12 Mar 2014
La Fille du regiment, Royal Opera
Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.
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.
Donizetti’s opera comique La Fille du regiment returned to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for its third revival.
Laurent Pelly’s 2007 production is now in the hands of revival director Christian Räth, who also directed the 2012 revival. The production was created for Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez, but since 2012 the title role has been sung by the Italian lyric soprano Patrizia Ciofi (see Claire Seymour’s review of the 2012 revival). For this revival Ciofi was joined by Florez (with two performances later in the run being sung by Frederic Antoun). Also returning to the role as Hortensius was Donald Maxwell and conductor Yves Abel was also on the podium for the 2012 revival. With so many returning performers, it is inevitable that the newcomers to their roles would be the focus of attention: Pietro Spagnoli sang Sulpice and Ewa Podles was the Marquise de Berkenfeld. But the eyes and ears of many in the audience were on Dame Kiri te Kanawa in the speaking role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp.
The New Zealand soprano celebrates her 70th birthday during the present run, and her assumption of the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp represents her first appearance at Covent Garden since the 1996/97 season. At Covent Garden the role of the Duchesse de Crackentorp has previously been played by Dawn French and by Anne Widdicombe, but when Laurent Pelly’s production has appeared elsewhere then the Duchess has been played by both Kiri te Kanawa and Montserrat Caballe.
Ciofi made a charming Marie, she has the right combination of gamine charm and chutzpah which Pelly’s conception of the role requires. Physically Ciofi’s performance was almost hyper-active, reflecting the current conception of the production, and she is certainly a gifted comic. Natalie Dessay’s physical comedy in the role must have been a difficult act to follow, but Ciofi makes it her own. Vocally Ciofi has quite a soft grained lyric voice, which meant that the more poignant moments (such as her lovely act 2 aria) worked very well. There was plenty of fluent passagework too, and Ciofi has the gift of being able to imbue this with charm as well, she made the vocal fire-works part of the character. Her acuti sometimes seemed a little pressed and with a little too much vibrato for my taste, but she has been ill and missed part of the dress rehearsal, so it is unfair to judge.
Juan Diego Florez remains in fine form, his voice perhaps a little heavier and more solid than when he first sang the role, but he is still technically superb. Despite the lure of the famous act 1 solo with the repeated top C’s, it was his two slower arias which stick in the memory. Here Florez had a knack of slowing time, and causing the busy activity to stop. He can caress and shape a phrase without it being made to feel self-indulgent, and in these solo moments was deservedly the entire focus of attention. The role of Tonio still fits Florez stage persona well, the little-boy lost look still coming over charmingly.
Pietro Spagnoli was a delight as Sulpice with good comic timing combined with a neat way with Donizetti’s vocal line. His act one solo isn’t the best number in the opera, but Spagnoli charmed and made a fine contribution to the act two trio with Ciofi and Florez. More than that, he created a warm and very funny character.
Ewa Podles is clearly a gifted comic actress, as Marquise de Berkenfeld she used her voice to fine comic effect particularly the astounding lower register. Both vocally and in spoken dialogue she made the comedy work and set up a nice double act with Donald Maxwell’s Hortensius. Podles might now have a noticeable break in her voice, but her technique is still in fine form and there was as much to admire vocally as dramatically.
Kiri te Kanawa seemed less at ease with the comic business required, but the role was extended for her and we got to hear her performing an aria from Puccini’s Edgar which was finely done, albeit rather a strange choice in the context. The smaller roles were well taken with Bryan Secombe as the Corporal, Luke Price as a peasant and Jean-Pierre Blanchard as the Notary.
Now directed by Christian Räth , the production seems to have become almost a caricature of itself, all stylised movement, comic business and hardly any naturalism. Was Pelly’s production like this when new? I’d don’t remember it as such, but might be wrong. There is a danger, I think, of this becoming a comic caricature of a production. Most worryingly, the physical comedy seemed to be in danger of being an end in itself, rather than arising out of the music.
The orchestra was in the capable hands of Yves Abel. He and the orchestra provided fine accompaniments to the arias, but the overture did rather take a long time to catch fire.
This is the production’s third revival, that’s a total of four runs since 2007 which is quite a lot of exposure. It would make an interesting re-boot of the piece if, say, it was given in English with Anglophone actors performing the dialogue (at the moment we have a variety of nationalities performing in French), or perhaps investigate the Italian version which Donizetti himself created in 1840 (this lacks the famous top C’s of the tenor Ah mes amies, but the replacement aria is not without difficulty). I am reluctant to suggest that such a popular production be given a rest but perhaps something of a re-think is certainly in order.
Cast and production information:
Marie: Patrizia Ciofi, Tonio: Juan Diego Florez, Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ewa Podles, Sulpice: Pietro Spagnoli, Hortensius: Donald Maxwell, Corporal: Bryan Secombe, Peasant: Luke Price, Notary: Jean-Pierre Blanchard, Duchesse de Crackentorp: Kiri te Kanawa. Director: Laurent Pelly, Revival Director: Christian Räth, Dialogue: Agathe Melinand, Set Designs: Chantal Thomas, Lighting Design: Joel Adam, Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Conductor: Yves Abel. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden: 3 March 2014.