Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
30 May 2013
Alessandro Scarlatti’s Il Trionfo dell’Onore
Just when you imagine you’ve got the operatic time-line fixed in your mind
in a clean sweep of what goes where and when and how, you hear another work
from another forgotten corner of the repertory that upends one’s conclusions.
Alessandro Scarlatti was a tremendously prolific composer of the Italian era
after Cavalli and before Vivaldi and Handel, famous throughout Italy, then soon
forgotten. In this period, the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries
(it is convenient to recall that his son, Domenico, the keyboard virtuoso, was
born the same year as Handel and Bach in the generation of Vivaldi and
Telemann), Venice had half a dozen theaters playing opera several nights a week
(more during Carnival), and the demand for new work to fill them was
insatiable. The other major cities of the disunited peninsula had their own
theaters, their own traditions, their own composers—but Scarlatti moved about
in search of commissions and a regular income to support his large family. He
is remembered as a “Neapolitan” composer, perhaps because most of his
manuscripts turned up in the Naples Conservatory, but he was far more
international than that. Venice and Naples were capitals of very different
How large were these theaters? Not very. None of them belonged to the city;
private landowners, usually noblemen, built them and rented them out to
impresarios, who hired the musicians and produced the operas. You couldn’t
easily light a large theater (wax drips, you know) and the tiny orchestras
could not easily drown out audience chatter. In the great serious operas,
chatter would cease when a famous singer expressed a special emotion in melody,
but for nightly entertainment something lighter might be called for.
Comic stories were silly, romantic, predictable, the personalities taken
from commedia dell’arte more fallible, less high-minded than the
serious, heroic ones whom they often parodied, and the voices were expected to
be serviceable if not top-flight. Opera buffa was a step down, and major
singers did not take it. Did the lighter operas pay the composer as well as the
serious ones? That’s a question I cannot answer. Certainly Scarlatti eagerly
accepted both sorts of commission, and so did Pergolesi in Naples and Telemann
in Hamburg. (Cavalli, as you will recall, intermingled comic scenes with
serious ones in his narratives
but that style was out of fashion, though it
is more immediately interesting to us today.) Handel probably would have set
comic libretti, but he decamped to London—where comic foolery did not play in
foreign tongues. His mature operas with comic stories are therefore constructed
on a “serious” model: Serse, Partenope, Alessandro.
Agrippina, with its old-fashioned mix of serious and comic characters,
was composed during the sojourn in Venice when he met the Scarlattis.
Underworld Productions Opera has just given the New York premiere of
Scarlatti’s 1718 opera buffa, Il Trionfo dell’Onore, which may or
may not be typical of the comic output of the day. (Winton Dean says Scarlatti
was stylistically eccentric, which appeals more to us than it did to the
regular audience of his own time.) What stood out for me in this light piece
was the way conflicts developed by way of duets rather than the, occasionally
tedious serious manner of aria succeeding aria. This is a manner I had thought
the invention of Mozart, Paisiello and Rossini, but here were are, a century
before Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and two ladies display their
personality in a duet of apparent sympathy while confiding to us that they are
both in love with the same rogue and hate each other accordingly. We also have
love duets of many varieties, from gentlemanly seductions (the lady flirtatious
or sarcastic in response) to heartfelt recriminations.
In the cast at the Leonard Nimoy/Thalia, the men did not please as much as
the women did, though all of them proved adept at conveying the casual yet
emotional nature of romantic comedy. The two gentleman seducers who set the
plot rolling were written for those irresistible figures, women in drag (think:
Cherubino). In Venice, castrati were reserved for more upscale, heroic
opera, while in the Papal States they were expected to play all the women,
actual women being forbidden to set foot on the stage. (Lecherous old ladies
were often played by men in drag, in any key at all.) Modern opera companies
may do as they like in such matters, and what they tend to do is make use of
whatever talent is on hand. The show must go on.
Thus we had Eric S. Brenner, a thin-voiced countertenor, as Riccardo, the
scamp who neglects his fiancée Leonora to pursue her friend Doralice, ignoring
her betrothal to Leonora’s brother, Erminio. Erminio was sung by a
mezzo, Stephanie McGuire, so effectively ardent that I thought her, too, a
countertenor. Maria Todaro, who has a deep alto of impressive quality, sang the
heartbroken Leonora, and was quite humorous displaying her dark tones in
sarcastic asides with Elise Jablow’s naïve, sweetly sung Doralice. Catherine
Leech sang Rosina, a pert servant, with that combination of mischief and
sentiment that we associate with Mozart’s Susanna, as she resisted the
advances of both Riccardo’s lecherous uncle (dry-voiced Christopher Preston
Thompson) and Riccardo’s bombastic friend Rodimarte (a bumptious baritone,
Stephen Lavonier), and sighed to no avail for Ms. McGuire’s Erminio. Briana
Sakamoto completed the cast as the elderly innkeeper with designs on the uncle
who is after her servant. Somehow four happy couples evolved by the conclusion,
though one wouldn’t predict happy marriages for many of the eight.
Nor does one foresee major careers for most of these voices (I’d like to hear
Ms. Todaro again), but their zesty performances and lack of top-flight
pretension give us, perhaps, a more precise notion of the light musical theater
derived from antique commedia that got audiences joyously through an
evening out in 1718 when the regatta teams weren’t out playing water polo.
How very enjoyable to encounter such a thing in New York in 2013!
Production and cast information:
Riccardo: Eric S. Brenner; Bombarda: Stephen Lavonier; Leonora: Maria
Todaro; Cornelia: Briana Sakamoto; Rosina: Catherine Leech; Flaminio:
Christopher Preston Thompson; Doralice: Elise Jablow; Ermino: Stephanie
McGuire. Sinfonia New York under Dorian Komanoff Bandy. Underworld Productions.
At the Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theater. Performance of May 22.