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Opening night at La Scala: Mozart's Don Giovanni

13 December 2011, Milan, Italy

Bryn Terfel (Leporello) with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni)
Bryn Terfel (Leporello) with Peter Mattei (Don Giovanni)

Anna Netrebko (Donna Anna)
Anna Netrebko (Donna Anna)

Review by Courtney Smith
Photos by Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala

Robert Carsen’s new production of Mozart’s cautionary tale Don Giovanni, which launched Teatro alla Scala’s 2011/12 season on 7 December in Milan, unfolded as a Hollywood parable – if you're rich and famous enough, you can get away with murder. It’s an allegory that reverberates strongly with Italians who are reeling from the aftermath of Silvio Berlusconi’s 17-year reign as a notorious Don Juan figure.

Berlusconi’s replacement, former economist Mario Monti, joined Italy’s President, Giorgio Napolitano in the Royal Box to show Italy that arts funding will not be threatened as it was under Berlusconi’s government. After the recent proposal of Monti's 30-billion-euro austerity package, La Scala’s elegant foyer was packed with a sober crowd in understated dress – by opening night standard, at least.

Carsen always bring big ideas to opera, but source material for Don Giovanni is clear: he’s the 'dissoluto punito' (punished rake). Instead, Carsen’s Don went unpunished for his immoral behavior and appeared in the finale to smugly send the ensemble to hell in his place with the point of a finger. The mediated rewrite stripped Da Ponte’s multilayered archetypes of free will and emotional connections were broken.

Carsen’s mise-en-scène was austere, set entirely in Teatro alla Scala – its stage and its guts. Self-referential landscape comprised of stage curtains on rolling panels, photo panoramas of the theater’s auditorium, and a stage-sized mirror. As Don Giovanni's lies compounded, scenery layers stretched to infinity, culminating in Donna Elvira's Act II 'In quali eccessi, o Numi'.

Boasting a star-studded cast, tickets evaporated in minutes. Peter Mattei was in strong form as deux ex machina Don Giovanni, an aloof seducer who pulled the strings of all those in his orbit.  Bryn Terfel as Leporello expertly balanced buffoonery and severity. 

Anna Netrebko bowed her La Scala premiere as a confident Donna Anna in rich color and striking vocal power. She was paired with Don Ottavio sung earnestly by Giuseppe Filianoti. Barbara Frittoli sang Donna Elvira as a jealous, insecure stalker in lush, warm voice. Il Commendatore as Kwangchul Youn made a big presence in a compacted role. Masetto and Zerlina, sung by Štefan Kocánand Anna Prohaska respectively, were the weakest.

Daniel Barenboim took the podium for the first time as Teatro alla Scala’s new Music Director, but seemed unsure if Mozart’s dramma giocoso should be conducted as drama or tragedy. Uneven with idiosyncratic tempos, Act I dragged at such a slow pace that when Barenboim took the podium for Act II, an audience member from the famous loggione gallery levels shouted 'troppo lento' ('too slow').

Despite some stunningly re-scripted moments – Act I’s funeral of Il Commendatore had been transported to a church and Scene IV’s lavish ball was genius in its progressive breakdown – Carsen’s partiality to the dapper Don’s immorality earned him boos during the curtain call, as well as Barenboim for his indecisiveness.


Chicago Opera Theater appoints new director

13 December 2011, Chicago, US

Andreas Mitisek
Andreas Mitisek

Chicago Opera Theater has appointed Andreas Mitisek as the company’s general director. Mitisek is currently the artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera, and will continue in this position alongside his new appointment.

At LBO, Mitisek has established a reputation for edgy and dynamic productions whilst also doubling the company’s budget and eliminating a longstanding deficit.

Marc Scorca,CEO of Opera America, welcomed the news and said that he expected ‘both organizations and the communities they serve to benefit from shared productions as well as Andreas' dynamic leadership and artistic vision’.

Thomas Allen celebrates 40 years at Covent Garden

13 December 2011, London, UK

Thomas Allen as Alfonso
Thomas Allen as Alfonso(Photo: Bill Cooper)

Thomas Allen is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his debut at London’s Royal Opera House this month. Between 27 January and 10 February he will give six performances as Alfonso in Jonathan Miller’s classic production of Così fan tutte.

The British baritone has sung more than 50 roles at Covent Garden since his debut as Donald in Britten’s Billy Budd. He is particularly known for his performances as Mozart's Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso.

Allen was made a Knight Bachelor in 1999 and recently became Chancellor of Durham University.


Bartoli takes helm of Salzburg Whitsun Festival

13 December 2011, Salzburg, Austria

Cecilia Bartoli
Cecilia Bartoli(Photo: Alberto Venzago)

In her first piece of programming as the artistic director of Salzburg Whitsun Festival, Cecilia Bartoli has chosen an Egyptian theme. From 25 to 28 May, the festival will bring together a stellar list of artists to perform works inspired by ‘Cleopatra – the legendary woman of a thousand faces’, including a new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto starring Bartoli herself as Cleopatra opposite Andreas Scholl’s Cesar.

Other highlights include a concert performance of Massenet’s Cléopâtre sung by Sophie Koch, Berlioz’s La Mort de Cléopâtre with Vesselina Kasarova and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner, and a closing concert featuring Anna Netrebko with the orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre conducted by Valery Gergiev.

Reflecting the festival’s commitment to commissioning new work, Netrebko will also give the world premiere of Kleopatra i zmeja (Cleopatra and the asp) for soprano and orchestra by the Russian composer, Rodion Shchedrin.


Olli Kortekangas' One Night Stand premieres in Helsinki

2 December 2011, Helsinki, Finland

Terttu Iso-Oja (Axe/Momo) in the Cat Club
Terttu Iso-Oja (Axe/Momo) in the Cat Club(Photo: Rami Talja)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

One Night Stand is a multi-level, quasi-surrealistic portrait of a generation of 20 to 30-year-olds: their aspirations, dreams, fears, and relationships mirror the malaise of a wider social context coloured by loneliness, longing, insecurity, alcohol and drug addiction, violence, suicide, aging, theft, and mental illness.

The action takes place in a 24-hour adventure/dream, alternating between the present and five years in the future, which blurs the line between dreams and reality and underlines how life and times can change dramatically in half a decade. One of the most effective transformations was a café for cat lovers, which goes bankrupt and reopens as a night club offering live transsexual shows with cheap lager.

This edgy exploration of sexuality and gender was carried into the portrayal of the lead character, which alternated between a guy called Axe and a gal called Momo, and required two singers (tenor and soprano) for the role. Depending upon the singer’s gender, the dynamics of relationships (heterosexual or homosexual) also changed along with the tone of the opera.

Unfolding on a stage divided into several sections by aluminum poles, draped with plastic drop cloths onto which images from Axe/Momo’s diary were projected, and supplemented by suggestive props, the action flowed seamlessly from street scenes to cafe/nightclub, a hospital emergency room, library, and even the seashore. A strong Japanese aesthetic influenced a black/white uniformity in costumes and identical black wigs. 

Taking such a relevant and insightful libretto about the ills of our time (which could easily stand on its own as a play) and turning it into a successful opera was a challenge which Olli Kortekangas met. His music not only added depth, breadth, and feeling to the opera, but emotional heft to the characters: you really cared what happened to these kids. Drawing inspiration from a variety of musical and operatic genres, he skillfully navigated through a sea of diverse vocal waters, from grand opera arias and dynamic coloratura, Greek Chorus-like recitative (speaking snippets of cell phone conversations) to cabaret, Broadway musicals, tango music, and modern jazz. There were even sprinkles of Mussorgsky and Phillip Glass, and sounds of bongo drums, and saxophone. All was held together with melodies and harmonies based on a classic style with an ascending and descending structure.

This is a 21st century opera that speaks to a 21st century audience in its language and music. It is fast-paced, almost chaotic in places, and so relevant for today’s youth that it promises to bring down the average age of the typical operagoer by 30 years. This is an opera for the future.

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