Opera Warhorses

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

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Review: “Mefistofele” Impressively Performed by Schrott, Castronovo, Penda and Blue in New Philipp Himmelmann Production – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, May 16, 2016

May 19th, 2016

The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden (Germany) produced a lively new production of Boito’s “Mefistofele” conceived by Director Philipp Himmelmann and conducted by Stefan Soltesz, utilizing an ingenious setting by Johanne Leiacker, and imaginative costumes by Gesine Vollm.

Erwin Schrott’s Mefistofele

The title role was sung by Uruguayan basso Erwin Schrott.

Although I had previously enjoyed his performance as Figaro [Fine Cast Revives Strehler’s Treasured “Nozze di Figaro” Production – Opera National de Paris, May 31, 2011], displaying his mastery of Mozart’s controlled classical style, this was my opportunity to hear an “unleashed” Schrott, singing full out in one of the great 19th century Italian roles for the bass voice.

[Below: Erwin Schrott as the Prince of Darkness; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


Schrott’s mammoth, expressive basso voice dominated the opera. He dispatched both of Mefistofele’s two great arias – the whistle-filled Son lo spirito che nega sempre and Ecco il mondo with the rich, deep sonorous bass voice that the role requires. He deserves his recognition as one of the innermost circle of current performers of the role.

Charles Castronovo’s Faust

Previously, I had reviewed Castronovo’s performances in operas of Mozart, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Bizet and Catan, several in roles, like Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” or Ernesto in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale”, that require intensely controlled breath.

In a conversation with Castronovo four years ago [Rising Stars: An Interview with Charles Castronovo], he had expressed his desire to pursue roles that allowed him to sing out freely, as so many of the lyric tenor roles of the French and Italian repertories allow him to do.

[Below: Charles Castronovo as Faust; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


Castronovo’s voice has developed a size and luster, with a pleasing tenor vibrato and a baritonal heft, that nicely accommodates the Italian role of Boito’s Faust.

His brilliant sound was memorable in the role’s big aria Dai campi, dai prati. Castronovo was a strong presence in duets with the two women he pursues – Margherita (Alex Penda) and Helen of Troy (Angel Joy Blue) – subsequently, in each case, being joined in a trio by Schrott’s Mefistofele

Alex Penda’s Margherita

Bulgarian soprano Alex Penda created the image of the young and vulnerable Margherita, who succumbs to the lust of Castronovo’s Faust, venomously encouraged by Schrott’s Mefistofele (her seduction accompanied by some of the most eloquent melodies of the opera). The consequences for the character of one lustful night are devastating, resulting in madness and imprisonment.

[Below: Margherita (Alex Penda, second from left, kneeling) is encouraged by Mefistofele (Erwin Schrott, left) and Faust (Charles Castronovo, right) to enjoy a night of amorous lust; edited image, based of an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


Margherita, in L’altra notte in fondo al mare, chronicles both the death of her mother by a poisoned sleeping potion given her by Mefistofele, and by her murder of the child from the evening’s resulting pregnancy. At the beginning of this, Margherita’s great showpiece aria, Penda at first performed it, as if sobbing while singing softly, then her voice grew to make a powerful effect.

[Below: Faust (Charles Castronovo, in skulls’ eye, above) reaches down to try to rescue Margherita  (Alex Penda, front center) from prison; edited image, based on an Andrea Krumper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


Alex Penda’s big voice has proven effective for several of the dramatic roles of the German repertory [see Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015 and Review: A Finely Crafted “Fidelio” from Stephen Wadsworth – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2014.]

Penda’s strong grounding in the Italian repertory [see also The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Stephen Lawless’ “Maria Stuarda” in Toronto – May 4, 2010] was evident in her Baden-Baden Margherita.

Angel Joy Blue’s Helen of Troy and other Cast Members

Angel Joy Blue was a lustrous Helen of Troy. Her duet with Castronovo’s Faust Forma ideal, purissima leading to a trio with Schrott’s Mefistofele was breathtakingly beautiful.

I had last seen Blue in live performance in the role of Clara (who sings George Gershwin’s most famous operatic melody, Summertime and the Living is Easy, [see Eric Owens, Laquita Mitchell Lead Powerful “Porgy and Bess” at San Francisco Opera – June 21, 2009.])

[Below: Angel Joy Blue as Elena; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


Those in the excellent supporting cast included Slovakian mezzo-soprano Jana Kurucová as Marta, Norwegian tenor Bror Magnus Tødenes as Wagner, Chilean-Swedish mezzo-soprano Luciana Mancini as Pantalis and Austrian tenor Rudolf Schasching as Nereo.

Maestro Stefan Soltesz led a brilliant performance of the Münchner Philharmoniker, the Philharmonia Chor Wien and the Cantus Juvenum Karlsruhe.

The Himmelmann Production

“Mefistofele” is an opera that is filled with absorbing choruses and fine arias and duets. Yet, it has never gained the popularity achieved by French composer Charles Gounod’s “Faust”, because its episodic nature lacks the dramatic narrative found in the French work.

Boito’s work is more faithful to the Goethe’s original drama Faust than the Faust operas of Berlioz and Gounod [for my essay on the evolution of these “other” Faust operas see Faust Damned and Marguerite Saved: Changing Faust’s Fate in Paris.]

The successful productions of “Mefistofele” (and I regard Himmelmann’s effort as a success) add elements of razzle-dazzle to complement the engaging music. One particularly effective innovation in Himmelmann’s production is the ingenious costuming of the choristers, whose sweeping choral anthems are such an important element of the piece.

[Below: a hymn to the celestial host; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


The opera begins effectively. The chorus is heard and not seen, but there are long brilliantly-illuminated tinsel strips that curtain the stage. The play of colors, as if we are in an aurora borealis, suggest that we have ascended a celestial plane.

In time, the chorus, dressed in an array of costumes of pop culture celebrities (all deceased) and fictional characters steps forward to sing a hymn of praise to the celestial hosts.

Eventually, Schrott as Mefistofele comes from behind and steps in front of the chorus.

Tongue-in-cheek the suggestion is made that some of the best known 20th century celebrities – Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Amy Winehouse, Anita Ekberg, Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr and many more – as well as the fictional characters, such as Eliza Doolittle and Mary Poppins – had some supernatural promotion in their early careers.

The choristers have several costume changes during the evening, including appearing as masked villagers dressed for a kermesse or a carnival.

[Below: Doctor Faust (Charles Castronovo, center, seated) observes the festivities of the villagers around him; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


The production’s centerpiece is the representation of a large movable skull, whose sockets provide platforms on which various characters might stand or sit.

The skull is designed to be a screen on which video projections can be displayed and which can be lit for various effects. Bernd Purkrabek designed the lighting and Martin Eidenberger the video.

[Below: Faust (Charles Castronovo) contemplates the meaning of life and knowledge; edited image, based on a Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


The scheduling of two of the three scheduled “Mefistofele” performances took place during Whitsuntide, a religious period associated with Christian Pentecost. The second performance took place on Whitsun Monday, which is a German holiday.

The Whitsun weekend also (reportedly) is historically associated with practitioners of the Dark Arts, and has an equivalence in that Dark Arts lore with Walpurgisnacht, when devil worshipers are summoned by Satan. (Both the Gounod and Boito operas have a Walpurgisnacht scene.)

The skull (as one would expect) plays a prominent part in Himmelmann’s production of the Walpurgis Night scene, in which the Schrott’s Mefistofele stands in its eye socket as the skull is bathed in royal purple.

[Below: Mefistofele (Erwin Schrott, standing in skull’s left eye socket, summons his minions; edited image, based on an Andrea Kremper photograph, courtesy of the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden.]


The audience reaction to each of Himmelmann’s innovations was enthusiastic with tumultuous ovations at opera’s end.


The Festspielhaus Baden-Baden production was a very successful presentation of a work that needs great singers and spectacular production concepts.

I enthusiastically recommend the production and cast. I suggest that it be considered for presentation in other operatic venues in the future.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews

Review: An Engaging “Carmen” with Maximova, Jovanovich, Schultz and d’Arcangelo – Bayerische Staatsoper, May 13, 2016

May 14th, 2016

Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova and Montana spinto tenor Brandon Jovanovich led a cast of international stature in a revival of the Lina Wertmüller production of Bizet’s “Carmen”.

Elena Maximova’s Carmen

Elena Maximova made a strong impression as Carmen, with a dusky voice, vibrant at its top, and secure in its lower range.

[Below: Elena Maximova as Carmen, in the 2015 Royal Opera House, Covent Garden production; resized image of a Catherine Ashmore photograph for the Royal Opera House.]


She was a seductive actress, vividly convincing in her sexual interplay with Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Jose. She performed each of Carmen’s classic arias – Habanera, Seguidilla, Chanson Bohème – with dramatic intensity.

Brandon Jovanovich’s Don Jose

Jovanovich, in an interview I conducted with him earlier in his career [Rising Stars: An Interview with Brandon Jovanovich] identified Don Jose as one of his favorite roles. In fact, few roles provide as much opportunity for a lead tenor to show off his vocal and acting skills as Don Jose.

Jovanovich’s performance was mesmerizing, from the first moments when his Don Jose and Maximova’s Carmen encountered each other on a darkened stage, accompanied by overture’s theme of fate.

Jovanovich was affecting in his sympathetic first act duet with Golda Schultz’s Micaela, and physically convincing in his first act encounters with Carmen (that includes her erotically straddling his body prostrate on the stage floor in a departure from most productions of the opening scene).

[Below: Tenor Brandon Jovanovich; edited image of a Kristen Hoebermann photograph for IMG Artists.]

JOVANOVICH (400) Kristen_Hoebermann

Jovanovich showed heightened emotion in his “flower song” confession of his love for Carmen, angry machismo in his knife-fight with D’Arcangelo’s Escamillo at the smuggler’s hideout, and despair and resignation in his final encounter with (and murder of) Carmen. Throughout the evening, Jovanovich masterfully sang some of the most beautiful and dramatic music in all of opera.

This is the third time I’ve reviewed the Jovanovich Jose [see Krasteva, Jovanovich Sizzle in Chicago “Carmen” – Lyric Opera, March 15, 2011], including a previous performance in which he co-starred with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Escamillo [Domingo at Helm for a Stellar “Carmen” – Los Angeles Opera, September 21, 2013]. I found his match-up with Maximova’s Carmen the most effective of the three Carmens on which I’ve reported.

(In total I’ve reported on 14 Jovanovich performances of ten roles, including his earliest performances of Wagnerian operas, as well as operas of Verdi, Puccini, Dvorak and Carlisle Floyd.)

Golda Schultz’ Micaela

New to me was Golda Schultz, the South African lyric soprano. She was a poised Micaela possessing a luxurious spinto.

[Below: Soprano Golda Schultz; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

SCHULTZ (400) Golda_klein

Schulz’ third act aria Je dit que rien ne m`épouvante elicited a thunderous ovation from the Munich audience, including the foot-stomping that would later be shared with the entire cast during the curtain calls at opera’s end.

Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s Escamillo

D’Arcangelo brings star power to the role of Escamillo, whose iconic (and technically difficult) Toreador Song remains the most famous aria in an opera that abounds with famous music.

[Below: Ildebrando d’Arcangelo as Escamillo; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper.]


Always an interesting actor, d’Arcangelo was a high octane performer in his third act knife-fight with Jovanovich’s Jose.

Dan Ettinger’s conducting and other Cast and Crew members

Zuniga was well-sung by Kuwaiti-born bass-baritone Tareq Nazmi, as was the Morales of Italian baritone Andrea Borghini.

Connecticut tenor Matthew Grills, Spanish tenor Francisco Vas, Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura and Arizona mezzo-soprano Angela Brower were brilliant as Carmen’s smuggling confederates.

Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger (whose performances I’ve reviewed of Verdi at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and of Mozart at the Opera National de Paris) surprised the Munich audience by beginning the overture a moment before the lights dimmed for the performance.

[Below: Conductor Dan Ettinger; edited image of a publicity photograph from dan-ettinger.com.]


Ettinger led a spirited performance on the part of the Bayerische Staatsorchester. The opera-comique version of the score, with spoken dialogue, was used.

The Lina Wertmüller production

Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmüller (the first woman to be nominated for the “best director” Academy Award) conceived the production, while Wertmüller’s late husband, Enrico Job, designed the unit set.

Each of “Carmen’s” four acts was built around the unit set’s sharply raked stage floor. The slope the raked stage created, was dressed as the town center in the first act, an outdoor tavern adjoining a gypsy encampment in the second, a mountainous hideaway for smugglers in the third act and the grounds outside a bullring in the fourth.

The first act in the Seville plaza is dominated by an iron fence and gate onto which children climb. The slope is used as the passageway for townspeople, children at play, and fighting cigarette factory women (some of the most aggressive fighting I’ve seen staged).

[Below: the changing of the guard in the  first act of the Bayerische Staatsoper production of “Carmen”; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper. ]


The second act is furnished at stage right with the tables of Lillas Pastia’s tavern (the tables providing a platform for gypsy dancing and for Escamillo to attract new audiences for his bullfights. At stage left there are several gypsy tents (into which Duncairo, Remendado, Frasquita et al. retire until aroused by the fight between Nazmi’s Zuniga and Jovanovich’s Jose).

[Below: Escamillo (Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, on table) extols the life of a bullfighter; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Bayerische Staatsoper.]


For the third act Job’s slope is covered with craggy rock formations representing the smuggler’s camp, providing areas for the act’s events – card scenes, gypsy ensembles, Micaela’s aria, the Jose-Escamillo fight, and Jose’s departure with Micaela.

[Below: Micaela (here, Aga Mikolaj in a 2011 performance) arrives at the smuggler’s hideaway; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Bayerishe Staatsoper.]


The fourth act is filled with the bullfighting ceremonies and crowd activities, until – everyone else on stage having entered the bullring – Jose and Carmen meet for the opera’s fatal denouement.

[Below: In the fourth act of “Carmen”, crowds have arrived in anticipation of the upcoming bullfight; edited image, based on a photograph for the Bayerische Staatsoper.]


Each of the four acts are backlit (lighting by Franco Marri) to create a different mood, the first and last act crowd scenes bathed in sunny yellows, the second and third acts in darker hues. Job’s set unifies the production, even as it shifts the interest from the sets themselves to the highly creative staging.


I enthusiastically recommend this opera (a great “first opera”) and its cast, both for the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews

Review: Sondra Radvanovsky stars in Munich “Tosca” – Bayerische Staatsoper, May 11, 2016

May 12th, 2016

I attended the second performance of the current revival of Luc Bondy’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca” at the Bayerische Staatsoper, which was a vehicle for Illinois soprano Sondra Radvanovsky.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Tosca

The title role of “Tosca” is one of Sondra Radvanovsky’s signature roles. It is a role to which her dramatic instincts and her large and expressive voice, with its gleaming top and secure lower register, are suited perfectly.

Her Vissi d’arte was indeed a expression of the artistic excellence of a true diva (applying to both the character and the artist who makes the character real.)

From her first entrance in the church (sets designed by Richard Peduzzi), she is the center of attention, projecting a woman, confident in her own artistry, but deeply insecure in her relationship with her lover, Mario.

Radvanovsky has mastered the ability to project affection, jealousy, rage and fear using both her voice and her attentive acting. Puccini’s melodramatic opera provides her with the opportunity to make use of all these skills.

[Below: Sondra Radvanovsky in the Milena Canonero costume for Tosca in Act II of the Luc Bondy production; edited image of a Morty Sohl photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]


Radvanovsky is a proven star in the Luc Bondy production, in which she has appeared at both the New York Metropolitan Opera and Milan’s La Scala (the Staatsoper’s two partners in the three company co-production).

This is the first time I’ve seen Radvanovsky in the Bondy production, although I have reviewed her performance in the production by John Caird [Sondra Radvanovsky is a Radiant, Transcendent Tosca – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2013], which, like Bondy’s, is deemed to be from outside the “traditional” approaches to presenting “Tosca”.

Radvanovsky, whom I’ve reviewed in 13 performance of ten roles (all highly dramatic soprano roles by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini) over the past eight years, has never disappointed.

Jorge de León’s Cavaradossi

In act one, Canary Islands’ tenor Jorge de León sang the role of Cavaradossi with an initial tentativeness. However, de León’s spinto voice and ardent acting had me convinced by the time of Cavaradossi’s treasonous pro-Napoleonic Vittorio! Vittorio! outburst in the second act.

De  León delivered a fine E lucevan le stelle, engendering a foot-stomping ovation from the sold-out Munich audience. The foot-stomping continued at opera’s end, when he and his co-star Radvanovsky were warmly applauded.

[Below: Floria Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky, left) critiques the subject matter of the painting the Mario Cavaradossi (Jorge de León, right) has been commissioned to create; edited image, based on a W. Hösl photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper.]


Ambrogio Maestri’s Scarpia

It’s been almost a decade since I last reviewed an Ambrogio Maestri performance [see Hayseed Hilarity: The Pelly “L’Elisir” in Paris – September 16, 2007]. I found his Scarpia to be the one problematic member of the current cast.

Played as a slovenly decadent, I believed that Maestri’s character lacked the minimal baronial dignity that even this roué would need to survive in the highly politicized counter-revolutionary society, nor was I particularly impressed by Maestri’s vocal performance.

[Below: The Baron Scarpia (Ambrogio Maestri, in blue coat, left center) belatedly joins in the religious procession; edited image, based on a W. Hösl photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper.]

BAYER Tosca Te deum A. Maestri c) W. Hösl

Kevin Conners’ Spoletta and other cast members

There were solid performances from the artists playing Baron Scarpia’s operatives, Spoletta (New York tenor Kevin Conners) and Sciarrone (German bass Christian Rieger).

Conners, in the tradition of great character tenors, was a fascinating Spoletta, fearful of the abusive Scarpia, while obviously as sexually attracted to Tosca as was his boss. Conners’ characterization of the neurotic Spoletta was masterful.

[Below: Scarpia (Ambrogio Maestri, in blue coat) attempts to subdue Tosca (Sondra Radvanovsky, in red dress); edited image, based on a W. Hösl photograph, courtesy of the Bayerische Staatsoper.]

BAYER Tosca S. Radvanovsky A. Maestri c) W. Hösl -2

Other noteworthy performances were the well-sung Sacristan of German bass-baritone Christoph Stephinger, the Angelotti of Croatian basso Goran Juric and the young shepherd of Ukrainian boy soprano Igor Tsarkov.

The opera was conducted by Daniele Callegari.

The Luc Bondy Production

It’s been seven years since this production debuted at the New York Metropolitan opera house to a swirl of controversy, surrounding what were identified as “non-traditional” features. Yet, observing the production at its Munich home, I had no sense of this being an edgy production.

Details differ, of course, from other “Tosca” productions. Scarpia’s lust was personified (almost comically) by his embracing in the church a processional statue of the Virgin Mary, and by three bawdy prostitutes attending to his needs in the second act’s opening scene.

[Below: a firing squad has assembled to dispatch Mario Cavaradossi (here, Jonas Kaufmann, in the  corner of the structure at right); edited image, based on a 2010 production photograph for the Bayerische Staatsoper.]


Richard Peduzzi’s sets emphasize vertical heights (allowing in the church scene the opportunity for Goran Juric, as the escaping Angelotti, to rappel down from an upper story window to the church floor).

The first and third acts are darker (in the sense that there is less light) than in other productions I’ve reviewed. However, nothing in the production does any violence to Puccini’s story line. The costumes, by Milena Canonero, were consistent with a traditional production as well..

[Below: the late Swiss Director Luc Bondy (1948-2015); edited image of a publicity photograph from wikipedia.com.]

Luc Bondy - Nestroy-Theaterpreis 2013

Bondy’s production appears to me to be as much in the tradition of “Tosca” as the “traditional” productions that eight years ago Bondy’s ideas were thought to be in dissonance with.


I recommend this revival of “Tosca” for the impressive performance of Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, and for a supporting cast that was, on balance, of high caliber.

Tags: 2005-2016: William's Reviews