Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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June 20, 2016

Our London opera going ended this time with performances of three works which spanned the nineteenth century, two of them seminal operas.  The first was a concert performance of Weber's Der Freischütz, (1821), the first German Romantic opera, enormously influential on German music, including Wagner, and beyond; next was Verdi's Nabucco (1841), his breakthrough hit, and the only one of his early operas which can be said to be in the standard repertory.  Finally, we saw a rare performance of Mascagni's 1898 Iris, a bleak tale of sex slavery in Japan with some wonderful music.

freischutz1Freischütz is one of those works that anyone studying the music of the Romantic era reads about, and it has one of the most familiar overtures in the opera repertory, but it is seldom done outside Germany.  I myself have seen it only once before, staged by New York City Opera decades ago.  Maybe the reason for its rare stagings is its unlikely story, a German folk tale, literally a ghost story, but with the recent very successful staging of an opera based on Stephen King's contemporary ghost-story novel "The Shining," one wonders why the story of a pact with the devil, magic bullets, and the "freeshooter" or Marksman would seem odd to us.

In the libretto, Max, the "Free-shooter" or Marksman of the title must win a shooting contest to win his beloved, Agathe.  He is discouraged after some bad luck and is tempted into a deal with a local devil named Samiel by another huntsman, Kaspar.  Kaspar has made his own pact with evil, and his time is up: if he can't tempt someone else, he will die and serve the devil.  Kaspar tempts Max with the promise of magic bullets, which will strike at whatever he aims; what Max doesn't know is that the seventh bullet is under the devil's control and will strike his Agathe no matter where he aims.  When it comes time for the contest, the bullet meant for Agathe is deflected with the help of a trusty holy hermit and strikes Kaspar instead.  Max is forgiven, given his previously unblemished past, and promised to Agathe after a year of probation.

This folktale-like story is bathed in the most beautiful folk-like music by Weber, most of it based on dance rhythms.  There is a wonderful hunting chorus, a bridesmaid chorus, various choral interludes and interjections, not to mention arias for the principals, and the wonderful Wolf's Glen scene, where at midnight, the evil magic bullets are forged.  Throughout Weber's music is atmospheric, depicting moonlit nights, foreboding dreams, good humored laughs around the campfire, and the eerie and sinister tones of the Wolf's Glen.  The folk elements, the atmosphere painting, the nature settings, and the clear cut story of good and evil, not to mention the peasant setting, make this a work of early Romanticism par excellence.  Weber uses solo instruments, horns, oboes and a cello to set the mood.  The melodies are memorable and hardly less affective (and effective) being folkish.

freischutz2The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Mark Elder chose this work for its thirtieth anniversary concert.  This orchestra, using instruments as they would have been in Weber's day (valveless horns and period clarinets, for instance), has a particular affinity for early nineteenth century music.  Weber's music sounds sharper and rougher, more rustic maybe, on these period instruments.  At first it sounds a bit odd, but soon the very rusticity, the less smooth sound, seems a perfect fit to the rustic nature of the story; the sharp sounds of the timpani (accompanied by a well placed wind machine and occasional "blasts" of thunder) sounded just right for this opera.  I loved it.

Weber certainly gives his singers wonderful music too, especially Agathe, who has two heart-stoppingly beautiful arias, "Leise, leise fromme weise," her ode to a moonlit night and her love, and her prayer in Act II. What wonderful music!  Rachel Willis-Sørenson sang Agathe for this performance; she was good, but not the pure Agathe of one's dreams (and this is an opera about dreams).  She is attended by Annchen, the pretty Sarah Tynan.  She sang their duet stylishly and her little aria which mocks the whole gothic fantasy world quite nicely.  (Freischütz was part of the gothic movement in late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century which spanned Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Edgar Allen Poe, and all manner of horror in between.) Annachen's aria is about a ghost which terrorizes a manor house, and which turns out to be...Max the hound dog.  The hero of the piece is Max, the "freeshooter,"; he is a lyric tenor, often sung by Wagnerian tenors, helden or non-helden.  He also has beautiful music, beginning with his Act I folk-like aria, "Durch die walder." Christopher Ventris, like Ms. Willis-Sørenson, was fine, if not outstanding.  Kaspar, the black-hearted villain, was sung by Simon Bailey.  I liked him, particularly in the Wolf's Glen scene when he cast those magic bullets with enough terror to strike fear into the strongest listener.

Which brings us to the production.  David Pountney, a well known stage director, "directed" this concert performance, and although there was no scenery, the singers were in costume (some more obviously than others), and there was staged action and interaction between the singers.  Agathe fell to the stage when Max's seventh shot rang out; Kaspar grimaced and groaned under the spell of Samiel, and in the end, when the magic bullet strikes him and not Agathe, he had to fall and lie in full view, dead, until the opera ended.  On the other hand, the orchestra was on stage and the huge London Philharmonia Choir was arrayed in choir stands behind the orchestra.

Most of all, Pountney produced a running monologue in English to replace the spoken dialogue of this typically German work which intersperses musical numbers with spoken dialogue.  It was a lot better than having to listen to stilted dialogue in German or, worse yet, in bad English.  The "tale" was told by John Tomlinson--Sir John Tomlinson, dressed as the holy hermit.  Tomlinson, whose sonorous, deep basso was unmistakable (as was his occasional wandering from pitch), also played the minor, but crucial, roles of the Hermit and Samiel, the 'Black Huntsman'.  The guy who was telling us the ghost story played the personifications of both Good and Evil! 

As another critic said it, this Freischütz hit the bull's eye.  It was a wonderful musical evening.  Meanwhile opera companies all over are offering the same old pap: Carmen in San Francesco, enlivened by brief nudity, oral sex and a Mercedes Benz.  Tosca in Central City, Bohème and Butterfly for the seventy millionth time in L.A.  Yuck.  Does a little nudity and a Mercedes Benz really make Carmen a new experience?  Why doesn't some enterprising company take on this wonderful score, and hit the bull's eye.

The very next night we went to see Verdi's Nabucco at Covent Garden.  This boring production by Daniele Abbado had started here a few years ago, and had circulated elsewhere before returning to CG for another round.  Covent Garden elected to simulcast it too, to thousands in various places around Britain and to stream it on You Tube.  We saw the set up in Trafalgar Square on the way to the opera house and our $50 seats way up in the Gods.  Musically, it was a fine performance in a dull production, and it can still be streamed on You Tube.

Nabucco (short for Nebucanezzar), you remember, is Verdi's biblical opera about the Babylonian (or Assyrian--it's a little unclear in the libretto) king who conquers the Hebrews and destroys their temple, only to be brought down to earth by God, who strikes him with a thunderbolt, producing  madness.  The madness goes away when Nabucco converts to Judaism, basically.  That's the "historical" plot, sort of; the operatic plot is about Nabucco's two daughters--the power-hungry Abigaille, who is not really his daughter, and his real daughter Fenena, who falls for the Hebrew Ismaele and converts to Judaism.  Ok: it all ends happily, sort of, when the evil Abigaille, who has temporarily seized the throne, loses it, dies, and Nabucco, now a convert to the Jewish God, becomes king again.  Aren't your sorry you wanted to know.  The young Verdi clothed this mash up of the Bible, Middle Eastern history  and standard operaese with a lot of wonderful music, much of it vigorous and brash, the kind of thing that took Italy (and later the whole world) by storm.  But there are lovely, contemplative moments too, especially the famous "Va, pensiero" chorus 'of the Hebrew slaves'.  Although there is a lot of great music in Nabucco, this chorus is probably the piece that has kept the opera on the edge of the standard repertory.  The Covent Garden chorus, be it said, was wonderful in this and other choral moments in this very choral opera, which often sounds like an oratorio.  In fact, it was in the tradition of operas presented during the Lenten season in Italy, which had to be on religious topics, and were oratorio-like.  The orchestra was great too, under Maurizio Benini, who came through with the required vigor and breadth of lyricism.


The reason that the place was sold out, however, not a seat to be head at whatever price, was Placido Domingo, singing the principal role with his tenorial baritone voice.  Like many septuagenarians, Domingo at this stage of his career is sometimes on, sometimes not so on.  But this was definitely a good night for him. His duet with Abagaille was moving, superb, the Domingo sound ringing out.  He even had one of the few fine moments in the visual production when he sang his great prayer "Dio di Giuda" lying on his stomach at the stage apron.  It was wonderful; he is at least 72, and he gives us all hope!  Sure, he couldn't quite invest the furious cabaletta which follows the prayer with the requisite vigor, and they cut the cabaletta repeat for him, but God bless him, he still has 'it'.  Certainly no other singer in my lifetime has had the longevity and continuing excellence of Mr. Domingo. 


Everyone may have come to hear Domingo, but they also got Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abagaille.  Her huge voice filled the big house as if it were some rock musician's vastly over amped sound system.  She masters a huge range too, and makes easy work of the coloratura.  It is a punishing role that has probably ruined more than one voice, but hers is a fabulous voice that makes it all seem like child's play.  Jamie Barton was good too as Fenena, Nabucco's "good" (and real) daughter, and the fine Leonardo Capalbo was rich casting indeed in the minor duties of Ismaele.  The high priest Zaccaria was sung well by John Relyea, who, curiously, had no applause for his arias and the prayer "Tu sul labbro."    In fact, everyone was infused with vocal fire, and it is too bad that the production was so...blah.  It was not offensive, in the Eurotrash way, but it was just not interesting.  The scenery and costumes (attributed to Alison Chitty) were gray and brown and dull.  The scenery looked like an art installation in a third rate museum of contemporary art.  There was the normal nod to the oppressed and to refugees and the costumes seemed to set us at the time of the Second World War, but it was impossible to tell the difference between the Babylonians and the Hebrews.  Nabucco wore a double breasted suit.  It was the singing that lit this Nabucco on fire, and of course, Verdi.  Curiously, the production boasted a semi-circular ring of fire, but not when Nabucco's forces destroy the temple or when God's thunderbolt strikes Nabucco, but when Abigaille starts her contemplative aria "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno."  Like most of it, it made little sense.  There were also black and white video projections at the back of the stage, but I couldn't see them for the most part; they were obviously aimed at the toffs in the high-priced seats, but up in the Gods, the sound was great, and the sound was the thing that made the evening worthwhile.

The very next night we went to see Mascagni's Iris in the tent in Holland Park.  For most opera lovers, Mascagni is a one-opera wonder who burnt himself out after the white heat of his verismo masterpiece Cavalleria Rusticana.  But Mascagni wrote 15 operas and an operetta, all quite different from the others.  Iris  was his stab at orientalism, so popular in the 1890's and at the turn of the twentieth century, along with mystico-symbolism based in French symbolism, but popularized in Italy by writers like Gabriele d'Annunzio. Iris is an odd mixture of truly gritty verismo--child sex slavery and prostitution in Japan along with pseudo-mysticism related to the sun's regenerative properties.  The opera opens and closes with the Hymn to the Sun, its most famous and best piece of music.  Japan is the Land of the Rising Sun.  Two of the characters are named Kyoto and Osaka, which are, of course, the names of Japanese cities.  Iris, herself, is symbolic--a flower crushed by the greed and lust of truly ugly men.  


The "story," such as it is, has the wealthy businessman Osaka lusting after Iris, a poor child who lives with her blind father.  Iris is innocent of all the world's evil and loves her father and her garden.  Osaka is aided by the pimp Kyoto in abducting Iris with the help of a little puppet show; they take her to the red light district, where Osaka tries to assail her virtue with presents and love making gestures.  She, however, is impervious to it all--she doesn't know what it means--and wants to return to her little home and garden.  Finally Osaka gives up, but the evil Kyoto decides to "display" her childlike body in a filmy dress to the lustful men.  When her father shows up and finds out what has happened to her, he thinks she has become a whore and curses her. For Iris, this is the final straw of her misery, and, in this production, she stabs herself.  Her body is thrown out in the gutter, where rag pickers find her before dawn.  In a final tableau, the three men in her life, all horrible to her--the pimp, the child sex addict and her own father--express their depravity to the audience over her dead body; then the sun starts to rise, and little Iris is regenerated like a flower rising from the muck.  As she stretches her arms towards the sun, the chorus thunders out the powerful Hymn to the Sun at double fortissimo, and the strange opera ends musically as it had begun.

It doesn't really work, but some of the music is so good that it gets an occasional revival (this was my third production of Iris).  Some of the music is pretty weak too, especially the treacly tunes that accompany Osaka's attempted seduction of Iris.  Mascagni also experiments with unusual harmonies and chromaticism, which are interesting, but his attempts to invest his music with orientalism are not as successful as Puccini's dabbling in the same camp.  It is to be noted that Iris comes a few years before Puccini's Madama Butterfly, and that Luigi Illica, the librettist of Iris was also a librettist for Butterfly.  Puccini had the good sense to eschew any attempt at symbolism and stick with a verismo story, and his characters are far more sympathetic or at least better developed than Mascagni's more symbolic characters.  There is not much chance for development when your characters are a child-symbol named for a flower which grows in mud and two evil men named after Japanese cities.  Still, the story of child sex slavery in Asia is one hundred years ahead of its time, Iris was undoubtedly an inspiration for Butterfly, and the Hymn to the Sun (and some of the other music) is very powerful, even overwhelming.  Iris is worth an occasional revival.


The Holland Park production by Olivia Fuchs was traditional, and about as realistic as a production can be that is forced to use a Tudor style building as a backdrop and the simple settings of a minimal outdoor stage. The singers were good, and especially the wonderful Anne Sophie Dupreis as the flower/child Iris.  She was tremendously moving as the child with her rag-doll assailed by evil men, and she sang well too.  Iris is not as difficult vocally as it is histrionically, and her movements were aided by a "movement director," Namiko Gahier-Ogawa.  Noah Stewart was the evil Osaka, and he improved as the evening went on from his most familiar aria, "Apri la tua finestra."  James Cleverton was the equally terrible Kyoto and Mikhail Svetlov sang the blind father, simply called "Il Cieco"--"The Blind Man."   Stuart Stratford conducted powerfully.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network


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