02 Dec 2013
Weber’s Euryanthe, London
Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.
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 less-than-tragic plight.
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.
Poor Weber: opera companies, especially in England, do him anything but proud.
And then, at least in the case of Euryanthe and Oberon, there is the matter of the dreadful libretti he had to set — presumably part of the reason why companies are unwilling to perform them. (Oddly, dreadful music seems to be less of a problem, given the lashings endured of Donizetti, Verdi, et al.) The best one can say for Helmina von Chezy’s efforts in Euryanthe is that they are merely awful, as opposed to the execrable text for Oberon.Lucky Weber, then, to receive such a fine performance as this from the valiant forces of the Chelsea Opera Group.
Conductor Cameron Burns and his excellent cast should receive equal credit for what I have no hesitation in describing as the best COG performance I have heard — by some distance. Burns’s reading ought to have been welcomed with open arms in any opera house; indeed, it would have signalled a marked improvement in most of what we hear. A refreshingly elegant, unexaggerated style — no frenetic waving around of arms to no evident end — did not in any sense preclude engagement with libretto, whatever its shortcomings, and score alike. It was surely testimony to sound training that soloists and chorus not only enunciated clearly, but for the most part seemed really to mean their words — even when the chorus was compelled to comment, without a trace of irony, that Euryanthe’s alleged betrayal of Adolar was the most grievous deed the world had ever witnessed: ‘ O Unthat, grässlichste von allen, Die jemals auf der Welt erhört!’ Burns’s handling of Weber’s score was perhaps all the more revelatory, not least since it is about the music that, perforce, we truly care. Line was maintained throughout. Not a single passage sounded unduly hurried or remotely meandering.
The Overture was an interesting case in point. It offered quite a contrast with, say, Karajan’s account, firmly melded into an almost granitic Wagnerian whole as it is — and mightily, even wondrously, impressive. Here, however, we heard a greater variety of moods, textures, and tempi, arguably more faithful to the movement’s role as apotpourri introduction to Weber’s opera (as opposed to Karajan’s concert overture) and to the composer’s conception, without danger of lapsing into the merely sectional. Presentiments — one has to remind oneself that they are not echoes! — of Mendelssohn characterised the very opening, but a darker form of the supernatural made its voice eerily heard in the ghost music. Weber’s musico-dramatic experiments were communicated with apparent ease, boundaries blurred but not obliterated between more old-fashioned set pieces and the ‘forward-looking’ — at least to any self-respecting Wagnerian — treatment of recitative and arioso. Above all, dramatic tension remained tight and proportions simply sounded ‘right’, a far more difficult task to accomplish than many might appreciate.
The chorus sometimes lacked a little in youthful vitality, especially earlier on, yet became more animated as the opera progressed, later sounding impressive indeed in the great close to the second act. Not unfittingly, it was at that point that the orchestra perhaps gained its greatest dramatic heights too, though throughout there was a great deal of impressive solo playing, especially from the woodwind. If only Weber’s clarinet writing were as meaningful in his concertos as it is here; he clearly needed a dramatic impetus to reach the heights of which he was capable. Moreover, the strings, if at times a little reticent earlier on, subsequently showed themselves adept at providing just the right sort of musical cushion for vocal recitatives. I could not help but wish that we had heard Burns at the helm for the COG Die Feen earlier this year, not least since the amount the two works have in common — not solely influence, though there is a good deal of that — became increasingly clear, as indeed did the influences, perceptible yet again not exaggerated, upon Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. (If only, I thought, Weber had had a dramatist such as Wagner to shape the relationship between Lysiart and Eglantine, we might have had a more telling taste still of Ortrud and Telramund. Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, appallingly misunderstood by many critics at Covent Garden last year, also came to mind more than once.)
Kirstin Sharpin’s star shone brightly in the tight role, words and music honoured to equal extent and indeed in fine alchemy. Hers was a portrayal both impassioned and noble, clearly longing to be properly ‘on stage’, yet offering considerable dramatic compensation even in concert. Sharpin’s cleanness of vocal line and dramatic commitment were shared by Camilla Roberts’s Eglantine. Tricky coloratura apparently evoked no fears; more importantly, such ambiguity as the libretto permitted was exploited to its dramatic fullest. Stephen Gadd likewise offered a finely honed portrayal of her accomplice, Lysiart, malevolent and sophisticated — again, insofar as the libretto permitted, but considerably more so than one would have likely have expected. Jonathan Stoughton revealed an often pleasing tenor as Adolar, drawing upon lyric and heroic reserves as required. This is clearly a voice which, if sensibly marshalled, will be in great demand for heroic roles; however, more careful phrasing was sometimes called for on this occasion. Richard Wiegold projected a benevolent voice of experience as the king, and Melinda Hughes’s brief appearance as the country girl, Bertha proved full of charm. All contributed to a performance that was very much more than the sum of its parts. Now will one of our opera companies — ideally, the Royal Opera — kindly take its cue and do its duty by Weber?
Cast and production information:
King Louis VI: Richard Wiegold; Adolar: Jonathan Stoughton; Euryanthe: Kirstin Sharpin; Lysiart: Stephen Gadd; Eglantine: Camilla Roberts; Bertha: Melinda Hughes; Chorus of the Chelsea Opera Group (chorus master: Deborah Miles-Johnson)/Orchestra of the Chelsea Opera Group/Cameron Burns (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, Saturday 23 November 2013.