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.
“Hi! I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
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