Sunday, July 23, 2017

Artaserse with 5 Countertenors

Artabano, Mandane, Arbace, Artaserse, Semira.  I think.

Conductor–Diego Fasolis
Director--Silviu Purcărete

Artaserse Prince and then King of Persia; friend of Arbace, in love with Semira--Philippe Jeroussky
Mandane Sister of Artaserse; in love with Arbace (en travesti) -- Max Emanuel Cencic
Artabano Prefect of the Royal Guard; father of Arbace and Semira-- Juan Sancho
Arbace Brother of Semira; Friend of Artaserse; in love with Mandane-- Franco Fagioli
Semira Sister of Arbace; in love with Artaserse (en travesti)--Valer Barna Sabadus
Megabise General of the Persian Army, confidant of Artabano; in love with Semira --Yuriy Mynenko

This is a film of the opera Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio which was first performed in Rome in 1730.  It was the last opera for Vinci who died that year, and the first for Metastasio.  Vinci is one of the great Baroque Italian composers whose operas are only now being revived.  Women were not allowed on the stage in Rome, so all the characters were originally sung by castrati except Artabano who is a tenor and the villain.  This performance exists to remind us that opera is an Italian art form.

All the castrati are here countertenors and some of the most famous countertenors of our time.  These guys are amazing.  The opening pair are Cencic and Fagioli, both incredible, and the music is gorgeous.  The range of colors in our 5 countertenors is pretty fascinating.  It remains to be seen if the fascination will wear off before the opera ends.  So far 6 Rossini tenors pales in comparison.  They have been assembled in Nancy in the west of France.

At the start there is some breaking of the fourth wall in case you missed that these are all guys.  Some start out in their modern clothing, for instance.  Stagehands appear, and all of them are girls.  Hmmm. These are theatrical stagehands--when the real stagehands appear, they are all men.

There is an attempt here to present Baroque costumes, though they seem to suddenly appear and disappear.  Now that Artaserse is king he appears in an incredible white wig with horns and a white outfit.  Then Artabano appears in the same outfit.  Jeroussky has the most beautiful voice, but there is much to admire here.  The most spectacular is probably Fagioli, but they're all pretty amazing.

Plot.  There is an offstage murder of the present king, Artaserse's brother.  This makes Artaserse king and causes a lot of accusations.  Artabano is probably to blame.  He and Megabise plot to marry Semira to Megabise instead of Artaserse.  Since the male characters all wear the same white outfit, it's very hard to keep track of who is who.  Some visual help would have been good.  Artabano tries to poison Artaserse, but when it appears that Arbace will drink the poison, Artabano confesses.  It has a happy ending, as do almost all opera seria.

What it is actually about is singing, of course.  If you are at all curious to know what Baroque opera was really like, this is probably your best opportunity.  This is the Italian Baroque opera and not the French version which had no castrati.  These guys belt it out in a way that is surprising.  It is a unique experience, unlike anything I have seen in all my years of going to the opera.

Jaroussky removes his hats and wigs as soon as possible, giving the impression that he doesn't much care for dressing up.  The tenor is banished.  All six characters return for a song at the end.  One of the "girls" brings out the conductor.  The music is spectacular, not just the singing.  Find a way to add this to your experience of opera.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Otello at ROH

Production:  Keith Warner
Conductor:  Antonio Pappano

Otello:  Jonas Kaufmann
Desdemona:  Maria Agresta
Iago:  Marco Vratogna
Cassio:  Frédéric Antoun

We had a larger than usual crowd at our local theater to see Verdi's Otello from London's Royal Opera House.  The fame of Jonas Kaufmann has spread even to Sacramento.

Verdi's Otello is very close to Shakespeare's Othello.  Verdi omits the opening scene in Venice and adds a charming love scene in Cyprus.  For me the plot is very much enhanced by showing Otello and Desdemona together before the influence of Iago.  British direction has resulted in a traditional production which does not interfere with the clarity of the plot.  Our focus is on the singing actors.  Though Otello's appearance is described in the libretto, there was no dark makeup except as observed above.

This was Jonas Kaufmann's debut in this role.  A cast has been assembled to suit our hero's not terribly heavy voice.  Elsewhere I criticized Vratogna as too light for Iago, but here he seems ideal.  His creepy, insinuating style is the perfect foil and partner for Kaufmann's dramatic vocal variety.  I also liked Maria Agresta for her tenderness.  In our theater the Ave Maria was too soft.  It most resembled a theatrical Otello rather than an operatic one.

Our Jonas is an extraordinarily beautiful man with a gorgeous, dark voice.  I have loved his work as a spinto tenor and do not think of him as a baritone.  In addition to these qualities, he is a great actor of wide ranging emotion.  I have loved him most in Werther, Lohengrin, Carmen, Die Walküre, Parsifal, Don Carlo, Il Trovatore, Forza and The Girl of the Golden West.  In all of these he brings added depth to his characters.  I often listen to him speak in both English and German and find him to be wonderfully intelligent, a fact which also contributes to his characterizations.  I mention only two languages because they are the ones I speak, but he speaks others.  He is adored as few in his profession are. 

In Otello he is a villain whose villainy is exceeded only by that of Iago.  I'm sorry if you missed it. Perhaps there will be a DVD.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Rigoletto from Orange

Charles Roubaud - stage director
Mikko Franck - music director

Nadine Sierra - Gilda
Leo Nucci - Rigoletto
Celso Albelo - Il Ducca di Mantova
Stefan Kocán - Sparafucile
Marie-Ange Todorovitch - Maddalena

Host - Natalie Dessay who calls Nadine "formidable."

By modern opera standards this production of Rigoletto from Orange is very traditional, as long as you are happy with generic modern clothing which I no longer find that I mind.  The set is simple to make it blend in with the natural setting provided by this extremely well preserved Roman theater which is complete with stage.  Rigoletto wears a gold jacket while all the other guys wear black.

Those of us who saw him in Onegin love Stefan Kocán.  His Sparafucile works as a waiter at the Duke's party.  In his first scene he holds his low note while he walks across the wide stage.

Leo Nucci is Placido's age and performs more like a character actor.  I prefer a sung Rigoletto like Quinn Kelsey, but Leo is theatrically quite viable and moving.

I'm here for Nadine Sierra who comes in around 24 minutes into the opera.  She is really quite glorious and also gorgeous.  She does her cadenza lying on the stage.  Later when the action returns to the Duke's palace, they take a bis.

I love Rigoletto, and enjoyed this one very much.  Opera is everywhere now.  This is now available on

Here is a quote from Le Monde:

Sa voix au timbre pur, incisif et délicat, irradie de tendresse dans le médium et se couvre d’or dans les aigus qu’elle laisse flotter aux limites de l’audible. Le fameux « Caro nome » à la fin de l’acte I, cette rêverie amoureuse qui parle de sensualité, démultiplie la ligne ornementale en une envolée de notes parfaitement justes et calibrées, une ligne d’une musicalité raffinée. Dans l’abandon aux pulsions amoureuses, Nadine Sierra dévoile l’infinie tendresse d’une nature angélique, dans le temps suspendu d’un cœur qui tutoie les étoiles.

[Her voice with a pure, incisive and delicate tone radiates tenderness in the medium and is covered with gold in the treble that it lets float to the limits of the audible. The famous "Caro nome" at the end of Act I, this amorous reverie which speaks of sensuality, multiplies the ornamental line in a flight of perfectly accurate and calibrated notes, a line of refined musicality. In the abandonment to the love impulses, Nadine Sierra reveals the infinite tenderness of an angelic nature, in the suspended time of a heart that knows the stars.--Google Translate]

Sunday, July 09, 2017


Conductor:  Kirill Petrenko
Production:  Romeo Castellucci

Hermann, Landgraf von Thüringen: Georg Zeppenfeld
Tannhäuser: Klaus Florian Vogt
Wolfram von Eschenbach: Christian Gerhaher
Walther von der Vogelweide: Dean Power
Biterolf:  Peter Lobert
Heinrich der Schreiber: Ulrich Reß
Reinmar von Zweter: Ralf Lukas
Elisabeth, Nichte des Landgrafen: Anja Harteros
Venus: Elena Pankratova

There appears to be some nudity in this production of Wagner's Tannhäuser from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Or maybe we are seeing body stockings.  Or some of each.  I'm imagining the casting call for the set of archers shown who are clearly topless.  Their boobs are too uniform to be ballet.  [Research indicates that the archers are members of the ballet.]  Later in the opera are people lying on the floor who are wearing body stockings.

The archers are very carefully blocked so that when they are actually shooting, they are always facing up stage.  The cocked arrows are never pointed anywhere else. It is interesting to notice that none of the arrows fell to the floor.  Later in the opera one of the characters pulled back an arrow and pointed it in the general direction of Elisabeth.  I did not like this at all.

I did not hallucinate that the Dresden Amen appears in Act III.  I'll have to learn to sublimate my reaction to this showing up in Wagner.

The most reaction in my group was to these feet.  Feet!  I won't bother to try to explain this production and have probably already shown the most interesting parts.

The orchestra, chorus, conductor and soloists were glorious.  I especially liked Anja Harteros, but then I generally do.  It was entirely beyond ones very high expectations.

Anja looks down on her dead self.  Please note:  the tombstones are named after the singers and not the characters they portray.  The talking heads said that this was to show that an opera staging is just pretend.  No attempt is made to explain her death, except we are told that an hour has elapsed.

The production is a cross between Star Wars and The Hunger Games, and instead of Venusberg we have Venusfleischberg [mountain of flesh].

Again the greatest applause is for Petrenko whose contract has been extended to 2021.

Carmen from Aix en Provence

Carmen, José, Micaëla

Conductor:  Pablo Heras-Casado
Production:  Dmitri Tcherniakov

Stéphanie d'Oustrac (Carmen)
Michael Fabiano (Don José)
Elsa Dreisig (Micaëla)
Michael Todd Simpson (Escamillo, toreador)
Gabrielle Philiponet (Frasquita)
Virginie Verrez (Mercédès)

Over undisclosed pathways I found my way to Bizet's Carmen from Aix en Provence.  I will try to explain it, but it may take a while.  My source shows only French subtitles.  Above is the end tableau.  Carmen was originally an opera comique with spoken French dialogue, and this is what we have here.  This allows our producers to change the dialogue to whatever pleases them, including adding characters not in the original libretto.  Last summer our Carmen included Lillas Pastia, the owner of Carmen's nighttime hangout, in a speaking role.

We appear to be in the lobby of a business in a room filled with large brown leather chairs.  An official appears periodically throughout the performance who does not sing and seems to be the head therapist in a radical experimental therapy group.  At first Fabiano (in a light blue suit and sun glasses) and Dreisig (in a pink coat) are an engaged couple who are here to seek help before marrying.  Legal disclaimers are signed.  Watch, wallet and phone are given to staff.  Fabiano puts on a name tag "José" and Dreisig leaves.  Clearly this is what I would call a concept staging.  I thought it worked.  If the characters are modern people, then it is easier to understand what is going on emotionally.

This is closer to the basis for Carmen than the stagings usually are.  Carmen needs a policeman to assist with certain aspects of her smuggling operation, and Don José is chosen.  So it's all a con.  Our staging is more theater than con, but the effect on José is similar.

Men enter bearing name tags that say "Soldat" and sit in the brown chairs.  The lady in the pink coat returns but everyone ignores her.  The soldiers first sing in their normal voices and then later they open their mouths and children's voices come out.  Hmmm.  They hold up smiley faces and José laughs.

Then suddenly the men bring out wine and girls enter smoking cigarettes.  Everyone drinks.  The atmosphere is very casual and relaxed, and I enjoyed this.

The entrance of Carmen is something to experience.  She bursts on the scene wearing pants and warning everyone not to fall in love with her.  She flirts with everyone but gives the flower to Don José.  I loved her madly and understood why José would fall for her.  She looks and sounds gorgeous and sings with great intensity and joy.  After choosing him, she leaves.

The woman with the pink coat returns, calls herself fiance, and puts on her "Micaëla" name tag.  This is the duet where she brings a kiss from mama.  Carmen returns and there is an extended scene where José tries to tie her up with his necktie.  The Seguidilla is sung from a chair.  The lights come back up, everyone leaves except José, and we have the end of Act I.

In Act II the plot thickens.  We are attempting to understand what about all this is its therapeutic purpose.  Projection?  Perhaps girlfriend is dissatisfied with his level of passion.

The girls with Carmen return.  The toreador comes out smoking a cigar and sings his big aria.  Carmen really likes him and goes off with him.  The men point guns at José long enough to upset him, and then smiley faces come out the barrels, making him laugh.

Carmen returns with castanets, argues with José and tells him to go back to his barracks.  Escamillo is her real interest while José is only pretend.  He responds by singing The Flower Song.  Beautifully.  This staging emphasizes the importance of Don José.  Michael Fabiano basically carries the opera.  Carmen responds by praising only liberty.  They fight and everyone else on the stage applauds.  For them this indicates success.  Shall we continue or not?  End of Act II.

In Act III José is still on the stage while the music plays.  Then the lights come up and the psychiatrist comes out along with the others.  The decision has been made to continue.  Carmen, Frasquita and Mercédès play the card game.  The two girls discuss their fortunes, but Carmen draws the death card.  José stares at them.  We're trying to decide if the therapy has gone wrong.  He has clearly lost his sense of what is real and what is not.  Something resembling a staff orgy ensues.  This would be a hell of a job.  José watches from above.

José fights with Escamillo.  Micaëla returns.  This whole act is very chaotic.

In Act IV something odd happens.  José is still there looking on, but a new client has arrived.  The music of Act IV plays while the scene is staged to resemble Act I.  The new guy's name tag even says José.  Except all the fizz has gone out of Carmen.  Our José stabs Carmen multiple times, but this is all fake since the knives are not real.  The opera ends with the staff on stage getting out the wine, the new José receives flowers which ours never did.  Carmen isn't dead and tries to comfort our José along with the returned woman in the pink coat.  This is sort of a WTF ending.

We are certain of only a few things:  that we love Stéphanie d'Oustrac and think Michael Fabiano is absolutely fabulous, especially for being able to establish so many different moods. The music was not destroyed by this regie production.  I like trying to figure out what is going on, but the ending didn't clarify anything.  It seems the therapy has backfired.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Ariodante from Salzburg

Or if you prefer, here is a pirated aria from the Pfingstfest.

She's still got it.

And here's something from La Donna del Lago.

Friday, July 07, 2017

Die Walküre

Harteros and Kampe at the Salzburg Easter Festival 2017. Anja does it just right. See 5:10.

Thursday, July 06, 2017


I generally seek out new operas for the joy of hearing something new. There are a lot of modern operas I have seen and enjoyed.  A favorite experience is Messiaen's Saint-François d'Assise.  And I really love Lulu.

But my last two assignments have been failures.

Die Gezeichneten by Franz Schreker violates the rule of three baritones:  "Do not go to an opera with three or more baritones."  I want girl's singing.  I liked Moby Dick a lot in spite of the all male plot.  But Schreker's opera has only one female and doesn't really work for me.

Hamlet by Brett Dean is sort of  Shakespeare and sort of not.  A lot of  familiar text shows up, usually in the wrong place.  Tomlinson is wonderful.  The music is a lot like background for a horror movie and much too talky.   I have a while to get through it so I'll try more later.

I keep thinking modernism should be dead by now.

So I'm trying to mentally prepare myself for Tannhäuser on Sunday, which will be a cross between The Hunger Games and Star Wars.  Instead of Venusberg we have Venusfleischberg (mountain of flesh).  Wish me luck.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

The New Face of Opera

Nadine Sierra in Rigoletto at the Paris Opera.  We had her first.  She is growing into her gifts.

And here's another new singer I like very much.

Friday, June 30, 2017

La Bohème from San Francisco

Picture by Cory Weaver

Conductor: Carlo Montanaro
Production Designer: David Farley

Marcello: Audun Iversen
Rodolfo: Arturo Chacón-Cruz
Colline: Scott Conner
Schaunard: Brad Walker
Benoit: Dale Travis
Mimì: Erika Grimaldi
Musetta: Ellie Dehn

La Bohème by Puccini is ever green.  The enthusiasm of youth always burns in our hearts.   No opera by Puccini or any other composer is so beautifully romantic from beginning to end.  We were blessed with an Italian conductor who only occasionally let the orchestra play too loud. 

I enjoyed Ellie Dehn and Erika Grimaldi, but my favorite was Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo who has a gorgeous, bright sound.  The acting was excellent across the board.  This is an opera that works on every level.