15 Nov 2016
Madama Butterfly in San Francisco
A Butterfly for the ages in a Butterfly marred by casting ineptness and lugubrious conducting.
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.
In May 2016, Opera Rara gave Bellini aficionados a treat when they gave a concert performance of Vincenzo Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini, at the Barbican Hall. The preceding week had been spent in the BBC’s Maida Vale Studios, and this recording, released last month, is a very welcome addition to Opera Rara’s bel canto catalogue.
Jonas Kaufmann Mahler Das Lied von der Erde is utterly unique but also works surprisingly well as a musical experience. This won't appeal to superficial listeners, but will reward those who take Mahler seriously enough to value the challenge of new perspectives.
Following Garsington Opera for All’s successful second year of free public screenings on beaches, river banks and parks in isolated coastal and rural communities, Handel’s sparkling masterpiece Semele will be screened in four areas across the UK in 2017. Free events are programmed for Skegness (1 July), Ramsgate (22 July), Bridgwater (29 July) and Grimsby (11 October).
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 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.
Details of the Royal Opera House's 2017/18 Season have been announced. Oliver Mears, who will begin his tenure as Director of Opera, comments: “I am delighted to introduce my first Season as Director of Opera for The Royal Opera House. As I begin this role, and as the world continues to reel from social and political tumult, it is reassuring to contemplate the talent and traditions that underpin this great building’s history. For centuries, a theatre on this site has welcomed all classes - even in times of revolution and war - to enjoy the most extraordinary combination of music and drama ever devised. Since the time of Handel, Covent Garden has been home to the most outstanding performers, composers and artists of every era. And for centuries, the joyous and often tragic art form of opera has offered a means by which we can be transported to another world, in all its wonderful excess and beauty.”
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.
A new recording, made late last year, Morfydd Owen : Portrait of a Lost Icon, from Tŷ Cerdd, specialists in Welsh music, reveals Owen as one of the more distinctive voices in British music of her era : a grand claim but not without foundation. To this day, Owen's tally of prizes awarded by the Royal Academy of Music remains unrivalled.
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.
A Butterfly for the ages in a Butterfly marred by casting ineptness and lugubrious conducting.
The Madama Butterfly of Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian may well become recognized as the Butterfly of our time, indeed one of the great Butterflies of all times. It is a role she is just now assuming, thus it is fresh in her voice, mind and body. This freshness makes these performances here in San Francisco unique, an experience not to be missed by operatic lepidopterists — and aren’t we all?
Mlle. Haroutounian arrived at Paris Opera’s young artist program through Moscow, and achieved immediate successes as many of the major Verdi heroines. In 2014 she was miscast as Tosca in San Francisco, a fine singer but simply not the diva Tosca is and must be — in voice and persona.
Mlle. Haroutounian still does not exude the complexities of a diva and this brings the sheen of innocence to her Butterfly that makes it operatically true. The purity of voice that casts her as the unstained Verdi heroine, and the security of her vocal technique sustain the youth and stamina of the 18-year-old Butterfly. The strength and beauty of tone throughout the role’s range underscore the moral certitude of this simple and courageous geisha.
The excited Saturday night audience understood and felt the gravity of Butterfly’s strength and innocence, and awarded Mlle. Haroutounian an ovation the size of which I have never before witnessed in the War Memorial Opera House.
Act I meeting of Butterfly and Pinkerton
The production was a remount of the 2006 Jun Kaneko Opera Omaha production first seen here in 2014. The production is simply a masterpiece. It is/can be pure gesamtkunstwerk — the effective if unlikely synthesis of op art with Puccini’s verismo score. The contradiction of these polar opposite styles relies on a sympathetic rhythm of parallel emotional flows to unite the abstractions of sound with the abstractions of shape. It was perfection in 2014 when the Nicola Luisotti fleetness of musical soul melded with the force of shape and delicacy of movement of the Jun Kaneko colors and images.
Canadian conductor Yves Abel conducts nine of these ten performances. Evidently smitten by the emotional force of Mlle. Haroutounian’s Butterfly he editorialized on the tragedy with volume and bombast. While Mlle. Haroutounian could sail above this much of the rest of the cast could not. Conductor Abel added dramatic pauses (silences) that were annoying, annoying long and confusing — even to the diva.
The actual staging of the singers was once again entrusted to the production’s original director, Leslie Swackhamer, a Seattle based advocate for women playwrights. The production having traveled throughout the U.S. over the past ten years has given Mme. Swackhamer much experience. In this edition Trouble remained on the stage for too much of the second act wrenching focus from Butterfly and Suzuki. Otherwise her staging was without reproach.
Anthony Clark Evans as Sharpless, Trouble, Lianna Haroutounian as Butterfly
Sharpless was sung by Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Anthony Clark Evans who despite obvious youth succeeded in bringing a deeply felt gravitas to this sympathetic bureaucrat. Mr. Evans possesses a voice of very great beauty he used with intelligence. He moved with a dramatic purpose that did not require the cane he was given, evidently to simulate age.
Pinkerton was sung by young Italian tenor Vincenzo Costanzo who has few if any of the traits of the Italian tenor. The punctuation of such stylistic mannerisms were sorely needed to balance the sheer size of the diva’s performance — the character of a Pinkerton was not vocally etched with sufficient strength to motivate the depths of their joint tragedies.
Yamadori, Butterfly’s ridiculous, old suitor was impersonated by Adler Fellow Edward Nelson who read as about nineteen years old. A lithe, handsome presence he delivered his few lines with elegance, confusing us by presenting a quite presentable, maybe preferable alternative to Pinkerton. Suzuki was sung by Adler Fellow Zanda Švēde. This fine, young singer brought an inappropriate, strongly athletic presence to Butterfly’s passive, compassionate companion, further compromised by a weird, unattractive wig. Goro was sung by Korean born Julius Ahn who contributed a light weight verisimilitude to the role, gratuitous under the circumstance. The Bonze was professionally delivered by Raymond Aceto.
Over the years this splendid production has been seen in many, many cities throughout the U.S., a monument to the high art that can be achieved in American opera. However, in addition to the questionable casting and conducting, the curved background scrim was not carefully stretched, further compromising the integrity of the Jun Kaneko production here in San Francisco.
Cast and production information:
Cio-Cio-San: Lianna Haroutounian; Lt. B. F. Pinkerton: Vincenzo Costanzo; Suzuki: Zanda Švēde; Goro: Julius Ahn; Sharpless: Anthony Clark Evans; Prince Yamadori: Edward Nelson; The Bonze: Raymond Aceto; Imperial Commisioner: Matthew Stump;
Kate Pinkerton: Julie Adams; Official Registrat: Jere Torkelsen. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Yves Abel; Director: Leslie Swackhamer; Production Designer: Jun Kaneko; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, November 12, 2016.