Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Prom 9: Fidelio lives by its Florestan

The last time Beethoven’s sole opera, Fidelio, was performed at the Proms, in 2009, Daniel Barenboim was making a somewhat belated London opera debut with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

The Merchant of Venice: WNO at Covent Garden

In Out of Africa, her account of her Kenyan life, Karen Blixen relates an anecdote, ‘Farah and The Merchant of Venice’. When Blixen told Farah Aden, her Somali butler, the story of Shakespeare’s play, he was disappointed and surprised by the denouement: surely, he argued, the Jew Shylock could have succeeded in his bond if he had used a red-hot knife? As an African, Farah expected a different narrative, demonstrating that our reception of art depends so much on our assumptions and preconceptions.

Leoncavallo's Zazà at Investec Opera Holland Park

The make-up is slapped on thickly in this new production of Leoncavallo’s Zazà by director Marie Lambert and designer Alyson Cummings at Investec Opera Holland Park.

McVicar’s Enchanting but Caliginous Rigoletto in Castle Olavinlinna at Savonlinna Opera Festival

David McVicar’s thrilling take on Verdi’s Rigoletto premiered as the first international production of this Summer’s Savonlinna Opera Festival. The scouts for the festival made the smart decision to let McVicar adapt his 2001 Covent Garden staging to the unique locale of Castle Olavinlinna.

Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance at Covent Garden

The end of the ROH’s summer season was marked as usual by the Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance but this year’s showcase was a little lacklustre at times.

A Falstaff Opera in Shakespeare’s Words: Sir John in Love

Only one Shakespeare play has resulted in three operas that get performed today (whether internationally or primarily in one language-region). Perhaps surprisingly, the play in question is a comedy that is sometimes considered a lesser work by the Bard: The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Sallinen’s Kullervo is Brutal and Spectacular Finnish Opera at Savonlinna Opera Festival

For the centenary of Finland’s Independence, the Savonlinna Opera Festival brought back Kari Heiskanen’s spectacular 1992 production of Aulis Salinen’s Kullervo. The excellent Finnish soloists and glorious choir unflinchingly offered this opera of vocal blood and guts. Conductor Hannu Lintu fired up the Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra in Sallinen’s thrilling music.

Kát’a Kabanová at Investec Opera Holland Park

If there was any doubt of the insignificance of mankind in the face of the forces of Nature, then Yannis Thavoris’ design for Olivia Fuchs production of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová - first seen at Investec Opera Holland Park in 2009 - would puncture it in a flash, figuratively and literally.

A bel canto feast at Cadogan Hall

The bel canto repertoire requires stylish singing, with beautiful tone and elegant phrasing. Strength must be allied with grace in order to coast the vocal peaks with unflawed legato; flexibility blended with accuracy ensures the most bravura passages are negotiated with apparent ease.

Don Pasquale: a cold-hearted comedy at Glyndebourne

Director Mariame Clément’s Don Pasquale, first seen during the 2011 tour and staged in the house in 2013, treads a fine line between realism and artifice.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Tannhäuser at Munich

Romeo Castellucci’s aesthetic — if one may speak in the singular — is very different from almost anything else on show in the opera house at the moment. That, I have no doubt, is unquestionably a good thing. Castellucci is a serious artist and it is all too easy for any of us to become stuck in an artistic rut, congratulating ourselves not only on our understanding but also,  may God help us, our ‘taste’ — as if so trivial a notion had something to do with anything other than ourselves.

Des Moines Answers Turandot’s Riddles

With Turandot, Des Moines Metro Opera operated from the premise of prima la voce, and if the no-holds-barred singing and rhapsodic playing didn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you were at the wrong address.

Maria Visits Des Moines

With an atmospheric, crackling performance of Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Des Moines Metro Opera once again set off creative sparks with its Second Stage concept.

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

World Premiere of Aulis Sallinen’s Castle in the Water Savonlinna Opera Festival

For my first trip to Finland, I flew from Helsinki to the east, close to the border of Russia near St. Petersburg over many of Suomi’s thousand lakes, where the summer getaway Savonlinna lays. Right after the solstice during July and early August, the town’s opera festival offers high quality productions. In this enchanting locale in the midst of peaceful nature, the sky at dusk after the mesmerising sunset fades away is worth the trip alone!

Mozart and Stravinsky in Aix

Bathed in Mediterranean light, basking in enlightenment Aix found two famous classical works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in its famous festival’s open air Théâtre de l’Archevêche. But were we enlightened?

Des Moines: Nothing ‘Little’ About Night Music

Des Moines Metro Opera’s richly detailed production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music left an appreciative audience to waltz home on air, and has prompted this viewer to search for adequate superlatives.

Longborough Festival Opera: A World Class Tristan und Isolde in a Barn Shed

Of all the places, I did not expect a sublime Tristan und Isolde in a repurposed barn in the Cotswolds. Don’t be fooled by Longborough’s stage without lavish red curtains to open and close each act. Any opera house would envy the riveting chemistry between Peter Wedd and Lee Bisset in this intimate, 500 seat setting. Conductor Anthony Negus proved himself a master at Wagner’s emotional depth. Epic drama in minimalistic elegance: who needs a big budget when you have talent and drama this passionate?

The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra throws a glossy Bernstein party

For almost thirty years, summer at the Concertgebouw has been synonymous with Robeco SummerNights. This popular series expands the classical concert formula with pop, film music, jazz and more, served straight up or mixed together. Composer Leonard Bernstein’s versatility makes his oeuvre, ranging from Broadway to opera, prime SummerNight fare.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

ShowBoat
13 Jun 2014

Show Boat in San Francisco

To be uncomplimentary about the current production of Show Boat at San Francisco Opera will surely provoke a summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Commission.

Show Boat in San Francisco

A review by Michael Milenski

Above: Heidi Stober as Magnolia, Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal [Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera]

 

Critical consensus seems to be that Jerome Kern’s Show Boat was acceptable in San Francisco’s 3200 seat War Memorial (and at Chicago’s 3500 seat Lyric Opera). This acceptance has come at a price — sophisticated electronic amplification of voices and the imposition of a scale of production that well exceeds the stature of the piece.

At the press conference before this San Francisco run of performances (the production has already been seen in Washington D.C. and Chicago) there were three primary rationales offered for presenting Show Boat on a grand opera stage.

The first rationale is that if operettas such as, and specifically mentioned, Die Fledermaus, La Périchole and Die Lustige Witwe are firmly established in the international operatic repertory, why not an American operetta (you must first of all consider Show Boat an operetta and that is a complicated rationale). Note that La Périchole has never been on the War Memorial stage, nor has any other Offenbach operetta. What small amount of dialogue that has occurred in SFO productions of Die Fledermaus and Die Lustige Witwe productions has used the natural acoustic of the opera house. No singing voices have been amplified.

The second rationale is that given the demise of American light opera companies it becomes the responsibility of American grand opera companies to preserve the American Musical Theater heritage. Note that most of the musicals that comprise this current popular theater heritage occurred before the advent of sound reinforcement.

The by now classic American musicals were staged in theaters adapted to acoustical voice projection (recall the focused nasal sound of spoken dialogue delivered in earlier times that projected easily to the last rows of a vaudeville “opera house”). If American grand opera companies feel compelled to step outside their mission of producing opera they should at least move from opera houses to appropriately sized theaters where acoustic voices are possible.

The third rationale is that Show Boat dared introduce racial issues into popular theater. The presence of this stain on our national history evidently elevates the importance of Show Boat, and imposes a moral duty on grand opera companies to remind us that we have sins to expiate. Maybe like American imperialism in Madama Butterfly, and narrow, what we now call Victorian mores like in La Traviata. Opera can make it painfully pleasurable to go through this cathartic process.

ShowBoat_SF2.png

Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie, Morris Robinson as Joe. Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Upon a bit of consideration however the racial issues addressed in Show Boat are more about problems white skinned people encounter than the inequalities encountered by black skinned people. The blacks in Show Boat contentedly remain the underclass throughout the story (white girl gets rich and may or may not take back her no-good husband) and these blacks seemed happy to represent little more than caricatures of what whites wanted blacks to be back in 1927. It was surprising to see contemporary black skinned people willing to accept this assignment.

Finally Show Boat was a sing along. The songs are immortal it seems, or at least inescapable to those of us who grew up in mid-century America — songs sort of like “Di Provenza il mar” and “Un bel dì” for the current opera crowd. However after we have hummed along with a Verdi and Puccini aria there remains so much more to invade our souls than a few more catchy songs.

Many contented critics did finally confess the triviality, read poverty of the story once it was revealed in the second act. Other contented critics admitted that the razzle dazzle of the production numbers was pale imitation of what should occur in a real Broadway show.

ShowBoat_SF3OT.png

Patricia Racette as Julie. Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco cast included opera soprano Heidi Stober who achieved a sufficient level of sparkle as Magnolia. Opera diva soprano Patricia Racette brought some presence but little tone to the role of Julie, opera baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Magnolia’s gambler husband Ravenal was highly miked making his voice sound like a musical comedy voice, a voice that seemed quite tired by end of the second act. Operatic bass Morris Robinson made appropriate bass sounds as Joe who sings “Old Man River” over and over again.

Michael Milenski


Casts and production information:

Magnolia Hawks: Heidi Stober; Gaylord Ravenal: Michael Todd Simpson; Cap’n Andy Hawks: Bill Irwin; Julie la Verne: Patricia Racette; Queenie: Angela Renée Simpson; Party Ann Hawks: Harriet Harris; Ellie Mae Chipley: Kirsten Wyatt; Joe: Morris Robinson; Frank Schultz: John Bolton; Mrs. Obrien: Sharon McNight; et al. San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: John DeMain. Stage Director: Francesca Zambello; Set Designer: Peter Davison; Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough; Sound Designer: Tod Nixon; Choreographer: Michele Lynch. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 3, 2014

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):