February 26, 2013

Rigoletto at the Met

Director Michael Mayer has successfully filled an inside straight in moving the Metropolitan Opera’s new Rigoletto from 16th century Mantua to early ’60s Las Vegas.

Instead of a hunchback court jester, the Vegas Rigoletto is a waspish casino comic with only a bit of padding under the left shoulder of his sweater to suggest a very slight disability. That sweater is a red, orange, green and white horror in an argyle or Harlequin pattern, providing a single link to Verdi’s jester. This Rigoletto does not limp around, even when the rhythm of his music in Act Two (“La ra, la ra, la ra”) demands it.

The womanizing Duke of Mantua, now just “Duke,” is supposedly Frank Sinatra, the leader of the Rat Pack of entertainers who are more or less portrayed in this production (Dean Martin and Peter Lawford among them). He spends most of the opera in a white dinner jacket, surrounded by “courtiers” decked out in glittering dinner jackets of every hue, each in worse taste than the last.

The setting for the first two acts is a casino. Neon, whiskey bottles, dice tables and lounge chairs occupy the set. The third act moves to a house of prostitution with a private room and a pole for dancing. In a decision quite unlike Auntie Met, that pole had a lady slithering around it, naked from the waste up except for pasties hiding her nipples. (This is a non-singing part, in case you are new to this opera.)

The Met also permitted a slangy updating of the text translations used in the titling system. For the most part these titles conveyed the vernacular of the swinging sixties, although there was too much reliance on “baby” and such howlers as “you send me to the moon.”

Mayer deserves great praise for making sense of a scene that misfires in every other production of this opera I have seen: the kidnapping of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda from her house. This is usually done with a ladder and men in masks on a dark stage. When Rigoletto blunders unwittingly into the scene, the kidnappers blindfold him, spin him around a few times and then set him to work helping in the abduction of his own daughter. This always misfires.

In Mayer’s conception, Rigoletto lives with Gilda in a high-rise apartment building at stage left that is adjacent to the casino. At stage right is a second high rise, identical in appearance. This time when Rigoletto comes upon the scene, the kidnappers send him up the elevator of the other high rise to kidnap a different woman. By the time he realizes the others are not joining him in this caper and descends, they have snatched Gilda, leaving her guardian drugged, bound, and lying on the elevator floor.

Two miscalculations by Mayer keep this production from being a royal flush. The first puzzler is that the curse against Rigoletto is delivered by an Arab sheikh (still named, inexplicably, “Monterone”). This introduces religious and political issues into the opera that are a distraction, and wholly unnecessary. Monterone could just as well have been a gangster whose daughter the Duke has seduced. An angry father is an angry father — Arab or Italian.

The second is the curse itself. While being cursed in 16th century Mantua may have had a devastating psychological effect, it is hard to imagine that this lounge comic in Vegas is going to be unhinged by one. The Duke and his pals were probably cursing everyone all the time, and much worse. Given that the curse (la maledizione) is at the center of the story and is the last word Rigoletto sings when his beloved Gilda dies, it doesn’t carry the ominous meaning suggested in the music. Perhaps if Mayer had set the opera in a religious community where curse words are a sin, it might have meant something. But he didn’t.

Still, it was fun — not that the Vegas setting shed any new light on this warhorse. Indeed, despite interviewer Renée Fleming’s leading questions during the intermissions, neither Diana Damrau (Gilda) nor Željko Lučić (Rigoletto) would be baited into admitting that the Vegas setting had made them look any differently at these roles. They should be praised for their honesty — although Mayer and Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, were no doubt hoping for different responses.

Vocally there was much to admire. As Gilda, Diana Damrau offered power and impeccable intonation. Her voice is weightier, but no less agile, than those of Roberta Peters or Reri Grist, two quite different Gildas. The part seems easy for Damrau. Caro Nome was carefully phrased and made a strong impression, and she was rewarded with the largest ovation of the afternoon. She has become too matronly for the virgin Gilda, so this was not the best casting choice for HD, but as a singer she cannot be faulted.

RIG1_0526a.pngPiotr Beczala as the Duke and Emalie Savoy as Countess Ceprano

Tenor Piotr Beczala was having fun as Duke, or the Duke. ‘La donna e mobile’ was tossed off with swagger, and he concluded it by swinging around that pole in Sparafucile’s brothel. His voice reminds me of Nicolai Gedda’s, another non-Italian who was a successful Duke. Beczala is a handsome man with an open face and great stage presence. He is made for the close-ups of these HD telecasts.

The best singing came from the Sparafucile of bass Štefan Kocán. His voice is deeply black with a sinister character that matches his snake-like characterization. (He will be singing Konchak in the Met’s new Prince Igor in the 2013-14 season.) The scene in Act One when he introduces himself to Rigoletto and offers his services as an assassin was chilling, helped along by the believable after-hours setting at the casino bar.

Oksana Volkova as Maddalena, Sparafucile’s prostitute sister, has legs that never quit and a smoldering middle-European pout, but her voice was a size too small for the part.

That is also one problem for Lučić’s Rigoletto. His baritone is on the dry side, and he sometimes sang flat. However, he is very experienced and had the measure of this part. But ‘Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,’ when he damns the rat packers who kidnapped Gilda, lacked frenzy, and the farewell to his dying daughter lacked pathos. He does not act with his face, and the HD close-ups did him no favors. His facial expressions often did not match his words, and his singing could be too smooth. Rigoletto has to snarl and howl, even in Las Vegas.

The young conductor Michele Mariotti kept things moving quickly, and coordination between the stage and the pit seemed exemplary.

Christine Jones designed the casino set, and Susan Hilferty provided costumes that extended its Vegas glitz. The neon was courtesy of lighting director Kevin Adams, who used it to good effect in the storm scene in Act Three.

In sum, Mayer has dealt the Met a winning hand with this Rigoletto, one that should appeal to audiences for at least the next decade.

David Rubin

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus on 17 February 2013. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image_description=Diana Damrau as Gilda [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

product_title=Rigoletto at the Met
product_by=A review by David Rubin
product_id=Above: Diana Damrau as Gilda [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

Posted by Gary at 8:28 PM

Munich’s Rambunctious Ring

If the Applause-o-Meter is any indication the superlative resident orchestra was easily anointed as the supreme achievement of this Ring, being roundly cheered at each appropriate opportunity and deafeningly appreciated at cycle’s end. The impressive results owed in no small part to Kent Nagano’s masterful way with a baton.

The diminutive Maestro seems to be all buttoned-down gestures and detached, controlled demeanor. However, his highly focused presence unleashed a cornucopia of thrilling instrumental effects including highly personalized solo work, impassioned ensemble passages, and an overall arc that was a cathartic traversal of Wagner’s epic masterpiece.

The big moments were all ravishingly expansive, the jaunty bits were accurately propulsive, and the balance between pit and stage was carefully managed to provide a firm cushion of support without smothering the soloists. Best of the best: the last twenty minutes of Walküre’s Act I were absolutely on fire and simply heart-racing; the ‘Forest Murmurs segment (Siegfried) was other-worldly luminous; and ‘Siegfried’s Death’ (Götterdämmerung) went from its riveting first pounding statements to meld into a profound, languorous anguish. Whether presiding over explosive outbursts, subtle introspection, unfolding narration, or sensitively partnering his roster of impressive singers, Mr. Nagano emphatically proved himself to be “Lord of the Ring.”

The enterprising company chose to cast the piece with different soloists for each installment (with a couple of overlaps) allowing the first three operas to be performed on successive evenings with a one day break before the fourth (probably to give the hard-working orchestra a chance to get refreshed). This enabled Munich to regale us with a succession of many of today’s leading Wagnerian interpreters.

It would have been worth the trip if only to experience Nina Stemme’s towering Brünnhilde (Götterdämmerung). Ms. Stemme is possessed of a sizeable, round tone that is all warm and womanly, yet has plenty of point and power to hurl out thrilling passages above the staff when the score whips up to a furious frenzy. Her traversal of the ‘Immolation’ was every bit the musical jewel in the crown that is required, by turns powerful, tender, heroic, and resigned. Nina is at the very height of her powers, which is to say she is arguably the current leading proponent of this Fach in the world.

The commanding bass-baritone of Tomasz Konieezny also proved an invaluable addition to the production, contributing a solid, memorable Walküre Wotan, as well as an uncommonly well-vocalized Alberich (Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). Mr. Konieezny’s firm, beefy tone had manly (godly?) buzz, searing power, and excellent variety of dramatic delivery. Another powerful low voice belonged to the sturdy Hans-Peter König who contributed a brutishly acted, suavely sung Hunding, as well as a snidely malevolent, self-possessed Hagen.

On the distaff side, glamorous Elisabeth Kulman proved a wife to be reckoned with during her two outings as an urgent Fricka. Her evenly-produced, shining mezzo gave great pleasure, and although it lacked a bit of weight often associated with this goddess, she communicated the dramatic intent effectively. Evelyn Herlitzius had an especially good night as the “Walküre” Brünnhilde, her slight and attractive physique ideal for the ‘favorite daughter,’ and her wiry soprano quite well controlled on this occasion. Although there was still an errant, splayed high note here and there, Ms. Herlitzius sang with considerable control overall, and she invested her middle range passages with great heart and meaning. The Todesverkündigung was quite beautifully judged indeed. Catherine Nagelstad also gave much pleasure as the Siegfried Brünnhilde, her substantial, slightly grainy soprano capable of full-throated delights as well as phrasings that were highly sensitive to the text (although there were stretches when she seemed to have only a negligible acquaintance with consonants).

Simon O’Neill was a sturdy, stalwart Siegmund singing with fluid, burnished tone. As his sister-bride, Petra Lang embodied all her familiar strengths (fulsome, warm tone in all registers) and shortcomings (sometime sluggish phrases above the staff and occasionally veering north of the pitch). Together, the pair brought thrilling immediacy, spontaneity, and yes, erotic passion to their Act One duet.

And what of our Siegfrieds? Well, although we were fortunate to have two of the world’s most traveled proponents in the cast, they rather demonstrated that ‘ya sings that role and ya takes yer chances.’ Lance Ryan was up first in the third opera’s title role and he was certainly met the challenge. . .with qualification. I recall hearing Mr. Ryan when he was ‘fest’ in Karlsruhe, singing with a gleaming, spinning, pinging Italianate tone as a winning Otello. Having contented himself to develop into a sought-after Wagnerian, he has achieved that status by being utterly reliable if uneven in his approach. Sustained high notes are now either open and straight-toned or crooned; the lower middle gets a bit woofy at times; and registers are not always knit together. But Lance knows how to husband his resources, and negotiates meaningful phrases that are suitably self-contained with excellent diction and fine musicianship. Too, he cuts a handsome figure and is a natural actor with an easy stage presence.

The Götterdämmerung Siegfried was the no less estimable Stephen Gould who has a natural weight to his voice which first seemed more suited to the genre than Mr. Ryan’s lighter, brighter approach. After a wonderfully judged opening duet, Mr. Gould did nearly come to grief with a few bullied high notes but he had the moxie to get through them and bounced right back to more comfortable, conversational delivery. His final reverie was undeniably dreamy and affecting, even if the voice had tired by then. Mssrs. Gould and Ryan are throwing themselves into their Siegfrieds with considerable commitment if sometimes with insufficient caution, and while they succeeded on their terms and are justifiably applauded for their efforts, I wish them well in maintaining vocal health in these punishing parts.

Egils Silins deployed his beefy, imperious tone to good purpose as the Rheingold Wotan although a bit more gravitas would have been welcome. As Siegfried”s Wanderer, veteran Thomas J. Mayer sported such a voluminous, orotund bass it was a pity that he often dialed up the volume to the point that, especially in the upper stretches, he forced the tone to decibels that blurred the core of the pitch. Michaela Schuster enjoyed a true star turn as Waltraute (Götterdämmerung) and her laser-accurate soprano impressed as much for its heft as for its sensitivity. Rarely has this scene been as meticulously judged from both a musical and theatrical standpoint. A tremendous portrayal indeed.

Too, chic Anna Gabler was nigh unto perfection as an unusually aggressive Gutrune, her smooth, sizable voice making a fine impression in all registers and volumes. Ms. Gabler also captured our attention as the Third Norn, exceptionally well-matched with Jennifer Johnston (an assured Second Norn) and the plummy-voiced Okka von der Damerau, who doubled as the Third Norn and Flosshilde. On both Rhine Maiden outings Ms. Damerau was joined by the incisive Angela Brower (Wellgunde), with Woglinde successfully shared by the zinging soprano of petite Eri Nakamura (Rheingold) and the spicy lyric delivery from Hanna-Elsabeth Müller (Götterdämmerung).

The seasoned, reliable tenor Stefan Margita nearly walked off with Das Rheingold for his witty, diverse, decadent, firmly sung Loge. Levente Molnár took full advantage of his featured moments as Donner; Sergey Skorokhodov was a substantial if slightly anonymous Froh; and Ulrich Reß did all that was required (if no more) as a bumbling Baby Huey of a Mime. Mr. Reß’s dwarf made more of his stage time in Siegfried although the role seemed neither internalized nor malevolent. Johannes Martin Kränzle had some fine moments as Alberich, more notable in anguish than in anger, although his stirring curse positively crackled. Catherine Wyn-Rogers’s luxuriant contralto reminded us why she is one or operadom’s acclaimed Erdas; and Aga Mikolaj brought a distinctive presence and grainy soprano to a starchier-than-most Freia. Thorsten Grümbel (Fasolt) and Steven Humes (Fafner) were first-rate giants, the latter contributing a haunting significance during his duties as the doomed dragon.

Other standouts included a vibrant (if a mite fluttery) Siegfried Erda from Qiulin Zhang; a refulgent and accurate Forest Bird by Anna Virovlanksy; and a firm, flawlessly sung Gunther from the well-schooled baritone, Iain Paterson. The eight Valkyries were uncommonly well-matched and they gave a highly-charged rendition of the world-famous Ride.

With all this musical excellence it would be nice to report that Andreas Kriegenburg’s stage direction was every bit its equal. I can’t. But if it did not accommodate all of the libretto’s knotty demands, the overall impression was of-a-piece, and showcased a surplus of imagination and invention.

Mr. Kriegenburg envisions his story-telling as a communal ritual. When we enter the auditorium, the cast, almost all of them barefoot and in casual white tops and slacks/skirts (costumes, Andrea Schraad) are socializing and picnicking on the raked stage floor bounded by a white box of a set (design, Harald B. Thor). Stage hands serve snacks and drinks. Principal singers intermingle. The maestro sneaks in the pit unheralded. The house lights dim. As the first droning bass note is intoned, the assembled supers strip down to brief flesh-colored underwear.

A stage hand brings white plastic buckets of paint, the extras smear themselves with blue, then crouch, co-mingled in line on the apron, filling the width of the stage. Eventually they begin writhing in ‘waves’ to suggest the Rhine, quite a memorable effect. The white box is a sponge for Stefan Bolliger’s clever lighting affects. The Rhine Maidens and Alberich arise from within the 'waves' and for one brief shining moment there is Camelot. Thereafter, opportunities seem to get missed with regularity.

Alberich’s chase could have been a mosh pit of motion, but remains static. The gold is represented as a lame-clad Goldfinger dancer borne awkwardly on stage by four crouching men. And dramatic plausibility gets blown out of the “water” when Alberich carries her away with no attempt (or any reaction) by the Maidens to stop him. None whatsoever.

The extras next stride upstage, turn their backs to us and form Valhalla in two rows, even suggesting massive pillars. Not bad, but then a goofy chalk scrawl of a castle skyline appears on the upstage wall. Ms. Schraad’s generic costumes now got all ‘modern dress-up’ and while they were handsome enough, the obvious wigs looked like they came from the Valhalla Fasching Shop discount bin.

The highly theatrical, almost Brechtian elements featured stage hands bringing set pieces on and off, and showcased obviously phony special effects. Some delighted us like when Alberich transforms into a snake made of fireworks carried aloft across the stage. Others mis-fired badly, like the child dressed as an unfortunate toad. Or like having Mime squealing in pain from beatings and pinchings when there was no one within ten feet of him.

A tremendous plus is that many scenes featured a wonderful interaction between characters, yet other conversational communications were inexplicably aimed to the upper Rang. Scenically, too, the minimalist furniture often did all that was required to suggest a locale, and then along came overly elaborate contrivances, which dominated the visuals. Witness a steeply raked Nibelheim with its endless parade of convict-like workers who get singled out by sadistic, whip-toting guards to be thrown noisily into fiery incinerator holes in the floor.

I quite liked the huge pair of dice that bore the giants who had to keep scaling the pieces to stay atop as supers “rolled” them. Conversely, the Goldener Saal that rises from the floor is a cubic room lined with gold bricks that is not a viable “pile” to mask Freia’s physique. I am not sure what was meant by the company’s whooshing gold rectangles up and down like a bad sports stadium pep rally while Donner was hammering away.

At times the team just ignored visualizing the story. The trip to and from the underworld was accomplished by projecting Wagner’s stage directions on the set so we could ‘read’ what was happening! There was no rainbow bridge, just Wotan brandishing his spear upstage as all grabbed hold of it like commuters sharing a subway strap. By the time the Rhine-people re-created the river across the front of the stage, no blue colors, everyone in their opening white costume, the writhing looked more like a knotted muscle.

For its setting Die Walküre featured a modern kitchen al fresco with rotting corpses hanging in massive gnarled trees, a Martha Stewart Halloween party gone very very wrong. To continue the concept of group ritual, there was a bevy of teenage girls with flashlights in each hand. (Shimmering flashlights = spring.) (I think.) In addition to the sword being clearly visible in the tree from the start, lest we missed it each (and I mean “each”) time the motif played the girls shone their lights on it.

In fact, these hand held lights that were used sparingly in Rheingold now become routine. As Siegfried and Sieglinde sit in chairs at opposite ends of the dining table, the teens spot them as though they are being grilled in police investigation. When not otherwise blinding us or the other performers, the girls sponge bathe corpses on upstage lab carts. Nonetheless, the principals have many moments of meaningful interaction, the big duet is wonderfully blocked, and there is a palpable tension throughout (although did the brutish Hunding have to wipe his dirty hands clean on his wife’s skirt before eating?).

Wotan’s Valhalla office begins life normally enough, with a long bucolic picture hanging on the back wall, but then the desk rises on a platform, the backdrop goes to black, and a crowd of people who were milling around seem to fall dead. No wait, a couple of the un-dead crawl back to life as distracting foragers. Fricka and Wotan carry on a parlor conversation, seated atop extras/servants who crouch and bend to form “human chairs” (more people-as-scenery, see “ritual” above). Fricka is not so much a righteous goddess as a petulant founding member of Million Moms Against Sexual Pleasure (MMASP).

Again, much goes right here and there is more dramatic truth than this may imply. Still, like Alberich’s unconvincing theft of the gold which prompts unmotivated horror, at act’s end Brünnhilde and Sieglinde flee Wotan’s wrath by passing so immediately close to him, he coulda/woulda/shoulda just bitch-slapped them to the ground. Waddupwiddat, Mr. Director?

The start of Act Three was a major miscalculation with the teenagers back to perform an unscripted Entre’acte in form of a primitive, Stomp-like dance (choreographer, Zenta Haerter) that went on for many silent minutes. The booing and catcalls began somewhere in minute “two.” By the time Kent finally whipped the orchestra and singers back into a frenzy the mood was altered and it took almost the whole Ride to re-focus a divided, hostile public.

The stage picture was workable enough with dead heroes limp atop poles stuck in the floor (like Helden-kebabs), and the Valkyries holding reins fastened to the posts and slapping the floor with them. This gave way to an absolutely bare stage for Wotan’s ‘Abschied,’ with a disc raising out of the stage for his daughter’s repose, and a ring-of- fire apparatus skittered on by low-crawling ensemble members.

Act One of Siegfried made the previous night’s bonus girlie dance look like a blip on the radar of Major Miscalculations. It simply never stopped ‘moving.’ A mob of writhing bodies was up, down, and all around, first bringing in the hut’s components of eleven flats, a ceiling (flown), a counter base with separate top, a forge, and a downstage anvil that mercifully stayed put. The thing is, as nice as the hut looked when assembled, a) it did not go together easily, b) once it did not quite go together at all, and c) it went in and out with maddening frequency: to reveal Nibelheim (and back together), to reveal Valhalla (and back together), to allow extras to reenact the birth of Siegfried (and back together), to reveal extras in fetal positions holding trees (and back together), and well, you get the idea. Busy busy busy.

The flats also were choreographed to move around, with Siegfried disappearing and then re-appearing “magically.” Except that the schleppers were not always in sync, and more than once we saw Mr. Ryan’s hand or finger beckoning or pointing a flat-mate to where it need to be so he could magically ‘re-appear.’

Among the excesses there was a green ground cloth with goofy daisies pushed up by actors from under it, and a Keebler Elves stump for Mime to sit on; supers unrolled kitchen plastic wrap as a ‘stream’ so Siegfried can see himself in the ‘brook:’ a plastic water bottle is tossed to Mime so he can hydrate (Marco Rubio would be so proud); and all this commotion is performed by an ensemble in white clothes making them as visible and annoying as possible.

The Forging Scene won the Wuppertal-Dance-Theatre-Meets-Hieronymous-Bosch prize with everyone given something ‘wacky’ to do. Oh, those Krazy Kids. A giant bellows stage left dwarfs the actors who operate it. There is an unexplained industrial paper shredder. Fabric “flames” are brandished on sticks. Slinky hot air conduit tubes dance around manically. A table contains all manner of arts and crafts supplies. There is yet another annoying portable spot light. Extras with manually operated hand pumps dispense glitter with each hammer strike. Four actors wear tees that spell H-E-R-O (get it? Get it?), and when the E and the R leave the line-up to move the table, we are momentarily left with an unintentional HO (an apt comment).

All the while this commotion is ensuing Lance is singing very creditably, but he could have had cymbals between his knees and a sparkler in his teeth and we wouldn’t have noticed him. By the time the anvil didn’t split, with eight or so extras simply converging on it and then backing apart, the audience was well primed for the gigantic “Booooooooo” at the curtain.

Act II settled down (how could it not?) but still involved people flown in harnesses and reconnoitering like sky divers to construct human ‘trees.’ Siegfried’s reed cutting was so poorly paced as to kill the momentum, and the ‘gag’ of having the off-stage horn deliberately play out of sync with the on-stage actor was a decided low point in the comedy. And then, lo and behold, the dragon was magnificent! No kidding, the best ever. A huge head, i,.e., a frame peopled by writhing red-clad bodies is flown in from high above with Fafner in the center of the mouth. As the hero kills the dragon, the head sinks momentarily to allow the soloist to roll out and die on the floor. Masterful! No one can blame poor Siegfried over his confusion in trying to follow the Wood Bird to the fiery rock since there are two birds, a live actor and an extra waving a toy on a long stick, and not usually physically in the same place. Program the GPS, dude!

The ascent up the mountain is suggested by the extras spreading out a huge, huge sheet of plastic across the stage that keeps billowing and cresting until it finally reveals the sleeping ex-Valkyrie. A fire projection stands in for the live effect in the previous opera which is all well and good since the disc is about to transform into a big Hollywood style boudoir, with generous red coverlets, over-sized cushions, and a Wagnerian spin on Pillow Talk that really works. The protests and anxiety about ‘performance’ turn into teasing, loss of inhibitions, and ultimate submission with (‘Gott sei dank’) nary a super in sight.

One night off and then Götterdämmerung. We almost seemed to be at a different, more controlled “Ring” for the ensemble was not readily in evidence until midway in Act One and then it was used much more integrally and unobtrusively than before. The production team sees this installment in a major corporation headquarters with the Hall of the Gibichungs a modern luxury apartment, all chrome and glass, with Euro-inspired furniture (to include a sort of rocking horse Euro that is Gutrune’s favorite plaything and not-so-imaginary friend).

Here, the director manages to score some of his best overall moments with the most focused staging, the most meaningful reflection of the text, and the most fluid and controlled crowd movement. At last, there seems to be a fairly consistent marriage of contemporary references and original source material. The only weak moment is left for last when, in an attempt to come full circle, the Rheingold picnickers return in the fading moments to envelop all those still standing on stage in a cuddly group hug. Hello, the world has just ended?

No one Ring production can solve all of the problems inherent in the composer’s over-reaching theatrical aspirations, but Munich has given us such a high-powered musical achievement that we are able to indulge a provocative staging that is sometimes radiant, occasionally maddening, unexpectedly funny, dramatically varied, and like it or not, always engaging.

James Sohre

Cast and Production Information

Das Rheingold

Wotan: Egils Silins; Donner: Levente Molnár; Froh: Sergey Skorokhodov; Loge: Stefan Margita; Alberich: Johannes Martin Kränzle; Mime: Ulrich Reß; Fasolt: Thorsten Grümbel; Fafner: Steven Humes; Fricka: Elisabeth Kulman; Freia: Aga Mikolaj; Erda: Catherine Wyn-Rogers; Woglinde: Eri Nakamura; Wellgunde: Angela Brower; Flosshilde: Okka von der Damerau

Die Walküre

Siegmund: Simon O’Neill; Hunding: Hans-Peter König; Wotan: Tomasz Konieezny; Sieglinde: Petra Lang; Brünnhilde: Evelyn Herlitzius; Fricka: Elisabeth Kulman; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Gerhilde: Karen Foster; Ortlinde: Golda Schultz; Waltraute: Heike Grötzinger: Grimgerde: Okka von der Damerau; Siegrune: Roswitha Christina Müller; Rossweisse: Alexandra Petersamer; Schwertleite: Anja Jung


Siegfried: Lance Ryan; Mime: Ulrich Reß; Wanderer: Thomas J. Mayer; Alberich: Tomasz Konieezny; Fafner: Steven Humes; Erda: Qiulin Zhang; Brünnhilde: Catherine Nagelstad; Forest Bird: Anna Virovlanksy


Siegfried: Stephen Gould; Gunther: Iain Paterson; Hagen: Hans-Peter König; Alberich: Tomasz Konieezny; Brünnhilde: Nina Stemme; Gutrune/Third Norn: Anna Gabler; Waltraute: Michaela Schuster; Woglinde: Hanna-Elisabeth Müller; Wellgunde: Angela Brower; Flosshilde/First Norn: Okka von der Damerau; Second Norn: Jennifer Johnston

Conductor: Kent Nagano; Director: Andreas Kriegenburg; Set Design: Harald B. Thor; Costume Design: Andrea Schraad; Lighting Design: Stefan Bolliger; Choreography: Zenta Haerter

image_description=Catherine Naglestad as Brünnhilde [Photo © Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]

product_title=Munich’s Rambunctious Ring
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Catherine Naglestad as Brünnhilde [Photo © Wilfried Hösl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper]

Posted by james_s at 7:22 PM

February 21, 2013

Hugo Wolf, Wigmore Hall

Given Wolf's exceptional feeling for poetry, any interpretations must be influenced by the texts he chose. In this recital, we heard songs by Eduard Mörike.and Goethe, each of which Wolf turns into a miniature opera distilled into purest form. Some of these songs are character studies like Abschied where a critic is kicked downstairs to mock waltzes and garishly manic melodies. There's so much action in this song that it could be expanded into monodrama, but Wolf doesn't overpower the simplicity of Mörike's text. Apart from the droll, and very pointed, reference to Viennese taste, Wolf writes with the precision of a Lieder composer. Even when Wolf sets more abstract texts, like Selbstgeständnis, a soliloquy where the single child considers a family dynamic different to his own, the focus is on the protagonist's inner life, and on the poem.

Wolf may have been prickly, but he was an acute observer of human life, and very empathic towards others. From Frank Walker's biography, still the best after 60 years, we get a much more rounded sense of his personality than accounts of his death might suggest. Perhaps his sensitivity to others might explain his respect for the individuality of the poets he set. Wolf's songs, be they settings of Mörike, Eichendorff, Goethe or Heyse, are informed by an interest in people and the siuations they get into. This good-hearted warmth runs throughout his work. This Wigmore Hall recital was a delight, because it connected to that fundamental humanity in Wolf's music.

Wolf creates character with great subtlety, In Agnes, for example, a young woman has a ribbon in her hat, which flutters gently in the wind. Daneman sang quietly, as a maiden might. The piano, however, expresses what a demure girl dare not say. Just as the ribbon flutters. the girl's heart beats wildly at the thought of the man who gave her the ribbon, who has now betrayed her. Often the postlude fades unnoticed, but Drake emphasizes the "fluttering" figures, reinforcing their impact by following Agnes with Lied vom Winde, where notes explode forcefully, "Sausewind, Brausewind, Dort von hier!". Drake reinforced the connection with the "fluttery" images before the final strophe. "Lieb ist wier Wind....... nicht immer beständig". This wind is capricious but not destructive. As it blows away, the words "Kindlien, Ade!" repeat three times, suggesting that winds, like love, can return. The connection was made again in An eine Äolsharfe where Drake played the postlude so beautifully that he evoked the magical world of nature spirits that inspired Eduard Mörike.

Like Wolf, Mörike had what we might today recognize as psychological issues, but he also had a jaunty sense of irreverence that gives so much of his work a defiant vitality, which Wolf picks up on. Abschied, for eample, touched on a painful subject for Wolf, who was a music critic as was Eduard Hanslick. Behind the slapstick humour in this song lies the suffering and frustration that would later drive Wolf insane. Sensitivity is important in an artist, so ill-intentioned nit-picking isn't constructive. Wolf and Mörike.suggest that an artist, being creative, will triumph over the venality around him. Bostridge's performance was superb, conveying bite as well as wit. Every consonant sharply enunciated, crisp, confident, even defiant.

Storchenbotshaft has long been a Bostridge/Drake speciality. The song is funny, and we join in the shepherd's shock as he learns he's become that father of twins. Yet the poem is Mörike, and there's an element of the supernatural. Wolf writes jerky, angular figures into the music which suggests the way storks move, but also conveys a heightened sense of excitement that borders on panic. "Ein Geistlein, ein Hexlein, so wustige Wicht", each phrase defined by just the right short gasp. Is the shepherd altogether happy? One of Bostridge's great strengths as an artist is his intuitive ability to access deep, often disturbing undercurrents in the music he sings. His Britten is exceptional. Over the years, his Wolf has developed true maturity.

In the Goethe songs, Daneman was charming. Her Blumengruß was lustrous, and her Cophtisches Lied I and II nicely articulated. Bostridge was frech und froh in the two Frech und Froh songs, and created Gutmann und Gutweib bringing out the riotous humour. For an encore, Daneman, Bostridge and Drake did an excellent Schubert Licht und Liebe (Matthäus von Collin). As duet, the words "süßes Licht" entwine deliciously.

The surprise of the evening, though, happened while Daneman sang Wolf's Epiphanias. The door behind the stage opened. In walked a boy dressed as a Wise Man, bearing a gift. He was followed by two other boys in costume, and then a little girl, dressed asd a fairy, waving a wand with a star at its apex!

The song was written on 27 December 1888, while Wolf was spending the holidays with the Köchert family. In Goethe's time and quite likely in late 19th century Vienna, household masques like this weren't unknown: indeed, Goethe staged a presentation of this very poem at Weimar in 1781. Moreover, people used to have processions door-to-door bearing a star. The parallel with Wagner's children serenading Cosima on her birthday wouldn't have been lost on Wolf if he'd known. Wolf had a long-term love affair with Melanie Köchert, with the tacit approval of her husband, Wolf's patron and friend. Evidently they all got on, so Wolf was able to rehearse the Köchert children and play the piano. The song was a gift of friendship, a love song in code. This time, at the Wigmore Hall, two of the children were Bostridges and the younger pair were Daneman's children. All four moved solemnly in time to the music, with great dignity. It was hilarious, and also magical. It showed Hugo Wolf as "family man", loving and loved. For years, I've dreamed of interpretations that would access this aspect of Wolf's idiom. Thanks to Drake, Bostridge and Daneman (and their kids), that dream is fulfilled.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Hugo Wolf 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]

product_title=Hugo Wolf Songs
product_by=Ian Bostridge, Sophie Daneman, Julius Drake, Wigmore Hall, London 15th February 2013
product_id=Above: Hugo Wolf 1910 [Source: Wikipedia]

Posted by anne_o at 2:17 PM

February 17, 2013

Charpentier’s Medea at ENO

Despite the repeated bestowal of royal favour and attendance at the few performances which followed the 1693 premiere before the Académie Royale de Musique, the opera was rapidly consigned to relative oblivion and has remained neglected, languishing in obscurity ever since. This ENO production is the first UK staging of a work which is undoubtedly one of Charpentier’s most ambitious and impressive secular scores.

David McVicar’s new production for ENO seeks to integrate the timelessness of Classical myth with a 1904s milieu — the latter providing a specificity with which modern audiences may engage — and thereby to underline both the universality and contemporary relevance of Charpentier’s and Corneille’s gruesome tale of ruthless revenge and pitiless bloodshed.

So, a seventeenth-century chateau — notable for its typically elegant pastel symmetry and gracious artifice — has been commanded for the 1940s war effort, and various personnel of the armed and naval forces stride through the polished halls, deliberating and manoeuvring, as love and hatred, loyalty and betrayal engage in a mythic battle to the death. Studio lights and other period details remind us of the 40s setting; yet courtly conventions and postmodernist motifs are effortlessly elided, the naturalistic interiors endowed with an eerily symbolic resonance by Paule Constable’s atmospheric, figurative lighting. Thus, the cold, clear light of day fade to the equivocal mists of night, and the crystalline world of combat merges with the murkier machinations of the diversionary distractions of aristocratic entertainment. The gorgeous reflective floor offers both realistic mirror images and impressionistic, suggestive reflections and intimations.

Eschewing the da capo aria model of Italian opera seria, Charpentier creates more fluid musical and vocal structures derived from the five-act form of the French classical tragedy of Corneille and Racine; and, McVicar effects a correspondently fluent dramatic movement within the confines of Bunny Christie’s beautifully evocative sets, as dramatic action merges with divertissement, and recitative blends into arioso then coalesces into more formalised aria.

Christie’s arresting costumes effectively reinforce the subjugation of the eponymous protagonist, the freedom of movement of the members of the female cast being alternately confined by restrictive, thigh-gripping pencil skirts and toe-pinching stilettos, then liberated by spangly hot-pants and fish-nets for the delectation of the powerful and voyeuristic military elite.

Although the Prologue, with its discrete contemporary political intent, is sensibly omitted, McVicar resists the temptation to exclude those elements of the score which others might deem un-dramatic and irrelevant: thus, the elements of spectacle — the ballet de cours with its extravagant costumes and scenic effects, the formal dances and elaborate divertissements — are intelligently and convincingly incorporated, smoothly dove-tailed with the scenes for the principals.

That said, the more abstract interpretations of the final three acts are more compelling than the heavily stylised end-of-act frivolities of the first two acts. The Act 2 divertissement to celebrate the arrival of the nubile Creusa — with its sequinned, star-studded plane, diva-esque posturing and nautical buffoonery — is a little too reminiscent of Flying Down to Rio or the stylised hamming of South Pacific. But, the demonic diversions of a snarling Vengeance, resentful Jealousy and aggrieved crowd of demons who poisonously bewitch the golden dress destined for Creusa, are fittingly disconcerting; similarly, the insubstantial phantoms which defeat Creon’s armed guard in Act 4 exemplify the choreographic approach of Lynne Page: namely, to present extremes of emotional excess expressed within controlled formal structures.

Inevitably the success of a production of this opera will rest disproportionately on its Medea. According to the classical myth, Medea has made a considerable personal sacrifice to enable her beloved Jason to win the Golden Fleece, and now disowned and exiled, she suspects that Jason’s affections have waned, as he is increasingly enamoured of Creusa, the daughter of King Créon of Corinth, who has given Jason and Medea refuge.

In an opera peopled by morally frail, dishonest men, Sarah Connolly portrays Medea as a powerful heroine driven by a combination of fiery anger, eloquent finesse and sharp intelligence. From the opening of Act 1 the profound depths of her character are evident: her passionate love, her jealousy, her pride, her tenderness. It is the powers at her command which set her apart, as is evident in the pulsing accompaniment of her first recitative and the tempestuous cascading string lines which frame it. Her softer side is revealed in Act 2, accompanied by strings and dulcet recorders, preparing us for the pathos of her brutal, inhuman murder of her children in order to inflict pain upon the man who has rejected her.

Connolly’s compassion as a mother was evident throughout Act 2, and her powerful soliloquies in Act 3, when she laments Jason’s betrayal and the futility of her love and loyalty, evoked tender empathy in the audience, before her invocation of Satanic darkness injected her thoughtfulness with a terrifying, nihilistic blackness, inspiring both terror and wonder. In her aria-moments Connolly combined warm, shapely lyricism with an elegant declamation of the text, ever alert to Charpentier’s unique arioso which is itself responsive to both word and affekt.

There are moments of great pathos in McVicar’s realisation of this horrifying myth: few could fail to be moved when Medea’s pitiable, pyjama-clad children clutch onto their mother as her raging fury feeds on its own embers and she acknowledges that they must die to fulfil her shocking craving for retribution. But, McVicar never lapses into melodrama. Although a terrible vengeance is wreaked through the final act, he and Connolly sustain an appalling Classical restraint: Medea looks on as her former lovers, friends and rivals futilely resist the agonies she has ordained, while she, clad in Hecatian black, rises aloft, indifferent to their human anguish.

The light, clear tenor of Jeffrey Francis, as Jason, conveyed the bright buoyancy and naive optimism of the ‘conquering hero’ who is full of pride and glowing with his own achievements. His set pieces were characterised by the sunny grace of the air de cours. However, Francis’s rather stilted tenor lacked flexibility and the capacity for subtle development of character; and he did not wholly convince as a man torn between the love for mother of his children and his new, unfamiliar feelings for Creusa — a man almost reluctantly lured into deceit against both Medea and Oronte.

Katherine Manley’s Creusa was a revelation; after the light-weight self-indulgence of Act 2, and the shocking intimations of an incestuous relationship with her father, King Creon, Manley increasingly projected her character’s pathetic and tragic essence, particularly in Act 4, where Charpentier’s harmonic piquancies reveal the condemnatory curse of the poisonous golden gown she has coveted. Her duet with Jason in Act 5 was an almost unbearably poignant lament of nobility as Manley affectingly conveyed the sweetness in ‘agony’ and the bitterness of death, revealing an ability to combine musical delicacy with powerful dramatic presence.

As Oronte, Roderick Williams was characteristically honest and engaging, conveying the evolving psychology of Oronte, who undoubtedly loves Creusa but who comes to understand that no act of revenge will gain him Creusa’s true devotion. Brindley Sherratt’s Creon was a disturbing composite of manipulative menace and vulnerable emotional infirmity. Nerina is a difficult role to carry off, as she alternatively incites and seeks to calm her mistress’s jealousy; but, Rhian Lois lingered and crept menacingly and meaningfully in the shadows and sang with expressive clarity.

Conductor Christian Curnyn was consistently alert to Charpentier’s sudden shifts of pace and colour and relished the startlingly violent contrasts of the score; even with just a small ensemble of modern strings, theorbos and harpsichords at his disposal, Curnyn produced diverse colours and textures, nowhere more so than during Medea’s malignant Act 3 sorcery, where the dark string tones enhanced the satanic menace. I’m not sure that the relatively small forces were able to make a full impact in the cavernous hall, but Curnyn coaxed a full string sound, underpinned by a deep, resonant basse violine timbre, supplemented by sweet recorder duets. The dissonant tartness of Charpentier’s rich harmonic language was used to effectively underpin the psychological development of the characters.

McVicar’s presents a subtle and touching reading of a first rank opera, characterised by some exceptionally crafted vocal performances — musical theatre at its best.

Claire Seymour

Cast and Production Information

Sarah Connolly, Medea; Jeffrey Francis, Jason; Brindley Sherratt, Creon; Katherine Manley, Creusa/Phantom I; Roderick Williams, Oronte; Rhian Lois, Nerna; Aoife O’Sullivan, Cloenis; Oliver Dunn, Arcas; John McMunn, Corinthian/Jealousy; Sophie Junker, Italian Woman/Phantom II; Jeremy Budd, Corinthian/Argive; Ewan Guthrie and Harry Collins, Medea’s sons; Christian Curnyn, conductor; David McVicar, director; Bunny Christie, designer; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Lynne Page, choreographer. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Friday 15th February 2012.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/rsz_medea_sarah_connolly_c_clive_barda.png image_description=Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=Charpentier’ Medea at ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Sarah Connolly as Medea [Photo by Clive Barda]
Posted by Gary at 3:10 PM

Stuttgart: Too Hot to Handel

To that end, directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito have gotten their willing cast to rather uninhibitedly caress, nuzzle, hug, stroke and roll around on occasion in various combinations, and even include strong impressions that a patriarchal pederast is sodomizing two of the boys. To paraphrase a Bacharach title song for a Michael Caine film: “What’s it all about, Alcina?”

And like the plot of Alfie, the story here seemed to be reduced to thoughtless couplings, self-gratification, and a modicum of come-uppance. But is that enough? The complex, dense plot features a sorceress (Alcina) and her long-suffering-also-a-sorceress-sister (Morgana); a knight (Ruggiero) looking for his beloved but who gets side-tracked/bewitched by the titular witch; a boy (Oronte) looking for his long lost father (Astolfo); the sister’s jilted lover (Oberto), and a cross-dressing woman (Bradamante) who is impersonating her own brother to find her lover Ruggiero who now loves Alcina. Throw in the hero’s former tutor (Melisso) and the fact that two of the ‘men’ are sung by women (not counting the cross-dresser) and you get some idea of the challenges to comprehension of the plotting.

What is needed in the direction and visual presentation is utter clarity to lead us through the tale’s rich character relationships. Alas, what we got was confusing blocking and unmotivated stage business that led us ever further from honest confrontations and down a garden path to bewilderment. As we gave up on trying to understand who was wanting what from whom (and why), the piece was reduced to a string of stand-alone Da Capo arias that seemed to exist outside the drama rather than driving it.

The sense of sameness was not helped by staging choices that kept getting re-cycled like hugging the walls, languishing on the floor, taking off clothes, and the like. Nor was designer Anna Viebrock’s unit setting evocative or particularly attractive. It consisted of a decaying drawing room box set with aging gold damask wallpaper and a single double door up left.

Upstage, a giant, empty gilt frame dominated the space, suggesting at times a mirror, at others a portal to the psyche. In the up right corner was a pile of, well, junk: pieces of swords, battered musical instruments, an old drawing room chair, some pottery, some armor. These got passed around, kicked around, and thrown around with regularity if without much reason.

Behind the frame, a treadmill sometimes bore a performer across from right to disappear left, and the wallpapered backdrop tracked to and fro revealing some wall accessories like a coat rack, wall lamp or . . .shhhhh. . .a secret door. Ooooh. A secret door. A lurking old man (shhhh, it’s Astolfo) peeked through at several times to inject a Fear Factor. Or at least an Ick Factor. At other times, characters might appear waltzing together, or commiserating, or well, just observing. A real problem with this floor plan is there are only two ways into the playing space: either through the door, or over the frame from the upstage Time Out Room.

Too, the overall pace was not helped by limiting the evening to one intermission, and that after Act Two, Scene Three, making the second ‘sit’ much longer than the first. ‘Act Three’ also experienced three complete blackouts, one after Alcina is shot dead (yes, shot) which deflated the momentum at a time the piece could ill afford it.

Ms. Vriebock’s modern day costumes only hit the mark with her elegant black gowns for Alcina. The real men looked dapper enough in their suits; well that is until Oronte did a strip tease during his aria, sitting on a step in his briefs and kicking up his (bare) feet like Esther Williams about to go under water. The same male attire did not serve the men-women well, making the lanky, pony-tailed, bespectacled Bradamante look like Olive Oyl in drag; and accenting, not hiding all of Ruggiero’s womanly assets. Hard to suspend our disbelief when your ‘hero’ has willfully undisguised child-bearing hips.

Musically, Stuttgart Opera has fielded a top notch team of soloists, a superb group of instrumentalists, and a stylish and stylistically savvy conductor who was in joyous command of his resources. From the downbeat of the overture the pit orchestra promised both effervescent delights and characterful illumination. They could not have been bettered, and Michael Groß’s conscientious cello work was the stand-out among equals.

Netta Or has all the right stuff to sing an assured Alcina: a pointed and pliable soprano, a winning way of caressing a melting phrase, and a sound technique allowing her to deliver her every varied musical intention. Ms. Or is also possessed of a lovely, poised stage presence; in short, she has the requisite “star quality.”

In spite of being handicapped by her unhelpful costume and rather short stature (or perhaps because of it?), Diana Haller sang the living snot out of Ruggiero. Ms. Haller, has a nice edge to her essentially lyric mezzo, and she zings out coloratura like Sosa hitting it out of the ballpark. Her acting is committed and her characterization is well considered. In addition to the impressive vocal fireworks, Diana could also turn it all inward and touch our hearts with deeply felt moments of repose and introspection.

As Bradamante, Marina Prudenskaya’s softer-grained, mellower tone was a nice complement to Ruggiero’s more incisive production. Ms. Prudenskaya also rose above her costume limitations to etch a believably desperate, and vocally secure performance. And when she was asked, twice, to tear open her white dress shirt to reveal a pink camisole (“I’m a girl, get it, a girl?”) she performed the stage business with conviction.

As Oronte, Stanley Jackson proved to be not only a willing collaborator in shedding his clothes, but managed to perform all that silliness while regaling us with poised singing of real distinction. Mr. Jackson has a clear, forward-placed tenor that offers much pleasure, and he proves to be an enormously engaging performer. He is equaled by the statuesque Morgana, strongly sung by Ana Durlovski. Her liquid soprano almost defines the word “silvery” and her tireless flights above the staff were ravishingly accurate.

Opera Studio Syliva Rena Ziegler was a believably boyish Oberto. If the young Ms. Ziegler’s assured dispatch of her tricky arias is any proof, the Studio is turning out exciting artists of great promise. Michael Ebbeke sang with refinement as Melisso, although his thuggish, hit man characterization was in odds with his smooth bass singing.
Siegfried Laukner was a “bonus” as Astolfo, who was brought in as a presence to tie up the back story of the plot. However, since the entire original tale has been eliminated and re-interpreted for psycho-sexual purposes, really what was the point?

And here is the pity: a superior group of performers was largely wasted by not being able to effectively communicate the sense of Handel’s opera to an audience composed of patrons overwhelmingly unfamiliar with this seldom-performed, knotty work. It’s not that this Alcina is an unprofessional staging. It is just the wrong one.

James Sohre

Click here for a slideshow.

Cast and production information:

Alcina: Netta Or; Ruggiero, Diana Haller; Morgana, Ana Durlovski; Bradamante: Marina Prudenskaya; Oronte: Stanley Jackson; Melisso: Michael Ebbeke; Oberto: Sylvia Rena Ziegler; Astolfo: Siegfried Laukner; Conductor: Sébastien Rouland; Directors: Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito; Set and Costume Design: Anna Viebrock; Cembalo: Yvon Repérant; Theorbo: Johannes Vogt; Cello: Michael Groß

image_description=Scene from Alcina [Photo © A.T. Schaefer]

product_title=Stuttgart: Too Hot to Handel
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Scene from Alcina [Photo © A.T. Schaefer]

Posted by james_s at 3:04 PM

February 15, 2013

Welcome to awards night at the opera

By Louise Jury [The Evening Standard, 13 February 2013]

A celebration of opera which aims to bring its biggest stars to a wider audience is announced today.

Posted by Gary at 12:40 PM

February 14, 2013

Elektra in Marseille

Elekta’s sadistic fantasies are surely equaled by the sadistic torture of the soprano by Richard Strauss. American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (born in New Orleans) inhabited the cutaway basement of a soaring Mycenaean palace for the nearly two hour stint of vocal abuse.

There were no surprises in this restaging of Opera de Marseille’s 2003 Charles Roubaud production. There was no metaphor save image derivation from the first moments film art, this new medium at one with the distortions of reality mined by the new century’s exploration of psyche. Twisted psyches in particular. Set designer Emmanuelle Favre provided a greatly exaggerated double perspective in black and white, and costume designer Katia Duflot worked both in black and white and in color with an art nouveau richness though not tone. It was a simple and effective mise en scène by its producers.

IMG_6940-photo-Christian-DR.gifNicolas Cavalier as Orest and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet reads as an appropriately young Elektra, physically and vocally. She projected the degradation of physical beauty brought on by depressive obsession, and she evoked our basic sympathy for such a sad creature. She raged in big, pure tones that were sometimes beautiful and sometimes ragged, and sometimes we feared for her stamina only to be reassured and then put on edge again. Her dance finished, dead on the floor, la Charbonnet had convinced us she was a real Elektra, not simply a soprano who could sing it, more or less.

The conducting did hold surprise. Veteran maestro Pinchas Steinberg imposed a very measured pace that offered startling insight into the softer, even tender moments of Straussian expressionism. This when it did not threaten to stall all emotional flow. The Oreste and Elektra scene was of spectacular beauty and tenderness and still very brutal. Oreste, bass Nicolas Cavallier (an actor turned singer) exuded the not-so-subtle sexual satisfaction Elektra feels as her fantasies slowly and carefully moved toward climax.

The coup de grace of the afternoon was however the screams, possibly amplified, of the murdered Clytemnestra, sung screams rather than the usual extended gut grunt. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch offered a well sung, through sung version of this complex, tragic personage that revealed in fact a much larger and far more complete personage than the usual half-voiced monster. Mme. Todorovitch made her scene with Elektra maximally vivid, reveling in the shattered exposition of her fears, exquisitely costumed in black gown with a platinum blond wig.

German soprano Ricarda Merbeth provided big, luminous tones non-stop as Chrysothémis, costumed in colorful flowers befitting her maidenhood (Mme. Merbeth sings Salome as well). This fine singer succeeded in projecting the larger attitudes of her character without plumbing the vocal and histrionic depths of this character antidote to sister and mother.

IMG_6801-photo-Christian-DR.gifMarie-Ange Todorovitch as Clytemnestra adn Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra

Patrick Raftery retains sufficient voice to deliver a pallid Aegistus, the limit of the role for Strauss and metteur en scène Roubaud. The overseer and maid servants, train bearer and confidant were appropriately rendered (no small compliment), who with a number of strikingly costumed supernumeraries made sick and lively stage pictures from time to time on the upper levels of the soaring set.

The Opéra de Marseille deployed seventy-six musicians. That seemed not quite enough, particularly when the maestro needed huge string sounds to develop the voluptuous moments of the Strauss score. The baignoires on both sides of the pit each housed a partial number of the eight timpani Strauss requires, rendering the great climaxes in stereo — maximally powerful! Boxes further above housed percussion and harps whose sounds floated eerily in the higher reaches of the hall with an acoustic appropriateness to the psychic pings of the Strauss drama.

It was a fine afternoon.

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production

Elektra: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Chrysothémis: Ricarda Merbeth; Clytemnestre: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; First Servant: Lucie Roche; Second Servant: Christine Tocci; Third Servant: Simona Caressa; Fourth Servant: Bénédicte Rousseno; Fifth Servant: Sandrine Eyglier; Overseer: Anne-Marguerite Werster; Aegisthe: Patrick Raftery; Oreste: Nicolas Cavallier; Précepteur d’Oreste: Erick Freulon; Young Servant: Avi Klemberg; Old Servant: Christophe Fel. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Mise en scéne: Charles Roubaud; Scenery: Emmanuelle Favre; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Marc Delamézière. Opéra de Marseille. February 10, 2013.

image_description=Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra [Photo by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra Municipal de Marseille]

product_title=Elektra in Marseille
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Elektra

Photos by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra Municipal de Marseille

Posted by michael_m at 8:03 AM

February 13, 2013

The New Season at Teatro Real

It is another indication of what could have been the future of the New York City Opera had they found the financial resources to keep Gerard Mortier in New York.

Philip Glassʼ newest opera, The Perfect American, about the final years of Walt Disney, attracted a large slice of the opera worldʼs attention just a few weeks ago and Wuorinenʼs opera will likely do the same next year in Madrid. With a libretto by Annie Proulx, the author of the original story which appeared in the New Yorker in 1997, the story is about an intense love affair between two men, Wyoming sheep herders in the 1960s. The subsequent 2005 movie was a major popular hit.

Both of these operas had already been talked about when Mortier learned that the NYCO could not fund the next season, his first, at the financial level he had been promised. His eventual move to Madrid gave him a stage to realize some of the dreams discussed.

Along with the Wuorinen opera, Die Eroberung von Mexiko (The Conquest of Mexico) by German composer Wolfgang Rihm will premiere in October. This production will be staged by Pierre Audi and stars soprano Nadja Michael as Montezuma with baritones Georg Nigl and Holger Falk sharing the role of Cortez.

In addition to these new works, the well traveled Bill Viola/Peter Sellars video production of Wagnerʼs Tristan und Isolde can also be seen. A production of Lohengrin will be on the schedule in April. Purcell’s The Indian Queen will also be on the schedule in November in a Peter Sellars production. Other operas on the list include Gluckʼs Alceste (a new production by bad-boy director Krzysztof Warlikowski) with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Sofia Soloviy alternating in the title role and Offenbachʼs Tales of Hoffmann conducted by Sylvain Cambreling and directed by Christoph Marthaler.

The opera’s management again denied rumors that Mortier might leave before the 2016 end of his contract. The 2015 vacancy at the helm of La Scala in Milan has created much public speculation. There are eleven productions in the 2013-2014 season. Further information is at www.teatro-real.com

Frank Cadenhead

image=http://www.operatoday.com/cw03.gif image_description=Charles Wuorinen [Photo by Nina Roberts] product=yes product_title=The New Season at Teatro Real product_by=By Frank Cadenhead product_id=Above: Charles Wuorinen [Photo by Nina Roberts]
Posted by Gary at 4:51 PM

February 12, 2013

Radamisto at Barbican Hall

Performances like this highlight the inherent drama in the music.The comparison between this Barbican Radamisto and the ENO staging in 2010 could hardly have been greater. Although unstaged, Bicket’s Barbican Radamisto was far better theatre because the drama was revealed through good singing.

Harry Bicket’s style is understated — I hate using the cliché “English” — but it works well in a medium-sized space like the Barbican. Handel’s plot may be outrageously exotic, but here the focus was on the characters as human beings, despite the implausible situations in which they find themselves. This isn’t historical drama. Most of us wouldn’t recognize first century Armenia if we tried. At heart, Radamisto is about a family and their power struggles, and the ultimate triumph of married love.

Bicket’s restraint allows the singers to demonstrate the elaborate vocal technique that Handel’s audiences would have thrilled to. Part of the drama in Radamisto is marvelling how long a singer can sustain a line, or decorate a vowel in myriad repeats. Radamisto and Tiridate are duelling with their voices: oneupmanship through trills. David Daniels was particularly effective, showing the gentle side of Radamisto . His “Cara Sposa” was tender: no wonder Zenobia adores him so. Later, when Radamisto and Zenobia duet, the chemistry between Daniels and Patricia Bardon is palpable. She was suffering from an illness, but delivered with the courage Zenobia has to endure suffering. If anything, Bardon’s determination enhanced her portrayal. Daniels sounded genuinely solicitous. The dynamic between the two singers, especially in the Act Two sequences which predicate on the emotional bond between the couple, is so deep that they can see through disguises and the convolutions in the narrative. Tiridate hasn’t a chance.

Luca Pisaroni is an exceptionally good Tiridate. He sings with great authority. He creates Tiridate as a mighty tyrant before whom all enemies quake. Except, of course, Zenobia, whose weapon is love. Pisaroni has presence as well as astounding range. In Act One, his variations on the single vowel “a” are spectacular, suggesting the arsenal he has behind him. The valveless horns of the English Concert extend his burnished tones. This is where period instruments come into their own. Do the horns suggest military glory or the hollowness of power? This subtlety would be lost with modern instruments.

Later, Pisaroni’s “Sì che ti renderai” was so beautiful that the audience rewarded him with the longest, and most genuinely spontaneous applause. Pisaroni’s expressive range shows how Tiridate, formidable as he is, is still “family”. When he sings Tiridate’s magnaminous reconciliation, it feels right, emotionally, although the act would be absurd Realpolitik. In the final scene, the elegant balance of voices suggests that this war-torn family will indeed find harmony.

Elizabeth Watts sang Tigrane. Since this is usually a trouser role, she was dressed in 18th century male costume. At the ENO Radamisto, the part was played as burlesque. A singer like Elizabeth Watts couldn’t do crude even if she tried, for her timbre is naturally lustrous and Italianate, to the extent that she is far better in dramatic repertoire than in Lieder. Tigrane is the peacemaker in this opera, not a figure of derision. Watts’s warm timbre fills out the generosity inherent in Tigrane’s personality. Brenda Rae sang Polissena and Robert Rice sang Farasmane.

Anne Ozorio

Cast and production information:

Radamisto: David Daniels, Zenobia : Patrica Bardon., Tiiridate : Luca Pisaroni, Tigrane : Elizabeth Watts, Polissane : Brenda Rae, Farasmane : Robert Rice, Harry Bicket : conductor, The London Concert The Barbican Hall, London, 10th February 2013

image_description=G. F.Handel

product_title=G F Handel: Radamisto HWV 12a
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: G. F. Handel

Posted by anne_o at 6:37 AM

February 11, 2013

Festival d’Aix en Provence 2013

The warm climate and outdoor dining combined with the world’s great classical musicians is hard to resist.

Celebrating Verdi’s bicentennial, Rigoletto launches the season July 4 with ten performances. The London Symphony Orchestra , no less, is in the pit conducted by Gianandrea Noseda in a new production by Robert Carsen that will travel to Strasbourg, Brussels, Geneva and Moscow’s Bolshoi. The title role will be sung by George Gagnidze with Gilda sung by soprano Irina Lungu and tenors Giuseppe Filianoti and Arturo Chacon Cruz sharing the role of the Duke.

The following evening Mozart is center stage with a revival of the 2010 Don Giovanni with Marc Minkowski conducting the in-residence London Symphony Orchestra. In the controversial Dimitri Tcherniakov production, Rod Gilfry is the Don with Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello. Maria Bengtsson sings Donna Anna with Sonya Yoncheva as Elvira and tenor Paul Groves as Ottavio. Both operas will be onstage in the courtyard of the Archbishop’s Palace, the traditional home of opera at Aix.

A new opera, in English, premiers the following night, The House Taken Over by the Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça, 35. The opera’s libretto, by English playwright Sam Holcroft, is based on the book of the same name by Julio Cortázar. Cortázar describes his book as “a nightmare I had. I got up immediately and wrote it.” It tells the story of an aging brother and sister living in their parent’s mansion and gradually displaced by unseen spirits. It will staged at the outdoor theater at Domaine du Grande Saint-Jean and many will picnic on the lawns before the curtain rises.

Acclaimed director Patrice Chéreau has been enlisted to stage a new production of Strauss’s opera, Elektra. His work for the opera stage is already iconic and this event, alone, will guarantee international attention. Opening on the 10th, Esa-Pekka Salonen will conduct the Orchestre de Paris with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role and Waltraud Meier as Klytaemnestra. The starry cast also includes Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis with Orestes sung by baritone Mikhail Petrenko. After only five performances in the Aix Grand Théâtre de Provence, the production will be seen later at La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera, the Liceu in Barcelona and Berlin’s Staatsoper.

Europe’s continuing exploration of new baroque repertoire shows no sign of flagging. Elena of Francesco Cavalli will have its first staging in more than 350 years. This 1659 opera, described as both entertaining and profound, will be performed in the intimate confines of the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume with Leonardo García Alarcón conducting his Cappella Mediterranea. Singing will be several former members of the festival’s Académie européenne de musique which runs concurrently.

As usual there will be concerts with both the London Symphony and Orchestre de Paris, plus a variety of recitals, seminars, chamber music concerts, etc. Some performances will be recorded for television broadcast and commercial recordings could be an eventuality. Specific information and details are at the festival’s website.

Frank Cadenhead

image=http://www.operatoday.com/bc30-1000pxl.gif image_description=Image courtesy of Festival d'Aix en Provence product=yes product_title=Aix-en-Provence Festival 2013 product_by=By Frank Cadenhead product_id=Above image courtesy of Festival d’Aix en Provence
Posted by Gary at 3:56 PM

Palm Beach Opera Celebrates New Season

Despite the typical tribulations that have beset opera companies since the art form began, General Director Daniel Biaggi preceded the performance with his customary Swiss aplomb and elegance, thanking major sponsors and expressing both pride in the past and optimism for the future.

The premiere’s Violetta, Joyce El Khoury, faced special challenges. Not only was the stage director Renata Scotto famous for the role, but in the audience was the legendary Virginia Zeani, who sang it 600 times, plus Finnish soprano Rikka Hakala, whose resume lists a mere 200 performances. Add to that Palm Beach resident Frayda Lindemann, sponsor of the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artists program of which 27-year-old El Khoury is a graduate, and it was understandable that her first act showed signs of nerves.

PBO_Traviata_02.gifJoyce El-Khoury as Violetta and Georgy Vasiliev Alfredo Germont

However, as the evening progressed, she began to float pianissimo high notes with a precision of attack and security that was dazzling. By the time the duet with Germont Pere rolled around, the way in which she used her technique for emotional expression approached Albanese standards. The audience loved her.

Many in that audience were distressed by the departure of the charismatic PBO Music Director Bruno Aprea. The first in a series of replacement conductors was Case Scaglione, who turned in a workmanlike reading. Both the beautiful production, from Utah, and Mme. Scotto’s staging were to Palm Beach’s taste for tradition and extravagance, although one could wish she had invented some variety of movement for Georgy Vasiliev’s Alfredo, who appeared to support his stalwart, pleasing tenor by keeping his hands in his pockets.

Papa Germont is always a favorite with the public, and Michael Chioldi deserved his ovation with a warm, full baritone and sympathetic presence. The comprimarios are always good, most of them coming from the PBO Young Artists program. Shirin Eskandani was noteworthy as a flirtatious Flora, while 7-foot-plus tall Peter Tomaszewski certainly stood out as Doctor Grenvil. The chorus, directed by Greg Ritchey, provided fine back-up, and even danced well.

Ariane Csonka

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PBO_Traviata_01.gif image_description=Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta and Georgy Vasiliev Alfredo Germont [Photo by Palm Beach Opera] product=yes product_title=Palm Beach Opera Celebrates 50 Years product_by=A review by Ariane Csonka product_id=Above: Joyce El-Khoury as Violetta and Georgy Vasiliev Alfredo Germont

Photos by Palm Beach Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:15 PM

Bernarda Fink Residency, Wigmore Hall

Ottorino Respighi’s Il tramonto (1914) for voice and string quartet is a setting of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘The Sunset’, as translated by Roberto Ascoli, and describes a lovers’ moonlit walk and the woman’s subsequent life of endless mourning following the sudden death of her beloved. Fink wove flexibly between song, arioso and recitative recounting an engaging, touching narrative, the text clearly declaimed. While the accompaniment texture is impressionistic and at times quite sparse, there is yet a remarkable contrapuntal dynamism in the string lines, which the clean, crisp playing of the Hugo Wolf Quartett brought to the fore.

The performers adeptly conveyed the quiet intimacy of the work. After a theatrical string opening, a calm, lyrical episode describes one who ‘within whose subtle being […] Genius and death contended’; here Fink’s soprano was pure, light and floating, in keeping with the simplicity of the narrative and the ‘sweetness of the joy’ experienced, before swelling warmly to convey the passion felt by the lover for ‘the lady of his love’. There was a poignant weariness in the delicate arioso when the waking woman finds her lover dead. In contrast, Fink employed a warm melodious timbre to convey the feminine selflessness of the grieving woman, ‘Her gentleness and patience and sad smiles’.

Throughout, singer and quartet were fully integrated in narration and mood-painting. There was some superb playing from cellist Florian Berner, his opulently etched lines providing harmonic direction and structural cohesion, particularly in the section depicting the glories of the natural world and the hues of the sunset — ‘lines of gold/ Hung on the ashen cloud […] mingled with the shades of twilight’ — in which the players achieved an admirable motivic clarity. After depicting a life of self-denial and duty — a ‘kind of madness’ — Fink expressively announced the woman’s final appeal for peace, the beautiful violin solo with which the work closes tenderly reinforcing the mood of bitter-sweet desolation.

Il Tramonto was preceded by an original, and surprisingly repressed and intense, reading of Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3. In his three Op.41 quartets, the composer turned from the narrative approach of his earlier orchestral works and sought inspiration from the classical masterpieces of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and the Hugo Wolf Quartett were certainly concerned to create a sharply defined motivic texture, sometimes perhaps at the expense of fulsomeness of tone.

Their delicate, careful approach was, however, perfectly suited to the subtleties of the opening movement. Following a pensive introduction in which the principal motive — the sighing fall of a perfect fifth — was clearly engraved, the players established an elegant grazioso ambience, the transparency revealing the Beethovian density of Schumann’s motivic method and the intricacy of the rhythmic structures. The dislocated complexities of the main theme — in which the seemingly misaligned legato cello line juxtaposed with off-beat interjections from the other players — were wonderfully controlled.

The urgent, restless syncopations of the second movement, a theme and variations, culminated in a serene conclusion in the relative major mode, leading to a profound reading of the Adagio, in which the instrumentalists allowed themselves to indulge their more rhapsodic leanings, relishing the beautiful, song-like theme, and making much of the sudden and disturbing interruption of the repeated, march-like fragment which intrudes the relaxed lyricism.

The vigorous finale might have been even more boisterous, for Schumann’s robust, buoyant rhythms have a startling kinetic dynamism, but the four players effectively controlled the architectural arches of the rondo form, concluding with an extravagant coda.

After the interval, the focus was on Hugo Wolf’s musical response to the warm Italian South: ten songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch and the delightful Intermezzo. The latter — a rondo with richly diverse episodes and restatements — is quite radical in the way that the luscious opening melody is repeated interrupted by harmonically and rhythmically disruptive passages. The Hugo Wolf Quartett found subtle humour in the energetic vitality of the work, and presented a convincing account of this experimental work.

The Intermezzo was embraced by two sets of five songs from Wolf’s collection of forty-six translations of nameless Italian love poems, which depict the full range of emotions — passion and jealousy, ecstasy and despair — which characterise amorous relationships played out in everyday places: streets, marketplaces, churches. These rispetti from Tuscany are brief and mostly light-hearted, and the composer undoubtedly stamps his own personality on this anonymous collection; but Fink’s fluent and sleek delivery, captured the theatricality of the songs without being overly showy or self-dramatising.

Graceful and poised, Fink took us on a journey as man and woman fall, by turns, in and out of love. Fink can do ‘poised irony’ to a tee, as in ‘Wie lange schon’ (‘How I have yearned’) in which an artiste manqué longs for a ‘musician as a lover!’ who ‘with gentle mien … bows his head and plays upon the violin’. The members of the Hugo Wolf Quartett relished the musical wit, exaggerating first the lovelorn self-indulgence of the yearning would-be lover, then the inflated exuberance which greets the arrival of the long-for virtuoso, and finally the dreadful reality of the violinist’s pitiful technical aptitude.

Elsewhere Fink’s tone was intimate and personal, as in ‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter wolle es nicht’ (‘They tell me your mother disapproves’); here Fink’s tone blossomed as she progressed from offended irritation to passionate avowal: “defy her, come more often than before!” At times, humour was to the fore, nowhere more so that in ‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’ (‘My sweethart invited me to dinner’); here the accompaniment is illustrative, the accents in the quartet lines clearly mimicking the futile chopping of the ‘rock hard’ bread with a ‘knife quite blunt’.

This was a refined performance of these eloquent miniatures. It was a pity that the programme notes revealed nothing of the decision to perform these songs accompanied by string quartet, rather than piano; one would have welcomed some account of the process of arrangement for what this might have revealed about the relationship between voice and accompaniment in these songs (although the notes did remark that the tender ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand’ employs a ‘string quartet-like texture’) — at the very least it would seem courteous to acknowledge the arranger!

This was a song recital characterised by captivating, but understated mastery. Bernarda Fink returns to the Wigmore Hall on 25th February to re-visit the Italian landscape. Accompanied by the Academy of Ancient Music, Italian Passions will explore ‘the emotional extremes and the open-hearted Italian spirit’ through a performance of Veracini, Merula, Vivaldi, Albinoni and Ferrandini.

Claire Seymour

Robert Schumann, String Quartet in A Op.41 No.3; Ottorino Resphigi, Il tramonto; Hugo Wolf, Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch (‘Nein, junger Herr’, ‘Wie lange schon’, ‘Ihr jungen Leute, die ihr zeiht ins Feld’, ‘Gesegnet sei das Grün’, ‘Wir haben beide lange Zeit geschwiegen’); Intermezzo; Five Songs from the Italienisches Liederbuch (‘Mein Liebster hat zu Tische mich geladen’, ‘Wohl kenn’ ich Euren Stand’, ‘Man sagt mir, deine Mutter wolle es nicht’, ‘O wär’ dein Haus durchsichtig ein Glas’, ‘Wenn du, mein Liebster’)

Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano; Hugo Wolf Quartett: Sebastian Gürtler, violin; Régis Bringolf, violin; Gertrud Weinmeister, viola; Florian Berner, cello. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 6th February, 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fink.gif image_description=Bernarda Fink [Photo © Julia Wesely] product=yes product_title=Bernarda Fink Residency, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Bernarda Fink [Photo © Julia Wesely]
Posted by Gary at 12:15 PM

Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works

An arresting opening — which I initially feared would irritate, but which actually worked very well — was provided by Harriet Walter’s narration, replete with East Coast accent, presenting a first-person sketch, written by Timberlake Wertenbaker, of the life of Winnaretta Singer. Daughter of the inventor of the sewing machine, Isaac Singer, Winnaretta went on to become the celebrated musical patroness, Princess Edmund de Polignac, commissioning both Socrate and Renard, though Diaghilev’s machinations and Stravinsky’s duplicity — at least according to this account — meant that her salon would not host the latter work’s premiere. Walter’s delivery of the script was just as excellent as one would expect from this fine actress: never overdone, effortlessly convincing. I wondered a little about the Princess’s, or rather Wertenbaker’s, claim that patrons go unsung. Not in my lectures they do not; indeed, I sometimes wonder whether I over-emphasise their role. I also wondered whether a male patron would have received quite so sympathetic a treatment: might we not at least have been led to think, ‘why should someone inherit all that money in the first place?’ But those are quibbles, and the narration, heard before Socrate and before Renard seemed to go down well with the audience.

Satie’s Socrate: oh dear. I tried; I really did. Doubtless some will say that was the problem. But for me, its sole redeeming feature was the excellence of the performances from Barbara Hannigan and Reinbert de Leeuw. Cool, white, monotonous, with the occasional subtle colouring of the vocal line: soprano and pianist were really beyond reproach. However, a work, like so much of Satie, which seems set up to forestall criticism — whatever you say against it, someone will respone, ‘well that is the point’ — had better be of Stravinskian quality if, as, for instance The Rake’s Progress does, it attempts that disabling tactic. Frankly, it makes one long even for the dullest of Stravinsky: Apollo, or Orpheus, say. Its lengthy ‘setting’ of Plato — is it really a ‘setting’ at all, when it seems to respond no more to the text than Rossini does in much of his Stabat Mater? — droans on and on, until, by the time the third part, ‘La Mort de Socrate’ opens, one feels as if one has been suffering the same composer’s Vexations. What a strange conception of ancient Greece this is; it almost makes one sympathise with Nietzsche’s venom against Socrates. The artists, admirably controlled throughout, made the most of the slight suggestion of drama as we heard of the poison’s arrival, but if the best one can say about something is that it is somewhat less tedious than the music of Philip Glass, perhaps it is time to wonder whether Satie has an Emperor, let alone clothes.

Stravinsky’s invention thus struck the hall like a thunderbolt. It always does, at least in good performances, and these performances were certainly that. A string quartet (Jonathan Morton, Joan Atherton, Paul Silverthorne, Tim Gill, all standing save for the cellist) drawn from the London Sinfonietta brought us the composer’s astonishing Three Pieces. The work’s strangeness, its utter dissociation from anything one might consider to constitute a string quartet repertoire and tradition still shocks — and certainly did so here. Defiantly post-Rite of Spring, this is in many senses a far more radical break with ‘tradition’, as unique as Le Roi des étoiles. Tightly focused rhythms and — as soon as one bothered to listen — a profusion of melody were hallmarks of this account. The final piece brought a sense of the hieratic, but what a contrast it made with the mere tedium of Satie. Here was music. Timothy Lines offered strong performances of the Three Pieces for clarinet, written five years later in 1919. If the first offered a gentler, one is almost tempted to say pastoral, sound-world, it remained utterly Stravinskian in its evident ‘construction’. And in any case, there was nothing remotely gentle about its joyous successor, nor to the third, which seemed to anticipate the world of Renard. The performance was rich in tonal and dynamic differentiation, rhythm propelling the notes and their ‘meaning’. The 1920 Concertino for string quartet followed, though oddly the programme had no notes on it. Again, the utterly individual approach of the composer not only to the medium of the string quartet but to stringed instruments themselves was immediately announced. A kaleidoscope of what Stravinsky would have hated one to call ‘moods’ — unless, of course, he arbitrarily decided to use the word, as in his Norwegian Moods — revealed itself during the work’s brief span. Here was concision to rival Webern, yet long before Stravinsky’s serialist turn. It sounded almost akin to a mechanised Beethoven Bagatelle.

Hannigan turned director for the wonderful burlesque, Renard, given in concert performance, Colour and rhythm were very much to the fore in a performance for which she seemed to act more as enabler than dictator. Old Stravinsky hands that the London Sinfonietta are, that is doubtless the right way around. Thematic consistency during and after the opening March was especially noteworthy; this was no mere collection of episodes. Even when the Cock turned languid, ‘Sizhu na dubu...’ (‘I’m on my perch...’), rhythmic underpinning remained tight. There was room for seduction too, from the Fox with his cake. But above all what struck was the visceral nature of Stravinsky’s score, so truthful a representation of the or at least a childhood imagination. The London Sinfonietta’s performance could not be faulted; the four vocal soloists proved fine advocates too. If the tenors perhaps captured greater attention, that is probably more a reflection of score than performance. Why do we not hear this work more often?

Mark Berry

Satie: Socrate; Stravinsky: Three Pieces for string quartet, Three Pieces for clarinet, Concertino, Renard.

Barbara Hannigan (soprano/director), Daniel Norman (tenor); Edgaras Montvidas (tenor); Roderick Williams (bass); John Molloy (bass); Reinbert de Leeuw (piano); Timothy Lines (clarinet); Harriet Walter (narrator);Timberlake Wertenbaker (script writer); London Sinfonietta. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 10 February 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/southbankcentre_2430109b.gif image_description=The Southbank Centre product=yes product_title=Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: The Southbank Centre
Posted by Gary at 10:57 AM

February 10, 2013

Joyce DiDonato: Drama Queens

Loosely linked by the Drama Queens theme — all the arias were sung by female characters under some sort of pressure, the concert was really a way of dusting off music which has been neglected, partly because of its technical demands. DiDonato gave us an evening of high drama and superb vocal technique in her own inimitable way.

Before I cover the concert in detail, I had better say something about the presentation. Though this was purely a concert, DiDonato sang everything from memory and presentation was highly dramatic, with some items running on from the previous one without applause. She wore an amazing red frock designed for her by Vivienne Westwood Couture (in fact the designer Vivienne Westwood can often be seen attending concerts at the Barbican Centre). It was such a complex and stunning piece of tailoring that it was difficult to believe that the fluid creation in which DiDonato first appeared was in fact the same dress as the highly structured, paniered neo-18th century frock in which she closed the concert. It was very much a modern evocation of 18th century style.

In one sense, Joyce DiDonato’s art is very similar to this; she remakes the 17th and 18th century music in her own style and image. She has the technical resources to perform these arias and does so in a very particular style. In the 18th century singers would remake arias or whole operas in their own image, and DiDonato is no different in the way she brings her highly evocative, stylised art to each aria.

This music was written for some of the finest singers of the day and requires a high degree of technical expertise to bring it off. Composers like Porta, Hasse and to a certain extent Handel, wrote arias which showed off a singers technical prowess to the most flattering extent. We must be grateful that singers of the calibre of Joyce DiDonato are prepared to take the time and learn this music and bring the arias to life. (For those Londoners interested in taking this further, note that one of Hasse’s operas will be performed complete at this year’s London Handel Festival).

DiDonato started with "Intorno all’idol mio" from Cesti’s Orontea. Antonio Cesti (1623 - 1669) was one of the most significant 17th century Italian opera composers of his generation, perhaps best known for his opera Il Pomo d’oro. His opera Orontea premiered in Venice in 1649. In Orontea’s act 2 aria she sings to her sleeping beloved. DiDonato was accompanied by just five instruments, allowing us to really appreciate the way Cesti’s vocal line intertwined with the two violins. Structurally the aria was far more flexible of form than 18th century Italian opera. DiDonato took advantage of this, giving a flexible, highly vivid account of the piece. Her voice had quite a rich depth to it which, combined with her beautiful sense of line, made for highly sensual listening.

Il Complesso Barocco, directed from the violin by Dmitry Sinkovsky, then played the sinfonia from Tolomeo by Domenico Scarlatti (1685 - 1757). This was in the standard fast-slow-fast form, with the band giving a crisply vivid performance. Here, and elsewhere, I did worry about they way the gusts of dynamics blew around the piece in a style which was highly dramatic but seemed a little too modern in sensibility.

"Disprezzata Regina" from L’Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1642) was the earliest item in the programme, and perhaps one of the best known. DiDonato was accompanied by just continuo (harpsichord, theorbo and bass) but the use of two cellos and a double bass on the bass line gave it a strength and emphasis which seemed a bit overdone.

DiDonato projected the text in an ideal manner, using Monteverdi’s vocal line fluidly and flexibly with a final section which was wonderfully incisive, as she spat out her accusations against the gods. DiDonato’s Ottavia was noble in her suffering, with none of the scheming bitch that some singers bring to the role.

The aria "Sposa, son disprezzati" from Merope (1734) by Germiniano Giacomelli (1692 - 1740) was so popular that Vivaldi included it in his pasticcio Bajazet performed in 1735 in Verona. In the aria Irene bemoans the fact that she loves her unfaithful husband, except that the text sung was from Vivaldi’s opera not the text Giacomelli set. Whatever, it was a lovely piece with a long slow vocal line over a string accompaniment which was slow but toe-tappingly catchy in the manner of Vivaldi.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and strings, RV242 ‘Per Pisendel’ was written for Johann Georg Pisendel, the violinist director of the Dresden court orchestra. Pisendel was a very fine violinist and Vivaldi’s solo part must have given him much to do to show this off. In the graceful first movement the brilliant solo part was mainly accompanied by just continuo leaving the tutti violins to comment on the sidelines. The slow movement was one of Vivaldi’s glorious long breathed melodies over a simple accompaniment leading to a final movement which went with a swing and provided the soloist with plenty of opportunities to shine. This Dimitry Sinkovsky did, treating us to some stunning playing.

Part one ended with "Da torbida procella" from Berenice by Giuseppe Maria Orlandini (1676 - 1760). This was a simile aria, the singer is tossed like a ship in stormy seas but with the beloved as her pole star to guide her. This was very much the diva having fun, sparking runs cascaded with clarity and apparent east, giving a lovely vivid picture of the happy Berenice.

Part two opened with an aria from a serenata by Johann Adolf Hasse (1699 - 1783) written early in his career, in Naples in the 1720’s. The premiere included the superstar castrato Farinelli, who sang the role of Cleopatra. In the aria Cleopatra explains that death holds no terrors for her. DiDonato did so in a highly commanding manner with some superbly executed passagework. Il Complesso Barocco’s crisp accompaniment again had dynamics full of bulges and rushed climaxes.

Next came perhaps the best known aria in the concert, "Piangero" from Handel’s Giulio Cesare in which Cleopatra lamented her fate. Handel (1685 - 1759) wrote the opera in 1724 for the castrato Senesino and Francesca Cuzzoni. DiDonato had entire command of the aria’s lovely long lines, with the middle section vividly dramatic before the da capo was sung in hushed, white tones on a thread of voice - very effective if not necessarily historically informed practice. But what worried me most was the feeling that she had to do something with each phrase, when leaving well alone would have worked well.

The orchestra followed this with the Passacaglia from act 2 of Handel’s Radamisto giving the work a nice bounce and showcasing some fine solo playing.

Giovanni Porta (1675 - 1755) worked all over Europe including in London in 1720. His last opera was Ifigenia en Aulide written in 1738. Ifigenia’s farewell to her mother was a slow piece which Porta gave something of a lilt to. DiDonato sang the elaborate vocal line in a rather touching manner, the result was richly textured and very moving. One interesting feature, at the da capo we heard the entire da capo played though with a solo violin on the voice part, before the voice came in, an effective and imaginative touch.

Next came two movements of ballet music by Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714 - 1787), a composer who wrote his own setting of the Iphigenia story. But here we heard two graceful movements from the ballet music from his 1777 Parisian opera Armide featuring some very fine flute playing.

Then finally "Brilla nell’alma" from Handel’s Alessandro. Written in 1726, it was the first opera he wrote for the pairing of divas Faustina Bordone and Francesca Cuzzoni. The aria was written for Bordone in the character of Rossane; in it Rossane is happy, very happy. And she shows this by singing an incredible sequence of runs, which DiDonato performed at an amazingly brisk tempo. Despite the technical challenges she looked as if she was having fun, a radiant end to the concert.

We were treated to three encores. First a little gem, "Lasica mi piangere" from Reinhard Keiser’s 1715 opera Fredegunda. Then another aria from Orlandini’s Berenice this time a vivid revenge aria, with lively accompaniment and brilliant vocals. Then finally the da capo of "Brilla nell’alma" from Handel’s Alessandro again, this time with even more elaborate ornaments.

I have to confess that I was in two minds about the whole Joyce DiDonato road show phenomenon - buy the CD, buy her previous CD’s, buy the printed music, have DiDonato sign your CD, but it is part and parcel of marketing a CD nowadays. And if such concert tours bring us music as stunningly performed as this, in highly imaginative programmes, then I can’t really complain.

Robert Hugill

Drama Queens
Joyce DiDonato (soprano); Il Complesso Barocco; Dimitry Sinkovsky (director);
Antonio Cesti - Intorno all’idol mio (Orontea);
Domenico Scarlatti - Sinfonia (Tolomeo);
Claudio Monteverdi - Disprezzata regina (L’Incoronazione di Poppea);
Geminiano Giacomelli - Sposo, son disprezzata (Merope);
Antonio Vivaldi - Concerto for violin and strings, RV 242 ‘Per Pisendel’;
Giuseppe Maria Orlandini - Da torbida procella (Berenice);
Johann Adolf Hasse - Morete col fiero aspetto (Antonio e Cleopatra);
George Frideric Handel - Piangero (Giulio Cesare);
George Frideric Handel - Passacaglia (Radamisto);
Giovanni Porta - Madre diletta, abbracciami (Ifigenia in Aulide);
Christoph Willibald von Gluck - Ballet Music (Armide)
George Frideric Handel - Brilla nell’alma (Alessandro)
Wednesday 6 February 2013;
Barbican Centre, London

image_description=Joyce DiDonato [Photo courtesy of Virgin Classics © Sheila Rock]

product_title=Drama Queens
product_by=Joyce DiDonato, Il Complesso Barroco, Dimitry Sinkovsky
product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato [Photo courtesy of Virgin Classics © Sheila Rock]

Posted by anne_o at 5:50 PM

Die Entfûhrung aus dem Serail in Montpellier

Shall we say naive resolution. After all the complexly human trilogy is yet to come, and the Magic Flute will be just that — a fantasy. So let Abduction’s Pasha forgive and forget, and don’t argue with operatic idealism. This new production of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece forgets any and all intriguing political or dramatic contexts. It merely frames this simplistic singspiel as a work of art to be admired, like a late 18th century painting in a museum.

Metteur en scène Alfredo Arias and scenographer Roberto Platé, both Argentine, used a huge gilded frame as the back drop, framing only sky because it was the ceiling of a grand old room turned on its side (the floor of the stage had some windows as did the stage ceiling). The why of this witty perspective seems to be just because.

French high fashion designer Adeline André abstracted early twentieth century shapes for the very witty costumes (Osmin, the Pasha’s chauffeur with greatly exaggerated glove cuffs, Pedrillo in a bright green shirt with a black leather bistro apron, Konstanze in light blue high 40’s design pumps as prime examples). Mozart’s six principals spent most of the time on the fore stage, sometimes wrapping themselves in the Opéra Comedie’s red velvet house curtain, sometimes in front of or behind a painted scrim that echoed the framed sky and flew in and out now and again.

Of course the staging was not nonsense any more than Mozart’s singspiel is nonsense. The 25 year-old Mozart simply exploded musically. The explosion happened in the pit. About 30 players from the Orchestre National de Montpellier formed the absolutely splendid pit ensemble, the wooden mallets on the period tympani used for this occasion defined the musical grit and edge. The pizzicato strings of Pedrillo’s Romance, in fact the whole of this extended scene, sounded with nearly boom box resonance. The architecturally magnificent 1200 seat Opéra Comédie burst with musical magnificence.

Hungarian conductor Balázs Kocsár was the musical force, never overwhelming the naive joy of Mozart’s little opera with his own or Mozart’s self importance, finding instead a rhythmic release and musical elaboration that told of the young composer’s newly found independence — from a tyrannical patron and a smothering father — and the young composer’s discovery of love — for first Aloysia and then Constanze Weber. Joyous excitement that Mo. Kocsár made flow from the pit in intense, always lyric tempos.

Vocal explosion happened on the stage when German soprano Cornelia Gôtz brought the energy and furious excitement of Mozart’s future Queen of the Night to the headstrong Konstanze, imposing her prodigious vocal technique on what is surely Mozart’s most demanding role, and making it vocally vivid and dramatically real. Mozart’s famous show stopper “Martern aller Arten” was far more than a virtuoso feat, it was gigantic emotional release.


It was sublime music making indeed when this maestro joined this soprano to discover the happiness that Mozart exudes in his first Viennese years.

Metteur en scène Arias provided dramatically abstract staging, stage movement based on musical phrase rather than story telling illustration. All movement was choreographed, an aria about or influenced by another character was always sung in the physical presence of that character. Mozart’s gigantic Act II quartet “Ach, Belmonte, Ach, mein leben” was rendered in purely formal geometric shapes, rigidly symmetrical. Choristers in the Act I finale construed themselves in a formal pattern on the stage dressed in concert blacks. Mr. Arias staged which is to say choreographed every last second of music. It was effective when it was not tiresome.

Czech bass Jan Stava made chauffeur liveried Osmin a charming, positive presence with just a hint of menace. Stage director Arias‘ choreography allowed none of the classic schtick. The young bass attacked his mindboggling "O, wie will ich triumphieren" with confident bravado and succeeded as well as anyone with its coloratura and range challenges.

American tenor Jeff Martin as Pedrillo exemplified the arbitrary casting possible in this mise en scène, musically rather than character driven. In this witty casting it was not the usual ingénu Pedrillo, Mr. Martin these days sings Wagner's Mime here and there, plus Rosenkavalier’s Valzacchi at the Bolshoi! Pedrillo’s complications to Mozart’s silly story were therefore a bit less naive and a lot less romantic and a far more structural. The same may be said of the Blonde sung by Norwegian soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund.

Mlle. Lund however did not achieve the elegant lyricism that the maestro afforded his singers, never quite capturing the beat of his lyric flow. On the other hand American tenor Wesley Rogers as Belmonte did sing musically, and nearly mastered the spirit of the stage movement. After an impressive start he seemed very tired by the third act, understandable as the vocal demands of the role are considerable.

And finally Pacha Selim exploded, as musically as if there had been music [his lines are spoken]. Swiss actor Markus Merz let it rip in hochdeutsch. There had been mercifully little dialogue, with the obvious frustration that the spoken German was not a language most of us understood. When Mr. Merz had his moment he made it compete as best he could with some of the world’s most joyful music.

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production

Konstanze: Cornelia Gôtz; Belmonte: Wesley Rogers; Blonde: Trine Wilsberg Lund; Pedrillo: Jeff Martin; Osmin: Jan Stava; Pacha Selim: Markus Merz. Chorus of the Opéra National Montpellier. Members of the Orchestra National Montpellier. Conductor: Balázs Kocsár; Mise en scène: Alfredo Arias; Scenery: Roberto Platé; Costumes: Adeline André; Lighting: Jacques Rouveyrollis. Opéra Comédie, Montpellier. February 5, 2013.

image_description=A scene from Die Entfûhrung aus dem Serail [Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier]

product_title=Die Entfûhrung aus dem Serail in Montpellier
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: A scene from Die Entfûhrung aus dem Serail
Photos by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Posted by michael_m at 5:36 PM

Dialogues of the Carmelites in Toulon

The pit however is small for big opera, thus the baignoires (boxes) sitting just over the sides of the pit have long since been taken over by percussion. In the recent renovation of the Opéra the pit was not enlarged making it necessary to requisition additional nearby baignoires to accommodate Poulenc’s generous post Romantic orchestration — the harps coté cour (left side) and a piano coté jardin. The Opéra de Toulon was set up for a big evening.

New productions are rarely created in Toulon — this Dialogues of the Carmelites was an exception. Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil, the artistic team of some pretension that has overseen the Opéra Français de New York since 2005 were its authors. In recent years messieurs Clarac and Deloeuil have undertaken as well the stagings of large, non-operatic choral/orchestral works in important French theaters.

The techniques they have developed informed this staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues, the set more of an art installation than an integration of opera’s dramatic components. The ancien régime (or ancestral home in this abstract staging) was a Louis XIV settee in a display case, the monastery was a white, hard-edge Stonehenge configuration. Interludes were visually inhabited by huge black and white projections of nuns’ faces enclosed in Revolutionary period habits when not enlivened by the a vista intrusion of stagehands (maybe the angry mob) to modify the elements of the installation — some benches became crosses and others became general mayhem (aka Place de la Révolution).

_Yachar Valakdjie.pngNadine Denize as the Prioress and Ermonela Jaho as Blanche [Photo © Yachar Valekdjie courtesy of Opéra de Toulon]

The coup de théâtre was, of course, the executions. A large white plaque descended with MORT written in straight neon lines, fifteen, uhm, make that sixteen little lines were extinguished one by one in concert with Poulenc’s hyper kitsch, not to say wonderfully effective, always moving finale. It even survived, almost, this staging. Believe it or not.

The mise en scène did offer the singers ample space and relief to portray Poulenc’s very human characters struggling to reconcile life with death, fear with principle (and the list of conflicts goes on), the humanity in Poulenc’s startling opera exponentially intensified by installing it within spiritually competitive women. The impact of Poulenc’s opera is realized by the individual performances of five nuns, each performance contributing to the complexity and therefore effectiveness of the other performances. These are complicated women.

Toulon made it part of the way with Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Blanche, possessed by primal fears and questionable spirituality. No stranger to the Toulon stage (Mireille [2007], Thais [2010]) Mlle. Jaho is a large scale artist with a very fine instrument (thus a very big career). Blanche dominated the stage as Poulenc meant her to do, the stage having been set for her by the old Prioress Mme. de Croissy enacted by mezzo soprano Nadine Denize. The Prioress is dying, thus this cameo role is always undertaken by a magnetic singer, often retired who can gasp and hopefully emit a few good tones from time to time. Mme. Denize was appropriately magnetic, shall we say mesmerizing, and gasped with the best of them. Equally affecting was the role of Constance, the young nun whose impetuousness belied her purity, sung by French soprano Virginie Pochon.

The roles of Mère Marie de l’Incarnation and Madame Lidoine are dramatically more pointed. In fact the biggest singing of the evening is given to Mère Marie, once assumed to be the successor to the old Prioress, and who finally is the only one of the nuns who declines martyrdom making her the spiritual villain of Poulenc’s opera. The new prioress, Madame Lidoine is a simple, unassuming soul, who finally achieves emotional stature as an effective mother to her flock. Taken respectively by mezzo soprano Sophie Fournier and Spanish soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin these two roles did not contribute sufficient force of personality or voice to effectively complete the dramatic spectrum. The same may be said of the aumônier (chaplain) to the nuns sung by tenor Olivier Dumait.

Overseeing all this musically was octogenarian conductor Serge Baudo. The realization of Poulenc’s score lacked the urgency these spiritual dilemmas should provoke, and the musical energy required to keep this theater piece alive for two hours. Nor could the maestro impose sufficient control over the orchestra to assure clean entrances and cutoffs.

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production

Blanche de la Force: Ermonela Jaho; Madame de Croissy: Nadine Denize; Madame Lidoine: Angeles Blancas Guin; Le Chavalier de la Force: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; L’Aurmônier: Olivier Dumait; Le Marquis de la Force: Laurent Alvaro; Constance de Saint-Denis: Virginie Pochon; Mère Marie de l’Incarnation: Sophie Fournier; Le premier commissaire: Thomas Morris; Le second commissaire: Philippe Ermelier; Docteur Javelinot: Jean-François Verdoux; Thierry: Thierry Hanier; Mère Jeanne: Sylvia Gigliotti; Soeur Mathilde: Rosemonde Bruno La Rotonda. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon. Conductor: Serge Baudo; Mise en scène & scene design: Jean-Philiippe Clarac & Olivier Deloeuil; Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin; Lighting: Rick Martin. Opéra de Toulon. January 29, 2013.

image_description=Ermonela Jaho as Blanche and Virginie Pochon as Constance [Photo ©Frédéric Stéphan courtesy of Opéra de Toulon]

product_title=Dialogues of the Carmelites in Toulon
product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho as Blanche and Virginie Pochon as Constance [Photo ©Frédéric Stéphan courtesy of Opéra de Toulon]

Posted by michael_m at 3:36 PM

February 8, 2013

Wolfgang, Is That You?

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 6 February 2013]

In the impossible search to know exactly what the face of musical genius looked like, researchers in Salzburg, Austria, have made progress. Their subject was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a local boy.

Posted by Gary at 9:30 AM

February 7, 2013

Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House

A mature Tatyana dashes about the stage desperately seeking a letter, her grandiose white gown allowing glimpses of a simple scarlet under-dress: a sartorial metaphor for the cold repression of Tatyana’s adulthood which chills but can never entirely extinguish the passionate fire of her adolescent self.

Later we learn that we have witnessed an imagined ‘in-between episode’, interjected between the opera’s final two scenes. Onegin has re-encountered Tatyana, now Princess Gremin, and is filled with remorse and regret for his rejection of her love many years before. He has sent her a letter declaring his devotion, and it is this avowal which Tatyana frantically seeks in the pre-overture mime.

In these opening moments, we are introduced to Holten’s central conceit: the simultaneity of past and present, which has the advantage of emphasising that actions from the past can be lamented but never altered, and the disadvantage that the tension and anticipation is lessened — for all is known, and fulfilment and denial exists alongside yearning. When the music of the overture begins, the fore-shadowing motifs of Tchaikovsky’s score are oddly turned to reminiscence — for we have glimpsed the outcome. What should be revealed by the musical journey through the score has already been visually presented.

The elision of past and present is sustained throughout. The older Tatyana and Onegin are partnered by dancer-doubles representing their younger selves (Vigdis Hentze Olsen and Thom Rackett respectively). The action is therefore experienced as flashback, viewed through the psyches of the protagonists who are forced to witness and re-live their former torments. But, the young doubles are not just visual externalisations of the characters’ inner selves: they actually interact with their older counterparts. Sometimes this is a neat device, actualising internal consciousness, but too often it is a distraction.

In the letter scene, naturalistic acting from the real Tatyana is accompanied by the exaggerated gestures of extreme emotional distress relayed by the younger double who, following Onegin’s words of rejection, agitatedly climbs one of the three fixed columns which dominate the stage, where she rests aloft, hunched in a cupboard, throughout the ensuing party scene. Tatyana’s confusion and subsequent devastation, depicted with such lyrical expression by Tchaikovsky, are thus rendered blindingly obvious; but as her emotions are so powerfully conveyed through score and voice, they need no such visual articulation. Indeed, the latter detracts from the potential potency of the vocal expression, which is a real shame as Krassimira Stoyanova is admirably equipped to communicate Tatyana’s mental disarray. In the event, the young woman’s anxiety is diluted — remembered and reflected on rather than immediately felt — and distanced: for the silent mime places a barrier between Tatyana and the audience to whom she unfolds her soul.

Moreover, Holten’s device often presents us with certainty and action when the libretto and score intimate hope and nebulousness. Thus, Tatyana’s dreams of an encounter with Onegin are visually realised when the young dancer wraps herself around Onegin’s double, literalising a fantasy that should remain merely imagined. In this way, there is often a disjuncture between the aural and visual narratives; the music remains unresolved, the stage-scene provides resolution.

BC20130131_EugeneOnegin_RO_679 STOYANOVA AS TATYANA (C) BILL COOPER.pngKrassimira Stoyanova as Tatyana

Similarly in the in duel scene, watched helplessly by the older Onegin who paces broodily, it is the young double who commits the murderous act before passing the gun to his older self — perhaps suggesting the continuity and inescapability of guilt. In the silence at the end of the scene, in an overly melodramatic gesture, Simon Keenlyside’s Onegin holds the pistol to his own head before the festive fanfares of the ball interrupt and dispel his suicidal intentions. Sometimes it feels as if there are too many layers: action, reflection, immediacy, retrospection. During Lensky’s aria, sung with wistful tenderness by Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik, the older Onegin watches his former friend’s anguish and reaches out to console him, inferring the fundamental love that exists between the two men, but also implying reconciliation when the painful reality is that there is none.

Finally, during the interlude before the final scene a dance of temptation and denial reveals the passing of time, as Onegin is taunted by sylphs in grey silk, who fly past like shadows, ever eluding his grasp. We are presumably meant to apprehend that Onegin is the victim of his own sexual dalliances, recognising too late his own superficiality and what he has lost. But, the scene is crudely unsubtle and distracts from the tense anticipation which is building in the orchestral fabric.

Frequently the characters, and audience, are endowed with too much knowledge. During the party scene, twisting shadows on the backdrop reveal an encounter between Olga and Onegin. From the first this Olga is depicted as discontented and frustrated; Russian mezzo Elena Maximova produces some unusually rich and powerful chest tones, but Olga’s commitment to Lensky half-hearted in contrast with his earnest, simple devotion. Lensky is thus rendered one-dimensional: his insecurities are shown to be founded in fact. He is not insecure but betrayed; not a troubled, over-sensitive young man but a deceived dupe. Holten has a surprise in store for us at the close too, when Prince Gremlin — sung with striking poise and sincerity by Peter Rose — arrives during the final meeting of Onegin and Tatyana to witness his wife’s fraught denial of Onegin’s advances: it is therefore not clear what motivates her refusal of his love — her own conscience or her husband’s authority.

My main objection, then, is that Holten intellectualises and externalises something that is essentially emotional and instinctive. This may explain why there seemed to be little passion or genuine human feeling, especially in the opening scenes: the characters are remembering a drama rather than living it. The retrospective gaze describes rather than enacts, and we experience the drama at one remove, rather than sharing the lived emotions.

Holten presents us with a combination of realism and psycho-drama, and this duality is reflected in Mia Stensgaard’s sets, the lighting design of Wolfgang Göbbel and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes. The back- and fore-stage are divided by three imposing columns which stride the stage; neatly folding doors and drapes enclose and confine the characters, then open to reveal stunning vistas of the Russian landscape. Leo Warner’s video designs project modernist vistas behind the naturalistic nineteenth-century interiors. The hazy Turner-esque reds and ochres of the Russian spring sharpen to piercing crimsons in the duel scene: blood and passion are writ large, and contrast with the cold blues of the fore-stage which intimate the emotional repression of the protagonists.

Costumes similarly oppose vibrancy with monotony. There are simple splashes of colour for the protagonists — glossy red, then white concealing the former scarlet, for Tatyana; a shabby suit of cobalt blue for Eugene; pale peppermint green for Olga; and steely dark grey for Lensky — which are sharply juxtaposed with the distinctly characterless black of the peasant chorus.

I fear that by concentrating thus far on a single element of Holten’s conception, I may have misrepresented my actual experience in the theatre; for, although the dual time scheme dominates the production, it does not detract from the beauty of the singing and the consistently high musical standards.

Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova has the skill, artistry and warm depths of tone to convince as Tatyana — even if she, like her Onegin, is rather advanced of years for the role. She combines smooth lyricism and technical assurance with dramatic vulnerability; but the visual shenanigans do divert our attention from her vocal revelations, and her voice does not quite have sufficient distinctiveness to overcome this.

Simon Keenlyside sings with a characteristically beautiful sense of phrasing and form, but he is not a natural fit for the role of Onegin. This Onegin is young and nonchalant rather than repressed and brooding; and Keenlyside’s engagement with the emotional depths of the role is, surprisingly, at times superficial.

Pavol Breslik is an accomplished and moving Lensky, in spite of Holten’s diminishing of the role’s dramatic complexity and Breslik’s occasionally understated projection. He deserved the warm applause he garnered on this opening night; not least for his ability to lay still, without so much as a twitch, for the last 40 minutes of the opera. Having (inexplicably) dragged a spray of silvered brushwood behind him to the scene of his impending fatality, Breslik subsequently finds himself strewn amid the detritus of the protagonists’ emotional weakness and moral failings — the broken branches, the tattered leaves from Tatyana’s torn book — Lensky’s bloodied corpse underlining the tragic consequences of Onegin’s indifferent egoism.

In the minor roles, Kathleen Wilkinson and Jihoon Kim are competent as Filipyevna and Zaretsky respectively, but rather unengaging dramatically. Diana Montague (Madame Larina) and French tenor Christophe Mortagne (Monsieur Triquet) make much of their character roles.

In the pit, the musical lines are refreshingly clear and lucid, as conductor Robin Ticciati coaxes myriad woodwind colours and warm, if not heart-searing, string sound from his players. There is some lovely horn playing in the letter scene, singer and player finding both depth of feeling and a poignant pianissimo, conveying Tatyana’s tragic mix of aching desire and fragile vulnerability. But, Ticciati’s approach to the score feels too restrained and refined: it is precise and elegant, but the music does not drive the drama forward. One longs for a bit more sentimentality. The decision to divide the performance into two parts, rather than the customary three acts, does not help in this regard, for the delicate details which Ticciati reveals do not form the sufficiently strong emotional arc which is needed to support the lengthy first part which, at 100 minutes, feels an overly long haul.

The chorus are musically tidy but somewhat lacking in Russian bravura, their movements restricted by the limited strip of fore-stage. In scene 2 the peasant workers enter the house, stand stock still to sing their chorus and then leave, the audience distracted in any case by the projection of Tatyana’s dream of Lensky which is enacted above them. The polonaise is a limp, crowded affair as Holten chooses to ignore the wonderful opportunity for a colourful set-piece provided by this master of the ballet score.

Overall then this is an interesting, sometimes intriguing, production; there is much superb singing, but the concept blunts the musical and dramatic clarity, and dilutes the edge of the emotional impact.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information

Tatyana: Krassimira Stoyanova; Eugene Onegin: Simon Kennlyside; Lensky: Pavol Brelisk; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Peter Rose; Madame Larina: Diana Montague; Christophe Mortagne: Monsieur Triquey; Filipyevna: Kathleen Wilkinson; Zaretsky: Jihoon Kim; Captain: Michel de Souza; conductor: Robin Ticciati; director: Kasper Holten; set designs: Mia Stensgaard; costume designs: Katrina Lindsay; lighting designs: Leo Warner. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 4th February 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BC20130131_EugeneOnegin_RO_83.png image_description=Simon Keenlyside As Eugene Onegin [Photo © ROH / Bill Cooper] product=yes product_title=Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Simon Keenlyside as Eugene Onegin

Photos © ROH / Bill Cooper
Posted by Gary at 7:39 PM

February 6, 2013

Amsterdam Welcomes Stanislavski Opera

The full resident company and orchestra will be on hand for the “grand montage production” which is a featured event of the Netherlands-Russia 2013 celebration year. Attendees will witness a unique presentation of director Alexander Titel’s 2007 vision, with sets and costumes by David Borovsky.

Phillip Woolever

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Konstantin_Stanislavski_in_.gif image_description=Konstantin Stanislavski in 1938 [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Amsterdam Welcomes Stanislavski Opera product_by=By Phillip Woolever product_id=Above: Konstantin Stanislavski in 1938 [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 2:23 PM

Fille du Regiment from San Diego Opera

As a young composer who came from a poor family, he had to accept every possible commission. In 1822, he began to produce light operatic comedies for Naples. Eventually, he began to write more serious works, but he had an immense gift for comedy as evidenced by works such as La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment), L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love), and Don Pasquale. In 1830, he had a major international success in Anna Bolena. After that he was invited to compose in other countries such as France, where the censors seemed easier to please. In 1838 he left Naples for Paris where, two years later, he produced a trio of successful operas to French texts, La Fille du Régiment, Les Martyrs, and La Favorite. He also did an Italian adaptation of La Fille for La Scala. In 1843, the first United States performance of the opera took place in French in New Orleans.

On January 29, 2013, San Diego Opera offered La Fille du Régiment as its first presentation of the season. Emilio Sagi’s production, originally seen at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Italy, moved the time of the action from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, just after World War II. Instead of French soldiers in Austria, we saw American soldiers in France. Designer Julio Galán gave us a bombed out bar for Act I, and a luxurious salon for Act II. His costumes included many dull tan army uniforms, but there were more interesting outfits on the nobility in the second act. Slovakian coloratura soprano L’ubica Vargicovà who was seen in San Diego previously as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, sang Marie. She has also sung the Queen of the Night in Los Angeles Opera’s The Magic Flute, so Marie’s high notes and fioritura held no terrors for her. She sang with great precision and showed excellent comic timing.

jkw_regiment012413_259.gifEwa Podleś is the Marquise de Birkenfeld

As her lover, Tonio, Stephen Costello once again showed us the warm, bright ringing tones of his tenor voice. San Diego has heard him as Romeo and Faust, but the role of Tonio is much more demanding than either. His virtuosic first act aria ‘Ah, mes amis,’ is well known for its nine high Cs and Costello hit each of them exactly in the center of the note, holding the last one with seeming ease. Naturally, the applause was deafening. For the rest of his role he was a charming lover who sang with exquisite lyric tones.

San Diego has heard Polish Contralto Ewa Podleś before, both in recital and in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, but this was her first foray into comedy there. Vocally, she showed the wide range of her color-filled contralto voice. She was hilariously funny when, wearing a gorgeous dark red costume, she quoted a line from Bizet’s Carmen. At the same time she brought out the Marquise of Berkenfeld’s importance in steering the plot toward its jubilant ending.

Opulent voiced American bass Kevin Burdette was an amusing but believable military officer who eventually won the heart of the most demanding, but secretly lonely, Marquise. Soprano Carol Vaness, who is doing more teaching than singing these days, played the speaking role of the Dutchess of Krakenthorp. It did not keep her from singing a phrase from San Diego’s next presentation, Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, however, and that pleased her many fans in the audience. Malcolm MacKenzie was an entertaining Hortensio and Scott Sikon an impressive Corporal.

jkw_regiment012313_241.gifKevin Burdette is Sgt. Sulpice,L'ubica Vargicová is Marie and Stephen Costello is Tonio

The opera’s chorus under the direction of Charles Prestinari moved as individuals and maintained precise harmonies. In his San Diego Opera debut, Maestro Yves Abel conducted with suave French style that brought out the score’s tonal beauty. His brisk pacing that kept the tension tight. La Fille is best known for its uniquely difficult tenor aria, but it has much more to offer than that high wire act. It is filled with glorious music and charming situations that can be focused to amuse a particular audience. In this case the Act II guests, some of them major donors to the opera, were announced as local royalty to the great amusement of many in the audience who knew them personally. This Donizetti opera is perfection in operatic comedy and it was a wonderful start for San Diego Opera’s 2013 season.

Maria Nockin

Cast and Production

Marie: L’ubica Vargicová; Tonio: Stephen Costello; Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ewa Podleś; Sergeant Sulpice: Kevin Burdette; Corporal: Scott Sikon; Hortensio: Malcolm Mackenzie; Conductor: Yves Abel; Director: Emilio Sagi; Scenic and Costume Designer Julio Galán; Lighting Design: Marie Barrett.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/jkw_regiment012313_077.gif image_description=L'ubica Vargicová is Marie and Stephen Costello is Tonio [Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz courtesy of San Diego Opera] product=yes product-title=Fille du Regiment from San Diego Opera product_by=By Maria Nockin product_id=Above: L'ubica Vargicová is Marie and Stephen Costello is Tonio

Photos by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz courtesy of San Diego Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:08 PM

Tosca by Arizona Opera

Since they are sung, a mere one-third of the words found in the play have to tell the opera’s story. Thus, the opera needs to have fewer characters than the play and only the most important scenes can be shown. For example in the opera, the escaped prisoner, Angelotti, and the painter, Cavaradossi, already know each other. In the play, they meet for the first time onstage, so they spend time on stage explaining their histories and backgrounds to each other. The opera eliminates the roles of Tosca’s maid and Cavaradossi’s two servants.

0228IMG_2914.gifJill Gardner as Tosca and Gordon Hawkins as Scarpia

In the opera, both Cavaradossi’s torture and Scarpia’s murder take place at the Farnese Palace. In the play, Cavaradossi is interrogated and tortured at his country house, where he was captured, and Tosca stabs Scarpia at his apartment in the Castel Sant’Angelo. Only in the opera does Cavaradossi have a final soliloquy: ‘E lucevan le stelle’ (The Stars Were Shining Brightly). In the play, Cavaradossi is killed off stage, not in front of the audience as he is in the opera. At the very end of the play, Spoletta tells Tosca that he and his men will send her to join her lover. She cries “J’y vais, canailles!” (“I am going there, swine!”). In the opera, her final words are more dignified: “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (“O Scarpia, before God!”).

On the evening of January 26, 2013, Arizona Opera presented an interesting traditional production of Tosca with an excellent cast. The set by Donald Oenslager was constructed in the 1950s for the New York City Opera. In the first scene, in the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, the painted set looks as if the nave is miles deep. That painted set will be archived after these performances and it certainly deserves to be kept as an example of stage perspective, now a rarely seen art. The costumes by A.T. Jones and Sons set the era perfectly. Director Bernard Uzan told the story in energetic verismo style. This was opera as contact sport and it was wonderful to see.

Jill Gardner’s Tosca was a thinking diva who used her feminine wiles to get her way. She sang with dramatic tones that belied her slim stature. Adam Diegel was an intense Cavaradossi who started off slowly but sang his Vittoria with exciting sounds. His final ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was an unwavering expanse of lyrical sound. Gordon Hawkins was a rather thuggish Scarpia who bullied not only his victims but also his underlings. His sole moment of real dignity was the ‘Te Deum.’

0516IMG_3340.gifExecution of Cavaradossi (Adam Diegel)

Peter Strummer was a most amusing Sacristan who thoroughly enjoyed irritating Cavaradossi whom he thought a non-believer. There was a good bit of horseplay in the middle of Act I, but musically, no one missed a beat. In two of the smaller parts, Craig Colclough declaimed Angelotti’s lines with vigor and great dignity in Act I and showed his comic side as the lazy Jailer in the last act. Members of AZ Opera’s young artist program showed their promising abilities. David Margulis was a sadistic Spoletta and Thomas Cannon a strong and striking Sciarrone.

Chorus Master Henri Venanzi has made the Arizona Opera Chorus into a first rate ensemble and they sang their scenes with great gusto. Principal Conductor Joel Revzen gave a powerful rendition of the verismo score that added greatly to the dramatic situations seen on stage. As always, he was most considerate of his singers and at the same his rendition had well thought out tempi and a great deal of translucence. It was a dark, rainy day outside but in Phoenix Symphony Hall there was the sunshine of Roman drama.

Maria Nockin

Cast and Production

Tosca: Jill Gardner; Cavaradossi: Adam Diegel; Scarpia: Gordon Hawkins; Sacristan: Peter Strummer; Angelotti/Jailer: Craig Colclough; Spoletta: David Margulis; Sciarrone: Thomas Cannon; Shepherd Boy: Bevin Hill. Arizona Opera Chorus and Phoenix Boys Choir, Chorus Master: Henri Venanzi; Arizona Opera Orchestra, Conductor: Joel Revzen; Director: Bernard Uzan; Sets: Donald Oenslager; Costumes: AT Jones and Sons; Lighting Design: Michael Baumgarten. Arizona Opera January 26, 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0115IMG_2766.gif image_description=Jill Gardner as Tosca and Adam Diegel as Cavaradossi product=yes product_title=Tosca by Arizona Opera product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Above: Jill Gardner as Tosca and Adam Diegel as Cavaradossi

Photos courtesy of Arizona Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:46 AM

Amsterdam: Tell Hits a Bulls Eye

For starters they have gifted us with a cast that could hardly be bettered (and vocal excellence is always a great place to start). Nicola Alaimo is appropriately larger-than-life in the title role. His warm, sympathetic baritone regales the ear with outpourings of luscious tone one minute, and forceful dramatic outbursts the next. Mr. Alaimo has a suave delivery married to a solid technique and his mellifluous, even vocal production dominated the performance as any great Tell must.

As Arnold, tenor John Osborn was a revelation. Mr. Osborn could not only effortlessly nail the extreme, exposed high notes of the role, but could also spin out vibrant, meaty phrases in the middle and upper middle voice. Every moment of his performance was informed with an assured musicality, and John boasts an absolute command of Rossinian style. What his instrument may lack in the heft of a Gedda or a Pavarotti, he more than makes up for with the sheen and utter lack of effort in his distinguished vocalizing. An impressive achievement.

Marina Rebeka was a thrilling Mathilde who beautifully complemented her tenor in Rossini’s memorable duets. Her supple, limpid soprano was capable of a wide range of expressive effects. Floated high notes, soaring phrases, throbbing fortes, and considerable ‘weight’ when needed were all part of Ms. Rebeka’s superlative vocal arsenal. Singly, Mr. Osborn and Ms. Rebeka were remarkably fine; together they were nigh unto perfection.

Christian Van Horn was overpowering as the scene-stealing ‘baddie’ Gesler, thanks to his snarling, sneering, super-sized bass. Roberto Acccurso makes an equally solid impression as Leuthold with mellow, refined singing. The ill-fated Melchtal was well served by Patrick Bolleire, who made the most of his stage time offering a powerful, controlled, characterful performance.

Eugénie Warnier not only made a solid contribution in her solo moments as Jemmy, but also contributed mightily to the many ensembles, her cleanly-produced, cutting soprano lilting out over the massed forces. Vincent Ordonneau was a solid Rodolphe, Mikeldi Atxalandabaso impressed with his brief turn as Ruodi, and Helena Rasker deployed her soft-grained mezzo to maximum effect as Hedwige.

It should be mentioned that the outstanding cast performed the French version with overall good diction and idiomatic delivery. The feel of the piece certainly changes from the more straight forward Italian version, owing to the more covered French vowels and the muted elisions.

The splendid Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra was ably conducted by Paolo Carignani, who commanded his forces with a sure hand. The fail-safe, world-famous overture scored every musical point, and Maestro Carignani was in masterful control of every musical moment. So why was I feeling that his reading was occasionally, well, perfunctory? I am sure that Paolo’s scholarship and understanding of the score are thorough and commendable, however, there were ‘buttons’ of arias that didn’t quite land, and tempi of ensembles that didn’t quite ‘breathe.’ It must be said he partnered the soloists well, and maintained awesome control of Eberhard Friedrich’s meticulously prepared, huge chorus.

Tell_DNO_01.gifMarina Rebeka as Mathilde and John Osborn as Arnold Melcthal

It is hard to find anything much to quibble about with the haunting, luminous physical production with its stylized evocation of Swiss locales and heritage. Set designer George Tsypin, never a slave to representational realism, has devised a highly effective playing environment of considerable imagination. A huge frame of a ship, more an interior schematic if you will, hangs above the stage, filling it, and serving as a practical bridge that at one point accommodates a large chorus. On the stage floor two reddish rocky out- croppings flank the stage right and left, and are tracked to move center, or depart offstage.

The backdrop begins as a blue textured drop evoking the lake, pulled downstage at the bottom to suggest a sort of ramp to the heavens. This morphs throughout the show, often re-appearing with huge slits of “light” that suggest arrows, or turbulence, or even contributing to the production team’s concept that the four seasons are suggested by the successive acts. To that end the finale is bathed in a lustrous golden glow suggesting the sunrise and perfectly complementing the repatriation of Switzerland. The excellent, moody lighting was the work of designer Jean Kalman.

Mr. Tsypin created the village with the addition of three, two-story cottages that were de-constructed down to the natural wood frame. An advocate of natural materials, his depiction of a pasture has three sets of clouds, seemingly composed of pairs of cloud-shaped rock. Livestock are grazing, but they are floated upstage left, upside down on an oval slab of “grass,” ditto a stag in the mountainous ‘escape’ scene. George’s eye-pleasing and heartfelt artistry also manages to provide plenty of playing levels, and boy, does director Pierre Audi know how to use them!

Mr. Audi is one of my favorites because, first and foremost, he works to internalize the characters, and he develops meaningful, plot-driven relationships. He blocks with the goal of making the piece and its emotions accessible, and places the singers in the most advantageous positions to communicate to the audience. And even when moving large forces around the stage, he knows how to focus the attention on the principals. Do you know just how rare a gift this is on European opera stages?

The huge, complicated choral scene in which Gesler debases the Swiss villagers was a model of careful organization. The dance corps was not just the usual diversion, as Kim Brandstrup choreographed a highly dramatic scenario that had two haughty ruling class women terrorize the town folk into submission with riding crops. The simple folk dance the chorus performed earlier in the piece now becomes a tool for their humiliation as the invaders forced them to dance and ‘celebrate,’ clearly against their will.

Also significantly responsible for the night’s success, Andrea Schmid-Futterer created handsome costumes that visually defined the various factions, imposing yet more dramatic clarity and increasing visual appeal. Her attractive attire for Mathilde was especially accomplished.

Guillaume Tell is a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, whose public generally likes their scenery Alpine-kitschy and cuckoo clock ‘realistic.’ At this Dutch premiere at least, the audience embraced and cheered this striking and original imagery, totally winning stagecraft, and top tier musical execution. Performances of this daunting piece come along so seldom that it nice to report the creative team at Netherlands Opera more than met every Rossinian challenge.

James Sohre

Cast and Production Information

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo; Arnold Melchtal: John Osborn; Walther Furst: Marco Spotti; Melchtal: Patrick Bolleire; Jemmy: Eugénie Warnier; Gesler: Christian Van Horn; Rodolphe: Vincent Ordonneau; Ruodi: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso; Leuthold: Roberto Accurso; Mathilde: Marina Rebeka; Hedwige: Helena Rasker; Chasseur: Julian Hartman; Conductor: Paolo Carignani; Director: Pierre Audi; Set Design George Tsypin; Costume Design: Andrea Schmid-Futterer; Lighting Design: Jean Kalman; Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup; Chorus Master: Eberhard Friedrich

image_description=Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Eugénie Warnier as Jemmy and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera [Photo by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]

product_title=Amsterdam: Tell Hits a Bulls Eye
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Eugénie Warnier as Jemmy and Koor van De Nederlandse Opera

Photos by Ruth Walz courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

Posted by james_s at 8:59 AM

February 3, 2013

Essays on Italo Montemezzi - D'Annunzio: Nave

This book is especially welcome after the first performance of Montemezzi's Nave since 1938. This is a link to the review. If Italo Montemezzi (1875 - 1952) is known at all, it is for his opera L’Amore di Tre Re, based on the play by Sem Benelli, which premiered in 1913. Montemezzi was part of the constellation of Italian composers from whom it was hoped would come a successor to Puccini. In fact, five years after L’Amore di Tre Re, Montemezzi’s next opera Nave would receive such a critical response that the composer did not write another large scale opera, despite living another 30 years or so. David Chandler, who is working on a book on Montemezzi, has gathered together the press coverage for Montemezzi’s opera from the first staging in Milan, through to the fourth production in Rome, thus enabling us to get to grips first hand with this puzzling episode in Montemezzi’s career.

Like Chandler’s estimable books on Alfredo Catalani, this book takes the form of the original articles (with those in Italian translated by Monica Cuneo), interlaced with Chandler’s own essays laying out the broad background. In fact, such is the illumination and comprehensiveness of Chandler’s writing that those of a lazy disposition could perhaps dispense with the critical comment and read just his summaries.

Chandler starts by explaining the background to Montemezzi’s opera in relation to the phenomenon of literaturoper - a word that seems to have developed no English equivalent. The phenomenon was very much a late 19th and early 20th century one with composers as diverse as Debussy, Strauss and Montemezzi setting plays directly (with judicious pruning) rather than using a librettist.

Montemezzi did this for L’Amore di Tre Re and seems to have deliberately looked for another play as a follow up. The process could be hazardous, however, not every play was suitable for setting directly and it is notable that when Giordano set Sem Benelli’s La Cena del Beffe (a play in which Montemezzi was also interested), Giordano had the play adapted into an opera libretto.

Montemezzi chose Gabriele D’Annunzio’s play 1908 La Nave, a choice which led him into a variety of problems. First and foremost is whether the play was suitable for literaturoper at all, whether it could or should be directly set. Secondly, D’Annunzio’s rather gruesome play had a political angle which, though it might have seemed opportune at the time, was by no means an advantage.

Most of the criticism of the first performance of the opera in 1918 at La Scala, Milan (with Tullio Serafin conducting and his wife in the main role of Basiliola) concentrated on the play’s suitability. Certainly Tito Riccordi’s pruning of the play rather seems to have skewed things. Reading the summaries of the plot, you start to imagine the possibilities of a Mussorgsky-esque operatic epic with a large role for the chorus. In fact, Riccordi reduced things to concentrate on the protagonists, though all of them seem to be completely unloveable. In the play, all this is wrapped up in D’Annunzio’s sublime poetry, in the opera we get grim melodrama.

The opera is set in what will be Venice, in 552 AD and concerns the rivalry between the Faledro and the Gratico families. Sergio and Marco Gratico are going to be bishop and tribune, their Faledro rivals having been blinded. Basiliola, the Faledro’s sister, appears and attempts to intervene. She appears crazed. But clearly fascinates the Gratico brothers, because in the following scenes she seduces them, and sets them against each other, which isn’t difficult as neither is admirable and Bishop Sergio seems rather too fond of pagan orgies. Basiliola’s brother attacks the city but is foiled, whilst Basiliola is bound to a pagan altar. The final scene involves the launching of a ship, Totus Mundus which will go forth to conquer the Adriatic for Venice. In penance, Basiliola is bound to the ship as a figurehead.

Nave is not perhaps the grimmest opera plot of the period. Both Richard Strauss’s Salome (literaturoper) and Elektra (with a libretto by Hugo von Hoffmanstal) have principal characters who are uniformly unloveable. But Puccini realised when planning Turandot that generally opera works best if such characters have their antithesis, hence the necessity of Liu in Turandot. Montemezzi, in his desire to create literaturoper, forgot this to his detriment.

All the productions covered by the book were realistic and included a complete ship in the final scene. Chandler prints illustration of the original designs by Guido Marussig and those of Norman Bel Geddes for Chicago, along with pictures of the protagonists.

Another problem with the opera, is that D’Annunzio (who was politician and soldier as much as poet) wrote the play in support of the Irredentist movement, which sought to reclaim all Italian speaking territory in the Adriatic (including Venice’s colonies in Dalmatia) for Italy. This was a highly charged issue at the end of the First World War and by chance the opera’s premiere took place the same day as the end of the war, the day that Italian troops entered Trieste (which had been Austrian territory since 14th century). Unfortunately, given the opera’s subject matter with the links to Irredentism, this co-incidence (for co-incidence it was) gave the piece a feeling of a piece d’occasion. There was one other drawback, noted after the premiere, the absence of singable tunes.

David Chandler prints two article describing the genesis of the opera, one by Montemezzi but not written until 1938, plus seven reviews of the first performance. They make rather grim reading as the critics take the opera to pieces noting where it does not suit D’Annunzio’s play.

The concentration on the play was absent from the critical reaction to the work’s second production, in Chicago in 1919. Here, the critics were more concerned with the performance, which was excellent with Rosa Raisa as Basiliola. But even here, they found the work wanting when it came to comparisons with L’Amore di Tre Re.

A rather different controversy, however, hung over the Chicago performance. The sets of Norman Bel Geddes were regarded as controversial and disliked by Riccordi and Montemezzi. This almost certainly prevented the production travelling to New York where the critics were well disposed to Montemezzi.

The third production, in Verona in 1923, attracted little critical response and then Montemezzi had to wait until 1938 for the next production in Rome. By now Italian critics were less concerned with how Montemezzi had treated D’Annunzio’s play and, with one exception, were more balanced. The possibility that the work might establish itself as a worthy of an occasional revival became real. Alas the Second World War with Allied bombing destroying all performance material, thus put paid to the work’s career. The work had to wait for 2012 when it was performed by Teatro Grattacielo in New York for its next revival.

The exception to the Rome reviews (the one not positive) is the most fascinating, as it was written by the composer Ildebrando Pizzetti (best known for his opera based on Murder in the Cathedral). He had written the original incidental music to D’Annunzio’s play. Pizzetti’s response to the opera is vitriolic and makes gruesomely fascinating reading.

The book reaches no definitive conclusion about Nave and in fact until we get to experience the opera for ourselves, such conclusions would be difficult (you can read the critical responses to Teatro Grattacielo’s 2012 performance on their website: http://www.grattacielo.org/Nave-reviews.html). What David Chandler has enabled us to do is to watch the work develop and read the first hand reactions by people who knew and loved D’Annunzio’s play as well as reactions by people who did not have those concerns. The reception of Nave was an important moment in Montemezzi’s career and by giving us these primary sources, along with his own inestimable commentary, David Chandler shed light on a curious and fascinating episode.

Robert Hugill

Essays on the Montemezzi-D’Annunzio: Nave
Edited, annotated and introduced by David Chandler
Translations by Monica Cuneo
Forward by Duane D. Printz
Durrant Publishing 2012, 268 pages, ISBN 978-10905946-31-0


product_title=Essays on Italo Montemezzi D’Annunzio: Nave
product_by=Edited, annotated and introduced by David Chandler
product_id=ISBN 978-10905946-31-0

Posted by anne_o at 5:52 PM

February 2, 2013

Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the Staatsoper Berlin

The topic of Nazi politics may be bone-chilling, but when written by survivors, allows for some emotional distance and reflection. Meanwhile, history has bequeathed us what may be considered a Holocaust opera in the true sense of the word. The Staatsoper Berlin is currently performing Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis),which was penned at the concentration camp Theresienstadt to a libretto by Peter Kien just before the authors were transported to Auschwitz in 1944. The chamber opera premiered in Amsterdam 31 years after their death.

Theresienstadt served as both a transit post and a kind of sham for the extent of the SS forces’ brutality. Leo Baeck, Pavel Haas, and Gideon Klein count among the conscripted intelligentsia at the ‘model ghetto,’ where Ullmann was engaged as an official music critic. A freelance musician schooled in Schönbergian composition, the Silesian native found himself with more time to compose than ever before. His score creates a dizzying, but organic blend of serialist passages, sardonic cabaret, and Mahleresque harmonies while subversively weaving in melodies such as ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ in the final chorus. It is an at once harrowing and uplifting setting of Kien’s libretto, which provides a vivid depiction of the inner turmoil but resignation a prisoner found in the end of life as he knew it.

The story in some ways calls to Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre in its montage-like structure and ambiguous treatment of death. A Loudspeaker announces in the prologue that the living can no longer laugh and the dying can no longer lament. Harlekin, better known as Arlecchino, the commedia dell’arte stock character, is so bored that he begs Death to his duty. But Death has decided to condemn mortals to eternal life. Kaiser Overall, whose resemblance to Hitler prevented further rehearsals of the opera in the summer of 1944, is informed by telephone of a plague whereby none of his soldiers can die. Only when the war is over does Death, “the gardener…the final lullaby,” deliver the world from pestilence. The story further includes a drummer, a soldier and a girl named Bubbikopf.

MuTphoto_2312.jpgKyungho Kim as Harlekin | Ein Soldat, Gyula Orendt as Kaiser Overall and Alin Anca as Der Lautsprecher | Der Tod

The Staatsoper staging by Mascha Pörzgen, seen January 29 at the company’s Werkstatt, a small wing used for new music theater, recreates the opera’s surreal qualities while maintaining a tasteful dose of aesthetic restraint. The roles of Death and the Loudspeaker are cast with a single bass-baritone (the tireless Alin Anca), who is wheeled in on a motor-driven stool before revealing the garb of terrorist-like solider. His exchanges with the sad clown-faced Harlekin are appropriately ambivalent, while the Drummer assumes the presence of a caricature as she walks through the scene beating wooden spoons mid-air. Kaiser Overall is a psychotic bureaucrat who occupies the only hollow space in an all-white set (designs by Cordelia Matthes). The proscenium moves in closer to the audience following Harlekin’s eerie lullaby “Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf.”

The cast, all members of the Staatsoper’s international opera studio, gave a tight, convincing performance despite vocal unevenness. Anca carried the show with theatrical verve and a booming bass that at times risked being too loud for the space. As Harlekin and the soldier in the third scene, Kyungho Kim did not rise to the same standards of sound quality and diction but was a moving presence. The soprano Rowan Hellier gave a stand-out performance as the Drummer, while Narine Yeghiyan, in the role of Bubbikopf, at times sounded strained. Gyula Orendt gave an earnest performance as the Kaiser. Felix Krieger led an elegant reading of the score with an ensemble of the Staatskapelle, although the musicians’ position on a landing to the side of the stage was not always ideal acoustically (drowning out Orendt in his final aria, the very Mahlerian ‘Von allem, was geschieht’).The unearthly final chorus could have been drawn out with more nostalgia, while the counterpoint of a repeated, descending violin melody gave chills down the spine.

Der Kaiser von Atlantis runs through February 9.

Rebecca Schmid

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MuTphoto_0664%20%281%29.jpg image_description=Kyungho Kim as Harlequin | A soldier and Rowan Hellier as The drummer [Photo by Barbara Braun courtesy of Staatsoper Berlin] product=yes product_title=Der Kaiser von Atlantis at the Staatsoper Berlin product_by=A review by Rebecca Schmid product_id=Above: Kyungho Kim as Harlekin | Ein Soldat and Rowan Hellier as Der Trommler

Photos by Barbara Braun courtesy of Staatsoper Berlin
Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

A Timeless Hänsel und Gretel in Chicago

The title roles were sung by Elizabeth DeShong and Maria Kanyova, the Mother and Father by Julie Makerov and Brian Mulligan, the Witch by Jill Grove, and the Sandman and Dew Fairy by Emily Birsan and Kiri Deonarine. Ward Stare led these performances in his Lyric Opera conducting debut.

In its performance of the overture the Lyric Opera Orchestra under Stare’s sensitive direction exemplified the rich colors and tonal depth of Humperdinck’s score. The initial chords for brass were effectively varied and, when repeated, punctuated by melodic emphases in the strings and percussion. Toward the close of this prelude the softer instrumental textures as here played suggested an age that would follow on the trials of human effort. During the course of the overture the stage was veiled by a scrim depicting an empty plate and utensils. Once the first act begins in this production, the significance of the image becomes clear. The children Hänsel and Gretel face each other while seated at the kitchen’s table. Both Ms. DeShong and Ms. Kanyova communicated a temperament of adolescent irritation coupled with human need. The children are hungry and their facial expressions revealed attempts to deal with their current isolation. The parents have gone off to procure food and have left Hänsel and Gretel with the responsibility of domestic chores. Of course little work is accomplished and their vocal exchanges were more expressive of self-amusement. After a tantalizing melisma performed on “Geheimnis” [“secret”] Kanyova’s Gretel instructed her brother in proper dance steps [“Einmal hin, einmal her”]. While DeShong’s Hänsel proclaimed in a truly joyful spirit that he was committed to “Tanzen und fröhlich sein” [“Dancing and happiness”], the antics of the children reached a crescendo from the floor to the top of the table. At this highpoint the mother returned and chided the two for their irresponsible behavior. Ms. Makerov released powerfully emotional pitches on “Sorgen” while describing these very worries caused by financial hardship. Since the children seem unable to appreciate the family’s plight, the mother sends them out to the forest in search of berries for an evening meal. When left alone Makerov gave full vent to her emotions with expressive yet controlled volume on “Kein Essen im Schrank” [“No food in the cupboard”]. As she prepared to take pills as a means to calming her mid-century nervousness, the voice of the father signals his approach in the familiar “Tra la la la … Hunger ist der beste Koch” [“Hunger is the best cook”]. Mr. Mulligan’s entrance was a model of lyrical and dramatic commitment to character. He sang with robust emphasis on “Kauf Besen” [“Buy brooms”] to explain how he encouraged his customers of the day to buy up his wares. As if to celebrate his financial success the father displayed the foodstuffs which he had purchased for the common meal. Once the parents begin to eat, the mother admits that she has sent the children out alone into the forest. The father berates her carelessness while frightening her with tales of evil in the haunted wood. Mulligan dominated the close of this first act with his noteworthy intonation describing the “Hexenritt” [“witches’ ride”] practiced in the forest.

The orchestral introduction to Act Two with an emphasis on cellos and higher strings matched the calming yet inquisitive mood in the forest as the children searched for and consumed the berries they found. DeShong’s Hänsel accused with striking low notes “Du bist selber schuld” [“It is really your fault”] as they discover that they have eaten their entire yield. After Hänsel claimed “Ich bin ein Bub und fürchte mich nicht” [I am a boy and am not afraid”], both children became apprehensive of their surroundings. In this production Hänsel assumes a protective gesture toward his sister as they sing their evening prayer “Abends will ich schlafen gehen” [“At night I lay myself to sleep”]. Kanyova and DeShong gave a wonderfully moving rendition of the duet, as the Sandmann then lulled them into sleep. The “two times seven angels,” to whom they have prayed, are here visualized in their dreams as servants and cooks at the table to which the children are invited after being helped into properly formal attire. At the close of the act Hänsel and Gretel are served as guests at table by these creatures with wings of angels.

The third act of the opera displays the plate on the scrim now covered more noticeably with red as indication of the berries consumed. Kanyova’s bird-like song with which she awakened Hänsel was sprightly and infused with coloratura touches. As the children compared notes about the angels seen in their respective dreams, an enormous cake emerged from the back of the stage. Gretel is the first to sample the cake until both children hear the voice of the witch, Rosina Leckermaul [aka, Rosina Sweet-tooth] In this role Jill Grove wore a housedress and embodied the busyness of a German domestic yet with the powers and desires associated with magic and evil. Grove caused Hänsel to freeze in movement with her chilling performance of the scene “Hocus, Pocus.” When she prepared food to fatten up the boy, Ms. Grove dived into her pots and bowls with gusto and noticeably energetic voice and arms. Gretel realizes that the magical phrase will release her brother, after which both push the witch into the oven. The subsequent, celebratory waltz for the siblings was well choreographed in preparation for saving the remaining children, who had been held as gingerbread under the witch’s spell. Recitation now of the “Hocus, Pocus” charm restores the children’s sight, the parents appear in the forest, and the family is reunited in prayers of thanksgiving. May future productions of Humperdinck’s work succeed to this degree.

Salvatore Calomino

Posted by jim_z at 4:27 PM

February 1, 2013

Maria Stuarda at the Met

Dramatically speaking, Donizetti’s opera is little more than a conventional love triangle topped with an execution

The Metropolitan Opera invested all its considerable resources in a new production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Tudor-Stuart drama, Maria Stuarda: Elizabethan costumes that must have cost the entire budget of a regional opera company; a production and sets faithful to the period; conductor Maurizio Benini, who can make this music sound more inventive than it is; and a leading mezzo, Joyce DiDonato, in the vehicle role of the doomed Mary Queen of Scots.

Everything, that is, except an opera worth mounting.

The libretto for Maria, according to the New Grove, is by Giuseppe Bardari. He wrote it at age 17, and it is the only libretto he ever wrote, fortunately. He went on to a career in the law and police work, including the position of Prefect of Police in Naples.

Bardari’s solution to filling an evening’s entertainment is two acts, each pointing to a single emotional peak. In the first scene of Act One, the foolish tenor Robert, Earl of Leicester, manipulates a young Queen Elizabeth into meeting with her rival Mary, imprisoned for her treasonous activities at Fotheringhay Castle. Leicester is aware he is loved by both women. His championing of the imprisoned Mary’s cause is sure to annoy Elizabeth, which it does.

This leads to the confrontation in the second scene of Act One between the two women, during which Mary refers to Elizabeth as the bastard child of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. While this meeting is historical fiction, it makes for some dramatic fireworks. Mary’s intemperate words seal her fate.

As confrontation scenes go, this one manages to raise the temperature on stage and inspires Donizetti beyond his usual note spinning, but it is a mere spat compared to some of the real confrontation scenes in opera: King Phillip and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlos, Ortrud and Elsa in Lohengrin; Renato and Amelia in A Masked Ball, for starters. That present-day music critics have made so much of this short royal catfight signals how barren this opera is of real dramatic and musical heat.

The second climax comes in the second scene of Act Two, when Mary receives news she is to be executed. She is comforted by her sympathetic jailer Talbot (the role for a bass), and then sings her way to the scaffold. While overlong and milked for every ounce of pity, the scene contains a lovely chorus of Mary’s supporters and provides DiDonato with the chance to sing her heart out before she loses her head.

The Met staged the run-up to the beheading dramatically. Mary shed her outer grey-black gown to reveal a blood-red simple shift. Under her wig was a head of grey hair. DiDonato mastered a Parkinson’s-like tremor in her right hand and face that made Mary even more pitiable. She turned and walked up a steep staircase to face an executioner the size of an NFL linebacker, holding a huge axe. Curtain.

And that’s it. The opera is little more than a conventional love triangle with a royal overlay and an execution. The tenor Leicester dithers between women and is a most unsympathetic wimp. Elizabeth is played as a lumbering, unlovely, troubled monarch with a great wardrobe. All the sympathy goes to Mary, which makes sense when one considers that Donizetti wrote the piece as a vehicle for a favorite singer, Giuseppina Ronzi De Begnis (according to the New Grove). She never got to sing it because censors objected to the plot.

That’s a problem with “vehicle” operas: they may show off an artist, as this one showcases DiDonato, but there is little else for the audience. Verdi might have made something of this story, as he did with another opera about a tenor in love with a queen: Don Carlos. He would have included some of the back-story of the contending historical forces between Tudors and Stuarts. He would have made more of the Anglican and Catholic split. Elizabeth would have been brought to life as a worthy foil to Mary. The confrontation would have been more complex, nuanced, and hair-raising, as is the face-off in Don Carlos between church and state.

But Verdi was a genius, and Donizetti was a craftsman, better at comic opera than serious, which is why this piece has justly moldered in the archives.

DiDonato was up to the challenge. Her face, presented in relentless HD close-ups, had the glow of a martyr. She floated and held some beautiful high notes in the final scene. Her voice was up to all the coloratura challenges.

As Leicester, Matthew Polenzani proved once again why the Met is giving him such prominent parts. He has a lovely head voice, which he used often in some quiet singing. He has some juice when necessary, although in an HD transmission one cannot judge carrying power in the opera house itself. He did not project the gravitas of an Earl loved by two queens, but that is probably the librettist’s fault.

The young South African Elza van den Heever made her house debut as Elizabeth, and it gives much promise for the future. She is a big woman, made even bigger by the enormous gowns she must wear designed by John Macfarlane, who also designed the period sets. Her voice is bright, accurate, a bit steely, with heft. The Met should find other roles for her. She may have a comic side.

Bass Matthew Rose was a burly and sympathetic Talbot, Mary’s jailer and confessor. Baritone Joshua Hopkins exhibited a clear and ringing tone as Lord Cecil, who convinces Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant.

All praise to director David McVicar for presenting this piece straight, with no gimmicks. Much of the action was played out in two realistic settings: Whitehall for Elizabeth’s scenes, and the forest outside Fotheringhay, for Mary’s. That the opera doesn’t make much of an impression is not his fault.

Having now presented two of Donizetti’s royal operas (Anna Bolena being the first), the Met and its publicity machine will soon beat the drums for the third: Roberto Devereux. The Met has done its best to frame them as a trilogy worthy of serious critical consideration. Having now seen the first two, and with high hopes, I think I will pass on the third.

David Rubin

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is republished with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MS2_2547a.gif image_description=Joyce DiDonato as the title character of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda." Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda product_by=A review by David Rubin product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Maria Stuarda [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
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