I’ve been fortunate to see some fabulous new (or equivalent) opera performances during the past few years, in addition to lots of great performances of work by Mozart or Richard Strauss. By equivalent, I mean they speak to the present or are in the present because they’re timeless. I’ll start with three.
Gluck, Orphée et Eurydice (1762-1774)
Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, November 1999. A reopening celebration, which we were unaware of until standing in front of TV cameras at intermission, after a major restoration project. The only tickets were something like 5th balcony. Everyone up there took turns in the front row, from which you could only see the far side of the stage. But it didn’t matter because it was a Robert Wilson and John Eliot Gardner production of transcendental simplicity and the sound was unbelievable. I just noticed on Amazon that this production is available on DVD.
汤显祖, 牡丹亭 (Tang Xianzu, Peony Pavilion, 1600)
Spoleto USA, Charleston, June 2005. After seeing a middle segment (one three-hour segment of six segments) of Chen Shizheng’s production with Qian Yi as Du Linian, at Lincoln Center in July 1999, the next chance to see the whole thing was at Charleston in 2005, still the same production, which in the meantime had played Milan, Copenhagen, Paris, etc.. After the final evening I was lucky to spot Qian Yi at a pub and be able pay homage to her performance and singing, perhaps the equivalent of if Dawn Upshaw sang most of the female parts in The Ring Cycle. One of the more amusing episodes in the opera is where acrobatics by a group of bandits (the bandit’s wife making a few asides to the audience) frightened a small flock of ducks out of the pond, over which the stage platforms were mounted, and into the audience, calling for the services of the “Duck Wrangler” (a titled task in the production).
Osvaldo Golijov, Ainadamar (2005)
Santa Fe Opera, 2005
There needs to be at least one contemporary opera in a list of contemporary opera, so I’ll start with Golijov’s Ainadamar (fountain of tears), a three-part vision and interpretation of the poet Lorca, who was executed early in the Spanish Civil War. Dawn Upshaw and Kelly O’Connor were the lead voices and fabulous. One of the thrills of this opera was Kelly O’Connor in the “pants role” singing the part of Lorca. Another was Golijov’s (or librettist David Henry Hwang’s) idea of wrapping together three historical layers – an as-I-lay-dying reminiscence by Lorca’s favorite actress and muse (Xirgu – Dawn Upshaw), Lorca in the 30’s, and the fictional context of Lorca’s drama in which Xirgu played, Blood Wedding. The music was wonderfully Spanish-North African influenced. The only flaw was that the opera was short. There is a review by Philip Kennicott with photos in the Washington Post for 2005-8-15.