Image: Lemon

A sleepwalk towards disaster at the Garden, Rodney Milnes, The Times, 18 March 2002
Bring your own gag, Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times, 19 April 2002
Juan 'Rigoletto' Pons, 'Manon Lescaut', Mundoclasico, 11 April 2002
L.A. Opera's "Passion" a mixed blessing,Variety, 17 January 2003
A sleepwalk towards disaster at the Garden
Rodney Milnes, The Times, 18 March 2002

Opera: Sonnambula, Royal Opera House

Marco Arturo Marelli's new staging of Sonnambula, a co-production with
the Vienna State Opera, grievously offends against Milnes's First Law of
Opera Production, which is roughly that you can do more or less anything
to an existing work except hold it up to ridicule.

What took the Covent Garden stage on Saturday was one long, knowing
snigger at the expense of Bellini's innocent little opera of 1831, and
as such profoundly offensive. Even worse was the enthusiasm with which
the new "sophisticated" Royal Opera audience joined in the fun,
carolling with laughter at the camp cleverness of it all, most
disruptively at the sombre opening of the second act. Innocence and
naivety are plainly no longer viable commodities: the vandals are out
from under the bed and romping round the whole first floor of our
operatic edifice.

The opera is set not in a Swiss village but in a luxurious
mid-20th-century hotel-sanatorium (designer: Dagmar Niefind-Marelli).
Elvino is a composer, whether guest or patient is unclear. Amina is a
waitress, Lisa the proprietor doubling as cocktail hostess. The whole
caboodle is justified in Marelli's interminable programme note, a load
of O-level garbage that should fill Pseuds' Corner for months to come.
His earth-shaking aperçus include noticing that "Amina" is an anagram of
"anima" - how smart of Bellini and Felice Romani to have twigged this a
century before Jung. Marelli might as well have noted that if you insert
a capital "V" in the hero's name you have the name of a popular Fleet
Street wine bar, and taken it from there.

The hotel staff camping about fatally recall Jonathan Miller's staging
of The Mikado at the Coliseum - did this occur to no one in the Royal
Opera management when they passed Marelli's "concept"? - but then Miller
was dealing with a satirical comedy, which is one thing Sonnambula is

There were such gags as persons on stage signalling to Maurizio Benini
in the pit when to start a number, and the climax of smart-assed
alienation came when Amina emerged through the house curtains to sing
her final cabaletta in a scarlet frock loaded with stage jewellery, as
if to launch into Bernstein's Glitter and be gay. Marelli's overall
message seems to be: "Sonnambula is a pretty silly opera, and aren't I
clever to have made it seem such fun?" A question inviting the answer

I note grimly in passing that any lines that didn't fit the production
were left unprojected on the title board. Some were blandly changed
(stockings do not feature prominently in Romani). This is something
approaching forgery.

In the context of all this, the fact that the musical performance was
pretty decent fades into near-insignificance. Benini showed a good feel
for Bellini's long-breathed melodies, melodies that even Wagner admired.

The most stylish singer on stage was Alastair Miles as Count Rodolfo,
very bel canto indeed. Juan Diego Flórez certainly has the high notes
for Elvino, and when not under pressure sings them prettily enough.
Elena Kelessidi has just the right vulnerability and appeal for Amina,
and sang nicely, but we're not talking Sutherland or Caballé here. She
has no trill for a start. Inge Dam-Jensen throws off Lisa's coloratura
with aplomb.

Poor singers to be involved in one of the blackest days in the Royal
Opera's annals.

Music New York: Bring your own gag
Martin Bernheimer, The Financial Times, 19 April 2002

The production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia that keeps on plodding at the
Metropolitan Opera wasn't great when it was new 19 years ago. In the bad
old days, however, Rossini's opera at least enjoyed the benefit of a
unified theatrical perspective and, under Andrew Davis's baton, a sense
of ensemble discipline.

The current revival suggests a vulgar free-for-all in which the players
bring along their own gags. The singers pay little attention to each
other and less to the pit - which sometimes seems almost understandable
given Yves Abel's wayward tempos and flabby rhythms. Moreover, the cast
doesn't seem to have got - or accepted - much beyond basic traffic
signals from Zoe Pappas, the assistant currently holding the director's

On Monday the central attractions were Juan Diego Florez, decidedly
unaristocratic as Count Almaviva, and Vesselina Kasarova, rather brash
and brazen as Rosina. Florez, the international tenorino du jour, sang
his ornate lines with staggering ease and finesse, nasal twang
notwithstanding, and even revived the treacherous rondo finale recycled
for Cenerentola. He also minced and pranced the hero's charades with
abandon unworthy of Harpo Marx. Making her twice-deferred Met debut,
Kasarova revealed a dark, mushy and uneven mezzo-soprano, splendid
staccati and a tough-cookie persona that compromised the wonted innocent

Replacing the injured Simon Keenlyside, Earle Patriarco offered a
pleasing if pallid Figaro. John Relyea sang darkly, fiddled oddly and
vamped grotesquely as Basilio. Paul Plishka, the ever-gutsy Bartolo,
showed lonely respect for the line that separates character from

Juan 'Rigoletto' Pons
Manon Lescaut, Mundoclasico, 11 April 2002

Nueva York, 29 de marzo de 2002. The Metropolitan Opera House. G. Verdi,
Rigoletto. Otto Schenk, Dirección Escénica. Zack Brown, Escenografía y
Vestuario. Ruth Ann Swenson (Gilda), Juan Pons, Marcelo Álvarez (Duque
de Mantua), Denyce Graves (Maddalena), Robert Lloyd (Sparafucile).
Orquesta y coros del Metropolitan Opera House. Dirección Musical: Marco
Guidarini. Ocupación: 100 %

Escuchar de nuevo el 'Rigoletto' de Juan Pons es siempre un placer, que
se acrecienta si el barítono español se acompaña por la gran estrella
tenoril de la actualidad -una vez que Alagna se obstina en perjudicar su
carrera-: Marcelo Álvarez.

Hace pocos días, se podía leer en una revista española que Marcelo
Álvarez es un segundón que apenas sabe cantar, en referencia a su disco
de arias francesas. ¿A qué se refieren cuando hablamos del mejor
'Hoffmann', 'Des Grieux', 'Werther' y 'Romeo' de la actualidad? Pues
como 'Duque de Mantua', más de lo mismo. Timbre limpio, claro, brillante
y homogéneo. Frasea con gusto exquisito, a veces es un poco amanerado,
pero cantó toda su parte con escrupuloso buen gusto.

A Ruth Ann Swenson le falta un hervor para casi todo lo que hace, pero
esta 'Gilda' fue de marca mayor. La Swenson sabe que no hay personaje,
así que se decidió por hacer lo que parecía, en plan exagerado, y
funcionó bien. Cantó su 'Caro nome' de muerte y clavó un agudo en el
'Bella figlia del amore' de esos que cortan la respiración cuando
ponemos el disco.

Ahora toca el turno a Juan Pons. Quizás 'Rigoletto' es su mejor papel,
lo que es muchísimo decir en un barítono que lo canta todo bien. Es
adorado por el público del Met, que le aplaudió en cuanto puso un pie en
el escenario, antes ya de empezar a cantar. Al final, el teatro parecía
venirse abajo. Escribo con la piel de gallina al recordar su
'Cortiggiani'. ¡Qué odio! ¡Qué fuerza! ¡Qué personaje más estúpido! Pons
lo sabe y pone toda la carne en el asador.

Otra cosa, bien distinta, fue el foso. ¿Recuerdan La Traviata de
Sevilla? Allí no importaba que Domingo no se enterase de nada porque
estaba Arteta en el escenario y porque la escenografía era de doña Marta
Ornelas de Domingo -su esposa. Sin embargo, la función del 29 fue
dirigida por Marco Guidarini y aquí, con Otto Schenk al frente del
cotarro, daba pena escuchar a la orquesta del Met con semejante falta de
gusto. No es que no fuera musical, dado que musicalidad le sobra.
Faltaba todo lo demás: balance, dinámica, tempi y mil veces etcétera.

La escenografía de Schenk es por todos conocida. Realista, pero
coherente -en mayor medida que su apreciado Caballero de la Rosa
vienés-. El acto último, con la Swenson exhalando su última respiración
y con Pons llorando su suerte es de gran emotividad. Además, Schenk
responsabiliza de lo sucedido a quien en verdad es el responsable: Juan
'Rigoletto' Pons.

L.A. Opera's "Passion" a mixed blessing
Alan Rich, Variety, 17 January 2003

HOLLYWOOD (Variety) - The pitfalls of operatic scheduling have cast a heavy shadow over the L.A. Opera's 2002-03 season.

First came October's double whammy: Prokofiev's "War and Peace" cancelled and replaced by Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth," with scenery then held hostage by the dock strike. January brought the cancellation of Monteverdi's "Coronation of Poppea," the substitution of a topsy-turvy bill of shorter Monteverdi plus single acts from the romantic repertory, one supertenor's cancellation due to illness and the substitute tenor's late arrival after a visa cliffhanger.

The good news, however, is that the company, which had managed to survive brilliantly with the Shostakovich, comes off well this side of abject with its current mishmash.

For the "Poppea," the visionary Italian composer Luciano Berio, whose new completion of Puccini's "Turandot" had earned cheers and raised hackles here last June, had been at work on a new edition, fleshing out Monteverdi's 360-year-old somewhat sketchy orchestration. Illness prevented Berio from completing the project. In its place the company hit upon a more modest Monteverdi musical drama, also in a Berio performing edition: the brief but vivid retelling of the legendary swordplay between the warrior Tancred and a masked combatant, who at the moment of death turns out to be Tancred's beloved Clorinda.

Modest it may be, but the work from the infant years of the newfangled entertainment that came to be known as opera is one of astounding passion, wonderful harmonic twists and, underlined in Berio's edition, captivating sound effects including the clash of swords and the clatter of horses' hooves. The ensemble was small: five strings and a harpsichord under Kent Nagano's leadership, and three vocalists including the fast-rising Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, winner of Placido Domingo's "Operalia" competition held at UCLA in 2000.

From this opening highpoint, alas, the program slid rapidly downhill. Domingo had been slated for his signature Los Angeles role, that of Verdi's Otello, which had launched the company 16 years ago, and in two acts of Massenet's goo-mired "Werther." But the death scene in "Werther" projected no more "poetry and passion" (for so the program was titled overall) in 20 minutes than both Verdi and Monteverdi had accomplished in one. Vera Calabria devised enough rudimentary stage movement to sidestep the deadly "concert-opera" identification; Lisa Hashimoto pulled some sticks of furniture together to hint vaguely at stage design.

A bronchial bug, however, obliged Domingo to forswear the "Otello" stage and settle instead for the podium. A hasty call went out for a substitute; it was answered from Paris by Roberto Alagna, an old hand with Massenet's droopy protagonist but a raw recruit as Otello. This would be his Los Angeles debut. Some by-now-familiar INS biz slowed the visa process; Alagna arrived in L.A. on Thursday for a Saturday curtain.

Garlanded with some high-powered press releases as "the Fourth Tenor" -- as if anyone were still counting -- if a decidedly mixed press, Alagna delivered a properly lachrymose Werther (greatly abetted by veteran mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade as his lady love Charlotte), and a squally, punk, woefully misconsidered Otello. Kent Nagano conducted the "Werther"; Domingo led the "Otello." What might have gone through Domingo's mind observing the demolition of the stage role he has owned in Los Angeles since 1986 could serve as grist for somebody-or-other's very sad novel.


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