Friday, September 28, 2007

Short report

Dessay last night was in form from the very beginning, and Giordani actually sang his final scene with good intonation and some nuance. The force of the evening as a whole sagged at the end of Act 2, however, with Giordani barely getting his curse out (on Monday, it was his best moment).

I'm not sure how I failed to take in this detail Monday about the production's most essential moment: as she lies down rapt singing "Al fin son tua, al fin sei mia," the chorus presses, gawking, upon her. She doesn't notice, but amid the white tie crowd in which every one of the women is wearing long gloves, she takes off her own gloves in pure expectant ease.

I'd tell you to go see her, but her fall appearances are already sold out.

Must see again

Maury tipped me to the rumor on the internets that 23-year-old Lisette Oropesa may be replacing Isabel Bayrakdarian (as Susanna) in the Met's October Figaros.

Anyone who's heard Oropesa at the 2005 Met Council Finals or in her recitals and bit parts (where, incidentally, her sound has easily filled the Met) since knows she is a remarkable singer of rare charm and early artistic maturity. (She continues to develop and learn her vocal instrument, but her sense of phrase, word, and manner is already whole.)

If Gelb doesn't try to throw in a "name" at the last minute, the Figaros that seemed superfluous without Dorothea Röschmann may again be a must-see.

UPDATE (9/29): It's official. Oropesa sings Susanna next Tuesday and Saturday, while the legendary "TBA" takes the rest of Bayrakdarian's October dates here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Woman in White (or, Sex and Lucia)

For the first half of Monday's Met-season-opening Lucia, it seemed that the previous production it would most resemble was Jürgen Flimm's uneven Fidelio: constrained by striking but literal physical design, and concerned more with clever scripted physicalizations of each passage than showing the spirit of the whole. But the evening turned, oddly, in the most Flimm-echoing sequence: an added-in groupphotograph scene.

It was attached to -- of all things! -- the famous sextet. The production is set in Victorian Scotland. So while the principals sing (inwardly, it seems) of their shock and stress at this big confrontation, a wedding photographer is neatly and obliviously arranging all of them but Edgardo into a tableaux memorializing the just-signed marriage contract.

At this point I began to think that Mary Zimmerman had made her first jarring misstep. For she had so far shown a defter hand than Flimm, avoiding his clunkier touches and finding more life within the limited framework (the Act I physical interplay between Lucia and Edgardo, for example, was perfect). But to make such a pointlessly stagy interpolation, and one, to all appearances, lazily ripped from Flimm's Fidelio!

But there was more at stake than just putting the principals through their onstage paces. Having sat them down before the camera (and this is still in the middle of the piece), the photographer decides that the image is not complete. He waves everyone else at the event over, and they clump around the wedding party, forming a confident, coherent mass on one side of the stage, with Edgardo alone on the other. The image is striking and moving: enacting Edgardo's own tragic position, it treats his part in the whole tragedy as something true and meaningful, not (as usual) simply a stock plot touch. His fatal romantic isolation contrasts strikingly with Lucia's fatal romantic suffocation -- here, she is in the picture, and faints at its taking (after the end of the piece) -- and the depiction clarifies the thematic relatedness of the whole story.

It also makes perfect sense. For the Victorian setting, while allowing perhaps a bit too much early luxuriating in familiar accoutrements, puts more life in the social scenes than shown by any production in recent memory. Here the chorus (and perhaps some of the credit is due new Met chorus master Donald Palumbo) doesn't just fumble around looking vaguely "period": it acts with a specificity and confidence only possible in a not-yet-forgotten milieu -- and one, of course, remembered for its confidence. Its natural, orderly, almost indifferent closing up of ranks against Edgardo in the sextet scene is as perfect as his stunned, disorderly staggering after his curse (and the lonely Victorian armchair which sits in for Wolf's Crag). Act 3's choral reaction shots are as convincing.

And not just the chorus: the period's social norms are a language (familiar to most of the audience) for all the cast to use. So Enrico's fear of social ruin is quite vivid in these terms, helped by the excellent, if somewhat shakily constructed, set of Act 2. His bullying of his dependent sister is similarly pinned down. But it is Lucia and Edgardo who are shown in clearest relief. Act 1's unmistakable sexual tension between these not-yet-consummated (in this production, anyway, as the setting would suggest) lovers sets up the evening's most piercing musical-theatric moment: as, to the glass harmonica's return, the mad scene suddenly slackens from fear and expectation to simple bliss, so goes the entire tension Natalie Dessay has carried in her body for the entire piece. "Al fin son tua, al fin sei mia," she sings with the night's most perfect breath as she lays down on the prompter's box -- at last I am yours, at last you are mine -- and it all dissolves into the present-tense bliss of complete sexual satiety, imagined into truth at last. Of course this is where the chorus interjects!

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After that, what's left? She turns worse, sings faster. Imagines a baby. Is tranquilized by a doctor (the same actor who was the photographer?) and passes out again, this time for good (and to a storm of applause). Edgardo has his part left, of course, and he gets an excellent dark isolating frame for his double aria.

Then the one decision which seemed dicey, and probably -- coming at the end of the evening -- colored many reviews of the production: Lucia, as the fountain ghost had done in Lucia's Act 1 aria mentioning it, appears as a ghost (white clothes, white makeup) onstage and inspires Edgardo's suicide. The first (similarly decked-out) ghost, and its literal appearance and costuming, well fit -- and, I thought, helped -- the Victorian gothic aesthetic of the whole, but this was a bit much. (It prompted a production note in the program, which by the first rule of production notes...) Zimmerman had done so well (see above) in contrasting the two lovers' paths that joining them at that late hour seemed out of left field.

But perhaps this was a result of the performers' dynamic. With this lead couple Marcello Giordani -- no matter how much he adopts a hyper-intense vocal style that, on this night, veered rather too close to tuneless bawling -- is the straight man, the solid figure on whom Lucia fixes. His Edgardo, it seemed, probably enjoyed the intricacies and solid practical business of politics, his family oath and passion for Lucia being deviations -- if even more intense for that reason -- from his normal being. When Giuseppe Filianoti -- whose Edgardo will (probably) be as dark and passionate as Dessay's Lucia -- takes over the part, the piece will take on a much different shape.

*     *     *

About the singing I've less to add. As Arturo, debutant Stephen Costello didn't quite make the jaw-dropping impression Matthew Polenzani did last decade, but showed off a very promising voice with a quick vibrato a bit like (though not quite as distinctive as) Joseph Calleja's. The other men were good (though Giordani swerved between "quite good" and "bad") but not able to escape Dessay's orbit. And she, in fact, started out unpromisingly. "Regnava nel silenzio" showed a somewhat clotted tone, which continued through the rest of the act. Now I didn't expect Dessay, at this point in her vocal life, to be bouncing huge clear perfectly-focused notes off the ceiling all night like Ruth Ann Swenson, but even her trills in "Quando, rapito" were heavy and labored.

Was she conserving energy for the end? Who knows? Perhaps the whole evening would have gone on in that vein, if her -- and the audience's -- spirits had not been bouyed by her unscheduled slip-and-fall near the end of that cabaletta... which she worked perfectly and thrillingly into flow of the piece. Even when not at her sonic best, Dessay understands performance -- but more on that anon.

At any rate, she improved act by act until a stunning mad scene which showed that her focus, passagework, trill, and top -- if not what they were when she took the Met by storm -- are still solidly there. We shall see how it holds up to the intensity of her performance (and the more-than-physical drain it imposes) over the run's long course.

*     *     *

The chorus sang as well as acted terrifically. Orchestral soloists Deborah Hoffman (harp), Trudy Kane (flute), Nathan Hughes (oboe), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Jerry Grossman (cello), and Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica) were all good. James Levine, whose first Lucia this was, handled the rhythms and climaxes of the piece very well (the sound and coordination with the singers goes pretty much without saying). I did find it odd that he really played up the ironic indifference of the orchestra near the end of Act 2. But I've already forgotten exactly where, I'm afraid -- the perils of taking one's time over a review.

It was a great evening. Dessay's Lucia is an amazing creation, one thoroughly supported by this production. I suspect things will get even better as the run goes on. I'll be seeing it again tonight.

UPDATE (9/29): Corrected info on the ghost's sole appearance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yes, I went

Since I've been asked: Yes, I was at opening night. Yes, a post is forthcoming. It will be long, and up by tonight.

UPDATE (9/27): My definition of "tonight" clearly needs realignment.

Friday, September 14, 2007

You may be right

With City Opera having already begun their performances, the 2007-2008 opera blogging season must surely soon begin.

A number of events precipitated this blog, but the proximate one may have been a dinner I had with a number of other opera devotees. Their perspectives, quite strongly and reasonably held, were different from my own but equally unrepresented in any public discourse. So one of my first posts was on different ways of experiencing opera, many of which I thought underserved by press and internet alike.

Which is to say, dear readers, I'd be thrilled and heartened if you contributed your contrasting thoughts as this season progresses: either in comments here or, if sufficiently inspired, in new blogs of your own creation. You may, after all, be right.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


It seems impossible that Luciano Pavarotti is dead, as nonsensical a thing as Hercules or James Bond being gone. It was not for nothing that "Nessun Dorma" became his anthem, Calaf's cry of confident triumph taken as the great tenor's own. And he did triumph: even as his voice faded, his stardom transformed a bit and continued to grow, and his legendarily boundless appetite produced a new marriage and child even at the end. Such a one mortal and dead? Quite implausible.

"Nessun Dorma", 1980

He was a man and a singer before the halo of celebrity descended, of course. The private man, who has gone, perhaps only his family knew. But the performer was the event of our lifetimes, as great an Italian singer as has ever lived. Some sniffed (and still do) that he was no "musician", for he couldn't learn parts from a score. But in actual time -- when it matters -- he was superb, with an Italianate command of phrase and rhythm (not to mention diction, tone, and pitch, which were unsurpassed) which rivals (including The Other Guy) could and cannot, for all gifts and study, match. Similarly, it is said he was no actor. Sometimes, perhaps. (But really?) But even apart from his often gripping musical characterizations (listen to any early Edgardo, for example -- the SFO one with Sills is mind-blowing), he was perhaps the most dramatically aware singer of our age: attuned like no one else to the dynamic of performer and audience, the high-wire energy that fueled their love and his glory. When not distracted by later infirmity, he -- with his character -- was as vividly present in the moment as any, and -- within a repertory approximately coterminous with personal sympathy -- more natural than most.

Act I Lucia duet with Sutherland, 1972

But it is the sound that is incomparable, the clear, unmistakable, lyric tenor sound glorious through the passaggio and top. Even the echoes of its former greatness made some late 90s performances worthwhile, and a blind guy has built a huge career on a certain similarity of basic timbre. There is nothing words can add except that those interested in history may have been underrating Pavarotti for a long time out of respect for the past. Now he too is part of history, and may shine brighter than ever.

From, of course, the 1967 studio set of Fille

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The first bad news

While waiting for some truly awful news to drop, I note this darkening of the Met fall schedule.

Röschmann should be far more celebrated here than she is, but cancellations haven't helped. I hope she recovers and returns soon.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Guest review -- Capriccio at the Edinburgh Festival

I have been tied up with non-operatic obligations and haven't been able to post or answer emails of late, but a correspondent at the Edinburgh Festival asked me to post this review from last week. All words after the divider are the guest reviewer's, not mine.

*     *     *

Richard Strauss : Capriccio
Cologne Opera
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne
Markus Stenz – conductor
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
30 August 2007

The drop shows an eye, and in the pupil of the eye, an image of German troops marching down the Champs Elysées in Paris. The familiar opening sextet begins, and the drop lifts to show an office; a high-ranking Nazi official sits behind a desk doing paperwork, a woman, close-cropped hair, stern grey suit, sits before it reading a German newspaper. She is clearly disturbed by something she is reading, but refrains from comment when an officer/servant appears to tidy something away. When he is gone, she drops the paper pointedly in front of the official, and leaves. He glances briefly at the paper, but puts it aside, then extracts some documents – identity papers – from a hiding place. A Jewish woman and man enter, and pay him for the documents. The woman also presses upon him a pearl and diamond choker; he’s reluctant to take it at first, but then accepts it. Two men in fedoras and black leather dusters – SS agents – appear next. They toss the official’s paperwork around contemptuously, and leave behind some sort of order, and a gun, without, however, seeing the money. He puts the money and choker away in a lacquer box, and takes from the box a small vial of what seems to be poison. Then a red velvet curtain conceals his office, and Flamand and Olivier, in 18th Century costume, discuss the charms of the Countess Madeleine from “backstage”, as if none of what we have just seen has ever happened.

So begins Christian von Götz’s new production of “Capriccio” for Cologne Opera, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival this week. Most of this production takes place in a factitious historical period – we’re looking at a play within a play within a play. In that sense, the occasional reminders of its 1942 framework tend to be more of an irritant than anything else, and the whole opening dumb-show casts a very long and somewhat aggravating shadow.

Yet there are notions that emerge very clearly, and very successfully, from that initial set-up. Madeleine’s meditation on the importance of words versus music is purely escapist fantasy, surrounded as she is by the money taken from desperate fugitives, the pearl choker around her neck. When she leaves at the end, under arrest, the “Count” dead, her household composed of brown-shirts, her self-interrogation is all the more poignant.

Most striking, however, perhaps, is La Roche’s great monologue. Although nothing in the staging at that point evokes the contemporary setting, the context suddenly becomes vibrantly clear, and every word comes across as the nearest thing to an apologia for his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis the Nazi regime that Strauss ever issued. “Capriccio” remains a difficult work to stage, even if taken purely at face value, because it is impossible to ignore just when it was written, or the deliberately anachronistic idiom in which it is written. It’s been close on 25 years since I saw my last (and first) production of “Capriccio”, and that too was set in the 20th Century, though in the mid-30s. The text and the music are so period-specific in their references that to update it seems ludicrous, yet it’s perhaps precisely because they’re so specific that one can do so with impunity – the sense of play-acting, of an elaborate fantasy, carries the notion through regardless. It worked then, and it works here, though the bulk of the action is more or less visually returned to its ostensible period of origin, c. 1775.

It helped, of course, that the production was well served musically, with a strong ensemble cast. Gabriele Fontana (Madeleine) does not have the most beautiful timbre, but brought a vitality to the role that served her well, while Michael Eder rose splendidly to the occasion as La Roche. Of the others, while there were no weak links to speak of, Dalia Schaechter’s rich-toned mezzo stood out particularly as Clairon, while the stuffed Sharpei plushie she carted around occasioned considerable amusement in the audience. An Edinburgh Festival engagement certainly allowed this provincial German company a few resources in terms of singers it might not otherwise have been able to command, but there was a cohesion present, right down to the smallest role, that Europe’s finest opera stages could envy. Small wonder half the world’s young singers seek apprenticeship in Germany’s opera houses.

Most memorable, however, was the Gürzenich Orchestra. It’s tempting to overplay Strauss, and wallow in the luscious harmonies, but then he easily becomes indigestible, and there are pages of considerable complexity in “Capriccio” that do not allow for the least bit of self-indulgence. There was none here; Stenz and the orchestra provided a reading of the utmost clarity and finesse, the texture clear and luminous, with great beauty of tone, and crystalline precision in the tricky octet and sextet passages. Here was a full-scale orchestra playing with the delicacy of the chamber orchestra of “Ariadne auf Naxos”, entirely appropriate to the context, stylish, graceful, and sweetly painful. If ever “Capriccio” needed an advocate to prove that it is not, and never was, intended as a blinkered retreat from reality into sugar-coated fantasy, then this was it.