Monday, December 31, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 31-January 6)

Metropolitan Opera
Maria Stuarda (M/F), Troyens (T/SM), Turandot (W), Barber (Th/SE)
The new year brings a new David McVicar production -- the second in what seems to be a full cycle of Donizetti's three "queens". Tonight's Maria Stuarda is not just this and the annual New Year's gala, however: it's also the first truly feature appearance by American mezzo superstar Joyce DiDonato. As excellent as she's been in recital and in comedy, it's tragic drama that's most fully shown her talents. (Internet live-stream of tonight's premiere -- 6:25ET.) Meanwhile Les Troyens has its final two performances with not-Giordani substitute tenor Bryan Hymel, and Turandot returns with Irene Theorin, Hibla Gerzmava, and Walter Fraccaro as Calaf.

Avery Fisher Hall
Opera Orchestra of New York Andrea Chenier (Sunday 4pm)
The year's first OONY show stars Roberto Alagna and a singer of whom I'd not previously heard, Arkansas-by-way-of-Vienna soprano Kristin Lewis.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 24-30)

As you might expect, Christmas week is rather slow.

Metropolitan Opera
Barber (WM/Th/SE), Troyens (W/SM), Aida (F)
Last performance this season of Aida.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The lost year

The eighth year of this blog's life has been the most precarious, with months and months of not-quite-posting at its start. There is much, in retrospect, I'd like to have written up in full -- no show more than the Manhattan School of Music revival of Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, a review I'd probably have completed if I still had a working VCR at hand to check my old Met videotape. Nevertheless, at least this handful of posts seems worth revisiting:
On Manon, Manon Lescaut, and Laurent Pelly's production of the former
On Janacek's tragic version of The Makropoulos Case
On the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera
On Verdi's Requiem in performance
That I've been dissatisfied with the Gelb years since their beginning has been no secret, but he did soon after use the groundwork laid by his predecessor to preside over one of the great seasons in Met history -- 2008-09, its 125th. In this decade things haven't gone so well, but the most discouraging development from a commentator's perspective was how repetitive the missteps (and associated complaints) began to be. I'm glad to have offloaded some of that in the third post above.

Meanwhile, a word of appreciation for the readers who have continued (or begun!) to take in these words: I started this project to found what I'd not previously found -- a space for appreciation and thinking on what is in opera and opera performance, free from the factionalism and old-or-new conventions of other opera universes. I was never quite sure whether and how much this would appeal to anyone else, and want to thank you all for finding this a sympathetic project. For beyond my own limitations as a single individual with finite time and insight, I realize that the cooler format here omits not only the foolish tendencies of group opinion but its ability to deliver the pleasure of belonging -- something on which the modern world seems to run as much as the old did, if not more.

(That said, please feel free to comment!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 17-23)

Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house... Actually, there are a lot of performances of the Messiah this week, but it's not my favorite Handel.

Metropolitan Opera
Troyens (M/F), Barber (T/SM), Aida (W/SE), Don Giovanni (Th)
Super-compressed summary of my two half-finished posts on Les Troyens: the piece is uniquely glorious and shouldn't be missed, but Giordani and Luisi make rather less of the performance than what could be (and was). How that balances... up to you. Meanwhile the parade of 2007 Met Council winners continues with Alek Shrader in the kids' English-language version of Barber (again, as usual for these holiday shows, with a strong young cast overall), and Don Giovanni finishes its run (with the outstanding Donna Anna of 2005 winner Susanna Phillips). The week's Aidas bring Hui He and Dolora Zajick back into the female roles.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Long ago

Aida - Metropolitan Opera, 12/12/2012
Monastyrska, Borodina, Alagna, Gagnidze, Kocan / Luisi

While most of this Aida was certainly pleasant, about the only part of it more than that was also agonizingly less than what it was.

Ten years ago Olga Borodina was at the top of the mezzo heap even in the ongoing Mezzo Golden Age. A luxuriant, even sound from top to bottom combined with an even more luxuriant vocal approach made her an unrivaled treat for the ear, and her middle-weight voice had the flexibility for Rossini and the force for Verdi. The capper was to be Didon in the Met's first Les Troyens in decades, with Ben Heppner and (as ever) James Levine. But that never happened -- Borodina got pregnant, she withdrew from the 02-03 season including Troyens, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson got (and seized) the Met chance of a lifetime.

Borodina has, of course, had great successes since then, but as her 30s passed into the 40s, high notes have marred her perfection and become a recurring issue. They were no problem in the early 2006 Aida, but her much-anticipated house role debut as Eboli at the end of the year found them on and off. And now...

Her work as Amneris never did rely on the paint-peeling volume or high note blasts of her colleague Dolora Zajick, but a judicious amount of each complemented the royal stage business and use of exquisite soft tones to make, on the whole, a more humanly effective whole of an Egyptian princess. Today (well, Wednesday) the bottom and middle of Borodina's voice are as luxuriant as ever and, when allowed to work their magic alone, are still the magic of the production. But when high notes appear, as they must, the effect is now spoiled: they themselves have a pressured quality that disrupts the even flow of tone; Borodina's cautious lead-up interrupts her commanding phrasing; and, well, the final cry of the last-act judgment scene should be more than just instantly touched.

Perhaps she has better in reserve. Some of her colleagues were clearly leaving something for Saturday's moviecast -- most obviously newly-arrived tenor Roberto Alagna, who wasn't bad but clearly wasn't going to waste one of his really good nights on this dry run. Conductor Fabio Luisi, as I observed this morning, was meanwhile just starting his torturous run of four straight shows in the pit for three different operas -- and here some autopilot is surely excusable. That said, I really was astounded by how unusually pedestrian not only the phrase-shaping but the actual tonal quality of the Met's orchestral playing turned out this time: I suspect not only Troyens but Aida itself would have benefited from a reliable dedicated presence like Marco Armiliato's in this show's pit. Ballo ended last night, but both Troyens and Aida will continue to play over the next weeks, meaning that Luisi never will get to focus on just one of the pair.

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska -- who debuted earlier in this run -- can sing Aida reasonably well, but her voice, though decent in size, is a nervous one without much fat in the middle, a poor fit for this lyrical wallow of a part and opera. Baritone George Gagnidze looks surprisingly tall in this company, but Amonasro doesn't give him much space for scene-chewing. Stefan Kocan, luxury cast as Ramfis, has as welcome a sound as ever.

If that's not enough eastern Europeans for you, the choreography seems to have reworked by ABT's choreographer-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.

*     *     *

Luisi did just (a few hours ago, on Friday night) deliver the zippiest Ballo of the season, so perhaps he, Alagna, and Borodina have some nice surprises saved up for this afternoon's moviecast. But it may be that Sonja Frisell's production, the Zeffirelli-topping epitome of Met big realism, will again be broadcast in a less-than-ideal show... which is fine as long as it continues to run past its imminent 25th season. Like all the old warhorse productions this year, its virtues are starting to seem, in the current context, subversive and new.

Amber Wagner

So did you ever wonder what Sondra Radvanovsky would sound like if she'd been born a full-on dramatic soprano (big Wagner, etc.) instead of the classic dramatic coloratura (Verdi from his beginning plus, you know, Norma) she in fact is?

Well, it turns out that the answer is basically "just like Amber Wagner". Or, rather, the felicitously-named Wagner sounds basically just like what you'd get if you put the soprano she covered (and, for last night's final performance, replaced) in Ballo into (baby) full-dramatic shape. There's slightly more chest-grounded fullness (something Radvanovsky, like most well-trained American non-dramatics, didn't use much at all while young) from the bottom, a slightly less-easy extension at the very top, and the top otherwise hits with a slightly more direct physical impact than Radvanovsky's astonishing and somewhat unsettling ringing of the whole house. (And, oh yes, she's built a bit more stoutly -- though not at all so that it's an issue, especially for a real dramatic.) But the basic, rippling quick-vibrato timbre is recognizably akin, as is Wagner's way with the text: in the rapid, dialogue-heavy parts of ensembles you could close your eyes and imagine Radvanovsky still there. And even the basic ballpark vocal size & volume!... though seeing Radvanovsky as Amelia again recently reminded me of just how easy it is to under-remember the thrilling scope and texture of her instrument.

But make no mistake: Wagner is her own singer with a prodigious gift of her own, and a pretty glorious performer already in her own right. On stage right now she's basically just a singer -- the action isn't unnatural but it's not at all what you notice -- but that is, if not yet as good as her predecessor on the whole, quite enough. She has, so far, turned out exactly as I hoped from her 2007 Met Council finals win -- where she lapped the field, including Angela Meade, on sound quality. She still does. See her in everything you can.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Luisi marathon

It occurred to me at the start of last night's Troyens that after the Saturday matinee moviecast of Aida, Fabio Luisi will have conducted four consecutive performances at the Met -- of three different operas, in the space of under four days.

This is, as I'll soon discuss, not good.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A significant passing

Lisa della Casa, the greatest of Strauss sopranos, died yesterday at the age of 93.

The appreciation I wrote for her 90th birthday has my thoughts, though the documentary video linked therein has now (sadly) been pulled from YouTube.

For those of you reading on a non-Firefox HTML5 browser, a bit of Der Rosenkavalier:

And, less well-known but in line with tonight's show at the Met, Donna Anna's arias from Don Giovanni (in German):

Monday, December 10, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 10-16)

Not much going on at other venues (if you're a Susanna Phillips or Elizabeth Futral fan, they're singing Phillip Lasser songs at the 92nd St Y Tribeca tonight), but it's an eventful week at the Met.

Metropolitan Opera
Clemenza (M), Don Giovanni (T/SE), Aida (W*/SM), Troyens (Th), Ballo (F)
Last call for Clemenza and Ballo this season, with the latter offering the house lead-role debut of big-voiced 2007 Met Council winner Amber Wagner. Meanwhile the moviecast streak continues with an Aida that surely anyone who's been to NYC in the past decades has seen... though perhaps not with Roberto Alagna, who's now in as Radames.
The biggest event, however, is the first revival of Francesca Zambello's great production of the Berlioz epic Les Troyens. A return with Susan Graham as Didon has been rumored on and off since the show's unforgettable 2003 premiere with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the part, and though the star power in the rest of the cast has been reduced (the original had Polenzani as Iopas!), it's great to see it -- and Graham -- finally back.

* Wednesday's (starred) Aida 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.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 3-9)

Metropolitan Opera
Aida (M/F), Ballo (T*/SM), Don Giovanni (W/SE), Clemenza (Th)
It's Hui He's turn as Aida, a role she debuted in 2010. Borodina is in imperfect vocal state and Marco Berti has already been replaced by Carl Tanner, but... it's Aida. Ballo and Clemenza are pretty good, but Don Giovanni (see post immediately below) is the best show of the Met season.

* Tuesday's (starred) Ballo 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
Collegiate Chorale Beatrice di Tenda (W 6pm)
This show (note early start time!) is largely a 2007 Met Council Finals reunion, with the most unjust loser (Nicholas Pallesen) and the most unjust winner (Jamie Barton) joining the singer most benefited by the win, no-longer-quite-immature dramatic coloratura Angela Meade. Throw in fearless American tenor Michael Spyres (remember Huguenots?) and you have the main cast.

Alice Tully Hall
Andreas Scholl recital (SE)
Scholl's voice was no match for the Met auditorium last year, but this much smaller venue may let him better show his musicality.

Morgan Library
George London Foundation recital (Sunday 4:30pm)
Mezzo Vivica Genaux and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch offer a bunch of solo selections and one duet.

The Nutcracker (F/SM/SE/SuM/SuE)
The last-act staging gets bogged down and ABT's top men aren't in this run, but seeing official off-topic diva Veronika Part do childlike joy (12/8 and 12/16) is worth it all.

High definition

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 11/28/2012
Abdrazakov, Schrott, Phillips, Bell, Siurina, Castronovo, Soar (d) / Gardner

This is neither the most urgent, nor the grandest, nor the most starry Don Giovanni the Met has put together over the years, but it might still be the very best. What it is -- to be clear -- is the best, most precisely, and most satisfyingly delineated incarnation I can remember, successful in every way that last month's Figaro failed and more, and an unreservedly recommendable triumph.

It starts, as ever, in the pit. As in his Carmens here two years ago, ENO music director Edward Gardner provides precise, measured, almost chamber-textured conducting. If he does not provide the wild daemonic electricity that, say, Nezet-Seguin might have offered, he also does not step on and bludgeon his singers as David Robertson did. Instead Gardner gives them a framework, a well-delineated space for their own work -- and they take it.

That they do and did is to the great credit of each -- all the applause at curtain was well-deserved -- but the essential catalyst seems to have been one who did not get a bow: revival stage director Louisa Muller, whose first title-page-credited Met work this seems to be (she has assisted on other shows here in the past, including the original version of this production). Muller, against the coarsening tide of the time, has worked with the cast to bring forth a feast of humanizing detail, in tune with and making visible not only the individual characters of performer and role, but Mozart's music itself. From the very first Anna-Giovanni confrontation on the balcony, scenes that tradition has allowed to become homogenously just their "gist" have been more precisely opened up to show multiple and various relations and moods (simultaneously at times, successively at others) -- as emotions flash or slowly work their way across each player's body and musical line. (In the most extended and striking example, simple positioning shifts allow Phillips and Castronovo to play her solo "Non mi dir" as a wonderfully revealing and believable couples' fight/reconciliation.) Some of this may have been trying to appear in the original premiere, but, perhaps due to revolving casts, not much did. The work of original director Michael Grandage and designed Christopher Oram in providing the most detailed frame of the Gelb era remains as helpful as I thought it would be. (The one physical flaw -- the dead Commendatore's silver braiding that looks too much like a skeleton shirt -- has been nicely patched by the ghost's keeping his arms within his cloak until the fatal handshake.)

Some players, of course, need no particular frame of conductor and show. Ekaterina Siurina is always clearly who she is: a wonderfully uncomplicated -ina/-etta. Her Susanna was a significant part of the last great Mozart/Da Ponte revival (that fall 2007 Figaro), and, character-wise, Siurina's happily familiar (she does not, as Mojca Erdmann did, break ground -- but it doesn't matter) way with this -ina is, as one would predict, firm ground for the volatility around her. And yet, whether from long unjust absence or growth over time, it had not occurred to me that her sound would be so big, so clear, so quite as delicious as her nice-soubrette phrasing. There are limits: sometimes one wants complications. (Yes, it turns out that "Siurina" may be Russian for "Ruth Ann Swenson".) But the opera world in which Siurina isn't the obvious first-choice Russian Adina is a crazy one.

Opposite her, as Masetto, debuts British singer David Soar, who has a tenor's name but a lyric bass instrument, which he -- well in the spirit of this revival -- isn't afraid to use to whiny-toned effect. Is he basically a character singer? Though he's quite good at it, he showed flashes of a voice for more.

If this run does lose proportion and disintegrate, I fear it will be from Erwin Schrott loosening up too much and breaking the ensemble dynamic. But that didn't happen this first night, and unless&until it does his Leporello will be one of the show's amazing highlights. What served him so poorly in the title part -- the pile-on of tics that could not add up to a significant (anti)hero despite his lead-quality instrument -- is, within this role and context, the basis for his greatest night at the Met. Schrott does not, I should already note, merely tic: in accord with the rest of the show, everything has its place, including non-action and non-reaction. In fact it's the slackness of his default deadpan that is most and almost endlessly amusing, providing priceless contrast for an ever-imminent facility in plastique great and small, mild and jarring. If his voice -- which sounds great here -- goes the way of Netrebko's last beau's, Schrott may yet have a future in cinematic comedy.

His master is nearly as drastically transformed from his last Mozart appearance: where, in the just-closed Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov looked pressed and harried all night, he seems now perfectly in his element, filling stage and ear with confident seduction and star shamelessness. Was it the conducting? An aversion to low comedy work analogous to Schrott's affinity for the same? A chemistry as harmful there as is obviously successful here? Hard to say, as an observer, but Abdrazakov is back to his impressive form.

Most bizarrely precise on stage is Emma Bell's Donna Elvira, who presents unmistakably as English. This isn't exactly in accord with the text, but does nicely pin down the never-quite-wholly desperate quality of Elvira's desperation. Bell lacks the moral-emotional force of predecessors Susan Graham and Dorothea Röschmann, but that didn't actually turn out to be essential here. Her actual singing and negotiation of Elvira's hurdles was above average and improved as the night went on.

Finally, the noble couple of Suanna Phillips' Donna Anna and Charles Castronovo's Don Ottavio benefitted much (perhaps most) from being presented precisely and seriously. Her trauma-victim Anna (the gut-punched reaction to both her father's death and her recognition of the killer is excellently done) is the more wounded of the ladies, and the more forceful. Phillips sings the part with a lovely even sound rarely managed by an Anna, and though it may actually be a bit lovelier than one would prototypically want, the physical cues here let her coherently present a hurt rather than vengeance-besotted woman.

Meanwhile Ottavio here is, for Castronovo's lovely laments (his wonderfully plaintive First Prisoner in Beethoven's Fidelio seems to have been the first and only time I've previously seen him at the Met) more personally closed than usual -- he is very much a man of his context, one in which the justice of humans is powerless and the supernatural must intervene -- until that really touching back-and-forth of this revival's "Non mi dir" (not changed musically -- it's in fact a complement). Appealing sound too, strongest in a warm midrange.

*     *     *

The Met usually succeeds with Don Giovanni by rolling out the star power -- and, in fact, it did so as recently as the spring (with Andrew Davis, Finley, Terfel, Polenzani, etc.). It rarely is able to transmute the parts into the ensemble magic that has come out so regularly in its Figaros. But -- not least due to the best revival direction I can recall, and some of the best "Personenregie" by anyone in the Gelb era -- this run is a terrific exception, and yet another reason to regret the preservation of last season's absurd moviecast cast. Don't miss it.