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.
06 Jul 2014
Plenty of Va-Va-Vroom: La Fille du Regiment, Iford
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
La Fille has certainly been derided over the years for its vulgarity and
jingoistic tendencies. Yet dig a little deeper and you find that the canny
Donizetti was also in fact essaying a new direction away from the
all-conquering Italian opera of his time and, by a slick piece of “art
concealing (or revealing?) art”, he was on the way to creating a new style.
Indeed he had more than 20 years of compositional experience behind him by the
time Fille hit the stage in 1839/40, and he used all his considerable
wiles to achieve his aims. Perhaps Theophile Gautier best summed up this work
as “facile et spirituelle” — and certainly it seduces with its
infectiously gay (in the original sense),light, and bright music as much as it
explores the weightier themes of nationalism, feminism and the human response
to loss and war, despite skimming over them with a gossamer thread of catchy
tunes. So how to bring all this to a tiny space in the Wiltshire countryside?
Suzanne Shakespeare as Marie
Director Jeff Clarke and his designers Nigel Howard & Graham Wynne and
conductor Toby Purser simply threw away the rule book for this English-language
version and solved the production “problems” with panache, wit, imagination
and, well, plenty of va-va-vroom. Literally almost, as the Regiment is
converted to a South Californian Hell’s Angels-type biker gang, all six of
them beautifully kitted out in full leathers, tattoos and bandanas riding some
interesting-looking “Darley Havisons”. They are “at war” with a rival
gang and so immediately we understand what Clarke is doing and are seduced into
this early 1960’s version of the Napoleonic wars. Marsha Berkenfield, social
climber in LA, her daintily-camp butler Mr.Hortensius, Sulpice is
“president” of the Regiment gang, Dulcie Crackenthorpe an appalling old
heiress, Tonio a Hispanic immigrant (serendipitously cast) and Marie as in the
original, an orphan “found” by the Regiment as a baby. True, there is the
odd surgical cut: no room, literally, for the opening scene with the
“Marquess” and Tyrolean peasants praying for deliverance en masse — but
apart from that Clarke has kept very close to the original opera. The libretto
however was definitely given a far freer rein by Clarke: plenty of choice biker
language, plenty of near-the-knuckle anti-Hispanic invective.
Any “Fille” anywhere has always been an opera which stands or falls by
the success of its Daughter of the Regiment; over the decades it has been
defined by many by the quality of the soprano singing the role of Marie —
from Jenny Lind, via the great Dame Joan Sutherland, and on to such modern day
successes as Natalie Dessay. So it was a delight and a relief to hear young
Australian-born soprano Suzanne Shakespeare take on the mantle with a fearless
display of sparkling coloratura, trills and even a few decorations of her own.
Her voice has both a warm middle and a shining top: E flats popped with aplomb,
yet with “Il faut partir...” her goodbye to the gang in Act One,
she found a touching pathos, ably drawn. A bravura performance from start to
finish — a young star on the high road for sure. So then, of course, there is
the “will he, won’t he” aspect of Tonio’s (in)famous “Mes
amis....”. If young Spanish tenor Jesus Alvarez was nervous, it didn’t
show. We might have been nervous for him for in that intimate space and
orchestration for just eleven instruments, but yes he delivered all nine of
those high Cs with conviction and bang in tune.
Jesús Álvarez as Tonio
However, no matter how thrilling the young leads were, or how convincing
their acting, here at Iford it was the role of Sulpice, sung by the excellent
Adrian Clarke which held the whole show together. Totally in the part from
start to finish, beautifully observed, expressively sung, what a tour de force
he gave us. Almost as impressive was Katharine Taylor Jones’ Marsha
Berkenfield, a statuesque figure wearing the vintage dresses with assurance and
poise, her warm mezzo voice supple through the range. A comically-awful Dulcie
Crakenthopre was played in drag by one of the bikers, Philip Cox who obviously
had a lot of fun mixing his roles. James Harrison’s mincing butler was the
right side of caricature and kept the laughs coming. A word must be said here
for the biker gang: sung by Cox, Richard Belshaw, Graham Stone, Martin George,
Angus McAllister and Richard Woodall, this was no ordinary “chorus” job.
With only six voices to fill out Donizetti’s wonderful music each was a true
soloist, each a significant actor. The same must be said of the 11 players of
that music: from opening solo trumpet to resounding final chords, nowhere to
hide and nowhere needed.
The production team kept it simple but effective with the cloister converted
to a tract of dry desert and cacti. The Music Lesson was ingeniously staged
with an electronic keyboard masquerading as a grand piano, in turn doing duty
as a dance-stage. Clever, witty, and it worked. Which, really, sums up this
mini-triumph of the imagination. A must-see if you can.
La Fille du Regiment (sung in English), Iford Opera, Saturday, July
Opera della Luna at Iford Opera playing: July 8th,
10th, 12th, 15th, 17th and