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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.


Belvedere Competition winners announced

8 July 2013, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Belvedere winners Rheinaldt Moagi, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Dong-Hwan Lee and Roman Burdenko
Belvedere winners Rheinaldt Moagi, Eve-Maud Hubeaux, Dong-Hwan Lee and Roman Burdenko(Photo: Paul van Wijngaarden)

In a hotly contested final, Korean baritone Dong-Hwan Lee took the laurels to win first prize in this year’s International Hans Gabor Belvedere Competition.

The event was held outside Austria for the first time, hosted by the Netherlands Opera at its home, Het Muziektheater, in Amsterdam. Competitors were chosen from 55 countries around the world, and there was a particularly strong showing among South Korean and South African entrants.

Lee’s winning performance was a full-blooded rendition of the Toreador’s Song from Carmen, sung with substance as well as gusto. The tall, burly singer still needs to polish up his rather awkward stage presence, but the judges recognised his potential to become a major player as a dramatic baritone with a voice that is built on a solid bass register. Lee receives engagements at the Royal Opera House, London and Cape Town Opera as part of the first prize, which is awarded in memory of soprano Teresa Stich-Randall.

The second prize was shared between Roman Burdenko, a suave young Russian baritone and Eve-Maud Hubeaux, a poised, stately Swiss mezzo whose fluent bel canto has overtones of Joyce DiDonato. 

South African entrant Rheinaldt Moagi, a personable young singer with an elegant  tenor voice, gave a witty rendition of the ‘Legend of Kleinzach’ from Les contes d’Hoffmann, which won him third prize overall and also the International Media Jury prize, awarded by leading journalists and broadcasters assembled in Amsterdam for the final on 6 July.

The Belvedere continues to be an important recruiting ground for operatic talent, drawing influential industry figures to the competition each year, including artistic directors, agents and casting managers. It’s not only the winners who benefit: many of the singers in this year’s finals received financial support from patrons and donors, and several were awarded engagements in major houses around the world.

Next year, the competition is hosted by the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf, Germany. Qualifying rounds are held in March 2014, with the finals in July.


Opera North receives Paul Hamlyn Award worth £500,000

24 June 2013, Leeds, UK

Opera North at Howard Assembly Room in Leeds
Opera North at Howard Assembly Room in Leeds

The UK’s Paul Hamlyn Foundation has awarded Opera North £500,000 to widen audiences, with a particular focus on building sustainable relationships with community partners in their local areas.

The Paul Hamlyn Award will be spread over five years, supporting the development of a tailor-made audience development scheme for the company. Awards of £500,000 each have also been given to arts organisations in Cardiff, Glasgow, Liverpool and Truro.

The Awards celebrate 25 years of arts philanthropy by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Régis Cochefert, who heads the Foundation’s arts division, said: ‘We want to see more people attending shows or concerts on a regular basis, but we recognise how hard it can be for venues to reach some parts of the community.’


London Opera Festival in jeopardy

3 June 2013, London, UK

Rostov State Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'
Rostov State Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'

The London Opera Festival looks set for cancellation, with organiser International Opera Productions (IOP) now in liquidation proceedings.

The Festival, planned in association with the Financial Times, is scheduled to take place at the Tower of London between 9 and 13 September, featuring black-tie performances of Madama Butterfly by the Rostov State Opera.

A spokesperson from the Tower of London said: ‘We are disappointed to learn of the liquidation of International Opera Productions. Recent conversations with the company suggested advance ticket sales were being well received.’

The UK’s Event website reported that a total of 600 guests have already booked for the Festival, amounting to revenues of approximately £275,000.

IOP’s chief executive, Christopher Palmer-Jeffries, told Event: ‘This is a very upsetting situation for all concerned. The London Opera Festival concept was extremely well received by potential sponsors and clients in the City. However, owing to the unexpected 'triple-dip' recession, the sales have not been resultant and I was forced to make the difficult decision of appointing liquidators.’


Krzysztof Meyer’s Cyberiada receives rare staging in Poznań

28 May 2013, Poznań, Poland

'Cyberiada' at Poznan’s Teatr Wielki
'Cyberiada' at Poznan’s Teatr Wielki(Photo: K Zalewska)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Based on short stories by the Polish writer Stanisław Lem, Cyberiada (The Cyberiad) is an allegorical dark comedy with serious overtones, dealing with the evils of totalitarianism, oppression, greed, deception, sexual addiction and the mysteries of life.

Using a story-within-a-story format, the opera fuses the science fiction idea of space travel with a pseudo-Medieval world populated by kings, queens, witches, knights and obedient subjects encased in identical multi-coloured boxes. A fiery red-haired inventor called Trull journeys from planet to planet building machines, which narrate three different allegorical tales symbolized by huge suspended masks.

Conceived as a Theatre of the Absurd by director Ran Arthur Braun and designer Justin Arienti, this precisely-executed production unfolded on a stage dominated by five huge batteries of percussion located on two levels. Each group incorporated 12 different instruments, which in turn produced 60 different types of sounds and noises (noise being as integral a part of the opera as the musical tones). The percussionists were dressed as astronauts and a parade of characters in over-the-top costumes acted with exaggerated and stilted mannerisms, parodying societal roles.

From breath-taking acrobatics, including two red-clad ballerinas pantomiming erotic dreams for King Zipperupus, to the finale in which Trull killed a clone of himself, the opera was simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking. Although composed during the 1960s, the final message touched on 21st century technology: nothing is eternal, not even machines. 

The music included serial, sonoristic and aleatoric techniques, resulting in a work with unconventional sounds and vocal lines almost devoid of melody, harmony or rhythm in the traditional sense. Instead, the action and feelings of the characters were expressed through a unique soundscape combining jazz, repeated chords, sound clusters and grotesque elements. Extensive sections of spoken dialogue were delivered melodically, ranging from rhythmical recitation to story-telling.

The singers, acrobats, dancers, chorus and orchestra of Poznań’s Teatr Wielki under maestro Krzysztof Słowiński did a superb job in keeping the complex elements of the work together, offering a worthwhile and admirable execution of this multi-faceted opera.


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