Saturday, April 21, 2007

Night of the second bananas

Jack O'Brien's mediocre new version of Il Trittico is not, at least, the worst new production of the season. With solidly handsome sets and design, it is a servicable thing that may, in some future year, be the basis for a memorable account. But that account was not last night's, and though blame should be split with the vagaries of casting, health, and performance that produced the opening night lineup, the evening's dramatic inertness doesn't do him credit.

The premiere had its moments; unfortunately, none were created by the characters who were supposed to carry the drama. That Luigi, the tenor in Tabarro (Salvatore Licitra, again remarkable in verisimo) and the Frugola/Principessa/Zita trio (the characters, one per opera, played by Stephanie Blythe) were spellbinding is fantastic, but doesn't exactly make up for the fact that Giorgetta and Michele in Tabarro, Angelica in her eponymous piece, and Schicchi in his didn't make much impression.

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The program notes put this production of Il Tabarro on the waterfront of 1927 Paris, though it looks rather like Brooklyn circa 2007. The details are rendered realistically, though the water is frozen in its half-churned state. Most noticable in the staging is the lighting effect contrived by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer: the sun sets over the course of the opera, turning the scene from late-afternoon clarity to red sunset to evening. But this bit of high-tech literalism seems to be the only aspect of the action that has been imagined. The more important flow of time -- the subjective ebb and flow as the characters interact, lurk, and give in to fatal passion -- isn't much cultivated.

This calls for star turns among the leads, and in a sense there is one. As the other man, Licitra energizes the stage -- and one's ears -- whenever he appears. In another Puccini opera this might be enough, but here the baritone and soprano are the focus. Maria Guleghina does a decent enough job, but her sullen Giorgetta seems short on sexual energy. (Frugola should not be able to steal the female side of the show.) Meanwhile it's poor form to knock Frederick Burchinal, who after all filled in for the ill Juan Pons on short notice, but while commendable in character parts, neither baritone has the presence or vocal distinction to carry a new production. Still, all parts were well-sung -- not least debuting blogger-soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird (as the female Young Lover), whose sound in the house is rather more liquid than I'd been expecting. I was impressed, and wouldn't be surprised to see her again in bigger and better things.

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Suor Angelica contains the evening's one big directoral miscalculation: the vision of Angelica's dead child is made as schlocky-looking as one can imagine, with him here coming through an actual set of doors all in white to take her into Heaven. This does Puccini no favors, but its literalness is characteristic. This staging, too, uses the day-to-night lighting effect; there is also an actual donkey.

Barbara Frittoli sounds sadly diminished in the title part. Neither voice nor -- more shockingly -- phrasing and character showed much of the focus that once made her a commanding performer. The contrast with Stephanie Blythe's electric Principessa could not have been more pronounced.

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Finally, Gianni Schicchi was a directorial success. The farcial timing and manner, though perhaps overstated a bit, were coordinated very well among the cast. Here James Levine, too, seemed most energized. Again, all involved sang well, particularly Stephanie Blythe and the tenor -- here Massimo Giordano.

And still, the main character seemed a problem. Alessandro Corbelli has been an excellent character singer at the Met, and he remains one as Schicchi. But this persona is too small for Schicchi, who should have the vigor and spirit that the Florentine aristos lack. Here Schicchi has more of Dudley Moore than arriviste businessman in him, and it lessens the piece. It is fun, though, despite the chorus of alarm watches at midnight (the show runs until about 12:20).

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For those who remember the last City Opera production, with Mark Delavan terrific as Michele and Schicchi, this Trittico doesn't come close. The final bows told the tale: Stephanie Blythe pre-emptively waved off the storms of appreciation that had greeted her at prior curtains, perhaps to avoid showing up the actual leads, while Jack O'Brien and his team took a cowards' bow with James Levine. No one is going to boo Levine, but perhaps next time someone ought to boo O'Brien for not facing the music himself. His production wasn't even that bad: it just lacked... theatricality.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wag the dog

In a certain sense, the most distressing thing about next season's Met lineup (on the content of which I'll post soon) is the growing importance of the theatercasts. According to the press release,
“Metropolitan Opera: Live in HD” expands from six to eight opera transmissions: Roméo et Juliette (December 15), featuring Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón; Hansel and Gretel (January 1); Macbeth (January 12); Manon Lescaut (February 16), starring Karita Mattila and Marcello Giordani and conducted by James Levine; Peter Grimes (March 15); Tristan und Isolde (March 22), featuring Deborah Voigt and Ben Heppner and conducted by Levine; La Bohème (April 5), starring Angela Gheorghiu and Ramón Vargas; and La Fille du Régiment (April 26).
All well and good, except for the sneaking suspicion that with every major production eventually being theater- and telecast, principal casting for them will soon -- if it is not already -- be more dependent on how singers appear in transmitted close-ups than how they, well, sing.

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As Sieglinde rightly notes, Peter Gelb has consistently invoked "theatrical" values to justify his production and casting innovations. What of these developments?

At first glance, the moviecasts would appear to be a de-theatricalized version of the art. With viewers isolated from performers in a sterile theater where one munches away on popcorn, there seems to be no room for the audience-performer charge that makes the theatrical experience. (Among the audience itself there is a dynamic, yes, but that's different -- and much less powerful. For some quantification, simply compare the urge to applaud, yell, and scream live versus at a movie.) Theater is not, as cinema, about the appearance of reality but the appearance of the real. There is no substitute for actual, sensed human proximity.

But actually seeing a broadcast was still a surprise. Because of the emphasis on close-ups and two-shots, it turns out that these Met moviecasts actually de-theatricalize not only the operagoing experience but the operas themselves. Characters rarely -- and only briefly -- appear in the context of the stage, as individuals before the stage population (chorus, extras, character parts, etc.) who, from Greek days, represent the audience in the action. The action seems to be experienced from inside the skin of each character -- successively, as the camera jumps around, as if in some dreamlike series of self-transformations. The characters' relation to each other and the whole -- always clear in theater -- is far out of reach.

Of course this helps certain performers while handicapping others. Renee Fleming, for example, performs in this dreamy, undramatic trance anyway, but in the house it's a liability. On the big screen, her Tatyana's muddy physical relation to the stage and world is invisible, and her comfort in performing in close-up (or with one partner) doubles her success. Similarly, I can believe reports of Anna Netrebko's inadequate Elvira being magnetic onscreen. That touch of narcissism that makes her act more snake-charmer than theater is perfect for the camera. (And perhaps both of these ladies have been so raised on the close-up culture that they don't realize that opera isn't cinema?)

But this, then, is the problem: the advent of these moviecasts favors not just looks over voice (more on this anon), but anti-theatrical performers over theatrical ones. So far this still means people who have become famous in live performance (though one could argue about Netrebko), but it may not always be so. Theatricality? Fat people aren't the problem -- non-theatrical presentations are.

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That said, the Onegin performance was terrific, despite the stray leaf on Ramon Vargas' head; whether it bodes ill or no, Fleming and Dmitri Hvorostovsky did remarkably well with cinema-scale touches in their scenes (though the perfection of Vargas' physical assumption was, unfortunately, one of the things veiled by the paucity of long-shots). As a document, these things are valuable -- I'd buy a Blu-Ray version if such existed. It is their effect on the Met's core business that is the worry.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Return of the revenge of the off-topic diva

I meant to say something about next season, but first, the official off-topic diversion of this blog.

Although she's been a critical and cognoscenti favorite for years, American Ballet Theatre hasn't much shown off the talent of Veronika Part. Though her art has grown, she has the same "soloist" title at which she came to the company from the Mariinsky (where she was also a soloist), and in recent Met seasons has danced the lead in just single matinees of Swan Lake.

This year, however -- perhaps due to the influence of former ABT legend Gelsey Kirkland, who is helping choreograph the piece -- Part will premiere the company's new production of Sleeping Beauty, as well as dancing leads in La Bayadere, Balanchine's Symphonie Concertante, and that single matinee of Swan Lake. Could a promotion to principal be far behind?

The other ABT event is, of course, the retirement and farewell performances of Alessandra Ferri, but if the name rings a bell you've probably already bought tickets.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Homage to Ruth Ann

There are a lot of things one could say about this article on Ruth Ann Swenson, and most of the more obvious ones have already been aired. Some red herrings aside, Swenson's own take seems essentially true: as an unaloof, technically sound, American (!) stimmdiva, she's pretty much the opposite of what Gelb has promoted as the house's future. So -- and surely this is the bitterest part -- it doesn't matter that this year at the Met may have been her best in a decade or more. (Or in some twist, was it this uncharacteristic bitterness and discomfort that, despite cancer, made the success? Life, and art, are funny.)

Of course, there are other perspectives. As her voice lowered and deepened over the years, she's moved from the natural repetoire of her milky-soubrette temperament (she's the finest Adina I ever expect to see) to parts calling for more emotional and dramatic command. These -- and her ease in her new voice -- have been slow in coming, and if Marguerite was a worthy harvest, previous runs of Manon, Violetta, and the like failed to inspire. The marketing stuff has, in a sense, just given her less leeway for that sort of thing.

Next season's Violettas are primed to be different, but that is circumstance. Were she again the comfortable vocalist, what roles then? I do hope I get to find out. Her unmistakable sound, when freed to do its thing, makes me very happy.

(Incidentally, I've long thought she'd be the ideal Adalgisa, but houses have truly bizarre ideas about that part.)

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Mind you, the part of the Times in this isn't pretty. How bizarre that it's taken this turn for them to notice a singer -- any singer -- not actively pushed by Met administration!

UPDATE (4/7): I've heard quite an interesting rumor (somewhat far from most speculation) as to the context of this story. Even if true, however, everything above still goes.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Met Council Finals 2007

Maury did a positive impressions post of this event, so I offer a rundown this time. To my ears there were two clear standouts -- Amber Wagner and Michael Fabiano -- with the other winner's circle spots being up for grabs among pretty much everyone in a very good field. (It was the opposite of last year's mostly uninspiring parity.)

The singers sang two arias at a time on the Act I set of Traviata, in this order:

Keira Duffy, soprano (27)
"Tornami a vegheggiar" (Alcina)
"Caro nome" (Rigoletto)

Matthew Plenk, tenor (24)
"Quanto e bella" (Elisir)
"Here I stand" (Rake's Progress)

Amber L. Wagner, soprano (26)
"Do not utter a word, Anatol" (Vanessa)
"Dich, teure Halle" (Tannhäuser)

Nicholas Pallesen, baritone (28)
"Avant de quitter ces lieux" (Faust)
Largo al factotum (Barber)

Jamie Barton, mezzo (25)
"Priva son d'ogni conforto" (Giulio Cesare)
"Hurr hopp hopp hopp" (Hänsel und Gretel)

Michael Fabiano, tenor (22)
"Torna ai felici di" (Le Villi)
"Kuda, kuda" (Onegin)

Disella Larusdottir, soprano (30)
"Oh! quando volte" (Capuleti)
"Chacun le sait" (Fille du Regiment)


Ryan Smith, tenor (30)
"E la solita storia" (L'Arlesiana)
"Che gelida manina" (Boheme)

Ryan McKinny, baritone (26)
"O du mein holder Abendstern" (Tannhäuser)
"E sogno? o realta?" (Falstaff)

Angela Meade, soprano (29)
"Ach, ich liebte" (Abduction)
"Casta Diva" and cabaletta (Norma)

Alek Shrader, tenor (25)
"Il mio tesoro" (Don Giovanni)
"Ah! mes amis" (Fille du Regiment)

Wagner, Barton, Fabiano, Smith, Meade and Shrader were picked as winners.

Keira Duffy apparently sang from Lulu at the semifinals, but today picked a more traditional pair of arias. The Alcina piece was well-articulated but showed the weakness of her voice below the top. Gilda suited her better, her high notes quite strong and well-integrated though somewhat shout-y at times.

Plenk, the only tenor finalist not to win today, had an instrument at least as appealing as knocked-em-dead Fabiano, with whom he shares a certain sonic coloring. He didn't, however, do anything memorable with it.

In fact the finalists more or less across-the-board offered professional-quality vocal sound. But only the well-named Amber Wagner could become a star on voice alone. Hers is a dark, electric, tangibly broad sound that gave me goosebumps from the first bar. That she also seems to be an enthusiastic and energetic interpreter (particularly of the Vanessa bit, which she's actually sung in full) is just icing. The only quibble I have is that the top doesn't seem as consistently solid as the rest of her voice; it was under control today, but I hope it's an actual strength in the future.

Nicholas Pallesen sang his selections well, and gave quite a lively physical show as Figaro besides. There were some slight technical issues, and he seemed to lag behind the beat from time to time (probably the fault of short rehearsal time), but I wouldn't have been too surprised if he'd been picked as a winner.

Jamie Barton's win, on the other hand, was a surprise. She moved around the stage comfortably, but the voice sounded recessed and made very little impression.

Fabiano, at the ripe old age of 22, is a thoroughly communicative singer in the Italian style. Phrasing, emotional commitment and connection, solid technique -- he has "star" written all over him despite a somewhat ordinary quality to his high notes. (Then again: Domingo, Villazon...)

Larusdottir, who has a starring role in Anne Midgette's Times article, provided an interesting contrast to Keira Duffy. Where Duffy was weak below the top, the Icelander had a lovely bell-like peal in the middle of her voice but petered out unimpressively on high. She was charming enough and is a late starter, but the voice (particularly without an evidenced trill) doesn't seem well set up to sing high coloratura roles. Still, much of the sound was impressive.

Ryan Smith is a work in progress. The L'Arlesiana aria showed off his powerful instrument well, but he nearly came apart in the Puccini, eventually picking his way through without much grace or legato. The Met staff loves this sort of big-voiced project, though, so we may see him in the Lindemann program sooner rather than later.

The other Ryan -- McKinny -- is a Cardiff Singer of the World finalist, but didn't distinguish himself from the pack here. In fact I thought his sound, though pleasant, a bit unnatural.

Angela Meade did better with "Casta Diva" than its cabaletta or the Abduction aria, both of which highlighted the lack of integration of her sometimes-squeally highest notes. Still she has a nice basic sound, good breath, and a trill. As with Larusdottir, I'm not sure what she's going to sing: her voice (for now, at least) lacks the impact of a real dramatic coloratura, and lyric sopranos of her body type are at a big disadvantage these days.

Finally, Alek Shrader did well in the lyric aspects of Ottavio's aria. "Ah! mes amis" was OK -- all those Cs were narrow, though dead on solid, and the style less impressive than in the Mozart. A deserving winner who may amount to much, but I'm afraid I don't share Maury's big enthusiasm.

All in all, a very impressive year. I only wish I'd heard some semifinalists as well.

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I hate to be the jerk who comes out and says it, but Jamie Barton's out-of-left-field win today (after Katherine Jolly's win last year) should push the Met to ensure that no finals judge is affiliated with a company with which any finalist has strong connection. Is there some other explanation for the result than home cooking by judge Diane Zola (of HGO) for HGO-YAPper-to-be Barton? I absolutely hope so. Maybe she showed a lot more in the semis and rehearsal, or the judges were sitting really close (which, incidentally, is another bad idea), or something else. But frankly, we shouldn't even have to wonder about this. The fact that people even discuss the possibility (and they are, without my help) is bad news for the Met, especially as they're trying to leverage the competition into positive PR. Get some foreigners if necessary!

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To end on a slightly happier note, where the heck is Twyla Robinson? I can't forget how she brought down the house with "To This We've Come" five years back. Now she has fancy management and a huge concert career but no opera here, and only a little across the plaza. This has to change: perhaps her SFO summer engagements will get the ball rolling.

UPDATE (4/2): Another judge, Brian Dickie of Chicago Opera Theater, blogged his experience of the event.

UPDATE 2 (3/8/09): Please see the followup post on Ryan Smith.

UPDATE 3 (4/28/09): A post on the documentary of this event is here.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

I did what?

Digging through some old papers, I came across the libretto from the last New York presentation of Egyptian Helen, which I'd completely forgotten I'd attended. Deborah Voigt was, then as now, Helena, with Carl Tanner as Menelaus and Celena Schafer (who stole the show) as Aithra. What did I get from this American Symphony concert performance? Mostly that Die Liebe der Danae -- the previous American Symphony concert opera -- despite a certain lack of dramatic authenticity (and Joseph Gregor's cardboard characterizations), is a lot easier to put over than Helen. Pedestrian conducting? Mostly overmatched cast? Lack of sets? All one needs is a hint of charisma in Danae and a touch of musicality in Jupiter and the last act works wonders.

I wish I'd made it over to Dresden for the Strauss event this year (which included Danae).