Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


July 30, 2012

Erin Wall and Mark Delavan Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Santa Fe Opera premiered the fifth and final production of its 2012 summer festival season on Saturday, Strauss’ Arabella. Strauss’ operas have a long history here in Santa Fe, and are as likely to show up as often as those of Mozart or Puccini. In fact this is the company’s fourth production of this particular opera alone in its 56-year history, an unusual marker by any opera company’s measure. Of course, despite this rich history, it has been five years since the company last staged a Strauss opera (2007’s production of Daphne was the last) and the time away from the festival stage showed a bit on Saturday.

Very little happens in Arabella. The title character is a young woman whose potential marriage has become a matter of huge fiscal concern for her broke and precariously perched aristocratic family. A financially fortuitous match is arranged and unexpectedly it turns out to be quite agreeable to her, although some complications ensue, and a glass of water is delivered before everything is said and done. The story is filled with lavish interiors and grand balls and rests heavily on a string of intimate conversations. The passion here is on the inside and comes bubbling out unexpectedly. With such a set up, a restrained staging might seem a good idea, but Tim Albery’s staging is so devoid of spark that no burning desire is about to save it from its quiet cold expiration in the New Mexico desert. The sets and costumes are done almost entirely in shades of gray. At first it seems that this may be one of those tricks used to make color that appears later on pop out at the viewer. But here it’s just gray and more gray for three hours. Even the late Edwardian costumes are oddly filled with fine details that are impossible to see from very far away and sometimes quite ill fitting.

Into this cold, dimly lit world come musicians and actors not entirely capable of breathing fire into what they are given. Soprano Erin Wall sings the lead. She’s likable and attractive, but she lacked the kind of warmth and ability to cut through the orchestra that make for the best proponents of this role. Mark Delavan sang Mandryka and gave a consistent and believable performance going from enamored to maddeningly jealous with real skill. He never bellowed and brought some real emotion to the fragile relationship with the beautiful protagonist. The minor roles included worthwhile performances from Heidi Stober as Zdenka and Zach Borichevsky as Matteo. The orchestra seemed bogged down by the same gray fog that enveloped the stage sadly. After sounding nuanced and lush at the opening of Szymanowski’s King Roger last week, this time there were anemic bits, and Sir Andrew Davis, a noted Strauss specialist, never quite got the opulent sound Strauss’ late works in particular are known for. Luckily, Santa Fe is not known for its gloomy marine layer summer days, so there are some hopes that musically things will pick up as the run continues, but a little life and a little color may be harder to come by in this return to Straussian form in the desert.


On Second Thought

July 29, 2012

Luca Pisaroni as Maometto II Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Which are more important: first thoughts or last words? It’s a question opera lovers pore over with glee in regards to many of the art form’s greatest masters who have reworked previous pieces, and it’s a question that figures prominently in perhaps the other big ambitious project of this year’s Santa Fe Opera season, a production of Rossini’s opera seria, Maometto II. The work, originally written in 1820 for Naples and then subsequently revised for Venice and then completely reworked later for Paris as The Siege of Corinth has recently become available in a new critical edition that will be published next year. Santa Fe Opera and music director Frédéric Chaslin have had the good fortune to present the world premiere performances of this new edition with another major opera star this summer, Luca Pisaroni, in the title role. Pisaroni was reportedly keen to take on the role as had one of his idols Samuel Ramey many decades earlier, and when the stars aligned, he and the company got their wish.

Leah Crocetto in Maometto II Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Audiences seem to be getting their wish as well with a show that has some exciting singing, even if it isn’t always in the most expected places. Pisaroni plays Maometto II, the Turkish sultan laying siege to the Venetian colony of Negroponte. He gets to do fun, crazy things here in David Alden’s sometimes grandiose staging, including climbing aboard a chariot pulled by a statue of three giant size black steeds that descends from an angle at the back of the stage. He sounds great, and makes more of the fine vocal detail than most baritones typically do. He’s paired with one of the more surprising names in the cast, Leah Crocetto, a former Adler Fellow in San Francisco, who takes on Anna, Maometto’s love and daughter of his enemy. Crocetto has a lovely, sunny, and strong instrument, but I would never have thought of her as a bel canto singer. And at first I felt my suspicions were confirmed when she entered with significant hesitation on Friday night. But something clicked and soon she was pulling out coloratura detail around every bend with real agility and some beautiful phrasing throughout key moments in the close of Act I and the major duet with Maometto that opens Act II. She was a singer to watch even before, but what other surprises she has up her sleeve may be anyone’s guess at this point.

Bruce Sledge played Anna’s father Paolo Erisso and was robust and flexible. Meanwhile mezzo Patricia Bardon, a favorite of mine, seemed to be having an off night vocally on many fronts as Anna’s secret husband Calbo. She struggled at times with the detailed passage work and pitch was a problem in the upper register. But luckily all of the cast had excellent support from the orchestra, and Chaslin again proved he’s got the chops to do exactly what a music director must, master a variety of basic repertory styles with certainty. His conducting of the bel canto score was fleet, bordering on breezy at times, avoiding the melodramatic and providing consistent support to the carefully phrased vocal lines throughout.

If there was hesitancy in the show, it was most likely in David Alden’s sometimes timid staging. Alden has a long history in Santa Fe and is no stranger to colorful, nearly hallucinogenic moments on stage particularly in the world of Baroque operas. And he does deliver some here amid an oddly sloped set of curved walls and stairs that don’t always lead anywhere. But there are just as many moments filled with a cast that seems uncertain where to turn amid the odd angles. The chorus and extras in particular are given strained, sloppy looking choreography to manage with the kind of sword and spear play one associates with a rerun of Kung Fu. All of this looks funny exactly when in shouldn’t and cuts into the forceful menace of a piece about two peoples at war.

Does the new edition make a difference? Maybe. But after hearing what is supposedly a closer version to Rossini’s first thoughts on the piece, it’s also quite easy to see why he would have revised it. Anna and Maometto’s final scene still seems awkward and confusing, and the motivation for her eventual suicide come off as unclear. The opera almost seems to crash into itself in the last twenty minutes or so. Still if opera is a sport, this is one fun game to watch unfold with surprises and a few disappointments that make loving this art form particularly worthwhile.

Brian Jadge and Amanda Echalaz Photo : Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Meanwhile, Santa Fe Opera’s popular favorite on this summer’s program roster is a new production of Puccini’s Tosca. It’s an opera that provides particular challenges for the company’s gorgeous outdoor theater that lends itself easily to dramatic elemental moments. This verisimo gem with its very particular interior spaces and the ugly business that occurs there calls out for something a bit more cloistered. But director Stephen Barlow, has met the challenge with an almost M.C Escher inspired approach with principals cavorting through a set filled with painting, forced perspective, and angular lines that amp up the surrealism. In Act I Cavaradossi, and indeed the entire cast, traipse back and forth across the painting he is working on that covers the floor of the stage. Meanwhile the detached dome of Sant’Andrea della Valle hangs detached above like the setting sun on the New Mexico skyline. It’s attractive imagery but infuriatingly distracting with its oddity. The painting disappears, but the large set piece persists, rising up to reveal the wall of Scarpia’s quarters in Act II and serving as the floor of the tower at the Castle Sant’Angelo in Act III. There are turret walls that appear by this point, but it’s never really clear where Tosca is going to jump from until low and behold she does. It doesn’t make it more shocking, just more perplexing.

Amanda Echalaz sings the title role here in her U.S. debut. She has the power and can be steely at times in the part, but she also tends toward the brighter side, tone wise, losing some of the darker qualities in the vocal part. Raymond Aceto, who is sharing the role of Scarpia with Thomas Hampson who will take over in August, was a reasonable and menacing villain without overplaying his hand. But the big story here vocally was tenor Brian Jagde who took over the role of Cavaradossi for the entire run just days before the opening of the season with the withdrawal of Andrew Richards. Jagde has a relaxed athletic tone that never feels pinched. And while the chemistry between Echalaz and him fizzles at times, he’s both believable and the kind of young singer you instantly want to hear more from. Music director Chaslin is in the pit again here and again gives this most severe of Italian shockers a lighter, more focused approach than some might have chosen. But it worked quite well keeping the show concise and focused right through to the finish. If Tosca is Santa Fe’s opera staple on this year’s menu, they’ve put together a show that shouldn’t disappoint those looking for comfort food.


Big Ideas. Now.

July 28, 2012

Jessica Emmanuel in Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The ninth edition of REDCAT’s New Original Works festival kicked off on Thursday. And if the opening weekend of this three week festival is any indication, this may be one of NOW’s most ambitious programs yet. Of course, the festival is all about exactly what it says, brand new works often in various stages of development. That can mean a raw unpolished feeling to some of the pieces, but it can also indicate a powerful unexpected energy. And while it is not a competition in any way, Thursday’s program started off with a piece that will be hard to beat in terms of depth, vision, and ferocious impact.

That hour long piece was from Los Angeles’ own Poor Dog Group, the experimental theater collective founded by former CalArts students in 2008. The work, The Murder Ballad, is different in scope from their former projects focusing more heavily on dance elements than prior outings. However, the understated impact, and the piece’s brazen, pointed reflections on race, sexual identity, and authority are more potent and succinctly put than just about anything I can remember in recent memory. The Murder Ballad takes its title from the lengthy blues song written by Jelly Roll Morton at the start of the 20th Century and only recorded by Alan Lomax in 1938 with the help of a little alcohol and 7 aluminum discs which captured the New Orleans legend. The performance is stunning and serves as the soundtrack for what is largely a dance piece with minimal spoken elements. The episodic tale, rife with curse words and explicit sex recounts the story of an African-American woman who murders a woman she has discovered is cheating with her man. She is eventually tried, sent to prison for life, and starts up a sexual relationship with another woman while there. Despite the obviously salacious elements of the story, there is a certain inevitability to the story as well, like Greek tragedy. It’s a sense that all of the things that happen to us are still somehow predetermined and that there is a beauty in that itself.

There are only two performers – the enthralling dancer Jessica Emmanuel who poses, struts, and almost flies throughout the entire length of the piece, not so much acting out the events of the song as suggesting the underlying unexpressed context like some modern day listener reflecting on how little we’ve changed despite our efforts to convince ourselves we have in the last hundred years. This all takes place on top of a white tarp with matching rear projection screen that occasionally provides live streaming images captured from above. Her lithe, at times nearly naked, form is periodically accompanied by a near comic counterpoint from actor Jesse Saler. He radiates sexuality just as easily as Ms. Emmanuel, soaked in his polo shirt and briefs with his large thighs providing a certain counterpoint to her lighter more delicate frame. The contrast in and of itself draws on issues about sexual identity and power relations that the piece, of course, doesn’t attempt to answer as much as explore the deeper meaning in Morton’s often funny, frequently explicit tale.

Jose Luis Blondet, Carolyn Shoemaker, and Juliana Snapper with Opera Povera Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The works that followed covered very different areas in a more is more sort of fashion with varying degrees of success. The collective Opera Povera took on Pauline Oliveros’ To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation. The 1970 work was intended to capture Oliveros’ own response to the burgeoning feminist movement of the time drawing parallels between the two women in terms of the effect patriarchy had on their histories. The wordless hour long “opera” is scored mostly for sighs, gasps, and sobbing noises that were performed here by co-creator of the production Juliana Snapper and Carolyn Shoemaker. The staging that Snapper and Sean Griffin conceived further wrapped the elements in Oliveros’ score into the history of Cheryl Crane, the daughter of Lana Turner who would later stab and kill Johnny Stompanato in what she said was an effort to protect her mother. If this sounds like it’s getting complicated, it is, and the staging involves a handful of other characters as well who aren’t always clearly outlined. Cast members at times appear to be Solanas, Monroe, Turner, Crane, and others. Sometimes these references are taken seriously and others not, which is in the spirit of Oliveros’ music. But I’ll admit the references become so complicated that by midpoint it was harder and harder to maintain focus on the inexplicable stage events. And while the notion of the sobbing and gasping that fill the score were mesmerizing, the show did sink under the weight of its own pretentions in the end.

From Susan Simpson's Exhibit A Photo: Steven Gunther/REDCAT 2012
The closing work was Susan Simpson’s Exhibit A, a Los Angeles influenced fantasia of the mid-20th Century. Again electronic music elements were combined with an often comic theater performance that reflected on the 1948 draining of the Silverlake reservoir, the modernist utopian architecture of Richard Neutra, and Harry Hay and the history of the Mattachine Society. Simpson was fascinated by the parallels in the utopian mind set that informed Hay and Neutra as well as science fiction from the period that she had come across in papers at the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at USC. Exhibit A takes off to space from there, imagining Hay, Neutra and others as part of an outer space exploratory cell headed for planet Edendale, Silverlake’s original neighborhood name. The characters are represented by huge wooden puppets that interact with the live jumpsuited cast freely. Landscape flies and is reformed with little warning. The piece dabbles in surreal kitsch and history freely, producing something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but loses steam before its conclusion. The connections are made, but the larger point seems diffuse and uncertain here. Still it’s a collision of great, local materials that begs out for further development.

It was the kind of evening one hopes for at the festival overall – works that overdose on ambition as opposed to those that feel like they have nowhere to go. The REDCAT curators are off to a spectacular start on this front this year, so be sure to check out the next two weeks of programming downtown.

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NOW Voyagers

July 23, 2012

From Poor Dog Group's The Murder Ballad Photo: Poor Dog Group
Attention! There is life for live performance in Los Angeles outside of the Hollywood Bowl. So get out of the heat and get ready for three weeks of hot off the press experimental everything when REDCAT kicks off its ninth annual Now Original Works festival (NOW) this very week on July 26. The festival continues this year with nine, count ‘em, nine new works in development covering music, dance, opera, and theater focusing heavily on local artists. There’s a lot to see, and these shows are typically some of the highlights of the entire programming year at REDCAT. And best of all it’s dirt cheap with passes running for only $36 for all three weeks. That dear reader, is a great deal to see new work from some very exciting folks.

Jinku Kim's work from NOW Festival Week 2 Photo: Jinku Kim
Where to start? How about with crafty LA-based theater collective Poor Dog Group who kick off the whole festival on July 26 with The Murder Ballad, a physical interpretation of Jelly Roll Morton’s classic 1938 recording. The group has an increasingly important position in the local theater scene and this new work promises to open a new chapter in their own history. I’m also intrigued to see To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of Their Desperation, an operatic staging by Opera Povera of Pauline Oliveros’ 1970 score. The wordless piece will be presented in the first week’s shows as well.

From Prumsdun OK's Of Land and Sky Photo: Poor Dog Group
At the other end of the festival is another pick that will close week three starting August 9 when Obie-award winner Heather Woodbury will unveil her latest wild and wandering dramatic narrative As the Globe Warms. The topic, as you might guess, is the social complexities surrounding the climate crisis, but Woodbury’s track record suggests this will likely be more than a mere inconvenient truth. There is plenty of dance during the festival as well and week 2, which starts August 2, offers new pieces from Nick+James entitled Lake revisiting the duo’s own experiences dancing for many internationally known choreographers and companies. And even broader in scope, Prumsodun OK will present Of Land and Sky a multi-disciplinary performance recasting a mythological Buddhist tale as a parable of homosexual love complete with Cambodian pop songs.

Of course, this is just a sampling of some of the highlights, but there is much more to consider during the NOW festival, which will include three different programs each receiving three performances over the next three weeks. You can see the full details on the REDCAT site. But take my word for it, it’s one of the best performance deals in town. We may be in between seasons, but REDCAT continues to serve up the latest downtown, so do the right thing and go.


Kings of Desire

July 22, 2012

Mariusz Kwiecien and William Burden Photo by Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012
Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger is one of those operas that upon hearing it for the first time you are perplexed as to why you haven’t heard it many times before. Szymanowski was not unaware or unimpressed with the musical developments around him in the early 20th Century, but the conservative elements in his native Poland’s musical establishment placed pressure on him in opposition to more avant-garde forces. King Roger can sound lushly romantic, but it is decidedly modern, in its beautiful, rich, sonorous sound wall. The work has gained increasing popularity in recent years and its reputation continues to grow. There are challenges to its acceptance besides the Polish language element: the story is somewhat strange and obtuse, and it’s got some challenging choral work as well. In the libretto, a 12th Century Norman King of Sicily, King Roger, finds himself in the pull of a battle between Apollonian and Dionysian forces as a local Shepherd slowly erodes the sober faith of his people and queen with the promise of hedonistic love. The story is abstract and filled with ideological debate that would have made Jung proud. That Santa Fe Opera is presenting this challenging beauty this season in a production as well done as this one is a testament to the company’s breadth musically and theatrically. Despite some minor issues, this King Roger is an enchantment all on its own in the New Mexico summer desert.

Let me sing the praises of the musical team. Evan Rogister conducted the Santa Fe Opera orchestra through a very dense score with wonderful control and precision. The amount of time put into this sounds great especially when you consider Szymanowski’s beautiful choral work. The first 20 minutes of the show are stunning, and the chorus rose above all expectations with an exceptional performance. Of course, their starring cast didn’t let them down. Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has made a specialty of this role and championed the opera. Santa Fe rightly jumped at the chance to have one of the world’s biggest stars come out west, and it pays off big time. He’s magnetic and the entire struggle over Roger’s spirituality plays out exquisitely in his face and voice. He’s spectacular, and not just because he’s shirtless and gives the muscle bound extras of Act III a run for their money. Tenor William Burden sings the part of the Shepherd and sounds like a perfect fit in this most Dionysian of roles. He’s bright and youthful and enticing exactly when he should be. But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer of the night was the bright, warm soprano of Erin Morley who sings Roxana, Roger’s queen. She pierces through all of the male voices and big orchestration but never with a blunt disservice to the whole. She’s as seductive as anything in this opera about giving ones self over to the sensual world.

Perhaps the weakest part of the show is Stephen Wadsworth’s prosaic, bland staging. He does manage to give principles ample room to move and clear guidance for their interactions. But visually the show is flat, eschewing nearly everything about the unique beauty of the Santa Fe open stage in favor of a single barren throne room with a flat painted sectional backdrop that is about as inoffensive as the décor in a dental office. Perhaps most concerning is the clichéd contrast between the Edwardian costuming of Roger and his people in the opening act to denote a restraint or conservatism that gives way to something out of an old Herb Ritts music video. It may be modern-ish dress, but it isn’t modern-ish thinking. Luckily the staging stays out of the way when it comes to the performance overall and allows the musical forces to show off all their hard work. That part is a thriller and it makes King Roger a clear highlight of the current Santa Fe season. The show runs through August 14.


In River City

July 20, 2012

Robert Foxworth as Henry Drummond, Bob Pescovitz as Judge and Adrian Sparks as Matthew Harrison Brady Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
The summer theater season is in full swing in San Diego where the Old Globe has recently rolled out all of their outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theater productions for the summer. Adrian Noble has returned for the season as Artistic Director for the Globe's 2012 Shakespeare Festival and has stuck with the format of recent years with a comedy, As You Like It, a drama or history play, Richard III, and another classic play. This year the non-Shakespeare classic is Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s Inherit the Wind, directed by Noble in an attractive if somewhat golden-hued production. The play is a fantasy of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey” trial during which a Tennessee school teacher was put on trial for violating state law by teaching evolution to his students. The play is a bit more idea-oriented than narrative-oriented with its speeches from Matthew Harrison Brady, the play’s stand-in for William Jennings Bryan, and Henry Drummond, the ersatz version of
 Clarence Darrow. Of course, the fact that there are people in America who still want to have these inane 100-year-old arguments over evolution does make the show eerie, but its important to remember that the authors had other targets. The play is also a thinly veiled attack on McCarthyism in the 1950s and is as much about socially responsible critical thinking as it is about evolution. What Lawrence and Lee saw as a somewhat out of date debate about science was actually a vehicle for bigger fish.

This message still communicates with the audience, and in San Diego there were several who applauded and cheered Drummond’s passionate defense of the right and responsibility to think freely in this country. Noble doesn’t always quite manage to hit all the notes in the show, though. The leads, Robert Foxworth as Drummond and Adrian Sparks as Brady were both believable and relaxed, fleshing out their many passionate speeches with real personality. But there was something hazy and softly lit about the show with a physical sensation and busy movement among the cast that made the whole thing feel as much like The Music Man as anything else. The design and physical movement tended toward sunny, bright, and sweetly comic nostalgia bumping up against the more biting political commentary of the show. On balance, though, it’s a worthwhile revisiting of a show that does have contemporary overtones.

Jay Whittaker as Richard III Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
Far more successful was Lindsay Posner’s staging of Richard III with its graffiti covered concrete wall sections and angular modern costuming. These are not unusual visual cues for Richard III - a play most design teams find irresistible, placing it among the obvious aesthetic debris of 20th-century fascism. Posner’s team isn’t above that either, but the direction is sharp and quickly paced even in those moments when the level of angst is cranked up higher than it need be. The title role goes to Jay Whittaker who plays the villainous king often with a barely restrained glee that works well for him physically. He’s about the most handsome, physically robust looking Richard III that you’re likely to see and, while he may not look the part of a malformed despot, he makes it work legitimately in his own skin. The women in the cast are uniformly strong including Vivia Font as Lady Anne, Dana Green as Queen Elizabeth, and a particularly commanding Robin Moseley as Queen Margaret. The looming sense of dread and the inevitability of small minds is just as palpable here as in Inheret the Wind with the benefit, of course, of Shakespeare’s beautiful words. It’s a solid quality production that should rightfully highlight this year’s festival.

Miles Anderson and Sean Lyons in Divine Rivalry Photo by Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2012
And, while not a part of the festival itself, right across the plaza, the Old Globe is presenting one of their two big summer indoor shows – Michael Kramer and K.S. Moynihan’s Divine Rivalry. (The other, Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage will open later this month.) The historical event behind Divine Rivalry was the real life meeting between two giants of the Italian Renaissance, DaVinci and Michaelangelo who were brought in to each paint opposing frescos at Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio – neither of which was completed. The two artists were contemporaries of one another and did meet for just such an occasion, which, in the play, is presented as a contest sponsored by none other than another Florentine contemporary of the artists, Machiavelli. Interesting fodder to be sure, but Kramer and Moynihan don’t seem to have much to offer in terms of dramatic exploration or development of the material. The show is filled with ironic and unfunny in-jokes all delivered with a winking nod to the audience. The dialog is prosaic and patently dull in much of the performance. The show almost comes off a reportage with little to no poetry. There are some attractive uses of video projection, but its not enough to lend any substance to this particular rivalry. There's plenty of time and opportunity to see most of these shows, particularly on the outdoor stage, which is always one of the highlights of the San Diego summer.

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All We Like Sheep

July 17, 2012

Brigitte Geller, Dmitry Ivashchenko, Karolina Gumos Photo: Forster/Komische Opera Berlin 2012
The 20th-century revival of interest in Baroque operas has, more or less, resulted in two types of contemporary productions of works from the period. On the one hand there are those that attempt to present something of a reverent reconstruction of imagined 18th-century productions. This is exactly the kind of thing I saw a little over a week ago in Paris with Ivan Alexandre's production of Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, which got a detailed work up relying heavily on stage craft from the composer’s own era. On the other hand, whether it is set in an earlier period or a contemporary one, there are those stagings that give an ironic wink to the past commenting on the musical and dramatic tropes of Baroque operas themselves. This is often done for laughs—whether or not they make sense in terms of the libretto—in an effort to break up the rather lengthy running times many of these operas have. A good recent example would be Francisco Negrin's recent Rinaldo for Lyric Opera of Chicago. There are those that break the mould like Peter Sellars who has been known for giving Baroque operas contemporary updates fully realizing dramatic parallels between their stories and contemporary themes, a task he did quite well in Chicago the season before with Handel's Hercules. But leave it to Stefan Herheim to go his own way.

Herheim has become perhaps the best regarded of opera stage directors in recent years for a string of wildly imaginative, unexpected and insightful stagings including a 2008 Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival and Berg’s Lulu for Dresden in 2010 to name just two. He doesn’t just place the events of stories in more recent time periods, but actually investigates deeper meanings in the score for shows that can have unexpected contrasting elements that can puzzle more than shock in a particular context. His staging of Handel’s Xerxes for the Komische Oper Berlin, which I saw last week, was no less mysterious, albeit in a very funny way. It’s a production that seems to comment as much on the way contemporary audiences view Baroque operas as it is about the event of the opera itself.

The action takes place on a rotating 18th-century stage within the larger frame work of the Komische stage that reveals the wing and backstage areas. This opera-within-the-opera idea isn’t new, but Herheim’s off-kilter working of it is. Instead of giving the show an additional implied storyline with the cast playing both opera singers and the characters of Handel’s opera, the cast remain as the latter throughout. Even when leaving the stage to enter the wings, Xerxes, sung here by a lovely Stella Doufexis, is still Xerxes. He is not puzzled by his surroundings, but instead appears to be acutely aware of them as part of the world. The “onstage” performances tend toward the broadly comic and include more unexpected elements such as performers dressed as sheep who wander on stage, a chorus dressed as creatures from the deep blue sea, and some other clever visual gags that recur throughout the show. Yet, while the spirit is light-hearted, Herheim never appears to be taking shots at the convention of Baroque operas. Nor does he seem to be interested in reconstruction as tribute given the use of unexpected elements like neon lights.

So what’s going on here? My bet is that the show is a running commentary on producing Baroque operas themselves for contemporary audiences. The characters are all trapped in a world not of their own creation – aware of their existence as something besides what they are onstage, but not actors or other real-life figures either. This is reinforced in the end when the chorus enters for the final minutes of music dressed for the first time in contemporary street clothes. The seven characters in the cast seem honestly shocked and surprised to see them, a reaction that suggests for the first time in the long, strange goings-on in this show that they view something as foreign and out of place. For the first time they are removed from the audience as the chorus sings about the importance of joy and celebrating love.

It’s a surprising and rather moving moment in the opera and one that suggests the heart of performing  Baroque opera isn’t about lampooning it or recreating some modern ersatz version of it. Herheim, in his rather round-about way, is taking the work on its own terms, though granted not in a way that’s obvious or simply about relating it to contemporary themes and issues.

Musically the show was solid and on par with the quality one comes to expect at the Komische Oper. Konrad Junghänel conducted the contemporary instrument orchestra with fervor if not always the greatest detail. There were standouts in the cast including Julia Giebel as Atalanta and Katarina Bradic as Amastris who give some of the bet comical turns in the whole show. But if Regie theater is about directors and their ideas, then this was certainly it where the most intriguing and thought provoking work of the night rested squarely in the hands of Herheim.


Devil Inside

July 13, 2012

Richard Chamberlin stars in The Exorcist Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and the subsequent 1973 film adaptation by William Friedkin is perhaps best remembered for some of Friedkin’s most bracing side effects. The spinning head of Regan, in a career defining performance for better-or-worse by the young Linda Blair, moments of levitation, and spewing vomit still come to mind for an entire generation of movie audiences for which Friedkin’s version of The Exorcist was synonymous with horror. It seems an unlikely choice for a stage adaptation, but when Blatty entrusted the project to playwright John Pielmeier, he was most taken with the plans to treat the story differently than it was in that most famous of films. Peilmeier, working with stage director John Doyle, wanted to craft something more organic, intense, and visceral than what audiences might remember from the film. And they have managed to do so with The Exorcist, which is now receiving its world premiere at The Geffen Playhouse in L.A. But while the play may manage to get out from under the film's shadow, it simultaneously doesn’t necessarily offer the strongest argument for why this particular story matters in a contemporary context.

Pielmeier has updated the action of the story to more contemporary times and filled the show with modern references to ethnic wars in Africa and other recognizable headlines. He and John Doyle have also largely done away with much of those touchstone special effects. While Emily Yetter, the young actress playing Regan, gets a workout with acrobatic flailing throughout the show, the levitation and contortions of the possessed child are more implied than explicitly expressed. Doyle has also gone for his trademark concise staging contained in a small area surrounded by the entire cast around a central table. Those actors not participating in a scene often provide the dramatic vocal effects of the possessed Regan from the other side of the partitions that delineate the central area where scenes flow together, one into the other with only minimal demarcation. It’s like Doyle’s Sondheim shows without the musical instruments.

This stripped down look does provide the show with a narrative intensity that sometimes comes on too quickly. The concluding sacrifice of Fr. Damien Karras, a quite good David Wilson Barnes, seems almost a postscript to the action, it comes and goes so quickly. But at the same time, the leanness of the show provides for a shift of focus in thematic content. Pielmeier’s version provides more space for the spiritual and moral themes of the piece to take center stage. The show becomes less about the specter of the demonic child, and more about how we process and rationalize all the day to day horrors in this world. Some of the best dialog on these topics come from Richard Chamberlin who takes over the role of Fr. Merrin famously played on screen by Max von Sydow. Opposite him the show’s other big star, Brooke Shields, plays Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil. Shields has the toughest job in the show charged with giving a convincing portrayal of a woman who—we are to believe—comes to feel an exorcism will be the best course for addressing her daughter’s increasingly bizzare behavior despite her modern disdain for the thought of such a practice. She almost gets there, but it’s a fairly thankless stretch for a character to ask the audience to identify with her even as she launches into a campaign for the most fantastic and unbelievable aids for her daughter.

But despite some good things here, I still couldn’t help feeling that the show had completely shaken off the past. It’s one of these shows where one wonders about what the story has to tell us that is actually new or insightful. It’s familiar to the point of being taken for granted at times despite the shift in focus. But it is tightly constructed overall with well paced performances that might make those who miss those heady days of early 1970s horror films shiver a little bit.


The Battered Brides

July 09, 2012

Ina Kringelborn and Vincent Wolfsteiner Photo: Wolfgang Silveri/Komishe Oper Berlin 2011
With so much of the standard opera repertory consisting of works composed over a century ago, the omnipresence of the historical oppression of women is inescapable. However, this material is an important site of artistic interrogation in the world of opera, where inequalities still exist in at least in the number of women at the most senior levels of artistic management and direction. All of this was in high relief during the closing week of the opera season at Berlin’s Komische Oper where two men took on some of the more problematic stories about women in the opera canon during the festival week that closed Sunday. The Komische Oper’s departing intendant, Andreas Homoki offered a revival of his popular 2010 staging of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg the night after the final performance of this season’s new production of von Weber’s Der Freischutz from the mind of the poster boy of Regietheater, Calixto Bieito. Both stories involved contests where young women have been offered up as prizes by their fathers to contest winners. Both have a favorite potential victor in mind, but it’s the snags in getting that suitor into the winner’s circle that creates the drama. And yet the differences in approach in these two male directors couldn’t have more different implications in terms of sexual politics.

Homoki’s Meistersinger, which was conducted by the Komische Oper’s outgoing music director Patrick Lange is a study in understatement. There is so little to it, that at times it feels and looks like a very German high school musical. The stage is occupied solely by the cast in quaint picturesque costumes on an empty stage with eight or so free standing square edifices meant to suggest the buildings of Nuremberg. There’s a chapel and various sized boxes all with pointed roofs that tower over the cast. Each “building” has a front wall-sized door that opens for characters to enter and leave but otherwise little happens other than the movement of these buildings to reinforce the societal underpinnings of the piece – sometimes the city is closed like a wall to the outsider, at others, as in the Act II riot, it is a state of disarray and overturned edifices. Homoki’s vision otherwise is more or less what you’d imagine the Disney film version of Meistersinger would look like. Beckmesser all but twirls the edges of his curled mustache to communicate his villainy, and doting Eva flounces across the stage. Homoki deals with Hans Sachs’ odd, closing aria by simply ignoring it more of less, and that action continues unabated toward the pre-determined happy ending. There are a lot of tired ideas here as well, most painfully the whole explosion of color stratagem in the final minutes. After four hours of looking at nothing but white walls and gray costumes, the day-glo onset of the final scene in both costumes and color is not only tired, but too little too late. It was also one of the quickest Meistersingers I’ve heard with Lange giving no one much time to ponder over the beauty of the score. In the end Eva is won by her knight and everyone goes home happy.

From Act III of Neistersinger Photo: Monika Ritterhaus/Komische Oper Berlin 2011
Ignoring the problematic undertones of an opera is a position that a director like Calixto Bieito has no stomach for. That doesn’t mean his productions are always sublime, but they undoubtedly make audiences uncomfortable in asking hard questions. In his recent staging of Der Freischütz the young and beautiful Agathe hopes to be wed to Max after she is won in a shooting contest. Bieito makes no bones about the obvious ideological parallels between marriage and hunting with women being the prey in the former. He casts the role of an animal killed by the hunters in Act I as a naked woman dressed in a fur coat, who, like prey, is brutally killed and stripped of her outer covering before being hoisted away, bloody on a hunter’s shoulders. Brutal to watch to be sure, but Bieito never lets up with the metaphor driving his point home. When Kaspar calls on the devil to cast the magic bullets to ensure Max’s victory in the deal Max has cut to win his bride, it takes place amid a clearly satanic woodland rite with Kaspar murdering a pair of newlyweds and unceremoniously annointing each bullet from between the legs of the brides corpse. This drives Max mad in this version turning him into a naked, mud-covered wild man or animal himself who will haunt Agathe for the rest of the opera. Max was sung by the excellent Vincent Wolfsteiner who stayed on board with the total frontal nudity throughout the entire second Act. Bieito follows through on calling the sexism and violence taken for granted in Der Freischütz all the way to the end by changing the ending where Agathe dies anyway and both the Hermit and Max shot dead by the modern dressed paramilitary hunters despite their songs of forgiveness and reconciliation. Bieito’s characters live by the gun and die by it despite any sentimental notion of this work hanging around in the minds of a contemporary audience. It was undoubtedly brutal to watch, but yet there was something much more honest about this production in terms of the material. Lange was on the podium again and overall the show was much more strongly cast with Bettina Jensen as a ringing, forceful Agathe and Carsten Sabrowski as the voracious and evil Kaspar.

Of course, it’s unfair to draw this sort of comparison in some ways, and I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to call Bieito’s work a feminist production in any sense of the word. The important thing is to remember how limiting the two approaches suggested here are in and of themselves. There is a power to having a variety of different voices interpret even the most familiar repertory. And that variety is still lacking overall when it comes to women directing opera on the world stage.


Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows

July 08, 2012

from Dr. Dee at ENO
Damon Albarn is not the first British pop or rock star to venture into the world of musical theater, or opera if you must. He won’t be the last either, I wager, but he has shown some tenacity in the medium having provided music for at least two collaborations that have come to life at the Manchester International Festival and received subsequent stagings at English National Opera. The last of those Monkey Journey to the West was so successful, that Albarn teamed up with stage director Rufus Norris for a piece of his own inspiration, Dr. Dee, which just finished its run at ENO this week. While still a collaboration, Albarn had much more overall input into Dr. Dee. He is credited with the music and as “co-creator,” a title shared by Norris who is also the director.

You may have noticed the lack of a writing credit. I did as well, though I learned about it the hard way in actually seeing the show. On the good side, Albarn has an eye for interesting subject matter. Dr. Dee is about John Dee, a 17th-century mathematician and expert on the occult who was an advisor and political consultant at times to Queen Elizabeth I. The opera portrays a meteoric rise to power for Dee which is paired with the inevitable downfall. In the story, his troubles begin when he becomes increasingly involved in his real life project of deciphering the language of angels that was passed onto him through a medium, Edward Kelley. Kelley eventually tells Dee that an angels has demanded that Dee share his wife with him. In Dr. Dee, the court tires of his useless decoding work and he soon falls from favor. If all this sounds familiar, it should. The figure of the real life Dee is thought to have had some influence both on the figure of Marlowe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Prospero.

Neither Albarn nor Norris has quite those talents, though, and Dr. Dee falters both in its rather pedestrian musical score, and an overreliance on 20th-century clichés about faith and love. The music isn’t unpleasant, mind you. It’s a string of pop songs, many of which Albarn plays along on during the show tinged with Elizabethan musical instrumentation. There is very little padding between the songs making the show a bit less of an opera and a tad more of a musical theater piece. The songs are sung by Albarn as well as some members of the cast including Paul Hilton who sings John Dee and Christopher Robson who sings the role of Edward Kelley. I can’t say much more about the songs in that the acoustics of the show were plagued with the problems pop shows usually are. Amplification was used for all the sound, and in this setting, it meant voices were so distorted as to be indecipherable. For some inexplicable reason, the house which uses supertitles despite performing everything in English chose not to use them for Dr. Dee helping no one.

The strongest parts of the evening come from Norris’ sharply designed and directed staging. A large, stage length room resembling a meeting hall fills much of the stage when things begin. The room contains a band with period instruments as well as Albarn but before long the room elevates revealing a large space where Dee and his fellow Elizabethan’s will act out the depicted events. There is ample use of video to highlight Dee’s mathematical and supernatural work. The images sweep along in a pleasant way and there is clever use of large paper screens to escort players on and off stage in a manner reminiscent of Japanese theater. There are even live birds that fly from the theater balcony onto the stage at one point that created a lot of excitement.

But at the core, and despite it’s good looks, Dr. Dee is hollow. It attempts to dredge up drama from the rather banal conflict Dee feels about the idea of “sharing” his wife with Edward Kelley. And when its not doing this, the story feels more like filler than anything else. Of course, other British pop and rock acts have turned stranger and more esoteric music theater pieces into gold, so who's to say what Albarn might get to next or what Dr. Dee might look like over time. Now it just looks dull.

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Das Budd

July 04, 2012

Benedict Nelson as Billy Budd Photo: Henrietta Butler/ENO 2012
There are so many beautiful things about the operas of Benjamin Britten. Perhaps my favorite is the inherent ambiguity. The things that are assumed and acted upon by the characters in his stories without them ever being explicitly stated. I know more than a few opera fans who dislike his operas for this very reason – particularly when it comes to male homosexuality. The idea being that the undercurrents of unspoken male desire, or the stand-in conflicts that are sometimes meant to be thinly veiled storylines about the destructive effects of homophobia, strike some of these folks as timid and passé. And yet, I doubt that any of these folks would be much more pleased with the manner in which director David Alden has chosen to deal with these finer points of subtlety in the new production of Britten’s Billy Budd, which is wrapping up its run at English National Opera this week and which I saw on Tuesday.

Actually the performance, conducted by ENO’s musical director Edward Gardner, doesn’t so much deal with fragile emotional ambiguity as do away with it almost entirely. In fact it pretty much does away with the sea and the boat of Melville’s original entirely. Outside of the scenes in Captain Vere’s quarters, all of the action takes place in front of or on one of two giant steel hull walls. The Indomitable may be at sea, but if it is there, it’s as a mid-20th Century German U-Boat. The residents of this submarine are dressed for the occasion as well with all the stocky, bearded officers in enough black leather boots, caps, and floor length trench coats to take one back to L.A.’s Faultline on a Saturday night. But this isn’t just about décor, it’s about Alden’s need to amp up the show by treating Claggart and his henchmen in particular as more clearly the arm of some fascist military repressive force complete with billy clubs to beat back the ship’s crew. Claggart himself, sung by the vocally lovely Matthew Rose, never stops walking in this production, pacing slowly in broad, right angle sweeps often away from the action and other characters he is supposedly interacting with like some uninvolved sentry. Claggart’s aria, “Handsomely done…” is staged like some melodramatic Hollywood mad scene where he mangles a floor mat. It’s almost as strangely wrong minded as the decision to play the Novice, here sung by Nicky Spence, as a man driven mad under Claggart’s harassment. And if all of this doesn’t beat the obvious into you, you can always put Vere in all white and Claggart and all the rest of the officers in black. Subtlety, thy name is not David Alden.

In the moments I wasn’t trying to figure out what the huge glossy black barrels the crew were moving around were doing on this man of war, I did find time to admire some of the musical performance. Edward Gardner continues to provide exciting musical direction, and his leadership of the orchestra this evening was fully realized, digging in with the players for some thrilling scenes. The chorus, always a key element to a Britten opera, was fabulous as well. Alden’s production served one good end here by using the large curved reflective surfaces to reflect the sound out into the auditorium. I rather liked Benedict Nelson in the title role. He wasn’t as large voiced or warm perhaps as you might like, but he was convincing with a young spirited energy. Kim Begley sang Captain Vere and, though he sounded somewhat unsteady to me when he was most exposed in the intro and the conclusion, he fit in well with the cast and proved a plausible, flawed leader struggling with regrets. He, like all involved parties, used the rather minimal set to maximum effect, but they really did deserve a bit better here. It’s not so much the modern updating of the show or even the change of setting that is so much of a problem, it’s more the desire to stamp out the tender ambiguities and conflicts in Britten’s opera that sinks this Indomitable. Billy Budd continues through July 8 at ENO.

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War Horse

July 03, 2012

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Bryan Hymel Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
When the curtain rises on David McVicar’s new production of Berlioz’ masterpiece Les Troyens, promoted as a highlight of the Royal Opera House season in London, my immediate thought was, here we go again. The audience is immediately greeted with that sort of monstrous pile of darkly lit, post-apocalyptic rubble and walls mixed with somber costuming straight out of the Crimean War. (It’s always the Crimea isn’t it?) If you’re one of those people still wondering if McVicar is running out of ideas, his short-sighted muddled vision of Les Troyens should settle that once and for all. It’s not the updating of the action or even the now predictable visual look of the show that is so much the problem, it’s a lack of interpretation and often a plain understanding of some events in the libretto that can sink this very long performance over and over again despite some wonderfully coordinated musical performances.

Of course, going in to the run, the big story was Jonas Kaufmann. Originally booked to sing Enée, Kaufmann pulled out due to health issues weeks before the show was to open. His image is still festooned all over the house and town as his appearance was a major calling card for the company this Olympic summer, and ads show him in the corner of a boxing ring dressed in a tuxedo. Oddly enough, as much as I love to hear him sing, in the end, his presence on this team wasn’t missed as much as one might have thought it would be. The reason why is tenor Bryan Hymel, a rising American lyric tenor. He’s had bigger and bigger assignments lately, including the role of Gounod’s Faust at Santa Fe in 2011 and an appearance in the ROH’s recent run of Rusalka. Something big has clicked for him in the last year, and on this particular Sunday afternoon he sounded amazing, with easy top notes and big volume for the house. He’s not in an easy corner of the vocal repertory to pull it off all the time, but admittedly his bright, light voice in the end was preferable, I’d argue, to the kind of darkened baritonal sound Kaufmann is known for.

Anna Caterina Antonacci Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH 2012
Hymel did much more than keep up and hold a place in the show. Which is saying a great deal for the quality of performances given by the two other major principals in the show. Eva Maria Westbroek continues to startle world audiences and she did again with the her grounded, accessible take on Didon. She kept her stamina up in this long sing right through the concluding aria. Granted, the chemistry between her and the other principals in the cast could be iffy, but vocally it was a solid, admirable performance. Meanwhile the Cassandre, Anna Caterina Antonacci, demonstrated why she has such an ardent following for a singer who is careful about vocal assignments and how much she travels. The intensity she brought to the first two acts of the evening was up in the Waltraud Meier range. Cassandre’s rage and resolution was captivating and frankly her singing alone made the whole show worthwhile. She was well paired with the Chorèbe of Fabio Capitanucci, although again they weren’t always acting together as much as alongside each other. All these superstars got a performance from the ROH Orchestra and music director Antonio Pappano that was nothing short of spectacular. He dug in for rich, solid, warm sound throughout that rivaled anything I’ve personally heard him conduct in the house despite some indulgent tempi here and there.

That the cast was let down by the production is an understatement. There are so many distressing elements, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the surest sign of weakness were the numerous poorly choreographed and dramatically ignored ballet sequences. I’m not intending to lay blame on choreographer Andrew George, although he could let things get a bit silly at times. The issue is that McVicar treats them as dramatic time outs resulting in endless moments of goofy sailors, amorous slaves, and happy peasants jumping around the stage for minutes on end. Berlioz intended the dance sequences to move the story forward in the way that everything else musically in the opera does, and McVicar’s repeated sloughing them off is a disservice. There is a giant replica of Carthage used in Act III onwards that Didon walks about on and then in subsequent acts is lifted above the scene and finally destroyed. It’s tired and heavy handed symbolism that didn’t look so great when Francesca Zambello used it, if my memory serves, in her own vision of the opera many years ago. There is also that Technicolor happy, happy, joy, joy business in Act III which appears as a set from Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World After All” ride only this time the audience is not in motorized fake boats. As the opera wore on, the production’s inability to maintain a consistently dramatic tension became more and more of a problem. And when a giant mechanized figure, which I assume was Hannibal as referenced in Didon’s concluding passage, rises above the stage, you can already envision the stage hands struggling to get the flames out on cue with the darkened stage at the final note that you know is just around the corner. The audience shouldn’t be thinking about that, and the fact that McVicar hasn’t put something like that out of everyone’s mind after over four hours of music and a performance by hundreds of people is a sign of the underlying mediocrity of it all. But you’ll be able to judge for yourself in the near future at both Vienna and La Scala before arriving at some point eventually in San Francisco. Don't get me wrong, if I were here through the end of the run on July 11th, I'd be seeing it again. This is a big show and not an everyday occurrence with a remarkable cast. But one hopes by the time it arrives in San Francisco, the kitsch factor will be dialed down a wee bit.

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Hey Culligan Man!

July 02, 2012

Renée Fleming Photo: Opéra national de Paris / Ian Patrick 2012
The streets of Paris were crowded and alive with young revelers on Saturday. It was gay pride weekend and the carnival atmosphere filled the Place de la Bastille with men and women in colorful attire that could leave more or less to the imagination. As tempting as joining the party was, I soldiered through the crowd to the international airport terminal that is Opera de Paris’ Bastille opera house to watch Strauss’ Arabella hand that proverbial glass of water to her intended. That’s not kink, it’s simply a moment of bizarre understatement which those who love opera love almost as much as grand spectacle and dramatic excesses of all kinds.

Of course, this doesn’t just happen on its own. It takes hundreds of artists to make some of these most basic of opera moments work, and in Arabella that challenge is particularly great. The story is a wisp of a thing about a titled Viennese family on the brink of bankruptcy whose only hope to survive is to marry their oldest, Arabella, sung in Paris by superstar Renée Fleming, off to a wealthy suitor. Her father has taken steps to ensure this including soliciting potential grooms via the mail and dressing the family’s youngest daughter Zdenka, here a radiant Genia Kühmeier, as a boy to cut out the competition and reduce cost. Arabella meanwhile is the belle of just about every ball until almost against all expectations her father's plans come to fruition when she falls for Mandryka who has responded to his dead uncle's solicitation as a suitor. The drama arises from everything not working out quite as simply as it is supposed to, though this is an opera at times blissfully free of event.

But the Opera de Paris placed some very good bets on a team with a great track record with the more delicate and ephemeral of Strauss’ operas. In 2008, a nearly identical team fashioned a superb staging of Capriccio for the Vienna State Opera, which was one of the highlights of my recent opera going career. This Arabella wasn’t quite that good, but it was spectacular in its own way nevertheless. Ms. Fleming lives up to her star billing in her core repertory here. Granted she may not look like a woman celebrating what her character calls the last night of her childhood, but she certainly can sound like it, all bright, lush and beautiful. There is a warmth and inherent melancholic edge to her sound that fits so perfectly with Strauss that it is hard to pay too much attention to whatever legitimate criticisms one might raise on finer points of vocal technique. She is again placed among a stellar cast including one of the most outstanding of current German baritone’s Michael Volle as Mandryka. He portrays a rough-around-the-edges masculinity that imbues the whole opera with an internal logic that sustains it during even the thinnest moments. And while on the topic of vocalists, I must mention another artist whom I’m eager to see on American shores much more frequently , soprano Genia Kühmeier who stepped into this run with this performance as Zdenka. Her Act I duet with Fleming was so achingly beautiful you could wrap yourself up in it for days. Kühmeier's easy and bright ringing tone is a joy and she adds further depth to an already great cast. Kurt Rydl sang Arabella’s father Waldner a bit on the bombastic side and Joseph Kaiser, who was announced as ill before the performance but sang anyway, managed a respectable Matteo.

Also on board again as with the Vienna Capriccio was Paris’ music director Philippe Jordan who manages again to give Strauss a quick-on-his-feet sweep. He kept the pressure on the cast volume-wise, but never to the point of forcing anyone to go beyond where they were comfortable from the sounds of it. The design team also returned again under director Marco Arturo Marelli who employed a similar mobile, dream-like set to maximize a sense of time flowing by like a ball or a party. Set elements entered and exited the viewing area on a large circular rotating stage bisected by several panels that each rotated on their own axis to reveal either the paneling of a 19th-century parlor or a burnished silver wall. At one end, the parlor wall gives way to a painted view of a partly cloudy sky. But the color motif here is the steely blue of Arabella’s gown. It matches the curtain used to close Act I and outside of white and a few dashes of pink or purple, it dominates the stage. In one of the more stirring passages, its that same gown that is worn by numerous imagined Arabella stand-ins that haunt Mandryka’s understandably jealous mind in Act II as he sees her dancing and kissing any number of young, handsome bare-chested men as the couples wheel and dance across the stage in pairs.

The tone is perfect throughout without ever managing to take all these events too seriously and keeping things dreamy and romantic. The pair of duets between Mandryka and Arabella anchor the show beautifully and can—and do—bring tears. To be fair, despite its strengths, though, this Arabella is not a revolution in opera. But what it does represent, I think, is exactly the kind of production and success that a company like Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera has been searching around in the dark for. It is decidedly not an old-fashioned grade school diorama of a show. It looks modern, and pretty as well. But it is also not radically reinterpreting or sharply investigating the source material either. It's the kind of show that might trick you into thinking its something daring, when in fact, its just he latest update of something that's good, but decidedly familiar. However as New York audiences have found out in the last few years, wanting something like this and getting something like this are two very different things. In the meantime, Paris has a wonderfully sung Arabella that runs for three more performances in Paris through July 10.

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10 Questions for...
Brian Jagde

July 01, 2012

Brian Jagde Photo: Arielle Doneson
Tenor Brian Jagde is having quite a year. The young vocalist is in his third year as an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera and recently he’s racked up two high profile notices. He received one of the top prizes just last month at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. And his summer just got a lot more interesting when he was tapped to step in for an indisposed lead in Santa Fe Opera’s production of Tosca which opened on Friday. He’ll be singing Cavaradossi throughout the run there opposite a number of stars including Amanda Echalaz, Raymond Aceto, and Thomas Hampson. He’s an exciting young singer and one with a schedule that is already filling up with engagements around the world in a variety of Italian and French roles. Luckily, he’s also a very nice guy and took time before his big debut in Santa Fe to ponder the often imitated but never duplicated 10 Questions for Out West Arts.
  1. What role would you most like to perform, but haven’t yet?
    There are so many great roles in the repertoire. Singing Cavaradossi in Santa Fe is especially significant because it's the dream role I've had my sights on for a while. I guess I'd say the next role that I'd like to perform the most would be Riccardo from Un Ballo in Maschera.
  2. What role would you never perform, even if you could?
    I don't have an answer for that. If I am capable of performing a role, and it's appropriate for me and my voice type, I can't think of a reason I wouldn't perform it.
  3. You’ve already worked with some of the greats in the opera world in that last few years during your time as an Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera including Renée Fleming, Karita Mattila and conductors like Nicola Luisotti. Who haven’t you worked with yet, that you’d most like to?
    One of the best parts of being in this business is getting to meet many different artists and getting to collaborate with them on the stage. I enjoy working with all different types of artists. I think the people I'd most like to work would be a toss up between Maestro James Levine or Maestro Riccardo Muti. I think that each of their wealth of knowledge could serve me for an entire career.
  1. You recently won one of the top prizes at Placido Domingo’s Operalia competition in China. How important is such an achievement for your career right now?
    I've never considered myself a competition singer. I feel very lucky and honored to have been awarded prizes, and especially amongst so many talented singers. How could winning ever come at a bad time? Winning one of the top prizes in Operalia seems to be one of the first major achievements this year, towards what I hope is a great career! All of these things are important. Without a doubt, the competition has helped me a great deal to step into a category of singers I am honored to join.

    This career is like walking a tight rope - you just have to stay balanced on that fine line and enjoy the ride, and that is what I am doing this year. So far I've debuted at a few regional houses, been to Beijing and had an amazing experience working with the great Placido Domingo, which resulted in some unexpected prizes. Now I'm going on stage to sing my first Cavaradossi with Santa Fe Opera! Later this year I am going to Munich for the first time to reprise La Bohème in Concert form with Maestro Maazel at the Munich Philharmonic, and then singing Tosca with Patricia Racette at The San Francisco Opera! I am walking that tight rope and am so honored by all the opportunities that these represent.
  2. You’ve already booked engagements all around the world in the next few years. Any tips for dealing with jet lag?
    I am always excited to share my tips for dealing with jet lag. There are a few products I highly recommend for flying that allow me to feel no jet lag when I step off a plane, and I love to share them with other singers who can benefit.

    The first and most obvious is water. A lot of people think jet lag is due to lack of sleep, but mostly it is due to a lack of hydration. I go by the rule that If I'm on a 5 hour flight, I bring 4 liters of water on the plane with me, and I alter those numbers based on the length of any flight.

    Probably the most important find of my career is The Humidiflyer. The Humidiflyer looks like an oxygen mask you would wear in intensive care. What this product does, besides make you look funny, is filter the air from other peoples germs, and it saves the condensation from your breath, keeping the air moist. The makers originally made this for business people to help them with jet lag, but I think this should be in EVERY singer's bag. They say to wear it for at least half the flight. I usually put it on after take off and remove it just before landing.

    I put Peppermint Oil under my nose about 2 times during a 5 hour flight. This keeps my airway open, and supplements the moisture. To help with the sleeping, I always take 1 or 2 Advil PM, depending on what time I am starting my day at my destination. I've been able to sing almost immediately after stepping off the plane by sticking to this regimen.
  3. The role of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, figures prominently for you this year both in San Francisco and in Santa Fe where you’re stepping into this starring role on somewhat short notice. What’s the trick to getting this young lover exactly right?
    Cavaradossi has proven to be a bit harder than I thought. It didn't help that I haven't had a ton of time to be in his shoes before going up on stage, but there are a few things that I understand very well.

    Cavaradossi is an artist, a revolutionary in a time where Italy is in constant back and forth struggles with outside and inside powers. He is a strong individual, both physically, mentally, and emotionally. As a lover, he knows exactly what Tosca needs to hear so that she will be satisfied. He is understanding even after they have their little spats, and can always overcome her ability to agitate him because all the things he can't stand are the same things he loves about her. Isn't that something we can all relate to in long term relationships?

    He is a committed and faithful man, demonstrated by the fact that he moved to Rome for Tosca, a highly dangerous environment for a revolutionary of his kind. His honor and courage are demonstrated through his help to Angelotti, his fellow revolutionary comrade. He's very proud, a hard worker, extremely passionate, and he is a real stand up guy.

    I think there isn't any more of a trick to getting into the soul of this character than others in different operas, it's more a matter of trying to put yourself in their shoes, and trying to embody their nature. Cavaradossi proves hard when it comes to becoming an Italian man. I am an American, and I look like an American. How do I make the audience forget that, and have them see a man who is true blood Italian? I have been studying the way of the Italian people daily, and hope to make this evident in my acting on stage and become increasingly convincing as I go through my career.
Brian Jagde as Cavaradossi Photo: Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera 2012

  1. Your iPod is destroyed by a vengeful mezzo. Which lost tracks would you miss most?
    Darn those vengeful mezzos! I have to say that this would not throw me off my game, as I have all my music backed up in numerous sources so those Mezzos would never have a chance of making me lose a track. We have the cloud now!

    But, if for some reason every backed up version of my music went missing, I'd miss tons of tracks. I have all kinds of recordings of others, of myself, in different genres like pop, rock, classical, alternative, jazz, oldies, and opera, so to choose one track would be hard. When it comes to recordings I have of myself, I think someday I'd like to listen to my journey as a singer and how I've developed, so maybe I'd miss those the most, because I wouldn't be able to replace them.
  2. What's your current obsession?
    It has been and seemingly always will be watching TV - I am an addict! I think in a standard calendar year, I watch 40-45 seasons of shows in their entirety. I'm obsessed. My newest brand new show that I think will be the biggest hit of the year is The Newsroom on HBO. Brilliant writing, and acting.
  3. With which of your operatic roles do you have the most in common?
    I try to find things in common with all the roles I perform, because that way I can tap into parts of myself that aren't at the forefront. I connect most easily with passionate, honest, faithful, romantic, strong-willed, hard-working characters because that is who I am.

    Then there are the extreme character traits that I can build off of things about myself. For instance, I am not a killer, but in Carmen, I have to play a man who has killed and who eventually kills again. How can I do that if I've never done that? This is where my job becomes a lot of fun! I have to tap into parts of me that I either used to be, or never thought I was like in order to play Don José, so I go back in time to a Brian who was obsessive. When I get that obsession out there, I can see how Don José feels towards Carmen. Then I can research people who kill people, how they do it, the psychology behind how and why different types commit murder, and go from there.

    Knowing that Don José is a man who doesn't know how to resolve a problem without getting physical is key. Then we can explore the sexual frustration, and other psychological reasons, and see why stabbing her finally gets him a release he never got while with her. Now, I, Brian, don't and haven't had to deal with that, but I have to be able to play that person. This is why it's fun to be other people for a few hours a few nights a week. There are so many roles I have things in common with, but sometimes the most fun are the ones I don't!
  4. What’s next for Brian Jagde?
    I mentioned the future appearances this year, and I also am making my Berlin Deutsche Oper debut next year, which I am looking very much forward to. My plan is to stick to a core set of repertory that can sustain a career. I really want to sing Lyric repertoire as long as I can. I'd love to continue to sing roles like Rodolfo from La Boheme, Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly, Cavaradossi from Tosca, as well as Don José from Carmen, and the title role of Werther. I'd like to add other lyric roles like Alfredo from Traviata, De Grieux from Manon, Romeo from Romeo et Juliet, the title role of Faust, Edgardo from Lucia, and definitely Riccardo from Ballo. These are what I'd like to see, and I am seeing for the next few years for myself. Right now, all I know for sure is that I love learning new roles, and I'm excited to see where the future takes me!


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