Category Archives: Opera Review

BACK ON CATFISH ROW ·

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

(Geoffrey O’Brien’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 11/21.)  

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford

Norton, 594 pp., $39.95

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

(Read more)

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

STATEMENT REGARDING THE PASSING OF INTERNATIONAL OPERA STAR JESSYE NORMAN ·

(via Gwendolyn Quinn)

(New York, NY — September 30, 2019) — It is with deep sadness and sorrow that we announce the passing of international opera star Jessye Norman, in a statement issued by Norman’s family through the family’s spokesperson, Gwendolyn Quinn.

Norman, 74 years old, passed away today, Monday, September 30, 2019, at 7:54 a.m. ET at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital in New York, NY, where she was surrounded by loved ones. The official cause of death was septic shock and multi-organ failure secondary to complications of a spinal cord injury she had sustained in 2015.

Norman was the eldest of two remaining siblings, James Norman and Elaine Sturkey, from a total of five children. “We are so proud of Jessye’s musical achievements and the inspiration that she provided to audiences around the world that will continue to be a source of joy. We are equally proud of her humanitarian endeavors addressing matters such as hunger, homelessness, youth development, and arts and culture education.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced in the coming days.

PLÁCIDO DOMINGO LEAVES MET OPERA AMID SEXUAL HARASSMENT INQUIRY ·

(Michael Cooper’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/24; via Pam Green.)

The star singer, accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, dropped out of Verdi’s “Macbeth” and indicated he would not return to the Met.

In an 11th-hour reversal, the superstar singer Plácido Domingo withdrew on Tuesday from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Verdi’s “Macbeth” and indicated he would not return to the Met, amid rising tensions over the company’s response to allegations that he had sexually harassed multiple women.

Mr. Domingo’s withdrawal on the eve of the performance — opening night is Wednesday — came as a growing number of people who work at the Met expressed concern about his upcoming performances. Other American cultural institutions, including the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Opera, had already canceled Mr. Domingo’s upcoming appearances, citing the need to provide a safe workplace.

The backstage unease at the Met boiled over in recent days, including at a heated, sometimes emotional meeting that Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, held with orchestra and chorus members after the “Macbeth” dress rehearsal on Saturday afternoon. Some of those at the meeting questioned what Mr. Domingo’s return said about the Met’s commitment to protecting women and rooting out sexual harassment.

(Read more)

Photo: The New York Times

ANTHONY TURNAGE OPERA: ‘THE SILVER TASSIE’ (AFTER THE PLAY BY SEAN O’CASEY) ·

Listen on BBC Radio 3

Live from the Barbican Hall, the BBC Symphony Orchestra presents Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie. Ryan Wigglesworth conducts an all-star British cast and the BBC Singers. Presented by Andrew McGregor Live from the Barbican Hall, London Mark-Anthony Turnage: The Silver Tassie (Libretto by Amanda Holden after the play by Sean O’Casey) Act I Act II 8.05 Interval 8.25 Act III Act IV Harry ….. Ashley Riches (baritone) Susie ….. Sally Matthews (soprano) Croucher….. Brindley Sherratt (bass) Mrs Foran….. Claire Booth (soprano) Teddy ….. Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) Barney ….. Alexander Robin Baker (baritone) Jessie….. Louise Alder (soprano) Mrs Heegan …..Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) Sylvester ….. Mark Le Brocq (tenor) Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer ….. Anthony Gregory (tenor) Corporal ….. Benedict Nelson (baritone) BBC Singers Finchley Children’s Music Group Kenneth Richardson (Director) Ryan Wigglesworth (Conductor) Sean O’Casey’s provocative 1928 play The Silver Tassie pries open the wound of the First World War and peers unblinkingly into its horrifying depths. The futility of war and its painful human cost is conveyed with even greater intensity in Mark-Anthony

Turnage’s beautifully crafted operatic adaptation, which explores what happens when young, football-mad Harry comes back from the war in a wheelchair. An all-star British cast has been assembled including Susan Bickley, Sally Matthews and Louise Alder, with rising young baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, for this long-overdue revival of the opera, premiered in 2000 at ENO. SYNOPSIS The Silver Tassie, Turnage’s second acknowledged opera, is on a much larger scale than his first, Greek.

Based on the play by Sean O’Casey written in 1927, it is set at the time of the Great War (World War I) and its title, referring to a footballing trophy, comes from a Scottish song text by Robert Burns ‘Go fetch to me a pint o’ wine, an’ fill it in a silver tassie; that I may drink before I go, a service to my bonnie lassie’. Harry Heegan (23) is a local hero – a soldier on leave from the Great War, and a renowned footballer. An only child, he lives with his parents (both in their 60s), having grown up close to the girl next door, Susie. In the flat above is a volatile young couple, Mrs Foran and her husband Teddy. The other main roles are Harry’s glamorous girlfriend, Jessie, and his best friend, Barney. Triumphant after a footballing success and winning the cup (‘The Silver Tassie’) for his team, he leaves for the front. The second act, a darkly expressionist vision of war, is cast for male voices (boys and men) only. In the second half of the opera, Harry is in a wheelchair, Teddy is blind and Jessie has deserted Harry for Barney. The final act, in which dance music plays almost continuously, brings the tragi-comedy to a poignant and moving conclusion, as Harry and Teddy set off to face the future.

LLOYD WEBBER/RICE: ‘EVITA’  (REVIEW FROM LONDON) ·

By Marit E. Shuman

 Rainbow High or Rainbow Low?

In the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, panache seems to overtake sincerity in this gilded, but nonetheless, enjoyable production. Title-role: Emma Hatton, no stranger to the West End (her credits include Elphaba in Wicked) or to the world of jazz and blues, seems to rely heavily on the latter in the delivery of her performance.

A vocally taxing role, Evita swoops from dusky, barely audible low notes all the way up to belted passagio, and then some. To quote Patti LuPone, originator of the role of Evita on Broadway, “There’s a couple of notes that aren’t as strong as your top notes or your bottom notes and that’s exactly where the score sits.” Where LuPone punched through the Es, Fs, and Gs, that characterize the vocal line (at the cost of her vocals, to be fair), Hatton backs down and floats them, in a breathy, bluesy manner. This approach adds a layer of sensitivity to Evita, by the addition of more dynamic contrast, but at what cost? Some of the strength, drive, and fearlessness of Eva Perón seem to be lost.

 

Playing opposite Hatton, making his West End debut in the role of Che, is Gian Marco Schiaretti.  Extremely handsome, he moves about the stage with ease and confidence.  Classic Che beard tightly clipped, army reliefs tightly fitted, and vibrato tightly coiled, this “boyband Che” brings charisma to the role, and, when he moves to his higher register and gives up trying to speak-sing, reveals an expressive and powerful voice. Unfortunately, the honesty and gravity of Che, as narrator, are glossed over by all the glitz.

Whereas the roles of Evita and Che seem to be lacking something, in terms of integrity, so too does the music. As is the norm nowadays, with theatres trying to cut costs, the orchestra that Webber’s iconic songs were written for consists of three keyboards–playing the parts of various instruments, such as strings and harps–a couple of trumpets, and a guitar.

All in all, a fun production but fluffy–ephemeral and insubstantial.

© 2017 by Marit E. Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Photos: Pamela Raith

ITALY’S ELITE LA SCALA APPALLED AT OPERA GOERS TURNING UP IN T-SHIRTS, MINI-SKIRTS AND FLIP-FLOPS ·

(Nick Squires’s article appeared in the Telegraph, 7/14.; via the Drudge Report.)  

As one of the world’s most celebrated opera houses, La Scala in Milan expects a certain degree of decorum, but guardians of the elite institution have been appalled at the shabby state of audiences this summer.

Instead of donning jackets and evening dresses, ticket holders are turning up as if dressed for the beach, as temperatures reach 95F or more during one of Italy’s hottest summers for years.

The worst culprits are normally foreign tourists but even Italians, who are normally renowned for their stylish dress, are not averse to arriving in shorts, mini-skirts and sandals.

(Read more)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/07/14/italys-elite-la-scala-appalled-opera-goers-turning-t-shirts/

 

ALEX ROSS ON THOMAS ADÈS’S OPERA ‘THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL’ ·

 

(Ross’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 8/22.)

In Salzburg, Thomas Adès gives Luis Buñuel’s cool, eerie film from 1962 a new, tragic volatility.

The British composer Thomas Adès is as compelling as any contemporary practitioner of his art because he is, first and foremost, a virtuoso of extremes. He is a refined technician, with a skilled performer’s reverence for tradition, yet he has no fear of unleashing brutal sounds on the edge of chaos. Although he makes liberal use of tonal harmony—including opulent, late-Romantic gestures, for which mainstream audiences profess to be starved—he subjects that material to shattering pressure. He conjures both the vanished past and the ephemeral present: waltzes in a crumbling ballroom, pounding beats in a pop arena. Like Alban Berg, the twentieth-century master whom he most resembles, he pushes ambiguity to the point of explosive crisis.

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/08/22/thomas-ades-the-exterminating-angel

FROM BRITTEN TO BERLIOZ: OPERA’S DEBT TO SHAKESPEARE ·

 

(Rupert Chrisiansen’s aricle appeared in the Telegraph 8/9.)

As we present our Glyndebourne stream of 'Béatrice et Bénédict’, Rupert Christiansen asks why so many composers love the Bard

At the last scholarly count, almost 300 operas have been drawn fromShakespeare’s plays. These range from The Fairy Queen, Purcell’s late 17th-century fantasia on the theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to musty obscurities such as von Lichtenstein’s 19th-century Ende gut, alles gut (All’s Well that Ends Well), and modern novelties such as Brett Dean’s Hamlet and Ryan Wigglesworth’s The Winter’s Tale – both of which receive their world premieres next season, at Glyndebourne and the London Coliseum respectively. 

In general, it is plot and character, rather than Shakespeare’s poetic language, that have provided the inspiration for operas based on his plays. Although Britten used Shakespeare’s text for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, cutting it drastically but leaving it otherwise virtually unchanged, this is an unusual practice. The great majority of composers have worked up completely new librettos, which make only general or passing reference to the original words. 

(Read more)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/opera/what-to-see/from-britten-to-berlioz-operas-debt-to-shakespeare/

*****SARAH KANE: ‘4.48 PSYCHOSIS’ OPERA (SV PICK, UK) ·

(Steph Powers’s article appeared in the Independent, 5/26.)

Suffering from suicidal depression, Sarah Kane experienced her sharpest, most anguished clarity at 4.48am: hence her visceral final play, 4.48 Psychosis. In it, mental extremes are unflinchingly distilled. Wreathed in dark humour or bleak, lyrical beauty, words fragment and coalesce through angry pain and medicated stupor into skinless and terrible lucid freedom.

Where this first ever operatic setting by Royal Opera/Guildhall Composer-in-Residence Philip Venables succeeds is through simple honesty. With a score ranging guilelessly from motoric arrhythmia to wispy renaissance, director Ted Huffman and team attempt neither dramatic adornment nor explanation but allow the text to breathe within a kaleidoscope of inner-outer conflict.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/reviews/448-psychosis-lyric-hammersmith-review-sarah-kane-s-final-play-about-her-suicidal-depression-a7049726.html

DEBATING ‘OTELLO,’ BLACKFACE AND CASTING TRENDS ·

 

 

(Ben Brantley’s and Anthony Tommasini’s article appeared in The New York Times, 9/30; via Pam  Green.)

When the Metropolitan Opera announced it would forgo the traditional darkening makeup for the title character in its new production of Verdi’s “Otello,” it set off the latest in an ongoing series of debates about the depiction of race in theatrical settings. In an email exchange, two critics for The New York Times — Ben Brantley, whose specialty is theater, and Anthony Tommasini, whose area is classical music — discussed the “Otello” staging, the uses of blackface, casting trends and more. Here are excerpts from their conversation. 

ANTHONY TOMMASINI Colorblind casting has taken hold over the last couple of decades, both in the theater and opera worlds. Today, if a production of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” (or Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” in the opera house) starred a black Romeo and a white Juliet, it would simply be a nonissue.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/01/arts/music/debating-otello-blackface-and-casting-trends.html?mwrsm=Email&_r=0

Stage Voices Publishing for archived posts and sign up for free e-mail updates: http 2015:// www.stagevoices.com/ . If you would like to contribute a review, monologue, or other work related to theatre, please write to Bob Shuman at Bobjshuman@gmail.com.