Madrid Opera Season Opens with Disappointing Barbiere

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October 3, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª Irurzun

SpainSpain G. Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Teatro Real Orchestra and Chorus, Tomas Hanus (conductor), Madrid Teatro Real 25 & 26.9.2013 (JMI)

I must admit to having doubts about choosing this Rossini opera to open the season in an important house, but if it is decided to go ahead with Il Barbiere the production needs to be outstanding. Sadly, Gerard Mortier – currently battling on many fronts, both personal and professional – has programmed a Barber of Seville in which nothing struck me as being worthy of opening a season. This was a revival of a well known production, with musical direction which was lacking in true Rossini style, and with a cast dominated by less than sensational singers.
These performances had two different casts and if, in the first, there was no alleviation from a sense of mediocracy, there was no discernible improvement in the second. Some novelty lay in using the version for soprano, as happened in 2005, but this time without the aria Ah, se è ver che in tal momento that Rossini took from Sigismondo for soprano Josephine Fodor-Mainville. I must confess that I prefer the traditional version for mezzo soprano, unless you have an outstanding soprano at your disposal, which was not the case in Madrid.
Emilio Sagi’s production had its premiere in this theater when he was the artistic director of the house, although he was surprisingly fired a few days later. Almost 9 years have passed since then and his work has been seen in different houses during this time.
Mr. Sagi’s work is good, if not truly outstanding. The production is characterized by constant movement of sets for the different scenes. The sets are always in white or gray and do not have much originality or appeal. The costumes also move between black and white, with some buffo details, until in the final scene the whole thing becomes an explosion of color, which is definitely the best part of the whole production.
The stage direction is somewhat irregular, with some attractive moments. Some parts of the original production have been removed in this revival, particularly the entrance of La Forza at the end of act I.
The Czech Tomas Hanus is one of the best conductors from his country and he is, not surprisingly, best known for Czech opera. I have had the opportunity to enjoy his excellent conducting of Jenufa and Rusalka, but Il Barbiere di Siviglia has nothing in common with them. Not only that, if one looks at his performances in major theaters in recent years Rossini has never featured and he was largely responsible for this performance’s over-controlled monotony. From the overture it was clear what we could expect from his baton.
How much I missed Albetto Zedda or Jean-Christophe Spinosi! Mr. Hanus had everything under control, but a buffo opera by Rossini needs more than that.
The orchestra remains at the remarkable level it achieved last year and the same is true for the chorus.
Nine years ago, the Teatro Real had the presence of Juan Diego Florez and María Bayo, then at their peak. It is very usual in opera to look back nostalgically, often with little justification, but in this case the difference was huge.
The presence of Mario Cassi as Figaro is an error of casting that should not have occurred, since his voice had already been heard at Teatro Real and he performed the same role in Valencia last year. This singer seems to have no goal other than displaying his sonorous voice, giving a recital of open and coarse sounds, forgetting the need for elegance and refinement.
Romanian baritone Levente Molnar was much more convincing in the second cast. His baritone is smooth and attractive and well handled, and he has enough stage skill to be persuasive. He was not an exceptional Figaro, but he was a very reliable one.
Serena Malfi was a Rosina of little interest. The voice is fine, but short of color, her singing falling into monotony – quite apart from showing little affinity to buffo opera.
Soprano Ana Durlovski was hardly convincing. Hers is a very light soprano which is very tiny in size. With this instrument she can do little with this role. She has no problems at the top and she has no problem with the agilities, but her middle range is rather poor and it is not easy for her to reach the audience.
Dmitry Korchak had the handicap of fighting with the memory of Juan Diego Flórez in the character of Count Almaviva. This is a losing battle for any tenor. He gave a good performance, but there is also excessive monotony in his singing. He included the rondó Cessa di piú resistere, in which he was at his very best.
Edgardo Rocha is a light tenor, smaller in size than Mr.Korchak, who moves well on stage. He included also the final rondo, where his coloratura was somewhat laborious.
Bruno De Simone repeated his very funny Doctor Bartolo. There can be little doubt that he is one of the best interpreters of this character today.
I do not, however, understand the presence of Joseph Fardilha in the second cast. He has little to offer in this genre and his Bartolo was rather boring.
Carlo Lepore was well-suited to the part of Don Basilio and Susana Cordón made an outstanding Berta, the best I have seen on stage since Jeannete Fischer some years ago.

Teatro Real in coproduction with Lisbon’s Teatro Sao Carlos.
Direction: Emilio Sagi
Sets: Llorenç Corbella
Costumes: Renata Schussheim
Lighting: Eduardo Bravo
Figaro: Mario Cassi/Levente Molnar
Rosina: Serena Malfi/Ana Durlovsky
Almaviva: Dmitry Korchak/Edgardo Rocha
Dottor Bartolo: Bruno de Simone/Jose Fardilha
Don Basilio: Carlo Lepore
Berta: Susana Cordón
Fiorello: Isaac Galán
Officer: José Carlos Marino

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Rossini Opera Festival- L’ italiana’s Isabella Drops in on Las Vegas.

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Opera director David Livermore didn’t shy away from things American in his fast-paced, action-packed production of G.Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri at ROF this past August. Most opera lovers — and critics — attending  the composer’s first two-act comic opera, seemed to thoroughly enjoy the director’s non-stop, zip-a-dee-doo-dah staging of this work. But for this American, some of it had the look and feel of deja vu, with some funny stage bits and some shtick falling flat, as can happen with a show going at 100 miles an hour.

Livermore also threw into the mix a number of popular American dances from the 1960s whenever the dances could mimic Rossini’s swinging musical beat. There were snippets of The Twist, which has been described as looking like you’re “wiping your bottom with a towel.”  The Mash Potato and The Swim were also set to Rossini’s lively tunes. The audience liked these dance crazes from that bygone era, but they made me wince at times, for they reminded me of my carefree days full of fun on the dance floor.

Nicholas Boven’s sleek all-white set with a curved sliding panel perfectly matched Livermore’s quick stepping, peripatetic cast. And the one performer who personified Livermore’s speedfest was Alex Esposito as the Bey of Algiers, Mustafà. At his first entrance, Esposito gamboled around, a bit hunched over a la Groucho Marx,  constantly puffing on his cigar, leaving no question that Livermore has seen the Marx Bros.’ movies.  But Esposito’s impersonation, while vocally superb, was a double-edged sword; it was funny to the core and exhausting to watch. And this theatrical escapade ran through the entire production spilling into every performer’s character whether mimed or sung.

Just how did Isabella, the young Italian woman, get into the act? The director, taking liberties with the libretto*, had Mustafà fire a  shot into the air which accidentally hit the airplane Isabella was on as she headed to Algiers to search for her lover Lindoro. Fortunately, Isabella, in the person of mezzo Anna Goryachova, survived the crash without a scratch and appeared quite unruffled as she emerged from the wreckage in her designer outfit by costumer Gianluca Falaschi.

And for Isabella’s first encounter with Mustafà, Falaschi dressed her as a Vegas showgirl with large pink plumes bobbing atop her head. Needless to say, the humor was bawdy and funny as Mustafà snuggled and jiggled his head into the folds of her bosom. The audience ate it up.

However, Yijie Shi’ s Lindoro, small, but nimble frame, didn’t always match up with Goryachova”s healthy physical attributes, but the pair played out their roles as long-lost lovers as if the differences didn’t matter. The mezzo’s vocals certainly handled all of Isabella’s coloratura runs and expressed the text when required, but how she would do in Rossini’s other mezzo roles, La Cenerentola, for example, is still in question. Shi, an audience favorite at the festival, is known for his commitment to his roles and his affable personality. But the top part of his voice has taken on a hard sound at the point where it needs to be supple and caressing.

Baritone Mario Cassi as Taddeo handled the vocal and comedic changes in the character’s personality in admirable fashion. Rossini first made him Isabella’s love-sick companion, then her uncle, and finally a fellow conspirator, along with Lindoro, who urged Mustafà to join the Pappataci, a group of exemplary lovers who spend their time eating, drinking and sleeping when not wooing a potential lover, which, for Mustafà is Isabella. Naturally, the two men made sure he never succeeded. Livermore did go a bit overboard by having Esposito eat so much cake, I worried he would get a bad tummy ache.

Rounding out the cast were David Luciano’s vocally smooth Haly, the chief of Mustafà’s Corsairs, and sopranos, Mariangela Sicilia as Elvira, Mustafà’s discarded wife and Raffaella Lupinacci, as Zulma, Elvira’s busybody maid. They added to the madcap atmosphere by constantly nagging poor Mustafà about his errant behavior. Livermore also added two mime characters. One was a doltish woman whose job it was to make sure the audience understood that everybody was crazy on LSD for Rossini’s zany Act One finale. She walked across the stage carrying a huge can marked ‘ACID,’ but for those of us in the audience who were experienced trippers, we got the point well before she plodded across the boards. The other one, a tall, bald-headed eunuch who never left Elvira’s side, limped his wrist so alarmingly one feared the onset of carpal tunnel.

Undeservedly, conductor José Ramón Encinar bore the brunt of what the audience didn’t care for in this production. He received a smattering of boos at both performances I attended. From above, with both the stage and the orchestra in view, I watched Encinar conduct all of Rossini’s duets, trios and ensembles with a strong beat and an attentive eye. He was with his performers all the way. One reason for the negative reaction may be that Livermore packed so many pieces of stage business into the opera, Encinar had to either slow down or speed up the tempo to accommodate them. There were just too many theatrical bits for the conductor to keep Rossini’s musical line flowing naturally. 


* Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, wishes to find an Italian wife, and force his present wife, Elvira, to marry an Italian slave, Lindoro. By chance, an Italian ship is wrecked off the coast, and Isabella, who has been traveling with an elderly admirer, Taddeo, whom she passes off as her uncle-comes ashore. She is, in fact, seeking her long-lost lover, Lindoro. She persuades Mustafà to giver her Lindoro as her personal slave.

Lindoro persuades Mustafa that Isabella will marry him if he joins the noble order of the ‘Pappataci,’ whose primary rules are to eat and be silent. During the initiation ceremony organized by the Italians, Isabella and Lindoro make their escape, and Mustafà is obliged to return to Elvira.

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Dolores Claiborne an Earnest Failure

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September 21, 2013
From Seen and Heard International By:Harvey Steiman; photo: Corey Weaver

United StatesUnited States Tobias Picker, Dolores Claiborne: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 18.9.2013 (HS)

“Dolores Claiborne,” Act I: Claiborne’s house

“Dolores Claiborne,” Act I: Claiborne’s house

On paper, it looked good—really good, this operatic adaptation of Stephen King’s 1992 novel, Dolores Claiborne. The tale seems ripe for opera: there’s murder, or maybe not. An abused wife ends up estranged from the daughter she tried to save from a creepy, molesting father. Now she stands accused of murdering her longtime employer and late-in-life companion.
Oh, the conflicting emotions. Oh, the melodrama. Oh, the opportunities for crackling scenes and soaring music.
Even the withdrawal—three weeks before the opera’s debut Wednesday—of Dolora Zajick, the volcanic mezzo soprano for whom the role was written, didn’t seem so bad when it was announced that Patricia Racette, one of today’s most affecting singing actors, would shoulder the part. (Zajick had not recovered sufficiently from knee injuries and cited the part’s vocal challenges as well.)
Allen Moyer’s ingenious sets place the action at several levels, allowing marvelously detailed scenes to flow smoothly in a frame that stretches across the stage like a wide-screen movie.
All for naught. Tobias Picker’s colorless music and the poet J. D. McClatchy’s awkwardly paced libretto rob nearly every scene of vitality. Opera is supposed to be driven by the music, but this one just limps. It’s not the post-Romantic harmonic palette, but lack of rhythmic vigor and melodic zest.
Maddeningly, Picker has shown that he knows how to write for the theater. His operas Emmeline (1996) and An American Tragedy (2005) vibrate with energy. Here he writes endless parlando, singing speech that seldom offers even a flicker of melodic interest. The orchestra rarely adds or comments on the action on the stage, just keeps grinding away. Scenes peter out instead of ending with clarity; when they transition to the next scene, the music seems to meander awhile instead of flowing seamlessly. Interludes in between offer more interesting music, but, if there are leitmotifs or signature gestures buried in there, they are so unmemorable that they make no impact. The one ear-catching piece of writing is a sort of insinuating nursery rhyme that the father sings when he wants the daughter.
From time to time, other moments suggest what might have been. Early on there’s a jaggedly bouncy chorus of maids introducing a young Dolores to the capricious ways of Vera Donovan, the rich widow for whom they work. Full-scale arias take full advantage of the high soprano voices of Susannah Biller (as Selena, the daughter) and Elizabeth Futral (as Vera). Although both of these pieces were affectingly sung, they neither drove the story forward nor elaborated on the characters.
One moment that did is a scene on a ferry when Dolores surprises her young daughter. Deducing that her husband is molesting her daughter, Dolores reminisces about how things were. There’s also a trio for them and Dolores. It’s beautifully crafted but it exposes a crucial tradeoff in pinch-hitting with Racette. While all of Dolores’ music technically lies within her range, it’s obvious that Picker was counting on Zajick’s molten low notes to create tension in that trio, and in the music throughout. Racette can’t sing those notes with the same power. The whole role lies lower than Racette’s usual fare (Butterfly or Marguerite in Mefistofile, which she is singing currently in repertory here).
So, despite Racette’s admirable attempt to create a flesh-and-blood character and her yeoman’s work learning the role in three weeks, her portrayal feels incomplete. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook, the cover, no doubt can bring more power to those notes when she sings the last two performances in October.
Picker isn’t entirely to blame, either. McClatchy’s libretto fails to show how Dolores’ relationship with Vera evolves from imperious master and fearful servant into two old rivals finding comfort in each other—or, for that matter, why Selena would hate her mother so much when her father is molesting her. (Hint: In the book it’s because Dolores can only discipline her while daddy can show her the love she needs.)
As Selena, soprano Susan Biller finds canny ways to look like a budding teenager and, as a grownup, portray a successful attorney. She sings her music with affecting poignancy. As Vera, Futral goes for a classic rich socialite, and grapples successfully with her endless high notes.
Tenor Greg Fedderly had to reach for a lot of high notes too as Detective Thibodeau, his only character arc expressing increasing frustration. Baritone Wayne Tigges cuts a menacing figure as the father, Joe, and wields a powerful baritone, although a tendency to emphasize final consonants made me wonder if he thought he was singing Wagner’s German instead McClatchy’s vernacular English.
The 15 scenes, divided into two acts, use virtually none of the added story lines in the 1995 film starring Kathy Bates. The libretto follows King’s original novel, a monologue in which Dolores tells her story while being interrogated for Vera’s death. We see the fall down the stairs portrayed in the first scene.
In the foreground onstage is the drab police station. A partition opens into a cinematic window, positioned at various points above the stage. The window irises open and closed to reveal Vera’s mansion, the bungalow Dolores shares with husband Joe St. George, outdoor scenes and a breathtaking portrayal of a total solar eclipse.
Frustratingly, missed opportunities abound. Vera, who has gotten away with murdering her own husband, has the best line of the opera (and the book): “Accidents can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.” Vera says it to Dolores to suggest how she might deal with Joe. But the line hardly registers. Other composers might have made that into the pinnacle of a gripping exchange between the two women.
The final scenes ramp up the musical and dramatic level noticeably, including some potent outbursts by Racette, who gets a chance to sing in a more comfortable range. The power of her voice finally carries the day. But it’s too little too late.

Dolores Claiborne: Patricia Racette
Selena St. George: Susannah Biller
Vera Donovan: Elizabeth Futile
Joe St. George: Wayne Tigges
Detective Thibodeau: Greg Fedderly
Conductor: George Manahan
Director: James Robinson
Set Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: James Schuette
Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind
Projection Designer: Greg Emetaz *
Chorus Director: Ian Robertson

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