Recently in Performances
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
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.
10 Mar 2014
Schoenberg and company
With Schoenberg, I tend to take every opportunity I can — at least since my first visit to the Salzburg Festival, when understandably I chose to see Figaro over Boulez conducting Moses und Aron, though I have rued the loss ever since.
Whether that be a matter of travelling to Leipzig to
see the brilliant triple-bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas, ‘Moderne
Menschen’, or missing out on Leif Ove Andsnes playing Beethoven a couple
of miles away at the Barbican, Schoenberg tends to exert a special call.
Whether I should have been better off ignoring the call on this occasion
remains unclear. Certainly if the standard of the first half of the concert had
been repeated in the second, I should have been far better off staying at home.
But then a good Pierrot lunaire more or less managed to save the day.
Jane Manning remains a force of nature, having given her first broadcast
performance with Pierrot almost fifty years ago, in 1965. No one is
ever likely to agree — even with his or her own thoughts, let alone anyone
else’s — about how this work ‘should’ be performed. It is far better to
allow that different performers bring different qualities to it on different
occasions. If truth be told, Manning was probably wise to downplay the sung
element in her recitation. The moments, relatively few, when she moved towards
song suggested, not surprisingly, a voice that had known better days. And yet,
her vast experience — not just of this, but of more than 350 (!) world
premieres, a good number of which would have taken inspiration from Schoenberg
in one way or another — shone through nevertheless. The words and their
possibilities she clearly knew backwards. (Now there is an idea for another
Pierrot-ensemble piece.) She knew, in a way composers such as Luigi
Nono or Helmut Lachenmann would surely have appreciated, how to make the most
of vowels, consonants, the journeys between them. Above all, she appreciated
and communicated the strong element of cabaret. Manning’s was in every sense
a performance, and all the better for it.
Not, of course, that the reciter is all there is to Pierrot, far
from it. Giora Bernstein led a highly musical account from an excellent bunch
of players. Perhaps balance was tilted a little too much away from the
ensemble, but we have a host of other performances in which we can savour still
more strongly what Stravinsky quite rightly considered an instrumental
masterpiece. There were virtues aplenty, nevertheless. The passacaglia
registered as such as strongly as I can recall, Night eventually obscuring in
more than one sense. Dance rhythms made their Viennese impressions without
exaggeration, the ‘Heimfahrt’ an especially fine example. Benjamin
Baker’s violin and viola playing was perhaps particularly impressive,
perfectly attuned to shifting mood and context, but the ensemble as a whole,
including Julian Jacobson’s piano, such a relief after the first half, had no
As for that first half, well
Doubtless Alberto Portugheis’s heart was
in the right place. The concert seems to have been his project; he was listed
as ‘curator’. But sadly, it marked a triumph of ambition over even
rudimentary technical ability; this was piano-playing that would have disgraced
many an amateur performance, and may well have been the worst I have heard in a
professional context. The opening Zemlinsky’s 1891 Three Pieces for
cello and piano would most likely have done the composer no favours in a
stronger account. Apparently rediscovered recently by Raphael Wallfisch — I
am placing my trust in a programme note which, in many respects, proved
otherwise highly fallible — they are at best apprentice works, straining
towards, yet never coming remotely close to Brahms. Here, Portugheis and, much
to my surprise, Rohan de Saram sounded as if they were sight-reading. There was
little or no sense of musical collaboration; indeed, the players fell
noticeably out of sync on more than one occasion. De Saram fared better in
Dallapiccola’s Ciaccona, Intermezzo, and Adagio, though even when
playing solo, it took him a while to get into his stride, the chaconne
initially hesitant. At least, though, the performance offered some sense of the
stature of the piece, its dodecaphonic lyricism and structural integrity a
wonderful introduction to this appallingly neglected composer.
Nono’s ¿Donde estás, hermano? was provoked — the
composer spoke of his need for such a ‘provocation’ to compose, to bear
witness — by the ‘disappearances’ in Argentina. The music comes from
Quando stanno morendo, Diario Polacco, no.2, but here without
electronics. (Not that one would have known from the programme, which
bathetically informed us that Nono had ‘strongly-held political views’.)
The vocal quartet — Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili, Katie Coventry, and Anna
Migalios — seemed excellent. Alas, their performance was compromised by
Portugheis’s insistence on conducting; they would surely have better off
without. Plodding and without technique, Portugheis’s contribution was summed
up by his score falling off the music stand towards the end. As for his solo
rendition of Gerhard’s Don Quixote dances, the first opened quite
strongly. At last, I thought, we might hear something from him equating to a
real performance. I should not have tempted fate. Much of the rest sounded
closer to a bumbling amateur’s initial read-through. From time to time, some
sense of rhythm or pulse emerged, only roundly to be defeated.
Sadly, then, I was reminded of Boulez’s observation about the
self-defeating nature of the occasional performances of music by the Second
Viennese School in his youth. The technical standard had been so poor that they
did more harm than good, an incitement to him to mount his own performances,
leading to the foundation of the Domaine musical. If only, if only
Cast and production information:
Jane Manning (reciter); Marie Jaermann, Seljan Nasibili (sopranos);
Katie Coventry (mezzo-soprano); Anna Migalios (contralto); Benjamin Baker
(violin/viola); Rohan de Saram (cello); Susan Milan (flute/piccolo); David
Campbell (clarinets); Julian Jacobson, Alberto Portugheis (piano); Giora
Bernstein (conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, London, Tuesday 4 March 2014.