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World Premiere – Slaying the Dragon at Center City Opera Theater

19 June 2012, Philadelphia, US

Scenes from 'Slaying the Dragon'
Scenes from 'Slaying the Dragon'

(Photos: Center City Opera Theater)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

Many recent American operas have been fictionalised accounts based on true stories, which if they hadn’t actually happened would have been impossible to believe. Slaying the Dragon is one of them. Dealing with hate and violence, redemption and forgiveness, it also shows how forgiving is not always possible and how evil is not always apparent.

The story revolves around Larry Trapp, the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Nebraska, who in 1991 discovered that a Jewish family (the Weissers) had moved into town and began his usual virulent anti-Semitic and racist threats – similar to those he had spewed on other minorities. But the Weissers, rather than cowering or fighting back, turned the other cheek. As Trapp succumbed to the ravages of diabetes and was spurned by the KKK, the Weissers offered to take care of him. So moved was Trapp by their kindness, he renounced his virulent racial and anti-Semitic tirades and converted to Judaism. Based on the book, Not By the Sword, Ellen Frankel’s libretto is a fictionalized account of Larry Trapp’s transformation, known in the opera as Jerry Krieg.

Set against a backdrop evoking the ruins of the World Trade Center after the September 11th bombings, symbolizing the world’s destructive forces, the opera offered some chilling scenes. For example, after Krieg’s induction as the Grand Dragon, when the attendees pulled off their white pointed hoods to reveal normal mums talking on cell phones to their kids; or when a Holocaust surivivor refused to offer forgiveness to the newly-converted Krieg, instead showed him her arm etched with concentration camp numbers. But there were also long stretches of banality and redundancy like the repetitiveness of the chorus, and a gospel preacher leading a reluctant audience in a sing-along that seemed endless. The problem was with the scenes that jumped from gut-wrenching revulsion and shocking obscene rawness of Krieg and his Skinhead henchmen to the preachy goodness of the Jewish family, without delving into why each character had such a temperament. The explanation of Krieg’s hate, that he was abused as a child, came across as too simplistic for such a profoundly moving conversion: as Act I ended he was poised to kill the Jewish family, yet by the end of act two, he had renounced all hate groups, apologized to everyone he had offended, and had converted to Judaism, which was, very effectively juxtaposed with the induction of a new Grand Dragon.

The music sounded like an aural rendition of a patchwork quilt with each pattern a different size, shape, texture and colour, with the array of musical styles echoing the diversity of characters: from Jerry Krieg’s Grand Dragon to the newly arrived Jewish couple, Michael and Vera Goodman; from the skinheads Viper and Nighthawk to the Reverend Ava Gray; from the Asian Giet Long to the Holocaust survivor, Ester Zikorn. The melodic score at times sounded more like a movie soundtrack, especially with the abundant spoken dialogue and the unusual fusion of sounds – including gospel songs distilled from Hebrew melodies. Nevertheless, despite its lyrical character, the music was very much 21st century, sung by a well rehearsed cast and crisply conducted by maestro Andrew Kurtz.


Verdi's Macbeth at the Grand Theatre, Geneva

14 June 2012, Geneva, Switzerland

Christof Loy's new 'Macbeth' in Geneva
Christof Loy's new 'Macbeth' in Geneva(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

Review by Robert Thicknesse

Verdi had little interest in the subtexts of Shakespeare. (How could he, since he never read the stuff?) What he liked in the plays were ‘strong situations’, laid on with a trowel, and Macbeth in particular also provided a way out of the formal straitjacket of Italian opera: with its witches, soliloquies and scenes of supernatural horror and bloody offstage mayhem, it doesn’t lend itself to the standard scene-building routines of cavatina and cabaletta. His imagination freed and fired by those witches and especially by the glittering malevolence of Lady Macbeth, Verdi produced something whose fantasy and originality he wouldn’t match for a good decade. Shakespeare’s imagery, too, is on a different level from all other opera, and even in gutted Italian all the spooked resonances of daggers, rooky woods, dusty death and the rest come echoing through.

Christof Loy seems largely to have overcome his urge to sneer at Italian opera and now produces detailed, thoughtful and visually arresting dramas. His take on Macbeth was surprisingly classical – a vast, gloomy gothic baronial hall (Edwardian-ish), an enormous staircase vanishing into darkness at the back, the sepulchral light of a Scottish February sunset casting skeletal shadows on the wall, marvellously lit in spectral shades of grey – and it was matched by an elegant, understated orchestral performance by the Suisse Romande under Ingo Metzmacher, full of wormy inner detail, sorrow and mystery, occasionally short of melodrama but rising to thunderous climaxes in the earth-shattering act finales.

The closest to a directorial concept was that Macbeth fantasises the witches and their prophecies into being: it’s his domestics, transfigured in his fevered mind, who tell him what he wants to hear. His obsession with tearing away the veil of the future is prefigured at the beginning by a dumbshow of the sleepwalking scene, a loose scrim between the audience and Lady Macbeth slowly descending the distant stairs in a most Hitchcockian way to the melancholy prelude; bloodied bodies litter the floor, a vision of the final battle.

The show was notable for the Verdian debut of Jennifer Larmore. She has all the notes (except perhaps the final fateful D-flat) and a marvellous flashing-eyed presence, but beautiful singing was never really called for in a role that will always be copyrighted by Callas with her vocal scenery-chewing. In Larmore’s more suppressed interpretation, the hidden hysteria induced by the couple’s actions came through her jumpy, heart-in-mouth toast as she tried to jolly the banquet along, a basilisk look at her crumbling husband, and the final tranced scene where she finally became human and vulnerable.
The jaunty choruses of witches were energetically done by the Geneva chorus, who also put in a stunning turn as the shattered refugees from devastated Scotland. Davide Damiani was the dramatic but vocally unstable Macbeth; Christian van Horn sang Banquo, the piece’s moral weathervane, with great beauty, and Andrea Carè gave Macduff a stirring belt. The ballets Verdi added for Paris were included, not wholly successfully.


Verdi's Falstaff at the Royal Opera House, London

22 May 2012, London, UK

Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff
Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)

Review by Francis Muzzu

Verdi's Falstaff is the Royal Opera's contribution to this summer's World Shakespeare Festival in London.   A new production by Robert Carsen (shared with La Scala and the Canadian Opera Company) it is updated to the 1950s; a second Elizabethan Age, and one of comparable social mobility to the first. 

It all works well (with the aid of some judiciously tweaked surtitles) and Paul Steinberg's oak-panelled sets look very fine indeed, as does Alice Ford's rather fabulous kitchen.  The comedy unfolds naturally and is generally unforced, and Daniele Gatti leads an equally flowing performance in the pit and is attentive to his singers.  

Ambrogio Maestri's Falstaff is rightly dominant in both presence and voice, and rules the stage; Dalibor Jenis puts up a good fight as Ford.  Mistresses Ford, Page and Quickly (respectively Ana Maria Martinez, Kai Rüütel and Marie-Nicole Lemieux) are sharply characterised and elegantly sung, though their voices are more Glyndebourne-sized; and Amanda Forsythe’s Nanetta and Joel Prieto’s Fenton sound delicious but very small-scale. 

Grab one of the few remaining tickets if you can – it’s great fun.

Robert Carsen's new production of Falstaff runs at Covent Garden until 30 May


Toby Spence wins RPS Music Award

9 May 2012, London, UK

Toby Spence at the RPS Music Awards
Toby Spence at the RPS Music Awards(Photo: Simon Jay Price)

British tenor Toby Spence has won the singer category at this year’s prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Music Awards for his ‘vocal beauty and dramatic maturity’ in a range of operatic and concert repertoire, including the role of Lensky in ENO’s Eugene Onegin.

He was joined on the winners’ podium by director Deborah Warner, whose acclaimed production of Onegin for ENO received the Award for Opera and Music Theatre. A community opera by Spitalfields Festival, We Are Shadows, also topped the Learning and Participation category.

Spence’s victory was particularly poignant since he has recently undergone surgery for thyroid cancer, a fact announced only days before the Awards ceremony in London.

Although Spence is expected to make a full recovery, he had to pull out of ENO’s forthcoming production of Billy Budd in which he was due to have played Captain Vere. (He will be replaced by Kim Begley, last heard at ENO as Walter in the UK premiere of Mieczysław Weinberg's The Passenger.)


English National Opera 2012/13 season announced

4 May 2012, London, UK

John Graham-Hall as Eschenbach in Britten's 'Death in Venice'
John Graham-Hall as Eschenbach in Britten's 'Death in Venice'(Photo: Brescia e Amisano)

Report by Classical Music

The UK premiere of Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, an opera based on the imagined last days of Walt Disney's life, was the headline item at ENO’s recent 2012/13 season launch. High billing was also reserved for the world premiere of Michel van der Aa’s Sunken Garden, to a libretto by David Mitchell (author of Cloud Atlas).

Composer/conductor Ryan Wigglesworth takes up the position of composer-in-residence, the first to hold such a post since Mark-Anthony Turnage. Wigglesworth will also be conducting Calixto Bieito’s Carmen, which is described as a ‘new version’ of the maverick Catalan director’s Liceu production.

In 2013, Verdi's bicentenary will be marked by a new trimmed down production of La traviata with no intervals, by the iconoclastic German director Peter Konwitschny, while Benjamin Britten’s centenary brings a revival of Deborah Warner’s production of Death in Venice, starring John Graham-Hall as Aschenbach.

The season also marks a return to productions led by opera and theatre directors rather than celebrities from other creative fields. Highlights include Yoshi Oïda making his ENO debut with a new production of Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim’s Progress (an opera last seen at  ENO in 1951); Rupert Goold with a new production of Berg's Wozzeck; choreographer-director Michael Keegan-Dolan presenting ENO's first new Julius Caesar since 1979; David McVicar leading the UK stage premiere of Charpentier’s Medea; and Richard Jones with a revised version of his Paris Opera production of Martinů's Julietta.


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