June 16th, 2013
Having highlighted California’s principal summertime operatic experience [see Summertime Vacation Destinations for Enjoying Opera, Part 1 – San Francisco in June and Early July], it’s time to consider the Santa Fe Opera, which is world destination for innovative, high quality opera performed in an incomparable physical setting.
In 2013, as in every season, five operas are presented. This summer’s fare consists of new productions of Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” and Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake)”, and a world premiere of “Oscar”. The season also revives two popular productions from recent seasons, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Verdi’s “La Traviata”.
[Below: an aerial view of Santa Fe Opera's John Crosby Theater and its surrounding area; edited image of a Robert Godwin photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]
The Events of the Season
A typical Santa Fe Opera season follows traditional patterns – an opening night weekend at the end of June in which two productions are presented, followed by the three remaining productions of the season which open during the July weeks.
Then, in August, there are several opportunities for visitors to see all five operas on consecutive nights. For many operagoers throughout the nation and world, August means a week spent in Northern New Mexico to attend world class opera performance.
August often attracts the “out-of-town” media. There are also opportunities for various operatic constituencies – including the administrative and musical leadership of opera companies from far and wide and artists’ agents and publicists – to “scout” the talents that have been selected to present the summer’s offerings. [For an article on how the Santa Fe Opera's Apprentice singers are selected each year, see The Santa Fe Opera Apprentices: Interview with Director David Holloway.]
The Santa Fe Opera Festival Opening Night
However, for New Mexico residents and for “out-of-towners” – like myself – who enjoy the atmosphere (in both the cultural and meteorological nuances of the word), one of the greatest delights of all is the Santa Fe Festival’s opening night.
[Below: a tailgate party in the Santa Fe Opera parking lot; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Of course, opening nights of opera companies everywhere have their opera balls and pre-performance dinners and other social events, but there’s nothing quite like the “howdy, partner” ambiance that accompanies opening night of the Santa Fe season.
Before last year’s opening night “Tosca”, I wandered about its several different venues, dressed in tuxedo and black tie, sipping champagne, and, as a special treat, meeting New Mexicans engaged in a favorite opening night past-time, the parking lot tailgate parties.
Tailgating for “Tosca”
Tailgate parties take place in the Santa Fe Opera parking lot before every performance of the season, but those on opening night are for many opera goers the highlights of the Santa Fe social season. It is such an event that beginning this year, the Santa Fe Opera is having a contest for best Tailgate spread.
Before last year’s opening night “Tosca”, I spoke with Susan Stockstill, who has organized a tailgate party for nearly every years since 2003.
[Below: the Stockstills prepare their tailgate; edited image, based on a Dolores McElroy photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The parties are meticulously prepared. Group tickets are secured for the Stockstill party’s participants. Once the opening night opera is announced, the planning process begins. What food should be served that fit the opening night choice of opera? What color scheme does the opera evoke, and how should that be incorporated into the decorations? What tableware displays and what linen should be used?
Larry Maldegen describes tailgate party planning meetings that scours the opening night opera’s plot summary to decide upon a half dozen tailgate dishes, each of which becomes the responsibility of one of the participants. He describes the outcome as a fantasy dinner.
Winnie Gido’s opera tailgates go back in time long before the Santa Fe Opera agreed to open their parking lot for the activity. She used to have her tailgates at the White Rock overlook, when they used to come in from the town of Los Alamos. In those days, Ms Gido taught cooking in the Los Alamos area, so, for each tailgate, she goes through past issues of Gourmet Magazine to settle on each dinner’s menu.
For “Tosca” all the main courses would be Italian, with special attention to creating the pasta.
[Below: a tailgate party in the Santa Fe Opera parking lot; edited image, based on a Dolores McElroy photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Even though New Mexicans comprise a large part of the opening night opera festivities, there were others from much farther afield. Dave Willmott travels to Santa Fe opening nights from Folsom, California, stocked with an array of Napa Valley wines.
Carol and Jim Goble were there from Fort Worth, Texas, extolling their city’s opera company and the Fort Worth cultural scene, even while absorbing the Santa Fe Opera spirit.
[Below: a group of Santa Fe Opera fans, who have organized their own tailgate party; edited image, based on a Dolores McElroy photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
For those who might want their visit to Santa Fe to be an extended vacation, Lynn Zech and Todd Davis were there from Casas de Santa Fe, that arranges vacation home rentals for patrons and clients of the opera company.
[Below: tailgaters display their themed dishes beneath a sign announcing that Santa Fe Ladies Go Wild for Tosca; edited image, based on a Dolores McElroy photograph, courteys of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The Opera Guilds’ Cuisine at the Cantina
A few hundred yards down the hill beyond the front parking lot (serviced at specified times by a shuttle bus) the Santa Fe Opera Cantina is set up for pre-performance dinners.
Here I met with John Webber, who described the role of the network of opera guilds that represent various communities of the region. The first had been set up in 1958 in the town of Los Alamos, just after the company’s first season.
[Below: the Santa Fe Opera Cantina; resized image of a Robert Godwin photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Currently, six community guilds support the opera, representing Albuquerque and Santa Fe, as well as the smaller towns of Los Alamos, Espanola, Tusuque and Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Each guild has a degree of autonomy as to how they conduct educational programs and fundraising, but several of these local initiatives, over time, have evolved into important activities now conducted by the opera itself – the preview buffet opera dinners at the Cantina, in which a lecture on the night’s opera is presented. “Youth nights” began with the guilds, as well as the spring tours and theme-based concerts.
All of the activities of the fundraising activities – that raise around $120,000 a year – go to the Santa Fe Opera’s educational and community outreach programs.
The Operas of Summer 2013
I have posted anticipations of the new production of “Grand Duchess” directed by Lee Blakeley [see my feature at In Quest of “High Concept Direction” in Opera Performance – June-September 2013] and the new production of the seldom-performed Rossini masterpiece, “The Lady of the Lake (La Donna del Lago) [See In Quest of Rossini and Bellini – January to August 2013.]
Two of the productions are revivals of productions that I reviewed previously. First, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” [Kwiecien, Pisaroni Lead Youthful “Figaro” Ensemble in Santa Fe – August 13, 2008]. In the 2013 mounting, Zachary Nelson is Figaro, Lisette Oropesa is Susanna, Daniel Okulitch is Almaviva. Susanna Phillips and Keith Jameson return in their respective roles. John Nelson conducts.
The second revival is, Verdi’s “La Traviata ” [Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009]. Brenda Rae, Michael Fabiano and Roland Wood share the lead roles, with performances conducted by Leo Hussain.
[Below: Santa Fe Opera's Crosby Theater framed by the New Mexico sky after sunset; resized image, based on a Robert Godwin photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
The summer festival will be the occasion for the world premiere of “Oscar” on July 27th, based on the life of poet-dramatist Oscar Wilde, written for the world’s pre-eminent counter-tenor, David Daniels [See Top of His Game – An Interview with David Daniels] by the composer-librettist team of Theodore Morrison and John Cox.
The artists co-starring with Daniels are Dwayne Croft, Ada Leverson and William Burden. The opera is conducted by Evan Rogister and choreographed by Sean Curran. The opera is staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins. [Note the participation of Newbury, Korins and Burden in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's "The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene" at San Francisco Opera only five weeks before this world premiere.]
For more on the Santa Fe Opera summer festivals, see: The Festivities of the Santa Fe Opera Festival: An Interview with Joyce Idema.
For ideas on restaurants and accommodations, see: Tom’s Tips on the Santa Fe Opera Scene: Discovering America’s Ultimate in Summer Opera.
Tags: Quests and Anticipations
June 11th, 2013
Mozart’s glorious comedy about the inconstancy of women returned to the War Memorial Opera House stage after an absence of eight years. Maestro Nicola Luisotti and Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi presided over a young but very strong cast in what proved to be an eye-pleasing, continuously entertaining, beautifully sung performance.
Luisotti, after assuming the position of San Francisco Opera music director in the 2009-10 season, in each subsequent season has conducted one of the three Mozart operatic masterpieces with libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte - “The Marriage of Figaro” (see Copley Directs, Luisotti Conducts, Sparkling “Nozze” Ensemble – San Francisco Opera, October 3, 2010) and “Don Giovanni” (see Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011).
The Vocal Performances
Two of Luisotti’s “Cosi fan Tutte” cast members, American soprano Ellie Dehn and Italian basso Marco Vinco, were veterans of the previous Luisotti ventures into Mozart masterpieces, Vinco and Dehn respectively as Leporello and Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni”, Dehn also as the Countess Almaviva in “Marriage of Figaro”
[Below: Ellie Dehn as Fiordiligi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The conductor’s confidence in their talents proved justified, each rewarding the audience with memorable vocal performances.
Fiordiligi’s two great arias Come scoglio and Per pieta are touchstones for sopranos who would wish to be recognized as Mozart heroines of the first rank. Dehn dispatched both arias with seeming effortlessness, assaying the fireworks and range of the former, then displaying exterior calmness while inferring inner turmoil while singing the latter.
Vinco’s Don Alfonso, alone among the six cast members, has no pair of major arias, but is at all times the prime force that motivates all that occurs. Every detail of Vinco’s well-sung performance was noteworthy, every posture and hand movement perfectly right for this man of the world.
[Below: Don Alfonso (Marco Vinco, left) conspires with the maid Despina (Susannah Biller, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
A gifted operatic comedian, who excelled in such an over-the-top role as Rossini’s Mustafa [see Genaux, Brownlee and Vinco Romp in Rossini’s “L’Italiana”: Garnier Opera House, Paris – October 8, 2010], Vinco showed that exhibiting shrewdness and nonchalance is as effective a skill in operatic comedy as “wild and crazy” farce.
Don Alfonso’s (well-paid) assistant in playing headgames with the pairs of lovers is the ladies’ chambermaid, Despina. Susannah Biller, a late arrival to the cast, replacing a colleague after rehearsals began, performed this classic soubrette role with with the sharp-edged wit and comic timing that makes this role the perfect foil to the staid sisters.
[Below: Dorabella (Christel Loetzch, left) bids farewell to her lover, Ferrando (Francesco Demuro, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Last year, I had raised some concern as to whether Sardinian tenor Francesco Demuro’s voice was the right weight to be singing the Duke of Mantua in the large War Memorial Opera House [see Lucic, Kurzak, Praiseworthy in Season Opening “Rigoletto” – San Francisco Opera, September 7, 2012.] However, I have no such reservations about his performance in the role of Ferrando, which he performed stylishly.
The American debut of the Dorabella, German mezzo-soprano Christel Loetzch, was auspicious, not only for her impressively sung two solo arias, but for her enchanting duets with Dehn.
Especially impressive was the mainstage debut of first year Adler Fellow, the French-Canadian lyric baritone, Philippe Sly, clearly on the fast track to international stardom. Tall and handsome and possessing a winsome lyric baritone, there exists a rich repertory of operatic roles for which he would seem an obvious choice.
[Below: Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn, left) bids farewell to her lover, Guglielmo (Philippe Sly, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Stage Direction and Production Design
The elegant Robert Perdziola set design, whose original production concept was created by British director John Cox, re-locates the scene of action to a Mediterranean resort that is serving the war effort [See Warhorse Warriors: John Cox’ ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in S. F. – July 2, 2005.
Originally a co-production with the Opera of Monte Carlo, the production, when revived for Dallas, also was directed by Cox, see Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010.]
This year’s mounting of the production has been inventively restaged by Argentine-born stage director Jose Maria Condemi, who had been the Assistant Stage Director for this production’s first season in San Francisco. Condemi’s direction de-emphasizes the idea of the bet between Alfonso and the boys taking place in a casino (a tongue-in-cheek reference, of course, to the production’s first performances in Monte Carlo).
So too has the original anti-war bite has been softened. (Although the boys still return with evidence of war wounds, originally they were accompanied by several other wounded men from their unit).
Although quite obviously set in the time of the first world war, any hint of who might be fighting whom is never suggested, nor has the war seemed to restrict the availability of high fashion period dresses worn by the sisters Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn) and Dorabella (Christel Loetzsch), artfully designed by Perdziola.
[Below: The sisters Dorabella (Cristel Loetsch, center left, standing) and Fiordiligi (Ellie Dehn, center right, standing) discuss the condition of Guglielmo (Philippe Sly, crouching left) and Ferrando (Francesco Demuro, crouching right), both disguised as Albanian sailors, with Despina (Susannah Biller, right), disguised as a medic; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Sex and Mozart
In sharp distinction to the prevailing operatic tastes of his time, four of Mozart’s operas - his three in Italian with Da Ponte libretti, and his contemporary hit opera in German, “Abduction from the Seraglio” the sexual interests of the characters are a major focus. In all four operas, the characters have “sex lives” that are major concerns to themselves and that they discuss with each other and the audience.
Conductor Luisotti has called “Cosi” Mozart’s sexiest opera, and, in fact, in some productions the reasons why the Ferrando and Guglielmo get upset with one another is because the opera has been staged to leave no doubt that it wasn’t just a locket that each sister gave to the other’s fiancé [See, for example, my account of Sir Nicholas Hytner's approach at Stylish Production, Fine Cast for “Cosi fan Tutte” – Los Angeles Opera, September 18, 2011.]
Director Condemi has made use of the elegant costumes and colorful, cinematic images. They provide a quite spectacular setting for the presentation for Condemi’s witty take on what “Cosi fan Tutte” is about – neither war nor wagering – but the sexual interests and intrigues of the principal characters.
And, following a moment when each man returns to his original love interest, he answers the question on which Da Ponte and Mozart are moot – who, at the finalé, ends up with whom?
Nicola Luisotti’s Conducting
In a conversation with Los Angeles Opera’s Music Director James Conlon he expressed his opinion that, since an opera company’s music director makes conducting assignments, there exists a “music director’s repertory”, so that one must hold that position to be assured of being able to conduct the operas of, say, Wagner, Richard Strauss or Mozart’s three “Da Ponte” operas [See An Interview with Conductor James Conlon, Part 1].
Thus, I find special significance in the fact that Luisotti in his first four seasons as music director, has performed operas by Wagner, Richard Strauss and, now, with “Cosi”, all three Da Ponte arias. (Though it be only tangentially related to these comments on this “Cosi”, I believe that Californian opera goers are particularly blessed to have Luisotti and Conlon as the music directors respectively of the San Francisco and Los Angeles opera companies.)
[Below: the Albanian sailors arrive by boat to be married; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Luisotti’s orchestra was rearranged with special care to optimize its Mozartean sound. Sitting at a fortepiano, Luisotti conducted without baton, while his colleague, Associate Conductor Giuseppe Finzi, sat at a harpsichord at his far left.
Often, less so in the United States than elsewhere, a production revival can be a lower priority for an opera company. Not so with the San Francisco Opera, and, especially not with this production. Although when last seen at the War Memorial in Summer 2005 it had an admirable cast, both the physical production and the musical performance have been extensively rethought. Anyone who saw this production previously should see it anew in this Luisotti-Condemi collaboration.
As an example of the differences between the production’s 2004-05 and 2013 mountings, Luisotti, with the music director’s authority, has secured resources that the two lesser known conductors from the previous season could not have imagined. Not only was Conductor Finzi enlisted for keyboard duty, but Luisotti created a specific musical sound for the recitatives of each set of characters.
Because he considers Fiordiligi and Dorabellas as “baroque” characters, their recitatives are accompanied by an ancient stringed instrument. The theorbo was played by a specialist in baroque instruments, Milan-based Californian Michael Leopold whose guest appearances with with opera orchestras performing baroque works has been noted previously. (See Elegant and Engaging, Lully’s “Armide” Glows at Glimmerglass Festival – July 21, 2012 and “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010).
[Below: Michael Leopold and the theorbo; resized image of a photograph from the Helicon Foundation.]
Because Luisotti considers Alfonso and Despina as Enlightment contemporaries of Mozart, their recitatives are accompanied by the harpsichord (conductor Finzi joined by San Francisco Opera cellist Thalia Moore).
Because Luisotti considers the men as more modern characters, their recitatives were accompanied by Luisotti’s fortepiano. Yet that interesting performance detail was only a tiny fraction of the attention that Luisotti gave every musical element of Mozart’s masterpiece. Any Luisotti performance is memorable, and Luisotti Mozart is a special treat.
I recommend this cast and production unreservedly, both for the veteran opera goer and for persons new to opera.
Tags: 2005-2013: William's Reviews
June 7th, 2013
Illinois native Matthew Polenzani, in an extraordinary exhibition of the art of the French lyric tenor, held the War Memorial Opera House stage for over three hours. Polenzani appeared in the title role of French stage director’s fascinating re-conceptualization of Offenbach’s posthumous grand opera, “The Tales of Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann)”.
Matthew Polenzani’s Hoffmann
The operatic character that Polenzani played was a disastrous failure, but Polenzani’s operatic performance was a triumph.
Brilliantly acted, Polenzani presented a searing psychological portrait of a creative soul, who has has attempted to meet the expectations and demands upon him of an operatic diva, the shrewish Stella (played by debutante Jacqueline Piccolino).
Failing to relate to the mercurial aspects of Stella’s personality – which Hoffmann characterizes as a doll, a young girl, and a courtesan – he succumbs to drunkeness while, in the opera’s epilogue, Stella leaves, disgusted, with Hoffmann’s rival, Lindorf, whom Hoffmann regards as his nemesis.
[Below: Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In his hallucinatory mind, Hoffmann, at the opera’s beginning, imagines pursuing three women, whom in his dreams are named Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta. Each of the women, all personifications of a particular aspect of Stella’s demands, is destroyed - in his dreamworlds - as a result of the conflict between himself and his villainous rival.
Polenzani, in his California appearances, has done elegant work in the Mozart tenor repertory [see, for example, Conlon’s Magical Revival of Mozart’s “Flute” at L. A. Opera – January 10, 2009 and Cornelius Meister’s Admirable “Abduction”: San Francisco Opera – October 11, 2009], and as Rossini’s Count Almaviva in “Barber of Seville”.
Each of the Mozart and Rossini tenor roles requires a particularly controlled style of vocal production. But Polenzani’s Hoffmann is a more multidimensional character and sings with a passionate romantic intensity absent from the Mozart’s and Rossini’s men.
Polenzani, now in his mid-40s, has grown into the great lyric roles of French and Italian opera that permit the tenor voice to soar.
For the role of Hoffmann, Offenbach wrote a whole songbook of melodious arias and duets for the love-tortured and alcohol-sotted character, in the French lyric tenor style that infuses the operas of Gounod and Bizet, Delibes and Massenet.
With new music and new dramatic emphases in a much longer version of “Hoffmann” than the opera’s Monte Carlo edition that held the world’s stages during the 20th century, the role of Hoffmann has become as demanding as any role the lyric tenor should assay.
Polenzani dispatched each of these arias with a consistently beautiful tone, while successfully negotiating the histrionic demands of Pelly’s staging. Hearing and seeing Polenzani’s Hoffmann was an extraordinary experience.
Laurent Pelly’s Conceptualization and Chantal Thomas’ Set Designs
I have reported on Pelly’s work in Paris, Santa Fe and, on one previous occasion in San Francisco [see Debuting Diana Damrau Delights as Donizetti Diva: San Francisco “Fille du Regiment” – October 13, 2009.]. His close collaborations with set designer Chantal Thomas always create a particular mood or color for each production design.
[Below: Stage director-costume designer Laurent Pelly, edited imaage, based on a promotional photograph.]
Their new production of “Hoffmann”, a co-production between the San Francisco Opera and the Gran Teatre del Liceu, debuted at the latter opera house in Barcelona in February. Pelly and Thomas acknowledge the influence on the set design of 20th century Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert, whose angular architectural images and haunting portraits of human subjects earned him a distinctive reputation in the symbolist movement.
Faust, Hoffmann and Pelly
Of course, even the traditional version of “Hoffmann” on which much of the San Francisco audience was raised, consists of theatrical intepretations of the wild stories of the Romantic era literary genius, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and abound in such unreal elements as rose-colored glasses causing Hoffmann to fall in love with an automaton, a portrait that causes a girl to sing to death, a man without a shadow and Hoffmann himself without a mirror reflection.
The supernatural forces that pervade “Tales of Hoffmann” were to a large extent influenced by the creative team behind Gounod’s “Faust” – the dramatists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre who produced plays for the Parisian theater based on Goethe’s poem “Faust” and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s stories, and, subsequently, libretti for Gounod’s and Offenbach’s operas based on those theatrical dramatizations. Further, the publishing house for both the Gounod and Offenbach works was that of the enterprising Antoine de Choudens, and both “Faust” and “Hoffmann” were promoted by the impresario Leon Carvalho.
Gounod’s opera was revised at different times during Gounod’s long life, and tradition exists for both including or cutting scenes or parts of scenes or even reversing their order, depending on what story-line the stage director wishes to emphasize. Inventive production designers and stage directors will exploit this wealth of material.
The pages of this website have described the different “Fausts” of Francesca Zambello, Frank Corsaro, Jose Maria Condemi, David Gately, Des McAnuff and Stephen Lawless. Fundamental differences exist in each approach – even as basic as whether Faust goes to heaven or hell. So too are the opportunities to emphasize different storylines in “Hoffmann”.
Pelly’s approach to “Hoffmann” is to begin with a recently published edition of Offenbach’s opera that incorporates many pages of the opera that had been “lost” for a century after Offenbach’s death. [For my report on Christopher Alden's production that performs the latest edition, see: Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.]
But Pelly, somewhat like a production designer creating a new “Faust” (to the discomfort, I suspect, of some musicologists) has picked and chosen among the alternative versions of “Hoffmann” both old and new – even restoring an “inauthentic” aria that had been mined from another Offenbach work and placed into 1904′s Monte Carlo version to provide an aria for a lead basso.
What we get is Pelly’s “Hoffmann” (the San Francisco Opera administration now refers to it as the Barcelona version) that tells the story the way he wished to tell it. Pelly’s staging and Thomas’ Spilliaert-influenced sets emphasize the surreal worlds of dreams and hallucinations, which are particularly appropriate to this expanded performing edition of the opera.
[Below: the workshop of Spalanzani (Thomas Glenn, front left center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
As a harrowing example of the Spillieart influence, the portrait of Antonia’s mother (sung by the debuting mezzo-soprano Margaret Mezzacappa) that acts as an accomplice of Antonia’s wrongful death, is a large dark image, appearing like the negative of a black and white photograph, and projected on the stage’s black back wall as Mezzacappa sings from a room below the stage.
Christian Van Horn’s Lindorf, Coppelius, Dr Miracle and Dappertutto
The villain roles were sung by Christian Van Horn, a 35-year old New Yorker. I have admired his work in many of the important major comprimario roles for the bass voice, such as Brander in Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Colline in Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Santa Fe and Los Angeles Opera companies.
[Below: Christian van Horn as Coppelius; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, oourtesy of the San Francisco Opera.
But singing the role of the Four "Hoffmann" villains at the San Francisco Opera in Laurent Pelly's new production is an important career milestone, and he took on this challenge with great distinction.
His villains were each sonorous and sinister. Clad in Pelly's dark costumes, wandering through Thomas' askew sets, van Horn was the presence that made every Hoffmann dream a nightmare. And, of course, that's what van Horn was expected to do.
As an added bonus, van Horn got to sing the famous aria Scintille diamant that Offenbach would not have expected to see in "Hoffmann" - a treat that I suspect bassos will have very few opportunities to perform in future productions of this work. For the record, Van Horn performed it well.
Angela Brower's Nicklausse
American soprano Angela Brower, whose career is now centered at Munich's Bavarian Staatsoper, was an engaging Nicklausse, who represents both Hoffman's poetic inspiration (his beleaguered Muse) and his companion through his pursuits of the three manifestations of Stella's personality.
[Below: Angela Brower as Nicklausse; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
It was an auspicious San Francisco Opera debut for Brower, who like many lyric mezzos, is a specialist in the “trouser roles” of Mozart and Richard Strauss.
Hye Jung Lee’s Olympia
South Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee, whose career has been nicely launched with important assignments, Madame Mao in San Francisco [See 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012] and Lisa in Miami [“Sonnambula” Reawakened: Rachele Gilmore’s, Michele Angelini’s Artistry, Vocal Fireworks Enliven Bellini’s Masterpiece – Florida Grand Opera, February 9, 2013], played the doll, Olympia.
[Below: Cochenille (Stephen Cole, left) and Spalanzani (Thomas Glenn, right) prepare the doll Olympia (Hye Jung Lee, center) for her singing performance; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera. ]
Always, in any version of the opera, Hoffman’s romantic pursuit of the lifeless Olympia is a highlight. In this production, it unleashed Pelly’s talent for creating hilarious scenes. Olympia’s guests (performed by the San Francisco Opera chorus) were themselves automatons, while Olympia, attached to a large machine and wearing a bright-silver bell-shaped dress, sailed through the air as she sang her famous ballad. When not attached to the machine, Olympia glided about the ballroom (Hye Jung Lee wearing in-line skates for propulsion.)
Pelly’s staging was greeted with heartfelt laughter from the audience and was, itself, worth the price of the ticket.
Natalie Dessay’s Antonia
Originally, the production was announced as a vehicle for the famous French soprano Natalie Dessay, who was to play the roles of Stella and each of the three other women (Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta) in both Barcelona and San Francisco. She often appears in new productions designed by Pelly and Thomas [See, for example, my review at Dessay’s Scintillating Role Debut as Violetta in Pelly’s Imaginative Santa Fe “Traviata” – July 3, 2009]. (In Barcelona, the Four Villains were played by her husband Laurent Naouri, who also was Germont in the Dessay-Pelly “Traviata”.)
[Below: Natalie Dessay as Antonia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]
Ultimately, she decided to concentrate on the role of Antonia, which she performed very sympathetically, displaying the richly colored lyric voice for which she is renowned.
Irene Roberts’ Giulietta
In another San Francisco Opera debut suggesting an important future career, California soprano Irene Roberts took on the role of Giulietta. Although the Barcarolle that she sings with Brower’s Nicklausse is the most famous excerpt from the opera, the role of Giulietta in Pelly’s Venice scene differs from both the traditional version of “Hoffmann” and that of the Christopher Alden production cited above.
[Irene Roberts as the courtesan Giulietta; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The scene gave Pelly yet another opportunity for technological wizardry, with Hoffmann’s reflection disappearing from a mirror after it is stolen by Giulietta.
Stephen Cole performed the four so-called “grotesque roles” – Andres, Cochenille, Frantz (who gets a lively solo aria, which Cole amusingly performed) and Pitichinnaccio.
James Creswell, whose work in important roles at the Los Angeles Opera I have praised, was excellent as Antonia’s father, Crespel. Thomas Glenn was effective as Spalanzani.
Hadliegh Adams was Luther, Matthew Grills was Nathanael and Joo Won Kang was Hermann.
The Conductor was Patrick Fournillier, the lighting designer Joel Adam. Christian Rath was the Associate Director.
I highly recommend this absorbing production for the strong performance of Matthew Polenzani as Hoffmann and the excellent cast that supports him, and for the brilliant staging of Laurent Pelly.
Tags: 2005-2013: William's Reviews