June 30, 2013

Bizet : Pearl Fishers, Opera Holland Park London

Set in ancient Ceylon, among dirt-poor fisher-folk, Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré’s libretto offered Bizet an evocative exotic locale but little by way of dramatic interest or momentum.

We begin on a desolate shore, where the eponymous pearl-divers sing of the dangers and destitution which they face, praying for protection and performing ritual dances to fend off evil spirits. ‘Conflict’ is introduced when the recently re-united comrades, Zurga, the head fisherman, and Nadir, find themselves re-living an old rivalry for the beautiful virgin priestess, Leila - a rivalry that they had formerly renounced in the name of eternal brotherhood. Leila is herself torn between her sacred vows to Brahma - impressed upon her by the high priest Nourabad and which she must fulfil to ensure the fishermen’s safety - and her rekindled secular passion for Nadir. Raging jealousy leads Zurga to condemn the lovers to death, but anger is followed by remorse and finally mercy when Zurga recognises Leila, somewhat improbably, as the woman who had sheltered him when he was a fugitive. As the villagers fight to save their homes from an inferno which has engulfed them, Zurga releases the couple and urges them to flee.
Such a limp, cliché-ridden tale needs an injection of dramatic energy from its director. Oliver Platt and his designer Colin Richmond adopt a minimalist approach in this new production for Opera Holland Park, which looks pretty but generates little tension or sultry heat.

The bare stage is suffused with aquamarine light, and onto this Sri Lankan shore flood the villagers, bedecked in vibrant, multi-coloured costumes. A silky sheet billows sumptuously, serving to evoke sun, sand and, later, storm-tossed sail. It looks richly ‘authentic’; but, just as Bizet’s score somewhat disconcertingly juxtaposes a bevy of musical styles from East and West, so the fine-voiced chorus don’t quite pass as poverty-struck fishermen. Katharine Ryan’s choreography is uninspiring and at times inert; the ceremonial dances are hackneyed and in general the stage movements are rather amateur. Which is a pity as the Opera Holland Park chorus are on terrific form, vehemently ringing out their hymn ‘Brahma divin Brahma!’ to quell the storm which ends Act 2, and urgently awaiting the double execution as the dawn approaches, ‘Dès que le soleil’ in the final Act.

So much depends on the four leads and, fortunately for Platt, the soloists here tell the story clearly and with conviction. Australian baritone Grant Doyle was a characterful Zurga, establishing a powerful stage presence and alert to every dramatic gesture and detail. While not always secure at the top, Doyle sang with a credible dark tone and rich warmth, particularly in his Act 3 aria, ‘L’orage est calmé’ as both the natural tempest and his own anger quieten.

Jung Soo Yun was rather wooden initially as Nadir, but he warmed up and the South Korean tenor’s appealing lyrical brightness blended beautifully with Doyle in their renowned duet. His delicate, well-controlled falsetto was sweetly beguiling.
As the mysterious priestess Leila, Greek-Canadian soprano Soula Parassidis was befittingly glamorous, richly swathed in silks and veil, and glossily toned of voice. Combining a gleaming timbre with lightness and flexibility, Parassidis dispatched the French coloratura effortlessly, and with technical precision and assurance. Throughout she used her voice expressively, powerfully communicating character and feeling.
Making up the quartet of soloists, Keel Watson was an authoritative, imposing High Priest.

The small forces of the City of London Sinfonia summoned up a surprisingly rich array of tints and shades under the proficient baton of Matthew Waldren. The woodwind and string soloists rose admirably to their respective challenges and there was some wonderfully soft playing from the horns.

So, go along for the good tunes. The drama may lack credibility and sincerity, but the melodies delight and there is no doubting the singers’ conviction.

Claire Seymour

product_by=Leila, Soula Parassidis; Zurga, Grant Doyle; Nadir, Jung Soo Yun; Nourabad, Keel Watson; Director, Oliver Platt; Designer, Colin Richmond; Lighting Designer, Mark Jonathan; Choreographer, Katharine Ryan; Conductor, Matthew Waldren; City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus
Opera Holland Park, London 25th June 2013

Posted by anne_o at 10:44 AM

June 29, 2013

Thomas Hampson Simon Boccanegra, Royal Opera House London

Boccanegra has been Doge of Genoa for many years. Boccanegra has survived because he thinks before he acts, and hides his feelings. Verdi doesn't write the part with florid, crowd-pleasing arias : it's not Boccanegra's style. He’s a shrewd politician who lives on constant alert, surrounded by danger. Hence the austere vocal colour, cold steel and granite. Boccanegra reveals himself in declamation, not decoration, and in ensemble where he’s not exposed..Despite his power and wealth, Boccanegra is isolated. Hampson's Boccanegra is a strong personality. He sings with dignified reserve, suggesting a man weary of the world and its intrigues. ”When he finds Amelia, the voice suddenly warms. "Figlia!" sings Hampson with genuine tenderness. You can hear the years falling away, and imagine Boccanegra as a young corsair, throwing caution aside for love. His monologue “Ah! ch’io respiri l’aura beata del libero cielo!” is created with such feeling that we realize that power has brought Boccanegra no peace. Thus he can hand the future to Amelia and Adorno without regret.

Three years ago, Plácido Domingo shrewdly chose the role as his debut as baritone because the technical demands are not great. The challenge is in the acting. Hampson doesn't have to worry about the fach, which fits him naturally. He creates the part with sensitivity, showing the Doge as man and father behind the stoic exterior.

When Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto sing together, the balance is superb, better than when Furlanetto sang the part with Domingo. Furlanetto sounds less youthful than he did before, which is more in keeping with the role, but remains forceful. The relationship between Boccanegra and Fiesco is perhaps even more significant than that between father and daughter. The two men have been struggling for decades. One is patrician, the other plebeian. Old authority is pitted against a new order. The power struggle gives the opera dramatic tension. Thus when Boccanegra and Fiesco are finally reconciled and sing together, the impact is profound. Hampson and Furlanetto are two titans, confronting one another and finding equilibrium.

Russell Thomas was an impressive Gabriele Adorno. Adorno is young and hot headed, as Boccanegra once was. Verdi gives him several showpiece arias, and Thomas rose to the occasion, and was heartily applauded. The audience seemed almost entirely comprised of first-time opera goers, which is heartening. He was last heard in London in March in John Adams' The Gospel according to the other Mary and in Donizetti's Belisario last October. He's no match for Joseph Calleja who sang Adorno with Domingo in 2010, but he's still young and promising.

Hibla Gerzmava made a pleasant role debut as Amelia, her voice particularly effective as the more mature Amelia in Acts II and III. Dimitri Platanias was a good Paolo Albiani, more relaxed and spontaneous than when he sang Rigoletto in 2012. Jihoon Kim made Pietro feel more than a minor character.

Although the orchestra seemed somewhat restrained at the beginning of the Prologue, it ignited, perhaps appropriately, when the citizens of Genoa proclaimed Boccanegra as Doge. Antonio Pappano is particularly good in this repertoire, capturing the fiery crowd scenes with great gusto. His command of subtle detail was even more perceptive. When Amelia sings the cavatina "come in quest'ora bruna" the childlike nature of her song is contradicted by the turbulence in the orchestra, as if Verdi is hinting of hard times ahead. When Boccanegra sings “Oh refrigerio!... la marina brezza!”, the strings oscillate eerily. Boccanegra remembers his youth, but this breeze is sinister, foretelling death. Pappano’s feel for the hidden depths in this opera manifested itself in the way he brought out the strange, wavering textures in the orchestration. Tragedy hangs on this opera like a shroud. Boccanegra's brief period of happiness with his daughter precipitates his death. Yet Verdi writes with cool-headed stoicism. Sparse textures, solo melodies, intense restraint, as strong -minded and unsentimental as the Doge himself. In Act III, the juxtaposition of wedding chorus and execution march is strikingly destabilizing. Happiness is a brief illusion, inevitably doomed.

Since this production has been revived over 100 times, it’s almost superfluous to comment, but theatre is as much part of an opera as singing. Otherwise we’d stick to concert performances. The sets, designed by Michael Yeargan are beautiful, but also astute. The marble floor resembles a chessboard. Marble is cold and unyielding, like fate, and power politics in a troubled city state is a game of strategy. Immense doors and marble columns loom over the protagonists. Special mention should be made of the lighting design, by John Harrison, where the same set can be transformed to create different scenes and moods.

This is a very painterly production, inspired by Renaissance painting and architecture. Written words appear on upright surfaces : sometimes in gold and fresco-like in Latin, sometimes roughly scrawled graffiti in Italian. Literally, “The writing is on the wall”.Yet beauty alone isn’t enough, as Verdi himself was to say of this opera. Fundamentally this isn’t a decorative opera, but an opera about extreme but repressed emotion.. The weakness lies in the direction. Physical action seems oddly lethargic and stilted. as if the parts are stepping out from a painting. It works, if you think of the production as a scene in a frame on a wall in a marble hall. When Amelia and Boccanegra recognize who they are to each other, the orchestra wells up, but the encounter is suprisingly matter of fact. Fortunately, the cast is so experienced that they can create their roles almost by instinct.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi : Simon Boccanegra
product_by=Paolo Albiani : Dimitri Platanias, Pietro : Jihoon Kim, Simon Boccanegra : Thomas Hampson, Jacopo Fiesco : Ferruccio Furlanetto, Amelia : Hibla Gerzmava, Gabriele Adorno, : Russell Thomas, Amelia's maid : Louise Srmit, Captain : Lee Hickinbottom, Conductor : Antonio Pappano, Director : Elijah Moshinsky, Set Designer : Michael Yeargan, Costumes : Peter J Hall, Lighting : John Harrison, Royal Opera House, London 27th June 2013

Posted by anne_o at 7:05 PM

June 28, 2013

Händel’s First Opera at the Boston Early Music Festival

But a new production at the Boston Early Music Festival (seen June 14) would seem to come pretty close, particularly in an age of modernized settings and abstract aesthetics. The opera, with a somewhat longwinded libretto by Friedrich Christian Feustking as adapted from the Venetian original L’Almira by Giulio Pancieri, is rarely performed, particularly stateside. While Handel’s score only hints at the sophistication of his later period, he reveals at only 19 years old a flair for melodic invention and an early ability to penetrate the characters’ emotional worlds. The story revolves around a fictional Queen, Almira, of the Spanish region Castile, who according to her father’s will must marry a relative of the Prince of Segovia, Consalvo. However, she loves her servant, Fernando, and has no interest in the Prince’s son, Osman—who for his part has no problem leaving one princess to chase another (the obscurely characterized Bellante). Following the rather abrupt arrival of another suitor, the King of Mauritania, all ends happily when it is discovered that Fernando is Consalvo’s long lost son.

Director and set designer Gilbert Blin recreates the mayhem of a love-ridden Spanish court with a touch of formal elegance. The characters assume statuesque presences while adopting gestures appropriate to the period. Almira, who receives several arias underscoring her pain and fragility, is supported by two female servants during her first number “Chi più mi piace io voglio” as she pines over her true love, while Edilia, Osman’s spurned love, is given room to focus on high-lying firework coloratura in her “Der Himmel wird straffen…” as dancers form an expressive backdrop. Less effective was Blin’s attempt to insert a dose of farce into a libretto that only scratches the surface of comedy. An appropriate atmosphere of slapstick colors the scene in which Almira mistakes an incomplete letter by Fernando as being for Edilia while Osman hides under the table, but the decision to cast the character of Tabarco—a rather inconsequential servant to Fernando—as a bumbling jester was more heavy-handed than amusing.

The score, which lasts approximately four hours in most modern editions, includes several dance sequences and interludes, as in keeping with Hamburg convention of the time. Choreography by Caroline Copeland and Carlos Fittante heighten a sense of authenticity with numbers such as the opening Chaconne and Sarabande which feature sword-waving warriors, as developed in collaboration with an expert in the Spanish school of classical fencing. Costumes by Anna Watkins create a throwback in time with fitted gallant fare for the men and deliciously handcrafted gowns and ruffs for the women which look straight out of a Velasquez painting. Even the rather odd scene featuring a procession of three continents—Europe, Asia and Africa (no suitors from the Americas are hanging in the wings) —stood out as one of the final act’s most engaging moments with its polished choreography and colorful uniforms.

The evening of course rested on the musical execution of the cast and orchestra, which held themselves to the highest intellectual and artistic standards. German soprano Ulrike Hofbauer brought a finely controlled, transparent voice to the title role, endowing the da capo of her throbbing aria “Geloso, tormento” with strikingly elegant ornamentation. In the role of Edilia, Amanda Forsythe was a commanding presence, evoking the princess’ emotional extremes with sharp musicality and thespian grace. Of the male singers, tenors Colin Balzer and Zachary Wilder gave stand-out performances as Fernando and Osman. Christian Immler brought and Tyler Duncan were also strong in the roles of Consalvo and Raymondo, the disguised King of Mauretania who wins Edilia to his side. Jason McStoots made the most of the bufooned Tabarco, tripping over furniture and belting out his notes, and Valerie Vinzant rounded out the cast well as Bellante, who marries Osman. Concert master Robert Mealy, who devised an edition of the score specifically for the new production, led the festival orchestra in a tight reading that nevertheless breathed with the singers, allowing for a sense of drama and spontaneity in an opera devised more easily for the laisser-faire viewing habits of the 18th-century than modern convention.

Rebecca Schmid

image_description=Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and cast [Photo by Kathy Wittman courtesy of Boston Early Music Festival]

product_title=Händel’s First Opera at the Boston Early Music Festival
product_by=A review by Rebecca Schmid
product_id=Above: Ulrike Hofbauer as Almira and cast [Photo by Kathy Wittman courtesy of Boston Early Music Festival]

Posted by Gary at 2:03 PM

June 24, 2013

Hänsel und Gretel - Garsington Opera at Wormsley

So I had high hopes of the new production for Olivia Fuchs’ new production, designed by Niki Turner, which opened at Garsington Opera on Sunday 23 June 2013 with Anna Devin as Gretel, Claudia Huckle as Hänsel, William Dazeley as Father, Yvonne Howard as Mother, Susan Bickley as the Witch, Rhiannon Llewellyn as the Sandman and Ruth Jenkins as the Dew Fairy, conducted by Martin Andre.

The new Garsington Opera stage is open plan, without flies and wings, and you can see through the transparent walls of the opera pavilion to the surrounding woods. Fuchs and Turner capitalized on this by bringing the woods into the theatre with a permanent set of trees surrounding a huge open book of Grimms fairy tales. For each scene the book opened to rather magically reveal the set (Hänsel and Gretel’s house, the witch’s house).

The opera effectively started before a note of the overture was played, because the five angels (black coated and hatted actors) were walking about the auditorium. These were constant presence throughout the opera. To a certain extent they were a necessary evil, because someone needed to change the sets. But they also interfered with the action and and watched it, though it was never quite clear who they were. During the witch’s ride (between acts one and two) they donned masks and careered round the stage, during act two they put on animal heads and helped scare the children and during the dream sequence at the start of act three they appeared with huge wings, as angels proper. They seemed to be a-moral watchers, and somewhat creepy, rather than benevolent beings.

One weakness of the staging was in the orchestral interludes (the witch’s ride and the dream sequence) what was happening in the pit was far more dramatically interesting than the action on stage. The basic concept behind the production was quite magical, with the opening and closing of the book as the basis for a performance of Hänsel und Gretel. Fuchs and Turner created an imaginatively fun evening. But, as I have said, there are undercurrents to the story which were acknowledged in different ways by David Pountney’s famous production for ENO and, more recently, in Richard Jones’s very different take on the opera for WNO (also seen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York).

Fuchs and Turner’s iconography seemed to hint at possibilities, but was never fully resolved. During the overture the angels ‘helped’ Hänsel and Gretel to discover a 1950’s TV set which the children watched avidly. When the captive children were discovered at the witch’s house they were also engrossed in watching a TV set, but this was never explained.

Similarly, elements from Hänsel and Gretel’s life were displayed on a bigger and bigger scale as the opera progressed so that the witch’s hut was surrounded by giant cakes, sweets, Gretl’s doll and the stove from the house in act one. The children’s dream at the start of act three consisted of cake and more cake, with the angels bringing on ever bigger cakes. Then at the end of the opera the angels fed the now revived children with real cakes (eaten with some relish).

Whatever the questions posed by the opera Hänsel und Gretel, Fuchs and Turner seemed to be saying that the answer was cake. The opera is surely more complex than that. This weakness seemed to be personified by the witch, played by Susan Bickley as a glamorous candy-floss haired, champagne swigging figure. Even when Bickley took her wig off to reveal a bald head, she was not terrifying (in fact she resembled a character from the TV series ‘Eurotrash’). Now, I know that Bickley can be terrifying, I’ve just seen her playing Ortrud in Lohengrin at WNO. So this soft edged, fun version of the witch must have been deliberate. In the right dramatic hands, the witch can dominate the opera, even though the role is relatively short. But here, even though Bickley sang very finely, the character was hardly a tour de force.

This was all the more frustrating as Fuchs depiction of the Sandman at the end of act two (finely sung by Rhiannon Llewellyn) had been genuinely creepy and avoided the cutesy. That said, the opera was imaginatively presented and the audience clearly loved the fun side of it, helped by some very fine personen regie.

Devin and Huckle made a believable Hansel and Gretel, recognizably childish in their personalities and certainly not good. Sometimes the action of act one can seem a little awkward and arch, but here Fuchs developed a fine naturalistic relationship between Devin and Huckle. Huckle made one of the most believable boyish Hänsels I have seen in a long time and Devin was certainly no cute, goody two-shoes Gretel. The set pieces were well sung and the two singers were well balanced, and gave completely engaging performances. Unlike some performances, acts one and two positively flew by.

It helped that in Yvonne Howard and William Dazeley we had a mother and father who combined musicality with a dramatically edgy relationship. Dazeley played father as a drunk who clearly beat and sexually abused his wife, and the two seemed to have a troubling co-dependent relationship. It was this which was the scariest part of the opera, Fuchs seemed to be saying that fantasy was nowhere near as dangerous as real life.

Both Rhiannon Llewellyn, as the Sandman, and Ruth Jenkins as the Dew Fairy, contributed beautifully poised accounts of their arias. The school children from Old Palace School and Trinity Boys Choir were enthusiastic participants in Fuchs lively activities and delivered their choruses nicely.

In the pit, Martin Andre drew warm and sophisticated playing from the Garsington Opera Orchestra. The opera is quite heavily scored, after all Humperdinck was a disciple of Wagner’s, but Andre ensured that the balance always worked well and that the singers were well supported but never had to struggle to dominate the orchestra. It is easy to dismiss Hänsel und Gretel as kitsch fun, but clearly Andre and Fuchs took the opera seriously and drew very strong performances from the cast. If only Fuchs had dared to give us the darker vision that she hinted at.

Robert Hugill

product_title=Engelbert Humperdinck : Hänsel und Gretel
product_by=Father - William Dazely, Mother - Yvonne Howard, Hansel - Claudia Huckle, Gretel - Anna Devin, Witch - Susan Bickley, Sandman - Rhiannon Llewellyn, Dew Fairy - Ruth Jenkins; Conductor - Martin Andre; Director - Olivia Fuchs; Designer - Niki Turner; Lighting Designer - Bruno Poet; Movement/Assistant Director - Sarah Fahie; Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 23rd June 2013


Posted by anne_o at 11:50 AM

June 22, 2013

Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden

Now, in 2013, as our reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, celebrates a lifetime devoted to her realm, director Richard Jones transports us back to the beginning, to a village hall - the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh? - reconstructing (deconstructing?) the opening night of the opera which announced a new Elizabethan age with a re-visitation of the first regal Elizabeth’s glories and shortcomings.

Initially we are confronted with the simple exterior of a theatre. A dignitary paces impatiently beneath the royal crest and flag which adorns the façade, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the royal party; Queen and consort enter, slightly bemused by the cultural offering bestowed in their honour. The ‘fourth wall’ is lifted to reveal an unsophisticated platform; prompter, janitor, curtain hoister and bell-ringer loiter with anticipation in the wings. The orchestral prologue commences, visually illustrated by a perfectly choreographed reverse parade through British monarchical history - faultlessly in keeping with current Conservative-party educational policy - until we arrive at the first age of Elizabethan magnificence and mal-contentment. In a brisk sweep - reminiscent of the gallery of ancestral portraits illuminated by the Prologue to Owen Wingrave - Richard Jones makes a virtue of the opera’s potential cause for irritation - its whimsicality and twee ‘Merrie England-ishness’.

Henceforth, all sentimental, mawkish, am-dram naff-ness is viewed through a knowingly ironic filter - which, in fact, perfectly complements the parodies and self-parodies of Britten’s score. Thus, the Act 1 joust presents a pantomime horse, dipping and diving, as a disgruntled Earl of Essex (Toby Spence) enviously espies the equestrian triumphs of Lord Mountjoy (Mark Stone) - soon to be reveal resplendent in eye-watering Queen-Bee zig-zags - by peering over a mock-brick wall at the ceremonial contest. As the imperial Elizabeth progresses through her realm, the various venues which receive the regal company are signposted by a gaggle of grey-uniformed public school-boys, whose thrust-aloft placards announce our successive locations.

Ultz’s designs and the eye-watering complementary colour schemes of Mimi Jordan Sherin’s lighting scheme emphasise both power and transience, from the outsized wooden throne placed centre-stage, to the iconographical pictorialism of the inner chamber - all skulls, scrolls, leather-bound learned manuscripts and lutes.

Amid this symbolic landscape, the cast are uniformly outstanding in presenting a narrative of conflicting loyalties and self-destructive betrayals.

At the heart of it all is Susan Bullock’s Gloriana, magnificently divine yet painfully human, every word of text used with intelligence and creativity to simultaneously win our sympathies and earn our censures. Exposed in Act 3 by Essex’s untimely and improper arrival and intrusion, balding, dishevelled and defenceless, she retains an essential dignity. Lonely and unaided, bullied by the unequivocal pronouncements of her courtiers into signing the death warrant of her paramour, Bullock’s Gloriana agonisingly disintegrates, much like Grimes or Vere; all that remains to console are fragments and memories, as the curtain which slowly closes on the isolated monarch announces her alienation and mortality. The spoken text powerfully announces her diminution and creative diminishment and defeat.

GLORIANA-130617_2002.gifKate Royal as Lady Rich, Toby Spence as Essex, Patricia Bardon as Countess of Essex, Mark Stone as Lord Mountjoy

Toby Spence makes a credibly sympathetic figure of the solipsistic Essex, full of a vigorous vitality which is undermined by maudlin melancholy. After serious health concerns, Spence is almost back to his best. Albeit weak and unpredictable, Essex’s devotion to the Queen is not in doubt. By turns tender, ebullient and defiant, Spence’s Essex is petulant, querulous but also truthful, winning our heart with his delicately expressive, self-revelatory second lute song, ‘Happy were we’, while arousing our distrust by - a theatrical masterstroke by Jones - surreptitiously and presumptuously usurping the unoccupied throne, when the royal party has departed after the ceremonial entertainments which close Act 2. The rapid blackout exacerbates our unease regarding his audacious intentions.

It is quite a trial for the singers to bring credibility and roundedness to librettist William Plomer’s rather one-dimension ‘puppets’, but the cast rises impressively to the challenge. Jeremy Carpenter’s Lord Cecil is the emblem of gravity and stateliness; the guarded confidence between the Queen and her ‘trusty elf’ is complemented by a Machiavellian manipulation, most particularly in the Act 3 ‘Cecil’s Warning’, as the influential Lord cunningly persuades his monarch to repel her former devotee.

Mark Stone’s Lord Mountjoy is buoyantly self-congratulatory; yet, casting pride aside, he pleads sincerely for his rival, before Frances Devereux, Essex’s sister, (Patricia Bardon) gently but futilely beseeches the Queen to show clemency and compassion. Kate Royal is a convincing Lady Penelope Rich - opinionated yet without fraudulence, pleading desperately for leniency for Essex before a hostile and unforgiving monarch, before succumbing to more histrionic outpourings in the Epilogue. In the cameo role of the Blind Ballad-singer, Brindley Sherratt is ironically Beckmesserian.

There is no evading the fact that Britten’s episodic second Act lacks dramatic momentum. The pastiche, albeit clever and effortless, serves to flatter its creator’s facility rather than to further the drama (the former is foregrounded by, for example, the harpist’s visibility in the wings during the lute songs). The lengthy sequence of theatrical rituals and dances, while flamboyantly stylistic, are ultimately static and somewhat sterile. In this context, the villagers’ vegetable mosaic, designed to celebrate regal fruitfulness and profligacy, is appropriately humdrum.

Yet, Jones’ presentation of the masque of Time and Concord is, as rudimentary moon and sun are heaved aloft from the wings, elementary but honest; similarly, Lucy Burge’s choreography produces stylised but touching performances from dancers Lake Laoutaris-Smith and Giulia Pazzaglia. The choral dances which end the Act are vigorous and energising, Spence et al matching the lusty leaps and bounds of the professional athletes.

Off-stage or on-stage, the ROH chorus are splendidly resplendent and resonant. The idolatrous ‘Green leaves are we’ chorus which permeates the score is heartfelt and warming. Conductor Paul Daniel is well-served by his woodwind players, whose expressive nuances communicates the underlying drama with virtuosity and insight, just as the whole instrumental ensemble conjures both bright majesty in the scenes of public ceremony and dark unrest when their dynamic surges represented the inner turbulences of the troubled Queen.

Jones has totally captured the antagonistic energies of this opera. Unease and imbalance characterise both dynamic relationships and structural organisation, as public and private are opposed but never reconciled. Condemned as ‘not a Great Britten’ at its first appearance, Jones convinces us that - despite its flaws - this is a Glorious Gloriana.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Earl of Essex: Toby Spence; Henry Cuffe: Benjamin Bevan; Lord Mountjoy: Mark Stone; Elizabeth I: Susan Bullock; Sir Walter Raleigh: Clive Bayley; Sir Robert Cecil: Jeremy Carpenter; Recorder of Norwich: Jeremy White; Spirit of the Masque: Andrew Tortise; Time: Lake Laoutaris-Smith’ Concord: Ciulia Pazzaglia; Penelope Lady Rich: Kate Royal; Frances Devereux: Patricia Bardon; Blind Ballad Singer: Brindley Sherratt; Conductor: Paul Daniel; Director: Richard Jones; Designs: Ultz; Lighting Design: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Choreography: Lucy Burge. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Thursday 20th June 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/GLORIANA-130617_1631.gif image_description=Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I [Photo © ROH / Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=Britten’s Gloriana, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Susan Bullock as Queen Elizabeth I

Photos © ROH / Clive Barda
Posted by Gary at 6:17 PM

June 21, 2013

Great Wagner Singers from DG

Accompanying the label’s recent release of an audio recording of the 2011 Wiener Staatsoper Ring Cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann and a companion set entitled Great Wagner Conductors, Great Wagner Singers offers six discs containg recordings of some of the greatest Wagner singers of the Twentieth Century, with a number of selections that have never before been available on compact disc. The efforts of ‘the Yellow Label’ have been central to the recording of Wagner’s music, both artistically and technically, since the inception of recorded sound, and this compilation draws upon the label’s extraordinary archives to present more than seven hours of the best Wagner singing ever recorded, superbly mastered by Lennart Jeschke.

Pride of place in terms of discussion of this remarkable release must go to the 1928 account of the Act Three Narration from Lohengrin (‘In fernem Land, unnahbar euren Schritten…Mein lieber Schwan!) by Moravian tenor Leo Slezak. Recorded in Berlin in June 1928, with composer Manfred Gurlitt conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin, this is one of the most emotionally forthright performances of the Narration on records. Mr. Slezak was approaching his fifty-fifth birthday at the time of this recording: his last performance at the Metropolitan Opera, as Verdi’s Otello, was fifteen years in the past, and he had ended his extensive career at the Wiener Staatsoper in 1927. The voice displays wear and audible signs of decline, especially in the upper register, but the sweetness of timbre, magisterial but liquid phrasing, and eloquent placement of vowels on the beat are of a quality not only absent today but barely even remembered. Hard-hearted listeners might suspect that the almost abrupt manner in which Mr. Slezak’s Lohengrin bids his Elsa farewell is the result of limitations of duration in early recordings. This would be to slight the way in which Mr. Slezak puts a matter of engineering to dramatic use: there is considerable poetry in his clipped delivery, the coloration of the voice suggesting that his words of goodbye to his new bride are almost too painful to be uttered. Mr. Slezak shapes his performance like a long-extended cantilena in a bel canto opera, and it is fascinating to note that the breadth of Wagner’s genius and originality is all the more apparent when his music is sung with genuine beauty and bel canto technique.

It is especially welcome to find in this compilation excerpts from Wagner’s seldom-heard Rienzi sung by singers of top quality. Rienzi is widely considered to be a bloated mess of a score, a by-product of Wagner’s endeavors in the realm of Meyerbeer-esque Grand Opera that merits mention in histories of the composer’s career and little more. The adventurous listener will encounter sparks of the fire that would engulf the score of Der Fliegende Holländer, however, as well as passages of great effectiveness. A better account of Adriano’s Act Three passage ‘Gerechter Gott, so ist’s entschieden schon!’than that sung by Gundula Janowitz can hardly be imagined: recorded in Berlin in 1967, with Ferdinand Leitner conducting the Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Ms. Janowitz brings the instrumental accuracy typical of her singing to a poised but pulsating performance of Adriano’s music. Equally engaging is Lauritz Melchior’s 1923-24 recording of Rienzi’s Act Five aria ‘Allmächt’ger Vater.’ Neither the Orchestra nor the Conductor is identified, but the youthful Melchior voice emerges with superb clarity. Not surprisingly, Mr. Melchior’s presence in this set is considerable, his contributions to Wagner tenor singing in the Twentieth Century demanding the prominence it receives here. Mr. Melchior also recorded two of the Wesendonck-Lieder in the winter of 1923-24, ‘Schmerzen’ and ‘Träume.’ It remains unusual for a tenor to take on the Wesendonck-Lieder, but Mr. Melchior’s prodigious vocal endowment enabled him to do many unusual things. Both songs receive deeply-felt, vocally sumptuous performances from the young tenor. The other three of the Wesendonck-Lieder—‘Der Engel,’ ‘Stehe still,’ and ‘Im Treibhaus’—are beautifully sung by Astrid Varnay in a 1955 performance with the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks under Leopold Ludwig’s baton.

Der Fliegende Holländer is the earliest of the Wagner’s operas to remain in the international repertory and the first score in which the work of the mature Wagner of Tristan und Isolde andDer Ring des Nibelungen can be discerned in every bar. Inclusion of Hans Hotter’s unforgettable 1943 recording of the Holländer’s ‘Die Frist ist um’ from Act One was surely inevitable: scarcely ever rivaled and never surpassed in the title role, Mr. Hotter sings ‘Die Frist ist um’ with complete mastery of the music. Supported by the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Maestro Heinrich Hollreiser, Mr. Hotter creates in slightly less than nine minutes a compellingly three-dimensional portrait of the Holländer. In the great choruses from Acts One and Three [the three-act edition of the score was employed for the 1958 Bayreuth recording from which the choruses in this compilation are excerpted],’Mit Gewitter und Sturm’ and ‘Steuermann, lass die Wacht,’ the Bayreuther Festspiele Chorus respond to Wilhelm Pitz’s legendary leadership with sharply-focused, dramatically thrilling singing. The selections from Senta’s music may prove to be the most controversial choices made by Project Manager David Butchart and his team: using the DGG recording of the 1971 Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer conducted by Karl Böhm, Senta is sung by Dame Gwyneth Jones. Ever a fiery dramatic presence, Ms. Jones was at the zenith of her powers as a Wagnerian in 1971, the voice vibrant and secure. She seized every dramatic opportunity offered by August Everding’s production, in which she alternated as Senta with Ursula Schröder-Feinen. Complemented by the alert Mary of Sieglinde Wagner, Ms. Jones sings Senta’s Ballad with mesmerizing intensity, following a whirling performance of the Spinning Chorus. The timbre of Ms. Jones’s voice may never be to every opera lover’s taste, but her stature as a Wagnerian is validated by the exciting singing on this disc.

Tannhäuser is represented in this musical anthology with especially fine performances, beginning with a broadly-phrased ‘Dich, teure Halle’ by Leonie Rysanek. Recorded with the Münchner Philharmoniker and Ferdinand Leitner in April 1955, the performance finds Ms. Rysanek at her youthfully radiant best, the aria capped with a heart-stopping top B such as only the young Rysanek could have produced. Also taken from the 1958 recording used for the Fliegende Holländer choruses, three choral numbers from Tannhäuser—‘Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle’ from Act Two and ‘Beglückt darf nun dich, o Heimat, ich schauen’ and ‘Heil! Heil! Der Gnade Wunder Heil!’ from Act Three—are expertly sung by the Bayreuth Chorus. The Act Two duet for Elisabeth and Tannhäuser receives from the undervalued Annelies Kupper—an accomplished Wagnerian in Europe in the decade after World War II—and Wolfgang Windgassen a performance of crackling energy, their dynamic partnership shaped by the insightful conducting of Richard Kraus. ‘Gar viel und schön ward hier in diese Halle,’ the Landgraf’s launching of the Song Contest in Act Two, is memorably sung by Josef Greindl in a 1955 recording conducted by Leopold Ludwig. Gundula Janowitz returns with a gorgeous performance from 1967 of Elisabeth’s Prayer, ‘Allmächt’ge Jungfrau! Hör mein Flehen!’ One of the finest aspects of Otto Gerdes’s much-discussed 1968 studio recording of Tannhäuser is the Wolfram of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Wolfram was arguably the Wagner role to which the great baritone was best suited, and his singing of Wolfram’s Song to the Evening Star—‘O du, mein holder Abendstern’—is one of the finest stretches of Wagner singing on records, deservedly included in this set. The Tannhäuser excerpts are crowned by a towering performance of the title character’s Narration from Act Three, ‘Inbrunst im Herzen, wie kein Büßer noch,’by Lauritz Melchior. Also recorded in 1923-24, this performance is notable not only for the vocal security and ease with the demanding tessitura but also for the psychological sophistication exhibited by the young singer, just thirty-three at the time of the recording.

In addition to Leo Slezak’s wondrous performance of the Act Three Narration, Lohengrin also benefits from the excellent singing of the Bayreuth Chorus in 1958, with bustling performances of ‘Seht, seht! Welch ein seltsam Wunder’ from Act One, ‘Gesegnet soll sie schreiten’ from Act Two, and ‘Treulich geführt ziehet dahin’ from Act Three. From her 1967 recording conducted by Ferdinand Leitner come beautiful performances of Elsa’s ‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ from Act One and ‘Euch Lüften, die mein Klagen so traurig oft erfüllt’ from Act Two by Gundula Janowitz. The purity of Ms. Janowitz’s voice is ideal for conveying the sweetness of Elsa, and the clarity of her diction ensures that even passages that require slightly greater tonal amplitude than Ms. Janowitz can provide are nonetheless delivered with passion and musical integrity.

It seems somewhat strange that the selections from Tristan und Isolde exclude music for the male half of the title pair, but the three selections on offer are representative of the finest standards of Wagner singing in DGG’s archives. Beginning with a powerful, biting performance of Isolde’s Narration and Curse from Act One (‘Weh, ach Wehe! Dies zu dulden!’) with Astrid Varnay as Isolde and Hertha Töpper as Brangäne, the Tristan und Isolde excerpts are among the most persuasive in the compilation. A Bayerischen Rundfunks performance from June 1954, conducted by Hermann Weigert (Ms. Varnay’s husband), Isolde’s Narration and Curse unfolds with great dramatic tension, Ms. Varnay’s voice tingling with anger and her top notes gleaming like silvery comets. One of the greatest surprises of this recording is the 1954 performance of König Marke’s Act Two Monologue (‘Tatest du’s wirklich? Wähnst du das?’) by Finnish bass Kim Borg, an under-recorded artist of impeccable Wagnerian credentials. Mr. Borg encounters no difficulties in Marke’s challenging tessitura, and his idiomatic phrasing expresses all of the shifting emotions of Marke’s character with uncommon, unsentimental directness. Though he now enjoys less renown than he deserves, Mr. Borg possessed one of the most beautiful bass voices of the Twentieth Century, and the inclusion of his singing of Marke’s Monologue in this set was an inspired choice by Deutsche Grammophon. Fittingly, the Tristan und Isolde selections end with Birgit Nilsson’s 1966 Bayreuth performance of Isolde’s Liebestod, ‘Mild und leise wie er lächelt.’ Conducted by Karl Böhm, the DGG complete recording of the ’66 Tristan und Isolde is one of the truly classic Wagner recordings, one still cited by many listeners as the finest recording of Wagner’s paean to complicated love and betrayal. The tonal accuracy that Ms. Nilsson brings to a live performance of the Liebestod after a long evening is arresting and justifiably celebrated: less remembered, or perhaps less discussed, is the fact that, when at her best, Ms. Nilsson possessed a voice that combined power with rapt beauty. She was at her most inspired in the 1966 Tristan und Isolde, and her singing of the Liebestod is an appropriate testament to the legacy of one of the greatest Wagnerians.

The excerpts from Das Rheingold recall a Golden Age of Wagner singing in the 1920’s. Recorded in 1924, contralto Karin Branzell’s performance of Erda’s Scene (‘Weiche, Wotan, weiche! Flieh des Ringes Fluch!), conducted by Manfred Gurlitt, is a stunning piece of singing. The verbal sharpness and stinging crispness of diction brought to the music by Ms. Branzell are revelatory, and the poignancy of Erda’s warnings is eerily brought out. No less authoritative is the performance of Wotan’s ‘Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge’ by Josef von Manowarda, recorded in 1921. The vitality of Mr. von Manowarda’s singing and the saturnine vibrancy of his voice are evident despite the dated sound of the excerpt. Both Ms. Branzell and Mr. von Manowarda sing with notable attention to text, making the importance of Erda’s admonitions and Wotan’s stubborn persistence palpable to the listener.

Act One of Die Walküre is offered in its entirety, presented in a sterling 1951 account with Maria Müller as Sieglinde, Wolfgang Windgassen as Siegmund, and Josef Greindl as Hunding. Conducted by Ferdinand Leitner, this performance simmers with dramatic heat from start to finish. Ms. Müller, whose début role at the Metropolitan Opera in 1925 was also Sieglinde, shows laudable comfort with the part, of which she was an acknowledged paragon during Heinz Tietjen’s tenure at Bayreuth . Though at the time of this recording nearing the end of her career, which she drastically curtailed after the end of World War II, Ms. Müller’s voice still retained much of the elegance for which it was admired, and her instincts as a Wagnerian remained deep. Ms. Müller’s interactions with both of her colleagues are gripping, and the sense of sadness that she brings to Sieglinde’s description of her life with Hunding is very touching. Though the voice no longer responds with absolute perfection to the demands placed upon it, Ms. Müller is thrilling in Sieglinde’s most telling passages, not least in her response to Siegmund’s extraction of Notung from the tree. Mr. Windgassen here reminds the listener why he was for a generation a Wagnerian par excellence: the youthfully virile, ringing tone with which he voices Siegmund’s lines is extremely winning, his ‘Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond’ as romantic as any ever recorded. The voice is on splendid form, combining the smoothness and confidence above the staff of a lyric tenor—Mr. Windgassen’s top A in this performance is a wonderful eruption of tone—with the power and stamina of a young dramatic voice. Verbally, not a syllable of text is lost. Mr. Greindl is a formidably menacing Hunding, the bleakness of the tone used to chilling effect. The listener is also treated to a 1957 recording of the Todesverkündigung from Act Two (‘Siegmund! Sieh auf mich!’) featuring the incomparable Kirsten Flagstad as Brünnhilde and Set Svanholm as Siegmund, conducted by the young Sir Georg Solti. Recorded in Vienna’s famed Sofiensaal, this is even after fifty-six years one of the most classic recordings of any of Wagner’s music. Ms. Flagstad, in many hearts the dominant Wagnerian soprano of any age, had retired from the operatic stage before the making of this recording, but the voice remained an instrument of warmth, security, and unparalleled amplitude. Starting low in the voice, the music in the Todesverkündigung reveals the autumnal beauty of Ms. Flagstad’s lower register. Mr. Svanholm was a committed Wagnerian but, perhaps because of the legacies of artists like Leo Slezak and Lauritz Melchior, is not as widely remembered as his singing merits. Here singing Siegmund, Mr. Svanholm responds eloquently to Ms. Flagstad, his level of intensity rising as Siegmund defends his devotion to Sieglinde and his voice possessing both steel and satin. Die Walküre ends with some of Wagner’s most moving music, and this set offers brilliantly noble performances of two monumental excerpts from Act Three. Attempting to justify her defiance of Wotan’s orders, Brünnhilde softens from the warrior maiden to a loving, frightened daughter: few sopranos make that transformation more emotionally transparent than Frida Leider. Recorded in 1925, when Ms. Leider sings ‘War es so schmählich, war ich verbrach,’ the voice—more focused than formidable in scale—goes directly to the heart of the listener. The tonal beauty is formidable, however, and the experience with Wagner’s musical idiom is audible in every phrase. Only the most accomplished Wotan would be suitable for taking leave of such a Brünnhilde, and Deutsche Grammophon provide a 1942 performance of Wotan’s Farewell—‘Leb wohl, du kühnes, herrliches Kind!’—by Hans Hotter that matches Ms. Leider’s grace, passion, and beauty. Even in his earliest performances of the role, Mr. Hotter was an atypically insightful Wotan, and this performance finds him at his youthful best, both musically and dramatically.

With its male-dominated sound world and complex dramaturgy, Siegfried is perhaps the most difficult of the Ring operas to produce and record successfully. Beginning with an appropriately muscular but unfailingly attractive 1923-24 performance of Siegfried’s ‘Forging Song’ (‘Notung! Notung! Neidliches Schwert!’) by the young Lauritz Melchior, the excerpts in this set reveal the rewarding depth offered by Siegfried when sung by voices of legitimate quality. Siegfried’s ‘Dass der mein Vater nicht ist’ receives from Max Lorenz a nuanced performance, recorded at Bayreuth in 1936 and followed by a broadly-phrased playing of the famous Waldweben (‘Forest Murmurs’) conducted by Heinz Tietjen. The Wanderer’s ‘Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach!’ from Act Three is nobly sung by Josef von Manowarda in a performance recorded in 1921. The opera’s final duet, the music to which Siegfried awakens Brünnhilde from her slumber and claims her as his bridge, is represented by a 1925 performance in which Brünnhilde is unforgettably sung by Frida Leider. Fritz Soot, her Siegfried, does not achieve the same level of excellence, but he holds his own in very challenging music. Here, too, Ms. Leider’s phrasing is revelatory, the voice girlish but not insubstantial. Ms. Leider’s concluding top C rings out brightly across the years.

Building upon the foundation of the closing duet in Siegfried, Götterdämmerung contains an equally ecstatic love duet for Brünnhilde and Siegfried, commandingly sung in a 1955 recording by Astrid Varnay and Wolfgang Windgassen. Mr. Windgassen excels in the rocketing phrases with which Siegfried extols his love for Brünnhilde, and his ardor is matched by Ms. Varnay’s bold, firm singing, her top C powerful and secure. Two samples of Josef Greindl’s legendarily craggy Hagen are offered, the first of which is a delightfully insinuating 1955 performance of ‘Hier sitz ich zur Wacht, wahre den Hof’ from Act One. Even more appreciably dominating is Mr. Greindl’s 1958 Bayreuth account of Hagen’s Summoning of the Vassals, ‘Hoiho! Ihr Gibichsmannen, machet euch auf!’ The singing of the Bayreuth Chorus in this scene is again fantastic. Mr. Greindl’s voice was one more noted for power than for beauty, but there is a strange attractiveness in hearing some of the most extroverted passages in the Ring sung with such relish and confidence. The scene in Act Three in which Siegfried describes his youthful adventures is sung with convincing bravura by Max Lorenz—and ably complemented by the Hagen of Georg Hann—in a 1950 performance conducted by Ferdinand Leitner. Mr. Lorenz did not possess the most opulent of voices, but his dedication to the character even in the context of a recording is admirable. Nonetheless, Mr. Lorenz’s vocalism shames the efforts of many latter-day Wagnerians. ‘Brünnhilde, heilige Braut’ from Siegfried’s death scene in Act Three is movingly sung by Wolfgang Windgassen in a 1953 performance conducted by Leopold Ludwig. Mr. Windgassen was for a decade such an ubiquitous presence in Wagner performances, not least at Bayreuth, that his value as an artist has perhaps been underestimated by successive generations of critics and listeners. At his best, Mr. Windgassen was a sensitive interpreter, and the voice was an instrument of world-class quality. Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene (‘Starke Scheite schichtet mir dort’) receives a fantastic performance from Astrid Varnay, recorded in 1954 under her husband’s direction. Even when the voice started to show the effects of hard use, Ms. Varnay was a phenomenally gifted interpreter of the music of Wagner. The ways in which Ms. Varnay conveys Brünnhilde’s emotions through vocal colorations alone are outstanding, but this performance also preserves Ms. Varnay on her best vocal form. The voice only becomes stronger as the tessitura rises, the ecstasy with which Brünnhilde joins Siegfried in death more convincingly depicted than in almost any other recorded performance. Ms. Varnay did not have the same opportunities in the recording studio that other Wagnerians were granted: thanks are due to Deutsche Grammophon for giving her such a deservedly preeminent place in this compilation.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is described as the only comedy among Wagner’s mature works, but it is humanity rather than humor that inhabits the soul of the opera. The excerpts from Die Meistersinger offered by Deutsche Grammophon center the focus on the roles of Veit Pogner, Walther von Stolzing, and Hans Sachs. As in all of their contributions to this set, the Bayreuth choristers sing with idiomatic vigor in ‘Wacht auf! Es nahet gen den Tag’ from Act Three. Pogner’s brief passage ‘Das schöne Fest, Johannistag’ from Act One is resoundingly sung by Josef Greindl. The highlights of Hans Sachs’s music are distributed among three of the most acclaimed interpreters of the role. ‘Was duftet doch der Flieder’ from Act Two and ‘Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!’ from Act Three are sung by Hans Hotter. Both selections were recorded in 1942, the first under the baton of Artur Rother and the second conducted by Robert Heger. The vocal power and allure that Mr. Hotter brings to his performances are superb, but it is the big-hearted good humor of his singing that is truly legendary. Immensely enjoyable, too, is the 1921 performance of Act Two’s ‘Jerum! Jerum! Hallahallohe!’ by Friedrich Schorr. Remembered as a great Wotan, Mr. Schorr, recorded in his early prime, proves an equally impressive Sachs, the burly quality of the timbre perfectly suited to Sachs’s pragmatism. Another fine Sachs is honored by the inclusion of Theodor Scheidl’s 1930 recording of Sachs’s ‘Verachtet mir die Meister nicht’ from Act Three. Mr. Scheidl, now almost completely forgotten, was a noted Sachs at Bayreuth in the years just before World War I, and his singing of Sachs’s warning about the dangers of cultural disintegration is as beautiful, noble, and heartfelt as any ever recorded. This performance, too, is a noteworthy rediscovery. It is surprising that the assignment of representing Walther von Stolzing in this set was entrusted to American tenor Jess Thomas, but his singing in his 1963 recordings of ‘Fanget an! - So rief der Lenz in den Wald’ from Act One and the Prize Song from Act Three (‘Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein’) belies his reputation for leather-lunged performances of dubious sensitivity. Captured at his best, Mr. Thomas here sings with untiring musicality and lovely tone that leave no doubt about why Walther prevailed in the song contest.

If Die Meistersinger is an exercise in humanity on a large scale, Parsifal is Wagner’s exploration of the rapture of spirituality and the triumphs of truth, trust, and even flawed benevolence. Interpretations of Parsifal are as varied as the music of Wagner itself, but any performance that focuses upon executing Wagner’s music on the scale that it deserves will offer at least limited pleasure. The Bayreuth choristers return for a stirring account of ‘Zum letzten Liebesmahle gerüstet Tag für Tag’ from Act One. Amfortas’s ‘Des Weihgefäßes göttlicher Gehalt’ is sung with pained nobility and an audible sense of suffering in a state between life and death by Theodor Scheidl. Recorded in 1928, Mr. Scheidl’s singing is supported by the conducting of Hermann Weigert, and the unheralded singer achieves a performance of uncompromising grandeur. Similarly exceptional is Frida Leider’s 1925 recording of Kundry’s ‘Ich sah das Kind an seiner Mutter Brust’ from Act Two. Ms. Leider’s voice is more conventionally beautiful than Twenty-First-Century listeners are accustomed to hearing in Kundry’s music, but Ms. Leider’s thoughtful, carefully-shaped singing proves anew that she was a Wagnerian of rare elegance. A Danish Radio recording from 1939 preserves the Act Two ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’ of Lauriz Melchior, a performance that adds markedly to the listener’s appreciation of Melchior’s status as a Wagnerian. Josef Greindl’s 1952 performance of Gurnemanz’s ‘Das ist Karfreitagszauber, Herr!’ from Act Three is fantastic, the wonder of the scene subtly but palpably expressed by Mr. Greindl’s unflinchingly committed singing. The famed recording of the controversial 1970 Bayreuth Parsifal conducted by Pierre Boulez provides the final excerpts from the opera, pairing James King’s Parsifal with Thomas Stewart’s Amfortas against the Bayreuth Chorus with rousing results. Both of the American singers are on career-best form, with Mr. King’s singing especially inspiring. The enchantment that Maestro Boulez brought to Wagner’s operas is well known, but this Parsifal exceeded even his own exalted standards.

It is impossible when listening to these discs to avoid pondering the state of Wagner singing in the Twenty-First Century. What is immediately obvious is that, though there are fewer handsome faces and trim waistlines among the singers on this DGG compilation than there are in the casts of Wagner’s operas in performances today, beautiful Wagner singing comparable to the performances heard on these discs is an elusive organism that has become virtually extinct. It can be debated whether a singer like Lauritz Melchior, whose figure reflected the largesse of his voice, would enjoy unprecedented success in this age of cinecasts and closely-filmed DVD productions. Ultimately, the music of Wagner emphatically deserves beautiful singing rather than beautiful faces, and Great Wagner Singers documents precisely what its title suggests: an array of standard-setting performances by some of the most significant singers ever recorded in the music of Wagner. Vielen Dank, Deutsche Grammophon.

Joseph Newsome

Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883): Great Wagner Singers — Excerpts from Rienzi, Der Fliegende Holländer, Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Parsifal , and the Wesendonck-Lieder sung by sopranos Kirsten Flagstad, Gundula Janowitz, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Annelies Kupper, Frida Leider, Maria Müller, Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, and Astrid Varnay; mezzo-sopranos Hertha Töpper and Sieglinde Wagner; contralto Karin Branzell; tenors James King, Max Lorenz, Lauritz Melchior, Leo Slezak, Fritz Soot, Set Svanholm, Jess Thomas, and Wolfgang Windgassen; baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; bass-baritones Hans Hotter, Josef von Manowarda, Theodor Scheidl, Friedrich Schorr, and Thomas Stewart; basses Kim Borg, Josef Greindl, and Georg Hann; Various Choruses and Orchestras; Conductors include Karl Böhm, Walter Born, Pierre Boulez, Otto Gerdes, Manfred Gurlitt,Robert Heger, Heinrich Hollreiser, Richard Kraus, Ferdinand Leitner, Leopold Ludwig, Nicolai Malko, Artur Rother, Sir Georg Solti, Heinz Tietjen, and Hermann Weigert [Various recording dates and venues; Deutsche Grammophon 479 1241; 6CD 452:18]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Wagner_Singers.gif image_description=Great Wagner Singers from DG product=yes product_title=Great Wagner Singers from DG product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 0289 479 1241 5 [6CDs] price=$26.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=916497
Posted by Gary at 10:22 AM

June 20, 2013

St. Louis: Winner and Still Champion

The new work by jazz great Terence Blanchard (music) and playwright Michael Cristofer (libretto) has all the elements to make a fine opera: a flawed but towering hero, a story with larger-than-life issues, a first class staging, contemporary appeal, and a uniquely imaginative score that is immediate and accessible

James Robinson has staged Champion with all of his customary visual bravura balanced by insightful exploration of the complex central character, real life boxer Emile Griffith. The pugilist critically injured an opponent during a televised match in 1962 and it altered his life. The story is offered in ten scenes (or ‘rounds’) book-ended by the present day man who is in assisted living and suffering from dementia.

The creators have divided the title role between three actors: Arthur Woodley as the retired Emile Griffith, Aubrey Allicock as the young champion, and Jordan Jones as the boy Emile. All are excellent. If Mr. Allicock proves to be the evening’s breakout star, Mr. Woodley is unquestionably the show’s rock.

Woodley received the most sustained, vociferous ovation of the festival for a Herculean performance that combined beautifully delineated phrases, flawless coloring of the text, orchestra-riding power in arching outbursts, and a well-rounded embodiment of the troubled, fading, rather gentle giant. Arthur Woodley has unequivocally defined the role for future interpreters

No less impressive was the amiable, self-assured performance by Mr. Allicock, as notable for his uninhibited physical commitment as it was for his uniformly suave singing. His mellow bass sound and forward placement fell pleasantly on the ear. More than any other soloist, Aubrey selectively emulated a more pop delivery, dropping the focus out of the mask. This lent variety to the style but I am not sure it was necessary to the success of the score. But never you mind, I predict Aubrey Allicock’c career may take off like a rocket

Young Mr. Jordan had far less to sing, but he made a strong impression, his boy soprano pure and present. International mezzo Denyce Graves predictably made a potent contribution to the evening’s success as the fighter’s mother. As ever, Ms. Graves looked glamorous and gifted us with smokey-hued, effusive tone, especially in the lower and mid-range. In the highest stretches, the singer husbanded her resources effectively but one or two extreme notes were touched on rather than floated. She scored big with one of the opera’s best set pieces, a long lament that found her voice soaring and plunging over the bare accompaniment of a pizzicato bass, to mesmerizing effect

Champion_20.gif(L to R) Denyce Graves as Emelda Griffith, Robert Orth as Howie Albert, Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith, and members of the company of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Established contralto Meredith Arwady made the most of a featured role as owner of a drag bar, and her meaty voice lustily encompassed a bluesy ‘hot mama’ number. In look and delivery she seemed to be channeling Broadway’s Debra Monk. Young artist Chabrelle Williams made a notable impression as the boxer’s wife, her limpid, vibrant soprano utilized with pristine polish. Brian Arreola’s lean, well-schooled tenor and his impassioned way with several high-flying phrases were perfectly matched to the role of the sympathetic care-giver Luis. Roberth Orth brought his wealth of experience to bear as the trainer, and he sang with real fire and commitment

In dual roles, Victor Ryan Robinson infused his high tenor with real personality as the taunting, doomed opponent; and sang with aching beauty in the final confrontation as the victim’s son. In the important role of the young man in the bar who awakens Emile’s homosexual feelings, Lorenzo Miguel Garcia made each phrase count

At a time when most companies seem clinically afraid to program new works, OTSL seems afraid not to. It is deeply ingrained in their mission. Since 1976 they have offered twenty-three world premieres, an equal number of American premieres and major revivals of seven American operas, an awesome record by any standard.

The organization has mounted this new piece without stinting, to include providing a colorful multi-set design from Allen Moyer. The uses of levels, the star reveal for Ms. Graves in a vintage car, the seedily sequined bar, the fanciful hat factory, and the very theatrical evocation of the boxing ring, were deftly balanced with the reality of the hero’s current institutional ‘prison.’ The effective sliding panels were also used to accommodate Greg Emetaz’s eye-catching video and still projections. Christopher Akerlind’s tight specials served the concept well, and James Schuette out-did himself with character specific costumes that contributed colorful period commentary.

Mr. Cristofer’s libretto sometimes spends more time in spoken dialogue than it may need to, and it occasionally strains a little hard to be vulgar, but he has given the composer a wonderful format with his episodic approach, fluid timelines, and layering of characters. Mr. Blanchard has responded with a score that has echoes of everything from Harry Connick’s Broadway work to Shostakovich to Adams, but despite discerning a few fleeting influences, the score remains true to Blanchard’s unique sound.

George Manahan drew sensitive playing from the pit, but the score seems to use the instrumentalists more as a buoyant cushion of harmonies and propulsive percussion that an equal partnership (the orchestration was developed in part by Howard Drossin). With further performances, I would suspect there may be some tweaking and shaping, but as it stands the opera already has legs and memorable numbers, witness a remarkable quartet in Act Two. And the heart-wrenching final moments as Emile recalled his opening thoughts about his missing shoe. Yes, it lives up to its advance press: OTSL has a hit on its hands.

KISS_1.gif(L to R) Garrett Sorenson as Lukáš and Corinne Winters as Vendulka

Smetana’s The Kiss also delivered the goods in a wholly different genre. It is hard to imagine why this lovely composition has had so little traction outside of the Czech Republic, for it offers as much effervescent fun as Bartered Bride with two stellar roles for soprano and tenor, and supporting turns with intriguing music that afford entertaining opportunities.

Okay, okay, so the plot is slight. The heroine, Vendulka, agrees to marry a widower Lukas, but refuses to kiss him before the wedding. And then, two acts later, she relents. But during those two acts, that act of defiance sparks pages and pages of fun stuff, with evocative orchestral writing (like the sunrise) that are equal to Smetana’s best. Director Michael Gieleta’s ingenious staging mined all of the dramatic (or more to the point, comic) possibilities in the rather uncomplicated tale

James Macnamara’s lean set design featured floor-to-ceiling panels of vertical wooden planks with various dimensions and textures, and a floor covered by a verdant green Astroturf, a stylized suggestion of the Czech countryside. With the addition of a few well-crafted set pieces (to include some goofy over-sized sunflowers), the environment was fanciful and functional. Mr. Akerlind’s skillful lighting with its gobos and washes added another level of refinement, and Fabio Toblini’s lovingly rendered folk costumes pushed the physical production up yet another notch to a resounding visual success. It should be reported that throughout the festival, Tom Watson made significant contributions with his distinctive hair and elaborate make-up designs

Anthony Barrese drew particularly fine playing from his St. Louis Symphony musicians who reveled in the richness and lyrical detail of Smetana’s writing. At times there were even potent suggestions of Wagner, such as in the superlative sustained “sun” passages. Maestro Barrese’s assured reading winningly rendered all of the sprightly folk elements, and he shaped the performance with stylistic acumen

KISS_9.gif(Center, L to R) Garrett Sorenson as Lukáš, Matthew Burns as Palouký Otec, Matthew Worth as Tomeš and members of the company in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

As Vendulka, Corinne Winters soundly demonstrated that she has made good on all the wonderful promise she displayed in seasons past. Ms. Winters struck just the right balance between the girl’s stubbornness and the soft core that it conceals. Her singing above the staff was laser-perfect, thrilling in its lustrous intensity. Her substantial soprano also speaks well in the lower ranges where a hint of darkness ensures good projection, though occasionally at the cost of the diverse palette of colors she has at her command in the upper half of her instrument. In all respects, this was a decisive performance

Garrett Sorenson’s Lukas more than held his own against this adamant kiss-denier. He has a boyishly appealing demeanor and a hefty tenor of gleam and thrust. His technique is secure and free, and when he pours out the sound there is ample stentorian power on display. But Mr. Sorenson also did some ravishing, tormented phrases that he underplayed with moving results. Indeed, his overall excellence made me wonder (hope?): is a superb Peter Grimes possibly in our midst?

Matthew Worth’s refined baritone has been on display at any number of the nation’s high profile assignments recently and with good reason: his bright, fresh baritone, virile and buzzy in lower patches, sails easily up to tenor territory seemingly at will. As Tomes, he cuts a fine figure, relaxed and appealing. Gerdine Artist Charles Z. Owens showed off a bass of real quality as the “old” smuggler Matous, and he was wisely allowed to use his lean young frame, perfect comic timing, and puppy dog energy to enliven the proceedings. Nor was Elizabeth Barton the right age for Vendulka’s “aunt” Martinka, but Ms. Barton’s plummy, generous mezzo compensated nicely. Emily Duncan-Brown as the servant Barce only had one big aria, but she sang it for all it was worth and her silvery lyric delivery was enchanting. Matthew Burns’ incisive bass and concentrated delivery brought an electric charge to his every scene as the crotchety father. Robert Ainsley’s choral preparation was full-throated and meticulous. The smugglers’ “all clear” chorus was a model of diction and control

Pirates_8.gif(L to R) Deanna Breiwick as Mabel, Matthew Plenk as Frederic, and members of the chorus in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

I would be hard pressed to imagine a livelier, more colorful, better sung (and played) Pirates of Penzance than the thoroughly delightful production inhabiting the stage of the Loretto-Hilton. The invigorating pace, the unbridled good spirits, and the spot-on comic delivery threatened to permanently impose a broad grin on my face.

The Dream Team responsible for so fully realizing this G&S confection was led by the accomplished director-choreographer Seán Curran. Mr. Curran built on the resounding successes he has given us in past seasons (most especially a vivacious Daughter of the Regiment) and he now knows the venue inside out. His blocking took full advantage of the thrust configuration and his inventive comic touches landed with breezy regularity.

If the choreography of Act One’s finale suddenly abandoned character-based movement and morphed into (well-executed) Broadway jazz squares, and if the stage business nearing the end of Two descended into almost relentless busy-ness, what the hell, tell that to the belly laughing audience who ate it all up with a spoon. Seán knew what he was doing, and what he was doing was very very crowd-pleasing. By the time Queen Victoria herself made an unscheduled appearance, we willingly followed him anywhere he led

James Schuette’s vibrant setting was at first all warm gold tones set off by accents of blue squares, backed by stylized waves, and featuring a sort of pop-up-book pirate ship of various rolling components. And all this was set off by a lavish gold proscenium arch with rich red drape, and topped by a skull and crossbones crest for a perfect establishment of time, place, and performance style. For the second act, a star curtain proved an effective backdrop for a Hollywood-esque graveyard that was a clever environment to suggest ancestors, heritage, and comically ominous plot development. Mr. Schuette excelled even more with his glorious period costumes, properly lavish for the high born, prankish for the pirates, and aptly Keystone-ish for the Kops

Pirates_2.gif (L to R) Maria Zifchak as Ruth, Matthew Plenk as Frederic, and Bradley Smoak as the Pirate King

Tom Watson arguably did his best work here, which is to say some of the best wig and make-up work in the business. The young ladies were impeccable coiffed, the pirates suitably scruffy, and Ruth’s transformation was telling and visually engaging. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting was so effective as to seem effortless

In the pit young conductor Ryan McAdams kept everything bubbling and effervescent, never letting the mood descend into overt sentimentality. Maestro McAdams controlled his large forces with skill (as in the sublime amassed choral passages, thank you again Mr. Ainsley), and kept a tight rein on the numerous stretches of perilous patter

If his current over-the-top performance is any indication, Bradley Smoak could own the part of the Pirate King. His vocal accomplishments certainly set the standard for polished singing of the role, and he uses his good looks and lanky physique to superb comic effect. There is not a “take” that goes amiss, not a twitch of his sword that is not well-considered, and his light-footed traversal of Mr. Curran’s dance steps was assured and appealing. Has any King besides Bradley ever executed high kicks like a seasoned hoofer? Mr. Smoak dominated the stage with a performance of consummate wit, inspired clowning, resonant singing, and star power to spare.

No other role in the piece affords quite the some over-sized opportunity, but that didn’t stop the rest of the cast from making mighty impressions. Matthew Plenk was a model Frederic, strapping, boyish, and possessed of a meaty, pliable tenor that could not only caress a phrase with warmly sublime tone, but could also summon up reserves of clarion power to make it quite believable that he could literally bowl young ladies over as the staging suggests. Deanna Breiwick was cute as a button as Mabel, and her honeyed soprano was up to all the role’s technical demands as she dispatched the tricky parodies of operatic coloratura with precision and ease

Pagliacci_6.gifKelly Kaduce as Nedda and Tim Mix as Tonio

Seasoned performer Maria Zifchak was luxury casting as the anything-but-matronly Ruth, her ripe mezzo enlivening and enriching the part beyond its usual interpretation. The success of General Stanley usually rises or falls on the enunciation of the rapid-fire text to his world famous patter song, and Hugh Russell’s nimble delivery did not disappoint. His wiry, fidgety persona and pleasing baritone did much to flesh out a well-rounded character. Jason Eck used his solid stature to good advantage as a determined Police Sergeant, and he showed off a fresh, sterling vocal production that was more baritone than bass. Mr. Eck shone in the middle to high registers, but the awkward writing in the extreme lows of the range were a bit less impressive

Jaime Korkos (Edith), Corrie Stallings (Kate), and Katrina Galka (Isabelle) made solid impressions in their featured moments, acting with real commitment and defined purpose, and singing with effortless aplomb. Tobias Greenhalgh’s well-schooled baritone lent fine support as Samuel, and his inspired swaggering and comic capabilities suggest he himself may be a Pirate King in the making. The accomplishment of all four of these exceptional young performers once again makes a potent testament to the depth and success of OTSL’s Gerdine Young Artist program

The idea of pairing the verismo operas Il Tabarro (Puccini) and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) may not be new but it remains a potent match-up. Both pieces treat stories of ill-fated love triangles that culminate in sudden violent retribution. It was wise to place the more famous opera second and doubly wise to seek out experienced vocal practitioners who had the chops to fulfill the musical demands. Curiously, although director Ron Daniels stage both works, they seemed to spring from two different sensibilities and skill sets

Pagliacci_3.gif(L to R) Tim Mix as Tonio, Kelly Kaduce as Nedda, and Robert Brubaker as Canio

Pagliacci (The Clowns) was a marvel of controlled tension, passions seething just below the surface, intense encounters, complex character development, and specificity of actions. Conversely, Il Tabarro (The Cloak) was generically flat with slight chemistry between the performers, no discernible heat or subtext supporting the words, and implausible physical placement such as having Giorgetta and Luigi singing full voice to each other across the width of the stage when they should have been hissing conspiratorial comments to each other under their breath in close proximity

Although director Daniels made use of the entire auditorium as a playing space for both shows, in Pagliacci it was integral, in Tabarro it felt gratuitous. That he is an accomplished director was amply evidenced by the highly detailed work in the second piece, making his intentions in the first seem a puzzling, deliberate choice

The cast was up to their assignments. Emily Pulley has a plush, throbbing, responsive soprano that is a perfect match for the demands of the unhappy Giorgetta. While at full throttle she seemed to be intent to fill a house three times the size of the current venue, she has the means to do it. Her more conversational passages had equally great presence and import. On other occasions, I have seen Ms. Pulley delve more deeply into a character, and Giorgetta is this opera’s most complex personality. In future outings I might urge her to dig deeper. Tim Mix was a bit young for the role of Michele, both in vocal personality and maturity. Mr. Mix has a rolling baritone of natural beauty and pristine production. His instrument is thrillingly even up and down the range. What he could not quite yet suggest was the world-weariness or dangerous resolution necessary to inform the drama


On the other hand, Robert Brubaker’s heroic tenor easily encompassed Luigi’s bitter determination, but could not as easily be convincing when it came to communicating youthful ardor. Still, he handled the cruelly exposed and sustained tessitura with reliable professionalism.

The smaller roles were all cast from strength. Matthew DiBattista was a far less wasted Tinca than usual, his tenor ringing out freely. Thomas Hammons brought his experience to bear for a well-sung, characterful Talpa. Arguably the most wholly successful of the principals was Margaret Gawrysiak, whose traversal of the eccentric Frugola was marked by a focussed, joyfully produced mezzo that gave much pleasure. The Gerdine Young Artists reliably filled out the smaller roles, with the sweet-voiced Alexis Aime and Michael Kuhn especially affecting as the pair of strolling lovers

Riccardo Hernandez devised a commendable set design for the double bill, using a grainy black and white photo of a barge as a ‘backdrop’ (hung in the main drape position) for Tabarro fronted by a simple suggestion of the boat deck on the apron. For the Leoncavallo, he opened the stage up and filled it with a large marquee sign Circo that at first lay in state like a relic from the Las Vegas Neon Museum. It spoke volumes about the ruined lives parading before us and practically, it even served as the fence through which Silvio comes and, more important, escapes. Mr. Hernandez adds a few set pieces to complete the improvisatory settings. For the “performance” within the performance, the Circo gets raised and chaser lights sputter to life. A rolling stage comes on, and real theatre seats roll in place. Finishing off the ‘look’ is a huge skewed photo of a rather ominous clown in a surreal blood red and white blow-up.

Tabarro_3.gifRobert Brubaker as Luigi and Emily Pulley as Giorgetta

Several performers did admirable double duty. Mr. Brubaker was back as a coiled spring of a Canio, and he sang with such searing power and total commitment that we forgave the phrase or two that frayed a bit under pressure. Mr. Mix presented an especially well-sung Tonio, although his youthful characterization was more rambunctious than truly menacing. He did reaffirm my thinking that this solid talent is a voice to watch. Mr. DiBattista shone even more brightly as Beppe than he had as Tinca, and his brief Serenade was lovingly voiced. But the evening’s total triumph belonged to our Nedda

Has anyone ever seen a performance of Pagliacci’s heroine that could rightly be called a ‘tour de force’? I didn’t think so. Well, now we have, as the dynamo named Kelly Kaduce swept all before her. That she has a secure, malleable, soprano voice capable of considerable power as well as glowing effects goes without saying. But it is also just possible that Ms. Kaduce is the finest actress on the operatic stage today. There was no milli-second of her completely thought-out performance that was not informed by innovative business and deeply internalized motivation. Kelly combined physical comedy worthy of Lucille Ball, dramatic detailing worthy of Meryl Streep, and sultry beauty worthy of Angelina Jolie. And she sings, too!

In an era where singers, directors, conductors and productions can often seem routinely interchangeable on world stages, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis successfully keeps defining “festival opera.”

James Sohre


Emile Griffith, Retired: Arthur Woodley; Luis Griffith: Brian Arreola; Young Emile, the Champion: Aubrey Allicock; Emelda Griffith: Denyce Graves; Ring Announcer: Christopher Hutchinson; Howie Albert, Trainer: Roberth Orth; Kathy Hagan, Bar Owner: Meredith Arwady; Cousin Blanche/Sadie Griffith: Chabrelle Williams; Little Emile: Jordan Jones; Young Man in a Bar: Lorenzo Miguel Garcia; Benny “Kid” Paret/Benny, Jr.: Victor Ryan Robertson; Conductor: George Manahan; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Video and Projection Design: Greg Emetaz; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Rusty Wandall; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

The Kiss

Martinka: Elizabeth Batton; Vendulka: Corinne Winters; Paloucky: Matthew Burns; Barce: Emily Duncan-Brown; Tomes: Matthew Worth; Lukas: Garrett Sorenson; Matous: Charles Z. Owens; Straznik: Spencer Viator; Echoes: Summer Hassan, Nicole Haslett; Conductor: Anthony Barrese; Director: Michael Gieleta; Set Design: James Macnamara; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

The Pirates of Penzance

Frederic: Matthew Plenk; Pirate King: Bradley Smoak; Samuel: Tobias Greenhalgh; Ruth: Maria Zifchak; General Stanley: Hugh Russell; Edith: Jamie Korkos; Kate: Corrie Stallings; Isabel: Katrina Galka; Mabel: Deanna Breiwick; Police Sergeant: Jason Eck; Conductor: Ryan McAdams; Director and Choreographer: Seán Curran; Set and Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

Il Tabarro & Pagliacci

Luigi/Canio: Robert Brubaker; Nedda: Kelly Kaduce; Giorgetta: Emily Pulley; Michele/Tonio: Tim Mix; Silvio: Troy Cook; Tinca/Beppe: Matthew DiBattista; Frugola: Margaret Gawrysiak; Talpa: Thomas Hammons; Peasant One: Lorenzo Garcia; Peasant Two: Samuel Schultz; Song Vendor: Spencer Lang; Lover One: Alexis Aime; Lover Two: Michael Kuhn; Offstage Soprano: Leela Subramaniam; Offstage Tenor: Benjamin Werley; Conductor: Ward Stare; Director: Ron Daniels; Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-Up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Champion_2.gif image_description=Robert Orth as Howie Albert and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis] product=yes product_title=St. Louis: Winner and Still Champion product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Robert Orth as Howie Albert and Aubrey Allicock as Young Emile Griffith

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Posted by james_s at 8:54 AM

James Melton: The Tenor of His Times

Some also remember that he sang a limited number of roles for a few years at The Metropolitan Opera. Fortunately, many of his popular recordings have been available for some time, and an operatic glimpse of him can be viewed in a scene from La Traviata in the film, The Ziegfeld Follies.

However, The lack of print material has been very frustrating for his most ardent fans. Opera News had a feature article on him recently, but little else has appeared. Fortunately, we now have a splendid book by his daughter, Margo Melton Nutt. She attests that she spent “twenty plus” years writing it, and the book has been well worth the wait. Drawing on family letters and newspapers (thanks mainly to her mother’s voluminous scrap books), she has interwoven her father’s dynamic life with her own participation and memories in a volume redolent of early triumph and later troubles.

The author has mingled two approaches — a biography of her famous father with a sort of coming-to grips memoir of her participation in that life. Biographically, the book proceeds conventionally about Melton until Ms. Nutt is old enough to know her father and begin to garner her own memories of him. We are indebted to Ms. Nutt for a meticulous narration from his birth until hers in 1946 and then to his death in 1961. We learn of his youth, his eventual gravitation to singing, and the early years of his professional life until his peak and maturity in the 1940s. To depict that time, Ms. Nutt employs the voice of the conventional biographer/narrator interspersed with sometimes brief, sometimes lengthy quotations from the scrapbooks and letters. The biographer’s voice appears in conventional print while the letters and scrapbook entries are in italics. The skillful blending of these two facets belie the fact that the author is not an experienced biographer. The years, triumphs, and troubles smoothly roll by with clear prose in 21 aptly titled chapters, such as “Young Man with a Saxaphone” (his earliest non-singing performances); “Radio Days” (a reminder of how important the radio was to a performing career in those decades); “The Autorama” (the culmination of his automobile collecting days). The italicized material is highly apposite in that it clearly supports whatever aspect of life, incident, or character is before us.

Chapters 1 through 14 limn his artistic, personal, and financial growth. The final third begins with Chapter 15, “The Best of Everything,” characterized by the following lines: “During this midpoint of his career, the more he sang the harder he worked, the more he thrived.” These and the following pages carry us through his peak years in preparation for the decline that was to come.

The author introduces her arrival on the scene (Chapter 16, “My Little Girl, Pink and White as Peaches and Cream . . .” with these lines: “My parents’ wonderful life seemed complete, but something was missing.” She narrates their feelings about the lack of a child and reveals their joy over her adoption in 1946 when she was 3 months old. From this point in the book, we know that little by little Melton’s story will be filtered through her own personal observations, not just through third persons, newspapers, and scrap books. Here the memoir takes over to very strong effect. I will leave it to readers to discover her personal awareness of her father as she witnessed his stunning success, his sad decline, and untimely death.

Despite the later darkness with which she apparently has come to grips, Ms. Nutt is obviously proud of her father, and she deserves to be proud of her book. Not only is it engagingly and informatively narrated; it is also handsomely and clearly printed in soft cover measuring 6 x 9 inches, generously illuminated by many photos.

Ms. Nutt clearly states her purpose: “This book was never intended to be an exhaustively detailed and footnoted biography — rather it is a daughter’s portrait of the fascinating man who was her father,” who she truly believes was, The Tenor of His Times. She has achieved surpassingly well.

This book is also available from Amazon.com in soft cover and Kindle formats.

Dr. William C. Clayton

Dr. Clayton has taught college English for 58 years and currently. He holds a Ph. D. in Renaissance literature from New York University. He is currently an Adjunct Professor of English at Nassau College, Long Island, and lives with his wife Christine on Long Island.


image=http://www.operatoday.com/Melton.png image_description=James Melton: The Tenor of His Times product=yes product_title=James Melton: The Tenor of His Times product_by=By Margo Melton Nutt product_id=CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform [ISBN: 978-1482391442] price=$17.19 product_url=http://www.amazon.com/dp/1482391449/ref=as_li_tf_til?tag=operatoday-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=1482391449&adid=088FZN72PD0WTCR87Z5H&&ref-refURL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.operatoday.com%2Fcontent%2F2013%2F06%2Fmt-preview-1b807b4facd762dad614761398272e6f676195c1.php%3F100938
Posted by Gary at 12:07 AM

June 19, 2013

Julia Lezhneva — Alleluia

Posted by Gary at 2:44 PM

Even Pan Chimes In at Early Music Festival

By James R. Oestreich [NY Times, 18 June 2013]
What most struck a visitor to the biennial Boston Early Music Festival last week, after many years away, was the strength of the home team. It used to be that most star attractions came from abroad, and many still do, this year including Hespèrion XXI, led by that brightest of stars, Jordi Savall.

Posted by Gary at 9:11 AM

June 18, 2013

The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden

This production marks the first London staging, though the honour of the first staging went to Nancy’s Opéra national de Lorraine. It may be considered a resounding success, perhaps all the more surprising given the paucity of worthwhile comic operas. (The inability of stage directors to distinguish between the comic and comedy as a form is one of the greatest banes of an opera-goer’s life, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.)

Barry may have studied with Stockhausen but it is his study with Mauricio Kagel that comes to mind here, in the work’s anarchic — though, in its compositional control decidedly not anarchistic — irreverence. An almost Dadaistic sensibility perhaps also brings to mind the Ligeti of Aventures and Nouvelles aventures; smashing of plates, forty of them, must surely offer a reference, perhaps even an hommage. Humour arises not just from Wilde’s play and what Barry does with or to it, but also from the interaction of ‘action’ and music, seemingly autonomous, until one has decided that it is definitely is, at which point it tempts one to think that it might have something in common with the text after all. Parody, for instance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, whether its opening or the ‘Ode to Joy’, and of Auld Lang Syne, almost inevitably recalls Peter Maxwell Davies, but I am not sure that the method is actually so very similar. For one thing, it seems more to be the tunes themselves that in some strange sense are forming the drama; words at times follow Auld Lang Syne rather than vice versa, resulting in a cyclical process one might — or might not — consider to be a parody of serialism. (I did, but I have no idea whether that were intended.) Stravinskian motor-rhythms power the music along, until it stops — or are they still doing so? And just occasionally, the poster-paint aggression — or is it an affectionate parody thereof? — seems to melt into something more tender. But is that merely wish-fulfilment on the spectator’s part? Is the joke on the audience?

Ramin Gray’s production seems to operate in a similar or at least parallel fashion. There are interactions, for instance when the loudspeaker music plays from Algernon’s iPhone. And the action is cut, stopped, made to continue according to some ticking imperative. Moments impress, stick in the memory, for instance the case of co-ordinated tea-drinking. One begins to ask what they ‘mean’, but already knows or at least fears that one is asking the wrong question. Surrealism, or something like it, becomes genuinely funny. Or is it that the funny becomes genuinely surreal? Modern dress works well, banishing any thought that period ‘absurdity’ might heighten the farce, if that be what it is. For disjuncture, by its very nature, continues to bring us up short. Alienation, in work and in staging, both distances and yet brings us tantalisingly close. For, despite or even on account of the artificiality, one senses a deep humanity lying somewhere beneath. (Perhaps like Wilde; perhaps not.)

The Britten Sinfonia under Tim Murray proves at least an equal partner to the madness. Brashly rhythmic, lovingly precise, this is an estimable performance throughout from an ensemble whose versatility seems yet to extend itself with every year. That the players are called upon to shout and to stamp their feet almost seems expected. Paul Curievici impresses with great musicality as Jack Worthing, or whatever we want to call him, Benedict Nelson a bluff foil as Algie. Hilary Summers, surely as versatile an artist as the Britten Sinfonia, makes excellent use of her contralto range and tone as Miss Prism, with a splendidly complementary stage gawkiness. Stephanie Marshall’s Gwendolen and Ida Falk Winland’s Cecily shine on the mezzo and soprano fronts, the former often warmly lyrical, the latter seemingly effortless in the aggressively higher reaches of her range. Simon Wilding’s Lane and Merriman offer a nice hint of rebellion, nevertheless handsomely despatched. Meanwhile, Lady Bracknell is played by a bass, not in drag but in a suitably ghastly barrister pinstripe; Alan Ewing rises to the occasion, and somehow seems more real than much of the chaos around him. The cast, as the cliché has it, proves more than the sum of its parts, as is the performance as a whole, however awkward that fitting together or clashing of those parts may be.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

John Worthing: Paul Curievici; Revd Canon Chasuble: Geoffrey Dolton; Lady Brachnell: Alan Ewing; Gwendolen Fairfax: Stephanie Marshall; Algernon Moncrieff: Benedict Nelson; Miss Prism: Hilary Summers; Lane/Merriman: Simon Wilding; Cecily: Ida Falk WInland. Director: Ramin Gray; Associate Designer: Ben Clark (after an idea by Johannes Schütz); Lighting: Franz Peter David; Costumes: Christina Cunningham. Britten Sinfonia/Tim Murray. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Monday 17 June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Being_Earnest_02.gif image_description=Full cast of The Importance of Being Earnest [Photo © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey] product=yes product_title=The Importance of Being Earnest, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Full cast of The Importance of Being Earnest [Photo © ROH / Stephen Cummiskey]
Posted by Gary at 9:28 AM

June 17, 2013

Death in Venice by ENO

In the event, it is Socrates whose words prove more germane: ‘beauty leads to passion, and passion to the abyss.’ Upon such tensions and apprehensions rests Aschenbach’s fate.

First heard 40 years ago, Britten’s setting of Mann’s novella remains a deeply troubling work. The intertwined threads linking beauty and annihilation, Hellenic love and ravaging disease are discomforting. Aschenbach falls prey both to his self-destructive yearning for the Polish youth, Tadzio, and, we presume, to bodily decline hastened by the rotten strawberries of the Venetian fruit seller and the cholera which is latent in the very waters which define Venice’s beauty. And, we cannot help but be aware, just as there were autobiographical origins to Mann’s tale, so the elderly, ailing Britten — by dramatizing the final days of an esteemed writer who finds his creative powers to be waning and seeks renewal through an encounter with a youth of exceptional loveliness — was to some extent telling his own tale, returning to a theme that had been latent in his work for so long. As one reviewer of the first production put it, ‘was Britten not risking self-parody?’

Uneasy yet seductive, Deborah Warner’s 2007 production manages to suggest both sumptuous exquisiteness and melancholy starkness. The stage is largely bare; all is suggested by movement and light. The black waters shimmer paradoxically; dreary mists hang low and damp, alleviated by sudden bursts of hazy, orange sun; shadowy gondoliers emerge and recede; drapes billow in breezes which drift through the Lido hotel. Austere greys predominate, but textures are rich and tactile. Set designer Tom Pye, lighting designer Jean Kalman and video designer Finn Ross have created a ravishing hinterland — hovering between land and sea, between dream and reality; and we traverse effortlessly through the external locale, just as we move through the inner landscape of Aschenbach’s psyche.

So much depends on the performance of the tenor prepared to don the mantle of Aschenbach. Present on stage for almost all of the opera’s two and a half hours, the considerable physical and musical demands of the role are exacerbated by the psychological weight of the ghosts of former Aschenbachs, particularly Peter Pears. As Ned Rorem wrote: ‘Pears is a thread of the score’s very fabric … To imagine another in the role is to imagine a harpsichord piece played on an organ.’

John Graham-Hall comprehensively refuted Rorem’s misgivings, inhabiting the role with convincing dramatic presence and unaffected sincerity. It was the part which won him the 2012 Franco Abbiati prize for best male singer from the Italian National Association of Music Critics, and one could see why. Tall and thin, introverted and self-contained, dressed in an Edwardian pale suit, as he crumbled and disintegrated under the burden psycho-sexual anxiety, Graham-Hall was a visual emblem of the confrontation between Bourgeois Convention and Bohemian Chaos identified within Britten himself by W.H. Auden in an oft-quoted letter of the 1930s.

The gulf between Aschenbach and the other travellers and hotel guests was emphasised by Graham-Hall’s meticulously conceived body language and physical mannerisms. Moreover, the writer, ubiquitous cigarette twitching nervously, was frequently isolated at the front of the stage, the passing crowds of holidaying families negotiating the bustling esplanades and foyers beyond him, in sight but forever out of reach. The suggestion was that these passing vignettes were simply hallucinations, projections of Aschenbach’s wishful imaginings and lurid fears.

Aschenbach’s roaming soliloquies were supple and intoned with clarity; surtitles were absent and for once not needed. [The decision to dispense with surtitles was an admirable one; this is English opera, set by a master of English text setting, in the current home of ‘English National Opera’. If one cannot rely on the singers to communicate clearly here, where can one? However, in practice, while Britten’s recitative-like declamation and other solo lines could be clearly discerned, at times in the cavern of Coliseum, the multiple voices in the choral numbers diffused the words, and the richer orchestral palettes obfuscated.]

Graham-Hall aimed for clear resonance and direct communication; there was no exaggerated darkness in the tone, the middle register was focused, the top quite light. But this made the moments of despair all the more telling. After watching a victorious Tadzio triumph in the Games of Apollo, Aschenbach’s realisation that his feelings are tainted followed a dynamic orchestral crescendo and was shocking in its ferocity— ‘I love you’. Subsequently, after the Dionysian nightmare in which Apollo battles to preserve the writer’s Classical soul, Graham-Hall’s simple, pure reminiscence of Socrates’ tender dismissal of Phaedrus, accompanied by gentle harp accompaniment, was poignant but never sentimental.

As the composite Mephistophelian figure who sows the seeds of the southern sojourn in Aschenbach’s mind and then pursues him on his journey with menacing alacrity, Andrew Shore was superb. Encountered in the cemetery, the Traveller’s ‘Marvels unfold’ was both alluring and intimidating; characteristically, Shore’s Barber’s patter was slick and satirical. The Elderly Fop’s strident falsetto was ridiculous yet also discomforting — and it was a nice touch to whip off his ill-fitting toupee, directly challenging Aschenbach to acknowledge his own impending dissolution. As a Charon-like gondolier, Shore was gruffly dismissive; as the louche Leader of the Players his raucous hoot, as he led a band of unpitched voices and percussion in a laughing song, was horridly raw.

The minor roles were accomplishedly executed. Tim Mead was a mellifluous Voice of Apollo and Anna Dennis a splash of brightness and refreshing ease as the Strawberry Seller.

My only slight misgiving concerned the innately problematic Tadzio and the opéra ballet episodes. Mann’s Tadzio is an emblem of innocent beauty, a silent ideal, and his realisation in flesh risks destroying his pure neutrality. The grace of the dancers, choreographed by Kim Brandstrup, certainly emphasised the reckless, careless abandon of youth, as opposed to the introverted self-absorption of old age. And yet, at times Sam Zaldivar’s Tadzio — a Grecian silhouette of corporal perfection — was too knowing, too aware of his physical prowess and attractiveness. There was a hint of solipsistic athleticism, in the odd twist of the torso or backward glance, almost as if Tadzio was seeking to ensure that Aschenbach was watching his lithe muscular display. Such overt exhibitionism is too actively assertive; Mann’s Tadzio remains unaware of the effect of his innocence.

Conductor Edward Gardner’s achievement was considerable. He crafted the network of motivic connections and symbols into an aural kaleidoscope of myriad hues. Primitive percussive energies exploded into glistening expansive vistas; dry, constrained fragments were relieved by the exotic resonances of vibraphone and woodwind. From the dipping viola figurations of the gondola’s lapping paddles, as Aschenbach embarks upon his journey to ‘Serenissima’, Gardner was alert to every aquaphilic nuance in the score. After the violence of the tuba’s plague motif which hypnotises the dying Aschebach, much as the melancholy fog horn lures Grimes to a watery grave, the Hymn of Apollo mingled with ringing cries of Tadzio’s name in an beautiful orchestral postlude which almost washed away the shame and debasement.

There are only a few more performances. Make sure you don’t miss them.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gustav von Aschenbach: John Graham-Hall; The Traveller/The Elderly Fop/The Old Gondolier/The Hotel Manager/The Hotel Barber/The Leader of the Players/The Voice of Dionysus: Andrew Shore; The Voice of Apollo: Tim Mead; The Polish Mother: Laura Caldow; Tadzio: Sam Zaldivar; Two daughters - Mia Angelina Mather, Xhuliana Shehu; Governess: Joyce Henderson; Jaschiu, Tadzio’s friend: Marcio Teixeira; Hotel Porter: Peter Van Hulle; Strawberry Seller: Anna Dennis; Guide: Charles Johnston; English Clerk: Marcus Farnsworth; Strolling Players: Anna Dennis, Adrian Dwyer; Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Deborah Warner; Set Designer: Tom Pye; Costume Designer: Chloe Obolensky; Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman; Choreographer: Kim Brandstrup; Video Designer: Finn Ross. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Friday 14th June 2013.

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Death-in-Venice-010.gif image_description=Scene from Death in Venice [Photo by Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title=Death in Venice by ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Scene from Death in Venice [Photo by Tristram Kenton]
Posted by Gary at 1:47 PM

June 16, 2013

Adding Movie Magic to The Magic Flute

I imagine they were hoping that their cheerful little “singspiel”,we know as The Magic Flute would make a lot of people happy, and them a lot of money. It did both.

The trick of dramatizing these folktales was to keep the audience happily confused. Inexplicable things happen in inexplicable ways. Who’s good and who’s bad? You don’t find out until the end. Considering the bizarre effects telling such a tale allows, it was inevitable that the work would be brought to the screen. The first Magic Flute film, created in 1975 by the usually dour Ingmar Bergman, was a charming fantasy clearly addressed to childish pleasures. The second was created in 2006 by the Irish actor, writer, director Kenneth Branagh. The film premiered in London in 2007 to sold out audiences. It showed widely in parts of the world, and is just now being brought to the United States. It debuted here in limited showings on June 9th. 2013.

Branagh’s film is in a sense, a present day reinterpretation of The Magic Flute. To begin with, Branagh commissioned a new libretto in English from Stephen Fry. He changed the opera’s Egyptian setting to an unspecified World War I battle site. He essentially replaced the work’s Masonic symbolism with an anti-war message. And he employed the kind of magnificent technical wizardry which neither Mozart nor Shikaneder could ever have imagined.

Musical command of the work was assigned to James Conlon, Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera Company, known for his expertise in and affection for Mozart. Singers were chosen for their ability to sing English clearly and for the appropriateness of appearance, which movie goers expect. The entire opera was prerecorded. Singers lip synched Fry’s witty, rhymed text and entertaining one-liners, an excellent solution considering the number of stressful scenes. It’s unlikely that either Tamino or Pamina could have uttered much more than gasps during their trial by water.

The first scenes take us from a blue sky to a flowered meadow. Peace and happiness seem to reign. But it is short lived. The camera soon leads us to Tamino and his blue uniformed comrades hiding in trenches. But don’t worry! Branagh is quick to assure us that the film is fantasy. The soldiers are clean shaven and crisply immaculate. They are led into battle by marching troops playing violins, and their klutzy looking airplanes jerk, rather than fly. Deep in the trenches we meet Papageno, in charge of carrier pigeons and hazard warning canaries. The three ladies first turn up as flamboyant nuns, later in various other guises. In a delightful touch, Tamino’s first glance at Pamina’s portrait evokes a charming black and white ball room fantasy in the young soldier’s mind. A really, really angry Queen of the Night arrives on a tank to enlist Tamino’s aid in rescuing her kidnapped daughter. The three boys materialize at appropriate times. When we first encounter a benign looking Sarastro, he is within his huge domain devoted to kindness. It is peopled with plain looking folks and a large number of sick and maimed. The sick are in immaculate hospitals attended by clearly caring nurses. Those well enough to work are busy at various projects — coffin making for one. Sarastro too, has an army. His troops wear red.

Sarastro sings his moving “O Isis und Osiris,” a prayer that the young lovers be granted wisdom virtue and patience, overlooking what seems an endless graveyard. Behind him is a massive wall into which the names of young fallen soldiers are carved in their native languages. These include English, Hebrew, Arab, Russian and Chinese.

With 21st century film magic available to them, happily, Branagh and Fry have kept the inexplicable happenings moving at a fascinating and breakneck speed. The dizzying succession of special effects will remind you of everything from Mary Poppins to Monty Python, from Snow White to Star Wars.

Whatever the visuals, you can’t beat Mozart’s score, which is brilliantly rendered here by Maestro Conlon and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. René Pape makes a splendidly benign Sarastro opposing Lyuba Petrova’s magnificently furious Queen of the Night. Joseph Kaiser’s well acted and well sung Tamino, was appropriately heroic and tender. The role of Pamina was sung by Amy Carson, a young talented soprano, previously untested in opera. Though her well produced voice suited the lighter moments in the score, it lacked the heft for its dramatic arias. Benjamin Davis and Sylvia Moi were delightful as Papageno and Papagena. The fantasy offspring Branagh supplied them during their engaging duet, added to the joyous scene. Tom Randle was humorously menacing Monastatos. Credit Kenneth Branagh that every role, large and small, whether sung or not, was extraordinarily well acted.

In an interview Branagh gave in 2009, he expressed concern about how opera fans would receive his work. “I know that some Mozart fans will turn up their noses at these changes, but this film is not designed for them, I’m trying to tell the story as if it were new, for a new audience.”

I believe that Branagh is correct and hope he finds his audience. I found the film literally too dark hued, too crowded with people, and too action packed. But then, I’m a veteran of decades of opera house Magic Flutes, and prefer it set as a more graceful fantasy. In truth, I must tell you that other, perhaps younger reviewers described the film differently. “Fresh and spectacular,” wrote one. “Branagh’s imagery is imaginative and the music lifts you,” said another. Still another declared himself “enamored of the work.”

Kenneth Branagh’s Magic Flute is unique in the history of movie making and opera. It’s worth seeing for the experience itself and perhaps to explore your own preferences in fantasy.

I saw the film on a readily available DVD that features interviews with Kenneth Branagh, his cast the crew, and a “making of” featurette.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Tamino: Joseph Kaiser; Pamina: Amy Carson;Papageno: Ben Davis; Papagena: Sylvia Moi: Queen of the Night: Lyuba Petrova; Sarastro: René Pape; Monastatos: Thomas Randle. Director: Kenneth Branagh. English Libretto: Stephen Fry. Music Director and Conductor: James Conlon. Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Production Design: Tim Harvey.


product_title=Adding Movie Magic to The Magic Flute
product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson
product_id=A film from Emerging Pictures

Posted by E_Gilson at 10:24 AM

June 14, 2013

Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park

London, in the guise of Opera Holland Park, certainly repaid the favour on this occasion. Not only, vile weather notwithstanding, did it aid my already rapid thawing towards Puccini; it offered a production and performance which, considered as a whole, were probably the finest I have yet seen at Holland Park.

It was certainly a relief to be spared the vulgarity of a Zeffirelli-like production. Paul Higgins’s staging and Neil Irish’s designs were not abstract, but they were (at least by some standards) relatively spare, offering a space in which the action may unfold rather than overwhelming it. The screens at the back of the stage both facilitate comings and goings and offer a welcome impression of Japanese or at least Orientalist stylisation; likewise the costumes are ‘faithful’ to time and place, without becoming an end in themselves. The American flag is as noticeable on stage as it is in Puccini’s score, perhaps a little less, but the effect in both is as much exotic as straightforwardly anti-imperialist. I cannot help but wish that Puccini had been a little more restrained in his use both of the ghastly Star Spangled Banner and those too-obvious pentatonicisms, but at least he, like the staging, is relatively even-handed. (I suppose we should remind ourselves that what has become wearily commonplace for us was still very much new musical territory not so long after the celebrated Paris exhibitions.) Higgins also reminds us and holds in our mind that Cio-Cio-San is a dancer, Namiko Gahier-Ogawa’s movement working well in context. Nothing peripheral, however, is permitted to obscure the central tragedy: a signal achievement from which many directors could learn.

That also depends, of course, on a convincing assumption of the title role. Anne Sophie Duprels offered something rather more than merely convincing; she inhabited the role completely, offering a rounded portrayal in dramatic and vocal terms alike. Not a single false note, in any sense, was struck, and one sympathised to a degree beyond the expectations engendered by what can often seem a silly role. Butterfly’s delusion, then, convinced at least as much as her attraction. There was strength without steel, nobility without hauteur. Joseph Wolverton’s Pinkerton occasionally sounded a little too Italianate in the pejorative sense, and proved somewhat lacking in stage presence; still, with the American flag on his side, perhaps he did not need them. Chloe Hinton offered hints of something far more in the role of his wife, but given the nature of that role, they could be little more than that. Patricia Orr, however, impressed greatly as a wise Suzuki, beautiful and graceful of voice and movement. David Stephenson’s Sharpless likewise made much, though never too much, of words and music. The suitors’ and other smaller roles were all well taken.

The chorus sang and acted creditably throughout, clearly well trained. I was surprised by how little I missed the sound of a larger orchestra, the losses proving largely cosmetic rather than fundamental. Indeed, one heard in the City of London Sinfonia’s performance (strings a great deal more of the inner workings — more than once I found myself recalling aspects of Die Meistersinger — than one might in a larger-scaled, conventional account. (That is not to claim that I think chamber orchestras should become the norm, but simply to note that, given a high enough level of performance, virtue can arise from necessity.) Manlio Benzi shrewdly marshalled his forces, imparting dramatic tension throughout and steering as clear as might reasonably have been expected from sentimentality.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Butterfly: Anne Sophie Duprels; Pinkerton: Joseph Wolverton; Suzuki: Patricia Orr; Sharpless: David Stephenson; Goro: Robert Burt; Kate Pinkerton: Chloe Hinton; Bonze: Barnaby Rea; Prince Yamadori: John Lofthouse; The Imperial Commissioner: Alistair Sutherland; Butterfly’s Mother: Lindsay Bramley; The Aunt: Loretta Hopkins; The Cousin: Maud Millar; Yakuside: Nathan Morrison; Sorrow: Ben Bristow. Director: Paul Higgins; Designer: Neil Irish; Lighting: Richard Howell; Movement: Namiko Gahier-Ogawa. Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Holly Mathieson); City of London Sinfonia/ Manlio Benzi (conductor). Holland Park, London, Wednesday 12 June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Butterfly_OHP.gif image_description=Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park product=yes product_title=Madama Butterfly, Opera Holland Park product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=
Posted by Gary at 9:38 AM

June 13, 2013

An Evening of Zarzuela and Latin American Music at Los Angeles Opera

On June 7, the plaza of the Los Angeles Music Center was filled with the strains of Mariachi music as patrons arrived and sat down at the tables for a bite of supper before entering the theaters that surround the open space. Singers and instrumentalists came from the LA Opera Mariachi Project, Mariachi Voz de America, and the Mariachi Conservatory Ensemble Class. This being the twenty-first century, both men and women were represented in almost all categories. At 7:30 the program began inside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with the Opera Orchestra playing the prelude to La Verbena de la Paloma (The Festival of Our Lady of the Dove) by Tomás Bretón. The conductor for this and most of the other selections on the program was Spaniard Jordi Bernacer. Later he brought the authentic sounds of Spain to the Intermezzo from Reveriano Soutullo and Juan Vert’s La Leyenda del beso (The Legend of the Kiss).

The tenor that the audience most wanted to hear, Plácido Domingo, opened the vocal program with “Junto al puente de la peña” (Next to the rock bridge) from La Canción del Olvido (The song of Oblivion) by José Serrano. He sounded rested and his voice soared majestically over the orchestra. He also sang selections from Soutullo and Vert’s La del soto del parral (The vineyard) and Maravilla (Wonder). With Uruguayan soprano Maria Antunez, Domingo sang the Pasodoble from Pablo Sorozábal’s La del manojo de rosas, (The Rose Bouquet) and “ En mi tierra extremeña” (In my land Extremadura) from Federico Morena Torroba’s Luisa Fernanda. A mezzo-soprano with a smooth, dulce de leche sound, Antunez sang the Carceleras from Ruperto Chapí’s Las hijas de Zebedeo (The daughters of Zebedee) as her solo for the evening.

Domingo invited Pepe Aguilar’s Mariachi el Zacatecano to participate in this program and together they sang José Alfredo Jimenez’s Ella, which was the only selection not translated in the surtitles. However, you don’t have to know the language to appreciate great music. It just stands on its own. Joshua Guerrero, a tenor with a substantial voice from the Domingo Thornton Young Artist Program, gave a melodious rendition of “De este apacible rincón de Madrid” (From this peaceful corner of Madrid), another aria from Luisa Fernanda. After the intermission, he sang “La roca fria del Calvario” (The cold rock of Calvary) from José Serrano’s La Dolorosa with a great deal of passion and fire. His is a voice we will want to hear soon again.

Former Domingo Thornton Program member, Met Auditions, and Operalia winner Janai Brugger sang another selection from La del manojo de rosas, “No corte más que una rosa” (Don’t cut more than one rose) with sterling silver tones. Hers is a truly beautiful soprano. She looked vivacious in her bright red silk gown when she rendered another solo, the rousing “De España vengo” (I come from Spain) from Pablo Luna’s El niño judio. (The Jewish boy) An expressive artist from whom we can expect a major career, she sang duets with both Domingo and Guerrero.

Domingo also brought two singers from Spain: coloratura soprano Auxiliadora Toledano and tenor Antonio Vázquez. Toledano sang the aria “Me llaman la primorosa” (They call me the exquisite) from El Barbero de Sevilla, a zarzuela by Gerónimo Giménez and Miguel Nieto. She had an authentic coloratura timbre, but unfortunately, no trill. Vásquez sang one of the best-known Zarzuela arias, “No puede ser” (It cannot be), from Sorozábal’s La Tabernera del Puerto (The port tavern keeper) with wonderfully authentic style but a smaller voice than we would have heard from Maestro Domingo, who conducted that single piece.

The applause at the end of the program rolled across the auditorium like thunder and you knew that this audience would not go home without encores. Brugger sang an aria from Gonzalo Roig’s zarzuela, Cecilia Valdez and Antunez sang the Romanza from Ernesto Lecuona’s Maria la O. The most interesting new singer that evening was Joshua Guerrero who finished his appearance with Mexican composer Maria Grever’s song, Jurame (Promise me). Domingo topped the evening off singing Consuelo Velázquez’s Béssame Mucho (Kiss me a lot) with the audience joining him, and a final song that always fits his voice perfectly, Agustín Lara’s Granada.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Jordi Bernacer conducts the LA Opera Orchestra with (front row, left to right) Maria Antunez, Auxiliadora Toledano, Janai Brugger, Placido Domingo, Joshua Guerrero and Antonio Vazquez. (Photo: Robert Millard)

product_title=An Evening of Zarzuela and Latin American Music at Los Angeles Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Jordi Bernacer conducts the LA Opera Orchestra with (front row, left to right) Maria Antunez, Auxiliadora Toledano, Janai Brugger, Placido Domingo, Joshua Guerrero and Antonio Vazquez. (Photo: Robert Millard)

Posted by maria_n at 2:00 PM

June 12, 2013

Così fan tutte in San Francisco

It first appeared at the Prince Rainier Auditorium in 2004, the temporary home of Opéra Monte Carlo while the Casino’s magnificent Salle Garnier was in restoration. Perhaps this explains why its false proscenium is so wide and low, in fact disconcertingly so.

The production is a relic from the Pamela Rosenberg era at San Francisco Opera, when high concept productions were the norm rather than the exception. John Cox is one of the British opera producers cabal so for its time the production had some prestige.

Così fan tutte is the bête noire of the trilogy (with Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro), a far fetched little story about the trivialities of puppy love. Of course it gets serious there for a while, and even explores the darker side of love if you want (and know how) to go there.

John Cox and his American designer Robert Perdziola told the story in Monte Carlo where young ladies have lives of ease and young men have money to wager. Croupiers are dashing and dangerous and hotels have maids. The Hotel de Paris is next to the Casino, and the harbor is just below — an intimate and very definable locale, maybe better than Mozart’s Bay of Naples.

Ignoring the fantasy battles of young lovers messieurs Cox and Perdziola imposed a real war, World War I, so that the young men were actually inducted. The Hotel de Paris became a military hospital to the chagrin of remaining guests, and the young ladies become nurses. In the end the young men leave the young ladies standing there as they march back into battle.

Into these colliding worlds of fiction and non-fiction stage director Jose Maria Condemi had the task of moving his actors through the paces of the story, which he thoroughly and carefully accomplished, establishing character and providing schtick. Though sometimes there was simply nothing to do.

It was up to Mozart and the maestro, Nicola Luisotti to make music, after all these young artists had torments to express for which they were more or less capable. San Francisco Opera’s reigning Mozart heroine, Ellie Dehn (the Countess in Le nozze [2010] Donna Anna in Giovanni [2011]) sang Fiordiligi. This heroine has much to sing, some of it quite difficult as it exploits the limits of the soprano range, the lower extreme not really in Mlle. Dehn’s voice. The vocal high point of the performance was Dorabella’s first aria Smanie implacabili, sung by German mezzo soprano Christel Lötzsch where the jagged vocal line found a rare synergy with the maestro who discovered an orchestral roughness to make this aria a true duet of vibrant musical forces.

While both ladies are accomplished singers they are also shapely singers, all the better to model the fine imitations of art deco couture created by designer Perdziola, one of the more apparent pleasures of the afternoon.

Maestro Luisotti finds drama, or emotive detail that illuminates the Mozart genius in sometimes unexpected and always immensely pleasurable ways. These discoveries were in evidence throughout the performance, though rarely in collaboration with his singers in their arias. There were however moments of exquisite beauty in many of the ensembles, particularly in the early on trio Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle) where all motion became sublimated into a frozen moment of time. These few sublime instances overwhelmed any dramatic tension that might have developed during the afternoon.

The biggest tensions of the performance occurred in the overture. The maestro has raised the pit so that the tips of the bass viols are just at stage level. This gives a brighter and more immediate sound, and there was great fun to be had watching the maestro tease the woodwinds to achieve their solos at breakneck speeds. And there was severe distress created by the dragging tempos of the trumpets. This bizarre problem persisted well into the performance, placing distrust in the musical forces that we would endure for three and one half hours.

Ferrando was sung by Italian tenor Francesco Demuro. Mr. Demuro is much more Italianate vocally than Mozartian, in fact his credits include no Mozart roles at all. Guglielmo was sung by first year Adler Fellow Philippe Sly, a highly communicative performer in an auspicious main stage debut. Don Alfonso was sung by Italian bass-baritone Marco Vinco who made a case for this usually cynical personage to be a careless gambler, however a bit timid one vocally. Former Adler Fellow Susannah Biller ably went through the paces of a typical Despina.

It was a long, very long afternoon at the opera.

Michael Milenski

Click here for photos, videos and audio clips of this production.

Cast and Production Information:

Fiordiligi: Ellie Dehn; Dorabella: Christel Lötzsch; Despina: Susannah Biller; Ferrando: Francesco Demuro; Guglielmo: Philippe Sly; Don Alfonso: Marco Vinco. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production Designer: Robert Perdziola. War Memorial Opera House, June 9, 2013.

image_description=Philippe Sly as Guglielmo, Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella, Ellie Dehn as Fiordiligi and Francesco Demuro as Ferrando [Photo by Cory Weaver]

product_title=Cosi fan tutte in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Philippe Sly as Guglielmo, Christel Lötzsch as Dorabella, Ellie Dehn as Fiordiligi and Francesco Demuro as Ferrando [Photo by Cory Weaver]

Posted by michael_m at 7:21 PM

Rossini Maometto Secondo Garsington Opera at Wormsley

Maometto Secondo has the potential to become one of the great operas in the repertoire. Richard Osborne, the Rossini scholar, describes it as the grandest of Rossini's opera seria, "epic in scale and revolutionary in the seamlessness of its musical structuring". We are fortunate that we saw it first in Britain at Wormsley.

Maometto Secondo, or Mehmet II, Fatih Sultan of the Ottomans, captured Constantinople, and ended the Byzantine Empire. This Turk was no buffo. His next ambitious plan: to conquer Rome, thereby linking Europe and Asia under Islam. Mega geopolitics. Venice was the front line because Venetians traded throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The Ottomans posed a genuine threat to survival of the Italian region. Rossini's audiences knew that Negroponte fell and its occupants were massacred. Mehmet asnd the garrison commander, Paolo Erissso, existed, but the opera is not based on historical facts. The plot resembles La donna del lago, completed the year before. Both foreign kings in disguise are called Uberto, and both offer tokens of safety. Indeed, Rossini simply lifted the aria "Tanti affetti" from La donna del lago straight into the 1823 Venice revision of Maometto Secondo . So much for historical specificity.

It is pertinent that Rossini wrote Maometto Secondo while Naples was occupied by the Carbonari, a volatile, violent secret society dedicated to revolution. The opera bristles with danger. A confident melody suggests happy memories, but the garrison is under siege. Rossini's vocal lines tear up and down the scale, but the long, difficult runs aren't there for ornamental display. The singers are pushed to the edge, just as the characters they portray. Technically, the musicians are in control, but dotted rhythms and coloratura extremes can suggest palpitating heartbeats, or muscles on alert. Rossini doesn't let the tension subside. Erisso, Anna and Calbo sing a long terzetto which is interrupted by the sound of cannon. Suddenly, Maometto materializes, high above the melée. "Sorgete: in sì bel giorno" is cavatina as theatre.

The melody that opened Act One appears again at the beginning of Act Two. This time, the women of the harem sing of sensuous joys. Anna, having been raised strictly in "tanti affanni d'una rigida virtù" is sorely conflicted. Her idea of womanhood is defined by the image of her dead mother, lying cold in a marble tomb. She loves Uberto for what he represents but is duty bound to reject him as Maometto. The struggle between Anna and Maometto is tense because Anna comes very close to surrender. Rossini balances this by giving Calbo the Venetian an aria so stupendous that Anna's decision to marry him seems perfectly plausible. Calbo's "non terrer, d'un basso affecto" is bravura designed to demonstrate bravery.

Rossini prepares us for Anna's sacrifice by introducing a new theme with long brass chords and flurrying woodwinds. Anna's music must seem almost impossible on paper. This is coloratura on a grand scale. It is a compelling reason for using the new Hans Schellevis critical edition of the 1820 Naples original. The best-known recordings conducted by Claudio Scimone both use the 1822 edition, Rossini's sop to Venetian audiences who didn't want suicide on stage. In the original, Anna has to sing almost continously for half an hour with brief respite when she's supported by the female chorus. Each show stopping section is followed by another. It's hard to imagine going back to the compromise Venice edition after hearing Naples.

David Parry conducted with verve and passion. His musicians are dedicated and carefully chosen, but the orchestra comes together for a short period during the early summer, though perhaps the same could be said of Pesaro. Parry gets good results from his orchestra, but one wonders how much more thrilling this music would sound with a more sophisticated orchestra. He's good with voices too, inspiring commitment. On paper, this score must look almost impossible to carry off. Performances all round were good. Just getting the notes is an achievement, but these singers added personality to what they sang.

What a role for Siân Davies to make her European debut ! Her "Giusto Ciel" showed the innate colour in her voice, and the final scene showed her stamina. Paul Nilon sang Erisso. As an actor, he's more convincing than Scimone's tenors, both of whom looked too young for the part. Darren Jeffery sang Maometto with a sense of presence. Caitlin Hulcup's Calbo, however, was outstanding. She has a remarkably flexible voice, particularly lustrous in the lower register, so the extreme range in the part elides gracefully. She also moves with energy, not always a given in trouser roles. She's very experienced. As I listened, I remembered hearing her before as Arbaces in Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes at the Royal Opera House.

One day, perhaps, a larger and much wealthier house can do Rossini's Maometto Secondo full justice, and we might get Joyce DiDonato or Juan Diego Flórez.. We can but dream. Until then, we can cherish the memory of Garsington Opera at Wormsley's sterling production.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Giacomo Rossini Maometto Secondo
product_by=Erisso : Paul Nilon, Anna : Siân Davies, Maometto : Darren Jeffery, Calbo : Czaitlin Hulcup, Condulmiero : Christopher Diffey, Selimo : Richard Dowling. Conductor : David Parry, Director : Edward Dick, Designerr : Robert Innes Hopkins, Lighting : Rick Fisher, Movement : Jane Gibson. Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 8th June 2013


Posted by anne_o at 5:22 AM

June 11, 2013

Peter Grimes in Concert

For, it was with this alienated, brutal fisherman — both villain and victim — that it all started.

What might not have been anticipated was that during this Festival we would be offered Grimes in the comfort of the Snape Maltings concert hall and Grimes in the eponymous fisherman’s natural element: quite literally ‘On the Beach’, with the sounds which inspired Britten — the immense, titanic surges of the North Sea, the icy whistles of the north-east wind, the shrieks of cormorants and bitterns — no longer musical echoes but actually forming part of the fabric of the score.

More of the latter anon. For this performance, the second of two concert performances, we were comfortably and conventionally settled in the Maltings, the stage massed with the forces of the choruses of Opera North and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the players of the Britten—Pears Orchestra.

But, there was nothing ‘conservative’ or ‘run-of-the-mill’ about the performance, led by a dynamic Steuart Bedford, who urged his instrumentalists and singers through an intense, urgent reading of the score; this may have been a concert performance but there was more drama and concentration than is sometimes found on many an opera house stage. There was not a vocal score in sight, and the singers — despite being attired in black concert dress — vividly and persuasively inhabited their roles. Either side of Bedford, stretching the length of the front of the stage, they transported us from shingle shore to public house, from church nave to craggy cliff; never out of role, even when seated or silent, the cast totally convinced as they braced the storms, both literal and figurative.

The ubiquitous surtitles were for once absent; every word was crystal clear. Of course, Britten’s word-setting and scoring help, as do the wonderful acoustic in the Maltings hall, and the nearness of the singers — not projecting across the orchestral forces but directly to the audience from the front of the stage — but this was still impressive communication of great immediacy.

Making his debut in the role of Peter Grimes was Alan Oke. Now that over sixty years have passed since the opera’s premiere, and the role has broken free from Peter Pears’ shadow, given the long line of esteemed interpreters past and present it must still be quite a daunting prospect for a tenor to step into these shoes and make the fisherman’s boots his own. However, one would not have sensed this from Oke’s assured, thoughtful and intelligent performance. This was not a burly, bellicose Grimes; nor, indeed, a dreamy aesthete. But, there was much anger as well as poignant hope; both despair and dreams.

A slight figure among the more brawny fisher-folk, Oke strikingly presented Grimes’s introversion and isolation. His tone was focused and clear, conveying the essential honesty — and self-honesty — of Grimes. So often alone with his thoughts, by turns hopeful and disheartened, his moments of ‘connection’ with Ellen Orford — sung with poise and control by Giselle Allen — and Balstrode (a superb David Kempster) were briefly mesmerising but tragically ephemeral. I found Grimes’ troubling interruption during the pub scene, ‘The Great Bear and Pleiades’, even more distressing than usual. The hushed, veiled beauty of the tenor melody — the sustained repeated notes slowly descending with tragic inevitability and finally cadencing in a poignant, soft C major — revealed Grimes’s absolute introspection; there was less a sense of airy visions than a delicate synthesis of reverie and desolation. The quashing of his haunting reflections by the contrapuntal strains of the muscular shanty, ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’, was ruthless and cold.

Grimes is plausibly ‘misunderstood’ by the bigoted Borough; but here he also retained an inner essence that was unfathomable to us too. Throughout, Oke used the beauty of his voice to show us the ‘good’ in Grimes, while insisting on his uncompromising defiance — most bitterly conveyed in the savage fragments of his final ‘mad aria’, that powerfully enhanced the sense of waste, the futility of the tragedy.

The rest of the cast were similarly impressive. Giselle Allen’s sumptuous warm tone encouraged our own feelings of sympathy for the brusque Grimes, and she thoughtfully suggested her own separation from the condemnatory, hostile community. Her final act ‘embroidery aria’ evoked an affecting mood of quiet understanding, if not acceptance.

David Kempster was vocally and dramatically engaging as Balstrode, powerfully conveying his wisdom and kindness, which is ultimately tempered by realism. With deft touches Robert Murray (Bob Boles) and Charles Rice (Ned Keene) neatly and sharply defined their roles, the latter’s red socks a natty complement to Keene’s louche, self-important posturing.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers resisted the temptation to make a caricature of the hypocritical, self-deluding Mrs Sedley, bringing a wry humour to her portrayal, an approach which was matched by Alexandra Hutton and Charmian Bedford as the two Nieces. The bright clarity of their young voices made the characters credible, and they flirted playfully with Swallow (Henry Waddington) in Act 3. The Nieces were overseen by a sassy Auntie, sung forcefully, with rich tone and feisty spirit, by Gaynor Keeble.

The soloists were supported by some excellent choral singing, the voices massing into a disturbing, unrelenting force at times, the posse’s hysterical, pitiless demands for ‘Peter Grimes!’ spine-chillingly overpowering.

From the opening jaunty rhythmic skips of the Prologue to the mournful tuba calls which draw Grimes to his watery grave, the players of the Britten-Pears Orchestra were on splendid form. Every gesture was crisp and clear, the colours myriad and fresh. The passion and drive of the instrumental interludes confirmed their absolute commitment; often performed in the concert hall, here the musical coherence and dramatic relevance was synthesised, as projections of Maggie Hambling’s North Sea ink drawings of 2006 provided visual images to complement the aural landscape.

So, now to the beach where, as the sun sets on 17, 19 and 21 June, Peter Grimes will be en plein air; given the bracing bite of the salty North Sea gusts, one should probably hope that the evening is fair, but less clement weather would at least offer the audience a brief taste of the endurance and ‘perpetual struggle’ (as Britten put it) of those whose lives depend upon the sea and are, in the words of Grimes himself, ‘native, rooted here’.

Fortunately for those who missed this magnificent performance, a live 2CD recording will be issued shortly. However many interpretations you own, make sure that you add this to your collection.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Alan Oke: Peter Grimes; Giselle Allen: Ellen Orford; David Kempster: Captain Balstrode; Gaynor Keeble: Auntie; Lexi Hutton: First Niece; Charmian Bedford: Second Niece; Robert Murray: Bob Boles; Henry Waddington: Swallow; Catherine Wyn-Rogers: Mrs Sedley; Christopher Gillett: Rev Horace Adams; Charles Rice: Ned Keene; Stephen Richardson: Hobson; Steuart Bedford: conductor; The Chorus of Opera North with the Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama; Britten—Pears Orchestra. Aldeburgh Festival, Snape Maltings, Sunday, 9th June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Snape_Maltings.png image_description=Concert Hall, Snape Maltings Suffolk [Source: Wikipedia] product=yes product_title=Peter Grimes in Concert product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Concert Hall, Snape Maltings Suffolk [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 1:53 PM

June 10, 2013

Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Garsington Opera at Wormsley

The Singspiel is a comedy with an improbable plot. How did a nice girl like Konstanze get mixed up with a Turk? How does a tyrant suddenly turn into Good Guy? Daniel Slater’s imaginative invention might not follow the score note by note but it reaches the free-wheeling, zany spirit of the comedy Audiences should have the maturity to realize that the opera is strong enough to support different perspectives. Beckmesser would explode in a frenzy of fury. Mozart, though, would be cackling with delight.

Mozart didn’t encounter many real-life Pashas. Selim is a man of formidable wealth and power. Men this rich aren’t in touch with reality. They’re isolated in their places, guarded by paranoid henchmen. They don’t do things like normal people. Turning Selim into an oligarch isn’t mere updating. It’s a perceptive reading of the personality type. This Selim (Aaron Neil) likes football. “I built my house near the stadium. Or did I build the stadium near my house”. This deepens the portrayal and is an opportunity for good visual effects. The backdrop suddenly opens and a real Jaguar is driven onstage! This is Wormsley after all, where they do things in grand style. Football also serves as plot device. It makes Selim human. Osmin (Matthew Rose) can see through Belmonte (Norman Reinhardt) and Pedrillo (Mark Wilde), because they know his weak spot. When Selim’s team win a match, he drops Konstanze, as easily as a child moves on to a new toy. The contrived ending becomes perfectly logical.

Slater replaces the German spoken dialogue with multi-lingual banter. Why not ? How did the “Turks” communicate with the “foreigners”? When Osmin says “Ich hass Englander!” the audience laughs, but the idea springs from the original libretto. In the Vienna of Joseph II, England represented liberty. Osmin isn’t so much a Turk as an agent of repression. Thus Blonde sings “Ich bin eine Engländerin, zur Freiheit geboren”. It’s doubly funny when we know that Susanna Andersson is Swedish and is cooking up a sokker kaka. Her mistress is being preened in a spa where calories are seditious. The new dialogue is fast-paced and funny even when the jokes are deliberately hammy. Comedy subverts.

“Ein Herz, so in Freiheit geboren
Läßt niemals sich sklavisch behandeln
Bleibt, wenn schon die Freiheit verloren,
Noch stolz auf sie, lachet der Welt!”

Matthew-Rose-Osmin-Susanna-Andersson-Blonde-Garsington-Opera-Chorus-in-Die-Entfuhrung-aus-dem-Serail-Garsington-Opera-2013-credit-Johan-Persson.pngMatthew Rose as Osmin and Susanna Andersson as Blonde

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is a good size for Mozart and Douglas Boyd, the new Artistic Director, has spoken of its potential as a house for Mozart. (read the interview here). The musical standards in this Die Entführung aus dem Serail were very high. Matthew Rose’s Osmin was so well-defined that his performance would be impressive even in a much larger auditorium. He has been singing with Garsington Opera since the early days of his career. The company prides itself on nurturing young talent and singers remain loyal. Rose and Susanna Andersson made a striking pair. He’s very tall, and she’s very short, reflecting the imbalance of power. Both are equal as singers. Together they duelled as much as duetted. Although the bigger ensembles usually attract more attention, the conflict between Osmin and Blonde is the critical heart of the opera.

Rebecca Nelsen sang a feisty Konstanze. In the torture scene, she’s seen sitting in the same reclining chair she used in the spa. Now it’s an instrument of torture, the ideas not unconnected. Mozart writes tension into the music to suggest extremes of pain and screaming. Nelsen’s “Marten aller Arten” felt vivid, as if she were shaking with the effect of electric shock, though she maintained the proper flow.

Mark Wilde’s Pedrillo was as well acted as sung, with sharp control of fast-paced dialogue. Incidentally the speech rhythms in the dialogue mirrored the way Mozart sets the brisk, punchy vocal lines. Norman Reinhardt sang a laconic Belmonte. William Lacey conducted with brio.

Much credit must go to Francis O’Connor who designed the set. There isn’t much backstage area at Wormsley, since the pavilion was designed as a temporary structure. O’Connor’s simple backdrop suggest an impenetrable wall when Belmonte stands alone before it. Later segments pop in and out through recessed compartments. One becomes a lift which suggests movement beyond the stage, though it’s of course illusion. When the conspirators escape the guards, the guards are seen watching football in security control. The torture scene was particularly well executed, though that’s perhaps the wrong choice of words. The same compartment which had served as the lift and the entrance for the Jag became a claustrophobic room in stark black and white. Stagecraft rarely gets the attention it deserves, but it makes good drama possible. At Garsington Opera at Wormsley, technical facilities may not be huge, but they are used very effectively.

Anne Ozorio

Production and cast information:

Belmonte: Norman Reinhardt; Konstanze: Rebecca Nelsen; Pedrillo: Mark Wilde; Blonde: Susanna Andersson; Osmin: Matthew Rose; Bassa Selim: Aaron Neil. Garsington Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: William Lacey. Director: Daniel Slater. Designer: Francis O’Connor. Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rebecca-Nelsen-Konstanze-in-Die-Entfuhrung-aus-dem-Serail-at-Garsington-Opera-2013-credit-Johan-Persson1%20%281%29.png image_description=Rebecca Nelsen as Konstanze [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera 2013] product=yes product_title=Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Garsington Opera at Wormsley product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio product_id=Above: Rebecca Nelsen as Konstanze

Photos by Johan Persson courtesy of Garsington Opera 2013
Posted by anne_o at 9:30 AM

June 9, 2013

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne

Still, they had clearly made the most of their interval picnicking, about which a little more anon. To see The Marriage of Figaro, the first opera staged at Glyndebourne, and the first staged at the new house too (preserved on a wonderful DVD, with Bernard Haitink as conductor) ought to have been the icing on the cake. Of course, it ought to have been the other way round, Mozart and Da Ponte coming first, but Michael Grandage and his revival director, Ian Rutherford had no intention of permitting that to happen. (As shorthand, I shall refer to Grandage, but it may be that Rutherford modified an initial conception to a considerable degree. The curious may consult a DVD from last year now available; I do not think I can bear to see it.)

For no apparent reason, the action is shunted into the 1970s, the decade, which, everyone seems to agree, taste forgot, whatever its virtues may have been. It seems a peculiar substitute for the eighteenth-century. No attempt seems to have been made either coherently to re-imagine the action — the intricate comedy based upon a society of orders, let alone the droit de seigneur is, as much as possible, simply ignored — or boldly to present something new. For the former, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle remains a magical DVD bet, aided by Karl Böhm, the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast, headed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa, Hermann Prey, and Mirella Freni, for which the phrase ‘to die for’ might have been made. (The aforementioned Glyndebourne production, directed by Stephen Medcalf, has a fair share of magic too.) Claus Guth’s superlative Strindbergian retelling from Salzburg heads the other camp; it should not work, but it really, really does.

Chez Grandage, at best what we have is a pointless updating, with nothing to say either about Figaro or about the 1970s. Much of the time, however, the situation is far worse; this most perfect of operas — give or take a Così — is treated as fodder for a variety of slapstick at which even the lowest common denominator might cavil. With a few design hints of the original Spain — it seems no more specific than that — what we see resembles a particularly un-amusing episode of the little-lamented British sitcom, Duty Free. The Overture endures the arrival of the Count and Countess in a sports car — presumably, because the budget can. Hideous outfits, sometimes with a vague ‘Spanish’ air, sometimes not, come and go. No context is suggested for the coexistence in a villa-like location of alternatingly strange and uncharacterised people. Even an ill-behaved audience thought it beneath itself to laugh — perhaps the sitcom custom of ‘canned laughter’ should have been adopted — at Susanna reacting to Cherubino’s malodorous socks. The nadir, however, was reached when, at the end of the third act, quite deaf to Mozart’s score, some of the most embarrassing disco dancing I have ever witnessed — and even if ‘embarrassing’ were the point, that does not excuse it — was foisted upon the work. As if that were not enough, some sections of the audience started clapping along, albeit with a disturbing lack of rhythm. We seemed to have moved from Duty Free to Hi-de-Hi! (For those innocent of the ‘heyday’ of the British sitcom, Youtube may well have clips; I should recommend spending the time with Ponnelle and Böhm instead.) It was well-nigh impossible to hear the orchestra for such loutish behaviour: doubtless encouraged by the staging, but nevertheless the responsibility of the perpetrators.

And, just to make things even worse, the surtitles alternated between the embarrassingly demotic (Susanna again, being compelled to comment approvingly on Cherubino’s ‘moves’); the absent (far too much of the recitative); and the often wildly inaccurate (why a ‘signature’ for the army officer’s seal?) Whoever is responsible needs to address the problem, since it is not an exception; the titles for Ariadne auf Naxos made almost as much a mess of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s exquisite text. It is a problem that can readily be corrected, and certainly ought to be.

Musically, things were better, though far from what we all know Figaro can be, whether from great recorded performances or memories in the theatre. To be fair, the production did its best to overshadow the music, so there was little scope for outstanding assumptions of almost any role. Adam Plachetka seemed a little neutral as Figaro to start with, but warmed up; Laura Tatulescu, whom I admired in ENO’s Castor et Pollux, similarly as Susanna, in a lively performance. Much the same could be said of the Almavivas. Joshua Hopkins offering genuine rage without bluster in his third-act aria, and Amanda Majeski sang well enough, if not quite in style: either a little bland, or a little tremulous. Lydia Teuscher’s Cherubino was fine as far as it went, but was not helped by certain tempo choices and suffered somewhat from a lack of tonal richness; it was difficult to believe in her as a boy. I should not, however, be surprised if performances improved considerably during the run; they often do, and there was in any case nothing really to complain about here. In this context, it was perhaps unsurprising that the stock buffo characters came off best, Anne Mason’s Marcellina and Luciano Di Pasquale’s Bartolo particularly noteworthy.

figaro-jun13-245.pngLydia Teuscher as Cherubino and Sara Lian Owen as Barbarina

Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra had its moments, but they were moments. There was little sense of Mozart’s tonal architecture, so crucial to delineating the drama; moreover there were a good few perverse choices of tempo, whether considered in themselves or in context. I do not think I have heard ‘Non più andrai’ taken either so lightly or so quickly; it is certainly not an experience I wish to repeat. Another problem, in some ways still more serious, was of general listlessness, the music swimming along somewhat aimlessly; it often seemed genuinely uncertain whether this were what Rhorer had insisted upon, or whether it were what he had fallen into. A related issue was that of far too many cases in which stage and pit fell apart. The odd instance might be ascribed to a singer, but not a persistent problem. When it was permitted to do so, the LPO played with spirit and with warmth, provided one could take the rasping of natural trumpets (though not horns). How one longed, though, for this fine orchestra, with so splendid a pedigree in Mozart, to be reunited with the likes of Haitink. One longed still more, of course, for a staging that began to do justice to the work.

This is a co-production with Houston and the Met. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how it goes down across the Atlantic.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Adam Plachetka; Susanna: Laura Tatulescu; Bartolo: Luciano Di Pasquale; Marcellina: Anne Mason; Cherubino: Lydia Teuscher; Don Basilio: Timothy Robinson; Countess Almaviva: Amanda Majeski; Count Almaviva: Joshua Hopkins; Antonio: Nicholas Folwell; Don Curzio: Alasdair Elliott; Barbarina: Sara Lian Owen; First Bridesmaid: Charlotte Beament; Second Bridesmaid: Annie Fredericksson. Director: Michael Grandage; Revival Director: Ian Rutherford; Lighting: Paule Constable; Movement: Ben Wright. Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jérémie Rhorer (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, Saturday 8 June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/figaro-jun13-001.png image_description=Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Laura Tatulescu as Susanna [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival] product=yes product_title=Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Laura Tatulescu as Susanna

Photos by Robert Workman courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival
Posted by Gary at 5:32 PM

Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers

It must be both a privilege and a daunting prospect to be asked to participate in a tribute concert to the singer, who died from breast cancer in 2006; here three mezzo-sopranos stepped up to the honour and the challenge, joining the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - with whom Hunt Lieberson collaborated closely at Glyndebourne and on CD - celebrating three contrasting, full-blooded female roles from Handel’s operas.

Karine Deshayes (a late replacement for the indisposed Stéphanie D’Oustrac) began and ended the evening with Sesto’s arias, ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa’ (The offended serpent will not rest) and ‘Svegliatevi nel core’ from Giulio Cesare respectively. Deshayes has a vibrant voice, particularly at the top, and she nimbly negotiated the passage work. But, while there was undoubted rage and impassioned purpose, she didn’t quite capture the emotional depth and range of these arias, as Sesto vows vengeance against Ptolemy for the assassination of his father.

Thus in Sesto’s first number in the opera, there was much bite in the repetitions of ‘Svegliatevi’ (awaken) as Sesto determines to muster the fury in his soul. Yet, in the central section of the da capo form, as Sesto’s thoughts turn to the father he has lost only moments before, the heaviness in his heart outweighs his impotent anger; there is vengeance but also grief. William Christie drew a fittingly spare timbre from the accompanying OAE, but Deshayes did not quite match the players’ melancholy, sombre weight. ‘Figlio’ (son) needs rather more plangent emphasis, as Sesto both implores his father and imagines his paternal words of counsel and support.

In Glyndebourne’s 2006 production of Theodora, Hunt Lieberson took the part of Irene, the protagonist’s devoted supporter. Irene’s arias are intense, heartfelt statements of faith as her beloved friend, Theodora, an early Christian, is persecuted and condemned by the Romans. Reviewing the live recording of Peter Sellars’ acclaimed production, Rupert Christiansen commented, ‘it is impossible to conceive of this character’s arias being sung with more grave beauty or emotional commitment than [Hunt Lieberson] brings to them’.

Quite a tall order, then, for Anna Stéphany, performing ‘Ah! Whither should we fly’ and ‘Lord to Thee each night and day’. Stéphany combined vocal beauty with convincing characterisation, Christie shaping the contrasting tempos and textures with style but without undue mannerism. A gentle firmness characterised the voice in ‘As with rosy steps’; Stéphany’s lower register was rich and sonorous, and she dared to adopt a whispering pianissimo to moving effect. In ‘Lord to thee’ Stéphany introduced a startling change of character in the second part of the aria, ‘Though convulsive rocks the ground’, which served to make the profound devotion of the da capo repeat yet more affecting.

‘Where Shall I Fly?’ from Hercules is a tour de force of theatrical and histrionic drama and Renata Pokupić was almost equal to its vocal demands. As Hercules’ jealous, fiery wife, she delivered Dejanira’s desperate self-reproaches with an impressive combination of spontaneity and control, but her lower range sometimes lacked power and penetration, and she didn’t quite pierce the depths of Dejanira’s subconscious mind. Pokupić encompassed the extensive melodic range of the virtuosic ‘Dopo Notte’ (After night), from Ariodante with skill, the registers more even here, although the syncopated rhythms which drive the music forward sometimes lacked precision. It was, however, a fine showcase for her communicative panache; Ariodante’s exuberant joy at being reunited with his beloved Ginevra was compellingly and upliftingly conveyed.

The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment provided an animated, responsive accompaniment to all three soloists, William Christie finding a perfect balance of grace and power. The emphatic playing by the celli and double basses in the overture to Giulio Cesare - perhaps encouraged by the explosive stamp with which Christie commenced some of the instrumental numbers! - was complemented by more reflective bass meanderings in the overture to Theodora. In the two concerti grossi there was considerable variety of both texture and mood, and the playing of the three soloists was crisp and rhythmically exciting. The relationship between soloists and ripieno was one based upon sharing and exchange, the flow seamless, the tempi invigorating. As a closing tribute to Hunt Lieberson, Christie announced an encore; the diverse sentiments of the ‘Musette’ from Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.6 were a perfect homage to the singer’s artistry and integrity.

Claire Seymour


Giulio Cesare - Overture; ‘L’angue offeso mai riposa’; Theodora - ‘Ah! Whither should we fly… As with rosy steps the morn’; Concerto Grosso in B minor, Op.6 No.12; Hercules - ‘Whither shall I fly?’; Theodora - Overture; Lord, to ‘Thee each night and day’; Ariodante - ‘Dopo notte’; Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op.3 No.2; Giulio Cesare - Svegliatevi nel core. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Monday 3rd June 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Hunt-Lorraine-8.png image_description=Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson product=yes product_title=Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: A Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson
Posted by Gary at 4:48 PM

L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Virgin Classics

Upon its rediscovery near the end of the 19th Century, Monteverdi’s score fell victim to ‘improvements’ by many hands, the efforts of which were mostly inspired by recognition of the quality of the score to endeavor to span the chasm separating modern musical values from the performance practices of the mid-17th Century.  Esteemed composers Vincent d’Indy, Ernst Krenek, Carl Orff, and Gian Francesco Malipiero prepared editions of the opera, and Sir Michael Tippett presided over a scholarly effort at editing the score at Morley College.  It was the 1962 production prepared by Raymond Leppard for the Glyndebourne Festival that reintroduced L’Incoronazione di Poppea to 20th-Century music lovers, its accomplished cast—including Richard Lewis, Magda László, Frances Bible, Walter Alberti, Carlo Cava, Lydia Marimpieri, Oralia Dominguez, John Shirley-Quirk, and Hugues Cuénod—recorded for posterity by EMI.  Leppard’s edition of the score arranged Monteverdi’s delicate instrumentation, ever subject to debate owing to lingering uncertainty about the precise complement of instruments for which Monteverdi’s score was written, for a large modern symphony orchestra; at Glyndebourne and on EMI’s recording the Royal Philharmonic under the baton of Sir John Pritchard.  Like most of its few contemporaries, the Glyndebourne production also transposed several important rôles for singers whose genders matched those of their characters rather than the vocal ranges indicated in Monteverdi’s score.  Nerone, likely first sung by a soprano castrato, thus became a tenor, and the alto rôle of Ottone was reassigned to a baritone.  Though musically far removed from any notion of authenticity, the Glyndebourne recording offered several exceptional performances that revealed the great beauty, variety, and dramatic vitality of Monteverdi’s music: the tonal allure and sensuality of Magda László’s Poppea, the dignity of Carlo Cava’s Seneca (in what may be the finest recording of his career), the histrionic power of Frances Bible’s Ottavia, and the standard-setting Lucano of Hugues Cuénod all contributed to a considerably abridged recording that now sounds like a bloated fossil from an operatic Stone Age but remains an enjoyable example of legitimate efforts to marry good voices with great music.  It was not until Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s pioneering 1974 recording that a credible attempt was made at restoring L’Incoronazione di Poppea to something resembling what Monteverdi’s audiences might have heard in Venice in 1643 or in Naples in 1651, during what is believed to have been the only revival of the opera until the early 20th Century.  Staged productions of the opera—notably the 1963 performances at the Wiener Staatsoper conducted by Herbert von Karajan, benefiting from the radiant Poppea of Sena Jurinac—were slow to follow Harnoncourt’s example until the historically-informed performance practice movement was firmly established throughout Europe.  After the publication of American conductor Alan Curtis’s edition of the score, which sought to preserve fidelity to the surviving Venice and Naples manuscripts to the greatest extent possible, productions have increasingly utilized versions of the opera that honor musicological concepts of period-appropriate performance values in terms of instrumentation and vocal styles.  If some early efforts at presenting L’Incoronazione di Poppea in an historically-sensitive manner resulted in fragile musical qualities that seemed effective only in the settings of small Baroque theatres, this production by Jean-François Sivadier—taped by Virgin Classics during performances at the Opéra de Lille in March 2012—proves that Monteverdi’s opera, even when performed on period instruments, is the equal of the greatest masterpieces in the operatic repertory and is capable of being produced effectively in any theatre in the world.

Mr. Sivadier’s production plants L’Incoronazione di Poppea firmly in a world of decadence, aestheticism, casual morals, and recreational sex used as a weapon in political turf wars.  Superbly enhanced by scenic designs by Alexandre de Dardel, lighting by Philippe Berthomé, and gorgeous costumes by Virginie Gervaise (not to be confused with French adult film star Virginie Gervais, whose presence would be strangely appropriate in this deliciously sexy production), Mr. Sivadier refines his extensive experience in French lyric theatre and opera—including a psychologically thrilling production of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck—into an organized but enthrallingly ambiguous account of Monteverdi’s score.  Perhaps the most intriguing dramatic aspect of the opera is the composer’s portrait of his title character: one of the most duplicitous figures in Roman history, as ruthless in pursuit of her ambitions as any Emperor or Senator, Poppea is shaped by Monteverdi with music of almost ethereal beauty.  No other operatic heroine of such cruelty conducts her conspiracies more attractively.  The nastiest sentiments in Giovanni Francesco Busenello’s libretto are set by the composer to the most extraordinarily captivating music.  Mr. Sivadier’s production explores this dichotomy entrancingly, portraying Poppea as a sociopathic manipulator who calculatingly exploits every tic of Nerone’s neuroses.  Considering the opera merely as a series of emotional exchanges removed from their specific historical context, L’Incoronazione di Poppea is—like the plays of Shakespeare—surprisingly modern.  Paranoia, cheating spouses, rampant narcissism, and obsession are all as central to Monteverdi’s opera as to any 21st-Century novel or film.  Mr. Sivadier explores all of these elements in his production without in any way distorting Monteverdi’s finely-crafted drama, sharpening the opera’s edge while avoiding damaging its 17th-Century patina.  There are manic moments in the production, but it cannot be denied that L’Incoronazione di Poppea is not populated by completely sane people.  Mr. Sivadier’s gifts for creating edge-of-the-seat, meaningful theatrical experiences are validated in this production, in which there are strokes of genius.

As too many performances in the past half-century have proved, even the most innovative production falls flat when musical values do not keep pace with the dramatic ventures.  Having gone all in with Mr. Sivadier’s production, Opéra de Lille matched the magnificent dramatic qualities with the trend-setting musical values of Emmanuelle Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée.  An acknowledged mistress of Early Music and Baroque opera, Maestra Haïm brings dynamic instincts for thoughtful shaping of Monteverdi’s music to this production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, her fidelity to presumed notions of authentic instrumentation never standing in the way of adroit exploration of the textures of sound possible with period instruments.  None of the players in Le Concert d’Astrée displays anything less than absolute virtuosity, and the musical quality of the recorded production is nothing short of incredible.  Thankfully, Virgin Classics’s engineers, guided by Philippe Béziat, have avoided problems of balance that can imperil the distinctive sounds of period instruments, placing the performance within a recorded acoustic that suggests a natural theatrical space but also fosters an exemplary blend between stage and pit.  L’Incoronazione di Poppea is a long night at the theatre, but Maestra Haïm keeps the performance moving without rushing or adopting tempi that are quick solely for the sake of brevity.  Joining with Mr. Sivadier and the production team, Maestra Haïm and Le Concert d’Astrée lay a foundation upon which a talented cast can build a memorable L’Incoronazione di Poppea.

With singers as gifted as musicians and actors as Nicholas Mulroy, Mathias Vidal, Patrick Schramm, Aimery Lefèvre, Camille Poul, Khatouna Gadelia, and Anna Wall in secondary rôles, this production immediately offers a richness of casting that is virtually impossible in a production of any Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, or Puccini opera today.  An artist of proven excellence, Mr. Mulroy brings his engagingly plangent tenor voice to all of the parts that he sings in this performance.  His unerring dramatic instincts and superb musicality are matched by the fantastic tenor Mathias Vidal, whose bravura Lucano is a worthy successor to the legacy of Hugues Cuénod, and promising young bass Patrick Schramm.  Baritone Aimery Lefèvre joins rambunctiously into the spirit of the production, his singing as Mercurio especially animated.  Soprano Camille Poul sings attractively as Amore and the Damigella.  The exotic young soprano Khatouna Gadelia makes the most of every line she sings as la Virtù and the Valletto.  Fortuna, Venere, and Pallade benefit from the lovely voice and lively stage presence of mezzo-soprano Anna Wall.

Moroccan countertenor Rachid Ben Abdeslam, whose Metropolitan Opera début as Nireno in the Company’s first presentation of the celebrated David McVicar production of Händel’s Giulio Cesare garnered praise from both audiences and critics, is in this production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea a commanding presence as the Nutrice, the elderly nursemaid of the rightful Empress Octavia.  The voice is a vibrant instrument, and Mr. Ben Abdeslam brings unexpected depths of feeling to the Nutrice’s words of comfort to the disenfranchised Ottavia.  Equally impressive as one of the followers of Seneca, he is a consistently gripping actor and energetic singer in this performance.  Another singer of North African extraction contributes beguilingly to the production: Algeria-born soprano Amel Brahim-Djelloul offers an intriguingly wide array of emotions in her performance as Drusilla, her trials endured with dignity and a sense of dedication to making the most of her destiny.  A very attractive young woman with an endearingly expressive command of stage motion, Ms. Brahim-Djelloul bears Drusilla’s betrayal with integrity, the voice poised and freely-produced even in moments of greatest emotional stress.

The Swiss-born son of Chilean parents, tenor Emiliano Gonzalez Toro is an accomplished performer of the unique haute-contre rôles in Baroque opera.  Possessing a technique that enables him to sing even the most demanding music without worry, Mr. Gonzalez Toro has carefully honed his skills as an actor.  The humor that he brings to his performance as Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse, is broad but understated: without conveying condescension to the spirit of his travesti rôle, Mr. Gonzalez Toro reveals the innate absurdity of having an older woman sung by a male singer.  This respects Monteverdi’s handling of this convention of his time, of course, and Mr. Gonzalez Toro is a pleasingly shy presence as the wilting nurse.  Surprisingly, Arnalta was blessed by her composer with one of Monteverdi’s most enchantingly comely melodic inspirations, ‘Oblivion soave,’ the so-called lullaby sung to the uneasy Poppea.  The passage is no easy sing for a tenor, the artist’s command of the tessitura notwithstanding, but Mr. Gonzalez Toro sings it winningly.

It is easy to understand the mindsets of editors of L’Incoronazione di Poppea who transposed the rôle of Ottone from Monteverdi’s original contralto register to baritone range.  In addition to making the opera more palatable for modern audiences by having characters sing with voices that adhere to conventions of how they should sound, with male characters having men’s voices, making Ottone—and Nerone, for that matter—a rôle for an ‘ordinary’ male voice mitigates a preponderance of high voices in the opera.  There can be little doubt that Monteverdi created a sound world in which Seneca was the only deep-voiced principal character with very deliberate intentions, however, and musicians who approached L’Incoronazione di Poppea in the early years of its renaissance did not have today’s crop of good countertenors at their disposal.  Few performances of the opera have enjoyed an Ottone as fine as British countertenor Tim Mead, whose centered, focused voice aligns with acting that gets at the heart of the character.  Facing misfortune and rejection, Ottone’s character is not entirely unblemished: he, too, engages in artifice, all too willingly accepting Drusilla’s affection for his own benefit when he is keenly aware that his heart pines only for Poppea.  Mr. Mead reflects this duality convincingly in his performance, coloring the voice intelligently and summoning dulcet tones for Ottone’s most heartfelt utterances, not least in his first scene.  A lithe, handsome performer, Mr. Mead interacts with his colleagues fascinatingly, his Ottone generating great chemistry with Ms. Brahim-Djelloul’s Drusilla.  Mr. Mead’s voice is genuinely beautiful, and the sincerity of his performance makes Ottone an unusually looming presence in the opera.

Youth is not a quality that is typically associated with Seneca, the legendary philosopher and tutor having been in his mid-sixties at the time of his death.  New Zealand-born bass-baritone Paul Whelan is a young singer, but he wisely allows the low tessitura of Monteverdi’s music for Seneca to depict the character’s age and wisdom rather than adopting any sort of embarrassing attempts at aged frailty.  History suggests that Seneca was likely innocent of Nero’s charges of complicity in an assassination plot, but Monteverdi’s point in giving Seneca’s forced suicide such a prominent place in the drama—and in having the dazzlingly difficult coloratura duet of celebration for the drunken Nerone and Lucano follow hard on its heels—is that morality cannot survive in a world such as that inhabited by Nerone and his court.  Mr. Whelan plausibly enacts this sense of Seneca against the World, and the gravitas with which he sings Seneca’s death scene is commanding but not unduly heavy.  While other, older, darker-voiced singers have conveyed greater mystery and hoary unflappability in the rôle, Mr. Whelan’s performance—unimpeded by unnecessary posturing, creatively-phrased, and firmly-voiced—is completely successful on its own terms.

The technique of Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg is a wonder of nature, her mastery of even the most dizzying coloratura equaled by her ability to project long arcs of lustrous tone in cantilena.  In her performance of Ottavia in this production, she also proves to be a tragedienne of unimpeachable serenity.  The daughter of the Emperor Claudius, a cousin of Caligula, and a descendent of Tiberius, Claudia Octavia was the first wife of Nero and the rightful Empress regnant: unsettled by her inevitable involvement in the power struggles between Nero and his mother, Agrippina, she was an upright, moral woman.  It is not surprising that Nero quickly tired of her.  If Poppea was the Wallace Simpson of Imperial Rome, Ottavia was its Queen Mother: unbending and courageous even in the face of great adversity and danger, she won the hearts of Romans and was passionately mourned when she, too, was forced to ritualistic suicide.  Ms. Hallenberg’s singing wins the hearts of the Lille audience, the stylishness of her execution of Monteverdi’s music providing moment after moment of fire and tenderness.  The passion of her reaction to Nero’s rejection brings to mind the intensity of Maria Callas and Leyla Gencer in the scene in which Henry VIII orders the rightful Queen’s imprisonment and trial in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena.  Ms. Hallenberg’s Ottavia is deflated but audibly never defeated by the machinations that deprive her of her throne, and any sense of bitterness or contempt is dispelled by her heartbreakingly beautiful performance of ‘Addio, Roma,’ the scene in which she laments her impending exile from her beloved Eternal City.  Knowing that she is capable of almost unbelievable feats of vocal virtuosity, Ms. Hallenberg touches the heart most viscerally in this performance with her moments of lyrical quietude.  Her music leaves no doubt that Ottavia engaged Monteverdi’s sympathy: Ms. Hallenberg’s performance permits no question of the importance of Ottavia as a musical ancestor of the most affecting tragic heroines in opera.

Nero has one of the most unflattering and contentious legacies in history.  Maligned by many historians, some of whom have suggested that Rome collectively rejoiced in his death, other scholars—both ancient and modern—argue that Nero has been unfairly criticized and made a scapegoat for the unsavory politics that festered in Rome during his reign.  Mostly overlooking his less attractive qualities, Monteverdi portrays Nerone as a lover whose sense of morality is secondary to his chasing of carnal pleasure.  Unbecomingly bewigged but a swaggeringly masculine, libidinous participant in the drama, countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic is the arrogant, hormonal Emperor to the life.  The boundless energy with which Mr. Cencic portrays Nerone admits no doubt that his thinking is mostly done in his trousers, but the glorious singing makes it clear that this Emperor’s richest treasures are in his throat.  Mr. Cencic’s voice is unlike those of many countertenors, his timbre deep and more conventionally operatic: completely absent are the hootiness familiar from the singing of many countertenors and the clumsy register breaks that undermine the best efforts of even very good falsettists.  There are occasional moments of concern when it seems that Mr. Cencic pushes his upper register hard, but the results are unfailingly exciting and put to vivacious dramatic use.  Like Ms. Hallenberg, Mr. Cencic is a celebrated practitioner of bravura singing, and his delivery of the coloratura in Nerone’s duet with Lucano—‘Hor che Seneca è morte, cantiam’—is breathtaking.  His come-hither tones lend his performance a steamy eroticism that is complemented by his frenetic acting, his Nerone slinking through the performance with the sleazy charm of a playboy known in every house of ill repute in Rome.  The tessitura of Nerone is high for a countertenor, but Mr. Cencic, whose voice has a slightly higher center of vocal gravity than those of many of his counterparts, has all of the notes comfortably in the voice.  There are moments of luminously beautiful and restrained singing even in this impetuous performance, and Mr. Cencic makes Monteverdi’s ornaments sound completely natural.  With a DECCA recording of the rôle of Andronico in Händel’s Tamerlano scheduled for release in October, 2013 is poised to be another year of tremendous success for Mr. Cencic.  Based solely on his singing of Nerone in this performance of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, Mr. Cencic’s importance as a singer is indisputable.

Supported by a cast of such distinction, young Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva more than holds her own as a determined, irresistibly tantalizing Poppea.  A woman with Hollywood starlet looks and curves, Ms. Yoncheva has engagements as Donizetti’s Lucia and Verdi’s Violetta on her horizon, and her Poppea might be viewed as a study for both rôles.  Spinning out golden tones from start to finish, it is hardly astonishing that her Poppea should so captivate Ottone or so arouse Nerone.  Costumed like a Jean Harlow vixen, Ms. Yoncheva exudes sex appeal, her hold on Nerone developing as surely as though she were Salomé performing the Dance of the Seven Veils before Herod.  Physical beauty, alert acting, and capable singing are rarely as absorbingly combined in a single performance as in Ms. Yoncheva’s Poppea.  Perhaps Monteverdi intended his portrait of Poppea as a sly commentary on the power of a pretty seductress to triumph over goodness, her misdeeds forgiven and forgotten as soon as she smiles.  In Poppea’s toying with Nerone and Ottone, her triumph might also be interpreted as a victory of lust over love, though here, too, a musical problem is encountered: ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo,’ the concluding duet for Poppea and Nerone, though almost certainly not the work of Monteverdi (modern scholarship suggests the little-remembered Benedetto Ferrari as the most likely candidate for having composed both the music and the text), is unabashedly beautiful.  If truly not the work of Monteverdi, it was almost certainly appended to L’Incoronazione di Poppea either by the composer himself or with his blessing [the duet is present in autograph materials of both the Venice and Naples versions of the opera], so it is possible that the apparent celebration of the triumph of scheming, the text of the duet ripe with subtle sexual undertones, was at least partially intentional.  Ms. Yoncheva’s and Mr. Cencic’s voices intertwine like a lovers’ embrace in the duet, closing the opera in an atmosphere of relative dramatic calm and sensual release.  Visually and musically, Ms. Yoncheva leaves nothing to be desired, her performance as Poppea the proper centerpiece of a potent account of Monteverdi’s opera.

With its complex relationships, destructive sexual politics, and crumbling social orders, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea is as psychologically momentous as any of Wagner’s operas.  Nerone shares with Wotan the dubious distinction of being a man of absolute but dwindling power with both a strong wife of noble birth and a roving eye.  Like all the best works of art, Monteverdi’s opera is both decidedly of its specific time and place and definitively universal.  Recordings of L’Incoronazione di Poppea on DVD are no longer rare, but this version from Virgin Classics—a record of what is without question one of the best-sung productions of the opera in its history—can be jubilantly crowned the best of the lot.

Joseph Newsome

Claudio Monteverdi (1567 - 1643): L’Incoronazione di Poppea—S. Yoncheva (Poppea), M. E. Cencic (Nerone), A. Hallenberg (Ottavia), T. Mead (Ottone), P. Whelan (Seneca), A. Brahim-Djelloul (Drusilla), R. Ben Abdeslam (Nutrice, un famigliare di Seneca), E. Gonzalez Toro (Arnalta), A. Wall (Fortuna, Venere, Pallade), K. Gadelia (Virtù, Valletto), Camille Poul (Amore, Damigella), A. Lefèvre (Mercurio, Console), P. Schramm (un famigliare di Seneca, Littore), M. Vidal (Soldato, un famigliare di Seneca, Lucano), N. Mulroy (Soldato, Liberto capitano, Tribuno); Le Concert d’Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm [Recorded in March 2012 during performances at the Opéra de Lille; Virgin Classics 9289919; NSTC, Region Code 0]

[This review was first published at Voix des Arts. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/VC_5099992899193.png image_description= product=yes product_title=L’Incoronazione di Poppea from Virgin Classics product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Virgin Classics 9289919 [2DVDs] price=$19.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B00BUYC2NI
Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group

This concert performance by the Chelsea Opera Group offered a rare opportunity to judge the work, which was allegedly described by the composer in later life as ‘ugly’, on its own merits.

Commissioned at the height of the frenetic activity which Verdi later termed his ‘galley years’, the premiere of Alzira on 12 August 1845 at the San Carlo Theatre, Naples, received a mixed reception. Verdi anxiously anticipated a hostile press, but hoped for a favourable reaction from the public: in the event, as Vincenzo Torelli reported at the time in the Neapolitan newspaper Omnibus, exaggerated applause for the overture by Verdi’s supporters goaded those less sympathetically inclined to an ever more cool response. Torelli urged Verdi to consider whether he was writing too much, too fast: “No human talent is capable of producing two or three grand operas a year.” Indeed, overwork had precipitated a breakdown of health which necessitated the postponement of the opening night; and, Verdi might have feared the fates were against him when his preferred soprano, Erminia Frezzolini, withdrew from the season to give birth.

If Verdi’s speed of composition was precipitously swift during these years, so is the action of Alzira. Salvatore Cammarone’s libretto attempts to whip Voltaire’s play, Alzire, ou les Américains — a largely philosophical dialogue — into an operatic love triangle, set in 16th-century Peru at the time of the Inca-Spanish conflict, complete with the mandatory mixture of passion, sexual rivalry, vengeance and death.

Alvaro, the Peruvian governor, is on the point of death at the hands of Otombo, when Zamoro — a Peruvian chieftain who had been believed dead — returns and grants the release of Alvaro, before urging his tribe to set forth for Lima to rescue his beloved Alzira, who, along with her father Ataliba, is being held captive by Alvaro’s son, Gusmano. The latter, promoted now by his father to the top job, falls for Alzira too; when Zamoro is seized in battle, she succumbs to Gusmano’s marriage proposal in exchange for preserving her true love’s life. Believe that she has betrayed him, a bitter Zamoro thunders into the matrimonial ceremony and stabs Gusmano. With his dying words, the young governor reveals his true nobility: explaining that Alzira acted to save Zamoro’s life, with his final breath he blesses the couple.

Gianluca Marciano.pngGianluca Marcianò [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]

Unfortunately, the plot goes round in circles; the hero is captured and condemned, then he is spared and freed, then seized once more, then released, and so on. The ‘baddie’, Gusman, declares, ‘È destin ch’ei mora,/ né mai destin cangiò’ (He is designed to die, he cannot again escape death), but by the end one is tempted to retort, ‘Oh yes he can!’. A similar lack of genuine forward motion characterises the music too; there are no real moments of dramatic revelation propelling the action forward, and thus the scenas feel a little static and self-contained.

But, the score has a heart-on-sleeve approach to charting the emotional waters. The overture sets the tone: frothy woodwind curlicues give way to tempestuous tutti, serene strings are superseded by a romping conclusion. It’s so Verdian it’s almost self-parody. But, it’s also rather good. While there are none of the elaborate choruses, complex ensembles and elaborate orchestration that mark Verdi’s finest works, there is much melodic beauty, vibrancy and vigour.

Mario Sofroniou was an earnest Zamoro, producing afine display of strong, muscular singing. If he could relax a bit more, he would achieve a greater sense of openness and spontaneity, but he the shaped lines well — particularly in his Act 2 aria, ‘Irne lungi ancor dovrei/ carco d’onta e fuggitivo?’ (Must I drag out my days as a fugitive, bowed down with shame?). He had the stamina for his extended scenas and was an appealing stage presence, winning the affection of the audience.

As Zamoro’s rival in love and war, Mark Holland’s Gusmano began a little cautiously but grew in confidence. Initially, his baritone, while attractive, seemed quite small and somewhat tight, but in Act 2 he engaged more assuredly with the drama, especially in his duet with Alzira. His final Act aria of forgiveness was most touching, the tone soft but centred.

Irish soprano Majella Cullagh was magnificent in the title role. The shimmering string tremolo which presages her first aria, ‘Da Gusman, su fragil barca’, set a suitably expectant mood after the exclusively male voices of the prelude and Act 1 opening (wrongly labelled in the programme, Acts 1 and 2); and, from these first moments Cullagh spun a gorgeous bel canto thread, gleaming and bright. Her cabaletta was nimble. Occasionally, in the more delicate, sustained moments one could sense Cullagh working hard to maintain secure intonation; but she demonstrated a sure sense of the overall formal shape of the scenes, and clearly knows how to use dynamics to create drama. Her Act 1 duet with Sofroniou was finely judged.

Both the female cast members outshone the men in one specific regard: namely, they were less bound to their vocal scores: indeed, as Zuma, Alzira’s maidservant, Lithuanian Liora Grodnikaite was alone among the cast in having fully memorised her part. Consequently, she was able to concentrate on developing character and situations, her creamy mezzo soprano both sensuous and decorous.

Paolo Battaglia never wavered as a stentorian Alvaro, tempering his authoritative stance only at the close in a moving display of grief upon his son’s death. The declamatory pronouncements of Francisco Javier Borda’s Ataliba were rather inflexible and monotonous of tone, but like all the cast, the words were clearly audible. Tenors Jorge Navarro-Colorado (Otumbo, an Indian warrior) and Paul Curievici (Ovando, a Spanish officer) made up the fine cast.

The Chelsea Opera Group Chorus could not quite summon the force required to project from the back of the hall over the instrumental forces massed before them. The handmaidens’ chorus in Act 1 was pretty enough, and the soldiers’ chorus which opens Act 1 was, despite being rather stale and hackneyed stuff — sung with energy and vigour. The orchestra was occasionally bombastic in the big numbers, but elsewhere conductor Gianluca Marcianò graded the dynamics sympathetically in the arias (aided by Verdi’s scoring). It took the strings a little while to settle (the overture to Don Giovanni, a tribute to the late Sir Colin Davis, which preceded Alzira was decidedly ragged in ensemble and passagework) but once they found their feet they produced much warmth and richness to complement some excellent woodwind playing. Without undue haste, Marcianò kept things moving; he was a bundle of energy on the podium whose enthusiasm coaxed evident commitment and enjoyment from his players.

One of few Verdi operas where the lovers are both alive and together at the close, this performance proceeded to its happy close and was greeted with much appreciative applause. So, is this an opera deserving of the neglect it has suffered? When, many years after the premiere, Countess Negroni reminded Verdi of the work he reputedly replied: ‘That one is really hideous.’ Clearly memories of the Neapolitans’ snub ran deep. Chelsea Opera Group made a convincing case for an opera which is short, punchy and full of melodic charm. Let’s hope someone ventures a fuller staging before too long.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Majella Cullagh: Alzira; Mario Sofroniou: Zamoro; Mark Holland — Gusmano; Paolo Battaglia: Alvaro; Francisco Javier Borda: Ataliba; Jorge Navarro-Colorado: Otumbo; Liora Grodnikaite: Zuma; Paul Curievici — Ovando; Gianluca Marcianò: conductor; Chelsea Opera Group Chorus and Orchestra. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sunday 2nd June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Majella%20Cullagh%2C%20150dpi.png image_description= product=yes product_title=Alzira by Chelsea Opera Group product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Majella Cullagh [Photo courtesy of Chelsea Opera Group]
Posted by Gary at 3:45 PM

Ignite at Wigmore Hall

The answer is Woodwose, a pioneering new community chamber opera by composer Kerry Andrew, inspired by Britten’s folk songs and using tales collected from the diverse local community of the London borough of Westminster. Directed by Hazel Gould, designed by Ruth Paton, with musical direction by Isabelle Adams, the opera will be performed at the Wigmore Hall on 19th July, featuring tenor Andrew Kennedy alongside a community cast of over 150 drawn from across Westminster.

The work was created with the participants. Taking the idea of a folk-song collection, Kerry Andrew has worked with the children involved to collect lullabies, play songs and explore characters — particularly those who might create fear or consternation. The folk material has been woven into the opera in the way that Britten himself quoted and integrated folk song, nursery rhyme and children’s song in his works — for example, in the opera The Turn of the Screw or the children’s opera The Little Sweep.

Leading the musical performance of the opera will be the musicians of Ignite, Wigmore Learning’s resident ensemble, who will also be creating some of the accompanying music. The ensemble will have to work with flexibility and be able to respond quickly to different musical situations; the accompaniments will be devised in just one workshop with the children!

Ignite were formed by Wigmore Learning, when leader and vibraphone player, Jackie Walduck, approached them with the idea creating a Learning Ensemble to work with a broader range of community groups, including children in Westminster hospitals, young people who may be in vulnerably housing or have refugee status, or who suffer from austistic spectrum disorders. Clearly Ignite rise to considerable challenges and are prepared to take risks in their workshops; the projects culminate in a performance by the participants alongside musicians from Ignite. In the summer of 2012 all of these groups, many of whom may be excluded from regular arts provision, came together to perform a new piece commissioned from composer Param Vir, World-Filling Light, as part of a large-scale community project calledBeautiful Sounds.

Two movements from World-Filling Light were included in a short concert entitled, ‘Aperitif’, given by Ignite on Tuesday 4 th June at the Wigmore Hall. ‘Jewels in the Sky’ was notable for its Stravinskian rhythmic structures and overall form, while ‘World Filling Light’ drew attention to the striking range of colours and timbres the ensemble explore; here double bass player, Lucy Shaw, creating a wonderfully sonorous line. In the opening work, ‘Kalavati’ — which was created after Amjad Ali Khan met with Ignite in 2011 and sang them a raga which the ensemble developed through improvisation — James Barralet’s haunting cello glissandi were followed by a sequence of technically assured soloistic sections which confirmed the group’s combination of artistry, imagination and virtuosity.

Clarinettist Vicky Wright, took the lead in Martin Butler’s How Long, here receiving its world premiere in the presence of the composer. Completing the ensemble was flautist Daniel Parkin, whose timbre was by turns pure and gleaming, then shaded and dark. ‘Forest Overture’ and ‘Winter to Spring — the opening and closing movements of Woodrose — were also heard, the buoyant conclusion of the latter suggesting that the opera reaches a joyful, uplifting conclusion.

Ignite musicians combine high calibre performance with strong communication skills. Walduck described their ambitions: “Our aim has always been to explore the boundaries of musical interaction and interpretation that are inherent in chamber music performance practice. As an improviser, I was keen to make improvisation central to our work. Doing so allows musical interaction to encompass real-time creation of material, and extends ‘interpretation’ to choices of pitch, rhythm, ornamentation, musical role. Interaction is at the heart of the performance, but also shape, the musical structure. Working from one-page scores, in which some material is given, and musical development is suggested, enables us to work with musical frameworks beyond pure improvisation, so that we can create sudden shifts in material, plan detailed textures, and work with interpretation at the ‘architectural’ level (in the way in which a string quartet might approach a Beethoven movement, for example). It also ensures that we work with a range of materials, harmonic disciplines, and importantly, dovetail artistically with Wigmore Hall.”

Woodrose is performed at the Wigmore Hall on Friday 19th July at 6.30pm. Find out more at: http://www.wigmore-hall.org.uk/woodwose-a-community-chamber-opera

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ignite_mainimage2.png image_description=Ignite [Photo courtesy of Wigmore Hall] product=yes product_title=Ignite at Wigmore Hall product_by=Commentary by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ignite [Photo courtesy of Wigmore Hall]
Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

Les Contes d’Hoffmann in San Francisco

No surprises here, it was the Laurent Pelly production that originated in 2005 on a small stage in Lausanne before moving to Lyon’s Opéra Nouvel. Just now its seemingly countless animate components have been transformed to a new production of the scope to inhabit Barcelona’s Liceu and San Francisco’s War Memorial. And it is still a living organism with its own intelligence. Maybe it is even smarter than Offenbach.

Not that Offenbach has not gotten a lot smarter over the years, subject to the scrutiny of researchers, scholars, editors, not to mention those who have finished, fixed and improved the mess that Offenbach left behind. Finally stage directors have the task of actually putting it on the stage in some fashion they think is coherent. And the fun continues.

Strange to say this potentially magnificent work has come to the War Memorial stage in but two earlier incarnations, a 1944 version repeated in 1945 and 1949, and a 1987 version directed by Lotfi Mansouri. Christopher Alden directed a 1996 version that was mounted in the Civic Auditorium because the War Memorial was closed for earthquake repairs. This production was based on the artistically correct, read de rigueur Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck edition as rendered in a 1993 production at Long Beach Opera directed by David Alden.

The Kaye-Keck edition is of course the basis for the 2005 Pelly production, with Lausanne and Lyon’s own particular blend of non-Offenbach recitatives and dialogues. Needless to say seven years later Laurent Pelly has rethought it a bit for Barcelona, and now it is further adapted for San Francisco. You get the idea. We could get lost in detail.

Pelly’s production is magnificent, making E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short horror stories into a dream fantasy where anything real becomes surreal, where anything physical is ephemeral. There is no time because there is no place. Images appear and disappear without a logic, as stream-of-unconscious.

Pelly’s conceit is based on the Olympia episode, on Spalanzani’s mechanics where magic dissolves into stagecraft when Olympia is revealed as a manipulation of three stagehands. We then become conscious that the continuous flow of images is effected by the most basic level of stage mechanics — men pushing scenery and men pulling ropes. And we become even more amazed by the intelligence behind the when and how of it all.

HoffmannFDR_6.pngSteven Cole as Cochenille, Hye Jung Lee as Olympia and Thomas Glenn as Spalanzani

It is a diabolical staging in an opera where there is nothing but diabolical manipulation of, uhm, nothing. Something like quantum mechanics maybe.

There is the glue that holds all this together, and that is mere Offenbach, the minor genius who was a major genius, who made trivial musical magic into powerful emotional statements. Conductor Patrick Fournillier realized this Offenbach utilizing the ample voice of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, exploiting thought rather than sentiment by driving fast tempos, emotion rather than atmosphere by probing depth of tone — assignments this formidable orchestra relished. The pit had a big job indeed. It had to supply the colors, abstract and real, that the essentially dark monotone set left undefined. It succeeded.

And there is the lubrication allowing the Pelly mechanics to flow. This of course would be the voices of the actors. American tenor Matthew Polenzani had the daunting task of making us feel the pain of the destruction of illusion. It is a lot of singing, and he made it to the end with apparent ease. Mr. Polenzani is a light lyric tenor, a voice that does not boast the strain that makes a large-scale lyric tenor exciting. Though a beautifully acted performance, and in fact a beautifully sung performance it did not propel us to confusion, disillusion and exhaustion, the fulfillment of Hoffmann’s love.

Matthew Polenzani is a star, not to forget Laurent Pelly, so it is inexplicable why San Francisco Opera felt it needed an additional star to illustrate its aspiration to be a big-time opera company. Soprano Natalie Dessay sang a waif-like Antonia, the only one of the heroines this estimable artist can still negotiate. She did deliver vocally with sure, proven technique. Though if there are to be three sopranos for the opera, one would surely prefer a full lyric for this role. Mme. Dessay did give us the very real pleasures of a diva presence and crystal clear French.

HoffmannFDR_10.pngIrene Roberts as Giulietta

There is great pleasure to be had in hearing young singers with beautiful, well-used voices. Bass Christian Van Horn, last fall’s Angelotti in Tosca, almost held his own in fulfilling the star quality needed for the four villains. Soprano Hye Jung Lee of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist program was adequate as Olympia. Giulietta was Irene Roberts who was Fresno Opera’s Carmen. Angela Brower, a member of the Bavarian State Opera ensemble disappointed as Nicklausse, lacking the requisite richness of voice for this trouser role and necessary presence to hold the stage for such an extended period of time.

Casting of the myriad of additional roles ranged from star turns, like the casting of Steven Cole as the four servants, to the pallid Spalanzani of Thomas Glenn and lackluster Crespel of James Creswell. The Adlers did their usual fine service in other roles, especially Hadleigh Adams as Schlemil.

The Pelly production needed more powerful presences all around to liberate our minds and hearts from its brilliant stage mechanics and allow its devilish design to take flight. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra alone could not accomplish this. It could have been done.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Hoffmann: Matthew Polenzani; The Muse/Nicklausse: Angela Brower; Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf: Christian Van Horn; Antonia: Natalie Dessay; Olympia: Hye Jung Lee; Giulietta: Irene Roberts; Stella: Jacqueline Piccolino; Frantz, Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio: Steven Cole; Nathanaël: Matthew Grills; Spalanzani: Thomas Glenn; Crespel: James Creswell; Hermann: Joo Won Kang; Luther, Schlemil: Hadleigh Adams. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Fournillier. Director: Laurent Pelly; Set Design: Chantal Thomas; Costumes: Laurent Pelly; Lighting Design: Joël Adam. Production photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera. War Memorial Opera House, June 5, 2013.

image_description=Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as Antonia [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product_title=Les Contes d’Hoffmann in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay as Antonia

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 2:53 PM

June 5, 2013

Marseille, Capital of European Culture

Marseille has once again proved that making your way to the top is easy — spend some smart money! The Ville de Marseille boasts ten new spaces for the arts, among the more prominent the magnificent all-glass Museum of Civilizations and a gutsy new contemporary art venue in a huge graffiti covered old tobacco factory, not to overlook an old grain elevator on the docks that has become Le Silo, a high tech 1700 seat theater.

All this investment brought vibrant new spin to the Phoenician city (it’s that old) and propelled it to become the European Capital of Culture for 2013. Put this together with a snazzy new trolley system that descends to the Vieux Port (Old Port) with the Opéra just right there on Rue Molière and you have the Marseille that could be.

But sad to say Marseille has not invested recently is its opera house, badly in need of a well planned fire. Back in 1918 following the dress rehearsal of Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine a very efficient fire left only the outer walls and the peristyle [the columned classical porch] standing. It reopened in 1925 having eliminated its original Italian horseshoe shape in favor of a large first tier that offers, with the front orchestra the best seats in the house, and a plenitude of them. Though there exists a superb acoustic for opera and an absolutely splendid spectator-stage rapport the auditorium and its public areas are in dilapidated condition.

The decor is high art deco, think American movie palaces of the same era, though hopefully this is not the reason it is designated an historic monument. The peristyle is from 1787 and therefore proudly qualifies it as France’s second oldest opera palace. This stately colonnade with its splendid frieze has survived all earlier fires and surely could survive most any future fire — may we dream of a state-of-the-art twenty-first century hall and stage behind it.

Plus to be sure there is a second tier and above that there is the once infamous, very vocal amphithéâtre (the upper most gallery) where Maurice Xiberras, its current directeur général, likes to say he was taken at seven years of age by his grandparents to be smitten by opera. Most of all monsieur Xiberras wants us to understand that the Opéra de Marseille now strives to be populaire, that its supposed audience of longshoremen, cafe waiters and petits commerçants want nothing more than steak-frites and moules marinières and bel canto.

After all if you want cutting edge opera you can go one half hour up the road to the prestigious Aix Festival (but only in July), or cross the swampy Camargue in a bit more than an hour to Montpellier where the Opéra National de Montpellier oozes artistic pretension.

In Marseille there is the Théâtre National de Marseille and the Ballet National de Marseille, entities that are primarily funded by Paris and therefore subject to France’s national artistic aspirations. The Opéra de Marseille is decidedly not an opéra national, a position underlined firmly in 2011 when France’s then minister of culture, Frédéric Mitterand descended in an attempt to impose Parisian standards on Marseille’s opera. He suggested that the director of the Théâtre National de Marseille, Mme. Macha Makeïeff, replace Mr. Xiberras and offer classier programming.

opera-facade-jour1.pngFacade of Opéra de Marseille

Perhaps Mr. Mitterand was smarting because Marseille’s longtime mayor (since 1995) Jean-Claude Gaudin managed a coup d’état by thwarting Mr. Mitterand’s choice, Mme. Catherine Marnas, for the directorship of the La Criée (the théâtre national) and naming instead Mme. Makeïeff (born in Marseille) to the post. A force to be reckoned with the Honorable Gaudin in a grand coup de théâtre then promoted Mr. Xiberras (born in Marseille) and at that point artistic director, to general director of the Marseille Opera.

Marseille born conductor Reynald Giovaninetti was general director from 1971 to 1974 when the post was given to Toulouse born stage director Jacques Karpo. Both artists were well known to San Francisco Opera audiences in the ’70’s. Mo. Giovaninetti conducted Leontyne Price’s Manon Lescaut in 1974, and a triple bill that included Magda Olivera in Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine in 1979.

These were the halcyon years at San Francisco Opera when Kurt Herbert Adler was pushing operatic envelopes hard and fast, those of repertoire and production and singers. Jacques Karpo had come to San Francisco Opera as a lowly production assistant, then he graduated to assistant director and ultimately he staged Faust (1977) complete with a revolving disco ball (to catch the flashes of Marguerite’s jewels) plus Roberto Devereux (1979 — the one when Montserrat Caballé cancelled and it hasn’t been on the SFO stage since).

In 1974 young Karpo took everything he learned in San Francisco back to Marseille and made Marseille one of the most important stages in France for the next seventeen years. The impresario used colorful, vulgar language, chain smoked and died at 51 years of age. He is legend in Marseille, and it is legend that you couldn’t find a spare ticket to Marseille Opera during those years.

A hard act to follow. With its taste for the big time Marseille made Karpo’s assistant Élie Bankhalter its general director (1991-1997). Mr. Bankhalter now offers training in motivational speaking on his website where he boasts associations with just about every important singer of the ‘90‘s you can think of, many of whom actually appeared on the Marseille stage in signature roles, i.e. the most standard repertory.

It was time for change.

In a swing to exploring repertoire instead of stars its next director (1997-2001), Jean Louis Pujol flamed out with a season based entirely on Oriental legends, including an operatic setting of Racine’s Bérénice [queen of Palestine] by Massenet’s student Albéric Magnard, premiered in 1911, and then rediscovered by Mr. Pujol. Not to overlook other Pujol resurrections — Mârouf, savetier du Caire by Henri Rabaud (1914 premiere at the Opéra Comique, picked up by the Met in 1917), and L'Atlantide (1954) by Henri Tomasi (born in Marseille).

Renée Auphan, the Opéra de Marseille’s born-in-Marseille general director from 2001 to 2008 one-upped Mr. Pujol. She programmed Tomasi’s Sampiero Corsu (1956) that was not only composed by the Marseille native, but it’s protagonist Sampiero recreated that splendid moment of Corsican history when he strangled his wife right there in Marseille.

Mme. Auphan had been director of both the Lausanne and Geneva operas before returning to Marseille. Surely her finest hour was Marius et Fanny, music by Vladimir Cosma, a film composer best known for Diva (1981). Marius et Fanny is a love story construed from three plays about Marseille by Marcel Pagnol, the born-in-Marseille beloved-by-Marseille novelist who wrote Manon de la Source. The opera takes place right on the Vieux Port. Its characters, longshoremen, cafe waiters and petits negociants included Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu in happier days.

Well, Mme. Auphan is a hard act to follow. This able stage director turned soprano turned directeur général imposed solid vocal standards and solid if mostly uninspired production values. Mr. Xiberras, Mme. Auphan’s assistant during her entire tenure, is cut from the same cloth. Though he has ventured from Pagnol’s Italian immigrants on the Vieux Port to the Italian immigrants of Menotti’s New York tenements with The Saint of Bleecker Street. And of course not to be outdone by la Auphan he has commissioned film composer Jean Claude Petit to provide music for a libretto based on Merimée’s Corsican tale Colomba. Mr. Petit provided the music for the famous film of Pagnol's Manon de la Source (1986) and was the arranger for Billy Vaughn’s best selling LP “Greatest Country Hits” back in the ’70’s.

Born-in-Marseille metteur en scène Charles Roubaud will stage Colomba (2014). Jacques Karpo gave the very young Roubaud his first job, staging Massenet’s Don Quixote back in the 1980’s, a production that soon made its way to San Francisco (1990) further enriching the Jacques Karpo legacy in that city. Since the Don Quichotte Charles Roubaud has created more than twenty productions for the Marseille stage, including the above mentioned Bérénice. This past January he restaged his 2003 production of Elektra to solid critical appreciation.

Just now, June 15 - 23, Mr. Roubaud is creating a new production of Massenet’s forgotten Cléopâtre for the Marseille stage with the same designers, Emmanuele Favre (scenery) and Katia Duflot (costumes) as the Elektra. Mme. Duflot is another protégé of the Jacques Karpo era who now heads the Opera de Marseille’s prolific and ubiquitously credited atelier couture.

July 12 and July 15 Roberto Alagna and Béatrice Uria-Monzon sing Aeneas and Didone in Berlioz’ Les Troyens (concert performance) conducted by Los Angeles born Lawrence Foster, the recently appointed music director of the Opéra de Marseille — maybe its first since Reynald Giovaninetti. Maestro Foster, former music director of the operas of Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Los Angeles, is a refugee from the recent brutal reshuffling of forces at the Opéra National de Montpellier.

The Opéra de Marseille operates on a budget of 16,000,000 euros. The current seasons is four or five performances each of seven operas, thirteen orchestra concerts (most at the Opéra, others in various venues), plus a number of recitals and chamber music concerts. The concert Les Troyens is part of the Marseille’s 2013 Capital of Culture initiative. The Opéra de Marseille seats 1800.

Michael Milenski

To read reviews by Mr. Milenski of some of the various operas mentioned in this article type the name Milenski and the name of the city in Opera Today’s search box.

image_description=Foyer of Opéra de Marseille

product_title=Marseille, Capital of European Culture
product_by=Commentary by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Foyer of Opéra de Marseille

Posted by michael_m at 3:02 PM

La Tosca in Los Angeles

Before we explore the girl’s presence, we must meet Floria Tosca, the eponymous heroine of the opera, originally the creation of French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sardou’s five act play, La Tosca, which takes place in Rome on a June day in 1800, was an immensely popular work with which Sarah Bernhardt toured the world. Puccini and librettist Luigi Illica reduced the work to an intense and brutal drama featuring three principals: Tosca, a famous opera singer; the artist Maria Cavaradossi, her lover, who is sheltering an escaped revolutionary prisoner in his country home; and Baron Scarpia, chief of police, who lusts for Tosca. Lusts is the right word. He announces that he plans to have her violently and briefly. After arresting Cavaradossi, Scarpia invites Tosca to his office, from which she can hear Cavaradossi’s screams of pain as he is being tortured. Scarpia sentences Cavaradossi to death, then appears to agree to a mock execution and a safe conduct out of Rome for the lovers if Tosca will surrender to him. When Scarpia has signed the order and turns towards her, Tosca stabs him to death. Immediately thereafter, she rushes to prison to tell Mario there will be a fake execution, but when he is really shot, and her own crime is discovered, Tosca leaps from the prison tower.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s appearance as the Roman diva made this a special occasion for the Los Angeles Opera company and its audience. Since the soprano’s first appearance with the company in 2004 in Verdi’s Il Trovatore, she has made an international career in Verdi roles. Ms. Radvanovsky’s radiant voice is evenly produced throughout all registers. Her moving “vissi d’arte” which concluded with a messa di voce brought vociferous applause. Her stabbing of Scarpia with two knife thrusts was one of the most vehement I have seen.

As Tosca’s lover, Mario Cavaradossi, Italian tenor, Marco Berti did not match Radvanovsky’s lyricism, particularly early on. Singing the first act’s “recondite armonia” to Placido Domingo, the evening’s conductor, can’t be easy work. However, Berti’s high notes, including the famous “Vittoria” were clarion sounds. And happily, he seemed more comfortable with his last act aria.

TCA1200.pngSondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Marco Berti as Cavaradossi, with Lado Ataneli as Scarpia

Lado Ataneli made a suave yet savage Scarpia. Keeping with his character, Puccini has given Scarpia sinuously lyrical passages, which the Georgean baritone delivered with subtlety and power. It’s a shame that opera audiences of late have demonstrated a childish tendency to hiss or boo villainous characters at their curtain calls. Ataneli was deprived of the appreciation he deserved. Philip Cokorinos, Joshua Bloom as the Sacristan and Angelotti, the escaped prisoner, respectively, turned in convincing performances, as did Eden McCoy as the young girl. Maestro Domingo led a well-paced performance. At times he seemed to be bent over as though to extract still more emotion from his orchestra. However he effected it, Puccini’s orchestration sounded lush.

John Caird, who has earned honors and worked on every kind of stage throughout the world, led the production team for Tosca, which he originally created for Houston Grand Opera in 2010. Caird considers Tosca “one of the greatest works of music theater ever written” and has lauded its “overwhelming musical, human, moral and religious powers.” At the same time he has enhanced verismo violence by staging a bloodier than usual Tosca. Each act opens with an ever more blood- blotched fore curtain, which is pulled down by the first character to appear in the ensuing act. And he has Tosca slit her own throat. Neither sets nor costumes give an indication of the time of the opera’s setting, though Ms. Radvanovsky was encumbered with a bustle. What is clear, is that the action seems to have followed a calamity. The unit sets are dark, unattractive and except for the last act, cramped. Cavaradossi works on a three story scaffolding, each of which holds a different part of the Madonna’s face he is painting. Talk of verismo — if that painting were put together, there’d be no place to hang it in that church. The second act, usually staged in Scarpia’s elegant Farnese quarters, is here a warehouse filled with cartons, statues, all sorts of matter clearly purporting to be ill gotten gains. The prison is a large empty yard made still uglier for us as we watch Angelotti’s body being hung. At the rear is a large unbarred, open window — another “unverismo” touch.

TCA5139.pngSondra Radvanovsky as Tosca and Lado Ataneli as Scarpia

But now it is time to return to the virginal girl dressed in communion white. It is she who pulls down the curtain for the prison scene. She then crosses the stage, sits at the window’s edge where she sings the shepherd’s greeting to the sun in a childish voice, “For you I will die,” are its last words. She will remain there throughout the act. The girl first appeared in the second act, beckoning to Tosca after the singer killed Scarpia.

There is no mysterious or mystical character in either the Puccini or Sardou stories. The girl is Caird’s creation. But who is she, why does she sing the shepherd’s song? Though the director may seem to have forsaken purists’ interpretation of verismo by inserting this vision, he has, in fact, made more explicit what Puccini had only implied, and what Sardou had made clear: that Tosca was a child of the church. Puccini’s Tosca lays flowers at the Atavanti altar, and refuses to kiss Mario before the Madonna. In “vissi d’arte”, her plea to God, she recalls her devotion and generosity to the church. Her last word in the opera is “God.” In Sardou’s play we learn the full depth of Tosca’s faith. She herded goats as a child until she was found and raised by Benedictine nuns, who expected for her to join their order. As she began singing and her talent was recognized in the secular world, the composer Cimarosa insisted she become an opera singer. Sardou tells us that the entire city of Rome took sides in the ensuing conflict until the girl was brought to sing before the pope. Charmed by her voice, the pontiff patted her cheek and told her, “Go your way, my child, you will move others to compassion, as you have me. You will make people shed gentle tears and that too is a way of praying to God.”

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Angelotti: Joshua Bloom; Sacristan: Philip Cokorinos; Mario Cavaradossi: Marco Berti; Floria Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky; Baron Scarpia: Lado Ataneli; Spoleta: Rodell Rosel; Sciarrone: Daniel Armstrong; Young girl: Eden McCoy; Jailer: Hunter Philips. Conductor: Placido Domingo; Director: John Caird; Scenery and Costume Designer: Bunny Christie; Lighting Director: Duane Schuler; Chorus Director: Grant Gershon.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/TCA5264.png image_description=Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of "Tosca" [Photo: Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera] product=yes product_title=La Tosca in Los Angeles product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Sondra Radvanovsky Tosca

Photos bu Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera
Posted by E_Gilson at 1:35 PM

June 4, 2013

Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro

Mercadante is as celebrated in the 21st Century as neither Verdi nor Wagner, but his contributions to the development of Italian opera in the mid-19th Century were appreciated by a critic as discriminating as Franz Liszt. Rossini recognized Mercadante’s musical talents early in the younger composer’s career despite remaining unconvinced of his abilities for effective dramatic characterization. It was to Mercadante that preparation of the first performance of Caterina Cornaro was entrusted due to Donizetti’s illness, and it was also Mercadante to whose expertise Verdi appealed for casting of his Macbeth. It is also known that Mercadante conspired to have Verdi’s Il trovatore suppressed by the Italian censors at the time of its première, however. All of this provides some idea of the complexities and ambiguities of Mercadante and his career: perhaps more than any other composer of his generation, he gradually moved away from the musical example of Rossini, directly influencing Bellini and Donizetti and providing the foundation upon which Verdi built his first masterpieces. Mercadante’s operas Il bravo, Elena da Feltre, Il giuramento, Orazi e Curiazi, and Virginia were all extremely successful during the composer’s lifetime, and Mercadante was almost unfailingly admired and respected as a musician even when he was disliked as a man. Composed in 1826 but not premièred until 1835, I due Figaro is an opera buffa with a libretto by Felice Romani, the master librettist of bel canto, that explores territory familiar from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, but Romani’s source material was a play by French actor and author Honoré Richard Martelly rather than Beaumarchais’s plays. A sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart, Mercadante’s opera finds the long-suffering Contessa d’Almaviva rearing a daughter and Figaro, Rossini’s unflappable factotum, dealing with the arrival of a second, rather suspicious Figaro at the court of Conte d’Almaviva. Romani could be relied upon to provide poetry of high quality even when the circumstances of a libretto’s creation were less than ideal, and there are in his libretto forI due Figaro many passages that show Romani at his best. Like all of the few of Mercadante’s operas that have appeared on records, I due Figaro has many fine things in its favor, not the least of which are several arias and ensembles that remind the listener that Mercadante was far more gifted than most of the second-rank bel canto composers with whom he is usually grouped.

Musically, the score of I due Figaro could be said to represent a very tidy summary of Mercadante’s accomplishments as a composer. Perhaps expectedly for an opera in which Figaro and his Barbiere di Siviglia comrades are found, there are pages in I due Figaro that could virtually have been ripped out of several of Rossini’s opera buffa scores. Mercadante was viewed by 19th-Century observers as the composer who, coming to a crossroads in the development of Italian opera, significantly facilitated the transition of vocal music from the style of Rossini to the more overtly dramatic bel canto employed by Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Verdi. Especially in Mercadante’s music for Susanna, there are coloratura passages that would not sound out of place in Rossini’s Ermione or Zelmira, but there are notable scenes—particularly the extended scene for Cherubino in Act Two, ‘Già per le vie del cielo’—in which the Donizetti of Anna Bolena and the Verdi of Ernani are stylistically close at hand. Dramatically, Romani and Mercadante echo a theme explored in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, that of the cast including a writer seeking inspiration from the characters and their situations, a sort of operatic paparazzo. All of the usual suspects from Mozart and Rossini turn up: the Conte and Contessa d’Almaviva, now the feuding parents of a daughter of marriageable age, Inez; Figaro and Susanna, still married but no longer the wily but endearingly devoted couple they were in Le nozze di Figaro; and Cherubino, grown into an apparently decorated Colonel and now pining for the daughter, Inez, rather than the mother, the Contessa, while in disguise as the second Figaro. New to the party in I due Figaro are Plagio, the visiting writer, and Cherubino’s former servent Torribio, who has designs on wooing Inez while posing as the nobleman Don Alvaro. It is an ambitious synthesis of Mozart and Rossini—and of the dramas of Lorenzo da Ponte and Cesare Sterbini, respective librettists of Le nozze di Figaro and Il barbiere di Siviglia—in which Mercadante seeks to combine the frisson of Rossinian opera buffa with innovative musical progress in the employment of the conventional bel canto aria and cabaletta. Composed during Mercadante’s tenure in Madrid, I due Figaro contains many musical nods to the musical traditions of his host country, both in the use of Spanish dance rhythms such as the characteristic bolero and in the inclusion of adapted folksongs. It was a fit of jealousy by the opera’s intended prima donna, Letizia Cortesi, that prohibited performance of I due Figaro until 1835: having intended for the opera to be performed as a benefit for her own financial upkeep, Signora Cortesi—a respected (both for her singing and for her socially-advantageous liaisons, no doubt) artist who took part in the first performance of Cimarosa’s revised version of Il matrimonio segreto—was none too impressed when she discovered that Mercadante had pipped her to the post by having made the same arrangement for himself. When the opera was eventually premièred, it won favor with both critics and audiences, but its success was short-lived: prior to the production recorded by Ducale at the 2011 Ravenna Festival, Mercadante’s score had been residing, forgotten, in Madrid’s Biblioteca Municipal for nearly two centuries. I due Figaro proves to be an opera well worth hearing (and, benefiting from Maestro Muti’s rediscovery, it indeed has been heard at Salzburg, Madrid’s Teatro Real, and Buenos Aires’s Teatro Colón), Mercadante’s musical gestures shaping the drama effectively and his middle-of-the-road bel canto instincts creating moments of great musical distinction. The spirits of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi are all audibly present in Mercadante’s score, and if there is any failure it is that the opera, treading on such exalted ground, does not reach the levels of inspiration and expressive humanity shown by Mozart in Le nozze di Figaro.

The results achieved by recording live performances can vary from excellent to abysmal. Recording two performances at the Teatro Alighieri in Ravenna in June 2011, Ducale’s sound engineer, Elfride Foroni, and BH audio S.r.l. produced a fine recording with excellent balance, a delightful sense of stage action, and an impressive avoidance of stage and audience noises, even during secco recitatives. Singers audibly move about the stage without ever losing sonic presence, and the chorus and orchestra enjoy prominence but never overwhelm the singers. The choristers of the Philharmonia Chor Wien, a relatively new ensemble founded in 2002, sing with gusto and great musicality. Individual voices occasionally emerge from the choral blend, but whereas this might be undesirable in choral repertory it adds to the sense of credibility in this performance, in which servants and villagers take such important parts in the drama. The instrumentalists of the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini, founded by Maestro Muti in 2004, play with brilliance that belies their youth, intonation generally sure and timbres carefully blended, surely benefiting from work with Maestro Muti. Very impressive is the solo horn playing in Cherubino’s scena in Act Two. His espousal at La Scala and elsewhere of the music of Cimarosa and Cherubini notwithstanding, Riccardo Muti does not spring to mind as an advocate for overlooked bel canto composers, even those from his native Naples. Indeed, it might seem rather bizarre that a conductor’s discography would be expanded in a single year by releases of recordings of operas as different as Mercadante’s I due Figaro and Verdi’s Otello (recorded in concert for release on the Chicago Symphony’s house label), but the integrity of Maestro Muti’s curiosity, intelligence, and pursuit of musical excellence is never in doubt. Perhaps the most surprising element of this recording is the seemingly instinctive faculty for bel canto with which Maestro Muti conducts the performance. The committed propulsion with which he conducts later repertory is well known, but the unforced grace evident in every bar of this recording of I due Figaro is remarkable. Tempi are consistently appropriate to the music, Maestro Muti’s formidable exactitude of rhythm producing accurate but wonderfully animated renderings of frothy ensembles but also allowing expansiveness of line in cantilena passages. In those pages that mimic Rossini at his buffo best, Maestro Muti’s approach is founded upon an understanding of the construction of a Rossinian scena. Those pages that exemplify the dramatic bel canto of Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi find Maestro Muti drawing upon a richly idiomatic experience in Italian music of the 19th Century. In short, Maestro Muti proves himself to be an ideal conductor of the uniquely ‘hybridized’ music of Mercadante.

Owing both to the inventiveness of Romani’s poetry and to the cleverness of Mercadante’s music, all of the characters in I due Figaro are deftly delineated. Plagio, the visiting writer whose name means ‘plagiarism’ in Spanish, is an obvious cousin of Prosdocimo, the poet in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, the libretto of which was also written by Romani. Sung in this performance by Italian baritone Omar Montanari, Plagio weaves in and out of the drama in I due Figaro with the unfettered enthusiasm of an eager journalist. The villagers in the insular community of the Almaviva castle are suspicious of his motives, however, and they amusingly taunt him in his scene at the beginning of Act Two. Mr. Montanari sings handsomely throughout the performance, Plagio’s cajoling of the characters for information about their situations and inspiration for his next play drawing from him singing of great wit. Plagio instructs himself at the beginning of Act Two to ‘agguzza orechhio e mente’—sharpen his ears and his wits: Mr. Montanari might have set for himself the same goal, and his unfailingly fine, subtle singing achieves that goal capitally.

Torribio, Cherubino’s former servant who disguises himself as the noble Don Alvaro in an effort to capitalize on his part in a plot by Figaro to pass him off as a suitable husband for Inez, the daughter—and heiress, of course—of the Conte and Contessa d’Almaviva, is sung by Italian tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani, a veteran of several of Alan Curtis’s acclaimed productions and recordings of Händel operas. The vocal technique and quicksilver dramatic instincts that have proved so successful in Händel repertory likewise serve Mr. Giustiniani well in I due Figaro. Not completely sinister but also far from innocent, Torribio is an oily figure who is not without charm. Mr. Giustiniani is a superb singer who deserves larger assignments, but his singing in this performance is fantastic. The voice is a light one, handled with mastery of its capabilities by its owner, and as ever Mr. Giustiniani provides a veritable masterclass in the art of acting through the voice. Torribio may be Figaro’s intended ticket to enjoying half of Inez’s dowry, but he is no one’s fool. Still, he is somewhat taken short when all of Figaro’s plans unravel and the deception is revealed in all of its convoluted detail to the Conte by Cherubino. Mr. Giustianini expresses all of Torribio’s mental responses to his misadventures with splendid comedic timing, and the most strenuous of Mercadante’s demands do not scratch the surface of the vocal feats of which Mr. Giustianini is capable.

Italian baritone Mario Cassi sings Figaro, who seems to have lost much of his charm in the years since the inception of his service to Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia and his marriage to Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro. Mercadante’s Figaro is more priggish than either Mozart’s or Rossini’s, and—not unexpectedly, considering his basic psychiatric profile—his relationship with Susanna seems to have soured, at least in part. The jingle of coins has lost no ground in Figaro’s affections, however, and the joie de vivre with which Mr. Cassi enters into Figaro’s plotting and ribaldry is infectious. The high spirits of Mr. Cassi’s performance confirms the suspicion that Figaro is merely a single-minded opportunist rather than a genuinely nasty fellow. While suggesting that he would prove a lovable Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mr. Cassi does what he can with Mercadante’s less cuddly Figaro. The slightly knurly quality of Mr. Cassi’s voice, allied with the unrelenting machismo of his dramatic instincts, creates a compelling character, this Figaro relishing his manipulations of every situation in which he finds himself and sputtering in frustration when his labyrinthine machinations hurl him headlong into impregnable walls. Mr. Cassi sings with technical prowess, perhaps most engagingly so in the Terzetto with Susanna and Plagio, ‘In quegl’occhi.’ Throughout the performance, Mr. Cassi brings affability to his singing, making Figaro’s exasperation at the appearance of a second, surely fraudulent Figaro amusingly palpable. His contributions to the Sestetto, ‘Un momento,’ are delightful, and the light-hearted duplicity with which he plots with Torribio and baits Plagio is genuinely funny without being over the top. Musically, Mercadante’s Figaro enjoys fewer opportunities to shine individually than Mozart’s or Rossini’s incarnations of the character, but Mr. Cassi takes advantage of every phrase, coloring his voice convincingly to convey a wide array of emotions, both public and private.

As in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Conte d’Almaviva is a tenor rôle, and Antonio Poli sings the part with assurance. The Conte’s cavatina ‘Che mai giova’ is one of the musical high points of Mercadante’s score, and Mr. Poli sings it very well, his technique tested but never broken by Mercadante’s music. Throughout the opera, Mr. Poli’s pointed diction is effective as a dramatic device of its own accord, his exchanges with all of the other characters convincingly conveyed through verbal inflections. Mr. Poli shades his voice accordingly, complementing his dramatic instincts with an impressive command of vocal means. Slight hints of pushing in the upper register are worrying in so young a singer, especially one whose future engagements include high-profile outings as Mozart’s Don Ottavio in London and Chicago, but the quality of tone that Mr. Poli produces in this performance suggests that his voice is beautifully suited to lighter lyric rôles. The quieting of this Conte’s anger in the final scene is neither as eloquent nor as believable as is the capitulation of the Conte in Le nozze di Figaro, but Mr. Poli sings his final lines with great irony: Mercadante’s Conte, rather than beseeching his wife’s forgiveness, merely admits defeat and begrudgingly accepts the obvious twists of fate: ‘Per far dispetto a Figaro, siate anche voi contenti,’ he sings to his daughter and Cherubino—‘you will be happy, too, just to annoy Figaro.’ The cool timbre of Mr. Poli’s voice lends his singing a certain aristocratic remoteness, but he enters into the spirit of the comedy with tenacity.

Italian mezzo-soprano Annalisa Stroppa takes the travesti rôle of Cherubino, his courting skills as powerful but tactless in I due Figaro as in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms. Stroppa’s timbre is dark and slightly unyielding, the basic sound of the voice rather than any particular interpretive choices on the singer’s part offering a suggestion of masculinity. Ms. Stroppa is more convincing when Cherubino is on conspiratorial form than in music of love or loss, but she saves her best singing for her challenging aria in Act Two. This is perhaps the most strangely ambiguous scene in the opera, the dramatic situation—villagers returning at dusk from their daily labors cross paths with the despondent Cherubino and think him mad—echoing the celebrated ‘Miserere’ in Verdi’s Trovatore but the music adhering more conventionally to Rossinian formulae than almost any other in the score. As is customary in most of Maestro Muti’s efforts, this is essentially a come scritto reading of Mercadante’s score, with interpolated top notes avoided. Ms. Stroppa’s upper register faces rough use in Cherubino’s aria nonetheless, but she ascends to her highest notes with cautious security. Rossinian coloratura does not sound as though it is completely natural territory for Ms. Stroppa, but the overall excellence of the results that she achieves in bravura passages is all the more impressive for this. She is at her best in ensembles, when her fiery singing depicts the impetuous young Colonel to the life.

The Contessa—Rossini’s Rosina—is sung by Turkish mezzo-soprano Asude Karayavuz, an exciting presence whose timbre exudes confident nobility. In the Contessa’s aria, ‘Prender che val marito,’ its structure not unlike that of the Contessa’s magnificent ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ in Le nozze di Figaro, Ms. Karayavuz sings with great feeling, her expression of hope for her daughter’s marital bliss reminding the listener of the character’s sentiments of defiant love in Il barbiere di Siviglia and wistful longing for the passion of that defiance in Le nozze di Figaro. Ms. Karayavuz sings strongly from start to finish, adding distinction to every ensemble in which she sings. No longer a victim of circumstance or an unfailingly magnanimous figure, the Contessa in I due Figaro proves to be a wily conniver in her own right, pursuing her own agenda with dogged sense of purpose. That the Contessa is ultimately such a likeable character in this performance is to Ms. Karayavuz’s credit. There are moments of vocal discomfort in Ms. Karayavuz’s performance, but she puts these to dramatic use. A capable singer with a good technique, Ms. Karayavuz is a sweet but never saccharine Contessa, her indignities suffered with good humor but avenged with vindicating fun.

Inez, the daughter of the Conte and Contessa, is the source of the dramatic careening in I due Figaro. Betrothed in absentia by her father to a man she has never met, the allegedly noble Don Alvaro, Inez is actually in love with Cherubino. Every character in the opera is in some way great or small directly affected by Inez’s predicament, so a fascinating singer is required in the rôle if the opera is to be even remotely interesting. Italian soprano Rosa Feola, a former pupil of Renata Scotto, has something of her teacher’s burning drive as a performer. Though her voice is a full lyric soprano of beauty and grace, she tears through this performance of I due Figaro like a woman possessed. Inez’s mission is to marry the man she loves, whether with her father’s consent or despite his withholding of it, and Ms. Feola conveys Inez’s devotion to Cherubino with conviction. In her solo scene, ‘Oh! Come in un momento,’ bewitchingly sung by Ms. Feola, Inez expresses perhaps the most heartfelt sentiments in the opera, with Mercadante’s music at its best. Ms. Feola is an appreciated interpreter of Adina in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore(another Romani creation), and Inez is an appropriate companion to Adina in her repertory: musically related, both ladies also encounter similar amorous situations, being pursued by one man who is essentially a pompous poser and another—her true beloved—who is sincere but something of a sap. The beauty of Ms. Feola’s singing when she sings of or to Cherubino—in music that is often not unlike that with which Servilia sings of Annio in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito—leaves no doubt of which suitor has won Inez’s heart. Like several of her colleagues, Ms. Feola is particularly charismatic in ensembles, voicing her lines with ardor. All things considered, Ms. Feola is a thoroughly suitable center of attention for I due Figaro, her Inez proving a thoughtful and musically winning creation.

It was for his greedily vindictive would-be prima donna, la Cortesi, that the rôle of Susanna was written, and both her prominence in the drama and the quality of her music make it apparent that Mercadante was dealing with a lyric coloratura soprano he felt obliged to please. Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto sings the part stylishly. Having studied with both Mirella Freni—whose bel canto performances are unaccountably neglected in assessments of her legacy—and Luciano Pavarotti, Ms. Buratto brings to I due Figaro impressive credentials, including performances of Mozart’s Susanna. Not surprisingly considering the circumstances of the genesis of I due Figaro, Susanna has the opera’s most celebrated aria, the bolero ‘Colle dame più brillanti,’ which is sung with vivacity and technical aplomb by Ms. Buratto. Even Susanna shines most brightly in ensembles, though, and the vocal freedom with which Ms. Buratto voices the top lines in ensembles is refreshing. It could be argued that Susanna, as in Le nozze di Figaro, is the only character who, though threatened, is in complete command of her destiny, and the music that Mercadante composed for her has an immediacy—an authentically Spanish quality of sauciness, so to speak—that music for the other characters lacks. Ms. Buratto’s well-schooled technique enables her to focus on details of characterization, and she combines intelligent musical choices with dramatic attitudes that aptly convey Susanna’s moods. If Inez is the spine that supports I due Figaro, Susanna is the opera’s heart, and Ms. Buratto knows this: her expressivity is both individual and responsive to the singing of her colleagues. Difficulties in Mercadante’s score little trouble Ms. Buratto, and the beauty of her singing distinguishes her in an unusually consistent cast.

One challenge of this recording is born of the performance featuring a cast of such young singers: identification in ensembles of which voices are the older characters and which are the younger ones can be difficult. This is a small price to pay for vocal freshness across the board, however, and these young singers do their all to make their lines discernible and their characters three-dimensional. It cannot be denied that, despite his achievements as a musical and dramatic innovator, Mercadante is not a composer who can be regarded as an equal of Mozart, Rossini, or Donizetti. It is unfair to describe him merely as a gifted craftsman, too: hearing I due Figaro brings to mind Richard Strauss’s anecdote about being a first-rate second-tier composer. I due Figaro is not comparable to a masterwork by Verdi or Wagner, but Maestro Muti presides in this performance over a cast of a quality that can hardly be encountered in performances of Verdi’s and Wagner’s opera in any of the world’s better opera houses today. This fetching recording confirms anew that, when performed with zest, a forgotten opera can be very memorable.

Joseph Newsome

SAVERIO MERCADANTE (1795 - 1870): I due Figaro o sia Il soggetto di una commedia—A. Poli (il Conte di Almaviva), A. Karayavuz (la Contessa), R. Feola (Inez), A. Stroppa (Cherubino), M. Cassi (Figaro), E. Buratto (Susanna), A. Zorzi Giustiniani (Torribio), O. Montanari (Plagio); Philharmonia Chor Wien; Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini; Riccardo Muti [Recorded ‘live’ at the Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna, Italy, on 24 and 26 June 2011; Ducale DUC 045-47; World Première Recording]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/I-Due-Figaro.gif image_description=DUC 045-47 product=yes product_title=Saverio Mercadante: I due Figaro product_by=A review by Joseph Newsome product_id=Ducale DUC 045-47 [3 CDs] price=$37.48 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B00BJ9AYHU
Posted by Gary at 8:17 AM

Rossini Maometto Secondo at Garsington Opera - David Parry speaks

"It's a masterpiece", he says. "It's great music drama, with a strong story presented very clearly. There are four main characters - not many for a Rossini opera - and each of them are conflicted in interesting ways. Rossini writes big musical constructions so there is an epic feeling about the piece, and the scenes are very animated".

Two empires collide in Maometto Secondo. The Ottoman Turks have conquered Constantinople and now are poised to control the western Mediterranean. They have besieged the Venetian outpost at Negroponte. Both Maometto II and Paolo Erisso, the garrison commander, were historical figures, although their portrayal in the opera is fiction. Anna, Erisso´s daughter, is expected to marry a Venetian hero, Calbo, but has fallen in love with a mysterious stranger. When the Turks capture the fortress, the stranger turns out to be the Sultan himself, who had been disguised as a spy. Torn between love and loyalty, Anna kills herself. Rossini expresses her turmoil in a long passage of extreme coloratura with stunning effect.

"All the parts are written with amazing coloratura passages, but that´s not simply for display", adds Parry. "It is a dramatic device. Its principal function is to push singers to the edge of their abilities to project the extreme situations they are singing about".

"Rossini knew the singers he worked with in Naples very well, and knew what he could expect from them. His first Anna, who premiered the role, was Isabella Colbran, whom he later married. Fillipo Galli, who sang Maometto, had a range of over two octaves and was one of the most celebrated basses of the time"

"I have heard many difficult operas in my life, but Maometto Secondo is one of the most demanding for voice. Between the 1830´s and the 1980´s, the opera wasn´t performed because singing was absorbed into the Wagner/Verdi/Puccini nexus where volume and heft were prized, and rightly so, but it was at the expense of flexibility and the ability to sing long decorative runs. Maria Callas started the ball rolling again for bel canto. She could fill a house with Isolde yet also sing Norma and Elvira." She defined it not as "good singing" but as an aesthetic based on discipline and good taste. "When she was interviewed by Lord Harewood in 1967, she told him that all singers should be able to do coloratura. `If you can´t do coloratura, you can´t sing´. I completely concur with that. It´s as if a pianist were to say he could only play chords but not progressions. Now singers are trained to sing different styles, and we can again cast operas like this".

Garsington Opera at Wormsley is using the new critical edition of Maometto Secondo compiled by Hans Schellevis, staged for the first time last year in Santa Fe. "It´s scholarly and supported by men like Phillip Gossett. The physical presentation of the old edition was terrible, covered with amendments. It reinstates the original Rossini wrote for the Teatro San Carlo, Naples in 1820. When the opera was performed in the Teatro La Fenice two years later, he had to revise it with a `happy ending´ to flatter the audience in Venice. Rossini created a third version, Le siège de Corinthe, which is effectively a different opera. The mezzo part is taken by tenor, for example. The new edition we are using at Garsington Opera at Wormsley is definitely the strongest, musically and dramaturgically".

The staging at Garsington Opera will be completely new, directed by Edward Dick with designs by Robert Innes Hopkins. "Rossini was agnostic and the opera is not religious. There are no black and white heroes or villains. It´s a clash of cultures. The Venetian colony was business oriented, devoted to wealth creation, quite buttoned up and repressed. The Turks are much more free and easy, with their bodies and with life in general. So Anna is swept off her feet by this extraordinary free and loving person whose attitudes on life and sex are so different to her parents. But she can´t resolve the conflicts.She commits suicide on stage, which in itself was a shock to the mores of the time".

"Rossini uses a very clear formal structure, but within that there is very expressive music. The atmosphere of each opera is distinctive though the formal procedures are similar. This creative tension between formality and musical content makes the drama interesting. In recitatives, tempi can flow naturalistically. In arias, time is frozen, though the music is continuous. The music prolongs the intentions behind the words that are being sung. Music is the engine of drama in opera. A good libretto helps, but without music, we might as well be listening to a play with sound effects".

David Parry is a charismatic figure, highly respected in British opera circles for his championship of bel canto and other operatic rarities At Garsington Opera, he has conducted so much Rossini that he has helped create its reputation as a specialist Rossini house. He´s also involved with Opera Rara and Chandos Records. He conducted Anthony Minghella´s award-winning Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera. He´s keen on contemporary work as well, and was Music Director of Almeida Opera from 1992.

Rossini´s Maometto Secondo at Garsington Opera at Wormsley runs from 8th June to 10th July. More details are available on the website here. Anna will be sung by Siân Davies, making her European debut. The veteran Paul Nilon, a long term Garsington Opera stalwart, will sing Paolo Erisso.Darren Jeffery will sing Maometto Secondo and Caitlin Hulcup will sing Calbo.

Anne Ozorio

product_title=Rossini Maometto Secondo at Garsington Opera - David Parry speaks
product_by=An interview by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: David Parry in rehearsal for Rossini, Maometto Secondo,(photo courtesy Garsington Opera at Wormsley) credit : Studio Elite

Posted by anne_o at 8:13 AM

June 3, 2013

Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera

But this production apart, Wagner’s most romantic of operas is seen all too rarely, so it was a pleasure to be able to encounter Welsh National Opera’s new production directed and designed by Antony McDonald and conducted by WNO’s music director Lothar Koenigs. The production debuted at a Royal Gala at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on 23 May 2013. I saw it on 1 June.

WNO assembled a cast relatively new to Wagnerian drama rather than using seasoned Wagnerians. Peter Wedd sang Lohengrin, Emma Bell sang Elsa, Susan Bickley sang Ortrud, and Simon Thorpe sang Telramund (standing in for an indisposed John Lundgren). Bell has sung Eva at Covent Garden and has Elisabeth down on the cards, she has also been singing the title role in Fidelio. Wedd has a couple of Wagner roles under his belt (Froh, Amfortas), he has also been singing Florestan. Bickley generated many plaudits for her Brangane with WNO.

Wagner’s protagonists, Elsa and Lohengrin, are both young so having them incarnated by a pair of younger singers represents a dramatic advantage. But the title role in Lohengrin is a notorious graveyard for lyric tenors, requiring significant degrees of stamina and strength. So an exciting cast like this represents a challenge, a risk and a significant investment in the future by WNO.

As a designer/director Antony McDonald has a finely poetic eye and his production was both poetic and in many ways rather daring, mixing grim reality with magic and romance. He set it in the period of the opera’s composition in a 19th century militaristic society at war. Costumes were period, but the setting was a grim run down building, hardly a palace, this was a society on the edge, in the throes of war.

Act 1 took place in a sort of assembly hall, amphitheatre with the chorus raised above in seating, act 2 was in a courtyard of the building, with huge windows giving us a view of the interior of the building, the first scene of act 3 in a rather bleak room and the close of the opera in the same setting as act 1. The size and shape of the set not only gave space for seating for the large chorus, as well as providing focus for the voices. And, despite the grimness, McDonald and his lighting designer Lucy Carder created some moments of visual poetry.

McDonald’s act drop was a projection of romantic, misty landscape; there was another reality outside of Brabant. The two collided when Lohengrin appeared. Many directors choose to fudge the swan and the boat, but here McDonald introduced magic into his grim world. On Lohengrin’s first entry the doors to the amphitheatre swung open and a boat appeared, with a half swan, half body at the prow, Lohengrin behind him and the glimpse of a misty landscape in the distance.

Relatively slight of frame for a Wagner tenor, with bleached blond hair, and an outsize greatcoat over a linen martial arts tunic, and bare feet, Peter Wedd was every inch the enchanted outsider. The effect was magical and this was enhanced when Wedd sang his farewell to the swan, ‘Mein lieber Schwann’, producing some of the most enchanting Wagner singing I have heard in a long time.

Wedd does not have a huge voice and throughout the evening I was aware of him managing it. But he created a strong sense of ‘the other’, the strangeness of this knight from a foreign realm. At key moments his voice was suitably dramatic, the essential core of his voice has interesting dark, almost baritonal elements which are helpful in Wagner roles. In act 2, now equipped in a suit and properly fitting great-coat and shoes, he was properly authoritative. In the narration in act 3, the moment in the opera which is a true test of a tenor’s stamina, he was spellbinding. He started it as just an intimate talk with Elsa but slowly Wedd’s performance grew in power and intensity, to a thrilling climax. Wedd’s Lohengrin was not conventionally heroic and he does not have the ringing thrill of a traditional Siegfried, but intelligence and careful management of his voice ensured that his performance at the end of act 3 was as interesting as at the beginning.

Emma Bell was a warm, touching Elsa, radiant in her narration of the dream but perhaps really rather more maturely womanly than usual. She was certainly a rather stronger person than in some versions, but not less naive, Bell definitely created the impression in act 1 that Elsa was the sort of person who should really get out more. She had an almost evangelical belief in people and their goodness. In fact, in many ways both Elsea and Lohengrin were naifs, neither negotiating the complex society in ideal ways.

Certainly Lohengrin’s expectations of Elsa were unrealistic and in the long scene in act 3 when the denouement plays out, they were two people unused to personal relationships. Despite their professions of love, you just knew that had they succeeded in consummating their relationship it would have been awkward and tentative. This played out in the brilliant ebb and flow of the dialogue between Bell and Wedd, with first one then the other taking the lead and neither really understanding. The conclusion when it came was inevitable and heartbreaking.

Ortrud seems a role which Susan Bickley seems born to play. During the long act 1 proceedings, when Ortrud was present but silent, Bickley looked magnificent in a floor length coat (covering a fabulous full skirted red dress) and radiated superior disdain. This was an icy controlled Ortrud, spitting vitriol when she did let go.

WNO-Lohengrin-02.gifSusan Bickley as Ortrud

At the start of act 2, McDonald had Bickley and Simon Thorpe’s Telramund in what seemed to be a service courtyard of the building along with the rubbish. Whilst Ortrud harangued Telramund with her tongue, above we could see the shadows of Elsa and Lohengrin in the windows in public and private events in the palace. Bell sang her lovely act 2 solo from one of these windows and her dialogue with Bickley started with Bell leaning out of the window. Bickley was at her most seductive here, rarely can Ortrud’s music have been so beautifully sung, but with such control. Bickley showed us what this really cost Ortrud.

In a completely magical touch, McDonald showed Elsa in her bridal gown walking through the illuminated palace (the first floor windows now open) in a simple but lovely effect. Ortrud’s appearance in the procession, in a dark green shot silk gown with a bodice which looked like a breastplate, was a magnificent example of control and disdain. Her interruption of the bridal procession was superb in the concentrated hate and vitriol. Bickley’s voice is not of the huge dramatic mezzo type, but her wonderful laser focus ensured that every note counted.

Simon Thorpe was originally to play the Herald, but took over Telramund. He sang robustly, he was another naif, a bluff man who really did trust Ortrud. In the face of Bickley’s brilliant Ortrud, he did not stand a chance. Thorpe created a strong dramatic moment when he too interrupted the bridal procession to shout his own invective.

Matthew Best made a strong, robust King Henry, clearly shocked and bewildered at the goings on. Rhys Jenkins made a strong replacement as the Herald.

An additional palpable contribution to the drama was the chorus and they took advantage of the acoustic properties McDonald’s set to give us a superb series of chorus contributions. The people of Brabant were clearly a strong factor in the duchy. It is perhaps stereotypical to say that WNO is known for the excellence of its chorus, but excellent it was and thrilling too.

WNO-Lohengrin-03.gifCast of Lohengrin

Lothar Koenigs brought out both the beauty and the subtlety of the music and the drama. He had the many extra trumpets in the boxes, bringing thrilling drama to the ceremonial moments. The care that he took to support his cast should not be underestimated. The Wales Millennium Centre has a wide open pit but there was never a feeling of the principals having to strain to get over the orchestra. I did wonder whether tension sagged in the longer sections such as the middle of act 1, with Koenigs paragraphs not quite building to larger sections.

Despite the grim setting, there were many poetic moments with McDonald aided by Lucy Carter’s superb lighting. It is amazing how beautiful even the grimmest setting can be made to look.

I found the production to be utterly absorbing in a way that few recent Wagner productions have been. I look forward to hearing Peter Wedd and Emma Bell in more Wagner, but here with Antony McDonald’s intelligent production, Susan Bickley’s incredible Ortrud and supported by Lothar Koenigs, they brought a freshness to this most romantic of operas.

Robert Hugill

Production and cast information:

Herald: Rhys Jenkins, King Henry: Matthew Best, Telramund: Simon Thorpe, Elsa: Emma Bell, Lohengrin: Peter Wedd, Ortrud: Susan Bickley: Gottfried: Thomas Rowlands / Daniel Williams. Director & designer: Antony McDonald. Conductor: Lothar Koenigs. Lighting designer: Lucy Carter. Movement director: Philippe Giraudeau. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Saturday, 1 June 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/WNO-Lohengrin-01.gif image_description=Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera] product=yes product_title=Lohengrin, Welsh National Opera product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Emma Bell as Elsa and Peter Wedd as Lohengrin

Photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Welsh National Opera
Posted by anne_o at 3:20 AM

June 2, 2013

Philip Glass: The Perfect American

This is not classic Glass, but some plastic imitation. Walt Disney's life would make fantastic drama. Phelim McDermott and Improbable give us wonderful visual images. But Glass and his librettist Rudy Wurlitzer seem to have lost the plot. The Perfect American should have been a silent movie.

As Disney discovered, cartoon characters come alive when they tell a good story. Cartoons are static images, thousands of frames meticulously drawn by hand. They only come alive when a machine runs them in sequence. Movement is illusion. Glass's music can work as drama. His whirring repetitions suggest the mechanical processes used in film. We can "hear" whirring of the camera, and imagine the way individual cells of film are transformed when the projector rolls. Glass makes the connection between cartoons and trains. Both run on tracks, both are inanimates transformed by machine. Thousands of illustrators worked on Disney's films but their work only became art when he processed it. In theory, Philip Glass could have made good music to fit the subject. But even by his own standards, The Perfect American feels like a tired re-run.

There's nothing wrong with repetition per se, but here it's an excuse to pad out a marginal story line. The Perfect American might work as drama if it were cut down to, say, 60 minutes, distilling it down to the essentials. Glass's In the Penal Colony was powerful because it was so tightly written. You felt like you were inside the infernal machine operated by a demonic entity. It even works as pure music, though the Music Theatre Wales staging was superb. (Read review here and here). This is minimalism free of danger or meaning. It's quite pleasant in its own way, an ideal alternative to sleeping pills or a shot of whisky before bed. But Glass needs focus to concentrate his mind from wandering. Listening to The Perfect American without visuals would, I think, be torture.

The Disney Corporation refused to allow the use of Disney images in the production, but Phelim McDermott gets round this by showing the camera. Its round reels look like Mickey's ears. The projection shaft looks like a mouth.. Just as Disney anthromorphized animals, McDermott turns machine into Mouse. Improbable's group sequences are always notable. The chorus moves like a single organism made from many parts. The chorus helps the figure of Abraham Lincoln move, like a puppet on strings. The political allusions are valid, but curiously undeveloped. The libretto flits from idea to idea without depth or perception.

If Glass were to save The Perfect American as drama, he's be wise to stick to a few strong images and ditch the less relevant. Lincoln (extremely well realized by Zachary James) is worth keeping because McDermott shows him so well, but Disney and Ronald Reagan are innocent indeed compared with the machinations of modern politics. Andy Warhol (John Easterlin) is a character worth saving because Warhol and Disney had so much in common. If Glass's focus is on Disney as visionary artist, there's a lot of potential. But the libretto is fatally diffuse.

Christopher Purves sings Walt and David Soar sings Roy Disney. Good performances but the script lets them down. Both singers have enough musical nous to sing their lines so they flow better than what's in the subtitles. Sometimes, Glass's problems with text work out fine because they emphasize meaning. Mechanical expression squashes human speech. In The Perfect American, the text is just plain dumb. These roles are central. Both Disney brothers were visionaries in their own ways. Whether you like multinational corporations or not, they helped create the genre. Perhaps Glass and his librettist were inhibited by fear of litigation. But the Disneys were remarkable people: the Disney Corporation has nothing to fear. Especially not from a work as inept as this. There is one spark of perception in the text. The Disneys are "hiding behind a mouse and a duck". But that's all. Then the moment is gone.

Soar is an interesting singer, much admired since his early days at WNO. Hopefully we'll hear more of him at the ENO. Donald Kaasch sings William Dantine, the employee fired for organizing a union. As "evidence" that Disney mistreated his employees, it's pretty weak, since far worse things happened and happen still. The Lucy/Josh character (Rosie Lomas) is bizarre. If Lucy is an apparition based on the ghost of an owl Disney killed as a child, there's potential in that too, but the role is so badly drawn (by the librettist, not the singer) that it's a waste of time. We don't really need to know so much about how Disney loved nature. But as my friend exclaimed. "Disney wasn't Janáček!".

An opera that would have been better as silent film? The irony would not have been lost on Walt and Roy. It doesn't matter how you tell a story as long as you have a story to tell in the first place.

Anne Ozorio

For production details see the ENO site.

image_description=Photo by Javier del Real courtesy of English National Opera

product_title=Philip Glass The Perfect American
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Photo by Javier del Real courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by anne_o at 11:10 AM