Monday, December 26, 2011

Faust, cast 2

Faust - Metropolitan Opera, 12/23/2011
Byström, Alagna, Mulligan, Pape / Nézet-Séguin

It works, it works, it works! Never mind the vocal issues -- that Alagna is (as was announced at the worst possible time) indisposed and that Malin Byström is, um, a mezzo. Having a pair of leads actually interested in telling the story makes all the difference.

It's the virtues that stand out. Alagna in French has a conversational-improvisational way with phrases that puts even his difficulties in a favorable light. Met debutante Byström, with her lovely mezzo sound and disconnected/iffy top notes (and fake trill, which makes me wonder how the dramatic coloratura stuff she sings might go), in any case inhabits the part of Marguerite more completely and continuously -- from flightiness to rapture to... everything else -- than any predecessor I can remember, and certainly more so than the all-too-grounded Poplavskaya. Between them they bring the charge of significance to the whole of the opera, and their engagement in Act III as well as the latter acts brings out even more of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's magic. (This show was, I think, his finest work here since Carmen.) Even the production, for all its suboptimal choices, makes its real strength clear: an (apparently) unironic appreciation and awe for the power of traditional Christian piety. (It's not really from Goethe's text, but is much of what makes the actual opera tick.)

Vocal force for the evening was provided by not only Rene Pape but baritone Brian Mulligan, who has been singing at the Met since 2003 but got his first real solo chance here. His firm, masculine, easily Met-sized sound was the evening's revelation, and deserves more opportunities than the single cover's performance he got here.

Mulligan won't be back on Wednesday with the rest of this cast (Russell Braun, who lacked the vocal force to make an impact in Valentin's lyric parts, returns), but the magnitude of Friday's success makes the second and last Alagna/Byström Faust a must-see[-again].

The week in NY opera (Dec. 26-Jan. 1)

Another slow holiday week for opera.

Metropolitan Opera:
Hansel&Gretel (M/ThM/FM), Butterfly (T/F), Faust (W), Fille (Th), Enchanted Island (SE)
Due to the holidays there are 11am matinees on Thursday and Friday, but no Saturday matinee. The only big change from last week: the debut of The Enchanted Island, a baroque mashup on the frame of Shakespeare's Tempest. Seems promising, though as with other shows they've loaded the deck in its favor by premiering it for the New Year's Eve gala crowd.
Don't miss the second and last Alagna/Byström Faust on Wednesday.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 19-25)

'twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house(s)... Well, not much was going on. Except the usual Messiahs.

Metropolitan Opera:
Fille (M/SM), Faust (T/F), Hansel&Gretel (W/SE), Butterfly (Th)
I've heard much good about Liping Zhang's Butterfly, and with Yves Abel conducting this week and next, it seems worth a look. The big change, though, is Malin Byström's Met debut in Friday's Faust -- perhaps she and Alagna for Poplavskaya and Kaufmann will bring the non-Pape portions of the show to life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 12-18)

Metropolitan Opera:
Fille (M/Th), Faust (T/SE), Butterfly (W/SM), Hansel&Gretel (F)
Two new arrivals: Fille du Regiment, with Brownlee and recent arrival Nino Machaidze -- unfortunately in another chirpy part not hugely suited to her serious talents -- and the holiday/English-language Hansel&Gretel. Two conducting debuts: Robin Ticciati in H&G and Pierre Vallet in Saturday's Faust. One show you should keep avoiding until Domingo is out of the pit: Butterfly.

Carnegie Hall:
Chiara Taigi recital (M)
Iestyn Davies recital (Th)

Taigi, the winner of OONY's Vidda Award and Selika in that company's March L'africane, sings operatic material accompanied by Eve Queler and some OONY players; Davies -- the better (and not entirely by default, though Scholl was poor indeed) countertenor in this season's Rodelinda -- offers British and German songs and some new traditional-song arrangements by Nico Muhly.  Both of these are in the small Weill hall.

Avery Fisher Hall:
Little Orchestra Society Amahl and the Night Visitors (Saturday 11am/1pm)
Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera, for kids.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 5-11)

Metropolitan Opera:
Butterfly (M/F), Faust (T*/SM), Rodelinda (W/SE), Boheme (Th)
Madama Butterfly appears for the first time this season, but with Placido Domingo in the pit. He still can't conduct, and his presence in the month's-end Handel mash-up likely isn't selling any further tickets, so why is the Met still (embarrassingly) indulging him? Meanwhile with Faust and Rodelinda so imperfectly cast, the one show of note this week may be the last Boheme of the season. Sopranos Hibla Gerzmava and Susanna Phillips are marvelous therein, and though the men aren't really up to the bohemiennes' standard (lead tenor Dmitri Pittas seems either unwell or to have developed flaws in his voice he hadn't previously exhibited), they're fully in the show's spirit. Backed by Louis Langree's well- and much-shaped conducting, it's a "wet eye" run despite all flaws.
* Tuesday's (starred) Faust 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:
Karita Mattila recital (SE)
Even if the material (French stuff, Sallinen, and Joseph Marx) isn't necessarily that interesting, Mattila herself always is.

DiCapo Opera Theatre:
Iolanta (Th/SE)
A new production of Tchaikovsky's one-act opera.

Friday, December 02, 2011


Faust - Metropolitan Opera, 11/29/2011
Poplavskaya, Kaufmann, Braun, Pape / Nézet-Séguin

If all's well that ends well, this new Met Faust was a worthy success: the final scene, as often, wrapped things up in excellent style and strong feeling. But before that...

This time it's not at all Rene Pape's fault. Since his participation as Mephistopheles in the previous Met Faust's premiere six-and-a-half years ago, Pape has actually learned the part and made it -- and the opera -- his. No longer does he stand, wait for the prompter, and sing: now we see the full range of Pape's sounds, moods, and personality, and he rules every scene he's in.

Nor is it the fault of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who again conducts excellently, nor even of baritone Russell Braun, who is decent if undistinguished as Valentin. Mezzo Michele Losier in fact shows well in her small part (Siebel).

No, the main problem here lies with the two lovers, who between them had neither chemistry nor lyric feeling. As Marguerite, the now-ubiquitous Marina Poplavskaya was a pretty good Jenufa. With Jonas Kaufmann -- well, like one of those eye trick images, now that I've seen him as flawed I can't un-see it. Here he was strong, correct, but uninspired for the first Act, crooned awfully in the love duets for the next Acts, and launched some impressive climactic high notes for the last two. So the show's last part -- with Marguerite dramatically distraught and Faust given phrase-capping high notes -- played to their strengths, but the entire romance arc about which the story revolves was, well, nonexistent, flat, and boring. It's not really clear to me why either of these singers is even doing these parts: lyric phrasing & lines are not the pair's strength.

Des McAnuff's new production doesn't really demand much comment. There's a bit of a "concept" frame, but it's fairly innocuous as far as such things go, and is a decent fit for those modern folk who -- like Goethe himself -- have a hard time really believing in damnation or tragedy proper. The main problem is that it's ugly -- the green lighting for the Walpurgisnacht was a big mistake -- and looks cheap, more on the ENO budget scale (where, in fact, the production originated) than the Met's. It's not as stupid as the Andrei Serban production it replaced, but that had a crude vulgar vigor that this sadly lacks. We saw it at curtain call, where the production folks were neither particularly bravoed nor booed, but mostly given polite, dead applause. Yes, it's not even worth booing.

I did like debuting choreographer Kelly Devine's "Thriller"-zombie dance during the Golden Calf song, though.

*     *     *

This was, of course, supposed to have starred Gheorghiu and Kaufmann -- before Gheorghiu got tossed in the lead-up to another Gounod opera (Roméo et Juliette) last season. Even if she can't actually sing the part these days (and maybe she can), one can't help but think that Gheorghiu would have again at least made Kaufmann more interesting.

Wait for the next casts -- perhaps Swedish newcomer Malin Byström is the Marguerite that Poplavskaya is not. But do see Rene Pape before he goes, even if his replacement (with the Calleja cast) is the ageless Ferruccio Furlanetto.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Being Angela Gheorghiu

Adriana Lecouvreur - Opera Orchestra of New York, 11/8/2011
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Rachvelishvili, Maestri / Veronesi

I had not rushed out this review because, among other things, I'd thought it self-evidently the first great night New Yorkers have had this season. Apparently this sentiment was not universal, but that's opera fans for you.

From audience response in the hall, one might have thought the prime success to be Jonas Kaufmann's. Contra Maury, though, I disagree. Kaufmann -- both in voice and phrasing -- sings in grand fragments that for many (most, perhaps, given his current popularity) suggest, like some ancient ruin, a grander whole than can any full rendition. But it's not a full rendition, and as impressive and impeccable as Kaufmann may be at climaxes and as much as his characteristic persona may bolster this fragmentarily-presented grandeur, Kaufmann frustratingly leaves a lot of musical and expressive possibility on the table.

No, the evening was Angela Gheorghiu's, and thoroughly so. With Gheorghiu -- more than any other singer I can think of -- the process of her art is visible on the very surface. Results vary: where, as in Boheme, simplicity is wanted, it's not really within Gheorghiu's power to deliver. On the other hand, in a more fit part (like Rondine's Magda) Gheorghiu's hyperdeveloped artifice -- and the peculiar form of sincerity with which it fits -- can be near-incomparably rewarding. It doesn't have to be the most elaborate part: layering her high-stakes business into a part can give even the rustic duality of Elisir's lead flirt Adina unexpected and moving depths. But in fact Adriana Lecouvreur is the ideal Gheorghiu part, even more so than Rondine... or at least it was on this occasion.

Gheorghiu and Kaufmann in fact did the piece a year ago in London, to I believe good notices -- though not necessarily so good as to overshadow the cancellation drama associated with the run. Here, at Carnegie Hall, liberated from repetition and staging and all of the machinery of a full opera production in a house, we got face to face with Gheorghiu's full engagement in a role.

Adriana, like Tosca, is a performer, a theater person full of great impractical urges and moods. But unlike Tosca (who is caught in Real Events and does not do well), Adriana lives -- for the duration of the opera -- in a world suited to her character if not her happines: a back- and around-stage world that's all intrigues, rivalries, and passions. In this world she is (and can be without ridiculousness) both naif and intriguer, priestess and victim, exalted and humble. Her apparent rivalry with fellow-actress Duclos turns out to be imagined, but the hidden one with the Princess de Bouillon turns out be real -- and fatal.

It's this rivalry that defines Adriana, and I think attracted Gheorghiu. Love is the prize, but the fight itself is on the social battleground of status. Here Adriana is the underdog: her artistic prowess is acknowledged and gives her a place, but it's a vague, amorphous one, not to be set easily in that world against the grand eminence of the Princess. And yet she wins: humiliating the Princess in the latter's own home and, eventually, getting her high-noble beloved to ask for her hand in marriage outright, political consequences be damned. But then she dies, because one in her position can't have a more-than-transitory victory... or something like that. (It's usually best not to dive too deeply into the "why"s of a Scribe story.)

Gheorghiu, an underdog romantic heroine? One might have struggled to believe it during that London run, not only for her elaborate and visible style but for the obvious worldly superstardom decorating all her appearances. But on this night, in New York, in her first show here after publicly becoming persona non grata at the Met for the second straight administration, one could believe... well, not perhaps that Gheorghiu was today a humble and humble-born servant of the muses with no solid place in the world, but at least that she might sincerely see herself that way, or want to, even as she wove her elaborate magic.

And weave she did, from Adriana's wonderful entrance song, wonderfully presented, to a final-act love duet with Kaufmann so compellingly sincere (on both sides -- in stark contrast to what we saw from Kaufmann on Tuesday) that I wondered if we weren't witnessing something a public really shouldn't. It's for triumphs like this that Gheorghiu's name was made, and will perhaps be remade again here.

*     *     *

Anita Rachvelishvili's retro presence (last seen here in Carmen with Gheorghiu's on-off-and-is-it-on-again-now spouse Roberto Alagna) was an excellent foil as the Princess. The young Georgian mezzo's voice isn't quite settled at the top or bottom extremes, but the sheer consistent weight and texture of the sound and her fiery way with a phrase made her a joy to hear throughout. Also welcome was baritone Ambrogio Maestri: his pleasant sound and humane touch as Adriana's mentor and secret admirer rounded out the show well.

As for the opera, well, it is pretty much nonsensical in its actual turns, but the scenes it provides are all effective and dramatically sensible as they come. Maury's comparison to Gioconda is fair, though a great Adriana -- as here -- provides a unity to the piece that's difficult with the Ponchielli opera.