American Opera, Voices Flavor Creative Mix On Stages Across Europe

The Nixons (Thomas Hampson and Renée Fleming) arrive in China in the Opéra-Bastille production of ‘Nixon in China.’ (Photo by Elena Bauer)

PERSPECTIVE — March’s new productions on the vast stage of Paris’ Opéra Bastille included one American opera and one pillar of 19th-century French repertoire. John Adams’ Nixon in China — now 35 years old, about events 51 years past — enjoyed a triumphant local premiere in Valentina Carrasco’s spectacular and probing production. The Argentine director and set designers Carles Berga and Peter van Praet ventured far from the thrice-familiar Peter Sellars staging first seen at Houston Grand Opera — a Chinese Opera stylization of “realistic” events that, perhaps wrongly, got Nixon styled “a CNN opera.”

Carrasco’s referentially multivalent staging was actually far more politically pointed, with video and live evocations of Vietnam contextualizing Nixon’s desperation and farsightedness in arranging the historic meeting. On March 29, Thomas Hampson’s beautifully articulated portrayal, in reasonably fluid current vocal form, encompassed this, well, tricky role with distinction. Initially, I flinched at the inclusion of part of Isaac Stern’s self-mythologizing documentary From Mao to Mozart after intermission, but it linked the beatings and book-burnings we saw carried out on a prison-barred floor below Mao’s iconic magnificent library to the Cultural Revolution, central to the legacy of Madame Mao (Kathleen Kim, still sensational in the role). Footage of Tiananmen Square further referenced her role in Chinese history; that event followed the death of Zhou Enlai, clearly librettist Alice Goodman’s hero here, along with Pat Nixon.

Chairman Mao (John Matthew Myers) and the “Maoettes” at Opéra-Bastille (Photo by Christophe Pele)

The young baritone Xiaomeng Zhang sang gorgeously as the Chinese premier, in admirable English. And as the shy but plucky First Lady that Goodman’s libretto presents, Renée Fleming found an ideal role for her “post-retirement” operatic career. Singing far more comprehensibly than in The Hours recently at the Metropolitan Opera, the soprano — long adored in Paris — sounded really lovely, particularly in Acts II and III, enjoying her wonderful interaction with the giant red dragon that, linked with an American eagle (as Air Force One), provided the production with its principal symbolic freight. The other such coup was Carrasco’s inspired foregrounding of ping pong, its rhythms ideally suited to Adams’ score. The third American star was tenor John Matthew Myers, handling Mao’s tessitura with seeming ease and limning a convincing portrayal both imposing and humorous. Gustavo Dudamel led the unstinting chorus and obviously rehearsed orchestra with dispatch.

Also thrilling but very different: the Opéra’s new staging of Ambroise Thomas‘ 1868 Hamlet. A score too long dismissed as trite and conventional (Hamlet sings a brindisi and, in the original version performed here, survives to become king), the piece has its strange aspects and orchestrational merits: The remarkable saxophone solo counts as both. Working with his usual set and costume designer, Małgorzata Szczęśniak, director Krzysztof Warlikowski crafted a complex, layered production set in a contemporary madhouse in which both Hamlet and Gertrude are confined. The narrative — involving some chronological shifts and far too many attention-grabbing extras — could grow diffuse, but the opera’s main scenes were rendered with incisive drama, and relationships were strongly defined. On March 30, the very capable young Pierre Dumoussaud led a veritable constellation of today’s leading francophone singers: bass Jean Teitgen (Claudius), trenchant rising Swiss mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Gertrude), tenor Julien Behr (Laërte), and above all the magnificent baritone Ludovic Tézier in the lead; Warlikowski got the most committed dramatic work from the vocally imposing but sometimes stolid Tézier that I’ve seen.

Ludovic Tézier (Hamlet) and Lisette Oropesa (Ophélie) in the Paris production of Thomas’ ‘Hamlet’

Louisiana’s Lisette Oropesa triumphed as Ophélie, acing a prima-donna role she brought to Washington Concert Opera in 2019. Oropesa is a lyric-coloratura with easy passagework, not a classic French tweety-bird; some of her highest forte notes hardened just a touch, but they were there and on pitch, and she dispatched the Mad Scene with amazing fluidity. Given Oropesa’s idiomatic phrasing and stage savvy, Ophélie emerged an engaging and moving creation. Wisconsin’s Brenda Rae sang the run’s final performances.

London’s English National Opera has endured fierce attacks by Tory Arts Councils. This important theater — with which the Metropolitan Opera often co-commissions productions and has a special commitment to opera in English — came out fighting with artistic director Annilese Miskimmon’s memorable staging of The Dead City (heard March 31.) She and her design team located Korngold’s as-late-as-possible Romantic score in the ethos of Vienna’s Secession movement as it morphed into German Expressionism. Not everything worked, but it was a serious, engaging effort, with strikingly good sets (Miriam Buether) and lighting (James Farncombe) that reinforced the vitality of both this nonpareil work and this daring company.

The two leading singers, on whom most of the work’s melodic impact depends, both sang through serious and perceptible colds. Swiss tenor Rolf Romei, visibly suffering as performer and character alike, had some bad moments and drop-outs in duets but doggedly stayed all-in, offering a heartbreakingly detailed portrait of a morbid obsessive; he evoked Farley Granger, aptly for the plot’s Hitchcockian resonances. Allison Oakes — a 2018 Met Chrysothemis — lacked focus and tonal beauty in Act One (unfortunate for the iconic Lute Song duet) but afterwards showed some power and confidence, if not the requisite shining timbre. Oakes gave her all but did not capture the brilliantly charismatic star of a dance troupe.

In fine English, Norway’s Audun Iversen doubled Frank and Fritz, providing the evening’s healthiest vocalism. As the housekeeper Brigitta, Sarah Connolly acted wonderfully and — even if her mezzo retains little of its sonic appeal — phrased with distinction and point. Miskimmon made Marietta’s entourage of theatrical colleagues and suitors into a particularly louche, dissolute group of medical personnel attendant on Paul’s late wife, making for some striking transitions and stage pictures though rather stinting on the libretto’s meta-theatricality. Conductor Kirill Karabits obtained impressive, muscular playing and choral work but more sensuousness would have helped. For decades, ENO has employed many North Americans, from Lois McDonall and Johanna Meier to Frederick Ballentine and Anthony Roth Costanzo; the American artist here was translator Kelley Rourke, who handled the sometimes overheated text very well, though to have the educated, uptight Paul say “Bruges and me (sic) are one” seemed a mistake.

Elena Maximova (Carmen) and Michael Spyres (Don José) with the Philharmonie de Strasbourg and music director Aziz Shokhakimov (Photo by Nicolas Roses)

April 4 brought a concert Carmen by the excellent Philharmonie de Strasbourg at the city’s modern Palais de la Musique et des Congrès. Originally this event promised to continue a series in which three American artists — veteran conductor John Nelson, Joyce DiDonato, and Michael Spyres — have collaborated, producing notable Erato recordings of Les troyens and La damnation de Faust. When Nelson withdrew due to illness, DiDonato joined him, saying she wanted to debut the role only with him. Certainly under the impressive young Uzbek music director Aziz Shokhakimov, the Philharmonie and the chorus of the Opéra national du Rhin affirmed their high worth. It’s a pleasure to see Bizet’s ultra-familiar but extraordinary score played onstage, and to hear real French from the choristers, especially the children.

Most of the cast provided clear, expressive French, including Spyres, who has long shone in this regard. José, a tenor part created by future baritone Paul Lhérie, suited his resources and unique registration very well indeed. Spyres drew a thoughtful portrait in typically layered dynamic levels, with the duet with Elsa Dreisig’s wan but stylish Micaëla and the “Flower Song” as highlights. With a basically pleasant mezzo-soprano that took on more edge at forte as the evening progressed, Elena Maximova is a practiced, professional Carmen — to a fault, a hands-on-hips, giggling, and hair-tossing Classic Comics kind of portrayal, an archetype rather than an individual. By Russian standards, her French is not bad, but nothing she sang or did illuminated the character in any novel way. Alexandre Duhamel showed the range and scope for Escamillo — a rare achievement. Thomas Dolié’s suave Moralès and Cyrille Dubois‘ dulcet Remendado represented luxury casting; but Nicolas Courjal (Zuniga) emerged tremulous. Shokhakimov seems a podium talent to watch.

At Baden-Baden’s 25th Easter Festival, rising American director Lydia Steier’s new production of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten proved visually imposing and visibly expensive, exemplifying contemporary Regietheater: a Konzept, a director-created silent character placed at the narrative’s center, countless doubled extras, and lavish homage to Walter Benjamin’s obsessions: mechanical reproduction and mass entertainment. Sometimes Steier’s interesting vision grew confused and confusing. But on April 5 the show triumphed musically due to Kirill Petrenko’s brilliant work with the Berlin Philharmonic, receiving warranted ovations.

Clay Hilley (Kaiser), Elza van den Heever (Kaiserin), and Wolfgang Koch (Barak) in Lydia Steier’s production of Strauss’ ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ in Baden-Baden (Photo by Martin Sigmund)

Hofmannsthal’s libretto drew on Viennese interest in dreams. Steier — alluding to current nightmarish strictures on reproductive freedom — made the work’s overriding dream that of a young bereft mother in an institutional setting evoking Ireland’s Magdalene homes. Unflaggingly enacted by Vivien Hartert, she stole focus constantly, as witness, child, and victim, gesticulating, writhing, and, during the opera’s long, notionally redemptive conclusion, digging furiously in piles of dirt.

Barak and his Wife inhabit a candy-pink baby factory, retailing dolls to affluent young couples. The nuns market real out-of-wedlock babies. Extras and doubles inhabit the stage, never allowing the hard-pressed Dyer couple the emotional duo colloquies the score and libretto depict. Though indisposed, Miina-Liisa Värelä acted the Wife with commitment, while Elena Pankratova sang the role with rich tone and emotional nuance while reading a score at stage left: a spectacular “save.”

Performing Frau without the cuts once routinely made by Karl Böhm, the leads grew fatigued — save for Elza van den Heever’s dazzling Kaiserin, singing throughout with gleaming tone and commendable accuracy. Dressed gorgeously like a ’30s film star (opposite Georgia-born Clay Hilley’s top-hatted, surprisingly light-on-his-feet Kaiser, not effortless but ultimately coping admirably), the soprano followed a cool, silvery approach. Steier’s “Fred and Ginger” stylization of the imperial couple slighted the Kaiserin’s growing sympathy for Barak (noble but vocally fading Wolfgang Koch). Withal, a thrilling night of Richard Strauss.

Christopher Ventris as Siegmund and Simone Schneider as Sieglinde in the Stuttgart Opera production of ‘Die Walküre’

Stuttgart Opera boasts a remarkable Wagnerian tradition (including directors, conductors and singers). Their current Ring not only lacks a single director for all four segments — not a novelty by any means in Germany — but also utilizes three separate production teams for the three acts of Die Walküre. What seemed in prospect a dubious experiment emerged very interesting indeed on April 6. The video-puppet collective Hotel Modern used real-time videography, usually something I loathe in opera, to render Act One a gripping account of inter-tribal rat violence in a post-apocalyptic aesthetic evoking Ukraine (ruined buildings, burned-out tanks) before “Winterstürme” morphed the projected videos into the Northern Lights and some initial greenery.

The three soloists, entering in but then doffing rat masks, perform their music full out to the audience, allowing one to blend a very 21st-century and old-fashioned “park and bark” experience. Urs Schönebaum used largely abstract elements — light, dry ice, and wooden pole set units moved by Valhalla’s dead heroes — to dialogue with the visual legacy of Adolph Appia and Wieland Wagner. Ulla von Brandenburg made the last act an art installation, a stylized mountainscape in bright colors evoking a set Martha Graham might have commissioned from Rockwell Kent. So the evening seemed like a historical tour of modes of Wagner staging over the last century.

The leads all performed honorably. In a once-common performance tradition (notably on this same stage by longtime Stuttgart ensemble member Grace Hoffman of Chicago 60 years ago), mezzo-soprano Okka von der Damerau tackled Brünnhilde, her three most exposed moments painfully flat but the rest — especially the Todesverkündigung — quite convincingly sung. If somewhat monochrome and occluded, Thomas J. Mayer put Wotan across with immense authority. Rising soprano Simone Schneider made an impressively free-voiced Sieglinde opposite veteran Siegmund Christopher Ventris, moving if sounding more like Loge nowadays.

Refulgent young bass David Steffens offered an exciting Hunding, but Annika Schlicht’s “1930s film-star” Fricka, scoring every point decisively, walked off with the evening. As in most cases, the Valkyries proved a mixed lot of practiced and rising singers. Gaining important experience among them was Opernstudio mezzo-soprano Shannon Keegan of Illinois — via College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, Rice, and Houston Grand Opera — a fully creditable Rossweisse. The standout was the Gerhilde, soprano Esther Dierkes. The Staatsorchester Stuttgart may not rival their Berlin or Vienna counterparts, but conductor Cornelius Meister obtained a propulsive through-line; both the string texture and individual orchestral details furnished much enjoyment. The orchestra earned loud applause.

Canadian tenor Charles Sy shone in Stuttgart Opera’s staged ‘St. John Passion.’

The following night in Stuttgart brought a very different masterwork: Bach’s Johannes-Passion staged with considerable visual signature, if rather impersonal dramatic force by theater director-designer Ulrich Rasche. In a ritualistic haze, the participants — in white, black, and beige — trudge continually around the ever-circulating stage oval. The inevitable cycle of human failing replaced — perhaps wisely, given this work’s text — any visual evocation of historical or religious imagery. Although conductor Diego Fasolis opened this new production, at this Good Friday performance, staff conductor Christopher Schumann led a measured, long-breathed reading, with strong work from the reeds in the solo portions. However, the slow pace — dictated by the coordination with the slowly turning stage, coupled with the spatial separation of the chorus into individuals rather than sections — made for fuzzy and ponderous realizations of the choral music.

Moritz Kallenberg — oddly directed to have his hands on his hips as consistently as Maximova’s Carmen — made a mesmerizing, beautifully articulated and ductile Evangelist, the sole animating figure onstage. Paweł Konik’s Jesus was rather inert vocally, and his diction undermined by a sibilant “s.” Starry bass-baritone Andreas Wolf sang Peter and Pilate with exceptional tone and artistry, really conveying the vacillating Roman governor’s terror. The committed cast had two Juilliard-trained, North American ensemble members, solid Ohio bass Andrew Bogard and Toronto-born Charles Sy, a fine lyric tenor, who dispatched the difficult “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” with grace.