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

Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

The Rake’s Progress: an Opera for Our Time

On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.

Classical Opera: Haydn's La canterina

We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value … a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.

Dream of the Red Chamber in San Francisco

Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.

San Diego Opera Opens with Recital by Piotr Beczala

Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.

Andrea Chénier at San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).

A rousing I due Foscari at the Concertgebouw

There is no reason why, given the right performers, second-tier Verdi can’t be a top-tier operatic experience, as was the case with this concert version of I Due Foscari.

A double dose of Don Quixote at the Wigmore Hall

Since their first appearance in Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s literary master-piece, during the Spanish Golden Age, the ingenuous and imaginative knight-errant, Don Quixote, and his loyal subordinate and squire, Sancho Panza, have touched the creative imagination of composers from Salieri to Strauss, Boismortier to Rodrigo.

Bampton Classical Opera: A double bill of divine comedies

Bampton Classical Opera’s 2016 double-bill ‘touched down’ at St John’s Smith Square last night, following performances in The Deanery Garden at Bampton and The Orangery of Westonbirt School earlier this summer.

Mahler’s Second, Concertgebouw

Daniele Gatti opened the first series of Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra’s season with a slightly uneven performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. With four planned, this staple repertoire for the RCO meant to introduce Gatti to the RCO subscribers.

Mad About San Jose’s Lucia

Opera San Jose opened a commendably impassioned Lucia di Lammermoor that sets the company’s bar very high indeed as it begins its new season.

ROH, Norma

The approach of the 2016-17 opera season has brought rising anticipation and expectation for the ROH’s new production - the first at Covent Garden for almost 30 years - of Bellini’s bel canto master-piece, Norma.

The Changing of the Guard

Last June, Riccardo Chailly led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion for his last concert as Principal Conductor.

Morgen und Abend at Berlin

After its world premiere at Royal Opera House in London last year, the German première of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Morgen und Abend took place at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Der Freischütz at Unter den Linden

Rarely have I experienced such fabulous singing in such a dreadful production. With magnificent voices, Andreas Schager and Dorothea Röschmann rescued Michael Thalheimer’s grotesque staging of von Weber’s Der Freischütz. At Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Alexander Soddy led a richly detailed, transparent and brilliantly glowing Berliner Staatskapelle.

Prom 74: Verdi's Requiem

For the penultimate BBC Prom at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday 9 September 2016, Marin Alsop conducted the BBC Youth Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Verdi's Requiem with soloists Tamara Wilson, Alisa Kolosova, Dimitri Pittas, and Morris Robinson.

British Youth Opera: English Eccentrics

“Eccentricity is not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness. It is often a kind of innocent pride, and the man of genius and the aristocrat are frequently regarded as eccentrics because genius and aristocrat are entirely unafraid of and uninfluenced by the opinions and vagaries of the crowd.”

Prom 68: a wonderful Semiramide

When I look back on the 2016 Proms season, this Opera Rara performance of Semiramide - the last opera that Rossini wrote for Italy - will be, alongside Pekka Kuusisto’s thrillingly free and refreshing rendition of Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto - one of the stand-out moments.

Double Bill by Oper am Rhein

Of all the places in Germany, Oper am Rhein at Theater Duisburg staged an intriguing American double bill of rarities. An experience that was well worth the trip to this desolate ghost town, remnant of industrial West Germany.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Ada (Isabel Leonard) recalls saying goodbye to Inman
08 Feb 2016

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia deserves congratulations on yet another coup. The company co-commissioned Cold Mountain, an opera by Jennifer Higdon based on Gene Scheer’s adaptation of Charles Frazier’s celebrated Civil War epic.

Cold Mountain, Philadelphia

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Ada (Isabel Leonard) recalls saying goodbye to Inman

 

It premiered at Santa Fe last summer and is now launching an East Coast premiere run in Philadelphia. After nearly three hours of opera, the audience gave the performers and composer a standing ovation.

This company has a knack for assembling superb young casts. Every member of the cast—most of whom premiered the opera in Santa Fe—are comfortable in the roles, look the parts, sing well, and render the words clearly enough to render supertitles superfluous.

Two stand out. Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’s full voice, menacing aspect and Georgia drawl fit the villain Teague, and he finds a way to inflect each line with distinctive emotion and musicality. Young baritone Jarrett Ott, a local Pennsylvanian, recently replaced Santa Fe’s Nathan Gunn as W.P. Inman, the Southern deserter around whom the plot turns. Ott delivered a remarkably assured and characterful opening night performance, with no sign of nerves. If he lacks a bit of Gunn’s vocal splendor, his slightly thinner voice at the top gives Inman an appropriately vulnerable aspect.

cold-mountain-19.pngAda (Isabel Leonard) and her daughter Grace (Francesca Luzi) in the epilogue of the opera, which flashes forward nine years.

The rest of the cast is uniformly strong. New Yorker Isabel Leonard, a rising star singing lyric mezzo roles at major houses worldwide, looks every inch the lovely Southern belle. She portrays Ada Monroe with an even tone throughout and occasional flashes of emotion. Cecelia Hall, who comes by her North Carolina accent honestly, wove a distinctive and believable country counterpoint to Ada. A host of ensemble singers, many doubling parts, created memorable cameos, not least the veteran Anthony Michaels-Moore. Music Director Corrado Rovaris kept the band together.

Yet, unlike many who were there, and despite the fine technical performances from the singers, I found the evening disappointing, even dull. Morris aside, no one conveyed real emotional connection with the music. The fault lies not with them, but with the work itself. This relentlessly functional treatment of Cold Mountain just does not succeed as a music-drama. Overall, the result recalls what often occurs when Hollywood tries to film a popular epic book, like the 19-½ hour Tolkien series. Almost invariably such films become overlong collections of telegraphic scenes, each underwritten and underacted, held together only by the audience’s prior knowledge of the plot.

So, too, with Cold Mountain. In this case, the problem lies both in the libretto and the music. Many lines in the libretto are evocative and beautifully written for voice. Yet its overall structure is at once bland and cluttered: a three-hour slog, dialogue-by-dialogue, through the epic plot, with surprisingly few semi-arias or ensembles. What thereby goes missing, especially in Act I, is any serious engagement with the deeper emotions below.

cold-mountain-06.pngLila (Heather Stebbins, center) and her three sisters (LR, Olivia Vote, Lauren Eberwein, and Heather Phillips) encounter Inman ( Jarrett Ott, bottom) after he washes ashore following a dangerous trek downriver.

Cold Mountain is a profound tale—like the Odyssey, on which it is loosely based—about how extreme hardship forces us to distill our lives down to the simple thing, horrible and wonderful, that matters most. In adversity, we reveal who we really are. Such a plot should be tailor-made for an operatic libretto. After all, opera excels—and differs fundamentally from spoken theater—in its unique ability to expand interior moments of self-discovery into extended musical monologues of uncommon expressiveness. Just think of the Shakespeare operas of Giuseppe Verdi, who—despite a boundless admiration for the Bard—ruthlessly trimmed and revised major his plays into tight libretti. The result: arias and ensembles like Otello’s “Dio mi potevi!” Iago’s “Credo,” and Desdemona’s Willow Song. Or consider the operas of Benjamin Britten, in which the monologues of Peter Grimes and Lucretia let us glimpse into their souls.

The libretto of Cold Mountain goes through the motions but makes almost nothing of such moments. When Inman resolves to free himself from chains, Sara shoots the fleeing Union soldier, Ruby realizes that she loves her father, and Ada and Inman reconcile… critical moments pass in a blink of an eye, are hijacked for other purposes, or receive a clichéd treatment.

Jennifer Higdon’s bland musical score compounds the lack of dramatic focus. Higdon, who teaches at Curtis Institute, is a polished and prolific composer of concertos, chamber music and orchestral pieces. She has a flair for crafting slowly evolving mélanges of musical color and texture. Yet this is her first opera, and the challenge seems to throw her for a loop.

cold-mountain-10.pngRuby (Cecelia Hall) and Ada (Isabel Leonard), at right, are visited by villainous Home Guard leader Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) and his young protégé, Birch (Andrew Farkas).

Most of Cold Mountain is written in a recitative or parlando dialogue, which hardly sustains much dramatic punch. Only a few arias or ensembles appear, and those that do lack melodic, harmonic or rhythmic novelty or focus. Higdon’s style is a (now conventional) mix of atonality and popular genres, in her case mostly open intervals (fourths, fifths and various intervals in diminished modes) somewhat uncomfortably mixed with traditional Southern themes. Her attempts to characterize more intensely generally take the form of giving different characters and moods their own colors. Soft strings provide a background, Ada gets woodwinds, Ruby gets percussion, Inman (and others) gets spiky agitated brass when he is upset, Teague receives ominous bass instruments, and so on. At best these efforts produce musical effects—some interesting, some pleasant (as with several horn ensembles) and some fleeting emotional flickers—but they create no overarching dynamic tension or flow, as an opera score should, let alone insight into the emotional or dramatic circumstances.

Even Higdon seems to realize this. Half-way through the second act, at a critical dramatic climax when soldiers come back to life to sing of the war, she throws in the towel and inserts an utterly traditional 19th century gospel chorus. This “Ken Burns moment” is by far the most successful musical coup in the opera, yet its utter incongruity begs the question of what the rest of the music is meant to achieve. The end of Act 2 takes a stab at a few unpersuasive ariettas and duettinos, only to let the opera peter out almost accidently, with Ada in seeming mid-phrase. Throughout, the music seems incidental and emotionless, as if it were written as a movie score.

The staging, also shared with Santa Fe, exacerbates the lack of clear dramatic focus. Also in this way recalling the Odyssey, Cold Mountain turns on the contrast between the unknown and dangerous world far away and the special place we call home. Inman wanders endlessly through the varied and hazardous landscape of the wartime South, while Ada remains fixed in a bucolic Southern country valley. It is a valley with a snake, of course, but the plot ends by restoring a familial utopia free not just from war, but from sexism, racism, class prejudice and personal anxiety. The unit set—a gloomy pile of scattered timber and coal—does not do justice to either major theme. Its static, unvarying enclosed darkness gives little sense of a hostile wartime world, while it also resembles in no way the potential Garden of Eden that is Cold Mountain. The production is somewhat improved visually by uncommonly clever lighting, which permit characters to come and go through a veil of light, and scenes to change quickly during a long evening at the opera.

Andrew Moravcsik

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):