Opera Warhorses

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

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Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Two

January 21st, 2011

This web-post continues previous discussions about the expansion of opera’s standard repertory. (See Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part One.)

Most observers of the contemporary state of opera performance will concede that Bizet’s “Carmen” is the most durable representative of the French repertory, and I have argued that there are hopeful signs that Gounod’s “Faust”, despite a rough patch that it has gone through in the mid- and late 20th century, is arguably on the rise in audience estimation.

Bizet’s other entry in opera’s standard repertory, “Les Pecheurs de Perles (The Pearlfishers)”,  has found the 21st century a most hospitable time. With a couple of new critical editions, restoring the original ending and banishing music that seemed to plagiarize Bizet’s mentor, Gounod, but that was not even written until almost two decades after Bizet’s death, the restored “Pearlfishers” is treating modern audiences to the Parisians’ mid-19th century love affair with colors and harmonies inspired by the Orient.

Paris does the Bard, Part I

Faust” (1859) and “Pearlfishers” (1863) are two of the trio of works created for Paris’ Theatre Lyrique whose popularity seems now to be solidly on the upswing. The third, Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette”, abounds in “sweet melody” – a term I use for the seductively beautiful style of music that Gounod in effect created for “Faust’s” Garden Scene. For “Romeo” Gounod was able to create five separate love duets, themselves surrounded by effusively melodic arias and choruses.

All three of these operas have soprano and tenor roles for leggiero and lyric voices, voice types in which several currently performing artists excel. Although virtually no opera can be thought of as inexpensive for a major company to produce, “Romeo” and “Pearlfishers” are usually not the season’s budget busters, and so are especially welcome to companies who may find the economics of Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” or Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” daunting in these financially stressful times.


[Below: Romeo (Stephen Costello, facing audience, fifth from left) is determined not to be goaded into violence; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

[For the performance review, seeCostello, Perez in Passionately Romantic “Romeo et Juliette” – San Diego Opera, March 13, 2010.]


Teenagers in Love

Gounod’s version of the Bard’s Romeo and Juliet is about teenage passion, but there is an opera, Delibes’ “Lakme”, one of the most popular French operas of a century ago, that can be thought of as the most vivid metaphor in all opera for teenage love that defies all social conventions. If you play Gerald (granted he is a young British officer engaged to be married, but is ruled by adolescent passions) and Lakme (granted she has been designated as a priestess for a Hindu cult, but is also ruled by adolescent passions) as mature, rational grownups, the opera’s plot doesn’t work as well.

American audiences in several cities in the past decade have begun to discover this wonderful opera. Although the title role is regarded as technically difficult, I have reported on performances of three successful American Lakmes (Sarah Coburn, Leah Partridge and Evelyn Pollock) at Tulsa Opera and Florida Grand Opera. This is a work ready to be rediscovered in the first tier American opera houses, where it has been out of their repertories for several decades.

The “French Opera is Dead!” crowd will howl, but, audiences who have taken a liking to “Pearlfishers” will find “Lakme” even more melodious and exotic, and Gerald and Lakme (and her dad Nilakantha) to be among the most interesting characters in Franch opera. (See my reviews at Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008 and Leah Partridge’s Splendid “Lakme” – Florida Grand Opera, Miami: February 27, 2009 and Evelyn Pollock, Chad A. Johnson in Revelatory Florida Grand Opera “Lakme” – Miami, February 28, 2009.)

Paris does the Bard, Part Two

Thomas’ “Hamlet” is yet another 19th century Parisian favorite that is being performed more often. In fact, several generations after the initial shock of what a Parisian librettist did to the Bard’s Hamlet, Brits and Americans seem to be seeing the opera more often than Parisians have over the past few years. For those unfamiliar with that opera, who are curious about it, I recommend  my review of Washington’s production (referenced below the photograph), which provides at least some of the reasons why 21st century audiences might invest in getting to know this opera better.


[Below: Hamlet (Michael Chioldi) resolves to wreak some Danish havoc; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the Washington National Opera.]

[For my performance review, seeMichael Chioldi, Micaela Oeste Enrich Washington National Opera’s Theatrically Absorbing “Hamlet” – May 22, 2010.]


Several times in the past year, I found myself applauding productions that emphasize the surreality of many of these 19th century French works, from Berlioz’ “Damnation of Faust” in Chicago, to Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” in Santa Fe, to Massenet’s “Werther” in San Francisco.

The new production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann” at Santa Fe Opera was particularly noteworthy. The Santa Fe Opera, which has begun delving into the classic French repertory to a greater extent than the company has been associated with in the past, decided to produce a “Tales of Hoffmann” that conformed to the last known version prior to Offenbach’s untimely death. Much of what constitutes a classic 20th century version of “Hoffmann” is of spurious origin, with cuts and the additions of non-Offenbach arias that Offenbach could not have sanctioned. Christopher Alden, who is associated with avant-garde operatic stagings, was given the task of realizing a musical performance much more like what Offenbach wrote to be performed.

Any Alden production (be it Christopher’s or David’s) can be controversial, but I believe that Christopher Alden’s conceptualization of  “Hoffmann” as the surreal hallucinations  of the drunken Hoffmann fit the newly reconstructed, textually correct “Hoffmann”. Some of the reviewers present at the new production’s first night were hostile to the non-traditional production with its unfamiliar music, but I was delighted to receive a personal note from one of the cast principals that my review fully grasped what Christopher Alden intended, a vision that the cast understood and appreciated.


[Below: Hoffmann (Paul Groves, seated left) observes the doll Olympia (Erin Wall, in chair atop table, center) through rose-colored glasses, as Spalanzani (Mark Schowalter, right) stands next to her; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

[For my performance review, seeGroves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010.]


An Unworthy “Werther”?

Santa Fe Opera’s “Hoffmann” was not the only instance this year in which I found myself quoted in defense of a non-traditional interpretation of a French operatic work. Mexican Director Francisco Negrin, who had produced an interesting production of Gluck’s “Alceste” in 2009 at Santa Fe Opera, produced a version of Massenet’s “Werther” for San Francisco Opera, which vividly realized the obsessions of the title character.

Defending his production against a detractor who preferred the more romantic old ways of presenting a character that many today would find quite creepy, Negrin cited my review (that can be accessed at “Werther” Re-invented, Yet Again – Francisco Negrin’s New Production at San Francisco Opera, September 15, 2010) as someone who understood what he, Negrin, intended. Indeed, I am a Massenet aficionado who loves what Massenet did to Goethe’s indulgent novella, yet I feel that Negrin nailed Werther’s obsessiveness and the disquiet and potential for disaster that he brought to the lives of Charlotte and Albert, and even Sophie.

We Loves You, Porgy

The most clearly successful 20th century works that premiered after Puccini’s “Turandot” appear to be those of Benjamin Britten, who will be the subject of much attention when the 100th anniversary of his birth is celebrated in 2013. Some of the works from later in the century, most notably Adams’ “Nixon in China” will have major new mountings over the next year or two, allowing us further opportunities to assess the chances for long-term success of  this spectacularly conceived opera.

The most frequently performed American opera, Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, predates “Nixon” by half a century. “Porgy” is approaching the time when it can be considered standard repertory fare, rather than a novelty. (It will have a new production at Seattle Opera this Summer.)

There still are some issues for the opera world to tackle as to whom should be permitted to sing the roles. As Gershwin’s biographer Walter Rimler said in my interview with him this Fall (“Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part I and   “Porgy and Bess” at 75 Years: An Interview with Gershwin Biographer Walter Rimler, Part II), Gershwin never intended the opera be restricted by race (although he was against using “blackface” makeup).  “Porgy’s” future should be resolved in a way that opens each role to all capable of singing it, just as the Japanese roles in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” have been cast from that opera’s earliest days.

As “Porgy’s” place in the repertory becomes secure, we can get on with proper recognition of the second most frequently performed American opera – Floyd’s “Susannah” – which also deserves its place in the permanent repertory of the first tier companies.


[Below: Captain Ahab (Ben Heppner, left center in top hat with cane gives his instructions to Starbuck (Morgan Smith, left) and Pip (Talise Trevigne, in blue shirt, center); edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

[For my performance review, see: World Premiere: Heggie’s Theatrically Brilliant, Melodic “Moby Dick” at Dallas Opera – April 30, 2010.]


I was able to attend the world premiere of Heggie’s “Moby Dick” and the second night of Catan’s “Il Postino” and regard both Heggie and Catan as capable of producing great operatic works in the future. The vastness of Melville’s subject and the extraordinary way that Heggie’s music captured so much of the essence of Melville’s great work – and its line-up of future performances at at least four other opera companies – has led me to predict that “Moby Dick” will the 21st century’s most performed work for some time, and very likely one that will remain in the active repertory. And one assumes and certainly hopes that Heggie is actively planning Great American Operas to come.

The idea of Spanish language opera, although not new, has certainly been advanced by Catan’s work. Many more people speak (and sing) Spanish than Czech, yet the Janacek operas, and, to a lesser extent those of Dvorak and Smetana, have steered many non-Czech speaking opera singers into learning to sing roles in Czech. Many artists are fluent in Spanish anyway, and those learning operatic Spanish to sing their Catan may find the camino to the classical and Romantic Spanish operas as well.


[Below: the poet Pablo Neruda (Placido Domingo, left) teaches the art of metaphor to his postman, (Charles Castronovo); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

[For my performance review, seeAudience Ovation for Domingo, Castronovo in Catan’s “Postino” – Los Angeles Opera, September 29, 2010.]


In the final part of these 2010 “Thoughts and Assessments”, I will discuss the upcoming Verdi and Wagner bicentennial year (2013), and some thoughts about the classical and opera  recording industries. See Opera in Live Performance, Thoughts and Assessments at the End of 2010, Part Three.

Tags: William's Thoughts and Assessments