Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

A Donizetti world premiere: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House

There may be sixty or so operas by Donizetti to choose from, but if you’ve put together the remnants of another one, why not give everyone a chance to hear it? And so, Opera Rara brought L’Ange de Nisida to the concert stage last night, 180 years after it was composed for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, conductor Sir Mark Elder leading a team of bel canto soloists and the Choir and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a committed and at times stirring performance.

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Thought-Provoking Concert in Honor of Bastille Day

Sopranos Elise Brancheau and Shannon Jones, along with pianists Martin Néron and Keith Chambers, presented a thrilling evening of French-themed music in an evening entitled: “Salut à la France,” at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn this past Saturday, July 14th.

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Summer madness and madcap high jinxs from the Jette Parker Young Artists

The operatic extracts which comprised this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance seemed to be joined by a connecting thread - madness: whether that was the mischievousness of Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe, the insanity of Tom Rakewell, the metaphysical distress of Hamlet, or the mayhem prompted by Isabella’s arrival at Mustafà’s Ottoman palace, the ‘insanity’ was equally compelling.

Mefistofele at Orange’s Chorégies

This is the one where a very personable devil tells God that mankind is so far gone it isn’t worth his time to bother corrupting it further.

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

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):