Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ratty Lohengrin

Hans Neuenfels’s Bayreuth Festival Lohengrin has become an improbably beloved production. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Lohengrin is justifiably the most popular performance of the festival and the score sounds amazing in the space, even though it predated the Festspielhaus. But the production: famous for its chorus of rats, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be remembered for one weird image, put into a collective Strange Opera photo album along with Neuenfels’s Nabucco with bees and that Bieito Ballo that no one can get over. Instead it became an almost instant classic. In part it is memorable for the rats’ indexicality, yet the rats are not only an image but a compelling idea. And while the rats would seem to preclude the romantic knight in shining armor aspect of this opera, that’s not really what happens.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Tales of Herheim at the Bregenz Festival

If you’re one of those people who fill comment sections with impassioned arguments about different editions of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, has Stefan Herheim ever got something for you. (If you aren’t, you’ll find plenty to like too.) This production, which premiered on Thursday night at the Bregenz Festival, is not an attempt to create a definitive, authentic edition of one of the most convoluted operas in the repertoire. It’s about what’s at stake in such a search for authenticity--about subject and object, what it means to control and/or love someone, and whether we ever can escape our own heads.

And rarely has the search for the true self looked so much like a twisted Busby Berkeley musical!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Big Bregenz Turandot


The Bregenz Festival’s main attraction is an opera performed on a stage anchored in Lake Constance (in it!) to a huge amphitheater. They’re probably best known for their appearance in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. That may not sound like a setup for quality musicianship or aesthetic risk-taking, but you might be surprised--that Tosca glimpsed in the Bond movie is actually pretty interesting if you watch the whole thing and nightly something approximating the Wiener Symphoniker is in the pit. (Note: not actually a pit.) Nothing against Verona, but this ain’t Verona.

Not quite, that is. There’s plenty of fire juggling as well. Bregenz wobbles between the largest, heaviest Regietheater you will ever see and the Cirque de Soleil-type spectacle the dramatic setting and mass audience suggests. New intendant Elisabeth Sobotka seem acutely aware of the challenge; in an interview in the festival’s own publicity she calls their Andrea Chénier of a few years ago an artistic triumph but very difficult financially, while she simply calls the most recent production, of Zauberflöte, very economically successful, leaving its artistic virtues or lack thereof tactfully undescribed.

This tension is acutely visible in their new production of Turandot, which opened on Wednesday night. Director Marco Arturo Marelli tries to problematize the opera’s exotic cake and eat it too. While at times he succeeds by brute force, the result is mild indigestion.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Abandon all hope with Christian Gerhaher

 In Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a small group of actors and musicians wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape, bringing music and theater to an, empty land. Such is also the world of David Bösch’s dark, sad production of Monteverdi's L’Orfeo, now in its first revival at the Bayerische Staatsoper, again with baritone Christian Gerhaher in an unusual star turn. While not explicitly post-apocalyptic, it is nonetheless a desolate, nocturnal version of our reality--one even the perky, ukulele-carrying spirit of Music fails to brighten.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Picnic in the Harem, or, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne


My trip to the UK has been a weird crash course in postcolonial studies. First I saw Lakmé, a veritable celebration of British colonialism, in posh Holland Park, at an opera house whose tickets contain a note about where to position your pre-opera picnic. Then I went to Glyndebourne, an elaborate imperial picnic venue which also happens to perform opera. And there I saw, of all things, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an older and less Britain-centric exotic relic, but, still. (Then there was Guillaume Tell, which was less site specific.)

Rest assured that I did not plan this--but, since the other operas on at present include Falstaff and Aida, I likely would have ended up in the same place even if my choices had been somewhat different.

Anyway, I arrived in Glyndebourne with my friend and our picnic and I enjoyed the gardens and sheep and the fancy dresses of everyone else who was out in rural England for opera in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. It really is a beautiful and relaxing setting. I don’t think that Calixto Bieito’s Entführung (an example I use altogether too frequently but what else would work here?) would be at home. It’s not that provocation and leisure are incompatible, and the Glyndebourne model in fact offers ample time for reflection. But, on another level, how pleasant does your sex slavery Singspiel have to be for it to go with your picnic?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Guillaume Tell in London

"Staging opera means interpreting a score’s ambiguities, and each performance must bridge the space between operatic history and the present. Inevitably, modern anxieties and prejudices fill the gaps. And few issues are more personal and contentious than the representation of rape."

I wrote about the Royal Opera's production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell for the New York Times. You can read my piece there, or in the July 19 Arts and Leisure section.

photo copyright Clive Barda

Bells, flowers, Lakmé

As I read the plot summary of Lakmé, waiting to get to the Bell Song and the Flower Duet, I checked off boxes: exotic setting, a rebellious daughter/temple priestess/goddess (?) with a religious fanatic father, English colonialists. Totally typical for later nineteenth-century French opera, but also total red meat Regie bait. Despite its two very popular Opera Moments, Lakmé is rarely performed in toto. Had anyone done the obvious and updated it in a rather noisy and political way? Or even staged it in a moderately contemporary fashion? So I went to see Lakmé at Opera Holland Park with great curiosity.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Orninthology: "Yardbird" in Philadelphia

That Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s new Charlie Parker opera, should begin with its famous subject’s death is not surprising. Opera is often fixated on greatness and endings. Like Oscar, Opera Philadelphia's other new opera this season, Yardbird concerns not its celebrity protagonist’s achievements but rather his legacy and renown. The subject—Oscar Wilde or, in this case, Parker—is a kind of synecdoche for American regional opera as a whole. His cultural authority is asserted rather than argued. His creations lie in the past while his descendents squabble over ownership of his life.

It’s a shame that this opera doesn’t work dramatically, because musically there is much to enjoy, and the performance is excellent.

Friday, May 29, 2015

TB is cured—La traviata in London

I spent last weekend in London at a seminar discussing canon formation in opera. When, how, and why have some operas become canonic while others have not? Who gets to decide? It’s a complicated question (and one we will attempt to tackle in a book). But it was only fitting that while I was in town I saw La traviata, today one of the most canonic of all operas. (The other operas on were, go figure, La bohème and Carmen, but my schedule precluded attending either of those.)

I love Traviata, but I’ve seen it a million times. It’s the kind of opera that I go to see if a singer or conductor or the production particularly appeals to me, or if I feel like I just want that nice familiar feeling (that's canonicity from an audience's perspective). In this case,  the novelty wasn't the production: the Royal Opera House has trotted out this Richard Eyre production on the regular for more than 20 years. It was actually my first experience of Traviata, in the form of the DVD with Angela Gheorghiu; I’d never seen it live before. I signed up because I wanted to see Sonya Yoncheva, because she’s the latest hot singer and when it comes to hot singer bandwagons I am eager to hop on (or tell you that you should not hop on) as early as possible. (In this case I arguably already missed the boat.) She cancelled and her replacement was Marina Rebeka, a singer I’ve heard before and think is only OK. Bummer.

I probably should have given Marina Rebeka slightly more credit. Technically speaking she is an extremely accomplished singer: exceptionally accurate and possessed of the wide arsenal of skills to sing all three acts of Violetta with equal strength. Her coloratura was good in Act 1’s “Sempre libera” (and she sang the final interpolated E-flat), she’s plenty loud in Act 2’s dramatic outbursts, and she’s tasteful and graceful enough for Act 3’s letter aria. Her sound is slightly metallic with a dark sheen, attractive if not immediately memorable. As an actress, she did all the production asked her to do. The problem was that she is not gifted in showing us her character’s inner life. Most obviously, she did very little to suggest Violetta’s illness until Act 3 and even there it was rather spotty. For all its accomplishment, her performance remained curiously unmoving.

The last time I wrote about Traviata I was dealing with Natalie Dessay, a singer whose vocal fragility at times merged with her character’s bodily decay. Dessay was obviously dancing on the edge, pushing her voice places it didn’t want to go. That was a dangerous game and musically there was a price to pay. But her performance had an undeniable depth, even tragedy, which Rebeka’s heartiness never approached. This isn’t an either/or proposition--vocal health is, in general, a good thing and it didn’t really get in, say, Anja Harteros’s way--but it’s nonetheless an interesting question. Rebeka’s vocal wholesomeness ended up being, well, a symptom of her larger disinterest in vocal acting. Your voice doesn’t need to be falling apart, but you need to somehow use it to suggest your character is. A production this bland needs a stronger presence at its center.

Rebeka didn’t really have any help from Marc Minkowski in the pit, who made the fast parts very fast and the slow parts extra, extra slow. He did, however, in his customary HIP fashion, open up many of the opera’s customary cuts, including all the cabalettas (it felt like some of the cabalettas had their own cabalettas) and the second verses of “Ah! fors’è lui” and “Addio del passato.” His prelude was the quietest and slowest I’ve ever heard, a very thin thread of sound which eased into the (still slow) waltz. Later in Act 1 there were some unfortunate coordination issues with the chorus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ismael Jordi was an energetic, bouncing Alfredo. His voice is bright and fresh and also kind of uneven. At times he micromanages his phrasing and color to discontinuous effect, he bops between registers, and his intonation wasn’t always accurate. That being said, all the effort Rebeka didn’t expend, he definitely did. My pick of the cast might have been Franco Vassallo’s Gérmont, to which he gave a highly sympathetic interpretation. He’s got a real Italian sound and made the text sound more spontaneous than any of his castmates.

I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about the production, which is itself locally canonic. It’s not, however, particularly iconic; the most well-known image is probably Violetta’s Act 2 Scene 2 dress (right). It’s nineteenth-century period, the sets are relatively spare (lots of circular elements), and if you are looking for a symbolic interpretation of the gypsies and bullfighters you are definitely barking up the wrong production. I don't think this production invented the so-called “victory lap,” in which Violetta takes a triumphant jog around the stage before she dies, but given Rebeka’s blooming health I think it’s safe to say that this was not its most cathartic iteration.

The production continues for 200 more performances this spring and summer and another 750 next season. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.)

I will be back at the ROH in July for Guillaume Tell. As much as I like London this again has far more to do with academic conferences than anything else. Why aren’t there more conferences in Berlin? But first I will be seeing Yardbird back home in Philadelphia, where I have already returned.
Verdi, La traviata. Royal Opera House, 5/25/15. Production by Richard Eyre (nth revival), conducted by Marc Minkowski with Marina Rebeka (Violetta), Ismael Jordi (Alfredo), Franco Vasallo (Gérmont)
photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/ROH

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rake progresses at Curtis

Often I dislike schtick in opera staging. A mannered, heightened non-reality frequently leads to cliché: a reliance on a narrow vocabulary of gestures and expressive possibilities and thus a fussy and old-fashioned style of opera. I’d rather see something new and real. But there are many exceptions and I think Stravinsky and Auden's The Rake’s Progress is one of the few operas where some sense of schtick is sort of necessary. Because this is a postmodern piece, an opera which operates self-consciously and at a degree of remove from itself. It dryly, dispassionately, brutally enacts cliché in the form of musical forms, styles, and plot devices long thought dead. That ain’t recitative. That’s ironic recitative.

With Rake, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. And when you collapse those layers the result isn’t very interesting. Such is the result of this Curtis Opera Theater production, at least, probably the first disappointing production I’ve seen from this formidable school. I admit that this was the first time I’d seen Rake live in a theater (I would have liked to see the Met production but my giant pile of grading forbade it), so my experience is rather limited. But while the production was musically quite rewarding, something was a little off.

Jordan Fein’s production rarely stops moving and tells the story in good style. But it also openly courts sympathy and humanity in a way that is difficult to reconcile with this cold, dry text and its angular music--or at least one that didn’t quite come off. It’s hard to feel much for a character stupid enough to believe, as Tom Rakewell does, in a machine that turns rocks into bread. But the principals act with relative naturalism, their action less tightly controlled and carefully choreographed than, say, last fall’s manic Gianni Schicchi

Amy Rubin’s attractive unit set provides one surreal element, a single unchanging room whose curtains occasionally billow inwards, propelled by some sinister wind. (This and the staging also suggest that the whole thing might have been a dream. Which, as a Konzept, doesn't really pass.) Assorted chairs and tables make up the rest of the set; Ásta Hostetter’s colorful costumes are also on the schticky side, particularly among the chorus, who are characterized with broader strokes. Anne Trulove, appropriately, remains steadfast in the same dress for the whole opera. (Sorry, I haven't found any photos.)

Anne is the character who comes off best here, though I suspect that is often true. Rachel Sterrenberg has a sweet and light soprano which carries well. The character doesn’t have a lot of depth--such is the peril of attempting a straight-faced staging of a postmodern piece--but Sterrenbrg made her sincere and honest. In the title role, French-Canadian tenor Jean-Michel Richer sounded very impressive: a substantial, musical lyric tenor which sounds destined for Faust and Alfredo. His tone is a little denser and, er, richer than one might expect to hear in English-language rep. The effect was not at all bad, though in a few places his English was. But there are more standard rep operas in French than in English, after all. As Nick Shadow, Thomas Shivone was loud and deep but occasionally sounded more buffo than menacing; the staging didn’t really help him out with the menace either. Lauren Eberwein was a glam, silent film-star style Baba the Turk (who didn’t seem to deserve the treatment she got) and made every work intelligible--even though the text-setting in this opera intentionally confounds intelligibility. (I saw one of two casts; I was there on Saturday night.)

Curtis doesn’t train choral singers, and the chorus was made up of a small number of obvious soloists (only around 10). The result was poorly blended and not great, and there is a fair amount of choral singing here. The orchestra, however, was much improved over March’s Ariadne, and Mark Russell Smith’s conducting kept things taut and energized.

Not Curtis’s best, but nonetheless an impressive showing for any school.
Stravinsky and Auden, The Rake's Progress. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, 3/9/15.