Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Praise of Folly

Despite the general critical drubbing, there is something to be said for the production side of the new Met Faust (though not this much).

Upon its announcement last year, my first reaction was "Didn't they just have one? Some striking scenes, too, one with Valentin in red samurai armor." That, however, turns out to have been something quite different, and not just Gounod v. Busoni.

Peter Mussbach, who did that memorable Salzburg/Met Doktor Faust, is a late-late modernist. Eccentric elements of his productions are part of some unified underlying theory of the piece, obscure as that may (or may not) be. Andrei Serban, on the other hand, is a postmodernist with an academic trashy sensibility. The higgledy-piggledy mess of his Faust (like that of his loathesome Benvenuto Cellini) is entirely intentional, and more or less there for its own sake.

It works, however, for one scene: the Golden Calf. Unsurprisingly, it's Goethe's cheerfully nihilistic Mephistopheles for whom Serban is most successful, and Gounod's conflation of this character with the more overtly sinister "Böser Geist" of the Cathedral scene that brings the production to grief.

But Faust -- in any version -- is more than just its devil; there are also Faust and Gretchen to consider. It was for them, I would guess, that the more realist-traditional designer Santo Loquasto was engaged, and he contributes one really excellent production element: the tree in Marguerite's garden. It's a striking and effective metaphor for her naive charm, and the best visual of the evening. The cute ball-tossing with her young friends, though a bit too soft-focus, wasn't a bad complement.

For the rest, silence may be best. I assume Joe Volpe's much-undervalued editor's pen has only begun its work here, and what shows tonight may already be different.

O don fatale

A reader sent me this link, which I offer here without comment.

Monday, April 25, 2005

... watch me pull Méphistophélès out of my hat!

Yes, it's supposed to be Blake's Great Red Dragon, but René Pape sure looked like a particularly pale flying squirrel. Scurrying up the wall didn't help.

No wonder the press seemed to miss the reference. (Not that it much helped the church scene...)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Meet Don Gio

Recent seasons have brought two first-rate Don Giovannis to the Met stage: Bryn Terfel's daemonic, daring incarnation -- soon to debut on DVD -- and Peter Mattei's virile and seductive traditional-Don-in-the-flesh. Of whom then was Gerald Finley the vessel for last Saturday evening's performance?

It was a nervous, fidgety fellow, whatever else. Constantly turning from one bit of physical schtick to another -- without care for concealing any baseness. Was there a character to this at all? A Don Giovanni who's all motion, no inner person may sound a clever conceit but is frustratingly dull to watch.

It's unfortunate, since the aural part of Finley's performance was pretty good. Even more unfortunate that only Ramey and Bayrakdarian were up to this standard -- though Tamar Iveri, debuting via this revival, was pretty good if unremarkable. None in the cast hit the heights of the early 2003 revival (Mattei, Furlanetto, Radvanovsky, Diener, and Netrebko -- who disappointed as Zerlina). All were saddled with Gina Lapinski's hurlyburly stage direction (the cause of Finley's disastrous physicality?) and Philippe Jordan's refined, balanced, and only occasionally lively conducting.

All in all, it didn't add up -- as many a poorly-sung and superficially-conducted Figaro has nevertheless done -- to much of an evening. Perhaps I shouldn't have listened to the brilliantly-sung Zauberflöte broadcast beforehand. Or perhaps I should've noticed that the once-essential Bernard Holland rule (read whatever he says, and go on the exact opposite) was available again to me here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Reputational lag

One recent article in the local press is a brilliant example of missing the point entirely. It does, however, inadvertently highlight an interesting aspect of audience behavior: the lag in time between a singer's demonstrated and perceived greatness onstage. It's usually several seasons. The 2000-01 Fidelios, for example, showed Karita Mattila to be the Met's greatest soprano, but it took until last season's run of Salome for this to surface in the public consciousness (and, finally, at the box office).

Part of this is just the way audiences function. Not everyone hears everything, many have previous loyalties, and not everyone enjoys a particular singer or conductor's work. And of course each season's successes confirm that the previous weren't some flash in the pan. (The vagaries of advance engagements, cancellations, and the like can of course derail the process.)

Critics, too, suffer from the same lag. But presumably they hear more and hear better, and shouldn't be relying on other people to tell them what to think -- and therefore should be ahead of the curve on these matters, spreading rather than impeding the news.

But perhaps it's the old broadcasting model of big, obvious singer "brands" that gets in their way. Whatever the reason, papers today are comically slow, and I won't be surprised if decades from now, when the next great Verdi soprano is featured in a Vespri, the New York Times (if it indeed continues to exist as such) laments the past where it was the vehicle for the great, now-unmatched stars-we-had-in-those-days -- stars like, you know, Sondra Radvanovsky.

(Meanwhile, a rather better explanation at the bottom of here.)

UPDATE (4/25): Would the starstruck prefer this or this?

Monday, April 18, 2005

Hacked or toast?

Unfortunately, this doesn't look hacked.

But perhaps tomorrow will bring something else (including, perhaps, the disappearance of this entry).

UPDATE (4/26): Anne Midgette weighs in (scroll down to the third comment).

Friday, April 15, 2005


For a practitioner of the celebrity recital, this sort of thing seems -- whatever else it might be -- unwise.

The other stage

Warning: this post plays fast and loose with terms and demonstrations to keep the length reasonable.
Actually, perhaps the entire blog should carry this disclaimer.

From the pandemonium of rec.music.opera comes this report of one singer's peculiar stage fright problem -- opera OK, concerts very much not. The poster explains it thus:
[A]ppearing in propria persona, without the various masks of the stage, is reducing him to a nervous wreck.
As little as it may avail this man's affliction, however, the concert platform is indeed a "stage" as worthy of the name as La Scala's. One appears in costume, before an audience, and enacts the significant. It's a rather more Protestant version, yes.

Some -- practitioners of the celebrity recital -- highlight this very aspect, elaborating a stylised-for-public-consumption version of themselves in tragic, comic, or weepily melodramatic mode. Others make much of scenic elements (including plot & character) in the songs themselves: the recital as concatenation of five-minute dramas.

These go far back. It was the Romantic lied -- from Schubert through Mahler, still the song repertory's core despite French inroads -- that gave us a new stage element: the poet-composer-performer's subjective consciousness*, the true "stage" for much of this action. Still, it was born when "Hausmusik" roamed the plains, and shared conventions of place and culture clothed -- in text, music, and reception -- what appears substantially to us now as nowhere and neverwhen. For our taste last century became different.

[* Perhaps a late growth from Christian concern for the soul, but with the objective signposts of God, the Devil, good and evil effaced -- making a quite new whole.]

We can look to 1924, when, concluding one of the most famous literary passages about music, Thomas Mann identified the not-too-sublimated appeal of "Der Lindenbaum" as that of -- death. Today the point seems commonplace (if not likely to be put as nicely, with the happy periods and elegant to-ing and fro-ing that Mann was able to give us). And indeed by 1924 perhaps it seemed so to many readers. But the passage puts us in sight of the point -- not far from 1924 -- at which it was not commonplace, when "Der Lindenbaum" was heard in a context quite different from this one (and the dominance of recordings is not least).

At any rate, this Romantic-modernist idea of song has become performance as well as understanding, of course, giving us much of the modern "lieder recital". For a great exponent like the word-swallowing genius Matthias Goerne, these subjective and existential threads unlock dramatic and experiential colors probably new to this world. For others, it's a trap that strips one's protections from the doom of the stage. But then again, many still turn to the other recital modes. And why not?

One more idea is the postmodern multimedia-concept-performance. OK, it's an explicit staging. This sort of thing seems to me to flatten rather than expand the expressive scope of the music, but why not? A few times, anyway.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Ticket pricing

This post may be of local interest only.

Freedom -- as the song goes -- may be $1.05, but art is rather more. Still, judging from its 2005-06 subscription booklet, the Met has somewhat moderated its endless price increases of the last several seasons. Weeknight ticket prices (Monday-Thursday) are actually going down, which is good news unless your subscription is in the back of Dress Circle:

Orchestra Prime / Grand Tier A-D$170$170
Side Parterre$110$105
Orchestra Balance / Grand Tier E-G$110$95
Dress Circle$95$95
Orchestra Rear / Grand Tier Boxes (side)$95$75
Dress Circle Boxes (side) / Balcony$63$63
Balcony Boxes (side, all partial view) / Family Circle$26$25

Meanwhile Friday and Saturday prices, which saw a large relative increase last year, will remain the same (as follows).

Orchestra Prime / Grand Tier A-D$170$215
Side Parterre$135$145
Orchestra Balance / Grand Tier E-G$145$145
Dress Circle$105$115
Orchestra Rear / Grand Tier Boxes (side)$105$115
Dress Circle Boxes (side) / Balcony$68$75
Balcony Boxes (side, all partial view) / Family Circle$35$40

With the recent return of student tickets, there's now one frontier of price discrimination the house has yet to exploit: jacking up Saturday matinee prices relative to Saturday evenings. With every matinee being sold out far in advance -- largely, I believe, due to the senior and far-out-of-town audiences -- there's clearly room for it.

UPDATE (5/17): Oops, seems I missed another place to raise prices.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Flute on Broadway

The Met is on Broadway, if twenty or so blocks north of the eponymous theater district. And as Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov can turn up a Russian-flavored audience, so too does a new Julie Taymor production -- with attendant press hype -- bring Lion King fans and buzz followers uptown. Especially when it's of Die Zauberflöte, a traditional irregular-operagoer's-favorite.

But this new "Broadway" audience makes the thing work. The disjointed disappointment -- with one magnificent star turn -- that played to less-than-full houses in the fall has become, before this public's generous and expectant gaze, wholly and unapologetically what it is: a grand feast for the senses. Not least on the audience scorecard was (seriously) its more-extended-than-usual applause between scenes, which does much to cover the extended stage-business setup and the creaking of that unrenovated Met turntable. But more important was its expectation -- of diverting, sensual spectacle -- the thing, it turns out, this Flute was made to fulfil.

So even subtraction of the fall run's best element may've made the spring run more enjoyable. Dorothea Röschmann, who cancelled all spring appearances to have a child, is an singular artist, extraordinarily vivid in both voice and character. In fact, the undercurrent of deep feeling in her work is so intense that it seems to demand a broader span than what the German lyric soprano repertoire -- great as it is, and great as she is in it -- offers. (Ariadne's Composer would be something, if houses didn't oddly think it a mezzo part.) The more reason she sings lieder, I suppose.

Debutante Lisa Milne, who has a strong silvery-clear instrument which I'd love to hear again, inspires no such thoughts. But this fits: in the fall, Röschmann suggested much that the rest of the production couldn't deliver. Now, in an overhauled cast with, inter alia, both René Pape and Kurt Moll, production and cast deliver one thing very well. Even Matthias Goerne mostly just contributes his beautiful baritone sound.

The production is pretty and, in Taymor's touches, occasionally striking, but unlike the last extraordinarily beautiful thing on the Met stage -- Wernicke's Frau ohne Schatten, which seems to have been an influence here -- there's not much else to it. Expect this and be happy.

Incidentally, I'd be thrilled to hear Queen of the Night Erika Miklósa in a real part. Nothing chirpy, shrill, or two-dimensional about her singing in the least.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Little-discussed fact

One can't contract respiratory infection from listening to an opera broadcast.

With that in mind, you might visit this radio show's blog (and internet radioblog), which was kind enough to link mine.