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
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.
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.
With the premiere of Das Rheingold on opening night of the 2016-17 season Lyric Opera of Chicago has initiated a new Ring Cycle to be staged over multiple seasons. Both cast and vision for this production of the first of the four Ring operas make a strong, individual impression. The scenic division of Das Rheingold into four parts is realized with inventive, seamless coherence, a signal for the totality of this unfolding Cycle.
A New Das Rheingold at Lyric Opera of Chicago
A review by Salvatore Calomino
Above: Outside the Hall of the Gibichungs (1876) by Josef Hoffmann
The roles of Wotan and Fricka are sung by Eric Owens and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. The giants Fasolt and Fafner are portrayed by Wilhelm Schwinghammer and Tobias Kehrer, Alberich and Mime by Samuel Youn and Rodell Rosel. The remaining figures associated with nature and the gods-Loge, Donner, and Froh-are sung by Štefan Margita, Zachary Nelson, and Jesse Donner. The roles of Freia and Erda are performed by Laura Wilde and Okka von der Damerau, while the three Rhinemaidens are Diana Newman, Annie Rosen, and Lindsay Ammann. Messrs. Schwinghammer, Kehrer, and Nelson are performing in their Lyric Opera debuts; Mr. Youn and Ms. Baumgartner are making their American debuts, and Ms. von der Damerau her American operatic debut. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra. This new production is directed by David Pountney, with set designs by the late Johan Engels and Robert Innes Hopkins. Costumes and lighting are designed by Marie-Jeanne Lecca and Fabrice Kebour respectively, while Denni Sayers has created the choreography.
On a quiet, shadow-filled stage three figures dressed in black cloaks deposit a parcel; almost simultaneously are visible three scarlet ropes, held by the Norns and representing fate, those figures who will appear later in the prologue to Götterdämmerung, the final opera of the Ring Cycle. Once the parcel containing the treasure is elevated and the orchestra begins to play the start of the prologue’s sustained chord, the Rhine is depicted by the undulations of a suspended blue cloth swathing a glowing ball of gold. The entrance of the Rhine Maidens and their subsequent playful taunting of the dwarf Alberich exemplifies this production’s innovative approach to Wagner’s text. The Rhine Maidens are perched on cranes that are wheeled about the stage by supernumeraries dressed in costumes reminiscent of those worn by office personnel in the 1920s. At the same time, the Maidens in the imagined river are well dressed, wielding tennis rackets, which they wave sportily as their positions are raised and lowered by those helpers manipulating the cranes. The elusive motion of the Maidens is facilitated by the mechanics and corresponds in Wagner’s text to the banter with which the Maidens taunt “den lüsternen Alp” [“the lascivious gnome”]. Yet they do not heed Flosshilde’s warning to guard the treasure and boast instead of the gold’s innate powers. Once Alberich renounces love to embrace instead power and wealth, a transition unexpected by the Maidens, he is able to wrest the gold from their control and flee. Mr. Youn’s depiction of Alberich’s transformation is sung with arresting dramatic commitment. After snatching the treasure Youn hurls a chilling curse at the love with which the Maidens have taunted him [“entreisse dem Riff das Gold hör’ es die Flut: so verfluch ich die Liebe!” (“I shall wrench the gold from the rock let the waves hear it: in this way I curse love!”)].
Many of the remaining characters in the company of the gods and their opponents are introduced in the second scene of Das Rheingold, the transformation again being accomplished with the help of supernumeraries. The open space in a mountain pass is punctuated by several mobile cranes on which are perched the royal leaders of the gods. Wotan and Fricka wore regal cloaks of dull red and complementary broad-brimmed hats signifying their station. Freia is positioned within a wire enclosure close to a stylized tree bearing the golden apples associated with her powers. In keeping with his lingering, sluggish dream, Mr. Owens responds with understated distraction to Fricka’s importunate pleas on behalf of her sister. Ms. Baumgartner’s disciplined insistence as Fricka yields a lush vocal line with effective pathos expressed on the deep pitches ending “Mir bangt es um Freia” [I fear for Freia”]. She reminds Wotan that surrendering Freia to the giants is the price for their completion of the new palatial structure. While lamenting that she was excluded from the preparatory negotiations [“allein mit den Riesen zu tagen” (“you dealt alone with the giants”)], Baumgartner’s insistent dramatic line on “Freia, die gute, geb’ ich nicht auf!” [“I refuse to surrender the good Freia!”] dominates the royal interaction. Ms. Wilde’s emotionally charged depiction of Freia [“Hilf mir, Schwester!” (“Help me, o sister!”)] meets the vocal and dramatic demands of the role ideally, just as Owens declares limpidly that Loge will arrive to solve their current dilemma.
The depiction of the giants intensifies this production’s narrative flow. Messrs. Schwinghammer and Kehrer appear perched atop separate cranes, each structure sporting - above - an oversized face and - below - giant hands able to grasp and pummel. When Schwinghammer’s Fasolt hears of Wotan’s potential reconsideration, his voice quakes with deep offense on “Sinnst du Verrat, Verrat am Vertrag?” [“Are you planning to betray our agreement?”] His continued haggling with Wotan culminates in an impatient snarl on “Ein dummer Riese rät dir das” [“A simple giant counsels you”]. The compatriot Fafner elaborates on the value of Freia’s capture: Mr. Kehrer enunciates with ringing clarity how the golden apples, which she tends, guarantee the gods’ perpetual youth. While Wotan frets over Loge’s delayed arrival, Froh and Donner, brothers to Freia, declare their continued, filial support. Here the verbal assurances are effectively sung by Messrs. Donner and Nelson, such that further time is bought from the giants. Mr. Donner’s Froh urges with lyrically aching top notes, “Zu mir, Freia!” [“To me, Freia!”], while Mr. Nelson’s Donner warns with deep resonance of the effect of “meines Hammers harten Schlag” [“the heavy blow of my hammer!”]. Both characters extend the dramatic tension until the appearance of Loge. Once he arrives with characteristic, dramatic flair Mr. Margita’s Loge dominates this scene if not the remainder of the production. The effect of Margita’s Loge is not only a vocal and dramatic success, but his character also initiates, through both gesture and facial demeanor, the actions and statements of others. This Wagnerian catalyst propels the giants’ interest in the gold in lieu of Freia as well as Wotan’s decision to descend to Nibelheim to confront Alberich. Margita’s rising, melismatic delivery of the line “die goldnen Äpfel in ihrem Garten” [“the golden apples in her garden”] focuses attention on the necessity of action, while reminding the gods of their current insecurity.
The third scene of Das Rheingold is staged to emphasize Alberich’s power and defeat. On either side of the center stage cages house the workers whom the dwarf has enslaved. After the physical confrontation between Alberich and his brother Mime, the visitors arrive in Nibelheim. Once Loge and Wotan learn from Mime the basis of Alberich’s powers, a plan for his capture is conceived. Mr. Rosel delivers the wounded monologue of Mime with declamatory fervor; Margita reacts to the information with a cautious and realistic nod to Wotan, as he pronounces the line, “Nicht leicht gelingt der Fang” [“The capture will not be easy”]. By being tricked into assuming various animal guises with the use of the magic Tarnhelm, the dwarf presumes he is demonstrating his power. Margita’s feigned terror in the face of the serpent, Alberich’s first transformation, is believably expressed with the words, “Mein Zittern mag dir’s bezeugen” [“My trembling can prove to you my fear”]. When the second request for an animal shape is made, the capture is settled. Alberich as a toad is easily snatched and held, the Tarnhelm also now in the power of the gods.
The three figures continue their possessive struggle at the start of the opera’s final scene. Alberich has been brought as a captive to the mountain-top in the godly heights. He learns from Wotan that he must surrender the gold to purchase his freedom. The Tarnhelm must remain with Loge, while the final object, the ring, is still in Alberich’s possession. When Wotan demands the golden ring from the dwarf’s finger, Youn unleashes his fury with masterful control. He sings an extended forte pitch on “Knecht” in the line “Der Traurigen traurigster Knecht!” [“of wretches the wretchedest slave!”]. The subsequent curse on the ring is delivered by Youn with ominous, chilling intensity [“Wer ihn besitzt, den sehre die Sorge” (“Whoever possesses it, may that one be fraught with care”)].
In the concluding segments the giants return Freia from her captivity but refuse to yield until they have received the desired measure of gold. In this production the height of Freia is gauged by piling the gold around her in the familiar wire cage. The final claim placed by the giants on Wotan’s ring, wrested earlier from Alberich, brings Erda into the midst of the gods. Ms. von der Damerau commands attention in her delivery of “Weiche, Wotan weiche” [“Yield, Wotan”]. Her brief appearance is cleverly staged, so that von der Damerau’s lush, emotive appeals to Wotan are heard suddenly from amidst the larger group of characters. The ring is ceded, to be sure, in keeping with Erda’s appeal; with the killing of Fasolt by Fafner the first example of predicted misfortune is complete. For now, the gods have received Freia into their fold, and they admire the fortress which they will now approach. The orchestral accompaniment, regally declarative, is here played with seamless beauty under Davis’s direction. Margita sings Loge’s prediction, “Ihrem Ende eilen sie zu,” [“They hasten toward their demise”] as an assured aside, yet one that captures his amusement as well. This glance to the future functions as an invitation to the succeeding works in the Ring, now eagerly awaited after this successful beginning.