Renée Fleming Was Magnificent in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire,’
But the Play Put to Music Raises Doubts.

Renée Fleming as Blanche,
Ryan McKinny as Stanley.
(Photo: Robert Millard)

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS
‘A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE’
ANDRÉ PREVIN, COMPOSER
PHILIP LITTELL, LIBRETTO
LOS ANGELES OPERA
DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION
SEEN MAY 24, 2014

 

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

I have so many thoughts about LA Opera’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” — adapted to music by André Previn — that I will start with the one positive element that is not debatable: Soprano Renée Fleming was magnificent. Her voice glistened up the scale with shimmering tonality and luminescent pianissimos. Her Blanche DuBois was graceful, flirtatious, fragile, frightened and devastating.

The complete cast was excellent. Ryan McKinny made the role of Stanley Kowalski his own so that we did not compare him to Marlon Brando in the film. Whether an acting Stanley or a singing Stanley, McKinny was as good a Stanley as Stanleys get, and I rate him among the best. He displayed an animalistic, macho, virile physique coupled with a desperate organic need for his wife, Stella. He was able to mesh the music with the words so that all we saw was Stanley. His voice was almost incidental except that the sound was plush and interconnected with his being so that the sound and the being became one.

As for the story: Blanche DuBois visits her sister, Stella, in New Orleans because she has lost the family home and her job as a school teacher. She meets Stella’s husband, Stanley Kowalski, and the two immediately develop a disliking for each other. He is too crude and earthy for her. She is too phony and full of feminine airs for him. And Stella placates them both.

Blanche meets and hopes to marry one of Stanley’s poker buddies, Mitch, but the idea is shattered when Stanley shares the news with Mitch that Blanche was forced to leave the town of Laurel due to her immoral behavior with young men.

After Stanley takes a very pregnant Stella to the hospital, he returns home in the evening, finds himself alone with Blanche, and rapes her. Stella’s unwillingness to accept Blanche’s story leads Blanche into an abyss of despair. The inability of the three to live together finally incites Stella to have Blanche committed: a tragic fate for a woman unable to survive in an unkind world.

“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a classic play by Tennessee Williams. It is one of my favorite plays. The writing is poetic. In fact, if executed by a fine cast, the words become music. It is therefore a terrible burden on a composer to attempt to turn what is already music into music. I am surprised that the estate of Tennessee Williams authorized the endeavor. Yet although the resulting opera has merit, there is only one great “Streetcar Named Desire,” and it is the play by Tennessee Williams.

I believe that new operas can be more successful if the stories haven’t been told before so that the operas can stand on their own without comparison. The “Streetcar” opera follows the play’s story and includes Mr. Williams’ words.

Much like a singer, an actor’s spoken voice becomes an instrument of sound. It is the variation of color in the voice, for example, in Blanche’s Scene 6 monologue, that can bring an audience to tears. The actress can virtually become the character of Blanche as she tells Mitch the story of her gentle homosexual ex-husband who killed himself as a result of her unkind scrutiny, for which she feels responsible. The poetic words of the monologue don’t need music. The music in Previn’s score during the monologue only detracted from the monologue’s essence. It would take quite a composer to outdo Williams on Williams.

Although the singers performed eloquently, they could not reach us emotionally the way the great actors who have portrayed the same characters in the play have. Yet strangely, these singers were so expressive that at times they almost did — in spite of having to wade through the music to do it.

Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey brought more dimensions to Mitch than I have ever seen. Although his voice was on occasion slightly guttural on the vowels in words like “love,” for example, for the most part, his sound was up front and out in the hall much like his performance was. Raised in a crude environment, his Mitch remained the considerate son of an aged mother whose sympathetic, good-natured side mixed with his moral upbringing to make it impossible for him to accept Blanche as his wife. At the end of the opera, however, when Blanche was forced to leave her surroundings and was being led into her nightmarish hell, Mitch felt guilt and sorrow for Blanche because he had played a role in her disintegration. It was this empathy that Mitch displayed toward Blanche which was gratifying to watch and more evident in this opera than in the play due to Griffey’s sensitive portrayal.

Soprano Stacey Tappan sang Stella with ease and displayed a strong character with a freeness and willingness to execute any movement that would further the action. She made the audience understand her plight.

Mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood as Eunice was the character actor in this production. Although her voice had some noticeable vibrato, it boomed out to the rafters, and every time she came onstage, the energy level rose 100 degrees and we loved her.

The doctor, Robert Shampain, and the nurse, Cynthia Marty, somehow seemed visually miscast. He was somehow too slight of build or youthful to so quickly lure Blanche into his good graces, and the nurse didn’t exude enough intimidating authority. Cullen Gandy as the collector and Blanche’s ex-husband was perfect.

Brad Dalton’s direction was specific, detailed and creative. The minimalistic set included chairs, a table and a bed, with the orchestra placed upstage behind the singers, dynamically conducted by the young Evan Rogister.

This production from Lyric Opera of Chicago was cost-effective and diverged from the initial production, which had a traditional set and premiered in 1998 at the San Francisco Opera. 

The Stanley replicas who doubled as Stanley’s poker buddies began the action as the audience was being seated and during intermissions. There was no curtain. Only effective lighting brought us in and out of the action.

As for André Previn’s score, it seemed like a work in progress. I say that because I actually wanted to leave at the conclusion of Act 2 because I couldn’t weave the music with the characterizations to realize a work of art that was equal to or superior to the Williams play. The orchestration seemed like background music for the singers who were simply speaking on notes. Speech level singing came to mind, not really recitative, even though the performers were truly singing dialogue on notes, and sometimes the dialogue sounded mundane. Of course I wasn’t sitting with the play and libretto in front of me. But because I had put some of the dialogue to memory, I knew that the libretto followed the text of the play with some liberal variation.

The orchestral score seemed superior to the vocal score because at times, the two sopranos sounded like tweety birds due to the high tessitura which sometimes seemed stuck on one plane so that the vocal sound almost became annoying. I couldn’t even tell if the singers had quality voices even though I knew that they did. The composition just didn’t allow me to make the determination.

When Ryan McKinny was dramatic, his bass-baritone carried the drama. But Renée Fleming is a soprano known for her lyricism, and the high lyrical sound just didn’t work well with heightened hammered drama. It wasn’t her fault, though. She was wonderful. 

Modern operas are always filled with atonal dissonance, and this opera is no exception. But the dissonance in “Streetcar” seems amazingly appropriate. It is blended well with a bluesy jazzy feel and music reminiscent of Richard Strauss, George Gershwin, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg and Leonard Bernstein’s “Westside Story.” With strings, woodwinds and a brassy quality heavy on the trumpet and trombone, the orchestration sounds like 1940’s-era New Orleans mood music with voices imposed on top of it.

Renée Fleming

Before writing more about Miss Fleming, it was necessary for me to explain why the opera seems like a work in progress and doesn’t reach its potential until Act 3.

Fleming was marvelous throughout, but she was still singing like an opera singer performing for an audience — unable to touch us emotionally like an actor would until Act 3. This was due to the vocal score which fits her tessitura, not to her performance. Her glimmering voice was mesmerizing with some rich mezzo-like accents. But none of the music, not even the arias of the other characters, enabled the audience to stop, as in Mozart, and think: “Wow, that was glorious.” 

For “Streetcar” to succeed as an opera, the music must enhance the telling of the story or should add something new to Williams’ text. If Williams’ words are better said by an actor in the play than sung, and if the music does not add anything unique to the opera genre, then the opera cannot work. That is why a poetic classic like “A Streetcar Named Desire” is difficult to adapt as an opera.

Finally in Act 3, the opera came into its own. During the first two acts, I was envisioning Vivien Leigh, Ann-Margret and Jessica Lange as Blanche — especially Jessica Lange who created a multi-dimensional character with emotional depth and artistry.

But then in Act 3, the rape scene was musically charged and emotionally riveting. Both Blanche and Stanley were alive and real. And finally, finally Miss Fleming sang “I Can Smell the Sea Air,” and the sound was gorgeous. Previn had given her a memorable aria that allowed the audience to hear the beauty of her resonant sound.

So to me, this opera is a work in progress because to make it equivalent to Williams’ poetic play, the opera version of “Streetcar” should include more lush melodic harmonies on the level of Blanche’s last aria, which is competitive with the music of the great opera composers of the past. Although we may not have seen Blanche’s true madness, we saw her drifting off into an ethereal world where she was no longer in touch with reality.

When the nurse kept repeating, “These fingernails have to be trimmed,” I died a thousand deaths. And as Fleming sang, “Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Whoever you are . . . whoever you are” — Fleming finally became Blanche DuBois and reached us. She was magnificent. And that is when I realized that Williams, Previn and the librettist had finally created an opera.

Director: Brad Dalton
Conductor: Evan Rogister
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Costume Designer: Johann Stegmeir
Production: Lyric Opera of Chicago
Costumes: Provided by Washington National Opera
and Lyric Opera of Chicago

Critic’s Note: In deference to the composer and librettist, I need to write that my review is a review of the opera as it is, not as it could have been or could be. I realize that many factors contribute to a final composition. With a classic play like Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” when the words are music to begin with, it is difficult to insert the dialogue into the mouths of singers over an orchestration so that the words have the same impact they do in the play. Music has time signatures, and the length a note is held has an influence on the language. So if the word “perspiration” works in the play, for example, the same word held in the context of an operatic phrase could accentuate it quite differently so that it simply sounds out-of-place in the context of the opera. Alas, some of the words in the libretto sounded mundane with far too much focus on them.

Even translating an opera from one language to another is a cumbersome job because words and syllables do not always match the notes that must be sung. So attempting to match Tennessee Williams’ words with a score was no doubt a daunting compositional task for the composer and librettist.

I have read that the Williams estate had a permissions agreement to adapt the play to opera so that the opera would maintain the integrity of the play’s story and much of the text, which was adhered to by the producing company, the composer and the librettist. The conditions imposed on them therefore limited their creativity.

The opera would have been quite different with a libretto that did not have to follow the play’s text. It might have been less wordy, and the accents on the words might have been more adaptable to the singers’ voices. The text would not have been compared to the poetic dialogue of the play. And a better marriage between the libretto and the vocal and orchestral scores might have ensued. Even the breathing of the singers must be considered to create vocal lines that tell the story. 

So although I wrote that sometimes it is better to write new operas with plots that have never been told before so that the new operas will not be compared with the originals, it works to utilize an already existing story, but without attempting to create a carbon copy of the original by simply transferring the words to the different genre. If the original genre was successful, the opera genre should not have to compete. Each work should stand on its own.

Therefore, the opera “A Streetcar Named Desire” is what it is, and I have reviewed it as such. Had Previn and librettist Philip Littell started with a totally clean canvas except for the story, the result might have been quite different. 

However I am sure that both the estate and the composer and librettist were attempting to develop a work of art that the playwright would have approved of. Writers do not like their words altered. However in the case of opera, the writer or representative of the original work should have a knowledge of music to draw the most optimal parameters for the work being developed. If an opera is to be successful, there must be flexibility from genre to genre.

But by the same token, if the librettist is left to create his own dialogue and the play is as poetic as “Streetcar” — it seems futile to even try. How could any other words compete with those of Williams in the context of the same story?

So in essence, with “Streetcar,” it is probably impossible to please all the parties, so maybe it was an implausible idea on the part of the estate and the opera’s creative team to authorize the project in the first place.

However, if I didn’t know and love the play; if I hadn’t have put some of the dialogue to memory — I would have been very accepting of this opera. The singers were terrific actors with a superb director. Renée Fleming outdid herself vocally and physically, and even though she created a devastatingly tragic character, she seemed to love being on the stage throwing her all into the role just for us. She gave us a wonderful night at the theater to remember. So what could be wrong with that?     

Posted by: operatheaterink | May 23, 2014

Review: ‘Thaïs,’ Los Angeles Opera, May 23, 2014

Great Voices, Sets and Costumes: LA Opera’s ‘Thaïs’ Is a Pleaser.

Pläcido Domingo as Athanaël, Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.       Photo: Robert Millard

Plácido Domingo as Athanaël,
Nino Machaidze as Thaïs.
(Photo: Robert Millard)


JULES MASSENET
‘THAÏS’
LOS ANGELES OPERA
DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION
SEEN MAY 17, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

Los Angeles Opera’s production of Jules Massenet’s “Thaïs” drew roaring applause and a standing ovation from an appreciative audience on opening night. And all of the commotion was centered on the performances of superstar Plácido Domingo as a baritonal Athanaël and world-renowned soprano Nino Machaidze as Thaïs. The rest of the singers seemed incidental to the audience, but in reality, they were all quite excellent. I must make note of the violinist who deserved a standing ovation for playing the harmonically melodic “Méditation.” Roberto Cani was the masterful musician who almost stole the show.

As for the story: Athanaël, a fourth-century Egyptian Cenobite monk, sets out on a mission to Alexandria to tame a sinful city and save its most beautiful courtesan, Thaïs. But once he has succeeded, he discovers his own earthly passions for her and despairs. Repenting takes a toll on her body, and she dies while he cries out in anguish.

This production — designed by Johan Engels, directed by Nicola Raab, and imported from the Finnish National Opera, Helsinki and the Gothenburg Opera, Sweden — is elaborate and visual. A revolving stage keeps the audience watching. Whether looking at the principal singers ascending a spiral staircase; whether eyeing a theater bedecked with red draperies or the intricately decorated residence of Thaïs; whether viewing an oasis in the desert or a monastery garden — the meticulously executed set changes and visions are spectacular.

One minute we seem to be viewing an Egyptian harem during the Byzantine era; the next, an apartment at the turn of the 20th century in Paris à la the film, “Gigi.”

Engels’ costumes are exquisite no matter what period represented. Thaïs’s gold-beaded gown with a headdress and birdlike appendages is breathtaking, then equaled by a white-satin gown with gold ribbing and a crown bedecked with diamonds. Bright colored hues denote the lustier scenes in contrast with whites which signify purity. 

The sentiments communicated are not unlike those in Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser”: Venus and the bacchanal versus Elisabeth and purity. A tug and a pull — the characters are drawn in opposing directions in both operas. With a libretto by Louis Gallet, “Thaïs” is based on a novel by Anatole France.

As for the music, “Thaïs” is rarely performed, yet Renée Fleming has revived it to prominence. Although the music is at times inspiring, the arias are not plentiful and are included as part of the action. The most noteworthy melody is the “Méditation,” an orchestral intermezzo for violin and harp. The motif is repeated after being introduced, and each time it surfaces with vocality, it takes the opera to a higher plane.

Domingo sang Athanaël’s aria, “Voilà donc la terrible cite,” with strength and passion. At 73, his voice and technique remain strong; his charisma, powerful.

Yet Athanaël is labeled a baritone while Domingo is known as a tenor. So is Domingo a tenor singing baritonal roles now? Or is he a baritone? He still sounds like a tenor to me who has chosen not to sing the high notes. Does it matter? I don’t know. Would the composer mind? I don’t know. Rosina in “The Barber of Seville” is either a mezzo-soprano or soprano, and the only thing I care about is the caliber of her voice. Domingo began his career as a baritone, then developed his high tones. So as his voice ages, he is wise to simply sing roles where the tessitura is comfortable. His informed decision has enabled him to continue his career indefinitely to our delight. As Athanaël, he made up for any negligible losses of youthful ease with a strong, centered and secure vocal and physical characterization that defied age and made us, especially those of us over 60, want to stand up and cheer for him. When we see him passionately refusing to succumb to the effects of time, determined to maintain a high level of artistry by overcoming any obstacles — he motivates us to strive a little harder and do a little better, for we feel privileged to be in the same room with him as we watch him perform. Although there are many rising tenors on the horizon, so far, Domingo’s kingly crown remains untarnished.

As Thaïs, soprano Nino Machaidze proved her vocal agility from low notes to high. Her “Dis-moi que je suis belle” drew a well-deserved applause. Her lustrous voice was complemented with her grace of movement and beauty. The two final duets were memorable and moving.

Bass Valentin Anikin as Palémon had one of the best voices of the evening. In an unthankful role, he should not be overlooked for the unique quality of his sound. Tenor Paul Groves as Nicias added stature to the proceedings. LA Opera did some luxury casting with mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic as Albine. The mezzo gave a stand-out performance earlier in the season as Carmen.

Hae Ji Chang, Cassandra Zoé Velasco and Kihun Yoon sang with gusto. And the LA Opera Orchestra was led skillfully under the baton of Massenet specialist Patrick Fournillier.

Yet in spite of all the raves this “Thaïs” well deserves, I still found something lacking that I was unable to describe. What makes opera so enthralling for me is that I can watch different singers portray one particular character over and over again without tiring. The more I hear and see an opera, the more I want to see and hear it. The melodies become more memorable for me, and I find the different interpretations enlightening. So after the LA Opera performance, I went home and clicked onto YouTube where I discovered Renée Fleming singing “Thaïs” with Thomas Hampson. I watched the final duet and felt the needed poignancy. “Thaïs” premiered in 1894 Paris. Fleming and Hampson mastered the French accent, the French sound, and, most importantly, the emotionalism and style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dvjy57-Ys2I.  

But I don’t want to detract from the many fine attributes of this deliciously innovative Domingo-Machaidze “Thaïs.”

Plácido Domingo is an amazing artist to be admired for his unheard of vocal longevity. Machaidze is a star on the rise. And this “Thaïs” is a production to be seen, remembered, savored, and revived.

Conductor: Patrick Fournillier
Director: Nicola Raab
Scenery Design: Johan Engels
Costume Designer: Johan Engels
Lighting Designer: Linus Fellbom
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon

 Nino Machaidze.                              Photo: Robert Millard

Nino Machaidze.
(Photo: Robert Millard)

The Wallis Breaks In Opera with the Great Frederica von Stade.

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe
(Photo by Lynn Lane)

RICKY IAN GORDON/LEONARD FOGLIA
‘A COFFIN IN EGYPT’
WALLIS ANNENBERG CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS
BRAM GOLDSMITH THEATER, BEVERLY HILLS, CA.
SEEN APRIL 25, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

It was my first time at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on April 25. What a relief it was for me not to have to travel to hear opera. “A Coffin in Egypt” was the first opera to be performed at the Wallis, and it was the opera’s West Coast premiere.

But the reason I wanted to write this short review is totally due to the bravura performance of the opera’s star: the legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. Although she is technically retired, “A Coffin in Egypt” has given her the opportunity to literally perform a one-woman show, and every one of her almost 90 minutes onstage was brilliant.

A chamber opera, “A Coffin in Egypt” was composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with a libretto by Leonard Foglia, who is directing it. I say “is” because the opera had its world premiere with the Houston Grand Opera, traveled to Beverly Hills to the Wallis on April 23, 25 and 27, and it goes to Opera Philadelphia next.

Von Stade has graced the world with her magnificent vocal cords for many years. But most singers are not actors with the range of Helen Mirren or Judi Dench. Singers concentrate on singing, but von Stade not only sings to perfection, her fine acting enables her to create a tour-de-force character study as well.

She plays Myrtle Bledsoe, a 90-year-old woman from Egypt, Texas, who reminisces about the challenges of her life and missed opportunities, portrayed in flashback. Her husband, Hunter Bledsoe, has spent the majority of their married life being unfaithful to her. He has killed the father of one of his mistresses and gets away with it.

So Myrtle travels to Europe, is romanced by an Algerian sheik, waltzes elegantly with a captain in uniform, and almost goes to Hollywood to become an actress. She raises two daughters who have marriage problems of their own. Her husband and daughters have died. Only her caretaker is left there to listen.

What makes von Stade so miraculous is that she truly becomes Myrtle Bledsoe while maintaining a flawless sound with rich lows and resonant highs. In fact, this opera has spoken dialogue, and due to those chesty lows, when she speaks, the dialogue just flows forth and the audience is never jolted. She sings and speaks with a Texas accent. And every utterance, movement and facial expression is a key to her soul. She is brilliant.

At times the opera seems reminiscent of August Strindberg’s “The Stronger.” Myrtle seems to have a bit of Blanche DuBois in her as well, or even Amanda from Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” But Myrtle remains regal and strong in her red flowing caftan, with each hesitant wobbly step defining her stature and age.

The music is interesting — at times lyrical and melodic as is the last sequence with the gospel choir, which is very effective throughout. At other times, the score is more metallic and atonal which acts as an accompaniment to depict Myrtle’s devastation.

The libretto is like the words of a playwright. The opera is based on a play by Horton Foote.

Von Stade has all of the ingredients of a great actress. Her moments of spoken dialogue are among her most revealing. She uses her trained vocal instrument to color the poetry of her spoken sound.

The non-singing actors are excellent. Conductor Kathleen Kelly rules. Riccardo Hernández’s minimalistic set is gracefully floral and tasteful.

The musical play comes together at the end with forgiveness. Myrtle forgives herself although she has done nothing wrong. But maybe she has also allowed herself to forgive those who hurt her.

Von Stade’s performance is thought-provoking and touching. Myrtle isn’t ready for a coffin in Egypt. She lives to see the light of another day with a freer spirit. And so must we all.

Conductor: Kathleen Kelly
Director: Leonard Foglia
Set and Costume Design: Riccardo Hernández
Lighting Designer: Brian Nason
Sound Designer: Andrew Harper
Gospel Chorus Director: Bethany Self

Actors: David Matranga (Hunter), Carolyn Johnson (Elsie/Clerk), Cecilia Duarte (Jessie Lydell), Adam Noble (Captain Lawson)

Gospel Chorus: Cheryl D. Clansy, Laura Elizabeth Patterson, James M. Winslow, Jawan CM Jenkins

Adam Noble and Frederica von Stade

Adam Noble and Frederica von Stade
(Photo by Lynn Lane)


Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson

Frederica von Stade and Carolyn Johnson

(Photo by Lynn Lane)

Posted by: operatheaterink | March 17, 2014

Review: ‘Lucia di Lammermoor,’ Los Angeles Opera, March 17, 2014

A Dream Lucia Gives LA Opera a Magical Success.

Saimir Pirgu (Edgardo) and Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia).                                          Photo: Robert Millard

Saimir Pirgu (Edgardo) and Albina Shagimuratova (Lucia).
Photo: Robert Millard


GAETANO DONIZETTI
‘LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR’
LOS ANGELES OPERA
DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION
SEEN MARCH 15, 2014

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

When I was about eighteen, I often listened to one audiotape sung by Joan Sutherland. A few of the selections were from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” and I loved them. Studying voice at the time, my father and teacher always told me that Sutherland was unique. She didn’t sing like most typical coloratura sopranos with a somewhat thin and often squeaky voice to reach the higher register with a coloratura flourish — she sang those flowing runs and mellifluous arpeggios with a substantial soprano sound. In my mind, she was the quintessential Lucia, and I wondered if there would ever be another one like her. Naturally there was Nellie Melba, Tetrazzini, Galli-Curci, Lily Pons, then Sills and a more full-voiced Maria Callas. But Joan Sutherland was my Lucia in the 1960s and ’70s.

Well, there is a new star on our horizon: coloratura soprano Albina Shagimuratova. We are so lucky to have her in LA. So remember her name.

It is such a joy to go to the opera and really focus on the singers. The opening performance of Los Angeles Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” enabled us to really listen. Although the somewhat stark set with projections on the back walls might have benefited with a more traditional set, or any set for that matter, the modernistic frames and expressive lighting, minus an ostentatious, elaborate stage, allowed us to hear the singers and watch them.

This LA Opera “Lucia” was simply marvelous. I was in heaven because to me, I was finally going to the opera, not to a production where the singers were only dessert. The focus was on Donizetti’s luscious music and motifs conducted expressively by LA Opera’s music director James Conlon, and on the singers who would have made Donizetti proud.

I wondered what Joan Sutherland’s husband Richard Bonynge might have said if he had witnessed Shagimuratova. He was Miss Sutherland’s longtime conductor and music director. But then conductor Riccardo Muti has already engaged her.

Yes, Albina Shagimuratova is a marvel. Her tones were well-placed and sung with an ease that made all the trills and runs appear easy. You could see her supporting her frame from the onset, and then those high E-flats were just simply there — no pushing, no strain, just utter beauty. And, yes, as with Joan Sutherland — nothing was thin or squeaky. All one could hear was amazing sound: the sound of bells — narrow and clear.

And when Shagimuratova was accompanied by flute or glass harmonica, the mix of the sounds flew me right to the heavens.

Shagimuratova has sung all over the world and is only in her early 30s. She is known for her Queen of the Night and is becoming the Lucia of choice. Having sung at the Salzburg Festival, Covent Garden, the Wiener Staatsoper, La Scala and the Met — the audiences are raving. There are so many talented and wonderful singers, but when one of them has something extra, it almost seems like a miracle. Shagimuratova’s “Regnava nel silenzio,” “Quando rapito in estasi,” and her mad scene were simply awe-inspiring.

The only element that I would hope to see her expand upon would be to add more of her soul to these very tragic and fragile characters. Angela Gheorghiu had the right quality in her 1994 performance as Violetta in “La Traviata” at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Georg Solti. Her body was limpid and fragile as if she were Anna Pavlova dancing “The Dying Swan.” Anna Netrebko, whose soprano is quite different, sings the role of Lucia with more unbridled dramatics, and Natalie Dessay pulls no stops in the drama department either.

But I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to disturb Shagimuratova’s lyric bel canto focus because nothing should be altered at the expense of those perfect magnificent tones. No, I am not overdoing it. Each one was a hand-crafted jewel. Shagimuratova will be performing “Lucia” at the Met next season with Joseph Calleja as Edgardo. I wish I could be there.

It is important to note that there have recently been two types of Lucias: lyric coloratura sopranos who include the Queen of the Night and Gilda in their repertoires, and the more traditional sopranos who would normally not venture into the bel canto coloratura soprano Fach. Both can be excellent, and both often cross over when making role choices. But in the case of Lucia, when you hear bells emanating from a singer’s throat, as with Shagimuratova, you suddenly realize what the ultimate Lucia sounds like.

Briefly, “Lucia” is based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel, “The Bride of Lammermoor,” with a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano. A French version exists with the libretto written by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz. The opera takes place, in this case, in 1885 Scotland.

Enrico, Lucia’s brother, learns that his sister is in love with his rival, Edgardo Ravenswood, which sends Enrico into a rage.

From the onset, baritone Stephen Powell as Enrico showed strength in voice and stature. An ultimate and secure professional, he sang “Cruda, funesta smania” with distinction and was a commanding presence throughout.

As for Lucia, her romance with Edgardo is doomed from the beginning. When she sings of her apparition — the ghost of a girl murdered by a Ravenswood — we know that there is no hope.

Enrico begs her to marry Arturo. She protests, but ultimately signs a wedding contract to save her brother from political disaster.

During a storm, created very effectively with darkish gray projections and sound, Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel. Later, the wedding festivities ensue, only to be interrupted by Lucia’s entrance in a long white dress laced with blood. After killing her new husband, she has gone mad and dreams of being with Edgardo.

In a graveyard, Edgardo thinks that Lucia has married and proven herself faithless. Then he discovers that she is near death and always loved him. Alas, he kills himself with a dagger, and so ends this avoidable tragedy.

As Edgardo, tenor Saimir Pirgu shows promise. He sang his ending arias, “Fra poco a me ricovero” and “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali,” with raw passion. He is young and his lyric tenor will develop. I look forward to hearing more.

Bass James Creswell as Raimondo, Lucia’s chaplain and tutor, has a commanding presence with an educated sound. I interviewed him when he was part of LA Opera’s Resident Artist Program years ago. His voice was always superior, but he was a bit stiff and not in tune with his characters. I heard him sing Leporello’s “Catalog” aria and knew he needed to loosen up and get more experience. That was in about 2006. Since then, he has done just that, spending part of his time in Germany. With all sincerity, I must compliment him for his persistence and dedication. It has paid off because what I saw on the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Saturday was a seasoned professional who could act and sing with assurance, character, authority and strength. He is perfect for stately roles, and there are many.

As Arturo and Alisa, tenor Vladimir Dmitruk and D’Ana Lombard did what was expected. It will be interesting to follow their development.

The weakest link was Joshua Guerrero as Normanno. At the very beginning, he seemed insecure and his voice didn’t reach over the orchestra. He seemed to be singing in rehearsal. His self-confidence grew, though. It was opening night.

The chorus was well-directed by Grant Gershon. Lighting was effective by Duane Schuler. And the costumes and wigs were an added bonus that complemented each other.

A break during the first half of the performance was overly long and might have been better utilized as an intermission. Later, two stagehands in costume moved furniture in view of the audience. Since this occurred only once, the move seemed incongruous with the action onstage since Lucia was standing nearby. But these were only minor technical issues that often arise on opening night.

Los Angeles Opera is back on track. It has an on-site president and chief executive officer, Christopher Koelsch, while Plácido Domingo remains at the helm. The company is living within its means with productions that please but keep costs intact. And the repertoire is enjoyable and inviting for LA audiences. The new is mixed with the old. And as in life, that is the way it should be.

So please go to hear Albina Shagimuratova in LA Opera’s “Lucia.” You have my stamp of approval. And if you do not live in Los Angeles, go to hear her when she comes to the opera company near you.

A New Production
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Elkhanah Pulitzer
Projection and Scenic Designer: Wendall K. Harrington
Scenery Designer: Carolina Angulo
Costume Designer: Christine Crook
Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Movement Choreographer: Kitty McNamee
Glass Harmonica: Thomas Bloch

GlobalLAO-Gallery-Press-Lucia2014-LdL2165-PR

Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia.
Photo: Robert Millard.

Posted by: operatheaterink | November 25, 2013

Review: ‘The Magic Flute,’ Los Angeles Opera, Nov. 25, 2013

The Question Is: Was it ‘The Magic Flute’?

Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno

Rodion Pogossov as the bird-catcher Papageno.
Photo: Robert Millard


WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
‘THE MAGIC FLUTE’
LOS ANGELES OPERA
DOROTHY CHANDLER PAVILION
SEEN NOVEMBER 23, 2013

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

As an opera critic, I generally attempt to be objective about performances. I may not like something that someone else does. If that occurs when the music is well-performed and the production is executed well, then do I as a critic have the right to be critical? Maybe I only have the right to communicate my opinion as an opinion. So with Los Angeles Opera’s “Die Zauberflöte” — imported from the Komische Oper Berlin and conceived and directed by Barrie Kosky, Suzanne Andrade and animation designer Paul Barritt — I am simply voicing my opinion:

I hated it.

But aside from that, every element of the production was well-rehearsed and carried through to perfection. Yet the production upstaged the singers and Mozart; and the singers and Mozart were the only reason I stayed after intermission.

“The Magic Flute” is a story about the awakening of love between Pamina and Prince Tamino; and between Papageno and Papagena. The Queen of the Night sends Tamino to rescue her daughter from the evil priest, Sarastro. However Sarastro proves to be honorable and the Queen emerges as the villain. Tamino and Papageno — with flute and magic bells in hand — pass their trials, which makes them worthy of initiation into the temple. Tamino finds happiness with Pamina after they overcome their fears of fire and water, and Papageno and Papagena dream of a life of domestic tranquility with a home full of children.

Both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder were Freemasons. The opera is a fairy tale with Masonic symbolism — a moral allegory that characterizes human self-sacrifice as a means to achieve wisdom and nobility. These characteristics are usually brought to life in a magical setting that combines the spiritual world of temples and high priests with some slaves, beasts, and a Moor named Monostatos. The opera has always been a Singspiel — a mix of dialogue and song.

LA Opera’s 2009 production, which originated in 1993, was magical. Nathan Gunn’s performance as Papageno was glorious. I fell in love with his wide-eyed bird-catcher along with an alligator in tennis shoes and a long-legged ostrich in high heels.

But just as quickly as I fell in love with that production, I fell out of love with this new production from Berlin.

There I was in the audience being introduced to a group of silent film-era characters that did not even resemble the characters created by Mozart and Schikaneder for “Die Zauberflöte.” Pamina wasn’t sweet and lovely in her black Victorian gown; Tamino wasn’t a prince; Monostatos was Count Dracula; the Queen of the Night was a black spider; and Papageno was Buster Keaton. There were no true characterizations.

The spoken dialogue was projected on a screen. No set was needed since the performers were standing in front of a massive screen where animations were being projected — which kept us so busy watching them that we completely forgot to listen. Elephants, Valentine’s Day hearts, black cats, skeletons, black and white singers masked in white pasty makeup — it was like Halloween with Marcel Marceau. It was “The Jazz Singer” in reverse. The Three Ladies were costumed right out of the Weimar Republic. It was all one great big cartoon.

Even the music was altered. A pianist was playing Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor interspersed in the body of the opera score. It was like the score had been stolen to create a new opera. At least the music was composed by Mozart.

However . . . the staging was incredibly creative and imaginative if it had been utilized as a new opera. Every movement from every singer-actor was well-rehearsed and meticulous. The singing — when I was listening — was well-sung. Conductor James Conlon’s direction was specific, motivating, and rhythmically timed to perfection. I preferred to watch him in the pit rather than move my eyes upward toward the stage, but that is because I have always thought opera to be about the music. I could see an excitement when I watched his face, baton, and movements. He clearly loved the onstage antics and could match the music to the staging. He knew every note without glancing at the score and appeared to be in heaven. I have rarely, if ever, seen a conductor so engaged.

Still — I anticipated my exit during intermission with glee, but I remained in the hall to hear the singers instead.

Janai Brugger was vocally quite wonderful as Pamina. Her “Ach, ich fühl’s,” when Tamino wouldn’t speak to her, was sung so gloriously with such beauty that she made the whole evening worthwhile.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s aria “Dies bildnis ist bezaubernd schön” was sung with a lyrical focused ping and an elegant line that incited me to believe that he is destined to become a celebrated Tamino when he can display his true emotional colors both in voice and demeanor.

I kept trying to find the character of Papageno in Rodion Pogossov’s Buster Keaton. Pogossov would have made a wonderful silent-film actor, but his “Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” did not remind me of the loveable feathered bird-catcher. And his final duet with Papagena left me wanting even though he followed every stage direction with precision.

Amanda Woodbury as Papagena sang her duet with a lovely sound. But the charm was all lost due to the costumes and staging, although it was somewhat of a joy to see the children projected behind her.

And even though Erika Miklósa as the Queen of the Night seemed to be an audience favorite, her costume and spider legs were a terrible distraction. When she sang “Der Hölle Rache” on a ledge above Pamina, we in the audience were looking at Pamina, which intruded on a moment that should have been focused on the Queen. Her coloratura vocal agility was impressive.

Evan Boyer’s Sarastro lacked the elegance of a Kurt Moll. Rodell Rosel is a wonderful character actor; however, he was unrecognizable as both Rodell Rosel and Monostatos. The Three Ladies portrayed their roles aptly. And the Three Boys were refreshing and eager.

So Bravo to the singers for their fine acting and singing. I applaud James Conlon and the LA Opera Orchestra. But I’m sorry to say that this “Magic Flute” simply didn’t work for me.

Libretto: Emanuel Schikaneder
Conductor: James Conlon
Production/Direction: Suzanne Andrade, Barrie Kosky, “1927”
Animation Designer/Concept: Paul Barritt
Production: Komische Oper Berlin
Set and Costume Designer: Esther Bialas
Chorus Master: Grant Gershon
Associate Director: Tobias Ribitzki
Assistant Director: Trevore Ross
Stage Manager: Lyla Forlani
Associate Conductor: Andreas Heinzmann

Critic’s Note: I believe that this production is an excellent one to draw in a new audience of people who are unfamiliar with the tried and true “Magic Flute.” But I believe that every composer creates his or her characters and images just as he or she wants the operas to be perceived. This imaginative concept would be better served in a new theatrical arena where comparisons cannot turn into obstacles. Some opera buffs no doubt also find the production appealing and unique. I just respect the composer and his original concept and intent far too much to accept the deviation.

 The Three Ladies

The Three Ladies.

Janai Brugger (Pamina) with Rodell Rosel (Monostatos)

Janai Brugger (Pamina) with Rodell Rosel (Monostatos).

Erika Miklosa as The Queen of the Night (spider on top) with Janai Brugger as Pamina below. Photo: Robert Millard

Erika Miklosa as The Queen of the Night (spider on top)
with Janai Brugger as Pamina below.
All Photos: Robert Millard

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