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