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.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
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