Friday, May 27, 2005

Perhaps he can get a cellblock named after him?

Alberto Vilar arrested, jailed (via Opera-L).

What on earth...? At the time they took his name down I thought he was somewhat ill-treated by the Met and the press. But perhaps they knew something we didn't.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Two roads

Edmond de Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is a landmark work of popular culture. That its eponymous authority-defying pseudo-folk-hero has fought and wooed across countless silver screens is only fitting, as Rostand was a Hollywood forerunner. A cool -- for what is panache but a pre-jazz rendering of "cool"? -- outsider-hero, some violence, a melancholy love angle: it's classic Hollywood formula, whether via auteur or hack.

Insofar as Cyrano was Rostand's response to the crisis of his stage's realism, Franco Alfano's opera-house version came in a similar context. But while Cyrano-the-opera was part of a series of his works more-or-less repudiating verisimo, Alfano took an aesthetic road far from Rostand's. The music isn't flamboyant and popular, instead sharing sonic language with late Puccini (the quieter bits of Turandot), Debussy, and other not-quite-modernist composers of the interwar period. The score has many details of interest but no big tunes. Not bad, nor revelatory.

Yet as responsive as Alfano succeeds in being to each particular turn of the text, words and music are still fundamentally mismatched. The score -- for all its subtle virtues -- lacks panache, disappointing the Rostand fan, while the sub-Hollywood bathos at libretto's end strikes a note largely (and happily) absent from the operatic stage. For similar reasons, Plácido Domingo -- the closest thing to a walking institution in today's opera world -- is grossly miscast. Even if solidity didn't define his acting as much as it does his singing (though it does), it's quite impossible at this point in his career and ubiquity to see Domingo as any sort of swashbuckling pop hero. Roberto Alagna, I think, would've much better fit the role -- though, or perhaps because he couldn't possibly have gotten the Met to stage such a piece.

In some parallel Alex Ross-inspired world, popular formula in high-cultural clothing and modernism-lite (the two roads that diverged in a fin-de-siècle wood) could combine to sublime effect. But that world isn't one that intersects the Rostand-Alfano-Met-Domingo product we saw this month. This combination was sucessful in parts -- but, as a whole, a mistake.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


Placido Domingo is the worst conductor ever to lead a Met performance. He is general director of two American houses, with an acceptable if lackluster record. And he can no longer sing high notes: transpositions and rumors thereof follow him everywhere, including into this production.

That said, he still may be the most reliable, consistent, and pleasing-to-hear tenor active in the heavier repertory. Besides the high notes (which were always on-and-off for him), about the only thing different now from twenty or thirty years ago is that he tires more easily. Oh, yes, and he's outlasted all his then-brighter competitors of the time -- the sort of situation for which Bill James made his seminal distinction between peak value and career value.

He was in his typically good form for this Met premiere on Friday, transpositions or no. The not-yet-as-heralded Sondra Radvanovsky sounded as good as I've ever heard her, stopping the show with her third-act aria -- and getting people's notice. Both got huge ovations. The rest of the cast filled their parts well, as did the orchestra under Armiliato.

Meanwhile, Francesca Zambello's production is quite in line with the interview she gave to the Met patrons' newsletter earlier this spring. As it doesn't seem to be online, I'll quote the key bit here:
I have had a change of heart in the last decade and have evolved into a strong populist and narrative-driven storyteller, no matter what the work. My goal is to present something engaging, enlightening, and entertaining for the artists involved and for the public.
Seriously? No more stupid production conceits? It does seem like it. This staging of Cyrano is detailed, more-or-less realistic, and quite successful apart from Roxane's unfortunately large wig.

*     *     *

That's half the story of the new Met Cyrano. The rest is another post.

UPDATE (5/23): Added link to the other Cyrano post.

Rethemed blogroll

Funny thing is, I don't really even like Auden.

I do, however, like the two singers' blogs I've added: Seattle's Anne-Carolyn Bird at The Concert and Londoner Geraldine McGreevy at High Notes.

And have I still never mentioned most charming Bay-area oboist Patricia Mitchell (she reads Artsjournal so I don't have to!) at oboeinsight? That seems the least I can do before reshuffling her blog to a different category.

Actually, I've no idea what any of the above sound like. Not sure what I'd do when and if I found out, either.

UPDATE (5/18): I'm working on a solution to this. Other (would-be) readers have complained before. My knowledge of javascript, DHTML, and cookies is hilariously limited, though, and debugging is taking a while.

UPDATE (5/19): Huh. I accidentally changed it back somehow. Fixed now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Six men and a girl

A few words about the musical content of Sunday's emotional afternoon event.

The six men were, in order of vocal appearance, Salvatore Licitra, Marcello Giordani, James Morris, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Robert Lloyd, and of course the silent James Levine. (The distaff side of the roster was, perhaps as not to upstage the honoree, represented solely by Mignon's song from almost-gone-from-the-house local favorite Frederica von Stade, whose instrument I'm afraid has seen fresher days.) All more or less did the occasion justice.

Licitra sang the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier and, later, partnered Freni in the Act I duet from Adriana Lecouvreur. He is a frustrating singer, like many tenors these days -- sometimes, as in a Carnegie Hall Forza two years ago, sounding like a born superstar; elsewhere, as in last year's run of Forza in London, inspiring some pretty ugly epithets. Sunday he combined both in one go: what he did well was so fetching that the lapses, most noticably in pitch, were all the uglier. (Who knows what next season's Forzas will bring?)

Giordani is another up-and-down tenor with an apparently spotty technique. I hadn't heard him sound really good since a Lensky some three seasons ago. But after starting off with that ugly hoarseness in the middle that's been all-too-common of late, his "Cielo e mar" was the day's vocal highlight. Later, as the day's only encore, he combined with Freni to do a wrenchingly communicative "Non ti scordar di me".

Morris, with the Met chorus, sang the Prologue to Mefistofile. Powerful sound, though the vibrato's become more noticable.

Finally, as the end of the announced program, came Hvorostovsky and Lloyd -- himself probably now gone from the Met stage -- to assist Freni in Act III of Onegin. Both sounded superb. With this act's concerns (loss, rediscovery, and the impossible demands of desire) everywhere in the air beforehand, the sum wasn't entirely dramatic -- on this day, with this occasion, the conclusion was even more foregone than usual -- but memorable, touching... and appropriate.

Levine and the orchestra, who led things off with the Bartered Bride overture, sounded vigorous, but less refined than usual. (How much rehearsal did this get?)

*     *     *

Interspersed were a number of solo efforts by the 40/50th anniversary honoree herself, Mirella Freni. She sang "Adieu, notre petite table" from Manon, "Io son l'umile ancella" from Adriana, and Joan's farewell to her home from the Maid of Orleans (in which Freni has just completed a full run).

Three years ago, I'd have said the voice was pretty much all still there. Sunday showed a certain drying of tone and a difficult top, but there's an awful lot left after fifty years of, as Joe Volpe noted in his concluding presentation, the difficult and demanding work of opera. Enough certainly remained of her voice's expressive middle to carry the emotional honesty she could hardly have lost... Most of all in the one thing she sang in her own character, that encore with the humble and moved Giordani, where it wasn't only her sound that wasn't dry.

She might be back, though, you know.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Half a candle

It seems I've been at this for six months now. An interesting attempt so far. I hope I've pleased some of you.

Ticket pricing - 2

Just got this in the email box:
Subscribe Now to the 2005-06 Met Season -- Before Ticket Prices Increase

There is still time to order a Full-Series Subscription of 7 or 8 performances for the 2005-06 Met Season before ticket prices increase. Only Full-Series Subscribers will enjoy this special savings -- so order now, before the price increase takes effect.
This is new -- there's been no subscriber discount for as long as I can remember -- but I guess I should've considered the possibility before prematurely welcoming lower prices.

Of course, by shortening subscriptions, the Met's actually forcing subscribers to pay higher rates too.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Chaste et pure

Chilean verista Veronica Villaroel is sharing with Soile Isokoski the role of Marguerite in the Met's new Faust. The two performances I've seen of the run (one each) showed an instructive contrast.

Isokoski's voice is clearest, purest and most focused through its upper middle portion, where much of the recitative sits. So we immediately hear her Gretchen's firm, delicious grip on the good -- that which so attracts Faust in the first place. The characterization in Isokoski's bearing and phrases is complementary; meanwhile the top notes, with a bit of vibrato-borne edge, are more dramatic than luxurious. This adds up -- intentionally or no -- to the most dramatically penetrating moment of the evening: the Jewel Song done not as virtuoso show-off, but as what it is -- a song of corruption, pulling Marguerite from comfortable purity to bright but uncomfortable high-flying exhibition.

Villaroel, on the other hand, starts -- and goes through the entire King of Thule sequence -- with a shallow, deliberately lightened sound before breaking out her regular, more chest-centered voice in the Jewel Song. This suggests a rather different character arc, where the old innocent Gretchen had just not yet become who she was, this woman fated to love completely and disastrously.

In later acts, neither soprano seemed to get much guidance from the busy production. Isokoski mostly disappeared before vocally dominating the last-act Trio, but Villaroel, more the natural actress, made much of Marguerite's utter desperation at Valentin's curse (neither could make a dent against the distractions of the Cathedral scene). She did much to make this vocal show-off fest into a humanly touching experience.

The other principals were in similar form both nights: Pape vocally commanding all evening (except for an odd loss of focus in opening night's Act IV serenade); Alagna somewhat rough (with those much-discussed pitch issues) in Act I, glorious in the central Act III, and a bit of each in the rest. Korean baritone Hung Yun, last Saturday's Valentin, showed a nice sound but lacked the confident ease and polish of Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Levine -- after teasing the audience with a Parsifal-style account of the overture -- conducted as well and as energetically as he has for all this excellent Met spring. And Kristine Jepson, each time the excellent Siebel, has matured much since her undercharacterized Cherubino some seasons back. Too bad I missed her Octavian.

If various parts of this run have been wrong, the most essential part of the piece -- Act III -- has always been right.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The second-to-last emperor

Like Mozart's other opera of 1791, La Clemenza di Tito is not least a reconstruction -- and thus defense -- of the idea of authority as such. It's not such a spectacularly reimagined thing as that Magic Flute -- which, after all, memorializes an entire elite group's attempt to reclothe authority (to its more, ahem, "enlightened" tastes) -- but some conventional element was unavoidable. A piece for a Habsburg's coronation can't stray as far as some commercial Singspiel.

It's this element, I think, that's tripped many up in hearing these operas. Flute is popular but insufficiently populist; conditioned by decades of our pop culture one may feel the ruling know-it-all Sarastro sinister or implausible and the Queen's initial mission the better plot for the piece. But revolution is rejected, and resentment itself is brought on stage and, in the equally flat persons of the Queen and Monostatos, literally expelled (while their counterparts -- Pamina and Papageno -- are taken in). A neat moral, far from Beaumarchais -- who anyway had his own revolutionary issues the following year.

Clemenza, by contrast, humanizes both authority and its would-be usurper; in fact the drama is substantially internal to the two of them and the conflicted man in between. But if Tito's celebrated humanity and goodheartedness are enough to make the Romans forget his quasi-usurper status (as Vitellia laments in the very first scene, his father seized the throne from hers), they don't, for many, excuse his tyrannical hold on three hours of our attention. His person isn't secure for that time, but his moral possession of authority is -- and doesn't that, today, seem to beg the real question in any regicide plot? (Philip II, e.g., provides better dramatic possibilities, and is felled more strongly onstage.)

One understandable reaction has been to minimalize the public aspects of the piece and focus the production on the private and interpersonal troubles by which the opera breathes. Stephen Wadsworth's stand-in-front-of-a-brick-wall production for NYCO was along these lines and, I think, admired for it. But even the most personal anguish here isn't just personal. Is the prominence -- in Sesto's and Vitellia's key arias -- of the Mason-tinged basset clarinet and basset horn but coincidence? And without the politics as a frame, what connects the private star turns?

Ponnelle's simple production for the Met, currently running, sets the frame with two clear strokes -- a scrim/backdrop of collapsed columns, statues, etc., which shows during the overture, and a handsome set of worn but intact columns and statues, which is revealed afterwards. (By Act II the collapse figured on that scrim now appears on the set.) The contrast is plain and powerful: civic order v. disorder -- indeed, collapse -- the threat that birthed imperial Rome in the first place.

Is it true to the text? Perhaps not; despite the fire, Vitellia desires rule, not chaos, and calls off Sesto when she thinks it can be acquired without murder. But disorder and anarchy was surely a (if not the) prominent context of Clemenza in 1791, with Emperor Leopold's sister Marie Antoinette long since tossed from Versailles & fatally caught by an upheaval soon to seek not just power but obliteration of the old. At the time, the piece may have seemed insufficiently monarchist for any particular ruler's taste, ensuring Tito's authority at the cost of his power. But that's not our concern. Enough to note these works' recognition in man* of murderous envy against even the most enlightened authority. That impulse persists today. Soon, it will command nuclear weaponry.

[*Feminists may take umbrage that this resentful force is, in each of these similar plots, identified with a woman, but that's another matter.]

Monday, May 09, 2005

The last word

I was going to blog part of Saturday's intermission feature, but it appears Sieglinde has already taken care of that, and more.

I'll post a few things about the Volpe era after season's end. We may long for it sooner rather than later.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Volpe for mayor?

This is from yesterday's paper:
If the next mayor of New York City isn't to be found in the sports world, the offices of performing-arts organizations might possess a hidden treasure.

"Would I enjoy running the city? Absolutely," the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, Joseph Volpe, said. "The person who first suggested it was Rudy Giuliani. He felt that running the city would be easier than running the Met."


Not only that, he's not happy with the present administration at City Hall.

"I don't think there should be a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan," Mr. Volpe said. "There are things that have fallen off since Giuliani was mayor."

Mr. Volpe is leaving the Met next year, but he says he's not interested in seeking Mr. Bloomberg's job.

"The idea of getting into politics, without any backing, doesn't really make a lot of sense," Mr.Volpe said.
Actually, I think he'd do a pretty good job. Giuliani's quip isn't too far off.

Stumm, stumm

When La Clemenza di Tito was last in New York -- in a new production at City Opera -- it was greeted with much critical acclaim, but the current Met revival has gone relatively unremarked. Is there nothing to be said but enumeration? I myself have difficulty saying much of interest about the performance (of the opera, more later). Nevertheless, it was this season's most satisfying night.

Looking back, that NYCO run was interesting but flawed -- the star ill (with a cold, too, or was that a cover story?), the tenor persuasive but dry of voice and the Vitellia (understandably) overmatched. Not to mention less-than-spellbinding playing from the orchestra. Nevertheless, praise for the star -- Lorraine Hunt Lieberson -- carried the day. To my ears she communicated excitement but not the rapt concentration of her best work.

The Met run, while a revival, is in its gold-plated tradition and succeeds in almost every way. Frank Lopardo again actually sounds good in a thankless part. Ditto Melanie Diener, who shows off her beauty and full lower register, both pretty much new to me. Etc. etc. -- the cast is strong from top to bottom. (On a "maybe it is crappy acoustics" note, Sarah Connolly, whom I remember as a fine but barely audible Ariodante across the plaza, has no such problem here.) Levine is conducting Mozart better than he ever has.

What's missing? Some of that dramatic fire for which Hunt was praised last time (and which Susan Graham apparently provided the other day in London). Anne Sofie von Otter does anguished as well as any, but, in her pants roles at least, it's an adolescent sort of anguish -- there's no sense that the whole person is at risk. Fine for Octavian, not ideal for Sesto. "Parto, parto" she sung well, if perhaps not in as heartfelt a manner as Steve Williamson played the clarinet part.

Still, opera is not only the loud yell, climactic high note, and random display of temperament. It's also the joy of piano and legato and the classical aspects of this great humane (damn humane perhaps) work. If that appeals at all: don't miss this Saturday's broadcast.

UPDATE (5/12): Last night, von Otter's abject "Deh, per questo istante" was heart-wrenching. No objections this time.