Sophie Koch (mezzo-soprano)
Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Bryn Terfel (baritone)
Stephen Hawking (mute): Dominique Mercy
The basic premise of the Eurotrash movement seems to be that any music and set of words can be fitted to any set of pictures and movements. Any actual relationship is unnecessary. Faust is supposed to be a scholar, so we will make him a scientist working on the space program. Why not? This is at least a tenuous relationship. This staging of La Damnation de Faust from the Paris Opera is more a comedy than a serious drama. No one cares about souls any more.
Of the above characters the one who spends the most time on stage is Stephen Hawking. For most of the opera he sits in his chair. At the beginning he speaks in his mechanical voice. He is immediately recognizable without use of a program.
The intention to establish a colony on Mars in 2025 is announced. The colonists are announced. In any opera there are people who look one of two different ways: they are uniformly young and thin or they are representative of all mankind. The former group is, of course, the ballet, and the latter is the chorus. People identified as going to Mars are all from the ballet. They remove parts of their dress and appear in various stages of dress and undress until the last scene.
Jonas Kaufmann as Faust appears, except for the addition of horn rimmed glasses, as himself throughout. He doesn't suddenly become young, as is traditional with Faust.
Faust, Hawking and Méphistophélès appear. Potential colonists are tested like lab rats. Méphistophélès chloroforms Faust who falls on the floor and dreams of Marguerite. We see films of the Mars rover, and a copy appears on stage. An orientation confusion device is brought on stage and Faust refuses to go into it. So they choose Hawking instead who while still in his chair, rotates in all directions for a while.
Then Hawking is back in his chair, nude (body stockings?) women dancers appear, Jonas and Sophie interact.
Marguerite sings. Almost nude ballet couples become intimate. Perhaps on Mars they will have to pair up. Then duet with Faust and Marguerite. Then a trio with Bryn. The male dancers have abandoned the females who now look injured.
This is the best part of the staging. Marguerite is Hawking's nurse. She sings the most famous aria so far. There was much discussion in reviews of snails mating, but for us this is not seen and we have closeups of Sophie instead. She takes off her lab coat and strokes Hawking's cheeks. So you see the love she sings about is for Hawking. She lays her cheek against his. The Mars rover goes by. And finally she kisses him.
Jonas comes out and sings "Nature immense" with an erupting volcano behind. Very nice.
Bryn comes out with 3D goggles and tempts Faust into putting them on. The colonists, including Marguerite, put on their space uniforms and we see a rocket blasting off. Perhaps it's time to depart.
Faust finds Marguerite's dress in the pile of clothes and searches for her among the colonists.
Ending: We are supposedly sending Marguerite off to heaven, but instead Hawking gets out of his chair and does an extended ballet. Sort of. Faust gets in the abandoned chair and drives it off the stage.
So is this The Salvation of Stephen Hawking instead of The Damnation of Faust? The music was lovely. We heard no booing.
This item is something that came up in conversation with my son. Is it a coincidence that most of the people who cancelled from the San Francisco Opera this season are those with the highest fees? Or is there possibly some other explanation? First idea to pop to mind is the current budget situation. Hmmm.
At the end of November I watched at the movies Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale simulcast from London, starring Judi Dench.
This resulted in an argument with a friend, who admittedly spends a lot more time with Shakespeare than I do. I said Judi brought a statue back to life of the long dead queen for the happy ending. I liked this idea because it reminded me of Pygmalion.
Friend said that the queen was only pretending to be dead. I thought about this and decided that Judi tells the king that he should let her suggest someone he could marry. This could mean she knows the queen is still alive.
She looked like a real statue who hadn't aged a day, so the argument could go either way.
2015 was a year in which I followed obsessions rather than searching out new operas. I was distracted into research about Kurt Weill and his relationship to Brecht. I concluded that their political affiliation was not complete.
I saw three versions of Berg's Lulu this year: Barbara Hannigan's DVD done entirely en pointe, West Edge's spectacular modern woman version, and the live in HD from the Met. I could have had a fourth one streamed from the Bayerische Staatsoper, but I decided against it because the Lulu was the same as at the Met. This leads me to...
BEST LULU AWARD (this year only) goes to West Edge for making her into an active, modern young woman who participates in her fate and brings about her own downfall. Apologies to the Met, but their version was a bit overdone.
BEST NEW (to me) OPERA AWARD has to be the film of Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper. My studies of Weill also helped me understand Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny from the Royal Opera London. I think I prefer Three Penny Opera to Mahagonny. Iolanta is a strong runner up. Of the operas that actually are new, I would have to pick Benjamin's Written on Skin.
BEST BEL CANTO AWARD must go to Rossini's La Donna del Lago starring Joyce DiDonato. This is a perfect opera for Joyce. My records say I have seen this opera before, but it seemed new and had a wonderful love story. Two Lucias and a Poliuto completed my bel canto experiences for this year.
BEST BAROQUE OPERA AWARD must go to Monteverdi's L'Orfeo streamed from London. The only other Baroque opera I saw all year was Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patriafrom West Edge. Monteverdi operas are like nothing else and wouldn't logically compare to Handel or Vivaldi. Both my examples were outstanding and unusual with the award going to L'Orfeo because of the singer who performed the lead role.
It was yet again a good year for Jonas Kaufmann fans, but his attention was focused mainly on verismo.
BEST PUCCINI AWARD can only go to Manon Lescaut from the Bayerische Staatsoper with Jonas K. and Kristine Opolais, since that is the only Puccini I saw this year. Other verismo operas seen this year were a Cav/Pag from Salzburg with Kaufmann and another Cav/Pag from the Met in HD. This fit smoothly with Jonas Kaufmann's Puccini arias album which was released this year. Next year will be a third version of Kaufmann and Opolais singing Manon Lescaut, this time from the Met. I am reserving judgment on which of the three I like best. Yet another Kaufmann verismo performance this year was Andrea Chénier which also had some good features.
BEST TRANSFORMATION OF AN OPERA INTO SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT has to go to Fidelio from the Salzburg Festival. The music was all there exactly as you would want it, but instead of spoken dialog there were strange noises. Jonas Kaufmann's Florestan had PTSD and didn't really want to see Leonora. A nightmare. Is it a rescue opera if no one gets rescued? I hated the unhappy ending. This is a Claus Guth staging.
BEST RICHARD STRAUSS AWARD must choose between Arabella or Ariadne auf Naxos, both from the Bayerische Staatsoper. The award has to go to Arabella with Anja Harteros for her acting and ability to not suggest La Fleming ever at any time. This opera is growing on me.
BEST HORROR OPERA goes hands down to The Fiery Angel streamed from the Bayerische Staatsoper. The production was surprisingly conservative, but this is such a wonderful opera and the double bill in San Francisco of Getty's Usher House and Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher could not approach it. This is also a this year only award. Who knew there would be 3 choices?
WORST EUROTRASH PRODUCTION AWARD goes to The Elixir of Love streamed from Munich. Oy. Nemorino sings "Una furtiva lagrima" from the top of a light pole. The entire opera takes place in a modern war zone and is pretty scary. This was a big year for Eurotrash productions and was hard to select. The other candidates are the weird Fidelio from Salzburg, the even weirder Manon Lescaut from Munich, and the Martian Berlioz Faust from Paris. Still Elixir was the most sickening.
The only thing that completely bombed for me was The Merry Widow. Perhaps someday I will see a version I like. The Edgar Allen Poe operas were also rather odoriferous.
Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Production: Barrie Kosky
Ruprecht: Evgeny Nikitin
Renata: Svetlana Sozdateleva
Landlady: Heike Grötzinger
Soothsayer: Elena Manistina
Agrippa von Nettesheim: Vladimir Galouzine
If you watch a lot of German opera productions, you probably expected something a lot wilder than this for Prokofiev's Fiery Angel from the Bayerische Staatsoper. It starts as an ordinary hotel room, and the hotel theme carries throughout.
Renata had an imaginary friend as a child, only her imaginary friend was not another girl, or a giant rabbit, but an enormous fiery angel. Puberty missed this up, since the angel didn't want to become a boyfriend. Renata spends the rest of her life looking for him.
Our opera begins in the hotel room with Ruprecht musing and the hotel manager coming in for a talk. Then Renata crawls out from under the bed. This was my favorite part. When did that ever happen? Renata is completely mad.
After Act I, the rest of the scenes are interrupted by various groups. Act II includes male dancers with lots of tattoos dressed in evening gowns. Act IV is Faust and Mephistopheles holding their walpurgis nacht. And finally Act V where people are supposed to be nuns, they are instead dressed as Jesus in his crown of thorns.
I kept thinking this was the perfect opera to follow our House of Usher duo, just to show how it is done. Musically this is a spectacular piece. All the singers were good, but Svetlana Sozdateleva was spectacularly wonderful. Kudos. She was perfectly cast for this very difficult role.
I am resisting the old person's inclination to reminisce about previous productions.
The San Francisco Opera presented a double bill of Gordon Getty's Usher House and Claude Debussy's La Chute de la Maison Usher (reconstructed and orchestrated by Robert Orledge). In 2014 these two operas were presented together at the Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, Wales, and our production, which consisted mostly of projections, came from there. Both operas are based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, who appears as a character in the Getty work.
Conductor: Lawrence Foster
Director: David Pountney
Edgar Allen Poe: Jason Bridges
Roderick Usher: Brian Mulligan
Madeline Usher (dancer): Jamielyn Duggan
Doctor Primus: Anthony Reed
Madeline Usher (voice): Jacqueline Piccolino La Chute de la Maison Usher
Lady Madeline Usher: Jacqueline Piccolino
Le Medecin: Joel Sorensen
Roderick Usher: Brian Mulligan
L'Ami: Edward Nelson
The best possible description came from a friend, "It's like a B horror movie." So people who like B horror movies liked it, and the rest of us are not sure. There is one qualification: the wonderful soprano aria at the beginning of the Debussy could be taken out and performed as a concert aria. I loved it.
Of the two the Getty was the more dramatically viable. It seemed to have a plot. The Debussy was an extended rant by Roderick, very well done by Brian Mulligan. This is Brian's season--we have seen him in Lucia, Sweeney Todd and this. He's done some quality work.
I noticed a peculiar feature in the Getty: virtually every phrase ended in a rise in pitch, sometimes as much as an octave. The last note of the phrase is, of course, the hardest to sing, making this work something like a mine field.
Teatro alla Scala Verdi's Giovana d’Arco opens with Anna Netrebko.
Conductor : Riccardo Chailly
Production : Moshe Leiser, Patrice Caurier
Giovanna: Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Carlo VII: Francesco Meli (tenor)
Giacomo, Giovanna's father: Devid Cecconi (baritone)
Talbot, English officer: Dmitry Beloselskiy (bass)
It is interesting to see what composers and playwrights have made of Joan of Arc, known since 1920 as Saint Joan.
The Maid of Orléans play byFriedrich Schiller (1801)
Verdi's Giovanna d’Arco (1845)
Tchaikovsky's The Maid of Orleans (1881) Saint Joan play by George Bernard Shaw (1924) Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher by Arthur Honegger (1935)
These are the ones I can think of. Two are operas, one is an oratorio and two are plays. Bernard Shaw's play is long and wordy and concerns itself only with Joan's trial where it is endlessly debated whether she is saint or sinner.
Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the stake)is a giant flash back while she burns. The play by Schiller is the basis for at least one of the operas and maybe a bit of the other.
Joan of Arc was a real person. She grew up in a small village of French loyalists, surrounded by Burgundians who were affiliated with the English who then ruled large parts of France. (She lived in the time of the Burgundian music school. Their political affiliation with the English explains this English sounding music.) All of her fame came during her teens. She was visited by visions of saints who told her to save France. As only a teenager could manage, she simply went off and did this. She must have been incredibly charismatic and sure of herself. She didn't carry arms into battle but instead waved a banner, inspiring the French army to its greatest triumphs in the war with the English. She led them to Rheims where her king was crowned in the place where all French kings were crowned. She was injured and eventually captured by the enemy. I think it's probably not known what they argued about at her trial. At 19 she was burned at the stake.
Did she actually see visions from heaven? In 1920 the answer was yes.
War is not very easy to enact on the opera stage, I guess. So one of our Joan of Arc operas adds a romance. Ambiguity of purpose would not have served our charismatic teenager. Her achievements would have required fanaticism.
Anna Netrebko is interviewed between the acts of Verdi's Giovana d’Arco and points out what a ridiculous plot it has. "Nonsense," is the exact word. For instance, her father, who does not come up in the story, is a significant figure here. He whines and complains. Come home where you belong. Prove you are still a virgin. The energy of the drama concerns itself with Joan's departure from social norms for women. Who cares?
So in this production we have a Joan of Arc who would like to save France but her father keeps her imprisoned in her room. So she imagines that she has saved France instead. Why not? It makes as much sense as the libretto. I love Meli in his all gold outfit, like a statue with a gold horse. I also love Netrebko in her gold armor. In France it is Joan who appears on statues on a gold horse.
You would want this opera for the Netrebko, for Meli and for the good early Verdi music. Netrebko carried it off, as usual. I liked the part where she cuts off her own hair. Jesus appears with his cross which he gives to Joan. I imagine the real Joan to be more like Katniss.
The Wiz live on NBC played Friday night. This was at the same time new and not new. It's the same story only not. Everyone was fabulous, especially her "Queenness" Queen Latifah.
The Queen is the Wizard. "Ease on down the road" was the only song I recognized. This is a lot of fun but Toto doesn't go to Oz. It plays again on Dec 19. I missed this when it starred Diana Ross, but don't miss the rerun.