16 Jan 2017
Don Quichotte at Chicago Lyric
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
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.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
The lead was portrayed definitively by Ferruccio Furlanetto; in the roles of Dulcinée and Sancho, Clémentine Margaine and Nicola Alaimo, both featured in their debuts with the company, made equally strong impressions. Additional courtiers and rival suitors for the affections of Dulcinée — Pedro, Garcias, Rodriguez, and Juan — were portrayed by Diana Newman, Lindsay Metzger, Jonathan Johnson, and Alec Carlson. The roles of servants were sung by Takaoki Onishi and Emmett O’Hanlon, while the chief of the bandits was Bradley Smoak. This production from San Diego Opera was directed at Lyric Opera of Chicago by Matthew Ozawa with sets and costumes by Ralph Funicello and Missy West; the lighting designer was Chris Maravich. The Lyric Opera Orchestra was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, and the Lyric Opera Chorus was directed by its Chorus Master Michael Black.
At the start of each act throughout this production a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quijote appears on a scrim as a generalized introduction to the action about to unfold. Since the source for Massenet’s librettist Henri Cain was a 1904 stage play by Jacques Le Lorrain, taking inspiration from Cervantes, these citations help to return the operatic material to its ultimate novelistic origins. The first of these quotes, shown during the overture, describes the protagonist being “captive of Dulcinée, ” based on a passage from part I of Cervantes’ text. A child, seated on the stage and holding a book while reading, is also now seen just before the start of the action as a further reminder of the work’s origins in literature. The first scene approximates a Spanish courtyard while protagonists and chorus wear costumes with touches of late Renaissance style. Before Dulcnée can step onto her balcony overlooking the courtyard, the chorus cries our “Alza!” and “Vivat Dulcinée!” as a prelude to the four suitors singing of their desire to see her. As if in response to these entreaties Dulcinée appears and takes up the cry “Alza!” in her opening aria, “Quand la femme a vingt ans” [“When a woman is twenty years of age”]. Ms. Margaine performs an elaborate melisma on this word before launching into her thoughts on a young woman’s emotional needs and risks. Margaine’s warm, flexible mezzo voice sings comfortably in Dulcinée’s range, her embellishments adding to the tantalizing appeal of the character.
Nicola Alaimo and Ferruccio Furlanetto
The subsequent exchange between rival suitors features Mr. Johnson’s ironically heartfelt intonation on “mon pauvre ami!” [“my poor friend!”] as his character Rodriguez chides the declarations of a lovesick Juan. This banter is interrupted when the suitors and the crowd together proclaim Quichotte’s entrance with his squire. Messrs. Furlanetto and Alaimo proceed into the courtyard on stuffed animals with Quichotte dressed in the stylized formality of a traveling knight. After admonishing the squire Sancho to be generous to the young and the poor, calling them angels, the “Chevalier” retreats to gaze up at the balcony of Dulcinée. Furlanetto’s movements and declamation reveal here a true assumption of character, while he musters the energy of an aging knight to fulfill the timeless ideals of chivalry. The serenade performed for the adored Dulcinée, “Quand apparaissent les étoiles” [“When the stars appear”], shows the knight attempting to focus despite public distraction. With distinct emotional tension Furlanetto holds the verse “Je fais ma prière à tes yeux” [“Unto thine eyes I say my prayer”], until one of the youthful rivals insults his honor. After fending off the start of swordplay, Quichotte resumes his serenade with mandolin, complimenting “La fleur de tes lèvres” [“the flower of your lips”]. Upon repeating this line herself, Dulcinée joins the principals to settle the struggle for her devotion. In her attempts to “modérer votre ardeur” [“temper your enthusiasm”], Margaine assumes multiple vocal identities, so that she remains attractive to both Quichotte and to Juan and persuades them not to “spill blood” [“répandre du sang”]. Once she dispatches the Chevalier on a mission to retrieve her stolen necklace, Quichotte glows with the assumption of affection. Here Furlanetto stands transfixed at Dulcinée’s balcony while intoning slowly “Elle m’aime” [“she loves me”], and — more slowly — “sa voix” [“her voice”], so that he nearly gels into a statue. The final two verses of the act preview by their performance here the eventual course of this one-sided liaison. Quichotte insists that his word is sacred, which Furlanetto emphasizes with a dramatic descending pitch on the vow that the will keep it [“je veux la tenir”]. Offstage Margaine repeats with an equally distinctive note of resignation Dulcinée’s original sentiment of the woman of twenty years.
The second and third acts of Don Quichotte allow the audience both to appreciate the steadfast relationship between the Chevalier and his squire Sancho and to test the vow of the errant knight in fulfilling his promise. On the scrim before Act II a citation from Cervantes reminds the audience that Quichotte will courageously perceive windmills as giants. While riding through a bucolic landscape Quichotte attempts to compose a love poem for his lady. As Furlanetto becomes progressively rapt in his thoughts, Sancho remarks sympathetically “Enfin il est heureux!” [“He is finally happy!”]. The sentiment soon shifts to Sancho’s resentment over having presumably been duped by Dulcinée. Mr. Alaimo unleashes an extended judgement against “Les femmes” who continue to leave an husband simply scratching his head. Alaimo becomes vocally and physically involved in his accelerating characterization. With a forte declaration “L’homme est une victim” [“Man is a victm”], he equates husbands with “des saints” in a line which Alaimo concludes on a dramatically extended pitch. His impressive aria is interrupted by Quichotte’s spotting “les Géants” whom he intends to challenge with his lance. The scene renders Sancho’s renewed sympathies, and Alaimo cries with a gasp, “O fatale démence!” [“O fatal madness!”]. Once the knight is caught and carried up by the blade of a windmill, Sancho is left to pray for deliverance. After an orchestral interlude played at the start of Act III, both men proceed into the mountains at sunset. It is in this act that Furlanetto’s portrayal of Don Quichotte reaches its apotheosis while he declares heroically to his squire, “notre gloire commence!” [our glory begins!”]. Quichotte is now certain that he has found the path of the bandits who robbed Dulcinée’s necklace. With determination he repeats the start of his dedicatory chanson of love before gleefully declaring to Sancho that he sees at least two hundred opponents. Quichotte, who must face them alone, is now vanquished and surrounded by the group intending to kill him. With eyes directed to heaven and hands joined, Furlanetto sings the moving prayer, “Seigneur, reçois mon âme” [“Lord, receive my soul”], which he concludes piano on the line “I am yours.” Through vocal persuasion the chevalier arouses wonder in his adversaries; as leader of the bandits Mr. Smoak summarizes their reaction in his pointed questions on Quichotte’s purpose. In his proud response Furlanetto identifies himself as a knight redressing wrongs, describing his specific goal here, with the caveat that not the jewel, but “la cause est sacrée” [“the cause is sacred”]. The necklace is at once surrendered as Quichotte calls out to Sancho. The squire returns to witness the “miracle” of the converted ruffians, whom Quichotte can now characterize as “docile” in Furlanetto’s triumphantly held pitch.
The return to Dulcinée’s court and Quichotte’s unexpected departure are portrayed succinctly in Acts IV and V. Although surrounded by merrymaking and adulation, Dulcinée fails to be contented with the affections of her current suitors. She declares them objects of boredom as Margaine launches into her aria “Lorsque le temps d’amour a fui” [“when the time for love has fled”]. Starting with a slow and contemplative tempo, the piece increases in both intensity and volume as the heroine is joined by the chorus. Just as the determined suitors join in the song, Sancho announces the successful return of Quichotte. When Dulcinée learns that her necklace has indeed been returned, Margaine declares with emotional fervor, “Il faut que je t’embrasse!” [“I must embrace you”]. This sign of affection remains, however, attached to the bauble, for Quichotte’s subsequent offer of marriage is rebuffed with disbelief. Although Dulcinée’s explanation of emotional noncommittal is credited to her own needs, the courtiers can only deride Quichotte for his foolish desires. In a gesture of extremely touching loyalty Sancho chides the courtiers for their callous laughter at a man whose life has been determined by ideals and the perception of truth. Alaimo concludes this scene vocally with perhaps the most moving involvement of the production, as he lifts Quichotte to his feet and helps him to depart from an unwanted public display. In the final brief act in the mountains this powerful camaraderie is repeated when Sancho must support the head of Quichotte in his final moments of life. Furlanetto reminds his squire that he can leave him “l’île des Rêves” [“the island of dreams”] in their parting dialogue. In Alaimo’s anguished “Mon Maître adoré” [“My beloved Master”] we sense that this legacy will be cherished.