Friday, September 30, 2016
Well, that didn’t last long. Just four months after closing out a triumphant Ring cycle that briefly made DC the envy of opera-goers across the country, Washington National Opera has launched its new season with an exceedingly safe, borrowed production of a repertoire chestnut. I suppose that’s not quite fair. WNO is solidly beyond the statute of limitations for reviving Marriage of Figaro, which hasn’t been seen here since 2010, and while this production (I saw the second outing on Saturday) is very much in DC’s comfort zone, the new season is devoting two out of five productions to recent compositions. Still, one couldn’t help but dwell on still-fresh memories of headier offerings in the opera house. On the plus side, this is a highly watchable show that takes pains to avoid the stodginess and self-seriousness that can turn Figaro into four hours of exquisite paint drying. Supported by a game cast of younger American singers, director Peter Kazaras’ inventive touch keeps the farce entertaining and endearing, generally without resorting to cheap laughs. He also keeps this Figaro largely untroubled by the work’s deeper currents and ideas. I bring this up not to imply that every Figaro production needs to be some psychosexual journey through the history of class relations, but it struck me Saturday that the other Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations now routinely serve as opportunities for more adventurous presentations by relatively “safe” companies, while conservative takes are still the default for Figaro. A bigger issue for this show is that, despite strong constituent parts, the musical picture never coheres in a fully satisfying way. In the pit, conductor James Gaffigan was admirably committed to matching the lighthearted tone of the direction and keeping any sense of drag at bay. Kicking things off with a bubbly overture, he frequently returned to exhilarating tempi throughout the night, all assisted by nimble, precise playing from the WNO Orchestra. Yet these ambitious tempi came at a cost. The ensembles should be just as powerful an engine of Figaro’s overall impact as the arias, but too often the cast here seemed to be trying to keep up, as in a nail-biting Act I finale. At other times, balances between the singers seemed haphazard, as in that gorgeous Act III ensemble after Figaro’s parentage is revealed. In the end there was much to dazzle in this reading, but also a feeling that crucial aspects of the score had received short shrift. Headliner Amanda Majeski did not disappoint in the Countess’s major showpieces, especially a captivating “Dove sono” in which her colorful, urgent soprano beautifully conveyed the Countess’ frustration and melancholy, eliciting the biggest audience response of the night. There was more to quibble with in the balance of her portrayal, which often felt like a relatively surface-level approach, and in her sometimes cursory contributions in the ensembles. Joshua Hopkins seemed headed for broad comedy in his initial entrance, serving us the Count as buffoonish lothario, complete with chest hair sight gag. But he promptly dialed this back and turned in one of the more complex portrayals among the leads, finding a comfortable balance between making the farce work and hinting at the darker undercurrents of the Count’s rage, including a penetrating “Hai già vinta.” Hopkins’ pleasant sound is perhaps a weight class lighter than what is really needed for a memorable reading of the Count’s music, but he compensates with intelligent attention to the text. DC audiences spent a lot of time with this production’s Figaro, Ryan McKinny, as both Donner and Gunther in the Ring. He has been singing more Wagner in the intervening months, taking on Amfortas in that controversial new Bayreuth Parsifal that sounded like it might give the old rabbit cadaver version a run for its money. McKinny is a charismatic performer, and his confident, virile Figaro often stole the show here, though times he came off as perhaps a bit too glib vis a vis the Count. For instance, the potential cuckold’s rage in Act IV’s “Tutto è disposto…” doesn’t really register if we have a hard time believing Figaro could find the Count threatening in the first place. McKinny’s velvety bass-baritone sounds great in Figaro’s music within a core range, though lower-lying passages proved a challenge. Lisette Oropesa made for a winning Susanna, though she had trouble vocally distinguishing herself for most of the evening, her clear soprano sometimes losing steam amidst the broader ensemble issues. A gentle, beautifully shaped “Deh vieni…” was a welcome counterpoint in Act IV. Aleksandra Romano brought a warm sound and anxious energy to Cherubino. “Non so più…” was a bit tentative and never really took flight, but “Voi che sapete…” and the charged ensuing Act II interaction with the Countess made a strong impression. Happily back at WNO after her celebrated turn as Fricka in the Ring, Elizabeth Bishop (Marcellina) was a standout on the crowded stage, easily elevating the comedy while her generous, distinctive voice soared in the ensembles. If you need a reason to open up the cut with Marcellina’s bonus track about goats, Bishop is it. Valeriano Lanchas’ commanding Bartolo cemented their duo as a key asset in this show; a robust “La vendetta” registering as one of the evening’s early musical highlights. Several of the current Domingo-Cafritz young artists made notable appearances as well, including Ariana Wehr lending a sweet, inviting soprano to Barberina and bass Timothy J. Bruno as a resonant, implacable Antonio. The production design, originally from Glimmerglass, is a solid example of what one might call “budget period whimsy.” The set, by Benoit Dugardyn, is organized around a colonnade of generic classical columns; flats with trompe l’oeil drapery between the columns define the interior spaces of the first and second acts, and are later removed to very attractive effect to create the more public spaces in the third and fourth acts. Mark McCullough’s lighting contributes a lovely transition from evening to night over the course of the second half. Garishly colored vaguely 18th century costumes by Myung Hee Cho try very hard to make sure you know you are having fun. Mostly these are par for the course, though occasionally one will cross the line into poor taste, as with the Pepto Bismol peignoir visited upon Majeski in the first half. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.
Macbeth has always been my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. One of the many reasons for this is that it is his most succinct (read: shortest) of all his works. The characters get right down to work immediately with their foul deeds. In my early days as an explorer of opera I was automatically drawn to Verdi’s work but since my introduction to the composer had been through his maturity after Un Ballo in Maschera, Aida, and Otello, it was difficult for me to wrap my head around this world of organ-grinder tunes with all this stopping, starting, and repeating. Only later after I had been exposed to Verdi’s middle-period along with a healthy dose of Donizetti and Bellini did I return to Macbeth with something approaching appreciation. Now with every new hearing I am fresh with wonder and admiration. Performances of Macbeth are fairly rare however, due to the fact that you need an intrepid soprano with lungs of leather and a heart of ice, to say nothing of a star baritone who’s able to sell out a theater. The later not being an issue since the Grand Seigneur of LA Opera, Placido Domingo, has begun his Macbeth World Tour. Starting in Seville with recent stops in Beijing and now opening the season at the Music Center and playing through October 16. Darko Tresnjak, who gave us a magnificent Ghosts of Versailles last year and whose Tony-winning Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder just played at the adjacent Ahmanson Theater on tour this summer, was asked back to give us his vision of Verdi’s early masterwork. The unit set co-designed by Colin McGurk and the director looked straight out of an Orson Welles 1930’s Federal Theater Project. The full front wall of a castle with an upper loggia and one central doorway below opened onto a playing area spanning the stage, fronted with stairs interspersed with pedestals. Its simplicity and versatility were a benefit as well as its ability to boost the singers voices into the normally dry expanses of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The chorus benefited from this especially and made an enormous impression just from sheer size of sound with not a little help from this acoustic shell that leaned discreetly forward. Costumes by Suttirat Anne Larlarb, who has worked on many of Danny Boyle’s films and designed the ensembles for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics, were exactly what I have always wanted to see for a performance of Macbeth. Excellent fabrics, dark velvets, even some furs clad the vaguely medieval populace with nothing exaggerated or overdone. Even the crowns for Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth were paragons of simplicity and restraint. Lighting by Matthew Richards worked hand in glove with the projections of Sean Nieuwenhuis. As the lights dimmed a chalk doorway appeared on the front curtain. It offered a vision into a foggy netherworld where you could barely make out text from the play. Later the lighting during the banquet scene was particularly nightmarish with an extraordinary moment when the ghost of Banquo disappeared and everything returned slowly to a reality of a clinical white/pale green glare. The only part of the staging that deviated from Verdi and Shakespeare’s conventions were Mr. Tresnjak’s addition of a herd of apparently unidentifiable beasts explained by one member of the critical establishment as “a cross between Goyaesque gargoyles and the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.” They crept about the stage, stirred the cauldron, and climbed its high walls in service of the witches who always stood in single file across the upper loggia. These creatures were also entrusted with the scene of the Apparition’ and the wildly inventive ballet, both of which garnered titters from the less sophisticated members of the audience. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of Macbeth (and this was my fourth) that gets the witches right and this was no exception but it was the closest I’ve come so far. That one quibble aside I lay all the glory for this performance at the feet of Music Director James Conlon. The LA Opera Orchestra ripped into this score with a ferocity and a technical skill that I have never heard before in an Verdi piece of this era. Conlon didn’t worry the music by getting over fussy with all of Verdi’s phantasmagorical effects. He landed each one, precisely judged and spontaneous sounding, and moved on. His tempos, especially the ensemble with Macbeth, Banquo, and the male chorus after the witches pronouncements and “Fatal mi donna” in Act I, were fast, with a real excitement that made you sit forward in your seat like you were suddenly afraid you were going to miss something. He always kept a cantabile quality to the score and the tempos always related so perfectly to each other you heard the echos of the through-composed style that Verdi would later champion. Playing from the strings and the woodwinds was huge and the horn section never put a foot wrong all night and were on point in the fugue right before the final battle. Arturo Chacón-Cruz was our Macduff and he was wonderful in his last act aria amongst the refugees once he was planted center stage and allowed to project straight out. He’s a light lyric with a little juice on top and a reedy sound. Just big enough for Verdi’s young men. There were some audibility problems whenever he had to move around too much but he had a sweet quality in the aria that was just right. Roberto Tagliavini was the youthful sounding Banquo and he was a superlative Figaro here two years back. He brought a welcome youth and lyricism to the role that was especially poignant at times. Unstinting on the bottom portion of the voice, like all good Verdi basses, he had the grand line for “Come dal ciel precipita” and avoided driving into the gravel as you so often hear. When casting was initially announced I remember being disappointed at the assignment of a mezzo-soprano for Verdi’s Lady. Not that I haven’t heard that happen before but it’s rare when you hear even a soprano with the range and technical skills to pull it off let alone a singer who rarely comes closer to the top of the staff than the occasional A-natural. Ekaterina Semenchuk needed no apologies in the role. Once she was past an initial moment of approximatura on her first downward roulade in the recitative she proceeded to pile drive through ‘Vieni! t’affretta!’ with the most flagrant display of chest voice it has every been my pleasure to hear. The top was never, ever, tense or edgy and she was spot on in the multitude of staccatos sprinkled throughout the role. Spine tingling in both the central section of “La luce langue” and the repeat of the drinking song during the banquet scene, she pared down to an amazing pianissimo that carried perfectly into the theater. During the sleepwalking scene she had all of the various dynamics at her command and went straight up, with ease, to the D-flat and came back down and no one’s oxygen masks had to be deployed for emergencies. She commanded the stage with broad theatrical gestures that she wore well along with the various gowns and cloaks. (I love a singer who knows how to handle a cape!) But the real reason we’re enjoying all this sound and fury is so that Maestro Domingo can enjoy his hour upon the stage and be heard yet more and more. Since he has never been the kind of celebrity who hides his age with hair dye, it was something of a surprise to see him take the stage with a full head of shoulder length hair, looking 50 again. The other intriguing thing about hearing a tenor in this role is that Domingo has always had an uncommonly ardent and sincere sound to his voice. He’s the only Macbeth I’ve ever heard who starts out actually sounding innocent. Especially later in “Fatal me donna” with Lady he’s really being talked into it. Later in the evening when Domingo’s given himself over to the dark side you have to take his word for it because there’s just no malevolence in his timbre. At his current age of 75 it’s an astonishment that the voice itself has actually gained in resonance. True, he’s working harder at it than before. And he had a moment or two where his memory failed him but he knows how to cover better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Two other things brought the majority of the excitement to this performance. In spite of what would be called Mr. Tresnjak’s conventional work here he does know how to keep a show moving and this production played seamlessly within its acts. He allowed for, and gave his performers, all their moments for audience recognition, thus cannily building the public’s reaction to the point where by the banquet scene (the evening played with one intermission) the audience was in a veritable frenzy at the end of Act II. The finale was capped by 15 minutes of curtain calls from a Los Angeles audience that normally bolts for the parking lot the moment the show is over. The other reason was the work of the chorus. Though they numbered only 52, thanks to some strong young voices and the set’sdoing double duty as a band shell, they sounded easily like one hundred. In a work this chorus-heavy it was a thrilling and mighty sound to hear. For the chorus of the refugees “Patria oppressa” Tresnjak had the them huddled up towards the front of the stage while a lighting effect gave the impression of a river bank. A sole abandoned child sat center stage staring out in shock at nothing. They sang as one voice and matched each other’s dynamics flawlessly. Performances run through the middle of October with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo stepping into Banquo’s boots for the last two. The performance of the 13 October is being streamed live on a jumbotron to the Santa Monica Pier and South Gate Park which is becoming something of a tradition for LA Opera. Photos: Karen Almond/LA Opera
On Monday, the Met kicks off its 132nd season with a new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by Mariusz Trelinski, with Sir Simon Rattle leading a premiere cast of Nina Stemme, Ekaterina Gubanova, Stuart Skelton, Evgeny Nikitin and René Pape (not pictured). Tristan has been the season-launching opera three times before now, but good luck finding someone to provide a firsthand account of the last time. Stemme and Skelton will follow in the footsteps of Flagstad and Melchior (1937), who followed Ternina and Van Dyck (1901), who followed Lehmann and Niemann (1887). Of these three illustrious pairings, that of Kirsten Flagstad and Lauritz Melchior is most familiar to us listeners of the 21st century. While Stemme and Skelton will be singing their roles at the Met for the first time, the Scandinavian Connection headlined 67 Met Tristans between 1935 and 1941, both at 39th and Broadway and on tour. The 1937 opening night was the 26th of these. Artur Bodanzky‘s cast also included Kerstin Thorborg, Julius Huehn and Emanuel List. How “ordinary” was a Flagstad/Melchior Tristan in those days? Reviewing one Saturday matinee of the late 1930s with all five of the above singers and the same conductor, the Herald Tribune took a cautioning note: The frequenters of out foremost opera house are perhaps beginning to regard the accomplishments of Mme. Flagstad a bit too complacently, for while there was no want of enthusiasm in the reception accorded her, there were numerous vacant seats and the number of standees was considerably smaller that it has been in past seasons at Tristan performances in which she has participated. […] Such artistry is rare in any time, and in our day, when good singing–not to speak of great singing—is all too rarely encountered, it should not be too lightly appraised. Here are Flagstad, Melchior and Bodanzky in the last performance of the 1937-38 season. //www.youtube.com/watch?v=6J6iCfEokqw A review of the historical archive illuminates how the different regimes of different times had differing ideas about what an opening night should be. The incumbent general manager has favored new productions of familiar, popular works, and in one case the Met premiere of an opera many considered overdue (Anna Bolena, 2011). Only once has there been a gala, the 2008 Renée Fleming showcase. Those productions have covered the spectrum from triumphant (Madama Butterfly) to dismal (Tosca) to just “there” (…actually, all of the others), but they have brought to opening night some excitement that had ebbed away in the Crawford/Southern/Volpe years. In that era, it usually seemed as though the previous season were picking up where it had left off, with a business-as-usual Aïda, Bohème or Carmen slapped onto the stage in an existing production that had worked or had not worked, plus one big star. “But opera is about the singing!” you say. Yes, yes. In more distant times, opening night was often a time of important musical debuts. This is something of which we have not seen much in recent decades. In the Gelb era, there have been the slim pickings of Stephen Costello (2007) and Amanda Majeski (2014)… the former in a comprimario role, the latter as an emergency replacement. New faces to begin the season were few and far between in the 20 years prior to Gelb’s time too. José Cura had been highly touted in advance in 1999, but he was an anomaly. As you will see below, in the Met’s first century, many significant artists were initially heard on opening night. There were so many such examples that I had to leave many out of my survey in the interests of brevity and balance: Geraldine Farrar, Emmy Destinn, Tullio Serafin, Fritz Busch, Erna Berger, George London, Giulietta Simionato, Bonaldo Giaiotti, Florence Quivar, Kurt Moll. In first-night casting, at least, the most recent regimes have been in agreement, sticking with the tried and true. Here is just some of what you could have seen, and perhaps did see, on opening night through the years at the Met. 1890: The seven-year-old company dared to open the season with a work little known at the time and even less well known today. Franchetti’s Asrarel, a mystical mash-up of Meyerbeerian, Wagnerian and Italian influences, was said to have had some overseas success. An anonymous New York Times reviewer handled it cautiously: The opera was received with no small favor, but it will have to grow into deep public affection. It is not the kind of work to carry an audience by storm. There is too much thought in it. This brain food may have proved indigestible to New Yorkers of the Gilded Age; the work did not grow into deep public affection. After five performances, it was not heard again at the Met. Of the cast members, several of them debuting artists, only tenor Andreas Dippel lasted past the 1890-91 season. He proved valuable in a wide range of repertoire over the following 18 years. 1893: For its tenth anniversary, the Met returned to the opera with which it had all begun, Gounod’s Faust. The entire previous season had been wiped out by an August 1892 fire, allegedly caused by a workman’s casually discarded cigarette. Recorded the Times: There is scarcely a reminder of the old Metropolitan Opera House in the magnificent new building[,] a marvel of brightness in color and grace in all its outlines. The severe decorations of the auditorium, which was destroyed by the big fire, have given place to brighter ornamentation, and, while the seating capacity of the house has been materially increased, the comfort of its patrons has been steadily kept in view in the arrangement of the changes. Surely, all thought of ornamentation and outlines was put to the side when Emma Eames and brothers Jean and Edouard de Reszke got their Goethe on. 1903: “Not that he is the greatest tenor ever heard in New York,” the Sun hastened to assure its readers about a new singer who was no Jean de Reszke or Francesco Tamagno. “He pretends to be such a singer in his part as [Marcella] Sembrich is in hers.” Such remarks were typical within the press’s generally complimentary notices for Enrico Caruso. The 30-year-old Neapolitan, acclaimed elsewhere in the world, debuted as Rigoletto‘s Duke alongside Sembrich and Antonio Scotti. 1907: Cilea’s seemingly unkillable Adriana Lecouvreur got its first Met hearing, showcasing a star tenor and a soprano considered one of the world’s most beautiful women. “How poor a vehicle the opera is for the exhibition of Mr. Caruso’s extraordinary gifts and powers,” clucked the formidable Henry Krehbiel in the Herald Tribune. “Adriana is not for such as this; rather it is for such as Mme. [Lina] Cavalieri, who has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures, and act as opera people act.” 1916: “Pearls of song by all-star anglers were never cast before a more brilliant assemblage […] The old Metropolitan put its best foot forward as it hasn’t done in years,” raved the Evening Sun‘s W. H. Chase at the company’s first complete performance of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles, starring Frieda Hempel, Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca. Despite this enthusiasm, the opera received only two more Met performances, sank to the depths for nearly a century, and resurfaced looking very different. 1921: Curiously, the American‘s Max Smith suggested that Verdi’s La traviata may have been too slight an offering for this occasion. [T]he work has none of the spectacular glories usually associated with the opening night. […] Traviata, as all of us know, affords no opportunity for big ensembles, for massed effects, for the combined assault of cumulative sonority and gorgeous pageantry upon eye and ear.” One suspects this gifted writer would never have foreseen Meyerbeer’s fall from fashion. Still, Smith found excitement in the debut of soprano Amelita Galli-Curci. [H]ow fascinating is Amelita’s impersonation of Violetta, already made familiar during her association with the visiting Chicago Opera Company! How imaginatively vivacious in the first act; how pathetic in the second; how tragic in the last. It was fitting, indeed, that [general manager] Giulio Gatti-Casazza should bring forward his latest “star” in Traviata. For surely no other role reveals her own peculiar powers, histrionic as well as vocal, to greater advantage; none permits her to disclose more affectingly the characteristic delicacy of her art, the essentially feminine charm of her persuasions. Beniamino Gigli and De Luca supplied the masculine charm. 1926: Another work not long for the Met’s repertory inaugurated the 43rd season, as a 34-year-old bass made his company debut in Spontini’s admired La vestale. “Ezio Pinza, a newcomer, orated the bass pronouncement of the Pontifex Maximus and gave promise of being a useful addition to the company. There is little else to be said. The audience was large, but the familiar excitement of an opening night was absent,” wrote W. J. Henderson in the Sun. Maestro Serafin’s cast included Rosa Ponselle, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and De Luca. Vestale would receive only two more Met performances, but Pinza would settle in until 1948. 1938: As Smith had in 1920, the Herald Tribune’s Lawrence Gilman mused on what constituted appropriate opening-night fare: From a strictly realistic standpoint, it does not matter very much […] [T]he inaugural work could be almost any choice at all from the Metropolitan’s extensive repertoire, active or inactive. It might be Tristan or Mignon, Madama Butterfly or Dinorah–perhaps only Parsifal or In the Pasha’s Garden would not serve. On this occasion, it was Otello. Giovanni Martinelli and Lawrence Tibbett returned to roles in which they were building legends, and Verdi’s score was in the hands of one of its great conductors, Ettore Panizza. Debuting soprano Maria Caniglia would not remain with the company for long, but her Desdemona made a strong impression: [T]he Neapolitan soprano […] is a singing-actress of exceptional feeling and sincerity, a gracious and gentle personality, equipped with a sense of the theater and a voice which often serves her responsively as a vehicle of dramatic utterance and lyric speech. She was vocally ill at ease in the first two acts, but later she sang with greater freedom and security, and often with affecting beauty and communicative eloquence. 1950: The season and the eventful tenure of GM Rudolf Bing began with Verdi’s Don Carlo, featuring six notable debuts: sopranos Delia Rigal and Lucine Amara, mezzo Fedora Barbieri, bass Cesare Siepi, director Margaret Webster and designer Rolf Gérard. Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill and Jerome Hines completed the principal cast; Fritz Stiedry conducted. At this time, the opera itself could still be described as “Verdi’s gloomy and seldom-heard Don Carlo” (Max de Schauensee, Philadelphia Evening Bulletin). But Virgil Thomson was happy to see it back after a 27-year absence: [T]his ever-so-grand grand opera is perfectly suited to the space and paraphernalia possibilities of New York’s historic music theater. It is also a fine vehicle for musical display, and last night’s performance was not wanting in grandeurs from the auditory wing. He praised the sophisticated work of the director and designer. 1956: The heavily hyped Met debut of Maria Callas (Bellini’s Norma) was, like so much else about this singer, controversial. Bing, Callas herself and many attendees claimed she had not been at her best. The Saturday Review‘s oft-dyspeptic Irving Kolodin left a judicious assessment that stands the test of time, not only as regards this performance but Callas’s art: The kind of voice, basically, requires some consideration. It is what every great artist’s means of communication becomes: an extension of her own personality. That personality is dynamic, highly charged, tigerish, and utterly under discipline. So, too, the voice is dynamically dramatic, produced as though it might be torn from the singer’s insides, and presided over with an almost visible concern for every word and note she sings. Nothing is thoughtless, left to chance, or without total purpose. Factually, Miss Callas cannot afford to perform otherwise, for were she dependent on the pure physical beauty of the sound she produces she would be sung out of sight by many people presently inconspicuous.” Barbieri, Siepi and Mario del Monaco were this fabled Norma’s colleagues and competitors. 1966: The Met’s state-of-the-art Lincoln Center home flung open its doors for the world premiere of Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra with Leontyne Price and Justino Diaz. The story of that inauspicious beginning is a familiar one. Franco Zeffirelli‘s elaborate production was critically savaged, and the Christian Science Monitor adjudged the opera inferior to the composer’s Vanessa (“At times tedium was definitely on hand”). Reviews for the venue were considerably better. Inez Robb (under her nom de plume, Nancy Randolph), covering for the Daily News, beseeched: “New Yorkers at all levels have been talking, day and night, about quitting this city. It’s ‘so tired,’ ‘so sooty,’ ‘so traffic-choked,’ this ‘irritating island’ with its ‘horrid sights and sounds.’ Now, won’t these dear people please stay? There are new wonders here in New York and they’ve been wrought while the complainers were busy with pale martinis and dark moods.” 1970: What the New Yorker‘s Winthrop Sargeant found “an unusually sedate and refined” opening night may impress us as more special 46 years later: Verdi’s Ernani conducted by Thomas Schippers, starring Martina Arroyo, Carlo Bergonzi, Sherrill Milnes and debuting bass Ruggero Raimondi. Sargeant felt that baritone Milnes, already a local favorite, had won the evening, but he praised the new kid too: “[A] young Bolognese named Ruggero Raimondi […] sang with fine quality and style, making an impression that will entitle him to many a future role at the Metropolitan Opera. He is not a deep bass, but he is one with plenty of velvet and a commanding stage presence.” Indeed, Raimondi frequently returned, most recently in 2008. 1981: Andrew Porter found little to cheer in a Norma remembered as a lowlight of Renata Scotto‘s distinguished Met career. No one seemed very much interested in anyone else, and the drama dragged. If Miss Scotto’s technical execution was faulty, the others [Tatiana Troyanos, Plácido Domingo and Bonaldo Giaiotti] lacked delicacy, refinement—the individual touches, vocal and dramatic, by which imaginative singers bring Bellini’s opera to life. The approach of the conductor, James Levine, did not encourage them to finesse. He laid out foursquare metronomic rhythms. He was energetic and assured, […] but he showed almost no feeling for sensitive, flexible shaping of Bellini’s melodies. 1983: The Met marked 100 years of flush times and lean times, the forgettable and the unforgettable, with a work close to the heart of music director Levine: Berlioz’s epic Les Troyens. The large cast included Troyanos, Domingo and Jessye Norman, making her house debut as Cassandre (“She delivered her pronouncements with magnificent tone and searing authority, and while her figure is of the same Wagnerian proportions as her voice, she moved with as much grace as grandeur,” per the Daily News). The tenor had had second thoughts about his role’s tessitura and even had asked to be relieved of the assignment. Although his reviews in the main were good, four performances of Enée in this run would be the only ones of his career. 1986: In a decade that saw several innovative Rings around the world, the Met put its technical and monetary resources in the service of pictorial conservatism. The Times‘s Donal Henahan assessed the first completed entry, Die Walküre: Feasible, but on the whole so far from being satisfactory in both large and small matters that the success of the cycle may already be in jeopardy. Otto Schenk‘s staging is a schizoid affair, with naturalistic, 19th-century scenery bumping up against naturalistic acting in a 20th-century style. […] Günther Schneider-Siemssen‘s sets, which look as if they were copied from one of the historical dioramas in the Wagner museum at Bayreuth, are not individual in any way, but they please the eye and would serve well in a performance better directed and better sung. Levine’s premiere cast included Jeannine Altmeyer, Hildegard Behrens, Brigitte Fassbaender, Peter Hofmann and Simon Estes. 1994: General manager Joseph Volpe scored a coup when two of the famous Three Tenors agreed to share opening night in a pairing of Puccini’s Il tabarro (Domingo) and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (Luciano Pavarotti). Perhaps the bigger news was the 35th Met anniversary of Teresa Stratas. The elusive and mercurial Canadian performed adulterous double duty as Giorgetta and Nedda. Veteran mezzo Florence Quivar made much of relatively little, stealing a scene as Tabarro‘s Frugola. Levine conducted. 2006: New GM Peter Gelb‘s tenure began with a hit, a fresh take on Puccini’s Madama Butterfly by esteemed film director Anthony Minghella in collaboration with his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa. “We are first-time opera makers; it’s not for us to revolutionize opera,” the director said at the time. “It’s for us to understand it and to bring to bear whatever it is that we can bring to the work.” Opera News‘s F. Paul Driscoll described the result as a clean-lined, luxuriously spare Butterfly that borrows liberally from the traditions of Asian theater. Minghella is not the first director to try this, but no other director has accomplished his unaffected fusion of East and West with such sumptuous flair—abetted here by the sleek settings of Michael Levine and the elegant costumes by Han Feng—or his highly individual musicality. Levine led Cristina Gallardo-Domas, Marcello Giordani, Maria Zifchak and Dwayne Croft. Sadly, this instant classic was both Minghella’s first opera production and his last. He died in 2008.
“Dubai Opera is attempting to rival the famous Sydney Opera House, with 2,000 seats, an elegantly designed marble interior boasting a dramatic multi-story 11,000-pound glass chandelier, and by hosting talent like the prestigious tenor Plácido Domingo. But perhaps even more striking than the glamorous décor is the building itself, inspired by the dhow, the traditional ship found in the Persian Gulf.”
The magic number of the week for the Salzburger Festspiele is 96, setting a new all-time high percentage of seats sold for the six-week event which closed after (mostly) rave reviews on Wednesday. Among the highlights were concert performances of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs and Otto Nicolai’s Il templario. Despite being a passionate fan of Werther, I have to admit that Massenet just doesn’t do it for me. I can deal with a well-cast Manon every few years, and something insane and rare like Esclarmonde, but I have always found Thaïs rather a sleeper. Indeed, while listening to this week’s upload yesterday afternoon, I dozed off about half an hour in and was awakened by the final ovation. I must say I find this a bit strange as I love most of the operas recently posted as successful French works by very our own Poison Ivy, and you all must know by now that Les Troyens (every note of it!) is one of my two desert island operas. So it’s not a problem with French opera. The opera has endured, and I hope one day to be able to appreciate it. For all you Sibyl Sanderson fans out there, here is the 16 August performance with Marina Rebeka, Plácido Domingo, and Benjamin Bernheim. Among the rarest items to appear on the festival program were two concert performances of Otto Nicolai’s Il templario. If Wikipedia is to be believed, in his brief life (he died at 38, the same age as Sanderson), Nicolai wrote four operas in Italian, but his best known and final opera was the only one composed in German, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor; it further states that Nicolai was once more popular in Italy than Verdi. Il templario follows the plot of Ivanhoe, which you were likely forced to read in junior high English Lit. I know that I certainly would have appreciated it more if the illustrations looked like Juan Diego Flórez, who takes the hero’s florid, high-flying role in this performance from 30 August. I rather love Wikipedia’s four-sentence plot synopsis for one line which could only pertain to opera: “Briano [sung by Luca Salsi] and Rebecca [sung by Clémentine Margaine] are both – inexplicably – struck dead in the final scene of the opera.” Twice deemed a lost work before reconstruction in 2006, it was a huge hit throughout Italy from its 1840 premiere at Torino’s Teatro Reggio through the mid-1860s, and is described as being in the bel canto style of Bellini. Listen to Vilfredo d’Ivanhoe’s aria which begins at 11:28 and judge for yourselves. The pit band, led by Andrés Orozco-Estrada is, appropriately, the Wiener Philharmoniker, which Nicolai helped establish in 1842. More performances from the 2016 Salzburger Festspiele will be posted in the coming months.
Artist’s impressions of Dubai Opera. The venue opens on Wednesday, August 31. Courtesy Emaar Plácido Domingo will perform at the opening night of Dubai's new opera house this evening (31 August 2016), The Spanish tenor-turned-baritone stars in the inaugural concert - an event which sold out in under three hours. Dubai Opera , which seats over 2,000 people, is the landmark of a new cultural hot spot for the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The building is positioned as the centre point of Dubai's new 'Opera District' – a bespoke area of the city created to ensure art is at the heart of the life of the city. Dubai is the latest city to invest significantly in a cultural centre, putting the city on the map as one of a handful of destinations for the world's greatest singers to visit. Watch: In Coversation with Placido Domingo In demand opera singers' careers span several countries, with the high profile performers who frequent the Royal Opera House stage being booked years in advance for similarly prestigious opera houses across the world, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York , La Scala, Milan ; and the Paris Opera . Now, Dubai Opera’s chief executive Jasper Hope, who was once the Chief Operating Officer at London’s Royal Albert Hall , hopes that the new Dubai Opera will allow the city to attract the world's greatest talent, putting it on the map away from the art form's traditional home in Europe. ‘One of the areas that has been missing for many people is a venue in which to experience brilliant live music,’ said Hope. ‘Look at everything else Dubai has... now we’re going make it even better.’ As well as opera, the building will also play host to a range of performing arts including ballet and theatre, as well as fashion shows, film screenings and sporting events. Find out more about the Dubai Opera
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