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Opera productions that work and those that don'tTaking opera out of its historical context


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#1 Mashinka

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Posted 08 March 2013 - 08:06 AM

[size=5][font=Times New Roman','serif]I’ve enjoyed reading the thread concerning Parsifal, especially the comments about productions that take operas out of the periods they are set in. It is pretty much the norm in the UK and it sometimes works, for example the Glyndebourne Meistersinger with Gerald Finley as Hans Sachs was set in the early 19th century at the period we would roughly call the Regency. Finley looked very handsome with a Lord Byron hairstyle, not a gnarled old shoemaker but an attractive older man making him a credible rival to Walther. As Sachs was a real historical figure perhaps changing the setting was a bit of a liberty, but a more conventional production at Covent Garden a few months later seemed pale by comparison. That is an example of getting it right.[/font][/size]


[size=5][font=Times New Roman','serif]Getting it wrong: On Wednesday I saw English National Opera in Chapentier’s Medea and although the critics liked the design concept it didn’t work for me; the setting was World War II with Creon dressed as Charles De Gaulle, Jason a British naval officer (think Jack Hawkins) and his love rival a dashing American airman, most of the action took place in a war cabinet operations room. It looked well enough, but black suited Medea, stripping to her underwear to summon the creatures of hell just seemed wrong somehow, as if two very different operas were colliding on stage. Tonight I’m off to a concert production of Lully’s Phaëton, so no distractions there and I’ll sit back and enjoy the music. [/font][/size]

#2 Birdsall

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Posted 08 March 2013 - 09:40 AM

Yes, it is funny how we can accept one production that is updated and we are not happy with another that is. Same with wacky productions. Some I can accept and even love. Others I hate.

I loved the Copenhagen Ring. If you have not seen that version, I think it is a must see. It is available on video. The gold is a golden youth stark naked (well, he is a young man....I'm sure legal age) and painted gold and swimming in a tank. Alberich rips the heart out of this gold swimmer and that represents the gold he has stolen from the Rhine. Later in Walküre the valkyries are drinking wine or champagne and getting drunk as they sing Hojotoho......the dragon that Siegfried fights.....well, I won't give that away....it may surprise you.....it is a really wild ride and sounds ridiculous, but it actually worked for me. There ended up being so many touching scenes and thought provoking scenes throughout. I also think the fact that the Ring is such a fantasy work it survives any craziness.

I also loved the L.A. Ring which a lot of people hated. That was considered a crazy production as well.

But I also love the gorgeous traditional Günther Schneider-Siemssen Ring the Met had before the current LePage "Machine" Ring. And I really dislike the new Machine Ring despite it being fairly traditional (although the Machine makes it all look modern but the story, costumes, etc. are pretty traditional).

So sometimes I love a very traditional opera. Sometimes I love craziness.

By the way, Günther Schneider-Siemssen did the Rusalka production at the Met as well, and it is a gorgeous production. Next season it will be one of the HD transmissions. I am glad this production is being preserved on video. On paper the cast looks terrific: Fleming, Magee, Beczala, and Zajick. I like everyone of those singers, although Fleming can be mannered at times. She was on her best behavior back in 1997 when I saw her sing Rusalka. Anyway, if you want to see a drop dead gorgeous production of a very wonderful opera and a very good cast make sure not to miss that!!!

When I attended the San Francisco Ring the museum near the opera house actually had a small exhibit of Ring productions through the ages, and it was astonishing to see that there was an evolution. You see each production being influenced by the previous.....so the crazy Rings did not just suddenly POOF appear. There was a gradual change in productions and through time it became more and more modern. So the new, crazy productions are not the break with tradition that we might initially think.

I feel the Joseph Volpe era at the Met was a swing toward conservative/traditional productions. And many were GORGEOUS. They were what people expect and sometimes even want in Grand Opera. Huge, three dimensional sets that make you feel like you are seeing some of the most expensive productions in the world.

The Peter Gelb era seems to be trying to teeter totter on both sides. Bringing in sort of modern-ish productions but sticking basically to the libretto so as not to offend anyone too much (the new Ring, the new Parsifal, etc). The Met is now trying to appease both sides, and I sort of think you end up not satisfying anyone when you do that! LOL But I don't know the solution. I'm sure it is hard to decide how far in which direction to go.

One updated modern production that I absolutely detested was the Met's recent La Sonnambula. I went with an open-mind and tried hard to like it, but at the end of Act. 1 when they discover Amina in the stranger's bed (it is supposed to be Rodolfo, but the Met's version does not really explain who he is and why he is sleeping in the rehearsal room), they go in a rage and trash the rehearsal room. That made absolutely no sense to me. In today's time nobody would fly into a rage at discovering Amina in someone's bed. They might gossip amongst themselves, but no one would care and they certainly wouldn't trash a rehearsal room and tear up Bellini's score (which is what the chorus did in this version). It was totally absurd. I guess the argument can be made that La Sonnambula is pretty absurd as it is, but I thought this staging was the dumbest thing I ever saw in my life.

#3 Helene

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Posted 08 March 2013 - 10:36 AM

I thought the "Copenhagen Ring" was a brilliant achievement. There's a long interview between Queen Margrethe and director Kasper Bech Holten in the DVD extras. Addressing whether the production would be done again, he comented to the effect that it might not be relevant to the times by then, and perhaps that future time might need a production of its own time.

I've liked and loved a lot of updated productions. One of my favorites was a "Semele" I saw by Arizona Opera. I loved most of the "Ring" I saw in San Francisco and Corsaro's Spanish Revolution "Carmen" for NYCO, and I was blown away by the second and third acts of Girard's "Siegfried" for the 2006 Canadian Ring that opened the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

I thought the mistakes in "La Sonnambula" were to have her sleeping in the rehearsal room and creating an inn for the baritone. I think the inn should have been his star dressing room with a bed for naps -- Rene Pape,when adked what he did between Acts I and Iii of "Parsifal" said he tries to take a nap -- and that's where she should have been found. I wouldn't underestimate the animus over love affairs in the theater: there were plenty on record when Pinchas Zuckerman left Eugenia Zuckerman for an actress, Goddard Lieberson left his wife for Lorraine Hunt, and Simon Rattle left one of his early musician wives. (That bio was so tedious, I don't remember whether she was wife #1 or #2.)

#4 Birdsall

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Posted 08 March 2013 - 02:40 PM

I liked the emphasis on the environment in the SF Ring. And that is a theme already in the Ring, so it wasn't twisted to emphasize that, so I liked it. Some things were good about the SF Ring, some things less good. But most of all Nina Stemme made it for me!!!! In the end, a singer in one of the major roles blowing you away is what does it. And the opera can be set in any wild time or place and I am fine. I think I went to the final cycle, and the weeks before the trip I was thinking, "If Stemme cancels this could be a real waste!" but it wasn't, and she sang and she blew me away. So it was worth it. I think I have seen the best Brünnhilde I will ever see in my lifetime.

Maybe people would be mad to catch Amina cheating on her tenor love like in the Met's new Sonnambula. I don't really know, but it did not work at all for me. I think the worst was when they started tearing up the scores in anger. And then they ran around trashing the place. I might be able to buy that they are mad at her, but then to trash a rehearsal room. That just seemed like slapstick, and even though Sonnambula is light, I don't think it is a slapstick comedy. Whether it was the director's intent or not, I felt like they were laughing at Bellini's opera and making a complete joke out of it. And Natalie Dessay went on record even saying it was a silly opera. That shocked me. Why choose to sing an opera you have no respect for? Of course, there is always the matter of a paycheck, but still......I think La Sonnambula is the operatic equivalent of Giselle.....a very gentle and soft story (with some dark undertones of course) that is from another time but has a charm all its own. To me La Sonnambula is no joke of an opera. It is not in the same league as Parsifal or even La Traviata, but if done with love and intelligence I think it can still speak to us. "Ah, non credea....." has to be one of the most gorgeous arias ever written and the cabaletta is the most joyous thing I can think of....but even up until that it has some beautiful duets.....it is definitely a period piece that is maybe a little harder for us to relate to, but it is no joke, in my opinion, and that's how I felt the new Met production treated it......like one big joke.

I am shocked after two years of turning my back on opera I actually went and saw the Parsifal HD and am going on and on about opera! LOL Obviously, I still have some love left for it!

#5 Mashinka

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Posted 17 April 2013 - 04:39 AM

Nabucco at Covent Garden actually earned itself no stars from the first critique I read and I have to say it was awful. Set in the 1940's both Jews and Babylonians wore the same tired looking outfits in black, grey and navy - very much post war austerity. Nabucco. being a king, was differentiated by wearing a well fitted grey suit and looking better groomed with a spot of hair gel. Main design feature a sand pit, destruction of the temple was the knocking over of some rectangular polystyrene blocks: I don't know why I bother.

Actually I do know why I went to this one - Domingo was singing the title role and many were predicting it will be his last opera appearance at the ROH. Sadly the great man wasn't in good voice, the fans very clearly still love him though.

#6 Birdsall

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Posted 17 April 2013 - 08:50 AM

Nabucco at Covent Garden actually earned itself no stars from the first critique I read and I have to say it was awful. Set in the 1940's both Jews and Babylonians wore the same tired looking outfits in black, grey and navy - very much post war austerity. Nabucco. being a king, was differentiated by wearing a well fitted grey suit and looking better groomed with a spot of hair gel. Main design feature a sand pit, destruction of the temple was the knocking over of some rectangular polystyrene blocks: I don't know why I bother.

Actually I do know why I went to this one - Domingo was singing the title role and many were predicting it will be his last opera appearance at the ROH. Sadly the great man wasn't in good voice, the fans very clearly still love him though.


Sometimes these updated productions just seem like an excuse to save money (fewer sets or less elaborate sets, wardrobe bought at Macy's, etc.).....so it can be aggravating, b/c I think most people want to see Grand Opera looking grand. Cheap sets and costumes cause you to feel ripped off. I have seen crazy productions or updated productions that still looked great. But some of them are awful and so cheap looking.

As for Domingo, I think he was an amazing tenor and loved him, but as a baritone I find him mediocre (even though he began his career as a baritone supposedly). He always sounds so dark as a tenor which was wonderful, but as a baritone he sounds way too light to me.

He and Guleghina are singing Nabucco on May 4 at the Mariinsky (sold out). I heard the tickets were outrageously priced. Well, the audience members are being robbed! Domingo singing a baritone role at the end of his career. Guleghina, who is basically a bull in a china shop and should have never made it out of the opera in Minsk if even there, astounds me. This is like a big name in opera, but she has to be the worst Abigaille ever (despite it being somewhat of a signature role for her) with no clue how to sing the coloratura. All she knows how to do is blast, blast, and keep blasting that voice. I guess it is impressive she's kept her voice as long as she has. It is a force of nature, but zero finesse, zero clue. Anyway, Verdi is going to roll in his grave on May 4. This is a RIDICULOUS cast, in my personal opinion. I don't think I would go, if I were in St. Petersburg and I were walking past the Mariinsky and someone tried to hand me the ticket for free. But it is sold out and they made money on this show. So from a business stand point it was a smart casting decision. For art's sake, it is a horrible cast.

#7 Mashinka

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Posted 18 April 2013 - 01:51 AM

Lyudmila Monastyrska was a terrific Abigaille on Monday night, but apart from a reasonable tenor and Domingo himself trying his best to make an impression in the wretched thing in spite of vocal shortcomings, the rest was mediocre.

Although I generally agree with your views on Domingo as a baritone, I have to say he was a fantastic Simon Boccanegra a couple of years ago, but in live performance it is often stage presence that makes the difference between outstanding and acceptable and the emotion he put into the role made it something special.

#8 Birdsall

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Posted 18 April 2013 - 03:45 AM

I have heard good things about Monastryska but never heard her myself. Abigaille is a killer role!

I do think Domingo will be remembered as one of the greatest artists in opera. He strikes me as someone who must work or he'll die. He could easily retire and enjoy life, but I don't think he likes to "not work." Just my impression because he is known to sing at the Met and fly on a private plane to make it on time to conduct at LA Opera the same night! Of course, the time difference helps! But what sane person would want to have such a tight schedule like that? LOL

#9 Helene

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Posted 18 April 2013 - 08:47 AM

Monastyrska was amazing in the Met in HD "Aida."

Domingo sang Giorgio Germont recently at the Met. I heard it on Sirius. There was a massive ovation for him as he made his first entrance, but there was no heft to his voice. He sounded to me like a countertenor trying to sing Calaf.

#10 Birdsall

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Posted 18 April 2013 - 09:37 AM

I worry he will embarrass himself overtime simply out of his addiction of the stage (my assumption). But no matter what I think he will be remembered as a great tenor even if it gets to the point where he has embarrassed himself.

I think some performers are simply addicted to being on stage and just don't want to quit. Edita Gruberova is another one. She was a decent to good soprano (sort of a poor man's Joan Sutherland, which I consider a compliment) , but now the clips I have heard make me sad. But like Domingo I guess she can not live without the stage. In their defense it must be really hard to leave the stage when it has been their whole life.

It is funny how some retire almost too soon b/c they are overly worried about overstaying their welcome when they still have so much to give. Others are like the final guests at a party cracking open another bottle of wine when the hosts are wanting to go to bed.

#11 Helene

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Posted 18 April 2013 - 09:42 AM

There was some beautiful phasing in his Germont, though., and the musicianship was there. He was the opposite of a singer who repeats his roles with a much-diminished voice. His voice was wrong for the part.


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