June 30, 2016

Die Walküre, Opera North

I had two principal reservations for the ‘first day’ proper of the trilogy ‘with preliminary evening’, the odd minor niggle, and otherwise nothing but praise. Opera North continues to put many starrier, yet in no sense superior, companies to shame.

Robert Hayward’s Wotan was for me the weakest link. It was not a bad performance, and his facial expressions conveyed a great deal (at least for someone as lucky as I to be seated towards the front of the Stalls, or indeed for those watching on the big screen in the Clore Ballroom, for which many thanks should go to the Southbank Centre). His vowels were often odd, though, and there was less of an expressive range than one might have hoped for. Otherwise, there was little to complain about in the cast, and, as I said, much to praise. I have heard more heroic Siegmunds than Michael Weinius, but his was a thoughtful, eminently musical performance throughout. Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride was palpable. And how could it not be, given so fine a performance as we heard from Lee Bisset? For me, she was the star of the show: no mere victim, but a woman with agency, however much circumstances - and bourgeois society -might have repressed her. I cannot instantly recall a more compleat Sieglinde ‘in the flesh’, perhaps because I have not heard one.

Yvonne Howard’s triumphant - though for how long? - Fricka was again pretty much everything it should have been. Her dialectical path to victory over her husband chilled as it must, not least since the orchestra (on which more soon) told so very different a story, a story of, in Wagner’s celebrated phrase, the ‘purely human’. Her vassal, Hunding, was in the excellent hands - and voice - of James Creswell. Brutal authoritarianism is the character’s stock-in-trade; so it was that of his interpreter. Latent slavery in the family,’ we learn in both The German Ideology of Wagner’s contemporaries, Marx and Engels, and in Hunding’s treatment of Sieglinde, ‘is the first form of property. … Division of labour and private property are, after all, identical expressions.’ And Wagner never had any doubt that marriage was slavery; nor did we. Kelly Cae Hogan made for a wonderfully impressive Brünnhilde, her transformation as witness to the truest of love both plausible and highly moving. Hers, moreover, seemed to be a staged performance in all but name; this was certainly an artist who lived the role. All of the Valkyries were on excellent form. One might have taken dictation from them individually, and yet their ensemble was equally excellent. I doubt I have heard finer.

That other reservation was Richard Farnes’s conducting of the first act. It certainly was not anything to which anyone could reasonably object. However - and mine seems to be very much a minority report here - I did not really find that it caught fire until toward the end of the final scene, just, actually, as fire began to blaze as part of the (now somewhat irritating) projections above the stage. As soon as we returned after the first interval, there was, by contrast, no letting up. It is the mark of a great Wagner conductor that he can weld the second act of Die Walküre together as not only a convincing whole, but perhaps as the most profoundly moving act in the entire Ring (at least until one comes to the next, and the next!) Amongst conductors I have heard ‘live’ in this work, Bernard Haitink and Daniel Barenboim have proved themselves true masters in that respect. Farnes now joins their company. There was, both here and in the third act, an almost infinite variegation of tempo, without ever losing sight of the whole.

Orchestral balances were just as fine, likewise the often wondrous playing of the Orchestra of Opera North. If I found the strings a little subdued in the first act, they were, by the time of Wotan’s Farewell, not far off a match for a great Central European orchestra, with a sheen to match. The otherworldliness of what we heard during the Annunciation of Death could scarcely have been outdone, brass and timpani playing their roles as the characters-cum-commentators they are. As Ludwig Feuerbach wrote, in his Thoughts on Death and Immortality, a crucial, acknowledged influence upon Wagner: ‘Only when the human once again recognises that there exists not merely an appearance of death, but an actual and real death, a death that completely terminates the life of an individual, only when he returns to the awareness of his finitude will he gain the courage to begin a new life and to experience the pressing need for making … that which is actually infinite [death] into the theme and content of his entire spiritual activity.’ The orchestra was not the least of Wagner’s instruments on this evening in having us realise the full truth of that message. And so, Siegmund’s heroism proved to be as much that of the orchestra as his own - which is just as it should be.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner, Die Walküre

Siegmund: Michael Weinius; Sieglinde: Lee Bisset; Hunding: James Creswell; Wotan: Robert Hayward; Brünnhilde: Kelly Cae Hogan; Fricka: Yvonne Howard; Gerhilde: Giselle Allen; Ortlinde: Kate Valentine; Waltraute: Heather Shipp; Schwertleite: Claudia Huckle; Helmwige: Katherine Broderick; Siegrune: Sarah Castle; Grimgerde: Fiona Kimm; Rossweisse: Madeleine Shaw. Concert Staging, Design Concept, Lighting, Projection: Peter Mumford; Associate Director: Joe Austin. Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes. Royal Festival Hall, London, Wednesday 29 June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The%20Ring%20-%20Die%20Walk%C3%BCre.png image_description=Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde product=yes product_title=Die Walküre, Opera North product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Michael Weinus as Siegmund and Lee Bisset as Sieglinde

Photo credit: Clive Barda (2016)
Posted by claire_s at 11:28 AM

Early Gluck arias at the Wigmore Hall

But, this performance of Gluck arias from opera seria from the 1740s suggested that there is less different between the music of Gluck’s early operas and the later reform works than is sometimes inferred. And, this is not surprising when we know that Gluck included revised versions of numbers from the 1749 Ezio in Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and that Telemaco (1765) borrowed from La Sofonisba of 1744.

The earlier Italian operas were among those performed at the Wigmore Hall by Milanese contralto Sonia Prina and the Italian baroque ensemble laBarocca. Prina presented a series of arias, interspersed with instrumental sinfonia and dances, in which Metastasio’s florid metaphors and banal repetitions were proven to be anything but dramatically inert and characterless. Such is the strength of Prina’s vocal character and dramatic presence that even lines such as ‘And just when I was trying to save myself/ from a treacherous rock,/ I crashed into another rock,/ worse than before’ had animation and conviction.

Prina grabs one’s attention in many ways. Dressed in post-punk black, she was more rebel Goth than historical royal, and yet she was instantly able to enter the affekt of any given aria, taking us deep into the emotional states of the Roman generals, mythical prince, infatuated step-mother and cross-dressing queen whom she impersonated. The recital might have been subtitled ‘Heroes in Love’ but several of the protagonists were pining, lamenting and denouncing Cupid’s darts, and Prina showed us the heat of their rage and the depths of their despair. Although occasionally prone to exaggeration - and after a while I did wish she would stop swaying and jigging so distractingly - Prina displayed impressive dramatic insight and a vocal technique which could communicate it.

This contralto is the genuine article: her low register, smoky and dark, surges unforced from the chest, while at the top she can find a real gloss. Her voice isn’t particularly large but it filled the Hall easily, as even in quieter moments there was no lessening in intensity. Technically assured, she rattled off the coloratura with meticulousness but still managed to make it serve the characterisation. The excitement and contrasts, as Prina leapt daringly between registers, sometimes took sway over the elegance and smoothness of the vocal phrase, particularly in the long melismas, but the energy was sustained and in the slower numbers she employed a more relaxed tone.

‘Dal suo gentil semblante’ (Her delicate appearance) from Demetrio (1742) was an urgent opener in which an infatuated queen claims that her love for a peasant can be cured only by death. Three of the Roman general Siface’s arias from La Sofonisba (1744) ran the gamut from torment, through transcendence, to derisive taunting and desperate desire. In ‘M’opprime, m’affana’ (Cruel fate oppresses me), the apparently betrayed husband of Sofonisba spat out his derisive scorn with a punch matched by the strings’ brusque quavers; but, learning of his erroneous judgement, damnation turned to exaltation in ‘Nobil onda’ (Gentle wave). Here, Prina made full use of her considerable range: the opening phrase was full deep and sincere, octave plunges suggested dignity of bearing, while the heights of the coloratura - ‘Più leggera all’aure va’ (the more lightly she rises into the air) - had a lovely gleam. A finely tailed diminuendo marked the end of the B section, in which Siface imagines his soul rising above an oppressive Fate. The virtuosic excesses of the first part of ‘Se in campo armato’ (If on the battlefield) contrasted with the tender pathos evoked by the sobbing pulsing of the B section.

The wishful thinking of ‘Sperai vicino il lido’ (I hoped that the harbour was closed) from Demofoonte (1743) - in which a prince, who has defied his father with a secret marriage to a girl who is next in line for sacrifice to the gods, flees with his beloved in a boat - drew a more unaffected line from Prina until an explosive central section shattered the calm with almost violent forward propulsion.

A highlight of the evening was ‘Se tu vedessi come vegg’io’ (If you could see like I see) from Ippolito (1745), in which Phaedra, infatuated with her step-son Hippolytus, simultaneously voices her delusions and warns him of the fatal consequences which will ensue if he denies her. The lyrical lines were beautifully relaxed yet intense, aptly conveying the conflicted stepmother’s avowals and omens.

Semiramide riconosciuta (1748) marked Gluck’s operatic debut in Vienna: it was composed for the birthday of Empress Maria Theresa and the opening of the newly renovated Burgtheater. Prina gave us a stirring ‘Tradite, sprezzata’ (Betrayed, scorned), depicting with rhetorical ferocity and flexibility the breathless anger of the queen whose deceptions have been exposed. Her despairing reflections, ‘Sentirsi morire/ Dolente, e perdura’ (Feeling like I’m dying, sorrowful, lost), ached with pained sweetness, and the lines were long and expressive. ‘Se Fedele mi brama il regnante’ (If my prince demands that I be faithful) from Ezio (1749, first version) brought the evening to a close, as Prina demonstrated impressive vocal stamina; it was a pity that the final phrases were not effectively supported by the instrumental accompaniment.

laBarocca, formed in Milan in 2008 by conductor Ruben Jais, were lively but at times ungraceful accompanists. Intonation was problematic at the start, especially in the basses, and throughout Jais gave more attention to drama - dynamic contrasts were extreme, accents were hard-edged - than phrasing and tone. The string sound was rather ragged although there was some fine playing from the horn whose warm contributions propelled the music forward.

In the Preface to Alceste, Gluck set out his reform ‘manifesto’: ‘I have made every effort to restore music to its true role of serving the poetry by means of its powers of expression.’ On the evidence of this entertaining and exciting performance by Prina, the music of his pre-reform years was no less pertinent in impact and range of expression.

Claire Seymour

Sonia Prina - soprano; laBarocca - director Ruben Jais.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Le cinesi - Sinfonia, Demetrio - Aria: ‘Dal suo gentil sembiante’, La Sofonisba - Aria: ‘M’opprime m’affana’, Ipermestra - Sinfonia, La Sofonisba - Aria: ‘Nobil onda’, Aria: ‘Se in campo armato’, La Semiramide riconosciuta - Sinfonia, Demofoonte - Aria: ‘Sperai vicino il lido’, Ippollito - Aria: ‘Se tu vedessi come vegg’io’, Orfeo ed Euridice - Ballabili (Dances), La Semiramide riconosciuta - Aria: ‘Tradita, sprezzata’, Ezio - Aria: ‘Se fedele mi brama il regnate’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Tuesday 28th June 2016.

image= http://www.operatoday.com/Sonia%20Prina.png
image_description=Sonia Prina

product_title=Sonia Prina and laBarocca perform Gluck at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Sonia Prina

Posted by claire_s at 2:15 AM

June 29, 2016

Das Rheingold, Opera North

The only path to denying its socialism would be never to have encountered it, or at least never to have listened to it. That, I can only assume, must have been the ‘non-expert’ path to enlightenment taken by Michael Gove, whose unpleasant presence I suffered in the row behind me at Bayreuth in 2014. Goodness knows what damage Frank Castorf’s post-dramatic theatre wrought to his back-to-basics ‘mentality’; maybe that is why, Alberich-like, he elected to destroy this country, this continent, the world. It is certainly no easy thing to imagine a Rhinemaiden falling voluntarily into his clutches. But then even Wagner did not quite possess the venom to invent Mrs Gove, Sarah Vine. With typical non-quite-even-handedness, he wrote of Lohengrin’s Ortrud: ‘a male politician disgusts us; a female politician appals us.’ Ladies and gentlemen of the Festival Hall, take your pick: the Conservative Party leadership election awaits.

I could go on, and on, and on, as someone once almost drawled. Opera North, sadly, could hardly have found London in more electrically receptive - ‘electrical reception’ is perhaps a concept better left to the ‘experts’ - mode than today. The Ring can be made, in some senses might even be claimed to be, about everything. (I once even managed to bring in Norman Tebbit; the pleasure was doubtless mutual.) As Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1853, ‘Yes, I should like to perish in Valhalla’s flames! — Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ It is, just as much as Marx’s Capital, to quote Maximilien Rubel, ‘a history of a world in the course of self-destruction, a pathology of an inhuman society’. And as we, like the gods in Valhalla, sit back in horror to watch the flames envelop us, we find ourselves, if anything, still more receptive than usual to an inquiry into where it all began, where it all went wrong.

A staging could help, of course, none more so than Patrice Chéreau’s legendary ‘Centenary Ring’. It is not necessary, though. Whilst every bone in my body resists both that conclusion and the admission that the two best Ring performances of my life have taken place in the concert hall, the desire to be a little bit more truthful than Gove, Johnson, et al., a little more scrupulous with my obligations than Wotan, means that I must. Strangely, both took place in the Royal Albert Hall, a less-than-ideal venue, to put it mildly. It mattered not a jot, though, whether under Bernard Haitink (Royal Opera, 1998: my first) or Daniel Barenboim (2013 Proms, see here , here , here, and here!) Nor has it here at the Festival Hall, at least so far. Direction from Peter Mumford and Joe Austin is clear, accomplishing a good deal with relatively little. Projections offer titles, a little atmosphere (the Rhine, clouds, etc.), and, for those who would benefit, a little additional background. Whilst we all await Stefan Herheim and Dmitri Tcherniakov’s stagings for different houses in Berlin, concert stagings continue to have much to offer.

A particular advantage of such concert stagings is the placing of the orchestra, literally, centre stage. It is, at least, an advantage with such excellent playing and conducting as we experienced here. One really had the sense of an orchestra that knew this music, an orchestra that had lived with it, an orchestra that was here reaching the climax of its involvement with it (although let us hope that there will be much more Wagner to come from Opera North). There was barely a blemish to be heard. More importantly, the ebb and flow, Wagner’s celebrated melos, was there to be heard, to be felt: nothing exaggerated, but flowing like - well, the mighty Rhine itself. Richard Farnes proved a sure guide indeed. If he is not Barenboim, then so what? Who is? Farnes’s evident knowledge and understanding of the score, of its twists and turns, of how to navigate them, and of how to maintain the musico-narrative thrust put the generally pitiful efforts of, say, Haitink’s successor at the Royal Opera to shame, likewise those fashion victims who have extolled those sorry attempts. If there were times when I felt the orchestra might have been encouraged to play out a little more, to sound still more as the Greek Chorus of Wagner’s æsthetic imagination, this was never mere ‘accompaniment’.

As Wotan, Michael Druiett looked eerily reminiscent of Donald McIntyre for Chéreau and Boulez. If he did not quite show that depth of familiarity with the work, there was little to complain about. Audibly struggling in the final scene, he lost his voice completely at one point towards the end, but that was clearly a throat problem rather than technical incapability. His was a thoughtful performance throughout. Jo Pohlheim was a properly malevolent Alberich; I look forward to hearing more from him in Siegfried. If a Loge does not steal the show, something will most likely have gone awry; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke’s satirical edge, his vivid sense of theatre (even in the concert hall) certainly aided Wagner’s message to hit home. Mats Almgren made for a suitably dark Fafner, James Creswell lighter of tone than one often hears as his brother, Fasolt, but none the worse for that. Richard Roberts’s Mime was more than just wheedling. His words and their import registered strongly, likewise his character’s sheer misery in nostalgia for old Nibelheim. Yvonne Howard’s Fricka offered majesty but also vulnerability. The other gods and, especially, the Rhinemaidens made a good deal of their moments in the spotlight. If Ceri Williams’s intonation as Erda were not quite what it might have been to begin with, she soon made up for that in a dignified portrayal that did not lack mystery. As for the Nibelung scream, ‘recorded by the Opera North Children’s Chorus’: it ‘felt our pain’.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold

Wotan: Michael Druiett; Donner: Andrew Foster-Williams; Froh: Marc Le Brocq; Loge: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Fricka: Yvonne Howard; Freia: Giselle Allen; Erda: Ceri Williams; Alberich: Jo Pohlheim; Mime: Richard Roberts; Fasolt: James Creswell; Fafner: Mats Almgren; Woglinde: Jeni Bern; Wellgunde: Madeleine Shaw; Flosshilde: Sarah Castle. Concert Staging, Design Concept, Lighting, Projection: Peter Mumford; Associate Director: Joe Austin. Orchestra of Opera North/Richard Farnes. Royal Festival Hall, London, Tuesday 28 June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Das%20Rheingold.png image_description=Michael Druiett as Wotan, Jo Pohlheim as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge product=yes product_title=Das Rheingold, Opera North product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Michael Druiett as Wotan, Jo Pohlheim as Alberich and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as Loge

Photos by Clive Barda (2016)
Posted by claire_s at 7:50 AM

June 27, 2016

Peter Grimes in Princeton

One of the greatest wonders of this masterpiece is precise detail with which the numerous quirky inhabitants of the village are sketched in the score. Princeton Festival assembled a strong ensemble to realize Britten’s vision. Baritone Stephen Gaertner—who has gone on to great things since triumphing here some years back in a double bill of Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi— brought a combination of world-class vocal glamor and appropriately sober restraint to his portrayal of the wise old skipper Balstrode. Young mezzo Eve Gigliotti’s clear diction, resonant voice, and sympathetic manner brought Auntie, the madam with a heart of gold, to life before us. Veteran mezzo Kathryn Krasovec, who sang a memorable Marcellina in last year’s Marriage of Figaro here, vivid caricatured the sleuthing laudanum-addicted busybody Mrs. Shepley, highlighting her absurdity rather than the remarkable variety of her sins. As the Methodist Bible-thumper Boles, Tenor Casey Finnigan projected words and music clearly and idiomatically. Bass-baritone Joseph Barron launched the evening with stentorian tones and clear diction as the lawyer Swallow. Characterful performances also came from Colorado-born tenor Logan Webber as Reverend Adams, Ohio-born baritone Sean Anderson as Ned Keene the Apothecary, and Metropolitan Opera bass Christopher Job as Hobson. Two young sopranos trained at Indiana University, Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms, sang cheerfully while strutting their stuff as the so-called nieces.

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0683_EDIT.pngCaroline Worra as Ellen Orford and William Guhl-Erdie as John

While Peter Grimes is an ensemble opera, a successful performance relies heavily on the vocal and theatrical charisma of its two lead characters: Ellen Orford and Grimes himself. Wisconsin-born Caroline Worra, a repeat favorite at the Princeton Festival, made for a passionate and sympathetic Orford. She approach was as intensely expressive as any I have heard, an impression strengthened by fine diction and bright vocal timbre. In approach the role this way, Worra is simply following trends in modern sensibilities: today we expect middle-aged relationships such as that between Grimes and Orford to be more overtly romantic, whereas in mid-20th century (let alone early 19th century) England, such people expressed affection in a more restrained and discreet manner. Nonetheless, Worra’s performance was convincing, even if she sometimes ran roughshod over Britten’s express intentions, for example the long delicate passages marked “ppp senza espressione” in the “Embroidery” aria.

Even more important to a successful performance is the casting of the title role. Many modern listeners treat Jon Vickers, with his heroic voice and rough-hewn histrionics, as an ideal singer in this part. Yet while Vickers’ Grimes was surely among the most memorable operatic assumptions of modern times, it was unique. Britten and Peter Pears, who created the role, both favored a lighter and more lyrical voice and more contemplative interpretation, so as to bring out the vulnerable, spiritual, and even likeable sides of the character. Most tenors who sing the role—among them Phillip Langridge, Anthony Dean Griffey, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson and Pears himself—approach the role this way.

Alex Richardson takes this lyrical approach as well. His voice is reasonable-sized, although it did not penetrate the hall as well as some others on stage. His performance was thoughtful, musical and generally coherent, and—but for a bit of hoarseness at the top—his voice generally fits the role. Yet—at least on Thursday, when I heard him—he was the weakest link in the cast. Vocally, he lacked the sweet purity and extreme flexibility in the high tessitura that is required to negotiate much of Grimes’ part. Theatrically, his assumption seems not yet to have accumulated all the inspired nuances of edgy characterization that transform a solid rendition into a distinctive stage character whose personality seems sharply etched and whose suffering opens a window into the essence of the human condition. Most of the time he just seemed too nice and well-grounded young guy, but slightly out of focus. Still, Richardson remains young, and we may well hear more from him in years to come as his engagement with the role develops.

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0388_EDIT.pngKathryn Krasovec as Mrs. Sedley and Sean Anderson as Ned Keene

Princeton Festival Director Richard Tang Yuk did a splendid job preparing and conducting the chorus and orchestra. I have never heard either one sound so good in this challenging venue. The orchestra played as if inspired, offering many exquisite moments: one among many was the lonely viola solo that began the fourth interlude, played here by Julia DiGaetani. Yuk’s professional skill as a choral director was evident as well. Though the Festival Chorus is not a permanent professional ensemble, it negotiated Britten’s tricky polyphonic choruses with verve, transparency, clear diction and a timbre generally closer to proper English choral style than most of Americans achieve. Only a few spots of the greatest technical difficulty (e,g., the famously tricky “Old Joe Has Gone Fishing” in 7/4) were slightly smudged or too loud.

It was almost inevitable—given a short production run, singers and players new to the score, and the harsh acoustics of Matthews theater—that the very subtlest of Britten’s musical effects would occasionally go by the wayside. Some of Britten’s tripping everyday-speech syncopations disappeared. Some delicately precise woodwind and vocal harmonies (e.g. in the quartet “From the Gutter”) lacked Britten’s magical sense of balance and repose. Some broader architectural spans collapsed amidst the careful negotiation of a series of individual orchestral effects, for example in some interludes. Overall, however, this remained a thoroughly convincing and coherent account of this classic score.

The set design employed an accessorized, modular semi-realistic unit set. It told the story well and obviously economized prudently, without either asking much of, or delivering much to, the audience. Yet it had one fatal disadvantage, namely that the footsteps of anyone walking across it echoed loudly throughout the theater, spoiling many moments, particularly at the start and end of scenes. Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson, though young, had designed for opera before. He should have known that this is a fundamental error, especially when designing for an opera like Grimes, which combines exposed orchestral lines of extraordinary delicacy with many large choral scenes. And, having found a set of this kind in place, why did Stage Director Steven LaCosse—who has long experience directing opera, here and elsewhere—not have the good sense to keep everyone stationary at such moments? Have we really reached the era when stage designers and directors no longer bother to listen to the music?

Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0409_EDIT.png(l-r) Stephen Gaertner, Eve Gigliotti, Sharon Harms, Jessica Beebe, Elana Bell, Jennifer Kreider

Overall, this was one of the best productions I have heard at the Princeton Festival, which goes from operatic success to operatic success. It is a shame that Thursday night’s performance was only half-full, and many there seemed to be friends or associates of the performers.

Andrew Moravcsik

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jessica-Franko-06.16.16_Peter_Grimes_0751_EDIT.png image_description=Alex Richardson as Peter Grimes [Photo by Jessi Franko] product=yes product_title=Peter Grimes in Princeton product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Above: Alex Richardson as Peter Grimes

Photos by Jessi Franko
Posted by Gary at 1:55 PM

Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis

Director/Choreographer Seán Curran has a near unerring aptitude for devising comic movement that is bustling without being tiresome, balancing a stage full of (almost) perpetual motion without losing focus. Mr. Curran is a highly skilled ringmaster of this circus of motives and intentions, and he has crafted a daffy, delicious evening of high-minded chicanery. Mostly.

His treatment of the commedia troupe was especially well coordinated and neatly choreographed for some very skilled performers. When is the last time you saw an operatic tenor sing wonderfully while sinking to the floor in a full split? (Yeah, I didn’t think so. . .) If the director invested less in the more profound sentiments involving the title character, well, superlative execution of the music compensated by filing in a lot of the needed gravitas.

That said, Rory Macdonald’s eventually inspired conducting seemed muted at first. The pulsing, angular strings at the start were a bit ill defined in the house, and the pit seemed stuck at mezzo forte with solo playing coming across better than the tutti. About a quarter of the way into Act One, instrumental colors became more characterful, and the presence of the instrumentalists was more vibrant. Part of this is attributable to Strauss’s scoring choices, of course. Maestro Macdonald clearly had an appreciation for the piece and this infectious enthusiasm elicited focus and aural clarity as the work progressed. By Act Two, everything was firing on all cylinders and the soaring, cresting phrases of the ending made a potent impression.

ARIAD_2903a.png(Left to right): So Young Park as Zerbinetta and Cecelia Hall as The Composer

James Schuette’s handsome sets were straightforward and multi-functional. For the classy interior of the mansion, Mr. Schuette framed the room with a huge rectangular arch covered in an overblown blue chintz pattern. All the requisite doors were in all the right places, and the few pieces of period furniture were carefully chosen and well used. The house gave way to Act Two’s stage-within-a-stage island set, which was dominated by two heavy columns forming a doorway up center.

The chaise lounge remained, on which Ariadne could languish, but once it too got struck, it left Ariadne and Bacchus with more limited staging options. Indeed, once he made his star entrance through the pillars, she remained downstage ignoring him (even blocking him, from some seats). Odd. Having experienced such inventive antics on stage up until then, it just seemed to suddenly become static and unmotivated when it could least afford to do so.

Amanda Seymour had a field day with a costume design that was all that could be desired. Ms. Seymour drew on muted Grecian inspirations, corralled a bit of god-like pomposity, selected a hefty dose of riotous commedia patterns and colors, shook them up in a bag and gloriously spilled them out on the Loretto Hilton stage. Tom Watson, who contributed effective make-up and wig design throughout the festival was in his element here, accomplishing noteworthy looks for the vast range of characters, especially the definitive male commedia troupers. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design succeeded at balancing muted washes for the “opera” portions with harder edged, vivid tints for the comedians. Only the fuzzy projected fireworks at opera’s end lacked clarity in an otherwise wholly rewarding design.

As can happen, So Young Park almost ran off with the show as a spunky Zerbinetta. Ms. Park is petite, pretty, and sings the spots off the page. Her effortless coloratura is deployed with jaw-dropping accuracy and she puts out plenty of clear, pointed sound. As a performer, she is working from the outside in, that is, as winningly calculated as is her every move, charisma it is not naturally bubbling out of her. She is young and extremely gifted, and I suspect that real inner charm will find a way to inform future performances. In the meantime, there is no one that is singing the role better.

As the Prima Donna and Ariadne, Marjorie Owens is the real deal. Her big, opulent soprano is even throughout the range, and her sense of line and musicality urged phrases to mounting abandon that were so thrilling as to raise goose bumps. She is already singing major roles at major houses and it is easy to see why. The only thing Ms. Owens might benefit from is the cultivation of a bit more Diva Stature. On this occasion, she exuded a certain all-America-girl, your-best-friend’s-sister persona. Some well rehearsed ‘tude may be needed to fully claim her place in this Fach but, oh my. . .that glorious voice.

ARIAD_0282a.pngSo Young Park as Zerbinetta

AJ Glueckert’s gleaming, meaty tenor was an ideal fit for the grueling demands of Bacchus (and the Tenor). We are so used to be being happy enough with anyone who can bray his manageable way through the role, that is was a delight to revel in Mr. Glueckert’s sturdy, secure and attractive rendition. If only the direction had allowed Bacchus and Ariadne to generate dramatic sparks and chemistry that were equal to their singing.

Cecelia Hall was loudly received and well loved by the audience for her unfailingly musical and stylistically superb Composer. In spite of Ms. Hall’s considerable gifts and seriousness of purpose, and even in consideration of her sublime acting, I thought that her instrument is perhaps a quarter too small a voice for the part, with the few very lowest notes only able to be suggested. She is young. The voice will grow. But what a fine artist.

John Brancy offered a highly enjoyable turn as Harlequin with his smoothly ingratiating baritone and athletic stage presence. He was ably abetted by three agile dancers and accomplished singers: Erik Van Heyningen (Truffaldino), Benjamin Lee (Brighella), and Miles Mykkanen (Scaramuccio).

The effortless, limpid, perfectly matched singing by Elizabeth Sutphen (Naiad), Stephanize Sanchez (Dryad), and Liv Redpath (Echo) would be a worthy trio in any major international company. Their lovely vocalizing and immaculate balance as fluid phrases tumbled over each other was simply ravishing.

ARIAD_3641a.pngAJ Glueckert as The Tenor/Bacchus and Marjorie Owens as The Prima Donna/Ariadne
Broadway vet Ken Page was a perfectly competent Major Domo but could have summoned a bit more snooty unctuousness. Benjamin Dickerson served up a well-sung Wig Maker as a flighty delight. Matthew DiBattista solidly sang an outstanding Dance Master, a case of a major artist nailing it in a minor role. Levi Hernandez, with his beautiful lyric baritone, gentle demeanor, and Smith Brothers beard scored a good success as the Music Master.

I loved the use of the dancers as extras who could freeze as friezes in stately Greek urn poses one moment, and brighten up the general comic mayhem then next. And that is what OTLS’s Ariadne on Naxos manages to accomplish, offering beautifully varied stage pictures that pitted magnificently sung low and high art against each other. At least on this occasion. . .comedy won.

James Sohre

Cast and production details:

Music Master: Levi Hernandez; Major Domo: Ken Page; Lackey: Dylan Wright; Officer: Michael Day; Composer: Cecelia Hall; Tenor/Bacchus: AJ Glueckert; Wig Maker: Benjamin Dickerson; Zerbinetta: So Young Park; Prima Donna/Ariadne: Marjorie Owens; Dancing Master: Matthew DiBattista; Naiad: Elizabeth Sutphen; Dryad: Stephanize Sanchez; Echo: Liv Redpath; Harlequin: John Brancy; Truffaldino: Erik Van Heyningen; Brighella: Benjamin Lee: Scaramuccio: Miles Mykkanen; Conductor: Rory Macdonald; Director/Choreographer: Seán Curran; Set Design: James Schuette; Costume Design: Amanda Seymour; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-up Design: Tom Watson; English Diction Specialist: Erie Mills

image_description=Marjorie Owens as The Prima Donna/Ariadne [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=Scintillating Strauss in Saint Louis
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Marjorie Owens as The Prima Donna/Ariadne

Photos by Ken Howard

Posted by james_s at 1:30 PM

Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’

Long before the Trumps and the Clintons, Macbeth and his Lady were the quintessential Power Couple. The two daunting roles are Everest’s in the operatic repertoire in general, and the Verdi catalogue in particular. Thanks in part to its exciting two principals, OTSL scaled the mountaintop.

In the title role, Roland Wood displayed a virile, responsive baritone housed in a Terfel-esque physical presence. Mr. Wood’s amplitude of power is wedded to an incisive delivery and his total dramatic commitment is a wonder to behold. His beautifully modulated instrument is especially ravishing in sotto voce and mezzo-forte passages. Indeed, on occasion he might exercise a modicum of caution when he goes to pulverize a high note, for there is a slight tendency for the tone to splay. Still, Mr. Wood is a Macbeth to be reckoned with.

Julie Makerov’s Lady Macbeth has admirable steel, unfettered drive, and fearless grit. Not bad attributes these, aptly conforming to Maestro Verdi’s wishes. While I initially found her fierce approach to the top a bit acidic, Ms. Makerov soon smoothed and modulated her substantial soprano as she paced herself to the role’s overall demands. Her complete immersion in the character’s unyielding ambition was commendable and she made a potent vocal impression in spite of an (only) occasional scrappiness in knitting the lower middle to the chest register.

While audience response to these two no-holds-barred performers was quite euphoric, I had the feeling that their accomplishments here perhaps represented more an auspicious beginning to roles that will only deepen and refine with further outings.

As Banquo, seasoned veteran Robert Pomakov’s orotund bass had great presence and vibrant tone, which he plangently deployed in his moving aria. The voice occasionally wanted only a modicum of steadiness when he pressed too hard to convey “the drama.”

MACB_2021a.pngJulie Makerov as Lady Macbeth with Roland Wood as Macbeth

Young Matthew Plenk showed off a sinewy lyric tenor of great promise as Macduff and he was enormously affecting in his aria. Similarly Evan LeRoy Johnson’s Malcom was a considerable asset, his well-tutored tenor providing a good deal of pleasure. As Lady in Waiting, Cheyanne Coss had a distinctive and pleasing timbre, adding immeasurably to the brief moments in which she appears. Dylan Wright’s Doctor likewise contributed phrases of real quality and distinction.

In the pit, Music Director Stephen Lord knew exactly what he wanted, and what he wanted proved to be some faster-than-usual tempi. Actually, that approach had a good deal to recommend it as it glossed over some of the shortcomings of the rather youthful score. The strings especially had a magnificent night, with lush and idiomatic playing from first to last. I also appreciated the selective use of well-calculated astringent bowings that had the same effect as that scraping Psycho theme (with the bloody doings in this opera, that is a complement and a compliment!).

Overall then, Maestro Lord went a bit more for creating driving passages than evoking spooky atmosphere, and his approach yielded effective results. When he finally relaxes the tension and helms a slow-paced final aria for Macbeth, the evening (and the singer) is all the better for it. Too, any number of choral passages found the Maestro in a suitably expansive mood.

Macbeth was performed in Jeremy Sams’ fluent, decent English translation. But, if one were going to paraphrase or change some lines outright as was done here, maybe a translator could somehow work in a few more “famous quotes?”

Lee Blakely directed an evocative, inventive, efficient production, highly theatrical and satisfyingly horrifying (or is that ‘horrifyingly satisfying?’). During the jittery prelude, and in a nod to the original trio of Shakespeare’s witches, three black clad women are tending to the dead (or dying) Thane of Cawdor prone center stage. To establish a ritual-like presentational style, the three solemnly pick up dead branches from the sides and construct a circle around the corpse. These pick-up sticks are well integrated to serve any number of fine theatrical purposes, not least of which is bringing about the coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane.

Alex Eales’ moody, practical set design with its fascist banners was imposing, functional, and illuminating. Big, neutral, wainscoated legs and borders configure in any number of ways to focus and frame the action, even irising in and out to indicate beginnings or ends of scenes. And fluid placement of plain wooden platforms and stairs did all that was needed to suggest the shifting locale while giving director Blakely ample opportunities for varied staging.

MACB_0121a.pngRobert Pomakov as Banquo

Mark Bouman’s beautifully considered period costumes did much to help define the characters. The difference of station between the privileged royals and the long-suffering populace could not have been better visualized. Christopher Akerlind’s excellent lighting was up to his usual high standard. Shadowy washes portended the drama well, and major moments were pointed up by isolating them with imaginative specials.

In an evening chockfull of fine choices and inventive staging, it is hard to praise all of them. Mr. Blakely cleverly sets Banquo’s assassination in a chapel where King Duncan is lying in state. Banquo’s killers blithely receive communion before committing their bloody deed. Macduff’s lament for his butchered family is played out with him and the refugees on the forestage, while the Macbeth’s (who ordered those murders) are revealed upstage sitting at either end of a huge banquet table, coolly eating supper.

Best of all, for the witches’ second appearance, the scene begins with Macbeth asleep in a lavishly appointed bed. He wakes up (or does he?) the bed is stripped, the sticks reappear, the witches’ heath is created, and all manner of magic happens as new predictions tumble forth, with endless shriveled baby dolls plucked from among the sticks to foretell the lineage of kings-that-are-not-Macbeths. This mayhem evaporates as easily as it began with Macbeth back in bed. Magic. Profound.

Curiously, the Sleepwalking Scene somewhat misfired. Lady Macbeth was placed high on a platform that filled the width of upstage. Instead of the appropriate haunted vocal quality and ethereal movement usually invoked, the Lady seemed too “together,” too “present” to be believably losing her mind. She stopped and started her way across the catwalk, pausing to sing full front and pretty much full out with little suggestion of the usual fil de voce effect, even taking a lower option for the aria’s final phrase. Unlike the rest of the night, the scene lacked truthful immediacy.

Best for last: the choral singing was beyond praise or perhaps, parallel. Under the masterful tutelage of Robert Ainsley, the combined forces of the Richard Gaddes Festival Artists and Gerdine Young Artists proved once again they are a consistent model of excellence for all other opera choruses. Their intense dramatic commitment was only surpassed by the sheer beauty of their polished, idiomatic singing.

James Sohre

Cast and production details:

Macbeth: Roland Wood; Banquo: Robert Pomakov; Lady Macbeth: Julie Makerov; Servant of Macbeth: Samuel Wieser; Macduff: Matthew Plenk; Malcolm: Evan LeRoy Johnson; Lady-in-Waiting: Cheyanne Coss; Assassin: Christopher Carbin; 1st Apparition: Zane Hill: 2nd Apparition: Chelsea Ritenour; 3rd Apparition: Olivia Boen; Herald: Benjamin Dickerson; Doctor: Dylan Wright; Conductor: Stephen Lord; Director: Lee Blakely; Set Design: Alex Eales; Costume Design: Mark Bouman; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Make-up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Fight Choreographer: Shaun Sheley; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; English Diction Specialist: Ben Malensek; Translation: Jeremy Sams

image_description=Roland Wood as Macbeth [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=Saint Louis Takes On ‘The Scottish Opera’
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Roland Wood as Macbeth

Photos by Ken Howard

Posted by james_s at 12:56 PM

Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera

This reviewer saw the performance on June 19 which began with a celebration in the theater's open galleria featuring free beer and sausages. Eventually, the onlookers realize they have become part of a grisly spectacle. As they ate and drank, they celebrated the hanging of Sarah Osbourne.

Sarah was said to be the personification of evil because she killed her abusive husband and their two small children. Sarah, sung by mezzo-soprano Peabody Southwell, opens with her Confession, so unlike most operas, this work begins with a major aria. Southwell sang it with a tapestry of vocal colors that made listeners wish to hear more from her. Unfortunately, she did not sing again until the finale.

After the hanging, Marc Kudisch, as showman Joshua Crouch who has made a business of conducting public dissections, herded the audience into the theater. He reminded everyone that “gentlemen” who had paid their fees were invited to the anatomical exercises. Stage Director Bob McGrath based Crouch’s enterprise on the commonly-held eighteenth century thought that evil could be present and visible in the internal organs of a law breaker. Anatomy Theater, which has music by David Lang and a libretto by Lang and Mark Dion, points out vicious prejudices of the past and forces us to realize that remnants of them may still exist in contemporary social fabric.

SE5A8428.pngMarc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch and Peabody Southwell as Sarah Osborne

Mark Dion’s surgery contained only necessary furniture and a complete set of the tools needed to cut up a human body. In front was a scrim on which the audience could watch Bill Morrison’s fascinating surgical videos and Laurie Olinder’s monochrome but imaginative projections. Costume designer Alixandra Gage Englund dressed her characters in the neutral-colored everyday clothes of the time and supplied authentic dresses for the serving women who brought the refreshments into the galleria.

As Crouch, Marc Kudisch projected his lines with the resounding tones of a carnival showman. Robert Osbourne, who portrayed Baron Peel, has a gorgeous bass-baritone voice that he seemed to rein in to fit the show’s musical theater format. Portraying Ambroise Strang, the tenor, Timur, sang with well-focused high tones as he “extracted” the organs from Sarah’s body. Ably led by conductor Christopher Rountree, the ensemble Wild Up played Lang’s music with gusto. Scored for trumpet, flute, piccolo, percussion, piano, accordion, violin, viola, cello, and bass, the composition was reminiscent of Kurt Weill accented by prominent percussion and a mixture of twenty-first century sonorities.

When the last of four major organs, Sarah’s heart, was cut out, Strang sang that it, like the others, was in good order. Only then did the victim began to sing of her plight and the love she bore for the children she had killed. Although I wonder why she thought no one else would raise her children, I realize that Sarah’s hopelessness was not unique to her time. Sarah’s “evil” was simply desperation in the face of a prejudiced, uncaring town.

California audiences will get a chance to hear Peabody Southwell again when she sings the title role in the Tragedy of Carmen at San Diego Opera next season.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production details:

Composer and Co-Librettist, David Lang; Set Designer and Co-Librettist, Mark Dion; Director, Bob McGrath; Sarah Osbourne, Peabody, Southwell; Joshua Crouch, Marc Kudisch; Baron Peel, Robert Osbourne; Ambrose Strang, Timur; Conductor, Christopher Rountree; Wild Up Ensemble: Trumpet, Aaron Smith; Flute and Piccolo, Sarah Wass; Percussion, Derek Tywoniuk; Piano, Aron Kallay; Accordion, Isaak Schankler; Violin, Andrew Tholl; Viola, Andrew McIntosh; Cello Derek Stein; Bass, Maggie Hassbacher; Video Designer, Bill Morrison; Lighting Designer, Christopher Kuhl; Projection Designer, Laurie Olinder; Costume Designer, Alixandra Gage Englund; Sound Design, Garth MacAleavey; Sound Engineer, Nick Tipp.

image_description=Marc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch [Photo by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera]

product_title=Anatomy Theater: A Most Unusual New Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Marc Kudisch as Joshua Crouch

Photos by Craig T. Mathew / LA Opera

Posted by maria_n at 11:45 AM

Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son

This riveting new work by composer Jack Perla and librettist Rajiv Joseph (based on Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name) is not so much a towering achievement, as another astonishing over-achievement from this committed and (apparently) tireless company. Like OTSL’s Champion and 27 before it, Shalimar the Clown seems destined for further greatness.

That is owing to not only a restless, unnerving score replete with profound dramatic declamations but also colored with serenely beautiful melismatic phrases. Mr. Joseph as crafted a lean skeleton of a libretto that connects all of the major occurrences with uncanny precision. And composer Perla has masterfully crafted a score that truly sings, and which sounds like nothing else in the operatic canon.

The piece is beautifully, virtuosically scored, showcasing a rich palette of the “usual” operatic band ably augmented by the addition of a sitar (Arjun Verma) and tabla (Javad Butah). The two “local color” instruments were ingratiating without being overwhelming. Indeed, perhaps they might have been even more prominently incorporated.

SHAL_1980b.pngAndriana Chuchman as Boonyi

The orchestra under the firm control of Jayce Ogren was disciplined and provided atmospheric playing of the highest quality. The scoring starts off rather lean and angular in the opening LA segments, and the reading was appropriately taut and jittery. That yielded soon enough to more expansive, lush scoring and Maestro Ogren lavished us with some gorgeous ensemble playing, accented by tasty solo work, especially the bird-like commentary from the solo flute.

The choral writing was simply splendid and under Robert Ainsley’s tutelage, the cast excelled in countless moments of incomparably beautiful ensemble singing. The overall arc was meticulously controlled by Maestro Ogren who led the massed forces with conviction and obvious affection for the challenging score.

There is arguably no director working today who is more skillful than James Robinson in giving legs to new work. He proved such mastery once again with Shalimar the Clown. Making full use of Allen Moyer’s versatile two story set and carefully selected minimal set pieces, Mr. Robinson created contrasting milieus as he explored a story that encompassed both the bustling world of 1989 Los Angeles and the idyllic folk charms of 1964 Kashmir.

Completing the usual OTSL technical “Dream Team” were Greg Emetaz, who conjured up highly evocative video projections; James Schuette, whose apt costumes ran the gamut from peasant attire to dazzlingly colorful folk costumes to über-hip California styles; and Christopher Akerlind, whose lighting could effectively wash a scene in vivid colors one minute and chillingly isolate key emotional moments in a harsh glare the next.

It would be difficult to over-praise Seán Curran’s ingenious choreography. Indeed, dance was a key element of the score, not only in celebratory group numbers or seductive solos, but also as integral storytelling. I will not soon forget the incidence of the brutal rape of three women by marauders menacing them into submission as they pounded the ground with sticks, augmenting the score’s abrasive percussive effects. Chilling use of stage movement and dance.

Mr. Joseph’s libretto has quite skillfully (and necessarily) reduced Rushdie’s complex novel to begin as a Romeo and Juliet cautionary tale. The Hindu girl Boonyi (Andriana Chuchman) and the Muslim boy Shalimar (Sean Panikkar) fall in love at first sight, religious differences be damned. Very soon thereafter, the story seems to morph into more a Pagliacci-inspired plot, with the cuckolded, abandoned Shalimar fixated on revenge.

Onto this, the creators have layered many rich details and nuances, many of which resonate with the sad topicality of religious radicalization. Complicated social and political developments are served up with bold strokes in the music and stirring pictures in the staging. But the single mindedness and obsession of the title character is even more potent as the music-making winnows down to a laser-accurate simplicity of purpose.

SHAL_2298a.pngFrom left to right: Andriana Chuchman (Boonyi), Gregory Dahl (Max Ophuls) and Katharine Goeldner (Peggy Ophuls)

I would only wish that the introduction of the “clown” allowed a bit more time to acquaint us with a joyful young man, and that the immediate attraction between Shalimar and Boonyi were a bit more expansive and romantic. As it is, the meeting becomes almost immediately about only the sex act. This is further reinforced by the plot turn in which a lecherous older teacher films them in that act and subsequently seeks to blackmail Boonyi into submitting to his desires by threatening to expose them (as it were).

That immediate physical connection was wholly believable since Ms. Chuchman and Mr. Panikkar are two of the best-looking young singers in opera today. As Shalimar, the tenor essayed a taut, focused persona, spending little time as a carefree street entertainer, and immersing his character in white hot revenge mode with abandon. Having heard his radiantly voiced Tamino in two different Magic Flute productions, the honeyed tones on offer in those in no way prepared me for the savage, searing intensity he summoned here. Sean fulfills every vocal demand as he journeys from a sweet-voiced lover to despairing husband to murderous terrorist. His was a mighty achievement in a punishing assignment.

Ms. Chuchman possesses a full lyric soprano with admirable control, capable of serene beauty, wily insinuation, powerful dramatic statement, and heart-rending pathos. She calculated limpid phrases with unerring dramatic instinct. Her poised vocalizing was matched by some of the most skilled dancing I have yet seen from an opera singer. Andriana is the total package, She does not so much perform the difficult role of Boonyi as inhabit it.

As the womanizing diplomat Max who has no problem luring Boonyi to stray from her marital vows, Gregory Dahl put his engaging baritone to good use. Physically and vocally, Mr. Dahl has a solid, beefy presence and he suggested an oily charm that was believably persuasive. As his sterile wife Peggy, Katherine Goeldner was icily imperious, her ripe mezzo slicing out proclamations with steely precision.

OTSL has offered Aubrey Allicock several starring opportunities over recent years, and the abundantly talented baritone has made the most of each and every one. Here, Mr. Allicock offered his usual generous outpouring of well-modulated tone as the jihadist Bulbul Fakh, at once disturbing in his focused intensity and alluring in his mellifluous delivery.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons (Abdullah Sher Noman) was convincingly conciliatory and appealing as the paterfamilias who brokers peace in the village. As his wife Firdaus Noman, mezzo Jenni Bank brought a solid vocal presence to her impersonation of the chiding, nattering mother. Justin Austin’s polished baritone contributed much pleasure as Boonyi’s conflicted father Pyarelal Kaul.

As the blackmailing teacher Gopinath Razdan, Geoffrey Agpalo almost walked off with the confrontation scene, his finely focused tenor hurling accusatory phrases that soon effortlessly modulated into a cowed retreat. Elliot Page’s good presence and pliant tenor made the most of his stage time as Grand-Chef Bombur Yambarzal.

Composer Jack Perla has crafted a uniquely atmospheric score using tonal palettes and instrumental effects that run the gamut from soothing to shocking to pleasing to disturbing to violent and back again. And while he wrote innumerable sensitive lyric lines for the soloists and multiple lush choral segments, he also pushed the singers to their dramatic limit, occasionally asking them to essentially produce controlled screaming effects rather than beautiful tone. The accomplished cast rose to every requirement.

Shalimar the Clown may not always be bel canto, but it is a pretty damn’ thrilling addition to the repertoire.

James Sohre

Cast and production details:

Boonyi Kaul/India Ophuls: Andriana Chuchman; Max Ophuls: Gregory Dahl; Bulbul Fakh: Aubrey Allicock; Shalimar: Sean Panikkar; Peggy Ophuls: Katherine Goeldner; Firdaus Noman: Jenni Bank; Abdullah Sher Noman: Thomas Hammons; Pyarelal Kaul: Justin Austin; Gopinath Razdan: Geoffrey Agpalo; Bombur Yambarzal: Elliott Paige; Zahir: Eric Ferring; Cowardly Giant: Benjamin Taylor; Clumsy God: Samuel Weiser; Mystic Blind Woman: Gina Perregrino; Conductor: Jayce Ogren; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Video Projection Design: Greg Emetaz; Wig and Make-up Design: Tom Watson; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; English Diction Coach: Erie Mills

image_description=Aubrey Allicock as Bulbul Fakh and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar [Photo by Ken Howard]

product_title=Shalimar in St. Louis: Pagliaccio Non Son
product_by=A review by James Sohre
product_id=Above: Aubrey Allicock as Bulbul Fakh and Sean Panikkar as Shalimar

Photos by Ken Howard

Posted by james_s at 11:30 AM

Jenůfa, ENO

Adam Silverman’s lighting emphasises this volatility and vulnerability. The flicker of an off-stage neon light permeates Act 1; unsettling chiaroscuro effects destabilise throughout, complementing the abrupt shifts and contrasts of Janáček’s score. The latent violence and the unavoidable tragedy that will ensue are signalled when, at the start of Act 1, the black back-drop slashes open to reveal a glaring white expanse: in this image we may see the sharp edge of Laca’s knife, or perhaps the watery expanse of the river in which the Kostelnička will drown Jenůfa’s child.

Alden re-locates the action of Act 1 from rural, nineteenth-century Moravia to a run-down factory yard on an Eastern European industrial estate, in the fairly recent past. The grey, sparse, corrugated coldness is alienating. We are denied a sense of a community in which ancestral relationships, historic contracts and unsettled grievances continue to exert an influence in the present. But, despite the realism of the play - Gabriela Preissová’s Her Foster-Daughter ­- from which the opera was derived, specificity of time and place is not really so important. Janáček is more concerned with the search for psychological and dramatic truth, and the depiction of character: his opera stresses the human elements of the drama, in contrast to the more candid realism of Preissová’s evocation of village life.

So, fittingly, Alden presents us with a barren world which will nurture nothing. Both landscape and hearts are sterile: Jenůfa’s fragile rosemary plant - representative of her oneness with the natural world - struggles to survive in its pot, placed at the front-centre of the stage, symbolic of the hopes that will stagnate or languish here.

Acts 2 and 3 take us into the Kostelnička’s austere, blanched apartment. The wallpaper is peeling, the tattered shutters hold back the light; the sloping ceiling seems to lour, oppressively stifling the air. Only a Virgin in a shabby niche alleviates the desolation.

The changes that Janáček made to Preissová’s drama when formulating the libretto, push Jenůfa - rather than her step-mother, the sanctimonious sextoness - to centre-stage: it is her spiritual maturation that is at the heart of the opera and which ensures that forgiveness rather than vengeance prevails. In the title role, American soprano Laura Wilde was a revelation. Making her European debut, Wilde sang with a radiant, richly textured soprano and displayed considerable acting skills. Currently in her final year of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Young Artists’ programme, the soprano is undoubtedly one to watch. She demonstrated a full tone and unwavering steadiness at the top - important given that the score lingers in the higher registers.

This was a breathtakingly honest performance; Jenůfa’s openness was utterly credible and her growing maturity compelling. When she insisted that Laca forgive Števa, and when she herself absolved her own step-mother, she was neither superficial nor saintly - just a real woman who has learned that it is suffering that brings moral understanding and certainty. In the closing scenes we may have sensed Jenůfa’s exhaustion - as she tries to persuade Laca to leave her the fragile vocal line fragments - but at the close she was calm and strong, her voice flushed with optimism.

American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens returned to reprise the role of Kostelnička. In Act 1 she had a tendency to stand motionless, presumably to convey the contemptuous self-righteousness that underpins her authority. This was not ineffective, but we need to know what’s going on inside her mind and soul: to see, from the start, that this is a woman who is capable of killing her step-daughter’s baby. However, in Act 2, the façade dissolved. Martens conveyed the Kostelnička’s chilling censoriousness but also allowed us a glimpse of her humanity: she does not want Jenůfa to suffer as she did, for Števa so resembles his uncle, and her vulnerability was painfully evident when she begged Števa to marry her step-daughter and acknowledge his son.

At first I thought that she seemed a little too young for the role, but Martens used her hard-edged tone and incisive delivery to imbue the vocal lines with unnerving declamatory power. The central act, though less visually and dramatically colourful than the framing acts, was truly the emotional core, and when the Kostelnička carried the child to its death her hysterical quasi-laughter formed a terrible juxtaposition with the kneeling Jenůfa’s quiet prayer to the Virgin.

Jenůfa both unites and divides the two half-brothers: her beauty frustrates Laca but it is also what Števa desires to control. Nicky Spence conveyed all of Števa’s swaggering arrogance - the production doesn’t make clear from whence his wealth comes, but he clearly has both money and luck. But, at the day of reckoning the bold brashness disintegrated to reveal the cad’s essential cowardice and weakness. Spence’s powerful tenor had firmness and directness, and he effortlessly breezed through Janáček’s lyrical melodies.

Peter Hoare was tremendous as Laca, his distasteful violence tempered by undeniable nobility and frailty. Hoare’s tenor was a darker counterpoint to Spence’s, and Laca’s agitation and distress drove the drama forward, just as they warped his essential decency.

Brittle ‘light relief’ was provided by Natalie Herman’s grisly Mayor’s Wife and the spry Grandmother Burya of Valerie Reid who flung out proverbs and clichés as adeptly as she wielded her handbag. Graeme Danby made, in such a small role, a surprisingly strong impression as the Foreman.

Janáček doesn’t give the chorus much to do - the composer removed some ensembles (along with text repetitions) during his 1908 revisions, as they held up the action and were unnaturalistic - but Alden makes their moments tell. When they smash through the windows of the Kostelnička’s apartment in Act 3, literally ripping the walls asunder, we know that we’ve reached breaking point. And, the mill-girls’ song in the same act, whose text treats a mother-daughter relationship and depicts the breaking away from parental domination, established the unity of village’s voice.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth takes a slow burn approach, and the drama moves unhurriedly but surely to its fervent denouement (the performance lasted 30 minutes longer than the advertised running time). The gradual accumulation of tension is terrible in its inexorability. However, I was less persuaded by the ‘romanticisation’ of Janáček’s sound-world. Yes, the ENO Orchestra played with beguiling beauty of tone and sumptuousness of texture. But, the unalleviated mellifluousness did not take account of the score’s emotive contrasts, acerbity and silkiness lying side by side.

This was particularly noticeable in Acts 2 and 3 (there were five years between Acts 1 and 2). There is indeed great beauty in the score, but Janáček uses it for expressive purposes; there must be contrast for its impact to be felt. Indeed, the composer’s most powerful way of describing emotional states is through contrast. The ecstasies are ephemeral.

In order to secure a performance in Prague, Janáček had been forced to agree to conductor Karel Kovařovic’s revisions: Kovařovic ironed out irregularities of rhythm and harmony, doubled vocal lines, added lots of horn passages (Janáček preferred trombones) and removed overlapping voice parts; it was not until the 1980s, when John Tyrell restored the composer’s original intentions, that Janáček’s real voice was heard. And, it is a voice that requires more snarl from the brass, more spikiness in the motivic repetitions, greater schism between contrasting instrumental colours.

Carl Dahlhaus wrote that, ‘In contrast to Wagner, who keeps up the running commentary on the unfolding drama, Janáček is not present in his own person or discoursing in his own words; he is more like an observer, standing back unnoticed behind what he has to show us, which reveals itself in its own terms’. On one level, this production seems to stand back and reveal the prevailing sense of guilt: Jenůfa’s guilt about her pregnancy, Števa’s remorse when confronted with fatherhood, the stinging regret of the Kostelnička’s confession in the final Act.

But, Alden shows us that the characters are never isolated in their torments; the drama is one of human interaction, conflict and reconciliation. And, while realists among contemporary critics may have worried about the optimistic ending of Preissová’s play, here the final, heart-wrenching embrace of Laca and Jenůfa heals all wounds.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Jenůfa - Laura Wilde, Kostelnička - Michaela Martens, Laca - Peter Hoare, Števa - Nicky Spence, Grandmother Buryja - Valerie Reid, Mill Foreman/Mayor - Graeme Danby, Mayor’s Wife - Natalie Herman, Karolka - Soraya Mafi, Jano - Sarah Labiner; conductor - Mark Wigglesworth, director - David Alden, set designer - Charles Edwards, costume designer - Jon Morrell, lighting designer - Adam Silverman, original choreographer - Claire Glaskin, revival choreographer - Maxine Braham, Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera.

English National Opera, Coliseum, London; Thursday 23rd June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO-Jenufa-Laura-Wilde-c-Donald-Cooper.png image_description=ENO, Jenufa (Laura Wilde) product=yes product_title=Jenůfa, ENO product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above image courtesy ENO (c) Donald-Cooper
Posted by claire_s at 3:15 AM

June 26, 2016

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

It began when Figaro, dressed in modern clothes, walked up and asked me to hold one end of a tape measure, pulled the other end across the room, signaled the conductor for a downbeat, and began to sing: “Fourteen…” By the end of Scene One, he and Susanna were going at it hot and heavy (still singing) on top of a woodblock table. The audience then moved on to an elegant salon for the second scene before concluding with Act Two in a grand three-story atrium.

The visionary founders of On-Site Opera (OSO) have a name for such intimate performances in hand-picked spaces appropriate to the libretto: “immersive opera.” They are betting that immersive opera will help transform 21st-century opera. I am a believer, and I am not alone: tickets to all five performances sold out in three hours. It is not hard to understand why. Immersive opera offers a uniquely thrilling experience: singers meet your gaze, brush you as they pass, and—even if it sometimes leaves your ears ringing—sing just a few feet away. Of course big houses will always be there for those who prefer opera singers to remain behind the fourth wall. (And perhaps this approach will always be impractical for the grand operas of composers like Wagner—though I would be tempted to see Tristan und Isolde staged on the dark parapet of a windswept Brittany castle, the audience huddled around the dying hero.) Yet for smaller-scale operas, immersive opera recaptures—and often exceeds—the intimacy of the tiny theaters in Italy for which many operas were originally conceived.

Figaro_cast.pngL to R: Ginny Weant, Melissa Wimbish, David Blalock, Jesse Blumberg, Jeni Houser, Camille Zamora, Margaret Lattimore, David Langan

The folks at OSO do not simply perform operas in ways you have never seen. They perform operas you have never heard. This was not Mozart and da Ponte’s Figaro, but a version by Marcos Portugal. Born in Lisbon in 1762, Portugal is arguably the most distinguished classical music composer in the history of his native land. Once the toast of Italy, he supplied theaters there with more than 40 operas in under a decade. Today he is largely forgotten, though he did pen the first national anthems of both Portugal and Brazil, as well as some lovely religious music. (Check out his Misse Grande here). Having become a Brazilian citizen, he died in Rio de Janeiro in 1830.

Portugal composed his Figaro for the opening night of the Venetian Carnival season in 1799, thirteen years after Mozart’s version. Gaetano Rossi, who supplied the text, surely knew the earlier libretto. Though Rossi followed Beaumarchais’ title rather than da Ponte’s (“La Pazza giornata, ovvero Il mattrimonio di Figaro” / “The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”) and recast the work as a two-act opera buffa, he borrowed many of da Ponte’s revisions, additions and cuts, as well as some of his wording.

Portugal’s score, however, cannot compete with Mozart’s. His music is pleasing but hardly memorable—a pale imitation of Cimarosa, Jommelli and other minor composers of the Neapolitan School. Occasional flashes of melodic or harmonic inspiration in the countess’s aria, the letter duet, and the two finales, for example, are not sustained. Nor did José Luis Iglésias’s atmospheric reduction for an Iberian-accented chamber orchestra (complete with guitar and accordion), commissioned by OSO, fully convey Portugal’s modest orchestral innovations, for example his treatment of woodwinds. Ultimately one could not help being reminded of the exceptional genius of Mozart, and even of the winning qualities of second-tier composers like Paisiello, whose Barbiere di Siviglia remained popular for a generation and, as OSO demonstrated last year, still can enchant us today.

Given the weakness of Portugal’s score, prime responsibility for the performance’s success rested on its all-American cast of singers. The English translation of the libretto by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray did not ease their task. While it abounds with clever rhymes, its reliance on Anglo-Saxon vowels rendered the text far more difficult to sing. I would have preferred to hear the original Italian with supertitles, as OSO employed last year.

In these challenging circumstances, three singers stood out. Houston-born soprano Camille Zamora, a singer of wide repertoire and myriad musical interests, perfectly embodied the wronged and vulnerable yet proud Contessa, while phrasing every note with elegance and sensitivity. Margaret Lattimore, a veteran of the Met and many other grand stages, gave a veritable lesson in stage technique, scaling down a large warm mezzo to the intimate setting and effortlessly acting circles around singers two decades her junior. Melissa Wimbish, a Baltimore-based mezzo who specializes in contemporary music and sings Indie Rock on the side, made an uncannily convincing Cherubino. Her commitment to immersive opera is so great that when I met her on the stairwell after the performance, she remained in character.

Other members of the ensemble offered spirited accounts. The extensive experience of Michigan-trained baritone Jesse Blumberg as a Lieder singer showed in his soft-grained and elegantly sung Figaro. Experienced bass-baritone David Langan displayed crisp diction and suave manner as lawyerly Don Bartolo, while Mannes graduate student Ginny Weant made the most of a chipper cameo as Cecchina (da Ponte’s Barberina). Enthusiastic Antoine Hodge was vocally assured in the dual roles of Antonio and Gusmano (da Ponte’s Don Curzio).

Sometimes, however, immediate proximity can highlight vocal limitations in young singers whose voices have yet to smooth out entirely. Jeni Houser brought impressive technique to Portugal’s Susanna, a lyric coloratura soprano role, but her high notes sometimes sounded edgy in the small space. The same was true of tenor David Blalock, who returned from the cast of last year’s Barbiere to portray again the (now slightly older but surely no wiser) Conte Almaviva. OSO Music Director Geoffrey McDonald conducted with customary assurance.

Portugal’s Figaro marks the midpoint of OSO’s three-year Beaumarchais trilogy. It began last June with the Paisiello and will end next June with Darius Mihaud’s Le Mére Coupable.(The location is still to be announced.) Along with Massenet’s Cherubin, these two works are the best of many operas not by Mozart or Rossini that draw on the Beaumarchais characters. I’ll be there, but I hope thereafter that OSO upgrades to canonical works of greater proven quality, which should further intensify the immersive experience.

OSO faces one final issue, namely how to manage the list of disappointed patrons left outside—reportedly more numerous than the lucky few who made it in. Why not do the Met one better and double down digitally? OSO might beam future performances as they happen to an overflow space with a bank of large screens, a great sound system, and a hip mixologist behind the bar. Now that would be 21st century opera!

Andrew Moravcsik

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_6130261.png image_description=Scene from La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro product=yes product_title=The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Above: Scene from La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro

All photos courtesy of Pavel Antonov
Posted by Gary at 4:25 PM

June 24, 2016

West Wind: A new song-cycle by Sally Beamish

The philosophical profundity and the floridity of the linguistic conceits may offer partial explanation; or perhaps it is simply that there was a dearth of compositional talent. Whatever the cause, Gilchrist is seeking to redress the imbalance by commissioning three new settings of English Romantic poetry - from Sally Beamish, Julian Philips and Jonathan Dove - each of which is to be paired with a song-cycle by Schumann: the two Liederkreis cycles Opp. 39 and 24 and Dichterliebe.

Sally Beamish’s West Wind, premiered by Gilchrist during this Wigmore Hall recital with accompanist Anna Tilbrook, is a companion piece to Schumann’s Op.39 Liederkreis cycle. It sets texts by Joseph Eichendorff which Gilchrist describes as quite Gothic: ‘The poetry is full of misty, veiled night-time scenes where one is not quite sure what is going on - there are knights and maidens and strange happenings down in the valley.’

Certainly the deep rumbles of the piano bass in the opening bars of Beamish’s work, which ripple upwards like a fantasia of wind, and whisper and blast through the composition, are a dark portent of the tempest which is both ‘destroyer and preserver’. As Tilbrook conjured this ‘Wild Spirit’, Gilchrist was heard off-stage and his slow entry - as if in sympathy with the dead leaves, ‘pestilence stricken multitudes’ - increased the air of foreboding. The tenor’s line retreated, ‘cold and low’ like the ‘wingèd seeds’ which lie like ‘corpse[s] within [the] grave’, while Tilbrook’s eerie rustles intimated the Spring breeze to follow. The vocal line, combining declamation and lyricism, and featuring frequent fourth intervals, recalled Britten in its dramatic tautness and the precision of its response to Shelley’s text.

Gilchrist’s subsequent slow, low lament to the ‘dirge of the dying year’ was dragged down further by the piano’s repetitive bass pedal but the image of the ‘vast sepulchre’ from which would burst forth ‘vapours, from whose solid atmosphere/ Black rain, and fire, and hail’ initiated fresh impetus. Here, and throughout, Beamish skilfully conveyed Romantic dualities - destruction and creation, faith and doubt - and in the indecisive final phrase, ‘O hear!’, as in the opening part of the work, faded fragilely into inconclusiveness.

Tilbrook’s delicate pianissimo wonderfully evoked the dreamy exoticism of the third section of Shelley’s poem. The accompaniment’s sparse textures and ‘barely-there’ gestures, anchored by a steady quaver pulsing, were a perfect support for the tenor’s incantatory lyricism. His diction superbly crisp, Gilchrist made much of the imagery, ‘sea-blooms and oozy woods’, which Beamish treats with madrigalian mimicry at times: ‘Thy voice’ was a cry of fear, the piano’s rushing cluster the ‘tremble’ of the natural world. At this central point ‘Oh hear’ disappeared, merging with Romantic nothingness as embodied by the piano’s enigmatic commentary.

In the following section, the poet-speaker’s identification with the wind was suggested by imitation between the piano and voice, and Gilchrist again revealed Beamish’s attentiveness to the poetic text, emphasising details such as the long-held darkness of ‘dead leaf’, and the flourish of ‘mightiest’, while the image of a ‘wave to pant beneath thy power’ released a tumult of energy that matched the momentum of Shelley’s enjambment. The growing positivity and peace felt by the speaker was conveyed by a focused but relaxed mezzo forte as Gilchrist imagined himself as ‘The comrade of thy wanderings over heaven’.

The final section injected renewed determination and urgency: ‘Make me thy lyre’ commanded the tenor, accompanied by astringent harmonies and parallel chords. The address to the ‘Spirit fierce, my spirit’ brought a response in the form of a varied reprise of the piano’s opening squall. True to Shelley’s appeal, ‘Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth/ The trumpet of a prophecy’ (here a beautiful, unaccompanied declamation), the voice’s apostrophe, ‘O Wind’, summoned the sounds of the airy lyre, then plummeted for the poet-speaker’s reverential hope, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ In the closing bars, Gilchrist quietly left the platform.

Beamish’s text-setting recalls Britten and Purcell in its alertness to the rhythmic potential of the words and the clarity of the sometimes angular melodic line. Gilchrist proved himself the perfect proponent of the work, communicating with a naturalness and directness which complemented the easy, conversational flow of Shelley’s iambic pentameter. I hope that we have the chance to her West Wind again soon, but we will have to wait for subsequent Wigmore Hall seasons to hear how Philips brings Schumann’s Heine settings (Liederkreis Op.24) into company with the poetry of John Clare, and whether Gilchrist persuades Dove that either The Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Byron’s Manfred is the perfect partner for Dichterliebe.

West Wind was preceded by five songs by Mendelssohn, a composer often criticised for failing to probe the Romantic subjectivity of his chosen poetic texts in the manner of Schumann or Schubert. Gilchrist began with ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ (On wings of song), a prime candidate perhaps for accusations of saccharine superficiality. Gilchrist’s tenor was warm and sweet, Tilbrook pedalled judiciously, and the duo used the minor-key inflections expressively, but they could not quite overcome the ‘Victorian parlour’ ambience. In a letter of 1842 to a former student, Marc André Souchay, Mendelssohn rebutted criticism that his Lieder Ohne Worte were songs ‘missing’ the poetry, declaring that ‘So much is spoken about music and so little is said. For my part I do not believe that words suffice for such a task … They [too] seem so ambiguous, so vague, so subject to misunderstanding when compared with true music … because the same word never means the same thing to different people’. Gilchrist, though, made much of the text, and the songs had directness and animation. ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ (There be none of Beauty’s daughters) was particularly compelling with the tenor making a sustained effort to convey the poetic spirit of Byron’s verse in which the poet-speaker reflects on the magic of his beloved’s beauty.

Tilbrook was an evocative accompanist, the piano’s syncopated throbbing embodying the distant tolling bells in ‘Nachtlied’ (Night song), and the fairy horses and elves of ‘Neue Liebe’ (New love) conjured by the accompaniment’s sprightly staccatos and measured-trill figures. In the latter, Gilchrist accurately negotiated the demanding contours of the swooping, leaping vocal line and the nuanced pacing of the final stanza in which the poet-speaker cautiously wonders if the elfin queen’s smile heralds a new love, or death, was skilfully controlled.

The Liszt songs which followed the interval were similarly attentive to detail and engagingly performed, but I found Gilchrist’s tenor a little too light and pure - even, dare one suggest, today of all days, rather ‘English’ - to capture the expressive agitation of some of these songs. That said, ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ (In the Rhine, the beautiful river) was gentle and dreamy and in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ (You are like a flower) the tenor’s mezza voce floated blissfully. Gilchrist had the power, even low in the voice, to match the heroic gestures of the accompaniment to ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ (There was a King in Thule). Best of the pick was ‘Loreley’ which was notable for the duo’s masterly control of the song’s musical and dramatic form, and its rhetorical impact.

Schumann’s Liederkreis Op.39 closed the recital. Gilchrist’s performance of the cycle was characterised by even vocal production, sustained intensity and expressive commitment that did not veer into melodrama. These qualities were compellingly present in ‘Waldesgespräch’ in which Gilchrist enacted the meeting between a knight - confident and focused of tone - and a mysterious beautiful woman - a restrained half-voice - as Tilbrook’s ‘hunting horns’ and rustling leaves evoked the nocturnal forest scene. The piano postlude created an unnerving sense of mystery, as the human figure was engulfed by the forest’s embrace, never more to be seen. Gilchrist can make his tenor seem quite ethereal at times and in ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit night) there was a lovely spaciousness as the beloved appeared to the poet-speaker, ‘as though Heaven had softly kissed the Earth’. ‘Wehmut’ (Sadness), too, was sensitively shaped. In contrast, ‘Frühlingsnacht’ (Spring night) ended the recital in a spirit of joyful refulgence.

Claire Seymour

This concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available via the BBC website ( Broadcast ) until 21 July.

James Gilchrist, tenor; Anna Tilbrook, piano.

Mendelssohn: ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ Op.34 No.2, ‘Schlafloser Augen Leuchte’ WoO.4 No.2, ‘Keine von der Erde Schönen’ WoO.4 No.1, ‘Nachtlied’ Op.71 No.6, ‘Neue Liebe’ Op.19a No.4; Sally Beamish: West Wind (world première); Liszt: ‘Im Rhein, im schönen Strome’ S272/2, ‘Du bist wie eine Blume’ S287, ‘Die Loreley’ S273/2, ‘Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam’ S309, ‘Es war ein König in Thule’ S278/2; Schumann: Liederkreis Op.39.

Wigmore Hall, London; Wednesday 22nd June 2016.

product=yes product_title=James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook, Wigmore Hall London product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
Posted by claire_s at 6:48 AM

June 23, 2016

Interview with Star of Florencia en el Amazonas, Elizabeth Caballero

Recently, she has performed this role with Florentine Opera, Madison Opera, the Pacific Symphony, and the Orlando Philharmonic. In 2015 she had a major triumph in the title role of Daniel Catàn’s Florencia en el Amazonas, the role she is repeat with the New York City Opera this month. Early next year, at Florida Grand Opera, she will appear in the hard hitting new opera, Before Night Falls that Jorge Martín based on the memoir of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas.

An interview by Maria Nockin

Q: Where were you born?

I was born in Havana, Cuba, but grew up in Miami, Florida. I've always had music around me because my parents would often play music on the radio as I was growing up. I remember listening to artists such as Julio Iglesias, Roberto Carlo, and Rafael just to name a few. These were all wonderful Spanish artists who not only had beautiful or interesting voices but they sang such amazing Spanish style ballads. I also remember going to church and singing in the church choir as a child. I would also audition for the solos and, most of the time, I would end up singing them. I don't ever remember being a shy kid. I always enjoyed performing.

Q: What did you do after high school?

It was after I graduated from high school that I discovered I could study singing. I attended the local community college where I was given a full scholarship and I met Beverly Coulter who was in charge of the music department. She was the first person to introduce me to opera. I had never heard opera before except for Placido Domingo singing some Spanish ballads and all the Bugs Bunny “Kill the Wabbit” stuff. Anyway, she gave me my first voice lessons and taught me my first operatic aria, “Quando m'en vo,” Musetta’s Waltz from Puccini’s La bohème. That’s when I noticed that the Baz Lurman La bohème was playing on PBS. I saw it and just fell in love with opera. I wanted to be a part of it. I don't really remember my first time seeing an actual opera live but I will never forget the first time I saw it on TV.

I really owe all my training to three voice teachers. Dr. Beverly Coulter at Miami Dade College was the one who planted the seed. Then, after the opera bug hit me, I transferred to the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. There I met Dr. Lorine Buffington. She taught me how prepare operatic roles, and from her I learned a great deal about acting. She was a great singer and a true opera diva. She was so much fun, too. It wasn't until after I graduated from the University of Miami that I met Manny Perez who is now my voice teacher. From Manny I learned the technique that worked for me. I learned never to push my instrument and, most importantly, I learned patience and persistence. After working with him for a few years, I won many competitions and was accepted into the Merola Opera program at San Francisco Opera. Bill Schuman is also a vital part of my training and I study with him when I am in New York.

Before Merola, however, I participated in the Florida Grand Opera Young Artist Program where I got to meet and work with Diana Soviero, and her husband, Bernard Uzan, both of whom I've always admired. From them I learned a great deal about the business of singing opera. What I cherish the most about their teaching is the importance of acting in opera. After all, we are singing actors. I remember Bernard saying to pay attention to all the punctuation in the librettos. Basically you will sing a question mark differently from a period or an exclamation point. Pay attention to commas, and all those other simple details. His words have really meant a lot to me.

After Florida Grand, I did the Merola Opera Program. Those were the most amazing summers I ever spent. I got to sing my first Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte one summer and my first Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème the next. The intense program really worked us hard. It was amazing and so very rewarding. Merola Program Artistic Director Sheri Greenawald was always very giving, and the cool thing about Florencia, the part I am singing in Catan’s Florencia in el Amazonas is that she created the role. I was able to pick her brain about the role when I found out I was singing it. Listening to her take on the part was amazing. She gave me a great deal to work with.

Q: What are your favorite roles?

I really enjoy Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Violetta, the title role in Verdi’s La traviata. Although very different from each other, both of these women are thrilling dramatic characters. Nedda may be based on real life because Leoncavallo, who wrote both the libretto and the music, said the idea for the story came from a court case handled by his father. Violetta was an actual French courtesan named Marie Duplessis who lived from 1824 to 1847. Franz Liszt and the younger Alexandre Dumas knew her. But, honestly, this question is not completely fair because my favorite role always ends up being the role I'm singing at the moment. I always find something new and different that makes me fall in love with each of the roles I sing.

Q: What did you like about singing Zemfira in Aleko?

I loved playing a gypsy. As a lyric soprano I'm always Micaela while Carmen is the hot gypsy. So it was fun to find my inner "Carmen". I also loved singing in Russian. Singing in Russian is actually quite similar to singing in Italian or Spanish in the sense that the vowels are very open and pure. It's a very comfortable and rich language to sing once you understand it. I also enjoyed singing those Russian dark L's.

What do you like best about singing opera in Spanish?

Spanish is my first language so it is a pleasure to be able to sing in the language I learned to speak as a child. There aren't many Spanish operas in the standard repertory so the fact that Florencia is being done so often makes me happy. Spanish is an extremely beautiful language to sing in because all the vowels are open and pure.

Q: What can you tell us about Before Night Falls?

Before Night Falls: an Autobiography (Antes que anochezca: autobiografía) is the life story of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. It describes his early life in Cuba, his time in prison, and his escape to the United States in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. The opera based on the book means a lot to me because I have many personal connections with it. Reinaldo Arenas came from Cuba in the Mariel Boatlift. So did I. Jorge Martin, the composer, who is also Cuban, didn't come in the Boatlift but he came much earlier when he was the same age I was when my parents brought me to the United States. He was just a little child. So he and I are these odd hybrids.

We are not really Cuban because we left the island very young and we don't remember anything of the island. We were raised in America. However, we have a big sense of Cuban pride that was imbedded in us by our families. We aren't really Cuban any more because we are Americans, but we will always have our Cuban love affair. So to sing a piece from such a wonderful Cuban composer who comes from the same place I do, means a lot. I am so happy to be a part of this. The fact that it will be premiered in Miami, which has a huge Cuban community, is amazing. I hope it will be seen in New York City, too, since that is where Jorge lives and where Arenas lived, too.

Q: What roles would you most like to sing in the future?

I'd love to sing more Verdi. Leonora in Il trovatore and Desdemona in Otello come to mind at first. I would also love another opportunity to sing Adina in l’Elisir d'amore. I only sang her once a few years back, but I remember that she was so much fun and a thrill to sing. Norina in Don Pasquale is another role I'd love to sing. It's fun not to die at the end of the opera. Basically, I'd love to do more bel canto but not exclude a late Verdi role like Desdemona.

Q: Which composers’ music do you think fits your voice best?

Honestly, I love to sing all composers, but Mozart is the composer I like to use as my grading scale. If I'm having trouble singing Mozart, I need to go back and fix whatever is giving me trouble. Mozart is like butter on the vocal cords.

Q: Do you have many clips on YouTube?

Yes, I do. Here are links to a few of them:

image_description=Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]

product_title=Interview with Star of Florencia en el Amazonas, Elizabeth Caballero
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]

Posted by maria_n at 12:23 PM

Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO

The new New York City Opera, the namesake of which has been revived by a new board of directors and Michael Capasso, the former director of the now-defunct DiCapo Opera, stands in the shadow of its previously glorious past. In its first performance under the weighty name of “New York City Opera,” the company produced a widely-panned Tosca in a display of sentimentality and homage to the New York City Opera’s first production in 1944. Their new season announcement, featuring a diverse array of unusual and interesting operatic selections, seems to suggest that this new New York City Opera is prepared to differentiate itself from its former glory days of the past, and from the hulking giant of the Met across the plaza in Lincoln Center.

The NYCO premiered its new season with Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas . This Spanish-language opera follows the adventures of two couples: the youthful and confused Rosalba and Arcadio, who meet by chance aboard the steamboat El Dorado, and the embittered Paula and Alvaro, who have chosen this trip down the Amazon River as a last-ditch effort to save their failing marriage. In the forefront is the tragic Florencia Grimaldi, a famous opera singer who abandoned her youthful love to pursue artistic greatness and fame.

This is an unusual and intrepid production. Use of mixed media and video projections create an interesting juxtaposition between the performative and the representative, usually successfully. The music itself is glorious and easy on the ear, complex and Straussian in its long, meandering musical ideas but Puccini-esque in its musical illustration of emotions. The orchestra, led by conductor Dean Williamson, is impeccable, creating a complex array of beautiful musical shadings while emphasizing a color palette unusual to the “standard” operatic repertoire, such as dramatically poignant soundings of the steel drum.

Unfortunately, either due to the acoustics of the space or the enthusiasm of the orchestra, the balance between the orchestra and singers was irritatingly off, with the singers either blending completely into the orchestral texture or sometimes becoming simply inaudible. Those with larger voices or more natural squillo fared better, but all the singers became a backdrop to the wash of orchestral sound.

However, not all was lost, and many of the singers fared well despite the acoustic challenges. Won Whi Choi (Arcadio) is an absolute standout singer, with an effortless upper range and a gorgeously rich and smooth tenor voice. His youthful hesitance worked well for the portrayal of the innocent-minded Arcadio. Opposite him, the excellent Sarah Beckham-Turner held her own with a rich middle voice and easy upper range.

The production features a dance corps of dancers clad in white body suits, who, with their endlessly fluid movements, represent the moods and ebbs of the Amazon River. With the regularity that each character refers to the Amazon as living, breathing entity, this was an ingenious touch that literally brought the river to life. The dancers were at times playful like water nymphs, and at other times, menacing, as they invaded the playing space of the singers and grabbed beloved objects or even people from the safety of the ship’s deck.

The inclusion of the dancers, though invaluable, narrowed the playing space of the singers, and often the scenes became rather flat and linear. The stakes felt too low most of the time, with the text and music expressing drama that didn’t seem inherent in the singers’ bodies or physical actions, perhaps due to the physical limitations of the reduced stage area.

The one singer who broke from this stiffness was Lisa Chavez, who gives one of the most compelling performances of the evening. With a rich, healthy mezzo voice, she brings the most three-dimensionality to her character, and her second act aria is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the opera. Luis Ledesma, playing her husband Alvaro, brings humor and charisma in addition to a well-rounded baritone voice to his role. The chemistry between these two and the commitment of both Chavez’s and Ledesma’s performances make the story of this failing marriage the most interesting thread of drama in the opera.

Elizabeth Caballero , singing the title character of Florencia, has a bit of a shaky start, with some breathiness in the upper range and cautious phrasing, but by the second act has completely come into her own. Her second act shows the true blossom of her voice, while her committed emotionality brings a depth of sadness to this opera star who has chosen fame above love.

Kevin Thompson , with a huge baritone voice as the Capitán, and Philip Cokorinos in a likeable, sympathetic portrayal of Riolobo, round out the excellent cast. Cokorinos has a rather stunning vocal display at the end of Act I, with an ominous, gloriously sung cry to the Amazon’s River gods. The costuming choice for Riolobo at this moment—a purple body suit with blue wings, representative of the butterflies that Florencia’s lover was so fond of hunting—rather detracts from the gravitas of the moment, but Cokorinos delivers an outstanding performance in spite of this.

All of the singers play out this drama against a large digital screen which shows various video reels, ranging from realistic scenery of the Amazon River to fantastical images representative of the subconscious. The video was well-executed—in fact, better-executed than most productions I’ve seen that have utilized this form of technology—but the images were inconsistent, ranging from beautiful and well-conceived to downright laughable at the most inappropriate of moments. The Amazonian scenery and the blurring of realism to fantasy are done very well. However, the scenes of “flashbacks” between Florencia and her lover are awkward and border on silly, eliciting giggles from the audience at the solemnest of moments. The final scene in which Florencia experiences her metamorphosis into a butterfly grows increasingly beautiful as the colorful images of butterfly wings are blurred on the digital screen. However, in the final moments of the opera, a ridiculously rendered image of Florencia as a literal butterfly flying into the outstretched palm of a larger-than-life still image of her grinning lover Cristobal ruin the opera’s otherwise beautiful final moments.

Still, this production is to be commended for taking the risk of using digital media in live performance. It does it mostly successfully, and that, combined with the wonderful use of the river dancers, creates an evening of music that certainly isn’t boring. This well-rendered music, combined with the strong cast and bold production choices, is reason enough to spend an evening with the New York City Opera.

Alexis Rodda

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Caballero.E.Headshot.png image_description=Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists] product=yes product_title=Florencia en el Amazonas, NYCO product_by=A review by Alexis Rodda product_id=Above: Elizabeth Caballero [Photo courtesy of Uzan International Artists]
Posted by Gary at 11:00 AM

June 22, 2016

Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington

Even so fervent a Gluckian as I should happily admit that Mozart here goes beyond his great predecessor (and contemporary), perhaps not consistently, but Mozart is saddled with a vastly inferior libretto. In any case, that Gluckian musico-dramatic line is only one of the many facets of Idomeneo’s greatness. Its Salzburg luxuriance - yes, I know it was written for Munich; I refer here to the Salzburg Mozart as opposed to his Viennese successor - has its own extravagant rewards, even when the musico-dramatic focus is not quite so tightly disciplined as that of, say, Iphigénie en Tauride. Moreover, no Iphigenia is a match for Mozart’s Elettra. As for the orchestral and choral writing, it is surely a match for Don Giovanni; even its chromaticism, its masterly exploration of remote reaches of the tonal system, do not come so very far behind. And yet, even so fervent a devotee as I was only seeing the work in the theatre for the fourth time. Following the Vienna State Opera (2006), ENO (2010) , and the Royal Opera (2014), here came Garsington Opera to the rescue.

For that, and indeed for much else, Garsington deserves a hearty vote of thanks. Musically, this was a strong performance, despite cuts that scarred the work more than I should have preferred. I can, to a certain extent, understand the temptation to make considerable cuts to the recitatives, although Mozart’s achievement here is surely not his least. To do so to the extent that the story does not quite hang together, though, is a disfigurement that seems to misunderstand the role of recitative, whether dry or accompanied, in eighteenth-century opera. One can probably fill in the gaps, but is that really the point? And unlike, say, Don Giovanni, which suffers greatly from use of the ridiculous composite of Prague and Vienna versions, this is a work for which superfluity, is part of the attraction: let us have as much of the rest as we can. I could not help but wonder whether certain arias were not present in order to facilitate a transformation of three acts into two. There will always be choices to be made, for there is no ideal ‘version’, but so far as this listener is concerned, the more one can hear, for the most part the better. The loss of the ballet music I mind more than once I did; once one realises how dramatic ballet can be, especially in the magnificent French tradition in which Idomeneo partly stands, there is no turning back. Martin Kušej’s tableau for Covent Garden is doubtless a one-off; as a visual, harrowing instantiation of regime change, it made its dramatic point to those willing to think. (Needless to say, that excluded most of the audience.) Still, we had what we had.

That is still more the case with a fine cast and chorus as here. The work of Susanna Stranders is training the Garsington Chorus had clearly been thorough and well directed; choral singing proved lithe and weighty, as required, very much in consonance with the kaleidoscope of colours offered by the excellent orchestra. In the title role, Toby Spence offered a typically thoughtful performance, quite different from any I have heard (and which I retain in my head), but that is no reason to criticise. Idomeneo’s torment was starkly apparent from the outset, visually and vocally, still more so as a broken man (and king) at the conclusion. I have heard no finer, no more moving Ilia than Louise Alder’s, taking its leave from words and music alike, and above all from the alchemic synthesis of the two. After a first aria shaky of intonation, Caitlin Hulcup’s Idamante proved equally impressive; indeed, so convincing was she as the prince that I initially thought I was hearing a countertenor. Rebecca von Lipinski’s Elettra was just the tour de force that one needs; if only the production (on which more anon) had helped give more context to her fury and equally to a humanity too often lost in performance, but not here. Timothy Robinson’s attentive Arbace, the perfect counsellor, had one miss more than usual his aria (not, even I should admit, Mozart at his greatest). Robert Murray’s relatively small role as the High Priest did not disappoint: a typically intelligent, intriguingly ambiguous performance. Even Neptune (who appears, rather convincingly, as a neo-Monteverdian apparition, rather than being mediated by an oracle) was convincingly brought to life by Nicholas Masters.

If Tobias Ringborg’s conducting had a few too many Harnoncourtisms for my taste, not least drastic, rhetorical gear changes in the Overture, then it was dramatic throughout. (I hasten to add that I have nothing whatsoever against tempo variation; but few Mozart conductors seem able to convince in that respect today, Daniel Barenboim, who has never conducted the work, an obvious exception.) Ringborg also proved somewhat of the interventionist school in his fortepiano (what is wrong with a modern piano?) continuo. Balanced against such irritants, there was no doubting the conductor’s living and breathing the music. His enthusiasm was infectious; the orchestra’s vivid response - perhaps a little vivid in the case of clattering (period?) timpani - was not the least of the evening’s special qualities.

I am afraid a ‘but’ is coming, and it relates to Tim Albery’s production. As with his Wagner productions for the Royal Opera House, Albery creates, insofar as I could discern, little beyond a string of clichés. The principal characters appear in stylised eighteenth-century dress, whilst the set designs and the chorus evoke a contemporary port. (Alas, I could not help but recall Katie Mitchell’s catastrophic ENO staging , its second act in an airport terminal - which I only later discovered had been a ferry terminal, as if that made all the difference.) There is almost always something one can do with such juxtaposition; I assumed Albery would at least do something with the large seafaring container, opened to reveal an eighteenth-century room. But no, that seems to be it: different dress, and opening and shutting of the container. It seems designed to flatter people who wanted to say they had seen something ‘modern’, without engaging with any of the possibilities of contemporary theatre, let alone presenting something as outré as a concept. The story ‘itself’ actually comes across quite strongly, despite the cuts, and that, I admit, is not an insignificant achievement. By the same token, though, it might as well have been entirely in eighteenth-century dress and in an eighteenth-century setting.

Mark Berry

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Idomeneo, re di Creta

Ilia: Louise Alder; Idamante: Caitlin Hulcup; Elettra: Rebecca von Lipinski; Arbace: Timothy Robinson; Idomeneo: Toby Spence; High Priest: Robert Murray; Neptune: Nicholas Masters. Director: Tim Albery; Designs: Hannah Clark; Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth; Movement: Tim Claydon. Garsington Opera Chorus (chorus master: Susanna Stranders)/Garsington Opera Orchestra/Tobias Ringborg (conductor). Garsington Opera House, Wormsley Park, Oxfordshire, Sunday 19 June 2016.

product=yes product_title=Idomeneo, re di Creta, Garsington product_by=A review by Mark Berry
Posted by claire_s at 1:45 AM

June 21, 2016

Don Carlo in San Francisco

Everyone knows that Don Carlos was written in French, and premiered in 1866 at the Paris Opera. Like all grand opera productions in Paris it included a ballet. An Italian translation quickly surfaced for performances in London the next year and then in all major Italian theaters. All sorts of modifications to the opera’s extraordinary length were taken, resulting finally in the Verdi sanctioned four act, no ballet La Scala version of 1884. It is said that Verdi may not have objected to the addition of the original first act (in Italian) for performances in Modena in 1886.

And therefore in San Francisco in 2016. Don Carlo has been done in San Francisco both in the four-act La Scala version and in a five-act Don Carlos French version, though without the ballet (Verdi originally insisted that the opera must include the ballet). With hoped for new directions at San Francisco Opera perhaps we will some day soon have the opera as Verdi intended.

It can come as no surprise that the Italian language Modena five-act version was chosen for these performances given that Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti is the SFO music director. Though an unexpected double-take could not be helped when we heard words that simply do not belong in Fontainebleau. While strange words were probably not meant to be the old theater trick of putting the audience on edge (stage directors sometimes do it by forcing blinding light into your eyes), it had that effect.

So it was as if we were hearing this magnificent opera for the first time. Conductor Luisotti held us spell bound for four and one half hours, every possible quiver or roar of emotion poured forth, never once did we feel the score being pushed for effect, nothing too fast, nothing too slow. Always the Verdi genius was foremost (and not the conductor’s). Evidently Luisotti had met his match. Finally.

DonCarlo_2.pngRené Pape as Philip II

In the fourth and fifth acts this Don Carlo venerated the centuries old, creaky, passé opera seria style with its succession or arias. After King Philip’s momentous “Ella giammai m’amo” Rodrigo dies with his very moving “Per me giunto é il dì supremo.” Then there is the most trying aria in the repertory, not because of emotional or technical difficulties but because it is of extended length and comes four hours into the opera. Philip’s wife and Don Carlo’s lover Elisabeth delivered “Tu che le vanità conoscesti del mondo” in such exquisitely soaring voice that an already exhausted audience gave it the biggest ovation of the evening!

On the basis of the casting, American tenor Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo and Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecién as the Marquis of Posa the opera could well be renamed Carlo and Rodrigo as these two splendid singing actors made this opera more about the love of two men — sublimated into freeing the oppressed — and its ramifications than about the thwarted betrothal of Don Carlo to Elisabetta and its ramifications. From the first moments of the pasted on first act, Don Carlo’s romance “Io la vidi” (better known as “Je l’ai vu dans son sourire”), we knew that tenor Fabiano was born to this role, finding sufficient Verdi vocal heft and color to compete musically with kings and queens and a spurned woman while he sustained the character of a weak and troubled epileptic youth. Rodrigo, the Marquis de Posa, baritone Kwiecién found the seductive, the duplicitous and the sacrificial, confusing everyone with beautiful, convincing singing. Both men — and maybe most of all Verdi — made this edgy staging very real and very moving.

The opera Don Carlo is also about power — ecclesiastical and secular power. Power is a very complicated question in the Verdi oeuvre and he discusses it in great depth in Don Carlo. Here King Philip II usurps his son’s fiancé to gain political power, and finally gives his son to the Inquisition to maintain his power. The Philip II of bass René Pape found very real humanity for this unhappy king in the always touching “Ella giammai m’amo” but otherwise did not create the overwhelming sense of suffocating authority that might underlie these four and one half hours.

Andrea Silvestrelli was over parted as the Grand Inquisitor, his roughness of voice and tired presence did not adequately color the manipulative cunning and sinister reasoning of such an instrument and technique of power. Still the famous bass duet was convincing in its revelation of the weakness and vulnerability of Philip II. The old monk who begins and ends the opera (the four act version) was sung by Adler Fellow Matthew Stump. An old, tired presence would be preferred to balance the maturity of the cast, and the maturity of the subject matter of the opera.

Texas soprano Ana Maria Martinez brought us a beautifully sung if pallid Elisabetta — the role itself does find much presence in this male world until the fifth act aria (see above) when she essentially has the last word, decrying the vanities of the world. Verdi’s snarling mezzo, Eboli was well sung by Bulgarian mezzo soprano Nadia Krasteva who fulfilled her function as catalyst for Philip II’s lament without ever have fully taken the stage, even in her famous “O don fatal.”

DonCarlo_3.pngProduction by Emilio Sagi, set design by Zack Brown

The pedestrian production was the remount of a 1998 San Francisco Opera production by Spanish director Emilio Sagi (note that all productions in this spring season come from 1998). An opera of the stature of Don Carlo and a quality cast deserve a production that can plumb the theatrical depths of this masterpiece.

If this 2016 early summer San Francisco Opera season had some real interest, consider the 2017 early summer season: Rigoletto, Don Giovanni and La Boheme, all in oft re-cycled productions.

Michael Milenski

Cast and production information:

Don Carlo: Michael Fabiano; Elisabetta: Ana Maria Martinez; Princess Eboli: Nadia Krasteva; Rodrigo: Mariusz Kwiecien; Philip II: René Pape; The Grand Inquisitor: Andrea Silvestrelli; A Monk; Mathew Stump; Tebaldo: Nian Wang; A Heavenly Voice: Toni Marie Palmertree; Count Lerma: Pene Pati. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Director: Emilio Sagi; Designer: Zack Brown; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memotial Opera House, San Francisco, June 15, 2016.


product_title=Don Carlo in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo (below), Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo (above) [All photos copyright Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 8:30 AM

Jenůfa in San Francisco

Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom (the Mozart heroines in Salzburg and at the Met and Covent Garden) was born to be Janáček's melodramatic heroine. A lithe, youthful presence with a voice of sufficient importance to make us revel in this squalid, brutal tale of a primitive social world. As well her voice possesses a primal purity and innocence that reassures us finally of the beauties possible in the human psyche. The Bystrom Jenůfa was at once the fallen woman and the redeemed soul, her redemption a simple acceptance and understanding of human love.

Some twenty years ago this was the Jenůfa of Karita Mattila as well. No longer willing to portray the guilty innocence of an operatic adolescent this extraordinary diva has transformed herself into Jenůfa's stepmother Kostelnička, a mature woman driven by powerful social forces and overwhelmed by a selfish form of maternal love. Mattila fans (and that is nearly everyone) have eagerly awaited the Mattila take on this complex and emotionally demanding role.

Mattila’s transition from daughter to mother however has not been fully effected in San Francisco. While there is no question that la Mattila projected the persona of great force that this role requires we see that sheer force of personality alone cannot explain and does not explore the subtlety and cunning of this conflicted human creature.

Subtlety and cunning are indeed ripe in Janáček’s adaptation of The Stepmother’s Daughter (the play on which Jenůfa is based and in fact the Czech title of the opera) and in Janáček’s musical score every germ of thought and action is detailed, and the motivations are nervous, brutal, direct and honest interspersed with moments of understanding that are luminous. The story builds to a shattering climax and final minutes (not moments) of revelation that can attain the sublime.

Jenura4_SF.pngMalin Byström as Jenufa

Czech maestro Jiří Bělohlávek took a symphonic approach to the score that integrated Janáček's maelstrom of thought fragments into larger musical shapes. This larger wash, a somewhat dreamlike emotional force, robbed Janáček's characters of the psychic minutiae that informed their actions, leaving us in an unexplained emotional wake. We missed the bursts of revelation as they were absorbed into this larger and indeed far more delicate thrust. From the first moment conductor Bělohlávek left us no where to go, and no place to land.

A similar approach was taken by French stage director Olivier Tambossi when he conceived his Jenůfa production (1998). He abstracted the minutiae of Janáček’s primitive peasant world into one primary image — a boulder (a metaphor for emotional weight mentioned in Act II). Like conductor Bělohlávek he suppressed the particulars of the world of Kostelnička, leaving us in its emotional wake — a priori he interpreted Kostelnička’s world for us by reducing it to this one image. We had nothing to discover, we were simply told. By-the-way the stone looked a lot like a huge potato. It was confusing.

Jenufa2_SF.pngScott Quinn as Steva, Malin Byström as Jenufa

Of somewhat lesser scale than the two divas were the performances by William Burden as Laca and Scott Quinn as Steva. Both young men impressively created Janacek's troubled young men, both are very fine singers and excellent actors. Such talent begs a production that does not rely solely on force of personality.

Though a victim of the heavy-handed direction Grandmother Burjovka was ably portrayed by Jill Grove.

As usual the Adler Fellows assumed many minor roles. Soprano Julie Adams was an appropriate Karolka and baritone Matthew Stump made an almost believable Foreman-at-the-Mill. The fresh voices of the Adlers are always a great pleasure to hear and admire. These young singers are too often called upon to portray characters that have nothing to do with their age, personalities, or quality of voice.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Jenůfa: Malin Byström; Kostelnička: Karita Mattila; Laca Klemeň: William Burden; Steva Buryja: Scott Quinn; Grandmother Buryjovka: Jill Grove; Foreman at the Mill: Matthew Stump; Mayor of the Village: Anthony Reed; Karolka: Julie Adams; Barena: Toni Marie Palmertree; The Mayor's Wife: Zanda Svëde; The Maid: Laura Krumm; Jano: Sarah Tucker. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor:Jiří Bělohlávek; Director: Olivier Tambosi; Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 14, 2016.


product_title=Jenufa in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Karita Mattila as Kostelnička [All photos copyright Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 7:52 AM

June 18, 2016

Musings on the “American Ring

The 11-year history of the Washington Ring rivals Wagner’s own trials in creating his tetralogy, mired as it has been in money problems, changes in management, and clashes of personalities. Yet all seems now to have been vindicated by the sold-out performances and almost uniformly superlative reviews. Indeed, the production appears to have become a marketing boon for the company. It was supported by an extensive educational and promotional campaign: a themed Opera Ball, a glittering website, a pre-performance lecture series, and even a pair of alpenhorns played (usually in tune) in the Kennedy Center lobby prior to curtain.

Far from intending to inject a note of discord into the chorus of accolades, I would open my own comments on the WNO Ring by saying that it was hard not to be impressed by the spectacle of it all. After all, Wagner identified Gesamtkunstwerk as the foundation of his music drama, and there is nothing like the Ring to remind us of the complex and multifaceted nature of a “complete work of art.” That said, the sheer scope of the tetralogy also demands a broader vision – a master narrative to subsume and justify all the lovingly crafted details. The impetus for what Francesca Zambello called her “American Ring” appears to have been her determination to embrace the undeniably epic scale of the storyline, all the while exploiting the fashionable, socially conscious trappings of Regietheatre – and sprinkling both, generously and almost gleefully, with elements of a classic carnival magic show.

Both the triumphs and the pitfalls of this Ring, I would argue, stemmed from navigating the balance between these disparate influences that worked mostly in consort, but occasionally at cross-purposes. Wotan (Alan Held), for example, easily adopted – and adapted to – each of his multiple personalities and disguises: a hurried executive in Das Rheingold, a clownish vagabond in Siegfried, a tragic King Lear in Die Walküre all peeked through the veneer of the all-powerful king of the gods. Yet, it was hard to take Donner (Ryan McKinny) seriously as the God of Thunder when he was attempting to command the elements dressed in a Great Gatsby-style pinstriped suit (costumes by Catherine Zuber), with the homemade firework sparklers flying out of his hammer.

Particularly interesting to watch was a double counterpoint created by the relationships between, on the one hand, the mythological and heroic-dramatic layers of the tetralogy itself, and on the other, the epic vs. the gritty drama in Zambello’s interpretation of it. While it was to be expected that Das Rheingold and the finale of Götterdämmerung would lean most heavily towards the epic, the director does not necessarily follow Wagner’s dramaturgy throughout. Some of the composer’s most densely leitmotif-packed moments of mythological storytelling (such as Wotan’s monologue in Act 2 of Die Walküre and the prologue to Götterdämmerung) eschew grandeur; more than one human character dons an epic mantle, while the ugliness of the human world invades the world of the gods.

And it is an ugly, ugly world Zambello conjures up for us (sets by Michael Yeargan; lighting design by Mark McCullough). Her main theme, as she herself suggests, is an environmentally conscious one. Wagner’s idea of nature corrupted by greed is here presented, in both a visually compelling and a literal sense, as pollution of natural environment by the uninhibited growth of human industry; endless highways destroying forests, piles of (unrecycled) garbage chocking up rivers, and factory chimney stacks blackening the sky. In the finale of Das Rheingold we see the gods walk toward the glittering skyscraper of their newly built Valhalla headquarters, while the Rhine maidens bewail their fate at the foot of a cement monstrosity of the (Brooklyn?) bridge leading up to it. Their faces and clothes are covered in soot: Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) and the Nibelungs are, naturally, coal miners. The giants sport Depression-eras construction worker overalls (to contrast with the suits and flapper dresses of the champagne-sipping gods), their bodies an awkward yet disturbing fusion of man and machine that reminds one of the Weimar Zeitopern like Max Brand’s Maschinist Hopkins.

Alan Held as Wotan and The Valkyries in The Valkyrie - photo Scott Suchman.pngAlan Held as Wotan and the Valkyries [Photo by Scott Suchman]

While the gods are ensconced in their heavenly corporate boardrooms, the human world of the tetralogy alternates between the depressing anarchy of a dirty industrial cityscape and the oppressive order of a chauvinistic militarized civilization. The final confrontation between Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) and Hunding (Raymond Aceto) takes place in that most iconic of urban milieux, under a bridge (the bridge from Das Rheingold, that is), as Fricka (Elizabeth Bishop) watches, unmoved, from the top of the bridge’s arch. Fafner’s cave is an abandoned factory, complete with a post-apocalyptic mechanical “dragon” (a cross between an excavator and a tank), in which Soloman Howard’s Fafner hides himself. Mime (David Cangelosi) builds his forge in a trashed trailer park next to a land field. This technically makes Siegfried (Daniel Brenna) “trailer trash” – an image Zambello clearly endorses, presenting Wagner’s greatest hero not as a pure child of nature, but rather as an irritating, ignorant teenage bully who makes us wonder what Brünnhilde (Catherine Foster and Nina Stemme) could possibly see in him (note: echoes of 2003 Stuttgart Siegfried abound). Yet the Valkyrie herself – at least in Foster’s interpretation I saw – is introduced to us less as a Daughter of Wisdom and more as a mischievous imp. Indeed, it is her journey, her transformation that becomes central to the storyline. While Siegfried is an “accidental hero” who blunders blindly through his life, into his love, and towards his death without understanding the point to any of it, Brünnhilde grows – through her divine experiences in Die Walküre, but more so through her human ones in Götterdämmerung. And her human life exemplifies another important theme in Zambello’s Ring: that of the subjugation and liberation of women. While it is easy to see Sieglinde (Meagan Miller) as an abused wife, as many directors do, Brünnhilde is no less so, particularly as portrayed here against the backdrop of the aggressively male-dominated, gun-totting Gibichung kingdom. It is notable, therefore, that the finale of Zambello’s Götterdämmerung is virtually male-free. Instead, it features the women of the kingdom, led by the newly worldwise Brünnhilde, her now enlightened acolyte Gutrune (Melissa Citrom, whose character comes almost unbelievably far from the bored alcoholic socialite of Act 1, in bed with the half-brother Hagen), and the ever-present and determined, albeit somewhat callous Rhine maidens. It is the women who build Siegfried’s monumental funeral pyre by piling up mountains of garbage, thus cleaning and purifying the polluted world, before we witness a young girl – Earth goddess Erda, reborn – planting a sapling of the next World Ash to start that world anew.

The symbolism throughout is rarely opaque; occasionally preachy; and often powerful. Part of its potency, I think, lies in the way the natural world is being represented. Ironically, it is here (and not, say, in the Götterdämmerung prologue, in which the Norns vainly attempted to repair the fiber optic cables of their thread) that Zambello most closely embraces technology. Large-format computer-generated imagery projected onto the front screen, backdrop, or both, accompany and connect multiple scenes throughout the tetralogy (projection design by Jan Hartley and S. Katy Tucker). Some of the imagery is virtually abstract: water, fire, clouds, gold, stone, and other elements of nature continuously coalesce, dissolve, and re-form again. Other images are more realistically concrete and darker, in line with a gritty, literally “down-to-earth” atmosphere of the main Ring trilogy, showing how fast the rising industrial civilization of skyscrapers, factories, and highways can displace the natural world. Natural imagery is still present in this form, however. We look down majestic canyons (Zambello claims inspiration from the American West); wade into dense forests (peaceful and sunlit in parts of Siegfried; yet in Die Walküre chaotic and psychologically disorienting enough to be fit for Erwartung, or at least Pelléas); and even hitch a ride with the Valkyries, as the computer-generated clouds rush towards the viewer, creating an illusion of flight during Wagner’s most celebrated instrumental passage. Indeed, the CGI projections were at their most effective, in my opinion, when paired with the purely instrumental portions of the Ring. The aural-visual correlation was excellent, showing sensitivity to the score and, perhaps, also to the limited attention span of a less Wagner-trained portion of the audience. After all, it is not easy to make the infamous 5-minute-long opening of Das Rheingold – which consists, as any Wagnerite will tell you, of a reiteration of a single chord – look, as well as sound riveting.

SIEGFRIED_146.pngA scene from Siegfried

And speaking of riveting sounds, I would be remiss if I neglected to tip my hat to the almost uniformly high quality of the performance, from both the singers and (there is a WNO first!) the orchestra, forged by Philippe Auguin into a formidable force. There are always issues in a live presentation, be they occasioned by seasonal allergies that felled Held in Wotan’s Farewell; rehearsal mishaps that made Foster’s poor Brünnhilde limp through most of cycle 2; or simple fatigue – in Bayreuth it would be inconceivable to demand that the brass players do three Ring cycles back to back, as they did here. Yet overall, I was impressed with the care taken in both auditioning and casting – most tellingly, the casting of small parts: the Valkyries, the Norns, and particularly the Rhine Maidens (Jacqueline Echols, Catherine Martin, and Renée Tatum). Echols (Woglinde), with her almost inhumanly pure, vibrato-less coloratura was double-cast superbly as the Forest Bird. Speaking of wildlife, I cannot tell you whether there was a separate casting call for the (person-costumed-as) bear used in Act 1 of Siegfried, but the Wagnerites in the audience insisted it was the best one they have ever seen. And yes, the bear did get a separate curtain call. Hunding’s (real) hunting dogs from Die Walküre did not; and honestly, that little detail I could have done without. Other production niceties, however, were much appreciated, such as commendable attention to the language: both the articulation of the German (in which the comic talents of Cangelosi and William Burden as Loge particularly shined) and the carefully crafted supertitles, tailored to reflect Zambello’s updated setting (e.g., with the appropriately idiomatic mid-20th-century American vernacular) and other directorial changes.

TWILIGHTOFTHEGODS_201.pngScene from Twilight of the Gods

Overall, the Washington Ring showcased both respect for tradition and interpretive freedom. The latter, of course, has arguably developed into a tradition of its own over the past four decades, ever since Chereau/Boulez’s infamous centennial Ring of 1976. Francesca Zambello’s contribution to this revisionist directorial canon may not be to every Wagnerite’s taste, but it is a worthwhile and a memorable one. I hope this is not the last time we see it.

Olga Haldey
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RHINEGOLD_072.png image_description=Scene from The Rheingold product=yes product_title=Musings on the “American Ring” (Washington National Opera, May 2016) product_by=A review by Olga Haldey product_id=Above: Scene from The Rheingold
Posted by Gary at 8:25 PM

Nabucco, Covent Garden

But, Domingo is sharing the role with Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias, and on this occasion the latter proved himself a stylish Verdian, with a voice that can rove from heroic to suave, from ringing to whispered, and a dramatic presence equal to the task of representing a King who is both crazed tyrant and tender father.

Platanias’s blazing baritone is even across the range and beautifully coloured. Its sureness and consistency, and his confident musicianship, offers him dramatic freedom; powerfully built, whether vicious destroyer or vulnerable patriarch, he commands the stage. At his first entry, Platanias’s King is both dismissively imperious and disturbingly unstable: when he snatches the crown and declares himself King and God of the Babylonians, his repeated assertions of his own divinity (‘Non son più re, son dio’) signal his impending insanity. He has both the tragic grandeur of Othello and the paranoid delusion of Lear.

Subsequently, when Nabucco pleads for Fenena’s life (‘Oh di qual onta aggravasi questo mio crin canuto’) he becomes a Rigoletto - the role in which Platanias made his debut at Covent Garden in 2012 - a desperate father suffering the loss of the one thing in the world that he loves with selfless honesty. In the final Act, miraculously restored to health and reason - his prayers to the God of Judah answered - Platanias recovered his regal rectitude, leading the final chorus with stentorian power and persuasiveness.

In the pit, Maurizio Benini is reliable and brings the vigour of the young Verdi’s score to the fore. The details of the orchestral accompaniments are clearly heard, but they support the voices and never out-shine them. Benini exercises a tight grip and - from my view in the Amphitheatre - seemed at times to have more eyes, ears and arms than is humanly possible, cueing and guiding all and sundry almost hyperactively during the Act 1 choral finale, furiously flinging the pages of the score while never once glancing down. This was a solid rather than a stirring performance, though, from the ROH Orchestra. There was some dodgy tuning from the trombones at the start of the overture, which fortunately settled when the chorale was later reprised, and the sheer brassiness of the score didn’t quite make the mark it should.

Verdi’s said of the opera with which his artistic career really took off, ‘though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star’. He might have added that the star shone brightest over ‘Va Pensiero’: operatic myth has it that at the first rehearsal the La Scala stagehands shouted their approval, reinforcing their endorsement with a drumbeat of feet and tools upon the floor and sets. It’s certainly rousing stuff and the ROH Chorus didn’t disappoint. ‘Fly, my thoughts, on gilded wings; fly to rest on hills and mounts’, cry the Hebrew slaves, and the Chorus really did make their prayer take flight, soft-voiced beginnings swelling to urgent, warm waves of sound, then fading to a magical pianissimo, following which the air seemed to echo with the spirit of the hymn.

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska was a fiery, feverish Abigaille, as power-hungry as Lady Macbeth and sharing all the latter’s coldness of heart, utterly unmoved as she was by Nabucco’s pleas to spare Fenena’s life. Monastyrska exuded self-confidence and self-conviction in ‘Salgo già del trono aurato’ (I already ascend the seat of the golden throne), unhesitatingly seizing the crown when it fell from Nabucco’s head. But her scorching fury was countered by moments of quiet beauty. Framed by a semi-circle of fire, in ‘Anch’io dischiuso un giorno’ she reflected with bitterness and pathos on her present alienation and happy past, fading to a fragile but expertly controlled pianissimo that hinted at a woman heart’s beneath the mask of magisterial haughtiness.

Monastyrska’s powerful dramatic soprano can hit a note at top or bottom bang on and with astonishing steeliness. But, the sound was sometimes a little raw, there was a tendency to stray sharp-wards, and the coloratura was messy. But, if the characterisation lacked nuance, the vocal diversity was satisfying compensation.

The other roles are inevitable overshadowed by the central father-daughter pair, but American mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, making her debut at Convent Garden, and Italian-American tenor Leonardo Capalbo added a welcome touch of lyricism as the ‘star-crossed’ beloveds, Fenena and Ismaele. Barton in particular used her big voice with considerable expressivity, gliding easily and with sumptuousness through the lyrical phrases.

As the High Priest Zaccaria, Canadian bass John Relyea also phrased expressively but he didn’t quite have the vocal authority to conjure the spiritual gravitas that would be necessary to convince the despairing Israelites to trust in their God, who will destroy Babylon. Relyea’s contemplative solo with wistful cello accompaniment was sensitively sung, and played, though.

Alison Chitty’s designs seek to establish a connection between biblical banishment and 20th-century oppression, specifically the Nazi persecution of the Jews; and, the modern business suits by implication also suggest the miseries of present-day mass exile. The colour scheme is monochrome - unalleviated grey - whether we are in the Judaean temple or the Babylonian gardens. And, while the ROH Chorus gives voice to diverse emotions, from terror and torment to fortitude and faith, it’s not always easy to distinguish Israelite from Babylonian. With a nod to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, the sandpit-stage is strewn with statuesque stone plinths representing the Jerusalem Temple; in Alessandro Carletti’s half-light they evoke the eerie strangeness of a de Chirico public square when first viewed, and subsequently they become stumbling blocks to meaningful stage movement. Though there is some attractive and thoughtful blocking of the Chorus, the back-wall video projections of Luca Scarzella are no substitute for genuine dramatic choreography.

A lot of thought has gone into the visual design; but a neat ‘picture’ doesn’t necessarily result in genuine, gripping drama. Whatever its political suggestiveness, Verdi’s opera is essentially about human emotions - love and hatred - of Shakespearean dimension. And Abbado’s production would benefit from a bit more melodrama and a bit less modern-day migrant misery.

Claire Seymour

Nabucco - Dimitri Platanias, Zaccaria - John Relyea, Abigaille - Liudmyla Monastyrska, Ismaele - Leonardo Capalbo, Fenena - Jamie Barton, Anna - Vlada Borovko, Abdallo - Samuel Sakker, High Priest of Baal - David Shipley; Director - Daniele Abbado, Associate director - Boris Stetka, Conductor - Maurizio Benini, Designer - Alison Chitty, Lighting designer - Alessandro Carletti, Video designer - Luca Scarzella, Movement - Simona Bucci, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus.

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London; Wednesday 15th July 2016.

product=yes product_title=Nabucco, Covent Garden product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
Posted by claire_s at 6:53 AM

June 17, 2016

Tristan, English National Opera

Whether it would now is beside the point: I have no way of knowing and could not, would not go without a considerable number of Tristan- and Wagner-experiences in between. ENO’s new Tristan has its faults, but it also has far from negligible virtues. If the acid test might be said to be whether it reminds one that Tristan is, will surely always be, the greatest musical drama of all - with, that is, the possible exception of the St Matthew Passion, depending on how one considers Bach’s supreme masterpiece - then ENO succeeded not so very far off triumphantly. Given the strength of the company’s enemies within and without, that success deserves trumpeting loudly.

There are certainly some very good things in Daniel Kramer’s production. I use that somewhat limp phrase deliberately, for the overriding impression, or at least an overriding impression, is that it would benefit from revision, from a strong hand that would enable greater coherence and ruthless elimination of the irrelevant. (The latter is perhaps the worst foe of all in Tristan: remember Christof Loy? If not, do keep it that way.) In retrospect, it is the first act that stands out as seemingly from another production. Give or take the division of the stage into Isolde’s world and Tristan’s, strongly reminiscent of Herbert Wernicke’s excellent Covent Garden production, absurdly dispensed with in order to prepare the way for Loy, it seems really to be a straightforward, almost ‘traditional’ staging. I have no problem with that; it lets the work speak, and there is much to be said for that. Whatever one does with Tristan, one is ill-advised indeed to do something to it. Its status as an almost entirely metaphysical drama renders it curiously, almost uniquely, impervious, to such Konzept­-driven treatment. (Or at least it has done so in my experience: it is foolish and indeed absurd to rule things out ‘in principle’.) Alas, Kramer has a bizarre mini-concept, or whatever we want to call it, concerning Kurwenal. Of any character in opera, I find it difficult to think of a less camp specimen. Undoing or undercutting conventional views of masculinity might be an interesting project here, but simply turning him into a camp monstrosity, dressed, like Brangäne, as if he were a refugee from a highly stylised presentation of Alice in Wonderland, is bizarre and, frankly, extremely irritating. He spends a good deal of time and energy spraying perfume, or air-freshener, or something at Tristan before the latter’s confrontation with Isolde. To what end? I am afraid I have no idea. Something, I think, to be eliminated from the revival I hope will come. The very peculia costumes (in themselves well designed by Christina Cunningham, but again, to what end?) would benefit from rethinking en masse.

In the second and third acts, Anish Kapoor’s striking designs do a great deal - perhaps a little too much? - of the work. The lack of specificity is no bad thing. Tristan is certainly not about Cornwall. (Imagine a Tory-UKIP production, in which the whole problem never arises, because Cornwall’s borders are ‘secure’ and our ‘migrants’ are never able to disembark thanks to Theresa May’s ‘tough’ stance on immigration. Or rather, do not.) The love duet takes place in something not so very far removed from what Wagner stipulates; the landscape supplies its own, neo-Romantic (quasi-lunar?) magic and ‘beauty’, without becoming ‘the thing’, which is surely as it should be. The death-wish, that sickest Romanticism-cum-Schopenhauerism, which pervades the whole work is intelligently brought out in Kramer’s vision of neurotic self-harm. It certainly convinces far better than the unbearable dullness - it might work as Konzept, but in the theatre, with this most particular, resistant of works? - of Christoph Marthaler’s Bayreuth production. If the hospital beds and physical restraining of the final scene are perhaps a little too overt, I did not find them unforgivably so. For English audiences, notoriously resistant to modern musico-dramatic theatre, there is sometimes something to be said for spelling things out (although preferably not in this particular work). Again, the costumes are weird: here almost Dr Who-like. Again, rethinking for a revival, so as to bring out more strongly what matters? We can but hope.

The central ideas of the third act are strong too, Kapoor’s designs and Frieder Weiss’s video providing an æsthetically inviting setting and a necessary visual confrontation with the sapping away of Tristan’s life force respectively. One would hardly be able to avoid, in the case of the latter, Tristan’s loss of blood; the way in which it both horrifies and yet remains a thing of compelling beauty is surely quite in the spirit of the work. It complements the score without overshadowing it, very much what is required. Paul Anderson’s lighting, excellent throughout the evening, offers just the right mixture of subtlety and night-day contrast. The neo-Beckettian direction Kramer offers seems far more appropriate than the strange distractions of the first act. If the attempt at transfiguration does not entirely succeed, that is at least in part Wagner’s fault. He almost gets away with it, but the rupture with tonality, with reality, with pretty much anything and everything should have been so extreme during Tristan’s monologue that Isolde’s Verklärung both enraptures and misses the point. I have yet to see a production that took quite such an Adornian line, although Peter Konwitschny arguably comes close at times, whilst also veering in completely the opposite direction; here, in a broadly traditional sense, Kramer characterises the act pretty well as a whole.

Edward Gardner led a largely successful, often highly ‘theatrical’ account of the score. Its metaphysical basis might have suffered somewhat, but does it not always when Furtwängler, or at least Carlos Kleiber, cannot make it? On its own terms, whilst sometimes considerably driven (echoes perhaps of Böhm, if not quite with his symphonic, post-Beethovenian grounding?), there was considerable give and take, a sense of melos much stronger than his Meistersinger, and a well-judged balance between the requirements of the moment and those of the greater line. If the orchestra sounded at times a little thin, especially in string sound, during the first act, it played for the most part magnificently. Even earlier on, there was to the playing a productive, ever-surprising physicality, a true sense of bow touching string and sparking off something one cannot, should not put into words. The offstage (in-theatre) brass at the end of the first act was a mistake: far too loud, far too much a distracting ‘effect’, but such things are worth trying, at the very least. Some outstanding woodwind playing was greatly valued, not least, of course, the expert English horn solo in the third act (Helen Vigurs).

Stuart Skelton’s performance in the title role showed just how much this generous artist has to give in Wagner (and not just in Wagner). He made everything he could out of the words, out of the notes, and out of the mysterious alchemy Wagner here achieves between them. If he seemed a little tired onstage, although not vocally, later on during the third act, that may readily be forgiven; indeed, it offers its own dramatic justification. I have said this before, and fear that I shall have to say it again: it is frankly beyond belief that Covent Garden offers Skelton nothing, especially when one considers the Wagner tenors it has continued to inflict upon us. Heidi Melton was strongest during the first act. Again, she made much of the words, although some of her vowels were decidedly peculiar; however, some of her singing later on was distressing in quite the wrong way. She seemed miscast, unduly stretched by the role. Karen Cargill, on the other hand, made for a lovely Brangäne indeed, despite the bizarre nature of her treatment by the production. This was someone in whom one would readily confide, beauty of tone part of the dramatic assumption rather than a thing-in-itself. I wondered whether we might have been better off with her as Isolde. Craig Colclough suffered more from the production than anyone else, but his Kurwenal managed vocally to rise far above such limitations. His third-act Beckettian best-friend portrayal, true nobility of tone again very much part and parcel of what we saw and felt dramatically, was one of the most moving aspects of the entire performance. Likewise Matthew Rose’s dignified - if oddly, coldly treated by Kramer - King Marke. It is, I think, a more difficult thing to sing this part, arguably any of these parts, in English than in German. Rose, like the rest of the cast, but perhaps more so still, made one of the best cases in practice for performance in the vernacular I can recall hearing. Here, for once, was that vaunted dramatic immediacy, with the outstanding diction it requires. The smaller roles were all taken very well indeed, David Webb’s Sailor song setting the scene with considerable distinction. All in all, this is a Tristan that deserves to be seen, still more to be heard.

Mark Berry

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Tristan: Stuart Skelton; Isolde: Heidi Melton; King Marke: Matthew Rose; Kurwenal: Craig Colclough; Melot: Stephen Rooke; Brangäne: Karen Cargill; Shepherd: Peter van Hulle; Steersman: Paul Sheehan; Young Sailor: David Webb. Director: Daniel Kramer; Set designs: Anish Kapoor; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lighting: Paul Anderson; Video: Frieder Weiss. Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Harris) of the English National Opera/Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, Thursday 9 June 2016.

product=yes product_title=Tristan, English National Opera product_by=A review by Mark Berry
Posted by claire_s at 8:25 AM

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne

Speaking to various Glyndebourne people beforehand - you will, I trust, be pleased to learn that I unsubtly went on the offensive for easy box-office prospects, such as Gluck and Nono, to Sebastian Schwarz, the company’s new General Director - I was told that revisions had been made. However, I cannot honestly tell you whether my change of heart were owed to them, to a newfound sunnier disposition (maybe not), or to being able to see the entire stage rather than half of it. I shall leave comparisons on one side, now, then, and respond to what I heard and saw, which I enjoyed very much. (In fact, although I offer a link, I have not actually re-read my earlier review, and you may wish to follow suit.)

Still’s production nicely blurs boundaries between opera and ballet. There is, of course, a good deal of ballet music ‘proper’ in the opera, as well as mime, but there is not always so much of a dividing line anyway, and the visual æsthetic seen here, the animals more stylised, less realistic, than often, strengthens the almost-hybrid impression. Paule Constable’s lighting plays just as important a role as Dinah Collin’s costumes, if a rather different one: it helps to delineate the scenes, in conjunction with Tom Pye’s resourceful sets, themselves visually arresting even before humans and animals litter them (sometimes in more than one sense). Whilst I do not find that the production unduly sentimentalises, and its moments of absurdist humour welcome, I missed a stronger sense of the darkness that also lies at the heart of this tale of lifecycles and the collision of human and animal worlds. Perhaps, though, it is that quasi-balletic æsthetic that most characterises the production as a whole and grants its unity; perhaps it is also that to which I find myself better able to respond, if not entirely without reservation, than I did in 2012.

Jakub Hrůša’s conducting of the London Philharmonic seemed to me to quite close in character and sonority to that of Jiří Bělohlávek in London’s recent concert Jenůfa. Even for a non-Czech speaker such as I, there is no mistaking not only the conductor’s apparently instinctive ease with every musical idiom, but also the give and take between vocal and orchestral lines, not just texturally but also generatively. Having heard quite a bit of my earliest Janáček from Charles Mackerras, whose way with the composer’s music I continue to admire greatly, I often find myself intrigued that what I had taken (perhaps naïvely) to be somehow typically ‘Czech’ is not always the way with Czech conductors, not that they hold any monopoly on Janáčekian wisdom. (The composer, just like Elgar, is far too important to be confined by national considerations.) That almost Viennese sweetness, which in that Jenůfa performance, I hesitantly dubbed Bohemian rather than Moravian, was often to be heard again in the LPO’s playing, without that shading into any smoothing over of lines. So maybe I should be still warier of such easy - too easy? - typologies, and simply enjoy the often golden fruits of what I have heard. That is very much what I have done in practice, anyway. Angularity was certainly not absent; nor, on occasion, was weight of sound that looked forward to From the House of the Dead. But, like the operatic-balletic action on stage, aural impressions were often fleeting, or at least constantly self-transformative. Mackerras, in 2010 at Covent Garden, perhaps granted a still stronger sense of the life-arc of the whole, but a drawback on that occasion was translation into English. This was, in any case, an estimable performance, pretty much irreproachable with respect to orchestral playing.

As with that 2010 performance, indeed as with any performance I can recall having attended, there was an unusually strong sense of the cast acting as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Somehow, this opera seems to inspire an especially strong sense of ensemble in those taking part; or perhaps it is partly a matter that it would not be worth putting it on if it did not. Elena Tsallagova, who also took the title role in a Paris performance I saw in 2008, has seen neither her vocal nor her stage athleticism dim with greater experience. Quite the contrary: this was a tour de force of effervescence, and thus very much a visual representation of the character herself as well as her deeds. Alžběta Poláčková’s Fox proved an excellent complement, embodying many of the same characteristics in principle, the character’s pride and affection palpable throughout. Christopher Purves made for a characterful and soulful Forester, master of and yet also mastered by the natural world into which he found himself persistently, almost Narnia-like, drawn. Sarah Pring, as his wife, played with, yet never merely relied upon, ‘peasant’ or at least ‘folk’ stereotype; I should never have guessed, without consulting the cast list, that she had doubled up as an equally convincing Owl. Likewise for the other doublings. Alexandre Duhamel revealed a rich yet agile baritone as Harašta. Colin Judson’s turn as the Schoolmaster offered one of many ‘character’ highlights. I could go on, but should essentially be repeating the cast list. As so often, it was the Glyndebourne Chorus, as ever excellently trained (by Jeremy Bines), which bound much of the musical drama together, almost as well as the orchestra. No one hearing this performance would have doubted either the stature or the sheer wonder of this most singular of operas.

Mark Berry

Leoš Janáček, The Cunning Little Vixen

Badger, Priest: Alexander Vassiliev; Forester: Christopher Purves; Cricket: Tate Nicol; Grasshopper: Kitty Casey; Mosquito, Schoolmaster: Colin Judson; Frog: Krishan Shah; Young Vixen Sharp Ears: May Abercombie; Forester’s Wife, Owl: Sarah Pring; Vixen Sharp Ears: Elena Tsallagova; Dog: Marta Fontanals-Simmons; Pepík: Eliza Safjan; Frantík: Rhiannon Llewellyn; Cockerel: Hannah Sandison; Hen: Natalia Tanasii; Pásek, Innkeeper: Michael Wallace; Fox: Alžběta Poláčková; Jay: Shuna Scott Sendall; Woodpecker: Angharad Lyddon; Harašta: Alexander Duhamel; Innkeeper’s Wife: Natalia Brzezińska; Dancers, Fox Cubs. Director: Melly Still; Set designs: Tom Pye; Costumes: Dinah Collin; Choreography: Mike Ashcroft; Lighting: Paule Constable; Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jakub Hrůsá (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, Sunday 12 June 2016.

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Posted by claire_s at 8:18 AM

London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz

Horovitz has had a prolific career as a conductor, teacher, opera director and composer. His works number sixteen ballets, nine concertos, two one-act operas, chamber music, works for brass band, television and radio, and a number of choral cantatas - most famously Captain Noah and His Floating Zoo.

Soprano Susanna Fairbairn, a PLG Young Artist in 2015, performed four of Horovitz’s compositions, accompanied by pianist Matthew Schellhorn, beginning with Lady Macbeth, which was written for the 1970 Festival of Bergen. The ‘Scena’ presents settings of three speeches from Shakespeare’s play and charts the queen’s progression from grandeur to guilt, majesty to madness. Fairbairn gave a powerful dramatic performance which captured the force of the music’s rhetoric. Her full, glossy tone conveyed the self-assurance of Lady Macbeth’s aspirations for power, when she learns of her husband’s lauded success on the battlefield - ‘Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be’. And, she declaimed the challenging vocal lines, which depict the Lady’s mental distress, with conviction, above Schellhorn’s asymmetrical piano gestures. Schellhorn’s accompaniment is as much part of the drama as the queen’s magniloquence and the pianist crafted the arguments eloquently and with precision. Fairbairn had the measure of the operatic intensity of the work which compresses an extraordinary gamut of emotions into its nine minutes.

Susanna_Fairbairn.pngSusanna Fairbairn

Though Shakespeare’s text is well-known, and Fairbairn’s diction good, it still would have been helpful to have had the text printed in the programme. The same was true for the following song, ‘Zum 11. März’, a 1998 setting of a German text by Theodor Körner (1811). 11 March is a date of special significance for Austrian emigrés, for it was the date in 1938 of Austria’s Anschluss to Germany. Fairbairn spun the simple lyrical melody with a lovely gentleness and lustre, floating the final phrase most beautifully. ‘The Garden of Love’ (2015) had a silky wistfulness, perfectly attuned to Blake’s text which celebrates the naturalness of human desire in the face of the Church’s repressive restrictiveness.

Fairbairn and Schellhorn opened the recital with Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées. The cool, quiet piano introduction of ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse’ (This is the languorous ecstasy) led into an unhurried vocal descent of calm dreaminess. Fairbairn’s soprano brightened and became more incisive as Verlaine described the burbling and whispering of the wood’s choir of voices, then drifted off, languidly, as the imagery of swirling water evolved into a soul’s lament. At the climax of the vocal line, Fairbairn hit the high A right in the centre of the note and skilfully controlled the dynamic arc, closing on a hushed, low murmur.

Schellhorn’s oscillating semiquavers evoked the ripple of the rain that ‘weeps in my heart’ in ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, and Fairbairn again demonstrated impressive technique, controlling the rising and plunging octaves which convey the poet-speaker’s emotional unrest and distress. Both the warmth of her lower range and the crystalline brilliance of the top were in evidence in ‘L’ombre des arbres’ (The shadow of the trees). Tight left-hand trills beneath crisp staccatos were a perfect springboard for the voice’s nimble instruction, ‘Tournez, tournez’ (O whirl and twirl’), in ‘Chevaux de bois’ (Wooden horses), in which the tempo eased, then flowed, with naturalness. The opening of ‘Aquarelles I. Green’ was graceful and free, the low-lying close mysterious and veiled. On the whole, Fairbairn’s French was fairly idiomatic, but would have benefitted from more distinct consonants, and this was particularly noticeable in the declamatory opening of ‘Spleen’. Debussy’s cycle was followed by Fauré’s ‘Après un rêve’, in which Fairbairn’s radiant sheen surged through the long, flowing phrases.

The central works in the evening’s programme were presented by pianist Dominic Degavino. A Park Lane Young Artist in 2015, Degavino is a rising star. At 16 years of age he was a category finalist in the BBC Young Musician competition; two years later he won the Audience Prize at the Brant International Piano Competition; since then he’s added the Ker Memorial Prize at the Royal Over-seas League Music Competition and most recently won the piano section of the 2016 Tunbridge Wells International Young Concert Artists Competition. His deeply communicative performance of Beethoven’s Op.2 No.3 Sonata confirmed that these successes will surely be followed by many more. The Allegro con brio had plenty of spark: the passagework was taut and the frequent trills and turns razor-sharp. After a changeable development section, the return of the opening theme was charmingly insouciant.

The Adagio conveyed a wonderful composure and gravity, the theme - gorgeous in its simplicity - formed of single-bar units which merged fluently into a thoughtful whole. As the left hand repeatedly crossed the decorative undulations in the right, the syncopated sighing motifs of the melody were beautifully crafted. The arpeggio-triplets of the trio of the Scherzo: Allegro streamed as if conjured by a flourish of a magician’s wand, while the chiselled crispness of the Allegro assai finale was invigorating. After the interval, Degavino revealed the many moods of Schumann’s G Minor Sonata Op.22, by turns troubled then soothed, expertly moving from bravura to restfulness. The Andantino was particularly tender. Degavino had a strong sense of the overall structure of the sonata and communicated this clearly.

The recital came to a vivacious close with Horovitz’s Foie-Gras, a setting of Michael Flanders paean to gluttony. Fairbairn entered enthusiastically into the cabaret high-spirits, whispering conspiratorially then gushing exuberantly, whirling with abandon across the Wigmore Hall stage. Taking to the platform to accept the warm applause, Horovitz was surprised to be presented with a birthday cake, and cut the celebratory slice with panache.

An afterthought … with the ‘Brexit’ campaigners seemingly in the ascendant, and a ‘Leave’ vote looking ever more possible, Piers Burton-Page’s programme tribute to Horovitz seems most apt: ‘In a few days’ time we shall learn whether Britain has, scarcely believably, turned its back on Europe. Once, we knew better. Thanks for coming, Joe. And for staying.’

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Susanna Fairbairn: soprano; Matthew Schellhorn: piano; Dominic Degavino: piano.

Claude Debussy: Ariettes oubliées; Gabriel Fauré: 3 Mélodies Op.7 No.1 ‘Après un rêve’; Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Sonata in C major Op.2 No.3; Robert Schumann: Piano Sonata in G minor Op.22; Joseph Horovitz: Lady Macbeth - a Scena, ‘Zum 11. März’, ‘The Garden of Love’, ‘Foie-gras’.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 13th June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Joseph_Horovitz.png image_description=Joseph Horovitz product=yes product_title=London: A 90th birthday tribute to Horovitz product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Joseph Horovitz
Posted by claire_s at 7:04 AM

June 16, 2016

Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert

Lately, some directors have been updating this work, so Henry Price’s traditional version was most welcome. Many members of the Nevada audience are new to opera, so it was important to give them what they expected to see. Price is a former tenor best known for his performances at the New York City Opera opposite Beverly Sills. He is now Professor of Music at Pepperdine University and he has directed several excellent Italian opera productions.

Hannah D’Elia’s sets were constructed of expertly painted canvas that created the ambience of old Spain where sunlit upper surfaces contrasted with deep darks below. The attractive, detailed costumes that Jennifer McKee designed put the time of the action firmly in the romantic past.

Maya Lahyani is a born Carmen. The demands of the role lie smoothly on her voice and she has strong resonance all across its range. Most of all, she created a charismatic figure that held the attention of every member of the audience. For a young singer who had only performed the title role of Carmen in two previous productions, her grasp of its intricacies was amazing.


Last year, dramatic tenor Viktor Antipenko’s portrayal of the scoundrel, Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was a major hit. As Don José on Friday night, he was equally triumphant. The tenor role opposite Carmen is difficult because it requires a great deal of dramatic singing in each of its four acts but has a major aria in the second act with an exposed pianissimo high note. Antipenko succeeded on both counts.

As Michaela, Susanne Vinnik was somewhat less successful. Her role also has dramatic singing, which she accomplished well, but she sang her lyric phrases with an excess of vibrato. As Escamillo, Trevor Scheunemann was a true grit torero who looked as though he could stare down the most ferocious of bulls. He sang his memorable aria with burnished bronze tones.

Carmen’s women friends, soprano Emily Botts as Frasquita and mezzo Kylee Slee as Mercèdes, made some fine additions to the singing. Botts, in particular, added blooming high notes to the mix. Bass-baritone Peter Johnson was a commanding Zuniga and baritone Eugene Richardson a straight laced Moralès. As Le Dancaïre Brian James Myer was an adept scout while his partner-in-crime, Aldo Perrelli as Le Remendado, took life a little less seriously.

With the help of conductor Gregory Buchalter and Lahyani, these singers gave a fast rendition of the challenging quintet. Much of Bizet’s Carmen is dance music and Buchalter gave us a catchy and rhythmic reading of the score that invited its characters to dance. It invited the audience to mentally tap their toes, too, but the house was full and that precluded dancing in the aisles! It was a wonderful evening in Las Vegas and I, for one, hope we will have another show from Opera Las Vegas before the year is out.

Maria Nockin

Cast and production details:

Conductor, Gregory Buchalter; Stage Director, Henry Price; Carmen, Maya Lahyani; Don José, Viktor Antipenko; Escamillo, Trevor Scheunemann; Micaëla, Suzanne Vinnik; Zuniga, Peter Johnson; Moralès, Eugene Richards; Frasquita, Emily Botts; Mercedès, Kylee Slee; Le Dancaïre, Brian James Myer; Le Remendado, Aldo Perrelli; Lillas Pastia, John Wennstrom; The Waif, Marc Leggat; Fight Coordinator, Sean Critchfield; Technical Director, Hannah D'Elia; Lighting Design, Ginny Adams; Costume Design, Jennifer McKee; Chorus Preparation, Megan Franke; Choreographer, Bernard Gaddis; Dancers: Justin Daniels, Barrington Lohr, Mary LaCroix Lohr, Maria Vicuna McGovern, Opera Las Vegas Orchestra, Chorus, and Children's Chorus.


product_title=Opera Las Vegas: A Blazing Carmen in the Desert
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin

Posted by maria_n at 11:15 PM

La bohème, Opera Holland Park

Stephen Barlow’s new production of La bohème does just that, however, relocating the action to that very same period. Indeed, I notice that the RSC’s Props Department is credited in the programme for ‘their co-operation and contribution’. Andrew D Edwards’s designs look gorgeous: both sets, making excellent use of the Holland Park stage and environment, and costumes.

What are we to make of such a move? Not having asked Barlow and that, perhaps, not being entirely the point in any case, I shall, without implying ‘intention’, say a little about what I made of it, or thought one might make of it. One could, I suppose, say that it does not matter, say what ‘we’ often say about the time and period, that in some respects, at least, it is the least interesting aspect of a production. That, I think, would be a half-truth, but a half-truth nevertheless. I doubt many of us would be complaining if an opera set in Tudor England were convincingly updated to nineteenth-century France, and certainly not to the present day, although we might well ask why, and with what success. Why there and then, in that case? For me, the immediate resonance was with Shakespeare’s London. Rodolfo, our poet, perhaps something of ‘Will’ about him: perhaps more Shakespeare in Love than Shakespeare ‘himself’, but how much do we know of the latter anyway? A leather doublet becomes him, as does distraction from his quill. Given not only the poetical but metatheatrical concerns of the work, I wondered whether, following the first or even the second act, we should discover that it had all, or partly, been a play within a play, or some such device, but no — with the possible exception of the decidedly, deliberately artificial device of casting snow upon the scene in the third act. Perhaps that is the point, or at least could be made to be the point: we are all metatheatrical now, we all create our own metatheatre, even when something is apparently played ‘straight’. That, I think, is undeniable, although I suspect the particular relocation is, at any rate, not entirely arbitrary. Shakespeare’s London, or our creation of it, speaks to an English audience as strongly as pretty much any other possibility.

Perhaps the justification is that: we know it, or think we know it, and thus we find it easier to explore. I have no problem in principle with exchanging Montmartre and a Southwark tavern. It was all rather fun, and genuinely surprising. Other productions might delve deeper — although, frankly, very few do. Not everything can be directed by Stefan Herheim, whose Oslo staging is in a class of its own. This works well, on its own terms. The enigmatic programme quotation from Two Gentleman of Verona — which I only saw afterwards — might speak for itself, then, so long as we do not start silly gushing about alleged ‘timelessness’. Nothing is timeless; nor is it helpful or interesting to consider it so. ‘Oh, how this spring of love resembleth/The uncertain glory of an April day/Which now shows all beauty of the Sun/And by and by a cloud takes all away.’ We are free, then, to consider correspondences and connections insofar as we wish.

Having a young cast of such considerable theatrical ability helps. Rarely has the sexual attraction between Mimì and Rodolfo seemed so evident. Anna Patalong offers a beautifully sung, clearly heartfelt performance. It would take a sterner heart than mine not to root for her. Shaun Dixon sometimes sang out a little too much for my taste, but the acoustic can be a tricky one. There was certainly no doubting his commitment, nor his idiomatic command. Andrew Finden’s Marcello was intelligent, thoughtful, impetuous: the quicksilver quality of his exchanges with Elin Pricthard’s gloriously charismatic Musetta, every inch the self-conscious stage queen, yet most genuine in concern and charity at the close, would have been worth the price of admission alone. Frederick Long and John Savournin made at least as much of Schaunard and Colline as any artists I can recall. The sense of student camaraderie can rarely, if ever, have been so strong; nor can the dangers of that play-acting which ultimately fails our tragic heroine. David Woloszko’s Falstaff-like Benoît was not only an obvious comic turn, but very well sung too, as indeed were all of the ‘smaller’ roles’.

The OHP Chorus and Children’s Chorus were, quite simply, outstanding. Barlow’s work with them had clearly been thoroughly internalised. They knew what they were supposed to do, and did it, without ever seeming over-rehearsed. Vocally, one could hear every word, and in a coherent musical whole too. Matthew Waldron’s conducting doubtless helped greatly in that respect. There was never the slightest danger of sentimentalisation, in a sharp-edged account, which kept the excellent City of London Sinfonia on its toes throughout. I was surprised how little, if at all, I missed a larger body of strings; in a fine performance, one’s ears (almost always) adjust. It was not all so driven, though; where the music needed, wanted to dance, it could do so happily, not least during Musetta’s second-act ‘show’. There would be no harm in relaxing a little as the run progresses; by the same token, however, there is nothing to complain about, and a great deal to savour, here. OHP’s Puccini Midas touch works its magic once again.

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Mimì: Anna Patalong; Rodolfo: Shaun Dixon; Marcello: Andrew Finden; Musetta: Elin Pritchard; Schaunard — Frederick Long; Colline: John Savournin; Benoît: David Woloszko; Alcindoro: James Harrison; Parpignol: Michael Bradley; Customs Sergeant: Alistair Sutherland. Director: Stephen Barlow; Designs: Andrew D Edwards; Lighting: Howard Hudson. Opera Holland Park Children’s Chorus and Chorus (chorus masters: Scott Price and Richard Harker/City of London Sinfonia/Matthew Waldron (conductor). Holland Park Theatre, London, Saturday 11 June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La-Boheme_OHP.png image_description=La bohème, Opera Holland Park product=yes product_title=La bohème, Opera Holland Park product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above image courtesy of Opera Holland Park
Posted by Gary at 11:05 PM

Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam

Excellent singers rounded out the cast. This closing concert of the Concertgebouw Saturday Matinee serie also served as a thrilling early course at the Holland Festival (HF).

You have to admire how HF reignites seminal masterpieces with a relevance for modern and young crowds. Besides the concert performance of Wozzeck, this edition also reintroduces audiences to Shakespeare’s Macbeth in a multimedia take from Brazil and to Haydn’s Die Schöpfung by René Jacobs with his B’Rok Orchestra and Collegium Vocale Gent together with a cinematic component.

Berg adapted Georg Büchner’s 1837 incomplete play Woyzeck nearly word for word, and created an atonal sound world while referring to late-Romantic composers like Mahler. Berg’s compositional imagination connects fifteen simple, episodic scenes spread over three acts. Wozzeck is the poor everyman. Constantly challenged, the better-off Captain and Doctor belittle him, and his wife cheats on him with the Drum Major. In the end Wozzeck kills her, goes mad and drowns under a red moon. It’s poignant, compact in intensity, and utterly gripping.

According to Florian Boesch, Wozzeck is the best opera written. In a recent radio interview he described how the “genius pairing” of Buchner and Berg a century ago resulted in this extraordinary piece. As the lead, he impressively portrayed the agitated character of the poor man. With whispers and bellows, his voice resonated in Stenz’s dense orchestral texture. Sometimes Grigorian overshadowed Boesch with her powerful volume, but most of the time Boesch’s Wozzeck was a triumphant win.

(c) Rokas Baltakys.pngAsmik Grigorian [Photo © Rokas Baltakys]

Vocally the stage belonged to Asmik Grigorian. A superlative performance in which she revealed her great range bending from rarified high notes in loving and honest moments, to darker low tones for her cynically phrased Sprechgesang. Her silver-plated voice dynamically phrased Berg’s text with great expressive effects. The brilliance to her powerful volume conquered the Concertgebouw. Stenz, Boesch, Grigorian previously presented this piece on stage in Cologne, where it was highly appreciated. Today you could tell everyone knew what they wanted out of each other, leading to this special musical chemistry.

Without any stage burden, the singers could focus on Berg’s atonal acrobatics. As Marie’s friend Margaret, Cécile van de Sant’s thick vibrato contrasted beautifully with Grigorian. Endrik Wottrich impressed with his deep resonance as the Drum Major, while Peter Tantsits included a sense of desperation in his Andres in his compelling moments with Boesch. Thomas Piffka (Captain) and Nathan Berg (Doktor) injected their characters with the necessary nasty disdain towards Wozzeck.

As he harnessed the Concertgebouw acoustics, Stenz elucidated the details in Berg’s score. At one point Berg’s fascinating fugue passed by with great transparency. Even though the singers stood before the orchestra on stage, the volume and density overpowered the voices, but always briefly till Stenz adjusted the balance. While Boesch had some problems with this at the beginning, he later amped up his volume--as if it was nothing-- and increased his presence.

For the military parade Marie listens to from afar, the musicians relocated downstairs in the lobby, generating an effectively distant sound effect. Towards the end of the second act, guitar and accordion brought out the folksy moments during the Inn scenes. Brass produced moments of fierce brilliance, while at other times creating a soft, shimmering red glow. A particularly extraordinary viola solo haunted, the celesta contributed alien dimensions.

The Netherlands Radio Choir produced lucid passage with great power. The National Children’s Choir added an icy chill to the ending, when they (including Marie’s child) sang with an angelic sound about Marie’s death, eventually running off to go see the dead body. Highly unsettling!

Besides the extraordinary musical experience, Wozzeck also offered enough to contemplate. In the first scene, Wozzeck declares a moral life difficult to sustain for a man without means. Is this true? As this laden question focuses on the poor man’s despair, with Berg’s opera Holland Festival certainly taps into the zeitgeist of economic inequality and public discontent.

David Pinedo

You can see the webcast of the performance here.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/florian%20boesch.png image_description=Florian Boesch [Photo by Lukas Beck] product=yes product_title=Holland Festival: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, Amsterdam product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Florian Boesch [Photo by Lukas Beck]
Posted by Gary at 10:50 PM

A Chat With Baritone Brian Mulligan

Brian Mulligan is an amazingly busy young singer. Over the last sixteen months, he performed ten new roles with major opera companies. One of his most important debuts was as Jack Torrance in the world premiere of The Shining by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul Moravec and librettist Mark Campbell at the Minnesota Opera. At San Francisco Opera, Mulligan sang Sweeney in Sweeney Todd, Enrico in Lucia di Lammermoor, and the dual roles of Roderick Usher in a double bill of Gordon Getty's Usher House and Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher). He also appeared at the Metropolitan Opera as Paolo in Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role and James Levine conducting.

Q: Did you grow up in New York or Ireland?

I was born in America, but my father was born in County Leitrim, Ireland. I got the dual citizenship mostly because I am proud of my Irish heritage and enjoy celebrating that. It took about a year to get all of the necessary paper work together which had to include my parents’ original baptismal certificates, but I finally got my Irish passport. I’ve been going to Ireland all of my life, and have a lot of family there. I grew up in upstate New York, however, in a little village called Endicott.

Q: When did you begin to study music?

I did not begin studying piano until college, but when I was a small child, my grandfather taught me to play the Irish fiddle. I was pretty good, too! I don’t play anymore, but perhaps I will take it up again someday.

Q: When did you see your first opera?

I saw my first opera in the fourth grade. We went on a field trip to see Rigoletto at TriCities Opera in Binghamton, NY. I remember wondering, who were the real people up there on the stage? Who were those opera singers in real life? I liked the music. I enjoyed the show but I remember being most fascinated by the duality of the singers’ lives onstage and off. I wanted to know how a regular person could end up on a stage making all of those foreign, beautiful sounds.

Brian Mulligan Performance Shot.png

Q: Where did you go to school after high school?

I studied at Eastman, Yale and Juilliard, in that order. I learned so much at each school, but really, it was at Juilliard where I was mature enough both emotionally and physically to blossom. All of that time in school was challenging but it was a necessary. It takes a lot to turn a regular kid into an opera singer!

Q: Who were your most important teachers?

Steve Smith is my most important teacher, he is my current voice teacher and I’ve been studying with him for over sixteen years. Steve taught me how to sing. I also learned a great deal from Ed Berkeley, my drama teacher at Juilliard. Ed taught me to be emotionally available onstage, and that principle shapes all of my work. I’ve also learned a great deal from Maestro Nicola Luisotti, Italian Diction Coach Corradina Caporello, and Vocal Coach Ken Merrill.

Q: What did you learn from your teachers that you would like to pass on to the next generation of artists?

Probably the most important thing I could tell the next generation is never to underestimate the value of who you are, as a person or as an artist. There is no one else in the entire world who has your soul, your mind, and your voice. You are truly unique, and you need to remember that the things you want to communicate to the world are of real value. You need to understand the value of your unique perspective and celebrate that every day.

Q: What competitions have you won?

While I was at Juilliard, I won a bunch of competitions in New York City from the London Foundation, the Tucker Foundation, and the Oratorio Society. But my most exciting win was at the Belvedere in Vienna where I competed with singers from all over the whole world. I was so proud to represent the United States and win. To me, it felt like the Olympics! I met so many new people in Vienna, including a few Irish singers. It was my first glimpse into opera in Europe, a whole other continent of talent and ideas.

Q: Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?

I’ve been very inspired by the singing of George London, Renata Scotto and the American gospel singer Karen Clark. I listen to a lot of piano music. I’ve learned a great deal about musicality from Bill Evans and Arthur Rubinstein. Today, I’m probably most artistically inspired by Daniel Day Lewis, Gustavo Dudamel, Björk, and film director David Lynch.

Q: How finished an artist should a young singer be when leaving school?

In all probability, no artist is ever finished. The journey of becoming an artist is one that lasts a lifetime. But all singers should leave school with an understanding of the importance of authentic diction and strict musicianship. Of course, a solid vocal technique is imperative for any career, but that’s something most singers have to continue working on long after they finish school. I was in the Juilliard Opera Center when I made my debut at the Metropolitan Opera, so I was already working before graduation!

Q: Do you sometimes say no to a role because you don’t think it suits your voice?

Yes, I have to do that all the time. Sometimes I feel that the role isn’t right for me for vocal reasons, and other times because I don’t connect with the character. Sometimes I feel like I’m just not ready for a role. For example, I have been offered Wotan in The Ring a few times already, and it is a role I am excited to sing someday, just not yet.

Q: Which are your favorite roles?

My favorite role is usually the one that I am currently performing! I love Amfortas in Parsifal, the title role in Hamlet and Richard Nixon in Nixon in China. Generally, I look for roles that challenge me musically, vocally and dramatically. There are a whole lot of them out there for a baritone like myself. The roles I am most looking forward to are the Dutchman, Macbeth, Iago, Wozzeck and the Traveller in Death in Venice.

Q: What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?

Next year I have my debut at the Vienna Staatsoper as Balstrode in Peter Grimes, I’m making two role debuts at Oper Frankfurt: Golaud in Pelléas et Mélisande and Count di Luna in Il trovatore. Plus, I’m singing Yeletsky in The Queen of Spades and Valentin in Faust at the Zürich Opera, which is one of my favorite places on earth! I’m also really excited to sing The Wound Dresser by John Adams in Los Angeles next season. It’s a chamber piece I’ve admired for years and this will be a first for me.

Q: I understand you are cast in the world premiere of Paul Moravec's The Shining at Minnesota Opera. What kind of an opera does it make?

The Shining was great fun, and very scary. The music is incredibly atmospheric. I sang Jack Torrance, Jack Nicholson’s character in the film. Kubrick’s movie is probably my all time favorite. But this opera is definitely based on the book! I read this book and most of Stephen King’s books when I was a kid. This was definitely a dream project.

Q: Can you tell us something of Mieczysław Weinberg’s opera, The Passenger? I understand you were in the production at the Theater an der Wien. I sang the role of Tadeusz last year in Frankfurt in a very moving production that we took to Vienna in May. Every performance was heartbreaking, I think it’s a powerful, important piece. At Houston Grand Opera in 2006, I sang the title role in Der Kaiser von Atlantis, another opera about the Holocaust that is equally powerful.

Q: I notice that you are taking on the role of John Proctor in The Crucible at Glimmerglass for the first time. What is your interpretation of it?

I’ve wanted to sing John Proctor for years now, and I’m incredibly excited to work on the role with Francesca Zambello. I play villains so often; it will be wonderful to portray a classic tragic hero, and an American one at that. I find Proctor’s dilemma fascinating and so relatable. I cannot wait to lose myself in that role.

Q: How do you feel about the emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera?

I love good directors, and collaborating with them is one of my favorite parts of this profession. I like directors who are risk takers, and who challenge me, but are generous with their time. All that being said, I like directors who want to collaborate with me too! Happily, that is usually the case, and I’ve had some incredible experiences. Just a few months ago I worked on Sweeney Todd with Lee Blakeley at San Francisco Opera. It was one of the most challenging and rewarding collaborations I’ve ever had with a director, I loved it. We really built that character together.

Q: What recordings do you have out? Are you making any for future release?

I recently finished recording my debut album, which consists of two song cycles by Dominick Argento: The Andrée Expedition and From the Diary of Virgina Woolf. It should be released soon! This is music that I have loved for years, music that speaks to me, and I’m so happy to have given these pieces my own interpretation. The brilliant pianist Tim Long and I worked on this project for months, and I’m hopeful we’ve produced something full of emotion and beauty.

Q: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

Well, I already have a few contracts for five years from now, so I can tell you definitively! In 2021 I’m scheduled to make my role debut as Rigoletto in the United States and there’s a new production of La forza del destino in Europe, which will be another Verdi role debut for me. I’m also singing Amfortas in a new production of Parsifal in the United States in 2020/21. And there’s another world premiere that’s supposed to be happening in 2021 too! Essentially, I’ll be doing much of exactly what I do today, just new repertoire, new houses and new collaborations.

Q: How much modern technology do you use in your work?

I use Mac products such as the iPhone, MacBook and iPad. What is most useful to me now is having my entire music library in the cloud, so I can access any recording I want anywhere in the world. I’ve downloaded much of my music collection onto my computer at home, so it’s always available to me as long as I have an internet connection. However, I do still lug a small suitcase of scores around the world with me! I don’t think I’ll ever switch to using an iPad instead of sheet music.

Q: How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?

I think it’s the best! Since I’m on the road constantly, it’s a real relief to have all of my music available online. In all honesty, I’m still old school about it mostly, and purchase actual compact discs from Amazon. They usually come with an immediate free download anyway, and then I file the actual disc away into my library at home when I finally get there. That allows me to have the best of both worlds, really.

Q: Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, or reading in three alphabets?

When I am home, I do like to cook for family and friends, or sometimes just for myself. It’s a great joy to plan a meal and prepare food in my own kitchen. I’ve had many visiting colleagues over at my place in San Francisco. Never underestimate the healing power of a home cooked meal! I’m also a big video game nerd, always have been. I have a pretty great collection, including an original Super Nintendo from the nineties! I’m an avid hiker too; I’ve hiked all over the mountains of Colorado and California.

Q: What kind of music do you listen to for relaxation?

I usually listen to music all day, every day. Because I travel and am alone much of the time, it’s a great comfort to have music playing in the background. I use Pandora to discover new music, and I usually listen to a piano jazz station if I need to stay quiet. If it’s a time that I can afford to sing along with the radio, I’ll listen to eighties R&B stations for DeBarge or Whitney Houston. My favorite current recording artists are Janelle Monáe, Marina & the Diamonds and Daft Punk.

image_description=Brian Mulligan [Photo courtesy of Rebecca Davis Public Relations]

product_title=A Chat With Baritone Brian Mulligan
product_by=An interview by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Brian Mulligan

Photos courtesy of Rebecca Davis Public Relations

Posted by maria_n at 9:40 PM

June 13, 2016

Lalo: Complete Songs

Music lovers in French-speaking lands might also mention Le roi d’Ys, a richly atmospheric opera that, despite being available on CD and DVD, is unknown to most music lovers (except for its overture and a delectable tenor aria: “Vainement, ma bien-aimée”). Musicologist Hugh Macdonald has recently published Lalo’s first opera, Fiesque, a work based on a play by Schiller and never performed in the composer’s lifetime. As interesting and as varied as Le roi d’Ys, Fiesque has received a recording (featuring Roberto Alagna) and has even been staged twice. Yet another Lalo opera, La Jacquerie (completed by Arthur Coquard after the composer’s death) was performed to much acclaim in the Auditorium of Radio-France; the work’s first recording, with the same performers, will be released in Fall 2016.

Here we have, on two CDs, the other major vocal genre in which Lalo was active: songs for voice and piano. The collection contains all thirty-two songs that Lalo approved for publication (though some ended up appearing posthumously). All but the earliest nine are now easily available from the music publisher Heugel, in a volume edited with scrupulous care by Joël-Marie Fauquet (1988). Fifteen can be consulted in facsimile in David Tunley’s essential Romantic French Song: 1830-1870 (Garland, 1995), vol. 3. Tunley’s volume includes six of the early nine songs, plus Lalo’s first published version of the Op. 17 songs. (Lalo later published a much-revised version.) Tunley’s volume also offers generally clear translations of song texts, plus suggestions to singers regarding French vowels.

For decades now, scholars have been telling the world about the wonders of the Lalo songs. Frits Noske, in his French Song from Berlioz to Duparc (Dover paperback), declared that the aforementioned Op. 17 songs—setting six poems by Victor Hugo—show Lalo to be “among the masters of the genre.” More generally, “Lalo’s songs are distinguished from those of his contemporaries principally by their profound sense of poetry…His pieces teem with ingenious harmonic and rhythmic inventions.” Lalo also “introduced humor and cheerfulness” into French art song.

These enthusiastic claims are well supported by the present recording, which gives evidence of a composer open to a wide range of influences—including Schubert, Schumann, and Gounod—yet always resulting in music that sounds confident and “right.” The big surprise is the first of the two CDs, which contains the nine early songs, published when Lalo was 25 and 26 years old. Six of them employ texts that the songwriter Pierre-Jean de Béranger originally wrote, decades earlier, to be sung to well-known tunes. In these Béranger texts, social observation and social criticism are conveyed with a mixture of sentimentality and biting irony. Lalo writes new music for the texts and sets them strophically—that is, with the same music used for each of the many strophes. (Often a song has six strophes, and one has seven!) As a result, some of these songs last ten minutes or more.

The remaining twenty-three songs (CD2) are based on poetic texts by a welcome array of poets: we encounter Gautier, Hugo, Lamartine, Musset, plus some lesser scribblers. Other composers—including Berlioz, Liszt, Bizet, Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Duparc, Anton Rubinstein, and César Cui—had set or would set some of the same texts. (Rachmaninoff would set one of the Hugo poems, but in Russian translation.) Lalo’s renderings turn out to be remarkably different from theirs, yet just as apt. In a number of cases Lalo keeps the setting relatively short, with the result that the music mirrors the poem instead of overwhelming it (as Liszt, for example, sometimes comes close to doing). “Puisqu’ici-bas” echoes the poem’s alternation of long and short lines, producing unusual, yet satisfying, three-bar phrases (2+1). Many of the songs have an essential strophic underpinning, but later strophes often modulate to related keys and develop the material, thereby echoing the text’s increasing emotional complexity.

Sometimes Lalo even convinces us, through his music, that a rather conventional poem is a masterpiece of psychological insight. A particularly touching example is “Tristesse,” by Armand Silvestre. Some strikingly regret-filled lines: “We passed—so it seems to me—close to each other without seeing each other, . . . without knowing that our hearts beat together. . . . We would no doubt have suffered, but at least we would have loved!” The prelude in the piano—a yearning melody over slowly descending chords and a low tonic pedal—casts a sweet-sad mood that colors everything that follows. As Graham Johnson keenly observes, the song “shows the composer at his most simple and eloquent.”

Lalo responds with special vividness to texts that invoke a distinctive locale: for example, “Le novice” (about a passionate young man who, having joined a monastery, is now chafing under its constraints), “La fenaison” (about village life at harvest-time), “La Zuecca” (recalling the pleasures of Venice), and “Adieu au désert” (sung by a dark-skinned tribal chieftain who lives by an oasis in Arabia or Northern Africa and here exhorts his horse-riding troops: “Let us make war against the Christians!”). Lalo’s setting of Gautier’s “L’esclave” (The Harem Slave) is fully the equal of fine songs written to similar texts by other composers. I am thinking, notably, of the young Berlioz’s “La captive” (with cello obbligato, text by Hugo) and Félicien David’s setting of Gautier’s “Tristesse de l’odalisque.” “Le chant breton” (on a pseudo-folk text evoking rural Brittany) includes an important oboe part that evokes a shepherd’s simple pipe. The musical “shepherd” is here quasi-enacted, with enchanting naiveté, by Johannes Grosso, first oboist at the Frankfurt Opera.

Lalo’s piano parts are demanding, richly interesting in themselves, and responsive to details in the text (e.g., someone knocking at a door). The accompaniment to “L’aube naît” is redolent of Schumann at his best (e.g., “Mondnacht”). “Puisqu’ici-bas,” if stripped of its vocal part, could almost pass for a Mendelssohn-like “Venetian Gondola Song.” Yet that vocal line is no mere declamation laid on top, but rather shapely and expressive, despite—or because of—its three-bar phrases. In “Guitare,” the piano evokes Spain through strumming figures, and the vocal part gestures toward folk song—if not Spain in particular—by its pure diatonicism, its limited range of an octave, and its simple, balanced phrases.

Baritone Tassis Christoyannis performs major roles in opera houses across Europe (including Germont at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden). Throughout this recording he once again proves himself a major interpreter of song. (I loved his recent CD of eighteen songs—most of which had never been recorded before—by the aforementioned Félicien David. The voice is firmly supported—except at times in the lowest register—and remains vividly “present” when the singer moves into an intimate half-voice. In the six Béranger songs, Christoyannis makes each of the many strophes specific and fresh. Throughout the collection, he sounds—by turns—playful, pompous, bitter, yearning, pitiable, and much else. He even ends a drinking song (Béranger’s “Les petits coups”) with an engaging chuckle that seems perfectly in character, not in any way forced. His remarkable vocal and expressive resources help him put across several songs (e.g., “Marine” and “À celle qui part”) that—in the manner of an operatic scene or soliloquy—include passages of rather free (but sung, not spoken) recitation.

One minor quibble: Christoyannis’s French pronunciation is occasionally non-native. The z sound in “mes amours” becomes an s, and certain vowels are too open: the word “ou” (meaning “or”) can become a somewhat puzzling “oh” and the word “vive” sounds as if it is, ungrammatically, “vivez.” Still, one always senses that Christoyannis understands what he is singing. His way of caressing a phrase such as “mystérieuse messagère” (i.e., “mysterious messenger”—in “À une fleur,” to a text by Musset) conveys the poet’s image in memorable fashion.

Jeff Cohen gives alert and appropriate support through all the different moods of these songs. He is wonderfully fleet-fingered in the multiple twitterings of “La chanson de l’alouette” (Song of the Lark). I particularly enjoyed, in the early song “Le novice,” Lalo’s evocation of a choir of monks singing. The composer, imaginatively, places this chordal passage first in the piano’s ethereal upper register, then gradually brings it into darker, more solemn regions, integrating it into the song’s onward flow. (Unfortunately, in some songs, Cohen’s instrument seems a little distant from the microphone. When I turn up the volume to catch the harmonies and figurations, the singer’s voice becomes uncomfortably loud.)

The poems make for fascinating reading. In certain cases, Lalo has selected and rearranged stanzas from a longer poem to make an effective song text. The poet’s version can often be found online at lieder.net, along with several different translated versions. A poet’s indentation of shorter lines can be interesting, since it may have affected how the composer “heard”—and therefore set—the poem. For four of the songs, truly admirable texts and translations—properly indented—can be found in Graham Johnson and Richard Stokes’s widely hailed A French Song Companion (Oxford, paperback).

In the CD booklet, the poetic texts are printed flush-left. The translations (by Mark Wiggins) are largely adequate, but the attempt to hew closely to the poet’s word choice and laconic syntax may confuse some readers. A powerful phrase in Béranger’s “Le vieux vagabond”—“Vieux vagabond, je ne vous maudis pas”—does not mean, as the booklet has it, “Old vagabond, I will not curse you,” as if the character in the song were addressing an impoverished homeless man. Rather, the character is himself the “vieux vagabond,” and his word “vous”—in this case—is a plural “you,” referring to rich people and tradesmen who did little to help the man learn a trade earlier in life. He is thus declaring, with a combination of bitterness and dignity: “[I may be nothing but] an old beggar/homeless person, [yet] I will not curse you [all].” As for Musset’s witty and tightly constructed “Ballade à la lune,” the translation in Johnson/Stokes, or the one by Barbara Miller at lieder.net, can help correct some errors in Wiggins’s rendering. For example, it is not the “history of [the moon’s] dashing loves” that “will ever be made more attractive.” The poet’s point is, rather, that the stories or legends about the moon make “you” (the moon) lovelier in our collective mind. Wiggins has overlooked the crucial “t’”—i.e., “you.”

Great songs can support a wide range of vocal styles and interpretive approaches. Interested listeners will want to compare Christoyannis’s performances to previous ones that are either still commercially available or—if not—can often be found in major academic and public libraries or have been uploaded to YouTube. “Guitare” has been recorded on CDs by singers thin-toned (Marie Devellereau), medium-weight (Felicity Lott, Konstantin Wolff), and plush (Susan Graham). Bruno Laplante—a French-Canadian baritone who studied with the eminent Pierre Bernac—performs ten Lalo songs (and eight by Bizet) on an LP from 1983, with sincerity and elegant French pronunciation but also with a constant quick flutter in the tone that I find distracting. On a Rodolphe CD from 1987, renowned Polish opera star Teresa Zylis-Gara, with magnificent vocal command, offers all but one of the twenty-three mature songs (omitting the first setting of “Amis, vive l’orgie,” from Op. 17), plus two Béranger settings from the early years. (She sings two strophes—rather than all six—in each of the Béranger songs.) She also includes “Humoresque,” a fascinating number that is actually an excerpt from the opera Fiesque. In certain songs, Zylis-Gara chooses slow tempos, apparently to allow her sizable voice to bloom, and she adds numerous well-judged portamenti. Her interpretation of the texts is often somewhat generalized (M/J 1996).

Lalo’s complete songs were recorded once before (on the Passavant label, 2010), sung by veteran baritone François Le Roux. To judge by two Hugo songs that can be streamed at the label’s website, Le Roux’s voice was—by the time he made these recordings—no longer firm enough to convey all his intended artistry. On the plus side, he handles the texts with ease, and Christian Ivaldi’s brilliant and stylish pianism is captured in full detail by the microphone. (Ivaldi was just as wonderful on the Zylis-Gara CD, made over twenty years earlier.)

In short, despite the existence of some admirable prior recordings, anyone wanting to discover a new side of Edouard Lalo—and a treasure trove of great French songs—would do best to start with Christoyannis and Cohen’s marvelous new 2-CD set.

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. He wrote about French symphonies, including Lalo’s, in D. Kern Holoman, ed., The Nineteenth-Century Symphony (Schirmer Books, 1996). We thank the American Record Guide, where his review of the Lalo songs first appeared, for kindly permitting us to publish the present, expanded version.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AP110-cover.png image_description=Aparte AP110 product=yes product_title=Lalo: Complete Songs product_by=Tassis Christoyannis, baryton; Jeff Cohen, piano; Johannes Grosso, oboe hautbois product_id=Aparte AP110 [2CDs] price=$30.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=154407&name_role1=2&bcorder=2&name_id=6761&name_role=1
Posted by Gary at 5:22 PM

June 8, 2016

Pietro Mascagni: Iris

Joined by the gentle muted chords of solo strings and the eerie ring of quiet timpani and tam-tam, it formed the first of the opera’s strange instrumental colourings which recreate the exotic imagery of Luigi Illica’s libretto for Mascagni’s tale of degraded and redeemed innocence.

It’s hard to whisk an audience in an instant from a bright, humid London evening — punctuated by motorbikes on Kensington High Street and helicopters hovering insistently overhead — to the cool waters of a Japanese rice terrace in the Edo period, but during Mascagni’s long, atmospheric orchestral prelude conductor Stuart Stratford gradually filled in the shades of the canvas to transport us to a mystical Orient: translucent divided strings were supported by rippling clarinet and harp, sweet horns blended warmly with oboe and cor anglais. Here and throughout the evening, Stratford lavished real affection and care on Mascagni’s experimental score, and the members of the City of London Sinfonia relished the gloriously diverse colours and textures, from the lustrous to the opaque.

Our journey eastwards was aided by the samurai-styled movements of three dancers, choreographed with subtle nuance by Charlotte Edmonds, and the solemn, formal gestures of the Opera Holland Park Chorus (movement director, Namiko Gahier-Ogawa) were equally persuasive. Playing with evolving animation and power, the orchestral sound blossomed through the prelude, like the opening of a lotus flower, and they were be joined in apotheosis by the Chorus — peasants in simple blue kimonos and culottes. Chorus Master Nicholas Jenkins has done a tremendous job and whether laundresses, geishas, or the clamouring clients of Tokyo’s red light district, the OHP Chorus were central to the action and mighty of voice. At the climax of the opening choral hymn to the sun, ‘Inno al Sole’, they faced the audience in a line stretching the full length of the Holland Park stage, achieving astonishing vibrancy and power.

Soutra Gilmour’s set blends realism and symbol. It’s beautifully lit by Mark Jonathan in complementary oranges and blues, suggestive of the opera’s dualities — urban versus rural, excess versus simplicity, degeneracy versus innocence — which are reflected in the costumes, too, the peasants’ indigos contrasting with the pinks and oranges of the insubstantial gowns that Iris is forced to wear in her later degradation.

Fuchs begins with a quotidian scene. Peasant workers weave between white lilies, harvesting rice in the paddy fields. Square, bamboo cages, slightly raised, suggest both traditional Yayoi houses, resting on rafts raised on stilts, and the sexual trafficking of the Karayuki-san — Japanese girls and women who were taken from poverty stricken agricultural prefectures Japan and forced into the sex industry — in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

And this is a fitting double-image, for Iris tells the tawdry, tasteless tragedy of the eponymous daughter of an old blind man who is kidnapped by Osaka, a young libertine, with the aid of his unsavoury procurer, the brothel-keeper Kyoto. The two reprobates disguise themselves as travelling puppeteers and Osaka’s enacted serenade seduces the sensitive, imaginative Iris, sending her into a trance. Conducted to the brothel, Iris resists Osaka’s aggressive advances and the latter tires of the very unworldliness which has so enticed him. Kyoto exposes and humiliates the young girl before a crowd of ogling citizens. And, in this piteous state she is found by her father who curses her. Overcome with shame, she throws herself into the pit reserved for fallen Geishas. Forget Tosca, If ever an opera deserved Joseph Kerman’s epithet, ‘shabby little shocker’, it’s Mascagni’s mucky melodrama.

Much rests on the title role — the only character to undergo any ‘development’. Anne Sophie Duprels gave a stunning performance, especially in the emotionally charged second Act. Without undue mannerism, she successfully conjured the naivety and freshness of a young girl who has no knowledge or understanding of the darker sides of life. Whether nonchalantly swinging her legs by the stream, clutching her rag doll tightly to protect it from the monsters which threaten it in her dreams, or so utterly absorbed by a puppet show that she engages in a duet with her make-believe alter ego, Duprels was credible and sincere. Vocally she was stunning. Her voice floated easily over the large orchestra, by turns a silvery thread or a gorgeous stream, always focused and sensitively phrased. She exhibited impressive musical awareness and technical control, and was able to marry the two to create a moving portrayal. Awaking in a seedy brothel, her belief that the flimsy painted walls which surround her belong to paradise was heart-breaking in its artless misconception. And, Iris’s Act 2 aria, ‘Un dì, ero piccina’, in which she describes a Buddhist screen she had seen as a child on which was depicted an octopus coiling its tentacles around a young girl, evoked tender pathos.

Osaka is a ‘schizophrenic role’ in that this odious character sings glorious music. Noah Stewart was an appealing Osaka — against the dramatic odds, but perhaps aided by the physical appeal of his shirtless pectorals — who managed in Act 2 to suggest that the shallow lecher is touched, indeed driven to dejection and hopelessness, by genuine feeling and ardour when he recognises what he has lost by his contemptuous dismissal of Iris. Osaka’s Act 1 serenade, ‘Apri la tua finestra’, is challenging in terms of both tessitura and musical complexity. Stewart had the power and the high notes, but there was an occasional roughness to the voice, some wayward intonation and little tonal diversity. The latter, together with a lack of dynamic variety, was noticeable throughout, but the Act 2 seduction — where Fuchs did not refrain from emphasising the discomforting voyeuristic element of the scene — show-cased the wonderful fullness and glossiness of Stewart’s tenor.

Kyoto is a cynical, callous whore-monger and James Cleverton’s clarity and focus were as unwavering as his character’s smug egocentrism. Mikhail Svetlov gave genuine dramatic shape and weight to the role of the blind father, speaking and singing with a tone of dark gravity. We felt for him in his loss, delusion and suffering, just as we condemned his cruel rejection of his maltreated daughter.

Johane Ansell sang beguilingly as the Geisha, drawing us into the play-within-a-play; indeed this mini-drama was so persuasively performed by the three dancers that it risked diverting us from the abduction of Iris being conducted on the far side of the stage! The minor roles were securely sung by members of the Chorus.

Fuchs’ direction is convincing — and chilling. In Act 2, the geishas cower in a cage, both victims and accomplices of Kyoto, complicit in Iris’s abuse and complaisant as to her fate. As we see the vulnerable girl baited and ogled, defenceless against an evil that she does not comprehend, today’s trafficked children and migrants came all too clearly to mind.

The close of Mascagni’s best-loved opera, Cavalleria Rusticana, is swift: Turridu has scarcely taken leave of his mother to fight the duel with Alfio, when a woman screams ‘Turiddu was killed!’, and Lucia and Santuzza collapse in shock and horror. Act 2 of Iris closes with similar, disquieting alacrity. Scantily clad before a baying, braying crowd of oglers, Iris is discovered by her father who condemns her as a slut, spits and throws mud at his ‘dishonoured’ daughter. In despair, in this production, she stabs herself.

There it might end, the shock unpalliated, the shame unredeemed. However, Illica and Mascagni give us an Act 3 — one which taxes modern sensibilities as the libretto takes some dubious turns. Despite her physical trauma, Iris is fished out of the open sewer by some vagrants, her body wrapped in mud-spattered silk. She accepts her fate, welcoming the rising sun which will deliver her soul heavenwards. All the glories of the reprise of the opening choral hymn cannot quite overcome our distaste.

Fuchs and Gilmour do their best to re-establish the stillness of the opening moments: orange lanterns throw warmth into the darkness and the reprised hymn is compelling. The Italianate warmth of Duprels’ final aria is consoling, if one does not linger on the context. And, before her transcendent union with the rising sun, Iris hears the voices of Osaka, Kyoto and of her father. Are they figments of her confused mind? Fuchs places the three men in the cages: perhaps they are all ‘victims’ of their depraved world? Across the stage, red ropes form a net — the sun’s rays, or a spider’s web, trapping all?

Iris was premiered in Rome in November 1898, eight years after Cavalleria Rusticana. It clearly made an impression on Puccini, whose Madame Butterfly appeared six years later. The protagonists of Butterfly may have more substance and their drama more realism, but — despite Illica’s floridity — the mystical ambience of Iris has its own magic when embodied by Mascagni’s orchestral tapestries.

Before the performance, OHP’s new Chairman, Charles Mackay, informed us that Mascagni’s grand-daughter and great-grand-daughter would be in attendance that evening: they must been gratified by the committed performances of all involved. This was an honest and unsentimental production of an opera that deserves to be heard more often, though the weak dramaturgy and questionable ethical slant will problem condemn it to the periphery of the repertoire. And that’s all the more reason not to miss this excellent production.

Claire Seymour

Further performance of Iris will be given on 10, 14, 16 and 8 June at Opera Holland Park: http://www.operahollandpark.com/our-2016-season/

Cast and production details:

Iris — Anne Sophie Duprels, Osaka — Noah Stewart, Il Cieco — Mikhail Svetlov, Kyoto — James Cleverton, Geisha — Johane Ansell, Un Merciaiuolo — Michael Bradley, Un Cenciaiuolo — Timothy Langston, Alistair Sutherland & Freddie De Tommaso, Dancers — Alex Cuadros Joglar, Joshua Junker & Amelia Townsend; Director — Olivia Fuchs, Conductor — Stuart Stratford, Designer — Soutra Gilmour, Lighting Designer — Mark Jonathan, Choreographer — Charlotte Edmonds, Movement Director — Namiko Gahier-Ogawa, City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus.

Opera Holland Park, London; Tuesday 7th June 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Iris_OHP.png image_description=Iris by Opera Holland Park product=yes product_title=Pietro Mascagni: Iris product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Iris by Opera Holland Park
Posted by Gary at 12:15 PM

June 6, 2016

L’italiana in Algeri, Garsington Opera

Its two sweeping white staircases would perfectly support a 16-foot-long sequin-lined fox cape, allowing the late ‘Mr Showmanship’ to make a magnificently grandiose entrance.

These particular stairways, however, adorn the Bey of Algiers’ palace. One curves gracefully, edged with an ornate gilt balustrade and supported by burnished, spiralling columns; its arch frames dignified red velvet ottomans and a small circular fountain which is suggestive of the bath chambers of the harem. The other undulates like an air-borne flying-carpet, its ridges later to be illuminated in contrasting colours, its wave-like ripples breaking onto a feather bed of cushions. The juxtaposition of acute realist detail and fantastical motif embodies the essential, and dynamic, duality of Tuckett’s production of an opera which is itself founded on oppositions: men versus women, East versus West, despotism versus freedom.

With the sombre black floor and back-flat showcasing the vivid complementary colours of the scheme, Souglides’ design is an imaginative and impeccable surround for Tuckett’s staged tableaux. And the latter are wonderfully lit by Giuseppe di Iorio, who recreates in turn the Orient’s exotic gleam, the stark brightness of Fellini, and the gaudy glitz of Vegas — as when a silhouette of on Ottoman arch blazes with flashing, dancing strobes. There are many lovely set pieces, not least when the three suitors listen to Isabella’s declaration of love, each man secreted beneath the stairway, assuming that her words are intended for him alone.

Garsington Opera L'italiana in Algeri 2016 Ezgi Kutlu (Isabella)credit Johan Persson .pngEzgi Kutlu as Isabella

But, problems arise when it comes to stage movement: the staircases occupy the whole stage space, and while it’s possible for harem dancers to pirouette in the undulating scoop at the foot of the ‘stair-carpet’, and for supernumeraries and slaves to slide around the decorative pillars, there’s not much room for any ‘meaningful’ choreography, other than a few skips and marches as signalled by Rossini’s score. Even the well-orchestrated chaos of the composer’s brilliant first act Finale, with its nonsense text — ‘ding dong’, ‘caw caw’ — clanging in the characters’ heads, culminates with the protagonists slumped on ottomans, covering their ears to shield them from the cacophony.

While this means that there is little distracting business during the big arias, the ensembles do suffer. Once the principals are assembled in position, on the inclines and in the dips, there is little chance of them moving. But, perhaps this is indicative of the static nature of Rossini’s opera. After all, though the eponymous ‘Italian Girl’, Isabella, arrives in town and satisfies the self-absorbed, self-indulgent Sultan’s desire for a change of romantic scene, nothing and no one really changes. Isabella rules the roost: she liberates her enslaved lover, toys with the enraptured Taddeo and with the toy-boy Turk, and instructs the harem in feminine wiles, but the characters don’t develop. It’s a watered down Die Entführung aus dem Serail: for in Mozart’s opera Konstanza, imprisoned by Pasha Selim, truly suffers, while Belmonte seeks to rescue her from an Oriental potentate who is aided by a genuinely rage-ridden Osmin, and all undergo both quest and discovery.

Tuckett’s Act 2 slides into caricature and stereotype. Perhaps this is inevitable in an opera that trades in racism and misogyny — though we forgive the era its foibles. And, Souglides makes the most of the possibilities offered by the glass sides of the Wormsley Pavilion, as we drift into night and the set merges with the encroaching darkness without. The sliding back panels which in Act 1 reveal the arrival of Isabella and her shipwrecked Italian entourage — upon a rocky promontory beneath a burning red sunset — now open on a cobalt sky and crescent moon. Pendant antique souk lamps throw suggestive shadows as they rise and fall.

If there is less to engage us dramatically in Act 2, then this is probably Rossini’s fault. But, the composer does provide two elaborate ceremonies — or phony rituals — and they are inventively presented by Tuckett. The first is the appointment of Taddeo as Kaimakan, in which he accepts the title, uncomfortable gold-and-emerald khelat and outsize turban as a better alternative than the executioner’s scythe. The second is the according of the pseudo-rank of ‘Pappataci’ to Mustafà.

In both instances, Angelo Anelli’s libretto pays debt to Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme (1670) which enacts a Turkish ceremony (Act 4 Scene 5) in which the foppish Monsieur Jourdain is ennobled to Mamamouchi; and, both of Rossini’s set pieces are expertly choreographed by Tuckett and visually resplendent. While Kaimakan is still the title of a governor of a provincial district in Turkey, ‘The Order of the Pappataci’ — though perhaps a nod to the secret clubs in vogue in Venice in the early 19th century, where Rossini’s opera was premiered — is entirely fictitious. ‘Pappataci’ literally means ‘eat your food and shut up’, a humiliating command to the cuckold. Tuckett wittily connects ‘Mama’ with ‘Papa’ and comes up with ‘Sugar Daddy’: an apt sideways step given that Mustafà’s initiation feast is the opportunity for Isabella to manoeuvre her escape with the Italian entourage. So, having sworn to ‘see and not see ... to hear and not hear,’ and ‘to let people do and say what they like’, Mustafà stuffs himself with calorific candied confections — served up by a bevy of chefs sporting candyfloss-pink toques — while the Italian lovers embrace and flee.

The costumes too articulate the divide between East and West, real and surreal. We have authentic odalisques’ robes in magenta, plum and crimson; slaves and guards whose cummerbunds — red on white, green on blue — splash an abundance of rich colours. Mustafà swaps a tunic of Oxford blue and silver for a caftan of crimson and gold, and ends up draped in a Barbie-pink dressing gown as ‘Sugar Daddy’, trading his authoritative sarik turban for a towering black fez.

But, the Italians — echoing the patriotic sentiments expressed by the heroine — are attired in the fashions of Sophie Loren’s 1950s, supplemented by a few Breton tops and Guantanamo-orange life-jackets to indicate their sea-born arrival in Algiers.

Everything revolves around Isabella, the guileful femme who triumphs over male presumption, vanity and misogyny. Essentially this in an opera about three men who are in love with a single woman: the latter achieves her ends through her erotic appeal, and with economy of effort and efficiency of outcome. And, Ezgi Kutlu has the radiance and aura to lead from the front. Her mezzo-soprano has plenty of ebullience and personality, and she has a wide vocal range, incredibly strong at the bottom — Isabella is all warm mezzo seduction rather than glinting soprano dazzle — which suggests a self-confidence and sensuality born of experience. Kutlu was sincere of sentiment in her Act 1 opener, ‘Cruda sorte’, and a wily strategist elsewhere, resourcefully exploiting her knowledge of men to trick and elude her would-be master. She exhibited a bright, forward tone in the ensembles, balancing the occasional touch of contralto smokiness. This sassy lass combined debonair composure with comic flair.

Mary Bevan was a crystal-toned Elvira, and her voice rose beautifully aloft during the ensembles. However, the role of the Bey’s abused, docile and devoted wife is an unsympathetic one to modern audiences, and although Bevan exchanged her funereal black frock for an olive-green get-up we were not convinced she had really learned the lessons imparted by Isabella. Her attendant, Zulma, was the vivacious and vibrant Katie Bray.

Quirijn de Lang’s Mustafà Bey of Algiers is an unstable blend of fierce, tyrannical misogyny and foolish infatuation. He might complain that Elvira’s pleas are bursting his ear drums but he is insensitive to the fooleries being exercised around him. His despotism is of a caricatured nature: as he ogles Isabella, the enslaver turned enslaved, so his court bend and bow in imitation of their master’s infatuated obeisance. De Lang’s baritone does have a beautiful baritonal sheen, but he struggled to meet the role’s demands for agility and accuracy and there’s quite a lot of comic woofery in place of genuine vocal acting.

Luciana Botehlo is an unassuming Lindoro, inclined to let his lady lead the way. But, if Botehlo’s tenor is relatively light and characterless, then so are Rossini’s lines for the ‘hero’, and the tenor negotiated the twists and twirls, producing a smooth legato in his Act 1 cavatina, ‘Languir per una bella’ and subsequently relaxing into a suave, debonair idiom.

Isabella’s third suitor, the hapless Taddeo, was neatly characterised by Riccardo Novaro — Garsington were fortunate to be able to call upon his services in the indisposition of Geoffrey Dolton. Torn between impalement and life as a ‘gooseberry’, this Taddeo was vociferous yet self-aware in his arguments with Isabella, exhibiting a natural comic flair and creating sympathy for a character who can seem merely tedious.

Completing the male principals was Božidar Smiljanić’ as Haly, who served the Bey with judicious deference and genuflection. The baritone’s Act 2 aria, ‘Le femmine d’Italia’, was far more assured and imposing than we might expect from a singer who is just completing his postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music.

Rossini’s chorus are barely involved in the action but, directed by Susanna Stranders, they deployed themselves neatly, though occasionally the stage-to-pit synchronisation was less than secure.

David Parry, conducting his 12th Rossini production for Glyndebourne, drew tight discipline from the Garsington instrumentalists. The tautness of the pianissimos was striking, and the overture (the opera’s best music) was enlivened by surprising sforzandos. The woodwind relished their concertante roles in the drama and flute, oboe, bassoon and horn each enhanced the dramatic characterisation.

Rossini declared, ‘As for love, I consider it the prima donna assoluta, a goddess who ravishes the brain with her cavatinas, making the ear drunk and delighting the heart. Eating, loving, singing and digesting are the four acts of a comic opera called life that bursts like the bubbles in a bottle of champagne. Anyone who allows it to seep away without having enjoyed it first is a complete and utter fool.’ La Dolce Vita indeed … which this production set out to promote via Isabella’s embodiment of the ‘Eternal Feminine’.

But, the opera also has a ‘revolutionary’ slant, which was granted a mere glance in the final bars, when di Iorio’s lighting cast a patriotic red-white-green pattern up the floating stairway. For in her last aria, ‘Pensa alla patria’, Isabella urges the enslaved to lead a renaissance of boldness and bravery — a risorgimenti trope complemented by her attempt to fire Lindoro’s courage, ‘think of our fatherland’, and contrasted by the alcoholic idiocies if those left behind in the seraglio. In tying up the dramatic threads, Tuckett did not quite overcome Rossini’s vulgar stereotypes of the Orient.

But, let’s return to the opera’s more central questions. While Mustafà quietly asks his wife for forgiveness (‘Mi perdona’), do the Orientals really learn from the Europeans? Does despotism give way to more enlightened government? Though Isabella dishes out sweetly domestic admonitions — ‘Colla sposa sia gentile’ (Be nice to your wife) and ‘E si cara’ (She’s so dear) — and announces that she intends to change such the ‘barbarous’ marital customs — ‘Don’t act like a sheep,’ she instructs Elvira, ‘for if you do the wolf will eat you up. In my country it’s the wives who whip our husbands into shape’ — this production does not propose that Rossini's imaginary harem is on its way to Western domesticity.

The final visual image — a passing cruise liner picks up the homesick Italians — suggests that while the slaves are liberated from their chains, and set forth for the ‘sweet life’, the Bey is just waiting for another Italian girl to come sailing by.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Isabella — Ezgi Kutlu, Lindoro — Luciano Botelho, Mustafà — Quirijn de Lang, Taddeo — Riccardo Novaro, Elvira — Mary Bevan, Zulma — Katie Bray, Haly — Božidar Smiljanić; Conductor — David Parry, Director — Will Tuckett, Designer — George Souglides, Lighting Designer — Giuseppe di Iorio, Garsington Opera Orchestra & Chorus.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Garsington%20Opera%20L%27italiana%20in%20Algeri%202016Ezgi%20Kutlu%20%28Isabella%29%2C%20Quirijn%20%20de%20Lang%20%28Mustafa%CC%80%29%20credit%20Johan%20Persson%20.png image_description=Ezgi Kutlu as Isabella and Quirijn de Lang as Mustafà [Photo by Johan Persson] product=yes product_title=L’italiana in Algeri, Garsington Opera product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ezgi Kutlu as Isabella and Quirijn de Lang as Mustafà

Photos by Johan Persson
Posted by Gary at 9:30 PM

June 4, 2016

Carmen in San Francisco

The Calixto Bieito Carmen is old news, this edition having already taken place in Barcelona, Venice, Torino and Bilbao where I saw it in 2014. Already a Bieito Carmen has been around on advanced European operatic stages since 1999. This production was never headline news, finding instead this extraordinary stage director in a rather subdued state.

Bieito always creates a world that puts you on edge, here it was the cut-out bulls on the hilltops of Spain, gypsies in dilapidated cars, freaked out youth, blinding beaches and lurid tourism, and of course bull rings. Yes, in Bieito’s world there is fellatio, pissing, nudity, gang rape, child abuse and unbridled brutality. Yes, Mercedes was Lilas Pastia’s middle-aged wife, and yes, Don Jose was really annoyed by an insistent Micaëla who sang her pretty song and then gave Carmen the “up-yours.”

First delineated by a semi-naked soldier hypnotically circling the stage for much of Act I Bieito’s Act IV bull ring finally was only a chalk-line circle laid down by Lilas Pastia in which the raw power of Carmen’s indifference was pitted against the impotent supplications of Jose. Murdered, Jose dragged Carmen out of the circle — like a dead bull.

Movement is violent and often sudden in this Bieito world. There were very limited moments of dialogue but many additions of crowd noise and shouts, and punctuations of imposed silence broken by frenetic crowd clamor. The quintet [in Bilbao] was splendidly staged catching the lightening speed of the music in fast, demonstrative movement, and the trio was deadpan, the cards read on the hood of a car with no sense of doom, Carmen indifferent to her fate.

There was no set. A simple cyclorama against which there was first a flag pole and a phone booth, then a car and a Christmas tree, then eight cars and a gigantic cut out bull and finally nothing except a beach with a marked out chalk ring.

All this might seem a recipe for a powerful tragedy, but this does not seem to be Bieito’s intention. The telling of Jose’s infatuation disappears into this cosmos of marginal life in Spain and becomes unimportant in itself, its emotions melted into the morass of a much bigger and equally violent, emotionally raw world.

Bieito’s Carmen world did not make it to San Francisco.

Production notes clarify that what we have now in San Francisco is “based on” Bieito’s 1999 production, staged “after Bieito” by Spanish director Joan Anton Rechi. For the record there was no fellatio, no pissing, no gang rape, no child abuse and no unfettered brutality. Replacing Bieito’s violent, elemental world are precious emblems of some Spanish village in North Africa, to wit 1980’s Mercedes Benz (six of ‘em) that are used as taxi’s thereabouts.

Replacing Bieito’s mythical characters, his larger than life personages that embody the tragic human scope of men and women (and a child as well) caught relishing this brilliant, brutal world were very fine singers in young artist programs or recent graduates thereof (with the exception of the Micaëlas of Ellie Dehn and Erika Grimaldi, both established, elegant exponents of Mozart’s Countess).

Carmen16_SF2.pngIrene Roberts as Carmen, Brian Jagde as Don José

Bieito’s emblematic tragedians were now young, real people, who recently perfected their roles in coaching studios. Director Joan Anton Rechi obliged their fine preparation with what would liked to have passed as a type of realism. The resulting movement on stage however read as practiced mechanical motion rather than as a gritty enactment of character realization. With no real character achieved by these too willing young artists no continuity of story emerged, leaving Bizet's tragic masterpiece a series of unrelated musical numbers.

Italian conductor Carlo Montanaro relished the elegance of the esteemed San Francisco Opera Orchestra, finding a continuum of refined sound rather than capturing the changing moods and violence Bizet’s musical kaleidoscope. Tempos seemed too fast or too slow, or both at the same time. Both the flute and cello solos were self-consciously over-articulated destroying dramatic mood in search of elegance.

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra is a major ensemble, capable of plumbing the dramatic depths of the repertory, in fact you get the feeling it is straining at the bit to do so. Pairing it with an eviscerated production and a clueless conductor squanders this splendid resource.

Both of the Carmens, Irene Roberts and Ginger Costa-Jackson who alternate in the eleven performances are viable artists and both are real, ingenue Carmens. I particularly appreciated the variation of vocal color projected by Mlle. Costa-Jackson, and greatly admired the splendid voices and solid techniques of both artists. Tenor Brian Jagde sings ten of the eleven performances, many back to back, i.e. day after day. Tenor Adam Diegel sang one performance (May 28) in which he found some of Bizet’s hapless lover. Brian Jagde seemed too busy making great big tenor sounds — that wore us out over the long evening — rather than finding the humanity of this role.

Carmen16_SF3.pngEllie Dehn as Micaëla

Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi was miscast as Micaëla, though her “Je dis” on May 28 was beautifully and very elegantly delivered. On June 1 soprano Ellie Dehn was a-fish-out-of-water and in apparent vocal difficulty. Neither of the two Escamillos could fill the breeches of Bizet’s toreador, nor muster the required vocal coglioni — inexplicable casting. All supporting roles were responsibly sung, though cast without regard to the character needs of this Bieito production.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Carmen: Ginger Costa-Jackson (May 28); Carmen: Irene Roberts (June 1); Don José: Adam Diegel (May 28); Don José: Brian Jagde (June 1); Micaëla: Ellie Dehn; Escamillo: Michael Samuel (May 28); Escamillo: Zachary Nelson (June 1); Frasquita: Amina Edris; Mercédes: Renée Rapier; Morales: Edward Nelson; Zuniga: Brad Walker; El Dancairo: Daniel Cilli; El Remendado: Alex Boyer; Lillas Pastia: Yusef Lambert. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Carlo Montanaro; Production: Calixto Bieito; Stage Director: Joan Anton Rechi; Set Designer: Alfons Flores; Costume Designer: Mercé Paloma; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, May 28 and June 1, 2016.


product_title=The "Bieito Carmen" in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Ginger Costa-Jackson as Carmen with supernumerary soldier [All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 3:49 PM

Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera

This turned out to be the new production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin which opened the 2016 Garsington Opera season at Wormsley on 3 June 2016. It was an evening full of anticipation, because the casting included two interesting role debutants with Roderick Williams as Onegin, and Natalya Romaniw as Tatyana, plus Jurgita Adamonyté, Louise Winter, Kathleen Wilkinson, Oleksiy Palchykov, Mark Wilde, and Brindley Sherratt, with Douglas Boyd (Garsington’s artistic director) conducting the Garsington Opera Orchestra. The designs were by Tom Piper, with Liz Ranken as movement director/choreographer and Lina Johansson as acrobatic choreographer.

Michael Boyd’s production was firmly set in the era of Pushkin’s story; Tom Piper’s costumes were authentically early 19th century (the story was written 1825 to 1833). The production was one where hats, gloves and manners were highly important, something which can get forgotten when thinking just about Tchaikovsky’s seethingly dramatic music, but Michael Boyd rightly put the inner emotions in the context of a culture of outward control, going on to explore what happens when this control breaks. But, perhaps the most important thing to say about the production was the way it used communal dance as an important factor. The cotillon at Madame Larina’s dance was a real communal moment with everyone taking part: dancers, chorus and the older supers (Community Actors). Similarly the Polonaise at Prince Gremin’s ball was real communal moment (albeit in a different, grander style).

Not that things were slavishly naturalistic, Piper’s sets consisted simply of five mobile units which were moved around to form a single backdrop, or to enclose a smaller space. For the first half (Act One, and Act Two, Scene One) we simply saw plain wooden tongue- and groove cladding and doors, evoking the simplicity of Madame Larina’s house, for the duel scene, the rear of the units was on display giving a starkly abstract wooden construction as backdrop, whilst for Prince Gremin’s palace we simply had huge mirrors, echoing the image of constantly being on show and the sense of Onegin’s constant looking over his past.

Similarly the production style moved in and out of naturalism, with Natalya Romaniw’s Tatyana mounting the scenery to overlook proceedings (something repeated in the final scene of the opera when ball-goers did the same), the way Lensky (at Madame Larina’s) and Tatyana (at Prince Gremin’s ball) were singled out as stationary objects at the centre of the dance, the handling of the chorus in the ball scene where they became threatening onlookers. The scene after Tatyana’s letter scene saw the female chorus interacting with Tatyana almost as an extension of her thoughts, as they dressed her for the encounter with Onegin. And in the climactic final scene, the chorus broke through the walls of the room to threaten Onegin. Much of the movement of the scenery and props was done by the cast themselves, and Kathleen Wilkinson’s Filippyevna brought a real sense of character to the way she fetched and carried.

Roderick Williams was a remarkable assumption. The singer turned 50 last year, and this might seem a little late to take on Onegin but he gave no sense of this. It was a thoughtful performance, one completely in tune with the way Michael Boyd emphasised the restrictions of manners and arranged marriages on the characters. This wasn’t the most arrogant of Onegins, or the most self-absorbed, instead it was a very human performance. For the first half of the opera we see Onegin very much through Tatyana’s eyes, and here Williams was all correct politeness, with a feeling of someone finding it easier to hide behind the facade of manners. Even in their encounter after the letter scene, it was the correct politeness with which Williams’ Onegin treated Romaniw’s passionate yet naive Tatyana that shocked, complete with details such as him leaning down to check (very politely) that Tatyana had understood.

But when the break came, at the end of Madame Larina’s party, it was devastating as the icy control snapped. After the powerful and chilling duel scene, Michael Boyd introduced a real coup de theatre. During the opening section of the polonaise we saw Onegin’s travels, but always he was accompanied by the ghost of Lensky, with Oleksy Palchykov even donning dress and wig to dance with Onegin at Prince Gremin’s ball. Rarely has the combination of director and singer made Onegin’s opening solo at the ball, sung directly to the audience (the first time we really hear his thoughts) count for so much.

Natalya Romaniw created a strikingly thoughtful Tatyana, one who clearly withdrew from society and whose calm exterior masked the emotions inside. Romaniw had mastered the art of doing less on stage, but doing to highly expressively so that little counted for much, and she has a very speaking countenance where every emotion flickered across her face. She has a wonderful lyrical dramatic voice, one that is probably going to grow, and brought a real sense of vibrant passion to Tatyana. Her performances in both time periods (there is a gap of six years between Acts One and Two and Act Three), were linked by this sense of groundedness with the older Tatyana simply losing some of the naivety of the younger. This was an enormously sympathetic, almost ensemble performance, but one where you constantly felt Tatyana’s presence, whether singing or not, without ever pulling focus. The letter scene was superbly sung, and brilliantly conceived with a great feel for the architecture. That Romaniw does not, yet, quite pull the heart strings to the ultimate is no worry, this was a performance that can only grow and remarkably mature assumption for this young artist.

I have to confess that when I heard him in Act One, I rather worried about the way Oleksiy Palchykov seemed to push his voice to hardness in the upper register, and rarely seemed to relax as an actor. But Michael Boyd cunning used this stiffness, so that in the party at Madame Larina’s Palchykov’s Lensky wasn’t the puppyish poet, but seemed to stiffen with resentment and jealously until breaking point. His account of the duel scene fairly crackled, and in his solo he showed himself to be a superbly thoughtful artist, and I particularly loved the way he was able to thin his voice right down. The final duet with Roderick Williams was everything you might expect, stiff, rigid and uptight yet shot through with intense regret and emotion.

Jurgita Adamonyté made a lively, carefree Olga, and one who formed a lovely foil to Natalya Romaniw, with the two making a superbly balanced and complementary duet.

Louise Winter’s Madame Larina was very much the lynch-pin of the first half. She was clearly channelling Imelda Staunton in a big way, bringing that actor’s wonderful sense of comedy and pathos to a woman who was clearly inhabiting the rules as a last resort against chaos, with a fussily busy manner which was at once funny and sad. Winter made you understand the rigid obsession with manner, and the way it made the dramatic events almost inevitable as something has to crack. Equally important was Kathleen Wilkinson’s Filippyevna, her body language making clear her years of devotion and service. This was clearly not a rich household, Filippyevna spent quite a lot of time moving just a few chairs around for those she served, and the jam making was a very humble affair with Filippyevna calmly peeling apples.

Brindley Sherratt brought great sympathy and great resonance to his solo as Prince Gremin. There were no novelties, and no shocks, simply a superbly musical performance done in the context of a very fine dramatic performance.

The smaller roles were all strongly taken. Mark Wilde was hilarious as the pompous Monsieur Triquet, and I loved the way the chorus stood behind him, laughing at him and echoing his gestures. Adam Temple-Smith was a peasant, Martin Häßler was a Captain, Andrew Tipple was Zaretsky and Adam Torrance was Guillot.

The production took full advantage of the young and talented chorus, who had a great deal to do besides just sing. They effectively created separate characters, with a great deal of both communal dancing and more general movement. They both looked and sounded good, a testament to the hard work and preparation for the season.

I have to confess that I was less convinced by the choreography for the dancers. The acrobatic vignettes, during Onegin’s journeys between scenes one and two in Act three, were highly effective, but elsewhere the choreography for the six dancers was simply too fussy for my taste.

The orchestra under Douglas Boyd made gave a wonderfully lyrical account of the score. Lithe and passionate, the performance was beautifully fluid but focussed and controlled, so that under Douglas Boyd’s disciplined hands the passion was there but the orchestra never came anywhere near overwhelming the singers.

This was a superb season opener, and a demonstration of how Garsington Opera has moved on from being an outstanding specialist in a couple of composers, into a house where immensely thoughtful highly crafted work is being done in all areas. This season there is Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, Mozart’s Idomeneo and Haydn’s The Creation to look forward to, with the prospect of Handel’s Semele and Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande next year.

There is also a chance to hear and see the production of Eugene Onegin outside of Garsington, as the production will be screened in rural coastal areas including Skegness, Ramsgate, Burnham-on-sea, Grimsby, see www.operaforall.org for full details.

Robert Hugill

Cast and production details:

Director: Michael Boyd, conductor: Douglas Boyd, designer: Tom Piper, movement director/choreographer: Liz Rankin, acrobatic choreographer: Lina Johannsen.

Onegin: Roderick Williams, Tatyana: Natalya Romaniw, Olga: Jurgita Adamonyte, Madame Larina: Louise Winter, Filippeyevna: Kathleen Wilkinson, Peasant: Adam Temple-Smith, Lensky: Oleksiy Palchykov, Captain: Martin Häßler, Monsieur Triquet: Mark Wide, Zaretsky: Andrew Tipple, Guillot: Adam Torrance, Prince Gremin: Brindley Sherratt

Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 3 June 2016

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Portrait_of_Alexander_Pushkin_%28Orest_Kiprensky%2C_1827%29.PNG image_description=Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky product=yes product_title=Eugene Onegin, Garsington Opera product_by=A review by Robert Hugill product_id=Above: Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky
Posted by Gary at 3:35 PM

June 2, 2016

Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

Struggling with the score of The Greek Passion, Martinů seems to have turned to the tale of Ariadne and Theseus for light relief from the magic realism of what would be his last opera — a letter of June 1958 to his family explains that he was ‘taking a rest’ from the larger work — and he completed the 40-minute opera in just one month. The composer prepared the libretto fromLe voyage de Thésée by the French surrealist poet Georges Neveux — who was also the librettist of Martinů’s Julietta. Neveux added a dream-like ambiguity to the myth, with Ariane possibly in love with the Minotaur, who is representative of Thésée’s ‘other self’.

The libretto is full of unanswered, probably unanswerable, questions, and ambiguous suggestions. When Thésée calls for the Minotaure, an echo responds calling for ‘the other Thésée … the Thésée that was’ to come to his aid. When the mirror-image Minotaure appears, he challenges Thésée: ‘Who do you think I should look like? … Who dares to aim his blow at himself and die by his own hand?’ Ariane, regarding the dead beast, tells Thésée, ‘I knew he looked like you’. Who does Thésée kill?

Gaitanou takes this essentially unfathomable melange of divination and doppelgängers and grounds it in the Salle Wagram Ballroom in Paris which was, in the mid-1960s, an important recording venue, taking as her prompt Martinů’s admiration for and fascination with Maria Callas whom the composer hoped would perform the title role. (It was not to be, which may have been fortunate given the celebrity soprano’s vocal fragility at this time.)

The Salle was the home of Pathé-Marconi/EMI and designer Simon Corder decorates the studio with tape reels and microphones of the era, drawing inspiration from photographs (specifically those by Robert Doisneau and Sabine Weiss) of Callas recording Carmen at the Salle Wagram in 1964. The re-imagined recording session morphs the youths of Athens and Thésée’s companions into international stars and recording engineers, whose own entanglements and everyday routines form a background for the enacted recording of Martinů’s opera. In this way Gaitanou both taps into Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and continues the tradition of exploring the ‘meaning’ of our own lives through the re-telling of Greek myth.

Martinů’s score employs a lyrical idiom which roves from a neutral monadic idiom to the charm of Poulenc, to passionate emotional climaxes, and here it showcased some fine singing from the cast of young singers whose arias and brief snatches of recitative did a fine dual job of despatching the story swiftly and focusing on the characters’ emotions.

Both baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé as Thésée and bass Milan Siljanov as the Minotaure exhibited a strong dramatic weight. ‘In recording’, Olivé gave a noble account of the role, characterised by emotional restraint and dignified French declamation. His tone was full and his phrasing finely chiselled. Siljanov combines the heft of a bass with the richness of a baritone, and he gave a characterful portrayal, doubling also as the Old Man. Tenor Dominick Felix produced an urgent, attractive tone as Bouroun, who, impatient with Thésée’s distractedness, resolves to kills the Minotaure himself, with fatal consequences. The role of the Watchman who announces the arrival of Thésée in Knossos was taken by John Findon, who delivered his recitative-like soliloquy stylishly.

The central role of Ariane is a substantial coloratura part and the eponymous heroine’s bravura lament upon the departure of Thésée occupies the last quarter of the opera — think Monteverdi’s Arianne or Purcell’s Dido. Sweet of tone, and just about able to negotiate the virtuosic, and stratospheric, demands, Said’s soprano is, alas, far too light, and lacks both the cream and weight, to carry the emotional weight of the role. Neveux’s simple French was clearly enunciated but the nobility or profundity of Martinů’s musical language was not fully tapped, though Said worked hard at the phrasing and crafted some beautiful trailing diminuendos.

The score recalls Stravinsky in chirpy neo-baroque mode — Pulcinella, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1920 comes strongly to mind — but Martinů also punctuates Ariane with three fairly lengthy Sinfonias, à la Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and the GSMD Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Redmond, played them with crisp punchiness, the rhythms sharply defined and the woodwind colours striking.

The partnering work, Alexandre bis (translated as ‘Alexander Twice’ in English and ‘Dvakrát Alexandr’ in Czech) was composed in 1937 to an original libretto written in French by André Wurmser. It’s a variation on Così fan tutte, with a surreal twist.

Alexandre decides to test the fidelity of his wife, Armande, by shaving off his beard and posing as his cousin visiting from out of town. Armande is in fact virtuous: for years she has fended off persistent admirers. Now, however, she submits — even though she recognizes her husband in his deception. Just as Ariane cannot distinguish between Thésée and the Minotaur, so Alexandre is her husband but not her husband. We’re back in a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fissure between delusion and reality. Armande has betrayed her husband by loving her husband, and had fun; from now on she will be unfaithful, and so she succumbs to the urges of her serial admirer, Oscar. The maid Philomène and a singing portrait imitate Mozart’s Despina and Don Alfonso by commenting on, and interfering in, the action. Wurmser’s moral, unlike Da Ponte’s, turns its censure on the men: ‘Don't knowingly lead your wife into temptation, for the devil never sleeps, and there are never two without three.’ We’re all weak so don’t take the risk. This is, after all, as the subtitle tell us, ‘The Tragedy of a Man who had his Beard Cut’.

The opera is characterised by bizarre juxtapositions and non sequiturs — of the kind that the surrealists believed allowed the unconscious to express truth. Gaitanou and Corder play up the comic absurdity by setting the work in a pre-WW2 bourgeois salon inspired by the roof garden of a Champs-Élysées apartment which was designed by Le Corbusier in 1930, and decorated by Salvador Dali, for the eccentric multi-millionaire art collector Charles de Beistegui.

Above a carpet of grass, topiary vegetation is sculpted alongside a rococo fireplace and mirror, peacock fireguard, white garden seating and a parrot on a decorative stand. The outside-inside salon is placed within curving white walls beyond which an azure blue sky glows above pedestal-mounted, gleaming bronzed models of L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre-Dame.

The zany costumes of Cordelia Chisholm and Victoria Newlyn’s mad-cap but expertly co-ordinated choreography — it’s all careering bicycles and tutu-clad dancing devils — add to the lunacy: by the time we get to Armande’s lurid dream sequence we’re not sure what’s real and what’s wished-for fantasy.

Martinů alternates spoken dialogue with sung numbers in the opera buffa tradition, and the cast were fully committed to the absurdity and physical farce without making vocal sacrifices. Olivé again impressed as Alexandre, but ditched Thésée’s mythic solemnity for hamminess worthy of Feydeau. Martinů had asked Wurmser for a libretto including a singing cat, but accepted the writer’s compromise of a singing portrait which acts as a narrator to a tale of bourgeois infidelity. Once again, Siljanov was vigorous of voice, delighting in the monologues which begin with humour and veer towards hysterical aphoristic moralising. He inhabited this bizarre role with aplomb.

As Armande, soprano Elizabeth Karani was more dramatically restrained, but sang with a clean and attractive soprano. Bianca Andrew sparkled as the maid, Philomène, lamenting in her first aria that she is condemned to a life ‘cleaning house in a comic opera’. Andrew’s mezzo-soprano is warm and agile. Tenor John Findon impressed as the persistently flirtatious fop, Oscar.

Redmond summoned plenty of fizz from the pit too, though it was the strings who shone this time with the woodwind sometimes challenged by the score’s demands. That said, the instrumental playing during the evening was some of the best I have heard from the young GSMD players and would be a credit to any professional ensemble.

Alexandre was intended by the Parisian-resident Martinů for performance at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In the event it was not premiered until 18 February 1964 at the Mannheim Opera House, conducted by Georg Calder. The first performance of Ariane took place posthumously, in 1961, two years after Martinů’s death, at the Musiktheater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen, Germany. The latter opera actually owed its UK premiere to the GSMD, when it was performed as part of a ‘Martinů festival’ at the Barbican in 2009, in a staging by Stephen Medcalf, conducted by Clive Timms.

This double bill showed us how grateful we should be to our Conservatoires for taking risks and delivering operatic rarities with such wit and panache.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Ariane :
Ariane — Nicola Said, Thésée — Josep-Ramon Olivém, Le Minotaure — Milan Siljanov, Bouroun — Dominick Felix, 1er garcon — Robin Horgan, 2ème garcon — Bertie Watson, 3ème garcon — James Liu, 4 ème garçon — Laurence Williams, 5ème garcon — Jack Lawrence-Jones.

Alexandre bis :

Philomène — Bianca Andrew, Le portrait — Milan Siljanov, Alexandre — Josep-Ramon Olivé, Armande — Elizabeth Karani, Oscar — John Findon, Dancing Devils — Robin Horgan, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Bertie Watson, Laurence Williams.

Director — Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor — Timothy Redmond, Set and lighting designer — Simon Corder, costume designer — Cordelia Chisholm, choreographer Victoria Newlyn, Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tuesday 31st May 2015, Silk Street Theatre, GSMD, London.

Click here for a podcast about this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ariadne-1898.png image_description=Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt] product=yes product_title=Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis product_by=A review by Claire Seymour product_id=Above: Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt]
Posted by Gary at 12:47 PM

Lohengrin, Dresden

The unit set, semi-realistic historical costumes, and laugh-out-loud glittering swan of Christine Mielitz’s tired old production, first seen in the 1980s, need not detain us. It had only one virtue: two operatic stars essaying Wagner for the first time could park all night on the front lip of the stage, comfortably close to the prompter’s box, and sing. This evening was all about the music.

Can Anna Netrebko sing Wagner? Announcement of her first foray on stage provoked many worries, most of which proved groundless. Netrebko herself said that her biggest problem was to master the German text. Yet her crisp (if not quite idiomatic) diction rendered Wagner’s faux medieval poetry easily intelligible. Some doubted that her voice is big enough for Wagner. Yet at forte she easily rode Christian Thielemann’s robust orchestra and in ensembles she cut through massed orchestral sound more vividly than the experienced Wagnerians beside her. Others questioned whether her voice possesses that ineffable, lyrically virginal “Elsa” sound. She certainly can project such a timbre when she chooses to do so. Moreover, the natural quality of her voice—secure and even, warm yet penetrating, shading from a dark cello resonance at the bottom to sweet violin sound with a slight metallic glint at the top—is one of the glories of the modern operatic world. Most people at the Semperoper last Wednesday would have come to hear her sing the telephone book.

Still, Netrebko’s Elsa remains a work in progress. The most deeply moving passages she sang are as lovely as those of any soprano in a quarter century. They tended to come at times of Elsa’s greatest repose and reflection, for example her virtuous glow after seeming to rescue Ortrud or stunned regret after asking the fatal question. Music and drama would come into vivid focus, and, for a brief moment, Netrebko showed that she has what it takes to be an Elsa for the ages.

Lohengrin_8915.pngAnna Netrebko (Elsa von Brabant), Piotr Beczala (Lohengrin), Matthias Henneberg (Dritter Edler), Tom Martinsen (Erster Edler), Tomasz Konieczny (Friedrich von Telramund)

Yet more often she simply oversang. Her instrument has grown remarkably in recent years, yet she still sometimes feels the need to barge into phrases, arias and scenes. She also overuses a particular pressed and slightly spread timbre she has developed to bulk up the voice for spinto parts. All this was entirely unnecessary in a reverberant house like the Semperoper, except perhaps to underscore a few anguished fortissimos.

This overtly emotional approach often places her at odds both with Elsa’s character and with Wagner’s score. Consider the first stanza of “Einsam in trüben Tagen”—the aria of spiritual reverie that introduces Elsa to us as a dreamy mystic. Wagner tells singers exactly how to achieve the appropriate effect: eleven measures at piano or pianissimo describing Elsa’s “lonely…prayer” are followed by a quick crescendo culminating in a powerful cry” to the heavens, followed by 8 measures at the original dynamic markings as a “distant echo” induces her sweet sleep.” In short, it is a gentle dream or vision.

Netrebko sings the passage broadly and more loudly from the outset, expressing emotional agitation more appropriate to Senta than Elsa. She is surely capable of greater vocal focus and more introspective characterization. One must assume that in order to do so, she simply needs time to fully internalize Elsa’s character. Unfortunately, in this era of intense media scrutiny, she may not get it. High-definition cameras in the hall suggest that this performance will be distributed on video. Let’s hope that she nonetheless reprises the role often enough to refine it—perhaps at Bayreuth, where Thielemann is reputed to be planning to reassemble this cast.

The other Wagnerian debut in this production was that of Polish tenor Piotr Beczała, a 49-year old bel canto and early Verdi specialist, in the title role. Few modern singers possess the voice type traditionally associated with Lohengrin. To hope today for the baritonal resonance, honeyed voix mixte, and stentorian declamation commanded by Lauritz Melchior, Franz Völker, Wolfgang Windgassen, Sándor Kónya or even Plácido Domingo is to dream that a glittering Grail Knight will appear to solve our problems in casting Wagner.

Lohengrin_8838.pngDerek Welton (Heerrufer des Königs), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Piotr Beczala (Lohengrin), Anna Netrebko (Elsa von Brabant), Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Herren des Sinfoniechores Dresden - Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden

Instead the role of Lohengrin now belongs almost exclusively to lyric tenors. Ironically, in an era when opera houses pride themselves on eschewing “park and bark” vocalism, the primary virtues of such singers lies almost entirely in producing a sweet and uniform timbre bordering on choir-boy purity, sometimes backed by clever use of falsetto. They find it nearly impossible to project the mysterious combination of heroic warrior and pure saint that led generations to view Lohengrin as a uniquely fascinating figure. We should not forget that, while Lohengrin may live in a monastery, he comes to Brabant to prevail in battle with Telramund (a heavy-weight Wagner baritone) and then to lead armies (a robust four-part men’s chorus) to victory. Lyric tenors often come across like boys sent out to do a man’s job.

Within these limitations of our times, Beczała makes a convincing Lohengrin. The voice, while not as pure or even as some, is technically solid and penetrating, beautiful in the middle and ringing at the top. He is an honest and intelligent musician, more overtly emotional and characterful than most, and able to distinguish subtly and thoughtfully between the more heroic and the more personal aspects of the character. He shapes the music affectingly, points the words well, and deploys a somewhat limited dynamic range sensitively, particularly in the big areas. Only occasional loss of control around the passaggio, some inaudible low notes, and a slight vocal roughness (absent in his more glamorous assumptions of lighter roles) betrays some underlying strain.

The rest of the cast gave strong support. Today major opera houses often cast singers as Ortrud who possess great intensity of expression, but lack refined control over dynamics, intonation and phrasing. Evelyn Herlitzius is an example: she used her Elektra-weight voice to threaten, bellow and vamp. The resulting scenery-chewing—and not just in the famous curse—was entertaining and forceful enough to generate a clear contrast to Netrebko. Never mind that it sometimes bordered on caricature and, in some lower-lying passages, exceeded Herlitzius’s vocal capacity. The 44-year old Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny used nearly as large a voice to snarl his way menacingly through the role of Telramund. He, too, offered a vivid portrayal, even if his interpretation lacked nobility, subtlety or beauty, and his German was only rarely intelligible.

Lohengrin_8789.pngTomasz Konieczny (Friedrich von Telramund), Evelyn Herlitzius (Ortrud), Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden/Herren des Sinfoniechores Dresden - Extrachor der Semperoper Dresden

The bottom of the ensemble was bolstered by two impressive basses. As with tenors, great pure voices of this type are rare today. Still, Dresden-based Georg Zeppenfeld sang a darkly-colored, elegant and clearly articulated König Heinrich, while the young Australian bass Derek Welton, based at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, resoundingly declaimed crystal-clear German as his Heerrufer. Both are singers destined for greater things.

Undergirding it all was Thielemann’s robust Staatskapelle Dresden. Thielemann favors bold, forceful and somewhat rough-hewn Wagner—an approach, some might object, that suits Lohengrin less than other Wagner works. Yet other orchestral virtues—tight ensemble, sensitive vocal accompaniment, subtle emphasis on middle instrumental voices, and thrilling brass in the antiphonal fanfares—assured an impressive result. The chorus sang robustly, though it might have been more precise and transparent in the sections with split parts. The sound resounded in the wonderfully full acoustic of the Semperoper.

Overall, this is the type of high-profile triumph that Dresden must offer regularly to compete with leading German houses in Berlin and München.

Andrew Moravcsik

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lohengrin_8298.png image_description=Anna Netrebko as Elsa von Brabant and Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin [Photo © Daniel Koch] product=yes product_title=Lohengrin, Dresden product_by=A review by Andrew Moravcsik product_id=Above: Anna Netrebko as Elsa von Brabant and Piotr Beczala as Lohengrin

Photos © Daniel Koch
Posted by Gary at 10:05 AM

June 1, 2016

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne

Alas, David McVicar’s production — for the moment, I am considering solely the staging, for there was much to admire in the musical performance — proved by far the weakest. Alas, we see here the continuation of the sad decline of a once accomplished director — his ENO Turn of the Screw remains the finest I have seen — into the Franco Zeffirelli de nos jours. McVicar’s Glyndebourne Entführung seemed like a caricature of something from an alleged ‘golden age’, which of course never was and never could have been, before the alleged invention of big, bad ‘Regietheater’. As I discuss in my recent book, After Wagner, that would take us back at least before Wagner’s own opera stagings. Indeed, it would take us back, paradoxically, to a time of opera staging prior to the origins of opera.

Such an approach, if one may call it that, disdaining, with more than a hint of Teutonophobia, any hint of the directorial Konzept , could hardly find a composer less suited to it than Wagner. And yet, there seems, to start with, as though there might actually be a Konzept: well, an updating, at least. For the action does not take place in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, but rather in the earlier nineteenth century, presumably at around the time Wagner was growing up. There is much to be said for such an idea, looking at the societal influences upon the young Wagner, which certainly helped shape his world-view (from a more hostile standpoint, his ideology). Moreover, the guilds and corporations came under sustained post-Enlightenment attack at this time, the Stein-Hardenberg reforms in Prussia, for instance, offering more or less the only instance in that reforming programme of a policy vehemently opposed by Hegel (as an attack on partial association, on civil society). The guild in Nuremberg, then, might be portrayed as under attack; that, after all, is partly the meaning of Walther’s intrusion, a typical Wagnerian move of introducing a charismatic leader from outside. And so we might go on. There is, unfortunately, no attempt to do anything with the updating. Indeed, as with the aforementioned Entführung, or as with McVicar’s Marriage of Figaro for the Royal Opera , one is left with the nasty suspicion that the principal point, or at least principal result, of the updating is simply to present us with a host of ‘pretty’ designs. Vicki Mortimer’s handsome designs might have done so much more — or even just a little more.

Moreover, the typical McVicar trait of reducing drama to mere ‘entertainment’ is much in evidence here. There is nothing wrong with art being entertaining, of course; much of it would be failing if, in at least some sense, it were not. However, here the playing to the gallery — and not in some metatheatrical sense, imitating or leading the relationship between the Masters and the populace — becomes especially wearying. ‘Amusing’ interpolations, which serve little or no purpose other than to make those who have partaken of a few too many erupt into apparently helpless laughter, are too often the order of the day. (Quite what led someone to the verge of hysteria during Sachs’s Wahn monologue, I have no idea; on that occasion, the responsibility does not seem to have lain with the production.) And since every McVicar production now seems to have compulsory choreography by Andrew George, we have silly, irrelevant dances, especially painful at the opening of the second act. Beckmesser, for some reason best known to the director, becomes a preening figure of high camp.

Fortunately, the score was in better hands. The London Philharmonic Orchestra was on excellent form throughout. Clearly well rehearsed, the orchestra offered as satisfying a German tone — the strings, to my ears, more typically Brahmsian than one often hears in Wagner, but certainly, in this of all Wagner’s dramas, none the worse for that — as one is likely to hear in this country. There were, moreover, many elements of exquisite wind-playing, doubtless having their roots, at least in part, in the LPO’s long experience of performing Mozart here at Glyndebourne. Michael Güttler’s conducting never drew attention to itself; in the first and second acts, it perhaps lacked the sense of life with which the greatest Wagner conductors will bring the melos into dramatic reality, but there was sure structural understanding. In the third act, which, perhaps not coincidentally, offers a more satisfying, if defiantly conservative, experience in McVicar’s staging too, Güttler seemed relatively liberated. His was never an ‘interventionist’ account, but there was a greater willingness to play, and to let the singers, play with the ebb and flow.

What made this Meistersinger compulsory viewing (and listening) for me, however, was Gerald Finley’s Hans Sachs. Finley had also played the role in Herheim’s Paris production. Perhaps because of the lack of anything here to say from the staging, he sounded, if anything, finer still. At any rate, the distinction of his performance fell into greater relief, for I have never heard a finer rendition, more anguished and yet, ultimately, more imbued with relative hope, of the Wahn monologue than here. In ‘purely’ musical and in verbal terms, this was a Sachs whose role emerged from lengthy experience and understanding of Lieder. The size of the house probably helped too, the Bastille perhaps not the ideal venue for Finley, excellent though his Paris performance undoubtedly was.

Die Meistersinger Von Nurnberg-Glyndebourne-1162.pngHans Sachs (Gerald Finley) and Walther (Michael Schade)

Michael Schade seemed miscast, I am afraid, as Walther. If he made a better job of the role than I should have suspected, he too often sounded strained. Little of the ‘natural’ — whatever that might mean — ease with which Walther should pour forth his artistry was present. However, his Eva, Amanda Majeski, offered a beautifully sung performance, drawing, as does the character, upon greater reserves of feeling as the work progressed. There was nothing of Bösch’s radical (feminist) reappraisal here, of course, but Sajeski did a good deal with what she had. Jochen Kupfer did a sterling job with McVicar’s jarring understanding of Beckmesser; indeed, he managed almost to convince us that this was an illuminating standpoint. If he could not quite do so, that was not the fault of this fine actor, whose darkly attractive vocal portrayal proved equally impressive; I hope to see him play the role in another staging. David Portillo’s lyric tenor was just the thing for David: his was an eager, diligent, attractively sung performance very much in the traditional mode. Hanna Hipp’s Magdalene complemented him with similar qualities and great warmth of tone. Alastair Miles’s Pogner sounded somewhat elderly at times, but that is hardly inappropriate here. Last but far from least, the singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus, well-prepared indeed by Jeremy Bines, was something to savour from beginning to end. In a house of this size, it sounded just right: words and music in excellent balance, warmth and clarity anything but antithetical. If only the staging had given them something more interesting to do.

Mark Berry

Cast and production details:

Walther: Michael Schade; Eva: Amanda Majeski; Magdalene: Hanna Hipp; David: David Portillo; Hans Sachs: Gerald Finley; Sixtus Beckmesser: Jochen Kupfer; Veit Pogner: Alastair Miles; Fritz Kothner: Darren Jeffery; Kunz Vogelgesang: Colin Judson; Konrad Nachtigall: Andrew Slater; Ulrich Eisslinger: Adrian Thompson; Hermann Ortel: Nicholas Folwell; Balthasar Zorn: Alasdair Elliott; Augustin Moser: Daniel Norman; Hans Foltz: Henry Waddington; Hans Schwarz: Sion Goronwy; Night Watchman: Patrick Guetti. Director: David McVicar; Designs: Vicki Mortimer; Lighting: Paule Constable; Coreography: Andrew George. The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)/London Philharmonic Orchestra/Michael Güttler (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, Sussex, 25 May 2016.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Die%20Meistersinger%20Von%20Nurnberg-Glyndebourne-1715.png image_description=Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs [Photo by Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title=Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Glyndebourne product_by=A review by Mark Berry product_id=Above: Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs

Photos by Tristram Kenton
Posted by Gary at 8:05 PM