Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Blame the turkeys

I meant to have further thoughts on Romeo up, oh, a week ago, but holiday business has gotten in the way. The post should be up overnight.

Meanwhile, both Opera-L and r.m.o have positive word from the American Tragedy dress rehearsal.

UPDATE (12/1): You may notice that the r.m.o thread quickly degenerates into pointless, scatological name-calling. There's a reason I have the group listed under "The Zoo"... Odd thing is that some quite big names used to read it. I wonder if this is still the case.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The sound of death

The press coverage for Friday's world premiere (link goes to the official site, whence comes the picture at right) begins, with Verena Dobnik's long AP piece. She offers, among other things, this tidbit:
Days before the world premiere of one of the most anticipated works of the Metropolitan Opera season, composer Tobias Picker still hadn't decided how to end "An American Tragedy."
Zajick sings the last words to her son, by librettist Gene Scheer - "The mercy of God is equal to all sin" - in her chocolate-rich, powerhouse voice, heard as the door of the execution chamber is shutting and Clyde welcomes Jesus and is "saved."
Death could come with a bang or a whimper. The note C, for Clyde, could be played in unison by every instrument in the orchestra for 30 seconds, growing and climaxing in an ear-shattering last sound. Or it could be played in the softest short "plunk" in a minor key. Or maybe three "plunks."
"The unison is open, with no harmony. It leaves the questions about life open, with no real answers," said Picker, who was leaning toward that ending. Preferred by conductor James Conlon, "the three plunks are more of a statement, like the Holy Trinity."
Which music announces his execution will be heard on opening night.
I assume, however, that we won't be at a loss to figure out what happened.

Another interesting curtain-raiser by Willa Conrad of the Star-Ledger is mostly about Picker, who's apparently thought about his Met debut:
Levine approached Picker around the time of "Emmeline's" premiere in 1996 in Santa Fe; he consciously delayed the commission to give himself time to write a few more operas first. "Originally, Jimmy (Levine) wanted it for 2001, but I asked if they could wait because I wanted more experience," Picker says.
Now he feels confident the opera was worth the wait. "I wouldn't say I understand my role differently," Picker says of the process of creating an opera, "but I feel that I have grown into it, and earned my role as composer."
Meanwhile, NBC's Today Show will apparently air a segment Friday morning about the opera's premiere and the murder that inspired it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The same river twice

Despite worries to the contrary, yesterday's (third) performance of the new Met Roméo et Juliette still featured the flying bed. I guess Dessay isn't afraid of heights.

Meanwhile, the "upcoming performances" portion of the program lists Frittoli as Fiordiligi for the two January Met returns to its triumphant Cosi, but as the website still shows Deshorties I'll assume for the moment that this was just mistranscription.

More later.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cue worried looks

Perhaps as interesting as any of Monday's production decisions was the big light-filled floating ball at the Lincoln Center curb, apparently part of this movie's shoot. Recent blogosphere target Daniel Wakin of the Times paints the event in the Gray Lady's most alarmist (or revolutionary) colors:
But the filming is emblematic of the Met's future reign, in the person of Peter Gelb, who made his mark in the classical recording industry partly with crossover projects and movie soundtracks. Mr. Gelb takes over the Met next year as general manager but has been working this season alongside Joseph Volpe, the incumbent. The shoot also offers hints of how these strong-willed impresarios are working together.
Mr. Gelb ran the Met's media department, overseeing television productions, in the years before his stint at Sony Classical. He has not hidden his desire to bring more mainstream culture into the house, including ventures into film, musical theater and even pop. At the same time, opera houses are grasping at any means to nudge people into seats in an era when classical music executives feel that their art form is ever more at the margins of society.
Well, that may be. (Though, as I've said, I think narrowcasting and niche appeal is the future of pretty much every cultural business -- something essential for their leaders to grasp.) But the Met in a movie is a far cry from a movie at the Met. The sky is not yet showing cracks, much less falling.

(Of course even Volpe, here rightly concerned with protecting the Met Opera brand, allowed for a nice fee the MTV Video Music Awards to be held at the house.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The jitters

The dominant fact of last night's Roméo et Juliette production premiere was the pervasive nervous atmosphere. All involved -- the orchestra, the cast, and not least the audience -- seemed tight and unwillingly engaged in the evening. Was the performers' side tension more an effect or cause of Dessay's sudden cancellation? Did the cancellation throw off the audience, or was it the gala business beforehand? (Or, indeed, was it the one-intermission format that allowed no break before 9:45?)

The bad vibes didn't actually torpedo any singers. Ramón Vargas seemed to shrug them off best, but all sang and acted pretty well, including substitute Maureen O'Flynn (who in fact debuted in the same opera seven and a half years ago) and newcomers Stéphane Degout (Mercutio) and David Won (Grégorio). Dimitri Pittas, a Lindemann Program tenor, actually made a real impression as Tybalt.

They were helped by the production, which if unspectacular is at least set up with plenty of reflective surfaces for the cast. Every scene is set around a two-circle setup that dominates the stage like a giant compact; various tall flat features appear on either side for scene changes. The center of the bottom circle tilts and rotates at key points, while the top opens up for nighttime scenes, showing what look like blown-up actual photographs of astronomical features (like the moon depicted in this mock-up picture from the official site). Costumes are a bit stuffy in a traditional sort of way; the families are nicely color-coded for easy identification. The duel scenes were very energetically choreographed and looked about as realistic as opera-stage knife-fighting is likely to be, but other mass scenes were dull and relatively static.

The one visual coup of the night was for Act IV: the lovers appear suspended in a spotlit white bed above the star-strewn floor, before the star-filled rear circle. This worked well, but perhaps repeated last season's Gounod love-duet trick, also -- as I recall -- involving stars all over. We get it, we get it. Ah, for the spare poetry of Carsen's Onegin (and its nighttime letter-scene climax)...

*     *     *

That said, there was a whole lot of sniffling at opera's end. If the chemistry of the run changes -- which wouldn't be a huge surprise, esp. if Dessay makes it back -- this could still be a considerable success. I'm very curious as to what Thursday's second night will offer.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Compare and contrast (updated)

Before tonight's premiere, Natalie Dessay gets all the press.

The Times offers a puff piece, with a bit of access-flaunting. The Journal News a focused curtain-raiser that covers most of the bases. And Dessay-as-showbiz-story -- with nice detail -- is the Star Ledger's take.

*     *     *

The Times piece does have this interesting tidbit:
From the first, Ms. Dessay has regarded her singing mostly as a means to the end of acting. As a straight actress, she seems to think, she would never have stood a chance.

"Among actors, there's too much competition," she said. "You have to know someone. And you have to have incredible luck. Luck matters less for singers. If you really can sing, you'll work."

*     *     *

UPDATE (1:48 PM): Uh oh.
Monday, November 14, 2005 8:00 pm - 11:10 pm

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy
Juliette: Maureen O'Flynn
Stéphano: Joyce DiDonato
Roméo: Ramón Vargas
Mercutio: Stéphane Degout
Frère Laurent: Kristinn Sigmundsson

*     *     *

UPDATE (12/1): A short but frank Q&A with Dessay in New York magazine.

Slimming down, in Italian

This is an amusing followup to this business (which may be playing out as predicted).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Barbara Bonney and friends

Barbara Bonney is an exemplary recitalist: a great musical and communicative talent, sharpened over her long career. Maybe it was disappointment, then, that produced last night's empty seats. Instead of a solo recital, Bonney shared the stage with young colleagues, singing a confusingly-advertised program covering three Mozarts. It was, however, a very enjoyable success. I encourage those who can make the Sunday repeat to go.

The program had five main sections, in this order:
  • A set of early Mozart songs, K147-152, which includes three by his father Leopold.

  • A set of his son Franz Xaver Mozart's songs, ending in an ensemble piece for three singers.

  • A set of Mozart's ensemble pieces for three and four voices plus accompaniment.

  • Five of Mozart's famous later songs (Der Zauberer, Die Zufriedenheit, Das Lied der Trennung, Als Luise die Briefe..., Abendempfindung).

  • Another set of Mozart's (later) multi-voice pieces, finishing with the very cute "Das Bandel".
A five-singer version of Mozart and Schikaneder's cat duet (from Der Stein der Weisen), with all the women as cats, was the delicious encore.

Solo songs were alternated between all of the singers, except three of Franz Xaver's (his op. 27), taken together by Bonney herself. This format was a bit dangerous, perhaps as likely to show up the young unknowns as to show them off. But all were pretty good.

Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer, the find of the evening, came off best. It's not hard to see why Bonney picked her -- the light but pointed lyric voice, quick and wide-ranging expressiveness, musical intelligence, and stage presence surely reminded her of herself. Mercer's account of the much-sung "Abendempfindung" was as touching and well-shaped as any I've heard.

The others came off well, but seemed expressively restricted next to the sopranos. Local mezzo Isabel Leonard is a real beauty, with a not-quite-finished-sounding instrument to (almost) match, but quite reserved (at least in this setting). Canadian tenor Colin Balzer has a pleasant light sound and a real lieder-singing career already, but I found his fastidious interpretations to be within too narrow a compass. Perhaps he'd show better in a solo context. Meanwhile Canadian baritone (notice a trend here?) Joshua Hopkins may have the best instrument of all, though he held it back a bit more than I'd like in ensembles.

The unfamiliar music, too, was worth hearing. Franz Xavier Mozart wrote proto-Schubertian early Romantic lieder to more conventional texts. There's definitely a strain of real feeling for a good singer to bring out. (Bonney has an entire disc of his stuff which I've not heard.) And his father's vocal ensembles are pure characteristic gold, at times hinting of the operas though with rather less dramatic charge. It may, unfortunately, be a while -- after Sunday -- before they're done here together again.

Leonard, incidentally, has a Horne Foundation recital on December 4. But will Shannon Mercer go back to Canada and the early-music scene, never to be seen in New York again? I certainly hope not.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Unforseen consequence

Hm. I was just playing with the format, drawing out the front page a little bit, which unveiled this post at the bottom of the page, which somehow spawned the (bizarrely misplaced) comment eviscerated here.

A strange chain of cause and effect, if that.

UPDATE (11/14): Maybe I should just turn off anonymous comments?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Slimming down

Any curious about my take on last night's Voigt/Heppner event can see it here. For me, both must contend with the echoes of their mid-to-late '90s selves, when they weighed more and were in amazingly solid vocal form. Heppner's weight loss was part of solving a vocal crisis; Voigt -- looking slimmer than ever, incidentally -- seems to have shed pounds for other reasons. The years, of course, have also touched them both.

On the evidence of last night, Heppner has again reached an age-weight-voice equilibrium, while Voigt has not. But that's just one data point.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Yet another blog

Musically omnivorous TONY editor Steve Smith offers another entry into the opera blogosphere: Night After Night. Not all content is operatic, but early reviews of Mines of Sulphur and Lucia -- not to mention his account of being a Lauren Skuce fan -- bode well for future coverage.

It seems to me that local operablogging is finally reaching a sort of critical mass.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The only della Casa album I don't have

Mike Richter presents it here.

(More, for the unfamiliar, about Lisa della Casa at cantabile-subito.)

Lieder week

This week on the calendar: Barbara Bonney -- whose latest disc was recently liveblogged at Prima la musica -- gives a masterclass starting about five minutes ago, followed by recitals on Friday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, Matthias Goerne's lieder recital tonight isn't sold out. Perhaps it's to do with this bizarre article? Surely a mention of the songs' -- especially "Im Triebhaus", which has quite a bit of the Act 3 prelude in it -- connection to Tristan and its identity-scrambling theme was in order.

(Which reminds me, isn't there some sort of shouting contest scheduled for Wednesday? Hmm.)

Monday, November 07, 2005

The strangest sort of blog

Via Classical Domain's links page appears the (GeoCities (!)) site of the globe-trotting (and apparently Rio-based) Rodrigo Maffei Libonati. His current month-long (and counting) sojourn in New York is being recorded in, of all things, a periodically-updated Word document.

The reports and comments therein are quite learned and interesting... But difficult to access and link. Somebody get this man a good blog host!

For the record

Welcome, Londonist readers. Enjoy your stay.

For what it's worth, I'm neither gay nor a particular fan of James Jorden. Not sure I blog particularly well, either, but that's for readers to decide.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Lucia loose ends

Despite the amazing new tenor, I'm still not sure whether to recommend this revival. The other young men -- baritone Charles (er... Chuck) Taylor and bass John Relyea -- do their jobs well, it's true, and routinier Edoardo Müller chugga-chuggs his way neatly through the score. But despite a strangely compelling Mad Scene, Elizabeth Futral's not very interesting in the lead. She's really neither one sort of Lucia nor the other, without either vocal ease & luxuriance (e.g. Sutherland or the younger Swenson), or command of the character and stage (Callas, Scotto). When an Edgardo -- even an emotionally alive one like Filianoti -- is an order of magnitude more obviously vulnerable than the Lucia, something's awry.

Filianoti, incidentally, is doing three performances of Elisir this spring with Swenson. But that's a different sort of role.

Another baby blog

The duo of Alex and Jonathan at wellsung are off to a good start. They each liked Filianoti too...


The Met's current production of Così Fan Tutte debuted ten seasons ago for Cecilia Bartoli (as Despina -- her house debut), and has run regularly since then with mostly young, mostly American casts. Its physical elements are exemplary: cool spacious seaside spaces -- with matching clothes -- that set off the real and feigned emotional heat of the characters. And a good amount of overdone stage business, presumably put in for Bartoli, has been scrubbed away since that first, telecast run.

What's left is the base of a coherent, detailed revival that -- at least in the first-cast performances that ran through Tuesday -- outshone all of its previous incarnations. As in the fall's Falstaff, everything worked, and everything fit. But this added up to more than the Verdi.

The most successful prior run may have been the last -- back in 2001 -- with tall sisters Melanie Diener and Susan Graham headlining a comparably strong cast. But that was let down at times by the graceless and breathless charging-through of conductor Patrick Summers. This time Levine's work is the heart of the production, finding inflections, life and contrasts that had previously lain dormant under his baton. Between this and the Verdi -- and following-up the spring's excellent Clemenza revival -- Levine is doing his best work in years. And he's become a great Mozartean.

Perhaps, then, the magic of this Cosi can even survive the cast change that will add the spectactularly iffy Alexandra Deshorties. But this first group had a remarkable ensemble dynamic. Individually, all six satisfied, though Thomas Allen's lost a lot of voice since his Beckmesser. Barbara Frittoli has an odd-ish vocal production and lacks the extreme high and (esp.) low notes for "Come scoglio", but "Per pietà" was a highlight. Magdalena Kožená, a bit underpowered as last season's Varvara, I found much better here -- strong from top to bottom. On the other side, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien vied with each other for the easiest, most pleasant sounds of the evening. And Nuccia Focile actually sang most of her part.

As a group, the moral weight was more with the men than usual. Frittoli and Kožená are a slighter, more mercurial pair than their immediate predecessors. Under the hand of stage director Robin Guarino, they took advantage of it, believably playing up their characters' flightiness even from the beginning. Poor sincerely love-besotted (as Polenzani and Kwiecien had them) fiancees, to see these sisters as paragons! Allen was accordingly more of a bitter Alfonso than usual.

In the end, this time, the couples switch. And forgive each other, more or less. But before that: a moment of musical and dramatic suspension quite equal to any in opera -- including its sex-reversed counterpart in Figaro.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tenor watch

It appears the new, improved Marcelo Alvarez won't heard on broadcast after all -- he's out of the two April performances of Manon. In his place will be a tenor new to me and I believe to the house -- Massimo Giordano. Oddly, des Grieux isn't even listed on his official website's repertory page! Hm.

Meanwhile, another Italian tenor has prompted much praise: debutee Giuseppe Filianoti, whom I saw in his third Met performance a few hours ago. He's a thinnish, fairly handsome man. In the part of Edgardo, his hair played up a certain facial resemblance to Jude Law, which was apt: Filianoti carried himself about the stage with Law's reactiveness and slightly unhinged self-regard. It's a compelling, energetic assumption in itself. When he sings, however, he has this amusing compulsion to turn dead downstage and assume one of the three Standard Tenor Poses. Even when he's on his knees, supposedly holding his guts in! Unlike Geoff Riggs, I do not take this as a virtue -- and neither, I'm sure, did the audience members cracking up at the end of the opera. (Though perhaps we could blame stage director Zoe Pappas...)

But his singing, that's something else. The sound is firm and plangent, reminiscent of Neil Shicoff's. The breath is remarkable, and Filianoti has a sympathetic's native way with Italian. The high notes are thrilling, the strongest most ringing part of the instrument, and he can hold them to great effect. And -- as one might guess from his energetic (non-singing) manner on the stage -- he responds to the excitement and tension of the music, while his phrasing remains emphatic and sure. The Act II curse was a marvelous display of all these virtues. Wow.

*     *     *

When this Lucia production premiered in 1998, Met audiences were treated to a jaw-droppingly beautiful account of Arturo by the then-unknown Matthew Polenzani. His eminence among lighter lyric tenors has since become clear, and is confirmed by the current run of Cosi. (More on that in another post.) I believe non-New York audiences mostly just know Polenzani for Rossini, which is too bad. He's a decent Rossinian, but peerless as David, the Steersman, Iopas, and the like (including, yes, Ferrando).