Friday, April 16, 2021

"I shall surely set you free" *offers bread and wine*

Once again, dear readers, I have soothed my weary soul with some amazingly beautiful singing.  Just as in so many of my recent opera posts, this was provided via  a performance of dear Mr. Beethoven's Fidelio.  Current world affairs require keeping everyone at least 6 feet (2 meters) from each other, and this production did not fail in that requirement. However, as with quite a few productions I have seen online in recent months (who goes out of the house now except for groceries, yarn, and liquor?), this restriction was used to great effect by the producers.

The performance was by the Garsington Opera at Wormsley in the UK.  Have a look at this:

Jaquino        Trystan Llŷr Griffiths
Marzelline    Galina Averina
Leonore        Katherine Broderick
Rocco            Stephen Richardson
Don Pizarro    Andrew Foster-Williams
Florestan        Toby Spence
Don Fernando    Richard Burkhard
First Prisoner    Richard Pinkstone
Second Prisoner    Thomas D Hopkinson

Chorus        Garsington Opera Chorus
Orchestra    Philharmonia Orchestra
Music        Ludwig van Beethoven
Conductor    Douglas Boyd
Stage Director / Lighting & Projection Designer Peter Mumford
Associate Video Designer William Reynolds
Assistant Conductor & Chorus Master Jonathon Swinard
Assistant Director Cecilia Stinton
Reduced Orchestration Francis Griffin

Leonore is a tremendously challenging role, and I do believe that Katherine Broderick was a very good choice for this production.  Her vocalism and her musicianship were spot-on, and her understanding of a very complex character was quite amazing.  I liked the Rocco of Stephen Richardson, the Marzelline of Galina Averina, and the Jaquino of Trystan Llŷr Griffiths quite a lot.  Mr. Richardson especially played the gentle father figure Rocco, who somehow finds himself in a rather barbaric role, very sympathetically.  

What is it about basses? Why do they think they have to manufacture a sound that will be impressive instead of letting a truly healthy version of the sound God gave them suffice? I don't doubt the artistry of Andrew Foster-Williams (Don Pizzaro), but if my strongest memories from the production are a wobble and a scowl, I'm not sure the artist has achieved success. 

Toby Spence as Florestan
Photo:  Johan Persson

Toby Spence. A lyric tenor I have long admired.  He did a fine job with this role, and I don't mean to suggest otherwise, although the truly dramatic nature of some of the vocal passages did seem a bit beyond his grasp.  I associate him with Tom Rakewell, certain Mozart roles, and the like. The quintessential "English tenor."  I would expect to see a voice like his cast as Jaquino sooner than as Florestan. Yes, I know time will have its way. I'm 58. I'm not unfamiliar with this concept. But even those lyric tenors who have progressed into more italienisch and dramatic territory started out with a sound I don't identify with Mr. Spence. But I haven't kept current with every news item in the opera world in the past few years. I've had a few other matters on my mind. I don't know what he has done since I knew of his Mozart roles at the Met and a few others online. I would in no way say he was a bad Florestan. But remember I studied briefly with James King, one of the finest Florestans of his era.  (Certainly not one of the finest teachers, but I digress.)

The production. This was, of necessity, a concert production, with the 2-meter squares we have come to expect from clever lighting designers. I will say the lighting designer in this case never disappointed and offered occasional insights. In addition, the screen projections behind singers and orchestra were quite effective.  When one could read the text displayed. 

I really liked the quite reduced orchestra under the direction of Douglas Boyd. I was quite often reminded that Beethoven is not nearly so stodgy as I sometimes remember him (certain parts of the 9th symphony), nor as uninspired with voices as I tend to think. (An die Ferne Geliebte.  Genug gesagt!)  

Full cast with lighting effects
Photo:  Johan Persson

I know I sound like a Negative Nelly.   OK, I always sound nelly, but I do sound even more negative than usual in this post.  I really don't want to give that impression. 

When I realized that Leonore and Rocco were offering Florestan bread and wine at the same time they were supposed to be digging his grave, I was in tears. When Leonore revealed her identity and Florestan realized what has happened and very nearly left his 6 ft x 6 ft block, I nearly lost it.  

Did this production move me?  Hell to the yeah, as the young people probably said about 20 years ago.  (Who can keep up?)  Would I recommend it?  Oh yes!  Should you view it?  Didn't I already say yes?!

Saturday, March 20, 2021

I'm a 'llegory man

It's not often I praise a radically updated production of a traditional opera.  It is also not often that I find myself sobbing and laughing at the same time while watching an opera. Saturday evening I experienced the convergence of these two unlikely events in the form of a production of Die Zauberflöte from the Macerata Opera Festival in Italy--hence the title Il Flauto Magico and the Italian names for all the characters.  As with many productions I write about recently, this was courtesy of the amazing site

Tamino and Papageno
Updated productions.  Heavy sigh.  Far too often they fail to achieve the goal that is usually stated, of making relationships and social roles more clear.  Very often they distract with their attention--or more likely inattention--to historical detail.  Much as I appreciate Jackie O style costumes for women, I've seen enough productions of Aida and Norma to understand the role relationships without the aid of a pillbox hat.  I don't need to see Marriage of Figaro on a tennis court, to quote an opera director I once interviewed.

But.  This.  Was.  Brilliant.  I was resistant at first but the production won me over.  The setting appears to be the scene of an historic site that is being sacrificed to modern business needs.  There is a camp of protesters and homeless people, and a chorus of people in all walks of life, from church leaders of many different faiths to business men to anything you can imagine.  The three doors of the Temple of Wisdom have symbols representing finance (a Euro symbol), commerce (an Apple logo), and the church (wait for it........yes, a cross!).  Not surprisingly, the door where Tamino gains entry is the door of commerce.  At points in the production the finance set piece turns around to reveal missiles--big surprise--and the church set piece reveals a huge statue of the Virgin.  Comment on that could take up another entire post, so I'll refrain.  At the very climax, the commerce (Apple logo) set piece turns around to reveal a tree.  During the trial scene, Pamina plucks an apple from the tree to share with Tamino.  Some might say heavy handed, but we live in a heavy-handed age.  (It is also worth noting that Papageno's false attempt at suicide also involves that tree.)

Papageno and Pamina

I could write about the many details that made this production brilliant, but the best way to summarize it is this:  It made me think about Die Zauberflöte, which I know like the back of my hand (have you seen the name of this blog?), in a new way.  That is indeed an accomplishment.

The singing.  Usually I lead off with the singing, but the fact that I haven't done so here is no slight to the singing I heard in this production. I shall list all the credits below and refer to each singer by character name here.  First, Tamino.  One of the most difficult tenor roles ever.  F@#$#^%$ Parsifal.  This is hard work!  Giovanni Sala was very pleasing vocally and quite equal to the unusual acting demands of the avant-garde setting.  I hope I will hear him again.  Pamina was pleasingly sung by Valentina Mastrangelo. I can't say I quite liked all the things the director asked her to do, but she was certainly a good actress.  And in all fairness, this was not a simpering Pamina who leaves one wondering just what is wrong with the girl.  Sarastro was quite commandingly sung and acted by Antonio di Matteo, attired in suit and tie like a televangelist.  (Yes, there was a suited televangelist element among the faith leaders I mention above.)  The Queen of the Night was sung very well by Tetiana Zhuravel, but I would like to have seen more madness.  (Kenneth Branagh, your movie has spoiled me for all other Queens of the Night!)  

The three gates at the Temple of Wisdom

Quibbles?  Very few once I understood what was going on.  (Program notes?  I don't need no stinkin' program notes!)  One or two vocal flaws, but this was regional/festival/young artist opera, not Covent Garden. One or two directorial choices I might want to discuss.  Nothing really worth talking about.  

In summary, I highly recommend seeking this video on if you want beautiful singing and a production that makes you think.

Following is a cast/credit list directly from the web site:

Tamino:  Giovanni Sala  

Papageno:  Guido Loconsolo

The Three Ladies:  Lucrezia Drei, Eleonora Cilli, Adriana Di Paola

Astrifiammante:  Tetiana Zhuravel

Monostato:  Manuel Pierattelli

Pamina:  Valentina Mastrangelo

The Three Geniuses:  Ilenia Silvestrelli, Caterina Piergiacomi, Emanuele Saltari

Oratore:  Marcell Bakonyi

Sarastro:  Antonio Di Matteo

Papagena:  Paola Leoci

Sacerdote / Armigero:  Marco Miglietta

Armigero:  Seung Pil Choi

Chorus:  Coro Lirico Marchigiano “V. Bellini”

Orchestra:  Orchestra regionale delle Marche

Text Fedele d’Amico (Translation):  Graham Vick, Stefano Simone Pintor (Dialogues)

Conductor:  Daniel Cohen

Director:  Graham Vick

Set Designer:  Stuart Nunn

Costume Designer:  Stuart Nunn

Lighting Designer:  Giuseppe di Iorio

Movement Director:  Ron Howell


Saturday, March 6, 2021

You ripped my heart out and stomped that sucker flat!

 You just sorta stepped on my aorta......

I quote a song popular in my youth.  (When they played music on the theorbo and viola da gamba.)  I say it because a good performance of La Traviata leaves me with exactly that feeling. I did have that feeling at the end of the La Traviata I viewed Friday evening.

Socially distanced La Traviata
Photo:  Teatro Réal
I write about a recorded performance of La Traviata I viewed on, one of my favorite opera web sites.  This came from Madrid's Teatro Réal, recorded in July, 2020.  It was a semi-staged concert performance. This seemed to be awkward at first, but in the end the performances transcended the limited performance format.  

The setting suggested La Traviata sets, with the belle epoque (if that is the correct term) furniture pieces down stage and opera chorus on platforms upstage.  The lighting design made clear the currently necessary social distancing of six feet (two meters), with stark red lines outlining squares in which each chorus member was allowed to exist. No principals touched each other. (In fact, when a footman brings a note to Alfredo in Act I, Scene II, no actual note changed hands.)  This took some getting used to.  I do, however, credit the creative team at Teatro Réal, including Director Leo Castaldi and Lighting Designer Carlos Torrijos, with creating a very effective performance that was both safe for all involved and remarkably moving for the audience.

Michael Fabiano and Marina Rebeka
Photo:  Teatro Réal
I have learned over time that when I am focused on vocal technique, I am not terribly involved emotionally.  All of the cast were fine singers, but I had the feeling that the semi-staged setting felt awkward at the start. In Act I I had thoughts like, "Oh, I've heard him sing better!" or, "She didn't take that optional high note!"  In Act III I was sobbing.  Everyone came alive vocally and dramatically as the opera grew and flowered.  Soprano Marina Rebeka, whom I did not know, grew into an amazing Violetta.  A beautiful woman with a beautiful voice, this singing actress moved me to tears more times than I can count in Acts II and III.  In the Act II party scene, after Alfredo has insulted her to the core and she is on the floor in shame and grief, Ms. Rebeka gave us a meltingly beautiful and heartbreaking appeal that touched the heart visually, vocally, and dramatically.  Michael Fabiano as Alfredo also warmed up vocally and dramatically as the evening progressed. In the party scene I mention, his regret and shame over his actions is heartbreaking, as well.  I had seen him sing Alfredo before (see this link) and I won't say this was the best singing I've heard from him, but he still had me in tears.  This is what matters.  

Baritone Artur Rucinski was a fine Germont vocally.  Of course, because of social distancing, he could not embrace Violetta as a daughter, which left one with an even stronger longing for him to do so.  I've often written that I am not of one mind about Germont as a character. Is he a controlling jackass, manipulating Violetta into leaving Alfredo and then pretending remorse (with predictable "Look how sorry I am!" comments) in the last act?  Does he develop a true affection for Violetta?  I'm not entirely sure I want complete answers to these questions, because it is questions and not answers that make compelling drama.  And God knows I loves me some drama!

The chorus and orchestra of Teatro Réal (I sort of want to continue showing off my ability to do an accent aigu on my Mac keyboard)  were of course wonderful.  Conductor Nicola Luisotti is worthy of great praise. I highly recommend watching this production.