Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fidelio at Washington Concert Opera

I wrote about WCO's Fidelio for Parterre:
While even committed opera enthusiasts can find Beethoven’s Fidelio a chore, a hardy few wonder why we can’t have more Fidelio. Washington Concert Opera maestro  had these completists in mind last weekend with a presentation of the original 1805 version of Fidelio, aka Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe.

Read the whole thing here...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Champion at WNO

I wrote about the premiere of Champion at WNO for Parterre:
Washington National Opera continued a focus on recent works this season with Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s 2013 opera Champion on the life of boxer Emile Griffith. Though many of the stumbling blocks one might expect are no doubt present in this first attempt at an opera from Blanchard, there is also much to appreciate in this ambitious work.

Read the whole thing here...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dead Man Walking at WNO

Thoughts on WNO's new production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Parterre...
In the program notes to Washington National Opera’s new production of Dead Man Walking, composer Jake Heggie notes that the premiere of a new opera was a “rare occasion” in 2000, when this piece first appeared in San Francisco. Since then, it has flourished in a way few contemporary operas have, garnering nearly 300 performances across the globe. But having finally seen it this past Saturday in DC, I’m afraid this work’s popularity may be a result of first-mover advantage more than anything else.  

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Götterdämmerung in Toronto

Shiloh Battlefield, Tennessee. Camera: Minolta Hi-matic. Film: Ilford HP5+.

Last Thursday we found ourselves in Toronto for the premiere of the final installment in Canadian Opera Company's Ring Cycle (aka, the COC Ring), featuring no less a momentous event than Christine Goerke's first outing as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde.

This long anticipated assumption is the culmination of perhaps THE major Brunnhilde assumption of the decade, and certainly the most consequential assumption by an American in some time. Goerke continues to offer an uncommonly beautiful take on this music, fully realizing the score at a level only available to a few singers today. Big climaxes were thrilling, especially a stunning Dawn Duet that elicited the rare intra-act Wagner applause, while Goerke's luscious, expressive middle register shone in stretches like the Waltraute scene and Immolation lead-up.

Beyond sheer vocal beauty, Goerke makes a strong dramatic impression too, introducing some compelling ideas about the character that are sure to mature over time. This is not the blazing Brunnhilde of a Nina Stemme, who plays the warrior princess (marvelously) as a furious powder keg, touched off by the sight of Siegfried and Gutrune. Goerke seems to be after a more vulnerable, wounded Brunnhilde, who comes to her anger at Siegfried reluctantly, from a place of emotional pain.

The first night performance seemed perhaps a bit cautious, as might be expected of a maiden Götterdämmerung, with careful navigation of the some of the trickier passages sometimes slowing down the overall momentum. Also, around the top of the middle register she sometimes goes into an unpleasant swallowed sound to get a note across, a tic we've heard before but seemed especially evident here. Quibbles aside though, y'all need to book your Chicago and Met Ring tickets ASAP. In 30 years North American Ring fans are going to fall into two buckets: the lucky ones who saw Goerke in her prime and the pitiable ones that missed out.

Andreas Schager's Siegfried was a welcome surprise and yet another reason to think that we are living in at the start of a mini-Siegfried renaissance. Schager has a huge, very attractive voice, indeed almost gratuitously loud at times, despite generally unsympathetic dynamics from the pit, and showed almost no wear by the climactic death scene, which was eminently secure and affecting. His characterization leans towards heroic doofus in a Siegfried Jerusalem vein, though again, that death scene brought out some unexpected layers.

Other cast highlights included mezzo Karen Cargill, turning in a ravishing, high drama Waltraute to balance Goerke's Brunnhild and making this scene one of the highlights of the evening. Estonian bass Ain Anger offered up a unexpectedly hot Hagen, backed by a vast, rangy instrument that conveyed the unhinged menace of the role, for instance in a reckless and terrifying call to the vassals. Norns n' Maidens were all very strong, with special recognition going to the wonderful contralto Lindsay Amman, reprising her role from the DC Ring.

COC maestro Johannes Debus offered a strong hand and some persuasive ideas about the score, including as a brutal, ecstatic Siegfried Funeral March, though speedy tempi could cross the line from energetic to glib at times. At least on opening night, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra wasn't always prepared to execute on Debus' ideas cleanly. Strings generally shone but even with the requisite Ring cycle handicap, the brass committed too many pitchiness and entry flub sins for comfort. Hopefully as the run goes on the polish level will improve and do justice to Debus' dynamic approach.

As for the production, the COC Ring shares a common designer but each installment has been given a different director, here Tim Albery. The modern dress, minimalist design can deliver some arresting images, such as the dreamlike setting for Brunnhilde's mountaintop, set on the dark, largely bare stage, punctuated by the odd light and prop that seems to float in the ether. But the production isn't really inventive or strict enough to keep this aesthetic interesting. For instance, the following Gibichung palace just looks like a basic sparsely furnished living room that might be found in any production. While strong direction might have made up for this, Albery serves up an exceedingly conventional, undistinguished Gibichung scene. Say what you will about Zambello, modern dress isn't just a neutral aesthetic in her Ring, but a component of a richly layered (if not always advisable) interpretation.

More successful moments included the Siegfried death scene mentioned above, as well as Gunther/Siegfried's taking of Brunnhilde. Gunther, in suit and trenchcoat, paces deliberately around Brunnhilde and her modest dining table throughout most of the scene before suddenly exploding in violence. Tapping contemporary images of home invasion and domestic violence, Albery powerfully illustrates the terror and violation inherent in this scene.

Unfortunately the finale, in which the residents of Gibichungville place the shattered pieces of a model Vahalla around the stage, slowly walk to the front of the stage, then slowly walk to the back of the stage, is just terribly boring. You don't have to have spectacle for the end of the Ring but if you're not ready to accompany the end of the Gods with some minimally credible stage spectacle, then you better have a good reason why not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

American Opera Initiative at WNO

I reviewed WNO's American Opera Initiative for Parterre:
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, now in its 5th year, keeps the opera flame alight at the Kennedy Center during the long winter stretch between mainstage WNO productions. With four short works on offer over the course of two nights, it is also a welcome chance to peruse how a variety of young composers are addressing the challenges of contemporary opera.
Read the whole thing here...

WNO Announces

Mt. Pleasant. Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Film: Portra400.
After something of a post-Ring cigarette break of a season this year, WNO teased a more ambitious 17-18 lineup this past Monday in a presentation at the Kennedy Center. Playing percentages is sort of silly with only 5 shows, but the trend is generally more Italian red meat after this year's heavy investment (2 out of 5 shows) in contemporary works. Strong casting throughout the year keeps the overall interest level high.

The opener is Francesca Zambello's "graffiti Aida" production that premiered in San Francisco this year. I'll have to go back and read the reactions to the production, but the takeaway here is some especially deep personnel across both A and B casts. Aida is shared by Tamara Wilson and Amber Wagner, Amneris is shared by Ekaterina Semenchuk and Marina Prudenskaya (these are new to me), and Radames is shared between Yonghoon Lee and Carl Tanner. Gordon Hawkins shows up as Amonsaro.

Next up is Handel's Alcina, a rare baroque foray for WNO. Casting is intriguing again, with Angela Meade returning after her celebrated turn in Norma a few years back, plus Ying Fang, Elizabeth DeShong, and Daniela Mack. The location will be the more intimate confines of the Eisenhower theater, a wise choice for Handel. This is a new production by theater director Anne Bogart, who also did that Norma for WNO, which was nondescript but pleasant enough.

The big project for the year is a new production of Don Carlo (with Philadelphia and Minnesota) conducted by Phillipe Auguin and featuring a very badass cast of mostly young singers including Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas, and Eric Owens. The one-off cover (?) performance is no slouch either with Latonia Moore, Domingo Cafritz young artist MVP Daryl Freedman, and Rafael Davila for one night only. Sorry Carloheads, no word on cuts/language in the press release...

And then, to fill whatever budget hole that new Don Carlo dug, we get a Barber of Seville production. So, I don't like Barber that much. If I had the power to take one uber-chestnut that is produced constantly and bump it down to, say, Idomeneo frequency, I'm definitely going to say Barber. Directors aren't very good at making 19th century farce actually funny not just "fake laughing at opera" funny. Audiences enjoy the music in a Tom Petty's greatest hits way, not a meaningful way.

But that's just me. There are some bright spots in the staffing: sounds like there might be an interesting American debut (Andrey Zhilkovsky), Isabel Leonard sings Rosina, bass Wei Wu (who has made a strong impression in the young artist program) sings Dr. Bartolo, and we get Maestro Maurizio Benini making his WNO debut.

The season closing musical is back again, this time Candide, a tie-in with the KC-wide Bernstein centenary jamboree. Yes, it hurts a bit to give up one of only 5 slots to a musical production which is always a bit of a dicey artistic proposition. I'm also always skeptical at whether these musicals really pack the house more than a regular offering would. But of anything in the musical realm Candide of course feels most at home in the opera house, and I actually have never seen the whole thing, so I guess that's okay.

Season extras are a family holiday-time production of The Little Prince, revived from a few years back, and the annual American Opera Initiative festival, notably headlined by "Breaking the Waves" team Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek.