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Festival d'opéra de Québec 2013

7 August 2013, Québec, Canada

'Powder Her Face' gets a racy staging at this year's Quebec Opera Festival
'Powder Her Face' gets a racy staging at this year's Quebec Opera Festival

Spectacular yet traditional: Robert LePage's 'Damnation of Faust'
Spectacular yet traditional: Robert LePage's 'Damnation of Faust'(Photos: Louise Leblanc)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Although the Quebec Opera Festival is only in its third season, it has already established itself in the North American summer opera circuit with cutting-edge productions and world class execution. This season Gounod’s Damnation of Faust and Adès’ Powder Her Face were on the boards.

Berlioz’ dramatic legend about the consequences of love, passion, and dealing with the devil received a psychologically insightful interpretation by director Robert LePage.  Translating the underlying message of the opera and emotions of the characters into visually striking images with breath-taking video projections that seamlessly fused with the music and action, LePage created a production that was both spectacular yet traditional and conveyed the profound meaning of this tragic tale.

The stage was divided into 24 cubicles equally distributed on four tiers. Screens were lowered in front, where video projections instantly transported the audience to and from various locations. Acrobats and dancers added to the visual richness.  One of the more imaginative sequences depicted soldiers marching off to battle backwards, with their families waving them farewell as they walked backwards in the opposite direction. This dissolved into a scene showing the families eating dinner at home, which in turn morphed smoothly into a library. The soldiers' return home was also magical as they, defying gravity, walked down a vertical path into the laps of their wives. Faust’s decent into the fires of hell riveted but Marguerite’s ascent to heaven (on a metal ladder) felt anticlimactic as women and children in white with clasped hands watched. 
John Relyea’s solid bass and electric athleticism made a credible Méphistophélès, though initially his voice lacked the conniving devilish intonation needed to convey Méphistophélès’ true evil. Gordon Gietz as Faust possessed the requisite French vocal sensuousness and refinement, if not always the vocal heft. Julie Boulianne embodied Marguerite, her love, longing, passion, and despair with total abandon, fiery desperation, and magnificently radiant voice. Giuseppe Grazioli drew admirable playing from the Quebec Symphony Orchestra maintaining the ideal stage-pit balance and tension.
The production demonstrated that infusing 21st century technology in a creative and intelligent manner into a traditional production can revitalize the art form for today’s society without imposing concepts unrelated to the composer’s intent. 
Thomas Adès’ Powder Her Face, based on the true story of the scandalous affairs of the sexually promiscuous wife of the Duke of Argyll first revealed in the British tabloids, deals with debauchery, sex, and infidelity amongst the British aristocracy. Staged in a movie theatre transformed into a cabaret (complete with waiter service), perhaps to soften the vivid depictions of explicit sex, nudity, and bodily functions on stage, the two-act opera had a split personality and a split staging. One side portrayed videotaped activities (usually sexual in nature), while the other played host to live action, also (usually) of a sexual nature. 

The music was a cacophony of sounds as fragmented as the stage action, with sudden spurts of spasmodic rhythm evoking the wild, perverse and vulnerable nature of the duchess. Adès’ vocal lines, mostly a mixture of screaming and talking, mirrored the seductiveness and animalistic desires of sex itself. The only melodies were jazz and tango.
The production’s most controversial aspect was the inclusion of 13 naked men, symbolising the duchess’s past lovers, who roamed around the stage like bored playboys, emerging variously from her bed, bathroom and closet.

The second act was diametrically opposed to the first in atmosphere and tone, as the duchess descended into despair, desperation and madness after being condemned by the judge during her divorce proceedings. The opera, the music, and vocal line all took on a serious, sombre tone.  The entire cast performed admirably.


Celebrity news round-up – 22 July 2013

22 July 2013

Hospital scare for Plácido Domingo
Hospital scare for Plácido Domingo(Photo: Ennevi Studio)

Luciano Pavarotti’s first ever recording, made 50 years ago during a TV broadcast in the UK, is due to be released by Decca as part of a new album celebrating the career of the tenor superstar who died in 2007. The recording was found in Pavarotti’s personal archives by his widow, Nicoletta Mantovani, and dates back to the tenor’s appearance in 1963 on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a popular variety show hosted by entertainer Bruce Forsyth. Pavarotti was in London to mark the signing of his first recording contract with Decca and also to make his Royal Opera House debut. While in the British capital, he performed ‘Che gelida manina’ for the live television broadcast.

They were once billed as Opera’s Golden Couple, but the marriage of two of opera’s biggest stars, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna has ended in divorce, with startling allegations in an interview with the UK's Independent newspaper in which the soprano asserts that she was a victim of domestic violence. ‘There are things in life you accept from your man,’ Gheorghiu said in the interview,  ‘but I did not want to continue to live with the idea that your man is violent.’ In a Facebook posting, Alagna commented that the allegations ‘are without basis and defamatory’, adding that his lawyers were dealing with the matter.

Plácido Domingo is recovering following treatment in hospital in Madrid for a blood clot in his lung in July. This is another of several health scares to have afflicted the 72-year-old singer in recent years. Domingo was forced to cancel several engagements in his busy international schedule, but is expected to be back on form as the new opera season begins.


English National Opera chief executive to step down

19 July 2013, London, UK

Moving on: Loretta Tomasi
Moving on: Loretta Tomasi

Loretta Tomasi, chief executive of English National Opera, has announced that she will step down at the end of 2013. She will have been with ENO for ten years.

ENO has emphasised that Tomasi is moving on for 'personal reasons', and not because of any concerns over the company’s financial health. In January 2013, ENO filed accounts for 2011/12 which revealed it had halved its reserves in order to cover a £2.2m deficit. Meanwhile, on 1 May, entrepreneur Martyn Rose took over as ENO chairman to replace the Arts Council-bound Sir Peter Bazalgette.

The company insists that its finances are heading in the right direction, with a much reduced deficit expected for 2012/13 (accounts are currently under audit before publication) and an expectation that the deficit will be wiped out entirely from 2013/14.

Tomasi herself said of the move: 'This has been an immensely difficult decision to make but after 10 fantastic years – seven as chief executive – it is the right time for me to choose a new path. The board now has to consider what they think is the best way to go about finding the best leader for the company. The important thing is that they find the right person.'


Gounod's La Colombe dazzles in Siena

12 July 2013, Siena, Italy

Anyone for parrot? 'La Colombe' in Siena
Anyone for parrot? 'La Colombe' in Siena

Report by Juliet Giraldi

At the same time that blockbuster Verdi operas are being performed in the Arena in Verona attracting thousands of tourists,the lesser known (and largely ignored) mini-festival Settimana Musicale Senese takes part in Siena.

Organised by the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, this musical jewel is held in the third week of July, preceding the summer school with its masterclasses and series of chamber concerts. Young instrumental players from all over the world attend these courses through August, attracted by the excellence of the tuition and the high standard it expects - and attains.

This year the Chigiana Week celebrated its 70th anniversary with a particularly attractive programme which included two operas:  Handel's Hymen with the Ensemble Europa Galante conducted by Fabio Biondi, and Gounod's La Colombe (The Dove). The latter, which inaugurated the festival, was performed in the incredible setting of the Teatro dei Rinnovati, a beautiful 18th-century theatre that faces out onto a piazza next to the city's town hall.
This delightful two act opéra comique was composed by Gounod in 1860. It was based on a poem by La Fontaine (Le Faucon) which was itself inspired by a story by Boccaccio in the fifth day of the Decameron. (For the record, Boccaccio's 7th centenary is being celebrated this year). It narrates that Federigo degli Alberighi, who loves but is not loved in return, spends all his money in courtship and is left with only a falcon. Since he has nothing else to give her, he offers this to his lady to eat when she visits his home; on learning this, she changes her mind, takes him for her husband, and makes him rich.

The falcon becomes a dove in Gounod's opera and in a mischievous final twist the heroine Sylvie is treated by her lover to parrot instead of dove pie, the parrot belonging to her arch rival – not such an acceptable conclusion today as it would have been in 1860! The charming opera with its catchy melodies and comic episodes was performed for the first time at Baden-Baden and was met with much enthusiasm. Later, the spoken dialogue was set to music by Poulenc and it was this version that was performed with great verve in a brilliant production by Denis Krief with the Orchestra della Toscana conducted by Philipp von Steinaecker. The quartet of soloists was made up of Laura Giordano as Sylvie, a rippling light soprano ideal in this part, Laura Polverelli, superb acting and singing as Horace's servant, Juan Gatell as the lovelorn Horace and Filippo Polinelli as MaÎtre Jean.


San Francisco Opera Summer Festival

12 July 2013, San Francisco, US

Strength, confidence and sexuality: Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene
Strength, confidence and sexuality: Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene

Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) and Hye Jung Lee (Olympia)
Matthew Polenzani (Hoffmann) and Hye Jung Lee (Olympia)(Photos: Cory Weaver)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene searches for new meaning in a familiar story by reinterpreting the role Mary Magdalene played in Jesus’s life. Eschewing her unsavory reputation, the opera places her not only as his most important disciple, but also as his wife, adding a romantic and physical love dimension to the standard Biblical narrative.

The opera, which received its world premiere in San Francisco this summer, literally dug into history, unfolding on David Korins’ set of an Israeli archeological site filled with railings, stairways and tunnels. Lining the top, five modern-day Christians (called Seekers) disillusioned with the negativity towards women and sex, asked about Mary as she materialized at the bottom of the site where the story unfolded, fusing the past with the present.
Composer Mark Adamo portrayed the emotional conflicts and interactions of Mary’s new status in Jesus’s life through his music, which for the most part consisted of sparse orchestral writing that primarily supported the vocal line. It sounded like three hours of recitative with a smattering of tonal outbursts of emotion and discordant dramatic sounds, but lacked tension, never gained steam, and eventually became tedious. The problem, perhaps, was that these larger-than-life characters were presented on a human scale, their internal conflicts replacing external actions.  Adamo wrote music to suit, which raises the question whether this approach is viable for a successful opera.  Opera normally relies on contrast, tension and passion to transport and move audiences, but it is inherently difficult for contemporary operatic music to translate psychological conflicts into gripping, involving drama.

Nonetheless, the execution was admirable. Sasha Cooke’s searing voice exuded the strength, confidence and sexuality of Mary and her restless search for meaning. Maria Kanyova as Miriam had the most emotionally charged vocal lines which she executed with assurance and passion. William Burden made a fervent and uncompromising Peter. Only Nathan Gunn disappointed as Yeshua (Jesus), with a bland interpretation. Conductor Michael Christie drew lush sounds from the orchestra, only occasionally losing proper stage/pit balance.

Tales of Hoffman, however, was first rate in every way, offering a thrilling contrast, not only in subject matter – emphasizing the opera’s demonic undertones – but with its dramatic momentum. Updated and staged amidst dark-hued sets inspired by Belgian symbolist painter Leon Spilliaert, the production by director Laurent Pelly irreverently set the tavern scene in the men’s coatroom with drinking buddies in modern formal attire. Olympia, surrounded by electric towers, was hoisted up and down by cranes until rollerskating to destruction, and walls symbolically opened and closed, with staircases appearing and disappearing in Antonia’s dwelling.

Matthew Polenzani embodied Hoffmann with his devilish theatrics, relentless energy and vocal heft. Hye Jung Lee thrilled, tossing off Olympia’s roulades with ease, glitter and precision, while racing around the stage on roller skates. Irene Roberts made a splendid Giulietta, and Natalie Dessay was a believable Antonia: she sounded and looked frail. Her top register, however, was somewhat shaky. Maestro Patrick Fournillier’s tempo and pacing were exact, making for an involving evening.

Così fan tutte was reset and updated from Naples to a luxurious casino/hotel in Monte Carlo around 1914 that offered visually stunning sets, recreating a wealthy seaside ambiance that was slowly transformed into a hospital as the First World War began. The guests’ glamorous formal dress gave way to hospital attire which, juxtaposed with the mock poisoning and doctor masquerade, came across as anachronistic and confusing. The singing and conducting were respectable, but failed to sparkle like the production itself.


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