Opera Warhorses

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

Opera Warhorses random header image

In Quest of Operatic “Exoticism” – July 2017-May 2018.

May 14th, 2017

The following operas by the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov and French composers Bizet, Saint-Saëns and Massenet all employ exotic harmonies to suggest Biblical Gaza, Byzantine Egypt, ancient Ceyl0n or an imaginary “Oriental” world:


The Golden Cockerel [Le Coq d’Or], Santa Fe Opera, July 15, 19, 28, August 3 and 9, 2017.

British director Paul Curran creates a new production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s fantasy/political satire Le Coq d’Or [The Golden Cockerel].

[Below: Ivan Bilibin’s original 1905 sets for Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Le Coq d’Or”; edited image of an historic illustration.]

Eric Owens appears as King Dodon, Venera Gimadieva as the Queen of Shemakha. Kevin Burdette is Commander Polkan, Barry Banks the Astrologer, and Meredith Arwady is Amelia. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume conducts.


The Pearl Fishers [Les Pecheurs de Perles] (Bizet) Los Angeles Opera, October 7, 15(m), 19, 22(m), 25 and 28, 2017.

When in early 1863 Paris’ Theatre Lyrique (flush with success from its sponsorship of Gounod’s “Faust”) agreed to mount a new opera by Gounod’s protege Georges Bizet, it was to be about pearl fishers in Acapulco, Mexico.

Some commentators on the opera have wondered why its locale was changed to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), but to me it is obvious. On May 5, 1863 (Cinco de Mayo) the Mexicans routed the French military. Meanwhile 1863 was a year of an exposition of the Oriental decorative arts. A shift of the opera from Mexico to Sri Lanka (and the inclusion of a couple of arias and a chorus whose harmonies were meant to evoke the Orient) was instrumental in the opera’s ultimate success.

[Below: Zurga (here, Mariusz Kwiecien, left, in blue vest) and Nadir (here, Matthew Polenzani, standing right) observe a ceremony in which Leila (here, Diana Damrau, front, left center, in red veil) participates, in the production at the Metropolitan Opera; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the New York Metropolitan Opera.]

In Los Angeles Opera’s Penny Woolcock production (co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera and English National Opera], Nino Machaidze is Leila, Javier Camarena is Nadir and Alfredo Daza is Zurga. Nicholas Brownlee sings the role of Nourabad, wnile Placido Domingo and Grant Gershon  split the conducting duties.


Samson et Dalila (Saint-Saëns), The Dallas Opera, October 20, 22(m), 25, 28 and November 5(m), 2017.

Camille Saint-Saëns’ setting of the Old Testament story includes two of the most famous excerpts from French opera – the aria that seals the deal for Dalila’s seduction of the Hebrew warrior Samson, and the last act Bacchanale that leads to the blinded Samson destroying the Temple of the Hebrews’ enemies.

[Below: as the bacchanal continues, Samson (here, Frank Porretta) pulls down the load-bearing pillars, thereby destroying the temple in the Pittsburgh Opera’s 2008 production of Saint-Saens’ “Samson et Dalila”; edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

Clifton Forbis is Samson, Olga Borodin is Dalila. Richard Paul Fink, Michael Chioldi and Ryan Kuster round out the cast. Maestro Emmanuel Villaume conducts. Bruno Berger directs, with sets by Peter Dean Beck.


Thaïs (Massenet), Minnesota Opera, May 12, 15, 17, 19 and 20, 2018.

Jules Massenet’s opera, adapted from an Anatole France novel, relates the story of an ascetic monk, Athanaël, who is at first obsessed with the idea of converting the courtesan Thaïs to a life of religious purity. Although Thais’ conversion succeeded, in the meantime, Athanaël finds that he himself is vulnerable to the weaknesses of the flesh and to a new obsession – his desire to become Thaïs’ lover.

[Below: Kelly Kaduce will be Thaïs; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

Maestro Christopher Franklin conducts, Andrea Cigni directs.

The cast consists of Minnesota native Kelly Kaduce as Thaïs, Lucas Meachem as Athanaël and John Robert Lindsey as Nicias.


This list is supplementary to previous lists in this “Quests and Anticipations” series of selected operas being performed through December 2017:

Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” at the Santa Fe Opera [See In Quest of Operatic Comedy – July 2016 – August 2017.]

Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Santa Fe Opera and Donizetti’s “L’Assedio di Calais” at the Glimmerglass Festival [See In Quest of Donizetti and Bellini – November 2016 to August 2017.]

Verdi’s “Rigoletto”, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the San Francisco Opera [See In Quest of Italian Opera Masterpieces, February – July, 2017.]

Handel’s “Xerxes” at the Glimmerglass Festival, Handel’s “Alcina” at the Santa Fe Opera and Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Handel and Vivaldi Opera Performances – May to November, 2017.]

George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” and Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!” at the at the Glimmerglass Festival, Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera and Adams’ “The Girls of the Golden West” at the San Francisco Opera [See In Quest of American Operas and Musicals – July to December, 2017.]

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Review: Vivaldi’s Fascinating “Orlando Finto Pazzo” – Korea National Opera, May 10, 2017

May 11th, 2017

The Korea National Opera revived its 2016 hit production of Vivaldi’s rarely performed early opera, “Orlando Finto Pazzo [Orlando Fakes Insanity]” at Seoul’s LG Arts Theater.

The cast consisted of seven principal singers with mastery of Vivaldi’s coloratura fireworks, a brilliantly conceived staging by Italian wunderkind director Fabio Ceresa, attractive sets by South Korean designer Pilyoung Oh and masterful conducting by Greek baroque specialist, Maestro George Petrou, leading an orchestra consisting of reproductions of instruments for which Vivaldi composed.

Each of the principals, under the direction of Maestro Petrou, an expert on baroque opera, observed the convention of altering the repeat verses in the opera’s abundance of da capo arias to add extensive ornamentation.

Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli’s Ersilla and Christoph Woo’s Orlando

The opera’s is associated historically with the prima donna role of Ersilla, the witch adversary of the paladin Orlando.

[Below: Ersilla (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, left center, seated on throne, gesturing) is surrounded by her minions; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

Italian coloratura soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli was in lustrous voice for each of Ersilla’s several arias. Among the evening’s most memorable experiences were Mazzulli’s performances of the dramatic Lo stridor l’error d’Averno and of Ersilla’s elegaic Se garrisce la rondinella. For the latter, the Greek concertmeister Sergiu Nastasa stood throughout to perform the aria’s plaintive violin accompaniment.

In a coup de théâtre, Mazzulli’s final aria ends with Mazzulli’s Ersilla ascending upward, disappearing above the stage.

The role of Orlando, Ersilla’s adversary, but also would-be lover, was performed with distinction by South Korean bass-baritone Christoph Woo, who in recent years has been a member of the ensemble of Northern Germany’s Kiel Opera.

[Below: Bass-Baritone Christoph [Kyung-Sik] Woo; edited image of a publicity photograph from Theater Kiel.]

Tall and handsome, a winsome and athletic actor with a powerful bass voice, Woo’s performance augurs a major international career.

David DQ Lee’s Argillano and Siman Chung’s Grifone

The production employed counter-tenors for the roles of Argillano and Grifone.

South Korean-born Canadian counter-tenor David DQ Lee was a fervent Argillano, arguably the second longest role in the opera.  Costumed as an armored knight throughout, Lee demonstrated lyrical beauty in the intoxicating Diro allor, di te and spectacular vocal dexterity in the aria E’il destin della nave agitata.

[Below: Argillano (David DQ Lee, right) draws his sword at Grifone (Siman Chung, left); edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

South Korean counter-tenor Siman Chung brought a voice of power and emotion to the role of Grifone – suggesting readiness for even larger counter-tenor assignments internationally.

[Below: Grifone (Siman Chung, center) attempts to escape the ropes and chain that bind him; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

Among the role’s charms is the aria Alla rosa rugiadosa for which Vivaldi has invented a musical accompaniment evoking an image of honey-bees visiting flowers.

[Below: Counter-tenor Siman Chung sang the role of Grifone; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]

Byoung Ho June’s Brandimarte, Jina Oh’s Tigrinda ad Franziska Gottwald’s Origille

The other three roles include the paladin Brandimarte, authoritatively performed by South Korean tenor Byoung Ho June.

[Below: Tenor Byoung Ho June sang the role of Brandimarte; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

Jina Oh was cast as the potion-maker Tigrinda. Between nefarious pursuits, Oh’s Tigrinda finds opportunities for humor.

[Below: South Korean coloratura mezzo-soprano Jina Oh; edited image, based on a photograph from truelinked.com.]

The seventh member of the cast, whose vocal virtuosity matched the other six, was German mezzo-soprano Franziska Gottwald in the role of Origille.

[Below: German mezzo-soprano Franziska Gottwald; edited image, based on a photograph from www.franziskagottwald.de]

[Below: Orlando (Christoph Woo, second from left) is defiant and Argillano (David DQ Lee, center, bottom of staircase) is reflective, as Ersilla (Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, center, top) tries to retain control of Brandimarte (Byoung Ho June), Origille (Franziska Gottwald) and Grifone (Siman Chung); edited image, based on a production photograph of the 2017 Korea National Opera revival of Vivaldi’s “Orlando FInto Pazzo”.]

Director Fabio Ceresa, Conductor George Petrou and the Production

The plot of Vivaldi’s opera is notoriously opaque, although each of its arias is a masterpiece of composition.

Italian director Fabio Ceresa, who has achieved international recognition for his imaginative mountings of opera, has created an attractive, eye-catching production that makes some sense of the plot’s obscurities, while providing fast-paced action.

[Below: Italian director Fabio Ceresa; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

For the work’s revival at the Korea National Opera, Greek conductor George Petrou enlisted the Camerata Antiqua Seoul,  an orchestra that consists exclusively of instruments like those for which Vivaldi would have written, at a pitch which complements, rather than competes with, baroque styles of singing.

The effect is magical, the orchestral sound proving the right fit for Vivaldi’s mixture of dramatic recitativo and intoxicating arias.

[Maestro George Petrou; edited image, based on a Ilias Sakalak photograph.]

The excellent Grande Opera Chorus complemented the orchestra. Hee Sung Lee is the chorus master.

Pilyoung Oh designed the brilliant sets, Giuseppe Palella the attractive costumes. Martin Agatiello is choreographer.

Hak Min Kim is artistic director.

[Below: David DQ Lee (left) is Argillano and Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (right) is Ersilla; edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the Korea National Opera.]

Performing the work in the LG Arts Center rather than the much larger Seoul Performing Arts Center [Review: An Elegant “Marriage of Figaro” – Korea Opera Festival (Seoul Arts Center) May 10, 2015] also enhanced the performance.

The Vivaldi works that I have reviewed previously “Griselda” [Extreme Makeover: A Vivaldi Revival’s Reveal – Peter Sellars’ “Griselda” at Santa Fe Opera – August 4, 2011] and “Cato in Utica” [Review: Ovations for John Holiday’s Cesare in American Premiere of Vivaldi’s “Cato in Utica” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2015] were written over two decades later than “Orlando Finto Pazzo”. Experiencing this work from Vivaldi’s formative early career – a period of brilliant innovations in his instrumental composition – proved to be revelatory.


I enthusiastically recommend the Korea National Opera’s production and cast, and would expect it to be a successful export to Europe and North America.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Spectacular “Götterdämmerung”, April 22, 2017

April 26th, 2017

Houston Grand Opera presented “Götterdämmerung” with an illustrious cast, led by Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde and Simon O’Neill’s Siegmund, magnificently conducted by Houston Grand Opera’s artistic director, Maestro Patrick Summers.  It completed Houston Grand Opera [HGO]’s four-season presentation of the Fura dels Baus production of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”.

Christine Goerke’s Brünnhilde

New York dramatic soprano Christine Goerke has achieved international superstar status for her success in performing all three Brünnhilde roles that constitute Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs”.

Her “Götterdämmerung” Brünnhilde (the longest of “The Ring’s” three Brünnhilde roles) should be a lifetime memory for those who were in attendance at Saturday night’s performance.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) admires the Nibelung ring; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Goerke sustained vocal power and luxurious sound throughout the five and a half hour opera. She  evoked compassion and romantic love in her first scene with Simon O’Neill’s Siegfried, bewilderment in her interaction with Jamie Barton’s Waltraute, confusion, then fury, at Siegfried’s inexplicable actions in the second act, and finally, understanding and resolve in her determination to sacrifice her own life to break the curse of the Ring.

[Below: Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke) rides her mechanical horse, Grane, into the funeral pyre; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Houston Grand Opera has been one of two companies (the other, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto) that have mounted productions of the “Ring” in which Goerke’s Brünnhilde was the centerpiece [see Review: Houston “Walküre” Showcases Christine Goerke’s Astonishing Brünnhilde, Karita Mattila’s Stunning Sieglinde – Houston Grand Opera, April 25, 2015 and Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016.]

In my review of the 2015 HGO “Walküre”, I wrote how fortunate I was to have seen the great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson, the greatest Wagnerian soprano “of her time” perform with the San Francisco Opera in the role of Brünnhilde  at various times in her career. I believe that Goerke has emerged as the early 21st century’s greatest Wagnerian soprano.

The Houston “Ring” has provided Goerke with the opportunity to realize fully this most challenging of assignments in the operatic repertory.

Simon O’Neill’s Siegfried

The Siegfried was New Zealand heldentenor Simon O’Neill, an HGO favorite whose Wagnerian assignments with Goerke have included the 2015 “Die Walküre” and “Lohengrin” [Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009.] He proved to have the power and endurance necessary to successfully perform this role.

[Below Siegfried (Simon O’Neill, right), his memory restored, shocks Gunther (Ryan McKinny, standing, left) and his men, with an account of his previous sexual relations with Gunther’s bride; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

O’Neill’s robust tenor voice has been enlisted by HGO for Verdi’s Otello as well [see Review: O’Neill, Pérez and Vratogna Impressive in Houston Grand Opera’s “Otello” – November 1, 2014]

Andrea Silvestrelli’s Hagen, Ryan McKinny’s Gunther and Heidi Melton’s Gutrune

Italian-born American bass Andrea Silvestrelli’s deep, resonant voice and imposing stage presence, has made him invaluable for the great bass roles of composers Wagner and Verdi [see Review: A Legendary Performance of “Don Carlo” at the San Francisco Opera, June 12, 2016.]

His brooding, villainous Hagen, although appropriately the personification of evil, was beautifully sung.  High points in his performance included his summons to the Gibichung vassals, his groggy dream conversation with his father Alberich (British baritone Christopher Purves), and the menacing trio with Brünnhilde and Gunther that ends the second act.

[Below: Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli, center, holding spear) has called upon the Gibichung vassals (Houston Grand Opera Chorus) to join in unexpected marriage festivities; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Baritone Ryan McKinny, who is one of the alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio, the company’s young artists’ program, has achieved international status as Wagnerian baritone, including performing Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal” (at the 2016 Bayreuth Festival) and the title role in “The Flying Dutchman”.

McKinny’s baritone, which has both lyrical and dramatic qualities, contributed to his strong, psychologically-driven performance in the role of Gunther.

[Below: Gutrune (Heidi Melton, in globe, upper left) is in the company of her brother, Gunther (Ryan McKinny, below, front); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Heidi Melton, who possesses a Brünnhilde-sized Wagnerian soprano voice, brought vocal weight and insouciant acting to the role of Gunther’s sister, the Gibichung Gutrune.

Jamie Barton’s Waltraute

In one of the many examples of luxury casting that HGO has bestowed on its “Ring”, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton was assigned the relatively brief role of Brünnhilde’s valkyrie sister Waltraute. Barton’s Waltraute was yet another memorable performance.

[Below: Waltraute (Jamie Barton, right) unsuccessfully tries to overpower he sister Brünnhilde (Christine Goerke, left) in order to take control of the Nibelung Ring; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Barton, who was the 2013 winner of the Cardiff world competition and the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Richard Tucker Award, is still in the early stages of an illustrious career.

Meredith Arwady, Jamie Barton and Heidi Melton as the Three Norns

The opening scene of “Götterdämmerung” introduces the Three Norns who throughout eternity have been weaving the rope of fate, and who explain events of the past, present and future.

[Below: weaving the rope of fate are the First Norn (Meredith Arwady, left), the Second Norn (Jamie Barton, center) and the Third Norn (Heidi Melton, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The First Norn was ably sung by American contralto Meredith Arwady. Jamie Barton and Heidi Melton superbly realized the roles of the Second and Third Norns.

Andrea Carroll’s Woglinde, Catherine Martin’s Wellgunde and Renee Tatum’s Flosshilde

The three Rhine Maidens in this production not only sing but swim underwater (each in her own tank). These bravura assignments were nicely achieved by American sopranos Andrea Carroll and Catherine Martin and by American mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum.

[Below: Siegfried (Simon O’Neill , left) taunts the Rhine Maidens, Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde (Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum, here, each swimming in her individual tank); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

The Fura dels Baus Production

The “Ring of the Nibelungs” production seen in Houston was created by Barcelona-based Fura dels Baus company for the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Spain.

The production abounds in eye-catching images, including the use of mechanical devices hoisting principal singers, teams of acrobats, and engaging visual projections.

[Below: Froh’s rainbow bridge to Valhalla, seen previously in the 2014 Houston Grand Opera Fura dels Baus production of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold”, surrounded by flames, soars above the Rhine Maidens after the ring has been thrown into the River Rhine; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Although some “Rings” are designed to impart “messages” about the deeper meanings of “The Ring of the Nibelungs”, for me the message is that razzle-dazzle accompanying glorious singing and the sweep of Wagner’s orchestration, enhances the experience of the live performance.

[Below: the Rhine Maidens (Andrea Carroll, Catherine Martin and Renee Tatum, center, below) recover the Nibelung Ring amidst the destruction of Valhalla, its soldiers and the gods; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]


I enthusiastically recommend the “Götterdämmerung” production seen in Houston to all opera-goers that enjoy Wagnerian opera that is beautifully sung and performed, and to those who might be curious to experience one of the greatest works of art.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews