World report: reviews of opera from around the world.
CALGARY OPERA'S CONTROVERSIAL NEW production of Bizet's Carmen marked a milestone for the company. Leaving behind the security of picturesque sets and a traditional mode of acting, the original and fresh production boldly engaged a contemporary sensibility based in conceptual theatre. Updating the historical setting to the fascist Spain of General Franco, the production introduced a new, more realistically modern tone. While political overtones were unmistakably present, they did not overwhelm the human drama of the opera as originally conceived. Rather, the new setting served to underline the timeless quality of the human relationships, the staging moving skillfully between the historically concrete and a stylized, universalized portrayal of character.
These elements were given visual representation by the strikingly simple set: a long wall broken only by a single door. Despite its simplicity, the set proved highly effective, particularly in the scenes involving the chorus, the strongly defined backdrop giving immediacy to the courtyard scenes and some striking silhouettes during the smugglers' scene.
Through the use of unusual lighting effects, drawing mostly on primary colors, lighting director Harry Frehner fore-grounded the central dramatic motifs of the opera: yellow for nature and life; pastels for the sexually charged atmosphere of the inn; gray for the moral ambiguity of the smugglers' den; and red for death. Frehner has designed the lighting for many productions in Calgary, but never has he produced such compelling, powerful visual effects.
The opera was given in its original version with spoken dialogue, through which the production gained a new immediacy, the story line clearly in the foreground, the music an intensifying commentary.
With a few questionable choices in the staging of the various duets, the direction was generally impressive for its unfailing imagination and invention, and the cast was remarkably unified in its total effect. Rather than having one or two powerful singers who stood out as stars, everyone formed a balanced ensemble.
Marianne Bindig was a compelling Carmen, her vocal production secure, her tuning accurate, and her singing expressive and natural. Lacking the tonal depth and sultry quality of some of the more famous Carmens of the past, she nevertheless provided her own individual coloring. Dramatically, she was more a gypsy girl than a femme fatale, an interpretation fully in keeping with the production.
In vocal terms William Joyner was superb as Don Jose. His voice is a true French tenor--pure, sweet, rather high--but he also possessed sufficient power when needed. Bradley Garvin made a handsome Escamillo, his famous aria delivered with panache and bravado. He was likewise excellent in his handling of stage business. Svetlana Sech made a vocally alluring Micaela, her voice pure and clear. Not quite stabilized vocally in her third-act aria, she was heard to ravishing effect in the opening duet.
The secondary roles were also well handled. Allison McHardy (Mercedes) and Galgarian Rachel Hop (Frasquita) were well matched, humorous and vocally sturdy, and Randall Jacobsh and Daniel Okulitch, also Calgarians, contributed basso heft and military posturing as Zuniga and Morales.
The orchestra, too, was on its best behavior. Tyrone Paterson led the proceedings with a secure hand, the tempi brisk and somewhat unyielding to my taste, but nevertheless imbuing the production with vigor.
A final note regarding the contribution of former Calgary Opera director David Speers, who essentially cast the show. Carmen has always been one of his favorite operas, and the brilliance of this production is a fine testament to his many years of devoted service to opera in Calgary and to his attempts to bring new vitality to this most traditional art.
--Kenneth De Long
ENDING THE BEST SEASON EDMONTON OPERA has had in many years, Les Contes de Hoffmann received a riveting, theatrically exciting production. The opera teemed with eye-catching and unexpected images throughout, thanks to Loy Arcenas's sets, and Claudia Stevens' costumes, which were colorfully ransacked from many eras. Steve Ross's atmospheric lighting was also a valuable contribution.
Mark Thomson was a sturdy and handsome Hoffmann, well sung and well acted. If at times his top seemed a bit restricted, later performances showed him outstanding throughout his range. Soprano Lynn Fortin as the three heroines was both hilariously inspired and note-perfect as Olympia, while her Antonia was deeply involving and moving. Her Giulietta was as lush and sensuous as it should be.
The supporting cast was also first-rate. Montreal mezzo Mariateresa Magisano was a real find, playing Nicholaus and Antonia's mother with warm, full tones. Peter Blanchet, Rod Nelman, Larry Benson and Kenneth Gagnon proved to be fine singers and colorful actors in a myriad of roles.
The measured, well-paced conducting of Peter Dala shaped the opera's fantastic changes of mood, and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra relished the beautiful and poetic score.
LA GIOCONDA, AMILCARE PONCHIELLI'S POST-middle-period-Verdi potboiler of 1876, made an entertaining end to the Opera de Montreal season. Seeking a reputable substitute for the originally announced Diana Soviero, the company engaged Czech soprano Eva Urbanova. She applied a bright, full voice to the title role, and an ardent, if rudimentary, acting style. Enzo was portrayed by Italian tenor Fabio Armiliato with firm if not always effortless tone, but his acting was strictly so-so. Laura was given a full-hearted treatment by American mezzo Sharon Graham, while Montreal's Annamaria Popescu nicely co-ordinated her warm mezzo with a sympathetic portrait of La Cieca, the title character's devout mother. John Fiorito (Alvise) proved to be a baritone in bass's clothing, but at least he looked the part. Surpassing all of these in thespian vitality and vocal splendor was American baritone Richard Paul Fink, playing the villain Barnaba.
Minor roles were decently done and the chorus, directed by Yannick Nezet-Seguin, sounded robust. The violins of the Orchestre Metropolitain brought a hard edge to some of their top-line cantabiles, but rhythms were steady under Willie Anthony Waters and the brassy climaxes were well rounded. Bernard Uzan's stage direction ran from lukewarm to matter-of-fact; happily, the opulent sets from the Florida Grand Opera gave old-fashioned satisfaction.
JOANNE KOLOMYJEC'S FIRST TOSCA WAS THE highlight of Opera Lyra Ottawa's second and last production of the season. Kolomyjec's soaring soprano and her commitment to the character provided the necessary verve and frisson so necessary to the role. Although her lower register presented some difficulties and her prominent vibrato was irritating at times, she gave an engaging, riveting performance. Unfortunately, Montrealer Manrico Tedeschi, a strong dramatic tenor, offered a dispassionate, wooden Cavaradossi, made worse by his ceaseless posing and refusal to engage with anyone or anything except the stratosphere above the audience. John Avey embodied Baron Scarpia with just the right amount of malevolence and sensuality, and his baritone was full and well-rounded. Brian Nickel offered an incisive and convincing Angelotti. The voice of David Watson (the Sacristan) carried well, but he, like Tedeschi, dragged down the production with his ponderous, prodding performance.
The National Arts Centre Orchestra under Cal Stewart Kellogg failed to provide the level of support one expects of this fine ensemble, and it was only in the third act that the music coalesced with the action and singing on stage. The major disappointment was the much-anticipated Opera Lyra debut of director/choreographer Brian Macdonald, who left no mark of distinction on the production. Using traditional neoclassical sets painted in a light-brown wash (designed by Ercole Sormani for the Seattle Opera) and adequate lighting (designed by Harry Frehner), there were no innovations in staging. In addition, the inadequate supertitles covered about a third of the text and were so poorly co-ordinated with the singing that those trying to follow them could not concentrate on what was happening on stage. Although this production satisfied vocally, it failed to deliver dramatically.
AFTER AN UNINTERESTING DON PASQUALE AT the beginning of the season, l'Opera du Quebec presented a Madama Butterfly that featured the Quebec debut of soprano Ai-Lan Zhu in the title role. Hers is a sumptuous voice throughout the register, and she possesses credibility and easy grace as a performer.
Musically, the evening was faultless, with each cast member displaying the appropriate nuances of emotion. Barton Green (Pinkerton) has a lyric tenor voice that was solid and supportive, although he lacked the warm, light, Italian touch of a true Puccinian tenor. As for the rest of the cast, Gaetan Laperriere (Sharpless) was vocally admirable and he displayed great stage presence, while mezzo-soprano Anita Krause (Suzuki), tenor Michel Corbeil (Goro) and baritone Marc Belleau (Prince Yamadori) were all excellent in their respective roles.
Bernard Labadie, who led l'Orchestre Symphonique de Quebec and the chorus of l'Opera du Quebec, was once again the master of the evening. His direction was precise and nuanced, and the lyricism of the orchestra never covered the voices.
Unfortunately, however, the performance offered nothing original in visual terms. Susan Benson's scenery and costumes, from the Canadian Opera Company, lacked imagination, and Brian Macdonald, assisted by Graham Cozzubbo, staged the work traditionally and without drama.
VERDI'S IL TROVATORE WAS A GOOD SELECTION for opera aficionados in southern and central Saskatchewan. The opportunities to attend a fully staged opera are few and far between, and usually involve lengthy trips in adverse weather; consequently, any presentation needs to be accessible and memorable to help build and retain a following.
The Minnesota Opera sets used by Saskachewan Opera were particularly effective. The four major characters of Leonora (Barbara Livingston), Azucena (Sondra Kelly), Manrico (Carlos Moreno) and the Count di Luna (Yalun Zhang) needed balance and strength to result in a strong presentation, but all four began strongly and fulfilled their roles with enthusiasm. Moreno's performance, in particular, achieved an immediate effect.
Staging was somewhat static, however, and, particularly where the chorus was involved, would have benefited from a bit more action. An additional concern was the use of a spotlight to highlight whoever was singing, a practice that undermined the effectiveness of the lighting.
The Regina Symphony performed well under the masterful hand of Tyrone Paterson, who always makes a positive contribution.
THE MOST RESPONSIBLE OF ALL CANADA'S opera-producers in its approach to repertoire-building, the Canadian Opera Company capped one of its most musically ambitious season in years by offering the $1.8-million world premiere of The Golden Ass. The last work completed by Robertson Davies before his death in 1995, the opera's witty libretto was almost too deferentially set by the 39-year-old Winnipeg composer Randolph Peters, who virtually banished dissonance from his score, achieving a tuneful blandness in its place. But with Colin Graham taking charge of the production, Lucius Apuleius's classic tale of a wealthy young man who literally turns himself into an ass came to the stage in a vividly theatrical manner nonetheless. Aided by Susan Benson's powerful unit set, a stage-wide flight of steps, Graham filled ancient Thessaly with marketplace life and secured from mezzo-soprano Judith Forst a scene-stealing pair of characterizations as both the sorceress Pamphilia and the bandit mother Antiope.
Other zestful portrayals came from Rebecca Caine as a seductive Fotis, Theodore Baerg as an extroverted Festus, the Fabulist, and Kevin Anderson, whose Lucius capered about in long ears in a manner many a Bottom might envy in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
With music director Richard Bradshaw steering a clear and confident path through the score, The Golden Ass had as handsome and well-prepared staging as I've ever seen given a new Canadian opera. The problem wasn't the staging; it was the musical innocuousness of the opera itself.
There is nothing innocuous about Verdi's Il Trovatore, of course, which made it a valuable April companion piece for the new work. Traditionally treated as a stand-and-deliver opera, it achieved a rare level of dramatic intensity on this occasion by virtue of Nicholas Muni's direction (in conjunction with designer John Conklin) that had the work move from scene to scene without lowering the curtain.
In fine vocal form, Richard Margison made a particularly impressive Manrico, tossing off "Di quella pira" with obvious pride of ownership. For all her vocal strengths, Czech soprano Eva Urbanova. made a much less idiomatic-sounding Leonora, especially alongside the fiery Azucena of Irina Mishura and the positively haunted di Luna of her fellow Russian, Evgenij Dmitriev. Richard Buckley conducted.
ONE OF THE MOST CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED AND fiscally successful seasons of the Canadian Opera Company came to a fitting close in a sold-out gala concert at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto. The evening featured baritone Gerald Finley in an all-too-rare appearance in Canada, as well as the fast-rising Armenian-Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian. The capacity audience was treated to a program of arias and duets from the operas of Handel, Mozart and Rossini--pieces that were selected to showcase two of the best voices Canada has to offer.
Finley possesses a gorgeous baritone with plenty of power and bite, yet capable of lovely, soft singing and attention to textual nuances that make him ideal in lieder as well as opera. His "Non piu andrai" from Le Nozze di Figaro and "Sols immobile, et vers la terre" from Rossini's Guillaume Tell were particularly impressive. He was well matched by the warm, opulent sounds coming from Bayrakdarian, who sang with uncommon poise and depth of feeling. Her brilliant coloratura in "L'ora fatal s'appressa ... Giusto ciel," from Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto, brought down the house.
Credit goes to conductor Richard Bradshaw for holding down the already reduced orchestra so as not to swamp the singers. The favorable acoustics of the Glenn Gould Studio showed the high level of the COC Orchestra's playing, which is lamentably wasted in the cavernous Hummingbird Centre. The concert ended with no less than four encores, from Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflote.
FANS EAGERLY AWAITING MONSTERS OF Grace--the new digital, 3-D opera collaboration between Philip Glass and director/designer Robert Wilson--must surely have been disappointed when the uneven work reached Toronto for its Canadian premiere at Roy Thomson Hall. By the composer's own admission, Monsters had substantially changed since its premiere a year ago in Los Angeles. Dancers moving against Robert Wilson's digital projections had been banished entirely, while Glass (at the keyboard), his musicians and four excellent singers, previously concealed in the orchestra pit, were now visible on stage.
As theatre, Monsters offered an uneasy mixture of text, sound and image. The delicate, ecstatic poetry of Rumi (a 13th-century Sufi dervish) seemed lost in the serial contrivances of Glass's eclectic score: a largely computerized synthesis of Western and Eastern harmonies laced with samplings of less-familiar, non-Western instruments. Wilson's digital projections, intended to convey "the transformation of the ordinary world by the divine," seemed by turns mostly trite and monotonous: a grassy suburb; a gigantic 3-D hand pierced by a scalpel; helicopters soaring above the Great Wall of China; a vast tropical river with houses floating by, the survivors on rooftops. Occasionally a glimmer of abstraction (a javelin floating through bars of light) served to remind viewers that this was the same brilliant imagination that had produced stunning revisionist productions of Lohengrin for the Metropolitan Opera and Pelleas et Melisande for Salzburg.
In a post-performance discussion, film-maker and occasionaly opera director Atom Egoyan apologized sheepishly for those who had booed the show. Praising Glass's innovations, he proclaimed traditional operatic conventions passe. Yet nothing in the static spectacle of Monsters (which was barely 75 minutes long) could persuade anyone that synthesizers accompanying simplistic 3-D images would soon displace classic operas that imaginatively combine powerful music and drama.
COINCIDING WITH THE COG's WORLD premiere of The Golden Ass, the Aldeburgh Connection's final Sunday concert of the season, The Lyre Of Orpheus, offered a timely tribute to Robertson Davies and the varied music that played an important part in his life and art. An amusing collage of excerpts from Davies' plays, novels and biographical reminiscences provided the context for a curiously mixed program containing lieder, music-hall patter, folk songs and parlor ballads, all of which figured largely in the Master of Massey's eclectic musical tastes.
Catherine Robbin shone in the more serious moments, particularly in Phyllis Tate's moving "Lark in the Clear Air," Delius's haunting "Twilight Fancies" and Boyce's enduring favorite, "Tell me, lovely shepherd"--the latter once assigned by Davies to his daughter Miranda, who joined the soloists in a trio from Elijah.
Baritone Daniel Neff's plaintive rendition of Schubert's great "Doppelganger" (superbly accompanied by Bruce Ubukata) evoked memories of Davies' youthful exposure to translations of German songs, while the well-articulated "Nightmare Song" from Iolanthe evoked Davies' love of Gilbert and Sullivan, his early passion for amateur theatricals. Mary Lou Fallis also conveyed much of the boisterous good spirits that characterized Davies' favorite music, yet her sincerity and musicality made a deep impression.
The real stars were, as usual, the tireless artistic directors of the AC: Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Rails. They managed to create the illusion of a domestic musicale in a convivial atmosphere that would surely have delighted Davies himself. Drawing together a wide range of material with the help of the Davies family, they provided a witty running commentary on a life "crowded with incident," remarkably balancing the infectious high spirits of this special occasion with their usual high standards of music making.
AMBROISE THOMAS'S RARELY HEARD MIGNON (1866) was a fitting grand finale to Opera in Concert's impressive 25th anniversary season. Performed with a fine cast and the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony conducted by Robert Cooper, this single concert performance argued persuasively for a fully staged revival, certainly with Isabel Bayrakdarian in the title role. From her first entry, soprano Bayrakdarian made a striking impression as Thomas's fragile waif. In her great Act II scene, she summoned considerable vocal and dramatic power to portray Mignon's jealous anguish over losing Wilhelm Meister, the wealthy student.
As Wilhelm, tenor Benjamin Butterfield's bright tenor provided a graceful counterpart to Bayrakdarian's dark lyricism. He made up for what initially seemed a lack of dramatic involvement with elegant phrasing and discreet use of head tones, particularly in his touching "Adieu, Mignon, courage!" As the flirtatious actress Philine, Tracy Dahl brought the house down with her scintillating "Je suis Titania." Using her secure coloratura and considerable dramatic verve, she managed to make Philine more a witty and sympathetic figure than a brittle caricature.
The implausible sudden reversals of Mignon's final act pose problems of credibility. Yet the final trio with Lothario (the role finely sung by bass Marcel Beaulieu) joining Mignon and Wilhelm in a welcome reprise of "Connais tu" brought the work to a close in a way that seemed charming and dramatically convincing.
Guillermo Silva-Marin's sideline narration seemed at first intrusive, perhaps a trifle arch. As the performance progressed, however, he helped knit together the complicated strands of a peripatetic plot, usefully replacing the spoken dialogue of the original.
VISUALLY AND EMOTIONALLY, OPERA MISSISSAUGA's production of La Boheme was a real disappointment. Not only were the sets and costumes from Tri-Cities Opera tacky, the cast also labored under the staging of Edward Franko, who, although he has done creditable chamber-opera work, failed to come to grips with the demands of a big period production.
Mercifully, there were some solid performances, and conductor Dwight Bennett performed commendable work in the pit, although at times he allowed the soaring drama of the music to drown out the singers. Ukrainian soprano Svetlana Katernoza (Mimi) was at her best when her big voice broke free, but showed a pinched quality when she reigned it in. She, at least, attempted some acting. Italian tenor Cesare Zamparino, however, directed his merely adequate voice toward the centre of the audience and not to his colleagues. The Canadians in the cast were uneven. Possessed of a rich, plummy tone, baritone Seong Hyun Chun (Marcello) was terrific, while his Musetta, soprano Anne L'Esperance, was woefully miscast, with a voice too light for the part. Baritone Robert De Vrij (Schaunard), bass Alex Fleuriau Chateau (Colline) and baritone Ross Darlington (Benoit/Alcindoro) sang well enough while attempting to inject some spirit into the story.
THE EXCELLENT PRODUCTION OF DOWN HERE on Earth was part of Autumn Leaf's first-ever series of recent works from across Canada, staged at Harbourfront under the title Opera Boom '99. Down Here on Earth premiered in 1998 in Toronto to rave reviews. The 1999 incarnation presented a totally new stage production with refinements to both libretto and music, and was even more of a success. Vikki Anderson's sets and costumes brilliantly recreated a big city's mean street, ably abetted by Paul Mathiesen's evocative lighting, while director Thom Sokoloski's staging crackled with tension.
The story is about two disturbed street people, Mercy (Fides Krucker) and Red (Richard Armstrong), who were lovers long ago. When Mercy was gang-raped, she lost her unborn child. Red did not defend her and has been suffering from guilt ever since. Kid, the ghost child (Susanna Hood), has since formed part of their alienated world. Krucker is a fine singing actress and was heart-wrenching as Mercy. Armstrong and Hood were also wonderful in their roles, the former slavishly supportive, the latter beguilingly innocent.
Rainer Wiens's score uses five electric guitars to tremendous effect; the sound-scape was simultaneously eerie, menacing and emotional, and Victoria Ward's first opera libretto was remarkable in its ability to swing easily between the poetic world of imagination and the starkness of real life.
TORONTO OPERETTA THEATRE'S PRODUCTION of H.M.S. Pinafore, its second foray into Gilbert and Sullivan, proved to be an amusing romp, replete with clever, if anachronistic, updating. Musical director Robin Wheeler led the small orchestra at a lively pace and with a real sense of musicality, while director Guillermo Silva-Marin knew how to get the laughs. With attractive costumes and minimal props and sets, this shoe-string G&S still managed to give the British satirists their full due.
While all the singers were strong, diction is always a problem with G&S and some fared better than others. Every note of Barbara Sadegur's rich contralto as Little Buttercup was crystal clear, but Michelyn Wright (Josephine) had a pretty soprano but garbled words. Tenor Eric Shaw (Ralph) is blessed with a charming, light lyric voice, while old pro tenor Barry Stilwell (Sir Joseph Porter) also knows how to command the stage, although his fey accent obscured the text. Baritone Alexander Dobson (Captain Coreoran) and soprano Karen Frandsen (Cousin Hebe) both sang and acted their roles well, Dobson, in particular. Crew members Charles Baxter, Gary Pepperall and Roland Fix added to the merriment, as did the rest of the small chorus.
OPERA YORK'S CONCERT VERSION OF CILEA'S Adriana Lecouvreur was a genuine surprise thanks to music director William Shookhoff, who came up with a richly textured and dramatic vocal production with just piano accompaniment. If his large cast was uneven in its singing, the members made up their shortcomings with enthusiasm and a firm sense of narrative.
In the title role, Adele Kozak displayed a strong soprano voice overall, but seemed to run out of breath in her big aria. Tenor Leonard whiting's Maurizio fell victim to his wayward pitch and runaway notes, while baritone Ross Darlington was miscast as stage manager Michonnet. Darlington is a buffo singer, and his quavery voice trivialized the role of Adriana's unrequited lover. The talented Gisele Fredette as a ferocious Princesse de Bouillon shone among the leads with her bottom-rich mezzo. It fell to the secondary roles to steal the show. Tenor Christopher Coyea was excellent as the manipulative Abbe de Chezeuil, both in acting and singing, while bass Marcel Beaulieu (Prince de Bouillon) becomes more impressive with each performance and is surely headed for a great career.
THERE WAS A SUDDEN AND EXHILARATING surge in operatic and ancillary activities in the city in May and early June. The most memorable was the much-heralded double bill at the Vancouver Opera of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung in Robert Lepage's production from the Canadian Opera Company. In this instance, most found the advance notices more than justified. The Woman was sung and acted with immense involvement by Mary Jane Johnson, while Csaba Airizer performed Bluebeard with gritty authority. Kristine Jepson's understated acting, vocal beauty and ease in moving from lyric grace to doom-driven intensity created a memorable Judith. As restaged by Francois Racine, the production seemed virtually seamless, and for the May 4 performance, David Agler drew strong playing from the orchestra.
Elsewhereless, with text by Atom Egoyan and music by Rodney Sharman, arrived in Vancouver on May 7 from Toronto and Ottawa. This chamber opera, with its shifting ambiguities and elusive political/ social/sexual resonances, never coalesced into an engrossing dramatic whole; individual sequences occasionally stirred expectations that were never fulfilled in Egoyan's coolly artful production. The small orchestra under Owen Underhill's direction and the cast of five (with particular note for Marcus Nance's subtly yet powerfully drawn black domestic in the Canadian Embassy) contributed conviction and involvement but the whole, while at times challenging, never quite satisfied.
THE MODERN BAROQUE OPERA COMPANY continued its exploration of major and minor works from the 18th century, this time presenting one of Karl Ditters von Dittersdorfs largely overlooked 40 or so works, Arcifanfano King of Fools. The opera, which was first staged in 1777 and presented here in W.H. Auden's wittily spiky 1965 version of the Goldoni-derived text, was given a simple lunar landscape in Thomas Hassmann's set, while his costumes, essentially contemporary in flavor, were both amusing and perfect embodiments of the characters' cartoon-like personalities. The high-octane performance never faltered in Kate Hutchinson's exuberantly inventive staging, with a particular nod in the direction of Gregory Dahl's authoritative Arcifanfano and Phoebe MacRea's Semplicina. Jenny Such provided the evening's vocal tour de force as Gloriosa, and engaging countertenor Carl Strygg was dizzily afloat in a sea of marabou feathers as Garbata, while David Garfinkle gave a wittily mimed performance as Divertimento.
The company's orchestral standards were their highest to date, with 10 members of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra conducted by Marc Destrubi.
--Reviews from Vancouver by Floyd St. Clair
REFRESHINGLY OBJECTIVE, BUT NOT SENSELESSLY irreverent, the basic aesthetic of director Glynis Leyshon is well-known to Pacific Opera Victoria audiences. She consistently develops logical interpretations that balance the familiar and the provocative, in a purposefully electric manner that encourages layers of meaning to percolate through seemingly simple surfaces. Leyshon was the perfect choice for POV's April production of Don Giovanni. With designer Pam Johnson, she drew the opera up to the cusp of the 20th century, shaping its premise of social conflict with a dark, pre-Russian Revolution sense of urgency. The Victoria Symphony Orchestra offered a less finely characterized performance, but conductor Timothy Vernon's almost hyper-romantic approach was compelling at critical moments.
Don Giovanni's heartless quest for domination was truly fearful as interpreted by Stephen Morscheck. Taras Kulish's Leporello was equally driven, in an underdog kind of way, but his impressive projection and rich timbre in no way settled for second place. A dynamic actor, Kulish breathed new life into a role already brimming with potential. With less power, but with a mature degree of sensitivity and control, Benjamin Butterfield made much of Don Ottavio, lending the relationship with Donna Anna (Geraldine McMillan) and the social realm of the Commendatore (Edward Crafts) a three-dimensional quality. Perhaps it was in this context that Christiane Riel's Donna Elvira was less persuasive. But here vocal performance seemed too superficial to yield any substantial effect. Nathalie Morais (Zerlina) displayed a brilliant, effortless soprano, but she was no mere coquette, just as Ian Funk was not just a bumbling Masetto.
COMPOSING FOR LOCALLY AVAILABLE SINGERS is a venerable tradition for opera composers, but what does today's creative team do with a seven-months-pregnant soprano contracted to perform the role of the virgin Marguerite in Gounod's Faust? Manitoba Opera's last presentation of the 1998/99 season created a new and significantly changed interpretation that added considerable depth and drama to what was originally a pleasant and rather shallow work.
Director Sandra Bernhard created a new leading role for Sally Dibblee, a white-enshrouded Marguerite who appears in the prelude and at the end of the story. Over the course of the opera, Mephistopheles and Marguerite's guardian angel pull her back through her past, to see whether she trusts in God or becomes an instrument of the devil. The story is told in a combination of flashback and real time. It is not a solution that would have pleased Gounod's 19th-century French Catholic patrons, but for a contemporary audience, it was an unexpectedly meaningful Faust.
Dibblee was in fine voice, strong and clear, every bit as assured and involved as in her memorable previous MO appearances in Carmen and The Turn of the Screw. David Hamilton, who was also excellent in Britten's psychodrama, returned to prove his talents are no less satisfying in the more conventional vocal and dramatic role of Faust. In his debut with the company, Mikhail Sveltov Krutikov was a suitably suave and evil Mephistopheles, with a supple bass and compelling stage presence. Two Canadian newcomers to Manitoba Opera--David Templeton (Valentin) and Marie Anne Kowan (Siebel)--were well cast; Templeton is a creditable baritone of vulnerable sincerity and Kowan is an engagingly hyperactive mezzo. The support of Marcia Swanston (Marthe) and David Watson (Wagner) was unfailing. The large chorus did more than justice to the opera's beautiful passages, and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tyrone Paterson, was, as always, first-rate in the pit.
EVERYONE SEEMS TO BE BRUSHING UP ON Shakespeare these days, and the Atlanta Opera is no exception. The first two of this season's productions, Verdi's Macbeth and Bellini's I Capuletti e I Montecchi, are drawn directly from Shakespeare or from themes which inspired Shakespeare.
Unfortunately, neither production fared especially well, for somewhat similar reasons. Macbeth (seen in previews) has musical problems difficult to overcome. Though there was an entire coven of witches on stage, the music written for them scarcely conveys any real sense of dread. Consequently, the eerie choreography (by Lee Harper) and inventive stage direction (by Jay Lesenger), well done by the chorus and dancers, seemed at best irrelevant, at worst inappropriate. Brian Montgomery, in the title role, lacked the vocal and onstage sturdiness needed to be a Verdi baritone, his voice better suited to Rodgers and Hammerstein-type musical comedy. Pamela South (Lady Macbeth) was vocally and technically proficient in her signature Mad Scene, and bass Kurt Link was a resonant Banquo. Robert Breault (Macduff) stole the show, proving to be an outstandingly clear and resonant singer. Sets from New Orleans Opera and lighting by Peter Dean Beck were excellent. It was a southeastern premiere of a new production of I Capuletti e I Montecchi for the Atlanta Opera, with soprano Brenda Harris as Giulietta and mezzo Delores Ziegler in the trouser role of Romeo. The question is, was it worth the effort? Bellini's music is quite beautiful, if immediately forgettable, and one does rather miss the familiarity of Shakespeare's version of the story.
As Romeo, Ziegler's mezzo was fine musically, but her presence was a bit too feminine for the role. This was particularly apparent in fight scenes, in which she gave perhaps the least threatening version of the character ever on stage. For her part, Harris was forced to play her best scene in a cramped area of the set, and though her voice was lilting and stirring, the area was entirely too small to contain her scenes with Romeo, and, at times, Lorenzo (Jan Opalach). Bass-baritone Phillip Cokorinos was especially satisfying vocally as Capellio, but he also suffered at the hands of some graceless stage direction by Ken Cazan.
Conductor William Fred Scott led the orchestra dexterously in both performances, while Walter Huff's choral direction was meticulously fine and well drawn.
AS ALWAYS, OPERA DREW THE LARGEST crowds at the Spoleto Festival USA this year, and, not surprisingly, Puccini attracted the largest audience of all: his Il Trittico was offered four times to sold-out houses. The first American production of Kurt Weill's highly radical opera of 1932, Die Burgschaft, drew by far the most attention, while Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories of Moby Dick was the most controversial of offerings.
The musical values of all three one-acters of Il Trittico were high, with Stephen Sloan--since last year the music director of the festival--in the pit, leading a highly lush and romantic reading of the score with the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, a brilliant ensemble made up entirely of students from across the country. Susan Bullock sang both Giorgetta in Il Tabarro and the title role in Suor Angelica (for which she received a spontaneous standing ovation). Brent Ellis ably sang Michele in Il Tabarro and the title role in Gianni Schicchi. Joseph Calleja sang both the young lover in Il Tabarro and Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, and had a pleasing though somewhat small voice for such roles. Sandra Zeltzer was his partner in both operas, displaying another pleasing voice of limited proportions.
Unfortunately the staging, by English director Keith Warner (who also served as set designer), left much to be desired; his direction and sets of Il Tabarro were clumsy and awkward, his direction of Suor Angelica gimmicky and his production of Gianni Schicchi was frequently at odds with the music.
Laurie Anderson's Songs and Stories from Moby Dick was commissioned by Spoleto. Listed in the program as music/theatre, it was referred to elsewhere as both opera and performance art. Anderson is best known for her poetry and minimal music, as well as her performance work. In fact, Moby Dick was a mixture of text, music and huge projections, which played across the entire back wall of the stage. A cast of four interchanged roles (Anderson herself played the whale), backed by a group of musicians accustomed to performing at the volume-level of a rock concert, frequently drowning out Anderson's text and the singing. As one local critic put it, "Now working on an almost Wagnerian scale, she is not Wagner ... Anderson is a miniaturist, but she is suffering from gargantuanism."
Kurt Weill's Die Burgschaft received its first performance in Berlin three days before Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany. Because Burgschaft prophetically outlines the political situation of its time and location, both the opera and Weill were banned when Hitler became dictator, and it has taken 67 years for the work to receive its American premiere. Weill considered the opera to be his masterpiece, and, as revealed at Spoleto, it is surely one of the great masterpieces of 20th-century music.
The tale relates the story of two friends, Mattes, a cattleman, and Orth, a grain-dealer. Mattes has lost all his money gambling and Orth pledges (burgschaft means pledge) to loan him some. But the underlying premise is that money brings corruption and with it, power. As the story progresses over a period of 12 years, Mattes and Orth both become rich, but both are also corrupted by power, until finally Orth murders Mattes and their pledge is broken.
Weill's score is both powerful and eclectic, a mixture of tender, highly lyrical love songs and duets, mixed with bitingly bitter songs of woe and anguish. There are a couple of tangos, a 1930s-type fox trot, complete with trombone slide, and a touch of jazz. March rhythms accompany the Gestapo-like police as they appear for ritual book-burnings and decapitations.
Mattes, the central role, was heroically and powerfully sung by Frederick Burchinal, who was well balanced both musically and dramatically by Dale Travis as Orth. With Julius Rudel on the podium, it was an exciting reading, the climaxes overpowering, the lyrical passages hauntingly beautiful. Marvellously staged by Jonathan Eaton, every nuance in the music was reflected and reinforced by his symbolic staging.
HOUSTON GRAND OPERA ENDED ITS SEASON with a revival of Robert Carsen's 1988 production of Mefistofele, which makes about as strong a case as possible for Boito's sometimes brilliant but often dotty grand operatic happening. If you're familiar with this work, you'll know that it's best to check your credulity at the door, and just go with the serpentine flow of one of the most unwieldy works in the Italian literature. This revival made for about three and a half hours in the theatre, a breeze compared to the opera's six-hour fiasco of a premiere in 1868.
The production and musical values in Houston were of the highest order. Director Peter McClintock recreated the Carsen production with great verve, handling the massed chorus as imaginatively and dramatically as the more intimate scenes with the soloists. Carsen mounted the piece (with sets and costumes by frequent collaborator Michael Levine and lighting by Duane Schuler) as an opera within an opera, so that sometimes the action was being watched by a ghostly audience on stage done up like medieval Madonnas with porcelain faces. He also played every trick in the book, his inspiration seemingly running the gamut from slapstick comedy to high tragedy. The result is a production that matches Boito's music in its invention, its color and the way it wears its theatricality unashamedly on its sleeve.
The vocal focus, of course, is Mefistofele himself, here sung with satanic majesty and macho gusto by Samuel Ramey. I doubt that anyone else singing this role today can match Ramey's athleticism, stamina and, well, devilishly good musicianship. Patricia Racette plumbed the depths of the tortured Margherita, no wilting flower in this version of the Faust legend; her prison Mad Scene was harrowing in its intensity, and her voice soared in desperation as she imagined flying to freedom with the birds. Also particularly notable was mezzo Sondra Radvanovsky as Elena (Helen of Troy). A recent graduate of the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artist Development program, she has a firm, rich voice that's even throughout its range, and she uses it with considerable poise and assurance. As Faust, tenor William Joyner acted well, but sounded a bit strained in the higher reaches of the vocal writing. John DeMain conducted the Houston Symphony, which was a bit ragged in ensemble at the beginning of opening night, but settled down splendidly. Kudos, too, to the chorus, a key element in this opera, which, for the marvellous Witches Sabbath scene, sang and cavorted as if it were possessed.
Houston Grand Opera has a grand tradition of commissioning and performing new operas, with 23 world premieres and six American premieres in its almost 45-year history. Running with Mefistofele was a new work by Tod Machover, an American composer whose interest in technology is as great as that in music. With a libretto by Laura Murray (augmented by director Braham Murray), the piece is a setting of Leo Tolstoy's Resurrection. The novel tells of a Russian aristocrat who finds himself on the jury at the trial of a girl he once raped and abandoned, follows her to Siberia in an attempt to redeem himself, and, when she rejects him, returns to society vowing to make the world a better place.
This attempt at summary simplifies too much, of course; there's a bigger cast of characters, more nuances to the plot and, this being based on a Russian text, everybody is suffering in some way or other. Two other composers have set this story to music (Franco Alfano, who completed Turandot, and the Slovak, Jan Cikker), which is perhaps a testament to how compelling a drama it is. Machover (who, as a student, played cello with the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra, back in days when the company went on tour) is a composer who likes mixing acoustic sounds with new technology, and has gained quite a reputation for developing digital instruments. He assisted at every performance of Resurrection, taking his place at the back of the auditorium with a couple of assistants and a bank of computers that were linked to keyboards in the orchestra pit. With deft work on the computers, the technomusicians created sounds that were unique or which "doubled" or otherwise enhanced the 33 acoustic instruments of the orchestra.
The electronics were in operation for all but a few minutes of the opera's just over two-hour duration. As a listener, I was a aware that the tonal palette and harmonic textures were different, though without ever being made to think that Machover was exploring a new realm of sound. He's a melodic, lyrical composer with a strong rhythmical sense, and one who seems to have found dramatic stride in this, his fourth opera. In the end, the first act was more successful than the second in terms of musical invention; indeed, the second act seemed to devolve musically into more straightforward fare that didn't build on the promise of the first. It left me with the nagging impression that the composer hadn't so much run out of musical ideas as out of time on this commission. Nonetheless, it all added up to gripping drama, with the progression to its didactic denouement through flashbacks and quick scene changes well handled by Murray.
The vocal resources were strongly committed, too, with baritone Scott Hendricks utterly convincing in the demanding role of the aristocrat, Prince Dmitry Nekhlyudov. Mezzo Joyce DiDonato was just as effective as the hapless girl, Katerina Maslova, who undergoes her own transformation and finds her own redemption in Siberia through her love for a political prisoner, Peter Simonson, whose character and zeal were nicely etched by Raymond Very.
Although the opera has a large cast of more than two dozen characters, all are really supporting roles to the prince and Maslova. But the other singers worked well in a tight ensemble that helped create the claustrophobic and brutal world of the story's setting. HGO music director Patrick Summers summoned a tautly dramatic reading of the complex score from the HGO Orchestra, no mean feat, considering that all the fiddling of Machover and his computer technicians at the back of the auditorium meant that the sound was never the same at any two performances (the computers were set up to respond to what they "heard" and then feed instructions back to the three keyboards in the pit accordingly). Whether this fusion of technology and acoustic instruments heralds the opera orchestra of the future remains to be seen. But certainly this is a work that warrants a wider hearing.
JONATHAN MILLER'S REMARKABLE STAGING OF Don Giovanni, which juggles intimacy and grandeur, enigma and morality, passion and pathos, featured Dwayne Croft in L.A. Opera's revival. While Croft did not erase the memory of the marvellous Thomas Allen, he certainly boasted a credible portrayal, commanding an apt growl and a hedonist's mocking laugh. His buttery baritone--smooth, pliant, full-bodied and rich--flowed effortlessly. As Donna Anna, Jane Eaglen's highest notes were pinched, the sound sometimes hollow, the phrasing often strange, the coloratura uneasy, but she could also pack a vocal wallop.
Deputy director Karen Stone found a beguiling balance between sobriety and whimsy, pointing up the era's class distinctions, its codes of behavior and how the wily nobleman not only betrayed his women but kept them coming back for more, while designer Robert Israel's neoclassical sets, a skew of looming flats with labyrinthine corridors, suggested the anti-hero's self-destruction.
Sally Wolf, a perfect Donna Elvira, sang with Mozart's intended shading, tenderness and legato; Richard Bernstein, a proper lackey of a Leporello, animated his wonderfully clear, resonant baritone with all degrees of comic exasperation and cowering fear. Canadian tenor Michael Schade, a thoroughly arresting and manly figure, brought a sturdy vocal presence to Don Ottavio, while Zheng Cao sang prettily as Zerlina, if not with sweetness or compassion, and Malcolm MacKenzie made a middling Masetto. Conductor Evelino Pido exerted workman-like effort in the pit.
L.A. Opera's Lucia di Lammermoor, borrowed from New Zealand and directed by Jonathan Alver, had a strikingly anti-theatrical Mad Scene: the heroine just wandered in and mingled with the guests, destroying any chance of drama. Nevertheless, Sumi Jo, as the demented bride, sang with lilting loveliness, her small but agile soprano lighting up the line with bright, cultivated tone, her coloratura chaste and fine. A series of well-choreographed moves defined her stage demeanor. Frank Lopardo, whose tenor came in two versions--forced and loud, or very soft--made a somewhat stolid Edgardo. However, Canadian Gino Quilico (Enrico) was every bit the nobleman and showed his elegant baritone to advantage. Jamie Offenbach sounded just a whit woolly as the paternalistic Raimondo, while Gabriel Gonzalez revealed a beautiful, shining tenor as Normanno.
Richard Bonynge enforced suave playing in the pit, resisted square rhythms and unfailingly brought out the score's delicate bounciness. John Verryt's production, a series of angled walls done in the dark, craggy style that's supposed to suggest the Gothic Ravenswood Castle, functioned reasonably well, but Rob Peters' lighting design was a disaster that kept the action nearly invisible.
THE METROPOLITAN OPERA MOUNTED A handsome new production of one of Carlisle Floyd's earliest successes, Susannah, a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Houston Grand Opera Association. For this Met premiere, a stellar, all-American cast was assembled. In the title role, soprano Renee Fleming sang with a rich effulgence that was almost too much for the role of the youthful innocent. Her two hit numbers--"Ain't it a pretty night" and "The trees on the mountain are cold and bare"--were show-stoppers. If the role of Reverend Blitch had been cast with a less charismatic singer than bass Samuel Ramey, I suspect many of Blitch's scenes would have fallen flat. As it was, however, Ramey's evangelical sermon in Act II was worthy of a real revival meeting. Tenor Jerry Hadley's acting was embarrassingly sophomoric, portraying the character of Sam, Susannah's drunken brother, as an aged hillbilly. Vocally, the role gave him little opportunity to shine. John McVeigh was excellent as the slightly retarded youth Little Bat McLean.
Michael Yeargan's Americana sets were simple and evocative. James Conlon, while conducting with conviction and obvious love of the score, often allowed his orchestra free rein, with the result that singers' voices were often completely covered.
Apart from this new Susannah, the Met's spring season was dominated by three major revivals: Handel's Giulio Cesare, Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame and Berg's Wozzeck.
The stunning production of Giulio Cesare, originally designed for the English National Opera in London in 1979, was first mounted at the Met in 1988. For this revival, the beautiful American soprano Sylvia McNair was cast as Cleopatra. Given the weight and color of her voice, one would have thought that the role would have been an ideal fit. However, she turned in the least successful performance of the evening. Jennifer Larmore, on the other hand, was an outstanding Caesar, both vocally and dramatically. The coloratura of her florid arias was impeccably executed, while her slow arias were sung with beauty of tone and great pathos. It was mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe, though, who was the surprise of the evening. Her performance of Pompey's wife Cornelia was sung with a nobility and poignancy that touched the heart. Her wonderfully controlled mezza di voce at the beginning of her aria at Pompey's tomb made a wonderful effect.
As for the three countertenors, David Daniels excelled in the role of Sesto, son of the murdered, and beheaded, Pompey. As Cleopatra's brother, the evil Ptolomey, Brian Asawa sang and acted with considerable aplomb. Canadian countertenor Daniel Taylor--in his Met debut--held his own in the smaller role of Nirenus, his voice easily filling the vast interior of the opera house.
This production is one of the most beautiful in the Met's repertoire. The relatively bare stage is used as a runway for a parade of some of the most gorgeous, opulent costumes ever seen at the Met, designed by Michael Stennett. John Copley's direction was equally inspired. He displayed an uncanny knack for creating various tableaux vivants of great beauty and stage business that never seemed contrived or forced. But then, Giulio Cesare is an inspired and inspiring score, a view--given the calibre of his leadership--that conductor John Nelson obviously shares.
Elijah Moshinsky's 1995 production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) also made a welcome return. The evening benefited greatly from the presence in the pit of the Met's principal guest conductor Valery Gergiev. From the opening notes, it was clear this would not be a routine affair.
Mark Thompson's claustrophobic charcoal-gray and black sets, eerily lit by Paul Pyant, have held up well. Thompson's costumes, also in charcoal grays, blacks and whites, were also quite striking.
The cast included many of Gergiev's Russian colleagues from St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre, including soprano Galina Gortchakova (Lisa), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Yeletsky), Olga Borodina (Pauline/Daphnis), Nikolai Putilin (Tomsky), Irina Bogatcheva (the Governess) and Olga Trifonova (Chloe). Much attention, however, was centred around tenor Placido Domingo, who was singing his first performances of Ghermann (and also his first Russian opera ever). While the Mediterranean sound of his voice does not sound particularly Russian, his performance was nevertheless something of a revelation. He sang with intensity, passion and considerably more power than his colleagues, often overpowering them in ensembles.
Gortchakova was in fine voice. Her distinctive, dark, somewhat thick-sounding voice was particularly well suited to the role and to this dark production. Olga Borodina was sensational, and Hvorostovsky sang and acted the role of Yeletsky with enormous style and elegance.
The great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Soderstrom made a surprise return to the Met this past season as the old Countess. Soderstrom, who celebrated her 72nd birthday shortly after these performances, was truly remarkable. Her experience and expertise as an actress were much in evidence. Although the voice has lost a good deal of its power, she has not lost her ability to communicate. She remained one of the major focal points of the evening.
These performances were taped for telecast on PBS next season.
On April 17, Alban Berg's Wozzeck returned to the Met stage. Although this 1997 production, designed by Robert Israel and directed by Mark Lamos, starred the outstanding German baritone Franz Grundheber in the title role, much of the focus of the evening was on the Marie of Hildegard Behrens, and she did not disappoint. Although 58, she brought an underlying sensuality to the role. Even though the voice has lost a good deal of sheen, she remains a formidable actress, and dispelled any reservations one might have had about her vocal condition. The remainder of the cast--Kenneth Riegel (the Captain), David Kuebler (Andres), Franz Hawlata (the Doctor), Mark Baker (the Drum Major), Wendy White (Margret)--was stellar. James Levine conducted with clarity and passion.
GIVEN THE UNIVERSAL SUCCESS OF SURTITLES, it is somewhat surprising that for their new production of Richard Strauss's autobiographical opera Intermezzo, New York City Opera opted to use an English translation by Andrew Porter--as good as it is--instead of the German text. As a precaution, and to ensure absolutely nothing was lost on the audience, English surtitles were also projected.
The libretto for Intermezzo was based upon two real-life incidents that threatened the composer's relationship with his wife Pauline. One, a case of mistaken identity involving Strauss and a young woman, nearly ended in the composer's divorce; the second involved a con man who attempted to swindle money from the composer's wife. Strauss's longtime librettist, the sophisticated and aristocratic Hugo von Hoffmansthal, flatly refused to turn these episodes into a new opera, and so the task of writing the libretto fell entirely to the composer. Given Strauss's theatrical acumen, it should not be surprising that the results work well on stage. This recent NYCO production, directed with imagination and good spirit by Leon Major, only reconfirmed my own belief in the opera's stage-worthiness.
The role of Christine Storch (a.k.a. Pauline Strauss) was sung by the multi-talented American soprano Lauren Flannigan, who explored the full range of Christine's character and scored a major triumph. Her comic timing in particular was a delight. Dashing American baritone John Hancock gave the character of composer Robert Storch (Strauss himself) the flair of a matinee idol, while tenor Matthew Chellis sang the role of the handsome young Baron Lumer with beguiling effusiveness. All of the numerous smaller roles were equally well cast.
While one missed a certain lushness in the string sound in some passages, the orchestra, under the baton of NYCO music director George Manahan, nonetheless played beautifully. Andrew Jackness's smart-looking Art Deco sets, which were based on the 1990 Glimmerglass production, were a delight to the eye. Martha Mann's stylish 1920s costumes were also outstanding.
FOR NEARLY THREE DECADES, THE OPERA Orchestra of New York has been dusting off unknown or neglected operas. Since its inception, artistic director Eve Queler has conducted over 75 operas in concert at Carnegie Hall, including the American premieres of such works as Puccini's Edgar, Boito's Nerone and Smetana's Libuse.
On April 13, Queler chose to mark the bicentennial of the birth of Jacques-Francois Halevy by reviving his once-popular opera La Juive (The Jewess), which premiered at the Paris Opera on February 23, 1835. The work was a mainstay of the repertoire for over 100 years, and although stage performances today are rare, La Juive was a great favorite with many tenors of the 20th century, from Enrico Caruso and Giovanni Martinelli to Richard Tucker and Jose Carreras. For her recent performance, Queler chose the shortened "Lemoine" edition, which included music that was originally cut after the 1835 premiere and has not been heard since.
La Juive, which takes place in 15th-century Switzerland, centres around the persecution of the Jews--specifically Eleazar and his daughter Rachel--by the Christians. As it turns out, Rachel (unbeknownst to her) is actually not Eleazar's child at all but the lost daughter of the formidable Cardinal Brogni. Eleazar and Rachel are both imprisoned and condemned to death. Moments before Eleazar's execution, Brogni presses him to reveal his daughter's location. As Rachel is thrown to her death in the flames, Eleazar points to her and cries triumphantly, "La voila!"
The cast for this concert performance did reasonable justice to the work. Tenor Francisco Casanova should be singled out for particular praise in the pivotal role of Eleazar. His pianissimo singing was exquisite, and his final aria was powerful in its execution, apart from an ill-placed high note. Of the soloists, he was one of the few who attempted to imbue the static performance with a much-needed theatricality. French tenor Jean-Luc Viala made a strong impression in the thankless role of Leopold, and Grant Youngblood's singing as Ruggiero was particularly impressive. Veteran American bass Paul Plishka returned to the OONY for the 26th time in 27 years in the crucial role of Cardinal Brogni. While his voice has become increasingly unfocused and worn in recent years, his presence always compensates for any vocal lapses. The women faired relatively well, particularly Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian. Russian-born soprano Olga Makarina (Princess Eudoxie) sang equally well, but with little personality. The Dallas Symphony Chorus sang lustily in the numerous crowd scenes.
One cannot help but admire and respect Queler's energy and tenacity in bringing so many extraordinary works to the stage. For that reason, I always feel somewhat guilty in not responding more favorably to her conducting. These concerts are likely mounted with a minimum of rehearsal, so she should be praised for simply keeping her forces together and moving them along, but musically the results are often perfunctory, lacking in both detail and inspiration.
--Reviews from New York by Neil Crory
THIS SUMMER'S PERFORMANCE OF DER RING des Nibelungen marked the summit of Donald Runnicles' superb musical directorship. Ranging from the subtlety of lieder to statements of stentorian power, he led the orchestra to virtuoso heights while shaping divergent elements of the Ring into a classically balanced architecture.
James Morris's Wotan anchored everything, an infinite kaleidoscope of vocal and emotional color. His farewell to Brunnhilde and his Wanderer cannot be surpassed in contemporary opera. Reserves of power and technique underlie the sheer beauty of voice in the Brunnhilde of Jane Eaglen. When she and Deborah Voigt (Sieglinde) shared the stage in Die Walkure, it was inspiring.
Strange, otherworldly characters came vividly to life thanks to compelling dramatizations by such singers as Tom Fox (Alberich) and Canadian Gary Rideout, who carried much of Siegfried with his projectile of a Mime. Eric Halfvarson thundered as Fafner and insinuated deep malignity as Hagen. Marjana Lipovsek brought incisive declamation and authority to Fricka and Waltraute, while Elena Zaremba's opulent mezzo lent huge pathos to Erda's awakenings.
The leading tenors looked very good and sang valiantly, yet could not rise to the necessary heights. Mark Baker (Siegmund) sounded pleasant enough, but did not command the dynamic range, ringing tone or sustained legato to match Morris, Eaglen or Voigt. Wolfgang Schmidt's enthusiastic Siegfried caught the hero's youthful appeal and naivete, yet, his nasal sound, while acceptable at moderate volumes, turned harsh in the all-important passages that reflect Siegfried's greatness of spirit. Not even direction that kept him well apart from Eaglen could bring such sounds into harmony with hers.
The production was revised from prior stagings by Nikolas Lehnhoff in gorgeous, naturalistic designs by John Conklin based on early 19th-century nature paintings by Caspar David Friedrich and imperial German architecture by K.F. Schinkel. Once festive and colorful, the mood turned to sombre--especially in the lavish, entirely new costumes by Bob Ringwood, where black, gray and burgundy predominated. John Coyne's simplification of the scenery served Andrei Serban's efficient direction--marred, alas, by such ludicrous touches as a village-worth of robed figures watching the immolation of Brunnhilde and the destruction of Valhalla.
In all, however, this was an inspiring Ring of magnificent musical stature and memorable impact.
THE BUBBLY OVERTURE, COURTESY OF CANADIAN Yves Abel and the mettlesome orchestra, was only the beginning of the three effervescent hours of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus at Seattle Opera. On opening night (May 8), there were a few vocal rough edges, but they hardly detracted from the fun. For instance, although the voices of Gwynne Gyer (Rosalinde) and Susannah Waters (Adele) were a little tight and harsh on top, they were agile enough to toss around bouquets of notes with exhilarating abandon the rest of the time.
Elsewhere, stage-savvy Robert Orth's spunky Eisenstein was a perfect foil to Kurt Ollmann's smoothly calculating Falke. Deftly avoiding the tediously predictable drunk jokes that can bog down the part, Grant Neale brought hilarious physical comedy to the role of Frosch. With a pointedly masculine speaking voice and physical appearance, Joyce Castle played Orlofsky with intriguing sexual ambiguity, but not nearly enough of the androgynous Count's colossal ennui.
The ever-so-clever Ruth and Thomas Martin English translation became a bit precious after a while, but afforded immediacy of humor at a rollicking good pace. It was all capped off with lively direction by Linda Brovsky, elegant period sets from Houston Grand Opera and glamorous costumes from Washington Opera.
OPERA THEATER OF ST. LOUIS' 1999 SEASON was notable for a superb collection of singers and the playing of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra under four conductors. Interest was focused on the premiere of T he Merchant and the Pauper by Paul Schoenfield, with the book by Margaret B. Stearns, an adaptation of a story full of fantastic adventures by Rabbi Nachman. Schoenfield has written an immediately appealing score, integrating a predictable Hebraic idiom with snatches of the blues, jazz and the Broadway musical. He and Stearns determined that the action would be narrated by Nachman (Spiro Malas), while the various situations were played out by the singers. Thomas Barrett (the Merchant) is an impressive singer who commands the stage both vocally and physically. The remainder of the cast--Thomas Trotter (the Pauper), Julia Anne Wolfe, Yaacov Zamir, Marcus DeLoach and Madeline Bender--contributed to the opera's success, as did John DeMain's firm conducting. The excellent stage direction of Mark Lamos was inventive and appropriate, and he was well-served by the costumes of Constance Hoffman.
Christopher Alden's direction of Le Nozze di Figaro was another matter. The semi-circular set by Allen Moyer, with its 11 doors through which the singers entered and exited, was clean and attractive. The opening scene was darkly conceived, and the ubiquitous presence of La France bearing the tricolor could have continued to emphasize the opera's revolutionary aspects. But Alden evidently decided that abundant lechery would keep the audience happy, never mind that newcomers to the work would go away without the slightest idea what Mozart and da Ponte had been about (not to mention Beaumarchais). Le me cite but one example: Don Basilio (John Kolbet), dressed inexplicably like the Marquis de Sade (everyone else was dressed, or undressed, in modern costume), not only writhed around the floor (as did most of the cast at one time or another) but by the end of the opera had had a sexual liaison with Don Curzio (Daniel Brenna).
Yet the singers survived, and very well, too. Gary Lehman (the Count) is an exciting newcomer to St. Louis and surely has a big future, while Sari Gruber (Susanna) has considerable allure. The lovely looking and sounding Countess of Pamela Armstrong, the gamin Cherubino of Deanne Meek and the emotionally involved Figaro of George Cordes stood out in a first-rate cast, which also included Kevin J. Glavin (Dr. Bartolo), Kathryn Day (Marcellina) and Scott Torpezer (Antonio).
Travis Preston, the director of Les Pecheurs de Perles, also deconstructed the opera by presenting it as Nadir's dream, or was it repressed memory? However, unlike Alden, Preston never let his concept get in the way of the music, which was conducted sensitively and with assurance by Steuart Bedford. The four principals performed this fragile work with care, dignity, feeling and charm: Gregory Turay (Nadir), Mary Dunleavy (Leila), Mel Ulrich (Zurga) and Alfred Walker (Nourabad).
Verdi's Otello completed this season's bill. The orchestra, this time under Stephen Lord, was particularly galvanized, if somewhat swamped in the pit. Robert Brubaker met the hefty demands of the title role, although had the opera been sung in Italian, his vocal line might have been smoother. Marie Plette was a sweet-voiced Desdemona and Louis Otey a villainous Iago. Aided by the careful lighting of Christopher Akerlind (who achieved miraculous effects in all four operas), Colin Graham's was an honest production.
--Lawrence J. Dennis
THANKS TO THE GENEROUS BENEFICENCE OF Dr. Manfred E. Meyer, Syracuse Opera over the past four years has been able to produce three German comic operas not often performed even at the major opera houses. All are in the singspiel tradition, though Flotow's Martha (staged in 1997) has sung dialogue. On April 25, it was the turn of Albert Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann, which, although remaining popular in Germany, is rarely heard outside German-speaking countries.
The Syracuse Opera production--which featured Canadian tenor John Tessier in one of the leading roles--certainly made a good case for its revival. Director Richard McKee took the bold step of keeping to Lortzing's own German libretto in the musical stretches, while using an English translation he himself adapted from Lortzing's text for the spoken dialogue. Happily, one hardly noticed the transitions.
Essentially Lortzing's piece concerns itself with yet another example of mistaken identity, in this case Tessier's Peter Ivanov being mistaken for Tsar Peter the Great while working as a carpenter in the late 17th-century Dutch shipyard of Saardam. The opera rests heavily upon the buffo roles of Saardam's Mayor van Bett, who is convinced the real Tsar Peter must be Peter Ivanov rather than Peter Michaelov, the real Tsar, sung by bass Stephen Powell.
Fortunately Ryan Allen, though not possessed of the most sonorous of bass voices, proved well able to deliver the comic goods in the part of the mayor, making the conceited and tiresome van Bett into a sympathetic and likeable fellow who constantly deludes himself.
Tessier's Ivanov was himself almost a figure of fun, constantly being rebuffed by van Bett's coquettish niece Marie, sung with a beautiful lyrical tone by soprano Barbara Shirvis. Tessier played his role well, cutting a handsome and lively figure. He has a pleasing light tenor that was not always able to ride the orchestral sound, but that provided a good contrast to Powell's strong resonant baritone.
Conductor Doris Lang Kosloff maintained a lively pace with the Syracuse Symphony, especially in the many big choral numbers, while Bari Wroblewski produced a multipurpose set that gave plenty of room for manoeuvre and a backdrop that presented a rather too picturesque view of the Saardam harbor and town. The costumes (from Stivanello Costume Co., Inc.) added to the overall prettiness.
Still, director McKee succeeded in revealing the charm of this pleasant comic opera to North American audiences who would never otherwise have had the chance to see such a rarity.
SALZBURG AT EASTER IS A LESS CROWDED affair, on or off stage, than Salzburg in the summer, though tickets for the annual opera production around which the orchestra and chamber-music concerts revolve seemed particularly scarce this year. And why not? A full-scale Tristan und Isolde inevitably excites interest.
This one was Claudio Abbado's first in the pit, and not surprisingly, it sang with a lyrical sweep, the Berlin Philharmonic behaving almost as if the singers were accompanying it, instead of the other way round. The singers included Ben Heppner, who sang Tristan's taxing final scene with a beauty and ease unmatched in my experience, and Deborah Polaski, whose confidently vocalized and dramatically insightful Isolde matched him note for note. The production also boasted a commanding King Mark in Finnish basso Matti Salmihen, and similarly authoritative interpreters of Kurvenal (Falk Struckmann) and Brangane (Marjana Lipovsek).
It was a static production, though, directed by Klaus Michael Gruber in a set by Eduardo Arroyo, whose separate scenes appeared ill-matched. Small wonder it sounded much better than it looked.
THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF HANS PFITZNER'S death was reason enough for the Vienna Staatsoper to stage a new production of Palestrina. It is an opera with a deeply religious background, but its story, which is not easy to grasp, was not made more palatable by the staging of Herbert Wernicke. As a result, the great scene where Palestrina is confronted with the clergy lost much of its power.
In the title role, Thomas Moser lacked personality, while Franz Grundheber (his opponent Borromeo) did not possess the necessary weight in terms of his appearance. Apart from Walter Fink as the Pope, most members of the clergy had vocal problems. Angelika Kirchschlager was very good as Silla, however, as was Juliane Banse as Ighino. Peter Schneider conducted and the orchestra played its best.
JANACEK'S JENUFA, GIVEN BY THE PRAGUE National Theatre on May 10, was met by thunderous applause. The main parts were sung by a quartet of internationally acclaimed stars: Gabriela Benackova (Jenufa), the Dvorsky brothers, Peter (Laca) and Miro (Steva), and above all, Canadian Judith Forst as Kostelnicka, who shone in this difficult work.
It was Forst who brought a totally new dimension to the production, which was ably directed by Josef Prudek, director of the opera of the National Theatre. The audience was astounded by her excellent Czech and her fabulous voice, which in turn caresses and cuts, giving her incredible acting the kind of vocal support very few have at their disposal.
Benackova, although now a much darker-voiced Jenufa than in the past, still looked the part, and gave the role a believable interpretation. The Dvorskys were just right: Miro was charming and in great voice, while the warmer-voiced Peter was the ideal Laca--jealous and bitter to begin with, growing into the compassionate and supportive partner of Jenufa's future life.
The orchestra under Jiri Belohlavek played well. The set, by Petr Perina, a Canadian of Czech origin, was imaginative and effective.
BETWEEN ITS PREMIERE AT OPERA COMIQUE in 1825 and the end of the last century, Boieldieu's La Dame Blanche, which was presented in April at Opera Gomique, received over 1,600 performances in this theatre alone. The opera is set in Scotland, and the libretto, which includes a ghost and concludes with the triumph of youth and virtue, is simple, the music delightful, the tunes catchy, the ensembles seductive. This production by Jean-Louis Pichon matched the mock seriousness suggested by the music and was set in traditional, well-painted drop sets by Alexandre Heyraud. A touch of extravagance graced the proceedings, thanks to Frederic Pineau's delightful, tartan-inspired costumes topped with perilously tall, intricate wigs, caps and bonnets. The melodious score was well served by Claire Gibeault at the helm of the oldest of Parisian ensembles, the Orchestre Pasdeloup, and the robust Opera Comique chorus. Particularly notable in the more-than-able cast were Gregory Kunde (Georges Brown) for his crystal-cutting tenor voice, and soprano Raphaelle Farman as the heroine, Anna.
SHOCKING AT THE TIME OF ITS CREATION AT Versailles in 1745, Rameau's Platee, the wondrous operatic fable of an ugly water nymph being tricked into believing she is loved by Jupiter, slept quietly for more than two centuries before its revival at the 1956 Aix-en-Provence festival. No expense was spared for its Paris Opera staged premiere, and the effort proved well worth it.
In the pit were Marc Minkowski and his own expert Orchestre et Choeurs des Musiciens du Louvre-Grenoble, who, some 10 years ago, successfully recorded the work. Virtuoso sets by Chantal Tomas served as a most adequate background for Laurent Pelly's circus-like staging and startling costumes, as well as wittily inventive choreography by Laura Scozzi. The production also boasted a totally convincing vocal and stage impersonation of Platee by tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, and a memorable interpretation of both "La Folie" and Thalie by Annick Massis. THE PARIS ROMAN BATHS OF CLUNY PROVIDED a most appropriate setting for the premiere of Le Triomphe de la Vertu by veteran composer Adrienne Clostre. Staged in early Christian Rome and based on a 10th-century play by the German nun and writer Hrotsvitha, the one-hour mystery play/opera effectively conveyed the naive mysticism of the time through a refined and complex score. Written in a well-honed contemporary idiom, with a small cast of six accompanied by organ, percussion and trombone, the work proved a noble and able descendant to Britten's church operas.
--Reviews from Paris by Guy Huot
THE RECENT OPERA THEATRE COMPANY touring production of Handel's Rodelinda was the best presentation of anything by Handel that I have experienced. The five singers were splendidly balanced and gave passionate performances. Helen Williams was superbly commanding in the title role. She has a true feel for the Handelian line, a wide range of vocal coloring and an excellent stage presence. Counter-tenor Jonathan Peter Kenny was most affecting as her long-lost husband, Bertarido. The usurper Grimoaldo was sung with powerful authority by Australian baritone Nicholas Sears. Yvonne Howard (Edwige) displayed another splendidly secure voice with a Wagnerian ring to it. Garibaldo was given a resounding interpretation by Charles Johnston.
Neil Irish's simple setting was just right, leaving the visual magic to lighting designer Simon Corder, who produced a series of breathtaking effects. The scintillating period orchestra, the London Baroque Sinfonia, played under Laurence Cummings. James Conway, the company's Canadian-born director, kept his production simple and direct, and this no-nonsense approach succeeded admirably.
OF THE NINE DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN productions I've seen, the one by Nederlandse Opera, built up over the past few years and performed in complete cycles as part of the Holland Festival in June, is one of the best. It was, to be sure, musically uneven, some of it simply didn't work and at times, the direction was wayward. Nonetheless, it all added up to consistently exciting music drama, and succeeded in melding lighting, stage and costume design, direction and music. I think it's the closest encounter I've had with a total work of art in Wagner's sense--shot through with the sometimes stunning use of high-tech special effects. As the drama progressed, it was clear that director Pierre Audi, designer George Tsypin, costume designer Eiko Ishioka, lighting designer Wolfgang Gobbel and NO music director Harmut Haenchen had thought and talked the dramatic, visual and musical aspects of this Ring through in minute detail as they built it. The result is a production in which individual scenes are like a progression of audio-visual sculptures, visually linked to create an evolving but internally consistent world. Since the production uses the full height, width and depth of the Amsterdam Muziktheater's cavernous performing space, this is not a Ring to see up close. You need a broader perspective to experience the full impact of a staging that has a monumental, architectural approach to match Wagner's.
Scenically, each opera focused on a different natural element: the waters in Das Rheingold were represented by a transparent, glass-like stage; in Die Walkure, the main acting area was a sweeping arc of wood; in Siegfried, metal was added to the mix; stone and fire in Gotterdammerung. The production featured wide-open spaces throughout, relying more on the sophisticated and intensely colorful lighting design than on detailed props to frame the action.
At times, the openness worked against the music. Most of Act I of Die Walkure, for example, played out on that massive, bare curve of wood, which undermined the intimacy of the growing relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde (Hunding's hut was on a platform high above). Interestingly, the equally intimate exchanges between Wotan and Fricka and then Brunnhilde in the same space in Act II did work, mainly, I think, because the addition of a table and chairs helped define the acting space and focus the drama.
A more startling innovation is that the orchestra is built into the architecture, changing position with each opera to traverse a ring around the stage. This was a double-edged sword. While it certainly served to reinforce visually the orchestral music's role as a key actor rather than an accompanist, it was sometimes distracting and created problems of balance with the singers. (The production in fact used three orchestras, the Residentie Orkest for Rheingold, the Nederlands Philharmonisch for Walkure and Gotterdammerung and the Rotterdam Philharmonisch for Siegfried. If it had been a competition, the Rotterdam group would have won hands down for its virile sound and the precision of its ensemble.)
Dramatically, this is not a "conceptual" Ring. It tells the story without benefit (or bane) of imposed political, social or historical overtones. It is, as I think it should be, played as Wotan's story, from his original sin in stealing the gold to the cataclysmic end. Director Pierre Audi and dramaturge Klaus Bertisch, however, emphasized a fascinating perspective, which was to play up the Ring as an essay on gaining knowledge and unleashing its potentially destructive power. Despite its epic proportions, most of the Ring progresses through a series of interchanges between two or three characters, all of whom are on a conscious learning curve in one way or another. In this production, Loge, portrayed as a nervous don in an academic's black gown, sets everything in motion not so much by providing Wotan with a crafty solution to the problem of how to pay off the giants as intriguing him with the prospect of learning the power and possibilities of the gold. The Ring world that we see subsequently is an evolutionary one, from the faceless, primitive forms of the Nibulungen (and their later Gibichung counterparts in Gotterdammerung, brilliantly choreographed by Amir Hosseinpour as automata), through the insect-like Mime, the clay giants, the flat-topped Neanderthals Alberich and Hagen, and on up to the humans and the Gods. All of these life forms have different intellectual capabilities, and the production underlines the way each strives for mastery through knowledge, culminating in the pivotal lines in Brunnhilde's immolation: "Alles, alles, alles weiss ich, alles ward mir nun frei!"
Happily, NO assembled a committed if uneven cast to bring it all to vocal life. Veteran Dutch baritone John Brocheler cut a majestically flawed figure as Wotan. The music in Das Rheingold perhaps lies uncomfortably low for him at this stage of his career, but in Walkure he showed himself a marvellous singer-actor; from the tense encounter with Fricka (Reinhild Runkel, a formidable vocal presence) through a gnawingly anguished monologue to the tenderness of the Abschied, he impressed with an attention to vocal detail and nuance that outweighed everything else. As the Wanderer, he just got better, combining his acting skills with sonorous, confident singing (think of a mature Hans Hotter).
Other outstanding performances came from Kurt Rydl (Hunding and Hagen), whose resonant bass seems to have aged like a fine wine; Jeannine Altmeyer, whose Sieglinde was electrifying and who, unfortunately, vocally outclassed the strained Siegmund of John Keyes; Graham Clark, whose Mime was as funny as ever but whose stage antics were happily toned down in this production; and Henk Smit's brutal bully of an Alberich. A special word of praise for Stefan Pangratz, a member of the Tolzer Knabenchor, who sang and acted the woodbird with an assurance and poise that belied his 14 years and whose lovely North European boy treble brought a distinctive and unusual sound to his scenes in Siegfried. More disappointing were Anne Gjevang, who has an audible break between the warm tone in her middle and lower registers and a wobbly hardness at the top that marred her Erda, and who was woeful as Waltraute; the somewhat characterless Loge of Chris Merritt; and the Gunther of Wolfgang Schone, whose intonation was iffy.
The Siegfried was Heinz Kruse, not well known in North America but busy in Europe. Vocally, he's confident, experienced and has all the stamina required for the role. He doesn't have a warm, rounded tenor, but it's accurate and clear, and he attacks his high notes with aplomb (and quite successfully, too). Alas, he's also very wooden and awkward on stage, to the extent that he's a greater pleasure to hear than to watch. In two of the four cycles, Nadine Secunde, who made a strong impression as Sieglinde in the Harry Kupfer/Daniel Barenboim Bayreuth Ring a decade ago, sang Brunnhilde for the first time (she switched roles with Altmeyer in the other two cycles). Happily, she showed great promise in her first performances, understandably tentative at first but then confidently scaling the role's considerable heights. There is a certain steeliness to the voice, in the Nilsson mode but without the power. The tone was quite even throughout the range, but when she pushes the voice in a crescendo, it tends to harden. As a result, it doesn't sound as if you're listening to the same voice all the way through. Still, Secunde achieved a memorable portrayal, displaying the full range of emotion that makes this one of the most challenging (and best) female roles in opera.
Confidently conducted by Helmut Haenchen, the singers all impressed for their work as an ensemble, which was critically in keeping with the production values of a memorably all-encompassing staging.
ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA'S SEASON remained on an upward curve: Ian Judge's new staging of Boito's Mefistofele gave a great deal of pleasure and amusement. Aided by John Gunter's adaptable set, the action never halted, one scene grew into another and there was no time to reflect that the opera is not very well constructed. Bass Alastair Miles in the title role and tenor David Rendall (in superb voice) as Faust obviously enjoyed themselves so much, it seemed churlish not to follow suit. As Marguerite and Helen of Troy, soprano Susan Patterson sang nicely, and the chorus, especially in the Prologue, was quite overwhelming. Oliver von Dohnanyi conducted the ENO Orchestra with great aplomb.
ENO audiences had no need to find excuses to enjoy Robert Carsen's production of Semele, first seen at Aixen-Provence in 1996, as both Handel's score and Congreve's text are masterpieces. Patrick Kinmonth's simple but highly effective set worked perfectly on the large stage, while his costumes for June--crown and ball gown in one scene, head scarf and green wellies in another--elicited shrieks of appreciative laughter. Rosemary Joshua repeated her delightful and beautifully sung Semele; Susan Bickley was a magnificently regal Juno; John Mark Ainsley sang Jupiter's wonderful music like a veritable god; the entire cast was caught up in a performance splendidly conducted by Harry Bickel.
To celebrate the centenary of Poulenc's birth in 1899, ENO put on Dialogues des Carmelites, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and designed by Anthony Ward. Paul Daniel conducted with a broad sweep (there were no pauses or waits between scenes) and the cumulative effect was shattering. Joan Rodgers sang Blanche in clear, pearly tones; Elizabeth Vaughan created a sensation as the old Prioress; Josephine Barstow made a powerful Mere Marie; Rita Cullis was a sympathetic new Prioress; Susan Gritton sang brightly as Soeur Constance; Alan Opie as the Marquis de la Force and Neil Archer as his son the Chevalier were excellent; and veteran tenor Ryland Davis appeared as the Priest.
A revival of Richard Strauss's Salome in David Leveaux's fine staging centred round Vivian Tierney in the title role, which she sang extremely well, especially the final scene. Matthew Best made an unyieldingly upright Jokanaan, while John Graham Hall (Herod) and Elizabeth Vaughan (Herodias) contributed roundly drawn characterizations. Conductor David Atherton drew genuinely full and Straussian playing from the ENO Orchestra.
There was also fluent, idiomatic orchestral playing in the revival of Jonathan Miller's popular production of Carmen, conducted by Michael Lloyd. American mezzo Phyllis Pancella made a successful British debut as Carmen, well-partnered by Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow singing his first ENO Don Jose. Sandra Ford (Micaela) and Roberto Salvatori (Escamillo) offered excellent support, and the chorus was in fine form.
ONCE AGAIN THE GUILDHALL SCHOOL OF Music & Drama scooped the jackpot for originality by producing Gabriel Faure's Penelope. This opera, on the theme of Ulysses' homecoming, was first performed at Monte Carlo in 1913 and has only once before been given in London, at the Royal Academy of Music in 1970. At the Guildhall, Daniel Slater set his staging during the Nazi occupation of Greece in the 1940s, with Penelope's suitors as German officers; the transition worked perfectly. Faure's score was influence by Wagner, and Clive Timms, conducting the student orchestra, did amazingly well to get such authentic sound from his players. The two leading singers also need Wagner-size voices; Irish-born soprano Catherine Hegarty (Penelope) and Italian tenor Lorenzo Carola (Ulysses) managed their formidable roles equally well.
THE ROYAL OPERA REVIVED FRANCESCA Zambello's award-winning production of Britten's Paul Bunyan at Sadler's Wells Theatre. Richard Hickox conducted, and Peter Coleman-Wright's Narrator again told the story of the giant lumberman as written by W.H. Auden. Kurt Streit sang Johnny Inkslinger, Susan Gritton was Tin, Bunyan's daughter, and Timothy Robinson made a slick Hot Biscuit Slim, the camp cook. It made good entertainment.
So did a concert performance of Verdi's Un Giorno di Regno at the Royal Festival Hall. A stellar cast included Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov (Cavaliere Belfiore, disguised as King of Poland); American bass John Del Carlo (Baron Kelbar); Georgian soprano Tano Tamar (Marchesa del Poggio, his niece); American mezzo Susanne Mentzer (Giuletta, the Baron's daughter); American tenor Carlo Scibelli (Edoardo, with whom Giuletta is in love); and British bass Donald Maxwell (the old Treasurer), whose comic duet with Del Carlo brought the audience cheering to its feet. Verdi's second opera has received many brickbats, but when performed with such zest by the singers and such rhythmic vitality by the Covent Garden Orchestra under conductor Maurizio Benini, it becomes irresistible.
--Reviews from London by Elizabeth Forbes