17 Nov 2013
The Barber of Seville in San Francisco
San Francisco Opera wraps up its fall season of five operas with what it insists is a new production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
San Francisco Opera wraps up its fall season of five operas with what it insists is a new production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece.
It is the staging of Spanish stage director Emilio Sagi (pronounced saw-he) that has many of the ideas he first explored at Madrid’s Teatro Real in a big production that then traveled to Los Angeles, both cities likely harbors for its witty and affectionate quoting of classic hispanic flamenco postures. This San Francisco Barber is a slimmed down, re-elaborated version of the original Sagi conception that will soon be shared with the Lithuanian National Opera.
There was much to like on opening night, notably the polished performances of Count Almaviva and his future countess, characters also known as Lindoro sung by Mexican tenor Janvier Camarena and Rosina sung by American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.
Mr. Camarena provided the high points of the evening, accompanying himself on the guitar for the serenade with virtuoso plucking technique, acting the music teacher with the skill of a sure comedian. To top it off he gave us the rare “Cessa di più risistere” later known and now better known as “Non piu mesta” from La cenerentola in a dazzling display of fioratura and high notes that brought the house down.
Mlle. Leonard, if not of pure hispanic origin (her mother was Argentine) even so matched Mr. Camarena’s latin excitement and brilliant singing with a presence that exuded refined fun and projected mature vocal and histrionic confidence — a poised Rosina who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Once a student at the Joffrey Ballet School she was well prepared to snap out flamenco poses that easily outclassed those of the official ballerinas.
There were moments of fine, idiomatic conducting. Italian conductor Giuseppe Finzi effectively captured the ephemeral Rossini ethos from time to time (the joy and blatant fun of singing difficult, florid music with aplomb), particularly in his support of the arias of these two singers. As well the maestro often caught the transparent rhythms of the big ensembles where three to six complex and sometimes more vocal lines compete with complete musical ease, conviction and wit.
The set, designed by Spaniard Llorenç Corbella, is quite different from the Madrid production. Here it is essentially a narrow, diagonally raked platform thrusting upstage, with an adjacent abstract black area (no scenery) accessible to various contraptions on wheels and lots of choristers. At best the set worked well, the rake providing a dynamic line on which the principals moved up and down, on and off, the black area serving as a space to stage business that elaborates the various musical numbers.
Besides the witty gloss of the flamenco poses, the Sagi production was embellished with lots of spoke wheel vehicles (bicycle like) that gave a sense of lightness and fleetness to the staging that flouted period (century or decade). The costumes as well were embellished with witty abstractions of Sevillian decorations that had little to do with period and everything to do taking costumes onto an abstract musical level.
Various human bodies and objects crawled out from under the raked platform and props flew down from above from time to time to further negate any sense of real time or real space. Barber’s various numbers were arbitrarily placed on the ramp or in the black space and finally everything more or less disappeared anyway to reveal a night sky filled with fireworks (projected). In short director Sagi and his designer Corbella concocted a heady framework for the music of Rossini’s masterpiece. It would have been truly brilliant had it gotten off the ground.
Lucas Meachem as Figaro, Janvier Camarena as Almaviva, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo, Andrea Silvestrelli as Basilio, Catherine Cook as Berta, Isabel Leonard as Rosina [Photo by Cory Weaver]
Unfortunately stage director Sagi was more interested in exploring these interesting theatrical ideas than in staging his singers. This lack of a unified and focused dramatic intelligence resulted in the feeling that Rossini’s headstrong characters were arbitrarily walking through the classic comedic process rather than bringing it to life.
A plodding succession of the events of the story we know so well resulted. This sense was exacerbated in the pit. While conductor Finzi did have his truly splendid moments, and there many of them he could not impose a larger musical unity over an act or the evening, evidenced by the overture that ignited no excitement whatsoever. There was a sense of relief when nine dancers appeared to maybe add some life with a bit of abstracted flamenco movement. Alas the choreography was clumsy and meaningless, later met with feelings of dread whenever the dancing became lengthy.
A.J. Glueckert as Ambrogio, Catherine Cook as Berta [Photo by Cory Weaver]
Catherine Cook was the Berta who was as lightheaded as Rosina was weighty minded. She made her aria another of the evening’s high points with the help of her adoring Ambrogio, Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert who shined as a silent, physical performance artist given he has hardly anything to sing. Bass baritone Hadleigh Adams brought snap and flair to the brief role of the Officer, not allowing his few moments on stage to go unnoticed.
Andrea Silvestrelli brought the considerable panache he provides Rigoletto’s Sparafucile to the role of Basilio. This major role stood out as miscast, and as a vocal misfit into Rossini’s vocal and musical textures. Much the same can be said of the Figaro of Lucas Meachem who confused bellowing with singing and strutting with acting. Italian bass baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a small scale if accomplished Bartolo who here disappeared into the melée rather than making himself the cause of it all.
Of the many, many Barbiere productions encountered over the years, this one stacks up among the best. Its glaring flaws could have easily been overcome with more careful casting, conducting, lighting and directing.
Cast and production information:
Figaro: Lucas Meachem; Rosina: Isabel Leonard; Count Almaviva: Javier Camarena; Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli; Don Basilio: Andrea Silvestrelli; Berta: Catherine Cook; Ambrogio: A.J. Glueckert; Fiorello: Ao Li; An Officer: Hadleigh Adams; Notary: Andrew Truett. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi. Stage director: Emilio Sagi; Set Designer: Llorenc Corbella; Costume Designer: Pepa Ojanguren; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Nuria Castejón. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. November 13, 2013.