Saturday, December 31, 2005

Artificially-flavored opera product

The New York Times' Anthony Tommasini seems to be getting a fair amount of stick these days -- some of it warranted, but do you folks remember his predecessors!? -- but this article returns to one of his most admirable moments: the long crusade against City Opera's electronic "enhancement".

As he originally predicted, miking has slowly gotten more obvious and widespread since that first crack of the door. (Most notable here: that loved-by-theater-critics, trashed-by-opera-folks (amplified) run of Luhrmann's Boheme.)

What he doesn't mention this time, though the article appears in IHT, is that it's not just an American issue: a growing number of European venues has been using electronic sound sweetener as well, including the Berlin State Opera. Does the local press there even mention this sort of thing?

In my New York experience, City Opera's sound system is often the least of its problems, though use sometimes verges on the abusive, while BAM abuses its version quite a lot. The Met, of course, remains fairly purist -- though a pessimist might wonder what Gelb has in store.

UPDATE (1:45AM): It appears the Met isn't always purist enough. Perhaps they've been taking too much advice from Barbara Cook?

UPDATE 2 (3AM): This wouldn't be a bad place for FTC or its state equivalents to mandate full (or at least pretty substantial) disclosure. Any consumer advocate types out there? (Perhaps throwing in pop lipsynching disclosure would get the ball moving...)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

On applause

A year ago I posted a taxonomy of opera experience, primarily as a tool for understanding how others might strongly approve -- or disapprove -- of a performance one does not. For sometimes it's disagreement about a specific thing, but as often we talk past each other, each looking to parts of the evening the other discounts.

A post months later picked up that thread a little, beginning to examine live performance v. transmission/recording in light of this taxonomy. But continuing seemed a bit redundant, as simply listing the aspects of operatic experience previously noted pretty much makes the distinctions, trivial and not, apparent:
(1) Opera is a sensual art.
(2) Opera is a dramatic art.
(3) Opera illuminates the world, and one's experience in it.
(4) Opera illuminates its own world: the history, present, and future of opera.
(5) Operagoing is a social activity, beyond and around the sitting-in-the-dark-as-an-audience part.
Really I have no patience for systems, even my own.

But those mikes at a non-broadcast performance of American Tragedy got me thinking about this again. Was that evening particularly focused because (and again, I was just speculating as to why the mikes were there) the event was to be recorded? Such things happen. Performers improve, or tighten up, or something with such a prospect. And it's odd: the dynamic among performers and audience -- the dramatic element of theater, in this case opera -- is changed by listeners who, not being in fact present (or in some cases even yet existing), cannot physically affect the show in any way, whether by breathing, squirming, coughing, rustling, talking, clapping, cheering, booing, or sitting blessedly still. Their presence in performers' minds seems sufficient.

Yet for the home listener, much of the drama is washed out -- secondhand. Sound and video may preserve some of the energy exchanged and transformed there among those present, but even then they offer no personal way in. The presence of the distant audience was a collective one, its individual parts hardly differentiated in that sea of (at best) invisible imagined reaction. Did that in-house audience imagine this remote listener too? Sit rapt, cheer, or boo on his behalf? He himself is impossibly distant, and can't.

*     *     *

Of these missing interjections, applause is the key. It's the consummation of performance-as-drama, the Dionysian end of the rite. (And those who would "encourage" it in the guise of opposing classical "stuffiness" bark up entirely the wrong tree.) Each listener there (heretofore officially passive) has a share of the revels, perhaps some share of the performers themselves... But the solitary listener at home does not. His circle doesn't close so neatly; any energy and tension and approval and resentment aroused in the event isn't so easily dissipated. (Fortunately, then, these usually aren't as great.)

What, then? Why -- words. Talk, online chat, IM exchanges, review missives to electronic fora, "best of" lists, fan sites, and, yes, sometimes blog posts and blog comments. Reading and writing both.

Of course, I say this on a blog mostly inspired by local live performance...

Monday, December 26, 2005


The December 16 performance of An American Tragedy had another interesting novelty to it: large visible mikes at the foot of the stage. Usually (I think) these are only present for broadcasts, and I wonder if this means an official audio recording will be forthcoming. (There were no official cameras.) With the apparently universal technical glitches in Saturday's broadcast Act 2 -- not to mention widespread preemption in favor of dull Christmas-music specials -- a cleaner official document would be welcome. It could also, if the approval ratio of Opera-L commenters is any indication, help tap a strong potential audience.

As for the broadcast itself, I heard only Act 1 -- though I very much wish I'd caught the artists' roundtable. Still, as each time before, Picker's music insinuated itself into my brain, replaying in fragments afterwards late into the night and prompting an itch to be heard, in flesh, again. That, I suppose, is the bottom line of my piecemeal takes on his contribution, and not the worst way to conclude them.

Saturday, December 24, 2005


My friend and blogdaughter Victoria seems to have given me the neatest Christmas present: a graphic (non-representational, mind you) and bit of ad space on her blog. Thanks, Vic. And welcome to any and all of her readers who are now dropping by.

And to all my readers, old and new -- merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and all that.

Three takes

I spent three consecutive weeks (Friday, Thursday, Friday) at performances of An American Tragedy; each showed the piece as a different thing. Opening night was remarkable, but perhaps the best evening was last Friday's. Star Susan Graham was indisposed, replaced by her cover Kirsten Chavez, but that was little problem on the whole. Chavez has a smoother, less punchy top, a meltingly appealing lower register, and a more straightforwardly youthful stage demeanor than her predecessor. In Chavez's body Sondra Finchley is more Clyde Griffiths' eager co-dreamer than an ideal, composed focus of desire -- but that works too, and perhaps put attention more comfortably on the protagonist. Even in today's sea of excellent mezzos, I'd like to hear her again.

Meanwhile Nathan Gunn, I think, has gotten bad press. His voice actually shows well in the part: the only thing he lacks are the climactic high notes called for in the car aria. Unfortunately, these stick out.

*     *     *

Perhaps closest kin to Clyde as an operatic protagonist is Lulu: each navigates a social rise and fall, bisected by murder. Lulu inspires desire while Clyde is its agent, but the effect of each on others reveals society and drives the plot.

Tobias Picker acknowledges it early, beginning the first latter-day scene with a nod to Berg's most beautiful of all operas, both orchestrally and in the difficult (and oddly maligned) vocal line of small-time seductress Hortense. But then all sorts of other stuff rushes in -- each character, as the official interview noted, gets not a leitmotif but a characteristic style -- adding up to a more heterogenous whole than Lulu's beauty-plus-corruption-plus-death. Is it, I wonder, the fracturing of this equation that's bothered critics? The loveliness of Lulu's sound must, no less than her person's, be paid with violence. Conlon's Friday account happily brought this element of An American Tragedy out more than before, but there's nothing in the score that approximates the violence of, say, Berg's central interlude. Instead -- everything else. And then savaging -- in ink.

*     *     *

Noted: two music-journalism professionals who've admitted to liking the new piece are blog proprietors. Meanwhile, the local doyen of opera criticism offers yet another by-the-book trashing of Picker's work.

Don't ask me what that means, though.

Monday, December 19, 2005


After an amazingly hectic weekend that kept me from hearing the season's first broadcast, I'm off to an opera-free zone until the new year. I've another report on An American Tragedy planned, but I'll miss upcoming New York events in those weeks.

I hope to finish some reflective posts instead, but such things aren't always predictable. Please bear with me.

Friday, December 16, 2005


The transit strike hasn't quite happened here, but in internet-land Six Apart's servers -- which host the blogs at and -- did get toasted.

If Prima la Musica, vilaine fille, and Night After Night look like they've been replaced by slightly-out-of-date mute plastic replicas, it's pretty much true. And there's as yet no immediate prospect of recovery.

UPDATE (12/17, 12:10AM): Things look in order again.

Empty seat syndrome

Via Opera-L, this AP story puts a remarkably bad number to the vague local perception of "low box office":
"We are currently projecting the box office to achieve 76 percent of capacity versus a budget of 80 percent, resulting in a shortfall of $4,303,000," Volpe wrote in Dec. 12-dated memorandum to Met department heads, a copy of which was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.
76 percent! And in a boom year, with good casting.

(The sold-out Rigoletto aside, the only thing I've been to of late has been An American Tragedy. That seemed pretty full on both occasions, but I now wonder how much of it was paper.)

Incoming general manager Peter Gelb's instinct seems to be to up the stakes with more and trendier new productions. Is this, I wonder, a pitch for the local market or for the transatlantic one depressed since 9/11?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Einsam, wie eine Wolke

Schubert's Winterreise begins with a scenic specificity as strong as any opera's: the place and landmarks of one now-lost love. As much as they torment the protagonist, and as intently as he flees that scene, he is stuck close among them for much of the cycle's first half (written as a unit by Schubert before he discovered the rest of Müller's opus). This immediacy asks for viscerally dramatic realization, and it is here that a stage star like Peter Anders can really shine.

Christoph Prégardien, who sang the whole piece at Alice Tully Hall on Sunday, is a lightish (though now darker-sounding) tenor without that operatic breadth of vocal resource. This was a handicap at the start: the first songs' rage and sorrow were dulled by Prégardien's apparent need to manage sonic and emotional extremes instead of exploiting them. (This is, I think, the gist of Maury's complaint about Guelfi's Rigoletto.) So maybe it wasn't so bad that the hall's fire alarm went off not once but twice -- water pressure in another building, went the official explanation -- causing Prégardien and his straightforward accompanist Dennis Helmrich to walk offstage after "Auf dem Flusse".

They came back to applause and a song or two of nervous unsteadiness, but soon reached a more congenial point. For the hero does escape love's immediate pangs -- this is the motion of that first half-cycle. Eventually, he puts sleep between them... and from then his personal history is reflected in ever more distant metaphor (in the ever more empty world), until pared down to a missing pair of suns. In this less overtly dramatically-strenuous part of the cycle Prégardien excelled, beginning with an unhysterical but wholly effective "Frülingstraum". The disillusioning shock of awakening, the hope-draining return to cold -- these seemed as if for the first time experienced plainly, by one inclined neither to expect more nor complain.

Perceptive simplicity served Prégardien well through the very tricky final songs. His wanderer, with distance from the sharp reactions of love -- and everything else! -- showed himself human and truthful: not, as is a danger, emptily overblown. So if Prégardien, like Wordsworth, needs a bit of admixed tranquility to best show his emotional art, it seems petty to complain.

Monday, December 12, 2005


The blog is a year old today, though perhaps it really began two days later with my contrarian take on Rodelinda.

Thanks to all of you for reading. Particular thanks to Sarah, whom I believe the first blogger to link here, and to my friends Victoria and "Maury", who by starting their own blogs have provided incalculable continuing encouragement.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

By comparison...

She performs with the widened sonic and gestural vocabulary of a master, though she isn't one yet. She has every note from bottom to top, and a not-bad trill. She is beautiful, and has a good sense of what she should be doing at any particular moment onstage. So who am I to complain that Anna Netrebko's voice is not now the glowing silver peal of 1998 (the year depicted at right), nor even the (darker) burnished steel of 2002? Someone who heard and liked those incarnations, I guess. Today the sound is remarkably large for her type, still clear, and easily produced, but no longer has the immediate sensual allure of years past. In fact she's starting to sound like another east-Euro beauty -- Angela Gheorghiu (a younger one, anyway, with an easier top) -- which makes some sense since their roles are beginning to converge. Perhaps their stardom already has.

By contrast Rolando Villazón's basic sound may be his strongest asset: the quick vibrato makes much more sound urgent, heartfelt. But his slim good looks and youthful bounding and phrasing help, and it's topped off by remarkable and effortless-seeming resources of breath. The voice is really expansive in the middle, but ordinary on top -- sort of a mini-dramatic's instrument.

The last act of Saturday's season-first Met Rigoletto showcased both the ups and downs of Villazón's sonic endowment. "La donna è mobile" made little impression, brought down by dull high notes and an uncharacteristic bout of chronic flatting. But the quartet, with Villazón spinning easy, ardent, never-ending phrases -- that was something.

His Duke is a youth, not a man: confident but quick-moving, impulsive, jumping from one thing to another (and, unfortunately, chopping phrases in the process), his fatal callousness more adolescent self-regard than narcissism or sociopathy. Phrase-chopping aside, I suppose it's a reasonable take. Surely it's not much Villazón's fault that I found myself craving another tenor's stage persona in the part...

The title part was sung well -- if neither overpoweringly nor with much mad frenzy -- by Carlo Guelfi. But the real protagonist of the night was conductor Asher Fisch. He (almost as well as Robert Heger in my favorite Rigoletto recording) liberates all the forward rhythms of the opera, midwifing an exhilarating Verdian performance that certainly won't happen under the worst conductor in Met history. Eric Halfvarson is strong, while Nancy Fabiola Herrera, though irritatingly behind the beat for the night's quartet, has a nice rounded sound. With Fisch's guidance and no weak links in the cast, Rigoletto is a success... even if not ideal.

UPDATE (11:55 AM): Alex's review at Wellsung reminds me of one thing I omitted -- the excellent work of the chorus. They, James Courtney as Monterone, and the other bit-player courtiers made the opening scene really riveting. The Met Orchestra's excellence should go without saying.

Saturday, December 10, 2005


Though I began this blog by calling opera exemplary, few people actually wish to live -- or, perhaps more to the point, die -- like their favorite operatic hero(ine). Even among singers. Though it's a change from norms set back when life expectancy was around 30, the training and hiring system today more than ever tries to protect singers, bringing them along slowly into (ideally) a long career -- one which might start at an age by which a performer of yore could already have blown out his voice.

(Some have wondered if this has inhibited the tragic vein in modern well-trained singers. That seems to me to confuse cause and effect: we live longer, and take steps based on living longer, because we have -- collectively -- largely adopted a less tragic approach to life. Besides making us rich and healthy, this choice has colored other things, moving the norm from which an individual -- performer or no -- is likely to start.)

But no system can -- or would wish to -- hide the fact that the stage is an essentially dangerous, precarious place. Like a prophet or tyrant of old, the performer is the focus of mass attention, and is in turn subject to its often-resentful whims. (One remembers how many of those prophets and tyrants ended.) This is the raw dramatic energy of opera performance: tragedy channels it into awful terrors for the characters, comedy into laughter at their folly. So each night these fictional constructs pay for their performers' prominence, freeing us in the audience to marvel at the athletic, mimetic, and other skills well-displayed. But if something goes wrong... And even when it doesn't, surely some must wonder if the substitution's something that can be carried off indefinitely, or if the real person will eventually have to pay...

Some performers live tragic lives, others are clowns (amusing or detestable), and very many live straightforwardly while off the job. Most, I think, prefer the latter -- as would most of us. (Others take part in celebrity, that satyr play-cum-romance that's the essence of popular culture, but that's tricky -- and not an aspect that shows much while in the high-cultural repertory of staged opera. For TV and concerts and miscellaneous appearances, yes.)

*     *     *

Blogging, too, is perilous -- hardly as much, but in much the same way, though many further deflect attention with a pseudonym. And while most don't necessarily read blogs for the dramatic one-before-many aspect, it is there, even sans applause, booing, or even fan/hate mail.

If one has even blogged himself towards death (though he's still around at the moment), that shows an outer limit to dedication -- and its possible cost. It, too, lets in that damned demanding, troublesome thing: the public eye.

So when a favorite blogger -- only thinly pseudonymous and, at the same time, a nearly-famous soprano -- goes on hiatus feeling "overexposed", shouldn't all bloggers sympathize? Even if their attention fed the performer-side aspect of the condition in the first place, and even if writing about it may feed it all even more.

(Another soprano offers her thoughts on blogging here.)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A composer responds (in advance)

I'd read this 2001 interview with Tobias Picker before the production, but it's more funny now:
In the '60s and '70s when American modernism was at its height, when 12-tone composers were chic, the critics bashed the shit out of them because they were writing music that was inaccessible. There was a constant stream of vicious criticism and harassment, led by Harold Schonberg and the critics of The New York Times, directed toward my teachers, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt and Charles Wourinen, who were leaders of the American modernist movement. This has now turned full circle. As soon as composers started writing music that was accessible, the critics starting bashing the shit out of us. It proves that some critics will find no good in anything, and this basically renders most music criticism meaningless.
UPDATE (5:30 AM): Composer-blogger Daniel Felsenfeld asks a related (if more restrained) question.

The very busy...

I hadn't realized that An American Tragedy's younger Clyde, Graham Phillips, was also the lead for half of NYCO's run of The Little Prince (closed 11/20). Not a bad few months' work for a sixth-grader.

The current show uses his actual voice. I'm sure it's a stretch to expect a child to sing for the hours' length of Little Prince -- even on and off -- but NYCO's solution of massive (by opera-house standards), jarringly different-sounding amplification really made a mess of that production. Surely it wasn't quite so bad in Houston? (The unwise innovation of this time casting the Rose as a teenage soprano meant they did much the same for her.) But I suspect I'm the only one grinch enough to so complain, though Peter Davis does trash most everything else.

Meanwhile, if any readers went to this American Tragedy event yesterday, I'm curious to learn what was said.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Press roundup

I think Alex of the Wellsungs is entirely right to dissect Tommasini's reflexive and cliched dismissal of An American Tragedy. One further point I'd add: 1950 is just as much unrecoverable past today as is 1905 or 1850. A rearguard defense of modernism won't turn back the clock from its aesthetic successors.

Oh, but who has the space to do justice to the riotous melange of honest opinion, grinding axes, insight, generalization, quick conclusions, and bizarre hobbyhorses that makes up the rest of the press coverage? It almost takes one back to the delightful old days before hundreds of years of noisy fan appreciation forced critics to dress their hatreds in polite language.

Most amusing, I think, is the pair of Jay Nordlinger and Willa Conrad, who each attribute the rather more lugubrious political agenda of Dreiser's book to the opera, to opposite ends: Nordlinger deplores it, which seems to dim his view of the rest of the proceedings, while Conrad pretty much finds it the only element of the evening worth keeping.

Of the others, only the AP's Mike Silverman gives a mixed evaluation. The remainder trash it, with more or less style. Of these, I think Matthew Erikson of the Hartford Courant is the most interesting and grandees Martin Bernheimer and Clive Barnes the least. Mark Swed of the LA Times (who, incomprehensibly, liked the Harbison fiasco!) offers another ideological attack, while Newsday's Justin Davidson and Variety's Eric Myers just found the show dull. (Oddly, the latter give no report of the -- contrary -- audience reaction.)

Your milage, needless to say, may vary. This is definitely an instance where one should see for oneself.

UPDATE (12:20 PM): OK, maybe the Wellsungs are up to fisking the whole lot of 'em. Jonathan's funny take on Eric Myers here.

UPDATE 2 (12/7, 3:30 AM): More ink -- Chicago's John von Rhein, though quite fair-minded on the whole, wishes LOC's composer William Bolcom had written it (having seen A View from the Bridge, I don't), while Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle does his own press roundup.

UPDATE 3 (12/8): A positive review from the Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns.

Monday, December 05, 2005

An American story

Class is not today one of the more salient factors in American life, but in New York*? -- that's another story. Class awareness and envy is a popular local bloodsport, which fact colors not only local media (New York magazine is the most prominent of those pretty much entirely dedicated to scratching this itch) but national press coverage (which takes its cues from the Times and other locals).

[* Or, indeed, Massachusetts, as the opera may remind.]

Now to a local Met audience -- particularly on a gala night, as Friday's -- what happens elsewhere doesn't matter anyway. Gene Scheer and Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy is, whatever else, the intricate refraction of local concerns that The Great Gatsby entirely failed to become under John Harbison's unfocused eye. (None but Wagner should be his own librettist, and even he could have used a good editor.) For success in that alone the Met may count the venture good. Many in attendance, too.

Of course, there's more to it than that. Clyde Griffiths isn't felled by class conflict, after all, nor even by the consumer hunger (the opera gives Clyde this aria soon after arriving in Lycurgus) that pushes him into it. It's a more universal aspect of his charmingly unbanked desire* that brings him to ruin: love, or lust. In this it follows the novel's famous movie adaptation, A Place in the Sun, perhaps more closely than one might have expected. As in that version, Clyde's desire for worldly advancement is embodied -- maybe even subsumed -- by his desire for the alluring, possibility-intoxicated Sondra Finchley, who as perfectly written for Susan Graham (think of her Hahn album, not Octavian) becomes a fairly understandable motive for unfaithfulness. But this, too -- like Clyde's seduction and abandonment of the less colorful Roberta Alden -- is a familiar local story as much as a universal one.

[* Perhaps learned from his parents, who did love God immoderately.]

*     *     *

The first act -- there are two, each about an hour and a quarter -- rushes forward breathlessly; the second builds, with much contemplative breath at the beginning, to a gripping dramatic climax (and a lone plunk). The seamless scene-to-scene changes of each are enabled by Adrianne Lobel's excellent three-tiered set design, with two levels for action (some simultaneous in two times or places) and the top for complementary scenery. Painted panels slide across the three levels, and combine with occasional solid slide-on set elements to form a great range of stage images. It's a production that takes good advantage of the Met's size and stage apparatus, and might be tricky to put on elsewhere.

In a sense the drama recapitulates -- as do its somewhat greater forerunners -- the story of its creators' civilization. Act I, moving ceaselessly forward from scene to ever-shifting scene, is entirely Clyde's -- which is to say desire's. Its unbanked force within him, manifesting in characteristically American form (as above), conquers what's before it, triggering and feeding from desires of those around him. So Clyde gets his job, then his woman, then his social entree, while Roberta finds love and Sondra -- who has discovered desire herself in New York (not least, of course, through its consumer opportunities!) -- a playmate and co-dreamer.

These, naturally, can't all coexist -- a far more fundamental problem for Clyde (and society) than the mean-but-incidental snobbery of his cousin or aunt. Act I closes with his idyll of ever-newly-satisfied desires being fatally cracked, as Roberta tells him she is pregnant.

But Clyde doesn't follow the rules that would have him resolve these conflicting desires at the point where their conflict has been unmistakably spotlit. This begins Act II's crime-and-punishment structure. He lets things fester, delusionally (or sociopathically) believing that he can still have everything, notwithstanding others' claims. Against this belief every society must defend itself (as also here), not least because it moves some to kill. For Clyde it's a letting-die, though the legal machinery by which peace in America is kept -- even against the strong sexual and economic passions of the country, this incubator of Act I's desire -- finds him a murderer. Whatever the niceties, Clyde's personal case resolves when he acknowledges to his mother that his inner guilt matches the outer. The transgression that began the act thus ends.

*     *     *

Of Picker's music one might make many complaints fair and unfair, but we should first start with this: it well suits the text and performers of the piece. Picker, at the least, well and correctly judged the dramatic arc of the story and the vocal/character possibilities of the people who were to embody it. Beyond that, my initial general impression was that none of it is boring, but too much of it falls into the slow-rapt and fast-ominous dichotomy that's been too common for too long. (What I miss most in new operas is the cabaletta.)

One might joke about the music being set in 1906, as well as the story -- Picker seems to look more to Janáček than to any critically-approved living composer -- but my main thought at the end was: good, now commission from them another one.

More on this, perhaps, after more hearings.

*     *     *

Finally, no one familiar with singing today should be surprised that the two star-quality instruments in the production are both mezzos, and that they walk away with the performance side of the show. Susan Graham and Dolora Zajick's considerable vocal and temperamental talents are shown off very, very well by their parts. Patricia Racette provides blood aplenty to the veins of Roberta, but -- as hinted above -- not a lot of extra color to her character. (It would take a Lucrezia Bori to add that.) In the lead, Nathan Gunn embodies Clyde Griffiths well but, on opening night at least, lacked the vocal punch for effective sonic climaxes. The others -- Jennifer Larmore (the aunt), Kim Begley (the uncle), William Burden (the cousin), Jennifer Aylmer (the other cousin), Richard Bernstein (the prosecutor), and Anna Christy (the chambermaid) -- sing and act well in smaller roles, as does boy soprano Graham Phillips as the young Clyde. James Conlon conducted admirably, but without the forward-rushing abandon that some of the quicker passages seemed to require. Perhaps the orchestra's further familiarity with the score will allow that?

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The crutch

If, as many fear, NYCO-style acoustical "enhancement" will undermine the art of singing, have not supertitles already imperiled diction and balance? Maybe. I watched pretty much all of American Tragedy without the titles and... was able to make out quite a bit of it. Led by Graham and Gunn, the cast did pretty well in putting across at least the gist of each exchange or solo. But for one crucial lapse: Picker set, Racette sung, and Conlon accompanied the Act II opening -- Roberta's first, textually essential letter scene -- in such a way that I literally couldn't understand a word.

An unfortunate lapse, or something that just wouldn't have happened in a pre-title era? Or both. The house was selling libretti; perhaps it will come off better next time when I've read it.

Three sentences on An American Tragedy

You know, I'd been thinking "Huh -- a new piece without Dawn Upshaw in it..." only to discover they'd cloned her under the name "Jennifer Aylmer" (debuting).

Ahem, seriously: a great theatrical success, no matter what else one might say about the parts. That "else" (mostly positive) later, when I find a bit of time.

UPDATE (12/5): Rather more than three sentences in my long review here.

Friday, December 02, 2005


I didn't expect to catch it, but the Today Show did in fact do a nice 6-minute piece just now (from about 8:19 to 8:25 ET, for those who recorded) on the premiere of An American Tragedy, with bits of the score and staging (from, I think, the dress rehearsal) in background.

For the curious, it does appear that the obligatory Nathan Gunn Shirtless Scene has been included in the opera.

UPDATE (2:30 PM): A reader sends me this picture, which isn't among the new batch now up on the official site.

UPDATE 2 (12/5): Welcome, all Balcony Box, Standing Room, and Big Apple Blog Festival readers. More pre-event coverage is in the posts here, here, and here, with thoughts after the actual premiere here, here, and here.


From some of the principals of tonight's world premiere at the Met...

Gene Scheer, librettist:
"One would think that a librettist's job is to write the words that will be sung. And at one level, of course, that is certainly what one does. But the truth is that the most important task a librettist has is to create moments that demand to be sung. The words clearly matter, but crafting what is happening in each moment is what makes an opera 'sing,' both literally and figuratively."

Tobias Picker, composer:
Picker has filled his work with lyrical arias and ensemble set pieces, and there is little or no recitative. An American Tragedy, as the composer describes it, is carried forward in an "arioso style." [...] "I think that there's an American flavor to the musical language in this piece," says Picker, who has included an actual hymn from the 1880s ("'Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus") as well as one of his own composition in the big church scene in Act 2. "I hope there is a directness to the music and a simplicity-when it needs to be simple the music is not afraid to be so. When the situation or the emotional moment requires complexity, the music is more dense. My music has a straight forwardness about it. It is clear and direct, like Americans are."

Nathan Gunn, "Clyde Griffiths" (protagonist):
"The more I know the character through the music and the libretto, the more embarrassing I find Clyde. This is not because he's ignorant of certain social subtleties. He has an earthiness that is very primitive, very powerful."

Susan Graham, "Sondra Finchley" (the other, richer woman):
"She's young. She should convey a sort of knowing naïveté. She's early-twentieth-century. She's a strong girl, full of complex social influences, and quite ahead of her time. She has a sexual foray, cares about Clyde yet doesn't show her face at the trial. Still, she sends him that final letter." Graham sees parallels between An American Tragedy and another genuine news story, the recent case involving Scott Peterson and the drowning of his pregnant wife. "But," she qualifies, "I'm not playing Amber Frey."

Thursday, December 01, 2005


The official site of Tobias Picker's "An American Tragedy" now has three audio excerpts from the score, as sung to piano accompaniment "at a special press preview" two weeks ago. The world premiere is tomorrow.

You will need Flash enabled to play these excerpts.

Balancing act

Bertrand de Billy, it seems, takes Gounod's Roméo et Juliette very seriously. (Seriously enough, it's rumored, to oust talented young diva/ham Jossie Pérez from most of the new production run.) It shows a trait that's served him -- and the house -- well in his role as ringleader of, among less over-the-top warhorses, the Met's Turandot circus.* He brings an unusually musical hand to these standards, with a strong sense of rhythm and pace. The sound he gets, though much better than the mere routiniers who preceded him, isn't the most refined... But then again, he's so far done revivals without, I assume, a huge amount of preparation time. The results have been commendable.

[*Incidentally, at least two friends have told me that seeing this Turandot almost put them off opera for life.]

So, in this first new production he's headlined, de Billy -- if the first and third performances were representative -- has pursued the serious path. He keeps a firm rein on the orchestra and singers, pushing them with energetic tempi and phrasing; by no means does he allow the evening to become the sort of relaxed star-singing exhibition that was the early-season Manon. That was a success; just the sort of success for which many come to the Met. But this run hunts other trophies.

Singing actress Natalie Dessay is on the same page, and perhaps pushed this approach. Not that her voice has given out -- it sounds a bit less purely focused, but may now be louder and somewhat darker. The hardness that was evident in her last, between-two-surgeries Zerbinetta run has gone. But stage presence and character have always been similarly-praised strengths.

Between these two principals (and the stage direction part of the production team, which Peter Davis attributes to Guy Joosten), the first half of the evening almost lights up the dull physical production. Dessay-as-Juliet is all youthful motion, whose newly-free newly-adolescent flirtation with Romeo -- culminating in a mock-swordfight -- is a physical revel. O'Flynn was much the same in her own performance, but Dessay goes further and actually inspires Ramón Vargas to his own youthful bounding. Meanwhile she (far more than Vargas) responds marvelously to de Billy's nervous and propulsive waves from the pit: they resonate through her body like ripples in a pond, as the base and contrast of the loving freedom she seeks.

Meanwhile Vargas -- unlike some other notable bel canto tenors of the day -- is, though light-footed, a naturally still man, displaying perhaps the same centered inertia onstage as in the temperament that makes his sweet voice so remarkably pleasant. For all his moving about the stage, it is still Juliet who pursues this Romeo, she who reflects on stage the lovers' precarious position with balance, tension, and some hard-earned grace. But that's enough.

*     *     *

Yet whether it's the troublesome floating bed business (and its high-concept largeness alone overwhelms many a nuance) or simply an exhaustion of ideas, inspiration quickly peters out after the intermission. Young and nervous becomes young and paralysed without much sign of maturation; no new note is struck in the love-scene to add to the characters' depth. So Dessay is hardly a presence in the tomb, the emotional charge of which therefore (mostly) turns on Vargas' vocal contribution. Surely neither she, de Billy, nor Joosten et al. had that in mind.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Blame the turkeys

I meant to have further thoughts on Romeo up, oh, a week ago, but holiday business has gotten in the way. The post should be up overnight.

Meanwhile, both Opera-L and r.m.o have positive word from the American Tragedy dress rehearsal.

UPDATE (12/1): You may notice that the r.m.o thread quickly degenerates into pointless, scatological name-calling. There's a reason I have the group listed under "The Zoo"... Odd thing is that some quite big names used to read it. I wonder if this is still the case.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The sound of death

The press coverage for Friday's world premiere (link goes to the official site, whence comes the picture at right) begins, with Verena Dobnik's long AP piece. She offers, among other things, this tidbit:
Days before the world premiere of one of the most anticipated works of the Metropolitan Opera season, composer Tobias Picker still hadn't decided how to end "An American Tragedy."
Zajick sings the last words to her son, by librettist Gene Scheer - "The mercy of God is equal to all sin" - in her chocolate-rich, powerhouse voice, heard as the door of the execution chamber is shutting and Clyde welcomes Jesus and is "saved."
Death could come with a bang or a whimper. The note C, for Clyde, could be played in unison by every instrument in the orchestra for 30 seconds, growing and climaxing in an ear-shattering last sound. Or it could be played in the softest short "plunk" in a minor key. Or maybe three "plunks."
"The unison is open, with no harmony. It leaves the questions about life open, with no real answers," said Picker, who was leaning toward that ending. Preferred by conductor James Conlon, "the three plunks are more of a statement, like the Holy Trinity."
Which music announces his execution will be heard on opening night.
I assume, however, that we won't be at a loss to figure out what happened.

Another interesting curtain-raiser by Willa Conrad of the Star-Ledger is mostly about Picker, who's apparently thought about his Met debut:
Levine approached Picker around the time of "Emmeline's" premiere in 1996 in Santa Fe; he consciously delayed the commission to give himself time to write a few more operas first. "Originally, Jimmy (Levine) wanted it for 2001, but I asked if they could wait because I wanted more experience," Picker says.
Now he feels confident the opera was worth the wait. "I wouldn't say I understand my role differently," Picker says of the process of creating an opera, "but I feel that I have grown into it, and earned my role as composer."
Meanwhile, NBC's Today Show will apparently air a segment Friday morning about the opera's premiere and the murder that inspired it.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The same river twice

Despite worries to the contrary, yesterday's (third) performance of the new Met Roméo et Juliette still featured the flying bed. I guess Dessay isn't afraid of heights.

Meanwhile, the "upcoming performances" portion of the program lists Frittoli as Fiordiligi for the two January Met returns to its triumphant Cosi, but as the website still shows Deshorties I'll assume for the moment that this was just mistranscription.

More later.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Cue worried looks

Perhaps as interesting as any of Monday's production decisions was the big light-filled floating ball at the Lincoln Center curb, apparently part of this movie's shoot. Recent blogosphere target Daniel Wakin of the Times paints the event in the Gray Lady's most alarmist (or revolutionary) colors:
But the filming is emblematic of the Met's future reign, in the person of Peter Gelb, who made his mark in the classical recording industry partly with crossover projects and movie soundtracks. Mr. Gelb takes over the Met next year as general manager but has been working this season alongside Joseph Volpe, the incumbent. The shoot also offers hints of how these strong-willed impresarios are working together.
Mr. Gelb ran the Met's media department, overseeing television productions, in the years before his stint at Sony Classical. He has not hidden his desire to bring more mainstream culture into the house, including ventures into film, musical theater and even pop. At the same time, opera houses are grasping at any means to nudge people into seats in an era when classical music executives feel that their art form is ever more at the margins of society.
Well, that may be. (Though, as I've said, I think narrowcasting and niche appeal is the future of pretty much every cultural business -- something essential for their leaders to grasp.) But the Met in a movie is a far cry from a movie at the Met. The sky is not yet showing cracks, much less falling.

(Of course even Volpe, here rightly concerned with protecting the Met Opera brand, allowed for a nice fee the MTV Video Music Awards to be held at the house.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The jitters

The dominant fact of last night's Roméo et Juliette production premiere was the pervasive nervous atmosphere. All involved -- the orchestra, the cast, and not least the audience -- seemed tight and unwillingly engaged in the evening. Was the performers' side tension more an effect or cause of Dessay's sudden cancellation? Did the cancellation throw off the audience, or was it the gala business beforehand? (Or, indeed, was it the one-intermission format that allowed no break before 9:45?)

The bad vibes didn't actually torpedo any singers. Ramón Vargas seemed to shrug them off best, but all sang and acted pretty well, including substitute Maureen O'Flynn (who in fact debuted in the same opera seven and a half years ago) and newcomers Stéphane Degout (Mercutio) and David Won (Grégorio). Dimitri Pittas, a Lindemann Program tenor, actually made a real impression as Tybalt.

They were helped by the production, which if unspectacular is at least set up with plenty of reflective surfaces for the cast. Every scene is set around a two-circle setup that dominates the stage like a giant compact; various tall flat features appear on either side for scene changes. The center of the bottom circle tilts and rotates at key points, while the top opens up for nighttime scenes, showing what look like blown-up actual photographs of astronomical features (like the moon depicted in this mock-up picture from the official site). Costumes are a bit stuffy in a traditional sort of way; the families are nicely color-coded for easy identification. The duel scenes were very energetically choreographed and looked about as realistic as opera-stage knife-fighting is likely to be, but other mass scenes were dull and relatively static.

The one visual coup of the night was for Act IV: the lovers appear suspended in a spotlit white bed above the star-strewn floor, before the star-filled rear circle. This worked well, but perhaps repeated last season's Gounod love-duet trick, also -- as I recall -- involving stars all over. We get it, we get it. Ah, for the spare poetry of Carsen's Onegin (and its nighttime letter-scene climax)...

*     *     *

That said, there was a whole lot of sniffling at opera's end. If the chemistry of the run changes -- which wouldn't be a huge surprise, esp. if Dessay makes it back -- this could still be a considerable success. I'm very curious as to what Thursday's second night will offer.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Compare and contrast (updated)

Before tonight's premiere, Natalie Dessay gets all the press.

The Times offers a puff piece, with a bit of access-flaunting. The Journal News a focused curtain-raiser that covers most of the bases. And Dessay-as-showbiz-story -- with nice detail -- is the Star Ledger's take.

*     *     *

The Times piece does have this interesting tidbit:
From the first, Ms. Dessay has regarded her singing mostly as a means to the end of acting. As a straight actress, she seems to think, she would never have stood a chance.

"Among actors, there's too much competition," she said. "You have to know someone. And you have to have incredible luck. Luck matters less for singers. If you really can sing, you'll work."

*     *     *

UPDATE (1:48 PM): Uh oh.
Monday, November 14, 2005 8:00 pm - 11:10 pm

Conductor: Bertrand de Billy
Juliette: Maureen O'Flynn
Stéphano: Joyce DiDonato
Roméo: Ramón Vargas
Mercutio: Stéphane Degout
Frère Laurent: Kristinn Sigmundsson

*     *     *

UPDATE (12/1): A short but frank Q&A with Dessay in New York magazine.

Slimming down, in Italian

This is an amusing followup to this business (which may be playing out as predicted).

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Barbara Bonney and friends

Barbara Bonney is an exemplary recitalist: a great musical and communicative talent, sharpened over her long career. Maybe it was disappointment, then, that produced last night's empty seats. Instead of a solo recital, Bonney shared the stage with young colleagues, singing a confusingly-advertised program covering three Mozarts. It was, however, a very enjoyable success. I encourage those who can make the Sunday repeat to go.

The program had five main sections, in this order:
  • A set of early Mozart songs, K147-152, which includes three by his father Leopold.

  • A set of his son Franz Xaver Mozart's songs, ending in an ensemble piece for three singers.

  • A set of Mozart's ensemble pieces for three and four voices plus accompaniment.

  • Five of Mozart's famous later songs (Der Zauberer, Die Zufriedenheit, Das Lied der Trennung, Als Luise die Briefe..., Abendempfindung).

  • Another set of Mozart's (later) multi-voice pieces, finishing with the very cute "Das Bandel".
A five-singer version of Mozart and Schikaneder's cat duet (from Der Stein der Weisen), with all the women as cats, was the delicious encore.

Solo songs were alternated between all of the singers, except three of Franz Xaver's (his op. 27), taken together by Bonney herself. This format was a bit dangerous, perhaps as likely to show up the young unknowns as to show them off. But all were pretty good.

Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer, the find of the evening, came off best. It's not hard to see why Bonney picked her -- the light but pointed lyric voice, quick and wide-ranging expressiveness, musical intelligence, and stage presence surely reminded her of herself. Mercer's account of the much-sung "Abendempfindung" was as touching and well-shaped as any I've heard.

The others came off well, but seemed expressively restricted next to the sopranos. Local mezzo Isabel Leonard is a real beauty, with a not-quite-finished-sounding instrument to (almost) match, but quite reserved (at least in this setting). Canadian tenor Colin Balzer has a pleasant light sound and a real lieder-singing career already, but I found his fastidious interpretations to be within too narrow a compass. Perhaps he'd show better in a solo context. Meanwhile Canadian baritone (notice a trend here?) Joshua Hopkins may have the best instrument of all, though he held it back a bit more than I'd like in ensembles.

The unfamiliar music, too, was worth hearing. Franz Xavier Mozart wrote proto-Schubertian early Romantic lieder to more conventional texts. There's definitely a strain of real feeling for a good singer to bring out. (Bonney has an entire disc of his stuff which I've not heard.) And his father's vocal ensembles are pure characteristic gold, at times hinting of the operas though with rather less dramatic charge. It may, unfortunately, be a while -- after Sunday -- before they're done here together again.

Leonard, incidentally, has a Horne Foundation recital on December 4. But will Shannon Mercer go back to Canada and the early-music scene, never to be seen in New York again? I certainly hope not.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Unforseen consequence

Hm. I was just playing with the format, drawing out the front page a little bit, which unveiled this post at the bottom of the page, which somehow spawned the (bizarrely misplaced) comment eviscerated here.

A strange chain of cause and effect, if that.

UPDATE (11/14): Maybe I should just turn off anonymous comments?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Slimming down

Any curious about my take on last night's Voigt/Heppner event can see it here. For me, both must contend with the echoes of their mid-to-late '90s selves, when they weighed more and were in amazingly solid vocal form. Heppner's weight loss was part of solving a vocal crisis; Voigt -- looking slimmer than ever, incidentally -- seems to have shed pounds for other reasons. The years, of course, have also touched them both.

On the evidence of last night, Heppner has again reached an age-weight-voice equilibrium, while Voigt has not. But that's just one data point.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Yet another blog

Musically omnivorous TONY editor Steve Smith offers another entry into the opera blogosphere: Night After Night. Not all content is operatic, but early reviews of Mines of Sulphur and Lucia -- not to mention his account of being a Lauren Skuce fan -- bode well for future coverage.

It seems to me that local operablogging is finally reaching a sort of critical mass.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The only della Casa album I don't have

Mike Richter presents it here.

(More, for the unfamiliar, about Lisa della Casa at cantabile-subito.)

Lieder week

This week on the calendar: Barbara Bonney -- whose latest disc was recently liveblogged at Prima la musica -- gives a masterclass starting about five minutes ago, followed by recitals on Friday and Sunday.

Meanwhile, Matthias Goerne's lieder recital tonight isn't sold out. Perhaps it's to do with this bizarre article? Surely a mention of the songs' -- especially "Im Triebhaus", which has quite a bit of the Act 3 prelude in it -- connection to Tristan and its identity-scrambling theme was in order.

(Which reminds me, isn't there some sort of shouting contest scheduled for Wednesday? Hmm.)

Monday, November 07, 2005

The strangest sort of blog

Via Classical Domain's links page appears the (GeoCities (!)) site of the globe-trotting (and apparently Rio-based) Rodrigo Maffei Libonati. His current month-long (and counting) sojourn in New York is being recorded in, of all things, a periodically-updated Word document.

The reports and comments therein are quite learned and interesting... But difficult to access and link. Somebody get this man a good blog host!

For the record

Welcome, Londonist readers. Enjoy your stay.

For what it's worth, I'm neither gay nor a particular fan of James Jorden. Not sure I blog particularly well, either, but that's for readers to decide.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Lucia loose ends

Despite the amazing new tenor, I'm still not sure whether to recommend this revival. The other young men -- baritone Charles (er... Chuck) Taylor and bass John Relyea -- do their jobs well, it's true, and routinier Edoardo Müller chugga-chuggs his way neatly through the score. But despite a strangely compelling Mad Scene, Elizabeth Futral's not very interesting in the lead. She's really neither one sort of Lucia nor the other, without either vocal ease & luxuriance (e.g. Sutherland or the younger Swenson), or command of the character and stage (Callas, Scotto). When an Edgardo -- even an emotionally alive one like Filianoti -- is an order of magnitude more obviously vulnerable than the Lucia, something's awry.

Filianoti, incidentally, is doing three performances of Elisir this spring with Swenson. But that's a different sort of role.

Another baby blog

The duo of Alex and Jonathan at wellsung are off to a good start. They each liked Filianoti too...


The Met's current production of Così Fan Tutte debuted ten seasons ago for Cecilia Bartoli (as Despina -- her house debut), and has run regularly since then with mostly young, mostly American casts. Its physical elements are exemplary: cool spacious seaside spaces -- with matching clothes -- that set off the real and feigned emotional heat of the characters. And a good amount of overdone stage business, presumably put in for Bartoli, has been scrubbed away since that first, telecast run.

What's left is the base of a coherent, detailed revival that -- at least in the first-cast performances that ran through Tuesday -- outshone all of its previous incarnations. As in the fall's Falstaff, everything worked, and everything fit. But this added up to more than the Verdi.

The most successful prior run may have been the last -- back in 2001 -- with tall sisters Melanie Diener and Susan Graham headlining a comparably strong cast. But that was let down at times by the graceless and breathless charging-through of conductor Patrick Summers. This time Levine's work is the heart of the production, finding inflections, life and contrasts that had previously lain dormant under his baton. Between this and the Verdi -- and following-up the spring's excellent Clemenza revival -- Levine is doing his best work in years. And he's become a great Mozartean.

Perhaps, then, the magic of this Cosi can even survive the cast change that will add the spectactularly iffy Alexandra Deshorties. But this first group had a remarkable ensemble dynamic. Individually, all six satisfied, though Thomas Allen's lost a lot of voice since his Beckmesser. Barbara Frittoli has an odd-ish vocal production and lacks the extreme high and (esp.) low notes for "Come scoglio", but "Per pietà" was a highlight. Magdalena Kožená, a bit underpowered as last season's Varvara, I found much better here -- strong from top to bottom. On the other side, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien vied with each other for the easiest, most pleasant sounds of the evening. And Nuccia Focile actually sang most of her part.

As a group, the moral weight was more with the men than usual. Frittoli and Kožená are a slighter, more mercurial pair than their immediate predecessors. Under the hand of stage director Robin Guarino, they took advantage of it, believably playing up their characters' flightiness even from the beginning. Poor sincerely love-besotted (as Polenzani and Kwiecien had them) fiancees, to see these sisters as paragons! Allen was accordingly more of a bitter Alfonso than usual.

In the end, this time, the couples switch. And forgive each other, more or less. But before that: a moment of musical and dramatic suspension quite equal to any in opera -- including its sex-reversed counterpart in Figaro.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tenor watch

It appears the new, improved Marcelo Alvarez won't heard on broadcast after all -- he's out of the two April performances of Manon. In his place will be a tenor new to me and I believe to the house -- Massimo Giordano. Oddly, des Grieux isn't even listed on his official website's repertory page! Hm.

Meanwhile, another Italian tenor has prompted much praise: debutee Giuseppe Filianoti, whom I saw in his third Met performance a few hours ago. He's a thinnish, fairly handsome man. In the part of Edgardo, his hair played up a certain facial resemblance to Jude Law, which was apt: Filianoti carried himself about the stage with Law's reactiveness and slightly unhinged self-regard. It's a compelling, energetic assumption in itself. When he sings, however, he has this amusing compulsion to turn dead downstage and assume one of the three Standard Tenor Poses. Even when he's on his knees, supposedly holding his guts in! Unlike Geoff Riggs, I do not take this as a virtue -- and neither, I'm sure, did the audience members cracking up at the end of the opera. (Though perhaps we could blame stage director Zoe Pappas...)

But his singing, that's something else. The sound is firm and plangent, reminiscent of Neil Shicoff's. The breath is remarkable, and Filianoti has a sympathetic's native way with Italian. The high notes are thrilling, the strongest most ringing part of the instrument, and he can hold them to great effect. And -- as one might guess from his energetic (non-singing) manner on the stage -- he responds to the excitement and tension of the music, while his phrasing remains emphatic and sure. The Act II curse was a marvelous display of all these virtues. Wow.

*     *     *

When this Lucia production premiered in 1998, Met audiences were treated to a jaw-droppingly beautiful account of Arturo by the then-unknown Matthew Polenzani. His eminence among lighter lyric tenors has since become clear, and is confirmed by the current run of Cosi. (More on that in another post.) I believe non-New York audiences mostly just know Polenzani for Rossini, which is too bad. He's a decent Rossinian, but peerless as David, the Steersman, Iopas, and the like (including, yes, Ferrando).

Friday, October 28, 2005

The crisis of opera in Italy

Via the zoo of r.m.o comes this Independent article on the funding crisis of Italian opera-houses.
The culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, has warned of the possible "death of opera" as the nation's 13 deeply indebted opera houses try to find ways to survive a 30 per cent cut in government subsidies, announced in the new budget.
Buttiglione, who has previously threatened to resign over these cuts, seems to take a realistic line:
But politicians and administrators agree that the crisis facing the Italian opera is "desperate," in Mr Buttiglione's words. He warned the opera houses: "None of them can hope that, whatever happens, someone will bale [sic] them out. Any of them could go bust, none is exempt from doing their accounts. All of them are dramatically in debt."
The cuts -- from a subsidy of €496 million to about €332m within three years -- are part of the larger effort to fit the traditionally free-spending and free-inflating Italian government into the fiscal and monetary straitjacket of the Eurozone. The companies themselves, however, may be particularly alluring targets.
[W]hile many companies continue to stage superb productions, managers are political appointees. Back offices are swollen with friends and relatives.
Prime Minister Berlusconi himself singled out La Scala:
"One thousand people work at La Scala," he claimed of Italy's best-known opera house, "when 400 would be plenty."
This is, of course, controversial. Less so, perhaps, is the decline in public interest:
This highlights an even more fundamental problem - that the Italian public appears to have fallen out of love with "la lirica" (the opera). A generation ago, the goings-on at La Scala were of intense interest to everyone in Milan. Any Italian taxi driver could hum the most famous arias, and Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano were the celebrities of their day.
But today, thanks to pop music and the Berlusconi-peddled TV diet of soaps, quiz shows and old American movies, Verdi and Puccini have gone out of style. The opera has become the diversion of the rich, the old and the corporate as much as anywhere else - perhaps even more so, given the failure of Italian opera houses to make a pitch for the patronage of their country's youth.
*     *     *

I don't pretend to understand either Italian politics or its art-administrative offshoot (though reading this article helped). But two things are evident.

First, the amount is fairly small. €164 million of a €400 billion budget is less than .05%. A sufficiently vocal or significant constituency interested in reversing the cuts may well succeed (as CPB saved itself from the axe here).

Second, a budget win, if the houses achieve it, may give only short reprieve. That the cuts have been proposed at all show opera's current distance from the Italian public. A system of direct public subsidy isolates a house from accountability to the greater or smaller public, but not permanently; at some point the houses and the public will come into alignment. If, for example, Italians continue to grow indifferent to opera, will there be any constituency for saving it the next time cuts are proposed? But lack of smaller-scale accountability means it'll take pure luck for the houses to nurse a public more sympathetic to their art (or an art more sympathetic to their public).

Ultimately, none but the Taliban can undo the flowering of choice in a country -- the new leisure options blamed on Berlusconi above. Unless the world falls, live opera must find its market niche (and I think, as I've said, it'll likely do so, in a way not unlike organic local produce or artisanal cheese: the essential complement to a baseline of commodity farming or free-floating digital music). The 1999 profile linked above showed a La Scala adapting to such realities, seeking private funding from corporations and the like. Such a financial shift is by its nature a step towards more accountability, as unhappy corporate donors can walk away rather more easily than a government.

Whether or not the post-Muti La Scala is still on such a path, the only long-term solution for it and its sister houses may be for their government to turn public arts support more to the American model, where the bulk of the (substantial) government arts subsidy is in tax provisions that amplify and encourage private support. Accountability would very much be a reality, if still an imperfect one (donors are not audiences, though the two are related). The problem here, of course, is that we end up with just the cultural institutions we deserve... But that's bound to happen in the end anyway.

In case you missed it

If you want some more specific idea of what this and this were describing, New York magazine had a six-segment fashion feature on this year's Met opening night.

I should note that the most striking people and dresses of the evening weren't represented in this thing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The triumph (?) of Ariane

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Paul Dukas' sole opera, is a prequel of sorts to Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. But while the latter is (despite legions of detractors) widely loved and performed, the City Opera run of Ariane that ended last Saturday is notable for its having happened at all.

Why the difference? We might ask Leon Botstein, conductor of the City Opera run and a 1999 concert performance of the piece. Back then, he wrote:
We always want to believe that the standard repertory reflects the enduring best of music. If something is not standard and popular, we often assume that there must be a good reason. But that is frequently not the case. The truth is that in the performing arts, particularly music, what remains in the standard repertoire is the result of habits and tastes that have as much to do with convenience and prejudice as with anything we might call quality. If we listen to Ariane, we might have difficulty in finding enough fault with either the music or the libretto of this masterpiece to warrant its disappearance from the stage.
This is, I think, half-right as to the Dukas. The music is certainly interesting -- a more straightforward take on the post-Wagnerian elements in Pelléas, one which nevertheless reaches some depth of mystery in, e.g., the offstage chorus of the first act. Were it easier on the voice, this music alone might've earned Ariane some fringe status in the operatic canon.

But it's hard to grasp how the author of Pelléas, one of the great literary peaks in opera, came up with this clunker. The joke about Maeterlinck & Debussy's masterpiece is that nothing happens (...and then Mélisande dies). Yet at every moment something is struggling to happen. Characters reach towards each other as strongly as those of Don Carlos; their failure, as the Schiller/Verdi characters' failure, is the drama and pathos of the piece. And more than that: that the space between these people can't be overtly pierced by them makes it the mystery of the world, a space in which the opera's flowery "symbolist" text and subtle musical shadings float as longed-for explanation, not obfuscation. It's an ideal marriage of schema and style.

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is the opposite. The action goes straight forward, but it's the lack of impediment that makes the evening dramatically inert. Ariane neither suffers nor is threatened nor even really doubts -- she simply marches down as she came to do, brushing off token opposition from the Nurse and Bluebeard, and frees the wives (including "Mélisande"). Soon after, the wives decide they want their bondage back and Ariane, apparently unperturbed, walks off. Her only struggle is with the score.

Whether Maeterlinck's post-Pelleas concoction works as allegory (of women's lib perhaps, or wedding-night insanity?) or perfumed poetry, this dramatic nullity's been pretty much sufficient to keep Dukas' work off the stage. Nonetheless NYCO failed to make the best case for Ariane, using an overly literal, poorly lit, and too-often silly production in which serious and mysterious elements could find little foothold. Paul-Émile Fourny of Opéra de Nice did little with this City Opera directing debut.

I'd enjoy listening to the musical portion of the opera at home, in a good recording. But what first-rate soprano would bother with the killer title part? Vaness replacement Renate Behle tried gamely but was overstrained and overmatched. Ursula Ferri showed a stronger voice as the Nurse, but couldn't cope with the high parts of her big door-opening sequence. The wives sang what little they had well, as did Ethan Herschenfeld as Bluebeard. Botstein advocated impressively from the pit.

But if all these forces had been arrayed for an Ariane-as-black-comedy, set by the young Hindemith... That would've been something.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Wait, this seems like a job for Barbara Bonney

Via oboeinsight comes word of a forthcoming opera on Hans Christian Andersen and Jenny Lind, by indie rock icon-cum-crossover composer Elvis Costello.

(Another much-praised indie icon, Stephin Merritt, put on his own staged rendition of Andersen at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. I -- most interested in seeing Fiona Shaw -- had to miss it, but reviews were mixed.)

What's interesting is that what Costello has so far finished is "a 70-minute song cycle with 10 numbers that will form the backbone of the full-length piece". Is he still on the other side of the lyric/dramatic border? Opera is not song, as Schubert's attempts show. It may prove a more troublesome crossing than pop to classical.

Return of the off-topic diva

In his ABT at City Center preview, Joel Lobenthal of the NY Sun writes of star soloist Veronika Part:
But no ABT dancer is more avidly watched at the moment than Veronika Part. At 27, Ms. Part has already lived two artistic lifetimes. In 2002 she left the Kirov Ballet, where she had quickly become one of its most prominent young stars. After a difficult period of adjustment, she has now established herself at ABT. She is tall, voluptuous, and glamorous, and she has impeccable academic credentials. What is most gratifying about her work, however, is the way she molds shapes, lines, and images in a most personal way. She reminds us anew of the way in which strict, severe ballet can be a vehicle for emotional and supra-verbal communication.
It's a sort of communication I'd like to see from more singers.

Part will dance October 26-29 and November 5.

UPDATE (11/1): Much more of Lobenthal on Part in yesterday's Sun.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

It's all true

The Met's website reports that Bryn Terfel is out for the season's last Falstaff (tonight), to be replaced by Louis Otey, about whom I know little. That's too bad. Otey may yet triumph, but what everyone -- most eloquently the NYC Opera Fanatic -- had said about the original lineup was true: it was a near perfect cast, in a near perfect revival.

Last Saturday's performance (because Fleming and Strauss: two great tastes that don't taste great together) had almost the same players as the production's original 2002 "refurbishing", but everything was improved. Racette for Mescheriakova, Polenzani for Turay: big plusses. Frontali and Zifchak added a certain earthiness of character above the success of their predecessors. And even the strongest point of the 2002 revival -- the clear and oh-so-charming Nanettas of Camilla Tilling and Lyubov Petrova -- found, last week, Three Name Soubrette Heidi Grant Murphy in as good a form as I've ever heard her.

But the story wasn't really of improvements, whether among new cast or by Levine, Terfel, Blythe, or the orchestra. Everything fit; everything was savored. Warmth and good feeling all around. A great human success.*

*except for the cell phone going off at the finale's most quiet moment

I should post more

What "Maury D'Annato" has turned out in the couple of days since the launch of his charmingly-titled Fisher-Price My First Opera Blog makes me feel quite the old tortoise.

Needless to say, he's insightful as well as quick.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

New paths

More or less recent discoveries in blogdom:

Third Avenue, a British expat's general blog (found via the Big Apple Blog Festival). Besides some leftish thoughts on UK politics, it offers regular crisp reports on the author's full-blown if less-than-year-old Met-going habit. Nice to have a perspective from outside the usual NY opera scene. For what jaded local would write anything like this?
Sometimes, brash, modern New York can easily outdo old-world London or Paris in its sheer aristocratic extravagance. Tuxedos, ballgowns, pearls, diamonds, pearls, rubies, pearls and a few more pearls assaulted the eye from every corner. Munificent donors to the Met's coffers strutted their stuff, the occasional Dutch surname bearing witness to the fact that their ancestors were eyewitnesses to the Netherlandish beginnings of this city. They saw and were seen. The spectacle was superb.

Canadienne, Erin Wall's fantastically honest and eloquent performers' blog, currently from Paris where she's Fiordiligi in a troublesome production of Cosi. I've never heard Erin, though I nevertheless wonder if I'm one of the scornful, ignorant reviewers she's derided of late. Best not to ask, I guess. Still, if she's as expressive onstage as in her entries, I'd love to hear her work.


Peter Davis' recent column ably recaps the first weeks of the Met season. But he, like others, oddly passes over perhaps the most notable event of the period: the arrival of Marcelo Alvarez as the star tenor he was supposed to be seven years ago.

As you may recall, Alvarez took over in the fall of 1998 for the production-allergic Roberto Alagna, who with his wife withdrew from that first run of the still-current Met Traviata. (She finally will star in it this winter -- sans husband.) He was supposed to partner Renee Fleming, who herself pulled out -- to be replaced by Patricia Racette.

Alvarez had, fortuitously, just released his first album, and there was much hype in the local press. But both the album and the Alfredo showed him as good, well-schooled, but a touch boring. No star. One informed wag suggested that "Mr. Alvarez was making his Met debut a good five years too early." Maybe he was.

Subsequent appearances brought almost the opposite: a singer whose hamminess and tendency to push, though exciting, was compromising the lyric beauty of his instrument. What next? This year's Manon, it seems. His des Grieux was impassioned, tortured, and sweetly tender; vocally and physically both well-judged and intense. He and Fleming had two stars' easy rapport with each other and the score, only somewhat hindered by López-Cobos' bludgeoning accompaniments. But Fleming's virtues are not news.

Why the media laxness? Perhaps it was his (according to my friends) less distinguished first night, when critics showed up; perhaps an old face can't get a new hearing. Perhaps he'll be noticed in the spring. Whatever the case, Alvarez seems now the finest Latin tenor around.

*     *     *

Massenet's Manon itself calls forth many reactions, from wonder to disdain. What dangers it sees in love: this long, tortuous, colorful thing that one's perhaps never quite out of... Perhaps the run's empty seats show desire for a cleaner, more disposable view? Today we have trouble with Forza, too.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Notes on an Ariadne

That the Met's revived Ariadne auf Naxos fails is no surprise: the house hasn't succeeded with the piece since at least the Norman days. What may be remarkable is how much individual success fails to add up in this current run.

La-la la-la-la la-la
Susan Graham, for one, comes off well: in phrase and manner she's an exemplary Composer. But for a mezzo in a soprano part -- one premiered by Lehmann & likely perfected by Seefried (something, one might say, like the Dorothea Röschmann of her day) -- crucial vocal shows of his character are a trial. The rapt, easy improvisation of "Du Venus' Sohn" plainly contrasts with the storm and stress of the Composer's outer life; it falls flat if his Gs and As, too, are strained. On Saturday Graham negotiated this remarkably well, in fact floating a beautiful sweet piano at the climactic "Gott". But this time the barrage of impassioned high notes (up to B-flat) that closes the Composer's big moment -- his mini-ode to music -- came out less fluently, hit rather than savored or shaped. Her past Octavians suggest possible improvement in this later in the run; still, this was a very good performance... for a mezzo.

Eine unter Millionen
Ariadne is tricky for anyone; while the second half of the part is a Wagnerian shouting match with Bacchus, the first -- her two arias -- calls for an altogether more delicate sensibility. And it's the first part that sets out her character, and indeed the ground of the whole opera.

Historically and on record, Ariadne's done best with Marschallins -- lyric sopranos of character who could cope with the finale, if not necessarily dominate it. Janowitz, della Casa, Reining (short breath and all)... In their hands the arias are spellbinding, and the rest simply follows. But that sort of casting is improbable at the Met, where big voices are prized.

And Violeta Urmana gives a very good performance for the dramatic soprano she is. The voice has more color than I last remember, and soars pleasingly over the orchestra at volume. She hits the jump to piano B-flat in "Ein schönes war," and perks up excitingly at Hermes' imagined approach. But this latter crescendo of excitement is almost it for vocal characterization; as good a singing actress as she can be in Wagner, Urmana doesn't appear to function on the fine-grained detail level where Strauss characters appear.

Sie atmet leicht
Physically, there's a pleasing firmness to Urmana's bearing that puts her above, e.g., the deeply unsatisfying Voigt; one can with some squinting see the regal in it. But it's undermined by the stage business between Urmana and Diana Damrau, the production's Zerbinetta. Whether by decision of Urmana, Damrau, and/or one of the stage directors, the former doesn't, as per Hofmannsthal's directions, just ignore the latter in this pageant of mutually symmetrical incomprehension. (Ariadne is silent, Zerbinetta chatty, but neither ever grasps the other.) Instead Urmana plays Margaret Dumont as Damrau gestures, wiggles, and plays tug-of-war with Ariadne's shawl. But why? Damrau's monkey business and Urmana's exasperated reactions belong to the "real" world of the prologue, where everything rubs together to comic effect. Here, despite Ariadne's complaint, the magic of artifice lets two incompatible modes appear not in conflict but in simultaneous whole existence on a stage. --A sort of moral-philosophical stereoscope. To pull Ariadne from her autonomous path with Zerbinetta's stage business misses the point.

Ein Blick ist viel
So we don't get a very clear sense of the princess' side of the business. Zerbinetta, on the other hand, comes through quite strongly. Damrau wields a stronger- and richer-than-usual Zerbinetta voice and has no trouble with this technical obstacle-course. And her lively stage personality very much suits the part... no wonder she got by far the largest ovation. And yet the singing (as distinguished from her charming acting) lacks even a drop of tenderness: a sonic heartlessness matched by the also-debuting Christopher Maltman as Harlekin. (Though somewhat at odds with the refreshingly lyrical Dancing Master of Tony Stevenson.) This, however, seems of a piece with the revival's focus.

*     *     *

In 1999 I heard a Lyric Opera of Chicago broadcast of this piece that featured the easiest, most youthfully glorious-sounding performance of Bacchus ever recorded. Debuting here now six-plus years later, Jon Villars shows more strain in the part, but nothing that breaks the opera's spell. Nor for that matter is the clear-textured but routine conducting of debutee Kirill Petrenko cause for (much) worry.

There's much good overall -- I've not yet mentioned Thomas Allen's humane Music Master -- but the "mystery of life" fails to make its promised appearance. I'd love to hear a Damrau Lulu someday though.