17 Feb 2017
Oh, What a Night in San Jose
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
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.
It is difficult to know where to begin to praise the stunning achievement of Opera San Jose’s West Coast premiere of Silent Night.
Happily, there is more than enough glory to go around. Certainly, substantial credit must go to director Michael Shell for having mastered all of the inherent staging challenges as he unlocked the profound riches of the piece that composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell have crafted. Mr. Shell was well partnered in his pursuit by a design team operating at the top of its game.
Silent Night is based on the film Joyeux Noël, which captures a historical, spontaneous 1914 Christmas truce between partisan soldiers during World War One. Mr. Campbell’s affecting libretto follows personal journeys in three national camps, and is sung in English, German, and French, with some Italian and Latin (as the combatants pray together). Mr. Puts’ thrillingly eclectic score is at once character/culture-specific and embracingly universal. While much of the story takes place simultaneously in three battlefield trenches, there are important scenes in various localities that individualize the plight of the participants.
Set and projection designer Steven Kemp has wisely chosen to suggest locations, rather than attempting realism. Mr. Kemp’s most beautifully realized effect was to create three large wagons to serve as the bunkers for the Scots, Germans and French. These long but narrow platforms had a skeletal wooden enclosure “box” that was just tall enough to suggest a trench dug in the ground. The succinct look suggested at once a prison and an exposed asylum of emotionally conflicted warriors. This important major playing space was augmented by simple additions, a few period chairs here, a chandelier there, that simply conveyed the necessary place.
Colin Ramsey as Father Palmer and Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale
Pamela Z. Gray’s moody, varied lighting design contributed very effectively to transition us seamlessly from spot to spot, and to point up every nuanced situation. The opening sequence is but one example: As an opening operatic duet is sung in a “theatre,” the singing is interrupted by an announcement (sound design, Tom Johnson) to say that war has been declared. As the curtain rises, upstage wagons of low, rolling fields with denuded trees advance from upstage to the apron, as lighting transitions from warm stage illumination to the bleak, moonlit reality of a battlefield. These talented designers thereby successfully set the tone and the story-telling style for the whole evening. The diverse costumes from designer Melisssa Nicole Torchia brought welcome color and necessary visual coherence.
Given these creative choices, director Shell managed the large cast against this sprawling canvas with commendable focus and economy of gesture. The entire concept was choreographed with great specificity. The bunker wagons were on casters, able to be re-positioned for visual interest, and even used menacingly in a “circling the wagons” moment. The glory of this piece lies in following the individual narratives and Michael never lost sight of these human stories. He proved to have an uncanny knack for creating naturally evolving stage pictures, and a refined skill for directing our attention to just the right character. Together with a superb ensemble of singers, he fashioned an inevitable ebb and flow of memorable dramatic revelations.
Librettist Campbell stated that the central message is that “war is not sustainable when you come to know your enemy as a person.” The cast assembled for Silent Night have proven to be gifted ambassadors in that pursuit. Anchoring the show, and first among equals, Kirk Dougherty ably embodied the conflicted stage tenor, conscripted against his conscience, who is offered, then rejects command privilege. Singing with his usual burnished security and acted with honesty, Mr. Dougherty adds another memorable role to his growing resume. As his love interest, and essentially the only female role, Julie Adams was the radiant diva Anna Sorensen. Her rich, creamy, agile soprano was of the highest quality, the kind that prompts excited “who-is-she?” intermission chatter (and beyond). Ms. Adams is entrusted to deliver a beautifully judged battlefield prayer, and boy, deliver it she did with heart-stopping effect. You read it here: We will be hearing much more from her.
Kirk Dougherty as Nikolaus Sprink and Julie Adams as Anna Sorensen
As the French Lieutenant Audebert, Ricardo Rivera found just the right scope for his particular odyssey. Having had to abandon his pregnant wife Madeleine (a cameo warmly sung by Ksenia Popova), he struggles to make sense of his role in the conflict. This is not only because of his own moral compass, but also owing to the overbearing exhortations of his General (authoritatively performed by Nathan Stark), who surprisingly also turns out to be his father. Mr. Rivera began the evening quite lyrically, with his sensitive, well-modulated intentions occasionally becoming a mite diffuse. But as the tensions heightened, Ricardo turned up the heat and produced ringing, mellifluous vocalizing.
While the opera has been crafted to avoid weighting the focus too much to one character or another, Ponchel is the work’s pièce de résistance. Is there a sunnier, more appealing character in the entire operatic canon? This simplistic Frenchman lives to spread joy and longs for nothing more than daily coffee with his beloved mother. Ponchel proves to be a perfect vehicle for the considerable talents of Brian James Myer. Handsome, charming, stage savvy, and with a polished baritone to boot, Mr. Myer threatens to steal every scene he is in. Ponchel’s “big moment” is one of the most touching in all lyric theatre, and Brian mined every ounce of detail and pathos from it.
Conversely, Mason Gates is charged with engaging us in the plight of the evening’s most embittered character, Scotsman Jonathan Dale. Having seen his brother killed in front of his eyes, he relies on equal parts denial and thirst for vengeance to fuel his actions. The creators use him as somewhat a symbol of a “justified,” blind hatred that fuel and sustain many tragic conflicts. Mr. Gates is a focused, involved actor, possessed of a secure, intense tenor that he is able to weight with a single-minded pain and purpose. He makes us understand the character’s anguish, all the while he disturbs us with his potent hatred. Matthew Hanscom’s imposing baritone brought kind-hearted authority to Lieutenant Gordon, and bass Colin Ramsey’s wondrously sung Father Palmer showed once again that this accomplished Resident Artist is one the company’s major assets. Kirk Eichelberger made a fine impression as the German Officer, his sonorous bass sporting as much secure swagger as his character’s demeanor.
Tenor Christopher Bengochea was smugly efficient as a hectoring Kronprinz, with Vital Rozynko making the most of his stage time deploying his characterful baritone in service of the irritating British Major. Kyle Albertson was a solid Lieutenant Horstmayer, and Branch Fields offered some attractive singing as Jonathan Dale’s felled brother William.
There is no amount of direction, design, scripting, hype, or earnest performances that can make a case for an operatic work that doesn’t “sing” with a beating heart. And here is where Silent Night soars. Composer Kevin Puts has taken Mark Campbell’s inspired words and found voice for an impressive array of styles and musical idioms. Classical opera is paraphrased, there are nods to neo-romanticism and atonality, Berg and Strauss are suggested, and there are uses of quasi-folk songs. But in his restless, ever-morphing sound palette, Mr. Puts has emphatically fused his artistic views of these diverse influences into his own unique statement of dramatically urgent, gratefully constructed vocal lines that are integrated into a virtuosic musical fabric.
The musical writing encompasses everything from solo bagpipe to chamber music to full symphonic outpourings. Mr. Puts has a real champion in conductor Joseph Marcheso, who elicited mesmerizing musical results from the pit and the stage. Additional kudos must go to Andrew Whitfield’s well-prepared chorus. The scoring demands impeccable solo and ensemble work alike from the large orchestra and they did not disappoint. Maestro Marcheso lovingly built an inevitably unfolding arc in a performance of constantly evolving and enriching musical delights.
Silent Night just may prove to be the first enduring operatic masterpiece of the century. Time and history will prove me right or wrong. But I can promise you this: there is no better case to be made for Silent Night than the production currently on view at the California Theatre.
Cast and production information:
Anna Sorensen: Julie Adams; Nikolaus Sprink: Kirk Dougherty; German Officer: Kirk Eichelberger; Jonathan Dale: Mason Gates; Father Palmer: Colin Ramsey; William Dale: Branch Fields; Madeleine Audebert: Ksenia Popova; Lt. Audebert: Ricardo Rivera; Ponchel: Brian James Myer; Lt. Gordon: Matthew Hanscom; Lt. Horstmayer: Kyle Albertson; French General: Nathan Stark: Kronpriz: Christopher Bengochea; British Major: Vital Rozynko; Conductor: Joseph Marcheso; Director: Michael Shell; Fight Director: Kit Wilder; Set and Projection Design: Steven Kemp; Costume Design: Melisssa Nicole Torchia; Lighting Design: Pamela Z. Gray; Sound Design: Tom Johnson; Make-up and Wig Design: Christina Martin; Chorus Master: Andrew Whitfield