Some, not all, of my reviews prior to 2013

Abduction from the Seraglio in San Francisco (October 2009)
Adelaide di Borgogna and Mosé in Egitto at Pesaro (August 13/14, 2011)
Aida in Berlin
Aida in San Francisco September 21, 2012
Akhmatova in Paris (April 13, 2011)
Alceste, Rossignol, Don Giovanni at Aix
Alcina in Lyon
Ariadne auf Naxos in Bordeaux (February 23, 2011)
Ariane et Barbe Bleu in Nice
Attila in San Francisco (June 12, 2012)

The Barber of Seville in Montpellier
La Belle Hélène in Marseille
Belshazzar in Aix (July 23, 2008)
La Bohème in Toulon (December 29, 2011)
La Bohème in Genoa (January 5, 2012)
La Bohème in Marseille (January 3, 2012)
La Bohème at Torre del Lago (August 12, 2011)
La Bohème in San Francisco (November, 2008)
La Bohème in Toulon, Marseille and Genoa (December 2011/January 2012)
Boulevard Solitude in Barcelona

Callirhoé in Montpellier
I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco (September 29, 2012)
Carmen in San Francisco (November 12, 2011)
Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci in Marseille (February 3, 2011)
Cendrillon in Marseille
La Cenerentola, Sigismondo, Demetrio e Polibio at Pesaro
The Charterhouse of Parma in Marseille (February 12, 2012)
Ciro in Babilonia in Pesaro (2012)
La Clemenza di Tito, La Traviata, Le Nez in Aix-en-Provence (July, 2011)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Torino (February 2, 2009)
Cosi fan tutte and Zaide in Aix (July 16, 2008)
Cosi fan tutte and Eugene Onegin in Los Angeles (October 1-2, 2011)
Cyrano de Bergerac in San Francisco

David et Jonathas in Aix (July 11, 2012)
The Death of Klinghoffer at the ENO (February 12, 2012)
Demetrio e Polibio, La Cenerentola, Sigismondo at Pesaro
Dialogues des Carmélites in Marseille
Dido and Aeneas in Marseille
Dido and Aeneas in Toulon (April 18, 2011)
Don Carlos in Barcelona
Don Giovanni, Alceste, Rossignol at Aix
Don Giovanni in Genoa
Don Giovanni in Montpellier
Don Giovanni in Marseille (April 12, 2011)
Don Pasquale in Weimar (January 31, 2009)

L'elisir d'amore in San Francisco(November, 2008)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail in San Francisco (October 2009)
Ercole Amante in Toulon
Ermione and Maometto II in Pesaro August 13, 2008
Eugene Onegin and Mazeppa in Lyon
Eugene Onegin and Cosi fan tutte in Los Angeles (October 1-2, 2011)

La fanciulla del West in San Francisco
Faust in Orange (August 2, 2008)
Faust in San Francisco
Scenes from Faust in Parma
A Florentine Tragedy and The Secret of Susanna in Montpellier
Der Freischutz in Toulon (January 30, 2011)

Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco (September 13, 2011)

L'incoronazione di Poppea in Edinburgh

Jenufa in Toulon
Jerry Springer, The Opera in San Francisco

King Arthur in Montpellier (July 17, 2009)

Lohengrin in Los Angeles
Lohengrin in San Francisco (October 23, 2012)
Lucio Silla in Nice
Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco (September 26, 2011)

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco (November cast)
Madama Butterfly in San Francisco
Madama Butterfly in Genoa
The Makropulos Case in San Francisco
The Magic Flute in San Francisco (June 13, 2012)
Les Mamelles de Tirésias et La Voix Humaine in Toulon
Manon Lescaut in Lyon
Manon Lescaut in Genoa
Maometto II and Ermione in Pesaro August 2008
Marius et Fanny in Marseille
Mathilda di Shaban in Pesaro (2012)
Mazeppa and Eugene Onegin in Lyon
Mazeppa in Monte-Carlo (February 28, 2012)
Mefistofele in Montpellier
Monteverdi Madrigals in Edinburgh
Mireille in Toulon
Moby Dick in San Francisco (October 10, 2012)
Mosé in Egitto and Adelaide di Borgogna at Pesaro (August 13/14, 2011)

Nabucco in Toulon
La Navarraise in Monte-Carlo (January 25, 2012)
Le Nez, La Clemenza di Tito, La Traviata in Aix-en-Provence (July, 2011)
Nixon in China in San Francisco (June 8, 2012)
Le nozze di Figaro in Los Angeles
Le nozze di Figaro in San Francisco
Le nozze di Figaro in Paris (May 17, 2011)
Les Noces de Figaro in Aix (July 5, 2012)
Les Noces de Figaro in Montpellier (June 26, 2012)
Le nozze di Figaro in Genoa

L'Orfeo at Aix
Romeo et Juliette in Toulon
Orphée aux Enfers in Montpellier
Orphée et Eurydice in Montpellier
Orphée et Eurydice in Toulon
Otello in Montpellier
Otello in San Francisco (November 2009)
Otello in Zurich (January 8, 2012)

Parsifal in Nice
Parsifal in Brussels (February 8, 2011)
Peer Gynt in Genoa
Pelleas et Melisande in Montpellier
Pelleas et Melisande in Nice
Phaedra and Dido and Aeneas in Marseille
Pique Dame in Lyon
Porgy and Bess in San Francisco (June 2009)

Das Reingold in San Francisco
Rigoletto in Los Angeles
Rigoletto in San Francisco (September 19, 2012)
Der Ring des Nibelungen in Los Angeles
Der Ring des Nibelungen in San Francisco
Roméo et Juliette in Toulon
Roméo et Juliette in Los Angeles (November 9, 2011)
Rossignol, Alceste, Don Giovanni at Aix

The Saint of Bleecker Street in Marseille
Salome in Montpellier
Salome (Mariotte) in Montpellier
Salome in San Francisco (November 2009)
Salustia in Montpellier July 28, 2008
Sampiero Corsu in Marseille
Scenes from Faust in Parma
The Secret of Susanna and A Florentine Tragedy in Montpellier
Séméle in Montpellier
Sigismondo, La Cenerentola, Demetrio e Polibio at Pesaro
Il signor Bruschino in Pesaro (2012)
Sorbet, Sorbet in Carnoules
L'Enfant et les Sortileges in Monte-Carlo (January 25, 2012)

Teseo in Nice
Tosca at Orange
Tosca in Rome
Tosca in San Francisco (November, 2009)
Tosca Postcript in San Francisco (November 21, 2012)
Tosca II in San Francisco (November 16, 2012)
Tosca I in San Francisco (November 15, 2012)
La Traviata, La Clemenza di Tito, Le Nez in Aix-en-Provence (July, 2011)
Tristan und Isolde in Genoa
Tristan und Isolde in Montpellier
Il trittico in San Francisco
Il trittico in Lyon (February 8, 2012)
Il trovatore in Toulon
Il trovatore at Orange
Turandot in San Francisco (September 17, 2011)
Turandot in San Francisco (November 18, 2011)
Il Turco in Italia in Los Angeles
The Turn of the Screw in Los Angeles

The Verdi Requiem at San Francisco Opera
La Voix Humaine et Les Mamelles de Tirésias in Toulon

Die Walküre in San Francisco
Werther in Lyon (February 4, 2011)
Werther in San Francisco
Wozzeck in Nice
Wozzeck in Barcelona
Wozzeck at UC Berkeley (November 9, 2012)
Written on Skin in Aix (July 7, 2012)

Xerxes in San Francisco (November 16, 2011)

Zaide and Cosi fan tutte in Aix (July 16, 2008)
Die Zauberflöte see Magic Flute

Tosca (Postscript) in San Francisco

Extraordinary diva Angela Gheorghiu pulled out of opening night after act one. It was news when she made it to the end of the second performance. Here is what happened at the third performance.

First and foremost Angela Gheorghiu is a diva. She holds the stage by the sheer force of her personality, like perhaps no other contemporary diva. The excitement she brought to the stage with her entrance was indeed palpable, and she played the first act softly, alternating coyness with temperament, interspersing a forceful high note from time to time, even a few entire phrases rang out. There was no doubt that this diva, Tosca, was high maintenance, that she was trouble. A diva who would in actual fact engage a powerful man — Scarpia. Her first act was a masterpiece, worth the price of admission.

Italian baritone Roberto Frontali however plays an insidious rather than a powerful Scarpia. In the first act his underhanded tactics to track Cavaradossi and entrap Tosca expose his truly perverse psyche. He begins the second act publicly proclaiming his consuming sadism. Downstage center, to all of us. No secrets.

But as the second act progressed there was a personality change in both Tosca and Scarpia. Tosca shed her temperament revealing a weak, vulnerable woman who had lived for her art, turning to and walking toward Scarpia, making her aria, softly, a pitiable confession, submitting to her tormentor. Scarpia however had become uncertain of his sadistic tools, his threats were absorbed into the retro scenery. He became palpably impotent. Mme. Gheorghiu, Tosca, the trapped victim, now became sly. Softly and perversely she was the insidious tormenter. You know what happened.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti played along, allowing an unusual orchestra continuum to percolate under this act that seemed nearly parlato (spoken) rather than sung. A highly unusual Tosca, Act II. Disquieting.

The third act is the Cavaradossi act, tenor Massimo Giordano brought out the turgid in Maestro Luisottii — huge, round orchestral tones that went nowhere. Giordano, who did made real tenorial noise upon rare occasion, nailed his high notes strangely, scooping up with a jump of a minor third. He evoked scattered applause for what is usually a show-stopper (e lucevan le stelle). La Gheorghiu, Tosca, entered, muttered her instructions softly, deftly acting non-stop (where was the singing?). You know what happened.

Tosca, la Gheorghiu, fled up the parapet, forgetting to shed her cloak and throw it at her pursuers who pretended she did and fell anyway. Then there was a very strange moment — you felt that Angela really did not want do that nasty jump. But she had to.

If you want a magnificent Tosca go to that of verismo diva Patricia Racette, if you want a gourmet, weird Tosca that of la Gheorghiu may fill the bill.

Tosca (Racette) in San Francisco

Who is Patricia Racette? Sexually ripe Nedda, maternal Cio-Cio-San, neurotic Sister Angelica? But now the jealous Tosca? And without question Mme. Racette has again proven herself the Puccini heroine par excellence of this moment.


Patricia Racette as Tosca
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Patricia Racette is a powerful lyric soprano, like all great singers she possesses a unique voice, its signature sound is the interplay of excited overtones. This excitement, these vocal nerve endings possess all of these Puccini victims, and transmit their vulnerability, their super human strength, their beauty, above all a melodramatic feminine humanity that has endured one full century now, and will still be real as long as their may be humankind.

Mme. Racette is a committed and skilled actress, but more so she is an honest artist. Her voice is in its prime, as it has been and will be for some time, to her voice she adds intelligent and straight forward musicianship that ties us securely to her character, thus we are held captive by her very presence even in the numerous pantomimes when Tosca does not sing, but silently observes the murdered Scarpia, and approaches the dead Cavaradossi. It is her rock solid artistry in service to real human drama that seduces us.

If in the first act la Racette does not find the persona of a jealous diva, one we suspect we would find in the more usual spinto voiced Tosca. Racette does persuade us that she is a woman in love, and a woman vulnerable to powerful men, fiery revolutionaries and corrupt functionaries. At the opera’s end, finally trapped by these forces she frees herself in her dramatic leap. And what a leap it was — in spread eagle form, the euphoria of liberation. Patricia Racette is a bona fide diva.

These days in the War Memorial when Nicola Luisotti is on the podium individual performances are tied to the pit, an aria is really a duet, and such was the case last night in a stunning delivery of Vissi d’arte, the maestro in his euphoria of pillaging every possible tremor of feeling from a very willing orchestra, the soprano but a part of his larger whole. Scarpia and his henchmen plotting to ensnare Angelotti, Cavaradossi and Tosca captured with a musical force nearly equal to Verdi’s Otello, culminating in a Te Deum that had much more to do with Luisotti and Puccini and the joy of sheer power than with Scarpia.

The maestro plumbs a depth of sound and searches color in the orchestral voice, and only then pushes forward the flow of musical action. This creates a stop and go rhythm of often extreme tempos, fast or slow. Last night in the second act in particular these fluctuating tempos musically riveted us to the interplay of Tosca and her tormentor, and in the third act bound us to her nervous fear.

Tosca’s tormentor, the Scarpia of bass baritone Mark Delavan, was not driven by the pure, unadulterated lust that usually drives this politically privileged baron. Instead Delavan toyed with his power, the seduction of Tosca was played as a game with himself, as proof of his privilege, not as release of his unbridled libido. Delavan found a humanity in Puccini’s villain that was supremely ugly, more offensive than exercising sexual prowess. Utilizing the inherent beauty of his now mature voice he thoroughly embodied the bloated, entitled political aristocracy. This was Mark Delavan as an estimable artist. We would have expressed our appreciation had he stayed around for the bows at the end of the opera.


Patricia Racette as Tosca, Mark Delavan as Scarpia
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Against all this, a quirk of impresario privilege, San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley cast an Adler Fellow as the artist and revolutionary tenor Cavaradossi. Young tenor Brian Jagde held his own to some degree, while definitely out of his league. He possesses a young, vibrant voice and secure high notes. He lacks the squillo that would make his voice Italianate, nor is he yet schooled in the style. There was the occasional catch that sometimes might have been the tenorial sob and other times might have been a momentary catch in an overburdened voice. While Mr. Jagde was abundantly rewarded by the crowd for his performance the fact remains that the War Memorial is not an appropriate stage for a young singer to break in a role.

Supporting roles were superbly cast. Christian Van Horn made a detailed and very present Attavanti who set the stage for a revolutionary tone to Puccini’s opera. Tenor Joel Sorensen etched a sniveling Spoletta, brutalized by Scarpia and Adler Fellow Ao Li was right-on as Sciarrone. Not to overlook the low key, masterful, not too intrusive Sacristan of Dale Travis.

The production was the 1997 remake of the 1923 production, and it is time to send it to the dump — its nostalgia has been lost and it is boring. The staging of this umpteenth revival was however masterfully managed by Jose Maria Condemi. Hopefully Mr. Condemi will write a book to reveal the now secret (maybe best left untold stories) of staging these San Francisco Opera Tosca follies.

Cast and Production

Floria Tosca: Patricia Racette; Mario Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde; Baron Scarpia: Mark Delavan; Angelotti: Christian Van Horn; Spoletta: Joel Sorensen; Sacristan: Dale Travis; Sciarrone: Ao Li; Jailer: Ryan Kuster; Shepherd Boy: Ryan Nelson-Flack. San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production Designer: Thierry Bosquet; Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. November 16, 2012.

Tosca (Gheorghiu) in San Francisco

Operatic train wreck in San Francisco, hopes crushed for 3000 opera-goers, impresario’s grand scheme derailed.

Now that I’ve got your attention.

There were even advance whispers that something dramatic might happen. Well, no surprise given the cast of characters, character that is — Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu.

Huge anticipation was in the air for the American premiere of Mme. Gheorghiu’s Tosca, a role Opera Today’s London critic said she was born to play, the quote trumpeted all over San Francisco. Most of the world knows more about Mme. Gheorghiu marital dramas than it knows about her artistry. But luckily here in San Francisco we do know her charming Rondine and her touching Mimi as well. Adding all this up we were indeed prepped for a dynamite Tosca (after all maestro Luisotti was in the pit).


Angela Gheorghiu as Tosca
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Angela Gheorghiu was born to play Tosca. The Floria Tosca that entered Sant’Andrea della valle exuded layers of histrionic complexity, her voice was soft, her presence lost, a fiery diva in a sanctuary where women are pure. Her duet with Cavaradossi was fraught with interior conflict that exploded from time to time in full voice, detailing movements of emotion that would prepare her spiritually for what we already knew she must do — in full voice — as the evening unfolded.

Nicola Luisotti drove his orchestra full throttle, the voice of operatic verismo, searching for a depth of histrionic orchestral tone, ignoring the forward dramatic thrust of the words themselves. Often an open conflict between the pit and the stage instigated by this maestro results in inspired music making, a duet of conductor and singer that is exponentially richer than voice alone. But famously la Gheorghiu avoids rehearsing, and perhaps this precipitated the musical error (an early entrance) that passed unnoticed by most (or was accepted as diva histrionics), but certainly unsettled this temperamental diva in performance.

Meanwhile stage director Jose Maria Condemi well exposed the machinations of Scarpia that would fulfill his lust for the actress Tosca. Italian baritone Roberto Frontali relished the role, making the predatory Baron less powerful and more insidious than we have usually seen in San Francisco and elsewhere, aided in no small part by the maestro who gave him huge volume and color to work with. Mr. Frontali has a sizable, not beautiful voice and the musical confidence to contend with the Luisotti pit.

Well, this leaves Cavaradossi, Massimo Giordano. Mr. Giordano is a flawed singer who has loud high notes that he only seems to effect if he attacks them from above. This places an accent where usually there would be a smooth line. At first it seemed that this mannerism was used for dramatic effect, but by the end of the evening it was obvious that this was central to his vocal technique. While it was jarring in the first act at least we hoped it might be an amusing tenorial affectation, if used without taste or discretion.

Mo. Luisotti, Mr. Frontali, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus erupted in a Te Deum that completely enveloped the War Memorial Opera House. The curtain fell, the audience roared, and the evening ended.

Not that the performance did not in fact continue. Mme. Gheorghiu pulled out, physically distressed (intestinal flu) we were told, though the suspicion lingers that it was vocal distress, and certainly a large dose of emotional distress must be included. We waited while the cover singer, Melody Moore, was costumed. Mlle. Moore is a promising young singer who does not have spinto capabilities demanded by the role. She was painfully ill-suited to follow the diva footsteps made by Mme. Gheorghiu in the first act, nor did she seem coached or rehearsed to do so. It is indeed strange that San Francisco Opera had not anticipated such an occurrence, hardly unexpected from la Gheorghiu.

Thus impresario’s David Gockley coup de théâtre (two Toscas) gone up in smoke.

Cast and Production

Floria Tosca Act I: Angela Gheorghiu; Floria Tosca Acts II and III: Melody Moore; Mario Cavaradossi: Massimo Giordano; Baron Scarpia: Roberto Frontali; Angelotti: Christian Van Horn; Spoletta: Joel Sorensen; Sacristan: Dale Travis; Sciarrone: Ao Li; Jailer: Ryan Kuster; Shepherd Boy: Etienne Julius Valdez. San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production Designer: Thierry Bosquet; Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. November 15, 2012.

Wozzeck at UC Berkeley

At this famous bastion of intellect the biggest drama was the parking. Though the football stadium may have been stuffed, Zellerbach Hall was not.

An appearance by London’s famed Philharmonia orchestra starring in one of opera’s most riveting theater pieces (an avowed intellectual masterpiece as well) might well have generated sufficient advance excitement to fill the hall. Sad to say, come to pass, not a lot of excitement was created in the hall either.

Esa-Pekka Salonen

The Philharmonia’s claim to fame is its conductorial pedigree more so than its sound — Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karijan, Ricardo Muti, Giuseppe Sinopoli, Christoph von Dohnányi. And now Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, well known locally as one of the L.A. Phil’s wunderkind (Rattle, Salonen and Dudamel).

The no-longer-young maestro did deliver splendidly on what we came for — the three stupendous B’s after Marie is murdered grew to unequalled quivering force, and the masterful, musically riveting Invention in D minor led to the superbly delivered, tonally pure “hop hop” repetitions that end the opera (how did excellent boy soprano Zachary Mamis so securely find those incredibly high pitches?). All these were wonderful, uniquely Salonen moments.

The maestro made a good case for Wozzeck as an orchestral showpiece, marking solid beats to expose the shape and rhythms of the abstract structures that construct acts I and II, reserving his serpentine hand movement to motivate elaborations of color in the too few moments of orchestral solo. As Berg’s score is cerebral Salonen’s delivery too was cerebral, may we say cold, even uninvolved in the opera’s dramatic exposition.

Berg’s score, an opera, is far more than pure music. It is the physical atmospheres in which the Wozzeck tragedy unfolds. Without Berg’s prescribed physical production (sets, lights, costumes) an orchestra acting alone takes on the enormous burden of creating complex atmospheres. This began to occur somewhat in the second act in the public scenes, and took hold in the third act when Berg’s more formal structures gave way to free musical invention. Here Salonen followed suit with a freer dramatic involvement.

The Philharmonia Orchestra is known for the warmth of its strings, an attribute that is not really present in the Wozzeck atonalities. Yet the strings of this orchestra made a startling showing in projecting the nervous attitudes that Berg created and the still youthful maestro elicited. The youth (relative) of the players was evident, dominated by the nearly electric presence of 30-year-old German concert master Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay.

Spreading the Philarmonia Orchestra on the stage rather than, let’s say, cramming Berg’s sizable orchestral requirements into a pit engendered a clarity of instrumental tone, and a transparency of sound that exacerbated Salonen’s coldness. At the same time however it redeemed the coldness into a musical and instrumental purity that made this very fine orchestra great, and made it the star of the show, as intended.

The assembled singers included several distinguished artists. All were quite capable of fulfilling their role, here primarily to fill the musical space Berg’s score demands. With no overview of the opera other than that imposed by the maestro it became however a mere reading of the text. Then there was the unfortunate idea that some staging was needed, when in fact a purely concert performance would have complemented the performance by the orchestra.

The singers apparently attempted to move and emote as they saw fit. This resulted in some strange solutions to entrances and exits, motivations and discoveries. Unfortunately this British bred Wozzeck did not attempt to compete with the semi-staged operas recently attempted by the L.A. and N.Y. Philharmonics, endeavors that sensibly enough involved opera directors. And by the way when are opera companies going to start staging symphonies?

This Wozzeck in Berkeley was the full musical nine-yards. The UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus acquitted itself handsomely (a few missed pitches), the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choirs marched on and did its duty, and members of the UC Berkeley Symphony well managed the off-stage banda and most of the on-stage banda (the clarinet player was from the Philharmonia).

Cast Wozzeck: Johan Reuter; Marie: Angela Denoke; Drum Major: Hubert Francis; Andres: Joshua Ellicott; Captain: Peter Hoare; Doctor: Tijl Faveyts; First Apprentice Henry Waddington; Second Apprentice: Eddie Wade; Idiot: Harry Nicoll; Margret: Anna Burford; Marie’s Child: Zachary Mamis. UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus. Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir. Members of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra. The Philharmonia Orchestra. Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California. November 10, 2012.

Lohengrin in San Francisco

Exquisite pianissimos, sumptuous climaxes, gigantic fortes, insistent horns, sugary winds, tremulous brass, blasting trumpets, whispering strings, pulsating oboes, more gigantic fortes, even more sumptuous climaxes.

Lohengrin like never before. It was an orgy of orchestral colors, an adventure in sonic discovery, the absolute summit of virtuosic orchestral delivery. Maestro Nicola Luisotti attacked and conquered Lohengrin.

There. That’s done. What’s left now that it’s all over?

Act I, set design by Robert Innes Hopkins
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

No longer mythic Germanic lore, this tale seemed to be an episode from, say, Ceausescu’s already mythic Romania, where books were torn from library shelves to burn to make electricity to light the libraries. Though in the emptied library in which all this took magic took place there was not enough juice to illuminate all the grandiose (Romanian socialist moderne) light sources. Well, save in the last scene when Lohengrin finally was going to save the masses. But bowed out.

The masses were magnificent socialists, eighty mighty workers (plus a few sword and standard bearers) who whispered in shimmering sounds and roared in full, transparent tones. But with such idealistic and obviously pleasurable glory in their sonority, and willing unity in their regimentation (yes, this multitude of virtuosic choristers was happily organized in lines and blocks) that they hardly needed to be saved from such perfection — to cede such artistry to mere Western materialism would be tragic indeed.

Meanwhile Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson in socialist general regalia was instructed to walk downstage center and be the embattled king Heinrich. Mr. Sigmundsson, once an estimable artist, here was perfect as crumbling, ineffective power. Baritone Brian Mulligan, a San Francisco Opera fixture, was Heinrich’s prissy acolyte, a welcomed vocal contrast to his superior. Mr. Mulligan is a richly voiced singer who complemented the maestro’s musical textures while overwhelming the import of this mere herald.

Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin, Camilla Nylund as Elsa
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was the Lohengrin, a role debut. He apparently has a new voice teacher as the perfectly reasonable tenor we heard a few years ago as Luigi in Il Tabarro has been transformed into a trumpet. While he has not yet mastered the subtlety of tone of a fine trumpeter he does have a surprising variety of volume if not color, though his first and last words in the opera were delivered in a tentative half voice that was cause for concern. Even with its moments of real beauty the sharpness of his tone worked with the costuming of this production to make him look and sound gawky. Though this maybe helped establish the assumed caricatural intent of this conception of Lohengrin.

Of the five principals the Elsa of Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund realized the most successful character. Elsa herself is a lost soul, and Mlle. Nylund though looking like a well-kept Romanian apparatchik had no idea how to be one. The purity of her voice and the innocence of her presence served her well, though in the bigger moments her voice could not ride the the maestro’s mighty crests, as could, for example, the out-of-scale voice of Mr. Jovanovich.


Gerd Grochowski as Telramund, Petr Lang as Ortrud
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski seemed over parted as Telramund, diminishing the stature of evil in Wagner’s struggle to overcome baser levels of humanity. Mr. Grochowski’s fine baritone and interesting persona are more at home in roles that are more lyric and more complex psychologically. He lacks the inherent vocal color and physical force to personify an uncontrolled thirst for power, willing to say or do anything to get it. Reduced to a whimpering wimp in this production there was little for all those arcane powers of the Holy Grail to overcome.

Joining her homeless husband as Ortrud, the bag lady was German mezzo Petra Lang. Mme. Lang did not seem to be in good voice, her final curse thinly delivered, again underlining the opera’s need to endow evil with enough stature to be worth overcoming. As it was the famous pollution of socialist industry managed to create quite atmospheric lighting for Ortrud’s scenes brainwashing Telramund and deceiving Elsa, convincingly delivered by Mme. Lang.

The production by British director Daniel Slater and British designer Robert Innes Hopkins is from Geneva (2008) and Houston (2009). It apparently has the intention to remove all magic from Wagner’s tale where swans ferry supernatural knights back and forth from an imaginary mountain. The musical moments for these arrivals and departures are truly momentous, even in ordinary circumstances, but here the workers and apparatchiks stare always forward only to discover and not seem to care that the bus terminal was behind them.

The production could not support the musical values imposed by Mo. Luisotti. Magic, and a lot of it was sorely needed to give place and meaning to this mountain of sound.

Moby Dick in San Francisco

Forget Herman Melville, forget struggling with deep human complexities. At least those that possessed nineteenth century Americans.

Think bel canto. Give a singer an impossible situation and see if he can sing his way out of it. Moby Dick in San Francisco was about singing, and well, the singers had those famous ready made situations that frame Melville’s deeper discussion, and they sang and sang. And sang.

Jay Hunter Morris as Ahab, Morgan Smith as Starbuck
Photos copyright Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Composer Jake Heggie has a gift for lyricism that flows and flows. And flows. In San Francisco he had very willing interpreters, most notably tenor Jay Hunter Morris, a late term replacement for heldon tenor Ben Heppner who had sung the doomed and damned Captain Ahab in this premiere production of the opera two years ago in Dallas, and this year already in Calgary and San Diego.

Maybe for a second or so one regretted the absence of Mr. Heppner, surely the epitome of casting for Melville’s emblematic monster. But Mr. Morris, a smaller scale performer with a more lyric voice, and luckily for Mr. Heggie one of great stamina, immediately commanded a character of some interest who had the impossible task of towering above mutiny, slaughter, hurricanes, human kindness and one white whale. He delivered Mr. Heggie’s very singable, if not easily hummable, lines with aplomb and musical grace.

First mate Starbuck, endowed in this made-for-opera version of Melville’s story with the daunting task of equaling Ahab in emotional stature, fared less well. Baritone Morgan Smith successfully made the case for onshore domestic contentment but could not find the needed torment and agony in Mr. Heggie and librettist Gene Sheer’s character — the only antagonist in the story, the only character asked to tackle the obsessive captain. Maybe he did not have enough words to sing or maybe Mr. Heggie’s music simply does not plumb those depths.

Librettist Sheer ends his book with the line “call me Ismael,” famously the first line of Melville’s book, a conceit that invites us to go to novel to sink ourselves into its archaic language and delve into its meanings, an immersion that Moby Dick the opera eschews. And the question then looms as to what Moby Dick the opera may have to do with anything beyond smart entertainment à l’amèricaine.

Smart it is, a libretto that cleverly abstracts the shell of the novel into a series of musical numbers. The staging by Leonard Foglia (who helped shape the opera) is presentational, generous doses of rushing forward to point to happenings exactly where the audience happens to be sitting (a sure way to ensure involvement). Designer Robert Brill made a huge wave like structure on stage that cleverly embodied the sea itself and he made smart use of sophisticated moving projections to graphically illustrate a gigantic moving schooner and its boats. Not to mention the effective fight scenes by choreographer Keturah Stickann and fight director Jonathan Rider.

The Moby Dick saga surely attracted composer Heggie because of its opportunities for programmatic music. These five or so episodes were the most successful parts of the opera. Lacking the complexities of nineteenth century morality afforded by written language the scenes that illustrated the plights of Melville’s famous characters were sometimes dramatically pallid, limited by the consistent richness of smooth sound and rhythmic movement, essential elements Mr. Heggie’s voluptuous style. It is smart, attractive music that in actuality is quite complex harmonically and rhythmically.

Stephen Costello as Greenhorn, Talise Trevigne as Pip
Jonathan Lemalu as Queequeg
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Greenhorn (Ishmael at the opera’s conclusion, though it is his name throughout Melville) who begins and ends the opera is the classic outcast, and in the opera he becomes innocence as well. The role was beautifully sung by tenor Stephen Costello though the role would have been more effectively served by a less Italianate voice (Italian tenors are never innocent), perhaps a purely beautiful voice could have moved us more in his extended scenes with the savage Queequeg, effectively typecast with Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu.

There is one female voice in the cast, Pip, the black boy, sung by soprano Talise Trevigne. Pip is thrown out of the whaling boat in Moby Dick the opera (he twice jumps out in the novel) and then does the Mary Martin Peter Pan trick of flying, suspended, across the stage while singing and here going crazy too. In the opera Pip is cleverly paired in an extended duet with Stubb the Second Mate, sung by veteran baritone Robert Orth, obsessed with killing whales. Pip is his victim, a sacrifice in the rites of men, at least those portrayed in Moby Dick the opera.

Committed and convincing performances by all the named roles and by the San Francisco Opera Chorus were the hallmark of the production, by now nearly a classic. Conductor Patrick Summers gave Heggie’s score its intended luminous glow ensuring that Moby Dick the opera remain a rich theatrical confection.

I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco

Give me good verses, I’ll give you good music, said Bellini to his librettist Felice Romani. Give me a good director and I’ll give you good opera surely thought San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley.

Not just good opera but great opera took stage at the last night in San Francisco, adding new found artistic luster to the brutal conflicts of the Capulets and the Montagues. The pretended death of Giulietta was exquisitely suffered both by Bellini’s Romeo and his rival Tebaldo, and ultimately emotional pain of monumental musical intensity and ineffable sweetness melted into the tragic release of the love-death. Legendary mezzo Joyce diDonato hand in hand with soprano Nicole Cabell walked triumphantly into the beyond.

It was real, this beyond. It was in fact the proscenium frame, at once the Romantic love-death itself and, Mme. diDonato and Mlle. Cabell left standing in front of the fallen curtain, it was opera. The enraptured audience leapt to its feet and roared.

Giulietta, tragically denied true love (this is pristine Romanticism), had literally climbed the wall. Standing on a sink, the lone symbol of a physical world, balancing herself eerily on one foot, she reached up towards an unattainable suspended image of entwined lovers and floated vocal lines that soared and fell with suspended emotion in what seemed a musical eternity (uhm, this is high, very high Romanticism).

Nicole Cabell as Giulietta
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

These scenes, the tragic ones, occurred in a space with a mirrored floor negating all sense of physical gravity. There was no reference to defined space save one vertical line that created a sort of metaphysical reality, a line that was always the same and never the same, clothed in an infinity of changing color, the ebb and flow of love. The stage, drawn by French designer Vincent Lemaire and lighted by Italian designer Guido Levi, provided an abstract space for love, may we say, with the Romantics, the most abstract world of them all.

In these scenes director French Vincent Broussard used an almost framed painting, though with vaguely defined, mostly abstract images that suspended the search for specific reference. However in the larger scenes with public meaning he completed the proscenium frame across the bottom of the stage making it the fully formed image of a physical painting. It became a real space with a background of infinitely ascending steps on which brilliantly colored and lighted courtiers spread themselves, and later the elaborately clothed, now disheveled women descended, remnants of the unseen defining battle. Mr. Broussard landed squarely on a descriptively minimalist language that could elevate this simple story to Bellini’s metaphysical world of music.

The most astonishing scene was Giulietta’s passage in her underclothes across the sharp and treacherous lower edge of this worldly frame as she sought to resolve her plight, and did so finally with the help of Lorenzo, the family physician (Felice Romani was far more practical that Shakespeare who complicated matters by appointing a priest to this task). Or was it Romeo’s address to the sleeping Giulietta, now no longer laid out on her wedding dress but frozen upright facing Joyce di Donato who was fully possessed vocally and physically by Bellini’s music.

There was no separation between the pit and the stage, the changing stage pictures themselves almost seemed the black printed notes of Bellini’s score made into extraordinarily beautiful sounds by Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This maestro achieved the exquisitely delicate and felt Romanticism that makes Bellini the epitome of such difficult, elusive and rare operatic art.

It was a nearly phenomenal achievement in bel canto. Like all great opera it was a collaboration of huge forces. The fine Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu gained vocal security during the evening to viably take on the incomparable Joyce diDonato in their confrontation. The brilliant Nicole Cabell as Giulietta in her defining long black wig found an unerring vocal balance that did not falter in confronting the extraordinary directorial demands of this role.

Joyce diDonato as Romeo, Saimir Pirgu as Tebaldo
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The high-style costumes designed by famed French couturier Christian Lacroix forcefully etched heightened supernatural character with a sophisticated sense of once-upon-a-time. The actual set became a canvas on which lighting designer Levi detailed mood after mood, choosing momentary detail that rose to the emotional surface in the shadowy supra-rational state of consciousness, never permitting a face or voice to destroy the complex metaphysical tonalities of the production.

It was an enthralling evening at the War Memorial Opera House, the ovations were enormous. And, yes, metteur en scène Vincent Broussard braved exhuberant booing at his curtain call. Go figure.

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Four Rigolettos in nine days (for this critic), of twelve Rigolettos in 24 days (are these world records?).

Major support for this San Francisco operatic extravaganza is provided by, among others, the Great Interpreters of Italian Opera Fund. Hyperbole, or not?

It is a qualified answer. That conductor Nicola Luisotti may join the ranks of, let us say, Toscanini and von Karajan (et al) is yet to be determined. Luisotti is however Italian and this alone endows him with integrity as an interpreter of Italian opera. Based on the September 19 performance the maestro did achieve some greatness.

Rigoletto may be the quintessential Italian opera sitting on the cusp between the glories of bel canto and the agonies of Romantic realism. Formally it is pure bel canto, the individual blocks (“numbers”), arias and duets are interrupted, then capped with a fast, determined “cabaletta.” The trios and quartets are vocally splendid and dramatically static. Finales (when things get done) are brief and to the point.

But add to bel canto the pathos of a cripple’s love for his daughter, the philosophic examination of love and the malevolence of fate. Francesco Piave’s libretto uses Monterone’s curse to close each act and explain why. It is rapid and violent melodrama.

Maestro Luisotti knows that Rigoletto is about beautiful singing, and he gives his singers all needed support based on the supposition that any aria is really a duet — for him and the singer. At its most dramatic were paroxysms of podium involvement in Gilda’s stunning Caro nome, and in the next act Rigoletto and Gilda’s wrenching duet that ends with Rigoletto’s Sì! Vendetta, tremenda vendetta. All this, needless to say, elicited paroxysms of instrumental involvement (the oboe obbligato in Gilda’s Tutte le feste al tempio as example). Tempos, always slower or faster than anticipated, served to generate genuine emotional immediacy obliterating the suspicion of conductorial willfulness. And hardly to be outdone in bel canto by the stage, the maestro imposed an full-voiced orchestral lyricism that took unrelenting flight throughout the evening.

Gilda and the Duke of Mantua, Gilda and Rigoletto
Photos copyright Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Houston trained, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova without qualification is a great interpreter of Gilda. While she has gained her international fame as Queen of the Night, her vocal endowment well encompasses much of the lyric repertoire. The facility and agility of her voice is enriched by a sizable palette of color and delivery that matches her dramatic concentration. Rarely has a singer so completely embodied the Gilda character. Time stood still in the adolescent musings of the young girl who had just had melismatic sex with the Duke (yes, the second act love duet was mesmerizing).

San Francisco trained, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was the over-sexed, heart-throb Duke of Mantua. With a voice that resides in color somewhere between the French and Italian repertoire and a technique that betrays his youthfulness, he constructed Verdi’s vocal lines with precision and the hint of spinto that make tenors desirable lovers, ably seducing the splendidly drawn Countess Ceprano of Adler Fellow Laura Krumm as well as the production’s sympathetic, sexually ripe Maddalena, former Adler Fellow Kendall Gladden.

Italian baritone Marco Vratogna too achieves status as a great interpreter of Rigoletto, given that this twisted human is more, and in Mr. Vratogna’s case much more than a big voice who rages at the cortigiani. Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto is small in scale but, and maybe therefore, large in insinuation that more than a victim, Rigoletto is indeed an ugly soul in an ugly body. This compromises the blatant pathos that might be awarded a big voiced Rigoletto who will be righteous by sheer volume. Mr. Vratogna uses his medium scaled voice of many colors and much Italianate style to make Rigoletto sinister, unsympathetic, maybe pitiful.

And very interesting.

On the other hand Canadian bass Robert Pomakov as Monterone roared his curses, quivering with rage, well anchoring the conciseness of the drama by sheer volume, abetted by Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as the honest murderer Sparafucile, incomparable casting in both cases.

Rigoletto set designed by Michael Yeargan
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

This San Francisco Opera production, designed by veteran American scenographer, now Yale professor, Michael Yeargan, debuted in 1997. Mr. Yeargan too assumes stature as a great interpreter of Italian opera with a set that echoes the conciseness of the dramatic action of Rigoletto in an abstracted, classically forced-perspective Italian street. Hard edge, repeated porticos are obsessive, sinister and overwhelming. Colors are saturated, basic and bright when not cast as dim, sinister washes on the buildings. The set is minimal, no props (save one chair in the third act). The set functions with almost machine-like precision. Like Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Post Script

Because of the number and proximity of performances San Francisco Opera must provide two sets of principals. On September 11 I saw Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda and Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as the Duke. Mr. Lucic is a big voiced Rigoletto whose well focused tone did not waver over the course of events resulting in a hunchback of little interest, though Cortigiani, vil razza dannata was hurled with maximum vehemence. Mme. Kurzak is a brilliant singer whose musicianship is abstract rather than dramatic, and while she did make music with maestro Luisotti she made no attempt whatsoever to impersonate Verdi’s vulnerable heroine. Mr. Demuro is an ideal Duke, good looking with a bona fide tenorial swagger. He possesses a light voice that too easily negotiates the Duke’s high tessitura with little of the vocal excitement that makes the Duke musically and dramatically alive.

At this performance the brilliant colors of the set seemed abrasive, the costumes seemed ridiculous and the staging by Harry Silverstein seemed to try too hard to make something out of nothing. In retrospect this reaction was caused by the non-involvement of the principals in their characters.

On September 12 I saw the cast described in the body of this review. At this performance the staging by Mr. Silverstein redeemed itself as a totally competent management of the chorus scenes, if more complicated than Verdi’s direct story telling ideally requires. The principal scenes seemed more detailed than the incipient realism of middle-period Verdi provokes (but, hey, opera these days is supposed to be “acted” — the exception was Mr. Vratogna’s Rigoletto effected with minimum gesture and maximum vocal physicality). In particular the Gilda of Mme. Shagimuratova seemed artful rather than felt in her final scenes.

On September 15 the Lucic/Kurzak/Demuro cast was again on stage at the War Memorial Opera House and on the scoreboard of the local ball park, home of the SF Giants, where 27,000 spectators and I braved the cold for the duration (other years have been far warmer in temperature and far warmer musically). The format requires much focus on faces and acoustical manipulation of voices exposing the limitations of this cast. Mr. Demuro however seemed a natural born TV actor, to the degree that there was the suspicion he might be playing himself.

On September 19, above, it was all pure magic. Go figure. There are four more performances but I’m stopping while I’m ahead.

The Magic Flute in San Francisco

A feast for the eyes, a feast for the ears, a Flute from America’s heartland that goes directly to your heart.

Maybe it’s those three boy sopranos who impeccably deliver the words and tones of Mozart’s three spirits and make the hopes of mankind so real in their innocence.

Maybe it’s the rhyming couplets of David Gockley’s new translation of the lyrics, and the rhythm and flow, and the internal and period rhymes of the dialogues that harmonize like square dance calls. It’s somewhere between cradle, pub and couch and makes you feel really good.

Certainly it’s the kaleidoscope of lines and dots and a thousand colors, maybe more that percolate across the proscenium canvas in always changing, never ending orders that make you feel that the good life will never end, and that, well, even if life may not always be that simple it keeps moving. Finally all those lines and all those dots will become a perfect circle!

This new Magic Flute is indeed a perfect circle, a masterpiece of conception and execution. There is even an illustrated book that engagingly documents the massive scope of a production process that traces the circle from idea to fact and makes artistic creation seem like a piece of cake.

Some of us like to think of San Francisco Opera as synonymous with Covent Garden and Vienna, like sharing productions with, uhm, La Scala (Attila for example) so it comes as a bit of a shock to realize that SFO is sharing productions with Omaha and Kansas City. In fact Japanese born artist Jun Kaneko, the creative force behind the sets and costumes of this production, makes his home in Omaha where he makes ceramics, conceives massive public art projects and designed Madama Butterfly for Opera Omaha.

San Francisco Opera has distinguished precedent for productions based on visual rather than theatrical art, like David Hockney’s Turandot, and even like Marc Chagall’s Magic Flute. And speaking of the Flute, South African artist William Kentridge created one for Brussels' Monnaie about a decade ago that set the benchmark pretty high.

But middle America has its own things to say these days, like Picasso’s French Riviera had its things to say a hundred years ago at the Opéra de Monte Carlo. Maybe it says most about the America that looks westward to Asia for so much of its persona that remains so hidden. Artist Kaneko who emigrated to the U.S. in 1961 creates an endless landscape, like the American midwest, but in Asian lines and colors. He constructs a Chinese puppet dragon and draws costumes that seem made of glazed clay or painted porcelain. In fact we felt quite at home as all of this is so much a part of our national heritage. Come to think of it.

Within this visual realm stage director Harry Silverstein finds constant movements and antics to enliven Gockley’s earthy contemporary banter. Things are left pretty basic, the cosmic conflict between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night has the weight of a domestic spat. It is taken for granted that women need to be put in their place, not to mention that people of color exhibit libidos that are not philosophic and that love conquers all obstacles, like fire and water.

Casting was young and fun. Rather than attempt the more usual and appropriate jugendliche dramatic voices for Tamino and Pamina, San Francisco Opera cast light lyric tenor Alex Shrader and soubrette Heidi Stober. The fine singers brought youth and lightness and consummate charm to Mozart’s young lovers, plus they seemed the very embodiment of corporate promise. Baritone Nathan Gunn was Tamino’s cool sidekick Papageno, everyone’s good friend who isn’t going to make it out of the warehouse.

Russian dramatic coloratura Albina Shagimuratova with her threatening accent (even if slight — she is an alumna of the Houston Opera Studio) was the appropriately toned Queen of the Night. Like nearly always this role gets the biggest ovation because she has the highest notes, and of course the niftiest arias as well. Mlle. Shagimuratova well earned her ovation with extraordinarily clean delivery of her stratospheric notes. Iceland born bass Kristinn Sigmundsson used his Germanic accented English to add more imperative to righteousness though vocally he no longer has the equipment to embody such depth and authority.

Baritone Greg Fedderly made Monostatos absolutely delightfully unthreatening, because as we all now know libido is fun after all. Mr. Fedderly is in good voice. Melody Moore Lauren McNeese and Renée Tatum were First, Second and Third Ladies, lighter voiced than the usual specimens, appropriate to convey the Valley Girl syndrome they knowingly managed.

Not least were the Three Spirits, Etienne Julius Valdez, Joshua Reinier and John Walsh who have to have been the best Three Spirits that ever hit the earth.

Where was the music in all of this, you ask. Well, we were having so much fun that we almost didn’t notice it. But when we did it seemed to support the words with grace and ease and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra did play with lovely sterling tone. British Conductor Rory Macdonald felt tempos that seemed quite slow, but they were tempos that allowed the words to sail across the pit and amuse us. Mozart’s ultimate symphonic thrust, the sublime musical process that propels Tamino and Pamina to an advanced humanity sadly did not happen.

Attila in San Francisco

Fanfares that celebrate soldiers with plumed helmets by a composer who donned a helmet (metaphorically) — Verdi the operatic father of the Risorgimento!

He did have some debts just then and patriotic operas were good box office in Venice so why not an opera about the barbaric general who scared the population off of dry land out into the lagoon that finally became La Serenissima.

Attila is not big at the box office these days as there are too many better operas that attract and please the public and that better illuminate the Verdi genius as well. But it is Verdi, the early Verdi, and it is fiery music with hints of the late, great Verdi who ultimately created the Venetian general Otello. It is the Verdi who pushed singers to and beyond technical limits but not yet the Verdi who had transformed virtuoso voices into the complex dramatic personas that transcend mere technique.

So Attila is about voices, let’s start there. The real Attila the Hun was probably fairly young when he descended from Hungary as far as Rome (there is no recorded birthdate). It was the young American bass Samuel Ramey who took on Attila back in 1981 and made him his own of which there is much discography. The elder Mr. Ramey was just now on the stage of the War Memorial no longer as the Hun but as the bishop Leo who implores Attila to turn back. Mr. Ramey’s voice proves his long career, a still strong tone of now monumental wobble. But Mr. Ramey’s presence was obviously not to sing or be Leo but to be Mr. Ramey.

This formidable Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto is however in his prime, traversing Attila’s emotional poles and vocal treacheries with ease, reaching the high notes of its extreme range with force and security, descending to the suave tones that evoke the sexual allure of a powerful man. In better circumstances the tall, fit and heroic Mr. Furlanetto would have motivated dramatic tensions that lie just beneath the surface, and exploited the hints of Otello and Desdemona that lurk there.

International opera becomes ever more international, witness the fortunate discovery of young Venezuelan soprano Lucrezia Garcia. Mlle. Garcia was Odobella whose father had been slain by Attila and who married Attila. Mozart had already played with this situation in more obvious circumstances. However these hidden complexities were ignored in this San Francisco production leaving Mlle. Garcia as nothing more than a singer. The role is vocally formidable as was this singer who adds extraordinary agility to a powerful voice of real sweetness.

Mexican tenors have long since been discovered, so the discovery of tenor Diego Torre from Domingo’s L.A. Opera young artist program comes as no surprise. Mr. Torre brought security and strength to his vocal delivery of Odobella’s suitor Foresto, and his youthfulness added a bit of wanted charm to the opera’s most strident music (not in short supply). Verdi was never too kind to his tenors, usually finding them of questionable integrity, like Foresto, but Mr Torre was offered no opportunity to be more than a good singer.

Add to these two fine young singers Hawaiian baritone, Quinn Kelsey, a wonderful young singer who essayed Ezio, a Roman general who is the foil of Attila, i.e. the salvation of Italy. These days casting at San Francisco Opera seems to surround one big star with up and coming (at best) stars and with house singers, like Mr. Kelsey. This kind of casting often results in miss matching musical and/or histrionic styles, miss matching body types and over parting (a singer not yet or maybe ever able to take on a certain role). Pitted against Mr. Furlanetto My. Kelsey had no chance to deliver this proto-Verdi-baritone role with requisite force of voice or personality. His once famous second act aria of heroic resolution E' gettata la mia sorte fell quite short of generating the excitement needed to unity Italy.

Not much can be known about the death of Attila in 453, though most certainly it was not at the hands of Odabella who in the opera saves his life so that she can kill him. Since this murder is pure fantasy anyway Italian film star and opera director Gabriele Lavia set the murder scene in a movie theater, complete with a screen on which Jack Palance was sacking Rome (the size and movement of the film images compelled our attention more forcefully than the miniscule by comparison singers — “what idiocy” was an overheard comment). But never mind as the second act was set in an opera house for some reason — maybe because Attila is an opera? The first act was the Roman amphitheater in Aquila and it looked just like the Arena di Verona where singers more or less line up across the front of the stage and sing.

Which is where maestro Nicola Luisotti likes his singers and Mr. Lavia seems happy to oblige. The maestro needs total control to impose his egomaniacal musicianship. It is effervescent, and seductive for a while, and this Verdi score obliges this maestro with the opportunity to be legitimately bombastic. The few moments of descriptive music offered by Verdi were overwhelmed by Luisotti’s penchant for effect. Effect for its own sake is a pitfall of this early Verdi opera that in its first years elicited the critical comments that began this review.

Nixon in China in San Francisco

John Adams’ Nixon in China is an amazing, riveting piece of music, and compelling theater to boot.

It was an uncanny fit in the War Memorial opera house, our residual banking and energy tycoons superimposed onto our tech billionaires, the old guard and the young Turks all sitting there in our stodgy old opera house mesmerized by a brash young opera (well, young relative to our 400 year old repertory).

Not to mention Nixon and Mao, Pat and Chiang Ch’ing, Henry and Chou. How many ways could composer Adams find to make two against three, four against three, everything over anything go together and not go together during the three fleet hours it took a virtuoso orchestra to navigate this treacherous score?

Over this but more so within this score lies Alice Goodman’s libretto that juxtaposes mind-boggling and mind-numbing banalities with metaphors of grace and intelligence and flights of lyricism that float in and out of comprehension and are the motor of the mind-bogglingly richness of energy and color, ebb and swell, the sure sonic embodiment of one of the more bizarre moments of human history. And finally what it means. This seems to be found in a few tiny moments of personal reminiscences that are nothing and everything.

Nixon in China is a masterpiece, and if you did not know what theory of binary opposition is at least now you know what it feels like.

Of course there is the back story of the West once again discovering the East, though it dims as time goes on. It is history that will be vaguely known by few of the new generation of opera goers. What really was is no longer of concern to this opera that seems to have joined Simon Boccanegra in the core repertory (36 productions worldwide in its 25 years of existence). Nixon in China is now an operatically consecrated human document, not an historical document.

Like Verdi, Adams knows that politics are loud, and Nixon in China was plenty loud, belying its relatively modest resources — only double or triple winds and a reduced string contingent. But Adams adds a chorus of saxophones to traverse musical prerogatives, plus some rare sharp percussive sounds to throw listener sensibilities off-balance. It was already the digital age back in 1987 so there is a synthesizer, and there is electronic manipulation of all natural instrumental and vocal sound. Get it? — Adams’ amplifies his score!

Adams thereby is able to insert Wagner’s apocalyptic resolution into Madame Mao’s ballet with a richness maybe known only by 110 players in Bayreuth. Luckily next up this spring is Verdi’s Attila with Maestro Luisotti so there should not be too much of a sonic letdown.

Masterminding this cold war götterdämmerung was Dutch conductor Lawrence Renes who imposed a sense of rhythmic precision that immediately gripped and never flagged over the duration, evoking sounds that made the excitement of space exploration in the late twentieth century as alive and provocative as its accompanying politics. It was masterful conducting.

It was a cast of singers rather than singing actors. Some voices were larger than others, but with the help of sensitive sound design all of these fine and beautiful voices melded magically with the sonorities created in the pit to create opera that was pleasing rather than provocative.

San Francisco Opera regular Brian Mulligan effected a fairly reasonable profile as Richard Nixon but captured nothing of the charisma of such a political personality. Tenor Simon O’Neill achieved a Mao of effective proportion though without messianic sense. Both soprano Maria Kanyova and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan are making a sizable careers as Pat Nixon and Chou En-lai having already performed the roles in many productions around the country. Mr. Yuan brings particular sensitivity and solidity to Chou En-lai . Patrick Carfizzi did not find a persona as Henry Kissinger though he provided good fun. Watch soprano Hye Jung Lee sing Madame Mao’s aria on YouTube, www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwHxvRJ_vPMto, to understand why she got the role even though she is way too young.

As in the recent production of The Death of Klinghoffer at the English National Opera the biggest and finest moments of lyric transport occurred not vocally but in dance. The relentless obscurity of the Alice Goodman libretto suspended, Adams unfettered by need to support vocal line, music and movement united to become one in the plight of the poor peasant girl, splendidly danced en point by ballerina Chirharu Shibata to the choreography of Wen Wei Wang, supported by her savior, dancer Bryan Ketron.

The performance was an un-nerving experience, exacerbated by the absence of its primary creator, Peter Sellers. It was after all his idea. It is inexplicable why San Francisco Opera eschewed the genius of this major American director for its premiere of one of the most important operas of the twentieth century.

As it was San Francisco Opera opted for a production from Vancouver Opera that most recently visited Kansas City. It is a fine, good looking production of theatrical savvy by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh. It is straightforward and workmanlike. It did not approach the opposites of the abstract, structuralist theatrical world of Sellers, Goodman and Adams.

Rossini Opera Festival 2012
Ciro in Babilonia, Mathilda di Shaban,
and Il signor Bruschino

A couple of years ago the Rossini Festival staged the very first Rossini opera, Dimitrio e Polibio. It is on a serious subject (a father finds his long lost son and reconciles with an old enemy as well). Rossini was 15 years old. It was five years later that he discovered his comic muse with L’equivoco stravagante, followed the very next year (1812) by four more comedies, plus what the Festival considers his first opera seria, Ciro in Babilonia (forgetting that Dimitrio e Polibio is an opera seria). The rest is history.

The Festival had entrusted the staging of Dimitrio e Polibio to Italian director Davide Livermore who gave us enough lazzi (little visual tricks) to amuse ourselves mightily and make the opera itself as incidental to the evening’s entertainment as it is to the Rossini oeuvre. Ciro in Babilonia ossia La caduta di Baldassare is pretty thin material as well. It was another opportunity for Mr. Livermore!

Though thrust between Rossini and Mr. Livermore (lee-vehr-more-aye, no accent one assumes) was former enfant terrible New York Times music critic Will Crutchfield, now a conductor and coach of bel canto at the Caramoor Center for the Arts (64 kms north of New York City). Conductor Crutchfield is a strange mixture of erudition, musicality, and limited musical charisma who seems possessed by the operatic ideal of collaboration.

Meanwhile there was some singing too, most notably by 62 year-old Polish contralto Ewa Podles as lovesick Ciro. At this point in her career Mme. Podles is most often reverentially cast as a celebrated singer in a character role (the evil aunt in San Francisco’s Suor Angelica as example). The surprise is that Mme. Podles can still do a coloratura trouser role with plenty of voice and dazzling aplomb. Rossini’s Ciro is however a decidedly pale character to host such force of voice and personality.

Ewa Podles as Ciro, Jessica Pratt as Matilda, Michael Spires as Baldassare (video image)
Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival

Mme. Podles did indeed make this unlucky Persian king (he lost a battle plus his wife to Belshazzar) into a character well beyond the possible imaginings of Rossini. This only succeeded in rendering Australian soprano Jessica Pratt less convincing as the Rossini heroine Amira, his Rossini imagined femme fatale wife. Mlle. Pratt possibly could have approached the vocal ideal of such a creature as she is a fine Rossini singer, popping off interpolated stratospheric notes in shimmering coloratura.

Baldassare, the lovesick ruler of Babilonia (yes, like Handel’s Xerxes) loses in the end. Ciro wins a battle and gets his wife back and everyone lives happily ever after, though of course all this is pure fantasy. Baldassare too, Missouri born tenor Michael Spires, was no match for Ciro. He cut a good figure, his very long lament Qual crudel, qual trista sorte made a case for the greatness of the Rossini-to-come, and earned him a real ovation (real ovations are long and loud in Pesaro).

Mr. Livermore took on Rossini’s opera seria and cleverly did away with it knowing that we would find its superimposition onto a silent film epic imitation more amusing. Surely we did (though an opera seria every once in a while does hit the spot). That its transformation was thorough is beyond question, including the suppression of supertitles so we could not know really what was being said or thought (these singers did not project the Italian text as did, for example, the singers in Mathilda di Shabran to a remarkable degree). So it was opera without words, though we all know opera has words, and some of us, probably many of us ached for real opera.

Mr. Livermore made constant reference to the silent film era with video techniques effected by Torino’s D-Wok (an enterprise that offers “multi-sensory creativity recipes”). These effects were brilliantly and sensitively used to goose up Rossini’s incipient greatness, like the moving background film images slipping into judder for the serious moments in the Ciro/Amira recognition duet, plus the scratches on the film (thin streaks of light) increasing in intensity and frequency as Rossini’s music intensified at the opera’s conclusion. Not to ignore the close-up shots of melodramatic faces in sepia tinted frames, and (whew!) the absolutely stunning early film-art epic costumes designed by Gianluca Falaschi.

Ewa Podles as Ciro
Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival

Mr. Livermore was a singer before he became one of Italy’s most gifted and interesting stage directors. Well aware of the needs of singers he and his designer Nicolas Bovey provided a moving platform stage layout that propelled the singers to positions of direct communication with the conductor (and therefore the audience) for the big arias. In fact Mo. Crutchflield seemed more interested in his singers than in the fine orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna even though a splendid violin solo rang out in forceful melodramatic pathos with Mlle. Pratt’s Deh, per me non v’affliggete (don’t beat yourself up on my account).

Davide Livermore’s production was smart indeed, too smart for what Rossini had to say.

Well, enough with opera seria, let’s get back to comedy. The very next year, a big one, Rossini first dashed of a one-act farce, Il signor Bruschino before composing his first great tragedy, Tancredi, and his first great comedy, L’italiana in Algeri. The Festival entrusted the staging of this incidental farce to Teatro Sotterraneo, a Florentine group comprised of dancers, actors, performance artists, singers, etc., who collectively create and perform theater.

At first the suspicion was that this was in fact the case, that the stage manager, his assistant, the dresser, etc., who rushed about the stage doing schtick before, during and after the overture were Teatro Sotterraneo, that a couple of old guys (Bruschino and Gaudenzio as we later learned) putting on strange costumes and sort of coxcomb like plastic wigs were Teatro Sotterraneo, and that Florville and Sofia who sang about their problems were Teatro Sotterraneo actors and not really Rossini singers.

Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival

The sets and costumes, the issue of the Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino which was part of this opera-by-committee committee, were a crossroads somewhere (like Latin comedy), maybe Pesaro, or in the unlikely case that you (and the far more likely case that these talented kids) had been to a Disneyland in Anaheim, Tokyo, Orlando or Paris in the recent past, maybe a theme park somewhere. Probably it was just the Lungomare in Pesaro — in fact there was even a sign announcing that we were in Rossiniland with arrows pointing to La Gazza Ladra and other such attractions.

What would Disneyland/Rossiniland be without you and me to wonder and marvel at what we found there? So what looked like the youth cult that surely must be Teatro Sotterraneo, plus a few more seasoned tourists like us, timidly interfaced with Bruschino, Florville and Filiberto there in Rossiniland (the Cinderella, Daffy and Donald Ducks, etc., of Disneyland). That is when we were not distracted by a sudden parade chasing after William Tell (yes, Rossini’s late, great opera was quoted).

Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival

So it was a farce within a farce, one dumbly brilliant farce, make that brilliantly dumb farce within another. A stroke of genius. Anything went to sabotage the integrity of one of Rossini’s lesser efforts, efforts that in fact gave it the vibrantly casual artistic life it deserves.

With due respect to the singers, they were appropriately neither Teatro Sotterraneo nor were they the cast you would dream of for a Pesaro Italiana or Tancredi. They were wonderful singing actors who brought Rossini’s farce alive in high art that was well beyond mere opera. Roberto de Candia and Carlo Lepore supplied experience and savoir faire as Bruschino and Gaudenzio, Andrea Vicenzo Bonsignore as the innkeeper Filiberto, David Alegret as Florville the young lover, and Maria Aleida with her amazingly high notes as Sofia the ingenue supplied the promise. Young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni was a lively participant in the proceedings as were members of the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini.

Much magnificence was added to the Rossini oeuvre over the next ten years, like all of the more recognizable Rossini titles (the operas in French were still to come), including Matilde di Shabran ossia Bellezza e cuor di ferro in 1821, a very strange piece. Like Handel’s Xerxes it is either a tragedy or a comedy, and in the best of all possible worlds it is both.

It was a revival of a 2004 production erected in the limited stage housing of the 600 or so seat Teatro Rossini that made its way to Covent Garden in 2008 where the two concentric floor to rafters circular staircases, the sum total of its scenery, were presumably resized to a considerably larger dimension. Back now in Pesaro at the Adriatic Arena in this or another enlarged version of the original it did not come close to making the startling scenic impressions that have marked Adriatic Arena productions in recent years (like Mose in Egitto, Zelmira, and Ermione).

Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival

However it did have Juan Diego Flórez and that seemed enough to bring the audience to an a priori delirium. The twenty-three year-old Juan Diego made his Pesaro debut in the role of Corradino the Iron Hearted back in 1996, in a resurrection of Matilde di Shabran after 175 years of oblivion. Needless to say it was Mr. Flórez who sang it in London at age 35, and may it suffice to say that the role still belongs to him alone at age 39. Possibly this is because he may be the only one who can sing it. Or maybe wants to.

Corradino the Iron Hearted has a lot to sing about. The peace and quiet (save for an occasional battle) of his chateau has been disturbed by the arrival of two women who are chasing him. He hates women. So there are a lot of high “C”’s and more than a few elaborate rages. Corradino is head-strong and not too smart (well, he is a tenor). Though of course Juan Diego is nothing if not smart, and very famous for his high “C”‘s. This combination of character and singer is exploited to perfection by Mr. Flórez in minimal moves and maximal voice and musicianship.

Photos courtesy Rossini Opera Festival
Olga Peretyatko as Matilda, Juan Diego Flòrez as Corradino

This is mature Rossini who masterfully constructs huge ensembles, a quintet in the first act bringing iron hearted Juan Diego together with German formed Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko as Matilda, the pushy ingenue who lets nothing get in her way (like Rosina) and Italian mezzo Chiara Chialli as the pushy Contessa who, after four hours [!] of conniving, was the sore loser. Young Italian buffo Nicola Alaimo as the wise doctor Aliprando and Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna as the opportunistic Neopolitan poet Isidoro (gifted Pesaro regulars) finished the five who lined up across the stage and let it rip.

The staging of the opera was limited to the principals running up and down the spiral staircases when not forming a line to sing together. The quintet was joined in the extended first act finale by the two additional principals, young Russian mezzo Anna Goryachova as Edoardo, captured son of the Iron Hearted’s arch enemy, and excellent Spanish bass Simon Orfila as Ginardo, the castle gatekeeper.

Holding all of this together with the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna was young Italian conductor Michele Mariotti, a graduate of the Conservatorio Rossini di Pesaro who has gone to the top fast. Mo. Mariotti brought unusual elegance to the opera’s overture, and coaxed continued suavity and a far more than usual or expected orchestral participation in the complex musical proceedings without foregoing his responsibilities to the stage.

Without the participation of a real production conception (Italian film director Mario Martone’s production was more or less costume opera, at least as seen from row 14), the performance missed achieving the magical Rossini operatic delirium that has been the hallmark of recent Adriatic Arena productions. Not that this lack was lamented by the audience who responded to Rossini’s magnificent ensembles with huge, really huge, foot stomping ovations.

Olga Peretyatko, Matilda, had the last word in an extended solo scene at the end of the opera in which she unleashed torrents of brilliant coloratura bragging about her conquest of Juan Diego, the real Rossini diva she has become over the past several years in Pesaro.

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Les Noces de Figaro in Aix

You pay your money, you takes your chances — that is festival life at its best. Sometimes it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. The fun is in the risk, so the riskier the better.

Yes, it was risky indeed for the Festival’s umpteenth production of Les Noces de Figaro by the Festival’s signature composer, W.A. Mozart (that’s Mose-art in French by the way). Richard Brunel, director of the Comédie de Valence (a small city south of Lyon), re-conceived Beaumarchais’ testy little comedy to take place in a contemporary notaire’s office, or maybe it was an avocat’s office or some sort of corporate office where Barbarina was the receptionist (it was confusing), with grand doors embedded into the stage left wall leading into, we later learned, a large room with two sewing machines.

It seems that there was to be an office wedding with Susanna and Marcellina arguing who was going to wear the wedding veil (Via, resti servita), a long white filmy thing that was on stage most of the opera. The count, who was a lawyer or something, sometimes brought his dog to the office as if he had just been hunting and still had his gun with him. His dog was really smart and sniffed out the door behind which Cherubino was hiding and guarded it while the Count, strangely lacking janitorial staff, went to get some tools. Later when things got out-of-hand between the Count and Countess the dog barked in just the right place, the only moment he could get a bark in.

A court room appeared on stage right, abutting the count’s office. Everyone soon gathered for various reasons and then the Countess came in and sang her Dove sono (translation: Where am I?). In the end the Countess wore a wedding gown to disguise herself as Susanna, and Susanna wore black with a high grey turban to hide the Countess’ long blond hair (we had been amazed earlier by this strange coiffure on the Countess). The sterile (no plants) garden seemed to be behind some featureless house in a French banlieue (suburb) parts of which kept sliding eerily about the stage making everyone even sleepier (it was 1:30 AM by then).

The curtain fell (well, a large flat thing slowly descended) and when it rose for the artists to take their bows the star of the show appeared alone on the stage. Yes! The dog.

Some very good singers then made their way onto the stage to accept applause. Figaro, American baritone Kyle Ketelson, of course had the final bow. Mr. Ketelsen had a huge success two years ago in Aix as Don Giovanni’s cheeky sidekick, a very physical Leporello. He is a vivid performer who projects text to perfection but dressed in a suit and tie his cheek did not find character in Figaro. The biggest ovation went to Cherubino, American mezzo Kate Lindsay, dressed in a suit and tie who fussed with the Countess’ bra (other times a ribbon) and sang breathlessly making Mozart’s young lover quite fun and real.

Brazilian baritone Paolo Szot who was to have appeared in Aix’s Nose but did not was the Count. Mr. Szot has a quite beautiful voice, beautifully used. He is often strangely type miscast in big houses (because he is South American i.e. latin) as Escamillo in spite of a soft, pretty presence. He did not read as a bonafide sexual predator, and made Almaviva seem even sympathetic and misunderstood in his garden escapade.

These were the big house singers. Things got risky with French soprano Patricia Petibon as Susanna and Swedish soprano Malin Byström as the Countess. Mlle. Petibon gave Susanna a quite saucy “ina” (Zerlina, Despina) character in a quite smokey voice that precluded any text projection. At first it seemed Mlle. Byström might be a Swedish dramatic soprano in training, but it became apparent that she is a lovely, quite beautiful singer who does not project strong character. Both women boast important credits in early music so perhaps the attributes that made their performances pale on the Archevêché stage are valuable in other circumstances.

The singers in the supporting character roles were swallowed up in the concept.

The evening’s conceit seems to have been to juxtapose hard edge contemporary dramaturgy and design with real, old, decorative music, a conceit that in some circumstances might spawn better results. The risky orchestra in Aix was Le Cercle de l’Harmonie, a group based in Deauville (Normandy) led by violinist/conductor Jérémie Rhorer, a protégé of William Christie. This orchestra has been specifically built to perform the music of the late 18th century (i.e. Mozart and Hadyn). As it was from row M in the Archevêché the music seemed long ago and far away, a bit like an old reed organ without sufficient air supply. Conductor Rhorer’s tempi seemed appropriate for the occasion.

Maybe you had to be French.

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Written on Skin in Aix

Not about tattoo art, not an evocation of the Holocast, and let us not even try to put our finger on what it is about.

Because Written on Skin seems to be about every thing you can think of, let us just say it is about being alive and knowing it. The artistic trick in Written on Skin is this huge revelation, which is art itself. It is big art, hard art, tender art, brutal art. Written on Skin above all is very real art.

Written on Skin is a libretto and its music — not since Monteverdi have music and words combined with more force and clarity. Playwright Martin Crimp distills a thousand years of images and issues into a brief text that composer George Benjamin embodies in one hour and forty minutes of sounds that defy definition.

If opera is essentially sex and violence Written on Skin well qualifies, Benjamin’s score magnifies the strange and delicate sexual stirrings that Benjamin Britten musically discovered and carries these urges to powerful and violent climax, rendering Britten’s guilty regret into utter hopelessness. And there is the sonic scope of timeless Messiaen transferred from God’s lofty nature to the creator’s own, base human nature. It is the sonic gamut of human nature.

It was an exhilarating evening that owes everything to everyone who created it, an astounding portrayal of the wife Agnes by soprano Barbara Hannigan, at once the fourteen year-old girl, the bride, the subject of her husband and an animal in heat. Baritone Christopher Purves made a profoundly moving portrayal of the Protector, Agnes’ husband, provider and, yes, protector and victim. The Boy, the medieval and timeless illuminator who was at once artist, innocence, lover and angel was countertenor Bejun Mehta in beautiful voice and charismatic character.

Two additional presences complete Martin Crimp’s humanity, the female, mezzo soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb, consumed by unconsecrated sexuality, her essence played out on the senses of her skin. She is a lost, unredeemed angel. Her husband, baritone Allan Clayton, like the Protector is an actor in the world, like all men unprotected, ineffectual and meaningless. He too is an unredeemed angel.

Metteur en scène Katie Mitchell and scenographer Vicki Mortimer echoed the complexities of the Crimp text within five designated spaces on the split level stage to move between dialogue and narration, from action to description, from self discovery to self-conscious notation. High above was the artist studio where the world’s happenings are recorded, and next to it a verdant space with a window looking into something, maybe fulfillment, below a sort of ante-room to heaven and hell next to the world stage that was a room in the Protector’s house, both heaven and hell.

A side space in nature gave way in the last of the three part opera (marked by two brief pauses) to a coup de theatre — the sudden apparition of a stairway ascending to undefined spaces above the stage where Agnes climbed to a sort of redemption. At last, served for dinner the heart of the boy, the artist, the lover, she knows that nothing will ever take its taste from her mouth, erase the boy’s pictures from her skin.

Like Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Written on Skin is a horror story, a journey into the darkest abyss’s to be tread by the human spirit. It brings the fascination and exhilaration of a glimpse into a psychic place one should never enter without the protection of really good art. Like Written on Skin.

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David et Jonathas in Aix

Rare, very rare repertory that is not even opera stole the show at the sixty fourth Aix Festival.

It was an oratorio by Marc-Antoine Charpentier who created between the acts tableaux for Molière comedies before Louis XIV banned frivolous entertainments, like plays and opera. Thus theater, never to be suppressed, moved to the concert hall where bible stories were told. That they were really operas anyway was a secret no one told.

David et Jonathas is about two boys who love each other passionately (that’s the David of the Goliath story by the way, and Jonathas, son of Saul) . And yes, there was a prolonged kiss in the Aix staging by Andreas Homoki, lately intendant of Berlin’s Komishe Oper, coming in as that of Zurich Opera. William Christie and his Les Arts Florisants orchestra were in the pit, about forty musicians, including 24 strings to provide a big, lush sound and winds and percussion to add seemingly infinite colors. The wind roll and thunder sheet, both exceptionally well played, made the case for the virtuosity of this famed early music ensemble.

In concert with all this fire power were its three principal singers, Pascal Charboneau as David, Ana Quintans as Jonathas and Neal Davies as Saul, who delivered the maximum rapture, agony and rage that any drama of the Baroque could possibly conjure. There can be no way to hear how this music sounded long ago, but the suspicion lurks that three centuries of operatic progress have layered bel canto, verismo and expressionism onto what singing once was. These singers gave us all of this.

In these voices the usual vocal technique of floating a tone on a column of air gave way (it seemed) to singing on the chords (the vocal chords), like shouting (or screaming) where the vocal urgency is apparent. Of course exercised by these artists it was singing at its most dramatic. And seventeenth century Catholic priest librettist Père François de Paule Bretonneau gave Charpentier’s singers a lot to sing about.

In the Homoki staging David, an outcast of both the Jews and the Philistines, has been taken into the bosom of Saul’s household, the en famille dinner table. The silent mother, first portrayed by an actress and later brilliantly sung by identically costumed counter-tenor Dominique Visse provides the love, Saul is consumed by suspicions, obsessed that David is a powerful rival. Homoki introduced the innocence and intensity of the David/Jonathas relationship in the overture with two young boys happily playing in Saul’s home. These young boys, wonderful actors, later in the opera may have sung a brief duet as their lips moved though no sound was apparent.

Homoki gently and succinctly portrays the crisis in Saul’s mind and kingdom (Saul’s family) by pantomiming the death of the mother. But the mother transformed into the witch Pythonisse, now Mr. Visse, who appears to torment Saul in a lengthy scene where her presence is inexorably intensified by ten (or so) identical mothers. Mr. Visse rendered this scene otherworldly in an operatic voice that is feminine but is not. It was the voice of a witch.

Young Canadian tenor Pascal Charboneau as David compelled us to suffer the death of Jonathas, his love, to be trapped in his complex feelings for his surrogate father and sworn enemy Saul and to understand his emotional desolation of his coronation as the bible’s King David. Mr. Charboneau is a dynamic performer who has yet to gain final finish though this roughness added to his performance.

Portuguese soprano Ana Quintans as Jonathas made time stand still in her lament that she (Jonathas) must forsake her love for David, the eternal nature of such love expressed in suspended tones floating above the staff. Mlle. Quintans is a quite polished singer and actress.

English baritone Neal Davies made Saul both a conflicted, more or less contemporary Orthodox Jew pater familias and a conflicted political leader. Stabbed by David he lay seemingly dead through an extensive scene until resurrected by rage he made a final, extensive, spine tingling, vocally splendid lunge at David to avenge the death of his son.

Mr. Homoki with his designer, architect Paul Zoller played on the concert genesis of the opera by constructing a huge wooden box, like a concert stage. It was however a sentient machine that expanded and contracted in concert with the drama and its music, its side walls moving in to crush Saul as he learns that God has forsaken him. Its walls again move in to crush Jonathas when he must decide if he must forsake his duty to his father for the sake of his love for David. The costumes by Gideon Davey were brilliantly simple, a timeless modern adaptation of Orthodox dress and an adaptation of the Arabic thwab.

Not to forget to extol the exemplary performance by Les Arts Florisants chorus, both individual voices in solo lines and the scenes with full chorus. Not only did this fine ensemble find the urgency and excitement of opposing populations in its vocal projection, its members physically embodied the action in stance and movement. It was an opera chorus of stellar accomplishment.

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Dialogues of the Carmelites in Toulon

Boasting one of France’s grandest opera houses (said to be the model for Paris’ Opéra Garnier) Toulon hosts a season of five operas — Aida, Butterfly and Flute are hand in hand with Carmen and, yes, Dialogues des carmélites.

The pit however is small for big opera, thus the baignoires (boxes) sitting just over the sides of the pit have long since been taken over by percussion. In the recent renovation of the Opéra the pit was not enlarged making it necessary to requisition additional nearby baignoires to accommodate Poulenc’s generous post Romantic orchestration — the harps coté cour (left side) and a piano coté jardin. The Opéra de Toulon was set up for a big evening.

New productions are rarely created in Toulon — this Dialogues of the Carmelites was an exception. Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil, the artistic team of some pretension that has overseen the Opéra Français de New York since 2005 were its authors. In recent years messieurs Clarac and Deloeuil have undertaken as well the stagings of large, non-operatic choral/orchestral works in important French theaters.

The techniques they have developed informed this staging of Poulenc’s Dialogues, the set more of an art installation than an integration of opera’s dramatic components. The ancien régime (or ancestral home in this abstract staging) was a Louis XIV settee in a display case, the monastery was a white, hard-edge Stonehenge configuration. Interludes were visually inhabited by huge black and white projections of nuns’ faces enclosed in Revolutionary period habits when not enlivened by the a vista intrusion of stagehands (maybe the angry mob) to modify the elements of the installation — some benches became crosses and others became general mayhem (aka Place de la Révolution).

The coup de théâtre was, of course, the executions. A large white plaque descended with MORT written in straight neon lines, fifteen, uhm, make that sixteen little lines were extinguished one by one in concert with Poulenc’s hyper kitsch, not to say wonderfully effective, always moving finale. It even survived, almost, this staging. Believe it or not.

The mise en scène did offer the singers ample space and relief to portray Poulenc’s very human characters struggling to reconcile life with death, fear with principle (and the list of conflicts goes on), the humanity in Poulenc’s startling opera exponentially intensified by installing it within spiritually competitive women. The impact of Poulenc’s opera is realized by the individual performances of five nuns, each performance contributing to the complexity and therefore effectiveness of the other performances. These are complicated women.

Toulon made it part of the way with Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho as Blanche, possessed by primal fears and questionable spirituality. No stranger to the Toulon stage (Mireille [2007], Thais [2010]) Mlle. Jaho is a large scale artist with a very fine instrument (thus a very big career). Blanche dominated the stage as Poulenc meant her to do, the stage having been set for her by the old Prioress Mme. de Croissy enacted by mezzo soprano Nadine Denize. The Prioress is dying, thus this cameo role is always undertaken by a magnetic singer, often retired who can gasp and hopefully emit a few good tones from time to time. Mme. Denize was appropriately magnetic, shall we say mesmerizing, and gasped with the best of them. Equally affecting was the role of Constance, the young nun whose impetuousness belied her purity, sung by French soprano Virginie Pochon.

The roles of Mère Marie de l’Incarnation and Madame Lidoine are dramatically more pointed. In fact the biggest singing of the evening is given to Mère Marie, once assumed to be the successor to the old Prioress, and who finally is the only one of the nuns who declines martyrdom making her the spiritual villain of Poulenc’s opera. The new prioress, Madame Lidoine is a simple, unassuming soul, who finally achieves emotional stature as an effective mother to her flock. Taken respectively by mezzo soprano Sophie Fournier and Spanish soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin these two roles did not contribute sufficient force of personality or voice to effectively complete the dramatic spectrum. The same may be said of the aumônier (chaplain) to the nuns sung by tenor Olivier Dumait.

Overseeing all this musically was octogenarian conductor Serge Baudo. The realization of Poulenc’s score lacked the urgency these spiritual dilemmas should provoke, and the musical energy required to keep this theater piece alive for two hours. Nor could the maestro impose sufficient control over the orchestra to assure clean entrances and cutoffs.

Cast and Production

Blanche de la Force: Ermonela Jaho; Madame de Croissy: Nadine Denize; Madame Lidoine: Angeles Blancas Guin; Le Chavalier de la Force: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; L’Aurmônier: Olivier Dumait; Le Marquis de la Force: Laurent Alvaro; Constance de Saint-Denis: Virginie Pochon; Mère Marie de l’Incarnation: Sophie Fournier; Le premier commissaire: Thomas Morris; Le second commissaire: Philippe Ermelier; Docteur Javelinot: Jean-François Verdoux; Thierry: Thierry Hanier; Mère Jeanne: Sylvia Gigliotti; Soeur Mathilde: Rosemonde Bruno La Rotonda. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon. Conductor: Serge Baudo; Mise en scène & scene design: Jean-Philiippe Clarac & Olivier Deloeuil; Costumes: Thibaut Welchlin; Lighting: Rick Martin. Opéra de Toulon. January 29, 2013.

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Les Noces de Figaro in Montpellier

Perfection. A seldom used term in critiques of opera performances. There it was, almost (and will be, maybe).

Haute couture designer Jean Paul Gaultier created costumes for Mozart’s masterpiece in this new production at the Opéra National de Montpellier with set design and stage direction by Jean-Paul Scarpita. The most theatrical among haute couture stars Gaultier is uniquely suited to Mozart comedy, sharing with the venerated composer both sharp wit and a preoccupation and fascination for women.

Gaultier had a particular fascination for his grandmother’s underclothes, structural corsets above all, and this preoccupation with structure permeates his oeuvre (currently on exposition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, through August 19). In Montpellier he literally exposed the understructure of late 18th century couture in visible linear sculptures that resonated wittily with Mozartian musical structures.

Like all haute couture that of Gaultier is elegant and luxurious. In Montpellier (France’s most elegant city) Mozart too became haute couture of rarefied elegance and luxury. The reduced Orchestra National de Montpellier was in splendid form responding to Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel’s delicate and obsessive shaping of the multiple instrumental voices that sang out in refined flights of melodic splendor. Mo. Goetzel evoked a multitude of unusual colors and musical shapes by exploiting the sharper sounds we associate with early music rendered by the virtuoso forces of this exceptionally fine modern French orchestra.

Now let us talk about true perfection (and the suspicion that you had to fit the clothes to get the role). Czech baritone Adam Plachetka was the epitome of the libidinous Almaviva, in a costume masterpiece that resonated with the darkness of a Don Juan figure. Mr. Plachetka towered as the male, thirty-ish libido in full force, his voice with a sharp, maybe sadistic edge, and power, know-how and vulnerability. Svelte blond Italian soprano Erkia Grimaldi countered with a precociously full lyric thirty-ish Rosina and an astounding vocal technique (the reprise of Dove sono sung in a sleepy pianissimo). When not the sensuous woman in a form-fitting white early Hollywood gown lying on the floor or petting in a corner with Cherubino she donned a towering white wig-like construction to become the Countess.

Cherubino, young Israeli soprano Rachel Frenkel entered in white underclothes eschewing all trouser affectation. She was soon dressed by Rosina and Susanna to be Cupid himself as he remained for the rest of the opera. This Cherubino sung in an unusually lyric fashion was an ephemeral blue presence. Bartolo, Italian basso Antonio Abete, and Marcellina, svelte, not-at-all tall French mezzo Virginie Pochon were dressed in brilliant crimsons and were colorful rather than buffo objects, as was the brilliant yellow Basilio of French tenor Loîc Félix.

Both Figaro and Susanna were light on their feet, German baritone Konstantin Wolff effecting a few very graceful full body falls (not to ignore a spectacular body roll over the fourth act bench by Almavia himself). Mr. Wolff was in black leather pants and white shirt with criss crossing details that hinted Harlequin. An exquisite actor and fine singer he created a Figaro of genuine, even moving innocence, assuming finally the fetal position next to Marcellina during her fourth act aria. Québécoise soprano Hélène Guilmette, Susanna, carried an exposed traverse bustle under construction on her hips for most of the opera. The opera’s catalyst, its constructive and destructive forces she delivered her Deh, vieni alla fenestra with consummate innocence, its words emerging with such vocal naturalness that it seemed nearly spoken.

Designer and stage director Scarpita offered a vaguely detailed architectural space of neutral color in which the vividly costumed actors assumed high relief. There were very few props — an abstracted Susanna/Figaro bed subsequently also served as the chair for the first act trio (though the only idea of a bed in the Countess’ boudoir was the Countess lying on the floor). There was no window for Cherubino’s escape (he ran off stage right), and there was no shrubbery to hide behind in the fourth act. This minimalism was strikingly elegant, and carried into Mr. Scarpita’s story telling by his omission of most gestural detail, streamlining the action into fleet, sometimes abstractly narrative lines.

There were some real problems in the performance on June 26. Conductor Goetzel concentrated his attention on his instrumental voices, the stage voices left to fend for themselves. But sometimes these brilliant young artists missed the dramatic and musical confidence to be on their own, and, well, maybe opera does need an opera conductor after all. At the worst moments, and there were many, the pit and stage seemed absolutely unconnected (at best, in the fourth act, Mozart was more magical than ever).

The brilliance of the costume design and the refinement of the staging seemed to overwhelm the simple humanity of the repertoire’s most succinctly human opera.

It could be that everyone’s game was a bit off that evening. The performance was postponed for 30 minutes so that the chorus, orchestra and stage hands could make the audience aware of their dissatisfaction with Jean-Paul Scarpita as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier. Among the complaints was that Mr. Scarpita had banished the chorus to the pit for this production because he did not want “fat cows” (des vaches grasses they said he said) on the stage, replacing them with the lithe bodies of supernumeraries who presumably fit more suitably into haute couture.

Such artistic considerations would have been more commendable had Mr. Scarpita used a corps de ballet (even better bodies than his supernumeraries) and a choreographer for his servants and peasants. These scenes were regretful, clumsy moments.

There are two more performances as part of the Montpellier Radio France Festival, July 14 and 15. It is quite possible that stars may align and forces may converge to achieve the perfection we imagined on June 26.

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The Death of Klinghoffer at the English National Opera

Is The Death of Klinghoffer a flawed piece tainted by political propaganda or is it compelling musical theater shadowed by explosive tension?

Twenty years after its initial performances In Brussels and Brooklyn the English National Opera has revived John Adams‘ oratorio opera in a production that forsakes the bleeding heart genius of one of its original collaborators — Peter Sellers — in exchange for a gentler vision of the passions and personalities of this bizarre moment of maritime history. It is a joint production with the Metropolitan Opera where, may we conjecture, it will be directed via “Live in HD” to fifty-six countries around the world into thousands of movie theaters.

But still it is a dangerous piece of American artistic propaganda that may well provoke unreasonable, angry and possibly violent reactions because of its extra-artistic implications. Like Jerry Springer, The Opera did. And John Adam’s opera really is something like Jerry Springer, The Opera with its slice of basic humanity coping with hopeless situations in simple and simplistically violent terms. Unfortunately for the implicit geo-political gravity of The Death of Klinghoffer its victims emerge as caricatures of the American lower middle-class, like the Jerry Springer Show.

The success of this production by Tom Morris (who not so coincidently was the original presenter of Jerry Springer, The Opera) is balanced on the transporting of such humanity to a level of sympathetic artistic objectivity. Hard to do (and of course initially it was hardly the aspiration of director Peter Sellers) as the opera and this production insist on statements of sensational historical moments (including a vaguely explicable reference to Compton 1992) that spotlight the plight of the downtrodden.

But the production succeeded in finding objectivity from time to time, especially when it transcended Alice Goodman’s libretto, a book that valiantly attempts to transform the real-life vocabularies of these real-life actors into a medium for high art. The objectivity occurred when the opera became purely lyrical dance movement, its two essential moments the exhortation to holy death (by his mother) to hijacker Omar who danced its torture and ecstasy and the Klinghoffer dancer double who danced the dead Klinghoffer’s death oration. Both were very moving human moments.

Mrs. Klinghoffer has little to say in Mme. Goodman’s libretto until the final scene of the opera when she has the most expansive and extended tract in the opera, sort of like the Libera Me that concludes Verdi’s Requiem. “I wanted to die,” she repeats, after reciting a litany of ailments amidst anecdotal recollections of marital life. Composer Adams did not succeed (nor possibly could have succeeded) in creating music that transformed this agony into Apolline clarity.

If Benjamin Britten brings his listener to immediate contact with obscure and decidedly delicate sexual impressions John Adams in The Death of Klinghoffer immediately hits with equal bullseye the simplistic tone and the violence of his actors. His minimalism expanded with effective richness when need be, and rose to extraordinary violence in the two on-stage executions of Klinghoffer, and of course chugged the ultra simplicity of the plights of the deposed Palestinians and the homeless Israelis. The Tom Morris production easily and effectively subsumed John Adams’ very direct musical expression well rendered by conductor Baldur Brônnimann.

The English National Opera does not use stars. If the Klinghoffer of Alan Opie and the Mrs. Klinghoffer of Michaela Martens were effectively cast, as decidedly was Omar danced by Jesse Kovarsky, the other hijackers were pallid vocally and histrionically. Omar’s mother, Clare Presland, sorely lacked maternal color. James Cleverton was a convincing First Officer though Christopher Magiera did not vocally discover a depth of character for The Captain (maybe Alice Goodman’s Captain in fact never had any).

Perhaps at the Met The Death of Klinghoffer will be cast with bigger and more vividly vocal performers. It so there is a possibility that it can be transformed into a masterpiece of sorts. It must transcend the docudrama basis that this production insists upon. A future production might even transpose the time and place of this opera to times past, stripping it of its sensationalism and therefore allowing its humanity to prevail. Well, why not?

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Mazeppa in Monte-Carlo

Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa is not everyday repertory, nonetheless here in the south of France the Monaco production follows fairly closely (a couple of years) on the heels of the Peter Stein Mazeppa in Lyon.

If Mr. Stein was preoccupied with the larger political implications of this ignoble moment of Russian history, metteur en scène Dieter Kaegi in this production from Opera Ireland dwells on the sordid personalities of its protagonists. Peter Stein’s Ukraine was its expanse, in Dublin and now Monaco the Ukraine became a small drawing room where a treacherous general seduces a gullible adolescent whose simple father naively tries to wreck revenge.

Peter Stein’s cast could not have descended to this basic humanity had it wanted to, but Mr. Kaegi’s cast was indeed able and maybe a bit too willing. Bass-now-baritone Tómas Tómasson made a handsome, just-graying Mazeppa whose intrinsic masculinity could not help but awaken the sensibilities of the gullible young Maria, the lithesome Tatiana Pavlovskaia.

The parents of Maria are quite comfortable, bass Paata Burchuladze was the very picture of bourgeois contentment together with mezzo Elena Manistina as his wife. Both are quite comfortable artists with fine, well used rich voices, and unobtrusive stage mannerisms. Maria’s intended, the plain, uncharismatic Andreï was Dmitro Popov who compensated with quite ample vocal charisma.You get the idea, a great cast, all nurtured in Russian vocalism and style (though Mr. Tomasson is in fact Icelandic). Add Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski for a clean sweep. Mo. Jurowski is perhaps a new breed of Russian conductor, all business, little pleasure in the smaller musical gestures that color Tchaikovsky’s more personal moments. The battle scenes roared, the confrontations howled, and finally Maria’s madness was relentlessly driven by the obliging Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. The only thing lacking was poetry.

Mr. Kaegi (general director of Opera Ireland) together with designer Rudy Sabounghi and costumer David Belugou (both frequent contributors to Monte-Carlo productions) updated the action from Peter the Great’s reign to the 1930’s or so, a transposition it did not wear well. But never mind, the wigs, costumes and room furnishings were visually engaging (handsome and colorful indeed), and provided absolutely no sense of rural Ukraine in what must have been a fairly austere period (the 1930’s).

Unfortunately the supertitles, maybe faithful to Tchaikovsky’s text, often belied the staging, making a gap in the credibility of either. Like, for one example, the festive picnic at the execution of Maria’s father and the massive hammer and sickle banner that oversaw the scene. Orlik, Mazeppa’s thug aptly portrayed by Opera Ireland bass Gerard O’Conner, motivated his mutilation of Maria’s father by first shaving himself in the prison cell — evidently he just happened to have a straight razor that could have other uses.

This reduction of Mazeppa to a melodrama with all the trappings of a 1940‘s movie might have worked with a tighter theatrical technique. As it was the inconsistency of the staging with the libretto and the heavy handed use of staging leitmotifs prevented an effective realization of the concept. Mr. Tomasson’s over-acting and Mlle. Pavlovskaia’s mannered presence added a touch of soap opera caricature to production.

It was a festive evening in Monte-Carlo, the performance well appreciated by an international audience, the automotive artillery guarding the entrance to the opera house cum casino included an orange Koenigsegg CCX and a splendid vintage Mercedes Benz roadster.

The Charterhouse of Parma in Marseille

Henri Sauguet is not entirely unknown in opera circles — divas Regine Crespin, Felicity Lott, Nathalie Dessay and Leontyne Price have included his arias in their solo albums. Plus there is a recording of his 1954 opera-comique Les Caprices de Marianne.

These days at least three (Milhaud, Poulenc, Honegger) of the famous les six are still quite recognizable names. But in Paris during the musically vibrant 1920’s and 30‘s Henri Sauguet of les trois (a group that promoted les six, Eric Satie and themselves) was a quite well known name as well. Put all that musical baggage on top of an essentially Gounod sensibility and you have a good idea of the Sauguet poetic. At least operatically.

Both Stendhal and Sauguet claim to like simple art hidden in complex language. So Sauguet took on Stendhal’s difficult novel La Chartreuse de Parme to make it into a simple opera and just now the Opéra de Marseille resurrected this piece after 62 years of oblivion and made it a plausible candidate to enter the repertoire.

To a man the audience in Marseille will have read Stendhal’s novel, the story of a very complicated young man too much loved by his very complicated aunt in too many ways who finally finds what he believes is love (though fortunately it is impossible love otherwise he would not have known what it was). The Church gets involved too.

It is a quite vivid work of fiction, thus every one of us at these Marseille performances intimately knew the cast of characters and voilà there they were! The real Fabrice in the person of tenor Sébastien Guèze and the equally real Duchess of Sanseverina in the person of mezzo Marie-Ange Todorovitch.

Sébastien Guèze as Fabrice, Marie-Ange Todorovitch as the duchess of Sanseverina
All photos copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

In the novel Fabrice has affairs with first an actress and then an opera singer (neither profession known for depth of personal character) before he finally succumbs to an infatuation with an adolescent girl, Clelia Conti, the only one of his lovers to make it into the opera. And there she was — soprano Nathalie Manfrino! Casting so perfect it was fiction itself.


Nathalie Manfrino as Clélia

Though baritone Nicolas Cavallier made a plausible Comte Mosca and baritone Jacques Calatatud made a good Barbone (the guard Fabrice beats up) the balance of the casting disappointed, particularly bass Jean-Phillippe Lafont as an uncomfortable, harsh, cruel General Conti rather than Stendhal’s very complicated courtier and caring father.

Neither Ludovic nor Theodolinde, tenor Eric Huchet and mezzo Sophie Pondjiclis had the physical or vocal edge to capture Stendhal’s vividly if minimally drawn characters that color Fabrice’s escapades in Bologna. Sauguet’s opera renders them as buffo relief rather than as Stendhal’s plot facilitators who just happen to be of impressive character.

But that is the novel. It will have been a daunting task for Sauguet and his librettist Armand Lunel to reduce a famous six hundred page novel to a little (by comparison) theater piece, and to musically rather than narratively structure its scenes. They and the Opéra de Marseille actually succeeded fairly well in giving a taste, albeit a clumsy one, of Stendhal’s novel. There were the painful omissions, like the actress and the opera singer, and the far more painful reordering and recasting of Stendhal’s episodes to arrive at a convincing dramatic process.

But succeed they did. In Act I we had to come to grips with these plot changes, and accommodate an unfamiliar musical language. Very successful persuasion came from the pit, in the scope and sweep of big, very big and very sophisticated music that conductor Lawrence Foster drew out of his very willing orchestra. Mo. Foster has just been named music director of the Opéra de Marseille and has made a huge first impression negotiating this bit of post-Sentimentalism, not similar but so comparable to Cilea and Giordano in its over-the-top and distinctly over ripe Romanticism.

Nicolas Cavallier as Comte Mosca, Marie-Ange Todorovitch as the duchess of Sanseverina, Jean-Philippe Lafont as Général Conti

Marseille performed acts one and two as the first half of the performance, glossing over the crucial time lapse and change of place that transpires between the acts — a mistake because it kept us from digesting the dramatic and musical complexities that occur in a box at a La Scala performance. As it was the first half was dwarfed by the ball at the Sanseverina palace in Parma that was hugely long and complex, and musically handled so deftly by Sauguet that it resembled the best of Tchaikowsky’s ballets.

Acts three and four brought the lyric gifts of Sauguet to the fore. They are considerable. There was scene after scene of dizzying arias and duets for Fabrice and Clélia. Sauguet’s vocal lines are florid and elaborate, not with ornamentation but complex cantabile melodies that seem rarely to move stepwise, and often move in fifths, sixths, even octaves! These arias and scenes are quite extended (like Stendhal’s interminable accounts of the slightest movement of mind and soul of his protagonists), and in high tessatura.

Both young Sébastien Guèze and Nathalie Manfrino made it to the end. It was herculean. While Mlle. Manfrino did show some fatigue, she never faltered in a convincing delivery of Sauguet’s vocal line. Mr. Guèze has mastered a falsetto that he implemented from time to time, particularly at his death (without love Fabrice simply wasted away), when perhaps a full voice pianissimo would have been more effective. But after three hours at full forte, in fact a brilliant vocal and histrionic performance, this observation is purely gratuitous.

The opera was staged by Renée Auphan, the former general director of the Opéra de Marseille. To the great profit of operatic France she was the instigator of several equally interesting revivals during her reign. The production and staging was adequate at best. Though of period credibility the unfortunate costumes by Katia Duflot read as haute couture rather than as character completion. Sauguet’s opera could have profited from a more sophisticated production.

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Il trittico in Lyon

All the important directors pass through Lyon, so it was just a matter of time before British director David Pountney would be invited to stage a production. It was Puccini’s triptych.

So here is the Trittico he gave the Lyonnais (note that this difficult Puccini work is three little horror stories, very loosely and ironically structured as hell, heaven and purgatory):

Il Tabarro

Mr. Pountney’s point of departure was to relate the three stories each to the next. Michele’s murder of Luigi seemed to be among the presumed serial murders of young dock workers seduced by Giorgetta, ritual killings that somehow purged their horror at the death of their young son. Sister Angelica consumes the body and blood (bread and wine) of the son of God in a sort of sacrificial black mass that excites a vision of her dead son during her final moments of life. And, well, Frugula and Talpa from Tabarro reincarnate themselves in Gianni Schicchi as Gherardo and a pregnant Nella with a baby in a carriage and an annoying seven year-old son on roller skates.

Csilla Boross as Sister Angelica

Maybe you prefer Puccini’s shock and awe versions of the same stories.

The mise en scène fortified the thematic unification. In Tabarro there was a box that was supposed to be a ship container, in Suor Angelica the same box became a tabernacle and in Gianni Schicchi it was a coffin though it had multiplied itself into many more boxes that were safes filled with boxes of spaghetti and cans of tomato sauce. Colors too brought things together conceptually. The Tabarro container was within a huge stage box of small shiny black bricks (hell). The Suor Angelica box was in a stage box cloister of small shiny white bricks, thousands of them (heaven). In Gianni Schicchi the little bricks of the visible side walls seemed the color of spagetti al pomodoro.

Of the three operas Il Tabarro was the most successful for a number of reasons, the first of which was that the top of the ship container box had cables and a hook that suggested it would disappear after that act. At first there seemed no reason to think that this little théâtre guignol piece was not being taken at face value, and even Mr. Pountney’s little twist at the end seemed fun. All the nuns in Suor Angelica disappeared under identical massive white habits so they all looked exactly alike. Therefore Sister Angelica seemed to have no personality whatsoever but that did not really matter once we understood that the opera was not about her but about a play on the Catholic mass.

Suor Angelica

Things fell apart in Gianni Schicchi where Mr. Pountney displayed his sense of fun in runaway character expositions that dwarfed Puccini’s own idea of his comedy. Specifically the campy antics of a very fey Marco (son of Simone), not to mention the fellatio and cunilingus enacted by Rinuccio and Lauretta. Then there were the witnesses to the writing of the new will who upstaged the whole scene by busily and noisily eating, yes, spaghetti al pomodoro.

Gianni Schicchi

Even a stellar cast could not have saved this production. As it was the Opéra de Lyon assembled a number of promising young singers and a few (but not enough) seasoned performers who mostly held things together on the stage. Of particular notice was the Brazilian born, Italian nurtured tenor Thiago Arancam who allowed Luigi’s passions to burst forth with tenorial flair and dramatic reality. Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross sang securely and acted Giorgetta with conviction but did not find the ultimate rapture of Sister Angelica, victim of the production. Bass-baritone Werner Van Mechelen is an accomplished artist who made both Michele and Gianni Schicchi into vocally and dramatically vivid characters. Wynne Evans and Paolo Battaglia were appropriately cast as Tinca and Talpa, and carried age and experience to Gherardo and Simone in Gianni Schicchi.

Csilla Boross as Giorgetta, Thiago Arancam as Luigi

Of notice as well was Austrian born, Israeli nurtured mezzo soprano Natasha Petrinsky who is not yet an accomplished enough artist to bring Frugola alive, nor old enough and complicated enough to impersonate Suor Angelica’s evil aunt, and not grand enough to make Zita a comic force. She is a very promising artist. Neither tenor Benjamin Bernheim nor soprano Ivana Rusko, both house singers at Zurich Opera, are sufficiently finished artists to have been asked to take on the roles of Rinuccio and Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi.

Young Sicilian conductor Gaetano d’Espinosa made natural and convincing verismo in the pit, aided by the naturally harsh sound of the Opéra Nouvel and its fine orchestra. Il Tabarro was his best effort, perhaps motivated by the splendid vocal force of the principals (Mlle. Boross, messieurs Arancam and Van Mechelen). Suor Angelica too seemed driven with sensitivity and understanding though he missed reaching its emotional heights. His choice of tempi (sometimes unusually slow) in Gianni Schicchi was beyond the capabilities of his some of his young, inexperienced artists.

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L'Enfant et les Sortileges and La Navarraise in Monte-Carlo

The magic was in the pit, not that all Monaco was not magical — on January 25 a yellow Lamborghini, a red Ferrari, a vintage Jaguar among other magnificent machines stood before the entrance to Monte-Carlo’s resplendent Casino cum transplendent 500-seat Salle Garnier.

Even without this automotive hardware Monaco may still have been magical eighty-seven years ago when Maurice Ravel and Colette conjured a strange little comédie musicale, L’Enfant et les Sortileges for Monte-Carlo’s opera house. These days Colette’s singing cats, clocks, teakettles, etc., rarely recapture the magic that is said have surprised, puzzled and perturbed the monégasques (those rich enough to sojourn in Monaco) back in 1925.

Happily all of L’Enfant’s reputed magic was recreated just now in this little opera house, brought alive by Monaco’s fine Orchestre Philharmonique responding to the remarkable precision of narrative detail and intonation imposed by conductor Patrick Davin. Ravel’s score shone as the masterpiece of orchestral colors and musical wit that has won it huge respect and exposure in musical circles.

Carine Séchaye as l'Enfant

If you are among those who find people impersonating animals, objects or elements (there is a big piece for a soprano named “fire”) amusing this new production by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo’s general director Jean-Louis Grinda might have disappointed you. As it was we were not required to suspend disbelief for a second. It was the household staff of Mamam (the quite imposing Béatrice Uria-Monzon in full Coco Chanel regalia) who went to a great deal of trouble to terrorize Mamam’s little darling while Mamam went out for the evening.

This alone made the entertainment adult and saved us from having to rediscover the-child-that-is-in-all-of-us. In fact it was a pleasure to get back at the naughty little brat (convincingly portrayed by Swiss mezzo Carine Séchaye) by dreaming up mean and clever tricks. Cats were made by shadow puppetry and sung by their puppeteers, three household staff (very fine dancers) executed nifty slimy choreography (by Eugénie Andrin) that kept the torture relentless. The household maitre d’ actually appeared in the clock and the governess climbed atop the armoire to sing the Princess’ lament.

Patricia Fernandez as La Chatte, Jean-François Lapoint as Le Chat

This realistic staging revealed the charm of this little story by the famously unconventional Colette and let us hear Ravel’s brilliant score with the eyes and ears of adults of presumed intelligence and wit. These attributes are in fact the magic of Colette and Ravel’s amusing trifle, not its fantastical characters. These were forty-five riveting minutes.

The French speaking audience (where were the Italians and the Russians?), obviously mature and certainly well-healed paid 15 euros per flûte de champagne at intermission where they were far more animated than at the perfunctory applause awarded the entertainment.

L’Enfant et les Sortileges is a chamber work of childish sentiment detailed by a very large orchestra. It is of ideal proportion to the Salle Garnier. Its companion piece, Massenet’s La Navarraise is an emotional blockbuster that was sonically stuffed into this intimate theater where it suffered a dismal production as well.

This brief piece attempts to impose the emotional force of Italian verismo onto French sentiments familiar to us through Alexander Dumas fils’ La Dame aux Camélias and Mérimée’s Carmen. The big blow, that hallmark of pristine verismo, was the gypsy girl’s suicide over the corpse of her lover. This final moment was very noisily presaged in the opening battle scene and by the challenge of her lover’s father that she match his dowry. She was then accused of treason, the tenor sang a great big aria and there was an even bigger battle scene.

Béatrice Uria-Monzon as La Navarraise, Jean-François Lapointe as Garrido

It would be hard for anyone to remain aloof from all this violence and maestro Davin certainly was not. He urged his orchestra to sing out full voice, and encouraged his singers to give everything they had. And they all did. We understood why this piece was once popular and no longer is. It is too loud and too short, a blatant and naive imitation of Cavalleria Rusticana by a capable composer who knew what the London public wanted back in 1895.

The Opéra de Monte-Carlo did Masennet’s little escapade full justice with French mezzo Béatrice Uria-Monzon, a famous Carmen who has essayed Tosca as well, as the Navarraise — a more ideal singer for this heroine of a verismo manqué cannot be imagined. Spanish tenor Enrique Ferrer was Araquil, her lover, negotiating the role’s high tessitura at continuous forte levels with apparent ease, adding the easy swashbuckle that cost him his life. Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe was a dynamic lieutenant of beautiful voice however baritone Marcel Vanaud as the father Remigio did not rise to sufficient vocal or histrionic stature to have motivated such a tragedy. Earlier in the evening Mr. Vanaud had portrayed a fine chair and a successful tree.

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Otello in Zurich

War and destruction is everywhere these days, not least in Pesaro where Graham Vick staged a lethal Mosé in Egitto last August, nor less so in San Francisco where baritone Thomas Hampson perished as Rick Rescorla in Heart of a Soldier last September.

These two gentlemen were at it again just now in Zurich, Mr. Vick staging a new Verdi Otello and Mr. Hampson attempting its villain Iago, a late career role debut that did not even require him to change costume from his convincing, indeed moving portrayal of Rick, the professional soldier cum World Trade Center hero.

In Pesaro Graham Vick exploited the explosive hostilities of the Palestinians and Jews in such graphic detail that some audience fled the theater in terror. The Cyprus Greek Turkish tensions do not carry as much emotional baggage or fearsome consequences, at least in the international psyche, but like Mosé in Egitto the contemporary metaphor, here the on-going Cyprus problem, is too striking to ignore. All this is to say that Verdi’s old story, no longer old, was told in contemporary terms.

Unlike the huge ethnopolitical tragedies of Mosé in Egitto, Otello is a personal tragedy that unfolds in war torn Cyprus, though the visible ravages of war could be anywhere. Its opening chorus is not watching the battle but participating in it by slathering black soot on their faces, stripping off clothes exposing white bodies parts as if wounded.

To preface the opera however, Otello, not in blackface, presented himself alone on the stage thus forcing himself into our close focus for the duration. Maybe it was the lack of the expected blackface that planted the seeds of racism in our minds, rewarded when Vick finally allowed overt racism to burst forth in Act III when a suddenly exposed back-of-a-stage flat said “nigger.” But Vick had made it a black and white opera long before, and on multiple levels. Desdemona appeared in Act I as a phantom bride, a white veiled wife, who moved as if in an Otello dream, his dream of a world of beauty and purity, a sanctuary from the burned black colors of war.

José Cura as Otello, Fiorenza Cedolins as Desdemona
(there is no photo available of Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona)
Photos copyright Suzanne Schwiertz/Zurich Opera

Act IV, the Desdemona act, placed Desdemona in the center of a black stage. She re-entered the wedding dress, covered herself with the bridal veil and became again Otello’s dream as she sang her song and prayer, standing and immobile. We now knew and felt with certainty that this was Verdi’s opera as the Othello tragedy and not the melodrama of a fallen woman.

Acts II and III were in fact the Desdemona acts when she presented herself as an emancipated, worldly woman, possibly unfaithful, even defiant thus taunting the sensibilities of this Venetian general whose Asian sensibilities imagine his woman as veiled, like the burka covered women who praised Desdemona’s exposed beauty in Act II. The opera had suddenly gone globally political and we knew then that its tragically violent outcome was to be understood in universal as well as personal terms.

Where, you may ask, did Iago fit into all of this? This is where the Zurich casting choices for this remarkable Graham Vick production come into question. Tenor Jose Cura was a gruff, hulking, brutal Otello who held forth magnificently in high Italianate vocal style and whose high style method acting transported his Otello to admirable histrionic heights. Soprano Barbara Frittoli is young and shapely and a formidable Italianate singer whose personal beauty and beauty and range of voice fulfilled the gamut of Desdemona’s expressive needs in this complex concept.

Thomas Hampson as Iago, Stefan Pop as Cassio
Photo copyright Suzanne Schwiertz/Zurich Opera

Thomas Hampson simply did not fill the bill as Iago. His size and age precluded a physicality that could color and magnify the ugly insinuations Iago dishes out to Otello. In his army fatigues he seemed still the aged Rick Rescorla of the World Trade Center, towering over everyone else, and shouting out accusations to Otello like instructions for evacuation. His nemesis Cassio, played by 24-year-old Stefan Pop was equally out of place in age and size, thus depriving this pivotal character of his essential weight and meaning in Verdi’s drama. Vocally however this young singer made the most of Verdi’s musical points.

Thomas Hampson as Iago, Judith Schmid as Emilia
Photo copyright Suzanne Schwiertz/Zurich Opera

With the Pesaro Mosé in Egitto and this Zurich Otello Graham Vick has proven himself to be one of our greatest contemporary stage directors, working now in a rich, highly minimal language with the goal of bold and highly pointed storytelling. As well both operas were laden, burdened, over-burdened with contemporary political messages that enriched the inherent political agendas of both operas. With significant participation of his designer, Paul Brown, the visual and theatrical language is refined to few moves, shapes and colors that bring this theater to astonishing heights of a minimalist expressionism.

Conductor Massimo Zanetti rose to the occasion executing Verdi’s score in biting and cutting detail, pushing its nervousness to an ultimate extreme, sometimes forcing his singers, maybe including Mr. Hampson, to shout rather than sculpt their musical lines (there is however the possibility and suspicion that this was a staging mandate). While this musical brutality may work for the Otello personage it can as well suppress much of the well known subtlety of this Verdi score.

Finally this Otello tragedy was powerfully felt, intellectually and theatrically. It was not musically felt. And that is perhaps the inevitable when a formidable stage director like Graham Vick tackles a formidable work of theater, overlooking that Verdi’s Otello is an opera as well.

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La Bohème in Toulon, Marseille and Genoa

Three La Bohèmes in ten days, a critic’s nightmare that was more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Well, why not? Why not make La Bohème about 1968! 1968 was a long time ago, dim in memory but now that you mention it an exciting time to recall — the vehement anti Vietnam war protests in the U.S. were small in comparison to Mai 1968, huge protests in Paris and around France against authority (any and all), a premise wildly cheered by American and Italian university students eager for any and all revolution, all this general excitement notably prompted by the politically pointed 1968 Prague Spring.

Maybe May 1968 is a mantle that La Bohème does not wear very well. But never mind, it was fun to revisit those exciting times even if the 2003 Nice Opera production by Daniel Benoin revived just now in Toulon was filled with much imagery that was maybe recognizable only by the French, and by now those French of a certain age (this seems to have been the case based on overhearing intermission conversations). It did leave us Berkeley-ites of a certain age mostly in the dark.

Act II, photo copyright Frédéric Séogan/Opéra de Toulon

A bit of post performance research into Mai 1968 explained that the rubber face-masked, caricatured Mao-ites who marched in at the end of Act II were deriding the French communists who joined the rightwing Gaullists to condemn the strikes. Riot police were everywhere in Mai 1968 (DeGualle had fled to Germany) thus they prefaced the third act by climbing onto the stage to be in place before the curtain rose onto a mesh fence with a gate that guarded some sort of internment compound and then inexplicably did not.

Mr. Benoin, director of the esteemed Théâtre National de Nice since 2002, is not a musical opera director, if he were musical he would know that you better not mess around with La Bohème at all. He would know that posters announcing the appearance of Country Joe and the Fish at the Café Momus would disqualify Puccini’s orchestra, that Musetta, a determined, militant revolutionary, could not croon her waltz into a microphone to a mute jazz trio accompaniment. He would know that if a corps de ballet did happen by the Café Momus it would not attempt to jive dance to Puccini’s trumpet fanfares.

But make no mistake, Mr. Benoin is a savvy director (making one curious if a little nervous about the Madame Butterfly he staged in Salerno [Italy] in 2007). He used his Act III wire mesh fence to sublime effect, separating his sets of lovers while allowing them to touch. His Act IV conceit was to clothe his entire cast in pure white, Rodolfo draping the windows with white cloth at the moment Mimi expired. All this packed a wallop.

If Daniel Benoin indulged himself in seemingly arbitrary forays into high theatrical style Toulon Opera music director Giuliano Carella indulged Puccini in some very powerful verismo that exactly magnified the opera’s emotive intent to huge proportion, real and pure embodiment of the verismo ideal of oversized sentiment. This an accomplishment rarely achieved on any operatic stage. Well, once we got to Act III that is. Acts I and II were rocky, evoking terrors that are usually dealt with at the dress rehearsal. And the maestro simply could not drag the Toulon chorus into a festive melée at the Café Momus.

Finally La Bohème rests on the charm and voice of its bohemians, and Toulon Opera did not let us down. The Bohème herself was Italian soubrette Nuccia Focile whose mannered Italian endowed Mimi with more personality than we may have wanted but whose voice rose to easy highs to insinuate a younger and simpler idea of this heroine. Sympathetic Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski, easily the audience favorite, drew his musical lines with more than usual ease suggesting that Onegin’s Lenski is his innate character. Georgian born French soprano Anna Kasyan brought good, tough character to this unusual Musetta though she only sometimes seemed to have the requisite vocal heft. Italian baritone Devid Cecconi was a gruff, lovable, bumbling Marcello aided by countrymen Massimiliano Gagliardo and Roberto Tagliavini as the charming and vocally adept Schaunard and Colline.

Well, why not translocate La Bohème onto the rooftops of Paris, maybe like a movie musical (Moulin Rouge for example)? These rooftops rarely have people on them for good reason (they are steep) so the trick just now in Marseille was finding a few flat places where bohemians could frolic and die.

Rooftops are just that so there was no way to sketch an artists’ garret, a café or an entrance to the city, after all these places are easily imagined. Maybe this lone rooftop location was a bow to the new austerity that has made opera companies worldwide feel as penniless as Puccini’s bohemians.

Act II, Mimi and Rodolfo, photo copyright Christian Dresse/Opéra de Marseille

La Bohème is indestructible, or nearly. The current Bohème at Marseille Opera toyed with that distinction. This Christmas Eve bonbon (well, the first two acts) might have survived the rooftop concept but it could not survive the attempt to turn Puccini's thrusting emotions into the measured, percolated, precious movements of spirit that mark a Britten or Janacek opera. Like a driver willfully blocking the flow of traffic by driving too slowly to prove how careful he is, Irish conductor Mark Shanahan thwarted the very essence of verismo by rendering it into slow, almost frozen musical motion. The cathartic moment of Puccini's tearjerker in Marseille finally was not a tear or two, it was pure and simple road rage at the conductor.

Were it not victim of the conducting this La Boheme probably would have succumbed at the moment Musetta's waltz became a 1950's movie musical production number, those Parisian rooftops disguised very symmetrical platforming that allowed a garishly costumed Musetta, let us say clownishly, to top a pyramid of snazzy Café Momus waiters executing some snappy choreography. Well, Café Momus was already a crazed showbiz, dayglo colored adult playground so why not.

Act II, act II principals, photo copyright Christian Dresse/Opéra de Marseille

It would be unfair to delve too deeply into the individual performances as there was obvious dissension between pit and stage, and not just between the singers and the conductor, also between stage management and conductor — changes in the lighting seldom occurred at the appropriate musical moment.

Suffice to say that French soprano Nathalie Manfrino was a vocally and physically attractive Mimi, though her ample sound was mismatched to Ricardo Bernal as the young, handsome Rodolfo. This Mexican tenor’s appropriately Italianate delivery was hampered by a voice more suited to the light lyric roles. Marcello, Schaunard and Colline were undertaken by Marc Barrard, Igor Gnidii and Nicolas Courjal respectively. All are accomplished in their roles though none found the youthful charisma of their characters as had the Mimi and Rodolfo.

The staging concept credited to Jean-Louis Pichon seems to have been to transform Puccini's sad little tale into a slick musical with one nifty crowd scene, leaving the well known tunes elsewhere to fend for themselves as well they might and usually do. Marseille's remarkable opera house, unequaled anywhere for its direct stage-audience rapport did respond from time to time to the obtuse staging with some enjoyable stage pictures.

Well why not? Why not place Puccini’s sad, gritty little story in an enchanted storybook world where fantastically dressed bohemians named Mimi, Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline have identically fantastically dressed child counterparts aged 5 to 9 who mirror their every move.

Act I, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

There was no message in Genoa just now, like innocence is transitory if not illusionary — “just wait until you grow up, kids, life gets complicated.” Instead it was simply the bi-polar Bohème pathology gone extreme. The first two acts of the opera are indeed childish play, as are the antics of the fourth act, and you know the rest of the story.

The juxtaposition of storybook and real seemed ridiculous but once you thought about it, well, thought about it quite a lot, you could make it make some sense. It was a justifiably abstracted bi-polar world that incorporated Puccini’s verismo, if uncomfortably, by separating the visual and sonic worlds. The musical was what is real, even tangible (like great verismo really is), and the visual became a metaphysical world that shadows and colors the real, like music ordinarily does. Yes, this conclusion took some thinking.

So we were very much on edge, and maybe heard this great masterpiece with new ears, as we were seeing it with new eyes. There were other advantages that we will get to.

Teatro Carlo Felice invited Genoa born and culturally nurtured artist Francesco Musante to create this new production. Over his long career Mr. Musante has exploited op art and Viennese Succession influences, he has worked in water color, lithograph and particularly illustration. A specific reference in his oeuvre to this telling of La Bohème might be his comic book rendition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland (1980). Mr. Musante is not widely known outside Italy.

Act II, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

The Musante abbozzi, or renderings of the scenes displayed in the foyer of the opera house succinctly expounded the artist’s specific vision of La Bohème — a bright and noisy world animated by children. Act II was in fact an illustrated music box merry-go-round wound up by the children on the stage at the end of Act I.

Act III, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

On the Carlo Felice stage Mr. Musante’s sketches were brought alive by Italian actor Augusto Fornari who presumably was in cahoots with the artist. This obviously able stage director was hampered by the absence of professional child actors, here the extensive mimicry was supplied by members of the Carlo Felice’s Children’s Chorus (“coro di voci bianchi”). But what a chorus this was! The first in living memory to carry out hyper visual antics in perfect [!] synchronization with the Puccini’s musical antics — among them the entry of a 12 member (maybe more) marching band that capped the Momus act with utter visual and musical delirium.

Unaided by any visual realism whatsoever, conductor Marco Guidarini managed only a restrained verismo that fully supported Puccini’s needs but mostly missed finding a synergy with the stage. If this Bohème’s visual world was exuberant and extravagant, Mo. Guidarini’s Puccinian thrust was careful and by-the-book when it could have been pushed to and even beyond verismo extremes.

Musante’s stylized visual language obliterated the need for singers to look or be bohemians, thus they came in all shapes, ages and sizes but to a man on January 5 they had solid Italian schooling and gave big vocal performances with big mannerisms that might be considered tasteless in more restrained musical cultures. Three casts people its eleven performances over a two month period. On January 5 Massimiliano Pisapia was the Rodolfo, though were it not for his musical postures he might have been singing Siegfried. Amarilli Nizza is an accomplished Tosca and Aida on big stages (Verona, Vienna) so she was hardly a retiring Mimi. Hers was a fully successful, vocally and musically splendid performance. Of special interest as well was the Musetta of Alida Berti whose vocal and presence actually matched the exuberance and innocence of the production, as did the remarkably vivid, full voiced Alcindoro of Fabrizio Beggi.

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La Bohème in Genoa

Well why not? Why not place Puccini’s sad, gritty little story in an enchanted, storybook world where fantastically dressed bohemians named Mimi, Rodolfo, Marcello, Shaunard and Colline have identically fantastically dressed child counterparts aged 5 to 9 who mirror their every move.

Act I, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

There was no message, like innocence is transitory if not illusionary — “just wait until you grow up, kids, life gets complicated.” Instead it was simply the bi-polar Bohème pathology gone extreme. The first two acts of the opera are indeed childish play, as are the antics of the fourth act, and you know the rest of the story.

If at first the juxtaposition of the storybook with the real seemed ridiculous once you thought about it, well, thought about it quite a lot, you could make it make some sense. It was a justifiably abstracted bi-polar world that incorporated Puccini’s verismo, if uncomfortably, by separating the visual and sonic worlds. The musical was what is real and tangible (like great verismo really is), and the visual became a metaphysical world where meaning is abstract, like music ordinarily is. Yes, this conclusion took lots of thinking.

So we were on very much on edge, and maybe heard this great masterpiece with new ears, as we were seeing it with new eyes. There were other advantages that we will get to.

Teatro Carlo Felice invited Genoa born and culturally nurtured artist Francesco Musante to create this new production. Over his long career Mr. Musante has exploited op art and Viennese Succession influences, he has worked in water color, lithograph and particularly illustration. A specific reference in his oeuvre to this telling of La Bohème might be his comic book rendition of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland (1980). Mr. Musante is not widely known outside Italy.

Act II, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

The Musante abbozzi, or renderings of the scenes displayed in the foyer of the opera house succinctly expounded the artist’s specific vision of La Bohème — a bright and noisy world that plays by itself once a child winds up its spring. Act II was in fact an illustrated music box wound up by the children at the end of Act I.

If the actual stage sets were a bit less vivid than the abbozzi they still came close to capturing the excitement of this fantastic world realized in a dazzling visual language. The three sets (garret, cafe and gate) were anchored by a colorful show curtain that was a resume of Musante’s vibrant shapes and colors for all the acts. Of the three sets Act III, the cabaret and barrière d’Enfer (today the Denfert-Rochereau square in Montparnasse) was the most eloquent, describing the long ago (decades before Puccini in fact) passage from the countryside and its farms to the city and its tales.

Act III, photo copyright Jacopo Morando/Teatro Carlo Felice

On the Carlo Felice stage Mr. Musante’s scenes were animated by Italian actor Augusto Fornari who presumably was in cahoots with the artist. This obviously able stage director was hampered by the absence of professional child actors, here the extensive mimicry was taken on by members of the Carlo Felice’s Children’s Chorus ("coro di voci bianchi"). But what a chorus this was! The first in living memory to carry out hyper visual antics in perfect [!] synchronization with the Puccini’s musical antics — among them the entry of a 12 member (maybe more) marching band that capped the Momus act with utter visual and musical delirium.

Unaided by any visual realism whatsoever, conductor Marco Guidarini managed only a restrained verismo that fully supported Puccini’s needs but missed finding a synergy with the stage. If this Bohème’s visual world was exuberant and extravagant, Mo. Guidarini’s Puccinian thrust was careful and by-the-book when it could have been pushed to and even beyond verismo extremes.

Musante’s stylized visual language obliterated the need for singers to look or be bohemians, thus they came in all shapes, ages and sizes but to a man on January 5 they had solid Italian schooling and gave big vocal performances with big mannerisms that might be considered tasteless in more restrained musical cultures. Three casts people its eleven performances over a two month period. On January 5 Massimiliano Pisapia was the Rodolfo, though were it not for his musical postures he might have been singing Siegfried. Amarilli Nizza is an accomplished Tosca and Aida on big stages (Verona, Vienna) so she was hardly a retiring Mimi. It was a fully successful, vocally and musically splendid performance. Of special interest as well was the Musetta of Alida Berti whose vocal and presence actually matched the exuberance and innocence of the production, as did the remarkably vivid, full voiced Alcindoro of Fabrizio Beggi.

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La Bohème in Marseille

Well, why not translocate La Bohème onto the rooftops of Paris, maybe like a movie musical (Moulin Rouge for example)? They rarely have people on them for good reason (they are steep) so the trick just now in Marseille was finding a few flat places where bohemians could frolic and die.

Rooftops are just that so there was no way to sketch an artists’ garret, a café or a city gate, after all these places are easily imagined. Maybe this lone rooftop location was a bow to the new austerity that has made opera companies worldwide feel as penniless as Puccini’s bohemians.

Act II, Mimi and Rodolfo, photo copyright Christian Dresse/Opéra de Marseille

La Bohème is indestructible, or nearly. The current Bohème at Marseille Opera toyed with that distinction. This Christmas Eve bonbon (just the first two acts) might have survived the rooftop concept but it could not survive the attempt to turn Puccini's thrusting emotions into the measured, percolated, sometimes precious movements of spirit that mark a Britten or Janacek opera. Like a driver willfully blocking the flow of traffic by driving too slowly to prove how careful he is, Irish conductor Mark Shanahan thwarted the very essence of verismo by rendering it into slow, almost frozen musical motion. The cathartic moment of Puccini's tearjerker in Marseille finally was not a tear or two, it was pure and simple road rage at the conductor.

Were it not victim of the conducting this La Bohème probably would have succumbed at the moment Musetta's waltz became a 1950's movie musical production number. Those Parisian rooftops disguised very symmetrical platforming that allowed a garishly wigged Musetta, young French soprano Gabrielle Philiponet, to top a pyramid of snazzy Café Momus waiters who executed some snappy choreography. Well, Café Momus was already a crazed showbiz, dayglo colored adult playground so why not.

Act II, act II principals, photo copyright Christian Dresse/Opéra de Marseille

It would be unfair to delve too deeply into the individual performances as there was obvious dissension between pit and stage, and not just between the singers and the conductor, also between stage management and conductor — the lack of forward motion often confused the timing of the changes to the lighting. This same absence of thrust in the conducting even hampered the movement of the actors, indeed some of the simplest moves became truly clumsy.

Suffice to say that French soprano Nathalie Manfrino was a vocally and physically attractive Mimi, though her ample sound was mismatched to Ricardo Bernal as the young, handsome Rodolfo. This Mexican tenor’s appropriately Italianate delivery was hampered by a voice more suited to the light lyric roles. Marcello, Schaunard and Colline were undertaken by Marc Barrard, Igor Gnidii and Nicolas Courjal respectively. All are accomplished in their roles though none found the youthful charisma of their characters as had the Mimi and Rodolfo.

The staging concept credited to Jean-Louis Pichon seems to have been to transform Puccini's sad little tale into a slick music hall production with one nifty crowd scene, leaving the well known tunes elsewhere to fend for themselves as well they might and usually do. Marseille's remarkable opera house, unequaled anywhere for its direct stage/audience rapport did respond from time to time to the obtuse staging with some enjoyable stage pictures.

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La Bohème in Toulon

Well, why not? Why not make it about May 1968!

1968 was a long time ago, dim in memory but now that you mention it an exciting time to recall — the vehement anti Vietnam war protests in the U.S. were small in comparison to Mai 1968, huge protests in Paris and around France against authority (any and all), a premise wildly cheered by American and Italian university students eager for any and all revolution, the general excitement notably prompted by the politically pointed 1968 Prague Spring.

Act II, photo copyright Frédéric Séogan/Opéra de Toulon

Maybe May 1968 is a mantle that La Bohème does not wear very well. But never mind, it was fun to revisit those exciting times even if the 2003 Nice Opera production by Daniel Benoin was filled with much imagery that was maybe recognizable only by the French, and by now those French of a certain age (this seems to have been the case based on overhearing intermission conversations). It did leave us Berkeley-ites of a certain age mostly in the dark.

A bit of post performance research into Mai 1968 explained that the rubber face-masked, caricatured Mao-ites who marched in at the end of Act II were deriding the French communists who joined the rightwing Gaullists to condemn the strikes. Riot police were everywhere in Mai 1968 (DeGualle had fled to Germany) thus they prefaced the third act by climbing onto the stage to be in place before the curtain rose onto a mesh fence with a gate that guarded some sort of internment compound and then inexplicably did not.

Act II, photo copyright Frédéric Séogan/Opéra de Toulon

Mr. Benoin, director of the esteemed Théâtre National de Nice since 2002, gave Nice Opéra a superb Berg Wozzeck in 2005. Mr. Benoin is not a musical opera director (Wozzeck is after all a play). If he were musical he would know that you better not mess around with La Bohème at all. He would know that posters announcing the appearance of Country Joe and the Fish at the Café Momus would disqualify Puccini’s orchestra, that Musetta, a determined, militant revolutionary, could not croon her waltz into a microphone to a mute jazz trio accompaniment. He would know that if a corps de ballet did happen by the Café Momus it would not attempt to jive dance to Puccini’s trumpet fanfares.

Make no mistake, Mr. Benoin is a savvy director (making one curious if a little nervous about the Madame Butterfly he staged in Salerno [Italy] in 2007). He used his Act III wire mesh fence to sublime effect, separating his sets of lovers while allowing them to touch. His Act IV conceit was to clothe his entire cast in pure white, Rodolfo draping the windows with white cloth at the moment Mimi expired. All this packed a wallop.

If Daniel Benoin indulged himself in seemingly arbitrary forays into high theatrical style Toulon Opera music director Giuliano Carella indulged Puccini in some very powerful verismo that exactly magnified the opera’s emotive intent to huge proportion, real and pure embodiment of the verismo ideal of oversized sentiment. This an accomplishment rarely achieved on any operatic stage. Well, once we got to Act III that is. Acts I and II were rocky, evoking terrors that are usually dealt with at the dress rehearsal. And the maestro simply could not drag the Toulon chorus into a festive melée at the Café Momus.

Finally La Bohème rests on the charm and voices of its bohemians, and Toulon Opera did not let us down. The Bohème herself was Italian soubrette Nuccia Focile whose mannered Italian endowed Mimi with more personality than we may have wanted but whose voice rose to easy highs to insinuate a younger and simpler idea of this heroine. Sympathetic Polish tenor Arnold Rutkowski, easily the audience favorite, drew his musical lines with more than usual ease suggesting that Onegin’s Lenski is his innate character. Georgian born French soprano Anna Kasyan brought good, tough character to this unusual Musetta though she only sometimes seemed to have the requisite vocal heft. Italian baritone Devid Cecconi was a gruff, lovable, bumbling Marcello aided by countrymen Massimiliano Gagliardo and Roberto Tagliavini as the charming and vocally adept Schaunard and Colline.

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Mosé in Egitto and Adelaide di Borgogna at Pesaro

It was a no-brainer. The Old Testament Egyptians had to become today’s Palestinians.

Well, the politics of the Graham Vick production were a bit confusing at first as Moses implored God to restore light to Egypt and He did in the most magnificent chorus of Andrea Leone Tottola’s azione tragico-sacra that ultimately parts the Red Sea and then drowns the Egyptians.

But back to Egypt bathed in glorious light with the Egyptians confused about who was going to clean up the ostentatious palaces growing out of decayed reinforced concrete structures if the enslaved Jews were released. So they did not free the Jews after all to the relief of the scion of the ruling family who had fallen in love with an Hebrew maiden.

Moses, betrayed, implores God to rain fire on the Egyptians, and the Hebrews to a man, woman and child strap bombs onto their bodies while singing a most magnificent chorus. And, uhm, was that really Osama Bin Laden's beard on Moses? We now fully understand that Graham Vick’s dramatic vocabulary is not politically literal. It is the storybook tragedy of the Old Testament magnified onto the now massive tragedy of Western Asia and the entire world.

Alex Esposito as the Pharaoh, photo Studio Amati Bacciardi

The enormity of the subject and its realization was full force in this sleepy seaside town, the birthplace of the great Rossini. Its 15,000 seat sports palace, the Adriatic Arena is now home to one of the three major productions of this August festival (the other two are in the 19th century Teatro Rossini). But wait! Walls and a ceiling (new this year — that nasty echo is no more) are installed, those 15,000 seats are reduced to 1200. A huge space remains for a scenic installation.

The drafty, leaky Adriatic Arena has become surprisingly one of the world’s most exciting opera venues. Opera there is out-of-the-box so to speak, and has been for several years, notably the scenic installations of Zelmira (2009) by Italian director Giorgio Barberio Corsetti (critics attacked its political illiteracies) and Cenerentola (2010) by Italian director Luca Ronconi. There are no directors more in-the-box than Graham Vick (the stage housings of the Met, San Francisco War Memorial, etc.). Maybe it should have been no surprise that he can ascend to the heights of the great Italian theater directors, but it was.

Rossini’s exquisitely beautiful third act prayer by Moses, Aaron, Elcia and chorus of Hebrews was punctuated by random sniper fire executing the Egyptian eldest sons (its sound mute, its victims’ fell sharply echoing the suddenness of the gunshot). Special forces commandos stormed the Adriatic Arena pursuing the Jews (some audience fled in terror [yes, this really happened]) for whom the sea parted for their crossing into the Promised Land. The Egyptians are destroyed but for one lone surviving boy. He straps a bomb onto his body as a lone Israeli soldier climbs out of a tank and offers him a detonator.

Wrenching.

Conductor Roberto Abbado had propelled the Zelmira to plateaux of lyric delirium as he had the Ermione (2008), a brilliant Adriatic Arena installation directed by his cousin Daniele Abbado. But this was another Rossini, the delirium replaced by lyric solemnity, much like the tone of the Rossini Stabat Mater, but with extended dramatic scenes for soloists. Bass Alex Esposito, the Egyptian pharaoh, exploded in his Cade dal ciglio il velo, terrifying in its runaway machismo. Tenor Dimitry Korchak, the pharaoh’s son and soon lover of the Hebrew girl Elcia lamented her loss in clumsy, brutal moves of male domination. Soprano Sonia Ganassi as Elcia tore at our hearts in her supplication to him to release Moses.

Sonia Ganassi as Elcia, Dmitry Korchak as Osiride
photo Studio Amati Bacciardi

New at the Rossini Festival productions this year were supertitles. Tottola’s text however is virtually incomprehensible in the archness of its style and the richness of its archaic vocabulary that fit the perceived gravity of a biblical subject. Never mind that the supertitles were washed out by the crescendo of brilliant light during the Eterno! immenso! incomprensibil Dio!, Maestro Abbado simultaneously effected a spine tingling choral crescendo that took us into and beyond the text, and kept us there until the opera’s final moment.

Ovations at the Rossini Festival are usually reserved for a singer who has executed a difficult aria with finesse, and these ovations are extended often over several minutes. Here these extended, very extended ovations occurred only at the ends of the acts, the astonished audience unwilling to leave its seats.

The individual performances were subsumed into the Graham Vick production of this Rossini masterwork. Nonetheless besides the flashy performances of brilliant singing mentioned above Riccardo Zanellato as Moses captured the anger and passivity of this complex personage with exceptional beauty of voice and delivery. Young Chinese Ylhe Shi as Aaron continues to mature as a Rossini tenor, here showing a new confidence that propelled this secondary character to unexpected emotional stature. The chorus of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna rose to unprecedented glory in its huge roles as the Hebrews when not as the Egyptians.

The premiere of Adelaide di Borgogna was in December, 1817, the premiere of Mosé in Egitto in March, 1818, thus the two works were composed back to back and performed just now in Pesaro back to back. Both works chronicle the fall of a father and son, both works explore human relationships in politically charged atmospheres, and both end in hollow political victories.

The librettist, Giovanni Federico Schmidt had written the libretto for Armida (upcoming at the Met) earlier the same year. Adelaide di Borgogna was the wife of Lotario, the last Carolingian king of most everywhere in those days, though Schmidt is quite confused about dates and happenings. Never mind, as opera is about opera and not about history as Rossini and Graham Vick know.

In Schmidt’s libretto the widowed Adelaide is told by Lotario’s successor, Berengario that she must marry his son, thereby legitimizing the succession, You can imagine the rest of the story. And yes, she finally marries Ottone, making him Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor while Berengario and his son Adelberto are taken away in chains. The operatic problem is that Adelberto truly loves Adelaide, and that maybe Berengario did not murder Lotario after all.

Daniela Barcellona as Ottone, photo Studio Amati Bacciardi

Italian avant-gardiste of the 1980’s Pier’Alli was the stage director. He also did sets, costumes, video projections and lights. He did not have Graham Vick’s good luck — no pregnant political metaphor comes to mind nor does the challenge of the Adriatic Arena present itself. But he did have video to play with, and that can be pretty cruel too.

The Teatro Rossini stage is small, challenging some contemporary metteurs en scéne to overcome this perceived limitation. Mr. Pier’Alli explored the digital technology that has exploded in theatrical scenic applications. Apparently no one informed Mr. Pier’Alli that you cannot watch a movie of a mud puddle and live opera at the same time, that moving images, particularly geometric images in absolute synchronization with musical architecture gets old fast, and that fast visual information (image stimuli) is not consistent with fast musical stimuli (Rossini, for example). Not least, Mr. Pier’Alli who trained as an architect is visually imprisoned by absolute structural symmetry. His mise en scéne was suffocating, if at best sort of pretty.

Jessica Pratt as Adelaide with Daniela Barcellona as Ottone
photo Studio Amati Bacciardi

Against Schmidt’s strange account of historical happenings and this mise en scène Russian conductor Dmitri Jurowski deployed a score that is not one of the Rossini masterpieces, and in fact may not all be by Rossini. The orchestra of the Teatro Comunale of Bologna responded with warmth of tone and obvious sympathy for the maestro whose tempos were indeed sympathetic to the needs of the singers. This maestro however did not connect with the Rossini ethos, and in this opera maybe Rossini does not either.

Mezzo soprano Daniella Barcellona is one of the Rossini Festival’s greatest treasures. Though she is surely the world’s prima donna assoluta of Rossini pants roles, even she could not make Ottone, the cardboard savior of poor Adelaide into a sympathetic hero. Our sympathies were with young Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai as Adelberto whose vocal and histrionic innocence won us over to his father’s side. Australian soprano Jessica Pratt as Adelaide was the prize but her mannered piano singing and stolid presence captured none of the Rossini flash that could have made her operatically desirable to either suitor.

Mme. Pratt did know enough to hit her high E forte so she drew wild applause from an audience susceptible to the high is hard fallacy. On the other hand solid performances in high style were delivered by Italian baritone Nicola Ulivieri as a sympathetic Berengario and by Italian mezzo soprano Francesca Pierpaoli as Adelaide’s protector Iroldo, performances greatly appreciated by all of us Rossinians from all over the globe.

N.B. Graham Vick’s Mosé in Egitto was wildly cheered and wildly booed at its first performance, probably because Mr. Vick took a bow. Earlier that evening real riot police were brought in to quell a fight among patrons that broke out in the auditorium. At this second performance above the audience was enthralled though there was one lone boo heard.

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La Bohème at Torre del Lago

This is where Puccini composed many of his operas until the lake got so polluted he had to move to nearby Viareggio.

Like Bayreuth the Torre del Lago is devoted exclusively to the works of one composer. But unlike Bayreuth the Fondazione Puccini exerts little effort to glorify the legacy of this remarkable composer by staging productions that may fulfill the operatic expectations of the unwashed masses but leave serious Puccini disciples aghast.

Such was the effect of La Boheme (8/12) seen from press seats in the 26th row of the 3200 seat Gran Teatro all’Aperto Giacomo Puccini at the edge of Lake Massaciuccoli, a sort of swamp by the Mediterranean near Pisa. Actually the 26th row is even more distant from the action than it would ordinarily be because not only are there several wide lateral aisles between sections, there is also a lot of legroom (a boast of the management).

Thus those of us in this section felt rather remote from the performance, encouraging some seaside bathers sitting nearby to follow the libretto on the screens of their cell phones with the added advantage of not missing urgent text messages, and others to sotto voce the story to their children — the lack of supertitles thus compensated (though these kids were far too young to read). After the first act the audience readjusted itself and we found seats in the 16th row amidst more serious spectators.

Here at least there was something to appreciate — the well-schooled verismo conducting of Alberto Veronesi was apparent (Mo. Veronesi is Eve Queler’s successor at the Opera Orchestra of New York), and the proficient opera acting and idiomatic Italian tenor singing of Venezuelan Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo was pleasurable. The mature style and presence of Italian baritone Marzio Giossi balanced the lively young and appropriately Italianate Colline of South Korean bass Seung-Pil Choi (it had to be him though the program gave another name).

Italian soprano Anna Maria dell’Oste made some fun as a Musetta who knew all the classic moves. Of the principals only the Mimi of Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia disappointed, her Mozartian delivery and matronly presence failed to capture the musical and dramatic energy imparted by the rest of the cast. Most notably it was Mr. Machado who generated real Puccini magic in his third act farewell to Mimi and with his final cries at her death. He accepted his abundant applause with extravagantly florid bows.

Rome Opera resident stage director Maurizio di Mattia moved his very experienced cast with slick flair, though he imposed a tasteless appearance of Puccini himself to watch the death scene. Rome Opera scene painter Maurizio Varamo designed the sets and presumably it was he who painted a quite wonderful backdrop of Paris for the set. But its architecture betrayed crudeness and naivete, especially the kitsch Tour Eiffel. The production was first seen in Hong Kong where it was not un-appreciated.

In flagrant disregard of current performance practice principal bows were effected after each of the four acts cruelly lengthening the evening, interminable already because of the clumsy production could not possibly be organized into the now usual two part format. A lot of fine Pommery champagne, a sponsor of the festival, flowed between the acts making the sculptures in the large garden seem very witty indeed by the early morning hours of the next day.

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Aix-en-Provence Festival 2011

Natalie Dessay, photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

Natalie Dessay is more or less a national hero here in France, maybe even more famous than Carla Bruni. Nonetheless there are those of us who are not fans of Mme. Dessay, thus we were relieved to be able to attend one of the four performances of La traviata sung by Irina Lungu.

Irina Lungu and Charles Castronovo, photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

Ironically the star of this traviata finally was not Mlle. Lungu nor probably was it la Dessay but its metteur en scene Jean-François Sivadier, an actor and later playwright who declared his love for la traviata back in 1996 in a theater piece that became very famous in France. Called Italienne avec orchestra, it was based on fictional rehearsals for a presumed production of La traviata.

Mr. Sivadier has truly fulfilled his dreams these many years later, and given enormous pleasure to Aix audiences with his finally finished traviata. For Mr. Sivadier Violetta is not a courtesan but an actress, a calling far more familiar to most of us these days. Though a concession to current perceptions is not Mr. Sivandier’s intention (he offers a convoluted rationale in his program booklet apology) it was an interpretive tool that accommodates a diva as an actress, not troubling her to attempt a character, here Piave’s sympathetic courtesan.

The hard part was not seeing Mme. Dessay, for whom Mr. Sivandier’s production was finally created, in every move and gesture made by young Russian soprano Irina lungu, an ingenue traviata. Once past this distraction however Mlle. Lungu made this Violetta her own, her fresh voice, burnished tone and fine Italianate style well sustaining the substantially different vocal demands of the first and last acts, her almost convincing diva stage presence unencumbered by a famous name and excessive fame.

Mr. Sivandier’s traviata catalogued virtually every twentieth theatrical cliché, from Brechtian devices to physical theater, from Stanislavski acting to cinematic realism, and of course plenty of scenic graffiti. Since his basic metaphor was self-conscious theater the use of such diverse techniques was central to his concept, and amusingly appropriate.

The traviata herself was the most theatrically abstracted character, dying without so much as a cough, simply walking forward into bright light with the blackout just at the moment she would step into the pit. Alfredo was the least abstracted character, the admirations, supplications and sufferings of a most sympathetic Charles Castronovo were cinematically real, and very human. This young American tenor is a light voiced, stylishly correct singer. He sang all ten performances, some back to back, perhaps explaining the cracked b-flat as he stormed off-stage to follow Violetta to Paris (7/18).

Germont fulfilled the psychological reversals (reinterpretations) that fulfill later twentieth century theatrical exigencies. No longer the gentle, hurt father French baritone Ludovic Tézier realized a bullying Germont with steely tone and threatening, uncomfortable presence. And yes, the Di Provenza cabaletta was restored, dramatically motivated by a cowering Alfredo. Mr. Castronovo is a fine actor.

This Aix traviata was made festival fare by availing itself of unusual operatic collaborators. Veteran opera conductor Louis Langrée conjured a traviata of extraordinary sweetness and passivity taking advantage of the symphonic resources of the London Symphony Orchestra, indulging in beauty of symphonic tone rather than dramatic pressures. The Estonian Chamber Choir provided pleasurable, excessively careful tone and musicianship in its stolid presence, betrayed by the two female choristers who executed fine physical theater, full body death collapses in their fourth act rejoicing, a vista in Mr. Sivadier’s rehearsal production.

The action of Mr. Sivadier’s opera took place on an empty stage during Traviata rehearsals — a constructed empty stage erected on the stage of the Archeveché theater. The back wall was black, simulated brick. There were minimal costumes (Annina was Violetta’s wardrobe assistant) — Violetta’s rehearsal costume was a leftover sort of commedia dell’arte Colombina). There were few hand props — flower bouquets presented to the diva by admirers, and champagne glasses. A few small painted cloud flats and de rigueur crystal chandeliers flew in from time to time to suggest locale.

Violetta, Alfredo, photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

The Aix Festival’s La clemenza di Tito occurred within the actual empty stage housing of the Archeveché Theater, the back wall of which is the south courtyard facade of this old bishops palace. This last of the Mozart operas was staged by David McVicor, a member of good standing of the British opera director cabal. Perhaps this accordance to British artistic imperialism was determined by the presence of the London Symphony Orchestra succeeding the Berlin Philharmonic as the festival’s orchestra in residence.

The LSO was again in the pit, with none other than Sir Colin Davis at the helm, though at this point he is more a reverential presence than a musically inspirational one. But we enjoyed rock solid Anglo-Saxon sound, musicianship and style. All this added little to the performance (7/06) as this strange, anachronistic opera seria demands a determined pit presence, here sorely lacking.

The Aix Festival at its best profits from intelligent artistic gullibility, but it was obviously tricked into acceding to stage director Mr. McVicor the creation of the scenic space for his staging of Tito. This amounted to a clumsy, huge gray stair unit (some sort of temple) stage left, and a couple of black columns sitting on a small black platform stage right. Both units rolled on and off stage from time to time, though a monumental white marble statue of Tito remained on the stage all the time. Its face turned red when Sextus was to be executed at Titus’ command.

Photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

Yes, you got it — shades of black, white and red (for blood). Red lighted theatrical fog (i.e. smoke) oozed through the apertures of the façade of the bishop’s palace during the Roman uprising. All this Mr. Vicor’s idea of minimalism.

Tito was costumed in a white satin 18th century formal court dress quotation that included a powdered wig and shiny white shoes. He dragged a twenty-foot mantel that he tried to fold up when governing became all to much for him, and comically it was a bit much for him to organize Mr. Vicar’s conceit. But Tito finally forgave everyone, almost. Mr. McVicor had a surprise up his sleeve — Tito’s eight black costumed, semi-balletic dragoon figurants (extras) skewered Vitelia (a solid black gown)! Blackout!

Tito, Sextus, photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

American tenor Gregory Kunde took the place at the last minute for an indisposed John Mark Ainsley as Tito. Mr. Kunde has enjoyed much success at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro over the years. He is not a Mozart singer nor an elegant performer. Italian soprano Carmen Ginnattasio as the antagonist Vitelia offered mannered, spat Italian with grating “r”’s — fun for a while. English soprano Sarah Connolly brought solid Anglo-Saxon artistry to Sextus, but nothing more.

Win some, lose some.

The third and last big production of this sixty-third Aix festival was Shostakovich’s Le Nez/The Nose (ticket price $340), a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera where it opened last year (ticket price $240 +/-), and the Opéra de Lyon where it plays in October (ticket price $140).

South African artist/actor William Kentridge is the author of this production, thus instead of the filter of a symphony orchestra between the opera and its production (as for the Traviata and Tito) there was the filter of a mature, powerful contemporary visual artist to distance us from this youthful experiment/prank/masterpiece (composed by Shostakovich when he was 22 years old).

Casting was as problematic as it had been in New York. South Pacific star Paulo Szot, the Met’s Kovaliov (who loses his nose), had been replaced by Albert Schagidullin who was replaced after the program was printed by Vladimir Samsonov. Though a veteran of the role at Paris’ Bastille Mr. Samsonov who began his career as an operetta artist was not a big enough singer or strong enough performer to command the stage in Aix.

In his previous opera productions (Il ritorno d’Ulisse and Die Zauberflöte) Mr. Kentridge has used puppetry to great effect. This theatrical abstraction is echoed in his visual art in abstracted black two-dimensional human forms on white background and sometimes some red lines as well, and here these paper cut-out forms sometimes re-appeared in marching formation during musical interludes.

Mr. Kentridge offered many collages as well including a show curtain that was an abstracted newspaper with both English and now French catchy news items teasing early socialism. To distance or distract us further from Gogol’s derisive text other interlude collages included such video images as a middle-aged Shostakovich playing the piano!

Photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

Mr. Kentridge’s visual language is essentially good natured, with studied charm. He projected this temperament onto the staged scenes by making Sweeney Todd like vignette’s pop out of the show curtain from time to time. This technically complex, completely finished production teetered on the edge of popular musical theater. Maybe this is why the public in the 1350 seat, indoor Grand Théâtre de Provence roared its approval (7/08), and the word on the street was that it was a great show!

photo courtesy Aix Festival, copyright Pascal Victor / ArtcomArt

The strengths of the production were the resources of the Opéra de Lyon, its music director Kazushi Ono providing a chiseled if somewhat restrained reading of this extravagant score by the fine orchestra of what is certainly France’s premier opera company. The contributions of the chorus of the Opéra de Lyon gave real pleasure as well.

To these strengths add the fine, appropriately expressionistic, exaggerated characters of Gogol’s ravings enacted by tenor Andrei Popov as the Inspector, Vladimer Ognovenko as the Barber and Vasily Efimov as Kovaliov’s servant (all veterans of the Met cast). The casting of Tehmine Yeghiazaryan as the Daughter of Madame Podtotchine is however inexplicable (after all you paid $340 for your ticket!).

Coupling Mr. Kentridge’s puppetry with Mozart’s puppet opera masterpiece, The Magic Flute made sense. His production was enthralling. In Aix just now however the strident young Shostakovich was shortchanged. It was a long one hour forty minutes.

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Les Noces de Figaro in Paris

This is the one by Giorgio Strehler that opened at Versailles in 1973 and since has endured twenty-three incarnations, first at the Garnier and later at the Bastille. Anyone who is anyone in the pantheon of Mozart interpreters over the last forty years has gone through the paces of this Strehler masterpiece.

Cherubino, Countess, Susanna

It did have a brief respite during the Gerard Mortier five year reign of terror. To everyone's relief it is back now ostensibly as a tribute to Rolf Liebermann (the celebrated progressive impresario who succeeded in staying in conservative Paris for seven years in the nineteen-seventies) but actuality it is an appeasement to Parisian audiences for whom it has become, purely and simply, the Mozart masterpiece.

Based on its current edition at the Bastille it is a Marriage of Figaro none of us should go without. Not to worry if you have missed it so far. It will surely be back, and with whoever are the stars of the moment. The Strehler Noces is as Parisian as is, well, the Opéra or for that matter the Tour Eiffel. It is the embodiment of the elegance, refinement and grace that define La Ville-Lumière.

Its roots are in mannerisms, the little movements of physical comedy that were sculpted by the comedians of the Italian renaissance, then refined by Italy's eighteenth century dramatists, and finally distilled by Giorgio Strehler. It is like the theatrics of the French royal courts that have become elaborated over the centuries into French politesse, haute couture, haute cuisine, etc. Simply to say that the ultra controlled, hyper refined theatrics of Giorgio Strehler very well mirror an idealized French spirit.

Though strange to say it was the musical refinement of the current production that very nearly upstaged the Strehler elegance. Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger unleashed the lyricism Mozart lavished on the individual instruments of the orchestra that brought this familiar music to new plateaux of delicate pleasures. The horn duet in Se vuol ballare, the oboe solo in Dove sono, the resonant pizzicato strings in Deh vieni leap out as examples, but the overwhelming orchestral lyricism was everywhere and always.

The cast was perfection. The program bio of Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott unabashedly declares him to be the Figaro of the moment, a claim well proven by his distinctive dark voice, physical agility and sympathetic authority. His nearly speech-like delivery of recitative was remarkable. The Susanna of German soprano Julia Kleiter was physically, even vocally well matched to the Countess of German soprano Dorothea Röschmann to make Strehler's very presentational staging of the disguises far less tiresome than usual.

Cherubino, Figaro

Both sopranos are no-nonsense artists, penetrating the heart of the music and letting it naturally flow to the obvious great pleasure of the maestro who melted Mozart's eloquent orchestra to their voices. It was extraordinary music making. British baritone Christopher Maltman brought bark and bite and unusual fun to the Count, plus new, sly insight into his often tiresome aria that perceptibly deepened his character and enlivened the denouement of Figaro's financial predicament.

American mezzo Isabel Leonard may now compete with Federica von Stade as the Cherubino of your dreams, combining easy postures with consummate charm, upholding the impeccable musicianship that validates this travesty. The there-can-be-no-opera-in-Paris-without corps de ballet crashed the wedding scene, and the intrusion only gained validity when Mlle. Leonard leapt into the balletic fray with a virtuostic display of dance that conclusively proved her manhood (one did wonder how la Von Stade and all the others pulled this scene off).

The Marcellina of British mezzo/comedienne Ann Murray was exemplary. The Bartolo of Maurizio Muraro and the Basilio of Robin Leggate were rendered less present than usual in this production by the persuasive musicality of the five principals.

The extant members of the original production team were said to be involved in mounting this latest incarnation — Ezio Frigerio (sets and costumes), Franca Squarciapino (costumes), Marise Flach (movement). The actual credit for this and perhaps many other incarnations of the Strehler Noces belongs to Humbert Camerlo, an original member of the Libermann directorial staff who will have adapted the individual personalities of its current interpreters to the original Strehler conception.

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Dido et Enée in Toulon

There is a problem with Henry Purcell's little masterpiece. The problem is that it is little. It takes Purcell only about forty-five minutes to dramatize Dido's happiness, her too great pride and the tragedy of Carthage. It is an immense emotional outpouring that is the stuff of grand opera. It deserves to stand alone.

No opera company dares. Toulon Opera offered what may be the best solution yet by staging Purcell's 1692 cantata for chorus and six soloists, Ode to Saint Cecilia (Hail, Bright Cecilia!) and inserting his 1689 Dido and Aeneas masque into the midst of it. The performance grew thus to two solid hours of splendid music making it an afternoon of musical and histrionic sensibility in complete harmony with itself. Well maybe Dido did get a bit lost among the cantata's musical splendors but who cares.

Saint Cecilia is, if you did not know, the patron saint of music who was martyred in the second century A.D. There is no back story that can link her to the Baroque Dido who sacrifices herself to love. But more directly Purcell's cantata is a celebration of the powers of music, and Dido and Aeneas is one of opera and therefore music's greatest moments.

Dido, Belinda, Aeneas

In Toulon the music was powerful indeed, Toulon's chef d'orchestra Giuliano Carella was the driving force. Mo. Carella does not seem to be an early music specialist, his apparent domain is Verdi, verismo and bel canto. So the fine players of Les Bijoux Indiscrets (an early music ensemble based in Toulon that provided the continuo and other Baroque accoutrements) mixed in with members of the Toulon opera orchestra can be forgiven for delivering an incomprehensible overture, a nine minute mess.

If this maestro does not resonate with straight forward primitive instrumental music he does resonate with voices. Air after air poured forth from the elaborate Baroque rooms that were the stage, magically inhabited by a group of remarkably young, evidently versatile opera singers (only one boasted early music credits) who enacted the Hail, Bright Cecilia. Dido appeared at the celebration, marked only by her crown and a solid red gown, Aeneas then arrived in splendid dress uniform, the flower of seventeenth century heroic military portraiture.

Dido

The flow of airs was interrupted only by the intense confrontation of Dido and Aeneas. Dido then gave her farewell and Purcell's most famous chorus crowned the tragedy. Purcell's cantata resumed with grandiose music that celebrates war as well as love. At last everyone except Dido who was dead and Aeneas who had left gave a mighty farewell to Saint Cecilia. The matinee audience was mesmerized by Purcell's lyricism rendered as purest bel canto.

Among the most pleasurable airs of the cantata were 'Tis Nature's Voice and In Vain the Am'rous Flute sung by Argentine tenor Manuel Nunez Camelino whose every movement elegantly seconded Purcell's musical phrases. Affective lighting deepened further the abstract drama of the verses he sang. In fact abstract, choreographed movement imposed by Italian stage director Massimo Gasparon informed all airs, duets and choruses of both the cantata and the opera with visual stimulation that was musical rather than dramatic.

Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci impersonated Dido with diva appearance and attitude appropriate to the translocation of Purcell's little opera into a sumptuous Baroque drawing room. Mr. Gasparon imagined this tragic episode in Virgil's account of the founding of Rome not as political tragedy (the fall of Carthage) but as a sudden domestic tragedy that interrupted a grandiose, eighteenth century formal gathering.

The new production (sets and costumes) was designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, a well-known Italian designer/director. Though Mr. Gasparon is often an assistant to Mr. Pizzi, here the tables are a bit turned with Mr. Pizzi's designs supporting Mr. Gasparon's conception. Mr. Gasparon does separately boast impressive early opera credits, including Handel's Tancredi for Toulon in 2005. This Dido and Aeneas showed a musical and particularly staging polish that is all too rare in Toulon.

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Don Giovanni in Marseille

Scratch the surface of Mozart's Don Giovanni and you have infinite possibilities for revisionist productions, among them the infamous Dimitri Tcherniakov production seen last summer 20 miles up the road at the Aix Festival.

But the Opéra de Marseille is a staid company that stands by solid vocal and musical values and avoids challenging its audience with current operatic fashion. The consequence is that from time to time the audience faces more insidious challenges, like monotony and sometimes boredom.

Marseille revived its 2005 production of Don Giovanni directed by Frédéric Bélier-Garcia, a theater director who now heads the Centre Dramatique Pays de la Loire. He takes Don Giovanni absolutely at face value — a string of magnificent arias, duets and trios plus its stupendous finales, he applies theatrical flourish with slick movement and a well-designed set and smart costumes. An obvious recipe for success, and it could have worked with the generally quite respectable cast Marseille assembled.

Commendatore, Don Ottavio, Donna Anna

Russian tenor Alexey Kudrya stole the show as Don Ottavio. This absolutely unique accomplishment was effected by extraordinarily fine delivery of his two arias not hampered by any idea of who this character may be. It was enough to know that his fiance was somehow and somewhat injured by someone. Mr. Kudrya simply gave the biggest vocal performance.

Usually the domaines of big voices with big musical personalities both the Donna Elvira of Canadian soprano Marianne Fiset and the Donna Anna of Turkish soprano Burcu Uyar were miniature performances. Mlle. Uyar in her elegant black (she is in mourning as you know) gown exhibited elegant musicianship and vocal finesse. Mlle. Fiset in her amusing gold gown topped by a military jacket and black tricorn (three pointed hat) is a natural comedienne and a fine singer to boot. She was a delightfully comic Elvira who did not ignite the vocal fireworks inherent to this role.

Don Giovanni, Donna Elvira

Leporello, sung by Austrian baritone Josef Wagner was vocally and physically well matched to the Don of Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe, making the disguise scenes potentially more fun than usual. Both gentlemen are fine artists who worked very hard to insert life into their generic characters. Mr. Lapointe was upstaged during his serenade by an elegantly dressed mandolin player who stood beside him as he sang directly to the audience. Mr. Wagner attempted valiantly to add life to the production by clacking his heels from time to time.

French baritone Vincent Pavesi was a naturally oafish Masetto and German soprano Emilie Pictet was a generic Zerlina. These pivotal roles however did not contribute the vocal and histrionic weight needed to complete Mozart's tragi-comedy. On the other hand the Commendatore sung by French bass Nicolas Courjal made this often understated personage very present and pleasurable.

All this was presided over by Austrian conductor Theodor Guschlbauer who took slow, very slow tempos and imbued each aria, duet, etc., with its maximum musical importance. Mozart's individual pieces became building blocks for what seemed and sounded like a massive symphonic construction. Though surely it was Mr. Bélier-Garcia who placed Don Giovanni's party orchestra on stage, no doubt it was the maestro who distanced a few inside voices of this orchestra downstage right and left to insist on imposing the idea of musical structure — imagine this famous dance musically inside out!

But back to the Aix Giovanni — Mozart's coda, the final sextet, somehow disappeared into the bickering of a frighteningly dysfunctional family. Not so in Marseille where it glowed with musical splendor. At that point however it was hard to care.

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Akhmatova in Paris

The very name Mantovani strikes musical terror in the hearts of high minded Americans and Brits of a certain age. Now the same surname is evidently terrorizing Parisians.

At least it seemed so, judging by the empty seats of the sixth and final performance of Bruno Mantovani's Akhmatova at the Bastille (and the even more empty seats after intermission).

Just when Parisians have breathed a collective sigh of relief that the Gerard Mortier reign of terror has ended. [Gerard Mortier is a notorious impresario now in Madrid.]

Mme. Akhmatova, Modigliani sketch of Akhmatova

This French Mantovani (only the name is Italian, with no relation to Annuncio Paolo Mantovani) is 37 years old. His musical idiom is a continuum of sonic explosions effected in astringently classical mediums. For Akhmatova he used a Beethoven orchestra with a couple of clarinets added plus some extra brass and a remarkably restrained percussion battery. In a concert the previous evening of piano music by Mr. Mantovani only the piano keys were struck, there was no amplification or other extra-classical application. His string quartets are just that.

There was a time when an opera was credited to the author of its play, its composer only identified on a second line. Turning back to this custom of bygone centuries let us credit this work, Akhmatova, to its creator, one Christophe Ghristi, dramaturg of the Toulouse Opera who presented the idea and libretto to Bruno Mantovani. It is a book of complex theme and sad to say little poetry.

Strange to say little poetry because Anna Akhmatova, if you did not know, is one of Russia's great poets. Like many of the important Soviet era artists she was tortured by her art and tortured by her social responsibility. Ghristi exposes Akhmatova's tortures not through her poetry, but by recounting a back story — her alienation from her son Lev, alienation that was both artistically and politically motivated. In fact her most beautiful poetry dwells on separation, but Akhmatova knows too that her art is superfluous. Thus by conscience she must condemn her son's defense of the art of his father, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov who was executed by the Revolution.

So we have some pretty big themes put on the table. Too bad that they are left there. The story is told but rarely felt even though Mantovani's orchestra is as sentient as Strauss' orchestra, maybe even moreso. The Mantovani sonic vocabulary is enormous, based on repeated notes, trills, glissandi, and oblique tonal movement in, strange to say, almost Beethovenesque sonority. It is music that is potentially responsive to the biggest and smallest movements of the human spirit.

Lev, Akhmatova

Note that there are no steps in a progression of tones, the term melody is not relevant. Accords between tones are equally irrelevant, any occasional suspicion of harmony is diffused by quietly apparent foreign tones. Like Rameau who bragged that he could set newspaper copy to music, there is no doubt, evidenced by Akhmatova, that Mantovani could as well — interesting, vital and beautiful music.

Mantovani is a lyric composer who is motivated by word, image and idea, real or imagined, the stuff of poetry. The Ghristi book gave him copy that he colorfully illuminated, but Ghristi gave him no poetry, and surprisingly incorporated a most minimal amount of Akhmatova verse though her quite brilliant poetry was certainly there for the taking!

The Opéra de Paris production directed by Nicolas Joel and designed by Wolfgang Gussmann relied on the usual devices of slick modern storytelling. Its point of departure was the abstract portrait that Modigliani sketched of the 20 year old Akhmatova. This black and white image was omnipresent at the Bastille, and dictated that all color in the production would be within the gray scale (a brief bright red scene in the second act indicated a bit of frivolity). The Modigliani minimalism in fact informed all decor. It is a simplified staging idiom that seemed ignorant of or impervious to the luxuriant compositional techniques of Mantovani.

German mezzo-soprano Janina Baechle was Anna Akhmatova. Mme. Baechle's usual repertory is Mistress Quickly, Brangene, Fricka, etc. The beautiful, young Akhmatova of the Modigliani sketch bore no relationship to the heavy-set, bitter, aged Akhmatova we saw all evening and who only made sense in the opera's third and final act. The first and second acts lacked the presence of the thin, intense, charismatic Akhmatova of middle age who was illustrated by photographs in the program booklet. Such impersonation would have brought vibrancy and finally pathos to Mr. Ghristi's story. As it was Mme. Baechle's quite powerful performance was unfulfilling.

Romanian tenor Atilla Kiss B. [sic] was Akhmatova's son Lev. Mr. Kiss B.'s usual repertoire seems to be emotionally complicated Strauss and Janacek roles, and that was his weight in this production. He is a striking performer who fully embodied the bitter, strident middle-aged Lev returned from the Gulag camps, but missed creating the naivete of Lev the idealistic university student in the early moments of the opera. His impressive delivery of his ugly adieu to his mother begged for the sense of the boy whose innocence was wasted.

The balance of a mismatched cast negotiated the Mantovani vocal lines with aplomb, no easy feat. Mr. Ghristi's phrases were generally declaimed on a single note, jumping, seldom if ever stepping to subsequent tones to further the speech. From the initial downbeat conductor Pascal Rophé made Mantovani's orchestra the center of attention. Perhaps there never was the possibility of the traditional operatic relationship between pit and stage as the Mantovani orchestral continuum naturally absorbs the voice rather than supports it.

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Ariadne on Naxos in Bordeaux

Ariadne on Naxos, or you could call it Bacchus á Bordeaux. It was an orgy of art.

The opera's prologue got us pretty concerned about exactly how the Strauss/von Hofmannsthal conceit (superimposing improvised comedy on high art tragedy) would play out. It was going to happen in some sort of distressed art space where some pretty bad art (a huge, plastic sculpture) had been lifted out to make space for more, we assumed, bad art ("performance art" is at least naughty if not usually bad).

Echo, Harlequin, Najade, Zerbinetta, Dryade

But all this turned out to be a high flying artistic extravaganza. Its riches were three fold — first it is a big opera with three great roles for sopranos, second there were three great sopranos, and third Bordeaux gave the opera a mise en scène that played with its complexities and reveled in its fun.

Performance art is as close as we come these days to commedia dell'arte, so this transcription of art form was well taken, plus performance art seems to question the nature of art more than it questions anything else and this led metteur en scène Roy Rallo to probe the depths of this silly Strauss/von Hofmannsthal tragedia cum commedia and to find out that it is in fact a fairly serious artistic treatise.

Ariadne, Bacchus

The ubiquitous wreck of a cheap sofa that inhabits most performance spaces here headquartered Najade, Dryade and Echo in various prone positions while stage hands poured buckets of dirt over them, Ariadne was seated in the neon tube outlined sand box, with the remnant, a small head (remember the huge sculpture in the prologue), of a dog's toy that was the minotaur, and Theseus too. Echo outlined the minotaur head on the ubiquitous performance space white wall during Ariadne's lament, and later seconded the forceful horn announcements of Bacchus' arrival with determined throws of her yoyo. More dirt was poured on Najade and Dryade.

When it was Zerbinetta's turn in the sand box she sang her ravishing parody in nightclub garb only to be sexually ravaged by the comedians (painting her in lurid colors). When she became Harlequin's wife in an American gothic tableau during Ariadne's prayer we understood all too well that all this was the trappings of ordinary, everyday mortal love in contrast to the grandiose ideal of love sought by Ariadne.

Harlequin, Zerbinetta, Composer

Well, Bacchus arrived and we had Orpheus and Euridice all over again. In reverse. When their gaze finally met it was all over, Bacchus disappeared into the void (all the doors onto the stage burst open — out the back we even saw the building across the street) and Ariadne was left alone on the stage as the beat-up Zerbinetta with her sad Harlequin husband exited through a side door into a snow storm.

So, all this was art, but what about life? That was of course Strauss' Composer who had a bitter artistic pill to swallow, though this young composer thought he had found a soul mate in Zerbinetta, and he poured his heart out about it, only to be first of the opera's lovers to learn that true love is not to be had in this life. Just then there was a bonus: the Opéra National de Bordeaux enriched Strauss' ridiculous concoction by superimposing an operatic whim of its own — real time, curtain calls onto the prologue!

Marsha Ginsberg gave detailed design to the sets, the dirty walls and chipped tiles of a very realistic building blurring the boundaries between art and real life, and costumer Doey Lüethi further complicated this distinction with real clothing that sometimes screamed character. Lighting by Chris Akerlind cannily intermixed the real and the arty, the flashing red and green lights during the opera's final sublime love music reminding us that all this was, said and done, performance art confusing itself with art.

Yes, it took the considerable artistry of three exquisite sopranos to pull this off. Elza van den Heever (Composer), Heidi Melton (Ariadne) and Brenda Rae (Zerbinetta) are new generation artists with beautiful, fresh and well-schooled voices that illuminate amazing histrionic depth with elegant artistry. Mlle. van den Heever literally tore up the stage in her aria. Not to mention that Zerbinetta tore up the stage as well, standing motionless for her aria, and Heidi Melton brought real gravity to the opera's opera, sitting with her back against the wall, her legs splayed downstage, her voice lofting torrents of gorgeous tone.

Conductor Kwamé Ryan drove the big moments of the opera to maximum Straussian effect, and that effect was considerable indeed, though precision and energy were wanting in the detail that Strauss lavishes on his musical story telling. This was most noticeable in the Prologue, though it is possible that this Prologue's laxity was also the result of the heavy-handed exposition of the performance art metaphor.

The Harlequin, sung by baritone Thomas Dolié, created the evening's most touching moments, approaching Ariadne's sandbox with his arms outstretched during her lament, and then as Zerbinetta's forlorn husband. The Music Master was confidently portrayed by Oliver Zwarg. Actor Martin C. Turba as the Major-domo seemed to be at odds with the musical and staging rhythms of the Prologue further deadening it. Tenor Arnold Bezuyen as Bacchus confused bellowing with singing. Najade (Mélody Loulejian), Dryade (Leslie Davis) and particularly Echo (Eve-Christophe-Fontana) brought fine singing and much pleasurable deadpan perspective to Ariadne's suffering.

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Parsifal in Brussels

Romeo Castellucci is the cat's whisker of current avant-garde theater directors. Thus it has simply been a matter of time before he would be invited to the Monnaie to stage an opera.

Unlike most avant-garde artists Sig. Castellucci has earned mainstream credibility and recognition (France's major daily newspaper Le Monde named his Divine Comedy cycle the best theatrical event dans le monde for the first decade of the twenty-first century!).

Here in the south of France Sig. Castellucci created one of his eleven-piece cycle La Tragedia Endogonidia for Marseille (each part was created in different cities). We were led, blind, into a black space and left standing, lights illuminated a huge pile of furniture, a brutal action occurred, meanwhile the mess of furniture disappeared and a survivor of the action sat at a piano and played the Gymnopédie #3 (the one everyone knows). Twenty minutes after we had entered the space we left.

Act I

In Brussels it was into the splendor of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie that we entered and some four hours plus later we emerged. What had happened was that a kinetic mess of a forest (trees kept falling) gave way to a brutal action and the survivor then marched to the Holy Grail. And, uhm, that is more or less what happens in Dante's Divine Comedy too.

While Sig. Castellucci may be stuck in his story telling he is not stuck in the imagery, and that is of course what his art is all about. The Parsifal in the Monnaie was not about Wagner's Parsifal but about Sig. Castellucci's art. And that art is considerable and there is no shortage of self congratulation. To wit, Klingsor is a chef d'orchestre, the holy lance is his baton but Parsifal does not catch it because Klingsor lays it on the floor and walks off the stage. Thus in this improvised second act contest between stage and pit Mr. Castellucci seems to be the winner.

Not to mention that for the entire overture a huge image of Nietsche was projected above the orchestra. FYI Nietsche detested Wagner.

Act II, Klingsor

Sig. Castellucci's imagistic language is rife with reference, and like most music the images are not metaphors of ideas or translated spaces but superimpositions of impressions. When examined these vast impressions lead to so many conceptual conclusions that no one may be identified as the absolute. Though it is fun to try.

The first unveiling of the Holy Grail is a clue to Sig. Castellucci's artistic intuition. A huge white sheet suddenly covered the kinetic forest, thus all motion stopped as we were confronted only with one small, black quotation mark in this void of white — the word of God? As the final vision of the Grail was unfolding Parsifal and the multitudes marched relentlessly forward it (a rolling stage floor allowed the perpetual forward marching). The lights in auditorium were illuminated — we knew that we are not only a part of the multitudes, we were the Grail itself. Well, why not refer this magnificent affirmation of existence to Satie's insipid ditty.

Too bad for Sig. Castellucci, but the pit won after all. Wagner's magnetic score received a magnificent reading at the baton of German conductor Hartmut Haenchen who was clearly sympathetic to this reduction of Wagner's holy rite to abstract images — his task was now purely musical rather than dramatic. Never before have such sounds emerged from a pit, the antagonistic guttural attacks of the string bows, shattering fortes, earth shaking fortissimos. Most striking of all innovations were the nymphs of the garden scene placed in the pit which gave the maestro opportunity to transform the sweetness of this music into loud music of inexorable persuasiveness. Mo. Haenchen too abstracted Wagner's opera.

Act III, Parsifal

For all the brilliance of the imagery and the discovery and superlative implementation of a myriad of scenic techniques, for all the visual excitement created by the plasticity (constant movement) of these images and for the intuitive sense of a supra-eternal artistic presence, those four hours seemed long. The slow succession of Sig. Castellucci's depth images impeded the dramatic flow of Wagner's opera, visual and musical climaxes seldom coincided.

The casting of young American tenor Andrew Richards was a coup de théâtre in itself. This neophyte Wagnerian embodied a Parsifal of genuine innocence, and managed its delivery effectively if with far more sweetness than heldentenor brilliance. Because Sig. Castellucci art is visual rather than dramatic the singers rarely had the support of creating and developing character. Thus much of their success was dependent on sheer vocal artistry. The performances of Kundry (Anna Larsson), Amfortas (Thomas Johannes Mayer) and particularly Gurnemanz (Jan-Hendrik Rootering) missed creating sufficient presence. Klingsor (Tómas Tomasson) had much to do — conducting as well as trussing and hanging ballerinas — and thus made a big impression.

The production is huge and magnificent, and, hear/tell, a bit compromised in execution. It is the idealized stuff of the Aix Festival. May it arrive at the Grand Théâtre de Provence! I would like a second look.

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Werther in Lyon

Massenet tells us that his Werther is 23 years old, that Charlotte is 20 years old. Albert is 25 and Sophie is but 15. Just now the Lyon Opera assembled just such a cast.

This unusual casting was the crucial element of an astonishing concept production. Director Rolando Villazón mined the delicate moments of transition between childhood, adolescence and the first revelatory moments of maturity that he divined in The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe himself could not argue with Mr. Villazón.

The delicacy of Mr. Villazón's concept was exacerbated by his metaphor. The action of opera's most turgid tale was transferred to the big top — yes, a circus! and narrated in the language of clowning. If all this sounds off-putting, it was. For about three minutes. It became first fascinating, and finally convincing.

The opera wore the concept well, Massenet's local drunks Schmidt and Johann were singing clowns (very good ones) and a couple of young town folk, Katchen and Bruhlmann, were in fact very real circus clowns. Mr. Villazón's clowns were always on or never far from the stage. They complicated the opera's world of childish delights — Massenet's Yuletide begins and ends his opera — by framing the opera's story with the sadness that is inherent in all clowns. They also imposed a blatantly simple language of storytelling.

They cavorted as clowns do (Schmidt's teared clown-face hovered behind Charlotte as she delivered her Va, laisse couler mes larmes, marking its moments with his clown-hand miming). They exploited the clowning technique to use a simple prop to represent a fare more complicated image (a black dress for Charlotte's dead mother, and finally Werther's frock coat for the dying then dead Werther).

Two identical Werthers moved in simultaneous motions on the stage, one the 10-year-old child Werther, the other the Werther who now faces a different world. Mr. Villazón knows that Charlotte is the victim of the opera Werther, suffering the overwhelming forces of maternal love in conflict with nearly equal forces of romantic love. Werther himself has only to cope with the realization that Werther the child no longer exists, but it is Charlotte who must place his tiny frock coat into the small, coffin shaped box of clowning props.

The clowning metaphor was relentlessly pursued, not for a moment did the concept waiver within the appropriate decors designed by François Séguin — the big-top made of many masts supporting flowing cloth, cages, the toys clowns use and an abstracted harpsichord that mimed the church organ sounds of resigned and contented lives. Costume design by Thibault Vancraenenbroeck [sic] underscored the depth of the concept in its deft mixture of period costume and clowning tradition.

This startling concept insisted that we hear this masterpiece as we never had heard it before. And that we did in a very present (loud) orchestral reading that magnified the scores more vivid colors. Austrian conductor Lionel Hager had obvious respect for the concept. He found inspired orchestral realization for the love that flowed though a long red, clown scarf pulled between the Charlotte and Werther. He brought a multitude of fortissimo climaxes to the outpourings of the young Werther. And no real gunshot shocked the musical torrent of the suicide (the gun was merely a prop from the box of toys).

Famed hautecontre tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt stole the clowning show as Schmid, well matched by Lyon Opera regular, Syrian baritone Nabil Suliman as Johann. Katchen and Bruhlmann (Marie-Laure Cloarec and Gregory Escolin) managed their few lines somehow and otherwise added artistic sheen as professional clowns. Mr.Escolin embodied yet a third Werther, this one a clown imprisoned in a cage.

Usually the province of a mature, read matronly, artist here Charlotte was gracefully embodied by young French mezzo soprano Karine Deshayes. She is a finished artist with a bright and vibrant voice, a revelation in this role. American tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz substituted youth and good looks for the refinement associated with Massenet's singer (and Goethe's poet), and had an abundant supply of secure and powerful high notes to win over those not taken in by looks alone. Belgian baritone Lionel Lhote was a gentile, sympathetic young Albert not yet made hard by worldly success. Though obviously far from fifteen Belgian soprano Anne-Catherine Gillet nonetheless captured the accents of incipient adolescence far more than the usual vocal brilliance of Sophie, and this innocence made her endearing.

Rolando Villazón is a tenor of enormous reputation, and obviously a man of directorial vision. At the same time much credit must go to the Opéra de Lyon for seeing this remarkable production through to the end and for adding exceptional polish to such a problemic endeavor.

Mr. Villazón is an admitted amateur clown. Let us hope he has not blown his directorial wad with this bizarre first production. And that he may have other hidden talents to theatrically exploit in future productions. Hopefully some daring opera house will find out.

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Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci in Marseille

Opera is good in Marseille. The house boasts a good acoustic, a good orchestra, and its singers are good. Make that sometimes really good. Just now Béatrice Uria-Monson was Santuzza and Vladimir Galouzine was Canio in the classic double bill that makes operatic murder seem like real murder.

Add Carlos Almaguer as both Alfio and Tonio and you are close to dream casts. The Turiddu of Luca Lombardo was more effective dramatically that vocally — a mega-tenor is needed ideally to drive Cavalleria rusticana to its ultimate level.

Galouzine's dark hued tenor however quickly reached its apex of tension in I pagliacci as he tore through the explosions of this over-wrought, jealous husband. The double murder was thoroughly satisfying, with the super-sized participation of Mr. Almaguer.

Mamma Lucia was impersonated by Viorica Cortez, reverential casting as she has little voice or presence these days. Nedda was obligatory casting — Mme. Galouzine aka Nataliya Tymchenko gave a light voiced, mannered but convincing performance, well matched by the Silvio of Etienne Dupuis.

While Béatrice Uria-Monson has a troubled career here she was in good voice, more soprano colored these days (she lists a Tosca in Avignon as an upcoming project), and she projected the inner fire and physical energy that has made her the quintessential Carmen of previous decades, and now a formidable verismo diva.

Strange to say Mme. Uria-Monson's fine Voi lo sapete did not earn an ovation, victim of the lackluster conducting of Fabrizio Maria Carminati who could not enforce the emotional urgency of either score. The usually over-wrought, italianissimo conductor Giuliano Carella was the original maestro but had broken his ankle and could not mount the podium — dommage!

The production was by Jean-Claude Auvray. He erected a false proscenium to restrict further Marseille's already quite contained stage picture. A bizarre gesture as this was a co-production with the Chorégies d'Orange where the stage is 300 feet or so wide. But the stage direction (movements of the actors) was à la Orange which is to say that the singers wandered downstage center and fended for themselves. What may be a necessity in thrown together stadium opera did not work in Marseille.

Without precise, thoughtful, dramatically driven movement there were no emotional rhythms created, a lack that precluded building to the inevitable conclusions of the operas' explosive passions. These famed masterpieces of melodrama were eviscerated — dommage!

Mr. Auvray gratuitously placed the action of both operas in the 1950's giving costumer Rosalie Varda license to dress the chorus women in crinoline skirts, an almost acoustical image that visually upstaged everything else as well. Mr. Auvray does not understand that the self-conscious social realism of the mid 20th century has little to do with the raw passions of late nineteenth century Italian verismo.

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Der Freischutz in Toulon

Carl Marie von Weber's magical masterpiece has had a hard time of it in France. In his memoirs Hector Berlioz heaps condemnation upon its 1824 premiere in Paris where it had been made over to appeal to Parisian (French) taste. Le Freischutz according to Berlioz was "mutilé, vulgarisé, torturé, insulté" — it had in fact even become Robin des Bois.

The usual sarcastic bombast of the memoirs is however absent when Berlioz describes his own transformion of the work. He composed sung recitatives to replace its spoken dialogues for its performances at the Paris Opera in 1841 — no spoken words at this altar of musical art!

Von Weber's Romantic masterpiece has had a very hard time of it just now in Toulon (home of the French Mediterranean fleet, its magnificent opera house said the be the model for the Paris Opéra Garnier). Its extensive spoken dialogues had been somewhat restored (delivered in German by an international cast [there was one German] to this French speaking audience).

The metteur en scène in Toulon was sixty-three-year-old Jean-Louis Benoit, director of the Théâtre National La Crée-Marseille. He too re-wrote von Weber's delicate masterpiece, translocating it from the enchanted forests of a mythical Germany to inside Max's head, a space "urbanisé, métallique, no longer in need of a forest"[!] according to Mr. Benoit.

These days one has learned that it is dangerous to question too closely the visions of stage directors, and anyway it is indeed true that all human perception occurs in someone's head. Unfortunately Mr. Benoit and his scenic collaborator Laurent Pedruzzi did not have the vocabulary or technique to realize such a concept — the enchanted forest was reduced to a huge hanging circle, presumably a moon, the Wolf Glen was an empty stage, the forest ranger's home was a bed.

Mr. Benoit's actors moved presentationally in costumes that identified their character (some of the chorus wore metallic gray great coats), addressing themselves directly to the audience. Chorus movement was geometric and in direct relationship to the musical structure. The metallic urbanization seemed to make this production no more than a concert performance of one of the repertory's most splendid scores.

Laurence Equilbey is one of the rare females admitted into the fraternity of conductors. Mme. or Ma. Equilbey took a very literal approach to this score, marking its beat stolidly and seldom allowed its music to take flight. In fact Ma. Equilbey seemed to be in contention with the stage from time to time when the music wanted it to take flight all by itself and she insisted on the beat.

This is not to say that we did not hear von Weber's opera. The orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon approached the score with obvious respect, and responded to its conductor's talents by giving a clean performance, if one lacking the tonal splendor of, let's say, the Berlin Philharmonic.

Grave responsibility to create both character and music rests on the shoulders of concert singers. Berlioz remarks that the Agathe of Robin des Bois was a lovely singer who delivered her great second act aria with "imperturbable sang-froid" and with all the charm of a vocalise. Much the same thing can be said of the performance of the Toulon Agathe, American soprano Jacqueline Wagner who applied the same sang-froid to Agathe's lovely third act prayer as well.

Max, Agathe's misguided fiance, was entrusted to German tenor Jürgen Müller who combined sturdy singing with believable character. He managed to recover from some vocal malaise that marred the third act trio with Agathe and Annchen to finish the opera in fine form. All in all he offered a splendid performance.

The Kaspar was sung by Moldovian bass-baritone Roman Ialcic who discovered the cunning of von Weber's evil paysan but did not project its force. Mr. Ialcic too is a fine singer. Georgian bass Nika Guliashvili was too young to be Agathe's father, and too green to portray the gravity the head forest ranger Kuno, Canadian soubrette Mélanie Boisvert was an appropriate Annchen.

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Turandot in San Francisco

The magnificent David Hockney Turandot production burst again onto the War Memorial stage with a new cast and conductor that recaptured its potential to make this fairytale into great opera.

Well, almost a new cast. The slave girl Liu of Leah Crocetto was a hold over from the October cast though her performance in these new circumstances seemed more vibrant and vivid. No longer dwarfed by larger than life colleagues, it was far bigger than before and this time it truly mesmerized the opera house — her prayer and supplication, then her suicide came in limpid pianissimos, in rich fortes, the youth and freshness of her voice embodied the purity and innocence of maidenhood.

Walter Fraccaro as Calaf, Leah Crocetto as Liu, Christian Van Horn as Timur
Photo copyright D. Ross Cameron/San Francisco Opera

Susan Foster was both the new Turandot and a new Turandot — not the icy, unattainable princess but the vulnerable, neurotic maiden, a Turandot very rarely revealed. Now she was a human scaled, twisted rival of the pure and gentle Liu. To be sure Mme. Foster could not be the icy Turandot if she wanted to. She does not possess the steely, dramatic voice nor the mythic persona to engage in a shouting match with her suitor Calaf. But she does have an engaging dramatic voice with volume aplenty when she needs it, and a personal softness that shone beautifully in her touching revelation that Calaf’s name was in fact “love.”

Calaf too, tenor Walter Fraccaro, had a softness and vulnerability that brought a very human dimension to his “Nessun dorma” that beguiled the opera house with its intimacy and earned him one of its all time biggest ovations. His Calaf was a young warrior who was perhaps as neurotic as Turandot, both of them equating love, or let us just say sex — there is that kiss — with death. Mr. Fraccaro did have the heft and volume in secure, supple voice to assault Turandot in his second act answers to her riddles.

Susan Foster as Turandot, Walter Fraccaro as Calaf
Photos copyright D. Ross Cameron/San Francisco Opera

Bass Christian Van Horn brought physical stature (he’s tall) and volume to Timur, confidently anchoring the narrative relationships of the opera’s’ protagonists. The Hockney production does not offer this personage opportunity to expand emotionally.

San Francisco Opera Resident Conductor Giuseppi Finzi allowed Puccini’s score to rise naturally from the pit, with tempos that encouraged its huge sonic scope to saturate the War Memorial Opera house. It is a great big opera that gives the San Francisco Opera chorus and orchestra opportunity to strut their stuff as two of the world’s fine ensembles.

The musical flow revealed this young conductor’s understanding of Puccini’s story. He did not sacrifice this newly discovered delicate humanity to dramatic and musical effect — this score’s fatal temptation. But what the young maestro could not do was drive the Alfano duet that ends the opera to the musical coherency that his predecessor Nicola Luisotti miraculously achieved, nor bring point and edge to the machinations of Ping, Pang and Pong.

Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The Hockney production is saturated with Chinese reds and fantastical shapes that evoke much more than illustrate a sense of Oriental splendor. Hockney thinks two dimensionally, i.e. the proscenium opening is a canvas, thus we are presented with a succession of paintings. This places his characters on the canvas, or rather it freezes them onto the canvas. There is little movement, and virtually no dramatic reality, i.e. characters do not speak to each other — conversations are a visual, public presentation. Puccini’s Turandot offered this formidable visual artist unique opportunity to create a masterpiece.

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Xerxes in San Francisco

No cuts, not a single one, nearly four hours of non-stop arias, and its only hit tune happens within the first five minutes.

It was a fine evening in the War Memorial Opera House, a rare visit by one of opera’s greatest dramatists, G.F. Handel now 326 years-old. San Francisco Opera welcomed his 273 years-old Xerxes with a production that is 26 years-old.

While the mushy acoustic of San Francisco’s venerable opera house is not kind to the linear detail and sculptural shapes of Baroque opera an exemplary cast overcame this handicap with the help of the English National Opera production directed by Nicholas Hytner and designed by David Fielding — purely and simply a classic.

The Handel revival has been going on quite a while now, in fact nearly one hundred years though not so many of his operas find their way onto the big stages to play for broader audiences. That may be the reason that when the populist and always lively ENO took on Xerxes for the Handel 1985 anniversary it choose to play up the comic elements of this opera seria, in fact to make it an outright comedy, trappings it wears quite naturally.

Impeccable comic timing and deadpan humor rarely describe performances by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (whose roles at SFO include Iphigénie, Ariodante and Sister Helen [Dead Man Walking]). As the Persian king Serse (Xerxes) these attributes are as appropriate as the more usual phrases like impeccable musicianship and superb delivery. Her trouser acting technique does not attempt masculinity leaving us gratefully unconfused in the usual gender confusion.

Susan Graham and David Daniels
Sonia Prina as Amastris
Photos copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Almost the same things can be said about countertenor David Daniels who was her/his (Serse’s) rival in love, though in the case of Mr. Daniels the gender confusion became a part of the comedy with his maleness exaggerated by the addition of a beard — all the while singing in a male voice in a female register. Mr. Daniels has a quite beautiful falsetto that is evenly colored throughout his range, and exposes his mastery of Baroque style with every note.

To a man all the other pro- and antagonists were scene stealers. Heidi Stober and Lisette Oropesa were the sisters, Atalanta and Romilda, very lyric singers and beguiling actresses, complemented by the delightfully outraged Sonia Prina as Serse’s forgotten fiance Amastris, now disguised as a soldier. She earned a huge ovation for her dynamite, end of first act explosion “Saprà delle mie offese, ben vendicarsi il cor.”

Well, to a man it was hopeless, tormented love finally resolved by the dumb coyness of lovesick Serse aided by the very real charm of the servant Elviro sung by baritone Michael Samuel and by the pomposity of the general Ariodates adroitly served up by bass Wayne Tigges.

Heidi Stober as Atalanta
Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The greatest pleasure of the evening was however the finished staging accomplished by stage director Michael Walling. Its imposed precise movements were confidently executed by the cast. This finish alone allowed the comedy to shine as well as to expose gracefully the considerable personal charms of the seven principals. Not to mention the huge presence of 24 choristers (but only two brief choruses) and 17 tireless supernumeraries as the very slightly defined Persian society (disguised in period European dress) — totally gray, shadowy, barely visible gentle commentators on the shenanigans of Handel’s brightly dressed lovers — that added very welcome action and context to the countless arias.

David Fielding’s set on which Serse and Ariodates plot their invasion of Europe was a Baroque room with a garden superimposed (recognizing that Xerxes is really a pastorale) with a back wall that flew out to reveal some witty Middle Eastern vistas and side panels that opened to admit some monumental Persian sculpture in museum cases. Together with the cheap lawn chairs and newspapers there was plenty of nifty confusion of time and place to complement the amusing gender confusions mixed up in the silly romantic convolutions.

Act I. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Conductor Patrick Summers allowed all this to happen without imposing musical extravagances, choosing instead to indulge in his sympathy for the needs of his singers. There was no real attempt or for that matter possibility or even need to create a Baroque sound in the vast expanse of the War memorial.

This production from twenty-six years ago reflects the tastes and challenges of that time, a particularly innovative period at the ENO. A new production now of this problematic opera might attempt to underscore the depth of emotion in its exposition of these tragic (genuinely unhappy) stories. The feelings are musically quite real. The heady humor of the Hytner production kept us outside and above the much of the potential musical depth and maybe some of the pleasures of this Handel score.

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Carmen in San Francisco

Déja vu. Well, sort of. Last time around (2006) there was a Carmen and then another who cancelled leaving San Francisco Opera in the lurch. Of the several step-ins one seemed the most unlikely, but American lyric mezzo Kate Aldrich surprised everyone with a Carmen that was splendidly charismatic. Five years later la Aldrich, now a Rossini diva as well, was to be the centerpiece for eleven performances of this get-em-in-the-opera-house war horse. Guess what!

But this time, so far, the replacements have been very likely Carmens. American mezzo and recent Adler Fellow Kendall Gladden took the first two performances. This fine young artist has already distinguished herself as a viable Carmen on several of the world’s major stages. Georgian diva Anita Rachvelishvili, a veteran of the role at La Scala, the Met, Munich, etc., has now made her local debut and takes the next four performances as well. San Francisco Opera still hopes Mme. Aldrich may arrive for the final four performances, but stay tuned.

The problem is that Kate Aldrich is a very specific artist. She has a tonality that incorporates her quite lyric voice with a bright, American presence. It would seem that San Francisco Opera built its cast around this formidable persona and that meant lighter voices and lighter weight personalities. And since Carmen is a dialogue and numbers opera anyway the artistic concept seems to have been to make it a true operetta-like musical.

A light-weight cast was the result. Young Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam was an adolescent looking and sounding Jose whose singing gave great pleasure but who lacked the power to make Jose’s frustration and rage seem more than a temper tantrum. Current Adler Fellow Sara Gartland possesses a small, quite lovely voice with an engaging flutter. She was a Micaëla blown about the stage by the whims of a few soldiers and smugglers rather than the stolid emotional force of Jose’s ties to his mother.

Thiago Arancam as Don José and Sara Gartland as Micaëla
Paulo Szot as Escamillo
Photos copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot was the Escamillo. His claim to fame is the role of Emile De Becque in a Broadway revival of South Pacific and as the caricatural Shostakovich Nose at the Met. Mr. Szot simply lacks the operatic coglioni to fight bulls and seduce Carmen, but he did make a more or less pretty figure on the stage.

All this light artillary confronted a Carmen of maximum operatic magnitude, Anita Rachvelishvili. Mlle. Rachvelishvili has a big, big voice that she manages with grace and subtlety, and she does project a forceful personality if not a particularly sexual one. She apparently arrived in enough time to get her mind around the production’s dialogues but hardly in time to be integrated into its staging, if there ever was any. As it was she made generic Carmen moves from time to time.

Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen
Thiago Arancam as Don José, Wayne Tigges as Zuniga
Photos copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

This 1981 Jean Pierre Ponnelle production once had an edge. It was in fact the first time Bizet’s spoken dialogues were incorporated at the War Memorial and among the first times on any major stage in the world. To effect such daring Ponnelle obviously needed to downsize the public’s idea of Carmen from grand opera to a music hall ambience.

This need accounts for the small false proscenium embedded in a massive stone wall. The little proscenium opens and closes upon some historical scenic ideas (as well as a few more sophisticated techniques) that Ponnelle uses to substitute for the grand opera ideas of locale and ambience.

Act IV. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Production and set designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Costume designer Werner Juerke, Lighting designer Christopher Maravich

But more than anything else the stone wall foreshortens stage depth determining that the staging be presentational, like music theater once was (and maybe still is). Can this explain why Jose seemed to be singing the "Flower Song" to the audience? And why Jose and Escamillo confronted one another without confronting one another (they seemed to be confronting the conductor). While the program does credit a fight choreographer these several crucial events that we look forward to in Carmen were inordinately weak.

Meanwhile, o Dio, we had Nicola Luisotti in the pit, a more formidable opera conductor cannot be imagined. Once again blatant staging concessions were obviously made to this tyrannical maestro so that all his musical points could be maximally vivid. And vivid Bizet’s music was. Maybe it was the point and flash of the music that made the stage seem so painfully pallid and therefore undermined our enjoyment of the performance.

Of the comprimarios the Dancairo of Timothy Mix had real flash, and the Moralès of Trevor Scheunemann well filled the stage. Adler Fellow Susannah Biller as Frasquita lacked the brilliance and volume of the high notes needed to vocally anchor the big ensembles. Wayne Tigges as Zuniga failed to find the fascistic stance that the Ponnelle production introduced to establish a political tyranny equal to the emotional tyranny imposed by Jose's mother.

The fashion to use the very compromised (i.e. hugely shortened) opéra comique dialogues in big opera houses has long since disappeared, and it is time to retire the Ponnelle production rather than destroy its integrity by producing it in unfavorable circumstances. The French dialogues just now were a pleasure however, easily understandable to anyone with high school French. Cleverly one Frenchman was introduced into the cast, Micaela’s mountain guide boy, so that we could hear what real French sounds like.

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Roméo et Juliet in Los Angeles

Things got a bit confusing at the Dorothy Chandler. Some of us thought we were there to see Gounod’s Roméo et Juliet, others it seems — those on the stage — thought we might enjoy West Side Story as well. So that no one would be disappointed L.A. Opera opted to superimpose the one upon the other.

The Los Angeles Opera production, the physical production, of Romeo et Juliet designed by John Gunter is stunning. Its elaborate Gothic tracery elaborated in abstracted late nineteenth century Parisian iron structures cannily superimposes the horrors of this old, Italian gothic tale onto the swashbuckle and delicate sentimentalism of late French Romanticism.

Photo copyright Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera

The elaborate mass and formality of the costuming by Tim Goodchild echoed the puffed proportion of this catchy little tragedy, and the stage pictures with the Renoir umbrellas delightfully reminded us that life does indeed include some troubled moments that can in fact be quite lovely.

It is hard to imagine a more perfect stage for Gounod’s delicate little opera than this virtuostic Anglo-Saxon, pseudo-Shakespearean vision.

Alas, Tony and Maria and the Jets and the Sharks took over adding the pizzazz of Broadway to the picture. The fight scenes, staged by Ed Douglas and the choreography by Kitty McNamee (of L.A.’s Hysterica Dance Company), were almost slick enough to approximate the real Broadway thing. The cast was young and fun. And Italian, Georgian, Russian, Korean, even some Americans, though not a Frenchman in sight — in short it was so-called international opera. Thus we were spared the difficult and seemingly impossible struggle of making French opera.


Vittorio Grigolo as Roméo and Nino Machaidze as Juliet
Vitalij Kowaljow as Friar Laurence
Photo copyright Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera

Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo was the Roméo. He is a real singer, even an Orphic voice like Pavarotti was, and just like Pavarotti his very being is Latin (unlike Pavarotti he does not possess a voice of unique color). His singing of Roméo was akin to Maria Callas singing Isolde, i.e. inappropriate. His presence is muscular and rawly emotional, his movement is forceful and nervous. In short he could be a perfect Tony, or even Rigoletto were he not so blatantly vain. His performance was marred by his constant look-at-me antics.

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was the Juliet, remembered as a monochromatic, unrepentant Fiorella in last season’s Turco in Italia. She is young and beautiful, and uniquely voiced (the dark, full sound of slavic voices) for the light lyric coloratura repertoire. But here too she never sacrificed hard, brilliant Rossini singing to the soft innocence that defines Juliet, though she did have the look and sound we could accept for the West Side Story Maria.

Russian bass-baritone Vladimir Chernov created a light weight Capulet pater familias coached into a comic liveliness that belied the gravitas of such a personage. Mr. Chernov has all the trappings of a star save a commanding vocal and stage presence. Such presence however marked the initial moments of Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow (L.A.’s Wotan) singing Friar Laurence but his voice soon lost its beauty as he cannot sustain the soft understanding of a piously human personage (he tore up the stage just now in San Francisco as Lucrezia Borgia’s jealous husband).

Vladimir Chernov as Lord Capulet
Photo copyright Robert Millard, Los Angeles Opera

Amidst all this vocal abundance Russian tenor Alexey Sayapin, a participant in the L.A. Opera young artist program, was vocally out of place though other of the program’s participants managed credible performances of Mercutio and Stephano — Korean baritone Museop Kim and American mezzo Renée Rapier who stepped in for the previously announced Italian mezzo Elena Belfiore.

Other smaller roles were appropriately cast. Philip Cokorinos is more at home in comprimario roles than leading roles (like the recent Zaretsky in Onegin), and made a suitable Duke of Verona. L.A. Opera favorite Ronnita Nicole Miller was a full-voiced Nurse, and Michael Dean makes a belated L.A. Opera debut with his well sung Gregorio.

Beloved opera legend Placido Domingo was in the pit as conductor, and left us wondering if a qualified French repertory conductor might have saved the day. Ian Judge, the original stage director of this 2005 L.A. Opera production, evidently recreated his original staging to suit the personalities of the interpreters, or should have. This fine physical production deserves better.

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Don Giovanni in San Francisco

Ossia Maestro Watching in Fog City. Ten years ago it was German provincialism, now it is the Italian sort wanting to take root in the War Memorial Opera House.

San Francisco Opera unveiled a new Don Giovanni just now in nearly direct competition with the new Giovanni from the Met (you can see it soon on Live in HD). Of course the Met has avoided an American take on this old story as well, preferring to impose still more British artistic imperialism on Americans.

Act II, Cemetery. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Set designer Alessandro Camera, Costume designer Andrea Viotti
Lighting designer Christopher Maravich

The SFO Giovanni is all about egoism, and we are not talking just about the libidinous Don. We are of course talking about SFO music director Nicola Luisotti. Like the Don, this maestro is much larger than life, and equally astonishing in his powers. But the Luisotti Don Giovanni is not about sex as it is for most stage directors, it is about how Luisotti can take you to the brink of lyric orgasm and hold you there longer than maybe you ever thought possible.

Of course the maestro did need some collaborators to support his lyric blowout, specifically a general director willing to suspend artistic judgement and engage a stage director who is at home on secondary Italian stages where standards are parochial to say the least. One Gabriele Lavia was Luisotti’s collaborator for his Salome in Bologna shortly after the San Francisco one (if in Bologna it was orchestrally more brilliant the staging was even cornier than in San Francisco).

The comedy of Mozart’s sublime tragicommedia in San Francisco was watching Sig. Lavia keep the maestro’s singers on a plain about 4 feet wide across the stage apron where no one could escape the maestro’s thrall. And still tell the story. It sometimes worked, sort of, belying the not-too-distant link of Mozartian dramaturgy to the linear and static placement of singers for Baroque opera seria.

Serena Farnocchia as Donna Elvira, Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna,
Photos copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

General Director Gockley as well engaged a small scale, very Italiate diva, the splendid Serena Farnocchia whose bright lyric voice is on the small side for Donna Elvira, and light enough to negotiate, almost, Elvira’s very difficult music at the speed of light. The maestro succeeded in upstaging Sig.ra Farnocchia’s “Mi tradi” with a hyper emotional orchestral accompaniment to its recit (grotesque heaving).

Donna Anna was the American soprano Ellie Dehn who had made little impression as the Countess last fall. But she glowed vocally as a retiring Donna Anna, her just ample enough voice blended perfectly in ensembles, having shown with hanging beauty and fine musicianship in her first act aria "Or sai chi l'onore.” American tenor Shawn Mathey was Don Ottavio, but not the usual impotent one. Turning the tables he was the singer with the coglioni rather than the usual Giovanni heroines. Both Don Ottavio arias were blockbusters, exposing forceful, detached tones in quick passages and fioratura, and letting tone and feeling explode in lyric passages. Both Ms. Dehn and Mr. Mathey managed a synergy with the maestro to sublime effect.

Shawn Mathey as Don Ottavio, Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni
Photos copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Ignoring all potential complexities of relationship to his master, Italian bass Marco Vinco made Leporello a cute, almost expendable character, needed but not wanted. Though he, like most all Leporellos earned the biggest ovation. Like Leporello, Zerlina and Masetto were needed only for the maestro’s beautifully wrought ensembles, but not much more. Zerlina was ably and musically sung by Kate Lindsey, Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster made a cute Masetto.

San Francisco regular, bass baritone Lucas Meachem filled the shoes of Don Giovanni with aplomb and even charm. Mozart did not endow his most loved character with arias of consequence, and a stage director must dig way beneath the surface to intuit any complexity of personality, obviously not the scope of this production. But the Don is always big, and he lets it all hang out in his explosion at the end of the first act. Needless to say this was the meat of the maestro who turned it into an absolute frenzy. Mr. Meachem could not possibly compete, though he gave it a good try. The real Don would have thrown this maestro the very graphic up-yours gesture and walked off the stage.

From the downbeat of the overture Mo. Luisotti stated that this Mozart opera was an orchestral and musical process, its very sound groaning with importance, reminding us that the maestro has made his orchestra into one of the world’s fine pit ensembles. The beginning foretold the absolutely literal ending with the Commendatore, ably delivered by bass Morris Robinson, wreaking his vengeance on the Don in gigantic symphonic terms. We discovered last fall that after the maestro’s over-the-top musical dénouement in The Marriage of Figaro that he could not touch the quiet Mozartian humanity that ends Figaro. And here he does not even look for Mozart’s humanity, ending Giovanni with the Don’s noisy descent into hell rather than letting the quietly splendid Prague sextet wipe up the mess.

It was a fun evening. However Mozart and San Francisco might equally enjoy a bit of operatic integrity.

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Cosi fan tutte and Eugene Onegin in Los Angeles

L.A. likes to think of itself as the Berlin of the Western Hemisphere when it comes to the visual arts — the place where it (art) happened and happens. In fact the art happening of the year “Pacific Standard Time, Art in L.A. 1935 - 1970” opened this past weekend all over Los Angeles.

Important art of another ilk happened in L.A. last weekend as well, back to back performances of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The art of opera is glowing in L.A. with accomplishment and hopeful promise. The Ring of the century, well maybe the decade (the Freyer Ring, summer 2010), has imposed astringent economies onto L.A. Opera, and it has turned poverty into a virtue. Intelligent choices (rare in opera circles), not expensive choices of productions and casts made a splendidly satisfying 2010/11 season, and this intelligence was manifest just now in Onegin and Cosi.

It may well have been the Cosi fan tutte of the century, or maybe the decade, with a youthful, perfectly matched cast and a production that took on the preciousness of the bète noir of Mozart’s trilogy and made it a virtue. This was the Nicholas Hytner production for the Glyndebourne Festival (uhm, the repository of all operatic preciousness). Just now it was successfully re-staged by Ashley Dean who made sure that Mozart’s twosomes remained the production’s staging conceit — its protagonists stayed always as tightly paired on stage as Mozart’s thirds and sixths (musical intervals) are paired in the score.

Guglielmo, Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando.
Photo copyright Robert Milard, Los Angeles Opera

Casting a young singer, Lorenzo Regazzo, as a disheveled and not-at-all “gray haired” Don Alfonso stated the case. This was youth defining its appetites. The Albanian disguises (loose hair as opposed to hair pulled into a queue) offered no more than excuses for girls to try out someone else’s boyfriend. The in-joke is that the Ferrando, Saimir Pirgu is a real Albanian so he needed no disguise anyway.

It was conceptually light weight and minimal — the wager occurred over a cup of tea, there were just a few light props (veranda furniture and a wall moved on and off by a couple [man and woman] of nearly dead senior citizens totally oblivious by now to all that ardor). Despina, Roxana Constantinescu, did all the classic antics so we did not have to deal with the what-to-do-with-Despina problem. And there was even a touch of attitude — in the final tableau Guglielmo made it clear that he was pissed.

While Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, the Guglielmo, may be famous for his good looks, and that counts in La La Land, his dark bass baritone voice brought welcome edge to the homogenous sound of Mozart’s score. The biggest arias are given to his girlfriend Fiordiligi, sung by Aleksandra Kurzak who therefore made the biggest effect vocally. Ruxandra Donose as Dorabella was the most delightfully comedic figure of the evening. Well matched in voice color the two women reveled in singing together, and Mozart gave them much, well, too much opportunity to do so.

Don Alfonso, Guglielmo, Despina, Ferrando, Dorabella.
Photo copyright Robert Milard, Los Angeles Opera

The names say it all (there was not an American in sight). These are international opera singers, not opera stars, with credits on the world’s major stages (and L.A. is already one of them). It is a new breed of singer whose artistry equates voice with presence.

There was a time not so long ago when symphony circles looked down upon the L.A. Opera orchestra, but this surely is no longer the case. Music director James Conlin has transformed the ensemble into a fine opera orchestra of resonant strings and singing winds. The overture to Cosi, gratefully left unstaged, exposed fine solo playing all over the place. The maestro was more than a willing player in all this fun, in fact the driving force with tempi so perfect that they seemed pure Mozart. Well, except in the overture when some of the woodwind solos had a hard time keeping up. Maybe it was the excitement of what was about to happen on the stage.

The afternoon did become long as each of Mozart’s young lovers was given his and her moment to sing alone. Even the gold light that tried to conjure a more emotional atmosphere for all this late afternoon singing could not sustain my interest. The opening of all possible cuts in the score made most of us grateful and others of us uncomfortable that there was only one intermission in the 3 1/2 hour duration of the performance.

San Francisco Opera tried not so long ago to be the operatic Berlin of the Western Hemisphere. That did not work out. And the Freyer Ring in L.A. did leave some (a lot of) folks out in the cold as well. So it is understandable that this fall L.A. season preferred to identify itself with London and its West End, Anglo-Saxon theatrical inclusiveness.

While this made Cosi accessible it faltered in Eugene Onegin. Maybe this is because the Covent Garden Onegin production by the late Steven Pimlott exploited Anglo-Saxon theatrical virtuosity in rather obscure ways.

Tchaikovsky’s Onegin is rife with atmosphere and locale. Most often these are literal representations of where the action takes place, other times in the Berlin manner they can be reduced to symbols of various sorts. In this Onegin Pimlott and his designer Anthony McDonald strove to make these atmospheres actual participating actors in the Onegin drama.

The sides of a basic 18th century neo-classic interior, light green in color created a false proscenium with side doors that remained in place through the performance. Mid-stage there was a sheet of water, i.e. a river or pond, with a couple of bridges, and there were upstage rolling hills. This forced all dramatic action onto a band across the downstage except of course when someone was splashing in the water during the warm summer. In the winter the water froze in cold snowy (lots of) weather, and became the Neva (the river flowing through St. Petersburg) on which everyone ice skates.

Eugene Onegin I, ii. Filipievna, Larina, Tatiana, Olga (in white).
Photo copyright Robert Milard, Los Angeles Opera

A wall descended in front of the pond/river from time to time to create an interior, a bit cramped for the party that precipitates the duel. In Russia everyone dances the polonaise but in this limited floorspace the chorus could only stand and watch a few real dancers manage a bit of movement. These same dancers then actually did ice skate on the frozen Neva during the third act polonaise music, and later Prince Gremin and Tatiana arrived on a sleigh. The warmly dressed chorus stood and watched all this.

Eugene Onegin III, i. Onegin.
Photo copyright Robert Milard, Los Angeles Opera

Lots of atmosphere indeed, and it had a profound effect on Tchaikovsky’s score. Maestro Conlin delivered these grand polonaises of the second and third acts symphonically since he was not faced with having to provide enough lilt to lift all those middle-aged bodies. This symphonic tone in fact prevailed throughout the evening rendering the balletic nature of Tchaikovsky’s music more aggressive than lyrical.

Like the Cosi, the Onegin principal roles were cast from the international pool of opera singers who are not stars, though here those artists of Slavic language. Slovakian baritone Dalibor Jenis did not project a charisma powerful enough to smite a vulnerable adolescent girl, even his long black locks missed rendering him exotic. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka could not catch the vocal innocence of the adolescent Tatiana and her stolid physical and vocal stature precluded touching the tormented soul of the mature wife. Russian tenor Vsevolad Grivnov displayed little personality, thus we lacked the softness and naivete of the poet Lenski. Belarusian soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk was too old and too abrasive to embody the vapid Olga.

Tatiana and Onegin. Photo copyright Robert Milard, Los Angeles Opera

But these artists were at home in the Russian language and all excellent singers. The production placed all the big scenes between the downstage doorways in bright light, leaving these wonderful singers scenically naked. Perhaps this worked at Covent Garden where presumably these roles were embodied by big stars, but in the Dorothy Chandler it motivated a symphonic rather than operatic performance. Maestro Conlin seemed to commune with his fine orchestra rather than with Pushkin’s tale.

The balance of the cast were Americans, many alumni of the L.A. Opera’s young artist program. When it was not sending boys in to do men’s work it was a question of mixing musical cultures — international big house singers with well trained, some even sophisticated American artists. It simply does not work.

It was a performance of considerable conceptual, musical and even vocal interest if not success. And, may the stars remain at Covent Garden!

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Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco

Bad news travels fast. Though you are about to read another version of how American diva Renée Fleming failed to bring Lucrezia Borgia alive in San Francisco, let’s begin by mentioning a few other things you already know.

Venetian facades are marble, not brick, thus it takes more than blue light rippling on red brick walls to evoke Venice. Lucrezia’s new home Ferrara was not towering walls of styrofoam bricks painted red, plus it is obvious that all of Lucrezia’s evil machinations did not occur in a strong, golden sunset sidelight.

Orsini, Gennaro, Lucrezia. photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Rolex is not spelled Borgia, even though the golden insignia that hung over the stage seemed to advertise luxury watches, and the B wrenched from the Borgia name (that somehow found itself inscribed on a tomb in Ferrara) was a dead ringer for the serifed first letter of Bulgari.

Amazingly Mme. Fleming’s second act, stupendously rich gown upstaged both red styrofoam and gold gel (the transparent film that colors stage lights), and the ridiculousness of her third act soldier disguise (revealing ample decolletage under a bouffant wig) upstaged her maternal anguish (she had had to poison her son).

Mme. Fleming has carefully nurtured the image of American artistic luxury. Her porcelain persona was everywhere evident on the War Memorial stage. Mme. Fleming is at the same time a very intelligent artist who possesses a unique talent and a beautiful voice. Perhaps if this production had presented her as a real person we might have perceived a full, beautifully voiced character of brutal mind and twisted integrity.

Donizetti and his librettist’s idea of Lucrezia Borgia is as a bel canto heroine — no matter how horrible a person she may be, and how terrible her circumstances become, the music must always be beautiful, her voice soaring gloriously. Bel canto titillates its acolytes (willing audiences) with this contradiction. In the artificial atmospheres of this production that set out solely to beautify Mme. Fleming she read as dramatically and vocally insipid. And, well, the opera is all about her.

Lucrezia Borgia boasts sensational subject matter beyond infanticide. Her son Gennaro has sworn eternal love to his friend Maffio Orsini, who is actually a girl because it is a pants role. So a guy loves a guy who is actually a girl. Unfortunately this production precluded any resulting sexual titillation by casting diminutive mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Orsini who read as Gennaro’s belligerent baby sister.

Even so the B in bel canto did succeed somewhat in forcing its way into the theater. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza provided a solidly idiomatic if uninspired reading of Donizetti’s score, perhaps in reaction to the production. American tenor Michael Fabiano gave great pleasure, as a singer he is stylish and correct as evidenced in his splendid “Di pescator ignobile," and he glowed as an accomplished actor in scenes with his no affect mother. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow made a big impression as Lucrezia’s third husband, Alfonso d’Este, tearing up the stage with his showpiece "Vieni, la mia vendetta!"

Alfonso d'Este, Rustighello. photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

While Mlle. DeShong did not physically measure up to Orsini she proved herself to be a strong singer. Among the smaller roles the Rustighello of Adler Fellow Daniel Montenegro was effectively drawn.

The libretto by Felice Romano is undeserving of ridicule. It accomplishes what a bel canto libretto sets out to do — create situations that can only be resolved by beautiful singing. But Lucrezia Borgia is like a carefully constructed short story where there is not one word too many, and in fact Donizetti revised the opera several times so maybe there is not one note too many either. It is this stark minimalism that shunts this blunt opera from masterpiece status.

Stage direction, sets and costumes are all by English producer John Pascoe, a production he created for Mme. Fleming at the Washington Opera in 2008.

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Turandot in San Francisco

Los Angeles has been good to Turandot. The gritty 1984 Andre Serban production inaugurated an opera company in Los Angeles where a mere eight years later L.A. Opera bestowed the splendid Luciano Berio ending upon the world in an uber-pompous Gian-Carlo del Monaco production.

Meanwhile that same year (1992) Los Angeles artist David Hockney bestowed a Turandot upon San Francisco (and Chicago) that is pure Tinseltown. L.A. is famously the Hockney muse, thus the specific muse for the technicolor Hockney Turandot has to have been Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Like this National Historic Monument, the Hockney Turandot vibrates in theatrical shapes and Chinese reds, and by now it too is an historic monument.

Turandot II,ii. photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

San Francisco has put its unique stamp solidly on Turandot as well. The 1977 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production had its massive stone Buddha that gestured and wept blood when the steely Monserrat Caballé succumbed to Luciano Pavarotti in their role debuts, this back in the days when San Francisco Opera pushed the progressive opera envelope in the U.S. 

These days it is a bit different in San Francisco. There is a stamp of a different sort, it is musical and it too pushes the envelope. Specifically it is the quixotic Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti who makes every score he touches vibrate with color, energy and sometimes questionable theatricality. Put this together with the timeless Hockney Turandot and you hit remarkable pay dirt — the current Turandot in San Francisco!

The Hockney Turandot is, no surprise, like a painting in that it is two dimensional. On this flat surface Ping, Pang and Pong complain, Liu sacrifices, Calaf thunders and Turandot rages. The lack of depth plays directly into the hands of the maestro who likes his singers right downstage center where he communes mightily with his voices and maybe even with Puccini. The current staging by Carnett Bruce is sensitive to artist, character and story telling, and it is precise and efficient in somehow getting and keeping the artists where the maestro wants them and where Hockney surely saw them. 

Calaf, Ping, Pang, Pong. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The performance was riveting from beginning to end. Even so there were those scenes that glowed with new life — the Ping, Pang, Pong conversation for example, made intimate by the three Hockney straight backed chairs painted onto a drop and by the maestro’s oh-so smooth intermingling of their vocal lines. Liu’s first act prayer Signore ascolta was magical in its Adler Fellows innocence, and the Alfani duet (“who is Berio?” Luisotti surely would ask) that ends the opera was articulated with a surprising intimacy that made us actually feel a renewed humanity — no small feat amidst all that bombast.

Turandot. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The biggest vocal presence was Italian tenor Marco Berti as Calaf who used his strangely brutal Nessun dorma to threaten the Chinese royalty and population even more, and more quickly dismiss Liu’s sacrifice. Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin was far more lyrical in her capitulation than the usual Turandot, though there was icy rage aplenty as she well anchored this story of anger versus power. Against this big house firepower the Liu of Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto was indeed sacrificial, a sacrifice of this symbolic character who must fully embody the supernal power of love. The mix of musical cultures does not work — the Adlers are specifically nurtured contemporary artists whose sophistication is at odds with can belto international artists.

Liu. Photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The Timur of Raymond Aceto fulfilled its narrative obligations without adding pathos. The Ping of Hyung Yun dominated the trio of courtiers in association with the vivid Pang of L.A. character tenor Greg Fedderly. Pong was Adler Fellow Daniel Montenegro.

The visual sophistication of the David Hockney Turandot begs precise and brilliant lighting, a need recognized from the inception of this production those many years ago. Just now the lighting was reconfigured by Christopher Maravich though the ending was new. Mo. Luisotti endowed the final chord of the performance with an intense, nearly screaming crescendo that was matched by a crescendo of bright, brighter, blinding light.

Theatrical! No?

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Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco

The house lights dimmed, SFO General Director David Gockley instructed us to stand and sing the Star Spangled Banner. This crucial moment revealed the intentions and complexities of this fine production at San Francisco Opera.

We immediately knew that we were not before San Francisco’s altar to operatic art but rather at an altar of national sentiment. Christopher Theofanidis and Donna di Novelli’s Heart of a Soldier is not great art, nor is it political or historical tragedy. It is what it sets out to be — an account. Strangely, and perhaps this was its hidden intention, it distills the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center to some very small components — a few men and women whose lives were and are simply insignificant to the larger historical perspectives of the twenty-first century.

San Francisco Opera pulled out its biggest guns to accomplish this task. Ring director Francesca Zambello created a slick and smart production, minimal in concept though maximal in execution (it was complex). It toyed with a few levels of two white high rise towers, a few scenic screens, some with projections, and a couple of sliding platforms.

Heart of a Soldier, photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera
Set design by Peter J. Davison
Costume design by Jess Goldstein
Lighting design by Mark McCullough

The libretto held thirty named roles that San Francisco Opera covered with fourteen singers, led by no less than American baritone Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, security chief at the WTC. Mr. Hampson obviously reveled in portraying this more colorful than interesting character who was, might we say, more headstrong than heroic.

SFO principal guest conductor Patrick Summers was at the helm of all these folks, plus a standard sized chorus and a modestly endowed Romantic era orchestra. There was remarkably little percussion limited to the service of orchestral color. Battle sounds were modest electronic reproductions of the real thing.

Rick, Dan, photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The key to understanding this remarkable evening is to take yourself back to that terrible day, as you could not help but do in anticipation of the performance. Thus it was already emotionally laden before the fact.

For most of us the destruction of the World Trade Center was a small event, which is to way it was the size of our television screen. What were certainly awesome roars emitted by the collapsing towers were no louder than the voices of those begging for news of loved ones, the visual images of the still standing towers were even smaller than these anonymous tortured faces.

Heart of a Soldier captured the anonymity of this calamity by recounting the life of but one of its 3000 victims, a life however that was fulfilled by its death in battle. This victim, Rick, was a soldier, his story was told in scenes in which he was among many soldiers on the many battlefields on which they fought. Justness of cause was never mentioned. It was simply life on a battlefield, the battlefield of life where finally you too will die. It was a metaphor for all its victims, at once huge and minuscule.

There was huge art involved in creating this opera. Donna di Novelli’s libretto was the structure, stating its themes and images, developing them and recapitulating all these themes on that fateful September 11. It might have seemed contrived except we soon perceived that these conceits were in fact structural, creating brief lyric musical spaces as well as the arc of the story. The lyric moments were however always too brief, never indulging in what were the inherently wrenching emotions we had braced ourselves to endure and maybe finally wished we had.

The score by Christopher Theofanidis was based on American musical vocabulary, our open fifths and fourths, our primitive dance forms and our chugging minimalism. Its musical sophistication was stratospheric — Mr. Theofanidis’ brilliant orchestration would have made Berlioz green with envy, his harmonic transports would have cowed Richard Strauss.

While the premise of Heart of a Soldier was challenging on so many levels, Mr. Theofanidis’ score simply was not. One longed for a fugue or at least some sense of music taking on a life of its own, music that transcended the word and the literal and pushed us to the edge of our sensibilities and our endurance, like 9/11 had. This splendidly beautiful music did not.

Rick Rescorla’s best friend Dan Hill was portrayed by tenor William Burden in a quite convincing and moving characterization of this simple American mercenary who converted to Islam. Rick’s second wife Susan was enacted by Melody Moore who achieved the simple vivacity of character asked by the libretto in vibrant voice. The opera’s lack of emotional indulgence was echoed by its absence of vocal indulgence, even Mr. Hampson was given but one small opportunity to place his operatic art before Rick’s swagger. Of the secondary roles only the medic Tom beautifully sung by Michael Sumuel and his girlfriend Juliet sung by Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra were offered somewhat extended opportunities for lyric expansion.

Rick, Susan, photo copyright Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The final image was neither word nor music, it was simply the tableau of Dan Hill knelt in Islamic prayer and Susan Rescorla, arms uplifted sifting the dust of 9/11 through her fingers. It was the only emotionally overpowering moment of the performance.

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Der Ring des Nibelungen in San Francisco

Some of the experts said it was the best Ring ever, others merely said it was one of the best (these were lecturers at a Wagner Society symposium). The final curtain down at last on the second cycle, the audience leapt to its feet and roared. What was all the fuss about?

The delights of the San Francisco Ring were myriad. The cycle played out over a mere six days during which Wagner’s drama did not seem to stop. It was an immersion Ring rather than episodic one as the Freyer Ring in L.A. seemed over its ten long days, not to mention the Berlin Philharmonic Ring in Aix-en-Provence that was spread over four years.

Conductor Donald Runnicles slid into the initial e-flat pedal tone and relentlessly sustained Wagner’s orchestral deliberation for its seventeen hour duration. The maestro drove an orchestral continuum that was imperceptibly fleet (it was actually fast), its speed though was calibrated to the careful articulation of Wagner’s score, the conductor knowing that Wotan’s plight and designs give rise to riveting music only when they are musically exploited to the maximum.

Das Rheingold, photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera, copyright Cory Weaver

Mo. Runnicles achieved a rare transparency of the orchestral sound in the War Memorial, the percolating inner voices of the continuum often shining brilliantly in the vast space of the hall as they can never do in the recordings we use to learn and casually listen to the Ring. And too the vast spaces of the War Memorial allowed huge fortes to roll forth, immersing the hall in mighty sound. Even the quirks of the hall contributed, its “golden horseshoe” overhang magnifying the eight horns and double timpani for those of us seated on the right side of the orchestra.

The careful musical exposition was subject to the largest arc of Wagner’s myth, the orchestral climax of the entire Ring occurring about sixteen hours into it, only at the end of the second act of Götterdämmerung when Mo. Runnicles unleashed it all for Brünnhilde’s pact with Hagen to murder Siegfried. This Ring was bigger than its pieces, and we understood that the usual frenzy we missed at the conception of Siegfried was measured against the hugely complex dilemma of his death.

Die Walküre, photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera, copyright Cory Weaver

It is futile to discuss the concept of the production, San Francisco Opera touting it as “an American Ring.” There were indeed vibrant American images, like redwood trees. like pollution that had a specifically American feel, but the Gibichung headquarters was well beyond the 1930’s American skyscrapers director Francesca Zambello cites in her program book apology, and much more on the scale of Austrian expressionist Fritz Lang’s immense Metropolis of his 1927 film. And too the light green behind Brünnhilde’s fire seemed more like a weird color choice that an evocation of escaping industrial gases.

All these specific images however quietly dissolved into the careful storytelling that was the hallmark of the Zambello production. Not a musical motive was left without a corresponding movement on the stage, no musical interludes were left on an abstract imaginative level but accompanied by moving projections — clouds, water, trains, fire, more clouds, etc. It was a fully illustrated Ring (take it or leave it) that (if you took it, and that took a while) eased you, even gracefully, inside the Ring’s musical universe.

It was an easy, engaging Ring that deflated Wagnerian philosophical pomposity at every turn with surprising, sometimes funny twists — Alberich attached to his homeless supermarket cart searched for Faftner with infrared binoculars, the forlorn Rhine maidens hopelessly picked up plastic bottles from a dried up river bed, beer guzzling buddies who were actually sworn enemies downed cases. Not to mention the purely comic book, utterly delightful visuals for Fafner and Fasolt, or the Valkyries parachuting onto the rocks of Valhalla (this image said to have been borrowed from a Swedish commercial for a detergent powder).

Siegfried, photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera, copyright Cory Weaver

Finally the Zambello Ring maybe even arrived at tongue-in-cheek with the black covered Arab-esque women cowering in the wake of their men, black uniformed fascistic soldiers of Hagen’s evil army. Not to intimate that Mme. Zambello did not somehow use all of this to bring Wagner alive. She did.

San Francisco Opera promoted a number of seminars to accompany its Ring. Anti-Semitism was a big topic, though it was put in succinct perspective by the Mime of the production, David Cangelosi who rhetorically asked “haven’t we turned the page on all that?” Distinguished lecturers examined the Ring in Schopenhauerian terms, a former Buddhist monk delineated the Ring’s roots in Buddhism. The most convincing of the philosophical analogies described the Ring in purely Sartrean Existential terms. (I might also mention a concert of Wagner transcriptions on the 5000-pipe organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral — the Ride of the Valkyries executed by four hands and four feet and those 5000 pipes).

Well, none of that for the San Francisco Ring. While there were two real dogs portraying wolves, a bear played by a real man and a number of fantastic and dead animals involved, there was no horse at all for Brünnhilde to ride into the flames. The flames were fed by the downtrodden Gibichung women and the Rhine maidens throwing the plastic bottles picked up from the riverbed (tossed there by males in the context of this production). Gutrune, a male-victimized “moll” embraced Brünnhilde and we understood that she was redeemed. Photographs of the fallen heros rescued by the Valkyries showered down and at last a young girl planted a tree. Mo. Runnicles had had his fun with the murder pact, the usually spectacular ending instead was musically rather resigned.

Götterdämmerung, photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera, copyright Cory Weaver

This was not a minimal phyiscal Ring. It was created by veteran opera designer Michael Yeargan. There were four superimposed prosceniums and a sentient floor (lighted from underneath) that served as the stage mechanism for the Wagner mega-drama, with full stage screens flying in and out at all depths of the stage to capture the inexhaustible catalogue of projections developed by Jan Hartley and her associates. If the freeway interchange under which Wotan saw Siegmund die and where he murdered Hunding was not life size it seemed so. Hunding’s mountain cabin was as good as real as was Mime’s wrecked Airstream trailer.

What, you may ask, held all this together. It was the Brünnhilde of Swedish soprano Nina Stimme who brought bonafide Teutonic style to rock solid vocal production and muscular physicality to her indefatigably energetic Valkyrie. This Ring was Brünnhilde’s personal story, placed in even higher relief by the pallid portrayal of Wotan by American bass Mark Delavan, a performance that effaced the Wagnerian complexities and emotional stature of this human father cum transcendent being. The suspicion lurks that this was the intention of Zambello, a suspicion founded on the portrayal of Siegfried as one step above the village idiot, charmingly rendered by Jay Hunter Morris in Siegfried, and less vividly but vocally far more convincing by English tenor Ian Storey in Götterdämmerung.

Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera, copyright Cory Weaver

There were several performances that stood out among the universally good performances of the entire cast. The Siegmund of American tenor Brandon Jovanovich was disarmingly charismatic and Italian basso Andrea Silvestrelli created Zambello’s arch villain Hagen with supreme testosterone gusto. American tenor David Cangelosi as Zambello’s creepy hobo Mime succeeded in making the first two acts of Siegfried high points (well, among many) of the entire cycle.

San Francisco Opera does not seem to have been a competitor in who-can-spend-the-most-for-a-Ring contest. Still, there went a pile of gold. One assumes costumer Catherine Zuber was well rewarded for what was an heroic and immensely successful effort, as was the complex lighting of Mark McCullough — both seasoned opera pros, like Zambello and Yeargan and their supporting teams.

It was not a prestigious Ring, like the Aix Ring with the Berlin Philharmonic in the pit (by the way with the six harps Wagner requires — San Francisco made do with two) with its elegant, minimalist staging by Stéphane Braunschweig. It was not an arty Ring imagined in a rarefied visual language like the splendid L.A. Achim Freyer Ring, nor was it a big, international house Ring with proven big name interpreters and the flavor-of-the-day producer (by the way that would be the Robert Lepage Ring at the Met).

The San Francisco Ring was a good Ring, if a wacky one that seemed at times like it might even be a spoof. It was however, perhaps therefore absolutely understandable. The experts may debate how it betrayed or illuminated Wagner’s musico-philosophic treatise, but they too will admit that those seventeen hours in the War Memorial Opera House were full of fun and richly rewarding.

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The Turn of the Screw in Los Angeles

Strange things can happen at L.A. Opera, like chamber opera struggling to survive in a great big opera house. Britten's little masterpiece had a hard time of it in the Dorothy Chandler even though great effort was expended to blow it up to grand opera proportions.

To wit, verismo diva Patricia Racette was Britten's Governess, young Verdi spinto Tamara Wilson was Miss Jessel, and the Met's Papagena, diminutive Ashley Emerson was the child Flora.

A complex production was imported from England's Glyndebourne Festival (this intimate opera house seats only 1200 but it has a big stage), designed by big time British designer Paul Brown (his most recent West Coast credit was the 2007 Graham Vick Tannhauser at San Francisco Opera) and directed by Jonathan Kent of London's Almeida Theatre fame, incarnated in Los Angeles by Francesca Gilpin.

Governess, Miles

But on a much smaller scale were the Quint of William Burden and the Housekeeper of Ann Murray. Mr. Burden was positively collegiate as the narrator, and youthfully wholesome as the scary ghost Peter Quint. Mme. Murray was a no-nonsense, take-charge housekeeper.

Twelve-year-old Michael Kepler Meo as the not-so-innocent Miles proved himself an accomplished musician and actor, but read as very small within the vast spaces of the Dorothy Chandler and within stage director Kent's vision of Britten's little horror story. His sister Flora, Mlle. Emerson, was a finished artist with a mature voice. If this attribute contributed vocal symmetry to the ensembles of female voices, it gravely unbalanced her scenes with Miles.

Ignoring Britten's obsession with the sexual journeys of the souls of children, the L.A. psycho-drama was drawn by Mr. Kent along the lines of the Henry James novella, delving deeply into the Governess' obsession with her unseen employer. Mme. Racette is a powerful singer and presence making such a diva the perfect choice for an undertaking of this sort. Ideally one might wish for a diva with a greater spectrum of vocal color and subtlety of tone to mine such a potentially fruitful heroine, but one cannot deny that la Racette was electrifying in Miles' death scene.

Two more very powerful, if brief moments resulted from this literary conception — the Governess' encounter with her ghostly nemesis Miss Jessel, Mlle. Wilson a vocal force and a huge presence that the Governess had finally to confront; and the last scene when we understand that little Miles in the mind of the Governess had become her London employer, the child Miles, beautifully acted by Mstr. Meo, now in male formal attire assumed masculine poses taunting the Governess.

The set accentuated the sense of obsession, its floor was two concentric circles that moved incessantly in opposite directions during the musical transitions between scenes. A sort of spatula-like window construction hung over the floor that twisted and turned and flattened to sketch location (lying flat on the floor it was the lake), visually imposing a further source of obsession.

Mr. Kent's obsession with the Governess' obsession was well taken, and indeed successful, but there were long periods when his story-telling was vague and we had only the magic of Britten's musically obsessive score to keep us involved. Here the hard edged and mechanical minimalist production faltered, the vast impressions and atmospheres that permeate Britten's operas were defined in too few, specific rotating objects, his sexual mysteries reduced to nothing more than blue light. This pat definition effaced the intoxicating psycho sexual world of opera's most sex-obsessed composer.

James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera music director, did not succeed in igniting the magic of the Britten musical ethos in the big acoustic of the Dorothy Chandler. The sound of the thirteen players of Britten's chamber ensemble was simply loud. It lost all beauty of tone (I sat in the seventeenth row of the orchestra) and therefore could not evoke Britten's delicately beautiful explorations of incipient psycho-sexual drives.

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The Turk in Italy in Los Angeles

Stage director Christof Loy can be very witty. But you must look well beneath the surface to discover his wit in this Hamburg Opera production of the fourth of Rossini's great comedies — Barber, Cenerentola, Italiana and last, absolutely not least Turco!

You may never find it. Or you may determine that it is witty to ignore the heavy handed sentimentalism Rossini heaped on his Turco and instead play with its conceit — a playwright is looking for a story, and learns that it is dangerous when art gets confused with life. Mr. Loy got heavy handed in turn, as his playwright became evermore beat-up as the evening progressed. Physically beat-up by sight gags.

Rossini is indeed presentational (his singers regale their audiences with their art), and Chistof Loy chose to make his comedy presentational — his actors regaled the audience with physical humor (lazzi in commedia dell'arte meaning little physical tricks, or slapstick in American vaudeville). It was nonstop fun starting with his modern-day gypsy camp trailer (a common sight in Europe) doing the old clown trick of expelling more clowns, here gypsies, than could possibly be in it.

This trick took place in the overture. As it wore on we lost track of the music, curious instead as to how many more choristers could possibly emerge, and when they might. Mr. Loy is fine director, his physical comedy throughout the afternoon was delightful, and well-paced. And, well, maybe we did not even need the music.

Los Angeles Opera music director James Conlon was in the pit. He gave us a stupendous Lohengrin and a dynamite Rigoletto earlier this season. The maestro does not seem to be a Rossinian (nor for that matter is the Dorothy Chandler a Rossini theater) and this exceptionally vibrant Rossini score never reached its boil, its delirium, or its euphoria. Notably absent were the extended ovations that well performed Rossini evokes (though it was a sleepy matinee audience).

Maybe Rossini almost made it to this performance in the first act finale when Mr. Loy finally began listening to the music and structured his stage movement in musical rather than comedic terms. Plus Mo. Conlon proved he could deliver some hints of Rossini when the music was not competing with the stage.

But it was a long afternoon, a wet blanket thrown on it with the announcement that Italian buffo Paolo Gavanelli, the Don Geronio, would mark his role rather than sing it because he was indisposed. In typical singer fashion this lasted about five minutes, and then he became caught up in the fun and gave his all the rest of the afternoon, though his big aria was cut as a courtesy to his indisposition.

Fiorella, Turco

Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze was a superb Fiorella, completely unconvincing as a repentant wife though of course it hardly mattered as she marched through all the physical paces without sacrificing brilliant singing. Mlle. Machaidze is a star. Veteran baritone star Thomas Allen too gamely effected the Poet.

The Turco himself was young Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, already a veteran Rossinian with appearances at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. He was completely convincing in his comedic persona and vocally secure in his delivery though hampered by tempi that were not sufficiently quick to make his singing fun.

American mezzo-soprano Kate Linsey gave a fine accounting of Zaida, the Turco's true love. Russian tenor Maxim Mironov was the too-small-voiced Don Narciso, needing the confines of a real Rossini theater to expose his considerable talent as a Rossini interpreter. This Christof Loy production was staged in Los Angeles by Alex Weidauer.

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Il barbiere di Siviglia in Montpellier

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Montpellier's old Comedie would have been a perfect venue for Rossini's most famous comedy, but this fine, late-nineteenth century Italian style theater is closed for renovation. This left the huge, ultra-modern Théâtre Berlioz, a barn-of-a-theater that the Opéra National de Montpellier often makes work against all odds.

The solution for presenting Le Barbier de Seville in this vast space was to import an existing production from another barn-of-a-theater, the Deutsch Oper Berlin. The Deutsch Oper had some solutions of its own for blowing up Rossini's diminutive masterwork to sufficient size to fill up its vast space.

To wit, performing it as a sort of commedia dell'arte on a stage wagon pulled by a tractor onto a beachfront esplanade in front of a lively square that was perhaps Seville, though of course Seville is nowhere near any sea. There was a beach, and we presumably sat on it to watch the show, together with various little families, lovers, same-sex lovers and a donkey all of whom from time to time were doing their own thing.

It is Berlin after all, where artistic choices are sometimes questionable though usually amusing. The Deutsch Oper had hired Katharina Thalbach, a protege of Brecht's theatrically chic Berliner Ensemble, to stage the opera. Thus Rossini's hyper-sophisticated early nineteenth century opera would have the gloss of hyper-sophisticated mid-twentieth century theater. It was simply the old-hat trick of a play within a play.

If you are getting the idea that all this could not possibly work you are absolutely right. And worse placing Rossini's opera within quotation marks distanced us from Rossini's inimitable musical immediacy. The theatrics were indeed clever (and there were abundant antics by the crowd watching [or not] the silly play to keep us amused). The great Rossini was reduced to a small stage on the stage. And the pit.

The Opéra National de Montpellier had made its choices too. A big theater demands a big conductor, and the Italian maestro Stefano Ranzani was an obvious choice, with credits of the biggest repertory in the biggest theaters. A lot of big music resulted, and of course some weird tempi. And there was even some Rossini to be heard though this was perhaps the first Rossini this maestro ever conducted — no Rossini credits were listed in his program biography.

There were even a few times when a modest Rossini boil was achieved, but those were moments when the maestro was aided by the two veteran Rossinians in the cast, Simone Alaimo as Basilio and Alberto Rinaldi as Bartolo. It was a hint of what Rossini can be but almost never is in great big theaters.

Bartolo's ward and intended bride Rosina was Georgian mezzo soprano Ketevan Kemoklidze, a recent winner of the Placido Domingo competition (among many other competitions). Appropriately for winning competitions and for Rossini's Rosina, Mlle. Kemoklidze exhibited boundless confidence. She possesses an unusually bright mezzo voice, a winning stage presence and obviously sings quite well.

Her lover Almaviva was Italian tenor Filippo Adami who sang very well too, and attacked Rossini's fioratura with cool bravura. Mr. Adami possesses a voice with a fine edge and not much sweetness, attributes that would be more appreciated in productions with specific Rossini musico-dramatic values.

If Mlle. Kemoklidze and Mr. Adami came across as sophisticated performers, young French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, the Figaro, presented himself as a consummately charming performer, but one who does not yet possess the finesse and bravura to fully anchor Rossini's comedy.

These three young performers are representative of a fine new generation of opera singers, well prepared vocally and musically, and willing and able to fit themselves into whatever directorial visions may occur. This Montpellier staging was obtuse, complex and demanding. These performers made all possible effort to pull it off, and they did. Bravo!

The mid-winter holidays are festive, and entertainments are meant to be festive. If nothing else Le Barbier de Seville in Montpellier was just that. Unlike Berlin, there are actually fine beaches not far away where we will soon find ourselves. All said and done this production was maybe right at home in Montpellier.

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La Belle Hélène in Marseille

A legend in French musical theater, metteur en scène Jérôme Savary first staged La Belle Hélène at Paris' Opera Comique in 1982. Just now it was the Opéra de Marseille's festive holiday offering in yet another of this production's countless incarnations, though the sixty-six-year-old Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur now entrusts his famous productions to his long time associate Frédérique Lombart for staging.

By 1864 the Offenbach operettas were no longer casual Parisian entertainments but were very big pieces with daunting production requirements. La Belle Hélène is the first of these operas for the Théâtre des Variétés where his most famous titles were soon seen — La Périchole, Barbe-blue, La Grand Duchesse. Les Brigands, and La Vie Parisienne all occur before the end of this decade.

There is giddy magic in a successful production of any of these Offenbach masterworks. This arrived in the 2003 Marseille edition of La Périchole though it has been sorely missed since here in the south of France. Thus the critical discussion is usually how close a production may come to achieving the Offenbach magic.

Offenbach called these masterworks opéras bouffes, though Orphée aux enfers (1858) is termed an opéra bouffon. In the Offenbach oeuvres (100 more or less) one also finds opérettes, opérettes bouffes, and opéras comiques. Whatever the genre distinctions may be (maybe there are some) all share the mixture of the spoken word (dialogues and soliloquies) with songs, duets, choruses and ballets, and complex musical finales. In the successful contemporary productions a balance of the spoken and musical is achieved that is possibly quite different from the 1860's ratio.

To an outsider France is a club and its members are the French, though there do seem to be a few foreign initiates. But the language part is especially hard for those of us who are not initiates. I must admit that I understood little of the archly delivered spoken performances even though I had reviewed the text in the program booklet — it had been greatly expanded in the actual performance. Finally the spoken word seemed to far outweigh the sung word in the overall import of the performance. The sung words were far more understandable, reinforced by projected super titles.

Egyptian born conductor Nader Abbassi is an easily identifiable initiate of the France club as he managed to create believable Offenbach froth, besides giving some of us quite a show. I had an easy view of the TV monitors that face the stage for the benefit of the singers and thus was awarded sight of the maestro's extravagant arm waving in the quite lively overtures (Mo. Abbassi is music director of the Cairo Opera where he is famous for his arm waving). He did use his stick to demurely stir up some genuine giddiness in the great third act trio (Menelaus, Agamemnon and Calchas) and to make effervescent magic of the opera's recurring waltz.

The Savary production knows that in Offenbach less is more, thus the physical production was cannily simple and cheap, with a knowing naivete that mocked the gravity of the story (the abduction of Helen that caused the Trojan War). Added comic detail was minimal, and just a touch of sauciness was achieved by two, in-your-face topless figurants (supers).

Our attention was justly focused on the singers who had only their personalities to bring their performances alive. Soprano Mireille Delunsch in her role debut held the stage as a fairly straight-laced Hélène empowered by big, fine singing that the role's famous originator Hortense Schneider famously lacked. French trained English tenor Alexander Swan (another France club initiate) found the just-right attitudes for Helen's abductor Paris, and sang in a quite small, well-focused voice that betrayed his sizable comic presence. Helen's husband Menelaus was amusingly enacted by tenor Eric Huchet, his bumbling presence comic perfection. With some exceptions the many smaller roles were performed with charming verve.

The six men and six women of an extravagant corps de ballet executed quite a lot of complex and effective choreography credited to Josyane Ottaviano though it was unclear if it was original choreography or a reprise of a previous production.

The evening seemed long, but finally the lanky maestro took his bow, raised his famous arms and we all sang the waltz chorus one last time and left the theater still humming.

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Lohengrin in Los Angeles

At the end, in the milliseconds of silence before the applause burst there were whispers of "awesome!" Then the crowd went wild, and with good reason.

This was a richly detailed telling of Wagner's saga where a knight arrives on the back of a swan and confuses even more an obviously deranged young woman. It gets still more confusing as we struggle to determine if this complicated opera event is a retelling of Lady MacBeth, a deconstruction of The Magic Flute, or a peculiar rehashing of Orphée et Euridice.

Quite a few disparate elements came together in L.A. to blow our minds — an ugly old Lohengrin unit set, a brilliant young stage director, a great heldentenor with a silver leg, a snarling Verdi mezzo, two fine singing actors and a superb conductor leading an orchestra that is fast becoming a formidable ensemble.

If all this sounds truly wonderful, it indeed was. If there was a unifying element it may have been the spectacular brass choirs that inhabited the light wells on both sides of the hall — an occasional reminder that this was over-the-top magnificence.

Of course this staging of Lohengrin should have inhabited a white box set. The tensions that make Wagner's saga are purely human, manifest in the human forms, i.e. real bodies, on the stage. We would have been much more comfortable without a pretend locale (a huge, brown colored styrofoam ruin of a protestant looking church). But there it was, so forget it.

Stage director Lydia Stier, an American though of Germanic theatrical formation, carefully illuminated the complexities of Wagner's saga using only a tent, a bench, a bed and a sea of litters covered with wounded humanity. Mlle. Stier carefully positioned her actors to create the myriad of human confrontation inherent in Wagner's lively, even racy story. She asked of them only minimal but always telling movement, letting the tensions of Wagner's most un-Wagnerian opera explode in abstract, musical form.

The complicated machinations of Ortrud and Telramund resolved themselves as a moving love story, the disillusion of Lohengrin was heart-breaking, and the stupidity of a simple young girl was wrenching. This young stage director involved us deeply in these human stories so that when the larger, metaphysical implications exploded (well, maybe there was no swan but there sure was quite a bit of swan colored lights flooding the stage) we felt the release from human complication and maybe a brief glimpse of human purity and possibly a momentary hope of salvation.

Lohengrin himself never really fooled anyone. We saw a battle-front surgeon, actually Telramund, remove someone's leg, and soon after Lohengrin arrived with a silver leg. It was not a prosthetic leg of course, it was a magic leg. In the context of this production it became the talisman for Wagner's musical and philosophic mysteries.

Mlle. Stier's staging set the stage for magic to be made, and that magic came from the pit. Conductor James Conlin drove Wagner's saga musically, his singers instruments of the larger musical texture, the complex stories unfolded in unrelenting, unending musical detail. The catastrophic confrontation of Elsa and Lohengrin unfolded in painful clarity, and finally the miraculous appearance of her young brother occurred in maximum volume and orchestral magnificence. It was very human Wagner.

Ben Heppner is the undisputed heldentenor of our day. He was in fine voice except when he squawked. These not infrequent occurrences (11/28) did not seem to phase him, and therefore these weird noises did detract from his otherwise splendid performance. In the context of this production his limited acting skills were put to good effect.

The Elsa was sung by Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski who brought innocence and simplicity to the role with her bright, young sounding voice that was able to soar above all else in the climaxes but was sometimes covered by Wagner's orchestration in smaller moments. Likewise American baritone James Johnson was in excellent voice, his helden baritone though cut through thicker textures making his performance extraordinarily vivid. His sympathetic persona and sensitive acting made this Telramund a very human victim.

Mr. Johnson's exchanges with his Ortrud, Dolora Zajick were among the spectacular moments of the performance. Mme. Zajick was making her first foray into the Wagnerian repertoire. Known for the big Verdi mezzo roles in stand-and-sing mega productions here instead she was asked to create a character in a concept production. She tried and in fact succeeded to some degree. In fact she was more successful as an actress than as a Wagnerian singer, her lower registers were hidden within orchestral textures and her trumpeted high notes were too loud within Wagner's dramatic context. She earned the biggest ovation of all (singers and conductor) probably because she sang the loudest.

Much has been made of the austerity of this L.A. Opera season. Both the Rigoletto seen November 27 and this Lohengrin seen November 28 betrayed an opulence of artistic spirit that could be the envy of any opera company anywhere.

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Rigoletto in Los Angeles

Nostalgia is one of la la land's dominant notes, thus an old fashioned Rigotetto seemed right at home in L.A.'s 1960's Dorothy Chandler opera palace. The production was borrowed from San Francisco Opera though there was little evidence that it amounted to more than some scenery in front of which a miss matched cast more or less did its thing.

There were however unexpected pleasures, like the Rigoletto of Georgian baritone George Gagnidze, who stumbled back and forth across the stage in a sort of distorted walk that was just enough to indicate a character. Mr. Gagnidze delivered a vocally resplendent and musically stylish rendition of Verdi's twisted hero. Crowning his performance was the Cortegiani, vil razza dannata hurled with maximum vehemence, then magically melted into supplication with its cello obligato gloriously delivered.

It was big music making at the urging of conductor James Conlin when in fact he had big singers. Mo. Conlin has unique respect for Verdi's voice and vocal line manifest in his willingness to support a big voice and its inherent musicality rather than create and drive his own musical force. Mo. Conlin made this Rigoletto about voices.

Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli is the quintessential Sparafucile, his voice brutish rather than beautiful, his stature dark rather than handsome. He was a worthy vocal collaborator with the maestro's pit as was young American mezzo Kendall Gladen who made a sympathetic [!] Maddalena. She exuded sufficient exoticism to easily seduce the Duke of Mantua and had sufficient vocal heft and style to eloquently negotiate with her brother to save the Duke's life.

By that time however few present would have lamented his demise. Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova gave a fairly straight, even pleasurable la donna è mobile but marred most everything else he sang with aggressive vocalism. Sig. Terranova creates a supremely caddish Duke who is at odds with Verdi's essentially elegant singer, and Mo. Conlin's elegant conducting.

All the maestro's fine conducting could not salvage Verdi's Gilda, delivered by American soprano Sarah Coburn. Though easily sung, her Gilda lacked the flash needed to hold the stage in this musically fired production.

The stage direction was attributed to Mark Lamos, though it looked like he had not tried to impose much shape. Mr. Lamos had collaborated with set designer Michael Yeargan to create this spare (no props) production in 1997. The elegant set served this Los Angeles edition well, the geometrically abstracted Mantua was saturated in primary colors. Its precise structures and varying colors well seconded Verdi's solidly constructed, emotionally vivid, second period set-piece style. The production team did not take opening night bows.

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The Makropulos Case in San Francisco

Just now in San Francisco Finnish soprano Karita Mattila kicked ass as Janacek's 337 year old Elina Makropulos.*

Specifically she kicked the asses of the several men who materialized in her long, long life just as the effects of the longevity potion her father invented back in 1593 began to wear off. These unfortunate men had awakened those few moments when, over the centuries, her soul had been moved, and these rediscovered feelings conflicted with her instinct for eternal life as she had come to understand over the centuries the futility of her emotions. She finds resolution of this conflict in death.

This bizarre masterpiece is, all said and done, Janacek's idea of a comedy. His uniquely middle European depressive poetic, melding philosophy with highly complex emotions took solid hold into the reaches of War Memorial Opera House by its third performance (November 17).

Universally vivid performances. Elina's great, great, great, etc., grandson Berti sung by Slovakian tenor Miro Dvorsky touched the true tonalities of the Czech language, the Prus of German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski found the suavity and confidence of an Austro-Hungarian aristocracy, the fumbling lawyer Dr. Kolenaty was enacted skillfully by stalwart San Franciscan buffo Dale Travis.

Touching were the performances of Adler alumni Thomas Gleen as Vitek and Brian Jagde as Janek, the callow young victim of Elina's perfected sexual prowess. Adler alumnus Matthew O'Neill was caricatural pure perfection as Elina's idiot lover Hauk, as was Kristina, the opera-star-to-be (Elina Makropulos' protege) sung by Susannah Biller.

Dominating the stage equally were Janacek's heroine Karita Mattila as Elina Makropulos and Janacek's orchestra conducted by Jiri Belohlavek. They were simply one and the same, one soprano embodying Mo. Belohlavek's seventy-three players. Yes, the performance was huge. She was huge, the enormity of 337 years of life graphically unravelling on the stage was quite real.

The story of Elina Makropulos is told musically rather than dramatically, the little lawsuit Gregor vs. Prus merely pretext for the inner life of Mme. Makropulos to explode in the orchestra, superseding the dramatic inconsistencies and general confusion of the libretto.

Mme. Mattila absorbed every musical movement in a dramatic performance so complete that it will become legendary as it traverses the world. For this she has partnered with conductor Belohlavek who revealed the gamut of the depraved humanity Janacek had transformed into pure music in his preceding oeuvre. Like all Janacek heroines Elina Makropulos too attains a sort of salvation by reconciling herself to the futility of life.

The production by Viennese director Olivier Tambosi merely supported the Mattila performance, the stylishly directed supporting cast moving appropriately over the turntable set imagined by big-time designer Frank Philipp Schlëssmann. Like the staging the set disappeared behind the Mattila performance. Its cartoon lines were self-consciously descriptive of a caricatural concept that the production flirted with but never fully absorbed. Maintaining this careful balance of caricature and expressionist comedy was however the strength of the production, allowing at least some perspective for the over-the-top Mattila performance.

*"Let's kick ass" was Mme. Mattila's term before attacking Salome last year on the Met's Live in HD.

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Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera has hosted all the important Butterflies over the years — well almost all. Surely its connoisseur audience has long awaited the Butterfly of Daniela Dessi who finally is The City's latest Lepidoptera specimen.

Mme. Dessi brought a true Italian spinto bravura to the role though at this point it was intermittent, this wonderful artist now adept at harboring her forces that she can sometimes unleash to supreme effect. Her tu, tu, tu was a ravishing display of the Italianate style, and her suicide genuinely moving. The rhythmic exaggerations of her second act outpourings were exciting if musically untenable — this willfulness the prerogative of a real diva. Throughout the evening she nailed the essential high notes, if briefly, and achieved most other of Butterfly's salient vocal points even though un bel di was mostly murmured.

No longer in vocal bloom, la Dessi was unable to capture the ravishing beauty of Puccini's Act I Butterfly, her voice was sometimes barely audible, and seemed in distress over its passaggio. Yet the lower voice found the usual burnished beauty of tone that has made this estimable soprano unique.

Like Mme. Vassileva (her predecessor in the role this fall) Mme. Dessi was betrayed by the Broadway style Hal Prince production. If la Vassileva was the essential Belasco Butterfly, la Dessi is the diva Butterfly, one that needs the standard trappings to ground an essentially old-school approach to opera. The second act gold Victorian dress in lieu of traditional Japanese attire gave her the grim authority of a schoolmarm of the old west.

But Mme. Dessi did find a sympathetic collaborator in the conducting of Bulgarian Julian Kovatchev, a regular in Italian theaters. Mo. Kovatchev reveled in the usual Puccinian sonorities and provided a firm foundation for Mme. Dessi's rhythmic vagaries with tempos sympathetic to singerly expectations. Conductor Kovatchev has replaced maestro Luisotti for this late season Butterfly cycle.

No longer Luisotti's terrorized Pinkerton, Stefano Secco gave great pleasure, his voice in full bloom, his style replete with Italianate mannerisms very tastefully rendered. The new maestro gave Mr. Secco the tempi he needed to pursue the glories of Puccini's musical line in this richly rewarding collaboration.

Hawaiian baritone Brian Kelsey possesses a fine voice of youthful urgency with sterling potential to be a powerful Rigoletto some day. Though Mr. Kelsey gave much vocal pleasure in this musically settled performance Puccini's Sharpless wants a warmth and gravitas that this fine young artist does not yet possess.

This was a Butterfly for connoisseurs. The twelve performances of Madama Butterfly this fall most certainly were programmed to attract a broad public to the War Memorial Opera House. Would it better serve the cause of opera to have offered a production of vocal and dramatic integrity?

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Cyrano de Bergerac in San Francisco

Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the San Francisco Opera has little chance of measuring up to a Cyrano standard once set here in Fog City.

There are those of us who remember the San Francisco American Conservatory Theater's Peter Donat as Cyrano and his Roxanne, Marsha Mason, unleashing floods of spellbinding lyricism in the Geary Theater. This was back in the 1970's, the mere recollection sets the current Cyrano benchmark impossibly high.

Cyrano the seventeenth century dramatist and Cyrano, Edmund Rostrand's Belle Époque hero dealt in the spoken word. The rhythm and music is already there. Franco Alfano, a twentieth century post-Romantic opera composer adds only more opulence to Rostrand's 1898 already opulently verbal masterpiece but he cannot surmount Rostrand's lyrical flights — his extravagant music simply overwhelms the more modest art form.

Near the end of his long life Henri Caïn (Massenet's well-experienced librettist) provided Alfano with this easily workable libretto of Rostrand's Cyrano, each act with its central lyrical episode surrounded by lively battle scenes. Alfano's advanced Romantic compositional technique responded to these scenes with music that rivals Meistersinger's midsummer night's riot and Otello's storm, and this complex, descriptive music is indeed effective. But when Alfano wishes to describe emotions his music teeters on the edge of insincerity as its sheer size and sheen betrays all intimacy.

Enter the grand old man of opera, Plàcido Domingo, veteran of opera's greatest lyric moments! Though now he is too old to be Cyrano his presence alone is enough to enliven the lyric muse. And perhaps he has always been Cyrano, his art coming so easily to him that it can become real only in the person of another, a character he plays. In the Rostrand Cyrano it is handsome, young Christian who takes his voice. But Domingo is no longer young, and perhaps this does not matter as Rostrand has his Cyrano die fourteen years after this torrid love poetry is spoken, and now, near death most movingly repeated by the aged tenorissimo.

Just last year this Cyrano was produced at the Châtelet theater in Paris. It is rare that the Châtelet produces, preferring to search out productions of opera and music theater that are famous or infamous and need therefore to be seen in Paris. So this Cyrano was conceived as a boutique production to compete with the rarest and finest of Europe's opera productions.

It has survived its translocation to San Francisco, no longer a boutique production here but as part of a repertory season. It profits greatly from San Francisco Opera's superb orchestra that overcame with ease the difficult score and made Alfano's descriptive music glow at the direction of St. Etienne's Patrick Fournillier, a Massenet specialist. Both the Roxanne, Ainhoa Arteta, and her lover Christian, Thiago Arancam are from the Domingo cadre. Mme. Arteta provides a lovely figure as Cyrano's muse but her fine soprano does not possess the beauty of tone one could wish for Roxanne. The same could be said of tenor Arancam who otherwise made a good Christian.

The supporting roles may not have a panache equal to their Parisian counterparts but showed San Francisco Opera as a truly fine ensemble company, specifically the villain De Guiche sung by Stephen Powell, the baker Ragueneau sung by Brian Mulligan who here proves that he belongs in character roles, and the lieutenant Le Bret sung by Timothy Mix. The drunken Bojan Knezevic stands out as well, as do Adler Fellows Austin Kness and Maya Lahyani in various roles.

The Châtelet Cyrano is above all else cinematic, a style that well fits the swashbuckling Cyrano (well he did manage some fairly quick moves) with very flashy swordsmanship surprisingly executed without mishap by eight fencing acrobats. The cinematic staging also pointed out the cinematic nature of Alfani's intimate music, small movements of spirit sonically magnified to full-screen proportion. What was once verismo was by the mid 1930's neo-verismo well on its way to becoming movie melodrama.

Romanian opera director Petrika Ionesco staged this Cyrano de Bergerac in the way that Parisians love — nostalgic longing for the the bloodiest and the artiest moments of their history, and a dose of kitsch as well. Mr. Ionesco has staged both Aida and Nabucco at the 80,000 seat Stadt de France and The Millennium Project and Continents on Parade at EuroDisney (near Paris). Here is a man that knows pageantry.

Colorful theater, good opera and one of San Francisco Opera's finer recent moments.

Roberto Alagna was the Cyrano in the Opéra National de Montpellier's Alfano Cyrano in 2008. No doubt a San Francisco debut by this tenor would generate an enthusiasm equal to that of this Domingo return (if not the nostalgia). For the record the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier revived several late verismo operas in the early years of this new century, notably operas by Alfani, Franchetti, and Mascagni.

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Salome in San Francisco

If Herbert von Karajan conducted Madama Butterfly and Maria Callas sang Isolde it follows that Nicola Luisotti should conduct Salome.

And that is exactly what he did at San Francisco Opera just now where he is the incoming music director, and therefore can conduct what he pleases. No reduced orchestration for this maestro, the ninety-one players stuffed into the War Memorial pit made a mighty sound, a mighty opulent one.

Mo. Luisotti sought the sonic richness of this early Strauss score rather than its burgeoning sexuality and exploding nervousness. The psychological penetration that is Strauss’ discovery in *Salome* may not yet have become the orchestral maelstrom that bares Elektra’s tortured soul, nonetheless Strauss is dealing with a pantheon of unstable personalities who enact a very sexual, personal and finally very ugly story. Strauss obliges with music that is sometimes sensual and sometimes ugly, but always personal — after all it marks a difficult passage and consequent loss of innocence. Mo. Luisotti opted to make it all beautiful.

It is an unabashedly lush score, as Mo. Luisotti helped us discover as never before. He caressed its musical lines that evoked the opera’s evening setting, the rising moon and the overwhelming grandeur and power of the word of God. His lions roared and his dogs barked and Herodias raged. But Luisotti did not discover the delicate sensuousness with which Strauss enveloped Salome, nor the desperate lust and self doubt that tortured Herod, or the sense of impending doom that hangs on every word of the text.

Luisotti version of Strauss’ first great opera was supported by the production imported from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the stage *a vista* (open to view) when we entered the auditorium, the soldiers, Jews, Nazarenes, were milling around as they did the entire evening, making Salome’s sexual awakening a public spectacle rather than a personal drama. But these onlookers did not seem to know quite what to do or think as they stood around. We were kept waiting for them to react but they never did.

One of several daunting challenges facing a *Salome* stage director is the extended length of its dance of seven veils. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production sought to solve this problem by engaging a choreographer, Seán Curran, to stage the opera. His solution was to impose an unrelenting formalized ritual, ten minutes of abstract choreography whose sensuality was limited to the flowing geometry of five or six squares of silk pulled through the air by a pair of eunuchs. The final shock of Strauss’ dance was eviscerated by completely covering Salome with silk veils so that, as we found out, she could make a quick change into a gold, vaguely Klimpt-essque gown for her orgy with John the Baptist’s severed head.

The setting too, by Bruno Schwengl, was unrelentingly geometric, a hard edge rectangular box disappearing into an exaggerated one point perspective that the supertitles called a vault and the libretto calls a cistern, but in this production it was really the most private part of the female anatomy, with an opening that expanded and contracted just like the real thing (honest to God). Gratuitously symbolic except that when the executioner entered it and Luisotti’s pit made its super exaggerated slicing noises the effect was a virtual hymenectomy. It was flat out gross.

But John the Baptist was not really inside the vault. When he was to have been heard from the cistern/vault he was actually off-stage down left singing through a sousaphone bell. His voice was weirdly loud over there on the side, very far away from where it was supposed to be (upstage center), and could have been had modern electronic technology been allowed to do its magic.

There were some fine performances on October 21 (the second one), particularly Nadia Michael as Salome, certainly one of the more resplendent of our current Salomes, her youthful figure able to embody a vocally well drawn character, with reserves of gorgeous tone sufficient to soar above the massive Strauss orchestral climaxes. We may miss the neurotic tinges awarded this complex role by Anna Silja and Maria Ewing, and the uncanny histrionics perpetrated by Leonie Rysanek (all former San Francisco Opera Salomes) but we did profit from Mme. Michael’s more even temperament as she did her best, a good trouper, to go along with this hapless production.

Reportedly in the fourth of the six performances her stamina waned, and she then bowed out of the fifth performance. Molly Fillmore was brought in at the very last moment from Arizona Opera where she is rehearsing the role (according to SFO general director David Gockley’s front of curtain announcement). While those of us there that evening must be grateful to Mme. Fillmore for the obvious heroics necessary to get through the performance, we can question San Francisco Opera’s lack of an adequate cover in what were foreseen circumstances.

Greer Grimsley gave his brief on-stage performance as Jokanaan splendidly, blinded by light delivering his confrontation with Salome with genuine fervor and horror, his curse ringing in our ears. Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura gave a fully sung, lurid account of Herodias that was intense and chilling, as it should be and so rarely is.

British tenor Kim Begley is not a big enough performer to bring Herod as horridly alive as he should be. One remembers Mr. Begley as a fine, sympathetic Narraboth, this role in this production taken by Garret Sorenson who made no effect in what can be a most affecting role. Perhaps both Mr. Begley and Mr. Sorenson were betrayed by the conducting and production, thus exonerating them from blame for their pale performances.

With staging entrusted to a choreographer there was much smooth movement. Overall the effect was in fact choreography rather than staging, except in the complex ensemble scenes when staging reverted to textbook procedures.

Cast and Production

Salome: Nadja Michael; Herodias: Irina Mishura; Herod: Kim Begley; Jokanaan: Greer Grimsley; Narraboth: Garrett Sorenson; A page: Elizabeth DeShong; First Jew: Beau Gibson; Second Jew: Robert MacNeil; Third Jew: Matthew O’Neill; Fourth Jew: Corey Bix; Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner; First Soldier: Andrew Funk; Second Soldier: Bojan Knezevic; First Nazarene: Julien Robbins; Second Nazarene: Austin Kness; Cappodocian: Kenneth Kellogg; Slave: Renée Tatum. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Seán Curran. Consulting Director/Dramaturg: James Robinson. Production Designer: Bruno Schwengl. War Memorial Opera House, November, 2009)

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

“One of the most beautiful sets I have ever seen,” crows San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley over the airwaves, “directed by Broadway legend Hal Prince.”

He is trying to sell twelve performances of Puccini's masterpiece presumably to the unwashed hordes who flocked to to see Aida simulcast from the opera house onto the scoreboard of the local baseball stadium. The problem is once you have got them inside the War Memorial what do they see?

No doubt Hal Prince is a brilliant Broadway director. Soon after his opera exploits (Willie Stark in 1981 [more a Broadway musical than an opera], Madama Butterfly in 1982 and Turandot in 1983) he went on to direct Phantom of the Opera (1986), the longest running musical in history.

Yes, this is the Madama Butterfly he staged for Lyric Opera of Chicago. It caused a lot of excitement back in 1982, after all those theatrically savvy Broadway folks know how to put on a show. There was a national telecast so the production is well known, but back then the lighting seemed far darker so it was harder to see the Kabuki theater knock-off Koken spin the set, and it is harder yet to recall the staging itself after these 28 years.

In San Francisco just now those ninja-like Koken (lithe figures in black body stockings) convincingly simulated the massive efforts needed to turn the huge, fairytale, Las Vegas worthy love nest of Pinkerton and Butterfly. They were quite apparent, forcing the same question that arose back then – what does hyper-stylized Kabuki theater have to do with verismo (realistic) opera?

The answer is about as much as Broadway has to do with verismo opera. The play Madama Butterfly on which Puccini based his opera is by San Francisco's own David Belasco. It is the American equivalent of théâtre guignol or French horror theater, a frequent Puccini muse. In Belasco's Butterfly Cho-Cho-San's horrific suicide is carefully prepared within grubby circumstances. It is reality best experienced, if you must, from a seat in a theater.

Broadway is typically fast and easy. There is lots of stimulation created by frequent scenic movement and lots of color. The story is direct and emotions are obvious. Thus in the Prince Butterfly the set is spun and spun, the colors are seductive and glittery. Butterfly boldly sheds her kimono in favor of American apparel. But the bright gold of her bustled Victorian dress belied three years of wear and the condition of extreme poverty required by the story. It did have requisite Broadway flash.

The Butterfly was the diminutive Svetla Vassileva, a veteran of the world's big stages to be sure but also an artist of considerable depth, and one who is game for interesting contemporary productions. Her Butterfly is intrinsically Belasco's geisha, physically and emotionally clumsy (after all she is fifteen years old), simple and very honest. She is not a geisha who makes it to Broadway.

Nevertheless the misplaced glitz of the production faded in her presence, leaving Mme. Vassileva alone on stage to carry Butterfly's tragic burden, and that she did, to a degree. She is in fine voice – a young and healthy one – well schooled in verismo technique. She tirelessly delivered all the great scenes. The production betrayed her in its absence of reality, her lover seemed a confused kid who found himself in an opera production because he sings well. The balance of the casting showed blatant disregard for the needs of both Belasco and Broadway, and Puccini too needs heavier, Italianate voices. Even the genius of San Francisco Opera's quixotic conductor Nicola Luisotti could not save the day, though he tried with a breathtaking coda.

But don't just take my word for it. Check out the video excerpt on the San Francisco Opera website.

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Jerry Springer, The Opera in San Francisco

The fall opera season in San Francisco has been dealt a wild card – Jerry Springer, The Opera! Not exactly material for SF's august opera company, but just right for SF's Ray of Light Theatre!

This charming piece was once famous for its shock and disgust value. These days these values are little more than innocent subject matter for a shock and disgust theater genre. How riled up can you get when the little biscuit that is the symbolic body of Christ is thrown onto the floor, or Jesus is told to put his f***ing clothes back on, or for that matter witnessing God beg Jerry for his guidance? Plus the ca ca doo doo pee pee factor is non-stop as is every sexual proclivity you can imagine and then some, not to forget the swell of awe one felt when Jerry threw the Gettysburg Address into the general blasphemy.

All this is old hat, and was old hat even before Jerry Springer, The Opera took London by storm back in 2003, and entered the British cultural mainstream in 2006 through a kingdom-wide BBC telecast. Jerry Springer, The Opera is very British, our chic British cousins finding no one more appropriate for making fun of than us Americans. It is true, we are open and we let it all hang out (well, we don't have a queen to look up to as an example of discretion).

It is very well made theater, operatic in theme – infidelity and forgiveness with a big dose of revenge. It is operatic in structure with an earthy exposition (see above) that thrusts the wounded Jerry (he was shot) into a hospital purgatory. It culminates in heaven (which serves also as hell) where Jerry's death is truly operatic, i.e. too long and utterly implausible that anyone so close to death has so much breath. [N.B. the real Jerry Springer is still on the air.]

It is well made music, its structures and harmonies complex in the extensive choruses. The huge ensembles were crowned by above-the-staff voices, the duets were bona fide Baroque contests, the extensive vocal ornamentation was dramatically motivated, and the crooning was silken.

Not yet a repertory piece (only now does it have this U.S. west coast premiere) and it may never attain such status, such is the fate of the shock and disgust genre. It is however pointedly deserving of this status as it offers challenging roles for performers, from the spoken-only role of Jerry, the crooning of his nemesis, the Valkyrie voice of his conscience, the devotion of his goons, to the comic and quite complicated and delightfully wrecked humans whom only a Jerry can understand. Roles that could be developed in infinite levels of vocal and histrionic sophistication.

So how did Ray of Light Theatre fare with such material? Pretty f***ing well based on the resources of San Francisco's equivalent of Off-Broadway. Patrick Michael Dukeman was a convincing, even moving Jerry Springer (though I confess I have never laid eyes on the real thing for comparison). The ensemble roles were thoughtfully cast and when finesse was lacking (often) it was compensated by volume. The twenty-six choristers executed their music with aplomb and infused a joie de vivre appropriate to responsive voyeurs.

The slick production was directed by M. Graham Smith and was moved along adroitly by music director Ben Prince. These gentlemen kept us on the edge of our seats for nearly three hours (though the program booklet warned us there would be an overly long intermission as an overflow of folks (300 plus) would need to piss [sic] in but two stalls).

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The Marriage of Figaro in Los Angeles

After its Ring cycle last spring Los Angeles seemed like the big time, operatically speaking. Its concurrent (to San Francisco) Marriage of Figaro has confused this perception. Seen October 6 three new cast members (Susanna, Marcellina and Barbarina) were being integrated into the cast, this situation alone was sufficient to distort its staging rhythm.

The Marriage of Figaro is central to the repertory of all opera companies. In 2004 L.A. Opera unveiled this Ian Judge production (in its initial years L.A. had relied on the Peter Hall production from Chicago). Now six years later the Judge production still passes as a contemporary statement, needing only a cast and conductor to bring it alive.

Designed by Tim Goodchild (a Brit with extensive theater credentials, like Mr. Judge) it is business like -- a back wall of a different saturated color for each scene, a few chandeliers coming and going, and sensibly enough a house on an horizon (like TV's Dallas) overlooking an extensive dark park illuminated by a huge moon (yes, it is very Halloween though surely this is not its intention).

The costumes, designed by Diedre Clancy, another of our mainstream British cousins, made up in slickness what they may have lacked in inspiration. Clever and surprisingly harmonious was the mix of styles and periods. Not to mention Mr. Judge's tricky use of a telephone in the Countess' bedroom and flashlights in the garden in this predominantly period production.

All this high style was not requited by either the conducting or the singing. Placido Domingo was in the pit, by now a very beloved L.A. personage it seems judging from the huge ovation awarded him. In the first part (acts one and two) he imposed tempos that were quite convenient for the singers but lacked the Mozartian impudence that keeps Figaro forever alive.

If the first part of Figaro is about Mozart the second part (acts three and four) is about singers as each are awarded a showpiece aria. Here Domingo was right on with the evening's stars – Bo Skovhus as the Count and Martina Serafin as the Countess – giving them everything they needed to tear up the stage. And that they did, Mr. Skovhus, though small of voice managed some elegant musicianship rushing back and forth across the stage. Mme. Serafin, of big, very big voice, musically well controlled to be sure was a far more determined Countess than a reflective one (after all la Serafin is usually a Tosca).

These larger scaled performances established an emotional focus for Mozart's comedy that brought to mind the silly notion that The Marriage of Figaro is the perfect opera. But to subvert any attempt at a perfect realization L.A. Opera succumbed to the too prevalent practice of sending boys in to do men's work, i.e. expecting talented young singers from an apprentice artist program to embody important Mozartian personalities, and otherwise entrusting character roles to unseasoned artists.

Rebekah Camm gave a fine performance as Susanna, though she does not look like a typical Susanna, and as well she was stepping into a part already staged for another singer (Marlis Petersen sang the first three performances). Daniel Okulitch fulfilled the basic needs of the Count's major factotum without imparting grand personality and Renata Pokupic made a convincingly adolescent Cherubino.

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The Marriage of Figaro in San Francisco

No question that Nicola Luisotti is a conducting genius, and no question that genius runs amuck from time to time. In the case of Mo. Luisotti fairly often.

The September 23 performance teetered on the edge of madness with the overture used as a projectile to ignite the eighteenth century social unrest that is Le nozze di Figaro. The unrest was not only social, it was also musical for the porcelain-like figurines who embodied Mozart's by now mythical characters. Their struggle, usually successful, to keep apace with the musical force was heroic, with even unexpected fruits – beautiful agogic accents occurring when a voice fell slightly behind the beat.

If Mo. Luisotti unabashedly strives for effect, its motivation is musical and not mere showmanship. The maestro here met his match in the case of his Susanna, Danielle de Niese and his Figaro Luca Pisaroni, the play of tempos with vocal line was even sublime. The exposition of the story in the first scene was a masterpiece.

John Copley staged the opera. Mr. Copley is the most musical of directors, merging word and vocal line with movement in perfect concert with storytelling. It is manifest in continuous movement and dramatic flow which was exemplary Copley in the performances of this Susanna and Figaro. Indeed throughout much of the first act and with all of the cast a sense of uneasy perfection prevailed amongst pit, voice and stage.

The maestro's illumination of musical line and the visual artifice supplied by Mr. Copley created the abundance of detail that resulted in the figurine quality of the cast. Gracefully dominated on September 23 by Mlle. de Niese and Mr. Pisaroni it was otherwise an ensemble cast of gifted singing actors – Michéle Losier as Cherubino, Lucas Meachem as the Count and Ellie Dehn as the Countess, with grandly experienced performances by Catherine Cook as Marcellina, John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo and Greg Fedderly as a stylistically exact Basilio.

The sense of exquisite detail that prevailed extended to the smallest roles – a rashly drunk Antonio sung by Bojan Knezevic and the Don Curzio sung by Robert MacNeil.

All this surface artifice played against a vaguely house-like wooden structure that was vaguely indoors/outdoors as needed, and it could also be used for Barber and Falstaff or Turn of the Screw for that matter (best not to mention this to SFO MBA David Gockley). It was built in 1982 for another director and already once visited by Mr. Copley before being taken over by legendary Susanna, Graziella Sciutti turned stage director. Surely it will now go directly from the War Memorial Opera House to the dump.

Mo. Luisotti exposed very nimble fingers at the continuo fortepiano, and nimble musicality superimposing a bit of Lohengrin, snatches of Mozart piano sonatas plus a touch of Eine kleine Nachtmusik (and who knows what else) from time to time. Everyone was having so much fun that when things got serious things fell apart. The second part (the third act) brings the big showpiece arias that require big artists to command big theaters. It was beyond the scope of this fine cast who had so brilliantly executed the ensembles of the first part (acts one and two)

To the delight of everyone the maestro and the director exploited the agility of this responsive cast to the degree that when Count Almaviva knelt to beg forgiveness we all laughed because we were so used to being amused by the musical and physical antics. Of course this moment is deadly serious, and after the fact the maestro did try to save the day by imposing a sudden largo. It was too much too late.

On October 10 San Francisco Opera introduced four new singers into the last three of its nine performances of Le Nozze – Kostas Smoriginas as Figaro, Heidi Stober as Susanna, Trevor Scheunemann as Almaviva and Dale Travis as Bartolo.

For messieurs Scheunemann and Travis the transition was seamless, both artists blending into the ensemble and upholding its precision. Mr. Smoriginas and Mlle. Stober introduced their own particular tonalities. Both are very warm performers with strong voices, who found themselves at odds with the maestro in the opening scene. A compromise seemed to be reached soon enough resulting in convincingly human performances from these two artists that took the Copley production to another level.

In the end we still did laugh when the Count knelt to beg the Countess' forgiveness, but in this performance Mo. Luisotti grasped the depth of meaning in this gesture, and infused a warmth and understanding into Mozart's chorale that exponentially complicated the situations of the four sets of lovers lined across the stage. This unexpected realization spread slowly through the audience as the last ensemble unfolded, leaving us again smitten by this astonishing work of art.

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Werther in San Francisco

It has been twenty-five years since San Francisco Opera has staged a Werther. so it was high time that Massenet's whiney, weepy masterpiece be given another chance. How it fared in 1985 is an interesting speculation, as its famed Werther, Alfredo Kraus was then 57 years-old and his Charlotte was the famed verismo diva Renata Scotto in decline.

Just now the Werther was entrusted to 50 year-old Ramòn Vargas. Just two years ago Mr. Vargas was the perfect embodiment of an adorable Nemorino in the SFO Elisir d'amore. His career however generally has traversed larger lyric tenor roles — Rodolfo, Lenski, Don Carlo, etc. — for which he has perfected the physical delivery. Unfortunately this famous Mexican tenor no longer seems to be able to muster the vocal heft to match the gestures. Lacking now was the sense of vocal push and emotional release that makes a tenor, and therefore Werther exciting.

Likewise his Charlotte, British mezzo Alice Coote gave a problematic performance. She is a lovely artist in prime condition whose fame has accrued primarily in the Baroque repertory. But the studied musicality that made her an ideal Idamante in SFO's 2008 Idomeneo did not serve her in this foray into the French dramatic mezzo repertory. Unlike Mr. Vargas she has not absorbed the gestures and mannerisms of repertory, an attribute that this production exploited by inducing too much realistic detail into her acting. Coupled with self-conscious musicality her performance was hard to watch.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume however supplied everything these artists lacked, and created what was a memorable performance, his orchestra whining and weeping convincingly and crying out in full throat and throttle, his expansive tempos relentlessly driving the despair first of Werther and finally of Charlotte. Massenet's tear-jerker is replete with much opportunity for the double reeds to freely emote and that the fine players of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra did with abandon.

The flawed performances of the protagonists were overwhelmed indeed by Mo. Villaume's orchestral outpourings and were exacerbated by the set of this new production that elevated the singers and placed them somewhat behind the proscenium arch, a positioning that proved visually and acoustically remote. [This observation was based on sitting in the eighteenth row. At another performance seated in the third row these problems disappeared.]

This brand new production, directed by Francisco Negrin and designed by Louis Dèsirè, is challenging and interesting, attributes that are rare these days at SFO. The intent of the production was apparently to supply the world in which Werther and Charlotte's story evolved with the innumerable complexities hinted at in the libretto but not present in Massenet's score. The practical intent was perhaps to insert action into a libretto of static emotional and dramatic situations.

The frenzy of subtext that resulted did not illuminate the simple, direct emotions of the Massenet score but rather created a vibrant ambience for Massenet's ultimate, over-the-top dènouement. Any attempt at analysis of this imposed subtext seems useless as it hardly matters to the emotional gravity of the story that Sophie is head-over-heels in love with Werther or that Albert reads Werther's letters alongside Charlotte and lies beside her in the marriage bed while she imagines Werther reciting Ossian. These real and imagined complications were sometimes amusing and other times annoying.

All this was effected in a frenzy of staging clichès — piles of furniture, the doubling of characters by actors, scribbling on a wall, lines of neon light, reflective surfaces, post-modern mix of materials and images, shuttering effects of light and image, not to forget the obligatory use of video. But all were put to good use, and even effective once the irritation of seeing these hackneyed tricks hit the stage once again was forgotten.

Of particularly fine effect was the use of actor doubles for the dying Werther (making three of them!) allowing Charlotte to kneel over a splayed Werther while the erect Vargas/Werther held forth pathetically nearby and the third sat motionless facing upstage. Perhaps there was even a fourth Werther as someone held a torch in upstage blackness all through this long death scene.

It had come as a bit of a surprise when Charlotte donned the black dress in which she emoted over dying Werther — for the first three acts she was kept emotionally aloof and physically far away so it was hard to accept that she suddenly raced to his side.

The set architecture was based horizontal bands — Werther's garret on stage level, above that the stage-wide platform on which all life unfolded like on a cinemascope movie screen (even silver hued because of reflective metal walls). And above that floated intermittently a band of photographs of, inexplicably, some old New England houses variously modified from time to time to illustrate mood. A few vertical leafless metallic trees tried to function as an indication of season.

Mr. Vargas and Mme. Coote executed their roles with obvious respect for the production. Baritone Brian Mulligan was directed to an unrelenting oafish presence for Albert that precluded the admittance of any depth to his character. Soprano Heidi Stober brought vitality and vocal brilliance to Sophie in the evening's only sympathetic performance. The unusually fine supporting cast (the bailiff and his cronies) though too young managed to bring their roles vocally and dramatically alive.

This Werther is co-produced by Lyric Opera of Chicago where presumably it will appear in the 2011-12 season. With another cast it may take on a depth it lacked here in San Francisco.

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Aida in San Francisco

Opera as circus. The current San Francisco Aida comes from the English National Opera where an inspired and probably very excited administrator proposed a production by aging London fashionista Zandra Rhodes whose program book credits include her various hair colors ("bright green later changed to a spectacular pink, sometimes radiant red"). Mme. Zandra, approximately 70 years of age according to the program booklet, was aided by British stage director Jo Davis whose credits include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End.

These ladies are nothing if not clever. They dealt with Verdi's problematic three-ringer in a very business like fashion (among Mme. Rhodes listed credits is her successful retail outlet in fashionable Fulham Road). More often than not Verdi's delicate masterpiece is crushed by its own weight (six big singers working out a sordid political mess caused by some runaway passions and a great big military victory, the situation finally resolved by sheer fatigue — that of the lovers themselves and invariably of the audience too).

The fatigue factor was very nearly solved by mesdames Rhodes and Davis who kept things moving right along by a pyramid shape that expanded and contracted according to moods and situations (the shutters closed completely, finally, on the dying lovers). Sometimes one of the triangle of lovers was left alone on the apron against blank, dark scenery to tell us a few things in private, and once the stage was opened up totally in blank white in stark contrast to the bright greens, spectacular pinks and radiant reds of an unusually flamboyant, 1960's sensibility Egypt.

All this slick theatricality was unfettered by concept save the presence of the wrathful eye of Horus that oversaw much of the action and cleverly doubled as decoration too. The lower portion of Horus' priests were covered by wide gold lamè skirts leaving the priests naked from the waist up (and that was a sight to see), coiffed by the appropriate falcon headdress. The Ethiopians and particularly Aida's father Amonasro were spectacularly savage á la American indian or maybe Australian aboriginal, comically light years away from tall, proud, black Ethiopians who might have seemed actually threatening.

All this was overseen by San Francisco Opera's extraordinary music director, Nicola Luisotti who probably saw nothing of the above having maneuvered his singers out onto the stage apron where alone, in pairs, trios, etc., he vindicated the idea of the traditional Italian "numbers" opera and reinvented the idea of the "costume" opera (characters are identified by their costumes rather than by what they do). This positioning was ideal for Mo. Luisotti to commune with Verdi and with great big voices, and to create as much effect as possible. Suffice to say that the effect was in fact very nearly maximum, held back only by the fuzzy acoustic of the War Memorial Opera House.

So it was a great evening that teased critical sensibility, seamlessly morphing in and out of tongue-in-cheek caricature of spectacle opera to just plain big, thrilling opera like opera once was, or so we are told.

Diva Dolora Zajick spat and soared in fine voice as Amneris, upholding her by now very long held reputation as the Amneris of our day. She was in ideal concert with the big musical and vocal ideas of the maestro and perfectly at home in the costume opera concept (a big blue dress with a huge sphinx like headdress). Mme. Zajick in fact and against all odds almost succeeded in making Amneris a living, feeling character, this achievement the magic of a true artist.

Likewise tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Micaela Carosi, the ill-fated lovers, held their own with the maestro, Mr. Giordani bravely donning a truly ridiculous, unflattering warrior skirt while traversing the tenorial tessitura with ease and stylistic aplomb. Mme. Carosi soared to some beautiful pianissimos in the upper-most soprano registers, often the undoing of lesser singers, and otherwise exploited all Italianate mannerisms with conviction. Neither Mme. Carosi nor Mr. Giordani approached the vulnerability or sympathy of their characters, leaving the stage to Mme. Zajick.

Baritone Marco Vratogna was puzzling as Amonasro. In his peculiar way-over-the-top costume he was inherently silly, and he delivered his role in a complementary fashion. He proved himself an excellent artist last season as Iago, thus the question remains whether he was directed into this strange histrionic performance or if he came up with it himself. The King of Egypt and the priest Ramfis were well sung respectively by Christian Van Horn and Hao Jiang Tian and were less controversial.

No account of an Aida production can avoid the triumphal scene. It moved quickly thanks to Mo. Luisotti and the mesdames Rhodes and Davis. They went for pure circus, complete with acrobats, a family dancing act and even the de rigueur elephant, here a whimsical, gossamer blue concoction that crowned the wit and fun of these clever ladies. The usual hundreds of supernumeraries had been reduced to a mere thirty-three, and there were no cuts. The scene flew by.

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Tosca at Orange

There was a time when the likes of Luc Bondy and Francesca Zambello staged operas for the Chorégies d’Orange in its famed Théâtre Antique. No more. In recent years staging responsibilities have been given to the default directors at small opera houses in the south of France with passable to dismal results.

The Théâtre Antique is a magnificent theatrical vestige of France’s Roman past. These days it is home to this small opera festival -- there are two performances each of two operas in late July and early August. The catch is that the stage is 150 feet wide and the amphitheater seats 9000 people. It is a small festival of big, very big operas.

However this summer both operas are relatively small -- Puccini’s Tosca and Gounod’s Mireille. While Tosca is obvious repertory to attract an audience of 18,000 people, it is still an intimate opera even though its music is big and its story shocking. Mireille is delicate music to an innocent little love story by Provence’s poet Mistral.

The suspicion is that messieur Raymond Duffaut, general director of the Chorégies has lost his mind. Not just because Mireille cannot possibly attract an audience of 18,000 people (famous last words), but also because he entrusted Tosca to the least able of these local stage directors, one Nadine Duffaut (yes, his wife).

The best operas at Orange have been epics and spectacles, where armies clash and jealousies rage. The best operas have spectacular endings, as examples the shooting real flames of Norma’s funeral pyre or even the huge projected flames of Azucena’s funeral pyre, not to mention the transformation of the Turandot chorus into a dragon. The back wall of the Théâtre Antique’s rises 150 feet -- one had high hopes for Tosca’s leap.

Mme. Duffaut chose the Mary Magdalene painted by Cavaradossi for the Attavanti chapel as her primary image. Magnified a thousand times into a huge set piece this biblical sinner oversaw all in some inexplicable irony. Though in the last few seconds the surface cracked and checkered (a black and white projection onto the painting) as Tosca walked through a slit in the bottom. So much for spectacle.

Mme. Duffaut attempted to use very nearly the entire width of the stage in her staging with the result that it took a lot of time for any of the opera’s protagonists to get from one chapel to another, from Scarpia’s desk to his chaise longue, etc. Conductor Mikko Franck did his best to accommodate these extended distances with tempi so slow that they were just plain deadly (in fact in section D alone paramedics had to remove three opera patrons on stretchers during the performance).

The Orchestra Philharmonique de Radio France loved this Finnish maestro, apparent from the foot stomping in the pit for every arrival and departure of Mo. Franck. Let us attribute this love to the maestro’s encouragement that they play as loud as they possibly could -- an unusual pleasure for a pit (or any) orchestra. But even the orchestra was overcome by the slowness, manifest by frequent premature entrances.

Mme. Duffaut updated the opera to the Fascist era, giving costumer Katia Duflot (ubiquitous in these parts) yet another opportunity to dress singers in over-designed costumes extolling le look rather than defining le caractère. Tosca entered in a white shin length afternoon dress splashed with huge purple flowers, and simply disappeared within it. In the second act she was in a huge red satin evening gown with an exaggerated train that stood on its own dwarfing its wearer and hindering her movement.

Needless to say Roberto Alagna held the stage as Cavaradossi as did Falk Struckmann as Scarpia. Alagna is a natural singer and a natural actor, Struckmann is a pro. Neither need nor probably want a stage director. Except that there are scenes between protagonists that have to be shaped. Mme. Duffaut’s abilities apparently do not extend to imposing direction on such artists.

On the other hand Catherine Naglestad, the Tosca, has had a brilliant career working with some of Germany’s most gifted directors. Perhaps she could have been coached into embodying a temperamental diva. Left on her own she could not master the quick, nervous, powerful moves that she needed to manipulate her grand red dress. Nor unfortunately does she possess an imposing vocal presence.

The Angelotti of Wojtek Smilek and Spoletta of Christophe Mortagne were well realized within these reduced circumstances. The roles of the Sacrestan and the Shepherd were embarrassments to the profession.

This Tosca fared equally poorly in the French press: www.lemonde.fr/culture/article/2010/07/16/tosca-dans-ses-finesses-orchestrales_1388802_3246.html. Let us not forget that opera at Orange can be good, justifying the steep climb to your seat in brutal summer heat.

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Rossignol, Alceste, Don Giovanni at Aix

The Aix Festival was known not so very long ago for pretentious productions. Perhaps now it will become known for good productions, at least based on the Don Giovanni, Alceste and Rossignol that opened within the first three days of the festival (July 1 - 21).

The logistics of opening three shows within three days are daunting. Both the Giovanni and the Alceste are new productions, alternating performances in the Festival’s signature Archevêché theater. Meanwhile Le Rossignol from Canadian Opera had been installed in the Grand Théâtre de Provence. Later in the month the Stravinsky gives way to Rameau’s Pygmalion arriving direct from the Holland and Athens Festivals. Not to mention yet another theater comes into action within the Festival’s first week -- the countryside Grand St. Jean (grand meaning a kind of barn, Jean pronounced john) with a Festival commission, Oscar Strasnoy’s new chamber opera Un Retour El Regresso.

The means of the Aix Festival obviously exceed those of any ordinary opera house with its three theaters and its large number of resident ensembles (the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, English Voices, orchestra and chorus of the Opéra de Lyon, the William Christie Ensemble, Ensemble Musicatreize plus the Aix Festival’s Académie européenne de musique) and a 20 millions euros budget for its twenty-one day duration!

The cat’s whisker of North American opera these days is Canadian Robert Lepage. While we wait for his massive Ring at the Met we can be entertained by his reasonably modest production of Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol put together with a potpourri of other Stravinsky fables. Though how modest can it be to banish the orchestra to the stage by filling the pit with water (making the pit a lake, river or swimming pool is hardly a new idea, but to this point it has been metaphor rather than fact).

Nor is the Stravinsky orchestra modest. Rossignol stands with Firebird, Petruska and Rite of Spring as the Stravinsky theater works for very large orchestra (triple winds with extensive doubles plus much additional percussion, double harp). Rossignol is trapped by its too simple story and its simplistic moralism within Stravinsky’s burgeoning musical and orchestral language that simultaneously with this pale fable bursts into the primal motives and rhythms of the ballets. But in Rossignol this expanding language is relegated to portraying an exoticism of locale and nature subordinated to the tedious procedures of ritualistic storytelling.

Trapped onstage without an acoustic shell and hidden behind the seated chorus the Opera de Lyon orchestra provided a beautiful if muted account of Stravinsky’s colorful score, carefully driven by conductor Kazushi Ono. The Rossignol was Olga Peretyatko, a veteran of the original Toronto production. Aggressively sung to be sure, this nightingale’s Rossini bravura matched the aggressive orientalisme and puppeture insisted upon by the Lepage production. The spectacle style staging though succeeded only sporadically in alleviating the inherent boredom of the score.

Waste deep in the pit lake Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas gave a brilliant performance as the fisherman while deftly operating his puppet double, well seconded by his other semi-submerged Russian speaking colleagues, notably the Chinese emperor of Ilya Bannik. The singing was intensely lyrical in its Russianness, implacably spurned on by Maestro Ono.

You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, though this was an amusing if exaggerated attempt.

Much more successful were the other simple fables for ensemble voices and various combinations of instruments in smaller ensembles. These pieces not even meant to be staged were delightfully performed by broadly smiling peasant Russians. The tales were enacted by black and white shadow puppetry in various techniques with Cirque de Soleil virtuosity. The juxtaposition of Stravinsky’s early strident minimalism with the more abstract forms of puppetry was perfection.

Christoph Gluck’s opera Alceste was staged by the witty German director Christof Loy who chose to tease the audience by magnifying the severity of Gluck’s reform style. Adding to the austerity of the evening Mr. Loy allowed us no break between Acts I and II thus we sat two long hours before regrouping (most of us) to witness Alceste’s reprieve from death only to learn that we all are going to die anyway.

Mr. Loy reduced Euripides tragedy from its larger political terms to a purely family tragedy (the untimely death of a father). Euripides’ Thessalians became modern children holding toys. A black suited, clerically collared priest to Apollo physically abused one of these children (arousing an angry protest from someone in the audience on July 6). Jupiter was an expansive uncle who came to visit.

Yes, there was dance. The chorus of children moved to carefully designed stage positions during the dance interludes. The set was a white room, its side wall a huge window, its angled back wall broken by a small proscenium type opening that usually revealed mom and dad’s bedroom (this was a carefully created child’s world).

Yes, there was spectacle -- this opening became an attic where mementos of past lives are cast off and forgotten, like Hades, the netherworld. This vision became alive as these colorful spirits of the past flowed out onto the stage to taunt Admete and Alceste. The finale of the opera was in fact quite magnificent spectacle -- the doors of this stage within a stage opened on an absolute black void -- nothing. It was a vast vision of death, a concept and a reality. Huge. Everyone wound up entering.

Alceste was Mr. Loy’s metaphor of human destiny that even children understand.

Gluck’s reform operas give the chorus and orchestra huge dramatic responsibilities. Mr. Loy’s staging exacerbated these responsibilities, and miraculously they were met by English Voices, a chorus of 32 young singers who sang with magnificent Baroque gusto and seemed quite at home acting like six-year-olds, and by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra conducted by Ivor Bolton. Mo. Bolton elicited bold sounds from this prestigious group, its bassoons and double basses especially called upon to instill shock and awe.

Alas, just knowing Maria Callas sang Alceste places any other soprano who attempts the role in impossible competition. The Aix Festival entrusted the role to French early music soprano Veronique Gens who exuded artistry far more than passion. Canadian tenor Joseph Kaiser in fact melded his artistry into powerful Gluckian humanity, notable indeed when he reacted to Alceste’s sacrificial intentions to save his life.

This Alceste was close to musical perfection with careful period performances by principal singers, chorus and orchestra. The production now moves on to Royal Danish Opera and the Vienna State Opera where perhaps it will lose some of this carefulness and hopefully attain a dramatic reality unfettered by performance practice.

Russian stage director Dimitri Tcherniakov knows we all know Don Giovanni pretty well, maybe too well. The Aix Festival knows its audience loves Mozart and so there is always plenty of it (there are 10 performances of this Giovanni). One of the recent Giovanni ‘s served up in Aix was by British director Peter Brooks who experimented with Mozart’s masterpiece by turning its singers loose on stage to figure it out for themselves -- it is not hard to imagine how successful that was.

Mr. Tcherniakov did not even try to figure it out. In fact he did everything he could to confuse the opera’s issues. First he informed us that Giovanni and Elvira are married and that Zerlina is Donna Anna’s daughter. Leperello is some relative who happens to be in the Commedatore’s house, and Masetto and Don Ottavio are various fiances who end up kissing each other.

Not that he re-wrote the script. It was still the same old familiar words, never mind that it made no sense. Though a curtain crashed onto a silent stage from time to time to inform us of a quite precise but totally arbitrary time line (un jour plus tard, trois jour plus tard, deux mois plus tard, etc.).

Mr. Tcherniakov ignored the mysteries of the Don Juan complex by making the Don Giovanni a drunken bum no one could possibly love. The mystery therefore was why the three women in the story love him. Not that much was explained except that Donna Anna loves sex and was not getting much of it from Don Ottavio, Zerlina was obsessed by sex and was not getting much of it from Masetto. Elvira was cold and did not seem to want much sex.

Thus, and this is maybe Mr. Tcherniakov’s point (if there could possibly have been one), we might hear Mozart’s Don Giovanni for the first time! That, maybe, we did indeed.

French conductor Louis Langrée took on the resources of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra to magnificent result. Right on tempi, certainly on the fast side, that took advantage of the agility of the early instruments, with the raspy sound of these more primitive versions of modern instruments used to implement attack and immediacy. These unfamiliar sounds made this familiar score come brilliantly alive. It was new music.

Plus Mozart’s score was accorded extraordinary relief with Mr. Tcherniakov’s play with silence. The curtain rose before the overture, and fell well before the overture was completed forcing our attention again onto sound. Action within the unit set (a room in the Commendatore’s comfortable haute bourgeoise house) was interrupted between numbers by the crashing curtain and minutes of silence. Each time begun again the music gained vibrancy.

Of many momentous moments several stand out. The Don’s, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, serenade was a drunken reverie moving in his aloneness; Slutty Donna Anna’s, German soprano Marlis Petersen, account of her rape was her rape of Don Ottavio; Zerlina, Swedish soprano Kerstin Avemo, turned her Batti, batti into a sex fantasy with the Don (accompanied by a weird cello obligato); Elvira, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, was leaden of aspect when passed by the Don to the very physical Leporello of American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen; Don Ottavio, Canadian tenor Colin Balzer, kissed Masetto, Serbian/Israeli David Bizic.

You get the idea. The Aix Festival scoured the earth to get just the right people to upset Mozart with quite brilliant performances of his own music.

Well, bravo Aix, bravissimo! The trip has been worthwhile. So far.

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Sigismondo, La Cenerentola, Demetrio e Polibio at Pesaro

The fourteen year old Rossini composed his first opera Demetrio e Polibio in 1806 though it was not performed for another six years. He was twenty-two when he composed the tragedy Sigismondo and only twenty-five when he wrote La Cenerentola (the last of the four Italian comedies that are now stables of the standard repertory)! This was the stuff of the thirty-first Rossini Opera Festival.

Rossini was born in Pesaro, though he left when he was eight years old. He somehow retained enormous affection for his birthplace, returning in 1818 to conduct La Gazza Ladra in a performance that inaugurated Pesaro’s new Teatro Nuovo (now named the Teatro Rossini). In 1864, three years before his death (in his seventy-third year) Rossini was again in Pesaro for the unveiling of his statue in bronze (a gift to the city by a Parisian and a Madrilian) that now sits in the courtyard of the music school he pledged his fortune to found.

These days legions of Rossinians from around the world harbor great affection for Pesaro because it is home to the Rossini Foundation that resurrects the Rossini oeuvre in pristine editions to be performed by the annual (since 1980) Rossini Festival, These days Pesaro itself is a not-too-attractive beach town where it is hard to find a quiet hotel and a good restaurant. Plus the festival occurs across the sacrosanct Feast of the Assumption when every Italian who can walk or be pushed find themselves at the beach -- it might be hell but it is heaven.

This festival edition was the young Rossini (though all Rossini is relatively young as he wrote his last opera at age thirty-seven). And youth was present wherever you looked and listened. The Rossini Foundation had restored Demetrio e Polibio to its original form, purging the goosed up version Rossini had concocted for its belated premiere. Thus it was the adolescent Rossini with a clumsy libretto, imitative vocabulary and tentative bravura. Strangely the opera gave little clue that it was composed by the man would soon, very soon become the world’s greatest opera composer (be aware that it takes awhile for Rossini euphoria to wear off).

One of Italy’s more able stage directors, Davide Livermore, was in charge of a group design students of Urbino’s Accademia di Belle Arti and together they came up with the very good idea of suggesting that this little opera might be best left on the shelves of the Rossini archives.

It was a witty resolution. The back wall of the Teatro Rossini became the proscenium opening and the real proscenium became a transparent wall through which we would soon spy on the ghosts of the darkened theater. But first we saw all those kids from the Accademia di Belle Arti packing up some other show, and of course the ever present fire inspectors getting in the way, nonchalant because fires (a constant and real danger) so rarely happen. But this is Italy where everyone smokes (or used to), so one of the inspectors saw no reason not to light up.

This Demetrio e Polibio was a frenzy of jokes, a play on commedia dell’arte lazzi (sight gags) and they flowed throughout the evening, one after another, most subject to the libretto’s indication that a fire somehow broke out while Eumene abducts Lisinga. We learned that theatrical technology has discovered a flame that smokes but does not burn and these quite real flames were passed around a lot. Add to this lighted candelabras that flew across the stage and even out across the pit and halfway back into the auditorium.

But once the young design students had got the departing show packed up and had left the stage, and the fire inspectors had made their last round the stage became alive with the ghosts of theater all in period costumes, here the aforementioned Eumene who is really Demetrio, king of Syria, and Siveno, his son (but nobody knows this) who loves Lusinga. Both lovers call Polibio, king of Parthia, their father. Through all this the lazzi kept us amused, and charmed for the fairly brief duration of the opera.

And the young singers were equally charming. Casting was based on promise more than on accomplishment, with our interest piqued as to what Pesaro artistic director Alberto Zedda hears in these voices that encourages him to provide such important opportunity to fledgeling artists. Italian bass Mirco Palazzi shone as Polibio, as did tenor Chinese tenor Vlhe Shi who was Demetrio, Last season Mr. Shi, already a fine Rossini singer, was a tentative Comte Ory but here presented himself as a far more finished artist. Russian mezzo Victoria Zaytseva delivered a plausible Siveno, while Spanish soprano María José Moreno popped out big voiced high E’s with aplomb but was not a convincing Lisinga.

Davide Livermore is a stage director of great sophistication who brought an abundance of theatrical technique to this production. Maybe an over-abundance. But Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris managed to hold the young Rossini’s own, evoking fine playing from the Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini (rarely present for the festival’s main-stage productions) and urging his singers to excellent performances with tempi that were delightfully driven and never over-challenging. It was a successful collaboration.

The Rossini Festival seems to have been nurturing young Venetian stage director Damiano Michieletto, who returned to stage Sigismondo even though he provided an unimaginative, lackluster La scala di seta last summer. Mr. Michieletto must watch a lot of prime time television as he had turned La scala di seta into pure run-of-the-mill TV sit-com. This summer he made Sigismondo into a classic made-for-TV horror movie (low budget, low taste). At intermission disgust was everywhere and very appropriate.

Sigismondo has attacks of madness because he had had his wife put to death for a supposed infidelity that he now seems unsure of. Unbeknownst to him she escaped by assuming another identity, and strangely she still loves him. Thus there was lots to sing about and Rossini saved the day. But not until well into the second act when Sigismondo and Aldimira managed with extended difficulty to reconcile. Complex emotionally, musically and vocally it was the stuff if not the essence of the great Rossini.

Two veteran Italian Rossinians set the pace, Antonino Siragusa as the villain and Daniela Barcellona as the protagonist. Mme. Barcellona is the epitome of the pants-role mezzo, tall of stature with a large, round burnished voice that magnificently soars to the occasion when agility is demanded. Her aria Vincesti, iniqua sorte brought the house down (Rossini Festival audiences like nothing more than to roar approval). Mr. Siragusa is the epitome of the Rossini villain, a shaved head and a cutting voice that became exceptionally expressive and musically brilliant when Ladislao (his character) repented in his spectacular Misero me!

Youth came to the fore in the casting of young Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko as the unhappy queen Aldimira. If in the first act she seemed miscast, an ingenue asked to play a tragic queen. In the second act she shed all doubt as to her queenliness in her splendid, extended scene with the chorus Ah, Signor! nell’alma mia tu non leggi, tu non vedi.

Without showpieces the balance of the cast fell victim to the production set in a mental ward in the first act, the supernumerary inmates frequently mauling the principals and then following them into the halls of state in the second act where the molesting continued.

The weird solo-wind instrument in the overture was a piccolo playing in a very low register, though later Rossini gave it even more brilliant solo opportunity. Surprising too was the double bass solo -- the young Rossini having fun experimenting with orchestral colors. The orchestra of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale offers a fine, finished sound that Pesaro-born conductor Michele Mariotti, Bologna’s music director, exploited to the fullest in sympathetic participation with his singers in the opera’s showpieces.

Canadian-born young conducting star Yves Abel was at the helm for La Cenerentola, propelling it onto plateaux of extended lyricism that approached delirium (Rossini mania again). It was an inspired collaboration with Italian master stage director Luca Ronconi (now 77 years-old) and his co-director Ugo Tessitori in a revival of his 1998 Pesaro production. Add to this a brilliant young cast and a bit of luck -- the original Cinderella, Kate Aldrich, backed out and was replaced by Marianna Pizzolato -- though Mme. Aldrich may be from Maine she reads as pure Kansas while la Pizzolato is cento per cento italiana. Her voice is large, well-focused and agile and her persona even projects goodness. Not to mention that last summer she stole the show as nurse to Mme. Aldrich’s Zelmira.

This Italian comedy based on the familiar fairytale offers two buffo roles, Cinderella’s father and the the prince’s page. Unusual for productions of this Rossini masterpiece was the youth of these buffo interpreters, here Italians Paolo Bordogna as Don Magnifico and Nicola Alaimo as Dandini. The comparative lightness of their voices allowed Mo. Abel to take the patter songs at breakneck speed and Mr. Ronconi to exploit their physical agility thus setting a tone for these roles that was otherworldly. The prince’s troublemaking tutor Alidoro was played by Italian bass Alex Esposito who possesses a voice of exceptional beauty that both conductor and director used with magical effect to diplomatically reconcile (sort of) the Don Magnifico family situation.

The stepsisters are thankless roles, with only Clorinda given a brief, hopeful aria. Here they were lightly played and sung by French soprano Manon Strauss Evrard as Clorinda and Spanish mezzo Cristina Faus as Tisbe. American tenor Lawrence Brownlee contributed fine singing and an appropriate if generic presence as Don Ramiro (the prince).

La Pizzolato is an unlikely Cenerentola given that she does not fit into the classic princess mold. In fact she seemed right at home in Don Magnifico’s kitchen. But she too could dream, and that she did with consummate vocal finesse and bravura. There can be no doubt in our minds that these were the attributes (not her goodness) that won her the throne. After all this is Rossini.

The Ronconi production is a masterwork. It is huge, heavy and complicated and this added to the impression that La Cenerentola is Rossini’s biggest and best comedy. Put this together with the celerity of the music and action and it seemed very witty indeed that we sat in complete silence for five minutes to watch Don Magnifico’s jumbled household lifted by cables to the rafters slowly, but very slowly. Little by little the Palace rooms were revealed with not just the one over-sized chimney of Don Magnifico’s kitchen (now transformed into a very grand chimney) but a jumble of massive, very grand fireplaces.

Luca Ronconi’s knows that Rossini’s music is architectural, thus the large pile of furniture that was Don Magnifico’s house and the fireplace jumble of the palace provided many levels and places on which the singers could stand to deliver the music. Action was accomplished by moving from singing position to singing position rather than by inventing stage business in an attempt to create comedy. And Ronconi had no fear of stopping movement while musical development took place, particularly effective in the big ensembles though this technique worked just as well in arias.

The massive fireplace palace was constructed of merging levels and spaces into which the chorus, the men of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, intruded always as a formally dressed phalanx. This sheer size and complexity echoed the complexity of the very largest of the Rossini Cenerentola ensembles and the flashiest of its aria showpieces. When it got truly rolling in the second act the ovations got truly huge and clapping, shouting and stomping became part of the Rossini fun.

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Der Ring des Nibelungen in San Francisco

$32,000,000, and it would have been a bargain at $50,000,000. Los Angeles Opera went for broke, and it paid off with a Ring that has raised the worldwide Ring bar to a dizzying height.

It was everything smart money can buy. L.A. superseded the sometimes sleazy flash of its film and television industry with brilliant flash, reminding us that this huge center of intellectual property is driven by artistic creation. There was no compromise. The nine day duration made it possible to retain the same Wotan, Brünnhilde and Siegfried et al and to keep them in good voice, and it gave pilgrims to the L.A. Ring ample time to explore this magnificent city of art, architecture, gardens and music.

This Ring was indeed flashy, starting in the pit. Conductor James Conlon did not explore or even approach the cosmic sonorities of Wagner’s score choosing to propel text and musical line to their maximum tension, nearly unbearable in Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde (arms outstretched they passed without touching). He choose the brightest voices to enflame the Valkyries ride (though actually they just stood there), he unveiled the love of Siegfried and Brünnhilde with such urgency (though they stood on opposite sides of the stage) that it became vocally extremely dangerous -- and breathtakingly exciting.

But the immolation was delivered by a Brünnhilde (facing the audience standing on a center stage podium) who was wise and resigned rather than ecstatic, and finally Mo. Conlon’s cataclysm was measured rather than unleashed. At the end Wagner’s resolution was not a hopeful return to a primal world but the sad, unlamented demise of tormented creatures. Operatic indeed, and heartbreaking too.

Though Mo. Conlon was perhaps limited by the L.A. Opera orchestra itself, his path was shared if not proscribed by line and color, by masks, puppets and symbols.

German artist Achim Freyer got the gigantic commission to create this staging of Richard Wagner’s treatise, a fancy that incorporates the nineteenth century bourgeois social conscience with opera’s age old tensions -- love, jealousy and dirty politics. Just as much about all this old operatic stuff Wagner’s treatise is about art -- the building of Valhalla and the forging of the ring. So Mr. Freyer made his own art the focal point of his Ring.

Achim Freyer’s art is visual and for Freyer music is equally visual. Music must flow therefore Freyer’s art too must flow. The static frames that are formed on the stage by Freyer’s masks and puppets are overlaid with constant movement. Sometimes by horizontal or vertical lines that traverse the stage’s fourth wall (the proscenium opening), sometimes by a gigantic stage floor disk that revolves, other times by huge cloths pulled across the stage. With Brünnhilde deprived of her divinity black human forms began to slowly traverse the stage in perpetual pacing. Freyer’s catalogue of flow was inexhaustible.

As the music of Germany’s great river flows from the Ring’s inception to beyond its end, Wagner’s music flows too for the Ring’s twenty or so hours (intermissions included) and so flows Freyer’s visual world for these eternal hours, an accomplishment as superhuman as Wotan’s building of Valhalla.

The architecture of the Ring world transformed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion’s stage. A theater wide scrim was suspended halfway out over the orchestra pit, thereby incorporating much of the orchestra within the volume of the stage. The huge revolving disk was cantilevered far over the pit, platforms suspended on either side of the protruding disk held threatening batteries of lighting instruments. A huge, rather severe rake (sloping platform) covered the stage itself non plussing Siegfried tenor John Treleaven who tripped only a couple of times (second cycle), having warned the world through the L.A. Times that Mr. Freyer’s Ring was a dangerous place.

The Freyer Ring is a dangerous and exciting space, it’s weapons (the sword and the staff) were tubes of light, its repose was long lines of light, its disorder these long lines broken into a myriad of small lines. The ultimate destruction of the space was effected by the racks of lights hidden in the flys (the space above the stage housing scenery and equipment) suddenly descending with blinding white light, Wotan’s ravens flying out to reveal two onstage conductors (prompters), the upstage scrim disappearing to reveal the bare stage back wall against which all creation flew every which way in black silhouette.

The world of art was destroyed at the same moment our own world was revealed as that imaginary world. It could be depressing but instead it is thrilling art.

A Valhalla of theatrical art Freyer’s Ring had its Nibelheim as well. A small army (twelve) of silent slaves, Freyer’s Nibelungen, effected the huge puppets who doubled the Ring’s pantheon of characters in defining moments, trudged endlessly across the stage in black body stockings, donned elaborate Nibelungen attire, were rigged to fly above the stage, and the list goes one. It was endless, mindless, thankless labor.

Freyer’s singers, a veritable Who’s Who among opera singers, were but symbols in a gigantic visual world well beyond an opera stage, their faces were masked or painted, their bodies clothed in huge costume caricatures, Brünnhilde magnificent in a huge black wig that would shame Louis XIV. This camouflage left these artists naked as singers, and a vocally more brilliant cast cannot be imagined, down to the last Valkyrie.

Los Angeles itself seems a Valhalla. Traversing this heroic city on its endless Wilshire Boulevard, from the Music Center downtown through Koreatown, then MacArthur Park through Hancock Park stopping at Ace Gallery in Miracle Mile to see the paintings created by Achim Freyer while he was preparing the Ring (priced from $25,000 to $100,000) -- canvases that are huge moments of soundless music. Offered too are the prototypes of Wotan’s ravens ($7500 each), and a huge Wotan puppet, the only work in the exhibition that includes sound -- piano doodling on Ring themes ($50,000).

Continuing through Beverly Hills and Westwood finally Santa Monica appears and the Ruth Bachofner Gallery at Bergamot Station where photographer Monika Ritterhaus exhibits her photographs of the Ring production. These stunning mementos of this great theater art were printed (by “art ink jet” onto silver rag) and shimmer in vibrant color (priced from $2500 to $5000). They may be previewed at www.RuthBachofnerGallery.com.

For in depth reviews of the individual operas please consult OperaToday.com (search title and city) and music critic Mark Swed at www.LATimes.com.

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La fanciulla del West in San Francisco

A bizarre rock cliff attributed in the program booklet to one Antonio Nigro was the sole background for San Francisco Opera’s production of Puccini’s version of a play named The Girl of the Golden West by San Francisco born David Belasco (1853-1931). Over the long evening we got to know this wall’s every nook and cranny in about every color of light imaginable.

Just when you thought San Francisco Opera got its productions from Chicago this one comes from Palermo (Italy) where its stage director, one Lorenzo Mariani, is the artistic director of the Teatro Massimo. The Italianization of San Francisco Opera is amusing. One can even imagine an Italian operatic mafia that promotes only its own when brokering international deals. This could explain and perhaps excuse the otherwise inexplicable and inexcusable.

The star of this San Francisco edition of Palermo’s Fanciulla is, no surprise, conductor Nicola Luisotti whose full throated orchestra sang out with delirious abandon Minnie’s true love for the bandito Ramerrez. He pulls us through this evening with orchestral sweep and dramatic point -- typical Luisotti.

Mo. Luisotti is indeed a force to be reckoned with. Minnie, soprano Deborah Voight, and Dick Johnson (aka Ramerrez), tenor Salvatore Licitra had no problem at all. Mme. Voight sings her first Minnie, combining a bona fide Americana persona with convincing Italianate singing, cutting loose with high notes as only a dramatic soprano can and here needs to do. Minnie is not the usual Puccini heroine who accepts her unhappy fate. Minnie’s fate is true love that she gains with true soprano coglioni, three aces and a pair, and high notes that simply wither anything that gets in the way!

Salvadore Licitra cuts a fine figure on the stage, the red flag on the back pocket of his Levi’s convincing, the six shooters on his hips menacing. He also sings. His musicianship is impeccable, his phrasing is elegant, and he soars to high notes with ease in his powerful, baritone colored tenor. He should shut up with his retro ideas about opera staging, voiced in an San Francisco Opera Guild preview.

The unhappy, love sick sheriff, Jack Rance, was perfectly rendered by Roberto Frontali who was appropriately emotionally withdrawn though expressive in his brief but revealing soliloquy and his pleadings to Minnie were touching too. His fine baritone served him just as well when he got mean. Mr. Frontali’s voice, stance and profile would threaten bandits in any spagetti western.

Of the large supporting cast, Timothy Mix [sic] stood out as Sonora, a fine voice and sympathetic, commanding presence, as did young Adler Fellow Maya Lahyani as the Indian Wowkle, the only female voice in the opera other than Mme. Voight.

Fanciulla is pure Italian kitsch. For Puccini California was a faraway colorful myth. Mix this with his beloved pentatonic scale (in his mind the perfect sound for the California dream, though we Californians hear it as the Far East) and with a play that is like catchy short story (winning a guy in a card game). So no one expects a production of Fanciulla to be particularly California.

Nevertheless, evidently scene designer Maurizio Balò, like Puccini, has never been to California, because he would know that we do not have funny red brown rocks carved out of foam. Those rocks are in Utah and even there they are not carved out of foam. They turned weirdly blue when it was supposed to be snowing, though the snow was bubbles of some sort rather than flakes. Finally when Minnie and Dick were headed off into the sunset the foam wall turned gold, and split apart revealing a painted drop that was supposed to be, maybe, the Sierras as our plein air artists might imagine them. If this was the idea it failed miserably in execution.

Costumes are credited to American designer Gabriele Berry. The miners’ costumes seemed reasonable in the first act, but in the second act the many men of the posse had all donned identical, sinister, vaguely WWI looking raincoats. For her tryst with Dick Johnson in her cabin Mme. Voight was resplendent in a far too grand Victorian dress that she surely would have shed (but did not) to tease Dick a bit more before she rolled herself up (in the dress) in a blanket to sleep on the floor (she had given Dick the bed).

Director Lorenzo Mariani moved actors on and off the stage as needed, and platforms holding a bar, a bed and a scaffold as well. When it was time for Minnie to rescue Dick he attempted a coup de théâtre with Minnie arriving on horseback -- a bored, placid palomino was led slowly onto the stage by two keepers. Com’on, hasn’t he even seen Zefferelli’s white stallion gallop across the stage to rescue Leonora in Il Trovatore in Verona? That’s theater!

Provincial Italian opera surely has better to offer than this Fanciulla del West.

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Faust in San Francisco

Faust has long since left the French repertory to enter the international repertory, meaning that, like Disneyland, it has been absorbed into diverse cultures where it discovers new resonances. The operatic culture at San Francisco Opera is quite Italian these days, explaining maybe why for this montage of Gounod’s 1859 masterpiece the baton was passed to Italian conductor Maurizio Benini and its leading role was entrusted to fine Italian tenor Stefano Secco.

We might have been tempted to think of it as an Italianate montage except that all but one of the rest of its cast were graduates of SFO’s estimable young artist stable, the Adler Fellows, most notably the divissima Patricia Racette as a touching Marguerite, and not too far behind John Relyea as an ultra debonair Méphistophélès. Not to mention soprano Daniela Mack as a right-on Siébel.

The Adler Fellows is the justifiable pride of San Francisco Opera. Young singers arrive and are transformed into young artists many of whom eventually or even quickly become big stars with extraordinary dimension — well schooled fine voices and well schooled stage comportment. If you were a stage director these artists could be the colleagues of your dreams.

The production (sets and costumes) for this Faust montage came from the San Francisco Opera warehouse where it has been sequestered for fifteen years. The program booklet did not identify an original director, though the scenery and costumes were attributed to Robert Perdziola a veteran of several SFO productions during the Mansouri years. It was a meant-to-be dreary, towering unit set, its painted backdrop even more dreary architecture, scenery reminiscent of all the mistaken reasons Faust is considered a dated old piece that does not resonate with current sensibilities.

Staging of this revival was entrusted to yet another former Adler Fellow (the Adler Fellows occasionally include the odd stage director as well as the usual singers). Argentine born and trained Jose Maria Condemi did his best to make something of all this — like making Faust who we always thought was a philosopher into an anatomy professor. The opera began with four corpses on the stage awaiting dissection, Faust about to become a fifth corpse. But suddenly one of the corpses arose as Méphistophélès who saved the day.

Wagner, current Adler Fellow Austin Kness, was not a student but a soldier, later brought back from battle on a stretcher where, wept upon by his mother, he expired during the rousingly famous Soldiers’ Chorus, meanwhile Valentin, Juilliard trained Brian Mulligan as commanding officer presented flags to distraught wives and mothers of the soldiers who did not return.

And, uhm, Méphistophélès arrived at the fair (Kermesse) like Pagliacci (in harlequin garb) in his pornography wagon, Marguerite sang her spinning song while operating a huge loom in an eighteenth or some other century sweatshop. Just when you thought Faust was about pretty music it turned out to be about stage business. Mr. Condemi did indeed have many ideas that the singers worked too hard to implement. We soon tired of all those ideas and from all that work and just wanted to hear Gounod’s beautiful music.

But that we did not. Conductor Benini took turgid tempos, confusing Faust’s inherently pretty sentimentalism with hard-hitting verismo. Tenor Stefano Secco, a sensitive actor, did have some very fine moments of quite beautiful singing, never quite suppressing a hint of squillo or the sense that a tenorial sob was out of the question. Mr. Mulligan, the Valentin, quickly created his character in his Avant de quitter as an insensitive, volatile, big voiced personality who had not quite mastered the strut and lurch school of acting. Mme. Racette indulged us with some thrilling diva singing though her persona conveyed heroic distress more than Marguerite’s innocent madness.

The Saturday night audience, the opening night of the spring season, was out for a good time and judging from the applause Méphistophélès succeeded best in making it fun. Bass Baritone John Relyea dominated the stage with a commanding presence, a forceful voice, and lots of colorful costumes. The staging however deprived him of all possibility to exploit the sometimes diabolically sublime music Gounod gave him, in particular his here sarcastic delivery of the meltingly beautiful invocation to darkness, Ô nuit, étends sur eux ton ombre.

The name of the opera is Faust though it is all about Marguerite who has the great showpiece arias plus the sometimes spine-tingling ascension. But Faust gets the last bow anyway. Though his cad-like behavior on stage had not endeared him to the audience Mr. Secco gracefully accepted his less enthusiastic ovation, knowing that he had made a successful debut in a role that will serve him well in international circles.

Lighting designer Duane Schuler did not take an opening night bow. Mr. Schuler most recently lighted the Peter Stein Tchaikowsky trilogy in Lyon, moving from the sublime to the ridiculous.

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Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Torino (2009)

Puzzling, the choice of London's defunct Cyrstal Palace (1851-1936) as the backdrop on which all of the action of Torino's Les Contes d'Hoffmann took place, as was indeed puzzling the show curtain that was a copy of poster for a side-show -- a snake covered woman suggesting, in English, that we see the incredible snake lady and a gargantuan gorilla too.

Perhaps explicable since the august Teatro Regio has not had a lot of experience with the complications of Offenbach's masterpiece, the last Torino Hoffmann some thirty-five years ago.  Presumably this previous Hoffmann occurred in 1973, the first season of the controversial, then new Teatro Regio (the previous one having burned down in 1936), whose architect, one Carlo Mollino, had obviously never been to an opera.

If stage director Nicolas Joël and his designer Ezio Frigerio did seem to be off-track in their solutions, at least the Teatro Regio was mostly right-on with its singers and, particularly, with its conductor, Emmanuel Villaume.  After all, as we were told by the charming young guide who showed us the theater that afternoon, opera is only music, i.e. singing.  Suspicions were that it was going to be just that anyway.

Poor Hoffman was left lying on the forestage in front of the show curtain during the five-minute transition from Luther's tavern to Spalazini's workshop (a window panel of the Crystal Palace was replaced by a full-size choo-choo train locamotive).  Young Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz was singing his first Hoffman in these Torino performances.  He is in the Carreras mold, the force of his sound heaved from his body rather than floated from his head.  His voice never faltered through these five demanding scenes, his final prayer to the muse offered vocally rather than dramatically. This young tenor made his debut only in 2006, and to date has been heard primarily on important American stages.  While he boasts considerable youthful vocal splendor he still offers only the promise of a real Hoffmann — we need to wait until he has lived long enough to survive a few brutal love affairs of his own.

There were some tense moments as Olympia spun around the stage on a remote controlled platform, and these movements contributed to this heroine taking the prize for the best performance of the three sopranos Torino used for this production.  Had Italian soprano Désirée Rancatore been left on her own she might have done as all the others did, simply stand downstage to deliver her role.  As it was she ably delivered the vocal fireworks of her stand-alone showpiece while whirling around the stage, marred only by some shattering of tone in her above-the-staff coloratura.

In the Antonia act the choo-choo train was replaced by a pipe organ, the purpose of which, we learned, was to hide Antonia's mother from view.  Center stage there were three instruments of a vaudeville orchestra.  Young soprano Raffaella Angeletti gave us a fine, light voiced Antonia, even her slim figure could perhaps have been thought of as consumptive.  She pulled out all her considerable stops for the big trio, though she had to compete with the vaudeville orchestra that came alive as performing skeletons.

Not to mention the mechanical gondoliers that propelled a couple of gondolas into the Crystal Palace for the Venice episode (at least there was a lot of dark blue light).   Giulietta was sung by soprano (the program calls her a mezzo), Monica Bacelli, who flounced about the stage as if she were a naive Carmen or a silly Donna Elvira rather than a femme fatale, though she delivered her scene with vocal finesse, giving considerable pleasure as the voice of Giulietta.

The only disappointment was basso Alfonso Antoniozzi who failed to cut the sizeable figures required by Offenbach's four villains, nor did he bring these flashy roles alive vocally, perhaps due to a flu that had forced him to cancel the first two performances.

Nicklausse was a victim of her costume (though all the other costuming seemed reasonable).  She appeared first as a Salvation Army rescuer, in something like a brass button uniform with an apron, and a small keg hanging over her shoulder.  For the three episodes she became a man dressed in tails, but reappeared at the end again as the Salvation Army nurse turned muse.  Nino Surguladze (a Georgian, thus the possible gender confusion) made this role very present, providing a mezzo soprano vocal force that was formidable, and bringing unusual physical liveliness to Nicklausse.  She was not able to muster the stature that the muse needs to end the opera effectively.

The Nicolas Joël production was evidently about mechanical things, the 1851 Crystal Palace a symbol of the mechanical technologies that were central to an industrial revolution.  With this idea pounded into our heads throughout the evening the fast tempos and the lightness imposed by French conductor Emmanuel Villaume seemed at first vapid and mechanical.   Mr. Joël's stage tricks had served only to trivialize these three tales, thus the purely musical values emerging from the pit, values that strove to balance the overwrought emotions of the libretto with the Offenbach muse, were overwhelmed.

It became apparent finally that maestro Villaume was walking the line between operatic parody and real opera, and between operetta and opera, a line that this maestro apparently finds to be very fine in Offenbach's masterpiece.  The tempos and lightness did indeed make bona fide Offenbach music, if not the musically indulgent Hoffmann that we self-indulgently crave.

Nicolas Joel is said to have been ill, and unable to come to Torino to stage the singers, this task taken on by Stephane Roche.  In short, Mr. Roche lined the singers up across the stage, and made a semi-circle of the chorus behind them.  The appearance of Stella in the final scene was the epitome of directorial ineptitude.

The program booklet did not credit the edition used, though presumably it was the 2003 Keck version, complete with the twenty-six pages of recently discovered manuscript for which Mr. Keck is said to have paid 160,000 euros to the French government.

Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffmann: co-production Teatro Real de Madrid et al, producer Nicholas Joël. Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Teatro Regio Torino, conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Torino, Italy. 04/02/09.

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Romeo et Juliette in Toulon

The splendor of the Opéra Toulon Provence Méditerranée is the theater itself, an early version, maybe the first of France's nineteenth century opera palaces. Sometimes this grandness is echoed from the pit with Toulon's accomplished orchestra and generally excellent conducting. That the Toulon Opera is provincial opera as its full name even indicates, does not imply that opera in Toulon need not be good opera as it is easy to recall hundreds of well-sung performances in smart productions in small cities and out-of-the-way places throughout the world.

Though the Toulon Opera usually provides adequate singers, it almost never offers productions (mises en scènes) of quality, though at best generic settings occasionally provide at least a context for telling a story. The most recent case of an at-worst scenario were the late January performances of Roméo et Juliette. The production was imported from L'Esplanade Opéra Théâtre de Saint-Etienne, one assumes a professional theatre (no credentials were offered in the program booklet) though this Roméo et Juliette production was blatantly amateur.

As grand opera Gounod's trivialized telling of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece does not demand singing actors who physically embody its young lovers as does, for example, Bernstein's West Side Story. But it does expect singers who can vocally impersonate the impassioned lyricism of young love, where beauty of voice alone can fulfill the ideal of the physical beauty of youth. There is a wide range of performers between these two extremes, and most productions of Roméo et Juliette manage to arrive at some reasonable reconciliation of the two.

In Toulon the Juliette was Nathalie Manfrino, appropriately young though she betrayed an ignorance of acting technique (unusual these days in up-and-coming young artists), and she lacked the technical and vocal brilliance needed to establish a dramatic vitality for Juliette (there was an intermission announcement [01/02/08] that she was suffering from a cold and begged our indulgence). The Roméo of youthful appearing Fabrics Dalis was neither heroic nor poetically swain-like, and while an accomplished singer he would be more at home in character tenor roles rather than essaying the vocal and physical postures of the romantic tenor.

The Friar Laurent of fine bass Paul Gay was not the foolish old prelate who unites the young lovers in a politically impossible marriage but a tall, muscular young man who looked ready to jump into bed with either of the two young lovers. Juliette's nurse Gertrude played by Marie-José Dolorian was prevented from any credibility by a costume that surely came out of the Esplanade Opéra-Théâtre de Saint-Etienne's production of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Mercutio was well sung, if heavily sung by gray-haired Peter Edelmann making it beyond all credibility to place him as a cohort of young Romeo. Of the supporting players only the Tybolt of Antonio Figueroa and the Stephano of Blandine Staskiewicz were dramatically convincing and vocally sufficient.

Conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak found no lyricism in Gounod's score, hampered perhaps by the impossibility of the production. But more than likely he simply does not connect with the sentimentality and dramatic naiveté of Gounod's opera.

Charles Gounod, Roméo et Juliette, Soloists, chorus, and orchestra of the Opéra Toulon Provence Méditerranée, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conductor, production from L'Esplanade Opéra-Théâtre de Saint-Etienne. Location Toulon, France. 01.02.2008 (MM)

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King Arthur in Montpellier (2009)

Like Handel's Italian operas Purcell's dramatik operas have offered themselves as fertile fields to be plowed, i.e. turned upside down, by creative opera directors, one has only to think of the famous Fairy Queen perpetrated by David Pountney at English National Opera in 1995, or Mexican performance artist Guillelmo Gomez-Pena's take on the Dryden/Purcell Indian Queen at Long Beach Opera (California) in 1997.

The modern revival of Purcell's 1691 dramatik opera King Arthur dates back to 1995 when it was staged at Brussel's Théâtre la Monnaie by choreographer Lucinda Childs, more recently its lively French dance rhythms have attracted choreographer Mark Morris in a 2006 production at English National Opera, seen this past March (2008) at the New York City Opera.

Given dramatik operas themselves derive from the French mixture of theater and music (Moliere/Lully collaborations for example) it was only a matter of time before France would covet the fruits of what had become of its venerable operatic tradition across the channel. It was France's one maverick opera company, Montpellier, that had the courage to ignite this foreign operatic war, and had the resources to do it -- the Baroque vocal and instrument group Le Concert Spirituel in residence in Montpellier, and the rare imagination (but oh so French) to be contrarian in its response to the across-the-channel high art.

If Brussels, London and New York took on high-brow avant garde, brand name American choreographers Childs and Morris, Montpellier called upon Shirley and Dino, the low-brow, off-beat street theater team that had somehow made a cult hit film (Cabaret Paradiso) a few years ago. Corinne and Gilles Benizio became Shirley and Dino when they took an act to the 1988 "Off" element of the Avignon Festival, back in the days when the bizarre and inane mixed freely with the weird and the wonderful, and it all made no sense whatsoever but everyone had a good time.

In Montpellier Shirley and Dino wanted nothing to do with slick Restoration theater, thus Dryden's blank verses recounting the chivalric adventures of Ariosto's King Arthur rescuing the blind princess Emmeline were thrown out (or maybe never had been looked at), so that Shirley and Dino could concentrate on trying to get the music of the dramatik opera on the stage. Not a small task, and an extremely messy one to clean up after, not to mention the confusion of managing scenic transformations, and how did they find themselves in the middle of it after all. Why us? they wept in the program booklet.

No slick choreography either, as the chorus of Arthurian knights marching on and off the stage slaughtered the dancerly precision of the French court music, two merry monks cavorted around the stage singing Purcell's cheery songs and Arthur, the guy in black leather pants with a crown, more or less balanced the attentions of two damsels when not passed out in alcoholic stupor at the barbeque. The musically ultra proper program booklet identified musical functions of the voices (dessus, haute-contre, taille, basse), not the characters the voices embodied on the stage.

Early music conductor Hervé Niquet and his musically ultra chic Concert Spirituel were drawn into the fray, hapless and helpless and superfluous as orchestras are in operatic organization, conductor Niquet taking full advantage of his rare opportunity to take himself center stage and make himself the star of the show the best he could -- holding forth with vaudeville songs and schtick. The venerable maestro was upstaged only by Dino's mute rendition of the famed French chanson "Mexico," and Shirley and Dino's skiing across the stage uttering nonsense German sounding sounds.

Finally one did hear some of Purcell's finest music very well performed indeed by the superb Concert Spirituel instrumental ensemble, its twenty-four member chorus singing magnificently while never missing a beat of the low-brow physical comedy. Only the solo singers were a disappointment, not large enough performers vocally or histrionically to command Montpellier's Opéra Comédie, though certainly willing and adventurous and sometimes even charming. Not to mention slaughtering the Queen's English.

Henry Purcell, King Arthur, new production by Corinne and Gilles Benizio, soloists, chorus and orchestra of Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet conductor at the Festival de Radio France Montpellier Languedoc-Rousillon. Location, Opéra Comédie, Montpellier, France. 17/07/08 (MM)

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Tosca in San Francisco (2009)

Like Carmen, Tosca is a constant presence in our operatic lives, frequently revisited like it or not.

Over the years some of the performances have even been memorable — fiery Carmens and intense Toscas, mesmerizing conducting, productions that have occasionally been gripping. And there have been those performances that are imminently forgettable.

We may all have had our favorite performance, the one to which we compare all others. Or perhaps none of the productions we have seen have come near our idea of what the perfect Carmen or the perfect Tosca should be. This latest San Francisco Opera rendition of Tosca will be many things to many people, though it is unlikely to be anyone’s favorite, more likely for most of us it is one to be forgotten. The sooner the better.

Back in 1997 SFO general director Lotfi Mansouri had the kitsch idea of reviving the 1923 San Francisco Opera production (the first SFO season) to reopen the repaired War Memorial Opera House. Kurt Herbert Adler had also once dragged it out for some occasion, maybe it was to commemorate the company’s fiftieth anniversary. Just now David Gockley must have calculated the savings to be had by hanging these old canvases instead of paying for a modern production. And perhaps he believes that these old rags are like an old sweatshirt, just too comfortable and lovable to throw out.

Here in San Francisco we were once promised the Tosca of Maria Callas, but instead we had the brilliant Marie Collier. We had the Tosca of Magda Olivero at age 71 (she is now 99), a holdover from the golden age of verismo to show us how it was supposed to have been done. And we have had a host of lesser and greater Toscas over the years. The latest one is Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka, whose full, rich and even voice makes a plush, comfortable Tosca quite at odds with the quixotic temperament of the high strung murderess who crosses herself and then hurls herself into the void. Need one be reminded that Puccini’s Tosca is a character defined role.

Cavaradossi was Italian tenor Carlo Ventre who brought bona fide Italianate vocalism, and bona fide stock Italianate acting gestures. Mr. Ventre comes from the Carreras mold, heaving his voice from his throat and chest, igniting an exciting squillo when needed. Preoccupied with tenorial sound he found none of the sweetness Puccini imbued into the arias of his sentimental painter, leaving this tenor under appreciated by a crowd ready to cheer. He was however a strength of the production.

Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli seemed a more versatile artist than his colleagues as he was able to combine singing with character. The sheer power of Puccini’s Scarpia though must tower over the artistic personalities of his victims. He must embody both spiritual and temporal power, and the brute force of pure libido. Mr. Atanel’s more sophisticated approach to his role was instead overwhelmed by the more operatic, less dimensional performances of his colleagues.

Both conductor Marco Armilliato and stage director Jose Maria Condemi confused verismo with realism, meticulously illustrating every twist and turn of the text. Verismo is direct, immediate emotion, not elaboration of detail. It is thus that verismo lends itself to melodrama — a sudden shocking action that unleashes a huge emotion. Rather than build to the melodramatic moments that cap each of Puccini’s three acts, this production lost itself in tedious detail, exacerbated by a Tosca and Cavaradossi physically incapable of inhabiting their characters. Mo. Armilliato sometimes took his musical illustration to extremes, forcing his singers to establish and hold the beat of the text while he dragged it emotively. It was here that tedium became torture.

Of the smaller roles, the Spoletta of Joel Sorensen was effective, the scenes involving Scarpia’s henchmen were in fact skillfully drawn by stage director Condemi. The Sacristan of Dale Travis and his scenes were terminally cute, the San Francisco Boys Chorus proving itself once again one of our city’s great treasures.

It is time for a new Tosca in San Francisco, a theatrical one.

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Die Walküre in San Francisco

Ring fever rages on. San Francisco has just unveiled its Walkûre, the completed cycle to take place next June. Gratefully the price of the SFO effort has not become a topic of conversation, as has the cost of the just completed L.A. Ring. Whispers about the price tag of the upcoming Met Ring suggest the proportions of a foreign war.

Gratefully as well the SFO Rheingold and Walkure have looked like opera, and not like crazed imitations of Star Wars, so they are easier to talk about. Though not necessarily a more or less compelling take on Wagner’s mega opera, this plain SFO Ring is unfolding as conceptually direct and wonderfully human.

Two years ago Rheingold got the San Francisco Ring off to a rocky start with its light weight cast and unfocused staging. Still it was a promising beginning with lots of ideas, some of which did not work all that well (the Nibelheim special effects as example). But lots of fun came out of its director Francesca Zambello who imposed a light touch on the divine machinations that initiate this long saga of greed and love, affectionately capturing the naivete, optimism and entrepreneurial fun that built our cities.

Conductor Donald Runnicles got right to the point in Walkûre, not even allowing the applause that greeted him to die before attacking the complications motivated by Wotan’s insecurities. The War Memorial Opera House is particularly kind to Wagner, allowing the transparency within his massive orchestral sound to project the depth of his mountainous landscapes, and as well the myriad of musical motivations to coexist amongst themselves and within this cosmic nature. Mo. Runnicles exploited the Walkûre score to its utmost, a remarkably rich reading.

Die Walkûre is no place for lightweights (as in fact Rheingold is not either), and San Francisco Opera rose to the occasion with a nearly stellar cast. The Siegmund of English tenor Christopher Ventris captured the youth of a young hero, his voice beating with energy, the Sieglinde of Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek soared vocally over the maelstrom with the unborn hero in her womb. But it was Swedish sopranto Nina Stemme’s Brûnnhilde whose voice rose over all else as the energy and psychic spirit of Wotan, her creator and the world’s master builder.

This is an American Ring (the mountains are surely our California Sierras, though there is no defining land or river-scape). Hunding’s cabin is an American primitive wood facade with a screen door that can be found no where else in the world other than in middle America. American bass Raymond Aceto in a long sleeved winter undershirt with suspenders was a medium voiced Hunding, his strut and menace hiding this character’s predestined impotence. Paired with his unhappy, beaten and defeated wife, Sieglinde in a ill fitting, sad pale blue dress Hunding, strangely, evoked sympathy.

Costumer Catherine Zuber dressed German mezzo Janina Baechle as Wotan’s wife Fricka in a sort of purple beaux arts long gown in which she stolidly prevailed as a wet-blanket moral conscience. Meanwhile Wotan, American bass Mark Delavan from the Rheingold cast, muttered and spat effectively as some sort of railroad tycoon, but was vocally pallid even before running out of voice (June 22).

Wotan’s Valhalla is seen through the window of a massive high rise. It was not specifically San Francisco but a high rise city profile that is specifically American, with echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Set design for this American Ring is by Michael Reardon who, with Mme. Zambello is working in a determined post-modern vocabulary, Wotan’s desk a huge table with four huge wooden claws as legs, the following scene moving onto the contemporary detritus under an abandoned elevated freeway, and finally an abstract space for the Valkyries and the Wotan farewell to Brûnnhilde.

Beautiful, detailed lighting by Mark McCullough subtly caught a real life wolf-dog and his cub racing across the stage as Wotan was about to kill his son, connecting the innocence of real nature to the tragedies of cosmic destiny. McCullough magically captured the steel gray folds of Wotan’s coat covering the sleeping Brûnnhilde as a ring of real fire began to encircle the stage, this real fire somehow making the fairytale ending of the Ring’s second installment humanly real, and unusually moving.

Everything in this Ring was ordinary, and that was its triumph. Rarely has operatic acting achieved this level of realism delicately sitting on the verge of expressionism. This accomplishment signals heroic efforts of stage direction plus determined commitment from singers. Miraculously this staging melted effortlessly into the Runnicles reading of the score, the abstract musical motivations from the pit rendered on the stage in movement that effortlessly and truly portrayed complex dramatic motivations. Gesamtkunstwerk indeed!

It was a good night at San Francisco Opera.

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Mazeppa and Eugene Onegin in Lyon

In Europe only a few theater stage directors are operatically more famous than Peter Stein (pronounced Pay-tear), to mention Sir Peter Hall, Patrice Chereau and Giorgio Strehler as examples. These directors made their primary operatic contributions in the previous century. Mr. Stein too made forays into opera back then (notably a hugely successful Otello at Welsh National Opera in 1986 and a notoriously unsuccessful Das Rheingold at the Paris Opera also in the ’80’s), but his major explorations of the genre have occurred in this first decade of the new century, and at the Opéra National de Lyon.

Not to forego mentioning Boris Godunov coming this fall at the Met.

Besides Pelleas et Melisande, Falstaff and Lulu in Lyon Mr. Stein has staged the three primary Tchaikowsky operas in the intimate Opéra Nouvel [named after its architect Jean Nouvel] -- Mazeppa in 2006, Eugene Onegin in 2007 and Pique Dame in 2008. Just now these thrilling operas have had cyclic performances as a trilogy, certainly the crown of the France wide, year long celebration of Russian art.

Peter Stein is a consummately musical director. In the most pristine moments of his stagings (at the premieres, less so in these revivals) the staging detail is so precise that even the smallest motion of a hand resonates musically, the spacial relationships between two (or more) singers are so precisely defined that musical tensions are held at their maximum. Movement is abstracted and directional, like musical line.

Mr. Stein ignores the presence of an audience, creating a fourth wall in his performing space, thus allowing a singer to move down stage center and face this wall, privately voicing his or her emotions with no consciousness that this wall is transparent. Peter Stein’s stage world is complete in itself. In its most pristine form you, the audience witness a dramatic privacy, immediate in its emotional import and highly distilled in its expression. At once cold and hot. Riveting.

Designer Ferdinand Wôgerbauer, longtime Peter Stein scenic collaborator, created the physical stages for the trilogy, spaces that at first seem like comic book frames in their austerity, but realized so that the singer is the primary shape on the stage, and therefore the single expressive element. The space delineates a location and its boundaries but does not compete with a singer’s presence or his words or movements by describing a surrounding. Though when, rarely, there is furniture or an implement it is very real, because the singer is real.

Costume collaborator Anne Marie Heinreich contributes to the impression of comic book vignette by her use of bold primary color, in shapes that are large, and always specifically evocative of period. Of Peter Stein’s collaborators only American lighting designer Duane Schuler does not come from theater, his provenance is big-time opera. Lighting is crucial in the Peter Stein opera language because the singer or singers are all there is -- though they are small they must be big, resonating in light. Mr. Schuler has mastered the technic of projecting Mr. Stein’s tiny visual frames onto the operatic scale.

Peter Stein’s musical collaborator for the trilogy is conductor Kirill Petrenko. Russian born, Viennese trained Mo. Petrenko is a consummately theatrical musician, magnifying the smallest instrumental details into revelations of emotional color, his orchestra becoming a raw nerve ending in direct contact with Peter Stein’s tense visual frames. Mo. Petrenko supplies the driven tempos that crucially underpin the careful progression of these frames. The inspired Petrenko/Stein connection illuminates the supercharged Tchaikowsky genius, respectively heating it up and cooling it down. [N.B. Petrenko will not conduct the Met Boris (entrusted to Gergiev), contenting himself, surely, with a Bayreuth Ring in 2013. Ironically Stein was offered a Bayreuth Ring in 1976, but the Wagners refused to uncover the pit, so it went to Chereau].

Comic book is an imperfect metaphor since the Tchaikowsky operas do not tell simple stories. In fact they do not tell stories at all since Tchaikowsky assumes that we, as all good Russians already know these famous Pushkin stories. Tchaikowsky drops us into the crucial scenes of these stories, just when something horrible is about to happen -- he calls them lyric scenes rather than operas.

Taken in sequence the first of the trilogy is Onegin, a domestic comedy that goes bad. Mazeppa follows, an epic tale that clothes wrenching familial concerns, and finally Pique Dame is a horror opera, pure Guignol. Each has one or more suicides (Maria in Tchaikowsky’s original Mazeppa version kills herself), a gambler who loses, a bloody fight between two men, and a woman who loses love and life (Tatiana succumbs to the bourgeoisie, a synonym of death in many circles then [and now]).

With its two sets of lovers Eugene Onegin (1879) is like Puccini’s La Boheme (1898), but Puccini’s lovers are so busy dealing with immediate crises that there is little psychology and no philosophy. The miracle of Tchaikowsky is that within heightened emotional immediacy we still participate intellectually -- we struggle to understand why. The why can be psychological, political or philosophical, or all three. In a Peter Stein production we feel and we understand these sometimes indefinable depths to a shattering degree.

Just now in Lyon (May 14) the focus was on Lenski, Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas, whose youth, immediacy of voice and tall physical stature commanded our attention, and gave us the vibrancy of young life and love. Onegin, Russian baritone Alexey Markov, was but the motor of the scenes, driving Lenski to his death and Tatiana to her unenviable bourgeois fate (surely joining Desperate Housewives). Onegin was little more than a symptom of Russian social malaise, who had finally just a glimpse of an overpowering primal emotion before he too was crushed by the dullness of bourgeoisie life. Not that we cared as Tchaikowsky had given him little to sing.

Tatiana’s letter scene resonated with very real adolescent energy bouncing between obsession and determination, splendidly realized by Ukrainian soprano Olga Mykytenko to brilliant musical detail from Mo. Petrenko’s pit. Gremin’s ball was a brisk Polonaise made leaden by the blank stares of its dancers through Peter Stein’s fourth wall. Tatiana, now the Prince’s wife, had become matronly, her youthful dreams lost to the weight of social responsibility. She wreaked her revenge with little regret. The curtain fell as the tall, handsome, dull, vocally lackluster Prince Gremin, Russian bass Michail Schelomianski, towered over Onegin, mocking his futile gesture.

If Eugene Onegin is the thirty-nine year old Tchaikowsky at his most inspired, Mazeppa found the forty-four year old composer frustrated by a problematic libretto of his own making. Peter Stein took it all at face value, knowing that epic is episodic and that Puskin’s epic had been left in the dust anyway, so he did his best. This 2006 production then traveled to the Edinburgh Festival who stages host only the most prestigious productions.

Mazeppa is the Ukrainian general who betrayed Peter the Great, but it didn’t matter because the Russians whipped the Swedes at the battle of Poltava, so Mazeppa, a Swedish ally, lost his gamble to liberate the Ukraine from Russian rule. Tchaikowsky took care of all this in a symphonic interlude, and Peter Stein dismissed it by projecting a huge battle painting (with a heavy gold frame) in commemoration of this momentous bit of history.

Tchaikowsky’s muse was a hopeless one, here the eighteen year-old daughter of a rich Ukrainian is smitten by an older man, General Mazeppa, who unlike the much younger Onegin, requites her love, smitten himself. The rich Ukrainian and his wife are most unhappy to lose their beautiful daughter to this treacherous old man.

There were some great scenes (May 13). The rich Ukrainian had a pow wow with his friends where they decided to take a gamble -- if they betrayed Mazeppa’s intentions to Peter, maybe Peter would dispose of Mazeppa, thereby liberating his daughter. Her childhood lover, Andrei, is the ardent messenger of this intelligence to Peter (Russian tenor Misha Didyk is always ardent to the hilt). The mother, seated among the women, was artfully picked out by beautiful light to deliver her plea (though the mother, Russian mezzo Marianna Tarasova, soon lost her voice so she did not present herself at the curtain calls).

Vintage Peter Stein (after Onegin and Pique Dame we are now experts) was the confrontation between the daughter Maria, beautifully sung by Russian soprano Olga Guryakova (who moved her large voice quite effectively in pianissimo singing) and Mazeppa, sung by Siberian baritone Nikolai Putilin, physically a cross between Robert E. Lee and Napoleon. This balcony scene had no movement, save small motions of hands in the tense distances between its protagonists, with eloquent and elegant music soaring from Mo. Petrenko’s pit.

Well, Mazeppa arrested the rich Ukrainian and the messenger (we assumed) and then had no choice but to behead them, but not before the disheveled prisoners sang a prayer. For some reason this scene evoked a chorus of boos from the audience. As it turned out it was not the messenger (Misha Didyk) who was beheaded though in the distressed costume it could have been, but a minor character (Iskra) sung by Edgaras Montvidas, resurrected the very next night as our superb Lenski (only of course to die again).

Death scenes must always be snowy in Russia. Maria’s childhood lover, Andrei (the ardent Mr. Didyk) confused us (we thought he was dead) by appearing on a snowy hillside where Mazeppa soon passed fleeing Poltava (the real Poltava battle was fought in scorching heat). Mazeppa thwarts Andrei’s pathetic attempt at revenge, and Andrei dies in the now mad Maria’s arms though she has not the foggiest idea who he is. Likewise Lenski -- once shot dead he very dramatically and very slowly slid down a very steep snow covered slope, and Liza in Pique Dame threw herself into the Neva with snow flying everywhere, though it took awhile.

The big scene was the lament of Kotchoubei (the rich Ukrainian) tortured in his prison cell. Sung by Ukrainian bass Anatoli Kotscherga (the only surviving member of the original cast) in a stage frame greatly contracted into a narrow vertical slit -- a brilliant scenic resolution. Mr. Kotchoubei is basically a character singer whose huge, bear-like physical presence and inelegant vocal delivery evoke a comic presence. This casting will have been Peter Stein’s, and perhaps it was Mr. Stein’s way of calling attention to the theatrical precariousness of Mazeppa. Mr. Stein can be very subtle, so just maybe.

Or maybe it was too much Tchaikowsky in one sitting, or too much Peter Stein. Finally it was all wonderful, especially the high level, dedicated singing actors, the vision and technique of a master director, and above all else, a dynamite conductor.

For Peter Stein’s Pique Dame, please see my review of a performance in 2008, now archived on my website www.CapSurOpera.com.

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Mefistofele in Montpellier

Back in 1989 Ken Russell opened his Genovese Mefistofele with heavenly choirs contemplating the divinity of a praying mantis. Earlier this spring Jean-Louis Grimpa had a flock of chickens perform his Falstaff in Monaco, though just now messieur Grimpa resurrected his 2007 Liège (Belgium) Mefistofele in Montpellier (May 4) with actual homo sapiens to embody Goethe’s Faustian characters.

Not that these humans brought any deep humanity to Boito’s highly concocted version of the Goethe Faust as Jean-Louis Grimpa rendered this austere battle of the here and the hereafter as pure farce. Mr. Grimpa does have valid claim to knowing earthly pleasures as he was born in Monaco and is now the intendant of the Monte Carlo opera, his treatment of this Faust opera however quells speculation as to any possible spiritual credentials.

The Opera National de Montpellier was a willing partner in the project, assembling a fine cast that brought added dimension to operatic farce, notably tenor Argentine Gustavo Porta as Faust who exploits the complete catalogue of tenor mannerisms in unrelenting spinto projection, and young American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart as Margherita who shows herself a committed student of diva mannerisms that she is instinctively placing in the service of her fine Italianate instrument.

Boito’s opera gave these two singers ample opportunity to show their stuff and that they did, strutting as singers might but coming close to giving us the splendid, over-ripe vocalism that will flower in post Verdian opera. Mlle. Meshé Kizart delivered the vivid prison scene that heralds her salvation moving effectively between chest and head voice, and ultimately arriving at a qualified artistic salvation of her incipient diva mannerisms. Mr. Porta knew that he was artistically saved all along because we are all suckers for Italian tenors.

In its program booklet Montpellier pronounced the Mefistofole premiere to be in 1868 at La Scala, though what we heard was the much modified (and significantly shortened) 1881 version that pleased audiences who preferred real Italian opera and cared little about Teutonic philosophy. Like its reviled predecessor (Gounod’s 1859 version) its operatic heart winds up in the tempestuous Faust/Margarite encounter. Boito was however undaunted by the Goethe Book II which he incorporates in the last two of his opera’s seven scenes -- Helen of Troy’s seduction of Faust and finally the salvation of Faust.

The oblique progression of Faust’s salvation and Mefistofele’s defeat in this final version lends itself to farce because its story became so simply told in such brief terms. Where Ken Russell’s brilliant metaphors deepened an audience’s intellectual involvement and thereby retained Goethe’s seriousness Jean-Louis Grimpa realizes Mefistofele as an arch-villain who materializes dressed in a red velvet suit and bathed in red light. He parades himself in front of the heavenly choirs seated on bleachers amidst floating clouds.

And from this moment on Mr. Grimpa with Boito demand that their Mefisto tower over every scene. The name of the opera after all is Mefistofele. That he did. Russian bass Konstantin Gorny made the Mefisto of your dreams, charming and seductive he exuded a irresistible commitment to pleasure that never flagged. His grandest moment occurred when, banned from the ancient world (because he did not yet exist) he exulted in Grecian beauty from the audience, perched on a balcony railing, legs dangling into the void.

Mr. Grimpa and his accomplices, set designer Rudi Sabounghi and costume designer Buki Shiff, are theatrically savvy indeed. The set was minimalism at its most eloquent, a downstage false proscenium made of worldly wood against heavens rendered by projected clouds and mists, and mirrors to make it infinite. Though Mefisto simply changed into a black leather suit to become Faust’s mentor chorus costuming was quite elaborate They were first white robed angels, then a huge variety of circus players, then black and white spirits later becoming toga draped Greeks, and once again white robed angels, a hundred or so of them. No expense spared to create this spectacle.

This witty costuming more than anything else created the farce, and the movements of the players effected by director Grimpa complemented these costuming abstractions. Mr. Grimpa consistently utilized extended diagonal movement that accelerated Boito’s already sketchy story telling. Faust’s seduction of Margarite as example was a masterpiece of stage direction interweaving Mefisto resisting Martha’s advances with Faust pursuing Margarite in movement that was linearly musical (in perfect step with Boito’s complex quartet) rather than theatrically dramatic.

The pit was entrusted to French conductor Patrick Davin who kept the massive choral and orchestral forces required by Boito in absolute control without neglecting the construction of the opera’s huge climactic moments. That these climaxes were rarely satisfying can possibly be blamed on Boito’s compositional naivete, as perhaps the thwarted musical resolutions of some of the arias can be as well. Or maybe Mo. Davin is just not Italian.

The stars of this show were the choruses, one hundred or so (the chorus from Wallonie journeyed down to join the Montpellier chorus) plus thirty or so singing cherubs. While Boito’s grand choruses did sometimes expose naivete, at other times he pulled out the stops to create complex choral structures, notably the giant fugue in witches‘ Sabbat scene, impeccably executed with appropriate glee. To the aplomb of this choral accomplishment you can add that of the children’s chorus, delivering difficult part writing never out of sync with Mo. Davin.

And finally, Faust saved, Mefistofele was driven from the scene, pelted with rose petals hurled [!] by three innocent cherubim, as clouds of rose pedals floated down from the Opéra Berlioz ceiling coating the audience with one last bit of heavenly fun.

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The Saint of Bleecker Street in Marseille

It takes some courage these days for an opera company to program a Gian Carlo Menotti opera. Nonetheless last month the Opéra de Marseille defied current sensibilities to give us a new production of The Saint of Bleecker Street.

In his prize winning account of music in the twentieth century The Rest is Noise New Yorker magazine critic Alex Ross accords Menotti two mentions -- 1) a composer invited into Jacqueline Kennedy’s newly art responsive White House, and 2) an openly gay composer. There is no reference to Menotti’s art perhaps because musically it was a dead end street, and because Menotti’s melodrama, like the broad, latter day melodramma of Italian verismo had soon morphed first into cinematic realism and then disappeared into populist television.

Ironically Menotti did leave a significant artistic legacy. He founded the Festivals of Two Worlds first in Spoleto (1958) and then in Charlotte (1977), stalwart bastions of everything that is progressive in opera and music -- a contradiction left unaddressed by Alex Ross.

The Saint of Bleecker Street premiered in 1953, rife with the baggage of the post WWII era. This was when operatic art was expected to abandon its high perches and descend onto Main Street and long runs in Broadway theaters. The Saint of Bleecker Street endured 72 performances. It has had sporadic revivals in the U.S., notably a 1978 televised version from New York City Opera with Catherine Malfitano (once a Marseilles Butterfly) and a 2007 revival at Central City Opera directed by Mme. Malfitano.

Immigrant life in New York, the quintessential melting pot of the early and mid-century America, is the background for Menotti’s tale of alienation, a subject deeply explored in the ’50’s by artists like Edward Hopper and George Tooker. In fact Tooker’s iconic painting of alienation “The Subway” (1950) was the basis of the design of the original Broadway production. But Menotti complicated his take on the alienation of Italian immigrants by slathering on a lurid, melodramatic overlay of questionable religious fervor.

If nothing more Menotti’s Broadway success spawned a true masterpiece, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story that had its premiere in 1956, just three years later. It is a work so similar in subject that its provenance from Menotti’s little opera is blatantly obvious. But where Bernstein incorporated and expanded the musical discoveries of the twentieth century in his score Menotti kept his tonalities banale and his structures derivative of traditional sources./

The Marseilles Saint of Bleecker Street production was in the hands of British director Stephen Metcalf and British designer Jamie Vartan (neither boast American credits) who placed all the action in a courtyard between two nineteenth century oddly un-New York tenement facades. This confined space supported the scene changes uncomfortably, cramping Menotti’s facile music into a dramatic focus it could not support. Missing was the punctuation of Broadway’s quick-change theatricality, changes that in fact Menotti cleverly incorporated into his descriptive music -- à la Puccini.

The Broadway style thrives on razzle-dazzle, and messieurs Menotti and Metcalf obliged with a couple of good, lively scenes -- the murder of Assunta and the assumption of the Bleecker Street saint Annina -- but the overall scenic rhythm was in fits and starts that missed a Broadway crescendo.

Somehow the underlying theme of incest was always gnawing, perhaps this was subtle direction by Mr. Metcalf or more likely it is latent Menotti, an active participant in the sexually giddy circles of New York’s artistic crème de la crème of that era. This thread carried a potential wallop that never materialized, impossible obviously for Main Street art of the 1950’s but not for the jaded sensibilities of this new century -- a missed opportunity for a new production of this potentially shabby little shocker.

There was not an American in the cast, unusual for almost any opera production in the south of France these days. Though she gave a fine, detailed performance French soprano Karen Vourc’h did not capture a saintly rapture, or the crazed rapture of a consenting sexual victim. She was a too plain, too real Annina. Hungarian tenor Attila B. Kiss used a Broadway style voice to expound the trails of the lover Michele when a more beautiful voice could have added dimension to this role. His too careful enunciation of the American underscored the homelessness of this Marseilles production.

Armenian mezzo soprano Juliette Galstian was a good Assunta, capturing a convincing, grandly temperamental jealousy as Michele’s jilted girl friend. But her character was betrayed by the too stylish lines of her costume, in fact the period haute couture look of all womens’ costumes in this production was more important than the character they clothed (a typical complaint to the hereabouts ubiquitous costume design of Kata Duflot).

Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov was a fish-out-of-water as the priest Don Marco, simply too young and too green to inhabit the soutane of the spiritual and temporal shepherd of Menotti’s needy Italian immigrants. The myriad of supporting roles were however well cast and uniformly effective.

British conductor Jonathan Webb played the Menotti score for all it was worth. The Friday (02/19/10) evening audience indicated by its warm but limited enthusiasm that it had not been duped into believing it had had a significant opera experience.

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Otello in Montpellier

The announcement of a version concert of Verdi’s Otello, hardly the usual contender for such an honor, engendered some mid-winter operatic excitement, and anticipation of possible new revelations into the mysteries of one of the pinnacles of all opera.

Montpellier is sometimes denigrated as “that provincial town that thinks it is Paris,” and in fact the same architect who redeveloped les Halles of Paris took on the urban renewal of Montpellier centre, creating a giant, always lively promenade with the 1888 Comedie opera house at its head and the 1990 Opéra Berlioz at its foot. The Opéra Berlioz is used for the larger nineteenth century repertory, the Comedie for eighteenth century and smaller repertory. Consequently the massive Otello was in the splendid new opera house. The acoustic of the Opéra Berlioz has proven itself better adapted to opera, i.e. pit and stage, than for concert. Otello is loud, sometimes very loud. The orchestra shell amplifies these forte’s even more resulting in a shattered treble, and very limited transparency, faults rarely apparent in its staged operas.

The distinguished American conductor Lawrence Foster is the new music director of the Orchestra National de Montpellier. He too boasts an impressive resume of concert opera.

Without the stage opera loses its essential persona, and becomes an abstract form that is very transparent and unforgiving. Just now in Montpellier, after the initial excitement of the Verdi’s opening storm, and the titillation that something magnificent was going to happen it became very much opera business as usual. Revelations were in short supply, and in fact there were even periods of tedium. This Otello never ignited after its initial sparks.

Possibly Otello is a poor choice for a concert piece. Its reputation as one of the few masterpieces of the repertory that truly melds music with drama demands that it be musically driven to be dramatically alive. With Verdi’s actors behind the conductor (i.e. not on stage facing the conductor in the pit) a vital communication link was missing. Two major scenes underscored this lack -- the hugely complex Act I fight and the daunting Act III septet when Mo. Foster focused on keeping his orchestral and choral forces in order, and out right abdicated his dramatic responsibilities. Had his actors been under his baton perhaps they would have inspired some theater into his beat. As it was Mo. Foster delivered these scenes as squarely paced measures of music you had to get through somehow. We were deprived of the build-up to the exposition of Otello’s triumphal strength and the horror of his public denigration. Both were decidedly pale moments in this concert performance.

The Otello was Georgian tenor Badri Maisuradze, a bear of a man who did not need black face to distinguish himself as an exotic creature. But Mr. Maisuradze could not get his words out. Though he sang with almost enough super-human force to qualify as a real Otello his text projection was non-existent, eviscerating his character. Mr. Maisuradze is a fine artist to be sure, his Act III monologue and his death were beautifully sung.

The one interpreter who succeeded in inhabiting her character was Dutch soprano Barbara Havemen, and this despite some troubling pitch approximations. Mme. Haveman possesses a large voice of sterling clarity, and perhaps the pitch issue is a by-product of this voice. She delivers brilliantly clear high notes, and she descends expressively into a guttural chest voice. The high point of this concert Otello was her Willow Song, and particularly her Ave Maria when all the pathos of this first heroine of Italian melodramma was keenly present. The actual presense of the english horn rendered this great Verdi number musically vivid, and vindicated opera as concert for these few minutes.

Iago was Russian baritone Sergey Murzaev, a facile artist who served up a vocally exuberant villain but did not succeed in imbuing any sense of malice into his character, even with the help of Verdi’s exuberant Act II woodwinds. Neither Mo. Foster nor Mr. Murzaey touched the nuances of this subtle character who does in fact sing very loud, and that Mr. Murzaey did.

Otello and Iago’s nemesis Cassio was sung by Italian tenor Maurizio Pace. At least this singer was not snatched from an opera company’s young artist program to attempt this pivotal role. Mr. Pace seemed to be a mature artist, almost of the size needed to thwart Iago’s ambitions and ignite Otello’s jealosy. The fine vocal accomplishment of French bass baritone Christian Helmer as Lodovico was compromised by his youth, unable to embody the majesty and power of Venice.

Concert opera is staged. Not only do we obviously associate the interpreter with the character (and we do not have the costume to help us) but we place every movement on the stage in a musico dramatic context. The striking movements of the double basses performing their solo at the opening of Act IV creates musical and dramatic excitement, as does Verdi’s wrenching solo cello, not to mention watching the bassoons double the cellos, and the oboe morph into the serpent. And the list goes on. This is the domain of concert opera.

This concert performance was a mess with performers walking on and off the stage throughout the performance, often during musical passages of primary importance. A large children’s chorus trooped on and off the stage during Act II. Apparently there was no one in charge of the staging of this concert opera. Otello deserved better.

The Broadway style thrives on razzle-dazzle, and messieurs Menotti and Metcalf obliged with a couple of good, lively scenes -- the murder of Assunta and the assumption of the Bleecker Street saint Annina -- but the overall scenic rhythm was in fits and starts that missed a Broadway crescendo.

Somehow the underlying theme of incest was always gnawing, perhaps this was subtle direction by Mr. Metcalf or more likely it is latent Menotti, an active participant in the sexually giddy circles of New York’s artistic crème de la crème of that era. This thread carried a potential wallop that never materialized, impossible obviously for Main Street art of the 1950’s but not for the jaded sensibilities of this new century -- a missed opportunity for a new production of this potentially shabby little shocker.

There was not an American in the cast, unusual for almost any opera production in the south of France these days. Though she gave a fine, detailed performance French soprano Karen Vourc’h did not capture a saintly rapture, or the crazed rapture of a consenting sexual victim. She was a too plain, too real Annina. Hungarian tenor Attila B. Kiss used a Broadway style voice to expound the trails of the lover Michele when a more beautiful voice could have added dimension to this role. His too careful enunciation of the American underscored the homelessness of this Marseilles production.

Armenian mezzo soprano Juliette Galstian was a good Assunta, capturing a convincing, grandly temperamental jealousy as Michele’s jilted girl friend. But her character was betrayed by the too stylish lines of her costume, in fact the period haute couture look of all womens’ costumes in this production was more important than the character they clothed (a typical complaint to the hereabouts ubiquitous costume design of Kata Duflot).

Russian bass Dmitry Ulyanov was a fish-out-of-water as the priest Don Marco, simply too young and too green to inhabit the soutane of the spiritual and temporal shepherd of Menotti’s needy Italian immigrants. The myriad of supporting roles were however well cast and uniformly effective.

British conductor Jonathan Webb played the Menotti score for all it was worth. The Friday (02/19/10) evening audience indicated by its warm but limited enthusiasm that it had not been duped into believing it had had a significant opera experience.

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Otello in San Francisco

Verdi’s Otello was the third of four productions to come to San Francisco Opera’s 2009/2010 season from Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Sir Peter Hall (or maybe in the U.S. we omit the title) created this production of Otello at Chicago Lyric Opera in 2001. While the SFO program booklet credits the production to Mr. Hall it does not provide a biography of his accomplishments, a tool useful for placing a production in context. That Sir Peter founded the Royal Shakespeare Company and was the general director of Britain’s National Theatre would tell us that we have a theatrically sophisticated director, that he was the general director of the Glyndebourne Festival well establish him as a sophisticated opera director. It would be interesting to know what Peter Hall opera and theater productions have previously played in San Francisco -- Chicago Lyric boasts five Peter Hall productions, Denver premiered his ill-fated Tarquinius, Los Angeles Opera gave us his former wife Maria Ewing as his Salome.

However Peter Hall’s Otello was staged in San Francisco by Australian Stephen Barlow for whom there is a biography that includes assisting many directors at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and staging many revival productions, i.e. originally directed by someone else. Curiosity nags about the original Peter Hall Otello with Ben Heppner and its Glyndebourne revival with David Rendall and if these performances achieved the formidable stature of Mr. Barlow’s San Francisco staging with Johan Botha.

Perhaps key to understanding this fine San Francisco Otello is the Desdemona of Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Vassileva, a role she has previously performed only in Sofia (according to the program booklet biography). Mme. Zvetelina possesses a large, quite beautiful Slavic voice, and seems to be a careful musician. She was able to project a waif like, lost presence, and hold these attributes for the duration of the performance, never complicating Verdi’s heroine with an Italianate sweetness and beauty, or the pathos that Verdi imbued into his last act.

Dressed in white, with a blond wig, Mme. Vassileva evoked Bianca, the phantom lover of Cassio and she was the symbol of the vulnerable side of Shakespeare’s fierce fighter, the inflamed warrior who would succumb to the power of Venus. This Desdemona was not presaging verismo’s melodramatic heroine, rather she was the Venus that destroyed Otello, and therefore she was a part of Otello himself. Mme. Vassileva’s quite powerful voice could indeed equate his presence. She was never his victim, as he himself was his victim.

Shakespeare’s Otello is of course black though current custom proscribes black face, but even so the complete whiteness of the cloth draped stage was in absolute conceptual contrast to Verdi’s moor dressed in brown robes, uniquely exotic among the otherwise Victorian clothed cast. The unit set of the first three acts was an abstracted old Globe wooden theater, abstracted shudders and a ceiling fan hinting a southern climate, simple wooden desks or benches placed to accommodate the actors’ moves necessary to inflame and expose Otello’s vulnerability.

In contrast to the Met’s massive Zefferelli, grand opera production, the Peter Hall production is an anti-Otello, the storm is only seen in the reaction of the chorus, the beauty of the evening star is realized on the faces and in the voices of Otello and Desdemona. Verdi’s opera became about Shakespeare’s words, his poetry and Otello’s tragedy, and not about the spectacle of nature’s destructive and intoxicating powers.

In the San Francisco staging Iago was embodied by Italian baritone Marco Vratogna, small of stature, wily, a shaved head, an archetypical untrustworthy look. If Otello and Desdemona were abstracted black and white characters, Iago was real, and really mean, with strong TV drama body language, his powerful voice in grand theatrical contrast to his affected servile stance. He delivered his Credo as a shouted harangue, beautifully sung to be sure, downstage center directly at the audience. Chilling, and eminently satisfying.

South African tenor Johan Botha is a real Otello, vocally and temperamentally, a voice huge enough to overpower a melee of his soldiers and establish himself as the invincible warrior, with sufficient Italianate vocal gestures to supplicate the bacio from Desdemona, his hysteria and temper flaring all the while. It was all there in Verdi’s first act, and played out in the following two, Iago’s snakey treachery slowing engulfing Otello in the second act, the moor’s tormented third act soliloquy delivered sotto voce unmoving, leaning against an upstage column in dim light, marred only by over excited clarinets and cellos in the pit. Finally in a brilliant moment of complex cowardice Otello suffocated Desdemona with a pillow.

If Cassio, though striking in his Victorian profile, was vocally over-parted (i.e. we needed more), Locovico was gratefully under-parted to veteran Don Carlo Grand Inquisitor Eric Halfvarson (no Adler Fellow here). Mr. Halfvarson, as the production demanded, created the power and spectacle of Venetian authority entirely by his voice and presence (and just one small banner of the Venetian lion). Iago’s wife Emilia was beautifully realized by Adler Fellow Renée Tatum, her servile demeanor unwavering until she unleashed our pent-up response to evil and tragedy, and became in those few lines one of the evening’s principal singers.

Teetering on the edge of mannered theatricality, the production made the fazzoletto almost a tongue-in-cheek topic. In fact all evening Mr. Hall’s slick theatricality demanded an admiration that competed with the dramatic honesty of Shakespeare and Verdi, or maybe it simply exposed the virtuosity of Verdi’s challenge to Shakespeare’s obvious theatricality. Whatever detractions one may conjure, Mr. Hall’s superb production can perhaps serve as a versatile platform for whatever resonances individual artists may bring to these iconic roles, open to the interpretive creativity of whoever may stage them.

San Francisco Opera’s excitable music director Nicola Luiscotti was in the pit. As we have well perceived this fall Mo. Luiscotti is smitten with creating effects, and there were all the obvious ones amplified, and many more, not the least of which was the aggressive virtuosity of the mandolin accompaniment to Desdemona’s second act entrance. Musically the production was indeed solid, but the music remained illustrative and theatrical, seldom penetrating the poetry. What contributions Mo. Luisotti may have made to the staging and the individual performances are not possible to know, but finally this theatrically brilliant evening was musically and emotionally cold.

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Il trittico in San Francisco

In the otherwise silent sixteen years between La fanciulla del west (1910) and Turandot (1926) Puccini had a flirtation with operetta, La rondine (1917) and with the quick and easy drama of the short story in his three one-acts, Il trittico(1918), composed as a one-evening cycle.

Both light-weight works remained on the fringe of the Puccini repertory for most of the twentieth century, though in recent years they have been exploited in opera’s attempt at repertory expansion.

In San Francisco La rondine reappeared in 2007 in a lackluster production made splendid by the magnetic Rondine of Angela Gheorghiu. Il trittico was in the 1923 and 1952 SFO seasons (though parts of it have appeared in many other years), and just now it has dared the War Memorial stage once again, and succeeded as one of its truer artistic ventures!

The by-now enormous vocal resources of SFO triumphed, led by Merola and Adler Fellow alumna Patricia Racette as all three heroines — Giorgetta, Suor Angelica, Lauretta, supported by fifteen other past and present Merolini and Adler Fellows, notably mezzo Catherine Cook as Frugola, Monitor and La Ciesca. And not the least of whom was conductor Patrick Summers, a most distinguished Merola alumnus. Three singers only, of the thirty two singers who performed the myriad of roles across the three operas, validated the company’s international pretensions, Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Michele and Gianni Schicchi, Polish contralto Ewa Podles as the Princess, and Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Il Talpa and Simone, thus delicately spicing the otherwise all American brew.

Verismo as an operatic term is applied to the Puccini oeuvre though verismo per se is much purer than any Puccini opera ever wanted to be. Puccini was far more entralled by horror theater, the infamous Grand Guignol, like the blood bath that concludes Madama Butterfly, her two-year-old son looking on, and particularly in the revelation of Luigi’s mutilated body in the triptych’s Il tabarro. Not to mention Suor Angelica’s on-stage suicide under the gaze of the Virgin Mary, and the Gianni Schicchi heirs’ horror that their arms be reduced to stumps.

Paris’ Théâtre du Grand Guignol, the world’s original horror theater (20 rue Chaptal), finally petered out in 1962, the public no longer titillated by the contemplation of the gruesome. But it was going strong during and after the first world war, and fashionable for the fashionable. Puccini was a man of his times, a true Italian with his finger on the pulse of style, and all style was Parisian just then. Voilà Il trittico.

Nowhere on earth do opera audiences seem partial to high style. Thus when West Virginia born stage director James Robinson conceived this fairly high concept production for New York City Opera in 2002 he was careful to imbue its original cutting edge style with adorable, witty images. The first was even a caricature, a super-endowed and sexually overripe female alone on the empty stage slinking alongside a mostly submerged hut. Puccini’s Seine flowed as bored time and there was little hint of a Parisian dockside, it could have been near a coal mine as well, but where was not the point as long as it was dark and low.

Robinson stripped la Frugola of her usual pathos, instead we saw a happy, giddy floozy with her homey fantasies. Luigi was a lanky American boy, not smart enough to keep his hands off the boss’s wife, Giorgetta, who was aching to be touched in her little girl, Butterfly voice, and strangely dismissive of her baby’s death. At last Michele blew-up in nearly buffo terms leaving Luigi dead, hanging from his arms like a Michelangelo Pietà.

Robinson rendered Suor Angelica’s seventeenth century convent as a twentieth century children’s hospital adorable in its sterile detail. Its diseased and maimed occupants were quietly eating lunch while its custodians chattered about trivial spiritual concerns. The maiden aunt arrived in supercilious Protestant outrage and the resulting suicide was somehow rendered by all this clutter into terms that were softly personal, and heart wrenchingly tender. The final, blurred vision of an Asian-American boy (Trouble, now seven years old?) was super witty, hardly maudlin at all.

Robinson made Buoso Donati’s home with a view a shiny white high rise hospital room, so shiny that its patterned black and white marble floor was perfectly reflected on the walls and ceiling, the heirs attired in oh-so impeccably fashionable black and white. Lauretta was a daddy’s valley girl who got finally everything she wanted, save a good view of Florence as set designer Alan Moyer’s Duomo dome ruthlessly blocked most of it. Nothing’s perfect.

And so the more delicate sensibilities of twenty-first century audiences were titillated by wit rather than horror. And greatly so by the superb individual performances of the entire cast. Patricia Racette, without doubt the world’s reigning Butterfly, was in magnificent voice (9/30). She applied the wiles of the complex Butterfly role to Puccini’s quickly drawn triptych heroines with contagious gusto. Though Il trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918 (with three different sopranos), the Met jumped the anniversary gun by introducing a new production by Jack O’Brien in 2004. Odds are that even the new, enlightened Met with its reprise next year (with la Racette) cannot one-up this low budget NYCO production as it was incarnated just now at SFO.

Notable among many fine performances was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, already an SFO Pinkerton (2007), whose rendering of Luigi as a down-and-out itinerant worker willing enough to appease Giorgetta’s animal needs was down-right real. Mexican tenor David Lomelí, an Adler Fellow, brought solid voice, stolid presence and just about enough stature to fill the shoes of Lauretta’s fiance Rinuccio. Impressive indeed was the contralto voice and performance of Merola alumna Meredith Arwady as the Abbess and Zita.

And finally Paolo Gavanelli stepped off the stage onto the apron to have the last word, and beg applause for his vivid performances of two of opera’s most sympathetic villains, Michele and Schicchi, and for Puccini’s kitsch operatic novellas of heaven and hell, and purgatory too. There was a mighty roar, particularly for the responsive, hyper-sensitive conducting of Patrick Summers who got Puccini just right for this heady concoction.

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Manon Lescaut in Lyon

If you want Italian opera go to Italy and hope for the best -- like conductor Daniel Oren’s Manon Lescaut two years ago in Genoa. May this caveat lay to rest all complaint that the new Manon Lescaut just now unveiled in Lyon had little to do with anything that resembles Italian verismo and melodramma.

If the Genovese Manon Lescaut belonged to the conductor, the Lyonaise edition went to the director, Lluís Pascal -- though its conductor, Kazushi Ono, did make brilliant music. And this Manon Lescaut disproved the notion that Puccini’s first masterpiece is a fragile one. If it could survive Mr. Pascal’s treatment it can survive nearly anything.

The production is brilliant. Spanish theater director Pascal lavished a theatrical gloss over Puccini’s four brutal episodes in the rather brief but quite eventful life of the Abbé Prevost’s eighteenth century heroine, Manon. It was witty theater, the bold emotional strokes of verismo replaced by heady concepts -- the mind was stunned with striking images.

Each of Puccini’s acts is a decisive action -- deceit and flight, boredom and theft, deportation, and lastly death in the deserts of Louisiana. For metteur en scène Pascal it was all theater. Act one was evoked by a circus ringmaster. This was des Grieux’ friend Edmondo sporting the signature white tie and tails. Act two was a quotation. Manon starred in a sumptuous made-for-TV pastoral complete with the dowdily dressed Andrews Sisters crooning off-camera (radio is not visual). Act three was easier. It was a public parade of hissing prostitutes. Act four was the end of the line, Manon and des Grieux blasted by the light of an a vista (in view) large theater spotlight hammering home that all this could only happen in theater since we now know that there is too much water in Louisiana anyway.

Like in theater Mr. Pascal’s setting was functional rather than descriptive. Trains and tracks brought actors on and off the stage, save in the salon act where a motorized cart carried the camera. The desert act was the end of the line -- train tracks terminated at a lone buffer stop, or bumper (the familiar shock absorbing structure you see at the end of tracks in train stations). This small structure on a bare stage served valiantly to absorb the throes the dying Manon in her over-the-top sola, abbandonata, io, la deserta donna when in fact des Grieux had merely gone off to find some water (the desert horizon sky split discretely to let him leave the stage). Otherwise the splendid, svelt Manon, Bulgarian Svetla Vassileva sang the entire act flat on her back on the floor, resplendently.

To put it lightly tenor Misha Didyk gave it his all to the point that in the third act it seemed he was giving too much, and we feared that the several months between this performance and his promised Hermann in Lyon’s Pique Dame (April) would not leave enough time for him to regain his vocal composure. To put it mildly the several physical scenes with Mme. Vassileva seemed like they might possibly be quite real. Mr. Didyk is the same handsome, blond Russian who played des Grieux to Karita Mattila’s Manon in San Francisco.

How you might ask did the Puccini score fit into all this. Conductor Kazushi Ono enriched and enlivened the orchestration by emphasizing its coloristic details, reveling in them and then catching up with Puccini’s punch by effecting dizzying accelerandi for the final moments of each act.

Maybe Lluís Pascal got it right. Opera is a circus.

Flip back to Genoa a couple of years ago. The show was all in the pit. While conductor Daniel Oren is hardly Puccini, he can embody Puccini's music pure and simple. On the podium he may at first be immobile, but he soon stomps and jumps, emitting grunts and snorts. He sings along (in good baritone) in the big numbers while expansively pulling his orchestra together to emote in one huge voice along with his inspired collaborators on the stage. He then appreciatively applauds his singers right along with the applause of a thrilled audience. Mo. Oren is a phenomenon.

These artists keep us coming back for more.

N.B. The Lyon matinee audience (January 24) did not indulge itself or the performers by applauding the arias.

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Lucio Silla in Nice

Back in the eighteenth century poet/librettist Pietro Trapassi (aka Metastasio) and composer W.C. Gluck worked up quite a sweat to purge opera seria of its excesses. Just now the Opéra de Nice has had to have sweat a lot to restore these excesses in its expensive new production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla.

Lucio Silla is the last opera of Mozart’s youth (he was sixteen), or maybe the first breath of his maturity. In the hands of metteur en scène Dieter Kaegi and designer Bruno Schwengl Mozart’s purified little tragedy took on the gloss of contemporary cool and bored haut monde, and the trappings of comedy to boot.

The basic conceit of this Lucia Silla was “art,” in so much as art is exhibited in an art gallery. During the overture five of Mozart’s six players were placed on display in front of a solid red show curtain. The costumes were of blatant high fashion intention (with not-so-discrete labels of their characters printed on the drop). The players soon came alive greeting one another (kiss kiss) as old friends or perhaps acquaintances and set out somewhere, as we later learned for a tour of art galleries.

Meanwhile Mozart’s sixth player Cecilio, the nemesis of Mozart’s Enlightenment hero Lucio Silla, climbed out of the orchestra pit and had a picnic with his friend Cinna in front of the red show curtain, and then to amuse themselves they played blind man’s bluff. The orchestra pit did not seem to assume a conceptual meaning of any sort (like hell or a swimming pool) but rather simply was a way to get on or off the stage apron. It was here (this narrow corridor in front of the red show curtain) that most of the exuberant singing demanded by the young Mozart took place.

It was a relief indeed when that solid red flat (called a curtain) finally lifted to reveal an “opening” at the first of the art galleries we visited, complete with a corps de ballet in groovy duds in living art poses that complemented the playful sculptures. Meanwhile the plot thickened as we realized that Lucio Silla was in the throes of a mid-life crisis.

Cut after awhile to the cemetery where Cecilio encountered his missing wife, Giulia. This took us inside an art work, a huge hard edge tube obliquely angled in which the corps de ballet was trying to appear off balance in some sort of infernal choreography. This amazing work (and it was) of abstract art, read scenic art, was viewed (contemplated) by the chorus arrayed in the closest boxes overlooking the stage.

The chorus later made its way into a gallery, art devotées who seconded Lucia Silla’s desire for a renewed, refined, enlightened life with Giulia. Meanwhile back in front of the red show curtain we were confused by the lazzi (little sight gag tricks from the commedia dell’arte tradition) perpetrated by the corps de ballet while Giulia was threatening to kill herself.

Finally Lucio Silla envisioned life without Giulia and at the same time envisioned his own art gallery, the architectural drawings of which were the backdrop decor of this final gallery we visited. There was a last minute flurry of lazzi by the corps de ballet before Lucio Silla donned a bomber jacket and set out up the main aisle of the theater presumably to found his new gallery.

At the dress rehearsal (2/17/10) the attractive young cast struggled valiantly to realize the concept. With the concentration of performance perhaps these talented singers can rise above the production, and give life to some of the young Mozart’s splendid music. Guido J. Rumstadt conducted the fine Orchestre Régional de Cannes, an ensemble too small to support this plenitude of grandiose arias, too many of them performed by women wearing pants.

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Parsifal in Nice

Parsifal had its first performances in Bayreuth in 1882 where it was soon seen by Wagner’s soul mate Friedrich Nietzsche. And there the friendship ended. Nietzsche and possibly most everyone else have been ever after bewildered by Wagner’s renunciation of love. After all love had always been the overwhelming motivation for the antics of Wagnerian mythology.

In 1883 Nietzsche began his winter sojourns to Nice and the mild winters of the French riviera where he envisioned his diatribe Nietzsche contra Wagner. But neither Parsifal nor any other Wagnerian masterpieces have been frequent visitors to this gentle climate of subtle sensual beauty. And not only because climatic subtlety and cruel philosophy seem at odds with one another, but also because when Nice re-built its opera house in 1882 the city fathers looked to old Italian theaters as models rather than to the latest theatrical theories and techniques from Bayreuth. Wagner’s mature operas are simply too huge to stuff into a small horse-shoe theater of delicate decoration.

The Opéra de Nice is now considered one of the finest monuments of belle époque architecture. With recent renovations and modifications it adequately serves much of the repertory. But for the really big stuff the Opéra de Nice (the name of the opera company and its theater are the same) takes over the 2500 seat Salle Apollon in what is called the Acropolis, an architectural monstrosity designed in the late 1970‘s that holds five other performing spaces, an exhibition hall and a bowling alley or two as well.

The Opéra de Nice is in transition, its new management transforming it into a somewhat adventurous opera company with a serious production standard. This production of Parsifal was its first adventure, and a striking success. Not that artistic chances were taken -- it was the 2004 production from the Grand Théâtre de Genève, the metteurs en scène were the Swiss minimalist designer Roland Aeschlimann and the American minimalist choreographer Lucinda Childs. In Nice their original Geneva staging was realized by Dagmar Pischel who imbued it with vibrant new life.

This superb production was well served by a strong cast, led by Kurt Rydl as Gurnemanz whose dramatic presence never faltered and fortunately his voice gained focus as the afternoon progressed (January 17) making his lengthy narrations a powerful frame for Wagner’s Easter saga. Parsifal himself was American Gary Lehman who has effected a transition from baritone to a splendid heldentenor of total security with power to burn. He was willing to attempt the acting of the innocent fool (surely one of opera’s more thankless tasks) redeeming his seeming dramatic naivete with fine vocal art. Russian soprano Elena Zhidkova defined the many facets of Kundry with dramatic precision, and sang securely and beautifully, her second act seduction and supplication convincingly delivered, her third act submission uncomfortable to watch (Nietzsche would have wretched).

The antagonist was English baritone Peter Sidhom, the truly mad magician Klingsor who raged with Wagnerian élan, and was suitably stricken dumb. Finnish bass Jukka Rasilainen can and did possess a black tinted, i.e. colorless voice, ideal for the pitiful state of Amfortas, and well used to document his long suffering. He was well costumed in dreadlocks and black cloth, and then in white face for his death made poignant indeed with the dead Kundry draped across his lap. These two figures in this touching pietà was the culminating moment of this sculptural production.

Aeschlimann and Childs made this Parsifal a ritual of death, the staging realized in poses and tableaus on a sloping stage platform broken by a long horizontal gash, its fore stage area embossed with the names of the knights of the Holy Grail, presumably their and perhaps our own tombs. The tabernacle was giant diminishing perfect circles where finally the grail appeared, a revolving faceted extra-terrestrial object that shone with all the cinematic panache of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

This inspired minimalism allowed the vivid vocal and musical performances to prevail, and bring us to a state of purification -- even Nietzsche found the music of Parsifal to be sublimely beautiful (and maybe finding sublimity is redemption enough these days). Conductor Philippe Auguin paced the prelude very slowly, at first excruciatingly slow, but with time this unworldly pace took us to another realm -- rarified teutonic mythology -- and it was here that some of Wagner’s greatest music poured forth from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice for nearly five hours. Perhaps the poetry of Bayreuth was missing (and we did applaud after the first act), but very real Wagnerian musico-sensual pleasures were notably apparent making this Parsifal’s redemption an unforgettable afternoon on the Cote d’Azur.

N.B. All the subordinate roles were taken by quite accomplished, i.e. world class, performers. This Parsifal was an auspicious new beginning for the Opéra de Nice.

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Tristan und Isolde in Genoa

Tristan has been a fairly frequent visitor in Genoa over the past sixty years (post WW II). Tullio Serafin conducted the Isolde of Maria Callas there in 1948, but not in La Superba’s famed old, bombed out Teatro Carlo Felice but in its post-war movie palace turned verismo temple, the famed Teatro Grattacielo. Since then Wagner’s love story has found its way into the Genovese repertory once each decade (except the ‘70‘s) and always in the hands of Viennese schooled conductors.

Until now, and barely in time for its once in-a-decade appearance, Genoa’s latest Tristan und Isolde is back in the hands of an Italian maestro, Gianluca Gelmetti, and back in the now bizarre post-modern decor of the reconstructed Carlo Felice.

Maestro Gelmetti’s Tristan (April 18) elevated Wagnerian music drama to pure melodramma, amplifying Wagner’s subtle, insidious musical continuum into a powerful voice that roared and whispered, grunted and snorted and joyously sang out this tale of love. The Wagnerian complexities were turned into pure emotional punch, bringing us forever to the edge, never of resolution but always of explosion. And like in real verismo there was a sudden, earth shattering blow, and release -- the death of Tristan!

For this Italian maestro the northern shores of Cornwall (Cornovaglia in the supertitles) and the hull a Nordic ship were Tristan’s Isle of Circe where love seduces and ultimately destroys men. The maestro’s third act English horn (prominently seated just out of sight on the side of the stage apron) urgently sang out the Siren’s call, and a young boy stirred in the early morning light already magically drawn to her call. In the midst of Tristan’s delirium a Siren (a beautiful young woman in a white art nouveau gown) materialized in the upstage darkness, mimicking the now outrightly delirious English horn, bringing Tristan to climax and death. At Tristan’s release was the sudden coup de theatre -- muscular, semi-nude young men materialized in the surreal shadow of the upstage black miming battle, the primal male force sacrificed to love by Tristan!

Fantastic music, fantastic theater and yes, great opera.

And yes, you have probably got it by now, this Tristan was staged by the maestro himself. But if ever a Tristan, Welsh tenor Ian Storey, and an Isolde, American soprano Jayne Casselmann, needed a stage director these were they. Neither artist, and they indeed are, are innate actors, or intuitive comedians. Left to their own devices neither could embody a Wagnerian hero (were Tristan’s hands actually in his pockets during the first act love delirium?), but they could sing.

Mme. Casselmann and Mr. Storey offered a gorgeously sung second act love duet, standing side by side downstage facing the maestro (actually holding hands), Wagner’s music fortunately dissolved into a vision in the black void beyond the stage of a semi-nude young male and female in rapturous embraces. Well it was glorious until Isolde was required to move above the staff, perhaps a domain once well within Mme. Casselmann’s reach but no longer.

Mr. Storey possesses a youthful voice of great strength and beauty that he used with considerable artistry throughout this daunting tenorial escapade. In this Tristan the third act delirium was more than contemplation or exposition of pain. It was at times chilling emotional outburst. And finally the maestro gave his soprano the unique opportunity of delivering the Liebestod not as a prayer but as a grand lament! Alas Mme. Casselmann does not have the means to exploit the Wagnerian line or the Gelmetti passion.

The scenery and costumes came from the 1998 Carlo Felice production designed by Maurizio Balò. The primary image was the huge curving timbers of a timeless ship, the upper portions of which disappeared to create the second act garden and the horizon of the third act. The imposing celestial adornments of the 1998 production were left in the warehouse thereby exposing a heavenly void that would so effectively host Mo. Gelmetti’s apparitions.

The extreme cross-stage curve of the ship hull forced the always-forward-facing singers to stand with one foot higher than the other often resulting in distorted, crippled postures -- an example of the hazards of recycling productions. As well this extreme curve forced a very restricted playing area down stage center, well serving the musical values of the production (singers’ gazes could only be directed onto Mo. Gelmetti) but limiting its dramatic perspectives.

Norwegian bass Frode Olsen rose to the occasion to make King Mark’s soliloquies far more passionate than eloquent. Bavarian mezzo-soprano Hermine May was the most stage worthy of the afternoon’s artists in a beautifully drawn and sung Brangâne, eloquently proclaiming her guilt in creating this tragedy for which Mo. Gelmetti stopped just short of having Kurvenal, the rough voiced bass-baritone Finn Jukka Rasilainen, slit her throat. Italian tenor Roberto Accurso was the Melot, and more than any other of the artists suffered from poor costuming and lack of direction.

Conductor Gianluca Gelmetti delivered a unique reading of Wagner’s magnificent score that cried out for a production of equivalent daring. So let’s be daring -- if we must recycle productions why not impose Pesaro’s super brilliant, critically reviled Zelmira of last summer onto the Gelmetti Tristan? Italian dramaturg and stage director Georgio Barberio Corsetti used a meshed floor, a sand covered under-stage, video projection and a giant mirror to move amongst real and irreale worlds, and confuse the confines between the pit and the stage. And Mr. Corsetti is a man of the theater who would have known how to stage those three incisive, shattering intrusions of King Mark into the psyches of Tristan and Isolde. One can dream.

ADDENDUM: April 28 performance

For some unpublicized reason Carlo Felice scheduled an hiatus of ten days after the third of its five Tristan performances. For the reprise on April 28 much of the cast had changed, most notably the Isolde, now English soprano Elaine McKrill. Mme. McKrill, a veteran of smaller roles in prestige Ring productions, is an accomplished and experienced artist who arrived in Genoa vocally and dramatically well prepared, and definitely rearing to give a fine performance. That she did.

While not a youngster Mme. McKrill is a youthful Isolde, her wiles more innocent than knowing, her musicality more urgent than considered. Thus she gave Mo. Gelmetti an Isolde more human than mythical -- she was not the sorceress that Mo. Gelmetti might imagine if Wagner’s opera were only the Tristan tragedy. Mme. McKrill’s Liebestod was understood as a hymn to femininity, her tragedy felt as the impossibility of attaining the paramount feminine ideal. Both heroes of this Tristan were victims of love, Isolde learned that love was but a myth, Tristan understood that to love he would sacrifice his life.

Conductor Gelmetti again exploited the hair-trigger responsiveness of the Carlo Felice orchestra to give this Tristan an urgency that could only end in tragedy. But unlike most Tristans this Tristan was a deeply human experience and not just a grandiose celebration of Romantic love. The triumph of this production was its language, and that language was purely musical. Mo. Gelmetti’s means were a full-throated Italian orchestra as motor of this shattering tragedy, and in this performance a Tristan and Isolde who could voice its deeper meanings.

The scheduled tenor for this performance was replaced inexplicably by Ian Storey. The Kurwenal was again baritone Jukka Rasilainen. Mr. Rasilainen made an unobtrusive Kurwenal who structured perfectly the third act Tristan delirium without adding personal dimension. It was a superb and appreciated supportive performance. The balance of the cast seemed unconnected to the production. The Melot was an unforgivable black hole.

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Cendrillon in Marseille

Rare repertory but not truly rare, Massenet’s Cendrillon makes an appearance from time to time. One of the more notable recent revivals occurred at the Opéra National du Rhin (Strasbourg) in 2003 in the mise en scène of French born director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and Canadian designer André Barbe. The production is well traveled, including a stopover at the New York City Opera two years ago, and just now it was again revived in a splendid evening in Marseille (December 29.)

This staging team is far better known in the U.S. and Canada than in Europe, in fact the entire 2009-2010 four opera season of Florida Grand Opera (Miami) consists of stagings by Messieurs Doucet and Barbe. Was it not in the 1950’s that the exodus to Florida began?

The Doucet/Barbe Cendrillon looks backwards at the fabulous American 50’s, our out-sized and shiny kitchen appliances, our long and sleek automobiles, the giant juke boxes and the big screens for our Hollywood movies. Like all French glances at the U.S. this one too is vaguely anti-American, rubbing it in that though we may have all these flashy contraptions we do not have royalty and titles -- i.e. breeding, that which money cannot buy.

Thus at the center of the Doucet/Barbe production is the American princess, Grace Kelly whose kingdom, Monaco, is just down the road from Marseille, and whose fairy tale royal marriage filled the giant black and white movie screen suspended from a branch of Massenet’s giant, magical third act oak tree. The coloratura incantations of Cinderella’s fairy godmother brought the Prince and Cinderella together for a vocally sumptuous if chaste seduction scene at the drive-in movies, where she too became a movie star.

The Doucet/Barbe production wore its concept like the skin-tight, low-cut gown of the 1953 Calendar girl hanging above the juke box. Cinderella, here named Lucette, emerged scrubbing, from the oven of a giant Admiral [brand name] stove, the giant kitchen radio expelled first the magical tones and then the personage of her fairy godmother. Per the fairytale the dream soon vanished. Lucette awakened among endless rows of the cracker-box homes of an American subdivision, only to find herself soon again at the Prince[ton] ball (get it? -- he had a P on his varsity sweater).

In Marseille conductor Cyril Diederich made Massenet’s marvelous score move seamlessly from the opera buffa fantasies of Lucette’s father and her stepmother and stepsisters to the late nineteenth century style opera seria heartrending outpourings of Cinderella, from the musical banality of balletic processions to the kinetic brilliance of above-the-staff singing. You had to pinch yourself to keep from believing it to be the most delightful Rosenkavalier you could possibly imagine. After his initial downbeat Mo. Diederich’s Cendrillon never touched ground, vindicating Massenet’s score as the most magnificent of French musical confections after Hoffmann!

The stage was in fact seen through the distorted lens of a crystal ball, somethings huge, somethings small, nothing as it really is. The costumes were fabulous exaggerations too, only Cinderella was left in a plain, gray skirt and sweater. But were those the colors (pinks, purples and greens) and shapes of the 1950’s? Certainly Messieurs Doucet and Barbe did their research, and certainly knowingly threw in some of the electric colors of the 60’s, and a pure 60’s Cadillac grill at the drive-in movies to boot.

Singing is solid in Marseille, and this Cendrillon was no exception. Canadian born, Juilliard trained mezzo soprano Julie Boulianne was Lucette, her beautifully even, bronze-hued tone was easy to imagine as the ideal singing voice of the regal Grace Kelly, plus she possesses a fine upper extension able to project Massenet’s very occasional sentimental exuberance. Her studied polish however betrayed her artistic youth. Prince Charming was Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun who trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and is a veteran of the New York City Opera production. He is handsome, brooding and accomplished, and just right for twisted takes on the heroes of his fach (Almaviva, Tamino, Nemorino, etc.).

Baritone Francois Le Roux took Pandolfe (Lucette’s father) well beyond the caricature of his costume to the highest level of later buffo style, magnifying ever word and smallest feeling to truly human proportion. Lilana Faraon was the Fairy Godmother of your dreams, her coloratura impeccable, her diminutive figure irreale and her energy indefatigable. Veteran Marseille mezzo soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch made hay of singing a comic role for once (she is most often the stalwart heavy-duty mezzo in Marseille), and Julie Mossay and Diana Axentil were truly believable Miami Beach adolescent females.

Choreographer Doucet’s production requires four zany ballerinas and three beautiful female jugglers, and a lively small chorus that does not mind executing a few dance steps, not to mention a brief pas de trois by the stepmother and stepsisters. In Marseille the Doucet/Barbe production achieved a near perfect balance of real and irreale, of humor and sentiment, of spoof and beloved fairytale.

Massenet’s original Prince Charming is a soprano trouser role to be sung by a so-called Falcon soprano, a dark-toned French soprano voice, though in modern productions it is most often transposed for a male voice, satisfying current, particularly French sensibilities. The 1983 New York City Opera production though used a female Prince Charming (Suzanne Marsee) to reportedly wonderful effect.

This same 1983 NYCO production marked the first use of supertitles in the occidental world. Then NYCO general director Beverly Sills had seen supertitles used in Chinese opera in Peking and thought it might be a good idea to let her audiences know what was happening in this unfamiliar opera while it was happening. Now, a mere twenty-five years later, in spite of the excellent diction of the all Francophone cast, even in Marseille this Cendrillon was supertitled!

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Aida in Berlin

The last new Aida at the Deutsche Oper was fifteen years ago, staged by the grand old man of West Berlin opera, Gˆtz Fredrich. Thus it was high time for a new look and the first chance to see it was at its premiere on March 2. Inexplicable, perhaps foolhardy was the Deutsche Oper Berlin's choice of an American production team for this Italian Egyptian classic. Led by stage director Christopher Alden, the team included Roy Rallo as co-director, Andrew Lieberman as designer, Doey Luethi as costume designer and Adam Silverman as lighting designer.

It was a site specific production as Berlin was the protagonist, physically represented on the Deutsche Oper stage by fine, slick modern architecture that self consciously evokes the historical and traditional Berlin ñ massive brick walls, ample marble, huge block shapes, clumsy neo-gothic references (nothing at all to do with the international avant guard mercantile Berlin plops of Renzo Piano, Frank Gehry, or Jean Nouvel). Designer Andrew Lieberman encased Aida's eight scenes in this interior space, scene changes marked by light changes, the gamut of Verdi's atmospheres virtuostically evoked by Adam Silverman.

As Berlin has been reborn as political propaganda, Aida too was born as political propaganda to celebrate Egypt's new stature as the part-owner and guard dog of Suez Canal. Verdi reluctantly accepted the enormous commission only when he learned that if he did not Wagner might. The nineteenth century French Egyptologist Mariette Bey provided Verdi with the gruesome background of a fanatical second millenium B.C. church/state to which Verdi sacrificed the not-so-innocent slave Aida. Just now on a cold wet day in Berlin this sacrifice became a chilling love-death drowning.

Making this new Aida circular, the Alden staging opens with a drowned body dragged from a black marble basin, the baptismal font in an evangelical church kept spotlessly polished by Aida, humbling herself as a servant to its massive power. Aida and the large congregation are clad in DDR socialist uniforms (gray skirts/pants, white blouses/shirts), holding, sometimes waving their Maoist bibles. These images from contemporary and recent history easily recall the countless fanatical tyrants and regimes that add political piquancy to centuries of opera stories.

The high priest Ramfis, an impeccably suited leader preaches on his platform, his face and body plastered against the marble, heaven-directed central pillar, his bible held tightly against the pillar to take strength from its strength, his voice magically, extra-corporeally (loud speakers) directing his followers. Radames, immobile on a folding chair, pours out his Celeste Aida. He is ordained by the priestess Amneris whose grace is marked by a symbolic tiara. Aida, Radames and Amneris sit unmoving on three adjacent downstage chairs to voice the conflicts that will momentarily rock the foundations of the church.

The Alden triumphal scene is a masterpiece of satire with its frenzy of images illustrating the American mega-church phenonomen and its insidious use of vanity and self-indulgence as techniques of mind control. This scene is highest comedy and harshest condemnation, yet always with the theatrics of magnificence that Verdi envisioned for this, his most famous scene. Capping the first part of the evening the triumphal scene was rewarded with thunderous applause from the opening night audience.

Back in the thick of emotional conflict Aida teased the high C of O patria mia, and made one of the evening's few staging movements, walking towards her father, hidden in the midst of a sea of empty chairs. The Alden staging poetic is based on developing concept not character. Dramatic tension is generated through the gradual revelation and friction of larger concepts, the actor himself not a character but a concept. Thus dramatic interaction is irrelevant, as the music, voice and body are symbol and fact of the concept. Alden succeeds in creating huge tensions, and these tensions palpably gripped the opening night audience.

Director Alden's vocal collaborators were eager participants in the ritual. Soprano Annalisa Raspagliosi was the beautiful young Aida, seemingly as comfortable polishing the floor as reaching for her high C. Mexican Tenor Carlo Ventre filled the shoes of Radames with his fine, well-schooled Italianate tenor, coolly the sacrificial murderer and the lover of Aida. Mezzo Irina Mishura made a large voiced, small scale Amneris, most effective at the end when humiliated in power and love and stripped of her grace, she delivered the last words of the opera, a curse, crouched in darkness against the proscenium. Bass Raymond Aceto exuded a raw, almost real charisma as the high priest Ramfis, accompanied always by a mute, ruthless, sexless, stately blond matron acolyte embodied by Jacqueline Wagner. Baritone Zeljko Lucic was the less exotic and in fact confusing Amonasro, projecting a human presence, the only such warmth in this otherwise coldly conceptual Alden/Rallo Aida.

Marked by refinement of concept and elegance of realization, the production was light years away from the blatant and obvious, if serviceable conducting of Renato Palumbo, oblivious to the formidable theater art that was happening on the stage.

The one hundred seventy six cast members took bow after bow, Mo. Palumo was loudly applauded. After a suspenseful delay the production team appeared, the audience howled its appreciation and approval -- it only sounded like boos. Maestro Palumbo did not come to the post-performance party.

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The Verdi Requiem at San Francisco Opera

Musical matters at San Francisco Opera have marched under the baton of Donald Runnicles for the past seventeen years. To mark the end of the Runnicles musical reign the San Francisco Opera spring season opened with a single performance of Verdi's 1874 requiem mass, conducted by Mo. Runnicles. Befitting the occasion it was a performance that celebrated Runnicle's operatic musicianship and the musical forces of San Francisco Opera he has nurtured. It had little to do with dying.

The Verdi Requiem was only once a real requiem, when it marked the death of Alessandro Manzoni. Now it is a concert tour de force, reminding us that while death is indeed the terrifying final moment, a Verdi opera is magnificent eternal art. For the Verdi mass is an opera, as it stages Judgment Day in seven dramatically charged, emotionally hyper-taught scenes.

It belongs in an opera house, it requires an orchestra that breathes opera, four opera singers, and above all an opera chorus of real voices that will sustain the strained tension of multitudes of sinners pleading for salvation. And then a conductor who can harness these forces into its final single voice, one individual soul begging to be spared eternal damnation.

It was a joyous performance, its exuberance unchecked by any Christian sentiment. It began almost inaudibly, then the voice of the violins cried out — the fear immediately arose that once again Mo. Runnicles would approach a masterpiece from some distorted musical perspective. It was however the first articulation of a soul begging salvation. The performance quickly emerged as a continuous articulation of incisive musical pleas, moments that wove themselves convincingly into its gigantic doomsday orchestral climaxes, the chorus roaring and hissing the Dies Irae throughout. Mo. Runnicles' finest moments at San Francisco Opera have been his readings of Janacek and Britten scores, his musical genius merging with the motivic detail of these works. His discovery and development of urgent emotive detail in this Requiem became magic as well.

Its solo voices were brilliantly cast with opera singers that that were recognizable opera characters, the snarling Verdi mezzo of Stephanie Blythe (Azucena), the ballsy if not too bright tenor (Don Carlo) of Stefano Secco, this admirable tenor small in stature next to the towering character bass of Andrea Silvestrelli (Sparafucile -- and, well, Fasolt in the SFO Ring). The soprano was to have been Patricia Racette with a powerful, beautiful voice (Desdemona) who canceled. She was replaced by Adler Fellow Heidi Melton who remained an Adler Fellow, not yet with the histrionic stature of a Verdi heroine capable of transcendental sacrifice. In short the solo roles were intended to be those of the cross section of humanity who are Verdi's sinners.

This evening was opera at it showiest, opera on the edge. It fulfilled for many of us the longing to hear Verdi's tribute to Manzoni (and Rossini, as the Libera Me was composed for an 1869 Rossini memorial) in a real opera house. With the applause quieted, Mo. Runnicles was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal, though the circumstances (seventeen years and three management regimes) cried out for at least a Rolex. In the only articulate speech of the brief presentation ceremony Mo. Runnicles complemented the San Francisco opera audience for its adventurous spirit and its openness to new operatic experiences.

The San Francisco spring season continues with a dated Lotfi Mansouri production of Tosca, a traveling Francesca Zambello production of Porgy and Bess (she is the director of SFO's questionable new Ring), and the critically reviled Los Angeles Opera production of La Traviata. San Francisco Opera may have some explaining to do on Judgment Day.

 

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Orphée et Eurydice in Montpellier

When a production of Gluck's OrphÈe et Eurydice is announced you usually take no notice of who is singing OrphÈe because you probably have never heard of him anyway. But such was not the case in Montpellier when one did notice because you had heard of him. With disbelief you saw it was Roberto Alagna, though the idea soon became explicable, remembering that Maria Callas had sung the Liebestod so why not Roberto Alagna singing Che faro senza Euridice (J'ai perdu non Eurydice).

Equally absurd was the idea that Marco Guidarini was conducting, the Genovese conductor who had made even the reticence of Pelleas et Melisande eloquently alive in Nice, who had fired its suppressed love triangle into a passionate eruption. Hardly the man to illuminate this signature, cool musical document of the French Enlightenment, calming the excessive grief of the Baroque within the intimate confines of the Rococo.

The Montpellier season itself seemed peculiar, programming first the famous Offenbach parody of the Orpheus myth last December before stating the myth two months later, one presumed in the pristine form Gluck had imposed upon it in this, his most famous reform opera.

These mysteries were quickly explained (03/02/08). Gluck's OrphÈe et Eurydice had been de-constructed by director David Alagna (Roberto's brother) in light of the latent high drama and deep intelligence in this Gluck masterpiece. He had given free rein to his own obviously formidable theatrical imagination, and was taking full advantage of the vocal and histrionic resources of his tenorissimo brother, Roberto. David (dah-veed) is hardly the first director to plumb the depths of Gluck's masterpiece and will not be the last. But this OrphÈe et Eurydice, while made of the Gluck OrphÈe, is anything but Gluck's opera, nor one Gluck could possibly have imagined, except perhaps for the Romeo et Juliette ending imposed by David Alagna, an ending that surely Gluck would have preferred to the happy ending imposed on him by convention.

Once past David Alagna's mute prologue, an interpolated first scene of a noisy wedding party that rudely punctuated Gluck's translocated incidental music, the second scene, now Gluck's own, unfolded with skillful paramedics pulling first the lifeless body of Euridice from an overturned, crushed bright red Renault, and then the inanimate body of her husband OrphÈe. There was no longer any possibility that this was not a parody, a fully and clearly defined made-for-television-movie reality opera supplanting opera's most hallowed pastoral myth. And then the cry "Eurydice" from the world-class Verdi tenor, with some of the biggest vocal coglioni (balls) around in full evidence. Any further fears of the banal were banished right along with all collegium musicum regrets.

Alagna lamented at Eurydice's tomb, supported by her grief stricken parents, surrounded by a sea of umbrella covered friends, the cellos of Guidarini's full blown orchestra throbbing sobs, the crushed red Renault replaced by a long black hearse. Overcome OrphÈe fell into the pile of dirt about to cover Eurydice's coffin, his face and chest against the stage floor that now became a massive sounding board for his, and Gluck's magnificent Chiamo il mio ben cosi (Eurydice, Eurydice, ombre chËre).

Amor, baritone Marc Barrard in a floor length black leather cloak, gave Orphée his options. The long black hearse brought OrphÈe to heaven's waiting room, a rather crowded worldly mortuary for souls in transition. Knowing stratospheric travel, contemporary audiences understand that temperatures are frigid in the heavens, thus Guidarini's Mahlerian trombones sounded their chilling tones, bringing into sight a corps de ballet of suspended frozen bodies. That of Eurydice identified, the long black hearse arrived to bring her back to earth, not without the well-known discussion passionately voiced by the beautiful Serena Gamberoni. Furious with OrphÈe, she first made love with the tall and handsome Amor in its front seat.

The grief of the Alagnas' OrphÈe was real, it was wrenching, and it was fully considered in the finest Gluckian manner, but no longer with his formidable eighteenth century emotional discipline. This new Alagna perspective was a forging of the considerable art of twentieth century operatic hyper verismo with twenty-first century conceptual art, realized with the considerable resources of one of France's finest opera companies. Roberto Alagna is a phenomenon. As much an artist as he is a tenor, he gave full realization to these often contradictory terms in this performance, putting the heated vocal posturing of the heroic tenor in service to cool, smart conceptual art.

Among the triumphs of the evening were the visually stunning stage pictures created by director/designer Alagna, with the costumes of Carla Teti. But most remarkable of all was the cool control exercised by David Alagna, never forcing his staging beyond the boundaries determined by Gluck's reformist intentions and the immense wit of his own vision. With this OrphÈe et Eurydice held always in such delicate balance he proved himself a true artist.

Marco Guidarini, the Alagnas' willing musical collaborator, brought an exploration of color and a musical urgency to Gluck's score that added new luster to France's centuries old tradition of orchestral art. It cannot be left unsaid that the flute solo in the blessed spirits ballet music has never been played more beautifully.

The Montpellier Orpheus ritual complete the excited cast took their bows, the wildly enthused audience showered the stage with flowers. Finally, and only finally did Roberto bring his brother David onto the stage for a bow to a chorus of boos.

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Pique Dame in Lyon

Suicide loomed large in Tchaikovsky's mind, with the two emotionally charged, self-inflicted deaths in La Dame de Pique. Suicidal in the opera also would have been the intended duel between the competing lovers, a form of Russian self elimination that had already claimed the life of Pushkin, the creator of the original Pique Dame tale (1834). In one further case of self destruction the phantasmagoric Pique Dame herself had to know that she was buying death by accepting the secret of the cards. Tchaikovsky's own suicide was in 1893, three years after the opera's premiere at the Marinsky in St. Petersburg in 1890, and nine days after the premiere of his Symphonie Pathetique (though the OpÈra de Lyon's program booklet attributes his death to cholera, the cause condoned by Soviet era sensibilities).
 
Tchaikovsky's soul is the stuff of sensational speculation, and it is enticing to transpose these speculations onto the tortured soul of Hermann, the hero of Pique Dame, his consuming compulsions tricked by vindictive Russian fate. In Lyon at the OpÈra Nouvel (30/01/08) this famous story was told by director Peter Stein, his collaborators and an excellent array of interpreters, notably his diminutive hero Hermann resembling Pushkin's comparison to Napoleon far more than embodying the handsome Tchaikovsky we see in photographs.
 
Bulgarian tenor Kostadin Andreev, singing Hermann this evening (and only one other of the total seven performances), attacked the role, physically possessed in staggering and lurching movements, urgently voicing his distress. In short a theatrically and musically intriguing introduction to the central figure, the fateful lover and tragic victim of Modest and Peter Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame (Tchaikovsky's brother Modest was the librettist who, with Tchaikovsky, had transformed Pushkin's story into a conventional Russian opera of its time). And tenor Andreev kept us intrigued for the duration, elaborating this character born of Carmen's clumsy Don Jose but quickly evolving into the physically supple and vocally boiling-over lover of the gullible Liza, though the nearly inhuman form of the diabolically possessed gambler was never far beneath the surface. Finally this pathetic, dying young soldier sent us running to the Pushkin tale to find out where he got those 40,000 ducats to bet, a detail left unexplained by the libretto. The daunting challenges of director Peter Stein's approach to this role were well met by this young, multi-dimensional artist.
 
Based in theatrically sophisticated Berlin, Peter Stein is a master director, working with precise minimal movements to create and sustain dramatic tension. Each motion -- a hand touching a cheek or a slow (or fast) walk up or down stage for example -- is charged with dramatic content and made always with absolute complementary musical motivation. His choruses are a single persona, not crowds, never individuals. The chorus is in constant, generally geometric and unison movement, its energy enhanced at times by moving scenic elements, always sustaining a physical tension that heightens the sense of intense story telling.
 
Herr Stein's musical collaborator was Russian born, Vienna trained Kirill Petrenko, willing to support Herr Stein's tensions at the expense of neglecting the indulgent ironic pathos exuded by Tchaikovsky's music. Mo. Petrenko further agreed to excise Tchaikovsky's entire Pastoral and ballet thereby upsetting the balance of the larger Modest and Piotr Tchaikovsky music-dramatic structure, forcing Tchaikovsky's central scene into a single, fast, dramatic crescendo to the fireworks accompanied mock appearance of Catherine the Great as a huge, self moving puppet.
 
Designer Ferdinand Wogerbauer's visual language well supports Herr Stein's obvious tensions, with minimal shapes and forced perspectives in cardboard, comic book images like the light bulb lighted lightening bolts, the snowy night cutout for Liza's suicide, even the diamond shaped gambling table concocted platform with Hermann's head dangling, dead, over its downstage point. Ironic in the truncated Pastoral scene were the black and red blocks of architect Jean Nouvel's theater echoed on the stage.
 
Tchaikovsky is the master of pastiche, juxtaposing for example in the last scene a sad gambling song, a noisy drinking song and a suicide. In the third scene he segues an art song duet with a sad Russian ballad followed by a foot stomping folk song and finally a torrid love scene. Amidst all the seven scenes he inserted a huge pastoral, an eighteenth century intermezzo with ballet starring Daphnis, Chloe and Pluto, as, after all, Pushkin had set his tale in the Russia of Catherine the Great and that is what they did then. But in place of introducing a bit of the more appropriate Rameau, for example, Tchaikovsky recast Don Giovanni's immortal ball scene, an homage to his beloved Mozart. In the following scene Tchaikovskian musical philology regained its purity when he resurrected of an aria from Gretry's Richard Coeur-de-Lion (1784) for the Pique Dame Countess. It all works as seamless theater and convincing operatic story telling and this is Tchaikovsky's genius.
 
Tchaikovsky's insertion of the extended Rococo pastoral motivated the cameo appearance by Catherine herself. By cutting the pastoral director Stein eschewed Tchaikovsky's intention (and Pushkin's) to place the story at this earlier time, instead forcing the scenographic crescendo to her apparition in the same bustled silhouette as we had come to associate with the Pique Dame. Then as one of her apparitions in the nightmare scene we saw Pique Dame herself as a huge, self-moving puppet, like Catherine the Great.
 
Others of her phantasmagoric guises of the third act echoed the mock grotesqueries of the Mexican Day of the Dead or the American Halloween (a custom now finding resonance in France as well). Perhaps there is no Halloween in Russia or Protestant Germany, thus maybe these were not meant to be the really silly apparitions they seemed to be, but were serious grotesqueries, part of designer Wogerbauer's cardboard vocabulary. Whatever the motivation for the comic book language the powerful pathos and intense ironies of the third act were blatantly destroyed. The death prayer for the Countess' funeral was overwhelmed with scary images, and the touching choral prayer for Hermann's final peace seeming to be still in the shadow of the waving arms of an inflatable Pique Dame seen only moments before.
 
The Hermann of Kostadin Andreev convincingly established the core of Tchaikovsky's melodrama, the Liza of Olga Guryakova eloquently embodied the naivetÈ of a country girl, with simplicity and elegance of voice from her doomed soul crouched against the edge of the proscenium. Prince Yeletsky, Andrey Breus as her rejected rich and handsome fiancÈ, was rich in voice, generous of spirit, and appropriately pallid in the magnetic presence of Hermann. The Countess of Marianna Tarasova was an ancient, ugly, and selfish creature, a relic of such an ugly and selfish past, propped-up in her chair humming Gretry's old tune. The Tomski of Nikolai Putilin was strangely old, though on the same high level of all supporting players.
 
The association of the Pique Dame with Catherine the Great remains shrouded in mysterious recesses of Peter Stein's psyche.

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Manon Lescaut in Genoa

Giacomo Puccini's Manon Lescaut at the Teatro Carlo Felice (17/1/08) started out with a bang -- as the evening's conductor made his way to the pit's podium he was instantaneously recognized as Daniel Oren, not the young conductor announced in the program. As Mo. Oren turned from a very brief, cursory acknowledgement of his applause he was already raising his arms to attack Puccini's fragile masterpiece.
 
And attack he did, dispelling the myth that this work is fragile, needing delicate balances of interpreters, music and production to take on an ephemeral life. Oren's Manon Lescaut is a masterpiece of verismo at its finest and melodramma at its purest. The first of Puccini's mature works (only Edgar and Le Villi come before) Manon Lescaut (1893) betrays the French origins of verismo in distilling the abbÈ PrÈvost's Manon story into four emotionally charged scenes. Massanet had already told PrÈvost's histoire much more realistically and delicately, but some ten years earlier.
 
And forget about Manon and her brother's high-born origins, both embody the baser instincts verismo likes to find among the lower classes, look only to Henze's wonderfully sleazy Manon in Boulevard Solitude to complete this picture.
 
And do think melodramma, the super Italian soupy film genre (like Catene [1949], the film that made Sicilian audiences weep in Cinema Paradiso) where the woman succumbs to understandable temptation, only to regret her fall before being forgiven, though too late.
 
While Oren is not Puccini, he is Puccini's music pure and simple, sometimes remaining immobile, then stomping then jumping on the podium, emitting grunts and snorts, usually singing along, while expansively pulling his orchestra together to emote in one huge voice along with his inspired singers, then applauding appreciatively his singers right along with the enthused audience. Mo. Oren is a phenomenon.
 
Manon Lescaut is told in four big strokes, deceit and flight, boredom and theft, deportation, and lastly death in the deserts of Louisiana, all the better that we all know that Louisiana is not a desert and often has too much water. All were rendered as enormous, explosive emotional situations, disproving forever that Puccini's Manon Lescaut is fragile, and proving once and for all that while it may not be the first (Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana is 1890), Manon Lescaut remains one of the purest examples of Italian musical verismo.
 
In the absence of a production specifically developed for such a musically brutal conception of Puccini's opera, the Teatro Carlo Felice imported Flemish director Gilbert Deflo's production from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. At first his white box conception (actors in high relief in relatively neutral surroundings with few props) evoked a deja vu disappointment, but as the musical force of the production took over the white box setting began to essentially service the telling of the story without either effectively absorbing it or detracting from it.
 
Director Deflo is obviously a theater director with actors at his disposal whose movements and physical attitudes can fill such a neutral space. In the expanses of the Carlo Felice stage the conception was most effective when character singers were at work, as for example the rich Geronte, and his household staff in Act II, these caricatured abstractions working well with the exaggerated emotions. Or the actresses as the exaggerated prostitutes in Act III effectively separating Manon in her degradation from their flashy pride. Here too Deflo's minimalism was effective in the use one small scenic element, a small boat, to send Manon and Des Grieux off to America. The principal singers whose movements and physical attitudes are specific to the needs and habits of opera singers were less effective, looking as if they had been thrown into a warmed-over production, which of course it was.
 
The Manon of Micaela Carosi rose magnificently to the occasion, her rich, warm, spinto voice offering Oren everything needed to encourage her to bring out the subtleties of pathos of this difficult role. Renzo Zulian, singing two of the seven performances, delivered a Des Grieux with little finesse but with ample vocalism to serve musical needs. Manon's brother Lescaut, sung by Gabriele Viviani, proved less of a vivid vocal presence while the Geronte of Carlo Lepore was classy singing in ridiculous clothing.

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Scenes from Goethe's Faust in Parma

Goethe's Faust is a two-part play intended to be read, not staged, though in 2002 it was staged by Peter Stein in a mere twenty-one hours. Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust is an oratorio meant to be performed in concert, not staged, though just now its seven scenes were staged at the Teatro Regio in Parma by Hugo de Ana in three long hours.
 
Robert Schumann was not an opera composer, though we learn from the Teatro Regio's program booklet that he did compose one opera, Genoveva, an experimental, recitative-less work that has been staged in recent times at Palermo's Teatro Massimo. Strange, this Italian preoccupation with Schumann.
 
Schumann is unknown operatic territory, as is Goethe's Faust Book II (1832) unknown operatic territory. We do know a bit of Book I (1806) from Berlioz (1846), Gounod (1859) and Boito (1868) though it is accepted sacrilege to associate these derivative masterpieces with the real Goethe Faust. But Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust are simply that, the actual Goethe verses, the first three briefer scenes are from Book I, the final four scenes, longer and more involved come from Book II, meaning that the larger part of the work is uncharted territory for audiences and this critic as well, among probably most others.
 
A pristinely Romantic spirit, Schumann, like Schubert and Woyzeck's Buchner, and maybe Bellini and Chopin, had a relatively brief, disturbed and unhappy life. All of these early nineteenth century Romantic geniuses worked best in small or closed, often programmatic forms. Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust were not composed as a musical unity, much less a larger dramatic unity, but as separate, brief segments composed in mostly backwards order over ten or so years.
 
Yet for us in the theater there was a beginning, middle and end, and we struggled to make it so, having only producer Hugo de Ana's staging to help us. Mr. de Ana worked with basic solutions, in the first scene personalizing Goethe's Faust to become Schumann himself with Clara Schumann seated at a grand piano as Gretchen, though this conceit was then abandoned. The following scenes were blatantly straightforward as for example the realistic cathedral where Gretchen prays, or symbolic like the huge projected compass (drafting tool) for the palace where Faust envisions his grandiose earthly projects. Faust expiates his remorse for Gretchen's death in a fantastical, silver lighted forest (silver is the word used by Goethe) with the elves and spirits of the large chorus dressed in large, light reflecting, silver robes. The final scene representing celestial perfection was made by the large chorus alternately holding or sitting on small, lighted boxes, though a cherubim encased in a plastic box descended from above from time to time.
 
Thus we had only Goethe's words to guide us through the evening, with Book II being famously abstract and difficult, and here made more so by Schumann's use of truncated and non-consecutive tracts. For synthesis of word and music we had to rely on Faust, Mephistopheles, Gretchen and various symbolic characters to bring these scenes to life. Gretchen is not a large presence in Schumann (or Goethe), thus the small scale performance by Daniela Bruera was adequate. Mephistopheles looms large in Schumann's scenes, and a huge, dynamic presence would have been helpful in simulating a dramatic action. Michele Pertusi delivered a Mephistopheles that would have been convincing in an oratorio rendering of the work, but missed grounding the role on the operatic stage. Faust himself, Markus Werba, began the evening as a too young and too green Faustian presence, and soon lost his voice besides. Thus an extra intermission was taken to give time to organize cuts in the score, notably Faust's death monologue. The rest of the evening Mr. Werba made some sounds, mouthed most lines particularly in the higher tessitura, therefore at the more dramatic moments, and beautifully enacted several sublime moments.
 
Moments made sublime in part because there were no words, the Schumann orchestra singing out the Faustian condition, Faust himself physically embodying these inspired musical utterances -- particularly at his death, in his embrace of the physical world, and ultimately at his apotheosis, the Schumann score in the hands of conductor Donato Renzetti in heartfelt coincidence with these Faustian postures.
 
Hugo de Ana is a brilliant designer, an obviously extraordinarily expensive designer. Schumann's overture was accompanied by a stunning vision of heavenly bodies flying through the solar system. His use of projections and lasers through out the evening was spectacular, with massive physical scenery intermixed as well in an onslaught of visual images that overwhelmed the simplicity and integrity of Schumann's music. Mr. de Ana's costuming was confusing as well, combining abstracted flapper era evening dress with costumes appropriate to timeless legends, many costumes with fantastical flourishes that would wow in a Las Vegas show but seemed vulgar in the Teatro Regio.
 
Schumann's musical impetus is ephemeral, even momentary, and his sound is uniquely transparent, and curiously unobtrusive while remaining gloriously lyrical. Mr. de Ana's shapes are volumetric and huge, and always beautiful. His concepts are basic, straightforward and literal. But slice it how you want, Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust is an oratorio not an opera.

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Tosca in Rome

There are always compelling reasons to make a quick mid-winter trip to Rome, but probably none more important than to see the new production of Puccini's Tosca that inaugurated the Opera di Roma's 2008 season. The Opera di Roma has staged more than seventy editions of this, the most Roman of all operas, with about a thousand performances over the past 108 years. Thus, since its prima absoluta in Rome on January 14, 1900, they have had enough practice to get it right. And that they did, well almost, at the gala opening night on January 14, 2008.
 
This newest edition was staged by Franco Zefferelli, now 85 years old, and he was true to form as the maestro absoluto of gigantic opera. Famous are his many super-sized productions at the huge Arena di Verona -- Aida, Carmen, and most recently a Trovatore, to name a few. Memorable was the heroically sized Otello at the Metropolitan Opera maybe 20 years ago, and the more recent, oversized La Boheme at the Met with over 300 people on stage for the CafÈ Momus scene.
 
This new Roman Tosca was huge too, about as huge as it could be in the ample, if finally limited confines of the Rome Opera, and made more gigantic by means beyond mere physical size. Zefferelli utilized huge, heavy stage elevators to raise a very large chorus to stage level and into the Basilica Sant'Andrea delle Valle for the famous Te Deum. Facing forward and unmoving this chorus thrust its massive sound directly outward, against which Scarpia avowed first his lust for Tosca and finally his humility in front of God.
 
Three big singers dominated the stage with super-sized voices and big opera singer presences. It was an international cast, the Tosca of Austrian soprano Martina Serafin, the Cavaradossi of Spanish tenor Marcelo Alvarez (the era of Spanish tenorial hegemony continues), and the Scarpia of ubiquitous Italian baritone Renato Bruson. Zefferelli's challenge was not to mold these singers into his conception of Puccini's characters but to impose their generic renderings of these roles onto the spectacular scenic tableaux of Rome that he created, even allowing them at times to move forward onto the black stage apron to do their thing directly to the audience, scenery be damned.
 
Conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti took this considerable stimulus to generate a musical reading that fully enveloped this gigantism. Though Puccinian tempos were observed, though sometimes on the slow side, Mo. Gelmetti fully elaborated the not too deeply hidden hysteria in Puccini's score in full-throated orchestral sounds. The result was riveting indeed, strangely stealing the thunder from Strauss' Electra as the prototype of twentieth century operatic aberration.
 
Both Mo. Gelmetti and Zefferelli know that to scratch the surface of Tosca makes Rome, not Tosca, its protagonist. For centuries Rome has struggled to reconcile its weighty, restrictive Christian presence with its permissive pagan atmospheres, and to protect the solidity of its traditional ecclesiastical structures from the new social and political ideas that continuously arrive from a more progressive Europe. The Roman actress Tosca is trapped in these conflicts, jealously enthralled by the patriotic artist Cavaradossi and at the same time infatuated by the power of Scarpia, the head of ecclesiastic Rome's secret police.
 
Zefferelli played with the massive weight of past and present Rome in the execution of Cavaradossi atop the Castel Sant'Angelo. The scene opened as expected with the imperial eagle proudly placed above highest ramparts. Huge stage elevators then raised this massive structure to reveal a dark prison beneath holding Cavaradossi, who soon moved onto the black stage apron to deliver the showpiece of the opera, e lucevano le stelle complete with a hokey vocal choke on the last phrase.
 
The effect was brilliant, the ovation was gigantic and well deserved indeed. The excited crowd demanded that the show be stopped and the aria repeated. Sig. Alvarez slipped off-stage to grab a sip of water while the clarinet player (this aria is actually a duet for clarinet and tenor) took his equally well-deserved bow. Though Alvarez seemed a bit winded vocally the second time around he pulled himself together for his final duet with Tosca, tenorial splendor at its peak.
 
Less Italianate was the Tosca of Marina Serafin, vocally a dramatic soprano rather more than an Italian spinto. Serafin's sound is in fact very big but it seems to be produced with remarkable ease, without the visceral push that defines the spinto. The result is a quite beautiful if not vocally thrilling lyricism that nonetheless served the over-the-top musical front emanating from the pit. Though this Tosca seemed more a musical means than a dramatic force her final leap did indeed set a new standard for cheap operatic thrills.
 
It would be illuminating to see an operatic Scarpia as a powerful, sexual symbol of authority rather than as the usual dirty old man. Renato Bruson is a master of this role and still vocally secure, though at more than seventy years of age he can no longer enrich this neurotically erotic opera with the sexual and vocal force needed to confuse Tosca. To see a Tosca endowed with these more complex overtones check out Carmine Gallone's 1945 film Davanti a lui tremava tutta Roma where Scarpia is the Nazi commandant of Rome (the Tosca is Anna Magnani to the voice of Renata Tebaldi).

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Orphée aux Enfers in Montpellier

Offenbach's vast catalogue is under-exploited here in the south of France where the omnipresent Les Contes d'Hoffmann is usually complimented by a La PÈrichole and the Grande Duchesse de GÈrolstein. Happily this past holiday season Nice offered La Vie Parisienne and Montpellier trotted out a handsome OrphÈe aux enfers. This leaves only a new La Belle HÈlËne to update the local quotient of the standard international Offenbach. One can only dream of more Offenbach revivals.
 
Hoffmann is never a problem -- big music, big singers and big sets easily impress. But that is that for easy Offenbach. La PÈrichole and La Grande Duchesse are masterpieces of simple humanity and simple humor, yet one can only dream of what a Grand Duchess delivered by Offenbach's legendary mezzo Hortense Schneider must have been, or savor the memories of StÈphanie d'Oustrac's Perichole in Marseille not so long ago, or Maria Ewing's Perichole in San Francisco long, long ago while suffering through overblown performances of these complex and sophisticated slight and silly pieces. And one can only groan at recollections of ponderous parody productions of OrphÈe aux enfers in Santa Fe or La Belle HÈlËne in Aix-en-Provence.
 
Like Monteverdi's Orfeo who can move Hell only when he stops trying to impress Hell, Offenbach's operettes become deliciously amusing as they are meant to be only when they are not working at being funny, when Offenbach's simple parodies are not themselves parodied. OrphÈe aux enfers in Montpellier came in somewhere in the middle ground, sometimes simple and fun, more often imploding upon itself from the sheer weight of production and hyper-energized performances.
 
Offenbach made much of his genius for simple humanity and simple humor in his early, small theaters, the original OrphÈe aux enfers written in 1878 with two acts and four scenes for the second manifestation of his ThÈ‚tre des Bouffes Parisiens (a law had just been passed that allowed more than four performers on its stage!). But Offenbach, as so many of his producers since, succumbed to the urge to elaborate on his successes inaugurating his residency in the big, new ThÈ‚tre de la GaÓtÈ in 1874 with a style Ènorme version, an orchestra of 60, a military band of 40, 120 choristers, 78 dancers, in 4 acts and 12 scenes. One can only dream or dread that the OpÈra Bastille may one day produce this version.
 
The producers in Montpellier split the difference, coming up with a version in two acts and four scenes that relied heavily on the 1858 version, adding material from the 1874 version. Whether artistic or budgetary, the decision it was a good one, offering an afternoon (23/12/07) that was finally amusing if not so very deliciously so. The success owes more to the staging of Claire Servais (who inevitably had revised the text as well), than the conducting of Montpellier's resident early music conductor HervÈ Niquet whose lugubrious seeming tempos seldom ignited Offenbach's mercuric score. But maybe that is about as fast as you can dance the can-can anyway.
 
Claire Servais' staging relied heavily on sight gags of which there were many, and a few good ones (Diana's dogs, Pluto's car, John Styx' hand), a technique that draws attention to what is supposed to be funny and obligates the performers to execute a theatrical process rather than bring a role to life. The roles in OrphÈe aux enfers are already compromised because they are broad and bold caricatures, thus finding and projecting the je ne sais quoi of Offenbach's humanity is elusive. Of the performers only the Pluto of LoÔc FÈlix, and to a lesser degree the Opinion publique of Hanna Schaer found some of this unique Offenbachian humanness and consequent charm. Though the OrphÈe of FrÈdÈric Antoun was appropriately funny from time to time this OrphÈe did not capture the capricious honesty of the male spirit that the role wishes. Marco de Sapia, a fine, young performer, worked too hard to make the Jupiter and Gabrielle Philiponet, the Eurydice, was too busy singing to allow us to share her delights in ephemeral sexual attractions.
 
Much larger than Offenbach's Théâtre des Bouffes, Montpellier's Opéra Comédie (and the OpÈra Royal de Wallonie and the ThÈ‚tre Municipal de Metz) beguiled the producers into making the most of sets and costumes. Set designer Dominique Pichou made a fine Olympus, a perfect balance of caricature with other worldly atmosphere, and enfers itself was an appropriately functional space to show off the plentitude of elaborate costumes designed by Jorge Jara and the lively can-can of a corps de ballet, including Diana's four male hounds now sporting colorful skirts they waved in perfect unison with seven ballerinas (some kicking higher than others). The final chorus was repeated three or four times to the great delight of a flock of Montpellians filled with holiday spirit.

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Orphée et Eurydice in Toulon

Orpheus is synonymous with opera -- the poet sings, making art and action one, and in the myth he must move hell itself. The bigger challenge though is to move an audience, and this task is both easy and hard. Easy if there is the artistic integrity that the myth itself demands, but hard because both hell and audiences instantly perceive when art falters. Or falls flat on its face as did OrphÈe et Euridyce at the Toulon Opera (09/12/07).
 
Announcing a production of an opera with any mention of the Orphic in the title has come to suggest a flirtation with art itself. The Harry Kupfer 1991 production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice (the 1762 Italian version for castrato) at the Komische Oper Berlin incorporated the orchestra, audience and art itself into its catharsis, the Trish Brown/Roland Aeschlimann 1998 production of Monteverdi's Orfeo at Brussel's Monnaie graphically elaborated and then resolved the puzzles of the Renaissance's Orpheus myth, the 400th anniversary of the birth of opera was celebrated at the Getty Center in Los Angeles in 2000 with a production of Peri's Euridice, one that instilled vibrant life and high entertainment into this venerable artistic artifact.
 
Thus there were precedents to engender excitement about a new production of Gluck's 1774 version of OrphÈe et Euridyce for Paris where Orpheus would be sung by a tenor rather than by a castrato substitute (a male or female mezzo soprano) or by the baritone of the 1867 Berlioz edition, not to mention that Toulon Opera possesses a fine ballet hinting that just maybe we would have all the forces necessary to realize Gluck's vision of what Wagner later re-envisioned as Gesamtkunstwerk.
 
With the modern orchestral forces of the Toulon Opera there could be, thankfully, no attempt at a precious Collegium Musicum reading of the work, thus the tuning tone A was at approximately 448, considerably higher than the A at 393 in 1774 (giving some real justification for Berlioz' baritone). That Toulon's fiery Italian conductor Giuliano Carella was in the pit evoked a bit of trepidation as the circumspect and ceremonious proceedings of Gluck reform operas never caught on in Italy, his Alceste judged a turgid de profundus at its 1767 Milan premiere.
 
But if there were any pleasures at all in the evening they came from the pit during the third act when Euridice confronted Orpheus' coldness in a duet that Carella made quiver with the very Metastasian hyper-emotions that Gluck had wished to restrain. Carella then drove emotional excitement and simple raw speed through Eurydice's death culminating in OrphÈe's great lament, delivered in chokingly exaggerated orchestral phrasing to OrphÈe's unbridled despairing lyricism, far from the heroic self-awareness Gluck and the Enlightenment's Orpheus had worked so hard to achieve, but worth the price of admission.
 
The first two acts of Orphée et Eurydice are extended scenes for chorus and ballet in which Orpheus' predicament unfolds, each scene centered around an Orpheus monologue and aria. While the pushed quality and fast vibrato of Russian tenorino Maxim Mironov worked in Carella's passionate third act these fine Rossini attributes were out of place in the stately pace of these acts, the measured emotions of Chiamo il mio ben and Che puro cielo simply did not materialize making these two acts a musical and dramatic void.
 
The brief appearance of the Eurydice was the only excitement offered, German soprano Henrike Jacob exuding a heated, Carmen like physical and vocal sexuality that was blatantly foreign to the intelligence of the Orpheus' tragedy.
 
The two pantomimes of the second act, the furies barring Orpheus' entry into hell and the blessed souls of the Elysian Fields, unfolded in what seemed to be some sort of anti-choreography, the first pantomime clumsily mimicking grotesque motions and the second a moving circle miming some sort of dead harmony -- so much for Gluck's intention of integrating the complex ballets of the intermËdes of French tragedie lyrique into the action of the opera. All the more confusing because there was a choreographer credit in the program.
 
Jack-of-all-theater-trades Numa Sadoul, born in Brazzaville though one assumes naturalized to France, staged the opera, taking the chorus that Gluck had so carefully integrated into the opera out of the action, dressing the choristers in costumer Luc Londiveau's idea as to what would pass for eighteenth century finery, seating them in the first two levels of the boxes overhanging the orchestra pit. With Amore, French soprano Joanna Malewski, and her two mute accomplices in eighteenth century dress as well, director Sadoul apparently intended to frame the action within some sort of historical context though no perspective made itself discernable. The result was the distancing of his audience from any confrontation with the complexities of the Orpheus tragedy.
 
But, voil‡, the ballet! Finalment! Everything finished except for the last chorus celebrating the inevitable happy ending, sixteen golden eighteenth century courtiers invaded the stage, and we saw that they were not the clumsy furies and the bored souls of Act II, but eight real ballerinas and eight real ballerinos who carried out a complex choreography in classic ballet movements for perhaps thirty minutes. They danced to the music that Gluck was obliged to provide for an extended ballet segment at the 1774 production, a ballet that had absolutely nothing to do with his opera and occurred only after the unities of his tragedy were complete.
 
But in Toulon Gluck's final celebratory chorus was a stinger to this ballet, director Numa Sadoul somehow outmaneuvering Gluck. France would be far wiser to invest in augmenting its arsenal of nuclear weaponry rather than adding more mediocre or worse productions to its opera repertory.

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Marius et Fanny in Marseille

French playwright/filmmaker Marcel Pagnol (1894-1974) is loved in France and unabashedly worshipped in Marseille where he was born. He has a bit of an international following as cult figure for devotees of twentieth century cinema as the maker of Manon de la Source, and is appreciated by foreigners for depicting idealized ProvenÁal personalities that we actually sometimes meet.
 
Pagnol wrote during one of the bloodier eras of France's bloody history -- two huge wars taking place on French soil, the Vietnamese and Algerian colonial wars, student riots and constitutional crises. But these cataclysmic events are not topics in the Pagnol oeuvre as Pagnol tells the little stories of decent, unimportant people taking delight in doing the decent if sometimes painful thing in the face of quite understandable human failings. These stories document a humanity that seems simple and pure when rendered in Pagnol's delicate art but are at the same time the ingrained pastime we all know as gossip.
 
Marius et Fanny is an opera based on three plays written by Pagnol in the 1920's and 30's, Marius, CÈsar, and Fanny, and then made immediately into films. These plays have been dubbed the Marseille trilogy as they relate a love story that takes place on Marseille's Vieux Port. Besides this world premiere the OpÈra de Marseille offers two more operas this fall, Madama Butterfly and Il barbiere di Siviglia, brilliant programming, as these operas are both mirrors and polar opposites of Marius and Fanny, offering contrasts that tell us everything we need to know. When Marius who has abandoned Fanny returns he does not take their child with him when he again departs, and the abandoned Fanny does not kill herself but in fact marries her much older, rich suitor and is content. A further significant contrast is that Butterfly and Barber are important operas, Marius et Fanny is not.
 
Romanian born, naturalized French composer Vladimir Cosma created the opera, its book based on Pagnol's words but the music is all Cosma. No stranger to Pagnol works, Cosma composed the music for the 1990 films made by Yves Robert of Pagnol's 1957 novels La Gloire de Mon Pere and Le Chateau de Ma Mere. Among the more than 200 film and television scores he has created so far, international cinema audiences may rememberDiva (1981), one of the first French films made in the colorful, melodic new cinÈma du look style with Cosma's facile imitations of Eric Satie's GymnopÈdies integrated into his pastiche of well known opera arias.
 
There is a deep chasm between Pagnol and Cosma, both accomplished twentieth century artists emerging from two of its more distinct emotional and artistic climates. Pagnol is delicate and original while Cosma is bombastic and derivative, able to conjure Le Wally, Puccini, Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein and Tony Bennett (voir Sasha Distel) successively and simultaneously, and able as well to easily construe a series of musical numbers that resembles a real opera or better operetta. Such extravagant means are foreign to the Pagnol innocence that reassures a simply humanity within the unspoken inhumanity of its contemporary history. On the surface beguiling, Cosma's Fanny et Marius mostly fell into meaningless, clichÈd musical gesture, its music better suited to amplifying wide-screen Technicolor images than simple emotions.
 
As nearly always at the OpÈra de Marseille casting was superb, extraordinary was Marius' father CÈsar (the role created by the legendary Toulon commedien Raimu) played by bass Jean-Philippe Lafont, sympathetic was the fine baritone of Marc Barrard as the old suitor Panisse, convincing was the Marius of young tenor SÈbastien GuÈze (14/09/07). Soprano Karen Vourc'h seemed more comfortable playing the matronly Fanny than the girl-next-door Fanny (14/09/07). As too often in Marseille the production was of little interest, content with a sort of literal illustration that is unsatisfying to audiences now accustomed to thoughtful, sometimes even conceptual staging. The Cosma score was dutifully served up by conductor Jacques Lacome and Marseille's fine orchestra.
 
But this was Marseille's moment, its audience immensely appreciative of this pop-opera bow to probably its most favorite son. This obvious appreciation was contagious certainly even to those in the audience who will soon be genuinely moved by Butterfly's brilliantly heroic self sacrifice and delighted by the unbridled vocal egoism of Beaumarchais' twisted characters in Rossini's brilliant Barber.
 
Note that the alternate cast was Roberto Alagna as Marius and Angela Gheorghiu as Fanny. A DVD recording has been made of this performance. Bon dieu. Not to be missed!

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Monteverdi Madrigals in Edinburgh

Much is made of Claudio Monteverdi's madrigals by historians of music. This formidable body of music that emerged over Monteverdi's long life dramatically tracks the rise of solo voice declamation of theatrical text and the demise of multi-voice, polyphonic settings of lyric poetry. However not much is made of these extraordinary pieces by early music performers, perhaps because of their inextricable fusion to Italian sensibility and language as well as to their inherently virtuostic technical and musical nature. Surely it is difficult to find places for such brief pieces in larger programs, and then there are those of us who suspect that music of such dramatic force transcends the preciousness associated with early music and therefore does not belong in such programs anyway.

Italian conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini organized a cycle of fifty-one madrigals coming from the eight separate books of madrigals published by Monteverdi over approximately fifty years. The Alessandrini cycle was spread over five, early evening one-hour programs within seven days. After the first, well-attended program word was out that this was the hot ticket at the festival, stuffing the Greyfriars Kirk with an excited audience for the remaining four evenings.

The Alessandrini cycle enacted these small pieces, many of them masterpieces and some not so small after all, with his on-going group Il Concerto Italiano, here comprised of a pool of seven singers, two omnipresent theorbos, three violins, a cello, bass and harpsichord. The cycle became operatic indeed as we became familiar with Alessandrini's singers who soon lost identity as the accomplished young Italian singers they were and became the actual Tirsi's and Clori's, Pastorella's and Pastore's, Amarilli and the suffering poets themselves who speak out in these madrigals. These mythic characters plunged us into an inexhaustible state of tension, our desperate needs teased but never fulfilled, our souls at once torn and satisfied by passion.

Monteverdi lived with this poetic tension over his long life, and it was his muse. Over the five programs our minds were at first charmed by Renaissance madrigal art itself and then, gradually, astounded by the Monteverdi genius as it discovered the solo voice, the expressive possibilities soaring when voices are freed of musical obligations.

The most memorable moments of the cycle were always the five voiced madrigals on poetry by the great Italian Renaissance poets. The early books (I, II, III) were at their most exciting when setting fluid, mixed meter verses by Torquato Tasso, poetry that offered ample opportunities for indulging in natural and emotional description. The masterful, harmonically highly articulated middle books (IV and V) using Battista Guarini's complicated pastoral Il Pastor Fido and the dramatically vivid verses by Ottavio Rinuccini (the librettist for Peri's Dafne and Eurydice, the very first operas) take the five voice polyphonic madrigal to dramatic heights never surpassed.

Though Monteverdi's book VI comes after his first very successful Mantuan operatic efforts it does not pursue the solo voices that opera had discovered, preferring the traditional five madrigal voices here to musically cloth the lament of Rinuccini's Arianna, Monteverdi's lost second opera of which the only existing fragment is this lament, in the opera obviously for solo voice. It is in this book that Monteverdi discovers the brilliant and complex sonnets by both the ultra-modern poet of the moment, Giambattista Marino and the venerable first of the Renaissance love poets, Francesco Petrarca. The long lines of these metaphorically involved and structurally complex sonnets trigger intensive experimentation through the addition of instrumental musical textures. This frees the poets' words to float freely and decoratively above the basic musical groundwork, and for Monteverdi to indulge in five-voice musical elaborations of stridently intense emotions.

The final two books, VII and VIII, hold the great solo madrigals, among them the extended scene Tirsi e Clori, an intense love letter read by a suffering shepherd, a lament for an emotionally overwrought nymph (with three commenting shepherds), and finally the extended Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda that indulges its narrator to recount the brutal actions and terrible ironies of Torquato Tasso's knight who unknowingly thrusts his sword into his beloved, impressively aided by Monteverdi's indulgence in his newly found agitated style. These madrigals were sung full-throttle in full-scale histrionic melodrama, at once over done and perfectly done.

The last madrigal in the cycle returned to the multi voiced madrigal, a six voice concerted (with instruments) setting of one of the most famous poems from Petrarch's Canzoniere, Hor che'l ciel e la terra e'l vento tace (Now that heaven, earth and the winds are silent). This complex work, really a dramatic oratorio, was a most fitting and moving conclusion to Monteverdi's life-long musical adventure, as it was a synthesis of the most basic expressive techniques of sixteenth century multi-voiced madrigals with the most audacious of early seventeenth-century musical discoveries.

Ironically conductor Alessandrini's powerful presence was almost unseen, as his back was to the audience while he ignited and controlled these five hours of on-the-edge emotions and sublime art. Although the program booklet did not identify the singers who sang the solo madrigals, these artists received huge ovations as did, finally Maestro Alessandrini. This Monteverdi/Alessandrini madrigal cycle was a powerful, one fears once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Unfortunately Mo. Alessandrini has been engaged to conduct the three extant Monteverdi operas in new productions at Milan's La Scala, a theater and an artistic environment hardly appropriate for these works.

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Abduction from the Seraglio in San Francisco

Some of the more memorable achievements of San Francisco Opera occurred in the brief life-span of its Spring Opera season, 1961-1981.

This long ago April-May season embraced the lesser known and experimental repertory, premieres and advanced staging style looks at nearly anything that might be called opera.  And sung in English, the language of its audience.  Thus almost immediately (1962) Spring Opera gave San Francisco Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio — it readily qualified as lesser known, it was an experiment — Mozart’s own experiment into singspiel, and with its dependence on the spoken work it was not really opera.

Spring Opera’s headier moments happened in its later years at the Broadway-style Curran Theatre, and among these moments again was Abduction (1975) this time in the hands of jack-of-all-theatre-trades Jack O’Brien (but that handle is now, back then it was his first, experimental foray into opera).  O’Brien’s first revelation was that Abduction was not about its story told in spoken words, it was about its music, thus he slashed its dialogues to the absolute bone, and let them sing.  One of Spring Opera’s slickest productions resulted.


But these days Abduction is big-house stuff, not only in repertory weary San Francisco but around the world.  Just last March Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail that is currently on the War Memorial stage.  Only in Chicago the spiel was in German (well, there was one German in the cast) while in San Francisco the dialogues were mostly in American though the sing fortunately was in German — the one German in sight was a very important one, the young maestro Cornelius Meister.

This uncomfortable language duality left he ear confused.  It also gave rise to the trivial critical question as to whether Mozart's opera should have been entitled Entführung in San Francisco, or Abduction as preferred by the SFO program booklet.

But the answer is easy — it was an Entführung.   It all happened in the pit, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra rising magnificently to the occasion of the American debut of 29 year-old, wunderkind Cornelius Meister.  This fine orchestra responded to the warmth and to the joyous overflow of rare and new Mozartian colors imparted by the young German maestro, and played with a beauty of string tone that gave the evening (2/10) its considerable musical luster.

Mozart’s simple singspiel has two monster roles, that of the abducted Constanze and her rescuer Belmonte.  Matthew Polenzani, an alumnus of Lyric Opera’s young artist program and now a highly credentialed Mozart singer, brought urgency, beauty of tone and perfect phrasing to the considerable amount of singing Mozart’s hero must accomplish.  Mary Dunleavy, a recent SFO Gilda, took on the fiendishly difficult Constanze and succeeded gracefully enough, appropriately displaying her quite beautiful voice, considerable technique and solid high notes in the opera’s grand soprano showpiece Martern aller Arten.

Unfortunately Es lebe die Liebe, Mozart’s famous tour de force reunion quartet, did not succeed in musically uniting its four singers  —  though Anna Christy acquitted herself handsomely as Blonde throughout the evening, Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack was over parted as Pedrillo, not yet a match for arrived artists.  Bass Peter Rose was a vocally pale Osmin, his smooth voice and soft presence an uncomfortable match to Mozart’s sharper buffo demands.  The Pasha of actor Charles Shaw Robinson made no effect.

While Mr. Rose’s Queen’s English inflected speeches were no more at odds with the character of the Turkish lecher Osmin than Hochdeutsch might have been, his Samurai wig was, as was his most fanciful Papageno-like costume, not to mention his retinue of little, bare chest Samurai eunuchs.  In fact one was not sure what was supposed to be happening on the Baroque stage within the War Memorial stage.

Accounts of the Chicago performances talk about an old Pasha who began imagining this episode of his lost youth during the overture, about a trap door that opened into the false stage where Belmonte then climbed out, and soon a young Pasha appeared as well, explaining that this was a performance within a performance.  None of this or anything else of the Chas Rader-Shieber Chicago concept made it to San Francisco.  What we saw in San Francisco was inexplicable.

Besides Blonde’s jaunty yellow hat the quartet of lovers costumes were elaborately period, including Constanze’s wigs.  So it was costume opera, take it or leave it.  The crowd gamely took it, and applauded young Mozart’s Italianate attempt at singspiel that belonged in a much smaller theater, and cheered the appropriately attractive youthful cast and conductor.

Cast and Production

Constanze: Mary Dunleavy; Blonde: Anna Christy; Belmonte: Matthew Polenzani; Pedrillo: Andrew Bidlack; Osmin: Peter Rose / Andrea Silvestrelli (9/29); Pasha Selim: Charles Shaw Robinson. Conductor: Cornelius Meister / Giuseppe Finzi (10/17, 10/23). Director: Chas Rader-Shieber. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind.

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L'incoronazione di Poppea in Edinburgh

Tragic dignity along with Platonic idealism long flushed into a canal, Venice's mid seventeenth century opera scene was real, the real having everything to do with what turned the public on. The Venetian audience was no doubt sexually quite sophisticated, and luckily the senior citizens of Britain must be even moreso as this experience was needed to appreciate director Barrie Kosky's Poppea, a fantasy on Monteverdi's last opera, The Coronation of Poppea.
 
With only an occasional word of Italian to be heard, the guttural utterances of German actors were appropriately matched to the guttural tones of an orchestra of three cellos throbbing between the legs of their players, all this mixed with the lively innuendoes of worldly Cole Porter lyrics. And not a singer in sight.
 
The curators of the Edinburgh festival must have had some trepidation as this version from the Vienna Schauspielhaus of Monteverdi's last masterpiece could only be perceived as a centerpiece of the festival's focus on the first of the great Italian musical lyricists. Although a synopsis of Poppea's action could not be found in the program booklet a sort of apology could, this in the guise of a listing of director Kosky's weird sexual concepts for opera productions in Austria and Australia. While we all have come a long way and can handle most anything thrown at us by now, the fear lingered that the experience was going to be gross.
 
And of course it was, though it is hard to decide if the grossness was Monteverdi's opera itself, the very nerve to create a theatrical fantasy on an operatic masterpiece, or the compendium of sexual deviations that was so gracefully inserted into Monteverdi's libretto. Amore was a madame whose pleasures by now have included those of the table, her bejewelled fingers shooting sparks of the je-ne-sais-quoi that ignite and tease passions. Love had twisted Poppea's young husband Ottone into contortions, Poppea was an animal shooting sparks from her teeth and growls from her mouth, Nero's body and mind revealed indulgences that transcended the primitivism of his costume, a piece of sparkling black fabric that hung waist down like a pelt, matching that of Poppea. Seneca appears as a deaf mute, an inanimate statue, a masturbating voyeur.
 
These were actors whose entire physical, spiritual and vocal presences embodied Monteverdi's characters. We soon understood that while they were not singers, they would sing anyway, the entire text as well as the inserted songs -- both Cole Porter's and finally the magnificent Monteverdi lament and love duet, the rejected empress Ottavia using broken voiced harmonics and squeaks, the triumphant Poppea twisting her low predatory tones under the strange tenorial innocence of Nero. Not opera or even ballad singers, these actors were certainly instinctual musicians.
 
The generic contemporary German stage box held but two Louis XIV chairs that crashed silently from time to time and a small bathtub that shot into the space from time to time. Within this space the whore madame Amore guides Poppea to her goal, rids Nero of Seneca in a blood bath, thwarts Ottavia's revenge and sends Ottone and his new sweetheart Drusilla off into the sunset, presumably to continue singing Cole Porter songs to one another. This leaves Poppea and Nero alone, sitting passively side by side, professing love in this sudden emptiness. It is empty, and for once we have truly felt Monteverdi's deep intuition that it is suffering and not love that is the fun.
 
This evening of theatrical hyper-sophistication never strayed too far from Monteverdi musically, with L'incoronazione di Poppea's most recognisable themes as well as subtle distillations of Monteverdi's musically elaborate recitatives woven into composer Kosky's musical texture. Theatrically Poppea kept the careful balances of tragicomedy even with or perhaps because of the audacious mixing of Cole Porter songs with Kosky's music. These songs, plus the use of the German language, an always useful barroom piano, the throaty sounds of cello, a greatly simplified love situation made a fine cabaret opera, perhaps musically too sophisticated for the larger theater public and theatrically too sophisticated for the larger opera audience. It was a perfect evening for Edinburgh's festival audience.
 
Unlike opera traditionally thought to be made of individual performances, theater prides itself on ensemble, thus no individual bows were taken (and so no names are here written). In a well-rehearsed simultaneous motion the actors recognised the musical and theatrical creator of the evening, Barrie Kosky who sat at the piano in the orchestra pit.

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Il trovatore in Orange

Orange's magnificent Théâtre Antique was packed to the gills. France's glamour tenor Roberto Alagna was le trouvËre, reputedly one of his best roles. And Les ChorÈgies d'Orange had well met the challenge of assembling a supporting cast for this dashing, now forty-four year-old tenorissimo with the Leonora of American soprano Susan Neves, the Azucena of Russian mezzo Larrissa Diadkova, and the Conte di Luna of South Korean baritone Seng-Hyoun Ko.
 
Make no mistake, Il trovatore is not about infanticide and bloody revenge. It is about singing. Nonetheless a case can be made for casting a handsome trouvËre, and in Orange his gypsy mother exuded an elegance of bearing that could even have engendered such tenorial flash, though of course she is not really his mother and really is a hag. Verisimilitude was completely lost with the pairing of this trouvËre's cocky Sicilian swagger with the ballsy swagger of his somewhat shorter Korean brother. It was international opera at its best, meaning that the casting ultimately did make dramatic sense where it matters most for Il Trovatore -- in the voices.
 
The venue is huge, dominated by a massive back wall with some small architectural detail remaining. Because the stage may be as much as 60 meters wide it reads as a massive horizontal space, clearly impossible to transform scenically. Thus the Orange Roman theater gave definition to minimalist staging long before this late twentieth century style became accepted by opera audiences elsewhere.
 
So it was staging as usual, this time by Charles Roubaud who has proven himself a fine minimalist in many productions hereabouts, most recently Die Walk¸re in Marseille. As usual massive armies poured in from the huge side openings, clashed as necessary in the middle and flowed out the other side, here the Aragon soldiers and their officers in tailored pale blue gray uniforms, the Biscay rebels without uniform, mostly in black. By contrast nuns flowed in, circled and flowed out of a hidden upstage opening, white habits billowing. Costumes are everything at Orange. Costumer Katia Duflot rose to the occasion providing something akin to operatic haute couture, never allowing a level of elegance to falter even when clothing Verdi's gypsy hag.
 
The principal singers were kept right where they belonged -- downstage center, le trouvËre and his elegant gypsy stepmother in chic, close fitting Spanish black. Leonora on the other hand was covered in yards of a gray-blue gossamer fabric able to be caught by the slightest of breezes, creating an impressively dynamic presence. Mme. Neves remained immobile for her fourth act arias, allowing the movements of her costume to amplify her pianissimos and to brighten the fires of these showpieces. Nine thousand people, maybe ten, roared their appreciation.
 
Downstage center to be sure, and in obvious rapport with conductor Gianandrea Noseda, this fine cast delivered great arias and ensembles of Verdi's most melodious opera on the level of what seemed near perfection. Though when not communing with his divas and divos this conducting star indulged in lugubrious, self-important tempos, sometimes losing the scores of chorus voices (unlikely as it may seem, tight ensemble has been the rule rather than the exception at Orange over the years).
 
A stepped structure upstage center gave access the large door centered in the back wall, a point of dramatic entrance and exit. It was here that director Roubaud positioned Alagna, his sword thrust high, to deliver the critically incorrect high "c" of di quella pira. Even though the duration of this high note was kept tastefully brief it evoked a huge ovation, the long duration of which Alagna held this hyper dramatic pose.
 
The most striking visual element of this Orange production was its use of projection and video, the work of one Gilles Papain. For once the cheap effect stigma of such tricks was overcome, perhaps because projecting video images of such magnitude (an estimated 40 by 60 meters) could hardly be cheap, and images of such size can only be imposing. Inspired by the breezes and sometimes the winds that play around the uncovered theater, these huge, artful video images, always in black and white, created a visual energy in this massive space that complimented its high musical energy.
 
The shadow of the single branch that made Leonora's garden seemed to move with the gentle breezes that stirred the evening air, battle scene flags beat urgently to the hints of a mistral wind, the huge raft of votive candles flickered dimly in the monastery. Finally a pyre ignited; at first a red slash appeared across the width of the stage, then a huge, intense, red flame burst onto the wall into which Azucena shouted her revenge.
 
This final image, playing beyond the words but certainly within the intention of Verdi's libretto, was driven with inspired musical brilliance by conductor Noseda, creating the kind of spine tingling finale that occurs every so often in Orange, and keeps us going back for more.

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Sorbet, Sorbet in Carnoules

Summertime in the South of France provides a superabundance of performing arts. Luckily the seemingly unlimited means of the Aix, Avignon, Montpellier and Orange festivals usually fund good performances, sometimes even great performances on standards comparable to Europe's important festivals. But there are lots more festivals hereabouts, small village festivals, and some even dare artistic aspirations comparable to those of the major festivals.
 
The Weekend Musical in Carnoules, a village in the central Var, is such a festival. Though working on a production standard that is decidedly local it is at the same time uncompromising in its aspiration to create high art. In the past content with versions of pieces like Carmen, Werther and even Milhaud's Trois OpÈras Minutes, this summer Weekend Musical took on the daredevil task of making a new opera, a sprawling comedy called Sorbet Sorbet.
 
Sorbet Sorbet is a collaboration between librettist Bernard Turle and two composers, VÈronique Souberbielle and Simon Milton, she French and he British. The result was complex theater of spoken word (French) that flowed into chant, broke into chanson, gave way to dance and converged in complex musical scenes of aria and ensemble. The focus seldom faltered at its July 25 world premiere, though the oblique storytelling left much of the audience often wondering what in fact was happening.
 
Global warming makes topics like "ice" topical indeed and global markets have made it likely that your sorbet may now be made in China. Thus Bernard Turle fittingly made his story about an ice cream factory caught in transition, not only in its marketplace but also the personalities caught in these larger world transitions. The story, set in the 1970's, is comic, developing the tensions between the generations of the factory's founding family, and the tensions that overwhelm their inner lives as each transcends an age of life. Of course these comic forces are not always funny, but they are always classically comic as we see yet again that these are the forces that renew the world.
 
Big yes, too big maybe for the Salle Communale in Carnoules, that was mostly a stage set and an orchestra, the overflow audience seeming almost incidental. A large cast, the father and mother, a son and a two daughters, a maid and a foreman, an ice-skating teacher, plus the catalyst, the "green" boyfriend who arrives on a vintage motor scooter -- all principal roles. Not to mention the 20 or so workers in the ice cream factory who chanted and sang and danced throughout the evening.
 
As the story deftly interlaced the bizarre, the absurd and the weird into the real, the music paced itself, balancing the certainty of gospel style harmonic progressions with the confident plaintiveness of the modern French chanson, juxtaposing the enervating intervals of Richard Strauss quotations with the acoustical play of harmonics, and in the larger moments unleashing orchestral structures that created the warm, cold, comic, tragic, ironic moods that underpinned the story. Though two compositional styles were perceptible they were compatible, and seamlessly integrated. A printed program that credited the specific contributions of each composer would have been helpful.
 
There were some quite effective performances, among them the mother, a Marschallin figure portrayed by soprano Julia Catalani who pleads to preserve her beauty cyrogenically (by freezing). Bernard Turle himself vividly spoke the few words of the father that acerbate both the incipient family and business confrontations, the rebel daughter Marie-Jo played by mezzo-soprano Danielle Sales was at first convincingly angry and then moving as she gave birth, her lover Kamel was played by tenor John Upperton who brought some high level singing to the production.
 
High art too was the ice-skating dance scene that opened the second act, walking a fine line between caricature, comedy and even ballet as performed by CÈcile the ice-skating daughter sung by composer VÈronique Souberbielle herself and an unidentified chorister, both non dancers though Ms. Souberbielle is perhaps a better dancer than singer. Perhaps it was she as composer who provided the brilliantly ironic and highly refined music for this mesmerizing scene.
 
The chorus, comprised of local townspeople who ably negotiated demanding rhythms and never let down a formidable dramatic concentration, was one of the evening's supreme pleasures.
 
The nine players of the orchestra, that of London's Midsummer Opera, here specifically a string quartet, plus clarinet (played by composer Simon Milton), flute, bassoon and percussion was led from the piano by its conductor/director David Roblou. This small group brought robust presence to the Milton/Souberbielle score particularly colored from time to time by clarinet and bassoon solos and the wood block punctuation of the percussion.
 
The cast included Tania Zolty who made the fur hat coiffed ice-skating teacher Madame Kezeeff seem exotic, soprano CÈcile Piris exuded a sweetness as the maid that ensnared finally the recalcitrant family scion Hughes, sung by baritone Trevor Alexander. Bass Jean-Philippe Doubrere uttering some strikingly low tones in the final tableau was the wily factory foreman Blandenyck. The formidable job of musical preparation of the singers was not identified, though one assumes it should be credited to Mo. Roblou.
 
Staged by Bernard Turle who also assembled an impressive array of costumes and props, and effectively lighted by Franck Jouanny, this production had all the polish one expects from the big festivals, and none of the pretension. As all new works, this one too has need of editing as the evening could have ended a bit before it finally did.

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Cosi fan tutte and Zaide at the Aix Festival

Mozart's Zaide was performed the previous evening in the acoustically excellent, outdoor Théatre de l'Archeveché, as was this Cosi.  The Zaide was a 2006 production from the Weiner Festwochen and New York's Lincoln Center, and was presented by the Aix Festival as an obvious masterpiece of mise en scène.  Therefore critical discussion of this brilliant Peter Sellars production was limited and finally trivial, and at the same time the audience response was enthusiastic, something all too rare in Aix.

 

There was however excited anticipation surrounding Aix's current attempt at staging Cosi fan tutte, this time by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kzarostami.  That Mr. Kzarostami's films often include scenes in the back seat of cars seemed a fine preparation for a racy take on this difficult-to-stage opera.  Cosi often defeats even real opera metteurs en scène, raising the question of why such a problematic task was given to a filmmaker who had never staged on opera -- a question obliquely illuminated by the counter question of why opera directors are never asked to make films.

At first there seemed to be a payoff as film, meaning moving pictures images (movies) filled the full stage backdrop, initially a cafe backdrop of voyeurs to Cosi's wager, offering the intriguing idea that this public may later be peeking into the back seats of cars.  The second, and prevailing backdrop was the hypnotic wave action of the waters of the Bay of Naples.  Though after awhile a boat appeared on its horizon, slowly making its way forward, then retreating, charmingly creating the opera's departure deception.

The constant movement of images — the small physical motions of the cafe patrons in the brief first scene and the constant movement of waves -- encouraged the heightened musical level that had begun with the overture (gratefully un-staged), its detailed woodwinds cannily stating the sly, maybe cruel humor of this Mozart masterpiece.  The insightful conducting of Christophe Rousset infused the fine Salzburg Camerata with fleetness and detail.

The musical apex of the evening, and it was spellbinding, was only too quickly reached in the famous first act trio Soave sia il vento.  We were then left with three hours of slight wave action illustrating the too scrupulous telling of this too contrived story in its pure eighteenth century setting.  Not a syllable was cut from Mozart's recitatives nor a single phrase of his music was deleted, proving the well known if infamous evaluation that Mozart uses far too many notes.  It was a four hour endurance effort with only a single intermission to relieve the boredom.

 

The last twenty minutes saw filmmaker Kiarostami's third set of moving images.  This time the backdrop was of the Salzburg Camerata and maestro Rousset in full concert regalia, mutely holding forth in more or less unison with the actual Salzburg Camerata musical rendition of this scene live from Archevêché pit   It was some slight relief to have something to think about, like what possible dramatic reason there could be for the pit orchestra to suddenly become the backdrop of this truly inept production.

    

Maestro Rousset revealed himself to be the early music musician of his program booklet biography, evoking an unvarying cuteness of style that cannot sustain an extended evening.  The Rousset tempi were those common to early music, toe-tappingly quick in the ensembles when not excruciatingly slow in the arias.  The Aix Festival assembled a young cast of which only the Guglielmo of Edwin Crosslry-Mercer had the physical vitality to match the hyperventilation emanating from the pit.  The small voice of tenor Finnur Bjarnason was mismatched to his larger voiced amorous competitors; the Fiordiligi of poker faced Sofia Solovzy offered a few ultra-italianate tones from time to time; the gangly Dorabella of Janja Vuletic was at odds with the idea of an upcoming Carmen her program booklet biography announced.

    

Don Alfonso seemed lost in his own thoughts while on stage, noticeably limping when taking his bow, and supporting himself on the back of a chair while the others took their bows, a mystery if this comportment were his character or a sudden illness.  Kzarostami's Despina was charmless, no fault of Judith van Wanroij in the most solid vocal performance of this helpless evening.

Because of its juxtaposition to the Peter Sellars production the night before, this Kzarostami Cosi was placed in direct contrast to the politicized stagings of Mr. Sellars' Mozart, be it the famous 1980 (or so) setting of Cosi fan tutte in a diner [a sort of simple American brasserie] or this Zaide set in an anywhere sweatshop, controversial antiwar statements replaced by the universal, unarguable anti-slavery sentiments we all share.

Peter Sellars is now too old to be a wunderkind, though this Zaide proves that he is, but in full operatic maturity. The interesting if sometimes barely adequate young American singers of his late twentieth century Mozart trilogy mounted in rural upstate New York have been replaced by graduates of San Francisco Opera and the Met's young singer programs, and here in Aix a Viennese trained Russian soprano thrown in as well. If nothing else these young artists have major voices and impeccable training.  Not to mention that the scrappy trilogy orchestras are now real orchestras with real conducting, here New York's Mostly Mozart conductor Louis Langrée and the Salzburg Camerata.

What has not changed is Sellars' idea that these artists, and in fact Mozart's operas, are simply people who sing, who above all else possess simple, human realities.  This provokes acting that seems like anti-acting, and often leads Sellars to champion humble minority classes, thrust into high theatrical relief because of their non-European skin tones.  New are the repetitive, sometimes ritualistic motions that mercilessly grind in elevated emotion, and sometimes unite his characters in common philosophical aspiration.  New too is his expressive exploitation of time in long spells of silence or long sections of aimless music, here some incidental music Mozart turned out for a random theater evening in Vienna (not every Mozart note is a masterpiece).

With these fragments of an opera that Mozart finished Sellars made a dramatic whole, adding only an eloquent sheet metal back wall that sounded loudly throughout the evening.  Sellars ended where Mozart stopped, in full tragic circumstance with no resolution.  Though there was hope of redemption as golden light flooded up the back wall through the metal grills of the multi-level prison floors.

The Aix Festival was founded sixty-one years ago, its first production was Mozart's Cosi fan tutte.  The Mozart operas, much loved by the enlightened French public, have remained central to its repertory.  In recent years Aix has insisted on entrusting these masterpieces to puppeteers, filmmakers and theater directors who have little feeling for or understanding of opera.  The results, uniformly dismal, have not breathed new life into this old art form but have made it theatrically more distant, and finally more boring than ever before.

 

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L'Orfeo at the Aix Festival

The more famous contemporary choreographers arrive from time to time in the South of France to ply their craft. Pina Bausch inaugurated the StÈphane Lissner regime at the Aix Festival ten years ago with an indifferent, ultimately boring Bluebeard's Castle, more recently Sasha Walz brought her splendid Dido and Aeneas to Montpellier, water tanks and all. Some years back Trisha Brown's troop of dancers showed up in the Cour d'Honneur of the Avignon Festival, enervating a small audience that fled noisily when it had had its fill of stomping and running.
 
But not so the Trisha Brown L'Orfeo at the Aix Festival where the audience sat entranced for two hours of mushy Monteverdi. Danced rather more effectively than sung, this performance (15/07/07) was driven primarily by spectacular stagecraft, brilliant minimalism and the indefatigable genius of Monteverdi. It is no surprise that there was a pleased audience as this Orfeo was hardly a new trick, having proved itself ten years ago at Bernard Foccroulle's ThÈatre Monnaie.
 
Swiss designer Toland Aeschlimann provided a huge white box to enclose the action. The front wall then the back wall held the same huge open circle on which Trisha Brown's flying dancer, La Musica, became the dynamic suspended decorations of a Renaissance ceiling. A sidewall moved forward revealing the third act blackness of Hell and its guard Caronte, its fatal movement heroically resisted by Trisha Brown's Orfeo. Then Euridice was turned to stone, the enigmatic tragedy was achieved, and Hell receded. Eventually the opposite side moved onstage motivating Orfeo's apotheosis by pushing his assent onto Aeschlimann's perfect, heavenly circle. These bold scenographic statements matched perfectly Monteverdi's mythology.
 
Trisha Brown's nymphs and swains, uniformly clothed in movement friendly loose white pant suits, enlivened the pastoral first act while Orfeo, loosely suited in energetic yellow, expressed his happiness. Monteverdi's Euridice appears only momentarily; here in an elaborate, abstracted short gown in saturated blue, her subsequent death recounted by an emerald green nymph, la Messagiera. The infernal spirits wrapped in cowled black robes rolled on the floor making the river Styx come alive with these unhappy souls marooned in Hell. These strong shapes and colors of Aeschlimann's minimalist costumes attained status as universal symbols of the Christian and pagan tensions that preoccupied the Renaissance man.
 
There was little distinction in the movements and dynamism of Trisha Brown's ten dancers, the eleven young chorus singers comprising English Voices, and the twelve young soloists of the Aix Festival's AcadÈmie europÈenne de musique. Trish Brown's dance language is urgent and minimal, as is Monteverdi's music. Movements are simple elaborations of ordinary human motions that are quickly executed while moving in concert with other dancers in and out of larger graphic shapes.
 
There were two professional singers in the cast, the Orfeo of Ed Lyon (appearing in three of the six performances) and the Musica/Messagiera/Speranza of Marie-Claude Chappuis. Mr. Lyon's Orfeo was splendidly sung and choreographically superbly rendered, his lengthy monologues enacted in abrupt, abstracted physical actions, a strongly defined Monteverdian musical word often underscored with a single powerful body movement. Marie-Claude Chappuis's performance was less effective. Her La Musica was vocally insecure, the highly dramatic Messagiera speech was vocally and histrionically tepid, though her movements -- arms and hands choreographically placed in precise, unmoving attitudes that underscored the sense of a verse -- were convincing.
 
The exploits of the mythological Orfeo, and here his courage to confront hell itself, are nothing if not heroic. Not less so are the vocal and histrionic exploits Monteverdi requires of his Orfeo. Mr. Lyon is a light tenor voice, a slender young swain, who for all his artistry cannot physically be Orfeo. Ms. Chappuis is an accomplished, young early-music singer who possesses neither the adequate vocal size nor the physical presence or charisma to fill an opera theater. The same may be said with some few exceptions of the young singers of the AcadÈmie europÈenne de musique.
 
Yet this was Ms. Brown's evening of highly theatrical movement in Mr. Aeschlimann's brilliant setting, an artistic accomplishment of considerable stature. Even the inherent difficulty of the piece, the seemingly extraneous apotheosis of the fifth act, was overcome, the physicality of the scenography and choreography making a dramatic crescendo into the final, devil-teased tableau. This was the evening's miracle.
 
RenÈ Jacobs and his Concerto Vocale were the willing musical collaborators providing a smooth accompaniment for movement rather more apparently than providing the specific sounds Monteverdi envisioned to amplify the words of Alessandro Striggio's libretto. Though certainly there were some very fine moments, among them the harp accompaniment to Orfeo's plea to Caronte. The twenty-eight players of Concerto Vocale were buried in the orchestra pit depriving the audience of seeing and even really hearing these exotic instruments. Mo. Jacobs offered some acoustical and visual play, placing the sackbuts on the side of the stage for the orchestral prelude, and strings in the rear of the auditorium for the instrumental interjections during Orfeo's plea, though these few brief tricks did not integrate themselves into the larger dramatic texture of the production.
 
For the past ten years the Aix Festival has been somewhat an artistic desert. This evening did offer finally the Aix audience a production worthy of its attention.

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Pelleas et Melisande in Montpellier

The tale of Melisande and her husband Golaud and her lover Pelleas is not very interesting, really a fairly common bourgeoise domestic situation. Debussy's telling of this banal story is however one of the great operatic masterpieces. Debussy's dark drama exploits the natural and emotional atmospheres and landscapes offered by Maeterlinck's symbolist play about love's fatal attractions, greatly refining the sonorities of the post-Romantic orchestra and challenging the technical resources of twentieth century stagecraft. Well, it was 1902 and one presumes Paris' Opera Comique was a state-of-the-art theater as Paris was the world's state-of-the-arts city.
 
The Opéra de Montpellier came up with the questionable idea of staging Pelleas et Melisande as a mise-en-espace (costumes, platforms, lights, no scenery and a bare minimum of props (a pail of water, a knife, two chairs and for Melisande's death a skeletal cot), and staging it to Debussy's piano score, created between 1893 and 1895. Debussy did not orchestrate Pelleas et Melisande until 1901 when he was assured of its mise-en-scene at the OpÈra Comique for which he added its magnificent orchestral interludes to accommodate time needed for scenic transformations. But a fascinating idea, Montpellier's exploration of the primal moments of this theatrical masterpiece.
 
Piano previews of Pelleas et Melisande were offered in the poet Mallarme's salon, an intimate platform for exploring the depths of symbolist thought, and in which, apparently, the new art of photography was among discussions. There exists in fact a photo of Debussy at a small piano ‡ droit (an upright) with whom one can imagine singers not accomplished enough to sing at Paris' various opera houses but musically accomplished enough to gather around the piano to satisfy the demands of the avant-garde (here coping with Debussy's experimental, vocally quite un-operatic narrative).
 
These were not the resources at Montpellier Opéra Comedie where three extraordinary opera singers were the primary players in this salon tragedy, where a sizeable platform thrust itself deeply into the auditorium, where sophisticated lighting instruments were visible and an imposing Hamburg Steinway concert piano sat at the side of the thrust stage. Intimate yes, by current operatic standards though hardly a salon, and most of all an exquisitely exciting theatrical space.
 
To stage the opera Montpellier chose Jean-Yves Courrégelongue, a metteur en scËne who has made a career assisting others, notably Peter Sellars, Patrice Chereau and Montpellier's artist-in-residence Jean Paul Scarpitta, directors of ultimate theatrical sophistication. Sophistication was indeed apparent, as was preparation, good sense and solid technique. Without a specific scenic context and without orchestral colors, CourrÈlongue's players emerged in high relief. He had had only their movements to embody Debussy's symbolism and did so effectively with abstract actions (Golaud staring forward, Melisande far behind him in the initial forest encounter), abstract placement (Pelleas and Melisande standing off either side of the thrust platform for the final, and fateful declaration of love), abstract tableaux (Golaud, defeated, yet still in supplication of the truth from the dead Melisande). But at rare times too all stage action was suppressed, the players in simple explication of the text as lieder singers.
 
Mr. CourrÈgelongue attempted to integrate the idea of photography into his concept, pounding it home in the delicate scene where Yniold regards the fearful lambs headed perhaps to slaughter. His primitive camera projects small cloud images onto a scrim, asking or telling us to reconcile photography to symbolism when we had plenty of other things on our mind, like Debussy's opera. This problematic role, Yniold, was taken by an adolescent girl, allowing the player to assume musical and dramatic complexities beyond the reach of a younger singer, if compromising Maeterlinck's inherent naturalism.
 
In keeping with the conceit of primitive photography the color palate of Silver Sentimenti's costumes were gray color tones, blacks and whites, in turn of the century shapes, perhaps updated in the case of Pelleas to what Americans recognize as the Great Gatsby (specifically Robert Redford as F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 hero). This interesting if over-specific image burdened Pelleas with precise meanings that possibly clashed with the vague shadows of Maeterlinck's symbolist world. The players were in fact very often dark silhouettes in front of the blank luminous zinc plate scrim provided by the ultra-minimalist decors of Mathieu Dupuy. Though at times this scrim was covered with hazy abstract, sometimes blinking black and white dotted shapes, projections created by Carolina Suarez that distracted from rather than artfully penetrated Maeterlinck's abstract natural world.
 
The gaunt Golaud of black voiced Laurent Alvaro dominated the stage, relentlessly, uselessly struggling, the Melisande of Marie-Adeline Henry seemed more resolute and more natural than the usual ephemeral Debussy heroine, the Pelleas of Ivan Geissler was perhaps the ideal Debussy hero, lyrical and slight and frustrating in his passivity. All are finished singing actors pursuing interesting careers. Finally CourrÈgelongue succeeded in keeping Debussy's players as philosophical figments rather than troubled, rather uninteresting humans, rendering his quite effective crescendo to the lengthy denouement an explosion of ideas moreso that an exposition of over-wrought, operatic emotions.
 
Pelleas et Melisande comes early in the Debussy oeuvre (as does Clair de la lune as example), the great piano works coming from his late period. Thus perhaps one must not expect Debussy's score to be one of his pianistic monuments. It does however have the responsibility of creating Debussy's musical continuum, the center of his symbolist poetic and in fact the substance of his opera far more than are the banalities of its verbal narrative. Alas, the careful, too soft piano playing of Anne PagËs-Boisset seldom rose above accompaniment to this narrative leaving us aching for real musical involvement and at least the few or even the many wrong notes that might inevitably result. The pianist is most certainly the protagonist of this proto-Pelleas et Melisande. May one imagine such a project with a real collaborative pianist. Michel BÈroff and Peter Serkin come to mind, and a host of others. One hopes there is a next time, and soon.
 
Said and done, only to add that Mr. Courrégelongue's staging of the bows was a pretentious mess, a sloppy ending to a slick afternoon.

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Romeo et Juliette in Toulon

The splendor of the Opéra Toulon Provence MéditerranÈe is the theater itself, an early version, maybe the first of France's nineteenth century opera palaces. Sometimes this grandness is echoed from the pit with Toulon's accomplished orchestra and generally excellent conducting. That the Toulon Opera is provincial opera as its full name even indicates, does not imply that opera in Toulon need not be good opera as it is easy to recall hundreds of well-sung performances in smart productions in small cities and out-of-the-way places throughout the world.
 
Though the Toulon Opera usually provides adequate singers, it almost never offers productions (mises en scËnes) of quality, though at best generic settings occasionally provide at least a context for telling a story. The most recent case of an at-worst scenario were the late January performances of RomÈo et Juliette. The production was imported from L'Esplanade OpÈra ThÈ‚tre de Saint-Etienne, one assumes a professional theatre (no credentials were offered in the program booklet) though this RomÈo et Juliette production was blatantly amateur.
 
As grand opera Gounod's trivialized telling of Shakespeare's tragic masterpiece does not demand singing actors who physically embody its young lovers as does, for example, Bernstein's West Side Story. But it does expect singers who can vocally impersonate the impassioned lyricism of young love, where beauty of voice alone can fulfill the ideal of the physical beauty of youth. There is a wide range of performers between these two extremes, and most productions of RomÈo et Juliette manage to arrive at some reasonable reconciliation of the two.
 
In Toulon the Juliette was Nathalie Manfrino, appropriately young though she betrayed an ignorance of acting technique (unusual these days in up-and-coming young artists), and she lacked the technical and vocal brilliance needed to establish a dramatic vitality for Juliette (there was an intermission announcement [01/02/08] that she was suffering from a cold and begged our indulgence). The RomÈo of youthful appearing Fabrics Dalis was neither heroic nor poetically swain-like, and while an accomplished singer he would be more at home in character tenor roles rather than essaying the vocal and physical postures of the romantic tenor.
 
The Friar Laurent of fine bass Paul Gay was not the foolish old prelate who unites the young lovers in a politically impossible marriage but a tall, muscular young man who looked ready to jump into bed with either of the two young lovers. Juliette's nurse Gertrude played by Marie-JosÈ Dolorian was prevented from any credibility by a costume that surely came out of the Esplanade OpÈra-ThÈ‚tre de Saint-Etienne's production of The Abduction from the Seraglio. Mercutio was well sung, if heavily sung by gray-haired Peter Edelmann making it beyond all credibility to place him as a cohort of young Romeo. Of the supporting players only the Tybolt of Antonio Figueroa and the Stephano of Blandine Staskiewicz were dramatically convincing and vocally sufficient.
 
Conductor Emmanuel Joel-Hornak found no lyricism in Gounod's score, hampered perhaps by the impossibility of the production. But more than likely he simply does not connect with the sentimentality and dramatic naivetÈ of Gounod's opera.

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Don Giovanni in Montpellier

Mille tre seductions in Spain alone, six hundred forty in Italy, though but only one hundred in France [?!], these numbers may add up to the number of Don Giovanni productions that have failed around the world, maybe last year alone. One sure thing -- Don Giovanni seduces audiences into the opera house, and he most often leaves them there.
 
The Opera National de Montpellier opened its latest version last summer with two performances at the Festival de Radio France et Montpellier, and continued the run with three more performances in late March/early April. Intelligence gathered from conversations in front of the opera house after the final performance revealed that perhaps the summer performances had not been seductive, that the rehearsals for the March reprise had deepened the characters, and that with the final performance on April 6, this Don Giovanni had arrived.
 
And seductive it was indeed, though with some bumps along the way. As these well-known characters revealed themselves, one was struck by their youth, all late twenties-early thirties. Primal operatic fears (was this yet another premature use of young-artist-program singers?) were allayed as these singers immediately passed as finished artists, their youth displayed in fresh, well-focused voices in handsome, histrionically expressive postures.
 
Stage director Jean Paul Scarpitta deployed a clinically suspect evaluation of Don Giovanni's 'Don Juan syndrome.' Scarpitta's Don was not the confident stud, instead a troubled young man. Scarpitta's Donna Anna was the Freudian one, hanging desperately onto the Don despite the threats of her father. Masetto was not a bumpkin, Zerlina was not a pushover, and Donna Elvira was a woman deeply in love. Further dramatic confusion ensued when the Don broke into hysterical laughter in the first act finale, leaving us bewildered at intermission, and frustrated that we had not been able to comprehend the familiar music.
 
The second act was the revelation, each of Mozart's actors pouring out the torments of youthful love, the Don's Deh vieni alla finestra sung mezza voce, almost vocally whispered, transporting us inside a delicate psyche searching for love, Zerlina palpably oozing love for Masetto in Vedrai carino, Elvira possessed by love in Mi tradi, Donna Anna's mind racing in Non mi dir, Ottavio's lovely Il mio tesoro pitifully stated. The power of these expressions of love transcended into the mind and soul of the young Don and induced his chaotic and terrifying end (the corps de ballet, Da Ponte's implied devils disguised as waiters, swarmed onto the stage, cleared the dinner table and brought Scarpitta's banquet of young love to its end).
 
The opera did seem to end here, but after a while the survivors finally appeared on stage, Ottavio quite alone, Zerlina and Masetto quite together. Anna and Elvira then stepped forward and grasped hands, sharing their youthful desolation. With them, and with us was the young man who saw it all -- Leporello, always at the side of the Don and absolutely as bewildered by love and life as was his master, and perhaps as was the Montpellier matinee audience recollecting its lost youth.
 
The second act achieved an almost unprecedented level of lyricism as Scarpitta's concept was absorbed by conductor HervÈ Niquet and his early music ensemble Le Concert Spirituel, and driven to dizzying heights by insanely fast if revelatory tempos. Niquet's music was enacted with ultimate class by the Montpellier cast. The American Franco Pomponi, bare-chested in white tights, infused unusual nuance and complexity to the Don. The lithe Leporello of the Dutch baritone Henk Neven evoked the possibility of a definitive Leporello performance. The Italian Donna Anna, Raffaella Milanesi now holds the record for having sung the fastest Non mi dir in history, her love sick rival Donna Elvira tenderly portrayed by French soprano Isabelle Cals. Zerlina and her Masetto were large scaled characters deeply in love, performed by Georgian born Anna Kasyan and French baritone Nicolas Courjal. Finnish bass Petri Lindross provided a vocally resplendent, very, very young Commendatore. Though graduated a bit soon from his young artist program, tenor Cyril Auvity made poor Don Ottavio beautifully pitiful, earning for himself a huge ovation.
 
Jean Paul Scarpitta took us inside Mozart's music, his stage and costume design offering decor that supported but never defined this interior space, as carefully lighted by Urs Schonebaum.

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Jenufa in Toulon

J anacek's Jenufa is built on a short story, Her Foster Daughter by Czech novelist Gabriela Preissova, a brief episode in the life of a young girl struggling with her life in a timeless rural society. Janacek amplified the elements of the story into opera, fusing its stark eastern European naturalism with Russian fatalism, interweaving the comfort and cruelty of its human world with the beauty and harshness of its physical world. Within the close confines of this larger world personal and social conflicts erupt, and are resolved with simplistic brutality. Yet in Janacek's Jenufa there is redemption, redemption belonging to the purest Romantic ideal of love. Unlike the musical Romantics Janacek tells his story not in larger, sweeping musical and dramatic idealistic terms, but in the smallest and most precise details of the gamut of emotions that interplay among simple human psyches. And finally the miracle of Janacek's musical story telling is the gigantic proportion of its redemptive resolution.
 
Quite an undertaking for the Toulon Opera that already this season has had real difficulty dealing with the comparative simplicities of Gluck and Gounod (well, Gluck said he wanted to be simple, and everyone says Gounod is simple). Maybe these gentlemen are really quite a bit more difficult than they seem, given that Toulon succeeded fairly well in dealing with the formidable challenges of Janacek's opera, but failed to meet the challenges of OrphÈe et Eurydice and Romeo et Juliet.
 
Toulon assembled a cast that brought Janacek's countryside characters to vivid life. Czech soprano Helena Kaupova embodied Jenufa with a sizable sweetly lyric, young voice and a peasant presence in the flush of youth, at once passive and stalwart. Austrian tenor Peter Svensson embodied LaÁa in a big, almost beautiful voice, with a not-too-bright presence that was sly, passive and brutish. Canadian tenor James McLean portrayed Steva, spoiled because of his boyish cuteness, who had learned long ago how to escape from his deeper feelings. American soprano Nadine Segunde brought rigidity, blind stupidity and dignity to Jenufa's foster mother, Kostelnicha, in strongly voiced scenes that were indeed effective though never quite hitting this character's delicate humanness.
 
The production was by Jean-Louis Martinelli, whose origins in straight theater were clearly apparent in this attempt, his only, to stage opera. The production was also warmed over, having had its original performances at the OpÈra de Nancy in 2002. In Toulon the production was restaged by Ruth Orthmann in second hand direction that perhaps exacerbated the naivetÈ of blocking, and the patently obvious staging solutions that betrayed the emotional complexities of Janacek's storytelling.
 
Rare is the production that can assimilate the multitude of social, natural and personal tensions that make up Janacek's opera. Mr. Martinelli eschewed the natural world and its ironic insertions into human lives, the warm light of fall reduced to a pile of potatoes on a completely white stage, and the excitement of the emerging colors of spring indicated by a single bouquet of flowers. The frigid stillness of winter was ignored as Steva stood in an open doorway to deliver a good part of his second act scene with Kostelnicka. The social world that in fact imposes the tragedy of this infanticide was reduced to a small chorus unable initially to generate a spontaneous social energy or finally, lined up against a colorless spring sky, to project this world's sympathetic morality.
 
This left Toulon's fine cast on its own (certainly with some help from the stage director) to create Janacek's drama. Besides the four principals the Grandmother Buryja of Zlatomira Nikolova effectively grounded the family drama, as the mayor, rendered by Jean-Marie FrÈmeau, grounded the social drama. The smaller roles, the frivolous Karolka of Olivia Doray, the lively Jano of Anna Kasyan, et al were sensitively cast. All this with a formidable orchestral underpinning led by conductor Friedrich Pleyer who very effectively delved into the details and subtleties of Janacek's score at the expense of realizing its hysteria or fully capturing its grander emotional sweep -- not a bad trade off if there has to be one.
 
Janacek's Jenufa builds to a huge denouement, Kostelnicha's crime recognized, Jenufa's nearly incomprehensible humanity extended. Love itself exudes from LaÁa and finally Jenufa in overpowering orchestral and vocal outpourings. For this sublime moment Mr. Martinelli placed his lovers on a high platform upstage mostly hidden behind a scrim that depicted a primitive, gold painted Madonna and Child. Perhaps there are gulags somewhere in the antarctic to send musically insensitive stage directors for re-education.

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Belshazzar in Aix

Opera, the extravagant art, has suffered at times during its long history, the victim of religious and political repression but more often strangled by lack of money.  Strangely, when opera suffers financial repression it usually thrives, Handel's Belshazzar at the Aix Festival is a case in point.  Not that the Festival d'Aix did not pay about as much as could possibly be paid for an opera production, importing this one lock, stock and barrel (sets and costumes, orchestra, chorus, some principals) from the Staatsoper Berlin.

 

Handel's financial problems are legend.  He lost his shirt producing opera, so he began making oratorios instead.  Oratorios are essentially operas without the expense of the Baroque's scenic marvels, without the sumptuous costumes of its royalty, and without expensive Italian singers.  Even so the economics of 18th century oratorios are puzzling — the magnificent choruses Handel added to his arsenal of vocal effects and the larger oratorio orchestras could hardly have been cheap, given the sheer numbers of singers and players needed, and the rehearsal time needed to master this less familiar and more complex music.

Handel's oratorios did not need opera stars, they needed local singers able to deliver the English words of newly created librettos (real opera librettos were endlessly recycled).  The stories were told with current sensibilities, therefore speaking directly to contemporary mores and even patriotism.  In fact the program booklet essay, imported from Berlin as well, explains that Belshazzar is a defense of English Protestantism attacked by progressive, enlightened continental thinking.  This was powerful, successful art for the mid-eighteenth century, and Handel died a rich man.

Berlin, the miracle of post cold war Europe, is rich and creative, always on the lookout for new operatic extravagances.  The current Handel mania could only be enlivened by staging one of these powerful works of art, thus Berlin built a huge, magnificent production and imported expensive English and American opera singers, including a star-turn counter-tenor Bejun Mehta.  Add to this the presence of a superb local Baroque instrumental ensemble (with its roots in the old East Germany by the way) and an accomplished vocal ensemble (with its roots in the American sector), not to mention an easily accessible world-renowned early music conductor, René Jacobs.  And voilà, an operatic hit.

 

Christophe Nel, a well-respected metteur en scène in progressive German opera houses (Stuttgart and Frankfurt) teamed up with famed Swiss minimalist set designer Roland Aeschlimann and costume designer Bettina Walter to create a production that respected the supposed austerity of oratorio and certainly adhered to the contemporary German sensibility that less is more.   This experienced team brought Handel's not-so-high drama and philosophic tragedy to almost operatic dramatic standards as the Persian prince Cyrus overran the dissolute Babylonians and freed the captive Jews.

 

The four, moving horizontal sections of a huge back wall were most often tiered, creating levels that were scaled, sometimes easily and sometimes with difficulty by principals and chorus alike. The essential static nature of Handel's dramaturgy was thereby overcome, and certainly emotionally intensified by these constant climbing and descending movements, spectacularly accented in spider-like movements by four male acrobats, henchmen of Nabucco's son Belshazzar.  The scenographic marvelous was exploited, a corpse falling from the heavens as blood began oozing through a central seam of the wall sections, now a flat back, presages of the imminent destruction of Nabucco's empire.

The abstractly costumed chorus was one moment the Babylonians and the next moment the Jews, the change of nationality accomplished by a simple change of placement on the stage or deployment on the walls.  These changing crowds were sculpted by the striking use of lighting, a technique that amplified a vivid presence for either population.  Costume design renderings were used as decoration in the program booklet, though disappointingly the high emotionality of the designs had been modified for the Aix stage -- Belshazzar was not bare chested, nor was the prophet Daniel nude.

 

The Persian prince Cyrus, deliverer of the Jews, was sumptuously sung in heroic stances by Bejun Mehta, a male soprano with tenorial balls.  Rosemary Joshua, Belshazzar's mother Nitocris, sang in convincingly Handelian terms, and convincingly accomplished the gestures of a religious zealot troubled by her wayward son.  Most beautiful too was the singing of Neal Davies as the Syrian Gobrias, whose son had been killed by the dissolute emperor Belshazzar, this role well sung and broadly performed by American tenor, Kenneth Taylor.  Only the Daniel of Kristina Hammarström disappointed, not fitting vocally or histrionically the program booklet costume rendering that indicated a far more vivid personage.

The star of the show was the RIAS-Kammerchor, able to impersonate Babylonians or Jews at the drop of a hat, singing magnificently as an opera chorus, never as a concert choir, able to maneuver itself back and forth, up and down, never missing an entrance in Handel's complex choral fugues (this is the same chorus that appeared naked in Sasha Walz' staging of Dido and Aeneas).  The Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin again proved itself a world-class chamber ensemble.  Rich in experience with the venerable René Jacobs both were here at their most formidable.

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Salustia in Montpellier

Wonders never cease. Certainly the weirdest wonder of the current festival season in the South of France (and perhaps anywhere in the world so far this century) was the world premiere [!] of Pergolesi's first opera Salustia. The young composer was but 21 years old in 1732 when he wrote this opera, and soon realized he must re-think the whole art form. He is now far better known as Pergolesi, the new-age composer of La Serva Padrona.

The program booklet provides a detailed biography of Pergolesi, notes on opera seria and this opera, a three-page apology of some sort by the metteur en scène, plus a full-page color portrait of the young composer. All this is a lot to read, never mind digest in the twenty minutes time one generally has between arriving at the opera house and the curtain going up. In fact it was impossible even to try. Thus this performance, as all performances should, had to stand on its own.

Salustia comes from the days when an opera was by its librettist, not the composer of its music. Here the librettist is one Sig. S. [Sebastiano?] Morelli who re-wrote the far more well-known Alessandro Severo tragedy by Apostolo Zeno. In fact this sentimentalism filled libretto was far more striking than the music, the libretto an arsenal of situations that take the usual heroic Baroque love vs. duty conflict to bizarre domestic extremes.

As is the wont of Baroque opera the action was not action but reaction, three and one half hours (one brief intermission) of aria after aria, usually unleashing fury of some sort, though there were some quite beautiful softer moments. The talented young Pergolesi did treat us to one brief duet, and a complex, very effective quartet buried inside the second half that foretold the coming of dramatic action by musical means.

There were two full, single spaced, paragraph-less pages of synopsis. Essentially the selfish Giulia wanted to get rid of her son Alessandro's wife Salustia, whose not very bright father Marziano was a war hero who wanted to get rid of Giulia. Salustia's friend Alina loves the father's not-so-bright friend Claudio who cannot bear her. Salustia saves the cruel mother from being murdered by her father and everyone lives happily ever after.

All this made metteur-en-scène Jean-Paul Scarpitta think of water. The curtain rose on ten dancers frolicking on a water covered black stage floor with some Afghanistan looking hills as a backdrop. Down stage center there was a large platform-trolley covered with a dirt like substance (though neither dirty, dusty nor eventually muddy) on which the singers stood or in which they rolled while the platform was pushed back and forth across the proscenium with great (simulated) effort by two wannabe Hercules.

In the second half of the evening the hems of the costumes were still being soaked by the perpetually water covered stage floor. The Baroque's mandate for scenic marvels was honored when a huge curtain of rain replaced the dry hills as the stage backdrop, under which the various mute men and ladies-in-waiting bathed one another (male-male, female-female, then male-female, you name it).

These instruments of movement, one hesitates to call them dancers, offered their own voiceless additions to the story, adding lots of meaningful looks and lots of meaningful touching that often had strange sexual connotations. Although the opera has a happy ending one silent friend of the cruel, turned forgiving mother was moved to murder Salustia. And then Salustia, resurrected, was left alone, super-naturally, on the stage, her family celebrating what was to have been an uplifting ending in an off-stage, i.e. faraway, sextet. Thus Pergolesi's big, singerly, reconciliation affect wrapping up this quite frankly startling opera simply vanished.

Pergolesi's surely fine vocal writing was overwhelmed both by Sig. Morelli's weird libretto and by Jean Paul Scarpitta's bizarre gloss. One yearned for the opportunity to discover the voice of this important new composer. Of the singers only soprano Maria Ercolano, the Salustia herself, brought true operatic excitement to the stage, and it was formidable. Valentina Varriale cut a fine vocal figure as the deceitful if loving Albina, adding some welcome excitement from time to time. The cruel mother Giulia is a huge role, and would have profited from a larger-scale, older singer, though soprano Raffaella Milanesi did it justice. Missing were counter-tenors, neither the Alessandro of mezzo José Maria Lo Monaco nor the Marziano of alto Marina De Liso filled the pants of these two, even then wimpy male roles. The Claudio of tenor Cyril Auvity was painful to listen to.

Now, let me see if I can find that program booklet.

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L'elisir d'amore in San Francisco

There are remnants of snobbery in San Francisco that are happiest when San Francisco Opera associates itself with the likes of Vienna State Opera and Covent Garden, and left positively frightened at the idea of a production from Opera Colorado/Fort Worth Opera/et al. on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

Adina (Inva Mula), Nemorino (Ramón Vargas), Belcore (Giorgio Caoduro), Dulcamara (Alessandro Corbelli), Giannetta (Ji Young Yang). San Francisco Opera. Bruno Campanella, conductor. James Robinson, director.

Our worst fears came true at the opening of L’elisir d’amore when the curtain rose to reveal a bandstand right out of a Kansas farm town sitting center stage, instilling the dread that it was going to sit there all night. It did.

The joke was on us. The singers, looking like they were stepping out of a retro production of Oklahoma, were absolutely dripping with the credits that comfort all opera snobs. In fact you asked yourself how all this high operatic horsepower could find itself in the middle of Republican, mid-western America. But a Mexican tenor, an Albanian soprano, two Italian buffos, even a Korean soubrette stepped right out onto that bandstand and made Oklahoma or Nebraska their own.

It was a perfect fit. This edition of Donizetti’s one hundred seventy five year old opera about rustics in Northern Spain had all the trappings of pre-World War I rural America as envisioned by American stage director Jim Robinson. What we saw was was not the Midwest as illustrated by this scenery for earlier versions of the Robinson production, but a special San Francisco version. In fact it was “Harvest Day” celebration in Napa Valley. Albanian soprano Inva Mula was “Crush Queen,” and we were quickly swept into the wine country flow.

The Elixir of Love (as it was named in San Francisco even though it was sung in Italian and should have been called L’elisir d’amore) is a perfectly constructed little “numbers” opera. The plot is carefully made so that the succession of arias, duets and trios is foremost an opportunity for singers to show their stuff and then coincidentally a means by which to move this nineteenth century sentimental opera buffa story along. All this happened with the utmost ease, the grace of bel canto echoed in the grace by which sight gag after sight gag flowed throughout the evening, footballs sailing in great arches across the back of the stage during the first act finale.

Life was good in those old days, pleasures were simple — apple pies, layer cakes and ice cream sundaes. Bel canto is a downright delicious confection too, so all this went into the same pot. Nemorino and Adina were as interested in ice cream as they were in each other, Belcore devoured an entire apple pie, Dr. Dulcamara picked at leftover tidbits of fried chicken and potato salad from the potluck. And through all of this gourmandaise, Italian conductor Bruno Campanella, another star of bel canto, never missed a beat, keeping the singers in musical rapture from the first note to the last.

These were the really old days when even simple country folk could afford (almost) a Napa cabernet. Nemorino, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, downed his two bottles and never faltered from consummate Italian tenorial schooling, even while dancing the two step, a tango or the doing the Lindy. Not to mention the consummate charm he exuded while catching a flying piece of apple in his open mouth.

Soprano Inva Mula is no shrinking violet. With her girlish figure and full scale vocalism she easily took center stage as the town diva, relentlessly teasing Nemorino while being swept off her feet (literally) by the irresistible Belcore. The pleasures she brought to the bandstand were as much her fine, rich, very stylish singing as was her warm, natural presence. This Adina was never coy, she was always intensely vocal as a bel canto diva should be.

The role of the lady killer Sargent Belcore was an easy fit for young Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro, his swagger a natural one, his fluid baritone breaking into Donizetti’s giddy coloratura with utmost ease, communicating an inborn sense of fun, a strong dedication to Italianate high style, and a go-for-broke physicality when he ended up tackled under a pile of his recruits (the high-school football team) or doubled over, punched in the nuts by Nemorino.

Too often San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows are thrown into important roles before they are mature enough to take them on. Not so the Gianetta of Ji Young Yang. Here is a charming, finished singer who will soon be an Adina in her own right.

The purple suited shyster Dr. Dulcamara, bass-baritone Alessandro Corbelli, exploited his native Italian to the fullest, every syllable flying across the pit into the house, making his Italian so understandable that it seemed to pass for real American. The lively, inventive San Francisco Opera Chorus that eagerly lined up to buy the elixir seemed as delighted and gullible as was the audience, clearly eating up every nuance of bel canto and Americana. And finally it dawned on Dr. Dulcamara, as Robert Mondavi was just then learning and we all now know, that he had the best elixir around — a Napa cabernet.

It is all to rare that productions by American directors find there way onto major American stages. James Robinson gave San Francisco audiences enjoyment that was specifically American, designer Allen Moyer provided brilliant, minimalist scenery with subtle detail that was as delicious as Donizetti’s coloratura. Yet another American, costume designer Martin Pakledinaz, though no stranger to big-time international opera, gave us costumes worthy of Broadway. Central to the success of this fine production were the supertitles written by Jerry Sherk and Francesca Zambello.

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Faust in Orange

Opera can be magic in Orange, and magical it was last Saturday when tenorissimo Roberto Alagna hobbled onto the stage as the old Faust, made his famous, if regrettable deal and cart-wheeled off the stage, in fine vocal form as well -- can there be any doubt that this forty-five year old French tenor has made a pact with some supernatural force.

Needless to say, opera in Orange's huge Théâtre Antique is about big singing, and as usual the Chorégies d'Orange did not disappoint.  Albanian soprano Inva Mula rendered Margarite in vocally perfect terms, her splendid musicianship bringing fresh life to Margarite's tired, too-often-heard arias, her frail physique belying the physical force she brings to Gounod's too easily seduced then tortured heroine.  Red-suited German bass-baritone René Pape made a dashing, absolutely irresistible Mephistopheles, and Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapointe, a world-famous Pelleas, stated his case as one of the world's great Valentins.

It was sheer pleasure to hear Alagna deliver Gounod's cantabile musical lines full-throated, but not with his familiar Italianate spinto.  While it was a little shaky up there on the high C he did hit it even if he did not hold it as long as we devotees may have wished.  Finally it was not his best night vocally — perhaps he was suffering from a cold — though this did not diminish his, or the crowd's enthusiasm.  Gounod's opera is really about Margarite, and as Mme. Mula deserved, her fabulous Margarite earned the evening's major ovation.

Unlikely as it is, opera at Orange's old Roman theater can be about the orchestra, the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France sumptuously spread out in full view of the nine thousand spectators, allowing the audience to participate in the goings-on in the pit, i.e. the harp, woodwind and brass solos that add special colors in their duets with the vocal lines on stage, plus the blasts of the trombones, the thunder of the huge bass drum and the terror of the gong.  As a part of the mise en scène the orchestra achieved an unexpected illusion of musical depth.

Conductors at Orange are like singers at Orange — you have heard of them, i.e. they are well-known, even famous.  And frankly you specifically hear them in Orange because they are a big part of the show.  The venerable, seventy-five year old, Michel Plasson (as big a star in the conducting world as Alagna is in the tenor firmament), brought Gounod's chestnut to a consistent gently boiling point, suffusing these old tunes with the verve of an Offenbach operetta, a perfect balance of tongue-in-cheek and the truly melodramatic.

There was a time, not even so long ago when Orange experimented with interesting stage directors.  No more.  In recent years productions have been farmed out to the directorial mafia of local Southern French opera houses.  This Faust was identified as a co-production with the Théâtre du Capitole de Toulouse meaning that it was Nicolas Joël's familiar old production (the huge book prop, a tenor Siebel on crutches, etc.) goosed up to fill the huge Orange stage.

But Orange brings out the best in these run-of-the-mill directors, its sheer size imposing minimalism and demanding bold strokes.  More often than not these routiniers deliver!  Over the years Gounod's opera — originally composed with spoken dialogues, later gaining fluid, expandable and retractable recitatives and even a sizeable ballet — has been sculpted in many ways.  Metteur en scène Joël divided Gounod's five acts into two, tight parts, the first ending with Margarite's capitulation (end of Act III), the second with her death.  He focused squarely on the musical numbers, allowing the bold musical strokes of the powerful cast and its conductor to supercede staging.  Thrills and chills abounded — Margarite's seduction, Valentin's death, and finally Margarite's death were the expected big ones.

There was no scenery, the stage dominated the entire evening by one gigantic prop -- a super-sized pipe organ, utilized, needless-to-say by Mephistopheles in his sacrilegious exchange with Margarite in the church.  Costumes were of Gounod's, not Faust's time, and lighting was nearly always an eerie blue, corny and effective.  Not yet verismo, Gounod's essay into nineteenth century melodrama (a vulnerable young girl is seduced and pays a high price) seemed a true operatic masterpiece in Orange, equaling in artistic stature Goethe's eighteenth century philosophic masterpiece (may we bask in this questionable thought for a couple of minutes).

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La bohème in San Francisco

The show curtain was an illustration of the typical Parisian skyline.

On the downbeat it quickly parted to reveal a scenic contraption that was a garret of sorts, its mattress elevated on a pile (illustrated, not real) of books, and an admonition written on the wall Se plaindre c’est un perdre du temps (for those of the audience who didn’t know French or were sitting too far away to read it, this told us that complaining is a waste of time).

So, let us not waste time on what we found lacking, and get right to what we liked. San Francisco Opera Music Director designate, Nicola Luisotti, participated with every syllable uttered on the stage, literally quivered with every emotion, and wrenched very grand pathos out of Puccini’s sad little story. Donald Runicles’ San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded full bore to their new maestro with renewed lyricism and resplendent tone proving itself again one of the world’s fine operatic ensembles.

Moments of extraordinary verismo abounded. The monochromatic tenor of Piotr Beczala made sudden sense in the third act when Mo. Luisotti orchestrally evoked the naïve, adolescent recognition of new feelings by what seemed to be an emotionally retarded tenor. The fourth act duet of reconciliation shivered with tiny flashes of love, and finally the sudden, overwhelming orchestral cry, joined by that of Rodolfo, shattered the silence of death.

Back at the first act, Mimi and Rodolfo sustained full throated high “C’s” offstage as the garret contraption disappeared into kinetic openness of a Parisian place. Illustrated hotels de la ville materialized in front of our eyes in a surprisingly simple, and pleasing a vista transformation of scene. The Cafe Momus later materialized much less elegantly, to become populated suddenly and a little strangely by a noisy crowd of youngsters — the amazing San Francisco Boys Chorus (with some members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus) singing boisterously and joyfully, and always on the beat.

The big house extravagance of a real marching band (two drums, four trumpets, two piccolos) parading noisily across the stage at the end of Act II was deeply satisfying too. Some of the best Boheme’s understandably occur in provincial theaters where resources are usually as humble as are the opera’s protagonists, and where it is far more cost efficient to render this lively musical climax from the pit.

If Maestro Luisotti gave us the very real if overscaled emotions of verismo, Angela Gheorghiu gave us simplicity itself as the ill-fated Mimi. She was the evening’s only believable and real character, achieved by la Gheorghiu with true artistry, artistry that often tested, and sometimes even teased her considerable, sophisticated vocal technique. Madame Gheorghiu (she is an officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) indeed creates a vocally complex Mimi. That it is so physically manifest (acted out) is another matter, understandably irritating to the uninitiated, and irritating to stage directors who are almost universally not among her fans.

One can only sympathize with Mme. Gheorghiu in her trials with Lyric Opera of Chicago regarding an AWOL from her Chicago Boheme manquée rehearsals to visit Roberto who was singing Faust just then at the Met (if there is possibly anyone who does not yet know, the French tenorissimo Roberto Alagna is her husband). As Mme. Gheorghiu knows, Mimi is the calm center of the maelstrom of emotions that are La Boheme. What more is there for her to do than walk on stage at the end of Act I and sit on the bed while Rodolfo sings, sit at a table at the Cafe Momus while Musetta sings, hover in the background in Act III while Rodolfo and Marcello sing, and lie in bed in Act IV while her friends emote one by one. Quite obviously it is Mimi’s friends, not Mimi, who need rehearsal time as they are the ones who complete the show.

These San Francisco Opera performances of La Boheme (the last one will mark the two hundred twenty third SFO performance of Puccini’s little opera) bare the delicacy of this masterpiece when attempted with extravagant operatic resources. In San Francisco the problem was integrating smaller scale artists — singers, directors and designers - with great artists and with grand opera scale choral, orchestral and technical resources.

Cast and Production: Mimì: Angela Gheorghiu; Rodolfo: Piotr Beczala; Marcello: Quinn Kelsey; Musetta: Norah Amsellem; Colline: Oren Gradus; Schaunard: Brian Leerhuber; Benoit/Alcindoro: Dale Travis; Parpignol: Colby Roberts; Customhouse Sergeant: David Kekuewa; Customhouse Officer: Jere Torkelsen; Prune Vendor: Chester Pidduck. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Harry Silverstein; Set Designer: Michael Yeargan.

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Wozzeck in Barcelona

Arriving in Barcelona one is greeted by a giant phallus, a 32 floor architectural landmark, appropriately the offices of the local water company (the design of the erotically obsessive French architect Jean Nouvel). Though this, the Torre Agbar, is far surpassed in audacity by the utter insanity of the multiple portals and towers (higher ones are yet to come), of the Gaudi's maniacal cathedral Sagrata Familia.
 
Clearly Barcelona is a no-holds-barred town, proven yet again in its recent production of Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Gran Teatre de Liceu. The director, Calixto Bieito, by now infamous in opera circles for productions in a theatrical language based on sexual violence and bathrooms, does not disappoint.
 
Though Buchner and Berg's Wozzeck pisses along the road within their first scenes (gepist hat, auf der Strasse gepist hat, gepist), Bieito's Wozzeck discretely does not. Not to worry, there is plenty of blatant sexual and bathroom action to come. These elements are indeed the glass, stone, steel and stucco, the building blocks of Bieito's theatrical architecture. Though Alban Berg admonishes us not to distract ourselves from Wozzeck's world by focusing our attention on the musical language, Bieito's need is a bit more complex, as his language is so self-conscious. Ultimately we need to allow ourselves to admire its wit, because it is brilliantly expressive.
 
The audacity of Bieito's Wozzeck is not his use of extreme, generally ugly sexual images, after all this has been the stuff of opera from the beginning. It is rather the cheek to take one of the revered masterpieces of the repertory, in fact the greatest modernist musical monument, and transform it into a story that is yet even further from the original history of the condemned barber, into one that has uncanny reference to contemporary Barcelona, one that gives little reference to the Buchner or Berg re-workings of this 1824 news item, and for that matter offers no respect for the modernist moment in cultural history.
 
Bieito's Wozzeck is not a victim, he is a hero, proving himself human in a world made inhuman by the grim necessity of increasing the annual percentage growths of the national product. He seeks value in his human relationship with Marie, and when his love for Marie is forsaken by her frantic pursuit of material satisfaction, he purges himself of this love. This story told in Bieito's striking theatrical language, in unforgettable images.
 
The primary image is the guts of an industrial plant, complex in its need to move liquids from process to process. At the same time this image is of human guts, where finally, in Bieito's world, we feel ourselves, physically and emotionally. We will see significant industrial and human connections disintegrate -- as Wozzeck's world disintegrates we see the captain shave Wozzeck, we even feel a certain poignancy when the captain humps Wozzeck, when the doctor makes love to a dead woman, and when the gas-masked child is placed on a tin toilet. We understand when Wozzeck and Marie each cleanse themselves in a ritual shower.
 
Marie is the protagonist in Bieito's Wozzeck, the pursuer of the golden Drum-major and his gold, sexually defined by serving the quick, brutal satisfaction of fellatio. She is finally the tragic figure in Bieito's Wozzeck, with full recognition of the sacrifice she will make to purify Wozzeck.
 
Of wrenching effect is Marie's reading the Bible's Mary Magdalene, sung over a battered, bloody Wozzeck lying on the stage still, from the previous dormitory scene where he was brutally beaten and then pissed on by his fellow men. And then the murder scene, Wozzeck and Marie sitting in white light on one of the pipes in an effect of utter stillness, Marie offering herself to Wozzeck as his sacrifice.
 
The mesmerizing fifth invention, in d minor, the purification of Wozzeck, as naked men and women, in prime and pure physical condition slowly emerge through the maze of pipes -- human images far from the bloated bodies of Wozzeck, the Captain and the Doctor that are Bieito's world. And the final "hop hop" scene, with the child in his disfiguring gas mask, an inhuman, unredeemed creature.
 
The stunning performance of Marie was by soprano Angela Denoke, taking her bow with the child, unidentified in the cast list, who was on-stage for a good part of the opera delivering at last a finely sung, young "hop hop." Franz Hawiata, Herbert Delamboye and Markus Hollop gave committed, remarkably physical performances of Wozzeck, the Captain and the Doctor respectively. Reiner Goldberg was the repulsive Drum-major. Initially the Berg Wozzeck sounded all-wrong in this context, though soon enough the music melded with the stage into the Bieito Wozzeck, the conductor Sebastian Weigle a sympathetic collaborator in this new telling of this old story.
 
The audience was palpably gripped. It was at times tough going, and some few of the audience exited from time to time, understandably.
 
In February the Nice Opera mounts its Wozzeck. One can wish for an homage to Berg's masterpiece. If so, we can admire brilliance of the building blocks of his theatrical architecture -- his musical language. Finally we can commiserate with a man lost in a hostile world, betrayed by his fellow men. A Wozzeck no less and no more real than Barcelona's >Wozzeck, or for that matter Wozzeck himself.

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Mireille in Toulon

The Opéra de Nice production of Gounod's Mireille made its way to Toulon last week, as had Nice's Pelleas et Melisande only four months before. Pelleas, an undisputed chef d'oeuvre easily stimulates intelligent staging, and the Nice Pelleas succeeded as real theater. Mireille on the other hand is easily thrown away as little more than beautiful music. As seen in Toulon (5/15/07), Mireille revealed itself as an operatic gem in a production left untouched by theatrical intelligence.

Unburdened by the philosophic or theatrical pretensions of Faust and Romeo et Juliet, Gounod's facile lyricism suits pastoral tragedy. Frédéric Mistral's Miréio (1859), a narrative poem in the Provençal language about star-crossed lovers lost in the hostile wilds of the Rhone delta, became Mireille in French when Gounod and Mistral reconfigured it into an elaborate musical pastoral along the lines of courtly Renaissance and Baroque pastorals.

The poetry is highly refined, its simplicity elaborated in richly musical verse, these dramatic outpourings interspersed between highly stylized choruses and dances of those happy folk who inhabit an idealized countryside. Spectacle enters with the intrusion of the other world, a pagan hell, when a rival for Mireille's hand cruelly attacks her lover and then drowns in the river Styx. Complete with balletic netherworld spirits this scene is right out of a ballet de cour at Louis XIV's Versailles.

Gounod was no stranger to nineteenth century musical pastoralism, Mireille's sophisticated score recalls moments of earlier Romantic musical pastorals -- the magical horn calls of Der Freischutz, the mysterious fairy music of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, the solitude of Tristan's horn blowing Shepherd. Peasant songs become fine choruses, peasant dances undergo symphonic elaboration. Most astounding is Gounod's seemingly boundless lyricism, able always to transform itself into renewed statements of simple pastoral amorous premises.

Gounod and Mistral's Mireille is subtle, sophisticated theater and it deserves sophisticated production. If this was lacking in Toulon, musical sophistication was not. Conductor Alain Guingal led the fine Toulon orchestra in a polished performance with excellent wind playing (forget the blip by the second horn). This maestro never let down his orchestral support for those singing their hearts out on the stage.

Ermonela Jaho, a young and beautiful Albanian soprano, made a formidable Mireille. She possesses a warm voice comfortable (most of the time) in Gounod's considerable use of the mezzo register and made effective use of her bright upper register as well, ably sustaining Gounod's extended mounting musical lines. Tenor Florian Laconi was the charmingly believable little basket maker Vincent who would surely win the heart of any rich farmer's daughter or for that matter any other girl on Mistral's Mulberry plantation. He possesses a fine light lyric voice particularly effective in the forte climaxes of this crossover character/romantic role. The villainous herdsman, Ourrias was well sung by Marc Barrard, brutally aggressive and then cowardly repentant, excellently acted in the in the extended Val d'enfer scene. Vincent's sister Vincenette was nicely rendered by Isabelle Obadia as was Vincent's father by bass Jean-Marie Delpas. The roles of the witch Taven, played by Anne Pareuil and the father, played by Christian Tréguier were less effective.

The Toulon stage became theatrically alive momentarily during the ballet of infernal spirits, very musically choreographed by Servane Delanoe in elaborated repeating contemporary style movements. This gripping dance scene was a fish out of water in this production.

Paul-Émile Fourny, general director of the Opéra de Nice, was the producer. He seemed to leave his singers to their own devices for getting through their arias. The one directorial flourish, besides the obligatory sinking to the knees in all big arias, was Mireille delivering a sizeable portion of her heat delirium lying on her back, feet headed up-stage. Designer Poppi Ranchetti chose an appropriate Provençal color palette for his otherwise uninteresting costumes that sometimes but not always defined character. His scenery, less attractive, was impressionist inspired painted scrims and drops before and behind a drab brown platform configuration that served as a floor.

Rare is the evening in Toulon when musical and vocal values are not solidly upheld, rare in Toulon is the evening when production values are of interest.

Teseo in Nice

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Teseo in Nice

The Handel revival has been going on for some thirty years now as it takes a while to rediscover fifty-six operas. Hereabouts in the south of France we have had three memorable productions in recent years, all superb -- a Rinaldo in Montpellier and two Alcina’s, one at the Aix Festival and the other in Lyon.

A germinal moment in the Handel revival was Peter Seller’s politicized Giulio Cesare at the long defunct Pepsico Summer Fare in New York, the story translocated to war-torn Lebanon (the 1980’s one), specifically to the bombed out Holiday Inn (the orchestra pit was the swimming pool needless-to-say). Another particularly arty version was Isabel Milenski’s Los Angeles Semele set on JR’s Dallas ranch, the long necks of the theorbo’s in the pit echoing the vertical thrusts of oil derricks on the stage.

Swiss director Marco Arturo Marelli set his Rinaldo (Montpellier, Berlin) in the timeless outback of the Middle East, ground-to-air missiles on the backs of burros, speakers mounted on neo-gothic church towers blasting Mohammad’s message. Jossi Wieler put his modern dressed Alcina (Lyon, Stuttgart, San Francisco) in a huge Baroque picture frame to prove that duty, while noble indeed, is pretty boring. Robert Carsen’s Alcina (Aix-en-Provence, Paris) set in a minimal abstracted space had his warrior heroine Bradamante going through some pretty tough tests, like submerging herself fully clothed in a pool of water then delivering an aria dripping wet.

The phenomenal power of Handel’s music and vocalism easily sustains the inexorable political and emotional forces that drive these stories. Ironically stories were not important to Handel, only emotions were – a Handel opera is simply a string of twenty-five or so arias, each focused on one or two strong affects. Nothing more, nothing less, hang them on whatever story you want.

This amazing tradition of contemporary Handel stagings brought us to a heightened level of anticipation for Teseo in Nice (18/03/07), Handel’s second opera seria for London (1713). Unlike Rinaldo (1711), his first, based on the purely Italian form, Teseo continues French lyric tragedy, the Handel libretto based on Quinault’s libretto for Lully’s Thésée (1675), it based on the tragic shapes of the celebrated Corneille (1606-1684). This means five acts instead of three, a happy ending for sure based on the magnanimous sacrifice of a sovereign ruler, this being, after all, the France of the Roi Soleil, art in service to the state.

The curtain rose onto a setting of painted Baroque architecture, with fluffy cut out Baroque clouds in the background, Agilia loves the absent warrior Teseo, though she must marry the king Egeo. Everyone was in fully wigged Baroque regalia, delivering their arias in poses reminiscent of Baroque portraits, picture the one of Louis XIV standing in a perfect balletic third position. Hardly competitive in theatrical excitement with the Handel we have come to expect.

Yet when Agilia, soprano Brigitte Hool, missing her beloved Teseo, let loose with vocal fireworks in an extended duet with an oboe things heated up mightily. L’Opéra de Nice, eschewing the use of mezzo sopranos for Handel’s favored voice, the countertenor, had invested in three of these rare males. Teseo’s lieutenant Arcane, Damien Guillon, cut loose with a vocally virtuostic account of Teseo’s bravery in battle and finally the long awaited return of Teseo, male soprano Jacek Laszezkovski, kept vocal tensions high in his brilliant entry aria that sailed well above the staff. The sorceress Medée, the fiery mezzo Aurélia Legay, Agilia’s rival for the affections of Teseo, furiously threatened Agilia in jealous musical rages.

Aria after aria flowed in a succession of affects that became the drama, a purely musical drama. Just when you thought all imaginable dramatic force had been exhausted Agilia and Teseo were reunited by the magnanimous king, the male alto Pascal Bertin, in a spectacular duet, male and female voice competing with each other in vocal virtuosity and intensity in the same, mostly above the staff register, really huge human emotions made utterly magnificent in the artificial world of Baroque theater.

This artificial world evoked by director Gilbert Blin was not at all a re-creation of an original Baroque production, rather it was a metaphor as outrageous in its way as any of the productions cited above, using wigs, tights, poses, clouds, painted architecture, pagan hell itself, images as exotic as a bombed out Holiday Inn to clothe Handel’s music drama.

Monsieur Blin staged the opera, designed the scenery and costumes, and lighted the stage, a tour de force indeed, though underlying was the feeling that opera is a collaborative art form, and more collaborators, most apparently a lighting designer, would have benefited his considerable achievement. Conductor Gilbert Bezzina, the willing musical collaborator with his intrepid Ensemble Baroque de Nice held forth nicely, though modern performance practice has induced a taste for a richer string sound than emerged from this pit.

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Boulevard Solitude in Barcelona

Most of the operas that play at the Gran Teatro del Liceu in Barcelona have originated in other theaters. While this makes the Liceu a bit like a road house it has the advantage of offering the large local opera audience productions of known value. The really good news is that Barcelona has the really good taste to choose interesting productions of interesting repertory.

Such was the case with Hans Werner Henze's Boulevard Solitude, March 2 - 15. The production by Nikolaus Lehnhoff from London's Covent Garden won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for best opera production in 2002 [this year's winner was the David Alden production of Jenufa at the English National Opera]. Boulevard Solitude is Henze's first opera, premiered in 1952, thus the London production marked its fiftieth anniversary. It should have renewed interest in Henze's sizeable operatic catalogue but seemingly it has not.

Like Elegy for Young Lovers and other early Henze works, Boulevard Solitude is based on a bleak story, here that of Manon Lescaut. The atmospheres of the immediately post World War II years were pessimistic, and the old Manon tale (the Abbé Prévost's novel published in 1731) fits perfectly into this milieu. The sentimental crux of this Henze Manon episode is not however Manon, rather it is Des Grieux who, as the opera's text explains from time to time, is Orpheus bemoaning the loss of his beloved Euridice.

While Manon loves her young student, immersed as young men will be in ideas and ideals of art, Manon herself cannot abide art, i.e. modern art, a dislike shared by her brother Lescaut and her sugar-daddy Lilaque. This final, and most serious example of her moral dissolution precipitates her downfall when, involved in an art theft, she is led to assault Lilaque by her unscrupulous brother, Lescaut.

The immediate inspiration for the opera was the film Manon by Henri-Georges Clouzot (winner of the Venice Film Festival in 1949). The film was no doubt the inspiration for the Lehnhoff production as well as this is opera at its most cinematic. The seven scenes of the opera all occur in a large, architecturally neo-classical train station, a réverie of Armand Des Grieux as he sits dazed on his trunk down stage center, his dream state superimposing the various locations in the story onto the train station. The Wozzeck-like interludes of Henze's opera are used to move people in and out of the station, creating the bustle of activity behind the dream, the frenetic humanity that engenders such a story.

Never for a moment are we left without strong visual images in the brilliantly designed sets and costumes by Tobias Hoheisel, enlivened by director Leinhoff and choreographer Denni Sayers who moved a huge crowd of train passengers in, through and out of the station -- forty-eight actors and dancers, aurally augmented by off-stage choruses comprised of twenty-six men and women, and twenty-six children. Big, yes indeed, and immensely impressive.

The strong visuals, unrelenting visuals, and the graphic staging of the principal scenes were completely at home with Henze's music, with the result that the music seemed to disappear into the scenography. Henze wrote Boulevard Solitude in his early, melodic twelve-tone technique, quite beautiful music. These fifty-five years later it is in fact and feel not contemporary music, but music from another time, easily understood and appreciated. Much is made of Henze's inclusion of jazz idioms in Boulevard Solitude, though they are used to make dramatic points (the intrusion of the outside world into the strange Manon/Des Grieux intimacy) rather than as a technique for emotive musical elaboration, this reserved for Henze's rich twelve-tone palette.

Barcelona convened a superb cast to serve Lehnhoff's production, including Pär Lindskog from the original Covent Garden production as a hypersensitive Armand. Laura Aikin made a dynamite Manon, visually and vocally, Tom Fox brought cinematic reality to the despicable Lescaut. The casting of Hubert Delamboye and David Menéndez as Lilaque pere and fils respectively was puzzling in the over-the-top context of the three principals. Perhaps a bit less sharply defined than in the London original, the actors and dancers still made the needed effect. It was virtuostic staging virtuostically executed.

The conductor was the Hungarian Zoltan Pesko, serving the production dutifully, very ably managing the orchestral forces of the Liceu and the complex vocalism of the stage.

One yearns to know the original 1952 staging of Boulevard Solitude, for which the legendary stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle made his professional debut as the designer. One yearns for the opportunity to hear rather than to see Henze's Boulevard Solitude interludes. Any finally one yearns for more, high-level productions of Henze operas such as this Covent Garden endeavor.

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Eine florentinische Tragödie and Il segreto di Susanna in Montpellier in Montpellier

The Opéra Berlioz of Montpellier's ultramodern Le Corum is a magnificent theater, and when the Opéra National de Montpellier is in residence big and important things usually happen. Just now (2/3/07) Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy (1914-1916) took the stage. Though not really rare repertory to be sure, it is well out of the usual repertory, certainly because of its requirements for large orchestral forces, three big singers and its brief length of one hour ten minutes.

The sordid adultery of A Florentine Tragedy resonates strongly with Zemlinsky's life. His first love was Alma Schmidt who then rejected him to marry Gustav Mahler, his sister Mathilde married his close friend Arnold Schoenberg and then had a passionate affair with a young painter who killed himself when she returned to Schoenberg. In fact the second string quartet, dedicated to Arnold Schoenberg, composed during the same period as A Florentine Tragedy makes specific reference to this tragic affair with cryptic notational constructions of the name Mathilde.

The Montpellier production took an alternative perspective, inventing from Zemlinsky's text (after the play by Oscar Wilde) a parallel to the serial murders of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle (1911, premiere 1918). The intense, neurotic verbal and musical negotiations of Zemlinsky's husband, wife and lover however had not prepared us for the entry of a fourth personage, a Charon like creature who dragged in a rack with four hanging bodies, a fifth hook awaiting the corpse of this lover, to be the latest in a series of sick murders. Actually a fifth person had entered the stage, a stagehand who needed to correct the direction of an inexplicable, remote controlled red Ferrari sports car that had meandered here and there on the stage during much of the opera.

The stage itself evoked unknown, unreal time, a dark warehouse of indeterminate size and shape, architecturally defined by a few beams, a vastness punctuated by small yellow light sources, emotionally enriched by two live, smoking fires, and decorated with symbolic images -- a bass viol, a small forest of swords. Zemlinsky's obsessive musical drama sat well in this effective physical evocation of the unconscious, effectively lighted by Patrick Méeüs.

Mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, costumed in a burnished long red gown and a huge red wig, the magic of costume designer Guisi Giustino, was the sexually magnetic wife Bianca. Aldrich's explosive performance anchored the arguments of her lover Guido Bardi, an electric performance by tenor Robert Künzli and Bianca's husband Simone, a well sung though understated characterization by Pavlo Hunka, a sometime Bluebeard. Montpellier's fine orchestra was conducted by Bernard Kontarsky. The production was staged by René Koering, the superintendent of music at the Opéra National de Montpellier, and the scenery was designed by Virgile Koering.

The first part of the evening was a production of Wolf-Ferrari's The Secret of Susanna (1909) a slight piece about the pleasures of smoking. Koering updated the time to the present, underlined by a remote controlled model car, a red Ferrari (get it?), a play thing, among others, of a jealous husband, energetically played by baritone Ales Genis, who suspects his new wife is entertaining another man. Koering's concept did not sit well with the piece, as the upscale, tight-jeans clad wife was forbidden to go out alone, the pleasures of smoking tobacco, so sumptuously expressed in Carmen and almost equally here by a dizzying violin obligato, were replaced by smoking marijuana. What blond bombshell, here portrayed by soprano Michelle Canniccioni, would accept domestic imprisonment, or bother with smoking dope when the highs of cocaine are à la mode?

Wolf-Ferrari is known as a composer of comic opera, though his musical language is based on verismo sonorities and gestures, and his melodic lines are long and Italianate. Heftier voiced singers would have made this trivial piece more satisfying vocally in the vast spaces of the Opéra Berlioz. The small physical and emotional scale of the piece would have played more effectively in the Opéra National de Montpellier's other theater, the intimate, ornate 19th century Opéra Comedie.

The in-your-face politically un-correctness of smoking, exacerbated by replacing tobacco smoke with marijuana smoke, was tasteless rather than amusing in the Theatre Berlioz. This was an obviously educational outreach night at the Opéra National de Montpellier, with many adolescents in the audience. It was a strange moment to glamorize what most communities wish to abolish.

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Don Carlos in Barcelona

The Gran Teatro del Liceu rolled out Verdi's Don Carlos, the whole nine yards and then some, January 27 - February 14. This is the original Don Carlos created for the Paris Opéra in 1867, not the later Don Carlo, a truncated version in Italian that Verdi put together for La Scala in 1884. This means that in Barcelona it was sung in French, its five acts and ballet exceeding five hours in length.

The Peter Konwitschny production made its way to the Liceu from Vienna, though it was originally made in Hamburg. Scandal and controversy have accompanied this production from the beginning, though seen now in Barcelona perhaps this controversy can be directed away from the extreme ballet and auto-da-fé to the radical shift effected by Konwitschny in the Phillip monologue.

The Fountainebleau act, the first one, the one Verdi dispensed with in his La Scala version, is in a black void, inhabited by cold, shivering men, women and children. The crowd dispersed, Don Carlos and Elisabeth make their chance encounter, and ignite their passions for one another. And here too Elisabeth's acquiesces to marry Don Carlos' father, Phillip II of Spain.

The Spanish court descends, a huge, heavy box made of thick, plain white walls, its entire lower perimeter a series of low doors forcing the king and queen themselves and members of the court, all encumbered by heavy, black Spanish court dress, to stoop when entering. There are only two additional visual images. Most prominent was the black prompter's box where it always is, downstage center. It is at once Carlo V's tomb, a bench or whatever, and of course the prompter's box. An old monk, the voice of Carlo V, adds the second image by planting a tree seedling next to the prompter's box, admonishing Don Carlos on the futility of ambition. It is in this decorated space that Konwitschny shapes and destroys the five personages that are perhaps Verdi's most deeply felt characters.

Konwitschny gives his opera singers ritualized, abstracted motions that quickly and strongly indicate what is happening to them. Don Carlos is entrapped in love simply by turning himself around, Don Carlos and Elisabeth, side by side, rhythmically thrust twigs into a stove as their passion grows, Don Carlos and the Marquis de Posa cement their vow of friendship with thrusting clenched fists, Rodrigue, driven against a wall by Phillip's boasts of power, erupts in laughter, Phillip crumbles at his feet. These motions spellbound, literally and physically, the Liceu stage and audience.

These scenes meld into the third act. Elisabeth entrusts Eboli with her veil, Eboli, enlightened about where Don Carlos' passions lie, screams revenge. But just at this moment it is time for the Queen's ballet.

Ballet and spectacle were one and the same with opera in Louis XIV's France, and this model persevered for two hundred or so years, well, until it has gotten too expensive for such extravagances except on very special occasions. Konwitschny must have thought that it is pretty silly to interrupt Schiller's perfectly intense story with these divertissements, but sportingly he led his show on. Out went the enormous white box of the Spanish court, in came Eboli and Don Carlos' tacky 1970's apartment, the boss and wife (that's Phillip II and Elisabeth) invited over for dinner. The roasting chicken, forgotten, burns to a crisp, a desperate telephone call summons a pizza delivery man (the Marquis de Posa). Not a cent spent on ballerinas.

Thoroughly stunned we stumbled into intermission, grabbed coupes of champagne and expressed our wonderment. Soon TV monitors lighted up with an excited newsperson, on location, direct from the Liceu, inviting us to an auto-da-fé (burning of the heritics) that we could watch on the monitors or see on the stage. Trumpets lined up here and there in the Liceu's public areas and the music began, bloodied heretics were driven through the foyers. The TV monitors showed the orchestra playing in the pit, the stage filled with choristers dressed like the audience, coupes of champagne in hand, cheering the arrival of the heritics onto stage. The king and queen arrived at the Liceu's grand Rambla entrance, and surrounded by bodyguard thugs made their way down the main aisle of the fully lighted auditorium, partially filled with a cheering audience, the rest glued to monitors in the foyers. On stage the king was humbly addressed by the Flemish ambassadors, implored by the crowd, and then rashly admonished by the rabble-rouser Don Carlos. Leaflets depicting a bombed-out opera house dropped into every corner of the theater.

We were two thousand supernumeraries, costing not one cent, in this scene of unprecedented theatrical audacity and operatic magnitude.

Back at the oppressive Spanish court Phillip is found in his study, the enormous white box having descended, where he will deliver the greatest bass scene in all of opera, his ten-minute confession of loneliness. Shockingly he is not alone -- a woman lies beside him as he begins his lament elle ne m'aime pas. The woman sharing his bed is recognized only after we have summoned our most profound feelings of sympathy for this suffering king. It is not the queen, but Eboli! We feel Phillip's agony as never before, and share the degradation he feels for himself and for his court. If there is scandal and controversy in Konwitschny's production it should be addressed here as this scene, a (perhaps the) Verdi masterpiece, is at once immeasurably enriched and utterly destroyed by depriving its protagonist of his intended dignity.

The production's miscalculation was not to re-focus our attention on the stage after the exhilaration of the ballet and the auto-da-fé. The white box became tiresome, Spanish court dress meant nothing. Without a renewed theatrical language and its resultant stimulation the most powerful of Verdi's Don Carlos music lost the forceful edge brought to the score in the first part of the evening.

Make no mistake, this was opera at its absolute level. The conductor, Maurizio Benini, gave a sympathetic reading of the score that was one with the production conception and the needs of the singers. The cast, led by Franco Farina in a flawless vocal and histrionic delivery of the fragile Don Carlos, included the physically and vocally powerful Giacomo Prestia as Phillip II, and an enigmatic and dangerous, vocally splendid Carlos Alvarez as Rodrigue. Neither the Elisabeth of Adrienne Pieczonka nor the Eboli of Sonia Ganassi matched the elegance of the males, adding an earthiness that was perhaps partially a directorial choice. Both are excellent Verdi interpreters and gave powerful performances. Eric Halfvarson was the Grand Inquisitor, casting one expects in any high level production. The ballet disproved the notion that opera singers are not actors. This cast could hold its own on any TV soap opera.

Sémélé in Montpellier

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Sémélé in Montpellier

Marin Marais, known perhaps to a few cello cognoscenti (a massive collection of solos and duets) was unknown until now to the opera public. Well, the opera public of Montpellier that is, one that ventures where few dare tread.

Cellist and pedagogue Marin Marais wrote four operas of which Sémélé was apparently the second. It was not a success when performed in 1709. Nonetheless the Centre de Musique Baroque de Versailles has resurrected the work, or a portion of the work, creating a version that was given last summer in a concert performance at the Radio France Montpellier Festival. This past week (January 30, February 1, 3) the Opéra National de Montpellier added costumes, sets and movement for the principals.

Sémélé, as seen in Montpellier, is a slight work. How much of it did we see is a lingering question, as the performance lasted a mere two and one half hours. The story line in Montpellier was made tight, too tight, involving only seven characters, Jupiter and jealous Juno, Sémélé and her earthly fiance Adraste, Sémélé's maid Dorine and her lover Arbate, actually Mercure. Plus a few brief speeches by Sémélé's father, Cadmus. There were a few choruses of probably many more, and there was no ballet though there was some ballet music of certainly much more. These, the heart and soul of French Baroque opera, were sorely missed.

The visual ideal of the production was realized by the exquisite costumes of Giusi Giustino, a mix of detailed period and abstracted modern dress. It was immediately apparent that that this production was about design, not about theater.

Director Olivier Simmonet in his debut as a metteur en scène provided obvious, soap opera staging, ending the opera with the spurned, silent Juno alone on the stage, a prosaic comment on Sémélé's triumphal ascension into the heavens. His production included spectacular video intrusions realized by Calicot Productions that gave us changing locales and huge close-ups (indeed all too close) of the singers, depriving the stage of depth by creating a two-dimensional canvas -- like a flat television screen. Gilles Cenazandotti's scenery was abstracted architectural shapes carved in white foam and white painted ropes construed in tree and swing shapes, these in relief against a large square of changing saturated color, again negating all sense of depth. The effect was at worst like department store window dressing and at best handsome.

The glory of French Baroque opera are its dramatic recitatives, and these were delivered by a largely non-French cast. The beautiful Shannon Mercer regally intoned the gloriously ornamented speeches of Sémélé. Anders J. Dahlin not only cut a fine figure as Adraste but also sang this haute-contre role elegantly (no castrati here!). The Dorine of Bénédicte Tauran (from Limoges) was quite charming against the rough voiced Mercure of bass Lisandro Abadie. The Jupiter of Thomas Dolié and the Juno of Hjordis Théault, fine performances as well, had the misfortune of being the subjects of most of the close-ups. These are singers, not TV actors.

Montpellier hosts a fine Baroque music group, Le Concert Spirituel, and its excellent conductor, Hervé Niquet. The orchestra is of the necessary size (large) and accomplishment to perform the difficult French court and academy works. The splendor of French Baroque opera is its spectacle. Lacking this on the stage it did occur in the pit, with the impressive thunder and earthquake -- the thunder made using the old trick of simply shaking and striking a sheet of zinc, the earthquake made terrifying by three bassoons underscoring the basses the length of this extended scene. More impressive yet was the chorus of Le Concert Spiritual, joined in the pomp and terror scenes by the brilliant tones of the high Baroque trumpet. This chorus, in abstracted stage movements, was twenty fine, discernibly individual voices joined, not melded into a mighty sound when needed, diminished to individual whispers when appropriate.

One may recall for comparison Davide Livermore's minimal yet highly theatrical production of Vivaldi's Bajarzet last summer at the Montpellier Radio France Festival.

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Dialogue of the Carmelites in Marseille

Marseille, France's second city, is not an opera town. The season there is small -- seven operas of generally four performances each in its opera house a few steps from the Vieux Port. The cornerstone of the Opera Municipal was laid in 1784, but that is about all of the original theater that remains, its latest reconstruction in 1924. It may be time for yet another opera house fire -- note the roguishly dilapidated bench coté jardin of the mezzanine bar.

Opera in Marseille is often very well sung, and this was the case November 14, the first Marseille performance of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites since 1988. Admirable indeed were the vocal (and histrionic) performances of four of the five Carmelite nuns who face death with varying degrees of grace. The fearful novice Blanche, the eager novice Constance, the cowardly Mother Marie and the resolute new prioress were performed respectively by Barbara Ducret, Laura Hynes Smith, Marie-Ange Todorovitch and Manon Feubel. Less successful was the grand cameo role of the old prioress whose angry death was enacted with gusto by the vocally ineffective Zlatomira Nikolova.

Tedious, yes, except when Poulenc's accessible mid twentieth century music took flight, not infrequently. Yet in order to give depth and meaning to these deaths one had to infer complex relationships among these unusual women that simply are not developed either in the libretto or Poulenc's music. Thus much of the opera remains on the superficial, kitsch level of the opera's finale, as the fourteen nuns mount the guillotine one by one, reducing one by one the number singing a final Salve Regina. The production, from up the road a few miles (Avignon), offered no help, dutifully marking literal actions against very unattractive sets.

After the interval there was some welcome excitement when a man's voice from the balcony told off the conductor just before he raised the baton to continue the performance. It was unclear if the abuse was personal or artistic, though the competent Patrick Davin took his final applause and his boos with obvious pleasure. There was one, only one note of laughter during this long heavy evening when the very large cast (that included numerous very well performed male roles) rushed forward to take yet another bow and the Chevalier de la Force, the excellent (and witty) Gilles Ragon, feigned stepping into the orchestra pit.

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Nabucco in Toulon

There is discussion about where Nabucco fits into the Verdi oeuvres. It was his first success, and that success was huge, but it is puzzling that it has become a repertory mainstay in place of, for example, other early works like Macbeth and Ernani, operas based on effective theater (Shakespeare and Victor Hugo). In Toulon its weaknesses were left apparent, and its strengths hard to discern.

In his later years Verdi had painful relationships with his librettists, demanding dramatically true scenes and even words themselves that hold inherent drama. It is in fact painful to look back at the libretto of this first Verdi success (his third opera) with its improbable, even impossible human conflicts and unrealistic deus ex machina resolution (the pagans simply succumb to the Old Testament God, thus ending the all conflict).

Still we went home humming Va pensiero while wondering why such a politically explosive libretto did not arouse at least a little public protest in Toulon's Arab quarter.

Toulon's Nabucco did provide some real Verdi. It was in the pit. Conductor Giuliano Carella, brought appropriate speed and particularly volume to this early Verdi political work, and effectively displayed the musical kernels that explode much later in his great masterpieces -- the Germont Violetta duet in La Traviata and the Phillip II monologue with its cello obligato in Don Carlo are two easily recognized descendants.

The stage was in conflict with the pit, its pointed energy counterpoised to sloppy, aimless movement particularly by the principals but also by the chorus, the incipient Verdian operatic poetic was pitted against stage pictures of crude shapes and colors, the production in toto a thoughtless staging of Verdi's already dramatically handicapped series of choruses, arias and ensembles. That left the burden of pulling off the evening to the singers.

The Toulon chorus, augmented by the chorus of the Opéra de Nancy and de Lorraine was not up to its task of infusing either the Jews or the Babylonians with robust presences. Verdi made the role of the evil Abigail fiendishly difficult, and though adequately delivered (that is, by the way, a compliment for this role) Elisabete Matos was physically uncomfortable. The big voiced Nabucco, baritone Carlos Almaguer, appropriately dominated the stage, but failed to convey humanity in what should be deeply felt scenes. The Ismaele of tenor Carlo Guido could be heard over both the chorus and orchestra at fortissimo, the Fenena of Svetlana Lifar was well sung if poorly acted, and finally the grand priest Zaccaria was adequately taken on, replacing an indisposed singer, by Wojtek Smilek who seemed no more uncomfortable on the stage than anyone else.

The show was in the pit, conductor Carella in a very vocal and physical performance (for those who could hear and see him) stimulated the Toulon orchestra to excellent ensemble playing, and noticeably fine solo work of the cello, flute and English horn. The dramatic tension of the evening was created in the pit making it finally a memorable Verdi encounter.

In all fairness, stage director Charles Roubaud did provide a plausible Nabucco at the Chorégies d'Orange in 2004, perhaps aided by its monumental ambience. Verdi is difficult to produce because of its absolute dependence on great, not just good, singers, and a delicate production balance. Inadequate singing destroyed a recent Los Angeles Opera Nabucco, and just last month poor productions defeated both Un ballo in maschera and Rigoletto at San Francisco Opera, two big, international houses. Finally it should be said that Toulon made an honest attempt in its fine, Verdi friendly opera house.

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Tristan und Isolde in Montpellier

Wagner the thinker dreamed of opera as a total art form, the gesamtkunstwerk -- opera not just as music, but a synthesis of sound and word and image. Wagner the philosopher, defined the forces that drive humankind in broad and simple terms. But still he dreamed, dreamed that the power of love could restore primeval purity.

Wagner, far more than a thinker, was an artist, an instinctive Schubertian Romantic, whose life fulfillment is death. Wagner uses Tristan and Isolde to chart this passage in Apollonian terms, with the resolution of consuming love desires in death. Wagner then sublimated this love death beyond nothingness, into an exhausted dream state that has no end.

Wagner was his own worst enemy -- read a biography and sympathize with his father-in-law, Franz Liszt. It was hard to like Wagner. Artistically Wagner shot himself in the foot as well. He created music so immediate and so gripping, and powerful that it easily overwhelms the mind and the senses. This makes his music easy not to like. It also makes his gesamtkunstwerk very hard to accomplish.

Undaunted by probably hundreds of failed attempts to render Tristan as total art, Montpellier set out to accomplish this artistic synthesis, and then upped the ante by putting a conductor in the pit who would activate Wagner's score in its most powerful terms, and a cast on the stage who could audibly deliver every word of Wagner's libretto while integrating itself into the musical maelstrom as well.

Conductor Fiedemann Layer played the overture, and in fact the whole score, without imposing musical innovations, revealing its familiar lines in the darkened auditorium with clarity. The line between the overture's close and the opera's beginning was blurred by the sudden vision of the deck of a ship in boiling seas, an image somewhere between a high seas blockbuster movie, a nineteenth century opera set, a piece of good modern architecture and a snow filled black and white television screen.

Director Georges Lavaudant is a minimalist, moving his characters rarely, but then definitively; gestures are seldom, then stylized, and laden with meaning; his characters are placed structurally within the stage picture, positioned for inner meaning rather than literal action. Emotional movement is thus rendered in large scaled staging shapes.

Though there is little action in Tristan, director Lavaudant made important use of the few times something does happen by making these moments visually loud and physically violent, thus underlining the intrusion of an antagonistic force -- the sailor choruses at the end of the first act, the acts two and three entries of Melot and King Mark, the interruptions of Kurvenal in the Tristan delirium as examples. The Tristan delirium was delivered in thrusting movements that made it a determined philosophic reality far more than a mad scene.

Designer Jean-Pierre Vergier (sets, costumes, lights) developed few images, but all were huge, and merged with the flux of Wagner's score, the boiling sea in the first act, moving planets and falling stars in the second act sky, and swarms of seagulls in act three. Huge, ominous rock like shapes loomed on the sides from time to time, and there were several well-placed blinks of blackout that refocused the images. Vergier slashed a cleft across the second act floor, perhaps the wound that separates love from life. The third act floor was a field of tiny sand structures stretched to the horizon, a simple image of complex responses and difficult traverses.

With the help of choreographer Anne Martin, Tristan and Isolde marked the power of the love potion in dance-like proscribed magic ritual movement, the menace and violence of Melot and four henchmen were rendered in abstracted dance motions that punctuated and elaborated King Mark's disillusion, making it both pontifical and threatening, and finally the tableau of Isolde and Tristan, reunited, reaching towards, but not touching the other's hand.

Gesamtkunstwerk was achieved. Lavaudant and his artistic team created the bold visual strokes and the bold staging that would embody Wagner's surging score. The musical conception of conductor Layer was one with this Lavaudant treatise, remarkably passionate, remarkably violent, the Liebestod finally an anticlimax, the hugeness of the dilemma dissolved in an exhausted harmonic resolution that could never extinguish the flames of this Wagnerian love.

No less important collaborators in achieving this superb Tristan and Isolde were the singers, all with appropriately sized and effective voices. Hedwig Fassbender was a very physical Isolde, Richard Decker a very conflicted Tristan, Nora Gubisch a caring Brangaene. The King Mark of Xiaoliang Li was both moving and menacing. Extraordinary were the powerful Kurvenal of Wolfgang Schone and the violent Melot of André Heyboer, and were, perhaps, the key figures in making this performance one of the great evenings in the theater.

Ercole Amante in Toulon

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Ercole Amante in Toulon

Actually a one night preamble to the Toulon new season, and definitely a fish out of water in the Toulon opera house, Cavalli's Ercole Amante (Hercules the Lover) (1662) was brought from the Académie Baroque Européenne in Ambronay, a town about half way between Lyon and Geneva.

Cavalli (1602-1676) gives definition to the first, and best years of Venetian opera -- an operatic synthesis of the new dramatic style of solo singing, spectacle from Italian ducal courts, and a huge dose of commedia dell'arte. No longer intellectual high art or royal splendor, opera became entertainment, and commercial enterprise. Dignity be drowned.

Cavalli achieved great fame with his lively, racy, and dramatically true operas. It comes then as no surprise that he was summoned to the then center of the civilized world, Paris. Summoned to compose an opera that would celebrate the marriage of the twenty-two year old monarch Louis XIV to Marie-Thérèse of Spain.

Only a century earlier when the Renaissance was in full force, Hercules was revered as a pagan with Christ-like qualities, an appropriate subject for solemn commemorative entertainments. Now, in full musical Baroque, and in the delightful excesses of Venetian opera Hercules was instead admired for his amorous exploits and excesses. And, truth to tell, Louis XIV did indulge in famous extra marital exploits.

Something in Toulon went awry. The evening was advertised as Cavalli's opera with Lully's ballets, thereby recreating the famous six hour evening that had inaugurated a new theater dubbed the Salle des Machines (because it held huge apparatus for creating the scenic meraviglia [the marvelous] of Baroque opera). Erected between the courtyard and the garden of the Tuileries palace this theater explains theater jargon still in use -- coté cour and coté jardin. But in Toulon there was no Lully to be heard, no dancers to be seen, and an affiche in front of the theater announced, citing technical difficulties, that there would be no scenery.

Thus eviscerated we were left with a concert performance of an opera whose very form depends on staging -- the physical theater of the pop commedia scenes, the pomp scenes and the marvelous visual effects that are in fact Baroque opera.

Early music is not difficult music, making Cavalli's opera well within the reach of the young performers from the Ambronay Baroque Academy (perhaps meaning a training school), the bulk of whom seemed to be under thirty. No biographical material was offered, thus we have no idea who these performers were or what is the real nature of this Baroque academy.

The music was in fact very well played under the direction of veteran Argentine early music specialist Gabriel Garrido. Two large continuo groups on stage, some quite fine plucking (lutes, theorbos, guitars) entertained us a bit. In the pit was a full complement of strings plus the usual winds, including two trumpets and four oboes! A Lully sized orchestra -- far more players than served the usual Venetian opera house of the time. Thus we were provided with some sumptuous sounds, including a Cavalli innovation in this opera -- he added violins to recitative accompaniment, blurring the contrast between story telling and musical reflection, a separation that defines later Baroque opera.

The young singers performed on a professional level, though casting was perhaps accomplished by utilizing existing members of the academy rather than searching for singers equipped with the specific voices required to sound all the notes of Cavalli's delightful airs and dramatic recitatives.

Finally, though, it is pure pleasure to hear Cavalli anytime anywhere, and with Ercole Amante we can relive the musical moment that so invigorated the first efforts to create French opera. Fortunately there is a fine resource for the visually spectacular elements we missed in Toulon -- the film Vatel by English director Roland Joffé. This 2001 film earned by a Hollywood Oscar and a French César award for art direction, including some very impressive, operational Baroque theater machines!

Note bene: Returning the night before from an extended stay in the U.S. I was suffering from jet lag. I saw only the first of this two-part evening.

Sampiero Corso, Pelleas et Melisande, Il trovatore, Phédre - Didon et Enée, Don Giovanni, Le nozze di Figaro, Salome, Wozzeck, La Voix Humaine - Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Callirhoé, Madama Butterfly, Peer Gynt, Alcina, Ariane et Barbe-bleue

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Don Pasquale in Weimar

 

For many decades the best German opera productions have mercilessly explored the texts and subtexts of old operas.   Stories that were once innocent have been subjected to analysis that erupts on the stage into surprising, sometimes shocking story telling, and at times even unexpected revelations of meaning.  Such was still the case when Weimar's new Don Pasquale fell into the hands of American stage director Roy Rallo.

   

The age-old comic process of youth overcoming obstacles placed by its elders is the crux of Donizetti's opera.  To effect the inevitable reconciliation of youth and age this story plays a dirty trick, one that is really mean -- even its perpetrators think so, leaving us finally somewhat ambivalent in our feelings about the new generation.  Mr. Rallo's sympathies were clearly with the older generation. The opera ends not on the exhilaration of youth, but on a defeated sense of aging.

    

In Weimar Don Pasquale's house was an old folk's home, populated by old folks.  Real old folks.  Exploiting these folks is of course not a unique theatrical trick, having been used in recent times notably by Barry Kosky and Robert Carsen.  In Weimar these venerable souls expressed a collective wish for their lost youth.  Miracles were in store!  Not only could the cosmetic surgeon Dr. Malatesta transform Norina into the sex bomb needed to stimulate Pasquale's sexual apparatus, he could also offer the residents of the old folks home the outward appearance of their lost youth.

   

American set designer Marsha Ginsberg provided an idealized old room for the action of the opera, idealized in the sense that it looked like a really old real old room, one that was in its prime long, long ago.  Its walls are now a faded Easter pale blue, one corner showing smoke residue from a bygone wood stove, and its old furniture was obviously scavenged from forgotten corners of the DDR.

 

Costumes, the work of Doey Lüthi, were rich in detail too, as they were surely scavenged from the piles of garments found in second hand stores, discarded as fashions have changed over the decades.  Norina, first a nurse in the old folks home, transformed herself by donning a magnificent 1940's gown, then surgically assumed gigantic tits plus lots of platinum hair before resolving herself into a very plain socialist matron.

 

Dirty tricks (of fate) abounded at the premiere.  Early in the performance a television failed to illuminate, the missing images obviously meant to provide crucial motivational information for the story.  Pasquale jabbed at the television remote (did remotes exist in bygone DDR days?), triggering extreme light cues that illuminated the love affair of Norina and Ernesto, and left us with the expectation that there would be some extreme light cues at their later reconciliation.  This moment was indeed scenically set up, but any light cue missed.

 

Dirtiest of all was the last minute cancellation of the Dr. Malatesta (attributed to a back injury suffered from slipping on Weimar's icy streets).  The role was taken by a confident young Korean baritone, Ji-Su Park, a member of Weimar's opera studio.  Mr. Park's presence as an aggressive young surgeon seemed totally natural in an uncanny way (at least it worked well for the Americans in the audience as Asians have an important presence in American medicine).  But surely it altered the tonality of the production, as the story telling would have been quite different if the plot were motivated by a contemporary of Pasquale.

    

Like all successful German productions, this one too relied on its strong concept to showcase effectively the ensemble singers typical of German repertory opera houses.  Notable was Ernesto, the fine tenor of Uwe Stickert (though those of us who intimately know retirement homes would have made him the maintenance man/janitor -- he would have been much easier to costume as well).  The Norina of Heike Porstein was well sung, though she was more comfortable as the good hearted, simple nurse than as Donizetti's strident Norina.  The Don Pasquale of bass-baritone Damon Nestor Ploumis was a fine success.  One might have wished for a larger vocal presence but he brought subtle coloration to this character, seemingly defeated at the end, certainly not entirely reconciled to, and perhaps confused by the story's outcome.

 

Mr. Rallo's Don Pasquale was not without its coup de théâtre.  Playing on the Italian word Pasqua (Easter), Easter eggs appeared on stage, Pasquale and Malatesta donned bunny masks for their patter duet (an hysterically funny play on bunny's mouths eating carrots).  The twenty or so old folks broke open the eggs to find photographs of themselves, thereby discovering rebirth into the prime of life through the miracle of photography and the richness of memory.  Thus this simple sentimental comedy assumed profound human dimensions.

 

All this in spite of what came out of the pit.  Conductor Martin Hoff confused Donizetti with Beethoven, perhaps because it was a blustery cold, snowy night in Weimar and sunny Italy is so far away, and the opera was sung in German anyway.

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Ariane et Barbe Bleu in Nice

The Opéra de Nice is a very good theater with a very large orchestra pit and a stage that has an immediate rapport with its hall, not to mention its beautiful belle époche interior and exterior. Though the inside and out is just a little shabby, comforts are minimal with what must be the original late nineteen century seats and chairs, and demands on its technical staff are daunting -- scenery to be loaded into the theater must be broken down into small pieces to fit into a small freight elevator to take it up from the street to the stage level.

Happily the sound in the theater is superb and the orchestra is excellent. This past season the Nice Philharmonic has been called upon to perform three very difficult orchestral scores, Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande, Berg's Wozzeck and last week (May 30) Paul Dukas' Ariane et Barbe Bleu -- three orchestral masterpieces. The orchestral playing has provided the most solid of the season's pleasures.

The Ville de Nice has hosted a multitude of famous, infamous, not-so-famous artists over the years, including the Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949), who bought a home on the Cap de Nice in 1930, and died there in 1949. This Nice Maeterlinck relationship has continued with the Opéra de Nice production of Paul Dukas' only opera Ariane et Barbe Bleu (1907) for which Maeterlinck provided the libretto.

The Opéra de Nice production pays little homage to Maeterlinck. The picture postcard scenery (four of them) and the literalness of the costumes and wigs, all designed by Louis Désiré, were at once careful abstractions and specific representations of the story's locations. Though visually striking the settings eschewed evocations of the multitude of symbols and shifting moods in Maeterlinck's play.

The staging by Paul-Emile Fourny was overtly practical in its solutions, escaping again into abstraction rather than dealing with narrative, i.e. stage action was blatently independent of storytelling. And it was confusing when it attempted an over-layer of sophistication -- the inappropriate and heavy-handed pieta at the end as the prime example. The addition of a choreographer would have been helpful, as Bluebeard's first five wives wandered aimlessly around the stage for extended periods of time.

Maeterlinck had offered his play as a libretto to Edvard Grieg, who had never written an opera, coming closest with his incidental music to Ibsen's Peer Gynt (the Teatro Carlo Felice production reviewed below). Maeterlinck's literary sophistication, like that of other symbolist poets did not extend to musical sophistication -- the delicacies of the long departed Schubert more to their taste. So it is ironic that the transparency and purity of the comparatively simplistic Grieg musical spectrum envisioned by Maeterlinck gave way to an aural palate as rich, complex and sophisticated as that of Paul Dukas. Though unlike Strauss, a composer with similar orchestration facility, Dukas did not achieve his own musical poetic, his Ariane et Barbe Bleu a succession, to twenty-first century ears, of Debussian, Wagnerian et al, references.

Maeterlinck's Ariane is the polar opposite of Maeterlinck's Melisande. Ariane moves with confidence within a world she ultimately learns she cannot understand. It is still Melisande's imponderable world. Dukas' musical continuum is more than anything else confident and cocky, evoking a musical competition with his peers far more than evoking the gentle conflicts and confrontations of Melisande's world. But make no mistake -- it is beautiful music.

Dukas was diabolical to his singers, the roles of Ariane and the Nurse extraordinarily difficult. Hedwig Fassbender rose to the occasion, with a beautifully sung Ariane, though with an uncomfortable stage presence and a sometimes dry voice. Anne Pareuil was perhaps over-parted as the Nurse, and equally uncomfortable on the stage. The former wives were well sung, though on stage they seem to have been left to create inappropriate individual, clumsy personalities for themselves. The very brief role of Bluebeard himself, other times taken by big baritonal presenses, was here performed by Evgenij Demerdjiev.

Alcina in Lyon

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Alcina in Lyon

The Jossi Wieler/George Frederic Handel Alcina descended on the Opera National de Lyon (May 14), a revival staging by Roy Rallo of the original Stuttgart Opera production from sometime in the mid nineteen nineties.

Handel composed Alcina for his first season at Covent Garden (1735), where, losing his shirt five years later, he was cured of his urge to write operas. But by then he had already composed fifty, a body of work that as it slowly emerges immeasurably embellishes the already hyper sophisticated English theater tradition from which it came.

Add to this the perspectives of an Israeli director, Jossi Wieler, known for his stagings of Nobel prize winning Elfriede Jelinek's texts, an Italo-German dramaturg, Sergio Morabito, a German designer, Anna Viebrock, and an American soprano, Catherine Naglestad, who next sings Tosca at Covent Garden and then Salome at the Bastille.

And, well, all this in a Jean Nouvel designed opera house. Not exactly the makings of a Collegium Musicum.

Alcina, a chivalric adaptation of the Greek goddess Circe, came alive in richly humanistic terms in Lodovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, originally told at Ferrara's haute Renaissance court. Ariosto's tale was an inexhaustible source of Baroque opera libretti, this Stuttgard Alcina of unknown authorship is from cantos seven and eight (of thirty eight) and was likely used by a few other Baroque opera composers as well.

A complex premise for an afternoon of opera in Lyon. A baroque orchestra seated on the floor against a front paneled stage platform. A stage surround of four richly decorated walls dominated by a huge empty ornamented gilt frame, vestiges of human life -- a chair, tools, weapons, shoes -- piled in a corner. A door. Though the walls have needed patching here and there. The gilt frame serves as a mirror, a portrait, a portal, a dream, another reality. The objects in the corner are evocations of any life, any time, though decayed and uniformly gray. The door sometimes in a wall, sometimes beyond the frame.

Bradamante, a woman disguised as her brother, in search of Ruggiero, a woman dressed as a man, her future husband. A confused semi-sorceress is in love with a man who is a woman, meanwhile her future husband wishing to be seduced by a man who is really a woman. Alcina, a sorceress, is enthralled by a woman who is a man, her victim Ruggiero enthralled in turn by her love. And, significantly, a little bondage here and there. Pale by comparison is a man who is a man, one who knows there is a job that has got to be done (those damned Saracens), and that Ruggiero and his warrior wife Bradamante have got to do it.

Duty triumphs, leaving Catherine Naglestad, Alcina, isolated in her pain, wrenchingly expressed (few words, many, many notes), her love reaching tragic human grandeur as she can know, a magician and a musician, that Ariosto's Ruggiero, renouncing love, will therefore find death.

Handel, with no small help from Wieler, takes the feelings of his warriors and magicians to genuinely operatic and truly magnificent proportions, Handel using multiple, emotive variations of the simple Baroque three section aria, Wieler using the smallest human gestures, the smallest objects to embody human compassion, the laying out of tools, the tacit presence of an antagonist, employing simple sounds, an actor physically (and metaphorically) hitting the wall, an object dropped or thrown, a gunshot.

Thus Handel and Wieler transform the formal, highly artificial Baroque opera form into an intensely human experience, where the energy created by each aria was returned to the stage in Lyon not in the usual operatic applause, rather in the palpable, silent empathy the hall offered the stage after each aria.

Finally the realm of love, of physical attraction defeated, Alcina shot dead, Ariosto's characters gather on the stage in recognition of their sacrifice. A last entrance of the now silent Alcina is the final irony, the comprehension that duty is wrenchingly empty.

That the Jossi Wieler/Sergio Morabito production survived the transition from its ensemble creation at Stuttgart Opera those many years ago to Lyon is a quasi miracle, certainly due to the empathetic staging of Roy Rallo, and the conducting of Alessandro de Marchi, bringing committed and guided Baroque musical principles to the revival of the Wieler/Morabito production. The Lyon cast brought new dimension and strength to the production conception, the Ruggiero of Stéphanie d'Oustrac a miracle of masculine ambivalence, the doggedness of the Bradamante of Ann Hallenberg, the sexual ambivalence of Mirko Guadagnini, the boyishness of Katherine Rohrer, the stickiness of the Morgana of Cyndia Sieden, and the stolidness of bass Tòmas Tòmasson.

There is yet one more irony. The cast was greeted with big ovations that grew and grew with the crescendo of humanity as each of Ariosto's characters came on stage. The conductor and orchestra, Handel himself, were genuinely appreciated. The production team -- Wieler, Morabito, Rallo, and lighting designer David Finn, brought on stage by the diva, were soundly booed.

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Peer Gynt in Genoa

Unable to meet the cost of mounting the announced Janacek's Katya Kabanova Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice offered instead Ibsen's play Peer Gynt with its incidental music by Edvard Grieg, seen April 30. Cruel Slavic realism supplanted by cool Nordic realistic romantic idealism -- a very rare opportunity to savor a very bland concoction.

Not the antagonistic Ibsen that hits the world's speaking stages, Nora in A Doll's House (1879), or Hedda Gabler herself (1890), Peer Gynt (1867) is an early Ibsen drama, in verse, made famous by the music that accompanied its 1876 premiere in Christiana (Oslo), Norway. Ibsen's hero Peer leaves home to experience the world only to return home sweet home, travel that is romantically archetypal, though seen through the clear Ibsen eye it was subject to some, if not enough, irony.

It is possible that the young Ibsen's Peer Gynt was never meant to go on stage (its versification compromises any dramatic impetus, and in fact one of its scenes is completely in the dark). The mature Ibsen, now the creative director of National Theater, knew that Peer Gynt needed something (a lot) more to make it stageworthy. Thus, shrewdly, he approached the famous Grieg to provide music, as he surely would have approached Edward Munch for the sets had the dates worked out. After an initial first success at the National Theater, Ibsen's drama has survived in Ibsen anthologies and Ibsen studies, and Grieg's music has fallen onto symphony halls, more then than now.

For most of us Peer Gynt is Grieg's music and not Ibsen's play. What wonderful music it is, evoking a naive world of simple symbols in pure melodies and approachable rhythms, a purified Norwegian landscape that will never loose its primal beauty. Nordic mysteries abound but with an innocence unknown to another Romantic idealist, Richard Wagner. Grieg's music is from my childhood, as it surely must be such for everyone.

Seated out of sight in Carlo Felice's live pit and led by Gabor Ötvös (a genuine Hungarian, perhaps a refuge from the Katya Kabonova production), the Carlo Felice orchestra gave a splendid performance, with sumptuous sonorities and joyous Italianate solo wind playing. A true pleasure to hear a sophisticated opera orchestra sing out simple symphonic repertory.

Seated on stage were sixty some, formally dressed choristers who erupted from time to time in Grieg's spirited choruses, and from which emerged, from time to time, individual singers to perform, excellently, solo vocal parts. A true pleasure to hear symphonic choruses sung by real singers.

On the side of the stage were two fine actors who read between them the twelve characters that populate Ibsen's drama. Here in a "dramaturgical reduction" envisioned by Marco Salotti, a professor at the University of Genoa, and realized by Fausto Consentino of the Carlo Felice production staff. Downstage center were of a couple of white boxes, a few white chairs, a white ladder and five white pajama clad actors who dutifully pantomimed Ibsen's dramatic action amid these few props. This blandly white highly abstracted action (would that it had been balletic) wore out quickly. This left two hours to endure more.

The rare opportunity to experience Ibsen's commercial compromise (and Carlo Felice's) was more than anything else a missed opportunity. One yearned for the orchestra to sit on the stage, for twelve actors to read Ibsen's verse treatise, some of it recited in the dark maybe. Thus the true Ibsen genius, and it is, could have joined the apparent Grieg genius, trusting the opera audience to get through an afternoon without spectacle (especially the inept, meaningless projections that sometimes hit the upstage scrim).

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Madama Butterfly in Genoz

Renata Scotto, dubbed a legendary Butterfly in Carlo Felice publicity, and conductor Daniel Oren, deified by the Carlo Felice audience, together attacked Giacomo Puccin's strappalagrime (tearjerker) at Genoa's eccentric opera house, Teatro Carlo Felice (February 16).

Producer Scotto's designer, Beni Montressor, outlined a vague pavilion against infinite whiteness with miles of mirrors, its ephemeral interior miles of filmy white cloth, and dressed his Butterfly in a pure white, winged kimono (yes, a pure white Kate Pinkerton as well -- forgive her, the innocent cause of all your sorrow).

The well-buttoned and finely belted Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Oh say, can you see), Vicenzo La Scola, was understandably under appreciated by the crowd. The sumptuous geisha, the Romanian Doina Dimitriu, well schooled in Italy, was indeed well coached in the grandiose gestures of the great Scotto's Butterfly. Somberly dressed Suzuki and Sharpless were kept well out of the way of the melodramatic outbursts of this fallen angel and the heartbreaking regret of eternally naive American foreign policy.

The epicenter of this melodrama was the orchestra, singing as if human, with infinite nuance, always full voiced (loud), encouraged by the enthralled baritone of conductor phenomenon Daniel Oren singing along.

In a final surge, a huge, ironic theatrical gesture, Scotto's Butterfly vanished. The stage blank, the orchestra silenced, the audience remained motionless until conductor Oren carefully placed his baton on his desk.

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Wozzeck in Nice

Always a box office challenge, Wozzeck in Nice was no exception, many empty seats greeted a fine new production of this dark masterpiece.

The production, by Daniel Benoin, director of the Theatre National de Nice, identified itself at once as theater by the imposition of a spoken prologue, the source of text unidentified and not recognizable as the Buchner play. Marked as theater also by a scenic picture that eschewed operatic spectacle, putting stagecraft in its place -- a dark insane asylum, an inmate mumbling words about wife murder. Hidden portals slam open, shafts of bright white light enter, a delirium begins.

Thus emancipated from any rational context, Buchner's text and Berg's music flowed in the disconnected images of a distorted psyche, in full musical force and slick theatrical technique. No social commentary, no concept overriding the action.

Words and actions thus magnified, Berg's score emerged in unusual eloquence, its music beautiful in its honesty and directness. Conductor Marco Guidarini brought out an exceptionally detailed reading of the score, richly intoned by the Nice Philharmonic, bringing alive director Benoin's concrete images -- a merry-go-round, a slide, etc. Images that did not touch the primal images ignored by Benoin -- the moon, the pond, the field -- that are the lifeblood of a universality usually sought in stagings of Berg's Wozzeck.

Hartmut Welker was an exceptionally passionate Wozzeck. Jay Hunter Morris, Gunter Missenhardt, Ivan Matiakh convincingly portrayed the fascistic drum major, the importantly voiced doctor, and the crippled, twisted Captain respectively. The child of Marie and Wozzeck was the diaper clad old idiot of the inn scene, played by sixty-some Christian Jean. Marie, Helena Juntunen, was remarkable in the virtuosity of the complex lyricism and physical embodiment of this simple woman. The powerful choruses in the inn and barracks scenes were musically solid and very effectively staged.

This Wozzeck emerged as an incredible piece of music, a brilliant piece of stagecraft, including a prosaic staging of the 'd minor invention,' Berg's musical transfiguration of the deep humanity of Buchner's play. Profundity be damned.

Callirhoé in Montpellier

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Callirhoé in Montpellier

Montpellier is unique, possibly in the world, for its ability to find funding, find performers and find audiences for forgotten operas. This city offers a rare gift indeed, and it is to be cherished, and supported in every way possible so that this miracle may continue.

The forgotten works that have taken the stages of the grand old Comedie and the sparkling new Corum rarely fall into the masterpiece category. These are works to be enjoyed rather than worshiped. The music is always attractive, and the performances are often excellent, and most valuable of all they offer live perspectives into cultural history.

Last week (January 31, February 2, 5) Montpellier staged a Baroque tragedy, Callirhoé (1712, revised 1743) by one André Cardinal Destouches, in service to Louis XV. The occasion was the inauguration of the Montpellier residency of the Baroque music group Le Concert Spirituel. A fascinating bit of opera history, as this work illuminates the unknown operatic years between the great tragedian Lully (last opera 1687) and the worldly Rameau (first opera 1733).

The 1743 revised edition of Callirhoé was performed in Montpellier, thus the original moment of artistic inspiration was lost. The original composer, then 71 years old, added current operatic trends, and edited the libretto to achieve a more sentimental dramatic focus. The result in Montpellier was a theater piece that seemed not to know what or where it was. There were the powerful dramatic recitatives, some few brief airs, big choruses, descriptive symphonic episodes -- lacking was a sense of form. Most notably lacking was dance, an element as essential to French Baroque operatic form as recitative, and certainly a part of both the 1713 and 1743 versions.

Conducted by Hervé Niquet, the performance was orchestrally hyper sophisticated, the Callirhoé of Stéphanie d'Oustrac was superbly drawn in her signature physical style. This hyper polish demands the same from all its musical forces and its physical production. Neither the Agénor of a very young Cyril Auvity nor the well sung Corésus of Joäo Fernandes had the style or presence to create a love triangle. The production by René Koering was a catalogue of worn-out directorial commonplaces, with the added distraction of a superfluous video art commentary. The costumes by Giusi Giustino did have a sculptural integrity, and offered some sense of magnificence to the occasion.

Montpellier does know sophisticated stagings of Baroque operas -- Purcell's Dido and Aeneas and Handel's Rinaldo are recent examples.

Callirhoé was met with appreciative applause by the Sunday matinee audience. There was only one insistent voice delivering boos at the bow of the producer.

La Voix Humaine and Les Mamelles de Tirésias in Toulon

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La Voix Humaine and Les Mamelles de Tirésias in Genoa

Opéra Toulon Provence Méditerranée presented (January 20, 22, 24) Francis Poulenc's forty minute La Voix Humaine with Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias in a fine new production staged by Olivier Bénézech, costumed by Frédéric Olivier, with stage sets designed by sculptor Olivier Millagou. The evening, on firm literary footing, sets first Jean Cocteau's monologue to music, and then Guillaume Apollinaire's drame surréaliste. This production team, all Riviera based artists, was geographically apt, as the action of Les Mamelles takes place in Zanzibar, a [yet to be] undiscovered seaside village somewhere between Nice and Montecarlo.

Apollinaire's little theater piece, written in 1917, plays gently and just a little dangerously with cross dressing, transgendering, and women's liberation -- Thèrese becomes a man so she can be a soldier, her husband heeds the admonition delivered in the prologue to make love not war. Thérese/Tirésias goes off to war, the husband in fact makes children, lots of them, who furthermore can support him in his old age, though this is not accomplished without the obstructive antics of the local gendarme and a pushy newspaper reporter. Perhaps a thin allegory of Apollinaire's life as an artist. Poulenc (1899-1963), though no stranger to the French high art circles of the earlier twentieth century, was not an innovator or an avantgardiste, but a grounded and accomplished musician who composed music for a broad Parisian audience, one with little taste for musical experimentation and just enough taste for titillating subject matter.

Thus Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1947) is composed a bit in the boulevard musical style to which Honegger, for example, had given solid musical values in Le Roi Pausole (1930), presented last year in Nice. Fun music, built on nineteenth century sensibilities, carefully using some twentieth century techniques. This nineteenth century tradition is emblematic in works like Offenbach's La Perichole (three act version 1874) premiered in post Franco-Austrian war Paris, and presented hereabouts recently both in Montecarlo and Marseille (2002).

These are all slight works, compared with, for example, the Mozart comedies, and in fact compared with the Milhaud operatic comedies. This does not mean that they are not fine, and even great works of art. But they are delicate when viewed from a perspective of high art. Of all the productions above, including this Toulon production, the most successful was the Marseille La Perichole because it allowed the small, delicate, nuances of the text and the individual charm of the performers to take center stage. In short this genre is about charming performances. These performances are easily overshadowed by productions that are overly visual, and laden with directorial flourishes.

Les Mammelles in Toulon was handsomely mounted in a simple, visually striking set, the costuming and stage antics took on the challenge of being witty and making the piece amusing, though not particularly charming. Of particular amusement were the many children -- eight hairy men in baby clothes complete with baby sound effects, identified as the Ballet de l'Opéra de Toulon with over-the-top choreography (rather movements) by its director, Erick Margouet.

Toulon provided six fine singers for the nine roles of its Mamelles. Dutch soprano Renate Arends gave us the grand high C's of Thérése/Tirésias, her husband was Thomas Morris living up quite well to his character tenor fach, baritone Richard Rittelmann provided a well-wrought author child, with Elisabeth Bavière the newspaper seller and Jean-Philippe Corre the newspaper reporter. The prologue's le directeur was sung beautifully indeed by François Le Roux.

Twelve years later Poulenc offered the Parisian public another little opera, this one deadly serious. La Voix Humaine (1959) is Poulenc's music to a text by Jean Cocteau in which a woman suffers abandonment by the man she loves though a series of telephone calls. Although we hear only the part of the exchanges uttered by the woman we feel every word said to her.

Obviously this is a one-man show -- one woman, one telephone. Neither set nor costume needed -- four white walls sufficient to enclose the action. The work was suggested to Poulenc as a vehicle for Maria Callas, then at the height of her career, though she never performed it. Poulenc wrote it for Denise Duval, a singer at the Opéra de Paris, and later it became a vehicle for Magda Olivera, the last of the original verismo divas.

It is now the domain of Anne-Sophie Schmidt, and it was Ms. Schmidt who performed it in Toulon! This superb artist provided every nuance of the text, every gesture of the music in a performance remarkable for its directness and simplicity, delivering the recitatives in a French worthy of Racine and the vocal elaborations worthy of (one can't dare say Callas) a great artist.

Finally, La Voix Humaine is a rather trivial piece, not a great lyric tragedy. It is dependent again upon on the performer and not the producer. In was Ms. Schmidt's performance of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine that carried this fine evening in Toulon.

Toulon possesses an excellent, intimate house, perfect for opera theater. And of all theaters on the western Mediterranean it offers a program booklet worth the standard five euro charge, the excellent commentaries may be attributed to Monique Dauterner, the design of the booklet to Studio MCB.

Salome in Montpellier

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Salome (Strauss) and Salome (Mariotte) in Genoa

Not just Richard Strauss' little shocker, also selected lines of Oscar Wilde's pretentious French language bon bon set to music by one Antoine Mariotte, avignonais -- thus another, the other, Salome, this one in the French of an Irishman. The rare Mariotte Salome was given a concert performance at the France Musique Montpellier Festival in summer 2003, where it emerged as a dramatically viable and musically compelling setting of Wilde's decadent play.

The Opéra National de Montpellier gave itself the project of comparing the two works, with the goal of performing the two Salomes back to back, December 3 and 4, 2005. The outcome of this wonderfully absurd project was disappointing, because the playing field was not level, or better said, too level. In effect we have yet to see the Mariotte Salome, and thus to savor the French genius, and then admire the German one in contrast.

Choosing one producer for the two operas was a great gift to the producer, Carlos Wagner, and a blow to those of us who heard the Mariotte Salome in concert, and came away with a belief in the value of this rare opera. The comparison of the two works did bring reward, in terms of a very informed and indeed detailed staging of the Strauss Salome, a far richer, and obviously more important work than the Mariotte.

The Wagner Strauss Salome production was hoch Deutsch, in a by-now tired, once avant garde late 20th century German theatrical language called upon yet again to bring new life to this old chestnut. And that it did. From the initial disappointment in the déja vu set (oh how many times) came a growing appreciation for the costumes, designed by Conor Murphy (as was the set), that deeply defined these players, on so many levels beyond Wilde's banalities, the amazing Klimt quotation of Herodias, the white feathers cloaking the gold, exposed bloated body of Herod, the red tuxedos of the twisted Jews and Nazarenes, the androgynous page, murderer of her twin, her/his lover, the Chesterfield boy Narraboth.

Narraboth clutching Salome's green flower, twitching on the sand covered stage, the forbidden sexual object Jochanaan hoisted high above the cistern, the baptism and subsequent drowning of Salome, the masturbation of the Jews and Nazarenes during the blindfolded Salome's danse manquée, Herodias passing the execution ring to Naaman, the fruit-laden silver platter, the head slung across the stage, unforgettable images indelibly written onto Strauss' blatantly shocking score.

This theatrical language functioned on a highly musical level, interplaying with the Strauss score, given an equally detailed reading by conductor Friedmann Layer, with tempi that were often exaggerated in ways that fed the theatrical elaborations of the production. Then finally a remarkably long and loud sounding of the famous chord that marks Salome's bloody kiss of fulfillment, the sound of revulsion and the moment of recognition and the awareness that Salome is ugly.

Brilliantly cast, the Salome of Manuela Uhl was childlike, physically and vocally pure, with all needed power to sail above the orchestral maelstrom, the Herod of Gerhard Siegel was a marvel of physicality, in body and voice, equaled by the Herodias of Julia Juon, both roles here given, unusually, to viable voices, expressively used. The Jochanaan of James Rutherford succeeded in being threatening, saintly and sexual, vocally and physically, while the Narraboth of Marcel Reijans was marked by a beauty of voice that rendered his Salome fixation the more pitiful. All supporting roles were effectively performed.

The libretto of the Mariotte Salome purifies both the action and the French of the Wilde Salome, leaving the impression more of French symbolism than of English decadentism. Wilde and Strauss' theological discussions are excised, while the story of the murder of Herod's brother, husband of Herodias (ignored in the Strauss) is strategically placed, focusing the Mariotte Salome more on love stories, twisted though they may be, than on religious revenge and justice, twisted as these may be, that satisfied Wilde and Strauss. In fact in the Wagner staging Salome is not killed at Herod's command, as she so brutally is in his staging of the Strauss, but stands defiant, daring the soldiers to approach her.

The orchestra of Mariotte's Salome does not rely on color and detailed description to create its particular effect, rather it is the musical completion of the words -- though without Wagnerian (Richard) techniques (and consequent brilliance). Mariotte's theater style is in fact similar to Debussy, though without the palate of musical colors and symbols, where the declamation of the text is paramount over a musical continuum, here subtle. Though darkly effective in the Montpellier concert performance it became bland in this staged performance.

This delicacy makes the Mariotte Salome theatrically vulnerable. Though Carlos Wagener attempted to soften its edges, the work did not make the transference into the hard-edged German set, and into the same overly eloquent costumes (though now colored black instead of the red, silver or white of the Strauss), the Herod lower body now covered in trousers. The major staging gestures remained identical (the twitching young Syrian, the hurling of the head, etc.).

Bringing three strongly stated personages and performances from the Strauss Salome -- the Herodias of Julia Juon, the young Syrian/Naraboth of Marcel Reijans, and the page of Herodias of Delphine Galou -- confused these parts in the Mariotte, making them shadows of themselves. The three new cast members, the Herod taken by Scott Wilde, the Iokanaan by Jean-Luc Chaignaud, and the effective, though Carmen-like Salome of mezzo Kate Aldrich were not able to bring this, the other Salome to life.

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Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro in Genoa

A new production of Don Giovanni completed Teatro Carlo Felice's cycle of the three Mozart comedies to librettos by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The producer, Davide Livermore, torinese though the name seems inglese, created a production that stripped Don Giovanni of its usual philosophic and theatrical ambivalences, making of the Don an heroic figure equal in stature if not qualification to the tragic figures Schiller was just then creating for later use by Beethoven and Verdi.

The conceptual underpinnings of Livermore's production dismissed the generally playful moments of Mozart's opera as irrelevant to its larger statement, simply that there was a time when man, the Don and maybe other men were masters of their lives. The sexual repression of Donna Anna removes her from a world that is lively and vivid, Donna Elvira is trapped obsessively in her self-indulgent pain, Zerlina and Masetto are held in place by their peasant natures. Thus the final encounter of the Don with his nemesis, the Commendatore, became an astonishing coup de théâtre as the Don smashes the statue to bits.

All this occurring on the level of high art, where the sophisticated visual language of the production merged with the musical language of one of the great masters of music drama. The basic apparatus supporting Livermore's visual language were stairs the entire width of the stage, mounting to an horizon of equal width at least six meters above (20 feet). Livermore used this vertical space to move his action in up and down abstracted directions, rather than on the horizontal plains of action in an every day world. Nor did the space remain fixed, sections moving, sometimes some and sometimes all a great 18th century palace sitting on the horizon, flanked sometimes by graffiti marked, grim early twentieth century industrial buildings, sometimes crossed by a graffiti marked wall covered by political and funeral posters. An always changing, fluid space corresponding to the inherently fluid nature of music.

Leporello and the Don easing in and out of manholes in pursuit of sexual encounters, with the nocturnal graphic sexual encounters frequent indeed -- Donna Anna's repressed fantasy of raping the Don was enacted during her great Act II dramatic recitative telling of the murder of her father by Don Giovanni. Elvira rapes Leporello, the Don more or less rapes Zerlina, and Zerlina's double entendre laden vedrai carino sung to Masetto removes any sense of double. Though the impotent Don Ottavio sings his sterling arias on the blank steps in white light.

The visual concept was masterfully constructed by scenic architect Santi Centineo, The visual images (set decoration and costuming) by the brilliant installation art team from Torino, Botto and Bruno. The realization of the totality of the Davide Livermore concept was certainly the equal accomplishment of his visual and musical collaborators.

In the strictest sense, his primary collaborator was the conductor Julia Jones who gave him the musical fluidity that interplayed with the always moving and changing images of his stage and his actors. The sense of music never faltered, with the singers brought to a level of intense lyricism only possible when their musical and directorial collaborators have communicated so effectively. Pietro Spagnoli the Don, Alex Esposito the charismatic Leporello, Vito Priante the very physical performance of Masetto, Myrto Papatanasiu the beautifully sung Donna Anna, Marcella Orsatti Talamanca the believable Elvira, and Elena Belfiore the very charming, earthy Zerlina (the cast of November 22, 2005).

I attended the performance indicated as series G, to learn that G is for giovani (youth). The audience seemed to be between 12 and 16 years of age, and when they weren't talking to one another or playing games on their portable phones they were firmly gripped by the opera. Though the best part of any kids opera are the curtain calls, when the energy that came from the stage is returned to the stage in ovations singers must dream of. The biggest ovation of all, and it was really huge, was reserved for the truly macho Don.

Teatro Carlo Felice also revived its recent productions of Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte to offer Mozart afecionados (and who isn't) the opportunity to see all three within one weekend.

What some consider Mozart's operatic masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro was revived from the 2004/05 season. This was a production by the Canadian director Robert Carsen, designed by Charles Edwards from England, and created originally for the Opéra de Bordeaux.

In this staging the feudal estate of Count Almaviva became an overstaffed suburban villa, very sparsely furnished in overblown bourgeois taste, inhabited by a business-suited tycoon (the presumption is such), and his slim, blond, blandly dressed (a formfitting black dress, presumably chic) wife. Cherubino seemed to be the newspaper delivery boy. The household staff, some thirty maids and butlers could not possibly be kept occupied with household tasks, except placing some twenty or thirty dress forms in the garden for the fourth act masquerade.

This does provide a striking garden image. However the transition from the visual banality of the first three acts to a garden with no trees or gazebos, and instead a forest of dress forms, made no sense, nor did the transition to 18th century dress for the masquerade actions of the scene.

Somehow, and not surprisingly, all this did not hold up Mozart's masterpiece of musical storytelling. The personages never emerged from caricature, thus excluding the humanness of Da Ponte and Mozart's troubled and very real characters. The opera became a series of tiresome arias, and boring ensembles that never ignited.

It is possible that the attractive young cast, led by Pietro Spagnoli, an almost effective Count, was not up to the task of filling the vast spaces of the Carlo Felice, and that the conductor was too inexperienced to musically energize such performers. It is more likely that the production missed the hand of its original stage director and simply did not make the transition from the hyper grandness of the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux to the neo-classical severity of the hyper modern Carlo Felice.

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Dido and Aeneas and Phaedra in Marseille

The two great names of British opera were represented this November on the Marseille stage, Henry Purcell with his mini masterpiece Dido and Aeneas, and Benjamin Britten with a fifteen minute cantata, Phaedra. Of apparent little interest to the Marseille audience given the large number of empty seats.

An interesting evening of turned tables -- the French performing in English rather than the much more frequent occurrence of the English performing in French. There were startlingly few English in the audience for this syllabic experience, and little sense of the English language in the theater either. This is France after all.

Ordinarily the domain of Collegium Musicums around the world, Dido here encountered an opera company, with the expected result -- big singing, and in fact excellent singing, inappropriate and disappointing orchestral playing, and this unpretentious little experiment in French Baroque opera composed for a girls boarding school, up against a producer known sometime back in the last century for large scale, big house productions (Boris Godunof at the Opéra Bastille, for example).

Indifferent, or perhaps deaf to Purcell's affective music, and the already choral nature of British music, Yannis Kokkos filled the stage with hugely and noisily costumed choristers, sometimes in red, sometimes in black with skull caps, sometimes in white, always shiny synthetic fabric. Josias Priestly, Purcell's choreographer, was replaced in this production by Jamaican born Richild Springer, a frequent Kokkos collaborator, who gave some and sometimes a lot of movement to the chorus, clumsily executed, no doubt contributing to the disturbing lack of ensemble with the conductor and orchestra.

Dido herself, simply though not effectively costumed, died downstage center, curled up on her cloak with not a flame in sight. The chorus, in red this time, symbolic fire maybe, delivered, syllabically, the final chorus, other times a deeply felt and terribly tragic comment, and then tromped off during Purcell's absolutely still postlude.

That's the bad news. The genuinely tragic Dido of Stéphanie d'Oustrac was a vocally sculpted, stylistically perfect tour de force. This formidable artist, already known to Marseille for her delicious La Perichole, deserves productions built for her. Aeneas himself, Paulo Szot, brought some genuine English language presence to this generally colorless, here ridiculously costumed role, delivering his brief recitative of regret with vocally splendid and quite unusual passion. He was the Eugene Onegin of Marseille's previous season -- Cadillac casting indeed. The well sung Belinda of Isabel Monar was less effective, perhaps a victim of poor staging. The supporting witches were effective and effectively sung, especially the two Korean singers, Sin Nyung Hwang and Yu Ree Jang, whose forward vocal production brought interest and some excitement to these smaller roles.

More bad news. Britten's Phaedra could not be heard over the expressionistic writhing and saturated red color of the production. Once again deaf to music Yannis Kokkos made a meaningless abstract setting for the very particularly controlled and specifically classical world that hosts Britten's fantasies of forbidden pleasures. This very late, near the same time as Death in Venice, small piece is an interesting companion to Dido, perhaps better to follow Dido than to precede it, as it did in Marseille. Britten's piece, not meant to be staged, is an abstracted, frozen expression of feeling that could have extended the emotional desolation Purcell so effectively creates.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac gave a committed performance of Phaedra that deserves rethinking in an appropriate production. As it was Ms. Springer provided an alter-Phaedra, dressed in black, who again appeared at the end of Dido, the alter-Dido.

The conductor for the evening was Sébastion Rouland, a protége of Marc Minkowski, whose likely early music sensibilities were obliterated by the evening's unsuccessful production values.

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Il trovatore in Toulon

Advertised as Le Trouvère, it was in fact Il trovatore, Verdi's dramatically improbable, manically musical setting of El Trovador, an old Spanish play made into an opera for Verdi by Teatro San Carlo's librettist Salvatore Cammarano -- the first opera in the first full season given in Toulon's newly and beautifully restored opera house.

The production was a remounting of a recent Marseille production -- its reds, golds and browns melted with these same colors of the Italian style theater, resulting in an unusual visual rapport between the hall and the stage. The excellent Italian conductor, Giuliano Carella, effected nearly seamless communication between the fossa and the scena, in a strongly driven and brightly Italianate reading of the score, with a musical tension that remained throughout the evening.

This left the singers to deliver the goods -- which they did with varying levels of success. A good start, with the well-sung, bel canto recounting of the happenings up to the moment the opera begins by the Ferrando of Carlo Cigni, a young Italian basso. Giuseppe Gipali, Albanian born and musically reared in Italy gave us a fine, idiomatic, vocally secure Manrico, with squillo to burn. He landed firmly on di quella pira's famous high C loudly and longly, and then again in its encore. The American baritone, Robert Hyman, started and ended the evening in a colorless, under-sung rendering of the Conte di Luna. The contested Leonora was attempted by Ukrainian soprano Iano Tamar, whose covered tone promised but never attained requisite spinto qualities, and who began the evening vocally tentative and ended it in vocal difficulty. The Azucena of youngish Russian mezzo-soprano Mzia Nioradze was statuesque, vocally resplendent, and thoroughly unconvincing.

It was an evening that served Verdi well. The horseshoe hall, and particularly the narrow stage of the Toulon theater, focused attention onto the frontstage where every one of the opera's eight scenes took place. Verdi's story telling, in these eight consecutive bursts of dramatic tension that end finally this quest for revenge, was made dramatically effective by the musicality, if not the vocal splendor, of the cast and of course the conductor. Of specific grace were Leonora's heartbroken arias (and the famous Miserere) that are the first scene of the last act, where Ms. Tamar showed exquisite musicianship if vocal instability.

The singers were staged in appropriately stock poses by the production's original stage director, Charles Roubaud. Directorial touches -- over-staging the chorus, the grand guignol beheading tableau, etc. -- were superfluous to any effect achieved by the production. The scenery, designed by Jean Nöel Lavesvre, seemed to be an exercise in graphic design, with clean lines and organized spaces above all other considerations. The setting eschewed any grittiness conjured by this bloody tale, providing a drawing room atmosphere, emphasized by the beautiful costumes of Katia Duflot. Perhaps all this contributed to the musical focus of the production's success.

The middle of the three early middle period masterpieces (Rigoletto, Trovatore, Traviata), Il trovatore is infamous for its requirement of four exceptional singers.

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Pelleas et Melisande in Nice

Nice's over-the-top Belle Epoque opera house hosted an almost over-the-top production of Debussy's symbolist feat, Pelleas et Melisande. In his brief play, Maurice Maeterlinck gives delicate treatment to the dark fate that dominates this irrational world. Gentle as well is the death of his accepting heroine Melisande, and the aimlessness of her lover Pelleas. Melisande's husband Golaud resists this fateful romance, feebly and uselessly. In Nice the ageless love triangle emerged as a very powerful and passionate one, where violence flared, overwhelming Maeterlinck's gentle, dreamlike pessimism.

Debussy set Maeterlinck's strongly imagistic text to music, creating a myriad of moods for the play's twelve scenes, recited in their entirety, with inexhaustible musical imagery deploying Maeterlinck's symbols -- dark forests, vanishing ships, dark wells, deep caves, etc. Yet in Nice another Debussy musicality emerged, where the gentle music propelled emotional frustrations to levels unimagined by Maeterlinck, and probably not by Debussy either.

Initially unsettling, this telling of Maeterlinck's complex philosophical love story became convincing by mid-opera, and by the end illuminated Maeterlinck and Debussy's intentions in strong twenty-first century terms. Both the stage director (producer) Olivier Bénézech, and the conductor Marco Guidarini, are from these parts, Nice and Genoa respectively, thus explaining perhaps this production's heated Mediterranean spin.

The sets for this new production, designed by Mr. Bénézech and Caroline Constantin, rendered Maeterlinck's symbolic world even more musical.

Abstract visual metaphors replaced Maeterlinck's concrete symbols and propelled Debussy's musical images through the opera by a kinetic set, operated in simple mechanical terms that melted into the simplicity of the text. The action was thus moved, unseen, as Maeterlinck's fate. Big operatic moments emerged, with palpable tension gripping the audience for extended periods of time.

The characters were defined by the few visual symbols employed, Melisande by red roses, a wedding ring and a bed of abstracted blond hair, Pelleas by the long bridge over the cavern, and Golaud by his sword. The striking costumes, designed by Frédéric Olivier, were the real and unreal clothing of Maeterlinck's Kingdom-of-All-the-World, symbolic in the blue of Melisande's dress, in the red of Arkel cloak with his gold crown, weirdly tailored suits for Pelleas and earthily Nordic coverings for Golaud.

An almost willful Melisande was beautifully performed by Nathalie Manfrino, the languid Pelleas convincingly portrayed by Nicolas Rivenq, vocally overwhelmed only in the conductor's bigger Verdian moments. Golaud was superbly played and sung by Marcel Vanaud, whose black colored voice was symbolic itself in the play of colors created by the excellent lighting of Laurent Castaingt (any Pelleas is about lights). The child Yniold was sung in strong soprano by a young woman, Elena Golomeova, required by the musical propulsion of this production that would have obliterated the delicacy of Maeterlinck and Debussy's young boy. This production was created in the pit as much as on the stage, the score beautifully, and strongly indeed played by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice.

So many good ideas, so much of the Nice production well done, and such a fine, successful result, that it is perhaps irrelevant to point out weaknesses in the realization. But they were frustrating. The set had incongruities that a more rigorous thought process could have corrected, the secondary roles of Arkel and Genvieve are not secondary at all and require deeper characterization.

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Sampieru Corsu in Marseille

Opening night in Marseille brought out some upstanding Marseillaises in fancy dress, and many more in jeans to savor a now glorious moment of Marseille history -- Sampieru Corsu strangling his wife. This was the high point of the evening, and genuinely moving, however brief.

It was a long evening of one hour forty minutes, a well-prepared and sincere production of Marseille born Henri Tomasi's stolid Sampiero Corso, composed in the 1950's, performed first in Bordeaux in 1956, and then in Marseille in 1959.

Raphael Cuttoli's libretto laments the Genovese oppression of the Corsican people, recalling early Verdi political preoccupations. It avoids the murkier questions of this old story of wife murder that Shakespeare plumbed and late Verdi carried to melodramatic heights. The action unfolds in a series of set pieces, recalling again early Verdi, including a lullaby, a prayer, several long aria monologues, a couple of duets, though these pieces are more like Baroque arias in the use of few affects and no affective development. There are small, patriotic choruses at the end of each of the two acts.

Henri Tomasi's score, derivative of many modern styles, primarily evokes cinematic grandeur, with lots of brass, and persistent echoes of muted trumpets. The music is descriptive, telling us what we are seeing, and because we are largely in Corsica (only the murder scene takes place in Marseille) where there is a natural scenic grandeur and where elemental passions motivate violent acts, the music is colorful. And, of course, loud. Tomasi has added several dance numbers to the libretto that illustrate what we have seen and reinforce stereotypical ideas of Corsican behavior.

Given the opera was written in the 1950's, not a glorious period of operatic history, it would be illuminating to know the stagings of the original productions of Sampiero Corso, thus to find a context for understanding. The Marseille production offered no such help, with sets by Dominique Pichou and costumes by Katia Duflot that missed creating a convincing visual setting for Cuttoli and Tomasi's kind of storytelling. The production was lighted effectively by Roberto Venturi, notably in its persistent use of silhouettes, furthering a distance between the presentational music and the setting.

The libretto and music were apparently written in French, though a conceit of the Marseille production was translating the libretto into Corsican, a language that is essentially Italian -- a not so subtle way, perhaps, to add the current French oppression of the Corsicans to the then Genovese oppression.

The production was staged by Renée Auphan, the very able general director of Marseille Opera. Last season Mme. Auphan introduced us to the Ibert-Honneger L'Aiglon in a well-conceived production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Carrier that was superbly performed.

Theatricality rather than vocal finesse was apparent in the casting, with Carlo Guido an effective Sampiero, Irina Mataeva his dramatically underdeveloped wife (fault of the libretto), and Sergey Murzaev the stock villain Ombrone. The vocératrice, a Greek-chorus knock-off first performed by Regine Crespin, was ineffectively rendered by Laurence Schohn. Twelve dancers, choreographed by Ana Yepes, provided lively Corsican peasant personalities. The well-rehearsed large orchestra was conducted by Patrick Davin.

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Aida in San Francisco

Opera as circus. The current San Francisco Aida comes from the English National Opera where an inspired and probably very excited administrator proposed a production by aging London fashionista Zandra Rhodes.

The program booklet credits include her various hair colors (“bright green later changed to a spectacular pink, sometimes radiant red”). Mme. Zandra, approximately 70 years of age according to the program booklet, was aided by British stage director Jo Davis whose credits include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the West End.

These ladies are nothing if not clever. They dealt with Verdi’s problematic three-ringer in a very business like fashion (among Mme. Rhodes listed credits is her successful retail outlet in fashionable Fulham Road). More often than not Verdi’s delicate masterpiece is crushed by its own weight (six big singers working out a sordid political mess caused by some runaway passions and a great big military victory, the situation finally resolved by sheer fatigue — that of the lovers themselves and invariably of the audience too).

The fatigue factor was very nearly solved by mesdames Rhodes and Davis who kept things moving right along by a pyramid shape that expanded and contracted according to moods and situations (the shutters closed completely, finally, on the dying lovers). Sometimes one of the triangle of lovers was left alone on the apron against blank, dark scenery to tell us a few things in private, and once the stage was opened up totally in blank white in stark contrast to the bright greens, spectacular pinks and radiant reds of an unusually flamboyant, 1960’s sensibility Egypt.

All this slick theatricality was unfettered by concept save the presence of the wrathful eye of Horus that oversaw much of the action and cleverly doubled as decoration too. The lower portion of Horus’ priests were covered by wide gold lamé skirts leaving the priests naked from the waist up (and that was a sight to see), coiffed by the appropriate falcon headdress. The Ethiopians and particularly Aida’s father Amonasro were spectacularly savage à la American indian or maybe Australian aboriginal, comically light years away from tall, proud, black Ethiopians who might have seemed actually threatening.

All this was overseen by San Francisco Opera’s extraordinary music director, Nicola Luisotti who probably saw nothing of the above having maneuvered his singers out onto the stage apron where alone, in pairs, trios, etc., he vindicated the idea of the traditional Italian “numbers” opera and reinvented the idea of the “costume” opera (characters are identified by their costumes rather than by what they do). This positioning was ideal for Mo. Luisotti to commune with Verdi and with great big voices, and to create as much effect as possible. Suffice to say that the effect was in fact very nearly maximum, held back only by the fuzzy acoustic of the War Memorial Opera House.

So it was a great evening that teased critical sensibility, seamlessly morphing in and out of tongue-in-cheek caricature of spectacle opera to just plain big, thrilling opera like opera once was, or so we are told.

Diva Dolora Zajick spat and soared in fine voice as Amneris, upholding her by now very long held reputation as the Amneris of our day. She was in ideal concert with the big musical and vocal ideas of the maestro and perfectly at home in the costume opera concept (a big blue dress with a huge sphinx like headdress). Mme. Zajick in fact and against all odds almost succeeded in making Amneris a living, feeling character, this achievement the magic of a true artist.

Likewise tenor Marcello Giordani and soprano Micaela Carosi, the ill-fated lovers, held their own with the maestro, Mr. Giordani bravely donning a truly ridiculous, unflattering warrior skirt while traversing the tenorial tessitura with ease and stylistic aplomb. Mme. Carosi soared to some beautiful pianissimos in the upper-most soprano registers, often the undoing of lesser singers, and otherwise exploited all Italianate mannerisms with conviction. Neither Mme. Carosi nor Mr. Giordani approached the vulnerability or sympathy of their characters, leaving the stage to Mme. Zajick.

Baritone Marco Vratogna was puzzling as Amonasro. In his peculiar way-over-the-top costume he was inherently silly, and he delivered his role in a complementary fashion. He proved himself an excellent artist last season as Iago, thus the question remains whether he was directed into this strange histrionic performance or if he came up with it himself. The King of Egypt and the priest Ramfis were well sung respectively by Christian Van Horn and Hao Jiang Tian and were less controversial.

No account of an Aida production can avoid the triumphal scene. It moved quickly thanks to Mo. Luisotti and the mesdames Rhodes and Davis. They went for pure circus, complete with acrobats, a family dancing act and even the de rigueur elephant, here a whimsical, gossamer blue concoction that crowned the wit and fun of these clever ladies. The usual hundreds of supernumeraries had been reduced to a mere thirty-three, and there were no cuts. The scene flew by.

Cast and Production: Aida: Micaela Carosi; Amneris: Dolora Zajick; Radames: Marcello Giordani; Amonasro: Marco Vratogna; Ramfis: Hao Jiang Tian; The King of Egypt: Christian Van Horn; Priestess: Leah Crocetto; Messenger: David Lomelí. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Jo Davies. Production Designer: Zandra Rhodes. Lighting Designer: Christopher Maravich. Original Choreographer: Jonathan Lunn. Revival Choreographer: Lawrence Pech.

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Ermione and Maometto II in Pesaro

Flops are curious. Ermione was a flop back in 1819 at Naples' Teatro San Carlo. In recent times it has been revived as a curiosity, particularly in 1992 when it made its way to Omaha, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and London. More recently Ermione played the stages of Glyndebourne, Santa Fe and New York City Opera entrusted to cool English style regia (Graham Vick, Jonathan Miller, John Copley). At last Ermione has arrived at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro, and finally in the hands of Italian artists it has shone as a Rossini masterpiece.

If by 1819 opera buffa had firmly embraced dramatic simplicity, opera seria had not. Ermione, a serious azione tragica, wallows in emotional complexities stated in rhetorically dripping verses. Essentially Hermione loves Pyrrhus who loves Andromache, though Orestes loves Hermione and will do anything for her. Hermione bids him murder Pyrrhus, and he does even though he should have known better.

Of course Rossini's opera is not about any of this. It is about singing -- brilliant singing, plus virtuoso orchestra playing and sizzling musicality. It was just this in the hands of conductor Roberto Abbado and stage director Daniele Abbado, not to mention the Hermione of Sonia Ganassi, the blood-covered Orestes of Antonino Siragusa, the skewered Phrryus of Gregory Kunde, et al.

Stage director Abbado minimalized stage action within scenic abstractions (strong, moveable geometric shapes) created by Graziano Gregori. The extreme rake (slope) of the front stage was shocking, and not too long after the opera began it was dangerously negotiated by Andromache's barefoot young son (sharpening our response to the acting space), and later by the principals who, understanding its potential for danger, used it to heighten the effects of their vocal gymnastics. Sections of the rake were sometimes lifted by cable to make level, hanging stages (and we hung on every note). Sometimes this created an isolated stage for an aria, other times it allowed isolated areas for singers to reveal themselves as the individual components of a musical whole. Director Abbado staged Rossini's music, physically configuring its structural and emotional tensions rather than using setting and stage movement to illustrate the librettist's story.

The Greek and Trojan warriors were rendered in exaggerated military shapes, recalling sinister moments of the early twentieth century, and maybe even Darth Vader. The women, royalty or slave, were in simple, abstracted gowns (all ornamentation on the stage remained purely vocal). From time to time director Abbado, with the help of costumer Carla Teti, placed singers and chorus in momentary tableaux that represented the inner imaginings of Rossini's characters, images that drove these singers to ever greater flights of voice.

Conductor Abbado drove the stage and the pit, balancing the musical nuances of the singers within the ensembles, gave his singers Rossini's full orchestral resources, particularly the complex voice-instrumental duets and trios that are essential to the Rossini musical poetic. In the final two scenes the repentant murderer Hermione confronts the murderer Orestes, scenes that Conductor Abbado brought to climatic musical heights on the stage and in the pit, extending a tingling tragic catharsis over several phenomenal minutes. This was Rossini we have dreamed of, and very seldom known.

Soprano Sonia Ganazzi, the Hermione, brought full voice, limpid phrasing, brilliant ornamentation and diva presence to Rossini's tragic heroine, able to render director Abbado's abstract staging with finesse and conviction. The American tenor Gregory Kunde, the Phrryus, possesses a heroic colored voice, making Rossini's tragic victim in fact heroic, though at the same time this powerful voice easily managed the tenorial stratosphere as well as Rossini's ornamental delicacy. Tenor Antonino Siragusa, the Orestes, had heroic coglioni as well, adding a sharper sound, thrilling high notes and a presence sympathetic to the production's underlying sense of politico-military disease. The supporting cast was of equivalent level.

The 2008 edition of the Rossini Opera Festival focused on Rossini flops. All three of the operas presented were not well received initially, though the Festival now has made good cases for Ermione and the comedy L'equivoco stravagante to ascend to masterpiece status. Not so for Maometto II, premiered in 1820, the year after Rossini had composed Ermione.

Even Rossini thought Maometto II needed some re-working, and he did re-write it into a proto French grand opera for Paris, apparently no more successful than the original Italian version. The language is high Italian tragedy of its time, here the Turks versus the Venetians with poor Anna, daughter of a loser Venetian general, caught in the middle, torn between irresistible love for the flashy sultan and her duty to Venice in the person of a young, loser general, Calbo.

Rossinians make the pilgrimage to Pesaro for the quintessential of Italian opera. Why then would the Rossini Opera Festival import a production from a minor, German provincial opera house (Bremen), a house certainly not able to approximate the flash and form of the Italian artistic spirit. This imported production included a German conductor one suspects in total ignorance of the Italian language who in fact spent his three hours plus in the pit evincing grand sounds from his orchestra and leaving his singers to fend for themselves on the stage.

While the singers were accomplished and sang the notes, no one except contralto Daniela Barcellona, in the pants role of the young general Calbo, brought vocal excitement and dramatic presence. Without any apparent support of a stage director, said to have been Michael Hampe, the remaining singers were unable to achieve character, lapsing into stock opera histrionics that made the first half of the evening amusing and the second half embarrassing. With no sympathy from the pit the musicality on stage wandered and often faltered. There were periods of genuine musical boredom, a rare state of affairs for a Rossini opera, and a big disappointment for this Rossini pilgrim.

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