Fate, destiny, fortune. How much can we blame the fates or rather how much responsibility should we accept for our own destinies.
Miss Fortune is Birtish composer Judith Weir’s first operatic composisition in the last 17 years. She had taken a hiatus to focus her energies on a host of other endeavours including orchestral composition and leading the BBC’s annual composer weekend at the Barbican in 2008. Now she returns to the stage at the Royal Opera House.
Miss Tina Fortune, Emma Bell, was first shown at the Bregenz Festival in Austria last summer. The storyline is Weir’s re-working of a Sicilian folktale. Lord and Lady Fortune lose their money in the stock-market crash – sound familiar? Miss Fortune refuses to continue a sheltered existence and so when her parents flee via helicopter, she chooses to stay behind and make her way in the world. We see her in a sewing sweatshop, at a fast food van, then ironing in a dry cleaners. Each endeavor ends in catastrophe due to the fact that Fate countertenor Andrew Watts, and his hip-hop crew are following close on her heels. Finally Tina visits this rapscallion Fate and begs him to leave her alone – she then goes on to win the lottery, find her parents, and fall in love with a handsome rich young man who loves his shirts to be well ironed.
The story line is unbearably weak. Does it say that a woman’s only two ways out of poverty and destitution lie in either winning the lottery or marrying a rich young man? Did a woman composer really think this scenario worthy for the operatic stage? There is no depth to this surface deep tale – Tina Fortune wanders aimlessly. There is no real suffering from what I can see, only a lack of any real character and a preference to let fate rule her life while she sits and moans about it. She ruins peoples lives, yet wanders along merrily in her own.
The grand stage settings designed by Tom Pye provide spectacle, but little else. Weir’s libretto is tedious in its simplicity and lack of engagement with the full capacity of the English language. The music was charming, but unmemorable. Paul Daniel and the orchestra carried on honorably and gave the torpid notes gusto.
Fate, played by Andrew Watts, I must say, is the downfall of the show. His dancing attempts are actually comical. The lightning colored pajamas that look like a sleeping costume purchased from Primark were ineffectual. His hip-hop break dancing crew was poorly thought through. It could have been a great addition, but leaving them in street clothes and failing to integrate them into the operatic world in any real way kept them in the periphery as a sideshow.
Tosca returns to Madrid’s Teatro Real to conclude the theatre’s season in the form of director Nuria Espert’s 2004 production.
Tosca is one of Puccini’s three grand masterpieces along Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. Puccini’s crowd-pleasing operas have been labeled as too conventional by some, however I find the tonal orchestration and soaring melodies to be emotive and expressively beautiful.
The story of Tosca revolves around the performer’s desperate love for a revolutionary artist. The opera begins within the setting of the church Santa Maria della Valle where her lover, Cavaradossi, is painting a portrait. Tosca is jealous of the woman painted in her lover’s portrait. Unlike this year’s ROH production in London, this set is open and soaring. There is a large cast wandering in and out of the cathedral throughout the first act. Candles are slowly lit; nuns pass through on their way to prayer, laymen on their way to confession. It is a very effective scene before us, which is set. The beautiful chorus in Act I is vibrant and makes the air buzz with devotional harmony.
Act II presents Baritone Lado Ataneli’s Scarpia as a bishop rather than a police chief. He performs well using all the delicate cunning and deceitful power that this villain requires. Tosca’s conclusion of the murder by splashing wine an image of Christ on the crucifix was potent and appropriate. Soprano Violeta Urmana convincingly conveys her dismay and disenchantment with the religion that before that harrowing moment had been her lifelong companion and guide. She plays a strong woman who one could easily believe would attack before being attacked. The entire scene is extremely well staged and makes good use of the vast space that is Scarpia’s private room.
Cavaradossi’s “mock” execution by firing squad is brilliantly set against a stone wall, almost as if his blood were to become the paint of a work of art. Marco Berti brings life to this somewhat one-dimensional character and it takes a great personality to stand up on stage next to such a bold Soprano as Urmana. As the prisoners march in at the opening, children attempt to give the men water. A touching moment before the heart rendering execution and suicide.
I was surprised to hear booing among the audience during the final applause. But this is evidence of a much more open and conversive critique of the opera that occurs in Italy and Spain. Just imagine an American audience, rather than jumping to their feet tat the first sign of a falling curtain, instead remaining seated and vocally criticizing. Never!
Having attended both Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi and Puccini’s Tosca in one week provided a well-rounded viewpoint of Mortier’s vast capabilities with this opera company. He has amply demonstrated that Teatro Real can both astound with a fresh contemporary piece as well as hit the mark with the crowd-pleasing classics.
Until July 28
Despite the sweltering summer heat in Madrid, a prestigious crowd gathered to see the opening performance of Massiaen’s Saint François d’Assise. It has been touted as one of the most significant cultural events of 2011. Queen Sofia of Spain, the Minister of Culture, the city’s archbishop, the mayor, along with a crowd of others on the list of Madrid’s “who’s who”. This eminent audience who flocked to the edge of the city at the theatre’s summer residence at the Madrid Arena gave the evening an immediate sense of gravitas.
This sporting arena does not suit opera. The silver bleachers, despite being covered in black padding, are still bleachers. It felt strange to have ¾ of the audience (what would normally be in the round) empty. And table cloths were placed over the areas where normally beer and other spectator sport food is served.
Massiaen’s only opera premiered in Paris 1983, so is relatively contemporary in operatic terms. The gargantuan work, running nearly 6 hours in total, is a well-known favourite of Teatro Real’s Belgian Artistic Director, Gerard Mortier. The celebrated and renowned director has included the piece in every programme for which he has been in charge.
This production was originally meant to be presented at New York City’s Armory during which time Mr. Mortier was meant to be the director of the new York Opera, however after a lack of fundraising and therefore funds, he chose to settle his artistic perch in Madrid instead. As a director, Mortier takes risks and pushes the boundaries. He is a gift to the operatic stages of our time.
This oratorio based opera consists of 8 scenes from the saint’s life. The piece is enormous: 6 hours in length, an orchestra of over 120 musicians, an enormous percussion section by operatic standards, and a chorus of 150 voices. It is truly an opera of operatic proportions. While appreciating the skill and musicianship of the composition, the work is repetitive and at times obvious. In particular, the repeated thee of the same melody playing before a character sings becomes rather dull. Messiaen also lacks the dramatic undertone which so often spurs opera along their arching plot.
One cannot help but ponder how a crafty and well-thought cut could enhance this lengthy and at times tiresome experience. Unless of course the aim as an operatic “Einstein on the Beach”?
The stage was mostly encumbered by Emilia and Ilya Kabakov’s 22 tonne dome decorated with stained glass and tilted onto its side. It is a gargantuan, imposing piece. Although it fills this arena space, it feels static and at times irrelevant. The shifting colours felt arbitrary. The performers were confined to a narrow metal walkway that surrounded the musicians.
The orchestra was led by the Messiaen-specialist Sylvain Cambreling. This is an extremely complicated score and, as many contemporary pieces are, difficult to follow. Cambreling led with clear direction and the necessary confidence to convincingly perform such a challenging piece. The SWR Baden-Baden – Freiburg Symphony Orchestra did well to fill the huge arena and to accommodate such an imposing percussion section.
Marco-Buhrmester gave a magnificent performance as Saint Francois, however the length of the piece would be trying for any performer. It lacked focus. Camilla Tilling, the only female in this cast, was an angel with an ethereal voice who emerged from the cast iron bleachers. Her voice pierced the space and kept the audience mesmerized.
However the plot felt thin. To keep an audience’s rapt attention for such an extended time. Messiaen failed to provide enough texture and richness to this piece in order to warrant the required devotion. And it showed. Yet despite the audience noticeably diminishing in size after each intermission, the crowd that remained upon the final curtain call was sizeable and enthusiastic.
Alas, I did not manage to get a ticket to Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s production of Madama Butterfly at the Royal Opera House however I did take advantage of attending the free live screening in Trafalgar Square.
The setting was beautiful as the weather remained uncharacteristically dry and the sun trickled down, igniting Nelson’s column. The turnout was unprecedented as there was a reported 8000 people in attendance with a further 2000 sitting on the periphery, trying to catch a glimpse of this wonderful production of Puccinni’s classic. People were even turned away which has provoked a reaction that perhaps a new venue should be sought flor next year’s event. Picnics and bottles of wine were ubiquitous as the entire audience remained meditative and transfixed as we all witnessed the tragedy that befell the titular protagonist; and I am pleased to say, I did not hear one mobile phone ring.
Once the performance commenced, I was initially struck at the simplicity of the set with the creative team deciding to maximise the space; the only significant detail being the shoji screens placed at the back of the stage, which allowed for silhouettes to be cast upon them- the detail of which is cleverly utilised, particularly when Pinkerton returns from his 3 year hiatus.
The story revolves around BF Pinkerton, an American soldier stationed in Nagasaki, who decides he wants to marry a geisha. He is brash, arrogant, emotionally shallow and ultimately ignorant to Japanese culture, much to the dismay of his friend, Sharpless, who warns him of the differing attitudes prominent within Japanese culture. Pinkerton rejects this caveat and marries Cio-cio-san (Butterfly) but doesn’t take the vow seriously, confused between infatuation and love. He also feels that his future lies with an American woman. Butterfly however does take the marriage seriously, renouncing her religion and converting to Christianity which precipitates the abandonment of her family as a consequence. Pinkerton returns to America, leaving Butterfly to raise their son. After 3 years, Pinkerton returns with his American wife and this is met with great tragedy.
Madam Butterfly was played by Latvian soprano, Kristine Opolais, remarkably a last minute stand-in. It was truly an astonishing performance by Opolais, communicating her obstinate love and later the heart-breaking anguish after her greatest fear becomes a reality. The supporting cast were excellent but it was Opolais who truly stole the show, dominating the stage with a delicacy and unbridled passion.
The opportunity to see this remarkable piece of art for free, and to share it with 8000 people, is an experience that will remain with me forever and makes me appreciative of those endeavouring to spread our incandescent cultural milieu further afield.
Madam Butterfly runs for two more performances: 8-15 July
Cinderella will be shown in Trafalgar Square on 13 July
Attending an event at Teatro ala Scala in Milan is always a grand event. Tourists and Milanese alike are dressed in their finery. It is as much of a social event as it is an artistic one. The last performance of Romeo et Juliette (1867) was just such a night.
This is not a commonly produced piece by French composer Gounod, in fact it has been absent from La Scala since its last staging in 1934. The production, directed by the Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher, had been a success the Salzburg Summer Festival in 2008 with Netrebko and Villayon in the leads. This staging brings together two glamorous stars Nino Machaidze and Vittorio Grigolo. The La Scala opera was under the baton of young maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was recently named the eighth Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the American “big five” orchestras, to start the 2012-2013 season.
Upon entering the theatre, the curtain is already raised, already the line between the dramatics of attending La Scala has already begun to blur with that that is soon to occur on stage. The actors process out and then, very strangely an in an act that I still have yet to place significance, there is a group rape of the serving made on stage. No research suggests this to be in the work, nor was there ever any returning to the theme again later in the opera. It was most disturbing and extremely unnecessary.
Romeo (Italian Grigolo) is a powerhouse of a tenor at only 28 years of age. The strength and tenacity of his voice are astounding and he excelled within his musical phrasing. He brought Romeo through the impetuousness of youth through to a matured, heartfelt husband. Juliette (Georgian Machaidze), despite her horrific costumes which were both aesthetically and historically ill-chosen, was enchanting. The audience could not take their eyes off of this blossoming girl. She went through the character, moving from the young love-struck child into an anguished woman who gives her life to be with her husband. The death scene was truly moving.
There was a strong supporting cast that provided many comedic moments, particularly Paris. Tybalt (Juan Francisco Gatell) had a demanding stage presence. Mercutio (Braun) was a rapscallion through and through and successfully pulled off his “Ballade de la Reine Mab. Juliette’s maid Gertrude ( Susane Resmark) was indeed a force to be reckoned with. Yet the staging in the fight scenes was off. It seemed as if Mercutio died of little more than a paper cut and Tybalt was merely glanced. At this level, such basics need to be spot on.
As always, the La Scala chorus, dressed in exquisite 17th century costumes of Catherine Zuber, the likes of which are rarely seen today, was impeccable. Though the costuming did little to differentiate between the Capulets and Montagues.
Michael Yeargan’s set was uninspiring and remained the same throughout the three hours. There were moments of beautiful dawn lighting through the windows, but then a green was soon to emanate. I have never seen green light shine from the sun.
Someone would do well to remind the audience that applause is not necessary after each and every song. One would think that an audience of such stature would know better.
The performances were breathtaking, but the set and attention to detail was at times simply not intriguing enough. Gounod’s music, while beautiful, has a tendency to remind you of something else you have heard. It lacks a certain inspiration and originality much like this production.
Tosca is one of Puccini’s great masterpieces and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s 2006 production brings the drama to glorious life.
The setting is the eve of the Battle of Marengo as Napoleon’s army caused disarray throughout the city states of Italy. It is a moving tale of love, personal freedom, ideals, betrayal, and redemption. Tosca (Martina Serafin), Rome’s most beautiful opera singer is in love with a painter, Cavaradossi (Marcello Giordani). Act I, placed in a cramped, split-level chapel with the altar above and the crypt below feels too small for this much drama. However, despite the limited space, the soprano and tenor movingly portray the tensions and placations of two young lovers. But yet, the waters are not calm as political betrayal is underfoot in the form of a dissident escaping from prison and begging Cavaradossi to aid hm in his escape.
Enter the villain. What a vile, putrid individual is the Baron Scarpia (Finnish baritone Juha Uusitalo making his Covent Garden debut). He even purports to prefer to have his women on the run from him rather than swooning in romance for him. It is the fear and hatred that wets his lustful appetite. Charming. Uusitalo was so effectively repugnant in his portrayal of this loathing man that he makes the viewer’s skin crawl. While chasing down the escaped political prisoner, he arrests Cavaradossi in the two-fold aim of finding the prisoner and sating his lust for Tosca. To save her lover, Tosca must make the ultimate sacrifice to the hated Baron Scarpia. Serafin’s portrayal of this woman’s inner turmoil was elegant and emotive, her warm voice growing as the anguish in heart at the thought of being betrayed by her beloved god crescendos.
Despite the current cast being a warm up for the power cast to come, their performances were moving. The vocal performances where unusually matched in theatrical capability by this production’s stars. Serafin’s shining star of Tosca evoked great passion, sympathy, and admiration. She gave an accomplished performance. The only critique was that at times she felt encumbered by her overly elaborate costumes. Giordani’s Cavaradossi was a well-rounded, traditionally Italian tenor. Uusitalo’s Scarpia while menacing and imposing in stature, did eventually feel a bit repetitive and caged in by his staging.
Antonio Pappano’s conducting draws Puccini’s precision and passion from this talented orchestra. The elaborate, gothic set designs of Paul Brown are as powerful and dramatic as the plot. The monumental statue, moody settings, and in particular leaving Scarpia’s study nearly bookless were all well-chosen for dramatic effect. I left the production pondering what we are expected to give sacrifice love and how hope, in the face of great adversity, can make believers of us all.
Most opera aficionados would not think Terry Gilliam’s name to be synonymous with the form and yet his first foray in opera depicts the director, made famous for directing film and providing the animation in Monty Pythons Flying Circus, making a seamless transition.
He decided to adapt Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and made the daring decision to set it during the emergence of the Nazi party in Germany.
Before the curtains are raised, Mephisto or the more commonly used Satan enters with his shadowy minions and takes his seat to the side of the stage where he awaits the moment to pounce on the increasingly vulnerable Faust. His minions cavort around the stage like devilish ballerinas, moving around with their twisted and contorted limbs. This immediately sets the precedent that the devil will be an active puppeteer and the insidious cause of the tragedy that is to follow.
For those who don’t know the narrative, it tells the tale of Faust, a man disenchanted with his life and contemplating suicide. He is visited by Mephisto who lures him into a world of dangerous temptation by offering him fulfillment of his innermost desires to which the parochial Faust excitedly accepts. His journey then becomes increasingly more fraught as Mephisto reduces Faust to a mere puppet, casting him into increasingly ominous scenarios where swastikas are ubiquitous and the pernicious far-right ideology is beginning to take effect.
Gilliam is perhaps best known for his capacity to harness his tremendous imagination and create a sumptuous feast of visual stimulation with Brazil and Twelve Monkeys being two particularly apt examples. He has not let his reputation down where each backdrop is rich in detail and bustling with activity. He also integrates the use of projections, tragically illustrating soldiers in combat being a particularly poignant example.
Mephisto is masterfully played by Christopher Purves; dressed immaculately, oozing charm and insouciance with a suitably powerful voice, seducing all those who cross his path. Pater Hoare’s Faust is also brilliantly played, with a shock of hair, looking every inch the capricious eccentric he purports to be.
I liked the pace of the piece where the audience are gradually reminded of the ominous milieu we are observing and the evil that is in motion. The growing evil however is slowly unravelled as Mephisto manipulates each situation to bring Faust closer and closer to relinquishing his soul. The Nazi ideology turns into acts of extreme and violent prejudice as the benign glow of the early scenes are replaced by the malevolent dark as a feeling of foreboding and an inevitability of tragedy begins to emerge.
This was truly a wonderful piece of opera from a director who might just have found his calling.