08 Aug 2014
Barber in the Beehive State
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
At a time when few companies risk devoting resources to lesser-known lyric theatre, this enterprising operation has gambled, and won, with a handsome new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa that was characterized by first-rate musical and theatrical values.
Conductor Barbara Day Turner wielded a commanding baton that made the (slightly reduced) orchestration pulse with character and vitality. The top-notch instrumentalists, assembled from near and far, played as one and the Maestra elicited many happy revelations from the rich orchestral writing. She unleashed every bit of passion from the rhapsodic moments, and discovered a beautiful balance with the more straightforward (and sometimes witty) conversational exchanges. Moreover, the conductor was a collegial partner with the singers who were coached to a fare-thee-well. Barbara Day Turner may have just achieved the most accomplished and inspired operatic conducting I have experienced in recent memory.
The musical success was made complete by a highly accomplished cast of singers. In the demanding title role (written for Callas but passed down to Steber), Beverly O’Regan Thiele exuded glamour and elegance, physically and vocally. Hers is an alluring sound and she possesses sound technical ability. She convincingly makes the transition from desperate longing to almost girlish fulfillment. She seems to have a found a rich subtext to Vanessa, and her multi-layered portrayal is fascinating, coupled as it is with well-judged vocal effects. If I had one wish, it would be that she commanded a bit more weight in the lower middle when up against a few moments of thick orchestral texture. But happily, she doesn’t force her beautiful tone beyond its limits and the overall achievement was thoroughly captivating.
Amanda Tarver (Baroness), Andrew Bidlack (Anatol) and Alice-Anne M. Ligh (Erika)
As the opportunistic Anatol, Andrew Bidlack was almost too good to be true. His honeyed tenor was capable of unctuous sweetness, but also had ample reserves for the more spinto romantic urgings. The high soaring phrases held absolutely no terror for him. In addition to his persuasive vocalizing, Mr. Bidlack is handsome as all get-out, and he looks instantly believable as the cad that is young enough to be Vanessa’s former lover’s son. He communicated a calculated electricity with his conquests and one could accept that he might prompt an object of his attention to act against her own best interests.
Alice-Anne M. Light displayed a sumptuous mezzo as Erika, and she won us over early on with a delectably intoned Must the winter come so soon. With a beautifully even tone, a very wide range, and a sound technique already in her arsenal, Ms. Light might loosen up a mite and inject more dramatic color in key phrases. Erika is after all, the most complex occupant here in Dysfunction Junction. And, the most potentially sympathetic. She has all the right qualities and at the end of the day, there is always that splendid instrument. Still, I would hope that future outings will allow her to engage the audience with a deeper embodiment of the girl’s concealed pain. Richard Zuch brought Wotan-like power and Donizettian charm to the character of the Doctor. The only thing he occasionally forgot to bring was consonants. But with a bronze baritone this solid and generous, and a stage demeanor this appealing, Mr. Zuch easily won the audience over. His spinning in a drunken circle to plop on the settee while sustaining a high F-sharp was nothing short of amazing.
Kevin Nakatani made a fine impression as the servant Nicholas, and he wrung every laugh out of his moment of adoration of a guest’s fur coat. The Maids Madolynn Eileen Pressin and Elizabeth Tait had real personalities and executed specific stage business with skill. I especially liked the suggestion that one of them had also been a willing recipient of Anatol’s attention. Amanda Tarver is arguably way too young for the old Baroness, but her physicality was commendable, and it was a treat to hear the role sung with such a fresh, substantial and robust delivery. Ms. Tarver might have been assisted had her age make-up been a little more pronounced and her wig a little grayer.
Beverly O’Regan Thiele (Vanessa), Andrew Bidlack (Anatol), Alice-Anne M. Light (Erika), Richard Zuch (Doctor)
That is not to impugn the overall achievement of the commendable hair and make-up design contributed by Susan Sittko Schaefer. The elaborate costumes created by Wes Jenkins were richly detailed, beautiful to behold, and helped in defining the characters. Jack Shouse designed an imposing mansion’s great room dominated by a massive staircase and balcony. Everything about the look and the accessories conveyed “Old World money.” Christopher Wood’s sensitive lighting was notable for its effective isolated areas, subtle shifting moods, and astonishing accuracy. All evening, the follow-spot contributions were very, very well-executed (did I say “very”?).
If I had to single out a highpoint in an evening plump full of them, it would have to be the final quintet. The placement of the soloists, the fluidity of the illumination, the excellence of the musical writing, the perfection of the singing, the gradual build-up of tension and volume, and then when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, the almost unbearably powerful climax with Mr. Zuch cresting the full ensemble’s fortissimo passage with a tremendous outpouring of gorgeous baritone sound.
Daniel Helfgot staged the piece with a sure hand. He used the space and the levels very well indeed, and created believable character relationships with well-motivated movement. I liked the focal point of the landing, midway up the staircase, although initially it did seem to relegate Vanessa to a disadvantageous upstage positioning at curtain rise. Mr. Helfgot knew how to point the dramatic tension, and also injected a good deal of humor into the proceedings. One minor reservation:
Having the front doors burst open to frame Anatol’s initial appearance, backlit and with snow falling was a stunning effect to set up Do not utter a word. But when he subsequently crossed into the shadowy room during the aria, could he have not closed the doors? I mean, it is the frozen tundra out there! It remained a distraction until well after the aria when Nicholas finally rolled his eyes and shut out the cold. This same thing happened when the duo returned from ice-skating. In an evening that was consistently marked by great attention to detail and realism, these two choices seemed out of character.
That minor observation aside, this accomplished Vanessa was a cause for substantial jubilation.
Cast and production information:
Vanessa: Beverly O’Regan Thiele; Erika: Alice-Anne M. Light; Anatol: Andrew Bidlack; Baroness: Amanda Tarver; Doctor: Richard Zuch; Nicholas: Kevin Nakatani; Maids: Madolynn Eileen Pressin, Elizabeth Tait; Pastor: Jon Jurgens; Conductor: Barbara Day Turner; Director: Daniel Helfgot; Set Design: Jack Shouse; Costume Design: Wes Jenkins; Wig and Make-up Design: Susan Sittko Schaefer; Lighting Design: Christopher Wood; Chorus Master: Stephen Carey