19 Mar 2014
Chicago’s New Barber of Seville
New productions of repertoire staples such as Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia bear much anticipation for both performers and staging.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
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 Tsarskoye Selo.
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.
New productions of repertoire staples such as Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia bear much anticipation for both performers and staging.
Happily, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s delightful new Barber fulfills both vocal and technical expectations with a bright and lively conception. Figaro is sung by Nathan Gunn, Isabel Leonard makes her house debut as Rosina, and Alek Shrader performs Count Almaviva, a role for which he is justly celebrated on operatic stages throughout the United States and Europe. Further artists featured in this notable cast include Alessandro Corbelli as Dr. Bartolo, the guardian of Rosina, Kyle Ketelsen as Don Basilio the music master, and Tracy Cantin as the maid Berta; Will Liverman sings Fiorello and John Irvin performs the part of the sergeant. Michele Mariotti makes his Chicago conducting debut leading these performances. Director of this new production is Rob Ashford, with sets and costumes by Scott Pask and Catherine Zuber respectively. Michael Black prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.
During the overture to the opera a scrim covers the stage with sketches of three coifed heads representing the Count, Rosina, and presumably the resourceful and ever-present Barber. Mr. Mariotti had the overture played with a light touch so that the strings were a subtle lead to the other forces in the orchestra. One could also hear clearly the plucking of individual string chords at appropriate moments, just as levels of volume rose and sank in anticipation of modulations in forthcoming scenes of the opera. During the second part of the overture repeats were played with variations and justified emphases. As the first scene of the opera begins, the chorus of musicians moves from one side of Dr. Bartolo’s house to the other, their team-like comical gestures matching the swell of the music in this production. While their leader Fiorello has tried to rally both discipline and quiet the Count clutches at the wall of the building in which his beloved Rosina lives under the tutelage of Bartolo. Mr. Shrader’s Almaviva repeats the calls for quiet with a truly soft emphasis on “Piano!” His movements and facial expressions indicate an anticipation scarcely kept in check. In Almaviva’s song at daybreak performed beneath Rosina’s balcony, “Ecco ridente in cielo” [“Look on the smiling sky”], Shrader expresses his ardor with an exuberant trill on “la bella aurora” [“the beautiful dawn”]. The tenor’s range was shown effectively with a full descent at “Sorgi ancora” [“still not arisen”], rising decorations on “vieni bell’ idol mio” [“Come, my treasured one”], and a cry of anguish at “Oh, Dio” to express the futile pain of waiting. As tempos and emotional commitment accelerated Shrader incorporated distinctive and well-chosen embellishments into the second part of his serenade. The tenor draws on a full range of technique and vocal color, just as his acting matched communicative gesture to his chosen vocal expression. As such, Almaviva’s palpable frustration at not knowing whether he has been heard by Rosina is displayed by Shrader in athletic poses and believable grimaces. Although forced to conceal himself at the arrival of the barber Figaro, this Almaviva’s presence is undiminished. Mr. Gunn’s Figaro has the requisite mobility and vocal energy to entertain and to suggest a resourceful fellow for those in need of his help. Gunn’s practiced declamation was equivalent to his character Figaro’s vocal runs in the “Largo al factotum” [“Make way for the factotum”]. At times in this famous aria the vocal projection was subject to an overly enthusiastic orchestral volume. The following interaction between Almaviva and Figaro was staged cleverly and with ample movement proceeding toward the ensuing musical numbers. Rosina appears on the balcony and drops her note to Almaviva; Bartolo warns his charge against suspicious contact and departs on an errand. At this point the Count sings his next serenade and identifies himself falsely as Lindoro, so that he might attract Rosina’s love on his own account and not because of wealth and title [“Si il mio nome saper voi bramate” (“If you wish to know my name”)]. During the first part of Almaviva’s song Shrader’s assured legato and fluid vocal runs prompt the expected encouragement of Rosina from her balcony that he should continue. Almaviva’s excitement at this response included here decorative top notes inserted at “fida e costante” [“faithful and true”] and a further trill toward the close. Only a sudden distraction inside the house prevents the young couple from further communication. Count Almaviva depends on Figaro’s resourceful scheme, that he take on the disguise of a soldier, in order to gain entry to the house and to see Rosina. The duet between Shrader and Gunn concluding this scene is vocally exciting and physically entertaining as they dance together while celebrating the pact.
The second substantial part of Act One features Rosina as a committed participant in any future attempt to meet her “Lindoro.” Ms. Leonard’s “Una voce poco fa” [“A voice I just heard”] is skillfully sung with decorations taken on rising lines, excellent runs, and application of rubato at textually appropriate moments toward the close. The start of her collusion with Figaro is matched now by Dr. Bartolo’s conspiratorial dealings with Basilio. The latter recommends defamation of the Count, whom he identifies as Rosina’s suitor. Mr. Ketelsen’s performance in the role of Basilio is notable for his vocal accomplishments while staying within character in the aria “La calumnia.,” directed toward Count Almaviva. Ketelsen’s physical gestures suggest a doddering teacher yet his voice blooms in enthusiastic might with rich bass notes on “Leggermente” and truly explosive pitches on “colpo di cannone” [“Outbursts from a cannon”]. Accomplished decoration concluded the piece by an artist whom one hopes to hear in additional bel canto roles. Once the doctor and music teacher depart, Rosina and Figaro are able to continue their mutual revelations. In their duet “Dunque io son” [“Then it is I”] both characters reflect on Lindoro’s emotional promise and the need for caution because of Bartolo’s own plans. In this duet Leonard and Gunn sing with even greater invention than earlier as though illustrating their crafty approach with vocal embellishments. When Mr. Corbelli as Bartolo enumerates his suspicions to Rosina, the aria “A un dottor della mia sorte” [“For a doctor of my standing”] is performed as more than a simple character piece. Corbelli truly inhabits the role of Dr. Bartolo, his sense of vocal line and sustained pitches giving emphasis to the fulminating ire expressed in the text. When the housemaid Berta enters to respond to pounding at the door, Ms. Cantin stumbles about with her laundry-basket while uttering believable cries of impatience. Her role as performed in the finale of Act One is crucial as a vocal anchor bringing to a crescendo the disparate arguments and colors. Almaviva is admitted as disguised, his feigned inebriation causing disagreement with Bartolo and relief for Rosina. Just as the household characters and guest are joined by Basilio and Figaro, the resulting ensemble sparkles with full yet disciplined Rossinian frenzy. In response to Shrader’s impressive high pitch on “In arresto? Io?” [“Arrested ? I?”], and his revelation to the official in charge, the police recognize the identity of the drunken soldier and refuse to detain him. All the principals participate in, with Ms. Cantin’s forte notes propelling forward, a commentary on the mental confusion in which they are trapped as the act concludes. (“Mi par d’esser con la testa in un’orrida fucina” [“My head seems to be in a fiery smithy”].
In the house of Bartolo at the start of Act Two the doctor has scarcely recovered from the confusing interruption of the inebriated soldier when Count Almaviva arrives in his second disguise, Don Alonso, professor of music and alleged pupil of Basilio. He purports to take the place of his ill teacher and proceeds with a music lesson for Rosina. Leornard performs the noted aria, “Contro un cor che accende amore” [“Against a heart inflamed with love”] as a clever response to the advances of her eager suitor, while also preserving its opportunities for vocal embellishments as a set piece. At the entrance of a seemingly healthy Basilio, a quick ruse must be invented to dispose of the real music master. When the conspirators attempt to convince Basilio of his dreadful appearance, Mr. Ketelsen asks, “Sono giallo come un morto?” [“I am yellow as a corpse?”] with deep sustained pitches making “un morto” shudderingly possible. Once he has left after a spirited performance of the “Buona sera” ensemble and agreement by Rosina to meet her lover at midnight, Berta is left alone to comment on the unabated frenzy of this household. Cantin’s performance of Berta’s solo “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie” [“The old man seeks a wife”] shows an assured and comic approach including effective chest tones, a superb diminuendo in the repeat, and inventive decorations taken at the close.
The ultimate appearance of Rosina’s “Lindoro” and Figaro at midnight prompts the blissful admission that Lindoro and Almaviva are indeed one and the same individual. Rosina’s relief at not having been deceived in her devotions as well as Almaviva’s boundless joy at winning his suit result in the extended duet in which Leonard and Shrader complement each other delightfully. At one last attempt by Dr. Bartolo to apprehend the presumed scoundrel Almaviva’s proclaimed identity and revelatory aria, “Cessa di più resistere” [“Cease any further resisance”] put an end to such challenging opposition. Mr. Shrader’s ornamentation and sheer vocal facility in this piece are flawless, matched in excitement by the following, more rapid “Ah il più lieto, il più felice” [“The blithest, the happiest”] describing his ardor for the love now granted. Almaviva’s final word “felicità” accentuates the happy spirit which invests this model new production of Rossini’s masterpiece.