17 Feb 2013
Stuttgart: Too Hot to Handel
With its staging of Alcina, Stuttgart Opera seems to set out to prove that George Friedrich Handel can be all ‘sexypants.’
Nicholas Hytner’s production of Handel’s Xerxes (Serse) at English National Opera (ENO) is nearly 30 years old, and is the oldest production in ENO’s stable.
On Friday evening September 5, 2014, tenor Stephen Costello and soprano Ailyn Pérez gave a recital to open the San Diego Opera season. After all the threats to close the company down, it was a great joy to great San Diego Opera in its new vibrant, if slightly slimmed down form.
English National Opera’s 2014-15 season kicked off with an ear-piercing orchestral thunderbolt. Brilliant lightning spears sliced through the thick black night, fitfully illuminating the Mediterranean garret-town square where an expectant crowd gather to welcome home their conquering hero.
It is now three and a half years since Anna Nicole was unleashed on the world at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).
There was a quasi-party atmosphere at the Wigmore Hall on Monday evening, when Joyce DiDonato and Antonio Pappano reprised the recital that had kicked off the Hall’s 2014-15 season with reported panache and vim two nights previously. It was standing room only, and although this was a repeat performance there certainly was no lack of freshness and spontaneity: both the American mezzo-soprano and her accompanist know how to communicate and entertain.
In strict architectural terms, the stupendous 2nd century Roman theatre of Aspendos near Antalya in southern Turkey is not an arena or amphitheatre at all, so there are not nearly as many ghosts of gored gladiators or dismembered Christians to disturb the contemporary feng shui as in other ancient loci of Imperial amusement.
Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra brought their staging of Bach's St Matthew Passion to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, 6 September 2014.
Every so often an opera fan is treated to a minor miracle, a revelatory performance of a familiar favorite that immediately sweeps all other versions before it.
On August 30, Los Angeles Opera presented the finals concert of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia, the world opera competition. Founded in 1993, the contest endeavors to discover and help launch the careers of the most promising young opera singers of today. Thousands of applicants send in recordings from which forty singers are chosen to perform live in the city where the contest is being held. Last year it was Verona, Italy, this year Los Angeles, next year London.
The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role.
Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.
The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings
On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!
At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.
By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.
In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.
Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.
Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.
Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.
With its staging of Alcina, Stuttgart Opera seems to set out to prove that George Friedrich Handel can be all ‘sexypants.’
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.
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