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.
11 Jul 2013
Britten: The Canticles
First performed at this year’s Brighton Festival and originally designed for the Theatre Royal Brighton, this multi-media staging of Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles by long-standing collaborators Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable, also had an outing at Snape Maltings Aldeburgh in May this year, and has now arrived on the austere stage of the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House.
Twenty-seven years separate the first and last Canticles and in
some ways these intimate, dense narratives represent a composing life,
exhibiting Britten’s stylistic preoccupations and expressive concerns at
various points in his career. There are certainly musical and thematic links
between the individual Canticles but, performed as a sequence, do they
cohere? In a programme article, Paul Kildea finds common ground in their
dramatic concentration, their ‘opulent’ poetic language, and the fact that
each Canticle is dedicated, ‘in name or spirit, to one of Britten’s
By assigning each Canticle to a different director, Bartlett and
Constable perhaps make their task even more difficult; then there is the
further problem that, with their varying moods and energies, when performed in
sequence the Canticles do not form a naturally persuasive dramatic
Bartlett remarks that the Canticles ‘get a great deal out of the simplest
musical resources, they excavate extraordinary and multiple levels of sense
from their words’. And so they do; the rich textual imagery is translated
into densely evocative music, which is why they do not need further visual
accompaniment. Indeed, concrete embodiments of Britten’s musical images risk
either distracting from the musical performances, or being ignored as the
audience focuses inevitably on the medium which expresses the composer’s
meaning most directly - especially when it is communicated through vocal and
instrumental performances as powerful as those heard here.
Such problems were most apparent in the first Canticle, ‘My
Beloved is Mine’, a setting of text adapted from theSong of Solomon.
Written for and first performed by Peter Pears, this is a lyrical, joyful
celebration of love and sexual passion. Ian Bostridge’s beautifully unfolding
raptures faded sweetly into relaxed whisperings; alongside this Bartlett
offered a mundane morning routine, as two men (actors Peter Bray and Edward
Evans) enjoyed a demure breakfast before departing for a day in the office.
Presumably Bartlett wished to suggest a natural, everyday union of the
spiritual and the sexual, but the darkness which divided the stage, separating
the music from its visual interpretation, embodied the huge chasm between the
expressive register of the music and the mime.
Scott Graham’s balletic interpretation of the second Canticle, a
retelling of the biblical father-son drama, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, was less
intrusive, the tender gestures of his two dancers (Chris Akrill and Gavin
Persand) forming a reserved yet affecting dramatization of the narrative as
recounted and enacted by the richly blending voices of Bostridge and
countertenor Iestyn Davies.
Julius Drake and Ian Bostridge
The third Canticle, ‘Still Falls the Rain’, was accompanied by John
Keane’s video illustration of the manufacture of weaponry and the carnage
wrought by aerial bombardment juxtaposed with Christian iconography. The visual
oppositions and associations were an apt expression of Edith Sitwell’s
vehement poem with its bitter diction and insistent repetitions. Moreover, the
striking visual contrasts complemented the musical antagonism of voice and
horn, as Bostridge’s hesitant, lamenting ‘refrain’ meandered seemingly
unaware of Richard Watkins’ eerie horn calls from afar, until the two strands
united peacefully at the close. But, the images were an adjunct rather than
integral; to be glanced at but not too deeply reflected upon, for it was the
music which commanded one attention and shaped one’s emotions.
The fourth Canticle involved no extraneous diversions, and for this
reason Constable’s presentation of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’
was the most powerfully suggestive. Bostridge and Davies were joined by
baritone Benedict Nelson, and the three singers, weary travellers with scuffed
suitcases by their sides, reflected hauntingly on their life-journey, which has
brought them not knowledge, understanding and faith, rather anxiety,
incomprehension and disenchantment.
Britten returned to Eliot in the final Canticle, a setting of
‘The Death of St Narcissus’. Responding to Eliot’s lines, ‘So he became
a dancer to God/ Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows/ He
danced on hot sand/ Until the arrows came’, Wendy Houstoun presented a single
dancer (Dan Watson) spinning ceaselessly, as if spurred on by the troubling
dissonances between Bostridge’s striving melodies and the eloquent
interjections of Sally Pryce’s harp. In the final moments, harp and voice
were reconciled, as the dancer’s spirals and the harp’s expansive ringing
octaves faded into the oblivion of shadows.
Musically this was a stunning performance, underpinned by the intelligent,
responsive piano accompaniment of Julius Drake. Singers and instrumentalists
unfailingly communicated the urgent drama of each Canticle,
sensitively alert to every contradiction and inference. No more was needed.
There are two further performances at the Linbury Studio,
ROH, on 11th and 12th July, at 7.45pm.
Cast and production information:
Ian Bostridge: tenor; Iestyn Davies: countertenor; Benedict Nelson:
baritone; Julius Drake: piano; Richard Watkins: horn; Sally Pryce: harp; Neil
Bartlett: Scott Graham: John Keane: Paule Constable: Wendy Houstoun: directors;
Edward Evans: Peter Bray: actors; Chris Akrill and Gavin Persand (from Ignition
Physical Theatre): Dan Watson: dancers. Royal Opera House, London, Wednesday
10th July 2013.