Opera Warhorses

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

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Review: Renée Fleming’s Reverential “Capriccio” at Lyric Opera – Chicago, October 28, 2014

October 29th, 2014

One of Renée Fleming’s favorite roles is the Countess Madeline in Richard Strauss’ opera 1942 opera “Capriccio”.

Lyric Opera mounted John Cox’ familiar production that time-shifts the opera from 1770s to the salon in a Parisian suburb of the 1920s (inspired by the Countess of Polignac, the famous patron of the arts). I last saw the Cox production of “Capriccio” in 1993 in San Francisco. The common element between the San Francisco Opera production and Lyric’s consists of the sets by the late Italian designer Mauro Pagano.

[Below: Renée Fleming as the Countess Madeline; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


With the Chicago performances being filmed for later DVD release, an international cast was assembled with American lyric tenor William Burden as the composer Flamand and Norwegian baritone Auden Iversen as the poet Olivier competing for the hand of the widowed Countess.

Flamand proved yet another felicitous assignment for New Jersey tenor, who excels in a wide range of lyric roles [see American Orpheus: An Interview with William Burden.]

[Below: the Countess (Renée Fleming, left) listens to a debate between Flamand (Wiliam Burden, center) and Olivier (Auden Iversen, right) as to whether words or music are more important; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


His rival Olivier was the Lyric Opera debut for Auden Iversen, whose Figaro had charmed San Francisco audiences a year ago [see Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Auden Iversen and Maurizio Muraro Sparkle in San Francisco Opera “Barber of Seville” – November 14, 2013.]

In Lyric Opera’s staging, the insertion of an intermission in an opera often performed in a single act, resulted in the would be love triangle of the characters sung by Fleming, Burden and Iversen creating the most sparks in what at the Lyric is the first act.

There are three other principal characters. One is La Roche, an impresario likely modeled on Sergei Diaghilev, played with verve and a bit of bluster by bass-baritone Peter Rose.

Another character is the actress Clairon, played by the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter.

[Below: La Roche (Peter Rose) explains to Clairon (Anne Sofie von Otter) how he envisions staging the play in which she is to star; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ]


The final principal is the Countess’ titled brother, an amateur actor, played by Danish baritone Bo Skovhus. The Count is a mostly comic presence, overacting his lines in a script-reading session with von Otter’s Clairon.

In the second act, where some truly funny situations emerge, including over-the-top ballet sequences with dancers Randy Herrera and Jennifer Goodman, the latter catching the adoring gaze of Skovhus’ Count, whose head bobs as he leers at her many acrobatic postures.

[Below: the Count (Bo Skovhus, right) finds the ballerina (Jennifer Goodman, center right) pleasing to his eye, while her partner (Randy Herrera, left) looks on with obvious displeasure; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera.]


The roles of the Italian Tenor and Italian Soprano were sung respectively by Juan Jose de Leon and Emily Birsan. The servants who straighten up the salon after the guests have left are Matthew DiBattista, Jesse Donner, Anthony Clark Evans, John Irvin, Jonathan Johnson, Will Liverman, Richard Ollarsaba and Bradley Smoak.

David Govertsen was the Majordomo and character tenor Keith Jameson was Monsieur Taupe, the prompter.

Peter McClintock directed the revival of the Cox production. Sir Andrew Davis conducted authoritatively.

Thoughts on “Capriccio”

“Capriccio” is an opera cherished by many performers, including, besides Fleming for whom it is one of her signature roles, the Lyric Opera’s music director Sir Anthony Davis.

Fleming’s Countess dominates the action of the opera, and Fleming’s beautifully lyrical singing, especially in the quiet final moments of the opera, and Davis’ affectionate reading of Strauss’ orchestral score, seem to be the main reasons for the opera’s revival.

Unlike virtually every “hit” opera, “Capriccio” was composed under uniquely trying circumstances. It appears to have provided an intellectual escape for composer Richard Strauss and his co-librettist, conductor Clemens Krauss, from the turmoil of the post-Anschluss heydays of Nazi Germany and Austria. Strauss and Krauss were artists with whom the Nazis had a more or less “live and let live” relationships.

First produced in Munich in 1942, it has never had the popularity of any of the half dozen Strauss operas that hold a place in the performance repertory.

The Chicago production, besides inserting the intermission (first tried by a major German director 15 years after the 1942 premiere) incorporates an idea of the eminent British director John Cox – that moving the action a century and half into the future would make the libretto (which abounds in references to baroque composers and ancien régime theater), less a “museum piece” and more relevant to contemporary audiences. 

[Below: Flamand (William Burden, left) plays his composition for the Countess (Renée Fleming, right); edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


My personal belief is that any impresario with the self-assurance of the character La Roche – be he a contemporary of Mozart, Diaghilev, or one from the present day – would take the operatic material that Strauss and Krauss wrote, it would have quite a different organization and flow. Strauss and Krauss collaborated during a period in which their activities were monitored and their movement limited during the years of Nazi totalitarianism.

But, ultimately, a triangle of unrequited love, in which two men are metaphors for poetry and music, is unlikely to achieve a large and enthusiastic following among the wider opera-going public.

This is not to say  the opera should not be performed. I would argue strongly for whatever safeguards are needed to assure that the production seen in Chicago is available for future generations to see.

The elegant costumes and all the furnishing and decor are the work of Robert Perdziola (who sets and costumes so enrich the John Cox production of Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” [See A Beautifully Sung, Engaging “Cosi fan Tutte” at San Francisco Opera – June 9, 2013.]

When the videos of the Lyric mounting become available, there will be at least three versions of Cox’ ideas alone, each with its own costume designs.

I’m not afraid of recognizing a substantive work (and “Capriccio” is one) as a “museum piece”. Some museums hold priceless works of art and culture. Having a video documentary of an important presentation of the piece will assure that others will enjoy what was seen and heard in Chicago.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014

October 28th, 2014

For a revival of Sir David McVicar’s effective production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”, the Lyric Opera of Chicago enlisted a stellar cast, led by South Korean tenor di forza Yonghoon Lee  in the lead role, Amber Wagner as his sweetheart Leonora, Stephanie Blythe as his mother Azucena, and Quinn Kelsey as his rival and unknown brother, the Count di Luna. Andrea Silvestrelli as Ferrando, the leader of the Count’s retinue, rounded out the five principals.

The five artists collectively gave a display of Verdi power singing that gives a lie to the often heard remark that one can’t properly cast Verdi’s operas in our current day.

Yonghoon Lee’s Manrico

One of the greatest and most demanding of Verdi’s dramatic tenor parts, the role of Manrico provides more evidence that Yonghoon Lee is an exciting force in the weightier tenor roles of the Italian repertory. In McVicar’s production, he even gets to show his acting skills.

Much of his recent work has been concentrated in Europe [see my reviews of two of his performances: True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014 and Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012]

His delivery of Verdi’s strong melodic line may, at times, strike one as indulgent, but overall he is like a reborn Golden Age tenor having returned to the opera stage.

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Manrico; edited image of a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Andrea Silvestrelli’s Ferrando

In the opera’s first scene, Ferrando relates the first part of the backstory – the suspected bewitchment of the old count’s younger son, who is kidnapped by a gypsy who is apprehended and burned at the stake. The count’s men discover in the embers of the stake the charred remains of an infant, whom they assume is the old count’s kidnapped son.

Silvestrelli’s sonorous basso and the men of the Lyric Opera chorus masterfully presented this stirring beginning to “Trovatore”, which provides us with two key plot points going forward – that the deceased Old Count always believed his son was still alive and that Ferrando was certain he would be able to identify the gypsy’s daughter if he were ever to see her again.

[Below: Ferrando (Andrea Silvestrelli) briefs his men on what has gone on before; edited image based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Amber Wagner’s Leonora

As Leonora, soprano Amber Wagner effortlessly assayed the heights of a dramatic soprano’s range, displaying the sustained melodic line characteristic of this classic Verdi role.

Demonstrating that she belongs in any list of the world’s great Verdian sopranos, she brilliantly performed both the first and last act cavatina-cabaletta double arias. As a bonus for the Chicago audience that received her performance enthusiastically, the usually omitted second verse of her first act cabaletta Di tale amor was restored for her.

[Below: Amber Wagner as Leonora; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Stephanie Blythe’s Azucena

The second part of the opera takes place in the gypsy encampment where the gypsy men perform the Anvil Chorus, the most universally familiar music from “Il Trovatore”.

Stephanie Blythe, one of two cast members (with Quinn Kelsey) that also appeared in San Francisco Opera’s 2009 mounting of the McVicar production, again made a strong impression as Azucena, who raised Manrico.

[Below: the men work their anvils in the gypsy encampment; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


In Stride la vampa, the second great exposition area that relates another perspective of the events on the fatal evening that the old count’s son disappeared.

Blythe, acknowledged as one of the greatest and most powerful mezzo voices performing today, gave an impressive vocal performance.

She also projected a woman who murdered her own son in a psychotic moment (seeing one’s mother being burnt at the stake might well unhinge one). Yet, Azucena also raised the count’s son to manhood, instilling in him the musical and social skills to be a troubadour and to catch the eye of a lady of the royal court.

[Below: Stephanie Blythe as Azucena; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Quinn Kelsey’s Count di Luna

Five years ago, I reported on one of the early appearances by the young baritone when he succeeded Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the role in the final performances of the McVicar production of “Il Trovatore” in San Francisco (referenced later in this review).

My assessment that he held great promise as a major Verdi baritone has been confirmed by performances as Germont [Review: San Francisco Opera’s Pérez, Costello, Kelsey Lineup Leads to High Scoring “Traviata” – July 5, 2014]as Amonasro [An Admirable “Aida”: Hui He, Berti, Smirnova, Kelsey Are Impressive – Lyric Opera of Chicago, March 15, 2012], and as Ezio [“Attila” in Italy with a Phenomenal Ferruccio Furlanetto – San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2012],

[Below: Count di Luna (Quinn Kelsey, center) is surrounded and retained by his enemy's henchmen; edited image, based on a Michael Brosilow photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. ]


Verdi baritone roles are noted for the vocal strength they require in the upper part of the baritone range, and Kelsey’s voice is perfectly positioned for these demanding assignments.

Kelsey proved his dominance in this part with a beautifully sung Il balen. In yet another welcome example of opening a traditional cut, Kelsey sang the second verse of the accompanying cabaletta (joined by the men of the chorus as his retinue).

For my interview with the Hawai’ian tenor, see: Rising Stars: An Interview With Quinn Kelsey.

[Below: the Count di Luna (Quinn Kelsey, left) is furious when he comprehends that Leonora (Amber Wagner, right, on floor) for his rival Manrico (Yonghoon Lee, right, above); edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Sir David McVicar’s Production

I had described elements of the McVicar production in two reviews of performances at the San Francisco Opera that utilized the Lyric Opera’s sets [see Lyrical Luisotti Leads Triumphant “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera September 11, 2009 and Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009.]

As with every McVicar production on which I have reported to date, every detail of his staging is interesting and relates to the text of the opera with which he works. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he integrates such showstoppers as the Anvil Chorus and Soldier’s Chorus into the storyline, whereas some other directors simply stop the action to create an irrelevant divertissement.

An imposing single set that is placed on a turntable moves from the castle grounds to the gypsies’ turf to the nunnery to the Castellor fortress seamlessly, providing a unity to all the parts of this work. The McVicar sets should be considered a “world treasure” among opera productions.

[Below: Manrico's troops clash with those of the Count di Luna as both are determined that Leonora will not enter a nunnery; edited image, based on a Robert Kusel photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]


Others in the cast were J’Nai Bridges as Leonora’s maidservant Inez, Jonathan Johnson as Ruiz, Kenneth Nichols as An Old Gypsy and Timothy Bradley as a Messenger.

Asher Fisch conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra with authority.


I recommend this production and extraordinary cast enthusiastically both to the veteran operagoer and to a person new to opera. This  pisower cast for one of opera’s greatest works, that would be worth traveling a long distance to see.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

Review: Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014

October 26th, 2014

Barrie Kosky’s production of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” is the second half of a double bill of operas being performed by the Los Angeles Opera. A review of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, the first half of the double bill, can be found at Review: Barrie Kosky’s Spirited “Dido and Aeneas” Arrives at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014.]


Creating an opera that will enter the standard operatic repertory is an extraordinary achievement. Only a dozen or so composers have multiple entries into the frequently performed operatic canon. One can say that virtually every opera written since 1600 has been a failure. Even achieving the status of “occasionally performed” opera is an accomplishment.

No one would place Bartok’s only operatic composition, the  sombre and mysterious fairy tale opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” in the standard operatic repertory. Yet, it persists on the outskirts of the performance repertory, and no one should bet against its disappearance from the opera scene.

[Below: Béla Bartók in 1910, just before the first version of "Bluebeard's Castle" is composed; resized image of a Helicon Hungary photograph.]

BELA BARTOK 1910 (400)

Bartók, the great ethnomusicologist of Hungarian folk-music created different versions of the work over an eight year period (approximately, though not exactly, the same period between the first and final versions of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s equally mysterious but less somber fairy tale opera “Le Rossignol”, which itself appeared on a double bill at the Santa Fe Opera earlier this year.)

The stage director, Barrie Kosky, is a great admirer of Bartók’s music, regarding the musical score of “Bluebeard’s Castle” as one of the five great musical works (not just operatic works) of the 20th century.

[Below: Production designer Barrie Kosky; resized image of a photograph, used by the Frankfurt Opera.]

BARRIE KOSKY_felix_drobek-truesdale(400)

What was presented at the Los Angeles Opera was a sonic experience – a symphonic composition to which was added the voices of English basso Robert Hayward and German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke.

The two human voices, however, were not just disembodied musical instruments, but two operatic singers who acted out the story through highly choreographed movements, a contemporary dance, all conducted within a rotating raised circular platform onstage.

[Below: the Barrie Kosky production of Bartók's "Bluebeard's Castle" at Los Angeles Opera takes place on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, while the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is conducted by Steven Sloane in the orchestra pit below;  edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


The two singers acted out the familiar tale, not through the literal actions of opening doors, but through a series of movements on the circular disk that represented the physical boundaries of Bluebeard’s Castle.

[Below: Judith (Claudia Mahnke, left) implores Bluebeard (Robert Hayward, right) to give her the keys to each locked castle room; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


 As each successive door was opened, the torture chamber, the weapon storage room, the treasury, Bluebeard’s kingdom, the garden, the lake of tears, the seventh room containing his former wives representing sunrise, midday and late afternoon. As Judith understands she will represent night, the opera ends.

[Below: Judith (Claudia Mahnke, left on disk surface) comprehends the sinister aspects of the garden as Bluebeard (Robert Hayward, right) holds her with a vine; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


It has been a century since this mysterious recasting by Béla Bartók and his librettist Béla Balázs of an already mysterious fairy tale was first introduced in operatic form (its ending was rewritten for the 1918 premiere of the final version that was performed in Los Angeles).

The story’s symbolism, its consonance with Freudian psychology exploring the innate secrets of a human mind, can be analyzed and discussed, but that intellectual exercise will never lead to a consensus on what the work is about. Everyone who relates to it may do so for a different reason.

As a sonic treat and an absorbing experience lasting less than an hour, it is worth seeing and hearing.


I recommend this production to the adventuresome operagoer and for those who are attracted to symphony and dance, who think they may not like opera.

Tags: 2005-2014: William's Reviews

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