Friday, March 03, 2017

Guest Post: Mike A. in Europe

Mike A., who comments here regularly, sends a report on four operas he saw in Europe: Francesconi's Quartett at the Liceu, Rossini's Semiramide in Munich, Handel's Arminio in Karlsruhe (2017 International Handel Festival, Karlsruhe) and Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, back in Munich. It's a great bunch of operas with excellent casts and conductors (Susanna Mälkki for Quartett!). Hope you enjoy this long report as much as I did. 
And note that the Semiramide is available on line if you want to follow along.


Introduction/Opera Selection

Planning for opera trips was never an easy task for me. I used a lot of Operabase database, while considering my taste in operas, flight plans and the opera schedules. I like to watch the operas back to back, without any breaks in between, as I don’t have many leave days.

The first opera that I wanted to see for this trip was Arminio in Karlsruhe, as I’m a big fan of George Petrou and his Armonia Atenea. Once I decided on that, then I found out about Semiramide in Munich and its amazing cast, so that was my second choice. Reading reviews about The Fiery Angel (also in Munich) got me excited, and I found out that I could schedule those three back to back. Other operas I was interested in were Quartett and Vivaldi’s Teuzzone, both at Liceu Barcelona, and also Prince Igor in Amsterdam (same production as the Met’s that I missed). Eventually, I decided on Quartett the day before. (Continues after the cut.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017 – Luca Francesconi’s “Quartett” at Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona (Opening night)

(Robin Adams and Allison Cook, conducted by Peter Rundel, direction by Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus))

The first opera of this trip was Luca Francesconi’s “Quartett” at Liceu. Quartett was based on Heiner Müller's re-take on Les liaisons dangereuses. The opera/play only focused only on the two major characters from Les liaisons, Marquise de Merteuil and Viscomte de Valmont. The opera was premiered in 2011 at La Scala, Milan, featuring the same production and the same 2 singers as this performance (it was conducted by Susanna Malkki).

Most of the times, I attended operas because of the singers that I like. But there were a couple of times where the motivation was because of the production. This was one of them. I read all the reviews of the La Scala performance, and every single one of them praised the production by Àlex Ollé. Indeed it was stunning production. The stage was a box suspended mid-air in the middle of the stage, kind of like a diorama or aquarium, with a backdrop of visual projections. It was a sight to see. Inside that box, Marquise and Viscomte screamed, fought, had sex, outdid and outwitted each other in this war of sexes.

Musically, this was a very challenging opera. Scored for two orchestras, one live on the stage and the other pre-recorded, it was also full of “sound effects”, even included an off-stage chorus. The vocal line was very conversational, so much so that at times I felt like I was watching a play with music. It was set as one act with thirteen scenes, and the orchestral parts were used to accentuate the conversation and to heighten the mood and also as interludes between scenes. This opera had to be seen with full attention, as each scene depicted different situations and even role-reversals. The opera itself was very raw, cynical, violent and disturbing, and to me, offered no comfort or salvation. It was like the two characters tried the hardest to score most points to Hell. It ended with the Marquise “flying” through the cloud, which was open to interpretation.

With such an intense score and demanding production, it required two very committed singers to make this work. Indeed, both singers excelled in their roles. I first encountered baritone Robin Adams in another contemporary opera, Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s “The Last Hotel”. (He’s like the go-to person for contemporary operas lol). He embodied a macho, hard-hitting Viscomte, with a pretty round heavy voice, well suited for the role. I had slight problem with his falsetto, which he employed a few times, but that was just a slight nitpick for an otherwise wholesome performance. Allison Cook was awesome as the Marquis. The vocal lines reminded me of Elektra at times, and she portrayed a range of emotions that Marquis went through with full conviction. The crowd went wild for both singers, and they deserved every one of the applauses.

All in all, it was an extraordinary experience, and a great start to my trip. I would love to see this production in our War Memorial, as it required a great hall to make the “box” experience effective, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for it. I am now quite interested in Francesconi’s next project, Trombe-la-mort, that will have world premiere in Paris this spring. Meanwhile, Quartett will receive US Premiere in May during Spoleto Festival, albeit it will be the John Fuljames’ production from Royal Opera House.

Thursday, February 23, 2017 – Rossini’s “Semiramide” at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
(Joyce DiDonato, Alex Esposito, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, Elsa Benoit, Simone Alberghini, Galeano Salas, Igor Tsarkov, conducted by Michele Mariotti, and directed by David Alden)

The second opera was a major one, a brand new production of Rossini’s “Semiramide” at Bayerische Staatsoper, helmed by Michele Mariotti, and featuring a starry cast led by Joyce diDonato, Daniela Barcelona and Lawrence Brownlee. This was my first time seeing Semiramide, and also first time seeing an opera at Bavarian State Opera, the birthplace of many classics, including my 2 favorite Wagner operas, “Tristan und Isolde” and “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, so I had high expectation for this. I wasn’t disappointed either. It was four-hour of glorious bel canto singing in pretty ok production, but more about that later.

Joyce diDonato was absolutely glorious as Semiramide. Her acting, singing, body and facial expressions, even her costumes were top-notch. I’m not familiar with Semiramide’s music, so I couldn’t tell if her singing was transposed down, but it was definitely divine, from the high-flying coloratura down to delicate pianissimo passages. As usual, her acting was superb and intense. Her Semiramide was the conflicted one; and she was particularly effective at those tender moments. She and the conductor Michele Mariotti received the biggest cheers of the night.

Daniela Barcelona was effective in the trouser-role Arsace. Her dark timbre suited the role well, and her duets with Joyce in both acts were stunning. It was also amazing to hear how “masculine” her voice was as Arsace in those duets compared to Joyce’s, especially considering Joyce had sung a lot of trouser roles herself.

I felt that Lawrence Brownlee was pretty underused here, no fault to him, obviously. But he sang his big aria in the Act 2 handsomely, and it was greeted enthusiastically. I was pretty impressed with Alex Esposito as Assur, a dark, bleak and unapologetic portrayal. All other characters were sung beautifully, particularly Galeano Salas, which provided much needed comic relief in the performance.
Michele Mariotti led an exciting reading of the score. Tempi were well phased, and he brought out the splendor of the orchestra, particularly in the woodwind section. No wonder he got the biggest cheers (other than one for Joyce), it was job very well done.

This was my third David Alden production, after Maometto II in Toronto, and Les Huguenots in Berlin, so I pretty much knew what to expect. I watched the introductory video for this, so I knew beforehand that he set this to be “fascist opera” (although, after seeing all three productions, I fear that is his only approach to operas). David tended to stage the operas in ambiguous, nondescript locations, and Semiramide was no exception. The whole opera seemed to be staged in various rooms of a palace with giant statue of the dead king. He also had tendency to fill the stage with quirky, at times distracting, unrelated supernumeraries. It was flying ninjas in Maometto, KKK members with red gloves in Les Huguenots, and here, Middle East-ish soldiers with black veil covering their faces. Even some of the chorus members wore this getup. There were many other eccentricities in this production, most puzzling to me was the decision to stage the confrontation between Semiramide and Assur in the beginning of Act 2 in the bedroom, as if the terror and retribution of killing the old king made a nice foreplay. But as a whole, I didn’t mind it much, especially with this glorious cast.
This run of Semiramide is completely sold out (how amazing is it to have sold out opera performances here?), but it will be part of Munich Opera Festival in July. As a reminder, the Met will also present Semiramide next season with Angela Meade and Elizabeth deShong.

Friday, February 24, 2017 – Handel’s “Arminio” at Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe (part of 2017 International Handel Festival, Karlsruhe) (Opening night for this run)

(Max Emanuel Cenčić, Lauren Snouffer, Pavel Kudinov, Juan Sancho, Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk, Gaia Petrone, Owen Willetts, conducted by George Petrou, and directed by Max Emanuel Cenčić)

This was the main reason for this trip. I have been a big fan of George Petrou and his period instrument band, Armonia Atenea, after having seen him in extraordinary “Alessandro”(Handel) in 2015 Halle Handel festival, exciting (if silly production) “Scipione” (Handel) in last year Halle Handel Festival, and superb “Siroe” (Hasse) in Lausanne last November. I love how he phrased and shaped the melodies, exciting “attacks” on those period instruments without being overly aggressive, and particularly, how well-behaved those old woodwinds and brass sounded under him. So it was with tremendous excitement when I found out that he was leading another series of “Arminio” at this year Karlsruhe Handel Festival, after premiered the production last year there and subsequently recorded this on Decca with superb cast. I also like Max Emanuel Cenčić, which was awesome in Alessandro and Siroe, and his semi-staging of Siroe was beautiful. I had been listening to the recording almost nonstop prior to this performance.

With such a high expectation, I should have known that I would only be disappointed. And yes, I was pretty disappointed during Act I. Max Cenčić started his duet sounding very tentative, Lauren Snouffer shrieked her top notes, Pavel Kudinov was barely audible in his low notes, and Gaia Petrone chopped and sliced her coloratura while overacted her comic relief role. Even the usual Armonia Atenea sounded a bit uninspired, I think. I came into the first intermission feeling very sad. (While Handel IS my favorite opera composer, a bad Handel performance makes a LONG night!!)
Luckily, things improved tremendously after the first intermission. (Somebody must have informed the performers to step up their game!) Armonia Atenea sounded bright and exciting, Max turned into his brilliant self, and while still shrieking her highest top notes, Lauren Snouffer impressed with his portrayal of Arminio’s wife, Tusnelda. The biggest discovery of the night was the Sigismondo, soprano Aleksandra Kubas-Kruk, which was actually a replacement for a countertenor. With bright, crystal clear coloratura, and a wholesome acting, she definitely captured the hearts and minds of the audience, and subsequently, received one of the loudest applause of the night.

I was quite impressed with Juan Sancho too. Normally I don’t like his nasal whiny voice, but I think as Varo he excelled himself tremendously. It also helped too that this time, he wasn’t in weird, voice-restricting costumes as the previous operas. It was no small feat, considering the role was written for John Beard, who premiered the title roles in Samson, Judas Maccabeus and Jephtha.
What really helped during the performance was the production by Max Emanuel Cenčić, which I thought was excellent. It really helped to have the singer staged the opera, as the whole performance was very sensitive to Handel’s music and lyrics. (Trust me, these days Handel’s operas are like playground to see how far directors can stretch interpretations!) The set was built around two turntables rotating in either direction, so the action was nonstop and there was barely any blank moment to assemble the stage. The curtain only came down at the conclusions of each act. The costumes were nicely traditional, more French than Germanic, IMO. (Arminio after all is German). 

My opera companion that night complained about the suggested rape at the end of Act 2, which I thought was pretty quirky, but not altogether inappropriate, considering the situation, and considering her first aria in the next act starting with phrases “two deaths won’t cover my sadness”.
In the end, I was glad to make the trip to see this, my fourth chapter in watching George Petrou conducting operas. It was also a nice reminder that operas are living arts and that I need to keep an open mind and open ears watching operas, no matter how high the expectation is.
I don’t think there will be any scheduled performances of Arminio anywhere in the world next season, at least those announced yet.

Saturday, February 25, 2017 – Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” at Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich
(Evgeny Nikitin, Ausrine Stundyte, Heike Grötzinger, Helena Zubanovich, Vladimir Galouzine, Kevin Conners, Okka von der Damerau, Igor Tsarkov, Peter Lobert, Ulrich Reß, Sean Michael Plumb, Matthew Grills, Christian Rieger, Andrea Borghini, Selene Zanetti, Alyona Abramowa, conducted by Michail Jurowski and directed by Barrie Kosky)

The last opera of this trip turned to be the most colorful one. This was another example of acclaimed productions that drew my interest in seeing it. I saw Barrie Kosky’s productions of “The Magic Flute” and “Dido and Aeneas” at LA Opera and loved them; although I hated his “Bluebeard’s Castle” that was paired with Dido above. The Fiery Angel was a riot; blasphemous, grotesque, ridiculous, flamboyant, provocative, but at the same, exciting, breathtaking, and ultimately, you couldn’t simply take your eyes off it.

The set was a lovely setting of a luxury hotel, which over time it would decay as the opera progressed. The five acts were played continuously without break. Prokofiev’s opera (similar to the novel where it was based on) contained a number of “orgies”/indulgences of passion, and Barrie Kosky really explored this theme. The sorcerer Agrippa in Act 2 arrived with an army of tattooed drag queens in ballgowns, and the Faust/Mephistopheles scene in Act 4 was pretty much lifted off Folsom Street Fair. Even more shockingly, in the Act 5 convent scene, the possessed nuns were all dressed like bloody Jesus with thorny crown. It was pretty surreal. Interestingly, Barrie decided to stage the final moment with just Renata and Rupercht in the room (back to the original setting), so the whole thing seemed to just like a dream or hallucination.

Musically, Prokofiev’s score was very difficult, especially for the soprano part, which was pretty much on stage the whole time. Ausrine Stundyte was outstanding in that role. She had soft grainy voice and she smartly navigated her way through Prokofiev’s phrases alongside thick orchestration, while performing the very physical nature of her role in this production. She climbed, jumped, ran back and forth the stage, even involved in the orgy scene during the Faust scene. Evgeny Nikitin too was pretty commendable as tough, tattooed Russian Mafioso type Rupercht, although he tended to get drown by the thick orchestration, especially during the Faust scene. With so much going on the stage, it was hard to keep track of the various singers, most of them had only a few lines, but Kevin Conners and Igor Tsarkov were pretty impressive Mephistopheles and Faust, respectively, all the while donning ridiculous costumes and performed grotesque comic “game” in Act 4.

In conclusion, I think this production would divide the audience; people would either love it or hate it. I happened to love this, and I too was hoping this would make way to our War Memorial someday. With the right advertisements, this would sell very well during the Pride or Folsom Street Fair, I think. I mean, if LA Opera can stage his Dido & Aeneas, why can’t we get this? Maybe it was just my wishful thinking.

There is only one other opera house staging “The Fiery Angel” this season, Opernhaus Zürich in May/June, directed by Calixto Bieito. That should be wild, I think! It will feature the same Renata as this performance, Ausrine Stundyte.  

1 comment:

Mike A. said...

Thank you very much for the opportunity, Lisa, and for the kind introduction! It was a great trip indeed, and I'm glad to share the experience. I will post more trip reports in the future. Thanks again!