Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

WNO's Russian Revolution series: the grim repetitions of the house of the dead

‘We lived in a heap together in one barrack. The flooring was rotten and an inch deep in filth, so that we slipped and fell. When wood was put into the stove no heat came out, only a terrible smell that lasted through the winter.’ So wrote Dostoevsky, in a letter to his brother, about his experiences in the Siberian prison camp at Omsk where he was incarcerated between 1850-54, because of his association with a group of political dissidents who had tried to assassinate the Tsar. Dostoevsky’s ‘house of the dead’ is harrowingly reproduced by Maria Björsen’s set - a dark, Dantesque pit from which there is no possibility of escape - for David Pountney’s 1982 production of Janáček’s final opera, here revived as part of Welsh National Opera’s Russian Revolution series.

The 2017 Glyndebourne Tour arrives in Canterbury with a satisfying Così fan tutte

A Così fan tutte set in the 18th century, in Naples, beside the sea: what, no meddling with Mozart? Whatever next! First seen in 2006, and now on its final run before ‘retirement’, Nicholas Hytner’s straightforward account (revived by Bruno Ravella) of Mozart’s part-playful, part-piquant tale of amorous entanglements was a refreshing opener at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury where Glyndebourne Festival Opera arrived this week for the first sojourn of the 2017 tour.

Richard Jones's Rodelinda returns to ENO

Shameless grabs for power; vicious, self-destructive dynastic in-fighting; a self-righteous and unwavering sense of entitlement; bruised egos and integrity jettisoned. One might be forgiven for thinking that it was the current Tory government that was being described. However, we are not in twenty-first-century Westminster, but rather in seventh-century Lombardy, the setting for Handel’s 1725 opera, Rodelinda, Richard Jones’s 2014 production of which is currently being revived at English National Opera.

Amusing Old Movie Becomes Engrossing New Opera

Director Mario Bava’s motion picture, Hercules in the Haunted World, was released in Italy in November 1961, and in the United States in April 1964. In 2010 composer Patrick Morganelli wrote a chamber opera entitled Hercules vs. Vampires for Opera Theater Oregon.

Rigoletto at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If a credible portrayal of the title character in Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto is vital to any performance, the success of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current, exciting production hinges very much on the memorable court jester and father sung by baritone Quinn Kelsey.

Wexford Festival Opera 2017

‘What’s the delay? A little wind and rain are nothing to worry about!’ The villagers’ indifference to the inclement weather which occurs mid-way through Jacopo Foroni’s opera Margherita - as the townsfolk set off in pursuit of two mystery assailants seen attacking a man in the forest - acquired an unintentionally ironic slant in Wexford Opera House on the opening night of Michael Sturm’s production, raising a wry chuckle from the audience.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Claggart (Zachary James, right) falsely accuses Billy (Craig Verm, left) and Vere observes (Roger Honeywell). [Photo by Duane Tinkey]
13 Jul 2017

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

It is hard to know where to begin to praise the peerless accomplishment that is Des Moines Metro Opera’s staggeringly powerful Billy Budd.

Billy Budd Indomitable in Des Moines

A review by James Sohre

Above: Claggart (Zachary James, right) falsely accuses Billy (Craig Verm, left) and Vere observes (Roger Honeywell).

Photos by Duane Tinkey

 

In the intimate Blank Performing Arts Center space, we are not so much observing a wrenching drama as we are participating in it. Set Designer R. Keith Brumley has outdone himself (or anyone else) with a massive prow of a hulking wooden warship that engulfs the entire playing space right up to the edge of the front row of the crescent of spectators.

Cannons poke through and point down the aisles. There are two black Jacob’s (rope) Ladders left and right allowing actors to clamber precariously above the action below, and the audience behind. A large wooden grate on the forestage has openings to allow the cast to “scurry below.” Masts feature ropes tied off in various ways so that the audience is looking through them as if part of the action. Upstage is filled with a two-tiered structure, the top of which serves as an upper deck flanked by stairs. Below, the structure contains Vere’s office, which moves forward and is revealed by the removal of four panels. To suggest the sailors’ cramped quarters below deck, two side pieces advance as though suggesting “arms” that enclose the action. A large hanging grate is positioned above the scene to replicate the one the sailors crawled through down center.

DSC_0225.pngCaptain Vere (Roger Honeywell) is confronted by Claggart (Zachary James)

The excellence of Barry Steele’s remarkable, moody lighting design was surpassed only by his exquisite projections. Jonathan Knipscher’s distinctive costumes greatly illuminated the characters, and aptly defined the caste system of the differing military strata. Brittany Crinson’s detailed make-up effects, including wounds and scruffily dirt-smudged sailors contributed much to the successful look.

I had never experienced an opera this large and active in such an intimate space, and director Kristine McIntyre did a masterful job filling every nook and cranny with meaningful action and carefully rehearsed “spontaneity” without putting us on sensory overload. Having successfully negotiated this huge group around that limited space, I think Ms. McIntyre is ready to be a traffic controller at O’Hare. But she also knew when to let her forces be still. When Lisa Hasson’s impeccable chorus and the soloists stood and poured out their climactic, overwhelming war cry in Act Two, it was electrifying in its raw emotion.

Kristine also knows how to wring every conceivable variation out of well-motivated blocking, usage of levels, and meaningful character relationships. Each of the principals clearly understood the dynamic and arc of their roles, and the monologues were coached and crafted like one act plays. This was a remarkable directorial realization, one that nurtured faultless ensemble playing as well as encouraging stand-alone personal bests.

DSC_4745i.png“Now Is the Moment”

Craig Verm was first a playful, then a powerful Billy Budd. Mr. Verm possesses a burnished, rolling baritone that has a particularly inviting timbre. He also has such a vibrant, handsome, guileless presence that “Oh, beauty, handsomeness, goodness” is an understatement. From his first, naïvely eager statements, through his affecting bouts of stammering, to his exultant "king of the world" arioso perched on the rope ladder, to his gradual disbelieving betrayal and assumption of a tragic stature, Craig was every moment the star vocal and theatrical presence that galvanized the performance.

He had the audience in the palm of his hand the entire opera. When he is falsely accused, and cannot answer the charge owing to his stammer, patrons actually leaned forward in their seats, wishing they could help him. When he desperately pleaded with Captain Vere to “save him,” I wish I had had the Kleenex concession. His final prison monologue was heart wrenching, even if he tired just a bit by its end. Never mind, you just won’t see a finer Budd than that on view from Craig Verm.

Much the same could be said for bass-baritone Zachary James as the evil John Claggart. His imposing stature, his bad boy good looks, and most of all, his searing, orotund vocal production combined to make him a definitive Master at Arms. While he is consistently insistent in enforcing his discipline, Mr. James finds astonishing nuance in his delivery, as he is both physically and intellectually attracted to Billy, all the while disgusted by it. You will likely never hear Claggart’s aria more passionately performed with compelling tortured feelings, yet with rock solid vocalism. And Zachary’s death spiral after the fatal punch, ending fallen flat on his face, was beyond any physicality I have ever seen in this critical plot moment.

DSC_4266i.pngBilly Budd (Craig Verm on ladder): “Billy Budd, king of the world.”

Completing the principal triangle, Roger Honeywell gave the performance of his life as Captain Vere. I have enjoyed any number of memorable, conscientious performances by Mr. Honeywell over the years but none has engaged him this completely. The part was written for the sometimes precious crooning of Britten’s life partner, tenor Peter Pears. Well, Roger was having none of that! He waded in to this troubled, challenged character with grit and a feisty self-awareness, and he deployed his potent tenor with skill and precision.

These days, Roger pulls a few tricks to negotiate a few of the uppermost, soft passages, but he puts every utterance in service of the drama. His tortured, internalized debate of how to do the right thing was anguishing in its dichotomy of duty versus ethics, correctness or compassion. He began and ended the show as a clouded soul, doddering barefoot in his bathrobe, almost a spectral presence. His was a mesmerizing interpretation, uniquely his own.

The entire cast was so uniformly splendid that it may be odious to single out any smaller roles, but I must commend at least a few. Michael Adams utilized his commanding baritone to great effect as Donald. His interplay with Billy in the rough housing musical challenge in the sailors’ quarters was delightful, and impetuously kissing Billy at its end was a sassy touch. Thomas Hammons’ mature baritone proved a real asset as a touching Dansker. Christian Sanders’ clear, shining tenor served the role of the Novice well, and Emmet O’Hanlon was his wonderfully sung Friend. Ryan C. Connelly had just the right, bright sound in his well-schooled tenor to succeed as Squeak. Dennis Jesse (Mr. Redburn) and Federico de Michielis (Mr. Flint) were distinctive vocal personalities, as was the smoothly sung Lieutenant Ratcliffe from Kristopher Irmiter.

DSC_4920.png Dansker (Thomas Hammons) visits imprisoned Billy (Craig Verm)

Finally, in the pit, David Neely conducted a brilliant, insightful performance of Britten’s masterpiece. Make that “Monster Piece.” Billy Budd is scored for a virtuoso orchestra, and the DMMO musicians rallied to meet every challenge. Maestro Neely, his cast and band have delivered unto us as great a musico-dramatic achievement as is possible.

I have seen six other good productions of this piece over my years of opera going and I have always thought that, when all its planets align, it should make me weep but it never quite did. Well, Mission Accomplished. When Vere sang his final, diminishing statements, and the “sail” descended from above with its projection of rolling waves; and when the final projections first showed a silhouette of Billy’s hanging corpse, then morphed to Billy’s wrapped body floating to the depths, and then to Billy’s handsome face dissolving into the waves; well, this was a moment of surpassing beauty. And damn if the tears aren’t streaming again right now. . .

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Billy Budd: Craig Verm; Edward Fairfax Vere: Roger Honeywell; John Claggart: Zachary James; Mr. Redburn: Dennis Jesse; Mr. Flint: Federico de Michelis; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Kristopher Irmiter; Red Whiskers: Steven Sanders; Donald: Michael Adams; Dansker: Thomas Hammons; Novice: Christian Sanders: Novice’s Friend: Emmett O’Hanlon; Squeak: Ryan C. Connelly; Bosun: Timothy Bruno; Maintop: Chris Carr; Arthur Jones: Ted Pickell; 1st Mate: Brandon Hendrickson; 2nd Mate: Jesse Stock; Cabin Boy: Benjamin Sarvis; Conductor: David Neely; Director: Kristine McIntyre; Set Design: R. Keith Brumley; Costume Design: Jonathan Knipscher; Lighting and Projection: Design: Barry Steele; Make-up and Hair Design: Brittany Crinson for Elsen and Associates; Chorus Master: Lisa Hasson

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):