Monday, June 29, 2015

A radiant pom-pom filled L'elisir d'amore at the Zurich Opera

In Zurich Opera's current revival of director Grischa Asagaroff's production of L'elisir d'amore, stars of the opera firmament aligned for a feast of superlative singing in an unashamedly period-proud and polished production with heaps of cheesiness melted in for good measure. It's only five years since the production first premiered in 2010 and it's unlikely dust will settle long on this opera buffa's crisp storytelling for a while.

Damrau, Breslik, Gallo, Cavalletti and Kristoffersen
It starts with a painted proscenium screen incorporating concept drawings, sheet music and composer Donizetti's portrait, suggesting that this is Donizetti's own conceived work for the stage, a work which has remained comfortably in the repertoire since it's first performance in 1832 at the Teatro della Canobbiana in Milan. From there, the sketches are realised with a timeless charm which continue right through to performance end.

Revival director Ulrich Senn's direction breathes exuberance into a bucolic 19th century Basque village with a radiant cast of peasants, soldiers and an exotically quirky quack called Dulcamara. Detail-rich down to the eye-brows and full of crafty comedic action, including a boar which scuttles across the stage, Senn never lets the raw stage distract from the make-believe. Aided by Jürgen Hoffmann's sun-drenched lighting and Tullio Pericoli's splendidly immersive sets and costumes grafted with the warm colours of a summer harvest for the peasants, cool blues for the bumbling contingent of soldiers and pom-poms dotted everywhere getting chuckles of their own, the entire tableaux, with Jürg Hämmerli's delightfully corny choreography, buzzes with life and laughs, backgrounding voices of striking expressivity.

Pavol Breslik and Diana Damrau
Bel canto star soprano Diana Damrau and tenor Pavol Breslik combined in a magical chemistry of seesawing games of love and attraction. From the moment she sits with the villagers to read aloud the story that comes to life of Tristan and Isolde, Damrau, as a devilishly capricious Adina, was ready to relish every moment. Dazzling with vocal depth and a whipping, often silky coloratura, Damrau created a unique and powerful unpredictability wrapped in comfortable confidence to give an all-exciting performance. In every posture imaginable, Damrau delivered, and on just one short innocuous command, the entire range of vocal possibility seemed on display - Damrau's Act II fleeting "M'ascolta, m'ascolta"/"Listen to me" was astounding.

In the battle for Adina's love, Breslik immediately endeared as Nemorino. The eyes could say it all but the body equally moved with uninhibited expression, making the gullible, illiterate and unconfident peasant young man as easy to read as a book. Hoping to find the solution to his woes through the story's telling of a potion with the power to attract, Breslik's Nemorino took Adina's book lovingly, amusingly unable to differentiate its right from wrong side up. With deep reserves to draw from, Breslik's voice was rich, muscular and superbly energised with a smooth legato and rolling coloratura, entwining humour and pathos with remarkable force. In Nemorino's final aria "Una furtiva lagrima"/"A furtive tear", Breslik lifted every note with scorching pathos to summon complete control.

Most auspiciously, Nemorino procured the 'potion' he needs for Adina to fall in love with him from Dulcamara, realised with flair by Lucio Gallo's smokey, resonant and clearly enunciated baritone that drives salesmanship to excellence. Nothing more than cheap wine, Dulcamara's 'potion' gave Nemorino alcoholic confidence as he acts out a cheeky mimicking display of genital adjustment and marching drills characteristic of his rival in love, Belcore.

Massimo Cavalletti and Diana Damrau
As Belcore, pom-pom decorated down to a cottontail, Massimo Cavalletti led his clumsy men with a voice emanating from the earth's core. Charred with charismatic weight and capable of squeezing out extraordinary delicate top notes, Cavalletti's self-confidence and physical bulk none the less lost out to the boyish innocence and persistence of the smaller-framed Breslik. It was in his coloratura that his vulnerability was exposed.

Hamida Kristoffersen added luscious texture and enthralling high notes as Adina's convincing friend Giannetta and Jan Pezzali mimed with unspeakable cuteness (sporting more pom-pom adornment) as he plied amongst the villagers as Dulcamara's companion with his mate, the precision playing, dutiful trumpeter, Urs Dengler.

The Zurich Opera Chorus rose ebulliently after plodding behind the pit and, excepting the many widely spaced tempi overextending the overture, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti gave a life-giving fibrillating heartbeat to Donizetti's score. The Philharmonia Zurich accompanied with a full, balanced and refined sound with stellar musicianship.

Blessed with great acoustic intimacy (and elegant surrounds to admire) the Zurich Opera House theatre treated its audience with a completely seamless night of craft, entertainment, uplifting joy and a surprisingly good amount of pom-poms.

Production photographs by Judith Schlosser

Friday, June 12, 2015

Il ritorno d'Ulisse slowly rises at Boston Early Music Festival

 Colin Blazer as Ulisse
In Newton's third law of motion, for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. In proverbial speak, "too many cooks spoil the broth" but oppositely, "Many hands make light work". So, for every wisdom might there be found an equally opposite wisdom? The audience of a Monteverdi opera will discover so - and within them, moral compasses which constantly shift according to what is known at hand, what one is faced with and what duties are expected of oneself.

In Boston Early Music Festival's new production of Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria - part of a trilogy of Monteverdi operas presented with L'incoronazione di Poppea and L'Orfeo created by the same artistic team - the story of Ulisse's long journey home from the Trojan Wars, aided by the gods, his son Telemaco and a friend Eumete to his unerringly faithful queen, Penelope, was told with sumptuous, Monteverdian period theatrical devices and, as it progressed, engaging results.

The Prologue got underway with a prolonged affair of the gods spruiking their opposing wisdoms in the clouds, but the music failed to ignite interest in their words. Then, as Act I commenced with Penelope's subsequent dolorous, wailing and lengthy opening aria, the act dragged further into snores - Penelope might have had suitors of kings longing for her love and competing for her empire but she didn't win friends easily despite mezzo-soprano Mary-Ellen Nesi's dark vocal suitability.

Minor issues with timing and projection from a few members of the cast weren't assisting. Thankfully, it was the goddess of Wisdom, Minerva, divinely assisted by Mireille Asselin's melodious, golden-edged soprano and buttery low range, who brought relief just before the curtain went down on Act I and a much needed interval.

Mary-Ellen Nesi as Penelope and Laura Pudwell as Ericlea
It seemed that the tasty Monteverdian recipe director and set designer Gilbert Blin brought to the table with L'incoronazione di Poppea seemed to fall flat. I wanted to blame Monteverdi and his team for the night's misfortune but Blin's concept appeared to be having its own 'opposite' reaction. In such sermonising combat that humour found a great home in, Blin's Poppea responded befitting a Venetian Carnivale's entertainments. But Ulisse, premiering a few years earlier than Poppea in the 1639-40 Venice Carnivale season, was struggling to find the same footing.

On the contrary, the same colonnaded trompe l'œil-like set received enhanced scene changes which included the quaint rolling wave action each time Nettuno surfaced. Anna Watkins' soft-hued, elegant Roman costumes and Lenore Doxsee's skilful lighting were even more eye-catching than that achieved in Poppea.

Act II to Act V - with an interval after Act III - passed pleasingly with a momentum that bobbed and rose to unexpected poignancy. In Act III, the festivities planned by the suitors to lift Penelope's spirits struck emotional nerve with sensuous staging to the chorus of "Dame in amor belle e gentil", speaking to Penelope of pleasures to enjoy which cannot be achieved in decrepit old age. Monteverdi's rich musical progression and Giacomo Badoaro's libretto aided the flow but despite more cohesive warmth and power in the singing, the balance between the lighthearted and serious continued to sit with a degree of discomfort.

Zachary Wilder as Telemaco
Tripling with remarkable effect as the god of Human Frailty, as the Greek King of Ithaca, Ulisse, and disguised as an old beggar, Colin Balzer anchored the performance with a well-hewn presence of hulking strength combined with a broad resonant tenor holding tireless sturdiness and dexterity. In a pairing with Mary-Ellen Nesi's stubborn, skeptical, yet calmly postured Penelope, an aching sense of time apart and their unbreakable bond of constant love was felt with real impact. In her ecstatic moment of recognising Ulisse, accompanied by a striking shift between high head and low chest voice, it was gratifying to see Nesi's Penelope finally blessed with a smile and to share their joyful reunion as they sang of the arrival of pleasures and delights to come in "Del piacer, del goder venuto è 'l di".

Tenor Zachary Wilder as Ulisse's son Telemaco brought youthful bravery to his character, matching it with accomplished vocal technique and a thrilling vibrato. Even more impressively, Wilder's lively dynamic tone captured an underlying sense of adventure and sincerity in his character. In duet with Balzer, filial love was most palpably felt in Act III's "Mortal tutto confida e tutto spera".

Danielle Reutter-Harrah as Melanto and Aaron Sheehan as Eurimaco shared a wonderfully relaxed chemistry in finely crafted duet and other notably satisfying performances came from Patrick Kilbride as Iro, a hanger-on of the suitors, Matthew Brook as Nettuno and Christian Immler as Anfinomo, a suitor to Penelope. That many of the cast are alternating in several roles and performing in all three operas in the trilogy is to be praised.

When the beauty and variety of Monteverdi's music escaped during open orchestral passages, the gorgeous playing from the BEMF Chamber Ensemble under musical directors Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs came to the fore. Concertmaster Robert Mealy's refined violin work especially stood out with brightness.

For me, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria has some structural problems which mar the dramatic rise in the first part of the opera but salvation does come eventually, though I would've liked to see Blin's better, more enlightened hand which was bestowed upon Poppea.

Production photos by Kathy Wittman

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Poppea's old recipe perfectly baked at Boston Early Music Festival

David Hansen as Nerone and Amanda Forsythe as Poppea
It's impossible not to be moved by the strongly bonded text and vocal line inherent in Monteverdi's final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea. On opening night, in Boston Early Music Festival's current production, it was conveyed with such vocal and dramatic nuance, and crowned with accomplished singing that heaves and sighs, grunts, tickles and blasts with the music, that proof of Monteverdi's magnificence - the master craftsman of the work amongst others - lives on.

In a production first performed at the 2009 festival and revived here as part of a trilogy of Monteverdi operas with Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'Orfeo, director and set designer Gilbert Blin has stitched drama and style together with an interpretation that plonks the staging in the midst of its Monteverdian days.

Poppea premiered during the Venice Carnivale season in 1643 so it seems appropriate a theatrical party was prepared. There's a cornucopia of overripe philosophising, libidinous release and entertaining antics within the work which Blin has milked marvellously like no other Poppea I'm aware of.

David Hansen as Nerone
Lofty ideas are masked in parody and vice-versa in philosophical, political and moralistic battles between all classes of society and the gods themselves. The goddesses Fortuna and Virtù argue who has more power but Amore, the god of Love, intervenes to declare that he has the greatest power both in heaven and on earth.

As the white-clothed gods stepped down from their pedestals and wove through the story 'invisibly', as a metaphor for man's conscience, earthly events involving Poppea and Nerone's adulterous affair and her eventual coronation as Roman empress unfolded.

The opening night cast of soloists demonstrated mastery of intent in every corner of singing excellence. As a frisky, pesky-tempered and seemingly mentally unstable Nerone, countertenor David Hansen set a blazing standard with lyrical charm and volcanic strength in a vocal display of emotive breadth, range and musical wizardry, exerting power and ruthlessness far greater in voice than amusingly shown by his Nerone's at times feminine side, while gesticulating dismissively with no concern for his senate or the people.

Soprano Amanda Forsythe was radiant, peachy and scheming as Poppea. Not missing her turn in sexual dominance over Nerone, and dreaming of marriage to Nerone without preoccupations of becoming empress, Forsythe's pure tone and mellifluously flowing line would even suggest a harmony between her undeterred love and Love as the greater power.

Shannon Mercer as Ottavia
As Nerone's wife Ottavia, Shannon Mercer captured her irreconcilable and revengeful character with bounding power and vocal richness. Nathan Medley shined in the role of Ottone with a warm, angelic countertenor that wasn't quite to Poppea's taste as he tried to secure her love, but it perfectly dazzled Drusilla, coyly and brightly sung by Teresa Wakim.

As the philosopher Seneca, Christian Immler stood tall amongst both mortals and gods with a commanding and flexing, crusty baritone. Serving their masters Ottavia and Poppea, Jose Lemos as Nutrice and Laura Pudwell as Arnalta dished out hearty, characterful vocals and counterbalanced the upper class with their own uninvited counsel and comical craft.

The cast was filled out with fine performances from gods and goddesses doubling as mortals with Erica Schuller as La Fortuna and Damigella, Danielle Reutter-Harrah as La Virtù and Pallade and Nell Snaidas as Amore and Valletto.

Looking every bit the Roman soldier as Littore, Marco Bussi and his men, Zachary Wilder as Lucano and Aaron Sheehan as Liberto sang with fervour and practised vocal comradeship in the service of Nerone while freely expressing disagreement with his rule. John Taylor Ward spun Mercurio with notable surety.

D. Hansen, A. Forsythe & Nell Snaidas
During the performance I wondered whether the whimsical, melodramatic acting would tire and falter but over the three acts the results stood up as stiff as the painted scenic drops which framed the stage - testament to Blin's grasp in direction and a dedicated cast. Only a little love was lost on Nerone and Poppea's sometimes more mechanical than melting pairing.

Scenically, a colonnaded neo-classical Roman hall in fast diminishing perspective and painted trompe l'œil effect gave the performers a vibrancy as if they had dropped off the entablature above. Anna Watkins' richly brocaded and draped costumes of Roman skirts, tunics and gowns in sage, gold and mulberry revealed powder-soft beauty under Lenore Doxsee's glowing lighting.

And huddled together like friends around a campfire, musical directors Paul O'Dette & Stephen Stubbs, Robert Mealy as concertmaster and the BEMF Chamber Ensemble supplied lasting warmth and glow in a musical pact of strength, courtesy of the luxurious sound of period instruments.

Conceptually, this Poppea might have passed looking outdated, irrelevant and dry. In fact, it had the taste of an old favourite recipe freshly baked to perfection.

Production photos by Frank Siteman

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A noble and thrilling Richard the Lionheart at Opera Theater of St Louis

In Opera Theatre of St Louis' new production of George Frideric Handel's Richard the Lionheart, there is such gracious depth, subtle humour and connectivity with its audience that it's hard to imagine why the opera - or as Handel composed it, Riccardo Primo - is only now receiving its American premiere.

First performed in 1727 at the King's Theatre London, the story certainly isn't a convoluted carry-on with a cast of characters difficult to find meat on like some Baroque works.  Paolo Antonio Rolli's original Italian libretto has been catapulted into clarity with an exciting new English edition by director Lee Blakeley and Damian Thantrey, then lifted into a staging under Blakeley's direction that blends visual evocativeness with absorbingly detailed character portrayal. 

Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart
Though title and privilege rest in the underlay, the story is told in a remarkable arms-reach warmth and relevance. It also didn't go unnoticed that the gently raked amphitheatre-styled Webster University Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, in its ordinary but functional modernity, showcases the work with borderless transparency and immediacy. Of course, its the work of the creatives and artists that ultimately dictate the work's success but it cannot be ignored how architecture of space can elevate the experience. Keeping this work alive means keeping the proscenium away for the ultimate result. 

Shipwrecked after a storm off the coast of Cyprus, a sight-unseen bride and groom's proposed royal marriage is left marooned. Subsequent events plunge into dangerously dark territory and a bloody battle ensues. However, unflinching courage steers the couple to an eventual union in a joyous celebration of determination, virtue and love.

The royal groom is Richard the Lionheart, having embarked on his Third Crusade in 1191, resolutely performed by Tim Mead, whose vigorous, often bright countertenor never seemed at odds with masculine bravery and spirit as he espousesd English attributes with a little irony under his belt.

Susannah Biller as Costanza and Devon Guthrie as Pulcheria
Mead paired seamlessly with Susannah Biller as his young bride Costanza, a Spanish princess. Biller's bright soprano exhibited both fullness and delicacy, crowned by sweet, zinging top notes which reached their most delightful in Costanza's final aria as she played a charade of bird-catching to the faultlessly fluttering sopranino recorder of Laura Osterlund.

Isacio, King of Cyprus and Costanza's captor after her shipwreck, was given pirate brutishness by bass-baritone Brandon Cedel. Master of mansplaining and lecherous to boot, no sympathy for this king was ever going to be garnered. Cedel's performance was strident enough throughout to mask a little overworked vocal boisterousness and bumpy phrasing over what was otherwise a confident, resonant sound on opening night.

Susannah Biller as Costanza and Brandon Cedel as Isacio

Isacio's daughter Pulcheria, trapped by her father's irrational lust for women and power, and initially threatened by Costanza's beauty, was robustly enacted by soprano Devon Guthrie. Voluptuously rich in tone and exhibiting a secure, confident coloratura, Guthrie showed Pulcheria's enlightened depth of character with complete conviction.

Countertenor Tai Oney as Pulcheria's fiancé Oronte, swung from vulnerability to strength while caught in her pot of jealousy as he cast harmless eyes on Costanza, yet ready to commit treason to prove his love for her. Warm and mellow-toned, Oney's easy, languorous delivery was as captivating as my first encounter with him as Adolfo in Brisbane Baroque's recent Faramondo. Orontes' Act III sword dance, entertaining as it is however, did nothing to add to his combative prowess despite Oney's skilful hand.

In the smaller singing role of Costanza's servant Berardo -  nonetheless given loads of stage time and drive to the plot - Adam Lau opened the night with impressive bass might and formidable stage presence. Berardo too wasn't left out of the chemistry of attraction for Costanza and Lau adorably complied.

Handel's synonymously eloquent and untiring music abounds in the score. Over the opera's three acts there was never a sterile moment as recitative and aria alternate and each of the first two acts end with good reason to return for more. Conductor Grant Llewellyn drove opening night with a slick, buoyantly noble rendering, never overpowering his vocalists. Llewellyn elicited fine-edged playing from his 30-plus musicians for the opera's three-hour duration with only the violins at times not meeting my expectations of padded warmth of tone.

Tai Oney as Oronte and Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart

In Act II's finale, a love duet punctuates the score with devastating beauty as Richard and Costanza transformed their first meeting from polite introductions to tender caresses. The scene was infused with all the very best of Blakeley's direction and the cleverly placed late 18th century setting enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's subtly shifting lighting design.

The shipwreck features strongly throughout Jean-Marcu Puissant's inspired set design - a broken up vessel used in various ways to bring a strong sense of place in compelling yet simple ways, a comfortable metaphor for the tumultuous nature of events. The Cross of St George unfurls with potent effect and Puissant's period costumes of muted tones - both bedraggled and refined - soundly fit the set, knitting together a series of stormy, undulating visual tableaux as watertight as could be.

Handel's Richard the Lionheart's modern day discovery on the stage revealed a thrilling work in much the same way as the discovery of a lost shipwreck reveals its mysteries. Opera Theatre of St Louis need not pack this production away for too long as its goods could be shipped to any number of exotic destinations.

Production photos by Ken Howard