Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Easter Sunday - "Magic Flute" from La Fenice

     "The Magic Flute" is on the one hand a beautiful and complex opera both in terms of its plot and certainly in terms of its music. The music is glorious, no question.  But the plot, well, as fanciful and fun as it is in parts, on the whole is rather complex and can be confusing.  I have posted about some of these issues below.  Perhaps the most perplexing part of the plot is all of the Masonic symbolism, which is interesting, but gets a little lost on 21st century audiences.  At the same time at it's core it is a coming of age story.  Tamino and Pamina both go through a journey into adulthood and responsibility as do Papageno and Pamina, perhaps a little less successfully.  And Sarastro and the QofN have to deal with the issues of letting go.  These basic issues mean that Flute is ripe material for alternative imaginings of the plot - also known as Regietheater.  Some folks reject Regietheater out of hand, but I think that is a mistake.  Certainly some productions don't work, but this can be true of traditional productions as well.  This La Fenice "Flute" is a Regietheater re-imagining, but in my view it is very, very well done and thoughtfully conceived.  Directed by Damiano Michieletto this production is set within the context of a school and focuses on issues of coming of age, pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and letting go.  All of these themes are in the libretto, it is just that they are handled differently than Michieletto, which I think is fine actually.  I found the production very engaging and rather fascinating.  Part of this was the outstanding cast.  Across the board the entire cast was excellent: Tamino - Antonio Poli / Pamina - Ekaterina Sadovnikova / Papageno - Alex Esposito / Sarastro - Goran Juric / Queen of the Night - Olga Pudova / Papagena - Caterina di Tonno / Speaker - Michael Leibundgut / First lady Cristina Baggio / Second lady: Rosa Bove / Third lady Silvia Regazzo / Monostatos Marcello Nardis.  
     Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the production are the journeys the various characters take.  There is much that is very untraditional, but very interesting nonetheless.  For example Monostatos is also a student who is struggling to find himself and his journey is so much different than the traditional approach, and where he ends up is so much more positive.  The Queen of the Night obviously has issues with trying to hold on to the childhood of her daughter and just can't let her go.  But eventually she also transforms.  And the same can be said for all the principal characters.
     Of course, in any Regietheater production one of the problems is that the libretto itself doesn't always cooperate and one must just ignore certain details.  Isis and Osiris, for example, didn't really fit and there were plenty of other little details that one had to just get past - there was no water or stone for Papageno's birds, and he really didn't have more than a token bird.  But frankly it just didn't matter to me.  The overall concept was so strong I felt that I had no problem getting past many of these details.
     Musically it was very strong.  Conductor Antonello Manacorda was able to elicit quite a lot of energy from the cast and orchestra.  In fact, his tempi at times were just about to the edge as terms of being fast.  But the cast kept up with him.  It was an exciting musical performance and a thought provoking and well done production.  Enjoy!

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Un Ballo in Maschera - Bavarian State Opera

     The Bavarian State Opera live streamed their production of Ballo last Friday and then they archived it for a week.  I am so glad they made it available for a time to watch when it is convenient. The experience though was a bit of a mixed bad.  First of all, the singing was excellent - Piotr Beczala as Riccardo and Anja Harteros as Amelia were outstanding - I especially loved Amelia's 3rd act aria with the cello - beautifully sung and played. I also liked George Petean as Renato. I was not as excited by the Oscar of Sofia Fomina, not sure why, there was just something missing. I did like Sam and Tom and the chorus was good. The tempi over all seemed slow and the whole score seemed to drift a bit for lack of energy. But perhaps that might have been on purpose to go with the rather drifting production. Frankly I found the production rather perplexing and in the end unsuccsessful. It seemed to be a concept in search of an opera - and Ballo just didn't work for it. I did like the intro - setting up Riccardo as reckless seems to me to be right on, but then it floated away: why was there a bed in every scene?  If it was Riccardo's bed why was Renato and his child sleeping in it?  What was the point of the puppet? Why all the guns and why, for an opera entitled "A Masked Ball" were there no masks to be seen anywhere. I don't mind when directors try to reimagine a work and I have seen some that work incredibly well (the Theater an der Wien 2015 Dutchman for example is one of the best I have ever seen) but this just made no sense to me, there was no inner logic and it kept contradicting itself. Often in these inds of reimagininations the libretto can often undermine the concept, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot.  For this production it was the latter - what we saw on the stage was so far removed from the libretto that it made no sense. Frankly I was kind of glad when it was over for between the weird production and the slow tempi I had checked out of this production at the beginning of the last act. I do have to say that Verdi filled this opera with some wonderful music, but this production leaves much to be desired. I much prefer the current Met production much better. Watch it for the beautiful singing, but hopefully this cast can use their talents in a better production of this opera. Not recommended I'm afraid.

The stream is available only for a week:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Opera Platform - Die Walküre from Opera Platform

     Opera Platform has made available a 2014 performance of the production of Die Walküre from The Dutch National Opera - the cast includes: Christopher Ventris as Siegmund, Catherine Nagelstad as Sieglinde, Kurt Rydl as Hunding, Thomas Johannes Mayer as Wotan, Doris Soffel as Fricka and Catherine Foster as Brünnhilde.  The production featured a stage that wrapped around the orchestra in an arch.  There were a couple other parts to it but it is a rather simple design, but this stage does all number of things and the concept works well.  Additionally there are few props, the constuming is fairly traditional and effective - especially Wotan's gown which he reveals in the last scene!  The lighting is also effective. The Netherlands Philharmonic is conducted by Haertmut Haenchen.  The production is directed by Pierre Audi.

     I have to say this is actually the second time I have seen this very performance.  I actually have watched a 4 Ring operas in this production before, though it has been a while ago.  On the whole I found Walküre effective and well done.  The singing on the whole is very good - Siegmund, Sieglinde, Wotan, Fricka and Brunnhilde are all excellent.  Hats off the Brünnhilde for totally nailing her entrance "hi-yo-to-hos" - not easy, but Catherine Foster is terrific.  Doris Soffel was very effective as Fricka and I liked Thomas Mayer as Wotan.  His was a troubled and distraught Wotan, which he conveyed effectively.  The twins were also excellent.  Kurt Rydl cut a powerful figure on stage as Hunding, but vocally I felt he was not up to the rest of the cast.  For me the most moving part of this production was the last scene in act 2 - Brunnhilde and Siegfried all the way through the battle.  This section was beautifully sung and powerfully acted.  I found it very moving.  I should have felt the same about Wotan's farewell but there were distractions - not the singer's fault mind you.  

    (Spoiler alert) So act 3 begins with the fire on the mountain - ??? - ok.  Not sure why, but ok.  The stage blazes for the orchestral intro and then the fire disappears in time for the girls to come in and do their thing.  The Valkures are very effective - all good singers and I personally enjoyed the choreography of their motions.  I thought it was effective and painted a picture of these servants of Wotan who have no will or identity of their own - only Brunnhilde is not in sync, of course - she has broken with that life at the end of act 2.  So we go all the way through act 3 and I am expecting some cool fire.  But no - no fire.  We had fire at the beginning, but no fire at the end!  What is up with that? Just some red light?  Was it fire code, safety - all good reasons.  But the fire at the beginning of the act was misplaced and the lack of fire at the end of the act 3 was a major disappointment for me.

     The other thing about this production which I did not like is the way they depict Wotan's spear.  He does not carry a spear - it is a part of the set, and it appears at his behest (effective when he puts an end to Hunding, though I will say).  Ok, so I am old fashioned in this - but I want Wotan to carry a spear.  The spear is important - it is an extension of himself - it is the basis of his power - and it is the basis of his struggles and misery.

     Those are two quibbles about a production that otherwise is really excellent.  It is musically excellent and it is well worth watching.  And not only that but there are English subtitles, which are nice.  I recommend this great production on Opera Platform's site.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Jenufa

     My opera for today is a 2005 production of Jenufa from the Gran Teatre Liceu.  This production stars Nina Stemme and Eva Marton. I watched it on YouTube (link below). There are times when a performance or production is so outstanding that it completely overwhelms you.  Such is the case with this production and performance.  Eva Marton gives a stunning and incredible performance as Kostelnicka and she is matched by an equally outstanding performance by Nina Stemme in the title role.  The remainder of the cast and chorus are also excellent.  Jorma Silvasti as Laca and Par Lindskog Stárek as Števa were also terrific.  I found the production very interesting and moving. Each setting had a rock or rocks as focal points and the meaning of this became apparent in reading the English subtitles.  This was perhaps the most out of place in act 2, but this is the act where this symbolism became the most profound.

     In many ways this is a disturbing opera.  It is not just the infanticide (we have that in Il Trovatore after all).  It is the atmosphere of this village which is some brilliant depicted in the orchestration right at the beginning of the opera.  The repeated patterns in the xylophone set up this sense of oppressive atmosphere and throughout the act it comes in and out of the orchestration.  And the atmosphere in this village is toxic.  Rooted in religious oppression fear and judgment are the present realities for all the residents, especially the women.  In a moment of weakness Jenufa has given herself to Steva and the consequences for this are grave indeed.  There is no forgiveness available to her and she is rejected and dishonored, especially by Steva who is desperate to get away from her. This fear, judgment and oppression are what finally drive Kostelnicka to her desperate act.  It is a horrible act, but it is done in love, in a desperate attempt to give Jenufa her life back in this harsh environment.  This is what religious oppression looks like.  This is the world that the so-called "Evangelical Christian Right" would create for us all.  It is a miserable world and it is neither Evangelical nor Christian.  But (spoiler alert) there is a ray of hope and of light that shines into this dark and miserable environment and it comes in the form of forgiveness.  Jenufa forgives - Jenufa shows a grace and love that is uncommon and it has an amazing effect.  This is the antidote for the fear, the judgment and the hate = it is love!  That is what the Christian Gospel is all about.  It is amazing to me that so many who claim to be followers of Christ seem to completely miss this.  They need to watch this opera and take its climax to heart.

     One thing I love to watch for is how the cast interacts with each other during the curtain calls and this cast is amazingly affectionate with each other.  It was very touching to see Nina Stemme hug Eva Marton and for Marton to gently kiss her on her head - both with tears in their eyes.  In fact they were both crying real tears in act 2 - how can they sing?  This is an amazing performance!  Watch it!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Winter Opera Co presents "Il Trovatore"

     Sometimes opera can be fun!  And yesterday the production of "Il Trovatore" was fun.  The 3+ hours went by quickly as Winter Opera's outstanding production and performance of this "warhorse" opera proceeded.  It was fun, because - first of all - musically it was very well sung and performed.  The orchestra was good, the chorus was good and all of the principals were great.  It was fun because (as usual) the sets and lighting were spectacular (I continue to be amazed at the outstanding work of set designer Scott Loebl and lighting designer Sean Savoie - they do so much with what I can only assume is a tight budget).  It was fun because the stage director did not try to apologize for the melodramatic and rather convoluted plot but took it seriously and presented it seriously.  There was no - "yes I know this is crazy, but it's opera, so just bear with us" here.  Every single member of the company I felt was totally invested in telling this story - from the leading principals who fully inhabited their roles to the chorus and even the smaller roles - like Ruiz - running panic-stricken offstage to gather the forces to rescue Azucena like he was really going to rescue Azucena!  Did I notice little things - yes, there were a few coordination issues between pit and stage, and yes there were a few cuts.  But they didn't matter at all.  This was a terrific afternoon at the opera.  And to top it all off it looked to me like they had a very large audience.  Great!  Congratulations!  Gina Galati and all of the folks at Winter Opera deserve a huge congratulations on what they have accomplished. Bravi tutti!

     Just a couple notes about the cast.  The stand out for me was Claudia Chapa as Azucena, which is probably my favorite character in this opera anyway.  I felt that Claudia really was outstanding in every way.  She had the low register and the high notes when needed.  Her acting was great and she was appropriately creepy and mysterious.  Her "son" Manrico was played by Jorge Pita Carreras and I really enjoyed his performance too.  He infused Manrico with a little of that Di Luna arrogance. Sometimes Manrico is played like nice guy Cavaradossi, but that I think is wrong.  Manrico has di Luna blood, he should not be so different in temperament from the Count and this tenor got it just right!  His "di quella pira" was excellent.  True he left out the interjections during the chorus "allarmi" section, but so do every other tenor, except Pavarotti.  But, this is the first time in a while that have actually heard the tenor sing both syllables of "ala........rmi" on the high C at the end.  Even at the Met (where there is no excuse for this I think) the tenors have taken to singing "allahhhhhh". So bravo for singing the word the way it should be.  This is the 3rd time I have seen Neil Nelson, the bass baritone who performed as the Count di Luna.  So far it has been Leporello, Hagen(!) and now the Count.  Certainly an interesting collection of characters.  And all of them were well performed. Nelson has remarkable stage presence and he can be truly menacing on stage.  Vocally he has a wonderfully rich bass-baritone which suited Leporello and Hagen very well.  At times I felt he was on the edge in terms of range for di Luna.  But he never wavered and really sang the role beautifully. The final singer was Maria Kanyova as Leonora and again she sang beautifully and truly inhabited the role. At times she seemed to struggle a bit with support in the softer sections, but her act 4 string of aria, ensemble, duet was very well done indeed.  The Miserere, BTW, was a high point for me.  I have to mention Clark Sturdevant who has a very beautiful voice and did a terrific job with the rather small and unsatisfying role of Ruiz and Antoine Hodge was excellent as Ferrando and managed that difficult opening scene with complete control.

     Was there some kind of amplification going on? There seemed to be an issue with a speaker at the beginning of act 2.  It was perplexing.  But luckily it was over quick.

     So again, Bravi tutti!  Yesterday was a great day at the opera.  I am anxious to hear what next year's schedule will include.  Well done Winter Opera!