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.
05 May 2014
Thebans: World Premiere at ENO
Julian Anderson’s Thebans at the Coliseum, London, absolutely justifies the ENO's mission: opera, in English, and of national significance. Anderson is one of the most influential figures in modern British music.
He's always written with a distinctively "visual" personality, translating concrete images into abstract music Thebans may be his first official foray into formal opera, but he's been heading towards it for years.
"Is this a contemporary opera?" asked someone in the audience. A good comment, since "isms" are irrelevant to art. Greek tragedy is universal because it deals with concepts that transcend time and place. Its very power comes from abstraction. Frank McGuinness's text distils the essence of the drama in a concise way so Anderson can tell the story through his music. Orchestrally, Thebans is so vivid that I closed my eyes during the First Act to better absorb how the drama was being created by the orchestra, and the interplay between orchestra and voices. Massive towers of sound suggest the relentless Fate that will destroy Oedipus and his issue. Pierre Audi's staging, with Tom Pye's designs, reflects the music extremely well. Strong horizontals against towering verticals giving form to the structure in the score. The choruses are very well blocked, their movements reflecting the movement, and the tension in the music. Towers filled with rock loom over the stage: Antigone, Oedipus's daughter, will be entombed alive in an insane, sterile parody of the womb of the Earth.
Edward Gardner conducts with savage but tightly controlled ferocity. Gardner chose Anderson's Symphony for his high-profile Barbican concert nearly ten years ago, tellingly combined with Walton's Symphony no 1. He understands Anderson, and his place in British music. Gardner shows how Anderson's textures are created. Gardner is wise to expand his portfolio and seek further challenges in orchestral repertoire. He could perhaps be the "British" conductor of choice, with a new, distictive approach.
The powerful blocks of sound that create such impact are not crude monoliths but built up in carefully delineated levels of density. Anderson knew Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. He knows how microtones operate. I also thought of Harrison Birtwistle, specifically Earth Dances, where tectonic planes of sound are shaped by layers of smaller fragments. Birtwistle's syyle is strikingly organic, as if it grows naturally from great depths. Audi's staging again reflects this musical concept. In the Second Act, The Future, lights shine through the towers of rock, highlighting the invisible gaps behind solid objects (probably styrofoam). The lights suggest fire, perhaps volcanic forces rising from the bowels of the planet. Antigone defies oppression. She is the "light" that leads Oedipus who has gouged out his eyes.
The Second Act, which tells her story, is exceptionally well written, worthy of being staged on its own as a stand-alone. A second interval after a 20 minute act would normally kill an opera, but in this case feels necessary: you need to escape the intensity. The writing for the choruses is also very good indeed. Anderson sings in choirs himself. Like Greek choruses, Anderson's chorus pronounce judgement. From way up at the top of the auditorium, the choruses explode, augmented either in numbers or by electronics. : the effect is overwhelming, yet the voice types are not muddled.
In this powerful Second Act, music and visuals glow black, white, indigo, red and gold. This intensifies the desolation at Colonus, the portal of Death. The music becomes sepulchral. At times I caught echoes of plainchant. The devastaion is all the more harrowing because we have just seen how the curse on Oedipus outlasts his death.
Roland Wood sang Oedipus. He has been unwell for some weeks, so we didn't hear him at full capacity, so all the more respect to him. I hope he doesn't harm his voice by pushing it for this premiere, important as it is. Julia Sporsén sang Antigone. Lyrical beauty doesn't necessarily come into this role, so Sporsén created the strength in the part well. Peter Hoare's Creon was superb, helped by the oddly sensual passages Anderson writes for the part. Creon's monolgue in Act Two is disturbingly enticing. Anderson also uses countertenor for good effect, so Christopher Ainslie singing connected to baroque style while also suggesting the surreal intervention of Theseus. The whole Oedipal saga circulates around Jocasta, though she's swiftly despatched fairly early on. Anderson gives Susan Bickley a good aria, and Audi's costume designer Christof Hetzer further illuminates the past by dressing her - alone - in royal blue.