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31 March, 2007

New York La Traviata - Zeffirelli at his best with great singing as well

La Traviata – the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Sat 31st March 2007 8pm

ViolettaKrassimira Stoyanova
AlfredoJonas Kaufmann
GermontDwayne Croft
Cond.Marco Armiliato
Production & set designs:Franco Zeffirelli

Dear Colleagues,

This was a superb Traviata performance in an inspired production with world class principals, orchestra and chorus.

Both soprano Stoyanova and tenor Kaufmann started out somewhat weakly but each quickly rose to the substantial occasion.

I was surprised to note that the free Met program now gives over 4 pages to advertising an addictive sleep medication including a free 7 day trial offer. And this is in the country which, like Saudi Arabia, banned alcohol! Some strange harmony of contrasts!

Back to our night’s opera which has spectacularly beautiful sets designed by Franco Zeffirelli who also did the production. He must have been given an unlimited budget, just as the composer was for his later operas. I recall once seeing this production when the overture saw Violetta in her upstairs bedroom preparing for the Act I party scene. As she descended the curved staircase to the parlor, the entire set rose to show the party scene in full swing. The stage is a sumptuous set of three rooms across with a dance floor also visible through glass doors up-stage. We have chairs, cushions, couches, mantelpiece, trays, glasses and all the other attributes of a good party. In this production we only saw use of the Met stage elevator for the last act which commenced in the upstairs boudoir and moved to the eviscerated parlor for the return of the Germonts. It was impressive mechanically and visually but hardly credible in one too weak to get dressed that she could descend a spiral staircase and cross two rooms unaided (but this is the theater!).

Mention should be made of the other two substantial sets. The second act ‘country’ scene takes place in a huge glass conservatory or ‘orangerie’ looking out onto a lake surrounded by mountains. It looked more like Milford Sound than the Loire valley. A charming setting for the wrenching music of act II.

Mr Zeffirelli pulls out all the stops for the casino scene, a tiered festive chamber with curved steps convex and concave surmounted by deep red translucent curtains adorned with jewels. Props include papier-mâché heads on sticks from the theatre of the absurd, mock matadors, mock bulls and mock gypsies (and real castañets). And all making a wonderful foil for the tense scene between the parted lovers.

Bulgarian Ms Stoyanova has a voice which is large and accurate. If ‘white’ in quality, she shades it delicately from finest pianissimo to a broad bellow. She has a serviceable trill and staccato facility. She left out the (unwritten) E flat in ‘Sempre libera’ yet seemed secure on all her other high tessitura. Munich born Mr Kaufmann has a splendid and rare tenor voice, worthy of the part and of the theatre. Once again, capable of taking a loud note back to the softest audible and returning to full voice, all without appearing to show off beyond the requirements of the score. Their ‘Parigi O cara’ duet was taken particularly slowly by Maestro Amiliato to excellent effect. Kaufman looked somewhat awkward in Act I, perhaps just ‘in character’. Unlike most off-Broadway tenors, he is young, tall, slim and handsome.

Baritone Dwayne Croft acts well and he possesses a sublime, warm voice. However, he fell just short on his highest notes which seemed a little uncomfortable. I don’t know why the Met always leaves out Germont senior’s animated cabaletta after his ‘Di Provenza il mar il suol’. This leaves us with a precipitous and unnatural termination of the action as the spotlight suddenly moves to the Paris casino invitation from Flora while the curtain is falling.

An excellent performance, being the final after a long Met season – and three different Violettas.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

29 March, 2007

GREAT Pirates! Shame about Flavio and Donna del Lago, also at NYCO

New York City Opera

Final season performance Thursday 29th March 2007

SamuelScott Guinn
Pirate KingMarc Kudisch
FrederickMatt Morgan
RuthMyrna Paris
MabelSarah Jane McMahon
Major GeneralMark Jacoby
SergeantKevin Burdette
Cond.Gerald Steichen
DirectorLillian Groag

Dear Colleagues,

The last performance of this G&S was most enjoyable with a polished and hilarious routine with purpose and vigour. Americans take their G&S very seriously. There were many in pirate shirts, pirate hats, scarves and eye patches. There was even a private reception for fans in the foyer - which I accidentally ‘crashed’. And they had a piano.

It must have been a challenge, especially following the successful modern Broadway version, to do something ‘different’ to this Victorian chestnut. The NYCO decided to go back to the original era – and avoid most modern stage effects in favour of cardboard cut-out illusions, flags, ribbons, ropes, backdrops and simple props, all of which might have dated from the 19th century theatre. According to the program, Maestri Gilbert and Sullivan had travelled to New York to mount a revival of Pinafore in late 1879 while also working on the score for Pirates which was still under wraps for a premiere on Broadway on New Year’s eve.

The overture started with four young ladies watching a stage within a stage of clever imagery displaying nautical themes, Victorian personalities, etc. They were joined by a lone pirate who slid down a rope from the flies. Their responses and the stage antics were hilarious, bringing out the staff to have him ejected for unruly behaviour. We were treated to a sinking galleon, SS Titanic, Wagner, Verdi and even Queen Victoria herself who later poured tea for the maidens in Act II.

The orchestra played superbly with some deviations from the original score on three occasions: Ms McMahon’s coloratura “Poor wandering one” used the cadenza from Lucia’s mad scene, flute included. The Aida trumpet obligato sounded briefly after some Egyptian stage items from that opera were carried across the stage at the start of Act II when Major General Stanley had retired to his draughty dressing room. Next arrived our male chorus on board ship to the strains of Flying Dutchman. These all caused great mirth amongst the regular opera goers but must have flummoxed the rest. The choreography was animated and complex, including three cartwheels done by Mabel in place of a walk off exit!

The Cornish beach front was transferred to Brighton, complete with pier and portable bathing change rooms. The “Modern Major General” song was encored with double time for verse 3 which is normally done lento.

The singing was from good to excellent with a large chorus of both sexes filling the hall which is more than could be said for any of the principal singers, even with microphones. The amplification was still subtle but insufficient for that chasm of a theatre. Somebody dropped their body microphone at one point causing an embarrassing clunking/scraping which took a minute to remedy.

All in all a highly enjoyable evening at the theatre despite these small setbacks.

I wish I could say the same of Flavio and Donna del Lago, both of which I found uneven and boring. It is hard to believe that the same composer wrote Julius Caesar with so much when Flavio has so little. I don’t enjoy counter-tenors in major roles. They are unnatural, strained and nearly always of much less volume than ‘normal’ voices, male and female. From the many descriptions and one recording, they certainly bear little relation to what castrati must have sounded like. It remains to be seen what happens to their vocal mechanism after decades of singing in this manner. My guess is that such singing is not consistent with a long vocal life for most. David Daniels’ smooth and beautiful singing is an exception but even he sounds small and boyish next to Ruth Anne Swenson in full flight.

Despite its lovely score, only one singer did justice to Donna del Lago. Laura Vlasak Nolen as Malcolm was capable of projecting the Rossini bel canto into this vocally unfriendly ‘barn’. In act I she sings ‘Mura Felici’; ‘Elena! Oh Tu, Che Chiamo!’ ‘Oh Quante Lagrime’ as a magnificent scena equal to any in opera. The production started with a snow storm and went downhill from there. The stage was not even swept during the intermission (and the ‘snow’ did not melt). Chairs were moved senselessly and the inside/outside scenes were blurred, rather odd for winter in Scotland. Three out of ten. And not a patch on the Blue Hill Troupe’s production of Yeoman of the Guard which I would have given six!

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

21 March, 2007

Unique Rusalka at the Sydney Opera House

Rusalka – Wed 21st March 2007, Sydney Opera House.

Wood-sprites – Taryn Fiebig, Domenica Matthews, Sarah Crane
Water Gnome – Bruce Martin
Rusalka (water nymph) – Cheryl Barker
Jezibaba (witch) – Anne-Marie Owens
Prince – Rosario La Spina
Kitchen boy – Sian Pendry
Gamekeeper – Barry Ryan
Foreign Princess – Elizabeth Whitehouse

cond. Richard Hickox
prod. Opera North – Olivier Fuchs
design. Niki Turner

Dear Colleagues,

A packed house was treated to a glorious, long night of beautiful, intelligent and stimulating opera. The season has had its problems with autumn viruses … and to top it off, Ms Whitehouse broke her arm and missed a performance – she was in a sling this time, largely undetectable under her magnificent spreading bright red taffeta gown

Nearly everything in the production came from the text. On literally dozens of occasions there was direct connect between what was happening on stage and the words of the libretto. “Rising mists”; “Goblin’s tangled hair”; “Bubbles rising in the water”; “feet learn to walk”. Incredibly, even when the mute Rusalka mimed, her actions and reactions seemed to come directly from Dvorak’s lush score.

The only disconnect was that the entire production was set within a huge ice block – and there is mention in the score of cool, even ‘icy’ ponds and forests inhabited by the sprites, goblins and nymphs. In fact we were presented with a series of out-sized utilitarian ice cubes, strategically positioned or suspended in relation to the all important small seal hole in the pack ice. Notably, Rusalka performed most of Act I while writhing, mermaid like, atop her 2 metre cube. Her ‘song to the moon’, with its instantly recognizable intervals, was a feast for the ears. At the same time, Miss Barker looked like a latter-day Marilyn Monroe (still without legs or feet at this point). Dvorak left no room for applause as the orchestral line is through written. This also suited the evening’s recording by a private record company. I wondered if there is really still a place for commercial recordings of this nature when the market is flooded with cheap videos and DVD’s showing the ‘whole picture’, some of which seem to be released within days of the event (such as the Olympic Opening Ceremony). It is a shame our operas are no longer televised.

Bruce Martin sat suspended above the ice-hole while the three water nymphs start the action with their rhythmic trio. Their Norn-like commentaries were clever while their movements were engaging and sexy.

I recall the gasping disappointment at the Met when the subtitles first revealed that Renee Fleming would be mute for the remainder of the opera. This left two love duets (on either side of the first intermission) which only contain one voice: the tenor … and each was brilliantly performed by Rosario La Spina who goes on from strength to strength. This time singing in Czech, he looked and sounded a fine eastern Prince. His tessitura, phrasing and high register were all impeccable. This was a rare treat and far superior to Oleg Kulko who sang this part at the Metropolitan in 2004.

Ms Whitehouse used her substantial voice and dramatic presence to divert the Prince’s attentions from poor mute Rusalka whose voice returned at the end of Act 2 when commiserating with her ‘father’, bass Bruce Martin. This part was played by Willard White in New York in two most memorable performances mid-season a couple of years ago (cum Fleming, Urbanova, Zajick).

The transformation scene was performed in hilarious style as our high-heeled sorceress became a part-time session surgeon, complete with rubber gloves, stainless bowl, scalpel and anaesthetic machinery.

Rather than a palace, we were brought into regal company with two intersecting red carpets and a parade of courtiers making no doubt about the setting, imposed on the existing frosty set . Rather than the woods, a few props and a plucked duck clearly indicated where we were. The designer and director deserve full credit for making an almost unbelievable concept “work”.

With excellent contributions from orchestra and chorus this was a special night at the opera indeed. I heard opening night as well – with so few performances, most will have to wait for a return season. Only two performances remain, Monday and Wednesday, this week marking the end of the ‘summer’ season.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..