09 Jun 2013
Les Contes d’Hoffmann in San Francisco
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
Lyric Opera of Chicago staged Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette as the last opera in its current subscription season.
‘The plot is perhaps the least moral in all opera; wrong triumphs in the name of love and we are not expected to mind.’
Anthony Minghella’s production of Madame Butterfly for ENO is wearing well. First seen in 2005, it is now being aired for the sixth time and is still, as I observed in 2013, ‘a breath-taking visual banquet’.
This concert version of La straniera felt like a compulsory musicology field trip, but it had enough vocal flashes to lobby for more frequent performances of this midway Bellini.
As poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry.
From experiments with musique concrète in the 1940s, to the Minimalists’ explorations into tape-loop effects in the 1960s, via the appearance of hip-hop in the 1970s and its subsequent influence on electronic dance music in the 1980s, to digital production methods today, ‘sampling’ techniques have been employed by musicians working in genres as diverse as jazz fusion, psychedelic rock and classical music.
On May 7, 2016, San Diego Opera presented the West Coast premiere of Great Scott, an opera by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. McNally’s original libretto pokes fun at everything from football to bel canto period opera. It includes snippets of nineteenth century tunes as well as Heggie's own bel canto writing.
A foiled abduction, a castle-threatening inferno, romantic infatuation, guilt-laden near-suicide, gun-shots and knife-blows: Andrea Leone Tottola’s libretto for Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, certainly does not lack dramatic incident.
Opera as an art form has never shied away from the grittier shadows of life. Nor has Manitoba Opera, with its recent past productions dealing with torture, incest, murder and desperate political prisoners still so tragically relevant today.
Published in 1855 as an entertainment for his two daughters, William Makepeace Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring is a burlesque fairy-tale whose plot — to the author’s wilful delight, perhaps — defies summation and elucidation.
What more fitting memorial for composer Peter Maxwell Davies (d. 03/14/2016) than a splendid performance of The Lighthouse, the third of his eight works for the stage.
I suspect that many of those at the Wigmore Hall for The King’s Consort’s performance of the La Senna festeggiante (The Rejoicing Seine) were lured by the cachet of ‘Antonio Vivaldi’ and further enticed by the notion of a lover’s serenade at which the generic term ‘serenata’ seems to hint.
Having enjoyed superb singing by a young cast of soloists in Classical Opera’s UK premiere of Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso the previous evening, I was delighted that the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards Final at the Wigmore Hall confirmed the strength and depth of talent possessed by the young singers studying in and emerging from our academies and conservatoires.
On February 7, 1786, Emperor Joseph II of Austria had brand new one-act operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri performed in the Schönbrunn Palace’s Orangery.
Those poor opera lovers in Cologne have a never ending problem with the city’s opera house. Together with the rest of city, the construction of the new opera house is mired in political incompetence.
London remains starved of Wagner. This season, its major companies offer but two works, Tannhäuser from the Royal Opera and Tristan from ENO.
Dmitry Bertman’s hilarious staging of Rimsky-Korsakov’s political sex-comedy The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf.
On April 16, 2016, San Diego Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s sixth opera, Madama Butterfly, in an intriguing production by Garnett Bruce. Roberto Oswald’s scenery included the usual Japanese styled house with many sliding doors and walls. On either side, however, were blooming cherry trees with rough trunks and gnarled branches that looked as though they had been growing on the property for a hundred years.
New Co-Production Tristan und Isolde with Metropolitan: Simon Rattle and Westbroek electrify Treliński’s Opera-Noir.
In an operatic world crowded with sure-fire bread and butter repertoire, Opera San Jose has boldly chosen to lavish a new production on a dark horse, Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?
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.
Steven 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.
Irene 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.
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.