10 Apr 2014
Karlsruhe’s Mixed Blessing Ballo
The reliable Badisches Staatstheater has assembled plenty of talent for its new Un Ballo in Maschera.
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.
The reliable Badisches Staatstheater has assembled plenty of talent for its new Un Ballo in Maschera.
Too bad it has often handicapped the team with a Konzept of the version set in a Sweden that seems to indulge Gustavo as an immature Boy-King. The production begins with a staged prelude in which a dapper-suited, white cardboard-crowned Gustavo enters in front of a black show curtain playing with a red yoyo (no fooling) as he regards a huge hanging image of a skull outfitted in an oversized Elizabethan neck ruff and a rudimentary gold paper-cut out crown that suggests Bart Simpsons haircut.
Said yoyo makes a re-appearance any number of times during the evening, last and certainly least when he holds it in his hand, extended to heaven as he dies. His play-acting during the love duet, his relishing getting up as a randy sailor, his romping with Oscar, all suggested a bratty, spoiled Kim Jong-un but with better hair. No attempt seemed made to hide that Oscar was not a male, and in fact the character seemed to revel in acting all girly.
Doey Lüthi’s costumes at times were a grab bag of early-mid 20th Century creations and there were many things to admire in her design. In addition to the men’s well-fitted, muted suits, Ms. Lüthi allowed a flight of fancy by getting up the guys in playful sailor outfits for the end of the first scene, featuring knee pants, striped tops, and white sailor hats. The ladies in scene two were in colorful print, simple day dresses with Ulrica also sporting a cleaning lady’s work smock. (Good God, a prescient Putzfrau!)
Barbara Dobrzanska as Amelia and Andrea Shin as Gustav III of Sweden with chorus
I also liked having the conspirators (and male chorus) in the gallows scene decked out in black suits with bowlers and umbrellas looking like surreal Magritte figures in search of a green apple. But then there was an odd, shiny, bright red half-glove that the men wore on the right hand that communicated. . .what? Blood on their hands? A riff on Wacko-Jacko? Who can say? For the titular ball, the all-black look seemed to revert more to Elizabethan time with a contemporary twist, especially for the women who were in shiny, voluminous ball gowns, with silver half masks, pointy white construction paper crowns (again), and oversized white neck ruffs (see “hanging skull,” above).
The imposing set design (Friedrich Eggert) was quite pleasing and often provided an effective psychological environment for the enfolding drama. The basic setting is a ball room, the stage right half all ornate gray marble with moldings and decoration, the stage left side rust colored, bare brick, not unlike the unfinished great rooms of Schloss Herrencheimsee. (This unadorned half is revealed by Oscar and Gustavo during the first extended duet, as they pull down a muslin drape that had been covering it.) A massive banquet table is placed center stage, upon which Oscar and Gustavo conduct no end of frolicsome prancing and dancing.
As the conflicts between characters become apparent, the floor (actually on a three foot platform), splits down the middle (table, too) and opens to a large inverted “V” of a playing space, floor-level center stage. Although there is a bit too much unnecessary “fine-tuning” and futzing with the exact size of this central opening, it does serve to provide a fine focal point for say, Ulrica and her crystal ball. The two levels also allowed for good variety of stage pictures.
Stefan Woinke did a commendable job with a lighting design that showed real imagination and insight. His area lighting established the right moods and kept soloists well illuminated. It was perhaps cheeky to have Oscar snap her fingers to command a spotlight for “his” first number but the moment (and effect) worked. A large circle of pale blue light on the center stage floor was well-used several times, not least of which was during the cat and mouse flirtation in the love duet, culminating in the couple meeting dead center in the light at the climax. I loved the atmosphere created when the ladies’ chorus brought cylindrical, blue tinted votive lights to the séance. And I loved even more when these were re-purposed by placing them around the set for the gallows scene, the spooky desolation suggested further by an overturned half of the banquet table.
Ewa Wolak as Ulrica and Andrea Shin as Gustav III of Sweden with chorus
That half of the table flew to hang menacingly over the heads of Anckarström and Amelia in their big confrontation ‘at home’, the impact of which was marred by a fly man asleep at the rail. When the scene began the front drape went up, but the skull cutout remained and the surtitle screen flew in even lower than that, blocking the action until first the screen, and then the skull got properly readjusted.
Aron Stiehl’s stage direction ran the gamut from amazingly apt (that beautiful circling love duet), to pleasingly competent (arias all had a good theatrical arc), to “what-was-he-thinking?”
When the sailors broke into a dance at the end of Scene One, the effect was a Village People number as staged by St Vitus. Goofy met sloppy. Next scene, the women’s semaphoring hands worked pretty well in a revival meeting sort of way, until the King got the spirit and crossed the front of the stage like he was doing the back stroke and Moonwalk all at once. There were occasional odd uses of levels with principal singers making their way on the stage platform, only to have to jump down to floor level. The chorus boys make lots of distracting noise jumping to earth as Gustavo begins his last solo in Scene One.
Conversely, Mr. Stiehl’s final ball scene is a superb piece of stage craft with excellent movement of the assembled forces, clean choreography, and wonderful focusing of the action. The final duet between the lovers was a model of dramatic tension and the death scene was creditably positioned and lit. . .right up until that dang red yoyo came back.
As Gustavo, Andrea Shin displayed a warm, if not always ‘present’ tenor. Although no announcement was made, I wondered if he might not have been indisposed. There was a persistent light but noticeable gruffness in the passaggio, a subdued lower voice, now and then some ringing top notes, but others that were lightly covered in able to incorporate them into the line. And he tired as the evening went on. It is to Mr. Shin’s credit that he husbanded his resources and finessed his way through the final act, but at least on this occasion, the role did not seem to be an easy fit.
Seung-Gi Jung brought a big, forward-focused voice to Count Anckarström, but the tone could get unwieldy when he went to pulverize a note rather than just sing it securely. When he sang more introspectively, the cantilena was smooth and the voice vibrant. The handsome baritone has a fine sense of theatre, and his anguished utterance of È finita (Eri tu) was heart-wrenching. With so many assets at his command, I urge consideration that a more controlled approach might yield even more impressive results.
The two conspirators were solid and dramatically engaged. Yang Xu (Count Ribbing) showed real promise with his sizable, piercing bass, and as Count Horn, Luiz Molz made a fine contribution. In the small cameo of Cristiano, Andrew Finden took charge of the stage and made every phrase count, with his pleasing baritone and animated presence producing a solid impression.
Emily Hindrichs’ Oscar is as good as I have heard anywhere. Her flexible voice had thrust and clarity, and her vocalization and dramatic commitment were far and away more substantial than the often-encountered chirpy throw-away presentation. An impressive vocal accomplishment indeed. Ewa Wolak is a seasoned and assured singer who knows her voice well and knows her way around Ulrica’s every challenge. Ms. Wolak easily blends her awesome, potent chest register all the way up into a buzzy, searing top that raises gooseflesh as well as the roof. This was a top-drawer portrayal.
And then there is always the Divine Miss D: Barbara Dobrzanksa sings Amelia as well as anyone else on the world’s stages today. Anyone. Else. Her rich, rounded lower voice has just the power and mettle needed to pull off the tricky Ecco l’orrido campo. The upper middle blossoms as it ascends into as expansive a warm spinto as you are likely to encounter. In addition to effortless, thrilling high climaxes, she can scale back her voice to a thread for those melting outpourings of love and despair. The Publikum seems to know well Barbara’s worth, since she was roundly cheered at the call.
In the pit, conductor Johannes Willig had some initial control issues, and the first pages found the orchestra sounding thin and unidiomatic. The chorus also took some time to settle, the basses initially wanting to bound ahead of the beat. But by the end of the first scene, the reading had settled competently into place. Starting with Act Two the Maestro inspired a growing fire that took hold as his assembled forces began cutting loose with some passionate Verdian music making. For future shows, here’s hoping that the fierce commitment of the closing pages could be brought forward to the start.
Cast and production information:
King Gustavo: Andrea Shin; Count Anckarström: Seung-Gi Jung; Amelia: Barbara Dobrzanska; Ulrica: Ewa Wolak; Oscar: Emily Hindrichs; Count Ribbing: Yang Xu; Count Horn: Luiz Molz; Cristiano: Andrew Finden; Judge: Johannes Eidloth; Amelia’s Servant: Jan Heinrich Kuschel; Conductor: Johannes Willig; Director: Aron Stiehl; Set Design: Friedrich Eggert; Costume Design: Doey Lüthi; Lighting Design: Stefan Woinke; Chorus Master: Ulrich Wagner.