April 29, 2013

Douglas Boyd on Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Excellence is an ideal he learned from his earliest days as a musician, playing the oboe in Claudio Abbado’s European Community Youth Orchestra and later in the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. “Abbado has an absolutely enormous influence on me”, he adds, explaining how Abbado’s ideals shape his vision for Garsington Opera at Wormsley.

“Abbado instilled into us right from the start that excellence is a fundamental to strive for. It’s not a given. Although we were young, we played each concert as if our lives depended on it. So my mantra is “dedication and energy”. When you aim for the highest possible level of excellence, then you start with a fighting chance”.

Abbado also inspired Boyd’s approach to opera conducting. “He was one of those rare people who could allow singers room to breathe and also create a strong sense of ensemble between pit and stage. You’ve got to give musicians space. If you conduct them as if you were a military policeman, it’s horrible. Abbado was wonderful, he was tight in the best way, in the most musical way, and he had this incredible sense of the scope of the entire opera. He is an icon for me”.

With a solid background in orchestral music, Boyd brings a strong musical focus. He has conducted the Musikkollegium Winterthur, the Manchester Camerata, The Chamber Orchestra of Europe, most of the leading orchestras in Britain, the Gürzenich Orchestra of Cologne, Orchestre National de Lyon, Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, Swedish Chamber Orchestra, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ensemble Orchestral de Paris, the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg. He also conducts regularly in Japan and the United States.

Boyd comes to Garsington Opera at Wormsley at a critical phase in its development. “We all loved Garsington Manor because there was something so quirkily, beautifully English about it. But now we’ve got this wonderful new home at Wormsley. The Pavilion is world-class, it’s racheted things up to a whole new level in artistic terms. It’s still an intimate performance space, seating 600, but it was purpose-built so the facilities are better. The acoustic is very good, and we have an enormous stage space which we didn’t have before, and the backstage area is much better, too. This gives us opportunities to explore operas in a chamber-like setting where every gesture, every sound is vital to the audience’s enjoyment. Yet we still have that indoor/outdoor feel and natural light”. He adds “and we’re improving the heating system”.

“Wormsley is an idyll. You can’t underestimate how much it means to spend six weeks in the summer in this incredibly dedicated, caring environment. Yet it’s also near London and its resources. Mark Getty has vision. Anthony Whitworth-Jones did an amazing job when he took over as General Director in 2005. He was unique in that he involved conductors and directors together from day one. We’re involved together as a team, right from the first casting auditions, so what we do is an artistic team effort. That might sound obvious, but that doesn’t happen everywhere, but it has always been the case at Garsington Opera. That’s something to build on. We have a supportive Board and Jonathan Freeman-Attwood has joined us from the Royal Academy of Music”.

“Mozart has been a foundation of Garsington Opera since its first season in 1989. This year’s Wormsley season begins with a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail heard previously at Garsington in 1990 and 1999. The great da Ponte operas feature regularly. Mozart has many times fulfilled Garsington Opera’s tradition of showcasing specialist repertoire. Earlier Mozart productions include Der Schauspieldirektor, Il re Pastore, Lucio Silla, La finta giardiniera and even the extremely rare Der stein der Weise, to which the teenaged Mozart contributed several parts.

“Now that we have the scope and means to do more, it would be my dream to develop Wormsley as a Mozart centre, perhaps even, long term, with a Mozart house style, created by different conductors, all with individual perspectives but who share a sense of the rhetoric Mozart addresses. The orchestra is never just accompagnato, where every word in the singing is mirrored in the orchestra. The orchestra in Mozart isn’t celebrated enough, and I’d like to hear Mozart’s music become an important part of the festival at Wormsley. There are many good Mozart musicians to choose from, so there’s a lot of potential. I’ve just come back from conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, where the musicians have Mozart in their bones”, he adds. Boyd’s own credentials are substantial. He has conducted all the Beethoven symphonies. As opera conductor, he’s done Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni for Garsington Opera, Die Zauberflöte for Glyndebourne Opera on Tour, Salieri’s La Grotto di Tronfonio for Zurich Opera and La Clemenza di Tito for Opera North.

With his background as orchestral musician, he has a firm foundation in Mozart’s musical world. “I worked many times with Nicholas Harnoncourt. He’s extraordinary, he’s messianic. We’ve learned so much from him, and we have a duty to carry on his ideals. I don’t ever want to go back to the idea of Mozart as being dainty or fragile or pretty. Nor do I want to hear him played like any other composer. Mozart is in a completely different
sound world to, say, Tchaikovsky and the late Romantics. We need to speak his unique language. Harnoncourt conducted Mitridate, re di Ponto several times, and I’d love to do that at Wormley, where it’s never been done before. It’s not as great as the da Ponte operas, of course, but there are some good arias in it. And Mozart was only fourteen when he wrote it!”

“Wormsley has tremendous potential”, he adds, “and Mark Getty understands how it can contribute to the wider community, beyond opera. We are planning a Beethoven weekend next year, which will include Beethoven’s Fidelio, a revival of the popular Garsington Opera production from 2009. We’ll link the themes of brotherhood, freedom from oppression and sacrifice which run through Fidelio, Beethoven’s Egmont and the Ninth Symphony. The Beethoven weekend also coincides with the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, so we could make a connection with the world of 1914. All will be revealed in July!”

“There’s so much we could be doing at Wormsley with the local community. We already have an extensive “Education” programme in place, although I don’t like the word much. I believe we are always learning, whether we’re 5 or 95, or even more, there’s always something to enjoy. This summer, we’re doing Road Rage, a community opera where Roman road builders are confronted by wild British birds. The text is Richard Stillgoe, and the music is by Orlando Gough. Almost 200 people are taking part. It’s vital to work with the community because that’s how you reach new audiences. We should be “exclusive” only in the sense that aspiring to musical excellence is exclusive. We want to inspire people with the idea of opera. We do young people a disservice by assuming they have short attention spans. At Wormsley and at West Green House in Hampshire, we work with local schools. If you can inspire young people to enjoy themselves, with luck, they’ll love opera for the rest of their lives without prejudices. I’ve seen it happen so many times. When young people engage with something it doesn’t matter whether it`s rock, pop or classical, as long as they are having fun”.

“I’d also like to do a world premiere at Wormsley. The opera world has changed in the last few years. Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, Adès’s The Tempest and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin show that modern music can be successful. A world premiere puts any opera house on the map and attracts interest from all over the world. We don’t have anything specific on the radar as yet but we know that the Garsington Opera audience is sophisticated”.

“At Garsington Opera, we’ve always worked with young talent. We have a very special pool of singers and maintain a relationship with them. Sophie Bevan, Paul Nilon and Matthew Rose, for example. At Wormsley, that’s an ethos we’re glad to maintain”.

The new season at Garsington Opera at Wormsley starts on 7th June with Mozart Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This will be followed by Giacomo Rossini’s Maometto Secondo in its first full performance in this country. Garsington Opera is famous for Rossini specialities. This will be the twelfth new Rossini production staged here since 1994. The main summer Festival concludes with Englebert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel.

For more details, please see the Garsington Opera at Wormsley website.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Garsington Opera Pavillion

product_title=Douglas Boyd, Artistic Director, Garsington Opera at Wormsley
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Garsington Opera Pavillion

Posted by anne_o at 12:47 PM

April 28, 2013

Elizabeth Connell Memorial Concert, St John's Smith Square

Connell was South African born, based on London for much of her career and with strong ties to Australia, so that the friends and pupils who came together at St John’s Smith Square on 27 April 2013 to celebrate her memory were many and varied.

Proceedings opened with Aivale Cole, one of Connell’s pupils, singing an unaccompanied traditional Samoan piece Lota Nu’a, a powerful and affecting way to open.

Kathryn Harries was the master of ceremonies, introducing items, reading extracts from Connell’s obituary and providing other memories as well as contributing her own solo. The first half of the concert consisted of extracts from operas which were associated with Connell. Sylvie Valayre opened things with "La luce langue" from Verdi’s Macbeth accompanied by Phillip Thomas. A highly dramatic and vivid performance, displaying Valayre’s strong, dark toned voice. The result was sometimes rather stormy and lacked the superb sense of line that I remember from Connell’s own performance of the role.

Veteran tenor Thomas Moser sang "Mein lieber Schwann" from Wagner’s Lohengrin. A very heroic yet beautiful performance, Moser singing with a fine sense of line, burnished tone and ringing top. Baritone David Wakeham contributed Nabucco’s "Dio di Giuda" from Verdi’s opera, singing with a lovely line combined with a vibrant voice and expressive phrasing. He was accompanied by Mark Packwood. Kathryn Harries sang the Kostelnicka’s "Co chvila" from Janacek’s Jenufa. The Kostelnicka was a role which Harries shared with Connell. Harries gave us an intense scena, dramatic and rather brilliant.

After readings for Connell’s obituary in the Guardian, Richard Wiegold sang King Mark’s "Wozu die Dienste ohne Zahl" from Tristan und Isolde accompanied by Stephen Rose. This was a very fine, complex and profoundly moving performance. Wiegold singing with a lovely dark, burnished voice. Tenor Stuart Skelton, with Phillip Thomas at the piano, performed Florestan’s "Gott, welch Dunkel hier" from Beethoven’s Fidelio. Skelton sang with lovely, bright ringing tones, combining power with intensity and subtlety.

The last item in the first half was a role which Connell had come to rather late, but which had become one of her core roles, Turandot. Her pupil, Elisabeth Meister, sang Turandot’s "In questa reggia". Though I never heard Connell as Turandot, Meister’s gleaming tone and superb sense of line recalled what I remember of the virtues of Connell’s singing. It was a vibrant performance, implacable yet not strident, with impressive evenness of control.

For the second half, the concert tried to encompass other aspects of Connell’s character and art, starting with her sense of humour. We opened with a remembrance of her from Peter Robinson, then Robinson and Linnhe Robinson (members of a dining club with Connell), playing the Faure / Messager Souvenirs de Bayreuth. A delightful way of including to a reference to the Ring cycle in the concert (Brunnhilde and Sieglinde being amongst Connell’s roles).

Further humour followed, with Yvonne Kenny giving a delightful performance of Gershwin’s By Strauss accompanied by Linnhe Robertson. A masterly performance with a lovely shaped line combined with a fine attention to the words.

Fiona James, who had sung Adalgisa to Connell’s Norma on tour in Australia, gave us some charming examples of Connell’s sense of humour. James went on to announce details of the Elizabeth Connell Prize. Under the terms of Elizabeth’s Connell’s will, this is to encourage and assist aspiring dramatic sopranos of the world. The final of the inaugural competition will take place in 2014 in Sydney when five singers will compete for a prize of 20,000 Au$. The Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Foundation will administer the prize, and in fact Richard Bonynge was present at the concert in St John’s Smith Square.

More humour followed, with David Wakeham returning, accompanied by Mark Packwood, to give masterly performances of Tom Lehrer’s She’s my girl and I take your hand in mine, with nicely pointed words combined with a lovely line and a wonderfully deadpan manner.

Connell’s work as a recitalist was honoured in the next segment of the programme. Christine Teare and Mark Packwood gave a big-hearted performance of Richard Strauss’s Allerseelen. Morgan Pearse, accompanied by Eugene Asti, displayed an amazingly dark and vibrant baritone voice in a moving performance of Finzi’s Fear no more the head of the sun.

Penelope Randall-Davis, accompanied by Stephen Rose, gave a vibrant account of Handel’s "Ma quando tornerai" from Alcina. Jeffrey Black and Eugene Asti gave a rather operatic performance of Schubert’s Standchen. Tessa Uys, a friend of Connell’s from South Africa, gave a poetic account of Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat, D 899.

Turkish soprano Tulay Uyar is another of Connell’s pupils. She has a lovely bright toned lyric voice and gave a vividly dramatic account of "Tiger! Wetze nur die Klauen" from Mozart’s Zaide, accompanied by Richard Hetherington. Two Massenet songs came next. Tenor Julian Gavin and Linnhe Robertson in "Pensée d’automne" and Sally Silver and Eugene Asti in a lovely account of "Ivre d’amour".

Thomas Moser, accompanied by Phillip Thomas, sang "She walks in loveliness" by Ernest Charles. And the solo contributions concluded with Sally Silver accompanied by Tessa Uys singing a traditional South African lullaby "Thula Thula", a song associated with Connell’s youth.

Proceedings concluded with all the singers returning to sing the chorus "Va, pensiero" from Verdi’s Nabucco conducted by Peter Robinson with Stephen Rose at the piano. A fine conclusion to a memorable concert in memory of a fine artist.

Robert Hugill


Elizabeth Connell Memorial Concert
Samoan Traditional: Lota Nu’u
Verdi: La Luce langue (Macbeth)
Wagner: Mein liebe Schwan (Lohengrin)
Verdi: Dio di Giuda (Nabucco)
Janacek: Co Chvila (Jenufa)
Wagner: Wozu di Dienste ohne Zahl (Tristan und Isolde)
Beethoven: Gott, welch Dunke hier (Fidelio)
Puccini: In questa reggia (Turandot)
Faure/Messager: Souvenirs de Bayreuth
Gershwin: By Strauss
Tom Lehrer: She’s my girl
Tom Lehrer: I take your hand in mine
Richard Strauss: Allerseelen
Finzi: Fear no more the heat of the sun
Handel: Ma quando tornerai (Alcina)
Schubert: Standchen
Schubert: Impromtu in G flat, D 899
Mozart: Tiger! Wetze nur di Klauen (Zaide)
Massenet: Pensee d’automne
Massenet: Ivre d’amour
Ernest Charles: She walks in loveliness
Trad: Thula Thula
Verdi: Va, pensiero, (Nabucco)

Aivale Cole (soprano)
Sylvie Valayre (soprano)
Thomas Moser (tenor)
David Wakeham (baritone)
Kathyrn Harries (soprano)
Richard Wiegold (bass)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Elisabeth Meister (soprano)
Yvonne Kenny (soprano)
Christine Teare (soprano)
Morgan Pearse (baritone)
Penelope Randall-Davies (soprano)
Jeffrey Black (baritone)
Tulay Uyar (soprano)
Julian Gavin (tenor)
Sally Silver (soprano)
Peter Robinson (conductor/piano)
Phillip Thomas (piano)
Mark Packwood (piano)
David Gowland (piano)
Richard Hetherington (piano)
Stephen Rose (piano)
Linnhe Robertson (piano)
Eugene Asti (piano)
Tessa Uys (piano)
St. John’s Smith Square, London
27 April 2013

image_description=Elizabeth Connell [Photo by Clive Barda]

product_title=Elizabeth Connell Memorial Concert, St John's Smith Square
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Connell [Photo by Clive Barda]

Posted by anne_o at 5:35 PM

April 25, 2013

Aida with all the Trimmings, Even a Blue Silk Elephant!

With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces. The Khedive’s theater opened with Verdi’s already well-known Rigoletto, and he still did not have a work that was written specifically for Egypt. French Egyptologist Auguste-Edouard Mariette presented the ruler with a scenario for an Egyptian opera that may well have actually been written by a seasoned librettist, and Verdi was contacted. This time not only did the Khedive offer an enormous amount of money, it was also noted that the offer would go to Charles Gounod if Verdi did not accept.

Verdi could not let that happen, so he then agreed to compose the opera for 150, 000 lire. Since Verdi’s choice of a librettist would only receive 20,000 lire, the high price paid the composer becomes obvious. Although the composer would not be required to go to Cairo, he was asked send a representative to oversee the rehearsals and performance. One of the reasons he did not go to Egypt for the premiere was that the entire audience was made up of dignitaries, politicians, and critics. Verdi wrote the title role of Aida for Teresa Stolz, but she did not go to Cairo either. For her and for Verdi, the real opening night was the premiere of Aida at La Scala in Milan on February 8, 1872. Needless to say, both openings were tremendously successful.

On April 23, 2013, San Diego Opera presented Verdi’s Aida in a production originally staged by Jo Davies, but directed in this city by Andrew Sinclair. The colorful and imaginative scenic and costume design was by Zandra Rhodes and the striking wigs by Stephen Bryant. A good Aida production is a grand spectacle. This was no exception and it was truly spectacular right down to the Triumphal Scene’s blue silk elephant! This was one production in which the visual art on the stage was of the same caliber as the excellent singing of some of the world’s finest artists. The only question I had about the scenery had to do with the final scene in the dark tomb. I did not see any structure holding the couple prisoner.

Director Andrew Sinclair added some interesting bits of staging. There was a human sacrifice with some “blood” in the Temple of Vulcan, and Amonasro was stabbed before he could escape to Ethiopia. The Aida, Latonia Moore, had a large enveloping lyric voice with which she floated piannissimi seemingly at will. Her sound soared over entire ensembles and she dominated the stage with her presence. Not only is her singing a joy to hear, she can act as well and she made us feel for her plight as a prisoner of war.

As Radames, Walter Fraccaro was a strong military leader who sang with a substantial, if not really beautiful, sound. Like Moore, mezzo-soprano Jill Groves has a large voice with interesting colors and overtones. She was a haughty Amneris who completely lost her heart to Radames. She paced her singing well and her Judgment Scene was the culmination of a fine rendition of the role. Mark S. Doss is a good singer who can create a memorable character on the stage. His Amonasro was always surrounded by an aura of danger and he sang with a dark dramatic sound. Ramfis, the High Priest was a very powerful man and Reinhard Hagen commanded the stage with definitive bass notes and a strong presence.

Kenneth Heidecke’s choreography was appropriate to each of the scenes in which there was dancing. The chorus has a huge part to play in this opera and Chorus Master Charles Prestinari had several groups representing Egyptians and their Ethiopian prisoners singing Verdi’s glorious harmonies while their characters were at odds with each other. With this production, conductor Daniele Callegari made a most successful San Diego Opera debut. His tempi were brisk but never too fast. He gave the singers room to breathe and never covered their softer tones. As a result of all of these excellent artists working together, San Diego Opera patrons enjoyed a truly memorable performance of this spectacular work.

Maria Nockin

Click here for cast and production information.

image_description=Latonia Moore is Aida [ Photo © Ken Howard]

product_title=Aida with all the Trimmings, Even a Blue Silk Elephant!
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Latonia Moore is Aida

Photos © Ken Howard

Posted by maria_n at 8:37 PM

April 24, 2013

Opera Awards, London 2013

The Opera Awards were founded by John Allison (editor of Opera Magazine) and Harry Hyman (of the Nexus Group) to promote opera as an art form, to widen the audience for opera and recognise opera throughout the world. An additional aim was to raise money for a new fund which will provide bursaries to young performers. The inaugural awards took place on 22 April 2013 at London’s Hilton Hotel on Park Lane, To an audience of over 700, awards were presented in 22 categories, the range and depth of the nominations indicating the seriousness of the awards’ intent. Many of the nominees attended the awards, giving an opportunity to rub shoulders with well known opera professionals such as Joyce DiDonato, Sarah Connolly, Jonas Kaufmann and Antonio Pappano was well as such eminent luminaries as Dame Janet Baker and Sir George Christie (of Glyndebourne Opera).

My evening started with a pair of interviews. First of all Nicky Spence, a young Scottish tenor who is the ambassador for the awards. Spence has been making a name for himself recently in Europe and will be making his Metropolitan Opera debut in the autumn in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys. Spence raised a point which was echoed many times during the evening, that these are the first awards to have opera at their centre, and they are dedicated to all aspects of opera. He also praised the way that the new fund would provide bursaries for young singers in a time of ‘wartime rations for the arts’.

But for Spence, a singer of great personal charm, the awards were also a chance to socialise, commenting that ‘As opera is a huge family its great to be able to catch up with the opera community as a whole. Nice to put your glad rags on without the prospect of having to avenge your Father’s murder or pretend to make love to a baritone.’

Next I was lucky enough to be able to interview mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, one of the nominees for in the Female Singer category. She commented how lovely it was to be involved in the awards at the ground level, participating in a year which will help define the awards in the future. The seriousness of the awards was indicated by the range of those who had been nominated and that it was an honour to be included.

We also talked about how this is something of a Scottish year for DiDonato, she has recently performed the title role in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera, she will shortly be singing Elena in a new production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at Covent Garden and will return to the role of Maria Stuarda next season, this time at Covent Garden. DiDonato finds that repeating such roles, especially with different directors, helps her to deepen her characterisation. When asked what her ideal role would be she promptly said Scarpia, then laughed, adding that she currently has her hands full getting to do so many wonderful things. But that she would like to do more dramatic Rossini.

Just before the awards dinner I caught up with British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly (also a nominee for the Female Singer category). She commented that earlier on she too had been asked about her dream job, but that she was doing it already. Connolly’s year has included Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Medee (both for English National Opera) and Fricka in Der Ring des Nibelungen at Covent Garden.

Before and after dinner, entertainment was provided by young singers from the National Opera Centre. The ballroom at the Hilton Hotel is not an ideal acoustic but we heard some fine young voices in music by Rossini, Bizet and Offenbach.

Then it was time for the main event, the awards themselves.

Harry Hyman talked of how he had founded the awards to promote opera as an art-form, to widen the audience, to recognise opera throughout the world and to set up the bursary programme. He commented that the timing could not have been worse. But it was important and urgent now that the arts were under pressure, that there was a real need to celebrate artistic success, to make opera more approachable and to thank those who make opera possible through philanthropy. He commended the three main elements which had made the awards possible, the high quality of the entries, the rigorous judges and the generous sponsors.

John Allison said that the aim of the awards was to be as international as possible. Though each country had its own particular challenges, there was one topic in common - money. But that playing safe led to artistic poverty. The awards wanted to celebrate diversity, new and emerging artists needed support and they wished to celebrate great performers. Of course, though they could not recognise all areas they wished to also include the unsung and the non-singing. He finished with a fascinating thought, that great art requires risk taking and that if a company did not fail a few times it wasn’t trying enough.

The awards were presented by Nicholas Owen who presents a programme on the radio station Classic FM. The recipients made no speeches, with Owen simply providing a summary of the judges’ comments.

The Readers Award went to Jonas Kaufmann, who collected the award in person. The Award for World Premiere went to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin which was premiered at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012.

The Young Singer award went to British soprano Sophie Bevan, who collected her award in person. She was described as having a lovely voice and an engaging personality with a commitment to giving a dramatic performance. Another young professional, conductor Daniele Rustioni, described as having great leadership potential, received the Newcomer Conductor or Director award.

Netherlands Opera’s production of Rimsky Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, received the new production award. The judges thought it the production of a lifetime, brilliantly executed by cast, chorus and orchestra.

The CD (Complete Opera) award went to Handel’s Alessandro on Decca, conducted by George Petrou. The CD Recital award went to Christian Gerhaher’s Romantic Arias which in the judges’ opinion married a peerless voice with meticulous programming and the singer’s quiet communication.

Cape Town Opera received the Chorus award. The judges commended the energy and commitment of the chorus, showing why a chorus can be the backbone of any company. The Conductor award went to Sir Antonio Pappano whose versatility, wide range of repertoire and his inspiring of a wide range of singers were commented on by the judges.

The Metropolitan Opera won the Access award. The judges referred to the way the Met was extending its reach and brand, creating a life-line to opera where opera is seldom performed.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden’s DVD of Puccini’s Il Trittico, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano and directed by Richard Jonas, on Opus Arte, won the DVD award. For the judges it captured and enhanced the vivid contrasts of an integrated ensemble.

The Lighting Design award went to Paule Constable who was described as a painter in light in the service of the director and the piece. Antony McDonald won the Set Designer award. For the judges he was one of the best designers around, creating striking, beautiful, dramatically potent designs. Costume Design award went to Buki Schiff, commended for her fantastically inventive style and attention to details.

The Festival award went to the Salzburg Festival which the judges thought had injected a new dynamic into one of the oldest and most prestigious festivals. The Philanthropist award was received by Sir Peter Moores for his 50 years of support for innovation in opera, accessibility and the opening of doors, making opera possible.

The Rediscovered Work was Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas performed by Les Arts Florissants. The Orchestra Award, presented by Dame Janet Baker, went to the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The orchestra was described as consistently good and rising to new heights. The Opera Company award went to Oper Frankfurt, a prime example today of a proper ensemble revitalised for the 21 century.

Jonas Kaufmann collect his second award, for Male Singer, being described a phenomenon for his intelligence, range of vocal colours and wide range of roles. Female singer went to Nina Stemme, an astonishingly versatile artist and the world’s leading Wagnerian soprano.

The lifetime achievement award went to Sir George Christie who was chairman of Glyndebourne Opera from 1958 to 1999. In his speech of thanks Sir George said that the award meant a great deal to him, coming from jurors who were also critics who had on many occasions taken him to task. he also thanked his wife and his parents, Sir John and Lady Christie, who founded Glyndebourne.

Robert Hugill

Posted by anne_o at 9:03 AM

April 23, 2013

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera

But, with the oft-exhumed sets now looking rather creased and crumpled, on this occasion some of the sparkle seemed to have rubbed off.

ZAUBERFLOTE_ROH_1197.pngEkaterina Siurina as Pamina

Dedicated to the late Sir Colin Davis (who conducted the premiere and the most recent revival in 2011), this performance was at times disappointingly lacklustre: the crescent moon gleamed and glinted, the sumptuous tableaux impressed, the choreography was slick, but overall there was an absence of simple youthful vitality and dreamy enchantment.

Conductor Julia Jones established some brisk tempi; she was perhaps a bit too swift for her players at the start, for the opening three ‘knocks at the door’ were rather messy, lacking in masonic authority and imperiousness. Certainly there was tension and anxiety during Tamino’s tussle with the serpent, but elsewhere Jones might have adopted a more spacious, composed approach — for there the opera presents much farce and fury but also sobriety and solemnity.

Reprising the role of Papageno, Christopher Maltman was in superb form, relishing the physical and vocal humour and winning over the audience with his mischievous appeal and essential good nature. Maltman’s duet with Ekaterina Siurina (Pamina), ‘Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen’, in which they reflect on the sacred duties and divine purity of marital love, was one of the highlights of the evening — although it did unfortunately expose Siurina’s somewhat unidiomatic German pronunciation alongside Maltman’s immaculate diction.

ZAUBERFLOTE_ROH_0587.pngChristopher Maltman as Papageno and Ekaterina Siurina as Pamina

Siurina’s soprano is wonderfully rounded and rich — and she possesses a similarly beautiful, touching pianissimo too, as she proved in a deeply heart-rending ‘Ach, ich fuhls’. She can bring a characterful glint to her voice, but to my ear the overall tone was a little too full for the role and her stage persona rather too assertive and spirited.

The same was true of her Tamino, Charles Castronovo, who strode the stage with the same confident ease with which he vocally assailed the melodic heights; but, while his athleticism and purposefulness brought some expedient dynamism to the production, surely Tamino is a prince learning his heroic craft rather than a king who has already earned his stripes. After a slightly hesitant start musically, Castronovo’s tone was gracious and dignified, and his articulation of the text matched Maltman’s for clarity. Technically secure throughout, his Act 1 aria ‘Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön’ was certainly ardent but a little lacking in youthful freshness.

Albina Shagimuratova was a pitch-perfect Queen of the Night, dispatching the coloratura extravagances of ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ with grace and buoyancy. Her effortless runs did not always convey the necessary glint of latent malevolence, however, and she made a less striking dramatic impact than one might have expected. ‘Der Hölle Rache’ was less polished technically but the tone was still gleaming and sweet.

ZAUBERFLOTE_ROH_0565.pngAlbina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night

As Sarastro, Brindley Sherratt, singing with rich lyricism and poise, was suitably dignified but like Shagimuratova, at times needed more stage presence and profundity. Peter Hoare deftly emphasised the hyperactive hypocrisy of the villainous Monostatos.

The minor roles were all laudable with Sebastian Holocek a distinctive Speaker, and David Butt Philip and Jihoon Kim commendable in the roles of the First and Second Armed Man respectively. Susana Gaspar overcame the ugly inaptness of her Essex-girl attire as a perky Papagena who wins over her Papageno.

Overall, this production is beautiful to the eye and ear, but despite the zippy tempi it felt rather weary; time has dulled the magic dust.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production:

Tamino — Charles Castronovo; First Lady — Anita Watson; Second Lady — Hanna Hipp; Third Lady — Gaynor Keeble; Papageno — Christopher Maltman; Queen of the Night — Albina Shagimuratova; Pamina — Ekaterina Siurina; Monostatos — Peter Hoare; First Boy — Archie Buchanan; Second Boy — Luciano Cusack; Third Boy — Filippo Turkheimer; Speaker of the Temple — Sebastian Holecek; Sarastro — Brindley Sherratt; First Priest— Harry Nicoll; Second Priest— Donald Maxwell Pagagena — Susana Gaspar; First Man in Armour — David Butt Philip; Second Man in Armour — Jihoon Kim; Conductor —Julia Jones; David McVicar — Director; Leah Hausman — Revival & Movement Director; John Macfarlane — Designs; Paule Constable — Lighting Design. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday, 16th April 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ZAUBERFLOTE_ROH_1015.png image_description=Charles Castronovo as Tamino [Photo © ROH / Mike Hoban] product=yes product_title=Die Zauberflöte, Royal Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Charles Castronovo as Tamino

Photos © ROH / Mike Hoban
Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

A Chat with Aida Designer Zandra Rhodes

She had mannequins hanging from above dressed in her clothes. One of them was being costumed for Aida since she was speaking on her designs for that opera in the theater that evening. She said she was preparing things that would bring the right atmosphere to the theater for her talk.

MN: Have you always been interested in art, design, and music?

ZR: I came to music later than to art and design. When I first came to San Diego I hardly knew anything about opera, but I’ve been here more than twenty years now. By chance, my partner, Sallah Hassanein, and I got to know Ian and Ann Campbell. Ian is the general director of San Diego Opera. I invited them to dinner one Saturday evening and was told that they were terribly sorry they could not come because the opera was opening that night. We ended up joining them in the theater instead. Ian suggested we come to the pre-performance patrons’ dinner, after which he would show us around backstage. Sallah was so impressed that he immediately became a member of the Patron Program. Now we subscribe to the opera and go to all the openings. Opera is one of those art forms that requires familiarity. Once you can hum along with the music, a piece takes on a life of its own. For example, Bizet’s The Pearlfishers originally had few showings. Only when theater managers discovered that the same composer’s Carmen did well, did they give Pearlfishers a second chance. Now they both have music that people recognize.

MN: What was the first opera to use your designs?

ZR: My first foray into opera was The Magic Flute, which San Diego Opera invited me to design in 1999. It was seen there in 2001. Those costumes were used in Seattle last year.

Next I did The Pearlfishers for San Diego. I did the original drawings in my sketchbook using felt tipped pens on rice paper. Then those drawings were blown up and made into the stage settings. I knew that they needed to be very fresh. After that, the head of Opera Pacific who had seen my work at San Diego said I would be perfect for Aida. I then designed Aida for him and for Houston Grand Opera. That’s the same production that is now in San Diego. It has also been at English National Opera where it was their most popular opera for the Christmas season. They kept it for an extra year before sending it to San Francisco. From there it went to San Diego.

My partner was born in Egypt. He and I had visited that country in 1985. While there I made many sketches, even going down into some of the tombs and drawing what I saw there. Two years later, I did an Egyptian fashion collection called Secrets of the Nile. One of my tomb sketches showed a man with a leopard skin stretched across his body. I did a print that I called Tutankhamun’s Leopard for the dress show. For Aida I got those screens out again and the mock leopard skins that I printed at my studio in London now adorn the chests of the priests. I think that when you see the opera you will agree that it looks like my idea of ancient Egypt and that my designs fit the time and the place.

MN: How do you design for singers who are not built like fashion models?

ZR: When I was designing the costumes for Houston, Dolora Zajick was singing Amneris. I drew caftans for her, but she wanted something much more fitted. We then worked with some lovely corset belts and flowing hand-painted capes with thousands of feathers. I think my Aida does look a bit like ancient Egypt, which was probably bright and colorful. We don’t really know what colors they had, but they did have pleating and I’m sure they had tattoos. In the tomb pictures, the priests had turquoise zigzags on their bald heads.

MN: What is the process that takes an opera set from a drawing to the piece seen on stage?

ZR: First of all the stage director has to approve of the designer’s work. Either a director chooses me, or an opera company director like Ian Campbell puts me together with his choice of a director. I meet with the director and he tells me his concept for the production. I go back to my studio and begin sketching my ideas for the piece. When I have my initial drawings done, we have another meeting. It’s important that the director feel inspired by the designs. When he says, “I like this” and continues with, “Try this and that,” we get together with the person who will actually build the set. In San Diego that is John David Peters. He may say, “You’ve got this problem” or “That might work.” For Aida my job was to come up with initial sketches and ideas of how Egypt should look on stage. That is where the sketches from my 1985 trip came in handy. Since opera is larger than life, you can add larger-than-life details and that’s very exciting. Aida is full of lovely surprises. When that Triumphal March happens you think, “I can’t believe this!” Opera is a leap of the imagination.

MN: Where is the Zandra Rhodes Textile Museum?

ZR: It’s on Bermondsey Street in London. Designed by Mexican architect Riccardo Legorreta, it has orange and pink walls. I felt that London needed some color, so I went to a master of colorful architecture. Right now we have an exhibition of fabulous tapestry work. After that, in July, there will be a show called Zandra Seen and Unseen featuring works of mine that London has not seen before. I also have a traveling show called A Lifelong Love Affair with Textile that was at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego. It went to Boston last year. Now, it’s going to Kuala Lumpur because shoe designer Jimmy Chu visited me in my studio to ask for it. It has already been seen at the Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City. I also have art prints from my drawings on display at the University Club in San Diego.

MN: What advice do you have for young designers?

ZR: The main thing is not to give up. If you believe in your talent enough, you have to make sure to do all your work and push, push, push!

image_description=Zandra Rhodes [Photo by Gene Nocon]

product_title=A Chat with Aida Designer Zandra Rhodes
product_by=An Interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Zandra Rhodes [Photo by Gene Nocon]

Posted by maria_n at 11:53 AM

April 19, 2013

Brindley Sherratt - Sarastro at the Royal Opera House

“Inside, I’m quietly screaming with excitement" says Sherratt. " It’s a dream come true. Thirty years ago, when I was a student, I used to sit up in the gods, where the seats were £5 and I needed binoculars. I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to sing Sarastro here but at that point I had no idea it would ever happen. Now, I’ve done the part more than any other. This is the seventh production I’ve sung it in”. He is soon to make his Vienna State Opera debut in this role. “I love singing Sarastro”, he smiles. Singing at the Royal Opera House is special, too. “I don’t think there’s a singer who doesn’t like working here, because they support you so well. I feel so honoured and privileged”.

“In December, I was in Amsterdam in the Nederlandse Oper Die Zauberflöte directed by Simon McBurney. It was pretty big and we had lots of actors and dancers on stage, but this Royal Opera House production is bigger and grander in every way. This set is colossal, and the scale and costumes are amazing. My costume must weigh 25 kilos. I’ve done Magic Flutes that have had a much more chamber feel to them, but this one feels right for a theatre this size, and I like it. David McVicar’s productions are very easy for a singer to fit into. He knows how voices work , and where it’s good for you to be singing from. It’s all ironed out and paced, it’s great”.

“I think Sarastro is an ambiguous person, and I like productions that show that side of him. I’ve been in productions where they cast him as very severe and very remote. In Hamburg, I was a giant. I climbed up a ten metre ladder and stepped into a torso, with my head above, and had a metre high hat. There were these little arms which were controlled by a man inside. So all the time I was singing, he would make the gestures.” Sherratt demonstrates, singing I had to do “Ihr, in dem Weisheitstempel eingeweihten Diener der großen Göttin Osiris und Isis! “ with exaggerated deliberation. “I had to speak the dialogue in that way, too”, he adds. “It wasn’t a touchy-feely Sarastro”.

“In Amsterdam I sang a more rounded, tender Sarastro, but keeping a middle ground so you keeping thinking who he is. Is he the villain or the Queen of the Night? I like to keep that ambiguity, because when Sarastro does lose his temper, it’s more dramatic. We come from a society where we forgive those who have strayed and restore them but Sarastro blows up instead and wants Monostatos to be given 77 lashes on the soles of his feet. It also gives you a chance to roar !”. Sherratt’s voice drops to a stage whisper. “It doesn’t help the voice trying to sound meek and mild”,

“The arias are glorious”, says Sherratt, “But you need more. In theory, Sarastro looks easy enough on the page. When you run through with piano, it seems like chord, chord, and a lovely line, but on stage, it’s completely different. You could be stuck up on top of a tower or right at the back of the stage in a large theatre, wearing a huge robe, competing with two bassoons, three trombones and a mass of low strings, and you have to sing above all that. The tessitura in "O Isis und Osiris" is so low that you have to cut through every mini-break in that part of the voice and smooth it out to make a beautiful line, it takes a lot of control”.

Bass roles resound with character. Another role Sherratt sings particularly well is Pimen, in Mussorgsky Boris Gudonov. “Pimen needs depth of character. You have to be prepared to slow everything down and think like a very old man The colour of the voice requires a sense of age-old tragedy. Pimen is a man who has been seen the best and the worst in people. When I sing him I still get choked up at the end when the off stage priests start singing the Orthodox chants. It’s incredibly moving. It’s the darkness of the sound and the richness of low male voices and the music. My agent asked me if I wanted to sing Boris, and I thought, yes, he gets dressing room number one and the title role, but I’d be thinking “Gosh, I miss Pimen!” laughs Sherratt.

Sherratt sang Pimen with an all-Russian cast at the Opéra de Nice, with Gennady Rozhdestvensky. “I was the only non-Russian speaker and it took a huge amount of work, but it was a wonderful experience. Rozhdestvensky knew exactly how the role should be done. He was so helpful, and also very funny and warm. Sherratt first sang the role at the English National Opera with great success. “Singing it in Russian is totally different”, his eyes lighting up with relish. “I’m singing it again soon at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich”.

“I followed a very unusual path to where I am now” says Sherratt. “I was raised, as were my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, in the Salvation Army. I was brought up entirely in that environment, steeped in its music and traditions. We lived on a council estate ten miles outside Manchester, Raised in a strict Salvation Army family, my sisters and I weren’t naughty. I used to spend my time playing my cornet and singing, several times on Sunday and rehearsing during the week. It was great to be part of that extended family, and it was the best free music education you could get”.

“The trumpet was my first love”, he adds, “I wanted to become a professional player, so I worked hard and applied to the Royal Academy. The man who was preparing me for the audition said that I had to study a second subject, Since I was terrible playing piano - only grade two or three - he suggested that since I’d been singing all my life, I should study it properly. He handed me "O Isis und Osiris", and I learned it then, before the audition. But I got into the Royal Academy and spent three years majoring as a trumpeter. Then my singing teacher put me up for an opera competition, But I won i! It was a complete shock to me. Suddenly everyone was saying, “who is this guy?”. I was surprised too but I won it and singing jobs starting coming my way. Someone from Glyndebourne heard me and offered me a place, but I was only 20, and another job came up : singing at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, for the Queen. I’d met the love of my life, and the job came with a house in the grounds of the castle, so I got married. I could still study during the day because I sang Evensong and on Sundays. It was a doddle !"

"But singing in that very restrained, slow style affected my voice and I realized that I had to move on. At that time I was very unsure technically, but I had a good natural voiuce and was keen to sing other things. Then I won the Countess of Munster scholarship at the Royal Academy and could afford to move on. Then another good job came up with the BBC Singers”.

The BBC Singers are one of the most important all-round choirs in Britain, with extremely high standards and a formidably varied repertoire. “At the time I was there, there were some really good voices among the basses. Jeremy White joined at the same time, and Peter Harvey”. As did Sarah Connolly, with whom Sherratt recently sang Charpentier’s Médée at the English National Opera. “The variety of repertoire at the BBC Singers was like a breath of fresh air. Jeremy took me to his teacher, Betty Fleming, who taught me Italian bel canto technique which she’d learned from Joseph Hislop and those masters of the past”

“I stayed with the BBC Singers for 13 years. Jeremy and Sarah left before I did and started doing well, but I had a young family by that stage. Then when I was in my mid thirties, my father died. I nursed him through the last six months of his life, and it started me thinking what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My wife said I needed to do something new. People had always been saying I should sing opera, and I’d kept my voice in trim singing Messiahs, Verdi Requiems, and Haydn Creations. I hadn’t compromised my voice by singing what wasn’t right for it, and I was continuing to develop my technique. Eventually the BBC gave me a chance to launch my career. They gave me six months unpaid leave and held the job open, knowing that with a young family I couldn’t just jump into the unknown. I knew David Syrus (now Head of Music for the Royal Opera House) and we worked together developing my repertoire. I got a job at the Welsh National Opera, understudying parts like Leporello”.

“In 1999, things started to take off. John Eliot Gardiner gave me something in his Bach projects, and Trevor Pinnock took me round the world, singing more than 20 performances of St Matthew’s Passion. Then I auditioned for the Royal Opera House. My first role there was a small part in Haydn l'anima del filosofo, and later Publio in La clemenza di Tito. Anna Netrebko was making her ROH debut, and Barbara Frittoli and Bruce Ford were singing, and Colin Davis was conducting. They were all standing around the piano. I suddenly froze. I had all their CDs and here I was, two years out of the BBC Singers. The director came up to me and said, “Can I give you some advice ?” Sherratt whispers as he recalls the moment. “Shove off and forget it!” “He was right. It shook me up but it was what I needed. Then I started singing Sarastro and Gremion, at the WNO which was a big success. That was amazing, I’d never heard applause like that. All this time I was still building up muscle in my voice. Although I had no technical issues, I needed to build up the power to sing in a big house. John Tomlinson was a great help, and Robert Lloyd and Gwynne Howell, and David Syrus. People I’d worshipped for years!”

“The hard thing for basses is that if you’re in a big house and the orchestra is really going for it, we can’t fall back on big top B flats that we can just sail out. We have to produce two octaves of penetrating power and that doesn’t come easily or quickly. I’m 50 now and I’d say that my voice has changed in the last two years in terms of developing the power and range in the top that would carry in big houses”.

“Fortunately, basses last longer, thank goodness. There’s John Tomlinson still doing big roles and Gwynne Howell, whom I heard in the ENO Martinu Julietta last year, he’s 74. Robert Lloyd was singing Sarastro at 72. Sometimes I wonder if I should have switched earlier, but I had a very stable home life with my family when they were young. Now I’m travelling all the time, singing all over the world, and am hardly ever in Britain for long, though I’m singing Claggart at Glyndebourne this season”.

Bass roles convey depth of character, so singing them may only come from life experience. “You have to have lived to be a bass”, says Sherratt. “Sarastro, Pimen, Phillip, Fiesco, Sparafucile - they all have had something broken in them to make them what they are. I’ve lost my parents and one of my daughters has been ill. If you have spent many scary nights in hospital, that gives you a place to go to inside when you are singing something very sad or frightening”.

“When I started singing, I liked doing concerts. My biggest fear was not having the score in front of me and being alone. But what terrified me then is actually liberating. Now, I find that being in character frees you to sing better on stage. I feel now that I need to act to sing well. It’s exhilarating to get into a role. I love working things out with directors and conductors and finding new ways into the parts I sing”.

Anne Ozorio

For more information on Brindley Sherratt, including his appearances at Santa Fe, the Met and major European houses, please see here.

For more information on the Royal Opera House Mozart Die Zauberflöte, please see here.


Posted by anne_o at 9:05 PM

London: Music under the shadow of Handel

This is a part of the series of lectures and concerts, European Capitals of Music. Famous musical capitals provide the framework for this series of lectures with live music.

Posted by Gary at 12:28 PM

April 18, 2013

Superb BBC Proms 2013 season

No secret as to what the biggest draw of the 2013 Proms would be - Wagner, almost the complete works. Daniel Barenboim, Proms favourite and great Wagner conductor, will lead the Staatskappelle Berlin through the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen. The one to really go for will be Die Walküre on 22/7 and Götterdämmerung on 28/7 because of the casts. Bryn Terfel, Nina Stemme, Eric Halfvarson, Simon O'Neill, Anja Kempe, Ekaterina Gruberova. Ian Storey, Mikhail Petrenko, Waltraud Meier (Waltraute) and many others. If this Ring isn't enough, there's Tristan und Isolde on 27/7 with Peter Seiffert, Kwangchul Youn, and Violetta Urmana. Semyon Bychov conducts the BBCSO, BBC Singers and chorus. There's a Tannhäuser, too, on 4/8 and of course Das Rheingold and Seigfried good and worth hearing, though not quite in this special league. Mark Ellder conducts the Hallé in Parsifal on 25/8 (Prom 47) with Lars Cleveman, Katarina Dalayman, Robert Holl and Iain Paterson.

Equally significant will be two very special Proms, Prom 4 on 14/7 (Bastille Day) and Prom 12 on 20/7. At the first, Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps will be framed by by ballet music from operas by Lully, Rameau, Délibes, and Massenet. This will be a significant Prom because the conductor François-Xavier Roth is a specialist in this repertoire, and brings with him the ensemble Les Siècles. For some reason, it's fashionable these days to discount the central importance of dance in French music. But the special connection goes back to the baroque, and helps define the character of French form. As Diaghilev was a well aware, Paris was where reputations were made.

The second special Prom will be "Viva Verdi!", where Antonio Pappano conducts his other band, The Academy of St Cecilia in Rome in a programme of Verdi which focuses on the composers non-operatic works, including the Four Sacred Pieces and the orchestral version of Verdi's String quartet. Next season, The Royal Opera House will be doing Verdi's Les vêpres siciliennes. This will be much more than "just another Verdi opera". This is the version with the glorious Four Seasons ballet. This will be a spectacular, because it's a joint venture between ROH, the Royal Ballet and the Danish Ballet, with which ROH Artistic Director Kasper Holten has connections. This Prom has significance beyond itself. On 5/9 (Prom 72) Joseph Calleja sings Verdi arias with the Orchestra sinfonica di Milano Guiseppe Verdi, who'll also be playing extracts of Verdi's orchestral music with Tchaikovsky's Manfred : an interesting juxtaposition.

In comparison The First Night of the Proms seems almost an anti climax, though of course it isn't. It's just overwhelmed by what comes afterwards. At Prom 1, Sakari Oramo will conduct Vaughan Williams A Sea Symphony, a new work by Julian Anderson and two contrasting variations on Paganini (Rachmaninoff and Lutoslawski). Plenty of top level Proms ahead, major repertoire and major performers.

Szymaowski's Symphony No 3 "Song of the Night" on 18/7 with Thomas Søndergård, the fourth performance of the piece in just over a year. John Eliot Gardiner brings together Bach's Easter and Ascension Oratoria on 9th August (closer to the Catholic Feast of the Assumption) featuring the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists. Andrew Davis conducts Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage with a very strong cast. More Tippett on 20/8, with Ian Bostridge singing Britten's Les Illuminations.

Glyndebourne's Britten Billy Budd comes to the Proms on 27/8 (Prom 60) with Jacques Imbrailo who is the most outstanding Billy ever, so transcendently perfect in the role that he eclipses Vere (Mark Padmore) and Claggart (Brindley Sherratt). Towards the end of the season, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra does an all Bach programme conducted by Lorin Maazel. Perhaps the Last Night of the Proms will not be eclipsed this year. In any case the Last Night programme looks livelier than usual. Joyce DiDonato headlines. What a great party this will be with nthe Overture from Der Meistersinger, Verdi's "Va, Pensiero" and Harold Arlen's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" a song that was meant for the Last Night if ever there was.

All BBC Proms will be broadcast internationally online and available on demand for seven days. For more information please follow this link.

Anne Ozorio

Posted by anne_o at 10:59 AM

April 16, 2013

Plácido Domingo sings Nabucco - Royal Opera House

Earlier in the run, the role was taken by Leo Nucci. Domingo and Nucci are almost exactly the same age, but Nucci has been singing Nabucco most of his career. Domingo's voice may be more rounded, but Nucci understand the extremes in the part, and how to express the darker sides of character. Domingo sang Nabucco. Nucci "was" Nabucco, carrying the whole performance by the sheer depth and conviction of his portrayal.

The fire in this performance came from Liudmyla Monastyrska. She an impressively forceful Abigaille on the first night, but as the run has progressed, her approach has developed, and her voice has taken on intense new colours. She isn't the most physically demonstrative of singers, so n amount of direction would animate her stage presence. Instead her reserve becomes part of the characterization. Abigaille isn't lovable. She's ruthless, using power as revenge. Monastyrska uses the fundamental dignity in her voice to create an Abigaille as unyielding as the stone pillars and marble walls around her. When she lights the ring of fire, she gives a glimpse of another Abigaille, made vulnerable by passion. Thus, in the finale, her abject humiliation is truly tragic. When the ensemble stand together and sing, Monastryka makes us feel that Abigaille has found redemption.

This production, directed by Daniele Abbado, has been criticized because it's too modern. But what is Nabucco really about ? The temple has been destroyed, and the people of Judah are taken as captives into foreign exile. As Zaccaria (an excellent Vitalij Kowaljow) remeinds is, it's not the first name the nation has been threatened with annihilation. Moses came out of exile from Egypt. We don't need reminding about the horrors of the 20th century, and Abbado makes no explicit references at all. There's no need to be specific. The bodies that are laid on the ground in Act IV rise again, for they are not dead.

In Nabucco the primary struggle is between the God of Judah and the multiple idols of Babylon. The God of the Jews is so sacred that he's invisible. He is invincible because he is austere and lives in the hearts of his people. This is the absolute crux of the whole story. Gaudy golden idols are false. Men cannot become gods, as Nabucco learns the hard way.

"Gli arredi festivi giù cadano infranti, Il popol di Giuda di lutto s’ammanti!" In Catholic Italy, religion is a kind of public theatre, hence the performing tradition. But Abbado takes his cue from the true meaning of the opera, and from a source that long predates Christianity. If audiences and critics can't cope with an absence of graven idols, that's their problem. To please such folk, Verdi should have rewritten Nabucco in favour of Baal.

Abbado's visual images are austere. There are suggestions of marble towers, the plain plains of a frozen desert at night, monoliths strewn across the stage suggesting multiple ideas : marble plinths, gravestones, the shards of the shattered temple, relics of civilizations long forgotten. Visual literacy is like emotional intelligence : you have to be sensitive to all nuances. For me the abstraction underlined the spiritual nature of the story. Once the eyes are cleansed of gaudy images, one can focus on the subtlety of this staging. The colours may be muted but carefully observed they reveal delicate gradations of colour : washes of pale green and blue over multiple shades of black, white and grey. This is entirely valid, for the text is full of references to starlight, mists and "tepide e molli l'aure dolci del suolo natal!"

Music moves. Abbado expresses this constant movement in the score obliquely through projections that are shown behind the singers, instead of submerging them in busy stage action. Thus the stately, dignified pulse of the central drama unfolds without fuss. The choruses are very precisely directed, the voices particularly well blended..They move and part several times, reflecting the shifts in balance in the music. Verdi was quite specific about the conquerors appearing in disguise. His music reflects this confusion and anguish. It may not work so well on stage (Verdi was only 30 when he wrote the opera) but Abbado is not to be faulted for respecting the composer's intention.,

This is also an extraordinarily musically-informed production. One of the dirty little secrets of the opera world is that audiences don't really listen to the music. Abbado, whose background is more musical than most, deliberately shifts attention to Verdi's music. The Overture is played against a simple backdrops, so we can focus on how it shifts from theme to theme, highlighted by unobtrusive changes in light and colour. Just as the god of Judah is invisible, Verdi's orchestral writing is abstract, but inherently dramatic. That the Royal Opera House Orchestra plays superbly is a given. For conductor Nicola Luisotti, they rose to even greater heights than usual. Abbado's restraint lets the music shine forth. At last, we are hearing Verdi as symphonist, and as a musician.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi : Nabucco
product_id=Click here for cast and production information

Posted by anne_o at 6:29 PM

Kaufmann Wagner

The music continues to grow and evolve around and through those strophes, and for those who know the scores, cutting them off is always a frustration. But it is no longer viable to go into a studio with a full cast, orchestra and chorus to record whole music-dramas in more or less ideal circumstances. There are recordings of full, live performances, but these bring in other problems. Suppose a retake is desirable, as in the recent Salzburg performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, released on video anyway, which (adding insult) was set in a recording studio and yet, this being in fact a live opera house performance, necessarily permitted errors to pass unretaken.

So when a new tenor, a budding Wagner specialist, comes hallo-ing down the road, and his recording company wishes to push him—well, why not? We seem to be living (for the first time in my life) through a happy spate of talented heroic tenor voices and a dearth of sopranos to match them, weight for weight. Decca is betting that Jonas Kaufmann has the popular appeal to sell discs containing Wagner snipped from context, numbers that are more “narrations” than traditional “opera songs.” And who, at the moment, is more appealing in this music than he? One yearns to hear this disc, one is amply rewarded for listening closely—the frustration sets in on repeated hearings, as each cut ends barbarously in mid-melodious flow, like gold snatched by stealth from the wounded Rhine while, in memory, the score continues to more proper climaxes.

After a cautious apprenticeship in the better, smaller Central European opera houses, with an endearing willingness to shine in operas less than frequently revived (Humperdinck’s Königskinder and Schubert’s Fierrabras, for example, both available on DVD), this handsome fellow, a first-rate and thoughtful actor—an explosive Don José, an ardent Des Grieux, a passionate Lohengrin, a desperate Siegmund, a puzzled and, later, anguished, duty-bound Parsifal—shows no sign of jumping the rails, of doing too much too soon, of losing his edge, relaxing his dedication. The singing voice matures as the body does, and at the same pace; singers are punished if they are incautious but they neglect both art and career if they do not strive ambitiously forward. Kaufmann is so careful that the sudden fire of some of his operatic performances can shock: Don José was a coiled spring, exploding; Parsifal a puzzled boy turned abruptly gray and haggard.

The arrival of Kaufmann’s new Wagner disc sent me running back to the unforgotten pleasures of his earlier disc, German Arias, of 2009, under Claudio Abbado. Decca seems eager to forget this earlier recording for reasons unclear; it is barely mentioned (under the title Sehnsucht) on Kaufmann’s official Web site. The repertory with Abbado was more “traditional” in its choice of snippets—besides Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert arias, there were “Winterstürme” from Walküre and narratives from Lohengrin and Parsifal—roles he was about to take on and has now performed to wide acclaim. Perhaps he feels his earlier “takes” were naïve? They are certainly very lovely. The voice was perceptively lighter, freer in its upper limits, the phrasing quite as exquisite as it remains—for a major voice in mid-career, three years is not a very long time. On the new disc, under Donald Runnicles, he makes a point of avoiding all the earlier rep except “In fernem Land,” and he makes a point in that selection of singing an earlier two-verse version of the narration that Wagner halved for the final edition we usually hear today.

Wagner roles come in three sizes: romantic (available to ordinary tenors—Froh and Erik are examples), loud (available to romantic singers who can manage, say, Otello: Lohengrin and Walther are in this class), and heroic (if you haven’t got the goods, don’t try this except in a small well-mic’d studio in East Berlin: Tannhäuser comes to mind). Kaufmann did not seem to have Siegfried or Tristan in his future as recently as the Abbado album, but he is gaining strength. Successful performances in a house the size of the Metropolitan as Siegmund and Parsifal, which fall into the second category, have perhaps given him confidence in his strength, endurance and technique.

Kaufmann’s “baritonal” quality has been controversial, and as with many other tenors who trained as baritones (Caruso, Melchior, Bergonzi, Domingo), he lacks the easy ringing high notes and the desperate-seeming quality of reaching for high C’s and beyond with an almost orgasmic youthful impulsion. The voice is trending to darker qualities, and while he has attained them with an admirably schooled and calculated strategy, he may be obliged to evade them in time. This will cause dissatisfaction in some quarters, among the tenor obsessed, but as the list of his predecessors indicates, it need not do so. For complete persons within a drama, he is a performer worthy whatever fame is currently offered a leading dramatic tenor.

What Kaufmann appears most to enjoy, from both his statements and the evidence of the current album, is the opportunity for inner dialogue, for playing with the character Wagner has devised with words and psychological acumen as well as music. Dynamics go up and down (which speaks well for his Berlin engineers), as if at times he were singing to himself, at other times explaining that self to an audience held spell-struck by his sermon. The Wagner “turn” in Rienzi’s Prayer is a caress of the concept of a knowable, appeal-able God; the ornaments in “Am stillen Herd” are demonstrations of prowess to the sceptical mastersingers—intentionally, no doubt, this is the shallowest of the selections, the one sung most on the surface: Walther has a chip on his shoulder that is not to be heard in Lohengrin’s regretful “In fernem Land.”

Kaufmann’s diction is extraordinary throughout both recordings. I listened to them with a German-speaker who understood each word. They are almost sung-speech, the melodies gliding under the ruminations in soliloquy. Wagner’s narrations seem at times to be his musical response to a study of Shakespearean soliloquy: The poetry is at the service of the thought, the music guides and punctuates but does not rule the form of the poetry. In this way, Wagner’s great monologues resemble what Verdi, also a reader of Shakespeare, was doing with the traditional Italian aria, turning its clichés into self-explorations in song that we overhear rather than have declaimed to us. (That would be a fine conversation for the two 200th-birthday boys: What did you get from Shakespeare? Alas, Wagner and Verdi never quite met, even in Franz Werfel’s captivating 1927 novel, Verdi, in which they sit together, poles apart, through a chilly winter in Venice.)

The most satisfying cuts on this album are the ones most complete by themselves. The solitary Siegfried’s puzzlement about his mysterious ancestry, his affinity for other creatures (which will tell, later, in his similar frankness among deceitful humans)—the man is musing, and his soft and loud dynamics are not the show-off hi-jinks of an operatic figure but a lonely fellow talking to himself, with more speculation in his skull than we ever have reason to credit elsewhere in the drama. If a Siegfried is going to win us over, this is where he must do it. Kaufmann lets us in to the naivety and the purity of Wagner’s hero. We know what everyone else wants from him: What does he want? Human contact with the like-minded someone, somewhere, appears to be the answer.

Less impressive is Siegmund’s “Sword Narration,” if only because, even with superlative engineering, it is hard to accept Kaufmann’s climactic cries of “Wälse!” as something his instrument could possibly produce at this dynamic or extension of breath. It is the weakest selection here, if only because it so naturally implies the duet that follows and we do not get it. Sheer sound, the virtue of bygone heroic tenors like Melchior and Vickers, is not Kaufmann’s specialty: He makes intelligent use of what sound he has. Therefore his enacting of Tannhäuser’s “Rome Narrative,” which has always been stronger with dynamic singers like McCracken, Kollo and Seiffert than with those who simply shouted it out, like Melchior, is tremendously effective. It is not background, it must be followed closely; it is as near to an internal Tannhäuser as we are going to get, and the perfect lead-up to the collapse of his personality that follows in the opera—though we are deprived of it here and some years, I think, must pass before he risks this killing role on stage..

Kaufmann’s attention to text and the signs of strain, mild but distinct, when the music takes him to a place that cannot be easily approached from a baritone grounding make one wonder just where his career will take him. His “Flower Song” in Carmen made the jaw drop when he ascended to floating top notes in effortless breath, and Lohengrin’s exaltation derives a like elegance, as if drawing aside a veil, when the very different lyric tenor sound expresses the indescribable joys of Monsalvat and the holiness of his mission. Lohengrin is, of course, preaching a sermon to an uncomprehending congregation and, like all mystic revelations, this cannot be entirely communicated to those outside the rays of the aura. But a sunny beam does seem to illuminate the words (and the strings accompanying them) and the Deutsches Oper chorus seem properly impressed with it.

The recording concludes with the Wesendonck Lieder as orchestrated by Felix Mottl, a Wagner protégé, with even more references to bits of the Ring and Tristan than occur in the piano version. It is a curious fact that these poems are almost the only music we possess set by Wagner to the text of anyone other than himself. Whatever their quality as poetry, they are not bleeding chunks of greater wholes but separate stories, focused meditations on states of mind. Kaufmann has the opportunity here to develop and complete a thought, to make it his, in a way a Wagnerian excerpt can seldom achieve. Therefore, aside from the sheer beauty of the singing, the close listener will be moved by the childlike tenderness Kaufmann brings to “Der Engel,” the torment and relaxation of “Stehe still!,” the resignation of “Schmerzen.” “Im Treibhaus” is an excellent place to use what technique one has to make a mystical statement, and, without going overboard, Kaufmann twists his voice like a neurasthenic poet wringing her hands. “Träume” also exploits a mystical bent that, as he has demonstrated in Lohengrin and Parsifal, is a special gift of his, of placing his voice in a manner that sounds dreamy and otherworldly, half out of this one. It sets a nice seal on this lovely record as it does on the poems.

John Yohalem


Ein Schwert verhieβ mir der Vater (Die Walküre); Dass der mein Vater nicht ist (Siegfried); Allmächt’ger Vater, blick herab (Rienzi); Inbrunst im Herzen (Rom Narrativ) (Tannhäuser); Am stillen Herd (Die Meistersinger); In fernem Land (original version) (Lohengrin); Wesendonck Lieder (orch. Felix Mottl).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0028947851899.gif Image_description=Kaufmann Wagner [Cover art courtesy of Decca Classics] product=yes product_title=Kaufmann Wagner product_by=Jonas Kaufmann; Deutsches Oper chorus and orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles. product_id=Decca Classics 0289 478 5189 9 [CD] price=$16.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?ordertag=Perfrecom52577-822150&album_id=824826
Posted by Gary at 10:02 AM

April 15, 2013

Sir Colin Davis Dead at 85

[The Telegraph, 15 April 2013]
Sir Colin Davis, who has died aged 85, was one of the grand and cerebral orchestral conductors of the English tradition. He inherited his baton directly from Sir Thomas Beecham and, regardless of fashion or popularity, stuck resolutely to understated elegance both on and off the concert platform.

Posted by Gary at 1:51 PM

April 14, 2013

Michel van der Aa Sunken Garden, ENO London

Much will be made of its technological inventiveness, but don't be distracted. At heart, Sunken Garden is a true opera in the deepest sense. It's about people and how they communicate, or don't communicate as the case may be. As human beings we don't communicate in any one way, but on multiple levels, consciously or unconsciously. We absorb data from all sources, not all of them verbal. What matters is how we process that information. Thus van der Aa, his librettist David Mitchell and his visual effects team create a multi-level, multi-dimensional whole from which we take as much as we can.

We could remain on the surface, like Portia Jacquemain (what a name!). She runs an art gallery but is not an artist. She spouts babble because she can't cope with real communication. We can stop there and snigger. But van der Aa is making a wry joke. Jacquemain (played by Caroline Jay) is shallow. She's estranged form her daughter Amber who seems to make a mess of her life but engages with the world around her, and with the artist Toby Kramer, admirably played by Roderick Williams. Kramer composes with video, in much the way that a composer assembles notes to make music. Like Amber, he cares about people, and wants to find out what's happened to his subject Simon Vines (Jonathan McGovern). Significantly, Zenna Briggs (Katherine Manley) morphs from persona to persona.She starts off as a wealthy patron of the arts, but drops Kramer when he starts getting too close to the truth. It turns out that she's not a patron of the arts at all but a sinister figure who, vampire-like, lives off the psyches of people who think and feel for themselves. .

Don't be distracted by the complex plot. Think of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Nothing seems to make sense, yet there's a crazy sense of momentum, such as one finds in dreams. Like Alice, Kramer descends into a sunken garden hidden below the flyover. Suddenly everything glows in surreal, unnatural colour. The 3D effects aren't a gimmick but an intelligent theatrical commentary. We're in a psychedelic dream where everything is more real and more false. You can escape by taking off the 3D glasses, but how flat things seem in comparison. Even if you can't follow the narrative, seeing the water from the "vertical pond" implode and explode is great theatre. Some of the most effective scenes are fairly straightforward, such as the shots of Roderick Williams against a flat background with diagonal beams.

The technological special effects are themselves a comment on the way we communicate. Kramer films. Amber texts. Jaquemain chatters. In After Life, (reviewed http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/05/michel_van_der_.php) van der Aa used clips of real people talking and spliced them with scripted film. In Sunken Garden, he uses actors whose speech is peppered with inconsequentials. But that's exactly how "real" people speak. The ums and ahs of conversation are part of the process of communication, and of formulating ideas.If we look more closely to these "people" we begin to notice that they, too, are as unnatural as the 3D scenery in the garden. Toby Kramer clearly isn't American fort all his talk of Omaha. Sadaqat Dastani (Stephen Henry) is also a caricature. Mental hospitals aren't that luxurious. And since when did landladies like Rita Wales (Alwyne Taylor) dress in cashmere and pearls and live in National Trust gardens ? Sadaqat is supposed to be insane but he identifies Amber's drawings of the sunken garden and points Kramer to Iris Marinus, the "doctor". It's a gorgeous role for Claron McFadden, who,like Roderick Williams, helped create After Life. She's good at being over the top. He's good at being matter of fact.

Zenna Briggs morphs from persona to persona, til her true malevolent nature is exposed. Katherine Manley sings the difficult part well. Amber (Kate Miller-Heidke) is in real life an indie star who can sing though not with Manley's range. She's not what she seems either. Her hair, make-up and clothes are so unnatural that they're playing roles as well.

Van der Aa's music is very expressive, much more direct and visceral than, say, George Benjamin's Written on Skin (reviewed here). He worked with Louis Andriessen, for whom communication was paramount. Andriessen, for example, was involved with political music theatre where he tried to challenge the normal heirarchy of performance. The sung and spoken text is often unclear. There are no subtitles. You have to struggle to follow what's happening in Sunken Garden, but that's the whole point. As in real life, nothing is clear cut. You have to listen to the music, and assemble all the information in this opera in your own mind. It helps a lot that the conductor was André de Ridder, one of the best new music specialists in Europe, who understands the multi dimensional levels in this tightly constructed score.

Van der Aa's Sunken Garden is so different that it would be a miracle if everyone could respond to it in the same way. But perhaps the secret is to enter its strange world on its own terms. In the real world, we communicate in many different ways other than through words alone. We listen to all kinds of verbal and non verbal signals, and we use visual and subconscious images. Sunken Garden is good opera because it transports us into an artist's vision and makes us engage with our feelings. Or not, if we prefer.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Micahel van der Aa : Sunken Garden ENO London
product_id=Click here for cast and production information

Posted by anne_o at 8:32 PM

April 12, 2013

The Marriage of Figaro Ends Season at Arizona Opera

The son of a watchmaker, Beaumarchais first became noticed at the French court when he made a watch with a new type of mechanism that was small enough to be mounted on a ring. Twice, he married a rich older lady who, after a short time, died in questionable circumstances. He joined the king’s secret service and took the side of the American colonists against the English. Under the name of Rodrigue Hortalez and Company, he employed a fleet of forty ships for the American cause.

During the same period of time he was writing Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville), which was staged in 1775, and Le Mariage de Figaro, which he completed in 1778. Although there were many private readings of the Figaro play in the late 1770s, most people did not see it until 1784 because of problems with king and the censors. There is a great deal of the personality of Beaumarchais in his resourceful title character. French revolutionaries, however, did not appreciate the playwright. Because of his past positions at court he was imprisoned. Later he was released, but his possessions were confiscated. He died a poor man in 1799.

On Saturday, April 6, 2013, Arizona Opera presented Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Phoenix Symphony Hall. Susan Benson’s scenery, originally designed for the Banff Centre, had walls painted in the rococo style of French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. They were a joy to behold and they meshed beautifully with Mozart’s music. Douglas Provost’s subtle lighting helped make them an important part of the show. Benson’s costumes were totally authentic, too, even to their colors and underpinnings. Kelly Robinson’s stage direction allowed the singers to establish believable characters and they made the plot easy to grasp despite its intricate twists.

Jason Hardy, who made his debut at this performance, was a secure Mozart singer with a vigorous, robust sound that matched his energetic stage presence. As Susanna, Joélle Harvey was a perfect match for him. At the end of this longest role in the repertoire, the tiny, vivacious soprano was still as fresh as a newly opened cactus flower. She even embellished some of her lines with tasteful ornaments that might well have been sung in Mozart’s time. Erin Wall was a lovelorn Countess who sang enthralling legato lines with an opulent sound palette, and she never seemed to run out of breath. Her Count, Marian Pop, was a charismatic comedian with sonorous low tones. His first act double take had the whole audience laughing. Cherubino is a character with his feet planted firmly on a cloud. Jamie Van Eyck filled the bill perfectly, singing her arias with polished tones and bringing the audience thoughts of first love.

Peter Strummer was a strong and commanding Bartolo who was all the more amusing because he took himself so seriously. He tossed off the fast patter of his aria with finesse. As Marcellina, Susan Nicely sang a thoroughly amusing duet with her supposed rival, Susanna. One can muse on what kind of a mother-in-law she would eventually become. Members of the Marion Roose Pullin Resident Artists Program sang the smaller roles. Soprano Bevin Hill was an ebullient Barbarina with a sweet clear voice. Tenor David Margulis was a stuttering Don Curzio and a nosey, self-satisfied Don Basilio. Tall, lanky Thomas Cannon hunched down and assumed a plodding gait to become Antonio, the alcoholic gardener. The part really showed his talent for characterization.

Of course, it is the conductor who holds the entire performance together and Joel Revzen kept a tight rein on all of it. His overture was on the fast side, but his overall tempi were pleasantly brisk. Most importantly, he gave the singers all the room they needed. Only on the following Monday did we learn that General Director Scott Altman had handed in his resignation. Director of Artistic Administration Ryan Taylor holds the top position until a new general director is selected.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Figaro, Jason Hardy; Susanna, Joélle Harvey; Countess Almaviva, Erin Wall; Count Almaviva, Marian Pop; Cherubino Jamie Van Eyck; Dr. Bartolo, Peter Strummer; Marcellina, Susan Nicely; Don Basilio and Don Curzio, David Margulis; Antonio, Thomas Cannon; Barbarina, Bevin Hill; Conductor, Joel Revzen; Director, Kelly Robinson; Set and Costume Design, Susan Benson; Chorus Master, Henri Venanzi, Lighting Designer, Douglas Provost.

image_description=Image courtesy of Arizona Opera

product_title=The Marriage of Figaro Ends Season at Arizona Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above image courtesy of Arizona Opera

Posted by maria_n at 9:36 AM

April 11, 2013

Baden’s Flute Goes Barefoot in the Park

More specifically, director Robert Carsen seemed to be channeling Tim Burton’s (The Nightmare Before Christmas) penchant for Grand Guignol as it might be applied to a production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

On first glance, set designer Michael Levine has imagined Sarastro’s realm to be a verdant forest that is all realistic projections (courtesy of videographer Martin Eidenberger) and rolling mounds of (slightly singer-dampening) Astro-turf. A series of scrim effects and drops, and a runway around the orchestra pit give eye-pleasing depth and variety to the concept. Mr. Eidenberger contributes several witty video effects, including a projection of trees that gradually get filled by contented birds, and the ominous huge black doors that confront Tamino in the Speaker scene. One notable misfire featured an uncomfortable Pamina’s face projected live and aria-long in an excruciating, stage-filling Cinemascope close-up as Tamino sings of her portrait. Too, there is eventual confusion of the seasons, since we go back and forth from summer to winter and back at will.

The serenity of the lush foliage is offset from the git-go by a macabre newly dug grave that occupies stage left. When Tamino sings of the “dragon” he refers to the mound of dirt and, I presume, death-as-dragon pursuing him (and us all, shades of Lent!). Yet when the ladies later boast of killing the beast, they comically haul out a large stuffed snake with nary a hint of a ‘vanquishing death’ metaphor. But their business with the reptile was at least funny, and humor was in short supply in Mr. Carsen’s interpretation. With a profusion of recent Flute productions, Robert seemed rather to be striving to do something, anything “different.”

Sarastro’s subjects were somber grave-diggers, looking like storm troopers brandishing shovels. Papageno/a was a backpacker (or vagrant) that was indistinguishable from a weary student tourist schlepping their meager life’s belongings from the train station to a youth hostel. Pamina in her demure white frock and Tamino in his 80-s white disco suit, resembled two cleaned up barefoot flower children, in contrast to the elegant-if-unsubtle “evil” of the rather sexy black evening attire of the Queen and her Three Ladies. Petra Reinhardt’s costumes were professional-looking and consistent, even if they were not always a helpful illumination of the characters.

We first encounter the ensemble in modern dress as they advance up the aisles during the overture to encircle the pit on runway and apron as they listen to the orchestra with rapt attention. Are they indeed the chorus? Supers? Unfettered Berlin Phil Groupies? Who knows? As soon as the curtain rises, they scoop up poor Tamino and carry him around the stage on his back as he is ‘chased by the dragon.’ Correction, as he is ‘menaced by the inert mound of earth.’ But they soon drop him like a hot Kartoffel and the prince is left trying to appear frightened of the dirt. This was as dumb as it sounds.

When Papageno and Tamino are first ‘isolated’ they are (re-)discovered on stage descending on ladders suggesting they are beneath the earth. . .except those pesky above-ground trees soon appeared. No matter, for what claimed our attention was a scattering of coffins about the stage, perhaps as product placement to advertise the graveyard scene from this summer’s Don Giovanni. Papagena materializes as a decomposing corpse in bridal dress after she forces open a coffin lid and clambers out. Eew. How could Papageno resist her? And the (non) birdman has no trouble availing himself of a bottle of wine when another burial box is revealed to hold a vintner’s treasure.

For the trials by Fire and Water, the lovers must pass through a gobo-lit field of shroud- encased bodies (the covers are ripped off as the chorus sits up and sings). There are a few savvy innovative touches. It is established in Act Two that the Queen and Sarastro are in fact a loving couple in collusion to enlighten and unite the lovers. And the Three Boys are extremely well used, appearing first in soccer uniforms kicking around a ball (okay, so it ends up in Scene One’s open grave). Later they come dressed identical to Sarastro, Papageno, and (God bless ‘em) even bravely show up barefoot in copies of Pamina’s white dress.

Having accepted the backpacker concept, the bird couple comically pulled out baby clothes from their backpacks during their famous duet. Still, “Magic” was in short supply, and while I admire Robert Carsen and have greatly enjoyed his work on many an occasion, this night I wanted to say “Bob, lighten up, wouldya?” The musical side of the house was another matter

The Berlin Philharmonic remains one of the world’s great orchestras and they did not disappoint. Under the supple leadership of Simon Rattle, the old familiar strengths were always in evidence: effortless ensemble, luminous strings, rich winds, incisive percussion, and solid gold brass. It was hard to believe that the overture could sound “fresh” again but Maestro Rattle managed exactly that with a wonderfully detailed and beautifully layered reading. It has to be said, Rattle indulged in some rubato, allowed some appoggiaturas, and crafted a cadenza or two that were not traditional. While this was interesting enough, such liberties did take the forward steam and rhythmic propulsion out of more than one or two phrases that may have been better off going on their merry way.

Pavol Breslik was a remarkably effective Tamino, indeed he was all one could wish. Mr. Breslik is boyish and handsome, he is a seasoned stage performer, and his sweetly pliant lyric tenor is ideal for the prince. If he occasionally croons an upper note, his instrument showed ample presence in the house although, since he has the first sung phrase of the opus, he was the first to be affected by mid-stage placement on the rolling artificial grass. He (and the others) coped well enough by pouring on a little more volume but truth to tell the further forward the soloists were placed, the more ping and zing they had in the house.

Kate Royal is a well-regarded artist with a limpid, haunting tone produced with security and admirable musicality. Either by choice or default, Ms. Royal’s Pamina seemed too often a wilting victim which left me longing for more point and sass to balance Pavlo’s determined, bright-voiced hero. Kate was done no favors by having to sing her first utterances pretty much to the flies as the chorus bore her aloft face-up (pursued by the Moor) as they had Tamino. Alas, she never had another chance to make a solid first vocal impression and later Sir Simon rushed her a bit through her showpiece “Ah, ich fühl’s.”

James Elliott’s solid (if slightly dry-voiced) Monastatos was perhaps least well-served by the concept which reduced him to the evening’s sole baddie. It seemed too little too late when, his having crumpled alone on stage in a desolate fetal position, the others help him to his feet and offer forgiveness. Ana Durlovsky had the unenviable job of standing in for the well-loved firebrand vocal artist Simon Kermes. Not to worry, Ms. Durlovksy’s ample, warm tone and note perfect coloratura won her admirers and triumphantly carried the day.

Michael Nagy had all the goods to deliver a world class Papageno: a burnished, responsive baritone of especial beauty, and a cheeky, assured stage comportment that had just the right moxie. What he finally sadly lacked was the right characterization to truly triumph. There was no eccentricity, nothing of “the bird” about him and as he was made to refer to his “birds” as he brandished a picnic cooler, I wondered if he must be peddling frozen chickens. Regula Mühlemann’s chirpy, attractive Papagena was at least afforded a more fantastical beginning before becoming a boring backpacker.

There were marvelous instances of luxury casting. What a treat to hear Jose van Dam in the late autumn of his distinguished career, gifting us with the most memorable Speaker-Tamino exchange we are ever likely to hear. And have the three ladies ever been cast with top tier soloists the likes of the radiant, clear soprano of Annick Massis; the smoky, alluring mezzo of Magdalena Kozena; and the ballsy, baritonal contralto of Nathalie Stutzman? Individualized voices and techniques to be sure, but the three worked successfully in tandem to dominate their every scene. Even the smallest parts were cast from strength, witness the exceptionally voiced duet from the two priests, steely tenor Andreas Schager and robust baritone Jonathan Lemalu. Just as impressive were the important contributions from the Armored Men, Benjamin Hulett lending his stentorian tenor to the cause, abetted by David Jeruslaem’s impressive rolling bass.

In the ‘Best for Last’ Category: First Boy David Rother, Second Boy Cedric Schmitt and Third Boy Joshua Augustin were quite simply the best Flute boys’ trio I have ever encountered. Their acting and stage business were impeccably disciplined and their singing miraculously clear and accurate. And Dimitry Ivashchenko arguably turned in the performance of this or any other night as a magisterial, deeply compassionate Sarastro. When his well-placed, effortlessly produced bass carpeted the house with luxurious sound, you knew you were at a Festival address.

Based on the seriousness of purpose and quality of execution of this production, and having snagged the services of the Berlin Philharmonic and Maestro Rattle (not to mention rosters of the world’s top singers, instrumentalists and dancers), Baden-Baden seems poised to trump all other challengers as it further develops and promotes its prestigious Easter Festival.

James Sohre

Cast and production:

Tamino: Pavol Breslik; Pamina: Kate Royal; Sarastro: Dimitry Ivashchenko; Queen of the Night: Ana Durlovski; Papageno: Michael Nagy; Papagena: Regula Mühlemann; First Lady: Annick Massis; Second Lady: Magdalena Kozena; Third Lady: Nathalie Stutzman; Speaker: Jose Van Dam; Monastatos: James Elliott; First Boy: David Rother; Second Boy: Cedric Schmitt; Third Boy: Joshua Augustin; First Priest: Andreas Schager; Second Priest: Jonathan Lemalu; First Armored Man: Benjamin Hulett; Second Armored Man: David Jerusalem; Conductor: Simon Rattle; Stage Director: Robert Carsen; Set Design: Michael Levine; Costume Design: Petra Reinhardt; Lighting Design: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet; Video Design: Martin Eidenberger

image_description=Kate Royal as Pamina and Michael Nagy as Papageno [Photo by Uli Deck/dpa]

product_title=Baden’s Flute Goes Barefoot in the Park
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Kate Royal as Pamina and Michael Nagy as Papageno [Photo by Uli Deck/dpa]

Click here for a recording of the live broadcast via arte.tv

Posted by james_s at 3:59 PM

Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley

It was the reprise of an opera by an enterprising young Italian composer, Fabrizio Carlone (b. 1970) who promoted its premiere in Venice in 2005 that included the manufacture of a CD and DVD. No doubt short on cash West Edge Opera is long on creativity, the least of which was discovering this already far-away produced opera, thus saving the considerable costs of a first performance while offering the Bay Area the excitement of operatic discovery.

It was a pleasurable evening of something new, not just another Magic Flute, and we discovered more than a new opera — we were reminded of the French painter Paul Gauguin with more information than most of us ever knew.

And once again we witnessed a new generation, that of this young Italian composer, chanting its mantra of revolution and finding a new victim/hero to sing about.

Gauguin2.gifAnders Froehlich as Gauguin, Shawnette Sulker as his inner voice

We learned that messieur Gauguin was not a very nice man who died enriched (finally) by his artistic and moral sweat — current sentiment does not seem to concern itself with condemning dishonorable behavior nor honoring penniless death. It was a sequential, exhaustive (about two hours) account of his life in snippets of his own and his contemporary’s words. An unusual libretto that was more a lecture about Gauguin and his art than a dramatic action.

It was in fact absolutely flat dramatically, the French language, by nature little inflected was in perfect accord with Mr. Carlone’s music that percolated underneath achieving quiet, never overly intense musical climaxes. And these emotional climaxes, of which there were a considerable number, were intellectual rather than visceral insuring an evenly illuminated two-hour musical and histrionic landscape.

The actions of geographic change were narrated. Gauguin’s reflections and his contemporaries reactions were recited. This prompted West Edge producers to embellish the lengthy text with abstract dance movement except when specific action was mimed in overt description. The staging was entrusted to Bay Area choreographer Yannis Adoniou who with his dance group Kunst-Stoff, a company of five dancers, energetically executed complex, unceasing movement. The odd number of dancers was evened to six (three male/female couples) when it was joined by Gauguin himself, dancer Anders Froehlich.

M. Froehlich is also an accomplished singer, a fine light baritone who achieved with apparent ease the refined lyricism required by the composer. If without the roughness and rudeness of the described Gauguin this singer fulfilled to near perfection the intellectual and conceptual elegance of the score and this production.

Composer Carlone’s Gauguin was complemented by an inner voice, the exotically costumed soprano Shawnette Sulker who is endowed with a rich voice that she used securely to fulfill the extensive and challenging coloratura requirements of the role. When joined by Gauguin and the three narrators, Keith Perry, Paul Murray and Nicole Takesono, Mlle. Sulker provided the brilliant upper edge to finely wrought five-voice ensembles that were among the musical highlights of the evening.

There were some staging resolutions that defied comprehension, like the bare innerspring mattress that was thrown about the stage nearly the entire evening. Had it related to the bed on which the artist Gauguin laid his naked Tahitian girl in Spirit of the Dead Watching we might have felt some visual structure to the staging of the opera.

Gauguin3.gifKeith Perry, Paul Murray and Nicole Takesono as Narrators, Anders Froehlich as Gauguin, Shawnette Sulker as his inner voice, and dancers

The action of Gauguin painting his Tahitian masterpiece Spirit of the Dead Watching occurred near the end of the opera, and was the biggest moment of the opera. It was mimed by Gauguin and described by Gauguin as well, and illustrated by photographic images projected on the large screen that dominated stage right. This splendid scene was of unusual intensity that even brought to mind Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini casting his statue of Perseus — a David and Goliath comparison, nonetheless germane.

This large screen however was unceasing illuminated throughout the evening by images of paintings that most often were by Gauguin, but often times were by other artists, rarely identified, prompting personal mental scurrying to identify the images and reconcile them to the narration. As well the English translation of the sung French was projected on this screen. Watching this screen and frantic thinking came into direct conflict with participating in the performance.

Conductor Mary Chun and the San Francisco Sound Group Orchestra were in the pit. Mme. Chun oversaw the realization of composer Carlone’s score with authority, precision and sensitivity. She created a musical warmth that encouraged the exceptional level of lyricism achieved by the singers, all in recognition of composer Carlone’s lyric gifts (he is Italian, so supposedly they come naturally).

The San Francisco Sound Group was comprised of nine players entrusted with illuminating composer Carlone’s pallet of, therefore, nine colors. A limited pallet for two hours of music. Composer Carlone’s pedigree is impeccable, including the Ferienkurs für Neue Musik in Darmstadt and the Académie d’été of Ircam in Paris. Thus much current European compositional technology is present in his basically neo-impressionist style. There was a plethora of textures, shapes and rhythms if not volume.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production:

Gauguin: Anders Froehlich; Inner Voice: Shawnette Sulker; Clovis Gauguin: Schuler Wijsen; Narrator #1: Keith Perry; Narrator #2: Paul Murray; Narrator #3: Nicole Takesono; Dancers: Yannis Adoniou, Jerremy Bannon-Neche, Lindsey Renee Derry, Katie Gaydos, Kate Jordan. The sfSoundGroup Orchestra. Conductor: Mary Chun, Stage Director/Choreographer: Yannis Adoniou; Lighting Designer: Lucas Benjaminh Krech; Video Designer: Jeremy Knight; Costume Designer: Shannon Maxham. El Cerrito High School Auditorium, April 6, 2013.

image_description=A scene from Bonjour M. Gauguin [Photo by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera]

product_title=Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: A scene from Bonjour M. Gauguin

Photos by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera

Posted by michael_m at 10:54 AM

Mahler Lieder, Wigmore Hall

Mahler composed the deeply autobiographical poems of Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in the midst of a harrowing relationship with soprano Johanna Richter, and Ian Bostridge adopted a persona of intense and at times surprisingly assertive self-absorption, drawing us into the spurned protagonist’s journey to despair and death. These songs contain surprising contrasts - effervescent joy is supplanted by languid despondency, which in turn may be superseded by a violent anger; and, such tensions were apparent from the first, the fleeting springiness of Drake’s accompaniment contradicting the earnest ardour and anger of Bostridge’s avowals, “Weine! Wein’! Um meinen Schatz” (“I’ll weep, weep! For my love”), in the opening song, ‘Wenn Mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (‘When my love has her wedding-day’). Tempi and moods were exaggerated, and characteristically the tenor’s expression closely followed the shades and nuances of the text, but the result - emphasising the volatility of the poet-speaker’s emotions, and the cruel precariousness of human experience - was never mannered.

In ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’ (‘I walked across the fields this morning’), Drake’s staccato polyphonic pulse conjured a folk-like ease and insouciance, but the poet’s fresh delight in the simple beauties of the natural world was challenged by the surprisingly forceful assertion of Bostridge’s question, “Wird’s nicht eine schöne Welt?” (“Isn’t it a lovely world?”). An almost bitter retort, this question transmuted to become a tentative grasping for confirmation, “Ei, du! Gelt? Schöne Welt?”, Bostridge finding, throughout the recital, an extremely expansive expressive palette. Drake’s terse postlude refused to indulge the poet-speaker’s final poignant but self-regarding introspection.

A driving energy propelled ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (‘I’ve a gleaming knife’), Bostridge’s fevered opening cry almost literally slicing through the air, culminating in a violent outburst, “Nimmer, halt er Ruh’,/ Nimmer halt er Rast!” (‘Never at rest,/ never at peace’), which mocked the sentimentality of the close of the preceding song: “Mir nimmer, nimmer blühen kann!”

‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (‘The two blue eyes’) was not overly funereal in tempo to begin, but the swinging pendulum of Drake’s bass and the discomforting alternations between major and minor modes became increasingly foreboding. Describing his journey through the still night, across the dark heath, Bostridge employed a rich and penetrating lower register, the clarity of the melodic lines creating a narrative intensity which was enhanced by the delicate countermelodies of the piano accompaniment. Yet more disturbing juxtapositions concluded the cycle, the pained intensity of “Da wußt’ ich nicht, wie das Leben tut” (‘I was not aware of how life hurts”) tentatively overturned by a delicate sweetness as “alles wieder gut!” (“all was well once more”).

In the following five Rückert Lieder, Dorothea Röschmann took a little time to settle; in general approach, she shared Bostridge’s intensity but lacked some of the anguish. In ‘Blicker mir nicht in die Lieder’ (‘Do not look into my songs!’) Drake summoned an unflagging mischievous energy, culminating in an insouciant final gesture, but Röschmann did not fully or convincingly inhabit the strong ‘I’ persona initiated here. A more confident engagement with the text and a diversity of vocal colour marked ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft’ (‘I breathed a gentle fragrance’); Drake’s light running accompaniment coupled with a far-reaching melodic vocal line created a mellifluousness which affectingly contrasted with some unusual harmonic progressions - the sharpness of the lime (‘der Linde’) beneath the delicacy of the ‘gentle fragrance’ (‘linden Duft’), perhaps.

‘Um Mitternacht’ (‘At midnight’) found Röschmann more composed; with well-centred and beautifully coloured tone, she shaped the modulations of mood from bitter resignation, through despairing anger to spiritual transcendence: “hab’ cih die Macht/ In deine Hand gegeben” (“I gave my strength/ into Thy hands). Seeming to inhabit the persona of the poems with ever more assurance and clarity of vision, Röschmann imbued the ecstatic, floating lines of ‘Liebst du um Schöntheit’ (‘If you love for beauty’) with a warm, glistening shine, finding much emotional drama in the simple lyric. In the concluding song, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (‘I am lost to the world, the soprano issued a supremely beautifully melodic outpouring, culminating with a luminous translucence, complemented by Drake’s rippling countermelodies, as the protagonist becomes at one with God: “Ich bin gestorben dem Weltgetümmel/ Und ruh’ in einem stillen Gebeit” (“I am dead to the world’s tumult/ and rest in a quiet realm”).

The second half of the recital was devoted to songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Many of the folk verses collected, often from oral sources, by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano have an inherently dramatic character and, cast as dialogue, they can be sung as duets, creating immediacy and impact. In the opening ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’ (‘The Sentinel’s Night Song’), Bostridge found himself in what was to become a recurring role of soldier/prisoner; here, a sentry who is tempted from his duty by the alluring song of a girl who appears to him in a vision. Drake’s strident energy underpinned the tenor’s martial verses which contrasted effectively with Röschmann’s softer episodes. Similarly, in ‘Trost im Unglück’ (‘Consolation in sorrow’) Bostridge’s Hussar resisted the enticements of a young maiden, the piano’s sprightly rhythms conveying the soldier’s buoyant attempts to convince himself that he can live without his love. Röschmann’s dismissive denials of dependency grew to a thrillingly defiant outburst: “Ich lieb dich nur aus Narretei;/ … Ohn dich kann ich wohl sein.” (“I love you but from foolishness … I can exist without you.”) Drake’s galloping conclusion carried forth into the start of the following ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’ (‘Song of the prisoner in the tower’), an impassioned duet between an imprisoned soldier and his lover, in which Bostridge summoned both a proud swagger and a more honest mode of quiet reflection: “Es beliebt dabei,/ Die Gedanken sind frei” (“So shall it always be, thoughts are free”).

Röschmann was at her best in ‘Das irdische Leben’ (‘Life on earth’), demonstrating moving expressive power, through voice and physical gesture, as she solemnly communicated the grave tale of a starving child who cries pitifully to his mother for bread, “or I shall die”; Drake’s hollow piano figuration and low pianissimo left hand at the close piercingly captured the poignancy of the final image: “Lag das Kin auf der Totenbahr” (‘the child lay dead upon the bier’). But, the soprano showed a lighter spirit too, relaxing warmly in the humorous ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?’ (‘Who made up this little song?), capturing the Ländler charm in ‘Rheinlegendchen’ (‘Little Rhine legend’), and enjoying the comic gestures of the ironic ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’ (‘In praise of high intellect), in which a donkey, judging a competition between a cuckoo an a nightingale, becomes confused by the beauty of the latter’s song and lets out a raucous “Ija! Ija!” (“Hee-haw!”.

In yet another military-themed song, ‘Revelge’, (‘Reveille’) Ian Bostridge spun a gratifyingly focused, at times searing tale, wonderfully embodying the drummer boy who sets out to battle and is wounded, must endure while his agonies are ignored by his fellow soldiers, who then succumb while he is unable to aid them. Accompanied by Drake’s stark, staccato octaves and chilling, diabolic trills, Bostridge built from initial martial robustness to a brutal climax, before a magical switch to a third-person narration describing how the drummer boy will lead a funeral procession past the house of his sweetheart; all the chaos and rage of war was unleashed in Drake’s dissonant piano pedals, concluding a drama of almost operatic impact. In ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt!’ (‘Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fishes’), by contrast, Bostridge adopted an ironically insouciant stance, his nonchalant air enhanced by Drake’s tripping, chromatic streams. Then, in ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’ (‘The drummer-boy’) the tenor found a strange optimism - a lightning of tempo and timbre - in the moments before his execution, creating an almost unbearable pathos before the veiled, sombre horror of the conclusion: “Vor euch ich Urlaub nimm,/ Gute Nacht” (“I take my leave of you,/ good night”). Drake’s rattling death trills underpinned possibly the most affecting moment of the evening.

After the schmaltzy twists of ‘Verlone Müh’ (‘Wasted effort’) Röschmann and Bostridge brought the evening to a moving close with ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ (‘Where the splendid trumpets sound’), a surprisingly tender duet between a maiden and her dead soldier-lover, which faded into inevitable obscurity.

There was much to enjoy in this tightly planned Mahlerian sequence, but guiding and shaping each miniature drama in a way which the individuality of each song and produced a coherence whole was Julius Drake. The Wigmore Hall audience are fortunate that they have two more opportunities to enjoy the pianist’s intelligent artistry: on 1 June Drake performs with baritone Christopher Maltman in songs by Eisler, and on 20 July he is joined by Sarah Connolly and Fiona Shaw in a programme entitled, ‘A Music Of One’s Own: From The Diary of Virginia Woolf’.

Claire Seymour


Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen: ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, ‘Ging heut' Morgen’, ‘Ich hab' ein glühenden Messer’, ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’; Five Rückert Lieder: ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder’, Ich atmet' einen linden Duft’, ‘Um Mitternacht’, ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’, ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’; Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn: ‘Der Schildwache Nachtlied’, ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt’, ‘Das irdische Leben’, ‘Trost im Unglück’, ‘Lied des Verfolgten im Turm’, ‘Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht’, ‘Revelge’, ‘Rheinlegendchen’, ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, ‘Verlorne Müh’, ‘Der Tamboursg’sell’, ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mahler_1907.gif image_description=Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society] product=yes product_title=Mahler: Lieder eines Fahrenden Gesellen; Five Rückert Lieder; Lieder from Des Knaben Wunderhorn product_by=Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Julius Drake piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Sunday 7th April 2013. product_id=Above: Gustav Mahler c. 1907 [Color enhanced photo by Armando Bravi courtesy of International Gustav Mahler Society]
Posted by Gary at 9:43 AM

April 10, 2013

Cinderella Goes to the Opera

However, given that fairy tales have murky origins, are common to many different languages and cultures (and this one is no exception) it’s easy to understand that the Company chose a title likely to be familiar to a public living just down the road from Disney Land.

What exactly did they present on stage? La Cenerentola is a comic opera based on a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault, titled Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre — Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper (Cendre, cenere, and cinder are all ashy prefixes) Perrault’s story, written in the late 1600s, is essentially the Cinderella story we know. Grimm’s is grimmer.

A year after the première of The Barber of Seville, Rossini was commissioned to write an opera for the Teatro Valle in Rome. It turned out to be a commission with problems. Three days before the December 1816 deadline for a libretto, none had been turned in. In urgent conference with librettist Jacopo Ferretti, Rossini rejected story after story as impractical for various reasons, among them, the unsuitability of the cast which had already been hired. When he finally agreed to the Cinderella story, he insisted it not have a fairy godmother or pumpkins that turned into coaches. Rossini, apparently did not look kindly on supernatural phenomena. He wanted his opera to have a moral component. Ferretti gave him La Cenerentola, ossia La bonta in trionfoCinderella or the Triumph of Goodness.

Ferretti completed the libretto in twenty-two days. Rossini composed the music in twenty-four days. A month later, on 25 January 1817, the opera received its first (seriously underrehearsed) performance at the Teatro Valle. It was not an instant success.

To do away with the supernatural and to add a moral to the story, Rossini’s Cenerentola is a girl named Angelina, whose mother has died. She lives with her step father, Don Magnifico, and his two daughters, and has become their mistreated servant. When a beggar seeking food enters the house, the nasty step sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe try to throw him out, but Angelina feeds him. An announcement is made that Prince Ramiro will soon appear to seek a wife. The step sisters overwork Cenerentola to help them prepare for his arrival. The prince appears, but wanting to be loved for himself alone, he is disguised as his own valet. No sooner do he and Cenerentola exchange one look, but they fall in love. In a moment, Dandini, the Prince’s valet, outfitted as the Prince, comes on the scene and invites everyone to the ball, where, he says, the Prince will choose his wife. Cenerentola (of course) is not allowed to go. How will she get transportation without pumpkins and a gorgeous outfit without a fairy godmother? The beggar was the Prince’s wise tutor in disguise. He can arrange anything. Suffice it to say that after the usual jolly confusion, the Prince returns to Don Magnifico’s house and identifies the servant girl as his true love. And once Cenerentola has become a princess, she forgives her cruel family, and all is hugs and kisses.

Mezzo Ketevan Kemoklidze, who offered an attractive and well acted Cenerentola, at the April 6th performance I attended, handled both her lyric and coloratura passages well, but her voice did not carry into the house. For some reason, perhaps the depth from which the principles were often required to perform, there were times their voices seemed barely to rise over the orchestra. It was apparent, however, that tenor René Barbera, as Prince Ramiro, has a bright and secure top voice. Stacy Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller were properly outlandish as the nasty Clorinda and Tisbe. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli, a veteran buffo performer was an amusing Don Magnifico, though here again - perhaps another sound issue — there was a lack of crispness in his patter. Bass baritone Vito Priante, making his US debut, was a delightful dandy in both voice and body as Dandini. Bass Nicola Ulivieri, as the tutor Alidoro, was impressive in his Mozartian “Là del ciel nell´arcano profondo”.

Los Angeles used a delightful production created in 2008 by Spanish director Joan Font in a joint venture with Barcelona’s Liceu, Houston Grand Opera, the Welsh National Opera and Grand Théâtre de Géneve. Señor Font employed brilliant colored costumes and added dancers dressed as the nicest, kindest, most amusing rats you’ll ever see, to add movement and interest to the static plot. No review of this performance can be complete without acknowledging the intensity and attention to detail that the dancers brought to their roles. Nor can it be complete without mention of Maestro James Conlon’s sensitivity to the score, reflecting his program notes and pre-performance lecture, in both of which, he recounted his love for Rossini’s music.

Sadly, in the end, Señor Font did not give us a happy story about virtue rewarded. He sabotaged Rossini’s message at the very last moment by sadistically quick-switching Cenerentola and the audience from the bright lights, joy and forgiveness reigning at her wedding, back to her lonely, dark, ashy hearth. It was mean spirited and trite. We all know life is but a dream.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Clorinda: Stacy Tappan; Tisbe:Ronnita Nicole Miller; Angelina (Cenerentola):Ketevan Kemoklidze; Alidoro:Nicola Ulivieri; Don Magnifico:Alessandro Corbelli; Don Ramiro: René Barbera; Dandini:Vito Priante. Orchestra and chorus of the Los Angeles Opera. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Joan Font. Scenery and Costume Design: Joan Guillén. Lighting Designer: Albert Faura. Chorus Director: Grant Gershon. Choreographer: Xevi Dorca.

image_description=Ketevan Kemoklidze as Cinderella [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]

product_title=Cinderella Goes to the Opera
product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson
product_id=Above: Ketevan Kemoklidze as Cinderella [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]

Posted by E_Gilson at 11:50 AM

April 9, 2013

Music from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe's passion for music of all kinds, but particularly his interest in promoting the cause of German poetry, found an important outlet in his early espousal of volkstümlich, ‘folk-style’, or verse and the associated tradition of performance as lieder. . . . [Indeed,] Goethe saw lyric poetry as in some sense incomplete without music, just as written text sought its fulfilment in sound. . . . With hindsight, it can be seen that Goethe's contribution to opera . . . was historically less decisive and less productive than his contribution to the lied. And this was so despite his repeated efforts, his wide experience and his extensive knowledge of opera: he found suitable composers for few if any of his librettos, and several in any case remained as sketches or fragments. His greatest legacy to music drama was undoubtedly Faust, which as far as he was aware was not set operatically during his lifetime. This, he accepted with resignation and a profound realization: ‘it is impossible [that it should now find an effective musical setting]: the horrific, sublime and demonic moments it necessarily has to embrace from time to time go against the taste of the times.” Philip Weller, Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von, Grove Music Online. Here we will present a selection of music based on his literary works:

  1. GOUNOD: Faust — 1953
  2. GOUNOD: Faust — Vienna 2008
  3. SCHUMANN: Scenen aus Goethes Faust
  4. THOMAS: Mignon — New York 2005
  5. MASSENET: Werther — Vienna 2000

Previous Themes:

Operas based on French literature

Operas based on the works of Friedrich von Schiller

Der Ring des Nibelungen

Historic Performances: Maria Callas

Works of Giacomo Puccini

Works of Richard Strauss

Works of W. A. Mozart

Works of Jules Massenet

Works on the Theme of “Greeks Bearing Gifts”

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Goethe_%28Stieler_1828%29.gif image_description=Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at age 69, painted 1828 by Joseph Karl Stieler. product=yes product_title=Music from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Posted by Gary at 10:04 PM

April 7, 2013

“Culture: the cement that binds Europe together”

Opera Europa - RESEO Spring Conference/Vienna [4 April 2013]

A strong statement for the support of culture was delivered by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso at the Opera Europa - RESEO Spring Conference at the Vienna State Opera. In a speech opening the conference, he declared that “Culture is the cement that binds Europe together.” He spoke of his particular affection for opera: “Opera is the illustration par excellence of the long dialogue between European cultures across national boundaries, across centuries. Opera is Verdi, whose bicentenary we celebrate this year, Verdi, drawing the inspiration for his libretti from Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, Dumas, Schiller or the Duque de Rivas. Opera is the distilled expression of fundamental European values. It is Beethoven’s Fidelio, for instance, giving us a matchless chorus of homage to liberty and fraternity and love.”

Posted by Gary at 2:48 PM

April 5, 2013

Die Walküre, Paris

Full cycles are unfolding in monthly installments this spring, and there will be one complete, composite cycle in June. Each of the four operas that comprise the Ring premiered in previous seasons, beginning with Das Rheingold in March 2010. Die Walküre, which opened in May 2010, is now revisited, starring some of the principals who will take the role in the summer.

Günter Krämer’s productions have been criticized both for being too dark and for excessive whimsy. To cite a few of their more bizarre affectations in his Paris Ring, the giants in Das Rheingold lead a revolt of aggrieved union workers carrying red flags. Mime in Siegfried is a 1950s beatnik who grows a marijuana lab. The musical postlude to the Immolation Scene in Götterdämmerung is accompanied by a video game-style projection of a burning Valhalla, in which a laser gun icon blows away Valkyries. Walküre is not immune to these problems. For much of the performance the stage is barely illuminated against a dark background. In some scenes the set is dominated by a steeply ascending metallic staircase that resembles athletic bleachers. The Act I prelude shows a group of nude actors being chased up the stairs and then slaughtered by warriors with swords. Wotan’s vicissitudes in Act II are highlighted by giant letters spelling “Germania,” the old Roman designation for Wagner’s country and the putative name for a new Nazi German capital to be designed by Hitler’s top architect Albert Speer. When Wotan really gets upset, he knocks down the first three letters, rather obviously leaving the rest to spell “mania.” In Act III the Valkyries are tough nurses who revive their fallen heroes and refit them as soldiers.

It is always possible for a fine musical performance to take us beyond a fractured production concept. There were hints of that here. Stuart Skelton well deserves his frequent Heldentenor casting. His Siegmund was a skilled and clarion vocal performance. It was only disappointing to see how little it was reflected in his dramatic abilities, which left this dynamic character wooden. Günther Groissböck’s menacing Hunding revealed a strong, stentorian bass and a refreshingly powerful characterization. The fine baritone of Thomas Johannes Mayer rests a bit too high for this incarnation of Wotan (he is more successful in the Rheingold version) but still delivered with the necessary authority. Martina Serafin’s passionate and strident Sieglinde showed off this rising star’s accomplishments. And the grand mezzo Sophie Koch sang a poignant and convincing Fricka; she steadfastly avoided the easy temptation to reduce the role to a shrill hag. The weakest link was the production’s Brünnhilde, sung by Welsh soprano Alwyn Mellor. At times it was hard to hear her over the orchestra, but a general tonic pallor led one to wonder if Wagner is truly for her.

Paris’s young music director Philippe Jordan brings a crisp approach to Wagner that is often lighter than what one usually hears. Acts I and III featured some truly exhilarating orchestral playing. Inexplicably, however, Act II seemed to drag at an extremely slow pace that lost or passed over the tension of its most dramatic moments. The enjoyable acts that bracketed it should have set a more consistent tone.

Paul du Quenoy

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Die-Walkure-Paris.jpg image_description=A scene from Die Walküre [Photo courtesy of Paris Opéra] product=yes product_title=Die Walküre, Paris product_by=A review by Paul du Quenoy product_id=Above: A scene from Die Walküre [Photo courtesy of Paris Opéra]
Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

Manon Lescaut, Washington National Opera

Dating from 1893, Manon Lescaut is an adaptation of the Abbé Prévost’s novel about love and loss in late old regime France. Puccini had to compete with Jules Massenet’s earlier adaptation, which premiered in 1884, but the young Italian composer felt undaunted by the dramatic possibilities that suffuse the text’s rich material. Puccini’s version unfolds more episodically, a prefiguring of “scenic” operas that would become so popular among modernist composers and, indeed, lend so much to film montage in the generation that followed. Opening with the rushed scene of passionate youthful romance, Manon Lescaut skips over the deterioration of the title character’s relationship with the ardent young Chevalier des Grieux in their Parisian poverty and takes us directly to Manon’s submersion in a life of luxury provided by the old roué Geronte. Massenet’s more narrative version takes her attempt to return to her poor but ardent lover into a complicated downward spiral; in Puccini she is merely arrested on what used to be called morals charges while wasting too much time gathering up her jewels. Massenet kills her off before she boards the ship that will take her into exile. Puccini allows des Grieux an impassioned plea to join her and she dies in the New World, in the “desert” outside New Orleans that makes for one of opera’s more exaggerated indulgences.

Both versions of the Manon story have the power to move their audiences to heights of melodramatic frenzy. Washington’s production is a reliable “can-do” approach. This revival of John Pascoe’s production dates to 2004, when the company performed temporarily in D.A.R. Constitution Hall while the Kennedy Center’s opera house was under renovation. The effort is quite literally a storybook one, with traditional sets and costumes narrating the drama within a stage frame created by giant torn pages from Prévost’s book. Traditional approaches to Puccini classics are well and good, but this one seemed peculiarly dark, especially in Act I, when the blossoming romance could easily have been brighter. The only hint of stylization comes in Act IV, when the Louisiana “desert” is suggested by broken statuary and artifacts of Manon’s lost life of luxury. It raises the uncomfortable question of whether Manon’s lament is for the love she could have had with des Grieux - unambiguously suggested by Puccini’s ravishing score - or by the trauma of having sacrificed her life of luxury for mere love.

Washington built its cast around the nationally well known soprano Patricia Racette. A competent singer, Racette has made a tour of most great Puccini heroine roles but is only taking on Manon Lescaut for the first time in this production. While no one can fault her professionalism, her performance came off as perhaps a bit too professional. The notes were delivered, the actions were taken. But she brought little fire or passion to this expansive role. And at times the voice did have to scoop to bring off ascents into what were not always attractive high notes. Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev’s des Grieux has a robust sound and featured some ringing high notes. But it lacked the elegance that real Italianate singing needs to be savored. Chanev, who makes his Washington National debut in this production, left the impression that his technique has room to grow; real star power may be elusive. A more impressive company debut came from the sturdy Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro in the suave role of Manon’s brother, Lescaut. Jake Gardner, a third debutant, made the old Geronte an entertainingly real rascal. Company music director Philippe Auguin led a fine orchestral performance, one of the better ones in recent years. The chorus delivered fine music as well.

Paul du Quenoy

Click here for cast and production information.

image_description=Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut [Photo by Scott Suchman]

product_title=Manon Lescaut, Washington National Opera
product_by=A review by Paul du Quenoy
product_id=Above: Patricia Racette as Manon Lescaut [Photo by Scott Suchman]

Posted by Gary at 11:18 AM

Murder in the Cathedral at San Diego Opera

A member of the same generation as Ottorino Respighi and Gian Francesco Malipiero, he started out to be a playwright and had two works staged before he entered the conservatory of his native Parma to study music. Some years later, Pizzetti was a conservatory teacher and administrator, first in Florence and then in Milan. In 1936 he succeeded Respighi at the Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome where his students included Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Pizzetti was influenced by poet and playwright Gabriele d'Annunzio and he wrote incidental music for several of the latter’s plays. In 1939 Pizzetti was named to the Italian Royal Academy. Although his relations with the fascist government of Italy were occasionally stormy, they were often positive, and that may be one reason why his works have seldom been produced since then.

He composed his first opera, Sabina, in 1897. Between then and the premiere of Murder in the Cathedral (Assassinio nella Cattedrale) on March 1, 1958, he completed eleven others. Murder in the Cathedral is two-act opera with a libretto by the composer based on Alberto Castelli’s Italian translation of T.S. Eliot's play of the same name. It deals with the killing of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket by followers of King Henry II in the twelfth century. Henry is supposed to have asked if no one would rid him of the troublesome priest. That may have been all that was necessary for his followers to assume they had reason to murder Becket.

On April 2, 2013, San Diego Opera staged Pizzetti’s Murder in the Cathedral with leading Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the title role. General and Artistic Director Ian D. Campbell staged the work in a straightforward manner that made the story easy to grasp. Ralph Funicello’s unit set, consisting of bright colored stained glass windows with steps and platforms, looked like the inside of a great cathedral. Lighting was a large part of the décor and Alan Burrett’s designs were most effective. Costume designer Denitza Bliznakova dressed the Archbishop in the timeless robes of the Catholic Church, the First and Second Chorus soloists in crimson, and the remaining choristers in the muted colors of twelfth century England.

MIC_0026a.pngSusan Neves (in red) as the First Chorus

The story of this opera, the conflict between Church and state, seems to have gone on forever. I was reminded of the murder of Martin Luther King so many centuries later. Like Becket, King knew that it could happen. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto excels in the interpretation of roles on both sides of this conflict: Philip II in Don Carlo and Becket. Murder in the Cathedral is a thinking person’s opera. Furlanetto is in the prime of his career and his opulent voice flowed over the orchestra and into the auditorium like a magnificent force of nature. This is an opera he was born to sing. He is also a fine actor and when he was on stage you could not take your eyes off him.

Susan Neves and Helene Schneiderman sang the First and Second Chorus who commented on action. Since there was no love interest, their parts were much smaller than that of the Archbishop, but both sang with ringing tones. The other star of this performance was the San Diego Opera Chorus led by Charles F. Prestinari. Their harmonies were strong and they coalesced as a group. They really did not get to act as individuals because they were a unified congregation. For the finale they were joined by the excellent Children’s Chorus fro St. Paul’s Cathedral.

MIC_0739a.pngHelene Schneiderman as the Second Chorus with Susan Neves as the First Chorus in the background

Alan Glassman was the trumpet voiced Herald who announced each arrival. His presence in the part was true luxury casting. The other roles were actually parts of trios or quartets. The three priests who sang with dramatics tones as they tried to protect their Archbishop were tenor Greg Fedderly, bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, and bass Gregory Reinhart. The four tempters were also the four knights who eventually killed Becket. Tenor Joel Sorenson had a high lying difficult part but acquitted it with finesse. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, the smooth voiced Count Di Luna of the AZ Opera Il Trovatore, was a dramatic Second Knight, while bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam and bass Kevin Langan, the sonorous Third and Fourth Knights, were properly villainous thugs.

Conductor Donato Renetti made a very auspicious San Diego Opera debut with this performance. The large orchestra responded with precise playing of this new and interestingly orchestrated score. I hope we will hear a great deal more from Renzetti.

Special kudos go to English Hornist Andrea Overturf for his beautiful phrasing. This was a spectacular evening at San Diego Opera and I hope this fine opera will be heard more often from now on.

Maria Nockin

Click here for cast and production information.

image_description=Susan Neves (in red) as the First Chorus [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera]

product_title=Murder in the Cathedral at San Diego Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Susan Neves (in red) as the First Chorus

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of San Diego Opera

Posted by maria_n at 10:45 AM

April 4, 2013

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, London

Composer David Bruce, whose previous operatic experience includes works for Tete a Tete, and librettist Glyn Maxwell (poet, novelist and author of three other operatic librettos) have created an operatic fable based on Philip Pullman’s book for children, The Firework-Maker’s Daughter. It is a typical quest fable, with Lila (Mary Bevan), the daughter of firework maker Lalchand (Wyn Pencarreg) going in quest of the mystical Royal Sulphur to help her make fireworks, because her father won’t teach her. She is helped by her friends, love sick elephant Hamlet (James Laing) and his keeper Chulak (Amar Muchhala) and there is a comic villain, Rambashi (Andrew Slater). As with all good quest fables, she learns that what she needed was what she had after all, her own courage and talent, and learns the value of friendship. Geoffrey Paterson conducted the instrumental ensemble, Chroma.

James Fulljames and designer Dick Bird along with the puppeteers Steve Tiplady and Sally Todd from Indefinite Articles created a magical production which produces brilliant effects (including fireworks) from very little. The two puppeteers were part of the hard working cast, taking the role of supers. Virtually all the effects were created with simple equipment, two over-head projectors featured heavily. They used a combination of effects, notably combing projection with shadow puppetry, but also involving the live cast in the shadow projection. The story culminates in a firework display competition, which was the cue for a series of dazzling visual effects.

Bird’s costumes were highly imaginative, with James Laing, playing Hamlet the white elephant, complete with elephant headdress and a very mobile (and very funny) trunk, but they combined this with projected visual effects to create Hamlet’s huge body — Hamlet is white so he has been covered with adverts! All the cast wore headdresses of some sort, which helped define the characters and as most singers played two or three roles, ensured that you always knew who was whom on stage. Most of the cast played multiple roles, and some even helped the puppeteers with the projections. James Laing doubled as the voice of the Goddess, Andrew Slater played both Rambashi and the King’s Elephant Keeper and Wyn Pencarreg played the King.

There was no fixed set, the instrumental ensemble were ranged round the back of the stage with lanterns above them, and the cast brought on everything they needed in boxes (plus a screen descending periodically from the flies). This wasn’t a production that could be done anywhere, it needed a theatre, but it was brilliantly conceived to be highly portable and not rely on anything too fancy. The result was mesmerising, a simply brilliant piece of theatre which mixed a wide variety of media into a charming and dazzling whole. No wonder the audience was pleased.

Bruce’s nine-person instrumental ensemble included an interesting mix of instruments (violin, bass, flute, clarinet, horn, accordion, harp and two percussionist), with a large amount of tuned percussion (plus one or two imaginative touches such as crumpling plastic bags). His sound world evoked Java, gamelan and the East (the rough location of the production), without being slavish. His orchestrations were magical and the sound world highly evocative.

Vocally there were some good set pieces, a rather jolly and catchy song for the pirates and some beautiful solos for Mary Bevan as Lila, including her gorgeous final incantation which was a long wordless cantilena. The result was very creditable and effective, but there were too many moments when the music seemed useful rather than really catching fire. From my perspective I felt that the biggest weakness was the recitative, this seemed to jog along quite comfortably without ever quite being memorable. This was when I felt the lack of a child companion to ask. I thought the work would have been stronger if they’d used spoken dialogue with instrumental under lay.

The piece rather ran out of steam towards the end. The firework competition was done like a game show, with a profoundly annoying host played by Andrew Slater, but then I’m not a watcher of such TV shows as the X-Factor.

With a production which was so strong, so brilliant, the score could quite easily have been edgier. Bruce’s writing was magical at times, but never challenging and seemed simply a little too comfortably well made. There were moments when the music need to raise the emotional temperature, make your spine tingle and it just didn’t quite; there was too much concern to be easy and accessible. I have seen Bruce’s work with Tete a Tete and it was fun and quirky. I hope that he gets chance to re-visit this work to give the music a little more personality, perhaps he should stop worrying about whether or not it was written for children.

I cannot praise the cast too highly, both for their dramatic and musical performances. Not every new opera can have been blessed with such strong musical presentation. Bevan was simply superb as Lila, which was quite a big role being on-stage for much of the time. Bruce’s high writing didn’t phase her and she always sounded beautiful, with a lovely sense of line. Laing was delightfully deadpan as Hamlet, and nicely expressive in his love-sick moments. Pencarreg was a sympathetic but tough father, keeping the character appealing and Amar Muchhala made Chulak very much cheeky, streetwise but appealing. It was Andrew Slater who got all the plumb comic moments, and he showed himself a fine comic.

The instrumental ensemble under Geoffrey Paterson produced a sequence of gorgeous sounds and fitted into the total theatrical ensemble with aplomb.

Ultimately, I thought that anyone attending this would be entertained, magically delighted and even mesmerised, but not challenged in any way. I am not entirely certain whether Bruce and Maxwell convinced me that this needed to be an opera

Robert Hugill

image_description=The Firework-Maker's Daughter [Source: Wikipedia]

product_title=David Bruce and Glyn Maxwell: The Firework-Maker’s Daughter
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Click here for cast and production information

Posted by anne_o at 10:01 AM

April 3, 2013

The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Los Angeles

The work which was commissioned by the Orchestra had its premiere as a concert oratorio in May 2012, with a view towards the present (March 2013) staged version.

“Surprise wakes me up to the world…I don’t want to fall back on a solution I found in the past and brand myself,” Adams reportedly told a Julliard graduating class. “I want each piece to be new, to be a statement of who I am and where I am in my life.”

True to this vision, Adams’ musical expression has moved rhythmically and harmonically from his earlier minimalism. However, the essence of Adams as a self described “secular liberal living in Berkeley, California,” has remained unchanged. He is a man concerned with the political, social and spiritual implications of the world around him. Among his operatic works are The Death of Klinghoffer, which juxtaposes the plight of middle class Jews and Arab terrorists, and Dr. Atomic, which examines Robert Oppenheimer’s concern with the creation of the atomic bomb. At age 65, Adams has survived a great deal of critical pounding not only for musical “flaws” (repetitive arpeggios in Nixon in China), but for social and political views some have considered offensive. Nevertheless Adams has remained a composer unafraid to speak to power.

The Other Mary has undergone changes since its premiere last spring. Commissioned to be 90 minutes long — it ran close to 140 minutes, and was delivered late in a difficult season when the Philharmonic was also presenting the first of its Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Most reviewers judged the work — particularly its first act, to require cutting. The new, staged version is not perceptibly shorter — and the first act still seems less coherent than the second, and a bit overlong.

The chutzpah of staging large vocal pieces in their open concert space seems to be paying off for the Philharmonic. Perhaps the abstract nature of this particular libretto suited the spare settings Sellars created. But the presentation of this work was the most satisfactory and most accessible in terms of comfortable visibility of those I’ve attended at Disney Hall.


The orchestra presented a fascinating sight — its last row, a ring of extraordinary percussion instruments; various gongs, tam-tams, an array of tuned Almglocken (cow bells). In addition to the usual woodwind and brass, the score also calls for a harp, a piano, a bass electric guitar and a cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer, which produces crisp, yet lingering metallic twangs. The cast included six singers: Mary and her sister Martha, mezzo sopranos; their brother, Lazarus, a tenor, and three narrators — counter tenors, who most often sing in exquisite harmonies — but also take on solo roles. There are also three dancers — two male and one female, who sometimes shadow, sometimes interact with the three singers. The dancers were a brilliant addition in terms of clarifying and enriching the action of the plot. All performed on a raised platform to the conductor’s left. A table and chairs were to his right. The Master Chorale — called on to sing, shout, moan, and even don and shed costumes, was ranged on a ledge behind the orchestra. The libretto was projected on the wall behind them.

The libretto of “the Other Mary was created by Sellars from Old and New Testament sources, from the works of writers Rosario Castellanos, Rubén Darío, Primo Levi, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich, Hildegard of Bingen, and from the journals of Catholic activist, Dorothy Day. Whereas Day’s somewhat declamatory words sounded intrusive, the excerpts from Levi’s Passover used in the context of the Last Supper, lifted the spirit. The title character, “the other Mary” and central figure in this passion is Mary Magdalene. It is through her anger, suicidal confusion, her inability to love and believe, that we experience the death and resurrection of both Lazarus and Jesus. Martha’s energy and struggles are devoted to achieving social justice for the downtrodden. Jesus never appears in the work.

From its very first moment, The Other Mary drops us into a musically and visually harsh and painful place. “The next day in the city jail we were searched for drugs,” says Mary as the dancers and singers enact humiliating assaults and searches to wild dissonances in the horns and trembling strings.

From there the story moves back and forth in time. Scenes depicting social activism — the two women create a home for unemployed women — or a Chavez-led farm workers protest, are interspersed with those of Christ’s last days.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is too intricate and intense for a first time audience to grasp. Granted that there are operas I would much rather listen to than see, I think the spare staging of this abstract work galvanized language that might otherwise sound hollow. The movements that accompanied the passionate choral writing added power to even to those utterances. The explosive and evocative orchestral score is stacked with layers of sound and rhythmical variations. Strange sonorities, melodies and shreds of melody flash by before one can quite grasp what one has heard. The effect is overwhelming.

The six singers, who have been performing their roles for many months by now, seemed perfect in their parts. Adams wrote the role of Mary for Kelley O’Connor, whose voice and acting encompassed extraordinary and rapid mood shifts. Tamara Mumford, the steadier Martha, revealed a gleaming lower register. Russel Thomas, as Lazarus sang with power and energy. Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, the countertenors, told their story with a kind of sweet innocence that reminded me of the three boys in The Magic Flute. There is no choreographer listed in the program, but dancers Michael Schumacher, Anani Saouvi, Troy Ogilvie managed to demonstrate an extraordinary range of movement and emotion on a small, crowded platform. The chorus, led by Grant Gershon performed with verve. And in the center of it all, conductor Gustavo Dudamel beat weird rhythms and cued his instrumentalists with undemonstrative competence.

Though Adams and Sellars are said to have described the time of the oratorio as “the eternal present,” it is not so. One part is set in the last days of Christ’s life — the other, however — except for a few loose strands — is tightly tethered to the United States in the 20th century. One wonders how the quotations and references to our nearly century old Catholic Workers Movement — to Cesar Chavez, or to the Teamsters Union, which can give pause to contemporary Americans, will be understood in Europe, where the work will soon be performed.

It may not matter. The music will make the composer's intentions clear to sympathetic listeners. The Disney Concert Hall audience was moved to long and vociferous applause. I, for one wouldn't have minded hearing the work all over again — right at that moment.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams will be performed in London on March 16th, in Lucerne on March 20th, Paris, on March 23rd and in New York March 27th of this year.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information

Composer: John Adams. Libretto: Peter Sellars. Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel. Mary: Kelley O’Connor; Martha:Tamara Mumford; Lazarus: Russell Thomas. Narrator: Daniel Bubeck: Narrator: Brian Cummings; Narrator: Nathan Medley. Dancers: Michael Schumacher, Anani Saouvi, Troy Ogilvie. Designer and Director: Peter Sellars. Chorus Director: Grant Gershon.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PY7C1015.gif image_description=A scene from The Gospel According to the Other Mary [Photo by Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic] product=yes product_title=The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Los Angeles product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: A scene from The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Photos by Craig T. Mathew / Mathew Imaging courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic
Posted by Gary at 12:36 PM