Sunday, August 23, 2015

The retro moderns

Written on Skin - Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/15/2015
Purves, Hannigan, Mead / Gilbert

There was a lot of hype in Mostly Mozart's marketing of this US (staged) premiere. Not a shock, of course, but the degree to which George Benjamin's music and Katie Mitchell's staging lived up to this hype was both surprising and gratifying. Martin Crimp's libretto was the sticking point, though not a fatal one.

The strength of Crimp's contribution is its dual-time setting: as Benjamin's interview in the program notes suggests, this framing/distancing element releases the characters and action from the (relatively) recent obligation of versimilitude into the "spontaneity and dramatic immediacy" of story. The individuals who act are vaguely medieval (the sense of chronological/social distance is strong, the specifics - despite the illumination motif - not nearly so), while the observing "Angels" comment in the favored cant of today - pessimistic, feminist, against shame, obsessed with past infamies... This all-too-recognizable perspective risks turning the show into a smug sermon (gaining, in all likelihood, more praise now in exchange for quick oblivion later), but that outcome is deflected by a couple of additional factors. First, Mitchell's direction and Vicki Mortimer's set&costume design render the "Angels" with their own distancing specificity, as workers in a sterile office that rather amusingly recalls the Maloja Snake revival set from Clouds of Sils Maria (which I do realize the opera's Aix premiere - in this same production - pre-dates). Second, Crimp's authorial voice does come out pretty strongly, but it's not in the anachronism/ahistoricity of the frame nor the victimary resentment of the commentary, both of which seem like surface adaptation to suit more recent trends (which I'd call early and late postmodern respectively) in taste. What actually tells is the libretto's dead-serious engagement with classic modernist concerns: compulsion (particularly sexual), the artist's perogatives and his formalist foregrounding of ugly and/or awful material, etc., all of which make the 1900s more significant to this piece than the 1200s. Crimp is essentially faithful to this retro-modernism, avoiding the fate of the last modern/postmodern boundary opera I saw Alan Gilbert conduct in the city, which undermined itself with its self-refuting aesthetic mashup. This particular whole suggests nothing so much as a partially re-dressed Wozzeck - a bit antiquated now but a functional enough skeleton for musical drama.

The wonder, of course, is that Benjamin - a composition student of Messiaen - actually wrote a score that can stand comparison to Berg's masterpiece. One hearing (I haven't yet acquired the recording) can hardly unravel the specifics, but what most struck me was where Benjamin doesn't fail: the score lacks neither textural (common) nor rhythmic variety (depressingly uncommon); the vocal lines suit humans, "avoid[ing] the 'zigzagging' cliche of much contemporary vocal writing" (Benjamin's own words); and the scenes and interludes each have their own, strongly marked character. Benjamin finds interest where the libretto suggests cliche (the Protector, who could be dully one-dimensional, becomes the most interesting figure in the first parts because he alone, until Agnes's climactic declarations near the end, offers the confident pleasure of forward-moving rhythmic accompaniments) and adds unexpected bits of invention throughout while building the climaxes and turns the story demands.

Cast, orchestra, and conductor were excellent. I wouldn't hail Written on Skin as the great opera of today when it's so clearly in the aesthetic of a century ago... (Even the postmodernism with which its text flirts is long played out by now.) But it is a stunning piece of music, and a mixed but basically successful piece of theater.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Daphne - Cleveland Orchestra, 7/15/2015
Hangler, Schager, Ernst, Maultsby, Anger / Welser-Möst

Remember the city's last notable concert presentation of Strauss, wherein Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic brought not only a triumphant account of Salome, but revelatory new soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in the title role? Well, this show wasn't really like that. An excellent night at the opera? Yes. Instant stardom? Not for the soprano, anyway...

Regine Hangler isn't, mind you, bad: in fact she has just about the right voice for Daphne, a sort of oversized clearish lyric instrument that recalled the great middle-European Strauss singers of old. But if timbre and scale are near-ideal, the rest isn't so great. Perhaps recalling the not-so-good side of the old days, Hangler's pitch on high notes started off dicey, firmed up in the middle, and unfortunately started to wander again near the end. Bearable, but her lack of musical/theatrical presence made things drag. Obviously Joseph Gregor didn't give Daphne the libretto support Hofmannsthal or Clemens Krauss would elsewhere provide, but Strauss's heroines still have to be the most interesting figures on stage, whether by voice or person or (ideally) both. Hangler made a decent tree, but not a very inspiring feminine ideal.

Norbert Ernst (Leukippos) was similar - decent enough, but not particularly interesting. He did set up a very amusing contrast with the other tenor Andreas Schager (Apollo), however. Ernst, as the shepherd stuck in Daphne's friend zone, is sort of short and not physically preposessing... while Schager, tall and striking, actually looks the part of Apollo. Nevertheless it was Schager's voice - specifically the thrillingly firm, youthful-dramatic tone of its middle - and not his appearance that was the highlight of the show. (I see he's already done Tristan and the Twilight Siegfried, which seem way premature. Let's hope he gives us the Strauss and lighter-Wagner parts for a while.)

*     *     *

It turns out that a Daphne where the most compelling of the three leads is Apollo works pretty well, as the setup complements the dramatic arc. Apollo's arrival in the story galvanizes the action as Schager's arrival on stage galvanized the performance, and when he leaves, the tension of the piece relaxes into tranquil transfiguration. Welser-Möst did well shaping the overall arc of the piece, and with the skilful help of the visiting Cleveland Orchestra, the local Concert Chorale of New York, and lively supporting singers who outshone two out of three principals (mezzo Nancy Maultsby as Gaea and bass Ain Anger as Peneios were particularly notable) brought out the glorious colors and moods of Strauss's pastoral.

*     *     *

One can see both the sonic and story lineage in this piece go backward and forward in Strauss's ouvre... As far as the latter goes, compare the woman/god/man triangles in Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), where the man has departed beforehand and the god entirely wins Ariadne to death-become-life; in this piece (1937), where man and god directly compete though both are rebuffed, leading to the man's death, the woman's transformation (in neither death nor life), and the god's renunciation; and in Die Liebe der Danae (1940), where man and god collaborate but the woman chooses the man, prompting the god's renunciation and the mortals' happiness in poverty.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Off topic: the sleeping prince's awakening

It's been five years since I wrote more than a line here about this publication's official off-topic topic: ABT's Veronika Part.

In that time, all too many of Part's lead performances have been dragged down by the use of New York native and recentish (2011) principal Cory Stearns as her primary ABT partner. As absent as she was present, as callow as she was wholly formed, Stearns -- whose actual steps and jumps, to be fair, have certainly gained focus -- left the balletic tragedienne little-or-nothing to work with. Most of her successes have been in her irregular pairings with Gomes, Bolle, et al.

So it was one of the biggest shocks to find that the man who, in last night's Swan Lake, catalyzed as thorough and profound an expressive triumph as Part has ever had was, in fact, this same Cory Stearns. Or maybe not the same: the man on stage certainly shared a name and body with his predecessor, but he has what that predecessor did not -- a self, a presence, a being on stage fit for the tragic story and its heroine. And it showed even before he began to dance: his bearing even in mime (and now I wonder -- was it his work with Ratmansky in the Russian's new/old Sleeping Beauty that awoke this spirit?) is now simply his own, free from the self-doubt and puppyish wanting-to-please that made him an impossible partner for Part. His Prince Siegfried is still (as he should be) in over his head, but he acts decisively on his own desires, as a man -- even one just come of age -- should.

And with this Siegfried Part's Odette shared her awful secret with a depth and fluidity of expression she has never (as far as I can recall) surpassed. As in a great opera performance, it was the extended spans of concentration that impressed most, as Part wove every gesture and every choreographed step of the couple's Act II and Act IV pas seamlessly into two grand spells of love and loss. In between, Part's Odile played Siegfried with the irresistible shamelessness and confidence she's shown at least since her 2009 promotion.

With the company's most sympathetic conductor -- Ormsby Wilkins -- in the pit, Tchaikovsky's music did its excellent part despite an oboist in a hurry. And if Marcelo Gomes weren't so good as a leading man, I'd want to see him as the villain every time. This season not only his non-swamp Rothbart here but his Carabosse (!) was a big success.

Part is now 37. It's good to know that the company now has a suitable non-guest partner for her, with whom she can give one of those performances that justify a company and art form's existence.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Verdi soprano

I wanted to wait until I finished a full review of the several Don Carlo performances I've seen in the past weeks, but that may take a while to get to. So, a quick word on Wednesday night's house debut of Lianna Haroutounian.

Simply put, she is a real Verdi soprano -- already the most exciting and appropriate in these middle-weight parts besides Sondra Radvanovsky (who has other mountains to climb next season). Haroutounian is not yet (and may never be) the tragedienne Barbara Frittoli is and was as Elisabetta, but from start to finish the scope and physical thrill of her voice was revelatory, if not quite heartbreaking. And I don't want to short-change her non-vocal abilities: she was actually quite a good actress, and if her phrasing to start was a bit disconnected and cautious, she warmed up over the course of the night to one of the most electric accounts of "Tu che la vanita" I've heard live. (The high notes she unleashed throughout this last act didn't hurt.)

Now there have been other sopranos who've had big success here in non-Traviata Verdi (not least Amber Wagner), but most lack either the vocal weight/size (like Frittoli!) or flexibility or just the temperament (Angela Meade) to make for an ideal fit over multiple roles and runs. Haroutounian has all of the above, and perhaps the most essential thing besides: those free, spacious high notes that arc out in perfect sonic representation of the Verdi heroine's longing and sorrow. None besides Radvanovsky deliver in this way.

Oh yes -- as I overheard some attendees noting during intermissions, Haroutounian is also attractive. And with mostly Verdi booked (apart from a Tosca in SF), she seems to know what she's good at.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The suitors

I've been absent for a while, so let's go backwards.

Ernani - Metropolitan Opera, 3/20/2015
Meli, Meade, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine

The presence of superstar tenor turned embarrassingly amateur conductor turned hit-and-miss baritone Placido Domingo is no longer the most notable thing about a production. But perhaps he catalyzed what struck me so strongly on this night: the palpable attention, long familiar here but absent from shows I've seen this season, of the Met audience that recognized itself as such. The sounds and silences (and you can sense it best in the quiet) of a crowd sure in its tastes getting the excellent performance it craves and appreciates... that's something.

The excellence of the opera (and the straightforward & handsome production) was no surprise. But the drama enacted this time wasn't the same as in that memorable 2008 revival. There, all the singers shared the youthfully pessimistic spirit of this first Verdi/Piave collaboration. Here, the cast split perspectives. Angela Meade, whose fateful Met debut came while covering Sondra Radvanovsky in that run, doesn't actually do much with Elvira's tour-de-force opening solo. In fact, Meade seemed uncomfortable: not only with the vocal-technical hurdles -- though the coloratura was hardly clean and she had some noticeable dropped notes -- but even more with the range and unequivocal force of the emotional expression. But the rest of the night didn't put Elvira so front-and-center, and Meade did very well therein as an ensemble instrument for Levine. As such she doesn't (as Radvanovsky did) vocally rush forward with her suitors towards fate but provides the opposite sentiment: caution, (justified) fear of disaster, and the pain of one who values happiness. Meade is the bright, audible sound of normalcy that her suitors can't help but disrupt.

This time, it's the tenor who carries the main dark emotional charge of the piece. I wrote in the season preview that the revival's success would "largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part", and so it's proved: for not only did he survive the revival opener, his plangent sound and go-for-broke Italianate expressiveness ensured the show's success. Meli has been moving deliberately into these middle-weight Verdi roles from the lighter end, and on this evidence the voice and spirit are already perfect fits.

Dmitry Belosselskiy was an excellent firm low-voiced counterpoint to Meli, matching the tenor in fire and giving an even darker contrast to Meade. Sadly, the most famous of the ensemble offered the least: whether from lack of practice in the part or lack of breath control due to age, Domingo couldn't navigate or string together Carlo's phrases with any musicality. Nor does his timbre now sound particularly familiar or individual, whether one recalls his tenor or prior baritone incarnations. His fame did assist his assumption of his character's (initially hidden) fame and command, but that's about it.

James Levine conducted this and the final night of Hoffmann back-to-back with no sign of mental overwork. In fact, this month's shows have been the closest to classic Levine I've seen since his return. This Ernani is probably the show of the season so far, and though after Friday's dress I expect much from Don Carlo tonight... well, the more Verdi the better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Met Council Finals 2015

The program is above. Singers discussed below in order.

Deniz Uzun (mezzo, 26)
This German (by way of Indiana University) singer, like most of this year's lineup, showed a quite promisingly expressive timbre, solid from top to bottom (where she directed a number of her elaborations) with threads of quick vibrato. The performance, though, was a bit herky-jerky, both in body -- it seemed that most of the singers had decided to flap their limbs around on stage -- and, more worrisomely, in phrase. The Rossini just seemed uncoordinated, phrases going hither and thither, but the Carmen aria suggested something more deliberate and interesting... perhaps within her is a throwback to the dawn-of-recording exponents of wild phrasing. In either case, it didn't sit well with Luisi's cool and controlled accompaniment.

Jared Bybee (baritone, 28)
The outstanding singers of the past two Council Finals programs have been AVA students, so I was expecting much. But from the Californian's lean figure came a lean sound with little of note in the Count's aria besides a decent trill at the end. The Rossini was a much better listen -- perhaps it was nerves in his first selection?

Kathryn Henry (soprano, 22)
Like Uzun, the most appealing thing about Henry was her sound, which has a nice, again vibrato-borne timbre in its midrange. She was also rather more moderate in her presentation than the first two, and she can and did sing a lovely Puccini tune. But she's not fully developed (as one would expect at her age, though ten years ago an even younger Lisette Oropesa seemed already entirely herself), and the more various demands and moods of the Jewel Song seemed a bit much at this point: it was reasonably well sung, but not particularly coherent or glittering or thrillingly articulated.

Joseph Dennis (tenor, 30)
The Texan, apparently en route to joining the Vienna State Opera's ensemble, was one of the big crowd favorites... and no wonder, because his baby-spinto sound and strong high notes are pretty impressive even now. But he's not quite finished, with both too few colors (even adjusting for the different, more squillo-based presentation of a spinto sound vs. a more lyrical one) and too many (with stray colors creeping into some high notes, particularly in the Faust) for my unqualified liking.

Allegra De Vita (mezzo, 26)
I'm not quite sure what to say about De Vita: she didn't, I think, thrill in any particular way to demand the judges' prize, and yet nevertheless she may have been the most satisfying performer of the day. Her performances had a thorough coherence that the others mostly only touched.

Nicholas Brownlee (bass-baritone, 25)
Unlike the next finalist, Brownlee is not related to the current Met singer with the same last name. (Besides voice types, this one is tall and white, not short and black.) He was very much of everything -- expansive sound, bodily action to the point of hamminess, and a big presence on stage -- and in an undeniably effective way. One can't help but enjoy and pay attention to his singing, even while noting that he's overdoing it or that his Aleko aria, though presented in a big way, lacked the depth of feeling of, say, 2013 winner Brandon Cedel's. Brownlee seems to have a natural rapport with the audience that should serve him very well as his career moves along.

Marina Costa-Jackson (soprano, 27)
Younger sister to mezzo and Lindemann alum Ginger Costa-Jackson (and elder sister to a third singer, Miriam), this AVA student brought the house down with Lisa's last scene from the Queen of Spades. The broader elements of Costa-Jackson's performance were pretty astounding: a full-house-filling sound, dynamic range covering "really loud" as well as just "loud", a charged dramatic conception of the whole scene that's surprising in its intensity until one sees that she's just come off some Russian concerts with Hvorostovsky... The details weren't perfect -- in particular, the vibrato seems to get dangerously away from her on certain soft high notes -- and I'm not sure why she sang Mimi, but the ability to work on the emotional and sonic scale of this Tchaikovsky is near priceless.

Virginie Verrez (mezzo, 26)
I'd have been surprised if the mostly-Met judging panel had not selected a singer they'd already accepted into the Lindemann program as winner in the company's own competition... but in any event, she needed no special consideration. Verrez is a super find for the house: definitely a lyric mezzo, but one whose voice carries and expands in the big space as if it were the most natural place in the world. The basic sound reminded me a lot of Susan Graham's, and though Verrez's Sesto wasn't at the 1988 Council winner's exalted level, the degree of concentration the Juilliard student already shows in these weighty arias suggests she might (might) get there.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (baritone, 26)
The barrel-chested Atlantan (by way of HGO's studio) was another crowd favorite, singing with commendable intensity in both Ford's famous aria from Falstaff and the lesser-known one from the (Met-premiered) opera after O'Neill's play. But in contrast to that of Verrez, Smith's sound had substantially less impact in the house than one would expect given his size and timbre and evident vocal strength.

*     *     *

The judges -- again numerous, this time four from the Met, one from SFO, one from Santa Fe, and Francesca Zambello from everywhere -- picked Dennis, Brownlee, Costa-Jackson, Verrez, and Smith as winners. This was basically fair, though I'd probably have only picked the former four (and if pressed for five, might have given it to De Vita instead of Smith).

During deliberations, we got a Casta Diva (no cabaletta) from Angela Meade that quite outdid the ones from her actual Norma performances last season (and her solos from Ernani on Friday, which is nevertheless the show of the season so far). It helps not to have to conserve energy for further hours' singing, I suppose...

Fabio Luisi drew lovely sounds from the orchestra, but I've never seen a Council Finals conductor zig when the singer expected him to zag so many times in an afternoon: I think almost every contestant had that happen during the first set of arias.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Eva outside Paradise

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Metropolitan Opera, 12/02 & 12/09/2014
Morris/Volle, Dasch, Cargill, Botha, Appleby, Kränzle, König / Levine

This revival, which has three more shows after this afternoon's moviecast matinee, is simultaneously an unmissable representation of Wagner's masterwork and a relative disappointment that leaves out much significance. Which aspect is more evident will, of course, depend on your familiarity, expectations, and priorities.

The success is, I suppose, more remarkable. The Met managed - on rather shorter notice than usual - to find not one but two excellent Hans Sachses. James Morris has excelled in the part before, first in the landmark 2001 run (on DVD) and in two less starry revivals since... but the last of those was in 2007, and his last major Wagner part here was five years ago. Still, in his 45th season at the Met, not long before his 68th birthday, Morris remains a match for this titanic part. There's a bit more wear on his sound, but the scale and basic character remain (and, as ever, he's a new man in Wagner compared to his Italian outings). The acclaim for Sachs at the end could not be more apt.

Michael Volle, singing this afternoon, debuted this spring as Mandryka - a success, but on a smaller scale than required by Sachs. But the leap to Meistersinger brought no problems, as his voice and character remained strong and clearly delineated throughout. He's a more temperamental Sachs than Morris, less genial and more inclined to give David a thrashing, which is a nice counterpoint to Morris' wise man.

The other brutally hard part here is Walther, and Botha - in stronger form than I remember from his past attempts - makes it seem easy. There's not much to be done with his physique and uncompelling stage presence, but that should be and is secondary given the role.

So the hard roles are done well, but the one that should be (and historically has been) easiest to cast - requiring not much more than a lyric soprano with some life in her - lets the proceedings down. Annette Dasch made her Met debut five years ago and was frankly bad: her agent deserves a prize for getting her a return engagement in this big revival. Here she doesn't have noticeable pitch issues, but it's perhaps because her voice barely makes an impact against this cast and orchestration, lapsing into inaudibility for what should be her vital moments. Worse, Dasch is either complicit with or the main victim of the show's overdirection: revival director Paula Suozzi (assisted by Eric Einhorn and Stephen Pickover) has tuned the action heavily towards a certain kind of comedy, so that all but the two main men are flattened a bit by/into the tics of a certain type. This works for some things - the bit-part Masters have some amusing dynamics going on, with Zorn exasperated by Pogner's long-windedness and so forth - but for Eva it's annihilating. The Plautus/sitcom/wherever-you-want-to-source-it tics reduce Eva to a small, flailing teenager, and like Damrau's too-clever Gilda the change is psychologically insightful but artistically destructive. For Eva is not only a girl struggling with an intolerable arranged marriage prospect: she's also - within the literal plot - the muse for Walther's unexpected poetic outpouring and - within the symbolic story - the bearer of all value within society (as Walther is the bearer of value without, which Sachs successfully and improbably reconciles), Sophie and Marschallin in one.

This does not require the explosion of vitality and spirit that Karita Mattila (as ever) brought in 2001 (never more so than in the unfortunately untaped November 27 show), but it does require more than the small commonplace figure Dasch and her directors are giving us. With Evas like this there would never have been any Walthers.

One more note about the direction: two bits of the final scene are changed for the worse. First, instead of dropping the paper almost immediately, as Wagner's stage directions specify to get around the problem of Walther changing (for the better) his prize-song lyrics from their initial appearance in at the start of the act, the Masters pass it around as he's singing, apparently in discussion or disputation. This unnecessarily raises the issue Wagner deftly avoided in order to have more action going on (which the audience shouldn't be looking at anyway because all focus should be on the song). Second, Eva breaks immediately after the close of Walter's song to give him a huge smooch (before giving him the crown). This not only further flattens her into an uninteresting appetitive teenager, it undercuts the glorious quiet climax that Wagner actually wrote: entranced by the song's spell as much as all others present, Eva gives a simple, rapt echo of the crowd's acclaim that "no one can woo as well as you" while presenting the wreath, adding a delicious long trill that seems to encompass all joy (interestingly, this was apparently improvised during rehearsals by the original Eva). Act 3's first scene ends with a moment of pure joy and harmony in private - "Selig, wie die Sonne" - which this second scene has expanded to encompass the entire social universe. But we should learn from this one quiet line (not so well sung here, though Dasch at least attempts a sort of trill) that the original perfect moment of suspension has persisted... The kiss must be after.

*     *     *

That said, much of the show does not involve Eva. And the other parts are quite well handled: Hans-Peter König is near-ideal as Pogner (he doesn't have to be threatening in this part), Matthew Rose (impressive as Talbot two seasons back) a standout as the Night-Watchman, and Karen Cargill (who played Anna a bit too much like Lene) of particular note. Johannes Martin Kränzle, who debuted on December 2, seems to be an excellent character singer, and though I'd prefer a more humanizing Beckmesser a la Thomas Allen, Kränzle's sharply-drawn antagonist better suits the flattening tendency of this production. In fact all the men are good, particularly the entirely new (vs. previous revivals) lineup of Masters.

With Meistersinger, there are so many pieces and so many difficulties that an ideal run can hardly be expected. (The 2001 revival, so impressive on video, had in its live shows Ben Heppner fighting cracks in the third act each time.... the ones since then had Botha in lesser form and a merely passable Eva.) That Sachs, Walther, and the orchestra/ensemble are in good hands this time is much, particularly if you haven't seen the show in person yet - its ambition is sui generis within the genre. But for those to whom Meistersinger is familiar, this run probably plays better on radio.

Monday, October 06, 2014


Macbeth - Metropolitan Opera, 9/24/2014
Lucic, Netrebko, Calleja, Pape / Luisi

This was, despite what seems to be generally positive press, a dispiriting night at the Met. It hasn't been that long since Anna Netrebko was the wonder of the Mariinsky's 1998 tour, a bel canto soprano of limitless beauty and promise (as one can hear from Gergiev's Bethrothal in a Monastery and Ruslan & Lyudmila recordings), but that silver-voiced singer never really sang with this company -- at least not past her official debut in 2002's War and Peace. Netrebko returned in the late-Volpe/early-Gelb era a different woman, having found her stardom and characteristic manner in the 2005 original Salzburg run of Decker's (abominably bathetic) Traviata: now not only beautiful but glamorous, getting lead roles at last, and still performing bel canto... but with ever-more-coarse acting and singing that was at odds with this repertoire. This is the form in which most recent operagoers know her.

Now, after almost a decade of that Netrebko, the new rep and blonde wig of this show seems to announce her third incarnation, one where she's finally embraced what the previous one was becoming. And that is... well, Maria Guleghina, basically. With the visibly-accumulated years and pounds Netrebko's visual appeal is no longer significant; there's no false pretense of refinement whatever; and the ambitious force of sound and person that underlay these trappings is thus now foregrounded. So points for honesty! But Lady Macbeth isn't quite the ideal fit for her either.

No one quite fits the brutal Verdi part comfortably. In this case, what was Netrebko's outstanding strength when she was trying lyric roles -- force and volume -- is, in this more demanding part, insufficient: the first act finds her top uncomfortably pressed and wobbly. Like most of her predecessors, she fares better vocally in the latter acts, particularly in the soft end of the sleepwalking scene, but her need always to do something as an actress is unvarying and offers no contrast between the conscious ambition of the start/middle and the subconscious revelation of this end. Not intolerable, on the whole, but not really an improvement on, well, Guleghina.

The years have also brought change for Netrebko's male colleagues, who dominated the 2008 revival of this very show. Superstar bass Rene Pape is now 50 and his physique too looks finally to have been affected by middle-age bloat. The voice isn't quite dimmed, but neither was it, on this occasion, the revelation it was in that initial Banquo (or, in fact, in his 2013 Gurnemanz). Perhaps he was preoccupied by last weekend's solo recital. Tenor Joseph Calleja (Macduff), on the other hand, may be going through a vocal transition of the sort Netrebko has completed. The naturally fat, golden, effortlessly expansive tone with which he announced his arrival has become more standardized, less vibrato-driven, as has his formerly old-school swashbuckling with the bel canto phrase. Perhaps the latter more shows the difference between James Levine and Fabio Luisi, and perhaps Calleja too how has other concerns than a one-aria outing now that his world career is established, but I feel that as he enters the back half of his 30s (he turns 37 in January) we do not quite know what the mature Joseph Calleja will offer, whether he'll fulfil his promise as Netrebko has not. The spring run of Lucia, which four seasons ago showed him in masterful form, will tell much.

About Zeljko Lucic and Fabio Luisi there is rarely doubt. Both were very good, and the sometimes inappropriate not-quite-hardness of Lucic's onstage character more or less suits Macbeth. 2009 Met Council finalist Noah Baetge made a nice impression as Malcolm. That said, as the foolish booing of Adrian Noble at curtain call confirmed, this is a show for the low-information operagoer.

Monday, September 29, 2014

High life

Le Nozze di Figaro - Metropolitan Opera, 9/22/2014
Abdrazakov, Petersen, Majeski, Leonard, Mattei / Levine

After a less than memorable closing run two seasons ago for Jonathan Miller's production of Figaro (which served the house well long after the director banished himself in a snit about Bartoli's airing of alternate arias), the Met opened 2014-15 with another Englishman's production. Richard Eyre's attempt isn't much better or worse than his predecessor's. It will probably serve the house in much the same way through casts both better and worse than this one.

The physical production won't surprise anyone who's seen Eyre's other Met efforts: the rotating unit set recalls the first act of his Carmen, while the last act's tree/structure juxtaposition was already seen in his Werther. Probably there's too much repeating latticework as the set's top part, which suggests a bit too much the overly abstracted Spain of Hytner's Don Carlo. But it's decent enough. (And it sounds like the Lincoln Center renovation finally got around to de-squeaking the turntable.)

Eyre has, I suppose unsurprisingly, moved the figures forward to the first part of the last century, so that they're recognizably not from some legendary Spain or the French revolution, but from the familiar modern myths of Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park, etc. In itself this is no particular innovation, but it does allow for the show's one interesting juxtaposition: in one of the scenes in the staged overture, we see the well-pressed order of the morning servants' assembly interrupted as Barbarina rushes in after her tryst with the Count. Here for once we see not just the familiar social-emotional disorder of Mozart, Beaumarchais, and da Ponte's creation, but the fragile orderliness in which it was born. The desire enacted and reflected in the story disrupts the peace not only of each person and the pre-Revolutionary world as a whole, but also of the household, that intermediate-scale space in which most of life is lived... and it's nice to see a tableau showing that perspective before we delve into the familiar close intimacy of the opera itself.

The musical side, too, is more impressive in its ensemble bits. But that, I think, is less by design than the vagaries of casting. Neither Ildar Abdrakazov (previously impressive as Prince Igor, Don Giovanni, the Hoffmann villains, and Mephistopheles) nor Marlis Petersen (a notable Lulu and Ophelia) is particularly flattered by the particular demands of Figaro/Susanna, so that each was decent enough but a bit colorless. Isabel Leonard was better -- admirably precise and lively -- as Cherubino, but doesn't quite achieve the level of vocal (most recently, Joyce DiDonato) or physical (Kate Lindsey) characterization needed to steal the show in this part. The Bartolo and Marcellina -- John Del Carlo and Susanne Mentzer (who was the original Cherubino of the previous production) -- showed a shocking degree of age, sad to those of us who recall their many good Met evenings not too long past.

And so, as happens at times, it's not until the Count and Countess appear that the emotional temperature of the evening rises. Perhaps the Met, after that unforgettable Amfortas, finally realizes what it has in Peter Mattei? The Swedish baritone is unequivocally the star of not only the upcoming Don Giovanni revival (which, as I've said from his very first show here, he should get every single season) but of this new Figaro -- both vain and wounded, commanding and self-pitying, heartless, jealous, and loving... and sounding terrific throughout. His foil is debuting American soprano Amanda Majeski, moved to the first cast from the second after the cancellation of the frankly bizarre original-choice Countess, Marina Poplavskaya (yes, she and Mattei made an amazing conflagration together in Onegin, but...). Majeski's not as ideal a fit for Mozart as Mattei -- the voice and vibrato seem to demand a larger scale -- but she's never less than interesting, and is potentially a wondrous find for the house going forward. It's not quite as titanic, but Majeski's vibrato-borne sound recalls that of another Illinois soprano, who's now conquering San Francisco with her Norma: it's an instrument that should open out naturally in heavier parts, and the fact that Majeski has mastered it even to navigating the long delicate lines of Porgi amor bodes well for her future here. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she's the next American superstar... but forget that, I'd just like to hear her Eva this December.

Did I go through the entire review without mentioning James Levine? With any luck, Met audiences can go back to taking his natural, singer-friendly, eloquent pit work for granted.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The 2014-15 season, at its start

This is a revision of the original preview post from February. Changes are in bold and discussed [in brackets].

Figaro (new Richard Eyre production)
Abdrazakov, Majeski, Petersen, Leonard, Mattei / Levine (September-October)
Schrott, Willis-Sørensen, de Niese, Malfi, Kwiecien / de Waart (December)
Levine opens the season, as he should, with an excellent male cast and a somewhat odd but not impossible female cast for this new Figaro. As for the second bunch, I've knocked Erwin Schrott's Figaro in the past, and still have little hope for dramatic parts, but his excellence in comedy since then offers hope. Edo de Waart conducted some of the best Figaro performances that the last Met production had.
[A bit of shuffling makes for two promising Americans as the Countess: Amanda Majeski, a real find for the roster, sings this month while 2010 Met Council winner Rachel Willis-Sørensen makes her debut in the second run.]

La Boheme
Scherbachenko, Papatanasiu, Hymel, Kelsey, Lavrov, Soar, Maxwell / Frizza (September-early October)
Opolais, Papatanasiu/Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (November/early December)
Gheorghiu, Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (December 10/13)
Opolais, Yoncheva, Borras, Kwiecien, Arduini, Soar, Del Carlo / Frizza (January)
Wait... Gheorghiu is back!? (I still suspect her Mimi will be too much Musetta, but...)
[January's tenor, originally TBA, is now Jean-François Borras who apparently subbed for Kaufmann in Werther this spring.]

Lucic, Netrebko, Calleja, Pape / Luisi (September-October)
Wait... Netrebko is singing Lady Macbeth!? Nice cast the rest of the way around.

Rachvelishvili, Antonenko, Hartig, Cavalletti / Heras-Casado (September-early November)
Garanca, Alagna, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (February)
Garanca, Kaufmann, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (March)
Rachvelishvili has the beefy Aleksandrs Antonenko opposite her this time, while Garanca gets the tenor star power. Hei-Kyung Hong spells both primary Micaelas (Anita Hartig and 2012 Tucker winner Ailyn Pérez) for a performance each.

Magic Flute (not the kids' version)
Yende, Durlovski, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Pape / Fischer (October)
Persson, Lewek, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Kehrer / Fischer (October-November)
2013 emergency debutant Pretty Yende and 2009 definitive Sophie Miah Persson split this return of the Magic Flute into adult-show circulation. [Tobias Kehrer debuts as Sarastro in place of Franz-Josef Selig.]

Death of Klinghoffer (new Tom Morris production)
Martens, Panikkar, Szot, Opie, Allicock, Green / Robertson (October-November)
After selling child sex (in Robertson's last show in the pit), surely the scapegoating murder of an American Jew won't be a big deal for the Met.

Monastyrska, Borodina, Giordani, Lucic, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (October-November)
Wilson, Urmana, Giordani, Dobber, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (December-January)
Dyka, Urmana, Berti, Lucic, Kocán, Orlov / Domingo (April)
I mean, it's interesting to see that Urmana is singing Amneris now, but all of these casts are irritatingly flawed. 2006 Met Council winner Marjorie Owens is, incidentally, doing one performance (January 2) in place of 2000 winner Latonia Moore. [Well, now it's 2004 finalist Tamara Wilson doing those shows instead of Moore. This might be interesting -- I assume since she's neither famous nor skinny nor black that Wilson was hired because she can actually sing the part.]

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Westbroek, Jovanovich, Very, Kotscherga / Conlon (November)
Remember when Graham Vick shows were a thing? Actually, this should be an interesting revival.

Barber of Seville
Maltman, Leonard, Brownlee, Muraro, Burchuladze / Mariotti (November-December)
I'm not sure Christopher Maltman is much more of a natural Figaro than Peter Mattei was, but at least they aren't wasting Mattei. Leonard and Brownlee make for a very nice young lead couple though.

Morris, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December)
Volle, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December 9, 13)
[Perhaps the most important cast alteration was made without mention on the cast change page: in place of Johan Reuter (Barak in last season's FroSch revival), we get two shows of Michael Volle (Mandryka in the recent Arabella) and five with the man who should have been headlining in the first place... James Morris. At 67, unless Gelb brings back the old Valkyrie set for a much-deserved gala, this will surely be the great Wagnerian's last big run. A success as profound and definitive as his last Valkyries here in 2009 may be too much to expect, but the event is too much to miss even if Annette Dasch does unfortunately sing.]
On the one hand, Levine conducting Meistersinger is self-recommending. On the other, the one and only run of Annette Dasch at the Met showed her unfortunate inability to sing in tune. Somehow, even after her 2012 scheduled Donna Elviras were taken over late by Ellie Dehn, her agent has gotten her this prime return booking. What on earth? There are many, many excellent German lyric/jugendlich-dramatisch sopranos.
Perhaps as sad is the lack of the old star power that carried these shows. Not just Mattila (who opened this production) or James Morris (but seriously, where's James Morris?) but the greatest David I've heard live or on record -- Matthew Polenzani -- is missing this time.

La Traviata
Rebeka, Costello, Tézier / Armiliato (December)
Rebeka, Demuro, Tézier / Armiliato (December-January)
Poplavskaya, Demuro, Tézier / Armiliato (January)
As hard as the Met might try to top it, this is still its worst, most bathetic production. Don't see the show until there's a new one.
[Looks like Poplavskaya took a few of these shows to make up for dropping out of Figaro.]

Hansel and Gretel (childrens' version in English)
Kurzak, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (December-January)
Stober, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (January)
I still have never gotten around to seeing this. Sorry.
[Christine Schäfer is out, replaced by Aleksandra Kurzak, Heidi Stober, and (for the 1/8 performance) Andriana Chuchman.]

The Merry Widow (new Susan Stroman production)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / Davis (New Year's Eve through January)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / Nadler (January)
Graham, de Niese, Gilfry, Costello, Opie / Luisi (April)
Yup, that's Broadway's Kelli O'Hara making her Met debut as Valencienne for the winter run of this operetta. Given that importing Paulo Szot from Broadway has worked a lot better for Gelb than importing directors and librettists therefrom, I suppose I should be worrying about Stroman's ability to adapt Julian Crouch's wild visual ideas. Her staging couldn't possibly be worse than the last Merry Widow here, though.
[The January TBA conductor turned out to be pit vet Paul Nadler.]

Tales of Hoffmann
Grigolo, Morley, Gerzmava, Rice, Lindsey, Hampson / Abel (January-February 5)
Polenzani, Luna, Phillips, Maximova, Deschayes, Naouri / Levine (February 28-March)
[Almost as disappointing as the Meistersinger change was exciting: Hibla Gerzmava's attempt to do all the heroines, probably the main reason to see this initial cast, is now off. She's back to just singing Antonia/Stella, with Erin Morley and Christine Rice filling the higher and lower parts.]
The Met is making a huge bet on as-yet-unimpressive/unproven media hype beneficiary Vittorio Griogolo, though it's obviously no sure thing he's still singing this when this surprisingly good Bart Sher show returns. He gets the more interesting supporting cast, with Hibla Gerzmava -- who sang just Antonia/Stella in 2010, now getting free reign to try the other two heroines as well, Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, and Thomas Hampson as the villains. Matthew Polenzani gets Levine in the pit but a less well-defined supporting group (and no moviecast).

Iolanta / Bluebeard's Castle (new Mariusz Trelinski productions)
Netrebko, Beczala, Markov, Azizov, Tanovitski; Michael, Petrenko / Gergiev (January-February)
Musically, a great double bill. Production and performance... may turn out to have great moments, but I think the Bartok in particular is betrayed by externalizing the action.

Don Giovanni
Mattei, Pisaroni, van den Heever, Bell, Lindsey, Korchak, Plachetka, Morris / Gilbert (February-March)
As I've said, the Met should have Mattei do Don Giovanni every season... perhaps now in rotation with Onegin. This time Alan Gilbert strolls across Lincoln Center Plaza to conduct, perhaps bringing the fire that too many of his early-music focused predecessors have lacked.

La Donna del Lago (new Paul Curran production)
DiDonato, Barcellona, Flórez, Osborn, Gradus / Mariotti (February-March)
Great job by DiDonato getting this Rossini opera finally onto the stage of the Met.

Damrau, Grigolo, Braun, Testé / Villaume (March)
Damrau as the fragile, indefatigably-charming Manon? I really don't see it, not even in this modernist-izing production.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Shagimuratova, Calleja, Capitanucci, Miles / Benini (March-April)
Calleja's last (2011) run as Edgardo was the bel canto tenor performance of a generation. Go. See. This.

Meade, Meli, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine (March-April)
James Levine conducts most of the revival of this wonderful, under-appreciated opera that gave Angela Meade her debut. I suppose this is being revived for Domingo to attempt the baritone part of Charles V, but the success will largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part.

Don Carlo
Frittoli, Gubanova, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (March 30-April)
Frittoli, Krasteva, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (April)
Rumor had it that this was going to be the French version this time, but no such thing is indicated. In any case, the cast and conductor are pretty great, even if the old production will still be missed. Though lead Yonghoon Lee is about the best spinto tenor going, it's nice to see Ricardo Tamura (who sang a Cavaradossi here last year) getting another Met performance.

Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci (new David McVicar productions)
Westbroek, Álvarez, Lucic; Racette, Álvarez, Gagnidze, Meachem / Luisi (April-May)
Marcelo Alvarez had his acting seriousness turned against him by David Alden's dumb-as-dirt Ballo a season ago, so it's nice that he'll get to work with the brilliant McVicar in this new show.

Un Ballo in Maschera
Radvanovsky, Stober, Zajick, Beczala, Hvorostovsky / Levine (April-May)
No Yonghoon Lee (despite rumor) in a match of vocal-moral force vs force, but Beczala's easy charm and Levine's conducting may make a musical whole out of what, in its original run with Alvarez and Luisi, was less than the sum of its parts. (But oh what parts Radvanovsky and Blythe provided even then!)

The Rake's Progress
Claire, Blythe, Appleby, Finley, Sherratt / Levine (May)
Levine gets a brief revival of another 20th century classic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some other show

Monday, facing out from the Met Plaza...

These protesters were probably right, but they were also a month too early.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day one

Although I've been snarky about the latest news, the announcement last month that the labor talks threatening to derail the season had successfully concluded pleased me rather more than I'd expected.

It should not, perhaps, be news that an institution is determined to function, that it's set on carrying out its mission despite the human failings of its management, employees, performers, audience, supporters, and critics - Ich selber exkludier' mir net! - but given the endless parade of counterexamples that now greets the eye - not least in the opera-free zone across the plaza - it apparently now is. And so - at least before the show! - I am thoroughly glad to be taking my small part in the annual rite of this persistently integral company.

Tomorrow, a report and a season preview repost incorporating cast changes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Finally! Now people working in high paying jobs can score these tickets!"

What a friend (in a high paying job) said upon seeing this story on the death of the rush ticket line. (Replacement: more lotteries.)

There has, in fact, been an issue over the last few years with some professional line-sitters abusing the system for profit. But this seems rather ill-judged even if it does kill that business.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The forgiveness story Gotham needs

Arabella - Metropolitan Opera, 4/3, 4/11, 4/19 & 4/24/2014
Byström/Wall, Banse, Volle, Luna, Saccà/Sorensen / Auguin

This final Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaboration is, disconcertingly for the foolish or first-time listener, a piece of two halves. The first act is thoroughly Hofmannsthal: germinated from his prewar story "Lucidor" -- in which the characters now called Matteo and Zdenka were the leads and Arabella herself a cutout -- it draws his characteristic passive/reflective heroine at a point of crucial suspension and ambivalence from/with a rather more "vulgar and dubious" social order than the Marschallin's rococo Vienna. From this vantage, Arabella's story is one of survival -- of her self (the romantic concern), her family (the aristocratic) and, implicitly but crucially, her civilization (the artistic-philosophical). It is the last that sticks out, for better and for worse. As excellent a stage figure as Mandryka now cuts, he, as the circa-1927 addition to the tale, looks on a broader view awfully like the deus ex machina for not only Arabella's fate or family, but for her world as well, the last version of which was looking awfully dicey in those days of hyperinflation and paramilitary streetfights. For Arabella is, like all big civilizational tales (including Rosenkavalier and Frau, but also of course Meistersinger) a story of succession and renewal... only now it is not the melancholy blessing from on high of the Marschallin nor the fantastic struggles of FroSch's fairyland couples that we get but the frankly desperate last-minute pleas of an insolvent family in a colorful but profligate milieu. In such a tale Mandryka seems to bear the weight of not only the characters' desperate faith in a lurking regenerative power but the author's, and it is crushing to realize that the (former) Empire's backwater lands and woods had, by the time of the opera's conception, no such reserve of honest vitality -- only its opposite. Whatever hopes Hofmannsthal may in fact have held were, in any case, dashed as he finished revising this act: his son commited suicide, he himself had a fatal stroke while dressing for his son's funeral, and his death at least spared him from having to see just how much further his countrymen could sink.

It's fortunate, then, that two latter acts suggest a different perspective. Their scheme is in fact the work of Strauss himself, who, dissatisfied with early drafts (and after offering some wild and wacky suggestions that were not accepted), proposed the moral crux of these acts in one letter to Hofmannsthal (July 23, 1928) and Act II's overall structure in another (August 8). From this vantage it becomes a piece about forgiveness, not fate, making it the genders-reversed followup to their immediately previous collaboration, The Egyptian Helen. Mandryka, whom Hofmannsthal had intended to be steadfast and doubtless throughout, by Strauss' twist becomes complicit in the general moral bankruptcy. (Though it was surely Hofmannsthal who found the echo of Desdemona herein.) He delivers the most unkindest cut of all, taking Arabella to be both less good and more ordinary than she miraculously is, and piling on insult upon insult to such effect. From this low it takes two recognition scenes to settle things for the better: the first, as one has expected, comes between Zdenka and Matteo, but in the second, Arabella and Mandryka do not quite recognize each other before they mutually recognize the third presence that frees them from their dead end. It's this presence -- which one might call grace, or happiness, or love, or transformation or (to be maximally literal) the sound of one of Strauss' greatest orchestral introductions, that accompanies Arabella down the steps and makes her solo, intensely private procession with the glass as momentous as the grand panorama of Meistersinger Act III.

*     *     *

Still, for all the glories of each part and perspective, the combination may be hard to swallow as a whole. For what kind of fate poses, to a young woman navigating through a minefield of the merely- or ruinously-hedonistic, the question of what happens if even the longed-for last chance man is -- or can be -- as cheap and faithless as the rest? A rather nastily ironic one, in better times, but in darker days the failure of virtue and of the belief in virtue is a question of general and continuous interest, as the worse part of human nature seems everywhere ascendant. So it was in 1929.

(Incidentally, it seems to me that the tradition in some houses -- after Clemens Krauss -- of running Acts II and III together is an attempt to meld the two parts of the opera by just minimizing this latter part's significance, blending its setup and resolution into a blur of Viennese color and incident. This makes for a more fairy-tale, less contemplative version, in a hurry to get to the musical highlights... as was probably wanted during the moral midnight of the Nazi era and the fragile restoration of normalcy that followed.)

It is not now 1929 -- barbaric mobs in civilized countries are so far only trying to wreck people's livelihoods via the internet -- but the tide of moral nihilism has risen even higher of late than is usual. Awareness of this has leaked even into the popular culture, as the last two years' more serious forays into the superhero movie genre (The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel) each turned on the question of whether we the people are in fact worth the trouble of saving. Like Mandryka near the end of his story, we watch those films knowing that the deserved answer may well be "no", yet hoping for some happier outcome nonetheless. And if that grace fails in real life... ah well! At least we're again in a state to savor this opera.

*     *     *

The light and the serious sides of Arabella run through the title part too. For Malin Byström they encompassed two different faculties: as in her debut Marguerite, the voice is rich and mezzo-colored and ideal for, e.g., the semiocomic gravity of Act II's kiss-off of the suitors as well as for the pain and glory of the final Act. But again as in that Marguerite, her top notes (though they improved through this run) are workmanlike, not light... and therefore she made her contrasting impression with physical work alone. The balance varied from show to show and seat to seat: from closer locations one noticed that despite her blend of classic-Strauss-soprano features, Byström has a rapid-fire mobility of facial expression that's less familiar in these roles. This wasn't a bad correlative to Arabella's flightier moods, but in the April 11 performance -- with the cast seemingly bouyed & relaxed by a shared sense of the night's magic -- it was threatening to spill over into more serious action.

The more classic Arabella was Erin Wall's on the last night of the run. The Canadian soprano was free from whatever caused the odd tonal coloration of her 2009 house debut, and delivered the full lovely measure of Strauss-heroine sound and composure. With Wall, as with her great predecessors, the lighter aspect of the character is always accessible in the silvery float of her high notes, while the serious aspect never quite disappears from her phrases and bodily bearing. Though a longer run could have helped -- Auguin, seemingly accustomed to letting Byström push the pace in latter-act solo interjections, didn't wholly adapt to Wall's more deliberate approach -- the one show Wall had was still in any case a big success. I'd love to see what she can do in Strauss with a full set of rehearsals and performances.

The other split role was Matteo. Originally assigned to debuting German-Italian tenor Roberto Sacca, it was taken over (wholly, in 4/19, and for the final act the -- unreviewed here -- performance before that) by Lindemann alum Garrett Sorenson upon Sacca's illness. They, like the Arabellas, presented hugely contrasting perspectives: Sacca -- intense, short, and unusually weighty of sound -- was a worrisome, perhaps slightly deranged dead-serious Matteo, while Sorenson -- taller, more rotund, and more straightforwardly boyish -- kept a giant-puppyish cuteness even in suicidal despair. Sorenson was certainly easier to like, with Sacca making the confrontation at Act III's start truly squirm-worthy. Both were, in any case, good.

Equally good, if not better, were the constants in the casts. Michael Volle, making his Met debut, looked a bit too old for Mandryka -- couldn't the house have provided better hair? -- but his size and hearty physical manner definitely fit. The sound was full and excellently phrased. Juliane Banse, also making her Met debut (as a fairly late replacement for Genia Kühmeier), was a perfectly-acted and nearly-perfectly-sung Zdenka: I only missed the way some sopranos have been able to color "Licht" and "Dunkel" (at the center of the big duet "Aber der Richtige") with wonderfully contrasting timbres. (The pants-aspect of the role, incidentally, was on Kate Lindsey's level. Does she sing the Composer?) And I can't praise enough the wonderful character-acting (and singing) of Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler as the girls' father and English mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers as their mother. They too, were making their debuts, as was the first of a surprisingly strong and stage-present set of three suitors: Brian Jagde (Elemer), Alexey Lavrov (Dominik), and the always notable Keith Miller (Lamoral). High soprano Audrey Luna's pyrotechnic success as Ariel in Ades' Tempest, however, was more of line than articulation, and that manner didn't fit as well with Fiakermilli's yodeling.

I've found conductor Philippe Auguin less than impressive in the past -- his dry pit work was about the only imperfect thing about that titanic and truly stunning 2006 Lohengrin revival -- but he was the heart of this glorious run, building the show act by act to a heartbreakingly direct final scene. The bizarre thing is that on the first night -- when, with the singers getting their legs under them, his was undoubtedly the most complete success -- some jackass from the upper sections booed him like crazy at curtain calls. As I've mentioned before, I'm actually pro-booing, but this sort of foolishness makes the practice look bad. The only justification I can think of is for presenting a cut version of the score... but Auguin actually restored one of the Act II cuts from Thielemann's 1994 premiere run -- the Countess/Dominik bit -- though he did keep the snip to Mandryka/Milli in that act and Arabella/Zdenka in the Act III climax. On the whole, he may have shown a better sense of Straussian shape and phrase than even the very good Vladimir Jurowski, and I now wonder whether Auguin himself wouldn't have improved considerably on his own (again dry) FroSch from 2003.

*     *     *

This capped an excellent anniversary season for Strauss in New York. Unfortunately none of the shows were Peter Gelb productions, and thus none were transmitted for moviecast or recorded for Blu-Ray release.

I hope my readers saw -- or at least remotely heard -- some.