The HOT Take

The HOT Take From The Santa Fe Opera Festival – Capriccio

image2 (6)

For the final opera of this year’s “pentology”, Santa Fe Opera performed Richard Strauss’ Capriccio.  There has been a long history of performing the operas of Strauss at Santa Fe, since the company’s founding in 1957 by John Crosby.  In fact, Capriccio received its US debut at Santa Fe in 1958, only 16 years after its world premiere in Munich in 1942.  Richard Strauss’ final opera is a celebration of art, specifically poetry and music, at a time when the world was riven with war and terror.  The basic premise for the opera is a debate between a poet and a composer about which of their artforms is supreme:  and specifically in the operatic context, are the words more important than the music, or vice versa?  The struggle is personified by the poet Olivier and the composer Flamand, each of whom is competing for the love of the opera’s central figure, the Countess Madeline.

image1 (6)

Santa Fe’s production, shared with Garsington Opera in England, is set at the time of the opera’s composition, in the mid-twentieth century.  Set designer Topbias Hoheisel has placed two modern rooms either side of a large Georgian central room, where the principal action takes place.  British Director Tim Albery keeps the action on an intimate level, with strong performances by the whole cast.  Amanda Majeski grew into the role of the Countess as the opera progressed.  Her final soliloquy, some of the opera’s best music, was beautifully sung.  In support, Ben Bliss as the composer Flamand, Joshua Hopkins as the poet Olivier, and David Govertsen as the theatre director La Roche, were a convincing ensemble, with a cameo appearance by the great American mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham, as Clairon, the actress. But the night went to the magnificent playing of the Sata Fe Opera Orchestra, led by Leo Hussain, a young British conductor who is rapidly making his name in the opera houses of Europe.  From the opening string sextet to the lush finale, Strauss’ opulent score was performed in glorious technicolor.

The HOT Take From The Santa Fe Opera Festival – Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet

Director Stephen Lawless sets his production of Romeo and Juliet “in the time of Gounod” rather than Shakespeare’s time.  The red shirts of the Montagues and the blue shirts of the Capulets were easy to distinguish!  Ashley Martin-Davis’ set is a forbidding mausoleum-like structure which foreshadows the story’s tragic end.

image1 (5)
This production of Romeo and Juliet included parts of the opera that are often omitted in performance.  The ballet sequences in Act, which were obligatory for the Paris Opera of the time, were reinstated here, as well as the Wedding Scene in Act 2, where Juliet is to marry Paris, but collapses from the poison she has consumed.

image2 (5)
Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez were perfectly matched in the title roles, effortlessly gliding through the challenges of the music.  Solomon Howard was an imposing Duke, and Raymond Aceto brought gravitas to the role of Friar Lawrence, although it was unclear why his cell had been transformed into a hospital ward.

Many of the smaller comprimario roles were taken by members of the Santa Fe Opera apprentices program.  Santa Fe’s young artist program is the oldest in the country and is celebrating its sixtieth year.  44 young singers are in residence throughout the season, singing in the chorus, filling the smaller roles and covering the principal roles.  During the first week in August, the members of the Apprentice perform a showcase, each singing an aria in quasi audition format. This year, representatives from 38 opera companies, as well as artist managers and other music presenting organizations, were present for the showcase.

The HOT Take From The Santa Fe Opera Festival – Vanessa

image2 (1)

Barber & Menotti

Samuel Barber’s Vanessa premiered at the Met Opera in 1958 after a long gestation period, with Barber’s partner, Giancarlo Menotti, writing the libretto.  (“I don’t know how severely Verdi harassed poor Boito, but I can assure you that Sam haunted me in my dreams until the very last words of the opera were written,” said Menotti.).   As you would expect from the composer of the famous Adagio and the popular Violin Concerto, the score is ravishingly beautiful, with evocative orchestral interludes, and soaring vocal lines. The story is based on one of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, and the opera has a surreal atmosphere throughout.  Vanessa has been waiting for twenty years for the return of her lover, Anatol.  While she waits, along with her mother, the Baroness, and her niece, Erika, she has all of the mirrors in the house covered up so that she will not see her aging face.  A stranger arrives, and he turns out to be Anatol’s son, also called Anatol, by the wife he met after he left Vanessa.  After a brief affair with Erika, Anatol starts to court Vanessa, and they decide to marry.  During the grand ball to announce the engagement, Erika runs away, and we learn that she was pregnant with Anatol’s baby. She loses the baby, and keeps it a secret from Vanessa and Anatol, who leave to live in Paris.  As the opera ends, Erika settles down to await their return, having covered up the mirrors again.

The cast in Santa Fe was extremely strong, with Erin Wall in the title role and Virginie Verrez as Erika.  Erika’s aria “Why must the winter come so soon” was particularly beautiful, as was the famous Act 3 quintet, “To leave, to break, to find, to keep”.  Also memorable was the offstage chorus “In morning light let us rejoice”.  The audience was delighted to hear the veteran Wagnerian baritone, James Morris, in the role of the Doctor.  Conductor Leonard Slatkin gave a masterful reading of the work, especially in the third act, beginning with a breathtaking orchestral interlude.

image1 (1)

Director James Robinson created a stunningly pristine backdrop to the work, with an ingenious set designed by Allen Moyer.

The HOT Take from the Santa Fe Opera Festival – Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West

The Girl of the Golden West is not the most successful of Puccini’s operas. The “big tunes” are few and far between, and one recurring theme was heavily plagiarized by Andrew Llyod Webber for his Phantom of the Opera. (Try getting that tune out of your head after you hear it!). Set in a mining town in California during the gold rush, the cast is predominantly male, which gives Puccini less opportunity for the beautiful melodies for which his other operas are so famous.

The Polka Saloon

The Polka Saloon

The Santa Fe production, directed by Richard Jones, with sets by Miriam Buether, takes place in small rooms – the Polka Saloon and Minnie’s cabin – leaving the action feeling a little cramped.  This has the effect of focusing the attention on the very human aspects of the drama, notably the budding relationship between Minnie and Dick.

image1 (4)

Minnie’s Cabin

Minnie’s obsessive love for Dick Johnson, aka the bandit Leader Ramirrez, was strongly portrayed by Patricia Racette.  Hers is a bold and confident Minnie, who is determined to get her man in the end.  As Dick Johnson, Gwyn Hughes Jones brought passionate lyricism to the role, especially his third act aria “Ch’ella mi creda” where he pleads to his would-be lynchers not to tell Minnie that he has died.  The large supporting cast of miners were led by Mark Delavan (Jack Rance), Raymond Aceto (Ashby) and Craig Verm (Sonora).  Emmanuel Villaume, Music Director of Dallas Opera, conducted at a flowing pace.

The HOT Take from the Santa Fe Opera Festival – Don Giovanni

HOT General Director Simon Crookall continues The HOT Take series from the Santa Fe Opera Festival where opera fans and company representatives from around the world have gathered for one of the most popular opera festivals today.

image3 (2)

Santa Fe Opera House is a beautiful venue, overlooking the Sierra, with a roof but no walls, even at the back of the stage.  The thunderstorm which accompanied Don Giovanni this week could not have been a better background to the action.  Lightening flashed across the sky throughout the performance, and a massive clap of thunder heralded the entrance of the Commendatore at the dramatic denouement.

image1 (3)

The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, consisted of one large amorphous structure that was reminiscent of the Anish Kapoor sculptures I saw in English National Opera’s Tristan and Isolde.  Here, the structure had the impression of a human head, reminding us of the constant presence of the Commendatore.  It was beautifully lit, especially as the flames of hell engulfed the Don at the end of the performance.

image2 (4)

Daniel Okulitch, who sang the title role for HOT in (2007) was a commanding Don – his sensual portrayal made it easy to see why no woman could resist him.  The cast was uniformly strong, with notable performances from Kyle Ketelson (Leporello), Leah Crocetto (Donna Anna) and Keri Alkema (Donna Elvira).  Crocetto managed to portray her character’s struggle between grief for her father and attraction to the mysterious stranger who tried to seduce her, and she easily rebuffed Don Ottavio’s feeble advances, played by Edgaras Montvidas.  Alkema’s confident singing made Elvira the stronger of the two women in this production, helplessly in love with Giovanni, but determined to “do the right thing”.

Veteran conductor, John Noble, led with distinction. It was good to see his friend and former student, HOT regular, Hal France, in the audience.

The HOT Take Abroad Pt. 4 – Buxton Festival

Buxton is a lovely Georgian spa town in the north of England, surrounded by the beautiful Derbyshire Peak District.   The Opera House is a beautiful 900 seat Victorian jewel box.  It was built in 1903 and designed by the renowned theatre architect Frank Matchem, who also designed the London Coliseum, home of English National Opera.

image1 (2)

Each summer the Buxton Festival presents a series of lesser known operas ranging from the baroque to contemporary.  We saw Beethoven’s Leonore – the first version of what would later be known as Fidelio; and Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi.  We also caught a beautiful concert of music by J S Bach, CPE Bach and Georg Philipp Telemann (Father, Son and Godfather) given by the English Concert at St John’s Church.

image3 (1)

Beethoven’s Leonora was the great composer’s first attempt at an opera score. The tale of the falsely imprisoned nobleman who was rescued by his daring wife, disguised as a young man, has suffered somewhat in the opera house for being perceived as too heavy and overblown.  This early version of the score is lighter and fresher, with an almost baroque sense of pacing and style. Director Stephen Medcalf set the work in Napoleonic times, and Stephen Barlow, the Artistic Director of the Festival (and also husband of Joanna Lumley!) conducted at a brisk pace. Kirstin Sharpin was powerful in the title role, and David Danholt was a full-throated Florestan.  The America Bass, Scott Wilde, was also impressive as Rocco, the Gaoler.  Buxton’s Young Artists Program supplies the chorus, and they sing superbly well. In a nice twist, as Leonore stripped off her male apparel at the end of the opera to reveal herself to Florestan, the female chorus members also changed from soldiers into lovely maidens!

I Capuleti e i Montecchi - Vincenzo Bellini - Buxton Festival - Saturday 9th July 2016Conductor - Justin DoyleDirector - Harry FehrDesigner - Yannis ThavorisLighting - Simon CorderTebaldo - Luis GomesRomeo - Stephanie MarshallGiulietta - Sarah-Ja

I Capuletti e i Montecchi is Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story.  But far from the romantic tragedy of Shakespeare and Gounod, this is a tale of war and conquest.  The plot twists are frequent, with the Capulets ultimately triumphing over the Montagues, but the tragic ending cannot be avoided.  Bellini sets Romeo as a mezzo-soprano, which gives ample opportunity for his signature Soprano/mezzo duets, known to many of us from the incredible recordings of Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne.  Here the young duo of Stephanie Marshall (Romeo) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Juliet) did great justice to Bellini’s florid coloratura, and the lovers’ sad demise was sung with touching beauty.  Tebaldo, here sung by the Portuguese tenor, Luis Gomez, is the rival for Juliet’s hand.  With only Juliet’s father, Capellio, and Lorenzo, the Friar Lawrence equivalent, to complete the cast, this action-packed drama deserves more regular exposure. Harry Fehr updated the setting to modern day warfare, with beret-wearing soldiers toting machine guns, brought the story to life.

The HOT Take Abroad Pt. 3 – Boris Godunov

The BBC Proms is one of the world’s biggest music festivals, with over 70 concerts in 2 months, most of which take place at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

Royal Albert Hall

On Saturday, Prom number 2 was a concert performance of Mussorgsky’s epic opera, Boris Godunov, by the Royal Opera House.  As with HOT’s recent concert performance, the chorus and orchestra were onstage throughout, with the soloists entering and exiting according to the score.  Since this production had already been performed fully staged at the Royal Opera House, the soloists were in costume.


Boris Godunov

The vast scale of the Royal Albert Hall was very much suited to Mussorgsky’s great dramatic work, with a full-voiced chorus of 80, and peals of bells in the upper gallery.  The title role was superbly sung by the renowned Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel, who managed to bring both majesty and pathos to the role. The rest of the cast was equally divided between Russian and British singers, with excellent singing all round, particularly from John Graham Hall (Prince Shuisky) and Andrii Goniukov (Varlaam).  The conductor was Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera since 2002, and one of the world’s finest opera conductors. I had the privilege of working with him several times in Scotland in the 1990’s. His mastery of the score kept the music flowing evenly, with huge climaxes as well as beautifully intimate moments, over the 2 hours and fifteen minutes of the piece, which was performed without intermission.

image2 (1)
The previous evening we had seen a delightful and lavish production of Jerome Kern’s Showboat at the New London Theatre, with an immensely talented cast, and bursting with great tunes!  Variety is the spice of life!

The HOT Take Abroad Pt. 2

Jonathan Dove’s In Damascus

Snape Maltings

Snape Maltings

It is wonderful to be in Aldeburgh, the home of Benjamin Britten, and the venue for his Aldeburgh Festival. We visited the Red House, where Britten and his partner Peter Pears lived, and the Snape Maltings, the concert hall where the Festival is based.  I sang there with King’s College Choir many years ago.

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove

Last night there was a concert featuring a new piece by Jonathan Dove, who was in Hawaii last year for HOT’s production of his opera Siren Song. Jonathan’s new work is a wonderfully evocative song cycle for string quartet and tenor, performed by Mark Padmore, who was my roommate at King’s.  He is now one of the leading English tenors in oratorio and recital repertoire, and his lyrical and authoritative performance was both impressive and deeply moving.  The poetry is by the Syrian writer, Ali Safar, in a translation by Anne-Marie McManus, and Jonathan displays his extraordinary ability to set words to music, unleashing the bleak despair and real human grief of the Syrian civil war, while holding out the promise of future hope.

Mark Padmore

Mark Padmore

“I don’t think any nations in existence will match Syrians in their expressions of sadness, their airing of grief.”

In the first half of the concert there was a world premiere performance of another new song cycle by the young English composer, Jordan Hunt, for Soprano and Piano Trio.  And the same forces also performed Shostakovich’s Seven Romances on Poems of Alexander Blok.  Soprano, Katherine Broderick, was ravishing in both works, especially Jordan Hunt’s emotional account of the death of his partner and subsequent isolation.

“Your shoulder to cry
Your anchor at sea
Your pinion to fly
Your atlas to be free.”

The HOT Take Abroad

HOT General Director Simon Crookall is providing The HOT Take while abroad in England.  Enjoy!

Tristan and Isolde, English National Opera, London
image1This was a stunning, new production, with designs by the Indian sculptor, Anish Kapoor, famous for his large-scale installations. The set was strikingly dramatic, featuring large abstract structures in the center of the stage, with fabulous lighting by Paul Anderson.  ENO performs everything in English, and the translation by Andrew Porter was clear and simple – the supertitles were almost superfluous. The principal roles are exceptionally demanding, and Stuart Skelton (Tristan) and Heidi Melton (Isolde) did sterling work, with the Act 2 duet a highlight. There was excellent support from Scottish Mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill as Brangane, and Craig Colclough as Kurwenal, and the orchestra was beautifully conducted by Edward Gardner, with fine pacing and structure, which is essential for this gargantuan work.


On Sunday we attended Evensong at Westminster Abbey and heard the choir’s final service of the year with music by Purcell, Parry and Howells – his evensong setting written for King’s College, Cambridge.  An exquisite and moving service to bid farewell to eight choristers who were singing for the last time.


All this and Andy Murray winning Wimbeldon!  Quite a weekend!!