Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Term four

Attempts to deflect from an obvious truth by bringing in a familiar red herring narrative have, for generations, been the New York Times's stock-in-trade, but today's Wall Street Journal piece on the new Met Traviata is a pretty thorough attempt itself. For tonight's event is not at all about the Met's need for youth, outreach, new opera, and other beloved shibboleths of the credentialed set: it's a tallying of the bets and life of the Gelb administration after a dozen years.

For Gelb took wholly over from Joe Volpe in 2006, which makes this his thirteenth season as General Manager. (Volpe, by comparison, was the boss for sixteen.) Though the long lead time in opera casting makes the analogy even more tenuous, it's still useful to compare these years to the terms of a Presidency. In the first four years, there are likely to be big immediate gains from taking opportunities not congenital to or just not perceived by one's predecessor, and the relief and glamour of novelty cover many potential criticisms. In the next four, one runs up against the limits of one's characteristic method, and troubles and criticisms pile up until enough people are sick enough of the same old thing to choose a near-opposite as one's successor.

Gelb's initial years - in their broad strokes likely planned before he officially took over - brought plenty of success. From a new union agreement and the launch of the moviecasts to the indelible glory of 2008-09, there was much to praise, and if Sonnambula and Tosca were infamous flops, the Butterfly, Lucia, Trovatore, Hoffmann, Carmen, and Nose productions (also Armida, which unfortunately hasn't had the right stars for revival) were and are significant successes. The next seasons - with Volpe's hand felt much less in shown productions and not at all in casting - brought some new plusses, but the main project (Robert Lepage's Ring) was thoroughly mediocre and (Maria Stuarda, which opened the night before) only 2013 - with Parsifal, Rigoletto and Falstaff - had memorable triumphs. Worse, Gelb's preferred decor (stark, low on representational detail), staging tics (the Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene has been a thing since 2010), and singer type (chilly, un-charming European ladies) became, with previous-regime stars and productions ever more scarce contrast, all too unavoidably obvious and tiresome. And since then, with Levine's health and then scandal foreclosing much artistic direction from that side of the company, the company has seemed adrift, successes and awful failures coming almost at random from the previously successful (sometimes in the same show) while Gelb shows little sign of either leaving or finding a second string to his bow.

*     *     *

If the house doesn't yet have a particular new direction, it's nevertheless shown recent willingness to least correct previous errors. Last season the much-reviled Bondy Tosca was replaced by another David McVicar production (pretty good, after his one failure in Norma), and tonight we at last get a Traviata to take the place of Willy Decker's aggressively reductive account. The latter combined awfully with the administration's preferred sort of leading lady to effectively axe, for the eight years it ran since its end-of-2010 debut here, probably the most important piece in the operatic repertory. La Traviata is not only a touchstone and cornerstone of the genre but an unrivaled vehicle for introducing newcomers to the love of opera. It would be a big step if Michael Mayer's (apparently) elaborately representational version brought that back.

(Personally, however, despite the presence of Gelb-era discoveries on which the house has wisely bet - Yannick Nézet-Séguin and Quinn Kelsey - the house's insistence on trying to jam square peg Diana Damrau into the round hole of serious dramatic leading lady is something with which I've lost patience after these many years. The dramatically electric Anita Hartig in the spring, on the other hand...)

Friday, February 16, 2018

The face

This year's Met season announcement wasn't even headlined by the season, but by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, currently mid-run of Parsifal. As one might expect after the Levine scandal, the company got the French-Canadian conductor's schedule cleared so he could go from Music Director Designate to Music Director this fall instead of 2020. So a new era begins... even if most of the particulars are old. (As usual, some one-off cast combos are omitted.)

Samson et Delila (new Darko Tresnjak production)
Alagna, Garanča, Naouri, Azizov, Belosselskiy / Elder (opening night to October)
Antonenko, Rachvelishvili, Naouri, Konieczny, Groissböck / Elder (March)
A new guy-from-Broadway's production, presumably visually striking in the current fashion and color palette, replaces the visually striking one in the '90s fashion from Elijah Moshinsky. There isn't a whole lot to this piece beyond vocal-dramatic display, which makes the spring cast rather more interesting.

La Boheme
Car, Blue, Grigolo, Dupuis, Luciano, Rose / Gaffigan (September-October)
Pérez, Blue, Fabiano, Piazzola, Rock / Gaffigan (November-December)
New Yorker (via Europe) James Gaffigan debuts in this eternal Zeffirelli show alongside Aussie soprano Nicole Car and Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis. Ailyn Perez - outstanding this fall in Thais - and Michael Fabiano lead the excellent alternative cast.

Aida
Netrebko, Rachvelishvili, Antonenko, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, Green / Luisotti (September-October)
Wilson, Rachvelishvili, Antonenko, Kelsey, Belosselskiy, Green / Luisotti (October)
Radvanovsky, Zajick, Lee, Frontali, Kowaljow, Howard / Luisotti (January)
Radvanovsky, Petrova, Antonenko, Kelsey, Kocán, Howard / Domingo (February-March)
More star power in this warhorse than usual, and though the ideal lineup of Radvanovsky, Rachvelishvili, Lee, Kelsey, and Luisotti never appears together, both the first and third iterations should bring enough excitement to be worthwhile (Netrebko did pretty well in Trovatore). It's sad to have one of the best conductors of this rep replaced at the end by the worst, however.

La Fanciulla del West
Westbroek, Eyvazov, Lučić / Armiliato (October)
Westbroek, Kaufmann, Lučić / Armiliato (October)
Nicola Luisotti's transcendent conducting saved an iffy cast the last time this Puccini work was revived. This time the star power is more heavily weighted to the singers... at least if Jonas Kaufmann actually shows up.

Marnie (new piece by Nico Mulhy, production by Michael Mayer)
Leonard, Kelly, Graves, Davies, Maltman / Spano (October-November)
Muhly addressed the biggest flaw of his previous work by getting a new librettist - dramatist Nicholas Wright, no stranger to opera - and using a novel/film adaptation as material; whether this will result in actually dramatic music is unclear (I haven't seen the ENO performances). Incidentally, a suite from this piece will be part of the Philadelphia Orchestra's opening night for 2018 - conducted of course by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Tosca
Radvanovsky, Calleja, Koch / Rizzi (October-November)
Rowley, Calleja, Koch / Rizzi (March-April)
As much as I loved seeing Radvanovsky and Calleja in last fall's Norma, do we have to keep getting Carlo Rizzi in the pit when they sing? Jennifer Rowley is an interesting alternative in her own right - though I missed her Toscas, she really impressed by the end of the Trovatore run this month - and heldenbaritone Wolfgang Koch is likely being eased in before doing big Wagner here.

Carmen
Margaine, Yu, Lee, Ketelsen / Wellber (October-November)
Margaine, Kurzak, Alagna, Vinogradov / Langree (January-February)
Yonghoon Lee and Roberto Alagna reprise their intense Don Joses opposite Clementine Margaine, whom I missed last spring. Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber debuts in the first run, while the second has Aleksandra Kurzak as Micaela, apparently marking her full departure from the light high stuff in which she made her name (she's doing Desdemona and Liu in Vienna in the next months).

Mefistofele
Van Horn, Meade, Check, Fabiano / TBA (November-December)
This production - which I saw at its last Met appearance but frankly can't remember - was the one that toured the country three decades ago as Sam Ramey's personal showcase. Christian Van Horn doesn't exactly have Ramey's name recognition at the time, but the cast seems strong enough even without a set conductor. One interesting thing is that usually the same soprano (Veronica Villaroel, whom I do remember, last time) sings both Marguerite and Helen of Troy, but here Jennifer Check is listed separately in the latter part. Boito's opera, besides having great high-octane set pieces for the leads and chorus, is probably the most faithful to Goethe's original and definitely worth seeing.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles
Yende, Camarena, Kwiecien, Teste / Villaume (November-December)
Good cast for a good show. The final night (December 8) features Amanda Woodbury, who was the best part of the premiere run.

Il Trittico
Wagner, Blythe, Álvarez, Gagnidze, Opolais, Mkhitaryan, Ayan, Domingo, Muraro / de Billy (November-December)
The outer two casts look promising. Who knows whether Kristine Opolais, scheduled to premiere the new Tosca but replaced by Sonya Yoncheva, will actually sing in the middle piece, though. The production has seen some success but depends quite a lot on the electricity of the performers.

La Traviata (new Michael Mayer production)
Damrau, Florez, Kelsey / Nézet-Séguin (December)
Hartig, Costello, Rucinski / Luisotti (April)
Hartig, Costello, Domingo / Luisotti (April)
Finally! Never mind that Damrau has never much connected in the Italian rep, or that Quinn Kelsey's huge (and hugely impressive) instrument will be mismatched with the lead couple's, or any of that. After almost a decade of having its worst production monopolizing this most central part of the house's repertory, the Met finally brings relief with this new staging. Nézet-Séguin had musical success even in the previous production, so the fall shows should be an event, but the overall cast of the spring shows - with Puccini master Nicola Luisotti conducting his second Verdi of this season - looks likely to be more satisfying.

Otello
Skelton, Yoncheva, Lučić, Dolgov / Dudamel (December-January)
Two of the three premiere leads return with Stuart Skelton (last seen here in Tristan), the clarity of whose sound should work well as the Moor. Is there still hype for Gustavo Dudamel? I suppose so.

The Magic Flute (children's version in English)
Morley, Lewek, Bliss, Ryan, Gunn, Walker, Robinson / Bicket (December-January)
As usual, a very good mostly-American cast for these kids' shows. Most interesting to me: 2013 Met Council winner and standout Sydney Mancasola appears (I think for the first time) in the alternate cast of January 3.

Adriana Lecouvreur (new David McVicar production)
Netrebko, Beczala, Rachvelishvili, Maestri / Noseda (NYE-January)
Rowley, Beczala, Rachvelishvili, Maestri / Noseda (January)
A concert performance of this rarity in 2011 with Angela Gheorghiu was one of the most surprisingly revelatory shows of the past decade, perfectly melding part and performer in a way one always hopes for but all-too-rarely sees. I doubt whether the Anna Netrebko of 2019 can personify the intertwined humility and grandeur that makes the title part, but at least the rest of the cast should be a pleasure. (Rachvelishvili and Maestri repeat the parts they sang that night.) Perhaps Jennifer Rowley is an answer? In her case I'm unsure of the grandeur, with Netrebko the humility.

Pelléas et Mélisande
Appleby, Leonard, Ketelsen, Lemieux, Furlanetto / Nézet-Séguin (January)
A good cast and Nezet-Seguin's second appearance of the season for Debussy's masterwork should make for a great run... if revival director Paula Williams doesn't recreate the reductive stage dynamic of the 2010 revival. (To be fair, it might have been determined by the singers of that run, none of whom return this time.)

Iolanta / Bluebeard's Castle
Yoncheva, Polenzani, Markov, Azizov, Kowaljow; Denoke, Finley / Nánási (January-February)
Running almost together with Pelleas is what should be the other turn-of-the-century monument to unspannable human distance - Bluebeard's Castle by Bartok. Unfortunately Mariusz Treliński's schlocky production gets the piece entirely backwards, with Bluebeard as some horror-movie villain instead of the victim of Judith's relationship-destroying jealousy. (Yes, she's Golaud.) At least it's a shorter failure than his Tristan... The Iolanta half isn't bad, though, and the cast is excellent and led by new Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási.

Don Giovanni
Pisaroni, Abdrazakov, Willis-Sørensen, Byström, Garifullina, de Barbeyrac, Cedel, Kocán / Meister (January-February)
Mattei, Plachetka, Yu, Phillips, Malfi, Breslik, Sim, Belosselskiy / Meister (April)
Mattei, Plachetka, Yu, Phillips, Malfi, Appleby, Sim, Belosselskiy / Meister (April)
As I sadly left my review post at the time incomplete in draft, let me start with this: Swedish soprano Malin Byström, who sang the part here in fall 2016, is the best, most perfect Donna Elvira I have ever heard, live or on record. Even with the Don Giovanni headlining the April run, the winter performances - which also are the debuts of German conductor Cornelius Meister, Russian soprano Aida Garifullina, and French tenor Stanislaus de Barbeyrac, along with the first significant part for 2013 Met Council winner Brandon Cedel - may therefore be preferable.

La Fille du Régiment
Yende, Blythe, Camarena, Corbelli / Mazzola (February)
Yende, Blythe, Camarena, Muraro / Mazzola (February-March)
Good cast, silly production. Fun?

Rigoletto
Frontali, Sierra, Grigolo, Zaharia, Kocán / Luisotti (February-March)
Frontali, Sierra, Hymel, Zaharia, Kocán / Luisotti (March)
Gagnidze, Feola, Hymel, Zaharia, Ivashchenko / Luisotti (April-May)
I'm not sure there's an ideal lineup here, with Frontali maybe getting old for the part, Sierra not the best at playing innocent, and Hymel not really an Italianate lyric tenor. But with Nicola Luisotti in the pit for his third Verdi opera of the season, you should probably catch at least one of these... perhaps the spring performances with debuting Italian soprano Rosa Feola.

Falstaff
Maestri, Schultz, Pérez, Cano, Lemieux, Demuro, Rodríguez / Farnes
Everyone has turned over since the premiere of Carsen's glorious production except Ambrogio Maestri and Jennifer Johnson Cano... but I don't doubt that it will triumph nonetheless. (How Carsen went from this to his misguided Rosenkavalier, who knows...)

Das Rheingold
Grimsley, Harmer, Barton, Cargill, Ernst, Siegel, Konieczny, Groissböck, Belosselskiy / Jordan (March)
Volle, Harmer, Barton, Cargill, Ernst, Siegel, Konieczny, Groissböck, Belosselskiy / Jordan (cycles II and III)
Last time Philippe Jordan was here, he was a thirty-something young "son of" conducting a disappointly disjointed revival of Figaro. Now, over a decade later, he's the recently-appointed music director of the Vienna State Opera and taking over Ring duties. I have no idea how it's going to go, but the singing part seems in good hands. Much will depend - for the entire cycle - on revival stage director J. Knighten Smit, whose job is to fill in the huge holes left by Robert Lepage's utter lack of interest in personenregie.
(Incidentally, Tomasz Konieczny - the Alberich for this revival, with Eric Owens having moved on to Hagen - was the emergency replacement John the Baptist for that unforgettable 2014 Vienna Phil Salome at Carnegie.)

Die Walküre
Goerke, Westbroek, Skelton, Barton, Grimsley, Groissböck / Jordan (March-April)
Goerke, Westbroek, Skelton, Barton, Volle, Groissböck / Jordan (cycles II and III)
With Katerina Dalayman's successes from 2009 to 2013 the house has not lacked good Brünnhilde performances, but Christine Goerke's monstrously easy-sounding performance in Elektra (finally reaching the Met in a few weeks) and her notices with the Ring in Houston tease perhaps one of those epochal assumptions. Especially with Volle in the single-week cycles rest of the cast looks loaded at every part... so perhaps the uncertainty of conducting and directing (J. Knighten Smit is joined by Gina Lapinski for this installment) won't matter.

La Clemenza di Tito
Polenzani, Fang, van den Heever, DiDonato, Murrihy, Van Horn / Koenigs (March-April)
Every few years the house revives the Ponelle Clemenza. Every time it's an emotional-musical triumph, one of the glories of the season. And every time it's hideously undersold and barely noticed in the press. Perhaps DiDonato's name recognition can change the latter, as this looks something like an ideal cast (though 2008's performance - perhaps Susan Graham's finest moment here - could hardly be bettered).

Siegfried
Vinke, Goerke, Morley, Cargill, Siegel, Volle, Konieczny, Belosselskiy / Jordan (cycles I and III)
Schager, Goerke, Morley, Cargill, Siegel, Volle, Konieczny, Belosselskiy / Jordan (cycle II)
I've already mentioned the conductor, revival director (Stephen Pickover joins Smit here), the Brünnhilde, and Volle's Wotan/Wanderer, but Siegfried rises and falls on the tenor. Here two performances are by Stefan Vinke - apparently the Siegfried of choice at the big European houses - and one by Andreas Schager, who impressed immensely as Apollo in Strauss's Daphne in concert a few years back. Again, cause for much hope.

Götterdämmerung
Goerke, Schager, Haller, Connolly, Nikitin, Konieczny, Owens / Jordan (cycles I and II)
Goerke, Vinke, Haller, Connolly, Nikitin, Konieczny, Owens / Jordan (cycle III)
Eric Owens moves, as mentioned before, from Alberich to Hagen, while the very promising Brünnhilde and Siegfrieds repeat from the third installment. J. Knighten Smit, revival director for all four installments, is here joined by Paula Williams for the most herculean of fix-up jobs. Here they have to struggle not only with Lapage's absurdly literal stage translation (which got weaker and weaker as the series progressed) but Wagner's least-polished, all-too-Meyerbeer libretto. But the principals - including debuting Italian Wagner soprano Edith Haller - seem strong, though Sarah Connolly is an odd choice for Waltraute.

Dialogues des Carmélites
Leonard, Pieczonka, Morley, Cargill, Mattila, Portillo, Croft / Nézet-Séguin (May)
I think I just have to list the cast for the third of Nézet-Séguin's shows this season. Karita Mattila returns!

Monday, December 04, 2017

So I heard


The world is coming to an end and we have to go full prog before it's too late, or something.

Or... maybe not.

Meanwhile, I don't suppose Puccini master Nicola Luisotti could be brought in early (he's supposed to conduct Cav/Pag starting the week after) to take over Tosca?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fill in the blanks

The Exterminating Angel - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2017
Kaiser, Echalaz, Luna, Coote, Matthews, Davies, Rice, Gilfry, Bevan, Portillo, Antoun, Moore, Burdette, Tomlinson, Van Horn / Adès

Previous reviews:
Powder Her Face (Ades's 1995 debut opera)
The Tempest (his 2004 second opera)


The wholly unexpected thing about this US premiere is not its success - Ades's previous show here was at least a succès d'estime - but that so much of this came from reducing his music's aesthetic scope and ambition. Philip Henscher asked (in Power Her Face) for a brash score highlighting the retro-modernist tropes of compulsion, lust, and moral emptiness, and Ades delivered terrifically... if nevertheless emptily. Meredith Oakes a decade later gave Ades a much grander thing - her cleverly condensed version of Shakespeare's humane masterpiece (The Tempest) - but the new demands were not much suited to the composer, whose engagement was less with the people and more with the inhuman island itself.

A dozen years later Ades (who apparently picked the adaptation himself) and director/co-librettist Tom Cairns seem to have hit on the right vessel for Ades's aesthetic sensibility. This adaptation of Buñuel’s El Ángel Exterminador isn't as obviously low-nutrient as Powder Her Face, but it doesn't try for much more, either. Deeper human themes of desire, love, family, and death are quickly and suggestively touched on but just as quickly dropped; the action runs through the bare minimum of a story - people are trapped, then they are free - without offering cause, motivation, or even consequence; and all we get for overall significance is an undefined, vaguely menacing unease, again minimally anchored in the sound of the ondes Martenot and the big wood-grained central archway.

There's something in the zeitgeist, I think, that makes audiences accept and even prefer fragmentary suggestions of meaning to the thing itself. (Jonas Kaufmann's characteristic style - or rather the unhesitating acceptance thereof - is a notable performance-side example of this idiosyncrasy.) Perhaps it's resentment of a full-drawn story's (or phrase's) perfection - or of its imperfections - or just of its demand that you pay full attention to one specific course and meaning. Or perhaps a great many don't care about how it adds up as long as some authority assures them that it's a substantial sum. Whatever the cause, this current taste lets Ades check the boxes that were missing from his first effort without more-than-nominally pushing into unsuitable territory, while simultaneously letting the audience get the rush of appreciating contemporary art without having to engage with anything definite.

What does that leave, then? Mostly the same fluent, luxuriant Bergian textures of his prior stuff... but even this has been pared back from the prior show. Apart from some brief, largely choral/orchestral passages, what we mostly get is modernist recitative, recalling both the sound and overall brittle dialogue of Lulu's social scenes. It's a nice listen, pleasing to the ear while not unduly stressing it. But Berg's posthumous masterpiece is not just its clever recits, and certainly not just its social satire: its unpunished crimes, sensual wallowing, and talky-talk are just the forward action in what turns out to be an enormous, tragic tapestry of choice and consequence. No tragic climax appears either in music or action here, nor much self-understanding either.

Good, but not much. Is an opera by the more dramatically intent George Benjamin (whose Written on Skin is being performed in Philly this February before his new Lessons in Love and Violence debuts at the Royal Opera in May) going to appear soon at the Met?

*     *     *

The mixed Anglo-American cast all did their parts well, and much of the pleasure of this run was to their credit - though it's also to Ades's credit that he gave them music and musical context to show their gifts so well. I was particularly heartened to hear Tomlinson sounding not-at-all-finished at the age of 71.

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.