Sunday, December 4, 2016
Operatic history can be cruel where multiple works with the same subject are concerned, generally consigning all but one example to obscurity, or at best the fringes of the regular repertory. In the case of Massenet’s 1881 Hérodiade, it isn’t hard to see how the work’s gentle melodies and crowd-pleasing Orientalism became hopelessly uncool in the wake of Richard Strauss’ blockbuster treatment of the Salome story a quarter century later. Yet, as demonstrated by a committed, strongly cast performance by Washington Concert Opera this past Sunday, these judgments can be unfair. For his sophomore work on the international stage, the 36 year-old Massenet returned to the vicinity of his 1877 breakout hit, Le Roi de Lahore, with another grand opera in an exotic locale. After failing to secure an opening at either the Paris Opera or La Scala, Hérodiade opened at La Monnaie in December 1881 to a warm reception (including a rowdy bunch of Parisians music scenesters who had hopped the train for the occasion). It would go on to play 55 performances in Brussels that season, followed by a healthy showing across Europe and the world in subsequent decades before falling out of favor. Though it has never appeared at the Met, occasional revivals include a mid-90s San Francisco effort starring Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming and Dolora Zajick which produced a live recording. The French libretto by Paul Milliet and Henri Grémont (who would later reteam to more lasting effect with Werther) was crafted from an Italian libretto by Angelo Zanardini, originally based on Flaubert’s novella “Hérodias.” The similarities between the final product and Flaubert’s dreamy flight of biblical impressionism are mostly superficial, the librettists having taken to the source material with all the fidelity of modern-day Hollywood writers charged with punching up a property. Instead of the strange, brutal ancients hinted at by Flaubert and memorably dramatized by Wilde and Strauss in later years, we get juicy drama and a tidy collection of familiar characters. Salomé here is a far cry from Strauss’ manic teen sex kitten. Abandoned by Hérodias, this Salomé has been sneaking off to Bible study and has fallen in love with one Jean le Baptiste. The young lovers are troubled both by Jean’s reluctance to give into earthly love as well as his precarious position vis a vis Hérodias (who does not appreciate his frequent cries of “Jezabel!”) and Hérode, who plans to use Jean in a revolt against the Romans, but is also partial to Jean’s girlfriend. Hérodeis a sort of Count di Luna type mostly guilty of pining after the ingenue while being a baritone (the opera seems ambivalent about whether this Herod is a creep or not). Hérodias gets top billing in Flaubert for arranging the infamous dance and precipitating the story’s grisly ending, but the opera excises both dance and decapitation, leaving her role somewhat unclear beyond “bitter mezzo with a past.” Hérodiade finds herself both remorseful for abandoning her daughter but also despising her daughter for stealing away Hérode’s affections. In the end, Hérode’s unrequited lust turns deadly, and he threatens to execute both Salome and Jean. When Jean is executed (offstage, no head) and she is pardoned, Salome blames Hérodiade and vengefully stabs herself. Also there’s a lot more political intrigue involving the Romans. Hérodiade isn’t the tightest libretto, and it’s easy to see why it might fail to make an immediate connection with modern audiences. As with a lot of grand opera, the excessive plot layers make it tough to get invested in the story, and the twists and turns can feel dated and melodramatic. But if the parts don’t quite add up to a fulfilling whole, it is rarely dull, with a steady procession of incident filled scenes and mercifully concise pageantry and intrigue sections. And of course there is much to appreciate in Massenet’s evocative and often transporting score. Major statements for the characters, several of which have found a second life on the recital stage, are frequently memorable, as are a series of highly dramatic ensembles, all imbued with gorgeous French lyricism. To flesh out the biblical setting, Massenet creates a kaleidoscope of alluring colors and makes inventive and varied use of the orchestra. Indeed, it’s a score that seems especially well-suited for the concert opera treatment where one can engage more directly with the orchestra, and WCO Maestro Antony Walker again demonstrated the advantages of this format for an unfamiliar work. Walker excelled in a number of heady climaxes, driving the large pickup forces to some exhilarating tempi, including in the monumental Act III finale, which had its nail biting moments but ultimately came off splendidly. Walker also proved a sensitive accompanist for the singers, highlighting some of the rich interplay between the vocal lines and Massenet’s orchestral effects. If there were some shaggy moments and misfires here and there in the orchestra, they did not detract from a compelling overall reading. But the evening really belonged to an outstanding cast of dynamic voices, several new to me, who displayed an infectious enthusiasm for introducing this work to new listeners. The evening’s marquee name, Michael Fabiano, who previously appeared with WCO in 2013’s concert of Il Corsaro, returned to sing Jean, easily enchanting the audience with that golden, irresistible tone and a compelling French sound. Outside of the big numbers, Fabiano’s reading of the part was perhaps the most exploratory, and once in awhile he pushed too far through a climax and ended up in an unpleasant shouty place. But his gorgeous Act IV “Adieu donc, vains objets,” a ravishing, if tardy, revelation of his love for Salomé, and their frantic subsequent duet were clear highlights of the evening. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury tackled nice-girl Salomé with a beguiling, sensual sound, bringing delicate pianissimo effects to her big first act number about her crush on Jean, “Il est doux, il est bon,” with only a bit of strain in some of the higher passages. “Charme des jours passés,” an anguished reminiscence of happier days with Jean after his Act III imprisonment, featured big polished top notes and a dusky, inviting middle register. Dana Beth Miller, stepping into the production just a week ago as Hérodiade , turned out to be the evening’s biggest coup. Her commanding mezzo is distinguished by a prominent but tightly controlled vibrato that lends substantial excitement and character to her sound, as well as blazing, and at times terrifying, top notes, which she used to great effect throughout the score. Her passionate Act I plea to Hérode to execute Jean, “Ne me refuse pas,” and fiery contributions to the following trio with Jean and Herod as well as other ensembles all exhibited a fierce dramatic commitment. As Hérode, Ricardo Rivera’s light, liquid baritone and sense of French style infused the Tetrarch’s frequently lyric passages with tender longing, while Wei Wu, one of the breakout stars of recent Washington National Opera young artist cohorts, applied his concentrated, elegant bass to court astrologer Phanuel. A few hiccups aside, the chorus, prepared by Bruce Stasyna, did strong work with a vast amount of material, including notable contributions like a beautiful hushed chorus for the Jewish crowd in Act III. Despite having thoroughly enjoyed this, it still seems unlikely that opera companies will be clamoring to present Hérodiade on a regular basis anytime soon, at least in its original sandals and palm fronds incarnation. On the other hand, this show is just begging for a thorough deconstruction. Enterprising directors looking for an easy target who would also like to do a good deed and familiarize new audiences with some awfully pretty Massenet music should take note. Photo: Don Lassell
Agnes Baltsa and the Duchess of Kent at the post-performance party after the premiere of Les Contes d'Hoffmann (1980) in the Crush Room, Royal Opera House. Photograph from the Donald Southern Photographic Collection © 1980 ROH The Royal Opera’s 1980 production of Offenbach ’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann was declared a success by critics after its premiere, and its 36-year run has been testament to its enduring appeal. We’ve delved in to our archives to look back at the immense anticipation that surrounded the production and the press’s reception after the premiere. The Covent Garden production was part of nationwide commemorations – organized by the Offenbach 1980 Committee – to mark the centenary of both Offenbach’s death and of the world premiere of his most enduring work Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Anticipation for Hoffmann started building as early as May 1979, when the press started to report that Oscar-winning director John Schlesinger was seriously considering an offer to direct the production, and that star tenor Plácido Domingo was also ‘mulling over’ an invitation to join. Schlesinger and The Royal Opera had been trying to work together for some years, on Salome and Carmen , but schedules never quite aligned. In an interview with The Times after the premiere, Schlesinger confessed that much of the persuasion to direct Hoffmann came from Domingo’s involvement, particularly as previous plans to work together on Carmen had not come to fruition. Schlesinger, himself a devoted opera fan, wanted to make Hoffmann work dramatically in the face of all the known problems with the opera . The Evening Standard quotes him saying ‘of course, it is a problem piece but it is very theatrical and I am looking forward to it’. The production was grabbing headlines well before its premiere. The Daily Mail sensationally reported ‘a sex scene at the opera’ after two dancers revealed they ‘simulate love-making on a pile of cushions’ in one scene. A spokesperson for the Royal Opera House courteously replied, ‘nobody can say for sure what the production will be like… because it is still evolving’. The star power of Schlesinger and singers Domingo, Ileana Cotrubas , Agnes Baltsa and Geraint Evans , as well as beautiful costumes by Maria Björnson and magnificent sets by William Dudley , meant that expectations were high. Despite these sensational headlines, the premiere attracted a whole host of notable audience members: in attendance were Offenbach’s great-grandsons James Buckley and Michel Brindejont, Shadow Foreign Secretary Denis Healey , former Prime Minister Edward Heath and the Duke and Duchess of Kent . And indeed, the performance dazzled most that saw it – The Observer described it as ‘magnificently sung, resplendently set and superbly staged’ and the Daily Mail loved it, describing it as ‘bizarre, but a cracker’. The illusion of the doll Olympia falling apart particularly caught The Guardian’s eye, describing it as ‘a genuinely eerie piece of theatre’. In 2016 Schlesinger’s production might not raise eyebrows as it once did – but it entertains, delights and enchants as much as it always has. Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs until 3 December 2016. Tickets are sold out, but returns may become available. The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.
Thomas Hampson in Schlesinger’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore #ROHhoffmann Lost for words and rung out. What an incredible experience. Brava tutti. — Jan Smith (@JanJancsmith) November 15, 2016 #ROHhoffmann ecstatic performance. Every single voice especially Sonya Yonceva. Diva in waiting. — Pawel Herzyk (@peherzyk) November 15, 2016 Blown away by this exuberant and opulent production. Wednesday will feel so flat in comparison #ROHhoffmann — Angel Pooky (@lace675468) November 15, 2016 Mon dieu the great #diva is alive and well @VittorioGrigolo @sonyayoncheva @TheRoyalOpera astounding, lots of love!! #ROHhoffmann — Sara Correia (@SGCorreia) November 15, 2016 Sofia Fomina, Christophe Mortagne and Vittorio Grigòlo in Schlesinger’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore #ROHhoffmann Brilliant, exciting, stunningly beautiful production. And magical voices, too! What a treat, & all for £13 in my local cinema! — Mary Rensten (@MaryRensten) November 15, 2016 #ROHhoffmann if all muses were as beautiful & graceful as Kate Lindsey, surely there would be no uncouthness in this world! — Lorenzo Cori (@LorenzoCori) November 15, 2016 #ROHhoffmann @thomashampson the best villain ever! — Svetlana Frolova (@Svetlanaoc) November 15, 2016 #ROHhoffmann The most sumptuous production ever, shame to end it, but if to end then on high note. Gigolo produced the notes. Milton Keynes — David Jazani (@DeltaJaz) November 15, 2016 Christine Rice, Vittorio Grigòlo, Vincent Ordonneau in Schlesinger’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore Christine Rice is just such a seductively sounding Giulietta #ROHhoffmann oh and can i have that red dress at the end of the run? — Hariclea Darclee (@Hariclea) November 15, 2016 #rohhoffmann Superb and magnificent. Memories of my very first opera 30 odd years ago with Placido Domingo!!! ......Thank you — DAVE Pearce (@PearcePhysio) November 15, 2016 #ROHhoffmann My 11 year old's first full length opera. She loves Olympia! — Cheryl Nott (@ChelsieNott) November 15, 2016 Bravi tutti for a splendid performance #ROHhoffmann #Livestream #opera !!! — Zenaida des Aubris (@zenaidasworld) November 15, 2016 What did you think of Les Contes d'Hoffmann live in cinemas? Add your thoughts via the comments below. If you experienced technical issues during this live cinema relay, please email details to firstname.lastname@example.org The next live cinema relay of the 2016/17 Season is The Royal Ballet's Nutcracker on 8 December. Find your nearest cinema and sign up to our mailing list . A number of cinemas will be offering Encore screenings of Les Contes d'Hoffmann in the coming days and weeks. Find your nearest Encore screening .
Sofia Fomina, Christophe Mortagne and Vittorio Grigòlo in Schlesinger’s Les Contes d'Hoffmann, The Royal Opera © 2016 ROH. Photograph by Catherine Ashmore ‘Les oiseaux dans la charmille’, also known as the Doll Aria from Les Contes d’Hoffmann , is infamously difficult to sing. It is sung in Act I by Olympia, a mechanical doll who the hapless Hoffmann believes to be human. For much of the act, Olympia simply says ‘oui’ (yes) to anything asked of her, but Offenbach more than makes up for this in her aria. Written for the French soprano Adèle Isaac – a star of Paris’s Opéra-Comique known for her interpretations of challenging roles such as Marie (La Fille du régiment ), Isabelle (Robert le diable ) and Juliette (Roméo et Juliette ) – it is a virtuoso tour-de-force, packed with stratospheric coloratura. Where does it take place in the opera? The Doll Aria takes place in Act I, when the inventor Spalanzani hosts a party at his Paris home. In the previous scene, the gullible Hoffmann – deaf to the warnings of his friend Nicklausse – is duped by Spalanzani into believing that Olympia is the inventor’s daughter. Spalanzani is helped in his ruse by the fiendish scientist Coppélius, who sells Hoffmann a pair of magical glasses that make Olympia appear fully human. When Olympia performs her song for Spalanzani’s party guests, Hoffmann is so impressed that he determines to marry the doll. What do the lyrics mean? The words of Olympia’s two-verse aria are self-consciously sentimental and repetitive, as befits her mechanical state. In the first verse she sings of how the songs of birds awaken thoughts of love in her young soul; in the second of how her loving heart is moved by songs and sighs. Both verses end with the coy refrain ‘this is the lovely song of Olympia’. Read Jonathan Burton’s translation below, created for The Royal Opera: Les oiseaux dans la charmille, Dans les cieux l’astre du jour Tout parle à la jeune fille d’amour! Voilà la chanson gentille, la chanson d’Olympia!Les oiseaux dans la charmille, Dans les cieux l’astre du jour Tout parle à la jeune fille d’amour! Voilà la chanson gentille, la chanson d’Olympia! The birds in the bower, The sun in the sky To a maiden everything speaks of love! This is Olympia’s pretty song. Everything that sings and echoes and sighs in turn Stirs a maiden’s heart that trembles with love. This is Olympia’s sweet little song. What makes the music so memorable? Offenbach’s music perfectly characterizes a mechanical doll, with a pretty melody sung to a waltz rhythm, and delicate harp and flute accompaniment reminiscent of the sound of musical boxes (possibly mimicking the real musical clockwork dolls popular in late 19th-century France). However, Olympia isno ordinary automaton; her melody line becomes progressively more ornate during the aria’s first verse (particularly in the flamboyant vocalise that ends its refrain) and by the second verse she’s in full exhibitionist mode, decorating her melody with as many trills, flourishes, roulades and stratospherically high notes as any coloratura soprano could wish for. She pays the price for this display though – during both refrains her mechanics run down, causing her to collapse until Spalanzani winds her up again. The second time, he clearly does his job rather too well, as Olympia soars to new heights in the hyperactive closing cadenza. Hoffmann’s other musical highlights Les Contes d’Hoffmann contains a glut of wonderful arias, duets and ensembles. The protagonist’s solo numbers include the Prologue’s ‘Chanson de Kleinzach’ in which the poet moves from wit to romantic reverie and back, and the hedonistic Act II aria ‘Amis, l’amour tendre et reveur, erreur!’. The devilish villains naturally get plenty of good tunes, including Lindorf’s cynical and boastful ‘Dans les rôles d’amoureux langoureux’. Among the duets, the best known is perhaps the sensual Barcarolle ‘Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour’ that opens the Giulietta act; a lesser-known treat is Hoffmann and Antonia’s poignant ‘C’est une chanson d’amour’, one of the opera’s few genuinely romantic episodes. Other highlights include the Prologue’s ebullient drinking chorus, Act II’s dramatic septet (sung as Hoffmann realizes that Giulietta has stolen his reflection) and Antonia’s nostalgic aria ‘Elle a fui, la tourterelle’ that opens Act III. Classic recordings Les Contes d’Hoffmann doesn’t lack good recordings. EMI’s bargain box-set conducted by André Cluytens features Nicolai Gedda as Hoffmann, one of his greatest roles; his duet with Victoria de los Ángeles ’s Antonia is unforgettable. Domingo fans can enjoy the 1972 Decca recording with the inimitable Joan Sutherland as the three heroines; another Domingo option is the 1981 live Salzburg recording , with José van Dam in devilishly good form as the four villains, conducted by James Levine . Kent Nagano ’s 2011 recording (Erato) features Roberto Alagna as Hoffmann and Natalie Dessay on sparkling form as Olympia, among other delights. There’s a good choice of DVD recordings too, including The Royal Opera’s production with Domingo as Hoffmann . More to discover Offenbach’s only other opera (Die Rheinnixen ) hasn’t ever entered the repertory, but several of his operettas are easily available on CD and DVD. Orphée aux Enfers (with its famous can-can ) and La Belle Hélène offer a hilarious take on Greek myths, or you can luxuriate in the hedonistic Paris party scene with La Vie parisienne . La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein is worth a listen too, particularly for the heroine’s rousing arias. On a more serious note, Massenet ’s opera Werther offers another take on the romantic artist searching for the ideal woman, as does Gounod ’s Faust , where the hero is prepared to sell his soul to the devil for love and youth. And if you’re after operas about artists and their love affairs, there’s always Puccini ’s much-loved La bohème . Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs until 3 December 2016. Tickets are still available. The production will be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 15 November 2016. Find your nearest cinema . The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet and Mr and Mrs Christopher W.T. Johnston.
Washington National Opera offered a shellshocked D.C. some much-needed diversion Saturday night, with a new production of La Fille du Regiment. Though a fairly basic take on Donizetti’s featherweight 1840 comedy, a solid cast and nimble direction made this a rewarding evening for locals willing to sober up/crawl out from under the covers for the first time since Tuesday. Back on the opera house stage after her WNO debut in Marriage of Figaro back in September (simpler times!), Lisette Oropesa offered audiences a chance to appraise her talents away from a crowded ensemble. Oropesa’s winning stage presence is a natural fit for Marie, and she readily supplied the charisma needed to make this show work. Despite some very involved stage business throughout Marie’s sequences, she kept the physical comedy entertaining while letting the music lead. If there’s a dramatic quibble to note, it’s that Oropesa’s Act I Marie, played as an irrepressible but still feminine Nellie Forbush type doesn’t quite prepare us for Marie as hopeless fish-out-of-water in Act II. All the farce bits with the music and dancing lessons still work fine, but one doesn’t quite buy that Marie is bewildered by her new surroundings; instead it plays as though she just really likes sticking it to the Marquise. Skillfully wielding her light, fluttery soprano, Oropesa brought an exciting technical precision to the role (including some formidable trills) as well as a sense of vocal style that ensured the music did its rightful part to convey the comedy. Marie’s two ballads were strong as well, with Oropesa spinning some beautiful dynamic contrasts and applying the steely edge in her voice to mournful effect. For all of her considerable virtues in this role, however, she perhaps lacks that last mile of vocal glamour that would make this a really memorable turn. That astringent edge in her voice sometimes translated into high notes that registered as accurate but thin and not terribly beautiful, as well as passage work that sometimes sounded colorless and hollow. These issues tended to afflict her solo music more than the ensembles, where soaring full high notes rounded out a series of thrilling climaxes. Mind you, any minor vocal glamour deficits were handily addressed by the glorious Tonio of Lawrence Brownlee. Brownlee cheerfully conquered the party trick aspects of the role, nailing the dread enumerated C’s in “Ah! Mes Amis” as well as that bonus C# in his big second act number. Brownlee’s appeal extended beyond those calling cards, though, with an urgent melting tone and gorgeous legato lines in moments like the first act duet with Marie and especially a beguiling “Pour me rapprocher.” Character wise, his Tonio is a straightforward affair, with lots of good-natured mugging in Act I and solemn concern in Act II. Mostly one was reminded that, as Donizetti tenors go, Tonio offers fairly meager dramatic possibilities relative to say, a Nemorino. Elsewhere in the cast, Kevin Burdette provided a strong guiding presence and colorful bass for Marie’s primary regimental father, Sulpice. Recent Domingo-Cafritz alum Deborah Nansteel brought a rich mezzo to the part of the Marquise, though there is perhaps something of a trade-off to casting a younger singer here that needs to work hard to act “old” instead of casting an age-appropriate singing actress who might be better positioned to make something poignant out of this storyline. Timothy J. Bruno, a current young artist who also appeared in the earlier Figaro made another good impression here, lending his booming sound and comic chops to the role of Hortensius. And of course, no mention of the lineup would be complete without noting that, for this premiere performance only, noted opera lover and occasional supernumerary Ruth Bader Ginsburg did the ceremonial honors as the Duchess of Krakenthorp. The material was a somewhat meandering series of birth certificate jokes and feel-good patter, though the justice had a good bit going with a funny voice every time she said “Krakenthorp.” The audience responded with the ecstatic applause you’d expect for this diminutive 83-year old national treasure who now also happens to be one of the last people standing between us and the abyss. (Perhaps adding to a surreal experience for Ginsburg this week: loyal WNO patron and ornery historical footnote turned potential Secretary of State Newt Gingrich was sitting just beyond the footlights.) Conductor Christopher Allen led a sprightly reading in the pit, maintaining an easy momentum and largely keeping the big ensemble moments in line. However, as with the Figaro that opened the season, this performance just didn’t feel very polished, and while occasional raggedness isn’t a deal-breaker for this forgiving score, one hopes things will tighten up over the course of the run. The extensive choral writing for the regiment received more exacting treatment from the men of the WNO chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman. Director Robert Longbottom turned in a warm, easy to digest outing of this chestnut, demonstrating admirable restraint with the farcical aspects (Act II free-for-all excepted, of course). Instead of trying to upstage the music with excessively broad or gimmicky bits, Longbottom generally relied on inventive, natural-feeling details that worked in the spirit of the gentle comedy rather than against it. The production design sticks to a familiar “alps n’ caps” motif. The first act set (James Noone) makes some interesting use of these materials, with abstract groves of trees flanking a huge oval cutout providing a view onto a quaint backdrop painting of a valley, dramatically lit by Mark McCullough; the generic columned ballroom in the second act is more forgettable. Besides wrangling all those uniforms, costume designer Zack Brown gets extra points for RBG’s shimmery green number and Marie’s fun super wide-legged sailor pants. Photo: Scott Suchman
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