October 31, 2013

Wexford Festival 2013

Doomed love and desperation inevitably drive many of the operatic protagonists to commit tragic acts, but, alleviating the despair, one man’s determination to be married results in a mad-cap dash around Paris in search of a Florentine straw hat.

The real ‘find’ of this Festival is undoubtedly Jacopo Foroni’s Cristina, Regina di Svezia, (seen on 25th October) first performed in 1849 and rarely heard since. Foroni was of Veronese birth but spent most of his working life in Sweden, introducing the Swedes to the latest works by Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi, before his own untimely death in 1849 during a cholera epidemic. On the evidence offered by Stephen Medcalf’s outstanding production of Cristina, Foroni was just as blessed with melodic and orchestrational gifts as were his better-known Italian compatriots.

Cristina was presumably intended to endear him to audiences in his newly chosen land. Set in the Tre Kronor castle in Stockholm, the opera presents the historic events leading to the abdication of Queen Cristina of Sweden in 1654, and depicts a knotted web of unrequited and frustrated love.

Cristina_02.gifCast of Cristina, regina di Svezia

The Lord High Chancellor, Axel Oxenstjerna, accompanied by his son, Erik, has brokered a peace treaty to end the Thirty Years’ War, and at a public celebration of peace, Cristina rewards her loyal servant by announcing that Erik is to be given the hand of Maria Eufrosina, the Queen’s cousin, in marriage. Maria and her beloved Gabriele de la Gardie are less than delighted with this arrangement, but when Gabriele, who is himself the object of the Queen’s affections, suggests that they should elope, Maria desists, reminding Gabriele of the loss of honour that such an act would occasion. Maria’s hopeless weeping is interrupted by the Queen’s arrival; despatching Maria before the latter can explain the cause of her tears, Cristina then tells Gabriele of her hopes that they can rules Sweden together; she is unaware that Arnold Messenius and his son, Johan, are secretly plotting to overthrow her.

At the wedding, Maria is unable to go through with the ceremony and confesses that she loves another; when pressured by the Queen, she identifies her beloved as Gabriele. Furious, Cristina vows that Gabriele will be exiled; Messenius and his son now hope to recruit Gabriele to their seditious cause.

Meanwhile, Carlo Gustavo, Cristina’s cousin and the heir to the throne, has heard of the planned treachery and arrives on the island of Öland to infiltrate the conspirators, who now include Gabriele. Axel urges Cristina to accept Gustavo’s love and rule with him, but the Queen has become despondent and tells Axel of her wish to renounce the throne. When the rebels storm the castle, Gustavo declares that he will defend Cristina; subsequently, Gabriele, Messenius and Johan, are brought before Cristina who condemns the traitors, including Gabriele, to death. She tells Gustavo of her plan to abdicate in his favour and live the rest of her life in Italy; he tries to discourage her, and of his wish that they should marry and rule together, but she is adamant.

In the Grand Council chamber, the intriguers are sentenced, but as they are led away to their execution Cristina enters and publically forgives Gabriele, declaring that he may now marry Maria. She announces her own abdication, and places the crown on the reluctant Gustavo’s head. The people swear allegiance to their new monarch.

The life of the real Cristina was certainly filled with events of operatic proportions: thrust into public office from a tender age, following the death in battle of her father, Gustavus Adolphus II, when she was just six years old, she was a strong monarch but an unconventional one. By no means a beauty, and with a hunger for culture and learning considered ‘unfeminine’ during this period, she was stubbornly nonconformist; she refused to marry, dressed in a masculine fashion and indulged her interests in religion, alchemy and science. When she abdicated in 1654 she stunned her country by renouncing her father’s Lutheran faith and converting to Catholicism; however, Cristina did not lose her appetite for power and prestige, attempting to become Queen of Naples in 1656 (she made sure that the man who betrayed her plans was executed), and later seeking the Polish throne.

Cappello_01.gifEleanor Lyons, Fillipo Adami and Owen Gilhooly in Il Cappello di paglia di Firenzie

Foroni’s Cristina is less petulant and extreme - the unruly hair, men’s shoes and epicurean habits are not in evidence - and the focus of Giovanni Carlo Casanova’s libretto is on the loneliness which arises from the burdens of public duty. Indeed, the principals all suffer this inner tussle between personal fulfilment and honourable obligations; thus, during the opening moments of the overture, the passionate embrace of Maria (Lucia Cirillo) and Gabriele (John Bellemer) is interrupted by the arrival of stern officials, and all stiffly assume their places upon imposingly straight-backed Rennie Mackintosh chairs, facing the screen that will shortly announce the momentous political events. Medcalf and his designer, Jamie Vartan, have transferred the action to London during the 1930s, a time when such emotional conflicts would certainly have been recognised by a nation whose monarch had recently put love before duty, thrusting a reluctant sibling onto the throne.

Film sequences during the opening act effectively showcase the parallels. First we have Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement before grateful crowds; then, reversing the historical chronology, the coronation of George VI. The decision to replace seventeenth-century Swedish court life with a more familiar era, and one characterised by formality and decorum, also allows for some superb tableaux - and for some striking Downton Abbey-style costumes. Thus, the curtain rises on an impressively attired chorus of noblemen, soldiers, officials and servants, frozen for the briefest moment before the whirling celebration of peace ensues. Similarly cinematic effects are strikingly deployed in the wedding scene where Maria’s emotional disintegration is charted by a series of flash bulb freeze-frames which shockingly capture her growing despair. Only the archive film of bombing raid fires, shown in the moments preceding the storming of the castle, seemed a little too lengthy.

Vartan’s sets are engaging and ingenuous. After the imperious ceremony of the opening scenes, Act 2 finds Cristina in her private chambers, reflecting on the futility and destructiveness of power, and the art deco panelling, furniture and globe economically whisk us to a 1930s interior. Later, as she determines her future, and that of her nation, we see the Queen seated in her office, raised aloft, thereby emphasising her distance from her subjects and her emotional isolation.

Cappello_04.gifClaudia Boyle and Fillipo Adami in Il Cappello di paglia di Firenze

In many years of visiting Wexford, I don’t think I have ever heard the Wexford Festival Chorus sound better; Foroni’s choruses combine Verdian vigour with occasional contrapuntal complexity, and the massed voices were on top form, producing a rich Italianate tone and singing with total commitment. Paula O’Reilly’s choreography is excellent, making full use of the stage, and the numerous personnel moved with fluency and naturalness. The arrival of Gustavo at the start of Act 2, his parachute descent wittily foreshadowed by some historical war footage, is a masterstroke which drew a gasp of praise. Moreover, the brooding red haze of Paul Keogan’s lighting design throughout the conspirators’ scene looks ahead ominously to the rebellious invasion of the Queen’s castle.

Foroni offers the singers some wonderful cantabile melodies and the cast relished them. As Maria, mezzo soprano Lucia Cirillo displayed a sumptuous tone and crafted beautifully balanced phrases. John Bellemer, who impressed as Sali in Medcalf’s production of A Village Romeo and Juliet at last year’s Festival, was similarly convincing as the impetuous, fervent Gabriele; as he sang of his love for Maria, his tenor was focused and intense, full of drama and feeling. Russian baritone, Igor Golovatenko was a strong Gustavo, resonantly exhibiting his love and loyalty for his Queen. (I had a small misgiving about the final tableau, however; would the steadfast Gustavo, however reluctantly endowed with royalty, immediately overturn Cristina’s last act of clemency and execute the pardoned conspirators - who had, after all, wished to promote Gustavo himself to the throne?)

Bass Thomas Faulkner and tenor Daniel Szeili acquitted themselves well as Messenius father and son respectively; Szeili displayed a tenor voice of great tenderness in a final aria of remorse which was truly moving. As Erik, Irish tenor Patrick Hyland showed great promise. David Stout’s Axel was particularly impressive during his Act 2 interview with Cristina, his well-rounded bass-baritone earnestly pleading with his Queen to marry Gustavo and remain monarch.

In the title role, Australian soprano Helena Dix demonstrated enormous stamina and impressive vocal power and accuracy. Dix has a silky lyric tone and she soared effortlessly in the large choral scenes. But, while her voice has much nobility and poise, I felt that Dix would have benefited from greater direction, for her posture and movements were not always sufficiently ‘regal’; she presided with formality and pomp during the public ceremonial scenes, but was less persuasive during the more personal interactions with her subjects. Dix’s costumes did not help imbue her with imperial majesty. When all around her were attired in elegant evening dress or impeccable uniforms, the Queen was initially robed in a black tent-like gown reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s mourning attire topped off with a blue sash, rather like a pageant princess. Even allowing for insomnia and workaholic restlessness, it is surely unlikely that Cristina would conduct her private meetings in silk pyjamas? And, in the final Act, her dull brown fitted suit and Hartmann suitcase suggested that the Queen had fallen far following her abjuration of the throne. A pity, when there were copious visual delights all around her, and Dix’s own singing won her a greatly deserved ovation.

Conductor Andrew Greenwood had the full measure of the score, ensuring that Foroni’s varied orchestral colours were clearly heard and appreciated, and shaping the surges and lulls with passion and perceptiveness.

With such riches on offer, one wonders why Cristina was not more of a hit? Presumably the Swedes were none too thrilled to be reminded of a monarch who had rejected her people and their faith, while it seems the Italians did not take to Cristina all that warmly either. Hopefully this convincing, imaginative Wexford’s production will put an end to the unjust neglect that Foroni’s terrific opera has endured.

Desire and duty did battle once more in a double bill (27th October) which reminded us of Jules Massenet’s skills as a melodist and also revealed a starker, more brutal idiom than we might expect from this most lyrical of composers.

Thérèse_01.gifScene from Thérèse

Set in Revolutionary France, during the Terror of 1793-94, Thérèse (1907) is a melodrama which pits public against private, loyalty against love. As with Foroni’s Cristina, the eponymous heroine is based on a historical figure, in this case, Lucille Desmoulins who was executed in 1793, eight days after her husband, Camille. In Jules Claretie’s libretto, Thérèse finds herself torn between her allegiance to her husband, André Thorel - a Girondist and man of the people - and her passion for her aristocratic lover, Armand, Marquis de Clerval, who has fled to escape the Revolution. Thorel, the former childhood companion of Armand (his father was the Marquis’ steward), has purchased the Clerval chateau in order that it may one day be returned to his friend. When Armand reappears, still deeply in love with Thérèse, she is torn between her amorous feelings and her fidelity to her marriage vows.

André offers Armand protection within the chateau, and then provides him with a letter of safe passage so that he can escape the revolutionary horror. Emotions rise both in the house and on the streets, and Armand realises that he must leave. As her husband fights at the barricades with the Girondists, Thérèse initially agrees to flee with Armand, but on hearing that André has been captured and is to be executed, she recognises her true duty and cries, ‘Vive la roi!’ Arrested by the incensed Revolutionaries, she is taken to the guillotine, to die by her husband’s side.

In true verismo fashion, the plot is taut and intense: the conflicts are clearly drawn, the emotions pure and deep. The Director-Designer team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe offer a marked twist though: we enter the eighteenth-century revolutionary world through a painterly frame, as curators and conservators in a starkly lit museum restoration workshop, scientifically preserve and renovate ‘the past’ as depicted by the works of art. ‘Stepping out’ of the paintings, the figures from history re-live their former experiences, their desperate emotions and suffering presenting a destabilising contrast to the clinical detachment of the modern scholars as they go about their task of historical reconstruction and repair. This schism between the emotional experience of those in the foreground and the cerebral intellect of those glimpsed beyond is one of the strengths of the concept, and it is enhanced by Paul Keoghan’s arresting lighting designs, the glacial cool of the workshop strip-lights replaced, for example, by a nostalgic yellow glow as Armand and Thérèse recollect their former love. Similarly, the vibrant colours and luxurious fabrics of the eighteenth-century attire contrast robustly with the clinical uniforms and workday attire of the present.

Yet, there are aspects of the staging that are less effective. The interactions between the figures from the past and present at the start of the opera are somewhat confusing and, having immersed ourselves in Thérèse’s fate it is disconcerting to be yanked back to the present when she is carried off to the scaffold not by the Revolutionaries but by technicians in white lab coats. Barbe and Doucet declare their intention to ‘explore the influence of painting on life’, but Thérèse is about life, not art. The strongest juxtaposition in the opera is between the inner life of the private heart and the external world of public politics and strife; it is an opposition which is embedded in the score and one which this production does not make sufficiently evident.

Thérèse_02.gifBrian Mulligan and Nora Sourouzian in Thérèse

At the heart of the score are the passionate exchanges of Thérèse and Arnaud, and French-Canadian mezzo soprano Nora Sourouzian and French tenor Philippe Do prove that they possess the stylishness, lyricism and sensitivity to convey the poetry of these scenes most beautifully. Do has both the strength, though the voice is never forced, to bring a fierce ardour to the passionate high-points and a floating mezza voce which can modulate the emotional fire with sensitivity and lightness. Thérèse’s Act 2 aria, ‘Jour de juin, jour d’été’ was deliciously sweet and exquisitely phrased. Brian Mulligan, as André, made a considerable impact, demonstrating fine stage presence and singing with an open, burnished tone. Damien Pass was very competent in the small role of Morel.

The four principals showed their fortitude and versatility when they returned for the second half of the double bill: La Navarraise, another opera in which the personal and political intertwine, and one which at times seems more characteristic of Mascagni than Massenet.

First performed at Covent Garden in June 1894, La Navarraise is based on a short story,La Cigarette, by Claretie, which the author adapted, in collaboration with Henri Cain. Anita, a poor girl from Navarre, and Araquil, a soldier in the Spanish civil war, are in love but are forbidden to marry by Remigio, Araquil’s wealthy father, unless Anita pays a dowry of two thousand duros. The commander Garrido learns that his friend has been killed by the enemy commander, Zuccaraga, and declares his hatred for the latter; Anita proposes that she will kill Zuccaraga for a sum of two thousand duros, and although he is suspicious of her motives, Garrido agrees. As she approaches the enemy camp, protected by her statue of the Virgin Mary, Anita is observed by the soldier Ramon, who, assuming that Anita is a spy, tells Araquil; the latter fears that she has is visiting a secret lover. Having killed Zuccaraga, Anita runs through the gunfire and collects her reward from Garrido, who makes her swear not tell anyone of her deed.

Araquil, who has been mortally wounded during his search for Anita, demands to know where she has been, but her oath prevents her from speaking out and all she can do is show him the money in the hope that the realisation that they can now marry will quell his anger. Araquil, however, assumes she has prostituted herself, which she vehemently denies. As Remigio arrives with a doctor to tend his son, bells are heard in the distance, and Remigio explains that they are tolling for the assassinated Zuccaraga. Finally understanding the truth, Araquil dies. Anita becomes hysterical, wildly speaking of her forthcoming marriage which she thinks the bells foretell. Desperately seeking a knife with which to commit suicide, she realises that she lost it at the murder scene; all she has is her statue of the Holy Virgin. Before the horrified onlookers she erupts in crazed laughter and falls senseless, as Garrido laments ‘La folie’, the poor mad child.

Navarraise_01.gifNora Sourouzian and Phillipe Do in La Navarraise

Doucet and Barbe once again filter the tale through art, transforming the museum workshop to the Atelier des Grande-Augustins where Picasso painted Guernica. Created in response to the bombing of Guernica, a Basque village in northern Spain, by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of the Spanish Nationalist forces in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, Guernica does indeed provide fitting visual frame for Massenet’s opera, for both works show the violence and chaos of war, and the suffering that it inflicts upon the innocent.

The stage is a collage of out-sized fragments from the painting: the wide-eyed bull; the horse falling in agony, a spear in its side piercing a gaping wound; a human skull and other dismembered body parts; a stigma; flames. Above, the projection of a gilded eighteenth-century chandelier has been replaced by a blazing light bulb in the shape of an evil eye.

The stage space is in fact so cluttered with these artistic fragments that there is hardly room to move, and the personnel are confined to a narrow strip at the front of the stage. The coral, dusty pink and cinnamon hues of the costumes and lighting summon up the rugged mountainous terrain of the region, but overall the ambience feels rather too static and confined.

The singing was, however, as committed as before the interval, with Do and Sourouzian once more a formidable duo, as Araquil and La Navarraise. Sourouzian’s lustrous high register was in evidence, in her Act 1 lament that she will not be able to marry her beloved Araquil; and she had real presence in the fiery outbursts which result in her mad demise. Do, too, showed his resourcefulness, creating a sincere portrait of a man of great strengths and all too human weaknesses; his final words, ‘the price of blood! how horrible!’, as Araquil realises the terrible lengths to which Anita has gone to secure his love, were chilling. Damien Pass was imposing as Remigio, while Brian Mulligan was a credible Garrido.

In the pit, Carlos Izcaray conducted with control, verve and attention to detail; the lyrical stream of melody - there was some lovely solo cello playing - was complemented by timbral bite and dynamic punch.

The third of the Festival’s trio of offerings provided some light relief from the afflictions of social responsibility and unfulfilled love. The Italian composer, conductor, pianist and academic Nino Rota is best known for his film scores, notably for the films of Fellini, Visconti, Zeffirelli, and for the first two films of Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy. Extraordinarily prolific, in addition to his considerable body of film work, Rota composed ballets, orchestral, choral and chamber works, and ten operas, one of which, Il Cappello Di Paglia Di Firenze (1955), director Andrea Cigni presents this year at Wexford (seen 26th October).

The libretto, adapted by Rota and his mother, Ernesta, from a vaudeville by Eugène Labiche and Marc-Antoine-Amédée Michel, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, and which had been filmed in 1928, has a plot which makes the last act of Figaro seem the epitome of clarity and good sense.

On the morning that Fadinard is to be married to Elena, his horse eats a straw hat which belongs to a woman who has evaded the jealous watch of her vicious husband in order to rendezvous with her soldier lover. Confronted with Anaide (distraught - she cannot return home without her hat) and Emilio (her threatening and protective paramour), Fadinard realises he must find a replacement hat, and so sets of on a zany chase across Paris on a mad hatter treasure hunt, dragging deaf uncle, bumptious father-in-law, Nonancourt, and troupe of inebriated wedding guests behind him. Sent by the milliner to the Baronessa di Champigny’s residence, he is mistaken for a violin virtuoso; the Baroness has given the hat to her friend, the wife of Beaupertuis - Anaide - and so, unwittingly, Fadinard is thrown into the enemy’s den. While it rains champagne, the wedding partygoers are happy to party where their dancing shoes whisk them; but when it really rains misery sets in, especially when they are arrested for trespass.

Navarraise_02.gifScene from La Navarraise

Just when all seems lost - when faced with a cancelled marriage, a husband’s pistol and a prison cell - Fadinand is saved by deaf uncle Vézinet’s announcement that his wedding give is a Florentine straw hat - the perfect substitute for Elena’s chomped bonnet, and just what is needed to convince Beaupertuis that she is a wrongly accused innocent. The wedding of Fadinand and Elena can go ahead - and we hope that their future matrimony is not marred by further millinery machinations.

Director Andrea Cigni and Designer Lorenzo Cutùli present us with a front-drop carte postale dated 18th September 1958 which when raised reveals a sloped postage stamp stage, embraced by an assemblage of film and theatre posters which reference aspects of the farce to come: Halle Chapeaux, L’Infidèle by Sheridan and Scott, Chansons sous la pluie, Follies, High Society, Gaines’ Scandale, Revel: Parapluie. All very eye-catching but not much assistance in creating actual locales for the itinerant hat hunters.

Rota’s score is pure opera buffa - referencing the originals, Rossini and Donizetti, and throwing some sardonic twentieth-century spice à la Prokofiev and Stravinsky. Musical quotations and self-quotations abound, the orchestration is sassy, and it all zips along frothily if rather superficially - indeed, one feels that a lot of rhythmic energy is expended with little forward motion.

The problem with this production is that in aiming to make us laugh through caricature, exaggeration and improbability, Cigni gets bogged down in stylisation and extravagance, and things grind to a halt. The tilted stage platform, while allowing for the suggestion of different floors within Fadinand’s house, doesn’t help matters: the slick physical interchanges that farce requires are simply not possible when the chorus is trying to dance on a postage stamp, or principals are negotiating awkward trapdoors. To compensate for the actual lack of physical movement, we have flashing lights and outsized platters of fruit and cupcakes, but this is not sufficient reparation for the lack of a real belly laugh.

That said, Cigni does effectively convey the sense of movement around the city, but he has to take the chorus off the stage and deposit them in the aisles to do so … the rain-soaked, champagne-sozzled revellers made a pitiful trek through the auditorium, prior to the incarceration which would end their carousing. The female chorus excelled, both as hat-sewing seamstresses and resilient socialites.

Conductor Sergio Alapont failed to set things afire - though reliable, there was a lack of lightness and vivacity in the pit - but the singers did their best, although they did not look as if they were having much more fun than we were. Stepping into Fadinand’s shoes at the eleventh hour, tenor Filippo Adami revealed a clear, generous voice and a sure sense of comic timing. Slight of stature, Adami possesses significant stage presence; he played a noteworthy part in keeping the show rolling. His Elena, Irish soprano Claudia Boyle, was all glittery insouciance, prepared to tolerate her groom’s inexplicable goings-on with scarcely a complaint. Australian soprano Eleanor Lyons sparkled with faux naivety as Anaide, while Owen Gilhooly made a strong impression as Emilio, managing to be both menacing and sympathetic at the same time.

In the cameo role of Uncle Vézinet, tenor Aled Hall equipped himself well and exhibited a warm baritone and much dramatic wit; Salvatore Salvaggio’s Nonancourt was rather ponderous - his complaints about his pinching footwear and repeated cries, ‘It’s all off!’, did little to hasten the action forward. Filippo Fontana, as the bitter Beaupertuis, stayed the right side of parody and his focused bass baritone brought some depth to the role; Turkish mezzo soprano Asude Karayavuz enjoyed her turn as the outlandish Baronessa di Champigny, exhibiting a full, rounded tone and endearing comic waggishness.

In addition to the three main house productions, Wexford offered its usual diet of peripheral treats. Of the Short Works, Roberto Recchia’s L’elisir d’amore (26th October) was the most ingenious, transferring the action to a modern-day Irish Karaoke bar - one of the virtues of which was to provide a naturalistic raison d’être for surtitles! The PR media show, complete with Twitter links, which accompanied Dulcamara’s sales pitch was a scream - the only down side was that it distracted from Thomas Faulkner’s accomplished singing. Jennifer Davis relaxed into the role of Adina, singing accurately and with character; and while Patrick Hyland may not yet have the Italianate silkiness which ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ demands, his gentle, sensitive articulation was both intelligent and touching. Ian Beadle was an ostentatious Belcore, and Hannah Sawle produced an appealingly flirtatious lightness as Gianetta. After a slightly weighty start, Musical Director Richard Barker kept things flying along at the keyboard, although at over 90 minutes this was hardly a ‘short’ work.

In 2010, Richard Wargo’s Winners was staged in Wexford, and now we had the opportunity to hear the second part of the musical adaptation of Brian Friel’s two-parter, Losers. Set in the 1960s in the town of Ballymore, County Tyrone, Losers is a deliciously wry send up of religious fanatic fervour and the private destruction it wreaks - was it a coincidence that the premiere (27th October) coincided with the Festival Mass service …? Wargo employs an ear-pleasing idiom mingling Bernstein-like lyricism, the fluency of popular song and Britten-esque timbres (the women’s prayer recalls the soothing textures of the female quartet in The Rape of Lucretia). As the frustrated Hanna Wilson-Tracy, whose duty to mother and church must come before her natural affection for Andy Tracy (Nicholas Morris), Cátia Moresco aroused pity and affection, her heart-warming tone blending touchingly with Morris’s emotive baritone. Eleanor Lyons displayed musical precision and dramatic wit as the oppressive matriarch, Mrs Wilson; Kristin Finnegan and Chloe Morgan made up the fine cast, as the devout Kate Cassidy and her rebellious daughter Cissy, respectively, in a production which inspired mischievous laughs and resigned sighs alike.

Michael Balfe’s The Sleeping Queen was the most excitedly anticipated but perhaps the least satisfying musically of the three Short Works, despite the appealing designs of Sarah Bacon - all orange trees and trellised patios - and the atmospheric lighting of Pip Walsh. There was some fine singing from the young cast, not least from Johane Ansell as the Queen’s maid, Maria Dolores, and tenor Ronan Busfield as the love interest, Philippe D’Aguilar.

Lunchtime recitals in St Iglesias Church provided further musical sustenance. On 25th October Asude Karayavuz, accompanied by Andrea Grant, showed that she would make a fine Carmen, lustrous of tone and teasing of demeanour. In two arias by Massenet she revealed a sultry lower register and excellent French diction, later put to good use in Carmen’s Habanera and Seguidilla. Karayavuz’ Mediterranean sensibility was tapped in songs by Manuel de Falla, which she endowed with a folky silkiness and rueful melancholy. Damien Pass roved far and wide on 26th October, from Britten folk settings to authoritative readings of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, from Duparc’s settings of Baudelaire to Waltzing Mathilda. Pass’s diction was exemplary, in whatever language, and his tone striking - he is not afraid to indulge a whispered piano and can spin a narrative thread most effectively.

Claire Seymour

Casts and production information:

Nino Rota: Il Capello Di Paglia Di Firenza

Fadinard, Filippo Adami; Nonancourt, SalvatoreSalvaggio; Beaupertuis, Filippo Fontana; Lo zio Vézinet, Aled Hall; Emilio, Owen Gilhooly; Felicelen, Leonel Pinheiro; Elena, Claudia Boyle; Anaide, Eleanor Lyons; La Baronessa di Champigny, Asude Karayavuz; Achille di Rosalba, Leonel Pinheiro; La modista, Samantha Hay; Un caporale delle guardie, Nicholas Morris; Una guardia, Ronan Busfield; Minardi, Feilmidh Nunan; Minardi’s Pianist, Richard Barker; conductor, Sergio Alapont; director, Andrea Cigni; assistant director, Roberto Catalano; designer, Lorenzo Cutúli; lighting designer, Paul Keogan.

Jules Massenet: Il Thérèse

Thérèse, Nora Souzouzian; Armand de Clerval, Philippe Do; André Thorel Brian Mulligan; Morel, Damien Pass; Un Officier municipal, Jamie Rock; Un Officer, Raffaele d’Ascanio; Un autre Officier, Padraic Rowan; Une Voix d’Homme, Koji Terada; Une Voix de Femme, Christina Gill.

La Navarraise

Anita, Nora Sourouzian; Araquil, Philippe Do; Garrido, Brian Mulligan; Remigio, Damien Pass; Ramon, Peter Davouren; Bustamente, Koji Terada; Un Soldat, Joe Morgan. Conductor, Carlos Lzcaray; director, Renaud Doucet; assistant director, Sophie Motley; designer, André Barbe; lighting designer, Paul Keogan.

Jacopi Foroni: Cristina

Cristina, Helena Dix; Maria Eufrosina, Lucia Cirillo; Axel Oxenstjerna, David Stout; Erik Oxenstjerna, Patrick Hyland; Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, John Bellemer; Carlo Gustavo, Igor Golovatenko; Arnold Messenius, Thomas Faulkner; Johan Messenius, Daniel Szeili; Un Pescatore, Joe Morgan; Voce Interna, Hannah Sawle; conductor, Andrew Greenwood; director, Stephen Medcalf; assistant director, Conor Hanratty; set designer, Jamie Vartan; lighting director, Paul Keogan; choreographer, Paula O’Reilly.

Wexford Festival Opera, 23rd October - 3rd November 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Cristina_01.gif image_description=Helena Dix as Cristina [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=Wexford Festival 2013 product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Helena Dix as Cristina

Photos by Clive Barda
Posted by Gary at 8:58 AM

October 29, 2013

Florilegium, Wigmore Hall

‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’ (Delightful rest, beloved pleasure of the soul) was composed by Bach for performance in St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, on the sixth Sunday after Trinity and was first heard on 28 July 1726. The text speaks of the desire to lead a virtuous in order to enter Heaven. The opening aria, with its lilting, flowing rhythms, was endowed with a tender, pastoral mood, the oboe d’amore (Alexandra Bellamy) blending soothingly with the strings and organ. Robin Blaze’s pure, even vocal line complemented the instrumental timbre and his delivery was confident and focused, although the text was not always enunciated with absolute clarity. Blaze spun sustained legato lines, particularly in the piano passages, but at times I found the countertenor’s tendency to heighten a particular word or phrase with a sudden crescendo or dynamic emphasis created an overly stark contrast of tone and diminished the effect of the effortlessly unfolding melodic contours.

Expressive contrasts of this nature were, however, put to good use in the following recitative, ‘Die Welt, das Sündenhaus’ (The world, that house of sin), which paints a picture of a sinful earth in league with the devil. Blaze almost snarled as he presented a vision of man who ‘sucht durch Hass und Neid/ Des Satans Bild an sich zu tragen’ (seeks through hate and spite/ The devil’s image e’er to cherish), while his humble address, ‘Gerechter Gott, wie weit ist doch der Mensch von dir entfernet’ (O righteous God, how far in truth is man from thee divided), was hushed and distant, aptly conveying meekness and regret.

The second aria, ‘Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen’ (What sorrow fills me for these wayward spirits) opened with a dry preface, indicative of the speaker’s grief for the ‘wayward spirits’ who have ignored the Word of God. With the continuo line silent, Blaze struggled at times to blend with the rather sparse, and unusual, instrumental texture of two-part organ (now taking an obliggato role) with violins and violas in unison; in the lower pitched passages the countertenor sometimes lacked impact, although Blaze demonstrated virtuosic agility in the more florid passage work.

The following recitative, ‘Wer sollte sich demnach/ Wohl hier zu leben wünschen’ (Who shall, therefore, desire to live in this existence) was dark and eerie; the still chords of the strings and continuo plunged to a lower register to haunting effect, while the strings brought bright movement to the singer’s earnest plea, ‘bei Gott zu leben,/ Der selbst die Liebe heißt’ ([my heart] seeks alone with God its dwelling,/ Who is himself called love).

The rather bleak text of the final aria, ‘Mir ekelt mehr zu leben’ (I am sick to death of living), was mitigated by the glowing warmth of the oboe d’amore and the delicate traceries of the organ’s florid ornamentation (played with assurance by Terence Charlston) which together beautiful embodied the comforts and glory of Heaven. Blaze’s vocal phrases were impassioned but controlled, the lines graceful and flowing, the text imbued with meaning without recourse to melodrama.

Pergolesi’s ‘Salve Regina’ — originally in C Minor for soprano but later adapted for countertenor in F Minor — was composed during the last years of the composer’s short life, when he was in the employ of the Duke of Maddaloni. Suffering from tuberculosis, Pergolesi at times withdrew to a Franciscan monastery in Pozzuoli, Naples, and the ‘Salve Regina’ was written during the composer’s final retreat.

Here, Robin Blaze adopted a more theatrical mode, bringing greater urgency to the text which eulogises the Virgin Mary in a series of contrasting movements. Following a plangent string introduction, the singer issued resonant entreaties to the Virgin, to cast her blessing and mercy on the ‘poor banished children of Eve’ who languish on earth. Blaze’s elongated lyrical lines were deeply expressive of the mourning of mankind, ‘in hac lacrimarum valle’ (weeping in this valley of tears). He brought initially a surprising vigour to his plea, ‘Et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventis tui’ (show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus), then allowed the melody to evolve with poise and sweetness.

A heartfelt cry, ‘O clemens’, opened the final aria, as Blaze conveyed the sincere and solemn emotions of the text, before a final whispered declaration of reverence. Overall, this was a well-considered interpretation, one which balanced dramatic intensity with elegant grace, and which revealed Blaze’s wide-ranging technical expertise.

The vocal items were nested within various instrumental works. In the opening item, Telemann’s Overture in A Minor for Recorder and strings, director Ashley Solomon used an engagingly wide range of dynamics and impressively shaped crescendos to draw in the listener; the melodic lines had an extensive fluidity, while the ‘Air à Italien’ benefited from some markedly vigorous accents from the cello which acted as a springboard for the dance.

Throughout the evening, the instrumental support from the members of Florilegium was unfailingly sensitive and idiomatic: textures were homogenous and mellifluous, and a shared awareness of stylistically appropriate ‘good taste’ was ever-present. What was perhaps lacking was a dash of the spontaneous or unpredictable, and, at times, greater rhythmic verve and vigour — although Jennifer Morsches’ pizzicato cello utterances did much to brighten and enliven. That said, the facility and virtuosity of all, and the sweetness of tone — invigorated with occasional harmonic piquancy — ensured the audience’s considered and appreciative attentiveness. The running semiquavers of Handel’s Sonata in Bb for solo violin and strings were injected with drama. And, the Andante of Telemann’s Concerto in E for flute, oboe d’amore, viola d’amore and strings possessed a beautifully airy weightlessness, while the subsequent Allegro showcased the expressive presence and eloquence of Alexandra Bellamy’s oboe d’amore playing.

Claire Seymour

Programme and performers:

Telemann — Suite in A minor TWV55:A3; J.S. Bach — Cantata BWV170 ‘Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust’; Handel — Sonata a 5 in Bb HWV288; Pergolesi — Salve Regina in F minor; Telemann — Concerto in E for flute, oboe d’amore and viola d’amore TWV53:E1

Florilegium — Ashley Solomon (Director), flute/recorder; Robin Blaze, countertenor; Alexandra Bellamy, oboe d’amore; Bojan Cicic, violin 1/viola d’amore; Sophie Barber, violin 2; Magdalena Loth-Hill, violin 3; Malgorzata Ziemkiewicz, viola; Jennifer Morsches, cello; Carina Cosgrave, bass; Terence Charlston, harpsichord/chamber organ. Robin Blaze, countertenor. Wigmore Hall, London, Wednesday 23rd October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Florilegium.png image_description=Florilegium product=yes product_title=Florilegium, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Florilegium
Posted by Gary at 2:37 PM

October 26, 2013

Iain Bell’s A Harlot’s Progress, An Opera to be Reckoned With

By José Mª Irurzun [Seen & Heard International, 24 October 2013]

Attending the world premiere of an opera is always a special occasion, and even more so if it is the first opera by its composer. If one adds to all this the fact that the venue is the Theater an der Wien, whose history is filled with premieres of musical masterpieces, the cup of interest cannot be more full of curiosity and expectations.

Posted by Gary at 4:12 PM

Old gods awaken

[Alex Ross: The Rest Is Noise, 25 October 2013]

Angela Meade and Jamie Barton both delivered tremendous performances in last night's Norma at the Met, causing some old-school pandemonium in the house. Meade sang with a degree of dramatic involvement that I hadn't yet seen from this greatly gifted soprano.

Posted by Gary at 4:11 PM

breaking baden

By John Yohalem [Parterre Box, 26 October 2013]

Baden-Baden 1927 is the title Gotham Chamber Opera has given to its evening of four brief operas that premiered together at a festival in, yes, Baden-Baden on July 17, 1927.

Posted by Gary at 4:07 PM

Soaring Into San Francisco: Greer Grimsley as The Flying Dutchman

San Francisco Classical Voice

Greer Grimsley returns to San Francisco Opera this week to sing the title role of The Flying Dutchman. Grimsley, a bass-baritone who made his company debut in 2002 as Scarpia in Tosca, returned as Monterone in the company’s 2006 Rigoletto and as Jokanaan in the 2009 Salome.

Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

21 Reasons You Should Book for An Evening With Stuart Skelton & Friends in Celebration of ENO

Prima La Musica [7 October 2013]

Read about the concert here, and about Stuart's reasons for making it happen here. If you've already booked, then I salute you! If you haven't, and you're in London and free this Thursday, this is my shameless attempt to change your plans.

Posted by Gary at 3:59 PM

Of chaste divas and broken legato

Likely Impossibilitiess [13 October 2013]

I went to see Norma at the Met on Thursday in part because, I confess, I had never seen Norma.

Posted by Gary at 3:56 PM

Grumbles over Scala's New MD Designate, Mutiny on the High Cs

Opera Chic [23 October 2013]

It wouldn't be La Scala without cries of dissension, but when Corriere della Sera last week outed Riccardo Chailly as La Scala's incoming MD (for an outward-bound Barneboim), the orchestra's grumbles out-grumbled everyone.

Posted by Gary at 3:54 PM

October 24, 2013

Der Fliegende Holländer in San Francisco

That is more or less what happened last night at San Francisco Opera. Though the forces for Der Fliegende Holländer are relatively modest — three principal singers live the drama, three more offer background story; orchestrally there are but double winds, (except triple trombones and five horns). San Francisco Opera beefed up its chorus to a grandiose seventy-eight, after all it is a Wagner anniversary, and there were a few extra strings as well.

But Der Fliegende Holländer is the inauguration of Wagner’s uniquely fertile exploration of redemption through love, and it is emblematic of the tragic idealism that exponentially enriches nineteenth century art. It is conceptually and philosophically big art.

San Francisco Opera partnered with the Opéra Royal de Wallonie (a province of Belgium), that has a sizable presence in French provincial opera for this new production of Dutchman conceived by French/Romanian director Petrika Ionesco. Mr. Ionesco is known to San Francisco audiences for the Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris) staging of Cyrano de Bergerac seen two years ago at the War Memorial — a swashbuckling, cinematic conception that made the most of a slight opera for a broad audience. Mr. Ionesco has staged both Aida and Nabucco at the 80,000 seat Stadt de France and Continents on Parade at EuroDisney.

For those of us who did not see the Vaisseau Fantôme in Liège accounts say it began with Senta alone on stage in a cemetery (Senta does not appear in the libretto until the second act) and ended with Senta freezing to death among the same tombstones — the opera became Senta’s dream (Senta works in a factory that makes clothing and sails for sailors thus in her dream piles of cloth had become tombstones by means of tricky lighting).

In Liège the Dutchman flew onto Daland’s ship attached to a huge anchor to seek protection from the opening storm. Then there was some sort of science fiction action that accompanied the Dutchman to a fantasy place of skeletons and cloaks where he tells his tale of woe. The production was said to have been tuned to appeal to a broad public, maybe becoming a bit like a Stephen King novel.

Dutchman2_SFOT.pngGreer Grimsley as the Dutchman

Strange to say it was not until the production was actually onstage at War Memorial that the current artistic politic of San Francisco’s opera house determined that the production did not conform. Mr. Ionesco and his ideas were dismissed. A fast attempt was made to re-stage the opera by summarizing the action. Senta still began the opera alone on stage but there were no tombstones, and finally she leapt to her death from the remnant of a raised hatch from the Act I ship (though there was no idea where she landed as by that point we had no idea where we were). But it did not seem to be freezing and there was not a tombstone in sight. All this was hardly Ionesco’s adolescent dream, in fact it was simply a walk through of the libretto.

The Dutchman walked on and off the stage from downstage right or left with absolutely no visual magic or fanfare even though he is a phantom hero. He stood totally alone in front of the red lighted fantasy space to deliver his extended monologue as best he could. The considerable snowfall in Act I and the clumsy every-once-in-a-while projections of icebergs that could have dramaturgically motivated a death by freezing remained unexplained, arbitrary atmospheres.

It would have been heroic salvation had conductor Patrick Summers been able to redeem this fiasco through enthralling music. This was not the case, the maestro sought always a richness of orchestral description and color rather than a realization of music drama. Tempos were generally relaxed rather than charged with meaning, apparent first in the leaden overture, and burdensome particularly in the Dutchman monologue and the big Senta ballad. The maestro’s tempos never discovered the joys of a good wind nor found the terrors of a great storm, both stupendous expressive moments in Wagner’s first masterwork.

Mo. Summers is however particularly attuned to his singers, and some very fine, if meaningless performances resulted, most notably the Dutchman himself, enacted by American bass baritone Greer Grimsley. We can assume that the character Mr. Grimsley portrayed on the stage was created for the Ionesco production. The Dutchman was a suffering, vulnerable human man that Grimsley brilliantly portrayed both physically and vocally. He possesses a quite beautiful voice that he colored in many tonalities to fill his monologues with precise and genuine information and feeling.

Summers offered the same support to the Steersman, beautifully sung, and made real by Adler Fellow, tenor A.J. Glueckert. Welsh tenor Ian Storey created an Eric, Senta’s intended, who came across as more threatening than hurt. With a presence more Tristan than as a Hanseatic lad he sang Wagner’s quite felt music beautifully, perhaps too much so for the Ionesco character. His too frequent use of sotto voce was bothersome. Conductor Summers gave Senta’s father Daland the gruffness inherent to Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s persona and voice, a gruffness that resonated as well in the truly plodding tempos the maestro imposed on the dances that begin the third act.

Dutchman3_SFOT.pngIan Storey as Eric, Lise Lindstrom as Senta

Originally German soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer was cast as Senta. She was replaced by American (San Francisco) soprano Lise Lindstrom who is a fine singer well suited to the Turandot role she frequently sings on the major stages. Hers is not a voice of youthful sweetness or lyricism that might make Senta a mythical nineteenth century angel of death, but it did serve to portray Ionesco’s neurotically obsessed young woman. Intelligence gathered while the elevator descended to subterranean parking levels reveals that some of us thought she stole the show.

Hopefully such events as this Dutchman are once in a century.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Dutchman: Greer Grimsley; Senta: Lise Lindstrom; Erik: Ian Storey; Daland: Kristinn Sigmundsson; Steersman: A.J. Glueckert; Mary: Erin Johnson. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Summers; Director/Set Designer: Petrika Ionesco; Costume Designer: Lili Kendaka; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker. War Memorial Opera House, October 22, 2013.


image_description=The Dutchman and Senta at San Francisco Opera [Photo by Cory Weaver]

product_title=Der Fliegende Holländer at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above:The Dutchman and Senta at San Francisco Opera

Photos © Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 7:30 PM

October 23, 2013

Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek

Anna Nicole, came this reminder — both sad and hopeful- that Mark-Anthony Turnage was once capable of writing urgent, exciting music theatre. Indeed, from this composer I have heard nothing finer, perhaps nothing to match, this, his first opera, to Steven Berkoff’s libretto after his own Oedipal play, Greek. Adverse circumstances notwithstanding, this performance and production from Music Theatre Wales offered everything one could reasonably hope for, and more. Marcus Farnsworth, who had been ailing on the first night, had awoken with no voice, to be replaced by an heroic combination of the flown-in-from-Berlin-that-afternoon Alastair Shelton-Smith to sing the part on stage and Michael McCarthy to act, to mime the sung passages, and to deliver the spoken text. If anything, the practice added to the feeling of alienation, social and theatrical, but it would have come to nothing without such committed performances. From the word go, or rather a somewhat bluer word than that, when McCarthy hastened toward the stage, scarily impersonating an irate member of the audience hurling abuse at the audience, he inhabited the role visually and gesturally. His own production frames the performance convincingly, offering a return into the audience as Eddy is rejected by his family, those who supposedly love him unable to stomach his desire to ‘climb back inside my mum’. Shelton-Smith’s assuredly protean yet deeply felt vocal performance fully deserved the rapturous reception it received from audience and fellow cast-members alike, and would have done so even if it had not been for the particular circumstances.

But the other performances were equally assured. Sally Silver and Louise Winter proved as versatile in vocal as in acting terms, their combination as lesbian separatist sphinx being sleazy and savagely humorous in equal measure. Gwion Thomas was just as impressive in the other male roles, the sad would-be patriarch as much as the brutal police chief. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble under Michael Rafferty played Turnage’s score as to the manner born: angry and soulful, biting and tender, urgent and yet offering oases for reflection. Whether called upon to play in conventional terms, to shout, to stamp, or even to strike a pose, there could be no gainsaying the level of artistry on offer from players and conductor alike.

McCarthy’s production places the work firmly in the tradition of music theatre — doubtless partly out of necessity, but, unlike in the opera, virtue certainly arises out of fate. Props are minimal but used to full effect, the cast in proper post-Brechtian fashion undertaking the stage business too. Video projections of key words, not least Berkoff’s inevitable ‘Motherfucker’, heightens both drama and alienation. But perhaps the principal virtue is that of allowing the anger of Berkoff and Turnage’s drama to unfold, within an intelligent yet far from attention-seeking frame. The transposition of the Oedipus myth to 1980s London now seems both of its time and yet relevant to ours. It works as a far more daring version of the original EastEnders might have done, yet with injection of magic realism. Both Berkoff’s ear for language — the ability to forge a stylised ‘vernacular’, which yet can occasionally shift into knowingly would-be Shakespearean poetry — and Turnage’s response and intensification, whether his pounding protest rhythms or the jazzy seduction of his beloved saxophone, work just as McCarthy’s staging does: they grip and yet they will also, if not always, distance. Above all, one continues to feel and indeed to reiterate the anger felt by outcasts in the brutal Britain of Margaret Thatcher. Incest offers not only its own story, but stands or can come to stand also for other forms of social and sexual exclusion. Hearing of the plague, one can think of it as Thatcherism and the ignorant, hypocritical right-wing populism that continues to infest political discourse, or one can turn it round and view it as the guardians of morality most certainly would have done at the time of the 1988 premiere, as the fruits of sexual ‘deviance’: the tragedy of HIV/AIDS.

That space to think, to interpret is not the least of the work’s virtues, fully realised in performance. Its musical lineage is distinguished; on this occasion, those coming to mind included Stravinsky, Andriessen, magical shards of Knussen, and, alongside the music theatre of the Manchester School, that of Henze too, especially the angry social protest of Natascha Ungeheuer. But it is its own work, now with its own performance tradition, of which Music Theatre Wales’s contribution is heartily to be welcomed.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Eddy: Alastair Shelton-Smith/Michael McCarthy; Eddy’s Mum/Waitress/Sphinx: Sally Silver; Eddy’s Sister/Waitress who becomes Eddy’s Wife/Sphinx: Louise Winter; Dad/Café Manager/Chief of Police: Gwion Thomas. Director: Michael McCarthy; Designs: Simon Banham; Lighting: Ace McCarron, Jon Turtle. The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Tuesday 22 October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Turnage.png image_description=Mark-Anthony Turnage [Photo by Philip Gatward] product=yes product_title=Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Mark-Anthony Turnage [Photo by Philip Gatward]
Posted by Gary at 1:26 PM

Armide, Amsterdam

Luckily, at its heart we were privileged to have a soprano with true star quality, the radiant Karina Gauvin. Ms. Gauvin has a well-deserved reputation for pre-eminence in this Fach and it is easy to see why. Her lustrous, honeyed instrument is wedded to a refined technique that handily surmounts any obstacle the composer has invented. Well-colored dramatic outbursts? Check. Clean trills and coloratura with inner life? Check.
Check. Melting cantilenas, supreme arching legato phrases, rich chest voice? Check. Check. And Check.

And while she commands the style with precision and authenticity, Karina avoids the pitfalls of preciousness and correctness that can sometimes handicap such period efforts. Her Armide was a living, breathing, emoting woman that happened to flawlessly represent her story in Gluck’s musical vocabulary. Hers was a towering achievement.

armide_155.pngKarina Gauvin as Armide and Frédéric Antoun as Renaud

She was well-matched by Frédéric Antoun as the dashing Renaud who is the object of her conflicted love-hate musings. Mr. Antoun’s lightly veiled, medium weight, freely produced tenor is an exact match for the role. The tonal production is well-connected from low to (very) high and he rides the breath with ease. He delivers yummy, haunting phrases when in love, and colors his declarations with appropriate scorn when freed from the spell. Although Ms. Gauvin’s vocal presence was marginally more forthcoming, the two partnered each other well in the extended duets,

As Armide’s confidantes, Karin Strobos (Phénice) and Ana Quintans (Sidonie) set off sparks with their assured, bravura delivery. Ms. Strobos’ youthful mezzo was cleanly produced with a hint of darkness, and her spunky stage presence enlivened every scene she was in. Ms. Quintans’ accurate soprano brought a welcome soubrette-ish brightness to the proceedings. This worked exceedingly well for her as Sidonie, but she was cast in multiple roles to include Naiad, Shepherdess (where her bright delivery worked), as well as the Demon in the Figure of Mélisse (where it worked less well, a bit more vocal heft being ideal).

Henk Neven drew a good distinction between his dual roles as the tormented Aronte and the swaggering Ubalde. As the latter, he provided some of the evening’s best French, revealing a creamy baritone that was robust at full voice and meltingly effective in half voice. Alas, Sébastein Droy could not match this double duty feat as Artémidore and the Danish Knight. His muffled tenor seemed short on top, and he kept the volume knob turned to mezzo forte either by choice or of necessity. As Hidraot, Andrew Foster-Williams’ good dramatic intent and hectoring delivery could not quite compensate for a somewhat woolly bass-baritone.

I have always loved the generous artist Diana Montague, but here she seemed miscast as Hate. Her beautiful styling, freely produced mezzo, and innate musicality were everywhere in evidence but the role seemed to require singer capable of a searing Cossotto tirade rather than a controlled lyrical reprimand. Francesca Russo Ermolli made a lovely impression late in the piece as Pleasure, her poised, pure tone gently beguiling us.

Ivor Bolton has few equals in this repertoire and he drew forth thrilling sounds from his band of instrumentalists. Whether as a tightly knit ensemble or featured in remarkable solos, this was a first class effort from the pit (the principal flute was just remarkable all night long). Nicholas Jenkins chorus was no less exciting, and their dramatic commitment was awesome, yes that’s the word. Nonetheless there were a couple of instances when chorus and orchestra were internally together, but there was a split second disparity between stage and pit. This was also true with Act IV, when Ubalde and the Danish Kinight seemed periodically, stubbornly out of sync. Since the musical perfection was ninety-nine per cent a given, I can only imagine there was an acoustic issue with the wide-open setting and its lack of reflective surfaces, the manic staging that was imposed on the piece, the upstage placement of the performers, or all three.

Hysterical (or at times sardonic) laughter, swords hurled to the ground, pregnant pauses, manic splashing in a pond. . .do these jump to mind when contemplating Gluck’s Armide? Because they evidently did to director Barrie Kosky. Katrin Lea Tag has designed a basic setting of a wide swath of lumpy turf that fills the center two thirds of the apron with a rather scruffy tree sprouting stage right. Armide, clad in a simple, wholly unremarkable black dress spends so much time posed by that single set piece, I half expected her to channel Lady Bird Johnson and urge us to “plant a tree, a shrub, a bush. . .”

armide_246.pngSébastien Droy as Le Chevalier Danois and Frédéric Antoun as Renaud

Renaud’s enchantment is a curious ‘affair’ indeed. He ends his first solo asleep face down by the tree, so Armide becomes smitten with him solely from regarding his firm, um, torso, as she clings to the tree in perhaps too phallic a manner. As he became bewitched, they did a slooooooo-moooooo pas de deux that found them stroking faces, hair and arms over and over and over again. And over. Again. Then as the piece ended to deafening silence, they slunk to the right proscenium (presumably to stroke it) as Mr. Bolton waited and waited. And. Waited.

The Maestro’s body language suggested he got either amused or irritated that musical set pieces excellently performed got no applause, but truth to tell there was not one visual “button” to prompt a response. Two weeks prior, I was privileged to see a brand new opera that got frequent applause because the creative team (and composer) cued us when a section was finished. The repeated uses of long pauses was a considerable miscalculation, sapping the musical impetus, and distorting the shape. I mean these were long enough pauses to make Harold Pinter yell “get on with it!” Since there is no compensating dramatic revelation, I would urge eliminating them.

Ms. Tag’s setting eventually reveals the entire stage, with a large rectangular pool of water, and a scattering of trees. This had promise, perhaps only because this garden was a relief from the bleak desert. There was certainly little to fault with Franck Evin’s brilliant (pun intended) lighting design. Mr. Evin used harsh down- and cross-lighting to fine purpose and selectively added in color filters that enhanced the mood and emotion. The only mis-step was that Renaud sang much of one solo entirely in the dark while Mr. Kosky chose to illuminate extras who were noisily splashing in the pond behind.

This manic frolicking in the water was used on many occasions perhaps to distract us from the fact that the principals were not very well-directed and their character relationships were not well-developed. At one point, Armide’s two confidantes kick up water tirelessly while poor Ms. Gauvin tries gamely to sing over it. Another moment found the chorus clumped together slogging en masse through the pond from stage left to right while jerking their heads like pigeons on acid. Oh, and when in doubt of how to show actors are dramatically involved, make them throw swords clanking to the ground. No kidding, the metal met the road this way countless times over the long-ish evening.

Ms. Tag the set designer made a better presentation than Ms. Tag the costume designer. It is not her fault that her set was frequently ill-used. But it is her fault that the disparate assortment of clothing made little sense nor a unified statement. Some of it, like the schmatte foisted on Sidonie, looked like it might be beachwear covered by a weird wrap. Hidraot was attired in a paraphrase of kilts. Or was it a plaid 1950’s girl’s tartan skirt? At least the two knights looked like knights and Renaud looked heroic. What was up with bare-chested Aronte and the clinging white pants with a blood stain suggesting his manhood had been cut off? The fact that he a) was still singing baritone and b) was filling out the revealing trousers quite well thank you, suggested that Mrs. Aronte is/was a lucky woman.

armide_294.pngFrédéric Antoun as Renaud

One scene that almost worked in spite of itself was Hate’s entrance. With much laying on of mist after a rainstorm upstage, a group of male choristers crept on and pinned Armide onto her back on a hillock. Clad in ominous black period suits, with neck ruffs and sort of Baron von Richthofen aviator skull caps, eventually the men hold her legs spread, and she gives birth to Hate with Ms. Montague crawling into view from a trap door under her skirts. Quite a stunning, wow moment. But then the female chorus rushed on dressed identically in straight blond wigs, neon pink (sort of) business suits, and black vinyl boots. And the entire chorus twitched like they were choreographed by St. Vitus. I can only applaud their dedication and hard work even as I scratch my head as to how such a great moment was just thrown away with undisciplined excess.

When not splashing or twitching, characters engaged in inappropriate laughter. Armide is first made to cackle in anticipation of snaring Renaud, who ultimately laughs at Armide when he rejects her. There is choral laughter a number of times, perhaps most memorably when an effigy of Armide is hung by the neck and sent swinging near the end of Act I. Maybe they are tickled because it looks like an effect purchased at a Down in the Valley fire sale? This dummy gets swung back into action in Act II by which time we could have all used a good laugh.

In furthering the belief that nothing exceeds like excess, there is an endless rain of confetti late in the first half that starts out being quite dazzling and goes on until we are good and tired of it. But why stop? The second half begins with an endless rain of pink and red confetti, that outlives the Energizer Bunny. The lovely waltz late in the evening is not treated to proper ballet, but rather finds the cast paired off, slow-dancing in the pond like last call at the Junior prom. And when the music ends, they forget to tell the cast who keep swaying for another 30 seconds, well, just because they can.

In a final cynical decision, the production brings an old naked couple into the scene, I guess to nail home the idea to Renaud that this is what relationships will lead to, sagging bits and bobs and disorientation. By the time the glorious Ms. Gauvin gets stranded motionless on a dune, with all other distractions stilled, beautifully interpreting her final aria almost motionless as in a concert, I was thinking, “a concert. . .gee. . .if only.”

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Armide: Karina Gauvin; Hidraot: Andrew Foster-Williams; Renaud: Frédéric Antoun; Artémidore/Danish Knight: Sébastein Droy; Ubalde/Aronte: Henk Neven; Sidonie/Nayad/Shepherdess/Demon in the figure of Mélisse: Ana Quintans; Phénice: Karin Strobos; Hate: Diana Montague; A Pleasure: Francesca Russo Ermolli; Conductor: Ivor Bolton; Director: Barrie Kosky; Set and Costume Design: Katrin Lea Tag; Lighting Design: Franck Evin; Chorus Master: Nicholas Jenkins

image_description=Diana Montague as La Haine and Karina Gauvin as Armide [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]

product_title=Armide, Amsterdam
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Diana Montague as La Haine and Karina Gauvin as Armide

Photos by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

Posted by james_s at 12:51 PM

London’s Vespers Ring the Right Bells

Much of this is owing to director Stefan Herheim’s growing reputation as a fascinating stage director, and the fact that this marked his debut in the UK, a country that has taught the world a thing or two about great theatre. Mr. Herheim’s riveting staging was indeed cause for celebration, but first it must be said that conductor Antonio Pappano arguably eclipsed every other achievement with so exceptional a reading of Verdi’s least appreciated mature opera.

“Passionate.” “Heartfelt.” “Electrifying.” These seem to be puny adjectives indeed to summarize Pappano’s achievement. “Definitive” might be the word. If the superlative ROH orchestra seemed to be on fire the whole night, it was Maestro Pappano who struck the match. Not only was his well-shaped performance idiomatically apt, characterized by breadth and power, but also his consummate uses of accelerando and rubato, at one with the singers, lent spontaneity and inevitability to the music-making that made us feel as if we were hearing it for the first time. The thundering ovation the orchestra and conductor received at curtain call was testament from an audience that knew they had just been gifted with a very special night at the opera.

Vepres_RO_1112.pngMicahel Volle as Montfort and Bryan Hymel as Henri

Les vêpres siciliennes is probably no one’s favorite Verdi. In spite of some glorious stretches, there are segments that are reminiscent of more successful prior Verdi, or portents of even better Verdi to come. When we encounter this piece at all it is usually in its Italian version (I Vespri Siciliani). Well, what a difference the language makes. Every principal artist is here flattered by the French pronunciation, which favors a slight cover and softness (over the brighter Italianate delivery). And what a privilege that we have a cast that can so memorably deliver the goods.

Pride of place must go to Michael Volle’s exquisitely wrought Guy de Monfort. Having greatly admired Mr. Volle in German opera, nothing about his prior achievements prepared me for the depth and power of the impression he made in this role. The language suits his mellow (yet substantial) baritone to a “T” and he explores and deploys an entire range of colors and emotions from the very bottom of the role to the extreme top. There was not a note he produced that was not fraught with great detail, no phrase that was not informed with emotional nuance. He did not so much sing the part, as live it, and Michael quite simply stole the show. Nor was he alone in his success.

Brian Hymel has come a long long way since I first admired his promising Faust at Santa Fe. His mastery of French styling is evidenced by his triumphs in ever more challenging assignments on world stages (to include ROH). Mr. Hymel seems to have become something of a ‘local hero’ owing to his having saved a production or two by stepping in on short notice. But just being ‘available’ would not be enough in these heady surroundings. His utterly secure, freely produced top gleams and sails into the house with power and brilliance. He has learned well to use forward placement and pure, limp production to make the voice meaty in the lower passages. With skill and artistry the tenor has grown into ‘the‘ leading exponent currently performing this repertoire.

As a lovely Hélène, Lianna Haroutounian filled in for the previously announced Marina Poplavskaya (who was ill). Ms. Haroutounian is the real deal, a true spinto voice that can meet all the Verdian demands, and boy do we need her now! Her shimmering, golden tone could serve up melting phrases and anguished outbursts alike. The glowing top register was complemented by a middle with good presence, and a ringing chest voice.
If the soprano fudged a little with her opening coloratura, and dragged the “Bolero” ever so slightly to negotiate the tricky leaps and turns, many another great interpreter has similarly negotiated these challenges. A major emerging talent, we will be proud to say we knew her ‘when.’

Vepres_RO_1353.pngErwin Schrott as Procida

As Jean Procida, Erwin Schrott often effects a big, take-no-prisoners vocal delivery which makes for good theatre, to be sure, but also invites uneven vocal production. While I admired his overall performance and enjoyed many statements and phrases, Mr. Schrott did not always succeed in marrying up his placement and his intent. “Et toi Palerme” was wonderfully varied, but the well-intended ebb and flow nonetheless exposed the singer’s somewhat weak legato. He was on firmer footing when his genial bass was more conversational in delivery, although I would urge him to moderate his dramatic instincts to pulverize climactic notes which can veer a mite off pitch. Still, Schrott is a mesmerizing performer and he wins the Nathan Gunn Award for getting to display his well-toned pecs in the prison scene.

As one would expect at Covent Garden, all of the minor roles were polished and poised, but I particularly enjoyed Jihoon Kim as Robert. This promising young singer is a Jette Parker Principal artist, and ROH is right to place such confidence in him and to nurture a performer of such accomplishment and real individuality. His rolling, dark bass surely has a bright future.

So what of the ‘controversial’ Stefan Herheim, whose leadership caused so much speculation, anticipation, and in some quarters, concern? In general terms, I find Mr. Herheim to be a serious director who does clean work. Not for him the easy way out. Everything he undertakes is thoroughly considered and consistent to itself. Many times this works brilliantly (the landmark Bayreuth Parsifal) and occasionally mis-fires (Brussel’s Rusalka-as-Belgian-streetwalker). Happily, Les vêpres siciliennes finds the heralded innovator at the top of his game.

Since the piece is somewhat weakly plotted, Herheim brilliantly approached it as a fantasy rather than a realistic history, paraphrasing the story within a meaningful context. The creative team re-imagined the setting in 1855 within the very ornate theatre that hosted the work’s Parisian premiere. His research led him to discover that not only were ballerinas idealized as the standard of contemporary feminine beauty, but they were also frequently reduced to being courtesans as male opportunists abused them to their own pleasurable ends. This concept further focuses on the theme of patrons who have the social and financial standing to use, and abuse art.

This ingeniously allows the entire piece to be set within the theatre, on- and back-stage, encompassing the auditorium itself. The ‘audience’ is at times viewing the story of the French occupation on the stage, and at times participating in the telling of it. Philipp Fürhofer’s monumental set design consists of ever-changing deconstructed components which include a massive gold proscenium arch, gilded ceiling appointments, three tiers of audience boxes, a huge mirrored wall complete with ballet barre, separate red and black grand drapes, and a gorgeous foyer wall with a painting of Etna erupting.

Vespres_RO_1335.pngBryan Hymel as Henri and Lianna Hartoutounian as Helene

Mr. Fürhofer has concocted effective traffic patterns for keeping these elements in motion, with changes fluidly executed by the ROH backstage team. As large and handsome as the structures are, they are often used quite simply to achieve maximum effect. For example, the three tiers of boxes reverse to expose the stairs, which suggests the prison by simple addition of an executioner’s chopping block and straw. The mirrors separate to create entryways, and then recede to give way to the entire company performing ‘on stage’ as the elite watch from their boxes. The chopping block gets re-purposed as a wedding altar with the addition of candles that also get placed along the apron, creating footlights. The scenic invention was matched by Anders Poll’s meticulous lighting design. Not only did he isolate moments and soloists to fine effect but his washes and color choices created the right atmosphere, moving playfully between fantasy and reality. The garish illumination of the real audience in the score’s final moments was meant to beg the question: were we in any way complicit in using art to selfish ends?

The choice of period provided a fertile starting point for Gesine Völlm’s gorgeous costume designs. The elegant evening wear extended to Hélène’s resplendent sequined gowns. By contrast, the ‘actors’ performing the tale of the French-Italian conflict for the glitterati were decked out in a riot of colorful peasant folk costumes. With all this technical excellence in his arsenal, Mr. Herheim has crafted a wondrous re-telling of the story.

The overture is staged, opening with ballerinas in repose, in traditional white tutus. Seated in a chair down right, Procida is the ballet master, who rouses his charges to do their daily barre work. This serene, methodical fantasy milieu soon gives way to the intrusion of militiamen, who terrorize the women. Monfort brutally rapes one of the ballerinas, prompting three dancers to appear in black tutus, one injured, one pregnant, and one bearing a babe in arms. Soon, the young boy (Henri) appears who is the product of Monfort’s lust.

Herheim effectively uses the boy as a recurring visual, to include reappearing to be confronted by Monfort during his great aria, then as an axe-wielding executioner, and finally as a winged cupid in the wedding. The director has found considerable wit in this gloomy tale, witness the scene in which Monfort incites conspirators to battle and they respond by doing ballet barre work, daggers in hand.

There is also ingenious interweaving of dance throughout, which admirably unites and furthers the concept. Choreographer André de Jong has commendably utilized his corps in a tantalizing blend of modern story-telling served up through a traditional dance ‘vocabulary.’ The lovely use of the ballerinas to frame Procida for his great aria was but one of several thoroughly bewitching moments.

In addition to careful planning and well-judged artistic decisions, Mr. Herheim’s greatest strength may be his uncanny ability to inspire his actors to truthful, deeply felt performances of great specificity. His collaboration with Mr. Schrott to create a fey, yet feral ballet master of a Procida was genius. The emotional journey that Henri and Monfort took in their extended duet was stunning in its rich detail, only to be surpassed by the ensuing tenor-soprano duet. What volumes it spoke as the duo confronted each other while circling the chopping block that awaited them.

And what a coup de theatre lay in wait in the last scene! Fantasy finally morphs into phantasmagoria and Procida appears in drag (no kidding!), his gown paraphrasing the soprano’s first act black number, but here the underskirt is sparkling with red sequins. When he/she plucks up the French flag off the ground and begins massacring people by spearing them with the pole, insanity rules, art is used and abused, the Sicilians have been sacrificed, and the on-stage audience has been sated.

When normalcy returns, Monfort returns, no one is really dead (just ‘used’ for effect), curtain calls are posed, and then . . .well, you’ll have to see for yourself, if you can score a ticket. Stefan Herheim continues to impress, enrich, invent, delight, and mature as a pre-eminent director of our time, and we are all the better for it.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Thibault: Neal Cooper; Robert: Jihoon Kim; Le Sire de Béthune: Jean Teitgen; Le Comte de Vaudemont: Jeremy White; Daniéli: Nicolas Darmanin; La Duchesse Hélène: Lianna Haroutounian; Ninetta: Michelle Daly; Guy de Monfort: Michael Volle; Henri: Bryan Hymel; Jean Procida: Erwin Schrott; Mainfroid: Jung Soo Yun; Conductor: Antonio Pappano; Director: Stefan Herheim; Set Design: Philipp Fürhofer; Costume Design: Gesine Völlm; Lighting Design: Anders

image_description=Erwin Schrott as Procida and Lianna Haroutounian as Helene [Photo © ROH / Bill Cooper]

product_title=London’s Vespers Ring the Right Bells
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Erwin Schrott as Procida and Lianna Haroutounian as Helene

Photos © ROH / Bill Cooper

Posted by james_s at 12:39 PM

Verdi’s Otello at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The cast for the first performance included Johan Botha as Otello, Ana María Martínez as Desdemona, both Falk Struckmann and Todd Thomas singing the role of Iago, the former withdrawing because of indisposition after Act I. This performance also featured the American debut of tenor Antonio Poli as Cassio, John Irvin as Roderigo, Julie Anne Miller as Emilia, Evan Boyer as Lodovico, Anthony Clark Evans as Montano, and Richard Ollarsaba as a herald. The production was originally directed by Sir Peter Hall; the present revival is directed by Ashley Dean. Bertrand de Billy makes his Lyric Opera debut conducting these performances, and Michael Black is officially Chorus Master with the start of the current season.

DAN_3536.pngJohan Botha as Otello and Falk Struckmann as Iago

From the energetic start of the first act the role of the chorus of Cypriots is emphasized. As the people shout in their enthusiastic pleas for Otello’s success, Iago’s voice of negation is clearly audible. Struckmann’s Iago intoned with chilling force his contrary wishes for Otello’s failure and even demise in the “alvo frenetico del mar” (“frenzied bed of the sea.”). When the hero alights triumphantly on shore, he declares to the jubilant Cypriots “Esultate!” (“Rejoice!”). From this exciting start it was clear that Mr. Botha inhabits a role truly suited to his voice. The high dramatic notes and outbursts, so characteristic of Otello’s volatile nature, are produced effortlessly and with accurate, direct focus of pitch in Botha’s convincingly emotional delivery. In the subsequent duet between Iago and Roderigo the motive for jealousy and ill-will is revealed. Iago resents the recent promotion of Cassio to the rank of captain since he wished to receive the distinction himself. In his plan to exact vengeance Iago confides in Roderigo and urges the latter’s infatuation with Desdemona. Struckmann as Iago and Mr. Irvin in the role of Roderigo both showed a distinguished sense of lyrical line in the verbalization and coalescence of their respective emotions and thoughts. The sacrifice in this ruse will of course be Cassio who is encouraged to drink until he loses control. In this American debut Mr. Poli made a strong impression as a singing actor. His use of legato phrasing and fluid rise to high pitches is seamless, at the same time released in a physically demonstrative display of Cassio’s inebriation. (It was at this point in the ensemble that Struckmann’s voice began to suggest the strain from treatment for allergies which occasioned his withdrawal at the close of Act I.) Once Otello and Desdemona are awakened by the brawl between a drunken Cassio and incensed Montano, the seeming chaos is interrupted. Botha’s voice of authority cut through the choral pandemonium as he ordered “Abbasso le spade!” (“Lower your swords!”). His demotion of Cassio and reestablishment of order was sung as an extension of these commands with precise, idiomatic intonation. Once they are left alone Desdemona and Otello sing their celebrated love duet as a conclusion to Act I. For both Ms. Martínez and Mr. Botha the range between dramatic excitedness and tender intimacy is bridged naturally so that the tensions in this relationship develop logically in response to the surrounding events. When Botha declares “Vien … Venere splende” (“Come … Venus is shining”) as they return to their chamber, the projected tranquility for Otello covers a persona already shown to waver between extremes.

In Act II Mr. Thomas assumed the role of Iago. The substitution proceeded as seamlessly as could be hoped, since Thomas enhanced the villainous character with his further, bleak emphases. His rendition of Iago’s “Credo” was appropriately declamatory with an expected internalization of lines that tend toward self-reflection. After musing on this destructive resolve, Iago’s influence on Otello grows perceptibly. Thomas’s subtle repetition to Otello of the sentiment “Vigilate” (“Keep watch”), when speaking of Desdemona’s fidelity, began to function as a growing germ in the husband’s mind. At the entrance of Desdemona surrounded by her adoring followers Martínez sang a rising pure line on “Splende il cielo” (“the sky is bright”). Otello’s mood reacts to this optimistic depiction of nature until her first appeal is tendered on behalf of Cassio. In the following quartet, in which the couple is joined by the pair of Iago and his wife Emilia, Martínez’s voice surged with touching high pitches on “Dammi la dolce e lieta parola del perdon” (“Give me your sweet and happy word of pardon”). Emilia retrieves the handkerchief that Desdemona dropped, but she cannot withhold it from Iago and his plan. From this point forward the “Testimon” (“witness”), of which Thomas swears the possession so chillingly, will have palpable force. In their final duet Iago encourages Otello to exact vengeance at which juncture Botha released forte his most emotionally convincing top notes of the evening.

DAN_4182.pngJohan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona

The dramatic tensions of Act III followed inevitably from the preparatory scheming and doubt. Topics of the misplaced handkerchief and pardon for Cassio are interwoven musically in the duet for the two principals. Once Otello curses Desdemona while scorning her fidelity Martínez expresses the wife’s reaction of hurt with a piercing high note on “le prime lagrime” (“the first tears”). Otello’s public image is stained when he later casts Desdemona to the ground in the presence of all at court, including Lodovico the ambassador from Venice. In this role bass Evan Boyer’s announcement of the Doge’s letter was intoned with a resonance which he transformed with surprise upon witnessing Otello’s behavior. When everyone but Otello and Iago has left the pubic court at the close of the act, Thomas’s Iago proclaims triumphantly “Ecco il Leone!” (“Behold the Lion!”) as he places his foot on the prostrate conqueror.

Desdemona’s murder in Act IV by her husband Otello is preceded by a scene in which she remains together with Emilia and confides to her by means of “La canzon del Salice” (“the Willow Song”). Martínez’s diction and carefully shaped phrases made this aria not only a touchingly sung and memorable showpiece, but also a lyrical extension of Desdemona’s character elaborating on her persona within the entire opera. In addition to ever-increasing rising pitches on “Salice,” Martínez infused “cantiamo” (“Let us sing”) with a repeated piano delicacy. Her final, heartfelt cry of farewell to Emilia indicated a resignation to what must inevitably befall her. Indeed, after making his entrance Botha’s mix of tenderness and violence as he first looked at Desdemona sleeping, and then confronted her in excited dialogue summarized in mere moments the dramatic conflict of this entire tragedy. Iago’s triumph is ultimately exposed as treachery, yet the lyrical declarations and outbursts of love survive beyond the violent end for Desdemona and Otello.

Salvatore Calomino

Click here for the Lyric’s “Otello Discovery Series”

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DAN_3134.png image_description=Johan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Verdi’s Otello at Lyric Opera of Chicago product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Johan Botha as Otello and Ana Maria Martinez as Desdemona

Photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 11:15 AM

Angel Blue, Wigmore Hall

Californian soprano Angel Blue made her much anticipated recital debut at the Wigmore Hall for Rosenblatt Recitals on Monday 21 October 2013. Accompanied by pianist Catherine Miller, Angel Blue sang a programme which opened with the Alleluia from Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate, continued with songs by Richard Strauss and Sergei Rachmaninov, then moved into the opera arias by Gershwin, Chapi, Puccini, Wagner, Cilea, and Verdi.

Judging by her repertoire and recent roles (Musetta, Lulu, Lucia di Lammermoor, La Traviata ) I had assumed that Angel Blue would have a voice which was in the lyric/soubrette/coloratura range but not a bit. She has a bright, vibrant voice which is admirably even throughout the range including a fine upper extension and she combines easy facility and flexibility with remarkable power. This was a voice which, when she opened up, filled the Wigmore Hall. Her inclusion of Dich teure Halle from Wagner's Tannhäuser made complete sense in the context of her vocal capacity. And I certainly agree with those who have compared her to a young Leontyne Price.

I have to confess that I found it felt a bit odd, starting the programme with the final movement of Mozart's Exsultate Jubilate, that said Angel Blue sang it with a nice freedom and evenness in the passagework and some beautifully integrated acuti. It made me regret that she didn't give us the whole motet.

Next came a group of Richard Strauss songs. In Heimliche Aufforderung she sounded radiant, displaying a warm personality in the way she brought out the narrative character of the piece and rising to a vibrantly rapturous climax. Die Nacht received a nicely intent performance with beautifully floated top notes, all sung with poise. There was a naturalness to her delivery of Allerseelen which brought out the conversational nature of the song. Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten came over with great charm and delightful characterisation. The final song in the group, Befreit, she dedicated to the memory of her father. The gave the song an intense and serious performance with a nice melodic sweep.

In all the songs, Angel Blue's performance was highly characterised and she has great charm on stage, though sometimes when she allowed her voice to open up the songs veered as little towards the operatic. All were sung with a lovely surface beauty and gleaming tone, but I did find that said that her German sounded rather occluded.

Her final group of songs in the first half were all by Sergei Rachmaninov. Here the composer's rather more heart on sleeve style seemed to suit Angel Blue's generous performing style and she seemed really at home in these songs in a way that she hadn't in the Strauss. In Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne (Oh, do not sing, by beauty, to me) we had the haunting melancholy of the song offset by the beauty and rich vibrancy of her voice, with lovely hints of the exotic both in the melody and in Catherine Miller's accompaniment.

Rachmaninov's Vocalise showed the full beauty of Angel Blue's voice, combining a nice evenness of line with a fine upper register. Zdes’khorosho (How peaceful it is here) was a charming piece, with Angel Blue giving the song a strong narrative feel combined with some lovely high notes. Finally Vesenniye vodi (Spring Waters), again with a strong narrative sense, lovely vibrant, gleaming tones and rapture at the climaxes.

After the interval Angel Blue reappeared with a new dress, a new hairstyle and something of a new attitude; here her delivery relaxed as she clearly enjoyed the opportunities that these operatic arias gave her. Each aria was a little dramatic scena and Angel Blue's delight and charm radiated the performances.

Summertime from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess was poised and perfect, the way she slid into the first note of the piece was a complete delight. This was a very affecting and captivating performance, full of personality. This sense of personality continued with Las Carceleras (The Prisoners' Song) from Ruperto Chapi's zarzuela Las hijas del Zebedeo (The Daughters of Zebedee). This was something of a tour de force, charming and sexy and brilliantly put over.

We changed pace somewhat with the next two items, both of which allowed us to hear the dramatic potential in Angel Blue's voice. In Vissi d'arte from Puccini's Tosca she combined a strong feeling for the words with a lovely vibrant and full vocal line. The was a very involving performance, but beautifully controlled without any the bulges in the line. The climax was thrilling, with a finely controlled diminuendo and whilst you the role does not seem to feature on her cv, it does not sound too much of a stretch for her voice. She followed this with a thrilling and gleaming account of Dich teure Halle from Wagner's Tannhäuser. It is hopefully a few years yet before she sings this role on stage, but oh boy are we in for a treat. The combination of her vibrant toned voice, vivid characterisation and sense that she was enjoying herself made for a fine account of the aria, though here again her German was not ideal.

Io son l’umile ancella from act one of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur was just perfect, with a full vibrant line and singing which certainly brought a tingle to the spine. Angel Blue managed to both thrill and to make the aria touching, fining her voice down beautifully at the end. She closed with Violetta's Ah, fors’è lui… Sempre libera from act one of Verdi's La Traviata. This was a very affecting performance, combining neat passagework with striking portamenti and some powerful climaxes.

Throughout the recital Angel Blue was supported by Catherine Miller's fine pianism. Their performance rightly drew a strong reaction from the capacity audience and we were treated to two encores, a gospel number King Jesus and I could have danced all night from The King and I.

Robert Hugill


Mozart: Alleluia — Exsultate Jubilate
Richard Strauss: Heimliche Aufforderung
Richard Strauss: Die Nacht
Richard Strauss: Allerseelen
Richard Strauss: Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten
Richard Strauss: Befreit
Sergei Rachmaninov: Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne
Sergei Rachmaninov: Vocalise
Sergei Rachmaninov: Zdes’khorosho
Sergei Rachmaninov: Vesenniye vodi
George Gershwin: Summertime — Porgy and Bess
Ruperto Chapi: Las Carceleras — Las hijas del Zebedeo
Giacomo Puccini: Vissi d'arte — Tosca
Richard Wagner: Dich teure Halle —Tannhäuser
Cilea: Io son l’umile ancella — Adriana Lecouvreur
Giuseppe Verdi: É strano!... Ah, fors’è lui… Sempre libera — La traviata

Angel Blue (soprano); Catherine Miller (piano). Rosenblatt Recitals at the Wigmore Hall, London, 21 October 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Angel_Blue.png image_description=Angel Blue [Photo courtesy of artist} product=yes product_title=Angel Blue, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Angel Blue [Photo courtesy of artist}
Posted by Gary at 10:44 AM

October 22, 2013

Madame Butterfly at ENO

The sumptuous splendour of Michael Levine’s opulent sets and Han Feng’s eye-catching costumes is an optical feast, and the tableaux and choreographed sequences, particularly those which open and close the opera, retain their gasp-rendering thrill. The japonaiserie is meticulous and authentically minimalist: low wooden dwellings, rooms like paper boxes, sliding doors and walls silently gliding into infinite formations, tea trays laid decorously on tatami mats. The kaleidoscopic array of geishas’ gowns and ceremonial headgear, set against the deep carmine of the rising sun or the emerald glow of green moonlight, is stunning.

Yet, so much of the design seems to me convey an idealised, Orientalist perspective, casting a Western eye on Japanese culture, underpinned by a score which is innately Eurocentric. Like Pinkerton, we are tourists in a foreign land, and perhaps guilty of indulging in what Edward Said described as a ‘Western style for dominating, restructuring and having authority over the orient’.

ENO_Butterfly_04.pngDina Kuzenetsova as Madam Butterfly, Alun Rhys-Jenkins as Goro and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo © Robert Piwko]

The stunning skills of the puppeteers of Blind Summit astonish us with their eye-deceiving dexterity and the scenes which Minghella crafts have an undeniable visual exquisiteness; but, such pictures are essentially static, hypnotising the onlooker and drawing attention away from the emotional drama which unfolds through the music. For example, at the end of Act 1 the long duet of Butterfly, fearful of love’s fragility, and Pinkerton, unthinkingly indifferent to her terrors, touches us with less immediacy than does the sculptured landscape of disorientating paper moons and pendant floral fronds — trails of starry necklaces against the night sky. It is as if the flimsy tale of a love disregarded and betrayed cannot bear the ‘weight’ of the artistic realisation of the director’s lavish visual imagination.

It is, in fact, Peter Mumford’s marvellous lighting design which so magnificently generates the production’s shimmering exoticism, injecting drama into the pictorial vistas. Mumford crafts a constantly shifting world, one of appearances rather than materiality: wondrous, yet elusively insubstantial. He fashions a maze of interwoven reflections which extend upwards to the night sky and slithers downwards along Levine’s glimmering sloping stage. Despite the production’s Eurocentrism, the shifting images and shadows which Mumford sets in motion suggest a more authentic East, as they flicker and flutter across the mirror surfaces, as elusive and ambiguous as Butterfly’s own identity. In a land where power is in the hands of men, and women are valued only as the transient objects of male passion, the mirroring echoes both evoke a dreaming air, and also suggest Butterfly’s own search for the identity imposed upon her by, and reflected in, the eyes of others — that is, as she endeavours to become the object of Pinkerton’s fantasy.

ENO_Butterfly_01.pngDina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly and Timothy Richards as Pinkerton [Photo © Thomas Bowles]

Thus, Butterfly is herself a ‘puppet’ — as the blood-red kimono sashes with which the dancers encircle her immobile form confirm. But, Mumford’s lighting can hint emotional depths; in the aforementioned duet, for example, as the petals flicker fleetingly, they recall the hannabi displays so familiar of Japanese summer nights — their flowery fire is often multiplied by the dark waters above which they explode — and perhaps suggest the flame of passionate devotion which blazes in Butterfly’s heart.

Ironically it is the passive, self-abnegating Madame Butterfly, sung with seductive ease by Russian-American soprano Dina Kuznetsova, who in this production proves the strongest character; for while Japanese women are traditionally required to be compliant and submissive, it is Dina Kuznetsova and Pamela Helen Stephen, as her maid Suzuki, who vocally dominate the proceedings. Making her ENO debut, Kuznetsova used her warm, full voice to convey Butterfly’s tender devotion and constancy. Although perhaps somewhat mature for the role, she convinced and moved hearts: her soprano is ripe with Romantic lyricism, and full of dusky hues, but as she shows in the second Act, she can also spin a gorgeous pianissimo. Most impressively, she communicated every word of the text; for once the surtitles were largely redundant.

Kuznetsova’s haunting performance, and excellent diction, was matched by Pamela Helen Stephen’s characterful Suzuki; she had enormous stage presence, and in Act 3’s ‘Già il sole!’ the range and impact of the emotions conveyed was striking, from sorrowful resignation to helpless dismay.

Sadly, as Pinkerton Timothy Richards was less engaging. Also making his house debut, Richards sang sturdily but with little vocal diversity or musical characterisation. He displayed an unfortunate tendency to ‘shout’ at emotional highpoints, in order to be heard about the full orchestral surges. George von Bergen was a bumbling American Consul Sharpless, but dramatically and vocally he also seemed rather adrift; his voice was sufficiently resonant but at times lacked focus. And, the diction of both male leads was poor.

ENO_Butterfly_02.pngDina Kuznetsova as Madam Butterfly and George von Bergen as Sharpless [Photo © Thomas Bowles]

There were solid performances from Alun Rhys-Jenkins (Goro) and Alexander Robin Baker (Prince Yamadori); and Mark Richardson was fittingly imperious and formidable as Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze, with a ferocious bite to his bark. Catherine Young made a strong impression as Kate Pinkerton.

Butterfly’s child is a bunraku-inspired, sailor-suited puppet-child; but while we marvel at the deftness of the black-costumed manipulators who imbue the marionette with uncanny veracity, the singularity of this lone puppet results in a distancing of our affections. The alien child seems strangely material and unyielding, at odds with the evanescence of the rest of the production.

There was another ENO debut in the orchestra pit, with conductor Gianluca Marciano taking the helm; the ENO orchestra gave a reliable performance but one which did not altogether capture the emotional heaves and peaks of the score.

In the final reckoning, Minghella’s visual alchemy casts its spell but it is Kuznetsova who makes the magic work. In Act 3, the lyrical force of her melodic utterances conquers the marvellous but, at times, diverting imagery; and, seduced, discarded and forgotten, her unwavering resolution makes up for the absence of consistently powerful dynamics between the other characters. Kuznetsova convinces us that, despite her assertion that she is now American, Butterfly — in re-enacting her father’s ritual suicide — is killed by the compelling, ineffaceable social mores of her own culture.

Claire Seymour

Madame Butterfly continues in repertory until 1 December.

Cast and production information:

Butterfly, Dina Kuznetsova; F.B. Pinkerton, Timothy Richards; Sharpless, George von Bergen; Suzuki, Pamela Helen Stephen; Goro Alun, Rhys-Jenkins; The Bonze, Mark Richardson; Prince Yamadori, Alexander Robin Baker; Kate Pinkerton, Catherine Young; Director, Anthony Minghella; Revival Director, Sarah Tipple; Original Associate Director & Choreographer, Carolyn Choa; Set Designer, Michael Levine; Costume Designer, Han Feng; Original Lighting Designer, Peter Mumford; Revival Choreographer, Anita Griffin; Puppetry, Blind Summit; Conductor, Gianluca Marciano; Translator, David Parry. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 14th October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO_Butterfly_03.png image_description=Blind Summit pupeteer and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo by Robert Piwko] product=yes product_title=Madame Butterfly at ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Blind Summit pupeteer and Pamela Helen Stephen as Suzuki [Photo © Robert Piwko]
Posted by Gary at 12:12 PM

October 20, 2013

Das Liebesverbot, Vienna 1962

Music by Richard Wagner to his own libretto after William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

First Performance: 29 March 1836, Stadttheater, Magdeburg.

Principal Roles:
Friedrich, the King of Germany’s Viceroy in Sicily Baritone
Luzio, a young nobleman Tenor
Claudio, a young nobleman Tenor
Antonio, their friend Tenor
Angelo, their friend Bass
Isabella, Claudio’s sister Soprano
Mariana Soprano
Brighella, captain of the watch Bass
Danieli, an innkeeper Baritone
Dorella Soprano
Pontio Pilato, a bawd Tenor

Setting: Palermo, 16th Century.


Act 1

The town square

An unnamed king of Sicily leaves his country for a journey to Naples and hands over to the appointed Regent Friedrich full authority to exercise the royal power in order to effect a complete reform in the social habits of his capital, which had provoked the indignation of the Council. The servants of the public authority busily shut up or pull down the houses of popular amusement in a suburb of Palermo, and carry off the inmates as prisoners. The populace oppose this first step, and much scuffling ensues.

Luzio, a young nobleman and juvenile scapegrace, seems inclined to thrust himself forward as leader of the mob, and at once finds an occasion for playing a more active part in the cause of the oppressed people on discovering his friend Claudio being led away to prison. From him he learns that, in pursuance of some musty old law unearthed by Friedrich, he is to suffer the penalty of death for a certain love escapade in which he is involved. His sweetheart, union with whom had been prevented by the enmity of their parents, has borne him a child. Friedrich’s puritanical zeal joins cause with the parents’ hatred; he fears the worst, and sees his only hope for mercy if his sister Isabella, by her entreaties, can melt the Regent’s hard heart. Claudio implores his friend at once to seek out Isabella in the convent of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, which she has recently entered as novice.

A convent

Isabella is in confidential intercourse with her friend Marianne, also a novice. Marianne reveals to her friend, from whom she has long been parted, the unhappy fate which has brought her to the place. Under vows of eternal fidelity she had been persuaded to a secret liaison with a man of high rank. But finally, when in extreme need she found herself not only forsaken, but threatened by her betrayer, she discovered him to be the mightiest man in the state, none other than the King’s Regent himself. Isabella’s indignation finds vent in impassioned words, and is only pacified by her determination to forsake a world in which so vile a crime can go unpunished.

When now Luzio brings her tidings of her own brother’s fate, Isabella’s disgust at her brother’s misconduct is turned at once to scorn for the villainy of the hypocritical Regent, who presumes so cruelly to punish the comparatively venial offense of her brother, which, at least, was not stained by treachery. Her violent outburst imprudently reveals her to Luzio in a seductive aspect; smitten with sudden love, he urges her to quit the convent for ever and to accept his hand. She contrives to check his boldness, but resolves at once to avail herself of his escort to the Regent’s court of justice.

A courtroom

Several persons are charged by the sbirro captain with offenses against morality. The earnestness of the situation becomes more marked when the gloomy form of Friedrich strides through the inrushing and unruly crowd, commanding silence, and he himself undertakes the hearing of Claudio’s case in the sternest manner possible. The implacable judge is already on the point of pronouncing sentence when Isabella enters, and requests, before them all, a private interview with the Regent.

In this interview she behaves with noble moderation towards the dreaded yet despised man before her, and appeals at first only to his mildness and mercy. His interruptions merely serve to stimulate her ardor: she speaks of her brother’s offense in melting accents, and implores forgiveness. Friedrich can no longer contain himself, and promises to grant her petition at the price of her own love. Filled with indignation at such villainy, she cries to the people through doors and windows to come in, that she may unmask the hypocrite before the world. By a few significant hints, Friedrich, with frantic energy, succeeds in making Isabella realize the impossibility of her plan. But a few words on her part suffice to transport the Regent himself with ecstasy; for in a whisper she promises to grant his desire, and that on the following night she shall send him such a message as shall ensure his happiness.

And so ends the first act in a whirl of excitement.

Act 2

A prison

Isabella visits her brother in his cell. She reveals Friedrich’s shameful proposal to him, and asks if he would wish to save his life at the price of his sister’s dishonour. Then follow Claudio’s fury and fervent declaration of his readiness to die; whereupon, the unhappy man declines from a state of melancholy to one of weakness. Isabella hesitates in dismay when she sees him fall in this way. Disgusted, she springs to her feet, and declares that to the shame of his death he has further added her most hearty contempt.

After having handed him over again to his gaoler, her mood once more changes swiftly to one of wanton gaiety. True, she resolves to punish the waverer by leaving him for a time in uncertainty as to his fate; but stands firm by her resolve to rid the world of the abominable seducer who dared to dictate laws to his fellow-men.

She tells Marianne that she must take her place at the nocturnal rendezvous, at which Friedrich so treacherously expected to meet her (Isabella), and sends Friedrich an invitation to this meeting. In order to entangle the latter even more deeply in ruin, she stipulates that he must come disguised and masked and fixes the rendezvous in one of those pleasure resorts which he has just suppressed.

To the madcap Luzio, whom she also desires to punish, she relates the story of Friedrich’s proposal, and her pretended intention of complying with his desires. This she does in a fashion so incomprehensibly light-hearted that Luzio yields to a fit of desperate rage. He swears that, even if the noble maiden herself can endure such shame, he will himself strive by every means in his power to avert it. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that on the appointed evening all his friends and acquaintances assemble at the end of the Corso, as though for the opening of the prohibited carnival procession.

Outside Friedrich’s Palace

At nightfall, Luzio appears sings an extravagant carnival song by which means he seeks to stir the crowd to bloody revolt. When a band of sbirri approaches, under Brighella’s leadership, to scatter the gay throng, the mutinous project seems on the point of being accomplished. For the present, however, Luzio prefers to yield and to disperse his followers, as he must first of all win the real leader of their enterprise: for here was the spot which Isabella had mischievously revealed to him as the place of her pretended meeting with the Regent.

For Friedrich, Luzio therefore lies in wait. Recognizing him in an elaborate disguise, he blocks his way and, as Friedrich violently breaks loose, is on the point of following him with shouts and drawn sword when, on a sign from Isabella, who is hidden among some bushes, he is himself stopped and led away. Isabella then advances, rejoicing in the thought of having restored the betrayed Marianne to her faithless spouse. Believing that she holds in her hand the promised pardon for her brother, she is just on the point of abandoning all thought of further vengeance when, breaking the seal, to her intense horror she recognizes by the light of a torch that the paper contains but a still more severe order of execution, which, owing to her desire not to disclose to her brother the fact of his pardon, a mere chance had now delivered into her hand, through the agency of the bribed gaoler.

After a hard fight with the tempestuous passion of love, and recognizing his helplessness against this enemy of his peace, Friedrich has in fact already resolved to face his ruin, even though as a criminal, yet still as a man of honor. An hour on Isabella’s breast, and then — his own death by the same law whose implacable severity shall also claim Claudio’s life. Isabella, perceiving in this conduct only a further proof of the hypocrite’s villainy, breaks out once more into a tempest of agonized despair.

Upon her cry for immediate revolt against the scoundrelly tyrant, the people collect together and form a motley and passionate crowd. Luzio, who also returns, counsels the people with stinging bitterness to pay no heed to the woman’s fury; he points out that she is only tricking them — for he still believes in her shameless infidelity. Fresh confusion; increased despair of Isabella; suddenly from the background comes the burlesque cry of Brighella for help, who, himself suffering from the pangs of jealousy, has by mistake arrested the masked Regent, and thus led to the latter’s discovery. Friedrich is recognised, and Marianne, trembling on his breast, is also unmasked.

Cries of joy burst forth all round; the needful explanations are quickly given, and Friedrich sullenly demands to be set before the judgment-seat of the returning King. Claudio, released from prison by the jubilant populace, informs him that the sentence of death for crimes of love is not intended for all times; messengers arrive to announce the unexpected arrival in harbor of the King; it is resolved to march in full masked procession to meet the beloved Prince, and joyously to pay him homage, all being convinced that he will heartily rejoice to see how ill the gloomy puritanism of Germany is suited to his hot-blooded Sicily.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Topham_-_Isabella.png image_description=Isabella by Francis William Topham (1808-1877) [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot first_audio_link=http://www.sarastro.info/music/wagner/liebesverbot/vienna_1962/Liebesverbot_Vienna_1962.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot product_by=Angelo: Ernst Salzer; Antonio: Willy Friedrich; Brighella: Ludwig Welter; Claudio: Anton Dermota; Danieli: Franz Handlos; Dorella: Hanny Steffek; Friedrich: Heinz Imdahl; Isabella: Hilde Zadek; Lucio: Kurt Equiluz; Marianna: Christiane Sorell; Pontio Pilato: Herbert Prikopa. Orchester des ORF Wien. Chor des ORF Wien. Director: Robert Heger. Live performance, Vienna, 1962. product_id=Above: Isabella by Francis William Topham (1808-1877) [Source: Wikipedia]
Posted by Gary at 1:29 PM

October 15, 2013

Fun Loving H.M.S. Pinafore Opens Arizona Opera

Of the fourteen works that librettist William Schwenk Gilbert (1836-1911) and composer Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) wrote together, H.M.S. Pinafore is one of the most popular. Its premiere took place on May 25, 1878, at the Opera Comique in Paris before a receptive audience. Although a summer heat wave dampened ticket sales, by September the show was playing to full houses. That same year the first unauthorized version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pinafore premiered in the United States and "Pinafore-Mania" began to sweep the nation. Dolls and other items based on its characters flew off store shelves while media of the time referred to lines from the show.

Approximately one hundred fifty unauthorized productions of Pinafore could be seen in the United States in 1878 and 1879, and not one of their producers paid a cent to the work’s creators. That is why the librettist and the composer boarded a steamship for New York hoping to set matters straight. When they arrived on November 6, 1879, a reporter from the New York Herald interviewed them, and one hundred and thirty-four years later, that interview is online here.

For many years afterwards Gilbert and Sullivan sued various entities in the U.S. in an attempt to establish control over their work and claim the royalties due them. They never succeeded. Pinafore opened in New York at the Fifth Avenue Theater on December 1, 1879. Unfortunately, the authorized version of the show only ran one month because most New Yorkers had already seen local productions.

AZ_Pinafore_02.pngRobert Orth as Sir Joseph Porter, Curt Olds as Captain Corcoran, and the Arizona Opera Chorus

On October 11, Arizona Opera open its 2013-1014 season in Phoenix with Tara Faircloth’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pinafore. As the main feature of his scenic design, Douglas Provost used a set from Tri Cities Opera of Binghamton, NY, which had various levels and compartments that allowed room for the performance of all the shenanigans a comic opera could call for. Colorful, detailed costumes from AT Jones and Sons of Baltimore set the time firmly in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The ladies wore intricate bustles, the sailors sported natty looking uniforms, and the ship’s officers were decked out with tons of gold braid. Director Tara Faircloth devised various types of comic antics for the cast but they never interfered with the singing. Every cast member had good timing and the highest ranks took the steepest pratfalls. There were titles for the sung numbers, but some of the spoken dialogue was rather fast and a bit hard to catch.

As Ralph Rackstraw, David Portillo moved well and his crème caramel lyric tenor voice rang out with passion for Josephine, his true love. Sara Gartland looked enchanting as Josephine and sang with an expanse of surging sound. Her voice was not as sweet as Portillo’s but their tones blended when they sang together. The star of the show was the agile Robert Orth as Sir Joseph Porter, the First Lord of the Admiralty, whom Josephine’s father wanted her to marry. A fine operatic baritone, Orth’s patter was machine gun fast, crisp, and completely understandable.

Mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely created a fascinating character as the lady whom Sir Joseph describes as “plump and pleasing Little Buttercup”. An excellent comedienne with an hourglass figure, she sang her part with an English contralto sound. Baritone Curt Olds has a long history of appearances in musical comedy which he put to good use in Pinafore. As the Captain, he officiated over hi-jinks galore.

Andrew Gray provided a bit of serious respite as the grumbling Dick Deadeye while the talents of two members of Arizona Opera’s young artist program, Beth Lytwynec and Calvin Griffin, added a great deal to the audience’s enjoyment. Henri Venanzi’s small chorus sang with impeccable harmonies and conductor Rob Fisher’s fast, light approach to the score elicited taught, springy rhythms from the ensemble. Arizona Opera gave its Phoenix audience a thoroughly joyous rendition of this lighthearted work.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Sir Joseph Porter, Robert Orth; Captain Corcoran, Curt Olds; Ralph Rackstraw, David Portillo; Josephine, Sara Gartland; Little Buttercup, Susan Nicely; Dick Deadeye, Andrew Gray; The Boatswain, Chris Carr; Cousin Hebe, Beth Lytwynec; The Mate, Calvin Griffin; Conductor, Rob Fisher; Director, Tara Faircloth; Chorus Master Henri Venanzi; Scenic Designer, Douglas Provost; Lighting Designer, Gary Eckhart; Costumes, AT Jones.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AZ_Pinafore_01.png image_description=David Portillo as Ralph Rackstraw and Sara Gartland as Josephine product=yes product_title=Fun Loving H.M.S. Pinafore Opens Arizona Opera product_by=A review by Maria Nockin product_id=Above: David Portillo as Ralph Rackstraw and Sara Gartland as Josephine

Photos by Tim Trumble for Arizona Opera
Posted by maria_n at 1:38 AM

October 13, 2013

Intriguing Duo in San Francisco

Director Robert Carsen’s take on Boito’s Mefistofele not only riveted critics in 1989 and beyond, but has also proved to be a durable success with the paying public. The quirkily intriguing concept brought Mr. Carsen to international attention and launched him on a career that remains to this day decidedly in the fast lane. In a nutshell, ‘heaven’ is located on the stage of an ornate theatre where trumpeting (plaster) angels populate the false proscenium arch and the chorus of citizens jam the stage and cram balcony boxes in sumptuously majestic robes, gowns, crowns and masks of blue, white and gold.

Michael Levine’s extravagant sets and costumes were a perfect companion to Mr. Carsen’s fertile imagination. The ‘heavenly’ opening setting was contrasted with, and bisected by a deep red act curtain painted with violent flames, flown in to represent hell. The serene audience boxes were periaktois that revolved to reveal a structure filled with street revelers deployed in a frenzied, wildly colorful scenario worthy of a fine retabla. The procession of religious floats and the frenetic dancers (well-choreographed by Alphonse Poulin) might have upstaged Faust and the devil had Mr. Carsen not placed them in an elevated focal point in a balcony dead center.

In fact, the director was not only a master of clean and meaningful crowd movement, but also proved equally adept at devising telling interaction between the principals. The highly detailed business that occurred when Faust and Marguerite flirted while Mefistofele and Marta dallied was richly illuminating. Mr. Levine created a skewed music box, with a stylized grove of apple trees, for this lovers (and lusters) encounter in the form of a tilted circle that the heroine’s mother (a mute watchdog) cranked into action when matters got more sexually charged, the floor spinning madly and the apples rolling akimbo.

This garden scene was repeated in a state of ruin and destruction to brilliantly suggest Margherita’s prison. Perhaps the biggest directorial coup was the first Walpurgisnacht which was a cross between Project Runway and a children’s birthday party. When the devil regales the party-hatted, streamer-throwing, party horn-blowing, bratty (adult chorus) kiddies with Ecco il mondo, he refers to a blue balloon that then gets tossed and batted around.

Soon, and subtly, the proceedings get very corrupt, very quickly. In a stunning “the-devil-made-them-do-it” transformation, the innocent children morph into depraved adult sexual beings, their movements encompassing every sexual proclivity, featuring more bouncing bare breasts and bobbling penises on display than in an Amsterdam sex show. The SFO chorus was not only awesomely committed to this uninhibited display, but also sang thrillingly under chorus master Ian Robertson’s tutelage. This was the sort of perfect marriage of material and stagecraft that makes for a career-making signature moment in a production that has justifiably become a classic of its kind. Robert Carsen and Michael Levine have often equaled this definitive work but have yet to surpass it.

We were also fortunate to have a cast of some of today’s top interpreters to serve the work. In the title part, dashing Ildar Abdrazakov was handsome as the devil, and his shirtless appearance prompted much laying on of opera glasses. His mellifluous, full-throated bass-baritone was more the latter than the former and the lower reaches thinned a bit while the very top lost some measure of roundness. But Mr. A knows how to maximize the tireless security of the impressive middle core of his imposing sound and he zinged phrases off the back wall to fine effect. He has an easy stage presence, and he effects a relaxed and suave delivery. Old-timers may miss the electric, wiry physical delivery that Sam Ramey brought to the role, but Ildar makes a substantial claim to be a worthy successor.

Ramon Vargas boasts one of the most beautiful tenor voices currently gracing world stages. His technique is sublime and he is a consummate stylist. Although the role of Faust stretches his lyric voice to the limit (or perhaps because of it), Mr. Vargas contributed some vibrant singing. Much as Carreras was able to achieve a visceral impact with his Cavaradossi sung at ‘the edge,’ Vargas rose thrillingly to the challenge and the effort required was part of that thrill. The outpouring of gleaming tone on the upper phrases was alone worth the price of admission.

Patricia Racette is a treasurable artist and a local favorite, having grown up in the Merola program. SFO’s investment has paid off handsomely, of course, and their confidence is well-founded. Ms. Racette has had considerable success on the international scene in the intervening years. As Margherita, her generous, soft-grained soprano first ably suggested girlish infatuation, then darkened admirably as the girl descended into sin and despair. When she pushes the very top for weighty volume the tone can momentarily lose its core of pitch, but her dramatic intensity, superb artistry and personal investment carry the evening. As Elena, she brought a conscientious sultriness to the part, although a more plush Italianate sound was just beyond her gifts.

Erin Johnson’s blowzy looking Marta (a rare costume design malfunction) found her promisingly plummy voice and sassy personality upstaged by heaving hooters that threatened to spill out of their encasements with every step and every breath.
Ms. Johnson gamely did what was asked of her, but the effect seemed more suited to a Rebel Wilson sitcom episode. Young Chuanyue Wang displayed a warm baritone as Wagner, although a bit light-voiced for the assignment.

In the pit, music director Nicola Luisotti led an enthusiastic and sure-handed reading. Maestro Luisotti elicited a well-shaped, arching performance and generated frequent nuance from the pit, especially in the magnificent crescendo of the entire opening scene (although the opening choral statements were too soft to really make an impression). At times, such as the second scene, the Maestro’s dramatic involvement led to some raucous playing, some scrappy tempi, and some minor balance problems between pit and stage. Like the staging, the finest musical achievement of the night was the perfectly judged Walpurgisnacht that swept all before it.

It is not often that a new opera finds legs as successfully as SFO’s world premiere of Dolores Claiborne (music by Tobias Picker, libretto by J.D. McClatchy). For starters, the production could not have been bettered. While it may have lacked the provocative elements of the Boito, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, lighting designer Christopher Akerlind, and projection designer Greg Emetaz worked as one in realizing a breath-taking, almost cinematic evocation of the story’s diverse Maine locales.

Anyone who attends Opera Theatre of St. Louis regularly will recognize this talented team as frequent collaborators, and would expect in advance just such
a thoughtful and well-integrated presentation. The story in brief tells the tale of an unglamorous anti-heroine who has not only been physically abused by her brutish husband, but suffers for her daughter who becomes the incestuous object of hubby’s interest. Dolores is further tormented by a disdainful wealthy widowed employer, Mrs. Vera Donovan. Dolores not only plots the demise of her spouse, but stands accused of killing the old woman who she serves. There is no doubt that there is operatic potential in the themes, the dramatic action, and the tragic being that is the title character.

Tobias Picker has crafted quite a winning and varied score that incorporates his highly personal style with tried and true operatic tradition. It carries off the considerable feat of being accessible yet contemporary, jagged without being jarring, tuneful without being hackneyed. The angular, leaping lines that sometimes inform his characters’ agitation or confrontation is wonderfully counter-balanced by the serenity and purity of more measured statements. There any number of set pieces that have a well-defined definite dramatic shape and offer an emotion-laden musical journey. The arias are well “buttoned” and generate appreciative applause.

The instrumental colors were vibrant when commenting on the situation or underlining the emotional subtext, and muted when evoking the sea. The murmuring strings that supported the dialogue when the characters rode on a ferry boat were hauntingly beautiful and atmospheric. Mr. Picker also knows how to use musical stings to heighten and punctuate the action. He proves very adept at setting J.D. McClatchy’s gritty, concise libretto, making it plausibly conversational, yet soaringly lyric as the moment warrants. The precise interweaving of disturbing intentions in the final quartet of Act I, which finds Dolores and her employer bolstering each other to justify acts of murder while the husband rapes his daughter, was a consummately effective juxtaposition of musical themes.

Mr. Robinson wrung every bit of drama from the confrontations between these troubled yet simple folks. His character work was ripe with subliminal motives and he drew forth performances of great depth and background. Mr. Moyer’s spectacular settings were gorgeously detailed, starting with a realistic depiction of a jail interrogation room on the stage apron. This was backed by a stage-wide elevated platform that changed out frequently to reveal the mansion, the deserted beach, the deck of a ferry, the dowager’s upstairs bedroom, the Claiborne frame house, and the staircase unit that is key to the plot. Mr. Akerlind’s moody lighting, so critical to the eclipse scene, is wedded beautifully to Mr. Emetaz’s well-calculated projections, especially the first video of Mrs. Donovan falling down the stairs to her death. That visual image presaged the unsettled musical and dramatic roller coaster ride that the characters took all night long. Mr. Schuette’s costumes were spot on, and helped the actors instantly communicate their station in life.

When Dolora Zajick, for whom the title role was written, had to withdraw from the show, she was first replaced by the industrious Patricia Racette. When Patricia had to move on to her already scheduled turn as Margherita, the demanding role was assumed by an artist from the house roster, Catherine Cook. To say that Ms. Cook was a revelation is an understatement, since she stamped the part as her own, and experienced a triumph for her sensational performance. The creators give Dolores a great curtain aria replete with universal sentiments, sweeping melodic invention, and scorching high notes. When her last piercing held note was finally cut off with percussive orchestra stings that recall the end of Salome, the audience leapt to their feet lustily cheering Catherine’s total success.

Ms. Cook is possessed of a round mezzo tone of great beauty, admirable control and potent power in all ranges and at any volume. Best of all, she is also able to float a pianissimo with the best of them. There is so much exposed lyrical high singing required at key musical moments, that is it did not seem ideally tailored to Ms. Zajick’s particular strengths. But the writing fit Ms. Cook like a glove and there was nothing she seemed not able to do to perfection. Happily, she also received outstanding support from her fellow cast members.

Elizabeth Futral has been so successful in so many different genres and at so many companies for so long that it might be easy to take her unaffected excellence for granted. Her silvery tone has darkened a bit with age, and the added weight in the voice imbuing her vocal assumptions with new, deeper colors. Her secure, imperious vocalization of the spoiled rich bitch was a force of nature. Later Ms. Futral was able to meld a haunting world-weariness into her delivery that made her more sympathetic than the material required. The glam Elizabeth offered a star turn that was an excellent contrast with the homey, homely Dolores.

As the villain-you-loved-to-hate, Wayne Tigges had the uncompromising acting chops and the menace in his blistering baritonal delivery to make the evil husband/father a force of nature. His is a sizable, steady, even instrument that would be an asset in many a dramatic opera that require stentorian heroic singing. The lovely young Susannah Biller was hugely impressive as the abused daughter. Her crystalline soprano and limpid tonal production perfectly suggested the young woman, but then assumed a hint of steel when she matures into the bitter twenty-something who hates her mother. It was luxury casting to have an artist the caliber of Greg Fedderly in the smaller but critical role of the police detective. It is not often you get to enjoy such pure, clear vocalization in such a minor part. In the other smaller assignments, the Merola artists acquitted themselves admirably. Mr. Robertson’s chorus enlivened the party scene, but the choral writing was perhaps my least favorite part of the production. On one hearing, the ensembles seemed too dense to be intelligible.

In the pit, George Manahan held everything together with a sure hand, and pulled every bit of virtuosity out of the admirable SFO orchestra who played with passion and purity. The many memorable musical effects were by turns pleasurable, disturbing, dynamic, and serene, and Mr. Manahan was Maestro of them all. The audience seemed to take in Dolores Claiborne with rapt attention, riveted by the story, engaged by the stage craft, and beguiled by the fresh score.

James Sohre

Dolores Claiborne (Tobias Picker and J.D. McClatchy)

Dolores Claiborne: Catherine Cook; Selena St. George: Susannah Biller; Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly; Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futral; Maids: Nikki Einfeld, Jacqueline Piccolino, Marina Harris, Laura Krumm, Renee Rapier; Joe St. George: Wayne Tigges; Teenage Boy: Hadleigh Adams; Teenage Girl: Nikki Einfeld; Mr. Pease, a Bank Manager: Joel Sorenson; Mr. Cox: Robert Watson; Mr. Knox: A.J. Glueckert; Mr. Fox: Hadleigh Adams; Conductor: George Manahan; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Projection Design: Greg Emetaz; Chorus Master: Ian Robertson

Mefistofele (Arrigo Boito)

Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov; Faust: Ramon Vargas; Wagner: Chuanyue Wang; Adam: Luke Lazzaro; Eve: Brook Broughton; Margherita/Elena: Patricia Racette; Marta: Erin Johnson; Pantalis: Renee Rapier; Nereo: Chanyue Wang; Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Director: Robert Carsen; Revival Director: Laurie Feldman; Set and Costume Design: Michael Levine; Lighting Design: Gary Marder (based on the design by Duane Schuler); Chorus Master: Ian Robertson; Choreographer: Alphonse Poulin; Wig and Make-up Design: Gerd Mairandres

image_description=Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]

product_title=Intriguing Duo in San Francisco
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Patricia Racette [Photo by Devon Cass]

Posted by james_s at 5:13 PM

The Tragedy of Carmen, Syracuse Opera

But the production’s austere minimalist set and Peter Brook’s condensing of Bizet’s magnificent operatic score may not suit every listener’s tastes

The story of Carmen has been told countless times in countless ways — from the original novella by French author Prosper Mérimée that formed the nucleus of Bizet’s opera to the cinema (The Loves of Carmen with Rita Hayworth) to Broadway (Carmen Jones), and from ballet to Bugs Bunny cartoons. But few settings have captured the drama surrounding a proud soldier self-destructing over his relentless obsession with a gypsy femme fatale with as much emotional power and lyrical passion as Bizet’s Carmen.

Syracuse Opera’s season-opening production of The Tragedy of Carmen, a scaled-down but dramatically intense adaptation of Bizet’s opera by Peter Brook, gave listeners a taste of the story many had not experienced before and did so with some strong individual singing efforts. And although some listeners expecting to re-live the splendor of Bizet’s Carmen may have left the theater disappointed, the broad shouts of approval at the production’s conclusion suggests that great drama, expressed unconventionally, may merit a look.

Brook, the British-born theater and opera director widely respected for his productions of Shakespeare, offers much to contemplate in this boldly edited distillation of the Bizet masterpiece. Gone are the choruses, ensemble numbers (other than the duets) and several of the characters. Brook gives Carmen a second life, reworking Bizet’s music and libretto into a highly concentrated and emotionally intense reduction of the composer’s original.

At one-third the length of Carmen (the opera), The Tragedy of Carmen is an 80-minute product perhaps best labeled as Carmen Lite. And like Bud Light, Brook’s version is less filling. But whether the new product also tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.

I have to go on record admitting that I don’t much care for the Peter Brook version. I applaud his vision in focusing on and intensifying the dramatic aspects of Carmen, even though that means trimming away the fat. But it is well to remember that reducing fat also compromises taste. And for those like me who have spent many happy years basking in the sheer beauty and power of Bizet’s dazzling score, it’s difficult to embrace an alternate version that pares its music to Reader’s Digest proportions while reducing a full-size orchestra to a 15-piece chamber ensemble.

A second problem for Bizet enthusiasts is the depressing set used for the current production of The Tragedy of Carmen — which may have had some listeners wondering whether they took the wrong door and ended up at an Ingmar Bergman film festival.

Certainly, the set has to remain faithful to Brook’s dark, desolate and nightmarish drama in which all four characters are doomed. But Syracuse Opera’s ultra-bare minimalist set — a large circular carousel with a small black table and chair — captured the expressionistic atmosphere of the drama with uncompromising sterility. Eighty minutes of despair in a dark room is hard to take. When I left the theater I was ready for light therapy.

But whatever your feelings on the Brook setting and austere set, there is much to love in the singing here, and Ola Rafalo — singing her first-ever role of Carmen — deserves the lion’s (or should I say tigress’s) share of the credit.

Rafalo’s dark and richly hued mezzo soprano during the sultry Habanera established her character immediately as a seductress par excellence, and her pitch in the devious Seguidilla was incredibly accurate — with no sign of seams when navigating through vocal registers during thespacious octave leaps that permeate this demanding aria.

Rafalo’s acting skills are quite satisfactory in this role, buoyed by her good looks and attractive figure that breathe life into her persona as a deadly siren. When Rafalo performed the Castanets Dance in front of Don José, the poor soul remained frozen like a deer caught in the headlights. I especially loved her rendition of the famous Triangle Song, which she delivered in bravura fashion— although I wish she had danced this, as is customary, instead of simply twirling around a shawl.

We only hear the role of Micaëla at the beginning and end of the Brook version and that’s a shame, because soprano Colleen Daly’s silky and deeply penetrating soprano provided a treat for the ears I wish did not have to end. Daly’s duet with Don José at the smugglers’ camp was full of expression and nuance, and she projected well throughout the performance, with credible French diction.

As the doomed soldier Don José, Brent Reilly Turner overcame some tightness in his throat early on in his duet with Daly and found his voice, in all its glory, during the magnificent Flower Song (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée), which he delivered with great depth of feeling. The role of Don José in the Brook adaptation does not garner the same degree of sympathy as in the Bizet opera. The troubled soldier comes across here as little more than a cold hearted, cutthroat murderer — having killed his captain (Zuniga), Carmen’s husband García (a character in the original novella who does not appear in Bizet’s opera), and ultimately Carmen herself.

Had the bull not killed Escamillo, Don José may very have obliged him, as well.

Turner, whose acting Friday left something to be desired, nevertheless forged a character that appeared believably disillusioned with his life and his continuous spiral downwards into the depths of despair. Still, his exaggerated sobbing and uncontrollable cries of anguish at the end, as he kills Carmen, was over-the-top and unconvincing.

Like Turner, Wes Mason as the toreador Escamillo needed some time to shift his pleasant baritone into “drive.” He clipped his phrases in short staccato spurts at the at the beginning of his signature Toreador song before expanding the melodic lines into a smoothly sustained legato that laid bare the handsome quality of his voice. His baritone carried easily throughout the theater, and his high notes were solidly on-pitch. Mason, who raised eyebrows in the crowd when he removed his shirt, made the cover of the Barihunks blogspot — which touts itself as showing off “The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera.” There may be a promising career ahead for this man — either as a singer, or a Chippendale.

The 15-piece orchestra, all of whom except the pianist comprises Symphoria musicians, provided excellent instrumental accompaniment in this newfangled chamber transcription provided by Brook’s musical collaborator, Marius Constant. Because the performance started some 25-minutes late (due to an unspecified “technical glitch”), intonation among the wind and brass instruments began slightly off-kilter, but the seasoned musicians brought pitch under control sooner than the crowd could say “Habanera.” The Entr’acte music with flute (Deborah Coble) and harp (Ursula Kwasnicka) was especially lovely.

Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost, Producing and Artistic Director for Syracuse Opera, followed the singers faithfully and maintained a proper balance between singers and instrumentalists that was well suited to the live acoustics of the Carrier Theater.

For this production, Syracuse Opera chose to use French, the language of Brook’s original, even though a perfectly adequate English translation by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) is available and widely used in this country. I applaud Syracuse Opera for sticking to the original language for the arias and duets. But there’s no good reason why the spoken dialogue couldn’t have been delivered in English, the way the company had done in past productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. As it was, Bruce Paulsen (as Lillas Pastia) was the only one of the three speak-only roles whose French was even remotely intelligible. Common sense dictates either using English for the spoken dialogue, or else hiring actors whose résumés include French 101. Stage Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman’s antics ranged from the daring (simulated sex scene between Carmen and Don José) to the dangerous (choreographed knife fights). The fight sequence between Don José and Escamillo conjured a convincing sense of realism and danger that had me wondering whether Workers Comp covers opera-related injuries. I especially liked Buchman’s clever and audacious touches during Carmen’s Habanera scene, as the seductress appears to fondle Micaëla from behind, then raises the girl’s arms and begins to work her as one would a marionette.

Buchman’s use of an orchestra recording of the Toreador section in the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen during Escamillo’s nightmare sequence — where he foresees his impending death at the bullfight ring — proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I appreciated this clever touch and the pantomime that accompanied it. On the other hand, hearing this excerpt from the full-orchestra version made me long that much more for Bizet’s original score.

The barren set demands suitable compensatory lightening effects, which were craftily managed by Christopher Ostrom’s spotting on the characters at the proper moments. The stage remains dark and gloomy throughout the performance, so lighting is limited exclusively to spotlighting characters at dramatically opportune moments. For example, when Micaëla pleads with Don José to return home to his dying mother, only Carmen is illuminated — suggesting that Don José’s infatuation will prevail over dear old mom.

The present Syracuse Opera production, which runs through Oct. 20, signals a return to Carrier Theater at which the company routinely performed in its earlier years. The theater, which can accommodate about 463 listeners, allows an ease of projection on the part of the singers and instrumentalists that is flattering at even the softest dynamic levels. Moreover, there’s not a bad seat (either aurally or visually) in the house. On the other hand, the size of the orchestra pit is limited, which may affect the company’s choice of repertory. Even with a pit of only 14 instruments, the piano used in this production had to be positioned outside the pit (and out of sight), stage left.

I’m glad I saw this production of The Tragedy of Carmen. Even beyond the fine singing (and in particular the memorable performance of Ola Rafalo) there’s merit to seeing an old favorite rebottled as new product. To be sure, Peter Brook provides an interesting concept in his newly brewed Carmen Lite.

But in this case, one drink is my limit.

David Abrams

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OlaRafalomezzo.png image_description=Ola Rafało [Photo by Uzan International Artists] product=yes product_title=The Tragedy of Carmen, Syracuse Opera product_by=A review by David Abrams product_id=Above: Ola Rafało [Photo by Uzan International Artists]
Posted by Gary at 4:32 PM

Carmen, Yet Again

It will be performed more than 500 times this year in 104 cities from Aachen to Zurich with stops before such diverse populations as the residents of Reno and Riga, Mersin and Maribor. Likely comics and schoolkids in Nizhni Novgorod where it will also appear in 20013, sing Russian jingles to the “Toreador Song”

The Los Angeles Opera too, assured itself of success by opening its current (2003-14) season with the work. The company chose to repeat a production created by Emilio Sagi for the Teatro Real of Madrid in 2002, which it had previously performed in 2004 and 2008 to enthusiastic reviews.

I, too, enjoy Carmen’s music, but have yet to see a performance that has persuaded me to love the opera.

Georges Bizet created Carmen in 1875 as a commission for the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Offered several subjects for his new work by the company, Bizet rejected them all. Despite warnings that the tale was too harsh and brutal for the Opéra-Comique’s audience, he insisted on basing his opera on Prosper Mérimée’s novella, Carmen, about a sexually free gypsy smuggler, who is murdered by her lover. Promising to accommodate the Comique’s standards, his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, a duo who specialized in light weight works, tried to clean Carmen up by decriminalizing most of her activities, and by counterbalancing her free loving ways with God fearing Micaëla (who does not appear in the Mérimée work). Unfortunately, they still had Don José kill Carmen in a jealous rage, which did not sit well with the local folks. Bizet died at age 36 thinking the work a failure.

Gypsies were hot theatrical box office in the 19th century in large part in response to an 1827 poem by Alexander Pushkin, titled The Gypsies, which is said to have been based on the poet’s torrid, but brief experience living in a gypsy camp. They also found their way into opera. Sergei Rachmaninoff ‘s opera Aleko is based directly on the poem. Mérimée’s tale too, owes much to the Pushkin. Verdi’s gypsies, Azucena (Il Trovatore) Preziosilla(La Forza del destino) and Ulrica ( Masked Ball) are far less glamorous than Carmen, but Victor Hugo’s young and beautiful Esmeralda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) also became an opera heroine in La Esmeralda, an opera by Louise Bertin, for which Hugo, himself, wrote the libretto.

Sagi’s production features large, full stage sets. The first act set and costumes particularly, created an unengaged, unrealistic mood. Cigarette girls in gauzy pale costumes and the solders in elegant white cutaway coats, did nothing to whet the appetite for passion. Micaëla, in long, heavy garments and daintily heeled shoes, could never have gotten through mountain passes in her search for Don José.

Though Carmen is an opera whose plot purports to turn on love, it is a work essentially devoid of love - and of the music of love. Every word that Carmen speaks, every phrase she sings to José - even as he recalls the cherished flower she gave him, is nasty and taunting. Did she ever love him? Or did she seduce him only to escape prison? She does make one declaration of love in the opera. It is a brief, unimpassioned repetition of the love melody Escamillo sings to her in the last act. Is she in love now? The music isn’t convincing. And isn’t he the one who bought her that snazzy red dress? I find only two emotionally engaging moments in the opera. Carmen’s card song, predicting her death, and José’s “Flower Song”. And yes, add his outbursts of anger in the last scene. Micaëla does not sing of love. Nothing that Micaëla’s says or sings makes her believable. No music Bizet composed, no words Meilhac or Halévy wrote, no shading any sopranos have brought to these two roles, has led me to respond to these women as other than stock characters.

Patricia Bardon was a mildly sexy Carmen. Though her dark mezzo soprano suited the musical range of the character, her dancing (mostly skirt swishing) was far from seductive. Her second act dance (Carmen’s reward to José for returning to her after his imprisonment), performed without castanets (the clacking came from the orchestra) was pallid. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich, who sang Don José, is a singer who moves easily from Puccini to Wagner. His lyricism stood him in good stead in the “Flower Song” - his power and dramatic capacity highlighted the last scene. Bass baritone, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, usually a commanding presence in any cast, seemed somewhat lack luster as Escamillo. But then, the Toreador’s entrances and exits, which are generally staged as brilliant, almost pompous affairs, were undramatic. The sound of Escamillo’s voice singing the “Toreador Song” before his third act appearance evoked audience laughter, as did his invitation to Don José to fight with him, reflecting a problem in stage direction. Soprano Pretty Yende, debuting with the company, was a charming, lyrical Micaëla. Though the libretto implies that Micaëla, an orphan, and Don José, were brought up almost as sister and brother, there was a strange lack of familiarity between them, to say nothing of love. Hae Ji Chang as Frasquita, and Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Mercédès performed a delightful and well sung duet. Keith Jameson and Museop Kim were convincing as El Remendado and El Dancaïre.

Conductor ‎Plácido Domingo offered a whiplashed overture, and a performance that emphasized rhythm over lyricism. The Los Angeles Children’s chorus acquitted themselves well, and except for a moment at its third act entrance, so did the Los Angeles Chorus.

The colorful costumes and fiery choreography created by Nuria Castejón encapsulated the sexiness and tension lacking elsewhere.

Perhaps some day, with a passionate advocate in the pit, producers, directors, and actor/singers committed to make its possessed character’s motives emotionally meaningful, I will see a performance of Carmen I, too, can love. But I fear the opera’s faults lie with Messieurs Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet, so I’m not very optimistic.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Carmen:Patricia Bardon; Don José:Brandon Jovanovich; Micaëla:Pretty Yende; Escamillo: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Zuniga:Valentin Anikin; Moralès:Daniel Armstrong; Frasquita: Hae Ji Chang; Mercédès: Cassandra Zoé Velasco; El Remendado: Keith Jameson; Dancaïre:Museop Kim. Conductor: Plácido Domingo. Original Production: Emilio Sagi. Director: Trevore Ross. Set Designer: Gerardo Trotti. Costume Designer: Jesús del Pozo. Lighting Designer: Guido Levi. Original Choreographer: Nuria Castejón.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CrmN1170.png image_description=Patricia Bardon (Carmen) in Act Two of "Carmen" with Brandon Jovanovich, in background, as Don Jose. [Photo by Robert Millard] product=yes product_title=Carmen, Yet Again product_by=A review by Estelle Gilson product_id=Above: Patricia Bardon (Carmen) in Act Two of "Carmen" with Brandon Jovanovich, in background, as Don Jose. [Photo by Robert Millard]
Posted by E_Gilson at 4:19 PM

L’Arpeggiata: Mediterraneo

One might think that this sort of acoustic recipe would produce a dog’s dinner of a musical fusion. But, at the Wigmore Hall L’Arpeggiata showed us that such a brew can result not in a confusing concoction but rather in a new idiom — a dialogue of diverse musical modes which share, and are underpinned by, hypnotically revolving bass lines and effortlessly spun silky melodies, delivered with improvisatory genius.

Founded by director and theorbo player, Christina Pluhar, L’Arpeggiata is a flexible group combining early-music specialists with vocalists from the ‘olive frontier’. The textural complexity of theorbo, chitarra battente, baroque harp, cornetto and psaltery is complemented by the intriguing harmonic nuances of traditional southern songs. Presenting Mediterraneo, the title of the group’s most recent CD recording, L’Arpeggiata created a ceaseless sequence of melodious narrative, propelled by the romance and mystery of the Mediterranean waters which lap the shores of Puglia, and by the venomous bite of the tarantula spider whose toxic threat, it is believed, can be cured by the wild energy of the tarantella dance.

The foundation block upon which the musical amalgam stands firm is the supreme technical mastery of each of the performers, and at the core of the recital were the instrumental tarantellas and improvisations that melded the songs together. Bassist Boris Schmidt provided a rock solid footing upon which the others could build, but one loosened with rhythmic restlessness and spontaneous flourishes, the tone ever rich and full. Schmidt sashayed effortlessly from backdrop to foreground. Taking his turn in a strikingly inventive stream of instrumental obbligati in Maurizio Cazzati’s Ciaccona Op.22 No.14, Schmidt astonished with his agility and dexterity, while in ‘Tarantella napolitana, Tono hypodorico’ he indulged his jazz groove. The relaxed, curling melodies which emanated from Doron Sherwin’s wooden cornetto were equally and compellingly seductive; in Henry de Bailly’s ‘Yo soy la locura’ (I am madness), the springy syncopations of the bass provided the perfect platform for Sherwin’s delicious between-verse dialogue with the snaps and clacks of David Mayoral’s dancing castanets.

Mayoral’s astonishing percussion playing drew gasps in ‘Tarantella Maria di Nardó’, as he coaxed a magical array of tones and beats, sometimes simultaneously, from the simplest of musical means: a single drum skin emitted a panoply of strokes, taps and pitches. Composed by L’Arpeggiata’s guitarist Marcello Vitale, the piece also showcased his own prowess, as he imbued the intricate baroque guitar accompaniment with thrilling vitality and dynamism.

Margit Übellacker’s psaltery added a coloristic excitement to the instrumental texture, her hammers caressing and pummelling the strings with a wonderful blend of precision and passion, and providing a sweetly consoling postlude to the lullaby, ‘Ninna nanna sopra la Romanesca’. Harpist Sarah Ridy, whose obvious joy at the communal creativity was a delight to witness, softly painted the sorrowful ebb and flow of waves and tears, as the poet-narrator was overcome by loneliness and wistful longing.

Leading us through the tales, with their twists of mood and outbursts of emotion, were soprano Raquel Andueza, and Vincenzo Capezzuto, a ‘male soprano’. Capezzuto is not a classically trained countertenor; his voice has the easeful inflection of the pop balladeer complemented by the nuanced inflection of the singer-actor, and such qualities absolutely enchanted in songs such as ‘Agapimu fidela protini’ (My true love; traditional Greek-Salentino) and the Italian folksong ‘Silenziu d’amuri’ (Silence of love). The concluding lines of the latter — ‘swallows, fly to my beloved/ and sing for her in life and death./ These rustic parts are like the whole world. / You are the queen and I am the king of Spain.’ — possessed a quiet dignity and repose. The dark resonances of Pulhar’s resounding theorbo accompanied ‘Stu’ criatu’ (What’s created/Tarantella del Gargano), as the singer took us to more sombre realms and deeper truths: ‘Children come from God/ and nothing that has been created/ should be destroyed.’ The rhythmic incisiveness of the vocal line in the traditional Greek-Salentino song, ‘Agapimu fidela protini’ (My true love) injected poignant feeling into the narrative: ‘When I waken, you are not there,/ and then I cry bitter tears.

No mean dancer himself, Capezzuto was drawn into the spider’s spins and springs in ‘Pizzica di San Vito’ (St. Vitus’s Dance/Tarantella), by dancer Anna Dego, whose flying leap into Capezzuto’s arms reinforced his own urgent wish that his lover should not forget him. Dego’s infectious energy and commitment brought great immediacy to some of the songs, no more so than in ‘Pizzicarella mia’ (My little scallyway) which found Capezzuto in more playful mode, his voice lightly caressing the text, the melody buoyant and blithe: ‘My little scallywag,/ the way you walk, la li la, the way you walk is dancing.’ The dancer’s ferocious, unpredictably physicality complemented the musical virtuosity in ‘La Carpinese’ (Tarantella), as her twists and leaps embodied the sultry warmth of the fire and sun which enflame the woman’s passion.

Capezzuto was joined by Andueza, their voices forming a harmonious blend in duets such as the traditional Greek-Salentino ‘Are mou rindineddha’ (Who knows, little swallows) which opened the performance, instantly establishing a mood of magic and mystery, inviting the audience to skim and soar with the elusive swallows. ‘Ninna nanna sopra la Romanesca’ possessed a gentle lyricism; ‘Oriamu Pisulina’ (My darling Pisulina) was fittingly reticent and restrained, expressing the timid innocence and mild irritation of the faithful lover who is teased and mocked by his thoughtless, indifferent beloved.

Andueza’s soprano guided the narrative lilt of the traditional Catalan song, ‘La dama d’Aragó’ (The lady of Aagon) with beautiful ease; and, the tender repetitions of the final lines of ‘De Santanyí vaig partir’ (I left Santanyí) expressed nostalgia and sorrow, enhanced by the theorbo’s unobtrusive but communicative support. Andueza voice may lack some of the diversity of colour of Capezzuto, but the higher register of ‘Son ruinato’ (I am ruined) brought a harder edge to her melodic lines, fitting for a protagonist whose is ‘ruined with passion’. This was rich characterisation: subsequently, the vocal line sank to burnished lower realms; the dejection of the text, ‘I am desperate/ I have been killed’, was enhanced by the sparse theorbo echoes.

Improvisation of immense inventiveness and immediacy underpinned all these numbers, which segued with scarcely a halt (in performing contexts other than the venerable Wigmore Hall, spontaneous applause and praise might have further smudged the ‘joins’). Particularly striking was ‘La Dia Spagnola’, a triple time chaconne which spanned an arresting range of moods from turbulence to serenity, elation to melancholy. In an evening of pure and joyful music making, L’Arpegiatta proved that when art meets folk meets jazz, the result is harmony: music connects not divides.

Claire Seymour

L'Arpeggiata perform twice more in the season at the Wigmore Hall: Friday 21st March 2014 — L’Amore Innamorato (Christina Pluhar director, theorbo; Nuria Rial soprano ), and Thursday 10th July 2014 — Music for a While ( L’Arpeggiata; Christina Pluhar director, theorbo; Philippe Jaroussky countertenor )

Performers and programme:

L’Arpeggiata: Christina Pluhar - director, theorbo; Raquel Andueza — soprano; Vincenzo Capezzuto —male soprano; Anna Dego — dancer; Doron Sherwin — cornetto; Margit Übellacker — psaltery; Sarah Ridy — baroque harp; Marcello Vitale — baroque guitar, chitarra battente; David Mayoral — percussion; Boris Schmidt — double bass.

Traditional (Greek-Salentino), Are mou Rindineddha; Anon. (17th century), Tres Sirenas;Cazzati, Ciaccona; Traditional (Italy), Stu' criatu (Tarantella del Gargano); Kircher, Tarantella napolitana, Tono hypodorico; Traditional (Italy), Pizzicarella mia (Pizzica); Le Bailly, Yo soy la locura; Improvisation, La Dia Spagnola; Traditional (Italy), La Carpinese (Tarantella del Carpino);Improvisation, Canario; Vitale, Tarantella Maria di Nardò;Traditional (Italy), Ninna, nanna sopra la Romanesca; Traditional (Catalan), De Santayi vaig partir;Traditional (Greek-Salentino), Agapimu fidela protini; Ferrari, Son ruinato, appassionato;Traditional (Greek-Salentino), Oriamu Pisulina; Traditional (Catalan), La Dama d'Arago;Traditional (Italy), Pizzica di San Vito (Tarantella);Pisador, Los delfines; Improvisation, Sfessania; Traditional (Italy), Silenziu d'amuri; Traditional (Italy), Lu Passariellu (Tarantella Pugliese)

Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 10th October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/foto_arpeggiata_group.png image_description=L’Arpeggiata [Photo by International Classical Artists] product=yes product_title=L’Arpeggiata: Mediterraneo product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: L’Arpeggiata [Photo by International Classical Artists]
Posted by Gary at 3:46 PM

Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall

Pitched past pitch of grief’, embody the connecting theme of this recital: the metaphysical convergence of twilight and death. However, tenor Toby Spence and pianist Julian Milford presented texts pondering the connection between the external landscape and the inner mind which offered a wider range of experiences than Hopkins’ emotional descent into blackness and grief, soothing us with glimpses of peace, consolation and hopes for regeneration.

Sleep, death and dreams were recurring images in Benjamin Britten’s oeuvre, and the composer’s arrangement of the folksong, ‘At the mid hour of night’, introduced us in restrained fashion to the evening’s theme. Sombre, intoning 5ths in the piano bass tolled the midnight hour. Spence began gently, even a little reticently; the diction was clear, the voice tender but perhaps lacking sufficient characterisation to draw out the magical ecstasy of the brief narrative. A flourish from Julian Milford, sudden and elusive, gave presence to the wild song ‘which once ’twas rapture to hear’.

Schubert’s ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, settings of two songs sung by the peculiar harper in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre, followed, Milford quietly strumming the strange harmonies of the opening spread chords of ‘Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt’ (Who gives himself to loneliness) and establishing an eerie air. Goethe’s eponymous hero has visited the old harper in the hope that he might learn how to dispel his loneliness, and Spence inflected a moving melancholy note, spinning and sustaining a beautiful pianissimo line, dynamics and breathing perfectly controlled. The fairly restrained emotions of this song, were swept away by the restless piano introduction to ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß’ (Who never ate his bread with tears), and by the earnest desperation of the opening vocal lines, ‘Wer nie die Kummervollen Nächte/ Auf seinem Bette Weinend saß’ (who never through the anxious nights/ sat weeping on his bed); here Spence gave us the first glimpse of the depth of characterisation and elucidation that he can bring to even the briefest song. The second stanza build through a powerful crescendo, eerie repetitions focusing the text’s emotional agitation, complemented by strong harmonic assertions in the piano.

Spence was not entirely comfortable in the third of the set, ‘An die Türen’ (I’ll steal from door to door), sounding a little strained in the sustained higher lying lines, but the subsequent hymn-like ‘Im Abendrot’ had a beautifully soft ethereality enriched by glimmers of the golden radiance and red glowing of the setting sun. The final verse faded with quiet resignation into an acceptance that ‘dies Herz, eh’ es zusammenbricht,/ Trinkt noch Glut und schlürft noch Licht’ (this heart, before it breaks, shall still drink fire and savour light).

The graceful arcs of Milford’s accompaniment introduced Beethoven’s ‘Adelaide’ in which the constancy and devotion of the lover is expressed through imagery of natural sublimity, modulated only by the evening breezes and thoughts of the flowers which will bloom on the lover’s grave which inject a hint of sorrow. This was a confident, dramatic interpretation: Spence brought an ardent vigour to the visions of nature’s splendour, building to a quasi-operatic close: the resonant image of the purple leaves which will adorn the narrator’s resting place shimmering with the name, ‘Adelaide!’, was matched by the resounding intensity of the vocal delivery. ‘Ich liebe dich’ is a gentler love song, but Spence injected much feeling into the opening rising 6th, making the most of a simple gesture to convey the song’s modest truthfulness. Milford lyrically introduced new melodic material in the second stanza, and the naturalness of the interplay between voice and accompaniment created a mood of calm, before the diffident return of the initial vocal phrase to begin stanza three. The arching melodies of the coda and the repetition of the final lines of text, reassured us of God’s blessing and protection.

Brahms’ well-known ‘Wiegenlied’ (Cradle song) was delivered without sentimentality; the pace was fairly slow, the textures rich, the piano’s swinging rhythms redolent of the blanketing nocturnal presence which embraces the sleeping child’s crib. Spence’s delicate pianissimo at the start of the second stanza evoked the otherworldly translucence of the angels who watch over infant’s dreams. Dusk settled over the Wigmore Hall towards the close of the first half of the recital. In Brahms’ substantial song, ‘Abenddämmerung’ (Twilight), Milford skilfully conveyed the rich musical narrative which the complex and ever-changing accompaniment articulates. Recalling those once loved now lost, Spence imbued the closing verses with a meditative air, slowing the tempo for the final stanza and thoughtfully colouring the text; the harmonies darkened, before Milford’s perfectly placed major cadence reassured us once more of the union of heaven and earth which is reached through sleep and death. An assertive reading of Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s ‘Evening Hymn’ brought the first half to a close, the vigour of the repetitions, ‘Hallelujah’, reinforcing this spirit of hope and replacing the mood of calm with one of confident rejoicing.

The second half of the programme comprised Britten’s 1945 song-cycle, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’, and offered weightier, more fervent explorations of the theme, inspiring some wonderfully impassioned responses from Spence and Milford. The rhetorical pounding of the accompaniment in ‘Oh my blacke Soule’ was a disturbing death knell, and provided a springboard for Spence’s flexible melodic lines as he relished both the harmonic piquancy and the rhythmic disjunctures of Britten’s imaginative text setting. Once again the tenor’s impressive pianissimo in the final lines was touching, but this mood was roughly swept aside by the moto perpetuo of ‘Batter my heart’. The clarity, lightness and evenness of Milford’s scurrying accompaniment were noteworthy, and the unequivocal incisiveness of the ending shocking. In ‘O might those sighes and teares’ the performers made much of Britten’s response to the sonnet’s volta, the syncopated dissonant interplay of the first eight lines, with their mood of questioning unrest, giving way to the sparse and harrowing expressions of disconsolate despair with which the poem ends, powerfully conveyed by Milford’s thin high piano register and Spence’s slightly hollow vocal timbre.

‘Oh, to vex me’ was restless and mercurial, Spence’s voice fleetingly running through the text, concluding with a disconcerting melisma, ‘when I shake with fear’. ‘What if this present’ began and ended with arresting rhetorical gestures, although once again Spence exhibited some slight strain in the higher forte passages. ‘Since she whom I lov’d’ was wonderfully affecting, however, the major tonality and warm lyricism offering succour and relief. Spence revealed his ability to plunge the metaphysical depths of Donne’s complex verse in ‘At the round earth’s imagin’d corners’; after the minor key sombreness of the plea, ‘Teach me how to repent’, the penitent defencelessness of the unaccompanied final line, ‘As if thou had seal’d my pardon, with thy blood’, was chilling in its intensity.

An impetuous account of ‘Thou hast made me’ concluded magisterially, before the final sonnet, ‘Death be not proud’, provided quiet consolation: ‘And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.’

After what had been a fairly short programme, we were offered two encores which stayed true to the theme: Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’ — a memorial for the poet, Matthäus von Collins, in which the singer lures the moon and the spirits to visit his dreams — and Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s ‘Music for a while’ which gifts us the ultimate musical solace from life’s grief and fears.

The sustained warm applause was recognition not only the invention and richness of the interpretations we had enjoyed but also of the strong sense of good will and affection felt by the audience for a singer who must have faced his own dark questions during his recent recovery from thyroid cancer. While the publicity gush that through ‘a tough recovery process and personal introspection, Toby Spence has gained profound insights into the human condition’ may have been once step too far in the direction of pretentious twaddle, the recital revealed that there is no doubting Spence’s musical intelligence and artistry.

Claire Seymour


Traditional arr. Benjamin Britten, ‘At the mid hour of night’; Franz Schubert, ‘Gesänge des Harfners’, ‘Im Abendrot’; Ludwig van Beethoven, ‘Adelaide’, ‘Ich liebe dich’; Johannes Brahms, ‘Wegenlied’, ‘Abenddämmerung’; Henry Purcell, ‘Evening hymn’ (realised Britten); Benjamin Britten, ‘The Holy Sonnets of John Donne’. Toby Spence, tenor; Julian Milford, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Friday 11th October 2013

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Toby_Spence.png image_description=Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins] product=yes product_title=Toby Spence, Wigmore Hall product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Toby Spence [Photo © Mitch Jenkins]
Posted by Gary at 3:31 PM

Benjamin Britten: War Requiem

it demands performances which make a memorable, indelible mark on our consciousness and conscience. This haunting, arresting performance at the Royal Festival Hall by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, will surely be treasured and esteemed, ineradicably etched in the minds and hearts of all present.

Composed for the rededication of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, following its destruction during WWII, the score of the War Requiem is immensely demanding is numerous ways. First, huge orchestral forces are required: a large orchestra, chamber orchestra, large choir, boys’ choir, three soloists - the soprano singing with the forces of the main chorus, baritone and tenor aligned with the chamber instrumentalists. These personnel not only require consummate handling and control in performance, but also thorough, rigorous preparation. On this occasion, throughout the performance Jurowski’s commanding appreciation and manipulation of the whole and of the details and minutiae was impressively assured; the merest sign from the baton, clear and precise, was all that the performers required, and confident, communal understanding was unfailingly evident.

But, more than this, the preparation of the vast forces had clearly been exemplary. The London Philharmonic Choir sang throughout as one voice, having been impressively marshalled by Chorus Director, Neville Creed. Creed also conducted the chamber orchestra with a notable attentiveness and sensitivity, directing the instrumentalists with intelligent expressivity but always alert to their function within the larger whole. Leader Peter Schoerman and the other instrumentalists played exquisitely and affectively, intermittent soloists within the broader canvas.

Trinity Boys’ Choir performed confidently, expertly prepared by director David Swinson. One small proviso though: their opening lines in the Requiem aeternum were almost inaudible, and they were hushed and distant throughout; while this certainly suggested a remote separation from human concerns, a little more ‘presence’ might have brought greater sense of the power of their ‘innocence’.

The second challenge that Britten presents is the score’s integration of different linguistic and musical strata, the Latin Mass and the poetry of Wilfred Owen interlacing in intricate ways, supported by complex orchestral textures and dialogues. This necessitates a penetrating vision, in order to appreciation and communicate the way in which the separate strands cohere to convey a powerful singular message. It was William Plomer, Britten’s librettist for Gloriana and the Church Parables, who wrote that: ‘It is a function of creative men to perceive the relations between thoughts, or things, or forms of expression that may seem utterly different, and to be able to combine them in some new form.’ In this regard, Jurowski provided a compelling and inspiring framework, but the massed celebrants of the Mass, each of the soloists and the members of the small chamber orchestra also demonstrated an intuitive understanding of their role within the larger whole.

The London Philharmonic Chorus powerfully communicated the ritual emotions of the Mass, making Britten’s complex, challenging choral writing sound relatively straightforward. In the opening Requiem aeternum, their pianissimo ‘Kyrie eleison’ shimmered with an unearthly glow, while at the start of the subsequent Dies Irae they responded with thrilling passion to the terror and drama of the angular off-beat brass - the vigorous horn fanfares recalling the bugle calls of the Serenade and of Owen Wingrave - before subsiding to an eerie, exhausted calm: ‘Mors stupebit et natura/ Cum resurget creatura/ Judicanti responsura’ (Death and nature will be astounded/ When creation rises again/ To answer the Judge). The sopranos and altos pleaded with focused unity in the ‘Recordare’ before the male choral voices made more urgent pleas, underpinned by the pressing rhythms of the horns. In the Offertorium, the complex textures of interlacing choral and instrumental voices were expertly defined; at the close the Choir delivered the text with affecting, poignant fleetness, ‘Quam olim Abraham’ (Which thou did promise …).

Replacing Tatiana Monogarova, the advertised soloist, Russian soprano Evelina Dobračeva sang with impressive single-mindedness and heroism. Positioned in the balcony with the main body of the Choir, she soared exquisitely above the massed forces, never shrill, floating with power and focus - a pure emblem of the sentiments of the ritual. Crystalline of tone and with powerful projection in the ‘Liber scriptus proferetur’ section of the Dies Irae, Dobračeva built to a majestic climax; later in the movement, soprano and choir responded with passion to the incisive violence of the percussive rhythms and the off-beat aggression of timpani and cymbals. In the ‘Libera me’, initially supported by some wondrously fleeting violin gestures, the soprano rose effortlessly above the accruing instrumental thunder as the asymmetrical tempi drove the music towards apocalypse.

Singing with the chamber orchestra, it is the two male soloists who, paradoxically, convey the most intimate experience and emotions, and who speak most directly to the audience. Presenting Owen’s ‘Bugles sang, saddening the evening air’ in the Dies Irae, German baritone Matthias Goerne movingly communicated the oppressive weight that burdens those who, ‘Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept’. Later in the movement, Goerne brought both a rhetorical grandeur and a disturbing sense of brutality to the poem, ‘Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm’. In the Sanctus, the agony of the restlessly questioning poet-speaker was conveyed, aided by some discomforting timpani strokes. Initially Goerne’s diction and pronunciation may have been less than clear, but it is worth remembering that the baritone role was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Peter Pears singing the tenor part), and that the two soldiers represent the opposing forces in the war. This is most powerfully and intensely apparent in the final ‘Strange Meeting’; here, Goerne and the string players of the chamber ensemble condensed the horror, pain and senselessness of war. The ghostly reverberations of the line, ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend’, were surpassed only by the unnerving emptiness of the final line, accompanied by deathly string tremors: ‘I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.’

Joining Goerne, tenor Ian Bostridge offered a typically penetrating and perceptive reading of the poetic texts. His unrelieved indignation in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ immediately challenged us, establishing a disconcerting mood, one enhanced by the probing clarinet solo which accompanies the lines, ‘What candles may be held to speed them all?/ Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes /Shall sine the holy glimmers of good-byes.’ ‘Move him into the sun’ was imbued with a ghostly disquiet, which was marvellously, if temporarily, calmed by the Choir’s consoling, major-key cadence, ‘Pie Jesu Domine … Amen’. Articulating the English soldier’s tale in ‘Strange Meeting’, Bostridge injected a startling, unpredictable energy as he described how he examined the corpses upon which he stumbled, ‘Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared’; the tenor’s voice accompanied by the responsive chamber orchestra, startlingly embodying the probing, springing movements of the dead. The full texture which accompanied Bostridge’s greeting, ‘“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn”, was almost unbearably poignant.

At the end of a performance which was simultaneously emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the concluding choral Amen had a Mahlerian power and pathos. This was a performance that was both theatrical and spiritual, and made an immense impression on all present; the long silence which followed the final utterance, Jurowski’s baton suspended aloft, told of its emotional impact on those in the Festival Hall.

The Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival is inspired by Alex Ross’s eponymous book which explores the social, political and cultural forces which shaped the art of the twentieth century. As we prepare for the centenary commemorations of the 1914-1918 war, the War Requiem’s fusion of Owen’s honest poetry - devoid of self-pity but angrily asserting the very Pity of war - and the timelessness of the Latin Requiem Mass, together with the circumstances of the work’s own commission - the re-consecration of a sacred building destroyed in yet another world conflict that Owen must have hoped his words would help prevent - remind us that we still have not heeded the Poets’ moral caution of the futility of war.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Vladimir Jurowski, conductor; Evelina Dobračeva, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Neville Creed, conductor (chamber orchestra); London Philharmonic Orchestra; London Philharmonic Choir; Trinity Boys’ Choir. Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London, Saturday 12th October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Wilfred_Owen_2.gif image_description=Wilfred Owen product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: War Requiem product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Wilfred Owen
Posted by Gary at 12:55 PM

October 11, 2013

The Coronation of Poppea, ETO

first performed last November by students from the Royal College of Music. Now it is revived, at the same Britten Theatre, but by English Touring Opera, as part of its Venetian season. It made a still greater impression upon me than last year; whilst the earlier cast had sung well and deserved great credit, the professional singers of ETO seemed more inside their roles, as much in stage as purely musical terms.

Conway’s production holds up very well. Its perhaps surprising relocation of the action to a parallel universe in which a Stalinist Russia existed without the prude Stalin — ‘just the breath of his world,’ as Conway’s programme note puts it — provides a highly convincing reimagination of the already reimagined world of Nero. ‘Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me,’ Conway writes, ‘that this was a place in which Nerone might flourish, from which Ottone, Drusilla, Ottavia, and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it comes to pass, from the Prologue in which La Fortuna, La Virtù, and Amore unfurl their respective red banners, setting out their respective stalls, until Poppea’s (and Amore’s) final triumph. Claustrophobia reigns supreme, save for the caprice of Amore himself, here dressed as a young pioneer, ready to knock upon the window at the crucial moment, so as to prevent Ottone from the murder that would have changed everything. Samal Black’s set design is both handsome and versatile, permitting readily of rearrangement, and also providing for two levels of action: Ottavia can plot, or lament, whilst Poppea sleeps. Conway’s idea of Poppea as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies in an opera whose game is power continues to exert fascination, and in a strongly acted performance, proves perhaps more convincing still than last time. Where then, the blonde wig had seemed more odd than anything else, here the idea of a constructed identity, designed to please and to further all manner of other interests, registers with considerable dramatic power. The seeping of blood as the tragedy — but is it that? — ensues makes an equally powerful point, albeit with relative restraint; this is not, we should be thankful, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk or some other instance of Grand Guignol. Above all, the Shakespearean quality of Monteverdi’s imagination, unparalleled in opera before Mozart, registers as it must. One regretted the cuts, but one could live with them in as taut a rendition as this.

Michael Rosewell’s conducting had gained considerably in fluency from last time. I feared the worst from the opening sinfonia, in which ornamentation became unduly exhibitionistic — I could have sworn that I heard an interpolated phrase from the 1610 Vespers at one point — and the violins were somewhat painfully out of tune, my fears were largely confounded. It is a great pity that we still live in a climate of musical Stalinism, in which modern instruments are considered enemies of the people than the kulaks were, but continuo playing largely convinced and string tone, even if emaciated, at least improved in terms of intonation. For something more, we must return, alas, to Leppard or to Karajan.

Moreover, it was possible — indeed, almost impossible not — to concentrate upon the musico-dramatic performances on stage. Helen Sherman’s Nerone displayed laudable ability to act ‘masculine’, at least to the dubious extent that the character deserves it, and great facility with Monteverdi’s lines, even when sung in English. Paula Sides proved fully the equal both of Monteverdi’s role and Conway’s conception. Hers was a performance compelling in beauty and eroticism; indeed, the entwining of the two was impressive indeed. The nobility but also the vengefulness of Ottavia came through powerfully in Hannah Pedley’s assumption, her claret-like tintà a rare pleasure. Michal Czerniawski again displayed a fine countertenor voice as Ottone, engaging the audience’s sympathy but also its interest; this was no mere cipher, but a real human being. Much the same could be said of Hannah Sandison’s Drusilla, save of course for the countertenor part. Piotr Lempa has the low notes for Seneca, though production can be somewhat uneven, perhaps simply a reflection of a voice that is still changing. John-Colyn Gyeantey’s Arnalta was more ‘characterful’ than beautifully sung, but perhaps that was the point. Pick of the rest was undeniably Jake Arditti’s protean Amor, as stylishly sung as it was wickedly acted. The cast, though, is more than the sum of its parts, testament to a well-rehearsed, well-c0nceived, well-sung production of a truly towering masterpiece.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Nerone: Helen Sherman; Seneca: Piotr Lempa; Ottavia: Hannah Pedley; Nutrice: Russell Harcourt; Lucano: Stuart Haycock; Liberto: Nicholas Merryweather; Poppea: Paula Sides; Arnalta: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Ottone: Michal Czerniawski; Drusilla: Hannah Sandison; Amor: Jake Arditti. Director: James Conway; Revival director: Oliver Platt; Designs: Samal Blak; Lighting: Ace McCarron. Old Street Band/Michael Rosewell (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, Wednesday 9 October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Coronation_ETO_01.gif image_description=Photography: Richard Hubert Smith product=yes product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (sung in English, as The Coronation of Poppea) product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: A scene from L’incoronazione di Poppea [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith]
Posted by Gary at 12:19 PM

October 10, 2013

Eugene Onegin disappoints

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose to open its 2013-14 season with a new production (in cooperation with the English National Opera) of Tchaikovsky’s most popular vocal work, Eugene Onegin. The production is a drab and claustrophobic affair — one the Met did not need. It was mounted for its star soprano, Anna Netrebko, who proved ill-suited to her role as Tatiana, the teenager who falls in love with the older, caddish Onegin.

The Met’s previous production of Onegin was all light, atmosphere, and swirling leaves. It surged with passion. The largely empty stage afforded the dancers — and among the glories of this score are Tchaikovsky’s dances — with plenty of room to waltz. That previous production translated well both in the opera house and in the HD simulcast relay.

In contrast, the current production is cramped and cheap. The entire first act is played out in some sort of potter’s shed on the Larin estate in Russia. The stage is cut in half horizontally by a faux glass wall, pushing all the action to the front of the stage. Through the glass the audience can see birch trees heavy with green leaves. If only the audience could have been back there, outdoors with the birches.

The second scene of the first act is pivotal to the plot. It should be set in Tatiana Larin’s bedroom, where the feverish girl composes her anguished letter to Onegin confessing her love. Instead, it was played in the same potter’s shed, with Tatiana finally falling asleep on the floor next to a rickety table.

The cramped frame of the shed also serves as the scene for the Act Two party celebrating Tatiana’s name-day. In such a dowdy setting, the famous Waltz that opens this act went for little because there was no waltzing, just some foolish stage business with dancers wearing animal masks.

Not until the duel in the second scene of the act, where Onegin kills his former friend Lenski, does this production begin to rival its predecessor in atmosphere. The despondent Lenski is sitting on a fallen branch of a birch tree, from which position he sings his aria Where or where have you gone, golden days of my youth? The setting is cold, gloomy, and despairing. In short, it fits.

A little grandeur arrives in Act Three when the action moves to a palace in St. Petersburg and Tatiana’s new life with her husband, Prince Gremin. Nine white columns dominate the set, and while they interfere with the dancing required in the score, at least the costumes rise to the dazzling Met standard.

The last scene, in which Onegin admits to Tatiana that he has been a boob and begs her to accept him, should be played inside Tatiana’s residence. Here it is set outside during a St. Petersburg snowstorm. This stage picture would work splendidly for Tchaikovsky’s other great opera, The Queen of Spades, for the scene along the Winter Canal when Liza commits suicide in despair over her gambler boyfriend. But it makes little sense as the finale to Onegin.

At this point I realized that Netrebko should have been singing Liza (in The Queen of Spades), and not Tatiana. Liza is an enigmatic character. The part makes few dramatic demands and it suits her still creamy middle and upper register. But Netrebko is no Tatiana. She doesn’t have the acting chops to become a convincing teenager in puppy love. Throughout the first act, one could see her thinking: “Move the arm here, walk there, look up, turn the face left.” It was painful.

In the first scene of Act Two Netrebko simply disappeared in the swirl of the birthday party. Wearing a shapeless dull dress, she could have been a Larin family servant. Her expression suggested more boredom than unrequited love.

Without an enchanting and believable Tatiana at its center, this opera loses its considerable charm.

The production did have some nice minor touches. Projections of wheat fields and forests were effective as curtain raisers. A lovely sunrise awoke Tatiana from her sleep in the shed. Netrebko actually resembled her sister Olga, which heightened their relationship. (Olga was performed winningly by a fellow Russian, Oksana Volkova.) When Onegin is unhinged by seeing how elegant the adult, married Tatiana has become, he snatches an entire bottle of champagne, and not just a glass, during the St. Petersburg ball. But these were not many minutes of pleasure during an opera that stretched to four hours but should have been three.

At least we had a splendid Lenski in the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. His open, handsome, beaming face (at least until Onegin insults him in Act Two) made him a convincing young lover of Olga. He delivered both his major arias with beautiful, even tone and ample volume. He had almost enough juice in his voice to make his cry of the heart in Act Two over Olga’s behavior thrilling, although both Ramon Vargas and Neil Shicoff were more powerful in this essential moment.

The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has neither the imposing physique nor the menacing voice to make Onegin the villain he is. Tatiana’s infatuation with him was hard to understand. His anger didn’t come from his core. He was Onegin lite. Given Netrebko’s wooden Tatiana, few sparks flew between the two. Kwiecien at the Met has given a much better account of himself in comic roles such as Belcore in The Elixir of Love. Perhaps those parts better suit his personality. In short, bring back Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role — forever.

Larissa Diadkova put her veteran, powerful, plummy mezzo to good use as Tatiana’s nanny, Filippyevna. Every syllabus she sang was filled with Russian authority.

As Triquet, the French teacher, John Graham-Hall showed a pleasant and accurate high tenor voice in delivering the little serenade to Tatiana at her party. Why he was wearing an old-fashioned knee brace that forced him into some awkward postures (I feared for his aching back) was never made clear in the production. The brace was so big that at first I thought he was on stilts.

Elena Zaremba has little to do as Tatiana’s mother, but she did it well and with her usual elegance. Alexei Tanovitski was the appropriately serious Prince Gremin, although his bass voice was a bit unstable, and the low notes might have been blacker.

Valery Gergiev, without doubt the leading conductor of the Russian repertoire on the world stage, did not disappoint. He led a stately performance, heavy with basses and cellos. The horns did good work for him. He delivered all the bon-bon dance numbers with panache. The energy in the pit never flagged despite some of the boredom on stage.

The team of Deborah Warner (listed as in charge of the production) and Fiona Shaw (stage director) deserve the blame for this clunker. One could readily believe The New York Times story that Shaw was rarely around to actually direct this show, so Netrebko’s shortcomings may not be all her fault. She and Kwiecien seem to have been left to their own dramatic instincts.

The lesson here is that when you have a splendid, beloved production of an opera such as Eugene Onegin, keep it. Spend your money elsewhere. It doesn’t grow on birch trees.

David Rubin

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Met_Onegin_01.gif image_description=Mariusz Kwiecien as Eugene Onegin and Anna Netrebko as Tatiana [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=The Met’s new production of Eugene Onegin disappoints product_by=A review by David Rubin product_id=Above: Mariusz Kwiecien as Eugene Onegin and Anna Netrebko as Tatiana [Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 1:35 PM

October 9, 2013

Falstaff in San Francisco

It is an astonishing score embodying a libretto of unequaled brilliance. It proves Verdi the veritable progeny of Rossini, able to infuse comedy with an explosive energy that holds you at the moment you would burst were you not held safe by great art.

Falstaff is the ultimate ensemble piece bringing together ten voices of nearly equal dramatic force, interweaving them so tightly that only brief if very intense instances of lyric expansion linger. Though there are two much larger moments which well endure — Ford at the end of the second act explodes in an extended fit of rabid jealousy of his wife Alice (and its flip side, his obsessive fear of cuckoldry), and Fenton in the moonlight of the final scene cannot contain his raptures of love for Ford’s daughter Nanetta whom he is obsessively courting.

At the center of Falstaff is the gigantic elaboration on the follies of love, and those are the appetites of Sir John Falstaff. His appetite for roasted chickens and stewed rabbits and casks of wine have promoted the impressive girth that simply defines the magnitude of his appetite for women. Nor is he particularly selective about which woman as it turns out.

The action moves so fast that the opera seemed to stage itself. This was the triumph of this San Francisco Opera production, the myriad of dramatic complexities were tightly contained mostly within the hole left when Falstaff erupted through the floor of the abstracted Elizabethan theater that sat on the War Memorial stage. After all, this Verdi Falstaff is an interloper into the Shakespearian histories (four plays) of Sir John’s adventures.

Falstaff3_SF_OT.pngFrancesco Demuro as Fenton, Andrea Silvestrelli as Pistola, Fabio Capitanucci as Ford, Joel Sorensen as Dr. Caiua, Greg Fedderly as Bardolfo

Austrian stage director Olivier Tambosi was joined by two associate directors, Jose Maria Condemi and Stephanie Smith to make the action move in precise concert with Verdi’s score where no action can be imagined that does not already have musical definition. Certainly this was a daunting task. And there are the constraints of conforming to the needs of the maestro who likes the action downstage center where the singers are under his direct control, not to mention the big (seven to ten voices) ensembles of daunting complexity where the singers need to find their way into a line across the front of the stage in order to musically survive.

The complex set, a fifteen year old production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, staged then (and now) by Tambosi was designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, which team is known to San Francisco Opera audiences for its 2010 Makropulis Case. The set offers many hidden openings in its massive wooden walls, Fenton could appear here and there like an annoying housefly. When it became Ford’s house his henchmen could ransack its upper hallways, and finally its back walls disappeared completely to reveal Windsor Forest.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti mercilessly taunted Falstaff with choruses of horns, and mercilessly rubbed in the double entendre in by placing the Herne’s Oak horn call from a box in the opera house (blown by the orchestra’s costumed principal horn). The already high-voltage of the octogenarian composer’s score was poised on the edge of explosion, holding us enraptured by the solo winds making fun of everyone on stage, the piccolo hinting at the pain. This was Luisotti at his absolute finest, making this remarkable score conjure up the genius of Shakespeare himself to join in Verdi’s roast of his delusional knight.

It was an impeccable cast. Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff anchored these dramas of the wily women of Windsor making fun of lovesick men. The Tambosi/Terfel Falstaff is not a lovable version of the man, it is a more blatant, uncomfortable take on the mythical knight than a sympathetic portrayal. Terfel has now had decades of experience with the role and has surely mastered all its possible moves. At 48 years of age he has no lack of power, stamina or subtlety to create the crimson colored monster of this production.

Falstaff2_SF_OT.pngHeidi Stober as Nanetta, Ainhoa Areta as Alice Ford, Renée Rapier as Meg Page, Meredith Arwady as Dame Quickly

If Terfel’s performance towered about all the rest it was to validate his character as the name of the opera. The balance of the cast worked very much as an ensemble and did not burden us with stars attempting to fit into a complex dramatic mechanism. Italian baritone Fabio Capitanucci made Ford vulnerable, sly and twisted, his instinctual Italianate fear of the horns palpable. Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as Fenton delivered a stunning “Dal labbro il canto estasïato vola,” reveling in the rolled “r”’s of his native language.

Spanish soprano Ainhoa Areta brought charm and plenty of voice to Alice Ford, finding the fun of the character rather than the authority. American coloratura soprano Heidi Stober was a fine looking Nanetta, beautifully paired to her Fenton though she did not have the innocence of voice to create the magic of Windsor Forest (she sings the more complex Mozart and bel canto heroines). Adler Fellow mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier held her own as Meg Page.

If Bryn Terfel met his match anywhere in this cast it was American contralto Meredith Arwady whose force of personality, force of voice, inherent sense of comedy attained veritable Falstaffian proportions. Of near Falstaffian proportions as well were the Dr. Caius of Joel Sorensen, the Bardolfo of Greg Fedderly and the Pistola of Andrea Silvestrelli, more believable Shakespearian rogues could not possibly be found anywhere nor could more accomplished character artists.

Michael Milenski

Cast and Production Information:

Falstaff: Bryn Terfel; Alice Ford: Ainhoa Areta; Nannetta: Heidi Stober; Dame Quickly: Meredith Arwady; Fenton: Francesco Demuro; Ford: Fabio Capitanucci; Meg Page: Renée Rapier; Bardolfo: Greg Fedderly; Dr. Caius: Joel Sorensen; Pistola: Andrea Silvestrelli. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Olivier Tambosi; Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. War Memorial Opera House, October 8, 2013.

image_description=Bryn Terfel as Falstaff [Photo by Cory Weaver]

product_title=Falstaff at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Bryn Terfel as Falstaff

Photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 7:21 PM

Verdi’s Macbeth in Concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Such a memorable interpretation is offered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under its music director Riccardo Muti in its current series of concert performances celebrating the Verdi anniversary. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are performed by Luca Salsi and Tatiana Serjan. The roles of Banco and Macduff are sung, respectively, by Dmitry Belosselskiy and Francesco Meli. The Chicago Symphony chorus is prepared by Duane Wolfe.

The orchestral introduction to Macbeth prefigures a number of musical themes that will take on individual importance during the four acts of the opera. In this performance tempos were at first decidedly rapid with only several of the lyrical string passages taken at a more measured pace. The ensuing chorus of witches sang with a comparable forward drive until the first scene featuring Macbeth and Banco as they hear the predictions of future rule. Mr. Salsi seemed effectively perturbed by the witches from the very start and this reaction is evident in his vocal approach. His searching and introspective tone leads to an internalization of some vocal passages so that other lines sung at full voice take on added effect. When Salsi declares “La man rapace non alzerò” [“I shall not raise a murderous hand”] his final pitches swell upward yet still express his determination with the impression of ambivalence. Alternately, Mr. Belosselskiy’s Banco in these early scenes released his pronouncements with an assured and powerful conviction in those very beliefs.

In the followings scenes introducing Lady Macbeth Ms. Serjan established her approach to this complex role. Her precise reading of the letter from Macbeth was followed by a spirited performance of Lady Macbeth’s aria, “Ambizioso spirto … Viene! t’sffretta!” [“Ambitious soul … Come! Hurry!”]. Serjan’s lower register is impressive and she used it effectively. Her decorations on the ascending “pone” and “freddo core” [“cold heart”] were well executed, yet when Serjan sings higher pitches one notes more directly her shift to a differing vocal approach rather than an integrated conception of the character. The following cabaletta, “Or tutti sorgete, ministri infernali’ [“Arise, all ministers of Hell”], was marked by the same conflation of vocal techniques, although excitement built on her good sense for legato and decoration in the final verses. The repeat was taken in this performance.

In those scenes detailing the King’s murder by Macbeth at the urging of the Lady conspiratorial exchanges between the royal couple were sung with alternating piano and dramatic effects. When Macbeth sees the image of the dagger stained with blood even before his deed, Salsi’s expressive intonation on “Orrenda imago!” emphasizes the chilling sight, whereas much of the remainder of his monologue is sung in a hushed internalization. Salsi’s projection of Macbeth’s determination to stab King Duncan rises again on “È deciso” (“It is decided”), from which point he cannot retreat. Once Macduff and Banco enter and discover the King’s murder, the quartet of principal singers is united with the chorus in excited outbursts prefiguring the subsequent acts. Belosselskiy’s extended low notes culminating on “si senti il tremor” (“the shaking was felt”) evoked the omens of evil reflected that night in nature. Mr. Meli’s declaration of the crime was poignantly expressed at full voice as the royal pair feigned ignorance. At the close of Act I, as in several other scenes, the orchestra and chorus dominated in a volume greater than necessary, since the solo singers were not distinctly audible in several key lines.

Act II of Macbeth includes significant vocal pieces for Lady Macbeth and Banco as well as a progression in the persona of Macbeth. Ms. Serjan’s “La luce langue” (“The light is fading”) imitated the pallid sense of dusk in her delivery and rose to declarations of ambition toward the close (“O scettro, alfin sei mio!” [“O scepter, at last you are mine!”]. The assassins of the chorus who have agreed to murder Banco, while advancing Macbeth’s plan, received excellent orchestral accompaniment with Matthieu Dufour’s flute suggesting the stealth of a planned attack. As Banco entered with his son, premonitions from nature were again emphasized. “queste Tenèbre” (“these shadows”) was sung by Belosselskiy with rich, dark bass pitches calling forth the danger of these surroundings. The wealth of emotions achieved in Belosselskiy’s exciting vocal range surged with anticipation. His voice rose to fearsome declaimed high notes on “ingombrano” and “terror” (“cloud” and “fear”), before he urged his son’s flight as he himself was killed. In her brindisi, “Si colmi il calice,” (“Fill your goblet”) Serjan used decoration sparingly in her attempt to lighten the mood at the banquet after Banco’s murder. The appearance of Banco’s ghost to the mind and eyes of Macbeth alone caused a notable transformation in Salsi’s projection of character. As the Lady tried to stabilize her husband’s public reaction, Act II ended with notably strong forte singing by Simge Büyükedes and Meli as the Lady-in-Waiting and Macduff.

In Act III of this performance the ballet music from the 1865 revision of Macbeth was included with contributions by Messrs. Sharp, McGill, and Dufour playing cello, bassoon, and flute adding significantly to an overall effective performance. During this act Macbeth visits the witches yet again and is confronted as well by three apparitions issuing him warnings. These predictions, as declaimed chillingly by David Govertsen Katelyn Casey, and Lily Shorney, were met with a brooding inwardness by Macbeth. Salsi began, however, to sing with renewed dramatic force when he saw a procession of those kings who had passed on before. He struggled with the further image of Banco’s descendants (“spaventosa imagine” [“dreadful vision”]), until the witches bring him to his senses and into the company of Lady Macbeth. Both resolve to thwart any such possibility in their control of power and swear “Vendetta!” to close the act.

The choral introduction of Scottish refugees at the start of Act IV was sung movingly and at a tempo suggestive of a dirge. Immediately following this pessimistic recital of woe, Macduff issues his solo lament and his promise of renewed efforts against “quel tiranno” (“that tyrant”). Mr. Meli’s performance of Macduff’s aria was surely one of the highlights of this evening. The alternation between pure top notes and legato phrasing as Meli built on the expressive intensity of Macduff’s resolve was a model of Verdian tenor singing. The lines “colui le braccia … perdono aprir” (“open your arms to him in pardon”) were a culmination of suffering and determination expressed here with consummate vocal control. Directly after this scene the famous aria of Lady Macbeth “Una macchia” (“A spot”) is sung as she walks in her sleep witnessed by the doctor and her Lady-in-Waiting. Serjan used alternating vocal registers intelligently while shading her voice to piano at appropriate moments. High notes were touched upon fleetingly as Serjan’s portrayal of character moved through a gripping emotional slide.

This opportunity to hear Verdi’s Macbeth performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and featured soloists is a fitting tribute in this anniversary year of Verdi’s birth. Further performances will include the Requiem Mass which will also be projected as a webcast.

Salvatore Calomino

Cast and production information:

Macbeth, general of King Duncan’s army: Luca Salsi; Lady Macbeth, Macbeth’s wife: Tatiana Serjan; Banquo, general of King Duncan’s army: Dmitry Belosselskiy; Macduff, nobleman of Scotland, Thane of Fife: Francesco Meli; Malcolm, Duncan’s son: Antonello Ceron; Lady-in-Waiting: Simge Büyükedes; Assassin/Doctor: Gianluca Buratto; Servant/Herald: Daniel Eifert; Three Apparitions: David Govertsen, Katelyn Casey, Lily Shorney. Chicago Symphony Chorus (Duain Wolfe, Chorus Director). Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Riccardo Muti, conductor.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Luca-Salsi.gif image_description=Luca Salsi product=yes product_title=Verdi’s Macbeth in Concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino product_id=Above: Luca Salsi
Posted by Gary at 9:41 AM

Robert Schumann: A Life in Song

In this recital we traced the different stages of Schumann's development as song composer. There were thirty seven songs, some of the fairly long, plus two encores, but the performances were so good that the evening seemed to end all too soon.

Sensucht (WoO 121 1827), written when the composer was 17 is a deceptively simple song, for which Schumann wrote his own text. Heinrich Heine stimulated him to a more sophisticated work, the same year, Gesanges erwachen (1827). Persson's voice was lithe, suggesting youth..

Most of the Wigmore Hall audience know Schumann's songs of 1840, so Martineau and his singers presented a brief selection of Eichendorff, Kerner and other songs. The Liederkreis op 39 are familiar, but Boesch and Persson made them feel fresh and newly minted. Persson's Frühlingsnacht, her timbre so lustrous that you could almost see moonbeams. Yet even in the midst of beauty, Lieder reflect on deeper mysteries. In Schõne Fremde, the rustling myrtle leaves seem to whisper secrets. "Was sprichtest du wirr" Boesch sang in hushed tones, "wie in Träumen zu mir, phantjatstiche Nacht?" Boesch's flawless modulation expressed excitement, wonder and even a twinge of fear. In Waldesgespräch, a vision of beauty turns on the beholder. Boesch sang the maiden's song so it felt almost hypnotically plaintive. Thus he didn't have to exaggerate the word "nimmermehr" at the end. Its forceful impact had been building up quietly all along.

There are eight songs in the full Frauenliebe und -leben op 42. but the three chosen here were a succint summary. Persson's voice fluttered as she sang of the woman's first glimpse of the man she would marry. No coy giddiness here. Persson's singing is so assured that she can suggest that this woman is no mere object of a man's fantasy, as some critics of the cycle believe. Persson makes the woman feel mature and confident, making her own choices. Helft mir, ihr Schwestern came across as a warm-hearted hymn to sisterhood. Hearing the song of widowhood straight after this was extraordinarily poignant. Just as we've come to know the woman and her happiness, that happiness is snatched away.

Boesch sang three songs from Kerner Lieder op 35 and Persson sang two of of the Zwolf Gedichte aus 'Liebesfrühling op 37 to texts by Friedrich Rückert. Together they sang the duet Herbstlied op 43no 2,. It's a jolly song : winter poses no threat to those who believe that Spring will come again.Suddenly, the mood changed. Boesch sang Belshazar op 57. That was an inspired juxtaposition of two very different songs !

Bryn Terfel sang Belsazar at the beginning of the Wigmore Hall 2013/14 season. Boesch sang with equal dramatic intensity but brought out the psychological nuances far more effectively. "Der Mitternacht", he sang, immediately establishing a sense of dangerous portent. Schumann writes hustle and bustle into the music, to suggest the rowdy party. Boesch's phrasing shows how the King is getting drunk, reeling from side to side, rashly showing off before his vassals. "Ich bin der Kõnig von Babylon!", he sang, just slightly off kilter so you could imagine the King puffed up but wobbly. Martineau played the rumblings in the piano part : even before the hand of Jehovah appears, the Babylonians are on shaky ground. The text is Heine, so the song ends curtly, without melodrama. The last line is chillingly matter-of-fact. ""Belsazar ward aber in selbiger Nachrt" sang Boesch without sentimentality. "Von seinen Knechten umgebracht".

To illustrate Schumann's later years in Dresden (1845-50) and in Düseldorf (1850-54), Martineau picked songs that highlighted different aspects of Schumann's life. To show Schumann as Pater familias, songs from the Liedreralbum für die Jugend Op 79 : Boesch sang Schneeglõckchen and Persson sang the Mõrike song Er Ist's. These songs are charming and whimsical, in contrast to the Harper songs from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrejahre Op 98a , written within the same year.

Goethe's Wilhelm Meister songs have been heard at the Wigmore Hall in various incarnations several times this year, (Wolf and Schubert) so it was immensely satisfying to hear Schumann's versions. Boesch started with Wer nie sein Brit mit Tränen Aß, perhaps the bleakest,then sang Wer sich der Einsamkeit vergibt and An den Türen will ich schliechen. His firm, measured pace suggested that the Harper faces his destiny with dogged resolution, far more courageously than if he were to court self pity. Of the current crop of singers in this fach, only Goerne and Boesch create the insight these songs deserve.

Schumann's Goethe songs were interspersed with settings of Lenau and more minor poets, such as Wilfried von Neun (Es stürmet am Abendhimmel, Op 89/1, 1850), Friedrich Halm (Geisternähe) and Christian L'Egru (Aufträge), These reflect Schumann's extensive knowledge of contemporary literature.

The recital concluded with songs written towards the end of Schumann's productive life, Abschied von der Welt and Gebet from Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart Op 135, 1852). In the circumstances, lines like "Was nützt die mir noch zugemess'ne Zeit ?" (What use is the time still allotted me?) feel painfully poignant. We think of Schumann in the asylum, alone, the past behind him.

Anne Ozorio

image_description=Miah Persson [Photo © Mina artistbilder]

product_title=Robert Schumann Lieder, Miah Persson, Florian Boesch, Malcolm Martineau, Wigmiore Hall, London 5th October 2013
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above: Miah Persson [Photo © Mina artistbilder]

Posted by anne_o at 7:48 AM

October 7, 2013

Roberto Devereux, WNO

Alessandro Talevi and conductor Daniele Rustioni were back at the helm to bring the trio of operas to a thrilling conclusion. We saw the final performance at the Wales Millennium Centre on 6 October 2013, before the company takes the productions on tour. Leonardo Capalbo sang the title role, with Leah-Marian Jones as Sara, Alexandra Deshorties as Elisabetta, David Kempster as Nottingham, Geraint Dodd as Cecil, William Robert Allenby as Raleigh, Stephen Wells as a servant and George Newton-Fitzgeral as a page.

Roberto Devereux was written in 1837 and, unlike Maria Stuarda, achieved great success in Donizetti’s lifetime. Like many of Donizetti’s late opera, the plot involves a love triangle and a woman wrongly suspected, but woven into this is the extremely strong character of Elisabetta. Though Roberto is in love with Sara and act one concludes with their duet, it is Elisabetta who is the prima donna, with an entrance aria at the prime point in act one and with the cavatina and caballetta which concludes the opera.

After brilliant and highly coloured account of the overture (written for the Paris performances of the opera in 1841, and anachronistically quoting God save the Queen), the curtain went up on Madeleine Boyd’s now familiar set, but with a translucent glass wall at the back. During the opening chorus, whilst the women of the chorus toyed with a huge spider in a terrarium, we could see people pressing against the glass outside. The idea of the dangerous spider and of the constant over-sight from others were two constant themes running through Talevi’s production. The sense that Elisabetta was a dangerous creature in confinement, approachable but always capable of erupting, and the sense that every action was done in the public glare.

Whilst I saw Leah-Marian Jones as one of the sisters in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Covent Garden, I have not been aware of her performing many significant other bel canto roles. Her account of Sara’s opening aria showed that she was able to bring a warm strength and flexibility to the role and engendered immense sympathy for Sara.

Alexandra Deshorties made her first appearance as Elisabetta, clearly channelling Vivienne Westwood. The combination of her heels and red wig made much of Deshorties height, giving her a commanding appearance. She was wearing a red frock with lace collar both of which made clear reference to the dress that Anna Bolena wore at the end of the opera, but over a black horse-hair skirt related the costume of Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. From the word go, it was clear that Deshorties was commanding physically, dramatically and vocally. She created a highly fascinating and imperious character. Deshorties voice is characterful, though not always highly beautiful, but she used it with skill and had clear facility in the roulades. Her performance might not have been conventionally beautiful, but it was truly mesmerising. Deshorties was Elizabeth incarnate.

Leonardo Capalbo appeared looking every inch the disreputable but sexy Roberto, dressed completely in leather; a look that Capalbo, a relatively slight figure, was able to bring off. Capalbo swaggered and smouldered admirably. He has quite a dark voice, and his repertoire includes quite a number of Verdi roles. For the first two acts of the opera we heard him only in relation to other singers, Donizetti wrote only a single aria for Roberto, in act three. Though Capalbo smouldered and swaggered, he did so within the reasonable bounds of the production and seems to be a performer who knows when not to move. His vocal performance displayed a similar tact, making a fine foil for both Deshorties and Jones in their duets.

The other performer to get an aria in act one, was David Kempster as Nottingham (Sara’s husband), who gave a superb account of Nottingham’s aria proclaiming his fidelity and support of Roberto (a man we know is in love with his wife). Kempster’s bluff commitment and fine flexibility helped bring out the irony of the aria.

Act one ends with an extended scene for Sara and Roberto as they admit their love is doomed, and seal things by exchanging tokens. Jones and Capalbo brought a nice intensity to this scene, and also a sense of melancholy as the doomed lovers admitted this was the end. Talevi’s direction was very sensitive here, knowing when to leave well alone and allow the performers to apparently do nothing. The result was magical.

After the interval, in act two, the storm breaks as Elisabetta discovers that Roberto has another lover, thanks to the scarf that Sara has given him. The opening chorus, was counterpointed with the striking image of Elisabetta (in silhouette through the glass) being dressed and the pacing anxiously. The scene with Deshorties, Kempster and Geraint Dodd’s Cecil was strong but for the concluding ensemble (with chorus) Talevi and Boyd brought off a visual coup. The image of Elisabetta as spider was made manifest, with Deshorties at the centre of a huge mechanical spider with legs moved by her ladies, attacking a prone Capalbo with the other performers scurrying for cover. Donizetti’s furious ensemble here is terrific and Talevi articulated it in physical terms with something akin to brilliance. When I first saw the mechanical spider I confess that I had my doubts, but in the context of the gradual dramatic build-up around Elisabetta’s power and control of her court, it provided a fascinating focus for Donizetti’s ensemble.

For Kempster’s scene with Jones, when Nottingham confronts his wife with the proof of her ‘infidelity’, we were back to ppwerful physical inter-action. Both Kempster and Jones brought a great intensity to the duet, with Kempster’s violence verging on the disturbing, but all the time singing within the confines of Donizetti’s music. A remarkable dramatic achievement.

Roberto’s prison scene finally gave Capalbo his solo aria - a finely melancholy aria with a caballetta of dark intensity and brilliance. His performance was technically adept, but this was not simply a show piece and Capalbo admirably kept his performance within the confines of the dramatic scheme giving a remarkably subtle and sensitively moving performance. Scattered around the edges of Capalbo’s prison were skulls of former prisoners, testimony to the deadly nature of the spider.

The final scene is essentially just an aria and cabaletta for Elisabetta, but written into an extended scene of extraordinary power. Deshorties opened the scene disconsolately hunched on her mechanical spider, now quiescent. Without her red wig and made up to look gaunt, Deshorties was a shadow of the Elisabetta of act one and created a remarkable image of an ageing woman at a loss. With the entrance of Jones’s Sara, too late to save Roberto, we lost the spider and the rear wall disappeared to reveal a row of poles with more heads on them, testament to the spider’s power. Deshorties gave the final cabaletta a performance of striking intensity, this was technically strong but not showy, all was in service to the drama. At the end she made her exit, wearing that red dress, into the void at the back of the stage. A gesture which echoed the end of Anna Bolena but whereas in that opera it was a symbol of power and defiance, here it was a gesture of defeat.

As in Anna Bolena, conductor Daniele Rustioni combined a feel for Donizetti’s rhythms and vocal lines with an intensity of rhythm, without ever making the opera feel driven. What it did feel was powerful and alive. From the intensity of the pairs of repeated notes in the overture, you knew that you were in for a special performance, and we were. The orchestra were on thrilling form and rightly got a strong ovation. I certainly hope to hear Rustioni again in this repertoire soon.

All three operas in this trilogy, Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux are about power and its exercise. But this power is combined with a love triangle, particularly with the theme of the guilty wife which seemed to interest Donizetti. Anna Bolena is perhaps the most conventional, with the most straightforward arc of the story. In both Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux Donizetti uses the strength of the character of Elizabeth to experiment with how to balance an opera with two leading ladies.

The strength of this trilogy was the way that Talevi and Boyd’s iconography provided a platform to make the exercise of power understandable and to create a credible dramatic structure in which to explore the very human emotions. By the time we came to the third opera, the linking sense of Boyd’s designs came through admirably and you felt the three as a very satisfying whole. Throughout all three operas, Matthew Haskins’ lighting was striking and evocative, without ever calling too much attention to itself. With such a very dark set, lighting was paramount and the look of the entire trilogy was a testament to three people, Talevi, Boyd and Haskins.

This was a huge undertaking for WNO, requiring the mounting of three bel canto operas in parallel, with six leading ladies and three tenors capable of doing justice to Donizetti’s music. They also found a remarkable set of varied and highly characterful singers, each of whom brought a very particular quality to their performance. When Talevi and conductor Rustioni were in charge, we got a profoundly satisfying musical dramatic whole. Talevi showed himself a highly musical director, producing dramatic work which went with the grain of Donizetti’s music. In this he was aided and abetted by the remarkable performances which Rustioni drew out of the orchestra. Time and again we marvelled at how the strength of the staging brought out the daring and modernity of Donizetti’s music.

Unfortunately, logistics meant that in the middle opera, the production and conducting were deputed to Rudolf Frey and Graeme Jenkins and they do not seem to have been able to inspire the same degree of focussed intensity in their performers. I kept thinking that, if the money could be found, WNO ought to invite Talevi and Rustioni back to re-stage Maria Stuarda.

But whatever individual quibble I have, this was a stupendous three days and, judging by the audience reaction after Roberto Devereux, everyone at the Wales Millennium Centre agreed with me.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Sara: Leah-Marian Jones, Elizabetta: Alexandra Deshories, Cecil: Geraint Dodd, Page: George-Newton-Fitzgerald, Raleigh: William Robert Allenby, Roberto Devereux: Leonardo Capalbo, Nottingham: David Kempster, Servant: Stephen Wells. Alessandro Talevi: Director, Madeleine Boyd: Designer, Matthew Haskins: Lighting. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 6 October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/WNO-Roberto-Devereux.gif image_description=Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth and Leonardo Capalbo as Robert [Photo by Robert Workman] product=yes product_title=Roberto Devereux, WNO product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Alexandra Deshorties as Elizabeth and Leonardo Capalbo as Robert [Photo by Robert Workman]
Posted by Gary at 3:41 PM

Maria Stuarda, WNO

Rudolf Frey at the helm, directing within designer Madeleine Boyd’s overall concept, with conductor Graeme Jenkins and a strong cast including Adina Nitescu as Elisabetta, Alastair Miles as Talbot, Gary Griffiths as Cecil, Bruce Sledge as Leicester, Judith Howarth as Maria Stuarda and Quite d Rebecca Afonwy-Jones as Anna. We saw the performance on 5 October 2013 at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Whilst all concerned clearly worked hard, the performance failed to achieve the level of dramatic intensity and focus that I had been hoping for.

Donizetti’s opera failed during his lifetime, but it’s performance history has been transformed in the 20th century with striking interpretations by singers as diverse as Janet Baker, Joan Sutherland, Ann Murray and Sarah Connolly. The role of Maria Stuarda was sung, in the first Milan performances in 1835, by Maria Maliban which has led people to cast the role as mezzo-soprano though Donizetti probably intended both Maria and Elisabetta to be sung by sopranos. WNO followed this with their casting of both roles as sopranos, with Howarth and Nitescu.

Frey is a young Austrian director who has recently staged Verdi’s Nabucco in Salzburg. It was never going to be easy for him to produce Maria Stuarda within a concept conceived to fit Alessandro Talevi’s Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux. Boyd’s black set and stylish black costumes were continued over from Anna Bolena and Boyd had created some extremely striking and stylish outfits for Nitescu as Elisabetta. New to Maria Stuarda were two huge boxes, two halves of a giant cube sitting on the revolve. One was white, with glass walls, Maria Stuarda’s prison and the other was a dark wood closet used by Elisabetta.

Quite firmly we were presented with a dichotomy, the dark Elisabetta paralleled with the light Maria. This found its way into many aspects of the staging, in act one scene two, when Maria was reveling in her freedom, not only did we hear the horns but was saw them and saw Elisabetta being dressed for the hunt as the two boxes had a transparent membrane between them. Later Frey used this to striking effect when Elisabetta was trying to decide whether to sign Maria’s death warrant, we saw Maria behind her mirroring her actions. And when the warrant was signed, Elisabetta drew a line in red across the membrane which effectively cut of Maria’s head. But too frequently, I felt that rather concentrating on dramatic atmosphere, Frey was signalling to us exactly what to think.

During the prelude we saw the courtiers pressing against Maria’s box, watching her as she gestured defiance. But the use of these boxes severely restricted the playing area, so that the court scene at the opening of act one was played on the narrow stage in front of the boxes with the courtiers arrayed in serried ranks on benches. Frey didn’t seem interested in striking effective stage pictures, but seemed content to assemble people in ranks. Ensembles saw the singers lined up at the front of the stage. And rather too often he used the device of having a single singer move whilst the rest of the stage froze. I’m afraid that by the end of act one, I was beginning to wonder whether Rudolf Frey actually liked bel canto opera, as too often his production worked against the grain of Donizetti’s drama, rather than with it. All this would not have mattered, if he had generated performances of focussed intensity from his principals, but unfortunately despite some extremely fine singing and a great deal of energy, the production did not coalesce into an effective whole.

The role of Elisabetta is firmly the seconda donna, she doesn’t really get much stage time but what she does get is terrific and the part is something of a gift for a singing actress. Nitolescu looked and acted the part, in dramatic terms she made a strong Elisabetta. But she had a tendency to swallow her words so that it was not clear what she was singing, and her tone was frankly rather squally. When singing quietly, she was capable of some fine grade singing, but when she pushed the voice the tone rather curdled. Unfortunately this crept into her whole performance, so that her Elisabettta did rather have an element of caricature about her.

Judith Howarth is a singer who has not received the attention which she deserves in the UK and I was pleased to hear her in the title role. She was dressed by Boyd in a similar style to all the other women, full skirts, leather bodice but in Howarth’s case the fabric was red tartan and the bodice brown leather, with a white blouse. The result rather gave her the look of a comedy bar-maid. And throughout the opera, it was a little unclear quite who this person was, I am not sure that Frey had a strong idea here. Instead of a noble queen suffering unjustly we got a character who seemed to be channelling Lucy Ewing (aka the poison dwarf) from Dallas. During her lovely entrance aria, which Howarth sang very finely, she and her lady in waiting lit up cigarettes and lounged against the walls of the box. Then in the next scene with Sledge’s Leicester, Howarth cavorted about like a comedy vamp.

This was frustrating because, apart from a couple of slightly unfocused top notes and an unfortunate E in alt, Howarth’s performance was highly musical and very stylish. All my doubts coalesced in the staging of the confrontation between the two queens at the end of act one. All concerned were encouraged to over act, with Nitescu spitting venom from the start, Howarth encouraged to be more virago than noble victim, and Gary Griffiths’ Cecil mincing about like poison-incarnate. The result looked over done and frankly, verged into comedy, as if Frey did not quite trust his material. But then Howarth sang the infamous Vile bastard phrase with such concentrated intensity and venom that made you realise there was the making of a strong performance underneath.

In act two, Nitescu’s opening scene with Griffiths and Sledge, did generate quite a frisson of drama and Frey’s coup of having Nitescu cut off Howarth’s head with the red line was certainly very striking. But from the second scene, the action concentrated on Howarth and we were able to appreciate the beautiful way with Donizetti’s music and the nice feeling for structure she showed as the performance built through Maria’s sequence of arias. The prayer at the opening of the final scene was profoundly lovely, but the aria in which Maria forgives Elisabetta was nearly torpedoed by having Howarth strip off her dark coat to reveal a brown leather jerkin, closely moulded to her body with a pair of hugely realistic breasts. I am still unclear of the iconography here, but Howarth performed with devastating aplomb and if you had listened with your eyes closed you would never have heard any disturbance in the vocal line.

Bruce Sledge gave ardent support as Leicester, revealing a robust tenor voice which was fully adept at Donizetti’s vocal lines. We heard Sledge in Santa Fe (in Rossini’s Maometto secondo) and he impressed then and impressed again. He sang with generous tone and a robust style, bringing great energy to the vocal line. Dramatically he was perhaps a little understated, but in the concept of the rather over-done moments in the production this was very welcome.

Gary Griffiths sang Cecil very well, but his performance seemed to be marooned in a bizarre concept of the character which involved much pouting and over-acting from Griffiths. I am not quite sure what Frey’s intentions were, be as realised here they rather disturbed the drama and distracted from what was a very fine musical performance.

Alastair Miles, having contributed an evil Enrico in Anna Bolena, was a noble and notable Talbot, even managing to get out a priest’s stole with aplomb. His big scene with Howarth in act two had its over-done moments, but over all the two artists generated a fine sense of the release which brought Maria to a new plane.

Graeme Jenkins conducted confidently and there were some nice moments. He had a tendency sometimes to let the music plod a bit, so that we had the odd rum-ti-tum moment which is always a danger in Donizetti. The orchestra did not seem to generate the same consistent intensity that we had heard the previous night.

This was a rather frustrating performance, in which the director’s konzept did not seem to quite match Donizetti’s music and which led to some rather unfocused performances. Whilst there were some fine moments, overall the performance lacked dramatic intensity. Thanks to Howarth’s extremely moving account of the title role, the final scenes had a nobility to them for which I was thankful.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Elisabetta: Adina Nitescu, Talbot: Alastair Miles, Cecil: Gary Griffiths, Leicester: Bruce Sledge, Anna: Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Maria Stuarda: Judith Howarth. Director: Rudolf Frey, Designer: Madelein Boyd, Lighting: Matthew Haskins. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 5 October 2013.

image_description=Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]

product_title=Maria Stuarda, WNO
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Judith Howarth as Mary Stuart [Photo by Robert Workman]

Posted by Gary at 3:20 PM

Giasone, ETO

Francesco Cavalli’s Giasone, or Jason, offered perhaps the most enticing prospect: an opera whose historical importance can hardly be gainsaid, and yet which we rarely have chance to hear. Giasone came more or less in the middle of the astonishing period from 1639 to 1666, in which Cavalli composed no fewer than forty operas. This drama musicale to a libretto by the Florentine poet, Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, their only such collaboration, was the tenth and the most popular of Cavalli’s stage works, indeed the most frequently performed of all seventeenth-century operas. Ellen Rosand’s New Grove entry lists, following the first, 1649 carnival performance at Venice’s Teatro San Cassione, possible performances in Milan as soon as 1649 and 1650 and in Lucca in 1650; moreover, published libretti attest to revivals, as Rosand’s list continues, in 1650 (Florence), 1651 (Bologna), 1652 (Florence), 1655 (Piacenza), 1658 (Vicenza), 1659 (Ferrara and Viterbo), 1660 (Milan and Velletri), 1661 (Naples), 1663 (Perugia), 1665 (Ancona), 1666 (Brescia), 1667 (Naples), 1671 (Rome, as Il novello Giasone, edited by Stradella), 1672 (Naples), 1673 (Bologna), 1676 (Rome, again as Il novello Giasone), 1678 (Reggio), 1685 (Genoa, as Il trionfo d’Amor delle vendette) and 1690 (Brescia, as Medea in Colco). Given that the history of seventeenth-century opera is often far more the history of libretti than music, a surprisingly large number of those performances have bequeathed scores to us. It may even have reached Vienna, and though we know nothing of this particular opera having reached English shores, a score of Cavalli’s Erismena in English translation suggests some degree of knowledge of the Venetian master’s œuvre. Such, at any rate, was the fame of Giasone, that it also became a rare example of an opera inspiring a play rather than the other way around.

ETO’s production is severely cut, lasting just over two hours (including an interval), offering slightly less than half of the work, if one judges by the duration (3 hours, 55 minutes) of the recording by René Jacobs (so far as I am aware the only such recording). There were times when I could not help but wonder how much we might have benefited from hearing more, not simply in musical terms, but also in terms of progression of the plot and development of characters. By the same token, however, dramatic continuity was for the most part admirably maintained; one experienced far more than a mere ‘taste’. We should also do well to remind ourselves that the concept of the musical work with respect to the seventeenth century is unstable and problematical. We are not dealing with Tristan und Isolde here. One loses something in translation, too, no doubt, but Ronald Eyre’s version proves admirable: rich in vocabulary, as Anthony Hose’s programme appreciation noted, and in wit.

Such would go for nothing, of course, without performances to match. I cannot deny my preference for modern instruments. However, if I may try to leave that upon one side, not least in light of the sad impossibility of today hearing seventeenth-century-repertoire so performed, the Old Street Band offered a generally spirited account, intermittent sourness in the strings notwithstanding. Continuo playing was for the most part colourful without veering into exhibitionism, Joseph McHardy’s direction of ensemble from the harpsichord well-paced and alert both to shifts and continuity in register — that ever-fascinating relationship between aria, recitative, and what comes in between. As Raymond Leppard once put it, Cavalli, ‘of all his contemporaries, never lost sight of the early ideals of recitative as a form of intensely heightened speech which, more than the aria, formed the basis for operatic effectiveness. And at his best, although in a different way from Monteverdi, his arias and ariosos grow out of and merge into the recitative-like jewels set in a crown, but not separate from it.’ And in Rosand’s words, this time in the programme, the arias of Giasone, ‘are specifically justified by the dramatic circumstances: rather than undermining verisimilitude, they promote it.’Both of those observations fitted very well with my experience in the theatre, no mean feat.

The singers must also take a great deal of credit for that. Clint van der Linde pulled off very well the tricky task of portraying a compromised, even at times weak, character without vocal compromise or weakness. Indeed, his countertenor Giasone offered a fascinating blend of vocal strength and character fragility. Hannah Pedley and Catrine Kirkman proved just as successful as his twin loves, Medea and Isifile: credible characters of flesh and blood, emotionally as well as dramatically convincing. The travesty role — always popular in Venetian opera of this time — of Delfa offered another opportunity for a countertenor to shine, in this case Michal Czerniawski. Piotr Lempa displayed to good effect his deep bass as Oreste, though some of his vowels went a little awry. Peter Aisher, a Royal College of Music student, was a late replacement for an ailing Stuart Hancock as Apollo and Demo; he took a little time to get into his stride, the Prologue being somewhat barked, but as time went on, showed considerable musical and theatrical ability.

Ted Huffman’s production mostly lets the action speak for itself. I was not quite convinced by the mishmash of styles in terms of designs, whilst appreciating his aim ‘to create a world that is neither classical nor contemporary, but rater an invented world, constructed from recognisable historical elements’. Abstraction might have worked better in that case, for inevitably one begins to wonder why someone is dressed in clothes of a certain period and someone else in those of another. Yet such matters do not really distract, and the conversion of Samal Blak’s set for the first act into that for the second proves both economical and dramatically effective. The decay of Lemnos during the absence of the ‘hero’ and the waiting of his wife is instantly, powerfully conveyed. Stage direction is for the most part keenly observed, the balance between comedy and darker emotion well handled. Documentation is excellent too, the programme offering a general essay by Guy Dammann, as well as individual pieces on the three operas of the season.

ETO’s autumn tour takes in London, Rochester, Snape, Malvern, Crediton, Bath, Harrogate, Durham, Newcastle, Buxton, Sheffield, Warwick, Cambridge, and Exeter. Click here for details.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Giasone: Clint van der Linde; Medea: Hannah Pedley; Isifile: Catrine Kirkman; Ercole: Andrew Slater; Apollo/Demo: Peter Aisher; Deifa: Michal Czerniawski; Egeo: John-Colyn Gyeantey; Oreste: Piotr Lempa. Director: Ted Huffman; Samal Blak (designs); Ace McCarron (lighting). Old Street Band/Joseph McHardy (conductor). Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, Friday 4 October 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Giasone_ETO_01.gif image_description=Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Giasone, ETO product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Scene from Giasone [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of English National Opera]
Posted by Gary at 2:43 PM

Die Fledermaus, ENO

Or, a more sceptical ‘there’s no accounting for taste’? — for Christopher Alden’s production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus at ENO certainly suggests that he has an idiosyncratic preference for a distinctly dark and bitter vintage.

The curtain rises on Allen Moyer’s economical, sombre-hued set; flock wallpaper and silken bed drapes in various ‘shades of grey’ suggest, ironically, a dampening of the passions in the Eisensteins’ Victorian bedroom. As the polkas and waltzes of Strauss’s overture flutter from the pit, between the sheets Rosalinde tosses and turns, lunging at the air, clutching the plump pillows, writhing and wriggling, the luscious melodies presumably illustrative of her erotic dreaming. And, when winged bat-women sweep menacingly across the bedroom, we infer the stuff of her nightmares. Above hangs an outsize model of Eisenstein’s pocket watch — the very watch that will later incriminate him when he attempts to seduce a mysterious Hungarian Countess — pendulously, hypnotically swinging, a ‘path to the subconscious’, the director declares.

So, Alden envisages his characters as psychiatric case studies: their Vienna is a socially and emotionally repressive prison, and Falke a bat-cloaked Nosferatu, tempting them to turn the frustrated fantasies of their subconscious into corporeal fulfilment. An interesting conceit. But, one which quickly runs aground, the bubbly turning distinctly flat. For, Alden imposes a threatening subliminal world on a musical score which speaks of light-hearted, self-indulgent escapism, and on a libretto which is more farce than psychoanalytical theory. And the disjuncture — a psychiatric ‘split’ — is as large as the fissure which cracks the Victorian chamber wall at the end of Act 1. The music whizzes by, an ear-pleasing stream of movement and melody, while the action on stage stultifies, the characters as comatose as if they lay on a consulting couch.

Things might have been better if Alden had truly allowed his characters to ‘slip free from societal constraints and sip the heady champagne of pleasure and fulfilment’ in the Act 2 ball. But, while he declares that Falke invites his pawns to a ‘dreamy, libidinous party where they are given free rein to transcend their quotidian selves’, in fact the chasm in the wall of restraint opens on a distinctly dreary and featureless room, billed as Art Deco but consisting merely of a sweeping back-curtain — garishly lit by the psychedelic colours of Paul Palazzo’s lighting — and a nondescript staircase. Indeed, the occasional swivels of the stairway are the only indication that a dance might be underway, for the large chorus of cross-dressed, under-dressed revellers show little inclination to wiggle and frolic. Epitomising the absence of physical exuberance, they sing the rousing finale standing stock still on the stairway; a freeze-frame snap of a Hollywood sequence, this troupe hardly look ready to ‘dance all night’.

ENO-Die-Fledermaus_02.gifRichard Burkhard and Tom Randle

This immobility matters. The polkas and waltzes are not merely tuneful decorations but convey the sentiments of the text. Thus, it is with a waltz that the seducer, Alfredo, lures Rosalinde to drown her cares in champagne. And, Rosalinde saves her own reputation at the end of Act 1 with a polka which dupes Frank, the prisoner governer, into believing that Alfredo is her husband. Adele reads her sister’s letter inviting her to the party to the accompaniment of yet another polka; while the disguised Adele defends herself from Eisenstein’s attentions with a waltz, ‘My dear Marquis’. Falke’s gentle, sentimental waltz at the climax of the ball has hints of melancholy, as he toasts brotherhood and love. The characters are always dancing, and if they are dancing they are also probably seducing. Thus, motionless leads to meaninglessness.

The translation by Stephen Lawless and Daniel Dooner is full of witty rhyming repartee, but on this opening night many of the words were lost in the set’s vast empty spaces and the audience, with little on stage to indicate that a gag was on the way, largely remained in silent bafflement.

Not surprisingly, the cast struggle to establish credible, engaging characters and dramatic momentum. Even Tom Randle looked a bit lost as Eisenstein, though he sang with his usual power and lyricism. Andrew Shore, as a gender-bending Frank, used his considerable acting talents to get things moving along; and Edgaras Montvidas was a delightfully disreputable and foppish Alfred, demonstrating an appreciation of the absurd elements of the opera which Alden tried hard to bury beneath the Freudian symbolism. Richard Burkhard presented an assured Falke, a confident, slick Nick Shadow figure —although it was hard for the ‘master-of-ceremonies’ to impose his presence in the final Act, given that he spent its entirety in an airborne state, perched precariously on the suspended timepiece.

The rest of the cast were ultimately unable to overcome Alden’s static direction. Rosalinde is envisaged as a Freudian case study: a ‘hysterical woman’, trapped in a repressive marriage to a philandering husband, denied sexual fulfilment. Given that she was largely confined to her bed in Act 1 — albeit, sharing it with a host of others — and directed to sing her Csárdás from a stationary position on the far left of the stage, it was hardly surprising that Julia Sporsén was a rather underwhelming Rosalinde.

As Prince Orlovsky — no longer presented wryly en travesti but rather as a neurotic, misanthropic lesbian — Jennifer Holloway also struggled to convince. Orlovsky’s philosophy is that if he is intent on hedonistic fun, then so must all his guests indulge to excess, but as Holloway pounded the walls in self-pitying misery, it was hard to imagine a less hospitable party host. Holloway’s tone was warm and rich but a thick European accent muffled the text. Rhian Lois’s Adele was a bit too close to caricature, but her two showpiece arias were bright and vivacious, the ‘Laughing Song’ especially sparkly.

Simon Butteriss and Jan Pohl did their best with the bizarre characterisation of Dr Blind, Eisenstein’s incompetent lawyer, and Frosch, the prison jailor — the latter presented as an S&M obsessed Nazi, prone to violent spasms and vicious brutality.

Billed as ‘dangerous and sexy’, Alden’s production is in fact dull and soporific. Conductor Eun Sun Kim drew some infectious, sweet playing from the ENO orchestra, but the dances didn’t quite float and spin with the necessary weightless frothiness. Although Alden admits that the ‘hedonistic waltzes of Die Fledermaus ultimately sweep away its darker connotations in a tsunami of champagne’, in this instance the popping of corks was confined to the pit and a few vocal highpoints, and the end result was distinctly lacking in fizz.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Gabriel von Eisenstein, Tom Randle; Rosalinde, Julia Sporsén; Frank, Andrew Shore; Prince Orlovsky, Jennifer Holloway; Alfred, Edgaras Montvidas; Dr Falke, Richard Burkhard; Dr Blind, Simon Butteriss; Adele, Rhian Lois; Ida, Lydia Marchione; Frosch, Jan Pohl; Actors, Peter Cooney, Tom Fackrell, Stewart Heffernan, Adam Trembath; Director, Christopher Alden; Set Designer, Allen Moyer; Lighting Designer, Paul Palazzo; Costume Designer, Constance Hoffman; Conductor, Eun Sun Kim; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Monday 30th September 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO-Die-Fledermaus_01.gif image_description=Jennifer Holloway and Andrew Shore [Photo by Robert Workman] product=yes product_title=Die Fledermaus, ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Jennifer Holloway and Andrew Shore

Photos by Robert Workman
Posted by Gary at 9:26 AM

October 6, 2013

Stephen King in San Francisco

If you follow popular culture in general and pulp fiction in particular you will know that both of these music theater pieces are based on novels by horror story titan Stephen King. Carrie The Musical (1988) is famous as the most monumental flop of all musicals until maybe Spider Man. The less said about Dolores Claiborne the opera the better.

Ray of Light Theatre is notable for many reasons, one of which is its feisty attitude to programming. If it is controversial (i.e. wannabe off-putting) it is perfect — in recent years Jerry Springer The Opera (blasphemy), Assassins (inappropriate levity), The Full Monty (male nudity). ROL Theatre makes it all innocent fun that leaves opening night audiences screaming (well, they seem to be mostly friends of the cast).

ROL Theatre is also notable for an enviable production standard. Shows are finished — slickly directed and ably choreographed. Sets and costumes are well designed and executed, suppressing any suspicion of imposed minimalism. Plus ROL Theatre avails itself of the Mission district’s 500 seat Victoria Theatre, a 90-year-old vaudeville theater once named Brown’s Opera House that is not as funky as it used to be but still retains a good vibe for well-produced, off-the-wall shows.

The controversy engendered by Carrie The Musical is how-bad-can-a-musical-be-and-still-be-presented, not to mention the questionable taste of exploiting the adolescent emotions that any hint of adult maturity has left behind. These emotions are not primal instincts, like in Salome for example, but truly base, everyday high-school emotions (though in more significant terms Carrie The Musical speaks to bullying, and to the tragic school massacres).

Carrie2_OT.pngCristina Ann Oeschger as Carrie, Jessica Coker as Miss Gardner [Photo by Eric Scanlon]

Already the object of ridicule Carrie has her first period (bleeding) in the high-school locker room shower. Her classmates throw tampons at her. One girl, guilt ridden, becomes sympathetic to Carrie’s plight, and forces her football hero boyfriend to invite Carrie to the senior prom. The Cinderella part of the story ends when another classmate dumps a bucket of water on Carrie. Carrie gets even by magically setting her high school ablaze, her classmates inside.

Meanwhile Carrie’s Christian fundamentalist mother, a complicated piece-of-work, must kill Carrie to protect her from original sin. Then the mother either has a heart attack and dies or is stricken down by unidentified outside forces.

The problem with Carrie The Musical in its current incarnation (it was revised for off-Broadway in 2012, and further revised here) is that its writers have found no effective way to infuse Carrie’s telekinetic skills into the action, rendering unrealistic and unexpected the conflagration finale. We need to believe that Carrie actually had the powers to create it, instead we were overwhelmed with production numbers based on familiar high school situations. We needed numbers about telepathic prowess — truly a missed opportunity when you think about it.

Carrie3_OT.pngCristina Ann Oeschger as Carrie White, Heather Orth as Margaret White, her mother [Photo by Eric Scanlon]

Carrie The Musical wants to be mostly about Carrie’s social life, but feels it must explain the isolation created by her mother, Margaret. Margaret in fact has a degree of emotional and intellectual maturity, however screwy, and she provides a rich, deeply human presence in the midst of general high-school superficiality. She draws the emotional focus of the piece to her complicated emotional histories and instinctual forces, and these become her actions. Margaret has a lot to sing about and Carrie The Musical makes room for her to do so. In comparison a character of such depth and complexity did not materialize in San Francisco Opera’s Dolores Claiborne, its one-dimensional actors motivated by simple, quite explicable reactions to ugly situations. Please see Dolores Claiborne in San Francisco.

Ray of Light Theatre casting was impeccable. These were your high school classmates, your gym teacher, your English teacher. Hopefully this was not your mother. They all sang at the top of their lungs for two hours, their emotions worn on their sleeves. Miraculously their voices held strong to the end, supported by an instrumental ensemble of six players always at full forteCarrie The Musical is plug-in music indeed.

This small company, with Berkeley’s West Edge Opera, and Carmel’s Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble have made some very interesting operatic art this fall, something often in short supply at our more corporate institutions. Carrie The Musical deserves to be a hot ticket.

Michael Milenski

Creative, cast and production information:

Book: Leonard Cohen; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford; Music: Michael Gore. Tommy Ross: Nikita Burshteyn; Norma: Samantha Cardenas; Miss Gardner: Jessica Coker; Frieda: Chloe Condon; George: Dan Hurst; Helen: Olivia Hytha; Chris Hargensen, Riley Krull; Sue Snell: Courtney Merrell; Billy Nolan: Forest Neikirk; Carrie White: Cristina Ann Oeschger; Stokes: Matt Ono; Margaret White: Heather Orth; Freddy: Danny Quezada; Mr. Stephens: Danny Cunningham. Conductor: Ben Prince; Stage Director: Jason Hoover; Choreographer: Amanda Folena; Scene Design: Kelly Tighe; Costume Design: Amanda Angott; Lighting Design: Joe D’Emilio. Victoria Theater, San Francisco. October 4, 2013.

image_description=Heather Orth as Margaret White, Carrie's mother [Photo by Eric Scanlon]

product_title=Carrie The Musical by Ray of Light Theatre
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Heather Orth as Margaret White, Carrie's mother [Photo by Eric Scanlon]

Posted by michael_m at 8:53 PM

October 5, 2013

Fidelio, ENO

Irrelevant and downright stupid criticisms continue to be made of it, those voicing them apparently blind to what one would have thought the blindingly obvious truth that it not only represents, but instantiates the bourgeois idea of freedom at its most inspiring, apparently deaf to the symphonism of this most symphonic of operas, that idea of freedom explicitly expressed through the structural dialectics of Beethoven’s score.

What a relief, then, for ENO’s new Fidelio, a co-production with the Bavarian State Opera, where it has already been seen, to be staged both as an expression and a deconstruction of that idea. Such problem as there were lay with Edward Gardner’s Harnoncourt-lite conducting, but Calixto Bieito’s imaginative, probing production offered one of those rare evenings in which a staging could more or less redeem a disappointing conductor. For that, of course, an often excellent cast should also share the credit.

Recent performances of Fidelio have tended to make a point of messing around with the work: re-ordering, new dialogue, and so forth. I have never quite understood why; the libretto is no literary masterpiece, but that is hardly the point, for it serves Beethoven’s purpose. Bieito — I assume this to be his doing — also makes changes; this was probably the first occasion on which I found the choices worth making, not as a blueprint for other performances, but simply as a valid performing choice in this particular context. Alarm bells would normally ring were a performance to open with the third Leonore Overture; even Daniel Barenboim, in a magnificent Proms concert performance, failed to convince that such was a wise move, the overture tending to overshadow, almost to render the opera unnecessary. Yet, following a blinding light and our first reading from Borges, the appearance of the pitiless, intermittently neon-lit labyrinth, a fine piece of design by Rebecca Ringst, not only sets up our expectations — the hopelessness of blind alleys and imprisonment for all concerned — but, in tandem with the overture in which Beethoven essentially presents a symphonic poem, both heightens and deconstructs those expectations. As an audience, also imprisoned in our different ways, we will the prisoners to escape, we begin to ask ourselves how we too might escape, and, perhaps most importantly of all, we already begin to appreciate that this will be a far tougher battle than Beethoven might ever have conceived. That the drama has in a sense been played out before a note has been sung and we have progressed not an inch is, or ought to provoke sober reflection. (The ridiculous booing form small sections of the audience, doubtless fresh, as a Twitter friend suggested, from the UKIP party conference, suggested, sadly if all too predictably, as another Twitter friend commented, that those most in need of the production’s message would never trouble themselves to heed it. At least, however, we can take a small degree of comfort from their discomfort.)

ENO-Fidelio_02.gifEmma Bell and Stuart Skelton

As ever, with Bieito, the craft of stage direction is exemplary; what we see is what he intends us to see. (Yes, this ought to be a given, yet all too often it is anything but.) I could not help but wonder whether survival of dialogue, not necessary all of it, might have aided understanding of who the characters were, but of course, as stated previously, the characters, such as they are, are really not the point in this of all operas. Borges and, on one occasion, Cormac McCarthy (as I learned from the programme) do sterling work instead: allowing us to think for ourselves, to make correspondences, rather than necessarily have our vision restricted to Guantánamo Bay, or wherever it might be (perfectly valid though that realistic approach may be). It is a pity that David Pountney’s translation veers all over the place: sometimes offering attention-seeking rhymes, sometimes curiously Victorian formulations, sometimes more present-day demotic. Yet even though it sounds in serious need of editorial attention, or better still rejection in favour of the German Beethoven set, there are phrases that stick with one, phrases that interact with the staging, to have us think. ‘Crimes against humanity’, a sadly everyday phrase in many respects: how could a London audience not think of a war criminal still very much amongst us such as Tony Blair? Bieito’s relative abstraction — unusual for him, and highly telling — permits the space for reflection, whilst listening to the progress of Beethoven’s drama.

It is that sureness of musical touch that perhaps permits ‘liberties’, which, when recounted in the abstract, might for some sound too much. Leonore III already used, we hear — this a real coup de théâtre in visual and musical terms — at the once ‘traditional’ juncture, music from, or perhaps beckoning us to, heaven, a Heiliger Dankgesang whose numinous qualities, for which, many thanks to the excellent Heath Quartet, suspended in cages from the ceiling, transcend the drama, question it, and are in turn questioned by it. Bieito undercuts all-too-easy expectations by introducing a sense of distancing already between Leonore and Florestan. And the caged musicians: are they a Stockhausen-like flight of fancy? Are they angels of Beethovenian mercy? Are they too imprisoned, sheltered from ‘reality’, whatever that might be? Are they, as the minority audience reaction would suggest, fated to be ignored, whatever the truth — so Beethovenian a word — of what they might attempt to express? We must think for ourselves, and tragically, an administered world, to borrow Adorno’s formulation, wishes to block them out, as sure as its gaolers wish us to think of opera as nothing more than entertainment.

Entirely unprepared as I was for that challenge to the musical work, provocative in the best sense, it made as full as conceivable an impact upon me. Likewise Bieito’s trump card in the final scene. Don Fernando makes his appearance as a stereotypical eighteenth-century ‘operatic’ character in a box above the stage. His increasingly bizarre and unpredictable behaviour, not to mention outrageous feyness, have us realise, both there and when he comes down to the stage, that rescue is not all that it is cracked up to be. Indeed, though we are told that it has happened — many of the prisoners are handed placards, personally signed, to signal their alleged liberation — we wonder whether that is just a trick, perhaps an ‘operatic’ trick. There is no doubting Beethoven’s sincerity, his greatness; that endures. But we also know that the administered world endures. The labyrinth does not retreat; it is simply, as New Labour would have had it, ‘rebranded’. Political action, whether individual or en masse, is both absolutely necessary and quite hopeless. Fate, or rather the forces of late-capitalist production, will find another way to trick us, in the manner of Don Fernando; his apparently ‘arbitrary’ shooting of Florestan, not slain but wounded, a truly shocking moment. And the return of blinding light has us appreciate anew the perils both of the cyclical and of all-too-easy identification of forces such as ‘light’ with progress.

The contrast between Beethovenian optimism, the sheer goodness of the score, and its staged deconstruction would of course have been greater still, had it not been for Gardner’s listless conducting. Often simply too fast — the main body of the overture but a single, albeit extreme example — the problem went beyond that; like Harnoncourt, the conductor seemed to have little or no ear for harmonic rhythm. Numbers did not extend beyond themselves; nor did that seem in itself a deconstructive strategy, more a matter of reductive domestification by default. To a certain extent, a grander canvas revealed itself during the second act, but structural concerns still went for very little. There is no one ‘correct’ way to conductFidelio: consider the success of such entirely different approaches as those of Furtwängler and Klemperer, or latterly, Barenboim and Colin Davis; but that does not mean that anything goes.We had, as I said, to rely upon the staging to accomplish double the work; almost miraculously, it accomplished something not so very short of that.

The singers’ accomplishment was also not to be disregarded. Stuart Skelton offered the finest Florestan I have heard since Jonas Kaufmann: powerful yet vulnerable, clearly committed to the ideas of both Beethoven and Bieito. If only he had not been harried by Gardner’s seeming desire to catch an earlier train home. Emma Bell was an impressive Leonore, her ‘Abscheulicher’ almost beyond reproach, though certain coloratura later on was skated over. More importantly, though, her identification not only with the role but with that all-important idea of freedom, shone through. Sarah Tynan proved an uncommonly excellent Marzelline, cleanly sung, vivacious, and equally committed in dramatic terms. Though Jaquino is a smaller role, Adrian Dwyer offered similar virtues when called upon. James Creswell was a likeable yet properly tortured Rocco. The only vocal disappointment was Philip Horst’s often lightweight Pizarro. Choral singing was of a high standard throughout: a credit both to the singers and to Aidan Oliver as chorus master.

Anyone, then, who cares about opera as drama, who believes that it is something more than expensive entertainment, needs to see — and to hear — Bieito’s Fidelio. Reactions will differ, but those willing to be challenged will find themselves properly inspired and unsettled.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Florestan: Stuart Skelton; Leonore: Emma Bell; Rocco: James Creswell; Marzelline: Sarah Tynan; Jaquino: Adrian Dwyer; Don Pizarro: Philip Horst; Don Fernando: Roland Wood; First Prisoner: Anton Rich; Second Prisoner: Ronald Nairne. Director: Calixto Bieito; Set designs: Rebecca Ringst; Lighting: Tim Mitchell; Costumes: Ingo Krügler. Chorus and Additional Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)/Orchestra of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Wednesday 25 September 2013.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO-Fidelio_01.gif image_description=Adrian Dwyer and Sarah Tynan [Photo by Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title=Fidelio, ENO product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Adrian Dwyer and Sarah Tynan

Photos © Tristram Kenton
Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

Anna Bolena, Welsh National Opera

All three use the same set designed by Madeleine Boyd (who also did the costumes) with lighting by Matthew Haskins

Boyd's long term collaborator, director Alessandro Talevi directed Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux, whilst Maria Stuarda is directed by Rudolph Frey. We took advantage of WNO' performances of the three operas back to back over a weekend in Cardiff at the Wales Millennium Centre, with Daniele Rustioni conducting Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux and Graeme Jenkins conducting Maria Stuarda.

We saw Talevi's deeply dramatic production of Anna Bolena on 4 October 2013 with thrilling performances from Katharine Goeldner as Giovanna Seymour, Serena Farnocchia as Anna Bolena, Faith Sherman as Smeton, Alastair Miles as Enrico, and Stephen Wells (replacing an ailing Daniel Grice) as Lord Rochefort, Robert McPherson as Lord Percy and Robyn Lyn Evans as Hervey. Daniele Rustioni conducted, he and the orchestra gave us thrillingly dramatic account of the overture, thankfully not too driven but still high tension.

When the curtain rose, Boyd's set was a huge black box with a few references to Tudor iconography, there were skulls of stags heads on the walls and the black on black designs of the walls could be seen as referencing the style of Tudor timber framed houses. The chorus were all in black, with the women given a very strong look which involved dresses with very full skirts and a black leather bodice/bustier over the top. We learned how subtly stylish Boyd's designs were later in the act when, during Smeton's aria, the women sat down to reveal subtly coloured shot-silk under-linings to the skirts. Throughout the opera colour was used sparingly but to very strong effect.

From the outset, Talevi's production was darkly dramatic. There was no attempt to re-created Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII, instead we were given a court governed by fear and power. Talking to Talevi at the interval it was clear that his prime intentions were to make the relationships in the opera work, to provide a context for Anna's breakdown.

There seemed to be another vein of inspiration. During the opening chorus we saw, on a revolve, a woman in a shift having a baby which was born dead and taken away. This was a clear reference to Anne Bolyen's later history, but visually the images on stage reminded us of the Anglo-Portuguese artist Paula Rego's strong images of dark fairy tales.

Talevi and Boyd (aided by Matthew Haskins dramatic lighting) made no attempt at jolly, crowd pleasing moments; this was a tense and intense drama which progressed on slow build towards the denouement, Anna's mad scene. What was admirable was the Talevi worked with the music, at no point did you feel a mismatch between music and drama. At conductor Daniele Rustioni's hands Donizetti's sprung rhythms were magnificently done, and these were used by Talevi to help create the drama. Productions of Donizetti's serious operas can have their Gilbert and Sullivan moments (Sullivan being much indebted to Donizetti) with a mismatch between sound and drama (jolly bouncing choruses and the like), but never here.

It helped that the title role was sung by Serena Farnocchia, an Italian soprano whose voice is far more spinto than coloratura which is admirable in this role. Farnocchia brought a strong intensity to the performance and a thrilling edge to the voice. She was well able to cope with all of Donizetti's fioriture and we were treated to some thrilling, and some subtle singing. She has a darkly dramatic voice, but with a nice focus to it and, as I have said, a thrilling edge. Some of her top notes lacked elegance and ease, but by then Anna was severely under pressure, This was a masterclass in how to use Donizetti's complex vocal lines to develop character. She never showed off, but this made her intense performance all the more impressive. Through the opera, it was Anne's interactions with other characters which gave us the engine for the drama, and Farnocchia was strongly partnered by the other members of the cast. But everything led, of course, to the final scene. Here we returned to the opening as Farnocchia was back wearing her shift, and cradling a non-existent baby. She spent a lot of the time crouching in the empty cradle.

This was a piece of strong drama on Talevi's part, and there was no sense from either him or Farnocchia that this mad scene was merely a showpiece. Nor, thankfully, did we ever get the sense that Talevi wished the opera different to what it was, at all times we were given a strongly characterised performance that went with the grain of Donizetti's music and with some impressive Personenregie.

Talevi and Boyd pulled of something of a coup at the end of the opera. The back of the box had a pair of huge doors which opened, in act one these revealed the forest for the hunting scene. At the end of act two these opened as the way the prisoners were being taken to their execution, but not before the women had brought on Farnocchia's dress. Over her shift she put on a magnificent vermilion dress, a thing of gorgeous crumpled silk with a long train. The resulting image was strong when Farnocchia faced the audience for her final aria and even strong when she turned to exit into the void at the back.

Robert McPherson was Percy, the man whom Anna loves and whom Enrico tricks into returning to court to provide him with an excuse to get rid of Anna. McPherson has a very forward, bright, tightly focused voice with a narrow but brilliant tone. Percy is a bit of a killer role, it sits rather high and is quite dramatic, I've heard tenors tire before their big act two aria. McPherson seemed to have a brief wobble, but it was only that and he paced himself admirably. He was suitably ardent in act one, without being too demented and he and Farnocchia had a believably will they/won't they sort of relationship during their fine duet at the end of the act. In act two Percy has to decide to die rather than live without Anna, a piece of operatic foolery which McPherson brought off well. His final aria was profoundly moving with some fine singing and when needed, the odd thrilling note. Granted his top notes sounded a bit tight, but in the context of his voice they worked well and this period of music suits him.

The eminence gris of this whole drama was Alistair Miles's Enrico, more war lord than Tudor king, he was bald but with long hair at the back merging with the huge fur collar of his leather jacket, and a very visible chain mail cod-piece to emphasise his virility. Miles was superb in conveying the control and power that the man exerted and helped make complete sense of the drama. This Enrico was far more of a monster than I have seen in previous productions, but it worked; partly of course because Miles made Enrico a very sexy monster, you could see why he drew the women.

His latest squeeze was Giovanna Seymour, played by Katharine Goeldner. The role is very much the seconda donna, she has her big aria at the beginning of act one and her big scene in act two at the beginning of that, with the character disappearing for large tracts of the rest of the opera. But what there is, is terrific. Goeldner was announced as suffering from a throat infection, and her opening aria had its uncertain moments but by the time we got to the act two confrontation with Farnocchia, Goeldner was on terrific form. She has quite a rich mezzo-soprano voice with a noticeable vibrato but also a remarkable facility with fioriture, so she brought quite a distinctive sound to Giovanna Seymour. The act two confrontation is one of the strongest scenes in the opera and, played at the front of the stage, the two women were both on intense form, this was gripping musical theatre.

Goeldner's scenes with Alistair Miles were equally as strong. In act one, he prepares to have sex with her and gradually unwraps the many under layers of her skirt, when finally reaching his goal only to be told by Goeldner that she no longer wants to be his mistress. A nice touch. In act two, Goeldner's Giovanna is yo-yoing almost as much as Farnocchia's Anna, and Goeldner's scene with Miles made a great counterpoint to Farnocchia's scene with MacPherson in the previous act.

Faith Sherman made a passionate Smeton, for much of the time she has to act in a vacuum as Farnocchia's Anna was completely unaware of Smeton's passion. Sherman has a nicely warm voice though perhaps her fioriture were occasionally smudged, but against that was the lovely way she moulded phrases and conveyed the young man's intense passion. His/her big scene is towards the end of act one, where he is alone in Anna's chamber, here represented simply by a mannequin wearing Anna's shift. Sherman made this work well, and really made us care for the young man.

Stephen Wells made a nice showing as Rochefort, standing in at short notice. His prison scene with McPherson in act two was perhaps not as homo-erotic as some stagings I have scene. And Robyn Lyn Evans clearly relished playing Hervey as one of Enrico's heavies.

The chorus were on superb form, and Donizetti gives them plenty to do in this opera and Talevi used them extensively to create the right oppressive theatrical atmosphere.

As I have said conductor Daniele Rustioni gave us one of the most dramatic accounts of Donizetti's score that I have heard, combining nicely sprung rhythms with intense drama without ever feeling that he was driving the opera too hard, always sympathetic to the singers and leaving them space. There was rarely a moment when music and drama did not interleave well. The orchestra were on strong form. I have happy memories of Charles Mackerras's 19th century Italian opera performances with WNO and it is good that they are continuing the tradition.

WNO are to be commended for assembling such a strong cast, particularly in the context of performing three Donizetti operas all requiring similar forces, a huge undertaking. A recording of the performance would probably indicate that there were high notes which were less than ideal or patches of smudged passage-work, but all performances were intelligently within both the drama and Donizetti's music.

Visually the production was intensely stylish and dramatic without feeling that Talevi and his team had imposed themselves. This showed too in the way Talevi drew such finely dramatic performances from cast. On this showing, the Donizetti Tudor's trilogy is off to a strong start.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Giovanna Seymour: Katharine Goeldner, Anna Bolena: Serena Farnocchia, Smeton: Faith Sherman, Enrico:Alastair Miles, Rochefort: Stephen Wells, Percy: Robert McPherson, Hervey: Robyn Lyn Evans. Daniele Rutioni: conductor, Alessandro Talevi: director, Madeleine Boyd: designer, Matthew Haskens: lighting. Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, 4 October 2013.

image_description=Serena Fanocchia as Anne Boleyn [Photo by Robert Workman]

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill
product_id=Above: Serena Fanocchia as Anne Boleyn [Photo by Robert Workman]

Posted by anne_o at 7:06 AM