Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Hoffmann's return

Les Contes D'Hoffmann - Metropolitan Opera, 10/4/2017
Grigolo, Erraught, Morley, Hartig, Volkova, Naouri, Mortagne / Debus
Les Contes D'Hoffmann - Metropolitan Opera, 10/18/2017
Kang, Chavet, Morley, Hartig, Volkova, Naouri, Mortagne / Debus


If the new Norma was less than the sum of its parts, this season's revival of Hoffmann is the opposite: a satisfying whole despite two (complementarily) imperfect casts. Satisfying to me, anyway. As I noted an eternity ago, others' attentions are drawn more to other things.

The show would take a lot to fail given its foundation: production and conductor. The Bart Sher staging from 2009 has, as I more or less predicted, become a familiar classic, illuminating the lurid and wonderful turns of the story even when - as here - the interactions have become less crisp and one of the principals frankly can't act. (More on that below.) Similarly, though I missed his debut run in Salome last season, Johannes Debus seems to be a bit of a find. His macro tempo and dynamics choices are pretty standard, but the care and space given to each phrase add up to quite a lot over the course of each evening.

*     *     *

The vocal star was the same for each lineup: Anita Hartig. The Romanian soprano was a disappointingly ordinary Susanna (though Fabio Luisi's detailed but emotionally weightless conducting didn't help) in a Figaro revival two seasons ago, but perhaps the vocal-emotional scale of the part was insufficient. Her Antonia - like her quick-vibrato sound, which seems a bit too pressured in the placid opening aria but expands gloriously as the act goes forward - becomes ever more electric as stakes and stresses increase. Limited by neither politesse nor scale of sound, Hartig renders Antonia's end more as tragic fulfillment than simple victimization. If there's a fault, it's that Hartig is so desperately sincere as Antonia that her Stella, at the end, seems wholly disconnected from these memories.

Also impressive were Erin Morley - whose characteristically deliberate manner works pretty well for Olympia - and Laurent Naouri - not as vocally weighty as some of his predecessors as the villains but with a compelling style in his person and phrasing. Oksana Volkova sang Hoffmann's last love interest Giulietta well enough without making any particular impression... which is also how I'd describe Christophe Mortagne's account of the four servants.

Those were the constants; Hoffmann and Nicklausse swapped for the alternate cast. Unfortunately, the better Hoffmann and better Nicklausse didn't sing together. Vittorio Grigolo - as in 2015 - is a significant plus, though not as much of one as his fame might suggest. There's an exciting quality to his midrange, and his relentless ardor brings something his successor here quite lacked. But while his phrasing is no longer just fragmentary chaos, the longer, legato-based lines aren't yet a whole; nor do more personalized sentiments than general happiness, unhappiness, or rage come through in his acting. So Hoffmann's outburst at the end of the prologue was terrific, but the rapt expressions of the poet in love aren't so rapt... and by the time Hoffmann's ardor has worn out and he's overcome by regret and despair there's almost nothing going on in Grigolo's portrayal.

Fortunately, at this point, the production and Debus have matters pretty well in hand. Unfortunately, it's where the flaws of the main-cast Nicklausse are also pushed to the fore. Irish newcomer Tara Erraught sings well enough and has the scale of voice to sound effectively at the Met (though it's by no means thunderous or overwhelming). But she's also the big weak link in this otherwise excellent revival. Her stage presence fluctuates between null - there's no boyishness, and she simply skips much of the stage business with the villains that makes the Muse an interestingly ambiguous (though not actually malicious) figure in this production - and clumsy sitcom actress. Even if Kate Lindsey's near-definitive physical account (she created the part and was Grigolo's Nicklausse in 2015) can't be expected of everyone, the mezzo has to show some thread of Nicklausse's journey as the over-watching Muse... or at least not work against its expression. Karine Deshayes, one of the other 2015 Nicklausse singers, offered a much better trade of voice for character, providing both a more luxuriant sound than Erraught and fewer off-putting tics.

The alternate Nicklausse this time, Geraldine Chavet, gave a performance very much in the Lindsey vein. In fact the stage business and manner was pretty much an exact reproduction of the 2009 premiere, suggesting that Erraught's elisions weren't the revival director's fault. Chavet also, unfortunately, had Lindsey's vocal-scale limitations - the sound is this close to too small for an effective lead singer here - and though she did pretty well with it most of the evening, Chavet really seemed to misjudge the necessary volume/force for her solo at the start of the Venice act and left that pretty much inaudible. Still, her Nicklausse over the course of the evening allowed the story to unfold much more interestingly than Erraught's did.

Yosep Kang, who made his house debut on the 18th, was unfortunately not so good as the alternate Hoffmann. He did sing the notes, but his fragmented, legato-deficient phrasing was actually worse than Grigolo's at the time of his inauspicious debut (he's improved a lot since) and suggested nothing so much as Jonas Kaufmann minus the latter's grand scale, unmistakeable dark timbre, and compelling energy. It was actually the latter that hurt this revival the most: without the ardent energy Grigolo and other Hoffmanns brought to the part the tension deflates except during the heroines' actual scenes. Kang did improve for the last part of the show, but even with Grigolo's imperfection there the balance was still much in the Italian's favor.

I'm sure there are parts that will better suit Erraught, but this version of her gives little to anticipate in possible future bookings here. Hartig, on the other hand, is sufficiently interesting that I'll probably go to one of her Bohemes next month.

Monday, October 09, 2017

What we do in the shadows

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 9/25 and 10/3/2017
Radvanovsky, DiDonato, Calleja, Rose, Bradley, Diegel / Rizzi

Perhaps it looked good via cinema, but David McVicar's new production of Norma was, in the house, a prime example of less-than-the-sum-of-its-parts, an overall framework that turned what could have been a landmark event into a somewhat deflating disappointment.  It's not all bad.  The production itself has numerous excellent touches, not least the moonlit rite that introduces Norma and "Casta Diva".  But the relentlessly narrow range of visual contrast and definition - moonlight to firelight, with the leads all dressed in dark shapeless outfits after that first ritual - obscures to the minds as much as to the eyes of the audience the individual subjectivity that should, as the defining feature of romantic opera - burn in glorious intensity throughout.

It seemed, oddly, designed for routine revival - to obscure the physically inert, perhaps unshapely singers likely to fill this show in the future (indeed, as soon as December).  But to hide Sondra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato - whose arresting stage presences have been as notable as their virtuosity - in an endless gloom without even spotlights deflates the show in person as surely as bad sound compression seems to have deflated the moviecast.  (Anyone brought to the house by the striking photos of the leads in the posters plastered around the city is likely to have been disappointed.)

I'm honestly not sure whether the singing got better from opening night to last Tuesday or whether I tried more just to listen rather than take in the compromised dramatic whole.  More on that after Wednesday.  Going forward, I suppose that as Paule Constable is also lighting the new Cosi, we should be worried about that... though in this case it's surely McVicar's over-fondness for a "realistic" production texture (which previously weighed down his Anna Bolena that's most responsible.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Recognition

Who would have thought four years ago, as the house opened to the general director's famous favorites making dull nonsense of a Pushkin-Tchaikovsky masterpiece that the unbroadcast, unhyped revival later that first week would be
such a triumph as to demand a return in better clothes and with better secondary cast? (Unfortunately the conductor is no longer Riccardo Frizza but the workmanlike Carlo Rizzi.)

Yet here we are. About a decade after the rumor that Gelb was/wanted to drop non-Fleming Americans circulated (and though they weren't dropped, neither has his interest in importing chilly Europeans), Sondra Radvanovsky - an American whose name recognition has lagged her vocal-artistic significance - is headlining opening night at the Met.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Was war einmal

Der Rosenkavalier - Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/2017
Garanča, Fleming, Groissböck, Morley, Polenzani, Brück / Weigle

Robert Carsen and his production colleagues for this new staging of Rosenkavalier were, on this first night, greeted with a mix of boos (which, unlike some previous directors, he took with grace) and bravos. Both partisans were more or less in the right - more's the pity, as Carsen's prior Met efforts (Onegin and Falstaff) were unqualified triumphs.

*     *     *

The musical side was, if not quite a triumph, certainly a success. Renee Fleming basically reprises her 2009 interpretation, which eased my worry that the most publicized Marschallin of her day would never actually give an outstanding performance. Nor, as one might have feared after Merry Widow, has her voice noticeably diminished in this role: though, as with many lyric sopranos in Strauss, the lower end of her part sometimes has difficulty being heard, Fleming still has the breath and lyric beauty for the Marschallin's role, which her sound was probably too fat for at the beginning of the century in any case.

The rest of the cast seems well-chosen to complement its central figure - Elīna Garanča (Octavian), Günther Groissböck (Ochs), and Erin Morley (Sophie) all succeed from panache, characterization, and well-shaped singing rather than any overwhelming depth or beauty of sound. And all do succeed, though only Groissböck's vigor of person (weakish low notes notwithstanding) really stands out among recently-seen alternatives. Best for pure ardent vocalism was Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer.

Sebastian Weigle, who just came off a successful run in the Met's Fidelio revival, does well with the bigger shapes and transitions of the work (and doesn't make any huge misjudgements like de Waart's super-slow final trio in 2009), but the actual sound he gets from the orchestra is a bit coarse, less satisfying than what we heard in Fidelio.

*     *     *

Carsen's production is built around a visual symmetry similar to that in his Falstaff, where the images from the first scenes reappear, transformed, in reverse order around the central scene. The elaborate scene-by-scene mirroring in that show brought to mind the palindromic construction of Berg's Lulu. This show's symmetry is less complex - with one set per act, the last simply echoes the first - but it suggests Berg's 1930s masterpiece even more strongly, both in its progression from high to low and its concomitant introduction of modernist tropes. And therein lies the problem.

Notwithstanding the transposition to 1911 (the year of composition), the first act in this show is quite faithful to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's creation. Of the two major purposes of moving the staging forward in time - recounting the original story in a context more familiar to the audience and adding/substituting new story elements - the change here serves the former, providing mostly just different clothes and hairstyles for those onstage. The furniture and decor look back to the past, the personenregie would suit pretty much any production ever, and the only distinctive bit of staging is a lowering of lights into a spotlight on the Italian Singer - with the servants and visitors listening, rapt (recalling the Ivor Novello piano scene from Gosford Park) - as he sings his first verse. A nice touch, though the asymmetry it creates with the more plainly staged second verse is a bit jarring.

The second act introduces the first significant changes. Faninal's home, modeled (per the program interview) on the relatively stark early modernism of the Looshaus, is a huge shift not only for its hard, unornamented black-and-white surfaces but for the big artillery piece that begins in and later (on Ochs's servants' disruption) returns to the stage's center. Faninal delivers his initial words to Sophie while leading a shooting-party of his rich friends across the stage, while he later passes out rifles to Ochs's retinue.

The germ of this stuff is in the text: Ochs mentions in the first act that Faninal made his fortune in the arms business. But Hofmannsthal's story is about the social subordination of real wealth and real power, not its ascendance, and this architectural flaunting of a new aesthetic (vs just new money) does not fit. Again, however, the personal direction of the main characters is as appropriate as ever, with Erin Morley's wholly sincere Sophie as sympathetic as in 2013. So - boos for its initial stage-picture notwithstanding - the real jarring change is the invocation of actual war in the act's second half. The doctor tending Ochs's small wound isn't comic but in full white surgical garb (with mask) and accompanied by similarly-clad assistants and a gurney, while the Ochs entourage mimics, during their threats to the offstage Octavian, crawling through a trench.

After these visuals, the particular degraded mirroring of the first-act set we get in the final act isn't a huge surprise. The imperial/aristocratic portraits that decorated the Marschallin's boudoir have become painted nudes in a cross-dressing proprietor's brothel - which transform, in the scare-the-Baron segments, into glass windows showcasing strippers. We are clearly past the bounds of not only 1740's Vienna but also 1911's.

Now it's true that the unfamiliar trappings of 1740s-ish productions rarely convey the sense of seediness that drives Faninal's outraged reaction and make an even more dramatic contrast for the Marschallin's surprise entry, and so again one might consider this an exaggerated rendition of a point actually in the text. Not so much the other changes in the last act. First, instead of Octavian (as "Mariandel") dodging Ochs's advances, here Mariandel is the aggressor, pawing and dry-humping (and trying to fellate) Ochs as he squirms uncomfortably. Though clever and seemingly in tune with the zeitgeist, having Octavian even the score with Ochs in this way - by making him the object of another's unwelcome desire rather than by leading on his own - breaks not only the characters' arcs and the "Viennese masquerade" flavor of the segment but the crucial symmetry of the opera. For Octavian/Mariandel puts off Ochs with a travesty of the melancholy sentiments with which the Marschallin pushed him off, a reversal that prepares Octavian (Ochs, as the comic foil, leaves the stage just as he entered at the show's start) for his transformation and reconciliation within the climactic trio.

The one really indefensible change is left for the end. After the sex show hijinks, we again return to normalcy with a straightforward staging of the Marschallin-Ochs confrontation, his exit, and the lead-in to the trio. It's here that the high-to-low motion of the opera's action reverses course, as the Marschallin clears away plotting and counter-plotting with firmness and generosity. We hear it in the music, too, as the broad ditty of refusal with which "Mariandel" starts putting off Ochs ("Nein, nein, nein, nein, I trink' kein Wein") reappears, transformed, as the sublime opening to the musical-emotional climax of the piece ("Hab' mir 's gelobt"). But we don't see it in Carsen's staging: after the Marschallin leaves the young couple (incidentally, having her make eyes here at the Commissioner on the way out is another too-clever exaggeration of a hint in the text) to bring Sophie's father, they sing the final duet while making out on the brothel bed. When she and Faninal return, the young couple do not follow them out after the duet's second verse for the social triumph the Marschallin has planned - Faninal getting to parade an even more desirable engagement and the great lady's favor in a ride through Vienna - but continue to make out (with little apparent regard for hygiene) until the scene splits to show the oncoming Great War. We close not with betrothal and social resilience but fornication and violence - the compulsion-driven modernist world of, say, Lulu.

*     *     *

The problem here is that Der Rosenkavalier is not naively historical - the product of some undereducated, less-than-wholly-self-aware savant(s) - but is, in fact, a more profound reaction to its context than any historicizing revision could be. If anyone could sense the end of the old world coming, it was Hofmannsthal and Harry Graf Kessler (later a player in Weimar Republic politics). But what they and Strauss shaped from this was not some invocation of the stark future - even Hofmannsthal's later wartime opera embraces the world in a way quite far from modernist - but a dream of what has been, an apologia for the aristocratic era of Europe so vivid and poetically truthful as to outlive not only the war that ended that era in real life but the modernist aesthetic that the war and its successor catapulted to preeminence.

Der Rosenkavalier has survived because it distills a social and cultural order from within, on its own idealized terms. War (the Ottomans, we might remember, were at Vienna's gates just three generations before the 1740s), lust, the disreputable and desperate: these things exist in the opera's world and text but only as contrast, not as the significant matter. Also, of course, present is the all-destroying passage of time... but the opera, unlike this production, is not a slave to that. At this staging's curtain we are, I presume, supposed to react in shock and resentment at the breaking of the peace, but the Marschallin's words and the very existence of the opera teach us otherwise. Our losses to time are neither complete nor completely permanent. And how we bear our losses... Well, it should be more graceful than this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 2017-18 Met season announcement, annotated

Productions are in order; bold indicates a debut; I may have omitted some one-off cast combos. On the whole: as exciting as this season is weak.

Norma (new David McVicar production)
Radvanovsky, DiDonato, Calleja, Rose / Rizzi (September-October)
Rebeka, DiDonato, Calleja, Rose / Rizzi (October)
Meade, Barton, Calleja, Rose / Colaneri (December)
Having middling '90s throwback Carlo Rizzi in the pit instead of the 2013 revival's Riccardo Frizza is about the only less-than-thrilling element of this opener. Three premiere principals who've proved not only star-quality sound but bel canto mastery, interesting alternate ladies afterwards... And David McVicar is not only an brilliant director but one who has done great things with Sondra Radvanovsky particularly, from 2009's Trovatore to 2016's Donizetti queens.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Grigolo, Morley, Hartig, Volkova, Erraught, Naouri, Mortagne / Debus (September-October)
I rather liked Grigolo in this season's Romeo, but this Bart Sher show requires him to sustain a character for longer stretches than the Gounod opera, making his choppy sense of phrase more of a liability. Still, there are enough elements that could go well (including new-to-the-house Irish mezzo Tara Erraught as Niklausse) on top of an excellent production.

Die Zauberflöte
Schultz, Lewek, Castronovo, Werba, Van Horn, Kehrer / Levine (September-October)
Müller, Lewek, Castronovo, Gunn, Walker, Kehrer / de Waart (November-December, family version in English)
The conductors should make both the regular and "family" versions work. Besides returning names (including Kathryn Lewek, the best Queen of the Night I've ever heard), South African (by way of Juilliard) soprano Golda Shultz's debut as Pamina should be interesting. Incidentally, Rene Pape is scheduled for one performance of Sarastro on October 14.

La Boheme
Blue, Kele, Popov/Borras/Thomas, Meachem/Simpson, Rock, Soar/Rose, Plishka / Soddy (October)
Hartig, Kele, Thomas, Meachem, Rock, Rose, Pliskha / Soddy (November)
Yoncheva, Phillips, Fabiano, Lavrov, Rose, Plishka / Armiliato (February-March)
Some new faces debuting in this eternal Zeffirelli production, most notably Oxonian conductor Alexander Soddy and American soprano Angel Blue. But the surest bet is the last cast, with young Americans Susanna Phillips and Michael Fabiano in roles they've made their own.

Turandot
Dyka, Agresta, Alvarez, Morris / Rizzi (October-November)
Serafin, Yu, Alvarez, Tsymbalyuk / Armiliato (March-April)
Some unexpected casting choices here. Oksana Dyka, decent but somewhat faceless in this season's Jenufa, at least has done Tosca and Aida here before. The alternate Turandot, Martina Serafin, was last seen here as an enchantingly responsive Marschallin! Since then she's taken on the really big parts, though not at the Met: Abigaille, Brünnhilde, Lady Macbeth, and Turandot. Could go well... or not. Hei-Kyung Hong reprises one of her signature roles once with each cast.

The Exterminating Angel (new Tom Cairns production)
Luna, Echalaz, Matthews, Bevan, Coote, Rice, Davies, Kaiser, Antoun, Portillo, Moore, Gilfry, Burdette, Van Horn, Tomlinson / Adès (October-November)
The two prior operas of Thomas Adès have not lacked good music nor good libretti: it's the combination of these into an interesting, human opera that hasn't quite come off. Perhaps a show based on a Luis Buñuel movie (and directed by the librettist) will do the trick. There is, in any case, an impressive lineup of British and American vocal talent involved.

Madama Butterfly
He, Zifchak, Aronica, Bizic / Bignamini (November)
Jaho, Zifchak, Aronica/Chapa, Frontali / Armiliato (February-March)
So after doing one emergency sub performance (for Ruth Ann Swenson in Traviata) at the Met in 2008, Ermonela Jaho never appears here again... until a decade later, when she headlines a revival of Butterfly. The fall run brings new Italian conductor Jader Bignamini.

Thaïs
Pérez, Borras, Finley / Villaume (November-December)
Ailyn Pérez, an outstanding Mimi this season, takes a full-on star vehicle opposite Gerald Finley. They don't quite have the name recognition of Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, for whom this show was made, but this could be one of the stealth successes of the season.

Requiem
Stoyanova, Semenchuk, Antonenko, Furlanetto / Levine (November-December)
I don't recall recurring concert performances scheduled as part of the season before, but if any plotless piece could work this way, it's Verdi's famously dramatic-operatic Requiem. These shows will be almost a generation after the April 29, 2001 performance at Carnegie that everyone who attended will still wax on about (shouldn't the Met or Carnegie release a recording of this at some point?). Levine then had Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcelo Giordani, and Rene Pape at or near the height of their powers (though Giordani was a bit of a weak link, and I'd like to have heard how Ramon Vargas did in a similar performance on the Met's Japanese tour). Here it looks like Aleksandrs Antonenko will be an upgrade at tenor, but mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk - another singer not seen at the house for a while - is an odd choice, not having impressed in her appearances so far.

Le Nozze di Figaro
Plachetka, Karg, Willis-Sørensen, Pisaroni, Malfi / Bicket (December)
Abdrazakov, Sierra, Yoncheva, Kwiecien, Leonard / Bicket (December-January)
The names in the latter cast may be more recognizable, but I suspect the former (with debuting German soprano Christiane Karg as Susanna) may provide more of Mozart's ensemble glory.

The Merry Widow
Graham, Groves, Chuchman, Portillo, Allen / Stare (December)
Graham, Groves, Chuchman, Stayton, Allen / Stare (December-January)
Not a bad cast for the most cast-proof show the Met has debuted in decades. Who knew that comic timing drives comedies? Young American conductor Ward Stare debuts in the pit.

Hansel and Gretel (family version in English)
Oropesa, Erraught, Zajick, Siegel, Kelsey / Runnicles (December-January)
McKay, Gillebo, Zajick, Siegel, Croft / Runnicles (December 28)
Good casting for a kids' piece.

Tosca (new David McVicar production)
Opolais, Kaufmann, Terfel / Nelsons (NYE-January)
Netrebko, Alvarez, Volle / de Billy (April-May)
Netrebko, Alvarez, Gagnidze / de Billy (May)
I believe Sondra Radvanovsky was originally supposed to headline this new production, which attempts to wash away the much-hated Luc Bondy version of 2009. Instead we get Kristine Opolais, the least interesting part of both Richard Eyre's wretchedly bad Manon Lescaut and Mary Zimmerman's otherwise-brilliant Rusalka. (She has succeeded in more direct Puccini, though.) But perhaps it doesn't matter - except as a what-if - when Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel have shown themselves of carrying this piece on their own. And though she has less male star power, I think Tosca might be a very good part for Anna Netrebko.

Cav/Pag
Semenchuk, Alagna, Lučić; Kurzak, Alagna, Gagnidze, Arduini / Luisotti (January)
Westbroek, Alagna, Lučić; Kurzak, Alagna, Gagnidze, Arduini / Luisotti (January-February)
I'm not sure whether the Alagna who shows up will be the no-voice one of the Manon Lescaut premiere or the respectable-sounding and insightful one of the end of that run and Butterfly, but his inconsistency has been characteristic since the beginning of his international career. McVicar's rendering of the double-bill is outstanding, and San Francisco's Nicola Luisotti has done magical things in his too-rare Met appearances.

L’Elisir d’Amore
Yende, Polenzani, Luciano, D'Arcangelo / Hindoyan (January-February)
Both Yende and Polenzani have an emotional transparency that should work excellently in this piece.

Il Trovatore
Lee, Agresta, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Kocán / Levine (January-February)
Lee, Agresta, Rachvelishvili, Salsi, Youn / Levine (February)
Anita Rachvelishvili moves up a vocal weight class with her first Met Azucenas (she did her first performances of the part recently in London), opposite two baritones moving up from Marcello to Di Luna. But with outstanding Korean spinto Yonghoon Lee in the title role and Levine in the pit, this is yet another promising staple.

Parsifal
Vogt, Herlitzius, Mattei, Nikitin, Pape / Nézet-Séguin (February)
The most significant revival of the season. Yannick Nézet-Séguin will go from "Music Director Designate" to the actual thing in 2020, but he's debuting German repertory cornerstones until then. This spring it's Flying Dutchman, but next year he'll lead the first revival of the most significant and successful Met Wagner production in a long, long time: Francois Girard's 2013 Parsifal. (Not least in that success was Daniele Gatti's intensely concentrated conducting, so there's a lot to live up to there.) He has the low-voiced end of the original cast, with Peter Mattei's Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin's Klingsor, and René Pape's Gurnemanz all returning. The new parts of the cast are significant as well: dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius finally makes her Met debut as Kundry, and Klaus Florian Vogt returns to Wagner a dozen years after making the most stunning - and most stunningly ignored - Met debut of our era as Lohengrin. (Vogt does return to the Met before this, in next month's Fidelio.)

Semiramide
Meade, DeShong, Camarena, Abdrazakov, Green / Benini (February-March)
Good cast for a Rossini rarity. After her scheduled performances of Italiana this season went to debuting Italian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, I do wonder whether Elizabeth DeShong will in fact sing these performances as Arsace.

Elektra
Goerke, van den Heever, Schuster, Morris, Petrenko / Nézet-Séguin (March)
Christine Goerke's titanic concert performance of this early Strauss opera with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony (October 2016 at Carnegie) dwarfed the dull, homogenized new Met version last season. The change from Salonen's civilizing version to Yannick Nézet-Séguin's characteristic visceral style should do much, and Goerke's ability to sing through the cacophonic title part lyrically can't be missed, but full success may require a revival stage director unafraid to depart from Chereau's drab vision.

Così fan tutte (new Phelim McDermott production)
Majeski, Malfi, O'Hara, Bliss, Plachetka, Maltman / Robertson (March-
Though the cast looks good and the visuals interesting, David Robertson was responsible for the worst-conducted night of Mozart I've ever heard at the Met, so I'll wait and see. The production is new to the Met but already debuted at ENO.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Peretyatko, Grigolo, Cavalletti, Kowaljow / Abbado (March-April)
Pratt, Grigolo, Cavalletti/Salsi, Kowaljow / Abbado (April)
Yende, Fabiano, Kelsey, Vinogradov / Abbado (April-May)
I was listening to Pretty Yende last night in Puritani, thinking that the Met should hire her for Lucia... and here we go. She gets the better Edgardo in Michael Fabiano as well: the role depends far too much on line and phrase to expect much on the whole from Vittorio Grigolo (though the Italian will surely deliver exciting high notes).

Luisa Miller
Yoncheva, Beczala, Domingo, Petrova, Vinogradov, Belosselskiy / Levine (March-April)
Sonya Yoncheva's manner is a bit on the chilly side to get all the pathos of the title part's great duets, but the men involved should make much of this early Verdi.

Cendrillon (new Laurent Pelly production)
DiDonato, Kim, Coote, Blythe, Naouri / de Billy (April-May)
So, we're officially in the part of Joyce DiDonato's career when she makes big houses put on silly shows. Good cast, seems charming enough, and though Laurent Pelly (Fille, Manon) hasn't done a really good production here, he hasn't made any terrible ones either.

Roméo et Juliette
Hymel, Pérez, Deshayes, Hopkins, Youn / Domingo (April-May)
Interesting cast, very good production, but Domingo in the pit is a deal-breaker. If you have the itch, just see Yende and Costello next month (which has many fewer good alternative options than spring 2018).

Friday, December 09, 2016

Shiny and chrome

Tristan und Isolde - Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/2016
Skelton, Stemme, Gubanova, Wittmoser, Pape, Cooper / Rattle

To be fair from the beginning: if one is to set a single part of this opera properly, it's probably best that it be the closing Liebestod, here rendered with an effective spotlighting of Isolde that was the main absence in the Dieter Dorn production that preceded this one. But the rest of Mariusz Trelinski's show is marred by precisely the opposite aesthetic: an overload of clutter that futhers the show's conceit but gets in the way of actual Wagnerian content. Too bad, since the musical side was quite good.

While the Ring, for example, was the product of many years and aesthetic impulses and looks it, Tristan is all of a piece. Romantic subjectivity and its conflict with more organized existence without are embodied to what was quickly recognized as an ultimate extent: in fact they're turned by Wagner into the organizing poles of the opera's music and story. At the beginning the order, obligation, and achieved peace of the public world is ascendant - though about to be tested by the dark star of Tristan and Isolde's original meeting (likely what is depicted by the prelude's initial bars), where she first chose personal connection over duty - but by the end the disorderly claims of their private selves have brought those all to ruin. This conflict of duty/necessity and love/self is of course a (the?) staple of Romantic opera. But where other operas characterize this rejection of public for private reality as pathetic - if compelling - madness, this one takes it seriously as an alternate perspective, one that grows to envelop audience and characters to the point where it's acknowledged, near the end, by the wronged King Marke himself.

Trelinski and his designers are at their best in the first act: here the conceit - a transposition of the action to a modern naval vessel - gives them room to elaborate impressively on the civilian order of Isolde's well-appointed suite and the harsher military order of the bowels and bridge. The realistic (if anachronistic) detail - unusual in the Gelb era - gives more weight and texture to the public world than productions of Tristan usually provide.

Where Trelinski's show fails is in presenting the other side - "das Wunderreich der Nacht" to which the couple commit themselves in the central love duet. Instead of setting out this second pole of the action, Act II of the production stays doggedly the ship (or is it another ship, belonging to Marke? - who knows). The lovers rendezvous on some sort of glass-paneled control deck and sing their duet in the bowels of the ship, apparently in a hazardous waste storage area. The pile-up of detail doesn't recede at all even at this peak of their solipsistic embrace, and the very simple visual that would have done this (put the stage in darkness except for the singers) is only brought out later on, when Tristan asks Isolde to follow him to this night-land - but only to cast this dialogue as hallucination, Isolde already having been escorted off the ship. By Act III we've at least gotten off the ship ourselves, but the projections continue to insist on the conceit with a recurring sonar/radar display... that fails even to pay off with a climactic blip when Isolde's ship arrives.

One could try coaxing out from all this some deep critique of romantic subjectivity, but it seems to me that a simpler explanation is best: Trelinski just isn't interested in it. He is interested in - and delivers - striking, slick, contemporary, and expensive-looking visuals. The inner story - as in last season's double-bill of Iolanta and Bluebeard's Castle - seems not at all to be registered in its actual sense, and is therefore misunderstood into the movie-drama terms that generate more high-conflict situations and visuals.

(And so Trelinski, last season, turned Bartok and Balazs's melancholy masterpiece - which transforms the Bluebeard story, as Dukas and Maeterlinck less felicitously did before him, to explore the classic postromantic theme of human distance, specifically here the limits of intimacy, possession, and (Judith's!) jealousy - into an abominably imperceptive horror flick. I'm not sure which was worse, the nonsensical nature of this take or its uncritical reception.)

But the history of directors being engaged and re-engaged during Gelb's tenure suggests that Trelinski was hired simply on the basis of visual interest, with success (e.g. Minghella's now decade-old Butterfly) or utter failure (e.g. the Lepage Ring) in capturing the human threads of the opera irrelevant unless the latter (as with that Ring) results in bad publicity and discontent. This show should have had that effect, but perhaps didn't.

*     *     *

The reason was the musical performance: not the best Tristan of the last few decades in any single aspect, but lacking particular weaknesses either. Stuart Skelton, debuting in this run, was the biggest surprise, with a pleasing clear (for a heldentenor) sound that stood up reasonably well through the rigors of the part. Phrasing and interpretation were a bit square, so it was left to Rattle and soprano Nina Stemme (much better supported here than in the misguided Elektra of the spring) to convey most of the sentiment of the show. This they did well, with Stemme (voice unflagging) capping the night by with her own rapt success amidst the only successful part of the production.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The festival

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Glyndebourne Festival, 6/11/2016
Finley, Majeski, Hipp, Schade, Portillo, Kupfer, Miles / Güttler

After the audience's heartfelt 90th-birthday rendition of "God Save the Queen", when the curtain went up on the charming early-19th-century dress of the first scene's churchgoers, I began to hope that (Dürer painting notwithstanding) David McVicar had dared a grand bit of appropriation for Glyndebourne's first Meistersinger production (premiered five years back), moving the characters if not all the action across the Channel to Regency England. And why not? For the opera holds its central place neither for historical specificity nor historical influence, but for Wagner's final-act enactment of the festival ideal: a rightness covering all visible creation in that meadow, born of private harmony, art, and the public's recognition and celebration of those things and itself. If Glyndebourne has approached this glory it should be willing to hint at it... though perhaps that's my particularly American opinion.

In any case, after the tea-drinking of the Masters during and the Silly Walk of Jochen Kupfer's Beckmesser closing Act I, both the scenic and human space of the show turns unmistakably Catholic-German - and, despite some apparently obligatory interview talk about politics and whatnot, quite familiar to one used to traditional versions like the Met's. The one notable addition is the suggestion, as in McVicar's subsequent Cav, of the lurking potential of rivalrous group violence, here not just at the end of Act II but in fact at the start of the Act III procession between the various guild groups. (This actually does allude to the Wagner-politics stuff without giving the whole scene over to it.) The one notable subtraction is of the meadow and water prominent in Wagner's last-part scene-setting... and around Glyndebourne itself. Perhaps this is to fit all the people on the relatively small stage, perhaps to make the overall effect a bit more stark (there is no relief from the moods and actions of the people, whether in revelry, tension, or joy). Beckmesser does not leave the stage after his attempt but sits to the side, turned away, aghast at his failure - and is generally included in the Masters' solidarity when they are offended by Walther's rejection. As in the last Met revival, there's too much last-scene fiddling by Kothner and the other Masters with Walther's written text, which really needs to be put aside given that he changes (and improves) most of the words between composition and performance. In other words, there are some tweaks but it's the familiar Meistersinger story overall.

*     *     *

The success, therefore, was in the performers' hands, and they did terrifically. Gerald Finley has done Hans Sachs elsewhere (a few months ago in Paris) since his 2011 role debut with this production, but he probably shouldn't: even in the 1200-seat Glyndebourne house his essentially lyric bass-baritone showed some strain. Yet if his Sachs was never vocally dominant, his focused tragic characterization was the deep-felt heart of the final act. Before its action, we see him contemplate what seems to be a portrait of his dead wife, and all of his interactions with Eva are much more seriously taken than usual - through to his near-inconsolable loss of purpose after talking Walther into joining the Masters.

It helps that the other outstanding performance was that of American soprano Amanda Majeski (one of three alums/members of Chicago's Ryan Opera Center in the cast). Her Eva was exactly what her Met debut (on opening night 2014) seemed to promise: not forward and dominant but unmissably charming and eloquent, carrying in her expressive vibrato and attractive, emotionally transparent person all of Eva's glory and burden as the young bearer of all value within her social world. If the first phrase of "O Sachs! Mein Freund" was a bit shaky, the clarity of the subsequent Quintet opening/climax and the lovely trill after the Prize Song more than made up for it. I look forward to hearing much more of her in Strauss and lighter Wagner.

The weak link of the group was, as often happens, the Walther. Michael Schade was never a particular favorite of mine in his lyric tenor days - though reliable enough, he wasn't one to deliver the pure tonal pleasure one might get from others in that repertory. In the last few years the German-Canadian has transitioned to heavier parts - e.g. Florestan, Max, Walther - in which getting reliably through with a decent enough sound is much more valuable. Unfortunately Schade barely got through this brutal Wagnerian role, and his physical presence has become stiff and a bit lumpy. Nothing to ruin the show's pleasure, but not a plus either.

It was Texan (and second Ryan Center alum) David Portillo who actually took the tenor prize this time, singing David with a lyric ease and eloquence I hadn't expected to hear since Matthew Polenzani outgrew the part. No less impressive was the other half of the second couple, Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp. Her Lene was not only strongly sung but - with McVicar's help - a more youthful, sympathetic, and perky one than usual, fitting complement to Majeski's Eva as well as Portillo's David.

Replacing sharp character singer Johannes Martin Kränzle as Beckmesser was the new-to-Glyndebourne German baritone Jochen Kupfer. Unlike most of his predecessors in the part, Kupfer has striking height, physical presence, and a lead singer's instrument. So the character that comes out is not at all prissy or small, but eccentric and obliviously self-absorbed. The Silly Walks gag that's characteristic of his take (which recurs at the start of Act III) makes rather better sense of Beckmesser than any Meyerbeer nonsense. (After all, the main problem with Meyerbeer today is that Wagner too strongly adopted his ridiculous dramatic model.) He and Finley's Sachs were just the most extreme of the show's strongly-characterized set of Masters (which also included Alistair Miles' Pogner, much more English and uncertain than usual.) The third Ryan Center singer, incidentally, was 2014 Met Council winner Patrick Guetti as the Night-watchman, not as strikingly authoritative here as on that afternoon, but still showing much promise and strength.

*     *     *

The sound balance of the new theater at Glyndebourne is a bit like that of the Met's Balcony Boxes: the orchestra (here the London Philharmonic) is gloriously present - here particularly the mid-bass sound from the strings - while the singers aren't so strongly forward, at least against the full-sized Wagner orchestra. If you expect a more singer-prominent balance (such as that of the covered pit at Bayreuth) it may be an issue, but I didn't find it much of a detriment. German conductor Michael Güttler - a regular guest in St. Petersburg and Vienna, acting as late fill-in for ailing music director Robin Ticciati - gave a well-proportioned and well-felt account of Wagner's long masterpiece.

Every worthy Meistersinger is an awakening, so I hope this one opened some new eyes.

Friday, June 03, 2016

The heir is named

As predicted and hoped, Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be the Met's next music director, though it will be "-designate" until the 2020 season. (Official video.) Interestingly, the thoroughest article is from Philadelphia, where he will stay on while dropping other more far-flung obligations.

The local press is, of course, flogging its usual "newer music" cause, but the core job of Nezet-Seguin's preliminary and early years will be to shape the company's own understanding of what it is and what it does. Despite the Gelb regime's apparent recent belief to the contrary, being comes before selling.

The best incidental reveal from all this? New Traviata in 2018-19! I look forward to being able to recommend the show again.

Friday, May 20, 2016

The (off-topic) new

It was relatively unheralded when it premiered, but Ratmansky's Shostakovich Trilogy (playing tonight, tomorrow, and Monday in ABT's Met season) easily outshines anything else premiered at the Met this century. I suppose that's a fairly low bar, so let's leave comparisons aside and just call it significant. I'm still befuddled at how much better and more natural Ratmansky's story-telling is in non-story ballets like this set (or this week's premiere piece, the Serenade) than in his forthrightly narrative works. And as the moral degradation of the visible world continues, Shostakovich's attempts at order in his awful context seem ever more central.

More opera coverage soon and through next month.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The future

The other shoe dropped at the Metropolitan Opera last week, with James Levine now officially out (effective next month) as music director. At the moment, nothing is much different, with the only lineup change a year from now in the new Carsen Rosenkavalier, now to be conducted by the prolific TBA.

The change will come when a new man takes up the post. We approach the tenth anniversary of Peter Gelb's sole management of the house, and with the press alternately cheerleading and distracted by side issues and Levine hampered first by his Boston work and later by his much-discussed health problems, Met offerings have more and more reflected Gelb's and only Gelb's idea of the art. The general aesthetic stagnation has characterized most of the latter half of Gelb's tenure. (2013's Parsifal and Falstaff were stupendous exceptions... there has also been some glorious singing, but most of it's been by those Gelb did not himself prefer.)

Whether or not the new music director will have the experience or weight to much affect the course of the institution right away, his institutional presence and likely longevity in the post make it probable that this will be the single most important decision of the Gelb era. The most characteristic choice would have been Fabio Luisi - skilled, European, and interpretively chilly - but fortunately that's much less likely now. To me, the wonder is that the current obvious choice would be a good one: young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who debuted here as the best part of the Eyre Carmen in 2009 and took over at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. Though his operatic repertoire is still limited, each of his Met runs has been electric, balancing a natural sense of the larger-scale shape with the dramatic urgency and fire too often missing in the house. He's also - and it seems to matter as far as getting the job - young, engaging, and easily marketable. Philadelphia offered an optimistic-sounding statement that didn't exactly answer the question (as indeed they couldn't).

I have, of course, heard complaints about Nezet-Seguin's imprecise technical stick work, which may be why we see a name like Gianandrea Noseda, a former Gergiev protege, also prominent in the rumor mill. Noseda wouldn't be a terrible choice for the same reason that he wouldn't be a particularly good choice: although he's proficient and certainly has been exciting at times, he's still a little musically faceless. If we're to look at recent guest conductors besides Yannick, Nicola Luisotti (currently at SFO) and Daniele Gatti (about to take over at the Concertgebouw) made much stronger impressions in recent years.

We'll see.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra: a comedy for music

Elektra - Metropolitan Opera, 4/14/2016
Stemme, Pieczonka, Meier, Owens, Ulrich / Salonen

Though I came into the house thinking on previous Elektras (including, of course, Christine Goerke's epochal account at Carnegie Hall in October), the actual event looks more significantly back to Esa-Pekka Salonen's and Patrice Chereau's 2009 Met debuts in Janacek's setting of From the House of the Dead. Like that show we get supertitles projected onto stage walls near the characters (Met titles are disabled, though the onstage words must be illegible from far away) and a maximally drab, cheap-looking, and relatively featureless physical production. The echoes mark this as the third attempt by Gelb and the Met this season - after Lulu and Manon Lescaut to go back to the well from which they got a well-received production in the past. All made their directors' previous successes look worse in retrospect.

For while the subpar choices in Chereau's Dostoevsky/Janacek show were decorative ones that did not impede the course of the opera, here Chereau and Salonen's choices worked together to remove the bloody, compulsive, tragic, Dionysian character that defines this piece. Chereau himself is, of course, dead, and not having seen the original 2013 run of his version I leave some space for the possibility that the followers and adapters who've had their hands on this staging deserve some or much of the responsibility. But surely the drabness of not only the costumes but the allowed body language was largely his, as certainly was the literalizing dullness of having Aegisth's death (and Klytemnestra's body) onstage and Elektra's non-death end with her sitting down on a stone bench as Orest inexplicably walks out the front gate (a really silly re-explanation of Chrysothemis's final cries).

In any case Salonen's conducting indisputably drives the show. It is, in its way, incredibly accomplished. He draws out details and textures with a control and clarity that speak volumes of his skill both in conceiving the score and in obtaining a unity of purpose from the orchestra. And yet... that's all he seems to be interested in. In achieving these ends Salonen homogenizes the emotional extremity of the piece - Elektra's primal cry of loss and accusation, Chrysothemis's desire for desire, Klytemnestra's creepy, poisonous dreams and hangers-on - all are rendered within a narrow expressive range so as to make Strauss's explosive score into well-crafted film music that reflects these distinct impulses only indistinctly at a remove. Indeed, as I listened through the actually boring first half of the performance, I believed Salonen was too-cleverly extremely-slow-playing the buildup to the Recognition and subsequent series of climaxes, which in their frenzy would justify to most the non-tragic dramatic slackness of the initial scenes. No such luck: though Eric Owens and Nina Stemme did their best to make something of the Recognition, interest from the pit only really perked up during the later semi-comic scene with Aegisth. This was, in fact, rendered exquisitely, and I'd certainly be interested in hearing Salonen conduct a later Strauss opera (perhaps he could draw a proper civilized comedy out of Egyptian Helen?), but the main point of the opera is nevertheless missed. By a mile.

The main cast (particularly Waltraud Meier, whose Klytemnestra came closest to being distinct) seemed each to be working in the proper vein for his or her character, but again the orchestra limited their expressive range with a sound not only emotionally homogenized but too loudly so.

One closing jeer to whomever decided to pipe the (choral) shouts greeting Orest after the slayings into the house over speakers.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Two Puccinis

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 3/8/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

Madama Butterfly - Metropolitan Opera, 4/2/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon

The end of Manon Lescaut's run here was less awful than its beginning. No, the production didn't get any more palatable (and I should mention, as I didn't last time, that the couple ending up in a bombed-out version of their initial meeting spaces further misreads the linear progression of the story into a circular one), but Roberto Alagna had worked himself up to singing des Grieux more respectably. This, unfortunately, made Kristine Opolais's lack of success more evident. Her Manon won't even look at des Grieux, much less engage emotionally with him.

But her Butterfly works. Her interpersonal affect is still relatively chilly - not reserved, as would befit the young Japanese girl, but oddly disengaged - and so the first act is the least engaging. The next acts, however, play more to her strengths. Here Butterfly's emotional course is set - a full-throated longing reversed on itself - and backed up by pit and production. So the energy and full-force sound (most expressive in its middle) Opolais pretty easily maintains through this arc becomes an unmissable virtue, and the lack of expressive detail (musical or physical), fatal to her Manon Lescaut (who must fascinate), becomes secondary.

Alagna, too, is helped by the specifics of this later Puccini opera. Pinkerton just isn't as strenuous a sing as (Puccini's) des Grieux, nor is the relatively unvaried vocal color he shows even at his strongest these days particularly missed in this role. It's a bit odd for the American soldier to be significantly shorter than his Japanese teenage bride, but Alagna does convey Pinkerton's youthful carelessness quite well. (In fact, given Opolais's characteristically imprecise acting, he often seems younger than Butterfly!) Meanwhile, it seems like Dwayne Croft has been singing Sharpless forever, and his account is as admirably humane as always.

The main thing that changed since Manon Lescaut, though, is the quality of the production. There's really no such thing as a performer-proof show, but this first and only Met production of Anthony Minghella has proven pretty close. As long as the singers are working with the opera and not against it, the images and framing of the production tell its story in stark, powerful form. And whether the principals pay attention to detail or not, the setting's little touches are preserved in the character parts - and the odd but distinctive movements of the puppet son.

Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon kept everything moving in the right direction and with the right proportions, but wasn't particularly outstanding. The credit for this event's success seems principally to be Minghella's.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The old lady

Roberto Devereux - Metropolitan Opera, 3/24/2016
Polenzani, Radvanovsky, Garanca, Kwiecien / Benini

This premiere was an event, but not - as Maria Stuarda was (in the best way), a one-woman show. Polenzani, Garanca, and Kwiecien provided the first strong side cast of the trilogy, one that could hold attention even with the queen offstage. But, whether from nerves, indisposition, or something else, Radvanovsky's breath didn't have the effortless full-scale pop that usually rings the house - and the bodies of those listening within - like a bell. She powered through the night, and bore the drama and crowd adulation quite well, but we'll see what this week's performances bring.

David McVicar's staging brings an interesting conceit, perhaps building on his Cav/Pag: courtiers are always watching, whether from the ground (the more public scenes) or from the onstage rafters (the more private). Only at Devereux's final scene, as he expects human intervention that never arrives, are they wholly absent, making for a striking effect one might recall from an proper staging of Manon Lescaut. McVicar, acting as his own set designer, and costume collaborator Moritz Junge (who also worked on Cav/Pag) have made the most handsome of the Tudor productions without departing much from that period.

More on further viewing.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Met Council Finals 2016



A pretty well-developed group this year: though only a few stood out, none did anything really objectionable either. Keep that in mind as you read the comments below.

Brian Vu (baritone, 26)
The first of four (!) baritones gamely kicked the show off with an energetically phrased and acted Largo al factotum. His focused, dark lyric sound registered well in the house, but Valentin's aria showed the still-somewhat-basic state of his (non-comic) interpretations.

Emily D'Angelo (mezzo, 21)
The most notable voice of the afternoon was this young Canadian lyric mezzo's: just hearing her clear, slightly-rippling sound actually gave me gooseflesh. Comfortable on stage, D'Angelo registered both the comic contrasts of Rosina's music lesson and the overheated seriousness of Erika's question with equal aplomb. She's still young, and the extreme ends of her range might do with more development, but D'Angelo seems already to know (and communicate) - musically - who she is. Let's hope the magic in her tone remains as her career launches.

Sol Jin (baritone, 30)
The second baritone and first Merola singer was, as the only thirty-year-old in this young group, a bit of a ringer. The Korean hasn't wasted those years, either: his interpretive faculty is hugely developed. Actually, at the start it seemed perhaps to have been too developed, as Jin let his emotional-scenic conception of Di provenza get in the way of its musical shape (and even, at some phrase ends, pitches). But he did build to a magnificent climax, and eased any concerns with a barn-burner of a sing through Yeletsky's aria. Jin's sound, though not quite a match for, say, Peter Mattei's in 2011, is quite strong enough for his interpretive authority to cast its spell.

Lauren Feider (soprano, 23)
I like Feider's basic sound - medium-weight, focused, and (when finished) pretty versatile - but she's not a finished product. She negotiated the difficult hurdles of the Strauss pretty well (though not with perfect uniformity), and showed a bit of warmth in the Britten, but what Feider didn't manage was to show much of an interpretive perspective in the process. Also, she was one of the less comfortable on stage and in her physical presence.

Sean Michael Plumb (baritone, 24)
Plumb, a Curtis Institute student and the third baritone, had the most naturally expansive sound of the baritone group, making for an easy, well-sung account of the Donizetti. The Tchaikovsky was probably a bit too heroically aggressive for him at this point, though he may grow into it.

Jonas Hacker (tenor, 27)
Despite doing many things correctly and showing a nice breath, this AVA singer's instrument seemed, at this point, too small-scale to work properly at the Met. There was just too much effortfulness in Hacker's sound here, especially on top, and he was therefore unable to convey much overall shape or idea.

Theo Hoffmann (baritone, 22)
For this local (Juilliard) product and final baritone of the day, I had the same impression as for Hacker - insufficient vocal scale to make either the delicacy of the Korngold or the intensity of the Gluck really tell in the big house. Hoffmann is young, though, so who knows what may come.

Jakub Jozef Orlinski (countertenor, 25)
I found the Pole-by-way-of-Juilliard's singing rather monochrome, as countertenors characteristically are, but also surprisingly labored in the Handel's coloratura. Home-team enthusiasm from the crowd notwithstanding, I found Orlinski quite ordinary compared to 2012 winner Andrey Nemzer.

Yelena Dyachek (soprano, 24)
This Ukrainian by way of California was entirely trained in the USA, so I probably shouldn't call the wide vibrato that mars too many of her notes "Eastern European"... Dyachek, like Feider but unlike her fellow Merola singer Jin, is a work in progress. She has the largest-scale voice of the women (and perhaps of everyone here), and it's not really tamed - different sounds and productions came out at various points, especially in the Mozart. (Interestingly, the best parts of that for her were the tricky coloratura passages.) The Tchaikovsky, unsurprisingly, was much more natural, and showed her voice in the best light. There are still seams, though, and a long way to go before the voice is whole and wholly nice to hear.

*     *     *

The judges - six from the Met, three from other companies - picked D'Angelo, Jin, Plumb, Orlinski, and Dyachek as winners. A friend joked at intermission that Orlinski would win no matter what, as countertenor finalists always do... unfortunately, this was correct. The rest of the choices were fair. As in previous years, the obvious winner(s) - here D'Angelo and Jin - were kept in suspense until the end: after Plumb, Dyachek, and Orlinski were announced, hostess Deborah Voigt miscounted the remaining winners (saying one instead of two) before making Steve Harvey jokes with guest singer Eric Owens. Amusing, I suppose, unless you're waiting in the wings with your heart beating out of your chest!

Antony Walker accompanied admirably.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The rivals

Cavalleria Rusticana
Pagliacci - Metropolitan Opera, 2/6/2016
Urmana, Costa-Jackson, Lee, Maestri / Luisi
Frittoli, Berti, Gagnidze, Lavrov, Stevenson / Luisi

This David McVicar production, the under-recognized success of last season, returned with some cast changes in 2016. In its original run, George Gagnidze sang both baritone leads and Marcelo Alvarez sang both tenor leads, which was a neat but unrevealing stunt. Here there was no duplication, just two groups singing to strong effect.

McVicar's Cav is revelatory from its very start. The circle of chairs that form the initial scene suggest, as no literal staging has done, the mutual examination and ever-imminent rivalries of a one-square town. Everyone snoops, everyone is jealous... until the circle dissolves into daily bustle. Eventually the dangerous all-human circle is transformed in the Easter service into a pure, singing whole: the adoring ordered ranks facing the divine sign before them (in joy) instead of each other (in potential rivalry). But the fallen girl Santuzza's (self?) exclusion holds the tension of the setup just outside the church, and as she's reabsorbed into the scene it forms, in Mama Lucia's tavern, into small groups with that original danger now again close. And, rivalry now enflamed by Santuzza (carrying out her own, non-face-to-face rivalry with the walk-on Lola), the men circle again as Turridu's group faces Alfio's before their offstage duel.

The crowd shapes, all by themselves, reflect at every point the tension of the tale, and McVicar's minimalization of other visual elements (including the color palette) give this part of the double-bill a primal character.

The latter part - Pag - is quite different in style, and the meaning of the shift didn't become clear to me in the show's original run last season. In this revival, absent cast crossover between halves, it's obvious: the bare-bones human scene of the first part has acquired a self-reflective layer, the play-within-a-play that dominates the opera and production. It begins in the prologue, where Tonio appears as emcee (with mic) before what's later revealed to be the troupe's show curtain, and as the curtain rises on apparently the same town square a half-century after Cav we see more mess, more color... and the electrical and telephone wires that signal modernity. In this new world, the troupe's truck and its stage occupy and expand the Cav-era altarpiece's position in the community: center, focus, and maintainer of its peace.

This centerpiece, of course, moves. It reflects and makes light of the viewers' rivalries and frustrations rather than just dissolving them for a time. And perhaps because of this there's a more pervasive peace and relaxation in the town. The locals sit in orderly rows facing the performance, but before then even the troupe's arrival is enough for a festive welcome. (Of course, the performance is going on even during this welcome, as the silent members of the troupe, in a very nice addition by McVicar, help unload and unpack the truck Three Stooges-style.) But those who don't get to watch the show - primarily Canio and Tonio, more or less analogous in their rivalries to Alfio and Santuzza respectively - still feel the old poisons of jealousy and envy.

*     *     *

Roberto Alagna was originally scheduled to sing Canio in this run, before Kaufmann's cancellation from Manon Lescaut pulled him into that dud. His replacement was Marco Berti, whose work in the radio matinee seems to have elicited some negative responses. Now in Verdi his lopsided force-to-refinement ratio can certainly be faulted, but in the house, in this less orderly context, the huge unfettered sound of his despair made for a great and appreciated success. Call him "Barco Merti" if you like, but with affection.

The scale of Berti's work matched, as an Alagna success would have not, that of the night's most thorough success - spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turridu in the double bill's opener. With veteran mezzo-turned-dramatic soprano Violeta Urmana now hindered by declining high notes as well as her characteristically deliberate, longer-time-scale approach that works better in Wagner, it's left to Lee to convey the urgency of the story. This he did magnificently, making the climax of the action - Turridu's farewell to his mother - the emotional and sonic climax as well.

All others did their bit effectively as well - not least Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora, and Joshua Wynter, who reprised their actual (silent) clowning in Pag from last season's original run.