Opera Critic

The English National Opera’s tour de force 2011-2012 season continues with this revival of David McVicar’s production of 2008.  Shared with the Scottish Opera, McVicar’s effort reflects a kind of decaying sumptuousness, with all three acts set against the backdrop of palatial walls in disrepair under a broken marble ceiling.  The Marschallin’s bedroom is suggested by an extravagant bed.  The sets become Faninal’s house with the substitution of a well set table and fauteuils.  A simple dining table takes over for the third act inn.  Tracy McCallin’s costumes and other props suggest the opera’s eighteenth century milieu to accurate perfection.

Amanda Roocroft has taken the title role for the first time.  The voice is a shade too light to reach real gravitas, but its technical features did not disappoint.  A more introspective dramatic approach would have highlighted the performance.  Sarah Connolly, who is rapidly emerging as a Straussian mezzo of note, took the trousers role of Octavian to heights that warmly recalled the young Susan Graham in the part.  The delicate balance of animus and anima the part demands were strongly in evidence.  Her duet with the fine young soprano Sophie Bevan, who floated lovely piano notes, rose to the heights of the superb.  Sir John Tomlinson’s Ochs demonstrated that this excellent bass need not be identified solely with the sinister roles for which he is best known.  Comedic tomfoolery combined with sturdy vocalism to deliver the cad we all know and love. Only the high notes in the first act proved a bit too strong a challenge for this stalwart performer, but he hit both of the ultra low notes with delicious charm.  Andrew Shore’s Faninal and Mark Richardson’s Police Commissioner were fine additions to the cast.  ENO music director Edward Gardner led a strong yet balanced performance. Alfred Kalisch’s translation of the libretto was not always accurate but still responded well to the lyricism of Hugo von Hofmansthal’s original.

The Opera Orchestra of New York nearly faded with the 2008 financial crisis, but the last two seasons have allowed it to demonstrate an impressive return to fiscal and artistic health. (Or almost, its planned March 7 performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra with Placido Domingo in the title role was just cancelled for unspecified financial reasons). This season began auspiciously with an excellent and heavily cheered performance of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur starring the great Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. Wagner’s early opera Rienzi – which the composer considered “immature” and banned from his personally designed theater in Bayreuth — had been scheduled for spring 2009 and then cancelled, but has now appeared. Eve Queler, listed since last season as the Opera Orchestra’s “Founder and Conductor Laureate,” has yielded the baton to the company’s new music director, the talented conductor Alberto Veronesi, but has pledged to return for one of the Opera Orchestra’s annual performances. This is the fourth time she has mounted Rienzi, and she chose it for her appearance this season.

The orchestra sounded very brassy and a bit loud, a trait for which Queler’s conducting has been criticized. In Wagner, however, it works quite well, and the unusual setting of Avery Fisher Hall (the company normally performs in Carnegie Hall) may have added the right acoustic effect. The orchestral moments, some derivative of Meyerbeerian grand opera but others showing the evolution of Wagner’s emerging style, passed most enjoyably. It was a disappointment that the ballet music was cut, but Rienzi in full is a cumbersome piece and something had to go to make for a balanced afternoon.

Ian Storey is edging toward that zone where one politely uses the phrase “past his prime,” but he delivered most of the title role with a verve that recalled the somewhat rough-edged 1950s German Wagnerian Gunther Treptow. The prayer aria was as eerily insightful as it should be for an opera about a populist dictator who defeats internal traitors, foreign enemies, and the church before his people turn on him. The image of a self-deluded Hitler in the bunker (where the original score of Rienzi disappeared with him…) is never far off. Elizabeth Matos fared less well as Rienzi’s sister Irene. Fine middle register singing too often jumped into upper range shrillness. A true discovery came in the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet, who made her American debut in this performance. Her Adriano, a trouser role of conflicted loyalties and emotions, radiated a solid beauty and superb musicianship. Both the part’s traditional aria “Gerechter Gott” and cabaletta drew sustained applause and cheers. The young singers Ricardo Rivera, Brandon Cedel, Philip Horst, and Jonathan Winell all made solid impressions that suggested great things to come. The New York Choral Society and children’s chorus from the Vox Nova of the Special Music School made excellent choral contributions, the society from the stage and the children with entrances through the audience. A “military ruling” unfortunately excluded the West Point Glee Club from performing the soldiers’ choruses, but a replacement chorus of male singers did the job quite well.

Alban Berg died without finishing the second of his two important operas, leaving a fragmentary score for performance in the years after his death.  The fullest construction of what he envisioned first appeared at the Paris Opera, only in 1979.  This three act version is what rests in the repertoire now.  Willy Decker’s s stylized production is somewhat bland but leaves little to the imagination.  All of the action transpires in the cartoonish but approximate settings called for in the libretto, with the major stage innovation resting on a cut away ceiling that yields a steep black staircase rising to the top of the proscenium.  It is there that the chorus observes the action.  It is the setting for Lulu’s off-stage cabaret in the third act.  And, this being opera, characters can descend from it into the action as it unfolds within the main set. Sometimes this is done via ladder, but in the most evocative moments, such as Lulu’s first husband Dr. Schoen’s entry and brief scene involving a fatal heart attack, the character is simply dropped in by the chorus.  Eerily, we also see it in full use as Lulu and her lesbian paramour Countess Geschwitz contemplate their own savage deaths.  Traditionally murdered by Jack the Ripper, who does kill Geschwitz by himself in this production, Lulu’s demise is at the hands of the entire chorus, who are dressed to resemble the notorious serial killer.  It is unclear whether we are meant to believe that it is in fact an oppressive society that drives Lulu to insanity and a most unsavory end, but I wondered whether this approach was a bit heavy handed or possibly even misguided.  Lulu surely does enough damage to herself and others as a result of her amoral and lascivious behavior.  Her toxic persona could be created by her strange relationship with her possible father and pimp Schigolch, but who is he but some old pervert? The answers to these questions of developmental psychology are largely left unanswered.

Berg’s score emerged through fine voices, but Michael Schonwandt’s slow paces on the podium delivered less drive than one might prefer.  Nevertheless, Laura Aikin well deserves the international attention she has won in the title role.  She soared stratospherically, held back only by the lacking orchestral music.  Jennifer Larmore’s Geschwitz also excelled in producing resonant mezzo tones that could inhabit both evil seduction and hopeless desperation.  Franz Grundheber’s Schigolch has only brief appearances, but stood as the full equal of his fine recent performances of Wozzeck, the title character in Berg’s other best opera.  In the role of Alwa, written in that modernist pinched tenor Fach that communicates neurosis so well, Kurt Streit acquitted himself admirably.  Wolfgang Schoene did some fine character acting and singing as both Dr. Schoen and Jack the Ripper, a double casting that suggests that Lulu’s murder at Jack’s hands is really revenge for the grief-driven death she caused Dr. Schoen.

The Paris Opera’s new season may have begun with a revival of its striking production of Richard Strauss’s Salome, but those who still remember the traditional Palais Garnier’s legacy as the main operatic stage in the French capital can comfort themselves with this delightful production of Mozart’s last opera. Dating from 1997, Willy Decker’s effort reduces the work’s heavy imperial Roman idiom to stylized surroundings that suggest Mozart’s own era en grotesque, mainly through the costuming of soloists in mild colored eighteenth-century dress and the chorus in severe black with eccentric hairstyles and odd accoutrements. John MacFarlane’s set centers on a large block of marble that is rotated after each scene and progressively sculpted into an accurate bust of the historical Emperor Titus. Just as each scene opens with more of the man’s image revealed, we follow the evolution of Tito’s character to the extreme magnanimity on display in the opera’s conclusion. The effect reminds us that the opera was written for one of the composer’s principal patrons, the Habsburg Emperor Leopold II (reigned 1790-1792) and that the clemency shown by the title character represents a plea for measured rule on principles of charity and reason. Since I last saw the production in 1999, it has been streamlined to eliminate extraneous action that detracted from the larger theme.

It is always a great pleasure to see larger repertoire works presented in the Garnier, but the evening’s musical talent made this especially true. Klaus Florian Vogt’s successful career in the lighter Wagner tenor parts did not make him a natural choice for Tito’s more sensitive music, but he accomplished the role with suitable restraint. Hibla Gerzmava played a sultry Vitellia, at first a spurned woman who engages in political and sexual intrigue to bring about Tito’s death but who, however unlikely, becomes a paragon of virtue and honesty once she learns that her affections are returned. A really artful interpretation of the early coloratura runs written for the part eluded her, but the overall portrayal was effective and memorable. In the trouser part of Tito’s friend-turned enemy-turned friend again Sesto, Stéphanie d’Oustrac delivered a virtuoso performance. I found the role’s signature aria “Parto, parto” a touch restrained, but it was not clear that this was the fault of the singer. Amel Brahim-Djelloul sang a clear voiced Servilia. Allyson McHardy’s Annio and Balint Szabo’s Publio were welcome additions to the cast. Adam Fischer led the orchestra with superb musicianship and relayed the score with a worthy delicacy.

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