Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Sam’s Opera Reviews’ Category

                              

by Sam Juliano

     Georges Bizet’s Carmen is arguably the most popular opera in history, and it’s almost never off the yearly schedules of the largest and smallest companies.  Only Puccini’s La Boheme is in its stratosphere of adoration,  and it stands alone as the indoctrinating vehicle for neophytes to the form.  The opera’s central role is perhaps the defining one for a soprano, and over decades it provided some of the greatest singers with their most electrifing moments onstage.  For the second time this season, the Metropolitan Opera has replaced a long-running Franco Zeffirelli staging, (and a shorter one after it)  but unlike the first instance, where the desision drew ire from traditionalists, (Tosca), this new incarnation by Richard Eyre stands among the season’s most distinguished stagings, with an outstanding Carmen and Don Jose and some virtuoso conducting by a gifted newcomer.  The new Carmen, wields the raw power of the 1875 work, but the underpinnings are more contemporary than the Zeffirelli production, which typically was traditional.

     Carmen, which contains some of the greatest passages in all of music (“The Toreador Song”,” “The Flower Song” and the “Habanera” are musical masterpieces) is a work of superbly balanced construction and extraordinary precision, on in which Bizet is able to express in 16 bars what almost any other composer would need 160 for and might still not succeed.  The opera with it signature sexuality, smoldering passions and violent denouement, has often been understood as a story of ill-fated love between two equal parties whose destinies happen to clash.  But to read the opera in this fashion is really to ignore the faultlines of social power that organize it, for while the story’s subject matter may appear idiosyncratic to us, Carmen is actually only one of a large number of fantasies involving race, class and gender that are known to have circulated in nineteenth-century French culture.   Most interpretations of the opera either assume Carmen’s treachery or else try to eradicate the differences in class, race and gender between Carmen and Don Jose.  To be sure, the illicit sexuality of the opera continues to be acknowledged; but as it took it place within the canon many decade ago, Carmen became a locus for socially-sanctioned titillation rather than a cause for moral indignation.  A self-congratulatory smugness seems to characterize much of what was written about Carmen after it became a staple of the repetory, as subsequent critics gloat when recounting the prudery of Bizet’s initial audiences, along these lines: “The libretto is effective, but far from shocking a generation that now considers Strauss’s Salome tame.  The tragic ending is so seasoned a convention that we accept it without thought.”  In any case the popular literature on Carmen tends to highlight the elements of femme fatale and male victim, often rendering the plot in a gleefully naughty, insinuating style. (more…)

Read Full Post »

 by Sam Juliano

     From the House of the Dead, based on a novel by Dostoyevsky, may well be famed Czechoslovakian composer Leos Janacek’s most extraordinary opera.  The rather extreme musical style of the last years of Janacek’s life is complemented here by a dramaturgy in opera that was actually years ahead of its time.  This is a stark work with vocal writing that exhibits powerful expressive force.  It is the final work from Janacek, and like the three that preceded it- Kata Kabanova, The Cunning Little Vixen and The Makropoulos Case it speaks with a deeply humanitarian voice.  The composer aimed here to portray the bleakest suffering, unknowingly creating resonances with historical events and places he would never live to see – notably, the gulags of Soviet Russia and the concentration camps of the Nazi regime.  The raw power of the situation itself is paralleled brilliantly in the composer’s style.  Janacek’s depiction of the Russian penitentiary is so belligerant, so forceful in its realism that it takes on a kind of white-hot fervor.  In fact Janecek once wrote: “You know the terror, the inner feelings of a human being who will never cease to breathe: complete despair which wants nothing and expects nothing.  This will be developed in my Dostoyevsky opera.”  (more…)

Read Full Post »

by Sam Juliano

For nearly 25 years traditionalist opera patrons of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan have repeatedly immersed themselves in Franco Zeffirelli’s opulent production of Puccini’s Tosca, which combined a faithful reading of the composer’s score with the compositional beauty of Renaissance art.  The centerpiece set, replicating the inside of the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle in the first act is so meticulously detailed, that you feel you’ve been transported to Rome.  Puccini’s soaring and lyrical score was perfect attuned to such a ravishing set design, and opera goers were treated to a sensuous harmony of music and eye candy.  Singers however were always uncomfortable in such a setting, as they often felt engulfed by the intimidating sets, which in essence diverted attention from the main issue at hand:  the singing.  But opera is not for the singers, the musicians or the set designers, it’s for the devoted fans who these days are paying high prices for the right to witness live performances.  Many of these fans were dismayed, some downright hostile at the recent premiere of the first new production of the beloved opera in a quarter-century, mainly aimed their venom at the relatively minimalist sets by Swiss director Luc Bondy.  Publically castigated by none other than Zeffirelli himself, who dismissed Bondy as “third-rate,” the 86 year-old Italian icon warned against those messing with traditionist purity, and applauded the reaction of the Met faithful.

Bondy’s staging includes pared-down sets with odd color coordination, with Scarpia’s office in Act II an admitted eye-sore.  Only the simplest set of all in the final act, of the brick tower, at the stroke of dawn overlooking the tranquil water is effective from a visual standpoint.  One of the most beautiful moments in the Zeffirelli production was the scene where Cavaradossi paints Mary Magdalene, before the onset of one of the opera’s three great arias, “Recondita Armonia” a short and uninhibited flood of raw melody, typical of the verismo tradition which Puccini’s music is a prime example of.  Bondy’s long-haired portrait, where a breast is showing deliberately amplifies the more abstract approach, much as later in the fateful scene with Scarpia, the sadist is being serviced by a courtesan. (more…)

Read Full Post »

traviata 1

by Sam Juliano

     The ‘opera film’ as it is referred to in its simplest incarnation is a hybrid of two disparate art forms, that merge to create a vehicle of artistic expression that is like no other.   The incomparable experience of visiting an opera house yields an intimacy that can’t be replicated with simulcasts shown in movie theatres, nor with the in-home viewing of taped performances.  Yet, for all it’s fidelity to what is often regarded as the ‘world’s greatest art form’ live opera can be an excruciating grind for some because of excessive length, overhead or back of seat subtitles, and minimalist sets that often don’t physically replicate the setting envisioned by the composer.  In the early 60’s film directors began to explore new avenues to present opera in sensory terms, showcasing lush settings, ravishing costumes and expressionist filmmaking that allowed the opera basics to shine forth in a completely new light.  The best singers of their times were featured in stunning close-up, and medieval tapestries were often re-created to make the stories more alluring and contextually persuasive.  The projected permanency of the opera film insured that casting directors painstakingly examine all options before settling on final choices, and orchestras at the peak of their powers were chosen to give the most compelling and faithful readings of the respective works.  The result was a new form that allowed opera to be showcased in purely cinematic terms, while simultaneously enriching and accentuating the elements that had the most appeal in the first place.  By providing a lustrous and atmospheric canvas, opera was given a new life and an opportunity to appeal to the masses.  Three opera film directors, all of whom are still alive and working: Franco Zeffirelli, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Peter Weigl, created the most exquisite entries in the field, and all three were prolific and had a talent for composition and framing, and uncanny knack for getting the proper readings for their musicians and extraordinary vocal performances from their stars.  Hence, on record, with all the indelible embellishments in place, the work of these remarkably gifted artists has resulted in large measure the finest operatic works available today in any presentation.  of course, there other world-class directors who contributed a single great work: Joseph Losey (Don Giovanni), Hans-Jurgen Syberberg (Parsifal), (more…)

Read Full Post »

 junkw

by Sam Juliano

The argument continues to rage after three years of Metropolitan Opera simulcasts of their Saturday afternoon matinee performances to multiplex movie houses around the world.  Does one sustain a deeper operatic experience by attending the productions live in Manhattan, or is the ‘multiplex simulcast’ route the most enriching way to absorb the greatest of all art forms?  There is no simple answer.  As one who held partial season tickets to the Met for eight years, and still attends in person several times a year, there admittedly can be no replacement for being part of the intimacy that informs live performances in hushed and disciplined opera houses.  In this sense, opera seen and heard on its home turf is not compromised by the intrusion of cameras and the subjective artistic decisions that dictate what one is to see, even if the hearing is unaltered or even enriched.  For purists, there is no replacement to being in the opera house, even if one is doomed to the family circle in the upper rafters, or even forced to a standing room cubicle, as I have been on many occasions.  Except in the rare instance where distance or angle might be so adversely extreme as to compromise vision, there can be no valid argument against lived performance as opposed to transcription to another medium.  Yet, adherents of this hugely-successful public-relations venture to “bring the Met to the world” rightly claim some advantages to seeing the operas simulcast on movie screens.  For one, those who are eternally doomed to seeing the operas at the Met from long distances because of spiraling ticket prices, can now enjoy glorious close-ups of their favorite stars, a close look at the scenery, and wonderful interviews during intermissions conducted by such high-profile luminaries like Renee Fleming and Placido Domingo.  And with subtitles emblazoned legibly on the bottom of the screen, much like a foreign-language film, one doesn’t have to keep shifting their eyes from the stage to the back of the seat in front of them to negotiate the translation.  And the simulcast ticket price is $20, far less than any ticket at the Met save for standing room.      (more…)

Read Full Post »

by Sam Juliano

Richard Strauss is among the top five greatest composers of opera, although the other four, Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini rate above him in artistic accomplishment and overall popularity.  Of Strauss’ prolific output, three of his works are warhorses in the repetory year in and year out, while three others are performed with reasonable regularity.  In the former category are the charming Der Rosenskavalier, and the two shorter operas set in ancient and Biblical times, Electra and Salome.    

Written in 1905, Salome was Strauss’ breakthrough work, and with it’s “companion piece” Electra projected a musical intensity, reliant on sensuousness and tension to usher in a new kind of music that broke drastically with the romantics.      (more…)

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts