Some, not all, of my reviews prior to 2016

Abduction from the Seraglio in Aix-en-Provence (July 3, 2015)
Abduction from the Seraglio in Montpellier (February 5, 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 Aix-en-Provence (July 4, 2015)
Alcina in Lyon
Ariadne auf Naxos in Bordeaux (February 23, 2011)
Ariane et Barbe Bleu in Nice
Ariodante at the Aix Festival (July 3, 2014)
Armida in Pesaro (August 13, 2014)
Attila in San Francisco (June 12, 2012)
Aureliano in Palmira in Pesaro (August 15, 2014)

Un ballo in maschera in San Francisco (October 7, 2014)
Un ballo in maschera at the Chorégies d'Orange (August 6, 2013)
Il barbiere di Siviglia in San Francisco (December 1, 2015)
Il barbiere di Siviglia in Pesaro (August 14, 2014)
The Barber of Seville in Montpellier
The Barber of Seville in San Francisco (November 13, 2013)
La Belle Hélène in Marseille
Billy Budd in Los Angeles (March 16, 2014)
Belshazzar in Aix (July 23, 2008)
Bluebeard’s Castle in Los Angeles (November 9, 2014)
La bohème in San Francisco (November 19 and November 20, 2014)
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)
Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley (El Cerrito) (April 6, 2013)
Boulevard Solitude in Barcelona
The Brahms Third in San Francisco (Berkeley) (May 17, 2013)

Callirhoé in Montpellier
I Capuleti e i Montecchi in San Francisco (September 29, 2012)
Carmen at Orange (July 11, 2015)
Carmen in Bilbao (February 18, 2014)
Carmen in San Francisco (November 12, 2011)
Carrie The Musical in San Francisco (October 5, 2013)
Cavalleria rusticana and I pagliacci in Marseille (February 3, 2011)
Cendrillon in Marseille
La cenerentola in San Francisco (November 13, 2014)
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)
Cléopâtre in Marseille (June 23, 2013)
Die Eroberung von Mexico at the Salzburg Festival (August 1, 2015)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Lyon (December 26, 2013)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann in San Francisco (June 5, 2013)
Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Torino (February 2, 2009)
Coeur de Chien in Lyon (January 30, 2014)
Cosi fan tutte in Montpellier (January 9, 2014)
Cosi fan tutte in San Francisco (June 9, 2013)
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 Toulon (January 29, 2013)
Dialogues des Carmélites in Marseille
Dido and Aeneas in Los Angeles (November 9, 2014)
Dido and Aeneas in Marseille
Dido and Aeneas in Toulon (April 18, 2011)
Dolores Claiborne in San Francisco (September 18, 2013)
Don Carlos in Barcelona
Don Giovanni in Carmel Valley (September 22, 2013)
Don Giovanni, Alceste, Rossignol at Aix
Don Giovanni at the Aix Festival (July 18, 2013)
Don Giovanni in Genoa
Don Giovanni in Montpellier
Don Giovanni in Marseille (April 12, 2011)
Don Pasquale in Weimar (January 31, 2009)

Elektra at the Aix Festival (July 19, 2013)
Elettra a Marsiglia (10 febbraio 2013)
Elektra in Marseille (February 10, 2013)
Elena at the Aix Festival (July 17, 2013)
L'elisir d'amore in Marseille (January 2, 2015)
L'elisir d'amore in Monte-Carlo (February 26, 2014)
L'elisir d'amore in San Francisco(November, 2008)
L'Enfant et les Sortileges in Monte-Carlo (January 25, 2012)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail in San Francisco (October 2009)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail in Montpellier (February 5, 2013)
Ercole Amante in Toulon
Ermione and Maometto II in Pesaro August 13, 2008
Eugene Onegin in Montpellier (January 17, 2014)
Eugene Onegin and Mazeppa in Lyon
Eugene Onegin and Cosi fan tutte in Los Angeles (October 1-2, 2011)

The Fall of the House of Usher in San Francisco (December 10, 2015)
Falstaff in Los Angeles (November 24, 2013)
Falstaff in San Francisco (October 8, 2013)
La Favorite in Toulouse (February 16, 2014)
Fedora in Genoa (March 25, 2015)
Der Fliegende Holländer in San Francisco (October 22, 2013)
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 I pagliacci in Monaco (February 25, 2015)
A Florentine Tragedy and The Secret of Susanna in Montpellier
Der Freischutz in Toulon (January 30, 2011)

La gazza ladra in Pesaro (August 13, 2015)
La gazzetta in Pesaro (August 14, 2015)
Guillaume Tell in Monaco (January 25, 2015)
Guillaume Tell in Pesaro (August 14, 2013)

Heart of a Soldier in San Francisco (September 13, 2011)
The House Taken Over at the Aix Festival (July 23, 2013)

Idomeneo in Lyon (February 2, 2015)
Idomeneo in Montpellier (January 4, 2015)
L'incoronazione di Poppea in Edinburgh
The Indian Queen at ENO (March 9, 2015)
L'inganno felice in Pesaro (August 15, 2015)
Iolanthe in Aix-en-Provence (July 17, 2015)
Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva (February 4, 2015)
L'italiana in Algeri in Pesaro (August 13, 2013)
L'Italiana in Algeri in Marseille (January 2, 2013)

Jenufa in Toulon
Jerry Springer, The Opera in San Francisco

Kat'a Kabanova in Toulon (January 25, 2015)
King Arthur in Montpellier (July 17, 2009)

Lohengrin in Los Angeles
Lohengrin in San Francisco (October 23, 2012)
Lucia di Lammermoor in Los Angeles (March 15, 2014)
Lucia di Lammermoor in San Francisco (October 13, 2015)
Lucia di Lammermoor in Marseille (February 6, 2014)
Lucio Silla in Nice
Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco (September 26, 2011)
Luisa Miller in San Francisco (September 16, 2015)

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco (June 15, 2014)
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 at the Aix Festival (July 2, 2014)
The Magic Flute in San Francisco (October 27, 2015)
Die Zauberflöte in Los Angeles (November 23, 2013)
The Magic Flute in San Francisco (June 13, 2012)
Mahagonny in San Francisco (April 26, 2014)
Les Mamelles de Tirésias in San Francisco (April 26, 2014)
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
The Mastersingers of Nurenburg at ENO (March 7, 2015)
Mathilda di Shaban in Pesaro (2012)
Mazeppa and Eugene Onegin in Lyon
Mazeppa in Monte-Carlo (February 28, 2012)
Mefistofele in San Francisco (September 14, 2013)
Mefistofele in Montpellier
Die Meistersinger in San Francisco (November 24, 2015)
A Midsummer Night's Dream in Aix-en-Provence (July 16, 2015)
Mireille in Toulon
Moby Dick in San Francisco (October 10, 2012)
Monster of the Labyrinth at the Aix Festival (July 9, 2015)
Monteverdi Madrigals in Edinburgh
Mosé in Egitto and Adelaide di Borgogna at Pesaro (August 13/14, 2011)

Nabucco at Orange (July 9, 2014)
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)
Norma in San Francisco (September 10, 2014)
Norma at the Salzburg Festival (July 31, 2015)
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'occasione fa il ladro in Pesaro (August 15, 2013)
L'Orfeo at Aix
Orphée aux Enfers in Montpellier
Orphée et Eurydice in Montpellier
Orphée et Eurydice in Toulon
Otello in Genoa (January 3, 2014)
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 (January 17, 2013)
Pelleas et Melisande in Nice
Persephone in Aix-en-Provence (July 17, 2015)
Peter Grimes in Nice (January 24, 2015)
Phaedra and Dido and Aeneas in Marseille
Pique Dame in Lyon
Porgy and Bess in San Francisco (November 20, 2013)
Porgy and Bess in San Francisco (June 2009)

Das Reingold in San Francisco
Rigoletto in Los Angeles
Rigoletto in San Francisco (September 19, 2012)
Rigoletto at the Aix Festival (July 23, 2013)
Der Ring des Nibelungen in Los Angeles
Der Ring des Nibelungen in San Francisco
Romeo et Juliette in Toulon
Roméo et Juliette in Toulon
Roméo et Juliette in Los Angeles (November 9, 2011)
Rossignol, Alceste, Don Giovanni at Aix
Rusalka in Monte-Carlo (January 29, 2014)

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
Show Boat in San Francisco (June 3, 2014)
Sigismondo, La Cenerentola, Demetrio e Polibio at Pesaro
Il signor Bruschino in Pesaro (2012)
Sorbet, Sorbet in Carnoules
Susannah in San Francisco (September 12, 2014)
Sweeney Todd in San Francisco (September 23, 2015)
Svadba in Aix-en-Provence (July 8, 2015)

The Tales of Hoffmann see Les Contes d'Hoffmann
Tannhauser at the Met (NYC) (October 15, 2015)
The Tender Land in Lyon (February 1, 2014)
Teseo in Nice
Thaïs in Los Angeles (June 1, 2014)
Tosca in San Francisco (November 4, 2014)
Tosca in Marseille (March 18, 2015)
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)
Trauernacht at the Aix Festival (July 16, 2014)
La Traviata in San Francisco (June 11, 2014)
La traviata in Marseille (June 21, 2014)
La Traviata, La Clemenza di Tito, Le Nez in Aix-en-Provence (July, 2011)
Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse (February 1, 2015)
Tristan und Isolde in Genoa
Tristan und Isolde in Montpellier
Il trittico in San Francisco
Il trittico in Lyon (February 8, 2012)
Les Troyens in San Francisco (June 7 and June 12, 2015)
Les Troyens in Marseille (July 15, 2013)
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 at the Aix Festival (July 19, 2014)
Il Turco in Italia in Los Angeles
The Turn of the Screw in Los Angeles
Two Women in San Francisco (June 13, 2015)

Vanessa in Berkeley (September 21, 2013)
Verdi Messa da requiem in Naples (February 28 and March 1, 2013)
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
William Tell in Pesaro (August 14, 2013)
Winterreise at the Aix Festival (July 12, 2014)
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

The Fall of the House of Usher at San Francisco Opera

Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher
All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

It was a single title but a double bill and there was far more happening than Gordon Getty and Claude Debussy. Starting with Edgar Allen Poe.

The atmospheres of this famous short, deeply pseudo-psychological horror story were always present in vivid imagination even though they were seldom present in the War Memorial. The novella is that powerful. More than an artistic event it became a mental exercise in comparing Getty with Poe, Debussy with Poe and Debussy with Getty and fitting all this into the digital visual overload created by Swiss videographer David Haneke and English stage director David Pountney for the Welsh Opera in 2014.

While the Poe atmospheres oozed in and out of your mind the Getty Usher House, libretto by the composer, elaborated the Poe narrative into a complex plot woven by an evil scheming doctor who easily defeats a Poe sicko, his sick sister and his weird friend. Getty's music was much like recitative accompaniment though handsomely elaborated. It worked for a while.

Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher, Jamielyn Duggan (dancer) as Madeline Usher, Jason Bridges as the friend in Getty's Usher House

Gordon Getty is better known as a philanthropist of opera than as a composer of opera. Nonetheless Usher House is real music, and the opera was not without some splendid moments, notably the danced scenes.

Debussy on the other hand greatly simplified the Poe narrative for his Chute de la Maison Usher (libretto by the composer), elaborating its atmospheres with the grotto and cave vocabularies of Pelleas et Melisande. But Debussy does not nor could he have approached the twisted complexities of the tale's actors. He does masterfully build some of the House of Usher’s moods, and this alone brought great pleasure.

Debussy abandoned this, his last opera for undocumented reasons, may one surmise he sensed it was not worth finishing. But this mere sketch of an opera by one of the great composers of the early twentieth century makes it therefore of great intrinsic value. British musicologist Robert Orledge completed the opera for Debussy with such understanding and authority that you do not question its impression as pure Debussy.


Brian Mulligan as Roderick Usher

Finally though the delicacies of the Poe malaise as respected by Getty and Debussy were bludgeoned by the huge size and overwhelming presences of the House of Usher itself, digital technology gone amuck on three huge screens that dwarfed the players. It is true that the monumental mysteries of the Usher mansion are the protagonist of Poe's tale but these are felt, sensed mysteries that were not manifest in the huge shapes of the constantly moving, precise particulars of English maybe Scottish gothic castles. There was not a whiff of Poe’s Boston or Getty’s Savannah, but there was a whole lot of video technology self congratulation.

Baritone Brian Mulligan sang Roderick Usher in both operas -- a tour de force well accomplished to say the least. Mr. Mulligan is a fine singer who is inexplicably and relentlessly overexposed to San Francisco audiences. He does not have the artistic stature to hold the stage for most principal roles much less the stature to hold our interest and respect for two and one half hours in this essentially one man show.

Jason Bridges was effective as Roderick’s friend Edgar Alan Poe (the novella’s narrator). The crucial role of the evil Doctor Primus was thrust upon first year Adler Fellow Anthony Reed who possesses a very fine bass voice. The role cried out for personality and presence well beyond the careful studio refinements of an Adler Fellow.

Conductor Lawrence Foster conducted this Robert Orledge completed version of the Debussy at the Bergenz Festival in 2006, perhaps explaining his presence in San Francisco. Within the covered acoustic of the War Memorial the fine SFO orchestra could not project the brighter colors of the Debussy score, colors that might have helped make the evening less dreary artistically.

Cast and Production

Roderick Usher: Brian Mulligan; Edgar Allan Poe: Jason Bridges; Madeline Usher / Lady Madeline: Jacqueline Piccolino; Madeline Usher (dancer): Jamielyn Duggan; Doctor Primus: Anthony Reed; Le Médecin: Joel Sorensen; L'Ami: Edward Nelson. San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Lawrence Forster; Stage Director: David Pountney; Associate Director: Polly Graham; Choreographer ("Usher House"): Jo Jeffries; Production Designer: Niki Turner; Video Production Designer: David Haneke; Lighting Designer; Tim Mitchell; Lighting Supervisor: Benjamin Naylor. War Memorial Opera House, December 10, 2015.

Il barbiere di Siviglia at San Francisco Opera

Andrea Silvestrelli as Basilio
All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

There was a pre-curtain excited buzz, unusual these days, in the War Memorial Opera House. Word of mouth (and the major press) had spread the word — it’s a good show!

The Tuesday night audience was once the grand old, rich San Francisco, and maybe it still is. But this past Tuesday (December 1) the railroad magnates and oil executives seemed to have disappeared into a crowd of much younger dot-commers (there is a quite a dot-com explosion in San Francisco in case you hadn’t heard).

Some, maybe many of us were not so excited given that it was a mere two years ago that we were given this same production created by Spanish stage director Emilio Sagi. There were then some fine artists on the stage, and the pit was more than adequate. It was a good show, the best Barber I had ever seen.

Il barbiere is in fact a very difficult opera to pull off, and the 2013 Sagi production almost did.

Luckily for those dot-commers who somehow found themselves in the opera house, and for the die-hard opera audience this revival was an even better show, coming ever closer to really making the grand old comedy everything it can be — an elusive ideal to be sure.

René Barbera as Almaviva

The star of the show is the set! Nothing more than a platform and a wall. These elements are basic comedy — the Roman street and the commedia dell’arte platform. This simplicity motivates the need for action and this makes comedy all about performance. It is a public place with a stage so let’s do a show!

This Barber was indeed about the comedians, each with his own abstracted comic personality, each with an individual swagger (Rosina’s outdid them all), each with their own silly schtick. They stepped on and off the platform reminding us that the opera is after all later-day commedia dell’arte, they played directly to the audience to get laughs and this meant much of the evening they were down stage center where all performers prefer to be.

The charm of each comedian was free to seduce the audience, and that they all did, silliness magnified by something as simple as body height. Almaviva and Don Bartolo are petite, Basilio towered over them, Rosina was slightly taller than Almaviva. All those provoked funny compromises in our perceptions of these archetypal comic characters.

Some of them could really sing! Texas tenor René Barbera had the most to sing, and sing he did, sailing easily into tenorino sphere when needed, cleanly executing coloratura (those exciting moments when there is so much excitement that musical line breaks into delirium). All this without losing a finely honed even sound. Exactly the same may be said of Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, a former Adler Fellow, whose strong, lovely mezzo voice, beautiful high notes and solid diva confidence brought egotistical perfection to this Rosina.

René Barbera as Almaviva, Daniela Mack as Rosina, Andrea Silvestrelli as Bartolo, Lucas Meachem as Figaro, Catherine Cooke as Berta, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo

Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli, Don Bartolo, is a bel canto specialist. Though his voice is not large he used it with easy freedom as complement to genuine buffo acting. His rather soft, fast patter made me yearn for louder, even faster patter. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cooke is one of San Francisco’s treasures, her Berta startlingly present and very well sung.

American baritone Lucas Meachem played Figaro with a certain charm, though I found his singing sloppy and his tone production irritatingly inconsistent. This may have been his idea of making Figaro an amusing character. Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli is a fine comic performer who is vocally unsuited for Rossini roles. He is San Francisco Opera’s catch-all bass, one night the Night Watchman in Meistersinger, the next night Basilio, etc.

All this wonderful singing, and much of it high Rossini art, occurred because of the pit. Conductor Giuseppe Finzi somehow finding the real Rossini simply unleashed the joy of singing on the stage. From the overture to the finale this fine Rossini maestro never dropped the constant percolation and the easy boil of the Rossini musical continuum. We joyfully felt, obviously with him, the wonder of opera on the stage, and this does not happen very often.

The stage director of this revival of the Sagi production was Roy Rallo. The staging seemed greatly streamlined from the 2013 Sagi directed performances, the individual performances more vivid, the chorus and ballet more abstracted, and the bicycles and other post modern touches were less obtrusive. It was very effective comic staging (see above).

Casts and Production

Figaro: Lucas Meachem; Rosina: Daniela Mack; Cout Almaviva: René Barbera; Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli; Don Basilio: Andrea Silvestrelli; Berta: Catherine Cook; Fiorello: Edward Nelson; Ambrogio: Efrain Solis; An officer: Matthew Stump. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi; Production: Emilio Sagi; Revival Director: Roy Rallo; Set Designer: Llorenç Corbella; Costume Designer: Pepa Ojanguren; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Nuria Castejôn. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, December 1, 2015.

Die Meistersinger at San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco Opera Chorus, Act I
All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Falstaff and Die Meistersinger are among the pinnacles if not the pinnacles of nineteenth century opera. Both operas are atypical of the composer and both operas are based on a Shakespeare play.

Verdi looks ahead, Wagner looks back. It is hard to tell if the current production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg on the War Memorial stage looks forward or backward. Happily it is a return to an international production standard, increasingly rare at SFO, with British stage director David McVicar’s 2011 Glyndebourne version of Wagner’s masterpiece.

The conceit of the production seems to be that there are no cuts whatsoever to Wagner’s score. This resulted in an evening of five hours and forty minutes. Knowingly conducted by Mark Elder it did feel somewhat briefer than that, maybe like just about five hours. Still it was a long, very long evening.

This excellent conductor, once the music director of English National Opera, gave a firm, powerful and satisfying traditional hand to the famous overture, a tone that dissolved into a convincing lyricism that prevailed for the duration.

The David McVicar production was all about home-spun tradition, in fact the most moving moments of this lovely, emotional evening were Hans Sach’s admonition to Walther that he respect artistic tradition and Walther’s acquiescence to such respect.

As Wagner intended the philosophical and artistic meat of the opera was the shoemaker Hans Sachs. The real i.e. historical Hans Sachs shoemaker lived to the ripe old Renaissance age of 82, and there are those of us who remember the silver haired Hans Sachs of the four [!] SFO Meistersinger productions between 1959 and 1971. Just now the youthfulness of 43 year-old British baritone James Rutherford — an accomplished artist of wide expressive range — seemed at odds with the gravity we wanted and needed to award Hans Sachs for the first two acts.

The Act III quintet

But with Hans Sachs extended soliloquy that dominates the first scene of the third act we entered into a real and tortured, not yet age-resigned psyche. As Hans Sachs uncovered and contemplated a portrait of his dead wife and child his conflicts gained an apparent philosophical realness that took us to the elusive, profound plane Wagner wished to achieve. This high minded angst then dissolved into the famous quintet, the love triangle (Sachs, Eva and Walther) holding hands with the lesser beings (David and Lene) in a simple, soft lyricism that forsook the musical gravity that should illuminate this magnificent moment and make it magical.

Ain Anger as Pogner, Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Eva, Brandon Jovanovich as Walther, James Rutherford as Sach

The McVicar production and the Mark Elder orchestra more than anything else worked to demystify Wagnerian thought and to quell Wagnerian rhetoric. Further example were the phenomenal complexities of mid-summer night riot chorus graphically reduced to a few dancers and children cavorting across the front of the stage, and as more example, the phenomenal choral complexities of the mid-summer day celebration graphically defined by three jugglers on stilts — fortunately the solidity of the musical preparation was not compromised by the fragility of the precarious balancing and juggling.

Director David McVicar’s slick stagecraft was always supported by conductor Mark Elder’s direct lyricism. As intended on the stage and from the pit the result was anything but intimidating and this despite the extraordinary length that was so wittily and unnecessarily imposed.

The production discretely toyed with Beckmesser, revealing but not dwelling on the famous anti-semitic polemic inherent to this opera. Here Beckmesser was superbly enacted by German baritone Martin Gantner who towed a very fine line between ridicule and caricature. Distinctly costumed in all-black he somehow evoked our sympathy within the larger warmth of the production. However at the end Beckmesser the Jew was left seated at the extreme edge of the stage, far from and pointedly exiled from the Wagnerian reconciliation of art and love.

San Francisco Opera’s casting perhaps inadvertently supported the home-spun nature of the production as it unfolded on the War Memorial stage. With the exception of the two baritones it was unpretentiously cast. Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich was a vulnerable Walther whose prize song (“Morgenlich leuchtend im rosigen Schein") was just persuasive enough. Eva was sung by recent Houston Opera Studio graduate Rachel Willis-Sorensen whose tone I found shrill and whose vocal strength was not sufficient to hold together the quintet (not all my friends agree with me). Alek Shrader was vocally miscast though an exquisitely charming David while Sasha Cooke as Magdalene was vocally splendid. German bass Ain Anger as Eva’s father Veit Pogner added a further homey touch, his first act monologue shakily delivered.

It is a very great pleasure to hear San Francisco Opera’s fine orchestra and chorus in service to a fine conductor and a solid production.

Cast and Production

Hans Sachs: James Rutherford; Walther von Stolzing: Brandon Jovanovich; Eva: Rachel Willis-Sorensen; Magdalene: Sasha Cooke; David: Alek Shrader; Sixtus Beckmesser: Martin Gantner; Veit Pogner: Ain Anger; Fritz Kothner: Philip Horst; Kunz Vogelgesang: AJ Glueckert; Balthasar Zorn: Joel Sorensen; Augustin Moser: Corey Bix; Ulrich Eisslinger: Joseph Hu; Konrad Nachtigall: Sam Handley; Hans Schwarz: Anthony Reed; Hermann Ortel: Edward Nelson; A night watchman: Andrea Silvestrelli; Hans Foltz; Matthew Stump; An apprentice: Laurel Porter. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Sir Mark Elder; Production: Sir David McVicar; Revival Co-Directors: Marie Lambert and Ian Rutherford; Production Designer: Vicki Mortimer; Lighting Designer: Paule Constable; Choreography: Andrew George. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, November 24, 2016.

The Magic Flute at San Francisco Opera

Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night
All photos copyright Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

How did it go? Reactions of my neighbors varied. Some left at the intermission, others remarked that they thought the singing was good.

It was a remount of the Jun Kaneko production (a visual artist based in Omaha) that premiered only three and one half years ago (June 2012). All of us think that is way too soon for a repeat in an annual opera season of but nine operas. Back in 2012 the production boasted a plausible cast and conductor (see The Magic Flute in San Francisco) and was a qualified success.

Now, 2015, with the exception of veterans Monostotos Greg Fedderly and Queen of the Night Albina Shagimuratova (the usual minimal number of star turns San Francisco Opera deems necessary) it was a cast of promising young singers, some more promising than others, and some of little or no promise. At the performance I attended Mlle. Shagimuratova was said to be ill. Her replacement was a masters degree student at Florida State University, a touch that made the performance seem even more like a college workshop production.

Note that the very next night Mlle. Shagimuratova, a well known and experienced Lucia, replaced ingenue soprano Nadine Sierra for the final performance of that opera.

Make no mistake, there were some fine, youthful singers. However these were not performances by finished artists, evident not only in the voices but also in the stage comportment. This made what was perfunctory and clumsy staging seem amateurish.

The conductor was veteran maestro Lawrence Foster, now a regular in the south of France (Monaco, Marseille, Montpellier). His broadly orchestral reading was at odds not only with current Mozart performance practice but also with the expectations of these young singers, evident in the many stressed moments between pit and stage.

Note that both Mlle. Shagimuratova and Mr. Fedderly performed the same roles in 2012. It would have been interesting to observe other interpreters of these roles.

Paul Appleby as Tamino, Sarah Shafer as Pamina and the two Armored Men

The colorful, visual art (as opposed to theatrical) production was charming three years ago. Without the patina of slick performances from the stage and pit the constant visual stimulation of lines and colors was irritating rather than illuminating. The famous German libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder was rendered again in hokey contemporary American terms by San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, goosed up for this revival with even more topical references and jokes.

San Francisco’s opera audience deserves better. New audiences attracted to the opera house by this famous masterwork do know the difference. Just ask my neighbors.

San Francisco’s once venerable opera company has much catching up to do to again consider itself world class.

Casts and production information

Pamina: Sarah Shafer; Tamino: Paul Appleby; Papageno: Efrain Solis; Sarastro: Alfred Reiter; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Bowden; Monostatos: Greg Fedderly; First Lady: Jacqueline Piccolino; Second Lady: Nian Wang; Third Lady Zanda Svede; Papagena: Maria Valdes; Speaker: Anthony Reed; First Priest: Richard Walker; Second Priest: Richard Walker; First Armored Man Chong Wang; Second Armored Man: Anthony Reed; First Boy: Michael Sacco; Second Boy: Pietro Juvara; Third Boy: Nicholas Hu. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Lawrence Foster; Stage Director: Harry Silverstein; Production Designer: Jun Kaneko; Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 23, 2015.

Tannhauser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg

Venusburg Ballet
All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Ossia Tannhauser and James Levine with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

This stellar evening was about this near legendary conductor and one of the world’s great orchestras. It was sophisticated music making that inhabited these first moments of the Wagnerian maturity. This musical illumination brought clarity, directness and purpose to Wagner’s obsession with art as the elixir of love and love as the elixir of art. Though more than anything else this performance whetted the appetite for the great Wagner — the musical sublimities of Meistersinger, the philosophic sublimities of Tristan.

The orchestral magnificence betrayed a musical carefulness that deprived the evening of a dramatic thrust that might have given real focus and meaning to the two deaths that brought the saga to an end and might have given deeper and more complex meaning to the opera. As it was Maestro Levine’s ending simply did not provide the momentous send off we would have wished for the tortured souls of Elisabeth and Tannhauser.

The deaths of Tannhauser and Elisabeth overseen by Wolfram (Peter Mattei)

Since it was conceived as a purely musical event the Met offered its 1977 production by German director Otto Schenk. This director remained a conservative force in those years of dramaturgical ferment, thus he made no attempt to interpret the story, nor any attempt to lay bare the intricacies of the opera’s meanings. His designer Günther Schneider-Siemssen painted drops that evoked the shapes and colors that must have pleased nineteenth century sensibilities as they did please the sensibilities of New Yorkers of the 1970’s (San Franciscans had moved on in those years).

For the Paris premiere of Tannhauser Wagner extended his original overture to transform itself into a magical realm of eroticism danced at the Met by eight strong  ballerinos and eight fine ballerinas to the presumably original choreography of Norbert Vesak, well known as well to San Francisco Opera audiences of this epoch (see lead photo). Mr. Vesak typically provided big movement for big opera, and here offered as well absolutely breathtaking lifts (and lots and lots of them) to fill the Met’s gigantic stage.

The Met’s Venus was California mezzo soprano Michelle DeYoung, an early graduate of its Lindemann Young Artists program. Ms. DeYoung is of ample voice, and that seemed to be the criteria for the casting. This spectacular role profits from powerful artistic personality, a trait that Mme. DeYoung did not project.

Johan Botha as Tannhauser, Eva-Maria Westbrock as Elisabeth

Elizabeth was sung by veteran soprano Eva-Maria Westbrock. Though no longer at vocal prime her mastery of the role and its stylistic demands was evident and satisfying. This alone certainly fulfilled Maestro Levine’s expectations notwithstanding her very wide tone — though she did manage it admirably.

Tannhauser himself was sung by South African tenor Johan Botha. He is in fine voice and a musically clean singer. Within the scope of the Met forces his voice may seem small, however it blossomed from time to time into richer sounds that sometimes shone in his emotional third act account of his trip to Rome.

The disappointment of the evening was the Wolfram sung by Swedish baritone Peter Mattei. This fine Mozart baritone seemed vocally over-parted, failing to sustain full tone over the longer Wagnerian phrases and in fact to fulfill the dramatic weight of this crucial role. His second act song to love was vocally unconvincing, and I feared he was going to lose his voice in his third act Song to the Evening Star. Evidently a Met favorite the audience did not seem to mind, awarding him the largest ovation given any of the singers.

Elisabeth’s father Hermann was ably performed by Austrian bass Günther Gröissbock. The remaining supporting male roles did not satisfy. Of particular note however were the beautifully pure tones of the page, soprano Ying Fang.


The performance belonged to the conductor, James Levine and the Met orchestra and it was indeed magnificent.

Cast and production information:

Tannhauser: Johan Botha; Elisabeth: Eva-Maria Westbrock; Venus: Michelle DeYoung; Wolfram: Peter Mattei; Hermann: Günther Groissböck; Walther: Noah Baetge; Biterolf: Ryan McKinny,; Heinrich: Adam Klein; Reinmar: Ricardo Lugo. Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York. Conductor: James Levine; Production: Otto Schenk; Choreographer: Norbert Vesak; Set Designer: Günther Schneider-Siemssen; Costumes: Patricia Zipprodt; Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler; Stage Director: Stephen Pickover. Metropolitan Opera, New York, October 15, 2015.

Lucia di Lammermoor at San Francisco Opera

Nadine Sierra as Lucia, Piotr Beczaia as Edgardo
All photos by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

First it was Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva who cancelled in Zurich (no longer in her voice), then it was German soprano Diana Damrau who cancelled in San Francisco (too tired). Former Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra was poised to step into the bloodied costumes in both cities.

The young soprano paused a moment on the top of a glass skyscraper, then leapt to her death. All reports from the 1200 seat Opernhaus Zürich are that Mlle. Sierra’s mad scene was delightful and that she had effectively, if carefully negotiated the rest, and quite beautifully.

The world has awaited news about how this fine young (27 years) soprano would fare at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera house, essentially three times the size of the Zurich house. The consensus is that Mlle. Sierra sang beautifully and held the stage. No small feat for an ingenue soprano, not yet a star.

That Mlle. Sierra did not take San Francisco by storm as she had Zurich (with reservations) is explained by two factors.

The first is that she was thrust into a hostile production, essentially a marble quarry when it was not the formalized architecture of Baroque opera complete with a scenic machine (the full stage show flat that was a camera shutter, astonishing because even though it was made of marble slabs it moved so smoothly and easily). But sometimes the setting was a marble knock off of Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. Every-once-in-a-while there were cameo’s of what were surely the crashing waves of the Pacific.

Nicolas Testé (Raimondo), Nadine Sierra (Lucia)

The beautifully wrought studio bel canto of a young singer did not have a chance as Lucia di Carrara (Italy’s famous marble quarry).

The second factor is the pit. Conductor Nicola Luisotti exploited every possible effect from his orchestra, effecting a bel canto competition between the stage and the pit. And too this maestro is known for controlling his singers, thus the stage often is merely an extension of the pit. Even the stage movement is controlled by Luisotti’s domination of his singers, as an example the mad scene was staged as a straight line moving straight upstage from the conductor podium.

Experienced singers — stars — are usually able to cope with this maestro, and sometimes a synergy is effected. Great things can happen. An ingenue artist has not yet absorbed the considerable presence needed to impose himself or herself on this maestro.

Nicolas Testé (Raimondo), Brian Mulligan (Enrico) and AJ Glueckert (Normanno)

Some of the singing in this Lucia was effective, notably baritone Brian Mulligan sang Enrico’s first act aria aria and cabaletta stylishly and convincingly. Mr. Mulligan is also singing Sweeney Todd where his cardboard acting works. And we also recently saw Mr. Mulligan as Marcello in Boheme (where it didn’t), and as Cassandra’s fiancé in Les Troyens, as Count Anckarström in Ballo, and the list goes on and on. One begs the question — is Mr. Mulligan the only baritone in the world? One shoe size does not fit all feet and one fine baritone voice does not fit all baritone roles. Finally Mr. Mulligan’s comic book Enrico did not survive the evening.

The one opera star in this Lucia was tenor Piotr Beczaia as Edgardo. While other critics found subtlety in his performance I found none. It was indeed loud enough to compete with the orchestra. This fine artist was perhaps a victim of the production as well. The final scene at the tomb of Lucia can be emotionally wrenching, one of bel canto’s most beautiful showpieces. Mr. Beczaia however stood in the marble box by the marble obelisk gave the maestro a run for his money.

Cast and production information

Lucia: Nadine Sierra; Edgardo: Piotr Beczaia; Enrico: Brian Mulligan; Raimondo: Nicolas Testé; Alisa: Zanda Svede; Normanno: AJ Glueckert; Arturo: Chong Wang. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Michael Cavanagh; Set Design: Erhard Rom; Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich; Lighting Design: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 13, 2015.

Sweeney Tood in San Francisco

Brian Mulligan as Sweeney Todd
All photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Did the iconic “off-beat” and “serious” American musical hold the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? The excited audience (standees three deep) thought so and roared their appreciation.

This production by British stage director Lee Blakeley (same sets, costumes, stage direction) was originally done at Paris’ Théâtre du Chatelet in 2011. The Chatelet is a 2500 seat horseshoe theater that has hosted much revered and some esoteric music theater over the years, like for example Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac as a flashy vehicle for Placido Domingo that was brought to SFO. Director Blakeley in fact has staged four Stephen Sondheim musicals at the Chatelet — Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and A Little Night Music.

Chatelet productions are big and lavish and loved by Parisians.

The original Sweeney Todd 1979 Broadway production by Hal Prince was fairly modest with even a bit of avant-garde (for the time) theatricality, a reaction to the then customary razzle dazzle of musicals. The first opera company to take on Sweeney Todd was the Houston Opera in a Hal Prince production in 1984. This was the period when there was a concerted rapprochement of opera and musicals, Hal Prince directing a Madama Butterfly for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1982, a production San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley revived not so long ago in San Francisco.

Production design by Tanya McCallin
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Hal Prince went on to stage Phantom of the Opera in 1986 and the bloated production scope of that show changed forever what we now consider a Broadway musical.

The 2011 Chatelet Sweeney Todd was big, and in San Francisco perhaps even bigger from the first moment when splendid digital technology recreated the huge acoustic of a pipe organ exponentially amplified to actually shake the War Memorial Opera House. And thus to get our attention in a reversal of the oft used theater trick of focusing attention ever smaller to make one aware of even the tiniest sound.

So we were warned that it was going to be a loud three hours in the opera house, and indeed it was. All the voices were hugely amplified thus creating an unrelenting loud, flat soundscape for the duration, embellished by some shattering electronic ringing when throats were slit. It was sometimes disconcerting when you were unable to place a voice you heard in the general sonic melee with a face you knew was somewhere — but where — on the stage.

Perhaps the orchestra sound was electronically manipulated as well, if so it will have served well to let us in on the subtleties of the orchestrations by Sondheim’s musical collaborator Jonathan Tunick, and onto the compositional complications that raise the level to what seems to be seriously sophisticated big music.

Biggest of all in San Francisco was the Sweeney Todd himself, baritone Brian Mulligan who is often miscast in secondary baritone roles at SF Opera. Here Mr. Mulligan fully inhabited the role wrenching every possible nuance within the limited emotional confines of the role and finally moved us. Equally big was the pie baker Mrs. Lovett, a star turn performance by veteran mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe. Big is not the correct word — it was a huge performance in which her relish at pushing her chest voice was deliciously apparent.

The romantic lead Anthony Hope was sung by baritone Elliot Madore who knew how to take the postures of the cardboard musical comedy lover to the extremes of ardent, melodramatic (caricatural) proportion, and of course exactly the same may be said of Johanna, the damsel in distress, sung by soprano Heidi Stober.

Matthew Grills as Tobias Rogg, Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Of special interest was the role of Tobias Rogg sung by tenor Matthew Grills. He earned the biggest ovation, and it was huge, for his song “Not While I’m Around.” This song is the one moment in the musical where what might pass for real feelings or emotions seemed to enter the catalogue of occasions for a musical number. Mr. Grills sang it softly and sweetly indeed, and the human scaled volume seemed to say that he meant it.

The gamut of casting was perfect to voice and character. One wishes that this degree of care would extend itself to the casting of the operas at San Francisco Opera.

Houston Opera’s artistic and musical director Patrick Summers was in the pit, taking the orchestral proceedings very seriously indeed. Mo. Summers is a singers’ conductor, his care in supporting these opera singer artists in music that requires more conviction than technique contributed enormously to the success of their performances.

This day included the announcement of David Gockley’s former Houston Opera assistant Matthew Shilvock as the new General Director of San Francisco Opera. Mr. Shilvock has been a part of the San Francisco Opera’s administration during David Gockley’s entire tenure.

And thus the Houstonization of San Francisco Opera continues.

Casts and production

Sweeney Todd: Brian Mulligan; Mrs. Lovett: Stephanie Blythe; Johanna: Heidi Stober; Beggar Woman: Elizabeth Futral; Anthony Hope: Elliot Madore; Adolfo Pirelli: David Curry; Tobias Ragg: Matthew Grills: Judge Turpin: Wayne Tigges; Beadle Bamford: A. J. Glueckert. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Summers; Stage Director: Lee Blakeley; Production Designer: Tanya McCallin; Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher; Choreographer: Lorena Randi. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, September 23, 2015.

Luisa Miller in San Francisco

Ekaterina Semenchu as Federica
All photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Luisa Miller sits on the fringes of the repertory, and since its introduction into the modern repertory in the 1970’s it comes around every 15 or so years. Unfortunately this 2015 San Francisco occasion has not bothered to rethink this remarkable opera.

Remarkable because it is not the Giuseppe Verdi of his masterpieces, but it is a transitional Verdi who was leaving behind the blood and thunder of political strife to embrace the social tensions brought about by the revolutions of 1848!

Luisa Miller is a play by Friedrich von Schiller premiered in 1784, as was, by the way, Beaumarchais’ Le Mariage de Figaro — speaking of social tensions. Note that only later Schiller’s play was renamed Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love), the title under which it is now obsessively studied as a theatrical masterpiece.

Luisa Miller by Verdi is not a theatrical masterpiece, nor is it even competent theater. Schiller’s dense play was reduced by Verdi’s librettist Salvadore Cammarano (who returns later this SFO season as the librettist of Lucia di Lammermoor) to a series of commonplace operatic situations that are easy to sing about but very hard to construe into a comprehensible story much less constitute a Figaro-like social document.

You do hear the Verdi of Traviata and Rigoletto, even some Boccanegra but mostly you hear the thunder of Nabucco, Attila and Macbeth (or maybe just now it was the conducting). It is music that in itself is foreign to the Verdi’s emerging dramatic interests, enthusiasms hardly supported by this poor libretto. Nonetheless it is Verdi and this a priori makes it great music waiting for a production that might at least try to make it make dramatic sense.

It is an essentially bel canto libretto thus Luisa Miller is about singing. Unfortunately the San Francisco Opera bar was set very high back in 1974 when Luisa was sung by Katia Ricciarelli (a prompter from La Scala was brought in for these performances remarked “che scuola! “ or “what stylish singing” about la Ricciarelli). Furthermore the Rodolfo was the young Luciano Pavarotti.

Leah Crocetto as Luisa, Michael Fabbiano as Rodolfo

For this Luisa Miller SFO cast its Verdi soprano prodigal daughter Leah Crocetto who acquitted herself very well and sang a quite beautiful “Tu puniscimi, o Signore.” Miss Crocetto has little spinto (push) therefore little drama in her voice, and I missed the soprano voice sailing over the top of the opera’s almost magnificent finales. Rodolfo aka Carlo was the Met’s prodigal tenor son Michael Fabbiano whose lighter lyric voice makes him choose his Verdi roles carefully. I would have wished for a somewhat larger and richer voice capable of more colors to relieve the vocal monotony of this long role.

Both Mr. Fabbiano and Miss Crocetto are fine, well prepared singers who embellish their performances with lots of acting. Here the acting seemed more like flailing as there was no apparent context. Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy was Miller, Luisa’s father (in Schiller he is a musician, in Verdi an old soldier). Mr. Bilyy too is a quite fine singer who did only what he is supposed to do — sing! He offered little musical or dramatic personality, nor was any evidently expected or needed in this production.

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sang Wurm who along with baritone Daniel Sumegi as Count Walter were the villains of the opera. Mr. Silvestrelli’s black colored voice and threatening presence have established him as the perfect Sparafucile (Rigoletto). As a bel canto villain I would have wished for a smoother, more beautiful voice. Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semechuk was the villainess Federica, the production itself made little demand of her and musically she was trounced by the conducting.

San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti was in the pit imposing his usual extreme tempos. He gave no freedom to his singers for stylistic expansion, thus he was free to drive his musical points, points that were in fact seldom singerly. As usual his finales were noisily magnificent, but by then it was hard to care.

Production by Francesca Zambello, set design by Michael Yeargan

San Francisco Opera revived the fifteen year old production (2000) created by Francesca Zambello and designer Michael Yeargan. Both Mme. Zambello and Mr. Yeargan have had long careers in which they have perused virtually every passing fashion to the degree that it is hard to identify an individual style for either of them.

In the case of this Luisa Miller designer Yeargan created a hard edged, highly artificial environment in which Verdi attempts to challenge long established social mores. It is hard to know if the long, thin aluminum truss thrust towards the audience was the rigid arm of an antiquated social structure, or what. It is hard to know if the vertical and horizontal separations effected from time to time in the cyclorama were fissures that portended change, or what. The horse? It was all lovely to look at, but Luisa Miller is hardly a lovely opera.

Cast and production information:

Luisa Miller: Leah Crocetto; Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano; Miller: Vitaliy Bilyy; Count Walter: Daniel Sumegi; Federica: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Wurm: Andrea Silvestrelli; Laura: Jacqueline Piccolino; Peasant: Christopher Jackson. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production: Francesca Zambello; Associate Director: Laurie Feldman; Set Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Dunya Ramicova; Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough. War Memorial Opera House, September 16, 2015.

Two Women in San Francisco

Sarah Shafer as the daughter, Anna Catterina Antonacci as the mother
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?

Possible answers multiply. San Francisco Opera music director is the Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti who will have held sway. Perhaps San Francisco Opera concurs that it has not had success with its recent premieres by American composers so thinks a journey back to the wellspring of opera might be a good idea.

A further and more palatable idea is that Two Women is potentially a rare story that supports operatic treatment. It is, at least in the eponymous Vittorio De Sica film, a story that has not been artistically explored — the sharing of the sublimely delicate moment when a girl becomes a woman (well, let us forget Salome for the moment. The De Sica film explores this passage, this dramatic moment, in subtle and startling psychological terms laden in existentialism. The film is a masterpiece. Indeed ripe for opera.

The sound world of composer Marco Tutino supports such atmospheres. Tutino is a colorist who offers surprise after surprise in his score for Two Women, timbres that are hardly new — the bass clarinet for example — but were strategically placed to evoke heretofore unfelt sensations. Without creating an explicitly individual style Tutino avoids any derivative definition, though one might say that his conservative twentieth century sound has its roots in the verismo of Giordano but remains open to incorporating later techniques when called upon, like his very effective use of minimalism.

The opera Two Women or its Italian title La ciociara surely rides the coattails of the De Sica film so to be able to gain Italian and international attention. Comparison is therefore unavoidable, appropriate and in fact enlightening.

The De Sica film is derived from a novel, La ciociara (1957) by Italian novelist Alberto Moravia (Ciociara is a region of bleak and rocky hills south of Rome). Two Women was the title given the English language translation of La ciociara. The libretto for the opera Two Women is derived from a script by one Luca Rossi, it in turn derived from the Moravia novel.

The two women and their Moroccan rapistsi
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Unlike the film which focuses on the complex psyches of the two women and absolutely nothing else the libretto delves into the Italian or rather human psyche that in wartime abdicates principle to collaborate with whoever or whatever is powerful at the moment. The libretto creates villains, from the Nazi commander to his local collaborators and to the Moroccan mercenary thugs who rape the two women. A powerful sense of evil is created that is pitted against the survival of the two women and their young male soulmate. That the daughter achieves womanhood in a singularly brutal fashion becomes the secondary, and less important story.

Though it is a thoroughly Italian event the only Italian in the cast was mezzo-soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci as the mother (who by-the-way gives Sophia Loren a run for her money as the costuming intends). Her daughter was sung by American ingenue soubrette Sarah Shafer. While vocally appropriate — a warm, lower voice for the mother and a higher, much brighter voice for the daughter — the two heroines were not physically matched, troublesome in the often cinematic circumstance of this production.

Sarah Shafer as Rosetta and Dimitri Pittas as Michele with Nazi soldier
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The young, pacifist school-teacher who infatuates both mother and daughter was sung by American tenor Dimitri Pittas (enough of a look-alike for Jean-Paul Belmondo from row P). The two villains were San Francisco Opera’s Scarpia, Mark Delavan as Giovanni and SFO’s Hoffmann villain, Christian Van Horn as the Nazi commandant.

Marco Tutino also created the libretto for his opera. It was staged by an all-American team (or at least all English speakers). The staging was a combination of cinematic scenes, docudrama of the advancing American forces in the liberation of Rome, the storybook fantasy of a verdant hilltop village in the arid region south of Roma as a sort of paradise, cut-out sets à la American musical and, yes, even moments of old fashioned opera.

The action unfolded in a series of vignettes that incorporated this potpourri of styles culminating in a complex, indeed impressive number (it is a numbers opera) where the action flip flopped between the rape of the women and the murder of Michele (the Belmondo role). Effective also was the scene of the Italian pop-crooner allowing composer Tutino to indulge in musical collage before he imagined a fairytale ending for his opera — a vision of the dead Michele walking toward the dream hilltop village.

The opening night audience accepted the opera as an old fashioned melodrama booing the villains, cheering the damsel (forgetting for the moment that she perhaps was not saved after all), and of course warmly thanking Mme. Antonacci and Mr. Pittas for ably holding their own against their cinematic competition (Loren and Belmondo). Comments overheard as the crowd left the theater were less enthusiastic.

As usual Maestro Nicola Luisotti forced his superb orchestra front and center, and it surely sang out all magic possible in Marco Tutino’s score. Interestingly and uncharacteristically the maestro allowed the singers to be actors in this drama rather than his musical puppets.

Said and done, the real opera remains the De Sica film. It creates one hundred minutes of pure lyricism, never descending to the cliches of movies or theater, or in the case of the opera Two Women to the cliches of musical theater.

Cast and production:

Cesira: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Rosetta: Sarah Shafer; Michele: Dimitri Pittas; Giovanni: Mark Delavan; John Buckley: Eddie Nelson; Pasquale Sciortino: Joel Sorensen; Fedor Von Bock: Christian Van Horn; Maria Sciortino: Buffy Baggott; Italian Singer: Pasquale Esposito; Country Woman: Zanda Svede; Old Woman: Sally Mouzon. Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Francesca Zambello; Set Designer: Peter Davison; Costume Designer: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough; Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 13, 2015.

Les Troyens in San Francisco

Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cassandra, Brian Mulligan as Coroebus
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.

Often these days the two parts are separated by a break of a couple hours thus enabling an audience to transcend the horror of the Trojan slaughter before settling into the beatific idyll of Dido’s Carthage and the fervors of founding Rome.

No such good fortune in San Francisco. It was done as one long moment, over five plus straight hours, its temporal monumentality forced into a single span of unrelenting musical and dramatic intensity. The action was so tightly drawn that British director David McVicar forced Susan Graham’s Dido to stand before a naked black stage curtain to deliver her impassioned adieu to Carthage (while her pyre was rolled onto the scene behind the curtain) — no pause before immediate immolation.

There was not a moment to be wasted in the race to the end.

On good days conductor Donald Runnicles brought the show in at just under five hours.

The McVicar production can indeed boast theatrical efficiency. It was all effected in front of a massive amphitheater shape set, its convex face apparent for Troy, its concave face exposed for Carthage. Both sides of the scenic unit were tiered so that the choristers could be deployed on the structure almost concert style gracefully eliminating the problem of how to stage the massive choruses.

The garden (Act IV)
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Carthage was first a floor placed oval platform of miniature buildings on which McVicar’s signature male acolytes cavorted. The platform was tilted on its side and raised high, moonlike (deep blue light) for the garden, and then split, its halves moving to the sides of the stage when the love affair fell apart.

No stranger to heroic proportions the production designer, Es Devlin designed the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics and will design the opening ceremony of the 2016 Rio de Janiero games. Maximum of effect with a minimum of means (someone mentioned there are 35 tons of Trojans scenery). Not to be confused with minimalism.

The McVicar direction was absolutely straightforward. The action was exactly the old story and exactly the music, like the choristers raining confetti onto their queen at the precise moments the Berlioz music spilled into momentary ecstasies. We were simply swept along by the action, no roadblocks to the inexorable destruction of a queen and her city.

Strangely the gigantic Trojan House head was made of bits of industrial revolution detritus plus a Greek shield or two, as was the gigantic torso of Aeneas that would one day squash Carthage. Dress was nineteenth century (a bewildered audience member was overheard explaining that maybe this was because there are a lot of nineteenth century operas so San Francisco Opera has a lot of old costumes that could be used).

If there was a concept besides theatrical efficiency it was not discernible. The McVicar production was heavy on solutions for easy story telling and quick scene changes. These solutions did make those five hours fly by with not a lot to think about!

Berlioz was left in the dust. Berlioz is an iconoclast, a misfit, a dreamer, an egomaniac, and of course a genius. His music is at once naive and brilliant. He absorbed Gluck and Beethoven making them uncomfortable partners. He could write meltingly beautiful music and at the same time relish in pushing harmonic rhythms beyond academic acceptability. It is not easy music.

Furthermore and by the way his estranged wife was an English Shakespearean tragedienne, he detested Rome as much as he detested (and was detested by) the operatic establishment.

Bryan Hymel as Aeneas
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

There were many, many fine performances (it is a huge cast) in this San Francisco edition, certainly beginning with the conducting of Donald Runnicles who carefully, even too carefully integrated his musical flow into the slick McVicar storytelling. There was wonderfully direct communication and understanding between the stage and pit in measured — huge or intimate as needed — never unleashed musicality.

Italian mezzo soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci created a riveting Cassandra at the San Francisco premiere, her voice lying comfortably in the role, no hint of the careful control she exerts in creating her higher Gluck heroines, rather she was a beautiful, human Cassandra in warm, strong and open tone and in honest, agonized posture. This made her love duet with her husband-to-be Coroebus, sung by Brian Mulligan, the most splendid moment of these performances. Baritone Mulligan, a catch-all San Francisco Opera regular, here found a role where his voice flowed in quite beautifully smooth, French colored tones, his persona constrained in mannered postures consistent with this brief and sad final encounter with his fiancé.

At the second performance one week later the role of Cassandra was taken by American soprano Michaela Martens. She is known to broader audiences for brilliantly portraying the passivity of Marilyn Klinghoffer both at ENO and the Met. A fine singer with a sizable voice (and career) she does not have the persona or experience to embody this epic character role, begging the question why she was cast.

There is no question that the role of Aeneas currently belongs to American tenor Bryan Hymel. He is handsome and heroic, his voice lies perfectly in the French heroic style pioneered by Berlioz. He has a sound that is uniquely French (he is from New Orleans) the strength of voice to portray a hero, a top that is open, secure and thrilling. Most of all he exudes youth and discovery creating an Aeneas who is emotionally connected to discovering love and discovering the world.

Susan Graham as Dido
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Esteemed American mezzo Susan Graham donned the long blond tresses of the tragic queen Dido. Mme. Graham is an exquisite singer, able to elegantly carve the ecstatic and desperate outpourings of this unfortunate, operatically over-exposed queen. Mme. Grahams’ Dido was sculpted art. It was not Dido the tragic queen.

The expanded San Francisco Opera Chorus was magnificent, as prescribed. Operatic ballet is famously maligned (remember the ballet in Samson et Dalila?). Here, if ever, operatic ballet has been exonerated. Sixteen dancers superbly executed the original Covent Garden Broadway style choreography by Lynne Page.

Cast and production

Cassandra: Anna Caterina Antonacci (June 7); Cassandra: Michaela Martens (June 12); Dido: Susan Graham; Aeneas: Bryan Hymel; Ascanius: Nian Wang; Anna: Sasha Cooke; Coroebus: Brian Mulligan; Narbal: Christian van Horn; Pantheus: Philip Horst; Iopas: Renè Barbera; Helenus: Chong Wang; Hylas: Chong Wang; King Briam: Philip Skinner; Queen Hecuba: Buffy Baggott; The Ghost of Cassandra: Buffy Baggott; The Ghost of Hector: Jordan Bisch; Greek Captain: Anthony Reed; Trojan Soldier: Matthew Stump; Trojan Chief: Jere Torkelsen; Andromaque: Brook Broughton; Polyxena: Rachel Speidel Little. Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Donald Runnicles; Production: David McVicar; Stage Director: Leah Hausman; Choreographer: Lynne Page; Set Designer: Es Devlin; Costume Designer: Moritz Junge; Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 7 and June 12, 2015.

La bohème in San Francisco

First Toronto, then Houston and now San Francisco, the third stop of a new production of Puccini's La bohème by Canadian born, British nurtured theater director John Caird.

Mr. Caird is a very skilled director of theater and music theater. He is well credentialed in opera in Britain with productions at Welsh National Opera, his U.S. opera credits are productions at Houston Opera that have or will tour to other U.S. opera houses. Let us not overlook the Siefried and Roy show in Las Vegas (1991-2004).

Mr. Caird has created a slick, intelligent and successful production of La bohème. Typical of theater directors staging opera he has endeavored to keep the dramatic pace of the opera moving along, accelerating pace whenever possible. Scene changes are quick, intermissions are short, bows are choreographed. This with the apparent assumption that theater audiences need to keep their minds involved and music theater audiences need to keep the beat.

The opera audience has been conditioned over the past 300 years to stop time, to forget the story and sink into the elaboration of an emotion. So maybe for some of us in the War Memorial this Boheme seemed rushed and over-produced, even seemed condescending with lighting effects that were too obvious (as if we were incapable of feeling the music without its help).

Not even Rodolfo’s final cries were left as pure emotion — as the curtain fell on the dead Mimi he we see him transform the moment into words. We needed not feel the tragedy of this moment because it had become mere art — a tricky conceit. Maybe this Boheme was not for us, but for a music theater audience.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Mr. Caird’s astutely perceived La bohème as four character sketches — the garret, the cafe, the square, and the death. In fact Marcello, an artist as well, is busily sketching the dead Mimi when the curtain falls. Each setting is created by a collage of canvas paintings (images of rooms and buildings). The colors and costumes were in the warm palate of late nineteenth century naturalistic painting. Scene changes were a vista, stagehands visible in a slick bow to Brechtian dogma (with no hint of advocacy). It was meant to please a broad audience and it did.

Finally though none of this mattered. The November 19 performance was memorable because of riveting performances by American tenor Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo and Russian baritone Alexey Markov as Marcello. Tenor Fabiano boasts the clean musicianship of his American training, and an innate sense of Italian line unaffected by mannerism. He made Puccini into heroic bel canto that fully satisfies verismo. Mr. Fabiano is a natural actor, his moves at once incorporating the physicality of singing with the emotive enthusiasms of a young poet.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Alexey Markov as Marcello
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo, Alexey Markov as Marcello

Though of Russian formation much the same can be said of baritone Markov whose Slavic colored voice added an international exoticism to this young painter as well as specific flavor to the Parisian ambiance. Both Fabiano and Markov have strong, focused, beautiful voices that sailed across the orchestra. These artists in fact provided the musical determination for the performance far more than did the leadership, or lack of, from the pit.

The November 19 Mimi was Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou. The internet offers no birthday for Ms. Voulgaridou and it would not matter except that her voice betrayed the mannerisms of a singer no longer in the bloom of youth, or in bloom at all, and you wondered why she was cast as Mimi. Was it the spate of Toscas she undertook in 2013 (even though Tosca and Mimi are completely different voices)? But these Toscas seem to have worn her out and have encouraged her to fall back on generic (stock) opera singer moves and gestures.

Nadine Sierra as Musetta
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The November 19 Musetta was former Adler Fellow Nadine Sierra. She was a far more youthful Musetta than you would expect to see on a major stage, and of much lighter voice (she is a lyric coloratura). This fine young artist made Musetta memorable, her coquettishness absolutely convincing while she carved out director Caird’s imaginative new antics to “Quando men vo soletta per la via.” These antics however forced an unnaturally slow tempo that would challenge even a much larger voice.

On November 20 the Mimi was former Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto. She sings beautifully, but physically she is not appropriate to embody a consumptive heroine. You wondered why she was cast. Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi sang Rodolfo. This young tenor with a good sound has unfortunately absorbed many mannerisms that associate him with proverbial Italian provincial opera. Soprano Ellie Dehn sang Musetta. She is a San Francisco Mozart heroine (Countess, Donna Anna, Fiordiligi) who could not possibly make the transition from stately womanhood to this coquettish character role. San Francisco Opera regular, baritone Brian Mulligan was Marcello, a fish-out-of-water as well.

Colline, Schaunard, and Benoit/Alcindoro were the same singers for both casts. Christian van Horn is San Francisco Opera’s catch all bass, one night Alidoro in Cenerentola, the next two nights Colline, then back to Alidoro. While a competent performer he does not approach the depths of character that these smaller but crucially important roles require.

The conductor was San Francisco Opera’s resident conductor Giuseppe Finzi. With the help of messieurs Fabiano and Markov he carried off November 19 honorably. On November 20 he could not bring the cast to musical cohesion. At both performances I longed for a conductor who felt verismo, not simply a maestro to accompany, or try to, the singers. Follow this link for an account of a performance by such a maestro: La bohème at San Francisco Opera.

Casts and Production

Mimì: Alexia Voulgaridou; Rodolfo: Michael Fabiano; Musetta: Nadine Sierra; Marcello: Alexdy Markov; Colline: Christian van Horn; Schaunard: Hadleigh Adams; Benoit/Alcindoro: Dale Travis. Alternate cast: Mimì: Leah Crocetto; Rodolfo: Giorgio Berrugi; Musetta: Ellie Dehn; Marcello: Brian Mulligan. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi. Stage Director: John Caird; Production Designer: David Farley; Lighting Designer: Michael James Clark. War Memorial Opera House, November 19/20, 2014. Seats row M).

Cenerentola in San Francisco

The good news is that you don't have to go all the way to Pesaro for some great Rossini!

It was a rare evening, very rare, at San Francisco Opera when everything, almost everything, went together perfectly.

La cenerentola is Rossini’s most complex, and certainly greatest comedy. The competition is stiff indeed — L’italiana in Algeri (1812), Il turco in Italia (1814) and Il barbiere di Siviglia (1816). What separates Cenerentola (1817) and puts it way out front is the sheer size and number of its ensembles, big concerted pieces with four, five and six-voices, sometimes with chorus as well. These are the hallmarks of the great tragedies that begin with Otello (1816), the opera composed by Rossini immediately before Cenerentola.

Both Armida (1817), the tragedy written immediately after, and Cenerentola end with a huge showpiece aria for the prima donna. These years are the mature Rossini who demands big, virtuoso singers, like Cenerentola whose bravura alone must be sufficient to close the show and bring the audience to a level of delirium that made Rossini the most famous opera composer in the world.

Virtuoso singing and the sculpting of the highly sophisticated musical architecture of the arias and ensembles are the challenges of this great comedy, both challenges well met just now in San Francisco.

Conductor Jesús López-Cobos made a wunderkind debut at San Francisco Opera in 1972 at the age of thirty-two, and returned for the fall 1974 season, again for more of the big Verdi repertoire. Now, after an absence of forty years, he is back on the podium, a master of what some of us believe to be the epitome of what opera can be — the mature Rossini! The Rossini ethos is also the most delicate of all the great composers and it is sublime when it is revealed. This is very rare.

Conductor López-Cobos immediately took Rossini’s overture to the lightest boil. It was the bubbling of the tiny drops of the finest mineral water and the fleetness of a long distance runner, and it kept us there for the duration. In a Rossini tragedy the delight would be the suspension of time into pure lyricism (you forget to breathe), and the sheer joy of releasing emotion, tragic though it may be. In a comedy, you found a smile on your face, your foot marking the beat. Sheer delight. In Rossini, comedy or tragedy, it is the same music and the same joy of making that music.

The Lópes-Cobos tempos and his flights of Rossini’s sophisticated instrumentation were never indulged for effect. For example the patter pieces (when a male voice breaks into rapid words) did not so much amaze us with lightning speed as they amused us with rhythmic words. The ensembles never lost their individual voices by accelerandos intended to drive us to musical fulfillment, instead we remained immersed in the complexities of the ensembles. It was measured conducting that at once reconciled Rossini with his music and Rossini with the singers provided by San Francisco Opera.

Efrain Solis as Dandini, René Barbera as Don Ramiro
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

An announcement was made that French mezzo soprano Karine Deshayes was not feeling well and would not be at her best. As it was Mlle. Desayes displayed a reserved temperament and presence that left Cenerentola colorless for most of the evening. In the spectacular finale to the opera, “Non piu mesta” she did vocally approach the needed Rossini vocal excitement if not the personality. Had she not been indisposed perhaps her high notes would have been integrated into the smoother sounds of her lower voice.

Cenerentola’s father, Don Magnifico, was sung by Spanish bass-baritone Carlos Chausson. A seasoned interpreter of Rossini roles he was perfection itself in the delivery of this role as generic buffo. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, perfunctorily and colorlessly (fault of the staging) enacted Alidoro, the facilitator of the familiar story.

Young Texan tenor René Barbera made a splendid prince aka Don Ramiro in beautiful, smooth voice throughout the role’s very high tessitura. He delivered his big second act cabelletta “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” with the voice and personality that have made him the winner of vocal competitions and with high C’s to spare.

Among San Francisco’s great treasures are the Adlers. These young singers are usually the messengers and maids in the grand repertoire, and sometimes are over-parted in important roles. In this Cenerentola production they were utter perfection as Dandini and the ugly step sisters Clorinda and Tisbe. Both Maria Valdes and Zanda Svede made these minor roles (only Clorinda has a very brief aria) into scene stealing roles with the help of their stage director, Gregory Fortner.

But the biggest star of the evening (and it was a stiff competition) was California baritone Efrain Solis as the prince’s servant Dandini. This young singer exuded the charm, pent-up fun and exuberant singing that will make him a Rossini star. The cherry-atop-the-cake was the physical resemblance of Dandini, the servant, to Don Ramiro, the prince whom he was impersonating.

Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Photo by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

In its heyday San Francisco Opera not only discovered Jesus Lopez-Cobos but also Jean Pierre Ponnelle, a young French scenographer who revolutionized San Francisco’s idea of what opera production could be. This brilliant designer turned stage director created this production of La cenerentola for San Francisco Opera back in 1969 — forty-five years ago! Its black and white, pencil drawn filigree and apparent architecture (cross-section of a multi-storied house) make it both storybook and physically tangible. It is self-consciously old and that alone made it new back in the ’60’s. More importantly its decor is integrated into action — the actors climb throughout the set — it was opera as scenographic action, not just singing.

The limitation of the Ponnelle set is however its symmetry, and it is stifling. The larger Rossini repertory was just being re-discovered back then. Since then Rossini performance practice has evolved to understand and embrace the structural complexity of these works. A mise-en-scène now must incorporate the musical score as a physical and intellectual component of the staging. This can be accomplished by imposing concept and shape as powerful as the music — strength of concept is no longer perceptible in this antique production.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle who died in 1988 has long since not been a part of his production. It has been staged in recent revivals by Gregory Fortner who has staged this gifted cast in San Francisco as well. One assumes he kept the basic outlines of the original staging, respecting the symmetry of the set. He certainly will have added clever schtick to keep the action energized and to showcase his performers.

It is time to memorialize the Ponnelle production in photographs and move on to productions consistent with current performance practice.

Cast and Production

Cenerentola: Karine Deshayes; Don Ramiro: René Barbera; Dandini: Efrain Solis; Don Magnifico: Carlos Chausson; Alidoro: Christian Van Horn; Clorinda: Maria Valdes; Tisbe: Zanda Svede. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Jésus López-Cobos. Production: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; Stage Director: Gregory Fortner; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, November 13, 2014. Seats: 11th row house left.

Dido and Aeneas and Bluebeard’s Castle in Los Angeles

Henry Purcell’s Dido is a splendid little opera. Barrie Kosky’s Dido is a splendid little theater piece.

Add Australian born, German nurtured director Barrie Kosky to Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard and you have a masterpiece of opera theater.

It is kinky art, where less is more and more is more. Among the kinkier elements were the three witches who foiled Dido’s consuming love for Aeneas — three full figured, bearded, black-American counter tenors who leapt on and off the long bench that traverses the stage hiking up their skirts to expose their hairy legs. It was an astonishing bit of casting by L.A. Opera.

The contemporary 20 maybe 30 something Dido (Irish soprano Paula Murrihy from the Frankfurt Opera) seemed not to have much to say, seated usually at a far edge of the stage-wide bench. Aeneas seemed to be an uninteresting fraternity boy who actually sings quite well (Liam Bonner, L.A. Opera’s recent Billy Budd) who slammed the door (an auditorium exit) when Dido threw him out. Then Dido exclaimed “Remember me, but forget my fate” which was only a prelude to the sobbing and choking she relentlessly continued through and well beyond the end of the famous chorus and the end of the opera (for this final scene the chorus was seated in the pit softly intoning “With drooping wings you cupids come to scatter roses on her tomb”).

Everyone else except Dido and Aeneas were 17th century something, including a naked Adam and Eve, and everyone actually became the music itself, brilliantly effected by director Kosky’s use of abstract physical language — body movement and crowd configuration — that took us from the world we see to a world we create, its meaning dwarfed by its conceit.

And there was much, much more to this famous production from Berlin’s Komische Oper. And when it was all said and done the awed Sunday matinee audience leapt to its feet in genuine appreciation. Did I mention Purcell? Well, he was left in the dust (the orchestra did a wonderful gramophone sliding halt to remind us that Dido and Aeneas is an opera we were quoting, not performing). Conductor Steven Sloane’s committed tempos were those demanded by the Kosky theater piece, not by the Purcell music.

If Dido and Aeneas was frivolous theater, Bluebeard’s Castle was deadly serious opera and deadly serious theater.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith (both far right)
Photo by Craig Mathew / LA Opera

Less was seriously more. The stage was nothing more than a huge, tilted white disk that sometimes revolved making it possible to paint a black and white panorama when the front was low so that we could see the full surface, or when the front was high obliterating the surface so that we would only see figures, now in stark relief against the black void above. Like close-ups.

Bartok’s little horror opera has only two voices — Bluebeard (Komische Oper baritone Robert Hayward) and his victim Judith (Frankfurt Opera mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke). As the story unfolds Mr. Kosky discovers the revelations (opens the doors) by duplicating the Bluebeards — three additional Bluebeards (silent) appear as the doors are opened, and are magically and very simply transformed into Bluebeard’s treasure, force and domain (the three Bluebeards are engulfed in geysers of steam). Already powerfully realized in Bartok’s cannily descriptive music these revelations here crescendoed into a gigantic climax with added brass blasting from the lighting bays on either side of the stage. It was so gigantic that (knowing that Mr. Kosky is fearless when it comes to exploiting ideas) it is possible he even perpetrated the cardinal sin of opera — amplification!

German developed, born in L.A. conductor Steven Sloane participated magnificently in this psycho-drama, extracting music from the score that went well beyond merely descriptive storytelling, finding precise, immense terrors and ecstasies in the sado-masochism that makes Bluebeard’s Castle compelling. The L.A. Opera Orchestra sounded like a real opera orchestra.

This fine, conceptual production comes from Berlin, a city that nurtures the development of stage directors. Sadly in the U.S. there is no interest in developing American directors. Take a look at the seasons of the important American opera companies. The directors are from Germany and Great Britain, countries that develop talent and do not simply import it.

Cast and Production

Dido and Aeneas: Paula Murrihy (Dido), Liam Bonner (Aeneas), Kateryna Kasper (Belinda), John Holiday (Sorceress), Summer Hassan (Second Lady), G. Thomas Allen (First Witch), Darryl Taylor (Second Witch), Brenton Ryan (Sailor). Bluebeard’s Castle: Robert Hayward (Bluebeard), Claudia Mahnke (Judith) Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Steven Sloane (conductor), Grant Gershon (chorus master). Barrie Kosky (production), Ute M. Engelhardt (Associate Director), Katrin Lea Tag (Scenery and Costume Designer), Joachim Klein (Lighting Designer)

Tosca in San Francisco

Yet another Tosca is hardly exciting news, if news at all. The current five performances have come just two years after SFO alternated divas Angela Gheorghiu and Patricia Racette in the title role.

It begs asking why the opera comes back so soon. This is not a distinguished cast, and the production is the 1997 remake of the 1932 SFO production mounted for the umpteenth time.

Still it was an interesting and amusing experience.

The conducting was strikingly different from the powerfully present performances of 2012 (Nicola Luisotti). Just now the conductor was Riccardo Frizza, an Italian maestro who has worked in many important theaters around the world. If his program booklet biography is at all complete he has never before conducted a verismo opera.

Here in San Francisco he has earned critical accolades for the bel canto repertoire (Lucrezia Borgia and I Capuleti e i Montecchi. And this Tosca was pure bel canto — beautiful (pretty) music, lovely detail, flowing lines. It was music about singing, not about the brutal humanity of verismo. The first act was a delightful revelation of relaxed tempos that allowed a melodic flow. It was almost like you had never before seen the opera.

However the melodic flow was uncomfortably broken from time to time to accommodate a singer’s need/urge to exaggerate the duration of a high note, a basic stylistic impulse of later Italian style.

These same relaxed tempos imposed a dramatically flaccid second act. The pastoral beginning of the third act erased any hint, and there had been very few, of dramatic tension. We simply waited until Tosca leapt.

Mark Delavan as Scarpia, Lianna Haroutounian as Tosca
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Young Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian was the Tosca. Mlle. Haroutounian is not a diva. Tosca is a diva. That Mlle. Haroutounian may soon be a diva is without question, though divas come in all manner, shape and size. Probably this wonderful young proto-diva will never be a Tosca, i.e. a character diva. She exudes little innate dramatic temperament.

Mlle. Haroutounian does exude a purity of voice that casts her as the Verdi heroine. She has the beauty of voice, the size of voice, and the security of technique to immediately place her among the most sought after choices for these roles. That she has the complexity of personality and the dramatic intelligence to become a great artist is yet to be seen.

Brian Kagde as Cavaradpsso
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Young American tenor Brian Jagde was the Cavaradossi. This former Adler Fellow has at last shown that he is ready for the War Memorial and other important stages, that he a finished artist. As the Luisotti Cavaradossi and Pinkerton he seemed over-parted, maybe even terrorized. Here with Maestro Riccardo Frizza in the pit he was given the musical space to sing, and that he did beautifully. While Mr. Jagde does not embody the Italian tenor emblematic of this role he did exhibit the fruits of his excellent American training.

Baritone Mark Delavan sang Scarpia. Without musical tension coming from the pit, and without a Tosca with whom he could emotionally spar his cardboard evil character was meaningless. Perhaps he was attempting to create character by slurring his words but the effect was that he might have had some caramel in his mouth. On the other hand the Italian diction of Kansas born Scott Conner as Angelotti was admirable.

Jose Maria Condemi was the stage director. This very able facilitator of remounted productions was sabotaged by the musical pace from the pit and the naiveté (inexperience) of Mlle. Maroutounian. What would have been effective staging in a dramatically pointed performance became too many clumsy moves.

It was an evening of beautiful music and beautiful singing. Maybe you wanted more.

Casts and production information:

Floria Tosca: Lianna Haroutounian; Mario Cavaradossi: Brian Jagde; Baron Scarpia: Mark Delavan; Cesare Angelotti: Scott Conner; Sacristan: Dale Travis; Spoletta: Joel Sorensen; Sciarrone: Efrain Solis; Jailer: Hadleigh Adams. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Riccardo Frizza; Stage director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production designer: Thierry Bosquet; Lighting designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, November 4, 2014, Row M.

Un ballo in maschera in San Francisco

The subject is regicide, a hot topic during the Italian risorgimento when the Italian peninsula was in the grip of the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, the House of Savoy and the Pontiff of the Catholic Church.And everyone knew what had happened to the Capetian kings in France.

It was in these final moments of the Risorgimento (unification of Italy) that Verdi wanted to premiere an opera in which there is a successful conspiracy to murder a king! Censors in Rome finally agreed that a story about a governor of Massachusetts involved in a nasty bit of adultery could be accepted.

Censorship these days operates a bit differently. No longer political censorship it is now economic censorship. Opera management perceives that the public will not buy tickets unless art is packaged in insipid wrappers. No Calixto Bieito in San Francisco. In this famous Spanish director's opening scene of Un ballo in maschera the courtiers sit on toilets in a mens room, the angry confrontation of husband and wife occurs in the bathroom of their home, their child’s toys floating in the bathtub.

On the War Memorial stage we were back in Sweden, at least we thought so because it was snowing in the second act, otherwise it could have been almost anywhere in nineteenth century Europe. In the program booklet there was no name credited to the design of the scenery. Presumably the sets are based on the production John Conklin created forty years ago (the mid 1970’s) and maybe the scenery has been modified for this staging by director Jose Maria Condemi, maybe by others over the years as well to the degree that it is not appropriate to identify Mr. Conklin with the sets.

Mr. Condemi is a resourceful stage director, finding business for his actors as if he were staging a comedy, and finding solutions for animating long chorus scenes with the addition of dancers miming slapstick comedy (or maybe this was a touch he was re-creating from the original production). He does move his actors around the stage with appropriate counter moves, and in fact he carefully sculpted all the musical numbers to accommodate Verdi’s musical initiatives.

Act II
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

However the opera itself lacks integrity, its libretto derived from those of several other remakes of an original libretto by Eugène Scribe who was famous for being able to recast nearly any story into reasonable opportunities for arias, duets and trios and then wrapping it all up in a big finale. The challenge in staging ballo is to create an atmosphere in which these musical forms transform theatrical formula into vibrant theatrical reality.

Context for this ballo was sorely missing.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti was in the pit. This meant that it was big conducting that resulted in a huge orchestral presence for this little story of innocent adultery that is in fact the big music of the politically strident Verdi.

Ramón Vargas as Gustavus
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The pit cried out for big singing and the three protagonists could in fact do big, each in a different way. The king of Sweden was Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, once a bel canto Nemorino, then a lyric tenor Werther and now Gustavo, a mature Verdi tenor! Mr. Vargas is big on musicianship, big on style, his medium sized voice pushed a bit beyond its endurance in this role with this maestro. The tenor and the maestro did together effect some quite fine Verdi moments.

American soprano Julianna Di Giacomo, a former Merola participant, was Amelia. She achieved volumes of beautiful tone that prevailed above the fortes of the full ensemble! Mlle. Di Giacomo presented herself as an arrived artist though she is not a fully finished artist, unable to create the emotionally charged vocal lines and tones that confuse innocence and guilt, the hallmarks of this and most Verdi heroines. It was therefore an incomplete performance.

Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

American baritone Brian Mulligan sang Count Anckarström aka Renato, husband of Amelia and Gustavus’s confidant and assassin. While Mr. Mulligan may not have the physical persona to impersonate a powerful Verdi baritone he apparently does have the voice, delivering the Act III “Eri tu che macchiavi quell'anima” in beautiful and passionate voice, one of the few felt moments in this mostly emotionally flat evening.

American soprano Heidi Stober was the Oscar. Mme. Stober is a mature artist whose facile, perfunctory performance did not capture the naiveté necessary to this role, an attribute that can make Oscar an emotionally moving part of the final moments of the opera. Veteran mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick had the cameo role of Ulrica. A big artist, la Zajick cast an appropriate spell as Verdi’s witch but only very occasionally endowed her spell with magical singing.

Casts and production information:

Amelia: Julianna Di Giacomo; Oscar: Heidi Stober; Gustavus: Ramón Vargas; Count Anckarström: Brian Mulligan; Ulrica: Dolora Zajick; Count Horn: Scott Conner; Count Ribbing: Christian van Horn; Christian: Efrain Solis; Judge: A.J. Glueckert; Amelia’s servant: Christopher Jackson. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Costume Designer: John Conklin; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 7, 2014 (seated row 16 house right).

Susannah in San Francisco

Come to think of it the 1950‘s were operatically rich years in America compared to other decades in the recent past. Just now the San Francisco Opera laid bare an example, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. It is an opera some of us may now find to be a naive or simplistic artifact, nevertheless emblematic of those years.

Vanessa (1957), West Side Story (1957), The Saint of Bleecker Street (1955), and Susannah (1956) are the survivors from that decade. Like Vanessa, Susannah is a morbid short story though Vanessa is urban, subtle and twisted while Susannah is rural, obvious and brutal. At first Susannah may seem a bit like verismo, Cavalleria Rusticana for example, but it lacks the single physical blow and emotional resolution, dissolving instead into a sea of musically unsupported judgmental ironies.

Like West Side Story, Susannah is musical theater moreso than it is pure opera. It is a series of relatively brief, showy musical numbers that each illustrate a single emotion or situation. Its few action scenes are in elaborated recitative that is not integrated into larger musical structures.

West Side Story and The Saint of Bleecker Street are urban Americana composed by sophisticated New Yorkers (Bernstein and Menotti). These were the plights of poor immigrant Americans with strong ethnic accents, and music that eschewed the then current European complex serialism in favor of popular idioms and traditional forms.

Brian Jovanovich as Sam, Patricia Racette as Susannah
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Susannah composer Carlisle Floyd was born in South Carolina. He was a tenured professor at Florida State University and later founded the Houston Opera Studio. He writes about the American south (both words and music) in verbal declaration for which a strong regional accent is taken for granted. His musical idiom combines easy flowing tonal music with a big folksy overlay (hymns and mountain tunes) spiced with a bit of glowing dissonance.

Susannah may be the second most performed American opera but there is an immense gulf between the artistic intelligence and power of Porgy and Bess and the blatant moralism of Susannah.

Neither Gian Carlo Menotti nor Carlisle Floyd pushed the artistic envelope sufficiently to be discussed in Alex Ross’ history of music in the twentieth century, The Rest is Noise (2007). But make no mistake, along with these other works Susannah too is an operatic masterpiece in its way, and it is a quite modest way.

Patricia Racette as Susannah, Raymond Aceto as Blitch
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Susannah was composed for the reduced circumstances of post WWII and as a populist work of art consistent with the socialistic artistic politic of the time. Premiered in Florida it quickly made its way first to the New York City Opera, “the people’s opera” and then to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair where it represented American culture. One can only question the wisdom behind the choice of specific, ugly content to portray American life to the world at large.

Just now San Francisco Opera rolled out a handsome new production that filled the War Memorial Stage. Canadian stage director Michael Cavanagh with his designer Erhard Rom created splendidly realistic expanses of southern mountains with scrims and projections. These lovely photographic impressions of nature were at odds with a modernistic cross, a huge, neon lighted (it seemed) cross typical of modern suburban mega churches that loom over the revival meetings. It screamed naiveté of concept.

Raymond Aceto as Blitch
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

A similar conflict arose in the stage direction, Mr. Cavanagh alternated between the presentational naturalism of the hayseed presences of Susannah, her brother Sam and the church elders, and clumsy solutions to managing the presentational needs of the crowd scenes at the picnics and in the church. Also clumsy were the several times a character was asked to silently act out conflicting emotions while we musically waited from him to make up his mind. Mr. Cavanagh is less to blame for these unsuccessful moments than Carlisle Floyd.

Soprano Patricia Racette, long a Carlisle Floyd heroine, still pulls it off, even in this latter day essay as Susannah. Because la Racette is usually associated with the great roles in the grand repertory it seems a waste to cast her in such simple music. The same can be said of tenor Brandon Jovanovich who gave us a superb Sam, Susannah’s brother, his performance utilizing but a tiny percentage of his capability (Lohengrin in 2012 for example). Of the three principals only bass Raymond Aceto as the Reverend Blitch did not find an un-self conscious Americana presence, his performance was purely big house look-at-me opera singing and acting. The smaller roles were well cast.

This little opera can pack quite a wallop in the right circumstances. Susannah simply does not blow up to grand opera proportions.

Casts and production information:

Susannah Polk: Patricia Racette; Sam Polk: Brandon Jovanovich; Rev. Olin Blitch: Raymond Aceto; Mrs. Mclean: Catherine Cook; Little Bat Mclean; James Kryshak; Mrs. Hayes: Jacqueline Piccolino; Mrs. Gleaton: Erin Johnson; Mrs. Ott: Suzanne Hendrix; Elder Hayes: Joel Sorensen; Elder Gleaton: A.J. Glueckert; Elder Mclean: Dale Travis; Elder Ott: Timothy Mix. Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Karen Kamensek; Stage Director: Michael Cavanagh: Set Designer: Erhard Rom; Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, September 12, 2014, seated seventh row center.

Norma in San Francisco

It was a Druid orgy that overtook the War Memorial. Magnificent singing, revelatory conducting, off-the-wall staging (a compliment, sort of).

Not much more is known about Druid ritual than what Vincenzo Bellini documents in his operatic version of an ancient mistletoe ceremony. He and his librettist Felice Romani then considered what might have happened if this fertility drug had begotten two adorable children and therefore doomed (in this production) an entire civilization to extinction. Their conjecture is complicated by a very human, operatically volatile tangle of fidelity and infidelity.

Make no mistake. Norma is not about human nature. It is about singing about human nature, and if you are the singer it is finding your way out of Romani’s mess by singing long enough, and singing beautifully enough. It got complicated in San Francisco.

Most of all the singing was loud enough, and that is important for a huge theater like La Scala where the opera began (2800 seats) and the War Memorial (3200 seats) where Norma now may be heard as it has never been heard before.

As usual when conductor Nicola Luisotti is in the pit the opera is about the maestro and the pit. The singers are usually lined up across the front of the stage to fall under the direct control of the maestro. He does not hear Norma as bel canto — long, dramatically graceful melodies that soar — but as overwrought emotional outpourings composed to challenge the techniques of big artists. It is big canto, and not only for the singers but also the orchestra who sang out Bellini’s simplistic harmonies as if they were those of Richard Strauss.

Surprisingly Bellini and the audience endured all this (unless as a bel canto purist you were so offended you walked out — though I saw no empty seats after intermission). The orchestra loudly declaimed bel canto subtleties meant to be subtle, and the singers rose magnificently to the challenges of deadly slow tempos or break-neck, ear splitting speed. Just when you thought it was all for nought Norma and Adalgisa, complicit with the maestro, gave a musically splendid duet “Sola, furtiva al tempio,” lines interwoven at a tempo that was at least melodically coherent, if unusually fast.

The second act generally sank under the musical weight imposed by the pit, until the concerted finale “Deh! non volerli [my children] victime.” Here the maestro found enough dramatic resolution occurring on the stage to support the massive energy coming from the pit. And when Pollione, the fickle tenor, declared “O mio dolore” and continued with “contento il rogo [the pyre] io ascenderò” it was spine tingling to the end.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Sondra Radvanovsky may be the epitome of Norma’s in recent history. Not the proto type bel cantista who slides through the intricacies of the role and easily overcomes its roadblocks but the mature priestess, distraught mother, and discarded lover who has a lot of uncomfortable things to sing about. La Radvanovsky has the powerful, luminous spinto voice to color the character, and the range and technique to take on the challenge of accomplishing mature bel canto. Here in San Francisco she accepted the risks perpetrated by the maestro, delivering the “Casta Diva” as melodic stasis, the physical act of vocal production (air moving forward) pitted against frozen motion from the pit (like frozen time in Berlioz’ Les Troyens love duet). Incredibly among the literally thousands of moments when her tone might break during this epic singing event a crack occurred only twice.

Marco Berti as Pollione, Jamie Barton as Adalgisa
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Soprano Jamie Barton took on the challenges of Adalgisa. This young artist, already well credentialed in this role, made a coherent dramatic and vocal contrast to the mature presence of Mme. Radvanosky. She brought appropriate virginal voice and presence that validates the casting of a young artist for artistic reasons (in this case like the original 1832 production) rather than for pecuniary reasons. Mlle. Barton displayed a technique well able to cope with Bellini and luckily has already gained sufficient sea legs (stage legs) to cope with this maestro.

Italian tenor Mario Berti sang Pollione. Mr. Berti is not a subtle artist, nonetheless he is a fine artist. Perhaps most importantly he brings true Italianate voice and flair to the War Memorial and the sense that San Francisco Opera may be an international house after all. Without really the range and agility to bring off this role (most glaring in his initial aria “Meco all'altar di Venere”) he later exhibited some very effective descents into his chest voice plus he succeeded, surprisingly, to sing softly a couple of times. Not to forget the tenorial coglioni that made the final moments of the opera a tenor showpiece (like Calaf in Turandot for example). Following this performance San Francisco Opera announced the Mr. Berti is being replaced by Russell Thomas, a recent graduation of the Met's young artist program, for the five remaining performances.

The Trojan Bull
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

It is a big, new production by American director Kevin Newbury to be shared with Barcelona, Toronto and Chicago. Mr. Newbury has worked operatically primarily in Minneapolis and Houston. But he works also in theater and most recently in film. The production, created with designer David Korins (whose program booklet biography includes restaurant interiors), reflects this range of experience.

The set seemed to be the front of a stage proscenium (a stage within a stage), but also an old fashioned back stage, a mid-western barn, the Old Globe, off-Broadway, a fantasy film and Epic Theater. All these elements crowded at once onto the stage.

The concept seemed to be that maybe the Romans (who wanted the British Isles) snuck a general into Druid country to seduce a high priestess. This dreamed up, far fetched treachery made Messrs. Newbury and Korins think of the Trojan Horse. Since there were already bulls in the Druid mistletoe ceremony the production creators perhaps thought that a Trojan Bull might be constructed (long slats that seemed to be rolled up venetian blinds were carried across the stage from time to time). A huge slatted bull was rolled on stage at the end (explaining those wooden slats) and set afire, Druid soldiers and Norma and Pollione having climbed inside. The barn doors at the back of the stage (wooden) had been barred, trapping the the remaining Druids within the conflagration.

Given the fertility claims of mistletoe one suspects that Messrs. Newbury and Korins tripped out over the word “trojan.” Make no mistake, all this made for an amusing evening.

Casts and production information:

Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky; Adalgisa: Jamie Barton; Pollione: Marco Berti; Oroveso: Christian Van Horn; Clotilda: Jaqueline Piccolino; Flavio: A.J. Glueckert. San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Kevin Newbury; Set Designer: David Korins; Costume Designer: Jessica Jahn; Lighting Designer: D.M. Wood. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. September 10, 2014, 7th row center seats.

Madama Butterfly in San Francisco

Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.

It was an Italian opera, the abstract visual images of a Japanese born American and an American fable that converged magically into artistic totality.

The 2006 production itself (design and staging), is from Opera Omaha. It has since traveled to Madison, Dayton, Vancouver, Honolulu, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Charlotte. It would hold the stage in any opera house in the opera world. It is a masterpiece.

The sets and costumes are by Omaha based ceramic artist Jun Kaneko who collaborated with stage director Leslie Swackhamer, a professor at Sam Houston State University (Houston) whose theatrical roots are in Seattle, to create this unique production.

Jun Kaneko works primarily in repeated patterns in two dimensional clay, a visual process that brilliantly found its way into Puccini’s verismo — the abstracted, multi-colored umbrellas of the wedding guests was the kaleidoscope of village life, the sliding panel of black and white squares meant the house. Screens flew in and out on which repeating, jagged lines of growing tension were drawn. These were but some of the patterns that multiplied the joyous and horrific emotional obsessions that are at the base of verismo.

Act I, Patricia Racette as Butterfly
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Kaneko creates abstract location (background) in giant swaths of solid color — a golden yellow for the marriage, this color carried through the opera by the golden trousers of Trouble, reds and blues for the American presence, and finally brilliant red for blood, in a dripping image that mirrored the neck seppuku committed by the Butterfly standing just below. These were some of the colors that conveyed the powerfully contrasting forces of verismo.

San Francisco Opera’s Nicola Luisotti was in the pit. This powerful musical presence usually dominates the War Memorial stage. However here the tyrannical maestro met his match — the evolving visual statements riveted our eyes to the stage, diva Patricia captivated our emotions. The maestro did no more than hold us in thrall to this masterwork. It was what great operatic conducting can be. And very seldom is.

Act II vigil
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

This was the performance in its finest moments.

Soprano Patricia Racette no longer has the bloom of voice to create the Act I Butterfly or to deliver a resplendent “un bel di.” But she has gained vocal force and darker colors to execute with soul-wrenching power the words that take her gently and brutally to sacrifice and suicide.

Patricia Racette’s Butterfly has been legend for many years. It is a role she is not likely to keep in her voice much longer.

Patricia Racette as Butterfly, Brian Jagde as Pinkerton
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Mezzo soprano Elizabeth DeShong portrayed a Suzuki that could easily become legendary as well. She possesses a lyric mezzo voice in full flower, and a presence that offers an expanded dimension of character for roles like Suzuki and Cenerentola (her Glyndebourne debut) and trouser roles like Hansel (Chicago) and Maffio Orsini (ENO and SFO).

Baritone Brian Mulligan made an adequate Sharpless but did not resonate with the stature of the Racette Butterfly. The Pinkerton was tenor Brian Jagde, a recent Adler Fellow who does not have the refinement necessary to appear on a major stage (the War Memorial claims it is). It was a raw performance, made embarrassing by the strutting onto the stage apron (and even upon the prompter box) to attempt to impress us with his high notes. This young tenor will perform Pinkerson at Covent Garden, casting that is surely manifestation of artistic anti-americanism. Current Adler Fellow Julius Ahn is not a big enough performer to fill the Goro pants in a major production.

Casts and production information:

Cio-Cio-San: Patricia Racette; Lt. B.F. Pinkerton: Brian Jagde; Suzuki: Elizabeth DeShong; Sharpless: Brian Mulligan; Goro: Julius Ahn; Kate Pinkerton: Jacqueline Piccolino; Prince Yamadori: Efrain Solis; The Bonze: Morris Robinson; Commissioner: Hadleigh Adams. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director; Leslie Swackhamer; Production Designer: Jun Kaneko; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder. War Memorial Opera House, June 15, 2014.

Show Boat in San Francisco

To be uncomplimentary about the current production of Show Boat at San Francisco Opera will surely provoke a summons to appear before the House Un-American Activities Commission.

Critical consensus seems to be that Jerome Kern’s Show Boat was acceptable in San Francisco’s 3200 seat War Memorial (and at Chicago’s 3500 seat Lyric Opera). This acceptance has come at a price — sophisticated electronic amplification of voices and the imposition of a scale of production that well exceeds the stature of the piece.

Heidi Stober as Magnolia, Michael Todd Simpson as Ravenal
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

At the press conference before this San Francisco run of performances (the production has already been seen in Washington D.C. and Chicago) there were three primary rationales offered for presenting Show Boat on a grand opera stage.

The first rationale is that if operettas such as, and specifically mentioned, Die Fledermaus, La Périchole and Die Lustige Witwe are firmly established in the international operatic repertory, why not an American operetta (you must first of all consider Show Boat an operetta and that is a complicated rationale). Note that La Périchole has never been on the War Memorial stage, nor has any other Offenbach operetta. What small amount of dialogue that has occurred in SFO productions of Die Fledermaus and Die Lustige Witwe productions has used the natural acoustic of the opera house. No singing voices have been amplified.

The second rationale is that given the demise of American light opera companies it becomes the responsibility of American grand opera companies to preserve the American Musical Theater heritage. Note that most of the musicals that comprise this current popular theater heritage occurred before the advent of sound reinforcement.

The by now classic American musicals were staged in theaters adapted to acoustical voice projection (recall the focused nasal sound of spoken dialogue delivered in earlier times that projected easily to the last rows of a vaudeville “opera house”). If American grand opera companies feel compelled to step outside their mission of producing opera they should at least move from opera houses to appropriately sized theaters where acoustic voices are possible.

The third rationale is that Show Boat dared introduce racial issues into popular theater. The presence of this stain on our national history evidently elevates the importance of Show Boat, and imposes a moral duty on grand opera companies to remind us that we have sins to expiate. Maybe like American imperialism in Madama Butterfly, and narrow, what we now call Victorian mores like in La Traviata. Opera can make it painfully pleasurable to go through this cathartic process.

Angela Renée Simpson as Queenie, Morris Robinson as Joe
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Upon a bit of consideration however the racial issues addressed in Show Boat are more about problems white skinned people encounter than the inequalities encountered by black skinned people. The blacks in Show Boat contentedly remain the underclass throughout the story (white girl gets rich and may or may not take back her no-good husband) and these blacks seemed happy to represent little more than caricatures of what whites wanted blacks to be back in 1927. It was surprising to see contemporary black skinned people willing to accept this assignment.

Finally Show Boat was a sing along. The songs are immortal it seems, or at least inescapable to those of us who grew up in mid-century America — songs sort of like “Di Provenza il mar” and “Un bel dì” for the current opera crowd. However after we have hummed along with a Verdi and Puccini aria there remains so much more to invade our souls than a few more catchy songs.

Many contented critics did finally confess the triviality, read poverty of the story once it was revealed in the second act. Other contented critics admitted that the razzle dazzle of the production numbers was pale imitation of what should occur in a real Broadway show.

Patricia Racette as Julie
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The San Francisco cast included opera soprano Heidi Stober who achieved a sufficient level of sparkle as Magnolia. Opera diva soprano Patricia Racette brought some presence but little tone to the role of Julie, opera baritone Michael Todd Simpson as Magnolia’s gambler husband Ravenal was highly miked making his voice sound like a musical comedy voice, a voice that seemed quite tired by end of the second act. Operatic bass Morris Robinson made appropriate bass sounds as Joe who sings “Old Man River” over and over again.

Casts and production information:

Magnolia Hawks: Heidi Stober; Gaylord Ravenal: Michael Todd Simpson; Cap’n Andy Hawks: Bill Irwin; Julie la Verne: Patricia Racette; Queenie: Angela Renée Simpson; Party Ann Hawks: Harriet Harris; Ellie Mae Chipley: Kirsten Wyatt; Joe: Morris Robinson; Frank Schultz: John Bolton; Mrs. Obrien: Sharon McNight; et al. San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: John DeMain. Stage Director: Francesca Zambello; Set Designer: Peter Davison; Costume Designer: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Designer: Mark McCullough; Sound Designer: Tod Nixon; Choreographer: Michele Lynch. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, June 3, 2014

La Traviata in San Francisco

La Traviata has hit the stage at San Francisco Opera every three to five years (even annually in some decades) since 1924. Surprises have been rare.

And unwelcomed. Take for instance the 2009 San Francisco installment which was the 2006 art deco version imported from L.A. Opera directed by Marta Domingo. Violetta, a flapper, arrived at the party in a Rolls Royce during the overture, and it was downhill from there even though the soprano was Anna Netrebko.

Just now in San Francisco there was a welcome surprise, and that was Verdi’s orchestral score made vividly present in moods and colors, rushes and hesitations, pianos and fortes, well, pianissimos and fortissimos. It was the high octane conducting of Nicola Luisotti that made Verdi’s first truly masterful score the star of the show. The pit was the sentient center of Verdi’s personal and deeply felt domestic tragedy.

Never mind that this intense emotional focus emanating from the seemingly inspired musicianship of a superb orchestra revealed Francesco Maria Piave’s (and one assumes Verdi’s) dramatic structure to be truly clumsy. Or that Luisotti’s ultimate acceleration missed the emotional beats of the opera’s final moments — the blow of the intense release was summarily trampled over — a not atypical Luisotti conclusion.

La Traviata, Act I
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

The reliable 1987 (twenty-seven years ago) San Francisco Opera production by John Copley was back on stage. It is definitely mid-nineteenth century in concept as required by Verdi, glowing in warm colors (the splendid lighting designed by Gary Marder). The wash of colors, the swish of lavish gowns, the brilliant red flash of the flamenco dancer, the weight of nineteenth century architecture were however at odds with the detail and precision emerging from the Luisotti pit, and the emotional depth of the score itself.

The cast was decidedly low octane, and intimidated by the conductor. The stage action by the principals was kept downstage center, looking not at each other while singing to one another but presentational, addressing the audience and most importantly remaining able to have direct eye contact with the conductor.

Nicole Cabell as Violetta, Saimir Pirgu as Alfredo.
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Soprano Nicole Cabell replaced the originally announced Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta. Mlle. Cabell has previously proven herself a fine bel canto singer in San Francisco (Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi) in an integrated production (musical and production elements were compatible). A fine singer and artist, here undirected, she struggled to dominate the stage as required of Violetta, and did not possess an energy or brilliance of tone to bring Violetta to vibrant life. She opted out of the optional E-flat in “Sempre Libera.”

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu has also proven himself in San Francisco as a bel canto singer (Tebaldo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi). A fine singer and artist, vocally he cannot make the leap from easily fulfilling the demands of well-directed bel canto to the specific vocal and histrionic requirements of proto-realism roles (a larger, warmer voice and presence) or the higher powered vocal demands of mid- and late Verdi theater.

Nicole Cabell as Violetta, Vladimir Stoyanov as Germont.
Photo by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Bulgarian baritone Vladimir Stoyanov sang Germont. This esteemed artist possesses a quite beautiful voice, and more than Mlle. Cabell or Mr. Pirgu fulfilled the Luisotti musical vision. Yet he too seemed a too small vocal and histrionic presence on the War Memorial stage.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti brings very specific and very powerful musicianship to opera. San Francisco Opera has yet to build a production around his unique talent. One hopes this may one day happen.

Luisotti conducts the first six performances (through June 29). The remaining four July performances, including the July 5 performance beamed directly onto the gigantic scoreboard of AT&T Park (home of the Giants), have a different cast of principals and a different conductor. Opera-at-the-Ball Park is not to be missed. It may be the Traviata you want to see.

Casts and production information:

Violetta Valéry: Nicole Cabell; Alfredo Germont: Saimir Pirgu; Giorgio Germont: Vladimir Stoyanov; Flora Bervoix: Zanda Svede; Gastone: Daniel Montenegro; Baron Douphol: Dale Travis; Marquis D’Obigny: Hadleigh Adams; Doctor Grenvil: Andrew Craig Brown; Annina: Erin Johnson; Giuseppe: Christopher Jackson. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Original stage director: John Copley; Stage director: Laurie Feldman; Set design: John Conklin; Costume design: David Walker; Lighting design: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Yaelisa. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, June 11, 2014.

Thaïs in Los Angeles

Libido was in short supply at Thaïs on Sunday afternoon. The tenor (singing a baritone role) was 73 years-old, the 50 year-old tenor was vocally dysfunctional, the soprano was willing if vocally worn. Never mind the libido suppressed father and mother superiors who should have been at least vocally viable to make their renunciations of the carnal meaningful.

Massenet’s opera comes from the irony laden novel Thaïs (1890) by Anatole France. It was on the Catholic Church’s infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum!

The production, by director Nicola Raab and designer Johan Engels, in fact makes a blatant case for the libido by transposing the action from ancient, decadent Alexandria into a late nineteenth century Parisian theater. The thickly sensuous, excessive fin-de-siècle decor gave designer Engels license to design an over-the-top art nouveau costume for the Roman courtesan Thaïs replete with gilded wing feathers and 96 rhinestones (according to the program booklet).

Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Once we heard the famous violin solo where Thaïs gives herself to God the Parisian theater was changed into a ghostly gray ruin. Thaïs’ soul flew to heaven, the grand gold feathers now a drab gray — it was confusing because the corpus evidently was not assumed at the same time. Thaïs later appeared downstage center dressed in white satin as the bride of Jesus against the back drop of an abstracted reclining naked female form — very graphic nipples. It was maybe a hill on the Egyptian desert or maybe Sainte-Victoire in the south of France.

Even more confusing was the backstage of the theater as some sort of monastic setting where grandly dressed monks decried sensual pleasures. Inside the theater we did witness these pleasures, men in top hats salivating over an unseen burlesque act. The production offered clever and lively, graphic action and there was a lot of it (though it did not always make a lot of sense). What else do you want?

Massenet’s score (1894) is sensuous late romantic music. It is finely wrought, beautiful music with far more delicate drama than the bombastic Italian works of this period. Its dramatic points are more intellectual than visceral.

L.A. Opera engaged Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier to conduct. He did the best he could with the uneven vocal and musical forces provided to him. Placido Domingo as the carnal minded monk Athanaël still sings well though his voice no longer has its famous warmth and sheen, his tenor style production in the baritone range at times resembled barking. Conductor Fournillier accommodated this quality by imposing a hell, fire and brimstone tonal force much at odds with the Massenet poetic. Mr. Domingo moves well for a man his age, however Massenet’s baritone is ideally a man in the prime of life and voice, otherwise the role has no meaning.

Soprano Nino Machaidze is no stranger to L.A. Opera audiences, having appeared as Fiorella not so long ago in Il Turco in Italia and Juliette in Rómeo et Juliette where she brought fun and flair and sang with a focus and a brilliance that was not at all present in her Thaïs. There was now significant spread in her tone that could embody neither the sensuality of voice of the courtesan nor the tonal beauty of a woman now transfixed by a new spirituality.

Thaïs’ suitor Nicias was attempted by tenor Paul Groves. He was in very evident vocal distress. Bass Valentin Anikin from L.A. Opera’s young artist program is not of an appropriate professional level to sing an important role. Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic who has sung major roles at L.A Opera in past years sang the mother superior with forced tone.

The production comes most recently from the Helsinki Opera having originated at the Göteborg Opera (Sweden) in 2010. Meanwhile it made important stops in Valencia and Seville where tenor Domingo sang the monk Athanaël as well.

Cast and Production

Nino Machaidze (Thaïs), Plácido Domingo (Athanaël), Paul Groves (Nicias), Valentin Anikin (Palemon), Milena Kitic (Albine), Hai Ji Chang (Crobyle), Cassandra Zoé Velasco (Myrtale), Kihun Yoon (Servant). Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Fournillier (conductor). Nicola Raab (stage director), Johan Engels (scenery and costumes design), Linus Fellbom (lighting design)

Le Mamelles de Tirésias and Mahagonny in San Francisco

Poulenc’s racy little 1947 confection took stage within Kurt Weill’s peculiar little 1927 singspiel Mahagonny all framed within the current California drought and doomsday predictions of impending global aridity.

But it has been raining a bit in San Francisco, and global warming might even make San Francisco wetter rather than dryer. All this took a bit of the edge off this far-fetched conglomeration of an opera within an opera within a commentary. The good news is that we heard some very good singing by well-trained young artists, and there were some snappy performances as well. Not to forget a quite capable little orchestra in a real pit in a real and indeed fine theater, the Lam Research Theater.

San Francisco has long been in need of an additional opera company to explore vast expanses of the repertory left untouched by the heroic scope of War Memorial Opera House. The 750 seat Lam Research Theater offers a potential home to such an opera company, and maybe it is Opera Parallèle, a venture of conductor Nicole Paiement and stage director Brian Staufenbiel, who have mustered a couple of productions each year since 2010, some of them in this fine theater.

This sally onto the Lam Research Theater stage was a meager production — a too real, quite forlorn 22 foot, vintage cabin cruiser put up on wheels and clumsily pulled around the stage. There was no context for the boat, like a parched earth ground or like denuded hills surround, though there were some meager gaseous aurora borealis lighting effects that flickered faintly from time to time that maybe were drought related.

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo, Westside Studio Image

The little, and it is conceptually and musically inconsequential, Mahagonny did not hold together visually or musically on the open, blank stage and the singers were simply too singerly, their elegance a poor substitution for the Weill/Brecht intended grit. Mme. Paiement’s orchestra was without edge and the maestra’s tempos felt leaden indeed.

Glenn as The Boy, Gabriel Preisser as The Husband in Les Mamelles de Tirésias
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo, Westside Studio Image

But it all picked up splendidly when the evening morphed into the Poulenc boulevard musical, Les Mamelles de Tirésias intended to titillate and distract the post WWII Parisian public. To be sure the “advanced” social ideals seemed a bit overworked in long-emancipated San Francisco. Fortunately director Staufenbiel did not take the issues too seriously having transformed the piece into I pagliacci (a commedia dell’arte troupe descends on a backward village) here Weill's singers come upon a camp of refuges from drought stricken village somewhere on the French Riviera. Except it was on a blank black stage.

The downstage sideways positioned cabin cruiser did work very well in Les Mamelles because it gave many levels for action, and many nooks and crannies for visual surprises. You could forget the off-the-wall concept (at least there was a concept, a concept sorely lacking these days in the War Memorial) and simply enjoy the quite appealing music beautifully played in the pit and sung on the stage.

Baritone Gabriel Preisser brought unusual warmth and charm to the role of the Thérèse’s husband, tenor Thomas Glenn stood out in his Les Mamelles caricatures and more than anyone else approached the tone of the Weill. Bass-baritone Hadleigh Adams brought snap and flair to Les Mamelles’ antagonist, the Constable. The entire cast attests the high level of training behind young American artists, and the accomplishment of these young singers was very pleasurable to behold.

It will be a relief to perceive them as artists of personality someday, hopefully soon, rather than as fine young singers. Perhaps Opera Parallèle can accomplish this with deeper production values.

It was finally a well realized evening, of institutional accomplishment and promise. Off-the-wall is meant as a compliment by the way, forget the unfortunate transition at the end back into the little Mahagonny.

Casts and production information:

The Husband: Gabriel Preisser; Therèse/Tirésias: Rachel Schutz; The Constable: Hadleigh Adams; The Director: Daniel Cilli; The Journalist/The Son: Thomas Glenn; The Newspaper Vendor: Renee Rapier; The Bearded Man: Aleksey Bogdanov; The Big Lady: Amber Marsh; The Lady; Suzanne Rivin. Opera Paralléle Orchestra and Chorus with the Resound Ensemble. Conductor: Nicole Paiement; Concept and stage director: Brian Staufenbiel; Production design: Frédéric Boulay; Set design: Dave Dunning; Costume design: Christine Crook; Choreographer: KT Nelson. Lam Research Theater, April 26, 2014.

Billy Budd in Los Angeles

Back in June 2000 the word on Wilshire was that Billy Budd was a show not to be missed, now 14 years later the word on Wilshire was again that Billy Budd was a show not to be missed.

It is the same show, a production of nearly unprecedented critical acclaim that was again at the Dorothy Chandler. By Francesca Zambello the production had originated in Geneva in 1994, the next year it won the Grand Prix des Critiques in Paris, and the next year it took the Olivier Award for Best Opera Production in London.

Bellipotent chase of the French warship
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Bass-baritone Rodney Gilfry was the Billy Budd in all these early editions of the production, his iconic role. He was the sole common element except of course for the production itself, its setting of uncanny reference to the worlds of Herman Melville and of Benjamin Britten, not to mention its references to the universal and timeless experience of all humanity — from the crucifix of the mast to the phallic metal pistons that suddenly push up the prow, from the blue platform of life itself to the trapdoors on the deck that open into hidden feelings.

This Billy Budd is about everything. As elemental as the pure spirit of Billy Budd is to the world of this opera it is Captain Vere who is its life force. As captain he is every man on his ship, but most of all he is Billy Budd and he is his executioner. Captain Vere sacrifices Billy and he sacrifices himself to the forces of man’s nature and men’s laws. The magic of this production takes you inexorably to this delicate and fearsome moment of human passage.

Richard Croft as Captain Vere in the Prologue
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

In Los Angeles just now it was tenor Richard Croft, perhaps in his role debut, who brought gravity and authority to Captain Vere, in voice that is pliable and secure, expressive and powerful. Mr. Croft came much more as a mature Mozart tenor than as a Britten tenor, a voice and persona that integrated perfectly into this conception. It was a sincere, moving and masculine performance.

Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley was Claggart. Mr. Grimsley reads as a beautiful man and he possesses a beautiful voice, though somehow in this Britten world it is he who destroys beauty. More importantly it is he who awakens the sexual motions of Britten’s musical psyche and these moments are mesmerizing. This beautiful presence brings a powerful irony to this ugly role that the Zambello production accepts without complication.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Baritone Liam Bonner was Billy Budd, and he made the role his own with an uncomplicated wholesomeness, with a simplicity of persona and sound that made his Billy a real boy more than an encompassing image of male innocence. Again it is the genius of this production that it can transform wholesomeness into a transcendent, even mythic condition.

Smaller roles were sensitively cast and generally well performed, particularly the Red Whiskers of Greg Fedderly and the Dansker of James Creswell.

The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is a capable ensemble but it inherently lacks a beauty of tone that could complete and fulfill the acoustical aspiration of this production. Conductor James Conlon well supported the larger outlines of the Britten drama and made it riveting, but he did not achieve the humanity, the softness, the sense of loss and personal tragedy that a deep musical reading will find to grip and possess a listener.

Cast and Production

Liam Bonner (Billy Budd), Richard Croft (Captain Vere), Greer Grimsley (John Claggart), Anthony Michaels-Moore (Mr. Redburn), Daniel Sumegi (Mr. Flint), Patrick Blackwell (Lieutenant Ratcliffe), Greg Fedderly (Red Whiskers), Jonathan Michie (Donald), James Creswell (Dansker), Craig Colclough (Bosun), Keith Jameson (Novice), Paul LaRosa (First Mate), Daniel Armstrong (Second Mate), Valentin Anikin (Novice’s Friend), Vladimir Dmitruk (Maintop), Matthew O’Neill (Squeak), Museop Kim (Arthur Jones). Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Conlon (conductor), Grant Gershon (chorus master). Francesca Zambello (production) Julia Pevzner (stage director), Alison Chitty (scenery and costume designer), Alan Burrett (lighting designer), Ed Douglas (fight director).

Lucia di Lammermoor in Los Angeles

When he is conducting a performance at L.A. Opera James Conlon gives the pre-opera talk. He is charming, witty and knowledgeable, making him a very popular man. More importantly he has the potential to create a much bigger role for the orchestra and the music in the minds and hearts of his audience. And often he does.

Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

After all opera is much more than the thrill of a singer squarely hitting a high note (though an even bigger thrill is when singer cracks or does not quite make it). When a finely sung note is placed in the an expressive musical line colored by the sounds of the orchestra it assumes emotional stature. Add to this a situational context — the physical attitude of a singer within an environment that completes a human story — this is real opera.

Maestro Conlon in his talk on Lucia di Lammermoor wanted his listeners to know that bel canto means beautiful voices. He did not say beautiful singing. In the examples he chose to illustrate his sketch of the bel canto style he used the golden voices of the of the last century, those who sang in the big houses around the world — tenors Domingo, Pavarotti, and Di Stefano, sopranos Maria Callas (though the maestro qualified that it was not a beautiful voice) and Joan Sutherland (though the maestro qualified that she does does not form words when she sings).

Opera has come a long way since these artists were thrilling audiences with beautiful (except Maria Callas), exciting voices and magnificent high notes. But it certainly was not voices like these that we were to hear once inside the Dorothy Chandler. Lacking golden age voices these days we hoped we would hear voices that would thrill us with bel canto style, singers who would sing beautiful music, and sing it beautifully. Some of us were not sitting there just to be amazed by a lot of quickly sung notes and a grand high note or two at the end of an aria so that we would wildly applaud.

But according to maestro Conlon’s pre-opera lecture that was exactly why we were there. The situation at opening night was exacerbated by minor press being seated in the upper reaches of the Founders Circle (well past the end of the alphabet). From the best of its seats the Dorothy Chandler does not offer beautiful sound and sitting under the balcony overhang in the Founders Circle we were offered minimal though harsh orchestral sound supporting huge, acoustically magnified voices. After intermission we moved into a couple of the many empty seats closer to the stage. It was better.

One can accept the acoustical quirks of theaters. It is much harder to accept poor harp playing (Donizetti’s extended harp obligato was nervously played, and flubbed) and lack-luster French horn playing (in his pre-opera talk the maestro had used the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic). It is very hard to accept singers who are not initiated into the bel canto style, or singers who are not of the appropriate voice. Bass James Creswell is not a basso cantante nor a singer equipped to hold the stage in exposed starring roles, baritone Stephen Powell’s program book repertoire includes no bel canto roles, nor does he have the delicacy of voice and temperament to approach such roles. The small roles were taken by singers from L.A. Opera’s young artist program — boys sent in to do men’s work.

It was a new production directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer who has credits as an assistant director at the operas of Los Angeles and San Francisco. The concept seems to have been based on the misconception that bel canto is presentational therefore singers face forward and sing with little or no need to move. The female chorus, identically dressed made silly synchronized movements and peculiar hand and arm motions as if the music were mechanical, these movements attributed Kitty McNamee. The set was designed by Carolina Angulo, the “design manager” at L.A. Opera, perhaps her professional debut. The visual concept was abstract, hard edged shapes in bright primary colors, there was a dominant projection of a white circle, presumably the Scottish moon, sitting on a symmetrical blue semi-circle, and other abstract projections, maybe they were trees, by Wendell K. Harrington. There was not an iota of bel canto in sight.

Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova is a formidable Queen of the Night thereby well able to negotiate the high fast notes that portray Lucia’s madness. But there is a softness as well in Lucia, a suspension of voice and feeling that Mme. Shagimuratova does not find. Working counter to the staging conception she attempted to create high acting drama that included countless full body falls. The same may be said of the Edgardo of Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu. This fine young artist needed direction on the stage and from the pit to keep his performance from deteriorating into senseless opera singing and acting.

James Conlon is a unique and powerful musical force who does not seem to have a sensibility for bel canto.

Cast and Production

Albina Shagimuratove (Lucia), Saimir Pirgu (Edgardo), Stephen Powell (Enrico), James Creswell (Raimondo), Joshua Guerrero (Normanno), D’Ana Lombard (Alisa), Vladimir Dmitruk (Arturo). Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus. James Conlon (conductor), Elkhanah Pulitzer (stage director), Wendall K. Harrington (projection and scenic designer), Carolina Angulo (scenery designer), Christine Crook (costume designer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer), Rick Fisher (lighting designer), Kitty McNamee (movement)

Pesaro's 2015 Rossini Festival

Sandhya Nagaraja as the magpie, Teresa Herovlino as Lucia in La gazza Ladra
All photos copyright Studio Amati Bacciardi, courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival.

The 36th Rossini Opera Festival in Rossini’s Pesaro! La gazza ladra (1817), La gazzetta (1816) and L'inganno felice (1812) — the little opera that made Rossini famous.

Though these dates encompass the well known Rossini comedies, both L’inganno felice and La gazza ladra are not comedies but semi-serious operas. La gazzetta, beyond comedy, is just plain farce. Rossini then established himself firmly in Naples where he wrote his great tragedies (though few of today’s opera goers can name more than one or two). Once in Paris he did finally write one last comedy (Le conte Ory in 1828).

Many of us with serious Rossini addictions make an annual pilgrimage to Pesaro where at times we do achieve Rossini nirvana. Such was not the case this August, though there were hints of the great Rossini in L’inganno felice.

The leaky, forlorn Adriatic Arena (home of Pesaro’s famed basketball team) also serves each summer as one of the world’s most interesting and exciting opera houses. This summer the opera installed in this vast space was La gazza ladra or in English The Thieving Magpie, a remount of the 2007 Pesaro production by Damiano Michieletto of recent Covent Garden Guillaume Tell booing fame whose Sigismondo (2010) in Pesaro was soundly booed as well — of course there were vocal protestations at his bows on the opening night of this La gazza ladra.

Stage director Michieletto’s conceit is that Rossini’s opera is a dream fantasy of an adolescent girl. She arranges a few small white tubes on the floor, fashions a sort of swing from some hanging cloth, climbs on and swings about the stage for a while. While it is obvious she is going to be the magpie it is not obvious what the 15 tubes are — cigarettes or tampon cases were overheard intermission interpretations. The tubes were then scenically amplified to provide the huge and only scenic elements.

Principal Gazza ladra singers in ensemble scene, with magpie in center (in white shorts)

Whatever they might be (for Michieletto they are probably only white tubes) their geometrical arrangements on the stage were Michieletto’s idea of minimalism, as were the costumes, the heroine in a bright green dress the entire evening, the chorus women first in identical brilliant red dresses, then for the execution in identical taupe toned dresses as examples. The chorus was staged in geometric lines or blocks executing geometrically repetitive movements. Five storm troupers made a straight line tableau across the front of the stage displaying their Uzis horizontally over their heads for the execution of the simple peasant girl.

Michieletto is not a musical stage director, insisting that his adolescent magpie-girl intrude, clumsily choreographed, among the singers at the very moments it was possible that Rossini lyricism might take flight. La gazza ladra is mature Rossini, and that means that there is a big cast and abundant ensembles of magnificent musical architecture. This director is oblivious of these structures, placing his five, six or seven singers (and chorus) in arbitrary geometric patterns instead of allowing musical imperatives to determine how, when and where the components move. The famed crescendo of intensities of these fabulous ensembles were therefore intentionally thwarted.

The Rossini Festival has engaged Mr. Michieletto to stage a new La donna del lago for next summer. Go figure.

La gazza ladra is a semi-seria opera — a servant girl of a tenant farmer will marry the farmer’s son but not before it is determined who stole the silver spoon. Meanwhile the servant girl is assumed to have been the thief and has been condemned to death. It is absolute farce endowed with powerful emotional moments that require important musical involvement — its obvious dramaturgical and musical challenges are daunting.

The musical direction of this avowed Rossini masterpiece was entrusted to veteran conductor Donato Renzetti. Mo. Renzetti’s big Rossini period (in Pesaro and elsewhere) was in the early 1980’s. There has been much refinement in the musical understanding of Rossini in the last 30 years that has well surpassed the slow and heavy realization that this maestro imposes. It may well have comfortably accommodated the needs and expectations of the singers of previous generations but it does not support current musical practice. This was evidenced by repeated musical misunderstandings of the orchestra players and some of the singers, i.e. they felt and expected a celerity that was intentionally and forcefully squashed.

Alex Esposito as Fernando, Nino Machaidze as Ninetta

The role of the servant girl Ninetta was given to Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze. This artist, much beloved by Los Angeles audiences (Gounod’s Juliet as well as Traviata and Boheme) was the perfect, unrepentant Fiorella in L.A Opera’s production of Il turco in Italia, her hard-edged, brilliant coloratura dramatically convincing. Mme. Machaidze does not possess a sweet voice nor does she project a sweet personality that could embody the simple Ninetta. She is all diva business, and she does it very well, but these attributes do not make her a Rossini artist.

There was one fine Rossini artist in the cast, Alex Esposito who sang Ninetta’s father Fernando Villabella. This esteemed bass exudes character and executes thrilling coloratura. Pesaro audiences are famous for extended applause given well performed arias (or scenes). Mr. Esposito’s second act aria was the sole recipient of such appreciation for the entire four hour duration of the performance.

La gazzetta

Principals singers of La gazzetta

La gazzetta or in English The Newspaper was on stage at the 800 seat, horseshoe Teatro Rossini the second night (of the second cycle). This opera was a contractual obligation for Napoli’s Teatro dei Fiorentini (FYI it is now a bingo palace) where audiences loved to be entertained. Rossini lifted some of La gazzetta’s major pieces from his masterwork Il turco in Italia (1814), and composed fine new material as well that found its way a few months later into his masterwork La Cenerentola.

La gazzetta is not a masterwork. A simple enough story (albeit three pages of synopsis needed): a silly father places an ad in the Gazette of Paris offering his daughter in marriage. She however loves the innkeeper. It is a three hour mess that finally gets cleared up at a costume party. As the libretto is based on a play by famed 18th century playwright Carlo Goldoni there is a lot of lively repartee that leaves us non-Italians (there are a lot of us and we come from around the globe) at a disadvantage — plus the supertitles are way above the stage and in 18th century Italian.

None the less there was a lot to look at on the stage, too much, but the story was easy to follow. We just missed the Goldoni wit that we knew was there and way above us. Rossini is performance art, this piece dominated by an electric performance by dead ringer Rossini look-alike Nicola Alaimo (a Metropolitan Opera Falstaff as well as a famed Guillaume Tell) as Don Pomponio, the silly father.

José Maria lo Monaco as Madama La Rose, Nicola Alaimo as Don Pomponio, Ernesto Lama as Tommasino

Stage director Marco Carniti gave Don Pomponio a side-kick servant mime he named Tommasino who seconded Don Pomponio’s decisions, argued with them, insisted that Don Pomponio’s wishes be carried out, and suffered Don Pomponio’s frustrations by repeated beatings. Neopolitan actor Ernesta Lama however was not a mute mime as he could not help himself from speaking out from time to time. It was pure comic delight. Stage director Carniti gave this physical theater performer much activity, and it was thoroughly musical, his physical intrusions into the arias and ensembles fully consistent with Rossini’s musical architecture (unlike the arbitrary Magpie intrusions in La gazza ladra).

Marco Carniti and his designer Manuela Gasperoni created a stage box fully enclosed by translucent plastic strips that easily absorbed projected colored light when not serving as a silhouette surface. Much of the mise en scène was in black and white, the costumes by Maria Filippi (a Franco Zeffirelli collaborator as well) were primarily in black and white but sometimes with bright color accents. This high design concept supported endless production numbers (like 1950’s American film musicals), including highly choreographed movement of the abstracted set pieces and much movement by four fine supernumeraries.

It was all too much for the simplistic wit of farce, and at the same time it was very well done and musically solid.

Hasmik Torosyan as Lisetta, Vito Priante as Filippo

The singing was of good level, notably the silly father’s daughter Lisetta, sung by young Armenian soprano Hasmik Torosyan who last summer was a participant in the festival’s young artists program, the Accademia Rossiniana. The innkeeper Filippo was sung by Vito Priante who with Nicola Alaimo were the two fully accomplished performers of the evening, Mr. Priante offering delightful coloratura dressed as a Turkish suitor in the masquerade.

Conductor Enrique Mazzola provided an unobtrusive, fully idiomatic orchestral basis, but the wit and charm of Rossini’s orchestrations were overwhelmed by the production.

L'inganno felice

Principal singers of L'inganno felice

A Graham Vick production is always news, even moreso because this L’inganno felice was the revival of his 1994 Pesaro production for the Teatro Rossini, staged before he had become one of the world’s most admired and adventurous stage directors. In recent years he has reappeared at Pesaro with Mosé in Egitto (2011) and Guillaume Tell (2013) — both mise en scènes are masterpieces.

L’inganno felice is a simple, sentimental farce, the oft-used situation of a foundling baby, but here beautiful young woman, having been washed up on a shore. Here the shore was near a remote mine somewhere. A kindly old miner protects her and engineers a safe return to her beloved husband by tricking the very evil suitor she had rejected.

Vick and his designer Richard Hudson (most famous for The Lion King [1988], but on the other hand famous for this winter's Graham Vick production of Götterdämmerung at Palermo’s Teatro Massimo) imagined one grand diminution of light over the one and one half hours of the opera’s only act. The production’s original lighting designer Matthew Richardson returned to once again effect this spectacular light show — high noon becomes late afternoon then early evening, finally night falls to give cover for the deception. Meanwhile a miniature steamship traverses the far away, endless horizon for the duration of the action.

The set is an enormous curved white cyclorama with some Japanese looking gray splotches as clouds. There was a hole for the mine, a bench on the right indicating a house just offstage. When Nisa’s long lost husband, Bertrando happens to happen by he erects a tent on the other side of the stage. The stage floor is in cinematic detail, a realistic slope complete with struggling shrubs.

However Bertrando and his soldiers are straight out of nineteenth century operetta, Bertrando with grandiose epaulettes. Greek tenor Vassilis Kavayas, a recent Rossini Academician, brought ultimate snap and sparkle to his character as did his snappy soldiers to their marching entrances and exits.

Giulio Mastrototaro as Ormondo (blue uniform), Vassilis Kavayas as Bertrando, Mariangela Sicilia as Isabella, Carlo Lepore as Tarabotto, plus soldiers and supernumeraries

The realistically costumed rustic miner Tarabotto was sung by veteran basso-buffo Carlo Lepore whose accomplished presence anchored the young cast. Also simply costumed in rags was Nisa, sung by ingenue soprano Mariangela Sicilia, a recent Rossini Academician as well. She began the evening with a splendidly sung contemplation of a tiny necklace pendent portrait of her long lost husband. Most of her remaining music required sustained singing but as the evening progressed her intonation seriously deteriorated.

Young Italian baritone Davide Luciano brought seriously snappy buffo to his role, Batone, an ardent, if not too bright sergeant. He had much to sing, and did a convincing and charmingly energetic performance that made you wish his coloratura was just a bit sharper. As it was the high point of the evening was the extended duet Batone sings with the miner Tarabotto where Tarabotto induces him into the deception. This duet and Alex Esposito’s aria “Eterni Dei, che sento!” in La gazza ladra were the two high points of all three operas of the festival)

With his eclectic set and his spotty cast Graham Vick’s palate had a bit of everything to work with. It was all masterfully laid out in low key, absolutely unpretentious terms, allowing us to enjoy all these wonderful performances without critical prejudice — though may we believe that back in 1994 perhaps the Vick production had considerable artistic prétention.

Great Rossini begins in the pit. The conductor was a thirty-four year old Russian, Denis Vlasenko, still another of the evening’s former Rossini Academicians. While Pesaro’s Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini lacks the finesse of the Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna (in the pit for La gazza ladra and La gazzetta) this young maestro still was able to create an estimable Rossini elation from time to time, the Rossini high that brings us back to Pesaro year after year.

Casts and production information

La gazza ladra: Vingradito: Simone Alberghini; Lucia: Teresa Iervolino; Giannetto: René Barbera; Ninetta: Nino Machaidze; Fernando Villabella: Alex Esposito; Gottardo: Marko Mimica; Pippo: Lena Belkina; Isacco: Matteo Macchioni; Antonio: Alessandro Luciano; Giorgio: Riccardo Fioratti; Ernesto/Il Pretore: Claudio Levantino; Una Gazza (mute): Sandhya Nagaraja. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Donato Renzetti; Stage director: Damiano Michieletto; Scenery: Paolo Fantin; Costumes: Carla Teti; Lighting: Alessandro Carletti. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, Italy, August 13, 2015.

La gazzetta: Don Pomponio Storione: Nicola Alaimo; Lisetta: Hasmik Torosyan; Filippo: Vito Priante; Doralice: Raffaella Lupinacci; Anselmo: Dario Shikhmiri; Alberto: Maxim Mironov; Madama La Rose: Josè Maria Lo Monaco; Monsù Traversen: Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore; Tommasino (mute): Ernesto Lama. Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Enrique Mazzola; Stage director: Marco Carniti; Scenery: Manuela Gasperoni; Costumes: Maria Filippi; Lighting: Fabio Rossi. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, Italy, August 14, 2015.

L’ingannno felice: Mariangela Sicilia; Bertrando: Vassilis Kavayas; Ormondo: Giulio Mastrototaro; Tarabotto: Carlo Lepore; Batone: Davide Luciano. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Denis Vlasenko; Stage director: Graham Vick; Scenery and Costumes: Richard Hudson. Lighting: Matthew Richardson. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, Italy, August 15, 2015.

Die Eroberung von Mexico at the Salzburg Festival

Bo Skovhus as Cortez
Photos courtesy of the Salzburg Festival

That’s The Conquest of Mexico, an historical music drama composed in 1991 by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952). But wait. Wolfgang Rihm construed a few sentences of Artaud’s La Conquête du Mexique (1932) mixed up with bits of Aztec chant and bits of poem(s) by Mexico’s Octavio Paz (d. 1998) to make a libretto.

Like Nobel Prize winning (1991) poet Octavio Paz composer Wolfgang Rihm is at once a neo-modernist, a surrealist, an existentialist and an esotericist both as a composer and a librettist/poet. More than likely he and his collaborator for this production, stage director Peter Konwitschny are not like Artaud who discovered and devoured peyote during the year he lived in Mexico. There is no way a creation like The Conquest of Mexico with its complexities of concept, of sound and of staging could have been realized without absolute clarity of intellect and solidity of purpose. It was an evening of cold calculation.

What messieurs Rihm and Konwitschny do share with Antonin Artaud is cruelty. It was an unpleasant sometimes disgusting, too long evening that forced you to admire the resources of theater and the skill of execution, an evening that transported you finally to a plain of existential comprehension, this a place you would never dare attempt on your own — too scary. And this was the pleasure perpetrated by the opera, and this pleasure was finally enormous.

The back wall is the arcades of the Felsenreitschule (Summer Riding School) carved into the Salzburg mountainside that is now part of one of the three adjacent theaters of the Salzburg Festival, plus the wrecked cars and apartment of the production.

The Conquest of Mexico is a star vehicle for baritone if ever there was one. In this case it was Bo Skovhus who was Cortez, or in Artaud parlance the male principle. His inherent masculinity was blatant, this is not at all a personal compliment. He climbed through a massive pile of dirty wrecked cars (evidently Mr. Konwitschny’s male principle metaphor) to arrive at a sterile box with a window and a sofa and a door to a kitchen (Mr. Konwitschny’s female principle metaphor to represent Mr. Rihm’s idea of the new world — an opposite world). Montezuma was sung by soprano Angela Denoke whose blond presence was difficult and calculating. It was either rape or it was not but finally it was, the issue of copulation was the neuter world of computer games.

Angela Denoke as Montezuma, Bo Skovhus as Cortez

Before all festival performances the audience gathers in front of the festival theaters for one last aperitif before the performance. Any performance at the festival is a dressy event but you did notice more than the usual number of men in tuxedos, unusually they were young men (the festival audience is mature). Well, at a certain moment (intense noise) these thirty-one young guys rushed down through the audience, clamored onto and over the wrecked cars and finally crashed onto the stage where they provoked a beer blast, cheered on first male oral sex then the ugly rape, and finally slobbered over six scantily clad mädchen and a shinny red Porsche.

The tuxedo dressed Spanish soldiers

Bo Skovhus killed Angela Denoke (it was that real), then killed himself (in fact this was a very moving, extended scene). But Mr. Skovhus and Mme. Denoke aka Cortez and Montezuma did come together posthumously. They were seated side by side but not touching to sing the a cappella duet that ends the opera, It was the full exposition of Artaud’s neuter.

Did I get all this right?

There was a sizable ensemble of lower voiced instruments in the pit (violas and cellos, bass clarinet, contrabassoon, harp, piano and lots of tom-tom drums, etc. There was a primary conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, plus a second conductor who seemed to be only interested in the stage. There were two far-away orchestras of percussion instruments and brass instruments and a violin seated on an old truck-tire on each side of the wide stage. It was loud, very loud, then louder with a huge compliment of microphones and speakers. It was ugly music. It was meant to be.

In the pit as well were two male Speakers who spent the first part of the evening sitting in the pit making various weird noises with there voices, and a soprano seated in the pit house left who sang very high, freakish notes from time to time, and in the pit on house right a mezzo-soprano sang very low notes from time to time. And from time to time these four singers climbed out of the pit onto the stage, and climbed over piles of tires and wrecked cars to help out Cortez and Montezuma on the stage.

It was a fun evening.

For a formal exposition of the genesis of this work go to the Salzburg Festival website About this production .

Cast and Production

Montezuma: Angela Denoke; Cortez: Bo Skovhus; Soprano: Susanna Andersson; Mezzo-soprano: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Speaker 1: Stephan Rehm; Speaker 2: Peter Pruchniewitz. ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien. Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher; Stage Director: Peter Konwitschny; Sets and Costumes: Johannes Leiacker; Lighting: Manfred Voss; Video Design: fettFilm; Sound Design: Peter Böhm and Florian Bogner. Felsenreitschule Theater, Salzburg, August 1, 2015.

Norma at the Salzburg Festival

Rebeca Olvera as Adalgisa, Cecilia Bartoli as Norma

This Salzburg Norma is not news. This superb production was first seen at the Salzburg Festival’s springtime Whitsun Festival in 2013 with this same cast. It will now travel to a few major European cities.

The Norma herself is Cecilia Bartoli, and she is as well the artistic director of the Whitsun Festival (where, by the way, this next spring she will sing Maria in West Side Story conducted by Gustavo Dudamel). Evidently Mme. Bartoli is as deft a producer as she is a deft Norma.

Bellini’s spectacular old warhorse is a tour de force for a soprano, Mme. Bartoli’s upper extension is well able to handle the high and intense emotional climaxes, her lower chest voice beautifully portrays Norma’s maternal moments, and in between a strong mezzo-soprano sound well sustains the extended lines and slow motion of the likes of “Casta diva.” Mme. Bartoli’s musicianship is exemplary, her coloratura absolutely splendid, achieving in the cabaletta of rage at the end of the second act astonishing vocal turns that are unique to her artistry.

But all of this has been said many times before. It has also been said that la Bartoli is an exemplary producer, not only casting voices that compliment her sound, technique and musicianship but engaging a conductor and orchestra that simulate an early nineteenth century Bellini musical poetic, in this case La Scintilla, a Zurich Opera founded original instrument ensemble. This splendid orchestra makes a far more mellow sound than the sharp, exciting tones of a modern orchestra, its sound supporting, not competing with the beautiful singing that must resolve the truly impossible, indeed ugly situations proposed by the early Romantics.

Mme. Bartoli’s most brilliant choice is however that of stage director, in this case the French team Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier who imposed a concept that portrayed a parallel situation and created an atmosphere and a context that in no way updates what little Bellini knew (and we know) of the Druid fertility ceremony. The staging did not attempt to explain, amplify or go beyond the preposterous story the opera tells. It simply told another story from another century simultaneously. Both stories share a crucial theme — consorting with the enemy.

Production by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, set design by Christian Fenouillat

The mythical Druid world was sung in a school room in Vichy France. It moved to a blank wall, there was a doll in a blanket (an abstraction of Norma’s two children) and finally it returned to the school room that went up in flames. But not before Norma’s hair was hacked off marking her as a sexual collaborator. The ethical conflicts felt by a twenty-first century audience were addressed while the Romanticism of bel canto was allowed to drive naturally to its fiery climax (the fickle lover obviously won over by Norma’s beautiful singing since otherwise his change of heart cannot be comprehended).

Michele Pertusi as Oroveso, John Osborn as Pollione

American tenor John Osborne is an exemplary Pollione, his sound and presence are of the amplitude to hold his own with two over-wrought sopranos, and his is of sufficient tenorial stature to go to his death with real coglioni — Mr. Osborne is able to respect the grace of bel canto and cut a fine figure as a lover as well be a tenor. Zurich Opera trained, Mexican soprano Rebeca Olvera possesses a much lighter voice than Mme. Bartoli. Her Adalgisa is intended to be girlish rather than monastic, she is vocally virginal in contrast to the maternal mezzo Norma. Italian bass Michele Pertusi sings Oroveso using a natural sharpness of voice that easily withholds all possible forgiveness.

Musically the production was in the hands of Zurich based Italian early music conductor Giovanni Antonini who keeps careful control of his orchestral forces to allow the bel canto to soar in the voices of the singers rather than rise from the pit. This Norma is about singing the Druid world as this world was perceived (maybe) by Bellini. And too this Norma was a collision of centuries.

Cast and production

Norma: Cecilia Bartoli; Adalgisa: Rebeca Olvera; Pollione: John Osborn; Oroveso: Michele Pertusi; Clotilde: Liliana Nikiteanu; Flavio: Reinaldo Macias. Chorus of the Radiotelevisione Svizzera, Lugano; Orchestra La Scintilla at Zurich Opera. Conductor: Giovanni Antonini; Stage Director: Moshe Leiser / Patrice Caurier; Scenery: Christian Fenouillat; Costumes: Agostino Cavalca; Lighting: Christophe Forey. Haus für Mozart, Salzburg Festival, August 31, 2015.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Iolante and Perséphone at the Aix Festival

Lawrence Zazzo as Oberson, Sandrine Piau as Tytania
Photo copyright Patrick Berger courtesy of the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ double bill is strange.

A far cry from Christopher Alden’s controversial 2012 Midsummer Night’s Dream at the ENO where 0beron is the headmaster of a boys school and Theseus is his former lover, Robert Carsen’s 1991 production of Le Songe d’une nuit d’été for the Aix Festival floats high above the sexual and social complexities of Shakespeare’s raciest play.

The Carsen production however has become a classic because of the simplicity of its exposition, the intellectual innocence of its concept and the maximal minimalism of its execution. Thus twenty-five years later the Aix Festival has brought this splendid production back to its theater of origin, the Archevêché in a co-production with the Opéra de Lyon where it was staged in 2008.

The excellent Orchestre of the Opéra de Lyon was in the Archevêché pit with its music director Kazushi Ono to illuminate this complex 1960 Britten score, sculpting its lovers, whispering the mysteries of its fairy world, and teasing its rustic actors and opera itself. As often in Britten human actions are played out in an atmosphere of innocence, created just now in Aix by 20 boys from London’s Trinity Boys Choir.

Director Robert Carsen has often collaborated with designer Michael Levine (notably for Boito’s Mefistofele, another Carsen production that has achieved classic stature). The Midsummer Nights Dream exploits a favorite Robert Carsen texture — cloth. The entire stage is a bed complete with huge pillows covered with a brilliant saturated green coverlet. The night sky is another huge mass of saturated color — blue.

Two pairs of lovers in beds, Tytania and Bottom in far right bed, Lawrence Zazzo as Oberon, Miltos Yerolemou as Puck
Photo copyright Patrick Berger courtesy of the Aix Festival

The fairies are dressed in identical blue and green suits, their hands covered in brilliant red gloves, a color that betrays the hidden and maybe dangerous mysterious of the fairy world. The coup de théâtre is when the fairy world instantly vanishes (whooshed into the lofts by cables) and the blank golden lighted stage has become Athens. No hidden digital magic, just overt mechanical human ingenuity — and it is sublime theater.

Nothing could be simpler, and that is the Carsen brilliance. Here this simplicity transforms the absurdities of Shakespeare’s 17th century world into the absolute normal for Britten’s premonition of the psychedelic ’60’s, no questions asked. It is a distilled theatrical language that was new to the operatic stage in the ‘90‘s. It has withstood the test of time, and for this Midsummer Night’s Dream it once again it effectively stripped away layers of insignificant complications to reveal an unusual innocence in the complicated artistic soul of Benjamin Britten.

The Aix Festival provided a splendid cast led by the green wigged Oberon of American counter tenor Lawrence Zazzo who boasts a male colored alto voice that he used to musical perfection. Tytania was sung by French soprano Sandrine Plau in a shimmering and smooth high voice that made her magical. Bottom was sung by British bass Brindley Sherratt with welcomed authority and wit. Central to the success of this edition of the Carsen production was the Puck played by well known actor Miltos Yerolemou (Star Wars VII - the Force Awakens, Game of Thrones, Wolf Hall) whose 5’3” height left him in the world of boys but whose forty-some years added what seemed to be innocent depravity.

One has come to expect excellent casts at the Aix Festival, and this expectation was upheld throughout the huge cast.

Iolanthe and Perséphone

A Peter Sellars production is expected to be off-the-wall, as was his Zaïde (2010) at the Aix Festival (a remount of the 2006 Lincoln Center production) where a huge sheet metal wall was pounded on throughout the performance. Just now the maximally gifted, perpetual adolescent (he is 57 years old) has remounted his 2012 stagings for Madrid’s Teatro Real of Stravinsky’s Persephone and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. Once again it is all about walls, this time though they are full stage flat backdrops that rise and fall throughout the two brief operas, lighted in various hues and intensities.

Usually Mr. Sellars collaborates with off-beat (though firmly in the publicly-supported-art mainstream), culturally diverse designers (like for Perm Opera’s [and ENO’s] recent Indian Queen). But for this production Sellars’ set designer was George Tsypin, an designer fully vetted by virtually every mainstream stage director who toys with advanced theatrical ideas.

We entered the Grand Théâtre de Provence to an a vista set — a few black door frames construed center stage topped by primitive bird heads. We left more than three hours later and it was still sitting there, only by then all of the usual maskings that created the stage picture had disappeared revealing the fully open stage space, Mr. Sellars and Mr. Tsypin stubbornly reveling in this hackneyed image.

Maxim Aniskin as Robert, Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Iolanta, Arnold Rutkowski as Vaudémont
Photo by Pascal Victor courtesy of the Aix Festival

Mr. Sellars has long held a fascination for Oriental theater forms thus the black covered stagehands of Noh theater were transformed into concert-black dressed choristers who assisted in the storytelling in both operas, construing themselves in geometric shapes from time to time on the stage to sing while they made the uniform, formalized arm motions typical of the abstractions of Asian theater.

Like Zaïde, neither Persephone nor Iolanta are masterpieces, all the better for Mr. Sellars theatrical explorations, here light and dark. In Iolanta it was transcending blindness into sight, in Persephone it was the light of earthly life to the darkness of hell, and back again and back again.

Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, is more in the music theater genre than it is opera, its simple story (blind girl regains sight) told in a series of songs and a couple of duets that forlornly replay the great Tchaikovsky moments. Mr. Sellars mostly kept his actors standing in the doorways and relegated his romantic leads to mostly lying still on the floor when not rolling on the floor.

Dominique Blanc (in blue) as Persephone, Paul Groves (lying) as Eumolpe, dancers left of principals, plus chorus
Photo by Pascal Victor courtesy of the Aix Festival

Persephone (1933) comes from Stravinsky’s neo-classic period where much use is made of formalized tableau. It is circus-like theater of catatonic rhythmic repetition according to Stravinsky contemporary Theodor Adorno (a philosopher and aficionado of Schöneberg). Considering Persephone from this point of view it becomes a perfect vehicle for Mr. Sellars’ theatrical genius.

When not done as a concert performance Persephone is danced, a sort of pantomime. Mr. Sellars used four Cambodian dancers who naively imitated André Gide’s narrated and sung poem. One recalled the two Cambodian dancers who wandered aimlessly around the stage for the duration of his 1997 Salzburg staging of Le Grand Macabre.

Russian conductor Teodor Currentzis did not conduct the performance I attended due to illness. It was ably conducted by his assistant, and maybe it was this inexperience that hindered any sense of musical sweep to the evening. Mo. Currentzis is director of the Perm (Russia) Opera (about 800 miles east of Moscow) and is now a frequent collaborator with Mr. Sellars.

The strong voiced, Russian speaking cast for Iolanta sang loudly in fine Russian un-nuanced voices and style. The lone foreigner was American bass Willard White who was the tale’s elegantly voiced Muslim doctor. American tenor Paul Groves was splendid as the Eumolpus, priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries (Persephone abducted into Hades by Pluto). The musical highpoint of the evening was the lovely Tchaikovsky a cappella prayer sung by the chorus of the Opéra de Lyon. It is very rare to hear a 48-voice choir of trained operatic voices singing beautiful, soft music. Simply stunning.

The 2010 Aix audience had no patience for Sellars’ Zaïde. The 2015 audience greatly appreciated this boring double bill. Maybe you had to be French.

Casts and production

Midsummer Night's Dream Oberon: Lawrence Zazzo; Tytania: Sandrine Piau; Puck: Miltos Yerolemou; Theseus: Scott Conner; Hippolyta: Allyson McHardy; Lysander: Rupert Charlesworth; Demetrius: John Chest; Hermia: Elizabeth DeShong; Helena: Layla Claire; Bottom: Brindley Sherratt; Quince: Henry Waddington; Flute: Michael Slattery; Snout: Christopher Gillett; Starveling: Simon Butterriss; Snug: Brian Bannatyne-Scott; Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed et Moth: Benedict Hill, Lucas Pinto, Andrew Sinclair-Knopp et Jérémie de Rijk (members of the Trinity Boys Choir. Trinity Boys Choir; Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Kazushi Ono; Mise en scène: Robert Carsen; Décors et costumes: Michael Levine; Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet; Choreography: Matthew Bourne. Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 16, 2015.

Iolante Iolanta: Ekaterina Scherbachenko; René: Dmitry Ulianov; Robert: Maxim Aniskin; Vaudémont: Arnold Rutkowski; Ibn-Hakia: Willard White; Alméric: Vasily Efimov; Bertrand: Pavel Kudinov; Marta: Diana Montague; Brigita: Maria Bochmanova; Laura: Karina Demurova.

Perséphone Perséphone: Dominique Blanc; Eumolpe: Paul Groves; Perséphone: Sathya Sam; Déméter: Sodhachivy Chumvan (Belle); Pluton: Chan Sithyka Khon (Mo); Mercure, Démophoon, Tripolème: Narim Nam. Direction musicale: Teodor Currentzis; Mise en scène: Peter Sellars; Décors: George Tsypin: Costumes: Martin Pakledinaz et Helene Siebrits; Lighting: James F. Ingalls. Orchestra, Chorus and Childrens Chorus of the Opéra national de Lyon. Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, July 17, 2015.

Carmen at the Chorégies d'Orange

Jonas Kaufmann as Jose, Kate Aldrich as Carmen
Photos courtesy of the Chorégies d'Orange

Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.

But Jose, unlike Aida’s Radamès, is actually the star of the show, Carmen herself is a cameo role, three brief songs, then thrown around a bit and finally stabbed, throttled or drowned depending on directorial humors. In Orange Carmen was one of the unusual interpreters of the role — Kate Aldridge.

Mme. Aldridge once brought the shine of Kansas to Carmen’s Seville (San Francisco Opera 2007) but this estimable artist has matured in Europe where she has embraced the soprano bel canto repertory with great success. Cast now in Orange a bit after her Carmen period the role is still well in her voice and she still makes Carmen a magic presence by sheer vivacity of personality, as she had in San Francisco. It is not a Carmen based on sultry sexiness.

It was a lively night in the 2000 year old Théâtre Antique despite the 37C/100F temperature. Normally at a Chorégies performance there are a few spectators (among the 10,000 or so) who are carried out on stretchers — the steps are steep, the audience aged and much wine has flowed at the hundreds of festive dining tables spread out in the streets of the old town. But no one was going to miss out on this famous tenor doing this famous role.

Given that expectations were inordinately high a couple of boos were heard through the polite applause for the “Habanera.” But that was before we (many, many of us in the audience) became aware that conductor Mikko Franck had indeed transformed Bizet’s fiery opera into a lovely symphonic tone poem. It was of great orchestral personality above all else, and of an inexorable deliberateness of musical exposition. The pit was absolutely detached from the stage.

Upon his re-entry into the pit after the intermission this conductor was met with a resounding chorus of boos (mine included). Mr. Franck conducted seated in an arm chair (yes, there really were arms) seldom glanced at the stage, made the instrumental duets with the singers into brilliant solos for the very fine players of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France (the third act intermezzo for flute was coyly playful rather than the expected flowing reverie), destroyed the quintet with sluggishness, dragged down Micaëla’s aria with agogic elaborations in his accompaniment. Not to mention that the usual impeccable ensemble of the always huge chorus with the pit was painfully missing.

What seemed illuminated orchestral playing at the commencement of the evening — evoking once again admiration of the surprisingly acoustic of this fine old theater — soon became annoying, and in the end belayed the adage that Carmen is indestructible. But had not Mr. Franck, music director designate of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, destroyed it, the staging of Louis Désiré would have accomplished this singlehandedly.

The quintet

Mr. Désiré, who gave us a splendid Tosca in Marseille last spring, evidently determined that the 300 foot expanse of the Théâtre Antique stage prevented all possibility of realizing the physical drama messieurs Meilhac, Halévy and Bizet had imagined. His solution was to make Carmen an oratorio, the identically costumed choristers frozen in blocks, the only physical actions were changing the placements of the famous scenes from one playing area to another (delimited by the surfaces of several huge face-up playing cards, a scattered deck being Mr. Désiré’s scenic concept).

All was not lost however because we did have the fine Don Jose of Jonas Kaufmann. Not that this tenorissimo is a real Jose — his voice is heroic, his delivery refined, his musicianship impeccable. Mr. Kaufmann is a remarkable singer with technique that allows him opportunity to explore and vocally exploit roles that are successful even when delivered monochromatically. In some ways Mr. Kaufmann and conductor Franck were an extraordinary musical match. Like conductor Franck he achieved an elegantly expanded rather than an eloquent performance.

Act IV: Jonas Kaufmann as Jose, Kate Aldrich as Carmen

Physically Mr. Kaufmann’s Jose was scruffy and well acted, hardly the handsome matinée idol of his publicity photos.

Micaëla was sung by 50 year-old Inva Mula, her great experience and confidence triumphing above the over-refined pit, her “Je dis” expansively and knowingly delivered diva style. It was deservedly well appreciated by the audience. Escamillo was sung by Kyle Ketelsen, the Aix Festival’s nimble Leporello and Figaro. He brought a lively wit to this Escamillo that was beyond the scope of this oratorio context. One can only dream of Mme. Aldridge and Mr. Ketelsen in a theatrically informed Carmen in a small theater or maybe even in the huge Théâtre Antique with a conductor and stage director who know that opera is, well, opera.

Cast and production

Carmen: Kate Aldrich; Micaëla: Inva Mula; Frasquita: Hélène Guilmette; Mercédès: Marie Karall; Don José: Jonas Kaufmann; Escamillo: Kyle Ketelsen; 
Zuniga: Jean Teitgen; Le Dancaïre: Olivier Grand; Le Remendado: Florian Laconi;
Moralès Armando Noguera. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, choruses of the operas of Angers-Nantes, Avignon and Nice, Maîtrise (childrens chorus) of the Bouches-du-Rhône. Conductor: Mikko Franck; Mise en scène, décors, costumes: Louis Désiré; Lighting: Patrick Méeüs. Théâtre Antique, Orange, France, July 11, 2015)

Svadba and The Monster of the Labyrinth
in Aix-en-Provence

Monsters and Marriage at the Aix Festival

Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet (see Concert Reviews) that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

Svadba means marriage in Serbian, a slavic language. There are apparently marriage customs that straddle slavic cultures, one of which is the preparation of the bride’s hair for the marriage day, like Konstantin Makovsky’s enormous The Russian Bride’s Attire (1889) that hangs in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. This is simply that.

The opera Svadba follows in the footsteps of the famed Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir so evidently there is a tradition of women’s songs and singing that is strangely absent from Western European and American high art. Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.

That Svadba is an opera is a question in itself. It may be more of a painting as there is little if any dramatic development. Mainly there is exposition of subject, like your eye following the story told in the fixed images — a painting. There is of course much physical motion, thanks to the fine efforts of two U.S. trained artists, stage director Ted Huffman and choreographer Zack Windkur who set abstract movement for each of the seven moments of this female version of what in the U.S. is an all male stag party.

The six singers of Svadba
Photo copyright Bernard Coutant, courtesy of the Aix Festival.

Like immersing yourself in a painting the subject matter of Svadba is of less importance than the delight you find in the way its story is told. Composer Ana Sokolovic created these seven moments with the six female voices, but they are not always a cappella. There were strategic dings of a bell, an electronic tape or maybe a synthesizer, plus noises the six singers created with the few props as well as stomping, clapping and tongue clicking.

The sound world was enormous using the tones of trained voices that mostly moved in soundscapes of close intervals, though of course there was much rhythmic invention of syllables that were both nonsense and Serbian. To our Western ears the formulated voice sounds were all abstract (the sounds were so involving that we ignored the sparse supertitles). When there were melodic moments they were in the modal scales of slavic folk music, and this alone created a long ago and far away atmosphere.

There were two strategic and quite beautiful moments when the voices collided on the first inversion of a triad chord, and the grandiose final moment when the voices resolutely landed on a perfect fifth! It was good music.

The subject matter is essentially slavic folklore though its relevance surely has long disappeared. The metteurs en scène, perhaps the composer as well chose to update the imagery to contemporary dress and action. I found this disconcerting given the specifically dated subject matter. Or maybe there currently are some strange customs among Serbian women who live in Canada.

The six singers were superb musicians with beautiful voices. These 55 minutes were splendid indeed.

Monster of the Labyrinth

Simon Rattle, conductor
Photo copyright Vincent Beaume, courtesy of the Aix Festival

There was a time when the Aix Festival was at odds with its host city, Aix-en-Provence. Under the stewardship of Stéphane Lissner (1998-2006) the festival floundered artistically though Lissner did succeed in developing a close and cooperative relationship with the citizens of Aix. The festival has indeed regained its artistic footings with the current leadership of Bernard Foccroulle and importantly it has not lost the willing cooperation of the Aix citizenry so ably gained by Mr. Lissner.

To the degree that just now the citizenry of Aix starred in Jonathan Dove’s Monster of the Labyrinth, rendered in French as Le Monstre du labyrinthe. Like Svadba Dove’s Monster is really a concert piece, but unlike the extreme technical demands of Svadba Dove’s Monster was intended to be performed by a community chorus challenged only by the minimal musical demands if not by its considerable length.

Scores, maybe hundreds of Aixoises — men, women and children — had learned the whole thing (a considerable amount of music) by heart, obviously devoting considerable time to rehearse their moves around the Grand Théâtre de Provence.

Monster had its world premiere on June 20 at the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin, performed next by the London Symphony in London on July 5 (yes, you get it — conducted everywhere by Simon Rattle), and at the Aix Festival on July 8 and 9 again with the London Symphony, though in all cities the orchestras included student, community or semi-professional players.

The music is primarily brass fanfare and huge choruses in a series of scenes that take the youth of Athens to Minos to be consumed by the Minotaur, only to be saved by the young Theseus. It is a piece for amateur performers, their communities and their families, not an work to be savored by opera aficionados and dissected by critics.

The projected maze, staging by Marie-Eve Signeyrole.
Photo copyright Vincent Beaume, courtesy of the Aix Festival.

Of critical interest in Aix however was the staging by Marie-Eve Signeyrole who last winter gave us an excellent Eugene Onegin in Montpellier. Mlle. Signeyrole’s signature technique is the inclusion filmic action, meaning that she uses an enormous cinema screen as backdrop on which she projects what is happening on stage from various perspectives, and most dazzling from above. Note that this worked perfectly for creating Dedale’s maze. Not only memetic of the stage actions the projections include original material, like the Theseus Minotaur battle enacted by two hugely enlarged, i.e. digitally amplified origami puppets.

The staging was of consummate charm, the masses of choristers moving graciously through the minimal stage elements and finally throughout the auditorium. Upon entering the auditorium we had been given a piece of paper. After the minotaur had been eliminated there was a full stop of everything and the was stage emptied. We were now instructed by 6 year-old boy (alone on the vast stage) how to turn the piece of paper into an origami ship so we could all get back to Athens.

The final celebratory chorus was sung by the choristers surrounding us in the auditorium, Sir Simon Rattle having turned to conduct the dispersed chorister and all of us in a final anthem while we (all of us) proudly held our ships on high.

Oh my.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Alcina
in Aix-en-Provence

The 67th edition of the prestigious Festival d’Aix-en-Provence opened on July 2 with an explosive production of Handel’s Alcina followed the next night by an explosive production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Heightened security was evident with the search of all small hand bags entering the theaters, large bags and backpacks were prohibited.

Jane Archibald as Konstanze and Daniel Behle as Belmonte
All Abduction photos copyright Pascal Victor, courtesy of the Aix Festival.

Before the Entführung Aix Festival general director Bernard Foccroulle (foe-crew-yeh) appeared before the audience to make an apology for the production by Austrian director Martin Kušej (koooo-shy) who may have insisted, at least should have demanded that Mr. Foccroulle explain why the festival had eviscerated his production.

Mr. Foccroulle evidently wished to avoid a confrontation such as had occurred a few nights earlier when during a performance the Covent Garden Guillaume Tell audience forcefully objected to graphic violence. Mr. Foccroulle announced that images which might be unsettling to the spectators had been expunged. In some ways the curtain speech was a brilliant move. Once into the first scene (buried in sand up to his neck, only Pedrillo’s un-embodied head saw much of the first act) we knew the specific image in question and it haunted us for three hours before lightening struck.

Make no mistake. The evening was not about Mozart even though the oeuvre of this Austrian composer is the raison d’être of the festival. It was about brutality.

After director Kušej’s Covent Garden Idomeneo fiasco (2013) there could only have been trepidation as to just what he would subject Entführung. In London (and in Lyon where I saw his Idomeneo production) Mr. Kušej found not the liberation granted by 18th century ideals but the revelation that citizens will never be free as long as there is religion. In Entführung the message is sort of the same, except here it emerges in powerful personal terms as the pasha Selim Bassa, played by veteran Austrian actor Tobias Moretti became the central focus of this theater production.

Tobias Moretti as the Pasha, Jane Archibald as Konstanze

The soldiers and their lieutenant Osmin were completely covered in Islamic State black, the Pasha however was in a fashionable, sophisticated Western business suit. Except when he was in loin cloth, whipping himself for love with thorny stemmed roses in a twisted take on the Islamic self flagellation ritual.

The first part of the evening (the escape quartet as its finale) was tough going, having to reconcile irritation at the Foccroulle apology with the heavy handed, blatantly obvious, patently political imagery while dealing with Mozart’s famed musical enlightenment. The second part of the evening left the music in the dust in a series of mostly soundless flash scenes. No more opera, now pure theater. The triumphal chorus sung from the pit, Osmin threw the blood covered white gown of Konstanze — though without her severed head — at the feet of the visibly shaken Pasha. It was big and it was profound.

At the intermission audience comments overheard were mostly that there was too much dialogue. In fact the exposed head of the buried Pedrillo itself tried to move things along suggesting to Belmonte that he stop the “fucking talking and start singing” (or maybe it was the other way around). As the primary enemy of Islam seems to be the Americans the production made much use of such colloquial speech in the dialogues (three of the four lovers were actual Americans), alternating with the Pasha’s hoch theatrical Deutsch declamation and Gottlieb Stephanie’s pretty German verse as set by Mozart.

David Portillo as Pedrillo

There was simply too much singing. French conductor Jérémie Rhorer made the mighty Freiburger Barockorchester into a delightful salon orchestra, imposing lightness and a pleasing elegance to the overture. This informal approach was imposed on the singers as well, the arias delivered quite intimately, in stark contrast to the far more powerful rhetoric of the production. The opera itself was the boring if a necessary part of the evening.

There were occasional bright spots, in particular a sweet and beautifully sung “Martern aller arten” by former San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Jane Archibald and a strong and smooth “Konstanze, Konstanze, dich wiederzushen" by German tenor Daniel Behle. Texas tenor David Portillo and American soprano Rachel Gilmore were the willing Pedrillo and Blonde (we train them well in the U.S.), and German bass Franz-Josef Selig made Osmin a fearsome fighter.


Patricia Petibon as Alcina
All Alcina photos copyright Patrick Berger, courtesy of the Aix Festival

A different set of potential audience vulnerabilities were attacked in Alcina, though about these Mr. Foccroulle remained silent. Within moments of the start of the opera German soprano Anna Prohaska as Alcina’s sister witch Morgana was strapped to a bed, legs splayed downstage, her private parts tickled by a feather duster (these were the coloratura moments of her “O s’apre al riso”), and then, in rapture, she was whipped by Bradamante, the Serbian mezzo Katarina Bradic.

There was no question that British director Katie Mitchell’s Alcina would take place in an English manor since all Ms. Mitchell’s theater pieces are domestic comedies. Here the household was that of two aging spinster witches whose magic created a luxurious sex den where they preside as gorgeous women, Alcina voluptuously — think of the coloratura passages — fucking Ruggiero in her first aria.

Scenery for the Katie Mitchell production designed by Chloe Lambert

Though when passing from that magical room into their taxidermy workshops both witches become old hags.

Upstairs (surely the Aix Festival recycled Katie Mitchell’s Written on Skin production) was the machinery that transformed men into beasts. Indeed we watched as Astolfo (mute presence) was conveyor-belted into the transformer to emerge as a magnificent stuffed mountain lion. Meanwhile Astolfo’s son, Oberto, a real 12 year-old boy soprano arrived searching for his father. Oberto has two sizable arias (artfully delivered by either Elias Mädler or Lionel Wunsch according to the program booklet). He was carrying a stuffed teddy bear and was carefully ushered from the room when the sex got intense.

After being passively raped by Alcina male soprano Philippe Jaroussky as Ruggiero allowed himself to be meticulously cleaned up by four household maids in efficiently prim black dresses even though one was male. Ruggiero’s fiancé Riccardo was taller and obviously stronger than he and had a real female voice though it was much lower and stronger than his voice. Melisso, the only real male voice on the stage, Polish bass Krzysztof Baczyk (we exclude Oronte because he is a lovesick tenor), meticulously combed Ruggiero’s hair to refresh his masculinity.

Mr. Jaroussky always did seem a bit bewildered, and he did sing more than any of the other characters as well, his lyric soprano voice needing more strength than it could possibly muster, often confusing itself with the same colors as the voices of real female lyric sopranos. The lovesick tenor Oronte, British tenor Anthony Gregory was a willing captive of Morgana who lovingly whipped her during her brilliant Act III aria only to know that he will lose her in his meltingly beautiful aria “un momento di contento.”

Patricia Petibon as Alcina, Anthony Gregory as Oronte

It was magical, completely magical, made magnificent by Patricia Petibon as the ravishing, red haired Alcina, whose “Ah mio cor” included a high E shriek and then ended the first part of the evening. The audience was left stunned and remained in their seats to give an extended ovation to the fallen curtain. She began the second part with her “Ombre palide” and ended the opera with the spectacular “Mi restano le lagrime,” emotionally emptied in maximum eloquence supported by the heartbroken Oronte, dragging her body across the stage in a succession of beautifully choreographed poses. It was wrenching.

When this wonderfully teasing, titillating magical world was destroyed and the fantasy of two old spinster sisters evaporated, we grieved. The sisters were then placed in the glass case sarcophagi that had held the captive males of their most secret lives. It was a moving end.

And we did not give a damn that Bradamante and Ruggiero were now free to continue their fight to save Europe from Islam.

P.S. The Freiburger Barockorchester was once again mighty, Italian conductor Andrea Marcon honestly provided all the bite and drama necessary to amplify Handel’s splendid drama as envisioned by Mme. Mitchell. It was thrilling indeed when the horns cut loose at the end. The two theorbo players, Daniele Ciminiti and Maria Ferré sat just under center stage, pouring their hearts out in the arias.

Cast and Production

Entführung Selim Bassa: Tobias Moretti; Konstanze: Jane Archibald; Blonde: Rachele Gilmore; Belmonte: Daniel Behle; Pedrillo: David Portillo; Osmin: Franz-Josef Selig. Chœur: MusicAeterna (Chœur de l'Opéra de Perm); Orchestre: Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Jérémie Rhorer; Mise en scène: Martin Kušej; Décors: Annette Murschetz; Costumes: Heide Kastler; Lumière: Reinhard Traub; Dramaturgie: Albert Ostermaier. Théâtre de l’Archevêché, July 3, 2015.

Alcina Patricia Petibon; Ruggiero: Philippe Jaroussky; Morgana: Anna Prohaska; Bradamante: Katarina Bradić; Oronte: Anthony Gregory; Melisso: Krzysztof Baczyk; Oberto: Elias Mädler or Lionel Wunsch (membres du Tölzer Knabenchor). Chœur: MusicAeterna (Chœur de l'Opéra de Perm); Orchestre: Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Andrea Marcon; Mise en scène: Katie Mitchell; Décors: Chloe Lamford; Costumes: Laura Hopkins; Lumière: James Farncombe. Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, July 4, 2015.

Fedora in Genoa

Daniela Dessi as Fedora, Act II
[All photos courtesy of Teatro San Carlo, Genova]

It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.

If the operas of Giacomo Puccini are the standard bearers for operatic verismo, the stories of Giovanni Verga hold that place in literature. And there was the Casa Sonzogno [an Italian opera publishing house destroyed by a WWII bomb] that sponsored the famous 1888 competition in which Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (libretto on a story by Verga) took first place and became the emblematic moment of verismo.

A now forgotten opera by Umberto Giordano, Mala Vita (An Unhappy Life) took sixth place (out of 73 entries) in that competition. Mala Vita is the grizzly tale of a tuberculosis stricken prostitute and was in fact performed in 1890. Note that Puccini’s La boheme premiered in 1896.

Meanwhile in those same years Giordano saw the famed French tragedienne Sarah Bernhardt as Fédora and Puccini saw la Bernhardt as La Tosca, eponymous plays by Victorien Sardou. This facile playwright gave the public what it wanted — intense moments for dramatic outbursts against a colorful historical backdrop, with no demand that the public wade through motivations or contexts.

The operas Fedora (1898) and Tosca (1900) are very similar pieces. Both are three brief acts, both are about a powerful female in a politically volatile climate, both end in suicide. But where Puccini lyrically expands the personalities of his protagonists into rich, post romantic music, Giordano stays very close to the action making his story an intense, fast moving single action. Lyric moments are brief and fiery, generally less than a couple of minutes, the music looking forward to the more direct, minimalist tendencies of twentieth century music drama.

The new production of Fedora in Genoa attempts to bring historical depth to the Sardou play. Stage director Rosetta Cucchi and her set designer Tiziano Santi created a huge, full stage window looking upstage onto an imaginary plain where actions went well beyond the direct, let us say brutal happenings taking place downstage — Fedora’s mortally wounded fiance is brought on stage to die (Act 1), Fedora falls in love with the murderer and betrays him to the police (Act II), Fedora regrets this and kills herself (Act III).

The contexts for these acts played out in this imaginary space were visually splendid if rather confusing. There were battle fields that made us think of the of the 1916 revolution far more than remind us of the the specific context of Sardou’s play — the 1881 assassination of Alexander II. This impression was reinforced by a tableau portrait by costumed supernumeraries of the Czar’s family that made us think of the 1918 murders of the Romanov family. [See lead photo.]

To complicate these contexts the whole opera was played as a flashback — a duplicate Loris (as the by now very aged assassin of Fedora’s fiance) sat on the stage apron for the entire opera (including intermissions) only to walk into the imaginary plain in the final moments of the opera for a brief encounter/recognition of a young goatherd, perhaps the youngest son of the assassinated Ivan the Terrible. Or what?

Daniela Dessi as Fedora, Fabio Armiliato as Loris, Act III

Of course none of this really mattered because Giordano’s opera is about the immediate passions of a rich Russian aristocrat, the widow Fedora. Fedora was sung by 56 year-old diva Daniela Dessi. Loris, the assassin of her fiancé and a suspected nihilist, was sung by 59 year-old Fabio Armiliato (both ages determined by birth dates found on the internet). These two formidable artists are partners in real life. Both were in good voice, but voices no longer capable of carving Giordano’s unique vocal exclamations in easy tones, relying instead large, uncolored wooden sounds. It was obvious that both artists knew well and once embodied the vocalism and the musicality of the style, and that they were working hard and honestly to achieve it again. The result was compromised.

Fedora’s friend Olga was enacted by Russian soubrette Daria Kovalenko, ably creating the intended overbearing presence of such a Slavic personality. Pianist (in real life) Siriio Restani, the Carlo Felice house pianist, had his moment in the spotlight giving the Act II solo concert against which Fedora and Loris declare their love in a precious scene that would find itself perfectly at home in the shallow sensualism and sensationalsim of Italian decadentismo, a parallel style to gritty verismo.

Daniela Dessi as Fedora, Male Supporting Cast

The myriad of smaller roles were executed with typical Italian panache.

The greater impact of the evening was lost by a late start for the brief first act, explained somewhat by an announcement about some casting problem, then there was an overly long first intermission. After the brief second act there was a very extended intermission (one can assume there was some backstage drama, left unexplained). The orchestra players became impatient and began stamping their feet, and finally we were given the brief third act. The far less-than-sold-out house gave la Dessi a huge ovation.

The pit at the Teatro Carlo Felice does not offer a great presence to an orchestra. None the less it was obvious that we were in fine musical hands. Young conductor Valerio Galli, already a verismo specialist, made the most of Giordano’s sophisticated score over this too long evening.

Cast and production

Fedora: Daniela Dessì; Loris: Fabio Armiliato; De Siriex: Alfonso Antoniozzi; Olga: Daria Kovalenko; Dimitri: Margherita Rotondi; Desiré: Manuel Pierattelli; Il Barone Rouvel: Alessandro Fantoni; Cirillo: Luigi Roni; Boroff: Claudio Ottino; Gretch: Roberto Maietta; Lorek: Davide Mura; Nicola: Matteo Armanino; Sergio: Pasquale Graziano; Michele: Roberto Conti; Boleslao Lazinski: Sirio Restani. Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Valerio Galli; Metteur en scène: Rosetta Cucchi; Set Design: Tiziano Santi; Costumes: Claudia Pernigotti; Lighting: Luciano Novelli. Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, March 25, 2015.

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Tosca in Marseille

Adina Aaron as Tosca, Giorgio Berrugi as Cavaradossi

Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.

The recent, misguided Pierre Audi production at the Opéra de Paris as example. Despite its slick “look” it was no more than the emperor in new clothes. But maybe you made your way to Marseille last week where the new production (sets/costumes/stage direction) by Louis Désiré restored your faith in revisionist productions. And in Tosca.

It was not a cast of singers in Marseille that limited its sights to the verismo thrills perpetrated by larger than life opera singers and effect mongering conductors. It was a cast that immersed itself in a revision of Tosca. No longer a mere showpiece for powerful singers of powerful personality the opera had become true theater where every word was eloquent and every gesture carved — a revisionist Tosca if there ever was one.

Director Désiré imagined Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” in a shadowy atmosphere that bespoke the prevailing dangerous political climate in which corrupt power, jealousy and unfettered lust exploded into lurid happenings. The production was in fact a study in chiaroscuro — fields of darkness with shafts of yellow light at the precise moments when emotions flared.

Lighting the singers will have been a monumental task, not only for the very accomplished lighting designer Patrick Méeüs, but also for the actors to learn where and when to move into and out of the shafts of light (note that Mr. Méeüs primarily designs lighting for dance where directional lighting techniques are highly developed).

Marseille born Louis Désiré maybe began his career as a costume designer or maybe as a set designer (the program bio is unclear). As both he is known to American audiences as a collaborator of American director Francesco Negrin (Werther in San Francisco and Rinaldo in Chicago).

Adina Aaron as Tosca, Giorgio Berrugi as Cavardossi, Carlo Almaguer as Scarpia

As the sole metteur en scène of this Tosca he created stage pictures that are the highly charged personal moments of Mannerist painting — to be clear, it is the moment he captures, not the action. In fact his staging is two dimensional tableaux, occurring with few exceptions within the proscenium frame. He uses clever techniques to reduce this larger frame — for example Scarpia’s Act II table is a long black quadrangle box extending across half the stage, when actors move behind it there lower bodies are hidden, thus a sort close-up is effected.

The large proscenium frame of course was completely filled for the Scarpia “Te Deum.” There was no procession, only Scarpia standing downstage center holding one of the roses Tosca had placed on the altar to the Virgin Mary. Behind him in two straight, across the stage lines were 48 black cossack covered Opéra de Marseille choristers whose arms rose in celestial rapture to Scarpia’s sexual raptures. It was good, very, very good.

Scarpia’s apartment boasted a small balcony on the side where Tosca escaped to sing her “Vissi d’arte” in a shaft of light, her lower body hidden by the railing. These tableau moments told the sordid tale from beginning to end in a seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of Mannerist inspired poses, epitomized by the execution — Cavaradossi was alone downstage center, the revolving stage had removed the shooters from the frame, Tosca was hidden behind a wall).

American soprano Adina Aaron, dressed the entire opera in an unadorned straight line gold gown (like a shaft of light), created an exotic presence for the actress Floria Tosca, her dark hued voice producing a lovely, burnished spinto tone, her less-than-full-throated high climaxes absorbed into her the musicality of her character. She closed Act II sitting alone down stage center, flanked by two candles to speak Tosca’s “davanti lui tutta Roma tremava.” Delivered with resigned irony the tableau was simply an ironic statement of the line we had been waiting for.

Italian tenor Giorgio Berrugi sang Cavaradossi with exquisite musicality, all famous Italian tenor mannerisms firmly present but impeccably integrated musically. His ease of vocal production in this spinto role made his character about musical line, integrating his music into Puccini’s high octane drama in a flow that supported Mr. Désiré’s flow of tableaux. Of very great pleasure was the dramatic and musical authenticity of his rolled “r”‘s, creating unexpected ornamentation.

Mexican baritone Carlos Almaguer roared with unfettered gusto, as must every Scarpia. In this staging he is not asked to be emotionally complex but simply to reign as the perpetrator of the darkness of Napoleonic political atmospheres. Here he did not complicate his basically gruff delivery with nuance, nor did he attempt to assume an out-sized presence. He underscored director Désiré’s Tosca as a straight forward, uncomplicated recounting of the facts of the story. That he waited until the final curtain calls to take his bow assured the dramatic integrity of the production.

Of note as well was the excellent Angelotti of French bass Antoine Garcin, for once a consul of the fallen Italian republic who showed requisite age and stature.

Italian conductor Fabrizio Maria Carminati sacrificed the showy, obvious effects of this warhorse opera to the far more subtle demands of the production. It is the mark of a real opera conductor to integrate the score into the production. We can be very grateful to Mo. Carminati for the unobtrusive and very able contribution of the pit.

As metteur en scène Mr. Désiré both designs and stages Carmen for the Choregies d’Orange this summer, with lighting by Patrick Méeüs. Not to be missed (cherries-atop-the-cake: Kate Aldridge as Carmen, Jonas Kaufmann as Jose).

Casts and production information:

Floria Tosca: Adina Aaron: Mario Cavaradossi: Giorgio Berrugi; Scarpia: Carlos Almaguer; Le Sacristain: Jacques Calatayud; Angelotti: Antoine Garcin; Spoletta: Loïc Felix; Sciarrone: Jean-Marie Delpas; Le Pâtre: Jessica Murrolo. Orchestre et Chœur de l'Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Fabrizio Maria Carminati; Mise en scène / Décors / Costumes; Louis Désiré; Lighting: Patrick Méeüs. Opéra de Marseille, March 18, 2015.

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The Mastersingers of Nurenburg and The Indian Queen At English National Opera

Lucy Crowe as Doña Isabel, Julia Bullock as The Indian Queen
All photos from the English National Opera

It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.

Sometimes you’ve got to get away to find a bit of sun, with good opera a bonus.

It was a brilliantly lighted afternoon making our way through Trafalgar Square on our way to the London Coliseum for the 3 PM curtain of Die Meistersinger, the winter hit of the ENO season. The production by British metteur en scène Richard Jones earned very positive review here on Opera Today, please see The Mastersingers of Nurenberg, as well as in the British press.

Of course it was no longer Die Meistersinger as it had been transformed into The Mastersingers of Nurenburg, and of course metteur en scène Richard Jones transformed Wagner’s noble, some may think pretentious tale of the glory of German art into a definitely unpretentious little story of cruelty to a silly old man (like in real comedy), though it was uncertain if the silly old man was Beckmesser — it might have been Hans Sachs). Like in real comedies true love prevailed, and that was enough to motivate Wagner’s mighty climax (abridged version) with just a tiny wink at German art — flash card faces at the very last moment (there had been a couple of hundred photos/drawings of German artists copied onto on the show curtain of which Jacques Offenbach was in bullseye position).

Like his staging of Ariodante in Aix last summer where the king of Scotland had become a mid-western American farmer, Mr. Jones miniaturized, indeed trivialized Meistersinger, here into a storybook tale. American designer Paul Steinberg created an almost children’s book setting. It was a mostly two dimensional scenic world of wallpaper-like repeating patterns in backdrops, the repetitive shapes echoed as well as in furniture and hand props. The second (riot) act was the intersection of two flat faced streets like classical Roman comedy, and the last scene (the competition) construed most of what we had already seen (props and drops) into grandiose, decidedly mock columns of imperial architecture.

The first scene (with the quintet) of the third act was, of course, the most rewarding. No longer the graphically flat public world of printed books it was the private world of Hans Sach exposed in the cluttered, not-for-public-view realism of a life that is not art, a flesh and blood life discovered in the midst of the artifice of witty and sophisticated design. In fact the quintet itself, surely meant by Wagner to be one of humankind’s greatest moments, stepped outside all scenic context, the singers lined across the stage in brilliant white light. Nothing else.

Gwyn Hughes Jones as Walther and the Mastersingers.

The use of the English language at ENO is very practiced, the diction nothing less than miraculous. The preciousness of the diction added a storybook, even infantile musicality that contributed greatly to Richard Jones’ fairytale, indeed satiric vision of what Mr. Jones, and we too might even perceive as Wagnerian bombast. It was this satire that brought honesty and perspective to this magnificent opera for us English speakers. Though maybe, finally, some of us missed the subtlety and gravity of the deeper reaches of Wagnerian thinking.

Back at Trafalgar Square a couple of days later the floating clouds of an ideal English skyscape prevailed during the day though heavy rains were predicted for the evening. The Peter Sellars production did rain heavy changes on Purcell’s 1695 "Dramatik Opera," The Indian Queen. Its original "Heroik Verse" by John Dryden washed away by Mr. Sellars’ Heroik Platitudes of Social Responsibility when not drowned in Down-With-White-European-Males syndrome.

There are those few of us who remember the 1998 Long Beach (CA) Opera production of The Indian Queen by Mexican performance artist Guillermo Gômez-Peña, the Dryden verse adapted to contemporary Chicano actors embodying the stereotypes that north-of-the-[Mexican]-border observers (cultural tourism) have imposed on south-of-the-border. However in the Peter Sellars production Dryden has been exiled from the Purcell intention.

Purcell’s piece does indeed cry out for racial and ethnic exoticism. In the Sellars production a Chicano actress from California narrated the ugly deeds of Dryden's Aztecs whom Sellars had transformed into Spanish conquistadors, manufacturing the evils they could have perpetrated on women and children. Note that this production has already been at Madrid’s Teatro Real where it certainly belongs — may the Spaniards expiate the sins of their past. It was a naive art, fish-out-of-water in London’s sophisticated theatrical world.

Peter Sellars has a fabulous, original theatrical mind and he is a great stage director. It was an evening of highest level theater, brilliantly conceived and realized starting with four dancers who were tirelessly choreographed into exotically titled dance sequences that added Mayan mysteries to Dryden's already absurd geography. Purcell's added Symphony, its parts titled Adagio, Allegro, etc., assumed names like “Dance of the Solar Fire Deities.” Note that a dramatik opera was like a French masque with recited words, instrumental music, airs and choruses, dances and of course spectacle.

Spectacle was created by Gronk [sic], the single named, Chicano artist/performance artist/etc who lives in downtown Los Angeles. He created paintings in the brilliant colors of exotic birds, industriously magnified into giant full stage drops or into large panels that could do all sorts of things like configure themselves into a Mayan temple from time to time. Sellars slickly incorporated this naive scenic art into the cult of talented, downtrodden but proud personalities that define his muse.

Cherry-atop-the-cake there was a signer [!] who stood in the baignoire next to the stage and signed the entire performance. You were not sure if this was for a disoriented deaf person who may have found himself in the Coliseum that evening, or to insist that the opposite of sound, excoriating evil in this case, is silence that simply ignores evil. Or what? It is a rich if silly image indeed. As well, both halves of the program culminated in silence, a quiet that endured naturally and decayed gradually. A coup de théâtre indeed before the delayed applause was heard. There were no individual bows taken beyond that of the conductor.

There are many of us who will argue that the ENO is the world’s finest opera company. Here the assembled cast was excellent (for the most part), polished singers of appropriate skin colors to sing the newly created words (Dryden was not at all in the picture). Well, except the conquistador replacing Dryden's Montezuma who was a black man. The orchestra boasted three theorbos, both a harpsichord and an portable organ in the sizable continuo, and a large number of modern and early music instruments for the larger orchestral pieces.

Most impressive of all was the ENO chorus, meticulously rehearsed into seemingly infinite colors and textures and volumes, the anti-war chorus that finalized the first act was positively shouted. The chorus had rushed onto the stage apron to confront us culpable white European males innocently sitting in the Coliseum auditorium.

The gentleman walking out of the auditorium ahead of me confessed to his friend that he had become hostile. So had I.

Casts and production information

The Mastersingers of Nurenburg Walther: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Eva: Rachel Nicholls; Magdalene: Madeleine Shaw; David: Nicky Spence; Hans Sachs: Iain Paterson; Sixtus Beckmesser: Andrew Shore; Veit Pogner: James Creswell; Fritz Kothner: David Stout; Kunz Vogelgesang: Peter van Hulle; Konrad Nachtigall: Quentin Hayes; Ulrich Eisslinger: Timothy Robinson; Hermann Ortel: Nicholas Folwell; Balthasar Zorn: Richard Roberts; Augustin Moser: Stephen Rooke; Hans Folz: Roderick Earle; Hans Schwarz: Jonathan Lemalu; Night Watchman: Nicholas Crawley. Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Producer: Richard Jones; Set designs: Paul Steinberg; Costumes: Buki Schiff; Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherrin; Choreography: Lucy Burge. The London Coliseum, Saturday, March 7, 2015.

The Indian Queen Teculihuatzin/Doña Luisa: Julia Bullock; Doña Isabel: Lucy Crowe; Hunahpú: Vince Yi; Ixbalanqué: Anthony Roth Costanzo; Don Pedro de Alvarado: Noah Stewart; Don Pedrarias Dávila: Thomas Walker; Sacerdote: Maya Luthando Qave; Leonor: Maritxell Carrero. Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera. Conductor: Laurence Cummings; Director: Peter Sellars; Set Designer: Gronk; Costume Designer: Dunya Ramicova; Lighting Designer: James F. Ingalls; Choreographer: Christopher Williams. Libretto: Songs and hymns by Purcell, with texts by Katherine Philips, George Herbert et al. Spoken texts by Rosario Aguilar from The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma. London Coliseum, March 9, 2015.

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A Florentine Tragedy and I pagliacci in Monte-Carlo

Marcelo Álvarez as Canio, Mariá José Siri as Nedda
All photos copyright the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.

These brief operas have interesting points of convergence, both are love triangles with older men and younger wives. both have physically unattractive protagonists, both are set in Italy. The librettos for both were written in the early 1890’s. And both are just plain ugly stories.

Nonetheless there are striking, irreconcilable differences that prevent them from creating a soul satisfying evening of opera. I pagliacci (1893) is one of the masterpieces of the startling new verismo movement in Italy. A Florentine Tragedy (1917) came 25 years later, captive of the psychological and musical complexities of the collapsing Viennese cultural hegemony. Simply said I pagliacci remains a fresh, new piece and A Florentine Tragedy rests a derivative attempt to revive lost musical enthusiasms. Namely and unabashedly the scandalous excitement created by Salome, Electra and Rosenkavalier.

Barbara Haveman as Bianca, Carsten Wittmoser as Simone, Zoran Todorovich as Guido

Zemlinsky’s rendering of Oscar Wilde’s sick little tale was simply Zemlinsky getting even with Gustav Mahler for being more attractive to Alma Mahler than he was. And, well, making an opera about Alma Mahler’s affair with the architect Walter Gropius while she was married to Mahler. It is a very personal, vindictive work.

It began the evening. When it was over the audience could not get to the bar fast enough.

Metteur en scène Daniel Benoin would have nothing to do with Zemlinsky’s monumental (triple or quadruple winds, six horns, huge percussion battery) pettiness and therefore set out to find a less gossipy context for this sordid tale. He moved the action from 16th century Florence to the Italy just a bit after 1917 and the emergence of Fascism. Simone (the older husband) exits his shop from time to time, passing the Black Shirt recruiters visible though the huge shop windows. For the dénouement he returns to his shop in full Blackshirt garb (he strangles young, old-order rich Guido). Simone and his young wife Bianca reconcile and the strong, new Italy is born!

The Zemlinsky opera is enormously enriched by this concept, given that Zemlinsky’s music does not really allow us to enter into the psyches of his actors (as, for example, Strauss had) but instead keeps us enthralled in the web of subterfuges Simone is creating to murder Guido. Director Benoin allowed that we might participate in politically powerful propaganda that can possibly be found in, or matched by the music rather than in the petty jealousies that are not musically supported.

The inherent irony of decadent music of a collapsing empire building a strong new political order did not trouble Mr. Benoin who was having fun with his designers. Set designer Rudy Sabounghi created a richly traditional Florentine shop, gorgeous in scope and detail, the exposition of luxury fabrics though was limited to sample books [!], but at last yards and yards of real fabric fell from the rafters, some of which Simone used to strangle Guido.

Nathalie Bérard-Benoin created costumes that were flagrantly and effectively at odds with the period details of the set, Simone in a monochrome rose modern suit, shirt and tie, Guido in a darker rose suit, shirt and tie. Bianca was in a Klimt inspired beaded dress and wigged firmly into the dying pre-fascist era.

It was a solid, sophisticated and amusing production richly conducted by Pinchas Steinberg who was unwilling to sacrifice the humors of Zemlinsky’s huge orchestrations when the singers were unable to sustain needed and appropriate volumes of sound. It was an orchestral, not a singerly event.

María José Siri as Nedda, Leo Nucci as Tonio

The exact opposite may be said of I pagliacci. It was very nearly a dream cast of singers who kept the audience in their seats applauding long after Canio had slaughtered Nedda. The pagliacci were opera stars baritone Leo Nucci and the estimable tenor Marcelo Álvarez, the Nedda was Argentine soprano María José Siri who thrilled us with the shimmering edge to her youthful tone. Silvio was Chinese born, Covent Garden trained baritone Zhengzhong Zhou whose exceedingly beautiful voice made the love duet with Nedda a meltingly beautiful few minutes. Peppe was carefully and charmingly etched by Italian tenor Enrico Casari. While conductor Steinberg did not fully capture the intense dramas of verismo he did give these superb singers tempos on which its lyricism could gracefully soar.

In fact the lighter weight and easier movements of Leoncavallo’s vocal lines felt much more at home in tenor Álvarez‘ voice than does Puccini’s Cavaradossi, surely this excellent artist's signature role (recently sung at the Bastille). Baritone Leo Nucci is a nimble 72 years of age (he wanted us to know this by effecting a heel clicking jump now and again). He is in good voice and is still a viable Tonio. Soprano Siri, a Tosca in her own right (Vienna and Berlin), is young enough to be believable as a real Nedda and sufficiently experienced in the grand repertoire to bring real diva style to her portrayal.

The common element to both short operas was designer, Monaco native Rudy Sabounghi (director Benoin did his own lighting, Pagliacci was lighted by Laurant Castaingt). Sabounghi with Swiss metteur en scène Allex Aguilera had us see through the back wall of a stage in order to create the conceit that we too are the actors since we feel what they feel — I pagliacci plays very heavily with the metaphor of theater.

It got even more complicated. The pagliacci started out as circus clowns, drumming up business for the upcoming performance, their public were country folk on the way to church. Though by the time of the performance of the play within the opera Tonio and Canio had dressed themselves in everyday clothes as they were dealing with their real, off-stage passions. Conversely the country folk now had transformed themselves into commedia dell’arte costumes, like the actors on the stage should have been costumed. This audience then was seated on the stage directly mirroring the Salle Garnier audience, thus it was they who were dealing with theatrical passions. We, the Salle Garner audience, were dealing with the real passions. Verismo indeed.

It all more or less worked in its weird way. Most of all it gave us something to get our minds around. Neither of the stagings found the essences of these strange little operas, nor were they looking for the them. It was a high-level, challenging and ultimately satisfying evening of opera.

Casts and production information:

A Florentine Tragedy Guido Bardi: Zoran Todorovich; Simone: Carsten Wittmoser; Bianca: Barbara Haveman. Mise en scène et lumières: Daniel Benoin; Décors: Rudy Sabounghi; Costumes: Nathalie Bérard-Benoin. I pagliacci Canio: Marcelo Álvarez; Nedda: María José Siri; Tonio: Leo Nucci; Beppe: Enrico Casari; Silvio: ZhengZhong Zhou. Mise en scène: Allex Aguilera; Décors Rudy Sabounghi; Costumes: Jorge Jara; Lumières: Laurent Castaingt. Chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, Monaco, February 25, 2015.

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Iphigénie en Tauride in Geneva

Iphigénie puppet, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Iphigénie, female chorus puppet
All photos copyright Carole Parodi, courtesy of the Grand Théâtre de Genève

Hopefully this brilliant new production of Iphigénie en Tauride from the Grand Théâtre de Genève will find its way to the new world now that Gluck’s masterpiece has been introduced to American audiences.

(The Metropolitan and Seattle operas production directed by Stephen Wadsworth made it to Live in HD in 2011, and Robert Carsen’s 2006/2007 production was seen in San Francisco and Chicago.)

Gluck’s 1779 opera is a strange work, its libretto based on the 1757 tragedy of the same name by Claude Guimond de la Touche who had lifted entire sections of his play from earlier opera librettos based on Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Taurus. La Touche was a Jesuit for 14 years, but left the order to be a full-time poet.

Gluck’s French operas are through-composed solemn events, well respected in the troubled times that lead to the French revolution. But Gretry’s comic operas of the same moment with spoken dialogues and pretty airs were far more pleasurable to audiences. Maybe some of Gretry’s easy sentimentality made its way into Gluck’s tragedy in the questionable relationship between Oreste and his companion Pylade. The 1997 Glimmerglass production simply made them gay lovers.

If the Carsen production was dismissed as euro-trash by a critic on Resmusica* (blood covered walls, all actors in black tunics), and the Wadsworth production according to the critic on The Classical Review seemed fearful that its audience might be bored (hyper-ventilating ballets) the new Geneva production hits the nerve center of the opera by listening to the music. The production hears its solemnity, participates in its individual dramas, and illustrates its pantomimes — there is not a single second when the stage action departs from the absolute directness of the storytelling. The Gluck genius was to make music drama, and it was pure in Geneva.

Alexey Tikhomirov as Thoas and male chorus puppets

Gluck’s rediscovered tragic unities are relentlessly upheld in this production staged by German born, culturally French informed stage director Lukas Hemleb and Berlin born, European and American formed sculptor Alexander Polzin. There was no ballet. Instead every principal actor had his double. A life-size puppet. Every blacked-out chorister, forty of them, held his life-size, black puppet. The set, astounding in scope, was a heavy Greek theater made of huge cut stones. It too had its double, an equal construction that had been yanked from the earth, suspended above the stage for the final scenes of the opera.

The concept was to step back from action, to allow the actors react to the story and to themselves as the story unfolded. Body movement was abstractly linear, the movement of mechanically motivated limbs. The results were constructions of motion that mirrored the brutal melodic lines of this morbid tale, and the abruptness of harmonic and theatrical structure, The actors were the music, and it was always a theater, theater itself, that we saw, and felt, from within and from without.

For the third act there was no set, only a bowl in the middle of the stage into which plummeted bits of the presumed dead Oreste. Oreste was Italian baritone Bruno Taddia who in the second act had fallen away from his puppet double onto the forestage to deliver, alone, his agonized recitative “Dieux protecteurs de ces affreux rivages!” In the emotional immediacy, rare in Gluck, of this outburst he became his puppet, moving in jerks and spasms as if operated by an exterior force. This force was Gluck’s music and the tragic muse.

Bruno Taddia as Oreste, Steve Davislim as Pylade, their puppet doubles

Mr. Taddia gave an over-the-top performance in warm, secure voice. His extreme performance was matched to a much lesser degree by the Iphigénie of Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci (remember that this was a Maria Callas role so the stakes are already impossibly high). Her physical involvement was gratefully more measured (much more) than that of Mr. Taddia, her voice securely if not easily or opulently carved Gluck’s emotional recitative “Je cede à vos désirs” and air “D’une image, hélas, trop chérie!”

Oreste’s companion Pylade was sung by Australian tenor Steve Davislim. At the final performance, perhaps exhausted from the run of six performances this fine artist was unable to take his air “Divinité des grandes âmes” to its melodic heights, though it was otherwise sung in beautiful voice. Pylade, unlike Oreste and Iphégenie is tormented only by human love (for Oreste), and not by divine forces.

As the tyrant king Thoas bass Alexey Tikhomirov threatened appropriately if without distinction compared to the powerful performances of Iphigénie, Oreste and Pylade.

The proceedings were presided over by Dresden born conductor Hartmut Haenchen, who magnificently managed the score, integrating its orchestral, choral, balletic and solo voices into the tragedia messa in musica that Gluck imagined. It must be said that one did not hear the orchestra separately from seeing the stage. Gesamtkunstwerk indeed.

Casts and production information

Iphigénie: Anna Caterina Antonacci; Oreste: Bruno Taddia; Pylade: Steve Davislim; Thoas: Alexey Tikhomirov; Diane: Julienne Walker; Un Scythe: Michel de Souza; 1ère Prêtresse: Mi-Young Kim; 2ème Prêtresse: Marianne Dellacasagrande; Une femme grecque: Cristiana Presutti; Le Ministre du sanctuaire: Wolfgang Barta. Chœur du Grand Théâtre de Genève, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen; Mise en scène: Lukas Hemleb; Décors: Alexander Polzin; Costumes: Andrea Schmidt-Futterer; Lumières: Marion Hewlett; Collaboration chorégraphique: Joanna O’Keeffe. Grand Théâtre de Genève, February 4, 2015.

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Idomeneo in Lyon

Elena Galitskaya as Ilia, Kate Aldrich as Idamante
All photos copyright by Jean-Pierre Maurin, courtesy of the Opéra de Lyon.

You might think you could go to an opera and take in what you see at face value. But if you did that just now in Lyon you would have had no idea what was going on.

Totally confused by the Uzi bearing thugs [sigh] that herded distressed costumes on and off the stage, and, well, by the mezzo-soprano in concert dress standing extreme stage right (singing Idamante while voiceless mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich walked the role on the stage) luckily I found the insert in the program book at the intermission that would enlighten me. The Opéra de Lyon had come to a belated conclusion that this new production by German director Martin Kušej (koooo-shy) might not make any sense.

Mr. Kušej’s dramaturg, Olaf A. Schmitt, explained that Idomeneo lives in fear of the future established by the diminished chords of his Act II aria “Fuor del mar.” Furthermore that the D major tonality of this aria was the same as the first chords of the overture thereby establishing Idomeneo as the sovereign. The aria is old-fashioned, the da capo form, and this proves that Idomeneo is captive of an out-of-date, unchangeable system.

To make a long story short, Idamante is also captive, both the old and new sovereigns hold their repressive power by embracing and exploiting a religious system. This is proven because D major is obviously Idomeneo’s tyranny, and then this tonality is adopted by Idamante in his supplications to be sacrificed to the gods in order to save his people.

This rationale seems to have been constructed so that in the dénouement of the opera the resignation of Idomeneo may occur with him alone on the stage. He is writhing in emotional agony in what must now be a prison (the set was a revolving platform of repeating doors). He in fact has lost his power, and there has been no sacrifice. Furthermore the old, unchangeable order remains. The final celebratory chorus is grimly sung by drably dressed (old “Eastern-bloc”) choristers. At least they were not playing with the little fishes that had earlier served to demonstrate calmed waters.

This sea monster of the first act gave way to the playful little fishes of the second act mentioned above.

Did I get this right? More or less?

Well, it might have worked, and in fact the final Idomeneo scene was a powerful coup de théâtre that might have been convincing theater had the Opéra de Lyon provided a persuasive cast of singers, and more than perfunctory conducting.

As it was the voiceless Kate Aldrich was the only convincing presence on the stage, this fine artist here acted this travesty role with surprising masculine force (she physically attacked Idomeneo when she wanted him to do her bidding — note how this supports Mr. Kušej’s concept).

Mme. Aldrich in fact had the flu and could not sing (the flu had been passed around the cast, evidently you never knew who would be down for which performance). Her words were beautifully sung by Russian mezzo Margarita Gritskova who sometimes could not help becoming dramatically involved (musically). But we needed the artistic maturity of la Aldrich to make Idamante alive.

The balance of the cast, all fine singers, did not have the force of character or the physical presences to make a convincing case for this off-the-wall, politically naive, theatrically forced concept. It was a long, very long evening.

We can only shutter at our premonitions of what Mr. Kušej and Mr. Schmitt may attempt with Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Aix Festival this coming summer.

Casts and production information

Idoménée: Lothar Odinius; Idamante: Kate Aldrich; Ilia: Elena Galitskaya; Electre: Ingela Brimbert; Arbace: Julien Behr; Voix de Neptune: Lukas Jakobski. Orchestre et Choeurs de l’Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Gérard Korsten; Mise en scène: Martin Kušej; Collaborateur artistique à la mise en scène: Herbert Stöger; Dramaturgie: Olaf Schmitt; Décors: Annette Murschetz; Costumes: Heide Kastler; Lumières: Reinhard Traub. Opéra Nouvel, Lyon, February 1, 2015.

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Tristan et Isolde in Toulouse

Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, Elisabete Matos as Isolde
All photos copyright Patrice Nin, courtesy of the Théâtre du Capitole.

Tristan first appeared on the stage of the Théâtre du Capitole in 1928, sung in French, the same language that served its 1942 production even with Wehrmacht tanks parked in front of the opera house.

But ten years later, 1952, Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde in Toulouse, in German of course. The then director of the opera, tenor Louis Izar was a celebrated Ring Mime, and the then mayor of Toulouse, Raymond Badiou himself was big friends with Wieland Wagner. Toulouse had become known as Bayreuth-sur-Garonne (the river that passes through Toulouse).

Tristan und Isolde however disappeared from the Theatre du Capitole after the 1972 production (Herbert Becker and Klara Barlow), not to reappear until 2007 in a production by Nicholas Joël, remounted just now with American tenor Robert Dean Smith as Tristan and Portuguese soprano Elisabete Matos as Isolde. At the first intermission a tall gentleman strode through the bar loudly proclaiming in hoch British that it was “better than Bayreuth.”

Elisabete Matos as Isolde

Most of us have not been to Bayreuth so we cannot know, but it was indeed certain that this Tristan was already an ultimate experience, and that was well before the Tristan delirium that was the musically shattering climax of the performance. The conductor was 62 year old, Leipzig born conductor Claus Peter Flor, known in the U.S. as the guest conductor of the Dallas Symphony (1999-2008). While no stranger to the opera pit his program booklet biography reveals him to be primarily an orchestral conductor.

The maestro concentrated his attention on the famed Toulouse orchestra, here strings 12/12/10/8/6, triple winds but 6 horns, with the full backstage complement of 6 horns and 3 each trumpets and trombones. There were two harps for the mesmerizingly beautiful second act love tryst, Brangäne gorgeously intoning her admonitions. The exquisite minor third trills of the clarinets had already laid the foundations for Wagner’s eternally quivering passions.

If seventy six orchestra players and two heroic voices can be said to whisper this was the intimacy of the second act. In fact the first act as well was developed in personal rather than mythical voices, the oboes, flutes and English horn working to color Isolde’s despair, Brangäne’s (in black spectacles) deception, and Tristan’s indifference. The first act love duet was surprise more than passion, preparing us for the musico-psychological treatise on nineteenth Romantic century love that was the second and third acts.

Metteur en scène Nicholas Joël hovered between the real and the magical, his production sometimes staged and sometimes semi-staged. Wagner’s first act sailors were 8 supernumeraries [figurants] (the chorus was hidden) in formal concert dress (tails) who reappeared at the end of the opera as King Mark’s soldiers. The second act swords drawn, Melot’s thrust was symbolically received, Tristan fell, isolated on the other side of the stage. At the end of the opera Kurvenal’s thrust was symbolic, not actually touching the jealous traitor, Tristan’s friend Melot.

Elisabete Matos as Isolde, Robert Dean Smith as Tristan

Finally Tristan lying dead, Isolde rose, walked down stage center (the soldiers, the dead Kurvenal and Melot as well as King Mark had all slipped off stage). This was the liebestod for the brilliant-red gowned Isolde, in concert now. It was, as intended, a panegyric to love. It was not the end of an opera.

The coup de théâtre occurred at the beginning of the third act. The curtain rose on the wounded Tristan hanging over the front point of the now sharply elevated triangular center platform (the stage set was three platforms that in the first act had moved up and down as the wave motions of the sea). Arms and head dangling into the emptiness high above the orchestra pit Tristan remained there for maybe ten minutes (through the English horn solo and Kurvenal’s scene with the shepherd).

He awoke to deliver his great mad scene, always perched on this point, and somehow balanced philosophy with emotional rawness, rationality with irrationality. It was in this delirium that the maestro let loose with the great (and here the biggest) orchestral climaxes of the entire opera. It was the cerebral drama of this extended tract that made the Joël concept of Tristan become the masterpiece Tristan und Isolde is said to be — we both understood and felt love as if we were a Romantic poet.

Robert Dean Smith is of strong, secure and virile voice, his dramatic and musical intelligence apparent, well able to effect the considerable challenges of this mise en scène. He has already established himself as one of the important Tristans of our day on the world’s important stages. Elisabete Matos has performed Isolde once before, in 2011 at Barcelona’s Liceu. In the prime of voice she is able to soar to and beyond the enormous climaxes never compromising her richly colored sound. Her familiarity with the great Verdi dramatic soprano roles lies under her Isolde, the liebestod far more intimate and personal than heroic. The vast emotional vistas and philosophic scope of this production were perfectly realized in her performance.

German mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram well fulfilled the requirements of this production, her Brangäne a very present figure in Wagner’s conceptual preparations. Costumed in white German baritone Stefan Heidemann made a very present Kurvenal, his rather loud, darkly colored voice a welcomed contrast to the refined Heldon tenor tone of Robert Dean Smith. German bass Hans-Peter König was a perfunctory King Mark.

Conductor Claus Peter Flor created this remarkable musical vision that fulfilled the complex theatrical vision of Nicholas Joël. The stage and pit were remarkably synchronized, the maestro focused on his orchestra, the stage very sure of itself.

Casts and production information:

Tristan: Robert Dean Smith; Isolde: Elisabete Matos; King Mark: Hans-Peter Koenig; Kurwenal: Stefan Heidemann; Melot: Thomas Dolié; Brangaene: Daniela Sindram; Un Jeune matelot / Un Berger: Paul Kaufmann; Un Pilote: Jean-Luc Antoine. Choeur du Capitole, Orchestre national du Capitole. Conductor: Claus Peter Flor; Mise en scène: Nicolas Joel; Scenery and costumes: Andreas Reinhardt; Lighting: Vinicio Cheli. Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, February 1, 2015.

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Kat'a Kabanova in Toulon

(left to right) Mikhail Kolelishvili as Dikoï, Ange-Marie Todorovitch as Kabanicha, Christina Carvin as Katia, Ladislav Elgr (behind) as Boris, Zwetan Michailov as Tikhon
All photos copyright Frédéric Stéphan, courtesy of the Opéra de Toulon.

Káťa Kabanová is, they say, Janáček's first mature opera — it comes a mere 20 years after his masterpiece, Jenůfa.

It is true that the Káťa Kabanová libretto is closer to The Makropoulos Affair and From the House of the Dead, sharing the brittle dramatic structures of these works and revealing the growing selfishness and emotional pessimism of the sixty-seven year old composer. But musically Káťa Kabanová seems spoken in the same voice that sings the emotional idealism of Jenůfa. Herein lies the challenge of producing Káťa Kabanová — it must hover between hope and hopelessness.

The Opéra de Toulon has just now presented this Janáček masterwork for the first time ever. It is a new production shared with the Opéra d’Avignon, thoughtfully and carefully directed by Nadine Duffaut. The set is by Emmanuelle Favre, a designer often utilized in the south of France, notably Orange, Marseille and Toulouse. Mme. Favre works in bold strokes, in big shapes and with few colors. Her décors are impressive, expressive and beautiful. As is the set for Káťa Kabanová.

Set design by Emmanuelle Favre, costume design by Danièle Barraud

The stage was a huge white box, a full stage platform with period furniture on it hovered high above the stage floor, descending to create an interior or to provide shelter from the storm. The side walls were mirrorized making occasional flashes of the brightly colored costumes, like the sonic flashes of Janáček’s nervous orchestra. The Volga was a pool of real water, its splashes the visual echos of nerves on edge.

Family and business are the crushing forces in Káťa Kabanová. They are embodied in this suspended platform, and in the very presence of Kabanicha, the mother of Katia’s husband, sung by mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch. Mme. Todorovitch too is often on the stages in the south of France. She is a force of nature, her voice powerful, her presence riveting. Director Duffaut ended the opera with la Todorovitch standing front and center, triumphant in five intense beams of white light.

Sébastien Lemoine as Kouliguine, Christina Carvin as Katia

The drowned Katia lies behind her. Portraying Katia is a vocal and dramatic tour de force, riding the cusp at all times between hope and despair. Franco-allemande soprano Christina Carvin possesses the idea colors — the slavic warmth of tone, a maturity of tone that forebodes, and a freshness of sound that breathes life. Mlle. Carvin made a powerful Katia. This young artist now sings regularly at the Vienna Staatsoper.

Katia’s young lover Boris was sung by Czech tenor Ladislav Elgr with sufficient vocal prowess to indulge in the manic love fantasies of Katia, but never to allow his character to lose its sense of defeat. In the beautifully directed scene when Katia publicly admits her infidelity he hovered in the background, then fled, and after his final moments with Katia near the end of the opera he simply evaporated.

The complementing personalities of Janáček’s slavic world, named below, were perfectly cast, notably Icelandic tenor Elmar Gilbertsson who sang Kudriach, some of it while riding the obligatory Jenůfa bicycle, and some of it skipping stones across the pool of water.

If this fine effort by the Opéra de Toulon did not create the full impact of Janacek’s brief opera it came close. While the tempos effected by Australian conductor Alexander Briger seemed appropriate and easily managed by the singers, the sounds coming from the pit sometimes seemed labored. It was apparent that the maestro was working closely with the orchestra but even so the boil of Janáček’s orchestral continuum did not always take flight.

Casts and production information:

Kat'a: Christina Carvin; Boris: Ladislav Elgr; Kabanicha: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Dikoy: Mikhail Kolelishvili; Tichon: Zwetan Michailov; Varvara: Valentine Lemercier; Kudriach: Elmar Gilbertsson; Kouliguine: Sébastien Lemoine; Glasa: Caroline Meng. Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra de Toulon. Conductor: Alexander Briger; Mise en scène: Nadine Duffaut; Décors: Emmanuelle Favre; Costumes: Danièle Barraud; Lumières: Jacques Chatelet. Opéra de Toulon, March 27, 2015.

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Guillaume Tell in Monte-Carlo

Peasants revolt amidst a sea of Ferrari and Maserati's.

Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Celso Abelo as Arnold
All photos copyright by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

There was the usual automotive hardware in front of Monte-Carlo’s magical opera house. The peasants were all on the stage of the Salle Garnier, an embarrassment of riches, most notably Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell and Celso Abelo as the lovesick Arnoldo. In fact the entire cast beginning with Mekeldi Atxalandabso as Reudi whose hymn to Swizerland “Accour dans ma nacelle” that opens the opera upheld the high level of singing that defined the evening, Basque tenor Atxalandabaso’s warm and easy high “c”’s only the first of the many vocal pleasures of the evening.

Music director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo Gianluca Gelmetti presided over his orchestra for this occasion, an opera he conducted twenty-years ago (1995) at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro to enormous critical acclaim. Much has transpired in his career since 1995. He is now famous for the Italian post-Romantic repertory perhaps explaining the massive sonic scope he found in the Rossini score for the Salle Garnier, and the warmth of tone he infused into the orchestral sound firmly persuading us that Guillaume Tell was a new, sentimental Rossini, and a unique Rossini — it is the last of the Rossini operatic oeuvres.

Before all else Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is French grand opéra as its extended dramatic recitatives attest, though Rossini could not keep himself from breaking into some coloratura from time to time, a lapse effortlessly and beautifully absorbed into the musical flow by the maestro. Rossini discovered the pleasures of the rich French low mezzo-soprano voice in Hedwedge, the wife of Guillaume, dissolving this voice into a sublime trio with Guillaume’s soprano son, Jemmy and Mathilde, his savior, with its intricacies rendered by the maestro in rich delicacy. Though Gelmetti had already pummeled us with the fiery Rossini we know so well when Guillaume and Walter Furst shamed Arnold into fighting for his fatherland.

Nicola Alaimo as Guillaume Tell, Nicholas Cavallier as Walter Furst, Celso Abelo as Arnold

There was the spectacle of typical grand opéra, the maestro endowing the classic Rossini storm with truly terrifying proportions (even though it was the same storm we know from the Roman comedies). And there were the magnificent complexities of the Rossini ensembles we know from the later Naples tragedies, the defiance of the peasants to the strength of the Hapsburgs magnified by Gelmetti in the repeating brass motifs in the orchestra, each time louder until it could not become louder. But it did, shattering the acoustic of the Salle Garnier.

At last Rossini resolved the opera’s conflicts into a huge, uncharacteristically pastoral ensemble evoking the beautiful cello elegy of the overture with its singing oboe echoed by flute — the majestic serenity of the Alps’ mountain valleys restored. But only for a short while, the peasants finally rushed forward shouting “liberté, liberté!” as loud as they possibly could.

One could not help recalling that it was in 1910 when the Monegasque Revolution forced the prince of Monaco, until then an absolute ruler, to proclaim a constitution.

What we missed in Monaco were the ballets, an economy that saved us one and one half hours of time, compacting the above musical riches of the opera into a brief three hours twenty minutes. Other less obvious economies took their toll as well, rendering the storytelling sometimes oblique and other times incomprehensible. The adage that the full ballets are integral to the dramatic integrity of Guillaume Tell was again proven in Monaco.

Décors by Eric Chevalier, Costumes by Françoise Raybaud

Monaco-born Jean-Louis Grinda, the metteur en scène (and general director of Opéra Monte-Carlo) knows that the complex musico-dramatic structures of the Rossini tragedies resonate in abstract formulae, either conceptual (like the museum dioramas of the 2013 Pesaro production) or in the physical architecture of the set itself. In this new production Grinda’s designer, Eric Chevalier, evokes the Helvetic mountainous setting in hazy images projected onto an imprisoning box structure of small repeating panels that open and close, the back wall of which disappeared into the brilliant dawn-of-freedom light. Costumer Françoise Raybaud provided threatening teutonic patterns of the late nineteenth century for the Hapsburg characters.

Movement for the chorus action was in purely geometric terms — lines and circles. Images were few, simple and powerful. Guillaume Tell himself pulled a plow, like a beast, across the stage during the opening chorus (a shocking and confusing image), there were two dance pantomime sequences in which a ballerina and a ballerino were attached to one another in a kiss (like two animals stuck together in the mating act — another shocking and confusing image) — choreography by Eugénie Andrin. Arias and duets were delivered standing front and center, as in concert format. Grinda provided a basic context and basic movements for the opera, but did little to illuminate the story evidently relying on the genius of Rossini and the brilliance of the performances to fire the evening.

And that they did.

Italian baritone Nicola Alaimo is a gigantic figure, appropriate to a mythic hero of William Tell proportion. His voice and presence are warm, powerful and encompassing, in short he is a convincing Guillaume Tell. His antagonist Gessler, the Hapsburg governor, was sung by French bass Nicholas Courjal in threatening, black toned vocal color, with a vividly present figure. Spanish tenor Celso Abelo as the fickle tenor Arnold had high “c”’s to spare, squarely hit and held rather then finding place in the musical flow. Just when you thought no human could have the stamina to hit another, he hit the final one of his showpiece aria and held it forever. Mr. Abelo is an accomplished Rossini performer.

Annick Massis as Mathilde, Élodie Méchain as Hedwidge

French soprano Annick Massis was Mathilde, a role that only sometimes requires the Isabella Colbran dramatic coloratura model of Rossini tragedies. Mme. Massis indeed well held the stage as Hapsburg aristocracy, riding crop in hand, though her showpiece arias were powerful her coloratura was not convincing and her high notes were of a spread tone that defied identifying any one individual note. French contralto Elodie Méchain sang Guillaume Tell’s wife Hedwidge to absolute perfection, and Russian soprano Julia Novakova as his son Jemmy provided the appropriate upper edge to the ensemble textures.

The only disappointment of the evening was the staging (lack of) for the arrow and apple.

Casts and production information:

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo; Hedwige: Elodie Méchain; Jemmy: Julia Novikova; Arnold: Celso Albelo; Melchtal: Patrick Bolleire; Walter Furst: Nicolas Cavallier; Gessler: Nicolas Courjal; Mathilde: Annick Massis; Rodolphe: Alain Gabriel; Leuthold: Philippe Ermelier; Reudi; Mikeldi Atxalandabaso. Chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Direction musicale: Gianluigi Gelmetti; Mise en scène: Jean-Louis Grinda; Décors: Éric Chevalier; Costumes: Françoise Raybaud; Lumières: Laurent Castaingt; Chorégraphie: Eugénie Andrin. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, January 25, 2015.

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Peter Grimes in Nice

André Cognet as Swallow, John Graham Hall as Peter Grimes
All photos copyright Dominique Jaussein, courtesy of the Opéra de Nice.

Nice’s golden winter light is not that of England’s North Sea coast. Nonetheless the Opéra de Nice’s new production of Peter Grimes did much to take us there.

A new production of Peter Grimes is always news, in fact any production of this first Britten operatic masterpiece beckons travel from afar. Nice Opera artistic director (since 2012) Marc Adam was the metteur en scène for this new production for which he has collaborated with born-in-Algiers, raised-in-Nice, Juilliard School trained conductor Bruno Ferrandis. Mr. Adam previously collaborated with Mo. Ferrandis for a Wozzeck (Gurlitt) at the Opera de Rouen in 1997.

Much of Bruno Ferrandis’s career has transpired in Canada and the U.S. He is currently the music director of the Santa Rosa (California) Symphony.

Mr. Adam assembled an excellent cast. English tenor John Graham Hall as Peter Grimes possesses an appropriate voice for Britten heros, not the dramatic tenor often associated with Grimes, but the lighter, character voice that characterizes the Aschenbach of Death in Venice, another of Mr. Hall’s Britten roles. Mr. Hall has an affecting presence and the vocal stamina to have seen the role through this production’s expressionist requirements.

Fabienne Jost as Ellen (left lower corner)

French soprano Fabienne Jost sang Ellen. An ensemble singer at the Berne Opera and previously at German theaters, she offered a purity of voice and a musicality supported by fine technique that made this Ellen very pleasurable, in fact memorable.

Swallow was effectively portrayed by Marseille born, veteran bass-baritone André Cognet. French baritone Vincent Le Texier did not find the humanity of, or any softness for Balstrode, often barking his lines rather than singing. We were left unfulfilled by his character. Among the well cast smaller roles Marseille born tenor Edward Mout was especially effective as Bob Boles, all these rustic characters linguistically colored by carefully produced English sounds.

Among the more effective moments of the production were the black and white projections on the scrim covered proscenium that occurred during Peter Grimes’ famous orchestral sea interludes (of course Britten purists would have preferred no visual distraction from the sounds of these magnificent pieces). At times the images were the boiling sea, as well there were affective moments when the costumed actors were seen in pantomime through the foggy images. Puzzling however was the ascent to Grime’s cottage, rendered in images of industrial steel construction (the back side of the semicircular set unit was Grimes' hut).

Set design was entrusted to Roy Spahn who works primarily in German theaters. It was a strange semicircular multi-level abstraction of windows placed on a revolving stage. Installation of the revolving stage evidently necessitated a raised stage platform (about 60 cm [2‘] high) that was faced with incongruous black and white squares that looked a bit like Halloween decorations. The floor of the stage was not visible from the seats in the orchestra.

A further complication of the raised platform was the necessity to raise the conductor’s podium to give him view of the stage. This seemed to separate the maestro from his orchestra with the resulting impression that the orchestra was at adrift and rudderless, eviscerating the complex, ambiguous, sensual, cruel, tender, passive musico-dramatic world that is genius of Benjamin Britten. From time to time the maestro did take his eyes off the stage and engage the orchestra. These moments supplied brief impressions that the Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice was capable of creating the magic of the Britten score when asked.

It was perhaps an artistic choice of the director and conductor to strip the opera of its colors, moods and ambiguities, and focus the drama on the words and outward behavior of its actors. While this did create a theatrical atmosphere, often of great intensity, it stripped the opera of its emotional focus, rendering its protagonist as mentally unbalanced rather than as a complex human character adrift in a threatening natural world and outside an alien and uncomprehending human world.

Casts and production information:

Peter Grimes: John Graham Hall; Ellen Orford: Fabienne Jost; Balstrode: Vincent Le Texier; Tantine: Manuela Bress; Première nièce: Hélène Le Corre; Deuxième nièce; Anne Ellersiek; Bob Boles: Edward Mout; Swallow: André Cognet; Mrs Sedley: Sophie Fournier; Le recteur: Frédéric Diquero; Ned Keene: Bernard Imbert; Hobson: Thomas Dear. Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice; Choeur de l’Opéra de Nice. Conductor: Bruno Ferrandis; Mise en scène: Marc Adam; Décors: Roy Spahn; Costumes: Pierre Albert; Lumières: Hervé Gary; Chorégraphie: Pascale Chevreton. Opéra de Nice, January 24, 2015.

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Idomeneo in Montpellier

Vestiges of a momentous era . . .

A legacy of ousted Montpellier general director Jean Paul Scarpitta, the staging of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece remained entrusted to Scarpitta’s assistant Jean-Yves Courrégelongue. Both Scarpitta and Courrégelongue are stage directors whose artistic formations were with Robert Wilson. Both have developed strongly individual voices, Wilsonesque only in so much as they both cultivate an extreme minimalism. Of these two Montpellier directors Courrégelongue is more imagistic, Scarpitta is more satiric.

Courrégelongue and his designer Mathieu Lorryy-Dupuy used a chair, a curtain, a table and a swimming pool to bring alive Mozart’s tale of sacrifice. This was not to update an ancient story’s Baroque retelling so much as it was to purge a Mozart masterpiece of extraneous, misleading detail (the trappings of an anachronistic opera seria for example) and to make it what it is — a dramatic action in music, and nothing more.

And yes, there was still the spectacle that is so strikingly created in Mozart’s score. It was squarely minimalist where less is more — an all the more terrifying appearance of the beast of the deep in the symbolic form of a sacrificial table exploding in white light. High tension had already been created in the blackouts that exploded into the sudden appearances of Idomeneo and later the crowds of terrified Cretans.

Courrégelongue hit sacrifice hard, depriving the opera of its obligatory happy ending. Elettra not only longed for death, she sacrificed herself to the love of Ilia and Idamante holding the sacrificial knife and disappearing through the crowd into swimming pool.

At last the gods having been appeased and the crowd having cleared the pool of detritus (plastic bags, old tires, etc.) deposited by the storms, Elettra’s body, victim of the opera’s emotional storms, was retrieved and laid out to Mozart’s orchestral epilogue. The sacrifice we had fought all evening had become real, it was a sacrifice more real to us than the averted opéra seria mythological filicide. And it was pure Mozart.

In Idomeneo the young Mozart had made an immensely powerful opéra seria, and here we discovered a hidden depth of humanity to surprisingly illuminate this masterpiece. It was fully realized musically in Montpellier by French conductor Sébastien Rouland whose considerable career seems to be centered in big house productions of Baroque repertory (contemporary perspectives, not historical re-creations).

Mo. Roulard brings bite and high drama to Mozart, suppressing the neo-classicism (balance of tension and relaxation) that informs the symphonic Mozart and his soon-to-come comedies. The appropriate (reduced) forces from the Orchestre National de Montpellier eagerly responded to the maestro’s demand for edgy tone and sharply defined shapes. The orchestra melted into transparent pianissimos for the prayer of Idomeneo creating transcendent musical magic, then roared with frustration in Electra’s final aria. Rare sonorities of orchestration sang out, most notably the fine horn quartet.

Anna Manske as Idamante, Marion Tassou as Ilia

Mo. Roulard’s tempi were at once dramatically pointed and solidly within reach of the young cast. The three women were well matched in vocal color and accomplishment. Ilia was sung by French soprano Marion Tassou with beguiling purity of tone, Idamante was sung by Austrian mezzo Anna Manske who found a charming male/female compromise, and Elettra was sung by Swiss soprano Clémence Tilquin who raged with conviction in her aria begging for death. Robert Wilson costumer Yashi (single name) provided a simple dress for Illia, a shapely male business suit for Adamante and a slinky pants suit for Elettra, simple attire that spoke volumes about character.

Clémence Tilquin as Elettra

The male voices were under par for a Montpellier Mozart opera, all over-parted, i.e. either unable to fulfill Mozart’s vocal demands or too inexperienced to be convincing, or both. An announcement was made that American tenor Brendan Tuohy as Idomeneo was “soufrant” and would not be at his best. While an appropriately imposing figure as Idomeneo his lack of experience to take on a major role on an important stage was glaring.

Casts and production information:

Idomeneo: Brendan Tuohy; Ilia: Marion Tassou; Idamante: Anna Manske; Elettra: Clémence Tilquin; Arbace: Antonio Figueroa; Nepture priest: Nikola Todorovitch; Neptune: Jean-vincent Blot. Chorus and orchestra of the Opéra Orchestre national Montpellier. Conductor: Sébastion Rouland; Mise en scène: Jean-Yves Courrégelongue; Scenery: Matthieu Lorry-Dupuy; Costumes: Yashi; Lighting: John Torres. Opéra Commedie, Montpellier. January 4, 2015.

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L'elisir d'amore in Marseille

Paolo Fanale as Nemorino
All photos copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

There were hints that L’elisir is one of the great bel canto masterpieces.

The Opéra de Marseille revived the 2004 Toulouse production of L'elisir d'amore as its holiday season confection. And quite a confection it is. Former Nicholas Joël assistant Arnaud Bernard and his designer William Orlandi envisioned Donizetti’s hyper sentimental story as a series of early twentieth century photographs (a sepia tinged silver color palate), and took the concept a step further by constructing a stage that was a series of shutters (complex flats that moved somewhat like the shutter of a still image mechanical camera).

There were complicated, sometimes amazing scenic moves, that included a disintegrated figuration of the shutter flats when we learned that Nemorino had become rich. Of course there were many visually splendid freezes, some self consciously posed for an on-stage old fashioned larger-than-life prop camera.

Set and costume design by William Orlandi

Yes, of course there were period bicycles that circled the stage (including a precarious ride by the diva), and there was was the antique automobile that brought on Dulcamara, an absolutely splendid car by an unidentified luxury maker that had been structurally reinforced to permit actors to climb all over it (Nemorino was exceptionally agile), and yes, of course there was the miniature model of the car as well, parked upstage with its tiny highlights on to oversee the consummation of the story (that Adina and Nemorino do in fact love one another).

Bel canto operas are indeed about singing, and Elisir is a series of arias, duets and trios that easily convince you, at least for the moment, that this opera must be the epitome of the style. Metteur en scène Arnaud Bernard’s snap shot concept at best set the stage for the singers to present themselves in specific musical moments to be remembered (i.e. visual moments where the bel canto could really rip). At worst the complex staging overwhelmed if not ignored Donizetti’s easy, satisfying sentimentalism.

The singers therefore had the challenge to live up to the production. Nemorino, Italian tenor Paolo Fanale, came the closest. While Mr. Fanale may not possess the sweetness of voice or character to be the ultimate Nemorino, he does possess the artistry to have delivered an absolutely exquisite “Una furtive lagrima,” the highpoint of the performance well recognized by the audience. This fine artist gamely executed the considerable antics required by the stage director.

Paolo Fanale as Nemorino, Inva Mula as Adina

Veteran soprano Inva Mula who recently sang Desdemona both in Marseille and at the Chorégies d’Orange competently managed the vocal and histrionic demands of Adina (as she had in San Francisco Opera’s 2008 Elisir when she had had to find her way through middle American cornfields in some heavy handed Americana). Her impressive vocal technique served her well though it revealed the strains of maturity when she did not secure satisfying pitch for her high notes, and it came across as mere competence in Adina’s spectacular “Prendi, per me sei libero,” not the joyous exuberance of singing so many notes so fast.

Argentine baritone Armando Noguera sang Sargent Belcore, late in the evening displaying some lovely coloratura in an otherwise underweight performance. The same may be said of the Dulcamara of Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna, a veteran of many roles at Pesaro’s Rossini Festival who well displayed his fine buffo instincts but who was dwarfed by his automobile and his magician costume. Gianetta was nicely sung by French soprano Jennifer Michel, evidently cast because she could sing the role rather than create the character.

It was not clear what was going on in the pit. Italian conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli seemed to be trying to conduct Donizetti’s opera while the stage was laboring to do Mr. Bernard’s production. The stage seemed to have the upper hand, after all it took a lot to execute all those antics — and while the shutters moved flawlessly they might not have. There was little synchrony between the pit and stage, and there seemed to be little synchrony between conductor and the orchestra players, who seemed reluctant or maybe technically unable to enter the bel canto spirit.

Finally Mo. Rizzi Brignoli and tenor hit it off magnificently in “Una furtiva lagrima,” and the maestro seemed at last to capture the spirit of Donizetti with his orchestra. Any hope for synchrony with the stage remained futile.

Casts and production information:

Adina: Inva Mula; Giannetta: Jennifer Michel; Nemorino: Paolo Fanale; Belcore: Armando Noguera; Dulcamara: Paolo Bordogna. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli; Mise en scène: Arnaud Bernard; Décors/Costumes: William Orlandi; Lighting: Patrick Méeüs. Opéra de Marseille (France). January 2, 2015.

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Aureliano in Palmira in Pesaro

The year is 1813, Rossini is 22 years old. He has two huge successes in Venice — L’italiana in Algeri, his first big comedy (there were seven smaller ones before), and Tancredi, his first big serious opera (there was two previous smaller ones). But on December 26 his next opera seria, Aureliano in Palmira is a flop at La Scala. [These are reminders for Rossinians.]

The libretto of Aureliano in Palmira is by La Scala’s librettist, the prolific Felice Romani who provided the librettos for all three Rossini La Scala commissions — Il Turco in Italia (1814), and Bianca e Falliero (1819) make the three. Romani is best known and appreciated for his many librettos for Donizetti and Bellini.

Michael Spyres as Aureliano

Most Romani librettos were set by multiple composers, though the three Rossini librettos were only set by Rossini. The turco in Italia libretto is dramatically quite complex enabling a stage director to produce it just now at the Aix Festival as Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a concept it wore perfectly. The libretto Aureliano in Palmira is no less complicated, compacting three or more major battles and their motivations and aftermath into two confusing acts. As is opera’s wont the libretto transforms documented military history into affective opera history which we Rossinians find far more real than mere history anyway.

The Aureliano in Palmira libretto by Felice Romani was famously the cause of the failure of the opera. The librettist felt the need to defend his work, saying that he was never “discostato un momento dal verosimile” meaning that his story at least always seemed real, or that it could have been real. It was up to Rossini then make it real. The contemporary perception was that he did not, the fault of the singers, said Rossini. But it was a big job — they had to deal with the undying love of the Prince of Persia and the Queen of Syria thwarted again and again by the might of the Roman Empire led by the Emperor Aureliano who lusted intermittently after the Syrian Queen while never wavering from his military objectives.

Jessica Pratt as Zenobia

It is hard to fault the quality of the music of Aureliano in Palmira because Rossini simply recycled it two years later into Il barbiere di Siviglia which was a flop too. But only at first. It quickly became one of the repertory’s more esteemed masterpieces. So Rossini was right, there was nothing wrong with the music.

The Rossini Festival had given us a simply splendid Barbiere the night before, so all of the tunes and colors were fresh in our ears. It befell the American conductor/scholar/critic Will Crutchfield to transform these musical lines and colors into intense periods of amorous passion, passionate rejection, heart breaking sorrow, vivid denunciation, etc. Miraculously he succeeded more or less. He did securely ground the performance in opera seria, transferring the onus upon us, the audience, to forget what we know so well. It was not always possible.

The Rossini Festival entrusted the production of this difficult opera to director Mario Martone who couldn’t quite fit it onto the stage of the Teatro Rossini, clumsily spilling a Roman column and a throne out over the orchestra pit. Gratuitously some entrances onto the stage were made through from the audience, plus the chorus was often spread out onto the stage apron and left there, exceeding the boundaries of imagination imposed by the proscenium. These naive attempts at theatrical immediacy gave way to claustrophobia.

Filmy panels of various sizes flew in and out to make mazes, tents, battlefields, palaces, and mountains. Plus there was an elevated walkway hidden behind the brown backdrop that from time to time revealed soldiers, refugees, etc., trudging to and fro. That was it. Except for four real, live goats who burst onto the stage during a lovely chorus (though Asia may be in flames peasants rejoice in the freedom and poverty of their fields). Yes, one goat squatted to pee thereby adding a river.

Lena Belkina as Arsace, Jessica Pratt as Zenobia

The emperor Aureliano was sung by American tenor Michael Spyres, a believable general, a believable actor and a very good bel canto singer. Mr. Spyres does not possess the high notes to make Aureliano a Rossini hero. Zenobia, Queen of Syria, was sung by statuesque Australian soprano Jessica Pratt. Mme. Pratt has strong, secure high notes that impress audiences. She does not move easily on the stage. Arsace, the prince of Persia, was sung by Uzebekistan mezzo Lena Belkina, an accomplished singer who projects the feeling that she wishes she were somewhere else, or at least that you were not looking at her. The production did not make it clear who Publia was. Sung by Raffaella Lupinacci, Publia suddenly professed to be in love with Arsace in her one aria, and for a moment we had the hope that she and he would get together, that Aureliano and Zenobia would get together and the opera would end. It didn’t.

Cast and production information:

Aurelliano: Michael Spyres; Zenobia: Jessica Pratt; Arsace: Lena Belkina; Publia: Raffaella Lupinacci; Oraspe: Dempsey Rivera; Licinia: Sergio Vitale; Gran sacerdote: Dimitre Pkhaladze; Un Pastore: Raffaele Costantini. Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Will Crutchfield. Metteur en scène: Mario Martone; Scenery: Sergio Tramonti; Costumes: Ursula Patzak; Lighting: Pasquale Mari. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, August 15, 2014.

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Il barbiere di Siviglia in Pesaro

Ossia Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why waste a good tune.

Both by default and by merit Il barbiere di Siviglia is the hit of the thirty-fifth Rossini Opera Festival. But did anyone really want, and did the world really need yet another production of this old warhorse?

The Rossini Opera Festival’s answer to this question was inspired. Its conceit was to stage a semi-staged Barber, stripping the production of any pretense of importance, and avoiding the thankless challenge to some unfortunate stage director of discovering a brilliant new perspective (there are those who remember the Pesaro staging some years ago by Luigi Squarzina — he placed the action in the Teatro Anatomico [the medieval dissection room] of Bologna’s famous, ancient medical school).

So now in Pesaro there was not even a stage director, but a class from the Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino who conceived, staged, designed and executed the physical production (an un-named professor did admit to some coordination). There were approximately thirty twenty-somes who took a bow.

The production, and it was a fully staged semi-staged production, alternated between hijinks, caricature, slapstick, assault, nonsense and genius utilizing every inch and orifice of the Teatro Rossini to get us through the score we know so well. Most of it occurred on the floor of the platea (the orchestra section), deftly finding its way onto the stage apron for the big arias. “Largo al Factotum” and “Una voce poco fa” for example were delivered concert style but in magnified visual relief — Rosina clothed/costumed in a discrete concert black dress, Figaro decked out like an adventurous audience member clothes horse.

The big ensembles of course occurred on the stage, presentationally, and lest we forget that we were observers we watched a lone observer, patently passive, eternal, seated on the stage watching as well. The boxes in the walls of the Italian horseshoe theater were integrated into the action, audience so seated had to get out of the way when the action trampled through their box, the walls of the tiered horseshoe even transformed themselves into lighted scenery making the world a stage.

The staging was a series of lazzi (commedia dell’arte visual tricks) blown up to supersized proportion, and you were in the middle of it. This was the concept and it worked marvelously. It was a masterpiece of casting —excellent, matched singing actors who animated the Rossini magic of great music working through the age-old comic process — youth outsmarting age. And this production was just that — the creativity and exuberance of these Urbino students dismissed the experience, perspective and intelligence of a metteur en scène.

It was also the limitation of this extraordinary evening.

Juan Francisco Gatell as Almaviva, Chiara Amarù as Rossina

It was platinum casting. Young French baritone Florian Sempey may as well be named Giacomo Rossini. He is the spit and image of the twenty-four year-old Rossini of 1816, overflowing with musical energy and unfettered fun. His Italian was perfection, his patter exceeded the speed of light. In short he is the Figaro of your dreams. Upstaged, and then only briefly by Italian bass Alex Esposito as Basilio who in a simple black cossack fingering his rosary oiled his way onto the stage to deliver “la calunnia” knelt in fervent prayer, roaring divine strength and terror to Dr. Bartolo, confessionally kneeling as well. The Basilio of your dreams.

Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna achieved unusual presence as Bartolo, and won us over to a real understanding of a man obsessed by the delights of his table and his fear of germs. He was a not too old, not too ugly, just a fully humanized Bartolo whose obsessed patter too exceeded the speed of light, But he was foiled by the truly dumb antics of his coltraltino (a light voiced, high Rossini tenor) competition — what operatic tenors lack in intelligence they make up in fervor. This was Argentine tenor Juan Francisco Gatell who obliged Rossini’s idea of articulate, gurgling youth to the maximum.

Rosina, Sicilian mezzo Chiara Amarù, needless to say stood in box overlooking the stage (displacing its inhabitants) while she was serenaded by Almaviva. She wore a big post-adolescent smile all evening, except when she sang, and then it was replaced by deadly serious, positively astonishing coloratura. The depth of casting included a sixty-some Berta, that of sixty-some Italian soprano Felicia Bongiovanni, and even a strong voiced Fiorello, Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore, who displayed intimidating smarts and later, as the Ufficiale, entered the auditorium astride the full-sized rolling horse we saw in the lobby as we entered the theater.

Not to forget the male chorus, members of the local amateur chorus, the Coro San Carlo di Pesaro, who filed on and off the stage, concert style, to wheezily debunk whatever possible sense of fancy opera that might still be present. This wonderful Coro completed the sense of community — Rossini, artists, audience — that the perpetrators of this evening succeeded in creating.

It was finally an evening about words, every word of the comedy clearly articulated and understandable. This was made possible by the perfection of the pit. Young Italian conductor Giacomo Sagripanti coaxed the members of the orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna to an always comfortable level of delirium that supported and completed the delirium of the singers and the staging. This careful balance in fact made the young Rossini the true star of the show.

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Florian Sempey; Rosina: Chiara Amarù; Count Almaviva: Juan Francisco Gatell; Bartolo: Paolo Bordogna; Basilio:Alex Esposito; Berto Felicia Bongiovanni; Fiorello: Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore; Ambrogio: Alberto Pancrazi. Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Coro San Carlo di Pesaro. Conductor: Giacomo Sagripanti; Concept/projections/scenic elements/stage movements/video/costumes: Accademia di Belle Arti di Urbino. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro, August 14, 2014.

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Armida in Pesaro

Armida (1817) is the third of Rossini’s nine operas for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, all serious. The first was Elisabetta, regina di Inghilterra (1815), the second was Otello (1816), the last was Zelmira (1822).

The San Carlo was the world’s most important theater at that time. Its legendary caffe waiter turned opera impresario Domenico Barbaja had not only the famous mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran (his mistress, later Rossini’s wife) on his roster but also three splendid baritenori [literally baritone tenors] — the baritenore, the contraltino and the tenore di grazia represent the Italian high tenor voices of the time. Plus the San Carlo possessed a sizable stable of dancers, an accomplished orchestra with excellent solo players, and, not least, a stage endowed with the latest in technical innovations!

With Elisabetta (anticipating Sir Walter Scott) and Otello (Shakespeare) Rossini had ventured into dramatic territory new to opera. Two masterpieces resulted. But in Armida Rossini returns to the imaginary world of chivalry and its heros, specifically the knight Rinaldo and his captor, the beautiful witch Armida (the late-Renaissance poet Tasso’s intense version of Ariosto’s Alcina, both derived more or less from the Ariadne myth we know so well from the Richard Strauss opera).

Like Tasso Rossini plays the emotive strains of rapture and rage in gloriously rich language — Tasso in word and Rossini in music. The Teatro San Carlo’s librettist was one Giovanni Schmidt who gave Rossini lots and lots of syllables to transform into sublime vocal lines — the inimitable Rossini flights of vocal delirium. Schmidt’s libretto is indeed long on affect (and quite short on action and situation) giving Rossini ample opportunity, maybe too much opportunity to exploit his voices and to explore the affective potentials of the musical instruments in his pit — horns of course and also the extreme treble range of the cello as examples.

Carmen Romeu as Armida

Even without the complex ensembles that burst forth so magnificently in many of the Neapolitan operas there is potentially just enough of the Rossini genius in Armida to thrust it into the masterpiece sphere. This did not occur just now in Pesaro.

The conductor was Carlo Rizzo, well known to big house audiences for the grand repertory. His Rossini credentials seem to be that he will conduct Mosé in Egitto and Guillaume Tell at the Scottish Opera a couple of years from now. This maestro’s intention seemed to be to layer the moods and colors of late Romantic music onto Rossini rather than to energize and illuminate the Rossini vocabulary and gesture. The Rossini score did not support this stylistic transposition and left us indifferent to the orchestral playing and much of the singing.

In fact the sole ecstatic ovation of the evening occurred for the ballet (normally there are many extended periods of applause and foot stomping that Pesaro audiences use to release their excitement, though intelligence from opening night reports that that audience released its disappointment with considerable booing)! Just when you thought that opera ballets were unique to France you found a thirty or so minute ballet in Naples, and two years later there is an extended dance scene in Mosé in Egitto as well. Throughout its years of patronage by the Bourbon dynasty the Teatro San Carlo fulfilled these rulers’ love of dance.

In the Act II finale Armida conjures an allegorical vision of a young warrior succumbing to the pleasures of the senses. Rossini composed an orchestral theme and variations that choreographer Michele Abbondanza exploited to the fullest with eight or so quite athletic and accomplished dancers from his Compania Abbondanza/Bertoni (his collaborator is the dancer/choreographer Antonella Bertoni) backed up by what seemed to be about ten, maybe twelve able and willing supernumeraries. Mr. Abbondanza’s movement vocabulary was advanced, at once inventive and highly controlled. It was complex, ornamental and inexhaustibly evolving. It was an absolutely over-the-top feat of theater. In short it was everything you want from a Rossini performance.

Choreographer Abbondanza is a teacher at the Scuola di Teatro Giorgio Strehler. The director of this school of such prestigious name is octogenarian Luca Ronconi who was not so coincidently the metteur en scène of this Armida together with his septuagenarian collaborator Ugo Tessatori.

The Rossini Festival assigned Armida to the Adriatic Arena, a venue that has seen over-the-top mise en scènes in recent years, its vast spaces transformed into massive scenic installations supporting brilliant concepts. Thus expectations were high. Long time Ronconi collaborator Margherita Palli created the scenery. It was a crumpled brown paper-like background against which floor to ceiling display cases slid on and off, plus there was a hidden conveyor belt that weirdly transported actors on and off the stage but oddly only three or four times over the long evening. It would have been more appropriate scenery in Pesaro’s traditional Teatro Rossini.

Signor Palli’s credits include installing shows at various museums over the years. Perhaps this experience led to the production concept which seemed to be that we should see this old opera as artifact rather than as living, breathing art. Costumer Giovanna Buzzi cooperated by dressing her soldiers in clumsy, oversized armored vests and blousey shirts that visually stultified all sense of movement. Armida, the only female singer, was in abstract bird-like, intensely colored gowns, solid red for her final scene of first supplication, then revenge. The demons were dressed as bats in costumes that reeked of naiveté to our modern eyes, further quoting antique style costuming and further creating the sense of artifact that Sigg. Ronconi and Tessatori apparently sought.

Armida was sung by young Spanish soprano Carmen Romeu, an ambitious assignment she completed honorably if without distinction. Armida is a role for a star — for the Spanish mezzo-soprano Isabella Colbran as example. It demands a magnetic performer and a great singer. At this point in her career Signorina Romeu is still an aspiring artist who boasts clean and careful, finely wrought coloratura. But the role as well requires considerable full voice singing in the lower soprano register where Romeu sometimes lacked the support necessary to maintain accurate pitch. One does however appreciate the conceit of casting a Spanish soprano in this Colbran role.

Dmitry Korchak as Carlo, Antonino Siragusa as Rinaldo, Randall Bills as Ubaldo

The high point of the evening was when Rossini’s compositional virtuosity exploded in the third act three tenor trio, “In quale aspetto imbelle” — Rinaldo sees himself reflected in a warrior’s shield as a disarmed lover. The knights Ubaldo and Carlo encourage him in his struggle to sacrifice love to glory. The lover Rinaldo was sung by Italian tenor Antonino Siragusa, a veteran of many roles in Pesaro, usually villains. It was a stretch of imagination to see him as the romantic hero. He is a very fine singer with all the secure, ringing high notes Rossini demands, and exquisite, beautifully voiced coloratura. He offered the finest vocal pleasures of the evening.

Russian tenor Dmitry Korchak cut a fine figure first as Gernando, a French knight who was outraged when Rinaldo was elected as leader of the French forces, and then as Carlo, a knight sent to rescue Rinaldo from Armida. Mr. Korchak possesses the baritonore voice, a darkly colored high voice. While he did manage his few high notes, barely, he created none of excitement with them that he achieved in his coloratura. American baritenore Randall Bills was asked to portray Goffredo, the commander-in-chief of the Christian forces. He is a slightly built, fine young artist with a lovely, warm tone. He was dramatically far more successful later in the opera when he had become the French knight Ubaldo and contributed significantly to the overwhelming beauty of the tenor trio.

Cast and production information:/

Armina: Carmen Romeu; Rinaldo: Antonino Siragusa; Goffredo/Ubaldo: Randall Bills; Gernando/Carlo: Dmitry Korchak; Idraote/Astorotte: Carlo Lepore; Eustazio: Vassilas Kavavas. Ballet: Compagnia Abbondanza/Bertoni. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Carlo Rizzi; Metteurs en scène: Luca Ronconi and Ugo Tessitore; Choreographer: Michele Abbondanza; Scenery: Margherita Palli; Costumes: Giovanna Buzzi, Lighting: A.J. Weissbard. Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival. Arena Adriatica, Pesaro, August 13, 2014.

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Il turco in Italia at the Aix Festival

A revitalized Rossini world has emerged over the past several decades, the difficult if astonishing tragedies find occasional productions, the famous comedies find ever tighter mise en scènes, and singers have reached for an ever more refined Rossini technique and style. So when a conductor comes along who can enter the Rossini ethos, and this is not often, a sort of operatic nirvana can be achieved.

Director Alden’s Turco at the Long Beach Opera is remembered as one of these rare operatic moments. While the musical resources of a small opera company are limited, and American operatic resources twenty years ago were more enthusiastic than accomplished the Long Beach Turco succeeded not because of conducting but because of the staging. Alden’s heroine, trapped in her drab existence, found escape in the movies (like many of us in the 1950’s), and imagined herself swept of her feet by a handsome guy in a white suit with an accent. Finally, of course, real life prevailed and real love won the hearts of everyone.

This simple concept anchored three hours of singing, and made the very high artifice itself of the brilliant Rossini style the emotional crux of this fantasy of fulfillment.

Twenty years later Alden has now envisioned Rossini’s comic masterpiece as an intellectual game, much like Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Alden has made Rossini’s playwright Prosdocimo the protagonist of the opera, not just a benevolent facilitator of an intrigue about to happen (librettist Felice Romani had enriched a commonplace operatic comedy with the conceit of an author looking for a story). Alden’s Prosdocimo is an omnipresent troublemaker in perpetual conflict with his characters.

Prosdocimo possesses a Pirandello era (or so) typewriter on which he actually performs the Rossini score — clackity clack, clackity clack — in lively sync with the sounds coming from the pit. Well, until the heroine Fiorella grabs the typewriter to write her own script for a while. Alden makes his concept work flawlessly, with business between the author and his characters happening every second. Few if any moments are spared for us to savor the human dimensions of the story while we admire this interplay of wills.

Alden and his set designer Andrew Lieberman know that less can be more, therefore they endeavored to keep the surroundings as simple as possible. The set is a floor that is stuck upon what would be the back wall of the stage climbing onto what would be the ceiling — a mind-boggling vaulted floor. It is the floor of an unidentified room, maybe the floor of the Korean evangelical church the pair used for their Berlin Aida a few years back. There was a church basement coffee urn in one corner of the Aix set, a reference certainly foreign to the French audience.

Alden furthered his early-twentieth-century-theater concept with an extravagant overlay of theatrical tricks discovered by Pirandello’s contemporary Bertolt Brecht. The staging was indeed an amusing primer in Brecht's so-called Epic Theater, notably the half curtain, here movie palace green with a gold fringe. Set and costume changes were Brechtian a vista — we got to see a few of France’s intrepid intermittants actually at work (these are seasonal theatrical technicians about to loose their favored unemployment compensation who had gone on strike to prevent the premiere of Il turco from occurring as scheduled). All this Epic Theater served as smart business to intensify the mind games.

Lighting designer Adam Silverman provided an initial blast of stark white light emanating from a stage-wide hanging line of institutional lights, then at times he used only a part of the line to indicate a reduced acting area within the extreme width of the Archevêché theater. As well much use was made of exaggerated side lighting (a side wall deftly slide back to admit this strong yellow gold light), not to mention changing the color of the huge back wall floor to rose or light green from time to time, and the surprising moment when a strip, stage wide, of lights embedded into the floor burst into in brilliant upward light. Like the staging and the design, the lighting too was virtuoso.

The prow pole of a classic sailing ship, replete with the sumptuous breasts of its carved female figurehead, was the Brechtian image for the Selim (the Turco). He was Romanian bass Adrian Sampetrean who was purely and simply machismo incarnate. Vocally he delivered raging coloratura cleanly and in full voice and displayed a confidence of character that was appropriately intimidating. Russian soprano Olga Peretytko, a regular at the Pesaro Rossini Festival, made a cheap and sassy Fiorella, well able to delightfully embody the caricature of a tacky Hollywood sex queen. Unfortunately by this penultimate performance (a run of seven) she was unable to find the vocal brilliance and stability that would equal her exquisitely defined character.

American soprano Cecelia Hall was Zaida, the Turco’s original love now in competition with Fiorella, She was costumed, like the Turco (whose only Turkish mark was a beaded fez), in homely, 30’s or 40’s drab everyday western clothes. The costume designer was Kaye Voyce, like Lieberman and Silverman, a frequent Alden collaborator. She managed a huge variety of vividly defined costumes — gypsy-like skirts for the six women extras who accompanied the drab Zaida (so we would know she is a gypsy even though she was not dressed like one), not to forget the transparent, filmy, fancy ball gowns the eighteen male choristers donned to create the masquerade party.

All this theatrical brilliance on the stage would have been more effective and more meaningful had there been a brilliant Rossini pit. As it was there were Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, an original instrument orchestra (instruments of the time a piece was composed) founded 30 years ago by its now famous conductor Marc Minkowski. Perhaps, though doubtfully, a Rossini orchestra actually sounded like a wheezy reed organ, but this is not the sound needed to support a conceptually and theatrically complex contemporary opera production.

Conductor Minkowski never reached the Rossini boil that propels the listener into musical euphoria. The only true Rossini moment of the evening was achieved by tenor Lawrence Brownlee who gamely portrayed Don Narciso (an additional suitor of Fiorella) as an trench coat covered spastic. He lay in front of the half curtain and delivered “Tu seconda il mio disegno” in high style to earn the biggest, and the only real ovation of the evening.

Italian buffo Pietro Spagnoli ably fulfilled the task of bringing Alden’s high energy Prosdocimo to life for the duration of the long evening, and baritone Alessandro Corbelli found his match as the duped, defeated Don Geronio, the long-suffering husband of Fiorella.

Casts and production information:

Selim: Adrian Sâmpetrean; Fiorilla: Olga Peretyatko; Don Geronio: Alessandro Corbelli; Narciso: Lawrence Brownlee; Prosdocimo: Pietro Spagnoli; Zaida: Cecelia Hall; Albazar: Juan Sancho. Chœur: Ensemble vocal Aedes; Orchestre: Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble. Conductor: Marc Minkowski; Mise en scène: Christopher Alden; Décors: Andrew Lieberman; Costumes: Kaye Voyce; Lumière: Adam Silverman. Théâtre du l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 19, 2014.

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Winterreise and Tauernacht at the Aix Festival

That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for Aix-en-Provence productions this year.

Luckily German baritone Matthais Goerne and Austrian pianist Markus Hinterhauser were enlisted by the Festival to imbue genuine nordic Romanticism into the Schubert masterpiece. Albeit the strum und drang of late Romanticism that seemed on the brink of expressionism.

Mr. Goerne is famous for his performances of Die Schöne Müllerin (including a recent performance in San Francisco), making this 1826 Schubert cycle an outwardly emotional experience within his evenly tempered, dynamic and very clear baritone sound. It is a reading of the cycle that proves his mastery of its performance traditions and embarks on a measured transcendence of historical style and Schubertian presence.

His Winterreise was even more transcendent. It was a terrifying, angry journey through Schubert’s bleak landscape. Mr. Goerne emitted uncomprehending cries and bitter exclamations reliving an heretofore unexplored agony that can only be supposed within the soul of the syphilis stricken 28 year-old composer. With his accomplice Markus Hinterhauser hunched over the gigantic Steinway piano middle-aged Matthais Goerne exposed Schubert’s one hour twenty minute journey in unrelenting, electric tones that tore through your soul.

The physical presence of this large man and powerful artist, his voice magnified by the designer acoustic of the recital hall of the new Aix conservatory of music, plus the resources of a twenty-first century engineered concert grand piano played by a hyper sophisticated musician (Mr. Hinterhäuser is the artistic director of the Salzburg Festival) could only dwarf the gloss of the video accompaniment imagined by South African artist and actor William Kentridge. Mr. Kentridge does not possess the vocabulary or emotional scope to embody or virtualize these first moments of the very brief Schubert maturity.

In spite of a vague physical resemblance (both middle aged, comfortably fed men) Mr. Goerne could not become the traveler imagined by Mr. Kentridge. In fact that traveler was William Kentridge himself, his pen and ink drawn profile (resembling and as recognizable as the famous profile of Alfred Hitchcock) marched across the screen already in the second song. This alone created an insurmountable gulf between the actual (Mr. Goerne) and the virtual (Mr. Kentridge).

Mr. Kentridge is well known to opera audiences through his brilliant stagings of a puppet Il ritorno d’Ulisse and a multi-media Die Zauberflöte. His staging of Shostakovich’s derisive The Nose was betrayed by his evident good and open nature, quick wit and easy charm. These overpowering Kentridge attributes were indeed present in his Winterreise as well and were in irreconcilable conflict Mr. Goerne’s angoisse.

There were a few interesting moments. Baritone Goerne gave his performance in concert position standing by the piano that was placed off to the side of a low stage platform backed by a large screen. In the seventh song Goerne walked to the middle of the platform to relate momentarily to the projected visual field — Schubert’s river torrents were rendered as pen and ink drawn water faucets. It was conscious recognition that there was no connection between music and image, and this alone created a powerful connection.

Again in the seventeenth song the baritone moved center stage to recognize Muller’s sleepless villager who had become Kentridge’s sleepless, cigar smoking mogul — a striking, wild card image that effectively layered extraneous nineteenth century industrial revolution overtones upon baritone Goerne’s private and personal desolation.

The twenty-first song, Schubert’s inn by a cemetery, achieved a sort of unity of word and image. Kentridge rendered the simplicity of the conceit of this song by drawing lines of tombstones in crude shapes that bespoke his exhaustion of ideas. And finally in the twenty-fourth and final song Schubert’s old man rolling his cart on icy paths through the freezing village became Kentridge’s procession of bent South African black women, silhouettes, carrying their burdens or pumping railroad carts, images that are a recurrent image in the Kentridge oeuvre. Word and image were in distinct hemispheres (northern and southern) but became, surprisingly, one globe.

Katie Mitchell’s Trauernacht is a collection of four choruses, five recitatives and five arias (ranging between BWV 46 and BWV 668) from among J.S. Bach’s 200 cantatas. Plus an initial a capella motet composed by Johann Christof Bach that at once reduced our expectations of the vocal forces for the evening to the four singers who were on the stage to sing it.

British stage director Mitchell distinguished herself at the Aix Festival two years ago with her staging of Richard Benjamin’s Written on Skin (it was a complicated household situation) and returned last summer for another premiere, The House Taken Over (a complicated household situation) thus it was no surprise that Trauernacht (Night of Mourning) was a complicated household situation — a soprano, alto, tenor and bass try to come to grips with the death of their father over dinner.

Katie Mitchell and young French early-music conductor (and counter-tenor) Raphaël Pichon compiled these bits of cantatas that are sort of like a requiem mass — a sinner begs to be saved — though unlike a requiem mass it seems in Trauernacht that the children ultimately find solace in the illusion that their father basks in the gaze of God.

The four voices (two males and two females), simply and somberly clothed, wandered onto a platform where there was a dinner table and four chairs, though there was a fifth chair that was finally occupied by the father who sang one brief aria. However for most of the evening he remained a phantom who sat at the back of the naked stage, standing up from time to time to whistle eerily.

The four singers had mastered slow motion movement in order to move on and off the stage without disturbing the almost beat-less flow of the music. These artificial movements were quite extended as the singers served themselves a three course meal from shelves that were on the far sides of the stage. They were barefoot.

All this might have worked had the musical forces been finished artists. As it was the young musicians on the stage and particularly those in the pit lacked the polish to create a purity of sound and form that can propel J.S. Bach’s music into celestial spheres. What might have been sublime music (and probably was on the recordings used to imagine this pastiche) became a tedious exposition of antique four-part harmony.

Katie Mitchell is old enough to have known better.

Casts and production information:

Winterreise: Baryton: Matthias Goerne; Piano: Markus Hinterhäuser. Mise en scène et création visuelle: William Kentridge; Scénographie: William Kentridge et Sabine Theunissen; Costumes: Greta Goiris; Lumière: Herman Sorgeloos. Aix-en-Provence Conservatory of Music, July 12, 2014.

Trauernacht: Le Père: Frode Olsen; Soprano: Aoife Miskelly; Mezzo-soprano: Eve-Maud Hubeaux; Ténor: Rupert Charlesworth; Basse: Andri Björn Robertsson. Orchestre: Instrumentistes de l'Académie européenne de musique. Conductor: Raphaël Pichon; Mise en scène: Katie Mitchell; Costumes et scénographie: Vicki Mortimer; Lumière: James Farncombe. Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, July 16, 2016.

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Nabucco at Orange

It was a production by Jean-Paul Scarpitta who was stage director and scenery and costume designer. Mr. Scarpitta’s dramaturgy is informed by his fascinations for Giorgio Strehler and Robert Wilson from which many wonderful stagings have resulted during his ten year residency in Montpellier.

There was promise in the air, the breadth of the raked stage (300 feet wide, 60 feet deep) was covered in a black asphalt-like substance, the mostly intact, imposing scaenae frons (back wall of the theater) was bare, overseen from high above by the massive sculpture of the Emperor Augustus. The revelation of the evening was the lighting of the black floor by Urs Schônebaum, its enormous shiny, rough surface shone in a myriad of intensities for the huge exterior scenes, sometimes it was reduced to a brilliant square of white light to frame a singer (Nabucco’s intensely personal “Son pur queste mie membra”), other times strong directional side light cast enormous, elongated shadows across the stage that deepened emotional relationships (the Act I confrontation of Abigail with the lovers Fenena and Ismaele).

Scapitta’s staging of Verdi’s early masterpiece was sabotaged often by the video projections on the back wall. After an initial appreciation of the technical feat of accomplishing such massive projections (ranging from discretely deployed white-lighted, descending emotional shapes to the ugly, yellow-ish, sprayed styrofoam image that covered the entire back wall for the palace interior scenes) the projections became distractions to the accomplishments of the singers and lights on the black floor.

Mr. Scarpita is a musical stage director, his actors moved more by musical line and musical structural rather than by dramatic motivation. Here too he was sabotaged, now by singers who were read as static lumps of color rather than as the excited singers responding to the young Verdi whose Nabucco revealed his genius for the first time.

Veteran Georgian baritone George Gagnizde made some big sounds in a strong entrance but soon fell into an almost lieder-like performance by a bored singer. Veteran Austrian soprano Maria Serafin, a noted Tosca, no longer has the bloom of voice and perhaps never had the agility of voice to create a vibrant Abigail, a character Verdi created to tear-up-the-stage vocally and dramatically.

Younger members of the cast were more effective. French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes made a low key Fenena that conveyed a static presence and personality in her monochrome rose costume. Italian tenor Piero Pretti sang a stylish Ismaele and moved gracefully.

The opera is however about Nabucco and Abigail, not Fenena and Ismaele. Russian bass Dimitry Beloselskiy made it about the Jewish high priest Zaccaraia as well. This fine young bass found the voice and presence to make his role the biggest performance of the evening. Unfortunately his performance was sabotaged by his costume, a white robe covered by black lightning bolt-like (sort of) shapes. While the powerful shapes on the costume sought to embody a force of divine strength they instead made his exhortations seem decorative rather than dramatic.

The costumes of the chorus were always identical, creating giant blocks of color on the stage, mostly static swathes of color that in theory (and if they were far larger) might have become a pedal-point musical color. The problem of how to move these blocks of color onto and off of the stage was never overcome. An additional scenic impulse backfired — thirty or so spear carrying Babylonian warrior extras wearing only loin clothes. Had these stalwart young Orangeois been clothed they might have seemed handsome and strong. Semi-nude they exposed a variety of shapes and postures that cried out for prosthetic chests.

The sight lines from the cavea (the tiered seating) of the Théâtre Antique makes the orchestra (seated in the “orchestra” of a Roman theater) a visually important part of the field of vision. This presence together with the fine acoustic of the theater leaves the orchestra as exposed as a solo singer on the stage. Here the unforgiving acoustic revealed the weaknesses of the Orchestre National de Montpellier, particularly the winds, The sound of the orchestra itself lacked the finesse expected of a fine French orchestra.

The conducting of veteran Israeli maestro Pinchas Steinberg did not come near the intense excitement that Verdi had found within himself for opera as a patriotic art form, nor for the new styles of vocal virtuosity that Verdi asked of his singers. Even “Va pensiero” came across as little more than a self-conscious hum along.

And what about the lighted, window onto upstage stage center from back stage that was left uncovered? Its light and passing figures fouled the stage picture of anyone sitting in Section 4. Is there no one home at the Chorégies?

Casts and production information:

Abigaïlle: Martina Serafin; Fenena: Karine Deshayes; Anna; Marie-Adeline Henry; Nabucco: George Gagnidze; Zaccaria: Dmitry Belosselskiy; Ismaele: Piero Pretti; Il Gran Sacerdote di Belo: Nicolas Courjal; Abdallo: Luca Lombardo. Orchestre National Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Choruses of the opera companies of Nice, Montpellier, Avignon and Toulon. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Mise en scène, scenery and costumes: Jean-Paul Scarpitta; Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Théâtre Antique Romain, Orange, France, July 9, 2014.

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Ariodante at the Aix Festival

High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.

All for Lodovico Ariosto’s brief histoire of Ginevra and Ariodant in his send-up of chivalry in his epic farce Orlando Furioso. By the time this little story got to opera it had lost the famous indulgent smile Ariosto cast on knights and damsels and now needed about twenty-five arias to resolve a truly complicated mess.

This production by British director Richard Jones was created just now in Aix, the start of its travels to Amsterdam, Toronto and Chicago — the Aix Festival has an incessant belief that co-productions are economical.

Somehow Ariosto and Handel and the American Midwest made Mr. Jones think of American Gothic painter Grant Wood’s “Dinner for Threshers” (or maybe it was Ultz’s idea, his mono-named designer). The set was an exact copy. We would not have known where Handel’s opera takes place had not Ariosto’s King of Scotland worn a kilt. But Richard Jones’ American threshers of the Wood painting were on the stage much of the evening keeping the action firmly in the western hemisphere, a presence that did not endear them to the exasperated audience (there was whistling when these valiant participants took their 2 AM bows).

Mr. Jones determined that Ariosto’s poetic immolation of fallen damsels might be poetically well represented by implying the brutally restrictive mores he imagines imposed by American gothic principles. It is an amusing premise, probably more amusing to Europeans than to Americans like me who think that Europeans should mind their own moral business.

Handel’s Ariodante is different than most Handel operas because it includes dance interludes (Handel inserted them to be able to include the participation of a famous dancer and her company at the Covent Garden 1735 premiere). Since Ginevra is believed to be a fallen woman these interludes made Mr. Jones think of burlesque pole dancing (an art form born in Canada during the Great Depression by the way) that he was able to include by turning Ginevra, at least as imagined by American threshers, into a puppet who was stripped of her chaste garments, then scantily clad in black vinyl and red spike heels and made to masturbate abstractly on a rake handle.

But Mr. Jones did not exclude dancing after all, as he had his American threshers shed their shoes and line them up across the front of the stage in the old death ovens image and happily do a country dance to the arias that announced the “they-lived-happily-ever-after” resolution (The king of Scotland was spared from burning his daughter who married her intended, Ariodante, after all).

Mr. Jones’ real Ginevra however bought none of this. She packed her suitcase, slipped out of her bedroom, walked onto the stage apron and when last seen was hitching a ride, presumably to Toronto or Chicago.

Maybe there was Ariosto’s famous smile after all. The audience indulged Mr. Jones with rapt attention in the second and third acts (it was hard to concentrate in the first act — read on), and rewarded him with thunderous boos (hues in French), meaning that we had had a very good time and loved every minute and that we did not know what to think. Mr. Jones’ wide smile never left his face.

Where was Handel in all this, you may ask. Well, he was right there and having a very good time too, though none of this was what he had in mind.

The esteemed Freiburger Barockorchester is in residence in Aix for this 66th Festival d’Aix with its period brass and wind instruments, and its gut strings making its uniquely cultured sound that placed Handel’s score in another time and another place. Just when you might have thought that it does not really matter what orchestra is in the pit for a Handel opera an aria would come along that was infinitely enriched the with colors that could emanate only out of this superb orchestra.

Handel surely could have only rejoiced to the matched cast of excellent singers brought to Aix for the occasion. French soprano Patricia Petibon overshadowed all others in an over-the-top performance as Ginevra, able to float beautiful high, straight (vibrato-less) tones and to cut loose in full voiced lyricism. As Mr. Jones’ Ginevra she introduced a pathos to her Act II lament (she believes Ariodante is dead) that went beyond brilliant Baroque singing to arrive, almost, at whispered tones. In total her very clear voice mfelted into a beautifully defined and determined character — it was a complete performance.

No less striking was the Polinesso of Italian contralto Sonia Prina as Handel’s vindictive Duke and as Mr. Jones’ morally corrupt fundamentalist preacher who stood over Grant Wood’s harvest table during the overture to deliver the blessing (an understandably exasperated audience member shouted “oh sit down”). Mme. Prina sang with color and assurance as if she were a famed castrato, her staccato fioratura genuinely astonishing, her brilliant wig (a long gray, troublesome lock on either side fell onto her face, plus a long, sexually ambivalent braid) made us detest her even more.

The balance of the cast gave high-wire vocal acts as well. Dalinda (Ginevra’s maid) as sung by French harpist turned soprano Sandrine Piau was not Handel’s confused soubrette but a full-scaled vocal villain who raged magnificently at love and not because Polinesso had raped her (on stage) but because he did not love her. Ariodante’s brother Lucanio was sung by American tenor David Portillo who was the junior member of the cast, and even so managed to hold his own and render his inexperience and youth as Lucanio’s innocence and naiveté. Italian bass Luca Tittoco straddled the poles of an isolated, old fashioned farmer who should have felt a bit silly in a kilt while he had to be a mythical personage from the age of chivalry at the same time.

Ariodante, British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connelly, brought an encompassing warmth to Handel’s hero, having suffered setbacks worthy of Ariosto’s erstwhile knight on her way to the stage, escorted from her dressing room to the stage by police who protected her from the intermittents who had broken into the backstage of the theater, knocked over a stagehand and blocked her way (first act). Later (second act) she waited to deliver her exquisitely chiseled lament (Polinesso had deceived Ariodante into believing that Ginevra was unfaithful) while a screaming car alarm was located and removed from the auditorium.

Italian early music conductor Andrea Marcon [sic] presided, evidently unflappable, over the evening, not stopping when the intermittents began a barrage of noise just outside the open air theater during the first act. Though later he coolly halted his pit musicians and the stage when security measures needed to be undertaken, started again as if nothing had happened. Thankfully in Act III (1:30 AM) he did not stop when lightning, thunder and raindrops competed with Handel and Richard Jones for our attention. The wind whipped costumes of the singers must have created some consternation among those on the stage who surely were, like us, praying for the end to come.

And yes, finally, the twelve valiant threshers from English Voices, the excellent chorus, took off their shoes and danced one last time. We booed gleefully and went back to our hotels.

Casts and production information:

Ariodante: Sarah Connolly; Ginevra: Patricia Petibon; Dalinda: Sandrine Piau; Polinesso: Sonia Prina; Lurcanio: David Portillo; Il Re di Scozia: Luca Tittoto; Odoardo: Christopher Diffey. English Voices (chorus) and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Andrea Marcon. Mise en scène: Richard Jones; Décors et costumes: Ultz; Lumière: Mimi Jordan Sherin; Chorégraphe: Lucy Burge; Metteur en scène et concepteur des marionnettes;Finn Caldwell. Théâtre de l’Archvêché, Aix-en-Provence, July 3, 2014.


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La Flûte Enchantée (2e Acte) at the Aix Festival

In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.

These are the folks who brought down the 2003 Aix Festival after disrupting the opening night La traviata, and are threatening to bring down the current Aix and Avignon festivals, the crown jewels of estival high art in France. Recognizing the periodic nature of employment for workers in theatrical arts, including cinema, the French government awards the intermittants unemployment compensation well above that provided unemployed workers in fields that offer permanent employment.

This enlightened and much abused program of the French state subsidizes the ferment of the theatrical arts in France by allowing technicians and artists to pursue careers in theater rather than by forcing them to seek careers in fields that provide full employment. The Aix and Avignon festivals are the most vulnerable battlefields for working through the inevitable fiscal and political tensions created by such a program.

All of the intermittents of the Aix Festival filled onto the stage at a bit after 7 PM last night (July 2, opening night), one of whom read a brief, dignified statement about the contribution of the intermettents to French arts. The audience applauded and they filed off, not delaying the performance sufficiently to allow those of us who arrived mistakenly at 7:30 for an 8 pm curtain to catch the first act.

Never mind, Act II is the masterpiece act. It was a great pleasure to be able to enter the auditorium, finally, the chorus seated in a spread out auditorium fashion facing us (the audience) on the bare, black stage. Sarastro walked through the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (seated house level) mounted the podium to deliver the Masonic creed in a precious, very precious German (like you might use to speak to idiots). This address was on what is called the “God” microphone (the microphone held by the stage director during the final theater rehearsals) that reverberates in volumes only known to overpowering deities (stage directors). It was an impressive trick. Promising.

Trail by Water to sound effects (visual effect in silence)

The production, by London theater personality Simon McBurney, was first done last winter at the English National Opera in the English language. What may have been real words (in English) to a British audience became cute, caricatured Germanic sounds for a very French audience in very French Aix that enclosed the entire production (well, the second act) within quotation marks — Die Zauberflöte quoting itself. Add this to Mr. McBurney’s highly self conscious theatrical vocabulary — all scenic effects were physically performed in miniature on one side of the stage and projected onto the stage backdrop, all sound effects (multitudinous) were physically created in miniature on the other side of the stage and amplified throughout the hall. The presence of theatrical manipulation was overpowering.

Mr. McBurney and his collaborators have a fecund recollection of advanced theater vocabulary, virtually every avant-garde gimmick that has been over-used in theater crazed Berlin over the past 30 or so years found its way onto the Grand Théâtre de Provence stage during the next hour or so, very long hour or so. The few very fine moments of theatrical success — the opening Act II council, the Queen of the Night’s Act II wheelchair aria ("Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen"), Tamino and Papageno’s final encounter with the Three Ladies, and the choreographic shapes created in the final chorus unfortunately did not contribute to a comprehensible exposition of the philosophy of this masterpiece.

McBurney’s Flute set out to amaze and amuse. On this level it well succeeded with the opening night audience. However Mozart’s massive singspiel was never intended to be an ordinary little entertainment for the Viennese hoi polloi of yesteryear or the Parisian haute bourgeoisie of today. It set out to exemplify the encompassing nobility and the eternal importance of the Masonic process, not to make theatrical fun out of it. Die Zauberflöte was completely forgotten in McBurney’s theatrical gluttony. But no matter, the audience was impressed and the powers that be of the Aix Festival are pleased as Punch.

Presentation of the flute by members of the orchestra

Bernard Foccroulle (foe-crew-yeh), general director of the Aix Festival is committed to co-productions as a cost-cutting measure. Therefore any production you now see in Aix may not be specific to the time (now) and place (Aix). In this case Mozart’s Flute was created last year by an Englishman for an English audience. What then remains to make the Aix Flute a production of the Aix Festival is the cast, chorus, conductor and orchestra.

It is a prestigious festival. Its efforts to assemble the musical personnel are intelligent, interesting and far-reaching. The Flute cast reached perfection in the Pamina of young Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen with just the right blond look who possesses of voice of pure tone befitting of the purity and innocence of Mozart’s heroine. The same may be said of young French tenor Stanislaus de Barbeyrac who found the perfect balance of innocent manhood and enlightened aspiration.

Papageno was Dutch baritone Thomas Oliemans who was given so much business on the stage and within the audience that his presence was irritating to those of us (surely there were at least a few of us) who did not buy into Simon McBurney’s onslaught. This included a virtuoso level keyboard performance by Mr. Oliemans on a keyboarded glockenspiel, an imagined version of an instrument Mozart included but of which no example has survived.

Queen of the Night

The balance of the cast from around Europe and the U.S. were handsome singers, very ably fulfilling their requirements. German bass Christof Fischesser as Sarastro suffered the indignity of competing with the very loud, extraneous sound effects McBurney added to the Sarastro scenes. The contrast between these volumes and the natural acoustic of Mr. Fischesser’s voice rendered, by comparison, his arias too softly delivered to be impressive.

The three boys, named only as soloists of the Knabenchor der Chorakademie Dortmund, were big, finished performers who grandly did McBurney’s bidding of turning the purity of young boys into instruments of the Queen of the Night’s chaos.

Freiburg’s famed baroque orchestra (Freiburger Barockorchester) was in the pit bringing spectacular colors to Mozart’s transcendental music. The 32 youthful voices of Britain’s English Voices created a magnificently clear, beautifully pure and very loud "Die Strahlen der Sonne" (the final chorus). Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado presided over the occasional periods the production allowed the Mozart score to take over. His efforts to make an impression then became too obvious. Even so, there were many splendid musical moments.

Mr. McBurney skipped in to take his bows in jeans, a shirt carelessly (wanna bet) tucked in, and a baseball cap worn backwards. Cool, very cool.

Casts and production information:

Tamino: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Pamina: Mari Eriksmoen; Queen of the Night: Kathryn Lewek; Papageno: Thomas Oliemans; Papagena: Regula Mühlemann; Sarastro: Christof Fischesser; Monostatos; Andreas Conrad; Erste Dame: Ana-Maria Labin; Zweite Dame: Silvia de La Muela; Dritte Dame: Claudia Huckle; Der Sprecher: Maarten Koningsberger; Erster Priester/Zweiter Geharnischter: Krzysztof Baczyk; Zweiter Priester/Erster Geharnischter: Elmar Gilbertsson. English Voices (chorus) and the Freiburger Barockorchester. Conductor: Pablo Heras-Casado; Mise en scène: Simon McBurney; Décors: Michael Levine; Costumes: Nicky Gillibrand; Lumière: Jean Kalman; Vidéo: Finn Ross; Sound: Gareth Fry. Grand Théâtre de Provence, July 2, 2014.

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La traviata in Marseille

It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).

Maybe because it had a bad reputation as a betrayal of Alexander Dumas fils’ novel La Dame aux Camélias and maybe because local critics had already objected to its jumpy motifs and its vulgar rhythms. Once on the stage of Marseille’s venerable Opéra (1787) however it has become, with Rigotetto, Marseille’s most performed opera.

These June performances were sold out three months in advance — one wonders what foresight will have informed the Marseillais that this was a Traviata not to miss?

Zuzana Marková as Violetta, Teodor Ilingäi as Alfredo
All photos copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy of Opéra de Marseille

Alexander Dumas fils too might have been pleased. His 20 year-old Marguerite, renamed Violetta in the opera was very young as well, and very beautiful. The honesty and ironic innocence that Dumas finds in his ill-starred prostitute radiated from young Czech soprano Zuzana Marková in her role debut.

Mlle. Marková may have been a somewhat tentative Lucia last winter in Marseille, but as Violetta she moved with new found grace and delivered a deeply studied performance with complete mastery and conviction. She is a remarkable technician in the first flower of beautiful, clear, coloratura voice. The E-flat taken in “Sempre libera” rang with silvery confidence, the mid-voice of the second act and death shone with strength and warmth.

It was a sterling performance allowed by remarkable conducting, that of Stuttgart formed young Korean maestra Eun Sun Kim (it is already an established career with credits at English National Opera, Frankfurt Opera, Vienna Volksoper). The maestra is clearly of a new generation of conductors who feel tempos in a minimalist sense — slower macro-pulses offering sound spaces where immediate depths may be probed. Musical energy is discovered by the exploration of this microcosmos rather than in energy found by forcing brute speed and sudden braking.

This musicianship allows for the lyric expansion inherent in bel canto and here it laid bare the roots of the mid-period Verdi in this rapidly disappearing style. Mlle. Markocá exposed bel canto’s purity of melodic intention by stylishly suspending her musical lines, plus she exploited these long, carefully sculpted melodic contours in lovely pianissimos and full fortes, and with beautiful vocal colors.

Zuzana Marková as Violetta, Jean-François Lapointe as Giorgio Germont

The conducting of Eun Sun Kim well served the artistry of Canadian baritone Jean-François Lapoint as Giorgio Germont. Mr. Lapoint who counts both Pelleas and Golaud among his roles is primarily known in the French repertory. He brought a projection of text from these roles, and a delicacy of delivery that created an unusual depth of personality and musical presence to Germont. The absence of an Italianate color and inflection, and an inborn leading-man presence were overcome here by the convincing sense of bel canto that he and Mlle. Eun achieved (Mr. Lapointe also counts Donizetti’s Alphonse XI [La Favorite] among his roles).

It was a new production, the work of Renée Auphan, the former general director of Marseille Opera (perhaps accounting for the care in its casting). In her program notes she cautions us not to think too much about the Dumas novel, that that demi-monde is far removed from our experience. She asks us instead to focus on Verdi’s universal humanity.

Gaston, Alfredo, Le Marquis, Violetta, Flora

But the characters in her staging are very much those of Dumas, starting with the youth of Mlle. Marková (if not the brattish confidence of Dumas’ Marguerite) and the forty-some age of the has-been prostitute Flora. Her Act III party admitted the startling vulgarity of the demi-monde as described by Dumas. French mezzo Sophie Pondijiclis made this role vividly real, a revelation. French mezzo Christine Tocci played Annina, here transformed from Verdi’s dramatic utility into Dumas’ Nanine, a factotum confidante, possibly a lover of Marguerite, not a chamber maid. Costumed in male styled trousers and top, with a bright smile and strong voice Mlle. Tocci was constantly at Violetta’s side, a vivid, voiceless presence in Act I.

Act II begins with Alfredo’s outpouring of contentment, the emotion ironically compromised by the presence of Dr. Grenvil, who sits writing something, perhaps a prescription, while Alfredo sings the opening of "dei miei bollenti spiriti" to him. The doctor then departs, imparting a perfunctory gesture of professional sympathy to Alfredo. Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincâl made Dumas’ obsessive Armand quite real as Verdi’s Alfredo. Mr. Ilincâl is a strong voiced, Faustian tenor who well embodied Dumas and Verdi’s single minded and selfishly Romantic lover. Verdi simply does not award him the delicacy or complexity of feeling that he lavished on Violetta and Germont.

Mme. Auphan is wise to suggest that we not dwell on Dumas. But understanding the detail of her mise en scène together with the exemplary casting and the musical depth of the conducting explains why this staging brought unexpected vitality to this old warhorse. It was not a moving Traviata so much as it was an almost clinically musical and dramatic examination of this masterpiece. And finally it was mesmerizing art.

The new production provided an unobtrusive, standard mid-nineteenth century setting designed by Marseille born Christine Marest, a veteran of the late 20th century avant garde. The scenery, beautifully lighted by photographer Roberto Venturi, was a stage box that easily transformed its feeling from salon to an intimate, emotional interior space most notably in the “sempre libera.” In Dumas novel this scene takes place in Marguerite’s boudoir, in the Auphan production the lights of the salon are softened into dim, candle light, and just as in the Dumas novel Alfredo was present, making this scene an operatic pas de deux, Violetta voicing her conflicts while Alfredo crumpled a white camellia.

There were performances on six consecutive days, thus there were two casts. Jean-François Lapointe however unexpectedly sang all performances (and was still in fine form at the fifth performance). Intelligence from the pressroom indicates that the alternate cast was quite impressive — Romanian soprano Mihaela Marcu as Violetta and Turkish tenor Bülent Bezdüz as Alfredo.

Casts and production information:

Violetta: Zuzana Marková; Flora: Sophie Pondjiclis; Annina: Christine Tocci; Alfredo Germont: Teodor Ilincäi; Giorgio Germont: Jean-François Lapointe; Le Baron: Jean-Marie Delpas; Le Marquis: Christophe Gay; Le Docteur: Alain Herriau; Gaston de Letorières: Carl Ghazarossian; Giuseppe: Camille Tresmontant. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Eun Sun Kim; Stage Director: Renée Auphan; Scenic Designer: Christine Marest; Costume Designer: Katia Duflot; Lighting Designer: Roberto Venturi. Opéra de Marseille, June 21, 2014.

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Rusalka in Monte-Carlo

Every-once-in-a-while a Rusalka comes along, and this week there are even two here on the French Riviera — just now in Monaco and upcoming Saturday on movie screens all along the coast.

While invisible pulses of energy emanating from New York’s Lincoln Center will become huge shapes, bright colors and amplified sounds the Opéra Monte-Carlo’s Rusalka was vividly alive on the stage of one of the world’s most beautiful theaters, the Casino’s 500-seat jewel box, the Salle Garnier).

The renowned Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo was in the pit in full force with notably splendid harp playing to evoke the splashes of water that were in fact quite real splashes of quite real water.

Stage director Dieter Kaegi created a contemporary story to frame the adolescent fairytale that is Dvorak’s last opera (of ten). During the overture two shapely bodies (male and female) on a motorcycle came upon a hidden pond. They shed their cloths (though strangely not all-the-way), dove in and did not reappear. It was of course a magic pond, so water sprites emerged — three stick-like marionettes (with three human operators) whose voices were three black-gowned singers standing downstage.

Maxim Aksenov as the Prince and Tatiana Pavlovskaïa as the Foreign Princess [Photo courtesy of Opéra Monte-Carlo]

More splashes of real water for the half-drowned appearance of the water god Ondin, father of the water sprite Rusalka who was not a marionette. Dressed in filmy light blue she was meant to be water itself so she never had to get actually wet. The romantically deluded Prince appears with his rifle to sing an impassioned love duet with Rusalka as he whisks her away to his palace, not forgetting to pick up the rifle he had put down when he embraced her.

Rusalka had had to negotiate with the witch Jezibaba to become human, the price was losing the ability to speak i.e. sing. Meanwhile the two shapely motorcycle bodies reappear to dance a pas de deux under the theater lights carefully focused by a stagehand who sang the role of the forester. A visiting princess points out that the prince is ignoring his guests. It is not certain if the prince falls in love with this princess even though he loves Rusalka above all else. Anyway, Rusalka thinks he has fallen in love with another.

All this gives rise to absolutely beautiful music, the Czech equivalent of an over-wrought Giordano, an uncanny amalgamation of Tchaikovsky’s on-your-sleeve emotions with Wagner’s subliminal emotional and philosophic impulses. There is a plethora of musical climaxes that offer frequent hints that the opera is about to end but it never does. It takes big voices to sail over the top of all this music.

The Opéra de Monte-Carlo took very good care of these needs. American conductor Lawrence Foster imposed the necessary sweep and importance to big music on a trivial subject. It was cleanly shaped, an approach that ignored a slavic pathos that might ignite such fateful tragedy. Dutch soprano Barbara Haveman brought big voice to Rusalka that she uses with high-level artistry, her “Měsíčku na nebi” was sensitively detailed with a felt intimacy in this actual context rather than as the usual concert aria. While Mme. Haveman did not find the youth and innocence in her voice that made her Monte-Carlo Jenufa (2007) memorable, she accomplished with sincere aplomb the miming of being water, and in fact distinguished herself as a total performer.

Barbara Haveman as Rusalka and Maxim Aksenov as the Prince [Photo courtesy of Opéra Monte-Carlo]

Russian tenor Maxim Aksenov brought good looks, good high notes and an theatrical savoir faire that reveals his foundation in music theater and his grounding in the slavic repertory. Russian soprano Tatiana Pavlovskaïa added temperament, impassioned voice and very good singing to the Foreign Princess. Slimy costumed Russian bass Alexeï Tikhomirov, most often seen splashing in water or dripping water proved himself a willing performer who made the most of his role in this context. Polish mezzo-soprano Ewa Podles lustily sang the witch Jezibaba, naively directed as if she were the witch in Hansel and Gretel.

Director Kaegi completed the frame he created to enclose Dvorak’s opera by allowing his motorcycle couple to emerge from the pond during the final duet and delightedly photograph one another holding remnants of the fairytale still taking place — the Prince lay in the pond along with the now upended motorcycle and other detritus, dying his watery death in the arms of Rusalka who did not care.

Casts and production information:

Le Prince: Maxim Aksenov; La Princesse étrangère: Tatiana Pavlovskaïa; Rusalka: Barbara Haveman; L’Ondin: Alexei Tikhomirov; Jezibaba: Ewa Podles; Le Garde Forestier; Valdis Jansons; Le Marmiton: Julie Robard-Gendre; Première Nymphe; Daphné Touchais; Deuxième Nymphe: Marie Kalinine; Troisième Nymphe: Mayram Sokolova. Chœur de l'Opéra de Monte-Carlo; Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Conductor: Lawrence Foster; Mise en scène: Dieter Kaegi; Décors et costumes: Francis O’Connor; Lumières: Olaf Lundt. Salle Ganier, Monte-Carlo, January 29, 2014.

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Lucia di Lammermoor in Marseille

A handsome new production, beautifully staged in Marseille’s fine old opera house cried out for a cast to make the opera bel canto.

Not that there was not some good singing, namely Czech soprano Zuzana Markova as Lucia. Originally the Lucia of the relief cast (taking two of the six performances) this beautiful young singer was advanced into the primary cast when illness forced the first Lucia to cancel. Of secure technique, solid musicianship and a voice in its youthful bloom Mlle. Markova did hold the stage the entire evening, lacking only a diva presence to achieve a convincing bel canto performance. This talented young artist is in dire need of coaching — not only how a real diva artist might act this demanding role but also how a real diva might act.

Certainly Mlle. Markova was not in a position to pull diva antics, like refusing to wear the costumes designed for Lucia by Opéra de Marseille house designer Katia Duflot. A bona fide diva would know that if the audience was baffled by the gravity defying design of her bare shoulder red gown, it was probably not paying attention to her performance. Never mind that the red gown did not finally reveal a topless Mlle. Markova, the bare shoulder white gown of the wedding scene all but revealed everything. Mlle. Markova’s lovely young breasts simply upstaged her beautiful young voice.

Giuseppe Gipali as Edgardo, Zuzana Markova as Lucia. Photo by Christian Dresse

On the other hand Lucia's brother Enrico sung by French baritone Marc Barrard was visually choked by the high collar Mme. Duflot engineered for his first act costume. Our sympathy for his strangled sound was however unfounded as his later costume with unbuttoned shirt allowed plenty of breathing room. We discovered that his voice is unfocused and sounds very worn, or perhaps making a bel canto sound is simply foreign to his voice. If the program booklet biography is at all complete this role may have been his first venture into this repertory.

Giuseppe Gipali was the Edgardo. This Albanian tenor turned bel canto into can belto in vocal tones and shapes that were stylistically appropriate if monochromatic and unvaryingly forte. Mr. Gipali is not an affecting performer, his eyes never on the person (Lucia) he was singing to, instead his face was always outward, performing directly to the audience. His final scene — his suicide — was in fact splendidly sung, lacking any hint of sincerity of emotion that could bring this famous opera to its hyper-Romantic conclusion.

And finally Polish bass Wojtek Smilek was Raimondo, the Calvinist priest. Mr. Smilek is an important local resource, frequently appearing in Marseille, nearby cities and in Paris. He sings just about every smaller principal bass role you can think of. Unfortunately Raimondo is a big role, with lots of exposed singing. While Mr. Smilek is a fine singer he does not have the warmth of tone required for basso cantante roles nor the smoothness of line that can make him a lyric bass.

Lucia di Lammermoor is a numbers opera, one big aria or duet after another, embellished by chorus interjections that change circumstances to motivate even more beautiful singing — there is simply a huge amount of a very particular style of solo singing. This opera must be carefully cast. It was not.

The Sextet. Photo by Christian Dresse

The pit was overseen by French conductor Alain Guingal who responsibly sustained the proceedings but supplied no stylistic flourish to make this evening musically vibrant. While the big harp obligato in the first act was magnificently played the flute duet with Lucia’s mad scene was rendered with contours and colors that went too far beyond those offered by Mlle. Markova.

The new production was staged by French theater director Fréderic Bélier-Garcia. He is the absolute master of staging operas that are strings of numbers, finding natural seeming motion for his singers while they perform lengthy arias about how they feel. Here he exploited a new trick by sometimes taking his singers to the extreme sides of the stage to stand against the wide soft black false proscenium, removing the singer from all scenic context. With absolutely glorious lighting by designer Roberto Venturi the singers were suddenly stripped of everything except voice and artistry —what greater effect could be created for the supreme moments of bel canto opera!

The physical production was designed by Jacques Gabel, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Bélier-Garcia. The design was minimal, two scrims on which various forest shapes were projected, a platform that was sometime a ramp and sometime a pier, like on a lake, and (of course) a chandelier. The sensuous stained glass Jesus figure on a panel flown in for the Enrico/Edgardo meeting is hard to explain, as are the brilliant northern light colors that embellished the scrims from time to time. But not as hard to explain as the costumes described above that just did not seem to belong in a drafty old Scottish castle.

Cast and production information:

Lucia: Zuzana Markova; Alisa: Lucie Roche; Enrico: Marc Barrard; Edgardo: Giuseppe Gipali; Raimondo: Wojtek Smilek; Arturo: Stanislas de Barbeyrac; Normanno: Marc Larcher. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Alain Guingal; Mise en scène: Frédéric Bélier-Garcia; Scenery: Jacques Gabel; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Roberto Venturi. Opéra de Marseille, February 6, 2014

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La favorite in Toulouse

French mistresses are much in the news these days, and now the Théâtre du Capitole’s new production of Donizetti’s La Favorite has added considerable fuel to the fire.

The news though is actually Chinese tenor Yijie Shi who assumed the beautiful young woman who had knelt next to him at the famous shrine Santiago de Campostela was pure. She was not.

Never mind that Donizetti’s la favorite was not French. Named Léonor di Guzman she was in historical fact the mistress of no less than Alfonso XI, the king of Castille who is famous for driving the Moors out of Andalusia in the mid fourteenth century. History is often reinvented in opera plots to make passions more real than facts, thus according to Donizetti’s librettists it was the lovesick novice monk Fernand, (tenor Shi) who actually led the Spanish armies to these important victories under Alfonso’s flag.

All Fernand wanted in return was the hand of the beautiful and pure woman he had prayed with. Alfonso however was a cunning thinker who did not want to give up his mistress, not to mention that his courtiers detested the upstart Fernand as well. Add to this mess a meddlesome priest of proto-inquisitor zeal and you can see that there was a lot to sing about.

Donizetti’s French masterpiece was in the hands of Italian conductor Antonello Allemandi. This maestro, a bel canto specialist, captured the fire and intensity of the passions from the get-go, making the overture a superbly eloquent transition to a musical world based on beautiful lines and colors that elaborate distress and make it compellingly elegant. Mo. Allemandi demonstrated a full authority over the stage for the musically complex scenes, and in the arias and duets he demonstrated his confidence in the artistry of distraught singers by establishing ample tempos to support their soaring vocal lines while he concentrated on pulling every possible nuance from the pit players.

The great climaxes of the quintets and sextets with chorus achieved emotional releases that equaled those of the later Romantic masters while remaining specifically bel canto.

Shanghai born tenor Yijie Shi, a protogé of the Pesaro Rossini Festival, made a startling first impression, standing in shirtsleeves among a disciplined formation of hooded monks. He did not cut a figure that would lead soldiers into battle though he did finally become the smitten, naive and always confused young lover who basks in the pleasure of his feelings. After an extended apprenticeship in Pesaro he is now a finished performer, more at home in the bel canto repertory than in Rossini. His voice is purely Italianate, and his French was splendid. By the end of the performance it was certain that Mr. Shi now owns this role, singing it and acting it with true bel canto abandon.

Kate Aldridge as Léonor, Yijie Shi as Fernand. Photo by Patrice Nin

If the tenor has the most to sing in La Favorite, the heroine is burdened with the need to exemplify the magnetism that would pull a young monk from his vows of chastity while bemoaning her situation — as mistress to the king she cannot and never will be wife to any man. American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldridge, a seasoned bel canto artist, did not succeed, lacking at this point in her career the warmth of voice and charm of youth to bring Leonora emotionally alive. Her most effective if inappropriate vocal moments occurred when she used the chest voice that has made her a very fine Carmen.

The opera was conceived in French for the Paris Opera (not the Théâtre-Italien where Donizetti’s Italian operas were performed) as a vehicle for the mistress of the director of the opera. In the style of French grand opera the heroine is a dramatically complex role for mezzo soprano. Léonora is subdued and discretely nuanced in her only aria and in her scenes with Fernand and Alfonso. The opera is in the four act grand opera form, though the traditional ballet was missing in Toulouse.

Alfonso was sung by French baritone Lodovic Tézier. Of clear, sterling colored voice Mr. Térzier is an ideal Donizetti villain, well able to convincingly rage, manipulate and deceive without sacrificing beauty of tone and grace of execution. Italian bass Giovanni Furlanetto as the father superior Balthazar produced a rich and smooth basso cantante though he did not convey a force of personality that could make him a convincing spiritual father to Fernand or an imposing accuser to Alfonso. The role of Inès was charmingly performed by Marie-Bénédicte Souquet.

Lodovic Tézier as Alphonse XI. Photo by Patrice Nin

The new production, by Vincent Boussard and his designers Vincent Lemaire (scenery) and Christian Lacroix (costumes), was in minimal terms. The mists and spirituality of Santiago de Campostela were conveyed in mirrored stage walls, fogs and lights with a backdrop of abstracted soaring arches, the sumptuousness of Seville’s Alcazar was effected in emerald greens, graced by parading, lifelike peacocks on the arms of courtiers. The mirrored side walls descended opening balconies on either side from where courtiers would learn all court happenings.

Costumes were abstracted into colors rather than shapes taking us into a musical space rather than a specific historical moment. The single prop, excepting the peacocks, was an illuminated suitcase Fernand took with him into his worldly adventures and returned with to take finally his vows. Metteur en scéne Boussard is a master of staging musically rather than dramatically, moving his chorus as a structural musical force and his principals as moments of music, finding extended periods of poetry rendered in classical sculptural poses.

It was a splendid afternoon of beautifully staged bel canto transformed into great music. This production can be watched on CultureBox of France Télévision through August 15, 2014: La Favorite

Casts and production information:

Léonor de Guzman: Kate Aldrich; Fernand: Yijie Shi; Alphonse XI: Ludovic Tézier: Balthazar: Giovanni Furlanetto; Don Gaspar: Alain Gabriel; Inès: Marie-Bénédicte Souquet; Chorus and Orchestra of the Théâtre du Capitole. Conductor: Antonello Allemandi: Mise en scène: Vincent Boussard; Scenery: Vincent Lemaire; Costumes: Christian Lacroix; Lighting: Guido Levi. Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse, February 16, 2014.

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Carmen in Bilbao

Bilbao is always news, Calixto Bieito is always news, Carmen with a good cast is always news. So here is the news.

The Calixto Bieito Carmen is old news, this edition having already taken place in Barcelona, Venice and Torino, though a Bieito Carmen has been around on advanced European operatic stages since 1999. It was never headline news, finding instead this extraordinary stage director in a rather subdued state. Yes, there was fellatio, pissing, nudity, gang rape, child abuse and true brutality. Yes, Mercedes was Lilas Pastia’s middle-aged wife, and yes, Don Jose was really annoyed by an insistent Micaëla who sang her pretty song and then gave Carmen the “up-yours.”

Bieito creates a world that puts you on edge, here it was Spain with the cut-out bulls on the hilltops, gypsies in dilapidated cars, freaked out youth, blinding beaches and lurid tourism, and of course bull rings. But finally Bieito’s bull ring was only a chalk-line circle laid down by Lilas Pastia in which the raw power of Carmen’s indifference was pitted against the impotent supplications of Jose. Murdered, Jose dragged Carmen out of the circle — like a dead bull.

Movement is violent and often sudden in this and all Bieito worlds. There were very limited moments of dialogue but many additions of crowd noise and shouts, and punctuations of imposed silence broken by frenetic crowd clamor. The quintet was splendidly staged catching the lightening speed of the music in fast, demonstrative movement, and the trio was deadpan, the cards read on the hood of a car with no sense of doom, Carmen indifferent to her fate.

Act III. Escamillo in white shirt. Photo by E. Moreno Esquibel

There was no set. A simple cyclorama against which there was first a flag pole and a phone booth, then a car and a Christmas tree, then eight cars and a gigantic cut out bull and finally nothing except a beach with a marked out chalk ring.

All this might seem a recipe for a dynamite Carmen, but this does not seem to be Bieito’s intention. This tale of Jose’s infatuation disappeared into this cosmos of marginal life in Spain and became unimportant, its emotions melted into the morass of a much bigger and equally violent, emotionally raw world.

With some setbacks along the way Bilbao's Amigos de la Ópera managed a cast responsive to the needs of both Bizet and Bieito. The Carmen announced in the publicity was Sonia Ganassi who withdrew because of illness, young Italian mezzo Giuseppina Piunti came to replace her. However she could not do this second performance (of five) thus this performance fell to the cover Carmen. Ana Ibarra is a young Spanish artist, not a Carmen by nature or physique but a very fine singer, and with obviously limited rehearsal attention she still gave a quite credible performance, greatly appreciated by the audience.

Lilas Pastia marking bull ring circle and sunbather. Photo by E. Moreno Esquibel

Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado is in his vocal prime, and gave a beautifully sung performance. His Flower Song was the hit of the evening, the high notes squarely placed and exciting. Mr. Machado projects an affecting presence, and could perhaps be a moving Jose in a heated or even warmer production. Quick on his feet he was able to have a real looking knife fight with Escamillo, leaping from roof to roof of a line of cars. He was equaled in agility by seasoned Spanish baritone Carlos Alvaro! This esteemed singer brought a sharp Italianate edge to the role, making Escamillo a powerful and dangerous presence with real bullfighter voiced coglioni if not with physique or stance.

Micaëla was sung by Valencia born soprano Maite Alberola who brought a brightness of voice that has made her a fine traviata though she did not move with a natural agility in the wonderfully tacky clothing that was her costume. With the resources of a traviata voice (a brilliant top and a warm middle voice) she found unusual and very welcome vocal excitement in her aria.

French maestro Jean Yves Ossonce provided a generally idiomatic reading, giving the principals solid understanding for their arias — a faster than usual “Je dis,” a louder than usual "La fleur que tu m'avais jetée," as examples. The quintet was masterfully held together and the big chorus scenes were unleashed with sonic abandon — the Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa gave it their all.

The support roles — Frasquita, Mercedes, Remendado, Dancairo, Zuniga and Morales — were of proper age, voice, and experience (i.e. gratefully not pieced together from a young artist program). The Mercedes of Basque mezzo Itxaro Mentxaka was especially interesting as the middle aged wife of Lilas Pastia, the Zuniga of Italian Federico Sacchi stood out as a real sleaze, his brutally murdered body an unforgettable image.

Bilbao is about architecture, as you know. There is an old (nineteenth century), imposing opera house said to be an imitation of Paris’ Garnier that is no longer used. The Asociación Bilbaina de Amigos de la Ópera now produces its operas in the theater of the Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao’s conference center that opened in 1999. Designed by architects Federico Soriano and Dolores Palacios it is supposed to be like a vessel permanently under construction (it stands on a dock of the former Euskalduna Shipyard). It received the 2001 Enric Miralles award at the 6th Biennial of Spanish Architecture.

However striking the architecture may be, and the public areas are of interest if a bit hard to navigate, the hall itself reveals the lack of interest architects in general seem to have for opera. If these two architects had ever been to an opera they would know that an auditorium is a dark place to sit while you observe a performance, that no prime seating space should be sacrificed to some questionable geometric design whims, that every seat should be as close as possible to the stage (the upper reaches of this theater are unbelievably remote), and finally, actually first of all, that the sound in the hall is of utmost importance (the cavernous depths of this theater create a hollow “cavernous” sound).

Ignoring these completely obvious requirements for the auditorium one can only imagine the ignorance these architects will have exercised in designing the stage (here too wide), wings and dressing rooms. Is there no prize for bad theater architecture. There is a stupendous amount of it worldwide that could compete for being the absolute stupidest.

Casts and production information:

Carmen: Ana Ibarra; Don José: Aquiles Machado; Escamillo: Carlos Álvarez; Micaëla: Maite Alberola; Mercedes: Itxaro Mentxaka; Frasquita: Elena Sancho Pereg; Le Remendado: Vicenç Esteve; Le Dancaïre: Damián del Castillo; Zuniga: Federico Sacchi; Moralès: Giovanni Guagliardo; Lilas Pastia (actor): Abdelazir El Mountassir. Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa, Coro de Opera de Bilbao. Conductor: Jean Yves Ossonce; Mise en scène: Calixto Bieito; Scenery: Alfons Flores; Costumes: Mercé Paloma; Lighting: Alberto Rodriguez. Palacio Euskalduna, Bilbao, February 18, 2014.

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L'elisir d'Amore in Monte-Carlo

Will wonders never cease? Wheat stalks 6 meters high? Rats 2 meters tall. Setting Donizetti’s little comedy amidst biological mutations engendered by Chernobyl does seem a bit farfetched.

Actually it was not Chernobyl, the tip-off being the 7 meters diameter tractor wheel, mud hanging off of the lower treads. Then a thrown-away tuna fish can crashed onto the stage and rolled center, from which emerged Belcore with the old trick of how many whatever-they-weres could possibly emerge from a tuna fish can. We indeed had delighted smiles on our faces.

This was the lilliputian Elisir d’amore! Tiny, magical creatures acted out this bit of sentimental commedia del’arte residue underneath a wheat field somewhere in Switzerland (the production comes from Lausanne). Given it was magical the Belcore creature was part Samurai (the wig) and part Swiftian general. Dulcamara arrived atop a contraption that was totally fantastic, maybe a sort of rolling still though he seemed some sort of crazed Swiftian magistrate in his red robe and weird wig.

It was a splendidly realized concept. The slender wheat stalks could actually be scaled, and were by five or so acrobats evoking wonder amongst us spectators. For some reason there was a boy and girl, eight year olds maybe, who rushed on stage from time to time to act out bits of puppy love. Besides the rats, birds as well as a life sized horse, i.e. about ten meters high (all we could see were the legs), meandered across the back of the stage usually during the arias and duets — the wonders of very skillful projections.

Dulcamara atop his wagon, tuna fish can, tire and wheat. Photo courtesy of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

What, you may ask, has all this to do with Donizetti’s opera? The answer is nothing. It was an extravaganza of concept and hard-headed exploitation of contemporary digital techniques. Placed on the stage by a team of Italians, stage director Adriano Sinivia, set designer Christian Taraborrelli, and costume designer Enzio Iorio this was a stand alone theater piece that used a bel canto masterpiece as an excuse to imagine a far-fetched digital video game.

Donizetti’s opera is neither a fairytale for children with hidden meanings for adults nor a Swiftian satire of rural morality. It is a simple love story told very directly — love overcomes all obstacles if you sing well enough and long enough. Actually the cast assembled by the Opéra de Monte-Carlo did sing well enough but even so could not overcome the obstacle of this production. It was a long evening that left us indifferent to all this sophisticated human talent and effort.

While the Opéra de Monte-Carlo had the esteemed Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo in the pit it had French contralto Nathalie Stulzmann on the podium who had not a clue about bel canto musicality — a musicality that allows time to stand still so you can elegantly feel how you feel. Define it how you may it will never be driving the music hard and fast with an authority that is above that of the singers. Musically the evening was a willful display of conductorial insensitivity.

George Petean as Belcore, Stefan Pop as Nemorino. Photo courtesy of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo

It is enlightening to know that Angela Gheorghiu is not the only singer to come out of Romania. The Opéra de Monte-Carlo found three more excellent artists. Twenty-eight year-old tenor Stefan Pop made a roly poly Nemorino who gave a skillful account of his aria — maybe the only moment of the evening not sabotaged by directorial gloss — and in general convincingly portrayed a country bumpkin with a sophisticated vocal technique. Baritone George Petean was a roly poly Belcore who gave it his all though it seemed too much, fault maybe of his silly wig or his feeling that his was a hopeless character in this lilliputian satire so he had to try to make something of it. Bass Adrian Sampetrean on the other hand rose above his ridiculous wig and assumed a genuine authority that you probably do not want from this shyster, fault maybe of the conductress who did not try to reign him in to become Donizetti’s charming con man.

Italian ingenue soprano Mariangela Sicilia was the spunky, too spunky Adina who sang quite well, though her knowing attitude and knowing vocal technique is not yet finished to the degree that she can settle with confidence into character and sail securely above it all with unflappable technique. It will come. The Giannini of Parisian soprano Vannina Santoni was a larger than usual character and an appreciated component of the larger ensembles.

It was unclear whether the generous applause was relief that it was over, appreciation of good singing, or evidence that the Monegasques (those who reside in Monaco) are willing to reward even bad conducting.

Casts and production information:

Adina: Mariangela Sicilia; Nemorino: Stefan Pop; Belcore: George Petean; Dulcamara: Adrian Sampetrean; Giannetta: Vannina Santoni. Chorus of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. Conductor: Nathalie Stutzmann; Mise en scène: Adriano Sinivia; Scenery: Christian Taraborrelli; Costumes: Enzo Iorio; Lighting: Fabrice Kebour. Salle Garnier, Monte-Carlo, February 26, 2014.

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Eugene Onegin in Montpellier

Entering the hall there arose the Dantesque “abandon all hope ye who enter” feeling — a cluttered a vista socialist setting, a poster of Lenin and large letters proclaiming Moscow, December 1999.

Lucas Meachem as Onegin, Dina Kuznetsova as Tatiana. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Maybe Pushkin never existed and Tchaikovsky is a condemned a bourgeois composer.

The first music we heard came from a cheap socialist era stereo, a blast of heavy metal to which a ripe young female appropriately gyrated. Fear and hope were equally mixed that this was the Tatiana. She was not, but was one of the seething swarm of inhabitants of a large communal apartment construed on the stage, leaving no doubt that therein existed a cosmos of human souls.

Emerging from this swarm were figures who gracefully appeared and disappeared, the characters we know by Pushkin’s names who moved in and out of the kitchen, the bedrooms, TV salon, bathroom, (spaces cleverly defined with minimal doorway lines and furniture) with beguiling naturalness and an ease that was purely musical.

There was one resident with a digital camera, a voyeur who surreptitiously captured young women in the a vista shower (we saw silhouette against the shower curtain). Innocent and charming, except we see him follow Olga as she pursues and then seduces Onegin while Tatiana is writing her letter. This spied upon scene took place on a slightly elevated platform behind the apartment floor, a place that served throughout the evening as somewhere else.

You get the picture. Filippievna did a lively dance to the famous Russian gypsy song “Dark Eyes” while listening to the radio before Tatiana’s birthday party where Lenski got jealous. The digital camera with its stored images got passed around. There was no way to stop a session of Russian roulette.

Dina Kuznetsova as Tatiana, Olga Tichina as Filippievna. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

It is indeed a digital world that allows quick and easy recording and transmission of images and scenes of life around us, from all angles and in duplication and repetition. Here digital technology was used to add additional perspectives to what we could see from our seats. Intimate scenes were magnified onto the huge blank stage backdrop, the apartment as seen from above was projected onto the huge screen echoing what we could see from our seats, etc. These were direct dramatic motivations for use of multimedia and the achievement of rare theatrical integrity for the use of such technology.

As a theater piece, really a theatrical installation based on Eugene Onegin it was conceptually elegant, masterfully directed, wonderfully witty and charmingly successful. While it may have been at cultural odds with the richly romantic voice of Pushkin it was easily comfortable with the broad and absolutely obvious emotional climate of Tchaikovsky’s genius if not this composer’s nineteenth century tonalities.

The separation of the mise en scène from its sources was complicated by a separation of the pit and the stage. Tchaikovsky’s score was elegantly realized by Finnish conductor Ari Rasilainen and Montpellier’s fine Orchestre national. It was a symphonic reading, the conductor pulling every possible nuance and depth of tone from his instruments, and carefully pacing the flow to exploit his players’ musicality.

While the maestro did cue the entrances of the voices he did not visually or musically communicate with the stage in any other way. Left on their own the singers responded to secure, sturdy tempos but were bereft of the supercharged emotional thrust that makes Onegin (or any Tchaikovsky opera) a huge and immediate emotional experience. Perhaps this distant music actually served the production, reinforcing the blatant separation of source from its translation, Pushkin from Putin, poetry from TV drama, and finally separating high nineteenth century art from what was high twenty-first century art.

There were many grand moments created by a superb cast, and not least by the Onegin of American baritone Lucas Meachem as a souless man, a man who did not know who or what he is. Mr. Meachem was unable to sustain a singing tone nor could he find the tonalities of the Russian language. Mr. Meachem however brought a physicality to Onegin that was quite involving and finally moving. Sad to say he was not given the final bow, he is after all the name of the opera.

Act II Country Ball. Photo Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Tatiana was Russian born soprano Dina Kuznetsova, alumna of the young artist program at Lyric Opera of Chicago, who wrote her letter moving between the kitchen table and the window of her room (metal lines directly frontal onto the audience, i.e. in your face), the brilliant light of the opened refrigerator flooding the darkened kitchen at an appropriate textural moment. Mlle. Kuznetsova possesses a round, Slavic toned voice she used with dramatic knowledge and style, unable however to squarely hit the high note at the ends of her letter and her final duet with Onegin.

Olga was enacted by French mezzo soprano Anna Destraël in a performance that was so real it was unnerving. Olga, a slut, was visibly bored by Lenski though she was happy to go to bed with him (we saw this in the ferment of life in the communal apartment), her seduction, quasi rape of Onegin showed real animal determination, her slight response to Lenski’s jealosy was of a shallow adolescent. It was a powerful performance that went well beyond good singing. It did not endear her to the audience.

Bespectacled Lenski was sung by Turkmenistan tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev, his spectacles crushed on the floor by Onegin he sang his “Kuda, kuda vï udalilis” emotionally groping his way across the stage as a pathetic rather than a sympathetic, sometimes tragic figure. Beautifully sung it earned the evening’s biggest ovation.

Simply superb were the two aging Russian women, proto petite bourgeoise, Larina sung by Svetlana Lifar and Filippievna sung by Olga Tichina. Russian bass Mischa Schelomianski oiled his way across the stage as an oligarch, the Prince Gremin. His surveillance cameras caught the Onegin Tatiana duet in eight identical images he sees from his armchair — ironically Tatiana’s new life as transparent as her past life.

All the scenes of acts I and II were run together. After the intermission four homeless looking dancers shoved a homeless looking Onegin around the stage to the music of the first polonaise. The second polonaise at a nouveau riche cocktail party brought the Opéra’s fine chorus into in a moving circle, their clicking heels forcing the Tchaikovsky polonaise to a halt. It was a moment of powerful dramatic punctuation that underlined the wonderfully theatrical nature of this fine evening at the opera (of which this account is but the tip of the iceberg).

Authors of this theatrical installation were Marie-Eve Signeyrole who imagined and created the mise en scène and her collaborators Yashi Tabassomi (costumes), Philippe Berthomé (lights), Julie Compans (movement) and Julien Meyer (audiovisual).

Cast and production information

Onegin: Lucas Meachem; Tatiana: Dina Kuznetsova; Olga: Anna Destraël; Lenski: Doviet Nurgeldiyev; Prince Gremin: Mischa Schelomianski; Madame Larina: Svetlana Lifar; Filippievna: Olga Tichina; Monsieur Triquet: Loïc Félix; Zaretski: Laurent Sérou. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra Orchestre national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Conductor: Ari Rasilainen; Mise en scène and stage setting: Marie-Éve Signeyrole; Costumes: Yashi Tabossomi; Lighting: Philippe Berthomé. Opéra Berlioz, Montpellier. January 17, 2014.

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Coeur de Chien in Lyon

If satire is your thing you will not want to miss this opera about human testicles grafted onto a dog.

All photos copyright Stofleth

Coeur de Chien was a commission of the Holland Festival, premiered in 2010, and since has found clamorous arrivals in 2011 at the English National Opera as A Dog’s Heart, and in 2012 at La Scala as Il cuore di cane. Its real title is Собачье сердце because it is sung in Russian (though the libretto by Cesare Mazzonis was written first in Italian). It is based on a 1924 novel by Mikhail Boulgakov that was finally published in Russia in 1987.

The composer, Alexander Raskatov, now 60 years-old, was a Soviet citizen and a member of the Union of Soviet Composers. He is now a member of the Composers’ Union of Russia though these days he lives in France. His only other opera, The Pit and the Pendulum was composed in 1990.

This satire is about life in Moscow in the years just after the 1917 revolutions. It has absolutely no point of view and makes no judgements. Those were heady years when the intelligentsia, apparatchiks, commoners (maybe proletariat) and dogs were adjusting into the greatest social experiment of modern times, maybe ever. It was a mess all around, though according to this opera none of the various players ever lost their basic humanity (vanity, cupidity, duplicity) or their considerable personal charm. It was a beguiling evening.

Coeur de Chien is an important opera that deserves to enter the repertory and certainly will depending on who has the guts to tackle its difficulties. The Holland Festival gave it an auspicious debut engaging director Simon McBurney of London’s Complicite, a theatrical venture founded in 1983 that is famous for its tackling of serious subjects using high-powered technology, and by engaging British designer, veteran-of-all-important-theaters Michael Levine to design the set (Levine is known most recently to San Francisco and Met audiences for his spectacular twenty-five year-old Mefistofele).

On the face of it, it is not exactly a serious subject given that all players are reduced to their most vulgar levels and stay there. That leaves us not much to think about. There was little high technology in its realization given the set was but a raked platform and a back wall and a few projections. The famished dog was a marionette with four manual operators — no high tech there.

Raskatov made vulgar music (snorts and farts) and he made music vulgar incorporating liturgical hymns and famous old folk songs into the musical flow of his sensational text (the last line of the first act, shouted by the dog transformed into the “new man” is “go fuck yourselves!” in the libretto, and “lick my dick” in the supertitles). The composer recognizes that contemporary ears are accustomed to an infinity of musical and random sounds thus he has no compunction in raiding Monteverdi’s recitative, using extreme voices (shrieking higher-than-you-can-imagine sopranos) or making hoarse, coarse sounds through megaphones (the opera ends with sixteen players shouting vowels through megaphones into the faces of the audience. Underlying all this is Raskatov’s basic musical language heard from time to time which seemed to be more or less Webernesquely minimal.

This unleashed musical vocabulary was transferred onto the stage in an equally blatant vocabulary. There were two sets, outdoors and indoors that were the one set (floor and wall), black for outdoors where some scrims and projections created a raging blizzard without needing even a single plastic snowflake. When lighted the set was patterned to be a rug and wallpaper surrounding a big doorway. The floor ran with gallons of blood when it became the operating room for the castration and implant. When things really fell apart in the second act the wall itself (made of paper we learned) was smashed for entries and exits, then the wall rotated backwards letting players move under it, and one arm of the enormous chandelier that flew in to make the space a salon broke and dangled. Period.

The players movements were sometimes more or less natural, in fact the man/dog Charikov was even quite realistic when you imagine how such a creature might move and what gestures he might make. Other times movement was abstracted, and in extreme moments it was caricatured like figures in a comic strip equating in body rhythm the constant disjointed flow of the vocal line.

The original production in Amsterdam was conducted by Martyn Brabbins as it was in Lyon. The principals of the original cast remained intact except the role of Charikov here played by Peter Hoare who came to the production at La Scala. These were all extraordinary performances, and how else could they have been for such extraordinary roles. The smaller roles in Lyon were impeccably inhabited by appropriate artists as well.

It was quite noticeable that the audience was not the usual Lyon bourgeoise but instead mostly an under thirty contingent (meaning invited), and there were a few empty seats in the back of the auditorium, the assumption being that there was no huge demand for seats. There was however a huge ovation for the production, the kind young audiences like to give when finally they too get to do something.

After the Milan performances there were rumors that the production would tour to the United States. But sad to say there can be no opera company in the U.S. that would risk the vocabulary or manage the budget. It should have been the purview of an idealized version of the latter day New York City Opera. Sadly such an opera company does not now exist in the U.S.

N.B. There are extracts from Coeur de Chien aka A Dog’s Heart aka Il cuore di cane on YouTube.

Cast and Production

Filipp Filippovitch Preobrajenski: Sergei Leiferkus; Ivan Arnoldovitch Bormenthal: Ville Rusanen; Charikov: Peter Hoare; Daria Petrovna: Elena Vassilieva; Voice of Dog: Andrew Watts; Zina: Nancy Allen Lundy; Un Provocateur: Robert Wörle; Une patiente: Annett Andriesen; Fiancée de Charikov: Sophie Desmars; Schwonder: Vasily Efimov; Un détective: Piotr Micinski; Un Chef haut placé: Gennady Bezzubenkov. Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon; Ensemble vocal “Il Canto di Orfeo.“ Conductor: Martyn Brabbins; Mise en scène: Simon McBurney; Scenery: Michael Levine; Costumes: Christina Cunningham; Lumières: Paul Anderson; Vidéo: Finn Ross; Marionnettes: Blind Summit Theatre. L’Opéra Nouvel, Lyon, January 30, 2014.

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The Tender Land in Lyon

It is not often that a Aaron Copland's The Tender Land comes along with resources like those of the Opéra de Lyon, one of Europe's finest. So carpe diem!

All photos copyright Michel Cavalca

The Tender Land was not a success at its New York premiere back in 1956, and it is not a success these fifty-eight years later in Lyon. But not for lack of trying, then or now.

For this production the Opéra de Lyon joined forces with the Théâtre de la Croix Rousse (the Croix Rousse is a neighborhood above the city center, home to the centuries-old Lyon silk industry where there was once an ochre cross) where it was performed. The artistic director of the Croix-Rousse theater, Jean Lacornerie staged this production.

Laure Barras as Laurie Moss.

The Tender Land was composed as an opera for television at a time when mass communication believed it had an obligation make high, or higher art, like opera, theater and symphony, accessible to the masses (at that time the masses meant anyone who did not live in New York City). So NBC Television created an opera company for opera on television!

Mid-twentieth-century America like much of the European world was struggling to integrate a broader public work-force into a cohesive social fabric. This meant that American composers with aspiration to political correctness — and it was dangerous if you did not — aspired to create music that would speak directly to these masses. [Ironically at the same time the U.S. was providing the funding for the hermetic music coming out of Darmstadt.]

Much fine and beautiful music came out of New York by composers like Aaron Copland who submitted The Tender Land, his one and only opera to NBC Television Opera.

Sensibly enough it was rejected by the television producers probably because it does not have a strong enough story to support one hour forty minutes of story telling, its characters are monochromatic and its message of hope is compromised by their innate simplicity, read mediocrity. Simply its Depression era setting was not in keeping with the frenetic enthusiasms of the mid-fifties (recall the 1955 design shift in cars) and its musical numbers were not based on exotic cultures, like for example the New York gangs of West Side Story or the Italian immigrants of The Saint of Bleecker Street.

These fifty-eight years later it is a regretful look at American fundamentalism.

But within The Tender Land there are jewels of pure music, and these sang out splendidly on the Croix Rousse, the superb quintet that closes the first act bringing the separate impulses of the five principals into an integrated musical context, and the gorgeous, extended love duet of Laurie and Martin that interwove its musical elements into a colorful fantasy of love. These moments are purely musical, not dramatic, and were indeed pleasurable.

The chorus in blackface [!].

The choreographed numbers were appropriately lively with the youth and agility of Copland’s hopes for the future — Laurie, Martin and Top — able to manifest their impotent energies. In fact this recall of the energy of Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring provided the validation for the reduction (by Murray Sidlin) of the fully symphonic score of The Tender Land to a mere flute, clarinet and bassoon plus double strings and piano, Copland’s original orchestration for Appalachian Spring.

The intrinsic weakness of the opera precludes enlisting its original, full orchestral forces for a production. Sadly audiences will likely never hear the complete the sonic world envisioned by Copland when the opera is staged. Thirteen excellent players from the orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon gave it their all, with the Opéra de Lyon’s assistant music director Philippe Forget (that’s for-jay) as their able leader. It was fine playing, and at times even these few instruments created the true American colors that Copland’s harmonics uniquely evoke. We ached for more of those colors.

Mostly however the minimal orchestral forces disappeared into the very fine, complex and sizable production created by Mr. Lacornerie, his scenographer Bruno de Lavenére and his costumer Robin Chemin. Mr. Laconerie wisely played on the television genesis of Copland’s opera, reducing the visual field to a doll-house-sized farmhouse with puppet characters identically dressed as their operators, the actual characters. At times this puppet action or the faces of the operators was projected onto a half stage scrim creating the close up images that are the primary tools of television. At other times these props disappeared and actual farm buildings appeared for real stage production. And finally the whole stage was closed for Ma Moss to give her closing monologue as a concert piece in front of the curtain.

The Opéra de Lyon provided a solid cast. Veteran bass-baritone Stephen West was a stern, stolid and soul damaged Grandpa Moss, veteran mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer was a fine voiced, not rough enough Ma Moss who did not provide enough character or voice to conclude the opera (Mme. Schaufer is a fine artist, here victim of perhaps the direction, and certainly of the reduced orchestral forces). Three members of the Opéra de Lyon studio created excellent characters, Rémy Mathieu as Martin had real music theater sparkle, Toby Girling as Top exhibited extraordinary strength and agility as a singer and dancer, and Laure Barras brought much depth to the role of Laurie Moss. The neighbors were cast with excellent singers from the Opéra de Lyon chorus.

Casts and production information

Ma Moss: Lucy Schaufer; Beth Moss: Odile Bertotto; Gramdpa Moss: Stephen Owen; 
Laurie Moss: Laure Barras; Martin: Rémy Mathieu; Top: Toby Girling; Mr. Splinters: Brian Bruce; Mrs. Splinters: Alexandra Guérinot; Mr. Jenks: Paolo Stupenengo; Mrs. Jenks: Sharona Applebaum. Members of the Orchestre de l'Opéra de Lyon. Solistes du Studio et Chœurs de l'Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Philippe Forget; Mise en scène: Jean Lacornerie; Scenery: Bruno de Lavenère; Costumes: Robin Chemin; Lumières: Bruno Marsol; Chorégraphie: Thomas Stache; Vidéo: Séb Coupy; Marionnettes: Emilie Valantin. Théâtre de la Croix-Rousse, Lyon, February 1, 2014

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Cosi fan tutte in Montpellier

This Cosi fan tutte completes the Montpellier Mozart/da Ponte trilogy staged by French metteur en scène and esthète Jean-Paul Scarpitta. Primarily studies in elegance and refinement these mises en scènes have provoked all that that is most precious and perfect in Mozart’s scores.

André Achuen as Guglielmo, Marianne Crebassa as Dorabella. Photo by Marc Ginot Opéra de Montpellier

Back in 2007 the scandals created by Scarpitta’s libidinous Don Giovanni were those of a troubled young man who burst into hysterical laughter in the Act I finale. This set the stage for a gifted young cast to bare its soul in flights of lyricism that became the core and substance of all action. Scarpitta’s staging took us inside Mozart's music, his set and costume design offered minimal decor that supported but never defined this interior space. Versailles’ Le Concert Spirituel then in residence in Montpellier resonated with primitive sounds that transported us into this rarefied space.

Les Noces de Figaro did not appear until 2012, now with players of the Orchestra National de Montpellier. Austrian conductor Sascha Goetzel delicately and obsessively shaped its many instrumental voices into flights of melodic splendor. The cast was absolute perfection, finished young singers whose lithe bodies slid into luxuriously refined costumes created by Jean Paul Gaultier. When voices and orchestra finally united in Act IV an ultimate level of pure lyricism was achieved — the simple humanity of opera’s most succinctly human opera long forgotten.

And just now Cosi fan tutte finishes the cycle, again with splendid players from the Orchestra National de Montpellier here conducted by Alexander Shelly. This young English conductor made immediate musical impact in the overture by imposing musical depth rather than dramatic thrust. Each moment of Mozart’s music was explored, there was no beginning nor end. The program booklet optimistically anticipated a duration of three hours ten minutes for the performance. It came in at just under four hours.

Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Like Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro Jean Paul Scarpitta created the setting. Here it was a green floor and a blue wall. Just that. There were six chairs and a couple of little tables that found their way onto the stage from time to time. Nothing more, except quite sophisticated and beautiful lighting by Urs Schönebaum.

Though costume design was credited to Mr. Scarpitta, like Les Noces it was understood and obvious that the elegance could only be the work of a grand couturier — well known names flew around the theater. The costumes were splendidly minimal, a plain green gown for Dorabella, a yellow one for Fiordiligi, the gowns easily shed from time to time to reveal shapely legs surmounted by a high style bustle undergarment of the same color. Ferrando and Guglielmo were first seen in white long underwear, then shapely morning coats that were changed to vaguely Harlequinesque vests when they became Turks.

Everyone knows that Cosi has no real story, that it is an abstraction of youthful love as lived by young singers with beautiful voices and good bodies. Scarpitta moved his bodies in blocks of color, the chorus in black silhouette, and movement was mostly in abstract relationship to the music, much like balletic choreography. No emotive pulse of Mozart’s score was left without a correspondence of position or movement, and this transported us to the depths of decorative 18th century music. And very great musical pleasure.

Scarpitta most often envisioned the famous arias as ensemble statements, not just of singer and wind instrument, but of the singer amongst all the other singers on the stage, the meanings becoming more overtly public. The famous trio “Soave sia il vento” was a musical expanse of frozen emotion, its breezy triple meter only enough to reposition a feeling. Duets were synchronized exposition of studied movement, never broken nor forced. Time stood still.

Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi gave clear, rich, Italianate voice to Fiordiligi, well able to maintain her fine technique from prostrate positions, French mezzo Marianne Crebassa boasts elegant technique and has an innate sense for elegant movement. Scarpitta (as the general director of the Montpellier opera at the time the opera was cast) placed the more important vocal and musical responsibilities for his production on these two roles — as has Mozart.

American tenor Wesley Rogers as Ferrando however was quite alone on stage to sing his “Un’aura amorosa del nostro tesoro,” his insecure technique illuminating the vulnerability of his character. Tyrollean baritone André Schuen moved and sang with innocent grace as Guglielmo. Italian bass Antonio Abete brought grizzled elegance and aged vocal cynicism to the figure of Don Alfonso and French soubrette Virginie Pochon was a used-up, seen-it-all Despina who reenforced Don Alfonso’s disaffection for youth.

Director Scarpitta quickly downplayed the minimal dramatic outline of da Ponte’s plot by demonstrating very early on that basic sexual instincts superseded any emotional loyalty (there was lots of pawing). This directorial insight however undermined the a development of character that could support the intense lyricism of the second half of the opera. It was here that the evening became long, very long, and the maestro’s musical probings fell upon deaf ears.

Photo by Marc Ginot / Opéra national de Montpellier

Scarpitta ended his Cosi fan tutte with the utter physical disruption of its nuptial banquet and emotional disarray of its protagonists, much as Scarpitta had ended his Don Giovanni by having waiters, da Ponte’s demons, destroy the Don’s final banquet, leaving its survivors bewildered. Both banquets were the symbolic feasts of young love feasting on itself. Both ended in the deceptions of mature human values, and emotional bewilderment.

This Mozart da Ponte cycle was a stellar achievement, and majestically crowns Jean Paul Scarpitta’s fifteen years at the Opéra de Montpellier.

Links to my reviews of the Montpellier Giovanni and Nozze:

Don Giovanni in Montpellier

Les Noces de Figaro in Montpellier

Casts and production information:

Fiordiligi: Erika Grimaldi; Dorabella: Marianne Crebassa; Guglielmo: André Achuen; Ferrando: Wesley Rogers; Despina: Virginie Pochon; Don Alfonso: Antonio Abete. Chorus of the Opéra national Montpellier. Orchestre national Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon. Conductor: Alexander Shelley; Mise en scéne, sets and costumes: Jean-Paul Scarpitta; Lighting: Urs Schönebaum. Opéra Comédie, Montpellier. January 9, 2014.

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Otello in Genoa

Forget Shakespeare, this was distinctly an Otello without the ‘h’. It was Italian melodramma to its core, the collaboration of its metteur en scène Davide Livermore, wunderkind conductor Andrea Battistoni and its Desdemona, Maria Agresta.

There was some foreign intervention, the Otello of American (Wisconsin) tenor Gregory Kunde and the Iago of Spanish baritone Carlos Àlvarez. The American is one of Europe’s leading bel canto tenors who sang Rossini’s Otello long before taking on Verdi’s Moor, in fact his role debut as the Verdi Otello was in the premiere of this production that happened in Valencia, Spain in June 2013 with these same three principals (Zubin Mehta conducting).

Carlos Àlvarez as Iago, Gregory Kunde as Otello, photo by Marcello Orselli

Kunde is a bel canto singer who finds unexpected lyricism in this gigantic showpiece usually undertaken by the spinto voices. Kunde’s voice resonated with more depth and beauty than his Rossini roles elicit, with a substantial force of voice somewhat rounder rather than the cutting tone that serves him well in Rossini. The result of this lighter voice in Genoa was a vulnerable Otello, a man neurotically tormented by jealousy, not simply possessed by it. This lyricism grounded the Livermore production as an exposition of neurosis, Desdemona and Iago components of Otello's neurosis.

Àlvarez possesses a darkly colored voice, a black tonality often found in basses who must create the dread associated with opera’s villains — though a baritone Iago is maybe the ugliest of all operatic villains. Àlvarez’ lack of tonal warmth plus his reserve of power, that of a true Verdi baritone, his slim stature and his head endowed with snaky black locks of hair made an evil character who oscillated between feigned passivity and triumphant domination. True to the end he did not dash toward a cowardly escape but ceremoniously descended off the upper edge of the stage, no longer a player in Otello's hell.

Maria Agresta as Desdemona, Gregory Kunde as Otello, photo by Marcello Orselli

Soprano Maria Agresta as Desdemona revealed levels of vulnerability to human instinct that Shakespeare ignores (the Bard hides deeper character revelations in the phrase picked up by Verdi and Boito — “born under an evil star”). This splendid young soprano is of powerful and complex voice, fearlessly mounting to pianissimo high notes that permitted hints of risk which added edge to character. Of complex persona as well she circled Otello in the Act I duet almost dancing as an animal in rut. And there was more circling — flirtatious at the least — in her Act II meeting with Cassio. La Agresto sang her final prayer lying face down on the floor, a fallen angel, reflected as the whore Otello had made her.

This spectacular casting was topped off by the Cassio of Angelo Fiori, a very tall, very present, young Italian who moved a bit like a dancer. Like Desdemona he was wigged in long blond hair unabashedly establishing a physical connection to her that ignited Otello’s neurosis and palpably inflamed the innate terror of the corni (horns) of all males (Italians) present in the theater.

Like melodramma and like verismo, these characters were possessed by big emotions, clearly stated at the beginning and simply awaiting brutal dénouement. This was Act III, the Venetian scene, when 26 year-old conductor Andrea Battistoni let loose with volumes that equaled, maybe exceeded the opening storm, volumes that were spine chilling in intensity, and dramatically ironic in that they established the enormity of the murderous emotion yet to come. This young conductor obviously relished the brutality of the Livermore conception, visibly participating with the stage by demonstratively pushing the chorus to and beyond its limits. All chorus scenes were huge, the Act II garden chorus seated, aggressively taunting more than praising the purity of Desdemona.

Act II Garden Chorus, photo by Marcello Orselli

These days metteur en scène Davide Livermore is the most visible stage director on Italy’s more adventurous stages. Like all of his recent projects here he was not only stage director but also the set designer with the collaboration of Giò Forma, a Milanese design company that does big events like the America’s Cup 2012 and the MTV Awards. Here the concept was a vortex like structure (descending concentric circles) with a central, focal disk, like the pupil of an eye. The pupil moved, rising above the structure to transport Otello and Desdemona to the heavens of desire in their love duet. It elevated its front edge from which Iago delivered his “Credo in un dio crudele” at which point the edges of the concentric circles illuminated in red lines (Mr. Livermore is credited for the lighting).

Costume design is credited to Mr. Livermore, wigs a signature element of character (the long blond wigs of Desdemona and Cassio, the long black tresses of Iago that may or may not have been a wig, the identical ship-like, punk shapes of the wigs for the women’s chorus). The swaths of cape colors illuminated character — Iago in luminous metallic silver, Otello ultimately in priestly vestment, a red-lined white cape, that he carefully took off to administer death to Desdemona. Stage movement was abstract, actors moving on the vortex lines of an unstoppable downward vacuum, finding the most powerful, emotional place on the structure to deliver their signature statements. Otello at the end again elevated on the pupil of the eye, this time alone reliving the “bacio” to Verdi’s trombones whispering the opera’s opening storm.

Rarely do operatic forces converge with the artistic power created on the Carlo Felice stage by this production.

Casts and production information:

Otello: Gregory Kunde; Jago: Carlos Àlvarez; Cassio: Angelo Fiore; Roderigo: Naoyuki Okada; Lodovico: Seung Pil Choi; Montano: Claudio Ottino; Un Araldo: Gian Piero Barattero; Desdemona: Maria Agresta; Emilia: Valeria Sepe. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Andrea Battistoni; Metteur en scène: Davide Livermore; Scenery: Davide Livermore and Giò Forma; Costumes: Davide Livermore and Marianna Fracasso; Lighting: Davide Livermore. Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa, Italy. January 3, 2014.

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Les Contes d'Hoffmann in Lyon

Maybe there can be no bigger feat than making it through Les Contes d’Hoffmann in the Laurent Pelly version without a hitch or two. There were in fact two just now in the Opéra de Lyon remounting of its 2005 production of Hoffmann, both collective hitches.

Not only has Mr. Pelly created a figurative nightmare, he has created a technical nightmare as well. The usual four sets — the tavern, the workshop, the bedroom, the salon — morph into thirty or forty or so scenes, a seemingly countless progression of scenic moments that evolve through the unfolding of Hoffmann’s narration in dream form. And the dream is a bad one in which the macabre surreal is suspended in abstract, dark space.

Olimpia, Hoffmann, Chorus, photo © Jean-Pierre Maurin

The Pelly concept is complex indeed. Not for a moment does Pelly allow us to forget that human motivations push the bizarre psychological and philosophical impulses of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s morbid tales. He accomplishes this by making us watch smart, strong stagehands push and pull walls and platforms and operate machines that transport Pelly’s phantoms through the dream world he has created for Offenbach’s opera.

Offenbach never lets up on his teasing of the world of art — E.T.A. Hoffmann was a poet, Offenbach’s Hoffmann is a poet and singer, Stella is a singer, etc. Pelly and his brilliant scenographer Chantal Thomas have created a production that is continuous creation, and like the roles of Hoffmann and Stella in all her transfigurations — roles that demand great virtuosity and superhuman strength — their production teases the art of stagecraft by teetering it on the edge of what mechanical stagecraft can possibly achieve.

The efforts of mind and muscle expended to operate its scenic mechanism are enormous, and amazingly and precisely timed to messieurs Offenbach and Hoffmann. But in a real dream all this movement would seem effortless, even magical. It did not quite work that way just now in Lyon — there were occasional thumps, pounding now and again, walls chasing singers, platforms that jerked their way across the stage. The production simply does not sit comfortably within the confines of architect Jean Nouvel’s theater.

But you can imagine that when this production does move effortlessly it easily becomes the star of the show. The production was reborn last year in Barcelona and San Francisco before returning now to Lyon. In San Francisco it achieved, more or less, the smoothness of a dream (though there were still technical glitches) and it was in fact the star of the show. However the star was supposed to be Natalie Dessay who finally sang only Antonia (appropriately and ironically the iconic French diva announced her retirement from the opera stage after the second performance).

Hoffmann (left), Dr. Miracle (right), photo © Jean-Pierre Maurin

Of course the name of the opera is Hoffmann thus the star of the show should be Hoffmann. In fact in Lyon American tenor John Osborn achieves the artistic stature to fulfill the demands of Laurent Pelly’s concept, and hold the stage vocally and histrionically through this monumental competition. Mr. Osborn is a very physical performer, a real actor and a beautifully voiced, finished singer. Vocally he is a tenore leggero allowing him to negotiate the role’s high tessitura with ease, maybe even interpolate a few high notes for added effect. At the end however when we expect the pathos of an emotionally and vocally exhausted Hoffmann Mr. Osborn sounded like he could take it from the top all over again.

The Pelly production begins with Stella alone onstage singing Mozart's “Non mi dir” from Don Giovanni. It was Italian diva Patrizia Ciofi, an esteemed artist who quite resembles Natalie Dessay, in what seems to be her role debut as Stella. It was easy to forgive this bit of wobbly Mozart, harder to forgive the wooden tones of Olimpia with truncated high notes, painful to hear the hoarse sounds of her lower voice as Antonia, and irritating to perceive her struggling tiredness as Giulietta. Though dramaturgically Offenbach’s Tales may beg a single opera star to fulfill an impossible array of voices, this example vindicates casting three different singers who can compete vocally with Hoffmann himself, not to mention a conceptually demanding production.

French bass-baritone Laurent Alvaro made big voiced, sinister villains, moving through the roles with force and aplomb though he does not exude a vocal, musical or histrionic refinement that rises to the sophistication of the Pelly production. The same may be said of young Cyrille Dubois as the four servants. Belgian mezzo-soprano Angélique Noldus was over-parted as Nicklausse, neither her voice nor her persona able to cross over the pit into the auditorium. The roles of Luther and Crespel were clumsily executed by British baritone Peter Sidhom.

Offenbach’s score is one of opera’s most engaging masterpieces. But even the pit could not save this performance. This sixth performance (of eight) was conducted by Philippe Forget (Kazushi Ono conducted the first four). This young French maestro conducts minor projects at the Opéra de Lyon and elsewhere. While the Lyon orchestra ably fulfilled its role and the maestro and singers were comfortable with one another, the wit, power and pathos of the score were sorely lacking. Perhaps the young maestro was unnerved by the roughness of the production and its singers.

Cast and Production

Hoffmann: John Osborn; Lindorf/Coppelius/Docteur Miracle/Dapertutto: Laurent Alvaro; Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/Stella: Patrizia Ciofi; Muse/Nicklausse: Angélique Noldus; Andrès/Cochenille/Frantz/Pitichinaccio: Cyrille Dubois; Hermann/Peter Schlemil: Christophe Gay; Nathanaël/Spalanzani: Carl Ghazarossian. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Lyon. Conductor: Philippe Forget. Mise en scène and costumes: Laurent Pelly; Scenery: Chantal Thomas; Lighting: Joël Adam. Opéra Nouvel de Lyon. December 26, 2013.

Rossini Festival, Pesaro 2013

L'italiana in Algeri

Two years ago Italian metteur en scène Davide Livermore (lee-ver-mo-ray) staged Rossini’s very first little opera, Demetrio e Polibio. The staging wasn’t about Demetrio e Polibio, it was about fire (live flames were passed about the stage and floated through the theater), surprising effects that distracted us from the slightness of Rossini’s adolescent attempt. Last year Sig. Livermore staged Rossini’s first tragedy, Ciro in Babilonia. The Livermore metaphor was silent film, likening the primitive moments of cinema to the primitive Rossini. The slight opera was told in startlingly complex early filmic image and color, the magnitude of which overwhelmed any tragic innocence that might have flowed from the young composer.

Just now the prestigious festival bestowed Rossini’s second full length comedy, L’italiana in Algeri (1813) upon Sig. Livermore. L’italiana is in fact Rossini’s first masterpiece though it does not yet host all of the musical and dramatic complexities that operatically deify the composer from Pesaro.

Sig. Livermore does not however lack in complexities. He smothered the Rossini comedy with sight gags, lazzi in commedia dell’arte terms. They were non-stop, some amusing, some really amusing, some annoying, some really annoying, and everything in between. It was an immense, astonishing catalog that towered in sheer scale above the simple comedic process of the libretto which Rossini had taken on after another composer had backed out.

The Mustafà, the bey of Algiers, accidentally shoots down a DC 6 (four propellers) carrying the Italiana to Algiers from where her distressed boyfriend had telephoned her for help. A section of the plane crashed onto the stage from which emerged two stewardesses who joined two platinum wigged ladies of the harem and one eunuch in non-stop backup routines à la Supremes through the curtain calls.

Isabella, harem and stewardesses

Mustafà took some pre-Viagra stimulus that so enflamed his prowess that smoke poured from his pants. However pages of women’s magazines from the 1960‘s were projected to inform women how to be beautiful, keep fit and cook good food, in short how to be the worldly and wily Italiana who could make short work indeed of a simple male libido.

Comic book style videos abounded to take us from place to place, and make us homesick for mamma, a real mamma seemed to be present most of the time (it looked like a guy in travesty) to remind us that mamma is not always beautiful. Sig. Livermore is nothing if not slickly theatrical. Rossini, come to think of it, is slickly theatrical too but these two theatrical minds did not seem to be talking to each other.

The Rossini Festival layered on the ironies casting an Italiana who was not Italian at all, but Russian! Mezzo soprano Anna Goryachova is a toothsome young singer from the Zurich Opera. She held the stage with her looks and her long legs more than with her voice which is of burnished beauty and capable of clean if not joyous fioratura. Her rival Elvira, young Italian soprano Mariangela Sicilia has much less to sing but has the obligation to top off the ensembles which she did with force of voice if not personality.

Lindoro and Isabella (left), Mustafà (right)
Photos courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival

Italian bass Alex Esposito commanded our full attention as Mustafà with strong, firm fioratura that raged magnificently when necessary. Mr. Esposito in the prime of vocal estate, a spirited, charismatic actor of inextinguishable theatrical energy. Director Livermore did not wish to channel this splendid young performer into a character who would finally charm us with the warmth of his male simplicity, instead he turned him into a pig in the failed Pappataci finale leaving us bereft of sympathy for such a fine performance.

Young Chinese tenor Vljie Shi is a protégé of the Pesaro festival. These days he seems to be the festival’s artistic director Alberto Zedda’s tenor of choice for Rossini’s elegiac heros. Mr. Shi sang Lindoro with superb Rossini style if not with impressive voice. He is a willing if not convincing actor. His was the least vivid performance of the evening earning him the biggest ovation from an audience that had suffered way too much stimulus. Not to be overlooked was the fine performance of Davide Luciano as Mustafà’s lieutenant Haly, a character that director Livermore constantly paired with the silent eunuch for some reason. Mr. Luciano gave a fine account of his obligatory aria, included even though it was not penned by Rossini.

Festival culture vaunts risk, and risk always seems to be dramaturgical rather than musical. But the Rossini Festival threw caution to the wind and engaged Spanish conductor José Ramós Encinar for L’italiana. Mo. Encinar who is a specialist in contemporary Spanish orchestra music and opera informed Rossini with a clarity of tone developed by studious tempos, achieving at rare times a near Rossini delirium. Notable also was specific and unusual articulation in the ensembles. The dissatisfaction expressed toward Mo. Encinar at the bows of the second performance may have been a response to the stage rather than to his pit.

Guillaume Tell

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell premiered in Paris in 1829. It was in the line-up of operas each year at of the Paris Opera until 1876, missing only 1849, the year of the Spring of Nations revolutions that pitted downtrodden Europeans against undemocratic authority. For good reason — Rossini’s opera is about abused Swiss peasants who rebel against tyrannical Austrian rule. It is a purely political piece that would have further fueled the fires of that particular French revolution.

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell is a French “grand” opera, meaning there is a surfeit of ballet and spectacle, and there is a sentimentalism that is not at all Rossini. It is the final, and a unique moment in the Rossini operatic oeuvre signaling that the two centuries of opéra seria of which he was the final glory were now history.

These days it is rarely performed because it is simply too long — five hours plus — and impossible to cut without sacrificing dramatic integrity and extraordinarily fine music. The French grand opera form demands a ballet in the first act (here a peasant triple wedding) and a ballet in the third act (a peasant celebration). At the end there is a huge storm that must be staged to wipe out the villains so that everyone can live happily ever after or until another revolution is needed.

The Rossini Festival supplied brilliant solutions to the grand opera challenges. First and foremost the opera was staged in the Adriatic Arena, a sports coliseum that the festival transforms into a viable 1500 seat theater. Here a production is an installation rather than scenery placed behind a proscenium, and the installation space is immense. Over the past several years it has proven itself one of the world’s most challenging, spectacular and rewarding stages.

Graham Vick is one of opera’s most overtly political stage directors. With his designer Paul Brown he created a massive white space with a single point forced perspective into the corner of a museum exhibition space, its ceiling a reverse perspective thrust well into the auditorium enclosing the audience visually within the museum.

Along one wall huge glass windows revealed a diorama exhibition space, along the opposite wall was a high gallery opening. The museum image was complicated by the presence of a period movie camera in the Austrian public scenes and by a massive wooden trestle supporting huge theatrical lights that descended finally to the floor in the battle scene where realistic looking, life size horses were mounted by the chorus. It was a sculpted, onstage diorama.

Photo courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival

These images insisted that the production was not fiction, it was actual documented history, illuminated on a stage. William Tell was not simply a mythical figure made a household word by the overture that bears his name but was an actual husband and father and martyr for freedom.

Without the famed ballet of the Paris Opera to execute about an hour and a half of dance Graham Vick worked with his long time collaborator, choreographer Ron Howell to create dance sequences that were pointedly political, therefore more acrobatic than balletic (abrupt, muscular rather than refined movement). Nine dancers plus one talented singer (the evil tyrant Gesler) were soloists with a corps de ballet made up of supernumeraries, and sometimes the chorus all of whom managed some smooth looking background dance movement.

Gesler and his Austrian cronies abused the peasants in the third act dances in a crescendo of ugly images of subjugation ever more painful to observe. Rossini’s Parisian divertissements became quite real representations of repression. Some of the spectators at the second performance really got the point (the very real need to rebel) and booed the dancers when finally (it was very, very long) we could offer some applause and move on to William Tell’s attempt to save his son’s life with the famous arrow/apple trick.

There may be only one person more appreciated in Pesaro than Juan Diego Flórez and that is young conductor Michele Mariotti (the son of Gianfranco Mariotti [the sovrintendente of the festival] and graduate of Pesaro’s Rossini Conservatory), already one of the world’s most sought after conductors for the bel canto repertory. The Rossini overture was played in front of the red fist of the show curtain, a balance of classical elegance, Rossini verve and dramatic intensity — forget the Lone Ranger, it was hearing a magnificent piece of music in perfect context for the first time.

Conductor Mariotti paced the long evening carefully, carving Rossinian detail and new found sentimentalism in unhurried expositions of singing, the extended dramatic recitatives integral to French opera, the arias of course, and more particularly the ensembles — the huge male trio of the second act (Tell, his accomplice Walter Furst and the lovesick Arnold), the mind-boggling quartet in the third act (Tell, his son Jemmy, the tyrant Gesler, his henchman Rodulphe), and finally, many hours into the performance the stunning trio for three female voices (Tell’s wife and son Jemmy plus Mathilde [Arnold’s Austrian girl-friend]) still probing musical and dramatic depth with total indifference to audience fatigue.

Making an opera about Swiss peasantry was as uncontroversial back in 1829 as it would be now. Nonetheless Guillaume Tell is about oppressed peasants and there are always lots of them everywhere, plus French grand opera likes big music. Rossini responded with a huge number of complex chorus numbers and chorus in concert with soloists as in the magnificent finale when William Tell himself leads the emancipated peasants into a world reborn to freedom, to the rebirth of pure, enlightened nature. The outward point of the ceiling of the museum descended revealing a red staircase leading upward and outward of the museum. William Tell urged his son Jemmy into this pure world to Rossini’s moving, pastoral adieu to the tyrants and villains of opera.

Photo courtesy of the Rossini Opera Festival

There were no cuts made to the 1995 Fondazione Rossini critical edition so the performance began at 6 PM rather than at 8 PM — meaning we could get back to our hotels by midnight. There were no supertitles, in fact the program booklet (in which it is standard practice to include the libretto) provided the libretto only in French. The Rossini Festival provided a perfect cast, listed below.

L'occasione fa il ladro

From the sublime to the ridiculous, in Rossini parlance this means the sublimely ridiculous and that was L’occasione fa il ladro, one of the three, one act farces (about one and one half hours in length) Rossini composed in 1812. The truly dumb, incredibly complicated story defies summary, except to say that a petty theft resulted in two couples living happily ever after after just about everything had become therefore totally messed up.

Only a Rossini could make sense of it, and that sense was musical, stretched out into five major arias, one duet, one quintet and a finale. Of the six singers needed the Rossini Festival cast four who are in initial career stages, three of whom have participated in the festival’s Accademia Rossiniana. This is the festival’s young artist program that each year tutors young singers in Rossini style and results in the annual performance of Il viaggio a Reims.

Consistent with current vocal tastes at the festival the two female roles were cast with Russians! Soprano Elena Tsallagova of the Deutsch Oper Berlin sang Berenice (a proto-Rosina role) though her career seems to be heading well outside bel canto. Mezzo soprano Viktoria Yarovava who sings the maid Ernestina was in the Accademia in 2009, then invited to sing in Demetrio e Polibio on the main stage the next year. Her warm and supple voice and apparent charm are leading her to the more famous Rossini roles, notably Rosina and Cenerentola.

Consistent with the national genius all four male roles were sung by Italians! Don Eusebio was sung by tenor Giorgio Misseri, an Accademia participant in 2011 who proved himself here a singing actor of true promise. He is now a part of the young artist program at the Teatro de la Scala. Conte Alberto, Ernestina’s rather colorless protector, was sung by tenor Enea Scala, a former participant in the Pesaro Accademia who has embarked on a lively career.

Martino, Don Eusebio’s servant (the proto-Figaro role) was soundly executed by 41 year old baritone Paolo Bordogna, who has performed roles at the Rossini Festival since 2005. Don Parmenione, was sung by veteran baritone Roberta de Candia who seems now to be exploring buffo roles rather than the straight baritone roles of his earlier career.

The Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini was conducted by Mlle. Yi-Chen Ling, a young Taiwanese woman who comes out of the Accademia Rossiana as well. She seems to be very comfortable in the Rossini ethos, though providing a tight musical ambiance in which the singers were held in strict control and from which Rossini seemed to escape from time to time in brief flights of spirit.

The major interest in this production was however the revival of the 1987 production by the great French designer/stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1932-1988). Typical of many Ponnelle productions this one too was referential to staging techniques that had long sense fallen from use. In L’occasione fa il ladro he plays with sketches of painted canvas panels that used to be the basis of all scenery. These drops were hung inside the stage constructed within the Teatro Rossini stage. During the performance about 15 stagehands were busily at work, a vista, manipulating old ropes connected to an old style wooden grid (the skeleton of the roof structure of a primitive stage). The drops and props were changed, always a vista by the stagehands when the action moved from place to place.

Ponnelle acolyte Sonja Frisell, a stage director of great subsequent accomplishment, recreated the Ponnelle staging that played with the stage space, making use of the auditorium itself as an entrance (Martino started the proceedings by rushing down the aisle to hand the maestra her score). he later used the orchestra pit as a quick escape from the stage jumping into it and out of it as need be to move along the action. The floor of the stage within the stage was a low platform from which the singers stepped down onto the apron of the Teatro Rossini stage for the larger, purely musical events.

A sense of nostalgia was very present for the work of one of the 20th century’s most important and influential stage director, for a time when old opera as contemporary theater was finding its footing, and for a simplicity of concept that may now seem naive but back then seemed, and in fact was a brilliant way to give new life to old art.

Casts and Production

L’italiana in Algeri

Mustafa: Alex Esposito; Elvira: Mariangela Sicilia; Zulma: Raffaella Lupinacci; Haly; Davide Luciano; Lindoro: Yijie Shi; Isabella: Anna Goryachova; Taddeo: Mario Cassi. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: José Ramón Encinar; Metteur en scéne: Davide Livermore; Scenery and projections: Nicolas Bovey; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 13, 2013.

Guillaume Tell

Guillaume Tell: Nicola Alaimo; Arnold Melchtal: Juan Diego Flórez; Walter Furst: Simon Orfila; Melchtal: Simone Alberghini; Jemmy: Amanda Forsythe; Gesler: Luca Tittoto; Rodolphe: Alessandro Luciano; Ruodi Pêcheur: Celso Albelo; Leuthold / Un Chasseur: Wojtek Gierlach; Mathilde: Marina Rebeka; Hedwige: Veronica Simeoni. Orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Conductor: Michele Mariotti; Metteur en scène: Graham Vick; Scenery and costumes: Paul Brown; Choreographer: Ron Howell; Lighting: Giuseppe di Iorio. Adriatic Arena, Pesaro, August 14, 2013.

L’occasione fa il ladro

Don Eusebio: Giorgio Misseri; Berenice: Elena Tsallagova; Conte Alberto: Enea Scala; Don Parmenione; Roberto de Candia; Ernestina: Viktoria Yarovaya; Martino: Paolo Bordogna. Orchestra Sinfonica G. Rossini. Conductor: Yi-Chen Lin; Metteur en scéne scenography and costumes: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; Stage director: Sonja Frisell. Teatro Rossini, Pesaro. August 15, 2013.

Un ballo in maschera at the Chorégies d'Orange

A massive antique Roman theater where stadium opera is always grand opera and often good opera as well.

Un ballo in maschera was maybe the first opera to be strikingly if arbitrarily translocated in place and time — Verdi first moved his story and characters from Stockholm to Pomerania, then from there to New England, all this for political rather than dramaturgical reasons! The raisons d’état for such moves and their ramifications are in fact quite theatrical (censors and lawsuits), in fact far more so than what small theatricality can be eked from the opera.

Renato murders Riccardo, Amelia looks on

There is however a lot of singing that results from a reworking of an old libretto by Eugène Scribe about the assassination of Gustavo III of Sweden. Scribe is the famed creator of the “well-made play” which meant back in the early 19th century construing a series of emotional moments into a reasonable flow of happenings. But such reasonable intention can become an end in itself, and Verdi’s ballo seems such an exercise.

Such lack of dramatic sincerity was evident in Claude Auvray’s production for the Chorégies d’Orange. There was no telling where or when the action takes place, maybe back in Stockholm though the characters use their Italian names from the Pomeranian version. The king and his courtiers were in modern business suits, cell phones at their ears, the decor was a sort of 19th century theatrical drape painted on the stage floor, the masked ball was 18th century powdered wigs. Riccardo (identified as Gustavo on political posters) was enveloped in a massive nordic looking mantle from time to time, Ulrica and her acolytes were in big black gowns with weird gray fright wigs.

It is big at Orange, the stage a few hundred feet wide, its pit (orchestra in Latin) is correspondingly huge and for this ballo housed the accomplished Orchestra National Bordeaux-Aquitaine with a fully symphonic contingent of strings. French conductor Alain Altinoglu, well known to international opera audiences through Live in HD from the Met, responded with ample tempos that stressed size rather than intensity.

Voices were of smaller scale, Riccardo, that is Gustavo, was Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas, one of the more musically accomplished tenors who frequent international stages. He was in fine voice and delivered a well executed performance. His voice remains sweet and supple without the force of production one might expect from the King of Sweden, particularly on a Roman proscenium.

Riccardo, Amelia

Amelia was young American soprano Kristen Lewis (born in Arkansas) who went directly from the University of Tennessee to Vienna where she has blossomed into a proto-Verdi soprano who also sings Mimi. She possesses a voice of pure, sweet sound, of ample force that she uses in high Italianate style. Plus she has mastered natural looking acting gestures appropriate to big singing. It all seemed the Cinderella moment of an important career until she disappeared at the end into her huge white ball gown and remained a mere Mimi.

Renato was bespectacled Italian baritone Lucio Gallo notable as the first Italian singer to be invited to the Bayreuth Festival (as Lohengrin’s Telramund in 2010). In Orange just now he apparently was seduced by the grandness of antiquity as he attempted volumes beyond his capacity and lost all possibility of actually forming words. He accepted his hueés (boos) with dignity.

Oscar, French soubrette Anne Catherine-Gillet took the stage from the start and made Verdi’s opera about the page (it was she who supported Gustavo during his dying moments, Amelia showed no reaction at all discreetly distanced on the arm of her husband, the murderer). French mezzo soprano Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo created an Ulrica of little distinction (by the way it was in 2005 that she added the Sicilian surname to her French one when she discovered the identify of her father).


Singing and mise en scéne at Orange is about size, not about detail. Over the years the various musical and staging techniques have become apparent, though the secret of the impeccable ensemble of chorus with the pit remains a mystery (the combined choruses of the operas of Nice, Nantes-Angers and Avignon number well more than a hundred). Staging however is done to recognized formulae that have proven effective over the decades, notably choristers pour onto the stage from both sides in colorful costumes to make scenic effect given that any real scenery would compete with the magnificent Roman stage wall and no one would want that. Principals remain down stage center and sing.

There is always a coup de théâtre event at the finale, here projections brilliantly lighted the huge Roman stage wall with its original sculptural detail. But the wall slowly darkened from the top down during the several minutes it took Riccardo aka Gustavo to expire. Magnificent is the word. The scenography was by Rudy Sabounghi and the exceptionally moody lighting by Laurent Castaingt, artists primarily active in the south of France and Monaco).

Light sprinkles of rain stopped the show from time to time but did not dampen the enthusiasm of the 8000 or so spectators. The stagehands, apparently unprepared for even the slightest precipitation, resorted to using toilet paper, a Calixto Bieito touch, to wipe dry the stage floor.

Cast and Production

Amelia: Kristin Lewis; Ulrica: Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo; Oscar: Anne-Catherine Gillet; Riccardo: Ramón Vargas; Renato: Lucio Gallo; Samuel: Nicolas Courjal; Tom: Jean Teitgen; Silvano: Paul Kong; A judge: Xavier Seince; A servant: Bo Sung Kim. Orchestre National Bordeaux-Aquitaine and the choruses of the operas of Nice, Avignon and Angers-Nantes, plus the Compagnie Fêtes Galantes conducted by Alain Altinoglu. Mise en scène: Jean-Claude Auvray; Scénographie: Rudy Sabounghi; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Laurent Castaingt; Chorégraphie: Béatrice Massin. Le Théâtre antique d'Orange, August 6, 2013.

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Don Giovanni, Rigoletto and Elektra at the Aix Festival

Don Giovanni as envisioned by director Dimitri Tchneriakov was first seen at the Aix Festival’s Archevêché theater in 2010. It created a sensation, and scandal in some quarters as do many Tchneriakov mises en scène. Don Giovanni was a somewhat sympathetic drunk who accommodated the sexual needs of a complicated household (in Tchneriakov’s Don Giovanni everyone is related or about to be, except Leporello).

It was a splendid production, conducted by Louis Langrée, music director of Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart, with the period resources of the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. It was a musically vivid if unique, far out take on the legend as told in the opera. A feeling of déja vu anticipated the revival, enough was enough. And besides it seemed only a couple of years since its premiere. It was too soon for the same thing.

Until the curtain rose. The same set, only a different atmosphere, now the silence of a funeral home, the formality of a law court. Then the downbeat. One of the hallmarks of the original production was the crashing of a show curtain to separate, or punctuate scenes and establish a precise time sequence (and, well, to take the place of a whole lot of recitative). In 2010 the moments in time were demurely indicated in French. Now, somehow, the crash was more brutal, the time indications were suddenly boldly typed out, in French and then in English. Sans serif.

The Don stumbled out of Donna Anna’s bedroom, crashed to the floor, dead drunk and he remained drunk for the several month duration of Tchneriakov’s action. American bass baritone Rod Gilfry who not so long ago was the St. Francis in Amsterdam embodied the Don. Mr. Gilfry is the charismatic performer ne plus ultra. Thus we were solidly in the presence of a drunk, a man useless to the world. We were not the only ones. The entire cast of well-known characters had lost patience with him, and finally sat at a grim household council to determine how to rid themselves of the problem. Giovanni himself solved the problem, he simply drank himself to death — il dissoluto punito!

Leporello, Giovanni, Elvira
Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

No one particularly cared, except maybe Zerlina just a bit. After all he was no longer Don Ottavio’s more virile competition nor was he Masetto’s richer competition. These two, usually losers, reached a virile standoff at Giovanni’s Act I party that had nothing to do with the kiss they exchanged during the opera’s Act II finale in 2010. Ottavio now in fact had some real coglioni. Elvira was perfectly happy, in fact relieved to be passed off to Leporello in the complex serenade escapade. Anna and Ottavio had a little flirtatious moment after the Don’s demise and the opera ended.

Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

This time it was the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marc Minkowski, a maestro of impeccable early music credential. There was a suavity of sound, an amplitude of color that only a fine modern symphony orchestra achieves. It was urged on by this once early music maestro who in recent years has taken on the gamut of colorful nineteenth and twentieth century repertory, and now maybe has left earth as well.

The maestro brought forth sugary sweet, sometimes incoherent sounds from the pit that created a sort of alcoholic musical haze through which a wacko continuo pounded. There was indifference to the often separate sonic worlds of the pit and stage, and the maestro seemed to be confusing conducting with arm flailing.

You surely understand by now that all this was art at its most sublime. It was the sequel, hardly the repeat of the brilliant 2010 Tchneriakov Don Giovanni. It had to be seen to be believed, Mozart’s Don Giovanni was not deconstructed, but Don Giovanni destructed as is, in fact, the intention of the opera. We all bought it with minimum booing.

As had been in 2010 the casting for the new Tcherniakov and Minkowski vision was impeccable, bass baritone Kyle Kettleman the only hold over, bridging with sensitivity and subtle emotional understanding the decline of his boss. Arias were sometimes whispered, sometimes almost spoken, never fully sung. Ensembles were dramatically inverted. The new Donna Elvira had withdrawn (no explanation given), and was replaced for the first four performances by the 2010 Elvira, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais and for the final four performances by Romanian soprano Alex Penda (lately known as Alexandrina Pendatchanska) who oozed Slavic disgust for her no-account husband (the Don).

There used to be an adage in the opera business — don’t mess with Verdi. Another adage was don’t produce Verdi if you don’t have the voices. But a few generations of new age directors have changed all that. Blame it on Jonathan Miller with his mafia Rigoletto, blame it on Calixto Bieito with his toilets in Un ballo in maschera, both emblematic new age productions of Verdi.

The wisdom of the ages still stands of course, but if you invite famous director Robert Carson to stage Rigoletto you take what the latest in operatic thinking gives you. To wit, a big confusion with the equally famous jester in I pagliacci, plus a relentless big top metaphor that offered a myriad of possibilities for creating stage excitement (acrobats, contortionists, a lion tamer [with eight or so scantily clad females (a few square centimeters of faux lion skin], the ninth was the Countess Ceprano, all of whom willing to go topless). Plus the ring master (the Duke of Mantua) willing to take it all off.

Young, reasonably fit Mexican baritone Arturo Chacón Cruz was the Duke of Mantua. His youth ensures powerful and secure high notes though his vocal production seems to preclude forming words. He projects youth and energy and even some charm, though no sweetness or delicacy, and no musical or vocal sophistication. Mr. Chacón Cruz is however experienced in the big-top metaphor having recently played Werther in circus language in Lyon (it worked a bit better for Werther there than for Rigoletto here).

Rigoletto, Duke of Mantua, Countess Ceprano, Gilda
Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

Soprano Irina Lungu was the alternate Violetta to Natalie Dessay’s recent La Traviata in Aix. Russian born and trained, extensively schooled in Italy this young diva has secure above the staff capabilities though her voice sits more expressively in the full lyric range. Mlle. Lungu is indeed highly schooled, her Gilda created by exploiting style without plumbing sincerity either vocally or dramatically.

Georgian baritone George Gagnidze sang Rigoletto, his signature role that he has taken to the world’s major stages (in the U.S. at the Met and in L.A.). His is a consummate Rigoletto combining beauty and power of voice with a seemingly natural inclination to negotiate the emotional poles of the Rigoletto character. Much of this Rigoletto however disappeared amid the clamor of the big-top metaphor.

Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

Robert Carson typically avails himself of fine designers, here the husband and wife team Radu and Boruzescu of Bulgarian origin who have made their professional lives in France. it is a big-top of long-ago atmospheres, colors that are emotional and shapes that are storybook traditional. The grandstands are steep thus adding a vertical plain to the staging surfaces. With consummate directorial skill Carson used every inch of the horizontal and vertical spaces to create stage pictures, including to highest reaches of the big-top for a floating trapeze swing from which Gilda sang her “Caro nome.”

The richness of directorial and scenic possibilities afforded by the metaphor however sabotaged Carson. His tricky staging failed to ignite the emotional lives of his protagonists, including, most harmfully, the courtiers of Verdi’s crucial Rigoletto chorus. Not that this seemed to bother enthusiastic audiences.

Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda sometimes allowed his orchestra, the London Symphony to be covered by staging noises, and other times, too often, indulged in exploring and exploiting the sophistication of sound that has made this superb symphony orchestra famous. The Verdi orchestra however is purely dramatic, not an end in itself. It is a dominant player in Verdi’s tightly complex opera organism. Noseda did not and this orchestra could not fulfill their roles in Aix.

Don’t mess with Verdi.

Rarely in the annals of opera do forces converge to create a masterpiece. But this occurred just now in Aix. And no surprise. Patrice Chéreau created the stage and Esa-pekka Salonen created the pit for the Strauss Elektra with extraordinary German soprano Evelyn Herlitzius.

The fire curtain rose to reveal a silence hanging over the minimally shaped classical architectural forms of the set. Von Hofmannsthal’s maids began sweeping and scrubbing the floors. The sounds of the broom, the running of water to fill pails slowly became apparent, even loud, focusing our attention on detail, smallest detail. It was to be an Elektra discovered through microscopic dramaturgical detail.

All hell broke loose in the pit, murdered Agamemnon the dominant musical force of the evening. The servants spread realistically throughout the courtyard discussed palace life. Their individual personalities were perceived by a striking diversity of age, body type and race, the “real” made more so by precise and complex staging, like the music. Real as well was the detail of the costume, vaguely middle European, vaguely mid-twentieth century, the socialist grit and survival feel against which all life must play.

Elektra rendered her opening monologue in stately, mythic terms of pre-written destiny, her idée fixe — the duty of her brother Orest to reek vengeance on their mother Clytemnestra for the murder of their father, Agamemnon. Chéreau’s Clytemnestra was soprano[!] Waltraud Meier, possessed also of her idée fixe — her fear of being killed by her son. Mme. Meier possesses a delicate persona making a vulnerable Clytemnestra. She was a personage and voice much reduced in magnitude from the usual monster.

She was visually and vocally neurotic rather than evil (after all she did have a justifiable reason to kill her husband). Elektra in fact actually embraced her mother during Clytemnestra’s monologue of fear, a coup de théâtre not withstanding its deeply human motivation. A second coup soon followed— Orest and his tutor ceremoniously entered the courtyard (unnoticed by Clytemnestra and Elektra) just as the Clytemnestra confession was concluding, adding frightening layers of now palpable physical threat.

Clytemnestra, Elektra, Orest
Photo copyright: Pascal Victor / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

Chrysothemis, sung by Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, was of substantial personality and force, the only being on the stage who could see beyond the murder of Agamemnon. Of a vocal magnitude nearly parallel to that of Mme. Herlitzius Chrysothemis competed vocally with Elektra offering life instead of death.

Orest, Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko, held back from revealing himself to Elektra, the scene staged with Elektra blind to his presence. At this point we were somehow inside Elektra but deprived of understanding this reaction to her brother. Orest too was possessed by duty, his idée fixe, that in fact destroyed him emotionally (killing his mother). His beaten form was made visible to us as he walked slowly off the stage during Elektra’s dance.

Photo copyright: Pascal Victor / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

Finally Chéreau left Elektra exhausted, sitting on a ledge, and we saw the tragedy not only as that of Elektra but of Orest as well, and of Clytemnestra who lay there dead, murdered by her son.

Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen used the considerable resources of the Orchestre de Paris, 110 players (68 strings) to tell the Chéreau story. Nothing happened on the stage that did not happen in the pit, with the same intelligence of detail. The dissection of the Von Hofmannsthal libretto was echoed in Salonen’s immersion into the Strauss score, taking it well beyond what you may have perceived before. The delicacy of the chamber orchestra that Strauss inserted inside his massive instrumental forces was notably absent, having disappeared into this fortissimo colossus of neurosis and humanity.

The title is Elektra, she was 50 year-old Evelyn Herlitzius, who took the stage with the palpable energy of a post-adolescent and of voice that shown at momentous times with the beauty of youth. Mme. Herlitzius will have challenged Chéreau and Salonen to make use of these attributes. It is impossible to imagine this production without this phenomenal artist of unceasing physical and vocal stamina. The production now goes to Milan, Helsinki, Barcelona and Berlin with most of this same cast. Casting will be modified when it comes to the Met — a different Elektra most significantly).

For an account by Michael Milenski of the two smaller operas of the Aix Festival 2013, please see Elena and The House Over Taken at the Aix Festival (below).

Casts and Production:

Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni: Rod Gilfry; Leporello: Kyle Ketelsen; Donna Anna: Maria Bengtsson; Don Ottavio; Paul Groves; Donna Elvira: Alex Penda; Zerlina: Joelle Harvey; Masetto; Kostas Smoriginas; Il Commendatore; Anatoli Kotscherga. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marc Minkowski; Mise en scène et scénographie: Dimitri Tcherniakov; Costumes: Dmitri Tcherniakov and Elena Zaytseva; Lighting: Gleb Filshtinsky. Théâtre de l’Archevêche, Aix-en-Provence, July 18, 2013.


Rigoletto: George Gagnidze; Gilda: Irina Lungu; Il Duca di Mantova: Arturo Chacon Cruz; Sparafucile: Gábor Bretz; Maddalena: José Maria Lo Monaco; Giovanna: Michèle Lagrange; Il Conte di Monterone: Wojtek Smilek; Borsa: Julien Dran; Marullo: Jean-Luc Ballestra; Il Conte di Ceprano: Maurizio Lo Piccolo; La Contessa di Ceprano: Valeria Tornatore. The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The London Symphony conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. Mise en scène: Robert Carsen; Scenery: Radu Boruzescu; Costumes: Miruna Boruzescu; Lighting: Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet; Chorégraphie: Philippe Giraudeau. Théâtre de l’Archevêche, Aix-en-Provence, July 24, 2013.


Elektra: Evelyn Herlitzius; Klytämnestra: Waltraud Meier; Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka; Orest: Mikhail Petrenko; Aegisth: Tom Randle; Der Pfleger des Orest: Franz Mazura; Ein junger Diener: Florian Hoffmann; Ein alter Diener: Sir Donald McIntyre; Die Aufseherin/Die Vertraute: Renate Behle; Erste Magd: Bonita Hyman; Zweite Magd/Die Schleppträgerin: Andrea Hill; Dritte Magd: Silvia Hablowetz; Vierte Magd: Marie-Eve Munger; Fünfte Magd: Roberta Alexander. Coro Gulbenkian. The Orchestre de Paris conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Mise en scène: Patrice Chéreau; Scenery: Richard Peduzzi; Lighting: Dominique Bruguière; Costumes: Caroline de Vivaise. The Grand Théâtre de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, July 19, 2013.

The House Taken Over and Elena at the Aix Festival

That’s Helen (of Troy) by Cavalli, so maybe you are interested after all, though the more engaging experience was The House Taken Over by Vasco Mendonça.

In a festival dominated by Elektra directed by Patrice Chéreau, Don Giovanni directed by Dimitri Tcherniakov and Rigoletto directed by Robert Carson gratefully a place was found for a new opera. It was a commission by the Aix Festival through its Académie Européen de Musique to young (34 years old) Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça (by comparison the Mozart of Don Giovanni was 31 years old).

The Aix Festival gave the new opera a substantial production by the esteemed British director Katie Mitchell who last summer imagined a brilliant production of British composer George Benjamin’s Written on Skin for Aix (since seen at the Nederlandse Oper and at Covent Garden). Sig. Mendonça is in fact a student of George Benjamin who was a student of Britten and Messiaen.

The libretto was contrived by British dramaturge Sam (short for Samantha) Holcroft on a novella by Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar. Cortázar emigrated from Argentina to France in 1951 when he was 36 years old. His muses were surrealism, improvisation and stream-of-consciousness. He translated Edgar Allen Poe into Spanish.

You get the idea — traditional genres and dramatic attitudes are out the window though Aristotelian unities were zealously respected. A brother and sister clean then eat and read in a room of an old house. Mysterious noises frighten them, so they transfer the same activities to another room where the same thing occurs. They take these activities onto the front doorstep where the sister realizes she must use a bathroom. They leave the house to embark on new lives.

Concordia, Discordia et al
Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

The libretto in this production did no more than provide composer Mendonça with a structure on which to expound infinite combinations of tones, colors and rhythms that sometimes directly applied to the story telling, but mostly just percolated along as what seemed to be notated improvisation, or rather invention.

The Asko Schönberg Ensemble from the Netherlands was here comprised of two violins, two violas, one cello, one bass, one flute, two clarinets, two trumpets, one trombone plus a myriad of percussion choices presided over by one virtuoso player (Joey Marijs). Etienne Stiebens was the production’s chef d’orchestra. One musical delight followed another in an astonishing array of variation elaborated by these instruments.

Fortunately the grandstand seating at the outdoor Domaine du Grand St. Jean gave us full view into the pit where the evening’s excitement took place. Plenty of it. Cerise sur le gâteau: the trumpeters at the finale abandoned their horns in favor of Melodicas (plastic keyboard harmonicas).

Director Katie Mitchell with her scenographer, British theater designer Alex Eales, shied away from the surrealism of the novella opting to evoke a commentary on the insignificant and suffocating, narrow lives of the English petite bourgeoisie. The production did not take us into the attractive sonic world of Sig. Mendonça’s music nor into the subtle philosophic atmospheres felt by an Argentine intellectual based in mid twentieth century Paris.

Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

The Aix Festival provided two quite able, young British singers, mezzo soprano Kitty Whately and baritone Oliver Dunn, both done up to try to look dull middle-aged. These fine young artists managed the undistinguished narrative style delivery of text with crystal clear English diction, and veered into the opera’s very occasional ariosos with vocal gusto. It is not an opera about voices.

This talented young composer may yet find his operatic way, after all Richard Strauss was 41 before he hit his operatic stride with the Salome libretto by Von Hofmannsthal. Perhaps Mr. Mendonça should look beyond British theatrical forces.

Elena aka The Abduction of Helen by Cavalli is of course not about Helen of Troy even though it says it is. It is really about racy attitudes towards sex and marriage in 17th century Venice. All of Venice had been excommunicated when Cavalli was four years old, not for its free and easy morality but rather because this rich city had the confidence to ignore playing by rules imposed by others. Elena, the thirty-second of his forty one or so operas, is also about playing harmlessly outside the rules, those of restraint or civilized conduct in particular.

Helen of Troy (left), Menelaus (travesty) (extreme right)
Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

The operas that have made Cavalli famous these days — L’Ormindo, La Calisto and L’Erismena — are all earlier in the Cavalli oeuvre and exemplify the easy charm of stories about deities falling in and out of love with doses of sincerity here and there. Cavalli turned out Elena at age 57 when he was at the height of his fame (the next year Louis XIV lured him to Paris with a special, high tech theater built just for his Ercole Amante). At this point it was easy, too easy for Cavalli to make an opera. Elena seems far too contrived, and perhaps it is an opera best forgotten.

Like all Cavalli operas Elena has a big cast of characters, all with lots to do. Casting is sophisticated at the Aix Festival, and with rare exception true to character and voice and with rare exception indifferent to fame. At the same time the Aix Festival knows the virtues and financial rewards of encouraging young artists. Thus the large cast was comprised of talented young singers all of whom were well nurtured indeed by the opera world’s elaborate and extensive apprentice system.

There was therefore a uniformity of relatively high level talent and technical ability. This was the limitation of the cast. Cavalli’s characters were created by generic, well trained young singers rather than by mature or finished artists with specific traits that qualify them to bring artistic life to human character. Those few with hints of greater artistry fell victim to a generic apprentice atmosphere of promise rather than accomplishment.

Concordia, Discordia, et al
Photo copyright: Patrick Berger / Artcomart, courtesy of the Aix Festival

The production was in the Festival’s tiny Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, a relic in the Italian horseshoe style that is perfect for Baroque opera. It was staged by Jean-Yves Ruf, a young French theater pedagogue with acting credentials as well, in a stage space that resembled a bull ring in the first half and a macramé fantasy in the second. The scenery and costumes were fashionable, generic theatre designs that probed “look” rather than depth. It was a long, very long evening.

Ten members of Ambronay’s (a town between Lyon and Geneva) early music ensemble Capella Mediterranea plucked, sawed and tooted in finest, informed period style, led by its founder of Argentine origin and Swiss training, Leonardo Garciá Alarcón.

With the cost of tickets at one half that for major productions at the Aix Festival, productions like Elena and The House Over Taken open the festival to a larger public, those unable or unwilling to bear the $300 plus cost of a ticket for Don Giovanni or Elektra.

Casts and Production

The House Taken Over. Brother: Oliver Dunn; Sister: Kitty Whately. Asko | Schönberg Ensemble conducted by Etienne Siebens. Mise en scène: Katie Mitchell; Scenery: Alex Eales; Lighting: James Farncombe. Domaine du Grand St. Jean, July 11, 2013.

Elena. Elena/Venere: Emöke Barath; Menelao: Valer Barna-Sabadus; Teseo: Fernando Guimaraes; Ippolita/Pallade: Solenn' Lavanant Linke; Peritoo: Rodrigo Ferreira; Iro: Emiliano Gonzalez Toro; Menesto/La Pace: Anna Reinhold; Tindaro/Nettuno: Scott Conner; Erginda/Giunone/Castore: Mariana Flores; Eurite/La Verita: Majdouline Zerari; Diomede/Creonte: Brendan Tuohy; Euripilo/La Discordia/Polluce: Christopher Lowrey; Antiloco: Job Tomé. Cappella Mediterranea conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. Mise en scène: Jean-Yves Ruf; Scenery: Laure Pichat; Costumes : Claudia Jenatsch; Lighting: Christian Dubet. Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, July 17, 2013.

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Verdi Messa da requiem in Naples

San Francisco and Naples have much in common these days — streets with potholes, ever more gourmet pizzerias, homeless, etc., and, yes, Nicola Luisotti.

This Verdi Messa da requiem in Naples was the San Francisco Opera’s music director’s debut as the neo-direttore musicale of the Teatro San Carlo, one of Italy’s more august musical institutions. The event was announced as a staging of what was to have been Verdi’s crowning achievement [the 73 year-old composer then further ornamented his crown with Otello and Falstaff]. It was a happening no serious Luisotti groupie could resist.

To be sure the foolish idea to stage this setting of the now outdated Catholic liturgy was later abandoned, and whispers of such an event at San Francisco Opera fell silent as well. Hear tell the production was to have been by the Catalan theatrical collective La Fura dels Baus operatically famous for a Grand Macabre at the English National Opera (samples may be found on YouTube).

The third performance of the Requiem (February 28) was briefly delayed by a wildcat strike by the orchestra and chorus protesting the elimination of funding for the theater’s corpo di ballo (corp de ballet), funding already sunk in a morass of scandal. The director of the theater came on stage to announce the delay to the great displeasure of one member of the audience who could not stop shouting vergogna, vergogna (shame, shame).

But the performance did begin, the whispers of Requiem aeternum (find eternal peace) first in the strings then by the chorus were clearly articulated stating that this was to be a vocal performance, not judgement day atmospheres. This spectacular Luisotti requiem prayer in fact emerged as one voice confessing, supplicating, imploring, begging eternal rest, with the implicit resolution that such reward was very much in question.

The first opportunity to establish the emotional chaos that set the dramatic character of Luisotti’s sinner comes soon, the male chorus of the Teatro San Carlo aggressively shouted Te decet hymnus, Deus (a hymn rises to you, God) in individual voices, a ragged sound that articulated individual anguish.

There was a lot to be worried about. The maestro unleashed the fury of the Dies irae in volumes possible only in old, very old opera houses (1716). The bass drum punctuation slightly anticipated the beat adding nearly intolerable tension, brass blurted out hidden threats. And the prayer began, four vocal colors placed directly in front of the maestro and directly in his control. Individually and jointly these voices supplicated forgiveness in the midst of raging fury of San Carlo’s huge, virtuoso orchestra.

Mezzo soprano Luciana d’Intino conveying that all is written and will be judged (Liber scriptus proferetur) exploited an enormous range of colors, gutteral chest tones, raucous almost spoken tones, snarling threats, beautifully voiced high climaxes, a voice in the prime of its expressive power that deeply invaded our sensibilities. Mme. d’Intino, of middle age, is one of Italy and Europe’s current greats who has not yet found her way onto the American west coast stages.

Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez delivered Verdi’s extended Dies irae tract Ingemisco tamquam reus (I weep because I am guilty) with unprecedented tenorial fervor (choking and weeping), not to mention hand wringing amidst evident physical torment as well. Mr. Alvarez, like no other tenor, ever, can take powerful vocal emotion to the edge of dramatic explosion.

Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan in L.A.and Lucrezia Borgia’s third husband Alfonso in San Francisco) used focused black tone with minimum inflection to announce the day of judgement and describe the cries coming from the damned shrouded in flames, words that were maximally chilling in this cold blooded delivery.

The four singers stood before maestro Luisotti in rapt visual contact. An overwhelming synergy of artistic intention occurred that created one voice and body for all mankind in its final moments of existence. The performance was a massive statement, it was conceptually complete and artistically finished.

The Offertorium duet between Teatro Don Carlo’s concert master, Gabriele Pieranunzi and the soprano was of exquisite beauty. The Sanctus took off in an orchestral frenzy that left the chorus in the dust though it soon caught up and erupted into absolute delirium for the final Hosanna in excelsus. The Agnus dei was sung as if hummed, a prelude to the gentle Lux aeterna trio.

Soprano Maria Agresta in the first flush of an illustrious European career possesses a clear soprano of full lyric capability, and of great beauty that she manages with full confidence in passages of soaring tones, with much subtlety of volume from pianissimo to fortissimo. For Verdi the soprano voice is one of purity, not of complexity though dramatically there is the suspicion that such purity must harbor some guilt. It is to such a voice that Verdi gives the final Requiem prayer, Libera me, Domine (spare me, God, from eternal damnation).

This prayer, offered at the graveside, is the voice of the single, innocent soul against the fury of the Day of Wrath who in its guilt and fear explodes in a final, personal supplication for peace. The final lines in Naples were no longer sung by Maria Agresta, but spoken in desperate fear.

The Neapolitan audience seemed not to know how to react to all this shock and awe. It did manage some applause though it was hardly commensurate with the scope of the performance.

And finally the despotic maestro was not hampered by production.

Teatro San Carlo scheduled back to back performances on February 28 and March 1 (the third and fourth of five performances). Given his commitment to the role tenor Alvarez could not possibly have survived a next day performance, thus Hungarian tenor Szabolcs Brickner was scheduled to sing that performance. Said to be indisposed he was replaced by tenor Stefano Secco, well known to San Francisco Opera audiences for many roles including the 2009 Verdi Requiem conducted by Donald Runnicles. Mr. Secco is a very different artist than Marcelo Alvarez, of sweeter voice and temperament. Obviously uninitiated into the maestro’s idiosyncratic conception much accommodation was accorded Mr. Secco and a very fine, far smoother performance resulted. It did not approach the expressive magnitude of the previous evening.

Luisotti will conduct the Verdi Requiem in San Francisco in June. It could be the hottest ticket in a long time.

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Cléopâtre and Les Troyens in Marseille

There are forces to be reckoned with at l’Opéra de Marseille — a first class orchestra, a first class chorus, first class casts (with notable exception, see below) who inhabit an extraordinarily fine old opera house.

(And, yes, Roberto Alagna as Enée [Aeneas]).

Béatrice Uria-Monzon and Roberto Alagna
Photo copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy Opéra de Marseille

French grand opera adores the mezzo-soprano voice, among its greatest roles are legendary personages who expound human warmth and honest sensuality. Just now there were three of these unique creatures in Marseille — Cléopâtre, Cassandre and Didon — all in the person of French mezzo-soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon (born of a Spanish father).

Marc Antoine, Cléopâtre, Octavie
Photo copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy Opéra de Marseille

Mme. Uria-Monzon was the Carmen ne plus ultra on major stages twenty years ago. Her roles are now mature women of courage and resolve (like Tosca too, Mme. Uria-Monzon’s current rôle fétiche). At fifty years of age now Mme. Uria-Monzon reads as a beautiful woman in her vocal prime. Her sound is big and secure, beautiful and elegant, uniformly produced throughout the mezzo register. Her expressive subtleties, her musicianship are created by rhythm and volume gradation more so than by variation of color.

Not that Massenet’s Cléopâtre is among French grand opera’s greatest works. Having long since given the world his masterpieces Massenet kept turning out operas, the last opera, Cléopâtre, premiered posthumously in Monte Carlo (1914). It is almost the same story as Dido (beautiful woman entraps vulnerable man who abandons her). By 1912, the year of his death, Massenet knew how to write an opera, the final count was forty.

Cléopâtre takes place in a warring world (lots of fanfare) engendering wrenching farewells not to mention betrayals (lots of singing). It was therefore a very pleasurable afternoon if you like fanfares and arias (well, we all do) and you do not look to closely or expect too much. Marseille’s venerable metteur en scéne Charles Roubaud endowed this slight work with a perfect staging that would have pleased the monegasques (those who reside in Monaco) in the heady days just before the first world war.

Cléopâtre preparing for death
Photo copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy Opéra de Marseille

Its hero, Marc Antoine was impersonated by handsome Canadian (Quebec) baritone Jean François Lapointe who sings well and seems most at home in giddy moments. His rival for Cleopatra’s attention, Spakos was keenly portrayed by Marseille born tenor Luca Lombardo, and Mark Anthony’s faithful and forgiving wife Octavie was beautifully sung by Canadian (Quebec) soprano Kimy McLaren. Conductor Lawrence Foster realized the maximum possible from Massenet’s score.

As Carthage’s Dido in Berlioz’ Les Troyens mezzo soprano Béatrice Uria-Monzon towered in stature far above Egypt’s flighty Cleopatra. Berlioz’ endows his tragic queen with sublime music. The Berlioz muse is iconoclastic, quite personal, even naive allowing this heroine an emotional simplicity and honesty that explodes first in delicate sexuality and finally in rage at Aeneas. Mme. Uria-Monzon as Troy’s Cassandra on the other hand needed to threaten the Trojans with her prophecies. These menaces lie in an emotional range less present in Mme. Uria-Monzon’s persona, though such violent utterances did find resonance within her voice.

It was a concert version of Les Troyens in Marseille, within this format Mme. Uria-Monzon shined, creating first Cassandra and then Dido in her voice then adding minimal physical movement in gesture and expression that carefully etched and held character even in concert format. Overt physical action was however implicit in the Berlioz orchestra, the five trumpets and four trombones detailing its bellicose happenings (the finale of the Trojan War, the proto-Hannibal invasion of Carthage and, not least, the founding of Rome).

Seventy-two year old American conductor Lawrence Foster, the lone linguistically foreign presence (well, save a tenor from Texas), drew an always driving, rhythmically square, colorfully detailed performance from the Marseille Orchestra who skillfully created non-stop thunder, be it military description or deeply personal emotional statement. Mo. Foster is the new music director of the Marseille orchestra, its first in many years. He has the task of honing it into an ensemble of true stature. Much progress has already occurred, there is the assumption that obvious deficiencies will soon disappear as well.

Orchestra, chorus and soloists of the Opéra de Marseille
Photo copyright Christian Dresse, courtesy Opéra de Marseille

The violins are solid (twelve firsts and twelve seconds), the cellos and violas sang quite beautifully. Berlioz makes much use of a wind quartet (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon) in various combination to color his story, and these players proved fully capable of providing this big time maestro and Berlioz what they demanded. The French horn duet was intoned and echoed in appropriately sweet and supple tones, a very visible and very appreciated orchestral high point of the evening.

Among the high points of the five hour evening was the fourth act Anna (Dido’s sister) and Narbal (a government minister) duet discussing, no surprise, duty versus love. In this concert performance several roles were double cast, not just the tour de force of Cassandra/Dido. Bass Nicolas Courjal sang Narbal, Priam and the ghost of Hector. He is a beautifully voiced young singer who early in the evening had made Priam’s description of the sack of Troy especially moving.

Texas tenor Gregory Warren as Iopas softly sang the Ode to Cérès as well as the Song of Hylas in sweetly beautiful tones (he also urgently delivered a few messenger one-liners). In a staged performance both of these stand alone songs assume greater relief than in a concert performance. Here they were the only episodes where scenic atmospheres were sorely missing.

The field of mezzo-sopranos (not a soprano in sight) was completed by Clémentine Margaine as Dido’s sister Anna and Marie Kalinine as Aeneas’ son Ascanio. Mlle. Margaine is obviously a Carmen of stature whose bolder presentation served to underline the subtlety and delicacy of Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s Dido.

Not to forget the Trojans and the Carthaginians, the eighty or so voices of the Opéra de Marseille chorus who suffered and raged with Berlioz’ inimitable gusto and proved themselves an ensemble of true operatic stature. The tenors made an exceptionally beautiful sound.

That leaves Aeneas, Roberto Alagna. Sad to say this famous tenor was a black hole in an otherwise superb evening. He was obviously unprepared, losing his way in his big moment in the fifth act; unsure of himself he resorted to inappropriate tenorial vocal mannerisms (heaving the voice, exaggerated scooping); unable to trust his musicianship he compensated with non-stop gesturing; apparently unable to deliver the nuit d’ivresse et d’extase infinie he availed himself of sotto voce, vocal trickery that simply caricatured a lover. Most disappointing were the antics he affected as he was being booed.

For an appreciation of the Opéra de Marseille please see "Marseille, European Capital of Culture"

Cléopâtre: Cast and Production

Cléopâtre: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; Octavie: Kimy McLaren; Charmion: Antoinette Dennefeld; Marc Antoine: Jean-François Lapointe; Spakos: Luca Lombardo; Ennius: Philippe Ermelier; Amnhès: Bernard Imbert; Sévérus: Jean-Marie Delpas. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. Mise en scéne: Charles Roubaud; Décors: Emmanuelle Favre; Vidéos: Marie-Jeanne Gauthé; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lumières: Marc Delamézière. Opéra de Marseille, June 23, 2013.

Les Troyens: Cast and Production

Didon / Cassandre: Béatrice Uria-Monzon; Ascagne: Marie Kalinne; Anna: Clémentine Margaine; Hécube / Polyxène: Anne-Marguerite Werster; Enée: Roberto Alagna; Chorèbe: Marc Berrard; Panthée / Mercure: Alexandre Duhamel; Narbal / Priam / Ombre d’Hector: Nicolas Courjal; Iopas / Hylas: Gregory Warren; Un Chef grec / 1ère sentinelle: Bernard Imbert; Prêtre de Pluton / 2ème sentinelle: Antoine Garcin; Helenus: Wilfried Tissot. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille conducted by Lawrence Foster. Opéra de Marseille, July 15, 2013.

Elettra a Marsiglia

Vendetta sadistica e sfida sadistica in parti uguali. Conoscete la storia – se Oreste non avesse trucidato sua madre, Elettra l’avrebbe fatto. E così fa ripetutamente nel suo delirio lungo quasi due ore.

Le fantasie sadistiche di Elettra sono pressochè pari alla tortura sadistica inflitta da Richard Strauss agli interpreti con ruoli davvero impervi. La soprano americana Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (nata a New Orleans) dimora lo spaccato di un sotterraneo di un maestoso palazzo miceneo in questo lasso di un’ora e cinquanta minuti d’estremo sforzo vocale.

Non ci sono state sorprese in questa rimessa in scena dell’Opéra di Marsiglia di uno spettacolo inizialmente prodotto da Charles Roubaud nel 2003. C’è un richiamo all’arte filmica che nel primo scorcio del Novecento minava le esplorazioni psicologiche, specialmente le psiche perverse. La scenografa Emmanuelle Favre ha prodotto una duplice prospettiva notevolmente esagerata su una scala tonale di bianchi e neri, e la costumista Katia Duflot ha lavorato sia col bianco e nero sia col colore, donando una ricchezza art nouveau seppure non nelle sue forme originali. Una mise en scène semplice e efficace da parte dei produttori.

Scenografia di Emmanuelle Favre
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet interpreta una Elettra adeguatamente giovane, fisicamente e vocalmente. L’artista proietta la degradazione della bellezza fisica causata dall’ossessione depressiva e suscita la nostra simpatia vitale verso tale triste creatura. Si infuria con toni veri e potenti, a volte di una bellezza piacevole e a volte lacerati, anche soffocati, tali che talvolta abbiamo temuto il cedere intero della sua voce solo per venirne rassicurati e di seguito star di nuovo all’erta. Conclusa la danza, esanime per terra, la Charbonnet ci ha convinti di essere una vera Elettra, e non soltanto una soprano che più o meno riesce a cantarla.

Il maestro Pinchas Steinberg invece ha riservato sorprese. Questo veterano direttore d’orchestra ha imposto un passo molto misurato il quale ha offerto un quadro inaspettato dei momenti più delicati e vuoi sensibili dell’espressionismo straussiano. Questo quando non ha minacciato di arrestare l’intero flusso emozionale. La scena di Oreste e Elettra è stata di una dolcezza spettacolare, e pure brutale. L’Oreste, il basso Nicolas Cavallier (attore prima di diventare cantante) trasudava l’appena celata soddisfazione sessuale provata da Elettra mentre le sue fantasie raggiungono lentamente e con furba prudenza il climax.

Il coup de grace del pomeriggio è stato comunque dato dalle grida, forse amplificate, di Clitennestra durante l’assassinio, grida cantate e non il solito protratto grugnito viscerale. La mezzosoprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch ha offerto attraverso il verace canto una rara versione di questo personaggio tragico e complesso, proponendo una figura ben più ricca e completa del solito mostro cantato a voce roca se non spenta. Madame Todorovich, squisitamente avvolta in un abito di scena nero e parrucca in biondo platino, ha reso la sua scena con Elettra estremamente vivida, quasi euforica nella esposizione infranta delle sue paure.

Clitennestra, Elettra
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

La soprano tedesca Ricarda Merbeth ha fornito una persistente tonalità, ampia e luminosa, nel ruolo di Crisotemide, vestita di fiori che, per quanto pallidi, si addicevano alla sua figura verginale (Mme. Merbeth canta anche nel ruolo di Salomé). È riuscita nel proiettare l’atteggiamento pauroso e ingenuo del suo personaggio senza peraltro trovare le profondità vocali e istrioniche di questo personaggio - antidoto a sorella e madre.

Patrick Raftery ha voce sufficiente per incarnare un pallido Egisto, adatto ai bisogni di Strauss and del metteur en scène Roubaud. La sorvegliante, le ancelle e il restante cast sono stati resi in maniera consona da chi, con alcuni soprannumeri di costumi sorprendenti, ha popolato di tanto in tanto con immagini nauseanti e vivaci le parti sopraelevate del maestoso edificio scenico.

L’Opéra di Marsiglia ha previsto un organico di settantasei musicisti, sufficiente tranne nel momento in cui il maestro necessitava di un suono imponente dagli archi per sviluppare i momenti voluttuosi della partitura straussiana. Le baignoires su entrambi i lati della fossa hanno ospitato ciascuna un numero parziale di otto timpani richiesti da Strauss, riproponendo i climax con grande impatto stereofonico. I palchetti sovrastanti le baignoires hanno ospitato gli altri strumenti a percussione e le due arpe, il cui suono ha fluttuato inquietante negli spazi superiori del teatro offrendo una consonanza acustica al tintinnio psichico del dramma di Strauss.

Un pomeriggio piacevole (10 febbraio 2013)

Dopo i suoi studi di letteratura italiana all’Università di California, Berkeley, Michael Milenski si dedicò all'opera lirica in quanto assistente di produzione e di technica all’Opera di San Francisco. Fondò in 1979 una compagnia di opera a Long Beach (città pochi chilometri al sud di Los Angeles), compagnia presto rinomata per le sue mises en scène d’avanguardia. Sotto Milenski l'Opera di Long Beach fece diverse prime americane importanti — la trilogia di Monteverdi in versioni originali, Król Roger di Szymanowski, Powder Her Face di Thomas Adès, ecc. Nato a Colorado, U.S.A., Milenski è stato Professore d’Opera alla California State University, Long Beach. Adesso vive tra San Francisco e un paesino nel sud di Francia.

Elektra in Marseille

Sadistic revenge and sadistic challenge in equal parts. You know the story — if Oreste had not slaughtered his mother Elektra would have. And did over and over in nearly two hours of raving about killing her mother. Elektra is one of the repertory's more beloved operas.

Elekta’s sadistic fantasies are surely equaled by the sadistic torture of the soprano by Richard Strauss. American soprano Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet (born in New Orleans) inhabited the cutaway basement of a soaring Mycenaean palace for the nearly two hour stint of vocal abuse.

Set design by Emmanuelle Favre
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

There were no surprises in this restaging of Opera de Marseille’s 2003 Charles Roubaud production. There was no metaphor save image derivation from the first moments film art, this new medium at one with the distortions of reality mined by the new century’s exploration of psyche. Twisted psyches in particular. Set designer Emmanuelle Favre provided a greatly exaggerated double perspective in black and white, and costume designer Katia Duflot worked both in black and white and in color with an art nouveau richness though not tone. It was a simple and effective mise en scène by its producers.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet reads as an appropriately young Elektra, physically and vocally. She projected the degradation of physical beauty brought on by depressive obsession, and she evoked our basic sympathy for such a sad creature. She raged in big, pure tones that were sometimes beautiful and sometimes ragged, and sometimes we feared for her stamina only to be reassured and then put on edge again. Her dance finished, dead on the floor, la Charbonnet had convinced us she was a real Elektra, not simply a soprano who could sing it, more or less.

Clytemnestra, Elektra
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

The conducting did hold surprise. Veteran maestro Pinchas Steinberg imposed a very measured pace that offered startling insight into the softer, even tender moments of Straussian expressionism. This when it did not threaten to stall all emotional flow. The Orest and Elektra scene was of spectacular beauty and tenderness and still very brutal. Orest, bass Nicolas Cavallier (an actor turned singer) exuded the not-so-subtle sexual satisfaction Elektra feels as her fantasies slowly and carefully moved toward climax.

Orest, Elektra
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

The coup de grace of the afternoon was however the screams, possibly amplified, of the murdered Clytemnestra, sung screams rather than the usual extended gut grunt. Mezzo-soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch offered a well sung, through sung version of this complex, tragic personage that revealed in fact a much larger and far more complete personage than the usual half-voiced monster. Mme. Todorovitch made her scene with Elektra maximumly vivid, reveling in the shattered exposition of her fears, exquisitely costumed in black gown with a platinum blond wig.

Elektra, Chrysothémis
Photo copyright Christian Dresse / Opéra de Marseille

German soprano Ricarda Merbeth provided big, luminous tones non-stop as Chrysothémis, costumed in colorful flowers befitting her maidenhood (Mme. Merbeth sings Salome as well). This fine singer succeeded in projecting the larger attitudes of her character without plumbing the vocal and histrionic depths of this character antidote to sister and mother.

Patrick Raftery retains sufficient voice to deliver a pallid Aegistus, the limit of the role for Strauss and metteur en scène Roubaud. The overseer and maid servants, train bearer and confidant were appropriately rendered (no small compliment), who with a number of strikingly costumed supernumeraries made sick and lively stage pictures from time to time on the upper levels of the soaring set.

The Opéra de Marseille deployed seventy-six musicians. That seemed not quite enough, particularly when the maestro needed huge string sounds to develop the voluptuous moments of the Strauss score. The baignoires on both sides of the pit each housed a partial number of the eight timpani Strauss requires, rendering the great climaxes in stereo, and maximally powerful. Boxes further above housed percussion and harps whose sounds floated eerily in the higher reaches of the hall with an acoustic appropriateness to the psychic pings of the Strauss drama.

It was a fine afternoon.

Cast and Production

Elektra: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Chrysothémis: Ricarda Merbeth; Clytemnestre: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; First Servant: Lucie Roche; Second Servant: Christine Tocci; Third Servant: Simona Caressa; Fourth Servant: Bénédicte Rousseno; Fifth Servant: Sandrine Eyglier; Overseer: Anne-Marguerite Werster; Aegisthe: Patrick Raftery; Oreste: Nicolas Cavallier; Précepteur d’Oreste: Erick Freulon; Young Servant: Avi Klemberg; Old Servant: Christophe Fel. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg; Mise en scéne: Charles Roubaud; Scenery: Emmanuelle Favre; Costumes: Katia Duflot; Lighting: Marc Delamézière. Opéra de Marseille. February 10, 2013

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Die Entfûhrung aus dem Serail in Montpellier

The fearsome Ottoman Turks had threatened the Austrian borders for centuries. But Mozart’s little singspiel makes light of this truly serious situation, and offers a quite enlightened resolution for the conflict as well.

Shall we say naive resolution. After all the complexly human trilogy is yet to come, and the Magic Flute will be just that — a fantasy. So let Abduction’s Pasha forgive and forget, and don’t argue with operatic idealism. This new production of Mozart’s first operatic masterpiece forgets any and all intriguing political or dramatic contexts. It merely frames this simplistic singspiel as a work of art to be admired, like a late 18th century painting in a museum.

Metteur en scène Alfredo Arias and scenographer Roberto Platé, both Argentine, used a huge gilded frame as the back drop, framing only sky because it was the ceiling of a grand old room turned on its side (the floor of the stage had some windows as did the stage ceiling). The why of this witty perspective seems to be just because.

Konstanze, Belmonte, Pacha Selim, Pedrillo
Photo copyright Marc Ginot / Opéra National de Montpellier

French high fashion designer Adeline André abstracted early twentieth century shapes for the very witty costumes (Osmin, the Pasha’s chauffeur with greatly exaggerated glove cuffs, Pedrillo in a bright green shirt with a black leather bistro apron, Konstanze in light blue high 40’s design pumps as prime examples). Mozart’s six principals spent most of the time on the fore stage, sometimes wrapping themselves in the Opéra Comedie’s red velvet house curtain, sometimes in front of or behind a painted scrim that echoed the framed sky and flew in and out now and again.

Of course the staging was not nonsense any more than Mozart’s singspiel is nonsense. The 25 year-old Mozart simply exploded musically. The explosion happened in the pit. About 30 players from the Orchestre National de Montpellier formed the absolutely splendid pit ensemble, the wooden mallets on the period tympani used for this occasion defined the musical grit and edge. The pizzicato strings of Pedrillo’s Romance, in fact the whole of this extended scene, sounded with nearly boom box resonance. The architecturally magnificent 1200 seat Opéra Comédie burst with musical magnificence.

Hungarian conductor Balázs Kocsár was the musical force, never overwhelming the naive joy of Mozart’s little opera with his own or Mozart’s self importance, finding instead a rhythmic release and musical elaboration that told of the young composer’s newly found independence — from a tyrannical patron and a smothering father — and the young composer’s discovery of love — for first Aloysia and then Constanze Weber. Joyous excitement that Mo. Kocsár made flow from the pit in intense, always lyric tempos.

Vocal explosion happened on the stage when German soprano Cornelia Gôtz brought the energy and furious excitement of Mozart’s future Queen of the Night to the headstrong Konstanze, imposing her prodigious vocal technique on what is surely Mozart’s most demanding role, and making it vocally vivid and dramatically real. Mozart’s famous show stopper “Martern aller Arten” was far more than a virtuoso feat, it was gigantic emotional release.

It was sublime music making indeed when this maestro joined this soprano to discover the happiness that Mozart exudes in his first Viennese years.

Konstanze, Belmonte, Pedrillo, Blonde
Photo copyright Marc Ginot / Opéra National de Montpellier

Metteur en scène Arias provided dramatically abstract staging, stage movement based on musical phrase rather than story telling illustration. All movement was choreographed, an aria about or influenced by another character was always sung in the physical presence of that character. Mozart’s gigantic Act II quartet “Ach, Belmonte, Ach, mein leben” was rendered in purely formal geometric shapes, rigidly symmetrical. Choristers in the Act I finale construed themselves in a formal pattern on the stage dressed in concert blacks. Mr. Arias staged which is to say choreographed every last second of music. It was effective when it was not tiresome.

Czech bass Jan Stava made chauffeur liveried Osmin a charming, positive presence with just a hint of menace. Stage director Arias‘ choreography allowed none of the classic schtick. The young bass attacked his mindboggling "O, wie will ich triumphieren" with confident bravado and succeeded as well as anyone with its coloratura and range challenges.

American tenor Jeff Martin as Pedrillo exemplified the arbitrary casting possible in this mise en scène, musically rather than character driven. In this witty casting it was not the usual ingénu Pedrillo, Mr. Martin these days sings Wagner's Mime here and there, plus Rosenkavalier’s Valzacchi at the Bolshoi! Pedrillo’s complications to Mozart’s silly story were therefore a bit less naive and a lot less romantic and a far more structural. The same may be said of the Blonde sung by Norwegian soprano Trine Wilsberg Lund.

Mlle. Lund however did not achieve the elegant lyricism that the maestro afforded his singers, never quite capturing the beat of his lyric flow. On the other hand American tenor Wesley Rogers as Belmonte did sing musically, and nearly mastered the spirit of the stage movement. After an impressive start he seemed very tired by the third act, understandable as the vocal demands of the role are considerable.

And finally Pacha Selim exploded, as musically as if there had been music [his lines are spoken]. Swiss actor Markus Merz let it rip in hochdeutsch. There had been mercifully little dialogue, with the obvious frustration that the spoken German was not a language most of us understood. When Mr. Merz had his moment he made it compete as best he could with some of the world’s most joyful music.

Cast and Production

Konstanze: Cornelia Gôtz; Belmonte: Wesley Rogers; Blonde: Trine Wilsberg Lund; Pedrillo: Jeff Martin; Osmin: Jan Stava; Pacha Selim: Markus Merz. Chorus of the Opéra National Montpellier. Members of the Orchestra National Montpellier. Conductor: Balázs Kocsár; Mise en scène: Alfredo Arias; Scenery: Roberto Platé; Costumes: Adeline André; Lighting: Jacques Rouveyrollis. Opéra Comédie, Montpellier. February 5, 2013.

Dialogue 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 from the standard repertory. In France that means that Aida, Butterfly and Flute go hand in hand with Carmen and, yes, Dialogue 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 Dialogue 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 and 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 the general mayhem of the 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.

Virginie Pochon as Constance, Ermonela Jaho as Blanche
Photo courtesy Opéra de Toulon, copyright Yachar Valakdjie

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.

Nadine Denize as the Prioress, Sophie Fournier as Mère Marie
Photo courtesy of Opéra de Toulon, copyright , Frédéric Stéphan

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.

Nadine Denize as the Prioress, Ermonela Jaho as Blanche
Photo courtesy Opéra de Toulon, copyright Frédéric Stéphan

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 lacked 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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Pelléas et Mélisande in Nice

Pelléas et Mélisande, in t-shirts and jeans, were out riding bicycles. They came upon a fountain. You know what happened.

Sandrine Piao as Mélisande, Sébastien Guéze as Pelléas
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Nice, ©D.Jaussein

As we already did because it was all a flash back. We had seen Golaud, dead, a bullet hole on the top of his head, seated in a sort of chair carefully and cleanly created out of a piece of a classic Greek column. He was surrounded by a lot of strangely dressed people plus an even stranger one in a clown costume (lacking only the red bulb on the nose). This we soon found out was Yniold.

In a bit less than three hours Mélisande was dead too during a psychedelic light show that took place beyond the Zen garden behind the very gray, very angular Japanese pavilion that served as the unit set. This garden setting was perhaps intended to invite us to conjure in our meditations all those fountains and grottos and bleak seascapes that other times make Debussy’s masterpiece one of opera’s sublime experiences. We were however just then participating in a violent domestic tragedy making meditation difficult.

The day of Mélisande’s death and his own Golaud chose to wear a bright maroon suit with black stripes. Pelléas was of course already dead having chosen to wear red blazer and a yellow shirt with a colorful tie for his late night fateful farewell to Mélisande. Mélisande who had a short, pert haircut had to pretend that a blue and gold scarf, obviously from India, was the hair that Pelléas tried to wallow in.

Sandrine Piao as Mélisande, Sébastien Guéze as Pelléas
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Nice, ©D.Jaussein

Costumes were by the production’s stage director, René Koering (père), sets were by Virgil Koering (fils) who evidently has a thing about radio operated model cars because this high tech toy was also featured in Wolf-Ferrari’s Secret of Susanna [the secret was that she smoked dope] that he designed a few years ago for Montpellier. Arkel on the other hand was pushed around the stage in an antique wheelchair.

The Opéra de Nice, a Belle Époque monument, these days boasts fairly large pit, allowing a quite generous number of strings. The accomplished Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice did indeed provide some of the rich sonorities that can make this remarkable score an orchestral tour de force. The conductor was Philippe Auguin, its music director (Mo. Auguin is also the music director of the Washington National Opera).

The maestro surely will have had an agreement with the cast that they would be entirely on their own for the duration of the opera as he did not so much as even glance at the stage, remaining buried in the score when not energetically encouraging the various players and sections of his orchestra (Mo. Auguin was quite visible to me as I had press seats courtesy of the Opéra de Nice in a box directly over the pit and stage). This presumed agreement however had its flaws — the engrossed maestro did not connect with the stage. The huge, shattering moments that make Pelléas and Golaud two of the repertoire’s most complexly emotional roles were rendered orchestrally soulless, their impact filtered through the maestro’s ponderous orchestral processes.

The singers (on the stage directly below me) were in fact brilliantly connected to the Maeterlinck tragedy and were well able to negotiate the text rendered into Debussy’s urgent melodic shapes and rhythms. Baritone Franck Ferrari (a Niçois with an Italian surname) gave a powerful performance as Golaud. Ferrari possesses a dark hued voice with reserves of virile power, ideal for Maeterlinck’s tragic hero. He is a consummate singing actor who gamely executed even the strangest moments of the stage direction.

Franck Ferrari as Golaud, Willard White as Arkel
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Nice, ©D.Jaussein

Lyonnais tenor Sébastien Guéze proved himself yet again to be a very accomplished interpreter of the French heroic roles (Faust as well as Pelléas as examples). His French is crystal clear, his voice is able to expand into ever greater fortes of emotional release in Debussy’s most intense moments. The scenes of his sexual discovery of and declaration of love to Mélisande were the most thrilling of the evening.

A last minute replacement for the Arkel listed in the program (no explanation why, leaving room for speculation) was American trained black bass baritone Willard White. Jamaican born White is one of the renowned basses of recent times. Obviously a powerful performer he added an unusual, lascivious magnitude to Arkel that seemed to make him the primary architect of the tragedy. Mr. White’s French had a bit of a twang at first but we got used to it.

French early music diva Sandrine Piau was the Mélisande. Her voice is of sufficient amplitude to convey the indecision of this famous enigma though the mise en scéne deprived her of the ambience and the persona needed to enflame the above gentlemen. Mlle. Piau gamely pretended that Mélisande had a psychotic breakdown before she died. Russian born, French trained soprano Khatouna Gadelia gave Yniold a far more energetic and knowing presence than this emblematic innocent usually possesses.

It is hard to fathom what quirk of old-boyism handed a new production of this masterpiece to veteran opera intendant René Koering when there are so many easily identifiable French stage directors who have the technique, experience and imagination to plumb its depths with intelligence and sensitivity. Mr. Koering is a jack-of-all-operatic-trades. This attribute served him brilliantly as general director of the Opéra National de Montpellier, but it does not give him the experience or artistic stature to mount a production on what should be an important provincial French stage.

Cast and Production

Pelléas: Sébastien Guéze; Mélesande: Sandrine Piau; Golaud: Granck Ferrari; Arkel: Willard White; Geneviève: Elodie Méchain; Yniold: Khatouna Gadelia; Doctor: Thomas Dear. Chorus of the Opéra de Nice Côte d'Azur. Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice; Conductor: Philippe Aiguin; Stage Director: René Koering; Costumes: René Koering; Set Design: Virgil Koering; Lighting: Patrick Méetüs. Opéra de Nice. January 17, 2013.

L'Italiana in Algeri in Marseille

Once a mainstay of the repertory L’Italiana in Algeri now usually gives way to Il Turco in Italia when an opera company wants to give Il barbiere di Sivigllia and La cenerentola a rest. So a new production of this first flower of Rossini’s comic maturity was very welcome news.

In recent years the Rossini Festival at not-too-far-away Pesaro has focused on very early and very late Rossini, from the first silly commedia dell’arte farces that manage a trio or quartet once in awhile to the mature comedies that are dramatically so complex that the comedy genre collapses into grand act finales of septets at the minimum, with internal quintets and sextets that further complicate relationships. L’Italiana manages a modest sextet to close the first act and allows the pappataci quartet to grow to a brief sextet at the opera’s end. The extended, masterful sextet finales of Il barbiere will arrive three years later.

There was the wonderful just now in Marseille. Italian conductor Giuliano Carella was in the pit. This fifty-seven year old maestro, music director of the Opéra de Toulon and frequent guest in Marseille and Monte Carlo, is one of the treasures of opera in the south of France. As well he makes the rounds of the more prestigious European stages for the bel canto repertory, not to mention the Bellini Festival in Catania.

That he is a master Rossinian as well was apparent from the first moments of Rossini’s overture — an unrushed fleetness, a lightness that would lead anywhere, like the witty interplay of the oboe and piccolo that made you feel the pure joy of making music.

Frédéric Antoun as Lindoro, Alex Esposito as Mustafa
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Marseille, copyright Christian Dresse

Then the singing, the repeated ragings of an Algerian emir named Mustafa (fed up with a clinging concubine) where the maestro’s ample tempos allowed magnificent fioratura to rip forth. And it all came together in the end with the zany quartet in which Mustafa is made a pappataci (it’s a joke, no one, most of all Mustafa, is sure what a pappataci is), the plot complexities became musical complexities, the confusion became total and the maestro brought it all together into a joyful froth that was pure music. The great Rossini.

And there was the weird. French mezzo-soprano Marie Ange Todorovitch was the Isabella. Mme. Todorovitch is one of the treasures of the Opéra de Marseille, recently in Henri Sauguet’s Chartreuse de Parme as Stendhal’s splendid Dutchess of Sanseverina inappropriately in love with her young nephew Fabrice, as the cowardly Mother Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites, and upcoming as Clytemnestra in Elektra. So it was a huge stretch to embody Rossini’s sex-bomb Isabella (role debut apparently) even though Mme. Todorovitch’s roles have included about everything else in her long career.

Frédéric Antoun as Lindoro, Alex Esposito as Mustafa
Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Isabella
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Marseille, copyright Christian Dresse

Mme. Todorovitch possesses a large, roundly mature mezzo-soprano voice with, therefore, minimal flexibility though she did manage a bit of fioratura at mezza voce. Her needed effort to do so deprived Rossini of the joyful unleashing of florid technique that make these passages sheer musical delirium. Unfortunately Mme. Todorovitch’s performance severely dampened the verve that had been established initially by the maestro, by the accomplished Italian Rossini bass Alex Esposito as Mustafa and by the excellent Canadian tenor Frédéric Autoun as Lindoro. Make no mistake, la Todorovitch is an estimable artist. She was flagrantly, inexplicably miscast.

The new production, shared with Avignon, was created by Italian stage director Nicola Berloffa whose major credits seem to be assisting important Italian directors at major theaters. He successfully staged Rossini's Voyage à Reims performed by entry level artists that made the rounds of French stages a few years ago. But here Mr. Berloffa made the usual mistakes perpetrated by directors who do not commune with the comic muse. Mr. Berloffa confounded Rossini fioratura with too bright colors, with busy, cute decor and with catchy staging conceits (chorus and stage hands in drag, among others) that at first glance may be amusing but pall as the evening wears on. Not trusting Rossini to provide the theatrical energy Mr. Berloffa demanded that his actors constantly move and gesture. And as a bonus the action was arbitrarily updated, at least in part, to the flapper era, perhaps so that Mr. Berloffa, who designed the costumes as well, could provide a flashy red flapper dress for Mme. Todorovitch to wear during the finale.

Frédéric Antoun as Lindoro, Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Isabella
Photos courtesy of Opéra de Marseille, copyright Christian Dresse

Besides the conducting the evening did have two other quite considerable pleasures — the Mustafa of Alex Esposito was energetically sung in consummate Rossini style. Evidently a committed collaborative artist Mr. Esposito gave his all to realize Mr. Berloffa’s hyped-up stage direction. Tenor Frédéric Antoun as Lindoro, the lost lover Isabella stumbles upon in Algeria, is a cooler performer who struck a less strident tone on the stage. He delivered the brilliant coloratura and hit all the high notes with infectious ease in warm, even tones that prove a Rossini tenor can in fact have a beautiful voice and still be exciting.

Uhm, did I miss the point? Maybe there was a well hidden concept that Isabella was supposed to be a woman in mid-life crisis who conjured for herself a fantasy fling with two fine young singers. Unfortunately she would have had to hold up her end of the deal.

Win some, lose some.

Cast and Production

Isabella: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Elvira: Eduarda Melo; Zulma: Carol García; Mustafa: Alex Esposito; Lindoro: Frédéric Antoun; Taddeo: Marc Barrard; Haly: Patrick Delcour. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor: Giuliano Carella; Stage Director: Nicola Berloffa; Set Design: Rifail Ajdarpasic; Costume Design: Nicola Berloffa; Lighting: Gianluca Antolini. Opéra de Marseille, January 2, 2013.

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Falstaff in Los Angeles

There was once the famous L.A. “Giulini Falstaff” — back in 1982 — a project of the Los Angeles Philharmonic that did much to propel the founding of Los Angeles Opera the following year (though L.A. Opera’s first production was not until 1986).

At the time accounts of the Giulini Falstaff performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion were politely enthusiastic, these many years later recollections are less so. With the Los Angeles Philharmonic in the pit (called, by the way, the golfo mistico in Italian) a frustrating gulf opened between operatic forces. In opera the pit is intended as one player in a much larger mechanism, but with this magnificent orchestra in the pit the intention was that singers, scenery, costumes and lights become a part of the symphonic ensemble.

Thus the Giulini stage was simple — a symmetrical and monochromatic country house. And in all other aspects as well the production was understated, and praised because it did not usurp attention. The important pit had become a too formidable gulf to traverse on our way to a real Falstaff.

Falstaff is again at the Dorothy Chandler these 31 or so years later, and it marks a dramatic change of operatic temperament. It is a real Falstaff, a very real one which is to say that there is much to like and much to question. Like why pay good money for a new production that looks like it was a reject for the Giulini Falstaff of thirty years ago.

Once again the American operatic establishment has looked to the British stage director cabal. In this case it was one Lee Blakely whose major credits in the program booklet are musicals for Paris’ Thêàtre Chatelet, and some Offenbach and Bizet for Santa Fe Opera. Maybe this explains why the set looked like it had been designed for Santa Fe Opera’s opened-to-the-horizon stage (in Santa Fe they say it is so you can see nature’s magnificent thunder storms in the distance).

Set symmetrically between identical towers flanking the sides of the stage are the carefully described wooden locales of each of Falstaff’s first two acts, always leaving the horizon line apparent. And for the third act as well, but with a twist. British designer Adrian Linford provides an incongruous weird, nightmarish Black Huntsman’s tree for Windsor Forest begging the question why it is surreal, since in the story it is a real tree (and everything else is real in this production).

Director Blakely did give us a very good third act by envisioning all its magical antics as a parade crossing the horizon between the towers. This trick structured the act very effectively, making the homespun theatrics seem like real homespun theatrics conjured by the residents of Windsor. Maybe the tree needed to be built like a platform so Fenton could find a good place to sing his aria.

There are incongruities in the casting as well. Three singers hold the stage with high operatic panache and voice that is purely Italian. Baritone Roberto Frontali is an accomplished if generic Falstaff and he sings it beautifully and powerfully. Baritone Marco Caria is a handsome Ford who has sufficient voice and presence to anchor the action, an accomplishment all to rare for this role. Soprano Carmen Giannattasio has a bright sound and sparkling persona well suited to a comedic Alice Ford. These are big singers, comfortable doing their thing on the stage.

Then casting became international. Argentine tenor Juan Francisco Gatell makes a fine looking Fenton, his voice with a bright boyish edge rather than a finished tenorial sound. Russian soprano Ekaterina Sadovnikova makes nice sounds and moves as a reserved Nanetta.

The character roles are less effective, most of the singers having neither the personalities nor the experience needed to make their roles vibrant participants in this be-all-and-end-all of ensemble operas. Los Angeles mezzo soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller sang a powerful Erda in the San Francisco Opera Ring but here exhibits little talent as a comedic performer. Rodell Rosel as Bardolfo and Valentin Anikin sing and move well as apprentice artists in roles begging much more.

Tenor Robert Brubaker, a very experienced performer, makes little of Dr. Caius, perhaps due to directorial choices, and that leaves Meg Page, here appropriately accomplished by soprano Erica Brookhyser.

The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is not the Los Angeles Philharmonic, nor should it be. This ensemble grows in stature with each passing season, and responds well to the demands of its eloquent music director James Conlon. The maestro delivers a lively if unengaging Falstaff, victim of the production. The thrust of the music is oft interrupted by the scene changes requiring some silent and long minutes. A show curtain descends upon which we are offered a lengthy quote from Shakespeare before, finally, the music begins again.

Cast and Production

Robert Brubaker (Dr. Caius), Roberto Frontali (Sir John Falstaff), Rodell Rosel (Bardolph), Valentin Anikin (Pistol), Erica Brookhyser (Meg Page), Carmen Giannattasio (Alice Ford), Ronnita Nicole Miller (Mistress Quickly), Ekaterina Sadovnikova (Nannetta), Juan Francisco Gatell (Fenton), Marco Caria (Ford)

Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Conlon (conductor), Grant Gershon (chorus master)

Lee Blakeley (stage director), Adrian Linford (scenery and costume designer), Rick Fisher (lighting designer)

Die Zauberflöte in Los Angeles

It’s a hot ticket in Berlin, it’s a hit on YouTube and it’s on the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It’s Barrie Kosky’s The Magic Flute at L.A. Opera.

We all know Mozart’s Flutepretty well these days so we can welcome a riff on too familiar material. Actually the production has been a collaboration for Berlin’s Komische Oper by Australian born, Teutonic formed Kosky and a British theater company named “1927” (the year of the film Jazzman a monument of early filmic art that sits on the cusp of silence becoming sound in film).

Erika Miklósa as The Queen of the Night, Lawrence Brownlee as Tamino
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Like most, maybe all Kosky productions it is over-the-top, not with the virtuoso weird sexual takes or outrageous nudity that have made Kosky famous, but with the sheer audacity to butcher the holiest of the holy. And to do so with unrelenting visual quotes from the silent film era and unrelenting animation. Never mind that it was charming, at least in intention. Suffice it to say that the Queen of the Night is an animated spider, Papageno is Charlie Chaplin and the magic flute is a dragon fly. Check it out on YouTube.

L.A. Opera has appropriately and brilliantly rekindled the legendary Berlin/Hollywood film connection with this German import. The opening night audience registered its delight with chuckles, ooh’s and ah’s, laughs. Though however charmed the audience may have been it was left bereft of the magnificence of Mozart’s singspiel.

The Kosky version eliminates all dialogue and much orchestral accompanied recitative, substituting mimed action with projected ye olde titles (descriptions or explanations) to the accompaniment of highly melodramatic moments from a few different Mozart fortepiano pieces. The result was disjointed musical flow, the opera no longer about words but instead about images, be they animated film cartoons or silent film quotations with barroom piano sound.

Mozartian magic could perhaps have been discovered in this imagistic storytelling had the singers been a larger component of the storytelling. The stage was simply a huge screen that sat immediately and elevated on the Chandler stage. Most of the singing emanated from cut out openings high upon the screen thus there was little contact possible between conductor James Conlin and his singers. This alone may explain the generally lackluster performances. On the other hand there was an astonishing coordination of the pit with the flow of animation, un-nerving when it was not boring.

The music seldom took hold, in fact there only two scenes where music enveloped the auditorium and these were the famed second act choruses, singers in formal dress standing on the stage level of the imagined movie palace in front of its bright red curtain. No animation, no film quotes. L.A. Opera’s maestro achieved real musical magic in these moments, most often secondary to the symphonic enlightenment that other times may suffuse the second act.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee in white face gamely went through the paces of integrating himself into the animation, deftly dodging all illusionary obstacles thrown in his path. Mr. Brownlee is not a dynamic performer, even the truly elegant phrasing of his arias did not elevate this Tamino to candidacy for redemption. Soprano Janai Bruggeri, also a deft dodger in white face, was faceless as Pamina, vocally mismatched to the purer colors of this heroine’s voice and presence.

The star of the show was Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov as Charlie Chaplin sans moustache aka Papageno. Mr. Pogossov’s postures were pure Chaplin, vocally he was much more richly endowed than the usual Papageno. He was a warm, abstractly human silent film character (who incongruously sang) aided in no small way by the complete absence of the usual Schikaneder (Flute’s playwright) imposed schtick.

The face and voice of Hungarian soprano Erika Miklósa was the Queen of the Night, de rigueur big house casting (the rest of Mme. Miklósa was hidden behind the movie screen, her on screen character a gigantic spider). The remaining principal roles — the three ladies, Sarastro and Monostatos — were not cast to the stature or for the expanses of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

A brilliant cast and connected pit might propel the images of Mr. Kosky’s concept and 1927’s realization to greater heights. It was an amusing evening, nothing more.

Cast and Production

Lawrence Brownlee (Tamino), Janai Brugger (Pamina), Erika Miklósa (Queen of the Night), Evan Boyer (Sarastro), Rodion Pogossov (Papageno), Hae Ji Chang (First Lady) Cassandra Zoé Velasco (Second Lady), Peabody Southwell (Third Lady), Rodell Rosel (Monostatos), Amanda Woodbury (Papagena), Phillip Addis (Speaker), Vladimir Dmitruk (1st Armored Man), Valentin Anikin (2nd Armored Man), Drew Pickett (First Boy), Charles Connon (Second Boy), Jamal Jaffer (3rd Boy)

Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Conlon (conductor), Grant Gershon (chorus master)

Barrie Kosky (stage director and concept), Suzanne Andrade (stage director and concept), Paul Barritt (animation and concept), Ester Bialas (scenery and costume design)

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Porgy and Bess in San Francisco

It’s been renamed “The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess,” it hails itself as “The Broadway Musical” and further qualifies itself as “The Porgy and Bess for the Twenty-First Century.”

Yet Porgy and Bess has survived through all this! Well, more or less, and even so it again proves itself an operatic masterpiece of the American century.

Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy
Photo courtesy of SHN

All the above titles and qualifiers played at New York’s Richard Rogers Theater for nine months in 2012 and began a national tour in San Francisco this November 10 at the Golden Gate Theatre (a barn of an old theater in San Francisco’s, uhm, colorful Tenderloin). It travels on to Los Angeles and to cities in Florida and Ohio.

This Porgy and Bess has new punch indeed. The draconian control over the opera by the Gershwin Estate evidently continues (note the registered trademark logos), here manifest in the Gershwin Estate’s choice of Broadway director Diane Paulus (Hair) to consider perspectives that heretofore have remained buried in its characters and therefore to renew the piece.

The musical adaptation by Diedre L. Murray (Running Man) is always in the Gershwin spirit if not to its letter. For starters Jake sang the second verse of Clara’s “Summertime.” It went from there to music you think you have never heard before. As well the recasting of the story by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog) may have made some of the old music seem like new music.

Moving from the pit of an opera house to the pit of a vaudeville theater necessitates much reduced orchestration — five woodwinds and six brass (both with an impressive array of instruments to be blown), nine strings, and a keyboard. The percussion battery, somehow manipulated by one player, includes just about anything you can think of to hit or ring.

Additional transformation from opera house to theater is the addition of sound reinforcement. Here Acme Sound Partners (Hair, A Chorus Line) keeps the sound at reasonable levels and the balance of voice to pit at someone’s idea of perfection. Though the wall of sound is quite flat the skilled players in the orchestra wail the great pieces we know so well, and with the percussion battery and digital sound technology create a hurricane that is positively awesome.

The national company of Porgy and Bess
Photo courtesy of SHN

What makes this production of Porgy and Bess become a fine piece of theatrical art is the minimalism of its staging — only a raked stage platform, an abstract ramshackle back wall, a sky scrim for the picnic, a border to make an interior, a hanging lamp to swing in the storm. There are but twenty-two total inhabitants of Catfish Row, and two policemen. These minimal physical and human resources focused our responses onto the opera’s human tragedies through the joys and sorrows we could clearly perceive on each and every face and body on the stage.

The choreography, by Ronald K. Brown too was minimal, just enough to make it a “show” with a few snappy moves by the bodies that could, and even some surprising, acrobatic moves (the four fishermen being fish) by bodies you were sure could not — there were no skinny chorus boys and girls here.

Unlike the broader and deeper exploration of the human spirit that may occur on the opera stage the Broadway musical heads for always direct emotions. Suzan-Lori Parks has Bess deeply in love with Porgy. Clara hands her baby to Bess who becomes its surrogate mother. A dose of happy dust in a weak moment forces Mariah, the matriarch of Catfish Row to expel Bess, who, devastated, has no where to go but New York. Porgy then seems to be going somewhere too, transfixed by love.

It all works and it is all opera, meaning big stories, big emotions, big music, because of the splendid performances of Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy and Alvin Crawford as Crown. Mlle. Moran plays a weak and strong Bess, warm and fun, above all honest. Bess is complex and of course since it is a musical she is very appealing. Mr. Stampley makes Porgy a simple, warm and open spirit, charismatic and quite handsome. Mr. Crawford is a towering, muscular force, dumb and selfish though he too is good underneath it all. All ably vocally negotiated their numbers, especially Mlle. Moran in an appropriately husky mezzo.

Opera audiences will surely savor the pleasures of this smart production, tightly conceived and very well directed. One can wish for such stagecraft on opera house stages where production values on the level of this Porgy and Bess are very rare, too rare indeed.

For comparison with an opera house production see Porgy and Bess at San Francisco Opera, a review of the 2009 production.

Cast and production information:

Porgy: Nathaniel Stampley; Bess: Alicia Hall Moran; Clara: Sumayya Ali; Jake: David Hughey; Mariah: Danielle Lee Greaves; Sporting Life: Kingsley Leggs; Mingo: Kent Overshown; Serena: Denisha Ballew; Robbins: James Earl Jones II; Crown: Alvin Crawford; Detective: Dan Barnhill; Policeman: Fred Rose; Strawberry Woman: Sarita Rachelle Lilly; Honey Man; Chauncey Packer; Crab Man; Dwelvan David. Conductor: Dale Rieling. American Repertory Theater production. Book adaptation: Suzan-Lori Parks; Musical score adaptation: Diedre L. Murray; Stage Director: Diane Paulus; Choreography: Ronald K. Brown; Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: ESosa; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind. Golden Gate Theater, San Francisco. November 20, 2013.

Il barbiere di Siviglia in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera wraps up its fall season of five operas with what it insists is a new production of Rossini’s comic masterpiece.

It is the staging of Spanish stage director Emilio Sagi (pronounced saw-he) that has many of the ideas he first explored at Madrid’s Teatro Real in a big production that then traveled to Los Angeles, both cities likely harbors for its witty and affectionate quoting of classic hispanic flamenco postures. This San Francisco Barber is a slimmed down, re-elaborated version of the original Sagi conception that will soon be shared with the Lithuanian National Opera.

There was much to like on opening night, notably the polished performances of Count Almaviva and his future countess, characters also known as Lindoro sung by Mexican tenor Janvier Camarena and Rosina sung by American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard.

Isabel Leonard as Rosina, Janvier Camarena as Almaviva
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Mr. Camarena provided the high points of the evening, accompanying himself on the guitar for the serenade with virtuoso plucking technique, acting the music teacher with the skill of a sure comedian. To top it off he gave us the rare “Cessa di più risistere” later known and now better known as “Non piu mesta” from La cenerentola in a dazzling display of fioratura and high notes that brought the house down.

Mlle. Leonard, if not of pure hispanic origin (her mother was Argentine) even so matched Mr. Camarena’s latin excitement and brilliant singing with a presence that exuded refined fun and projected mature vocal and histrionic confidence — a poised Rosina who knew what she wanted and how to get it. Once a student at the Joffrey Ballet School she was well prepared to snap out flamenco poses that easily outclassed those of the official ballerinas.

There were moments of fine, idiomatic conducting. Italian conductor Giuseppe Finzi effectively captured the ephemeral Rossini ethos from time to time (the joy and blatant fun of singing difficult, florid music with aplomb), particularly in his support of the arias of these two singers. As well the maestro often caught the transparent rhythms of the big ensembles where three to six complex and sometimes more vocal lines compete with complete musical ease, conviction and wit.

The set, designed by Spaniard Llorenç Corbella, is quite different from the Madrid production. Here it is essentially a narrow, diagonally raked platform thrusting upstage, with an adjacent abstract black area (no scenery) accessible to various contraptions on wheels and lots of choristers. At best the set worked well, the rake providing a dynamic line on which the principals moved up and down, on and off, the black area serving as a space to stage business that elaborates the various musical numbers.

Besides the witty gloss of the flamenco poses, the Sagi production was embellished with lots of spoke wheel vehicles (bicycle like) that gave a sense of lightness and fleetness to the staging that flouted period (century or decade). The costumes as well were embellished with witty abstractions of Sevillian decorations that had little to do with period and everything to do taking costumes onto an abstract musical level.

Various human bodies and objects crawled out from under the raked platform and props flew down from above from time to time to further negate any sense of real time or real space. Barber’s various numbers were arbitrarily placed on the ramp or in the black space and finally everything more or less disappeared anyway to reveal a night sky filled with fireworks (projected). In short director Sagi and his designer Corbella concocted a heady framework for the music of Rossini’s masterpiece. It would have been truly brilliant had it gotten off the ground.

Lucas Meachem as Figaro, Janvier Camarena as Almaviva
Andrea Silvestrelli as Basilio, Alessandro Corbelli as Bartolo
Catherine Cook as Berta, Isabel Leonard as Rosina
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Unfortunately stage director Sagi was more interested in exploring these interesting theatrical ideas than in staging his singers. This lack of a unified and focused dramatic intelligence resulted in the feeling that Rossini’s headstrong characters were arbitrarily walking through the classic comedic process rather than bringing it to life.

A plodding succession of the events of the story we know so well resulted. This sense was exacerbated in the pit. While conductor Finzi did have his truly splendid moments, and there many of them he could not impose a larger musical unity over an act or the evening, evidenced by the overture that ignited no excitement whatsoever. There was a sense of relief when nine dancers appeared to maybe add some life with a bit of abstracted flamenco movement. Alas the choreography was clumsy and meaningless, later met with feelings of dread whenever the dancing became lengthy.

A.J. Glueckert as Ambrogio, Catherine Cook as Berta
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Catherine Cook was the Berta who was as lightheaded as Rosina was weighty minded. She made her aria another of the evening’s high points with the help of her adoring Ambrogio, Adler Fellow A.J. Glueckert who shined as a silent, physical performance artist given he has hardly anything to sing. Bass baritone Hadleigh Adams brought snap and flair to the brief role of the Officer, not allowing his few moments on stage to go unnoticed.

Andrea Silvestrelli brought the considerable panache he provides Rigoletto’s Sparafucile to the role of Basilio. This major role stood out as miscast, and as a vocal misfit into Rossini’s vocal and musical textures. Much the same can be said of the Figaro of Lucas Meachem who confused bellowing with singing and strutting with acting. Italian bass baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a small scale if accomplished Bartolo who here disappeared into the melée rather than making himself the cause of it all.

Of the many, many Barbiere productions encountered over the years, this one stacks up among the best. Its glaring flaws could have easily been overcome with more careful casting, conducting, lighting and directing.

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Lucas Meachem; Rosina: Isabel Leonard; Count Almaviva: Javier Camarena; Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli; Don Basilio: Andrea Silvestrelli; Berta: Catherine Cook; Ambrogio: A.J. Glueckert; Fiorello: Ao Li; An Officer: Hadleigh Adams; Notary: Andrew Truett. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Giuseppe Finzi. Stage director: Emilio Sagi; Set Designer: Llorenc Corbella; Costume Designer: Pepa Ojanguren; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Choreographer: Nuria Castejón. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. November 13, 2013.

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Der Fliegende Holländer in San Francisco

Train wrecks are fascinating events, huge forces collide, brutal destruction results. Investigators rush to the scene to explain how and why it happened.

That is more or less what happened last night at San Francisco Opera. Though the forces for Der Fliegende Holländer are relatively modest — three principal singers live the drama, three more offer background story; orchestrally there are but double winds, (except triple trombones and five horns). San Francisco Opera beefed up its chorus to a grandiose seventy-eight, after all it is a Wagner anniversary, and there were a few extra strings as well.

But Der Fliegende Holländer is the inauguration of Wagner’s uniquely fertile exploration of redemption through love, and it is emblematic of the tragic idealism that exponentially enriches nineteenth century art. It is conceptually and philosophically big art.

San Francisco Opera partnered with the Opéra Royal de Wallonie (a province of Belgium), that has a sizable presence in French provincial opera for this new production of Dutchman conceived by French/Romanian director Petrika Ionesco. Mr. Ionesco is known to San Francisco audiences for the Théâtre du Châtelet (Paris) staging of Cyrano de Bergerac seen two years ago at the War Memorial — a swashbuckling, cinematic conception that made the most of a slight opera for a broad audience. Mr. Ionesco has staged both Aida and Nabucco at the 80,000 seat Stadt de France and Continents on Parade at EuroDisney.

For those of us who did not see the Vaisseau Fantôme in Liège accounts say it began with Senta alone on stage in a cemetery (Senta does not appear in the libretto until the second act) and ended with Senta freezing to death among the same tombstones — the opera became Senta’s dream (Senta works in a factory that makes clothing and sails for sailors thus in her dream piles of cloth had become tombstones by means of tricky lighting).

Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

In Liège the Dutchman flew onto Daland’s ship attached to a huge anchor to seek protection from the opening storm. Then there was some sort of science fiction action that accompanied the Dutchman to a fantasy place of skeletons and cloaks where he tells his tale of woe. The production was said to have been tuned to appeal to a broad public, maybe becoming a bit like a Stephen King novel.

Strange to say it was not until the production was actually onstage at War Memorial that the current artistic politic of San Francisco’s opera house determined that the production did not conform. Mr. Ionesco and his ideas were dismissed. A fast attempt was made to re-stage the opera by summarizing the action. Senta still began the opera alone on stage but there were no tombstones, and finally she leapt to her death from the remnant of a raised hatch from the Act I ship (though there was no idea where she landed as by that point we had no idea where we were). But it did not seem to be freezing and there was not a tombstone in sight. All this was hardly Ionesco’s adolescent dream, in fact it was simply a walk through of the libretto.

The Dutchman walked on and off the stage from downstage right or left with absolutely no visual magic or fanfare even though he is a phantom hero. He stood totally alone in front of the red lighted fantasy space to deliver his extended monologue as best he could. The considerable snowfall in Act I and the clumsy every-once-in-a-while projections of icebergs that could have dramaturgically motivated a death by freezing remained unexplained, arbitrary atmospheres.

It would have been heroic salvation had conductor Patrick Summers been able to redeem this fiasco through enthralling music. This was not the case, the maestro sought always a richness of orchestral description and color rather than a realization of music drama. Tempos were generally relaxed rather than charged with meaning, apparent first in the leaden overture, and burdensome particularly in the Dutchman monologue and the big Senta ballad. The maestro’s tempos never discovered the joys of a good wind nor found the terrors of a great storm, both stupendous expressive moments in Wagner’s first masterwork.

Greer Grimsley as the Dutchman, Lise Lindstrom as Senta
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Mo. Summers is however particularly attuned to his singers, and some very fine, if meaningless performances resulted, most notably the Dutchman himself, enacted by American bass baritone Greer Grimsley. We can assume that the character Mr. Grimsley portrayed on the stage was created for the Ionesco production. The Dutchman was a suffering, vulnerable human man that Grimsley brilliantly portrayed both physically and vocally. He possesses a quite beautiful voice that he colored in many tonalities to fill his monologues with precise and genuine information and feeling.

Summers offered the same support to the Steersman, beautifully sung, and made real by Adler Fellow, tenor A.J. Glueckert. Welsh tenor Ian Storey created an Eric, Senta’s intended, who came across as more threatening than hurt. With a presence more Tristan than as a Hanseatic lad he sang Wagner’s quite felt music beautifully, perhaps too much so for the Ionesco character. His too frequent use of sotto voce was bothersome. Conductor Summers gave Senta’s father Daland the gruffness inherent to Icelandic bass Kristinn Sigmundsson’s persona and voice, a gruffness that resonated as well in the truly plodding tempos the maestro imposed on the dances that begin the third act.

Ian Storey as Eric, Lise Lindstrom as Senta
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Originally German soprano Petra Maria Schnitzer was cast as Senta. She was replaced by American (San Francisco) soprano Lise Lindstrom who is a fine singer well suited to the Turandot role she frequently sings on the major stages. Hers is not a voice of youthful sweetness or lyricism that might make Senta a mythical nineteenth century angel of death, but it did serve to portray Ionesco’s neurotically obsessed young woman. Intelligence gathered while the elevator descended to subterranean parking levels reveals that some of you thought she stole the show.

Hopefully such events as this Dutchman are once in a century.

Casts and production information:

Dutchman: Greer Grimsley; Senta: Lise Lindstrom; Erik: Ian Storey; Daland: Kristinn Sigmundsson; Steersman: A.J. Glueckert; Mary: Erin Johnson. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Summers; Director/Set Designer: Petrika Ionesco; Costume Designer: Lili Kendaka; Lighting Designer: Gary Marder; Projection Designer: S. Katy Tucker. War Memorial Opera House, October 22, 2013.

Falstaff in San Francisco

A rambunctious ensemble on the stage and in the pit. A star conductor. Falstaff showed its stuff as one of the repertory’s greatest masterpieces.

It is an astonishing score embodying a libretto of unequaled brilliance. It proves Verdi the veritable progeny of Rossini, able to infuse comedy with an explosive energy that holds you at the moment you would burst were you not held safe by great art.

Falstaff is the ultimate ensemble piece bringing together ten voices of nearly equal dramatic force, interweaving them so tightly that only brief if very intense instances of lyric expansion linger. Though there are two much larger moments which well endure — Ford at the end of the second act explodes in an extended fit of rabid jealousy of his wife Alice (and its flip side, his obsessive fear of cuckoldry), and Fenton in the moonlight of the final scene cannot contain his raptures of love for Ford’s daughter Nanetta whom he is obsessively courting.

At the center of Falstaff is the gigantic elaboration on the follies of love, and those are the appetites of Sir John Falstaff. His appetite for roasted chickens and stewed rabbits and casks of wine have promoted the impressive girth that simply defines the magnitude of his appetite for women. Nor is he particularly selective about which woman as it turns out.

The action moves so fast that the opera seemed to stage itself. This was the triumph of this San Francisco Opera production, the myriad of dramatic complexities were tightly contained mostly within the hole left when Falstaff erupted through the floor of the abstracted Elizabethan theater that sat on the War Memorial stage. After all, this Verdi Falstaff is an interloper into the Shakespearian histories (four plays) of Sir John’s adventures.

Fenton, Pistola, Ford, Dr. Caius, Bardolfo
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Austrian stage director Olivier Tambosi was joined by two associate directors, Jose Maria Condemi and Stephanie Smith to make the action move in precise concert with Verdi’s score where no action can be imagined that does not already have musical definition. Certainly this was a daunting task. And there are the constraints of conforming to the needs of the maestro who likes the action downstage center where the singers are under his direct control, not to mention the big (seven to ten voices) ensembles of daunting complexity where the singers need to find their way into a line across the front of the stage in order to musically survive.

The complex set, a fifteen year old production from Lyric Opera of Chicago, staged then (and now) by Tambosi was designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann, which team is known to San Francisco Opera audiences for its 2010 Makropulis Case. The set offers many hidden openings in its massive wooden walls, Fenton could appear here and there like an annoying housefly. When it became Ford’s house his henchmen could ransack its upper hallways, and finally its back walls disappeared completely to reveal Windsor Forest.

Conductor Nicola Luisotti mercilessly taunted Falstaff with choruses of horns, and mercilessly rubbed in the double entendre in by placing the Herne’s Oak horn call from a box in the opera house (blown by the orchestra’s costumed principal horn). The already high-voltage of the octogenarian composer’s score was poised on the edge of explosion, holding us enraptured by the solo winds making fun of everyone on stage, the piccolo hinting at the pain. This was Luisotti at his absolute finest, making this remarkable score conjure up the genius of Shakespeare himself to join in Verdi’s roast of his delusional knight.

Sir John Falstaff
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

It was an impeccable cast. Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel as Falstaff anchored these dramas of the wily women of Windsor making fun of lovesick men. The Tambosi/Terfel Falstaff is not a lovable version of the man, it is a more blatant, uncomfortable take on the mythical knight than a sympathetic portrayal. Terfel has now had decades of experience with the role and has surely mastered all its possible moves. At 48 years of age he has no lack of power, stamina or subtlety to create the crimson colored monster of this production.

Nanetta, Alice Ford, Meg Page, Mistress Quickly
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

If Terfel’s performance towered about all the rest it was to validate his character as the name of the opera. The balance of the cast worked very much as an ensemble and did not burden us with stars attempting to fit into a complex dramatic mechanism. Italian baritone Fabio Capitanucci made Ford vulnerable, sly and twisted, his instinctual Italianate fear of the horns palpable. Italian tenor Francesco Demuro as Fenton delivered a stunning “Dal labbro il canto estasïato vola,” reveling in the rolled “r”’s of his native language.

Spanish soprano Ainhoa Areta brought charm and plenty of voice to Alice Ford, finding the fun of the character rather than the authority. American coloratura soprano Heidi Stober was a fine looking Nanetta, beautifully paired to her Fenton though she did not have the innocence of voice to create the magic of Windsor Forest (she sings the more complex Mozart and bel canto heroines). Adler Fellow mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier held her own as Meg Page.

If Bryn Terfel met his match anywhere in this cast it was American contralto Meredith Arwady whose force of personality, force of voice, inherent sense of comedy attained veritable Falstaffian proportions. Of near Falstaffian proportions as well were the Dr. Caius of Joel Sorensen, the Bardolfo of Greg Fedderly and the Pistola of Andrea Silvestrelli, more believable Shakespearian rogues could not possibly be found anywhere nor could more accomplished character artists.

Cast and Production:

Falstaff: Bryn Terfel; Alice Ford: Ainhoa Areta; Nannetta: Heidi Stober; Dame Quickly: Meredith Arwady; Fenton: Francesco Demuro; Ford: Fabio Capitanucci; Meg Page: Renée Rapier; Bardolfo: Greg Fedderly; Dr. Caius: Joel Sorensen; Pistola: Andrea Silvestrelli. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Stage Director: Olivier Tambosi; Production Designer: Frank Philipp Schlössmann; Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. War Memorial Opera House, October 8, 2013.

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Carrie The Musical in San Francisco

Coincidentally last night was the closing night of San Francisco Opera’s Dolores Claiborne and the opening night of Ray of Light Theatre’s Carrie The Musical.

If you follow popular culture in general and pulp fiction in particular you will know that both of these music theater pieces are based on novels by horror story titan Stephen King. Carrie The Musical (1988) is famous as the most monumental flop of all musicals until maybe Spider Man. The less said about Dolores Claiborne the opera the better.

Ray of Light Theatre is notable for many reasons, one of which is its feisty attitude to programming. If it is controversial, i.e. off-putting it is perfect — in recent years Jerry Springer The Opera (blasphemy), Assassins (inappropriate levity), The Full Monty (male nudity). ROL Theatre makes it all innocent fun that leaves opening night audiences screaming (well, they seem to be mostly friends of the cast).

ROL Theatre is also notable for an enviable production standard. Shows are finished — slickly directed and ably choreographed. Sets and costumes are well designed and executed, suppressing any suspicion of imposed minimalism. Plus ROL Theatre avails itself of the Mission district’s 500 seat Victoria Theatre, a 90-year-old vaudeville theater once named Brown’s Opera House that is not as funky as it used to be but still retains a good vibe for well-produced, off-the-wall shows.

The controversy engendered by Carrie The Musical is how-bad-can-a-musical-be-and-still-be-presented, not to mention the questionable taste of exploiting the adolescent emotions that any hint of adult maturity has left behind. These emotions are not primal instincts, like in Salome for example, but truly base, everyday high-school emotions (though in more significant terms Carrie The Musical speaks to bullying, and to the tragic school massacres).

Already the object of ridicule Carrie has her first period (bleeding) in the high-school locker room shower. Her classmates throw tampons at her. One girl, guilt ridden, becomes sympathetic to Carrie’s plight, and forces her football hero boyfriend to invite Carrie to the senior prom. The Cinderella part of the story ends when another classmate dumps a bucket of water on Carrie. Carrie gets even by magically setting her high school ablaze, her classmates inside.

Meanwhile Carrie’s Christian fundamentalist mother, a complicated piece-of-work, must kill Carrie to protect her from original sin. Then the mother either has a heart attack and dies or is stricken down by unidentified outside forces.

The problem with Carrie The Musical in its current incarnation (it was revised for off-Broadway in 2012, and further revised here) is that its writers have found no effective way to infuse Carrie’s telekinetic skills into the action, rendering unrealistic and unexpected the conflagration finale. We need to believe that Carrie actually had the powers to create it, instead we were overwhelmed with production numbers based on familiar high school situations. We needed numbers about telepathic prowess — truly a missed opportunity when you think about it.

Carrie The Musical wants to be mostly about Carrie’s social life, but feels it must explain the isolation created by her mother, Margaret. Margaret in fact has a degree of emotional and intellectual maturity, however screwy, and she provides a rich, human presence in the midst of general high-school superficiality. She draws the emotional focus of the piece to her complicated emotional histories and instinctual forces, and these become her actions. Margaret has a lot to sing about and Carrie The Musical makes room for her to do so. In comparison a character of such depth and complexity did not materialize in San Francisco Opera’s Dolores Claiborne, its one-dimensional actors motivated by simple, quite explicable reactions to ugly situations. Please see Dolores Claiborne in San Francisco.

Ray of Light Theatre casting was impeccable. These were your high school classmates, your gym teacher, your English teacher. Hopefully this was not your mother. They all sang at the top of their lungs for two hours, their emotions worn on their sleeves. Miraculously their voices held strong to the end, supported by an instrumental ensemble of six players always at full forteCarrie The Musical is plug-in music indeed.

This small company, with Berkeley’s West Edge Opera, and Carmel’s Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble have made some very interesting operatic art this fall, something often in short supply at our more corporate institutions. Carrie The Musical deserves to be a hot ticket.

Creative, Cast and Production information

Book: Leonard Cohen; Lyrics: Dean Pitchford; Music: Michael Gore. Tommy Ross: Nikita Burshteyn; Norma: Samantha Cardenas; Miss Gardner: Jessica Coker; Frieda: Chloe Condon; George: Dan Hurst; Helen: Olivia Hytha; Chris Hargensen, Riley Krull; Sue Snell: Courtney Merrell; Billy Nolan: Forest Neikirk; Carrie White: Cristina Ann Oeschger; Stokes: Matt Ono; Margaret White: Heather Orth; Freddy: Danny Quezada; Mr. Stephens: Danny Cunningham. Conductor: Ben Prince; Stage Director: Jason Hoover; Choreographer: Amanda Folena; Scene Design: Kelly Tighe; Costume Design: Amanda Angott; Lighting Design: Joe D’Emilio. Victoria Theater, San Francisco. October 5, 2013.

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Vanessa in Berkeley and Don Giovanni in Carmel Valley

Opera in San Francisco is what occurs at the War Memorial Opera House. Every so often though you can think outside the box and find some interesting performances nearby, though rarely in San Francisco.

This past weekend West Edge Opera formerly known known as Berkeley Opera took a bold step, moving off the stage of a suburban East Bay high-school onto the 400 seat, Berkeley Repertory Theatre Thrust Stage for two semi-staged performances of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa. Berkeley Rep is a prestigious address, after all its productions sit at the forefront of American regional theater. The spectacular new East Span of the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge somehow adds a panache to Berkeley that the funky, dangerous old Bay Bridge excluded. Expectations were high, promise was and is in the air.

This past weekend as well saw the last of six performances of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in the 250-seat black box theater of Hidden Valley, an institute for the performing arts in Carmel Valley (2 1/2 hours south of San Francisco) that has come back to producing opera now that a degree of prosperity has returned to the Monterey Peninsula. Its Opera Ensemble founded in 1974 offers young singers an opportunity to take initial steps into professional producing circumstances. Overseeing this current Don Giovanni were conductor Stewart Robertson, Music Director Emeritus of Glimmerglass Opera and veteran stage director/designer Robert Darling.

The common artistic ground held by the two productions was opera as theater, not opera as opera.

On Berkeley Rep’s blackened Thrust Stage a 30 piece orchestra sat upstage, two chairs and a table were downstage and the singers performed within a few inches of the three-quarters surround audience. The conductor was visible to the singers only by television monitor. At Hidden Valley it was opera in the round, a 9 piece ensemble (including harpsichord) sat off in a corner, TV monitors offered the conductor’s beat, the stage itself was a small asymmetrical platform in the center of the space surrounded by audience.

Common also were the much, much reduced orchestrations. While the brass and woodwind complement of Vanessa was somewhat intact the strings were limited to twelve players total (there were forty five or so at the opera’s premiere). The Don Giovanni orchestra became a string quintet, plus a flute, oboe, and bassoon (the three woodwinds total were reduced from the fifteen brass and woodwind instruments of Mozart’s score).

Not exactly Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk, and it really did not matter as the immediacy of voice, the urgency of action, the physical presence of character created a powerful dimension of theater — a dimension that is so often and so easily overwhelmed by opera’s complexities.

The theatrical dimension was very present in Berkeley. Vanessa was about aging soprano Marie Plette and her shallow young tenor lover Anatol, Jonathan Boyd. Innocent if weird young Erika, San Francisco Conservatory graduate soprano Nikola Printz simply wanted real love whatever that is, and dumbly wise bass Phillip Skinner was the Doctor who even knew how vapid he was. Not to forget the grandmotherly Baroness, Malin Fritz who sang very little but looked very stern. Very believable characters indeed, who were also quite real singers and very good artists. Even the staging was their own (there was no stage director), and seemed completely true to character — how could it have been otherwise.

Barber’s Vanessa itself sat very comfortably in the chamber format. The coy libretto by Barber’s life partner Gian Carlo Menotti is like a short story that resolves into a clever play on words much more so than it is a complex human situation that might end in tragedy. The chamber format imposed by the small theater responded to the wit and fun that permeates Barber’s music, and revealed his brilliance as a composer of mid-century complexities — like the splendid quintet that winds up Vanessa. And as a composer of occasional pieces, like the well known arias and duets that embellish the action.

In this reduced orchestral and sceneless format the specific colors and tones of Barber’s quite pictorial music and the atmospheres inherent to Menotti’s little twilight zone story are sacrificed. But the chamber format did ring true as the perfect place to bare the soul of this wonderful artifact of mid-twentieth century American music. The proceedings were held together by West Edge Opera music director Jonathan Khuner.

Hidden Valley has had much practice staging in the round, achieving in this Don Giovanni a degree of perfection. The irregular shape of the small center platform provided places to step, to sit and to hide, and it was turned from time to time by three very, that is very shapely damsels in black vinyl body stockings to indicate a change of scene, or rotated sometimes to make a posed stage picture visible to the entire audience. The entrance/exit aisle bisecting the theater was used for staging, the intersecting aisle axis led to platforms high against the side walls where Elvira appeared on her balcony and later the Commendatore’s statue loomed.

And there was production — minimalist lighting by designer Matthew Antaky sketched a few atmospheres, plus when those sexy stagehands threw a red rope net over the Don and drew him into hell a bit of smoke billowed from under the central platform. All this while the eight players in the pit gave it there all. And it was absolutely enough for the circumstances, probably because we were right in the middle of it.

Sitting in such close proximity to six fine young singers showing their stuff was a very great pleasure. While Don Giovanni himself seems to have the least to sing in the opera he must create a powerful presence to give reason for everyone else to sing a lot. Baritone Gregory Gerbrandt had the voice, charisma and physical stature to set off the vocal fireworks blazingly exhibited by Donna Anna sung by soprano Jennifer Jakob, Donna Elvira sung by soprano Anna Noggle, and particularly Don Ottavio sung by tenor Zachary Engle. Mezzo soprano Nora Graham-Smith as Zerlina has a vocally warm presence that was appreciated in the ensembles, and baritone Ryan Bradford brought touching boyish naiveté to Masetto. Brazilian baritone Igor Vieira had the hint of accent and the bad-boy instinct (he often ignored the beat) to make him a truly believable Leporello. Veteran (i.e. old) bass Art Schuller was a very intimidating Commendatore.

This young cast could not plumb the depths of Don Giovanni, after all the Don himself needs a bit of age to have created the catalog that Leporello thumbed through on his iPad. Stage director Robert Darling therefore took the libretto and music at face value, embellishing the story just enough to provide some staging interest, like for example the Commendatore exchanging pistol shots with Don Giovanni, wounding the Don. It was enough that the staging was a vehicle for young singers to explore their voices and hone their acting skills.

Conductor Stewart Robertson presided from afar, providing a reasonable musical basis on which these young artists could build commanding performances of some of opera’s most known and beloved music. This maestro made the singers shine at the expense of exploiting the orchestral dramas of the Mozart score — after all he had but a flute, oboe and bassoon, plus the string quintet who surely found new meaning for the word exhaustion.

Casts and Production

Vanessa: Marie Plette; Erika: Nikola Printz; Baroness: Malin Fritz; Anatol: Jonathan Boyd; Doctor: Phillip Skinner; Majordomo: Timothy Beck; Footman: Calvin Wall. The West Edge Opera Orchestra. Conductor: Jonathan Khuner. The Thrust Stage of Berkeley Repertory Theater. September 21, 2013.

Don Giovanni: Gregory Gerbrandt; Donna Anna: Jennifer Jakob; Donna Elvira: Anna Noggle; Leporello: Igor Vieira; Don Ottavio: Zachary Engle; Masetto: Ryan Bradford; Zerlina: Nora Grahamm-Smith; Commendatore: Art Schuller. Hidden Valley Opera Ensemble Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor Stewart Robertson. Stage Director: Robert Darling; Lighting Designer: Matthew Antaky; Costumer: Katy Simola. Hidden Valley Theatre. September 22, 2013.

Dolores Claiborne in San Francisco

Dolores Claiborne, the heroine of the book Dolores Claiborne (1992), is a figment of the imagination of prolific pulp horror novelist Stephen King. Just now she has been made into an operatic heroine by composer Tobias Picker with one assumes a lot of undocumented help from J.D. McClatchy, his librettist.

But before the opera the fictional Dolores Claiborne became the heroine of a movie (film does not seem the appropriate term) back in 1995 that a lot of people seem to remember even though a lot more films based on Stephen King novels made a lot more money (seventeen of them made more money to be exact).

If these two pop genres are not part of your general culture and opera is, and you happened into the War Memorial Opera House and caught Dolores Claiborne you might have been as aghast as I was.

This poor domestic servant (Dolores) had just emptied the bedpan and changed the diaper of her mean old employer when the bitter old woman was chased down the stairs by the ghost of her murdered husband. A lot happened before this, for example Dolores’ daughter Selena was raped by her father, Dolores’ husband Joe (a big number about “into the well and don’t tell”). But Selena worked hard and became a lonely Boston lawyer after Dolores got Joe drunk during the 1962 eclipse of the sun and pushed him into a well, then hit him on the head with a big rock when he tried to climb out.

Vera, Dolores
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

With all this, and it is only for starters, there was not much time for psychological immersion. Empathy too was out of the question given that the sordid situations these unfortunate figments of Mr. King’s imagination got themselves into were revolting.

The governing tension of the piece is that men abuse women (there is quite a list of ways in the opera) and that God is a man and not interested in women so women must become mean bitches to take care of themselves (these are the words used in the opera). One might take a moment to compare the tensions explored in Werther or Wozzeck (or for nearly any other opera in the repertory), tensions that engender psychological exploration and emotional elaboration.

Selena, Joe, Dolores
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

There is no point in imagining the music that might equal the situations of this libretto, except, just for the fun of it, to imagine music that might be created for a solar eclipse. There was not a hint of any such music. Tobias Picker let the words of the story tell the story in plausible, more or less conventional musical lines supported by appropriate, more or less conventional contemporary sounds emerging from the pit.

There was but one moment of reflection that stood out in the evening. Dolores’ daughter Selena was alone on stage in the starry blackness of the solar eclipse and senses that things are not quite right. It was a beautiful moment before it got musically boring, but it did call attention to the absolutely brilliantly designed set, the work of Allen Moyer. Here it was the projection of an all black abstraction of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” and it was the opera’s only imaginative moment.

Selena; Set Design by Allen Moyer
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Moyer’s set was the outline of a rural police office elaborated by cinematic projections (by Greg Emetaz), some realistic, some abstractions of physical spaces, and there were stunning landscapes created across the width of the stage, among them a realistic clapboard house sitting in actual coastal marshes of Maine. With effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind the physical production achieved immense emotional atmospheres that were without response in the music. One assumes that stage director James Robinson had much to do with the realization of this superb physical production.

Mezzo soprano Dolora Zajick had the foresight to abandon the project, the role of Dolores Claiborne assumed and achieved, heroically, by diva Patricia Racette. Unfortunately there are already two sopranos in the score. The old woman Vera, vocally conceived as a high, thin aged voice was taken by Elizabeth Futral (in splendid voice). Dolores’ daughter Selena sung by Susannah Biller was the high coloratura voice of youth. Mme. Zajick would have provided welcomed alternative vocal color. Bass Wayne Tigges sang Dolores’ no-good husband Joe, and tenor Greg Fedderly was the not-too-bright country detective.

It was a high-powered cast who gave it their all. It was a waste of important talent. Conductor George Manahan held it together from the pit.

Cast and Production

Dolores Claiborne: Patricia Racette; Selena St. George: Susannah Biller; Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futral; Joe St. George: Wayne Tigges; Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly; Mr. Pease: Joel Sorensen; Teenage Girl: Nikki Einfeld; Teenage Boy: Hadleigh Adams; Maid: Jacqueline Piccolino; Maid: Nikki Einfeld; Maid: Marina Harris; Maid: Laura Krumm; Maid: Renée Rapier; Mr. Cox: Robert Watson; Mr. Fox: Hadleigh Adams; Mr. Knox: A.J. Glueckert. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: George Manahan; Stage Director: James Robinson; Set Designer: Allen Moyer; Costume Designer: James Schuette; Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind; Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, September 18, 2013.

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Mefistofele in San Francisco

There is the exception. The revival of an old opera production need not always be perceived as an expedient (read cheap) solution to getting a season of opera put together, but may pass instead as an artistically thoughtful choice.

Just now San Francisco Opera has presented Arrigo Boito’s Mefistofele, in a 25 year old production by Canadian stage director Robert Carsen who was 34 years old at its premiere in Geneva in 1988. Carsen’s production, designed by Michael Levine (who was 27 years old back in 1988), is brilliantly witty. Maybe its racy titillations (bared female breasts and exposed male genitalia) were racier back in the ’80’s than they are now but they still brightly illuminate Mefistofele as one of opera’s more bizarre artifacts.

Production design by Michael Levine
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

What the Carsen production did not have at its 1989 premiere in San Francisco was conductor Nicola Luisotti whose exuberant showmanship and spectacular musical making have found, finally, an opera production that is their match. It is no secret that the glories of the Luisotti pit frequently dwarf what is on the stage in San Francisco, or more often ignore the intentions of the stage, meager may they be these days. Here however the Boito, Carsen and Luisotti collaboration was one clearly envisioned in heaven.

The 1860’s were heady times in Paris and Milan, Offenbach was at the peak of his fame making fun of both love and antiquity sparing, strangely, religion. In Milan however there were a few outrageous poets (messy haired ones) who took on anything sacred to the Italians, be it personal appearance, God or Goethe. One of them (these scapigliature) was Arrigo Boito, 26 years old in 1868, who deftly extracted a few passages from the bible of bourgeois Romanticism, i.e. Goethe’s Faust and construed them to cruelly satirize nineteenth century self-fulfillment aspirations.

These were not modest times operatically — Verdi’s Don Carlo comes in 1867. The fully developed 19th century Italian sound was widespread as evidenced by the many composers who contributed to the Messa per Rossini (1869). A man of letters and a man of his times Boito could write music as well as librettos. The operas Mefistofele and Nerone are his musical legacy. Their style is typically Italian of the period, warmed somewhat with oltralpe sonorities (beyond the Alps means Wagnerian, a dirty word in Italy just then). It is good music.

Obviously Boito’s Mefistofele is massive, given it addresses the always important struggles of good and evil. God and the Devil confront one another, Faust is in between, Margherita is pathetic and Helen of Troy is untouchable. Robert Carsen manages all this with enough supernumeraries to turn a village fair into a Chinese New Year of the Snake running amok in the Garden of Eden, a huge chorus of nymphs and satyrs is unleashed into an out-of-control bacchanal, and a pristine ballet revels to the beauty of classical architecture shining in an hyper elaborated harp solo. All of this overseen by a massive chorus of heavenly angels who are joined by legions of cherubim at the moments when the glory of God rises to its utmost clamor.

Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Needless to say everyone has a very good time, most of all maestro Luisotti who can unleash the forces of heaven themselves in massive choirs of praise as well as confront God with outright derision — those two piccolos screaming over the orchestra were only some of the whistles you heard (the fischio [whistle] is obvious derision in Italy), the rest were real. Even poor Marguerite has a good time even though condemned to death because she has a very beautiful aria to sing. It was an exquisite duet with the maestro, the diva in quite fine voice at the third performance.

Mefistofele, Faust
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Carsen’s indulgence of affection for Boito’s youthful escapade was sweetened by the casting of Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas as Faust. His is a voice of great beauty still most at home in the light lyric repertory (he was San Francisco’s Nemorino). At 53 years of age Vargas now takes on heavier roles, like Boito’s Faust as well as Gustavo III in Un ballo in maschera last summer at Orange. Here he sang with consummate style and musicianship, and with the maestro made a quite moving declaration of love to Helen. Nonetheless he remains a miniature tenor for the big repertory and therefore could perfectly embody a pretend Romantic hero caught up in all this fun.

Much the same can be said for the Mefistofele of Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov. He gave a maximally effective performance, vocally and histrionically. In fact Mr. Abdrazakov was absolutely adorable as a pretend villain whose sole purpose is to give rise to lots of fortissimo music. While it surely was expedient to cast Adler Fellow Marina Harris as Helen of Troy it was not appropriate. However fine a young singer may be it is rare that an Adler Fellow may have the presence, personality and experience to hold the stage in a major role. After all, San Francisco Opera boasts that it performs on the international level. Or does it?

The Robert Carsen/Michael Levine production is huge, and hugely fun. It is a masterpiece that was well worth reviving. If you miss it just now in San Francisco you can catch it at the Met in 2015 (conductor and cast not yet announced).

Cast and Production

Mefistofele: Ildar Abdrazakov; Margherita: Patricia Racette; Faust: Ramón Vargas; Elena: Marina Harris; Marta: Erin Johnson; Pantalis: Renée Rapier; Wagner/Nereo: Chuanyue Wang. Chorus and Orchestra of the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti; Production: Robert Carsen; Stage Director: Laurie Feldman; Choreographer: Alphonse Poulin; Set and Costume Design: Michael Levine; Lighting Design: Gary Marder. San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. September 14, 2013.

Cosi fan tutte in San Francisco

Tucked away somewhere in the San Francisco Opera warehouse was an old John Cox production of Cosi fan tutte. from Monte Carlo. Well, not that old by current standards at San Francisco Opera.

It first appeared at the Prince Rainier Auditorium in 2004, the temporary home of Opéra Monte Carlo while the Casino’s magnificent Salle Garnier was in restoration. Perhaps this explains why its false proscenium is so wide and low, in fact disconcertingly so.

Production design by Robert Perdziola
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

The production is a relic from the Pamela Rosenberg era at San Francisco Opera, when high concept productions were the norm rather than the exception. John Cox is one of the British opera producers cabal so for its time the production had some prestige.

Cosi fan tutte is the bête noire of the trilogy (with Don Giovanni and Le nozze di Figaro), a far fetched little story about the trivialities of puppy love. Of course it gets serious there for a while, and even explores the darker side of love if you want (and know how) to go there.

John Cox and his American designer Robert Perdziola told the story in Monte Carlo where young ladies have lives of ease and young men have money to wager. Croupiers are dashing and dangerous and hotels have maids. The Hotel de Paris is next to the Casino, and the harbor is just below — an intimate and very definable locale, maybe better than Mozart’s Bay of Naples.

Don Alfonso, Despina
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Ignoring the fantasy battles of young lovers messieurs Cox and Perdziola imposed a real war, World War I, so that the young men were actually inducted. The Hotel de Paris became a military hospital to the chagrin of remaining guests, and the young ladies become nurses. In the end the young men leave the young ladies standing there as they march back into battle.

Into these colliding worlds of fiction and non-fiction stage director Jose Maria Condemi had the task of moving his actors through the paces of the story, which he thoroughly and carefully accomplished, establishing character and providing schtick. Though sometimes there was simply nothing to do.

It was up to Mozart and the maestro, Nicola Luisotti to make music, after all these young artists had torments to express for which they were more or less capable. San Francisco Opera’s reigning Mozart heroine, Ellie Dehn (the Countess in Le nozze [2010] Donna Anna in Giovanni [2011]) sang Fiordiligi. This heroine has much to sing, some of it quite difficult as it exploits the limits of the soprano range, the lower extreme not really in Mlle. Dehn’s voice. The vocal high point of the performance was Dorabella’s first aria Smanie implacabili, sung by German mezzo soprano Christel Lötzsch where the jagged vocal line found a rare synergy with the maestro who discovered an orchestral roughness to make this aria a true duet of vibrant musical forces.

Guglielmo, Dorabella, Fiordiligi, Ferrando
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

While both ladies are accomplished singers they are also shapely singers, all the better to model the fine imitations of art deco couture created by designer Perdziola, one of the more apparent pleasures of the afternoon.

Maestro Luisotti finds drama, or emotive detail that illuminates the Mozart genius in sometimes unexpected and always immensely pleasurable ways. These discoveries were in evidence throughout the performance, though rarely in collaboration with his singers in their arias. There were however moments of exquisite beauty in many of the ensembles, particularly in the early on trio Soave sia il vento (May the wind be gentle) where all motion became sublimated into a frozen moment of time. These few sublime instances still overtook any dramatic tension that might have developed during the afternoon.

The biggest tensions of the performance occurred in the overture. The maestro has raised the pit so that the tips of the bass viols are just at stage level. This gives a brighter and more immediate sound, and there was great fun to be had from watching the maestro tease the woodwinds to achieve their solos at breakneck speeds. And there was severe distress created by the dragging tempos of the trumpets. This bizarre problem persisted well into the performance, placing distrust in the musical forces that we would endure for three and one half hours.

Ferrando was sung by Italian tenor Francesco Demuro. Mr. Demuro is much more Italianate vocally than Mozartian, in fact his credits include no Mozart roles at all. Guglielmo was sung by first year Adler Fellow Philippe Sly, a highly communicative performer in an auspicious main stage debut. Don Alfonso was sung by Italian bass-baritone Marco Vinco who made a case for this usually cynical personage to be a careless gambler, however a bit timid one vocally. Former Adler Fellow Susannah Biller ably went through the paces of a typical Despina.

It was a long, very long afternoon at the opera.

Cast and Production Credits

Fiordiligi: Ellie Dehn; Dorabella: Christel Lötzsch; Despina: Susannah Biller; Ferrando: Francesco Demuro; Guglielmo: Philippe Sly; Don Alfonso: Marco Vinco. San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Stage Director: Jose Maria Condemi; Production Designer: Robert Perdziola. War Memorial Opera House, June 9, 2013.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann in San Francisco

Just when you thought the protagonist was Hoffmann! Who, rather what stole the show?

No surprises here, it was the Laurent Pelly production that originated in 2005 on a small stage in Lausaunne before moving to Lyon’s Opéra Nouvel. Just now its seemingly countless animate components have been transformed to a new production of the scope to inhabit Barcelona’s Liceu and San Francisco’s War Memorial. And it is still a living organism with its own intelligence. Maybe it is even smarter than Offenbach.

Not that Offenbach has not gotten a lot smarter over the years, subject to the scrutiny of researchers, scholars, editors, not to mention those who have finished, fixed and improved the mess that Offenbach left behind. Finally stage directors have the task of actually putting it on the stage in some fashion they think is coherent. And the fun continues.

Strange to say this potentially magnificent work has come to the War Memorial stage in but two earlier incarnations, a 1944 version repeated in 1945 and 1949, and a 1987 version directed by Lotfi Mansouri. Christopher Alden directed a 1996 version that was mounted in the Civic Auditorium because the War Memorial was closed for earthquake repairs. This production was based on the artistically correct, read de rigueur Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck edition as rendered in a 1993 production at Long Beach Opera directed by David Alden.

Dapertutto, Hoffmann, Giulietta
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

The Kaye-Keck edition is of course the basis for the 2005 Pelly production, with Lausanne and Lyon’s own particular blend of non-Offenbach recitatives and dialogues. Needless to say seven years later Laurent Pelly has rethought it a bit for Barcelona, and now it is further adapted for San Francisco. You get the idea. We could get lost in detail.

Pelly’s production is magnificent, making E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short horror stories into a dream fantasy where anything real becomes surreal, where anything physical is ephemeral. There is no time because there is no place. Images appear and disappear without a logic, as stream-of-unconscious.

Hoffmann and Olympia
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Pelly’s conceit is based on the Olympia episode, on Spalanzani’s mechanics where magic dissolves into stagecraft when Olympia is revealed as a manipulation of three stagehands. We then become conscious that the continuous flow of images is effected by the most basic level of stage mechanics — men pushing scenery and men pulling ropes. And we become even more amazed by the intelligence behind the when and how of it all.

It is a diabolical staging in an opera where there is nothing but diabolical manipulation of, uhm, nothing. Something like quantum mechanics maybe.

There is the glue that holds all this together, and that is mere Offenbach, the minor genius who was a major genius, who made trivial musical magic into powerful emotional statements. Conductor Patrick Fournillier realized this Offenbach utilizing the ample voice of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, exploiting thought rather than sentiment by driving fast tempos, emotion rather than atmosphere by probing depth of tone — assignments this formidable orchestra relished. The pit had a big job indeed. It had to supply the colors, abstract and real, that the essentially dark monotone set left undefined. It succeeded.

Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

And there is the lubrication allowing the Pelly mechanics to flow. This of course would be the voices of the actors. American tenor Matthew Polenzani had the daunting task of making us feel the pain of the destruction of illusion. It is a lot of singing, and he made it to the end with apparent ease. Mr. Polenzani is a light lyric tenor, a voice that does not boast the strain that makes a large-scale lyric tenor exciting. Though a beautifully acted performance, and in fact a beautifully sung performance it did not propel us to confusion, disillusion and exhaustion, the fulfillment of Hoffmann’s love.

Matthew Polenzani is a star, not to forget Laurent Pelly, so it is inexplicable why San Francisco Opera felt it needed an additional star to illustrate its aspiration to be a big-time opera company. Soprano Natalie Dessay sang a waif-like Antonia, the only one of the heroines this estimable artist can still negotiate. She did deliver vocally with sure, proven technique. Though if there are to be three sopranos for the opera, one would surely prefer a full lyric for this role. Mme. Dessay did give us the very real pleasures of a diva presence and crystal clear French.

Dapertutto and Giulietta
Photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

There is great pleasure to be had in hearing young singers with beautiful, well-used voices. Bass Christian Van Horn, last fall’s Angelotti in Tosca, almost held his own in fulfilling the star quality needed for the four villains. Soprano Hye Jung Lee of Florida Grand Opera’s Young Artist program was adequate as Olympia. Giulietta was Irene Roberts who was Fresno Opera’s Carmen. Angela Brower, a member of the Bavarian State Opera ensemble disappointed as Nicklausse, lacking the requisite richness of voice for this trouser role and necessary presence to hold the stage for such an extended period of time.

Casting of the myriad of additional roles ranged from star turns, like the casting of Steven Cole as the four servants, to the pallid Spalanzani of Thomas Glenn and lackluster Crespel of James Creswell. The Adlers did their usual fine service in other roles, especially Hadleigh Adams as Schlemil.

The Pelly production needed more powerful presences all around to liberate our minds and hearts from its brilliant stage mechanics and allow its devilish design to take flight. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra alone could not accomplish this. It could have been done.

Cast and Production

Hoffmann: Matthew Polenzani; The Muse/Nicklausse: Angela Brower; Coppélius, Dapertutto, Dr. Miracle, Lindorf: Christian Van Horn; Antonia: Natalie Dessay; Olympia: Hye Jung Lee; Giulietta: Irene Roberts; Stella: Jacqueline Piccolino; Frantz, Andrès, Cochenille, Pittichinaccio: Steven Cole; Nathanaël: Matthew Grills; Spalanzani: Thomas Glenn; Crespel: James Creswell; Hermann: Joo Won Kang; Luther, Schlemil: Hadleigh Adams. Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Patrick Fournillier. Director: Laurent Pelly; Set Design: Chantal Thomas; Costumes: Laurent Pelly; Lighting Design: Joël Adam. War Memorial Opera House, June 5, 2013.

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The Brahms Third in San Francisco (Berkeley)

Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.

It was an extraordinary evening at the opera, a perfect mise en scène (none) for San Francisco’s tyrannical maestro. The 70 member orchestra sat huddled in a black void and sang in one magnificent voice Brahms’ most lyrical symphony, its colors shining as never before, its moods of turgid Brahmsian contentment translocated into luminescent, metaphysical Latin lyricism.

It was opera, and this was understood by the audience who felt each movement as an extended aria, and unabashedly applauded each movement in unbridled appreciation of great singing. It was symphony as opera, the fifty-year-old composer spinning this famous yarn of contentment, its thematic play subsumed into joy of performance. Bel canto indeed.

The maestro can sometimes, even often be accused of imposing excessive drama, but Brahms offers him very little of it to manipulate. Thus the musical excess — and there was plenty of it — was limited to expected extreme tempo alterations and cantabile melodic exaggerations that illuminated and transfixed more than distorted an Alpine pastoral lyricism. Though it seemed a subdued Luisotti it was still a possessed Luisotti, a powerful conductor with a unique voice.

The Opera orchestra is known to be a very able ensemble, after all it performs the most difficult orchestral scores that exist. The sludgy sound of the War Memorial Opera House prevents perception of the beauty of its sound, sounds that until now we could only imagine. Though Zellerbach Hall is a dowdy acoustical space — the sound at first had a cavernous quality but once accepted it permitted the winds of the orchestra to sing with a beauty of tone reminiscent of the Vienna Philharmonic (yes, really it’s true). What the strings may lack in clarity of tone they make up in boldness, and this alone defines and qualifies this ensemble as a truly dramatic orchestra.

It was an evening of orchestral drama. Not least of which was the Nino Rota 1962 Piano Concerto in C major. Not much of Italian Fascist musical culture is around these days, but its heroic post-Romanticism certainly informed composer Rota’s musical formation and aspiration. Add this to the heady filmic creativity at mid-century Cinecitta and you have the sense of this musical relic. It challenged elegant French pianist Aldo Ciccolini at its premiere in 1987 but was a-piece-of-cake just now for 34 year-old Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese (no relationship to Licia).

Nicola Luisotti (left), photo by Terrence McCarthy
Giuseppe Albanese (right)

Dressed in formal wear with scarlet spats young Albanese visually startled, and then attacked the American Steinway with the confidence of a finished post-Boulez virtuoso and a highly intelligent contemporary musician. Like Luisotti pianist Albanese was possessed by the music, the mechanics of the score and its execution played out physically and intellectually in full view, or let us say a vista. It was pure theater of musical performance. Mr. Albanese is also Professor of Philosophy at the University of Messina where he teaches the “methodology of musical communication.”

The Rota concerto was Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky but more so it was the myriad moods that composer Rota mined for films ranging from 8 1/2 to Godfather. These moods were often conversations between the piano and an instrument of the orchestra, raptly and rapturously executed in an atmosphere of absolute artistic collaboration imposed by the maestro.

The audience roared (yes, it was a vocal opera audience), and brought Albanese back for curtain calls. But two were enough for these lovers of voices. Never mind. This determined artist came back unsummoned to perform four encores — to our great pleasure! The highlights were Scriabin’s Left Hand Nocturne played with his downstage arm (the right one) hanging limply, and a version (showers of notes) of Gershwin’s song The Man I Love created by American piano virtuoso Earl Wilde.

Conductor Luisotti opened the program with Puccini’s 1883 Capriccio Sinfonico. From this early work Puccini literally recycled the flashier moments to La boheme (1896) and even Suor Angelica (1918). It served as a perfect, amusing overture to the evening.

Bonjour M. Gauguin in Berkeley (El Cerrito)

Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.

It was the reprise of an opera by an enterprising young Italian composer, Fabrizio Carlone (b. 1970) who promoted its premiere in Venice in 2005 that included the manufacture of a CD and DVD. No doubt short on cash West Edge Opera is long on creativity, the least of which was discovering this already far-away produced opera, thus saving the considerable costs of a first performance while offering the Bay Area the excitement of operatic discovery.

Gauguin and his Inner Voice
Photo by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera

It was a pleasurable evening of something new, not just another Magic Flute, and we discovered more than a new opera — we were reminded of the French painter Paul Gauguin with more information than most of us ever knew.

And once again we witnessed a new generation, that of this young Italian composer, chanting its mantra of revolution and finding a new victim/hero to sing about.

We learned that messieur Gauguin was not a very nice man who died enriched (finally) by his artistic and moral sweat — current sentiment does not seem to concern itself with condemning dishonorable behavior nor honoring penniless death. It was a sequential, exhaustive (about two hours) account of his life in snippets of his own and his contemporary’s words. An unusual libretto that was more a lecture about Gauguin and his art than a dramatic action.

It was in fact absolutely flat dramatically, the French language, by nature little inflected was in perfect accord with Mr. Carlone’s music that percolated underneath achieving quiet, never overly intense musical climaxes. And these emotional climaxes, of which there were a considerable number, were intellectual rather than visceral insuring an evenly illuminated two-hour musical and histrionic landscape.

The actions of geographic change were narrated. Gauguin’s reflections and his contemporaries reactions were recited. This prompted West Edge producers to embellish the lengthy text with abstract dance movement except when specific action was mimed in overt description. The staging was entrusted to Bay Area choreographer Yannis Adoniou who with his dance group Kunst-Stoff, a company of five dancers, energetically executed complex, unceasing movement. The odd number of dancers was evened to six (three male/female couples) when it was joined by Gauguin himself, dancer Anders Froehlich.

Gauguin (upside down)
Photo by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera

M. Froehlich is also an accomplished singer, a fine light baritone who achieved with apparent ease the refined lyricism required by the composer. If without the roughness and rudeness of the described Gauguin this singer fulfilled to near perfection the intellectual and conceptual elegance of the score and this production.

Composer Carlone’s Gauguin was complemented by an inner voice, the exotically costumed soprano Shawnette Sulker who is endowed with a rich voice that she used securely to fulfill the extensive and challenging coloratura requirements of the role. When joined by Gauguin and the three narrators, Keith Perry, Paul Murray and Nicole Takesono, Mlle. Sulker provided the brilliant upper edge to finely wrought five-voice ensembles that were among the musical highlights of the evening.

The three Narrators with Gauguin and his Inner Voice
Photo by Alessandra Mello courtesy of West Edge Opera

There were some staging resolutions that defied comprehension, like the bare innerspring mattress that was thrown about the stage nearly the entire evening. Had it related to the bed on which the artist Gauguin laid his naked Tahitian girl in Spirit of the Dead Watching we might have felt some visual structure to the staging of the opera.

The action of Gauguin painting his Tahitian masterpiece Spirit of the Dead Watching occurred near the end of the opera, and was the biggest moment of the opera. It was mimed by Gauguin and described by Gauguin himself, and illustrated by photographic images projected on the large screen that dominated stage right. This splendid scene was of unusual intensity that even brought to mind Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini casting his statue of Persius — a David and Goliath comparison, nonetheless germane.

This large screen however was unceasing illuminated throughout the evening by images of paintings that most often were by Gauguin, but oftentimes were by other artists, rarely identified, prompting personal mental scurrying to identify the images and reconcile them to the narration. As well the English translation of the sung French was projected on this screen. Watching this screen and frantic thinking came into direct conflict with participating in the performance. [Surely Gauguin's 1889 painting Bonjour Messieur Gauguin appeared, though I do not recall seeing it.]

Conductor Mary Chun and the San Francisco Sound Group Orchestra were in the pit. Mme. Chun oversaw the realization of composer Carlone’s score with authority, precision and sensitivity. She created a musical warmth that encouraged the exceptional level of lyricism achieved by the singers, all in recognition of composer Carlone’s lyric gifts (he is Italian, so supposedly they come naturally).

The San Francisco Sound Group was comprised of nine players entrusted with illuminating composer Carlone’s pallet of, therefore, nine colors. A limited pallet for two hours of music. Composer Carlone’s pedigree is impeccable, including the Ferienkurs für Neue Musik in Darmstadt and the Académie d’été of Ircam in Paris. Thus much current European compositional technology is present in his basically neo-impressionist style. There was a plethora of textures, shapes and rhythms if not volume.

Cast and Production

Gauguin: Anders Froehlich; Inner Voice: Shawnette Sulker; Clovis Gauguin: Schuler Wijsen; Narrator #1: Keith Perry; Narrator #2: Paul Murray; Narrator #3: Nicole Takesono; Dancers: Yannis Adoniou, Jerremy Bannon-Neche, Lindsey Renee Derry, Katie Gaydos, Kate Jordan. The sfSoundGroup Orchestra. Conductor: Mary Chun, Stage Director/Choreographer: Yannis Adoniou; Lighting Designer: Lucas Benjaminh Krech; Video Designer: Jeremy Knight; Costume Designer: Shannon Maxham. El Cerritos High School Auditorium, April 6, 2013.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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,, 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.


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.


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