Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The artist is not present

La Clemenza di Tito - Metropolitan Opera, 11/16/2012
Filianoti, Garanča, Frittoli, Crowe (d), Lindsey, Gradus / Bicket

It's hard to dislike mezzo Elina Garanca, but it's hard to like her past a certain point either. The daughter of a prominent Latvian voice teacher, Garanca is every bit the coach's son: heady, impeccably schooled, and willing to work and try at most anything. Put at her disposal the full-scaled, even, adaptable voice she in fact possesses and stardom is a matter of course. And yet -- and yet the moment is not hers. For whatever reason, that last crucial indicium of a star fails to appear, and even the triumph of Garanca's musically impeccable "Deh, per questo istante sole" is one for the broadcast mikes only. In the house one listens in vain for the central, personal point of agony behind Sesto's outcries of stubbornly uninformative sincerity, the opera-house magic that made Susan Graham's incarnation a human revelation and event.

An unfair standard, perhaps, but the rest of the current cast presented their own characters in much sharper focus. I've knocked Barbara Frittoli in the past -- including in last season's Don Giovanni -- for iffy vocal state and occasional lack of focus, but she is remarkably in her element in the tricky part of Vitellia. Not only does she hurdle the technical obstacles while sounding again as good as in the first of her 2011 Amelias, but Frittoli embodies the monstrously self-involved villainess with an ease and elan that make not only Garanca but her predecessor Vitellias seem a bit monochrome. Meanwhile, for much of the first act and in her solo bits of the second, Lindemann grad Kate Lindsey was seriously threatening to steal the show as Annio, something I hadn't even imagined possible in Clemenza. In vocal size and physical impact the American mezzo can't compete with her Latvian colleague, but in an actual show I think I'd prefer to see Lindsey every time: she is not only the finest of the Met's pants-role players, but seizes the moment and presence of her time in the dangerous spotlight with abandon. And Giuseppe Filianoti -- well, he did start in a rather rough vocal state, but he too embraced rather than shied away from the title character's singleminded display of moral hygiene and wound up giving about as good a Mozart performance as one could ask from a veristically inclined lyric tenor.

Debuting soprano Lucy Crowe, as Servilia, didn't get the space to make this sort of impact, but she -- unlike, it seems, her more hyped countrywoman Kate Royal -- can actually sing well and beautifully. Nice traditional clear sound, more presence on the bottom than one might expect given her repertoire, and comfort with the emotional demands of the sincere soubrette part -- a good addition. Harry Bicket's airless pit work was the only drag on the 2008 revival's triumph, but he's significantly more relaxed and sympathetic this time around, actually one of the show's real strengths and allowing the Met winds to work their characteristic magic. And Ponelle's production! Like all pre-Gelb shows still extant, it shines brighter than ever surrounded by detail-stripped look-alikes.

It's a good show, but the early Gelb-era decision to fast-track Garanca while marginalizing Graham and ignoring Joyce DiDonato seems sillier than ever -- and moviecasting this incarnation instead of 2008's is a loss for those limited to such media. (But at least Graham is at last getting her Troyens revival this season, and DiDonato headlines the next big Donizetti.) Of course, from her early years one would hardly have pegged Karita Mattila as the great stage performer of our time... but from Garanca's history so far, I think it more likely that the mezzo learns to fake embodying the stage charge than that she actually does it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The week in NY opera (Nov. 26-Dec. 2)

A very slow post-holiday week.

Metropolitan Opera
Aida (M/Th), Ballo (T/F), Don Giovanni (W/SE), Clemenza (SM)
Continuations except for Don Giovanni, which brings American soprano Susanna Phillips along with the return of Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov, this time with (presumably) a more sympathetic Mozart conductor than David Robertson. Erwin Schrott is this time in the more character-appropriate part of Leporello.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 19-25)

Babar or Wozzeck? Your choice tonight to kick off this Thanksgiving week.

Metropolitan Opera
Ballo (M/SE), Clemenza (T/SM), Aida (F)
Clemenza is good, but not the revelatory experience it was in its previous incarnation. Radvanovsky's Act 3 aria still brings down the house in Ballo. Aida appears for the first time this season, with debuting Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title part.

Avery Fisher Hall
Philharmonia Orchestra Wozzeck (M)
Concert performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium, Angela Denoke as Marie, and Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck. What are you waiting for?

Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Juilliard Opera Cosi fan tutte
Last of three shows that began last week.

Simone Dinnerstein recital (M)
The local pianist plays Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and (with some colleagues) Poulenc's "The Story of Babar the Elephant".

Monday, November 12, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 12-18)

Lots of things on this week as the concert schedule returns to normal.

Metropolitan Opera
Ballo (M/Th), Figaro (T/SE), Tempest (W/SM), Clemenza (F)
It's the final week for The Tempest and Figaro -- don't miss the former, if you haven't yet seen it. Hearing Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky in Ballo is probably worth the non-production... probably. Meanwhile the Ponnelle production of Clemenza -- last seen with an amazing Susan Graham star performance four years ago -- returns with Elina Garanca as Sesto. Harry Bicket's conducting was the least impressive part of that run, but perhaps his sense of the piece has deepened since.

Carnegie Hall
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Missa Solemnis (S)
Joyce DiDonato Drama Queens (Sunday 2pm)

The glibness of John Eliot Gardiner's overpraised recording decades back has me doubtful, but performances of this Beethoven landmark aren't common enough. The event of the week is probably Joyce DiDonato's Carnegie program the following afternoon. Her last NY baroque concert was in the smaller Zankel space, and a mesmerizing display of art at which her (excellent) studio album only hints. This time she's got a new album and the bigger Stern Auditorium in which to work her magic. There are, amazingly, still lots of tickets to be had.

Alice Tully Hall
Bernarda Fink recital (W)
The mezzo sings Schumann, Mahler, and Dvorak.

OT: Avery Fisher Hall
Philharmonia Orchestra Mahler 9 (Sunday 5pm)
If you have the endurance, you can probably walk from Carnegie to Lincoln Center in time to see both DiDonato's concert and Salonen conducting Mahler 9. I'm not sure how many concertgoers are excited by both prospects, though...

Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Cosi fan tutte (W/SM)
Just on cue, as I put up this post I got an email reminder of this Juilliard/Lindemann co-production's opening. Like the 2011 Bartered Bride, this show features direction by Stephen Wadsworth and a star conductor. Back then it was Levine; this week it's NY Phil chief Alan Gilbert. He and the young cast are certainly promising, but Wadsworth has to date consistently failed to engage with the feminine and heterosexual-romance aspects of operas he's directed... and Cosi, though cynical and partly parodistic, mines almost no other ground.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The dog ate my production

Un Ballo in Maschera - Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012
Radvanovsky, Alvarez, Hvorostovsky, Kim, Zajick / Luisi

So this production would, I think, be best explainable in two ways:
(1) The Met is running low on money and drastically cut the budget so that David Alden could only afford this shabby display.
(2) Alden had director's block, couldn't think of any staging ideas for months and months, and finally just decided to throw half-remembered bits of other recent Met productions together and call it a show.

If, as is sadly likely, neither of the above apply and this was seriously the considered work of Alden and his team, all the boos they got were well-deserved. And these weren't angry or offended boos at some conceit or idea. They were "are you kidding me!?" boos of disbelief that something so lame and half-baked could be presented as a finished, full-price product.

*     *     *

The worst part is, of course, that the cast showcased by this premiere is so good. Two of the three main principals -- Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky -- are the cream of today's crop, and they are both in very fine voice. Radvanovsky's instrument has filled and evened out from top to bottom with a true Verdian soprano sound, and as always she rings the whole house at any level of her vast dynamic range. Hvorostovsky was not quite convincing as Renato/Anckarström four-plus years ago, but he's really grown into the role: where in the 2010 concert he made the Ballo bits work with personal force, he now can use both personal and sonic; there's no lack of color or dynamic range even in declamation.

Marcelo Alvarez isn't quite the Gustavo/Riccardo of one's dreams -- is Calleja's May run in Frankfurt really his first!? -- but he's very good in this: precise in rhythm and ensembles, good at using word and dynamic accents, and with a pleasing and surprisingly firm lyric sound. Kathleen Kim is both audible and sprightly, something her predecessors haven't simultaneously managed in forever. Ulrica's initial aria sits poorly in Zajick's current voice but there's a lot of good stuff after that. And American bass-baritones Keith Miller and David Crawford as the conspirators bring some much-needed kick to the bottom end of the ensembles.

What's missing? That incandescence where spirit takes over from sound and detail-management. Perhaps it's Luisi (who has everything but that spark of genius), perhaps it's the weight of the lifeless new production, perhaps it's the start-of-run feeling out period after Sandy has hindered preparation. We'll see in the next month as the run continues.

*     *     *

The production did provide a bit of viewing fun: figuring out which bits were lifted from what. The basic stage configuration (the first two acts are on the exact same set) of bare tilted almost-converging floor/ceiling seems to be from Minghella's Butterfly; the surreal civil servants in hats from Lievi's Cenerentola; the women's chorus in the Ulrica scene taken wholesale from Noble's Macbeth; the color palette from Pelly's otherwise forgettable Manon; the ugly decorative wallpaper and use of uniformly-attired chorus in a threatening way from that Decker Traviata, the contemplation area downstage left from Sher's Hoffmann; the physical direction (particularly for Radvanovsky, who's sprawled on the floor a lot) from McVicar's Trovatore... and did Alden venture beyond the moviecast repertory to lift the mass of mirrors for the last scene from the high-point of Volpe's tenure, the too-long-absent Wernicke production of Frau? That's a nice thought. The rest is Generic Gelb Production, with its "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." The Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene occurs when the sailor requests Ulrica read his fortune.

It's not completely absent of good points: the stage layout does aid the singers' projection (though Radvanovsky doesn't need it), and the first scene of the final act finally provides a more intimate space for action than the full-stage emptiness that's endemic to Generic Gelb and the rest of this production. (It is, however, just a plain white room with tilted floor/ceiling.) But the bad predominates. Least helpful, perhaps, is the contribution of debuting choreographer Maxine Braham, who seemed determined to squash any potential outbreaks of elegance or elan by making not only the singers but the actual dancers look silly in... deconstructed square dances, or whatever that was. (Kim made her dance material at least amusing by throwing in some Olympia bits.) Or perhaps the nadir is the contribution of Alden himself, who apparently didn't bother figuring out how to block the final act: Gustavo, it turns out, is able not only to read a tiny note from halfway across the stage without opening it, but to carry on a private conversation with Amelia while the two are on opposite sides of the massive dance floor, looking away from each other.

As for the idea that the dark and macabre should predominate in a production of Ballo -- well, I think it's quite wrong, but this unserious production isn't much of an occasion to evaluate it. None but the performers come off well here -- including subtitler Cori Ellison, who coarsens (and thereby destroys) the sarcastic joke of the second act's closing laughing chorus.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The island

The Tempest - Metropolitan Opera, 11/6/2012
Keenlyside, Luna, Leonard, Shrader, Oke, Burden, Spence, Feigum, Del Carlo / Adès

Rich and strange it is, but not entirely in a good way. Wonderful music and an excellent libretto... that don't quite add up to great opera together.

Composer/conductor Thomas Ades has an remarkable musical gift, conjuring as varied and fluent a torrent of sound as Strauss or Berg. Meredith Oakes fashioned here a libretto of sound and interesting structure and much in the text and scenic setup to chew on. But they are not, perhaps, for each other. For the characters and their drama don't seem to engage Ades: he gives their expressions audible effect, to be sure, but they are mostly secondary elements in the show's broad aural course. Ariel's turns are brilliant, others more humanly plain, but none guide the whole flow of sound, even in the final act where Ades dials the orchestral stuff back for some intimacy. Indeed only once do music and text wholly engage and the great operatic moment appear, and that's in the middle of the middle act -- Caliban's dream invocation of the island.

This, along with the lovely and evocative finale in which Caliban appears like Capriccio's M. Taupe from the prompter's space to re-inherit the island (with Ariel) does suggest one sort of musical-dramatic unity, alluded to in the program note: the island itself as the central musical figure and, er, grounding presence in the proceedings, upon which the humans' troubles are a passing episode. But while this is interesting and enriches our picture of the two spirits, it puts to the side most of the stuff we're actually watching in the opera... and indeed, that's the experience.

Shakespeare's Tempest certainly has room for this kind of conceit, and perhaps someone else might radically rewrite it to really centralize these themes in the actual stage action, but Oakes did not do so. Instead she very cleverly and librettistically reassembled Shakespeare's story elements -- but still in a very human and human-focused manner. Ades dutifully and sympathetically set these human bits, but his brilliance is in all the sonic doodling he did over and around and between them.

It's an excellent show to see and hear: besides the libretto and music, every member of the cast is a pleasure (though Isabel Leonard's English diction could be more comprehensible), and Robert Lepage, it turns out, can actually turn out a nice production when his video toys are (mostly) left aside. (There is, of course, the obligatory multilayered scaffolding.) And it suggests even finer things in the future. But if Thomas Adès is Strauss, he has not yet found his Hofmannsthal.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 5-11)

The hurricane cancelled half of last week at the Met, but the dangling crane on 57th has forced a Carnegie Hall shutdown that's still ongoing. At least power and most of the subways are back in and around the venues...

Metropolitan Opera
Turandot (M/F), Tempest (T/SM), Figaro (W/SE), Ballo (Th)
David Alden's Ballo debuts, with an excellent cast and Luisi in the pit. You can see The Tempest on Election Day (and I may actually end up doing this) or at the moviecast this weekend. This incarnation of Turandot is pretty good for what it is; the Figaro isn't.

Avery Fisher Hall
Richard Tucker Gala (Sunday 6:30pm)
Along with this year's Tucker Award winner Ailyn Pérez (not yet much heard in the city), the lineup includes Abdrazakov & Borodina, Filianoti, Giordani, Finley, Hvorostovsky, and Schrott.

NYU Skirball Center
Vox 2012 (Th)
This year at the new opera showcase: bits of operas by John Zorn, Moto Osada, Christopher Weiss, Evan Meier, James Stepleton, and Osnat Netzer. Too bad it's up against the Ballo premiere!

UPDATE (misread my calendar last week...)
Frick Collection
Toby Spence recital (Sunday 5pm)
The British tenor makes his New York recital debut in a program of German lieder, capped off by Schumann's Dichterliebe.