NEW! Reviews of Opera in Mumbai: A Gala and La Bohème Revisited

09/02/2017

Various composers: Maria José Siri (soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Long Zhang (tenor), Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore (baritone), Matteo Peirone (bass), Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 2.2.2017. (JSM)

Verdi – Overture to La forza del Destino; Otello (excerpts)
GiordanoAndrea Chénier (excerpts)
BizetCarmen Suites (excerpts)

Puccini, La Bohème Revisited: Soloists, Symphony Orchestra of India / Carlo Rizzi (conductor), Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, 8.2.2017 (JSM)

Cast:
Rodolfo – Giordano Lucà
Mimì – Olena Tokar
Marcello – Andrea Vincenzo Bonsignore
Musetta – Maria Mudryak
Colline – Andrea Concetti
Schaunard – Daniele Terenzi
Alcindoro/Benoit – Matteo Peirone
Narrator – Sax Nicosia

Production:
Director – Sax Nicosia
Lighting – Alberto Giolotti
Artwork – Francesco Calagnini
Projections – D-Wok

Mumbai’s National Centre for the Performing Arts has scheduled an opera-based season with three concerts and three performances of Puccini’s La bohème. This second concert in the series featured soprano Maria José Siri and tenor Simon O’Neill, accompanied by Carlo Rizzi and the Symphony Orchestra of India.

One wishes one could be more enthusiastic about what was publicized as a ‘Gala’ event, but the concert, despite flashes of musical distinction, was often uneven.

The first part of the evening was devoted to Verdi, and its beginning was perhaps indicative of what was to come. The opening bars of the overture to La forza del Destino were played with scarcely any sense of baleful foreboding, and the ensuing performance (which was on the brisk side) seemed perfunctory. The music of Alvaro’s plea and Leonora’s prayer lacked lyricism, and it all built to a raucous climax with shrieking strings and bellowing brass.

The Love Duet from Act 1 of Otello followed, with an opening that could hardly be termed atmospheric, despite some sensitive playing by Principal Cellist Boris Baraz. As the title character, Simon O’Neill sang with great musicality though he lacked the vocal heft of the true dramatic or heldentenor. He has a well-placed ‘high’ instrument with gleaming tone and total security on the top notes, which were utterly effortless and able to cut through orchestral fabric. However, his middle voice seemed somewhat pallid or grey in comparison, and his tone tended to spread on open vowels.

Maria José Siri as Desdemona was similarly musical, but she tended to become squally when singing loud above the stave, an area in which she also found it difficult to sustain soft phrases.

All of the above was evident in the duo’s performance of Act IV from the opera, done in its entirety with a supporting cast. Here, Desdemona’s repeated cries of ‘salce’ could have been more varied in tone and expression, though the last ‘prega’ from the ‘Ave Maria’ was ethereally beautiful. O’Neill’s Otello was curiously tame during the murder, nor was there much plangency in ‘Niun mi tema’, though Ms Siri was totally involved in the music and drama. Maestro Rizzi went beyond providing merely efficient accompaniment to whipping up the orchestra into a full-tilt climax during Desdemona’s strangulation.

The second half of the programme began with excerpts from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. After another sensitive solo by cellist Boris Baraz, Ms Siri gave a superb rendering of ‘La Mamma Morta’, which was truly the high point of the evening. She seemed much more comfortable here, musically secure and dramatically convincing, with a thrilling top B and another (unwritten) high note at the end of the aria.

Mr O’Neill then gave a reading of Chénier’s ‘Come in bel dì di Maggio’ where his high notes were clarion-like and free. However, his prosaic phrasing short-changed the poetic expression in this aria’s words and music, which was not helped by the fast tempo.

Tenor and soprano came together in the opera’s final duet, in a performance that could best be described as workmanlike rather than transcendent. Both singers’ strengths and weaknesses were evident here; but despite the initially lukewarm temperature, they managed to drum up a fair amount of excitement, as did the orchestra, at the very end.

In what seemed to be a case of quirky programming, it was the orchestra that ended the evening, with excerpts from Bizet’s Carmen Suites. Maestro Rizzi began with a tepid reading of the ‘Fate’ motive and a sluggish ‘Aragonaise’, after which there was a lyrical Intermezzo and an orchestral version of the ‘Toreador’s Song’ played with bite and vim…and much crashing of cymbals. The last selection was the ‘Danse Bohème’, which began rather too fast (thus compromising the gradual accelerando required) but was controlled and precise even at its most frenetic.

The tendency of this orchestra to shout during fortissimi could perhaps be the effect of the reflectors above the stage which accentuate upper-middle and high frequencies, beaming the sound at the audience. It is revealing that visiting orchestras usually have these removed: why does the SOI continue to keep them for their own performances on their home turf?

Modern interpretations of opera have now become the norm, and they range from the truly inspired to the totally ridiculous. But even the worst excesses of self-styled auteurs stop short at tampering with the music, which remains, in all but the rarest cases, sacrosanct.

Sax Nicosia, who has conceptualized and directed La Bohème Revisited, apparently thinks otherwise. His version of Puccini’s La bohème dispenses entirely with the chorus, and thus with much of its music. Act II ends abruptly with the reprise of Musetta’s waltz; and it opens with only the orchestra, as does Act III. Further cuts were made in both acts.

One wonders at the reasoning behind taking such license with Puccini’s score, as the musical losses are obvious. If, in a dramaturgical sense, it was done to focus on the personal lives of the principal characters, they exist within a public, social framework; and doing away with the latter robs the opera of this juxtaposition that Puccini and his librettists intended. Furthermore, since Mr Nicosia has taken the novel on which the opera is based, Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, as the foundation of his interpretation, the hustle and bustle of Parisian café society is very much a part of that vie.

Be that as it may, this was essentially a semi-staged concert performance, billed as “an innovative new production” by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA). It took place within a gilt-edged, antique frame that became the proscenium, fronted by a scrim. Nicosia himself appeared before each act as Henri Murger, speaking the words from the novel that preface it, accompanied by projections of Impressionist paintings on the scrim. This in itself was not a bad idea, as it set the production in time and place, but it continued excessively throughout the opera. The scrim went up, only to come down periodically and be flashed with animated images of fanciful moons, flowers and snowflakes as big as tennis-balls, among other things. These were irritating and distracted one’s attention from the music and action onstage. Moreover, the images seemed completely gratuitous and redundant: they didn’t offer any real insight into what one was hearing in the words and music.

The projected surtitles were often barely legible; and Mr Nicosia’s direction was generally gauche. The singers performed at the front of the stage, which had a few pieces of furniture and props. Behind this were the orchestra and the conductor with his back to the singers. Thus, there were inevitable lapses in ensemble, which even a maestro like Carlo Rizzi was unable to avoid. However, he elicited playing of great beauty from the Symphony Orchestra of India (especially the string section), bringing out many felicitous details in the music, although the orchestra was sometimes too loud and drowned out the singing.

The cast was mostly young and more than competent, with well-placed voices. They seemed totally committed to their roles. Olena Tokar as Mimì really stood out: she was utterly musical, with some magical moments, like the phrase ‘addio senza rancor’ at the end of ‘Donde lieta uscì’; and the pianissimo reprise of ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ in her death scene. However, her lower register did lack warmth, and her tone developed a hard edge above mezzo forte on high notes.

One wished the production had allowed the music itself and the musical talents of all concerned to shine, instead of compromising them with choices of questionable artistic merit.

It is perhaps easy to present such work in a milieu where a majority of the audience lacks a frame of reference in which to evaluate what they have seen. It becomes a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. But any cultural institution that aspires to be internationally recognised could, and should, do better than showcase an ill-conceived travesty.

Jiten S. Merchant

NEW! FIVE YOUNG SINGERS JOIN THE JETTE PARKER YOUNG ARTISTS FOR 2017

10/01/2017

NEW JETTE PARKER YOUNG ARTISTS ANNOUNCED FOR 2017

rohThe Royal Opera is delighted to announce the five singers who will join the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme in September 2017.

American soprano Jacquelyn Stucker

Korean soprano Haegee Lee

Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina

Korean tenor Kuno Kim

British baritone Dominic Sedgwick Read more

NEW! THE SOPRANO ELISABETH MEISTER: FIGHTING BACK FROM WHAT LIFE THROWS AT YOU AND INSPIRING OTHERS

03/01/2017

Fighting Back From What Life Throws At You And Inspiring Others: Jim Pritchard Interviews The Soprano Elisabeth Meister

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Elisabeth Meister

One of the highlights of the recent concert performance of Die Walküre for the Saffron Opera Group was Elisabeth Meister’s wonderful Sieglinde. Peter Reed in Opera magazine described how ‘gathering depth and brilliance’ she ‘built towards an orchestra-surfing “O hehrstes Wunder!” of pulverizing grandeur’. On this site I said she just ‘got better and better’ and how ‘Meister is an intelligent singer who knows how to project her voice, and she achieved extraordinary heights of passion in Act III without pushing the voice beyond its limits.’ (For full review click here.) I also mentioned how Elisabeth was – with this performance – returning to singing after something of a hiatus to her singing career, which was set to have a meteoric rise after leaving the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. Elisabeth has a remarkable – and inspirational – story to tell which involves losing and regaining her singing voice. Read more

NEW! REVIEWERS OF SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL PICK THEIR BEST OF 2016

23/12/2016

THE BEST OF 2016 FROM REVIEWERS OF SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL  Read more

NEW! The Mastersingers Celebrate Wagner Past and Present with the Rehearsal Orchestra

01/11/2016

Wagner, Götterdämmerung Act II: Soloists; Mastersingers Chorale; Rehearsal Orchestra / David Syrus (conductor), Henry Wood Hall, London, 30.10.2016. (JPr) Read more

NEW! MARTYN BRABBINS IS ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA’S NEW MUSIC DIRECTOR

21/10/2016

Martyn Brabbins to take up position as Music Director of English National Opera from 21 October 2016
Martyn Brabbins

Martyn Brabbins (c) Benjamin Ealovega

English National Opera (ENO) has today, 21 October 2016, announced that British conductor Martyn Brabbins will become Music Director of the Company with immediate effect.

Read more

NEW! MONICA HUGGETT IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

17/10/2016

MONICA HUGGETT IN CONVERSATION WITH GEOFFREY NEWMAN

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Monica Huggett © Hiroshi Iwaya

If one wanted a broad picture of the evolution of historical performance, with intriguing little nuances revealed along the way, there would be few better musicians to talk to than Monica Huggett. She has been an unremitting force for four decades, well known from her early association with the Academy of Ancient Music and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and these days as Artistic Director of the Portland and Irish Baroque Orchestras, and Adviser to the Juilliard Historical Program. This interview traces the violinist’s experiences from the time when the authentic movement was just gathering momentum. Most important are her insights about how historical performance has developed out of a number of contrasting approaches that have cross-fertilized each other. Equally interesting are her ideas on where historical scholarship and performance practice still have room to grow, what she wants to achieve from an orchestra in interpretation, and how she has maintained an undiminished inspiration all this time. The interview took place in conjunction with the Vancouver Bach Festival in August 2016, where Monica Huggett directed the Pacific Baroque Orchestra in the Complete Bach Orchestral Suites (review).    Read more

UPDATED IN MEMORIAM – SIR NEVILLE MARRINER CH, CBE (1924 – 2016)

02/10/2016

Sir Neville Marriner CH, CBE, Founder and Life President of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields has died

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Sir Neville Marriner (1924-2016)

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields is deeply saddened to announce the death of Sir Neville Marriner, Founder and Life President of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Sir Neville Marriner passed away peacefully in the night on 2 October. Read more

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