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.
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.
When opera companies arrange their seasonal schedules, one wonders how much
thought they give to Valentine’s Day. If it falls in the midweek, it is potentially a very propitious day for getting people out: that is, if the opera is right.
The Royal Opera House opted for Tchaikovsky’s romantic masterpiece,
Eugene Onegin, and in my view got it both right and wrong. They got it
right in that they managed to pack the house out even at full prices: could any
opera composed in the last fifty years have achieved as much? Full prices =
expensive: I paid £150 for what my ticket amusingly described as a “Tall
Loose Seat” at the back of the Grand Tier. I was sitting on a glorified
bar stool – one understands why they’re not called “Loose
Stools” of course –and could see only 90% of the stage.
But they got it wrong in that they drew out very few young, or even
youngish, couples on one of the great “date nights” of the year, a
night when a bit of extravagance is widely felt to be allowable. It would
certainly be an extravagance to most people, when a Valentine’s evening
of this description, with dinner and drinks, would likely cost £400 or more.
But there are plenty of young couples with a good deal of disposable income in
the London area: they just weren’t choosing to see Eugene Onegin. The
average age of the audience must have been on the less desirable side of 60.
The stalls were a sea of white, grey and silver hair scattered with islands of
exposed scalp. The overwhelming impression was that these were mostly moneyed,
retired couples out for a treat on their umpteenth Valentine’s Day
together and that they had long since done with holding hands and pursuing a
feeling of romantic intimacy in the face of great art.
I have nothing against older people enjoying opera and intend myself to
enjoy it for as long as I can. And it is admittedly often difficult to get
young people enthused about the art form. But things can only get worse if, as
I felt on 14 February, companies like the Royal Opera , seeing where the
economic winds are blowing, start marketing their product specifically toward
their older clientele. One of the first full-page ads in the Eugene
Onegin programme was for Estée Lauder’s Re-Nutriv, the
“Ultimate Lift Age-Correcting Crème.”Kasper Holten’s
controversial production of the opera itself seemed just as aware of who was
likely to be reading the programmes.
The keynote of the new production, as most reviewers have noted, is memory.
As the programme explains, “Kasper Holten’s production focuses on
the power of memory, on how it shapes us and how we gain self-knowledge through
experience. The stage becomes increasingly full of objects symbolic for Tatyana
and Onegin as they grow up and finally realize that they can never return to
their past lives.” That’s oddly worded, and seems more a comment on
the general human condition than on the psychological intricacies of the
Pushkin-Tchaikovsky story, which is much more about the possibility or not of
having a second chance to go down a road not taken than about a desired return
to a “past life” (which “past life” are Onegin and
Tatyana wanting to return to, we should ask).
Adrian Mourby’s programme essay, “Stepping Through the Memory
Door,” more overtly attempts to link the opera to the general human
condition of getting older. He draws on Lockean ideas of personal identity as
constituted by memory, but gives them a depressingly bleak interpretation:
“we reach the end of our lives … as the sum total, not just of our
memories but of the mistakes we have made. As we go through life we accrete
more and more layers, and our decisions hem us in until we are trapped in a
present we never chose, unable to see the person we once had the potential to
be.”Who is he talking about here? The danger of “middle age,”
Mourby proceeds to moralise, is that an encounter “with someone who
shared our youth” can lead us to a delusive notion that we can break
free: “The curse of Friends Reunited that has blighted many modern
marriages is much more than an opportunity for consummating youthful
relationships in adulterous middle age; it is about the impact that people from
the past have on our younger selves, selves that have been all but lost under
the layers of mistakes and compromises down the years.” If anyone gets
round to writing an opera about Prince Charles and his two wives,
Mourby’s essay can be reprinted as a guide to some of the issues involved
in that unsavoury piece of royal history. But it is an odd commentary on the
story of Tchaikovsky’s teenage Tatyana, and one cannot help feeling that
Mourby is going much too far in trying to make Eugene Onegin
artificially RELEVANT to ROH’s aging patrons who are, ipso facto,
stereotyped as romantically unfulfilled.
I’ll come to the question of whether these ideas are actually
represented in Holten’s production in a moment. First, it is worth making
a comparison between the view of life set out here and that expressed so
successfully in Mamma Mia!, the very popular musical playing year
after year not far from the Royal Opera House. Mamma Mia!
unquestionablyis about middle-aged people, and it unquestionably attracts a
much younger audience. In fact, it’s a safe bet that a lot more
hand-holding was going on there on 14 February. I don’t believe this is
simply a matter of cost. Mamma Mia!, written by a single mother, is about
mistakes and misunderstandings, and it is about losing touch with younger
selves, but it is also about the power of love to overcome these things and the
human potential for renewal. This is what young people want to believe in, and
good for them. They know, of course, that not every love story ends happily,
but even the tragic ones have something to say about how wonderful love is,
something to teach about the value of getting it right, and I simply cannot
imagine happy young couples subscribing to the very cynical Everyman
interpretation of Eugene Onegin offered by Mourby – especially on
The really distinctive feature of Holten’s production, as all the
critics have noted, is that he introduces younger versions of Tatyana and
Onegin as mime roles. The critical reaction to this has been almost uniformly
negative: the addition of new “characters” has been judged as
either confusing the story or adding an unwanted and unnecessary layer of
psychological “interpretation.” But I have not read any discussion
of how this device alters the audience’s relationship to the story. Yet
alter it it surely does, for by introducing young versions of characters
normally imagined as young anyway, the production inevitably makes the singing
Tatyana and Onegin seem much older. The casting of Krassimira Stoyanova and
Simon Keenlyside as the two protagonists reinforced this impression: neither,
to put it bluntly, looked like a young lover. Mourby’s essay, whatever
its relevance to Tchaikovsky’s opera, is relevant to this production.
In Holten’s production, Tatyana and Onegin spend a good deal of time
looking at their own younger selves; in fact in key scenes, like the writing of
Tatyana’s letter and the fighting of the duel, it is the younger selves
who actually perform the actions. These younger selves, performed by Vigdis
Hentze Olsen and Thom Rackett, both of whom have a background in dance, were
certainly very much worth looking at, especially Olsen, with her beautiful,
sinuous and expressive form doing full justice to some intense choreography.
She could easily have passed for Stoyanova’s daughter, and surely
prompted many audience reflections on the vulnerability of beauty to time, with
or without “Age-Correcting Crème.” The net result was that an
audience of people with an average age of about 60 were looking at protagonists
who appeared to be about 40, who were in turn looking at younger versions of
themselves who appeared to be about 20: a sort of theatrical variation on the
Droste effect. There was something decidedly retrospective and distancing about
this, with youthful passion being mediated to an older audience who might have
plenty of money but are nevertheless, in Mourby’s assessment, trapped on
the wrong side of a mid-life crisis.
By the end of the opera the younger selves had been put away for all
practical purposes. After her rejection by Onegin, the younger Tatyana
retreated into a hollow place in one of the three pillars that bestrode the
stage, where she remained visible through the ball scene (it had previously
been unclear why two of the three had these hollow compartments). It was the
kind of thing Virginia Woolf might have imagined for one of her female
characters, and appeared to represent a sort of grave for the younger, truer
self. I found it the most visually arresting moment in the production, and one
that summed up what Holten was doing with the story. This Eugene Onegin is not
so much about youth as about mid-life crisis, not so much about the thrill of
living and feeling as about death in life,not so much about love as about
troubling memories of it from long ago.
Any production of a classic opera that makes us think about it anew is to be
welcomed, and I found much of interest in Holten’s Eugene
Onegin. But, as one lady indignantly announced in the cloakroom
afterwards, “it’s not THE opera [Tchaikovsky imagined],” and
it seemed, at least in the context of Valentine’s Day, to be too
obviously pitched to an aging audience stereotyped as unfulfilled and no longer
able to engage directly with youthful passion. Much as I prefer
Tchaikovsky’s music to ABBA’s, if I was young and in love I’d
much rather have had a pair of tickets for Mamma Mia! on 14
Cast and production information
Tatyana: Krassimira Stoyanova; young Tatyana: Vigdis Hentze Olsen;
Eugene Onegin: Simon Keenlyside; young Onegin: Thom Rackett; Lensky: Pavol
Breslik; Olga: Elena Maximova; Prince Gremin: Peter Rose; Madame Larina: Diana
Montague; Monsieur Triquet: Christophe Mortagne; 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 design: Leo Warner. Royal Opera House,
Covent Garden, 14 February 2013.