Opera Warhorses

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

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Review: The Dallas Opera’s “Norma” – Vocally Outstanding, Dramatically Persuasive, April 21, 2017

April 23rd, 2017

The Dallas Opera presented a theatrically valid production of Bellini’s “Norma”, passionately conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume.

Elza van den Heever’s Norma

South African soprano Elza van den Heever returned to Dallas, where she had previously excelled in Mozart, as an international star of the highest rank.

Van den Heever brought her star qualities to the role of the Druid priestess Norma, which is considered more challenging than virtually any other in the operatic repertory. Her vocally strong performance was in the great tradition of this demanding role.

Her delivery of the great aria Casta diva was beautifully sung.  She displayed the range of the character’s strong emotions, both through extraordinary vocal control and acting skill.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Norma; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

As important as Norma’s solo arias are Norma’s duets and her trio with the characters of Pollione, her estranged husband and Adalgisa, Pollione’s new love. These ensembles place extraordinary demands on the singers, which Van den Heever and her colleagues performed with obvious virtuosity.

[Below: Norma (Elza van den Heever, top left) reveals to Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, right) that she has secretly borne two children; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been fortunate to have reviewed van den Heever performances since her early career (see, for example, Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007 and Handel’s “Rinaldo” in Chicago: Francisco Negrin’s Finely Sung, Fun-filled Fantasy – Lyric Opera, March 16, 2012. For my review of her previous appearance at The Dallas Opera see Bel Canto “Cosi fan Tutte” at Dallas Opera – February 18, 2010].

Yonghoon Lee’s Pollione

South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee is one of the finest of the world’s contemporary spinto tenors. Lee gave a robust, vocally secure performance as Norma’s estranged husband, the Roman proconsul Pollione. Hearing the role of Pollione sung with a voice with Lee’s power and vocal expressiveness is revelatory.

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Pollione; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Lee’s characterization defined both the character’s ferocity and his ultimate realization of his innate feelings for Norma as they faced death by fire together. Lee proved to be an engaging actor, his Pollione a fully realized character.

[Below: Flavio (Charles Karanja, right) cautions Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, left) to be careful behind the enemy lines; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

I have been impressed by Yonghoon Lee’s large voice, which has the power for such weighty roles as Calaf [Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012 ], Manrico [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014] and Andrea Chenier [True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014  and Review: Yonghoon Lee is an Eloquent Andrea Chénier in McVicar’s Cinematic Staging – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2016.]

Marina Costa-Jackson’s Adalgisa

Marina Costa-Jackson proved to be a glorious-voiced Adalgisa. She was hauntingly beautiful in the passages that begin  Mira, a Norma, the most famous of Adalgisa’s great duets with Norma.

[Below: Marina Costa-Jackson as Adalgisa; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Costa-Jackson perfectly matched Elza van den Heever’s vocal fireworks in their duet’s treacherous cabaletta Si, fino allore, allure estreme.

[Below: When the druids capture Pollione (Yonghoon Lee, front left, in military uniform), Norma (Elza van den Heever, center, head cloaked in red scarf) requires Adalgisa (Marina Costa-Jackson, left center, in white, kneeling) to place herself among the priestesses from whom a sacrifice victim is to be selected; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Christian Van Horn’s Oroveso, other cast members and the musical performance

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn gave a solid performance as Norma’s father and Druid patriarch, Oroveso.

The opera’s two comprimario artists were both convincing in small roles that advance the plot. American soprano Mithra Mastropierro was Clotilde, the guardian of Norma’s children. Kenyan tenor Charles Karanja was Flavio, Pollione’s subordinate and confidante.

The Dallas Opera Chorus, under the direction of Chorus Master Alexander Rom, and The Dallas Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume, both performed with distinction.

[Below: the Druid leader Oroveso (Christian Van Horn, standing center) prepares his men for the expected battle with the Roman army; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Director Nicholas (Nic) Muni’s Production and John Conklin’s sets

I had previously reported on the revival of a production by Director Nicholas Muni [Review: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo Leads Strong “Don Giovanni” Cast – San Diego Opera, February 14, 2015], whose dramatic content was derived from Muni’s insightful thoughts on the psychological and social background of its characters.

Muni’s “Norma” production dates from Seattle Opera’s 1994 season, and later revived at the Los Angeles Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Florida Grand Opera. Its central premise is that Druids and Romans lived in close proximity to each other and, although generally hostile to one another, interacted in various ways.

The production’s unit set is by John Conklin. Norma resides in a stone Druid temple at stage left, with remnants of  buildings destroyed by war scattered about and evidence that the Roman army is located close by.

[Below: The final scene of “Norma”; edited image of a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]

Although these characters are fictional and I always counsel against trying to learn history from operatic plots, it is now accepted that Druid Gauls and Romans indeed co-existed over several centuries.

I had in a previous essay commented on Bellini’s ultimate power couple The Pollione-Norma Backstory: the Dramatic Logic of Bellini’s ‘Norma’, whose storyline I believe has a degree of plausibility. Nicholas Muni’s production reinforces my belief that the opera makes more sense than some writers would concede.

Muni’s conceptualization provides the character of Pollione with a more substantive presence in the opera, appearing in several scenes (although mute) that neither the opera’s composer nor librettist would have imagined. These appearances suggest that Pollione and Norma – although emotionally estranged from one another – continue to relate to each other through their two children. Neither Norma nor her maid Clotilde seem surprised when Pollione and Flavio arrive to allow Pollione some time with his kids.

Ingeniously, Pollione’s appearances and disappearances seem perfectly timed to the emotions that Norma and Adalgisa display. We are not surprised at all when Pollione turns up just in time for the three-way confrontation between himself Norma and Adalgisa. (I was less convinced by an early scene where Pollione non-textually dares Oroveso to stab him.)

Like Pollione, in this staging Adalgisa appears in more scenes than the opera calls for, including a ritual suicide at opera’s end, that appears consistent with what is now believed to have been Druid practices.

Recommendation

I recommend the cast and production enthusiastically both the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera and suggest that lovers of well-sung bel canto opera in engaging productions make a special effort to get to the remaining performances.

 

For my interviews with Elza van den Heever, see: Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part I and Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part II.

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews

In Quest of American Operas and Musicals – July to December, 2017

April 2nd, 2017

 I am scheduled to review the following American musical works between now and December, 2017 – an opera and a classic Broadway musical from the first half of the 20th century and two new American operas:

 

Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin), Glimmerglass Festival, July 7, 13, 18(m), 22(m), 27, 29(m), 31(m), August 5, 7(m), 13(m), 17, 19 and 21(m), 2017

Musa Ngqungwana is Porgy and Talise Trevigne is Bess in Glimmerglass Festival’s new Francesca Zambello production of George Gershwin’s (and DuBose Heyward’s) “Porgy and Bess”. Norman Garrett is Crown and Frederick Ballentine is Sportin’ Life.

[Below: Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy and Talise Trevigne as Bess in the Glimmerglass Festival Francesca Zambello production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”; edited image of a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

Maestro John DeMain conducts. The sets are by Peter Davison and Associate Set Designer Charles Quiggin. Paul Tazewell is Costume Designer and Loren Shaw the Associate Costume Designer. Eric Sean Fogel is choreographer.

[For my interview with Musa Ngqungwana, see Rising Stars – An Interview with Musa Ngqungwana.]

 

Oklahoma (Rodgers and Hammerstein), Glimmerglass Festival, July 8, 14, 21, 23(m), 25(m), 30(m), August 3, 5(m), 8(m), 11, 14(m), 20(m) and 22(m), 2017.

Vanessa Becerra is Laurey and Jarrett Ott is Curly in Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”. Judith Skinner is Aunt Eller and Michael Hewitt is Jud Fry.

[Below: Baritone Jarrett Ott; edited image of a publicity photograph, from www.jarrettott.com.]

James Lowe conducts, Molly Smith directs. The sets are by Eugene Lee, the costumes by Ilona Somogyi. The choreographer is Parker Esse.

 

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Bates), Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 26, August 4, 10, 15 and 25, 2017.

Santa Fe Opera is the site of the world premiere of a Mason Bates opera about entrepreneur Steve Jobs, with a libretto by Mark Campbell. Edward Parks sings the role of Steve Jobs. Garrett Sorensen is Woz. Sasha Cooke is Laurene Powell Jobs and Kelly Marksgraf is Paul Jobs.

[Composer Mason Bates; edited image of a publicity photograph, from masonbates.com.]

Kevin Newbury directs. Maestro Michael Christie conducts all performances except that of August 25, which Robert Tweten conducts.

 

The Girls of the Golden West (Adams), San Francisco Opera, November 21, 24, 26(m), 29, December 2, 5, 7 and 10(m), 2017.

San Francisco Opera hosts the world premiere of a new collaboration between composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars (who is also the librettist for “Girls”). The opera is the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debuts of Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, Davone Tines as Ned Peters and Ryan McKinny as Clarence King.

J’Nai Bridges is Josefa Segovia, Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, Hye Jung Lee is Ah Sing, Elliot Madore is Ramon and Lorena Feijoo is Lola Montez.

[Below: A contemporary image of San Francisco at the time of the Gold Rush, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Maestro Grant Gershon (San Francisco Opera debut) conducts. David Gropman designs the sets, Rita Ryack the costumes. John Heginbotham is choreographer.

 

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

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

Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the Houston Grand Opera [See In Quest of Less-Often Performed Core Repertory Operas – November 2016 – May 2017.]

Bellini’s “Norma” at The Dallas Opera, 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.]

Vivaldi’s “Orlando Finto Pazzo” at the Korea National Opera in Seoul, 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.]

Tags: Quests and Anticipations

Review: Vittorio Grigolo’s Star Shines Bright in L. A. Opera’s Stellar “Tales of Hoffmann” – March 25, 2017

March 27th, 2017

Los Angeles Opera audiences witnessed an extraordinary performance of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, in which Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo was the most lustrous of several on-stage stars, while an all-star Hoffmann of the preceding generation, Plácido Domingo, presided as conductor.

[Below: the poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, left) is revived by his muse (Kate Lindsey, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The production includes most of Offenbach’s “lost” music for the opera that has been discovered in the past half-century and incorporated into alternative performing editions of the work, affecting the entire work, but especially expanding the opera’s prologue.

Vittorio Grigolo’s Hoffmann

For his Hoffmann, Vittorio Grigolo not only brought his richly expressive tenor voice with its weighty baritonal timbre, but an astonishing athleticism that included duck-walking while singing the entire first verse of the lengthy Kleinzach aria in both the opera’s Prologue and Epilogue.

[Below: Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann in the opera’s prologue; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In demand throughout the world, Grigolo returns to Los Angeles after a five year absence since his impressive L. A. Opera debut [see my review at Vittorio Grigolo, Nino Machaidze Sublime in Ian Judge’s Romantic, Erotic “Romeo et Juliette” – Los Angeles Opera, November 9, 2011.]

Kate Lindsey’s Muse and Nicklausse

No other part in the opera has been so fundamentally changed as the role of the Muse/Nicklausse, who in the performances incorporating the “lost” material, has a substantive presence in every scene.

(Although in some performances a single artist sings the roles of Olympia, Giulietta, Antonia and Stella, the roles are often sung by different artists, as they were by three different artists in this performance. In the latter circumstance, the mezzo-soprano singing the Muse and Nicklausse – that Offenbach intended to be different manifestations of the same person and is always sung by the same artist – has the longest role in the opera written for the female voice.)

[Below: The poet Hoffmann’s Muse (Kate Lindsey) emerges from a wine cask in the opera’s prologue; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The dual roles of the Muse and Nicklausse have become signature roles for Virginia mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey. (I have previously reported on her triumphant appearance in Santa Fe [Groves, Wall, Lindsey Excel in Christopher Alden’s Harrowing, Hallucinatory “Hoffmann” – Santa Fe Opera, July 17, 2010]).

Lindsey provided a masterful portrayal of this role who is central to the drama.

[Below: Nicklausse (Kate Lindsey, left) entertains his sidekick Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, right) with his guitar-playing; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Diana Damrau’s Antonia and Stella

German soprano Diana Damrau’s performance as Antonia was beautifully conceived and vocally expressive. Her affecting death, following the brilliantly performed trio (sung with California contralto Sharmay Musacchio as Antonia and bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Dr Miracle), ended with a trill as her dying breath.

[Below: Stella (Diana Damrau, right) reconsiders her evening’s plans as Andres (Christophe Mortagne , left) looks on; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

In the epilogue, Damrau appeared in a memorable costume as Stella, the object of Hoffmann’s unrequited desire.

So Young Park’s Olympia

South Korean coloratura soprano So Young Park won audience favor with a delightful performance of Olympia, the mechanical doll, pursued by a deluded Hoffmann. Her chanson with its coloratura fireworks twice interrupted by the need of her creator to rewind her was delivered with precision (both vocally and physically), resulting in a sustained ovation at aria’s end.

[Below: The rose-colored glasses that Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, right) wears obscures the fact that Olympia (So Young Park, center) with whom he has fallen in love, is an automaton; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

I had previously praised Park’s Queen of the Night [Review: Sean Panikkar, So Young Park Brilliant in Madeline Sayet’s “Magic Flute” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 20, 2015]. An alumna of the Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists program, Park has emerged as a coloratura artist of the first rank.

Kate Aldrich’s Giulietta

Maine mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich, was  reunited with Grigolo and Maestro Domingo, with whom she previously performed at the Washington National Opera [See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008.]

[Below: the courtesan Giulietta (Kate Aldrich, right) has become the new object of desire of the poet Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, left); editd image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Although I found the direction of Giulietta to be curious (the courtesan’s campiness seeming to be at cross-purposes with her intended seductiveness) Aldrich was vocally on her game, her duet with Grigolo’s Hoffmann especially noteworthy.

The Four Villains, Sung by Wayne Tigges, Acted by Nicolas Testé

Prior to the opening scene, Maestro Domingo stepped through the stage curtains to announce that French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé was vocally indisposed but would act and mime the roles of the “Four Villains” while Iowa bass-baritone Wayne Tigges sang all four roles from the orchestra pit.

[Below: Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges, who sang the roles of the Four Villains; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from waynetigges.com.]

Tigges, who includes these roles in his performance repertory and is currently preparing them for performances next month with the Hawaii Opera Theater, was vocally effective, evoking the evil that surrounds these sinister characters.

[Below: Dapertutto (Nicola Testé) admires a precious diamond; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Testé’s acting performance sustained the illusion of malevolence throughout the quite different characters – the mad Coppelius, the menacing Dr Miracle, the dour Dapertutto and the practical Lindorf. The latter knew that by merely waiting for Hoffmann to drink himself into a stupor, that Lindorf would end up replacing Hoffmann as Stella’s consort for the evening.

Cristophe Moragne’s “Four Servants”, Rodell Rosel’s Spalanzani, Nicholas Brownlee’s Crespel and Other Cast Members

Just as the four “villains” are often played by the same artist, there are four “servant” roles, sometimes referred to as the “grotesques”, that one artist traditionally plays.

If the roles of Andres (prologue) and Pitichinaccio (Giuletta scene) are relatively insignificant, the roles of the automaton Cochenille (Olympia scene) and Frantz (Antonia scene) are meaty comedic assignments, with Frantz having a significant comic aria.

[Below: Christophe Moragne as Cochenille; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Parisian character tenor Cristophe Moragne was memorable as Cochenille, the mechanical toy companion to So Young Park’s Olympia, and as the deaf servant Frantz, whose aria Jour et nuit je me mets en quartre he performed with distinction.

[Below: the deaf Frantz (Christophe Moragne, right) misunderstands Hoffmann (Vittorio Grigolo, right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera. ]

Special note should be taken of the performance of character tenor Rodell Rosel as Spalanzani, the creator of the mechanical toys Olympia and Cochenille.

I have long admired Rosel’s work [see, for example, Review: Jay Hunter Morris, Christine Goerke Lead a Vocally Strong “Siegfried” Cast – Houston Grand Opera, April 20, 2016.] He was a vigorous Spalanzani, excitedly hopping around, leaving a strong impression of a toymaker living in a world of fantasy.

The role of Crespel, Antonia’s father, needs a strong bass-baritone presence, and is often assigned to an “up and coming” artist. That is the case in the fine performance of Alabama’s Nicholas Brownlee.

Other members of a carefully chosen cast included Texas baritone Daniel Armstrong as Schlémil (Giuletta scene), and, from the prologue, New York baritone Theo Hoffman as Hermann, Ohio tenor Brian Michael Moore as Nathanael and South Korean baritone Kihun Yoon as Luther.

Plácido Domingo and the Musical Performance

Los Angeles Opera’s General Director Plácido Domingo, conducted the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra in a a passionate reading of the opera.

The performing edition he chose retains the all of the lush music of the operatic performing edition that Domingo personally performed in the earlier part of his distinguished operatic career. (I saw him perform the role at the San Francisco Opera in 1987.)

The revised edition that Maestro Domingo chose for the performance contains a wealth of Offenbach’s music unknown to the late 19th through mid-20th century. Under his baton, the orchestra performed the entirety of Offenbach’s music – “old” and “new” –  with affection.

[Below: the “Venice scene” from Marta Domingo’s production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”, with a view of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Marta Domingo’s Production and Staging

Marta Domingo has created four of Los Angeles Opera’s cherished productions, including her famous 1920s Hollywood version of Verdi’s “La Traviata” [See Review: Nino Machaidze and the Domingos (Placido and Marta) Create a Memorable “La Traviata” – Los Angeles Opera, September 13, 2014 and an alternative version of Puccini’s “La Rondine” [Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008].

Always an imaginative production designer, Marta Domingo created attractive settings for her 2002 “Hoffmann” production, in its first Los Angeles Opera revival, which she stages with swift-moving action.

A Personal Observations

Although I’ve reviewed hundreds of opera performances in the past decade, and have attended many more live opera performances over my lifetime, this is only the second time I’ve ever observed a performance in which a principal singer’s indisposition has been addressed by having that artist act the role onstage while another artist sings from the pit. [For the other instance, see: A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007.]

(It is a far more satisfactory solution to the solution of an indisposed artist, than trying to negotiate a performance without a cover in which a major artist suddenly is unable to perform. [See No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.])

At the least in most of the major American opera houses, there is a “cover”, either a major artist who knows the role and the production who has been engaged to be in the vicinity, lest she or he be needed to step in at the last moment.

Often the cover is a member of the company’s Young Artist’s program, who in some cases may have been selected for the program with the idea that the young artist would be groomed as the cover for a principal role in the company’s upcoming repertory.

This was the opening performance of a prestigious “Tales of Hoffmann” production, important to the artistic team of Placido Domingo, the conductor, and Marta Domingo, the production designer and stage director.

Knowing that most operatic artists who might be available to do so would respond to any request from Maestro Domingo to participate at the last minute in one of his projects, I am confident that the solution that he chose was calculated to give the Los Angeles Opera audiences the best performance possible under the circumstances.

The result was a theatrically cohesive, beautifully sung performance, with which the “dual” performance of the four villain roles was hardly even a distraction.

Recommendation

“Hoffmann” is one of the “hot tickets” in this world center of the entertainment industry.

I recommend the opera, cast and production enthusiastically, both for the veteran opera goer and the novice to opera (and to anyone able to secure a ticket to it.)

 

Tags: 2005-2017: William's Reviews