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.
New Production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Lyric Opera, Chicago
In Neil Armfield’s new production of Die Zauberflöte at Lyric Opera of Chicago the work is performed as entertainment on a summer’s night staged by neighborhood children in a suburban setting. The action takes place in the backyard of a traditional house, talented performers collaborate with neighborhood denizens, and the concept of an onstage audience watching this play yields a fresh perspective on staging Mozart’s opera.
New Production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Lyric Opera, Chicago
A review by Salvatore Calomino
Above: Kathryn Lewek (Queen of the Night) and Andrew Staples (Tamino)
Several notable debuts contribute to the unqualified success of this production: Andrew Staples appears as Tamino in the initial part of the run, and Kathryn Lewek sings the Queen of the Night in all performances. Christiane Karg performs the role of Pamina and Adam Plachetka sings Papageno. The three ladies are Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen, and Lauren Decker; Sarastro is performed by Christof Fischesser. Mmes. Toomey and Decker and M. Fischesser also make their debuts at Lyric Opera in this production. Monostratos is sung by Rodell Rosel, and Diane Newman performs as Papagena. The set and costume designer is Dale Ferguson and lighting is by Damien Cooper. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is conducted by Rory Macdonald and the Lyric Opera Chorus is prepared by its Chorus Master Michael Black.
During the overture to the opera the premise of this ingenious production becomes apparent. When the curtain rises, a large, two-story house dominates the stage, whereas ample space is left for a performing area outside the dwelling. Some individual performers appear in the process of costuming, while the adults in 1960s dress are shown to their seats in several areas facing the house. Even at this moment at the beginning of the performance, one’s attention is variously lured to the performers, to those who are witness to the performance outside, and to those individuals inside the house rapt in their duties and visible through the windows of the large rotating structure. By the close of the overture the last person has been shown to a seat, those inside the house can watch from their unique vantage, and all attention is focused on the menacing chords accompanying Prince Tamino’s entrance - appreciated by both onstage audience and by us. In the role of Tamino Mr. Staples appears dressed as the Prince from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, here fleeing a mock serpent manipulated from beneath by several of the children. As he cries for aid [“Zu Hilfe!”] with excellent German diction, Staples moves with nimble strides if only to fall into an exhausted faint. The three ladies, who vanquish the serpent and find Tamino, blend well sonically, while each retains her individual identity in the competition to remain standing guard over the “holder Jüngling” [“handsome youth”]. The curiosity evoked by this scene is enhanced in Lyric Opera’s staging: Tamino’s encounters first with the dragon and then with the victorious ladies both take place near the house’s porch; a trio of neighborhood adolescents looks down on the second action from an upper story. Our attention is drawn to both groups on the stage until the ladies vanish, Tamino awakens, and the bird-catcher Papageno arrives. In this latter role Mr. Plachetka acts naturally, his movements showing consonance with Mozart’s musical gestures. In the signature aria, “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” [“I am the bird-catcher, that’s me”] Plachetka sings with a consistent legato, while he draws out phrases to give the effect of extending his net to encompass “alle Mädchen” [“all the girls”] as well. Plachetka’s interaction with Tamino allows here sufficient opportunity for boasting until the three ladies return and remind him of his subordinate position. Once the three ladies silence Papageno, they declare their association with the Queen of the Night and reveal to Tamino the portrait of her daughter. In his reaction, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” [“This portrait is enchantingly beautiful”], Tamino is stricken immediately and concludes that his emotions must be a signal of love. When Staple asks if the “Feuer brennen” [“burning fire”] in his breast could be love, his voice rises magically on “die Liebe,” only to glide comfortably down on its repetition and realization that he must find the maiden. The same progression is exquisitely used by Staples in Tamino’s final lines with the repetition of “ewig wäre sie dann mein” [“she would then be mine forever”].
Once the three ladies announce the arrival of the Queen of the Night, a primitively ominous waft of smoke is visible from the doors of the second-story porch. The portal opens to reveal the Queen dressed in a fashion similar to her ladies yet with a higher collar and characteristic touches reminiscent of dominant, negative personalities in animated films made popular through the Disney studio. As Ms. Lewek’s demeanor and command of the role demonstrate, she is ideally cast to portray this pivotal figure. Not only are the top pitches produced effortlessly and as a natural extension of her voice, but Lewek also creates an unforgettable portrayal through vocal color and interpretive effect. Aside from conjoining her introductory verses by means of a faultless legato, Lewek’s emphatic trills on “all mein Glück verloren” [“lost”] depict a pronounced lament of deprivation. When singing here to Tamino of her daughter, Lewek’s vocal decoration and heartfelt flourishes inserted into “so sei sie dann auf ewig dein” [“she shall be yours forever”] create a fresh approach to the Queen’s manipulative character.
Andrew Staples, Ann Toomey, Annie Rosen, Lauren Decker, and Adam Plachetka
The exit of the Queen and subsequent reappearance of her ladies allows for several significant dramatic developments. As if part of a further adventure narrative, the ladies release Papageno from his enforced silence and present Tamino with the magic flute while delineating its special powers. In keeping with the spirit of this production, three of the neighborhood youths watching the action from an upper porch now function as the three “Knäbchen,” or genii, to guide Tamino and Papageno on their quest. In a scenic shift with a briskly delivered orchestral accompaniment Pamina, daughter of the Queen, attempts unsuccessfully to flee her guard Monostratos. At the entrance of Papageno, the captor flees while Pamina-costumed here to resemble Disney’s Snow White-discovers that this newcomer acts in the service of her mother. Once she recognizes his “gefühlvolles Herz” [“tender heart”], Pamina together with Papageno perform their sympathetic duet on the hope of forthcoming love. Ms. Karg’s bright, unforced voice glides through the arching melody of “Bei Männern welche Liebe fühlen” [“Men who feel the call of love”]; at the same time, Plachetka’s role interweaves a sonorous accompanying line so that both parts merge and end on the optimistic note of humans attaining “Gottheit” [“divinity”].
The start of the Finale brings Tamino led by his genii into the vicinity of the temple, for which the suburban house now functions. When left alone Tamino declares that his goal is pure, to save Pamina. Here Staples embellishes “Pamina retten” with a repeated melisma in his affirmative statement. Voices from within the house/temple warn him away until the Sprecher [Speaker] steps out to comfort the youth. Mr. Govertsen’s dialogue with Temino, in which the noble goodness of Sarastro is clarified, shows a masterful command of German intonation and dignity of delivery. Once Tamino hears from the male chorus concealed inside the house that Pamina is alive, he plays his flute in joyous response. As if in answer to the call, the children of the neighborhood parade beneath makeshift representations of animals - this to the delight of the adult audience onstage and to those watching the Lyric production. The rapid succession of scenes brings Pamina and Papageno to the temple, as Karg reminds her decidedly timid companion with clear top notes that “die Wahrheit” [“truth”] must be their guide. Sarastro’s men - adult denizens of the neighborhood - emerge from the front door of the house sporting white and gold robes. As Sarastro, Mr. Fischesser’s demeanor is both fatherly and dignified, his vocal range ideally suited to the role and his projection of low bass notes especially clear. As soon as Fischesser directs with rising pitches “Führt diese beiden Fremdlinge” [“Lead these two strangers”] into the house to further the instruction of Tamino and Papageno, Karg’s Pamina looks despondently at the front door as the act ends.
While the young characters are gradually tested and purified in the second act, sentiments are intensified and individual goals are ennobled or cast aside. At first, Sarastro’s men stand with horns in the second-story windows as he sings his appeal, “O Isis und Osiris,” asking for wisdom and strength to be granted by the gods to the two initiates. Once Tamino and Papageno receive instruction from Sarastro’s men, the house rotates to reveal Pamina asleep. At the arrival of her mother, an appeal for Tamino’s life is made, in reaction to which the Queen sings her second showpiece aria, “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” [“The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart”]. Lewek’s security of pitch and well-chosen decoration are here intensified, just as her character’s fury and resolve have grown over time. The subsequent vocal response of Sarastro balances the Queen’s suggested violence. When he intercedes to protect Pamina from the advances of Monostratos, Sarastro banishes the assailant and sings “In diesen heil’gen Hallen” [“In these sacred halls”]. Fischesser’s performance of this aria is a seamless praise of humanity and forgiveness, his sonorous and varied pitches on “Freundes Hand” [“hand of a friend”] and “Mensch zu sein” [“to be a human being”] acting as conclusory watchwords for both the initiates and the audience(s).
While Tamino bravely and Papageno reluctantly follow the tenets of Sarastro’s teaching, Pamina’s despair gradually intensifies. At first Karg laments her perceived abandonment with aching languor in “Ach, ich fühl’s” [“Ah, I feel it”]. When in the Finale Pamina considers suicide, she is dissuaded by the magical, glittery intervention of the three genii who communicate the love of her prince as a reward for patient trust. This final transformation concludes with both characters wrapped in white robes leading a procession about the house. The ending is a celebration of the spirit of Mozart’s music and the ingenuity of this production which brings it to a renewed level of humanity.