Monday, October 29, 2012

The week in NY opera (Oct. 29-Nov. 4)

With Sandy approaching, who knows how many of these performances will actually take place?

Metropolitan Opera
Turandot (T/F), Tempest (W/SM), Figaro (SE)
Figaro (grossly mishandled by Robertson) was supposed to play tonight as well, but that's been cancelled. Turandot, whenever it manages to begin, will bring the company debut of this year's Met Council Finals sensation Janai Brugger. I meant to see The Tempest on Saturday, but Figaro left such a bad taste in my mouth that I skipped it. This week, perhaps, if the real-life tempest permits.

Carnegie Hall
Opera Lafayette L'invitation au Voyage (F)
Chamber vocal selections by this French-themed company based in DC; features soprano Emmanuelle de Negri, recently seen with William Christie's company in Atys and a Rameau double bill.

Murray Perahia recital (F)
Classical/romantic program by the now-veteran classical/romantic pianist.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The replacement

Otello - Metropolitan Opera, 10/16/2012
Amonov, Fleming, Struckmann / Bychkov

After a dress rehearsal in which he was a bit cautious but in no particular distress, tenor Johan Botha fared poorly on Otello's opening night. His indisposition left him out of the remainder of the run -- except, perhaps, this afternoon's moviecast, surely a nerve-wracking return if it happens.

His replacement in the title role? A Russian from the Mariinsky: Avgust Amonov, who made his Met debut three days before this performance. Yes, he was pretty good. No, he's not the next _______. In fact, he (like Botha) is on the lyric side of the sing, with a nice basic sound in which one can hear the Bacchus he's sung elsewhere. But unlike Botha, Amonov doesn't have a big clarion ring to his lyric instrument, and the demands of Otello do restrict his colors and prevent big statements. Still, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, it's a pleasant sound... or was on this night.

His other "unlike Botha"s may have been to his benefit. He's not a stand-and-sing paragraph phraser, but has some sense of dramatic character development even as a late cover. Definitely held up his end of the show, and an Otello I wouldn't mind seeing again given sufficiently good support.

Here Amonov had two amazing co-stars. Falk Struckmann seemed to me insufficiently menacing and impressive as Pizarro a dozen years back, but time has changed his capabilities. When he chews the scenery now as Iago, the vocal impact is as great as the dramatic -- and I'd love to hear his current incarnation as the Fidelio villain. Meanwhile Desdemona is still probably Renee Fleming's best operatic part, one in which she invariably finds her focus by Desdemona's great final double aria.

Bychkov's conducting depends on the moment: though he always seems to get the huge loud climaxes up, the material in between may be urgent or slack. This night, he was a bit of both, though the cast change may have thrown things off -- we'll see what happens this afternoon.

Elijah Moshinsky's revived production, like his Makropoulos Case last season and Queen of Spades the season before, brings into sharp relief the limitations of the current Gelb directorial stable.

You blew it up!

Le Nozze di Figaro - Metropolitan Opera, 10/26/2012
Abdrazakov, Erdmann, Kovalevska, Schäfer, Finley / Robertson

Wait, no joke? The Met managed to ruin Figaro? Seriously!?

Yep. I hadn't thought it possible. Jonathan Miller's production debuted with James Levine and an all-star cast, but quickly adapted to all sorts of personnel. Big names, small names, Levine, not Levine, the show rolled on. (Best Figaro: probably Furlanetto. Best non-Levine conductor: undoubtedly Edo de Waart.) But not this time. David Robertson is finally the conductor who makes nonsense from Mozart's sense, intentionally removing all traces of breath, sentiment, line, reflection, rapture, and, well, anything besides an endless monotonous chugging-forward from the piece. At this point it's impossible to get the Met Orchestra to sound bad in this material, but Robertson turns what should be the ebb and flow of feeling into sonic cacophony. I was initially inclined to point fingers at Gregory Keller's unsubtle stage direction and Christine Schäfer's bizarrely grim and glum Cherubino, but by the end I wondered if they were just trying to keep up with the pit's insanity. Mojca Erdmann (the second Lulu in the cast!) is miscast -- Susanna repeatedly hits the sour part of her voice -- but the rest of the cast was quite good... given what they had to work with. I'm amazed that Ildar Abdrazakov kept up with the silly, breathless tempi Robertson set in his last-act aria.

Ensembles also seemed under-rehearsed, but from all evidence that's not going to fix Robertson's anti-Mozartean pit work. He makes Mozart boring. Avoid.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Deliver me

(Verdi) Requiem - Philadelphia Orchestra, 10/23/2012
Poplavskaya, Rice, Villazon, Petrenko / Nézet-Séguin

James Levine, Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani, Rene Pape, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus performed this piece a dozen seasons ago at Carnegie Hall (the afternoon of April 29, 2001) -- an orchestral show not, in my concertgoing, equaled since. Last night wasn't that, but it was definitely something.

Verdi's Requiem Mass, ostensibly for Alessandro Manzoni, capped off the composer's great mature run of operas, which gave us an amazing string of dramatic masterworks -- Boccanegra, Ballo, Forza, and Don Carlos -- in succession before closing with two odd works, Aida and this sacred piece. In fact Aida is probably the less dramatic of the pair: true to its dream of old monumental Egypt, the opera's characters can hardly even consider struggling as events roll to implacable doom, instead reflecting and lyrically responding to the spectacle as it proceeds. Within the Requiem, it's true, the solo singers have lost names & histories, and are dwarfed by contact with the limitless. But Christianity is and has, in a way likely unprecedented, been fundamentally concerned with the event -- and not just the ritually recreated & celebrated event(s) of its founding, as most religions are, but the ever-newly-enacted event of each individual soul's salvation/damnation. Even at the final, most hapless moment -- the day of judgment -- we are not (Calvinists aside) in a ritual roll-call but at the end of a live event, full of dramatic emotions and disruptions and the echo of decisive struggles.

Verdi seizes on this essential kernel to set the grandest of his great dramatic scenes: the Sequentia (Dies Irae), the heart and longest part of this piece. It is great and grand and terrible, but also endlessly personal, the close of each individual soul's event&story. And so in the greatest performances we hear the irreducible impassioned individuality of the solo voices as they move through those familiar Verdian turns...

On this night, only soprano Marina Poplavskaya's instrument carried this kind of charge. For all my complaints about her Met ubiquity and sometimes-infuriating humorlessness, Poplavskaya certainly has the tools -- musicality, sonic scale, a range of dark and cutting tones -- to make much of a dead-serious part like this one (or Elisabetta): and she did, lack of warmth and some imperfect top notes (she actually had to cancel the first Philadelphia performance due to illness) notwithstanding. Mezzo Christine Rice and bass Mikhail Petrenko have very nice, well-groomed voices, but didn't deliver much beyond that.

The most famous of the soloists was probably the worst. Rolando Villazon almost crashed on the very first line of the "Ingemisco", was missing and sliding around between pitches all over the place, and generally sounded like he'd patched together fragments totaling maybe 2/3 of a tenor voice: most of the bottom, not much of the top (which was never, volume-wise, a strength), and danger in between. The singer once notable for exquisite breath and control is still in a sad form to witness.

But the evening was Nézet-Séguin's (or, as the program notes would have it, "Yannick's" -- understandable given pronunciation issues). If his conception lacked some of the life-and-death urgency and particularized detail certain of his elders have brought (and perhaps the good-but-not-great solo lineup was significant), it nevertheless astounded by its coherence and sonic & conceptual clarity. The audience responded with rapt silence through the end and terrific enthusiasm afterward.

It's the same story as Nézet-Séguin's Met debut Carmen: I can't wait to hear what he does with this stuff both now and over the years.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 22-28)

Nothing tonight, but tomorrow is one of those evenings in NYC where too many things happen at once.

Metropolitan Opera
Tempest (T/SE), Trovatore (Th), Figaro (F), Otello (SM)
Short week, perhaps because of two productions beginning: The Tempest, in its house premiere, and Figaro, featuring Ildar Abdrazakov and perhaps the only real lyric soprano cultivated during Gelb's tenure -- Maija Kovalevska. Meanwhile Trovatore wraps up its fall run (it returns in January with a wholly different lineup of singers), and the moviecast Otello gives Johan Botha one last shot at recovering from his illness...

Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra concert (T)
Gabriel Kahane concert (Th)
Marlis Petersen recital (F)

Call me a reactionary, but Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first Carnegie show as Philly's music director -- Verdi's Requiem, no less -- seems more tempting than the first of many Met evenings of The Tempest. But is Villazon seriously going to sing it? Composer/songwriter/performer Gabe Kahane has a classical/hipster pop show at Zankel Thursday, while the very German soprano Marlis Petersen offers a recital themed on Goethe's Faust the following evening at Weill.

Le Poisson Rouge
Metropolis Ensemble concert (T)
An Evening with Thomas Ades and "The Tempest" (F 6:30pm and 9pm)

The former show features a mini-opera on Tesla, a rearrangement of Berlioz's Nuits d’Ete sung by Keira Duffy, and a new song-cycle by Mohammed Fairouz sung by Kate Lindsey. Lindsey returns Friday, joined by the composer/conductor of and singers from the Met's Tempest, for a remix on the opera and other Shakespeare-themed stuff.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 15-21)

Metropolitan Opera
Carmen (M/Th), Otello (T/SM), Trovatore (W/SE)
It's the last week for the current cast in Carmen -- the excellent Yonghoon Lee, the not-so-excellent Kate Royal, and the mostly-excellent Kyle Ketelsen all are gone when the show returns in February. Trovatore should also be good. Tomorrow is the last weeknight performance of Otello with the current cast.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

Carnegie Hall
World Orchestra for Peace Solti centennial concert (F)
It is, I think, entirely appropriate in its irony that an body called the "World Orchestra for Peace" will be conducted by the music world's most shameless Putin bootlicker, last seen celebrating the Russian invasion of Georgia. If your nose doesn't register such stenches, Angela Gheorghiu and Rene Pape offer delicacies for the ear.

Alice Tully Hall
Les Arts Florissants Charpentier motets (F)
William Christie's company offers, this time, not opera but French baroque sacred pieces.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The standard

Il Trovatore - 10/4/2012
Jones, Giannattasio, Zajick, Vassallo, Robinson / Callegari

The premiere of McVicar's Trovatore at the Met had big stars; this revival lacked them, to the point of serious box office impairment. But the result this time reflected pretty well on the standards of the house even on lesser-name evenings.

Most impressive may have been baritone Franco Vassallo. I was decidedly unimpressed by his Belcore four seasons back, but his di Luna presented him in a totally different light. In fact, between his naturally robust sound, straightforward engagement in the character's villainy, and facility for both the lyric and declamatory sides of his music, Vassallo may have been the best di Luna I've seen in this production, outdoing both Hvorostovsky (intense but vocally taxed) and Lucic (alternately too lyric and not lyric enough).

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones and Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio had, depending on how you cared to look at it, either complementary strengths or complementary weaknesses. Jones gave basically a brighter-voiced version of Marcelo Alvarez's production-opening performance: intensely satisfying in the lyric and conversational portions of the role (thanks to a feel for the Verdian phrase that also served him well in ensembles), but lacking at climaxes. For Alvarez these punctuating high notes weren't easily reached; for Jones they just lacked force, particularly compared to his partners. How I would have liked him to break from expectation and sing both verses of "Di quella pira", giving pleasure more in the phrasing than in the obligatory high note... instead, of course, he sang one hasty verse before an impressively long but unimpressive-sounding high-note finish, the tone of which actually got away from him at the end.

Giannattasio does not lack for volume or high-note resonance: in fact her voice may rival Sondra Radvanovsky's wondrous instrument in natural scale. Just hearing her pop off big ensemble-capping high notes is a pleasure... but what leads up to that point is less exciting. She is not quite finished, both vocally (not entirely even in sound from top to bottom, still -- like most young singers -- unwilling to use chest voice) and musically, where she really could not compare to Jones. ("D'amor sull'ali rosee" was quite spoiled by her letting the end of each phrase sag.) The raw material for an excellent Verdi soprano is certainly there: besides the size and volume, she has a natural liquid flexibility that makes the cabalettas natural fodder. But she won Operalia a decade ago, has had major engagements for years and years, and though 34 isn't old, it's old enough to wonder if how and when she might make the last, oh-so-important refinements to turn her from a case of infuriatingly underutilized potential into a major and indispensable star.

Though she was, I believe, scheduled to debut the first week, this second performance of Trovatore turned out to be Gianattasio's debut -- perhaps this (or whatever caused the initial cancellation) affected her performance? In any case she seemed quite moved at her very positive curtain call reception (though perhaps she's a better actress in real life than Paula Williams' revival stage direction -- which put Gianattasio through McVicar's familiar postures for Leonora but had/let her recast them as hesitant instead of decisive -- let her express)...

Dolora Zajick of course carries over not only from the premiere of this production but from many years of false starts before that when casting anyone but Azucena properly seemed unlikely. The 2009 premiere found her showing, perhaps for the first time, some age: this revival finds her having adapted well to the years' changes. Her singing is again clear throughout, with no fraying tone to be heard, and if it's lightened a bit on top, the chest still hits with massive force.

Morris Robinson is a forceful -- if not dramatically onrushing -- Ferrando. Daniele Callegari conducts with a nice overall sweep and some fine ideas that may come to fruition later in the run -- when the ensemble hiccups that popped up in the show's second half will presumably have been exorcised. This same basic cast, with Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu in place of Giannattasio, has a few more peformances this month. Certainly worth catching.

*     *     *

Every good performance, like this one, convinces me a bit more that Il Trovatore is the most indispensable of operas. As I wrote after the premiere,
Verdi's much-derided opera has brothers, lovers, and a mother, but lacks one of his most persistent figures: the father. Whether divided and beset as in Rigoletto (both he and Monterone), stylish and daring (and metaphorical) as in Ballo, all-too-solid as in Traviata, or -- well, one could go on indefinitely -- the father sets the tone for his opera's world. Here, in Trovatore's story, he is wholly absent: dead of heartbreak, overthrown (in a sense) long ago by gypsy machinations. And so too in the piece itself: gone is the responsible worldly figure that makes our daylight world what it is -- ordered; rationally explainable and advancing; free from witchcraft, ghosts, and meaningful coincidence. But it is not just the shadowier stuff that he keeps off, but the oldest magics: rhythm - story - sacrifice. So here Verdi unleashes them all as no other could -- and too few since have at all dared to try -- for a nap-of-reason draught more intoxicating even than its near-contemporary Tristan's.
An art incapable of such a potent, primeval draught seems hardly worth the trouble.

Friday, October 12, 2012


The long post below alludes to it, but I should mention it as news: according to the Met, James Levine will conduct the orchestra again in May and three productions (Falstaff, Cosi, and Wozzeck -- three of his greatest pieces) next season.

Fingers crossed, knock on wood, etc.

Met season preview, part 3: life without

It is not a bad season -- to look at before the fact, anyway. But the most significant thing about the Metropolitan Opera's 2012-2013 is likely to be the most significant thing about its 2011-2012: the absence of James Levine.

A year ago the news came as... news, and in stages: a foretaste in spring, from the usual on-and-off issues; then the awful accident and cancellations for the first part of 2011-2012 in September; then the thud of no appearances at all. For many months -- until the announcement just last night of an eventual return, in fact -- Levine's absence has been the unspoken cloud hanging over the house. Fabio Luisi was appointed principal conductor last season, so the facade of continuity remained. And yet...

The problem for Peter Gelb and the Met is that Levine's work and presence in the pit was the core of the company's identity for decades. Singers, productions, production fads, and even general managers came and went, relying on the musical-sonic foundation provided by Levine and the orchestra he built and polished over many consecutive seasons. And not just his colleagues: for regular Met-goers, Levine's performances of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and the modernists were a pleasure one could anticipate as well as savor every year -- the one part of the experience that would not fail.

Yet it's not that Gelb and his administration have handled this crisis poorly: Luisi is as distinguished an emergency deputy as one could imagine, and circumstance has parked Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the first really plausible successor I can recall, just down the Turnpike at the Philadelphia Orchestra. The house continues its decade-long trend of trying out interesting new conducting talent, though with mixed results. But Levine's presence has been particularly important to Gelb's administration, because Levine maintained in his domain virtues Gelb otherwise is and has been reluctant to offer and value: warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and -- of course -- Americanness.

For all Fabio Luisi's prodigious skill and clarity, he's not that kind of counterweight. Luisi is, in fact, exactly of a piece with the Gelb administration's favored artists: a bit cerebral, a bit chilly even in his excitement, and impeccably European in pedigree. His substitution for Levine has put us now thoroughly in the Gelb era.

*     *     *

It's perhaps not quite coincidence that dissatisfaction with Gelb's administration is now part of the operagoing air. Spring's Opera News kerfuffle aired the extent of this development: not only did the public roundly slam the Met, but the press as well, with hints that even Tommasini at the Times may be growing tired of carrying the company's water. Why? Well, I noted at the start of Gelb's tenure that he holds a specific and far-from-universal vision of opera, and subsequent years seem to have borne this out. One could recognize the family resemblance in his productions years ago: tall blank walls, high narrow staircases and platforms, dim lighting and strong colors, near-doctrinaire avoidance/elimination of representational detail (as in Islamic art, words and abstract designs are permitted) in sets though not in costumes, and of course a general tilt to the crass and vulgar in stage direction. (Some house edict seems to have extended the latter element to revivals as well, creating the Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene.) This can be fantastic -- as in, most recently, The Nose -- and is catnip to a certain segment of New Yorkers, but is contrary to the way a large (perhaps majority) portion of the Met audience takes in and appreciates visual information. And yet the alternatives -- though ever more important, as the Met rolls out its biggest and most war-horsey traditional productions (Turandot and Aida) many times this season to weather the poor economy -- are vanishing faster than they used to, thanks to the uptick in (new, Gelb-style) premieres from Gelb's co-production program.

Even the shows seemingly designed for traditional appeal do not quite scratch that itch. For not only do Bart Sher's comedic efforts (his louche Hoffmann -- the one show where he wasn't tasked with aiming for faux-traditional -- was quite good, though very much in the Gelb-era manner) and the Lepage Ring -- the most prominent efforts in this vein -- largely remix the same anti-traditional visual syntax, they in fact rely on theatrical distancing effects (video screens, frames, play-within-a-play additions) that present the story under glass, or in big quotation marks. Straightforward warmth, beauty, realism still aren't on the table, and so as traditional experiences, these new shows fail where their predecessors (often) succeeded. (Of course, they don't succeed as critic-pleasing fare either, and I can almost imagine Gelb striding bloodily onto the stage demanding "Are you not entertained!?" at their premieres.)

Some form of this complaint is now regularly aired with each premiere. But the corresponding trend in casting has been less remarked upon. For while respecting the biggest stars already in the house, Gelb brought a certain kind of singer to the fore from the start, and continues to do so today. His original favorites have largely run their course: Angela Gheorghiu crashed and burned with this administration as she did with Volpe's, Diana Damrau has failed to become an audience draw despite much exposure and press, and while Anna Netrebko still sells tickets, she does so now more as an opera celebrity than as notable artist or (as silly as it is to mention) sex symbol. Behind them, though, the Met continues to bring in and promote sopranos in their mold -- e.g. Nino Machaidze, Hibla Gerzmava, and of course the now-ubiquitous Marina Poplavskaya. As much as I like these interesting East-European singers with interesting voices, it would be an awful loss if their virtues displaced the Levine characteristics I mentioned above -- warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and Americanness -- in this aspect of opera as well.

The Met is closer to this point than one might think, at least among sopranos. Look at Faust: yes, Gheorghiu's cancellation/firing left the house looking for a late replacement, but Marguerite is a, perhaps the lyric soprano part, one that any singer with a voice and an iota of charm should carry off. (The greatest success in recent memory was classic soubrette-stimmdiva Ruth Ann Swenson.) And yet the Met chose Poplavskaya -- for all her virtues, the seemingly least-charming singer on its roster, and one with a functional rather than beautiful tone -- and not only let her sink the new production last season, but engaged her to ensure this season's revival is just as much of a dud. Why? When so many lyric sopranos with the classic lyric soprano virtues are out there, it's hard not to see this as a deliberate sign of what the house values and intends to value. (One might also take Kate Royal's unpleasant to hear Micaela in this vein.)

(Met Council winners do seem to get a shot, though, so let's hope Susanna Phillips seizes her long-in-coming Donna Anna and Janai Brugger turns out to be a hit as Liu.)

*     *     *

It's possible, of course, that Levine will, as the Met just announced, return next season hale and strong enough to make this interregnum a distant and unfortunate memory. I certainly hope so -- and even reading of his eventual return has chased off some of the gloom that inspired this piece. But even with Levine in the pit and assuring the vitality of his house, the artistic one-sidedness of the elements outside his domain will, if it continues, continue to frustrate and limit its success. For Gelb's problem, with or without Levine, remains what I noted five-and-a-half years back: the art form exists and is enjoyed in too many different ways for a single approach to be enough. Gelb's single way has shown its limits, and yet is growing ever closer to swallowing every other path. What now? Well, if I were Gelb I would look to find new approaches, with a few more shots at a real, sincere traditionalism -- beginning with a replacement for the worst production in the repertory, the unwatchable Traviata. And I'd think more about presenting beautiful voices... and I'd make sure Nezet-Seguin learns the Verdi canon as fast as possible.

I'm pretty sure the latter will be covered -- as for the rest? Unlikely, but we'll see. As I said, dissatisfaction is in the air.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 8-14)

Metropolitan Opera
Trovatore (M/F), Otello (T/SE), Elisir (W*/SM), Carmen (Th)
The big event is, of course, the return of Botha, Fleming, and Bychkov in an Otello that was one of the highlights five seasons back. Trovatore, despite its relatively no-name cast, is pretty good -- elaboration to follow.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

* Wednesday's (starred) Elisir 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
Met Orchestra concert (Sunday 3pm)
Bychkov again, this time in Wagner and Strauss. Eva-Maria Westbroek sings the former's Wesendonck songs.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 1-7)

Metropolitan Opera
Elisir (M/F), Carmen (T/SE), Turandot (W/SM), Trovatore (Th)
Same shows as last week. Carmen is good. Trovatore, which is hideously undersold and lacks star casting, at least has an excellent recent production.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

Le Poisson Rouge
Gotham Chamber Opera: Orientale (M/W)
A baroque-romantic-exotic traditional music/multimedia mashup.

Alexander Kasser Theater (Montclair State University)
Dog Days (F/S/SuM)
I feel a bit bad about not seeing or mentioning the premiere of this show last weekend, but the new opera by David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek plays again this week. The trailer below may help you judge for yourself whether it may merit an out-of-town trip (bus service does run from Port Authority):