Opera Critic

Washington National has rounded out its season with this Rossini comedy favorite. Shared with the opera companies of Houston, Barcelona, and Geneva, Joan Font’s production grasps at the fantasy elements underlying the Italian composer’s retelling of the Cinderella story. The sets, by Joan Guillen, tend toward darkness and take a loose reading of the opera’s sense of place but are functional nevertheless. Guillen’s costumes do more to evoke the warped storybook fantasy tropes – multicolored outfits and hairdos remind us that we are definitely out of the real world and in some grotesque of conscience. Cenerentola’s only friends, apart from the visiting royal suite that rescues her, are life-sized rats danced by humans. On occasion their choreographed cuteness matched the action. But at other times one feared they might rise up and devour her. At times the effect seemed dangerously close to the current Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, in which the chorus is costumed as lab rats.

The major vocal effort, thoroughly advertised in the company’s promotional materials, is the rising mezzo Isabel Leonard’s company debut in the title role. Leonard recently received the Richard Tucker award, and it is easy to see why. Her musicianship bespoke admirable technique that granted her a purring control of the role’s essential darker contours while still allowing stratospheric ascents. Also blessed with outstanding dramatic ability, she led this very youthful cast with remarkable intensity. Maxim Mironov’s Don Ramiro, her prince charming, added a light tenor of delicate agility that recalled the best singing of Alfredo Kraus. Paolo Bordogna’s company debut performance as Don Magnifico, Cenerentola’s wicked stepfather, made up in comic acting what he lacked in vocal prowess. The Chinese bass known only as Shenyang added sonorous bass notes in the role of the fairy godfather Alidoro. And who could miss veteran bass-baritone Simone Alberghini’s impressive performance as Dandini, the prince’s valet who impersonates him to learn people’s true characters and intentions.

If the cast possessed obvious vocal strengths, it was unfortunate to hear them constrained by conductor Speranza Scappucci’s slow tempos. Cenerentola needs pizzazz and efflorescence. Here the music sounded too boxed in to make maximal effect.




An Opera in Three Acts

Music and Libretto by Richard Wagner

Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona

Performances of 19 and 21 March 2015



Siegfried                    Stefan Vinke

Mime                         Gerhard Siegel

Wanderer                   Albert Dohmen (19 Mar.) / Greer Grimsley (21 Mar.)

Alberich                     Jochen Schmeckenbecher (19 Mar.) / Oleg Bryjak (21 Mar.)

Fafner                        Andreas Hörl

Erda                           Ewa Podles (19 Mar.) / Maria Radner (21 Mar.)

Brünnhilde                 Iréne Theorin (19 Mar.) / Catherine Foster (21 Mar.)

Woodbird                  Cristina Toledo


Conductor                 Josep Pons

Mise en scène            Robert Carsen


Orchestra Simfònica del Gran Teatro del Liceu




Hailing from Nibelheim, below the world of mortals, Alberich, a dwarf, encounters the seductive rivermaidens guarding the gold at the bottom of the Rhine. He wants to seduce them but he is ugly and randy and they enjoy teasing him to distraction. The special power of the gold is that it could be formed into a Ring that will give its possessor power over all the world, but only if he forswears love – a thing this frisky little dwarf would never do, or so the teasing maidens naively convince themselves. But they have misjudged him: their teasing pushes him over the line and he steals the gold and forswears love just to spite them. The event is archetypal and symbolic rather than real. Refusal of the gift is nothing new. The gold represents the absolute value and substantiality of nature and the Ring that can be made from it represents the alchemical dream that some by opus magnum a man could harnass that substrantiality for himself, but of course this can only be achieved at the expense of a Faustian bargain, in this case the forswearing of love. Meanwhile, up on a mountaintop, Wotan the Father of the Gods has made a contract with the Giants to build him Valhalla, a fortress so strong he will be assured of holding his rule forever. He never had made a plan how to pay them, however, as we learn from his wife, Fricka, and now the fortress is complete and the Giants are coming to collect. Fricka wants the fortress since she imagines Wotan will wander less but is a little too ready to complain in case he does not change his ways.


In Nibelheim we find the forces of the id (speaking loosely) – raw nature, beauty, teasing, sex, and hatred – in their usual deathly play of delicious sadism. Above, we find the very recognizable constellation of alter-ego components – the desire for eternal honor and fame even at the expense of simple underhandedness with the wife keeping the hearth warm and worn out wishing her husband would stay at home. I use the Freudian terminology, though it is anachronous and applies only loosely, but there are other ways to describe the goings-on, as for instance through the personnel of myth or the Jungian archetypes. Any of these can be used better or worse to portray the meaning Wagner intended, because all of them are themselves striving to grasp and articulate the perennial problems of god, man, nature, and society – and there is no doubt that Wagner’s own imagination is working on this level.


Despite these facts most of the Rings since the time of Wagner’s grandsons Wieland and Wolfgang have been dressed up in an overall socio-political theme, either a recrudescence of the Nazi War (Paris 2012) or the lingering problems in the European Union in its wake (La Scala / Berlin 2013), or the Destruction of Nature by Capitalist Greed (San Francisco 2000, San Francisco / WNO 2012). The Seattle version remains a stalwart exception with its emphasis on love and man’s place in nature (Jenkins, on the last night of last year’s run, promised the audience it will appear again), and so is the Götz Friedrich at the Deutsche Oper (which will play one more time, in 2016). The new Metropolitan version. like Freyer’s in Los Angeles a few years ago, is a different kind of exception. These might be about singers in a machine and operas only by optical illusion.


The Carsen Ring (which premiered in Cologne in 2007, played in Shanghai in 2011, will be repeated in Cologne in 2015, and will arrive here in two years from now after the usual run-up of one installment per year) chose the theme of eco-disaster, which leads to a more digestible outcome since we are all in that one together. I am glad to report that the overlay does not really matter in this production. Yes, Mime and Siegfried live in a dingy little mobile home with a clothesline tied to a telephone pole while at the same time the world still has blacksmiths and he has set up an anvil outside the trailer next to some junk. Yes, Siegfried has been issued military fatigues of the Vietnam Era but still wants to swing a sword. The Wanderer is well-dressed in a black overcoat and a suit and has a sleek cane, all of which hardly suits his self-description as a wegmüde Gast when he arrives at Mime’s little camp. In Act Two the archetypal deep-dark-forest (In Wald und Nacht) has become a minimalist stand of trees violently lopped off below their first branches that looks more like a suburban park, and there is no archetypal linden for Siegfried to refresh himself under (linde Kuelung … unter der Linde). The dragon has become the sort of clamshell bucket that is used for dredging, as if machines had a fearsome minds of their own (maybe it bit off the trees). Overall, however, such inconcinnities between what we see and what the characters say kept sliding by like flotsam and jetsom in the eloquent and unambiguous river of music that Wagner has composed for us.


For every such breakdown in the rendition Carsen has added some compensation. He is after all a Director, and not a Thinker any more than his audience are Thinkers, and he has displayed his usual directorial competence with wonderful details. In Act One Siegfried toys with his dolly and even hugs it, and when Wotan comes he picks it up and handles it, too; Wotan wanders wistfully over to the anvil, which suggests his still-lingering desire to become too involved in the action (schaffen, not just schauen), which will reappear in Act Three; the color of the light cools to silver when Wotan arrives and warms back up to golden when Siegfried returns; Carsen has Mime share a drink with Siegfried while Siegfried begins his smithing and this pantomime gives him the idea to brew another drink to give him later; Mime is brewing the evil potion over propane across from Siegfried hammering at the anvil fired by ash wood, subtle symmetries emphasizing the crucial differences. In Act II the attention to stage-lighting slips, omitting to give any rendition for Alberich’s remarks about flashing light (Glanz) moving like a galloping horse – the indication of Wotan’s arrival that we know from Walküre. In his encounter with Alberich the Wanderer sets down his cane (think “spear”) onto one of chopped down tree-stubs, and soon after Siegfried sets his sword down onto the same stub at the same angle (the two instruments will meet again in Act Three), and when he pulls it away with a grand gesture we recall Siegmund pulling the same sword out of a tree in Die Walküre. Such details remind us that the events are being watched and even helped along by a forces from beyond, something that Stephen Wadsworth has worked up into an artform in his Seattle production. The schtick with the drinks is again elaborated beyond Wagner’s stage directions when upon arrival in the area of Neidhole Siegfried reaches for his canteen and Mime deftly exchanges it for his own, right out of his hand. We must swiftly realize that the canteen Siegfried came with has the sleeping potion and Mime must not let him drink that one yet since he hasn’t yet slain the dragon. Siegfried throws the canteen at Mime a few minutes later, anyway.


In Act Three Carsen has set the first two Scenes in the Great Hall of Valhalla, already made to look as Waltraute will describe it to Brunnhilde in the Götterdämmerung. The couches are already covered and the wooden furniture is already stacked in the corner and Wotan is already brooding in his chair, contemplating a large painting of himself leaving Brunnhilde’s Rock. This is the only unredeemable mistake in the production, and a big one, too, since Wotan’s despair is not sealed until the very scenes with Erda and with Siegfried that are about to take place! Erda, morever, cannot emerge from her “deep place” under these circumstances (aus neblicher Gruft, aus nächtigem Grunde) but comes out from under a sheet covering one of the couches. As for Scene Two, we have to believe that the Woodbird has led Siegfried through Valhalla on the way to the Rock, and when Wotan tells Siegfried to look off to the fire there (erlugst du das Licht?), which is certainly not visible from the living room at Valhalla, it is toward that painting of Wotan that Siegfried is made to look. We cannot ignore that Siegfried with his natural ingenuousness makes no remark about being in a house for the first time in his life, with its cut stone walls and fireplace. For the sense of the plot it is important that Wotan and Siegfried face off on neutral ground.


The interpretation of Wotan’s encounter with Erda in Scene One is often misconceived. In the three rounds of their conversation Erda from the very first rejects Wotan’s advances. But in this production, as often, she is made to go easy on him, as if for old time’s sake. Podles (19 Mar.) treated him gently for the first round but increasingly pushed him away; whereas Radner (21 Mar.) was nicer and nicer to him until he tells her what he did to her daughter, when she suddenly recoils. It is important, however, to show that Wotan’s old relationship with Erda is as dead as a doornail so as to set up the contrast of the new love that is born in the scene between Siegfried and Brunnhilde.


The interpretations of the final scene presented by Theorin (19 Mar.) and by Foster (21 Mar.) were very different, dramatically and even choreographically. Vinke kept to the differences between the two versions with admirable deftness, as he had to the differences in the staging of Scene Two with Dohmen (19 Mar.) and Grimsley (21 Mar.). Though Theorin’s Brunnhilde was better sung, Foster’s was the more powerful dramatically and brought more tears. It included a very beautiful embodiment of the paradox of her “really” waking up, done with Siegfried sitting behind her and covering her eyes with his hands. In short, Foster preserved Brunnhilde’s heroic stature, which the Gotterdammerung will need, whereas Theorin in the more usual way let her melt for the duration. For those keeping score, Foster’s victorious final high C was longer and more in tune than Theorin’s, on this night at least.


The orchestra was excellent on the 19th but often broke with the singers on the 21st. Pons did a good job of letting the singers re-boot the orchestra. In Act Three Scene One on the 21st Grimsley kept speeding him up and Radner kept slowing his down. Vinke’s Siegfried is playful and winning, and was sung strongly to the end both times. I preferred Dohmen’s stately and solid Wotan to Grimsley’s, which sometimes wobbled too thinly. Siegel’s Mime is dramatically credible, the right balance of pretty evil, pretty funny, pretty incompetent, and entirely intolerable.


It was instructive to see such very different renditions of Act Three just two nights apart, and a pleasant surprise to learn that the Liceu has subtitles on the seat in front (Catalan, Spanish and English). Most of all I was happy that the ideological overlay about ecology was only window dressing, intruding even less than advertisements on TV, and that it did not thwart this story but let it come through, the story of a boy and a goddess enabling each other to become a man and a wife by discovering love.



Ken Quandt

Earlier this month Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky personnel performed Tristan und Isolde (March 3) and the Ring (March 4-8) at the new Mariinsky Theatre II in St. Petersburg. Barely a week later this busy company has come to Barcelona for a single concert performance of Tristan und Isolde. The personnel overlaps (Petrenko sang Marke and Gogolevskaya Isolde) but there were substitutions as well (among them Nikitin who had just sung Wotan in the Ring). Gogolevksa’s voice sits a little low for what Isolde must sing in the First Act, but it was perfectly suited to the lower and quieter Second. Her Liebestod was marred by some lurching to the high notes. The most welcome surprise was Yulia Matochkina as Brangaena, who sang the best on this evening, her voice clear and sharp and burnished. Locals will have the privilege of hearing her sing Dido at the Mariinsky next month.
The other surprise in the cast was Robert Gambill as Tristan, not a member of the St. Petersburg troupe, whom I liked very much in the first two Acts, though he drew a few loud boo’s at the end of the Second. It is true that his tonality was not sure but his Heldentenor voice and style projected a vivid personality, which added a lot to the semi-staged version. In the Third Act he had lost some of his power and really at the end became inaudible.  Part of the problem, then and throughout the night, however, was that Gergiev’s band was louder up on the stage and he did not compensate adequately. Most of the night he overpowered the singers, and within the orchestra there were problems of balance in the amplitude of the woodwinds and the strings, as for instance at the opening of the overture. What the orchestra lost for playing too loud it gained back for playing that way at climactic sections, as for instance at the thrilling end of the First and Second Acts. The opening of the Second Act was unaccountably fast – the french horns could hardly execute the huntsman calls.
Experiencing a performance in the concert style always puts one in mind of the absence of staging, and on this occasion it occurred to me that Tristan is particularly well suited to such a presentation since the most important action takes place within the souls of the characters and is expressed entirely by what they sing and by Wagner’s all-knowing score which is constantly reading their minds.  Since there was nothing extraneous to distract me, as for instance the gratuitous chromaticity of the Hockney production of recent years or even the large quiet sculpted mass Kupfer placed in the middle of the stage in Berlin, I could look at “nothing” and listen only.  But the nothing I looked at was of course the individual members of the orchestra and the singers that were making the music, and these though not costumed characters were persons just as much me. The elimination of fictional apparatus, what Aristotle in the Poetics called choregia, for once brought the music and its meaning only closer to me. There was no deficit of portayal since what was happening, the plot, was invisible anyway (one could say similar things about the Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy). This “illumination” if you will came upon me in the dreamy Second Act of course, when Tristan delivers nothing less than a set of declamations on the operation of his and Isolde’s love in their souls – events if you will that occur outside of time, or to use the metaphor Tristan uses in death and night rather than in life and day – and teaches her the Liebestod she will sing back to him at the close of the opera.
Upon reflection one recalls the Peter Sellars production that premiered in the regime of Gerard Mortier at the Bastille in
2005, which had originally been called the “Tristan Experiment” when it was presented over the course of three days at the LA Philharmonic the year before. The “Experiment” was essentially a concertante performance, with the characters on stage in front of the orchestra (though Sellars occasionally placed them in the aisles of the vertiginous Disney Hall as well).
What dominated the scene was of course the thirty foot high visual screen on which was projected the “movie” created by Bill Viola, depicting as little action as takes place in the opera itself:  a man and a woman very slowly preparing themselves with ablutions in the First Act and gradually moving toward each other in the Second. Even in the final version at the Bastille the video dominated the scene though by then Sellars added a subdued and minimal staging, with all the characters dressed in black on a black stage and moving as in a trance. The very conceivability of this presentation already revealed to me how slight was the literal action in Wagner’s story. Sellars, overactive and overcreative as usual, filled this rarified void with a second love-story that had to be somatic (including washing, walking toward, and intertwining) in order to be visible. But the visuals he introduced were unable to depict Tristan’s suffering in Act Three (the video devolved into sentimentalism: storm, trees in winter, sunset), and most important they were unable to depict the three surprise entries of Marke, which apart from the hoped-for arrivals of Tristan in Act Two and of Isolde in Act Three, do constitute the most dramatic moments of the evening, in the usual sense.
In a concertante version, conversely, Marke can be depicted as arriving, for the singer in the tuxedo does enter the stage and comes to his music stand! Thus in the case of Tristan’s grand entry to assuage Isolde’s yearning near the beginning of Act Two, Gambill’s very appearance from the flies as Tristan was a dramatic event, made all the more powerful by the long walk he had to take to get from the proscenium to the front of the orchesta elevated to the level of the stage above the floor of the pit – and in the way he strode Gambill showed he knew it  Up until this point in Act Two the concertante arrangement had been rather stiff, as we would expect it to be. Even when the two begin to suffer the effect of Brangaene’s elixir in Act One they are not sure what is happening to them and so it served just as well that they should simply stay near their music stands. But from the moment Tristan arrives in Act Two a new dimension came into view, and the most attenuated gesture by the singers invited interpretation. It was the way Gambrill managed this very limited but expressively powerful range of gestures, turning away from his music to face Isolde, raising his arm toward her and the like, that attracted my attention to his performance and helped me to “look away” from his uncertain intonation. Gogolevskaya on the other hand fixed her attention on the score – certainly not because her grasp of the score is insecure or her vision is weak, but just not taking it upon herself to exploit this subtle dramatic vehicle. Petrenko’s Marke, though magnificently sung in all three Acts, likewise exploited not at all the dramatic potential of his entrance from the flies. There is nobody to blame for this since there was no stage director managing things – only Gambrill to praise for adding to his manner of coming on the stage as the star of the evening, a show of some sensitivity to his appearance as Tristan.
The special dramatic power of a concertante version in rather than a full-on stage production might with profit be compared with the special dramatic power of a the Platonic Dialogues, which are likewise unstaged. Plato chose to forgo the medium of drama for a colder medium, a medium in which the reader is not distracted by the choregia of full-on drama and is allowed to focus instead on the words of Socrates and his interlocutor, and upon the music of the words, and in particular to invest more attention on small but eloquent conversational gestures like the hand motions of the singers I mention above. To stage the Platonic Dialogues has often tempted those who love and admire his works, and has always resulted in failure. This is a fascinating obverse of the way opera concertante can succeed, particularly in connection with the Wagner operas, and proof that Wagner’s operas in particular are works in which the true subject matter is the movements of the soul. Of course his operas are based on myths instead of history!
It is exactly their transcendence of history and their articulation of the essential that has left the Wagner operas particularly open to the historical overlays of the Regiesseur in the last thirty or forty years (just as it has left Plato’s Dialogues open to an interpretation that invents a Plato who wanted to be a dictator). During this “Regie Regime” under which all of us are suffering (the 2014-2015 yearbook of the Staatsoper Berlin asks on the cover whether Regie has destroyed opera altogether) it might be a safer and more prudent measure to go to a performance of an opera you love only if performed in the concertante mode. When I complain about interventionist stupidities these days my Wagnerian friends keep reminding me, “You can just close your eyes,” but it was something of an eye-opener last night that even a concertante version, especially when the opera is Tristan und Isolde, could provide a visual feast, albeit of small dishes, or what they call tapas here in Barcelona.

It is rare that a production of La Boheme, Puccini’s tale of love and loss, receives and really innovative approach. Unfortunately the Washington National Opera’s new production lives up to this stereotype. Jo Davies’s updating the action to the time of World War I could have been innovative had the late lamented New York City Opera not done it in 2007. It also seemed strongly influenced by the Metropolitan Opera’s updating of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment (a production much shared around the world) to the same era. In any case it looked like La Boheme, and that is not always a good thing. Peter Kazaras’s direction likewise repeated all the same overfamiliar cliches to the point that it was hard to imagine the cast and crew having much fun at all.

Even a cliched Boheme can be entertaining with the right cast, and there were hints of that on stage last night. Saimir Pirgu’s sweet voiced Rodolfo had some presence but got a bit shaky in the blooming high notes. Corinne Winters’s Mimi also had charm, but seemed to light for the part at times. The opera’s other couple, John Chest’s Marcello and Alyson Cambridge’s Musetta, turned in competent performances that could have used more verve. The real vocal standout was bass Joshua Bloom’s Colline, which showcased the steadiest technique among the Bohemians. Philippe Auguin’s conducting harnassed a reasonably orchestral effort that was sometimes moving. But it could not help the effort’s overall staleness.

Paul du Quenoy

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