Friday, December 31, 2010

Seattle Opera 2011-2012 season

Well, the season announcement has been made, and I was 80% correct in my previous post.

The summer production, from July 30 to August 20, will be Porgy and Bess, with Gordon Hawkins and Lisa Daltirus in the lead roles, with John DeMain conducting.

Carmen will play from October 15 to 29, with Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen, and Joseph Calleja, returning five years after his local debut, as Don Jose. This will not be a revival of the production from 2004, but a production borrowed from Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

From January 14 to 28 will be the Seattle debut of Verdi's Attila with John Relyea in the title role, Antonello Palombi as Foresto, Ana Lucrecia Garcia as Odabella and Marco Vratogna as Ezio. If the pictures on the Seattle Opera website are any indication, this looks to be a modernized production.

Orpheus and Eurydice by Gluck will play from February 25 - March 10, the one opera I didn't guess. It's the tenor version of the opera with William Burden as Orpheus, Davinia Rodriguez as Eurydice and Julianne Gearhart as Amore.

The season ends with Madama Butterfly from May 5 - 19. Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco make their local debuts in the lead roles.

I can't say that I'm particularly thrilled by the choice of operas--however, the high quality of singers for the season does interest me.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Seattle Opera, next season

Normally, Seattle Opera announces the next season in early January, so the 2011-12 announcement is probably only a couple of weeks away.

But usually, it's possible to figure out, from here and there, what they are planning on presenting. However, this time it's been more difficult than usual to figure out their plans in advance.

Originally, the 2011 summer opera was to have been Tannhäuser, a work not seen in Seattle since the 1984-85 season (Speight Jenkins' inaugural season with the company, as a matter of fact). And the title role was to have been played by Christopher Ventris, Seattle's 2003 Parsifal, in his role debut. However, apparently the production has been cancelled. Instead of Wagner, we will be getting Gershwin: Porgy and Bess, last seen in Seattle in 1995.

The January 2012 production will be Verdi--one of his rarer works at that: Attila, the first time it's been performed by the company. Antonello Palombi, last season's Manrico, will take the tenor role of Foresto.

And in October, March, and May? I actually don't know. I'm pretty confident that Madama Butterfly will be one of the works performed, and Carmen is a very likely pick as well. I'd expect that the remaining fifth opera will also be one of the standard canon as well: likely possibilities include Fidelio, Tales of Hoffmann, Elisir d'amore, and Don Pasquale. Rigoletto is less likely, as they are already performing a Verdi work, and the last time they did it, it bombed at the box office. It's unlikely they'll do two Puccini operas in one season, so that eliminates Turandot. It's been a long time since Seattle Opera has done Faust, but Speight Jenkins is on record as hating that opera, so I can't see him programming it in one of his last seasons as the company's director. Maybe they'll surprise us with a mainstage debut of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream (based on the interesting production Peter Kazaras did with the Young Artists Program back in 2009).

Anyway, my guesses for 2011-12's five operas are:
  • Porgy and Bess
  • Attila
  • Madama Butterfly
  • Carmen
  • L'elisir d'amore
Check back in a couple of weeks and see how I did!

Friday, December 10, 2010

La fanciulla del West (Metropolitan Opera DVD), 1992

Giacomo Puccini's horse opera was first performed 100 years ago today, December 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. To mark the occasion, I thought it would be fitting to watch the DVD of the Met production which was premiered in 1991. The same production has been revived and is currently being performed in New York--next month, the Met will do an HD theatre broadcast of the opera.

I love La fanciulla del West. I think it's Puccini's best opera for reasons both musical and dramatic. By 1910, Puccini's skill at composing atmospheric orchestral and vocal music was greater than it had ever been. For an opera set in Gold Rush-era California, Puccini composed music evoking the vast open spaces of the new country--in the opening moments of Act 3, there are some notes from the brass that sound Coplandesque--although Aaron Copland himself, born in 1900, would have been in short pants at the time this opera was composed.

However, this music is unfairly neglected. After composing four operas (Manon Lescaut, La boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly) that seem to consist of almost nothing but one hit tune after another, he then composed five that had almost none: in Fanciulla del West, La rondine, Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, there are maybe three famous arias: "Ch'ella me creda", "Che il bel sogno di Doretta", and "O mio babbino caro." Not until Turandot did Puccini become a hitmaker again.

The problem is, Fanciulla's arias are so connected with the drama that it's hard to sing them as separate excerpts: the tenor's Act 2 aria "Or son sei mesi" is, I am convinced, one of the most dramatic arias Puccini ever composed: its heartfelt anguish blows away the cheap tenorial whining in Cavaradossi's "E lucevan le stelle." (For the record, I really really hate Tosca.)

Certainly anyone who thinks Fanciulla is unmelodic should note the case of Mr. Andrew Lloyd Webber. The one and only good tune from his grotesque musical The Phantom of the Opera (the 'hook' from "Music of the Night") was taken directly from Fanciulla del West--it starts off as a waltz tune in Act 1, and turns into a love theme that is used to great effect in Acts 1 and 2, and eventually turned into an almost hymn-like tune of redemption and sadness in the final act. The Puccini estate quite rightly sued Webber (at the time, the opera was still under copyright) who paid an undisclosed settlement for his misuse of the melody Puccini created.

But enough of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Besides the music of Fanciulla del West, I also love the drama itself. The opera is occasionally compared to Tosca, and there are superficial similarities: the soprano loves the tenor, the tenor is in trouble, the baritone lusts after the soprano and wants to kill the tenor and, scarily, has the weight of the law on his side. But while Floria Tosca was a whiny little self-pitying brat, Minnie is a strong, independent woman who loves her friends and does her best to help and protect the people she loves. While Cavaradossi is a self-righteous artist (the worst sort of self-righteous person), Ramerrez is a criminal who recognize his evil deeds and is desperately trying to make himself a better person. While Scarpia is, essentially, a complete monster, Sheriff Jack Rance is a harsh, angry, lonely and wildly unhappy person who, unlike Scarpia, keeps his promise, and loses like a gentleman. There is no perfectly good and no perfectly evil character in Fanciulla's universe.

The end of the opera is a true rarity in Puccini: a genuinely happy ending. No one dies, and Minnie and Ramerrez leave forever, not in despair or in a spirit of cynicism, but in one of hope for the future. The real climax of the opera comes in the miner Sonora's big moment near the end when he sings the now transformed Act 1 waltz tune as the miners, won over by Minnie's love and Ramerrez's genuine repentance, let them go to start a new life. For once, Puccini can bring tears to viewers eyes without killing off a soprano. It's a wonderfully cathartic moment.

The Metropolitan Opera DVD, recorded in April 1992, is a glorious performance of the opera. Leonard Slatkin, normally best-known as a symphonic rather than an operatic conductor, brings a freshness to a performance, not to mention performing some bits that are usually cut from performance (Sadly the extended version of the Act 2 tenor-soprano duet was not kept in). The production was originally meant to star Eva Marton, however, between the time that the production was planned and it was actually staged, Marton and the Met Opera management had a falling out, and she left the company for several years. Instead, Barbara Daniels, a singer not often recorded, plays the difficult role of Minnie. She manages the high-lying dramatic lines well, and portrays a tomboyish Minnie, fiercely protective of the miners and later, of Ramerrez.

Sherrill Milnes, near the end of his career here, is Jack Rance, authoritative and violent. But even Rance is human, and Milnes' portrayal of Rance's disbelieving shock of losing the poker game in Act 2 is shattering. The director, Gian-Carlo del Monaco, cannily has Rance be the first and last character seen onstage in the opera.

And Placido Domingo, age 51 at the time this was recorded, was in his late career prime. These performances may, in fact, have been the last performances of this opera that he ever sang: it's not an easy role. His tone is burnished, his high notes, while secure, are just slightly insecure enough to make the performance sound dangerous. (In fact, I believe in the radio broadcast of the opera, one of his high notes was muffed, so the sound of the video may have been fixed in the studio slightly).

Kim Josephson, who has gone on to sing the larger role of Rance elsewhere, is a friendly, mellifluous Sonora. Dwayne Croft, near the beginning of his career here is Larkens (he currently sings Sonora in the Met revival).

The sets and costumes by Michael Scott are very realistic and beautiful, making use of California's mountains and, in the final act, a ghost town. Del Monaco's production emphasizes, I think, the spirit of redemption heard throughout the opera.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Madama Butterfly (San Francisco Opera), November 11

This performance marks my fifth opera attended in seven days. Even for someone who likes opera as much as I do, that's a bit much.

So, a moratorium on opera for me. No more opera attendance for one week. That'll show me.

So, Madama Butterfly. According to OPERA America's research, it is the most-frequently performed opera in the USA. It's also the most widely performed opera with American characters, although I doubt if patriotism is the reason for its popularity, as we don't come out of it looking all that well.

I've actually gone many years myself since I last saw Butterfly in the theatre. Not that I'm actively avoiding it, like I do Tosca. But I don't go out of my way to watch it.

San Francisco's current production of the opera is a revival of the well-known Harold Prince production. This production's (staged by Jose Maria Condemi) main conceit is the use of kuroko: the "invisible" stagehands dressed in black in full view of the audience. Additionally, the set (designer Clarke Dunham) is cleverly placed on a rotating stage, adding to the illusion that the opera is being performed in a house on a hill outside Nagasaki.

Kate Pinkerton actually comes off a bit more sympathetic than usual in this production, although B. F. is still a colossal jerk.

The Butterfly for this performance was Daniela Dessi, currently one of the top sopranos in this world in this particular repertoire. Early on in the opera, it sounded as though she were husbanding her resources--her entrance aria sounded rather tentative, though the love duet with Pinkerton was all right. "Un bel di" sounded a bit on the wan side, though "Che tua madre" and her death scene were very powerful.

Stefano Secco, heard last June as Gounod's Faust, was Pinkerton. He certainly sang all of Pinkerton's notes and portrayed his callow nature well, though the sound of his voice was a little thin to my taste. Daveda Karanas was a warm, ingratiating Suzuki, while Quinn Kelsey was a richly-sung, avuncular Sharpless.

The orchestra was conducted by Julian Kovatchev, a Bulgarian maestro making his debut in this production. The orchestra sounded just fine to me, particularly the one key moment for me: near the end, when Butterfly commands Suzuki to go outside and play with the child, there is a suddent, almost shocking orchestra fortissimo. Maestro Kovatchev sold that moment as well as I've ever heard it. The offstage chanting of the sailors during the Act II, Scene 2 Entr'acte was much quieter than I like, but that's purely a matter of personal taste.

The program notes reveal that he will be conducting this opera in Seattle (Seattle's next season hasn't been officially announced yet, but Butterfly is an easy guess, as it hasn't been performed there for a decade), so I guess I'll be hearing from him again soon.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Makropulos Case (San Francisco Opera), November 10

Honestly, there's not a whole lot of genre operas. The vast majority are tragedies (often very melodramatic ones) or comedies (usually very farcical ones). There are some historical dramas, some fairytales, a tiny handful of horror stories... and believe it or not, some science fiction.

The Makropulos Case
by Leos Janacek is probably the greatest of all Science Fiction operas. The work originated with one of the fathers of science fiction, Karel Capek, best-known today for taking the Czech word "robot" and applying it to mechanical men in his play R.U.R. In The Makropulos Case, Capek explored the practicalities of immortality and a fountain of youth. The original play was a comedy (and there are plenty of humorous moments in the opera), but while the original play had Emilia Marty/Elena Makropulos laugh off the destruction of the Makropulos formula and go to live off whatever years she had remaining as a regular mortal, Janacek devised a grander, a more operatic conclusion to the story: Emilia's death is a regular coup de theatre.

San Francisco Opera is a leading exponent of Janacek's opera, having staged the American premiere of the work in 1966, with major revivals in 1976 and 1993. San Francisco's Emilias have been Marie Collier, Anja Silja and Stephanie Sundine.

And now add Karita Mattila to the list. Miss Mattila has had an amazing career, from her victory at the first ever Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 1983. Now a veteran soprano, she has left behind many of the lyrical roles of her earlier career for more dramatic ones, particularly in the works of Strauss and Janacek. The Makropulos Case is Miss Mattila's third Janacek opera, and it's probably the right time in her career for it. The role requires a singer of some gravitas and experience (not to mention charisma), but also a singer with undiminished vocal agility, particularly for the high tessitura of her final scene.

I imagine that she will be singing the role everywhere in the near future. It suits her vocally, and it gives her a chance to be glamorous in a way that few operatic roles do.

In face, she will almost certainly be singing in this production again in the future: the new production was co-produced with the National Opera of her native Finland. Director Olivier Tambosi added some interesting touches to the staging: there were implications early on that Emilia can tell that her death is near--that there is something obviously wrong with her body. In a touch that I didn't particularly care for, in Act 2, she rolled around on the ground with Hauk-Sendorf. Yes, sure, he's one of her few good memories, but what's she trying to do, give the guy a heart attack?

Frank Philipp Schlossmann
, the designer, set each of the three acts to one side of the rotating stage--the main feature on each set was a giant clock (incidentally, the clocks were set to the (correct) current local time). The law office featured huge bookshelves on a gleaming steel wall (I did get nervous as Vitek climbed up the ladder and sang--it was in exactly that position that Richard Versalle died onstage while singing the role of Vitek at the Met premiere of Makropulos in 1996). The second act featured some chairs and a dressing table in front of a black and silver curtain. The third act set consited of a bed at the foot of a curving corridor--the whole set looking like a pen and ink drawing featuring a lot of hatching.

The costumes were quite elegant, particularly Miss Mattila's. Her Act 1 and 3 dresses were diva-worthy. Oddly, in Act 2, she was costumed as Pierrot, which made me think that you could cast most of Lulu using the Makropulos cast: Emilia as Lulu, Gregor as the Painter, Prus as Dr. Schon, Kolenaty as Schigolch and Janek as Alwa. Although that leaves out Vitek and Krista, and who will be Geschwitz. But that's just silly talk.

Onto the singing: Mattila singing was strong and secure throughout, with her trademark lush tone. She's the rare diva who is a great artist who sings beautifully always. Gerd Grochowski, Baron Prus, while not particularly distinctive of voice, did present a menacing, dramatic figure throughout. It really would be interesing to hear his Dr. Schon. Miro Dvorsky sang Albert Gregor with a rather plaintive, character tenor sort of voice. Dale Travis as Dr. Kolenaty had one of the more difficult assignments in the opera: he has huge amounts of text to sing in not very much time. Though there's little chance for lyric beauty in the role, he did at least not bark.

Jiri Belohlavek
coaxed some lovely string playing from the San Francisco Opera orchestra. I imagine that several of the instrumentalists are veterans from the last time the opera was produced, when the orchestra was conducted by the late Sir Charles Mackerras, well-known as a Janacek expert, in whose memory the new production was dedicated.

Cyrano de Bergerac (San Francisco Opera), November 9

Time for me to wax nostalgic. Fortunately, I received a case of Nostalgia Wax for my most recent birthday.

December 1990 was when I first attended the opera: that means I am just shy of having my 20th anniversary as a full-fledged opera fan.

1990, you'll remember, was also the year that a famous concert took place at the Baths of Caracalla, Rome. While the "Three Tenors" concerts would eventually turn practically into self-parody, the original concert featured some fine singing, and good-natured camaraderie between Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo.

At the time, I had heard of all three singers before, but assumed that, since he was the most famous, Pavarotti had to be the best. However, after watching the tape time and time again, I realized that Domingo, with his rich, almost baritonal tenor, was my favorite of the three.

Twenty years later: Pavarotti has passed away. Carreras is still singing, although I haven't heard of him performing on stage. And Domingo is still going strong. Lucky for me, because, although I've heard him in recording after recording, broadcast after broadcast, video after video... I never was able to see him perform in person.

However, I was very happy to learn that San Francisco Opera's Fall 2010 season would include Maestro Domingo, for the first time since 1994, in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac. And so I finally got my chance to hear my favorite living tenor.

Now Cyrano is not a commonly-performed opera--at least, it wasn't until about five years ago or so. Premiered in 1935, it was almost totally forgotten until Domingo started persuading opera companies to stage it. And Domingo is maybe the one singer in the world who has enough clout, box-office and otherwise, to have works staged for him.

Franco Alfano, the composer, is best-known for his usually-excerpted completion of Turandot, though he composer a number of other operas, notably Risurrezione and La legenda de Sakuntala. Alfano composes in a refined, chromatic idiom that seems more indebted to Massenet than to Puccini. Appropriate then that Alfano should take a French subject, with a French libretto, and a librettist, Henri Cain, who also provided several libretti for Massenet. The opera is a straightforward adaptation of Rostand's play, though with much of the detail removed.

San Francisco Opera's production of the opera was originally staged by the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, and very lavishly too, it would seem (sets by Petrika Ionesco). The first act, set backstage in a theatre presents a theatre with wonderful 17th-century stage equipment and costumes, while Ragueneau’s bake shop in the second act is equally as opulent. Spectacular cavalier costumes all around: the opera looked great (costumes by Lili Kendaka).

The staging, also by Petrika Ionesco, was a bit confusing at times: it was easy to mix characters up (Anthony Burgess had the right idea when he fused Carbon and Le Bret into a single character. Still, the staging of the two key scenes--the balcony scene and Cyrano's death--were simple and effective.

And with the singers, starting at the top: this is a great role for Placido Domingo, which suits his voice and theatrical temperament perfectly. Even twenty years ago, he had some trouble with the high notes: Cyrano has a lower tessitura and shows off his golden tone and mastery of legato. He also did a fine job acting the role of the emotionally fragile swordsman.

Soprano Ainhoa Arteta who, it could be said, was a Domingo discovery, was the lovely Roxane, singing with a strong spinto soprano. Christian is a tenor in this opera (it makes sense--otherwise, in the balcony scene, how could Roxane believe that Cyrano is Christian?)  Christian was played by Thiago Arancam: well-cast in that he cut a handsome figure onstage and because his tenor has some of the same rich, baritonal qualities as Domingo's.

Of the large remaining cast, the one singer who made the biggest impression was Stephen Powell as De Guiche. Powell was convincing as a truly nasty villain as well as his change of heart late in the third act. He has a fine baritone. The conductor, making his San Francisco debut in this production was Patrick Fournillier.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hansel and Gretel (Portland Opera), November 7

There's two ways to present a fairy tale: the saccharine way and the Roald Dahl way. The saccharine way involves bowdlerizing the story, removing any content that a prudish adult might find objectionable, and adapting it for the zeitgeist.

The Roald Dahl way--well, I shouldn't call it that. Roald Dahl was not the first to write gruesome stories for children, and he wasn't the last, either. But it's a useful name to call it: when I say 'Roald Dahl', it conjures up images of horror, and children in dangerous situations, right? (If you don't recognize the name, please read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.)

For many, many years, Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel was subjected to the saccharine stagings: it was an excuse to put a giant gingerbread house on stage, put a mezzo in a pair of lederhosen, and recycle the local ballet company's props from The Nutcracker. But more recently, it's getting reimagined, and the Richard Jones production of the work currently being shown in Portland, previously seen in New York, at the Welsh National Opera, and other companies, is already the most famous reimagining.

Jones presents this opera as being about that most primal drive: for food. Hansel and Gretel's family is starving, and there are references in the text throughout to their hunger complaints, their desire to eat, and so on. Perhaps the point is laid on a bit thick (as the overture plays, a drop featuring a picture of an empty plate is spotlit), but it's certainly a valid point for the director to make.

The first act is set in a tiny, barren, but modern house, using only a fraction of the proscenium--most of it is curtained off. While Hansel (Sandra Piques Eddy) and Gretel's (Maureen McKay) hijinks are not all that different from a conventional production, the mother's (Elizabeth Byrne) anger at the children is all the most disturbing from being similar to public scenes that most of us have seen of parents on the edge disciplining their children in public. When the father (Weston Hurt) returns his drunkenness (and fit of anger where he threatens to hit his wife) are also disturbingly modern and all of a piece of our time.

The second act is set in a barren room: the only trees to be seen are a handful of supers dressed up as trees. There is also a long dining room table in the middle of the set. The Sandman (Daryl Freedman) is a creepy puppet manipulated by its singer, and when the siblings sing their famous prayer, rather than a vision of angels, they receive a vision of fourteen chefs presenting a gala dinner to the two poor children.

The witch's den in the final act is the creepiest set of all: an industrial kitchen, it looks similar to what you might imagine a serial killer's den to be like--that is, after all, what this opera's witch (Allan Glassman) is. Ultimately, the cake that the witch is baked into is eaten by all and sundry--I rather doubt that cannibalism is the usual end of this opera.

It's a very clever, very interesting production, and it really works in making the story a little scary again.

The Gretel of this production is as unconventional as the production itself: Miss McKay's portrayal is that of a massive tomboy, unlike the goody two-shoes portrayal the character is sometimes saddled with. Miss Eddy's Hansel is almost surprisingly boyish--at the end, it's surprising how easily she fits in with the boys of the children's chorus. Both sang well.

Miss Byrne, a soprano with serious Wagner experience was very musical, accurate, and dramatic as the mother. Mr. Hurt's drunkenness was realistic without any of the vaudevillian about it.

Stealing the show was Mr. Glassman as the witch, who was got up like a cross between Julia Child and Ignatius J. Reilly. Though I think casting a tenor in the role is a little gimmicky, and I believe a mezzo can bring a sense of urgency to the witch's music that a tenor can't, I certainly can't say anything against Mr. Glassman's performance.

In their cameo roles, Miss Freedman was scary as the Sandman, while Jennifer Forni seemed to be channeling the recently-deceased Barbara Billingsley as a Dew Fairy looking like a 50's TV sitcome housewife.

The production, originally by Richard Jones was staged locally by Benjamin Davis, using John Macfarlane's designs. Conductor Ari Pelto played up the Wagnerian music in the work, but did not drown out the singers.