Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Arabella in San Francisco

A great big guy in a great big fur coat falls in love with the photo of the worldly daughter of a compulsive gambler. A great big conductor promotes the maelstrom of great big music that shepherds all this to ecstatic conclusion.

Two falls out of three for Britten in Seattle Screw

The miasma of doom that pervades the air of the great house of Bly seems to seep slowly into the auditorium, dulling the senses, weighing down the mind. What evil lurks here? Can these people be saved? Do we care?

Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production - in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.)

Tosca in San Francisco

The story was bigger than its actors, the Tosca ritual was ignored. It wasn’t a Tosca for the ages though maybe it was (San Francisco’s previous Tosca production hung around for 95 years). P.S. It was an evening of powerful theater, and incidentally it was really good opera.

Fine performances in uneven War Requiem at the Concertgebouw

At the very least, that vehement, pacifist indictment against militarism, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, should leave the audience shaking a little. This performance by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra only partially succeeded in doing so. The cast credits raised the highest expectations, but Gianandrea Noseda, stepping in for an ailing Mariss Jansons and conducting the RCO for the first time, did not bring out the full potential at his disposal.

The Tallis Scholars at Cadogan Hall

In their typical non-emphatic way, the Tallis Scholars under Peter Phillips presented here a selection of English sacred music from the Eton Choirbook to Tallis. There was little to ruffle anyone’s feathers here, little in the way of overt ‘interpretation’ – certainly in a modern sense – but ample opportunity to appreciate the mastery on offer in this music, its remoteness from many of our present concerns, and some fine singing.

Dido and Aeneas: Academy of Ancient Music

“Remember me, but ah! forget my fate.” Well, the spectral Queen of Carthage atop the poppy-strewn sarcophagus wasn’t quite yet “laid in earth”, but the act of remembering, and remembrance, duly began during the first part of this final instalment of the Academy of Ancient Music’s Purcell trilogy at the Barbican Hall.

Poignantly human – Die Zauberflöte, La Monnaie

Mozart Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) at La Monnaie /De Munt, Brussels, conducted by Antonello Manacorda, directed by Romeo Castellucci. Part allegory, part Singspeile, and very much a morality play, Die Zauberflöte is not conventional opera in the late 19th century style. Naturalist realism is not what it's meant to be. Cryptic is closer to what it might mean.

Covent Garden: Wagner’s Siegfried, magnificent but elusive

How do you begin to assess Covent Garden’s Siegfried? From a purely vocal point of view, this was a magnificent evening; it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that this was as fine a cast as you are likely to hear anywhere today.

Powerful Monodramas: Zender, Manoury and Schoenberg

The concept of the monologue in opera has existed since the birth of opera itself, but when we come to monodramas - with the exception of Rousseau’s Pygmalion (1762) - we are looking at something that originated at the beginning of the twentieth century.

ENO's Salome both intrigues and bewilders

Femme fatale, femme nouvelle, she-devil: the personification of patriarchal castration-anxiety and misogynistic terror of female desire.

In the Company of Heaven: The Cardinall's Musick at Wigmore Hall

Palestrina led from the front, literally and figuratively, in this performance at Wigmore Hall which placed devotion to the saints at its heart, with Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, Bartholomew and the Virgin Mary all musically honoured by The Cardinall’s Musick and their director Andrew Carwood.

Roberto Devereux in San Francisco

Opera’s triple crown, Donizetti’s tragic queens — Anna Bolena who was beheaded by her husband Henry VIII, their daughter Elizabeth I who beheaded her rival Mary, Queen of Scots and who executed her lover Roberto Devereux.

O18: Queens Tries Royally Hard

Opera Philadelphia is lightening up the fare at its annual festival with a three evening cabaret series in the Theatre of Living Arts, Queens of the Night.

O18 Magical Mystery Tour: Glass Handel

How to begin to quantify the wonderment stirred in my soul by Opera Philadelphia’s sensational achievement that is Glass Handel?

A lunchtime feast of English song: Lucy Crowe and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

The September sunshine that warmed Wigmore Street during Monday’s lunch-hour created the perfect ambience for this thoughtfully compiled programme of seventeenth- and twentieth-century English song presented by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall.

O18: Mad About Lucia

Opera Philadelphia has mounted as gripping and musically ravishing an account of Lucia di Lammermoor as is imaginable.

O18 Poulenc Evening: Moins C’est Plus

In Opera Philadelphia’s re-imagined La voix humaine, diva Patricia Racette had a tough “act” to follow ...

O18: Unsettling, Riveting Sky on Swings

Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival set the bar very high even by its own gold standard, with a troubling but mesmerizing world premiere, Sky on Wings.

Simon Rattle — Birtwistle, Holst, Turnage, and Britten

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra marked the opening of the 2018-2019 season with a blast. Literally, for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's new piece Donum Simoni MMXVIII was an explosion of brass — four trumpets, trombones, horns and tuba, bursting into the Barbican Hall. When Sir Harry makes a statement, he makes it big and bold !

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi's
17 Oct 2015

The Met’s First Five Productions

The only thing that is at all radical or even noteworthy about the current Metropolitan Opera season is its imbalance: five Donizetti operas to one Wagner.

The Met Season: The First Five Productions

A review by John M. Clum

Sonya Yoncheva as Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello.

Photo by Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

 

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

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):