30 Aug 2015
Santa Fe: Secondary Mozart in First Rate Staging
Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.
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 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.
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.
Impresario Boris Goldovsky famously referred to La finta giardiniera as The Phony Farmerette.
Assuredly, there was nothing phony about Santa Fe Opera’s total commitment to quality in producing this lesser Mozart opus. There is nothing really wrong with the writing to be sure, but neither is there the brilliance of his masterpieces yet to come. Still, second tier Mozart is arguably better than first rate Soler, or Salieri.
The production itself could hardly have been bettered, however, and if this meticulously performed Finta didn’t stir you, it probably never will. This was stagecraft and music making as good as it gets. The starry cast was under the inspired baton of conductor Harry Bicket.
Maestro Bicket is celebrated for his especial skills in this type of repertoire and he led a vivid, urgent reading of great variety and color. His attention to detail drew committed playing from the exceptional orchestra, and impassioned, heartfelt vocalizing from his singers.
William Burden is one of the finest lyric tenors in the business, and one of the busiest. I know of no one else who can survey such a wide range of roles from Baroque to Contemporary with such assurance. As the Podestà (Magistrate), Mr. Burden has ample opportunity to show his full bag of tricks which includes honeyed tone, supple technique, and dead accurate melismas. A consummate actor, he always, always sings with utter conviction and understanding of the drama. This was but another outstanding portrayal from this treasurable tenor.
Susanna Phillips as Arminda and Joel Prieto as Count Belfiore
I first encountered soprano Heidi Stober at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis where I thought she was remarkably fine. In the intervening years, Ms. Stober has grown even more and on this occasion, her Sandrina was individualized, poignant, musically faultless, and fully realized as a wonderfully complex character. She did not sing the part so much as inhabit it. Her poised, warm instrument had enormous appeal.
Providing welcome balance, Laura Tatulescu combined sass and pointed singing to create an edgy, confrontational impression as the sharp-tongued Serpetta. It is to her credit and skillful technique that Ms. Tatulescu is able to craft a personality that is acerbic, without the vocals turning acidic. Her clear, rhythmically assured singing was a pleasure and she clearly relished her comic opportunities and wrung every bit of firebrand potential out of the role.
Joshua Hopkins is a suave performer, with a rich, manly baritone, evenly produced with a suggestion of plush velvet. His Nardo was a perfect foil for Serpetta and they created real sparks between them. Mr. Hopkins knows how to command the stage and his physical presence was as handsome as his vocalizing. Cecelia Hall effected just the right hangdog look to engage our sympathies as Ramiro, and her creamy singing was vibrant and characterful. Even in such a less developed role, Ms. Hall more than held her own in this polished ensemble.
Susanna Phillips took obvious delight in playing Arminda, the opera’s Queen of Mean. She found ample excuses to unleash pointed phrases styled with laser-like accuracy. Yet she resisted delving into caricature, and she also lavished us with singing of amplitude and richness. Ms. Phillips’ disciplined vocal portrayal was nevertheless wedded to a sense of spontaneity thanks to her canny acting.
Joshua Hopkins as Nardo and Laura Tatulescu as Serpetta
Rounding out that cast as Count Belfiore, Joel Prieto offered witty, fluid phrases that were well served by his congenial tenor. Mr. Prieto, too, had a good sense of fun and a loose, easy stage presence. His flexible technique and appealing bright timbre suited the role, although there may be more to be mined in the complicated Count.
Tim Albery has directed with simplicity and clarity. His fluid movement of the actors was highly effective, and the shifting pairings-up, and squarings-off of the cast were brilliant. The whole evening played out as a balletic cat and mouse game with roles, and advantage of positions, in constant flux.
Hildegard Bechler has certainly done her part to ensure the evening’s success with a set design that is at once functional, mysterious, bare bones, and profound. There is an arching wall stage left that is impeccably detailed with an ornate tromp l’oeil recreation of a period palace hall. Chairs with upholstered seats stand against the wall, while a large dining room table sits center stage. This functions as occasional meeting place where character some together, or as a barrier, keeping characters apart.
About two thirds of the stage is covered with lush green Astroturf-as-carpeting, abutted by the requisite garden which takes up the down left area. The rust and yellow flowers (many planted by Sandrina in Act One) are a beautiful balance as they encroach on the formal interior. The dining table is replaced in Act Two by a chaise lounge, which got cleverly incorporated into the staging.
Jon Morrell created totally apt costumes that aided greatly in the characterizations, black and severe for the servants (including the phony farmerette), and sumptuous for the nobles. The incorporation of floral images in such things as Arminda’s dress and the tablecloth only added to the cheeky visuals. Thomas C. Hase’s slowly unfolding lighting effects were mesmerizing. The extremely deliberate cross fade from sunny exterior to moody interior in the first act was stunning.
Every element of La finta giardiniera was committed to showing that this talented group absolutely believed in the worth of this piece. And damn, if ultimately they didn’t succeed in making me believe in it, too!
Cast and production information:
Sandrina: Heidi Stober; Serpetta: Laura Tatulescu; Ramiro: Cecelia Hall; The Podesta: William Burden; Nardo: Joshua Hopkins; Arminda: Susanna Phillips; Count Belfiore: Joel Prieto; Conductor: Harry Bicket; Director: Tim Albery; Set Design: Hildegard Bechler; Costume Design: Jon Morrell; Lighting Design: Thomas C. Hase.