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