Friday, September 24, 2010
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at amazon.com.
Tuesday, September 21, 2010
The great challenge of Werther - based on the novel by Goethe - is that so much of the conflict takes place inside the minds of its characters: the fatally romantic poet of the title and Charlotte, the object of his obsessions, who becomes so haunted by Werther's sadness that she risks house and home to save him. In a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, stage director Francisco Negrin and production designer Louis Desire have taken all this interior Sturm und Drang and turned it inside-out, giving the opera a vivid visual language and creating a transcendent production.
Desire's set design delivers all the stimulating provocation of a good conceptual art exhibit. Center stage is dominated by a cluster of bare trees, given their seasonal wardrobes by a dangling square of foliage representing spring (Act I) and fall (Act II). A jarring metallic border offers bars of light that flash white for heaven and love, red for blood and death. Projections along the back screen offer haunting visions of an isolated neighborhood, a stripe of light when Werther talks of "raising the curtain and stepping to the other side," and foreshadowing smears of blood. A mountain of boxed possessions represents the chaos of Charlotte's household, and a video screen next to Werther's bed serves up his obsessions: visions of dancing with Charlotte, or a live capture creating an eternal line of Werthers as the poet rails against his dilemma.
Without singers, of course, this is all for naught, but the opera pivots around the enormous talents of Ramon Vargas. Vargas's divine lyric tenor is well-suited to Massenet's understated, delicate style, and he crafts his lines with a painter's touch. His impish presence and oddly graceful way of moving give Werther the sympathetic aura of the self-tortured soul, even when his behavior veers toward stalkerdom. Every moment of his singing is a delight, leading up to the signature aria "Pourquoi me reveiller," using the words of the poet Ossian.
Vargas's tenor is nicely matched by the creamy baritone of Brian Mulligan. The beauty of Mulligan's tone helps to keep Albert from sliding over to the villain side. Albert's only real sin, after all, is marrying a woman who doesn't entirely love him, and finding that his best friend has an obsession with his wife is not exactly an easy situation to deal with.
As Charlotte, mezzo Alice Coote begins the opera in rather unremarkable fashion, but grows in strength and depth both vocally and dramatically, reaching a peak with Charlotte's Act III obsession over Werther's letters, "Air des lettres." Soprano Heidi Stober provides much-needed sunlight as little sister Sophie, introducing beautifully colored dynamic lines into her singing, notably with her first aria, "Du gai soleil." (The good news is, Stober is also singing Susanna in SFO's Le Nozze di Figaro.)
Director Negrin's influence shows in the innovation of the players' movements, small touches like Werther painting the name of his beloved on his bedroom wall, but mostly in a reworked and intensified finale. The Act III flirtation is turned into a dream, with Werther speaking his passions to Charlotte from behind her bedstead. The actual tryst - one of the more passionate tussles you will ever see on an opera stage - is moved into Massenet's intermezzo. Werther, previously fractured by the video screen, breaks into three persons (Vargas and two identically dressed supers) and shoots himself. Charlotte hovers over the body of one of the supers as Vargas sings Werther's dying thoughts, a spirit hovering over his own body. Strangely, this is a more realistic approach than the usual, in which a man with mortal chest wounds sings lovely passages of lyric tenor. Regardless, the reworking makes for disturbing, scintillating theater, and ups the psychological ante tenfold.
Image: Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote. Photo by Cory Weaver.
Through October 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.
SFO's historical cast of choice: how about Jose Carreras and Kathleen Battle in 1978?
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Opera San Jose launched its 27th season with one of the more lavish productions in its history, the third-ever production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. The opening night performance featured stunning turns by soprano Jasmina Halimic as Anna and bass Kirk Eichelberger as her husband, Alexei Karenin. With the flying sets of Steven C. Kemp and an expert job of personnel movement by stage director Brad Dalton, the opera created the sweep and smoothness of an epic film.
The film feeling begins with Carlson himself, whose score feels very much like a soundtrack. The music is utterly at the service of the drama, and the vocal lines often feel like illustrated dialogue, as if you were just talking with a neighbor and your words took flight. The approach is completely tonal, and the long measures of dialogue are like arching waves, giving the production as a whole the sensation of a rolling ship. Carlson is also fond of going the illustrative route, conveying the drive of a tense horse-racing scene in galloping rhythms for both singers and instruments. Scenes of mania are often portrayed with musical fragments, flying across the pit like pieces of broken glass (particularly in the pizzicato storm of Anna's "To die would be so easy"). Stewart Robertson, long associated with Carlson's work, led the orchestra in a sterling account of a difficult score.
The libretto has some pretty regal roots. British librettist Colin Graham wrote the original draft for Benjamin Britten, but the project, aimed at a Bolshoi Opera premiere, was cancelled when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Graham's final version is a masterful compression, and a vast improvement on Tolstoy's novel, which is too often weighed down by philosophizing. In fact, the opera's first act is so quickly paced that it leaves its spectators sitting on the edges of their seats, as if they were watching a Hitchcock film.
Carlson's vocal writing is so naturalistic that it makes describing the voices rather challenging. The first thing that one notices about Jasmina Halimic is that she simply looks the part, owing to her dark features and Bosnian background. The second thing is her vibrato, which is absolutely perfect. She brings out the alluring quality of extended lines, notably the sustained vowels that meander back and forth like overwide trills, and handles several alarming top notes with aplomb. It's also fascinating to watch her navigate a lengthy unaccompanied passage in Act 2 while sitting with her back to the audience, looking into a mirrored screen. The best feature of Halimic's acting is the subtlety of the gestures she uses to potray Anna's growing depression. This is how a noblewoman loses her mind - with taste.
San Jose opera fans already know the power and sureness of Kirck Eichelberger's bass, but what really impresses here is his acting. One of the liveliest Leporellos I've ever seen, Eichelberger takes all that charisma and turns it inside-out, making of Alexei Karenin a black hole of a personality. His first monologue, "What is the shadow in her eye?," is a brooding, coldy calculating appraisal, serving notice of two things: that the composer will use set pieces, and that Karenin will be the most strangely intriguing character in the piece.
A welcome lighter side is delivered by tenor Christopher Bengochea as Stiva Oblonsky and mezzo Betany Coffland as his wife Dolly. Both bring a much-needed element of humor and humanity, and Bengochea (who has always played tragic tenors) shows a special talent as a wise guy. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov does a wonderful job as the other man, Vronsky, loving Anna so intensely that he succeeds in driving himself to collapse.
Providing another kind of light is our second couple, tenor Michael Dailey as Konstantin Levin and soprano Khori Dastoor as Kitty Scherbatsky. Their Act 2 reunion is the tear-jerker of the evening, and it's a pleasure to hear Dailey's voice continue to mature and widen out.
The plasticity of the blocking is made possible by Steven C. Kemp's sets - flats and screens that are constantly flying in and out. Many of them are simply evocations, like the Manet-like panels of color that signify the changes of the seasons. The Russian costumes were dazzling, particularly Anna's first-scene dress of silver, black and burgundy (costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter).
A couple of minor players give rather pivotal performances. Mezzo Megan Stetson adds a bit of drunken wit at her balls (which are simply packed with breakups and proposals!). Ballet San Jose's Peter Hershey gives a compelling performance as the train-suicide - especially in the jarring, athletic replay of Anna's dream (choreographer Lise la Cour).
Which brings up a final complaint. The final, inevitable image of Anna walking into the light of the train is so iconic and striking, so darkly beautiful, that it should be the final thing we see. The epiologue with Levin and Kitty is a clumsy, tacked-on stab at redemption. If this means I'm criticizing Leo himself, then so be it.
Through Sept. 26, California Theater, 345 South First Street, San Jose, California. $51-$101, 408/437-4450, http://www.operasj.org/
Image: Krassen Karagiozov as Vronsky, Jasmina Halimic as Anna. Photo by Pat Kirk.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.