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.
19 Aug 2013
Prom 47: Brahms — A German Requiem
In the first of her two visits to the Royal Albert Hall this summer, Marin Alsop led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and its associated Choir through three nineteenth-century works which are united by their romantic intensity and progression from darkness to light.
It was apparent from the first quiet, probing pulses of the basses,
accompanying the gentle rise and fall of cellos and violas, that the choice of
period-instruments for Brahms’ German Requiem — a work of
magnificent power and spiritual grandeur — was a wise one. Above this mild,
mellifluous platform every word of the Choir of Enlightment’s calm opening
pronouncement was crystalline. This is not a liturgical mass for the dead but
rather a personal testament designed to console the living — it was composed
after the death of the composer’s mother, and inspired also by memories of
his beloved friend, Richard Schumann — and Brahms’ ‘message’ was nobly
evident in the Choir’s opening words: ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen,/ den
sie sollen getröstet werden’ (Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be
comforted). Alsop consistently gave the text — garnered by the composer
himself from Luther’s German Bible and from the Apocrypha — room to speak
without undue force, and the result was a remarkably intense quietude matched
elsewhere by an equally dignified and moving radiance.
The second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras’ (For all
flesh is as grass), began with fateful gravity, the timpani’s dark, funereal
pulses sensitively articulated by Adrian Bending. Legend has it that a
pre-premiere run-through of the first three movements of the Requiem
were somewhat sabotaged by the relentless fortissimo pounding of an
over-enthusiastic timpanist; here, and throughout the work, Bending offered a
master-class in percussion playing, achieving tense restraint, insistent power,
and building to perfectly judged, thrilling climaxes. The movement roved
through alternating passages of despair and resignation before the Choir’s
grandiloquent outburst, ‘Aber des Herrn Wort bleibet in Weigkeit’ (But the
Word of the Lord endureth for ever).
Baritone Henk Neven intoned the opening words of the third movement, 'Herr,
lehre doch mich,/ dass ein End emit mir haben muss’ (Lord, make me to know
mine end, and the measure of my days), with composure tinged with anxiety.
Deftly crafting the humbling exchanges between soloist and chorus, in which
Neven wonderfully conveyed both the fears and hopes which define human
mortality, Alsop effectively controlled the structure and accumulating tension,
before the latter was released by the timpani’s affirmative pedal Ds in the
vigorous, up-lifting — but never bombastic — fugal conclusion, ‘Der
Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand,/ und keine Qual rühret sie an’ (But
the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall be torment
After the joyous simplicity of the subsequent assuring chorus, ‘Wie
lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth’ (How lovely is thy dwelling
place, O Lord of Hosts), the radiant purity of soprano Rachel Harnish’s
graceful, floating lines wonderfully expressed the restful comforts of the
text, a quiet confession of the composer’s faith. Neven’s interchanges with
the Choir in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ (‘Now we have no
dwelling place’) resumed the forward motion, the chorale-like rhythms and
blend of traditional and fresh harmonies driving the music purposefully towards
the fugal conclusion. In the final movement Alsop reasserted the solemn, but
sweet, nobility of the opening bars; the quiet benediction of the close,
‘Selig sind die Toten’ (Blessed are the dead) was deeply affecting.
This was a wonderful performance in which Alsop drew forth the underpinning
mood of the Lutheran chorales which are the foundation for so many of the
melodies, sustaining a consistent aura of lyrical splendour and combining the
movements, which can sometimes feel disparate and lacking a clear dramatic
progression, into a convincing whole.
The programme began with Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Alsop captured
the sombre mood but did not quite sustain the momentum, especially in the
slower developmental central section, and she struggled to gather the various,
sometimes extensive, episodes into a structurally coherent whole. Here the
choice of period instruments seemed less successful, not fully able to summon
the oppressive weight or dynamic contrasts of the composer’s orchestral
canvas. The textures were crisp, however, and there was some beautifully
relaxed piano playing from the horns and woodwind. The surge towards
the terse conclusion was fittingly stormy.
Schumann’s Fourth Symphony completed the programme, in which
Alsop’s tempi were brisker and this helped to define the thematic links
between the movements and create a strong sense of a unified whole. Those who
disparage the composer’s overly dense instrumentation were here refuted by
the lightness and clarity of the OAE’s orchestral conversations and the even
balance of timbres. The dark brooding of the double basses (all eight of them)
was neatly countered by the sheer sonorities of the upper strings and woodwind
solos. An enchanting oboe solo from Michael Niesemann introduced the second
movement, a graceful Romance in which the violins found a translucent
elegance, inspired by some wonderful playing by leader Kati Debretzeni. A
spirited Scherzo gave way to more temperate Trios, before an upwelling into the
robust, exuberant Finale, in which Alsop — who conducted from memory
throughout the concert — demonstrated an energetic enthusiasm which bodes
well for September 7th, when she will become the first woman to
conduct the Last Night of the Proms.
There was much fine playing from the OAE. But, it was the precision and
thoughtful poise of the Choir of Enlightenment which lifted this performance
from ‘good’ to something special.
Cast and production information:
Brahms: Tragic Overture; Schumann: Symphony No. 4 in D
Minor; Brahms: A German Requiem; Rachel Harnisch, soprano; He nk Neven, baritone; Marin Alsop, conductor; Orchestra of the
Age of Enlightenment; Choir of the Enlightenment. Royal Albert Hall, London,
Saturday, 17th August 2013.