21 Jul 2016
Evergreen Baby in Colorado
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
Opera San Jose has capped a wholly winning season with an emotionally engaging, thrillingly sung, enticingly fresh rendition of Puccini’s immortal masterpiece La bohème.
On Saturday evening April 22, 2017, San Diego Opera presented Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata at the Civic Theater. Director Marta Domingo updated the production from the constrictions of the nineteenth century to the freedom of the nineteen twenties. Violetta’s fellow courtesans and their dates wore fascinating outfits and, at one point, danced the Charleston to what looked like a jazz combo playing Verdi’s score.
Thomas Adès’s third opera, The Exterminating Angel, is a dizzying, sometimes frightening, palimpsest of texts (literary and cinematic) and music, in which ceaseless repetitions of the past - inexact, ever varying, but inescapably compulsive - stultify the present and deny progress into the future. Paradoxically, there is endless movement within a constricting stasis. The essential elements collide in a surreal Sartrean dystopia: beasts of the earth (live sheep and a simulacra of a bear) roam, a disembodied hand floats through the air, water spouts from the floor and a burning cello provides the flames upon which to roast the sacrificial lambs. No wonder that when the elderly Doctor tries to restore order through scientific rationalism he is told, “We don't want reason! We want to get out of here!”
Is A Dog’s Heart even an opera? It is sung by opera singers to live music. Alexander Raskatov’s score, however, is secondary to the incredible stage visuals. Whatever it is, actor/director Simon McBurney’s first stab at opera is fantastic theatre. Its revival at Dutch National Opera, where it premiered in 2010, is hugely welcome.
I kept hearing from knowledgeable opera fanatics that the Israeli Opera (IO) in Tel Aviv was a surprising sure bet. So I made my way to the Homeland to hear how supposedly great the quality of opera was. And man, I was in for treat.
At Phoenix’s Symphony Hall on Friday evening April 7, Arizona Opera offered its final presentation of the 2016-2017 season, Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola). The stars of the show were Daniela Mack as Cinderella, called Angelina in the opera, and Alek Shrader as Don Ramiro. Actually, Mack and Shrader are married couple who met singing these same roles at San Francisco Opera.
On Saturday evening April 1, 2017, Placido Domingo and Los Angeles Opera celebrated their tenth year of training young opera artists in the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Program. From the singing I heard, they definitely have something of which to be proud.
The town’s name itself “Baden-Baden” (named after Count Baden) sounds already enticing. Built against the old railway station, its Festspielhaus programs the biggest stars in opera for Germany’s largest auditorium. A Mecca for music lovers, this festival house doesn’t have its own ensemble, but through its generous sponsoring brings the great productions to the dreamy idylle.
The Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden pretty much programs only big stars. A prime example was the Fall Festival this season. Grigory Sokolov opened with a piano recital, which I did not attend. I came for Cecilia Bartoli in Bellini’s Norma and Christian Gerhaher with Schubert’s Die Winterreise, and Anne-Sophie Mutter breathtakingly delivering Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto together with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Robin Ticciati, the ballerino conductor, is not my favorite, but together they certainly impressed in Mendelssohn.
Mahler as dramatist! Mahler Symphony no 8 with Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Now we know why Mahler didn't write opera. His music is inherently theatrical, and his dramas lie not in narrative but in internal metaphysics. The Royal Festival Hall itself played a role, literally, since the singers moved round the performance space, making the music feel particularly fluid and dynamic. This was no ordinary concert.
Imagine a fête galante by Jean-Antoine Watteau brought to life, its colour and movement infusing a bucolic scene with charm and theatricality. Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opéra-ballet Les fêtes d'Hébé, ou Les talens lyriques, is one such amorous pastoral allegory, its three entrées populated by shepherds and sylvans, real characters such as Sapho and mythological gods such as Mercury.
Whatever one’s own religious or spiritual beliefs, Bach’s St Matthew Passion is one of the most, perhaps the most, affecting depictions of the torturous final episodes of Jesus Christ’s mortal life on earth: simultaneously harrowing and beautiful, juxtaposing tender stillness with tragic urgency.
Lindy Hume’s sensational La bohème at the Berliner Staatsoper brings out the moxie in Puccini. Abdellah Lasri emerged as a stunning discovery. He floored me with his tenor voice through which he embodied a perfect Rodolfo.
Listening to Moritz Eggert’s Caliban is the equivalent of watching a flea-ridden dog chasing its own tail for one-and-half hours. It scratches, twitches and yelps. Occasionally, it blinks pleadingly, but you can’t bring yourself to care for such a foolish animal and its less-than-tragic plight.
A large audience packed into the Wigmore Hall to hear the two Baroque rarities featured in this melodious performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. One was by the most distinguished ‘home-grown’ eighteenth-century musician, whose music - excepting some of the lively symphonies - remains seldom performed. The other was the work of a Saxon who - despite a few ups and downs in his relationship with the ‘natives’ - made London his home for forty-five years and invented that so English of genres, the dramatic oratorio.
On March 24, 2017, Los Angeles Opera revived its co-production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann which has also been seen at the Mariinsky Opera in Leningrad and the Washington National Opera in the District of Columbia.
Ermonela Jaho is fast becoming a favourite of Covent Garden audiences, following her acclaimed appearances in the House as Mimì, Manon and Suor Angelica, and on the evidence of this terrific performance as Puccini’s Japanese ingénue, Cio-Cio-San, it’s easy to understand why. Taking the title role in the first of two casts for this fifth revival of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, Jaho was every inch the love-sick 15-year-old: innocent, fresh, vulnerable, her hope unfaltering, her heart unwavering.
Calliope Tsoupaki’s latest opera, Fortress Europe, premiered as spring began taming the winter storms in the Mediterranean.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary New Sussex Opera has set itself the challenge of bringing together the six scenes - sometimes described as six discrete ‘tone poems’ - which form Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet into a coherent musico-dramatic narrative.
Reflections on former visits to Opera Holland Park usually bring to mind late evening sunshine, peacocks, Japanese gardens, the occasional chilly gust in the pavilion and an overriding summer optimism, not to mention committed performances and strong musical and dramatic values.
Central City Opera celebrated the 60th anniversary of The Ballad of Baby Doe with a hip, canny, multi-faceted new production.
The piece premiered here of course, so there is significant resonance to experiencing it anew in such an invigorating, immensely moving realization. The company covered itself in glory starting with the casting of the title role.
Anna Christy is born to play Baby Doe. Diminutive and appealing, blessed with a limpid, silvery soprano, the role seems to have been tailored to her significant gifts. While she can certainly easily encompass the spunk and grit of the determined heroine, where Ms. Christy uniquely excels is in the incredible legato flights above the staff.
It is not often one encounters such total ease of vocal production, seamless phrasing, and alluring timbre. She also thoroughly understands the full range of emotions in Baby’s journey, and she communicates them with an honest simplicity. I have often marveled at Anna Christy’s achievements in the past, but with this role assumption she is at the height of her powers, an utterly perfect marriage of artist and material.
Grant Youngblood as Horace Tabor
As the object of her affection, Grant Youngblood, too, was a splendidly apt choice for Horace W. Tabor. His physical stature and self-assured bearing were matched by a dependable, rich baritone of considerable import. Mr. Youngblood perfectly balanced the public swagger of the successful businessman-politician with the pathos of his personal longings and shortcomings.
His version of Warm as the Autumn Light was luxurious in its outpouring of burnished tone. As he ultimately descended inexorably into a state of drunken despair, he infused his voice with such pathos and anguish that no one could have been unmoved. The final pages of the score with his compelling, unaffected enactment of Tabor’s death, followed by Ms. Christy’s crsytalline performance of Always Through the Changing were unbearably moving. There can’t have been a dry eye in the house.
As the third part of the story’s love/power triangle, Susanne Mentzer emphatically held her own as the determined, staunch, till-death-do-us-part wife Augusta Tabor. To her great credit, Ms. Mentzer finds every cranny of nuance in an often unsympathetic personage. She wisely invests the role with as much dignity as outrage, balancing the overt self-righteousness with an abiding sense of loss.
She is an attractive woman, her handsome bearing able to suggest severity as well as noble suffering. She has an incisive, throbbing mezzo-soprano, and her technique is rock solid, reveling in a freely ringing top and upper middle, while wisely negotiating lower passages with savvy dramatic flair. Ms. Mentzer also excels portraying the character’s physical deterioration, dramatically and vocally. When she appears as her youthful self in Horace’s final hallucination, she is stunningly renewed: sassy and fresh-voiced.
Bryan for President (Anna Christy and ensemble)
The featured character William Jennings Bryan was served up with gusto by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann. His characterful, sonorous singing boomed out in the house and his take-no-prisoners campaign persona was the riveting focal point of his scene, as was required. As Baby Doe’s near harridan of a mother, Sarah Barber dominated her scenes with potent stage presence and a highly-charged, brilliantly aggressive vocal delivery of penetrating power.
The large cast of featured roles was so uniformly excellent, it seems a shame not to have space to single all of them out for praise. These dynamic cameos were mostly peopled by the outstanding corps of Apprentice Artists, and the entire laudable cast list is enclosed for your perusal. Moreover, Chorus Master Aaron Breid has molded these talented artists into a precise and finely-honed ensemble.
Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to be having a ball in the pit, and his skillful orchestra responded with a reading that was by turns heady, colorful, atmospheric, driving, introspective and sweetly sentimental. Maestro Myers wrung every bit of variety from this popular score, managing a perfect combination of folksy Americana and profound operatic expression.
If this is not the year that Central City Opera discovered the possibilities of scenic projections, then mark it as the year they perfected them. Is there a show with as many different locations as this one? (Gypsy, maybe?) The over-achieving David Martin Jacques devised a truly wondrous design for sets, lighting and projections juggling all three duties with consummate skill. This achievement was so virtuosic that I suspect the talented Mr. Jacques could have done it all while still clanging a pair of cymbals between his knees like a consummate busker.
What Do You Intend to Do Augusta Tabor? (Susanne Mentzer)
The scenery was largely scrim panels and painting frames that flew in and out in various combinations. These frames were stretched with ‘canvases’ that were also scrim, spookily ragged, trailing downward as the bottom crosspiece of the frames was missing. On these shifting surfaces were projected real images of the locations and personages of the story. Highly effective.
The few pieces of furniture were chosen with great care and specificity, and it did not hurt that the actors were clad in Sarah Jean Tosetti’s spot-on period costumes. The sweep of the story and the definition of the characters and their stations in life were inestimably aided by Ms. Tosetti’s fine work. The icing on the cake was a beautifully judged wig and make-up design from Liz Printz.
Ken Cazan’s loving and knowing direction was so effective as to almost not be noticeable. The movement was natural and made good use of the space. He brilliantly peopled the stage with inevitable pictures and well-motivated crowd control. Mr. Cazan seems to have created highly productive subtext with his performers since their relationships were so connected and meaningful.
He also had great skill crafting powerful images, none more so than when Augusta is firmly planted center stage, with her lady ‘friends’ buzzing around her with unwanted advice. That they appeared and disappeared from behind a quintet of scrim projections of Horace’s ‘portraits’ was even more powerful, and the complete stasis of the upright, uptight Augusta made the visual startlingly impactful.
I also very much liked having a mute Baby Doe ambling on stage at the beginnings of the acts and other selected times, all buttoned up and moving stiffly as the eccentric recluse she would become after Tabor’s death. Indeed, the show started with her older self, standing in the middle of a snowy ground cloth, soon pulled away as the opera started. At the opera’s close, the same austere cloth was drawn around the dying Horace, and his grieving wife. Touching and meaningful.
This enduring company seems to return to celebrate its ‘signature opera,’ The Ballad of Baby Doe, every ten years. Based on this year’s loving and beautifully rendered landmark production, I can’t wait for the 70th anniversary edition.
Cast and production details:
Old Silver Miner: Justin Berkowitz; Bouncer: Chad Sonka; Kate, Saloon Girl: Ashley Fabian; Meg, Saloon Girl: Tatiana Ogan; Horace W. Tabor: Grant Youngblood; Sam: John David Nevergall; Bushy: Daniel Ross; Barney: Leroy Y. Davis; Jacob: Samuel Hinkle; Augusta Tabor: Susanne Mentzer; Sarah: Danielle Palomares; Mary: Marlen Nahhas; Emily: Anna Laurenzo; Effie: Megan Case; Mrs. Elizabeth (Baby) Doe: Anna Christy; Samantha, a Maid: Micaëla Aldridge; Clarendon Hotel Clerk: Peter Lake; Albert, a Bellboy: Michael Floriano; Mama McCourt: Sarah Barber; Washington Dandies: Terence Chin-Loy; Nathan Ward, Christopher Kenney, Cody Müller; Father Chapelle: Peter Lake; Footman: Michael Floriano; President Chester A. Arthur: Justin Berkowitz; Elizabeth (child): Lucy Crile; Silver Dollar (child): Carly Crile; Mayor of Leadville: Justin Berkowitz; William Jennings Bryan: Donald Hartmann; Stage Doorman: Peter Lake; Denver Politician: Stephen Clark; Silver Dollar (adult): Kaileigh Riess; Conductor: Timothy Myers; Director: Ken Cazan; Set, Lighting and Projections Design: David Martin Jacques; Costume Design: Sarah Jean Tosetti; Wig and Make-up Design: Liz Printz; Chorus Master: Aaron Breid.