12 Oct 2012
The Barber of Frankfurt
Frankfurt Opera’s adventurous season had a notable beginning with a luminous staging of Samuel Barber’s seldom heard Vanessa.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Frankfurt Opera’s adventurous season had a notable beginning with a luminous staging of Samuel Barber’s seldom heard Vanessa.
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.
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