Friday, March 27, 2015

My cover story in Classical Singer magazine!

Scholar and Singer: Ian Bostridge

by David Browning
To say that tenor Ian Bosridge’s path to a singing career was atypical is an understatement. Bostridge earned advanced degrees in history from Cambridge, wrote his first book on witchcraft, and worked in television before beginning his career as a singer at age 30. Now a veteran artist with performances at Covent Garden, Carnegie Hall, and Glyndebourne on his résumé, Bostridge has returned to writing, his most recent book focusing on Schubert’s Winterreise. Truly a scholar and a singer, Bostridge speaks about his views on art song, opera, musicology, and music history through both lenses.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Purcell’s and Peter Sellars’ Indian Queen at English National Opera

By guest blogger Judy Dixey

When you realise you’re going to a Peter Sellars’ production, you wonder how much will be lunatic, and how much will be magic. Getting tickets to the penultimate performance at English National Opera’s London Coliseum at the last minute – such a treat – you plunge in without much research or preparation; are you going to have to read detailed programme notes to find out actually what’s going on?

Maritxell Carrero
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
The answer to that is “yes” but the programme is worth it. A fascinating historic note outlines the machinations, political and personnel, which surrounded the first production. Purcell’s untimely death, actor walk-outs, companies amalgamating, combined with changing tastes, all mean there is little left of the original. The original Dryden play had been a big success in the 1660s with its bizarre pagan rituals and colour, and it was this that Purcell, 30 years later, was to begin to bring to life in music in the year he died. There are only about 45 minutes of music extant, so in creating a 5-act opera, Peter Sellars has really made a new piece, using Purcell’s glorious music. For the libretto, he is inspired by The Lost Chronicles of Terra Firma, by Rosario Aguilar. This is written as a chronicle of the events, but giving a woman’s point of view. So he is able to focus on Teculihuatzin, the Indian Queen of the title, who was “given” to Don Pedro the Conquistador in marriage, but also as a secret agent for her people.

As a result, Mr. Sellars is able to engage the wonderful Puerto Rican actor Maritxell Carrero in the speaking roles of the Queen and her daughter, giving commentary and explanation, ramping up the emotion of Purcell’s plangent music. The Queen (peerless Julia Bullock, in her debut in London) falls head over heels in love with, and is then discarded by, the Conquistador, who returns to Spain to find a bride. All the while, there is the most outstanding singing from all the cast, and brilliant playing by the raised, in-sight orchestra. It’s all bad news for the Aztecs/Mexicans as they are betrayed and slaughtered.

The Indian Queen
(c) Richard Hubert Smith
Much commentary is also carried by four dancers, portraying the several ages of the Mayan Creation before the arrival of the Spanish, and then appearing as ghostly figures personifying the emotions of the final scenes. Think Rite of Spring in Nijinsky’s choreography, angular, jagged, but in this case, based on what is known of Mayan culture and images observed in their sacred places.

The superb cast also includes Lucy Crowe and Thomas Walker as the Spanish governors, and Noah Stewart plays the role of the caddish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado. He does live up to the good looks which win over his Indian Queen. The ensemble has already performed this piece to great acclaim in Spain and Russia.

With all these forces, engaging music, voice, dance and design, Peter Sellars takes a piece languishing in 17th century obscurity and gives it a new life. He also brings in a certain 21st century feel, acknowledging and allowing for our contemporary attitude to, and deeper understanding of, the genocide of 400 years ago.

What an evening – fabulous Purcell – and a really interesting “new” opera for the 21st century!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

My Bachtrack review of the new Hoffmann cast at the Met

Audrey Luna as Olympia,
Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann
(c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Bartlett Sher's 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of Les contes d'Hoffman was revived this season, opening on January 12 with a cast that included Vittorio Grigolo and Thomas Hampson. On February 28 a second, quite stunning cast took over. I hadn't seen Mr. Sher's production before, and I was struck by all the dream-like, almost absurdist visual references – Bedlam, carnival in Venice, Versailles – that worked together to emphasize Hoffmann's decline into madness, which clearly wasn't a long journey for him.
Read more

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Bachtrack review of Ariadne at Curtis Opera Theater

Heather Stebbins (Ariadne) and Kevin Ray (Bacchus)
Photo (c) Cory Weaver
On Sunday, I was delighted to see the final performance of Curtis Opera Theater's Ariadne auf Naxos, produced in conjunction with Opera Philadelphia and performed at Philadelphia's beautiful Kimmel Center. I'm a big fan of opera on every professional level, including high-level conservatory productions like this. The Curtis Institute has long been considered one of the nation's top music schools. Its impressive list of alumni includes Leonard Bernstein and Eric Owens. To be part of such a school's voice and opera program suggests a great talent, and there was talent aplenty onstage Sunday afternoon.
Read more.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

My Bachtrack review of the Vienna Philharmonic and Westminster Choir performing the Brahms Requiem

Soloist Diana Damrau
(c) Michael Tammaro
Imagine my joy at having the opportunity hear the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Westminster Symphonic Choir perform Brahms' German Requiem, one of the most beautiful and deeply personal choral masterworks I know. I can not hide my love of choral music. There is something uniquely spiritual in the blending of voices with a common intent of communicating a message. There is something beautiful in the integration of voices of people from all backgrounds. There is something healing in singing and hearing this great music. I recall the performances of the Brahms and Mozart Requiems that were quickly produced across the U.S. soon after 9/11. My teachers in college told me of similar occurrences after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.   Read more.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

We wonder what the world can be

On Saturday night I was delighted to see Theater 2020's The Singapore Mikado, an adaptation of that great work of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan.

The action takes place in Singapore, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Mikado becomes the play within the play, presented by a group of Brits stationed or living in Singapore. I usually don't like updating opera settings, but this was not an update. Rather, it added the context of an enthusiastic and good-hearted community production. All the actors had well-defined roles as members of the British community in Singapore. (There was even a program with bios of all these characters.) I found the treatment of the finale, where tragic news of war brings festivities to a halt, only to have them resume and build into a gesture of British strength and resolve, quite moving. We cared about these charming characters as much as we did Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum.

The original concept was by Charles Berigan and David Fuller. I like it very much. Mr. Fuller also directed this production. The cast were all eager and energetic musical theater singer-actors, many with classically trained voices. (Several appeared in this show courtesy of Actor's Equity Association.) In some ways I'm a purist, but this casting worked, and even lent credibility to the community production concept.

Greg Horton
If Ko-Ko is not the first character a reviewer wants to mention, I say you haven't cast a successful Mikado. I couldn't wait to start writing accolades for Greg Horton. This stage veteran brought to Ko-Ko all the naive self-importance, all the shallow cynicism, all mischievous energy a good Ko-Ko requires. Best of all, he was fun! The young lovers Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo were very effectively sung by Brianne Keefe and Michael Penick. Mr. Penick has a sweet lyric tenor that is perfect for Nanki-Poo, and uses it to great effect. Ms. Keefe brings beautiful singing and comic talents to her role. These two were at their best when onstage together, bringing to each other an energy that delighted the audience.

David Arthur Bachrach's role as Sir Evelyn Estebrooke, British Consul to Singapore, was more important than Sir Evelyn's role as the Mikado. Sir Evelyn was host and patron for the evening's proceedings, and acted as master of ceremonies. Mr. Bachrach was in character from the very beginning, handing out the Singapore programs and chatting up the audience as Sir Evelyn.

Pooh-Bah is often played as a great stick in the mud. I liked David Fuller's portrayal, where the stiff persona is merely posturing that falls away easily to reveal a good-hearted chap. I found his instant character shifts as he described all his roles in city government quite amusing. (I've seen other actors attempt these shifts without the same success.)

The Katisha of Chrysten Peddie was a delight to see and hear, as were Yum-Yum's sisters Lorinne Lampert as Pitti-Sing and Michelle Seipel as Peep-Bo. The ensemble was really a double-quartet, with each vocal part covered once--typical of the sort of community theater production portrayed. This lent an intimate feel to some of the choruses that was unfamiliar but quite welcome. Although not a typically operatic sound, the ensemble had a pleasing sound.

Kudos must go to the production team. David Fuller's direction showed great attention to character and effective traffic control. Judith Jarosz's choreography was charming. (Mr. Fuller and Ms. Jarosz are Co-Artistic Directors of Theater 2020, and also deserve kudos for creating and keeping alive and vibrant this delightful small company.) Costumes by Ricky Lurie were beautiful--quite appropriate 1940s wear, still visible when the actors donned Japanese-looking robes to take their Mikado characters. Hair and make-up were uncredited, but these, too, were quite effective.

The Singapore Mikado has four more shows--March 1 matinee, March 6 and 7 at 8 p.m., and March 8 matinee. I would encourage you to go.