30 May 2013
Wagner 200th Anniversary Concert
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
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.
London’s two principal opera companies have offered a baffling near-silence as their response to Wagner’s two-hundredth anniversary.
With ENO, once home to Reginald Goodall, one may delete the ‘near’; the Royal Opera has opted for a single production, in November, of Parsifal, whose casting does not exactly lift the spirits. There is certainly nothing anywhere near the composer’s birthday itself. The BBC Proms have valiantly stepped into the gap, offering concert performances of the Ring (Barenboim), Tristan und Isolde (Bychkov), Parsifal (Elder) and Tannhäuser (Runnicles). Those concerts, however, will not take place until July and August. For 22 May, London’s offering was a Philharmonia concert conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. Doubtless there was stiff competition for Wagner conductors on the day, and Chirstian Thielemann was otherwise occupied in Bayreuth, but it was difficult not to feel that someone with greater Wagerian credentials might at least have been a possibility. Bernard Haitink, for instance? Most of us would readily have swapped the aforementioned Parsifal to hear the Royal Opera’s erstwhile music director once again in Wagner.
Was I being unfair? The proof of the aural pudding would, as always, be in the hearing. Sadly, the Prelude to the first act of Die Meistersinger — not its ‘Overture’, as the programme insert had it — received an account, which, if undoubtedly preferable to the straightforward incomprehension Antonio Pappano had shown conducting the entire opera at Covent Garden, proved no more than Kapellmeister-ish. Timings as such tell one nothing, but it felt rushed, often more martial than celebratory. There was certainly no sense of midsummer blaze or indeed embers. The Philharmonia strings, though many in number, sometimes tended towards wiriness. Detail was either skated or fussed over. Though there was more fire towards the close, it was really too late by then. It doubtless had not helped that, earlier in the day, I had listened to Furtwängler conducting the same music in 1931, but even taking that into account, it was an undistinguished performance.
Rather to my surprise, the Tristan excerpts worked better. I remain sceptical, to put it mildly, about the wisdom of pairing the first act Prelude and the so-called ‘Liebestod’ (Liszt’s wretched description of Isolde’s Transfiguration). Though I am well aware of the distinguished precedents - even Furtwängler and Boulez have followed the practice - to my ears it jars. That said, both conductor and orchestra were on better form. Not only was their a fuller string sound but Davis now seemed to understand, certainly to communicate, that something was at stake. He struck a good balance between forward impulse and a more analytical approach to the score. Though certainly not plumbing any Furtwänglerian metaphysical depths, it was a satisfying enough musical experience. Susan Bullock, joining for the ‘Liebestod’, held her line well enough. At some times, she shaded sensitively; at others, she proved rather squally. The Philharmonia, however, offered beautifully shimmering and pulsating support. Whoever interposed immediately with a boorish ‘Bravo!’ should be consigned to listen to Verdi for the rest of Wagner’s anniversary year.
The second half was devoted to the third act of Die Walküre. It is not the Wagner act I should have chosen in such circumstances; surely the first act of the same drama works better on its own. But we had what we had, and presumably part of the idea was to offer the popular, if generally misunderstood, ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Davis for the most part proved a competent guide, though there were some arbitrary-sounding slowings, though he offered few if any revelations. Whilst the Philharmonia played well enough, it sounded during the ‘Magic Fire Music’ as if someone had suddenly turned on a light-switch, such was the vividness of colour hitherto lacking. (That is not simply a matter of Wagner’s wondrous scoring at the end.) There is not much to say about David Edwards’s ‘semi-staging’, save that very good use was made of a very limited space, the direction being largely a matter of having singers come on, go off, and engage with each other. That they all did well, with the exception of James Rutherford’s Wotan. An excellent touch at the end was to have Brünnhilde go up behind the stage, to the organ, to be put to sleep. Handing her a very old-fashioned helmet at that point seemed odd: neither an obvious post-modern touch nor in keeping with the neutral dress otherwise on offer. Bullock had her moments, less audibly strained than she had been recently at Covent Garden. She made a good deal of Wagner’s text, though there were moments of relative vocal weakness. One cannot really judge a Sieglinde on the basis of the third act, but Giselle Allen offered an account more hochdramtisch than lyrical; ‘O hehrstes Wunder!’ sounded rushed, but that may have been Davis’s account. At any rate, what should be ecstatic was more matter-of-fact. The Valkyries were a good bunch, a couple of them somewhat weak, but others excellent indeed; Jennifer Johnston’s Waltraute particularly stood out. Rutherford’s Wotan, however, was a disappointment. Apparently glued to the score, and none too certain with it, there was no sign whatsoever of him having internalised the role; his performance was more akin to a first rehearsal for a minor oratorio. Tone production was often rather woolly too.
Had one been coming anew to Wagner, doubtless much would have impressed, and there may well have been some in the audience who were. (There were, as one might have expected, some decidedly peculiar people in the audience. A man seated next to me insisted on filming the first half and hour or so of the Walküre act, my glares having no effect, the ushers either not noticing or not caring. When finally he put his camera away, he replaced it with a skull-capped walking-stick.) London’s anniversary contribution remained, however, surprisingly low-key. The rest of the Wagner 200 celebrations promise much more, as do the Proms.
Cast and production information:
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg : Prelude to Act One; Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act One and ‘Liebestod’; Die Walküre: Act Three. Isolde, Brünnhilde: Susan Bullock; Sieglinde : Giselle Allen; Wotan: James Rutherford; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Gerhilde: Mariya Krywaniuk; Siegrune: Magdalen Ashman; Grimgerde: Antonia Sotgiu; Ortlinde: Elaine McKrill; Waltraute: Jennifer Johnston; Rossweisse: Maria Jones; Schwertleite: Miriam Sharrad. David Edwards (director); David Holmes (lighting). Philharmonia Orchestra/Sir Andrew Davis (director). Royal Festival Hall, 22 May 2013.