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.
30 Jul 2013
Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?
One can only imagine the small-ad: “exquisite small italianate water garden wishes to meet pastoral “little opera” in intimate setting, small cast and orchestra ideal, with music of delightful poise and accessibility.
Nymphs and shepherds preferred. Giants only by invitation”. However, as with
small ads, you don’t always get what you expect.........of which more anon.
The second surprise about Iford Arts’ current sell-out run of Handel’s
Acis & Galatea is that they haven’t presented it since way back
in the year 2000 - and if ever a place called out for a certain production it
is the pastoral paradise that is Iford Manor with its garden designed by Peto
and mock-classical cloister micro-theatre. Handel showed early his skills at
word-painting, even in the “foreign” language of English, and the elegantly
melodic lines must have equally perfectly suited the piece’s first
performance at Cannons, Edgware, the country home of James Brydges, later
1st Duke of Chandos, for whom he wrote the music for Acis
in the year 1717-18.
Much has been written about the origins of the libretto (John Gay, with
contributions by Alexander Pope and others) and how in fact the story is a mix
of myth and fabrication which has caught the public’s imagination down
through the centuries. No other Handel opera has been so constantly on the
stage and in the repertory. In his lifetime alone it is recorded that
Acis was performed no less than fifty times - an amazing number for
those days. Of course the length (a modest 90 minutes or so), small forces
required (4 or 5 soloists depending on version, with equally small chorus), and
little in the way of big scene-changes might have contributed to this longevity
and popularity but I doubt they were the deciding factors. The sheer beauty of
Handel’s melting melodies and hummable tunes must be of equal importance as
the many tuneful arias follow fast upon each other with little in the way of
The Sunday night performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and
soloists certainly did not disappoint, even if the English weather kept
everyone on their toes - after all, bubbling brooks need to be replenished even
in Arcady and the River Frome is close by a garden full of its own tumbling
waters. As before here, the tiny performance space brought out the best in
terms of creativity and imagination on the part of director Pia Furtado and
designer Georgia Lowe and this is where the evening took an unexpected turn:
yes, there were elegant costumes suggesting 18th century pastoral
fun and games with silk stockings, masks and frock coats - but why does
sensible, pragmatic Damon (bit of kill-joy usually) have his faced glittered
like a New Romantic of the 1980s? And why is he the only one wearing bright red
among a throng of cream and white? And why is one of the elegantly dressed
ladies of the chorus obviously a man in drag? And why does Galatea, our
demi-goddess water sprite, appear caged like a pole dancer in a sleazy
“gentlemen’s” club? As the story of poor Acis’ doomed love progresses
we realise that this production isn’t going to give us that nice warm cuddly
feeling come the end that we might expect. No, Furtado’s vision is very
different and refreshingly so. In this version of Arcady there’s something
rather nasty lurking in the river bank and it isn’t just that wicked lustful
giant Polythemus; no, it’s all choreographed like a sex-show in the
aforementioned club and although poor helpless Galatea manages to transform the
dead Acis into a little stream, that’s about all she can do - for in the
final scene she is returned to her gilded cage to be ogled and pawed over once
again. Is this a post-feminist statement? Or just a witty imaginative take on a
very old story? Come the end, after applause long and loud for the excellent
cast and musicians, each member of the audience seemed to have a different view
and maybe that’s exactly what was intended.
Ben Hulett as Acis and Chris Turner as Damon
Galatea was sung by the excellent young soprano Mary Bevan who used her
agile voice with confidence and colour, and indeed some powerful emotion such
as in “must I my Acis still bemoan....” whilst nimbly leaping in and out of
wells, in various degrees of undress. If we missed some of the more technical
demands which Handel places on his soprano - the trills in her opening aria
“Hush, ye pretty warbling quire” - were somewhat lacking, this talented
young performer made up for it with affecting characterisation and smooth
Tenor Ben Hulett is another young British singer on the way up and the role
of Acis certainly showed off his range with some limpidly elegant singing at
the top of his voice which nailed the essence of Handel’s writing for this
most sympathetic of characters. His “Love in her eyes sits playing” was a
bewitching moment, but the darker elements of his voice also worked well in the
second half. Like Bevan, he is due to make his debut at the Royal Opera House
soon and with singing like this, he should make a real impact in the lighter
Our not-so-friendly giant Polythemus was beautifully cast in the form of
bass Lukas Jakobski whose impressive frame of six feet plus several inches and
shaven head brought the required dramatic impact onto the scene. He nicely
caught the essence of giant-ness with a rolling wide-spread gait and
slowed-down body movements whilst his rich bass coped nimbly with the faster
passages such as that old favourite of Victorian parlours “O ruddier than the
Last but not least of the soloists was our slightly surprising Damon, ably
sung by tenor Christopher Turner with some interesting stage business not
usually associated with this role - one got the idea that he was perhaps some
kind of Master of Ceremonies in this over-heated erotic world of myth and
legend, rather than just the voice of reason. The idea certainly worked well
and suggested an interesting alternative structure for the drama. His
“Consider, fond shepherd” was particularly well-sung and in its inflections
suggested more than an entirely altruistic motive.
The chorus and dancers, seven in total, made excellent use of the tiny space
available and only occasionally seemed to overwhelm the soloists physically -
there’s a finite limit at Iford as to how many bodies can work effectively in
that cloister. They all worked and sang well as a company, coping efficiently
with the fast costume changes imposed on poor Galatea (mainly stripping off her
clothes it seemed), nipping in and out of the exits as required and only
occasionally treading on any feet incautiously left out by patrons.
Christian Curnyn has had a good year with award-winning recordings, and his
Early Opera Company goes from strength to strength both here and abroad with
composers as varied as Monteverdi, Mozart, Britten, Cavalli and of course
Handel. Working with a force so much smaller than normal here at Iford must be
both a challenge and a delight, and it shows. Handel’s music is second nature
of course to this band but Curnyn never lets that familiarity roll over into
routine - lively and detailed playing is expected and achieved.
This was certainly an Acis & Galatea to remember and as the
gardens emptied, and lights dimmed in the little cloister, the only sound left
was that of the “gentle murm’ring stream” below, winding through the
pastures of Wiltshire. And maybe the sound of a weeping water-sprite, back
again in her gilded cage.
G.F. Handel: Acis & Galatea. A New Iford Festival Opera Production.
Libretto: John Gay. Sung in English. Iford Festival Opera, England. July 28th 2013.