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 Oct 2014
Grande messe des morts, LSO
It was a little over two years ago that I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the Berlioz Requiem in St Paul’s Cathedral; it was the last time I heard — or indeed saw — him conduct his beloved and loving London Symphony Orchestra.
Irrespective of that hindsight, I found it at the time a magnificent,
unforgettable performance, as indeed I
wrote, or rather raved, at the time. Life goes on, however, even when it
comes to requiem masses. This performance was perhaps never going to live up to
the extraordinary nature of that occasion; not only was the greatest Berlioz
conductor of all time delivering his valedictory thoughts on the piece, but for
once, Wren’s cathedral proved a preferable venue. The Royal Festival Hall was
anything but ideal; I could not help but wondering whether a trip, say, to
Westminster Cathedral would not have been a good idea. (The problem was not
simply a matter of the acoustic, as I shall try to argue below.) Those factors
notwithstanding, however, this was in most respects an excellent performance,
one which will have doubtless introduced a good few new listeners to this
The acoustical difference announced itself immediately, with greater
orchestral and, perhaps most strikingly, choral clarity. This could almost have
been a different work. Performance standards, choral and orchestral, were
highly impressive throughout; indeed, just as in St Paul’s, there were no
conceivable grounds for complaint in that respect. The ‘Requiem aeternam’
and ‘Kyrie’ benefited from wonderful Philharmonia string playing,
especially the expressive vibrato employed and instrumental phrasing (doubtless
partly to be credited to Esa-Pekka Salonen too). It was expressive yet taut.
This first movement is perhaps not a terribly characteristic movement; the work
is arguably not the most characteristic of Berlioz’s œuvre either. Its roots
in earlier French music, most of it more or less entirely forgotten by
present-day audiences, came through, as did its peculiar novelty. A weird
instance of applause following this movement was not, I was grateful, to be
Cellos and double basses again made a fine impression at the opening of the
‘Dies irae’. Salonen here, as throughout, marshalled his forces very well.
Palpable tension as the brass players stood was not entirely fulfilled in
reality. I do not think it was any fault of the performance as such, but the
effect, despite its deafening, all-too-deafening volume, far too much from
where I was seated, paled besides the truer aural perspective and blended sound
offered under the St Paul’s dome. Matters were not improved by a telephone
ringing as the deafening brass ceased. (Do these people have no shame at all?)
Still, there was a very strong impression to be had of the work’s insanity.
There was an overwhelming sense of contrast in the following ‘Quid sum
miser’: not, quite rightly, repose, but supplication.
The ‘Rex tremendae’ then proved both excitable and exciting. However, it
proved a good example of another problem relating to the venue, though perhaps,
to a certain extent, to Salonen’s conception. (In truth, it is very difficult
to say what exactly was owed to what.) Part of the fascination of this work is
its secularism, the strange emptiness at the heart of the work, about which I
wrote when discussing the Davis performance. That gains meaning and a truly
disconcerting quality when performed not only in a building such as St
Paul’s, but also when conducted by a man whose religious and/or philosophical
questing is leading him truly to grapple with the difficulties presented by
such a work. Salonen was musically very impressive; Davis truly had one think,
and experience the implications of crises of faith.
There was relief to be felt thereafter from the a cappella
semi-chorus (actually much less than that: probably twenty voices or so) in the
‘Quaerens me’. It was possible to feel a connection with a much older
choral tradition, even if the sense of Palestrina were more apparent than
‘real’. Especially memorable was the beautiful halo of sound at the
conclusion: ‘Statuens in parte dextra’. The ‘Lacrymosa’ and ‘Domine,
Jesu Christe’ have texts I find well-nigh impossible to dissociate from
Mozart: my problem, I know. Or at least, it takes a performative wrench to have
me forget that greatest of all Requiem settings. Here, Berlioz’s oddness came
across strongly, not least the blazing conclusion to the first of the two
movements. But it was only really in the second that the anxiety to what is
after all an imprecations registered in duly personal — both compositional
and theological — fashion.
The ‘Hostias’ benefited from nicely snarling trombones, as well as
markedly ‘white’ flutes — and, of course, excellent choral singing. As so
often, the ‘Sanctus’ was marred by a tremulous tenor, Sébastien Droy, who
was at times somewhat constricted too. A brightly ‘secular’ Hosanna fugue
made its point — perhaps a little too strongly. However, the ‘Agnus Dei’
was very impressive, bringing due symmetry with the opening movement.
Salonen’s control remained admirable, and there was again delectable menace
to the trombones and, more generally, to the bass line. Finally, there came
resolution of sorts, though I could not help thinking it more ‘musical’
then ‘theological’ — not so much because Berlioz cannot achieve the
latter variety, a point which is at least arguable, but because the performance
as a whole never truly engaged with theological issues in the first place.
Cast and production information:
Sébastien Droy (tenor); Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan
Oliver); Gloucester Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington); Bristol
Choral Society (chorus master: Adrian Partington)/Esa-Pekka Salonen
(conductor). Royal Festival Hall, London, Thursday 25 September 2014.