Monday, January 28, 2013

The week in NY opera (January 28-February 3)

Metropolitan Opera
Rigoletto (M/Th), Comte Ory (T/SM), Elisir (W/SE)
The new Rigoletto offers an interesting choice: this first cast with a very good Duke (Piotr Beczala) and temperamentally miscast though vocally impressive Rig&Gilda (Zeljko Lucic too inclined to slip into his characteristic lyric mild-manneredness, Diana Damrau too clever and insufficiently wise), or the spring cast with a dead-on baritone and soprano (George Gagnidze and Lisette Oropesa) and a dicey tenor (the previously-unimpressive Vittorio Grigolo). If Friday's dress rehearsal was any indication, the (mostly!) refreshing maximalism of the new production will sort of distract from Lucic's lack of a cruel streak, while its constraints will force Damrau to abandon the schemer of her previous appearances and play... well, maybe not Gilda proper, but at least Mary Katherine Gallagher playing Gilda, which is in fact an improvement.
Personally I might skip the Met for the next few weeks... although Erwin Schrott (though less humane than the original Dulcamara here, Maestri) is an incredible comedian when properly called to it.

Alice Tully Hall
Kirchschlager/Bostridge duo recital (Sunday 5pm)
Julius Drake accompanies for this all-Wolf program (from the Spanisches Liederbuch).

Carnegie Hall
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Sunday 2pm)
As do-gooding I find Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan project a non-sequitur at best (though he does have the wisdom to work within his field), and he's never been the most natural with Beethoven from the podium, but having Diana Damrau, Kate Lindsey, Piotr Beczala, and Rene Pape as the soloists for Beethoven's Ninth makes up for much.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The week in NY opera (January 21-27)

One of those New York choices this Wednesday night.

Metropolitan Opera
Comte Ory (M/F), Rondine (T/SM), Maria Stuarda (W/SE), Trovatore (Th)
By many accounts the last weeks' truly significant soprano debut was young South African Pretty Yende in the otherwise pointless revival of Comte Ory. If that doesn't appeal, two great displays of singing -- Maria Stuarda and Trovatore -- close for the season this week. (Incidentally, they're both staged by the only successful Gelb-era director, David McVicar. How about he does all the Italian stuff from now on?) Rondine, eh -- more soon along with Troyens and Turandot writeups.

Carnegie Hall
Dorothea Röschmann recital (W)
Fleming/Graham duo recital (Su)

It's been far too long since master liederist Dorothea Röschmann has done a solo recital here, making Wednesday's show even less to be missed. She arrives this time with Malcolm Martineau and a program of core Schubert, Strauss, Liszt, and Wolf.
Megastars Renee Fleming and Susan Graham's duo show on the big stage, on the other hand, is French themed, which suits the latter terrifically.

Nic Hodges and Radu Lupu on the ivories this week at Carnegie.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The queen

Recital - Carnegie Hall, 11/18/2012
DiDonato / Il Complesso Barocco
Maria Stuarda - Metropolitan Opera, 1/8/2013
DiDonato, van den Heever, Polenzani, Rose, Hopkins, Zifchak / Benini

A funny thing happened while I was preparing to review Joyce DiDonato's fall Carnegie Hall recital: she did it herself. Unsurprisingly, she pinpointed the two complementary joys of her own recital arsenal here highlighted. First, the slow --
the hushed, still, immobile moments that thrill us performers the most
-- is delivered by DiDonato as well and as intimately as by anyone. Second, the fast --
when we rip into the Orlandini or Handel "dance numbers" and smiles are contagiously spread over the attendees, and shoulders are bopping, heads are beating – people caught up in the euphoria of the pulse, the melody, the centuries old sentiment
-- is indeed just as electric as she herself puts it, at least as much for her own evident grasp of the moment as for her polished vocal virtuosity.

The makeup of this particular program showed the American mezzo's current status as much as anything: yes, she can now be expected to assemble a program of mostly-unknown baroque stuff, and sell it not only in her own person but on CD as well. The very cleverly dressed "Drama Queens" program she was (and will, after the final Stuarda, resume) touring presents interesting material, sometimes excellent, in both modes.

Of the slow there's more wealth: from the spare early cries of Monteverdi's Ottavia to the stately, wistful, resigned, and agonized variants of her early-18th-century counterparts, long breath and phrase are given every sort of exposure to show DiDonato's talents terrifically. The fast doesn't quite cover all the bases, at least for a live show: the non-Handel stuff falls between the full-climactic poles of ecstasy and tragic madness, making them not-quite-natural counterbalances to the extendedly-built-up emotions of the slow. Yes, it's fast & quick-rhythmic and not slow, but there's only so much the simply physical contrast can satisfy for a close-following audience. And... using pieces of defiance and even fury (the second Orlandini, done as the second encore, in particular) as "dance numbers" doesn't quite make the best sense of them.

I'm not sure how this could have been improved, though, without going further off-mandate by throwing in more Handel, whose genuinely ecstatic "Brilla nell'alma" did nice double duty as the close of both the regular program and the encore set. I suspect we don't remember those between Monteverdi and Handel in part because they weren't as good at joyful or tragic climaxes. That is to say, if this wasn't as unforgettable, epochal, or whatever as DiDonato's 2009 recital at Zankel, it's because of the higher Handel masterpiece percentage on that night's set.

Like its all-Handel predecessor, the CD itself is good, enjoyable, and well-recorded, but suffers by having been done before the tour and not at one or more of its stops. This makes perfect commercial sense (better to be able to sell and promote the product as you go along!) but is still artistically unfortunate. Live performance is, as DiDonato herself writes, a "mystical chain reaction", and there's no substitute -- or, as of yet, full audio document.

*     *     *

If November's event showed how many sides of the "slow" DiDonato commands, Maria Stuarda shows at what stunning length she commands it. After the brief Elizabeth scene at its start, the second Act is one extended display/test of the Mary's concentration and intimate singing as she moves from one encounter and aspect to the next while remaining ever exposedly central. And here DiDonato carries it off magnificently, maintaining focus and proportion through the whole stretch from confrontation (with Cecil) to remorse (with Talbot), guiding her supporters, and (in odd reversal) consoling Leicester before her death, so that the passage of Mary from uncertainty to death comes as in one long breath of spirit. The consequent hush lingers long in the audience thereafter, well through the thunderous applause at curtain.

DiDonato was the main known quantity in this very first Met production of Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. The unknowns turned out mixed. Very much a success was this third Met production of David McVicar, whose previous drab Anna Bolena disappointed as a follow-up to his astonishing Trovatore. Here he and set/costume designer John Mcfarlane present a wonderful series of contrasting pictures: first a stark red (the place) and white (the occupants) clean- and many-lined interior for Elizabeth's court, then a Romantic swirling-sky backdrop to the trees of Mary's short freedom, into which the variegated outfits and appearances of the court hunting party appear for a glorious visual tableau in the act-ending confrontation. Elizabeth's scene in the second act occurs before an immense and full-detailed seal that takes up the whole rear space; with the transition to Mary's cell there is blackness cut only by shafts of light and black-and-white bits of her handwriting until, for Mary's final scene, black-and-white empty space is transformed not by color but by the play of outside light on the black-clad figures of the crowd. (Color appears only at the end, with Mary's headlining red dress.) For the characters, his choices don't seem strictly necessary in their particular form, but the fact that they have been made seems to guide and anchor the singers' presentation. So Elizabeth is graceless, almost lumbering and bowlegged in moving about, and this almost masculine contrast to Mary's much-discussed feminine appeal makes what she sees in Mary (and the impossibility of her transcending this) very clear, while the involuntary head-tremor Mary acquires between the acts speaks as well as any narration of the years and lost hopes that the story has elided.

Less triumphant was debuting South African soprano Elza van den Heever. As Elizabeth she's not at all called upon to be charming or prettily appealing, which is fortunate because those don't seem to be her strengths. Her sound is, I think, rather hard to like -- it's certainly there, and the notes all sound, but there's a certain harsh quality to the tone that's offset neither by great resonant volume/scale nor by a brilliant flexibility. Everything fits and works in this part of this production, but how many other such are there?

The men, on the other hand, were all terrific. Matthew Polenzani's familiar combination of natural earnestness and lovely tone makes Leicester's appeal to both queens understandable despite all naivete, bass Matthew Rose is strong and firm as Talbot -- his duet with Mary in the second act perhaps the highlight of the evening -- and baritone Joshua Hopkins does much in the small but significant part of Cecil. In the pit Maurizio Benini surely deserves dual credit with DiDonato for the show's extended coherence -- it's significantly better work than I'd have expected from his middling first shows here. Donizetti and Giuseppe Bardari's slow-motion, almost chamber account of Mary Stuart's doom and death is a marvel that probably should have succeeded on the Met stage before... but it's appropriate that our Golden Age of Mezzos (Blythe's Azucena was the night after this, though she's out of tonight's Trovatore) premiered this great Maliban part here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Time regained

For all the significance that the genre and its institutions had in the 19th century opera world, French Grand Opera turned out to have only two enduring representatives: Don Carlos and Les Troyens, neither of which were particular successes at the time. (Troyens actually never got a full staging during the composer's life.) In fact each, while sticking to the formal requirements of the genre -- five acts, ballets, big crowd scenes with chorus, etc. -- transforms the characteristic aesthetic experience thereof wholesale. One understands why upon actually seeing the then-popular stuff, which one might call the Hollywood summer blockbusters of their day... if one were willing to be slightly unfair to summer blockbusters. Spectacle! Wish-fulfilment in and adoration of the hero! Climax upon climax! More spectacle! In place of these Verdi gives us his characteristic tragic drama -- with true feeling substituted everywhere for the genre's fake stuff -- and Berlioz, well...

Verdi's Don Carlo(s) characters are cursed by the moment, stuck passionately in unbearable stasis for most of the night. In Les Troyens it is time that is the destroyer, the onrush of which will -- as every half-educated viewer knows from a glimpse of the title -- unmake all the cities shown on stage. Why does Berlioz add and foreground Cassandra within Virgil's Book 2 telling of the sack of Troy? Because the outcome is too well-known, is buried under too many irrevocable pasts: Berlioz reaching back to his childhood reaching back to Virgil reaching back to Homer whose account of his already-distant past was the literal beginning of Western literature as such. Not only must Troy fall, but its fall is basically the most famous and significant secular event ever: every viewer must expect the end from the moment it appears, will react to the foolish joy and expectation of the crowd with the same despair and horror as only one who within the story impotently knows the future can express. (In Virgil it not offered in the present; the running commentary is by Aeneas himself who is spinning a tale-within-the-tale.)

And so the tenor-hero Aeneas appears, not wanting to change his personal and private world as Don Carlo(s) or others do, but instead happy before he's dislodged, in fact resisting the inexorable march of time and event across his city's life and his. He fights the intruders, preserves what he can (treasure, immediate family, and a contingent of Trojan men), and tries to make the best of the divine command that drags him onward to "Italie" -- that is, past the razing of his city and into the swirl of the future we know too well... for today we know that Rome, too, falls and becomes picturesque ruin.

He doesn't like it, of course. Neither, necessarily, did Berlioz, whose very first engagement with literature was, by his own account, with the Aenied's Book 4 -- the Dido story. And so after depicting, in its first two acts, the grand and horrible power of onrushing events -- broken only for long breaths of awe and despair and foreboding -- the opera finds its counter-theme: that first magical space of childhood imagination, Dido's court, fleshed out to unmatched fulness by the adult's genius and long engagement. Here Aeneas, his men, his viewers, and perhaps the composer himself find not only respite from fate's whirlwind (it is, after all, a storm that forces the Trojans to Libyan shores) but actual resistance thereto. Dido's Carthage is not, as with so many exotic operatic locales, a palpably ephemeral world born just for a two-hour life (like, say, Minnie's mining camp): doomed it is, but from the beginning it senses the tide of fate -- and opposes it, more and more determinedly, long past the point of reasonableness or decency or self-preservation... so that its defiance lives on, echoing long past the ruin of not only its queen and itself, but of the "eternal" empire it was abandoned to found.

*     *     *

What space does all this blindness, struggle, and agony shelter and nourish and pay for? It's an achieved tranquility almost unheard elsewhere in the operatic canon. The ceremony of the poem's Book 1 and the fevered tragic course of its Book 4 are rearranged by Berlioz and opened out into something like the ur-courtly space, where even the rhythmic impulse of the dances doesn't need to go anywhere in particular. This is, of course, a very French mode, one that appeared in its great courtly period with Lully and Rameau and would reappear in great glory in the late-Romantic Franco-Russian court ballets of Petipa -- and indeed the uncut, full-length Russian re-creations of the latter are about the only other place one can sample these gloriously unhurried flavors today. But in the 1850s this transplanted re-flowering was yet some time off, and with a Revolution and numerous forms of government lying in between, the self-confident courtly mode of the Sun King's time might have seemed as immensely far from Berlioz as Carthage itself.

And yet both live again, all the more interestingly colored by their tenuous temporary existence. Because we -- and the characters, and indeed the composer -- now know what must come next if the flow of time and event and "fate" resumes its normal course, the courtly suspension thereof in ceremony and ordered luxury takes on a simultaneously triumphant and melancholy character -- in fact reflected in the moods of those depicted! -- for as long as it lasts. Because it cannot last long (and, in a way, should not be at all), it might as well last forever -- or seem to. And so the great Act IV sequence of dances, Iopas' song, and the ensembles through the duet "Nuit d'ivresse" again&again tries to settle into this temporary time-defying infinity... and again&again succeeds, for the duration of the piece(s). That we are twice kicked back to the onrushing crisis by Dido's doubts and the echo of Narbal's worry only increases the determination and savor of the next attempt. At last, with the rapt final duet, all is settled... And then the god speaks.

An intermission later, Act V plays out the breaking of the spell -- as we know must happen -- again in stunning Gluck-derived tragic form. But it's the Act IV spell itself -- more civilized than Tristan's, more humane than later ballets' (it's really white act and court act delicately and unstably fused into one) -- that makes Les Troyens a unique and unmissable masterpiece.

Monday, January 14, 2013

The week in NY opera, January 14-20

Winter cold season means I'll get to the backlog... when I can. Also made me miss (and forget to list) Matthew Polenzani and Emalie Savoy's Morgan Library recital yesterday -- ah well.

Metropolitan Opera
Rondine (M/F), Maria Stuarda (T*/SM), Trovatore (W/SE), Comte Ory (Th)
New this week: Le Comte Ory, minus all the original stars but Florez. Don't go. Not while Maria Stuarda and Trovatore are still playing, certainly... Note that Wednesday's Trovatore is Angela Meade's one performance of the run.

* Tuesday's (starred) Stuarda 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.

Sumeida's Song (M/T)
Soldier's Songs (W/Th/F)

These new short chamber operas continue their run.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Going big

Il Trovatore - Metropolitan Opera, 1/9/2013
Berti, Racette, Blythe, Markov, Stamboglis / Callegari

An operagoer (like myself) inclined to look first at the soprano spot in a cast listing might perhaps have thought that this would be a smaller-scaled revival, in line with Patricia Racette's familiar and admirable -- though, you know, smaller-scaled -- take on Leonora. That thought would have been completely wrong. Racette is herself, but everyone else involved puts on a hell of a shouting contest... mostly in the best way.

What Stephanie Blythe does is hardly to be called "shouting", but her sound is unbelievably loud and full throughout, as much so in this full-length part as in her gooseflesh-inducing one-act cameo in the fall's later Ballos. Yep, the Golden Age of Mezzos I've mentioned from the blog's very first review is still going.

More surprising were the low-voiced men: Greek bass Christophoros Stamboglis sounded so juicy and rounded as Ferrando that it was easy to overlook his getting tangled up in the rhythms of his initial scene end, and Russian baritone Alexey Markov has completed an impressive transition to the Italian rep with a full, easy, both lyric&strong di Luna... missing only big top notes. Markov is an interesting change from his countryman Hvorostovsky, who premiered the part in this McVicar production: more conventionally handsome and good-sounding and less thoroughly intense/crazy, the current Russian's Count often seems to be wondering why Leonora keeps choosing the odd-looking, hopeless tenor over the nobleman with looks, power, authority, and snappy outfits.

Said odd-looking tenor was Marco Berti, who's improved hugely since being defeated by "Ah si, ben mio" (and everything else delicate) in his first go at the production four seasons back. While still shouting (very) impressively, he's now able to actually sing and phrase (and try to trill!) in delicate bits as well. It's all pretty musical now, but Berti hasn't yet quite gotten to making sense of the small turns and figures in Manrico's music. For loudness plus that feel for the Verdi phrase one will probably have to wait for Yonghoon Lee to sing the part.

Finally, Racette sounded healthy and full-voiced (for her) throughout, but didn't quite deliver interpretive magic on this night's solos. As far ahead on phrase and expression as she anyway is over her predecessor this season Carmen Giannattasio, I wonder if the latter (who was oddly paired with a lighter- and more lyric-voiced tenor) wouldn't have been a better match for the rest of this cast (with Racette better off opposite Jones in the fall). Then the shout-a-thon would have been complete... and/or completely ridiculous.

McVicar's production is still great, and is done justice here. Callegari is still the only conductor this season to provide real forward movement. If you like singing, you'll kick yourself if you miss this run.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The week in NY opera (January 7-13)

A return to semi-normalcy after the holiday season, though winter cold season is also upon us.

Metropolitan Opera
Turandot (M/Th), Maria Stuarda (T/SE), Trovatore (W/SM), Rondine (F)
Two newcomers this week: the alternate cast of Trovatore (Racette, Blythe, Marco Berti, and Alexey Markov) and the Puccini rarity La Rondine. The latter brings the debut of Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, whose originally scheduled debut two seasons back in Boheme was dropped without much comment. How she'll do in this show so perfectly fit for Angela Gheorghiu, I have no idea. (Had to skip this morning's dress rehearsal.)

Sumeida's Song (W/Th/F)
Soldier Songs (F/SE/Su)

These one-hour chamber operas are the most recognizably "opera" offerings of this inaugural "festival of opera-theatre and music-theatre" at multiple downtown venues. The former is the world premiere of young Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz’'s setting of a classic 20th century Egyptian theater piece, and the latter a more stylized piece on war by David T. Little, who earlier this season premiered "Dog Days" in NJ.

Monday, January 07, 2013

In case you were wondering

Not enough went right in yesterday afternoon's Chenier to rate a report. Sorry, too much to catch up on... like the closing Troyens, which was really something.