Boris Godunov 2: The Empire Strikes Back

Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman
Gil Rose, Aleš Briscein and Olga Jelínková Photo by Kathy Wittman

As a concept, Dvořák’s opera Dimitrij is hard to beat. Its libretto is a sequel to another opera, Boris Godunov, and its score is by a composer whose one popular opera is widely beloved (at least by me) and thus seems to promise hidden riches. Also, it is a four-act almost-grand opera in Czech which premiered in 1882, which is a) really, really late for grand opera and b) I’m guessing not many of us have seen a Czech grand opera. That’s a lot of intriguing novelty! Also, Dvořák apparently never heard Musorgsky’s opera and his musical style is, well, very different.

Thanks to Odyssey Opera in Boston, I am deprived of Czech grand opera, and Dimitrij, no longer. This was its Boston premiere, and Odyssey Opera’s concert performance in Jordan Hall last Friday was more than legit. This is a small company, and I give them a lot of credit for taking a chance and putting on a convincing performance of a totally unknown and huge opera (four hours in Czech with a big chorus and orchestra!) when they could have done another Traviata. I enjoyed this evening far more than my extreme delay in reviewing it may imply.

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The Butterfly of Pittsfield

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There are a lot of great things about living in western Massachusetts, but a plethora of places to see live opera is not one of them. The new Berkshire Opera Festival, based in Pittsfield, is trying to change that. Their ambitious and professional production of Madama Butterfly, which opened on Saturday, suggests that their arrival is a welcome one.

The surprisingly beautiful Colonial Theatre seats 760 and is acoustically excellently suited for this endeavor (it was formerly a touring theater for acts ranging from Sarah Bernhardt to the Ziegfeld Follies). Company General Director Jonathon Loy’s production begins with an extremely traditional Act 1, full of kimonos and screens, belied only by the stark, flat surfaces of Stephen Dobay’s set. Loy and Dobay have gift for tableaus, and use the scrims in the screens and some falling flower petals to beautiful effect. It is, visually, a handsome and polished production. The backdrop hints at mid-century modernism, which comes to the foreground in Act 2. Butterfly sheds her elaborate geisha-wear in favor of a Western-style suit and hairstyle, though Suzuki has not followed her. (The costumes are by Charles Caine.) This shows her dedication to Pinkerton and to American culture in vivid fashion, but I think the political angle is somewhat unexamined? Japanese-American relations in the 1960s were, to say the least, different from those in the original setting of 1904. The production never goes there and it’s an uncomfortable hole. This isn’t a production with politics on its mind, though; Loy’s direction is best in the detailed, careful staging of the dramatic scenes such as the love duet and the Sharpless-Butterfly scene in Act 2.

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As Cio-Cio-San, soprano Inna Los started off sounding dry, but she marshaled her resources for a solid “Un bel dì,” revealing a plangent middle range. Her experience in the role is obvious, and most importantly she knows how to hit the emotional high points. Her Butterfly grows over the course of the evening to eventually show intense and steely determination. But she didn’t always seem to be in the same place as the rest of the cast. While the rest acted more or less naturalistically, Los often relied highly stylized vocabulary of “Japanese” gestures and exaggerated reactions, tending to emphasize Cio-Cio San’s childlike naiveté. This approaches racial caricature, and while you could argue that Cio-Cio-San should act differently from everyone else, I thought it seemed awkwardly mannered (I would rather see Cio-Cio-San as a human than as a figment of an imagined Japanese-ness). She tended to drop the schtick for the big moments, though, and she was good enough there that I wish she had done so for the whole opera.

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As Pinkerton, Jason Slayden boasted a sweet and pleasant lyric tenor with a fast, fluttering vibrato. While the sound cut through the orchestra easily and filled this relatively small theater, he lacked the heft ideal for the climactic moments of “Dovunque al mondo” and sounded more like an Alfredo or a Don Ottavio at this point. As Pinkertons go he was unusually withdrawn and swagger-less (acting primarily with his eyebrows), and in the love duet, Butterfly interestingly took the lead.

The supporting roles might have been better cast than the leads, actually: Weston Hurt made a resonant, sensitive Sharpless and Sarah Larsen as Suzuki showed a somewhat metallic mezzo and precise musicianship. The most surprising casting was comprimario all-stars Eduardo Valdes as an animated and sleay Goro and John Cheek in an authoritative cameo as the Bonze.

Despite this strong casting, one area where the company’s small size showed is the orchestra. Artistic Director Brian Garman paced and balanced the score well, though I could have used more dynamic contrasts. The company used an authorized reduced orchestration, but the string sections were very small (six first violins, four seconds, four violas, only three cellos) and the playing was somewhat scattered. This is a very tough score for a small company and sometimes you could tell. The small chorus, however, sounded excellent.

But it was great to see such an enthusiastic and local audience out to see opera in this appropriately intimate theater. Hopefully the company will be there for years to come. Meanwhile, there are two more performances of Butterfly, on Tuesday and Friday.

If you go, be sure to check out this nifty antique lighting board in the lobby!

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Also, I have to note the ad on the back of my Butterfly program. Exotic vacation!:

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Some more production photos (all production photos copyright Ken Howard):

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When I was young and charming, I practiced baby-farming

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Conventional wisdom may suggest that in a duel between a stage director and the plot of Il trovatore, the director is never going to win. This libretto is, er, complicated, and it belongs to a kind of lurid sensationalism that we often assume has nothing under its surface shock and awe. So the most we dare wish for is mere comprehensibility, hence pro forma efforts like David McVicar’s Met production. I don’t mind that production that much, it does what it has to do, but it sets a fairly low bar.

That’s not the only option, though. La Monnaie had a great Tcherniakov production a few years back that took the plot’s complexity not as an insurmountable problem but rather as its subject, becoming a bunch of people in a room experiencing a claustrophobic series of flashbacks. And there was that Olivier Py job in Munich a few years ago, which I saw only on a technically challenged internet stream and thus believe I can only describe as batshit crazy. And there are more.

And now, I hoped, we would have David Bösch’s at the Royal Opera House too. We did, but we also didn’t.

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Dirt on my shoes, moss on my dreams

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Note: all these photos show an earlier cast (different Tatiana and Onegin)

Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (AKA Евге́ний Оне́гин, Yevgeny Onegin, Evgeny Onegin, Yevgeniy Onegin, Jewgeni Onegin, etc.) is subtitled “lyric scenes.” Barrie Kosky’s striking Komische Oper production is similarly modest, ambiguous of time and place. It revolves around a few striking images and keeps the focus, for better or worse, on the characters.

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Fear the singing undead

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What happens when you combine Little Shop of Horrors and German romantic opera? Something like the Komische Oper’s production of Der Vampyr, maybe, an unusual concoction of Grand Guignol and postmodern metatheater. Granted, this might not be quite what one would expect from Marschner, a German Romantic active a little after Weber. (Today Marschner is today probably best known for the prominent appearance of his Hans Heiling in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus.) But hey, why not?

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A fine bromance

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Thwack!

Thump!

Thunk!

That’s the sound of someone running directly into a wall in Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin production of Castor et Pollux. It seems to be their response to any kind of frustration, tragedy, or annoyance. Frustrated in love? Thunk! Brother dead? Thwack! Phébé thought of going to Hades first? Thump!

This is a very serious production, and as usual the KOB ensemble runs into those walls with impressive conviction. But after a while the effect begins to wear off.

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Cendrillon Goes Center Stage

 

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Damiano Michieletto’s new production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at the Komische Oper appears gentle and heartfelt, but underneath lies something tough. Set in a snake pit disguised as a fairy tale wonderland—that is, a ballet school—it’s a very clever concept that mostly works, and benefits from a winning cast.

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I tell you we must die

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If you’ve ever seen a production directed by Calixto Bieito, imagine what his take on Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny would look like. Congratulations! You are correct. If you haven’t seen any Bieito, imagine the Florida Man Twitter feed as rewritten by Michel Houellebecq. Take out all the gators, because local color isn’t on Bieito’s agenda. However, somebody’s face is perpetually in danger of being eaten.

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The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam

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Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades is an opera that swerves between the apparently conventional and the obviously unsettling. As Dostoevskian antihero Herman crashes through 1790s St. Petersburg in search of the three cards that will always win, we can never quite tell what’s real and what’s the product of his feverish, anachronistic mind. And that’s before Stefan Herheim got around to directing it.

But now Herheim has, and on the way to Berlin for some work I went to Amsterdam to see it.

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Gluck Before Gluck

ezioWhen you study or teach music history, Christoph Willibald Gluck has a very specific function: he swoops down and cuts through the extravagance of Baroque opera with his reform opera. Most of the works by Gluck performed today are from this reform era, namely both Iphigénie operas, Alceste, and, most famously, Orfeo ed Euridice. They’re beautiful, they’re elegant, they’re austere, they can sometimes be, IMO, rather boring.

But Gluck wrote lots of operas before he–as most music history surveys would have it–posted his 95 theses on some stage door. Such is his 1750/revised 1763 opera Ezio, the first half of the Boston company Odyssey Opera’s “When in Rome” festival. (The second half, Mozart’s early Lucio Silla, will be performed next week.) Note that 1763 is actually a year after the premiere of Orfeo, suggesting that we (i.e., those of us who are used to teaching our one class on Gluck) shouldn’t treat reform opera like a teleological lightning bolt. Ezio‘s libretto is a golden Metastasio oldie, and was also set by Handel and Porpora and almost everyone else. The Wikipedia summary of the Gluck is hilariously dismissive of the plot:

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And honestly that’s kind of the feeling I got when watching it. The “many plot turns” are indeed many and none seem to have a ton of gravity. In usual opera seria fashion, the arias are reactions to these recitative plot twists, and since arias are much more exciting and showy than recit this means you tend to forget why this reacting is happening and just enjoy it (or, er, not enjoy it). Sometimes the characterization is not so much nuanced as just odd: villainous Massimo spends way more time singing lovely lyrical arias about streams and flowers than he does swearing vengeance, even though the plot is basically powered by his tireless and treacherous quest for vengeance. (The emperor tried to seduce his wife.) The arias are almost all da capo affairs. There’s one trio and a little lieto fine ensemble, no chorus or dances. In other words, that’s a lot of arias. So it seems to me that the main attraction is the range of moods and sentiments offered by these arias, not the plot as such.

My attempt to map the plot
My attempt to map the plot

It’s an intriguing but also a peculiar repertoire choice (particularly for a city with a very spotty history of opera–it’s not like everyone could compare it to the Alceste they saw in the fall). Odyssey is a new company that emerged from the wreckage of Opera Boston, and I don’t pretend to understand the complex topography or history of Boston’s many companies. They obviously don’t have huge resources but this was a respectably cast, well played, and musically very credible production. The 900-seat Boston University Theatre (while we still can call it that, while it still exists) is an ideal size for this sort of opera. The small, modern instrument orchestra played with energy and sparkle, and Gil Rose’s conducting was mostly on the speedy side.

Staging, however, was another matter. Despite some fine singing, this opera never convinced me of its necessity. Joshua Major’s production was very basic. Jian Jung’s set gave us an indeterminate set of walls and some square columns and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s costumes vaguely mixed modern and ancient Roman elements by way of, for maiden Fulvia, senior prom. It established the relationships between the characters, but the opera never seemed to reflect any kind of larger world or idea. The blocking kept people moving around the stage, but much of it isn’t clearly motivated (character stands up, two flunkies move the cube he was sitting on to a different part of the stage, he goes and sits down there). The direction illuminates the, er, more involved elements of the plot, but it rarely develops stuff beyond their basic motivation.

I almost wonder if this is a staging more fit for the lean later Gluck. This utter simplicity is an easier sell with reform opera’s linear action and clear dramatic stakes. But pre-reform opera requires a little more dramatic variety and creativity to make things interesting, and this production ends up being very bland. The best staging in this production is Fulvia’s final aria: for almost the first time, the whole stage darkens and she’s illuminated by a special (a lighting instrument that highlights a particular moment) sitting extreme downstage right. It creates a unique, intimate, dark atmosphere we hadn’t seen before. But most of the arias don’t get this kind of unique treatment and it tends to run together.

It also helped that Jennifer Holloway, as Fulvia, gave the strongest performance of the whole cast. From her bio it sounds like she’s not sure right now whether she wants to call herself a soprano or a mezzo, and I’d probably find either label credible: she has a bit of mezzo darkness but not as much as most mezzos, and she occasionally got a chance to sing some soprano-like high notes. More importantly, she sings both musically and dramatically and knows how to make a da capo aria into an emotional journey. She was the only cast member who made a complete performance out of the rather meager staging’s material.

The rest of the cast was decent. As Massimo, William Hite sang elegantly and precisely with a Mozartian sort of tenor, but didn’t quite decode this character’s odd mix of paternal protectiveness and reckless vengeance. As Ezio, Brenda Patterson showed a rich, dark mezzo and acted with determination, though perhaps with the scale for a much larger theater. She didn’t always seem comfortable with role’s low tessitura and her ornamentation was sometimes blurred in its coloratura.  As Onoria, soprano Erica Petrocelli (a grad student at NEC) has an intriguing and promising instrument, a distinctive and spicy timbre with a bit of an edge to it. She sang quite musically, but always at an aggressive full tilt, and I would have enjoyed a bit more lyricism. As Valetiniano, countertenor Randall Scotting was emphatic. Tenor Jessie Darden as guard Varo has a pleasant voice, to my ears slightly Rossinian.

So an experience more musically than dramatically satisfying. Maybe Gluck was right about all this reform stuff.

Gluck, Ezio. Odyssey Opera at the Boston University Theatre, 6/3/2016. Full information here.

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