10 Apr 2014
A New Rusalka in Chicago
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka is visually impressive and fulfills all possible expectations musically with unquestioned excitement.
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.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka is visually impressive and fulfills all possible expectations musically with unquestioned excitement.
Sir Andrew Davis conducted these performances in which Ana María Martínez portrayed the water-nymph Rusalka, Brandon Jovanovich the Prince, and Eric Owens performed the role of Vodník, the water-goblin and father of Rusalka. Additional significant contributions were made by Jill Grove as Ježibaba the witch, Ekaterina Gubanova as the Foreign Princess, Daniela Mack as the Kitchen Boy, and Philip Hirst as the Gamekeeper. The three wood-nymphs were performed by Lauren Snouffer, J’nai Bridges, and Cynthia Hanna, and the hunter was Anthony Clark Evans. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra.
Before the curtain rises on Act One I in this production a brief pantomime is conducted during the orchestral introduction. The moon is clearly prominent during the preamble, a man and woman both in formal attire gaze intently at a suspended painting. The man tumbles out of a chair after having consumed a beverage during what was a presumed social event. At the start of the action the forest is depicted in semi-realistic branches with coloration shading between grey and dullish blues. The three wood-nymphs call out to Vodník as they tease him yet they elude his grasp. [“Hou, hou, hou, hastrmánek nad vodu!” (“Hou, hou, hou! The Lord of the waters is climbing out of the deep!”)]. Mr. Owens, who is made up for his role with exaggerated hands and feet, participates believably in this game of seduction. Once the nymphs retreat, Rusalka appears and begs the indulgent ear and heart of her father. Ms. Maftínez commands admirable vocal projection from the start. When she reveals her desire to Vodník, [“člověkem byt a v zlátem slunci žíti!” (“I want to become a woman and live beneath the golden sun!”)], Martínez describes her longing with a high forte pitch of remarkable purity. Martínez uses her practiced range in describing the wish to join those humans who have souls [“že mají duši, které nemáme”] by contrasting low pitches with opposing high notes to express the love she senses in those very souls [“A pina lásky!”] Vodník reacts with despair when he hears Rusalka’s pleas; here Owens’s appropriate mix of declamatory and lyrical phrasing shows concern for his daughter. At the same time, he communicates a clear disapproval of her need to communicate with the young prince who visits the lake regularly to bathe. Upon his suggestion that she consult the forest-witch,` Rusalka turns for consolation to nature and sings her celebrated song to the moon. Martínez delivered an achingly touching performance as she lay on her bck propped on one of the tree-branches. With imploring tones she expressed her appeal to the moon to stop and tell her the location of her beloved. [“Měsíčku, postůj chvíli, řekni mi, kde je můj milý!” (“Moon, stay but a moment and tell me where my beloved may be found!”)]. At this point both Martínez and the orchestra lingered with telling rubato in their encouragement to slow the celestial bodies. Her whispering piano on the request to communicate with the prince swelled into full voice as Martínez proclaimed that she awaits him at the accustomed locale in the wood. Despite her urgent appeals that it might linger, the moon recedes leaving Rusalka alone to cry out to Ježibaba. In the latter role Jill Grove excelled at portraying the divided nature that Rusalka addressed in flattering appeals, that she was “of both worlds,” the mortal and the magical. In response to Rusalka’s request for a potion to grant her human status, Ježibaba demands both compensation and an explanation. When she perceives Rusalka’s motives, “to love and be loved,” Ms. Grove’s vocal intensity gave excited warnings of the risks to be taken by the water-nymph. She elaborated that Rusalka’s lover would also suffer under a curse of retribution, if the emotional bond should fail to continue. As the incantation proceeded Grove engaged in a physically dramatic and daring scale of recitations to produenthe desired magical effect. She reminds Rusalka further that she will henceforth be mute in exchange for a soul.
With the admonitions of Rusalka’s father echoing in the distance, the Hunter as first enters followed by the Prince, who is overcome by inexplicable weakness in the vicinity of the water. The Prince orders the Hunter to return to the castle and allow him alone to sort out the “strange magic of the forest overwhelming my soul” [“divnější čáry v duši mám domů vrat’te se, chci býti sám!”]. When Mr. Jovanovich as the Prince sees Rusalka for the first time in human form, he begins to understand the water’s powers. The Prince asks, “Vidino divan, jsi-li ty člověk nebo pohádka?” [“wondrous apparition, are you real?”]; at the same time Jovanovich released sumptuous high, soft pitches expressing his irrepressible attraction to Rusalka. The final scene of this act enhances the growing love between the protagonists. Since she is unable to speak, the Prince hopes that her kisses will reveal the secret of her condition. After Rusalka gives him the desired sign of her love, Jovanovich declared with anguished joy that he realized Rusalka is not mortal [“Vím, že jsi kouzlo, které mine” (“I know that you are no more than a vision”)] Despite the voices of her father and sisters calling out to Rusalka, the pair runs off to indulge their love out of the forest.
In Act Two the fleeting happiness of Rusalka and the Prince seems troubled both in their own emotional relations and in the eyes of others. After a brief orchestral introduction the curtain rises on a kitchen scene populated by the domestics of the castle. The kitchen-boy stuffs a turkey energetically as the other staff prepares for a festive evening in the palace with expected guests. In the role of the kitchen-boy Daniela Mack gives a distressing account of the Prince’s acquaintance with Rusalka and the effect of the relationship on his demeanor. Ms. Mack truly inhabits the role as she senses fear and predicts instability for the Prince’s future. In the scene immediately following the Prince questions Rusalka on her hesitancy despite having lived in his presence for the past week. Jovanovich’s legato and impassioned top notes expressed the potential still of his growing love for Rusalka, to which she cannot of course similarly respond. The entrance of the Foreign Princess interrupts such developments and functions as a wedge between the pair. The Prince orders Rusalka to dress for the evening’s ball just as the Foreign Princess takes command of her host’s attention. Ms. Gubanova delivers her part with measured hauteur and leaves no doubt that she will destroy any love between the Prince and Rusalka if she cannot herself win over the Prince’s heart. She pronounces the line “mám dvornost jeho, vy však srdce mátez’ [“I have his courtesy although you still have his heart”] with noticeable and very effective vibrato, as she exits on the arm of the Prince.
In the second part of Act Two movement and vocal expression enhance the dramatic excitement. While the ball commences inside the palace, the “ancestral chains” linking Rusalka to the water kingdom reassert their draw [“ve jhu jsi spjatá odvěkém”]. In Lyric Opera’s clever staging the interior and inhabitants of the festively lit palace are visible through a window. In the darkness outside Vodník emerges from his watery realm and laments the unhappiness of his daughter. Owens proclaims with dramatic top notes that Rusalka will be “condemned and drained of life” [“Prokletí živlů jsi propadla!”] At this point Rusalka leaves the ball and, once again able to speak, begs her father for help in her current distress. Martínez used this solo vocal part to delineate her character’s emotional imprisonment: finding it impossible to win over the Prince she is “neither fully spirit nor woman” [“ženou ni vílou nemohu být”]. In the final scene of the act two pairs are caught up in confrontation: after the Prince and Foreign Princess leave the ball, he swears his growing ardor; Rusalka and Vodník remain at the lake’s edge, nez pallid arms, the Prince is cursed by Vodník [“Objetí jejímu neujdeš” (“You will never escape the arms of Rusalka”)]; as if to seal this prediction, Gubanova’s character rejects the Prince while condemning him to the eternal depths with an emotionally powerful dramatic final note as the stage goes black.
Act Three of this production returns to the forest as in the first dramatic scene. In something of a mirror to her famous song to the moon in Act One, Rusalka now sings a lament (“Necitelná vodní moci’ in which she speaks of cruel nature and her unfulfilled wish to die. In her aria Martínez applied diminuendo most effectively, and she placed decoration at particularly wistful phrases. Ms. Grove as Ježibaba now comments on the fate of the water-nymph, reminding her of the previous warning given before Rusalka fled with the Prince. Grove released impressive low pitches forte in condemning the man who abandoned Rusalka. Ježibaba insists that the Prince must die despite Rusalka’s resistance. A comparable message is delivered by Vodník to the Gamekeeper and Kitchen-Boy when they wander into the forest to find help for their master. As the last one to appear searching for his Rusalka, Jovanovich begins his part with dramatic top notes accompanied here by a sumptuous brass section. When lower pitches signal his appeal for Rusalka’s presence, the water-nymph appears. In their final duet Martínez’s voice trembles with dramatic intensity in her warning “that she can only bring death.” The Prince’s relentless demands lead to Rusalka’s kiss and, as predicted, his death. Only thus, as expressed poignantly by Jovanovich can he find peace. Since she is banished from communion with her family, Rusalka must disappear at the close of the drama. Chicago is truly fortunate to have experienced such an exceptional ensemble and sensitive orchestral support from the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.