It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.
Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.
On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.
Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.
Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.
The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.
High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.
Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by
the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.
Described by one critic as “cosmically gifted”, during her tragically short career, American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson amazed and delighted audiences with the spellbinding beauty of her singing and the astonishing honesty of her performances.
Queens, Heroines and Ladykillers: A Tribute to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
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
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.
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