Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The Met ended its run of Madama Butterfly earlier this month, and that I haven't written about it reflects more on the author than the performances. Butterfly usually leaves me indifferent, and did so again this time.

So when I say that Anthony Minghella's production was, if a bit overreceived in its initial press, a big success, you might add salt to taste. His strength was the image: the clean framing and relative boldness of the stage pictures spoke well for his film director's eye. For this alone he'd belong at the Met. The content I found more mixed. Each Act (and he divides Act 2 into Acts 2 and 3, stopping at the Humming Chorus) begins with a short pantomime: some sort of Japanese dancer (Butterfly? who knows), a remembered domestic scene before Pinkerton's departure, and, in the most interesting directorial addition of the night, a dream dance between a puppet Butterfly and (I think -- it's been weeks, I'm afraid) a Japanese-ized Pinkerton. This latter was odd, but affecting; the other additions just seemed extraneous. The puppet Trouble? Eh. Gimmicky, but not bad. At any rate, Minghella definitely deserves a return.

As for the cast... Much has been written about Gallardo-Domas' singing. She doesn't have the vocal heft to win the day on sonic impact, but besides that I found her more than adequate on the occasion. As an actress, she has never been more than generalized, but here she was throwing herself into the rehearsed Japanese-ish gestures with real ferocity. And yet -- they seemed just that, rehearsed gesture, rarely connected to the human and very Italian currents onstage. It seems unfair but I reacted to her much as I did the puppet -- much more grateful, of course, for the intense and sophisticated effort, but still more "huh, that's interesting" than emotional catharsis.

The performance I saw had Dwayne Croft, thankfully, in good voice and better character as Sharpless. Ascher Fisch conducted well, as usual, while it was great misfortune that one of tenor Marcello Giordani's really good nights was wasted on the ungrateful Pinkerton. (The super-variable Giordani seems to be in a good season, though one never can tell with him.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Seeing, hearing, and reading

Australian blogger Pavlov's Cat (whom I found through what appears to be an unrelated spam trackback, but never mind that) has a long, interesting post elaborating some of the memories and associations floating up for her during a recent State Opera of South Australia performance of Nabucco. It's worth a read. (She's no Lieutenant Gustl.)

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It occurred to me during Sunday's Kožená recital that my main experience at a musical performance is of time -- rhythm, breath, tempo and phrase. (At an opera-flavored event, human presence shares the bill.) I hear the sounds distinctly and constantly but as a supporting element, only sporadically prominent (I do focus in at times, mind you, even absent noteworthy display) and mostly carrier rather than itself the headlining content. I'm fairly sure others experience music from the sounds up, and it's interesting how this makes for different reactions to many performers.

*     *     *

Meanwhile an opera-moderate friend has noted that the endlessly analytic style of this blog rarely takes time to explain terms or background or even what it is exactly I'm describing, making it difficult to grow more opera-fluent via reading.

Now I've tried to gloss more esoteric passing allusions with a link, though I suppose links themselves could come with more regular explanation. But I wonder if other readers are also finding my bouts of concision occasionally overdone, or my words actually jargon-filled.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Magdalena Kožená is back in town, preparing next week's Met reboot of Idomeneo. (Other changes include Kobie van Rensburg for Ben Heppner and Alexandra Deshorties for Olga Makarina.) If Sunday's recital is any indication, she is in fine form. She sang a straightforward program -- some Mendelssohn, Schumann's Frauenliebe, some Faure, and Dvorak's Gypsy Songs; then three encores, two by Dvorak -- with delicious sound and life and unbroken focus. I've often found the latter coming and going in her performances, making them somehow disappointing. But not today -- she was wholly present, in her best self, all afternoon.

And who's that? Sonically, I heard more mezzo-ism than Maury found on her CD. Of course, that could mean anything in a category that includes Diadkova and Bartoli: I don't think Kozena is quite at the latter's Mezzo-In-Name-Only pole, but then again it wasn't a question that occurred to me as such. (I was more wondering whether it would be she or the next singer in the series -- Angelika Kirchschlager -- who'd display the lighter, higher voice.)

But it was her interpretations that had me fixed, and what they revealed about her art. Frauenliebe und -leben, I think, gave an accurate glimpse of the whole. Kozena is unhesitant in responding to the moods of the piece, and its thread of desire suits her well. But as game and responsive as she is, neither spirit nor instrument follows Schumann's protagonist into extremes of joy, sorrow, self-abnegation, or conceit. There her person seems to balk, and her beautiful sound to strain in vain for stronger coloring. (Even the straight-toned climaxes of the last song seemed more clever than anything else.)

It's the middle where she shines: melancholy states across which quick moods flash. Faure songs showed the more refined side of this gift, and the Dvorak the earthy. And the emotions she drew forth therein were no less strong for lacking abandon.

It was a wholly pleasant and satisfying success on her part. The only sour note was otherwise-commendable accompanist Malcolm Martineau's bizarre bursts of face-making (at the audience!) at the ends of songs. What was that?

*     *     *

Writing of this event, though, reminds me of my lapse in not yet mentioning the finest, most moving recital here in many years (of late, I can only compare Matthias Goerne's stunning pair of May 2000 afternoons): Dorothea Röschmann's October 12 performance at Carnegie (Zankel) Hall. Kozena's future Idomeneo co-star followed a somewhat strange duo recital here this spring with this solo program:
Schubert's Lady of the Lake songs (D 837, 838, 830, and 839), two of his Mignon songs (D 877 #2-3), his Gretchen fragment (D 564) and famous spinning song (D 118)

Mahler's "Das irdische Leben", "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen", and "Lob des hohen Verstandes"

Berg's Seven Early Songs
And two encores, on which -- beyond recalling that the latter was a famous slow Romantic song, done spellbindingly -- I've unfortunately blanked.

In some overly clever sense one might call Röschmann Kozena's shadowy double. To experience Röschmann is sometimes to be overpowered by nothing but abandon, though on this evening she had her sound, vocal climaxes, and balance as well -- and so many of her strongest effects are carried on that dark shimmering lower register. (The top, though she is certainly a soprano, shows less character.) Where sharp feelings of personal character are secondary to mood and color, as in the Berg songs, she might on a lesser night leave one wishing a singer more like Kozena -- able to focus naturally on those other matters. But her Mignon, her Gretchen, and even her Ellen are transcendent in their unalloyed feeling; beyond comfort and any sort of pleasantry, they are piteously and terribly and most wholly human. As is their vessel.

In Mahler too -- she makes even the ass a feeling character.

Graham Johnson was an excellent accompanist, though his temper's more objective than his singer's. Not to knock either, but hearing Johnson and Martineau reminded me that my favorite current accompanist is actually Warren Jones...

*     *     *

Is Ilia, then, the darker and more desperate of the Idomeneo pair? Ideally: maybe, maybe not. But I've no doubt that Röschmann and Kožená can make great opera from their contrasts.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bashful cell-owner syndrome

Has anyone noticed the unfortunate trend of people not shutting off ringing cell phones at the theater? Instead, the owners squirm and put on innocent faces, as if not reaching for the offending device could keep them from being identified as culprits.

You're not fooling anyone, jerks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

They sang, too

The second real surprise of Friday's new Barber was that the most impressive singer -- Peter Mattei -- isn't really even a Rossini singer. He gets through the divisions well enough, it's true, but unlike his co-stars he'll never be booked for coloratura facility alone. Good thing he has good looks, better sound, and the ability to dominate the stage...

The other principals did pretty much what was expected. If you like them, you'll like them, which I do -- with caveats. Juan Diego Florez, for one thing, began the night with his seemingly-customary bout of pitch issues, though this did eventually settle. As usual, I found his refinement, fluency, and control admirable, while not being able to shake memories of Vargas-as-Rossinian. To my ears, Florez's sound is pleasant but unremarkable and somewhat lacking in masculinity. (Yes, there are women who disagree -- strongly -- with this assessment.) Diana Damrau, whom perhaps only I faulted in last year's Ariadne, was just as fluent-but-heartless here. But though her control reigned throughout, actual tone on the acuti varied quite a bit.

The lineup sort of echoes the spring's Don Pasquale, which I found such a trial. A great baritone, Florez, and an uncharmingly attractive female lead, plus a low-voiced figure of fun. But that's not entirely fair. For one thing, John Del Carlo was an excellent Don Pasquale in his lone evening last season -- infinitely more human than the first-cast Alaimo, if less vocally clear -- and he does similar work here. For another, Damrau hasn't been encouraged to chew scenery quite as uninhibitedly as Netrebko did; her outbursts come mostly in the form of semi-appropriate flamenco posturing. It still reeks of sitcom, but the antics have moved up from sidekick (total nuttiness) to lead (must leave room for romantic subplot).

I suppose the third surprise was how lively and un-routine Maurizio Benini's conducting turned out. After some really unimpressive Met outings, last spring's Luisa Miller and this Barber may constitute a more promising trend.

*     *     *

So how does it add up? It depends, I think, how much you like the current cast. The production's no draw. If you're neither a Damrau nut nor a Florez completist, I suggest waiting for hugely talented American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who might give the whole proceeding a more human kick. It could use one.

(That is, I suppose I agree with all the negative bits from here, here, here, and even here.)

I promised thoughts on Butterfly, but that will have to wait.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Under the weather

Sorry about that -- more comments on Barber (and Butterfly, in fact) tonight.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. Sher

The real surprise of last night's Barber of Seville premiere was how much a tasteful, inoffensive, even mostly pretty production could sap the vigor from Rossini's evergreen comedy. Bartlett Sher's Met debut production isn't abominable, but it gets in the way more than it helps. He's failed to improve on the previous John Cox staging, which wasn't that great to begin with.

Leading up to the show, much was made of the one bit of novelty that Sher did add: the walkway ("passerelle", they called it) around the pit, which extends the stage forward a bit. The Met-staff-penned Playbill piece on Sher suggests that it (with "the careful placement of the doors") "work[s] together to subvert audiences' psychological relationship to the Met's performance area." Eh? In truth -- not so much. The walkway is almost exclusively used to simulate a very conventional cinematic effect: the close-up. That is, it's Sher's way of fading out the very literal and unsprightly scene he's set in the rest of the Met space.

Which is not to say that Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan have come up with an overly static physical backdrop. Actually, it's the opposite: particularly in Act I, the flying, swirling door frames and other mobile props (most notably a giant Figaro trailer towed inexplicably hither and thither by admiring women) swallow the characters -- and action -- whole. It's almost impossible to imagine anything significant being done amidst that bustle, and it's to Peter Mattei's great credit that he made his Largo tell nonetheless. It is no space for dramatic interaction.

So Sher's virtual close-ups are a try at compensation. But while the scene-change-for-solo is a useful and occasionally brilliant trick (the stars coming out for Tatyana's letter scene was a Robert Carsen masterstroke), as a production's bread-and-butter technique it's a cheat. Characters and their emotions are thereby repeatedly isolated from context, which may make sense in the semi-solipsism of hyperromantic art but in Rossini -- which is all about finding the most hilarious and free absurdity exactly within strict confines -- is just deflating.

*     *     *

Thoughts on the actual performance tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gelb does his bit

The Met returns to the non-PBS portion of television tonight, as PlaybillArts tells us:
The Late Show With David Letterman presents its first piece of fully-staged opera tonight -- and America's flagship opera company makes its Letterman debut -- as the Metropolitan Opera performs the finale from Act I of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia ("The Barber of Seville").
(This is, of course, a preview of Friday's new production premiere.)

On the other hand, Butterfly aside I've seen little to no promotion by the company of the other things it's been doing this year.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mattila light

Unlike, say, his Frühlingsfeier, there's no *bang* in Strauss' Four Last Songs, no point of dramatic concentration for Karita Mattila to do her thing. Strauss here actually employs the opposite aesthetic: dramatic dissolution, where personality fades into refined twilit sensation. As such the cycle's been best served by those whose personality seemed liable to float off into the ether in the first place, most notably Lisa della Casa (but also more reserved, sound-based sopranos like Gundula Janowitz and Kiri te Kanawa).

Mattila's CD version (on the same disc as that remarkable Frühlingsfeier) plainly showed, if I recall correctly (my collection is otherwise engaged), the mismatch, with her strong sound and presence just overpowering the delicacies of the songs. Friday's Carnegie Hall concert with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra found her more accomodating, but with still-mixed results. The lightening of sound and purpose (though there was one Mattila Moment in "Beim Schlafengehen") worked well enough to suggest Strauss' concept, but she therefore didn't make much impact, and the words often didn't register over the orchestra. Long stretches might as well have been by some nameless soprano, not the star actually onstage. A waste, I think; there's other Strauss I'd much rather hear from her.

Anyone tired of the recent slow-as-possible school of VLL accompaniment for which Christoph Eschenbach -- whom, incidentally, I (like Steve Smith) think was ill-treated in Philly -- is the poster boy would enjoy the precise, clear, and fairly brisk approach that Jansons brought to the accompaniment. It only lacked, from the orchestra, really refined transparency of texture. The songs were followed by an account of the Rosenkavalier Suite that started so-so -- so cleanly done, but Jansons won't let a balancing relaxation enter waltz phrases -- but was capped by a heartfelt and deeply un-dry account of the Trio. Jansons isn't, it seems, a natural Strauss conductor, but he has his virtues.

An excellent evening, almost despite Mattila's contribution.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The groundhog says

Three more years of Lincoln Center construction.

New York: the world's capital of scaffolding.