FROM AROUND THE WORLD
In its best moments -- the daybreak letter scene, the silhouetted duel -- the stage picture for the Met's new Eugene Onegin was breathtaking.
NEW YORK CITY
The Met's new Eugene Onegin (March 13) -- designed by Michael Levine, directed by Robert Carsen, lit by Jean Kalman and conducted by Antonio Pappano, all new to the company -- aroused equal reactions of love or hate, with little room left for indifference. The stage was transformed into a light box, reminiscent of the "color organ" that Alexander Scriabin wrote into his Prométhée -- Le Poème du Feu. Lighting shifted constantly, reflecting the time of day, the characters' moods, the hue of the music. Within this chameleon realm, a few realistic props and period costumes focused on the groupings of figures.
CHERNOV, GORCHAKOVA, THE MET'S ONEGIN AND TATYANA
Drawbacks quickly proved obvious. In the absence of scenery to project the sound outward, voices were swallowed up into the flies, except when singers were positioned near the stage apron. And the light show upstaged the opera, dazzling the audience into inability to read the Met Titles.
Slower to sink in were the production's virtues. The stage picture in its best moments -- the daybreak letter scene, the silhouetted duel -- was breathtakingly beautiful. And the singers, having only one another to play against, concentrated on their roles. When they grouped together, the result was as effective a handling of that perennial problem, the opera ensemble (Act II, Sc. 1), as one is ever likely to see. A frame around the stage picture could be evoked simply by lighting the gold proscenium -- a far simpler, more striking effect than the cumbersome one in the company's 1995 Queen of Spades.
As with any experiment, this one had its vulnerable moments. The cliché of staging the prelude, this time as Onegin's flashback, seemed as superfluous as ever. The Rake's Progress transformation of Onegin into a dandy after the duel scene, moving directly into Act III, destroyed the sense of several years' passing: intermissions sometimes serve a purpose.
Galina Gorchakova's Tatyana was well routined but neither fine-grained nor impulsive. Vladimir Chernov showed himself best cast in the more lyric baritone repertory, such as Onegin. Neither conveyed youthfulness or spontaneity, though Onegin is old beyond his years. Neil Shicoff too is a mature singer, but his Lensky showed more romantic concern, while the tenor's vocal resources, during several seasons' absence from the house, have deepened and strengthened. Marianna Tarassova's Met debut, as Olga, went well; of two veteran compatriots, Irina Arkhipova (making her company debut, at age seventy-two) played a steady, stolid Filippyevna -- not notably audible, under these scenic conditions -- and Vladimir Ognovenko an authentic but wavery Gremin, weak in the bottom register. Michel Sénéchal's vintage Triquet had trouble coordinating with Maestro Pappano, as did the chorus and at times the orchestra.
For the Faust revival, Julius Rudel had his forces under tighter control, though neither Rolf Langenfass' sets nor the polyglot cast came closer than nodding acquaintance with the spirit of the work. Renée Fleming's radiant Marguerite, warm of tone and supple of phrase, proved the most affecting, though hers is a plummier voice than the slightly astringent French soprano ideal. Richard Leech, singing the title role over an indisposition at the premiere (March 21), seemed to be trying to recapture the more lyrical style of his early career, but he suffered from support problems. Samuel Ramey's Méphistophélès, vocally and expressively adept, was darkened and coarsened by Slavic tradition, which turns the demon from a suave French gentleman into a "Cossack with a cold" (Marcel Journet's description of Chaliapin). Dmitri Hvorostovsky displayed a smooth, firm line and profile as Valentin. Jane Bunnell made a forthright Siebel; her second air was cut, along with Marguerite's spinning song and the Walpurgis Night. As staged by Robin Guarino, the production can do little with its characters beyond making them clamber around a Star Wars troglodyte village.
Meanwhile, at the Majestic Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Handel's Amadigi di Gaula (1715) had surfaced (March 11) in a trendy pocket production by the Opera Theatre Company of Dublin, using Andrew Jones' English translation. If one could imagine beyond Neil Irish's playground sets, which suggested a high-school musical, there was enjoyable music from the small cast and the adroit London Baroque Sinfonia under Séamus Crimmins.
Amadigi, like Semele, treats a serious plot with ambivalent emotional chiaroscuro; this staging played up the whimsy, though not at the cost of poignant and serious moments. Even with what must have been heavy cutting, a broad range of moods remained in the varied, contrasted arias, delivered with panache by Majella Cullagh, as the Alcina-like "enchantress" Melissa, and by her cohorts. As in Handel's first cast, the title role was taken by a male treble -- here the vocally sure-footed, clear-toned countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny -- and the second trouser role, Dardano, by a mezzo, here the touching, occasionally fiery Buddug Verona James. Oriana, fourth of the love quadrangle, took on more than ingenue dimensions, thanks to the expressive resources of soprano Anne O'Byrne.
Semistaged concert readings of rare French operas enjoyed a good season, starting with Cherubini's Médée (1797), for which the orchestra was sunk into a pit in front of the Alice Tully Hall stage, and Gounod's La Colombe (1860), for which the orchestra sat onstage behind a shallow playing area, dominated by an all-purpose long table. Médée, known in our time only through the cut, "modernized" Italian version with recitatives by Franz Lachner, was a major stepping-stone between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, carrying forward the innovations set in motion by Gluck and Mozart in opera seria.
A group named Opera Quotannis obviously had prepared the Médée performance (March 13) with great care. The largely young members of the Brewer Chamber Orchestra played well for Bart Folse, and the ad hoc chorus addressed its work with a will. Of the soloists, only tenor Carl Halvorson (Jason), who has been living in Paris, seemed comfortable with the idiom. The spoken dialogues made one realize why record companies often hire native actors to fill in such pages. In the title role, which calls for a major tragedienne, Phyllis Treigle did her respectable best without giving the character the necessary dimension or vocal sovereignty. Lacking this focal point, the performance could not generate the sort of tragic momentum needed to bring into unity all the seemingly extraneous elements -- extended choruses, extra arias.
La Colombe, as done by L'Opéra Français de New York (March 19) under artistic director Yves Abel, possessed the idiomatic qualities missing from Médée. The work is a trifle; Messager and Chabrier did the same sort of thing with more flair and sparkle, but Gounod's gracefully tuneful score exerts the same charm as his underrated body of songs. In 1923, at the behest of impresario Serge Diaghilev, Francis Poulenc set some of La Colombe's connective dialogue to music. In this performance it wasn't easy to tell where Gounod left off and Poulenc began -- a tribute to the latter's discretion -- but when a snippet from Richard Strauss' banquet music for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme suddenly appeared in the woodwinds, one had a hunch it wasn't Gounod who put it there.
Sylvie, a flighty countess, found Aline Kutan in agile control of a prototypical French light-opera soprano, slender in timbre, while the trouser role of young Mazet was played delightfully by Lyne Comtois. Tenor Richard Troxell (of Madama Butterfly film fame) agreeably took the role of Horace, Sylvie's suitor, and Dean Elzinga generated the bogus grandeur needed for Sylvie's major-domo.
JOHN W. FREEMAN
If you are going to stage Bach's St. Matthew Passion, it should be done the way Jonathan Miller devised for the Brooklyn Academy of Music at the Majestic Theater (March 26). It was kept deliberately simple, with the participants (divided chorus, divided instrumentalists in a circle) in street clothes (jeans and shirts, mostly). Soloists rose from the choral body to come forward to sing their arias, and if there was a movable obbligato instrument (oboe, violin), the player came forward to partner the music. Gestures were kept to a minimum (the imprisoned Jesus stood with his hands crossed, as if bound), as was movement. This kept the focus on Bach's music and the progress of the Passion, giving the evening both its emotional center and a spontaneity that suggested an impromptu retelling of the first part of the Easter story.
The soloists, both vocal and instrumental, were notable for directness and belief. Rufus Muller's Evangelist projected this simplicity best, though his tenor became raw on top by the end, and Andrew Schroeder's Jesus likewise projected an aura not of sanctity but of unassuming sureness of conviction. Of the other soloists, Kendra Colton's soprano and Richard Clement's tenor stood out, but all were effective. This was a very moving tribute to one of the great musical expressions, held together and propelled by Paul Goodwin's supportive conducting.
PATRICK J. SMITH
Connecticut Opera's The Ballad of Baby Doe (seen March 6) was a triumph. The vivid tableaux and strong scene-setting of the opening number set the tone, as the spirited miners matched Kimm Julian's Horace Tabor in characterization and musicality. Julian brought convincing passion to his role, along with supple rhythmic sense and sensitive phrasing, his "free man" aria sounding wonderfully dramatic.
In the title role, soprano Mary Dunleavy gave a memorable performance. She effectively captured the Willow Song's simple, folksong qualities, and her keen sense of pitch, with an expressive edge in key places, added color to "Dearest Mama." Her silver aria emerged as delicate as fine metal work, her closing hymn to her love radiant. In mezzo Sharon Graham's hands, Augusta's pained reserve on discovering Horace's letter to Baby Doe helped to gain the listener's sympathies and grew more touching as she aged, reaching full effect in her final aria. Anna Maria Silvestri was fine and funny as Baby Doe's gauche mother.
Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer provided unusually effective ensemble scenes, such as the moralizing ladies' number, sung with precision and staged with understated wit. Conductor Willie Anthony Waters was a fine accompanist -- a lilting waltz sticks in the memory from among the prominent orchestral scenes.
Dayton Opera concluded its thirty-sixth season -- its first in association with Cincinnati Opera -- with Roméo et Juliette (seen March 16 at Memorial Hall). Jay Depenbrock's spare but attractive Cincinnati sets were a perfect showcase for Malabar's opulent Renaissance costumes. Laura Alley showed little invention, however, in her routine staging; the balcony scene was particularly awkward. Choreographer Angela Irvin Michael did well with the ball scenes.
Though the orchestra produced some lovely moments, particularly in the Act II prelude, Chris Nance, usually a fine interpreter of French repertory, conducted without pulse or excitement. The impassioned, fresh-sounding Roméo of Randolph Locke, with trumpeting high notes, found a fine complement in Cecily Nall's radiantly sung, touchingly acted Juliette. These two did not portray empty-headed teens ruled by their libidos but offered an involved, mature romance. Razor-sharp, dead on pitch, Gary Seydell's bright tenor sailed through Tybalt's vocal challenges as he created a truly nasty character. As Mercutio, John Michael Koch's baritone was light and fleet, yet virile and forceful when needed. The charming, gentle Frère Laurent of Gregory Sheppard sounded tremulous.
The supporting cast was led by the superior Stéphano of Elizabeth Peterson, whose round soprano and lithe movement captivated the audience. Duncan Hartman seemed unusually disinterested in the drama, but his Capulet contributed a measure of dignity, in fine contrast to the brassy, bold Gertrude of Susan Nicely.
CHARLES H. PARSONS
For Sorg Opera's Madama Butterfly (Feb. 21), Ani Blackburn devised a simple black-and-white paneled house for Cio-Cio-San. It filled the stage, however, and forced director Tsutomo Masuko to move any action down front to the footlights, reducing extensive sections to opera-in-concert format.
The youthful, shipshape orchestra responded well to Charles Combopiano, whose tempos were apt, with dynamics carefully modulated for the small theater. Joseph Hu's assertive Goro provided a welcome distraction from the static stage picture. As Pinkerton, James Richard Werner sang and acted boorishly, his big, baritone-tinted tenor scoring points for excitement if not for beauty of tone. Though a bit constricted vocally, Lawrence Formosa proved a sympathetic Sharpless. Mezzo Kelley Ponder strongly projected Suzuki's emotions. Butterfly's entrance got off to a rocky start with Bao-Guo Wang's ill-advised attempt at the optional high D-flat. Her small, fluttery-edged voice rarely broke free, with most of Act I addressed to the conductor while she struck a series of statuesque poses. With the arrival of William Bausano's charismatic Yamadori, Wang suddenly became involved, proving she could be effective, though not for long; the remainder of the opera saw her flipping in and out of character, almost by the phrase.
CHARLES H. PARSONS
In its most ambitious undertaking to date, Madison Opera offered a Rigoletto (seen April 6) that was a feast for eyes and ears, achieving an international-class standard under the musical direction of John DeMain, who supported the singers with utmost lyrical flexibility. Brian Montgomery's sonorous baritone emphasized the jester's dark, obsessive qualities, coarsened by the debauchery of the ducal court, tainting even his tender love for Gilda and his departed wife. Montgomery's acting ably fulfilled the role's multilayered demands.
Amy Cochrane both looked and sounded innocent as Gilda, displaying a clear, bright lyric sound with unerringly accurate pitch. Resisting the temptation to make a set piece of "Caro nome," she fit the famous aria properly into the dramatic action. As life ebbed from her body, she movingly rose ("Lassù in cielo") to her purest sound of the whole opera. Carlo Scibelli's transparent, velvety tenor sounded comfortable and relaxed, despite the Duke's high tessitura. Also shunning excessive display, he let "La donna è mobile" stand as the metaphor of sybaritic excess. At times a little stiff in his stage movements, Scibelli was nevertheless as convincingly dashing and as thoroughly corrupt as the role requires. Bruce Baumer (Monterone), Dean Marshall (Ceprano), Theresa Brancaccio (Maddalena) and Charles Austin (Sparafucile) all played and sang well, especially Austin, whose sumptuous, resonant bass made the assassin almost likable.
Opulent sets and costumes from Tri-Cities Opera gave the production a splendid appearance, further enhanced by William Owen's subtle lighting. Elizabeth Bachman's stage direction complemented every necessary dramatic situation.
After opening its season in January with a drab-looking La Traviata, Minnesota Opera brought up the lights and picked up the pace with a charming, thoughtful, slightly problematical Die Zauberflöte, which opened March 1 at the Ordway Music Theatre. Director Kelly Robinson moved the action from Egypt to China, where Mozart's Masonic priests became Chinese factory workers with Buddhist leanings. Though it was possible to imagine that one had wandered onto the set of Turandot by mistake, Robinson and designer Susan Benson provided much to engage the eye: delicate Chinese courtyards and large-size puppets, towering factory interiors and the persistent visual motif of interlocking gears, somewhat like looking into the back of a clock.
Attractive as this was, it was best not thought about too deeply. After all, the priests in the libretto invoke Egyptian gods (Isis and Osiris), not Chinese ones. And just what is it that happens in the blazing white light at the end of the production? Did the factory workers stage a revolution? Is moral progress, the Masonic ideal, to be identified with technological progress, or the opposite? Who's running the factory now? Is anybody home?
If the production weren't so charming in other respects, if the cast hadn't been as strong as it was, and if the music hadn't been sustained so elegantly by conductor Richard Bonynge, these loose ends would have formed a tangled ideological knot. As it was, they added an element of mystery to a production that nicely balanced the comic and the sublime, the personal and the ritualistic, while treating its characters as flesh-and-blood human beings.
Mark Thomsen and Rebecca Langhurst made a winning hero and heroine. Thomsen voiced Tamino with pleasing lyrical sweetness and no straining for effect, and he played the character convincingly. Langhurst's Pamina embodied dignity and sympathy, and she sang with consistent ease, purity and roundness of tone. Helen Todd's Queen of the Night was appropriately fierce, and her two big arias were stunningly sung in a voice that was crystalline in timbre and remarkably controlled. Bojan Knezevic, funny and appealing as Papageno without turning the character into a buffoonish nitwit, used his pliant, light baritone with welcome finesse. Matthew Lau and Thaxter Cunio were thoughtful presences as the Speaker and the First Priest, and Mikhail Krutikov brought authority, warmth and a booming bass to Sarastro. Cynthia Lohman made a charming Papagena. Kathleen Humphrey, Lynn Dyrhaug Rotto and Marcia Evans were assured as the Three Ladies.
A succès d'estime, no more and no less, Myron Fink's new opera, The Conquistador, needs only music of distinction to turn its craftiness into art. Donald Moreland's libretto is a model of concision and singable if unpoetic lines; Fink's musical score uses pungent flavorings to spice an eclectic tonal style and takes the listener through a complicated but comprehensible formal scheme. The story unfolds succinctly and in an accessible contemporary musical style, but Fink's vocally idiomatic writing remains earthbound where it should soar.
CONQUISTADOR HADLEY IN NEW FINK WORK AT SAN DIEGO OPERA
San Diego Opera brought together able principals, a strong chorus and well-prepared orchestra under Karen Keltner's solid leadership (seen March 7). Sharon Ott's straightforward staging allowed narrative comprehension within the surrealistic set, which designer Kent Dorsey sensitively lit himself. Handsome costumes were the handiwork of Deborah Dryden.
The Conquistador tells a compelling story of anti-Semitism in colonial Mexico, where provincial governor Luis de Carvajal, the Conquistador, and his family are persecuted as Jews, even though some of them -- in particular the governor -- are not even aware of their roots. Carvajal, a tough-minded admiral yet a loving son, is brought down and dies in prison, where he experiences a spiritual awakening.
Jerry Hadley's acting realized and projected the title character's spiritual odyssey, and the lengthy, sometimes high-rising singing role gave him no problems. Among his colleagues, special contributions came from Elizabeth Hynes (Doña Elena de Robles), Vivica Genaux (Isabel de Matos), Kenneth Cox (Bernardino de Sahagùn) and John Duykers (the chief inquisitor).
When horses and donkeys mate, they produce mules. When opera and pop music coupled for Houston Grand Opera on March 14, they produced Jackie O. Mules can't reproduce, and this musical fantasy about Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis is artistically barren. But pop/opera crossbreeding -- and the marketing mentality that spawned both the opera and the Jackie O T-shirts, sunglasses, paper dolls and pearls peddled in the Wortham Theater Center lobby -- will doubtless beget more hybrid offspring.
The procreators of Jackie O, a two-performance Houston Opera Studio exercise commissioned by HGO and Canada's Banff Centre for the Arts, are both pop-culture-loving camp followers (accent on the camp) with tony academic credentials. A jazz and rock keyboardist who studied at Yale and Pierre Boulez' IRCAM, composer Michael Daugherty is on the University of Michigan faculty. He has written scores about Liberace, Desi Arnaz and J. Edgar Hoover, plus a work for string quartet and three Elvis impersonators. Librettist Wayne Koestenbaum teaches at Yale and the City University of New York's Graduate Center. He is the author of worshipful essays on Mrs. Onassis (Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon) and breathless musings on gay men's alleged obsession with opera (The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire).
NOVACEK, HEASTON IN HOUSTON JACKIE O
The plot of Jackie O's free-form libretto is so thin that Koestenbaum summed it up simply as "Jackie sings." The opera's events "are based on history, but are largely imaginary or metaphorical." Thus the heroine and Maria Callas, another Koestenbaum fixation, sing a reconciliation duet after Jackie marries the spurned diva's lover, Aristotle Onassis. Jackie, who also sings a duet with the slain JFK's disembodied voice, meets the Greek shipping tycoon at a 1968 "happening" in Pop Art pioneer Andy Warhol's New York studio loft. (Two more paparazzi favorites, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Grace of Monaco, also make appearances.) After living on the boorish Onassis' yacht off the island of Skorpios, Jackie ends her intermissionless ninety-minute opera by accepting her diamond-studded destiny and returning to idol-hungry America.
Daugherty's music is as flabby and uninvolving as Koestenbaum's libretto, which defies geometry by being both arch and flat. The willfully eclectic score is rife with echoes of everything from Broadway musicals, such as A Chorus Line and Sondheim shows (the "musical numbers" are listed in the program, Shubert Alley style), to jazz-flavored mass-appeal operas (Porgy and Bess, Trouble in Tahiti) and even spun-sugar pop/rock operas (Godspell). Unfortunately, Jackie O boasts far less tunefulness, wit and charm than those engaging works.
Fittingly for a piece that's much more about style than substance, Nicholas Muni's staging, Peter Werner's sets and costumes and Henry Frehner's lighting were bold and picturesque. Christopher Larkin conducted the small orchestra with pliancy and ardor at the March 16 matinee, and the opera-workshop cast performed with commitment and assurance. Nicole Heaston deployed a bright if shallow soprano as Jackie O. (Daugherty and Koestenbaum abandoned their original wish to cast a countertenor as the title character, but they retained their equally silly/campy idea of having a man don drag to play her dancing alter ego.) Eric Owens plied a rich, booming bass as Onassis, and mezzo Stephanie Novacek ranted and suffered theatrically as Callas, but baritone Daniel Belcher's Warhol was hobbled by puffy, tremulous tone.
Sarasota Opera's season is relatively brief -- about six weeks -- but gluttonously rich. Not only does the company stage four operas (generally in new or newly adapted productions), it also offers concerts and recitals. On its final weekend, in late March, visitors could attend the four operas and a concert of Verdi rarities in the space of three days; and for members of the Verdi Circle (supporters of Sarasota's comprehensive Verdi cycle), there was a special talk by artistic director and conductor Victor DeRenzi, with live illustrations and even a scene from Luchino Visconti's film The Leopard, where Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale dance to an unpublished Verdi waltz.
This year's annual Verdi opera was Ernani, conducted by DeRenzi. Direction by John Hoomes, like that of the other productions here, was conventional and unobtrusive, as were the sets (Jeffrey W. Dean) and costumes (Jan Finnell). What matters in Sarasota is the music: every opera is performed in the original language, in an authentic and complete version. The young singers are engaged for a ten-week period, and rehearsal time is generous.
Some of the interpreters may not be sophisticated artists, but none is unmusical or perfunctory. And every cast seemed to reserve for the audience a surprise, a discovery. In Ernani it was the young Chinese bass-baritone Ding Gao, an impassioned, lyrical Silva; the stirring Verdi soprano Tamara Wright Acosta is a familiar member of the Sarasota troupe -- the "family," as DeRenzi affectionately calls it -- whereas the intense Moldavian baritone Igor Emilianov (Carlo) was making his local debut, as was Philip Webb, an affecting tenor, who sang the title role. But the family does not foster stardom, and for the small role of Riccardo there was another promising tenor, Dallas W. Bono, heard to greater advantage in a group of Verdi songs performed for the Verdi Circle.
Sarasota is attracting international attention with its Verdi cycle (Falstaff, Ballo, Nabucco, Vêpres, Trovatore and Aroldo have been done already, as well as both versions of Simon Boccanegra and Forza; next year features a new La Traviata, based on the recent critical edition of the score, while Verdi's first version of several arias will be performed in a separate concert). Some years ago, DeRenzi initiated another cycle of forgotten masterpieces, such as Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth, Smetana's Hubicka and Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini, paired with Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. The definition of "masterpiece" is broad here, but most operagoers were glad it was allowed to include Humperdinck's enchanting Königskinder, sensitively but keenly conducted by Neil Varon, with a dreamy Lisa Willson as the Goose Girl (a role created by Geraldine Farrar at the Met's world premiere in 1910). The elaborately symbolic, complex libretto may have put off some listeners, but it was hard to resist the lush, elegant score and fresh, poetic voices -- tenor Yi Ge as the King's Son, magisterial Brian Davis as the Fiddler, bass LeRoy Lehr as the Woodcutter. Worthy of special mention was the winning participation of the Sarasota Children's Chorus, effectively trained by Christopher Fecteau. With the company's lively regular chorus, the children also appeared in DeRenzi's warm but vigorous reading of La Bohème (Sarasota does not disdain repertory favorites).
It was a treat to have a bunch of genuinely young Bohemians. All were so enthusiastic, so appealing, that it is perhaps unfair to single out individual artists, though the tender Mimì of Carol Ann Manzi would be exceptional in any company. Peter Volpe was an authoritative, engaging Colline.
Thanks to its Studio Artists and Apprentice programs, Sarasota Opera always has a handy supply of ready and eager singers. So on the final Saturday, when the tenor who was to sing Verdi's Hymn of the Nations announced he was indisposed, Michael Hendrick was able to learn the score in a matter of hours and, with the orchestra and chorus under DeRenzi, give a totally convincing account of a rarely heard work. Often dismissed as a mere occasional piece, the Hymn can glow and inspire in a sympathetic execution. In Sarasota it almost equaled in impact the piece that followed it as an unprogramed encore, the matchless "Va, pensiero."
Sarasota Opera's Manon reconfirmed the beauty and engaging nature of a work that doesn't get much attention these days. On February 28, Cherie Caluda's performance in the title role sometimes lacked vocal assurance; the lower register was but a shadow. Still, she conveyed the character's charms and sensitively tapped the pathos of the finale. Barton Green's Des Grieux was sung with fine style. What his tenor lacked in weight and ring it easily compensated for in sensitivity (his soft notes were especially winning) and elegant phrasing. Though Oziel Garza-Ornelas had a little trouble sustaining high-lying passages, he was nonetheless an engaging Lescaut. Peter Volpe brought a sturdy bass and aristocratic bearing to the Count. Michael Hendrick made an amusing, vibrant-voiced Guillot. The chorus offered rich sound.
Providing inspired leadership in the pit was Emmanuel Villaume, whose account of the judiciously abridged score balanced passionate sweep with delicate reflection. If he sometimes pushed the cohesive, dynamic orchestra too hard, submerging the singers in the process, the resultant musical electricity was worth it. Claudia Zahn's fluid direction managed to keep the opera's blend of comedy and drama reasonably balanced within the mostly appealing scenery from Central City Opera.
Florida Grand Opera took its first-ever pre-Mozart excursion this season, offering a generally effective L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Dade County Auditorium is hardly ideal for such an intimate masterpiece, but that drawback was overcome by the vividness of the singing and the clarity of the playing by a pickup ensemble of period string instruments.
On February 12, countertenor David Daniels molded phrases tellingly and brought out Nerone's arrogance, petulance and sheer brattiness with terrific flair, though his tone was not always firmly centered. As Poppea, Mary Mills played the sex kitten vigorously and offered sweet vocalism. Countertenor Artur Stefanowicz revealed a colorful, subtle sound and intense emotive skills as Ottone. Kevin Langan brought sturdy vocal depth to Seneca, skillfully conveying the philosopher's pompous side as much as his inspirational one.
Aside from some tonal stridency and Norma Desmond-like poses, Erma Gattie's Ottavia was arresting, especially in her farewell to Rome, delivered while slowly moving backward into darkness. Douglas Perry's drag act as Poppea's nurse was amusing and vibrantly sung. John C. Pierce offered an exuberant Page; he and Christina Clark (Maidservant) milked their innuendo-laden duet for all it was worth. The male chorus lacked coordination and tonal blend.
The orchestra, led by Harry Bicket from the harpsichord, played sensitively. He kept the trimmed score moving -- too quickly in the closing duet -- yet allowed room for some delectable nuances of phrasing. Director Bliss Hebert relished the earthy aspects of the story, with lots of body-rubbing, as well as a passionate bit of business between Lucano (smooth-voiced Steven Tharp) and Nerone, who apparently had a momentary lapse of interest in Poppea's allure.
Allen Charles Klein costumed everyone lavishly. His set design, sensitively lit by Marrie Barrett, framed the action with glittering, omnipresent colonnades and a massive statue of the emperor. Unfortunately, the pace of the performance suffered from lengthy, painstakingly choreographed scene changes, with costumed stagehands placing or removing props on cue from an overseer. Likewise questionable was the finale, when, after three hours of heavy petting, Nerone and Poppea, robed in red, were turned into singing statues, raised on a pedestal above a giant model of Rome, while skeletal faces crept up behind them. A tableau, however visually intriguing, does not fit music so alive with sensuality.
On March 12, Elizabeth Futral owned the stage as Lucia di Lammermoor. It was not an entirely triumphant performance, as high notes lacked brilliant gleam and staying power. But the soprano's interpretation was filled with insight, nowhere more so than in Act II, slowly draining the color from her voice as Enrico delivered the report of Edgardo's infidelity, and reducing the tone further to a ghostly, fragile quality in response to Raimondo's pleas for acceptance of her fate. Futral's embellishments, especially in the mad scene, were imaginative and finely spun.
As Edgardo, Richard Drews used his limited resources persuasively, especially at soft volume, producing uncommonly delicate, touching phrases in the introduction to "Fra poco a me ricovero." He made every syllable of the finale count, preventing any sense of anticlimax. Though Victor Benedetti was a lackluster Enrico, Stephen Morscheck made Raimondo an extraordinarily compelling character with subtle vocal nuances. Pierce sang Arturo's few lines elegantly but exuded an unnecessarily foppish air. The other small roles were filled without distinction. The men in the chorus had a messy time in the opening scene, but the full ensemble made a strong impression at the wedding.
Mark C. Graf's conducting was best in fiery, propulsive passages; elsewhere, his tempos often lacked flexibility. There was not enough authority or personality in his approach, which perhaps contributed to the orchestra's hit-and-miss evening. Director Matthew Lata provided safe, by-the-book traffic flow through Robert O'Hearn's gloomily imposing, old-fashioned sets. Charles Caine produced the handsome costumes.
Last-minute visa problems prevented Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of the Bayreuth master, from directing Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia's La Vida Breve, on a bill with the world premiere of Michael Shapiro's The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belisa in the Garden. Darko Tresnjak, who stepped in, displayed a flair for whimsy (Feb. 21), particularly in the new work, motivating his cast to move cleanly and precisely.
Both operas have Iberian roots. The Shapiro, based on Lorca's play Don Perlimplin, was suggested by his wife, a Spanish literature specialist. Set to his own libretto (based on an earlier translation), Shapiro's opera, scored for chamber orchestra, has intriguing harmonic textures and is permeated with the spirit of commedia dell'arte.
Artistic director John Edward Niles assembled a capable cast for the double event. David Faircloth sang the aging Don Perlimplin in search of a young bride (Belisa, played by Joan Eubank) with skill; the couple's wedding-night bedroom scene, when the Don's past repressions surface, was gracefully done. Jody Lynn Rapport made a fine impression as the Don's maid and as the grandmother in Falla's Vida, singing and acting with nuance. Mezzo Patricia Wulf was heard to advantage as Salud, with Amy Guevara and Paul McIlvaine bringing sunny passion to Carmela and Paco, respectively.
OTNV manages intriguing productions on a shoestring, this time from designers Hal Crawford (sets) and Allen Smith (costumes). Though Niles approaches every score with deep commitment, his conducting lacked flexibility of phrasing and rhythm to bring La Vida Breve alive.
The last production of Plácido Domingo's first season as artistic director of Washington Opera was La Traviata, staged by his wife, Marta, and conducted by Karl Sollak. Giovanni Agostinucci's opulent sets and costumes in Acts I and II accurately reflected Paris of the 1850s, while the simplicity and clean lines of the final scene underlined Violetta's tragic end.
In her Washington Opera debut, Aïnhoa Arteta, as Violetta, confirmed her talent. Her vocal assurance and confidence in characterization strengthened as the evening progressed, her charm, flowing movements and sparkling high notes adding to the thrill of her performance (seen March 26). Greg Fedderly, also a company debutant, sang Alfredo with a fine lyric tenor and a wonderful sense of the text, projecting every line with deep feeling. Mrs. Domingo's insightful direction combined with the acting skills of these two artists to raise the Act II, Sc. 2, drama to white-heat intensity. Elizabeth Bishop sang Flora with a firm, clear mezzo.
Christopher Robertson moved stiffly as Germont; though he brought velvety tone to his portrayal, his singing lacked bite. Leslie Johnson made a subtle, understated Annina. Sollak's lyrical approach resulted in a lush, admirably paced reading. Alan Nathan prepared his chorus with skill.
Opera ... in Barbados? One might consider the island a prime spot in which to relax, but it is host to a March festival that does indeed include performances of opera. Under the aegis of John Kidd, a wealthy Englishman with a desire to enliven the lovely island, the Holders Season (named after Kidd's estate, on which the performances are given) has for five years been producing opera, theater and concerts. This season, it pulled out all the stops with the revival of an eighteenth-century "Barbadian opera" -- and an evening with Luciano Pavarotti.
Kidd, an ebullient dynamo, oversees the whole shebang, importing artists from England to perform with local talent. He was made aware of a "comick opera," Inkle and Yarico, presented at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, in 1787, on a local Barbadian legend, and since then has been "obsessed" (as he admits) with bringing it to the Holders season. He found the score (keyboard only), had it orchestrated by Roxanna Panufnik (she inserted a Barbadian steel pan into the proceedings), cut down the more than four-hour play with songs (for that is what it is), hired director Jonathan Moore and conductor Robert Ziegler -- and away it went.
The story (originally made famous by an article in the London Spectator) tells of a young merchant (Inkle), who, going to Barbados to seek his fortune, finds himself on a deserted isle and is rescued by a native girl, Yarico. They fall in love. Inkle finally arrives in Barbados with Yarico, but mindful of his duty to "make money," he sells her into slavery -- getting a better price because she is pregnant by him. The story became very famous, and this version (music by Samuel Arnold) supplied a secondary, comic couple and a happy ending (Inkle is severely lectured by the Governor of Barbados, sees the errors of his ways, repents and marries Yarico).
The "opera" has several lively tunes and several comic ones, all performed with charm and verve in the open-air theater space next to Kidd's house (it was strange to see palm trees sprouting stage lights). The performances were more exuberant than polished; the best of the singers were Barbadian Melanie Marshall, as Yarico's servant, and Stephen Marcus as the cockney servant Trudge.
The happy ending is sealed by the hit tune of the opera, played and sung by all the characters in vaudeville fashion. Here, the director had the happy idea of extending the finale so that it was replayed in contemporary Barbadian style (known as "ringbang"), along with traditional Caribbean dancing figures. This involved the whole audience and made for a rousing finale.
Othmar Schoeck's 1922 Venus is truly a Swiss opera (seen Feb. 28). Like Switzerland, it is attractive, neutral and wears overtones of other cultures. Schoeck's culture was Germanic; his opera is steeped in knowledge of Wagner and Strauss, its music lush and chromatic, its plot, drawn from Prosper Mérimée's La Vénus d'Ille, a drawing-room drama elevated to epic, archetypal scale. Horace falls in love with a Greek statue, a gift from his uncle, on the day of his own wedding; the statue comes to life -- at least in his fervid imaginings -- and draws him into an obsession that leads to his death. This is a kind of Pygmalion meets Tristan meets Ariadne. Geneva's attractive production demonstrated that the work is playable, but like Swiss chocolate, Venus left a pleasant taste in the mouth and was soon gone.
ACT II OF SCHOECK'S VENUS IN GENEVA
Set in the early 1900s, Francisco Negrin's production had the lavish prettiness and period color of a Merchant-Ivory film, thanks in large part to the costumes of Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle. The black ground of Anthony Baker's sets opened to reveal vignettes that grew to take over the stage, like snapshots come to life; all were, in effect, scenes from Horace's personal scrapbook, his self-centered aesthete's view of the world. These vignettes were defined, moreover, by the women they held: his bride, Simone (soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sang prettily), or the statue watching from the garden. By the end, all the local color and characters had faded, and Horace was alone in the darkness with the statue, stranded on a patch of sand that had half-swallowed the statue and would symbolically devour him as well.
As Horace gradually withdrew from the real world into his obsession, the supporting cast that peopled the early scenes with local color -- bass David Pittman-Jennings as Horace's earnest, censorious friend Raimond, tenor Stuart Kale as the buffo Baron de Zarandelle -- become increasingly incidental. This places a heavy burden on the singer who plays Horace. Paul Frey's voice lacked resonance throughout and so was hard to hear, especially in the lower range; but he was also saving himself for Act II, which places Tristan-like demands on the tenor -- without, unfortunately, delivering a Tristan-like musical payoff. Despite Mario Venzago's committed conducting, the apotheosis was less transcendent than repetitive or derivative: it's hard to get past the inherent absurdity of undergoing a Liebestod for the sake of a statue. Nor were any of the singers able to transcend the limits of the work by virtue of their performance. Still, this was a worthwhile endeavor, well-done and interesting -- even if Venus is destined to remain more a curiosity than a prodigal returned to the repertory.
La Scala's new Ring, conducted by Riccardo Muti, got off to a somewhat uneasy start. The 1994 Die Walküre, directed by André Engel and designed by Nicky Rieti, came in for heavy criticism, and last season's Das Rheingold was given in concert performances, owing to mysterious "technical problems." This year's Siegfried, seen on April 6, proved a happier occasion. Engel and Rieti coped better with the naive optimism of the fairy tale than with the epic scope of the earlier work. Their warm-hearted account of the story underplayed conflicts (Mime offered the Wanderer a drink, and Siegfried gently closed Fafner's eyes after killing him) and emotions (Siegfried and Brünnhilde embraced only when the curtain fell). The sets and costumes were reassuring: Mime's forge looked unusually inviting; the broad-winged Fafner belonged to a child's fantasy world, and the final duet took place in a poppy field (whose undemanding symbolism seemed more appropriate here than at the end of Die Walküre).
Muti's conducting matched this approach well: he sustained Wagner's narrative with a silken legato line, delighting in surface textures and the score's range of color and dynamics. This was a refreshing reading, complemented by breathtakingly beautiful playing by the orchestra. Yet its very clarity and control reduced the work's emotional depth. The playing of the leitmotifs referring to Siegmund and Sieglinde, for example, was immaculate yet somehow uninvolved -- lacking the surging spontaneity that moves and disturbs the listener. And the breaking of the Wanderer's spear seemed of little consequence on this occasion.
In this context the characters emerged shallower than usual but often more likable, and much of the singing was extremely beautiful. Wolfgang Schmidt had an ideally youthful, ringing tone for Siegfried, though the voice was less affecting in soft passages. Falk Struckmann's cello-like baritone lent singular nobility to the Wanderer, and Eva Lind sang the Forest Bird with captivatingly pure tone. Jane Eaglen's voice sounded a bit edgy at Brünnhilde's awakening, but the soft beginning of "Ewig war ich" was magical, as were the subsequent trills and shining top Cs. Heinz Zednik's veteran Mime proved verbally incisive and free of mannerism, and Hartmut Welker brought considerable vocal and physical presence to Alberich -- seen here as a lame figure on crutches. Julian Rodescu (Fafner) and Mette Ejsing (Erda) completed a remarkably fine cast, whose voice projection happily was facilitated by the set design.
In presenting Lulu at the Staatsoper (premiere Feb. 23), psychiatrist/director Peter Mussbach disappointed audience members who expected to see in this work something of his usual ripe material. His black-in-black sets were only occasionally relieved by dark-purple or -green lighting, and his blocking was rudimentarily unsatisfactory. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer's chiefly white costumes (though fuchsia for Act III's gambling scene) provided a marked contrast to so much gloom. Sadly, the whole affair was matched by Michael Gielen's correct but unexciting orchestral accompaniment.
In the circumstances, the excellent singers were swimming against the tide, but they nevertheless conveyed an impression of what they could have done had a professional director shaped the action. Laura Aikin, innocently seductive, was a superb Lulu, matched by John Bröcheler (Schön/Jack the Ripper), Robert Gambill (Painter/Black Man), Stephen West as an imposing Ringmaster/Athlete and Keith Lewis as an affecting Alwa, though he was announced as indisposed. Rosemarie Lang's Geschwitz lacked inner fire, Theo Adam's Schigolch had never known the gutters of Vienna, and Pär Lindskog's Marquis posed no threat to anyone. That Mussbach was analytically at work was demonstrated in a small stage within a stage, on which in Act I Lulu had posed and her first husband, Dr. Goll (Werner Rehm), had expired; this small stage was laboriously wheeled back into Schön's living room so that he could die in the same position.
JAMES HELME SUTCLIFFE
For his debut with New Israeli Opera, British director David Pountney, with designer Stefanos Lazaridis, brought an intelligent interpretation to bear in a moving Rigoletto. Especially effective was a visual motif of glass cubes -- a single large one for Rigoletto's house, symbolizing his illusion of Gilda's segregation; multiple small ones encasing dolls or live women, all of whom resembled Gilda, to connote the Duke's lifestyle; the large one returning in Act III, this time adjoined to two others filled with live models, for Sparafucile's inn. Paul Pyant's dazzling lighting included lightning breaking from within the cubes during the storm. Sue Wilmington's stark costumes completed the powerful effect.
NIO employed alternating casts (seen April 11 and 12). Jean-Philippe Lafont was a magnificent jester, with expressive singing and convincing presence. Gregory Yurisich sounded pale in comparison, his baritone bland, his acting indifferent. Otherwise, the two casts were nearly equal. Laura Claycomb brought a light, girlish soprano and manner to Gilda, while the only Israeli singer among the principals, Sharon Rostorf, excelled in a less adolescent portrait, with expressive lyrical qualities. Vincente Ombueña and Martin Thompson were fine Dukes; likewise Ning Liang and Irina Dolshenko as Maddalena. Paata Burchuladze made a superb Sparafucile, and while not the Russian bass' peer, Eldar Aliev sang well. Vladimir Braun contributed a powerful Monterone.
NIO's wonderful male chorus, directed by Malka Sverdlov-Yaakobi, pulled out all the stops. The orchestra responded to Gary Bertini's and Roberto Tolomelli's inspiring leadership with flair, especially the delicate flute and cello solos and the transparent woodwinds.
photos: © Beth Bergman 1997(Onegin); © Ken Howard 1997 (San Diego, Houston); © G.T.G./J. Straesslé 1997 (Geneva)
OPERA NEWS, July 1997 Copyright © 1997 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.