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.
22 Sep 2013
Mefistofele in San Francisco
Here is the exception. The revival of an old opera production need not always be perceived as an expedient (read cheap) solution to getting a season of opera put together, but may pass instead as an artistically thoughtful choice.
Just now San Francisco Opera has presented Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, in a 25 year old production by Canadian stage director Robert Carsen who was 34 years old at its premiere in Geneva in 1988. Carsen’s production, designed by Michael Levine (who was 27 years old back in 1988), is brilliantly witty. Maybe its racy titillations (bared female breasts and exposed male genitalia) were racier back in the ’80’s than they are now but they still brightly illuminate Mefistofele as one of opera’s more bizarre artifacts.
What the Carsen production did not have at its 1989 premiere in San Francisco was conductor Nicola Luisotti whose exuberant showmanship and spectacular musical making have found, finally, an opera production that is their match. It is no secret that the glories of the Luisotti pit frequently dwarf what is on the stage in San Francisco, or more often ignore the intentions of the stage, meager may they be these days. Here however the Boito, Carsen and Luisotti collaboration was one clearly envisioned in heaven.
The 1860’s were heady times in Paris and Milan, Offenbach was at the peak of his fame making fun of both love and antiquity sparing, strangely, religion. In Milan however there were a few outrageous poets (messy haired ones) who took on anything sacred to the Italians, be it personal appearance, God or Goethe. One of them (these scapigliature) was Arrigo Boito, 26 years old in 1868, who deftly extracted a few passages from the bible of bourgeois Romanticism, i.e. Goethe’s Faust and construed them to cruelly satirize nineteenth century self-fulfillment aspirations.
Patricia Racette as Margherita and Ramón Vargas as Faust
These were not modest times operatically — Verdi’s Don Carlo comes in 1867. The fully developed 19th century Italian sound was widespread as evidenced by the many composers who contributed to the Messa per Rossini (1869). A man of letters and a man of his times Boito could write music as well as librettos. The operas Mefistofele and Nerone are his musical legacy. Their style is typically Italian of the period, warmed somewhat with oltralpe sonorities (beyond the Alps means Wagnerian, a dirty word in Italy just then). It is good music.
Obviously Boito’s Mefistofele is massive, given it addresses the always important struggles of good and evil. God and the Devil confront one another, Faust is in between, Marguerite is pathetic and Helen of Troy is untouchable. Robert Carsen manages all this with enough supernumeraries to turn a village fair into a Chinese New Year of the Snake running amok in the Garden of Eden, a huge chorus of nymphs and satyrs is unleashed into an out-of-control bacchanal, and a pristine ballet revels to the beauty of classical architecture shining in an hyper elaborated harp solo. All of this overseen by a massive chorus of heavenly angels who are joined by legions of cherubim at the moments when the glory of God rises to its utmost clamor.
Needless to say everyone has a very good time, most of all maestro Luisotti who can unleash the forces of heaven themselves in massive choirs of praise as well as confront God with outright derision — those two piccolos screaming over the orchestra were only some of the whistles you heard (the fischio [whistle] is obvious derision in Italy), the rest were real. In spite of being condemned to death even poor Marguerite has a good time — her aria is one of the splendors of the soprano repertory. It was in fact an exquisite duet with the maestro, the diva in quite fine voice at the third performance.
Carsen’s indulgence of affection for Boito’s youthful escapade was sweetened by the casting of Mexican tenor Ramon Vargas as Faust. His is a voice of great beauty still most at home in the light lyric repertory (he was San Francisco’s Nemorino). At 53 years of age Vargas now takes on heavier roles, like Boito’s Faust as well as Gustavo III in Un ballo in maschera last summer at Orange. Here he sang with consummate style and musicianship, and with the maestro made a quite moving declaration of love to Helen. Nonetheless he remains a miniature tenor for the big repertory and therefore could perfectly embody a pretend Romantic hero caught up in all this fun.
Much the same can be said for the Mefistofele of Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. He gave a maximally effective performance, vocally and histrionically. In fact Mr. Abdrazakov was absolutely adorable as a pretend villain whose sole purpose is to give rise to lots of fortissimo music. While it surely was expedient to cast Adler Fellow Marina Harris as Helen of Troy it was not appropriate. However fine a young singer may be it is rare that an Adler Fellow may have the presence, personality and experience to hold the stage in a major role. After all, San Francisco Opera boasts that it performs on the international level. Or does it?
The Robert Carsen/Michael Levine production is huge, and hugely fun. It is a masterpiece that was well worth reviving. If you miss it just now in San Francisco you can catch it at the Met in 2015 (conductor and cast not yet announced). And, uhm, it was anything but cheap to get this production back on the stage after twenty five years of travel.
Cast and production information:
Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov; Margherita: Patricia Racette; Faust: Ramón Vargas; Elena: Marina Harris; Marta: Erin Johnson; Pantalis: Renée Rapier; Wagner/Nereo: Chuanyue Wang. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production: Robert Carsen; Stage Director: Laurie Feldman; Choreographer: Alphonse Poulin; Set and Costume Design: Michael Levine; Lighting Design: Gary Marder. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. September 14, 2013.