Recently in Performances
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre
Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances
dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed
at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in
the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the
annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I
heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It
was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to
life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s
L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed
follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution
of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities,
upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court
during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined
that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the
opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in
service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question.
Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although
already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
07 Nov 2013
Madama Butterfly, Chicago
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.
This exposure of the individual characters, their hopes
and conflicts, requires that the performers communicate musically in the midst
of shifting narrative turns and a gamut of anguished feelings. The original
production was directed by Michael Grandage with sets and costumes by
Christopher Oram; for Chicago the production is directed by Louisa Muller.
Cio-Cio-San / Butterfly and Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton are sung by Amanda
Echalaz and James Valenti, both making house debuts. Butterfly’s attendant
Suzuki is performed by Maryann McCormick and the American Consul Sharpless by
Christopher Purves, the latter also appearing here for the first time. The
Lyric Opera Orchestra is led by Marco Armiliato, who makes his Chicago Lyric
conducting debut with these performances.
At the start of Act One the Japanese marriage broker Goro, sung by David
Cangelosi, and Pinkerton discuss business matters relating to the house which
the protagonist has rented for his current relationship with Cio-Cio-San. When
describing both the household members in the service of the bride, and guests
who will attend the ceremony with Pinkerton, Cangelosi’s Goro is masterfully
acted and sung with obsequious gestures and with a good sense of idiomatic
delivery. Mr. Valenti’s Pinkerton seems appropriately distracted when hearing
Goro’s recitation of domestic details. Valenti’s facial expression remained
unchanged during this scene and the following exchange with Sharpless who
enters in a breathless rush to witness on site Pinkerton’s plans. Valenti’s
lyrical spirit emerges when he sings “Dovunque al mondo’ (“Everywhere in
the world”) in his soliloquy to Sharpless on the wandering and risk-taking
Yankee sailor. It is surely this attempt to stay in character, seeking pleasure
until he settles someday with a proper “sposa americana,” that explains
Valenti’s grinning stage demeanor and understated vocal line. At times both
he and Purves’s Sharpless were unfortunately challenged in their vocal
projection by overly vigorous orchestral volume.
As Cio-Cio-San enters with her companions, the excitedness of the young
women is appreciated by their host. Despite her own demure behavior vis-à-vis
Pinkerton this Butterfly is skilled at giving orders to her retinue of serving
companions. Ms. Echalaz sings with secure pitch, at first investing her line
with a noticeable amount of vibrato as a means to expressing her mix
of ardor and nervous expectation. Once her character feels more comfortable in
this conjugal setting, to which she assigns blind faith, Echalaz varies the
expression of vocal color. She describes her few treasured possessions with a
nonchalant tone for the pot of rouge, yet her description of the “cosa
sacra” (“sacred possession”) — the knife of her father’s suicide —
is pronounced with pure, unwavering focus. Once the Bonze, uncle of Cio-Cio-San
and a Buddhist priest, enters and curses her resolve, the ultimate societal and
personal isolation of the young woman has begun. As the Bonze, David Govertsen
delivered an appropriately menacing and lyrically convincing impression, while
also competing with an unyielding orchestral force. The departure of
authorities and extended family leave the protagonists alone for perhaps their
most celebrated expressive music in Puccini’s score. Valenti and Echalaz sang
this duet touchingly from his rising vocal line on “Viene la sera” (“The
night approaches”) to Butterfly’s naïve pronouncements “Ah dolce notte!
quante stelle!” (“Oh, beautiful night! So many stars!”). At times during
this first and the following acts the voices seemed muffled as though the set,
constructed of graduated panels, were absorbing some of the performers’ vocal
Amanda Echalaz as Butterfly and James Valenti as Pinkerton
Act Two of Madama Butterfly begins as an extended duet for
Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki, the latter despairing over the failure of Pinkerton to
return within three years. Ms. McCormick’s Suzuki featured some of the most
expressive dramatic singing of this performance, as she released rich, dark
pitches in her warnings of their precarious financial household. In reply
Cio-Cio-San’s famous aria “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), assuring her
faith in Pinkerton’s return, was sung with careful attention to top notes
alternating with lines sung piano for their introspective emphasis.
Sharpless interrupts this intimate scene and tries repeatedly to communicate
the contents of Pinkerton’s letter. Purves’s Counsul showed the ideal mix
of anguish and frustration in both acting and singing as he tries to broach the
topic with Butterfly. Once the cannon-shot is sounded, Butterfly is again lost
in her world of determined faith: she and her child, with Suzuki joining in
support, scatter flower petals to signal their welcome of Pinkerton.
The “Humming Chorus” performed between Acts Two and Three was subtly
audible as the central structure of the stage revolved. In the final scenes
Echalaz’s descent into renunciation of her life and child was as complete as
her earlier trajectory of hope. Pinkerton’s brief appearance and aria,
“Addio, fiorito asil,” (“Farewell, flowery refuge”) was here sung by
Valenti with the ability to integrate this vocal piece into the dramatic flow.
His brief lyrical outburst simply added in this production to the tragedy as
Madam Butterfly proceeds to the decision that she realizes is now inevitable.
Click here for cast and production information.