In fact, their strongest moment musically was act 3; this seemed to suit Allen’s voice best and their duet was heart breaking both dramatically and musically. I did wonder whether Allen’s repertoire might suggest her moving in a rather more dramatic direction. She is not the most Italianate of singers, but applied real intelligence to the role and was always a delight dramatically.

The strength of Arden’s production was in the little naturalistic details which she illuminated the action. In the wrong hands this would seem fussy, but here it helped made sense of the plot. And the act 4 death scene for Mimi was one of the most moving, least stagey that I have ever come across; a testament both to Arden and to Vicens and Allen.

Of course, this attention to detail helped make the most of the role of the other Bohemians. David Kempster’s Marcello came over as the lynchpin of the action. Kempster and Arden made the role of Marcello seem stronger and more important than is sometimes the case. The on-off romance of Marcello with Kate Valentine’s Musetta was a serious counter-poise to Rodolfo and Mimi rather than a side show. Valentine’s account of Musetta’s waltz in act 2 was a delight, but Arden developed it into a real dramatic moment as well. Kempster was serious and intense and you really felt for him.

One of the virtues of the production was that, at the end you were aware of the different characters reactions to Mimi’s death and came away with the feeling that none of their lives would quite be the same again.

Piotr Lempa was slightly dry voiced as Colline but his aria to his coat was touching. Daniel Grice had lovely swagger as Schaunard, complete with long hair and velvet suit. For once the hi-jinks in act 4 didn’t feel forced.

Martin Lloyd made a gross Alcindoro, perhaps too highly caricatured. Laurence Cole and Stephen Wells were the customs officials in act 3.

Simon Phillippo conducted with care and efficiency. His speeds kept things moving, without seeming rushed. But occasionally I wanted him to stretch things out, to dwell a little more. This is a case of styles of rubato, enjoying things without dwelling on them too much. But Phillippo drew fine playing from his orchestra and supported the singers admirably.

Arden has concentrated on the details in Puccini’s opera, telling the story with clarity and applying directorial gloss with subtlety. Perhaps there is scope for an edgier reading of the opera, but that would then not be the popular vehicle which the WNO needs for touring. Because this was popular, the house applauded warmly and I overheard many discussions about the opera as I walked to the station.

Robert Hugill

Click here for a photo gallery, together with video and audio presentations of this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Boheme_WNO_2012_06.gif
image_description=Kate Valentine as Musetta, Gary Griffiths as Schaunard and David Soar as Colline [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Welsh National Opera]


product=yes
product_title=Giacomo Puccini : La bohème
product_by=Marcello: David Kempster; Rodolfo: Alex Vicens; Colline: Piotr Lempa; Schaunard: Daniel Grice; Benoit: Howard Kirk; Mimi: Giselle Allen; Parpignol: Michael Clifton-Thompson; Alcindoro: Martin Lloyd; Musetta: Kate Valentine; Customs Official: Laurence Cole; Customs Sergeant: Stephen Wells. Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Conductor: Simon Phillippo. Director: Annabel Arden. Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis.

Thursday, October 25 2012, New Theatre, Oxford
product_id=Above: Kate Valentine as Musetta, Gary Griffiths as Schaunard and David Soar as Colline

Photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Welsh National Opera

Posted by anne_o at 6:07 AM

October 27, 2012

A New Production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Christine Goerke, in her debut with this company, delivered a relentless yet at the same time lyrical performance, one in which Elektra’s early delusions are transformed by the character’s determination to see her plan for revenge ultimately realized. Her sister Chrysothemis is sung by soprano Emily Magee, their mother Klytmämnestra by mezzo-soprano Jill Grove, Orest by bass-baritone Alan Held, and Aegisth by tenor Roger Honeywell. Sir Andrew Davis conducts these performances which open Lyric Opera’s fifty-eighth season.

At the sound of the distinctive opening chords the stage depicts a servants’ courtyard at center with, at left, a stairwell leading up to a stone edifice tilted menacingly. The doorway at the top of the stairwell emits a reddish glow. During the opening dialogue of the maids Elektra is visible from time to time caught up in gestures of emotional distress coupled with sounds akin to laughter. In her defense of Elektra’s nobility of spirit the fifth maid, sung and declaimed here with admirable attention to diction by Tracy Cantin, communicates further the tension that accompanies Elektra’s dilemma. Once the maids have retreated indoors Elektra occupies the stage alone and delivers her opening monologue. From the start Ms. Goerke uses her dramatic and vocal powers to portray a character obsessed with the dimensions of past injustice and future vengeance. Goerke’s calls to her father Agamemnon, coupled with a narration of his slaughter, are delivered with an impressive and secure range. In her erratic memory this Elektra intones the dramatic low pitches of “Sie schlugen dich im Bade tot” [“They murdered you in the bath”] in flashes with tender appeals phrased piano for Agamemnon in spirit again to reveal himself [“Zeig dich deinem Kind” (“Appear before your child”)]. As the orchestra swells gradually toward the close of Elektra’s extended monologue Goerke’s voice rises in believable excitement at the thought of a triumphal dance. In her plan for sibling cooperation she envisions the “Purpurgezelte” [“pavilions of purple”] that will be erected upon the successful revenge taken for Agamemnon’s death. Here Goerke’s forte notes matched the orchestral power and were integrated into a seamless portrayal of distress and vision. The final appeal to “Agamemnon,” just as at the start of the scene, suggests here through audible symmetry a barely contained simmer of emotional fury which is still to be unleashed.

Grove_2_(Credit_Dario_Acosta).pngJill Grove [Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of IMG Artists]

At the entrance of Chrysothemis in the following scene Goerke injects a palpable scorn into her greeting, “Was willst du, Tochter meiner Mutter?” [“What do you seek, daughter of my mother?”]. In their interaction and frenzied discussion of Klytmämnestra’s plan to imprison Elektra, Ms. Magee creates an emotionally complex figure. Her Chrysothemis attempts to warn Elektra yet also unleashes lyrical pleas to be allowed to live as a woman and to ignore the past. Once her feelings become charged to the point of declaring, “Viel lieber tot als leben und nicht leben,” [“So much better to be dead rather than to live and not live”], Magee’s yearning vocal line rises exquisitely in contrast to Elektra’s present starkness.

In the following scene Chrysothemis runs off to allow the inevitable confrontation between Klytmämnestra and Elektra. Jill Grove shows herself to be an equal partner in this vocal and dramatic confrontation, as her Klytmämnestra derides the “paralysis” [“gelähmt sein”] of her own strength when confronted by her daughter. In her address to Elektra the rising notes on “Habt ihr gehört? Habt ihr verstanden?” [“Did you hear? Did you understand?”] flow into a solid and chilling contralto pitch on “Ich will nicht mehr hören” [“I do not wish to hear any more”], both establishing the dread that she herself feels and can likewise inspire in others. The revelation that a sacrifice must be made to halt Klytmämnestra’s nightmares leads to Elektra’s triumphant announcement that the Queen herself must die as this “Opfer.” Grove uses appropriately melodramatic gestures to register the Queen’s horror until a servant provides her with the information that her feared son Orest has died before returning to the court. As she regains her composure Grove’s Klytmämnestra retreats with her retinue while delivering exultant cries of relief.

When Chrysothemis announces this very information to Elektra in their following exchange Goerke’s repetition of “Es ist nicht wahr” [“It is not true”] communicates her frustration in acidic tones. Elektra reveals to Chrysothemis that she has hidden the axe used in Agamemnon’s murder and the sisters must now wield it in lieu of Orest. The accompanying duet between Goerke and Magee stands out as a lyrical showpiece of this production as their voices blend and move apart in rhythmic succession. At the ultimate refusal of Chrysothemis to participate in the vengeance and her flight into the house, Elektra is left in grim resolve to dig for the buried axe herself.

As Elektra continues to search for the hidden weapon, a shadow appears on the back and side walls of the stage. The stranger [“Was willst du, fremder Mensch?” (“What do you seek, stranger?”)] identifies himself as a former companion of Orest who has come to deliver personally the news of his death to the Queen. In the scene of recognition Orest is able first to appreciate the identity of his sister through conversation despite her degraded state. Mr. Held portrays the stranger convincingly with questioning tones of respect, until the moment of recognition when his resonant voice blooms into the role of the heroic brother with a determined mission. In like manner, Goerke’s dramatic cry of recognition at the identification of her brother is softened as she sings piano with distended notes of relief and love. Despite their ecstatic reunion they are reminded of the task as Orest enters the palace. Only Elektra’s despair at having forgotten to provide Orest with the axe breaks the awful tension sustained in the orchestral accompaniment. The screams of Klytmämnestra are followed soon by the arrival in the courtyard of a drunken Aegisth. Elektra assures him passage into the house and to the same fate as that met by her mother. At the appearance of Chrysothemis in the courtyard and her joyous declaration of “Gut sind die Götter” [“The gods are benevolent”], Elektra begins her dance of celebration predicted earlier in her dramatic monologue. The continued emotional strain has, however, snapped and Elektra falls down lifeless to the horror of her sister. The final cries by Chrysothemis of “Orest!” bring about the crashing chords of resolution. The production of Elektra by Lyric Opera of Chicago with its superb cast as well as musical leadership by Sir Andrew Davis will remain as a testament to the innovation and greatness of Strauss’s music.

Salvatore Calomino

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Christine_Goerke_-_Photo_by_Christian_Steiner_2c_%282%29.png image_description=Christine Goerke [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists] product=yes product_title=A New Production of Elektra at Lyric Opera of Chicago product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Christine Goerke [Photo by Christian Steiner courtesy of IMG Artists]
Posted by Gary at 3:03 PM

Amsterdam’s Skin Show

This was amply evidenced by the striking new production of Written on Skin, from composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp. There is nothing “easy” about this enigmatic work, and yet it is richly rewarding for those who are willing to revel in its intriguing complexities.

The piece is based on a 12th century Occitan legend (oh that again!) but is framed by 21st-century “spiritual” sensibilities as it considers the dynamics of co-dependent personal relationships, life-changing decisions, and mind-altering entanglements. The slender plot concerns a ruthless, rich lord who brutally controls his childishly obedient young wife Agnes. The brute commissions an artist (The Boy) who he welcomes into his house to complete a book of “illuminations” (text and illustrations on parchment = skin). The despot wishes to have his political prowess and domestic “bliss” immortalized in flattering terms.

Instead, the creation of the book incites his wife’s rebellion, which manifests itself in her seduction of the artist. The wife then exploits her intimacy with the visitor and coerces his alteration of the book’s content to expose her husband with truthful revelations of his despicable character and deplorable misdeeds. When the artist candidly (foolishly) documents his passionate affair with the wife, the cuckold stabs him, cuts out his heart and serves it to his unsuspecting wife for dinner. When she is informed of what she is ingesting, she defiantly keeps eating and praising its flavorful taste.

As the husband makes to stab his wife, she runs up the tower and hurls herself off of it, remaining suspended in mid-drop, hovering in one final “illustration” that leaves her between heaven and earth. This slowly unfolding, nay churning of the emotional sub-text makes Pelléas seem a model of cogent expeditiousness. Factor in a trio of 21st century “angels” who periodically offer such contemporary commentary as “erase the Saturday car-park from the market place,” and you have a richly enigmatic, Pinter-esque concoction. And perhaps its vague juxtaposition of images is its greatest asset since it not only commands our rapt attention, but encourages us to speculate. I was riveted by the performance from first to last.

This was owing in no small part to Mr. Benjamin’s hauntingly beautiful score, with its layers of orchestral colors and unusually grateful vocal writing. The composer also presided on the podium, eliciting thrilling results from the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra. The group met every challenge of this opaque work’s masterful orchestrations. Although there are many influences evident in the musical results (Britten, Messiaen, Berg, among others), Benjamin has found his own style, and his own palette of effects, one that includes vocal lines meant to please the ear, and not just the intellect, as in many another contemporary opera.

writtenonskin0001.pngChristopher Purves as The Protector, Bejun Mehta as Boy and Elin Rombo as Agnès

The singers were uniformly first-rate, starting with Christopher Purves who scored a tour-de-force with his nuanced impersonation of the Protector. Mr. Purves is possessed of a powerful, incisive bass-baritone that was supremely well-controlled. Even when his character was called upon to snarl or bark musical statements, Mr. Purves kept his instrument focused and refined. He was also capable of meaningful introspective musings, and colored his voice with menace for bone-chilling, sinister insinuations.

Bejun Mehta proves yet again why he is numbered among the top echelon of current day counter-tenors. From his first long sustained note that slowly built in volume, he regaled us with beautifully modulated singing that had all the richness of a resonant viola. Mr. Mehta not only has uncommonly fine diction, but also has an unusually wide range of colors in his warmly ingratiating instrument. Bejun found a perfectly judged obscurity as the Boy, with his physical abandon Flower-Child-like in its naiveté. After his demise, the Boy returns as an Angel, an apt metaphor since Mehta sang like an angel all night long.

Lovely Elin Rombo scored all the right dramatic beats as the dominated wife. Her reliable, gleaming soprano was used with great skill and absolute service to the writing, and Ms. Rombo was equally effective whether whispering hushed exchanges, wringing out every bit of pathos from arching flights above the staff, or forcefully propositioning her pliable house guest. Her cool, even vocal delivery after she learns what (or rather whom) she is ‘eating’ was a model of control.

Victoria Simmonds was a firm-voiced Marie (Agnes’s sister) and she made a substantial contribution to the ensemble as Angel 2. Allan Clayton was quite fine as Marie’s husband John, and his suave tenor made a memorable impression as Angel 3. Although not credited, the concentrated work of several added supers was important to the milieu of the concept.

And the production’s “concept” provided quite a massive, spectacular architectural setting that was at once solidly realistic, and nebulously spiritual. The brilliance of the visual realization was that it managed to suggest a green room, wings, a fly loft and stage performance space while at the same time suggesting limbo, heaven, and most certainly, hell. A sturdy two story structure, the ground floor left contained a period drawing room out of some austere Dutch Masters painting flanked far left by a moody grove of trees. Through the room’s stage right door was a brilliantly white “green” room, or waiting room, or dressing room, or…well your take is as good as mine.

writtenonskin0195.png Bejun Mehta as Angel 1, Victoria Simmonds as Angel 2 and Allan Clayton as Angel 3

Upstairs, the trees have burrowed upward through the left floor, a dated ante room center has a window that opens on the great outdoors, and a white ‘office’ on right suggests a corporate nerve center as easily as it implies ‘heaven.’ The married pair are clad in time neutral interpretations of medieval garb while the Angels trade off contemporary business wear for their period attire as required. Vicki Mortimer’s thought-provoking set and wholly appropriate costumes were masterfully lit by Jon Clark, whose brooding color choices were integrated into a lighting design which perfectly balanced tight specialty spots, moody washes, looming shadows, and pointed brilliance.

Best of all, director Katie Mitchell was able to knit together the many (deliberately) disparate dramatic conventions into a convincing, unified whole. Mr. Crimp’s libretto is an especial challenge since characters often speak of themselves in the third person, and recite stage directions even as they perform them. It is to Ms. Mitchell’s great credit that far from distancing us from the soul of the tale, her stagecraft intrigues us, envelopes us, consumes us.

When characters are emotionally spent at the end of selected scenes, they shrink or collapse into the waiting arms of the omnipresent stage hands/angels/supers, to be comforted even as they are moved around like another stage property to be re-set in its proper place. I cannot remember the last time I have been so engaged by such overt theatricality from both writers and producers. Katie has also managed to draw incisive, highly charged character relationships from her cast, and the whole is meticulously paced, blocked, and coached.

I shall not soon forget the coup de theatre at opera’s end as the misused wife flees her murderous spouse up a white staircase extending into the loft, running to leap to her death, pursued by the rest of the cast, all in excruciatingly. Slow. Motion. Ironically, this is one of the few instances where the production fails the script since it calls for her to leap but be suspended mid-air, but then who has ever seen Brűnnhilde ride Grane onto the pyre? (So there.) Never you mind, it is spell-binding nonetheless.

Written on Skin was that all-too-rare treat, a compelling new piece of writing that spoke with its own affecting voice, performed by a peerless cast and band, matched by an enthralling stage production that served to make for a potent evening of musical drama. Here’s wishing it many more successful first nights and an enduring presence in the repertoire.

James Sohre


Production

The Protector: Christopher Purves; Agnes: Elin Rombo; Angel 1/Boy: Bejun Mehta; Angel 2/Marie: Victoria Simmonds; Angel 3/John: Allan Clayton; Composer: George Benjamin; Libretto: Martin Crimp; Conductor: George Benjamin; Director: Katie Mitchell; Set and Costume Design Vicki Mortimer; Lighting Design: Jon Clark; Netherland Chamber Orchestra

Co-production with Festival Aix-en-Provence, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro dei Maggio Musicale Florence, and Théâtre du Capitole Toulouse

image=http://www.operatoday.com/writtenonskin0187.png
image_description=Bejun Mehta as Boy and Christopher Purves as The Protector [Photo by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]

product=yes
product_title=Amsterdam’s Skin Show
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Bejun Mehta as Boy and Christopher Purves as The Protector

Photos by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

Posted by james_s at 2:12 PM

Lohengrin in San Francisco

Lohengrin like never before. It was an orgy of orchestral colors, an adventure in sonic discovery, the absolute summit of virtuosic orchestral delivery. Maestro Nicola Luisotti attacked and conquered Lohengrin.

There. That’s done. What’s left now that it’s all over?

No longer mythic Germanic lore, this tale seemed to be an episode from, say, Ceausescu’s already mythic Romania, where books were torn from library shelves to burn to make electricity to light the libraries. Though in the emptied library in which all this took magic took place there was not enough juice to illuminate all the grandiose (Romanian socialist moderne) light sources. Well, save in the last scene when Lohengrin finally was going to save the masses. But bowed out.

The masses were magnificent socialists, eighty mighty workers (plus a few sword and standard bearers) who whispered in shimmering sounds and roared in full, transparent tones. But with such idealistic and obviously pleasurable glory in their sonority, and willing unity in their regimentation (yes, this multitude of virtuosic choristers was happily organized in lines and blocks) that they hardly needed to be saved from such perfection — to cede such artistry to mere Western materialism would be tragic indeed.

Meanwhile Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson in socialist general regalia was instructed to walk downstage center and be the embattled king Heinrich. Mr. Sigmundsson, once an estimable artist, here was perfect as crumbling, ineffective power. Baritone Brian Mulligan, a San Francisco Opera fixture, was Heinrich’s prissy acolyte, a welcomed vocal contrast to his superior. Mr. Mulligan is a richly voiced singer who complemented the maestro’s musical textures while overwhelming the import of this mere herald.

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was the Lohengrin, a role debut. He apparently has a new voice teacher as the perfectly reasonable tenor we heard a few years ago as Luigi in Il Tabarro has been transformed into a trumpet. While he has not yet mastered the subtlety of tone of a fine trumpeter he does have a surprising variety of volume if not color, though his first and last words in the opera were delivered in a tentative half voice that was cause for concern. Even with its moments of real beauty the sharpness of his tone worked with the costuming of this production to make him look and sound gawky. Though this maybe helped establish the assumed caricatural intent of this conception of Lohengrin.

08--Lohengrin.pngBrandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin and Camilla Nylund as Elsa von Brabant

Of the five principals the Elsa of Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund realized the most successful character. Elsa herself is a lost soul, and Mlle. Nylund though looking like a well-kept Romanian apparatchik had no idea how to be one. The purity of her voice and the innocence of her presence served her well, though in the bigger moments her voice could not ride the the maestro’s mighty crests, as could, for example, the out-of-scale voice of Mr. Jovanovich.

German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski seemed over parted as Telramund, diminishing the stature of evil in Wagner’s struggle to overcome baser levels of humanity. Mr. Grochowski’s fine baritone and interesting persona are more at home in roles that are more lyric and perhaps more complex psychologically. He lacks the inherent vocal color and physical force to personify an uncontrolled thirst for power, willing to say or do anything to get it. Reduced to a whimpering wimp in this production there was little for all those arcane powers of the Holy Grail to overcome.

Joining her homeless husband as Ortrud, the bag lady was German mezzo Petra Lang. Mme. Lang did not seem to be in good voice, her final curse thinly delivered, again underlining the opera’s need to endow evil with enough stature to be worth overcoming. As it was the famous pollution of socialist industry managed to create quite atmospheric lighting for Ortrud’s scenes brainwashing Telramund and deceiving Elsa, convincingly delivered by Mme. Lang.

06--Lohengrin.pngA scene from Act I

The production by British director Daniel Slater and British designer Robert Innes Hopkins is from Geneva (2008) and was already in close-by Houston (2009). It apparently has the intention to remove all magic from Wagner’s tale where swans ferry supernatural knights back and forth from an imaginary mountain. The musical moments for these arrivals and departures are truly momentous, even in ordinary circumstances, but here the workers and apparatchiks stare always forward only to discover and not seem to care that the bus terminal was behind them.

The production could not support the musical values imposed by Mo. Luisotti. Magic, and a lot of it was sorely needed to give place and meaning to this mountain of sound.

Michael Milenski


Program

Lohengrin: Brandon Jovanovich; Elsa von Brabant: Camilla Nylund; Ortrud: Petra Lang; Friedrich von Telramund: Gerd Grochowski; Heinrich der Vogler: Kristinn Sigmundsson; King’s Herald: Brian Mulligan. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Daniel Slater; Production Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins; Lighting Designer: Simon Mills. War Memorial Opera House, October 24, 2012.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/10--Lohengrin.png
image_description=Petra Lang as Ortrud and Gerd Grochowski as Friedrich von Telramund [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes
product_title=Lohengrin in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Petra Lang as Ortrud and Gerd Grochowski as Friedrich von Telramund

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 1:53 PM

October 24, 2012

Parsifal bears its own Cross

As such, it is no wonder that it has yielded some of Germany’s most seminal and controversial stagings of the past decade. The late Christoph Schlingensief brought giant, rotting bunnies to Bayreuth in 2004, the original stage to which Wagner consecrated the work in 1882—leaving New Yorker critic Alex Ross “ready to hurl,” as he so candidly put it—while Stefan Herheim’s 2008 deconstructionist production for the ‘Green Hill’ becomes an allegory for German history, traveling through the world wars of the twentieth century and into the bureaucratic Federal Republic of Bonn.

Philipp Stötzl, in his new staging for the Deutsche Oper (seen at its premiere on October 21), has opted for a more conventional yet equally radical concept that foregrounds explicitly Christian imagery. The director, who worked in film before making several successful forays into opera, casts the story as a series of tableaux vivants set in a rocky mountainous region that could easily be Nazareth (sets co-designed with Conrad Moritz Reinhardt). The curtains open during the overture to a realist portrait of Jesus on the cross, surrounded by nomads and a Roman soldier. Self-flogging and fake blood abound as the procession continues, with Amfortas carrying his own cross in the final scene.

In a genius stroke that counters the lengthy nature of the opening act, Gurnemanz’s narrations about Amfortas’ seduction by Kundry and the Last Supper are depicted on the rocks in flashbacks. Parsifal, appearing in a modern black suit and tie, descends upon the scene as if walking across a film set, an effect which is accentuated by conspicuous fluorescent lighting on all sides (Ulrich Niepel). Klingsor’s magic garden is fashioned as a Mayan cave of sorts, with Native American-inspired garb for the warlock and semi-nude floral get-ups for the flower maidens (costumes by Kathi Maurer), while the final act returns to a rocky, post-apocalyptic no man’s last featuring modern-day dress and a single streetlamp under which Parsifal is anointed by a blindly fervent crowd.

Parsifal_DO_06.jpgMatti Salminen as Gurnemanz and Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal with chorus

Stötzl’s episodes were for the most part expertly coordinated with the music, such as when Parsifal lunges his spear toward Amfortas’ wound, only to have the ruler grab it in an act of suicide (a gesture borrowed from Schlingensief). The director’s still lives, at their best, served to illustrate Wagner’s proto-cinematic qualities (theories point to the composer’s use of Leitmotifs and underscoring, techniques which were picked up by Hollywood starting in the silent film era, as well as the darkened theatre and continental seating in Bayreuth). The surging Liebesmahl (love feast) motif of the overture against the crucifixion scene captured the essence of Wagner’s spirit, a cry for redemption and a manic belief in the power of art to transform the senses.

Other scenes, such as the slow-moving mass of bodies wielding swords in the orchestral postlude of the final act, were nearly comical in their kitsch factor. The final act proved most perplexing in its chronological jump and aesthetic abstraction, failing to fully explain Parsifal’s anachronistic presence in the rest of the opera. It was also not clear whether the reverential raising of hands toward the grail in the final scene, including the shaking and collapsing of a man in zeal, was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. If Stötzl hoped to include an element of social critique, it was lost in the religious pageant.

Parsifal_DO_03.jpgEvelyn Herlitzius, as Kundry and Thomas Jesatko as Klingsor with dancers

Nonetheless, his characters emerged in immediately human strokes. Klaus Florian Vogt, slowly overtaking Jonas Kaufmann as today’s most coveted Wagnerian tenor, conveyed Parsifal’s selfless naiveté with clarion tones and an unforced thespian presence. Although his high lying timbre may not conform to the vision of many seasoned Wagnerians, his sharp musicianship and natural appeal surely compensate. The baritone Thomas Johannes Mayer gave a wrenching delivery in the role of Amfortas, evoking his existential struggle without chewing the scenery and phrasing with great sensitivity.

The dark voice of veteran bass Matti Saliminen may have developed a slightly gravely quality, but he was unquestionably authoritative as the knight Gurnemanz, winning thunderous applause. Evelyn Herlitzius incarnated the wandering heathen Kundry with seductive tones, grounding large melodic leaps with a burnished low range. She was in particularly fine voice for her narrative to Parsifal, “Ich sah das Kind,” about seeing him as a baby in his mother’s arms. The bass Albert Pesendorfer was rich voiced and commanding as Amfortas’ father Titurel, and Thomas Jesatko a magnetic Klingsor. Comprimario roles were strongly cast, with Burkhard Ulrich and Tobias Kehrer standing out as the First and Second Knights of the Grail. The chorus of the Deutsche Oper brought a characteristic blend of elegant lyricism and homogeneity of tone.

Parsifal_DO_09.jpgThomas J. Mayer as Amfortas and Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry with chorus

Donald Runnicles, now entering his fourth season as music director of the Deutsche Oper, led the orchestra in a smooth, strong-willed reading that did not always brim with tremendous pathos but did full justice to the soaring lines of Wagner’s score. The horns and trumpets were in top form through chromatic motifs, and although the strings’ gleaming tone did not always make its way into the transcendent, there was little doubt of the orchestra’s authentic connection to this tradition. With so many subversive productions circulating as we approach the eve of Wagner’s bicentenary in 2013, perhaps there is no need to fight the inevitable weight of history.

Rebecca Schmid

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Parsifal_DO_05.jpg image_description=Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal [Photo © Matthias Baus] product=yes product_title=Parsifal bears its own Cross product_by=A review by Rebecca Schmid product_id=Above: Evelyn Herlitzius as Kundry and Klaus Florian Vogt as Parsifal

All photos © Matthias Baus
Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

October 23, 2012

Don Giovanni at ENO

In 2010, it registered as the worst staging I had ever seen: a fiercely contested category, when one considers that it includes Francesca Zambello’s mindless farrago across Covent Garden at the Royal Opera — now, may the Commendatore be thanked, consigned to the flames of Hell. (Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, is said to have insisted, having viewed it in horror, that the sets be destroyed, lest it never return.) There were grounds for the odd glimmer of hope; Norris was said to have revised the production in the face of its well-nigh universal mauling from critics and other audience members alike. Yet the marketing did little to allay one’s fears, especially when reading the bizarre description on ENO’s website of a ‘riveting romp [that] follows the last twenty-four hours in the life of the legendary Lothario’. Something really ought to be done about whomever is involved in publicising productions; for, irrespective of the quality of what we see on stage, they more often than not end up sounding merely ludicrous: in this case, more Carry On Seville than one of the greatest musical dramas in the repertory. Even if one were willing thus to disparage Da Ponte — and I am certainly not — does Mozart’s re-telling of the Fall in any sense characterised by the phrase ‘riveting romp’?

Don-Giovanni02.gifIain Patterson as Don Giovanni and Darren Jeffery as Leporello

How, then, had Norris’s revisions turned out? Early on, I felt there was a degree of improvement. The weird obsession with electricity — certainly not of the musical variety — had gone, but not to be replaced by anything else. Certain but only certain of the most bizarre impositions had gone, or been weeded out, yet not always thoroughly enough. For instance, there was a strange remnant of the already strange moment when, towards the end of the Act Two sextet, people began to strip off, when Don Ottavio — an ‘uptight fiancé’, according to the company website — carefully removed his shoes and socks. No one reacted, and a few minutes later — I think, during Donna Anna’a ‘Non mi dir’ — he put them back on again. Otherwise, the hideous sets and other designs remain as they were, though one might claim a degree of contemporary ‘relevance’ in that Don Giovanni’s dated ‘leisure wear’ now brings with it unfortunate resonances of the late Jimmy Saville. Alas, nothing is made of the similarity. The flat designed as if by a teenage girl, full of hearts and pink balloons, remains; as does the building that resembles a community centre. Leporello still appears to be a tramp. There are no discernible attempts to reflect Da Ponte’s, let alone Mozart’s, careful societal distinctions and there is no sign whatsoever that anyone has understood that Don Giovanni is a religious drama or it is nothing. Norris has clearly opted for ‘nothing’.

There is, believe it or not, a villain perhaps more pernicious still. Jeremy Sams’s dreadful, attention-seeking English translation does its best to live up to the ‘riveting romp’ description. A few, very loud, members of the audience did their best to disrupt what little ‘action’ there was by laughing uproariously after every single line: the very instance of a rhyme is intrinsically hilarious to some, it would seem. A catalogue of Sams’s sins — sin has gone by the board in the drama itself — would take far longer than Leporello’s aria. But I no more understand why the countries in that aria should be transformed into months — ‘ma in Ispagna’ becomes ‘March and April’ — than I do why Zerlina was singing about owning a pharmacy in ‘Vedrai carino,’ or whatever it became in this ‘version’. It is barely a translation, but nor is it any sense a reimagination along the brilliant lines of the recent gay Don Giovanni at Heaven; it merely caters towards those with no more elevated thoughts than Zerlina going down on her knees, about which we are informed time and time again, lest anyone should have missed such ‘humour’. The lack of respect accorded to Da Ponte borders upon the sickening.

Edward Gardner led a watered-down Harnoncourt-style performance. At first it might even have seemed exciting, but it soon became wearing, mistaking the aggressively loud for the dramatically potent. Where was the repose, let alone the well-nigh unbearable beauty, in Mozart’s score? A peculiar ‘version’ was employed, in that Elvira retained both her arias, whereas Ottavio only had his in the first act. On stage, Prague remains preferable every time, despite the painful musical losses its adoption entails; sadly, few conductors seem to bother.

Iain Paterson remains bizarrely miscast in the title role, entirely bereft of charisma. Darren Jeffery’s Leporello was bluff and dull in tone. (How one longed for Erwin Schrott — in either role, or both!) Katherine Broderick was too often shrill and squally as Donna Anna, and her stage presence was less then convincing, shuffling on and off, without so much as a hint of seria imperiousness. Her ‘uptight fiancé’ was sung well enough, by Ben Johnson, though to my ears, his instrument is too much of an ‘English tenor’ to sound at home in Mozart. Sarah Redgwick’s Elvira was probably the best of the bunch, perhaps alongside Matthew Best’s Commendatore, but anyone would have struggled in this production, with these words. Elvira more or less managed to seem a credible character, thanks to Redgwick’s impressive acting skills, quite an achievement in the circumstances. Sarah Tynan made little impression either way as Zerlina, though she had far more of a voice than the dry-, even feeble-toned Masetto of John Molloy: surely another instance of miscasting.

ENO had a viscerally exciting production, genuinely daring, almost worthy of Giovanni’s kinetic energy. It seems quite incomprehensible why anyone should have elected to ditch the coke-fuelled orgiastic extravagance of Calixto Bieito — now there is a properly Catholic sensibility — for Rufus Norris. whose lukewarm response at the curtain calls was more genuinely amusing than anything we had seen or heard on stage. Maybe the contraceptive imagery was judicious after all.

Mark Berry


Cast and Production:

Don Giovanni: Iain Paterson; Leporello: Darren Jeffery; Donna Anna: Katherine Broderick; Don Ottavio: Ben Johnson; Donna Elvira: Sarah Redwick; Commendatore: Matthew Best; Zerlina: Sarah Tynan; Masetto: John Molloy. Director: Rufus Norris; Set designs: Ian MacNeil; Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Movement: Jonathan Lunn; Projections: Finn Ross. Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)/Edward Gardner (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Wednesday 17 October

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Don-Giovanni01.gif image_description=Iain Patterson as Don Giovanni and Sarah Redgwick as Donna Elvira [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Il dissoluto punito, ossia Don Giovanni (KV 527) product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Iain Patterson as Don Giovanni and Sarah Redgwick as Donna Elvira

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:40 AM

October 21, 2012

Mozart and Salieri — Young Artists at the Royal Opera House

Salieri is jealous because Mozart makes composing look easy. He poisons Mozart but weeps, since he’s reading the score for the Requiem, presumably overwhelmed by its beauty. We know the plot is fiction, but the text is by Alexander Pushkin, who lifts it above maudlin melodrama. Salieri can kill Mozart but he can’t kill his art. In destroying his rival, Salieri has compromised his integrity. “Can crime and genius go together?” he asks himself, and consoles himself with the thought that Michelangelo killed his model for the crucified Christ to get a better likeness for death. Does art justify murder? Pushkin and Rimsky-Korsakov possibly knew the tale was untrue, making Salieri’s excuse highly ironic.

Mozart and Salieri is unusual. The part of Salieri so dominates the work that it is more psychodrama than opera. Mozart and Salieri barely interact. Mozart isn’t a character so much as the embodiment of music. The real protagonists here are Salieri and the orchestra. At critical moments, Rimsky-Korsakov adds apposite musical quotations. Moments of Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” convey Mozart’s youthful impudence. Fortepiano melodies are played, and shrouded figures sing excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem. References to Salieri’s opera Tarare and to Beaumarchais and Haydn are embedded into text and orchestration, expanding Salieri’s monologue. He can “hear” but he can’t create like Mozart can. The Southbank Sinfonia was conducted by Paul Wingfield, with Michele Gamba playing the keyboard Mozart is seen playing invisibly on stage, his hands lit with golden light. A magical moment.

Ashley Riches sang the demanding role of Salieri. His experience and skill come over well, even though he’s been a member of the Jette Parker Young Artists programme for barely a month. Later this year, he’ll be singing parts in The Royal Opera House Robert le Diable, Don Carlo and La rondine, and covering the title role in Eugene Onegin. In this opera, Mozart isn’t given much to sing, and the range in the part is limited, but Pablo Bemsch developed the role purposefully through his acting. Salieri thinks Mozart is skittish: Bemsch with sheer personality shows that Mozart is a stronger character than Salieri could ever fathom. Bemsch is a second-year Young Artist and has been heard extensively. He’s covering Lensky in February 2013.

The Jette Parker Young Artists Programme isn’t just for singers but focuses on theatre skills. This production was one of the most sophisticated I’ve seen for a group with these relatively limited resources. Sophie Mosberger and Pedro Ribeiro designed an elegantly simple set, which suggested that Salieri, despite his wealth and status, was a fundamentally isolated man. The little puppet figure buffeted by figures in the darkness suggested that both Mozart and Salieri were victims of forces greater than themselves. Exquisite lighting by Warren Letton, colours changing as mysteriously as the music. A stunning finale, where the dark figures singing excerpts from the Requiem move around lighted candles. Since financial problems will haunt the opera world for a long time to come, this restrained but poetic minimalism may be the way ahead. This production was intelligently thought through, and musically sensitive.

Before Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, we heard Mozart’s Bastien and Bastienne, written when the composer was twelve years old. It’s a slight piece about a courtship between shepherd and shepherdess. Staging this literally would expose its weaknesses. Ribeiro and Mosberger set the Singspiele in a vaguely industrial landscape, which added much needed good humour and gave the singers more material with which to develop character. The trouble is, neither Bastien or Bastienne are much more than stereotypes. David Butt Philip, another new Young Artist, generates interest with his voice though the part is shallow. Dušica Bijelić sings sweetly but needs to project more forcefully. Jihoon Kim made a much more convincing portrayal of Colas, the wise older man who sorts things out. He was a striking Hector’s Ghost in the Royal Opera House Les Troyens in June 2012, and will be singing in several ROH productions in the 2012/13 season.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Wolfgang-amadeus-mozart_2.gif
image_description=The Boy Mozart [Source: Wikipedia]
product=yes
product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart : Bastien and Bateinne, Nikolia Rimsky-Korsakov, Mozart and Salieri
product_by=Bastien and Bastienne : Colas: Jihoon Kim, Bastien: David Butt Philip, Bastienne : Dušica Bijelić, Factory Owner's wife : Justina Gringyte, Conductor : Michele Gamba, Continuo : Paul Wingfield, Mozart and Salieri : Salieri : Ashley Riches, Mozart : Pablo Bemsch, Conductor : Paul Wingfield, Keyboard : Michele Gamba, South Bank Sinfonia, Chorus : Dušica Bijelić, Justina Gringyte, Hanna Hipp, David Butt Philip, Michel de Souza, Jihoon Kim

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, Wales, 17th October, 2012
product_id= Above: The Boy Mozart [Source: Wikipedia]

Posted by anne_o at 5:31 PM

October 20, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are, LA Philharmonic

Sendak’s original book has been around for a long time. Published in 1963, it was immediately criticized by child psychologists for arousing possibly traumatic wild animal feelings within children, and set off a great public debate on the subject. By 1979 however, the work had not only become a canon of children’s literature, but the Opéra National in Brussels commissioned Knussen to compose a work based on the story, in celebration of UNESCO’s International Year of the Child. The opera premiered there in 1980. But Knussen didn’t complete the work to his satisfaction until 1984. This version of the score, with costumes designed by Sendak, was performed in London by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera, that same year.

For anyone, who may not know the story, it’s about a boy named Max, whom we meet when he is wearing his wolf suit, bushy tale and all, and hammering away at everything that annoys him — causing such havoc at home that his mother calls him a “wilde chaya”, Yiddish for wild animal. Max repeats these Yiddish words to himself in an ongoing frenzy, when his mother orders him to bed without dinner. Miraculously, his room is transformed into a jungle and Max sets off on a long sail into a land full of wild animals who at first threaten him, then crown him their King, which occasion is celebrated with a wild “rumpus.” (Such a 1960s word!) Suddenly hungry, Max begins longing for home, and wonders whether he’ll find any food there. Sure enough, back in his own bedroom, after his return sail, he finds his supper — still hot.

WTWTA_1.gif

In Jones’ restrained but elegant production, Sendak’s own illustrations are projected on a large screen and animated on a offstage keyboard by Jones. Max, the only live character on stage, except for the momentary appearance of his mother, interacts with the projections. Figures representing Max’s family in their ordinary clothes, are silhouetted behind an offstage screen, from where they sing and act their wild animal parts. A small orchestra is clearly visible performing this marvelously orchestrated score. Added to its usual ranks are a tinkling two handed piano part, a rumbling contra bassoon and among too many other percussion instruments to list, clogs, sizzle cymbals, a spring coil, and “balloon with pin.”

The opera has had many stagings — three new ones just this year in Germany and Holland. But my guess is that charming and inventive as other productions may be, Jones’ vision, which uses Sendak’s own cross-hatched drawings of sharp clawed, fuzzy footed beasts, with facial expressions that only he could create, offers a simplicity and kind of purity that no other will match.

The cast was headed by Claire Booth, a slight, vivacious soprano, with voice enough to rise over the orchestral rumblings and energy enough to rumpus for forty minutes. Booth, as well as the rest of the cast, sang the production’s premier last June at the Aldeburgh Music Festival. They will repeat their performances in November at London’s Barbican Hall.

WTWTA_0.gif

Along with the brief opera, the orchestra performed Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, accompanied by Jones’ more traditional silhouettes projected as though in a story book. Though Ravel’s work is a ballet, which implies constant movement to the music, Jones’ projections were fairly still, but added an interesting dimension to the orchestral story-telling. The star of this performance was the orchestra and the wonderful variations of sound it produced within its subdued, but silken rendering of the French score.

The Disney Concert Hall is not an ideal venue for producing opera. When a side of the orchestral space is used for staging, as it was here, the audience seated above that space, cannot see what is happening directly below them. I sat above the screen behind which the Max’s silhouetted family was acting and singing, and didn’t know that they were there until they came out for their curtain call. I hope some way can be found to improve sight lines for producing the expanded repertory including staged vocal works that the Orchestra is planning to offer in the Hall.

Estelle Gilson


Production:

Max:Claire Booth; Mama/Female Wild Thing:Susan Bickley; Moyshe/Wild Thing with Beard:Christopher Lemmings; Aaron/Wild Thing with Horns:Jonathan Gunthorpe; Emil/Rooster Wild Thing:Graeme Broadbent; Bernard/Bull Wild Thing:Graeme Danby; Tzippy:Charlotte McDougal. Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel. Director, Designer and Video Artist: Netia Jones. Lighting Design: Ian Scott.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/WTWTA_2.gif image_description=Where the Wild Things Are [Image courtesy of LA Philharmonic] product=yes product_title=Where the Wild Things Are, LA Philharmonic product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Images courtesy of LA Philharmonic
Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

October 19, 2012

To Rome With Love: A Woody Allen film

Cut to a hospital somewhere in Italy — an anxiety-ridden voice is heard recounting, to anyone within earshot, of how he’d dreamt about this happening, that the shirt he wore for this performance — a present from his mother-in-law — was now ruined, and that the soprano probably put her boy toy supernumerary up to taking him out. And finally, “Is the doctor Jewish, you know cause, cause…I’d prefer if he were kosher since, since I had a club sandwich today and, and, that’ll kind of balance things out.”

Some of you might recognize part of the above as non-fiction. In1995, tenor Fabio Armiliato went through the ordeal of hospitalization and recovery after this exact unfortunate improvisation became part of a production of Tosca. The rest of this, to the best of my knowledge, is fiction, dialogue invented by me as an ode to the painfully self-examining and incessantly loquacious director’s filmmaking style. There need no longer be a wondering of how Allen might handle the subject of opera in film.

Checking out reviews of To Rome With Love (in theaters as of June 22), two stood out for their specific contrasts. One was a rave, from a publication not solely specializing in classical music, but from an opera newsy. The less complimenting piece centered on Allen’s relationship to the arts and how that influenced the construct of the film. The rave set aside particular positive attention for an opera singer by the name Armiliato. To Rome With Love, then, is a convergence of Allen and opera, as it is a convergence of Allen and Armiliato and their two characters.

Fabio is one of two Armiliatos to leave an imprint in opera today. Marco is a conductor that has had great success leading major orchestras at major theaters, through major opera assignments the world over. Fabio’s career has progressed so that he has become one of the premiere exponents of the dramatic repertory. Aside from a Tosca experience (and a Carmen one involving a sword and an Armiliato extremity) that would be difficult to make up, there is little indication why he would appear in Allen’s film. It turns out that Armiliato is a natural in Allen’s nearly probable satirical environment; I appear to have enjoyed Armiliato more than the reviewer that appraised his presence “charming.”

F. Armiliato singing at ‘red-carpet’ event promoting To Rome With Love

Genoese Armiliato plays Giancarlo, the owner of a funerary home shoppe in a strip mall. He is what you’d expect from a caricature of this persona and as the film gets underway, Armiliato gets lost in it. He is sullen and dry and flat, that is until he cleanses off embalming fluid and rigor mortis at the end of the work day and produces those big, operatically-trained sounds of Armiliato’s in the shower.

Setting the character’s temperament aside, Armiliato is warm and appears comfortable on camera. He also has a way with playing the ridiculous smoothly, and with having humor and irony fade into one another. If Allen has a gift for writing in absurdities that are nevertheless easy for actors to identify with, opera singer Armiliato seemed to easily find that place in the “filmy” climate. In opera, Armiliato’s reception steers sharply in the direction of physique (“tall, dark and handsome”), presence (“animal-like magnetism”) and greater still towards his voice — style and taste. Of his dramatics on stage, the general consensus is, well, quiet. This is a good thing in opera. It worked to an advantage in To Rome With Love.

There is nothing left to be desired from this soundtrack (per Armiliato) stacked up against the best recorded material of Del Monaco. The miking and its exposure tells us more about what Armiliato does vocally. It is a hearty, if a bit thick, and well-supported sound that rises fully through the range. It is singing that sets itself apart in knowing the music and for a strong sense of the style (mostly versimo). On the opera stage, Armiliato’s tone sounds like it falls short of the pitch in the very lower parts of the range but the middle and high range singing, squillante e potente, is from a voice opera-special and movie-star handsome.

This absolutely startles (even if your expecting it) and begins Allen’s character’s mind to churn when he visits his daughter (played by Alison Pill) and her boyfriend (played Flavio Parenti) — son of mortician. Allen’s character (Jerry) is a bit change of pace for him. He still has lots to say, and says it with the tense and torn interlocution that we’ve come to expect. But the direction of the message is “out of character.”

As a more careful than wise elder-statesman (a funny turn in it’s own right), he is less believable pinning the label of communist revolutionary on his daughter’s beau. As a cutting-edge opera-director, the kind that seeks to reinvent, update and upset all things traditional in opera, he is at least theoretically more in his element. The story doesn’t play like it’s about him anyway, or even like the ideas are bounced off him as happens in Allen’s early works.

The convergence of opera and Allen in film is poetic for the director, a convergence of fortune and the fantastic: an extraordinary talent (Ginacarlo’s) that only surfaces in the shower and a director (Jerry), in an outside-imposed professional asylum, that has no qualms about fitting this into the plot twist of Pagliacci in a major opera house. But before anyone is aware of the limitations of this talent, Jerry seeks the advice of others. The first to object is Michelangelo (Giancarlo’s son), with loud warnings of his father becoming a product, a cog and bourgeois puppet. His son sees him as fine as he is.

Giancarlo strongly agrees at first. And before you know it, the film turns to an audition, with presumably opera-elites in jury. Here we get to probably the funniest moment with regards to singing in the film. “Nessun Dorma” is already going badly, hacked up, strained high notes, no signs of the enormously gifted voice heard coming from the shower of the Giancarlo home. Then, the final note arrives. In mid-scream, Armiliato contorts his face to match, sticking-out his tongue in, possibly, a last ditch effort to loosen his voice. Or, possibly, Armiliato is sticking it out at us, the audience.

Allen’s To Rome With Love goes only so much farther into opera than many a film, and other parts of the ensemble set pieces that are the director’s forte also play to the world of opera, to love, infatuation, and the fickle nature and folly of fame.

Judy Davis (Phyllis) is again an Allen wife, less frustrated by the predicaments he has for her this time around. Roberto Benigni (Leopoldo) is a nobody who has celebrity suddenly thrust on him for no apparent reason. A young man (played by Alessandro Tiberi) loses his girlfriend (played by Alessandra Mastronardi) but gains Penelope Cruz (Anna), a lady-of-the-night that knocks on the wrong hotel door (“sono tutta tua,” she says to him, things have been paid for). This leads to some of the best comedic moments of the film. Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page (young Jack, Sally, and Monica) help Alec Baldwin (older Jack) relive an after-college year in Italy, with Baldwin meeting that younger Jack struggling to make sense of the world.

To open and close the film, this world is directed by a polizia (Pierluigi Marchionne). From the pedestal of a traffic circle in “every street” Rome, this character muses to the audience of the events and world that pass around, this world where Allen, opera, and Armiliato, meet.

Robert Carreras


Click here for additional information regarding this film.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/To_Rome_poster.gif image_description=To Rome With Love Poster product=yes product_title=To Rome With Love: A Woody Allen film product_by=A review by Robert Carreras product_id=Above: To Rome With Love Poster
Posted by Gary at 3:33 PM

Lucia di Lammermoor at Arizona Opera

The daughter of the famous Italian tenor and cellist, Nicola Tacchinardi, Fanny began working on her vocal technique in childhood. Eventually she became associated with the music of bel canto composers, such as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and the young Verdi. In 1832, she made her stage debut at Livorno and she soon appeared in major Italian cities singing major roles in operas such as Tancredi, La gazza ladra, Il pirata, and L’elisir d’amore.

When Donizetti heard her in 1833, he described her voice as “rather cold, but quite accurate and perfectly in tune.” He chose her to create title roles in three of his operas: Rosmonda d’Inghilterra, Pia de’ Tolomei, and Lucia di Lammermoor. Her voice has elsewhere been described as sweet and light with a brilliant upper register. We know that she had remarkable agility and that she could sing a given aria several times in succession, each time with a different cadenza. It seems that she caused an unfortunate dispute during the rehearsals for the Lucia premiere. Donizetti wrote that she made a fuss, which terrified tenor Gilbert Duprez, because she wanted the last scene of the opera to be sung by the soprano, not the tenor.

Gilbert Duprez (1806-1896), the French tenor famous for pioneering the delivery of an operatic high C from the chest, created the role of Edgardo in Lucia. Having made his debut as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in Paris in 1825, a few years later he decided to try his luck in Italy. There, the operatic scene was more active and he found work even though he preferred to sing operas in which there were few elaborate coloratura passages. In 1831, Duprez took part in the first Italian performance of Rossini’s Guglielmo Tell and, for the first time during the performance of an opera, he sang a high C full voice, not in the so-called falsetto register as was usual at that time. After that, his success was assured in Italy. By 1835, when he sang Edgardo at the world premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, his reputation was well established. He also sang leading roles in other Donizetti premieres such as La favorite, Les Martyrs, and Dom Sébastien. In 1851, he made his last public appearance as Edgardo at the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris. By that time his high C from the chest had become a standard feature of operatic singing. His legacy was the tenore di forza, a direct ancestor of today’s dramatic tenor.

Domenico Cosselli (1801-1855) was an Italian bass-baritone most often associated with the florid singing of Rossini’s operas. For Donizetti, however, he created: Olivo in Olivo e Pasquale, Azzo in Parisina, and Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor. He was one of the first singers to make the transition from the old concept of a bass to what we know today as a baritone, a voice type that in 1835 was still in its infancy. He gave the role of Enrico a new dimension that looked forward to the idea of the Verdi baritone.

On Saturday evening October 13, Arizona Opera presented Lucia di Lammermoor in a traditional production with sets by Robert R. O’Hearn that was originally seen at Florida Grand Opera. Fenlon Lamb, who has sung mezzo-soprano roles on the opera stage, directed it in Arizona. She told Lucia’s sad tale in a most realistic manner. Some might have questioned her use of an actress to embody the ghost that Lucia says she sees at the fountain, but it did underline the young woman’s desperate mental state. The attractive, detailed costumes from A.T. Jones and Sons were correct for the time and place. Douglas Provost’s evocative lighting added much to the show’s gothic ambience.

The Lucia was Stacy Tappan, who sang one of the Rhine Maidens in the recent Los Angeles Ring of the Nibelungen. Hers is a substantial lyric coloratura voice and she has the technical resources to follow in the steps of singers like Tacchinardi Persiani. Joseph Wolverton was a romantic Edgardo who sang with a secure line. The surprise of the evening was the Enrico of Mark Walters. He sang his first scene aria, “Cruda, funesta smania”, with powerful low tones and thrilling top notes. Jordan Bisch, who has a dark, dense voice, made an auspicious debut as Raimondo, the minister who tries to make peace between the families. Samuel Levine was an appropriately smarmy Normanno and Laura Wilde a dramatic Alisa. David Margulis, whom I last heard as an apprentice at Santa Fe Opera, was a radiant voiced Arturo who held his own in the beautifully sung sextet. The chorus is most important in this opera and, thanks to the hard work of Henri Venanzi, Arizona Opera has a truly first class choral group. They acted individually and sang their harmonies with exquisite precision. Steven White conducted at a brisk pace, never letting the tension sag in the least. He shaped the orchestral sound so as to bring out every color and detail of Donizetti’s magnificent score. This was a fine performance and an auspicious opening for Arizona Opera’s 2012-2013 season.

Maria Nockin


Cast:

Lucia: Stacy Tappan; Edgardo: Joseph Wolverton; Enrico: Mark Walters; Raimondo: Jordan Bisch; Normanno: Samuel Levine; Arturo: David Margulis; Alisa: Laura Wilde; Conductor: Steven White; Director: Fenlon Lamb; Chorus Master: Henri Venanzi; Set Designer: Robert R. O’Hearn; Costumes: A.T. Jones and Sons; Lighting Design: Douglas Provost.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/TAPPAN.gif image_description=Stacy Tappan product=yes product_title=Lucia di Lammermoor at Arizona Opera product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Above: Stacy Tappan (Lucia)
Posted by Gary at 3:13 PM

October 18, 2012

Schumann: Under the influence

In an explicatory note, Biss declares his intention to move Schumann from the sidelines — admired, says Biss, only for a remarkably small number of his works — to the centre-stage, as a “vital, riveting creative force”. Each of Biss’s four programmes endeavours to show Schumann’s relationship to both past and present, pairing his works with those of an influential predecessor and a composer of the future whose music “without him would not have been possible”.

Poetic and musical links were forged in this recital, with Schubert’s settings of Heine, from the song cycle Schwanengesang, preceding a performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, the composer’s self-constructed sequence of poems by Heine written to honour and celebrate his love for his beloved Clara. Tenor Mark Padmore was a serious and moving interpreter, although his meticulous pronunciation did not quite embrace the sensuousness of Heine’s texts. The result was a reading which conveyed the extremes — desolate depths and ephemeral lightness — but did not always capture the ‘in-between’ realms of earthly passion and natural human feeling.

After a turbulent ‘Der Atlas’, where Biss’s tempestuous opening evoked the bitter fury of Atlas, who must bear the whole world’s sorrow, Schubert‘s Ihr bild’ (‘Her picture’) established an eerie pathos during the sparse opening, the singular line shaped with insight and effect, before blooming to simple joy: “A wonderful smile played/ about her lips”. The dark intensity of the concluding despairing cry, “I have lost you!”, was transmuted into a casual, balladeer-like air in ‘Das Fischermädschen’ (‘The fishermaiden’), Biss’s subtle rubatos urging the compound rhythms to a gentle pianissimo close. ‘Die Stadt’ was pure Gothic melodrama, Padmore final utterances laden with resentment and regret. The slow tempo of the final song, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (‘The wraith’) enhanced the mood of fearful oppression and inner torment.

Padmore’s Dichterliebe was characterised by melodic eloquence and expressive earnestness. His affecting whisper, “Doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich”, in ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ (‘When I look into your eyes’) was disturbingly pathetic and wretched. In contrast, ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ (‘In the Rhine, the holy river’) juxtaposed majesty with still quietude. The tenor’s deep register in ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (‘I bear no grudge’) was a little obscured by the piano accompaniment but Padmore made much of the text in the concluding verse, as the poet-narrator witnesses “the serpent gnawing your heart”, and the passionate intensity of the accelerating piano postlude, running headlong into the subsequent ‘Und wüßten’s die Blumen’ (‘If the little flowers knew’) was thrilling. Indeed, the links and juxtapositions in the narrative structure were effectively defined, as when the hard disillusionment at the close of ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ (‘A boy loves a girl’) — which began with a poignant silence — hastened into the shifting colours of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ (‘One bright summer morning’).

Biss was an alert and energised accompanist, underpinning ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ (‘Rose, lily, dove’) with an airy, springy buoyancy, while the trailing arpeggios of ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen were clear and delicate, perfectly evoking the speaker’s dissolving tears in the piano postlude. In ‘Aus alten Märchen’ (‘A white hand beckons’) Biss’s staccato dotted rhythms conjured an elfin sprightliness; the performers used the slower tempo of the final two verses to convey the unattainability of the singer’s dream.

In the closing song, ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ (‘The bad old songs’), Padmore adopted a powerful and rhetorical theatricality, culminating in an anguished fall, coloured by diminished harmony: “Die sollen den Sarg fortragen,/ Und senken in’s Meer hinab;” They shall bear the coffin away,/ and sink it deep into the sea;”).

Preceding the Heine sequences, soprano Camilla Tilling gave an exciting performance of Alban Berg’s early songs, Sieben frühe Lieder. Tilling appreciated the luxuriousness and sensuality of these diverse songs, warming and brightening her tone at emotional highpoints — as in the opening ‘Nacht’ (‘Night’) which creeps in with gentle gracefulness and blossoms to convey the singer’s awe as “Weites Wundererland ist aufgetan” (“A vast wonderland opens up”). Similarly, in the Brahmsian ‘Die Nachtigall’ (‘The Nightingale’) the “sweet sound of her echoing song” resonated sonorously around the hall. Tilling’s tone acquired a glossy sheen in ‘Schilflied’ (‘Reed song’) to suggest the enlivening effect of the poet’s inner thoughts, while in ‘Liebesode’ (‘Ode to love’) she called on more burnished colours to complement the piano’s chromatic harmonies and portray the ecstatic dreams of the sleeping lovers.

Biss began the recital with a wonderfully imaginative performance of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, responsive to the diverse moods of the individual movements — from the poetic simplicity of the exquisite voicing in ‘Im ruhigen tempo’ to the hymn-like tranquillity of ‘Im Anfange ruhiges’. Biss’s ability to use texture and timbre to communicate meaning was impressive: the rhythmic propulsion of ‘Belebt, nicht zu rasch, the minor key cascades and understated rubatos of ‘Bewegt’ and the final airy chord of ‘Lebhaft’ spoke directly, with immediacy and emotion.

Claire Seymour


Performers

Camilla Tilling, soprano; Mark Padmore, tenor; Jonathan Biss, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 11 October 2012.

Programme

Schumann: Gesänge der Frühe Op.133
Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder
Schubert: Heine Lieder from Schwanengesang D957
Schumann: Dichterliebe Op.48

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Robert_Schumann_1839.gif image_description=Robert Schumann, Wien 1839 [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Schumann: Under the influence product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Robert Schumann, Wien 1839 [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 1:00 PM

October 17, 2012

Albert Herring at Covent Garden

A director has to make us laugh while also finding the darker kernel encased in an outer shell of light-hearted satire; to enjoy and celebrate its somewhat localised, even cliquish, nature, while also recognising the continuing relevance and wider frame of reference of its themes and inferences.

Composed for the newly formed English Opera Group and first performed at Glyndebourne in 1947, the opera can seem on the surface to be a comic companion piece to The Rape of Lucretia. When Albert Herring opened the inaugural Aldeburgh Festival in 1948, the Suffolk audience must have been aware that small towns and villages around Aldeburgh, and their inhabitants, had come in for a sharp, somewhat patronising, satirical critique.

The local benefactress, Lady Billows, (modelled, according to Britten’s sister, Beth, on her mother-in-law!) has offered a prize of £25 to be given to a ‘May Queen’ as an encouragement to virtue. In the absence of a suitably chaste maiden, Albert Herring is nominated ‘May King’, to the delight of his overbearing, domineering mother. At the crowning ceremony two young lovers, Sid and Nancy, lace Albert’s lemonade with rum; called upon to give a speech he can only hiccough drunkenly, and he flees. When Albert’s orange-blossom crown is later discovered in the gutter, muddy and squashed, the worst is assumed. But, the community’s collective outpouring of grief is interrupted when Albert creeps nonchalantly back in. He explains that he has merely been enjoying experiences that have been denied him in the past and, derisively rejecting his crown, announces his new spirit of self-assertion.

In his ‘Director’s Notes’, Christopher Rolls maintains, “The key thing about Herring is that it is very, very funny. Funny because it’s full of absurd situations and recognisable characters.” That may be so, but without careful direction the somewhat dated humour can quickly slide into stereotype and caricature — what Ronald Duncan described as “church-bazaar parochialism” — and the localisms and provincialisms of Eric Crozier’s rather prosaic libretto can seem old-fashioned, even dull. To impose an overly serious sophistication on the work would undermine the animated light-heartedness of the drama; but, there must be some acknowledgement of the complex dialogues which the opera conducts: between innocence and experience, repression and liberation, subjugation and self-determination.

The black-box stage of the Linbury Theatre necessitates imaginative and economical designing, and Neil Irish’s ‘caged’ set neatly served for all three of the opera’s locations — the May Day committee room, the Herring’s greengrocer shop and the crowning banquet itself — while cleverly conveying the oppression and containment experienced not just by the brow-beaten Albert, but by all members of the Loxford community who are under Lady Billows’ domination.

ETO-6611.gifRosie Aldridge as Florence Pike, Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows and Anna-Clare Monk as Miss Wordsworth

Albert is literally imprisoned within his mother’s shop and metaphorically oppressed by the labels imposed upon him by Loxford society. Visually, the grid-like trellis which scaled three walls also offered plenty of opportunities for surreptitious surveillance, and glimpses of the world on the other side of the bars were a reminder of Albert’s confinement and a symbol of his yearning for release. Guy Hoare’s subtle and imaginative lighting added much, as shadows surreptitiously deepened and were alleviated, reflecting the emotional swings of the drama.

At the start of Act 1, the inhabitants of Loxford assemble in turn, and the ETO cast immediately and deftly established clear-cut characterisation. Delivering, without exception, Crozier’s unassuming text in an unaffected manner, they achieved a balance between pastiche and realism, using exaggeration and over-emphasis intelligently and sparingly.

Taking her instructions from the imperious Lady Billows, the be-trousered (a hint of lesbianism?) Rosie Aldridge was a thoughtful, composed Florence, diligently noting in flexible recitative the methods she must use to gather evidence of moral corruption among the young in Loxford, while allowing her voice to bloom in more lyrical passages to suggest a latent awareness of her employer’s intolerance and narrow-mindedness.

Jennifer Rhys-Davies almost strayed into Edith Evans/Lady Bracknell territory, as the magisterial matriarch determined to ‘purify’ Loxford, but in the end her Lady Billows stayed just on the right side of caricature. Rhys-Davies had the vocal presence and dramatic stature to command the stage, particularly in her Act 1 aria where she reveals her intention to honour a May-Queen, her vitriolic abhorrence of natural passion and love stifling and silencing all those around her. The extent of the threat she poses became fully apparent in the Act 2 aria, her absurd patriotic cries “Britons! Rule the deep!” raising a laugh while also revealing a dangerous lack of self-awareness and empathy.

Bass Tim Dawkins was a witty Superintendent Budd, wily and self-congratulating in proposing Albert to be May King, while Anna-Clare Monk was a rounded, credible Miss Wordsworth, her clear, bright soprano just right for a prim schoolmistress forced to fend off the furtive, unwanted attentions of the oleaginous cleric, Mr Gedge. The latter was played with obsequious oiliness by baritone Charles Johnston, whose rich, buoyant tone fully suggested the reverend’s vain pomposity. Tenor Richard Roberts was a sprightly mayor, prone to credible outbursts of self-important earnestness.

Most importantly, the delineated individuals merged into well-blended ensembles, where as a fused musical voice they revealed the frightening power of the forces of oppression within the community. There was a very real menace in their collective bigotry; often turning to face the audience square-on, en masse they lost their individuality and humanity, in a way that, however attractive the humour, ensured that they never had our full sympathy. This was utilised effectively in the elaborate Act 3 threnody, where sheer weight of sound could not compensate for lack of sentiment or sincerity — as was impressively apparent when the cloak of mock mourning was swiftly thrown aside with the insouciant reappearance of Albert, “What’s going on?”.

ETO_6764.gifMartha Jones as Nancy and Charles Rice as Sid

There are few passages of lyrical expansion within this comic score, but those moments that do exist present the crux of the drama, and express both exuberant joy and melancholy yearning. As the young lovers, Sid and Nancy, Charles Rice and Martha Jones offered a relationship characterised by natural affection, tolerance and realism; their love duet in Act 1 was tender and gentle, a much needed counterpoint to Lady Billows’ life-denying frigidity.

The gait and mannerisms of Mark Wilde’s Albert, entering laden with boxes of vegetables, aptly conveyed the weight of the burden he bears. Wilde’s relaxed, expressive tenor affectingly revealed Albert’s loneliness. Kitted out in diamond-patterned grey sweater and afflicted by a nervous tic, his dramatic eloquence was touchingly at odds with his physical appearance. Wilde’s interpretation was never sentimental. He made it clear that Albert is not wholly innocent or pure, but that he understands his ridiculers’ double entrendres, and is troubled by feelings for which he has no opportunity of expressive outlet or satiation, nascent anger and rebellion.

Returning from the feast, Wilde flung out recollections of the community’s adulation — ‘Albert the Good! Long may he reign! — with a mixture of pride and contempt. He effectively conveyed Albert’s growing anger and built powerfully towards Albert’s bitter rejection of the identities that the community imposes on him, “Albert the Good! Albert who Should!”, and “Albert the Meek! Albert the Sheep! Mrs Herring’s — Guinea Pig!” Clarissa Meek revealed the destructive nature of a mother’s suffocating love, with humour and insight. During Mrs Herring’s outpouring of loss at the end of Act 3, Meek’s avowal of grief was tinged with both regret and hypocrisy.

In the children’s roles, Emily-Jane Thomas (Cis) and Erin Hughes (Emmie) brought an apt unruly mischievousness to the staid community, pilfering fruit from the shop, teasing the inept Albert, and greedily anticipating the feast. Their boisterous energy could not even be fully quenched when they were marshalled by Miss Wordsworth to learn the May-King Anthem. At eighteen years of age, Hughes demonstrated an impressive talent.

An experienced conductor of Britten’s scores, Michael Rosewell was alert to the sharpness of the musical characterisation and the ingeniousness of Britten’s instrumentation. The sparse texture of the small ensemble enabled the individual lines to readily cut through; if the tone was sometimes a little hard that was probably at least partly due to the Linbury’s rather unsympathetic acoustic; and, in any case, a slightly harsh tone perfectly pointed the Loxford residents’ pettiness and cruelty.

This production certainly did fulfil Rolls’ stated intention to “serve both its light and dark sides”. The Maupassant short story from which the libretto was drawn, is a much darker affair, its protagonist, Isidore, coming to a painful, tragic end: “Who knows, who can tell, what grim struggle raged in the Rose-king’s soul between the powers of good and evil?”, Maupassant’s narrator asks. Albert’s liberation is presented by Rolls as an unfailingly positive outcome. Initially incarcerated by his mother’s overpowering embrace and by his public reputation for an almost unnatural innocence, this Albert is now ready to face the world on his own terms, transformed and sustained by his knowledge of love.

Claire Seymour

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ETO-6983.gif image_description=Mark Wilde as Albert Herring and Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows. [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Albert Herring
English Touring Opera, Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Wednesday. 10th October 2012. product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Mark Wilde as Albert Herring and Jennifer Rhys-Davies as Lady Billows.

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English Touring Opera
Posted by Gary at 10:51 AM

October 15, 2012

Rewriting the Unwritten Law: Gilliam and Ghent Tackle Damnation

The extraordinary extravaganza, in collaboration with the English National Opera and Teatro Massimo, Palermo, had an initial UK run in London and garnished solid overall reviews during the summer of 2011. This year’s audience saw the work on a smaller scale, but with equal power, a dramatic spectacle deserving continued mention among the best efforts in recent seasons anywhere.

Gilliam’s choice of placing the central narrative amidst the rise of the Nazis was a natural fit that avoided cliché pitfalls through startling portrayals of humanity, both good and evil.

No single act really expanded on the progressive canvas found in places like Wroclaw or Helsinki, but the show as a whole seemed to up the abstract ante of opera as a package deal. A couple scenes resembled a warp of “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers. Strange, appropriate or not, it usually worked.

For many observers, reportedly including Berlioz himself, this composition was considered beyond the era’s production capabilities. The story goes that it took twenty years to bring the project, deemed by the author not as opera but “legend dramatique” to the public. Even then, the few performances during his lifetime were in concert form only and the concept wasn’t fully staged until 1893, twenty four years after Berlioz died.

To profess that the piece received even minimally sporadic revivals since then is still an over-statement. It is, however, no exaggeration to claim that ENO and Vlaamse Opera, behind Gilliam and his numerous collaborators and tutors, have achieved something of a milestone in both scope and genre.

A bitter Berlioz injected personal venom into his take on Goethe’s own version of the legend. For the rebellious romantic Gilliam, this was not the same old, horrible Hitler story, regarding visuals or villains. It was also a misguided love story, and refreshing to see a distinction between the Nazis and the rest of Germany over history. Still, images of evil either subtle as a dark, lurking demon or illuminated in gigantic 50’s mad man styled billboards, stood out strongest among some instant classic sets.

damnationdefaust_14_mg_0298.gif

While a few props wouldn’t merit more than a passing grade in a good college cast, that was a minor flaw. Most sets were stunning. Most important, they supported a scenes’ intent with more than only ornamentation.

In truth, this performance was more of a visual triumph than anything, simply because many images burned so brightly. That’s not to imply that the sound held no fury.

Vocals were fine by everyone, including Michael Spyres in the demanding title tenor role, which required a huge percentage of the score’s delivery. Michele Pertusi reached fittingly dark baritone depths as a Mephistopheles with fantastic facial features, while Simon Bailey held down the bass as Brander. Maria Riccarda Wessling nailed Marguerite’s mezzo-soprano strength and vulnerability seamlessly, with her effective “Romance van Margaretha” emerging as the soloists’ highlight of the night.

There were probably unavoidable moments when sensational sights hindered the crowd’s connection to the characters, but overall the singers commanded attention with a shared, subtle strength through restraint. It was definitely a team effort.

With lesser theatrics, it might have been easier to decide where this music rightfully belongs in Berlioz’s historical status. Clearly, a vastly helpful combination of Gilliam, technical advances, and social or audience changes enhanced and updated Berlioz’s basics.

Massive chorus scenes erupted with rare impact and still struck close to home in this region. An early exposition of rivalry between Nazis and Communists played almost as twisted as he real thing.

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On a night where everyone from the featured singers to the supporting ensemble deserved the near- raucous reception that greeted them, the standout performance overall came from the Symphony Orchestra of de Vlaamse Opera, which provided the strongest statement of actual Berlioz bombast. The crystal clear SOVO company filled the air with tension, sorrow, and vivid life in a superb texture of frequent, extreme transitions.

At the curtain calls there were sometimes over a hundred performers on stage, and doubtless dozens more in the wings who deserved some bows. The beautiful, ornate house itself had a festive, communal feel that might have aligned along similar horizons when color came to motion pictures.

Musical Director Dmitri Jurowski provided a strong foundation for the program’s success, and offered insight into the process.

“I think, in the first place, when we speak about this music we have to speak about contrasts,” said Jurowski, “For this piece, for this music, and also for the staging. You have in this music everything which actually appeared in five or six hundred years, starting with the Renaissance, finishing with contemporary music. You have to be very flexible here. You cannot just relax like sometimes, especially in French opera. For me this is not really (presented as) French opera. It has, of course, all the contents of French opera, but I think in the first place you have to stay international while you follow the style the composer is giving. This is the first thing.”

“Then of course, this is one of the pieces you can only do when you have a production like this. The collaboration with Mr. Gilliam was very important because we found a story together. It was very difficult because this piece is constructed in a way that you could start in the middle. You need certain vision from a director, which makes the music work so you understand the story. Otherwise, it will be a beautiful evening of music, but you will miss a big thing.”

“For me, what we had today might be, in a way, a future of opera. We had moments of classical, old theatre, but at the same time it was not just special effects. We brought a way to combine the modern technique of movies and the old spirit of the theatre. I’d like to see these points (continue) in the next twenty or thirty years.”

damnationdefaust_22_mg_2035.gif

Opera has incorporated video before, in various extremes, but it’s hard to recall any major production that melded forms so cohesively. Crowd scenes breathed down your neck, terrified whispers echoed from mountaintops.

There was also plenty of bitter humor, the kind that twisted smiles of approval or doubt back and forth in the audience. The doomed Faust’s swastika style crucifixion is arguably the best live-staged use of a straight jacket since Alice Cooper twisted in the ‘70s.

It says a lot about the presentation’s depth that a pile of female corpses provides a stirring, climactic image of hope. Faust’s final descent, Mephistopheles literally at the wheel, careens into a new age of opera production. Multi-media mayhem ushers in a true, heaven or hellish, eye of the beholder gamble for opera fans.

We say, jackpot.

During a steady flow of congratulatory, pink champagne and enthusiastic accolades at a packed reception party, Opera Today got a chance to ask Director Gilliam, who abstained from libations but still exuded a cheerful buzz; for a few reflections.

OT: Were there any significant changes in your approach to the production since the UK shows in May 2011, or in your perception of how the story should be presented?

Gilliam: Everything is exactly the same. We got it working then, and I see nothing that was broke, so why fix it? It always changes as you bring in other actors and other singers. It also changed because this stage is much smaller than the one in London. All these things, they’re subtle differences. They’re not major in any way.

OT: Berlioz is sitting in the audience tonight. What would you like him to be thinking?

damnationdefaust_24_mg_1724.gif

Gilliam: I think, I hope; that our production is as crazed and brilliant as he was. You’re dealing with a very extraordinary man in Berlioz. The music is amazing, and actually, what I would really hope is that he’d say ‘You fixed it for me’, because it’s a thing that never quite worked.

OT: How do you view the medium now that you’ve completed this project as a relative newcomer, in relation to how you felt before the show came to life last year?

Gilliam: It’s really hard to judge. I think I’ve learned a lot. I still don’t know if I really understand opera, even now, having gotten through this one. I mean, it’s very funny, it depends on who the audience is, and I’m always surprised that they can sit through some rather long sequences. But they’re there.

An opera audience is different from a cinema audience and that for me is the difficult thing, learning I don’t have to keep inventing things every two seconds like in film. I thought why not use projection, why not do these things in this situation where you’ve got this ride to hell, basically, and what do you do?

I saw tapes of a couple other productions and nothing was happening. So I thought, let’s just do it like an old silent movie, we’ll get the background moving, the motorcycle will sit still, and it worked brilliantly.

OT: Which scenes were the hardest to pull off?

Gilliam: (after a long, stage-like sigh) I don’t know. It’s really hard to say. All of them were the same thing. Each one was a nightmare, so it’s hard to pick. You’ve got to get the balance right and I think we got there in the end, but it was tricky.

OT: You included some offbeat, lighter moments.

Gilliam: It’s partly because it’s both much lighter than what Berlioz intended and probably much darker at the same time because once you’re moving into Germany in the thirties, with anti-Semitism rife, I thought I’m going to do this bit of music called “Minuette de Follie” which I thought was an irritatingly pixie, fairy-like music. So I said, let’s do something horrible instead. We still have Mephistopheles’ imps that do show time, and I like doing that for the audience. Where something is horrific, then you catch yourself smiling for a moment when you shouldn’t. I like playing with the audience that way.

terrygilliamimg_2630.gifTerry Gilliam [Photo by Debby Huysman / Vlaamse Opera]

OT: How did you become involved in the project, and how do you see your role. Were you more of a driving force or collaborator? Beside normal debut expectations, did you feel any pressure?

Gilliam: I mean, ENO asked me to do it and they caught me at a time when I was feeling fairly depressed about the movie business, so I said, yeah. And it became basically a dialogue, an argument, between me and mister dead Berlioz, and I think I had big leaps very quickly. There was no pressure. But then, I was surrounded by some really, really good people. I mean incredibly experienced. So with my ideas, they were the ones who helped me execute it, because having never done theatre before, so that was the learning part. I have to be honest. All the big ideas are mine.

This observer makes no claims regarding knowledge of Berlioz’s motivation, or any finer tunings of the composer’s musical inclinations. Regardless, the show was one of the best musical presentations I’ve witnessed, whether considering cohesive structure or abstract expressions. A great night of opera says everything, and less than enough.

It’s not hard to imagine Goethe himself having a few hearty grins at this latest adaption of his enduring interpretation of the ancient tale. Faust’s process of descent into the hellish madness of Mephistophele‘s lustful lure has seldom been represented as close to the extended grey areas between divinity and inevitable damnation Goethe portrayed.

Maybe Intendant Aviel Cahn said it best, with a new feather in his coordinator cap, as he surveyed the celebration afterward.

“It was an outstanding challenge to stage an opera by Terry Gilliam because he wants so much of everything. And when you get this, and I know what Terry’s vision was, I think he was quite happy tonight and that means we did a hell of a job. I’m very proud to have achieved this with a smaller crew, because the Flemish Opera doesn’t, of course, have the manpower or resources of English National Opera. It’s a great thing to start the season with.”

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The scene was spectacular for any point of anybody’s calendar, and will hopefully generate a well deserved holiday surge for Vlaamse Opera. Ghent and Antwerp are each welcoming locales, with locations in easily accessible, interesting areas of town.

Cafes in the Ghent lobby and multiple neighboring locations for a quick, reasonably priced quaff or chomp make for a mini-La Scala type scene inside and out. At the very least, in this Ghent engagement, the product was equal to the most renown venues in terms of performance or perimeters.

Whether this revitalized opera grows international legs, and just how far that U-boat may float is a question, or quest, for the future.

As for Gilliam, it appeared he’s developed a taste for the operatic discipline. How that evolves in the face of other appetites is another matter for the sands of time. For this Faust incarnation, Gilliam proved to be a perfect choice. There were many moments of blazing glory that would stand proud in any house, or indeed, any era. Tonight, the honors belonged to him, and all the equally worthy contributing members of Vlaamse Opera.

For now, consider Berlioz’s voluptuously vicious vision of eternal truths intact and in bloom. In impressive Belgium, Le Damnation de Faust looked and sounded a lot like modernized redemption. Even, with ferocious fireworks; an aria of re-inspired resurrection.

Phillip Woolever

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/damnationdefaust_21_mg_0574.gif image_description=Photo by Annemie Augustijns / Vlaamse Opera product=yes product_title=Rewriting the Unwritten Law: Gilliam and Ghent Tackle Damnation product_by=An interview by Phillip Woolever product_id=Except as otherwise indicated, all photos copyright Annemie Augustijns / Vlaamse Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:04 AM

October 12, 2012

The Barber of Frankfurt

Pride of place must surely be given to the meticulously modulated conducting by Jonathon Darlington, who coaxed highly detailed and rapturous playing from the pit. The overall momentum of the piece was beautifully paced, and the surging, churning orchestral climaxes were beautifully judged and wrenching in their impact. The bravura playing elicited by Maestro Darlington is all the more remarkable considering the somewhat dry acoustic of the house itself. The sensitive solo passages were also instrumental (pun intended) in partnering the singers and aiding them in crafting three-dimensional characterizations. And what a splendid group of vocalists they were!

Company member Jenny Carlstedt was absolutely lovely as the wronged niece Erika, deploying her well-schooled lyric mezzo with great musical and dramatic intelligence. Her melting rendition of “Must the Winter Come So Soon” early on in the piece set the bar very high and established the underlying melancholy that informs the entire work.

Maria Callas, having backed out of title role at the Metropolitan première (to be replaced by Eleanor Steber) sniffed something to the effect that “the opera should be called ‘Erika’.” And, indeed, the role is arguably the only wholly sympathetic character in an environment peopled by the opportunistic and the deluded. Ms. Carlstedt wrung every ounce of sympathy and pathos out of the role and the audience received her with unbridled enthusiasm at curtain call.

While Ms. Carlstedt may not have a large voice, it is so cleanly and clearly produced that she managed to not only float easily on the orchestral textures, but also ride every instrumental wave. She also has a superb sense of line and dramatic intent, and embodied a meaningful, simmering subtext that underscored Erika’s emotional roller coaster ride. From impressionable, naïve youth to cool, resigned maturity, Jenny took us on a riveting journey.

Charlotta Larsson as Vanessa was every inch the still glamorous, desperate dreamer, awaiting the return of her paramour (revealed as deceased), only to be confronted with his gold-digging son. Ms. Larsson has everything required for the role, except perhaps stature. The diminutive diva was the shortest person on stage, and her beautiful appearance seemed not much older than her niece. Still, the soprano dominated her every scene with a ripe, full-bodied instrument that had ample fire power and a gleaming presence as it soared above the staff. Charlotta not only spit out Vanessa’s many petulant recriminations with sassy abandon, but she successfully scaled back her volume and modulated her delivery to offer persuasive limpid singing in such passages as the memorable duet (”Love has a bitter core”).

Kurt Streit cut a good figure, if arguably just a bit (but only a bit) mature as Anatol. He is, of course, a noted Mozartian and it was in the parlando passages and more measured lyric outpourings that his pleasing tenor scored the best, which is to say exceedingly well, indeed. He has a secure technique and knows at all times how to channel his resources. In the enraptured high outbursts in the love duet, Mr. Streit chose to narrow and point the tone to provide carrying power, sacrificing some tonal beauty and spin, however, it has to be said that he made his effect. This was an assured performance from a seasoned veteran who knows his way around a stage. I do suggest that Kurt might tone down a bit of the faux-youthful ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ demeanor that he occasionally affects, since it has the unintended result of making Anatol appear somewhat ‘simple.’

Dietrich Volle, another company treasure, had a very good evening as the Old Doctor. His solid singing was always a pleasure and his sustained climactic high note in “Under the Willow Tree” was a force of nature: powerful, sustained, and buzzing with virile tone. Mr. Volle also managed to invest the part with sufficient self-effacing humor that it took away some of the self-pitying edge that can creep in. He was hampered a bit in his otherwise admirable undertaking by his accented English. In fact, of the entire cast only Mr. Streit displayed consistent, idiomatic pronunciation. I am not so terribly bothered by that except to wonder if such inaccuracy would be so blithely tolerated from international singers in German, Italian or French repertoire?

Helena Doese has a long history of notable successes with Frankfurt and the company now loyally signs her on for suitable character roles like the Old Baroness. Ms. Doese is another old pro who knows how to sustain a character and communicate truthfully and directly. It would be foolish to pretend that the voice is what it once was. The sheen and richness have largely been replaced by craft and cunning. But Helena manages to invest the vengeful caricature of a part with a degree of humanity which is no small feat. And although her voice is somewhat diffuse now, especially in the lower reaches, she nonetheless negotiates the vocal demands with pointed meaning.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that young Björn Bürger could make such a memorable turn out of the throw-away part of the servant Nicholas. With his few lines, Mr. Bürger showed off a substantial, warm baritone. And his charismatic stage presence was put to good use with the briefest of scenes in which he dons a lady party guest’s fur (as he sings lovingly about it) and has a Marilyn Monroe girly moment, enjoying it perhaps just a bit too much. Inspired. Björn not only made the most of every opportunity, but left us wanting more, a mark of an artist of great promise. Michael Clark’s chorus was well-tutored and enlivened the party scene.

I am not sure which I liked more: Julia Müer’s stunning costumes, or Julia Müer’s stunning scenery. From Erika’s youthful polka-dotted day dress, to Vanessa’s outdoor play pants outfit to Anatol’s sweater vest to the sumptuous party gowns that seemed straight off a fashion runway, the attire was uniformly well-considered, inventive, and appropriate. For the set, Ms. Müer gave us an austere, moody environment. Stage right was filled with a large white drawing room with a main entrance in the right wall, a set of double doors upstage that opened to a warmer looking ballroom, and a large high spiral staircase left of center that seemed to reach to the heavens. A black grand piano was down center, mirrors were covered (as the script requires) and a plethora of pictures were hung with their faces to the wall.

Complementing this is a huge ice floe, filling stage left and threatening to break up even further and continue infringing on the domestic scene. This is a telling bit of artistry, the cracking icy surface mirrored in the characters’ ids and the whole effect brilliantly suggesting the isolation, physical and emotional, of the players. There were also several breath-taking effects, such as having Erika, at the end of Act One, taking down a picture and throwing it aside in disgust, and then having all the rest of the paintings suddenly fall off the wall to the floor to her (and our) astonishment. Having established that Erika “plays” the piano, after her miscarriage, she finished that scene in an Ingmar Bergman-like moment, by opening the lid and climbing into it, pulling it closed like a coffin. Chilling. As a bonus, Olaf Winter’s winning lighting design was another real asset to the total artistic collaboration of this production which originated at, and is shared with Malmö Opera.

It would be difficult to over-praise the contribution of director Katharina Thoma, for she has created a commendable sense of ensemble with her performers, and has fostered a focused unity of vision that is a joy to behold. From the moment the curtain rises, we know who these people are, and we are engaged by their needs. The blocking was meaningful, and at times much more. Witness the clever staging of Vanessa’s “Do Not Utter a Word.” The character cannot bear to look at her Prodigal Suitor, and to manage this believably Ms. Thoma positions Vanessa downstage of the entrance door that Anatol opens, allowing it to provide a natural separation with him upstage of it and her downstage.

Too, she has mysterious goings-on happening on the ice floes with character doubles. A youthful ‘Anatol’ sits on a shard of ice, brooding and smoking on occasion. Later, he discovers ‘Erika’ in the ravine as the plot narrates it. The off-stage church choir is a gathering assembled on the ice, for what? A funeral? A wedding? A fish boil? No matter, the imagery allows us to speculate, and without distracting us it adds layers to what could otherwise be a pretty straight-forward, and let’s face it, uninteresting story. Brava Katharina.

Frankfurt has assuredly made a compelling case that if “Vanessa” is treated to an apt and imaginative staging, wonderfully sung and resplendently played, well, there is life in the old girl yet.

James Sohre


Cast:

Vanessa: Charlotta Larsson; Erika: Jenny Carlstedt; Old Baroness: Helena Döse; Anatol: Kurt Streit; Old Doctor: Dietrich Volle; Nicholas: Björn Bürger; Conductor: Jonathon Darlington; Director: Katharina Thoma; Set and Costume Design: Julia Müer; Lighting Design: Olaf Winter; Chorus Master: Michael Clark

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Barber-portrait.png image_description=Samuel Barber [Photo: G. Schirmer, Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, Inc.] product=yes product_title=The Barber of Frankfurt product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Samuel Barber [Photo: G. Schirmer, Inc. and Associated Music Publishers, Inc.]
Posted by Gary at 9:56 AM

Moby Dick in San Francisco

Think bel canto. Give a singer an impossible situation and see if he can sing his way out of it. Moby Dick in San Francisco was about singing, and well, the singers had those famous ready made situations that frame Melville’s deeper discussion, and they sang and sang. And sang.

Composer Jake Heggie has a gift for lyricism that flows and flows. And flows. In San Francisco he had very willing interpreters, most notably tenor Jay Hunter Morris, a late term replacement for heldon tenor Ben Heppner who had sung the doomed and damned Captain Ahab in this premiere production of the opera two years ago in Dallas, and this year already in Calgary and San Diego.

Starbuck.pngMorgan Smith as Starbuck

Maybe for a second or so one regretted the absence of Mr. Heppner, surely the epitome of casting for Melville’s emblematic monster. But Mr. Morris, a smaller scale performer with a more lyric voice, and luckily for Mr. Heggie one of great stamina, immediately commanded a character of some interest who had the impossible task of towering above mutiny, slaughter, hurricanes, human kindness and one white whale. He delivered Mr. Heggie’s very singable, if not easily hummable, lines with aplomb and musical grace.

First mate Starbuck, endowed in this made-for-opera version of Melville’s story with the daunting task of equaling Ahab in emotional stature, fared less well. Baritone Morgan Smith successfully made the case for onshore domestic contentment but could not find the needed torment and agony in Mr. Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer’s character — the only antagonist in the story, the only character asked to tackle the obsessive captain. Maybe he did not have enough words to sing or maybe Mr. Heggie’s music simply does not plumb those depths.

Librettist Sheer ends his book with the line “call me Ismael,” famously the first line of Melville’s book, a conceit that invites us to go to novel to sink ourselves into its archaic language and delve into its meanings, an immersion that Moby Dick the opera eschews. And the question then looms as to what Moby Dick the opera may have to do with anything beyond smart entertainment à l’amèricaine.

Smart it is, a libretto that cleverly abstracts the shell of the novel into a series of musical numbers. The staging by Leonard Foglia (who helped shape the opera) is presentational, generous doses of rushing forward to point to happenings exactly where the audience happens to be sitting (a sure way to ensure involvement).

Ishmael_etc.pngStephen Costello as Greenhorn (Ishmael)

Designer Robert Brill made a huge wave like structure on stage that cleverly embodied the sea itself and he made smart use of sophisticated moving projections to graphically illustrate a gigantic moving schooner and its boats. Not to mention the effective fight scenes by choreographer Keturah Stickann and fight director Jonathan Rider.

The Moby Dick saga surely attracted composer Heggie because of its opportunities for programmatic music. These five or so episodes were the most successful parts of the opera. Lacking the complexities of nineteenth century morality afforded by written language the scenes that illustrated the plights of Melville’s famous characters were sometimes dramatically pallid, limited by the consistent richness of smooth sound and rhythmic movement, essential elements Mr. Heggie’s voluptuous style. It is smart, attractive music that in actuality is quite complex harmonically and rhythmically.

Greenhorn (Ishmael at the opera’s conclusion, though it is his name throughout Melville) who begins and ends the opera is the classic outcast, and in the opera he becomes innocence as well. The role was beautifully sung by tenor Stephen Costello though the role would have been more effectively served by a less Italianate voice (Italian tenors are never innocent), perhaps a purely beautiful voice could have moved us more in his extended scenes with the savage Queequeg, effectively typecast with Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu.

There is one female voice in the cast, Pip, the black boy, sung by soprano Talise Trevigne. Pip is thrown out of the whaling boat in Moby Dick the opera (he twice jumps out in the novel) and then does the Mary Martin Peter Pan trick of flying, suspended, across the stage while singing and here going crazy too. In the opera Pip is cleverly paired in an extended duet with Stubb the Second Mate, sung by veteran baritone Robert Orth, obsessed with killing whales. Pip is his victim, a sacrifice in the rites of men, at least those portrayed in Moby Dick the opera.

Committed and convincing performances by all the named roles and by the San Francisco Opera Chorus were the hallmark of the production, by now nearly a classic. Conductor Patrick Summers gave Heggie’s score its intended luminous glow ensuring that Moby Dick the opera remain a rich theatrical confection.

Michael Milenski


Cast

Greenhorn: Stephen Costello; Captain Ahab: Jay Hunter Morris; Starbuck: Morgan Smith; Queequeg: Jonathan Lemalu; Pip: Talise Trevigne; Flask: Matthew O’Neill; Stubb: Robert Orth. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Composer: Jake Heggie; Librettist: Gene Sheer. Conductor: Patrick Summers; Stage Director: Leonart Foglia; Set Designer: Robert Brill; Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Designer: Don Holder; Projection Designer; Elaine J. McCarthy; Choreographer: Keturah Stickann. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, October 10, 2012.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ahab.png
image_description=Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes
product_title=Moby Dick in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 7:16 AM

October 10, 2012

I Due Foscari, LA Opera

The production, the first new major American mounting of the work in forty years, was created in collaboration with the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, the Theater an der Wien, and London’s Covent Garden, in all of which it will eventually be performed. Still, few opera goers anywhere in the world are likely to see the work. Of the more than 3362 performances of Verdi operas thus far scheduled internationally in 2012 and 2013 - there will be only fourteen (14) of I Due Foscari.

The two Foscari of the title were 15th century historical figures: Francesco Foscari, the octogenarian Doge of Venice, which the opera company’s General Director, the now baritonal Plácido Domingo performed; and Francesco’s son, Jacopo, here undertaken by Italian tenor Francesco Meli, in his debut with the company. The other major role in the work, that of Lucrezia, Jacopo’s’ wife, was sung by the Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. There is also a villain. His name is Loredano, and he doesn’t have much to say (or to sing) in this work. More unfortunately (in dramatic terms) he doesn’t appear until the second act.

Verdi was thirty-three and had recently completed Ernani when Rome’s Teatro Argentina invited him to prepare a new opera for their forthcoming season. He was given about four months to choose a subject, write a libretto, compose the music, cast and rehearse the work, and conduct it. When his first proposed subject, Lorenzino di Medici, (not Lorenzo — this L. Medici was no pillar of renaissance culture) was rejected by papal censors, Verdi turned to The Two Foscari, an historical play by Lord George Byron, which he and his librettist Francesco Piave had previously considered.

I Due Foscari begins in medias res. Tragedy upon tragedy has already struck the royal family before the curtain rises. Francesco Foscari, who has been in power for thirty-four years has lost two of three sons. Loredano believes that Francesco was responsible for the death of his father and uncle, and is plotting against him. Francesco’s only surviving son, Jacopo, a man given to luxury, comfort and risk-taking, has been convicted of a variety of crimes — among them a murder he didn’t commit - and has been sentenced to exile. Nevertheless, it is Jacopo we encounter in Venice when the curtain rises. He has been brought back in chains from exile to be tried again for treason, this time for writing to an enemy of the Venetian State. Jacopo claims that he wrote the letter intending that it be intercepted just so that he would be returned to his beloved Venice. Jacopo, we learn, would rather die in Venice than live anyplace else. The Doge is powerless to protect his son, since Venice has fallen under the rule of I Dieci (the council of ten) led by Loredano, with essentially inquisitorial powers. As the opera proceeds, the three major characters, bemoan their fate and alternately plead with God and each other to do something to save Jacopo. To no avail. Jacopo is convicted and once more sentenced to exile. He dies almost as soon as he boards the ship. Subsequently word arrives that some one has confessed to the murder of which Jacopo had been accused, but the inconsolable Doge is further humbled when Loredano and the council demand that he abdicate his throne. He does so after brief resistance. Then, as bells announce the election of a new Doge, the stricken Francesco Foscari dies.

FCI8164.gifIevgen Orlov as Loredano and Placido Domingo as Francesco Foscari

The libretto of I Due Foscari, like its English counterpart, is melancholy and uneventful. British critics found Jacopo’s devotion to Venice unbelievable, and Piave did nothing to alter that. There is no dramatic action in the libretto. There is no character development. Francesco and Jacopo essentially lament and plea. Lucrezia laments and berates. Miraculously, Verdi, who constantly egged Piave on to provide him lyrical emotional poetry, knew how to charge even lamentations and pleas with fervor and energy — witness the power of Francesco, Jacopo’s and Lucrezia’a Act II trio. Music and voices provide the thrills in this opera. Written just after Ernani, Verdi here begins the compositional progression that will take him and all of Italian opera from the static belcanto style and forms of his immediate predecessors — Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti — to the lyric, rhythmic and dramatic freedoms which culminated in his masterful Falstaff toward the end of the 19th century. Beginning with I Due Foscari, patterns emerge: keys signatures, melodic and rhythmic devices, which Verdi will elaborate in future works. The “oom pah pah” opera orchestra is on its way out. Already in I Due Foscari, the orchestra does more than merely provide back up for the vocal line. It begins to partake in the story telling. I find it intriguing that on seeing and hearing I Due Foscari, a present day operaphile knows more about what Verdi would write in the future than the composer, himself, did, at the time.

As Jacopo Foscari, Francesco Meli brought a warm voice, rich in color and with squillo to spare, to the role. Marina Poplavskaya’s large, clearly produced soprano filled the house, but lacked pliancy and a sense of ease in Lucrezia’s coloratura. Plácido Domingo was, and remains an extraordinary singer. True, his voice today lacks the heft and dark color that a young baritone could bring to the role of Francesco, but Domingo offers unmatched vocal control, experience, and acting ability. His death scene was particularly affecting. The sonorous voiced Ukrainian bass, Ievgen Orlov in the role of Loredano, represented evil so well that he was booed at his curtain call (which tells you something about the two dimensional aspect of this opera — think Iago!). Tenor, Ben Bliss, was his impressive sidekick, Barberigo. This is an opera of lamentations — beautiful, melodic, even exciting lamentations. Maestro James Conlon made it all work, with a crisp, bright, and suitably modern interpretation, which never allowed the pace to falter.

Appropriately dark and restrained visuals for the work were provided by director Thaddeus Strassberger, set designer Kevin Knight and costume designer Mattie Ulrich. In contrast to Lucrezia’s and the Doge’s gleaming robes, the red cassocked “Dieci” and black clad chorus spoke of evil men and secret powers. Verdi’s interpolated Festa — complete with dancers, gondolieri and a fire eater was both a musical and visual respite and delight. I have no idea why Jacopo’s prison cell was made to sway on its way down from the rafters, and no idea why director Strassberger had Lucrezia drown her son in a handy trough in the Doge’s bedroom at the last moment. It distracts from the unity of the work. Both Verdi and Byron leave us with Loredano, who theoretically set the plot in motion, to gloat in revenge over the body of the Doge, as the curtain comes down.

I Due Foscari is a confused and poorly constructed story at best, but then again, it’s opera. It’s Verdi opera, and lucky Angelenos applauded their exciting and extraordinary treat vociferously.

Estelle Gilson


Production:

Jacobo Loredano: Ievgen Orlov; Jacopo Foscari: Francesco Meli; Lucrezia Contarini: Marina Poplavskaya; Francesco Foscari: Plácido Domingo. Orchestra and chorus of the Los Angeles Opera. Conductor: James Conlon Director: Thaddeus Strassberger Set Designer: Kevin Knight Costume Designer: Mattie Ullrich Lighting Designer: Bruno Poet Chorus Director: Grant Gershon.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/FCI8143.gif image_description=Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera] product=yes product_title=I Due Foscari, LA Opera product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Marina Poplavskaya as Lucrezia Contarini and Francesco Meli as Jacopo Foscari

Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:12 PM

Die Zauberflöte, ENO

Maybe they are, maybe not; the same has been said before. It is, at any rate, difficult to think that they should not be. Quite why such reverence should be accorded what at best one might call a ‘straightforward’ production is beyond me. Some will doubtless applaud the lack of anything so strenuous as an idea or two, anti-intellectualism being so ingrained in certain quarters of this country’s commentariat. (Remember the outrage at the Royal Opera’s splendid Rusalka?) Some, ignorant of or simply uninterested in, the Rosicrucian mysteries of the work, will doubtless have been happy with a naïveté that sits at best awkwardly with our age, irreversibly ‘sentimental’ in Schiller’s sense. But surely even they would have found this revival tired, listless. Apparently some of them did not, however, given the raucous laughter issuing from around the theatre: any time a rhyming couplet appeared on the surtitles, some found it almost unbearably hilarious. Moreover, audience participation went beyond even the usual coughing, chattering, and opening of sweets. (A woman behind me must have made her way through a good quarter of the city’s stocks of Wine Gums). Someone even saw fit to disrupt the performance by shouting out a proposal of marriage to Papageno just at that saddest, pathos-ridden of moments when the music turns and he resolves to take his life. No matter though: it elicited a great deal of hilarity. And that of course is all that matters. Those who laughed at the priests’ dialogue may or may not have been aware how offended Mozart was at someone who did the same in the composer’s presence. Presumably the same people thought it ‘amusing’ to boo Adrian Thompson’s rather good Monostatos too. They seemed, however, a little hard of hearing, for their applause generally began long before the orchestra had concluded.

Magic-Flute-Elena-Xanthoud.gifElena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Kathryn Lewek as The Queen of the Night

Jeremy Sams’s ‘English version’ doubtless egged them on in all their boorishness. I have asked before what is held to be wrong with Schikaneder. One can point to shortcomings, no doubt, though one should always bear in mind Goethe’s admiration. But the only good thing one can really say about this hodgepodge is that it is not nearly so bad as what Sams has inflicted upon The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. It remains intensely pleased with itself, drawing attention to itself rather than shedding light upon the drama, and remains distant enough that ‘version’ is wisely substituted for ‘translation’. Yet, given the difficulties so many of the cast had with delivering the dialogue, it really might as well all have been in German. That would also have relieved us of that terrible clash between the text we know in our heads - especially for the text set to music - and that we hear on stage and/or see in the titles (the latter two not always being the same). Different accents are ‘amusingly’ employed; one might have thought it offensive to find a Welsh accent (Papagena) intrinsically funny, but apparently not.

Nicholas Collon’s conducting was disappointing. One often hears far worse in Mozart nowadays; yet, as so often, it was difficult not to long for great performances of the past (Furtwängler, Böhm, Klemperer, et al.), or indeed of the present (Sir Colin Davis). ‘Lightness’ was for the most part all, a peculiar mannerism being the falling off into nothingness at the end of many numbers. Quite why one would wish to make this score, often but a stone’s throw, if that, from Beethoven, sound so inconsequential, is beyond me; at least it was not brutalised, as ‘period’ fanatics would wish. That said, the brass sounded as if they were natural; they may or may not have been, since modern instrumentalists are sometimes instructed perversely to ape the rasping manner of their forebears, and I could not see into the pit. At any rate, the result was unpleasant. A few numbers were taken far too quickly, but for the most part it was the lack of harmonic grounding that troubled rather than speeds as such; we were spared the ludicrous Mackerras triple-speed approach to ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s,’ one of the worst atrocities I have ever had the misfortune to hear inflicted upon Mozart. But as for the lily-gliding of introducing a glockenspiel part into the final chorus... Mozart is not Monteverdi; he does not need to be ‘realised’, and certainly not like that. A good number of appoggiaturas and other instances of ornamentation were introduced to the vocal lines, not least to those of the Three Ladies at the beginning. The fashionable practice does no especial harm, I suppose, but nor does it really accomplish anything beyond drawing mild attention to itself.

The-Magic-Flute-Duncan-Rock.gifDuncan Rock as Papageno, Elizabeth Llewellyn as First Lady, Catherine Young as Second Lady, Pamela Helen Stephens as Third Lady and Shawn Mathey as Tamino

Vocally there was more to enjoy, though the record was mixed. Elena Xanthoudakis made for an unusually rich-toned Pamina. Best of all was Duncan Rock’s Papageno, for the most part quite beautifully sung, though his dialogue veered confusingly between outright Australian and something less distinct. Kathryn Lewek had some difficulties with her intonation as the Queen of the Night, but then most singers do; more troubling was her tendency to slow down to cope with the coloratura. Shawn Mathey resorted to crooning more than once during his Portrait Aria and was throughout a somewhat underwhelming Tamino. Robert Lloyd’s voice is, sadly, not what it was; Sarastro’s first aria sounded very thin, though matters improved thereafter. There was luxury casting, however, when it came to the Three Ladies; Elizabeth Llewellyn is already a noted Countess, and it showed. The Three Boys were excellent too: three cheers to Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, and Thomas Fetherstonhaugh. Choral singing was a bit workmanlike but that may have been as much a matter of the conducting as anything else. One certainly had little sense of the kinship with Mozart’s other Masonic music.

The website and programme have the Two Armoured Men as the ‘Two Armed Men’, a strangely common yet baffling error: the German is perfectly clear. At least the production had it right, the men donning breastplates at the opening of that great chorale prelude. The Queen of the Night remains, for some reason, the ‘Queen of Night’.

Mark Berry


Cast:

Tamino: Shawn Mathey; Papageno: Duncan Rock; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Monostatos: Adrian Thompson; Pamina: Elena Xanthoudakis; Speaker: Roland Wood; Sarastro: Robert Lloyd; Papagena: Rhian Lois; Two Priests, Two Armoured Men: Nathan Vale, Barnaby Rea; Three Ladies: Elizabeth Llewellyn, Catherine Young, Pamela Helen Stephen; Three Boys: Edward Birchinall, Alex Karlsson, Thomas Fetherstonhaugh; Director: Nicholas Hytner; Revival Directors: Ian Rutherford and James Bonas; Designs: Bob Crowley; Lighting: Nick Chelton, Ric Mountjoy. Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick); Orchestra of the English National Opera/Nicholas Collon (conductor). The Coliseum, London, Thursday 13 September 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The-Magic-Flute-Elena-Xanth.gif image_description=Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Shawn Mathey as Tamino [Photo by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Die Zauberflöte, ENO product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Elena Xanthoudakis as Pamina and Shawn Mathey as Tamino

Photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:46 AM

October 9, 2012

Florian Boesch on Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin

”Through performing, I’ve come to understand Die Schöne Müllerin in a different way”. A young miller follows a brook which leads him to a mill. There’s nothing sinister in that per se, for millstreams lead to mills and the miller is looking for work. The miller falls in love with the millers daughter, but she falls in love with a huntsman. The last song Des Baches Wiegenlied is a lullaby, and it’s often assumed that the references to sleep and nightfall mean death.

“It’s a much stronger than that”, says Boesch. “The miller is not schizophrenic, he’s articulate and has a sophisticated inner consciousness. The Wiegenlied is not romantic simple-mindedness. It’s much more profound than a love dream. I believe it is a sensitive human being’s way of connecting with his inner self”.

“We know about Wilhelm Müller and we understand what an intelligent man he was”. Although Müller is known today for Schubert’s setting of his poems, in his own time he was known for much more. He fought in the battles of the Prussian Resistance to Napoleon and passionately supported the Greek wars of independence from the Turks. Romanticism involved more than escapist dreams : it embraced action, freedom and progressive ideas.

Boesch refers to the work of Erwin Ringel, the Austrian psychoanalyst who studied suicide. Ringel’s theory on Presuicidal Syndrome involved three phases : constriction caused by situations in life, aggression channeled inward towards the self, and fantasies about suicide as a form of action. But not all who think about suicide actually follow through. “In that sense” says Boesch, “we can interpret Die schöne Müllerin as a psychological dialogue. The miller is thinking about the situation he is in and is trying to imagine how to resolve it. Thoughtful people are always considering the possibilities before them. The miller doesn’t have to be talking to a real brook. The brook is another aspect of his own personality, guiding him to make the right choices.”

“So,” says Boesch, “consider the text”. At times of stress, the miller reflects by projecting his feelings. “In Der Müller und der Bach the dialogue is clear. The man speaks of angels singing to rest the soul. But the Brook says ‘Ein Sternlein, ein neues, Am Himmel erblinkt’ (a little star, a new one, shining in the heavens)”. Then will rise three roses ‘Die welken nicht wieder, aus Dornenreis’. (From the thorns, new growth that will never wilt). “And then”, says Boesch, the image of ‘die Engelein schneiden, Die Flügel sich ab und gehn alle Morgen zur Erde hinab’, What is an angel without wings? A new woman, who will always return. The brook is the more mature, positive side of the miller’s mind. It’s telling him that no matter how bad he feels now there will be new mornings and faithful women in the future. The brook is always moving forward, it does not stand still”.

Significantly, Wilhelm Müller had a bad love affair but later married happily. Although Schubert wrote the cycle around the time he learned he had syphilis, it isn’t necessarily autobiographical. “Consider Winterreise“ says Boesch. “Again, the man does not have to die or go mad.”

Boesch’s rationale is far more sophisticated. “InDas Wirtshaus, the man visits the cemetery. ‘Allhier will ich einkehren, hab’ ich bei mir gedacht ‘ (here I’ll settle, I thought). But he rejects death. ‘Nun weiter denn, nur weiter, mein treuer Wanderstab!’” The walking stick leads him on, just like the brook keeps flowing. The man has many chances to stop and die but he chooses to brave the wild weather and struggle on. “Even in the beginning, there’s that phrase ‘Die Liebe liebt das Wandern, Gott hat sie so gemacht, von einem zu dem andern’. God is not willing death, but Wandern”.

“The word Wunder occurs three times in the cycle at critical points” says Boesch. “it means something strange, like Zauberhaft.So Der Leiermann is ‘wunderlicher Alter’. ‘Soll ich mit dir geh’n? Willst zu meinen Liedern Deine Leier dreh’n?’ .(should I go with you ? Do you want to play my songs on your hurdy-gurdy? ). The dogs that howl in Gute Nacht appear again in Der Leiermann, who struggles forward, still trying to play although his fingers are frozen. “So I believe in an inner psychological meaning inWinterreise too”.

“When I was 12 years old, my grandfather gave me an LP of recited ballads by Goethe and Schiller”, adds Boesch. “Two weeks after Christmas, I knew them all by heart. I was fascinated. I studied violoncello for many years, but I realized that I would not be that kind of musician. My music is the text”, he says decisively “I love the music of language, and expressing the meaning of words in music.”

“A performance involves two people, the pianist and the singer”, adds Boesch. “Malcolm Martineau is wonderful, because he’s very quick to pick up on what I’m singing, and he’s very fast to adjust. Although I have a clear understanding of what I want to do, in performance spontaneous ideas can develop”. Sometimes Boesch feels like he’s accompanying the pianist. “I like working with pianists like Martineau, Roger Vignoles and Justus Zeyen, because they can adjust so well to spontaneity”.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/boesch.gif image_description=Florian Boesch [Photo by Wiener Konzerthaus | Lukas Beck courtesy of machreich artists management gmbh] product=yes product_title=Florian Boesch on Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio product_id=Above: Florian Boesch [Photo by Wiener Konzerthaus | Lukas Beck courtesy of machreich artists management gmbh]
Posted by anne_o at 5:20 PM

Don Giovanni, LA Opera

How was the singing and conducting? It's hard to know. In such productions, the direction is the topic of interest.

Countering this trend, the Los Angeles Opera Company's second presentation of its season was a plain though not simple Don Giovanni. The production, borrowed from Lyric Opera of Chicago, was created for that company's 50th anniversary season in 2004, by the much-hailed German director Peter Stein with a view to adhering closely to Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words.

Although there's hardly an opera that doesn't — like Don Giovanni — have love, sex and death at its core, it is Da Ponte's unique libretto that has allowed this centuries old work to become a kind of touchstone of an era's cultural tastes. It's title — Il Dissoluto punito, ossia Don Giovanni — dramma giocosa — “The Profligate Punished or Don Giovanni — a playful drama” tells us that we will first see a a man's nasty behavior, then see him punished, and that we'll have a good time watching it all. And sure enough, when the curtain goes up we witness a scuffle after a probable rape, followed immediately by a murder. Subsequently we are exposed to two acts of the protagonist's unrelenting reprehensible conduct, with some laughs thrown in. At the very end we see him get his supernatural comeuppance, and are treated to a fairly merry fugue — a sort of victory song.

“I hate shows where the director is onstage,” Stein is quoted as saying. “I want to follow the intentions of the author as far as I can understand them.” And follow Mozart and Da Ponte he did. Rather than drag Don Giovanni into the 21st century, Stein's production takes its audience back to the time of the opera's creation, and allows us to see and hear what Mozart and Da Ponte were trying to tell us about the characters' words and hearts. Although Stein did not direct the Los Angeles production, director Gregory A. Fortner led the cast in a lively and well paced performance which illuminated the complex interactions between the characters.

The plain, and least attractive aspect of the production are the minimal, flat looking sets that featured occasional cutout doors and windows, and a tiny balcony that had me fearing for Donna Elvira's safety. None of it looked like it was taking place in Spain. Fortunately, the music making was bright enough to light the stage. As Don Giovanni, Ildebrando D'Arcangelo was a slim legged graceful, amoral seducer. His resounding bass-baritone, which reflected his enthusiasm for the role, faltered only once in a surprisingly listless “Fin ch' han dal vino.” Bass-baritone, David Bizic, making his American and Los Angeles debuts as Leporello, was a perfect partner. The two have played these roles opposite each other and it shows. Joshua Bloom, a young Australian bass, also was making his Los Angeles debut, was a properly bumptious Masetto. And Ievgen Orlov, yet another bass (it may surprise you to know that this dramma giocosa features four major bass baritone roles) had the requisite depth and darkness to cause chills in his last encounter with the Don. In the role of Don Ottavio, one of the more thankless in opera (two gorgeous arias, and mostly stand around) tenor Andrej Dunaev, another debutant with the company, demonstrated some lovely legato. The three female roles were equally well filled. Californian Juliana Di Giacomo, making her LA debut as Donna Anna, displayed the grim seriousness and easy coloratura necessary for the role. Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski's silken soprano and acting made her an almost lovable love stricken Donna Elvira. Mezzo Roxanna Constantinescu was appropriately pert and charming as Zerlina.

DnG4235.pngLeft to right: Soile Isokoski as Donna Elvira, David Bizic as Leporello, Roxana Constantinescu as Zerlina, Joshua Bloom as Masetto, Julianna Di Giacomo as Donna Anna, Andrej Dunaev as Don Ottavio. (Photo: Robert Millard)

For all the wonderful acting and singing, one of delights I have in seeing Mozart conducted by James Conlon, is watching him lead vocal ensembles when the soloists are stage forward. Conducting without a baton, it is a joy to follow as he weaves their voices into a gleaming musical fabric.

Quibble department? Only about some excessive humor, particularly a moment when Don Giovanni and Leporello exchange clothing and comically respond to the odors of each others' garments. It's a neat touch, but causes outright audience laughter that drowns out the first phrases of Donna Elvira's “Ah taci, ingiusto core.”

I attended the September 30th performance of Don Giovanni. Performances on October 10 and 14 will be led by Plácido Domingo, with Angela Meade and Micaëla Oeste, making their Los Angeles Opera debuts as Donna Anna and Zerlina, respectively.

Estelle Gilson


Production:

Leporello:David Bizic*; Donna Anna:Julianna Di Giacomo*/Angela Meade*; Don Giovanni: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo; Commendatore:Ievgen Orlov; Don Ottavio: Andrej Dunaev; Donna Elvira:Soile Isokoski; Zerlina:Roxana Constnatinescu/Micaëla Oeste*; Masetto:Joshua Bloom*

Conductor: James Conlon/Plácido Domingo
Original Production:Peter Stein*
Diector: Gregory A. Fortner
Set Designer: Ferdinand Wögerbauer*
Costume Designer: Moidele Bickel*
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

*Company debut

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DnG4183.png image_description=Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (front) as Don Giovanni with Ievgen Orlov as the Commendatore. (Photo: Robert Millard) product=yes product_title=Don Giovanni, LA Opera product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (front) as Don Giovanni with Ievgen Orlov as the Commendatore. (Photo: Robert Millard)
Posted by Gary at 2:32 PM

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco

Not just good opera but great opera took stage at the last night in San Francisco, adding new found artistic luster to the brutal conflicts of the Capulets and the Montagues. The pretended death of Giulietta was exquisitely suffered both by Bellini’s Romeo and his rival Tebaldo, and ultimately emotional pain of monumental musical intensity and ineffable sweetness melted into the tragic release of the love-death. Near legendary mezzo Joyce DiDonato hand in hand with soprano Nicole Cabell walked triumphantly into the beyond.

It was real, this beyond. It was in fact the proscenium frame, at once the Romantic love-death itself and, Mme. DiDonato and Mlle. Cabell left standing in front of the fallen curtain, it was opera. The enraptured audience leaped to its feet and roared.

Giulietta, tragically denied true love (this is pristine Romanticism), had literally climbed the wall. Standing on a sink, the lone symbol of a physical world, balancing herself eerily on one foot, she reached up towards an unattainable suspended image of entwined lovers and floated vocal lines that soared and fell with suspended emotion in what seemed a musical eternity (uhm, this is high, very high Romanticism).

These scenes, the tragic ones, occurred in a space with a mirrored floor negating all sense of physical gravity. There was no reference to defined space save one vertical line that created a sort of metaphysical reality, a line that was always the same and never the same, clothed in an infinity of changing color, the ebb and flow of love. The stage, drawn by French designer Vincent Lemaire and lighted by Italian designer Guido Levi, provided an abstract space for love, may we say, with the Romantics, the most abstract world of them all.

In these scenes director French Vincent Broussard used an almost framed painting, though with vaguely defined, mostly abstract images that suspended the search for specific reference. However in the larger scenes with public meaning he completed the proscenium frame across the bottom of the stage making it the fully formed image of a physical painting. It became a real space with a background of infinitely ascending steps on which brilliantly colored and lighted courtiers spread themselves, and later the elaborately clothed, now disheveled women descended, remnants of the unseen defining battle. Mr. Broussard landed squarely on a descriptively minimalist language that could elevate this simple story to Bellini’s metaphysical world of music.

09--Capuleti.pngNicole Cabell as Giulietta

The most astonishing scene was Giulietta’s passage in her underclothes across the sharp and treacherous lower edge of this worldly frame as she sought to resolve her plight, and did so finally with the help of Lorenzo, the family physician (Felice Romani was far more practical that Shakespeare who complicated matters by appointing a priest to this task). Or was it Romeo’s address to the sleeping Giulietta, now no longer laid out on her wedding dress but frozen upright facing Joyce DiDonato who was fully possessed vocally and physically by Bellini’s music.

There was no separation between the pit and the stage, the changing stage pictures themselves almost seemed the black printed notes of Bellini’s score made into extraordinarily beautiful sounds by Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This maestro achieved the exquisitely delicate and felt Romanticism that makes Bellini the epitome of such difficult, elusive and rare operatic art.

It was a nearly phenomenal achievement in bel canto. Like all great opera it was a collaboration of huge forces. The fine Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu gained vocal security during the evening to viably take on the incomparable Joyce DiDonato in their confrontation. The brilliant Nicole Cabell as Giulietta in her defining long black wig found an unerring vocal balance that did not falter in confronting the extraordinary directorial demands of this role.

21--Capuleti.pngJoyce DiDonato as Romeo and Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo

The high-style costumes designed by famed French couturier Christian Lacroix forcefully etched heightened supernatural character with a sophisticated sense of once-upon-a-time. The actual set became a canvas on which lighting designer Levi detailed mood after mood, choosing momentary detail that rose to the emotional surface in the shadowy supra-rational state of consciousness, never permitting a face or voice to destroy the complex metaphysical tonalities of the production.

It was an enthralling evening at the War Memorial Opera House, the ovations were enormous. And, yes, metteur en scène Vincent Broussard braved exuberant booing at his curtain call. Go figure.

Michael Milenski


Cast:

Giulietta: Nicole Cabell; Romeo: Joyce DiDonato; Tebaldo: Saimir Pirgu; Lorenzo: Ao Li; Capellio: Eric Owens. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza; Stage Director: Vincent Boussard; Set Designer: Vincent Lemaire; Costume Designer: Christian Lacroix; Lighting Designer: Guido Levi. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. September 29, 2012

image=http://www.operatoday.com/12--Capuleti.png
image_description=Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and Nicole Cabell as Giulietta [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes
product_title=I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Romeo and Nicole Cabell as Giulietta

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 10:42 AM

October 5, 2012

Stockhausen’s Mittwoch, Birmingham Opera Company

These performances were, if possible, rendered all the more extraordinary by being given not by an established opera house and company, but by the heroic Birmingham Opera Company, founded by director, Graham Vick, as a community project, run from an office comprised of just three full-time workers in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Productions are site-specific: ‘We don't have an opera house and we don't work in conventional theatres. We conjure our theatres out of spaces used for other purposes or maybe just abandoned. A brief period of illumination and then we move on — not tied to bricks and mortar.’ But then Stockhausen was hardly a conventional composer, let alone a conventional opera composer. The Argyle Works, a disused chemical factory, proved an excellent setting, not only in terms of its large, adaptable spaces, but also on account of a fine acoustic, doubtless testament to a great deal of expert preparation by sound engineers.

Despite its use of a ‘super-formula’, Mittwoch is not easy — certainly far less so than, say Donnerstag — to consider as a unified work, especially in terms of narrative. Perhaps it would be more so as part of a complete cycle, perhaps not. But musically, the opening Greeting and Farewell, sound projection by the tireless Kathinka Pasveer, provide electronic material employed, if not throughout, then in two of the four intervening scenes, ‘Orchestra Finalists’ and ‘Michaelion’. In a sense, it is up to the individual whether he should construct his own Mittwoch narrative, but in a sense, that is always the case; the situation, as so often with Stockhausen, is simply more extreme here. Mittwoch was first intended to be the only opera in which the cycle’s three principal protagonists, for want of a better word than characters, (Eve, Lucifer, Michael) cooperate. As it happened, none of them actually appears in straightforward fashion, though Eve and Lucifer are represented by ‘emanations’ (the latter in the bizarre form of ‘Lucicamel’ (German, ‘Luzicamel’), yes, a pantomime camel), and the name of Michael is frequently invoked with apparent awe. Yet the idea of ‘cooperation’, related to the idea of ‘love’, remains: as Richard Toop points out, ‘almost uniquely in Stockhausen’s work, this collaboration is political, in a parliamentary sense; in the inner ones, it is more specifically musical’. Even when it is political, it seems a hundred light-years, or whatever measurement Stockhausen would employ, from the political commitment of contemporaries such as Henze and Nono, let alone the younger Lachenmann. Stockhausen’s (quasi?-)theological cosmogony remains the thing, for better and/or worse.

With ‘Wednesday Greeting’ (‘Mittwochs-Gruss), which originates from the electronic music of ‘Michaelion’ rather than the other way round, we were plunged into darkness, at least visually, whilst a four-track (quadraphonic) performance of music ‘very seldom reminiscent of this world and which awakens the universe of the fantasy’ (Stockhausen) unfolded. ‘Listening to music in the dark will become much more important in the future than it is today,’ Stockhausen wrote in Electronic Art Music (2006), going on to say, ‘The main function of art music will be to make the souls of the listeners fly freely through the universes, with infinite new surprises.’ Whatever one thinks of that, the darkness certainly made one concentrate, and brought into relief choreographed moments — in a scenic rather than musical sense — that appeared all around us, just like the sounding of the music. Aspects of creation myths, old and new, flashed before our eyes, all superbly executed by a fine team of dancers. It is difficult not to respond favourably to the intense seriousness of Stockhausen’s vision, if, at the same time, it is difficult — at least for this viewer and listener — not to find an unintentional absurdity to it too. ‘Yellow is the colour’, apparently, so we left the first hall to progress to the ‘World Parliament’, passing an artist apparently pleasurably writhing in yellow paint that he poured over himself, perhaps the closest we came to conventional eroticism.

‘World Parliament’ (‘Welt-Parlament’) proved, apart from anything else, quite beautiful in an almost conventional a cappella choral sense. Praise could not be too high for the representatives, members of Ex Cathedra, conducted by the President, Ben Thapa. Love is the subject for debate, its meaning discussed in a manner that perhaps came easier to a child of the sixties than to many of us today. But even if sentiments, sometimes in invented tongues, sometimes in the vernacular, such as ‘Love resounds in your voice. Listen to your tone, to the sound of your voice, to GOD, because love must be in it,’ might be a little difficult to take for us, however beautifully sung by tenors joining forces, let alone the President’s ‘Positive thinking — that’s it!’, the ritual, choral and visual, was entrancing. Perched high on yellow stools, representatives with different world flags emblazoned upon their faces — I saw them in make-up when entering the factory — interacted, debated, apparently learned from each other. The substitute President, an ‘Eve emanation’, her coloratura wonderfully despatched by soprano Elizabeth Drury, takes office after a janitor called out the President on account of his car being towed away. Stockhausen admitted that he ‘very consciously made it that banal.’ Quite: perhaps it is a matter of that ‘German humour’ even we Teutonophiles find baffling in the extreme. However, it was the beauties of Stockhausen’s choral writing, apparently not entirely removed from some of his earliest works, that offered greater sustenance.

‘Orchestra Finalists’ (‘Orchester-Finalisten’) had us turn to the often staggering instrumental prowess of a fine group of musicians named above, octophonic electronic music following the progress of the instrumentalists. Again, Pavseer’s expertise here was crucial to the scene’s success. Suspended from the ceiling, splashing in a paddling pool, shouting, even, according to Stockhausen, ‘moving in an individual way and projecting their personal aura’, this extends ‘the way musicians publicly perform during music competitions’. You can say that again. In addition to the musicians’ antics, there was much else to divert the eye: dance, processional, including men in top hats with billowing smoke, a man with an aeroplane on his head...

The ‘Helicopter String Quartet’, premiered by the Ardittis but here performed by the Elysian Quartet, has become so notorious that it is difficult to know what to say about it. It is probably best to understand it as further evidence of Stockhausen’s extraordinary imagination, somehow both naïve and incredibly complex. As theatre it is quite a thing — and one should remember that Mittwoch is theatre, not ‘absolute’ music, whatever that might mean. Reports I had read were highly critical of Radio 1 DJ Nihal as Moderator. Perhaps anyone who was not Stockhausen himself would have come in for considerable criticism here. Yet the role is prescribed in the work and our Moderator offered at least one sound piece of advice, to try to listen to the music, that is, not simply to be wowed by the effect, relayed to us via four screens. That is difficult to do, but especially towards the end, I found myself increasingly able to listen to the notes, to hear the passing of notes, even lines, as well as the shouted numbers of the Lucifer formula, between the players, as well as hearing the interaction of instruments and helicopters. In the post-quartet discussion, the pilots acquitted themselves very well indeed, one of them (Nigel Burton, I think) revealing a gift for dry wit.

The final scene, ‘Michaelion’, perhaps brings us closer to something more operatic as genuinely understood, though we remain distant indeed from The Marriage of Figaro. Indeed, at times we seem closer to the world of Dr Who. The name ‘Michaelion’ pays reference to Constantine’s fourth-century temple at Chalcedon in honour of the archangel Michael, but the ‘World Parliament’ has now turned inter-galactic, with absurdity whose humour may or may not be intentional. Cosmological solidarity is summarised by the uniquely cooperative role played by Lucifer’s ‘emanation’, Lucicamel, though passages such as the ‘Shoe-Shine Serenade’, the appearance of a huge bottle of champagne, and of course Lucicamel’s defecation of seven planet-globes, paralleling the seven days of the week, tend to linger longer in the memory. Luca, who arises out of the camel, is appointed Operator and responds to delegates’ concern in a short-wave form that harks back to 1960s works such as Kurzwellen. Once again the choral singing, this time from London Voices, was beyond reproach, similarly Pasveer’s sound projection and the expert instrumental playing, including a ‘Bassetsu-Trio’ for basset horn, trumpeter and trombonist, symbolising Eve, Michael, and Lucifer, but I wondered, perhaps echoing in its way the eighteenth-century, Mozartian serenade ‘entertainment’, albeit this time for delegates. Emerging from this strange yet compelling tableau-cum-drama, we were offered ‘a cup of yellow’ to the strains of the electronic ‘Wednesday Farewell’ (‘Mittwochs-Abschied’).

An extraordinary experience, by any standards, for which all concerned, from Vick to the musicians and other artists to the Arts Council deserve a huge round of whatever passes for applause on Sirius. Now we need someone to stage Licht in its entirety.

Mark Berry


Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mittwoch: Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection: Wednesday Greeting, World Parliament, Michaelion, music direction); Igor Kavulek (sound engineer)

BALANCE Audio-Media, Cologne (sound equipment); Graham Vick (director); Paul Brown (designs); Giuseppe di Iorio (lighting); Ron Howell (choreography) Sheelagh Barnard (technical director); Richard Willacy (executive producer). World Parliament: Representatives: Ex Cathedra (chorus master: Jeffery Skidmore); President: Ben Thapa; Substitute President: Elizabeth Drury. Orchestra Finalists: Dan Bates (oboe), Jonathan Rees (cello), Vicky Wright (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Debs White (violin), Ian Foster (tuba), Karin de Fleyt (flute), Andrew Connington (trombone), Bridget Carey (viola), Bruce Nockles (trumpet), Jeremy Watt (double bass), Mark Smith (French horn), David Waring (percussion. Helicopter String Quartet: Elysian Quartet (Emma Smith, Jennymay Logan (violins), Vincent Sipprell (viola), Laura Moody (cello); Moderator — DJ Nihal; Ian Dearden (sound projection); Miles Fletcher, Will Samuelson, Alistair Badman, Nigel Burton, Chris Holland, Peter Driver (pilots). Michaelion: Delegates — London Voices (chorus director: Ben Parry); Operator — Michael Leibendgut; Chloé l’Abbé (flute), Fie Schouten (basset horn), Marco Blauuw (trumpet), Stephen Menotti (trombone), Antonio Pérez Abelián (synthesiser); Lucicamel — Marie-Louise Crawley, Nathan Lafayette. Argyle Works, Birmingham, Saturday 25 August 2012

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stockhausen_Helicopter.png image_description=Stockhausen's Helicopter product=yes product_title=Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mittwoch product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Stockhausen’s Helicopter
Posted by Gary at 4:20 PM

Glyndebourne 2013

By Anne Ozorio [Opera Today, 5 Octtober 2012]

Exciting developments at Glyndebourne ! Many new initiatives which could transform Glyndebourne from a summer festival to a truly international, year-round opera experience.

Posted by Gary at 3:51 PM

Exciting Glyndebourne 2013 season

But first, details of the 2013 season. A new production of Rameau Hippolyte et Aricie, a first for Glyndebourne and relatively rare in live performance. This is big news because it will be conducted by William Christie who does Rameau with more élan than anyone else. If anything, this could outshine the famed Glyndebourne Purcell The Fairy Queen. (reviewed here) Rameau is even more extravagantly baroque than Purcell, and, of course, is associated with dance more than any other composer before Stravinsky. Imagine the possibilties ! Christie is joined again by director Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown, so they should be able to come up once more with something spectacular. Sarah Connolly will sing the role of Phèdre. No doubt, this will be a highlight of the whole 2013 year.

The other new production for 2013 will be Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos. Vladimir Jurowski is standing down as Glyndebourne's Music Director after 13 years, but there'll be another chance to hear him there in a special Celebration Concert, where he'll conduct a dramatic realization of Benjamin Britten's Canticles,.Jurowski's legacy will be marked by the release of four of his performances on the Glyndebourne label - La Cenerentola, Love and Other Demons (Eötvös), Tristan und Isolde, and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (reviewed here)

Not quite a revival, not quite a new poroduction : Donizetti Don Pasquale. This hasn't been seen in the main Festival but was very well recieved diuring the 2011 Glyndebourne Touring Opera season. This time, Danielle de Neise will be singing Norina. Marking the Britten and Verdi anniversaries, Glyndebourne will revive the Michael Grandage Billy Budd (Padmore instead of Imbrailo) and Richard Jones' acclaimed Falstaff. Le nozze di Figaro sold so well in 2012, that it will be back next year, too.

Glyndebourne's Sussex summer season is unique, but its magic can be enjoyed all year round. The 2012 Touring season runs until 8th December and reaches eight British towns. The operas this year are Rusalka, Le nozze di Figaro and The Yellow Sofa, by Julian Phillips, Glyndebourne's Composer-in Residence. This year there will also be extra cinema screenings of the David McVicar Handel Guilio Cesare.. Glyndebourne Touring Opera doesn't merely replicate the main Festival but offers its own specialities, as the hit Don Pasquale proved. The big draw in 2013 will be Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, recieving its receives its first Glyndebourne staging since its 1946 premiere with Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears, who will be a hard act to follow. Also touring next year will be L'elisr d'amore, Hansel und Gretel and a new commission, Captain Blood's Revenge, aimed at schools and families, an important facet of Glyndebourne's outreach programme.

Glyndebourne also reaches out internationally. New for 2013 is a Digital Festival where all six Festival operas will be broadcast in cinemas and online, worldwide, through a combination of live and recorded-live transmissions. Picturehouse Entertainment will be screening Glyndebourne productions next summer in over 100 UK cinemas. As a special seasonal treat, the Guardian will also stream the 2007 production of Tristan und Isolde (Bělohlávek, Stemme, Gambrill, Pape) from 26/12/12 to 6/1/13. What's more, Glyndebourne's own recording label is now making its entire catalogue available for digital download, with new releases like The Cunning Little Vixen (reviewed here) and the Ravel double bill L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges, (reviewed here)

Anne Ozorio

Posted by anne_o at 3:51 PM

Blaise le savetier and L’amant jaloux by Bampton Classical Opera

François-André Danican Philidor (1726-95) was a versatile chap: he is probably best known today as a chess master with a sophisticated set of opening moves to his name — the Philidor Defence. But, a member of a talented musical family, he also found employment at the Royal Chapel at Versailles (where he first made his mark by beating the older musicians at chess!) and was a leading exponent of the evolving genre of opéra comique. Indeed, his first opera Blaise le savetier (The Cobbler’s Wife) might be judged to have marked the launch of opéra comique; moreover, both the operas in the programme seem to have anticipated (and perhaps inspired?) Mozart.

Blaise le savetier commences à la Figaro with a ‘domestic’. Young, handsome but penniless, Blaise and his vivacious wife Blaisine must battle not only against poverty but also against the predatory attentions of their rapacious landlords, Mr and Mrs Pinch. The latter are aptly named, for they squeeze every last penny and attempt to coax sexual favours from their young tenants.

Many of Philidor’s arias are quite short, interposed between the spoken dialogue, but they establish character deftly and several make effective use of the woodwind to add individuality. Martene Grimson (her real-life pregnancy adding a wry frisson to the drama!) was superb as Blaisine: her principal aria was tender and lyrical, and she acted convincingly and engagingly. As the landlord’s grasping wife, Aoife O’Sullivan brought sparkle and energy to the role. Robert Anthony Gardiner was a wily, relaxed Blaise, delivering the text crisply, and projecting clearly and with pleasing tone. He made the most of his virtuoso number, enjoying a duet with himself as he supplied his wife’s responses in resplendent falsetto counterfeit.

Philidor’s expertise at chess earned him the moniker ‘le subtil’, and dexterity, ingenuity and imagination are certainly all evident in the composer’s resourceful shaping of the numerous ensembles and dramatic use of harmony. The quintet was particularly zesty as the young couple presented a united force in the face of their hysterical landlady’s outburst; here, as throughout, Jeremy Gray’s direction was adroit, inventive but never fussy.

When André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813) appeared in Paris in 1767 he presented Philidor with a rival. (Apparently, Philidor took refuge in chess, playing blindfolded and taken on several opponents simultaneously.)

The personnel of Grétry’s L’amant jaloux (The Jealous Lover) are a familiar bunch, straight out of commedia dell’arte: an aging father, his eligible daughter, her guileful maid and two penniless suitors. The fast-paced and delightfully inconsequential plot embraces all the rudiments of commedia — mistaken identities, nocturnal hide-and-seek, with a mandolin serenade thrown in for good measure.

Blaise_le_savetier.pngBlaise (Robert Anthony Gardiner), Blaisine (Martene Grimson), Mr Pinch (Oliver Mercer)

Don Lopez, a rich merchant of Cadiz, does not want his widowed daughter Léonore to re-marry, but she has other plans, being enamoured of the madly jealous Don Alonze. Alonze’s sister and Léonore’s friend, Isabelle, is being pursued by her tutor who wants to marry her. Florival drives away the tutor and Isabelle takes refuge with Léonore, whereupon Alonze mistakes her for a secret lover of Léonore Meanwhile Florival has fallen in love with the mysterious stranger he has rescued and arrives at the house; informed by the housekeeper that it is owned by Léonore, he assumes the latter must be the object of his affection and serenades her. He is overheard by Alonze who, in a furious rage, confronts Florival in the garden at night. Fortunately, they realise they are not rivals before they do each other any damage. A conveniently arriving inheritance allows Alonze to marry Léonore and, fulfilling the requirements the comic genre, Florival also marries Isabelle.

The soprano parts are technically demanding but all three singers coped admirably with the challenges. As Isabelle, Grimson’s coloratura was accurate and her intonation secure, while Máire Flavin was excellent as the feisty maid, Jacinthe. Tenor Oliver Mercer performed Florival’s serenade delicately and touchingly, and Oliver Dunn was strong and confident as Don Lopez. The translation by Gray and French is typically pithy, but at times some of the cast seemed not entirely comfortable in the spoken passages.

Seated behind the performers, the musicians of Chroma performed with grace and lightness, conductor Andrew Griffiths thoughtfully highlighting the musical details in a manner which complemented the character and form of the vocal lines. Griffiths clearly appreciates the composers’ melodic inventiveness and the overall musico-dramatic structure of these works. The orchestral tone was pleasing, the intonation excellent, and the ensemble between band and singers consistent and secure.

Seeking out rarities and novelties has been a favourite, and greatly rewarding, Bampton pursuit since the company’s creation nearly twenty years ago. And, although dramatically rather slight, these two seldom performed French opéras-comiques of the eighteenth-century provided much melodious charm and humorous drollery, proving once again that Bampton Classical Opera can be relied upon to entertain with style and accomplishment: a company truly serious about comedy.

Claire Seymour

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lamant_jaloux.png image_description=Leonore (Aoife O’Sullivan), Isabelle (Martene Grimson), Jacinte (Maire Flavin) [Photo courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera] product=yes product_title=Blaise le savetier and L’amant jaloux by Bampton Classical Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Leonore (Aoife O’Sullivan), Isabelle (Martene Grimson), Jacinte (Maire Flavin) [Photos courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera]
Posted by Gary at 3:29 PM

Frank Bridge Song Focus

Bridge’s compositional career divided into two distinct parts: initially influenced by the expressive romanticism of Fauré and Brahms, in the mid-1920s he embraced the radicalism of the Second Viennese School - evidence of both his openness to new European musical developments and possibly of a loss of faith in the lyrical idiom of the past following the First World War.

Bridge songs, of which there are more than fifty, belong to the earlier period, two thirds being written before 1907; as evidenced in this charming and thoughtfully planned programme - the first of two recitals forming a ‘Frank Bridge Song Focus’ at the Wigmore Hall - the songs are affecting, memorable and varied in form and scope, revealing a sensitive if not overly demonstrative or dramatic approach to world-setting.

Pianist Iain Burnside, the curator of the two concerts, devised a wonderful programme, assembling Bridge’s songs into poetic groupings and interposing songs by other, predominantly British composers. The sequences unfolded organically, with seldom a break between songs, soprano Ailish Tynan and tenor Robert Murray moving in understated fashion, to the centre of the platform in turn - or even performing, seated, from the side. The effect was to create a coherent, natural progression, foregrounding the songs and their sentiments, revealing links, developing evolving narratives.

We began with poetry of the ‘English Romantics’, the rapid cascading accompaniment of ‘Go not, happy day’ (Tennyson) launching the poet-speaker’s mood of relaxed, joyful ebullience as he rejoices in his love, which suffuses the whole world with a rosy radiance. Robert Murray pinpointed the simple sentiment with clarity and immediacy; similarly, ‘The Devon maid’ (Keats), delivered from the side of the platform, possessed a gentle wit, a slight rallentando, “And we will sign in the daisy’s eye/ And kiss on the grass green pillow”, suggesting the singer’s bliss! Here, and throughout the evening, Murray’s diction was superb.

Ailish Tynan found a radiant tone for the poet-speaker’s declaration of love at the close of “Adoration” (Keats), in which Burnside’s subtly emphasised appoggiaturas delicately punctuated the still, quiet ambience. In Charles Parry’s ‘Bright Star’ and ‘La Belle dame sans merci’, Tynan painted the text beautifully, finding rhetorical force, “her eyes were wild”, and pathos in recalling the haggard knight-at-arms, “so woe-begone”. From the unison, folk-like beginning of the latter, the urgency of the narrative grew with the increasing tempo and complexity of texture, the piano both anticipating and echoing voice with haunting melancholy.

Murray opened the Heine sequence with ‘E’en as a lovely flower’, floating the opening line and finding a stirring change of colour to match the surprising harmonic shift as “sadness/ Comes stealing over my heart”, before closing in ethereal vein, with a vision of the loved one, “So lovely, pure and fair”. In contrast, ‘Whenever I hear the strain’ by Maude Valérie White, whirled with a wild energy, Murray injecting a disturbing, hostile resentment into the final lines, “Love tortures my heart and brain/ With many a bitter pang”. In the oft-set ‘Ich grolle nicht’, Murray drew on weighty, darker hues, while in the final short lyric, ‘All things that we clasp’, Tynan perfectly captured the ambiguity of the text.

Three Bridge settings of the little known Mary Coleridge formed ‘The Female Muse’. Burnside summoned an insouciant rhythmic lilt in ‘Thy hand in mine’, in which Tynan and Murray shared the stanzas, enhancing the symmetry of the lines, “They hand in mine … Thy heart in mine”. ‘Where she lies asleep’ is beautifully crafted and compelling, and Murray’s sweet pianissimo lured the listener into the intimate portrait of one who “sleeps so lightly”, before Burnside’s extrovert, declamatory accompaniment and the theatrical interchange between the singers in the subsequent ‘Love went a-riding’ brought the first half of the recital to a dramatic close.

We travelled to Ireland after the interval, and Tynan relished the rich resonances of ‘Goldenhair’ and the folky rubato of ‘So early in the morning’, the latter building through each verse to an exclamation of bright joy, before cadencing insouciantly. Murray used his head voice effective in ‘Mantle of blue’, the sparse texture and delicately sustained vocal line conjuring a lullaby-like luminosity.

The final sequence, ‘The Last Invocation’, rose to fresh expressive heights - perhaps ironically, for here the folksong settings of Benjamin Britten threatened to outshine the songs of his revered teacher, Bridge. Tynan was absolutely at home in the role of balladeer in ‘The trees they grow so high’, seated beside Burnside and spinning an effortless melody, poignantly telling of love and life and death. The complexity of Britten’s ‘The last rose of summer’ - a shimmering accompaniment ripple transforming into an alert, off-beat triplet, as the high melodic melisma gains rhythmic urgency and direction - reveals an imaginative, idiosyncratic approach to text setting which is absent from the more conventional Bridge settings. But, Murray and Burnside brought vigour and realism to Bridge’s ‘’Tis but a week’, with its trampling horses and gay blackbirds, tinged with the sadness of loss and times past. Similarly, the word-painting and imitative motifs of ‘Blow out, you bugles’ intensify the more abstract emotions of the latter part of Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, where Murray conveyed reverence, anguish and finally passionate sincerity.

Tynan’s tender rendition of the final song, Bridge’s ‘The last invocation’, indubitably confirmed the composer’s haunting imagination.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

English Romantics

Bridge: Go not happy day; Adoration
Parry: Bright Star
Bridge: The Devon Maid
Stanford: La Belle Dame sans merci

Heine

Bridge: E’en as a lovely flower
Ives: Ich grolle nicht
Bridge: The Violets Blue
White: Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen
Bridge: All things that we clasp

The Female Muse

Mary Coleridge: Thy hand in mine; Where she lies asleep; Love went a-riding

The Orange And The Green

Bridge: Golden Hair; Mantle of blue; So early in the morning; When you are old

The Last Invocation

Britten: The trees they grow so high
Bridge: What shall I your true love tell?; ’Tis but a week
Britten: The last rose of summer
Bridge: Into her keeping; Blow out you bugles; The last invocation

Ailish Tynan, soprano; Robert Murray, tenor; Iain Burnside, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday, 26th September 2012.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Bridge-Frank.png image_description=Frank Bridge product=yes product_title=Frank Bridge Song Focus product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Frank Bridge
Posted by Gary at 2:52 PM

“Dreamers of Dreams”

This deluge of creativity and achievement is being celebrated by the Wigmore Hall’s resident chamber ensemble, The Nash Ensemble, in an exciting series of recitals showcasing some of the quintessentially British masterpieces, as well as some lesser-known gems, of the period.

“Dreamers of Dreams” commenced with a varied and intriguing selection of the renowned and rare. Following an early evening concert of Bax (Elegiac Trio for flute, viola and harp), Britten (Suite for Harp, Op.83) and Bridge (Three Idylls for string quartet), the instrumentalists of the Nash Ensemble were joined by soprano Sally Matthews in songs by Arthur Bliss and Roger Quilter reflecting the both the idiosyncratic innovations and pastoral traditions of English cultural and musical life in the 1920s.

Arthur Bliss’s ‘Rout’ is scored for soprano and a large chamber orchestra, conducted here by Ian Brown, comprising flute, clarinet, string quartet, double bass, harp, side-drum and glockenspiel, a varied array which is skilfully deployed to capture a dazzling melange of the “scraps of song that might reach a listener watching a carnival from an open window”, so declared the composer. Certainly the short rhythmic, melodic and textural motifs which repeat, alternate and return generate a busy, sparkling mood, as we move swiftly through interludes of contrasting texture and tempo. Interactions between the voice, which delivers a mixture of made-up words and syllables, and the instrumentalists bring moments of clarity and focus in the shifting soundscape, as when a touching clarinet solo (Richard Hosford) blended silkily with the low voice, before transforming into a march-like episode, which itself then slid into a lively triple-time frolic.

Lacking the sharp sardonic wit of Walton’s Façade, ‘Rout’ nevertheless conjures an air of cabaret and fun, mingling stylisation and realism, dance and depiction. Matthews delivered the syllabic cries with energy and clarity, blending effectively into the vigorous ensemble and projecting the significant vocal gestures with panache.

Two further songs by Bliss followed, both of which suffered somewhat from Matthew’s poor enunciation of the text. Clarity of diction is essential if the quirky incongruity of the seemingly trivial ‘nonsense’ of ‘Madam Noy’ - a variant, by E.W.H. Meyerstein, of the nursery rhyme ‘Old Mother Hubbard’ - is to be articulated. Indeed, Bliss dedicated this ‘Witchery Song’ to the American mezzo-soprano Anne Thursfield, who was renowned for her linguistic flair, and it was disappointing that Matthews, while dramatising the inconsequential episodes with a gentle, engaging irony, did not make more of the nuances of the text. Such nuances were, however, grasped by the instrumentalists, to pleasing and amusing effect. The delicate blend of harp (Lucy Wakeford) and flute (Philippa Davies) beautifully evoked the nocturnal vista: “winds are asleep on the ocean’s back/ The moon’s ring faint and the skyline black”; while a frolicsome trill by clarinet and flute frivolously announced the concluding “low mocking laugh on the air”.

‘The Women of Yueh’ presents settings of five poems by the Chinese poet, Li-Po; although originally for soprano and piano, a subsequent instrumental arrangement allowed Bliss to capture the full range of the inferences of the Chinese kanji through instrumental colour and shade; the flute arabesques in ‘She is a southern girl’ conveyed the mystery and fragility of the girl whose face is “prettier than star or moon” and whose feet are “white like frost”, while the low bass register of “She is gathering lotus buds” was moodily atmospheric, as the girl “hides away among the lilies” and “will not show her face again”. The moments of low, still recitation were the most affecting: the unaccompanied conclusion to “Many a girl of the South” settled seductively on a repeating tone, “She will pluck the flowers of the water/ For amorous wayfarers”, while at the close of “She, a Tung-yang girl” Matthews’ tender, slow recitation, “The moon has not yet set/ They look at each other - broken-hearted”, was enriched by woodwind trills, the latter evolving into a troubled, oscillating gesture before finally resolving into a consoling major chord.

After the interval, Matthews returned with Ian Brown now as pianist for three ‘pastoral’ songs by Roger Quilter, songs which capture the composer’s sensitivity to the Suffolk countryside of his youth. In ‘I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing’, Brown’s soothing but penetrating compound lilt conveyed a deep connection with the earth, while Matthews brought a gleam to “the shine of the air”, suggesting the depth of the speaker’s love for the “rooks and the crows and the sea-gulls”. The sparse texture of the final verse, delivered after a slight but telling pause, poignantly suggested the pleasure in the harvest done, but also a subconscious recognition of the passing of traditional ways.

Brown’s accompaniment in ‘I Wish and I Wish’ was fittingly fey and faery-like, and ‘Cherry Valley’, with its tender unfolding melody (reminiscent of Finzi) darkened with complex harmonic shadows, was touching; but, while the low concluding line - “In Cherry Valley the cherries blow/ The valley paths are white as slow” - was wonderfully controlled, Matthews did not really capture the simplicity in which the poet’s meaning resides. These are intimate songs, and the Wigmore Hall (where, in fact, many of these songs and those programmed later in the series were first heard) offers a sympathetic acoustic, of which Matthews did not always take advantage.

The vocal offerings were preceded and followed by purely instrumental works, beginning with a refreshing and rich performance of Vaughan William’s Phantasy String Quintet. Lawrence Power’s opening viola theme, which reappears in each movement, was delivered without overly fussy vibrato but with a wonderfully focused, rich tone, delightfully complemented by the translucent traceries of Marianne Thorsen’s high violin. The four movements (Prelude, Scherzo, Alla Sarabanda, Burlesca) are played without a break, and the players moved adroitly through the varying moods: Paul Watkin’s energised cello staccato in the Scherzo initiated some dense rhythmic polyphony and syncopation, which was followed by the serene muted blend of the four upper strings in Alla Sarabanda. After much contrapuntal complexity the Burlesca ended with the return of the viola motif above a held dissonant chord, before an effulgent outpouring from the first violin, in the manner of a lark ascending, brought the work to an elevating close.

Three folksong arranged by Percy Grainger for piano and strings entertained, with the crisp dance textures, pizzicato bite and flamboyant final variant of ‘Shepherd’s Hey’ giving way to the restful cadence of ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’, the cello’s calm melody supported by stirring harmonic progressions. Brown, Thorsen and Watkins were joined by Power in ‘Clog Dance’, which ran through a gamut of moods embracing decorum, rumbustiousness and insouciance.

The concert concluded with a committed and intelligent performance of Elgar’s E minor String Quartet. A mood of nervous speculation characterised the first movement, the spry rhythms and irresolute harmonies combining to create a restlessness which was resolved into an ebullient, confident energy in the final movement. The intervening andante, marked Piacevole, was contemplative, its peace undisturbed - a perfect embodiment of the words of Arthur O’Shaughnessy which inspired Elgar, “We are the Music Makers, and we are the Dreamers of Dreams”.

Claire Seymour


Programme:

Vaughan Williams: Phantasy String Quintet in D minor
Grainger: ‘My Robin is to the Greenwood Gone’; ‘Shepherd’s Hey’; ‘Handel in the Strand’; Bliss‘Rout’; ‘Madame Noy’; ‘Women of Yueh’
Quilter: Three pastoral songs for soprano and piano trio
Elgar: String Quartet in E minor Op.83

Nash Ensemble. Sally Matthews, soprano. Ian Brown, conductor. Wigmore Hall, London, Saturday, 22nd September 2012.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sally_Matthews.png image_description=Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson] product=yes product_title=“Dreamers of Dreams” product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Sally Matthews [Photo by Johan Persson]
Posted by Gary at 2:26 PM

Mozart’s Ghost finds its Way through Das Labyrinth

The indulgence reached its pinnacle in 2006—fifty years prior to his tercentenary—with the staging of all 22 of his operas, including early works which scholars have discovered to have been co-authored by his father, Leopold. This season, the new Intendant Alexander Pereira has brushed the dust off another 18th-century obscurity, written not by W.A. himself but in posthumous tribute to his last opera, Die Zauberflöte. The librettist and impresario Emmanuel Schickaneder, eager to ride the success of the Singspiel, set to work writing a sequel, Das Labyrinth, and found a willing partner in the composer Peter von Winter. The work was premiered at the Theater an der Wien in 1798, seven years after Mozart’s death and the premiere of Die Zauberflöte.

To Schickaneder ‘s credit, the ambiguous nature of good and evil in the original libretto continues to provide scholars with endless fodder. When Goethe heard of the Das Labyrinth’s success in 1803, he began penning his own sequel which was left incomplete after the fruitless search for a composer. While Goethe develops the story in a more Romantic direction, endowing Tamino and Pamina with a son, the Genius, and augmenting the magical powers of both the Queen of the Night and Sarastro, the trajectory of Schickaneder’s sequel does not depart much from Die Zauberflöte despite the introduction of several new characters and a labyrinth which represents the final trial for Tamino and Pamina (never mind that Sarastro already initiated them into his sun circle). Meanwhile, the Queen is scheming not only with the moor Monostatos but Tipheus, King of Paphos, who vies for Pamina’s hand. They manage to briefly abduct the princess, but the Queen must ultimately cede to Sarastro’s powers when Tamino defeats Tipheus in a duel. Papageno and Papagena, who have discovered a large extended family, also help suppress evil by capturing Monostatos.

Winter’s score faithfully adopts strains of the original opera with a range of success. The first duet of Papageno and Papagena, “Lalaera! Lara! Lara!,” is a pleasant spinoff of “Pa, pa, pa…” without directly rehashing Mozart’s melodies. The chorus of priests that ends the eleventh scene of Act One is skilfully crafted, a ghost of Mozart’s incomparable harmonies, yet it would have been better placed at the very end of the act. The Queen’s opening aria “Ha! Wohl mir! Höre es, Natur” reveals that Winter studied his late Mozart operas carefully, with strong hints of his proto-Romanticism, yet it is melodically not very inventive, and the firework coloratura that characterizes the role is reduced to a passage of uninspired runs toward the end. The sequel’s Pamina is assigned more virtuosity than her original counterpart, but sadly, the spin-off to the aria “Ach, ich fühl’s”—“ Ach! Ich muss alleine tragen”—gives no musical indication of her longing to die and instead culminates in meaningless coloratura. The Three Women, here named Venus, Amor and Page, get some nice numbers, revealing Winter’s talent for colourful, pseudo-Mozartean scoring, and yet the effort could have been more self-conscious. The five-note motive representing the magic flute does not emerge once, not even when Sarastro hands it to Tamino for protection before he enters the labyrinth.

Despite the worn-out qualities of the piece, it has its genuinely charming moments, particularly with Papageno and his clan. In the Salzburg production, seen August 26, the young Austrian baritone Thomas Tatzl stole the show as the feathered bird catcher, joking to the audience with tireless charisma and a naturally warm, well-projected voice. Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann was also delightful as Papagena. The celebrated tenor Michael Schade was the stand-out of the evening from a purely vocal perspective in the role of Tamino, while Malin Hartelius was more uneven as Pamina, struggling to overcome the unfavourable acoustics of the Residenzhof, a covered courtyard where audience members sat with blankets on their laps to ward of the chill of the Salzburger Schnürrregen (sudden rainfall). The bass of Christoff Fischesser similarly risked being swallowed in the role of Sarastro. As the Queen of the Night, Julia Novikova was strongest in pure lyric moments. The baritone Klaus Kuttler was a frustrated Monostatos, and Anton Scharinger amusing as the Older Papageno.

The Three Women (Nina Bernsteiner, Christina Daletska, and Monia Bohinec) brought fine singing to the stage, as did members of the Festival Children’s Choir who appeared to Tamino as the “Three Genies” after Monostatos’ attempt to abduct Papagena. The Salzburger Bachchor, prepared by Alois Glassner, did full justice to Winter’s choral numbers, and Ivor Bolton led the Orchestra of the Mozarteum in a characteristically crisp, authentic reading of the score, even if it occasionally lacked elegance. Sets by Raimund Orfeo Voigt started out inauspiciously with a mini-proscenium of a theatre that looked straight out of a high-school production but improved with towering black panels punctured with light to represent Sarastro’s circle. Costumes by Elisabeth Binder-Neururer were designed in the local tradition of semi-rococo but reached their apex in the colourful Lederhosen- and Tracht-inspired garb of the Papageno family. The dancing, feathered children of the finale reaffirmed Salzburg as an anachronism Mozart might never have imagined could exist over three centuries after his death.

Rebecca Schmid

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LABYRINTH_5579.png image_description=Klaus Kuttler as Monostatos and Julia Novikova as The Queen of Night [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salzburger Festival] product=yes product_title=Peter von Winter: Das Labyrinth product_by=A review by Rebecca Schmid product_id=Above: Klaus Kuttler as Monostatos and Julia Novikova as The Queen of Night [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salzburger Festival]
Posted by Gary at 1:01 PM

Cecilia Bartoli Comes, Divides and Conquers

She has assembled a dynamite new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto, which premiered in May and returned to the Summer Festival, with the early music ensemble Il Giardino Armonico under the Italian singer’s old friend Giovanni Antonini alongside a handpicked cast and the French-Dutch directing team Moshe Leiser/Patrice Caurier. The opera, which premiered at the King’s Theater in 1724, was one of Handel’s most popular in its time and still stands out from his other operas for its stylistic variety and gripping drama. A libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym adapts the story of Caesar’s amorous and political alliance with Cleopatra after his arrival in Egypt in 48-47 BC but changes historical details freely. He also packs in a high concentration of da capo arias in keeping with the taste of Londoners in the 18th century.

Handel’s writing for Cleopatra includes some of his most beloved numbers, and Bartoli meets expectations in this production (seen at the Haus für Mozart on August 27) with natural charisma and authority. Although her giggling first entrance bordered on kitsch in Leiser and Caurier’s bold vision of a modern-day Egypt occupied by the European Union, she managed to pull off their tongue-in-cheek direction as she pranced onstage in a leopard jacked and boots during her first aria “Non disperar, chi sa?,” playing with her unrivalled technique to manipulate coloratura passages for clear dramatic purpose. This ability made itself most apparent in the firework runs and carefully timed turns of “Dal Tempesta,” sung under an oil tower as the future pharaoh resolved her energy anew in the third act. Bartoli amused without affectation as a disguised servant, teasing the blue-suited bureaucrat, Caesar (Andreas Scholl) after her aria “V’adoro, pupille” in which takes off on a missile. Her slow aria “Piangero la sorte mia,” which she sings in captivity by her ruthless brother, Ptolomeo (Christoph Dumaux), brimmed with devastated emotion as she spun out silver threads of coloratura

Scholl, who sings as many arias as his female counterpart, impressed equally with the clear timbre and refined phrasing of countertenor as well as his caricature-like dramatic portrayal of the role. “Dall’ondoso periglio,” in which the Roman emperor prays to God to be reunited with the woman for whom he has grown so much affection, featured pearly cascades and pianissimi that floated sumptuously to the back of the theatre. The singing of acclaimed mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter was a model of legato and inner expression as Cornelia, the widow of Pompeo whom Ptolomeo has beheaded. Her chemistry with the rising star Philippe Jaroussky in the role of Cornelia’s son, Sestus, who slays the Egyptian pharaoh in revenge, was as touching as the musical polish they both brought to every moment onstage. Jarsoussky revealed impeccable taste in the ornamentation of the da capo to his aria “Cara speme, questo core.”

The voice of Dumaux was slightly less penetrating, but he gave a powerful account of his aria “Domero la tua fierezza” in which he declares that he will curb Cleopatra’s pride, his rival for the throne. He also executed some very athletic moves in his vindictive aria “Si, spietata, il tu rigore.” The baritone Ruben Drole was a strong-voiced Achilles, Ptolomeo’s advisor, and the alto Jochen Kowalski brought comic flair to the role of Nirena, Cleopatra’s maid. Peter Kalman made for a valiant Curio, Caesar’s tribune. The idiomatic articulation and richly nuanced performance of Il Giardino Armonico nearly asserted the ensemble as a character in its right. Antonini maintains a strong bass that nevertheless allows every instrument to sing. The musicians cried with Bartoli in her pleading aria “Se pieta di me non senti.”

Leiser and Caurier also deserve much credit for a staging that ingeniously updates the mix of comedy and tragedy in Handel’s opera, casting a critical eye toward modern European politics while allowing the singers to indulge in just the right amount of slapstick. I found myself laughing with the production rather than at it even through the most gregarious of gestures, when as when Caesar is given a pair of 3D glasses during the prelude to “V’adoro, pupille,” casting Cleopatra’s appearance as a scene within a scene. The burning tires, Christmas-lit oil tower, and final scene of a tank rolling onto the recreation of a cobblestoned street in Salzburg (sets by Christian Fenouillat) made for a biting but riotously amusing commentary on the current state of affairs. Even the dancing soldiers (choreography by Beate Vollack), whose classical moves contrasted paradoxically with their rifles, were perfectly in place. Costumes by Agostino Cavalca reflected the imaginative scope of the directors, with corn rows for Ptolomeo and a series of sexy costumes for Cleopatra in which the Intendantin still managed to preserve her class.

Rebecca Schmid

Click here for cast and production information.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CESARE_IN_EGITTO_HP_0399.png image_description=Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salburger Festival] product=yes product_title=G F. Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto product_by=A review by Rebecca Schmid product_id=Above: Cecilia Bartoli as Cleopatra [Photo © Hans Jörg Michel courtesy of Salburger Festival]
Posted by Gary at 12:52 PM

October 4, 2012

Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Wigmore Hall

You could spot the Wigmore Hall regulars, never scruffy, but looking slightly out of place.

Hvorostovsky was singing Rachmaninov songs and Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, both composers dear to his heart, whom he has often sung in recital. Hvorostovsky’s huge bass baritone voice is capable of immense force, which makes him outstanding in operatic roles where the intensity of his singing releases great depths of colour. Hvorostovsky also has the ability to modulate tenderly, which suits the more personal Rachmaninov songs. His three encores at the end of the recital demonstrated how well he can sing Rachmaninov: a genuinely mysterious In the Silence of the Secret Night, suggesting subtle emotions. During the main programme, however, Hvorostovsky seemed more preoccupied with creating grand gestures like the huge “Da ty” (for you) in Zdes khorosho (How fair this spot, op 21/7 1902), and the flourish “Ya zhdu tebya” (I am waiting for you, op 14/1 1894). Forcefulness and volume appeal to many, but Hvorostovsky is capable of more refinement. The audience was happy, though, applauding every song.

For Shostakovich Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, (op 145 1974), Hvorostovsky switched into a completely different mode. These songs are best known fully orchestrated, where their brooding majesty can be quite devastating. Hvorostovsky has made a specialty of this cycle in concert, so it was especially interesting to hear him sing it with only piano for support. It says much for him and his pianist Ivari Ilja that you could almost forget the wailing brass, booming percussion and rumbling dark strings in the full orchestral version.

Heartfelt sincerity in Razluka (Separation), where Hvorostovsky breathes feeling into the long lines. In hushed tones, he reveals his true mastery. In this song the poet realizes that death is imminent, hence the timbre evoking solemn prayer. The savagery of Gnev (Anger) which follows is thus even more brutal. “For Rome is a forest full of murderers”. Hvorostovsky and Ilja are so focused that the driving whip-like violence in the orchestrated version comes over even in voice and piano. Shostakovich references Christ’s suffering, so Hvorostovsky’s rock-like dignity is well judged.

The piano prelude to Tvorchestvo (Creativity) can’t quite match the hammer blows in the orchestral version, but Ilja beats rough-hewn staccato out of the Wigmore Hall piano, used to more lyrical things. Then Noch (Night) which connects to Tvorchestvo for Michelangelo was a sculptor, and the serenity he carves into this sleeping marble angel is the work of man as much as of God. Shostakovich wrote this cycle as he approached his own death, possibly anxious that once he was dead, the Soviets might suppress his music. Hence Bessmertiye (Immortality) with its almost jaunty capriciousness. “No ya ne myortv, khot i opushchen v zemlyu” (I am not dead, though I lie in the earth). Hvorostovsky intones with gravitas, but understands that the critical line rises gloriously, agilely upward “I am alive in the hearts of all who love” Ilja delineates the “shining” motif so it sounds like a balalaika, though it’s also suggesting eternal light. Some of the glamour audience left before the Shostakovich songs. It wasn’t that they didn’t like him. On the contrary, maybe they knew how uncompromising they are, and that Hvorostovsky’s interpretation was serious. Hvorostovsky was saving himself for Shostakovich, and it was where his heart lay in this performance.

Anne Ozorio

Click here for information regarding Wigmore Hall’s 2012-2013 season

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Hvorostovsky_3778.gif
image_description=Dmitri Hvorostovsky [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]


product=yes
product_title=Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Rachmaninov
product_by=Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ivari Ilya

Wigmore Hall, London. 8th September 2012
product_id=Above: Dmitri Hvorostovsky [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]

Posted by anne_o at 2:36 PM

Martinů : Julietta, ENO

Martinů's Julietta is a highly conceptual opera, with deliberate ambiguities and mind games. Just as in dreams, there are clues and contradictions. If ever there was an opera where listeners had to keep alert and pay attention, this is it. The opera predicates on dream states, but sleepwalking through Martinů's Julietta isn't wise.

The production dates from 2002 when it was first seen in Paris. The Overture opens to images of sleeping figures floating in space (or amniotic fluid). One figure emerges, Michel Lepic (Peter Hoare), bookseller by day, dreamer by night. The main set is a giant mock up of an accordion, which also serves to suggest the walls of a house from whose windows various characters appear at critcial points in the opera. Musically, this is perceptive, for Martinů writes an evocative solo for accordion into the first act, and the mechanics of the instrument suggest "lungs" or breathing. Accordions also evoke folk music, and thus memories of the past. A horn player walks round, his music evoking other, more sophisticated memories, offereing hope to those who have lost the past.

In this strange dream village, no-one can remember anything of the past. Nothing connects. If this is a landlocked European village, why is there a ship? Where do the Old Arab (Gwynne Howell) and Young Arab (Emilie Renard) fit in? The implication is that without memory, we're eternally adrift. It is significant that Martinů returned to Julietta at the end of his life, after decades of wandering through Europe and the United States.This gives the opera emotional depth, and is important to interpretation. As a musician, Martinů was sensitive to the power of music, where small snippets awake vast rivers of memory, so the many references to other music are deliberate. Even if some are barely more than wisps, their embedded presence is part of the meaning.

The giant accordion turns and moves, but within the orchestra Martinů writes fragments for solo instruments or small units like 3 oboes. The vast world theatre, and the tiny individual. This theme runs through the opera on several levels. Michel is alone in the busy village, and in the Central Office of Dreams he can't beat the bureaucratic machine. In the last act, the Accorion turns over so it resembles a giant, hideous skull, its keys reesembling the keys of a piano, the working tool of most composers.

Apart from Michel himself, the characters appear in different forms, and the Three Gentlemen in Frock Coats (as described in the score) sing in unison. Even Julietta (Julia Sporsén) is illusory, and needs to create an articial past through the postcards the Seller of Memories (Andrew Shore) peddles to the unwary. Gradually Michel is drawn deeper into delusion. Who shoots Julietta? Did she, can she die? It doesn't matter. People in this cosmos have no attention span. But as an audience, we do, which is why small details count, however elusive.

Anarchic as dreams are, performance should be rigorous. Martinů writes lusciously lyrical figures which seduce the ear, magically. But the Third Act tells us quite categorically that one cannot escape into the luxury of reverie. Beneath this lovely score lies a bedrock of anxiety. Is Michel all that different from the other inhabitants of this dream? He sells books (fiction?) after all. The Convict and the Blind Beggar are fixated by the same dream that takes the form of a lovely, elusive woman. Tension, anxiety and claustrophobia are fundamental to this music. Sharp staccatos, like the ticking of a clock, alarm bells. Yet at the ENO this sense of impending cataclysm was defused. Edward Gardner's Julietta is a pretty, light hearted reverie, not nightmare. The defining extremes in this core are smoothed over, so the firm structure of the opera becomes fragmented.

The singers, even the better ones like Hoare, Shore, Howell, Susan Bickley, Henry Waddington, Emilie Renard and Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts are solid rather than haunting. Martinů 's Julietta is not easy to stage but ironically the visuals (directed by Richard Jones, designed by Antony McDonald) were far more effective than the performance. We need to see this production because it's historic, and good. But anyone who wants to hear what the opera really should sound like should stick to the recordings. Krombholc (1964) is top recommendation, Mackerras conducts only fragments. When the complete new edition, recorded by Jiří Bělohlávek in 2009 is released, that will be the one to get. I've been listening to an aircheck of the broadcast. Even on an amateur quality tape, the true spirit of Martinů 's Julietta shines through, magical and manic in turns. There have been several stagings of Martinů's operas in recent years, and of course the full symphonic cycle, but Julietta is outstanding. This ENO performance doesn't begin to reach those heights. I can't blame anyone thinking that Martinů 's Julietta is mediocre if they haven't heard what it can sound like.

Anne Ozorio

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product_title=Bohuslav Martinů - Julietta
product_by=Julietta : Julia Sporsén, Michel : Peter Hoare, Police officer/Clerk/Forest Warden : Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Man in a helmet / Seller of memories / Convict : Andrew Shore, Man at window / Old man Youth / Beggar : Henry Waddington, Little arab / First gentleman / Errand-boy : Emilie Renard, Old arab / Grandfather / Old sailor : Gwynne Howell, Birdseller / Fortune teller : Susan Bickley, Fishmonger / Old woman / Grandmother: Valerie Reid, Young sailor : Anthony Gregory, 2nd Gentleman : Clare Presland, 3rd Gentleman : Samantha Price, Conductor : Edward Gardner, Director : Richard Jones, Designer : Antony McDonald, Associate Set Designer : Ricardo Pardo, Lighting Designer : Matthew Richardson, Choreographer : Philippe Giraudeau

English National Opera, The Coliseum, London, 17th September 2012
product_id=

Posted by anne_o at 12:11 PM

October 2, 2012

Handel Jephtha, Welsh National Opera

The revival, now directed by Robin Tebbutt, opened at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Now, the first thing to say is that Jephtha is not strictly an opera. It was written for performance in the theatre, but as a concert piece. Using a familiar biblical story, the work was intended to point a moral and be uplifting. Handel’s librettist, the Revd Thomas Morrell, was also a scholar and translator of Greek drama. In his compressing and re-casting of the biblical story Morrell introduced elements from Greed dramas. Not feeling bound by the classical unities of time and place, Morrell’s libretto ranges more freely and can feel modern at times. But another important feature of Handelian oratorio was what one might term the tableaux element. The say the dialogue is pared down to minimum, providing the audience with a series of set pieces and relying on Handel’s music and the audience’s knowledge of the plot to fill in the emotional gaps.

This means that, though Handel’s genius is innately dramatic, a sequence of long arias and even longer choruses with little dialogue is not easy to stage. At the Buxton Opera Festival this summer the director Frederic Wake-Walker staged Jephtha in a pared down, semi-abstract fashion, which evoked powerful reactions (both positive and negative). Katie Mitchell chose to fill in the background to the story, providing a detailed scenario which took place whilst the music was happening. As with Mitchell’s other opera productions, there was much busyness and coming and going, almost as if Mitchell felt that she could not leave the music to itself very often. Her production of Jephtha was placed in a war torn 1940’s society. The setting, designed by Vicki Mortimer, used two different spaces in a grand mansion which was badly bombed. There were few private moments, the chorus was on stage for much of the time and even in the quieter moments, servants came and went and Fflur Wyn’s Iphis was constantly chaperoned.

The result emphasised the role of Jephtha (Robert Murray) and his wife Storge (Diana Montague) as public figures, leaders of a war torn country. Nothing they could do was entirely private. The drawback to this was that sometimes, you wished that singers could be let alone. Diana Montague’s delivery of Scenes of Horror was brilliantly intense, but I’m not sure having her pawed over by her ladies in waiting made the drama any stronger. On the other hand, Mitchell developed the relationship between Iphis (Wynn) and Hamor (Robin Blaze) in a way which helped the drama. The role of Hamor can be seen as something of a cypher; he needs to be there simply to give Iphis a reminder of what she is missing when she remains ever virgin at the end.

But here, in the first duet there was a distinct feeling of anticipation as Wyn showed Blaze her wedding outfit. Then in the second act Blaze gave Wyn a ring. Both singers managed to make the relationship charmingly clear and give a real impression of love snatched in war time.

And there were moments of calm. When Murray made his vow in act one, he was alone with just the Angel present (Claire Ormshaw’s angel featured far more in the drama than in the libretto). In fact the angel whispered the words of the vow into his ear. It was a moment of calm, which enhanced the quiet intensity of Murray’s delivery.

And during the quartet, Mitchell had the four singer (Alan Ewing, Diana Montague, Fflur Wyn and Robin Blaze) gathered round Murray, who was poised to sign the document condemning his daughter; again, a moment of stasis which emphasised this extraordinary moment. Extraordinary in many ways, notably as one of Handel’s rare ensemble numbers, here sung with a feeling of intensity and a fine sense of line.

But the most extra-ordinary moment in the entire drama was when Murray sang Waft her angels. He sang it not as an invocation to God, but quietly into his daughter’s ear whilst he held her and then bound her eyes, with the chorus looking on in horror.

The draw back with Mitchells’ approach was that sometimes the music did not match what she wanted from the drama. I can forgive the numerous stage noises and bells in the earlier acts. But in act three both Blaze and Montague had explosively vocal spoken (even shouted) outbursts, clearly remedying what Mitchell felt was lacking in the music. Then when Murray finally pushed Wyn from off stage to be executed, he shouted ‘Go, go go’, which disturbed the mood, the music and drama.

Murray was a very human hero, very much an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. In his first aria his passagework was rather uneven, but by his second he had found form. He was not intense zealot, but exhibited a dogged faith, trying to do the right thing. Wearing a series of 1940’s boxy overcoats, he cut a solid, rather stolid figure. His vow was given out of desperation rather than fervour. And, as I have said, Waft her angels was extraordinary, delivered with quiet control with Murray exhibiting some of the most beautiful singing of the evening.

His voice had a tendency to develop a strong vibrato under pressure, a characteristic which you could find expressive of intrusive depending on taste.

As his wife, Diana Montague was a warm, dignified figure but clearly with her emotions on a thread. So that Scene of horror and her act three outburst were indicators of anxieties bubbling under. Both arias were sung with great beauty and affine sense of line, illuminating Storge’s stage of mind.

Wyn made a delightful Iphis for the first half of the drama, bringing out the character with very real charm and presence, plus some very find singing of Handel’s vocal lines. Robin Blaze was similarly in fine voice, and the two sparked a very real relationship. In fact Blaze seemed to be on great form, blazing forth brilliantly in the upper register. For the second half of the drama, both singer found a darker vein with Wyn displaying some very powerful dramatic reserves.

Alan Ewing made a brave attempt at Jephtha’s brother Zebul. Though he conveyed Zebul’s nobleness and essential decency, Ewing did have a tendency to bluster his way through the arias.

Claire Ormshaw was a very sympathetic Angel, a character whom Mitchell made very much the presiding genius of the drama.

The chorus were committed participants in all the drama, providing many of the small roles with which Mitchell articulated the story. They did this with convincing flair. The choruses were sung with quite a big sound, with the odd moment of untidiness. But the converse was of course that the choruses developed real power at moments of high drama.

Under Paul Goodwin, the WNO orchestra provided clean lively accompaniment. Not quite historically informed, but certainly rather stylish; though the opening of the overture did take some time to settle. There were odd ensemble problems, particularly when complex choruses required busy stage action.

A harpsichord was credited, but I barely heard it. Certainly the overture seemed lacking in audible keyboard continuo. If modern instruments are to be used then a solution needs to be found to provide keyboard continuo suitable. And there were also moments where organ was used as continuo in the recitatives instead of harpsichord.

Mitchell’s production, as revived by Robin Tebbutt, brought out the sheer horror of what Jephtha’s action meant in a contemporary society. The very real and detailed setting gave a corrective backdrop to the mythic action. The cast for this revival provided some fine Handelian singing indeed and some powerfully intense drama.

Robert Hugill

Click here for a video trailer of this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jephtha_Pellegrini.gif
image_description=The Return of Jephtha by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini [Source: Wikipedia]


product=yes
product_title=George Frederick Handel : Jephtha
product_by=Jephtha:Robert Murray, Storge:Diana Montague, Iphis:Fflur Wyn, Hamor:Robin Blaze, Angel:Claire Ormshaw, Director:Katie Mitchell, Revival Director:Robin Tebbutt, Designer:Vicki Mortimer, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Conductor:Paul Goodwin

Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, Wales, 22nd September 2012
product_id=Above: The Return of Jephtha by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini [Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Posted by anne_o at 11:53 AM