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Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Rossini’s Guillaume Tell

13 July 2011, Katonah, US

Daniel Mobbs (Guillaume Tell) and Talise Trevigne (Jemmy)
Daniel Mobbs (Guillaume Tell) and Talise Trevigne (Jemmy)(Photo: Gabe Palacio)

Julianna di Giacomo (Mathilde)
Julianna di Giacomo (Mathilde)(Photo: Gabe Palacio)

Review by Robert Levine

Caramoor’s music director, Will Crutchfield, threw his hat and that of his fine orchestra and chorus into a very small ring by presenting Rossini’s last opera, Guillaume Tell, first heard in Paris in 1829.

The overture was stunningly played from its opening adagio for five cellos through the storm sequence and the fine passages for winds and strings and on to the famous Lone Ranger finale. If there was a greater 12 minutes of music composed in 1829, I’d like to hear it. And throughout the evening, other than a truly embarrassing series of off-stage horn solos in act one, the Orchestra of St Luke’s played like virtuosi, the winds and brass remarkable during the Mathilde-Jemmy-Hedwige trio in the last act and the strings, who have quite a workout throughout, playing with splendid tone at all dynamic levels. 

Crutchfield’s tempi were judicious and, at times, generous to some of his less able cast members. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs, Caramoor’s primo uomo, sang Tell, and while he may have seemed a bit overparted at times (such as during ‘Sois immobile’, Tell’s plea to his son not to move while he shoots the apple off his head), he was gentle, loving and touching, and he has the stature for the role.

Julianna di Giacomo, singing the role of Mathilde, the Hapsburg princess, turned in a quite remarkable performance, from her opening ‘Sombre foret’, complete with light embellishments and a gorgeous trill through the last act trio. Sadly, her love interest, Arnold, the opera’s tenor lead, could not keep up with her. Granted, almost nobody gets out of this role alive – the famous Irish novelist James Joyce went obsessively through the score and counted “456 Gs, 93 A-flats, 92 As, 54 B-flats, 15 Bs, 19 Cs and 2 C-sharps,” and though he might have been off by a dozen or so notes, you get the point. Tenor Michael Spyres, in addition to sporting the most awkward stage comportment in recent memory, was excellent everywhere except for the Cs and the C sharps, which came out as yelps. The role is heroic-Rossini and he was not, but his valiant effort and smooth singing below those wicked high notes was appreciated.
Two singers new to the scene, mezzo Vanessa Cariddi and soprano Talise Trevigne as Hedwige and Jemmy, respectively, were great discoveries: beautiful, perfectly controlled voices, rich from top to bottom and of ample size, with temperament to boot. Scott Bearden’s huge-voiced baritone Gessler was a truly evil, imposing figure; Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artist bass Jeffrey Beruan sang the smallish role of Melchtal with distinction.
As suggested above, Crutchfield, his orchestra and chorus – the latter with a huge role in this opera – were magnificent, and Crutchfield’s intensity never flagged. The audience loved it, blemishes and all. Tell is not an opera one throws together in a few rehearsals; thought, preparation, decisions as to what stays and what goes make it quite a production. Crutchfield and Rossini expert Philip Gossett, by the way, were on hand before the performance to discuss the decisions and the work itself. A real treat.


Opera Now goes digital

12 July 2011, London, UK

Opera Now is now available as a digital subscription and as an app for the iPad and iPhone.

Digital subscriptions cost £24.99 for 6 issues and are available through distributor PocketMags here.

The Opera Now app for iPhone and iPad can be downloaded for £1.79 here, and comes with one free issue of the purchaser's choice. Further single issues or money-saving subscriptions can be purchased within the app.

Digital back issues are also available for download at the PocketMags site, priced at £4.99 each.


Rossini marks the high point of this year’s Garsington Opera festival

29 June 2011, Buckinghamshire, UK

Geoffrey Dalton (Don Geronio) with Rebecca Nelson (Fiorilla)
Geoffrey Dalton (Don Geronio) with Rebecca Nelson (Fiorilla)Photo: Mike Hoban

Review by Andrew Green

Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia is the clear success of Garsington’s season at its new home in Wormsely, the verdant Buckinghamshire estate of the Getty family.

Effortlessly updated to a Neapolitan town square/quayside in the 1950s, it was full of deft ‘blink-and-you-miss’ touches from director Martin Duncan. (The only irritation was the lack of imaginative stage direction for Mark Stone’s Poet, who never tired of scribbling away like a demented hack.)

A strong cast in both vocal and dramatic terms, saw Texas-born Rebecca Nelsen’s Fiorilla outstanding in both departments, with a real ‘ping’ to her delivery up and down the stave and pitch-perfect characterisation. Geoffrey Dolton was an excellent foil as her long-suffering husband, Don Geronio. David Parry conducted with wit and assurance.

Garsington Opera's Il Turco in Italia runs at Wormsley until 3 July.


World Premiere: Nico Muhly's Two Boys at English National Opera

28 June 2011, London, UK

Susan Bickley (DI Anne Strawson) in ENO's 'Two Boys'
Susan Bickley (DI Anne Strawson) in ENO's 'Two Boys'(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Review by Ashutosh Khandekar

Nico Muhly, at 28, has just had his first opera premiered at English National Opera. Two Boys tackles the dark, complex subject of the malign influence of the internet on teenage sexuality and, in a virtual world, the difficulties of distinguishing fantasy from reality.

Susan Bickley is in superb form as the beleagured police officer investigating a grizzly crime (think of Helen Mirren in TV’s Prime Suspect). Bartlett Sher’s production is atmospheric, with effective use of video, at times turning the stage into a huge computer screen.

There are memorable performances from the two boys – Nicky Spence as the troubled Brian and treble Joseph Beesley as the manipulative young Jake.  Heather Shipp, Jonathan McGovern and Valerie Reid provide strong support among a uniformly excellent, convincing cast.

Nico Muhly’s music has shades of Benjamin Britten and dollops of Philip Glass. There is some accomplished choral and orchestral composing, but his writing for solo voice still lacks personality.

Muhly can certainly ‘paint’ with sound, describing the worlds his characters inhabit in great detail. He engages us in the story, building the tension well,  but with such a limited vocal palette, he misses the emotional heartbeat of his characters. This is, nonetheless, a creditable operatic debut from a talented young composer.

Two Boys runs at the London Coliseum until 8 July 2011.


San Francisco Opera presents three complete Ring cycles

24 June 2011, San Francisco, US

Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Die Walküre'
Mark Delavan (Wotan) and Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Die Walküre'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) - 'Siegfried'
Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried) - 'Siegfried'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Götterdämmerung'
Nina Stemme (Brünnhilde) - 'Götterdämmerung'(Photo: Cory Weaver)

Review by Karyl Charna Lynn

When the lead (premiering) producing company for Götterdämmerung changed from Washington National Opera to San Francisco Opera due to financial difficulties at the former, director Francesco Zambello shifted the emphasis of her production from abuse of power, corruption, and greed to the destruction of the environment and female power – themes more germane to California than Washington DC.

Currently being presented in three full cycles at San Francisco Opera, Zambello's Ring production began at WNO in 2006 with Das Rheingold set during the 1849 Gold Rush and continuing to the 1920s Great Gatsby era of greed, corruption and broken promises.

The Die Walküre, premiered in 2007, saw the beginnings of the environmental pollution and female power themes with a set depicting the trash-strewn underbelly of a decaying expressway and the Valkyries, dressed as paratroopers, arriving by parachute.

When Siegfried was premiered in 2009, it continued the journey through American History to the disenfranchised of contemporary American society, and the plague of industrial pollution with its menacing high voltage power lines. Mime lived in a junk-filled trailer home in a trash-filled trailer park. Piles of rubbish, discarded tires, empty bottles, junked cars, and overflowing trash cans led to the antechamber of Fafner's cave in the bowels of a underground bunker. Siegfried was a trailer park punk in leather jacket, struggling as a rebellious kid, not knowing who he was or where he came from. 

Zambello’s concept of paralleling the 'haves' and 'have-nots' of today's contemporary American society with the struggles of Mime, Alberich, Wanderer (Wotan), Siegfried, and Brünnhilde, was insightful and relevant. One only had to read the newspaper to know how many powerful and wealthy moguls fell during the global economic downturn, a result of their greed and arrogance (Wotan), or that a young, optimistic, outsider of mixed race (who had become the leader of the free world) wanted to overthrow the old order (Siegfried). It was a chillingly accurate assessment of the price paid for wealth, greed, power, and ambition, and why a new order was necessary.

The only new production, that of Götterdämmerung, opened with the three Norms, clad in indescribably ugly green work clothes, hopelessly trying to 'weave' tangled miles of unsightly black cables (updated rope of fate) that short-circuited when connected to a screen-projected mother board. By Act III the Rhinemaidens, carrying yellow trash bags, were plucking tons of discarded plastic bottles and other debris from the banks of the polluted Rhine. Every scene had backdrop projections of billowing black smoke from what appeared to be oil refineries. In this production the twilight of the gods was caused by pollution.

Gutrune was transformed into a buxom blond sexpot, and Hagan, a gangster, strutted around with a machine gun in a three-quarter length black leather coat. When he reminded Gutrude that she has no husband, she stuck her tongue out, eliciting laughs from the audience in one of the production's many 'humanizing' character interactions.

Act II opened with Gutrune and Hagan remotely switching television channels followed by Hagan taking a sleeping pill (both of which elicited abundant laughs from the audience), only to have Alberich awaken him with “Schläfts du, Hagen, mein Sohn? Du schläfts und horst mich nicht, den Ruh und Schlaf verriet?” And when Siegfired was murdered, rather than being carried off stage majestically, he was carted away like an animal killed in the hunt, and Hagan was suffocated by a yellow trash bag.

Zambello instead made women the true heroes of this opera. Only Brünnhilde, Gutrune, and the Rhinemaidens were on stage in the final scene, followed by a massive women’s chorus. It was almost as an afterhought that men appeared at the final moment.  

This raises the question, is this the way to make the Ring relevant for today’s audiences – by integrating contemporary issues into the production and humanizing (with human foibles) the characters, to the extent that all traces of godliness are removed from the gods and goddesses, making them no different from you or I? Or is this a passing fad? Only time will tell.

There’s no doubt that the character humanization and continual interactions gave the opera a momentum that made the five and a half hours fly by, and Zambello's overarching concepts and its complex execution were brilliant. But it also detracted from experiencing those spine-chilling moments (like Siegfried’s Funeral March and Brünhilde’s Immolation Scene) that transcend a superbly executed performance and thrust the spectator into that elusive realm of sublime emotion and passionate ecstasy.

Ian Storey captured Siegfried’s innocence, naivety, and simplistic wonder at civilization foreign to him. Although not a powerful instrument, he acquitted himself respectably, despite a "sudden vocal indisposition" during Act II. Andrea Silvestrelli made a suitably evil Hagan, only his nasal tone and gruffness was slightly distracting. Melissa Citro was a visually alluring and seductive Gutrune, and Gerd Grochowsky sang with aplomb.

The focal point of the performance was Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde, reminiscent of another Swedish Wagnerian soprano, Birgit Nilsson. Although lacking Nilsson’s incredible power and ability to slice through the loudest chords a Wagnerian orchestra can muster, she sang with power and precision, secure in a role that she will surely inhabit for many years to come. Donald Runnicles elicited magnificent and sweeping sounds from the orchestra.

San Francicso Opera's Ring cycle productions run until 3 July 2011.


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