08 May 2014
Amsterdam: Arabella’s New Water in Old Glasses
What a difference a venue and a cast can make!
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.
What a difference a venue and a cast can make!
As a shared production, I confess I had been under-whelmed by this staging of Arabella in another (major) theatre, but it took the Netherlands Opera to make a believer out of me that the concept indeed had something substantial to offer. Herbert Murauer’s white box of a playing space that seemed so limiting before, looked expansive and intriguing on the wide stage in the broad auditorium of Het Muziektheater.
Here it functioned beautifully as a blank page with shifting panels upstage that slipped and slid to reveal selected shallow portions of a hotel room that has seen better days, devoid of most furniture except a straight back chair here and there. Mr. Murauer has accessorized the deglamorized quarters tellingly with a lamp on the floor in search of its table, and improvised black ‘curtains’ covering the windows in a desperate attempt to maintain some privacy from judgmental eyes.
The peek-a-boo panels that had seemed so contrived before, now seemed invaluable in framing the action and emotional content, adding a layer to sub-text, and actually helping to define character relationships. Every movement of the panels caused anticipation akin to opening another box on an Advent calendar. Behind this backline of panels , the hotel room did some linear slipping and sliding of its own, at once unsettling and fascniating. At one time the living room was center stage, the next it was far to the right, having sidled to draw Arabella’s denuded bedroom into view. I have to say, that whatever my first impression may have been, this use of the dis-orienting reveals proved perfectly in service to the drama, even enhancing the slender plot.
Act II’s party scene in the ante-chamber of a chandeliered ballroom was elegant and practical, its central beige marble staircase and banquettes of sofas allowing for varied levels and meaningful compositions. The segue that followed ‘Zdenko’ and Matteo into the men’s room was funny and inventive. The permanent white box framing the extreme front of the stage became a sort of no man's land of collective consciousness wherein principals not only came to grips with their own introspections, but also interacted with other characters without distraction.
In a brilliant decision, the entire final conflict and confrontation scene was enclosed in that box, with characters almost literally bouncing off the boundaries liked caged animals. When the up left panel opened a crack to uncover a cramped group of eavesdroppers, it was as though a veil had been lifted on the characters’ psyches, suggesting a disturbing breach of privacy and decorum.
Christof Loy has, on this occasion, found a consistency of approach, created telling stage pictures, nurtured detailed character interaction, and invested the whole affair with considerable wit and imagination. I will not soon forget Zdenka revealing herself as a female by tearing off her shirt and pulling down her pants to reveal the black dress she wore for the seduction, then hobbling comically about the stage with her pants around her ankles. Funny yes, but also truthful. Even the stretches of solos directed through the fourth wall seemed to have found dramatic purpose, and emotional states were always well-communicated.
Converse to injecting fresh humor into certain moments, Mr. Loy managed to bring darkness to the usual flippant antics of the ball scene, with a doped up Fiakerlmilli being abused, Matteo attempting a suicide with a pistol, and wasted young revelers tumbling and rolling about with waning motor function. In another masterful (and not disruptive) invention, the director injected a loooooooooong silent pause in Act III just before Zdenka confesses all, a wrenching moment that held us rapt as the girl grappled with the truth in anguish. Very moving. Perhaps my change of heart lies largely with the capabilities of a cast that could hardly be bettered.
In the title role, the radiant Jacquelyn Wagner’s flawless account announced to the world that she owns the part for the foreseeable future. Ms. Wagner is an ideal Arabella, with a gleaming, warm soprano that has body and sheen in every register and at every volume. She is a lithe and lovely actress, effortlessly elegant, yet capable of sass and sparkle for stage bits like her contentious relationship with her fur coat, or her chucking the goddam roses on the floor in frustration. Best of all, while she is highly adept at thrillingly expansive vocalism, she can also effectively handle the required smaller moments of self-doubt, all the while flat out “singing” them with body and point. Not for Jackie the mewing, cooing, sotto voce posturings and affectations of other “interpreters.” She just sings the damn’ thing! Gloriously. You heard it from me: Jacquelyn Wagner is the must-have Arabella of the moment. The Dutch public embraced her success with a “fortississimo” ovation.
No less remarkable was the (let me just say it) best-sung Mandryka I will ever likely hear. James Rutherford has a singularly beautiful instrument, manly, buzzing, robust, warm, substantial, and well, Terfel-ish. Mr. Rutherford has been assuming Wagner roles in smaller, acoustically friendly houses (to include Bayreuth) but I have no doubt he has the fire-power and stamina to conquer any stage he visits. His rolling bass-baritone is hooked up from top to bottom, and James also really sings the part, quite a departure from the barking, hectoring prats that we too often encounter. He has an easy “bear” presence on stage, and made a crackerjack of an entrance when he strode on stage in an ostentations rustic coat made from fur of an animal(s) he might have killed himself. (The apt costumes are also by Mr. Murauer). When Mandryka’s grievous error is revealed, Mr. Rutherford just crumbles, and his appeal is such that we grieve for his heart-wrenching humiliation. If it got any better than this my heart couldn’t take it. Another star on the rise.
Nor to imply that those two stars over-shadowed Zdenka, because Agneta Eichenholz simply knocked it out of the park. Ms. Eichenholz sports a full-bodied lyric soprano with plenty of sparkle and thrust, deployed with lots of heart and superb artistry. The character arguably takes the biggest journey over the evening, and Agneta conveyed it beautifully, all the while singing with secure legato and plenty of fire. She also paired gorgeously with Arabella, both sopranos able to imbue their duets with a haunting, inviting quality that had seamless appeal.
Susanne Elmark’s slender, fluty soprano was absolutely rock-soild, projected cleanly, and was possessed of meticulous coloratura. The musical excesses and extremes of the role held absolutely no terror for her as evidenced by her assured musical performance. She was all the more remarkable for executing all the fireworks while impersonating a drug-impaired, loose-limbed good time girl, who gets more than she bargained for.
Will Hartmann’s Matteo provided many happy moments when his compact tenor soared over the orchestras, but during a couple of quieter patches his tone experienced a mite of unsteadiness, making me wonder if there was some ‘heft’ being imposed on a more lyrical instrument which made for difficulties when he changed gears. Still, Mr. Hartmann was dramatically involved and affecting. Marcel Reijans as Count Elemer, showed off a light but shining tenor, and displayed a bright, engagingly boyish timbre. Rogert Smeets’s Dominic was typically secure and reliably solid; while the handsome Thomas Dear succeeded as Lamoral, entertaining us with a dark and pleasing bass, used with pointed gravity.
Local girl Charlotte Margiono can do no wrong, and indeed, she proved to be luxury casting as Adelaide. The accomplished soprano still has a sumptuous roundness, plenty of heft, and admirable clarity. Ms. Margiono savored her turn in the spotlight, especially during the naughtier bits where she proved there is fire in the old girl yet. She (and we) had a blast. Alfred Reiter proved to be a perfect foil as the willful Count Waldner His big, biting voice may be more imposing than appealing at this point in his career, but it served the character well. While her name is almost longer than the role, Ursula Hesse von den Steinen knocked our socks off at the top of the night, with a socko turn as the Fortune Teller that had real fire, commitment, a blazing chest voice and a searing top. She took the stage, seized the moment, and boy, did she get our attention!
Under Marc Albrecht’s baton, the Netherlands Philharmonic was dazzling, on fire with a virtuosic intent that swept every element of the production along with it. Maestro Albrecht led a propulsive, richly detailed reading that seemed inevitable yet carefully controlled. The winds were especially vivid, the brass statements verged on the profound, and the sumptuous strings could provide a lush bed of sound second to none. From ‘tutti’ ensemble playing to lean, exposed accompaniment, nothing eluded this inspired groups of players. Their and Mr. Albrecht’s triumph earned the day’s most vociferous acclaim.
Cast and production information:
Count Waldner: Alfred Reiter; Adelaide: Charlotte Margiono; Arabella: Jacquelyn Wagner; Zdenka: Agneta Eichenholz; Mandryka: James Rutherford; Matteo: Will Hartmann; Count Elemer: Marcel Reijans; Count Dominic: Rogert Smeets; Count Lamoral: Thomas Dear; Fiakermilli: Susanne Elmark; Fortune Teller: Ursula Hesse von den Steinen; Welko: Richard Meijer; Servant: Richard Prada; Conductor: Marc Albrecht; Director: Christof Loy; Set and Costume Design: Herbert Murauer; Lighting Design: Reinhard Traub; Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra