An Idiosyncratic Opera Chronicle

I've been erratic about sustaining this blog for all kinds of reasons. Some time back I tried to start catching up, with reports on things from late last year. Here now is a chronological accounting of things operatic and quasi-operatic I've seen so far this year. It's an odd list, perhaps, partly because of my (to some, not to me) odd sensibility, partly because Volpe-planned productions at the Met mostly haven't moved me to attend, partly because the New York City Opera has gone away. Anyhow:

Jan. 5: Thais at the Met. Worth seeing, I thought, for Renee Fleming, who turned out to be in poor voice (from which she has reportedly recovered): acidic tone, pinched top notes. Thomas Hampson was excellent as Athanael; I guess slightly priggish pomposity suits him, but seriously, folks, he sounded solid and strong. Otherwise, a creaky, old-fashioned John Cox production from Chicago, laughably billed as new, hootchy-kootch galore.

Jan. 17: Celestial Excusions at La MaMa. Robert Ashley bills his wonderfully strange, poetically involving sing-song monologues to washes of electronic sound as operas, and if he says so, why not? Celestial Excursions was part of a trilogy of his more recent operatic endeavors at La MaMa, the other two being Dust and Made Out of Concrete. An acquired taste, but for those of us who have acquired it, a celestially lulling experience.

Jan. 31: The Death of Klinghoffer at the Juilliard School. The climax of Joel Sach's typically thought-provoking (if to my Bay Area taste rather too wide-ranging) survey of newish music from California, this first-class, semi-staged production, conducted by the composer, with cuts from Penny Woolcock's fine film restored and a strong "student" cast of near-professionals, made another honorable New York case for this opera. I put it that way because of the visceral Jewish neo-con hostility to it by a coterie of New York critics. Nixon in China will be at the Met soon and Dr. Atomic has come and gone there, but this one is still marginalized. In my long contemplation of the opera and its reception, dating from the world premiere, the New York objections, largely unique to this city, are that it's anti-Semitic and even if balanced it's anti-Semitic because the only good Arab is a dead Arab. Perhaps the critics would seek a more nuanced wording of their position, but my version is pretty close. For the rest of us, very much including most Jewish opera-lovers I know, balance is worth seeking, and the opera itself contains so much that is impassioned and elegiac and tragic that its semi-banishment from New York is close to a crime.

Feb. 4: Le Deserteur by Opera Lafayette at the Rose Theater. I don't walk out of many performances early, but I bagged this one by the Washington D.C.-based company after 20 minutes. Monsigny's deservedly obscure score was saddled with a so-coy-your-glands-hurt semi-staged production, and the musical performance seemed barely perfunctory.

Feb. 21: L'Isola Disabitata by the Gotham Chamber Opera at the John Jay College Theater. A fine performance, well sung and played with an imaginative choice of stage director. The problems were, first, that despite periodic efforts to revive his opera reputation, Haydn did not have the operatic gift: his works in that genre sound sound stiff and formulaic. And Mark Morris's production, confined to a cramped revolving island unit set, was worthy without in any way rising to the normal heights of his imagination, in opera or dance. 

March 1: Sarka at the Dicapo Opera Theatre. Janacek's first opera, a barn-burning heroic/legendary affair with tough, seductive lady warriors, proved well worth hearing. I went partly because Walter Sutcliffe, whom I don't know but who is the son of my friend Tom Sutcliffe, directed (he was also staging David McVicar's Trovatore production at the Met at the time). He did a bang-up job, miraculously making a small cast on a small stage convincingly convey the sweep and breadth of Janacek's vision. The singing and playing were excellent, too, starting with Kristin Sampson's Sarka. Rewarding on all counts.

March 15: Il Trovatore at the Met. See above re Walter Sutcliffe. McVicar's Goya-era production made colorful sense out of this sorta-senseless opera. I didn't hear either Salvatore Licitra, who pulled out as Manrico before the run began, or Marcelo Alvarez, but Philip Webb was decent enough in his big-bodied way (he transposed Di quelle pira down, but so reportedly had Alvarez). I also didn't hear Dolores Zajick, but Luciana D'Intino sang a forceful, idiomatic Azucena. Otherwise, Dmitiri Hvorostovsky was a noble, mellifluous, slightly wooly-voiced di Luna, and Sondra Radvanovsky, that all-American girl whose name sounds like a Russian import and who is the Leonora du jour worldwide, held up her end strongly. Gianandrea Noseda conducted briskly but convincingly. A good repertory-standards night at the Met, if you like that kind of thing.

April 1 and 8: Das Rheingold and Gotterdammerung at the Zurich Opera. Flanking my visit to the Salzburg Easter Festival I caught the beginning and end of Robert Wilson's several-years-old Ring in Zurich. The production, carefully restaged, has all the stylistic tradmarks/mannerisms of latter-day Wilson, but it works very well, about as close to Wieland Wagner's radiant minimalism as anyone has achieved since. What was otherwise impressive was the quality of the musical performance, which bodes well for the Salzburg's summer festival from 2011 on. Philippe Jordan, Armin's son, who is taking over the musical direction at the Paris Opera and who has not particularly impressed me in other repertory, was doing his first Rings and was first-rate, as was the orchestra. The cast was strong up and down the line, with the Latvian Egils Silins a fine Wotan, the veteran Rudolf Schasching a practiced, convincing Siegfried, Matti Salminen a scenery-chewing but amusingly powerful Hagen, Eva Johansson a visually and vocally strong Brunnhilde and the young Wiebke Lehmkuhl a discovery as Erda and the First Norn.

April 4: Siegfried at the Salzburg Easter Festival. The third fourth of my three-quarters European Ring came courtesy of Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. Ben Heppner dropped out of the title role, which removed a lot of the potential allure of the evening. Lance Ryan, who deserves all kinds of credit for leaping in on two days notice and mastering so much of Stephane Braunschweig's stage business, has received good notices; vocally, he struck me as pretty ordinary. The production was decent but no more and the rest of the cast was strong, especially Katarina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, though Anna Larsson's Erda, Stephen Milling's Fafner and Willard White's Wanderer were all fine, too.

April 5: La Resurrezione in Salzburg. The young Handel had operatic successes in Italy, but the Vatican forbade operas in Rome. La Resurrezzione is a sacred drama, an opera in all but name. Emmanuelle Haim led an honorable concert performance at the Mozarteum, but the long runs of arias (punctuated by the very occasional duet or ensemble) can be a plod for all concerned. Still the cast, headed by Kate Royal and Camilla Tilling, did nobly.

April 7: Die Sieben Todsunden in Salzburg. One of Rattle's Berlin Phil concerts included (along with Strauss's second horn concertro and Beethoven's fifth symphony) Weill and Brecht's semi-operatic, semi-terpsichoric Seven Deadly Sins. Stripped of staging and dance, this was notable for Angelika Kirschschlager's sweetly earnest effort to butch up her ingenue image into a hard-bitten Berlin dame. She did it well, and managed neatly to combine Lenya's shaky young soprano and leathery older contralto into a single vocal performance.

April 9: Marie Victoire at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. The German premiere of Respighi's opera, composed in 1912 and only first performed in Rome in 2004. A French Revolutionary verismo melodrama, this might seem a candidate for wider dissemination, especially after its effective second act. But by the end Respighi has piled on so much lurid business that the whole confection collapses. A clever, outwardly old-fashioned, inwardly sly production from the veteran Johannes Schaaf (which earned him some unfair boos) and a solid vocal performance from the big cast.

April 10: Armida at the Komische Oper, Berlin. I went because I had a free night (ditto April 9) and because I used to spend at lot of time at the Komische Oper when Walter Felsenstein was still with us and because I had never seen a production by the notorious Calixto Bieto. Gluck's music is stern and grand, even if the score was heavily cut, Caroline Melzer looked good and sang OK in the title role, and Konrad Junghanel conducted superbly. Bieto gave us tons of male nudity, avoided extreme silliness and managed a chilling final tableau, with the vengeful Armida on a catwalk triumphantly surveying the carnage below. Worth waiting around for that scene.

April 12: Shakespeare's Sonnets at the Berliner Ensemble. Robert Wilson's latest venture at Brecht's old theater (following his wildly successful Threepenny Opera a couple of years ago), this was quasi-operatic in that there were a bunch of sonnets set to music by Rufus Wainwright (songs, not the presumably more overtly operatic music he will unleash this summer in Manchester). The format was akin to Wilson's Fables de La Fontaine with the Comedie Francaise, though the sonnets don't lend themselves to extended dramatic treatment like the fables. Still, there was much to enjoy, not least Wilson's love for vivid old character actors, who blossom anew under his ministrations.

April 21: La Didone by the Wooster Group at the St. Ann's Warehouse, Brooklyn. Thiis was really another Wooster Group theatrical hybrid extravaganza more than a performance of Cavalli's opera, although the musical values went admirably unslighted. Elizabeth LeCompte, as is her wont, chose here to combine a Baroque opera about Dido and Aeneas with a cheesy Italian science fiction flic from the 1960's, Terrore nello spazio. The two plots dovetailed weirdly well, though to camp up the Cavalli is to undercut his intended seriousness. But the point was not Cavalli, nor Terrore, for that matter, but the Wooster Groups' cross-cultural cleverness, and clever they are.

End of chronicle. Now, tonight, it's off to this "scent opera" at the Guggenheim with Nico Muhly et al., Aromarama reborn!


June 1, 2009 12:09 PM |


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