Recently in Performances
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
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.
21 Nov 2016
Fierce in War, dazzling in Peace: Joyce DiDonato at the Concertgebouw
Many opera singers are careful to maintain an air of political neutrality. Not so mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is outspoken about causes she holds dear. Her latest project, a very personal response to the 2015 terror attacks in Paris, puts her audience through the emotional wringer, but also showers them with musical rewards.
Amsterdam was the second stop on DiDonato’s currently ongoing concert tour, which is coupled with her latest album and titled In War & Peace — Harmony through Music. Extensive preparation attested to how much this undertaking means for the singer. Each patron was handed a card with a heartfelt message from her, and an invitation to answer the question, posed in sixteen languages: “In the midst of chaos, how do you find peace?”. When the public trickled into the half-lit hall, DiDonato was already on the stage, where she remained the whole time, acting and interacting with her fellow performers. She has eloquently explained her goals for this project in the media: to find peace in a time of unfettered hate speech and violence, to rediscover hope smothered by despair. Whether her choice of music, atmospherically enhanced by lighting, video and dance, achieved this for her audience would depend on the individual, but no one could deny her impressive display of prowess and involvement. She is an artist at the zenith of her powers, wielding her technical tools with surgical skill and maximum expressive impact.
On the program were familiar Baroque gems, orchestral interludes performed by Il Pomo d’Oro, and two rediscovered arias by Neapolitan composers Leonardo Leo and Niccolò Jommelli. The concert was thematically split into two, War before and Peace after the break. In an asymmetrical gunmetal-colored gown, her face and neck livid with stylized wounds, DiDonato kicked off War with Handel’s aria “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe” from Jephtha. She put such intensity into the dark premonitions that one wondered how she could sustain the pressure during successive numbers. She did. Surrounded by video projections and light effects suggesting explosions and aerial bombings, she was an ever-deepening vortex of emotion. During an orchestral arrangement of Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, originally a vocal setting of Christ’s fearful prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, DiDonato lay consumed by silent suffering. In Leo’s “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” Andromache’s music swings back and forth from rapid rage to maternal tenderness. In the torridness of this aria and Handel’s “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” from Agrippina, DiDonato drove her voice to its expressive limits. Her high notes were at times so piercing it seemed as if she were about to lose control. This was, however, just an illusion. In her fierceness she retained technical command, effortlessly stretching and embellishing Agrippina’s tortured lines. For the two mournful arias by Purcell and Handel, deeply saturated with feeling, Maxim Emelyanychev, leading from the harpsichord, scaled down the ensemble to a delicate whisper. It was the perfect accompaniment to the ghostly diminuendos on the repeated “remember me” of “When I Am Laid in Earth”. Never has Dido sounded so desperately close to death. Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga” was taken very slowly, closing the first half with a trace of hope symbolized by projected falling petals.
The theme of hope in captivity was picked up in the second part, Peace, with “They Tell Us that You Mighty Powers” from Purcell’s unfinished The Indian Queen. Singer and orchestra struck an ideally soothing tone in this charming, unadorned melody. DiDonato offered her antidote to violence and darkness dressed in liquid silver by Vivienne Westwood, having replaced her painted wounds with sprays of flowers. More than through the content, she administered the medicine through her musical brilliance, fully on display in the Handel arias. Ravishing tone in “Crystal Streams in Murmurs Flowing” from Susanna, dazzling coloratura in Cleopatra’s triumphant “Da tempeste il legno infranto”, and fabulous chirping and warbling in “Augelletti, che cantate” from Rinaldo, twinned with Anna Fusek’s baffling virtuosity on the recorder. Besides hope and joy, there was also remembrance. Manuel Palazzo danced a dignified solo to the hypnotically rippling chords of Arvo Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, composed after the 2004 Madrid train bombings in memory of the victims. Although Emelyanychev could have ratcheted up the exuberance in “Da tempeste”, as well as in the closing aria, Jommelli’s “Par che di Giubilo”, the musicians were otherwise exemplary — rhythmically even, shapely in phrasing and excellent in the obbligato solos. DiDonato acknowledged the richly earned ovation with an even more ebullient and vocally free reprise of the intricate Jommelli. After a short, grateful speech she then performed a deeply intimate, quietly hopeful “Morgen!” by Richard Strauss. On this extraordinary emotional journey, DiDonato spared neither herself nor her audience, and the rewards were great, truly great.
Performers and program:
Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Ralf Pleger, director; Henning Blum, lighting, Manuel Palazzo, choreography and dance; Yousef Iskander, video; Il Pomo d’Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev, conductor and harpsichord.
Handel: “Scenes of Horror, Scenes of Woe” (from Jephtha, HWV 70); Leo: “Prendi quel ferro, o barbaro!” (from L'Andromaca); De Cavalieri: Sinfonia (from La rappresentatione di anima e di corpo); Purcell: Chacony in G minor, Z 730; Purcell: “When I Am Laid in Earth” (from Dido and Aeneas, Z 626); Handel: “Pensieri, voi mi tormentate” (from Agrippina, HWV 6); Gesualdo: Tristis est anima mea; Handel: “Lascia ch'io pianga mia cruda sorte” (from Rinaldo, HWV 7a); Purcell: “They Tell Us that You Mighty Powers” (from The Indian Queen, Z 630); Handel: Crystal Streams in Murmurs Flowing (from Susanna, HWV 66); Handel: “Da tempeste il legno infranto” (from Giulio Cesare in Egitto, HWV 17);
Pärt: Da pacem Domine; Handel: “Augelletti, che cantate” (from Rinaldo, HWV 7a); Jommelli: “Par che di Giubilo” (from Attilio Regolo); Strauss: “Morgen!”, Op. 27, no. 4.
Royal Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. Saturday, 19th November, 2016