Recently in Performances
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live
music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible
stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at
opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it
premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner
Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a
stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he
embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of
watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It
scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you
can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered
as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
11 Nov 2013
Britten’s Atmospheric War Requiem, London
On Remembrance Sunday, Semyon Bychkov conducted Benjamin Britten's War Requiem at the Royal Albert Hall with Roderick Williams, Allan Clayton, Sabrina Cvilak, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and choristers of Westminster Abbey.
The sense of occasion was overwhelming.
The vast auditorium was packed, and the arena area where Prommers throng in summer, was filled with seats. Before the performance began, the house lights were turned, not onto the stage but onto the audience. It was a moment of sheer theatre, but utterly appropriate, for everyone in the building must have known, or know of someone affected by the barbarity of war. No-one could remain unmoved. Wilfred Owen wrote about the First World War, and Britten wrote to commemorate peace after the Second World War. But the world is still wracked by conflict. Wars of attrition continue, millions of people still suffer. Turning the spotlight on the audience reminded us that Remembrance is more than "Lest we forget" but also implies moral obligation.
How amazing it must have been for the performers to look onto the Royal Albert Hall and see the lights shining on thousands of faces! This was infinitely more a communal experience than just a musical event. The lines between performance and reception blurred. Normal measure of performance were largely irrelevant. We were all participating in something much greater than ourselves.
Because the War Requiem was commissioned to mark the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral, it has become associated with vast venues and ostentatious displays of public piety. Although it's written for some 300 performers, at the really critical moments, Britten silences the tumult. Britten was essentially a private man, not given to big public gestures of emotion. The heart of the piece is the twelve member ensemble that accompanies the two male soloists. The choruses and the female soloist sing in Latin, and sing words that would fit neatly into any standard Requiem Mass. Significantly, Britten sets the key texts in English, using the words of Wilfred Owen, who wrote from personal experience. Owen does not celebrate public victory : quite the opposite. He fought bravely, but eschewed formal religion. Britten doesn't quote the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, but Wifred Owen's Parable of the Old Men and the Young, with its reference to the wilful slaying, not sanctioned by God, of "half the seed of Europe, one by one"
"Move him into the sun" sings the tenor (Allan Clayton). The quote is from a poem titled Futility. A corpse lies on snowbound ground. The soprano and choruses sing "Lachrymosa", of tears and the conventional expression of sorrow. The music is beautiful, but Owen, and Britten are having none of this. "O what made fatuous sunbeams toil, to break earth's sleep at all"? Unlike seeds in the soil, the dead don't re-sprout. In the Sanctus, the choirs sing "Hosanna in excelcis". But Britten has the baritone (Roderick Williams) sing, quite pointedly "Mine ancient scars should not be gloried. Nor my titanic tears, the seas, be dried". Britten's War Requiem isn't designed to comfort, as much as to provoke.
Bychkov places the chamber ensemble to his immediate left, "the heart side" in theatre parlance.The instrumentation mimics that of a large orchestra - five strings, four winds, horn, harp and percussion - but the individual voices are heard clearly : It's another indication of Britten's "inner" programme.
"Lbera me, Domine" the soprano (Sabina Cvilak) sings, haloed by the chorus. "Tremens factus sum ego" (I tremble and fear) The orchestra screams, cymbals crashing, suggesting the chaos of battle. Bychkov's definition of horns, trumpets and trombones was specially good, emphasizing military conflict. But Britten deliberately shifts focus. To minimal accompaniment the tenor sings ""Strange friend, I said, here is no cause to mourn". Tenor and baritone face each other in a strange No Man's Land where nations do not fight. There are no "Germans" or "British" here but two human beings, man to man. Their voices blend. "Let us sleep now", singing in unity. They are turning away from the vast forces around them. Perhaps Britten recognized that social forces dominate over the private. The War Requiem ends on a wave of uplifting glory, sending the audience out into the world feeling the better for having been part of the experience.