Sunday, 22 March 2015

Madama Butterfly: Royal Opera House 2015 ★★★★

© The Royal Opera House
This Friday [20th March] was the opening night of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2011 revival production of Madama Butterly, which brought audiences to tears. Following a tremendous portrayal of a troubled Manon in a‘tight fitted, bust improvising pink corset’ in last year’s controversialproduction of Manon Lescaut, Latvian Soprano, Kristine Opolais, gave a dramatic performance as a naïve Cio-Cio san with the vocal heft that made it one of her best nights at Covent Garden.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly - based on a 15-year-old ex-geisha who falls in love with a chauvinist American, that leaves her with a love child unbeknown to him - is ranked as the 7th most popular opera in the world. According to co-director, Leiser, ‘it is a very important story to tell’ and many would agree. The revival production, directed by Justin Way, embodies the tragedy of Madama Butterfly through Japanese simple architectural design, lavishly made kimonos by Agostino Cavalca, and Japanese cultural values including patience and graciousness. 

Christian Fenouillat’s minimal set design of subtle sliding doors and large panels convey Cio-Cio san’s enclosure from the outside world: her heritage, religion and, most of all, her family. Act I reveals a picturesque backdrop of Nagasaki: a mountainous beauty, as the wedding ceremony commences. Yet as the Bonze (Jeremy White) utters his curse on Cio Cio san Nagasaki is no more. Her family, sung by the Royal Opera Chorus, walk over the image of Nagasaki as they sing in outrage, ‘Cio-Cio-san’ and abandon her for ever. 
© The Royal Opera House

For Leiser and Caurier, the opera presents a cynical ‘American imperialist view on Japanese culture’ where such characters as Pinkerton ‘do not consider Japanese culture as valid.’ It is a ‘dark work’ that captures an unfortunate situation that happens repeatedly to many women in the world. The sadness lies in the virtuousness of Cio-Cio san whose illusory beliefs depend on her apparent American husband. With an unexpected child in the mix the operatic drama is amplified, gripping the hearts of many young mothers in the audience. 

Even Opolais can empathise with this heartrending tale being a mother of a three-year-old. She stated how emotionally taxing and challenging the role of Cio-Cio san can be in an interview with Latin Post . Recently she told Rupert Christiansen, [Cio-Cio san] knows that her child is going to be taken away from her and that for me is what makes the agony of the tragedy.’ 

Under the baton of Nicola Luisotti, the music director of San Francisco Opera and the Teatro di San Carlo, the Royal Opera House Orchestra gave a resoundingly rich musical performance of Puccini’s much-loved opera. Having never seen Luisotti in action before, watching him was like watching, something out of, a movie. His delicate, classic and, almost, cinematic conducting style was a sight to marvel as was his love for Puccini, which was oozing audibly out of the pit. 
@ The Royal Opera House
Making his debut at the Royal Opera House, as bad boy Pinkerton, was ‘fresh off the boat’ American Tenor, Brian Jagde. Pinkerton only hangs around for the first act, but, for this, Jagde gave a convincing performance of a man who had fallen for an exotic creature as he sung, ‘I’m marrying Japanese style for 999 years.’ His voice has an exquisite vibrato, which is disarming even if the words he sang were not genuine. I hope we get to see him again in another production at Covent Garden.

Enkelejda Shkosa, who sang as Suzuki, added spice and a little kick to her characterisation of Cio-Cio san’s maid. She presented a tougher version of Suzuki. In the flower duet Il cannone del porto! with Opolais, her sweet vocal accompaniment seemed also deluded with hope of Pinkerton’s return, which made the audience sigh.

Gabriele Viviani sang as Sharpless after having sung the role of Pinkerton in the original production. Here, he exudes the remorse and guilt of being the go-between, but, unfortunately, did not present much luster or sheen in his voice. Carlo Bosi as Goro gave a theatrical performance of a corrupt Japanese marriage broker. Dressed in a fabulous semi-Western, semi-Japanese design, he concocted a Goro we would learn to hate and sang pleasant enough, even though he played a villain.
© The Arts Desk

The long intermission that shifts Act II to Act III, where Opolais waits motionless for her husbands’ return, sees no action on stage, and the opera may seem to drag. The audience have to depend on Luisotti’s waving arms and swaying body to gather some visual momentum. But the humming chorus is a gem in itself - it never fails to please Puccini fans whist preparing for the ultimate death scene.

Opolais triumphed on the opening night. She created an intense and emotional evening for many. As she sung Butterfly's heart breaking finale aria, Con onor muore , I was reminded of her last performance singing as the dying Manon in Sola, perduta, abbandonata. Towards the final act, many sniffles and fiddly tissues were heard from the audience. With an excellent choice of cast for the Royal Opera House’s 396th performance of Madam Butterfly, it was, perhaps, the most dramatic portrayal of Madam Pinkerton I had ever seen. 

(I had a distraught and upsetting experience at the finale. Luckily I didn’t get any tears on my pink Kimono, which, by the way, I was the only one wearing. sheesh!)
The production is showing until April 11th. Please have a look at the site as tickets are selling out fast.

Other Reviews:
Madam Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall @LDNCARD - Currently showing (2015)
Relay Screening of Madam Butterfly by Opera Australia (2014)

Monday, 16 March 2015

V & A Museum: Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen 2015 ★★★★★

My written review for US review site: Culture Vulture can be found here I highly recommend you look at the photographs before or whilst reading the review to get a better picture of the exhibition, Savage Beauty: Alexander McQueen. 
(Victoria and Albert Museum)
London (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
London (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Image of 'Lee' Alexander McQueen (changes to image of a skull) (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)

Savage Mind (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)

London (Photos by @MaryGNguyen) 
Romantic Gothic (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Gothic (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Claire Wilson, curator of Savage Beauty, interviewed at press preview (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Gothic (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Savage Mind (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)

Savage Mind  (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Nationalism  (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Primitivism (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Nationalism (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Primitivism (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Cabinet of Curiosities (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Naturalism (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Romantic Exoticism (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Cabinet of Curiosities (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)
Cabinet of Curiosities (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)

Plato's Altantis (Photos by @MaryGNguyen)

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

ROH: The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny ★★★★

For most operas, and contrary to popular belief, audiences are not required to read a synopsis or any literature about the creative process of the work, however, for The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny (Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny in German), a little bit of reading wouldn’t hurt.
The opera’s creators, the poet and librettist Bertolt Brecht, and composer Kurt Weill, collaborated during the 1930s after World War I and the collapse of the Weimar Republic. At the time, German and Austrian composers were reinventing opera having developed Zeitoper (opera in the time in German) in the 1920s, which mixed together music genres: jazz, contemporary, and cabaret, with political satire. 
Based on an opera of ‘juxtapositions’, from music to text, The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny follows the lives of criminals searching for an escape who end up in the city of Mahagonny, which breeds cash, greed, capitalism and sex. Given the opera’s unusual nature, audiences will wonder whether a production has captured the ironies and quizzical devices that Brecht and Weill implemented in the 1930s.
Last night was the opening night for the first, ever, production of The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny at the Royal Opera House. Under the direction of John Fulljames it successfully captured the complexity of the opera as delivered in the 1930s. Fulljames’ production has updated the opera to 2015 with high-tech digital trends and props, which Brecht and Weill would have, only, dreamt of. 

There are various themes (too many to mention here) that are purposefully embedded by Brecht and Weill, but Fulljames has introduced a production that allows the audience to freely figure out the complicated metaphors and allegories in an uncomplicated manner. One of these devices are the songs. Although originally written in German, there are easily memorable, and tongue-in-cheek, songs written and sung in English including the ‘Benares Song’ and the well-known ‘Alabama Song’, which has been covered by multiple artists from David Bowie to music band The Doors. 
To keep the opera fresh Fulljames has instilled a cross-pollination of digital traditions. Finn Ross’ video designs are layered on top of one another, which include an image of a hurricane, an animated weather map, footage of civilians in the middle of a hurricane and even a title screen that reads ‘Mahagonny’. This is neatly bundled up with audio recordings of inscriptions set between each scene and live broadcast footage of the singers on stage, and some members of the audience. (You’ve been warned!)
This appropriately merges in with Es Devlin’s fascinating set designs, one of the best stage designs I’ve seen at the Royal Opera House, with a versatile lorry that opens up into many things like a magician’s bag. It can be a gruelling office, a prostitutes' hub, or a bar with jazz pianist, Robert Clarke, playing away with large white palm trees sat right next to him. The use of huge colourful shipments boxes is also an industrial cabinet of curiosity that stores more than human traffic and whiskey decanters combined.
The chorus singers were enthusiastic and on excellent form on stage. They were most remarkable at the end of the opera to the song, ‘To This Day Found In Mahagonny’, which sounded almost like a quasi-sermon song. Mark Wigglesworth conducted the ROH orchestra and although, the music was full of quality, pace and energy, I felt there was a lack of volume for some songs that needed an extra punch such as the first run of the ‘Alabama song’. I also got a sense that some musicians were more confident than others given that the opera was being played here for the first time.
Yet confidence wasn’t a problem for our eclectic cast. Annie Sofie von Otter, as Begbick, was a joy to watch, but vocally she was all over the place. She started off on strong form yet by Act 2 her voice wasn't as consistent. There was confusion as to whether her accent was English or American as well. Willard W. White, as Moses, was simply authentic. He brought his vintage, signature bass-baritone voice that was a thrill to hear. And Peter Hoard was also a great act on stage but for the role of Fatty there wasn’t a good enough aria to show off his vocal talent. 
(Photo: From the Times)
But it was Kurt Streit’s Jimmy and Christine Rice’s Jenny that got the audiences' attention. Streit sang as a rebel who broke all the rules, when it wasn’t permitted, and he didn’t hold back. Streit's character was possibly the only character that showed raw emotion and he sung as if he was at the a picket line over brassy jazz and ragtime melodies. Rice, however, controlled her voice to model the mind frame and stoic mannerisms of Jenny who acknowledged her profession as a prostitute and desire for nothing but hard cash. Her pure silky voice was present but Rice managed to embrace and fine tune her vocals to remind the audience that Jenny was a prostitute who only cared about money.
Operas like this one, with sophisticated concepts, unorthodox narrative, huge set designs and a combination of artistic genres, are few and far between. The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny is a bizarre opera. At times it can be morose, realistic and too close to home, particularly with topics about the economy and society as a whole but audiences are bound to ask themselves a few thought provoking questions whilst being entertained by a pig playing an accordion. 

The opera is showing until the 4th of April. Click here for more information. 
Photographs courtesy of the Royal Opera House.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

#InternationalWomensDay 2016 : Opera Divas and Female Voices #IWD2016

Opera wouldn’t be influential if it wasn’t for the role of the ‘diva’ (Italian for ‘goddess’) or the ‘prima donna’. Its voices: the magnificent sopranos, tender contraltos, and mellifluous mezzo-sopranos, are huge driving forces that foster our love for opera.

Opera is the one of the few artistic genres that elevates the status of women. Since the time of Handel and Mozart, opera’s trouser-roles have also played an effective part. They were specifically made for women to cross-dress as men, manly fighters and despairing boy-like lovers.

To celebrate Women’s Day, I want to share my favourite women in opera from voice to characterisation. 
Nina Stemme as Isolde from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde

Wagner’s 1865 opera requires a strong, large and loud voice to explain the doomed nature of the love between the Cornish knight and the Irish princess. The drama begins from a love potion that causes them to fall in love but since it is an opera it is complicated (which we love!)  She is forced to marry Tristan’s uncle and it ends tragically with a wounded Tristan who promises to reunite with Isolde in heaven.

Wagner wrote long extended vocal phrases, and took out pauses, which require breathe control (big exhales) skills. He wrote the music in a variety of keys. For bold Wagnerian sopranos this means singing confidently at a high volume without being distracting by the orchestra’s music, which is often different from Isolde’s music.

Isolde is a mythical character with her own heart-wrenching music of love and Swedish Wagnerian soprano Nina Stemme has evoked Isolde’s character numerous times. She is known by many as the greatest Wagnerian soprano of our era. Telegraph critic, Rupert Christiansen, said Stemme is 'the greatest dramatic soprano of our day at the peak of her powers.'

I saw her perform the challenging role at the Royal Opera House last year (here’s my review) and saw her sing the saucy role of Salóme, which rocked the Royal Albert Hall at the BBC Proms. (Here’s my review for her performance.) 
Anna Netrebko as Violetta from Verdi’s La Traviata

The tragedy lies in the loose lifestyle of a demi-monde, Parisian party girl, and high-class courtesan who falls in love with a young nobleman. But she is denied life by a deadly disease: consumption. Verdi’s opera, based on the heroine of Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, is one of the greatest dramatic roles in all of opera. It has been the inspiration behind blockbuster movies including Pretty Women and Moulin Rouge.

It is said that the any soprano that sings the role of our ‘fallen woman’, Violetta, must possess the agility for speed and flexibility – that is, they must be a coloratura soprano. The vocal technique of its sopranos require the ability to reach high notes as well as the lighter more lyrical notes. The bel canto aria ‘Sempre libera’ is an example that incorporates the versatility of Violetta’s music. It moves in and out from melodious to excitement and sends the soprano’s voice to the stratosphere. It is Violetta’s gorgeous soaring music that makes us pity her and ultimately makes us cry at the same time.

Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko is one of my favourite opera singers. We see her sing as Violetta here at the 2005 Salzburg Festival. Her voice is incredibly strong and not only is she a great operatic singer, she is a great stage actress. I haven’t seen her sing the role live yet but shall see her as Mími in Puccini’s La Bohéme at the Royal Opera House this year.

I’ve written an extensive post about La Traviata here. I also reviewed the Royal Opera House’s live broadcast of the opera sung exceptionally by Ailyn Pérez, which you can read here. 
Jessye Norman  as Carmen from Bizet’s Carmen

Typically Carmen is sung by a mezzo-soprano, yet the seductive and fierce female characterisation of Carmen has called upon sopranos to sing the role as well. The Parisians detested the opera on its first night at the Opéra-Comique in 1875. One reason for this was Carmen's female characterisation, which was socially unacceptable at the time - a woman of free and liberal values. She is a Spanish gypsy (but the opera is sung entirely in French by the way,) who doesn’t want to commit or be held down by a man. She is the exception from opera’s usual long-suffering heroine, which we usually associate with opera. She enjoys the company of criminals and doesn’t think of the deeper implications of asking Don José to leave his job for her.

Women who sing as Carmen must have the energy, charm and enthusiasm to sing the playful and mischievous gypsy. Carmen’s drifter and mystic attributes are demonstrated in the singer’s vocal technique, which tends to encompass a thicker and heavier tone. Yet it has to match the same gravitas as singing higher notes. The arias that are sung at a lower register are some of most memorable and are sung towards the bottom of the musical staff.

African-American Grammy award-winning opera singer and recitalist, Jessye Mae Norman, is another favourite singer of mine. She has a majestic voice, which soars with beauty over music. Her expansive vocal range is just one of the many reasons why she is a masterful and highly respected singer. Although she has stopped performing ensemble operas, only concerts and recitals, there are a variety of DVDs and Youtube clips that show her ‘doing her stuff’ and singing on stage.

Some may argue that I've chosen the wrong feminine opera role to assign her vocal talents to as she is often associated with Wagnerian operas including the roles of Sieglinde and Strauss’ Ariadne, but I'd respond by reminding readers of my objective to hone in on notable feminine characters within opera repertoire.
Maria Callas, “La Divina”

I would like to add to the mix of female figures in opera the American-Greek soprano, Maria Callas. She is regarded as “La Divina” (the divine one) in operatic circles and recognised as the most famous diva of the 20th century. Her expertise, attention to musical detail and love for bel canto operas, including Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini, has made her an emotive soprano and historical operatic icon.
One could argue that her life was a living opera considering the torment and life struggles she had to endure from a hard upbringing, close-to wartime poverty, career pressures, rivalry with Renata Tebaldi and scandalous relationship with Aristotle Onassis.
I have choosen the aria ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata’ from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut to touch on the breadth and calibre of Callas’ voice. It depicts a desperate girl, Manon, who is in love but knows that she is going to die. The song’s lyrics lament over her life and the consequences of her past actions, which have sealed by her tragic fate. 
I have written a review of Manon Lescaut from last year's performance by Kristine Opolais at the Royal Opera House. You can read it here.