Classical Music Buzz > Out West Arts
Out West Arts
Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
637 Entries
Brigitte Geller, Dmitry Ivashchenko, Karolina Gumos Photo: Forster/Komische Opera Berlin 2012
The 20th-century revival of interest in Baroque operas has, more or less, resulted in two types of contemporary productions of works from the period. On the one hand there are those that attempt to present something of a reverent reconstruction of imagined 18th-century productions. This is exactly the kind of thing I saw a little over a week ago in Paris with Ivan Alexandre's production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, which got a detailed work up relying heavily on stage craft from the composer’s own era. On the other hand, whether it is set in an earlier period or a contemporary one, there are those stagings that give an ironic wink to the past commenting on the musical and dramatic tropes of Baroque operas themselves. This is often done for laughs—whether or not they make sense in terms of the libretto—in an effort to break up the rather lengthy running times many of these operas have. A good recent example would be Francisco Negrin's recent Rinaldo for Lyric Opera of Chicago. There are those that break the mould like Peter Sellars who has been known for giving Baroque operas contemporary updates fully realizing dramatic parallels between their stories and contemporary themes, a task he did quite well in Chicago the season before with Handel's Hercules. But leave it to Stefan Herheim to go his own way.

Herheim has become perhaps the best regarded of opera stage directors in recent years for a string of wildly imaginative, unexpected and insightful stagings including a 2008 Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival and Berg’s Lulu for Dresden in 2010 to name just two. He doesn’t just place the events of stories in more recent time periods, but actually investigates deeper meanings in the score for shows that can have unexpected contrasting elements that can puzzle more than shock in a particular context. His staging of Handel’s Xerxes for the Komische Oper Berlin, which I saw last week, was no less mysterious, albeit in a very funny way. It’s a production that seems to comment as much on the way contemporary audiences view Baroque operas as it is about the event of the opera itself.

The action takes place on a rotating 18th-century stage within the larger frame work of the Komische stage that reveals the wing and backstage areas. This opera-within-the-opera idea isn’t new, but Herheim’s off-kilter working of it is. Instead of giving the show an additional implied storyline with the cast playing both opera singers and the characters of Handel’s opera, the cast remain as the latter throughout. Even when leaving the stage to enter the wings, Xerxes, sung here by a lovely Stella Doufexis, is still Xerxes. He is not puzzled by his surroundings, but instead appears to be acutely aware of them as part of the world. The “onstage” performances tend toward the broadly comic and include more unexpected elements such as performers dressed as sheep who wander on stage, a chorus dressed as creatures from the deep blue sea, and some other clever visual gags that recur throughout the show. Yet, while the spirit is light-hearted, Herheim never appears to be taking shots at the convention of Baroque operas. Nor does he seem to be interested in reconstruction as tribute given the use of unexpected elements like neon lights.

So what’s going on here? My bet is that the show is a running commentary on producing Baroque operas themselves for contemporary audiences. The characters are all trapped in a world not of their own creation – aware of their existence as something besides what they are onstage, but not actors or other real-life figures either. This is reinforced in the end when the chorus enters for the final minutes of music dressed for the first time in contemporary street clothes. The seven characters in the cast seem honestly shocked and surprised to see them, a reaction that suggests for the first time in the long, strange goings-on in this show that they view something as foreign and out of place. For the first time they are removed from the audience as the chorus sings about the importance of joy and celebrating love.

It’s a surprising and rather moving moment in the opera and one that suggests the heart of performing  Baroque opera isn’t about lampooning it or recreating some modern ersatz version of it. Herheim, in his rather round-about way, is taking the work on its own terms, though granted not in a way that’s obvious or simply about relating it to contemporary themes and issues.

Musically the show was solid and on par with the quality one comes to expect at the Komische Oper. Konrad Junghänel conducted the contemporary instrument orchestra with fervor if not always the greatest detail. There were standouts in the cast including Julia Giebel as Atalanta and Katarina Bradic as Amastris who give some of the bet comical turns in the whole show. But if Regie theater is about directors and their ideas, then this was certainly it where the most intriguing and thought provoking work of the night rested squarely in the hands of Herheim.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Richard Chamberlin stars in The Exorcist Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and the subsequent 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin is perhaps best remembered for some of Friedkin’s most bracing side effects. The spinning head of Regan, in a career defining performance for better-or-worse by the young Linda Blair, moments of levitation, and spewing vomit still come to mind for an entire generation of movie audiences for which Friedkin’s version of The Exorcist was synonymous with horror. It seems an unlikely choice for a stage adaptation, but when Blatty entrusted the project to playwright John Pielmeier, he was most taken with the plans to treat the story differently than it was in that most famous of films. Peilmeier, working with stage director John Doyle, wanted to craft something more organic, intense, and visceral than what audiences might remember from the film. And they have managed to do so with The Exorcist, which is now receiving its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse in L.A. But while the play may manage to get out from under the film's shadow, it simultaneously doesn’t necessarily offer the strongest argument for why this particular story matters in a contemporary context.

Pielmeier has updated the action of the story to more contemporary times and filled the show with modern references to ethnic wars in Africa and other recognizable headlines. He and John Doyle have also largely done away with much of those touchstone special effects. While Emily Yetter, the young actress playing Regan, gets a workout with acrobatic flailing throughout the show, the levitation and contortions of the possessed child are more implied than explicitly expressed. Doyle has also gone for his trademark concise staging contained in a small area surrounded by the entire cast around a central table. Those actors not participating in a scene often provide the dramatic vocal effects of the possessed Regan from the other side of the partitions that delineate the central area where scenes flow together, one into the other with only minimal demarcation. It’s like Doyle’s Sondheim shows without the musical instruments.

This stripped down look does provide the show with a narrative intensity that sometimes comes on too quickly. The concluding sacrifice of Fr. Damien Karras, a quite good David Wilson Barnes, seems almost a postscript to the action, it comes and goes so quickly. But at the same time, the leanness of the show provides for a shift of focus in thematic content. Pielmeier’s version provides more space for the spiritual and moral themes of the piece to take center stage. The show becomes less about the specter of the demonic child, and more about how we process and rationalize all the day to day horrors in this world. Some of the best dialog on these topics come from Richard Chamberlin who takes over the role of Fr. Merrin famously played on screen by Max von Sydow. Opposite him the show’s other big star, Brooke Shields, plays Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. Shields has the toughest job in the show charged with giving a convincing portrayal of a woman who—we are to believe—comes to feel an exorcism will be the best course for addressing her daughter’s increasingly bizzare behavior despite her modern disdain for the thought of such a practice. She almost gets there, but it’s a fairly thankless stretch for a character to ask the audience to identify with her even as she launches into a campaign for the most fantastic and unbelievable aids for her daughter.

But despite some good things here, I still couldn’t help feeling that the show had completely shaken off the past. It’s one of these shows where one wonders about what the story has to tell us that is actually new or insightful. It’s familiar to the point of being taken for granted at times despite the shift in focus. But it is tightly constructed overall with well paced performances that might make those who miss those heady days of early 1970s horror films shiver a little bit.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Ina Kringelborn and Vincent Wolfsteiner Photo: Wolfgang Silveri/Komishe Oper Berlin 2011
With so much of the standard opera repertory consisting of works composed over a century ago, the omnipresence of the historical oppression of women is inescapable. However, this material is an important site of artistic interrogation in the world of opera, where inequalities still exist in at least in the number of women at the most senior levels of artistic management and direction. All of this was in high relief during the closing week of the opera season at Berlin’s Komische Oper where two men took on some of the more problematic stories about women in the opera canon during the festival week that closed Sunday. The Komische Oper’s departing intendant, Andreas Homoki offered a revival of his popular 2010 staging of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the night after the final performance of this season’s new production of von Weber’s Der Freischutz from the mind of the poster boy of Regietheater, Calixto Bieito. Both stories involved contests where young women have been offered up as prizes by their fathers to contest winners. Both have a favorite potential victor in mind, but it’s the snags in getting that suitor into the winner’s circle that creates the drama. And yet the differences in approach in these two male directors couldn’t have more different implications in terms of sexual politics.

Homoki’s Meistersinger, which was conducted by the Komische Oper’s outgoing music director Patrick Lange is a study in understatement. There is so little to it, that at times it feels and looks like a very German high school musical. The stage is occupied solely by the cast in quaint picturesque costumes on an empty stage with eight or so free standing square edifices meant to suggest the buildings of Nuremberg. There’s a chapel and various sized boxes all with pointed roofs that tower over the cast. Each “building” has a front wall-sized door that opens for characters to enter and leave but otherwise little happens other than the movement of these buildings to reinforce the societal underpinnings of the piece – sometimes the city is closed like a wall to the outsider, at others, as in the Act II riot, it is a state of disarray and overturned edifices. Homoki’s vision otherwise is more or less what you’d imagine the Disney film version of Meistersinger would look like. Beckmesser all but twirls the edges of his curled mustache to communicate his villainy, and doting Eva flounces across the stage. Homoki deals with Hans Sachs’ odd, closing aria by simply ignoring it more of less, and that action continues unabated toward the pre-determined happy ending. There are a lot of tired ideas here as well, most painfully the whole explosion of color stratagem in the final minutes. After four hours of looking at nothing but white walls and gray costumes, the day-glo onset of the final scene in both costumes and color is not only tired, but too little too late. It was also one of the quickest Meistersingers I’ve heard with Lange giving no one much time to ponder over the beauty of the score. In the end Eva is won by her knight and everyone goes home happy.

From Act III of Neistersinger Photo: Monika Ritterhaus/Komische Oper Berlin 2011
Ignoring the problematic undertones of an opera is a position that a director like Calixto Bieito has no stomach for. That doesn’t mean his productions are always sublime, but they undoubtedly make audiences uncomfortable in asking hard questions. In his recent staging of Der Freischütz the young and beautiful Agathe hopes to be wed to Max after she is won in a shooting contest. Bieito makes no bones about the obvious ideological parallels between marriage and hunting with women being the prey in the former. He casts the role of an animal killed by the hunters in Act I as a naked woman dressed in a fur coat, who, like prey, is brutally killed and stripped of her outer covering before being hoisted away, bloody on a hunter’s shoulders. Brutal to watch to be sure, but Bieito never lets up with the metaphor driving his point home. When Kaspar calls on the devil to cast the magic bullets to ensure Max’s victory in the deal Max has cut to win his bride, it takes place amid a clearly satanic woodland rite with Kaspar murdering a pair of newlyweds and unceremoniously annointing each bullet from between the legs of the brides corpse. This drives Max mad in this version turning him into a naked, mud-covered wild man or animal himself who will haunt Agathe for the rest of the opera. Max was sung by the excellent Vincent Wolfsteiner who stayed on board with the total frontal nudity throughout the entire second Act. Bieito follows through on calling the sexism and violence taken for granted in Der Freischütz all the way to the end by changing the ending where Agathe dies anyway and both the Hermit and Max shot dead by the modern dressed paramilitary hunters despite their songs of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bieito’s characters live by the gun and die by it despite any sentimental notion of this work hanging around in the minds of a contemporary audience. It was undoubtedly brutal to watch, but yet there was something much more honest about this production in terms of the material. Lange was on the podium again and overall the show was much more strongly cast with Bettina Jensen as a ringing, forceful Agathe and Carsten Sabrowski as the voracious and evil Kaspar.

Of course, it’s unfair to draw this sort of comparison in some ways, and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Bieito’s work a feminist production in any sense of the word. The important thing is to remember how limiting the two approaches suggested here are in and of themselves. There is a power to having a variety of different voices interpret even the most familiar repertory. And that variety is still lacking overall when it comes to women directing opera on the world stage.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
from Dr. Dee at ENO
Damon Albarn is not the first British pop or rock star to venture into the world of musical theater, or opera if you must. He won’t be the last either, I wager, but he has shown some tenacity in the medium having provided music for at least two collaborations that have come to life at the Manchester International Festival and received subsequent stagings at English National Opera. The last of those Monkey Journey to the West was so successful, that Albarn teamed up with stage director Rufus Norris for a piece of his own inspiration, Dr. Dee, which just finished its run at ENO this week. While still a collaboration, Albarn had much more overall input into Dr. Dee. He is credited with the music and as “co-creator,” a title shared by Norris who is also the director.

You may have noticed the lack of a writing credit. I did as well, though I learned about it the hard way in actually seeing the show. On the good side, Albarn has an eye for interesting subject matter. Dr. Dee is about John Dee, a 17th-century mathematician and expert on the occult who was an advisor and political consultant at times to Queen Elizabeth I. The opera portrays a meteoric rise to power for Dee which is paired with the inevitable downfall. In the story, his troubles begin when he becomes increasingly involved in his real life project of deciphering the language of angels that was passed onto him through a medium, Edward Kelley. Kelley eventually tells Dee that an angels has demanded that Dee share his wife with him. In Dr. Dee, the court tires of his useless decoding work and he soon falls from favor. If all this sounds familiar, it should. The figure of the real life Dee is thought to have had some influence both on the figure of Marlowe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Neither Albarn nor Norris has quite those talents, though, and Dr. Dee falters both in its rather pedestrian musical score, and an overreliance on 20th-century clichés about faith and love. The music isn’t unpleasant, mind you. It’s a string of pop songs, many of which Albarn plays along on during the show tinged with Elizabethan musical instrumentation. There is very little padding between the songs making the show a bit less of an opera and a tad more of a musical theater piece. The songs are sung by Albarn as well as some members of the cast including Paul Hilton who sings John Dee and Christopher Robson who sings the role of Edward Kelley. I can’t say much more about the songs in that the acoustics of the show were plagued with the problems pop shows usually are. Amplification was used for all the sound, and in this setting, it meant voices were so distorted as to be indecipherable. For some inexplicable reason, the house which uses supertitles despite performing everything in English chose not to use them for Dr. Dee helping no one.

The strongest parts of the evening come from Norris’ sharply designed and directed staging. A large, stage length room resembling a meeting hall fills much of the stage when things begin. The room contains a band with period instruments as well as Albarn but before long the room elevates revealing a large space where Dee and his fellow Elizabethan’s will act out the depicted events. There is ample use of video to highlight Dee’s mathematical and supernatural work. The images sweep along in a pleasant way and there is clever use of large paper screens to escort players on and off stage in a manner reminiscent of Japanese theater. There are even live birds that fly from the theater balcony onto the stage at one point that created a lot of excitement.

But at the core, and despite it’s good looks, Dr. Dee is hollow. It attempts to dredge up drama from the rather banal conflict Dee feels about the idea of “sharing” his wife with Edward Kelley. And when its not doing this, the story feels more like filler than anything else. Of course, other British pop and rock acts have turned stranger and more esoteric music theater pieces into gold, so who's to say what Albarn might get to next or what Dr. Dee might look like over time. Now it just looks dull.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd Photo: Henrietta Butler/ENO 2012
There are so many beautiful things about the operas of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps my favorite is the inherent ambiguity. The things that are assumed and acted upon by the characters in his stories without them ever being explicitly stated. I know more than a few opera fans who dislike his operas for this very reason – particularly when it comes to male homosexuality. The idea being that the undercurrents of unspoken male desire, or the stand-in conflicts that are sometimes meant to be thinly veiled storylines about the destructive effects of homophobia, strike some of these folks as timid and passé. And yet, I doubt that any of these folks would be much more pleased with the manner in which director David Alden has chosen to deal with these finer points of subtlety in the new production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is wrapping up its run at English National Opera this week and which I saw on Tuesday.

Actually the performance, conducted by ENO’s musical director Edward Gardner, doesn’t so much deal with fragile emotional ambiguity as do away with it almost entirely. In fact it pretty much does away with the sea and the boat of Melville’s original entirely. Outside of the scenes in Captain Vere’s quarters, all of the action takes place in front of or on one of two giant steel hull walls. The Indomitable may be at sea, but if it is there, it’s as a mid-20th Century German U-Boat. The residents of this submarine are dressed for the occasion as well with all the stocky, bearded officers in enough black leather boots, caps, and floor length trench coats to take one back to L.A.’s Faultline on a Saturday night. But this isn’t just about décor, it’s about Alden’s need to amp up the show by treating Claggart and his henchmen in particular as more clearly the arm of some fascist military repressive force complete with billy clubs to beat back the ship’s crew. Claggart himself, sung by the vocally lovely Matthew Rose, never stops walking in this production, pacing slowly in broad, right angle sweeps often away from the action and other characters he is supposedly interacting with like some uninvolved sentry. Claggart’s aria, “Handsomely done…” is staged like some melodramatic Hollywood mad scene where he mangles a floor mat. It’s almost as strangely wrong minded as the decision to play the Novice, here sung by Nicky Spence, as a man driven mad under Claggart’s harassment. And if all of this doesn’t beat the obvious into you, you can always put Vere in all white and Claggart and all the rest of the officers in black. Subtlety, thy name is not David Alden.

In the moments I wasn’t trying to figure out what the huge glossy black barrels the crew were moving around were doing on this man of war, I did find time to admire some of the musical performance. Edward Gardner continues to provide exciting musical direction, and his leadership of the orchestra this evening was fully realized, digging in with the players for some thrilling scenes. The chorus, always a key element to a Britten opera, was fabulous as well. Alden’s production served one good end here by using the large curved reflective surfaces to reflect the sound out into the auditorium. I rather liked Benedict Nelson in the title role. He wasn’t as large voiced or warm perhaps as you might like, but he was convincing with a young spirited energy. Kim Begley sang Captain Vere and, though he sounded somewhat unsteady to me when he was most exposed in the intro and the conclusion, he fit in well with the cast and proved a plausible, flawed leader struggling with regrets. He, like all involved parties, used the rather minimal set to maximum effect, but they really did deserve a bit better here. It’s not so much the modern updating of the show or even the change of setting that is so much of a problem, it’s more the desire to stamp out the tender ambiguities and conflicts in Britten’s opera that sinks this Indomitable. Billy Budd continues through July 8 at ENO.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Eva-Maria Westbroek and Bryan Hymel Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
When the curtain rises on David McVicar’s new production of Berlioz’ masterpiece Les Troyens, promoted as a highlight of the Royal Opera House season in London, my immediate thought was, here we go again. The audience is immediately greeted with that sort of monstrous pile of darkly lit, post-apocalyptic rubble and walls mixed with somber costuming straight out of the Crimean War. (It’s always the Crimea isn’t it?) If you’re one of those people still wondering if McVicar is running out of ideas, his short-sighted muddled vision of Les Troyens should settle that once and for all. It’s not the updating of the action or even the now predictable visual look of the show that is so much the problem, it’s a lack of interpretation and often a plain understanding of some events in the libretto that can sink this very long performance over and over again despite some wonderfully coordinated musical performances.

Of course, going in to the run, the big story was Jonas Kaufmann. Originally booked to sing Enée, Kaufmann pulled out due to health issues weeks before the show was to open. His image is still festooned all over the house and town as his appearance was a major calling card for the company this Olympic summer, and ads show him in the corner of a boxing ring dressed in a tuxedo. Oddly enough, as much as I love to hear him sing, in the end, his presence on this team wasn’t missed as much as one might have thought it would be. The reason why is tenor Bryan Hymel, a rising American lyric tenor. He’s had bigger and bigger assignments lately, including the role of Gounod’s Faust at Santa Fe in 2011 and an appearance in the ROH’s recent run of Rusalka. Something big has clicked for him in the last year, and on this particular Sunday afternoon he sounded amazing, with easy top notes and big volume for the house. He’s not in an easy corner of the vocal repertory to pull it off all the time, but admittedly his bright, light voice in the end was preferable, I’d argue, to the kind of darkened baritonal sound Kaufmann is known for.

Anna Caterina Antonacci Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
Hymel did much more than keep up and hold a place in the show. Which is saying a great deal for the quality of performances given by the two other major principals in the show. Eva Maria Westbroek continues to startle world audiences and she did again with the her grounded, accessible take on Didon. She kept her stamina up in this long sing right through the concluding aria. Granted, the chemistry between her and the other principals in the cast could be iffy, but vocally it was a solid, admirable performance. Meanwhile the Cassandre, Anna Caterina Antonacci, demonstrated why she has such an ardent following for a singer who is careful about vocal assignments and how much she travels. The intensity she brought to the first two acts of the evening was up in the Waltraud Meier range. Cassandre’s rage and resolution was captivating and frankly her singing alone made the whole show worthwhile. She was well paired with the Chorèbe of Fabio Capitanucci, although again they weren’t always acting together as much as alongside each other. All these superstars got a performance from the ROH Orchestra and music director Antonio Pappano that was nothing short of spectacular. He dug in for rich, solid, warm sound throughout that rivaled anything I’ve personally heard him conduct in the house despite some indulgent tempi here and there.

That the cast was let down by the production is an understatement. There are so many distressing elements, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the surest sign of weakness were the numerous poorly choreographed and dramatically ignored ballet sequences. I’m not intending to lay blame on choreographer Andrew George, although he could let things get a bit silly at times. The issue is that McVicar treats them as dramatic time outs resulting in endless moments of goofy sailors, amorous slaves, and happy peasants jumping around the stage for minutes on end. Berlioz intended the dance sequences to move the story forward in the way that everything else musically in the opera does, and McVicar’s repeated sloughing them off is a disservice. There is a giant replica of Carthage used in Act III onwards that Didon walks about on and then in subsequent acts is lifted above the scene and finally destroyed. It’s tired and heavy handed symbolism that didn’t look so great when Francesca Zambello used it, if my memory serves, in her own vision of the opera many years ago. There is also that Technicolor happy, happy, joy, joy business in Act III which appears as a set from Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World After All” ride only this time the audience is not in motorized fake boats. As the opera wore on, the production’s inability to maintain a consistently dramatic tension became more and more of a problem. And when a giant mechanized figure, which I assume was Hannibal as referenced in Didon’s concluding passage, rises above the stage, you can already envision the stage hands struggling to get the flames out on cue with the darkened stage at the final note that you know is just around the corner. The audience shouldn’t be thinking about that, and the fact that McVicar hasn’t put something like that out of everyone’s mind after over four hours of music and a performance by hundreds of people is a sign of the underlying mediocrity of it all. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself in the near future at both Vienna and La Scala before arriving at some point eventually in San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, if I were here through the end of the run on July 11th, I'd be seeing it again. This is a big show and not an everyday occurrence with a remarkable cast. But one hopes by the time it arrives in San Francisco, the kitsch factor will be dialed down a wee bit.

4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Renée Fleming Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Ian Patrick 2012
The streets of Paris were crowded and alive with young revelers on Saturday. It was gay pride weekend and the carnival atmosphere filled the Place de la Bastille with men and women in colorful attire that could leave more or less to the imagination. As tempting as joining the party was, I soldiered through the crowd to the international airport terminal that is Opera de Paris’ Bastille opera house to watch Strauss’ Arabella hand that proverbial glass of water to her intended. That’s not kink, it’s simply a moment of bizarre understatement which those who love opera love almost as much as grand spectacle and dramatic excesses of all kinds.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes hundreds of artists to make some of these most basic of opera moments work, and in Arabella that challenge is particularly great. The story is a wisp of a thing about a titled Viennese family on the brink of bankruptcy whose only hope to survive is to marry their oldest, Arabella, sung in Paris by superstar Renée Fleming, off to a wealthy suitor. Her father has taken steps to ensure this including soliciting potential grooms via the mail and dressing the family’s youngest daughter Zdenka, here a radiant Genia Kühmeier, as a boy to cut out the competition and reduce cost. Arabella meanwhile is the belle of just about every ball until almost against all expectations her father's plans come to fruition when she falls for Mandryka who has responded to his dead uncle's solicitation as a suitor. The drama arises from everything not working out quite as simply as it is supposed to, though this is an opera at times blissfully free of event.

But the Opera de Paris placed some very good bets on a team with a great track record with the more delicate and ephemeral of Strauss’ operas. In 2008, a nearly identical team fashioned a superb staging of Capriccio for the Vienna State Opera, which was one of the highlights of my recent opera going career. This Arabella wasn’t quite that good, but it was spectacular in its own way nevertheless. Ms. Fleming lives up to her star billing in her core repertory here. Granted she may not look like a woman celebrating what her character calls the last night of her childhood, but she certainly can sound like it, all bright, lush and beautiful. There is a warmth and inherent melancholic edge to her sound that fits so perfectly with Strauss that it is hard to pay too much attention to whatever legitimate criticisms one might raise on finer points of vocal technique. She is again placed among a stellar cast including one of the most outstanding of current German baritone’s Michael Volle as Mandryka. He portrays a rough-around-the-edges masculinity that imbues the whole opera with an internal logic that sustains it during even the thinnest moments. And while on the topic of vocalists, I must mention another artist whom I’m eager to see on American shores much more frequently , soprano Genia Kühmeier who stepped into this run with this performance as Zdenka. Her Act I duet with Fleming was so achingly beautiful you could wrap yourself up in it for days. Kühmeier's easy and bright ringing tone is a joy and she adds further depth to an already great cast. Kurt Rydl sang Arabella’s father Waldner a bit on the bombastic side and Joseph Kaiser, who was announced as ill before the performance but sang anyway, managed a respectable Matteo.

Also on board again as with the Vienna Capriccio was Paris’ music director Philippe Jordan who manages again to give Strauss a quick-on-his-feet sweep. He kept the pressure on the cast volume-wise, but never to the point of forcing anyone to go beyond where they were comfortable from the sounds of it. The design team also returned again under director Marco Arturo Marelli who employed a similar mobile, dream-like set to maximize a sense of time flowing by like a ball or a party. Set elements entered and exited the viewing area on a large circular rotating stage bisected by several panels that each rotated on their own axis to reveal either the paneling of a 19th-century parlor or a burnished silver wall. At one end, the parlor wall gives way to a painted view of a partly cloudy sky. But the color motif here is the steely blue of Arabella’s gown. It matches the curtain used to close Act I and outside of white and a few dashes of pink or purple, it dominates the stage. In one of the more stirring passages, its that same gown that is worn by numerous imagined Arabella stand-ins that haunt Mandryka’s understandably jealous mind in Act II as he sees her dancing and kissing any number of young, handsome bare-chested men as the couples wheel and dance across the stage in pairs.

The tone is perfect throughout without ever managing to take all these events too seriously and keeping things dreamy and romantic. The pair of duets between Mandryka and Arabella anchor the show beautifully and can—and do—bring tears. To be fair, despite its strengths, though, this Arabella is not a revolution in opera. But what it does represent, I think, is exactly the kind of production and success that a company like Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera has been searching around in the dark for. It is decidedly not an old-fashioned grade school diorama of a show. It looks modern, and pretty as well. But it is also not radically reinterpreting or sharply investigating the source material either. It's the kind of show that might trick you into thinking its something daring, when in fact, its just he latest update of something that's good, but decidedly familiar. However as New York audiences have found out in the last few years, wanting something like this and getting something like this are two very different things. In the meantime, Paris has a wonderfully sung Arabella that runs for three more performances in Paris through July 10.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Brian Jagde Photo: Arielle Doneson
Tenor Brian Jagde is having quite a year. The young vocalist is in his third year as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera and recently he’s racked up two high profile notices. He received one of the top prizes just last month at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. And his summer just got a lot more interesting when he was tapped to step in for an indisposed lead in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Tosca which opened on Friday. He’ll be singing Cavaradossi throughout the run there opposite a number of stars including Amanda Echalaz, Raymond Aceto, and Thomas Hampson. He’s an exciting young singer and one with a schedule that is already filling up with engagements around the world in a variety of Italian and French roles. Luckily, he’s also a very nice guy and took time before his big debut in Santa Fe to ponder the often imitated but never duplicated 10 Questions for Out West Arts.
  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
    There are so many great roles in the repertoire. Singing Cavaradossi in Santa Fe is especially significant because it's the dream role I've had my sights on for a while. I guess I'd say the next role that I'd like to perform the most would be Riccardo from Un Ballo in Maschera.
  2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
    I don't have an answer for that. If I am capable of performing a role, and it's appropriate for me and my voice type, I can't think of a reason I wouldn't perform it.
  3. You’ve already worked with some of the greats in the opera world in that last few years during your time as an Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera including Renée Fleming, Karita Mattila and conductors like Nicola Luisotti. Who haven’t you worked with yet, that you’d most like to?
    One of the best parts of being in this business is getting to meet many different artists and getting to collaborate with them on the stage. I enjoy working with all different types of artists. I think the people I'd most like to work would be a toss up between Maestro James Levine or Maestro Riccardo Muti. I think that each of their wealth of knowledge could serve me for an entire career.
  1. You recently won one of the top prizes at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. How important is such an achievement for your career right now?
    I've never considered myself a competition singer. I feel very lucky and honored to have been awarded prizes, and especially amongst so many talented singers. How could winning ever come at a bad time? Winning one of the top prizes in Operalia seems to be one of the first major achievements this year, towards what I hope is a great career! All of these things are important. Without a doubt, the competition has helped me a great deal to step into a category of singers I am honored to join.

    This career is like walking a tight rope - you just have to stay balanced on that fine line and enjoy the ride, and that is what I am doing this year. So far I've debuted at a few regional houses, been to Beijing and had an amazing experience working with the great Placido Domingo, which resulted in some unexpected prizes. Now I'm going on stage to sing my first Cavaradossi with Santa Fe Opera! Later this year I am going to Munich for the first time to reprise La Bohème in Concert form with Maestro Maazel at the Munich Philharmonic, and then singing Tosca with Patricia Racette at The San Francisco Opera! I am walking that tight rope and am so honored by all the opportunities that these represent.
  2. You’ve already booked engagements all around the world in the next few years. Any tips for dealing with jet lag?
    I am always excited to share my tips for dealing with jet lag. There are a few products I highly recommend for flying that allow me to feel no jet lag when I step off a plane, and I love to share them with other singers who can benefit.

    The first and most obvious is water. A lot of people think jet lag is due to lack of sleep, but mostly it is due to a lack of hydration. I go by the rule that If I'm on a 5 hour flight, I bring 4 liters of water on the plane with me, and I alter those numbers based on the length of any flight.

    Probably the most important find of my career is The Humidiflyer. The Humidiflyer looks like an oxygen mask you would wear in intensive care. What this product does, besides make you look funny, is filter the air from other peoples germs, and it saves the condensation from your breath, keeping the air moist. The makers originally made this for business people to help them with jet lag, but I think this should be in EVERY singer's bag. They say to wear it for at least half the flight. I usually put it on after take off and remove it just before landing.

    I put Peppermint Oil under my nose about 2 times during a 5 hour flight. This keeps my airway open, and supplements the moisture. To help with the sleeping, I always take 1 or 2 Advil PM, depending on what time I am starting my day at my destination. I've been able to sing almost immediately after stepping off the plane by sticking to this regimen.
  3. The role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, figures prominently for you this year both in San Francisco and in Santa Fe where you’re stepping into this starring role on somewhat short notice. What’s the trick to getting this young lover exactly right?
    Cavaradossi has proven to be a bit harder than I thought. It didn't help that I haven't had a ton of time to be in his shoes before going up on stage, but there are a few things that I understand very well.

    Cavaradossi is an artist, a revolutionary in a time where Italy is in constant back and forth struggles with outside and inside powers. He is a strong individual, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a lover, he knows exactly what Tosca needs to hear so that she will be satisfied. He is understanding even after they have their little spats, and can always overcome her ability to agitate him because all the things he can't stand are the same things he loves about her. Isn't that something we can all relate to in long term relationships?

    He is a committed and faithful man, demonstrated by the fact that he moved to Rome for Tosca, a highly dangerous environment for a revolutionary of his kind. His honor and courage are demonstrated through his help to Angelotti, his fellow revolutionary comrade. He's very proud, a hard worker, extremely passionate, and he is a real stand up guy.

    I think there isn't any more of a trick to getting into the soul of this character than others in different operas, it's more a matter of trying to put yourself in their shoes, and trying to embody their nature. Cavaradossi proves hard when it comes to becoming an Italian man. I am an American, and I look like an American. How do I make the audience forget that, and have them see a man who is true blood Italian? I have been studying the way of the Italian people daily, and hope to make this evident in my acting on stage and become increasingly convincing as I go through my career.
Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012

  1. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Darn those vengeful mezzos! I have to say that this would not throw me off my game, as I have all my music backed up in numerous sources so those Mezzos would never have a chance of making me lose a track. We have the cloud now!

    But, if for some reason every backed up version of my music went missing, I'd miss tons of tracks. I have all kinds of recordings of others, of myself, in different genres like pop, rock, classical, alternative, jazz, oldies, and opera, so to choose one track would be hard. When it comes to recordings I have of myself, I think someday I'd like to listen to my journey as a singer and how I've developed, so maybe I'd miss those the most, because I wouldn't be able to replace them.
  2. What's your current obsession?
    It has been and seemingly always will be watching TV - I am an addict! I think in a standard calendar year, I watch 40-45 seasons of shows in their entirety. I'm obsessed. My newest brand new show that I think will be the biggest hit of the year is The Newsroom on HBO. Brilliant writing, and acting.
  3. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
    I try to find things in common with all the roles I perform, because that way I can tap into parts of myself that aren't at the forefront. I connect most easily with passionate, honest, faithful, romantic, strong-willed, hard-working characters because that is who I am.

    Then there are the extreme character traits that I can build off of things about myself. For instance, I am not a killer, but in Carmen, I have to play a man who has killed and who eventually kills again. How can I do that if I've never done that? This is where my job becomes a lot of fun! I have to tap into parts of me that I either used to be, or never thought I was like in order to play Don José, so I go back in time to a Brian who was obsessive. When I get that obsession out there, I can see how Don José feels towards Carmen. Then I can research people who kill people, how they do it, the psychology behind how and why different types commit murder, and go from there.

    Knowing that Don José is a man who doesn't know how to resolve a problem without getting physical is key. Then we can explore the sexual frustration, and other psychological reasons, and see why stabbing her finally gets him a release he never got while with her. Now, I, Brian, don't and haven't had to deal with that, but I have to be able to play that person. This is why it's fun to be other people for a few hours a few nights a week. There are so many roles I have things in common with, but sometimes the most fun are the ones I don't!
  4. What’s next for Brian Jagde?
    I mentioned the future appearances this year, and I also am making my Berlin Deutsche Oper debut next year, which I am looking very much forward to. My plan is to stick to a core set of repertory that can sustain a career. I really want to sing Lyric repertoire as long as I can. I'd love to continue to sing roles like Rodolfo from La Boheme, Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly, Cavaradossi from Tosca, as well as Don José from Carmen, and the title role of Werther. I'd like to add other lyric roles like Alfredo from Traviata, De Grieux from Manon, Romeo from Romeo et Juliet, the title role of Faust, Edgardo from Lucia, and definitely Riccardo from Ballo. These are what I'd like to see, and I am seeing for the next few years for myself. Right now, all I know for sure is that I love learning new roles, and I'm excited to see where the future takes me!
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Sappho Island, 2011. Photo: Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine
Yes, I'm still in Paris. No, I haven't forgot about Los Angeles. And just to show how much I care, I sent gadfly and maestro of the bon mots, Ben Vanaman, over the REDCAT this week to take a look at one of their most anticipated shows of the summer from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine. Don't say I never did you any favors.

In 2009, L.A.-based actor/activist Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine (Biro) travelled to his native Uganda to interview a variety of remarkable men and women in that nation’s LGBT community. At the time, Uganda became a world flash point of anti-gay politics following the passage of its notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill that same year penalizing homosexuality by imprisonment and “aggressive homosexuality” by death. From these interviews, Mwine has assembled a captivating one-person show titled A Missionary Position that is playing this weekend at the REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles. During the course of the performance, Mwine portrays a soldier of the government, a sex worker, a priest, and a lesbian pressed into activism. Although the performance skirts agit-prop, this inclination is balanced if not undone by the actor’s total immersion in each character as he slips seamlessly from one role to the next.

A Missionary Position twines Mwine’s impersonations with actual footage from Uganda adroitly orchestrated by video designer Carole Kim. It begins with a narrator asking, “This is Uganda?,” and concludes with an on-screen assertion that one could never leave Uganda because it’s home. This conundrum, of leaving/staying, flight/resistance, is resolved in words from the priest stressing the African idea of “Ubuntu,” meaning “I am, because we are,” a riposte to the self-serving individualism of Western democracies. The idea, made both implicit and explicit during the evening, is that Uganda is worth fighting for, a fight that makes the accounts of those on the front lines blisteringly affecting.

The performance begins cheekily with Mwine dressed in military garb as a Ugandan soldier named BigamAnus whose “unwitting” sexual double entrendes deconstruct the language of bigotry with caustic effect. Patrolling the stage in swaggering opposition to an audience of spectators he rightly assumes are unsympathetic to his country’s heinous mission, the soldier soon begins to undress, during a breathtaking transition, into Serena, a transgender woman sex worker whose tale of victimization and survival –many of her fellows meet untimely ends- is harrowing. There was a particular moment, where Serena describes the melee that ensues when she’s caught servicing a “john” in a public rest-room, that perfectly encapsulates the duality of bleakest farce and sheer horror that characterizes the razor’s edge insanity of this nation’s anti-gay program.

Disappearing through a curtain behind the main stage, Mwine soon returns as a man who, kept in a zero-sum relationship with a German named Klaus in Rome, returns to Uganda via Tanzania, is reunited with an old boyfriend who’s joined the brotherhood, then himself becomes a priest, refusing to contradict his parishioners who refuse to believe the rumors about him being gay. Emotionally riven by his own closeted-ness, the priest’s anguish is laid bare at news that defiantly “out” activist Bob Kato has been murdered. This crime becomes a rallying cry for Uganda’s LGBT community, leading to Mwine’s final portrayal, of a lesbian who opened Uganda’s first public gay bar, Sappho Island, its later forced closure bringing the evening to an ambiguous conclusion.

Under the steady hand of director Emily Hoffman, Mwine, through each guise, addresses the audience with such measured elegance that one is transfixed by every utterance he makes. By turns combative and reflective, flamboyant and circumspect, Mwine lays bare the tragedy of his subject. One point that was particularly jarring: the dedication of American evangelist Scott Lively in fomenting Uganda’s anti-gay zealotry, and the equal commitment of those opposing the legislation crafted in his wake, from outsiders like Gordon Brown and Hilary Clinton to the real heroes of the Ugandan LGBT community, still living and working, playing and loving in a country that would do well to heed the true meaning of “Ubuntu.” One’s only regret is that the evening didn’t last longer, that Mwine didn’t bring even more of these heroes to life.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
Andrea Hill and Jaël Azzaretti with chorus Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Agathe Poupeney 2012
I started my European opera tour this summer in Paris where the young guys are all coiffed like Usher circa 2001 and wear high-top sneakers. It’s a look, regardless of whether or not its au courant, and it works for many of them. Which is kind of how I felt about the first opera I saw on my current European trip, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie at the Palais Garnier. Of course, the similarity in the above comparison falls apart when it comes to the “works for them” bit since Ivan Alexandre’s production, which is new to Paris after being created for Toulouse, is a throwback to something that may not be worth revisiting.

Rameau’s first opera is a Baroque gem filled with mythological characters including gods, sea monsters, and young lovers. It revisits the story of Phèdre and her love for her stepson Hippolyte. He meanwhile has a chaste love for Aricie, which is blessed by the goddess Diane, but is also put in jeopardy by his father Thésée. Alexandre and the design team have gone for something old-fashioned. Very old-fashioned, in fact, in their attempts to recreate the look and theatricality of an 18th-century opera production from the costumes, to the painted backdrops, to the gods who are lowered from the fly space on clouds suspended by ropes. The flat lighting mostly from the foot of the stage reinforces this visual style. It’s pretty to look at, and despite its contrast with the Garnier’s hyper 19th-century surroundings, it looks at home on the stage. Sweet Jesus, is it ever boring, though. In another throwback to the period, principal performers come to the foot of the stage, strike poses and stay there. They’ve got singing to do, but none that requires pesky movement. Even the stage trickery used to create mild surprises here and there fell mostly flat.

What’s worse, this notion of an ersatz recreation of a 18th-century staging isn’t even a new idea in the last thirty years. The Metropolitan Opera regularly trots out a few of Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s productions from decades ago that are essentially the same thing. Those shows (and I’m talking to you here La Clemenza di Tito) are painfully dull much of the time, and Alexandre does an amazing job of recreating that sensation in this Hippolyte and Aricie. Blogger Zerbinetta has had some great points to make recently about production teams not taking Baroque Opera seriously enough to really make it work well. And while gag-filled cynicism some Baroque operas face today can kill them (And I'm talking to you here The Enchanted Island), this kind of almost perfectionist reverence for something that may have never been in the first place isn't doing the genre any favors either. Alexandre and his team need to take Hippolyte and Aricie by trusting the drama at the material's core in order to actually interpret it instead of simply turning it into some kind of museum piece or treating it as something that needs to be apologized for.

It’s not totally a lost cause, though. Emmanuelle Haïm and her Le Concert d’Astrée give a lively period-informed performance of Rameau’s score. She makes room for the vocalists without being overindulgent and produces a great dynamic range with this kind of ensemble. The vocalists themselves were a mixed bag. The best was Stéphan Degout’s Thésée who was sizable and certain enough for a king. The other big name in the cast was Sarah Connolly who sang Phédre with lovely tone and enough fire to bring Racine to mind. Jaël Azzaretti had some lovely detail in her passages as L’Amour and got a warm ovation at the curtain calls. Anne-Catherine Gillet and Topi Lehtipuu were the lovers Aricie and Hippolyte respectively but weren’t particularly engaging and had sloppy attacks here and there. Despite some good musical moments, it wasn’t enough to shoulder the weight of a strange, almost willfully naïve staging that mired everything down for the long evening. The show has four more performances in Paris through mid-July.
4 years ago | |
| Read Full Story
51 - 60  | prev 2345678910 next