Entries by Sandra Gajic

Edmonton Opera Blog

Chicago weekend full of highlights

Monday, November 12. 2012

Leaving Edmonton in November during one of the first snowstorms felt rather good in spite of a very early flight. After a direct flight and a smooth ride to our boutique hotel — within easy walking distance to the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Art Institute and Millenium Park — we all had a lovely dinner together at Trattoria No. 10 (Italian food and wine was a must before Verdi!).

The first performance we saw at the Lyric was Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The music and drama of Simon Boccanegra are magnificent from the first bar to finish. No wonder it took Verdi 24 years to revise it after the initial debacle; it took the talent of Arrigo Boito to revise the original libretto that Piave did for the first performance in 1857. The version as we know it today was performed for the first time in 1881. In its revised form it became a masterpiece of late Verdi period, tightly structured — no more ceremonial moments distracting us form the drama at hand.  In 1881, the “showy” moments did not appeal to Verdi any longer. In this opera, Verdi composed some glorious music with profound lyricism while remaining such a musical psychologist. A great example of the latter is the duet of Amelia and Boccanegra, which brings forth such moving humanity to this great work.

The production was co-produced with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden back in 1995, set designed by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Peter Hall and directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the wonderful Lyric Opera orchestra. The cast was stellar — internationally acclaimed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, legendary Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as the power-hungry villain Paolo, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her American debut as Amelia and the American tenor Frank Lopardo portrayed Gabriele and his path from hating Boccanegra to calling him father.  It truly was a great night of perfectly done Verdi that we all loved, in spite of being exhausted.

Saturday was an early start so that the group could join the half-day architectural tour of Chicago organized by the Architectural Foundation of Chicago. It was worth every minute as we walked and were also driven on a bus with a great volunteer docent. Such a great reminder of the beginnings of building skyscrapers — we saw examples of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (we visited the Robie House in Hyde Park), from the neo-gothic style of the UofChicago’s campus to the very modern campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) designed in the ’40s and ’50s by Mies van der Rohe (first American university campus designed by a single architect since 1819 at the University of Virginia). I always loved these giants of architecture, though I have to agree with Mies van der Rohe that less is more! I occasionally wish that we implemented more of that restraint when designing opera productions!

Saturday night was dedicated to symphonic music at its best — Chicago Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit (he was for 25 years the artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and is currently both the artistic director and principal conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). On the program we had Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, Walkton’s Violin Concerto performed beautifully by Gil Shaham and after the intermission Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major.  Dutoit conducted Beethoven’s 7 from memory in one breath, one take — no pauses, no rest, with all colours, dynamics, sounds, rhythm — everything coming at us in the audience as such powerful, phenomenal interpretation of the work of a genius! I can hardly remember when was the last time a symphony got such applause for its great performance! I was in tears! Our whole group was so energized that late night drinks and long conversation were in order! No one wanted to go to sleep after experiencing such a sublime performance.

Sunday – a treat of having brunch before the opera and then the matinee performance of Massenet’s Werther, based on the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by great German Romantic poet Goethe. It puzzles me how a man like Massenet, who lived a life where passion or drama were not present, could get so deeply into a story as powerful as Werther and make such a masterpiece out of it. The suffering soul of us humans — what can be better for an opera! This production was co-produced with San Francisco Opera – set and costumes designed by Louis Desire and directed by Francisco Negrin. In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera orchestra. American tenor Matthew Polenzani made the role debut as Werther and was more than beautifully matched by the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who made her North American debut in the role of Charlotte. After the performance we organized for our tour an early dinner at an exclusive restaurant within the Lyric Opera building, open only to high-end donors. Our own patrons and members of this tour loved the privilege to be there and it gave us a chance to continue talking about the production right there. We didn’t have to walk back to our hotel in the rain until much later when, after great food and wine, we didn’t mind a little walk in the rain at all! It all was just perfect.

As all good things must end, so does our tour to Chicago too, but not until we visited the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday and had a nice lunch at the restaurant there, and all in good time to be picked up to go back to the airport. We parted saying, until we travel together again.

Opera auditions never disappoint

Tuesday, October 30. 2012

This latest trip to Toronto wouldn’t have happened without our successful application to Canada Council travel grant! We can count our blessings that there is still government funding for us in the opera sector that have to stay connected in our small opera community; see other productions, network with colleagues, hear singers across this vast continent. We can’t cast our future productions and bring to Edmonton talented, first of all Canadian, singers unless we hear them and in some cases also see them on stage. But also, as we know — we can’t always find who we need in Canada, so we have to be aware of what goes on opera stages internationally too. This is why we will be auditioning in New York next weekend, after last weekend’s auditions in Toronto.

This time artistic administrator Michael Spassov and I complemented the joint auditions with our three colleagues from the Pacific Opera Victoria while also seeing two of the COC’s fall productions. Yes, we packed a lot into two days!

Auditions – we started them on Saturday with hearing the artists from the world-renowned COC’s young artists’ program, the Ensemble Studio. Every year, hundreds of artists apply to this program, which is followed up by Ensemble Studio staff conducting audition tours across the continent and travelling to attend productions in further search of talent. This is supported by some wonderfully generous individuals as well as corporate philanthropy, as COC scouts for the best. As a result COC has a truly admirable group of young, very promising artists that are such pleasure to hear and see. It’s never a disappointment but always a challenge for us to find enough roles for as many as we can, to cast them in the next couple of seasons.

We auditioned numerous artists (each gets 10 minutes — in total we listened for 12 hours), some represented by agents, some self-represented. Some travelled from far away to come and sing for us, bringing their own pianists, marketing materials … they know how hard the competition for limited number of roles is, as we only offer a small number of productions across Canada, so they come well prepared and ready to charm, impress, wow us!

We have just digitized our artists’ database, so having all the details in one easily searchable place is wonderful — everything from artists’ names, vocal abilities, characteristics, to the repertoire they sing for us, potential roles suitable for the voice type, covers, understudies, emergency covers for some roles, and to singers we need to watch their progress in cases when they are still very young and developing. There is a lot to record as we want to make sure we have every single detail in there. This even includes what each of the artist wears to the audition — a big challenge for Michael with colours and a frequent topic of my teasing. He needs to understand that grey and beige are not the same!

On Saturday evening we saw the new production of the world’s probably most beloved operetta, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. This production was directed by Christopher Alden, designed by Allen Moyer (set), Constance Hoffmann (costumes) and Paul Palazzo (light). Johannes Debus, COC’s music director, conducted the amazing COC’s orchestra and always perfect chorus (thanks Sandra Horst). Allison Grant did real magic with the choreography. Great cast — tenor David Pomeroy as Alfred (we will see David as our Hoffmann in February), young, promising soprano Ambur Braid (member of the Ensemble Studio) alternating with Mireille Asselin in the role of Adele. American soprano Tamara Wilson was Rosalinde (unusual repertoire for Tamara; great voice for Leonora or Elizabeth and such), great Canadian tenor Michael Schade was Dr. Eisenstein, and American Mezzo Soprano Laura Tucker in the pant role of Prince Orlofsky. We heard Claire de Sevigne, Peter Barrett and James Westman (to mention a few) in some of the smaller roles. It was a fun-filled production, beautiful to watch as the costumes and the set worked so well! Great characters sung and acted so well, the story told well managing to resonate with today’s audiences as well as it did in 1874 when it premiered in Vienna.

The Sunday matinée performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore is this year’s COC’s tribute to Verdi’s 200th anniversary (and then adding Tristan in February celebrating Wagner’s bi-centenary too). This production was somewhat challenging to watch for a variety of reasons, one being the very dark, grey, ominous, monolithic sets brought from Opera de Marseille where it premiered in 2005 to mixed reviews. It was unfortunate that Ramon Vargas was not available to be at this performance — we had instead Italian tenor Riccardo Massi (regular at the Met) who was not on par with the amazing South African soprano Elza van den Heever (she is to have her Met debut as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda) or the powerful performance of the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina as Azucena. Canadian baritone Russell Braun was well received by the audience, though they took a bit of time to become warm and accepting of the great drama going on stage. I wasn’t sure if it was the Sunday afternoon nap time or what, but it took until almost the end of the performance before any kind of response was given to some great singing on the stage. This opera puts demands of highest order on the chorus (especially from the men) which the COC’s chorus met with great professionalism and beauty. Il Trovatore is such great opera; Verdi at his best and we found it a fitting tribute to the beloved composer. Musical direction by the Italian conductor Marco Guidarini was impeccable and a true pleasure to listen to.

So — all in all — great trip, two excellent productions of highest calibre and the ability to hear so many great singers both on stage and in audition! How can one wish for a better weekend!? I even managed to escape the super storm and made it on time to our own wonderful Edmonton Symphony’s Gala last night! Stay tuned for the travel/audition notes from NYC next weekend.

Glimmerglass operas impress

Wednesday, September 5. 2012

Back to the performances. The Music Man (1957) – book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. For those of you who know me, you will know that I am not a big fan of musicals (you can call me a snob, that’s OK!) but if musicals are to be done, then the level at which Glimmerglass Festival produced The Music Man was certainly the right way to go about it. No mics, trained voices, great direction, a well-done production. It was such a pleasure to see and hear great baritone Dwayne Croft in the role of Prof. Harold Hill having a comeback after 20 years to the same company where he had his opera debut in 1975 (in the chorus). So many members of the Young Artists Program together with the festival chorus singing, dancing, having fun. As Elizabeth Futral who played the lead female role of Marian Paroo rightly pointed out, “The basic lessons of The Music Man still ring true . . . people still pine away for good partners, communities still long to be engaged in activities that make them energized and there are redeeming qualities in all of us if we’ll just take enough time to look for them!” So, I had a fun evening in spite of myself! And at the end, the production crew was packing this production to go to Muscat, Oman. How wonderful is that?

Now a day later, I am writing this as I came back to my little, modest inn from one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the opera world that I have known for a long time. I still feel shaken after seeing Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This musical tragedy (you could call it also “singspiel”) is definitely a masterpiece of musical application to dramatic narrative (quoting Virgil Thomson). This was Weill’s last stage work; it premiered in 1949 and survived him on Broadway by just three months — he died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In 1948, Weill’s collaborator Maxwell Anderson asked permission from the South African novelist Alan Paton to set the novel Cry, the Beloved Country to music. Weill always carried within him and often admitted to such deep awareness of the suffering of the underprivileged, the prosecuted, the oppressed and he definitely managed to address in this opera racial issues, injustice and tension but chose a distant land as opposed to his newly adopted home. This production was co-produced with the South African Cape Town Opera and I can’t even start imagining what it must have felt like being there and seeing it in South Africa. Tazewell Thompson’s directing stayed away from overly sentimental and kept the production in all of its elements a gut-wrenching experience, navigating us with utmost sensitivity and intelligence through the issues of almost biblical proportions — family, faith, redemption. Eric Owens in the role of Stephen Kumalo was absolutely phenomenal; he brought the audience to tears at the end of Act 1 with the song that gave the work its title which he sung with such raw existentialist despair “God who’s gone away . . . .” By the end of the performance in the last scene Eric himself was sobbing and so were the rest of us. The power of music, theatre, great artists, excellent production all as one with the audience that lets itself be taken on this journey. Another notable performance was by Sean Panikkar in the role of The Leader — he has a really nice, warm tenor voice that I wish to hear again.

For an opera house that doesn’t have AC and by the end of the first act can get rather warm, it has a very “cool” design — the outside side walls are on these huge sliders, so as the intermission starts, the walls get opened on two long sides, making the house nice and cool. I thought I would mention it for our house architect Clayton!

My last opera at Glimmerglass Festival was Aida — also the performance that closed this year’s festival. Aida was very, very successfully directed by Francesca Zambello (who is also the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass Festival). I have always admired her, but even more so after seeing her Ring Cycle a couple of years ago. It’s hard imagining Verdi’s grand opera Aida as chamber opera but it is full of very intimate scenes that easily get lost when you stage it on the grand stages of the world. It was really interesting seeing it from that perspective and also in the context of the Arab Spring, keeping it relevant to today’s Middle Eastern political situation. Machine guns, praying mats; military uniforms mixed with female and royalty costumes inspired by ancient Egypt. The conductor Nader Abbassi (who is the head of the Cairo Opera) gave the score such intimate reading and led the cast with secure, musical perfection. It was a predominantly young cast, filled with rising American stars — in the title role Michelle Johnson; Noah Stewart was very good as Radamès and is certainly someone to watch; Daveda Karanas was fantastic as Amneris, and Philip Gay as very young King. Eric Owens recovered from the afternoon’s performance of Lost in the Stars and was a wonderful Amonasro. Certainly a production that must have challenged some members of the audience who want the elephants and all of the trappings of the Triumphal March, but only a handful left the theatre at the one intermission. A thought-provoking production for sure that keeps the opera relevant in today’s world as much as it was when first premiered in Cairo.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Windows on the World.” In choosing this team, Francesca Zambello wanted to inspire discussion about our world today. In her own words: “The world we create   . . . will be reality, a world in which history can be examined, assumptions can be challenged and our common humanity celebrated.” Well done Francesca! Congratulations on your vision and the world you have created for us! I am looking forward to your next season. And left content with the last words I heard tonight: “Pace, Pace, Pace. . .”

Glimmerglass Festival opens 'windows on the world' with four operas

Thursday, August 30. 2012

Since its founding and very modest beginnings in 1975, Glimmerglass Festival has become a major destination for opera lovers from around the world. As well, it serves as training ground for artists and professionals in the performing arts world. It is based close to Cooperstown, which is apparently famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame (and that I know nothing about and am not even embarrassed to admit it). The festival started with four performances of La Bohème in a local high school and now has over 40 performances of four operas (although it seems that most years one of the four is more in the genre of the musical theatre but done as they say, in the “operatic” manner with no amplification) in a purpose-built theatre on the shore of Otsego Lake. The Alice Busch Opera Theater (914 seats) designed by Hugh Hardy opened in 1987. The interesting fact is that this was the first purpose-built American Hall for opera following the opening of new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. Glimmerglass has a truly impressive Young Artists Program — this year there are 44 artists from all over the world, and the program has, over the years, launched many careers.

The hardest thing to come by in Cooperstown is reasonably priced — or for that matter any —accommodation. That seems to have been the case for years as visitors continue to struggle to find place to stay. In that respect it reminds me of places like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford festivals in Ontario.

The first production I saw upon arrival was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s brilliant tragedie lirique Armide (1686) co-produced with Opera Atelier from Toronto. I saw it back in 2005 when it was first presented in Toronto with some of the same cast. Armide examines the conflict between the Muslim and Christian worlds during the First Crusade in the 11th century. The work is full of magic, enchantment, love, drama and raw passion — at the end of the opera all we are left with is the destruction of lives, still two worlds apart. The design by Gerard Gauci was inspired by glittering, exquisite illuminations from Persian culture of that same time (11th century). He also collaborated closely with a Persian calligrapher who translated parts of the libretto and wrote these elegant scripts on panels that were part of the set. Even the house curtain became a calligraphic masterpiece. Dora Rust D’Eye designed beautiful costumes that supported so well the story and the concept. Kudos to director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg to continue their inspired, wonderful quest to bring us back the beauty of so many of the rarely performed masterpieces. Their commitment to present these operas as much as possible true to their period of creation is not a simple task. Maestro David Fallis was excellent and led the chorus, the artists of Atelier Ballet and of course the wonderful cast in such a way that the production got standing ovation and numerous curtain calls — I stopped counting after seven! Armide was sung by a young soprano native of Minnesota, Peggy Kriha Dye — the bravos and standing ovations for her brought her to tears! Some notable young Canadian singers in this cast were Mireille Asselin, Meghan Lindsey (both sopranos originally from Ottawa) and the young tenor Aaron Ferguson. All three were this year chosen to be in the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Certainly artists to watch and I hope we can bring them to Edmonton one of these days.

Almost every name in and around Cooperstown is somehow related to the early American writer James Fenimore Cooper, his family, or his books and characters. He saw Otsego Lake as glimmering glass; the name Leatherstocking is everywhere including the local golf and country club; the beautiful art museum (Fenimore Art Museum) has been built on the same property where his stately house once stood ... the list goes on. I spent my Saturday morning at the Fenimore Art Museum with its impressive collection of Native American art. What also impressed me was that there is a good collaborative relationship with the Glimmerglass Festival, as there was an exhibit on Armide with set and costume sketches very prominently displayed at the art museum. They also had a costume that Renée Fleming wore in the Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida in 2010. A very nice touch.

Next week, Sandra continues her recap of Glimmerglass with The Music Man, Lost in the Stars and Aida.

Stage on the Lake, summer operas Part 3

Friday, August 17. 2012

Bregenz Opera Festival has become a must go and see for the opera aficionados that above all love the sometimes absolutely outrageous but always creative to the extreme use of the lake as a basis for the elaborate opera sets. Bregenz is a small medieval town on the Austrian part of Lake Constance, a large body of water between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. My daughter thought the coolest way to get to Bregenz from Verona was over some treacherous, tiny alpine mountain pass that would then lead us through Liechtenstein. She really wanted to close the loop of seeing all of the smallest countries in the world, but had me drive the hairpin turns!

The Bregenz Festival produces one new grand opera on the “Stage on the Lake” every two years and has a well-deserved reputation for making the impossible viable, exciting and worth the trip to Bregenz. This was the second year of their production of André Chénier, an opera in four acts by Umberto Giordano set in the times of French Revolution (1789-1795). Director Keith Warner and David Fielding, set designer, took as inspiration the painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David from 1793. Many months after the initial concept was approved and developed, the cranes and barges delivered a 60-ton head onto the platform in the lake water. The eyes and mouth opening; cast, chorus, supers and stuntmen running up and down the numerous sets of stairs (apparently over 150 stairs) connecting various stages and platforms — but that was only a part of the stage. There were multiple stages with hundreds of performers that included the aerialists, rock climbers and divers — and numerous cast members, including the tenor in the title role, jumped into the lake at some point. It certainly was a memorable production.

The orchestra of the Bregenz Festival is the Vienna Philharmonic which played beautifully under the baton of Maestro Enrico Calesso (but hidden from the audience other than two large screens simulcasting from their space). The cast was great — Serbian born tenor Zoran Todorovich, living in Germany, was in the title role, and soprano from Uruguay Maria José Siri as Maddalena de Coigny, to mention just the two. The unfortunate reality of the festival is that due to its location, everyone is miked and the sound then mixed which was not always perfect. Still, it was a wonderful experience and I am truly pleased to have been there, even in the rain. The show went on through the rain and the audience, pretty much like our last year’s Opera Al Fresco audience, didn’t move until the end.

Summer opera festivals, part 2

Wednesday, August 8. 2012

I have been going to the summer festival at the Arena di Verona for many years and every time I go, I come to the same conclusion: no other place can beat it. It’s mainly because of the acoustical properties of the ancient Roman amphitheater that is far superior to other summer festival outdoor venues that I have been to. I have to admit that the sheer size of their budget allows for presenting each and every opera with best possible singers, huge choruses, supers and as a spectacle works with the masses there too, both the educated and the novices. The orchestra and chorus are of the highest quality. The cast has, in my experience, always been stellar.

This year was the 90th festival — the festival started in 1913 but had a few interruptions during the war years. 

This year I am seeing three operas in Verona; two last week and I will see one more on my way back to Rome.

Don Giovanni was the first one and the interesting fact was that this was the first time that Verona summer festival presented it. They gave the honour to the almost-90-year-old Franco Zeffirelli, the legend of opera, to both design the set and to direct it. It was an excellent production where Zeffirelli gave it a sense of Mozart’s time in terms of how he handled the production — both the look and the performing style. It worked well in spite of having hundreds on stage, which would have certainly not been the case at the time when the opera was first composed. Great cast with special mention of one of the world’s most celebrated bass-baritones, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, in the title role, well-established opera buffa interpreter Bruno de Simone as Leporello, young Bulgarian bass Deyan Vatchkov as Masetto (although I really wanted to hear him sing a different role!) and a promising young tenor from Albania, Saimir Pirgu, as Don Ottavio. I am now not sure if I am listening this year differently for male roles as we keep wanting more men in our Edmonton Opera chorus, so I am somewhat obsessed with that aspect of our search, but it seems that there is a pool of talented male singers on the summer stages of Europe. I have to add that all the female principals were wonderful to hear too which is especially so for the gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Samuil as Donna Anna. I only heard the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet live in roles like Adalgisa — I knew she does a great Carmen but didn’t imagine her as Zerlina. I love it when great singers surprise us with what range and rep they can actually do and do it so well. It was especially moving when at the end of the opera, Franco Zeffirelli came onstage in his wheelchair and the entire cast and the wonderful conductor Daniel Oren all went on their knees so as not to be higher than Zeffirelli! I felt truly privileged being there that night.

The following night was Romeo et Juliette under the Verona stars and the heat that evening even after midnight persisted as the temperature never went below 35! Other than Faust, Romeo et Juliette is really the only other Gounod opera performed with any regularity. The production, which has only four performances this year, was designed by Eduardo Sanchi, beautiful costumes were designed by Silvia Aymonino, it was directed by Francesco Micheli and musically well-presented by the conductor Fabio Mastrangelo. The sets, the use of the arena as backdrop, lighting and costumes were a really wonderful, magical modern interpretation of the Shakespearean story. There were a couple of moments when I questioned my own ability to understand some set elements or a directorial decision but I quickly got over it. In title roles, to start with, Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Juliette was fantastic. I wished I heard John Osborn doing his European debut just a week earlier, but I have to give credit to Stefano Secco as very good Romeo. All in all — a very satisfactory opera experience.

Sampler of summer opera festivals

Wednesday, August 1. 2012

I made it to Bregenz in Austria late last night. I have a ticket to see Andre Chenier here tonight, but it has been raining. So, not sure if the weather gods will permit this extravagant set on the water of the lake to fascinate me tonight or not. I will keep you posted.

I started my sampler of summer opera festivals in Torre del Lago — a small town on a lake not far from Pisa and also just outside the seaside resort of Viareggio on the Tyrrhenian Sea in northern Italy. It’s a town where Puccini came as a young composer at the beginning of his career and spent 30 years of his life there. When Puccini first discovered the picturesque Torre del Lago, he found the area where he could return to the roots of his inspiration — the light, the sounds and scents of nature that could still inspire powerful and passionate emotions.  He first rented a house but then once the money started coming in from the successes of Manon Lescaut in 1893 and then La Bohème in 1896, he was able to purchase a house of his dreams — an ancient lookout tower. He had it restored and it was there that all of his major works were composed (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine and Il Trittico). Puccini died in 1924 (only one act short of completing Turandot) and was first buried in Milano. His son moved Puccini’s remains to the small private chapel in the Torre del Lago villa in 1926. Visiting the villa (which is still privately owned by the family, similar to the Villa Verdi) brings this great man so close to us, his audience. It’s no wonder that 58 years ago, the Puccini Foundation started the Puccini Festival right outside the Puccini Villa on the shores of his beloved lake.

I stayed in Viareggo as the accommodation there was both cheaper and easier to find. This year’s festival had a novelty in its artistic programming — they added one opera by Verdi (La Traviata) to the usual Puccini opera choices (this year included Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème).

I saw Tosca first. A very traditional production, effective use of scenic elements to tell the story but not very inspiring as a production. What was great was the cast, as they certainly had some truly excellent singers — Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as Tosca (some Edmonton Opera staff saw her as Tatiana in LA Opera’s Onegin last fall when she made her North American debut) and Rudy Park (a South Korean tenor who moved to Italy in 2002) as fantastic Mario Cavaradossi. I have heard him in a few roles before and hope that maybe one of these days we can hear him on our stage too.

The second night brought the production of Madama Butterfly. The production itself was lost on me. A very minimalist set that started well with excellent use of lighting on the naked, almost barren stage with the two oversized stones (seemed like the work of Barbara Hepworth). I wish it had stayed that way as bringing in some other geometrical shapes as set pieces later in the opera didn’t really work. The costumes didn’t manage to stay neither as an inspiration nor as a storytelling tool — in most cases — especially in the large chorus scenes they were a distraction and felt like they were inspired by Star Wars. I really felt for Cio Cio San struggling with her costume in Act 2, especially where she stumbled and tripped a number of times. The singers again (just like in Tosca) were worth the trip – Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi was a very strong Cio Cio San – both vocally and dramatically but the one that stood out was Pinkerton sung by the fantastic Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado. He was excellent.

So – just when we think that there are not enough tenors in this world, I was fortunate to hear two extraordinary voices in two nights!

Verona coming next…

Aida at the Arena di Verona

Monday, October 17. 2011

The magic of sharing the experience of grand opera under the stars of Veneto in a 2000 year old Roman Arena in Verona with 14,000 people in the audience is unique in the world.  The moment when everyone lights their little candles at dusk as the orchestra tunes is one that still leaves me in awe..... Ever since I heard in one of my family sagas how my great aunt remembers going as a little girl with her mother to the first Aida there in 1913!

So when I heard that this year's Aida was actually the attempt to stage as close to the original 1913 Aida, I had to go and experience this grand spectacle myself.  And grand it certainly was in every possible way - a huge spectacle that got everyone in the audience cheering.  Vocally - I did wish that some of the lead singers were chosen differently, but then again - you can't have it all! I thought as I drove all day today back to Rome.  I believe that everyone needs to experience Aida in the two settings here in Italy at least once in their lives... Arena di Verona is one and the other is the restored Terme di Caracalla in Rome. 

The highlight for me this year was seeing two productions designed and directed by the Argentinean super star Hugo de Ana.  I love the way he deals with the challenge of staging operas created for small, closed spaces in a gigantic space like the Arena where it is not easy to conduct intimate affairs.  His first production for the Arena di Verona was Nabucco in 2000 which was amazingly like the spaceship from "Star Wars".  Then came Tosca in 2006 - where in spite of the concept of abstract and focusing the opera on the symbolic, on the atmosphere and the characters' intentions, the run was sold out and in huge demand even by the patrons so used to the traditional way of presenting opera at the Festival in Verona. This year his 2008 Il Barbiere di Siviglia was remounted and it was such a huge treat to see this grand scenic game within a complex miming and choreographic movement.  The Greek baritone Aris Argiris was wonderful and stole the "show" as great Figaro! 

I had a chance to see the new La Traviata also designed and directed by Hugo de Ana.  He used for this opera the concept of huge frames, empty of their mirrors - they help do both - fill the large spaces, reflect luxury but also help us experience the world of degenerating emotions.  I saw the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho who had to use the sheer force of her voice to play her role.  I wish I was there when her co-patriot Inva Mula did the role.  I have seen Inva do the role of Violetta when she both sang and acted it beautifully.  The strongest cast member here was Geroge Gagnidze as Georgio Germont.

La Boheme....the concept of this production.... very stark, white, almost empty stage with Nicola Benois wanting us to share in the feeling of profound emotions and not be burdened by the often bothersome and heavy scenery that take away the reason why we are so moved by what we hear.  Marcelo Alvarez was the soul of the opera as Fiorenza Cedolina pushed herself out of her comfort zone... she is a wonderful dramatic soprano (I have seen her as an amazing Tosca) and one wonders why she was cast in the role where we wanted to hear a lyric soprano match Marcelo Alvarez's voice and timbre.  All I could think about was how I wanted to hear her in Un Ballo in Maschera!

Nabucco - the grand, opulent sets where the Verona Opera's chorus was the biggest star.... Although some of the lead singers were fabulous - Marco Vratogna as Nabucco and Vitalij Kowaljow as Zaccaria deserve a special mention.  But the chorus was certainly something else...... they "reinforced" the usual 162 members of the chorus with the additional 60!  After they sang "Va Pensiero", the audience lost it... so - what happens next?  The conductor rewinds that film.... and they do the whole scene again!  The custom of the place allows the audience to sing along when it's an encore!  Tears and all!

The power of opera at its best!