Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
11 Feb 2013
Erik Satie, Socrate and Igor Stravinsky. Renard and other works
This concert was part of a greater weekend of concerts at the Southbank
Centre looking at Paris during the second and third decades of the twentieth
century, the weekend itself part of the year-long Rest is Noise
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
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?
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.