Review: L’Amour de Loin

lamour-de-loin-m_4146a

Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s much-praised 2000 opera has a darkly shimmering beauty to it, and director Robert Lepage has created a gorgeous production for its Met premiere that leans powerfully into that shimmering quality. Lepage and set designer Michael Curry have draped strip after strip of LED lights across the immense Met stage. With those strips, “lightscape image designer” Lionel Arnould paints constantly shifting washes of color that vary from evocative abstractions to almost realistic representations of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and suits Saariaho’s music to a “T”.

There’s precious little to the plot of L’Amour de loin. Very loosely based on the legend of French troubadour prince Jaufré Rudel (c. 1100-c. 1147), it tells of Jaufré’s idealized love for a woman he has never seen – Clémence, countess of a Crusader colony in Lebanon – with messages brought back and forth by an unnamed, androgynous, seafaring Pilgrim.

Saariaho’s music may sparkle, but it’s also dissonant – influenced as much by the steely atonality of Webern as the hazy sensuality of Debussy. Saariaho has also incorporated material redolent of the medieval era, including actual melodic elements from Jaufré’s own songs. When these primitively tonal melodies emerge out of the dark tides of Saariaho’s music, the effect is remarkable. It happens first in a passage sung by the pilgrim, sung here with resonant gravitas by Tamara Mumford, and it’s like a sunset breaking through the clouds.

Making her Met debut, conductor Susanna Mälkki navigates the complexities of the score with great assuredness and expressiveness. Susanna Phillips, as Clémence, gets a plethora of bravura passages and high notes which she handles with great power and musical intelligence. As Jaufré, Eric Owens is the production’s beating heart, bringing great passion to even the most devilishly difficult sections. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Jenůfa

jenufa_4793b

For me, the luminous sound of the score is the main appeal of Jenůfa, the watershed 1904 Czech opera by Leoš Janáček. In the current revival at the Met, Conductor David Robertson delivers a gorgeously polished account of the piece, making singers and orchestra feel almost like a single virtuoso instrument.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is the established star here, playing the title character’s stepmother, the Kostelnička, the moral guardian of the small village in which they live. She delivers on her reputation, singing with great clarity and passion, but it’s a credit to the quality of this production that she doesn’t particularly stand out.

Oksana Dyka is equally marvelous as Jenůfa, a victim of the village’s hypocrisy – a role which helped Mattila make her reputation. The stepbrothers in love with Jenůfa both shine as well, Daniel Brenna showing great dynamism as Laca, and Joseph Kaiser as Steva is exactly the kind of dazzling high tenor the role needs.

I’m not so in love with the story of the opera – which includes jealous men disfiguring women and infanticide – but do appreciate its psychological subtlety. The people you thought were evil turn out to be good, and vice versa; there is much redemption going around. Jenůfa is a beautiful, unique piece of music, and this is a must-hear rendition. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: L’Italiana in Algeri

litaliana

A fun time is had by all. Sure, Rossini’s comedy L’Italiana in Algeri is an exercise in orientalism. But it’s a relatively innocuous one. Little is made of the “Turkishness” of the setting (Algeria was under the control of the Ottoman Turks in 1813 when Rossini wrote the opera). Instead, Turkish potentate Mustafa is simply an ancient comic type, the “braggart soldier,” who happens to be wearing a fez.

As a matter of fact, the tension of the “exotic” setting gives L’Italiana a bite that most frothy bel canto comedy doesn’t have. The plot is, typically, thin: feisty Italian girl Isabella (Marianna Pizzolato, in a charmingly funny Met debut.) turns the tables on the blustery but bumbling Mustafa (the delirously hammy Ildar Abdrazakov), who has captured her after hearing of the delightful nature of Italian women.

The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production dates from the 1970s, but is is not looking any the worse for wear, mostly thanks to the airy beauty of the sets, which he designed himself. I was thrilled to see Met legend James Levine at the podium, and, as he always does, he found and burnished every bit of orchestral beauty in the score.

The real find in this revival, though, is tenor René Barbera in a spectacular Met debut. I hope I’m not overstating his potential when I say he reminds me of a young Pavarotti. This may be partially because of a slight physical resemblance, but I think it’s more due a similarity in the size and expressiveness of his voice. His role, Isabella’s true love Lindoro, is a relatively small one, but Barbera made a stong impression in his handful of arias, garnering lusty bravos from the audience. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Don Pasquale

Don Pasquale

Of Donizetti’s comedies, I think I like Don Pasquale the best. I mean, it’s still a little too light for me, it doesn’t glitter like Rossini’s La Cenerentola or have the rich complexity of Verdi’s Falstaff. But it does dig ever so slightly deeper than the main line of 19th Century Italian opera buffa, and reaps the benefits both dramatically and musically.

Don Pasquale tells the story – as old as comedy itself, stretching back to the ancient Greeks – of clever young people tricking a blustery old man into letting them have their romantic way. Except in this one, that old man isn’t just the usual angry caricature, he’s genuinely a bit sad about where he’s at in his life. The opera is named after him, when in general operas of this type bear the name of the head trickster or the romantic heroine.

Director Otto Schenk – in a generally very traditional production – leans into this quality, bringing out the piece’s humane, compassionate streak, the very thing that makes it unique. This time around, the cast sports several exciting performances. Making her Met debut, Italian soprano Eleonora Buratto is a true bel canto find as heroine Norina. Her sparkling high notes are a joy, but she also acted and sang with an alluring ease.

As Don Pasquale, bass Ambrogio Maestri – who was a marvelously forceful Falstaff a few seasons back – proves equally capable of playing Pasquale’s vulnerability. As the romantic hero Ernesto, rising star tenor Javier Camarena hit all the high notes with dazzling volume and breath control. If you like bel canto, you’ll find much to enjoy here.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Maria Stuarda

Maria Stuarda

Bravissima, Radvanovsky! This season Sondra Radvanovsky is proving her bel canto mettle by playing a trio of Tudor queens with starring roles in three operas by Gaetano Donizetti. This month, she plays the lead role in Maria Stuarda, better known in the English-speaking world as Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a wonderful vehicle for her enormous, soaring, shimmering, effortless coloratura; this surely puts her in opera’s very highest circle of stars.

The opera gives us a highly fictionalized version of the final days of Mary Stuart, held prisoner by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It follows Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same name in inventing a meeting between the two that never happened. Also, much is made of a supposed love between Elizabeth’s favorite courtier Robert Dudley of Leicester and Mary, when historically Leicester strongly resisted Elizabeth’s suggestion that he marry Mary to smooth things over politically.

Elza van den Heever’s performance as “Elizabetta” is vocally strong – she attacks the role with a brilliantine ferocity. Her physicalization also suggests a powerful and fierce woman, but with an odd twist. This Elizabetta struts and swaggers like a cowboy. It’s a strong choice, but also undeniably a strange one. As Maria, Radvanovsky is decidedly not a victim, defiant until the last possible moment, and then a beacon of radiant acceptance once it is clear there is no escape.

Director David McVicar’s production is stately and a tad solemn, but never descends into sleepy stasis. John McFarlane’s sets and costumes capture Elizabethan grandeur, though I wish he used a wider and more varied palette than white, black and red. I can hardly wait to see the conclusion of the triad, Roberto Devereaux, in which Radvanovsky will take her own turn playing the great Elizabeth. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Pêcheurs de Perles

A rare Bizet at the Met! I’ve been immersing myself in obscure opera over the last couple of years, giving myself a crash education in forgotten corners of this gloriously gaudy art. Getting to know the French repertoire in detail has been one of this process’s greatest pleasures, and seeing a rarely performed Bizet work in its first Met production in over 100 years is icing on the cake.

Originally set in ancient Ceylon, Les Pêcheurs de Perles tells the story of Leïla, a beautiful Hindu priestess pursued by two close friends who become rivals for her love. The piece is for better or worse a big hunk of Orientalism. British director Penny Woolcock attempts to address that by setting the story in a poverty-ridden slum of today’s coastal Southeast Asia. I’m not sure that helps, particularly.

The Orientalism is, thank goodness, in the final analysis window dressing for a pretty straight ahead love triangle. This production was spurred by soprano Diana Damrau’s love of the role of Leïla, and indeed it fits her rich coloratura voice like a velvet glove. Mariusz Kwiecien here plays Zurga the more politically powerful of her suitors, with great dignity.

The other suitor, Nadir, is a dreamer, and Matthew Polenzani sings the role with a remarkable floating, billowy tenderness. I’d love to hear him do opera from the classical period, say Mozart or Gluck.

Projection design firm 59 Productions can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. They set the highly-innovative gold standard for projections, and their work here is pretty powerful, finding new and exciting way to communicate the awesome and terrifying power of the ocean.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda is a master of late Romantic color, and that mastery is on luscious display here. His account of the music is simultaneously grandiloquent and tight, giving in to Bizet’s surging beauty – it’s all very theatrical and lavish, as one always wants at the opera. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Tosca

Kristin Sampson as Tosca, James Valenti as Mario Cavaradossi and Michael Chioldi as Baron Scarpia Inaugural NYC Opera Performance General Director: Michael Capasso Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti

New York City Opera is back! I have a personal reason for being excited – by the time I started reviewing opera in fall of 2013, their previous incarnation had already closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and I had definitely wanted to cover them. Plus, it’s just plain nice to have a middle-sized company, between the obligatory grandeur of the Met and the scrappy inventiveness of the indie opera companies dotting the city landscape.

This Tosca is staunchly traditional: it replicates the sets and costumes by Adolfo Hohenstein from the opera’s premiere production in 1900. Stage director Lev Pugliese may or may not be making an effort to replicate Nino Vignuzzi’s original staging; he certainly steers the staging to hit all the marks of a very traditional Tosca.

I’ve stated before that I only object to traditionalism when it gets in the way of imagination and entertainment. This production is definitely entertaining – Tosca is such a bodice-ripper that doing it straight-on can hardly fail to engage. And the cast is focused with the moment-to-moment flow of the story; this is decidely not Tosca on autopilot.

This production’s Cavaradossi, James Valenti, has a powerful and flexible voice, more than capable of meeting the dramatic and lyric sides of the role. Soprano Kristen Sampson gave Tosca a warmer shade than she usually gets – you got the feeling this Tosca was aware that her jealous feelings were probably unfounded. That’s not exactly the way the role’s written, but it’s not so strange as to be implausible, and gave Tosca some additional, and welcome, humanity.

The real story of this production, though, is Michael Chioldi as the ultimate opera villian Scarpia. He’s easily the best actor in the cast, projecting a truly elegant surface under which murky waters roil. This was definitely a “love to hate you” kind of Scarpia, with vocal power, confidence and technique to back it up. Overall, a rock-solid Tosca, not at all a bad way to get NYCO back on its feet.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: La Bohème

Boheme

Director Franco Zeffirelli’s production of La Bohème, is, to me, the very height of traditional opera. He captures both the details and spirit of 1830s Paris, the exact time in which the opera is set. There’s a gesture in the direction of realism – we see real places from unusual and oblique angles. But there’s also a nod in the direction of Romanticism – these places are rendered with a misty painterly touch. Gorgeous.

And I’m not just talking about the scenery either. Amidst a realistic crowd scene showing the bustle of Paris, a soprano begins a beautiful aria, and suddenly all of the hurrying crowd stops moving. Zeffirelli is a master of stage effect and his use of it here is every bit as artful and painterly as the haze of falling snow.

Ramón Vargas’s Rodolfo was strong and solid, confident throughout his range, conveying more than anything his character’s warm compassionate core. Barbara Frittoli’s Mimi was affecting as well, even if vocally she seemed insufficiently warmed-up in the first act.

Ana María Martinez gave us a Musetta that was all sparkle and heat, both visually and vocally. The supporting cast were notable above all for their acting skill; Levente Molnár was a expansive and charming Marcello, Christian Van Horn a dryly amused and amusing Colline, and Alexy Lavrov a cheerful and soulful Schaunard. Paolo Carignani conducted with great zest and brio, creating a seamless bond between singers and orchestra.

The late, great Zeffirelli has created a very seductive world where I was happy to spend three hours. The production in general, and the performances of this cast in particular, are thoroughly entrancing. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

News: Opera I’m directing – “Goyescas” – opens TONIGHT

Goyescaspic

I’ve directed a new production of Enrique Granados’s 1916 opera Goyescas, which opens tonight and runs through November 22. Tickets available here.

Here’s a promotional video:

Love, death, seductive music, and fiery dance come together this November in the opera Goyescas. Bare Opera presents this bohemian opera by Spanish composer Enrique Granados, inspired by the lush paintings of Goya. Set in the vibrant urban landscape of 1980s Madrid, this tragic romantic tale features rapturous songs and flamenco-inspired dance.

The opera will be paired with charming selections from Isaac Albéniz’s Suite Española, specially arranged for orchestra and dance for this production.

This bold new production is directed by Jonathan Warman, choreographed by Liz Piccoli, and features costumes by fashion designer Laura Kung. Bare Opera’s principal conductor, Sesto Quatrini, leads the performances.

Review: Tannhäuser

Tannhauser

Although it’s always a pleasure to hear maestro James Levine lead the Met Opera orchestra – and Tannhäuser features some of composer Richard Wagner’s most gorgeous music – I don’t think I will ever love this opera. It’s a battle between pagan goddess of love Venus and a clutch of goody-goody Christians over the soul of the titular minstrel, and the Christians win. I’m on Venus’s side, so this is just a plain old bummer for me.

Still, almost all of the best music goes to Venus and her minions – granted, the Christians’ “Pilgrim Chorus” is the most beautiful thing in the show, but everything else good is in pagan-land. Oh, there’s one exception, the young shepherd’s song (divinely delivered here by Ying Fang), which is positioned with delicately balanced naivete between Tannhäuser’s time with Venus and his return to Christian Wartburg.

I can envision a production that follows Wagner’s musical cues, in which the Christian morality would be militaristically enforced but insincere, and the Venusian sensuality voluptuous but dangerously wild. But that is not this production, by a long shot.

Director Otto Schenk’s production is very conservative, but in the best possible way. I’m not personally compelled by his vision of Venus’s realm, but it is arguably very close to Wagner’s own vision. When it comes to Wartburg, however, Schenk has absolutely nailed the feel of that place in Tannhäuser’s time (the early 13th Century).

This is traditional opera at its most sturdy and compulsively watchable, really a vehicle for the singers to shine. My personal favorites on the night I went were Michelle DeYoung as a deeply sensual Venus, and Günther Groissböck as truly noble Landgraf Hermann – largely because they were easily the best actors in an ensemble of uniformly impressive vocal power.

How to put this; I recommend this as highly as I ever could recommend traditionally staged Wagner. Yep, this is as good as that kind of thing gets.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.