October 31, 2015

64th Wexford Festival Opera

This year’s triptych, though, might have been titled, in the manner of Restoration tragedy, ‘Love Thwarted or, Irremediable Heartache’ (indeed, Dryden’s ‘All for Love or, the World Well Lost’ would have served well), such was the prevailing mood of the unalleviated romantic misery and morbidity. Fortunately, the music presented and the performances given were more than sufficient compensation for the emotional wretchedness and desolation enacted on stage.

Writing of Wexford’s 2012 production of Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, I expressed my conviction that director Stephen Medcalf had ‘made a truly convincing case for the theatrical presentation of a work so often dismissed as six discrete “tone poems” which lack dramatic momentum and coherence’, concluding ‘I cannot imagine a more thoughtful and illuminating staging of this opera’.

Delius’s Koanga — the composer’s third opera (of six), which was first performed in 1904, three years before the premiere of A Village Romeo and Juliet — is perhaps a more difficult work to pull off. Artistic Director David Agler, speaking of his 11th Festival programme, commented that Koanga is ‘ground-breaking’ in its ‘use of African-American music and characters, the first of its kind’. However, while it’s certainly true that Delius’s employment of ‘local colour’ is pioneering, the composer’s sojourn on an orange plantation in Florida, where he arrived in March 1884, resulted in what Percy Grainger described as a somewhat ‘touristy’ appropriation of negro song which is not that different from Verdi’s suggestion of the ‘exotic’ in Aida; and, in this regard, Koanga is no less problematic than Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones, and even Ernst Krenek’s Johnny Spielt Auf.

Felix Kemp and Norman Garrett in Koanga by Frederick Delius, Wexford Festival Opera 2015 - photo by Clive Barda.pngFelix Kemp and Norman Garrett in Koanga by Frederick Delius

Koanga ’s libretto is based upon a story, ‘Bras-Coupé’, which Delius found within George Washington Cable’s novel, The Grandissimes. Prepared by the young novelist and Cambridge graduate, Charles Francis Keary, but substantially revised by Delius subsequently, it is a highly coloured pot-boiler, depicting Louisianan Creole society at the beginning of the 19th century. ‘Koanga’, the hero’s name, means, in the Congo language, ‘arm’; the African voodoo prince-protagonist has been sold into slavery and thus cut off from his tribe, his ‘strong arm’. Set to work for the plantation-owner, Don José Martinez, Koanga falls in love with the mulatto Palmyra — the undisclosed half-sister of Martinez’ wife, Clotilda. Palmyra, who is desired by the plantation overlord Simon Perez, is a Delilah-esque figure, offered by her Spanish masters to the newly arrived Koanga in order to make him submissive and biddable. But, the jealous Perez drags her away during the subsequent wedding ceremony and Koanga attacks Martinez, before fleeing to the forest where he exercises a voodoo spell which brings disease and disaster to the plantation.

A bloody end is inevitable: Koanga returns armed with a spear and strikes Perez as the latter attempts to force himself upon Palmyra; the voodoo prince is then caught by the whites and whipped, dying with a wish for his homeland and a curse upon his oppressors. Palmyra, too, yields to death. Delius framed the tale with a Prologue and Epilogue in which, one springtime evening, a group of daughters of the next generation of plantation owners ask the exuberant ‘Uncle Joe’ to tell them one of his stories of slavery and the desire for freedom. He begins with the tragic tale of Koanga and Palmyra, and as dusk falls the tale becomes reality before our eyes.

As with A Village Romeo and Juliet, the external action of Koanga is minimal; but Delius’s presentation of Koanga’s powerful emotional events — the conflicts, passions and dreams — seems to me less sure than in the later opera; the whites are depicted as unspeakable tormentors, while the blacks seem helpless despite their voodoo powers. And, there are some structural problems, especially at the end of Act 2. The main interest in Koanga is provided by the ‘negro’ choruses and ensemble dances, complete with banjo accompaniments, and the exciting contrasts created between the central melodrama and the creole colourings and voodoo ceremonies.

In this production (seen on 24 October), director Michael Gieleta and designer James Macnamara efficiently summon the milieu and customs, placing the action within a white ‘cube’ and making imaginative use of light, projections (projection design, Seán O’Riordan) and movement (choreography, Boyzie Cekwana) to match Delius’s musical mood-painting: the well-known ‘La Calinda’, danced by Palmyra at the abortive wedding ceremony, is persuasive, and the fleeing negroes’ sacrificial dance is terrifically mysterious and mystical.

Cast of Le Pré aux clerc by Hérold WFO 2015 - photo by Clive Barda (2).pngCast of Le Pré aux clerc by Hérold

There is both naturalism and evocation. The mosaic of blue beads and shells which frames Koanga’s entrance are a powerful intimation of the freedom and freshness denied to the slaves; as the ceiling lowers we witness the claustrophobic drudgery of their oppressed existence. Through small doors we glimpse the verdant richness of the plantation, while above hang a pendant moon and sun, sparkling and burnished respectively, spinning like voodoo charms. An elevated platform extends and retracts, raising Martinez and Perez to a dominant height; a wall panel similarly slides across the stage to create an interior where Clotilda pleads with Perez to help her prevent the marriage of Koanga and Palmyra, just as we see the lovers’ passion grow. Overall, the simplicity of the sets, which are vibrantly illuminated by Lighting Designer Ian Sommerville, helps to focus attention on the central drama, and the story is clearly told. In particular, the Wexford Festival Chorus were on tremendous form; and, as if to underline the ‘collective’, and political, nature of the experiences presented, the Chorus took their places before the evening’s rendition of the Irish National Anthem, joining heartily in the ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’ before the Prologue commenced.

Yet, while Delius brings off the set pieces with choral and orchestral aplomb, the love affair of Koanga and Palmyra feels overly rushed and impassioned: despite the Tristan-esque harmonic progressions, there is simply not enough yearning. In the title role, American baritone Norman Garrett was noble and dignified: I was reminded of the self-composure and honourable integrity of the African slave-prince depicted in Aphra Behn’s travelogue-novella, Oroonoko. Vocally, though, Garrett was insufficiently imposing; the sound was refined, the phrasing gracious, but — in the first two Acts, at least — he seemed underpowered and therefore lacked dramatic authority. However, Garrett did cope well with the demanding tessitura, and while he did not stand out in the ensembles (Delius doesn’t help, scoring them thickly and failing, as in the Act 1 quintet, to sufficiently individualise the over-lapping voices), in Act 3 Koanga’s unbreakable spirit came through: Garrett’s blood-drenched curse, swathed in a crimson light which foreshadows the fire which will sweep through the plantations, was fittingly awe-inspiring.

As the feisty mulatto slave girl, South African soprano Nozuko Teto was more luxurious of voice and her full tone was deeply expressive; her glossy lyricism and superb diction made an immediate impact drawing us into Palmyra’s plight. This was a well-judged portrayal, both vibrant and touching.

American tenor Jeff Gwaltney successfully negotiated the often low-lying melodies of the odious Perez — but neither he, nor baritone Christopher Robertson, a rather underwhelming Martinez, could inject much genuine menace into Delius’s somewhat two-dimensional characterisation. As Clotilda, Irish mezzo-soprano Kate Allen was a stronger dramatic presence, singing with sustained lustre. American bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was engaging in the minor roles of Uncle Joe and the voodoo priest Rangwan.

If the opera’s ‘local colour’ generally prevails over tenderness and dreamy melancholy, the brief Epilogue does provide a more lyrical conclusion; as the orchestra transports us back to the present, Delius’s beautiful string lines convey with nostalgia and pensiveness the tragic losses we have witnessed (though the final vignette, as one of the plantation owners’ daughters gave her younger sibling a hug, was a bit cloying). Conducted by Stephen Barlow, who convincingly swept the drama along, the Wexford Festival Orchestra found a rich resonance and unwavering beauty of tone, creating an authentic and moving Delian eloquence. Ultimately, I wasn’t entirely persuaded that through Koanga’s amalgam of Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and negro-spiritual Delius is able to speak with a truly individual voice. Interesting, in this year’s Tom Walsh Lecture, Barlow had noted that in recent times opera directors have focused more on the visual or ritual qualities of opera, neglecting narrative; that they have often engaged with a particular ‘feature’ of an opera, rather than with the essence of the opera itself. In this production, however, Gielata and Barlow undoubtedly captured the composer’s strong sense of the dramatic as well as its colouristic effects; the result is an immensely arresting production.

Aubrey Allicock & cast of Koanga by Delius - WFO 2015 - photo by Clive Barda.pngAubrey Allicock & cast of Koanga by Delius

Infatuation, passion and bloody violence also took centre-stage in Pietro Mascagni’s Guglielmo Ratcliff (seen on 25 October). The infatuation is as much the composer’s as his protagonists’; for the opera was the result of the adolescent Mascagni’s obsessive fascination with Heinrich Heine’s 1821 verse-drama of the same title: an excessively bloody foray into the grimness and ghastliness of the world of Scottish Gothic. Worthy of the most over-blown novel by Sir Walter Scott (and with more than a few similarities to Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor), the drama tells of the fanatical, compulsive, and ultimately death-doomed, desires of the offspring of ghostly lovers.

Heine is said to have written his ‘dramatic ballad’ in just three days, but Mascagni’s four-act opera had a longer gestation. Conceived in 1884 and finally realised in 1895, at La Scala, the opera sets almost the entire text of an Italian translation of Heine’s verse; but, paradoxically, all the important events (with the exception of the climactic duel) have either already happened before the drama begins or occur off-stage — and so, in the absence of significant ‘action’, the score works itself up into an unalleviated verismo frenzy while large chunks of back-story are related. The whole of the first Act is given over to narrative; even the heavy, symphonic Prelude is interrupted for a brief family history, given by Maria’s nurse, Margherita. Essentially, the opera presents the defiantly idealistic quest of the quintessential Romantic outsider Guglielmo Ratcliff, who pursues Maria MacGregor even though her father has dismissed his marital bid and Maria has herself rejected him. Ratcliff, who already has several murders under his belt — having slain Maria’s previous fiancés on their wedding-eve and presented her with blood-soaked wedding rings — continues his methodical destruction of Maria’s suitors. He fights Count Douglas in a duel and is defeated, but Douglas spares his life. Ratcliff does not learn any compassion from this experience, however; eventually he kills Maria too, then her father, and finally himself. The historical entanglements which drive the plot almost defy summary: in Act 4 we, and Ratcliff, learn from Margherita that Elisa, Maria’s mother, and Edvardo, Ratcliff’s father, had been lovers but MacGregor, upon learning of their affair had murdered Edvardo, with Elisa succumbing to her grief a few days later.

Lacking character development — the heroine is excluded from the middle two acts (and Act 2 seems tangential to the main action, in any case) — and presenting us with a psychopathically jealous protagonist with an over-intense sense of ‘honour’ (perhaps it’s worth noting that Verdi’s Otello had been premiered in Milan in 1887), Guglielmo Ratcliff doesn’t seem at first glance an auspicious choice for Wexford. That this was such a compelling evening is a result of the unstinting commitment and imaginative vision of, equally, director Fabio Ceresa and conductor Francesco Cilluffo, as well as some stunning vocal performances by the principals.

Despite the prevalence of butchery and bloodshed, Ceresa and his designer, Tiziano Santi, present us with sets blanched ivory white, gleaming with silvery sheen and mirrored reflections (costumes, by Giuseppe Palella, are similarly opulent), thereby creating a strangely dislocating detachment, despite the emotional intensity portrayed. Redolent silver birches double as picture frames which enclose the action. Ceresa overcomes the static nature of the expository accounts by presenting the deceased, the dying and the ‘living but deranged’ in co-existence; the ghosts of the departed, whose erotic conspiracies and treacheries cast spectral shadows over their progeny, take animal form and mingle hauntingly amidst the living. The phantom wolves and deer are marvellously embodied by four dancers — Mattia Agatiello, Alexander McCabe, Noemi Bresciani and Riccardo Olivier — their movements choreographed with serpentine sinuousness by Olivier. Whether mounting the banqueting table to deliver Douglas’s challenge to Ratcliff, or snakily elongating atop the icy ruins of a fallen tree — its outstretched branches clutching the air like grotesquely gnarled fingers — these apparitions are chillingly evocative.

Apart from the excessive verismo violence of its plot — which makes Cavalleria Rusticana seem like a children’s nursery rhyme — another reason for the opera’s neglect may be the absence of tenors willing to take the risk of tackling the recklessly and dauntingly arduous eponymous role. The first incumbent was Giovanni Battista de Negri, famous in Italy for his interpretations of both Wagner and Verdi; and the role demands both the qualities of a heldentenor and of a lyric singer of warmth and brightness. This is surely one of the most strenuous tenor parts ever written, and Wexford was immensely fortunately to have secured the services of Angelo Villari who swaggered tirelessly and with unflagging heroic lustre through the lengthy role, seemingly untroubled by its relentless fortissimos and insistently high tessitura. Villari’s rendition of Ratcliff’s long-phrased Act 2 aria, ‘Quando fanciullo ancora’, in which he describes his first meeting with Maria to his friend Lesley, was wonderfully sensuous. And, Ratcliff’s triumphant trumpeting was complemented by moments — albeit just a few — of subdued reflection.

Italian soprano Mariangela Sicilia exhibited a radiant spinto timbre as Maria, slicing cleanly and brightly through Mascagni’s thickly scored accompaniments but also conveying shadows and darkness. Sicilia had to wait a while for her moment, but she matched Villari in the heated lines of their Act IV confrontation (a number reminiscent of the encounter between Turiddu and Santuzza in Cavalleria).

Cast of Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni WFO 2015 - photo by Clive Barda.pngCast of Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni

As the crazed eccentric, Margherita, teller of grisly truths, mezzo-soprano Annunziata Vestri was aurally and visually (complete with white contact lenses) spot on, playing the role of ‘family historian’ in Act 1 with riveting concentration. Writing of Vestri’s performance as Rosa Mamai, in Wexford’s 2012 production of Francesco Cilèa’s L’Arlesiana (in which Sicilia took the role of Vivetta), I admired her ‘dark, impassioned tone [which] was matched by a notable stamina’ and her ‘bold stage presence and impressive technical prowess: her Act 3 ‘Esser madre è un inferno’ was the undoubted highlight of the night’. Such richness of expression and dramatic impact characterised Margherita’s Act 4 ballad, and these qualities were also powerfully evident during the lunchtime recital which Vestri (accompanied by Carmen Santoro) gave on 23 October in the church of St Iberius. With ‘The Sacred and the Profane’ as her theme, Vestri’s performance of the ‘Agnus Dei’ from Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, delivered from the pulpit, was particularly noteworthy for its extensive, at times grainy, range of vocal colours, while the coolness of the declamatory recitation of Debussy’s Chanson de Bilitis, the astonishing intensity of Vestri’s lower register in Norma’s prayer and the triumphant self-confidence of Delilah’s ‘Amour! viens aider ma faiblesse’ left no doubt about the generosity of Vestri’s artistry.

As MacGregor, whose actions two decades previously have set the torturous tragedy in motion, Italian bass Gianluca Buratto revealed the backstory to Douglas in Act I with full-blooded tone. David Stout used his baritone with thoughtfulness and (if the adjective can be applied in this most intemperate of operas) with subtlety as Douglas.

Cilluffo conducted with authority, crafting a persuasive whole from Mascagni’s reeling, and at times clichéd, musical spasms, maintaining momentum through the narrative passages as the orchestra took up vocal phrases and motifs. The lyrical beauty of the melody of the Act 3Intermezzo was wonderfully distilled; and the Prelude to Act 4 was well sung by the Wexford Chorus, who had little to do elsewhere.

The combination of extreme vocal demands, an excess of blood-shedding, and an absence of dramatic action may prevent Guglielmo Ratcliff from ever achieving a secure place in the repertory. But, this opera undoubtedly stirs the emotions. Ratcliff’s haunting Act 3 ‘dream sequence’ is in many ways the expressive centre of the work; and the opera is itself, in a sense, Ratcliff’s own ‘dream’. The work remained Mascagni’s favourite among his operas, and a letter of April 1886, to his close friend at the Milan Conservatory, the engineer Vittorio Gianfranceschi, is revealing of the composer’s passionate identification with his protagonist:

‘At last I have been able to find a romanza to my taste for William's narrative in the second act; and in saying “romanza” I speak the biggest piece of nonsense ever said in my life. I wouldn’t know otherwise how to describe it, since it has a special form and, I think, is completely new ... I don’t know, it’s not possible for me to describe it; I myself do not yet understand it; I do know that it is all heart, all passion, all sorrow; I don’t judge it, don’t examine it in cold blood; I would be afraid to; maybe I’d tear it all up; I know there are 120 blank verses; maybe it’s not performable; I don’t want to know anything; I have composed it as I had to; when I hear it I am moved, I am transported into the regions of the ideal and of fantasy; that's enough for me! ... This, my newest music, has certainly been dictated by a strong sorrow …’

This Wexford production absolutely and thrillingly conveys the rapture and ecstasy expressed by the young Mascagni.

‘Of Le Pré-aux-clercs there is no need to speak; everyone knows it by heart.’ Thus wrote Adolphe Adam in a memoir of the composer Ferdinand Hérold, published in 1857. Adam’s optimism is not born out by the passing of time; today, Hérold is known more or less exclusively for his ballet La fille mal gardée and the overture to the opera Zampa. But, Wexford’s co-production of Le Pré-aux-Clercs (with Palazzatto Bru Zane (Centre de musique romantique français) in partnership with Foundation Calouste Gulbenkian), originally directed by Éric Ruf and revived here by Laurent Delvert, makes a convincing case for the third of Wexford Festival Opera’s 2015 productions, blending tongue-in-cheek comedy with romantic sentimentality in a tastefully designed staging.

Le Pré aux clercs (literally, ‘the Clerk’s meadow’, a favourite duelling and promenading ground opposite the Louvre) was premiered in December 1832, less than a month before its composer died from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one. The work, which is set against the historical tensions between Protestants and Catholics following the 1572 St Bartholomew Day Massacre, proved enormously popular at the Opéra Comique. In contrast to Wexford’s other 2015 productions, its romantic protagonists do eventually obtain their hearts’ desire, though this is not without others paying a heavy price. Ruf’s approach, though, points up the comic aspects of the work; indeed, the outré Renaissance costumes, which borrow exaggerated colours and capes from commedia dell’arte, and the somewhat heavy-handed articulation of the lengthy French spoken dialogue occasionally threaten to push the work towards caricature and even coarseness. But, the musical sweetness ultimately reins in any threat of boorishness.

If Wexford’s productions of Koanga and Guglielmo Ratcliff both stressed the claustrophobic and oppressive grip of history, then Ruf’s conception and design for Le Pré aux clercs lay emphasis on the ‘lighter’ side of political and personal intrigue: the breezy autumnal trees, which part in Act 2 to reveal the wall of the Louvre palace, conveyed a welcome freshness and directness.

The libretto by Eugène de Planard, based on Prosper Mérimée’s Chronique du règne de Charles IX, opens in 1582, ten years after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. In the initial scene, set at the royal hunting ground of Étampes, innkeeper Nicette (the god-daughter of Marguerite — who is the wife of Henry IV of Navarre and sister to Henry III, King of France) joyfully celebrates her forthcoming nuptials with Girot, the host of the Pré-aux-Clercs. Marguerite herself has been detained at the Louvre as a hostage of peace between the two sovereigns, accompanied by her lady-in-waiting Isabelle de Montal, a Béarnaise countess. Isabelle rejects the advances of the Catholic Comte de Comminge, preferring the Baron de Mergy, who is sent by Navarre to recall his Queen and Isabelle. The Italian Cantarelli is drawn by Marguerite into the subterfuge as she plans a secret marriage between Isabelle and Mergy. Informed by Henry III that Marguerite and Isabelle are not to return to Navarre and that the Isabelle will marry Comminge, Mergy challenges the latter to a duel, to take place the next day at the Pré-aux-Clercs. Both nuptial celebrants and duelling parties there gather; Canterelli has been instructed by Marguerite to ensure the safe conduct of Isabelle and Mergy to Navarre. Incensed by his discovery of Isabelle’s devotion to Mergy, and their secret wedding, Comminge is then defeated in the duel, and Isabelle and Mergy flee to Navarre with Cantarelli as their guide.

The Canadian duo, soprano Magali Simard-Galdès and baritone Tomislav Lavoie, eased us delightfully into proceedings, demonstrating vocal charm and dramatic vivacity. It was almost a shame that their duet, which established a wonderfully ebullient spirit, was followed by the arrival of Mergy, thereby abruptly curtailing the buoyancy of their sincere happiness! Indeed, throughout the opera Nico Darmanin’s Baron de Mergy was polished but rather relentless in delivery, though some vocal rigidity might be forgiven as the role’s tessitura is unforgivingly high. Simard-Galdès, however, revealed a captivating vocal agility, not least in the Act 3 rondo, ‘À la fleur du bel âge’, with which she serenades her wedding guests.

French-Canadian soprano Marie-Ève Munger had to wait until the start of Act 2 for her show-stopping number, but (on 23 October) she delivered the goods with extremely impressive technical assurance and musicality. In ‘Jours de mon enfance’ Isabelle sings of her love for Mergy; Munger’s coloratura was unwaveringly accurate, piercingly bright and sweetly intoned. The phrasing demonstrated considerable musical intelligence, and Munger’s diminuendos were executed with superlative control, and matched for expressive grace by the Wexford Festival Orchestra’s leader, Fionnuala Hunt, whose heart-warming obbligato earned her greatly deserved acclaim at the curtain call. Munger’s sparkling vivacity was also much in evidence at a lunch-time recital on 24 October (when she was impressively supported by pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone), where she made Bernstein’s ‘Glitter and be Gay’ flash with brilliant glints, to complement the sultry richness of Richard Strauss’s ‘Serenade’ and the lyrical eloquence of a Schubert lied.

As Marguerite de Valois, French mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand was an authoritative regal presence, but her mezzo-soprano sounded rather inhibited at times. Eric Huchet tapped into a broad comic vein as Cantarelli, all self-pitying pouting and posturing; in particular, he delivered his spoken dialogue with a flamboyance and flourish. As Comminges, Dominique Côté indulged an exaggerated villainous swagger. Complementing Ruf’s traditional and no-nonsense staging, conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud’s reading was unfussy, as he drew forth the melodic persuasiveness of the attractive score. The Wexford Festival Chorus made much of the lively choruses.

At the final reckoning, Hérold’s music may be a trifle too saccharine for my taste, but the opera’s melodies are beguiling, the set-pieces persuasive and this opera was a sweet antidote to the bitter emotions and dramatic acridity of the Festival’s other two main house productions.

The Festival also presented, as usual, three ‘Short Works’, this year in the venue of White’s Hotel. Given that we are living in an ‘age of austerity’, director Jack Furness’s decision to present Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (23 October) in a ‘cardboard city’ — or, so the projections stated, as ‘A Fantasy in Cardboard: a tale with a moral’ — seemed apposite, and economical. Father returned from a foray, propped upon crutches, with a battered rucksack bearing the fruits of a food-bank visit: strings of onions, bags of crisps and bottles of sugar-laden pop. The children were dressed in mismatched hand-me-downs: Gretel’s Kermit ti-shirt and ra-ra skirt clashed discordantly with Hansel’s grey trackie-bottoms, lumberjack checked shirt, and red, side-ways perched baseball cap. An odd basket and bowl relieved the dourness of the mounds of empty boxes which formed the family domain (helpfully labelled ‘door’, ‘window’), but they offered little sustenance for Hansel and Gretel — excepting a jug a cream whose devoured contents resulted a ‘Sugar Rush’ which led the hyper-active, petulant teens to wreck the parental home. Such re-arrangement of the set was at times distracting; the transition to the towering columns of the forest in Act 2 was cumbersome and time-consuming, although the construction of the Witch’s sweet-toothed delectations in Act 3 was swift and smooth.

Just as the two siblings are forced to use their imaginations to overcome their pangs of physical and emotional hunger, so we were urged to take imaginative leaps, and the use of puppetry was an effective stimulus. The presentation of both the Sandman (Frances Israel) and the Dew Fairy (Rachel Croash) made good use of paper marionettes; similarly, a smoky haze and torch search-lights were an evocative accompaniment to the Witches’ Ride sequence during the transition to Act 2: economical means, impressive results.

Emma Nash’s Gretel possessed a lovely, individualised vocal colour; Nash added frisson to the duets with Hansel, and other ensembles, conveying a rich inner life struggling against external deprivation. Her sweetly floated lullaby, following the Sandman’s invitation (sung rather precipitously by Israel — I’d have liked more spaciousness), blended beautifully with Anna Jeffers’ Hansel: the intonation was satisfyingly centred. Elsewhere, however, Jeffers seemed rather underpowered at the lower end of her range, particularly in the passages of denser piano accompaniment (played with accomplishment by Janet Haney). She was also out-played in dramatic terms by Nash; this was a rather inhibited Hansel, lacking mischievous exuberance, snivelling unattractively when faced with the Witch’s temptations and threats.

Kate Allen was a rich-voiced Mother, but Sheldon Baxter, while exhibiting an appealing tone as Father, was a little rough around the edges: the phrasing at times lacked elegance and the intonation wandered. Christina M. Gill’s Witch brandished her broom menacingly; but, on the whole, she did not inspire terror — her cardboard oven was less than petrifying.

Overall, this was a sensible and unfussy presentation; small details — such as the concluding tearing apart of the baked gingerbread Witch, echoing the children’s frustrated anguish of the opening scene — made their mark. And, it was a canny move to involve children from local primary schools; they engaged committedly and encouraged a positive audience reception.

Tosca , directed by Dafydd Hall Williams (and seen on 24 October), was similarly focused and direct in presentation: an easel, effigy of the Virgin and an altar were all that were required to set the scene. Preliminary screen projections of 1940s Italian street scenes established the oppressive socio-political context; and it was a stroke of imaginative genius to return to this visual milieu in the closing moments — as Tosca, with arms wide-stretched, was juxtaposed with ever-nearing shots of the fateful scene of her suicidal demise. The only less sure touch was the final scene change, when the removal of Scarpia’s body and the ‘packing up’ of the autocrat’s office were a little protracted. Greg Ritchey’s sensitive piano accompaniment was a highlight.

There was some initial lightness to assuage the prevailing misery, with Jan Capiński’s Sacristan absent-mindedly placing his head-piece on the altar, and ‘blessing’ the bread provided in Cavaradossi’s basket of provisions as if it were communion fare. But, darkness rapidly fell. And, Eunhee Kim’s fervent and full-toned Tosca did much to raise the emotional temperature. Though Kim’s acting was a little inhibited, her vocal commitment was unstinted: ‘Vissi d’arte’ was impressive — mature and thoughtful, and Kim sustained her vocal power to the last. Alexandros Tsilogiannis might have profitably taken his foot off the vocal pedal from time to time; this was an unrelenting presentation, whose highlight was the Act 1 duet ‘Qual’occhio’ in which Tsilogiannis’s tenor merged affectingly with Kim’s resonant soprano. ‘E lucevan le stelle’ was occasionally a little under the note, but there was no doubting Tsilogiannis’s commitment.

Quentin Hayes’ Scarpia was a well-judged portrait of evil. Hayes’ diction was exceptionally clear and his interpretation uncomplicated and convincing: this Scarpia was, paradoxically, both dignified and debauched, and Hayes kept the tyrant’s anger under restraint, making the swelling outbursts of anger and outrage all the more telling. Henry Grant Kerswell was somewhat cumbersome, dramatically, as Angelotti, but made a strong vocal impression. In the minor roles, Raffaele D’Ascanio was nuanced and thoughtful as Spoletta, and David Howes was a very competent Sciarrane.

Portraits of Manon (25 October) comprised a ‘Scene from Manon’ together with Massenet’s Le Portrait de Manon, in which the composer returned to the character of the aging Chevalier des Grieux, an old man obsessed with his memories of Manon who forbids his nephew Jean to marry his amour, Aurore, as he believes her lacking in ranks and wealth (though, unbeknown to des Grieux, Aurore is the niece of Manon, and ultimately all ends happily). Seemingly compact, it was, however, the least successful Short Work. Though sensitively staged and designed, and evocatively lit by John Crudden, the lack of surtitles, the lengthy French exposition and the fact that director Rob Kearley instructed the principals to deliver much of the action from a prone or floor-bound position — thus depriving much of the un-raked audience in White’s Hotel of visual clarification — made this intimate work disconcertingly inaccessible and distant. Eunhee Kim’s Manon was well sung but differed little in dramatic presentation from her Tosca of the day before; Stephen Anthony Brown was initially rather forthright as Des Grieux, but in the Portrait displayed intelligent musical nuance as Tiberge. Baritone Ian Beadle brought much tenderness to the role of the elder Des Grieux, while soprano Maria McGrann, from Northern Ireland, displayed considerable vocal beauty as Aurore, and collaborated well with Emma Watkinson in the role of the frustrated, love-lorn Jean de Moncerf.

Whatever minor misgivings one might have about any particular Wexford production or Short Work, this 64th offering confirmed that the Festival fills gaps and prompts responses that are not imitated or equalled elsewhere. 2016 will bring stagings of Félicien David’s Herculanum, Vanessa by Samuel Barber, and Donizetti’s Maria de Rudenz.

Claire Seymour

Delius: Koanga

Koanga: Norman Garrett, Palmyra: Nozuko Teto, Uncle Joe: Aubrey Allicock, Don José Martinez:Christopher Robertson, Rangwan: Aubrey Allicock, Clotilda: Kate Allen, Simon Perez: Jeff Gwaltney, Jeanne: Frances Israel, Renee: Rachel Croash, Helene: Eleanor Garside, Marie: Maria Hughes, Aurore: Emma Watkinson, Hortense: Vivien Conacher, Olive: Laura Murphy, Paulette: Jennifer Parker; Dancers: Sifiso Selby Khumalo, Sifiso Thamsanqa Majola, Magcino Pamella Shange, Mzamo Jabu Siphika, Kayla Smith; Director: Michael Gieleta Conductor: Stephen Barlow, Set Designer: James Macnamara, Projection Designer: Seán O’Riordan, Costume Designer: Sarah Roberts, Lighting Designer: Ian Sommerville, Choreographer: Boyzie Cekwana; Chorus and Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera.

Mascagni: Guglielmo Ratcliffn

Guglielmo Ratcliff: Angelo Villari, Maria: Mariangela Sicilia, Count Douglas: David Stout, Margherita: Annunziata Vestri, MacGregor: Gianluca Burrato, Lesley: Alexandros Tsilogiannis, Tom: Quentin Hayes, Willie: Sarah Redmond, Robin: Henry Grant Kerswell, Dick: Stephen Anthony Brown, Bell: Matthew Wright, John: Rory Musgrave, Taddie: Raffaele D’Ascanio, Servant: Simon Chalford Giles; Dancers: Mattia Agatiello, Noemi Bresciani, Alexander McCabe, Riccardo Olivier; Director: Fabio Ceresa, Conductor: Francesco Cilluffo, Set Designer: Tiziano Santi, Costume Designer: Giuseppe Palella, Lighting Designer: Ian Sommerville, Choreography: Riccardo Olivier; Chorus and Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera.

Ferdinand Hérold: Le Pré-aux-clercs

Marguerite de Valois: Marie Lenormand, Isabelle de Montal: Marie-Ève Munger, Nicette: Magali Simard-Galdès, Baron de Mergy: Nico Darmanin, Comte de Comminges: Dominique Côté, Cantarelli: Eric Huchet, Girot: Tomislav Lavoie, Le Brigadier: Felix Kemp, L’exempt du guet: Jan Capiński, Archer 1: David Howes, Archer 2: Sheldon Baxter; Dancers: Alexandre Bado, Camille Brulais, Ghislain Grellier, Constantino Imperatore, Anna Konopska; Director: Éric Ruf, Conductor: Jean-Luc Tingaud, Revival Director: Laurent Delvert, Set Designer: Éric Ruf, Costume Designer: Renato Bianchi, Lighting Designer: Ian Sommerville, Choreographer: Glyslein Lefever; Chorus and Orchestra of Wexford Festival Opera.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mariangela%20Sicilia%20%26%20Angelo%20Villari%20in%20Guglielmo%20Ratcliff%20by%20Mascagni%20WFO%202015%20-%20photo%20by%20Clive%20Barda.png image_description=Mariangela Sicilia & Angelo Villari in Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni [Photo by Clive Barda] product=yes product_title=64th Wexford Festival Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Mariangela Sicilia & Angelo Villari in Guglielmo Ratcliff by Mascagni

Photos by Clive Barda
Posted by Gary at 1:24 PM

Christoph Prégardien, Schubert, Wigmore Hall London

Prégardien is a perennial favourite, who has been singing at the Wigmore Hall for at least 25 years. Prégardien's programmes are thought-provoking. His choice focused on Schubert's settings of Schiller and Mayrhofer, which are Prégardien specialities, but this time he included songs that are less well known, to stimulate the audience's appreciation of the composers craft.

Schubert set 44 songs to texts by Schiller, of which three were settings of Der Jüngling am Bache. His first, D 30, dates from as early as 1812. Prégardian sang the version D192 from 1815. The brooks still runs cheerfully in the piano part, but now the more contemplative approach emphasizes Schiller's image of flowers crushed in fast-flowing waters, an allusion to impermanence and to unfulfilment. The agile lucidity of Prégardien's timbre captures much of the whimsy of the first version, though the later song is more emotionally rewarding. Later in this Wigmore Hall series, no doubt we'll hear the third version, D 638 (1819), even more poignant.

For a moment, though, we remained in fanciful mode, with Schubert's settings of Ludwig Hölty (1748-1776). Der Liebende D207 1815 recaptures the sprightly lyricism of the first version of Der Jüngling am Bache. "Beglückt, beglückt, Wer dich erblickt", bright, sharp consonants, which Prégardien articulated so they sparkled. "Wem süsser Blick, und Wink und Nick Zum sussern Kusse winket". Utterly delicious. Der Traum D218 1815 feels almost like folksong with its paired phrases suggesting the fluttering of a bird : "Mir träumt, ich war ein Vögelein". Prégardien captured the lilting charm in the song with delicate but deft clarity. The sentiments of Die Laube D214, 1815, is decidedly period. "Schauer wird durch meine Nerven haben" and "Wann ich auf der Bahn der Tugend wanke". But Pregardien's respect for the song as song gives it dignity.

Thus were we prepared for more Schiller. Hoffnung D251 1815 is relatively straightforward compared with D 637, a darker and more beautidul setting of the same poem,. but it made a good transition to the Schiller ballad Ritter Togenberg D397 1816. Again, the subject is rather "of its time". a knight, rejected by a maiden, goes on the Crusades where he "Schreckt den Muselmann". When he returns, the girl has become a nun. So the knight spends the rest of his life in a hut near the convent until the girl dies and becomes an angel. Strophic ballads aren't that easy to carry off but they are one of Prégardien's great strengths. He sang with direct, unfussy commitment, so the tale felt totally plausible. Context aside, emotions are universal.

In his programme notes, Richard Stokes quotes Albert Einstein on Die Liebesgötter D 446 1816, to a poem by Johann Peter Uz, as "Anacreontic doggerel". "Cypris meiner Phyllis gleich, sass von Grazien umgeben....mich berauschten Cyperns Reben". Cypris's grapes have made the poet drunk. As a poem this is a howler. The poet sees nymphs fleeing "mit leichtem Fuss allen Zwang betränkter Kettern flatteren von Fuss zu Fuss und von Blonden und Brünetten". Yer Prégardien makes the song feel right, though he smiled benevolently when singing the florid phrases. If we can take 18th century paintings of Classical Antiquity, we can perhaps take .Uz (1730-1796) on his own terms. In any case, the poem is more risqué than it seems since nymphs hang out with satyrs, and wine frees inhibitions.

Prégardien and Schnackertz then paired Der Hirt D 490 1816 and Bei dem Grabe meines Vater D496 1816. Both deal with loss. In the first, the poet (Mayerhofer) looks at the tower where his beloved lives now that she's married. In the second, to a poem by Matthias Claudius, the poet mourns his father in conventionally dutiful terms. Both settings are rather dispassionate, and don't draw from Schubert his finest moments, but we need to hear them to appreciate Schubert's work as a whole. That's the point of a complete song series. In that context, Schubert's songs to Mayrhofer shone all the more brightly.

Five more Schubert settings of Mayrhofer followed : Der Alpenjäger, D524 1817, Nach einem Gewitter D561 1817, Tröst D671 1819, Nachstück D D672 19, Nachtviolen D752 1822 and Alfölsung D 807 1824, all of which Prégardien has performed many times in the past and still does with characteristic grace and intelligence.

Anne Ozorio


product_title=Christoph Prégardien, Christoph Schnackertz, Schubert, Wigmore Hasll, London 29th October 2015
product_by=A review by Anne Ozorio
product_id=Above : Christoph Prégardien, by Marco Borggrave

Posted by iconoclast at 8:13 AM

October 30, 2015

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

It was a remount of the Jun Kaneko production (a visual artist based in Omaha) that premiered only three and one half years ago (June 2012). All of us think that is way too soon for a repeat in an annual opera season of but nine operas. Back in 2012 the production boasted a plausible cast and conductor (see The Magic Flute in San Francisco) and was a qualified success.

Now, 2015, with the exception of veterans Monostotos Greg Fedderly and Queen of the Night Albina Shagimuratova (the usual minimal number of star turns San Francisco Opera deems necessary) it was a cast of promising young singers, some more promising than others, and some of little or no promise. At the performance I attended Mlle. Shagimuratova was said to be ill. Her replacement was a masters degree student at Florida State University, a touch that made the performance seem even more like a college workshop production.

Note that the very next night Mlle. Shagimuratova, a well known and experienced Lucia, replaced ingenue soprano Nadine Sierra for the final performance of that opera.

Make no mistake, there were some fine, youthful singers. However these were not performances by finished artists, evident not only in the voices but also in the stage comportment. This made what was perfunctory and clumsy staging seem amateurish.

The conductor was veteran maestro Lawrence Foster, now a regular in the south of France (Monaco, Marseille, Montpellier). His broadly orchestral reading was at odds not only with current Mozart performance practice but also with the expectations of these young singers, evident in the many stressed moments between pit and stage.

Note that both Mlle. Shagimuratova and Mr. Fedderly performed the same roles in 2012. It would have been interesting to observe other interpreters of these roles.

Flute_SF2.pngPaul Appleby as Tamino, Sarah Shafer as Pamina and the two Armored Men

The colorful, visual art (as opposed to theatrical) production was charming three years ago. Without the patina of slick performances from the stage and pit the constant visual stimulation of lines and colors was irritating rather than illuminating. The famous German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder was rendered again in hokey contemporary American terms by San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, goosed up for this revival with even more topical references and jokes.

San Francisco’s opera audience deserves better. New audiences attracted to the opera house by this famous masterwork do know the difference. Just ask my neighbors.

San Francisco’s once venerable opera company has much catching up to do to again consider itself world class.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Pamina: Sarah Shafer; Tamino: Paul Appleby; Papageno: Efrain Solis; Sarastro: Alfred Reiter; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Bowden; Monostatos: Greg Fedderly; First Lady: Jacqueline Piccolino; Second Lady: Nian Wang; Third Lady Zanda Svede; Papagena: Maria Valdes; Speaker: Anthony Reed; First Priest: Richard Walker; Second Priest: Richard Walker; First Armored Man Chong Wang; Second Armored Man: Anthony Reed; First Boy: Michael Sacco; Second Boy: Pietro Juvara; Third Boy: Nicholas Hu. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Lawrence Foster; Stage Director: Harry Silverstein; Production Designer: Jun Kaneko; Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 23, 2015.


product_title=The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above:Albina Shagimuratova as The Queen of the Night [All photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 5:25 PM

October 25, 2015

La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles

It then sank into near total obscurity, reemerging only as a vehicle for great sopranos, including Maria Callas in Luchino Visconti’s legendary 1954 production at La Scala, but also Rosa Ponselle, Leyla Gencer, Montserrat Caballé, Gundula Janowitz, Rosalind Plowright and June Anderson. Revivals have also attracted Franco Corelli, Francisco Araiza, Renato Bruson, Riccardo Muti and Roger Norrington.

Today most performances of La Vestale take place in French-speaking countries, with profound consequences. The opera is no longer sung in Italian, but in the original French. In contrast to the thrilling dramatic voices listed above, singers today typically possess lighter and thinner voices, as well as stylistic sensibilities, shaped by the Baroque opera movement. The same goes for the weight of the orchestral sound. Historians of music often treat this work as a transitional work: mid-20th century performances bring to mind the new romanticism of Berlioz and Wagner, which it influenced, while contemporary performances recall the classical tradition of tregédie lyrique Spontini inherited from Gluck and Cherubini. Finally, older performances (Visconti aside) tended to focus almost exclusively on orchestral drama and vocal virtuosity, whereas recent performances place more weight on the originality of the production, direction and design concepts.

La Vestale - Alexandra Deshorties from La Monnaie | De Munt on Vimeo.

This production presented by Opera La Monnaie in Brussels, co-produced with the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris (where a different cast was heard in 2013), illustrates this shift. It starts well. The Brussels players, sounding lively and textured under Baroque and bel canto specialist Alessandro de Marchi, make much of the overture’s famous orchestral effects. As for the singers, a case can be made that lighter voices and French language bring more immediacy and elegance to sung lines than Callas and Corelli.

Still, one cannot help wondering if the voices Brussels has chosen are entirely appropriate to the historical circumstances and style of this opera. La vestale was celebrated in its own time for its grandeur and heroism, which appeared appropriate to Napoleon’s empire. It was also written at a time when French opera still employed forceful, declamatory style, just prior to the transition to the purer and lighter Italian bel canto style. It is no surprise, then, that in Brussels the larger, heavier and lowest voices make the greatest impact.

The vocal star of the evening is the mezzo Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo as La Grande Vestale. This is a young singer to watch in coming years as she assumes more big roles in major houses. Her large and resonant (yet focused) voice refracts wonderful colors across a seemingly limitless “falcon” range. Compelling musical expression and clear diction bring to life Spontini’s long vocal lines and the maternal instincts of the head priestess. Bass Jean Teitgen is also impressive, singing with lean and elegant power, as well as fine diction—overall combining restraint and authority in a way suited to a Soverain Pontife. Both would be impressive in any era.

La Vestale - Alexandra Deshorties from La Monnaie | De Munt on Vimeo.

Elsewhere the cast is more problematic. The casting of Licinius exemplifies how times have changed. In the 1950s La Scala chose the dramatic tenor Franco Corelli, who knows how to make an appropriately heroic entry when it matters—e.g. at the start of Act 3. Today Monnaie chooses high baritone Yann Beuron, a French Baroque and Mozart specialist for whom even recent forays into Debussy have proven a bit heavy. Beuron sings correctly, evenly, and with a certain aristocratic plausibility, but he often seems overpowered by a role in which Spontini’s contemporaries had little difficulty recognizing Napoleon. Julien Dran similarly tones down Cinna, Lucinius’s tenor sidekick, to a pleasant tenorino, light and a bit dry.

This leaves the French-Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties as the ill-behaved virgin at the center of the plot. Deshorties possesses neither a classically sculpted voice, nor aristocratic charm one might expect. Her high notes are intermittently strident at forte, which she often works around by singing high phrases pianissimo, sometimes quite incongruously. She can thus be disappointing in roles that require vocal consistency: Konstanze in Entführung, for example. Yet she possesses a mid-weight soprano with a visceral edge, a body and face with strikingly angular and animated features, and fearless commitment to musical-dramatic expression. In the right roles, which include early 19th century heroines such as Medea , her vocal and dramatic qualities can ignite into a thrilling intensity that is more than the sum of the parts.

This does not quite occur here: her assumption of Julia is solid but something of a cypher. She is most effective when sustaining long and relaxed legato lines in the middle of the voice at modest volume—as in the Act 3 duet—but the role does not contain enough opportunities for this. Elsewhere, however, sustained singing varied vocal ranges, expressions and dynamics, especially in the big arias, lead her to fragment Spontini’s nobly vocal arcs, which sometimes extend for more than a minute. Combined with a tendency to bail out to pianissimi on culminating high notes, this deflates the tension of long scenes, such as Julia’s Act 2 aria,“Toi que j’implore avec affroi.” On top of it all, she wears a mike, the purpose of which is unclear to me.

Sylvie_Brunet-Grupposo.pngSylvie Brunet-Grupposo [Photo courtesy of Hilbert Artists Management]

Then there is the matter of the production. Eric Lacascade, a French stage director, has had his ups and downs in France, and this is his first operatic effort. It shows. As is often the case these days, this production dilutes and diffuses a promising concept through mediocre and ill-considered choices. The basic idea is promising: the opera reenacting a timeless ritual of purification in an amphitheater. This concept is well-suited to the plot of the opera and the Gluckian rigor of the score. Often referred to as a poor-man’s Norma with a happy ending, it tells of Julia, a Roman vestal virgin, who sullies herself one night with Licinius, a heroic Roman soldier, and thereby neglects the eternal flame, which dies out. Condemned to die by entombment, she is reprieved when a strike of divine lightning rekindles the flame. The score is full of self-sacrificing monologues, solemn choruses, pleas to the gods, and curses by angry priests, most written in a spartan, declaratory manner.

The minimalist sets are appropriate to this concept. The stage is almost empty, without any architectural elements to signal time and place. Much of the action takes place on or around a small raised platform in the center, on which are placed the eternal flame in Act II and a cage for Julia in Act III. The costumes are just right: men and women dressed in identical, quasi-religious clothing of black and white, or muted blue and rust. Even laypeople and soldiers blend in, even if the latter, in cheap black leather sleeveless vests with matching wrist bands, are Hollywood B adventure movie material. This approach also makes the most of the space: with the Théâtre de la Monnaie under renovation, the performances take place at the Cirque-Royale, a large, steeply raked circular space.

If the production team had stopped there and focused on Spontini’s music, which few listeners have ever heard live, the immersion in ancient solemnity and spectacle might make for a moving evening. Yet any prospect of this is undermined by numberless fussy and thoughtless details. This is a widespread problem in the opera world, which has been overrun by inexperienced theater directors who do not really grasp the genre. Perhaps the most common error is to direct singers to move and make gestures constantly, as if they were spoken actors. This further encourages the production staff to clutter the stage with irrelevant little objects as justification for the singers’ wandering attention and random actions. In doing so, what directors miss is that operatic music itself provides movement in another dimension, usually rendering it unnecessary to add physical movement. Occasionally physical Often they are distracting, and sometimes they points that run entirely counter to the score and libretto.

La Vestale is particularly vulnerable to such irrelevant and ill-conceived clutter, because is comprised of urgent, long-phrased, high-minded declarations. Julia’s big Act II aria, for example, has its own musical architecture: an earnest lament to the Gods followed by a desperate cabaletta of internal monologue. Yet Deshortes is obliged to get up and kneel down repeatedly, to move aimlessly across the stage, and, at the climax, to repeatedly pick up and put down candles—as if to remind us at the moment where her inner turmoil boils over that she is a novice in her first day of employment with some cleaning around the temple to get done. Similarly, the director willfully distracts the audience from Spontini’s orchestral introduction to Act III, sending two priests wandering out to solemnly inspect the bare stage, direct the placement of a couple of benches, and leave. What is lost is demonstrated by an exception that proves the rule: the most sublime moment of the evening is the Act III duet, sung entirely with Julia resting her head in the Grande Vestale’s lap, motionless the classic pose of daughter and mother.

These are examples of crude and thoughtless self-indulgence, but the directorial dilettantism goes further, undermining the central thrust of the opera. In the final scene, the sacred fire is relit not by divine lightning, but by a match surreptitiously tossed by a townswoman. This is inconsistent even with the director’s own concepts up to that point, which stress (among other things) an undercurrent of male priests oppressing female vestal virgins. In a more rigorous realization, the vestal virgins as a group, or perhaps even the Grande Vestale herself, would have relit the flame, since for them (both libretto and common sense make clear) the conflict between religious belief and gender solidarity is acute and constitutive of a changed sense of identity.

But even more is at stake here. This cute but anachronistic touch of irony distorts the deeper central theme of this opera, which is not, as this director seems to think, that religion is a fraud designed by and for hypocrites. Rather, it is that religious and secular virtues conflict in ways that human institutions can only imperfectly resolve, and thus they must change. Richard Wagner was influenced by Spontini, and throughout his work he considered this clash of religious and secular life the central issue in his stage works, most notably Tannhäuser and Parsifal but also the Ring. Wagner was a Feuerbachian, so surely he did not believe in divine lighting, yet his attitude toward the reenactment of beliefs and myths (e.g. divine lightning) is far less dismissive and superficial than that of Lacascade. For Wagner, sacred myth is not simply oppressive hypocrisy, but an essential component of human existence; its transformation is therefore always moving, whether in a tragic or a celebratory sense.

In order to make human sense of the plot, it is thus essential that the Act 3 lightning strike be overpoweringly impressive, for it must instantly trigger in all observers, even the vestal virgins themselves, a sincere and genuine change in their perception of divine law (“Le ciel…manifeste ses volenté!”) To portray this profound reevaluation as the result of a cheap trick is to trivialize the plot. In the moment, it seems ridiculous that priests and everyone else should alter their entire society because someone tossed match. It renders the plot up to that moment inconsistent, notably the fact that every character—but most notably Julia herself, in each of her big arias, but also — struggles sincerely and seriously with the role of religious belief. And it distorts the clear arc of the libretto, which traces the dissolution and reconstitution of a harmonious community. The final minutes of Spontini’s score brilliantly portray the intense outpouring of joy and relief from everyone, priests included, at the reestablishment of new communal values.

Andrew Moravcsik

Cast and production information:

Licinius: Yann Beuron; Cinna: Julien Dran; Le Souverain Pontife: Jean Teitgen; Julia: Alexandra Deshorties; La Grande Vestale: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo. Orchestre: Orchestre symphonique et chœurs de la Monnaie. Chœur: Académie de choeur de la Monnaie. Direction musicale: Alessandro De Marchi. Mise en scène: Éric Lacascade. Décors: Emmanuel Clolus. Costumes: Marguerite Bordat. Éclairages: Philippe Berthomé. Dramaturgie: Daria Lippi. Direction des chœurs: Martino Faggiani. Direction de l’Académie de chœur: Benoît Giaux. La Monnaie, Bruxelles, 22 October 2015.

Click here for additional information on Spontini’s La Vestale.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Alexandra_Deshorties.png image_description=Alexandra Deshorties product=yes product_title=La Vestale, La Monnaie, Bruxelles product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Above: Alexandra Deshorties
Posted by Gary at 2:05 PM

October 22, 2015

THOMAS: Hamlet, Moscow 2015

Hamlet: Opéra in five acts.

Music composed by Ambroise Thomas. Libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier after The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare.

First Performance: 9 March 1868, Paris, Opéra.

Principal Roles:
Hamlet Baritone
Claudius, roi de Danemark Bass
L’ombre du Feu Roi Bass
Polonius, grand chambellan Bass
Laerte, fils de Polonius Tenor
Gertrude, reine de Danemark et mère d’Hamlet Mezzo-Soprano
Ophélie, fille de Polonius Soprano


Act I

Scene 1. A hall in the castle of Elsinore

Claudius is acclaimed King of Denmark and he and his Queen Gertrude receive the good wishes of the court. Hamlet broods that although it is only two months since the death of his father, his mother has already married her husband’s brother, Claudius.

Ophelia is grieved at his melancholy and reproaches him for neglecting her. He swears that he does truly love her, and for her sake renounces his plan of leaving the court. Laertes, about to leave for Norway on a mission from the king, comes to bid his sister Ophelia and Hamlet farewell. He commits Ophelia to Hamlet’s care.

To the derision of the carousing courtiers, Marcellus and Horatio announce that they have seen the ghost of the late king. They are looking for Hamlet to inform him.

Scene 2. The battlements of the castle

Hamlet joins Horatio and Marcellus. The ghost appears and reveals to Hamlet that he was poisoned while sleeping by his brother. Hamlet swears revenge.

Act II

Scene 1. A room in the castle

Ophelia is disturbed by Hamlet’s strange coldness. He appears but does not speak to her, confirming her worst fears. She begs the queen to let her retire to a convent, but the queen wishes her to stay, hoping that she may discover the cause of Hamlet’s distracted state and cure him.

The king tells the queen that Hamlet is mad, but she fears that his strange conduct may indicate that he has discovered their guilty secret. The king assures her that Hamlet knows nothing and tries to calm her as she becomes hysterical, having a vision of their murdered victim rising to accuse them.

Hamlet appears, rejects the king’s request to call him father, feigns madness briefly, then announces the arrival of a troupe of actors. Hamlet intends to have them perform a play which will recreate the circumstances of his father’s murder. He welcomes them with a drinking song.

Scene 2. A hall in the castle

The court gathers to see the play. Hamlet tells Horatio to observe the king. As the play is performed Hamlet describes the action. As the murder is committed the king orders the play stopped. Hamlet pretends madness, accusing the king wildly, to the horror of the court, including even Horatio and Marcellus.


A room in the castle

Hamlet, angry at himself for his failure to kill the king, watches him at prayer and holds back again, as he wishes to catch him with his sins unabsolved. The king, weighed down by his guilt, calls Polonius and Hamlet realises that Ophelia’s father was an accomplice in the crime.

The queen brings Ophelia to Hamlet, intending to have their wedding performed; but Hamlet, distressed by his awareness of her father’s treachery, spurns Ophelia. The queen reproaches Hamlet, only to be accused by him of complicity in the murder. Unseen by the queen, the ghost appears again. Hamlet, now calmer, bids his mother goodnight.

Act IV

Open country, near a lake

Ophelia, driven mad by her despair, joins merrymaking peasants. She tells them she is married to Hamlet, distributes flowers and sings a song to the wili who, according to her, resides in the lake. She is accidently drowned.

Act V

A graveyard

Hamlet watches two gravediggers at work singing about the transience of earthly pleasures — except drinking. He has fled the court to escape being murdered, leaving Horatio to attend to his plans, and is aware of Ophelia’s madness, but not of her death.

He is joined by Laertes, who is aware of her death and blames Hamlet for his lack of care for her. He succeeds in provoking Hamlet to a duel but they are interrupted by Ophelia’s funeral cortege. Hamlet wishes to kill himself but the appearance of the ghost reminds him of his vow. He kills Claudius and then joins Ophelia in death.

[In the original version of the opera, Hamlet is acclaimed king at the end.]

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DT3271.png image_description=Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (1827–28) [Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art] audio=yes first_audio_name=Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Hamlet_2.m3u product=yes product_title=Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet product_by=Hamlet: Igor Golovatenko; Ophelia: Laura Claycomb; Claudius: Rafal Shivek; Gertrude: Doris Lamprecht; Le Spectre: Dmitry Skorikov; Laerte: Alexey Neklyudov; Polonius: Dmitry Orlov; Marcellus: Igor Morozov; Horatio: Alexander Miminoshvilli; Fossoyeurs: Timofey Dubovitsky , Igor Podoplelov. Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. Sveshnikov State Academic Russian Choir. Conductor: Benjamin Pionnier. Tchaikovsky Concert Hall. Moscow, 6 October 2015. product_id=Above: Eugène Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio in the Graveyard (1827–28) [Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
Posted by Gary at 2:13 PM

Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm

The programme book for Kirsten Harms' production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was all in Swedish, except a synopsis in English, but we were at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm after all. So I was unable to read the articles by Harms and her designer Herbert Murauer so when attending the production at the Opera House (Operan), I had to rely simply on eyes and ears to report on their intentions. I saw the performance on 16 October 2015 (the production was new in November 2014), sung in Italian, with Asmik Grigorian (a Lithuanian soprano who was the Butterfly at the production's premiere), Jonas Degerfeldt (a member of the Royal Swedish Opera's ensemble) as Pinkerton, Karl-Magnus Fredriksson as Sharpless, Susann Vegh as Suzuki and Daniel Ralphsson as Goro. The Korean conductor Eunsun Kim conducted, she is familiar to English audiences following her debut conducting Die Fledermaus at English National Opera.

Kim and the orchestra launched into a wonderfully dramatic and involving account of the prelude and the curtain raised on Herbert Murauer's set, a 1950's/60's modern house with a wall of glass at the back, a huge Japanese print filling the wall stage left, and Japanese scrolls hanging from the ceiling. Furniture was Danish Modern style, and in one of the arm-chairs lounged Karl-Magnus Fredrickson's Pinkerton, whilst in a gantry above his colleagues from his ship mustered. Goro (Daniel Ralphsson) appeared from a staircase leading down to lower levels. Hyper active and dressed in Western, rather psychedelic colours, Goro had brought dress clothes for Pinkerton and harried him to dress, all the whilst preparing the drinks for the wedding. We saw two apparent 'geishas' until we realised that these were men!

It was not going to be a traditional Madame Butterfly. Harms had chosen to set the piece in Japan in the 1950's/60's in the context of a society in change. Butterfly and her relatives are Western assimilated, with costumes which mixed Western style with Japanese references. But still there are cultural differences and these provoke a more violent than usual reaction with the entry of the Bonze (Kristian Flor), here more of a fundamentalist than a quiet priest, and with four violent kung-fu henchmen who beat everyone up. The love duet arises out of this violence, and during part two it is clear that Butterfly is in some way damaged, post-stress disorder perhaps has left her mentally fragile and the second half is the depiction of her gradual decline. The opera was given in the correct version with no break at the humming chorus, and Butterfly and her friend Suzuki (Suzann Vegh) were camped out in the ruins of the grand modernist house. The climax, when it came was dramatic as Butterfly committed suicide in full view of Pinkerton who, calling from the balcony, was able to see all but not reach her.

I have to confess that in performances of Madama Butterfly there comes a point in part two when I start to hanker for the more elegant conciseness of La Boheme, but in this performance thanks to the sheer beauty and intensity of Asmik Grigorian's Butterfly and Eunsum Kim's conducting, this moment never appeared. Part two was one sustained piece of gradually building intense drama with a shattering climax. That we had moved the setting forward 50 years meant that whilst the Japanese/Western divide was still the engine of the drama, the lack of exotic Japonaiserie meant that the singers could concentrate on the drama rather than evoking Japan with carefully composed gestures.

It helped that Asmik Grigorian was such a mesmerising and musical Butterfly. Vocally she sounds somewhat like Victoria de los Angeles, with richly elegant lyric tones and that slight, effecting edge to the voice. She had enough power in reserve so that at Piccolo idol, when Butterfly turns into Tosca (or perhaps more appropriately, Liu turns into Turandot) Grigorian showed she had the right amount of power without pushing her voice beyond the limit. Butterfly is  tricky role, and many of the singers who performed it in Puccini's lifetime were dramatic ones, but you still need to be able to be fluidly fluent and convincingly girlish too. Grigorian gave a performance of great musicality and I suspect that it would be lovely to listen to, there was little in the way of pushing and stretching the vocal line. She combined this with a sense of the intensity of Butterfly's decline into near dementia.

Jonas Degerfeldt performance as Pinkerton had a robust, rough-hewn quality to it, and whilst he may not have been the most ingratiating, Italianate Pinkerton vocally, he had the admirable virtue of consistency. His voice went right to the top, with no forcing and he was as vigorous at the closing as at the opening. The rough edged feel worked well with the character, this was a Pinkerton who had made himself at home in Japan but had no qualms about abandoning all when he returned home. Though the violence of the Bonze's attack at the end of Act One, and Pinkerton's failure to protect Butterfly made you wonder whether Harms was suggesting other deeper issues, perhaps an inability to accept that he had failed to protect led to his need to abandon. Degerfeldt had the strength of personality to bring off the tricky ending, where we get very little time with the returned Pinkerton.

Karl-Magnus Fredriksson brought a soft-grained quality to his performance as Sharpless. A relatively young man, this Sharpless was personable and sympathetic, but completely unable to act when he needed to. The letter scene was profoundly poignant, with the combination of Fredriksson's sympathetic warm baritone and the intensity of Grigorian's response.

In this version, Suzuki is Butterfly's friend rather than servant, and in part two she is the only friend left, bringing Butterfly food and supporting her. This slight revision gave Susann Vegh as Suzuki the ability to be a strong friend rather than a surly servant, and her performance had great sympathy and strength of character. She made a great impression in the role, both musically and dramatically and it would be interesting to hear her in something larger.

Daniel Ralphsson was brilliant as the hyperactive, self-serving Goro, full of bits of business but never quite pulling focus from the main action. He is a relatively young man and Ralphsson brought a nice flexibility to the part. Magnus Kyle was the much put-upon Yamadori, far older than Butterfly and rather world-weary for all his grand robe. The remaining characters, all small but important, were well taken with Eva Sahlin as Kate Pinkerton, IIan Power as Yakuside, Henrik Hugo as the Notary, Hakan Ekenas as the Commissioner and Anna Norrby as Butterfly's mother. Kristin Leoson was brilliant as the clearly traumatised child, Sorrow, who barely lets anyone touch him and is completely filthy.

Harms and her designer Herbert Murauer had one or two visual coups. For Butterfly's entrance, which is to emerge from the floor via the staircase going downstairs, she was carrying a parasol but it was covered in white muslin as a veil giving an unforgettable visual image. This was re-iterated during the opening of the scene after the humming chorus, when in the long orchestral introduction the scene was repeated but this time with a naked dancer as Butterfly and the veil was red. Eight Pinkertons appeared and eventually followed her into the distance up stage. Another innovation was the entertainment during the wedding. Whilst the guests sat down and tucked into their bento boxes, two women dressed as sexy sailors danced with the two men dressed as geishas.

That Kristen Harms production made such a strong impression is partly due to the finely engrossing performances from the cast, with Eunsun Kim getting great support from the orchestra. This meant that the shattering ending came as the real climax. Asmik Grigorian was certainly the focus and the star, but she was strongly partnered by the rest of the cast so that it did feel like a good ensemble production. I would gladly encounter this staging again, and certainly hope to see Asmik Grigorian in other roles.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production information:

Butterfly: Asmik Grigorian, Pinkerton: Jonas Degerfeldt, Sharpless: Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Suzuki: Susann Vegh, Goro: Daniel Ralphsson, Kate Pinkerton: Eva Sahlin, Yakuside: IIan Power, Notary: Henrik Hugo, Commissioner: Hakan Ekenas, Butterfly’s mother; Anna Norrby, Sorrow: Kristin Leoson, Bonze: Kristian Flor
Director: Kirsten Harms, Designer: Herbert Murauer. Conductor: Eunsun Kim. Royal Swedish Opera, Opera House, Stockholm. October 16 2015.


product_title=Shattering Madama Butterfly Stockholm
product_by=A review by Robert Hugill

Posted by iconoclast at 6:48 AM

October 21, 2015

Theodora, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Opening October 10th, it features striking performances by acclaimed baroque specialist William Christie and his Les Arts Florissants and super-star counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky, Handel certainly is worthy of this prime-time treatment and it is already a highlight of the new season.

With the coming holidays, Americans can hear Handel's Messiah almost everywhere: in concert halls, churches, shopping malls and even elevators. In my youth, I assumed he was a one-hit composer (well, two counting Water Music). I knew he had a long life and continued to compose until the end but always assumed that the "powers that be" knew that his other works deserved no particular attention.


In recent decades, however, this has changed for me and many others. Imaginative stagings and the Baroque revival, featuring music played on historically-informed instruments, have given new life Handel's many operas and oratorios and also revived interest in a large number of other long-forgotten composers. William Christie and his forces have already successfully staged this oratorio in Glyndebourne in 1996 with a popular and provocative staging by Peter Sellars. Christie recorded the work in 2000 and now opens the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées season with it. The oratorio tells the story with such detail that the border between opera and oratorio seems to have disappeared. The new production, also “modern dress,” focuses on the cast and chorus to clarify and ennoble the music of this tragic tale.

The British stage director Stephen Landridge, the new director of the opera of Göteborg, tells the story of Handel’s penultimate oratorio with a refreshing directness and clarity. Movable walls, which change color from the lighting, frame the action and the choir, often onstage, represent the public. The story of Roman legions moving against a Christian community in ancient Antioch features a young centurion who falls in love with a chaste, newly-converted Christian. When Roman forces move against the upstart “sect,” the conflicting emotions of the young officer, Dydime, sang with poise and arching beauty by Philippe Jaroussky, become central to the story.


In the title role, soprano Katherine Watson began appearing in public as part of Christie’s Jardin des Voix program for young singers in 2008 and, after appearing in several productions under his wing, is ready for the international stage. A voice which combines strength and shape, her Theodora has serious dramatic impact and beauty. Her friend and confident, Irène, sung by Stéphanie d’Oustrac, is also carefully realized and beautifully sung. d’Oustrac also began her career with Christie and now has a serious international career. A vibrant artist of sound, her performance compliments Watson’s engaging Theodora.

The Roman officer who tries to save Theodora, Didymus, was sung by the celebrated counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky. While the voice seemed to have a bit less impact that in the past in this same theater, it retains the superb grace and beauty which took him to the top. This and his instinctive theatrical sense make him appealing as the Roman officer who questions the authoritarian state. As Valens, the Roman commander demanding obedience, bass Callum Thorpe performs with much barking and an often-distorted melodic line but the audience seemed to like his portrayal. Tenor Kresimir Spicer is more engaging as Didymus’ friend, Septime. One little complaint would be that the English text could have been more accurately expressed by the entire cast.

It is a tribute to William Christie’s decades of work in France that a Handel opera can open a season with five performances and have capacity audiences cheering. Some time ago there was an internet discussion of whether Handel should be considered at the level of Beethoven, Bach or Mozart, the top ranking of the pantheon of classical composers. The overarching beauty and brilliance of Theodora and its message of universal love and hope makes the case that Handel’s music for voice is a universal treasure that all music-lovers should well know.

Frank Cadenhead

image=http://www.operatoday.com/20151001-19VP.png image_description=Scene from Theodora [Photo courtesy of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées] product=yes product_title=Theodora, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées product_by=A review by Frank Cadenhead product_id=Above: Scene from Theodora

Photos courtesy of Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Posted by Gary at 3:44 PM

Bostridge Sings Handel

This year the Wihan Quartet and the Philharmonia Quartet both celebrate thirty years of music-making, and 2015 is a similarly landmark year for both the Welsh Proms and Live Music Now.

This concert at St John’s Smith Square — which is serving as a ‘home for home’ for some of the Southbank Centre’s resident orchestras, ensembles and performers while the Queen Elizabeth Hall is refurbished — was the first of a season during which the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment also reflects on thirty years of pioneering performances. A programme article notes that when a small group of period instrument-playing innovators formed the ensemble in 1985, ‘public enthusiasm for historically [in]formed performance was still relatively recent and the idea of a player-led period group revolutionary’. Since then, the debates about historically informed performance have been vigorous and at times contentious: ‘authenticity’ has been promoted as both the Holy Grail and a meaningless construct. What really matters, of course, is the sincerity of the music-making, the standards — technical and expressive achieved — and the pleasure derived, for performers and audiences alike.

The performers themselves have always been at the heart of the OAE’s vision and energy, and this season double bass player Cecelia Bruggemeyer and bassoonist Andrew Watts have curated a series of concerts in which players will direct and perform as soloists, and repertoire will comprise both the ‘old’ and the ‘new’, reflecting the scholarship which has always informed the OAE’s work and a desire to experiment and tread new ground. So, concerts later in the season will see Vladimir Jurowski conduct Mahler’s Second Symphony and David Poutney bring Der Freischütz to the concert platform. And, while the programme on this occasion, featuring music by Handel and Telemann, may at first glance have seemed to be positioned firmly in the ‘old’ camp, tenor Ian Bostridge and director Steven Devine brought fresh, invigorating perspectives to the familiar.

The supple, warm-voiced horn-playing of Roger Montgomery and Martin Lawrence, and the suave, characterful phrasing of the OAE’s woodwind players (Frances Norbury and Catherine Latham (oboes), and Andrew Watts (bassoon)), during a selection of movements from Telemann’s Overture in F (TWV 55: F3) set the tone for this concert, in which the instrumental playing made one sit up and really listen, even during perennial favourites. The strings were not to be out-done: gentle up-bows in the ‘Sarabande’, of subtly varied pressure, were an eloquent foundation for the slightly withdrawn horns above. Margaret Faultless provided vigorous leadership in the ‘Badinerie’, while the expressively emphasised couplet-quavers of the ‘Réjouissance’ were followed by a beautiful sway in the Trio, evidence of director Steven Devine’s attention to detail allied with an innate grasp of the rhythmic pulse and form. With the horns and woodwind raised behind the strings, framed by the imposing pillar and red drapes of St. John’s, the mood combined the celebratory with the ceremonial — and, this was playing of the highest technical and expressive calibre.

‘Dass mein Erlöser lebt’ from Telemann’s Cantata TWV 1:873 is one of the composer’s best-known arias. Ian Bostridge imbued the aria, which speaks of the protagonist’s faith and conviction, with a gentle fluency, but surprised with a powerful crescendo through the repetition of the rising melodic line, ‘dass weiss ich ganz gewiss’ (of that I am quite sure), and made the voice retreat in the da capo repeat for the closing couplet, creating a confidential tone designed to draw the listener within the secure bounds of spiritual certainty. In ‘So stehet ein Berg Gottes’ from the passion-oratorio Der Tod Jesu Bostridge made telling use of his lower register, particulary in the minor-key central section, while the virtuosic horn playing and stylish string bowing, with lots of ‘air’ between strokes, conjured up the stormy lightning shower and surging floods depicted in the text.

This was an engaging opening, not least because of the superlative musicianship of the OAE’s two horn players but with Handel’s ‘Scherza infida’ (Laugh faithless one) from Ariodante, the performance shifted a gear upwards. Handel is the quintessential ‘man of the theatre’: every musical gesture is designed to ensnare the ear and eye; to surprise, alarm, convince. Singing from memory, Bostridge totally embodied the grief-stricken Ariodante, who has just been told (by his jealous rival, Polinesso) of his beloved Ginerva’s deception and betrayal. The opening line, ‘E vivo ancora?’ (Do I still live?), low and ponderous, seemed weighted with an anchor of heartache and disbelief, while above heart-beat murmurings were faintly sounded by the violins. Bostridge’s voice seemed to be almost a physical, tangible entity, one that could be bent and wrought, as it slid and drooped through the questioning vocal phrases: ‘Che fàro?/ Che mi dite, o affanni miei?’ (What shall I do? What do you say, my sorrows?). ‘Scherza infida in grembo al drudo’ (Laugh, faithless oone, in your lover’s arms) sank wearily, tinged with bitterness; with the da capo repeat, this line faded pathetically, conveying the protagonist’s embrace of death.

More energised instrumental quavers, and some lovely bassoon playing, in the B section suggested Ariodante’s wish to ‘break this vile deceit’; but, the effortlessness of the transition to the return of the opening sentiments, conveyed Ariodante’s slavery to his anguish. ‘Love sound th’alarm’ from Acis and Galatea shook us from such numbness. Muscular and powerful of voice, Bostridge sang with a sprightly energy, which at times seemed to push ahead of the OAE.

Handel’s five-movement Latin motet, Silete venti, was composed in London some time between 1724 and 1730, perhaps for one of his London opera singers, or even for a Roman patron during Handel’s return visit to Italy in 1729. Whatever the circumstances of the motet’s origins, much of its music is borrowed from earlier works but this does not diminish from the work’s lavish richness and invention. The OAE established the ‘grand’ scale of the work in the French-style overture in which the stately opening segued into a dynamic contrapuntal movement which created anticipation and excitement. Bostridge’s rhetorical entry dramatically silenced the busy instrumental dialogues — ‘Silete venti’ (Be silent you winds) — and imposingly took command, ordering the winds and trees to cease their murmuring, ‘Because my soul is resting in joy’. The tenor wonderfully balanced oratorical power with a fluidity of line in this accompanied recitative, supported by beautiful pulsing and undulating violin figures.

The following aria ambiguously blends notions of spiritual love with the sort of sensual intimation so beloved by the Italian madrigalists: ‘Quia totus vivo in te.’ (Because I live completely in you.) Bostridge’s appeals, ‘Veni, veni transige me’ (Come, transfix me), ached with sweetness and ardency, made more plangent still by the tinges of chromaticism in the string parts which gradually infiltrate the vocal line itself. In the central B section, the sparser instrumental textures and steady tread of the bass emphasised the nobility of the tenor’s conviction: ‘Si tu feris non sunt clades./ Tuae plagae sunt suaves.’ (If you strike there are no injuries, Your blows are sweet.)

After the animation of the short recitative which confirms the protagonist’s bliss and ‘supreme joy’, the aria ‘Date serta, date flores’ (Give garlands, give flowers) began with a self-possessed elegance, and graceful interplay between the tenor and instruments, which later blossomed to majesty: ‘Me coronent vestri honoris’ (Crown me with your honours). The banished winds were now called upon, along with the ‘blessed fortunate spirits’ to ‘Auras coeli fulgidas’ (Inhale heaven’s glorious atmosphere); the strings’ urgent semiquaver pairings and the tense, sustained notes of the oboe were an exciting presage of Bostridge’s florid vocal lines in which it seemed that the voice would out-race the wind itself. The concluding ‘Alleluia’ both cleansed and rejoiced, commencing with light transparency (upper strings, oboes and theorbo (David Miller)) and evolving with virtuosic luxuriousness. Here, supported by a sympathetic, pianissimo instrumental gigue, Bostridge demonstrated that the incisiveness of his dramatic grasp is matched by his technical mastery.

In the first half of the programme, Scherza infida’ had been preceded by Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Minor Op.3 No.5, in which the darkaffekt of the Largo was counterbalanced by the spaciousness of the Fuga and finely nuanced playing in the final movement, Allegro — in which unisons were just that and the precision with which the strings’ energetic rhythmic motif was articulated, with a light touch but sure presence, was highly impressive. The concert ended with a stunning performance of a selection from Handel’s Water Music : if one thought one knew this music, one was disabused by the graceful eloquence, rhythmic tightness and bite, urbane syncopated ease, lucidity of texture and compelling theatricality of the OAE’s playing. I was transported back to 1717, to the bank of the River Thames, and could imagine King George I’s joy and assurance, as from his royal barge he and the assembled dukes and duchesses listened as 50 musicians jauntily affirmed the potential of the power which rested on the monarch’s shoulders.

And after such wonderfully extrovert music by Handel, it seemed fitting for Bostridge to select an aria by Bach to conclude the evening, putting drama and ceremony to one side, and closing proceedings with more spiritual sentiments. The encore, ‘Du bist bei mir’ — which Bostridge had performed the previous week at the Wigmore Hall, in recital with Steven Isserlis and Julius Drake —was candour and serenity distilled.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

Ian Bostridge, tenor; Steven Devine, director, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Telemann: Selection from Overture in F TWV55:F3, ‘Dass mein Erlöser lebt’ from Cantata TWV1:873, ‘So stehet ein Berg Gottes’ from Der Tod Jesu TWV5:6; Handel: Concerto Grosso in D minor Op.3 No.5 HWV316, ‘Scherza infida’ from Ariodante, ‘Love sounds th’alarm’ from Acis and Galatea HW49, Silete Venti HWV242, Selection from Water Music Suite No.1 in F HWV348. St John’s Smith Square, London. Wednesday 14th October 2015.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/P1070250.png image_description=Steven Devine [Photo by John Buckman at Magnatune] product=yes product_title=Bostridge Sings Handel product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Steven Devine [Photo by John Buckman at Magnatune]
Posted by claire_s at 3:00 PM

October 20, 2015

Tannhauser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg

This stellar evening was about this near legendary conductor and one of the world’s great orchestras. It was sophisticated music making that inhabited these first moments of the Wagnerian maturity. This musical illumination brought clarity, directness and purpose to Wagner’s obsession with art as the elixir of love and love as the elixir of art. Though more than anything else this performance whetted the appetite for the great Wagner — the musical sublimities of Meistersinger, the philosophic sublimities of Tristan.

The orchestral magnificence betrayed a musical carefulness that deprived the evening of a dramatic thrust that might have given real focus and meaning to the two deaths that brought the saga to an end and might have given deeper and more complex meaning to the opera. As it was Maestro Levine’s ending simply did not provide the momentous send off we would have wished for the tortured souls of Elisabeth and Tannhauser.

Tannhauser_Met3.pngThe deaths of Tannhauser and Elisabeth overseen by Wolfram (Peter Mattei)

Since it was conceived as a purely musical event the Met offered its 1977 production by German director Otto Schenk. This director remained a conservative force in those years of dramaturgical ferment, thus he made no attempt to interpret the story, nor any attempt to lay bare the intricacies of the opera’s meanings. His designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen painted drops that evoked the shapes and colors that must have pleased nineteenth century sensibilities as they did please the sensibilities of New Yorkers of the 1970’s (San Franciscans had moved on in those years).

For the Paris premiere of Tannhauser Wagner extended his original overture to transform itself into a magical realm of eroticism danced at the Met by eight strong  ballerinos and eight fine ballerinas to the presumably original choreography of Norbert Vesak, well known as well to San Francisco Opera audiences of this epoch (see lead photo). Mr. Vesak typically provided big movement for big opera, and here offered as well absolutely breathtaking lifts (and lots and lots of them) to fill the Met’s gigantic stage.

The Met’s Venus was California mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung, an early graduate of its Lindemann Young Artists program. Ms. DeYoung is of ample voice, and that seemed to be the criteria for the casting. This spectacular role profits from powerful artistic personality, a trait that Mme. DeYoung did not project.

Tannhauser_Met2 .pngJohan Botha as Tannhauser, Eva-Maria Westbrock as Elisabeth

Elizabeth was sung by veteran soprano Eva-Maria Westbrock. Though no longer at vocal prime her mastery of the role and its stylistic demands was evident and satisfying. This alone certainly fulfilled Maestro Levine’s expectations notwithstanding her very wide tone — though she did manage it admirably.

Tannhauser himself was sung by South African tenor Johan Botha. He is in fine voice and a musically clean singer. Within the scope of the Met forces his voice may seem small, however it blossomed from time to time into richer sounds that sometimes shone in his emotional third act account of his trip to Rome.

The disappointment of the evening was the Wolfram sung by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. This fine Mozart baritone seemed vocally over-parted, failing to sustain full tone over the longer Wagnerian phrases and in fact to fulfill the dramatic weight of this crucial role. His second act song to love was vocally unconvincing, and I feared he was going to lose his voice in his third act Song to the Evening Star. Evidently a Met favorite the audience did not seem to mind, awarding him the largest ovation given any of the singers.

Elisabeth’s father Hermann was ably performed by Austrian bass Günther Gröissbock. The remaining supporting male roles did not satisfy. Of particular note however were the beautifully pure tones of the page, soprano Ying Fang. 

The performance belonged to the conductor, James Levine and the Met orchestra and it was indeed magnificent.

Michael Milenski

Michael Milenski is a San Francisco based opera critic.

Cast and production information:

Tannhauser: Johan Botha; Elisabeth: Eva-Maria Westbrock; Venus: Michelle DeYoung; Wolfram: Peter Mattei; Hermann: Günther Groissböck; Walther: Noah Baetge; Biterolf: Ryan McKinny; Heinrich: Adam Klein; Reinmar: Ricardo Lugo. Chorus, Orchestra and Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Conductor: James Levine; Production: Otto Schenk; Choreographer: Norbert Vesak; Set Designer: Günther Schneider-Siemssen; Costumes: Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler; Stage Director: Stephen Pickover. Metropolitan Opera, New York, October 15, 2015.


product_title=Tannhauser at the Met
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Venusburg Ballet [All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera].

Posted by michael_m at 8:04 PM

Pelleas and Melisande in Brooklyn

Few performances, though, have been further off the beaten path than Floating Opera New York's recent Pelleas and Melisande at the Water Front Museum in Redhook.

The hundred-year-old barge sits on a dark pier, giving spectacular views of lower Manhattan. Audience members were given detailed instructions on the location, and asked to please arrive on time. As the last of the full house were seated, the gangplank was raised, and barge drifted next to the dock; late seating was not an option.

Performed in English translation with piano accompaniment, this production starts off with a handicap. Despite Eric Kramer's sensitive conducting and George Hemcher firm hands at the piano, this is a score that pales in reduction. Tucked away in a corner, Kramer was able to keep the cast together, even with the difficult sight-lines of playing in the round.
The ensemble cast was strong, and in the small space, words were understandable without supertitles.

Pelleas_Brooklyn2.pngPelleas caressing Melisande's hair

As Melisande, Aude Cardona gave a rivetingly physical performance. Like Von Stade, she brought a darker tone than normally associated with the role, and sounded more human than ethereally pre-Raphaelite. As Pelleas, Christopher Dylan Herbert sang with a bright, clear baritone, matching Cardona's physical abandon.

Sidney Outlaw's brought a rich baritone to the brooding role of Golaud, and projected the clearest diction of the evening. He clearly delineated the path from enthrallment with Melisande, to eventual jealousy and rage. As the aging monarchs Arkel and Genvieve, Paul Goodwin-Groen and Jazmin DeRice sang and acted with intensity, giving memorable characterizations of these brief roles. Caroline Rose Loeb as Yniold, and Brett Harrison Vogel as the Doctor rounded out a strong ensemble cast.

Pelleas_Brooklyn3.pngSidney Outlaw as Golaud, Aude Cardona as Melisande

Isabel Milenski's production was paired down to the most essential elements. Like Weiland Wagner's minimalist productions at Bayreuth in the 1950s, Milenski has discarded with the traditional rings and flowing locks. So cleanly had the staging been conceived, that when props did appear, they felt superfluous. Jian Jung's set consisted of a rowboat, moored with an oversized tangle of rope. The rope was both a nod at the history of the barge, and to Melisande's long hair.

Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew added delicate strips of floor-lights which helped delineate the playing space, and managed to keep the space feeling dynamic through the evening with a very limited set of tools. Christina Lorraine Bullard's costumes suggested barge workers, as though the tiny floating world was the kingdom in contention.

As in the best site-specific work, the location was the undisputed star. The atmosphere was ephemeral, with the gently swaying of the barge echoing the sinuously shifting harmonies of Debussy's music. Milenski's staging had the singers using every corner, even climbing the walls behind the audience and singing inches above their heads. As the evening finished, Melisande rose slowly from a deathly stupor, throwing open the barge doors, and disappearing into the Manhattan Skyline.

Andreas Hager

Andreas Hager is a New York based opera critic who has written for Feast of Music, Theatre is Easy and Parterre Box. www.andreashager.com

Casts and production information:

Pelleas: Christopher Dylan Herbert; Melisande: Aude Cardona; Golaud: Sidney Outlaw; Arkel: Paul Goodwin-Groen; Genevieve: Jazmin DeRice; Ynold: Caroline Rose Loeb; the doctor: Brett Harrison Vogel. Steinway B piano: George Hemcher, pianist. Conductor: Eric Kramer; Stage Director: Isabel Milenski; Scene Design:Jian Jung; Costumes: Christina Lorraine Bullard; Lighting:Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Lehigh Valley Barge #79 (1914) now the Water Front Museum, Red Hook, Brooklyn. October 15, 2015


product_title=Pelleas and Melisande in Brooklyn
product_by=A review by Andreas Hager
product_id=Above: Christopher Dylan Herbert as Pelleas, Aude Cardona as Melisande [All photos copyright Tony Gale courtesy of Floating Opera New York].

Posted by michael_m at 5:42 PM

Atsuto Sawakami — Sponsor of Italian Opera in Japan

He is Japan’s most important private sponsor of opera. His Sawakami Opera Foundation bankrolls the Kyoto Opera Festival, which, having started modestly in 2013 – “it was so tiny” he recalls – has now grown to the point where it is about to be renamed the Japan Opera Festival. It reached Tokyo this year and will offer productions in other Japanese cities in the future. The most exciting new development on Japan’s operatic scene for a long time, the Festival’s basic principle is to import large numbers of Italian musicians, to slightly supplement them with local music forces, and to stage Italian operas at locations of outstanding historical and cultural significance. This year two of the four performances of Pagliacci were presented immediately under the keep of Himeji Castle – Japan’s most famous castle and one of its most iconic buildings. I was able to interview Mr. Sawakami for forty-five minutes on September 14, the day after the first performance of the Festival (which took place in the grounds of the Kyoto National Museum). He is clearly a very busy man, but at the same time eager to talk enthusiastically about what his Foundation is doing.

150917_0176.pngCast of Pagliacci under Himeji Castle

Somewhat surprisingly, Sawakami tells me that until about eight years ago he had no special interest in opera; he has always enjoyed listening to Western classical music, but only “a small part” of that was opera. It was the development of his friendship with a promising young Japanese conductor called Hirofumi Yoshida that caused this to change. Yoshida was building a career in Italy, primarily as a conductor of opera, and he invited Sawakami to Europe to experience “true” Italian opera. The latter recalls the conductor at that time with obvious affection, “still fighting to be successful in Italy … living in a very shabby room.” Sawakami greatly admired Yoshida’s determination to make his mark at the international level and was rapidly convinced that Italian opera was one of the world’s great cultural treasures. Soon he was making three or four trips to Italy a year. One day Yoshida approached him with a startling suggestion: why not organize a festival of Italian opera in Japan? Yoshida thought it could be developed, in time, into something like the European opera festivals.

Sawakami’s background is in asset management. “I have forty-five years of experience in global investment,” he tells me, modestly hinting that few of his erstwhile business rivals have managed to survive so long. But his asset management company encourages customers to do something productive with their wealth, and he is particularly keen to encourage cultural initiatives: “a better society means culture.” Thus Yoshida’s proposal received a warm welcome and the Opera Foundation was established. In 2013, two intermezzos by Padre Martini were performed; in 2014, Madama Butterfly. Sawakami and Yoshida clearly work together very well; they never argue, the former tells me. Yoshida makes all the artistic decisions, including choice of opera, director and performers. Sawakami sums up his own principal contribution with a smile: “I say OK. And then I pay.” It gets expensive. This year, most of the Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale of Bologna, five of Pagliacci’s six principals (the exception being Motoharu Takei’s Peppe), fifty-four chorus members and various administrative and support staff, including director Gabriele Marchesini, were flown over from Italy. Their travel and accommodation costs were paid, in addition to their salaries. I suggest that it must be a great holiday for the Italians; Sawakami laughs and says “yes! And a great headache for us!”

I put it to him that it would surely be a lot more cost effective to make greater use of Japanese musicians. Sawakami devotes some time to explaining that the Festival is not interested in saving, or making, money. This is about art – “pure art” he emphasizes. He and Yoshida believe that levels of performance are still higher in Italy: “the top level is the top level … But we’re glad to see the Japanese level coming up.” With most of the singers coming from Italy, the productions can be rehearsed there before being brought to Japan and incorporating the few Japanese performers, the latter being selected through a public audition. On the other hand, Sawakami is very critical of the commercialism that comes into opera when productions are organized around, and promoted on the basis of, star singers. He wants the Festival operas to be appreciated as unified, artistic wholes, the best of Italian art enjoyed with a corresponding appreciation of Japan’s own cultural heritage.

For the audience, top price seats are expensive, though certainly not excessively so by American or European standards. In any case, there are always lower-priced seats and, on the day, standing places available for just ¥1,000, or about $8 – “ridiculously cheap” Sawakami says with pride. Ticketholders get invited to some free events as well, including chamber music recitals. With just four paying performances in this year’s Festival (there are plans for more in future Festivals), it is impossible not to conclude that the whole project relies very much on his philanthropy. And as Sawakami talks about the future, it is clear he is less interested in attracting the sort of older, moneyed people who have traditionally supported opera in Japan than he is in appealing to young people and children; he wants to “broaden the base” of opera in his country and he knows it has to be affordable for that to happen.

Sawakami is personally very involved in the Festival. He does not just pay the bills. I suggest that after all this exposure to opera, and opera people, he must have a favorite opera, or opera composer. He laughingly says no, explaining with a level of modesty rare even in Japan that he is “still fairly amateur in terms of opera … I’m learning now.” His Festival is perhaps above all an invitation for others to learn too.

David Chandler

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IMG_2934.png image_description=Atsuto Sawakami product=yes product_title=Atsuto Sawakami — Sponsor of Italian Opera in Japan product_by=An interview by David Chandler product_id=Above: Atsuto Sawakami
Posted by Gary at 11:24 AM

October 19, 2015

Arizona Opera Premieres Kálmán’s Arizona Lady

There his operettas, which featured a combination of the Viennese waltz with his native csárdás, competed successfully with those of Franz Lehár. His Jewish origin did not come into the question until the rise of the Third Reich. He moved to Paris in 1938. In 1940, he established residence in the United States where he remained for the duration of the war.

Arizona Lady is an operetta in two acts with an original German libretto by Alfred Grünwald and Gustav Beer. Left unfinished at the time of the composer’s death, his son Charles Kálmán completed the score. The music was broadcast from Munich on New Year’s Day, 1954. A month later the Stadttheater in Bern, Switzerland, staged the piece. In July, 2010, Chicago Folks Operetta premiered it in an English translation by Gerald Frantzen and Hersh Glagov. Kathleen Kelly and Alberto Rios constructed the new German, English, and Spanish version seen at Arizona Opera’s 2015 West Coast premiere of the work.

I saw the performance of Arizona Lady on October 10 at the Tucson Convention Center. In the tradition of musical comedy, Mark Halpin’s scenery was theatrical and amusing rather than realistic and it included a beautifully stylized Arizona sunset that profited from Douglas Provost’s imaginative lighting. Kathleen Trott’s costumes and Slawomir Wozniak’s inventive choreography placed the action firmly in the nineteen-twenties. Director Matthew Ozawa told the story in a straightforward manner that helped to clarify the complicated libretto.

Arizona Lady is a horse that can save her owner’s ranch if she wins the Kentucky Derby. The story begins on a Tucson ranch owned by Lona, an immigrant whose native language is German and who remembers how to waltz. Her culture mixes surprising well with a charming Mexican ranchero, and a barbershop quartet that might have come from English speakers in Tucson. Lona, who insists she is a businesswoman rather than a mere marriage prospect, needs to find a qualified rider. As a result of the search, she eventually finds her true love.

As Lona, Angela Fout was a rough and ready Lona with strong high notes. Tenor Joshua Dennis who sang Ray Dennis had a captivating lyrical voice and his singing was absolutely enchanting. Veteran Robert Orth was a commanding Sheriff. He wanted to marry Lona and had trouble understanding that she would never fall in love with him.

Soprano Sarah Tucker is a member of Arizona Opera’s Young Artist Program who already showed some serious talent in last year’s Magic Flute. She sang Nelly Nettleton with pure, clear tones and danced like a flapper. She is already a most useful artist. As Lopez Ibañez, one of Lona’s unsuccessful suitors, Octavio Moreno sang a delightful Mexican song that won considerable favor with the audience.

Maria Dominique Lopez was a sexy Bonita. Francisco Renteria as Hector, Sergio Celis as Tomás, and James Mendola as Esteban completed the able bilingual Spanish-English contingent. Also contributing multiple talents to this excellent performance were: tenors Andrew Penning, Kevin Newell, and Paul Nicosia; baritone Joseph Lattanzi; and bass-baritone Calvin Griffin; along with actors Ian Christiansen and Dale Dreyfoos.

Soundclip from Arizona Lady, Act 1

Chorus Master Henri Venanzi’s ensemble sang their multiple harmonies with gusto in all three languages. Conductor Kathleen Kelly, who together with Alberto Rios translated the libretto, did a great deal of work on the score. At this performance, she gave a rousing rendition of this effervescent music that put smiles on the faces of the audience. Arizona Lady is a fine evening’s entertainment and I hope many more American opera companies will stage it.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Lona Farrell, Angela Fout; Sherriff Harry Sulivan, Robert Orth; Ray Dexter, Joshua Dennis; Chester Kingsbury, Andrew Penning; Nelly Nettleton, Sarah Tucker; Lopez Ibañez, Octavio Moreno; Jim Slaughter, Ian Christiansen; Bill Sanders, Joseph Lattanzi; Rex, Kevin Newell; Danny, Paul Nicosia; Algernon Benchley, Calvin Griffin; Peligreen, Dale Dreyfoos; Magnolia, Alyssa Martin; Bonita, Maria Dominique Lopez; Hector, Francisco Renteria; Tomás, Sergio Celis; Esteban, James Mendola. Rodeo Judges: Jonathan Gott, Dennis Tamblyn. Conductor, Kathleen Kelly; Director, Matthew Ozawa; Lighting Design, Douglas Provost; Scenic Design, Mark Halpin; Costume Design, Kathleen Trott; Chorus Master, Henri Venanzi; Choreographer, Slawomir Wozniak.

image_description=Arizona Lady Poster

product_title=Arizona Opera Premieres Kálmán’s Arizona Lady
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Poster for Arizona Lady

Posted by maria_n at 11:58 AM

October 17, 2015

The Met’s First Five Productions

The twentieth century is represented only by Elektra, Turandot and Lulu. The opening weeks of the season offered a good picture of the current state of the Metropolitan opera—wildly variable conducting, unimaginative productions and some great singing.

The season opened with a new production of Verdi’s Otello. Bartlett Sher’s production was set in the 19th century. For the most part the costumes (Catherine Zuber) were dark. It’s fine to eliminate blackface for Otello, but there was nothing in his military uniform to set him apart from any of the other men. Desdemona was a splash of color in a dark, almost monochromatic world. Es Devlin’s sets were comprised of a series of brightly lit, sliding plexiglass panels that enabled fluid scene changes, but looked more like a set for science fiction than like Cyprus. Sher attempted a quasi-cinematic approach. For instance, Act I moved from the shore to an outdoor tavern to the street to an unspecified locale for the love duet. Unfortunately his blocking was uninteresting and the constant moving of the panels was distracting. Moving the cast effectively should have been the priority. At the opening, the chorus merely lined up at the footlights. Otello entered from behind the chorus (where was he coming from?). The love duet didn’t seem to be staged at all.

The highlight of the performance was the Desdemona of Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, a beautiful woman with a lovely lyric voice and a strong stage personality. This was a performance to rival the great Desdemonas of the past. The “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” were the high points of the evening. Unfortunately, Yoncheva offered the only first-rate singing. Otello is not a congenial role for Aleksandrs Antonenko. I have heard him sing beautifully, most recently in La Fanciulla del West in Berlin, but Otello’s music took him out of his comfort zone. The “Esultate” was more strained than exultant. Željko Lučić, the Met’s go-to baritone for heavy Verdi roles, is a pale shadow of the great baritones of the past. He has neither the voice of a Warren, Milnes or MacNeil, nor the dramatic imagination of a Gobbi. Neither Antonenko nor Lučić is much of an actor. Yannick Nezet-Seguin brought out every nuance of the score in a performance that was both powerful and transparent. Only he, the Met orchestra and chorus and Yoncheva were top notch.

This season’s opening performance of Il Trovatore (David McVicar’s production), was the only performance I heard that could really compare with rosy memories of the “Golden Age.” There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Anna Netrebko’s Leonora brilliantly overcame all the vocal challenges of the role—powerful chest voice, ravishing piano singing, even lyric line. The coloratura was a bit sloppy in the first act cabaletta, but her singing of the long Act IV scene placed her with the great Leonoras of the past. At sixty-three, Dolora Zacick is still a thrilling Azucena. Given the current paucity of Verdi tenors, Yonghoon Lee is a treasure. If he doesn’t erase memories of Bergonzi or Domingo, he sings the role elegantly with an attractive voice and solid technique. His singing offered a refreshing change from the ugly noises recent Met Manricos have made. He’s even good-looking. Dimitri Hvorostovsky, currently receiving treatment for a brain tumor, received a prolonged ovation at his entrance and after a superbly sung “Il balen.” Conductor Marco Armiliato couldn’t decide whether to lead or to follow.

If Armiliato’s conducting was barely competent in Il Trovatore, it was disastrous in Anna Bolena, which seemed to go from slow to slower. He was obviously following his singers throughout when they would have been helped by a stronger presence on the podium. This was a droopy performance. Sondra Radvanovsky made lovely noises, but showed little temperament. Radvanovsky’s repeated use of diminuendi distorted the vocal line and slowed down the performance. There was some fine singing, but everything seemed cautious. Taylor Stanton, the Percy at my performance (Stephen Costello was ill), didn’t have the voice for the role. Ildar Abdrazakov’s canto wasn’t very bel. Only Jamie Barton’s Jane Seymour gave the performance any vitality.

A lot of people love the old Franco Zeffirelli production of Turandot. This reviewer isn’t one of them. It decorates the opera rather instead of offering an interpretation. All the movement is done by extras and dancers with the chorus sitting at the edge of the stage and the principals parking and barking on a small platform center stage. The constant kitschy dancing gets tiresome. Turandot should be scary: the Met’s Turandot is just silly. For Met audiences who seem to prefer pageants to intelligent productions, the Zeffirelli Turandot is a favorite. The first of many casts this season, conducted ably by Paolo Carignani, was another mixed bag. Marcelo Alvarez’s voice is a size or two too small for Calaf, but he never forced. I was grateful that the performance was more bel canto than “can belto” even though his voice couldn’t always cut through the massive ensembles and brassy orchestration. Hibla Gerzmava has a large, bright, evenly produced voice that doesn’t have the warmth one expects from a Liu. Nonetheless, she offered the most effective singing of the evening. Christine Goerke seems to be the go-to dramatic soprano these days, but she isn’t a great Turandot. It’s a distinctive voice, or should I say voices. The chest voice is powerful, but she thins out on top where power is needed in this role. She had difficulty with the opening of “In Questa Reggia” and was at her best in the Franco Alfano love duet.

The one Wagner offering this season is the old Otto Schenk production of Tannhauser conducted, as it was in 1977, by James Levine. Gunther Schneider-Siemssen’s serviceable sets seem to have lost some of the subtle lighting and projections that were so impressive when the production was first seen. Except for darker lighting, the Venusberg scene now looks like exactly the same as the hillside scene that follows. The hall of song is still lovely in a very traditional way. For those of us who want intelligent productions that in some way interpret the libretto, this pageant is frustrating. Tannhauser presents an irreconcilable conflict of flesh and spirit. It cries out for some kind of directorial intervention.

Tannhauser_1318s.pngEva-Maria Westbroek as Elisabeth in Wagner’s Tannhäuser [Photo by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera]

Johan Botha is the one contemporary singer who manages to sound as good at the end of Tannhauser as he does at the beginning. He’s not a great actor, but vocally he conveys an understanding of this man who is neither happy in Venusberg nor in the prim court. Peter Mattei sang beautifully and ardently—the best singing of the evening. The women were another matter. Michelle de Young’s Venus sounded shrewish rather then seductive. Eva Maria Westbroek looked lovely and acted effectively, but she is now having some vocal problems. The top is no longer secure. The problem with the current state of James Levine’s conducting is that one cannot help but measure it against his past. There was some beautiful playing from the Met orchestra, but the prelude sounded tentative, the big ensembles cautious. Some tempi sounded odd. Given the current state of his health, it is something of an heroic feat to conduct all of a Wagner opera. The question is whether he is doing himself any service to continue being Music Director of the Met at this stage of his life and career. There were lots of empty seats at the first performance, which suggests that Levine’s Wagner is not the box office draw it once was.

Five evenings at the Met in two weeks make one aware that the institution lacks artistic imagination. The choice of repertoire is unbalanced. Modern and contemporary opera are neglected. Productions are usually lacking in interpretive intelligence. When one looks at who is singing at other American houses, one sees that even the casting isn’t always the best it could be. We are stuck with that giant, somewhat alienating barn of a theatre, but the institution is in desperate need of an infusion of creativity.

John M. Clum

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_Z2Q7963.png image_description=Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello". [Photographed by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=The Met Season: The First Five Productions product_by=A review by John M. Clum product_id=Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello.

Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 5:13 PM

October 16, 2015

Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar at REDCAT

On October 8, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt at REDCAT, the Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater in Walt Disney Concert Hall. The opera was part of L A O’s “Off Grand Program” which features chamber works in spaces smaller than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Originally performed in 2012 at a Manhattan venue called The Kitchen, Song from the Uproar is Mazzoli’s first opera and a most promising work.

She based the scenario on the journals of Swiss-born Isabelle Eberhardt, which she stumbled upon in a Boston bookstore. Isabelle was an irrepressible free spirit who lived from 1877 to 1904. While other women of the Victorian Age were held captive by marriage and large families, Isabelle traveled North Africa, sometimes in male garb, free of the conventional behavior required of either European or North African women.

A unique person who forged her own path, Isabelle stayed true to her ideals through her short but fascinating life. During her seven years in Africa, she fell in love, was the victim of an assassination attempt, suffered betrayal by her lover, and lost her life in a desert flash flood. Luckily, some of the pages from her journals survived to let later readers know of her courageous life.

Song-from-the-Uproar-15248-127.pngAbigail Fischer as Isabelle [Photo by Craig T Matthew]

Mazzoli and co-librettist Royce Vavrek told Isabelle’s story by combining live and pre-recorded music with original video by filmmaker Stephen Taylor whose images of the desert, desert dwellers, and flashes of light transported the audience to Isabelle’s world. Zane Pihlstrom’s sparse scenery and Alixandra Gage Englund’s simple but inventive costumes combined with S. Katy Tucker’s projections and Scott Bolman’s lighting to add to the ambience of turn-of-the-twentieth-century North Africa.

Mazzoli’s music is often subtle and luminous, and with less amplification we might have heard more of the score’s natural radiance. The piece itself is spellbinding and easily kept the audience’s attention for a little over an hour. Singing the role of Isabelle in the fifteen songs that comprise this work was mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer. She has a luscious, creamy, somewhat vulnerable sound and the expressive ability to touch the hearts of the audience.

Sopranos Celine Mogielnicki and Amelia Watkins, mezzo Kate Maroney, tenor Tomás Cruz, and baritone Wayne Arthur Paul assisted her with vocal harmony and added considerably to the piece’s visual interest with their renditions of Gia Forakis’s stylized dance. Accompanying the singers, the NOW Ensemble, led by Steven Osgood, consisted of Logan Coale, double bass; Mark Dancigers, electric guitar; Campbell MacDonald, clarinet and bass clarinet; Andrew Rehrig, flute and piccolo; and Michael Mizrahi, piano.

Produced by Beth Morrison Projects, the opera was part of L A O’s “Off Grand Program” which features chamber works in spaces smaller than the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

This work is quite different from the average opera performance and its unique qualities were a joy to experience. The last line of Song from the Uproar reads: “These hours are no more than moments of light in this blanket of blazing stars.” Perhaps they were no more, but most assuredly they were no less. I hope we will hear a great deal more from both Royce Vavrek and Missy Mazzoli.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production information:

Isabelle, Abigail Fischer. Chorus: Tomás Cruz, Kate Maroney, Celine Mogielnicki, Wayne Arthur Paul, Amelia Watkins. NOW Ensemble: Logan Coale, Mark Dancigers, Campbell MacDonald, Michael Mizrahi, Andrew Rehrig. Stage Director, Gia Forakis. Conductor, Steven Osgood. Projection Design, S. Katy Tucker. Film, Stephen Taylor. Lighting, Scott Bolman. Scenery, Zane Pihlström. Costumes, Alixandra Englund. Sound Engineering, Jay Eigenmann.

image_description=Missy Mazzoli [Photo by Stephen Taylor]

product_title=Missy Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar at REDCAT
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Missy Mazzoli [Photo by Stephen Taylor]

Posted by maria_n at 12:45 PM

October 15, 2015

Loft Opera Presents an Evening of Excellent Ensembles, No Beer Required

Thus, with curiosity I ventured forward to their Verdi night in Bushwick, down a dark, industrial street with no signs of life besides other couples, hand-in-hand, also clearly on their way to a night of opera. I went in with some preconceived notions: Loft Opera was considered edgy, young, and best of all (according to some), served beer at all their performances, from none other than the Brooklyn Brewery.

When I finally stumbled upon the venue, it felt more like entering a speakeasy than a concert venue. The only indicator that this wasn’t another boarded up building next to the rows of buildings with cracked windows and decaying brick was a friendly woman outside ushering people in, who later, I learned, was General Manager Brianna Maury. The space was industrial and the production staff took no pains to hide the raw nature of the space, instead outfitting the center of the loft with only a grand piano, several unfinished wooden platforms, and a giant “Verdi” marquee hanging on one wall.

The place was packed, and the best I could do was sit, half-perched, on a bench entirely too crowded for the amount of people seated upon it. My companion for the evening wandered through a sea of people to grab us two Brooklyn Lagers, while I anxiously watched her seat, the rest of the latecomers relegated to standing in the back. My curiosity was piqued by the entire experience, my mind awash with raving articles about the uniqueness of such an event as well as with the overall atmosphere of the place, which was young, hip, and titillated. The entire thing felt like a secret club I’d stumbled upon and was lucky enough to have found entry to. Intrigued, I waited eagerly for the performance, to see what made Loft Opera so unique to have spawned the ravings of almost every arts section of papers and magazines across the nation.

That moment of revelation never quite came. That’s not to say that the performance wasn’t excellent. The performers were incredibly strong, with each singer gracefully outfitted in full recital attire—I certainly did not envy the ladies who gracefully navigated the wooden steps up and down the platforms in their ball gowns.

Soprano Suzanne Vinnik was graceful and beautiful in her expression, though her voice sounded a few sizes too small for the rep. The legato was broken with excessive use of straight tone in her lower register as well as vocal anachronisms that caused both the authenticity of Verdi’s music as well as the purity of her Italian to suffer. High notes seemed laborious and broke the dramatic moment as she thrust her sound forward, her hands clenched with effort. Despite this, she handled the characters, especially Leonora, with skill and nuance, evoking an emotional but poised performance.

Baritone Joshua Jeremiah excelled in both the role of La Traviata’s Germont and Trovatore’s Count di Luna, bringing a rich, full baritone voice to his impeccable performance of Verdi’s music. He convincingly portrayed the older father figure of Germont as well as the love-manic role of Count di Luna, all within a span of a half hour. His strong physicality, easily produced sound, and impeccable Italian made him the standout of the evening.

The chemistry between Suzanne Vinnik and Joshua Jeremiah was palpable in every scene, particularly in their treatment of scenes from Il Trovatore, and I found myself eagerly awaiting their reappearance throughout the evening.

Mezzo-soprano Karolina Pilou was set against tenor Dominick Rodriguez in scenes from Luisa Miller and Aida, and both blossomed beneath the demands of the music. Pilou’s first scene from Luisa Miller was pleasing, with her round and present lower voice, but in the scenes from Aida, the dramatic demands on her voice thrilled the listener. Her high notes were powerful without ever bordering on shrill, and her steady stage presence suggested all the gravity of a princess wronged. Her counterpartner, Rodriguez, had a bright, well-balanced, and smooth voice that left me longing to hear more from him.

Overall, the ensemble was exceptionally tight, with pianist and music director Sean Kelly combining both acuity of instinct in following his singers, as well as great facility with the reduced orchestral score. There wasn’t a sloppy end of a phrase all evening, which further contributed to the professionalism of the performances.

It’s always a pleasure to see good music performed well, but the wild appeal of Loft Opera continued to evade me. Months earlier, I’d seen a production of Orlando produced by R.B. Schlather in a similarly bare space, and with similar musical excellence—with libations provided, of course—except that production blossomed with creativity and daring. With Loft Opera, the “sets” of the evening appeared to be hastily constructed platforms, with the staging as traditional as could be. The program note mentions the reduced staging so that the focus could be upon the singers performing only a few feet away, but the loft space was so large that the majority of the audience would barely have a view of the action.

With the hype surrounding Loft Opera, I expected the extraordinary. I left the performance feeling satisfied, but not moved to exclamations of hope for the future of opera. Perhaps my real point is that a good performance—which this absolutely was—is a good performance, no matter how dingy the loft or how cool the attending crowd. I’ll come to see opera done well any day-- with or without a Brooklyn Lager in my hand.

Alexis Rodda

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Muse.png image_description=The Muse product=yes product_title=Loft Opera Presents an Evening of Excellent Ensembles, No Beer Required product_by=A review by Alexis Rodda product_id=Above: The Muse
Posted by Gary at 8:17 PM

Mark Stone — Oxford Lieder Festival

One genre is a hybrid, multifaceted art form in which practitioners from diverse artistic and technical disciplines work together, and which communicates to its audiences by means of voice, music, text, movement, and visual and spatial design. It is performed, these days, in venues ranging from pub basements, converted warehouses to lavish opera houses, and, when transmitted live from grand international house, is experienced by audiences of hundreds of thousands of cinema-goers. The other is a symbiotic fusion of word and music, performed by a singer and accompanist in inter-dependent partnership in, most commonly, intimate halls to a few hundred, or less, focused concert-goers.

And yet in a recent article[1], John Gilhooly, the Director of the Wigmore Hall, raised several issues which suggest that because lieder and opera vie for the same limited funding, promotion and audiences, the art forms find themselves in, if not an oppositional, then certainly an uneasy relationship.

Despite Gilhooly’s description of the song recital as an ‘endangered species’, the Wigmore Hall itself is a bastion of art song, staunchly defending its value and ensuring its longevity through the Hall’s committed and adventurous programming. But, one doesn’t have to travel too far outside the capital to find another celebrated sanctuary: the Oxford Lieder Festival, now in its 14th year, runs from 16 th to 31st October in 2015, and, according to the festival’s founder Sholto Kynoch, it too has a mission to promote what is perceived to be the neglected genre of lieder and art song.

Intermezzo 2015 Garsington Opera Mark Stone (Robert), Mary Dunleavy (Christine) credit Mike Hoban.pngIntermezzo at Garsington Opera: Mark Stone as Robert and Mary Dunleavy as Christine [Photo by Mike Hoban]

So, it seemed fitting that earlier this week I found myself sitting in the restaurant at the Wigmore Hall with baritone Mark Stone, discussing opera, lieder and his own forthcoming recital at the Oxford Lieder Festival in which – with tenors Robert Murray and Joshua Elliot, pianist Graham Johnson, and actor Simon Callow – he will celebrate the A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad, with readings interspersed with musical settings by Butterworth, Orr, Ireland, Moeran and others.

I began by asking Stone if he agreed with the doom-mongers – whose claims Gilhooly refutes in his article – that ‘the song recital is living on borrowed time’, with ‘patching programming at leading concert venues’ and ‘ageing audiences’ inevitably signalling the decline of the idiom, in the light of the general public’s ‘narrowing attention spans’ which make ‘deep listening to refined settings of poetic texts’ a challenge too far for many. Stone acknowledge the problems for art song, first in economic terms. Given the small size of most lieder venues, managements may often be under pressure to bring in an opera ‘star’ whose name will ensure a full house paying inflated ticket prices, leading to, as Gilhooly notes, promoters scheduling ‘eight song concerts a year, four of which are given by opera singers who rarely perform recitals and habitually take to the stage with underprepared programmes’. But, Stone looked at the issue from the other side too: a big-name diva would inevitably be paid far less for a single lieder recital in comparison to the fee received for a long run in the opera house, and so it might be understandable, if not acceptable, if they felt less inclined to devote as much time to the repertoire.

As for the challenges for audiences, Stone admits that these can be considerable, especially if the genre is unfamiliar. Audiences have to work hard to understand and enjoy a song: they have to listen intently to a text, perhaps in a language not their own, and can’t just sit back and let the music ‘wash over’ them. There’s nowhere to hide in a small venue, and they can feel as much a part of the performance as the singer. It can be difficult too, even for regular lieder attendees, to both follow a text, especially a translation, and simultaneously listen in a sustained way. The processes of listening can get in the way of the ‘experience’ of the song. But, the rewards for trying are immense, and Stone has found that those who are not moved, affected, uplifted and inspired by art song recitals – even if they are novices – are rare. It’s important that we don’t pander to the lowest common denominator, and sink back gently into the hammock, dieting on easy-listening, popularist fare, but that we ask something of ourselves as listeners.

And, for the performer, too, lieder recitals make particular and not inconsiderable demands. First, in contrast to a month of more of rehearsals in the opera house, the lieder singer may have just a couple of rehearsals with his or her accompanist. And, the size of venue is as significant a factor for performer as for listener: intimate settings instigate and require intense relationships between singer and audience – the singer may even feel that he or she is forming an individual relationship with each listener – and these must be sustained, not just through musical expression but also through eye contact. A singer can be sensitive to any movements or changes of mood among the audience in a way that is not the case in a large concert hall or opera house, where both performers and audiences are to some extent ‘protected’ by the distance between them. Stone tells of an occasion when, aware of a slight tension to one side of a small hall, he wondered what was wrong and whether there might be some dissatisfaction with his performance, only for an explosive sneeze to burst forth from the fidgeting listener! But, there are advantages of this intimacy too: one can modulate and manipulate one’s voice with much more nuance and subtlety than in larger auditoriums; Stone draws a parallel with public speaking, citing the difference between giving a lecture to a grand hall seating 2000 and speaking to a small gathering of only 50 people. Most of the venues at the Oxford Lieder Festival are fairly small (the Holywell Music Rooms, for example, a regular venue, seat approximately 200), and thus afford singer and listener the opportunity to share the experience of the song with concentration.

Then comes the thorny issue of language. Stone himself prefers to perform in English, or rather to perform English songs. He argues that no matter how good a non-native-speaker’s English may be, it will still not be ‘perfect’, and thus such a singer will not communicate expression and meaning as directly and truthfully as a native speaker; and, so, the same must be true of English singers performing in foreign tongues. Or, to put it another way, pronunciation is part of the ‘meaning’. We reflected on how the 19th century was such an important period for the development of the German language, and the national identity associated with it, in ways which were not true of English at this time. Perhaps such matters account for the discrepancy in musical and compositional activity and achievement during this period?

Yet, English is an immensely rich language, although it is difficult to pronounce. But, other nations think similarly about their own languages. Stone recalls performing The Merry Widow in France, in French, and – despite his own anxiety when confronted with the lengthy spoken dialogue – being reassured after a performance by an audience member’s praise and insistence that he should sing more French opera. Stone’s intimation that he would like to tackle Pelléas et Mélisande one day led his new ‘fan’ to depart promptly, without comment. Moreover, audiences are amenable to performances of opera in translation if the original language is Italian or German, but less tolerant of English translations of Russian or the Scandinavian languages. Interestingly, when Stone’s own recording company – which has released CDs of songs by Quilter, Ireland, Orr and Havergal Brian among others – issued recordings of songs by Delius, those songs with Scandinavian lyrics were performed in English translation. How would Stone judge the result? They sound unusual, a little strange. Clearly, there are no unequivocal answers to these issues.

Text and language are at the heart of this year’s Oxford Lieder Festival. After the Herculean presentation of the complete songs by Schubert in 2014, this year the Festival programme is led by the poets and entitled: ‘Singing Words: the poets and their songs’. Certainly, without poetry there would be no lieder: Stone remarks that on occasion the poem seems primary – he has sometimes performed a song by, say, Quilter and rejoiced, ‘What a superb poem!’ rather than ‘What a terrific song’. There are also some poetic forms – sonnets for example – which seem to need no musical representation, adornment or interpretation; indeed they seem to resist such reorientation. If a poem is ‘complete’ in itself, why add another dimension? Then, there are poems that may be assimilated into a composer’s idiom at the expense of their own identity: some of Finzi’s settings of Thomas Hardy seem to reach to the heart of the poet’s sentiment and meaning, but there are also songs which set different Hardy texts but which sound, employing as they do Finzi’s idiomatic musical language and voice, alarmingly similar – despite the fact that although Hardy wrote over 800 poems, never is a form or scheme repeated.

But, despite these knotty problems, the art song seems to represent and articulate something essential about the human condition; it is, as Gilhooly suggests, ‘more a spiritual necessity than a garden variety of entertainment’. An operatic role is ‘played’ but a song is ‘experienced’ or ‘lived’, by performer and listener alike. Stone comments, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that an acquaintance once remarked that when making decisions about repertoire and performances a professional singer might ask, ‘Will it bring pleasure, prestige or profitability?’ In the case of the art song, though prestige may come to some, it is pleasure that undoubtedly takes precedent over profitability. We’re back to the economics again. It all comes down to, then, the fact that we need to be prepared to pay for what we value. In fact, both opera and lieder will eventually die unless we do so.

The Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 16th – 31st October.

Claire Seymour

[1] ‘Don’t let the song recital become an endangered species’ was first published in Classical Music in August 2015 and re-printed in the programme of a recital given by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall on 7 October 2015.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stone%2C%20Mark%20-%20headshot.png image_description=Mark Stone product=yes product_title=Mark Stone — Oxford Lieder Festival product_by=An interview by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Mark Stone
Posted by iconoclast at 9:20 AM

The Tales of Hoffmann — English Touring Orchestra

In this production, the third of English Touring Opera’s autumn-tour French triptych, The Tales of Hoffmann is given coherence - and imbued with irony, wit and dramatic impact - by director James’ Bonas’s decision to employ the frame of the ‘silent screen’ through which Hoffmann, and we, re-visit his confused, alcohol-befuddled memories of his obsessive love for his muse, the singer Stella. And, Bonas is served well by his terrific cast whose singing prowess is complemented by some virtuoso acting.

In the Prologue, the credits roll for a Hollywood reel which will chart Hoffmann’s tragic pursuit of ideal love - a sort of home-movie for the dubious delectation and moral instruction of his disreputable comrades. The screening of this ‘lesson in love’ is overseen by Sam Furness’s jaded and disillusioned Hoffmann, a slumped figure of dejection, pathos blending with mundanity - a former Romantic hero now reduced to an idler blowing smoke rings.

Offenbach’s Prologue can sometimes feel a little slow off the mark, with its choruses and situation-setting, but Bonas quickly establishes a lively dynamic and narrative propulsion. Visually, the retro cinema screen and tripod lights create a mood of anticipation; physically, the hyperbolic comedy, sharp parody and smart, slick timing are immediately engaging. Warwick Fyfe’s Lindorf is a walking Gothic horror show, with his bandy knees, angular gait, sickly pallor and sunken eye-sockets. And, Hoffmann’s ghastly nemesis seems to become ever more cadaverous as the evening progresses, emerging from a closet like a literal and proverbial skeleton. Oliver Townsend’s designs are wonderfully lit by Mark Howland, with excellent use of shadow.

The cinematic trope is sustained throughout the three main acts - I’m sure there were countless direct filmic allusions but I’m insufficiently au fait with the big screen ‘canon’ to have spotted them - and images and text from the movies which Hoffmann and the boys watch are projected atmospherically across the stage and onto the stage-side screens. In the Epilogue, the film screen is ripped enabling Stella and the Muse to appear out of the screen - further emphasizing the conflict between reality and fantasy which the opera dramatizes.

Each Act has a distinct style and mood, and Bonas’s realisations of Hoffmann’s increasingly desperate slide into self-destructive obsession are imaginative and original. Coppélius’s mechanical masterpiece is a shrivelled, transparent doll whose garish pink and purple ‘blood-vessels’ are clearly visible as they pump electricity around her twisted form, as - manipulated like a bunraku puppet by Ilona Domnich (singing the soprano triple-role) and an assistant - she dances, cavorts and then whirls like a dervish, with Domnich occasionally stepping in to take the automaton’s place, the stage flooding with a lurid pink glare. One critic has questioned the credulity of this scene: ‘the audience is asked to accept a small, faceless light-doll as the object of his desires, albeit one that’s bewilderingly interlaced with flash appearances by soprano in person’. But, surely this is the point: Hoffmann is duped by Cupid - like the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream he looks with ‘parted eye’, as love works its ‘magic’ on his imagination and vision, just as surely Coppélius’s magic glasses make Olympia appear as a real woman. Thus, the moments when Domnich assumes the doll’s place painfully reveal the hopelessness of his infatuation; he really does believe that he is dancing with the woman he reveres.

The Antonia and Giulietta Acts are full of similar, surreal devices and symbols: disembodied heads appear through small trap-doors in the set, a chaise longue replaces the gondola in the ‘Barcarolle’; and, the whole of the Antonia Act is a grotesque extravaganza of German Expressionism, with Lindoro transformed into Dr Miracle aka the evil Count Orlok from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.

Sam Furness was tireless in the title role and blended an ethereally beautiful head voice with focused lyrical power and rich warmth. Furness also showed good sense in pacing himself and ensuring that he had the stamina to sustain the lyrical intensity; indeed, he began strongly, but held enough in reserve to offer some thrillingly impassioned singing in the Antonia and Giulietta Acts. He was utterly convincing as the somewhat shabby poet-turned-filmmaker.

Domnich has a smooth, lustrous soprano which she used expressively and elegantly. She found the upper reaches of the ‘Doll aria’ quite demanding and the tuning wasn’t always spot on, but as Antonio and Guiletta she made an enormous contribution to the compelling power of the drama portrayed; her arias were unfailing stylish and polished, seductive fare for Hoffmann’s romantic appetite.

Making his British debut, Australian baritone Warwick Fyfe was superb as the four vampiric villains, acting with persuasively macabre excess and offering plenty of vocal punch too, even if the line was not always completely controlled and occasionally the timbre a little rough round the edges. But, one might equally argue that a slight lack of vocal suavity was just right for the four incarnations of wickedness, and Fyfe traversed the wide compass of the roles securely.

As the Muse and Nicklausse, Louise Mott demonstrated a firm, precise mezzo which she used to good musical and dramatic effect, especially in her manifestation as Antonia’s mother and in the Muse’s aria in the Epilogue. A petulant schoolboy in long shorts, knee-high socks and schoolboy cap, this Nicklausse didn’t just hang around in the background, in the moments when he has no direct involvement in the action, but got on with his homework or other such business.

The supporting cast worked hard, doubling roles and serving as a ‘chorus’, and we got a strong sense of individualised characters from the first. The Kleinzach interlude in the Prologue was wittily done, and there was a convincing air of camaraderie, foolery and fun. Adam Tunnicliffe was strong-voiced as Spalanzani and Pitichinaccio (perhaps a little too strong at times?), and Matt R. J. Ward hammed up the role of Frantz, the family servant, delightfully in the Antonia Act, singing and dancing with side-splitting ineptitude. Tim Dawkins, too, acted and sang commandingly as Antonia’s father, Crespel.

The small band of players might have lacked timbral lushness but they brought forth the melodic splendour of Offenbach’s score - solo instrumental utterances were an affecting commentary on the on-stage action - and conductor Philip Sunderland showed good appreciation of the style and pace of the work. The opera was sung in English - with diversions into French and Italian in appropriate contexts - and Jeff Clarke’s translation settled well into the Hollywood milieu; the spoken dialogue (there was some recitative too) was clearly enunciated by the cast.

This may not have been a ‘grand opera’ such as Offenbach (we imagine) envisaged, but in paring away some of the luxuriousness, Bonas has produced a convincing, stylish drama, mixing parody and horror to excellent effect: an inebriating cocktail of the Romantic and the Gothic.

Claire Seymour

Offenbach : The Tales of Hoffmann, English Touring OIpera, Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London.
Saturday 10th October 2015

Hoffmann - Sam Furness, Stella/Olympia/Antonia/Guiletta - Ilona Domnich, Lindorf/Coppélius/Dr Miracle/Dappertutto - Warwick Fyfe Muse/Nicklausse/Antonia’s mother - Louise Mott, Nathaniel/Spalanzani/Pitichinaccio - Adam Tunnicliffe, Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz - Matt R. J. Ward, Luther/Crespel - Tim Dawkins, Hermann/Schlémil - Ashley Mercer; director - James Bonas, conductor - Philip Sunderland, designer - Oliver Townsend, lighting designer - Mark Howland, choreographer - Ewan Jones, video designer - Zakk Hein.

Posted by iconoclast at 5:39 AM

October 13, 2015

Rhymes With Opera Presents New Opera About Dolly Parton Fans

The opera, to be performed by the ensemble Rhymes with Opera, will be performed November 13, 14, 20, 21 at the 124 Bank Street Theatre in the West Village.

In this funny and touching opera, four people have been invited to meet the great Dolly Parton: two middle-aged sisters and a gay couple whose house is filled with Dolly memorabilia. Meeting Dolly has far more momentous consequences for the four characters than they anticipated. Dolly doesn’t appear, by the way. The five characters—there’s also Dolly’s somewhat mysterious assistant—will be played by members of the Rhymes with Opera ensemble and guest artists supported by the RWO orchestra.

Rhymes with Opera was formed in 2007 to perform innovative, dramatically vibrant contemporary chamber opera. Our goal is to break down the walls between opera and musical theater – after all, opera is musical theater – while blurring the lines between various musical genres. The ensemble is interested in finding new ways to tell stories through music. Rhymes with Opera only performs operas created specifically for the group. To date Rhymes with Opera has commissioned eleven composers to create custom-made pieces ranging from short character sketches to full, evening-length works.

Heartbreak Express will be performed on Friday nights, November 13 and 20, at 8 p.m. and Saturdays, November 14 and 21, at 7:30 p.m. at the 124 Bank Street Theatre in the West Village. Tickets may be purchased at the Rhymes with Opera website www.rhymeswithopera.org. The website also contains further information and musical previews of Heartbreak Express.

Posted by Gary at 8:34 PM

Lucia di Lammermoor in San Francisco

German soprano Diana Damrau who cancelled in San Francisco (too tired). Former Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra was poised to step into the bloodied costumes in both cities.

The young soprano paused a moment on the top of a glass skyscraper, then leapt to her death. All reports from the 1200 seat Opernhaus Zürich are that Mlle. Sierra’s mad scene was delightful and that she had effectively, if carefully negotiated the rest, and quite beautifully.

The world has awaited news about how this fine young (27 years) soprano would fare at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera house, essentially three times the size of the Zurich house. The consensus is that Mlle. Sierra sang beautifully and held the stage. No small feat for an ingenue soprano, not yet a star.

That Mlle. Sierra did not take San Francisco by storm as she had Zurich (with reservations) is explained by two factors.

The first is that she was thrust into a hostile production, essentially a marble quarry when it was not the formalized architecture of Baroque opera complete with a scenic machine (the full stage show flat that was a camera shutter, astonishing because even though it was made of marble slabs it moved so smoothly and easily). But sometimes the setting was a marble knock off of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. Every-once-in-a-while there were cameo’s of what were surely the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Lucia_SF3.png Nicolas Testé (Raimondo), Nadine Sierra (Lucia)

The beautifully wrought studio bel canto of a young singer did not have a chance as Lucia di Carrara (Italy’s famous marble quarry).

The second factor is the pit. Conductor Nicola Luisotti exploited every possible effect from his orchestra, effecting a bel canto competition between the stage and the pit. And too this maestro is known for controlling his singers, thus the stage often is merely an extension of the pit. Even the stage movement is controlled by Luisotti’s domination of his singers, as an example the mad scene was staged as a straight line moving straight upstage from the conductor podium.

Experienced singers — stars — are usually able to cope with this maestro, and sometimes a synergy is effected. Great things can happen. An ingenue artist has not yet absorbed the considerable presence needed to impose himself or herself on this maestro.

Lucia_SF2 - 1.png
Nicolas Testé (Raimondo), Brian Mulligan (Enrico) and AJ Glueckert (Normanno)

Some of the singing in this Lucia was effective, notably baritone Brian Mulligan sang Enrico’s first act aria aria and cabaletta stylishly and convincingly. Mr. Mulligan is also singing Sweeney Todd where his cardboard acting works. And we also recently saw Mr. Mulligan as Marcello in Boheme (where it didn’t), and as Cassandra’s fiancé in Les Troyens, as Count Anckarström in Ballo, and the list goes on and on. One begs the question — is Mr. Mulligan the only baritone in the world? One shoe size does not fit all feet and one fine baritone voice does not fit all baritone roles. Finally Mr. Mulligan’s comic book Enrico did not survive the evening.

The one opera star in this Lucia was tenor Piotr Beczaia as Edgardo. While other critics found subtlety in his performance I found none. It was indeed loud enough to compete with the orchestra. This fine artist was perhaps a victim of the production as well. The final scene at the tomb of Lucia can be emotionally wrenching, one of bel canto’s most beautiful showpieces. Mr. Beczaia however stood in the marble box by the marble obelisk gave the maestro a run for his money.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Lucia: Nadine Sierra; Edgardo: Piotr Beczaia; Enrico: Brian Mulligan; Raimondo: Nicolas Testé; Alisa: Zanda Svede; Normanno: AJ Glueckert; Arturo: Chong Wang. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Michael Cavanagh; Set Design: Erhard Rom; Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich; Lighting Design: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 13, 2015.


product_title=Lucia di Lammermoor
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Nadine Sierra (Lucia) and Piotr Beczala (Edgardo)
All photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Posted by michael_m at 6:10 PM

October 11, 2015

Oxford Lieder Festival 2015 - Sholto Kynoch interview

The festival opens with a recital from Sarah Connolly and Graham Johnson performing Schubert, Brahms and Wolf, and closes with Christoph Pregardien and Roger Vignoles performing Heinrich Heine settings by Schumann and Schubert, whilst in between there are a great many other delights. I recently met the festival's founder and artistic director

Sholto Kynoch, for coffee and to chat about what makes the festival tick.
Sholto, who is himself a pianist, founded the festival when he arranged a series of Schubert recitals in Oxford. He had recently graduated and was staying on in Oxford for a year before going to the Royal Academy of Music. This first group of concerts was performed mainly by students, but it was germ from which the whole festival grew. There never was a master-plan, it just grew even though for the first five years of the festival's existence Sholto was still studying. The festival has grown somewhat, particularly in the last few years and now they plan to build on the success of last year's Schubert project.

In person he is a big bloke, very personable and clearly highly knowledgeable and happy to talk about his work. Song is rarely absent from our conversation, and is clearly one of his passions and we come back more than once to the comparative neglect of the song recital nowadays.

I ask Sholto what he sees as the Oxford Lieder Festival's particular qualities. First, of course, comes the location as Oxford is such a special place and the presence of so many tourists is a plus point in terms of festival audience. Secondly, the festival concentrates solely on song, and no other festival comes close in scope. Sholto feels the festival has a mission to promote the neglected genre of lieder and art song, as he sees the song as having faded from the concert platform (with the notable exception of places like the Wigmore Hall).

But the festival also has a very particular atmosphere. Many of the venues are quite small and intimate (the Holywell Music Rooms, which they use regularly, holds just 200) and the whole event has a welcoming informality. They also do lots of related events and there are some wonderfully imaginative combinations of programming. There are lots of talks and study events which complement the performances, and all texts and translations are provided (they will be free this year). There is also an extensive education programme involving primary schools, a residential course and promoting new music, as well as supporting young singers, as well as encouraging the ordinary concert goer (and the concert has a number of 'take-part' events).

A sampling of what's on offer at this year's festival demonstrates the sort of imaginative, joined-up programming available. There's a day with a theme of Michelangelo running through it. Things start with Michelangelo poems (and coffee) at the Ashmolean Museum, then a free concert of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo with Daniel Norman and Sholto Kynoch, lunch with Stephanie Marshall, Johnny Herford and Gary Matthewman performing Faure and Schubert, a talk on the Michelangelo drawings in the Ashmolean collection followed by Javier Borda and Lada Valesova performing the original version of Shostakovich's Michelangelo settings (at the Ashmolean Museum), then Faure and Janacek chamber music, Eucharist in New College Oxford, and Joan Rogers and Sholto Kynoch exploring settings of Pushkin and Tolstoy. Finally there is a reading of a short story by Aleksandr Kuprin at the King's Arms pub.

All this costs money,especially with predominantly small venues and Sholto admits that money is an endless problem. Last year they sold 12,500 tickets, but ticket income covers just one third of their costs. This means that there is a constant round of fund-raising and applications to trusts and foundations. They have also been experimenting in using some bigger venues. Last year, for the first time, they used the Sheldonian Theatre. Contrary to its reputation, Sholto found that it had quite a good acoustic though it is notoriously uncomfortable. It does however, provide them with more seats as there is the same number of good seats as the Holywell Music Room but also lots of cheaper seats as well. They are also using St John the Evangelist, a church which is now a concert venue. This seats 500 and is the biggest that Sholto feels he wants them to go.

As well as the informal intimacy, Sholto wants to keep the festival's friendly, family atmosphere with many of their audience coming every night. He makes the events as welcoming as possible, keeping them friendly and casual (with no dress code). He is present every night, either front of house or performing and sometimes both. People travel to the festival, a lot of the audience comes from outside Oxford, last year they had visitors from the USA, France, Germany and a group from Holland.

Of course, the event which made people really notice the festival was last year's Schubert Project where all of Schubert's songs (and some of his other music too) were programmed in a specially extended three week festival. The idea of doing all of Schubert's songs had been a long term vision of Sholto's but it was something only discussed seriously in the last three to four years and was a two year undertaking to plan.

The duration of the festival was extended from two weeks to three, the budget nearly tripled and they went from giving 30 concerts to 70 concerts. The festival included events in the Ashmolean, a study day at the Botanic Garden as well as lots of other new experiences. It was such as success that they want to build on it without having people feel that they are simply repeating themselves. This year's festival is smaller in scale, but Sholto thinks that it is impressive and builds on last year in the way the festival is programmed with such things as masterpiece events (of short duration, often free) popping up in unusual places (Britten's Winter Words in Exeter College Chapel), poetry readings and collaborations with organisations like the Ashmolean. For Sholto, last year's festival was the first time they had been properly able to combine this sort of tight programming and unusual events, though they had been working towards it.

Last year's Schubert Project was themed by poet (this has led on to this year's theme of poets and their songs). In fact, his first view of programming all of Schubert's songs was to mix and match the known and the unknown, but instead they grouped them by theme or poet. This meant that there was a long evening of short strophic songs setting Klopstock, Holderin and associated poets. This sort of programming was quite risky, but people entered into it and people saw a side of Schubert that is not so well known. Also, these were the type of songs which, placed alongside some of the well-known greats, would easily disappear yet Sholto thinks they are equally important in Schubert's repertoire. Sholto was really proud of this concert, and feels that they did not try to brush the smaller songs under the carpet.

It took two years to find enough singers, and to organise the programming. And it worked, for Sholto there wasn't a single duff concert, and he tried to avoid a sense of just ticking off the songs. A handful of people heard every Schubert song and one person went to every event. The intention had always been that the programming would be done in such a way that a listener could hear every Schubert song - a once in a lifetime event.

This year they didn't want to simply revert back to their old format, nor to find the festival compared to the Schubert Project, and of course the poet focus of the Schubert songs led straight to this year's theme. The theme will be encompassed by most, but not all of this year's concert. People love poetry, and it does enable Sholto and his performers to explore the essence of song. He comments that he always programmes by starting with the music first, so it was to some extent salutary to start from the text. And he asks rhetorically why, though they have collaborated with the Ashmolean and with the music faculty, the festival has never done a collaborations with faculties like Modern Languages?

Of course, programming can be a problem especially as so many of Schubert's songs are not known. Younger artists can sometimes be reluctant to learn new repertoire, and older singers have no time. But overall, Sholto has found the singers very responsive to learning songs so that last year's Schubert Project could be really complete. Sholto sees it as his job to present something that the artist wants to be part of (and Sholto admits that this has been learned on the job). He also admits that there are a handful of singers whom he will welcome whatever repertoire they bring. Christian Gerhaher will be opening the 2016 concert in a programme of the singer's own choosing.

Next year's festival will take the songs of Schumann as its theme, performing all of them. This is nothing like the undertaking of Schubert and the festival will last its usual two weeks (Sholto points out that the complete Schumann edition lasts 11 CD's rather than Schubert's 37!). This conciseness means that they can look at Schumann's contemporaries more, bringing out the links to Leipzig, to Mendelssohn and the Bach revival, to Brahms. Sholto still has not quite decided how to programme the songs. It would be easy to do it by poet as with Schubert, but Schumann's songs are more easily grouped as they were published and the final programming my do one or the other or a mixture. Of course, to programme all of a composer's songs, Sholto has to take the time to get to know the body of work even if he has not performed all of them.

As a pianist he combines his work as an accompanist with chamber music and the occasional solo recital. For solo recitals, he does around one programme a year, and enjoys it, but feels that he is principally a collaborative musician rather than a soloist and enjoys working both with singers and with instrumentalists and sees the collaborations as no different. He has a piano trio, the Phoenix Piano Trio, and he loves playing with them, and they have done a complete Beethoven cycle. Effectively Sholto is balancing two full time jobs, as pianist and as festival director, and clearly loves it.

Over the next few years they plan to build on the success of 2014 and fine tune the model. 2017 will see the complete Mahler songs as a thread running through the festival (as Fauré's songs run through this year's). Sholto sees a lot to be said for doing the complete songs of a composer, if you do it well. It helps to give a complete picture of the composer, both illuminating and balancing their repertoire as well as encouraging people to look at composers in a new light. They are also continuing their partnerships with organisations like the Bodleian Library and the Ashmolean Museum, which Sholto sees as an important strand in the festival's programming. There are also discussions with taking the festival brand outside of Oxford.

In some ways this builds on what they do already with their young artists platform. Each year they audition song duos and on a Spring weekend six duos get to perform for 45 minutes and participate in a master-class. Two duos are chosen to be festival ambassadors. This involves not only gigs at the main festival but outside performances too, as the festival subsidises them at music clubs (very much like the Countess of Munster Trust does), paying part of the duos fee so as to make the song recital more financially attractive, as well as sending texts and translations and offering pre-concert talks. the result not only markets the festival but gives the young artists valuable experience. They currently are able to offer 12 to 14 concerts per year like this but they would like to build on the model and offer more.

The festival brand is also available on disc as Sholto and a group of singers have recorded all of Wolf's songs live. The 9th volume will be available soon and the final two next year. Though they are planning a Schumann disc in advance of the 2016 festival, Sholto found the complete Wolf recordings a big undertaking and wants to put some distance from the project before contemplating another live recording. He finds that there are some great things about live recordings but some frustrating ones too. Away from the festival, Sholto has been recording complete songs of John Ireland, and of Havergal Brian with Mark Stone and Stone Records.

This year's Oxford Lieder Festival runs from 16 October to 31 October, there is something happening every day with events throughout the day on most days, mixing free and paid, with the core of the festival being the sequence of evening recitals. The festival venues include the Sheldonian and Holywell Music Rooms, but also many more. The festival programme lists a total of 18 venues in and around Oxford including the Ashmolean Museum, and a number of the collecges and of course the King's Arms Pub. There are Take Park! events, including a festival chorus, bring and sing and masterclasses, and the colleges have sacred music which fits the festival themes. Themes running through this year's festival include the music of Fauré and of Berlioz, and poets such as Verlaine, Pushkin, Tolstoy, AE Housman, and Heine, as well as song in translation.

Robert Hugill

Posted by iconoclast at 10:41 AM

Bellini I puritani : gripping musical theatre

Miskimmon's new production of the opera, presented by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre on Sunday 4 October 2015. Carlo Rizzi conducted, with designs by Leslie Travers, lighting by Mark Jonathan and choreography by Kally Lloyd Jones. Rosa Feola was Elvira, Barry Banks was Arturo, with David Kempster as Riccardo, Wojtek Gierlach as Giorgio, Simon Crosby Buttle as Bruno, Aidan Smith as Gualtiero and Sian Meinir as Enrichetta.

Bellini's final opera was written for Paris, and having fallen out with Felice Romani librettist of his previous operas including Norma and La Sonnambula, Bellini was forced to rely on Count Carlo Pepoli who happened to be resident in Paris. Pepoli's libretto has some strong situations, but overall the drama is full of holes and, despite Bellini's superb music, directors often struggle to create drama out of the piece. Andrei Serban's much travelled production, originally created for WNO in 1982, took the drama at face value and set the piece in 17th century England relying on strong performances from the principals to hold the drama together (when I saw the production in Amsterdam, I'm afraid it occasionned a number of laughs from the audience). More recently, Stephen Langridge at Grange Park Opera in 2013 (see my review) seemed to struggle to create a coherent drama at all and relied on strong musical performances.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the story, set in 17th century Plymouth amidst the conflict between Cavaliers and Roundheads, rather struggles if taken out of context. Annilese Miskimmon's brilliant solution is to move the plot to Northern Ireland in the 1960's, with Cavaliers and Roundheads replaced by Catholics and Protestants. Act One takes place in an Orange lodge and the war, which the men refer to, is the on-going struggle with the Catholics. Of course, the way the opera has Elvira (a Protestant/Roundhead) marrying Arturo (a Catholic/Cavalier) is completely improbable in the context of 1960's Belfast. Miskimmon solves this by having Elvira be subject to hallucinations from the start, seeing a 17th century version of herself. At the moment when the chorus welcomes Arturo towards the end of Act One, the drama takes a lurch as Elvira's mind fractures and suddenly there are two Elviras and one is firmly 17th century with the welcoming chorus similarly clad. The silent Elvira is a spectator as the action takes place in an increasingly 17th century milieu, and her fractured mind is reflected in the way the scenery itself becomes distorted and fractured. Act Two is set entirely there, and as Act Three returns to the 1960's, we still get flashbacks. Arturo's return is not welcome, and Elvira's mind remains fragile. In the brilliant denouement, as Arturo is killed by the Protestants, the Royal pardon occurs solely in Elvira's head (the messenger is firmly in 17th century costume and seen only by her) and the rapturous finale sees the chorus triumphing over the dead Arturo whilst Elvira is away with the fairies.

The central problem of the opera is Act Two, which is entirely static and brings nothing new. Miskimmon and designer Leslie Travers set it in a larger, plainer and more stylised 17th century version of the Orange lodge, with costumes firmly 17th century. Mark Jonathan's lighting is dramatic and Miskimmon's personenregie ensures that the whole act is about Riccardo's guilt at allowing Arturo to escape at the end of Act One, thus bringing on Elvira's mental collapse. The final duet Suoni la tromba between Riccardo and Giorgio (in 17th century costume) was accompanied by a visual coup as as the men of the 1960's Orange lodge marched slowly across stage with their banner, and suddenly the war which Riccardo and Giorgio sung about took on entirely a new meaning.

It helped of course that this dramatic intelligence was partnered by a superbly musical performance from the cast. Rosa Feola, making her debut with Welsh National Opera, was coruscating as Elvira. Feola seems to have sung mainly coloratura/lyric roles but here combined a fluency in the coloratura with a great sense of strength. Not quite a spinto performance, but something in that direction; this Elvira was no demented canary, and Feola made Elvira's madness truly a reality whilst giving us a superb series of fioriture and roulades, and a stunning sense of line. Technically adept, she folded the ornamental elaborations into the very fabric of the vocal line as Bellini intended and brought a scary intensity to the whole performance.

She was superbly partnered by Barry Banks in fearless form as Arturo. He brought his familiar sense of strong line to the part and was certainly not scared of the high tessitura. I loved the way he combined this with a feeling of musical drama, and responded to the intensity of Feola's performance. The gentler moments, like Act Three's Vieni fra questa braccia had a lovely gentle caress to the line, but elsewhere it was clear that this Arturo was a fighter too.

Wojtek Gierlach was a younger than usual Giorgio, made a Protestant minister in the 1960's which makes sense of his calmer, more rational point of view. Gierlach had a nice way round Bellini's lines and contributed superbly to the various ensembles and duets which he was part of, thrilling at the right moments and intelligently supportive at other. David Kempster was frighteningly intense as Riccardo, both in the 20th and the 17th centuries, combining this with a lovely feel for Bellini's lines. Gierlach and Kempster's duet at the end of Act Two was rightly thrilling musically and balanced Miskimmon's introduction of the Orange lodge march brilliantly.

The smaller roles were all well taken, with Simon Crosby Buttle as Bruno, Aidan Smith as Gualtiero and Sian Meinir as Enrichetta. They and the chorus brought a frightening intensity to the 20th century scenes and made the 17th century Protestants scarily serious and accusing.

In the pit, the WNO Orchestra played superbly as ever for Carlo Rizzi, a former musical director of the company. Rizzi showed great sympathy with Bellini's music, but the sympathy and space for the singers never degenerated into self-indulgence. The orchestral contribution was as taut and as fluid as the drama on stage.
This performance was a notable achievement for WNO and all concerned, bringing a new sense of drama into Bellini's opera but never losing the essential quality of the music. This always sounded like Bellini, with a superb sense of line and fine ornamentation. It helped that Miskimmon had a clear sense of what is, and is not, possible in updating an opera. Whilst the 20th century scenes were firmly realistic and almost naturalistic, Miskimmon always made room for the singers and the extra action never pulled focus from the music drama. At all the key moments, we were free to concentrate on what counted, the musical performance.

Robert Hugill

Bellini I Puritani
Elvira: Rosa Feola, Arturo: Barry Banks, Giorgio: Wojtek Gierlach, Riccardo: David Kempster
Directed: Annilese Miskimmon, conducted: Carlo Rizzi
Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre

Posted by iconoclast at 9:55 AM

Strong music values in 1940's setting for Handel's opera examining madness

Directed by Harry Fehr, designed by Yannis Thavoris, lighting by Anna Watson, video by Andrzej Goulding, movement Kelly Lloyd-Jones (also associate director), the production was originally created for Scottish Opera. The WNO performances featured Lawrence Zazzo as Orlando, Daniel Grice as Zoroastro, Fflur Wyn as Dorinda, Rebecca Evans as Angelica and Robin Blaze as Medoro. Rinaldo Alessandrini conducted the Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

From the first notes of the overture, played with the curtain down, it was clear that Rinaldo Aessandrini, who is best known for his work with period instrument groups, had developed a creative partnership with the modern instruments of the WNO orchestra. The overture was crisp and lively with some lovely firm playing, not too much vibrato, and a clear feel of period style.

When the curtain did go up for the first scene, Zoroastro's great scena as he looks at the stars, the setting was a 1940's hospital and instead of the stars, Zoroastro (Daniel Grice) was looking at the output from a device hooked up to Orlando's (Lawrence Zazzo) brain. Harry Fehr and Yannis Zavoris had transported the opera to the 1940's with Orlando and Medoro (Robin Blaze) as injured airmen. Dorinda (Fflur Wyn) was now a nurse with Angelica (Rebecca Evans) a glamorous socialite. There were some neat touches; when, in Act One, Zoroastro talks to Orlando of following the path of glory rather than love, he showed Orlando pictures of the Abdication and the subsequent aftermath with the Duke of Windsor being pictured with Nazis.

But Orlando is a pastoral piece, and not only is Dorinda meant to be a shepherdess but many of the characters talk of the beauty of the place and the loss they will feel when they leave. More problematic, for me, was the relentless and busy naturalism of Fehr's production. His style seems to owe something to Katie Mitchell, as the whole opera had a sense of continuous narrative with something constantly happening, as if Handel's drama was somehow insufficient. When Lawrence Zazzo's Orlando sang, a group of doctors were constantly checking charts. I found it at best annoying, and at worst rather reductive. Zoroastro's opening scene seemed reduced when sung by Daniel Grice poring over medical charts in a busy hospital room. And despite Lawrence Zazzo's vivid performance in Orlando's mad scene, the drama seemed lessened by the obsessive detail of the surrounding action with Daniel Grice's Zoroastro and his group of doctor and nurses scurrying round in response to Orlando's actions. The new raison d'etre of the plot never really found a reason why Orlando was allowed so much lee-way, and despite the apparent naturalism of the presentation there was still a lot of suspension of disbelief required.

Handel wrote Orlando in 1733 at a difficult period in the business of Italian opera in London. Orlando would be the last role which his star castrato created for Handel, as Senesino and a number of leading singers then defected to the rival Opera of the Nobility. Perhaps Senesino did not really appreciate the daring way Handel had written the role of Orlando, with his highly innovative mad scene where all the musical rules are broken. And to show of the talents of the great bass Montagnana, Handel and his librettist effectively created the role of Zoroastro adding moments like the opening scene to the existing libretto. Orlando was not a great success at its premiere, and Handel never revived the work again.

Daniel Grice was a capable and effective Zoroastro, singing with a nice sense of firmness. But he did not really dominate the role, and was certainly not helped by the staging so that his great accompanied recitatives at the opening of Act 1 and the end of Act 3 were both a little too matter of fact.

Inevitably the opera was cut, but reasonably discreetly. Act 1 ran to 80 minutes, with Acts 2 and 3 each 40 minutes. Rinaldo Alessandrini kept speeds brisk, so we covered a lot of ground, and there were not waits for scene changes, so that the whole piece flowed well. And whilst speeds may have been fast-ish, there was never a sense of being driven and Alessandrini kept a lovely sense of flow with space for the singers. The orchestra kept up the promise given in the overture, and the arias and accompanied recitatives were all a series of stylish, vivid delights.
Yannis Thavoris' set, which was essentially a single piece set on a revolve, was elegantly imaginative and enabled the varied locations needed in the opera to flow without interrupting the music.

I have yet to see my idea production of Orlando but Harry Fehr's 1940's incarnation at least had the virtues of treating the story with seriousness, presenting the drama in his own way but treating it as serious drama and never guying it. Within this framework, Alessandrini, the singers and the orchestra created a series of very fine moments and ultimately, a rather moving drama.

Robert Hugill

Handel Orlando;
Orlando:Lawrence Zazzo, Angelica: Rebecca Evans, Medoro: Robin Blaze, Dorinda: Fflur Wyn, Zoroastro: Daniel Grice
Directed: Harry Fehr, Design: Yannis Thavoris, Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini;
Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre
3 October 2015

Posted by iconoclast at 9:46 AM

Bostridge, Isserlis, Drake, Wigmore Hall

Now, during the concert, Shostakovich saw Britten ‘bobbing up and down like a schoolboy, even nudging him with happiness’. Rostropovich later explained that after the performance, through an interpreter, he ‘“attacked Britten there and then and pleaded most sincerely and passionately with him to write something for the cello”’. So began the life-long friendship and musical partnership between composer, cellist and Peter Pears, and it was the remarkable performing legacy of the three musicians which was recalled and celebrated in his concert by cellist Steven Isserlis, tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake at the Wigmore Hall.

At the heart of the programme was Britten’s Cello Suite No.3 Op.87. Written in 1971, it was due to be premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival the following year, but Rostropovich’s open support for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, resulted in the cellist being denied permission by the Soviet authorities to travel to the West, and the Suite was not heard until its dedicatee gave the first performance at Snape Maltings in 1974.

The multi-movement Suite clearly derives its form from J.S. Bach’s solo cello suites. Playing with freedom and absolute sincerity, Steven Isserlis conveyed the deep spiritual core which Britten’s work also shares with its baroque predecessors, showing how after the troubles and doubts intimated in the early sections, a calmer faith emerges. The drama and conflict of the Introduzione, announced by a resonant drum-beat pizzicato, grew in intensity as the presence of Isserlis’s sound also swelled, culminating in the yearning lyricism of the Canto. After the rocking Barcarolla and erudite dialogues of the Fuga, the melodic beauty of the Andante espressivo assuaged before the passionate climax of the Passacaglia. Isserlis journeyed compellingly through the highly manipulated and diverse textures, allowing melodic fragments to emerge, seemingly with spontaneous invention. Britten drew his thematic elements from three Russian melodies that he had found in Tchaikovsky’s arrangements of folk-songs, as well as the Russian Kontakion - the Byzantine chant, ‘Hymn for the Departed’ - and with elegiac tenderness these were finally stated in plainer form in the coda; in the closing moments, the low C with which the Suite began diminished into silence, bringing a sense of acceptance and rest.

Fittingly, Britten’s Suite was framed by music by J.S. Bach. Three arias for tenor with obbligato instrumental part were remarkable for the symbiosis of voice and cello, supported by Julius Drake’s understated, unwavering accompanying flow; the mood was one of certainty and consolation. In ‘Es dünket mich, ich seh dich kommen’ (It seems to me I hear Thee coming) from the NaCantata Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen, the gentle, even melody unfolded with ease, transferring effortlessly between voice and cello. Bostridge’s high-lying line was soft and tender, imbued with warmth in the statement ‘Ich kenne deine holde Stimme,/ Die voller Lieb und Sanftmut ist’ (I recognise Thy gracious voice, so full of love and gentleness). ‘Geliebter Jesu, du allein’ (Beloved Jesus, you alone shall be my soul’s wealth; from Herr Gott, dich loben wir BWV16) was similarly earnest, Isserlis playing with a full vibrato and richness of tone which, though it might have irritated those wedded to notions of ‘authenticity’, captured the aria’s strong spirit of sincerity and conviction. The brightness and vigour of ‘Woferne du den edlen Frieden’ (Just as Thou hast granted noble peace) from the Cantata Jesu, nun sei gepreiset conveyed a more dynamic faith.

Bostridge and Drake returned to Bach after Britten Suite, performing the Five Spiritual Songs which Britten arranged for performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1969. I thought that Bostridge struck just the right balance between allowing the melody to carry the meaning and drawing attention to, and enrichening, particular details of the text.

Thus, the instruction which closes ‘Gedenke doch, mein Geist, zurücke’ (Consider then, my soul unwary) - ‘Gedenke, daß du sterben mußt’ - was tinged with darkness, while the opening line of ‘Kommt, Seelen, dieser Tag (Come, celebrate this morn) shone with a glow which likewise brightened the closing salutation to ‘God, the glorious King, eternal, ever new’. The playful inner voices of Drake’s accompaniment confirmed the aria’s joy. Bostridge was surprisingly assertive in the second stanza of ‘Komm, süßer Tod’ (Come, soothing death’), pleading with ardency for the ‘sweet repose’ which will come when the protagonist is united with his Saviour, and the final bars, which resolved the song with swiftness, suggested eager acceptance. The richer accompaniment and strong bass part of the best known of the songs, ‘Bist du bei mir’, (If though art near) gave this aria a more dramatic, lied-like quality, but it was the simple lullaby ‘Liebster Herr Jesu’ (Dearest Lord Jesus) which most powerfully communicated Bach’s quiet faith. Here, Bostridge’s calm control of the soothing melody was beguiling, though it was sensitively tempered with moments of intensity: the fading reticence of the expressed desire to be ‘far from this world’, the stronger appeal, ‘Es ist genug, Herr, d’rum komm zu erlösen’ (It is enough, Lord; come soon to release me’), the sharper bitterness of the ‘Tränen’ wept. In the final phrase, Drake’s sweet-toned but ‘barely there’ accompaniment conveyed the singer’s consuming exhaustion and submission, ‘Komm doch, wir wird hier auf Erden so bange!’ (Come and release me from bondage so weary).

The second half of the concert began with unusual fare, starting with two songs by Franz Paul Lachner (1803-90), a well-known composer in his day but now regarded as ‘competent’ and rather less inspired than his contemporary, Schubert. Originally composed for voice, horn and piano, ‘Waldvöglein’ (Little forest bird) was bright and cheerful: Bostridge’s melody was bursting with vigour while Drake’s accompaniment was perennially springy and light. In ‘Nachts in der Kajüte (At night in the cabin) the piano left hand engaged energetically with the high cello melody, and the closing tenor plea, for the ‘little girl’ to ‘nestle against my great heart’ (‘Komm an mein großes Herz’) as heart, heaven and sea ‘perish with sheer love’ was fervent.

Richard Rodney Bennett was, like Britten, an astonishingly eclectic composer; he admired and absorbed jazz and popular music, and, also recalling Britten, had success in composing for film. Bennett’s ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’ was, for me, the highlight of the programme. The work was composed in 1961 and dedicated to Peter Pears. The anonymous text, probably dating from the 1600s, refers to those beggars, commonly known as ‘Tom O’Bedlams’, who feigned mental illness, some of whom were probably former inmates of the Bethlem Royal Hospital (Bedlam).

Bostridge found both astonishing declamatory force in the narrative stanzas - reminding me of Edgar in King Lear who disguises himself as a mad beggar and cries: ‘Who gives anything to poor Tom? whom the foul /fiend hath led through fire and through flame, and /through ford and whirlipool e'er bog and quagmire;’ - and a haunting ethereal quality in the refrain. The concluding stanza, ‘With an host of furious fancies,/ Whereof I am commander’, had extraordinary rhetorical power.

Schubert’s ‘Auf dem Strom’ (On the river) was the final work and allowed Bostridge to demonstrate his characteristic care for the text and the power of his upper register. The cello’s soft, distant introductory melody established the elegiac mood (the part was originally written for the distinguished horn-player Josef Lewy). The dramatic climax came in the fourth stanza, with its incessant triplets conveying the text’s sentiments, ‘Ach, vor jener dunklem Wüste,/ Fern von jeder heitern Küste’ (Ah, how I shudder with horror at that dark wildnerness), and Isserlis’s expressive interlude heightening the tension of the coming storm which blows across the angry sea.

Composed during the last year of Schubert’s life, ‘Auf dem Strom’ is imbued with thoughts of and homage to Beethoven, and contains a musical quotation from the Eroica Symphony. It was an apt work with which to conclude a programme which also paid tribute to the memory of former great musicians, and it was performed with valedictory nobility.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge tenor, Steven Isserlis cello, Julius Drake piano
J.S. Bach - Er rufet seinen Schafen mit Namen BWV175 Aria: ‘Es dünket mich, ich seh dich kommen’, Herr Gott, dich loben wir BWV16 Aria: ‘Geliebter Jesu, du allein’, Jesu, nun sei gepreiset BWV41 Aria: W’oferne du den edlen Frieden’; Britten - Cello Suite No.3 Op.87, Five Spiritual Songs (transcription from J.S. Bach); Franz Paul Lachner Waldklänge Op. 28 ‘Waldvöglein’, ‘Nachts in der Kajüte’ Op.34 No.2; Richard Rodney Bennett - Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’; Schubert - ‘Auf dem Strom’ D.943

Posted by iconoclast at 9:30 AM

October 10, 2015

Falstaff at Forest Lawn

The character appears in operas by Giuseppe Verdi, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Otto Nicolai. Composer Arrigo Boito wrote the libretto for Verdi’s Falstaff using scenes from all three plays. Having already composed Macbeth and Otello, Verdi wrote the music for his third Shakespeare opera when he was approaching the age of eighty. The Teatro alla Scala in Milan premiered Falstaff on February 9, 1893.

On Sunday night September 20, 2015, Pacific Opera Project presented Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff at Forest Lawn, the huge cemetery in Los Angeles. At the very top of the highest hill, there was a large patio and an ancient pine tree. It wasn’t the oak specified in the libretto, but its branches spread over a wide area that included a multi-level stage. The audience was seated at tables, each of which was set with a plate of finger foods and a voucher for beverages. It was the perfect background for outdoor theater on a warm night.

Maggie Green’s costume designs involved checkered cloth of various hues that allowed onlookers to see who was related to whom by matching colors. Ryan Shull’s nuanced lighting made many of the stage effects possible. Josh Shaw’s staging was thoroughly amusing. He brought out the hearty laughs built into the opera with precise timing while adding a few more light moments that helped make this an evening of genuine fun.

Led by the powerful vocal personality of Zeffin Quinn Hollis as Sir John, the singing actors all performed at a high level. Hollis dominated the stage whenever he was on it and he sang with bright, sometimes deliberately raucous tones. Sharmay Musacchio’s rich dark sound and expressive ability made her an imposing Mistress Quickly.

At the other end of the vocal scale, Annie Sherman was a radiant Nanetta who sang with a liquid silver sound. Tenor Nadav Hart was well matched with her as her lover, Fenton. He, too, had a light lyric voice that he used with thoughtful phrasing and impressive breath control. Rebecca Sjöwall was an intense Alice Ford who protected her family from Falstaff’s machinations. As her husband, Daniel Scofield sang with an opulent voice and held his own against the interloper who hoped to get his hands on the family money.

In this opera, the middle feminine voice sometimes gets lost in the fray, but Jessica Mirshak definitely held her own on this stage and she made Meg Page well-defined character. Clay Hilley was a pedantic Dr. Caius while Kyle Patterson and Phil Meyer were fun to watch as Bardolfo and Pistola.

Pacific Opera Project (POP) is a small company that employs the best young talent found in the area. Some of their artists are familiar because they have also sung at LA Opera. POP has an ample chorus of local opera lovers and it even has an excellent children’s chorus that introduces many young people to opera. What they do not have is expensive scenery or a large orchestra. Stephen Karr conducted Jonathan Dove’s reduction of the score which called for a mere fifteen players. While the small orchestra may have diluted some of Verdi’s grand effects, it enabled the Los Angeles audience to enjoy a fine performance by excellent artists.

Maria Nockin

Cast and Creative Team:

Sir John Falstaff, Zeffin Quinn Hollis; Alice Ford, Rebecca Sjöwall; Ford, Daniel Scofield; Mistress Quickly, Sharmay Musacchio; Nanetta, Annie Sherman; Fenton, Nadav Hart; Dr. Caius, Clay Hilley; Meg Page, Jessica Mirshak; Bardolfo, Kyle Patterson; Pistola, Phil Meyer; Conductor, Stephen Karr; Director and Designer, Josh Shaw; Costumes, Maggie Shaw; Lighting, Ryan Shull.


product_title=Falstaff at Forest Lawn
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin

Posted by maria_n at 5:31 PM

Music and Drama Interwoven in Chicago Lyric’s new Le nozze di Figaro

Central to this production is the humanity of Mozart’s opera in all its musical and dramatic manifestations. As a frame to the images of this production gestures representing the foibles, love, and escapades of the Count and Countess open and close the theatrical concept. Accusation and forgiveness, anger, love, jealousy, and desire are bound together in this perceptive realization of Mozart’s glorious score. The role of Figaro and his betrothed Susanna are sung by Adam Plachetka and Christiane Karg, both making debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Countess and Count Almaviva are performed by Amanda Majeski and Luca Pisaroni; Cherubino and Bartolo feature debuts at Lyric Opera for Rachel Frenkel and Brindley Sherratt. Marcellina, Barbarina, and Basilio are sung by Katharine Goeldner, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, and Keith Jameson. The roles of Antonio, Curzio, and the two peasant girls (regazze) are performed here by Bradley Smoak, Jonathan Johnson, Laura Wilde and Lindsay Metzger. Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus; designs for sets, costumes, and lighting are by James Noone, Susan Mickey, and Robert Wierzel.

The brisk pace of the overture allows for an acceleration of tensions so vital to this production. Mr. Nánási has the brass take appropriate emphases while maintaining taut control over the whole ensemble so that each instrumental group’s texture is consistently audible. During this well-rounded performance of the overture a scrim sheathing the entire front of the stage begins to billow outward; at the same time, Count Almaviva chases one of his conquests through the aisle of the orchestra seating, subsequently diving with her beneath the scrim just as the Countess in swift pursuit reaches the stage. In the last measures of the overture she releases the scrim to expose the Count’s indiscretion in the forthcoming marital camera of Figaro and Susanna. This humorous pantomime unleashes the myriad of adventures, emotions, and consequences to follow in the four acts of the opera proper.

During the initial duet with Figaro Ms. Karg as Susanna pairs a light vocal approach with swift movements, as in “guarda un po’” [“take a look”], so that her character projects the persona of a darting, perceptive maidservant who remains a match for the Count’s lustful maneuvers. Her voice blends well with Mr. Plachetka’s Figaro as he is gradually led to realize the dangerous proximity of their camera being positioned adjacent to the Count’s room. Here Ms. Gaines’s directorial acumen succeeds not only in overall scenic architecture but also in such simple lines as Figaro’s “Chi sona? La Contessa” [“Who is ringing? The Countess”]. Rather than being a mechanical transition from one number or scene to the next, signaling Susanna’s immediate departure, the line is uttered as a natural and unavoidable break in hurried recitative conversation. The plan of Figaro and Susanna will be finalized only later, yet the germ of cooperation has begun and Figaro’s aria, “Se vuol ballare” [“If you wish to dance”], proceeds as its logical extension. In this aria Plachetka shows his gradual reaction to the Count’s motivations: some words are sung with the grit of disapproval while others show the resonance of determination. These transitions are not a mere exercise, rather they communicate a growing self-confidence in being able to trump the Count and enjoy the game at the same time. Plachetka’s final “Si, le suonerò” [“Indeed I’ll play you the accompaniment”] shows a natural forteemphasis and satisfied resolution.

The entrance of Marcellina and Bartolo underlines further the collaborative essence behind this production. Whereas the costumes and hair-designs of Susanna and Figaro are, up to this point, colorful and stylized enhancements of eighteenth-century garb, the outfit worn by Ms. Goeldner as Marcellina is a truly outré extension of her emotionally excited personality. While Mr. Sherratt’s Bartolo swears vengeance on Figaro in his energetic and agile performance of “La vendetta,” Marcellina inspects surfaces and objects dressed in parakeet-like shades of yellow and orange with a matching feathery headdress. She wears the costume well and flounces delightedly in the subsequent duet with Susanna, “Via, resti servita,” [“Pray, pass before”] upon the latter’s return. Wardrobe and projection of personality are surely here key to presenting the youth Cherubino, whose entrance distracts Susanna from her preceding unpleasantness. As the young man with a nervous admiration for everything feminine, Ms. Frenkel’s characterization exudes energy and boundless desire in every movement. Her celebrated aria, “Non so piu” [“I no longer know”] is staged as a confession to Susanna yet with naturally forte bursts of ardor on phrases like “ai monti” [“(I speak of love) to the mountains”], as Cherubino can barely contain his frenetic behavior. With an appogiatura expressing resignation on “E se non ho chi m’oda” [“and if there is no one to hear me out”], the character retreats into self-consolation. This Cherubino’s movements and personality are enhanced by the relaxed, timeless outfit of a street youth with whom the audience can identify -- and not a costume tied specifically to courtly expectations of Mozart’s time. The fast-paced action accompanying the Count’s entrance results in a series of nicely staged concealments. Mr. Pisaroni’s authoritarian menace inspires in his household personnel both fear and the same inventiveness pledged earlier by Figaro. The Count’s attentions to Susanna are believable and revelatory: Pisaroni delivers these lines with appropriate facial expression and a physically involved agility. Basilio’s entrance prompts the Count, just as earlier Cherubino, to seek a hiding-place. Mr. Jameson performs Basilio with a simpering demeanor, his florid approach to the vocal line incorporating decoration in keeping with his flashy costume. Soon after the Count emerges in anger from hiding, Cherubino is exposed and becomes the focal point of culpability. Figaro’s reappearance with a chorus of peasants mitigates the youth’s punishment by securing Cherubino a commission in the Count’s reggimento. The aria “Non più andrai” [“No longer will you flutter”] encourages the young man to take solace in the future of military adventure. Plachetka’s exhilarating performance makes of the familiar piece a dramatic highpoint. His distinctive formulation of “molto onor” [“considerable glory”], embellishments on repetition of the title words, and singing the final line “alla gloria militar” with an unexpected rising pitch conclude the act with excitement.

A second supplementary pantomime introduces the following act in the Countess’s boudoir. Before the music begins, Susanna fusses over two domestics who have assembled -- without proper courtly touches—a cart filled with cakes and fruit. As the curtain opens and Susanna pushes the cart into the boudoir, the music to “Porgi amor” [“Grant, O Love”] begins. If anything, comparable gestures in this production’s second act establish both Susanna and her lady as full-blooded human characters, every bit a match for the Count. Ms. Majeski’s yearning line in this first aria lingers gently on soft embellishments, while the pain of suffering is expressed without doubt in the extended high pitches on “mi lascia almen morir” [“allow that I may die”]. The following strategic initiation of a “progetto” [“plan”] between Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess, with Plachetka’s decorative echo on “Le suonerò,” leads into the reentry of Cherubino. When invited to sing his recent composition, Frenkel’s performance of “Voi che sapete” [“You who well know”] suggests emotions skidding and changing seamlessly from one verse to the next with especially effective low pitches at the close. The spirit of physical attraction prompts Susanna to close the door while they change Cherubino into women’s clothing. The resulting privacy allows indeed a playful dalliance between the Countess and the youth on the center of her bed. The Count’s interruption of such “buffonerie” leads into the series of delightfully staged ensembles accelerating in confusion and surprise proceeding to the end of the act. At the moment of the Count’s admitting unwarranted jealousy to his wife, Pisaroni uses beautifully seductive phrasing in his appeal, “Rosina, inflessibile con me non sarà” [“Rosina will not be unyielding toward me”]. As an expression of the continued, unexpected turns and the disarray that ends the act, Plachetka’s Figaro is positioned prone on his side while others declare that they may not survive the day. The seeming madness comes to a head when members of each group toss fruit at their opponents in the final moments.

Both costumes and scenic design suggest a more classic simplicity in the concluding acts of the production. An arrangement of chandeliers suggests the noble court; at stage rear several classically modeled statues are posed suggestively. The introductory scene of Act III establishes Susanna as a masterful player in the deception of the Count. Karg’s touching vocal decorations are a sure enticement for the Count just as Pisaroni’s movements and facial expressions show him melting in erotic expectation. Once he realizes the deception and declares in repetition, “Hai già finta la causa” [“You have won your case”], Pisaroni shifts the Count’s persona to being an active participant. In “Vedrò mentr’ io sospiro” [“Shall I see while I sigh”] piano phrasing suggests a monologue of growing self-confidence with a snarl of disdain in reference to his valet. Rising introductory notes on “Già la speranza sola” [“Already the hope alone”], high pitches taken forte on “Quest’ anima consola” [“Console this my sole”], and a jubilant trill on “giubilar” proclaim a final resolution accompanied by a comedic gesture performed at one of the statues as the Count departs.

In the Countess’s parallel aria soon afterward Majeski’s voice draws on myriad effects to illustrate the complex personality she portrays. One hears first her satisfaction as a participant in the “progetto,” with a suspended emphasis on the first syllable; she asks herself softly “Ma che mal” [“but what harm”], yet declares forte that she has been humiliated with a dark color layered on “fatale.” In her musing on the simple, happy past Majeski’s Countess traces a delicate line over “Di dolcezza e di piacer” [“of sweetness and of pleasure”] yet returns to an introspective question on the accusatory “menzogner” [“lying”]. The lyrical repeats in the conclusion of “Dove sono” [“Where are they now?”] expand over a broad range from deeply felt low notes in “La memoria” to a polished melisma on “La mia costanza” [“my enduring faith”]. Her character departs in renewed dignity. All are then once again assembled for the dance at the close of the act in preparation for the nuptial festivities of the evening. While Pisaroni swears his desire for the “più ricca pompa” [“the most lavish pomp”], the Countess resorts knowingly to an ultimate triumphant and comic gesture.

The scene in the garden for the final act is staged in soft iridescent shades. Figaro’s aria as a comment on women, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” [“Open your eyes”] is sung by Plachetka with seemingly endless legato, as he laments his position vis-à-vis Susanna. In her own final aria, “Deh vieni, non tardar” [“Come, do not delay”] Karg’s Susanna demonstrates a vocal highpoint for her character’s independence, while she dissembles knowingly within earshot of her fiancé. The final exposure of the Count’s infidelity leads to his denying pardon at first to those who have tricked him, until the Countess’s intercession secures forgiveness for all. Based on a final playful gesture between this production’s noble pair, their human strengths and weaknesses seem likely to be repeated. How better to celebrate the spirit of Mozart?

Salvatore Calomino


product_title=Music and Drama Interwoven in Chicago Lyric’s new Le nozze di Figaro
product_by=A review by Salvatore Calomino

Posted by jim_z at 5:23 PM

La traviata, Philadelphia

The latter often feature rising young opera stars—as exemplified by the current run of La traviata. This opera has become, by far, the most widely performed of Verdi works, largely because it can be adequately performed by just three younger and lighter voices, rather than requiring four or five rarer spinto or dramatic voices, as do Otello, Rigoletto, Il trovatore and Aida.

The most exciting thing about this production is the debut as Violetta of Lisette Oropesa, a young Cuban-American lyric coloratura soprano from Louisiana. Oropesa rose to prominence as a member of the MET Lindeman Young Artists program and has been acclaimed there and other major houses over the half-decade since. She has much of what a great Violetta needs. It begins with extraordinary technical command: I have never heard a live singer execute much of this role (particularly the florid parts of Act One, for example the upward scales in “Sempre libera”) with such glittering precision. One does not need supertitles when she sings: she clearly knows what she is singing, and enunciates it correctly. She possesses a rich musical imagination: it is a joy to hear her vary dynamics and inflection slightly so as to avoid repeating phrases the same way twice. And she has what the marketing people at opera companies these days call the “package,” that is, sufficient good looks, acting ability, charisma and youthful energy on stage to sell opera to today’s more diverse, less musically literate audiences. The audience groaned when she died and gave her a much deserved standing ovation when she came back to life. We need more opera singers who generate such enthusiasm.

Oropesa’s achievement is doubly impressive because she does not possess a natural voice for Violetta. Despite her evident technical mastery and musical creativity, and an ability to be heard throughout the house absent five years ago, the voice lacks the Italianate warmth and glow (particularly at the ends of its register) expected in this role. Oropesa’s type of voice—cooler, slightly metallic, with a quick flutter—was much more common one hundred years ago; today we associate it with Gilda, the “ina” roles, various bel canto heroines, and Baroque opera. Creative though Oropesa is at finding ways to characterize within her means, I felt that, musically, some of pathos of a doomed woman escaped her, both musically and dramatically. That being said, hers is an interpretation of this role any opera-goer should hear.

Tenor Alek Shrader also has a light voice, and in that sense he is an appropriate Alfredo to Oropesa’s Violetta. He is, moreover, a sensitive and thoughtful musician who intermittently offered delicate phrasing and mezza voce singing, and, at times, popped off a stentorian line. But overall, his tenor voice lacks the ring, weight and bronze color required for this role. At times he was flatly inaudible, at other times, simply unconvincing. Shrader won the Met National Auditons in 2007—a moment immortalized in the film “The Audition”— and his voice seems less penetrating now than it did then, which is worrying.

As Giorgio Germont, Stephen Powell possesses much more of the voice we expect in Verdi: a large, dark resonant baritone that commands the stage from the moment he enters. Like Oropesa, he sings words as if he means them, and his Act II duet with her is (as it should be) the dramatic highlight of the evening—save perhaps for Violetta’s two big arias. Occasionally, he modulates dynamics or color to fit the circumstances, but not nearly as much as he might. Were he do that more, and highlight the text more carefully, I see no reason why—in an era where casting directors wring their hands over the lack of Verdi baritones—Powell shouldn’t be engaged by major houses worldwide.

La traviata contains more than its share of quirky characters. Standouts among them in this production are soprano Rachel Sterrenberg, a Curtis Institute student who sang well here as the maid Annina (as she did in the company’s recent production of Yardbird), and bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, a company veteran in such roles, who is appropriately deadpan as the Baron Douphol.

Music Director Corrado Rovaris can at times be uneven or cautious, but he is splendid here. The two famous preludes are played as if each is a single phrase, floated on a lovely veil of lovely legatissimo string playing, with the subtlest of dynamic inflections. (On Friday the effect was diluted, in the case of the Act 3 prelude, by those in the audience who coughed themselves back into otorhinolaryngological comfort after the intermission.) Elsewhere Rovaris keeps the tempo flowing and the volume from rising to a level that covers the singers.

The production is workaday but successful. The costumes are inoffensive, that is, elegant and a bit titillating without really expressing anything distinctive. The style aims for that 1950s revival look so fashionable with opera designers these days (I presume because it looks old, exotic and chic, but not so old and exotic that it might be taken as stuffy). And there is of course something for every taste: ladies in colorful dresses, ladies dressed as men, ladies showing a little leg, handsome men without shirts, etc. The set designs are agreeable and sensible: that is, simple, colorful, traditional and seemingly inexpensive, with a unit set accessorized with different furniture.

Andrew Moravcsik

image= image_description= product=yes product_title=La traviata, Philadelphia product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=
Posted by Gary at 5:12 PM

October 9, 2015

Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera

Alas, an imposing set both realizes his basic premise and physically restricts its development. It was left mostly up to the cast to unfold Verdi’s unique brand of widescreen but searchingly intimate drama.

At its unveiling, the forbidding set, encrusted with World War I mud, lowered the atmosphere to a macabre chill. After all, Il Trovatore is also a ghost story. As the captain of the guard tells us, the old gypsy, burned at the stake for witchcraft, literally haunts the castle where the soldiers are garrisoned. The soldiers sat on fire-lit slabs, which were soon revealed to be parallel rows of square pillars that could be raised up in the air or sunk into holes in the ground. They reconfigured to represent trees, graveyards, trenches and, cleverly, the prison-tower in Act IV. Combined with the time-stamped costumes, the grim pilasters created resonant images, even suggesting genocidal graves while the soldiers baited Roma for sport. The historical parallel with Gutiérrez's nineteenth-century play, the source for the libretto, was intentionally disturbing. Mirror-lined walls reproduced the pillars endlessly, just as the gypsy’s fate replicates itself through intergenerational hatred. Theoretically ingenious­—in practice, however, the pillars and wells inhibited the singers’ movements and turned them into tableaux figures. The initial visual impact was watered down by persevering darkness and the upstage mirror unwittingly placed the conductor on the stage. This problem could be solved before the production visits its co-parent, the Paris Opera, next year. Trickier are the unsightly wires trapping the performers whenever the pillars are lowered to ground level.

orchesterdress00009.pngSimone Piazzola as Il Conte di Luna, Violeta Urmana as Azucena, Roberto Tagliavini as Ferrando with Koor van De Nationale Opera

Fortunately, the success of this work chiefly depends on the singers, and this cast has the right Trovatore stuff. This was not a night of strict bel canto observance and vocal grandstanding. Cabalettas and strettas, the short, fast arias expressing urgent resolve, were not repeated. Interpolated high notes were hit but not sustained. In his letters, Verdi repeatedly expressed a preference for singing with theatrical heart and soul over technical prowess, but this cast delivered plenty of both. That most of them are native Italian speakers with a natural linguistic cadence was a plus.

Bass Roberto Tagliavini sang Ferrando’s fright-night narrative elegantly, with clean sixteenth notes and lip-smacking relish. In fact, his whole performance was praiseworthy. His commander, Simone Piazzola was a rare Di Luna who did not run out of breath in the Act I jealousy trio, unspooling effortless, bronze-coloured lines. Mr Piazzola’s voice may not be a Sherman tank (or, since this is the Great War, a Liberty tank), but it is free of the bluster that sometimes comes with larger voices. Carmen Giannattasio was his erotic obsession. Dressed and coiffed severely, she gave us a confidently sung Leonora. The thick cream of her middle voice was highly gratifying and her flint-edged top notes proclaimed that this Lady would stop at nothing to save her troubadour. In her how-we-met aria, “Tacea la notte placida”, Ms Giannattasio missed a rung or two on her runs, but she was both technically steadfast and moving and in her long Act IV scene, adding a beautifully chiselled cadenza to her aria.

As the traumatized gypsy who haplessly burns her own baby while trying to avenge her mother, Violeta Urmana plumbed the depths of Azucena’s music with shuddering power. Her upper register now has a wild vibrato, but there was no ducking her vocal and theatrical dominance. Her high B-flats were half-sung, half-screamed, but one-hundred-percent petrifying. She hallucinated stupendously in the dungeon scene and sang hauntingly in her duet with Manrico, which exploits the most luxurious segment of her voice. Equally golden in this duet was Francesco Meli, who brought a thrilling mix of radiance and red-bloodedness to the title role. Mr Meli’s voice is hefty enough to handle the big, swaggering moments, but the noble colour of his tenor blooms best in lyrical music. Fervent applause followed his affecting wedding night aria, “Ah sì, ben mio, coll'essere”.

orchesterdress00067.pngSimone Piazzola as Il Conte di Luna and Carmen Giannattasio as Leonora

Antonio Lozano was a shaggy-locked and –voiced Ruiz and Peter Arink made the most of the Old Gypsy’s few lines. Florieke Beelen sang Ines, Leonora’s lady’s maid, with glass-bell clarity. Maurizio Benini led the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra with fleet tempi alternated with slow-and-gape braking. Crucially, the orchestra never submerged the singers, and one assumes that the few muddled cues and tempo distemper will disappear during the run. However, both the orchestra and the Dutch National Opera Choir are capable of subtler shading and articulation and should have been utilized beyond mere competence level. But the singing was in capable hands, and, in the case of Il Trovatore, that spells victory.

Jenny Camilleri

Cast and production information:

Manrico — Francesco Meli, Leonora — Carmen Giannattasio, Azucena — Violeta Urmana, Ferrando — Roberto Tagliavini, Ines — Florieke Beelen, Ruiz— Antonio Lozano, An old gypsy— Peter Arink, A messenger— Richard Prada, Director — Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus), Co-director — Valentina Carrasco, Conductor — Maurizio Benini, Set Designer — Alfons Flores, Costume Designer — Lluc Castells, Lighting Designer — Urs Schönebaum, Dutch National Opera Choir, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Heard at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, Thursday, 8th October 2015.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/orchesterdress00055.png image_description=Violeta Urmana as Azucena with Koor van De Nationale Opera [Photo © Dutch National Opera, Photographer Ruth Walz] product=yes product_title=Il Trovatore at Dutch National Opera product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri product_id=Above: Violeta Urmana as Azucena with chorus

Photos © Dutch National Opera, Photographer Ruth Walz
Posted by Gary at 9:59 PM

October 5, 2015

The Barber of Seville, ENO London

So often I find myself watching, and enjoying, opera productions while at the same time feeling some frustration that although a director has demonstrated abundant invention, distinctive insight, and visual and dramatic imagination, he or she (particularly, dare I say it, if they are dipping into operatic domains from the worlds of cinema or theatre) simply ‘doesn’t know what to do with the music’. This is never a charge that will be made of Miller: every gesture, large or small, is driven by musico-dramatic imperatives. One senses how carefully, and with what imaginative engagement, he has listened to the score, before any directorial decisions are made. In this production, there is sustained narrative focus and credible development. Movement and pace are perfectly judged; humour and gravity are neatly balanced; the design is detailed and engaging, but not fussy; stage blocking is convincing. It all seems so ‘natural’ precisely because the parts are responsive to the score and thus form a coherent whole.

Perhaps the sets are starting to look a bit dusty and as singers reprise roles it’s inevitable that occasionally there may be a sense of routine and repetition. But, the exterior of a street in eighteenth-century Seville would look a little shabby in the gloom of night, and Dr Bartolo’s house is musty and stuffy - Rosina laments that he has confined her to a ‘prison. Moreover, at this revival, directed by Peter Relton, the performances on stage, from both those new to their roles and/or the house and show-stealing ‘old hands’, were winning - although it has to be said that the vocal offerings did not consistently match the dramatic heights achieved.

Miller’s unfailingly sure touch is evident from the first scene, as Fiorello, confidently played by baritone Matthew Durkan, marshals the band of serenading minstrels - lured from a theatrical troupe if the commedia-style costumes are anything to go by (and a fitting allusion, given the commedia origins of Beaumarchais’ comedy on which the opera is based) - before the fortress-like façade of Dr Bartolo’s house. The humour is simple and direct, visual and aural: ‘piano, pianissimo’ is bellowed like a fog-horn, a trunk is dropped with an ear-splitting crash, a ladder emerges from a trunk. As the troubadours strummed their lutes, twirled their parasols, and swayed gently to the Count’s courtly crooning, I was reminded of that blend of tender affection and gentle derision with which we watch the pitiful thespian efforts of Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals when they perform before the Athenian court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream - the more so as Count Almaviva’s band have their very own ‘Moonshine’, holding a lantern aloft.

The arrival of the wily, sometimes wild, barber who directs, complicates and untangles the romantic entanglements is always a vibrant moment at the start of the Act. But, on this occasion baritone Morgan Pearse went for clear-thinking composure rather than exuberant swagger; perhaps this Figaro did not exude quite enough vivacity, particularly in the second Act, but Pearse’s presentation was controlled and carefully considered. ‘Largo al factotum della città’ may have lacked a certain bombast and bluster, but Miller’s details shown through all the more for it - the stopping of the mouths of the barber’s mannequins as he mimics the manic cries for ‘Figaro!’ which ring through Seville, for example. And, this is one of the few times that I have heard Figaro launch into his patter at such a break-neck gallop that the orchestra have to race to catch him up. Moreover, while Pearse’s baritone might have missed a little variety of colour and nuance, the appealing tone projected strongly and truly; every word of the Amanda and Anthony Holden’s terrific translation was clearly heard - in this regard, the decision not to employ surtitles during the recitative was a wise one, especially when the cast included singers of such diction-dazzling calibre as Andrew Shore. And, Pearse’s effortless vocal projection added to our sense of a man-about-town at ease with himself and in calm control of the situation, as when Figaro commandingly interrupted the chaotic maelstrom of the Act 1 Finale.

It is a nice touch, too, to see Figaro genuinely accompany the Count’s serenade. Mexican tenor Eleazar Rodriguez doesn’t have a particularly golden bel canto gleam, but his singing was accurate and pleasant-toned. Rodriguez took a little to find his musical and dramatic equanimity but he responded well in various dramatic situations: he became buoyant in the face of Figaro’s confident authority when he hatches his plan to win Rosina from Bartolo’s grasping clutches, and enjoyed the stage larks of his impersonations as first ebullient drunken soldier and then oleaginous music-master - in the latter guise, cheekily aping Dr Bartolo’s twinging dodgy leg.

Andrew Shore, returning to the role of Bartolo, gave a virtuoso master-class in comic drollery and musical enunciation. His crabby and crotchety Doctor is the epitome of pompous hauteur, and his arrogant self-importance is marvellously undercut by Shore’s perfectly judged physical gags and mannerisms. He knows when to ham it up and when to rein things in; and, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for Bartolo when his pince-nez becomes trapped in his harpsichord, nearly strangling him as he feigns a nonchalant pose.

Bass Barnaby Rea is literally and figuratively larger-than-life as Basilio; in fact, it’s a good thing that he has a few inches on Shore, or the latter would risk decapitation when the extravagant broad brim of Basilio’s black felt hat slices threateningly through the air. Rea’s ‘Slander aria’ was evocatively lit by Lighting Designer Thomas Mannings, and though more firmness of line at the bottom might have confirmed Basilio’s malignity, Rea worked well with Shore in the slapstick and made a strong overall impression.

The slight disappointment for me was mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge’s Rosina. Rudge’s strong, intense lower register gave this Rosina a dash of gravity; she was not simply a flighty young madam, rather a frustrated young woman snatching at escape routes - first ‘Lindoro’, then ‘Don Alonso’, and finally Count Almaviva - from her guardian’s lustful intentions. The transition from Scene 1 to Scene 2 in the opening Act is a very effective piece of theatre: the façade slides and the interior of Bartolo’s house swivels, so that now we look through Rosina’s eyes: at the oppressive and claustrophobic medical paraphernalia in the cabinets - coloured tinctures and unctions, anatomical body parts, contorted apparatus - and out through the balcony window, a tantalisingly elusive doorway to freedom. The platform juts through the exterior façade, furthering the sense of peering through the keyhole to espy the maiden’s misfortune.
But, vocally Rudge didn’t inspire much sympathy for Rosina; I found that, at least initially, in ‘Una voce poco fa’, her mezzo lacked the sort of lustre and sheen that would coax the ear and the heart, resulting in a slight sense of detachment. On the whole, the coloratura was even and fluent - after some imprecision in ‘Una voce poco fa’ - but a bit more dazzle and sparkle would have strengthened our impression of Rosina’s high-spiritedness.

Soprano Katherine Broderick, a Cardiff Singer of the World finalist, made a big impact in a small role, as Berta, Bartolo’s housekeeper. A bit too big an impact perhaps, for Broderick has a Wagnerian power which is not necessarily suited to the role of Berta, and it perhaps wasn’t appropriate for the servant to out-sing her masters in the Act 1 Finale. But, Broderick’s Act 2 aria, ‘Il vecchiotto cerca moglie’, was an engaging and lively reflection on the madness of love by one who, despite her years, longs for a bit of romantic action herself.

After a somewhat messy overture, with unnecessarily exaggerated dynamics and some uncertain shifts of tempo, conductor Christopher Allen led the Orchestra of ENO in an acceptable reading of the score, but was not always sympathetic to his cast, who at times struggled to penetrate through the orchestral texture. Given the dramatic elegance of Miller’s business - romantic and comic, equally - it was a pity that too often the pit lacked a similar grace and eloquence.

English National Opera - which has a new Music Director, Mark Wigglesworth, a caretaker Chairman and Chief Executive, no Artistic Director, and faces close Arts Council scrutiny in the coming months - needs something to smile about just now; this revival could do the trick.

Claire Seymour

Figaro - Morgan Pearse, Rosina - Kathryn Rudge, Count Almaviva - Eleazar Rodriguez, Dr Bartolo -Andrew Shore, Don Basilio - Barnaby Rea, Berta - Katherine Broderick, Fiorello - Matthew Durkan; Director - Jonathan Miller, Revival Director - Peter Relton, Conductor - Christopher Allen, Designer - Tanya McCallin, Lighting Designer - Tom Mannings, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

Posted by iconoclast at 7:47 AM

Monteverdi: Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, Bostridge, Barbican London

The first performances of Claudio Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, in Venice during the 1639-40 Carnival seasons, would presumably have involved a fair amount of stage business and spectacle: gods emerging from the ocean, or aloft in the firmaments; the transformation of the Phaeacian ship into a rock; the eponymous hero disappearing and descending beneath the earth when struck down by heavenly fire; air-borne chariots bearing Telemachus and Minerva; Jove’s soaring eagle.

Here, directors Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson adopted a ‘semi-staged’ approach and imaginative use was made of the whole Hall, with entrances through the auditorium, singers placed in the balcony, and action both before and behind the players of the Academy of Ancient Music who were seated centrally. Such spatial variety and displacement can be an immersive experience for the audience but on this occasion I felt that at times the listener’s ears and eyes were at times diverted from the central, driving dynamic of the work; that is, the reunion of Penelope with her long-lost husband, Ulysses. The performers all wore (their own, one presumes) black attire, and were distinguished by diverse coloured silk scarves and turbans; this created a visual intensity, and I felt that less fussy stage movement would have complemented and enhanced this focus.

But, there was no lack of vocal intensity. Monteverdi’s librettist Giacomo Badoaro remarked of the opera, ‘I have avoided thoughts and conceits taken from the abstruse, and I have rather aimed for the emotions’; and, who better to communicate emotional extremity than tenor Ian Bostridge who, in assuming the title role seemed, as he physically and vocally embodied the returning wanderer, to be re-visiting the quasi-existential extremes of Schubert’s Winterreise, with whose itinerant exile Bostridge appears to experience an astonishing, and at times unsettling, empathy. Bostridge pushed Monteverdi’s declamatory idiom to its expressive heights and boundaries: lyricising, crooning, snarling, rasping, Bostridge employed his increasingly full and rich lower register in particular, to present a disturbingly angry and discomposed figure, racked by his suffering and alienation. One sensed that this Ulisse was a man plagued as much by his own thoughts and philosophical reflections as by the deeds and words of others. Voice and body flinched with pain, yet the agony was assuaged by vocal sweetness; and in the final duet of reconciliation, the directness of the tenor’s line and tone, blanched of torment, was deeply moving.

In contrast to such visible and audible unrest, Barbara Kozelj’s Penelope was a still oasis of stoical forbearance. The part seemed to lie a little low for her and she could not match Bostridge’s vivid projection, but Kozejl’s reticence and reserve established a formality which spoke of an emotional self-containment which was a telling counterpart to Ulisse’s more evident distress.

Penelope’s self-protective detachment from the courtly disruptions and dramas around her was established in the Prologue. It was conventional to frame Venetian opera with a Prologue presenting the ethical and emotional dilemmas to be explored in the drama to follow, but - in contrast to La Musica’s opening address in Orfeo, whose import and relevance to the main action is self-evident - the direct connection between the Prologue of Il ritorno and that of the opera itself is less straightforwardly obvious. Here, Penelope stood centre-stage, her back to the audience, her head bowed, as Time, Fortune and Love tormented Human Frailty; subtly, thus, the heroine’s rare virtue, fortitude and constancy were intimated - and these qualities would prove a sure defence against Time and Fortune in the action to follow, revealing her Love to be far from the capricious fickleness presented in the Prologue.

Kozelj made much of the expressive devices - the dissonances and harmonic shifts - in Penelope’s Act 1 Scene 1 lament, while suppressing overt intimations of feeling, and reserved the enrichening of her tonal palette for her climactic Act III aria, ‘Illustratevi, o cieli’ (Penelope’s first ‘aria’ moment), in which she recognises her long-lost husband and rejoices.

The gods are distinguished by the extremity of their vocal ranges - Minerva is a high soprano while Nettuno is a deep bass - and the elaborate ornamentation of their vocal lines, and both Elizabeth Watts and Lukas Jakobski used such features to suggest magnificent magical power and mystery. Watts, disguised as an old hag, relished her cackling, chortling, shrieking entrance; but thereafter, the glossiness of her virtuosic arioso was noteworthy, the sheen adding lustre to the rage evoked. Jakobski demonstrated impressive diversity: he roared and bellowed as Nettuno, but was sweet-toned and beguiling as one of the suitors, Antinoo.

The opera’s characters are powerfully defined, dramatically and musically, and the cast successfully captured this strength and forthrightness. Writing of Sophie Junker in the role of Drusilla in the AAM’s performance of L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Barbican last October, I remarked the way her ‘joyful vivacity later gave way to tender reflection’; and, here, as Melanto, Junker combined a similar brightness and sensuousness. Melanto and Eurimaco were a deliciously light-hearted pair of servant-lovers whose flirtatious arias countered the dark sparseness of the central protagonists’ recitative. Tenor Gwilym Bowen had also impressed me in that Poppea - I wrote that ‘as Valletta and the First Soldier, [Bowen] moved and sang with naturalness, and demonstrated a pleasing, focused upper register’ - and I was delighted once again by the charming ease with which he conveyed Eurimaco’s unclouded love and happiness.

Co-director Alexander Oliver himself took to the stage, as the scurrilous, gluttonous social parasite, Iro, and was incisive and challenging in the role, defiantly mocking those who presumed to mock him. His Act III lament touchingly assumed a contrasting mode: the death of the Suitors at the hand of Ulisse, aided by Minerva, at the end of Act II leaves the protagonist heroically victorious and Iro disconsolate and alone. Oliver imbued the comic stutters and sighs with a tragic tone as Iro, threatening suicide, lurched towards insanity.

There were also impressive performances from Andrew Tortise, as Ulisse’s son Telemaco - whose vocal line possessed a beautiful sincerity - Christopher Gillett as Eumete, and Charmian Bedford, who was a lively and attention-grabbing Giunone. John Lattimore (Pisandro) and Richard Latham (Anfinomo) joined with Jakobski to form a mellifluous and well-blended trio of Suitors.

Richard Egarr maintained fluency, skilfully managing the opera’s flexible shifts between recitative and aria-idioms (madrigalistic word-painting, declamation and rhetorical emphasis, affective elaboration), and the stylistic mosaic cohered into a unified whole which drove persuasively towards its powerful climax. The closing image of a circle of gentle light - Penelope within, Ulisse without - was compelling. It almost seemed a pity to break the spell with applause, however much one wished to celebrate and thank the performers for their unwavering commitment and musical excellence.

Claire Seymour

Ulisse - Ian Bostridge, Penelope - Barbara Kozelj, Minerva/Amore - Elizabeth Watts, Telemaco - Andrew Tortise, Tempo/Nettuno/Antinoo - Lukas Jakobski, Melanto/Fortuna - Sophie Junker, L’Umana Fragilità, Iro - Alexander Oliver, Eumete - Christopher Gillett, Giunone - Charmian Bedford, Pisandro/Coro di Feaci - John Lattimore, Anfinomo/Coro di Feaci - Richard Latham, Eurimaco/Giove - Gwilym Bowen; Richard Egarr, director/harpsichord; Alexander Oliver and Timothy Nelson, co-directors; Academy of Ancient Music.

Posted by iconoclast at 7:34 AM

English Touring Opera - Debussy, Massenet and Offenbach

)Earlier in 2014, ‘cultural myth’ was the theme, bringing together three very different operas: Tippett’s King Priam, Britten’s Paul Bunyan, and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

A blend of unity and diversity characterises this autumn’s tour too. ETO are staging three French operas from the late 19th century: Debussy’s landmark ‘symbolist’ opera, Pelléas and Mélisande, Massenet’s drame lyrique, Werther, and Offenbach’s opéra fantastique, The Tales of Hoffmann. Given the range of idiom and tone, and the scale, of the genres represented, General Director James Conway’s comment that the new season has been entered ‘with a spirit of experiment’ seems apt. The three operas are all being performed in ‘chamber versions’, with the accompaniments (commissioned and found) re-arranged for small orchestra or chamber ensemble - and although the company’s states its desire to perform ‘compelling dramas that could be especially well told on an intimate scale’, the practical contingencies of touring must surely also have played a part in this decision.
On the evidence of the first two operas, Pelléas and Werther, staged in the fairly small Britten Theatre at the Royal College of Music, there have been both gains and losses.

In 1886 Jules Massenet travelled to Bayreuth to hear Parsifal, and then, with his friend and publisher Georges Hartmann, on to Wetzlar, the setting of Goethe’s quasi-autobiographical novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Massenet’s opera was completed in 1887 but, turned down by Léon Carvalho at the Opéra-Comique, it waited five further years for its first performance, at the Vienna Court Opera. Here it was presented in a German translation by Max Kalbeck, but the French-language premiere took place shortly after, in Geneva in December 1892, and Massenet’s sensitivity to the French language - his instinctive feeling for its natural inflections and expressive richness - is surely one of the opera’s finest features. ETO’s decision to perform the work in English was apparently taken during rehearsals: Conway explains, in the programme booklet, that the intention had been to retain the original French, but that director Oliver Platt thought that this would seem anachronistic in the chosen setting: the Midwestern USA c.1950 replaces Wetzlar c.1780.

In the event, I felt that the English text, together with the reduced scoring, resulted in a prosaic tone far removed from the fervour and emotional immediacy that we associate with a work which embodies the composer’s grand formal and expressive ambitions, rejecting as it does the conventional form of opéra-comique (separate numbers linked by spoken dialogue) for a through-composed idiom whose use of reminiscence motifs surely bears the imprint of Wagner. Werther seems to me to be a ‘large-scale’ work in just about every sense of the term; but ETO have essentially reduced it to a tale of domestic mundanity.

One of the engaging elements of the opera is the way that it combines rustic simplicity - the routines and rituals of the home-life of Charlotte, her sister Sophie and her father - with obsessive passion and agonising sentiment. Director Oliver Platt and designer Oliver Townsend have adopted a naturalistic approach, pushing aside the moonlight and natural landscape which enchant and inspire the lovers (in the novel, following a failed love affair the protagonist has sought refuge in this rural paradise) and re-create a composite domestic interior of the 1950s. The design is imaginative, apportioned to suggest a kitchen, parlour, study and play-room, with a stairway rising left to intimated upper floors. But, in striving so determinedly for ‘realism’, the director and designer clutter the stage with pots, pans and buckets, coat-hooks and hat stands, mirrors, ironing-boards, tables, chairs, rocking-horses - even the stairs are strewn with children’s dolls and toys - that there is scarcely any room for the emotions which drive the work to blossom and expand.

There is some suggestion of mystery and of the inner life, though, in the curving mirror which embraces the four instrumentalists, who are placed on stage, to the rear. And, it must be noted that Iain Farrington’s arrangement of the score for ‘salon ensemble’ - piano (Farrington), violin (Philippa Mo), cello (Morwena Del Mar) and clarinet (Oliver Pashley) is exquisitely scored and was beautifully played. In particular Mo’s lyrical phrasing of the recurring theme which comes to characterise the love of Werther for Charlotte was full of tenderness and beauty: at such moments one can understand how Massenet came about his nickname, ‘Gounod’s son’. But, while Conway may have been seeking ‘the distinctive sound of French chamber music’, such a world does not do justice to crazed agonies which drive Werther to his death or to the hysteria of the ‘Werther Fever’ which inspired young men all over Europe in Goethe’s day to mimic their hero’s dress and women to wear ‘Eau de Werther’ with, in some cases, the obsession spiralling to tragic ends.

Thus, despite the best efforts of the principals, the internal anguish which drives the drama is never convincingly communicated. Goethe-Massenet’s anti-hero essentially does little other than mope and brood: but, baritone Ed Ballard’s bespectacled office gent - his dull grey suit is far from the ‘blue frock, waistcoat and breeches of yellow leather, and boots with brown tops’ Goethe described, and hardly likely to give rise to a cult following - is more nerdy geek than fashionably anguished poetic dreamer. Werther is one of opera’s great ‘outsiders’ and the original high-lying tenor line rings with ardency and extremity. It’s true that the composer himself provided a version for baritone - when the opera was performed in St Petersburg with Mattia Battistini in the title role - but, the lowering of Werther’s vocal line (no other element of the score is altered) also depresses the emotional temperature.

Ballard sang with warmth, strong phrasing and a clear line, but his baritone was short of dramatic richness (he was recovering from illness) and Werther’s rapturous ruminations never quite took flight. The baritone’s tone was aptly dark, but lacked the ‘ring’ that a tenor would supply. And, ‘Pourquoi me réveiller’ didn’t quite find the required touch of wistfulness as Werther seeks an imagined succour in self-annihilation. Ballard never looked fully comfortable in the role, and the drawn-out death scene, complete with bloody splatters, prolonged staggering and quasi-resurrection, really was an over-prolonged agony
As Charlotte’s betrothed, Albert, Simon Wallfisch seemed a neater fit for his role, and contributed a much needed intimation of inner unrest, doubt and tension; there was an energy and buzz every time Albert was on stage. His voice was well-supported and communicated with directness; this was a confident performance, musically and dramatically. Bass Michael Druiett was also on good form as Le Bailli, Charlotte’s father; he acted vividly as the patriarch, and his voice had depth and presence.
It was mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin, though, whose performance was most noteworthy, and Charlotte’s letter-scene aria, ‘Va! Laisse couler mes larmes’, the most tender moment. Dobbin found layers and colours which were expressive and moving, and there was considerable artistry in her delivery. Lauren Zolezzi was vivacious and sweet-toned as Charlotte’s sister, Sophie; while tenor Jeffrey Stewart was forthright and energised as Johann Schmidt (the bailiff’s two friends being merged into this composite comrade), though I found Stewart a bit too ‘up-front’ in this minor role.

There was undoubtedly much musical sincerity and melodic beauty in this performance of Werther, but it lacked the sentimental power and sensuous perfume which has made this opera such a universal favourite.

If Massenet’s visit to Bayreuth played its part in shaping Werther, Claude Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande has an even stronger kinship with Wagner, and with Parsifal in particular, though the relationship between Debussy’s opera and Wagner is an equivocal one. The following evening’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande (the opening night was 1st October) promised to be a more successful candidate for a reduced-scale arrangement than Massenet’s romantic tragedy; the cast is small, the focus claustrophobic, and the self-absorbed protagonists live in a world of suggestion: the mythical Allemonde where no one can ‘see’ - an oblique dream-scape where paring down might paradoxically enhance the potential for ambiguity of evocation and intimation.

ETO are employing Belgian composer Annelies van Parys’s arrangement for five strings, single woodwind, horn, percussion, harp and harmonium. Conducted confidently by Jonathan Berman, the chamber ensemble produced some moments of expressive power but overall I felt that Berman did not summon the requisite fluency and flexibility demanded by Debussy’s continuously evolving textures, arabesques and misty recollections. The five string players, in particular, perhaps understandably struggled to produce the necessary shimmers and flickerings, and the string tone was occasionally a little too visceral.

More problematic, though, are the cuts - to characters, chorus and score: two whole scenes (Act 2 scene 3 and Act 4 scene 3) are missing in van Pary’s score. Director James Conway observes that ‘this is more cogent than shaving every scene, but we did have to try to remember the missing scenes in the production’; but there are in fact other smaller omissions and alterations, and this does at times weaken our understanding of characters’ motivation and conflicts. Indeed, Conway has reinstated, as spoken text, what he calls a ‘crucial’ speech - shortly before the rather oddly placed interval - suggesting a slight uneasiness about the dramatic lacunas.
Fortunately, the work was performed in French - it would surely be impossible to ‘translate’ the deceptive simplicity of Maeterlinck’s language and Debussy’s understated stress and phrase patterns into another tongue - and the diction was on the whole serviceable, though the large screens relaying the text in English, placed at either side of the stage, were an intrusive presence.

The set and staging are, however, convincing. James Conway lets the events follow one after the other without undue directorial intervention (the only false note was some minor stage business with the filing cabinet which serves as the well into which Mélisande drops her ring and, later, as the castle vaults) and the shifting relationships are thoughtfully interpreted and clearly delineated. Oliver Townsend’s blue-green room with narrow rose-coloured interior is evocative without offering overly defined allusions. We are in a crumbling manor whose flecked wall-paper peels menacingly from the dilapidated walls, the palette suggestive of both watery depths, as the light ripples, and the glowing enticement of deep-hued jewels gleaming in a treasure chest. A gauzy mesh obscures some of the action, creating further distance and ambivalence as Arkel’s castle appears as of espied through a red mist, Mark Howland’s superb lighting further deepening the mystery
And, the cast sing very well. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Susanna Hurrell’s Mélisande whose fragility was contradicted by a strong, full vibrato which gave Mélisande more substance and animation than is usual. But, Hurrell conveyed the ambivalence of Mélisande’s feelings for her husband, Golaud, effectively, and there was an impulsive feeling in her fragments of melody. Mélisande’s protestations that her love for Pélleas are innocent were touching and sincere.Reviewing a recital given by Jonathan McGovern in December 2011, I remarked that he brought ‘youthful vigour and ebullience’ to the Wigmore Hall, that his ‘baritone rang out strong and clear’ and that ‘the upper range of his voice has great[er] flexibility and variety of tone’. At that time, McGovern had only recently graduated from the Royal Academy of Music (with a distinction and the ‘Queen’s Commendation for Excellence’ to add to other awards that year, including 2nd prize at the Kathleen Ferrier Awards). Four years later, the ‘youthful vigour’ of McGovern’s high baritone has blossomed further; his appealing tone and strong top made McGovern an immensely persuasive Pélleas, vocally and dramatically. He interacted particularly well with Stephan Loges’ Golaud, Loges’ lower lying and heavier baritone complementing the bright elasticity of McGovern’s voice. Indeed, Loges’ struggled a little with some of the higher passages, but this did convey the trauma that his emotional journey has wrought on Golaud, and his weeping despair at Mélisande’s death lingered compellingly.I was particularly impressed by Michael Druiett’s Arkel. He was a still, honourable centre amid the emotional turmoil, his voice noble and melodious, conveying gravitas and resigned acceptance that what will be, will be. Lauren Zolezzi’s Yniold was as sweet-toned and unpretentious as her Sophie had been the previous evening, but I found Helen Johnson’s contralto was a little too full and rich for the role of Geneviève.

This is a brave production which has much merit. But in the final reckoning it is Debussy’s orchestral score which carries the expressive burden. It conjures the half-spoken, the dreamy, and leads us into the darkness of the forest’s gloomy heart and the castle’s oppressive vaults, then challenges us with the glare of daylight which assaults the entangled protagonists when they rise from the crypts to the castle terrace; and, Berman and his 13 players struggled to do justice to the delicacy and colourism of the composer’s orchestration and textures.

I’m sure that these productions will settle and grow as the tour continues. ETO should be praised both for taking risks and for seeing through their commitment. The Tales of Hoffmann will complete the French triptych on 9th and 10th October at the Britten Theatre (and there’s another chance to catch Werther on 8th October), before the productions tour to Buxton, Malvern, Durham, Harrogate, Cambridge, Bath, Snape and Exeter.

Claire Seymour

Werther (2nd October)
Werther - Ed Ballard, Charlotte - Carolyn Dobbin, Albert - Simon Wallfisch, Sophie - Lauren Zolezzi, Le Bailli - Michael Druiett, Johann Schmidt - Jeff Stewart; Director - Oliver Platt, arranged and conducted - Iain Farrington, Designer - Oliver Townsend, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland.
Pélleas et Mélisande (3rd October)
Pélleas - Jonathan McGovern, Mélisande - Susanna Hurrell, Golaud - Stephan Loges, Arkel - Michael Druiett, Geneviève - Helen Johnson, Yniold - Lauren Zolezzi; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Jonathan Berman, Designer - Oliver Townsend, Lighting Designer - Mark Howland, Movement Consultant - Bernadette Iglich, Video Design - Zakk Hein.

Posted by iconoclast at 6:58 AM

October 4, 2015

Boesch and Martineau Schubert Complete Songs, Wigmore Hall, London

Boesch and Martineau began, "at the beginning" with two very early pieces Schubert wrote while still a student at the Stadtkonvict, a school as forbidding as its name in English might suggest. But Schubert has Antonio Salieri for a teacher. Quel innocent figlio D 17/1 1812 and Pensa, che questo istante D76 1813, are settings of poems by Pietro Metastasio. Metastasio (1698-1782) was a prolific composer of operas and other vocal works, whom Salieri knew personally . To Schubert, Metastasio would have been almost a contemporary figure. Boesch and Martineau performed them so well that they seemed surprisingly sophisticated, showing that the young Schubert was absorbing the fundamentals of his art thoroughly from the finest models of his time.

Nonetheless, Schubert was independent-minded, already immersed in German poetry and song. No doubt Gretchen am Spinnrade and other early songs will appear later in the Wigmore Hall series, but for now, Boesch and Martineau chose four of Schubert's eleven settings of poems by Theodor Körner (1791-1813), from 1815. Amphiaraos D166 is a ballad in heroic mien. "Dank Dir, Gewätiger Gott" sang Boesch, "Dein Blitz ist mir der Unsterblickeit Siegel!" The thunderbolt of Zeus is the protagonist's "seal of Immortality. Gebet wäjhrend der Schlacht D171 begins with forceful violence turning suddenly to prayer. Körner was a patriot, a hero of the Lützower Jäger, freedom fighters against Napoleon, in a period in which the Romantic ideals of German identity were forged. Körner was killed in battle. . Schubert was a few years younger, and in no position to enlist, which gives the settings extra poignancy. The mood changed completely with Das war Ich D174, a song of love with a twist of humour and a delightfully pretty postlude. With a big smile, Boesch sang Liebestädelei D206. "Lass dich küssen" sang Boesch with total charm.

More contrast. Boesch and Martineau followed the lighter side of Körner with the declamatory ballad, Die drei Sänger D329 1815 to a poem by Johann Friedrich Ludwig Bobrik. Schubert loved setting these sagas, though they are hard to carry off well without the communication skills Boesch and Martineau possess. Schubert didn't complete the song, so Boesch recited the rest of the poem so we could imagine what might have been. The story is familiar. It's a variation of the legend of Der König von Thule, better known in the Goethe setting Schubert wrote at around the same time. Then, the lyrical dialogue between swan, eagle and doves that is Lebensmelodien D 395 1816, to a poem by August Wilhelm von Schlegel, brother of the more famous Friedrich Schlegel, of whom more below. It's a gentle song, made persuasive by the sheer grace of Boesch and Martineau's delivery.

Das Heimweh D 456 1816 (Theodor Hell) prepared us for the high point of the whole evening, a truly masterful performance of Der Wanderer D489 1816 to a poem by Georg Phillipp Schmidt known as "Schmidt von Lübeck". (He wasn't born a nobleman.) Der Wanderer is the epitome of the whole Romantic aesthetic, so beautiful and so profound that it is, to many, an even greater masterpiece than Erlkönig. Boesch and Martineau performed it with exceptional intelligence and sensitivity, bringing out its deepest undercurrents. Magnificent phrasing, elucidating the inner patterns in the music, which enhanced meaning even further. This is why those of us who cherish Lieder appreciate the unique qualities of the genre. Der Wanderer expresses emotions so universal that no-one with a soul could fail to be drawn in.

Capping that astonishing Der Wanderer would have been near impossible. After the interval, Boesch and Martineau returned with another Der Wanderer D649 1819 to a poem by Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel, another great pillar of the Romantic revolution that transformed European culture. That might sound formidable, but what it means is that the Romantiker shifted emphasis from externals to internals, from the public to the private. Schlegel's Der Wanderer is a contemplative piece. While Schmidt von Lübeck's wanderer believes ""Dort wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück", Schlegel's wanderer finds peace within himself. "Alles reinen seh' ich mild im Weiderscheine, nichts verworren....froh umgeben, doch allein". (All things I see clearly, gently reflected around me, nothing distorted, happy but resolutely alone). Sometimes it takes greater strength to come to terms with life. In its own way, this Wanderer is as inspirational and as challenging as the other.

The two Der Wanderer songs formed the centrepiece of the recital, whose programme was designed as elegantly as a rondo. Three more Schlegel songs from 1820 followed, Die Vögel D 691, Der Schiffer D694 and Im Walde D 708 In the latter song, Schubert emphasizes the turbulence of "Windes Rauschen, Göttes Flügel", Martineau playing with great vigour. But Schlegel's message is more elusive. Boesch brought out the real depth in the song with the firm way in which he articulated the critical strophe, ""Tief in dunker Waldesnacht, freigegeben alle Zügel schwingt sich des Gedankens Mavcht". (Deep in the forest, in the night we aren't inhibited, so the Power of Thought is made free) In a nutshell, the spirit of the Romantiker, without which we might not appreciate ideas like what we now call psychology. and personal freedom.

Thus we returned, refreshed, to more Italian songs by Schubert, the Drei Gesänge D902 (1827), two of which are to poems by Metastasio, who had inspired the composer when he was was learning his trade with Salieri. This time L'incanto degli ochi and Il traditor deluso are songs of genuine maturity, very much with Schubert's stamp of individuality. Boesch and Martineau delivered them with the grace they deserve Elegantly framing these songs were three settings to poems by Johan Gabriel Seidl, Widerspruch D 865 1826 before and later Bei dir allein! D 866/2 1828 and Irdisches Glück D 866/4. The connections with the rest of the programme go deeper than language. In Irdisches Glück the text refers to a man who finds happiness in simple things, even though there are undercurrents of past suffering. Seidl isn't a poet in the league of Friedrich von Schlegel, but the message isn't so different from that in Schlegel's Der Wanderer : we make of life what we can. Is Lieder a lost art ? By no means, it's totally relevant to our lives today

Anne Ozorio

Posted by iconoclast at 6:24 AM

Shostakovich Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - ENO London

Shostakovich's plot, derived from a short story by Nikolai Leskov, revolves around a frustrated young wife, Katarina Lvovna (Patricia Racette) who is bored out of her mind in the house of the Ismailovs. Dmitri Tcherniakov's staging shows her in a box, isolated from the world of business around her. It's a good concept, and solves practical logistical problems but doesn't vary much. In the final act, the box becomes a prison cell. Katarina's been in a cell all her married life, though once it was draped in fancy carpets. It's a valid concept, but unvarying, and doesn't quite capture the savage turbulence of a society where most people are trapped in some kind of emotional prison. Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov (Robert Hayward), the head of the family, is a boor and a bully, who'd rape his daughter in law if he could. Significantly, he's a rich man whose power means he can get away with anything, until he crosses Katarina. The undercurrent of subversion that runs through Shostakovich's operas is integral to their meaning. Everyone is poisoned in a society based on power based on brutality. Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, easily the finest of Shostakovich's many satirical operas, is much more than one woman's story.

Perhaps First Night nerves inhibited the performance of the first two acts. While Wigglesworth drew thoughtful playing from the ENO orchestra, the music didn't ignite until the last two acts, where Shostakovich wrote music so dramatic that it brought out the inner intensity of the opera far more vividly than the somewhat tentative staging. The off-stage brass weren't just for show. They operate as part of the audience, like voices in a crowd, whose comments might otherwise be suppressed. In these two acts, Wigglesworth made his mark. The playing became violent and extreme, all inhibitions freed. It's not for nothing that the libretto keeps referring to alcohol, which stifles pain, but eventually breaks down social order. The all-important orchestral Interludes blazed with conviction, so well played that the nominal action on stage felt largely irrelevant. Had the singing been of the same standard, this would have been an evening of great music.

Unfortunately the ENO budget does not run high enough, and might shrink further, given the stranglehold of Arts Council England's "special measures". The best singers don't need to learn a role in English because their careers are international. Yet there is an increasingly strong case for opera in the vernacular. Now that most people know basic repertoire from recordings and DVDs, the experience of live opera is even more important. It adds extra perspective. When audiences hear opera in their own language, they can focus on the feelings and emotions behind the sounds. Opera in the vernacular is not a substitute for the original language but offers a different focus. If the government of this country were serious about culture "for the people" it would recognize the value of the ENO, the flagship for opera in English,. It's also a unique training source for singers whose native language is English.

Much depends, however, on the quality of translation. Some ENO translations have been brilliant, like The Mastersingers of Nuremberg, and The Girl of the Golden West, which in English is even funnier than in Italian. David Pountney's translation of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk matched the idea of crude banality which runs through the libretto, but could have used more wit and bite. Even this might have worked had the singing been of the high standards of the orchestral playing. Part of the reason lies in the Personregie or lack thereof. The production premiered in Düsseldorf in 2008. It could use a re-charge.

Patrica Racette sang Katya Kabanova five years ago. At first, her voice didn't quite project through the stalls, so I don't know how it carried further up in the house. At moments, she rose to the challenge of a diffucult and demanding role, but generally the portrayal didn't capture the full breadth of Katarina's personality. Since Tcherniakov's concept of the opera seems to focus on Katarina rather than the world around her, this put added pressure on Racette.

John Daszak sang Sergei, the handsome hunk who relieves Katarina's sexual frustration but ends up a victim like everyone else. He certainly looks the part, and we get to see his behind (or more likely that of a body double). He sings forcefully, and in the final act, creates a sense of genuine outrage. His seduction of Sonyetka (Clare Presland) is an act of violence against Katarina as much as pure animal lust. Nearly ten years ago, the Royal Opera House presented Lady Macbeth of Mtdensk with Eva Maria Westbroek and Christopher Ventris in the leading roles. Those two had real chemistry together. They lit up the production (by Richard Jones) by the sheer commitment of their singing. In Tcherniakov's staging, the copulation is simulated, routine rather than vocally dangerous with little erotic charge..

Quibbles aside, this Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was a good start to the ENO season. One hopes, though, that the vision that animated the ENO will once again return.

Anne Ozorio

Posted by iconoclast at 6:16 AM

Berg Wozzeck Fabio Luisi Zurich Opera

Wozzeck describes a whole community caught up in insane delusions. Wozzeck is at the vortex, but his story began long before, and will certainly continue. Luisi's Wozzeck felt like a tightly twisted knot, building up tensions that reflect the maze-like inner complexities in the score, What a viscerally physical performance! The orchestra played like athletes, very strong men (and women) pulling the knot tighter with spirited, energetic playing, prickling with suppressed violence. "Eine Apoplexia cerebri" sings the Doctor (Lars Woldt), terrifying the Captain (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhake). Our brains could explode at any time.

In the first scene, Wozzeck (Leigh Melrose) is shaving the Captain. "Langsam, Wozzeck, langsam". The orchestra zings with the sharpness of a razor. We know what will happen to Marie. Even more trenchantly, Luisi brings out the details that connect this indoor scene with the wild moor. Wozzeck and Anders (Mauro Peter) are harvesting reeds, another mechanically repetitive process, but Wozzeck sees visions of mushrooms. Luminous string playing, suggesting the surreal unnatural glow. The moon hangs heavily throughout the opera, aurally present, though only Wozzeck can see it. The Doctor makes Wozzeck eat only beans. The trombones emit bursts of flatulence. The Doctor goes apoplectic when Wozzeck can't contain his natural impulses. "O meine Theorie", Ablinger-Sperrhacke sang with demented glee, spitting out the final word "Unsterblich", so it cut like a knife. Theories, controls, regulation: the hallmarks of OCD. Luisi showed how the larger scenes with chorus are not "pastoral". The music moved with a kind of mechanical madness. These peasants are dancing like puppets on strings, their minds dulled with alcohol. No wonder the Drum-Major (Brandon Jovanovich) seems, to Marie (Gun-Brit Barkmin), like a vision of finer things. But Luisi makes sure that the music around the Drum Major is pointedly bombastic. Luisi particularly excelled in the scenes where the chorus, soloists and orchestra were all involved, all playing on slightly different levels - subtly but unnervingly discordant.

Leigh Melrose sang Wozzeck with a day's notice. Like Ablinger-Sperrhacke, and Woldt, Melrose is one of the great character singers in their voice types. This makes a huge difference in a role like Wozzeck, whose lines are muted, as cowed and repressed as the character himself. Wozzeck isn't even an anti-hero, he's been so brutalized that he's almost more animal than man. Singing Wozzeck isn't like singing any other role. Christian Gerhaher was originally scheduled to sing the part. No-one will ever forget Gerhaher's first Wolfram, which glowed with divine purity. Significantly, Elisabeth chose Tannhäuser. Was Wagner making the point that there's much more to art than beauty? "Wir arme Leute" sang Melrose, in one of Wozzeck's few moments of articulation, "Wenn ich ein Herr wär', und hätt' einen Hut und eine Uhr und ein Augenglas und könnt' vornehm reden, ich wollte schon tugendhaft sein!" But poor folks like Wozzeck pee on walls. Melrose has an instinctive understanding of Wozzeck's almost feral inability to conform to social niceties. His grittiness created a Wozzeck that worked well with Luisi's approach to the opera.

In the final scenes, Berg creates invisible curtains of sound that conceal what we might see on stage, but speak powerfully in abstract sound. Wozzeck is silenced, but the orchestra screams in outrage. The Doctor and the Captain recognize the sounds as groans, but do not respond. The children tell Marie's son that her body is lying in the open. He can't respond, for his is a silent part. What little we do glimpse of him lies in what Wozzeck sings about him, and the way the child cowers to escape trauma. Consider that, when the children go back to their games. "Hopp hopp, Hopp hopp", as if nothing has happened. If you can leave a good Wozzeck unmoved, you become sucked into the cycle of cruelty, like the Doctor, Captain and the cruel children.

Anne Ozorio

Posted by iconoclast at 6:10 AM

October 3, 2015

“Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album”

The “legitimate” Puccini album, released in September by Sony Classical, offers a few rarities alongside the mainstays of the tenor repertoire, with classic arias from Tosca and La Bohème presented alongside lesser-known arias from the earliest operas, Le Villi and Edgar, all culminating in a Kaufmann-esque, characteristically heartfelt “Nessun Dorma” on the final track. Throughout the sixteen tracks, the orchestra and chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, conducted passionately if at times unevenly by Antonio Pappano, underscores the raw triumph and tragedy of Puccini’s various operas.

In addition to the title track, the excerpts from Puccini’s third opera, Manon Lescaut, stand out by virtue of their placement as the opening of the recording, made more significant by the fact that they are the only pieces to appear out of chronological order. (Perhaps Kaufmann’s portrayal of Des Grieux at the Met Opera this season has something to do with this.) Kaufmann’s rich and plaintive “Donna non vidi mai” effectively sets the tone for the recording, spotlighting the technical and intuitive strength of which Kaufmann is capable and snatching the listener’s ears into the piercing warmth and lucidity of his vocal sound world. Three other selections from this opera drive home this impression, especially the electrifying “Oh, sarò la più bella!”, the duet in which Kaufmann’s Des Grieux falls in love with the temptress Manon Lescaut (here sung glowingly by Kristine Opolais). Indeed, Kaufmann states in the liner notes that the electricity he felt among the orchestra, conductor, and Opolais was so strong that they “had the feeling from the opening bar: only one take needed!”

The dip back into the past after Manon Lescaut, with selections from Puccini’s first two operas, is most welcome. In “Ei giunge!... Torna ai felici dì” from Le Villi, the orchestra’s whispers, which gradually turn into rumbles, eventually blend with Kaufmann’s searing voice, which provides depth and variety to the occasionally syrupy phrasing during the orchestra’s later passages. Throughout the similarly melancholy “Orgia, chimera dall'occhio vitreo” from Edgar, the blustering orchestra is balanced by Kaufmann’s more delicate vocals and a sweetly lilting oboe solo. The inclusion of these two operas manages to hold the listener’s attention after the gripping Manon Lescaut introduction, even managing to sustain interest through the more run-of-the-mill selections that follow. The expected excerpts from Tosca and Madama Butterfly are fittingly triumphant, while “O Soave Fanciulla” from La Bohème —another successful duet with Opolais, whose voice searingly overlaps and intertwines with Kaufmann’s—flickers with the incandescent hope and warmth of Mimì’s candle.

But the strongest tracks are from the final operas: La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine, Il Trittico, and Turandot. Despite imbalanced orchestra dynamics that flip-flop between overpowering and anemic, the two selections from La Fanciulla del West are still quite moving; Kaufmann’s masterful renditions of “Una parola sola!...or son sei mesi” and “Risparmiate lo scherno...ch’ella mi creda libero” refuse to get drowned out by their accompaniment. The passage from Gianni Schicchi, typically sung by a light tenor, feels fluid and emotionally resonant in Kaufmann’s skillful hands, while the two final tracks, both from Turandot, kick the tragic overtones into high gear and allow for a suitably robust close to the album. Despite the vague splotches of unevenness within the orchestra and conducting, the recording proves an exemplary portrait not only of Kaufmann as a vocalist, but of the trajectory of Puccini’s artistic legacy.

Rebecca S. Lentjes

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0888750924827.png image_description=Sony 509248 product=yes product_title=Nessun Dorma — The Puccini Album (Deluxe Edition) product_by= Jonas Kaufmann and Kristine Opolais. Coro dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Antonio Pappano, cond. product_id=Sony 509248 [2CDs] price=$13.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?ordertag=Perfrecom52577-2128194&album_id=2133069
Posted by Gary at 3:50 PM