25 Nov 2008
La Bohème in San Francisco
The show curtain was an illustration of the typical Parisian skyline.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
The show curtain was an illustration of the typical Parisian skyline.
On the downbeat it quickly parted to reveal a scenic contraption that was a garret of sorts, its mattress elevated on a pile (illustrated, not real) of books, and an admonition written on the wall Se plaindre c’est un perdre du temps (for those of the audience who didn’t know French or were sitting too far away to read it, this told us that complaining is a waste of time).
So, let us not waste time on what we found lacking, and get right to what we liked. San Francisco Opera Music Director designate, Nicola Luisotti, participated with every syllable uttered on the stage, literally quivered with every emotion, and wrenched very grand pathos out of Puccini’s sad little story. Donald Runicles’ San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded full bore to their new maestro with renewed lyricism and resplendent tone proving itself again one of the world’s fine operatic ensembles.
Moments of extraordinary verismo abounded. The monochromatic tenor of Piotr Beczala made sudden sense in the third act when Mo. Luisotti orchestrally evoked the naïve, adolescent recognition of new feelings by what seemed to be an emotionally retarded tenor. The fourth act duet of reconciliation shivered with tiny flashes of love, and finally the sudden, overwhelming orchestral cry, joined by that of Rodolfo, shattered the silence of death.
Norah Amsellem (Musetta)
Back at the first act, Mimi and Rodolfo sustained full throated high “C’s” offstage as the garret contraption disappeared into kinetic openness of a Parisian place. Illustrated hotels de la ville materialized in front of our eyes in a surprisingly simple, and pleasing a vista transformation of scene. The Cafe Momus later materialized much less elegantly, to become populated suddenly and a little strangely by a noisy crowd of youngsters — the amazing San Francisco Boys Chorus (with some members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus) singing boisterously and joyfully, and always on the beat.
The big house extravagance of a real marching band (two drums, four trumpets, two piccolos) parading noisily across the stage at the end of Act II was deeply satisfying too. Some of the best Boheme’s understandably occur in provincial theaters where resources are usually as humble as are the opera’s protagonists, and where it is far more cost efficient to render this lively musical climax from the pit.
If Maestro Luisotti gave us the very real if overscaled emotions of verismo, Angela Gheorghiu gave us simplicity itself as the ill-fated Mimi. She was the evening’s only believable and real character, achieved by la Gheorghiu with true artistry, artistry that often tested, and sometimes even teased her considerable, sophisticated vocal technique. Madame Gheorghiu (she is an officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres) indeed creates a vocally complex Mimi. That it is so physically manifest (acted out) is another matter, understandably irritating to the uninitiated, and irritating to stage directors who are almost universally not among her fans.
One can only sympathize with Mme. Gheorghiu in her trials with Lyric Opera of Chicago regarding an AWOL from her Chicago Boheme manquée rehearsals to visit Roberto who was singing Faust just then at the Met (if there is possibly anyone who does not yet know, the French tenorissimo Roberto Alagna is her husband). As Mme. Gheorghiu knows, Mimi is the calm center of the maelstrom of emotions that are La Boheme. What more is there for her to do than walk on stage at the end of Act I and sit on the bed while Rodolfo sings, sit at a table at the Cafe Momus while Musetta sings, hover in the background in Act III while Rodolfo and Marcello sing, and lie in bed in Act IV while her friends emote one by one. Quite obviously it is Mimi’s friends, not Mimi, who need rehearsal time as they are the ones who complete the show.
Scene from Act II
These San Francisco Opera performances of La Boheme (the last one will mark the two hundred twenty third SFO performance of Puccini’s little opera) bare the delicacy of this masterpiece when attempted with extravagant operatic resources. In San Francisco the problem was integrating smaller scale artists — singers, directors and designers - with great artists and with grand opera scale choral, orchestral and technical resources.