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World report: reviews of opera from around the world: United States.

BALTIMORE

CANADIAN SINGERS WERE PROMINENT IN THE casts of the first two offerings in Baltimore Opera's 26th season: La Gioconda with Ermanno Mauro as Enzo Grimaldi and Corina Circa as La Cieca; and Fidelio with Frances Ginzer as Leonore.

The opulent, often visually striking Gioconda was created by Allen Charles Klein for the Florida Grand Opera and Fort Worth Opera, idiomatically conducted by Anton Guadagno and directed by Dejan Miladnovic. Unhappily, Baltimore did not have the spectacular singing that is the main reason for reviving Ponchielli's creaky piece. Bulgarian star soprano Ghena Dimitrova took the title role, and she now has a wide wobble and unsteadiness in the upper register. Mauro bellowed his way through Enzo's music and Nina Terentieva (Laura) was mostly off pitch. Only Circa and baritone Sigmund Cowan (Barnaba) were both vocally and dramatically impressive, and James Harp's Baltimore Opera Chorus sang splendidly.

The Fidelio was equally underwhelming, mainly because of plodding, funereal conducting by Alexander Sander. Despite her high talents and best efforts in the title part, Frances Ginzer was unsuccessful against this inept Kapellmeister and the miserable acoustics of the Lyric Theatre. She was further hampered by a distinctly second-rate Florestan (Wolfgang Fassler), whose voice cracked on the opening note of "Gott! welch' dunkel hier!" and failed to regain either pitch or composure thereafter. Although Jan Grissom (Marzelline) and Gran Wilson (Jacquino) were adequate to the demands of their roles, Greer Grimsley's Pizarro lacked vocal bite and Malcolm Smith was a distinctly superannuated Rocco. Gary Eckhart's scenic designs were effective, and so was Michael Harrison's stage direction.

-- Caarl Dolmetsch

BOSTON

RAVEL AND COLETTE'S L'ENFANT ET LES SOR-tileges was the Boston Symphony's opera this concert year, and Seiji Ozawa's longheld affinity for French music along with Carleen Graham's semi-staging illuminated the work.

The magnificent Jose van Dam shone in the too-brief parts of the Armchair and Tree (he had opened the evening with Mahler's Ruckert poems). Susan Graham was believable as the child, while Sumi Jo's voice was lovely as the destroyed Princess and the Nightingale, although the characterizations were not quite there. Robert Tear and Natalie Stultzmann amused as the Teapot and China Cup, but Tear could not put across the Frog, and his usually immaculate singing has deteriorated. Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz, Monica Bacelli and Chris Pedro Trakas charmed as the shepherds, animals and so on.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under the leadership of John Oliver effectively caught Ravel's brilliantly atmospheric score and Colette's fable of the terrifying, solitary experiences through which children pass. -- Mari Intosca

CHICAGO

LUCIANO BERIO'S UN RE IN ASCOLTO (A KING LIS-tens), given its North American premiere by Lyric Opera of Chicago in the 1989 Covent Garden production, is not so much about a king as an emperor--who has no clothes. Actually, it's difficult to know just what it is about. Certainly the composer and his colleagues were no help at a public symposium, and the printed libretto, the projected English titles and a wealth of material supplied by the composer's press representatives shed no light.

Un Re is not so much elusive as it is evasive. It is reminiscent of Fellini's film 8 1/2 in that the "king," here called Prospero, is a creative figure beset during a rehearsal of Shakespeare's The Tempest by troublesome colleagues and personal members of his entourage. The idea of something dramatic looms with a conflict (so the libretto says) between Prospero and the stage director. This is a familiar situation in theatre and opera productions, but the drama is never fulfilled, since it is hardly clear what Prospero and the director are arguing about. The words of the late Italian writer Italo Calvino are poetic, not theatrical, and Berio's score has a constant muted sound better suited to chamber music. (Berio, admitting that Un Re is non-linear in its narrative, has stated that opera in the form that we know it is dead.)

Graham Vick's staging was vivid proof that filling the stage with incessant movement (trapeze artists, ballroom dancers, real birds of prey, rehearsers who get in the way of everyone) does not necessarily create drama. Jean-Philippe Lafont, Kim Begley and Kathryn Harries were the principals in Lyric's production, and Dennis Russell Davies conducted.

Another work of basically chamber character, The Consul, was the first Gian Carlo Menotti work ever staged by Lyric, and the intent of director Robert Falls and designer George Tsypin to expand it into opera-house size was understandable. That Barbara Daniels could convince as Magda is remarkable, since her appearance is cherubic, not the gaunt one we associate with this character. Despite some singing of fairly alarming flatness, Daniels was so dramatically sympathetic that her interpretation could be counted a success. Emily Golden made the Secretary more of a caricature than necessary, while Richard Cowan's John Sorel was below par and pitch. Richard Buckley's conducting stated the case for Menotti's score as persuasively as possible.

Lyric produced the three operas of Puccini's Il Trittico for the first time as an entity, and chose to give a different interpretation of something that is pretty much a rarity for its audience. Did Norwegian stage director Stein Winge not read the libretto? However, Trittico was a tour de force for Catherine Malfitano, who essayed the soprano leads in all three operas, as Beverly Sills and Renata Scotto have done in the past. Malfitano was almost completely up to it, with just a bit of tiring in Suor Angelica The two men vying for her affection in Il Tabarro were equally refulgent of voice--Jean-Philippe Lafont (Michele) and Kristjan Johannsson (Luigi). The latter in particular has never sounded better. Veteran Rolando Panerai might have been amusing as Gianni Schicchi in another staging but did not come across, due to the inanities of this production. Bruno Bartoletti conducted all three.

Luc Bondy's celebrated staging of Salome was imported from Salzburg. With set and costumes overwhelmingly black-on-black, they were obviously attempts to go against the lush images of Oscar Wilde's words and the equally lush sounds of Richard Strauss's music. The only question is: why? Still, the musical aspect was a triumph, with Antonio Pappano leading a superbly controlled orchestra. Equally controlled was the powerful singing of Malfitano in the title role, Kenneth Riegel (Herod) and Bryn Terfel (Jochanaan). Riegel in particular managed the remarkable feat of giving his character a modicum of dignity despite some silly staging. Only Anja Silja as Herodias was unlistenable. -- Richaard Covello

HOUSTON

GIVEN ITS WORLD PREMIERE OCT. 25 BY HOUSton Grand Opera, Mexican composer Daniel Catan's Florencia en el Amazonas takes place in turn-of-the-century Colombia on a riverboat sailing up the Amazon. But Debussy's La Mer is never far away.

Mexican screenwriter Marcela Fuentes-Berain's poetic libretto is a homage to the magic realism of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in whose work the supernatural and irrational coexist with normalcy. In Florencia, opera singer Florencia Grimaldi is returning to her homeland and, she hopes, the former lover whose memory inspires her art. Aided by Riolobo, a flesh-and-blood spirit of the river, Florencia's quest for emotional renewal rekindles love in a squabbling older married couple and allows a writer and a sailor to experience emotions of which they had been fearful.

A joint effort by HGO, Seattle Opera, Los Angeles Music Center Opera and Bogota's Opera de Colombia, the two-act, two-hour score by Catan harks back to the dreamy, Impressionism-tinted Puccini of Tabarro, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot. HGO music director Vjekoslav Sutej and the Houston Symphony revelled in the music's shimmering liquidity, although a firmer rhythmic and dramatic profile would have given the opera greater impact.

Robert Israel's paddleboat set, Paul Pyant's lighting and Francesca Zambello's staging were serviceable. Intensity, musicality and much curdled, pinched, hesitant singing were the hallmark of soprano Sheri Greenawald's compelling Florencia. Frank Hernandez's Riolobo boasted a handsome baritone and a healthy stage presence. Mezzo-soprano Suzanna Guzman and baritone Hector Vasquez were affecting as the older couple, and soprano Yvonne Gonzales and tenor Greg Fedderly were fetching as lovers-to-be Rosalba and Arcadio, although her high notes were squeezed and stringy. Bass Gabor Andrasy sang sonorously as the philosophical Capitan. -- William Albright

MILWAUKEE

THE FLORENTINE OPERA OPENED ITS SEASON with a delightful Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Making his U.S. conducting debut, the youthful Jacques Lacombe impressed with his crisp, clean and stylish approach. Balance, detail and spirit in both musical and visual realms marked the production. Director David Gately provided charming action, delightful characterizations and utilized every nook and cranny of designer Robert Prevost's excellent sets (originally designed for L'Opera de Montreal). The fresh-voiced, youthful cast all came through with convincing characterizations, excellent singing and considerable poise. Rising mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux offered a stage-smart Rosina, exuding charm and grace, and singing well. Baritone John Michael Koch impressed with a sprightly, lyric-toned Figaro, and tenor Brad Diamond cut a dashing figure while using his smallish voice well as Almaviva. Veteran bass Francois Loup delighted with his highly polished, subtle and outright funny Bartolo. Bass Franco Federici was a satisfactory but unremarkable Basilio.

A FINE YOUNG CANADIAN TENOR, DAN Chamandy, made his U.S. debut with a poignant Nemorino at the centre of Skylight Opera's charming production of L'Elisir d'Amore. He proved a handsome, lithe lover, and his medium-sized voice was ideal for the intimate house. Stage director Dorothy Danner made the most of his abilities, and surrounded him with a traditional production brimming over with fresh, young voices, polished movement and imaginative visual detail. Baritone Justin White was an irresistibly handsome Belcore, swaggering about with panache, while bass David Ward thoroughly dazzled the peasants with his spitfire patter and clever stage business as Dulcamara. Elisabeth Comeaux, the scheduled Adina, had laryngitis, so she acted the role while soprano Donita Volkwijn sang the part winningly from the wings. The company's production values were impressive and its orchestra, under the direction of maestro Alexander Platt, played with verve and polish.

-- Reviews from Milwaukee by Ursul Weiss

NEW YORK

THE METROPOLITAN OPERA's 1996/97 SEASON opened on Sept. 30 with a revival of last year's new production of Giordano's Andrea Chenier. Whereas Luciano Pavarotti (for whom the production was originally mounted) cancelled most of his performances last season, the Italian tenor showed up for the entire run this fall. The superstar created a furor, however, by cancelling his appearance in Verdi's La Forza del Destino--scheduled to begin in the new year--forcing the Met to replace it with Un Ballo in Maschera instead. The other major cancellation this fall was Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas, who bowed out of all her performances of Smetana's The Bartered Bride in October (a production that was revived, it is rumored, especially for her).

While Pavarotti scored a success in Chenier, his compatriot, soprano Mirella Freni, wowed Met audiences as the Russian Princess Fedora Romanov in a sumptuous new production of another of Giordano's operas, Fedora, last heard at the Met in 1926. Freni, in fact, was greeted by enthusiastic and sustained applause from her many fans before even singing a note. In recent years, she has performed the role of Fedora a great deal, and has clearly made the part her own. Although she celebrated her 62nd birthday on February 27, she still sings with full-throated, Italianate ardor and is capable of beautiful, sustained pianissimi. This said, however, one cannot ignore the fact that her performance was marred by serious pitch problems throughout. For his part, Placido Domingo, who is now 56 years old, is beginning to look his age on stage. He appeared somewhat wan during this opening performance, but sang the romantic lead of Count Loris with great passion and genuine involvement.

The "opening night" of Fedora actually took place on a Saturday afternoon, apparently to provide the Spanish-born tenor with the opportunity of executing a party trick by conducting a performance of Verdi's La Traviata later that evening. That performance--a revival of the garish 1989 production by Franco Zeffirelli--proved once again that as a conductor, Domingo makes a great singer, with his inadequacy showing up primarily in the slower, more limpid moments. Tenor Marcello Giordani made a handsome Alfredo, but the real surprise of the evening was the American debut of the beautiful young Ukrainian soprano Victoria Loukianetz, surely one of the most vocally and dramatically satisfying Violettas to be heard in recent years.

Other new productions at the Met this fall included a beautifully sung production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and a not-so-beautifully-sung version of Bizet's Carmen. The multi-cast production of Carmen was designed by the ubiquitous, and increasingly self-indulgent, Franco Zeffirelli. Once again the emphasis was primarily upon spectacle, with enormous crowd scenes containing lots and lots of animals. The most one can say about the November 22 cast is that it was international in scope. German mezzo Waltraud Meier tore into the role with Teutonic determination, but totally lacked a sense of Gallic style. The charming Argentinean tenor, Luis Lima, proved to be short in both physical stature and vocal heft in the taxing role of Don Jose, while Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus, whose French must have amused many in the audience, was, perhaps, the most miscast of all. Only Korean soprano Hei-Kyung Hong (Micaela) proved to be more than passing fair. As for conductor James Levine, he appeared detached and bored with the proceedings, conducting without enthusiasm and rhythmic vitality.

The following evening, however, he redeemed himself with a radiant account of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, a revival of last season's stunning new production designed by Michael Yeargen and featuring an unbeatable cast headed by soprano Renee Fleming as Fiordiligi. On December 6, Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen replaced Fleming for a single performance and made her well-deserved (and from all reports, highly successful) Met debut.

Benjamin Britten's atmospheric setting of Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, has been long in coming to the Met, but it was well worth the wait. Although the new production (designed by Antony McDonald) is somewhat idiosyncratic in its design, it has a certain whimsy and playfulness that had its attraction--although some of the costumes (such as Oberon's psychedelic, lime-green suit) were a distraction.

The singing by the large cast, on the other hand, was of a fairly high order. Only counter tenor Jochen Kowalski (Oberon) disappointed with diction that was poor and a voice that failed to carry clearly into the hall. Actor Nick Stahl's performance of Puck was oddly earthbound (although, to be fair, director Tim Albery must take partial responsibility for this), but the rustics (led by the inimitable Bottom of Peter Rose) were a delight, as was Sylvia McNair as Titania.

David Atherton's conducting occasionally sounded sluggish and miscalculated for the hall. Much of the orchestral detail was simply lost in the vastness of the Met theatre.

THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA ALSO STAGED A new production of a Britten opera, in this case The Turn of the Screw. This joint production--with the Glimmerglass and Seattle opera companies--was a solid success for the company, although Mark Lamos's production was more obfuscating than illuminating. In the crucial role of the Governess, American soprano Lauren Flanigan scored a personal triumph, more with her dramatic conviction than with beauty of voice.

Another new NYCO production was of Verdi's final opera, Falstaff, mounted as a showcase for the distinguished American baritone Sherill Milnes as the beloved Elizabethan rogue. This quickly proved to be a serious miscalculation, as Milnes appears not to have a funny bone in his body. His languid, and at times limp-wristed, characterization made time weigh heavily.

A revival of last season's new production of Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier proved to be a much more satisfactory outing. In fact, the orchestra, under the able baton of George Manahan, performed better than ever. The cast, led by the Marschallin of Elizabeth Holleque, Octavian of Gwendolyn Jones, Sophie of Nancy Allen Lundy and Baron Ochs of William Fleck, acted with conviction in this handsome, updated production. While lacking in opulence of singing, Jonathan Miller's fresh directorial point of view was quite compelling.

-- Reviews from New York by Neil Crory

NORFOLK

THOSE WHO REMEMBER ASHLEY PUTNAM'S spectacular stage debut here in the title role 20 years ago were disappointed in Virginia Opera's lacklustre season-opener, Lucia di Lammermoor. This was due mainly to the stodgy, unimaginative stage direction of Albert Takazauckas. Sweet-voiced Korean soprano Sujung Kim, an accomplished singing actress, did not quite have the power or command of fioratura to meet Donizetti's demands, and Philip Webb was almost a bleating travesty of Edgardo. While Richard Lewis (Enrico), Neal Harrelson (Arturo), Kathryn Moore (Alisa) and Steven Anderson (Normanno) were passable in their roles, Andrew Funk was a vocally and historically inadequate Raimondo. Peter Mark conducted sensitively, and the chorus sang with appropriate gusto, even if Takazauckas too often lined them up in class-photo fashion.

VO's Die Zauberflote was a much better affair, vocally as well as visually the bestintegrated of the company's three productions of this Mozart masterpiece to date. The only weak link in the huge cast was bass Luiz-Ottavio Faria, whose wide vibrato rendered Sarastro's two great arias tedious. Richard Troxell and Jeff Morrissey were by far the best Tamino and Papageno that Virginia Opera has yet seen, while Shelley Jameson was a very impressive Pamina. Darlene Bennett Johnson negotiated the Queen of the Night's vocal pyrotechnics without difficulty and Steven Anderson was a more than serviceable Monostatos. Jerome Shannon, who is leaving VO to become director of the Mobile (Alabama) Opera, conducted with pan-ache, if occasionally a bit too slowly, and although the scenery borrowed from Opera Memphis was handsome and effective, the costumes from the Washington Opera (also used at Wolf Trap) looked a bit shopworn.

-- Caarl Dolmetsch

PORTLAND

PORTLAND OPERA OPENED THE SEASON WITH Madama Butterfly. Heading the cast was British soprano Susan Bullock making her American debut. She has a big, lovely voice and an excellent stage presence. Joyce Campana (Suzuki) seemed good in every way, and Tonio di Paolo (Pinkerton) sang quite well, but the voice seemed a bit small. Robert Orth (Sharpless), however, sang with ease and beauty, filling the hall with richness and warmth. Patrick Jones (Goro) performed well, projecting an appropriately annoying character.

Stage sets designed by Roberto Oswald for l'Opera de Montreal varied from the traditional in that there was no garden with bridge, but the stage direction by Adelaide Bishop seemed to make it all work.

The Merchant of Venice by Reynaldo Hahn was first performed in Paris in 1935. The only recent production took place at the Opera Comique in 1979 in a highly truncated form. Conductor Marc Trautmann has led a successful search for the entire score, and Portland Opera offered the complete version as the second of its current presentations.

It is to be highly commended for the effort. Shylock was played powerfully and sung magnificently by the great French baritone Alain Fondary. There was not a a weak member among the large cast. The lovers were young and charming: Evan Bowers (Gratiano), Curt Peterson (Lorenzo), James Busterud (Bassanio), Maryse Castets (Portia), Christine Meadows (Nerissa), Susan Derry (Jessica). Michael Delos handled his two roles (Tubal, Shylock's friend, and the Doge of Venice) extremely well. Eduardo Chama (Antonio) inspired our sympathies.

The production was conceived by stage director Robert Bailey, who is general director of Portland Opera. He presented the opera as a fairy tale, with a huge, three-dimensional pop-out-book set with workable sets. Choreography by Anne Eagen and lighting design by Mary Jo Dondlinger were superb. Marc Trautmann led an orchestra that projected a warm and colorful orchestration. -- William F. Wilcox

SAN FRANCISCO

A HUGE OPEN STAGE AT THE CIVIC AUDITORIUM accommodated San Francisco Opera's stately, processional Lohengrin with the glorious Karita Mattila and an often superb, but ailing, Ben Heppner. Donald Runnicles' rich-toned, architectural conducting revealed the inner logic of Wagner's score--no less than in the Carmen that followed. Jose Cura commanded large vocal resources and a dashing appearance as Don Jose. But his Carmen, Olga Borodina, knew how to add exquisite variety and French stylistic suppleness.

Most telling in the Civic's sweeping space, however, was the soaring, blood-dipped quill pen that pierced the vast, parchment scroll of a stage that Gerald Howland designed for Les Contes d'Hoffmann. Steven Mercurio's idiomatic conducting enhanced the intense vocal conviction of Jerry Hadley, Samuel Ramey, Canadian Tracy Dahl and Patricia Racette.

The more intimate Orpheum Theatre brought Jennifer Larmore's nuanced Rosina up close in Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The long-familiar doll-house setting by Alfred Siercke worked better than ever, despite John Copley's gimmicky direction. Bruno Campanella's ebullient conducting energized the authoritative cast, including Roberto Sacca as Almaviva and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Figaro.

The fatal events of Stewart Wallace's new opera, Harvey Milk--with Michael Korie's tightly structured, yet finally sentimental, libretto--happened at City Hall, within yards of the Orpheum. These deeds live so immediately in this city that their reenactment seemed overwhelming. The impact must also arise in part from the effective score, which sounded like a fusion of Britten's vocal writing, Janacek's orchestration and Bernstein's jazzy, sweet and sour, Broadway manner. Sad to say, however, that despite successful additions, cuts and revisions done in consultation with Runnicles and director Lotfi Mansouri in order to tighten the score, its most memorable passages are quotations from Tosca.

Much credit for Harvey Milk's success here falls to Christopher Alden's direction, in designs by Paul Steinberg and Gabriel Berry, and to a thoroughly convincing cast led by Robert Orth as Milk and Bradley Williams as his lover, Scott. In some ways, Juliana Gondek took the most challenging role--as the still living and highly prominent Diane Feinstein. -- John Bender

WASHINGTON

PLACIDO DOMINGO CHOSE TO INAUGURATE HIS regime as Washington Opera's artistic director with the 19th-century Brazilian composer Carlos Gomes's Il Guarany. While the work isn't quite as bad as some local critics proclaimed, it's no wonder this was its first North American production since 1884. Although distinctly imitation Verdi, it was lovingly produced with lush jungle scenery by Maurizio Balo, extravagant costuming by Franz Blumauer, amazingly old-fashioned stage direction by Werner Herzog and meticulous conducting by John Neschling.

Nor would it be easy to imagine a better performance than the whole cast, headed by Domingo himself, gave it. The title role (Pery, the Guarani chieftain) fits him like a glove. Veronica Villarroel gave memorable vocal and histrionic embodiment to the heroine, Cecilia, as did baritone Hao Jiang Tian as her father (Don Antonio), tenor William Joyner as her betrothed (Don Alvaro) and Carlos Alvarez as the jealous villain (Gonzales). In truth, Gomes's score has, amid its longueurs, some very lovely melodies, memorable leitmotifs and some interesting choral passages. Moreover, the denouement in which the scenery explodes and self-destructs in flames is first-class operatic spectacle.

Perhaps to compensate for the lavish expenditures this premiere entailed, the season's second offering was a third revival of Washington Opera's handsome 1982 Zack Brown-Gian Carlo Menotti production of La Boheme, aptly conducted by Daniel Oren and very tightly directed by Roman Terleckij with an all-new, outstanding cast: Daniela Desi (Mimi), Oxana Arkaeva (Musetta), Vincenzo La Scola (Rodolfo), Jeffrey Black (Marcello), Stefano Palatchi (Colline), Mark Oswald (Scheunard) and Paolo Montarsolo (unforgettable as Benoit and Alcindoro). The result was one of the best Bohemes in decades.

Carl Dolmetsch
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Author:Carl Dolmetsch, and others
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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