Monday, November 28, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 28-Dec. 4)

UPDATE 11/30: spotted Sunday's event on my calendar this time

Metropolitan Opera:
Boheme (M/F), Faust (T/SE), Rodelinda (W*/SM), Satyagraha (Th)
Tuesday is the gala Met premiere of Des McAnuff's ENO-import Faust, with Jonas Kaufmann as the first of the show's three star tenors this season. In Levine's extended absence, Yannick Nézet-Séguin's work therein may turn out to be the first conductorially-exciting event of the season. Meanwhile, those interested in Rodelinda should be careful: Wednesday's (starred) show is the one just before this Saturday's matinee moviecast, which means that the camera equipment and lights will be out in force. Do not sit in side orchestra, front orchestra, or side parterre -- the house is not interested in optimizing patron experience on these nights, but in making the eventual broadcast go well.

Carnegie Hall:
Ian Bostridge recital (M)
Collegiate Chorale Moïse et Pharaon (W)

Bostridge's main-hall appearance is accompanied by composer Thomas Ades, whose own work is on the program, helping to balance by obscurity some well-known peaks of the song repertory (Schumann's Dichterliebe and part of Schubert's Schwanengesang). But the really elaborate rarity is on Wednesday, with a concert performance of Rossini's opera in French. The cast includes James Morris, Angela Meade, Marina Rebeka, and others...

Alice Tully Hall:
Michele Losier recital (Th)
The French-Canadian mezzo (a Met Council finalist some years ago) sings an all-French program.

Frick Collection:
Renata Pokupić recital (Sunday 5pm)
Schumann, Faure, Kunc, Barber, and Weill.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 21-Nov. 27)

As one might expect, it's a slow schedule this Thanksgiving week.

Metropolitan Opera:
Boheme (T/F), Rodelinda (W/SE), Satyagraha (SM)
Local favorite Hei-Kyung Hong as Mimi on Tuesday; exciting Russian newcomer (last seen as Hoffmann's Antonia) Hibla Gerzmava for the rest of the run beginning Friday.

Safe travels and happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The new emperor's shirt

Rodelinda - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2011
Fleming, Scholl, Kaiser, Blythe, Davies, Shenyang / Bicket

The Met premiere run of Handel's opera seven years ago occasioned this blog's first review, largely concerned with the scandal of David Daniels -- that show's Bertarido -- offering less to the ear than any other big-name, critically praised lead singer (who hadn't wrecked his/her voice between hiring and performance, that is). But even the 2004 Daniels would have been preferable to last night's version of Andreas Scholl.

It's not that Scholl can't sing. He can, and he phrases well. It's just that his voice is too weak to carry a lead at the Met, both in timbre and in force. The latter was particularly evident in "Vivi tiranno", Bertarido's climactic last-act aria, which struggled dreadfully to be heard even over Harry Bicket's modest and well-conducted Handelian forces, but the lack of even an approximately distinguished tone-quality was just as damaging throughout. Perhaps his voice has had better days, but at the moment Scholl is doing the house and this revival a disservice.

As in 2004, the secondary countertenor outshines the lead. Iestyn Davies, in his Met debut, shows as clear and full a sound as one can expect from this characteristically monochromatic voice type along with good musicianship. I'd call it a promising debut except that the inauthentic practice of using falsettists in Handel seems to me as unwise now as it was in 2004 (or, indeed, 1725). If I must hear a countertenor somewhere, though, Davies is clearly a better option than Scholl (notwithstanding the latter's fame).

If Renee Fleming's voice sits more comfortably in the title part now than it did in 2004 (when the role was unflatteringly low), her style has this time slipped into the phrase- and pitch-bending stylings that make purists furious. I wasn't furious, but I wasn't thrilled either.

Most affecting and involved, perhaps, was tenor Joseph Kaiser. I would never have guessed him to be a notable Handelian, but he sings both with clean technical skill and the full measure of Grimoaldo's torment in his crucial last-act monologues. What Kaiser doesn't have is a true star-quality sound to amplify these other attributes into an unmissable whole. (It is still, let's be clear, an order of magnitude better than Scholl's.) Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang does have a star sound -- I've witnessed it elsewhere, and he won Cardiff for a reason -- but he still hasn't quite worked out how to produce and use it consistently over the course of a full production at the Met.

Closest to a full-spectrum success on the night was, of course, Stephanie Blythe. But by Blythe's standards it was an ordinary success, not outsized like her Orfeos or the mini-roles in Trittico. This is one show she can't singlehandedly carry.

Stephen Wadsworth's production has had its original nonsense (gratuitous chest-baring, etc.) mercifully excised and stands as a fine example of his work. But since when does a director get a curtain call for a show's second revival!?

*     *     *

Like Don Giovanni earlier in the year, this would have been a much better production with, say, Susan Graham starring instead of the European import.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 14-Nov. 20)

Not much to my taste this last week before Thanksgiving. Those excited by Handel or new works may feel differently.

Metropolitan Opera:
Rodelinda (M/SE), Satyagraha (T/SM), Nabucco (Th), Boheme (F)
Rodelinda (with Fleming and Blythe) and La Boheme (with a lesser-known cast) make their first appearances this season, while Nabucco closes (Guleghina's already gone, but Lee and Lucic remain).

Carnegie Hall:
The Theater of Early Music Handel arias/duets (T)
Baltimore Symphony Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (S)

The former ensemble is countertenor Daniel Taylor's, and he alternates and duets here with soprano Deborah York.

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (899 10th Ave.):
Dark Sisters (T)
Final performance of the premiere run.

Juilliard School (Peter Jay Sharp Theater):
Kommilitonen! (W/F/SuM)
US premiere of this piece by Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist David Pountney. I suppose the student theme of the piece is in accord with its commission by Juilliard and London's Royal Academy of Music.

Rubin Museum of Art (150 W. 17th St.):
Numinous City (W)
Concert performance of Pete Wyer's work in progress. Includes a panel discussion with the artists and the main character -- and, for a bit more, a guided tour of the Himalayan-focused museum by said main character (a former Tibetan nun) (!).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Becoming who they are

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera, 10/28/2011
Meade, Costello, Abdrazakov, Gubanova, Mumford / Armiliato

Il Barbiere di Siviglia - Metropolitan Opera, 10/29/2011
Pogossov, Leonard, Kudrya, Muraro, Ramey / Benini

It's a treat to hear what soprano Angela Meade has become. I'd somehow missed her several Met appearances since the famous 2007 Met Council Finals that opened the door to the 2008 emergency substitution that launched her career here. At the time she was a work in progress, the impact of the sound not quite matching the dramatic coloratura repertory she would have to sing. Four-and-a-half years later and her voice is a formidable whole, totally focused and clear from top to bottom and a pleasure to hear at all times. Most impressive, to my ears: the absence of the typical young singer's reluctance to really sound chest notes. On the other hand, the top is nice but not (as with other singers) climactically outstanding, and the trills this time were rather fakey, but that's nitpicking. Meade can really sing any of these parts, and I'm looking forward to her run of Ernani (with, for three of six nights, last season's very good emergency tenor debutant Roberto di Biasio replacing the tragically dead Salvatore Licitra) in February.

Stephen Costello also first stepped on the Met stage in 2007, in his case as Arturo in the Met's opening-night debut of the current Lucia. His expressive middle voice made quite an impression that evening, and it again serves him well here. His high notes, however, aren't made of the same stuff, and we'll see if the early bel canto tenor stuff that highlights them will continue to be for him.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov not only sang well but looked perfectly like Henry VIII, bass-baritone Keith Miller impressed again as Anna's brother, and mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova (as Jane Seymour) made a nice foil to Meade in this bigger chance than her debut as Giulietta. Marco Armiliato conducted, as ever, with a firm and helpful hand.

With all these really good voices present, it's either to the glory of this house or the absurdity of its and the opera world's casting system (and, to be fair, lack of feature parts) that the greatest, grandest sound and singing of the show was in the small if significant pants part of Mark Smeaton. I've known that young mezzo Tamara Mumford would be fantastic from the very first time I heard her sing, but whether she'd be recognized and allowed to fully show her talents -- that's still to be seen.

What did the evening lack? Drama, more or less. Donizetti and Felice Romani provide some charged scenes (of which the performers made much) but the whole -- basically another court cautionary tale -- doesn't hold together particularly well. It isn't helped by David McVicar's production. Unlike his bold and vigorous Trovatore, McVicar's work here is bland and monochrome: a more tasteful version of what Nick Hytner gave us in last year's Don Carlo. The fact that drives the story -- Bolena, in a classic tragic trope (see Simon Boccanegra, for example), is herself a usurper, as the chorus reminds us at the very start, and her downfall comes from and with regretting that initial choice -- is dulled and obscured by the all-too-tasteful (if also nicely girth-obscuring) costuming and absent character-direction.

*     *     *

The next evening's Barber was a similar tale on a lesser scale. Isabel Leonard's mezzo was more defined and interesting than I'd yet heard, and though she can't singlehandedly carry a Barber in the same way as, say, DiDonato she's definitely a plausible major-house lead. Debuting Russian tenor Alexey Kudrya has some nice sounds in the middle but the top is actually sort of a trial, making Rossini not the best fit. Whether Cessa piu resistere (the final-act aria, used to better effect by the heroine as Cenerentola's finale) was cut because of this or some other reason I'm not sure. Rodion Pogossov is a decent "busy" traditional Figaro (though, obviously, no Mattei), and I enjoyed the professionalism of Maurizio Muraro's comic work as Bartolo. Samuel Ramey is still trooping on, though at this point he sounds depressingly like the old version of Paul Plishka (who himself was rather better in his youth).

The week in NY opera (Nov. 7-Nov. 13)

UPDATE (11/12): Not sure how I missed tonight's Angelika Kirchschlager recital with Thibaudet at Carnegie. Nor had I seen that I'm quoted in the recital series brochure...

A number of new opera offerings this week, as well as the usual Met stuff and a big OONY event.

Metropolitan Opera:
Don Giovanni (M/F), Satyagraha (T/SE), Nabucco (W/SM)
Siegfried has come and gone (post later today), as have Maria Guleghina and Yonghoon Lee in Nabucco. With Kwiecien's Giovanni disappointing (again, more later) and Gerald Finley's last version -- admittedly in a long-ago production -- almost unwatchable, that opera is less promising for the rest of its run as well.

Carnegie Hall:
Opera Orchestra of New York Adriana Lecouvreur (T)
NY Lyric Opera Theatre Mozart selections (SE)
Amigos De La Zarzuela Zarzuela concert (Sunday 2pm)

If you're (understandably) finding the Met week a bit short on star power, Tuesday night's OONY performance with Gheorghiu and Kaufmann may be the thing. The other events are considerably more modest, both in the small Weill space.

Cary Hall, The DiMenna Center for Classical Music (450 West 37th St.):
American Lyric Theater The Poe Project (Th)
I reviewed, several years ago, an early public event in ALT's "Composer/Librettist Development Program". This seems to be one of that program's subsequent fruits: a concert presentation (with full orchestra) of three short operas on a Poe theme, set to texts by three of the librettists from that initial debut -- Quincy Long, Royce Vavrek, and Deborah Brevoort.

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (899 10th Ave.):
Dark Sisters (F/SE)
Premiere of Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam's new opera. According to the press blurb:
In a world where personal identity is forbidden, Dark Sisters follows one woman's dangerous attempt to escape her life as a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous sect based in the Southwestern United States.
This material doesn't seem the most promising basis for an opera, but who can really know in advance? Very good young cast.

Bruno Walter Auditorium (Amsterdam Ave. entrance of Lincoln Center's library):
New York Opera Forum Il Trovatore (Sunday 1:30pm)
Young singers, concert version.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The stranger

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 10/31/2011
Kwiecien, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas, Bloom, Kocan / Langree

Those hoping that the originally-scheduled lead of this new production to provide a more integrated portrayal of Giovanni than his predecessor were not, unfortunately, so rewarded. In fact Mariusz Kwiecien seemed to be in a different show altogether. Not for him the telling and interesting interactions with the human environment Grandage so nicely places around Don Giovanni, the world the unscrupulous nobleman was born to enjoy and exploit -- nor even the thrilling opposition to its norms with which Bryn Terfel made such success a decade ago (as one can see on DVD). Kwiecien's Giovanni is neither suave nor malevolent, energized neither positively nor negatively by his milieu, interested neither in the surrounding women, bantering with Leporello, nor food & drink (he, unlike Mattei, never actually eats during the dinner scene), and mostly notable for aloofness and bursts of blank anger. A dangerous man, perhaps in line with current "realistic" ideas, but the take is uninteresting, unrewarding, and quite at odds with the production. He sang well, but not well enough to make up for all of this. Perhaps lingering back pain was to blame? I suspect and fear not.

The decision to first cast Kwiecien -- and to put him up front in the moviecast -- makes even less sense when one sees him standing a head shorter than Pisaroni -- with whom, despite all rehearsal, there's not much chemistry. Very odd.

The rest of the cast was mostly unchanged. New conductor Louis Langree was good, catching the spirit of the piece much better than in his last run.

*     *     *

Reader Carol Prisant wrote, about my original review post:
At Don Giovanni last night, I took particular notice - per your complaint - of the Commendatore's costume. There's more of a rationale for the "skeleton" effect you observed than you may have realized, because that's actually silver passementerie on his uniform, and it appears on his cuffs as well. I think the intention may have been to suggest a corpse, but the gentleman remains a commander, even in death.

That aside, I agree with your general assessment of this production. (You might have mentioned Ramon Vargas, though. The best Ottavio I've heard in years!)
I do agree that Vargas has been great, and Mattei's absence this time really made the show his. As far as the Commendatore, though, I think this officer idea is the intention (and a sensible and clever enough one in theory), and when one looks for it one can see traces on the cuffs, but absent similarly silver epaulettes it's difficult to see anything but the bad Halloween costume in his whole figure. One hopes this will change sooner rather than later.

Far from the madding crowd

Siegfried - Metropolitan Opera, 11/1/2011
Morris, Voigt, Terfel, Siegel, Bardon, König, Owens, Erdmann / Inouye

Despite the substitutions, despite the almost comically literal visions for which Robert Lepage deployed his huge mechanical-technical apparatus, despite the heavyhanded video crew that ruined far too many seat views and nearly ground the show to a halt with a series of loud camera orders during the performance, and despite the production mishap midway through Act III that, among other things, caused Brünnhilde to have to walk across the stage, sans armor, to her resting spot -- well, despite all of that, this Siegfried was the success of the season, the first real touch of opera's divine spark.

The substitutes, first of all, did well. American tenor Jay Hunter Morris doesn't have the prettiest natural sound, but it's decent enough, hardly ugly, and sounded well over the orchestra. The performance itself was better than that: Morris sang through the entire daunting part of Siegfried without deterioration or faking, flagging neither for the declamatory forging song in Act I, nor the lyrical reflections and duet with the bird in Act II (though this was the hardest), nor the final duet with the vocally fresh Brünnhilde. His character's enacted boyishness is a bit one-note -- missing the subtle variations and responses of Christian Franz -- but it does fit. Conductor Derrick Inouye, meanwhile, shaped each line -- and the piece as a whole -- both beautifully and urgently. It didn't have the layers of texture and overall sound that Levine's Wagner has brought, but the orchestra played very well for him, and I'd be surprised if Luisi's performances were much better.

It's surprising how well this second iteration of Brünnhilde fits Deborah Voigt's new voice. The unhappy tones at the top still crop up, but the weight of the voice is still solid through the part's range, and she does pretty well with the shifts in mood. Bryn Terfel is somewhere between his Rheingold and Valkyrie selves: vocally strong, as in Valkyrie, but not quite engaged with what's going on, as in Rheingold. He's still finding his way through the Ring, so the next rounds may be better. The supporting men are again excellent -- Eric Owens still good in a smaller Alberich appearance, Gerhard Siegel an interestingly Beckmesserian Mime, and Hans-Peter König with a proper Fafner voice.

The decision to have König appear transformed back into giant form and give his dying words on stage and unamplified was about the only notable good decision in this new production. At this point one it's all what one expects, and though there aren't any big insights (obviously) or any visual marvels (unless a scheduled one failed to appear when the apparatus went wrong in the last act), it's all pretty enough and doesn't get in the way of the tale.

And what a tale! Seeing Siegfried solo, not sandwiched between its more famous relatives, this time brought the series' quirks better into focus. For Wagner's uneasy relationship with civilization -- so unbearable to see in Götterdämmerung -- is as evident here as in that sequel, if more benignly. Siegfried grows up -- wins greatness, fortune, and a bride -- without ever actually meeting anyone or even being seen by anyone not directly tied to his story. This makes some mythical sense (though the Boy Who Went Out To Learn Fear did so in a much more recognizable and populated world), but is not at all in accord with man's traditional story, in which civilization appears, if nowhere else, as the great testing ground and obstacle to love. Wagner knew this well --- he wrote that story himself as well, in Meistersinger (positive, as Sachs navigates Walther through the tight-knit city world) and Tristan (negative, as duty and Melot's searching eye twice halt the course of love at first sight), the two operas he wrote between the acts of Siegfried. But he simplified the course of things here nonetheless.

Why? The answer, I think, goes both forwards and backwards. Looking ahead, we see in the sequel that Siegfried, for all his one-on-one/face-to-face prowess, is fatally undone in his very first contact with civilization, quickly becoming a pawn of Gibichung intrigue. Wagner, having started from this conclusion (writing his libretti backwards, from the only actual source material, before writing the music forwards), needed to round out Siegfried's original path for a fully rounded story, and did so quite well. That seems sensible. But going backwards, one wonders -- why did Wagner begin from this conclusion? For the most strange thing about the Ring, which one immediately notices even without being able to put one's finger on it, is that although it often touches on and discusses clans and civilizations, and though it contains a lineup of characters recognizable therefrom (Fricka, as I've noted, isn't all that distant from papa Germont), the cycle itself doesn't, until the all-too-Meyerbeerian final installment, actually present any such thing on stage. Nearly all significant action is through intimate dialogues, Wagner's strength from the beginning... In fact, if we look at his output, we see that Wagner was really bad at public scenes: blustering too much, never quite conveying the shifting moods, the quick full joy and rage and sorrow of a crowd as Verdi and his Italian predecessors so naturally did, and never really showing anything except a contest. (The great and awful success of Meistersinger is in expanding that entry point -- the contest -- so much that it can encompass everything else that's human.)

The interesting thing, then, is that Wagner ended up -- for whatever reason -- attached to a scene and a topic contrary to the natural course of his talents. So perhaps that's how we should take his statement about "the characters owe[ing] their immense, striking significance to the wider context": that he could literally not stand writing this Germanic-civilizational nonsense without elaborating beforehand in a way more in accord with his inclinations. Only after taking the story back before the dawn of time, writing prehistory after prehistory without the burden of recognizably organized human relations, could Wagner get around to confronting the civilizational question, providing both his yes and no, and writing amazing music to the dramatic mess he'd created for himself in the more confused state shown by Götterdämmerung's (again, all-too-Meyerbeerian) libretto.

And so: Siegfried, who here stands happy, as great as he can be, without and before any entanglement in the vaster/smaller, more complicated world his creator afterwards felt obligated to address. In here, instead: birds, dragons, wicked stepparents, and the love of one who waited just for him.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Notes on the first month of Nabucco

Maria Guleghina: indeed rejuvenated after a scary low two seasons back.
Yonghoon Lee: a young Corelli!?
Paolo Carignani: nicely idiomatic, as in his 2008 Traviata debut.
Everything else (including chorus and nominal lead Zeljko Lucic): rip-roaring success in this new Met warhorse.