22 May 2013
Verdi’s Falstaff at Glyndebourne
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
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.
Richard Jones’ 2009 production of Verdi’s Falstaff translates the action from the first Elizabethan age to the start of the second.
In Ultz’s recreation of post-war Windsor — a fitting setting for a year in which we celebrate the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation — suburban mock-Tudor has replaced the genuine article but it’s a familiar world populated, much as in the historic past, by down-on-their-luck aristocrats and aspiring social climbers. There are nods forwards as well as backwards: the regimented cabbage plots amid the middle-class semis call to mind that prior ‘age of austerity’, when the ‘Dig For Victory’ mentality was as common as ‘Grow Your Own’ economising is today.
We begin in a rather genteel, wood-panelled local saloon bar, The Garter Inn; a portrait of George VI and an extravagantly antlered stag’s head oversee proceedings — a reminder of the class tensions and cuckoldry which will disturb the bourgeois complacency. Centre-stage sprawls Falstaff, ardently typing amorous missives, audaciously and insouciantly adding to his alcohol tab, and flamboyantly issuing commands to his senseless sidekicks, Bardolfo and Pistola.
Laurent Naouri’s Sir John is imposingly wide of girth — thanks to an impressive fat-suit — and generously resounding of voice. His authoritative bellow vanquishes complaints from his snivelling underlings; with beguiling tone, he serenades and courts the ladies. There is no doubting his haughty bumptiousness and Naouri emphasises his essential aristocratic dignity. But, at times this Falstaff is overly curmudgeonly, aggrieved that others do not recognise his ‘nobility’ — an anachronistic note in 1950s England — and his irritability and crabbiness do not endear him. Naouri is light on his feet, despite the prodigious abdominal encumbrance, and can neatly execute a dainty flounce. But, while the voice is sweet and enticing, this Falstaff lacks a certain wicked sparkle in the eye and the debonair charm that might win a feminine heart regardless of his physical decrepitude. Falstaff should be both dignified and vulgar, both arrogant and aware of his own coarseness and comic crassness — he should laugh at himself, so that we can laugh with him.
Part of the problem is Jones’ uncharacteristic lack of attention to comic detail and gesture; there are a few neat touches — the faux leave-taking courtesies of Ford and Falstaff, the obsequious pleading for forgiveness of the perfidious Bardolfo and Pistola, the tidal wave which bursts through the Fords’ front window when Falstaff tumbles from the window ledge and belly-flops into the Thames — but most of the audience laughter was prompted by the surtitles rather than the stage action itself (excepting the feline wriggles of the furry puppet adorning the Garter’s bar-top). The lengthy pauses between scenes, necessitated by some hefty scene-shifting, further diminished the comic briskness. The sets themselves are neat and credible, and troupes of rowing eights and girl guides add to the period feel — although they have little relevance to the drama itself. Three such scouts cross-stitch the local panorama across the front cloth before curtain-up, but it’s stretching things somewhat to ask us to imagine that they have won their needlepoint brownie badges creating a tapestry screen of Windsor Castle to adorn Alice Ford’s morning room. The latter is rather sparsely decorated, leaving few opportunities for chaotic concealment in what should be a farcical man-hunt for the lascivious Falstaff during his lecherous assignation in Act 2.
Elena Tsallagova, Ailyn Perez, Susanne Resmark and Lucia Cirillo
The huge oak in the final scene is impressively anthropomorphic and, swathed in unnatural colours by lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin, casts eerie, dancing shadows. But, the scene is poorly choreographed, the stage overly cluttered, and the ghoulish, lurid Halloween costumes — bought, presumably, at the high-street Joke Shop depicted in the previous scene — sported by the boy scouts and brownies are at odds with the Shakespearean mood of enchantment and magic. More ‘trick or treat’ than Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Ultimately, these flaws in the staging do not overly trouble us, for there is not a single weak link in the cast. Making her Glyndebourne debut, American soprano Ailyn Pérez was a self-possessed and spirited Alice Ford. Never histrionic but always secure in her self-belief, Pérez’ golden voice soared lyrically; at times slyly coy, she commanded the stage with ease. Susanne Resmark as Mistress Quickly, purposefully attired in an Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform, demonstrated masterly comic timing, particularly in her scenes with Falstaff — tongue-firmly-in-cheek, she relished the ironic resonances of the mocking salutation, ‘with respect’.
Russian baritone Roman Burdenko was a proud, indignant Ford; Falstaff may be the one with the title, but Burdenko’s powerful yet elegant delivery left no doubt about his own sense of entitlement. In this production, Fenton is a GI, and the Italian tenor, Antonio Poli exuded freshness and optimism, although he was surpassed in graceful airiness by Elena Tsallagova as Nanetta, whose angelic faerie supplication in Act 3 was the musical highlight of the evening. Lucia Cirillo was a fiery Meg; Graham Clark as Dr Caius, and Colin Judson and Paolo Battaglia — Bardolfo and Pistola respectively — completed the fine line-up.
Conducting much of the score from memory, Mark Elder led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a crisp but warm account, alert to every detail and unfailingly conjuring deft musical humour even when the stage action was less buoyant. The sombre, slightly melancholic tone of the natural horns coupled with the darker gut string timbre, made for an unusual but convincing musical colour. There was much fine playing and the instrumentalists fully captured the conviviality and essential geniality of the work; they richly deserved their ovation.
Cast and production information:
Falstaff: Laurent Naouri; Alice Ford: Ailyn Pérez; Ford: Roman Burdenko; Meg Page: Lucia Cirillo; Mistress Quickly: Susanne Resmark; Nannetta: Elena Tsallagova; Fenton: Antonio Poli; Dr Cajus: Graham Clark; Bardolfo: Colin Judson; Pistola: Paolo Battaglia; Conductor Mark Elder; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; The Glyndebourne Chorus; Director Richard Jones; Revival Director Sarah Fahie; Designer Ultz; Lighting Designer Mimi Jordan Sherin. Glyndebourne Festival, Sunday, 19th May 2013.