Opera Critic

Adriana Mater (World Premiere production), Opéra National de Paris, April 7, 2006

Kenneth Quandt

Adriana, the heroine of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera, is a mother who stands by her son, Yonas. The pain and the passion she stood by was his discovery and then his reaction to learning that his father Tsargo the Protector had been absent all his life not because he died a heroic soldier’s death, but because he had raped Adriana and has ever since had to hide out on the other side of the river. In the fourth of seven scenes the son bursts into the house having learned the truth from which his mother has protected him. The conception was indeed not immaculate, but Adriana was just as confused and certain about what was happening to her as Mary was and all mothers are. Tsargo raped her, having been enraptured since she had danced with him a year before and unable to accept being spurned. She decided to keep the child, knowing and sensing (Je sais et je sens) that although both their blood was mixed together in the child, the child was truly hers and not his. Yonas’s passion goes through its stages, first indignant anger at his mother for lying to him. She replies that he has now become an adult and can know the truth. All along it has been hell to know the ugly truth of his parentage and protect it from him. She had thought her blood in him was noble but Tsargo’s was vile, and the vile blood in this innocent child at her breast could make him a villain when he grew up. But now she knows that blood is mute, a mere excuse people make for their passion. Should she have told him when he was four? Eight? Twelve? His indignation turns to anger as indignation always seeks to do, anger directed at the father if ever he should meet him. Next we learn, from Adriana’s sister Refka, that Tsargo has returned to the town. Yonas gets a gun and goes out to kill him. Adriana is resigned: he will do what he must, but not what blood dictates. When Yonas finds his father, he first engages him in conversation, the foreplay revenge cannot resist. The very name of Adriana sets Tsargo into reverie, enraging Yonas, who reveals to him that he is his son by Adriana. Adriana and Yonas! You would have been my life!” Tsargo muses, again enraging Yonas who brandishes the weapon and waits for that last provocation to pull the trigger. “Had you thought to die before seeing your son, then?” he asks, in abject indignation. “See? I see nothing. I have been blind for years,” Tsargo replies. The son remembers for a moment that he would like to be known by his father. This is what he craves and has craved all his life. “I could know you by touching your face,” Tsargo suggests. This he does, slowly. Suddenly Yonas runs off stage ending the scene. The seventh and final scene places all four characters on stage, not in action as much as speaking directly to the audience and imagining how things could have been otherwise. If only there had not been that dance. The gates of hell opened that night and now they must be closed. Yonas still wishes he had killed his father. He deserved to be killed, Adriana starts to say to him, and again he upbraids himself for not carrying it out. But Adriana will be heard. The music stops. She tells her son, “He deserved to die, but you, you did not deserve to kill him. Instead of being avenged, we have been saved. Come let me rest my head on the shoulder of a real man.”
The plot is tight, the dialogue credible and efficient. One thinks often of Jenufa, the surging forward motion of plot and music, the theme of a wanted and unwanted baby, and of Jenufa’s forgiveness. One thinks how one’s struggle to achieve identity and dignity can proudly struggle forever or else yield and accept the identity that one already has been given. One remembers that just as a human is able to inflict an amount of pain on his fellow that is greater than he should be able to do, he can also participate in the miracle of raising him to a higher plane by loving him, simply and patiently.
Saariaho’s music is a constant accompaniment of the characters’ feelings, defining itself each moment by changing what it just was, sometimes achieving a distinct rhythmic articulation and climax but often hewing close to what is happening as long as it takes to happen. The clarinet describes Adriana’s feelings and at the end has a lyric low passage that settles us down after two hours of frenzied and anxious high notes. The tuba blares the self-ignorant grossness of evil human action. The score can be described as pulse always, bars only sometimes, but stresses always foreseeable. The chorus (fifty or sixty off stage and amplified in this production) reminded me of the chorus in Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise, presented here a year and a half ago, sometimes functioning as a Greek chorus echoing the background ideas, and sometimes bursting out with shock at what is transpiring on the stage and within the souls of the audience.
George Tsypin’s sets are fixed throughout. In the first three scenes, before and during the war, it is a simple domicile on stone block with a domed roof that might recall the high view over roofs in a Middle Eastern town. From the fourth scene on it is the same, in rubble. The block appears at first to be grayish stone but at moments of heightened tension within the characters’ minds, it conspires with them to glow, in red during the rape, in yellow during Yonas’s fantasies of revenge, in a sultry sand color during the encounter between Yonas and Tsargo, which is meant to take place at noon, and finally in the gleaming white of alabaster during the final scene, when Adriana reveals to her son and to us what she has learned about life. Noteworthy also is the play of shadows on the blank rear wall of the stage. In the first scene we see them, projections of the persons of Adriana and Tsango, a mere addition. They do not return until the final scene, when Adriana attempts to teach her lesson to Yonas. Her shadow is somehow made to be smaller than his, a good deal smaller, though the two characters on the stage are similar in stature. The small voice of truth always appears weaker than forcefulness, until we hear it, as we do by then.
Voices at the Bastille have a great deficit to overcome. All of them succeeded. In the title role Patricia Bardon was a vulnerable and authoritative Adriana. Solveig Kringelborn’s Refka brought the solid sanity required by the mezzo role along with its requisite component of unimaginativeness. Gordon Gietz sang strongly and convincingly in the role of Yonas and acted his part well, carrying its multidimensional uncertainty to the end. Danish bass Stephen Milling was burdened in some ways with the most difficult role as Tsargo, but executed it with great skill. An accomplished Wagnerian, he resembled Fafner in Siegfried when stalked by the young hero with the weapon. Esa-Pekka Salonen achieved the sustained and vigorous reading that his compatriot’s score requires: deft, clear, and tireless.
The work, directed by Peter Sellars, is a tremendous success for 2006. It entertains the Western concern with blood feuds without being brought down by it, its revision of the Marian truth in an other than immaculate conception captures the most powerful current of the women’s movement without showy rancor, and above all succeeds to engage these and other obligatory contemporary themes without paying fatal dues to the Minotaur. After this work and her first opera, L’Amour de Loin, Saariaho is now preparing an opera about Simone Weil.

Much of Washington’s audience groaned at the realization that it would take in the first installment of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen uninterrupted as it is by intermissions. And indeed, an unusually large number lined up for the exits during the orchestral intervals between Rheingold’s four scenes. But for those who stayed, Francesca Zambello’s pioneering new production, a joint venture with San Francisco Opera and the first original staging ever to appear in Washington , affirmed all the excitement heralding its premiere. The idea of an “American” Ring has resonated strongly in the press and around the nation’s capital, leading to all sorts of speculation about what it would reveal. Zambello’s vision is 1920s America, an early industrial society presided over by gods clad for classic Palm Beach (white linen suits, panama hats, tennis sweaters, Daisy Buchanan-style dresses and bobs), yet still with room for a rough Old West of gold prospectors and Indians. This approach presents these well worn tropes of Americana with elegance and innovation. The opera’s scene changes are not clouded in the usual smoke and mists that one so often finds in Ring productions, but through Jan Hartley’s vivid video projections of the elemental forces so essential in Wagner. Extending this technique to the serpent into which Alberich transforms himself might go a little too far, but the images of water, air, fire, and earth transport us to the mythological realms populated by their all too human characters. Not everything works – Donner’s hammer resembles a croquet mallet and the Rhine Gold looks sort of like a patched quilt – but conceptually this Ring shows strong promise.

Washington could scarcely have assembled a better cast. Veteran bass-baritone Robert Hale, who makes his company debut in this production, was a stentorian Wotan who nevertheless brought great subtlety to the role and its nuances. His panoply of gods and goddesses supported him well. Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka proved effective without being shrill. Corey Evan Rotz and Detlef Roth depicted the parts of Froh and Donner well. Jane Ohmes made for a delicate Freia, enlivening her role with a sympathy for the lustful giants that we rarely detect. Robin Leggate’s Loge, presented as a wily three-piece lawyer or businessman, captured his role in a way that reminded one fondly of his well studied Captain Vere in Billy Budd last season. Elena Zaremba’s Erda transforms what Anna Russell famously identified as a “green-faced torso that pops out of the ground” (and a boring one at that in most productions) into a seductive earth goddess captured by the passion that will lead her to bear Wotan all those Valkyries. Her appearance as a Native American graciously resists the temptations of preachy political correctness. To this Wotan, she is more than anything else a relief from the stuffy east coast privilege doubtlessly so familiar to Washington audiences. It was Gordon Hawkins’ Alberich, however, that really put this performance on the map. By turns wounded and prideful, his rich baritone and superlative acting skills avoided the tendency to reduce the role to cartoonish bluster. His mines are dominated by Nibelungs with dark complexions, but again – and despite the obvious allusion to slavery — there is no explicit comment linking their appearance or predicament to racial grandstanding. Gary Rideout was a serviceable Mime. The giants Fafner and Fasolt, sung by Jeffrey Wells and John Marcus Bindel, were the production’s only casualties. Their blue collar giant costumes, attenuated limbs, and campy entrance on a lowered construction beam made them look more like Saturday morning cartoon characters than credible menaces to the race of gods. Heinz Fricke conducted with the slow care that makes for articulate and effective Wagner. The nation’s capital should eagerly await his conducting of the subsequent Ring operas over the next three years and their composite performance in 2009-2010, an event that may very well challenge the new Met Ring projected for the season after that.

– Paul du Quenoy

The opera world had a great deal to say about the first Met Forza in a decade, but perhaps expectations were too high. Even the inclusion of such noted voices as those of Deborah Voigt and Salvatore Licitra could not save this revival from a scatter that did considerable injustice to Verdi’s score. Giancarlo del Monaco’s worn out production – highly traditional but barely interesting – almost facilitated its disjointedness.

It has been said that Voigt cannot sing Verdi. This is far from true, especially given her recent slimming down, but her Leonora was unbalanced and betrayed middle and lower range difficulties. Her first act singing radiated some beauty, and her final aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio,” found her in best voice. But she is still no match for the greats of old. Licitra produced a full-bodied, heroic sound in at least the first half of the opera, but did not drive the audience into raptures. Mark Delavan’s Don Carlo had moments of inspiration, but proved too blustery at the instances of greatest tension. His third act scene of swearing revenge demonstrated that sheer volume can detract from rather than add to an otherwise chilling scene. Verdi hardly wrote easy baritone parts, but Delavan, a much better Amonasro last fall, is not up to the challenge of Forza’s villain. Some of the supporting cast also disappointed. John Cheek’s brief appearance as Leonora’s father, the Marchese di Calatrava, reminded us of the advancing age of the singer rather than the character. Ildiko Komlosi’s Preziosilla offered hints of good musicianship, but illustrated all too clearly why her role is superfluous to the opera. Although it was probably more the fault of uninspired direction, her Act II appearance was grating and her Act III scene overblown to the point where it bordered on caricature.

Despite these problems, there were some highlights that glimmered hopefully for the future of Verdi at the Met. Gianandrea Noseda’s enthusiastic conducting in the much applauded overture conveyed excitement and passion that resounded throughout the evening, even if little of it escaped on to the stage. The young Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow made for a marvelous Padre Guardiano, with a strong and seemingly effortless line. His career should be watched with great attention. Juan Pons, himself a veteran of Verdi baritone roles, served surprisingly well in the humbler role of Guardiano’s comic foil, Fra Melitone. The Met should be applauded for reviving a somewhat neglected Verdi favorite (this performance, the last of the current season, was the Met’s 229th, compared to nearly 1100 Aidas to date), but alas, we are not in a great era for it.

March 2006 brought the Met premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Mazeppa and with it more reasons to wonder about the baffling attention given to set designer George Tsypin. Laden with his signature white-to-translucent sculpture, the concept gave Yury Alexandrov’s production a stylization that migrated from the silly to the meaningless. Along with a wire gallows shaped vaguely like the profile of Stalin, illuminated by bright electric lights, and allowing an unfortunate head to roll from it like a hot potato, the visual images parodied rather than evoked early eighteenth-century Ukraine and the Cossack society inhabiting it. The final scene’s snowfall demolished any historical connection. The Battle of Poltava, the seminal external event that immediately precedes the scene and inspired Tchaikovsky’s forcefully martial prelude to it (the opera itself is based on Pushkin’s narrative poem, entitled Poltava), happened in June, a perennially hot month on the Ukrainian steppe. Tatiana Noginova’s costumes, which give us red and orange Cossacks and hideous gold lamée dancers, increased the garishness. The writing of Kochubei’s denunciation of Mazeppa to Peter the Great, portrayed in a scene lifted directly from Ilia Repin’s painting The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of Turkey, also betrays a basic ignorance. The Cossacks in the painting were rudely rebuffing the Sultan. Kochubei is trying to preserve his family and demonstrate loyalty to the Tsar. He ends badly — Peter disbelieves him and orders his arrest and execution, — but the mood of the scene hardly calls for the defiant posturing of Repin’s canvas.

Visually, this production may be one to miss, but executed by Mariinsky singers and conducted by that theater’s artistic director Valery Gergiev, there is simply no better performance of the opera to be heard today. Elena Evseeva, who shares the role of Maria with Olga Guryakova in this production, made lovely music as the torn daughter of Kochubei and lover of Mazeppa. Olga Savova’s fine mezzo served well in the part of Maria’s mother Lyubov and admirably complemented performances in the role by the more famous Olga Borodina, who shares it this season. The two friends made rivals by Maria’s predicament, sung by veteran Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze and the truly outstanding Russian baritone Nikolai Putilin, delivered stentorian performances that cannot be described as anything other than wonderful. Putilin’s second act aria captured his character’s hints of conscience with insight, and his performance throughout the evening seized Mazeppa’s cruelty with equal power.

Gergiev’s conducting brought the Met orchestra firmly to attention, leaving no doubt – even with this opera’s less than memorable score — that he is unsurpassed in the Russian repertoire.