Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: New Faces for “Marriage of Figaro” – Los Angeles Opera, March 21, 2015

March 22nd, 2015

The Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” in a performance that was cheered by the appreciative audience.

The cast demonstrated, not only the depth of the world’s operatic talent, but the commitment of the Los Angeles Opera to introducing new singers or singers in new roles to Los Angeles audiences.

The quintet of lead roles (the servant couple Figaro and Susanna, the Count and Countess Almaviva and their page boy Cherubino) were assigned to a youthful and enchanting group of artists representing four continents (Europe, Africa, Asia and North America).

[Below: Roberto Tagliavini (left) as Figaro and Pretty Yende (right) as Susanna; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Roberto Tagliavini’s Figaro

In his Los Angeles Opera (and American) debuts, Italian bass-baritone RobertoTagliavini was Figaro.

Tagliavini, who had sung recently in Vienna with the Los Angeles Opera’s general director, Placido Domingo (with the company’s music director James Conlon conducting) in Verdi’s “I Due Foscari”.

A specialist in Mozart and bel canto bass-bairtone roles, Tagliavini brought a lively vitality and lustrous basso sound to the title role.

Pretty Yende’s Susanna

Susanna was sung by South African lyric soprano Pretty Yende, who had made a strong impression as Micaela two seasons ago. [See Domingo at Helm for a Stellar “Carmen” – Los Angeles Opera, September 21, 2013.]

Singing the longest role in the opera, Yende, who has won several Placido Domingo-sponsored international competitions, was an eye-catching presence, a graceful actress, and as pretty-voiced as she is pretty-named.

[Below: the Count Almaviva (Ryan McKinny, left) is intent on seducing Susanna (Pretty Yende) who is determined he will not; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Ryan McKinny’s Count Almaviva

Over the past two years California baritone Ryan McKinny has added meaty roles of Wagner [Ryan McKinny, Melody Moore, Jay Hunter Morris Soar in “Flying Dutchman” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2013] Verdi [Dramatic, lyrical and powerful: Ryan McKinny’s Rigoletto Role Debut – Houston Grand Opera, January 24, 2014] and Previn [A Theatrically Brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire” Stars Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2014] to his performance repertory.

Yet McKinny demonstrates comfort and the vocal control required of aa Mozartean, as well as brilliant comic timing for a character whose unceasing (and unsuccessful) schemes to sexually subdue Susanna are the center of Mozart’s comedy.  [See also Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny.]

Renée Rapier’s Cherubino

Iowa mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier, an alumna of the Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist’s program, proved an endearing and funny Cherubino, who sings (beautifully) two of Mozart’s most famous arias and gets abundant laughs as Tagliavini’s Figaro sings Non piu andrai, the number one aria on the Mozart hit parade.

Although she has had important comprimario roles at both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Operas [see Vittorio Grigolo, Nino Machaidze Sublime in Ian Judge’s Romantic, Erotic “Romeo et Juliette” – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2011], her Los Angeles Opera Cherubino should be considered a breakout role for this talented mezzo.

[Below: Figaro (Roberto Tagliavini, right) explains to Cherubino (Renée Rapier, left) what life as a soldier will be like; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


 Guanqun Yu’s Countess Almaviva

I had admired Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu’s Countess Almaviva in the first segment of Los Angeles Opera’s “Figaro Trilogy” [See Review: Los Angeles Opera Launches Ambitious New Production of “Ghosts of Versailles” – February 7, 2015.]

Yet another artist who has sung with Domingo in Europe (as Lucrezia in “I Due Foscari” in Valencia, Spain) she is now an established presence at the New York Met, assaying Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” there.

Her two great arias Porgi, amor and Dove sono were spellbinding, delivered with the sensitivity and control that suggests this will be a role that is central to her repertory, even as she explores the Verdian dramatic soprano territory.

[Below: Guanqun Yu as Rosina, the Countess Almaviva; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


Other Cast Members

The trio of elder conspirators was sung with the proper comic touches by the veteran team of Icelandic basso Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo, Pennsylvania character tenor Robert Brubaker as Don Basilio, and Illinois mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina. All were effective comedians, Brubaker’s oily Basilio especially noteworthy.

[Below: Don Basilio (Robert Brubaker, left), Marcellina (Lucy Schaufer, middle) and Doctor Bartolo (Kristinn Sigmundsson, right) enter into a conspiracy to revenge themselves; edited image, based on Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


New York bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos and Ohio tenor Joel Sorensen, both invaluable veterans of the comic character roles were respectively the gardener Antonio and Don Curzio.

South Korea soprano So Young Park impressed in the role of Barbarina, to whom is entrusted one of Mozart’s haunting melodies.

The Production and Staging

British director Ian Judge participated in the revival of his staging of his production for the Los Angeles Opera, previously seen here in 2004, 2006 and 2010 [See Domingo’s Domain: The Incredible Maestro Conducts Los Angeles Opera “Nozze” – October 6, 2010.]

The Los Angeles Opera has a special affinity with this imaginative director, who has staged several productions for the company [See Powerful, Edgy “Tannhauser” at Los Angeles Opera – February 28, 2007 for what is perhaps his most celebrated (and notorious) endeavor here.]

Mozart’s opera is eternally funny (those who have seen it multiple times know every joke and every comic bit, yet it can always be staged in unexpected ways, and Judge’s conceptualization of the piece was high-spirited and effective.

[Below: the first scene, taking place in Figaro’s and Susanna’s bedroom; edited image, based on a Craig T. Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


The sets by Tim Goodchild and costumes by Deirdre Clancy time-shifted the action, but do not detract from the opera’s storyline.

The conducting by James Conlon was scintillating (his first Los Angeles Opera “Nozze” and as he related in the well-attended pre-opera talks over which he presides, his first-ever back to back performances of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and Mozart’s “sequel”).


I recommend this production and cast enthusiastically for both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

Review: San Diego Opera’s “Nixon in China” with Pomponi, Kanyova, Kim and Shelton – March 20, 2015

March 21st, 2015

The San Diego Opera mounted the most complex production of its three-opera 2014-15 season – the first San Diego appearances of John Adams’ extraordinary 1987 opera “Nixon in China”.

The opera has been discussed on these pages, particularly the popular Vancouver (British Columbia) production seen in San Francisco [see  25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012 and A Second Look: “Nixon in China” in San Francisco – June 17, 2012, part 1 and A Second Look: “Nixon in China” in San Francisco – June 17, 2012, part 2 and an earlier performance in Long Beach [Richard M. Nixon and Mao Zedong Dance at Smashing Long Beach Opera “Nixon in China” – March 20, 2010.]

Franco Pomponi’s President Richard Nixon

The opera’s principal star was baritone Franco Pomponi in a convincing portrait of United States President Richard Nixon. He embraced Nixon’s exhilaration in participating in the formal rapprochement between the U. S. and Communist China – arguably the most significant foreign policy achievement of his presidency.

[Below: United States President Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, front center) is excited about the world’s media coverage of his historic visit to China; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The president’s quirks and mannerisms, that were a gold mine for comic imitators during Nixon’s vice presidency, candidacy for the Governorship of California and his presidency, were clearly observable.

Yet, one had the strong sense that Pomponi (as I believe any interpreter of this role should do) truly strove to present a realistic portrayal of him, rather than a caricature.

Of course, Alice Goodman’s libretto itself quite deliberately exaggerates Nixon’s idiosyncrasies, particularly when she chooses the words   (News, news, news) to express Nixon’s strong interest in programming events to coincide with the “news cycles” or describing rats chewing at the sheets as Nixon’s metaphor for the political enemies who plot against him.

Although I am not convinced that everything in Goodman’s libretto raises to the same high standards, I find that the words she puts into Nixon’s mouth in the first act seem not only to suggest an essential Nixon, but may well apply also to many politicians in the U. S. and elsewhere at all parts of the political spectrum who have honed their political survival skills or have employed operatives to do so for them.

Chad Shelton’s Mao Tse Tung

It’s been almost eight years since I last saw Chad Shelton in performance (in one of the comprimario role in Glass’ “Appomattox” at the San Francisco Opera). I was very impressed by the his characterization of the decrepit revolutionary leader.

[Below: President Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, left) and Chairman Mao Tse Tung (Chad Shelton, right) exchange greetings as Chou En Lai (Chen-Ye Yuan) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The role of Mao, who sings in metaphors and whose thoughts are constantly repeated by his three sycophantic secretaries (Buffy Baggott, Sarah Castle and Jennifer DeDominici), is assigned to high tenors with vocal heft.

Shelton filled the bill vocally, and showed fine acting instincts with a portrayal of an eccentric aging leader that rings true.

[Below: Mao (Chad Shelton, seated, second from left) insists on talking philosophy, with his words taken down by his secretaries (Jennifer DeDominici, Sarah Castle and Buffy Baggott), while Richard Nixon (Franco Pomponi, right) would much prefer to resolve diplomatic issues personally; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


Three of the artists from 2012 San Francisco Opera production – the Chou En Lai, the Pat Nixon and the Henry Kissinger = assumed their same roles in this often quite different production.

Chen-Ye Yuan’s Chou En Lai 

Chinese baritone Chen-Ye Yuan repeated his role  of premier Chou En Lai, the historical personage who worked with Henry Kissinger to open diplomatic relations between the two enemy nations. Yuan portrayed Chou as a tired former warrior. His representation of China in the banquet toasts between the two nations is one of the opera’s most memorable arias.

The second act is to a great extent centered on the character of Pat Nixon, the most sympathetic character in the opera, and one who humanizes Richard Nixon in the several scenes of their intimate moments together.

Maria Kanyova, who has been singing the role since the production’s first appearance in 2004 (the production’s debut taking place at the Opera Theater of Saint Louis), shows insight and mastery in Pat Nixon’s extensive scene that includes the famous aria This is Prophetic!

[Below: Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


 Patrick Carfizzi’s Doctor Henry Kissinger

Patrick Carfizzi sings and acts the role as a boorish punk womanizer that librettist Goodman composer Adams and stage director James Robinson wrote, composed and staged. A fine artist, this role that he has done in important theaters, has become associated with him.

The role itself seems not to belong – at least as written – with an opera that finds character traits to praise and scowl at in the other characters.

One critic (Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times) suggested that the team that created the opera simply could not get to the essence of Kissinger’s character. I’m sure they did not, but am unconvinced that it was an inscrutable Kissinger made him a hard character to draw.

I have written in a previous review that Goodman, Adams and Peter Sellars, the original conceptualizer of the Nixon in China project were all based at Harvard University where Dr Kissinger was a tenured Harvard professor (albeit likely on leave for much of his career).

Perhaps it was an in-joke that some on the Harvard campus in the 1980s would have understood.  Maybe we’ll never know why it’s written as it is, but if there is ever to be a revision of “Nixon in China” (as we know that there is to be of Glass’ “Appomattox”), rewriting this part should be the first priority.

Kathleen Kim’s Madame Mao

For many fans of this opera, the rousing coloratura aria of Madame Mao (I am the Wife of Mao Tse Tung!) is the highlight of the show. Kim made it a positive blockbuster of a performance!

[Below: Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao Tse Tung; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]


The 2004 production was directed by James Robinson with sets by Allan Moyer. The sets were provided rent-free to the San Diego Opera by the Opera Theater of Saint Louis as a contribution to the San Diego Opera’s rebirth after the company’s near-death experience in March, 2014.

Joseph Mechavich conducted the complex score. James Schuette designed the costumes. Charles Prestinari was chorus master for the opera’s demanding choruses.

Sean Curran deserves special praise for creating the many dances from the ballet sequences of the Revolutionary Theater to the gentle waltz of Pomponi’s Richard and Kanyova’s Pat.

The San Diego Opera once again proved its ability to present casts and productions worthy of opera capitals throughout the world.

Tags: 2005-2015: William's Reviews

Dressing Renée Fleming’s Violetta: A Conversation with John Pascoe, Part 7

March 18th, 2015

This continues the series of conversations that I have had with British opera director John Pascoe. This is the seventh part of the conversation. This part follows: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 6.



[Below: Director John Pascoe; resized image of a personal 2014 photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: In reflecting on our discussions about the physical productions of operas that you conceived, you spoke of many process, such as concept rendering, building of set models, creating costume designs, and other requirements of a new opera production. My guess is that we in the opera audience have very little idea of what the steps might have been to create the sets and costumes for the opera we are witnessing.

You were active in creating productions in the 1980s and continue to do so in this second decade of the 21st century. May I ask you a few questions about these processes?

JP: Please do!

Wm: Would it be possible to take some specific examples of your designs for sets and for costumes and explain the steps you took to create them?

JP: What do you think about using different examples of the design process? One which I feel may be of interest to readers, would be to describe the process of designing new costumes in 2003 for my long time colleague and dear friend – the super star Renée Fleming, for her first Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”.

Wm: I suspect most of us who attend opera have little idea of what goes into the process of designing and producing the costumes the singers and chorus members wear. I would like to learn about how you design for an entire production.

But first, let’s follow your suggestion and discuss the process for redesigning costumes for Mme. Fleming, who was to be the lead artist in an established production for which costumes had already been created by another designer.

What was the lead-time that you required (or were allowed) to design a principal costume for a popular opera singer such as Fleming?

JP: At this time I had already created six productions and many concert gowns for Renée Fleming.

[Below: Renée Fleming, wearing a John Pascoe concert gown; edited image of an Andrew Eccles photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The New York Met invited Renée to sing her first Met Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in 2003 in the opulent Franco Zeffirelli production.  The decision was made, about a year in advance of the opening night – to ask me to design new Violetta costumes for her.

So following this invitation, Jo Volpe (the Met’s General Manager at that time), Renée and I sat together in a dress rehearsal of a Met revival of the “La Traviata” production to understand in detail what Maestro Zeffirelli had created.

Wm: I’m aware that revivals provide an opportunity to change details in a production. Obviously, the fact that all of you were discussing a particular costume suggests that you were not entirely satisfied with Zeffirelli’s original creation in what was regarded as a classic production.

JP: I think that the importance of Renée Fleming assuming this pivotal role indicated to everyone within the Met’s management that a new series of gowns were required to mark this important event, and this was in combination with the fact that it was general assumed within the company that the great Maestro (Franco Zeffirelli perhaps hadn’t arrived at his final decision on the first act costumes for Violetta.

So I was asked to design a new series of costumes to both adjust this reality and also honor Renée’s presence in the role.

Clearly, an historically accurate approach was vital, as well as one that allowed me to find the precise lines and proportions that would show Renée at her highly glamorous best.

Once Mr Volpe, Renée and I had met it was clear to all of us that a classic, off-white gown in the first act would work:

Wm: Now that you were given the go ahead to create something that was historically accurate, what did you do?

JP: I started to design!  As you see in my first sketch design, seen below, my addition of black gloves and head dress for me added a sense of foreboding of Violetta’s mortality to the classic look, but this idea didn’t ‘stay’, as on reflection – I felt that it didn’t quite fit into the ‘look’ of the Zeffirelli production.

[Below: John Pascoe’s first sketches for Violetta’s first act gown; edited image, based on a John Pascoe costume design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I created three more versions of this gown before arriving at the final design  – see below.  Being a bit of a control freak, I tend to go somewhat over the top with designing details, but I simply find that it cuts down on confusion.

For the final version, I added blood red jewels at the center of the neck line to the classic white gown as a subtle reference to the drops of blood that characterize the illness that would finally take Violetta’s life.

[Below: John Pascoe’s final design for Violetta’s first act gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe]


 Important elements of the costume, such as headdress and bodice, are supplemented with drawing of details, as seen below.

[Below: Details of the headdress and bodice; resized image of John Pascoe’s design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: These drawings are quite impressive, but I suspect that the costume shop needs more information before they start making the costumes.

JP: Certainly! When the designs are agreed upon and all of the many details designed, one moves from creating images to actually taking decisions on what fabric to use, exactly what trim should be placed where, and precisely where we need to put that seam etc, etc etc.

[Below: another step in preparing the costume; resized image of a photograph of the first act bodice during its construction in the Met’s costume shop; image courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The neckline of Renée’s gown was very much inspired by two other important gowns related to the role: One that had excited Renée was Adrian’s superb costume designed for Greta Garbo in the 1936 film ‘Camille’, and of course the other was the highly important reference of Zeffirelli’s own designs was that worn by Teresa Stratas’ in the film version of “La Traviata” that he had already directed and designed.

So finally, in the image below, we can see Renée Fleming on stage with Ramón Vargas within the production.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming, right) is courted by Alfredo (Ramón Vargas, left) in a 2003 performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the New York Met; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: What did Violetta wear in her country villa in the first scene of Act II?

JP: The gown in the Act II Scene I where Violetta is living in the country with Alfredo offers specific challenges. For me it was vital that she felt properly ‘at home’ within the dream world of country living that Franco Zeffirelli had created for this idyllic phase of Violetta’s relationship with Alfredo,.

Importantly one, that showed a maximum sense of that over-used word ‘class’.

[Below:John Pascoe’s designs for Violetta’s Act II costume; resized image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE 7 2ND ACT #8 (400)

As her life as a courtesan was very definitely behind her, I designed a gown that would take it’s principal colors from those of her country home as shown in Franco’s charming set, and offer a maximum level of elegance without feeling too “dressy”.

Below we see Renée Fleming in Act II Scene I on stage at the Met.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming) in Act II Scene I of the 2003 New York Met production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


However in the second scene of Act II at Flora’s party it was absolutely clear to me that Violetta should be in black as she is virtually in mourning for the loss of Alfredo.

In order for the gown to fit into the environment of the Spanish-themed fancy dress party in Franco Zeffirelli’s famous Met production, clearly the gown needed to have details appropriate to the party’s theme.

Clearly, if one doesn’t design the costume details ahead of time, one is in for a huge amount of time being wasted, so I enjoy putting as much down on paper as possible. It just saves energy when one is working with the crafts persons to create the jewelry, tiara etc, as every possible solution can be measured for success against the specifics of the design detailing.

[Below: John Pascoe’s design for Violetta’s Act II Scene II gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE 7 3RD ACT GOWN #11 (400)

But once the details are created one then has the fittings where the reality of what one is aiming at finally starts to present itself, this is the time where final adjustments happen. Does this line look good on the artist? Could it be better?

[Below: John Pascoe design of a “stomacher” for Violetta’s Act II Scene II gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I have found that ‘candid’ photographs at this stage are a great way of being able to see the costume as if it were – from a distance.

So I take photographs of the artist wearing the costume in order to enable me to then work in ‘Photoshop’ on the image to see how I could improve it.

[Below: Details of the accessories to Violetta’s gown; edited image of John Pascoe’s design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Then I write notes on the image, “longer veil, lengthen this line”, “add jewel at front of head dress”, “make veil more transparent” etc.

As these costumes were being created especially for Renée, clearly I then showed her what I felt needed still to be improved as well as then of course communicating those decisions with the excellent Met’ opera costume staff.

[Below: a photograph of Renée Fleming in an early version of John Pascoe’s design for the Act II Scene II gown, with John Pascoe’s instructions to costume shop; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE7 IMAGE#15 Renée fitting Act II scii MET (400)

I’ve described the process by which the costumes for Renee Fleming’s Violetta took place through the final version worn onstage.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming) appears at Flora’s party in Act II Scene II of the of a Los Angeles Opera production by Marta Domingo  of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: I think you’ve given me a good idea of the complexity of designing new costumes for an established production. In our next conversation, let’s return to the subject of designing an entire production, not only all of its costumes, but its sets as well.

JP: Certainly, the process is in some sense the same: First ideas, followed by creating the first images, then followed by sometimes endless adjustments. But it is clearly immensely more complicated when dealing with an entire production.

Wm: Two other questions. First, these costumes were being designed for the artist Mme. Fleming, so did and that she retain possession of them after the “La Traviata” run, or are they owned by the Met? Second, is there a place where an interested person can get prints of your designs?

JP:  The costumes very definitely remain the property of the Met opera and have a special value, as do all those costumes throughout the world designed for the great operatic stars.

For example, one of the great Italian costume collections, I have seen a veritable rag of a gown that is retained and valued purely because it was created for the great Maria Callas, while within the same magnificent collection (Fondazione Ceratelli) the magnificent costumes designed by Franco Zeffirelli for the great Plàcido Domingo as Otello hold a position of special honor, and justly so!

The designers responsible for them have frequently created stunningly beautiful designs that have been added to many prestigious collections.

I have been very flattered to have received many requests to buy either my designs themselves or indeed prints of them. So finally I have put a small ‘shop’ element onto my opera web site –  www.johnpascoe.com - where I am offering limited edition, archival quality prints of some of my most famous designs.

At the moment these are limited to those we have been discussing ref’ those I created for the worlds most loved Diva  – Renée Fleming (specifically in her 2003 Met “Traviata” that we have been discussing)  and those that I created for ‘my’ first Diva  – the great and deeply mourned Dame Joan Sutherland.

I hope that these might be of interest to our readers as it gives a possibility of having a real part of the legendary performances they have given us – in one’s own home.

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe