Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ouch

I got this press release a few minutes ago:
James Levine to Undergo Surgery for Herniated Spinal Disc

Mr. Ronald Wilford, Chairman of Columbia Artists and James Levine’s manager has announced that Mr. Levine will undergo immediate surgery for a herniated spinal disc. The procedure necessitates withdrawing from his scheduled performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Levine has withdrawn from performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston on Tuesday, September 29 and Saturday, October 3 and from Carnegie Hall’s opening night performance on Thursday, October 1. Mr. Levine has also withdrawn from performances of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera on October 6 and 10.
Let's hope he recovers quickly from this latest back issue.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Less Gagnidze

So it seems that last night's performance of Tosca (also featuring an unscheduled Levine cancellation) had George Gagnidze singing the first act and only acting the second while Carlo Guelfi sang from the side. Very odd, and I hope this won't launch another set of revolving door casts as in the last years' Tristans.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The awful truth

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 9/21/09
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Levine

Is Tosca beautiful? Probably, for Cavaradossi lovingly remembers her beauty, but it is her eyes that inspire passion in her admirers -- and not just the physical form on her face, but the spirit shown therein. It's by the storms of feeling seen in her dark eyes that both Cavaradossi and Scarpia are inflamed and ensnared.

For the 2009-2010 season's opening night, the Met seemed to have bet on a similar sort of appreciation for her namesake opera. As it turned out, however, the negative reaction (mostly -- whether from variations of politeness, engagement, or aesthetic -- from the upper sections of the house) to Monday's new production dwarfed even the justified boo-fest for Mary Zimmerman's insult last season. Furthermore, every last booer seems to have put his opinion out on the internet. It seems that "Tosca" is loved in a rather different way than Tosca herself.

*     *     *

Director Luc Bondy is, despite some hilarious misunderstandings to the contrary, no sort of avant-gardeist. In fact he is a realist, arguably more so than his predecessor Zeffirelli: only where Zeffirelli's interest is in decorative detail, Bondy is primarily focused on the psychology of the piece and its characters. And although she dates the very beginning to an Elektra the year before, one can see Bondy's influence on the flowering of Karita Mattila's great phase in the 1996 Chatelet production of Don Carlos, long a DVD staple (and given that it was an early HD experiment, shouldn't a Blu-Ray be out by now?). Thirteen years ago she -- and the rest of the cast -- was not only gratifyingly precise in character and interaction but as explosively expressive as at any time since.

Now as then, the psychologies of the characters -- even the small ones -- are sharpened and foregrounded. The contempt and contemptibility of the Sacristan, Spoletta as evil's indispensable functionary, even the bland more-or-less sympathy of the last-act jailer (here combined with the firing squad leader) are sketched in full clarity, perhaps not least for not being drowned in a vast accumulation of historical set detail. But this is hardly the stuff of boos or bravos.

It is Scarpia's part that is here most sharpened, to vivid but apparently controversial effect. Scarpia is, as he himself notes, a man of power and appetite -- it is no coincidence that Act II begins with him eating, as Act I begins with Cavaradossi too engaged with art, love, and politics to eat -- and Bondy mercilessly puts it onstage. So, in a remarkable tableau, Act I closes with Scarpia -- after his famous cry that Tosca makes him forget God -- blasphemously and licentiously embracing the processional statue of the Virgin as the Church crowd recoils. Act II opens with Scarpia taking his supper in the easy company of three trollops, who tend to him a bit (the Met's first blowjob scene was apparently cut/made more ambiguous since the dress rehearsal) during his aria. This latter scene recalls nothing so much as Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing club, though the decor and clothing are broadly colorful and neutral, not brassily vulgar.

What the decor is not is elaborate, eye-catching, the High-Renaissance masterpiece that is the actual Palazzo Farnese. It offers no relief, lends no false gentility to Scarpia's gross perversion of power and position. It's for this, I think, that the Act II set got so much grief.

*     *     *

As the gross and appreciative elements in Puccini's men -- here so decisively split between Scarpia and Cavaradossi -- are sometimes combined in a single character (e.g. Pinkerton), so the imperious and vulnerable elements of Puccini's women -- sometimes split between two characters (Musetta and Mimi, Turandot and Liu) -- are here, as in Manon Lescaut, combined in the title character. But while Manon Lescaut is a seeming naif who is fatally and inexorably tied to the grand, Tosca -- despite the stabbing -- is a grand excitable diva who is really a softie, disastrously out of her depth in the game of life and death Scarpia, Angelotti, and Cavaradossi are playing. (For what else is the meaning of "Vissi d'arte"?)

Bondy again gets this right -- the way Scarpia so easily dupes her in Act I is dead on -- but it goes against the strengths of his lead soprano. For Mattila is sui generis today in her sincere concentrated abandon in emotional extremity. But while Tosca honestly feels the passionate and excited responses she offers to her wild situation, there's always a bit of artifice mixed in, an extent to which her high emotional pitch is true to neither herself (again, look at the aria) nor the world she's in (for once, the long dramatic irony of the last Act is played straight in its perfect eerie tone). That sort of grand humbug is not Mattila's strength; her greatest virtue undercut, she offers a perfectly fine interpretation that lacks the scale of her recent Jenufa, Salome, Elsa, or, yes, Manon Lescaut.

*     *     *

But why, in fact, the angry reception? For some booing was heard after Act II, perhaps the musical and dramatic success of the evening. George Gagnidze had sung and acted Scarpia with relish, tenor Marcelo Alvarez had delivered a stirring "Vittoria!" and maintained his usual firmness of characterization as Cavaradossi, and Mattila had sung well and put her electric nervousness to good use at last, registering the enormity of the stabbing and its antecedent events in the tense rest of her body. Who could object?

Ah, but Bondy had dared to omit the crucifix and candles by which Tosca dresses up her killing in a bit of post-hoc piety. (He, like Zeffirelli before him, also omitted her deliberately washing her hands of blood and fixing her hair, but never mind that...) To be honest, I can scarcely believe people are serious in claiming this as some sort of deal-breaker.

Crucifix and candles are, of course, part of the familiar and comforting wrap of nostalgic historicity in which much of the audience is used to seeing the stark and shocking story of the opera. It is at bottom, as Bondy himself observes in his program note, an unpleasant story, so much so that as one thinks on it one wonders how "Tosca" came to be beloved at all. Yes, there is Puccini's gorgeous music, but the dark and evil presence of Scarpia is strong even in the ear. And Puccini doesn't employ the quick rhythms and cabalettas by which Verdi sounds the exhilaration of doom.

Bondy offers, as is his wont, the dark psychological currents of the piece, unmistakably presented. And, aside from the misconceived freeze-frame "jump" business at the end, I think it works fairly well. But as audiences take different sorts of pleasure in the art, a production that is just the one thing is bound to dissatisfy many.

Unconventional productions that triumph at the Met often do so by offering sheer physical beauty, in design and sound, to make up for the lost pleasures of the familiar. While the current cast certainly sounds good, its virtues are more of character: Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann may transform things when they arrive in the spring. And the design, though reasonably handsome, is hardly the wonder one got with Wernicke's FroSch or Minghella's Butterfly -- its most striking element, Scarpia's wonderfully sinister crocodile coat, is too subtle to be seen by most in the house. (But the movie cameras will pick it up.)

*     *     *

And still I suspect that Monday's reaction had less to do with the particulars of this production and more to do with Franco Zeffirelli. Though one of his worst Met productions, his "Tosca" is beloved largely because it buries the evil and shocking elements of the story in its mass of comforting -- and, yes, beautiful -- details. To have a Zef production replaced by a show that strips things down was bound to inflame his fans, regardless of the quality (or lack thereof) of the result.

Because of this, and because of the pile-on effect among the critics, I doubt we'll know what's actually in this show for a while. It would not entirely surprise me, however, to see Bondy's "Tosca" return at some point in triumph, as the last epic boo-barrage I attended eventually did. I'd be even less surprised to see the show get a good reception next month in movie form.

One last note before I end this too-long post: unlike too many other production teams, Bondy and company did not cower from their boos or hide behind Levine or the leading lady's skirt. In fact, they came out -- with a smile, I think -- to receive the boos again in the plaza curtain call! For this, at least, one should commend them.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

2009-2010 Met season preview

This is mostly the text of my February post after the initial season announcement, with some edits to reflect changes since then. Cast changes in those months are highlighted.

Note that not every cast combination is listed below -- just most of the recurring ones.

Tosca (new Luc Bondy production)
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Levine (opening night through October)
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Colaneri (October -- 3 out of 5 performances)
Mattila, Kaufmann, Terfel / Levine (April)
Dessì, Giordani, Gagnidze / Auguin (end of April-May)
New: No more complaints about Juha Uusitalo, who's been mercifully axed from this production (though not -- yet -- the spring Flying Dutchman) at the last minute. Both of Karita Mattila's casts have potential, at least with Levine in the pit; Daniela Dessi, who might be an interesting Italian contrast, is saddled with the uninspiring baton-work of Philippe Auguin.
As for opening night itself, I expect those yearning for a specific Puccini sound will complain as they did about Mattila's Manon Lescaut. But Tosca has been a star singing actress' part for a long, long time, and Bondy has inspired Mattila to some of her best work.

Figaro
de Niese, Relyea, Bell, Skovhus, Leonard / Ettinger (October)
Oropesa, Pisaroni, Dasch, Tezier, Leonard / Luisi (November)
de Niese, Pisaroni, Dasch, Tezier, Leonard / Luisi (December)
John Relyea has been intolerable in the title part, and as curious as I am about unknown debutant Dan Ettinger, I'm sure Fabio Luisi will impress in the pit here. Wait until November and Lisette Oropesa's likely less-affected Susanna.
New: de Niese, who sang well but un-touchingly as Eurydice last season, sings the three December Susannas for which Oropesa had been originally scheduled. Note that Met Council winner (as seen in "The Audition") Angela Meade (of all people) has a one-off Countess in the first of these.

Magic Flute
Phillips, Klink, Miklósa, Maltman, Zeppenfeld / Labadie (September)
Kleiter, Polenzani, Shagimuratova, Gunn, König / Fischer (April)
New: Susanna Phillips (another, most memorable, Met Council winner) is in as Pamina; Genia Kühmeier is out. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining either.

Aida
Urmana, Zajick, Botha, Guelfi / Gatti (October)
Urmana, Zajick, Margison, Guelfi / Carignani (end of October-November)
Papian, Zajick, Licitra, Guelfi / Carnignani (April)
Not bad casting -- and some fairly promising conductors -- if you crave the Met's grand Aida. So much for the internet rumor of Salvatore Licitra being finished at the Met... Though I do think Johan Botha is the better bet here.
New: Note that the first group will be the performers in the moviecast.

Barber of Seville
DiDonato, Banks, Pogossov / Benini (October)
DiDonato, Banks, Vassallo / Benini (end of October-November)
Damrau, Brownlee, Vassallo / Benini (February)
I saw the amazing Joyce DiDonato in this production two years ago with Lawrence (the sometime DJ) Brownlee as Almaviva and Russell Braun as Figaro: a pleasant show all around, though DiDonato's was the only major star instrument on display. I suspect these casts will do similarly, though I wouldn't sell Barry Banks short. Conductor Maurizio Benini has grown on me a bit.
New: I doubt DiDonato will be able to top the whole singing on a broken leg/in a wheelchair thing from Covent Garden this summer, but who knows?

Der Rosenkavalier
Fleming, Graham, Persson, Sigmundsson, Vargas / Levine (October)
Fleming, Graham, Schäfer, Sigmundsson, Cutler / Levine (January)
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal rolls over in his grave as Renee Fleming reprises her emo Marschallin. The rest of the cast is promising, though, particularly in October. This Strauss opera has never been one of James Levine's strong pieces.
New: Perhaps Levine assistant Jens Georg Bachmann's sole conductorial outing (October 22) could liven things up?

Damnation of Faust
Borodina, Vargas, Abdrazakov / Conlon (October-November)
What a cast! Too bad about the production.

Turandot
Guleghina, Giordani, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Lindstrom, Giordani, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Guleghina, Porretta, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Guleghina, Licitra, Kovalevska / Nelsons (January)
The Met is doing 16 performances of this (in)famously over-the-top Zeffirelli version of Puccini's opera, all but one conducted by the young Latvian newcomer Andris Nelsons. But to see this show without seeing Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Liu would be criminal.
New: The moviecast is in November. As I said, criminal.

From the House of the Dead (new Patrice Chéreau production)
White, Margita, Mattei, Streit, Hoare / Salonen (November-December)
Janacek+Dostoevsky+Salonen+Mattei = must-see+great press+empty seats

Il Trittico
Racette, Lucic, Blythe, Corbelli, Antonenko / Ranzani (November-December)
Racette, Lucic, Blythe, Corbelli, Licitra / Ranzani (December)
Patricia Racette stars in all three operas in Puccini's triptych, and -- with Stephanie Blythe, who stole the show last time -- may finally bring Jack O'Brien's literal production to life. Very promising, though debuting conductor Stefano Ranzani is unknown to me.

Tales of Hoffmann (new Bartlett Sher production)
Calleja, Held, Lindsey, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova / Levine (December, including first night Gala, and January)
Calleja, Held, Lindsey, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova / Keenan (December)
Early rumors had Anna Netrebko attempting all the heroines in this, but she's wisely left high-coloratura Olympia to Kathleen Kim and mezzo-ish Giulietta to Ekaterina Gubanova.
Sher's first production at the Met wasn't so impressive, but perhaps he's learned from it. Obviously Levine's performances are the ones to see; his sciatica-induced cancellation drained the life out of an excellently cast (Shicoff, Swenson, Terfel, Mentzer) 2000 revival.
New: Unsurprisingly, originally-announced tenor Rolando Villazon isn't singing Hoffmann: the remarkable Joseph Calleja is. More surprisingly, Rene Pape and Elina Garanca (the latter now singing Carmen instead) aren't going to be in this production either, being now replaced by Alan Held and Kate Lindsey. Held has some big shoes to fill but the other changes are, I think, probably for the better (performance-wise, that is -- not box-office).

Elektra
Bullock, Voigt, Palmer, Schmidt, Nikitin / Luisi (December)
Luisi did well with Strauss' Helena, and he plus the excellent supporting cast should make much of the show whether or not debuting English soprano Susan Bullock crashes or triumphs in the name part -- and whether or not Voigt, who is no longer the creamy-voiced marvel of the 90s (as in the telecast with Behrens), can make Chrysothemis work in her new voice.
New: With Held tied up singing the four villains in Hoffmann, Evgeny Nikitin replaces him here as Orest.

Hansel and Gretel
Persson, Kirchschlager, Langridge, Plowright / Andrew Davis (December-January)
This is a pretty starry lineup for a kids' presentation (with attendant 11AM matinees).

Carmen (new Richard Eyre production, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon)
Garanča, Alagna, Frittoli, Kwiecien / Nézet-Séguin (New Year's Eve Gala through January)
Borodina, Jovanovich, Kovalevska, Kwiecien / Altinoglu (end of January-February)
Borodina, Jovanovich, Kovalevska, Rhodes / Altinoglu (February)
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Kovalevska, Kwiecien / Altinoglu (April-May)
Yes, Angela Gheorghiu's first Carmen attempt onstage anywhere. A better fit for her temperament than Micaëla, but a stretch for her voice. Barbara Frittoli sounded sufficiently poor in her 2007 Suor Angelica that I've wondered why she's still getting big engagements here. In the other cast, Olga Borodina can certainly sing Carmen but seemed bored in her last one: perhaps the new production -- and not injuring her foot -- will energize her a bit. 2007 Tucker-winning tenor Brandon Jovanovich makes his debut opposite, which should be interesting, and Kovalevska's Micaëla has already outshined Borodina once. Much will depend on the two debuting conductors.
New: Whoops! Gheorghiu's big Carmen debut won't happen until April, as she's decided she doesn't want to sing with her husband any more. Elina Garanca withdrew from Hoffmann to take up the title role, which is... interesting. We'll see the London reviews for her and Alagna this October.

Stiffelio
Cura, Marambio, Dobber, Ens / Domingo (January)
This obscure Verdi opera was only moderately interesting when Domingo was actually singing in it and James Levine conducted. Now, account for the mind-boggling gap between Levine and Domingo-as-conductor... A definite miss.

Simon Boccanegra
Domingo, Pieczonka, Giordani, Morris / Levine (January-February)
Domingo sings baritone! -- and not just any baritone part, but the great title role of this Verdi opera. Whether it works or not, it's an event -- though I'll be surprised and cheered if it's as good as the last revival.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Stemme, Ryan, Kim, Connolly / Petrenko (February)
Low-glamour but high-promise cast in a great opera and production. Kirill Petrenko's conducting last time was routine.
New: Out (as Zerbinetta) -- Aleksandra Kurzak, charming in last season's Rigoletto. In -- Kathleen Kim, who almost stole the show in Rusalka, and might well steal the show in Hoffmann earlier in the season.

La Fille du Régiment
Damrau, Florez, Palmer, Te Kanawa / Armiliato (February)
If you want to hear this Donizetti piece again, the singing here's bound to be good. Dame Kiri is in a non-singing role, however.

La Boheme
Netrebko, Beczala, Cabell, Finley / Armiliato (February-March)
Netrebko, Beczala, Swenson, Petean / Armiliato (March)
Will get a lot more press than this season's revival, but won't necessarily be as good. The role of Mimi suits Netrebko's current voice, though.

Attila (new Pierre Audi production)
Abdrazakov, Urmana, Vargas, Alvarez / Muti (February-March)
Abdrazakov, Urmana, Vargas, Alvarez / Armiliato (March)
This is not only conductor Riccardo Muti's Metropolitan Opera debut but the house premiere of this Verdi rarity. Don't miss it, and buy your tickets to Muti's performances early. Intense young tenor Russell Thomas has one performance (March 19) in place of Ramon Vargas -- both should be interesting.

The Nose (new William Kentridge production)
Szot, Geitz, Popov / Gergiev (March)
This is the Met premiere of this early Shostakovich piece, and the debut of all three principal singers as well as the production team. If Gergiev makes you nauseous these days, there is one performance (March 25) led by his fellow Mariinsky conductor Pavel Smelkov. Very interesting, though by no means a sure bet.

Hamlet (new production imported from Geneva)
Keenlyside, Dessay, Larmore, Morris, Spence / Langrée (March-April)
Another Natalie Dessay showpiece, with another Natalie Dessay mad scene. Who can resist?

La Traviata
Gheorghiu, Valenti, Hampson / Slatkin (end of March-April)
2002 Met Council Finals winner James Valenti finally makes his company debut as Alfredo. Gheorghiu's Violetta and Hampson's Germont are likely familiar, but by the time of this revival it will have been a dozen years since Leonard Slatkin conducted at the Met.

Armida (new Mary Zimmerman production)
Fleming, Brownlee, Ford, Zapata, Banks, van Rensburg / Frizza (April, including first night Gala, and May)
Fleming in her element -- Rossini's take on Tasso. Don't miss, and buy your tickets early.

Flying Dutchman
Uusitalo, Voigt, Gould / Ono (April-May)
See note on Tosca. Tenor Stephen Gould's debut is interesting, but this revival's likely a miss unless Uusitalo shows well in the Puccini.
New: Or unless he doesn't sing this either...

Lulu
Petersen, Lehman, von Otter, Morris / Levine (May)
The greatest, most gorgeous (particularly when Levine conducts it) modernist opera gets a surprisingly starry cast.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gagnidze fans, rejoice

A reader notes that unimpressive baritone Juha Uusitalo is out of not only Monday's opening night gala of Tosca, but the entire run. George Gagnidze, who sang Scarpia in last year's NY Philharmonic Tosca, will now sing in all non-Terfel performances.

Monday, September 14, 2009

One week

The happiest thing about opera is that it occurs in the now -- palpably so. The experience of the operagoer may well, as familiarity grows, expand to enclose future (the near pleasure of getting one's tickets or wondering what the season may bring, as well as the more distant games of what future lineups would be pleasant to see, or what some singer or conductor might become over time) and, of course, past (both the vast art history in which musicologists swim and the closer performance nostalgia into which many a devoted fan has sunk) but these are secondary to the existence of a performance in the present, as the many and various times of a house full of people sync into a single now as each makes his way through the music and story, the sounds and meanings made on that specific occasion. It's this now created each night anew that is important: the great mystery that makes everything else about the opera world tolerable.

All this by way of saying that if you've been away from opera for the summer months -- or longer -- or have never seen an opera at all (if by some chance someone of that description is reading this blog)! -- you may have missed some number of great performances and rather more less-great news and gossip, but none of that has any bearing on what you may or may not experience at to the Met season-opening Tosca next Monday. (Or, of course, any other performance.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

102 minutes

Via the History Channel, eyewitness video footage from this day in 2001.

A "Day of Service"? What a grotesquely vile perversion of memory. Watch the footage instead.