Saturday, December 30, 2006

The year in plotlines

Writing about trends makes me cranky, but a paragraph or two seems obligatory.

If one wants already to synthesize the story of New York opera 2006 -- though what was truly important may not become clear for decades -- it's easy to grab on to the Met handover from Joe Volpe to Peter Gelb. The year was rather mixed for both. Volpe's last production showed Otto Schenk at his least defensible, while despite the New York Times-enforced honeymoon for Gelb and his chosen stars (and I think the Times is doing itself and its music writers an unfortunate disservice with this policy), his two new offerings have disappointed. It was the almost-new that did each credit: Lohengrin (mothballed since 1998) in the spring and Butterfly (which, as one may recall, premiered previously at ENO) this fall. Each treated the press with a cynicism (Sunnegårdh/the "everything's new" metastory) that would be appalling if this press didn't seem so happily cooperative.

But of course there were structural decisions that may prove more important: the labor agreement that begat the frequent Met transmissions over Sirius satellite radio, or City Opera's failure to secure a new home.

Fortunately, opera is not about trends or structure, which collectively explain some things but not the very present magic that happens at every good performance -- whether in good artistic climate or bad, as daily occurrence or happy aberration.

So from 2006 I remember that some very interesting tenors bowed, not least Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja. That baritone Carlos Alvarez did Verdi credit -- twice, and baritone Thomas Hampson (iffy high notes and all -- and they may even have helped) was wrenchingly human as the only human being depicted in Wagner's pageant Parsifal (that is, Amfortas). And that Natalie Dessay did this.

But two nights in particular stand out. October 12 was Dorothea Röschmann's solo recital, and the finest I've seen in many seasons. (If the Met doesn't become a regular operatic home, I hope that her New York recital visits nevertheless continue.) Before that was May 3, which was an even more remarkable thing.

First, it was an outing of the most notable production of the year. As charged by Karita Mattila, the revival of Robert Wilson's Lohengrin was the revelation for eye, ear, brain and heart that every fancy-director production aspires to be but only Herbert Wernicke's Die Frau ohne Schatten (despite flawed casting) has otherwise realized in recent decades here.

Lohengrin performances before May 3 featured Ben Heppner in the title part. May 3 brought the debut of a barely-known tenor, Klaus Florian Vogt.

How often does a performer debut at a great house, in a great production, opposite the greatest performer of his time and produce not only a complete, screaming-audience success, but one that actually puts the co-star in second place? Who shows a vocal quality that no one present could believe except for the fact that all had just heard it? (In fact, I'm not sure I believe it now. The DVD of his subsequent Lohengrin in Baden-Baden comes out in a month, and will perhaps provide some evidence. It also occurs to me that the Met's house tape could appear on Sirius at some point.)

If for nothing but Klaus Florian Vogt's Met debut, 2006 was a very good year for local opera. If for nothing but their neglect of the event, 2006 was a very bad year for the local operatic press.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

First Emperor followup

Pardon my going offline for a few days. I've added a few links to my initial review.

Some points I neglected: First, I think the chorus did well in the unsympathetic production, which mostly uses them as a static, monolithic bludgeon. They do get to sing the opera's big tune, which unfortunately -- as others have noted -- isn't that memorable. But it's the proto-fascistic ritual chanting of the beginning that's most striking.

Second, it's true that some very successful operas have covered very little overt action or drama at all, including several of my favorites (Bluebeard's Castle, Pelléas et Mélisande -- both discussed previously here). But these pieces use a refined and highly cohesive text and musical language to magnify the inner happenings that are on show. The First Emperor isn't concerned with interiors period; doggedly public, its characters are unindividuated, seemingly by intention. Yet its language and thematic content is still a scramble, and Tan Dun's polyglot score is far from the masterpiece of drama and cohesion that could make sense of the evening on its own.

Third, I agree with Tommasini's critique of the work's one-dimensional handling of vocal lines.

Fourth, I also agree with Lisa Hirsch that Wagner and Mark Adamo have been successful as their own librettists. (Adamo's adaptation of Little Women into a successful piece of theater is brilliant.) But of course pure foolishness does sometimes get things right...

Friday, December 22, 2006

Lord of Heaven! How long is this opera? Longer than a hundred wars.

cast | story

A lawyer who represents himself, it is said, has a fool for a client. The same ought to be said for the composer who writes his own libretto. Tan Dun and Ha Jin's leaden, drama-free text for The First Emperor nullifies what seems like lots of creditable work from the many other people involved in the world premiere piece, not least Tan Dun himself (while wearing the composer hat).

The writing is poor in so many ways that it seems unfair to catalog them. Most apparent is the embarrassingly semi-poetic diction, which proves (and more) the dictum that no one has ever been a very good poet outside his own language. Neither librettist is even a poet in Chinese, which (noticably) makes things worse. Metaphors wander in and out with little rhyme or reason, and characters speak in cornball formulations apparently rejected from Star Wars prequels.

But even discounting this as some amusing quasi-foreign patina, the libretto as such fails entirely. Characters: cardboard, or worse. Drama: none to speak of. Neither librettist is a man of the theater (Ha Jin is a novelist and even, according to his in-program interview, demurred from the assignment at first because he knew nothing about opera), and that too shows. They feel no need to show action as such for the first hour, and if this is the sort of insanity that Wagner could make fascinating, they're... not Wagner.

Nor is there a strong thematic or characteristic thread. The title character, whose loss of all beloved in the course of becoming emperor provides what overall plot the opera contains, could be the backbone but isn't. As written for and well-sung by Placido Domingo, he's not any sort of frightening tyrant while onstage but a toothless sitcom dad. There's one bout of scarcely-credible mustache-twirling book-burning at the beginning, but that element is quickly dropped, as every following scene shows Domingo coaxing and wheedling his recalcitrant daughter and foster brother with talk of the good of the country.

That this emperor was not allowed to be shown as even half-frightening and tyrannical is a huge flaw, and several possible reasons came to mind. First, it could be in order to protect and accomodate Domingo's star persona. Second, it could be to avoid offending the Chinese government, whose excesses are clearly allegorized here (at least until the end -- see below). Third, Tan Dun and Ha Jin could actually have thought that the drama was best served by humanizing the character 90-100%, which simply shows their misunderstanding of the stage. None of these possibilities are particularly happy to contemplate.

The other possible thread is in the composer, also well-sung by Paul Groves. Most of the opera agonizes over his dilemma of serving the emperor and getting what he wants or standing up for principle. It is transparently these Chinese artists' self-reflection on their getting quite cozy (rather too so for director Zhang Yimou, whose Hero was an appalling justification of tyranny) with the current Chinese regime... The composer, it turns out, means well, but is seduced by love of the princess to agree to help.

This could go somewhere, but it doesn't. With everyone dropping dead, the composer is shown to die (because the princess died), but also to have had his personal revenge by putting his enslaved people's song of suffering in as the big imperial anthem. This is pure populist hokum -- we're not going to see labor camp songs from any of these folks -- sidestepping the real and perhaps tragic dilemma in which the real artists are enmeshed. Neatly done, but unsatisfying.

What's left? The music. Often derivative -- echoes of everyone from Wagner to Barber and Copland to Puccini (of course) to actual Chinese musicians -- the score nevertheless contains many interesting textures and sonic colors, particularly in the orchestral interludes. (Actually, my favorite part was the bizarrely obvious Stravinsky ripoff.) As absolute music, it deserves a listen, and a concert suite from the opera might be a success. But every time characters appear, the proceedings grind to a halt. Every line, sentiment, and action is telegraphed; the obviousness of it all makes hearing the music as such almost impossible. Indeed, over the radio the piece may even work. But in the theater, it is a terrible waste of time.

If the Met commissions another work from Tan Dun it should be for the Met Orchestra. Please leave opera commissions to people who actually understand opera -- e.g. Tobias Picker.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


By now, I assume most people reading this have been made aware of the Met's experiment in blogging the preparation for tomorrow's world premiere: Tan Dun's The First Emperor. Some interesting tidbits there. I don't have huge hopes for the piece itself, but Domingo's last vanity project here actually turned out to be pretty good.

Meanwhile, if you're desperate for advance word, one Opera-Ler talks out of school about the dress rehearsal. It's a grammar nightmare, but funny:
THE LAST EMPEROR is more than a good try, it is a cohesive work marked by a meticulously prepared libretto and score,staged with intelligence, dramatic flare, and skill. The music is an often fadcinating blend of Chinese and postRomantic Viennesisms. telling the story of Emperor Qin and his daughter, and her suitorsQin was the emperor under whoseaegis the Great Wall Was completed. There are many supernatural elements. The problem with the operas is thar it is easily the most depressing musical drama that I have ever witnessed, lacking, for example, the charm of DON CARLO, the insouciant humor of BORIS, or the feckless merriment of PELLEAS.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Love and the City

[UPDATE 1/2009: As Google searches for "Maija Kovalevska" keep coming to this old page, please first read this new post on Kovalevska's 2008 Mimi.]

cast | synopsis | related post

Someday an overly clever General Manager of the Met may try to scrap the production of La Boheme that Franco Zeffirelli opened twenty-five Decembers ago. Its replacement may be more sleek, more up-to-date or "intimate", and perhaps rather more critically praised -- but will nevertheless be a mistake. For despite any nonsense he's perpetrated since (including his part in the current La Scala silliness), this particular Zeffirelli effort is a sort of perfection, and really (with periodic "refurbishment") ought to outlive us all.

The argument that all the stuff onstage (including, per a recent snooty review, "virtually all the milling citizens of Paris" in Act 2) dwarfs the principals misjudges, I think, the effect. In this Boheme (let's not speak of his Met Traviata), the abundant scenery -- human and otherwise -- is all recognizably of a piece: an old Paris, as grandly indifferent to the characters' woes as a Poussin landscape. The contrast -- made not least by Puccini (a master of background touches) himself -- broadens and strengthens the story's power, not least among the opera-novice date set that make up so much of the audience at these revivals. In love, we are all helpless, and it's no small pleasure to imagine ourselves bare of all but love, loss, and jealousy, in a city as recognizably overpowering as the real New York. For a while, anyway.

*     *     *

The non-enthusiast audience was yet enthusiastic throughout: more so than I was, in fact, for the rather middling performance we all saw. The best moments belonged to soprano Maija Kovalevska (pictured left, in a non-Met Boheme), in only her third Met performance. She was engaged for this debut at a fairly late date when Cristina Gallardo-Domas, perhaps worn out from Butterfly, cancelled this month's run of Mimis.

Kovalevska is from Latvia -- a country known of late for models -- and though she may not photograph as a stunner, on stage she cuts a gorgeous figure, perhaps the most striking of this season's performers'. That isn't the most important thing, but I don't think any reviewer's yet noted it. As impressive was the delicately inner-felt "Donde lieta" she sang in Act 3 -- probably the highlight of the evening -- and her Act 4 death scene.

Mimi's most famous moment, of course, comes in Act 1. So does her lover Rodolfo's. But their two arias and the duet ("O soave fanciulla") that follows may not have shown much, for as sensitively as conductor Steven Crawford shaped phrases and textures, so carelessly did he blast the orchestral volume all evening. Mimi fights the orchestra more at the beginning, and before its assault Kovalevska's focused sound had no trouble being heard, but made no impression at climaxes and an indefinite one overall. Whether she (or Villazon, who had much the same problem) could do better with a more balanced accompaniment is to be seen. I wouldn't mind hearing her again.

Anna Samuil, the Musetta here, also debuted in this run. Russian and apparently a former orchestral violinist, Samuil showed an unmissable "Slavic" edge to her voice absent in her former-Soviet colleage's. She did a pretty good job in her big aria, but I wasn't too taken with it all.

*     *     *

Rolando Villazón is a much more known quantity. His breath and boundless enthusiasm make him, respectively, interesting and beloved. (Saturday's Rigoletto broadcast -- in which he didn't sing -- showed off the latter: as quiz host, he was entirely likeable and charming, even joking about his "Che gelida manina" transposition.) How much his periodic inability to make an impression -- notably in his Act 1 showpieces -- was the fault of his weak (if easily sustained) top notes and how much was Crawford drowning him out, I'm not sure. That people complained of this even under Domingo's baton (such as it is) has me wondering, but he's still a plus.

Interestingly, as an Opera-L poster observes, Villazon, Giuseppe Filianoti, and the newest tenor sensation Joseph Calleja were all finalists in Domingo's Operalia competition in the same year -- 1999. (But compare their ages!)

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Isn't it romantic?

A friend sends this note about last night's designatedly young and non-gay Met singles event:
Singles night at the Met is three girls to one guy, and when I looked at the mingling area from the balcony of family circle there were a lot of balding guys, not that they have any control over that problem. Just an observation.
(An old post on the Met's initial foray into this territory -- featuring the same problem! -- is here.)

Of course, there was an opera performance, too. Boheme, to be exact.
I thought Samuil was very good, and Kovalevska was talented, but she isn't a very charming Mimi. I forgot that Villazon was Rodolfo, and during the first act, thought, who is this guy that just got out of opera school, 1/2 the time he can't project over the orchestra. When his groupies applauded enthusiastically, I thought, WTF? And then I looked at my program and saw who it was.
Singers aside, I wonder why La Boheme was the opera picked: it seems to me an opera better appreciated in the light of a past love than a future one. (Compare, say, Elisir, or Meistersinger -- though of course the latter's far too long for this sort of thing.) Of course, opera romance usually ends badly; wherever the art's reputation as a "romantic" pastime may come (I suspect it's to do with the general fact of women liking it more than men), I have a hard time seeing a basis for it in what's usually on stage.

More to the point, I doubt Boheme is a piece that will particularly draw single men. If gender imbalance is a recurring problem in these things, why not adjust for it?

Finally, it seems that the Met actually has adopted or anticipated Maury and Jonathan's joke by making the season's second Jenufa a singles event. What the heck?

Why the fuss?

Browsing around blogland, I was surprised to see that the Alagna story had visibly spread outside the music/opera blog ghetto. To be sure, most posts there were of the short note and link variety, but there seems to be something to the story to catch a blogger's eye, as indeed it's caught the eye of the regular press.

Part of it is, maybe, old stereotyping about opera and its stars, but why do people even care? The interest, I think, isn't unique to opera: a star acting against his public is news almost by definition, as a politican is when doing the same. He makes his own privileged position the issue, leading usually to one of the classic dramatic resolutions: either he becomes the folk hero (that is, pop star) who is actually beloved for getting away with such things, or he's brought down a peg (or two, or a dozen) for his transgression. (Or, sometimes, the whole affair complicates into pure farce...) In any case, the public is satisfied.

What will result here? A bit of everything, I think. Joe Volpe routed Kathleen Battle, whose career petered out fairly quickly after the famous firing. But pure name recognition seems valued more than ever, and in an ever-more crowded field of tenors, Alagna's done a good job of getting his own name press. Is there still such a thing as bad publicity? Perhaps. At any rate, the wild accusations, threats of lawsuit, and claims of conspiracy are keeping the buffo strand no less spotlit than the tragic or popular.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


cast | synopsis | previous year's post: 2005

Tenor Joseph Calleja, soprano Ekaterina Siurina, and conductor Friedrich Haider made their Met debuts earlier in the season in Verdi's evergreen Rigoletto. Baritone Carlos Alvarez made his house role debut in the title part last Friday. So I caught these principals working for the second time together last night, in a big success.

Calleja is, I think, most interesting -- and possibly controversial. I have no idea how it comes across on radio, but his voice in person is a marvel. Effortlessly large but not weighty, it has an unmistakable throwback (to the era of shellac!) character featuring a prominent vibrato I could listen to all day. But it's not only the sound that recalls the golden age, but his control: he doesn't strain, and his phrases are built on a rock-solid sense of time that could be the envy of anyone. Between these and his masculine ease on stage I'm hugely excited for the future; never mind that the top notes, tonight, seemed not to fit into his production. Sound with this much character comes along so rarely.

Still, I see that he already has his share of detractors. I wonder if he, like the shamefully under-engaged Sondra Radvanovsky, has too distinctive a sound to be fairly valued by publicity-makers and the Met. Maybe being a tenor will help (though being a bona fide dramatic coloratura hasn't much helped Radvanovsky).

Siurina has potential but is at the moment less interesting. She has a fresh, pleasant sound through most of her range and decent vocal size; only the very top shows that Slavic edge. She certainly looks good: not unlike a several-dress-sizes-larger Netrebko. And she's willing to move, spin around in the middle of "Caro nome" (which was pretty well sung, despite a high note in the cadenza that literally didn't sound at all), etc. Siurina's Gilda was a convincingly eager young woman, but she didn't much sound the undercurrent of deep feeling that makes the character so memorable.

Alvarez had the biggest success of the night, and deservedly so. He's the first larger-than-life Rigoletto here in a long time, both vocally and in manner. He paced himself vocally through the first duet with Gilda, though with Haider's dragging tempo on the latter I'm not sure he could have shown much anyway. But after that -- from "Cortigiani" on -- he was really good. His Rigoletto was miserable even at home, as perhaps he should be: wracked with worries and hatreds, wound so tight that even courtiers fear him.

In the smaller parts, ageless Robert Lloyd (who, bizarrely, seems to be engaged as the Second Guard for the Met's kiddie Flute) and Nancy Fabiola Herrera did well as assassin and accomplice-sister, while James Courtney wasn't as authoritative a Monterone as he was last season.

Haider led a semi-"authenticized" version, with some traditional cuts restored and interpolated high notes axed. In his actual conducting, he did well leading a light, mostly-bouyant account of the score with clear textures from the orchestra, but seemed uninterested in the most important part -- maintaining the vitality, drama, and proportion of the Act I scene 2 duets between Gilda, her father, and her suitor. These private interactions (and Gilda's aria, "Caro nome", in between) -- by turns agitated, pleading, and rapturous -- define the characters and the intersection of their passions that drives the story; they are the heart of the opera. Sagging here is, unfortunately, also traditional, but the underrated Ascher Fisch did a tremendous job with the scene (and the rest of the piece) last year.

Had Fisch been in the pit, this could have been the event of the season; as it happened, it was "just" a fine evening of opera.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Two waves

Time has cycled around to this blog's second birthday. For those who haven't followed its entire life (or who -- as I have -- have just forgotten things), I offer a sample of posts here to date:
On Don Carlo[s]
Review -- Julie Taymor's Magic Flute (revived later this month in English)
On song recitals (warning: broken links)
On La Clemenza di Tito
On Rostand and Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac
On Marcelo Alvarez and Manon
On Maeterlinck and Dukas' Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
On the 2005 opera funding crisis in Italy
On the world premiere of Tobias Picker's An American Tragedy (and more)
On attention, onstage and off
On applause
Review -- Robert Wilson's Lohengrin
Review -- Röschmann/Bostridge duo recital
On the passing of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
On the Joe Volpe era
Review -- recitals by Kožená and Röschmann
(More reviews can be found in the seasonal compilations to the right.)

To be honest, I'm not very satisfied. But that's what keeps me at it, I suppose.

[UPDATE 2008: I am appending subsequent "selected posts" lists to this post.]
On the world premiere of Tan Dun's The First Emperor
On Ramon Vargas in Onegin
On Meistersinger and Simon Boccanegra
On Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Die Ägyptische Helena
On Ruth Ann Swenson
On the "theatricality" of Met movie broadcasts
Review -- Matthias Goerne in recital
On vocal and theatrical values in historic context
On Peter Davis' exit
On a pop fan's discovery of opera
On Wagner's Ring
On Pavarotti's death
Review -- Mary Zimmerman's season-opening Lucia
On Samuel Barber's Vanessa
On Puccini's Manon Lescaut
On Johan Botha as Otello
On Peter Grimes as sea god (see second part of post)
On Ernani and Verdi's later tragedies
Review -- Ruth Ann Swenson in La Traviata
On Tristan & Isolde and Heppner & Voigt
On Ramon Vargas' unscheduled appearance in Ballo
On Jonathan Miller's jealous realism
Review -- Anja Harteros in La Traviata
On Gerard Mortier's abandonment of City Opera
On Maija Kovalevska and Puccini's La Boheme
On Puccini's La Rondine and Angela Gheorghiu
On Swiss soprano Lisa Della Casa's 90th birthday
On Verdi's Il Trovatore
On Dvorak's Rusalka
On Mary Zimmerman's production of Sonnambula
Review -- Metropolitan Opera 125th Anniversary Gala
On Diana Damrau's Gilda in Rigoletto
Review -- Rene Pape's recital debut
On the season's last Walküre
On Britten's Rape of Lucretia
On Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots
On the premiere of Luc Bondy's Tosca production
On Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier
Review -- Carmen
On Riccardo Muti and Verdi's Attila
On Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet
Review -- Rossini's Armida
On the April revival of Tosca
On Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
OT: a week of Sleeping Beauty at ABT
Review -- Robert LePage's Opening Night Rheingold
On OONY's Mascagni/Massenet double-bill
On Verdi's Il Trovatore in revival
On Strauss' Intermezzo at City Opera
On debuting tenor Yonghoon Lee as Don Carlo
On the baloney brutality of Willy Decker's Traviata
On Meyerbeer's L'Africane
On Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades and Russian Francophilia
On Schubert's Edenic Die schöne Müllerin
On Strauss' Capriccio
On Lully's Atys
Review: Siegfried
On Angela Gheorghiu and Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur
On Manon, Manon Lescaut, and Laurent Pelly's production of the former
On Janacek's tragic version of The Makropoulos Case
On the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera
On Verdi's Requiem in performance
Amber Wagner in Ballo
On the struggle against time in Les Troyens
Review: Maria Stuarda and a DiDonato recital
On the Francois Girard/Met Parsifal's Parsifal, cast, conductor, physical production, and meaning
On the entrance of story into the Ring in The Valkyrie
Sondra Radvanovsky in Norma

Monday, December 11, 2006

Maybe it was the gladiator costume?

The AP has an article, with picture, on Alagna's walk-off from La Scala's new Zeffirelli Aida.

More interestingly, Opera-L has a first-person account by one of the loggionisti (upstairs ultras whose booing triggered this incident).

I'm pretty much pro-booing but this idea of "traditional" booing as appropriate hazing isn't much to my liking.

Portion control

Austrian mezzo Angelika Kirchschlager was scheduled to give a duo recital yesterday with Barbara Bonney, but Bonney's temporary (?) departure from performing left Kirchschlager carrying the day solo. Perhaps this explains how she ended up getting in her own way.

Kirchschlager offered twelve Schumann songs before the break ("Freisinn", "Erstes Grün", "Hoch, hoch sind die Berge", "Die Soldatenbraut", "Liebeslied", "Das verlassne Mägdelein", "Stille Tränen", "Die Löwenbraut", "Lust der Sturmnacht", "Morgens steh' ich auf und frage", "Der Einsiedler", and "Abendlied") and eleven by Schubert after ("Auf dem See", "Das Echo", "Des Mädchens Klage", "Nähe des Geliebten", "Bei dir allein", "Wiegenlied", "Der Pilgrim", "Sehnsucht", "Lied des Florio", "An den Mond", and "An die Musik").

As you can see, each half was about as heterogeneous a lineup as one could get with a single composer. The songs came one after the other, without apparent theme or progression. It was, in other words, like listening to a CD -- a very enjoyable one, as she was in delicious voice.

But in listening to even Schumann or Schubert from a smorgasbord CD, one doesn't give unmoving attention for a disc-length span. Without the continuity or drama of a cycle or thematic set, one's engagement drifts in and out; adapting one's ear to one different thing after another is fatiguing. Recitalists these days tend to take this into account, breaking up into shorter sets what could be a too-long cavalcade of songs.

But with no set breaks (and no "applause line" finishes in the early songs), the mostly well-behaved Alice Tully audience had no opportunities to reset its focus and attention. This, unfortunately, prompted a pretty consistent background of coughs and fidgets (and one quickly-stilled cell phone) that threw Kirchschlager off. What made it worse was the lack of applause points gave no occasion for the audience to engage positively with Kirchschlager before intermission either. CD-style listening passivity was, unfortunately, maintained, and her performance reflected that.

Applause at the half was enthusiastic, which I think surprised her. But the Schubert half brought back the original dynamic, with Kirchschlager's irritation growing more obvious (and her singing more remote) until she actually stopped to chide the audience about the importance of silence. This didn't, mind you, have much effect, and she looked several times as if she might stop again. Nevertheless, she sang her best at the end here.

After a storm of applause, she gave two encores -- Schumann's "Widmung" and a Poulenc song -- with vivid expressive freedom but tiring breath. Had she defused audience-performer tension nearer the start, it might have been a great afternoon.

As it was, the most successful songs were two of the narratives -- Die Löwenbraut and Der Pilgrim -- in which she gave lively voice to contrasting moods and events.

Recitalists, please: unless it's "Winterreise", leave some room for applause.

UPDATE (11AM): I forgot the oddest development -- by the last few songs, Kirchschlager herself took to coughing between songs. Whether this was actual distress or sarcastic commentary, I honestly couldn't tell.

The occasion

cast | synopsis | previous posts: 1 2 3

From inside the house, I haven't yet noticed a difference between Met evenings with Sirius transmissions and those without. Whether it's too new, too common, or too narrow, the fact of an evening's going over satellite radio doesn't, apparently, affect the atmosphere. But the traditional Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, whether now redundant or not, still seem to count for something: Saturday's season-last Idomeneo showed a remarkable unanimity of focus and inspiration. Despite at least one bashful cell-owner, it was the best opera performance I've seen all season.

Interestingly, even nit-pick issues I had that wouldn't have been noticed on radio -- e.g. Kozena's gestural overshoot and Rensberg's head-bobbing -- were largely corrected. It showed an attention to detail that didn't exclude, for the first time this run, concentration through each act so that each came as one long breath. What a change from Thursday's disappointment...

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Ortrud's sister

Halfway through act I of Mozart's Idomeneo -- which, at 1PM ET today, begins this season of free broadcasts from the Met -- visiting lovestruck princess Elettra addresses the Furies:
Tutte nel cor vi sento,
Furie del crudo averno,
Lunge a sì gran tormento
Amor, mercè, pietà.
Chi mi rubò quel core,
Quel che tradito ha il mio,
Provi dal mio furore,
Vendetta e crudeltà.
It is a terrible and uncanny piece, anticipating the bloody mood of Ortrud's curse. Yet unlike that villain of Lohengrin, Elettra seems to be addressing internal spirits, and she does nothing overt to pursue her vengeance.

And still... Immediately after Elettra's aria we hear a truly infernal storm in the orchestra and chorus, a storm in which one hears much of Don Giovanni's later visitors. Neptune has set the plot proper moving by wrecking Idomeneo's ship and forcing him to promise a sacrifice (of, it turns out, his son and Elettra's desire Idamante) for his own survival. In a sense this is just recapping for the audience what has more or less already been announced by Arbace in the previous scene -- Idomeneo's wreck at sea -- but its timing juxtaposes the knot of the drama with its only human antagonist, and Neptune with her underworld Furies.

The god does take a destructive, demanding role for most of the opera, hounding Idomeneo and his people into fulfilling the impossible bargain. (It is this, I suppose, from which Neuenfels derived the anti-religious premise of his stupid if even more stupidly controversial Berlin staging.) And yet, he is also the one to let them off the hook at the end, accepting love and abdication in the place of (further) death. This dual understanding of the divine seems pretty Greek, but leaves one wondering what exactly the story was supposed to be about.

Perhaps it's a tale about our behavior under misfortune. Ilia and Idamante hold close to love, and they are exalted. Idomeneo pushes others away, and himself into isolation -- and he is stripped of office. And Elettra indulges her envy and resentment, and is struck down by them.

Not exactly innovative, but the real story is in the music, in the how they all bear it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Don Carlo quickly revisited

On the one hand, it is a performance where even the tenor and baritone break out trills as needed.

On the other hand, Johan Botha's acute legato deficiency really is a deal-breaker. And so, discouragingly, is Levine's below-par conducting: last night was all generalized, impenetrable urgency, in which even the phrases of usual solo notables Steve (now "Stephen") Williamson (clarinet) and Rafael Figueroa (cello) sounded undistinguished.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Still naked

No, I had nothing to do with this booing of Domingo for his podium work in Boheme, but I do agree with the sentiment.

UPDATE (12/8): The press takes notice. And see also Maury's personal account of the evening.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Low-voice highlights of "Don Carlo"

cast | synopsis | previous years' posts: 2005 (1 2)

The names involved in this month's revived Don Carlo do not, unfortunately, tell its tale. What looked on paper to be the surefire hit of the season is the most disparate amalgam of success and... non-success at the Met in years.

The success is, more or less, Act IV. On Monday Rene Pape kicked off the act with an astounding version of Philip II's aria: I actually found his much-praised performance of this piece (which I may YouTube) at the Volpe Gala a bit too much about muscle and generalized feeling, but this was as natural and detailed as one could want. Then Sam Ramey, wobbly old voice and all, was even more terrifying and authoritative in the Grand Inquisitor part. Together: an impressive jolt.

Who else? Olga Borodina (Eboli), last seen stealing the show in La Gioconda. Here she's among an even starrier cast, and though her high notes are a bit cautious (no serious problem though -- perhaps shedding the eyepatch that she'd worn for last week's prima fixed something?), the dominant impression was of her sound: a rich, pearly thing that somehow makes other instruments sound ordinary, even amateurish. Yes, even in this company.

Finally, the act's second scene showcased Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo/Posa), whose refined, flamboyant, and long-breathed singing makes quibbles about stamina and power seem petty.

Those are the plusses -- four stars, doing their bit and feeding off each other.

On the other side, surprisingly, is James Levine. He came terrifically to life with Pape and Ramey in Act IV, leaving one to wonder, what was going on before? Aimless and a bit indulgent, the first three acts passed with little of note: even the auto-da-fe barely registered. Odd. (He was on a terrific run of form before his March injury, but maybe it's not coincidence that he's not led a great Levine performance since?)

But the real lesson, I think, is that though Don Carlo(s) can rightly be described as an ensemble opera, it depends heavily on its lead pair to make dramatic sense. The thing is, neither Johan Botha (Carlo himself) nor Patricia Racette (Elisabeth) are actually bad in this. They're just ill suited to their parts and each other.

Botha, as one might remember from Aida, can sing loudly all day long. But he makes nonsense of his character, and of the plot. There are lots of things one might call Carlo: feckless, hapless, immature, in way over his head. But he must be ardent, or the story makes no sense -- for what else could Elisabeth, Rodrigo, and Eboli see in him, and induce them to invest so heavily in his person? It's this side of the character that the restored Fontainebleau scene (Act I, that is) should let shine, but not here. Botha's physical presence is pretty lumbering, yes, but a certain amount of that is forgiveable in opera. But his sense of phrase and rhythm is similarly earthbound, and with facial expressions that range from a smile to a stronger smile, he's got nothing but power with which to win over the listener. No ardor -- of the Italian variety anyway.

With such a partner, maybe I shouldn't blame Racette. But she too seems miscast. She is audible from the bottom to the top of her range, but the top relies heavily on the penetrating timbre of her strong vibrato. It's an ache-filled, almost desperate sound (you can almost feel her melting into the note), perfect for certain things (including her consolation of her attendant, "Non pianger") but impossible in the joy-of-singing romp of the Fontainebleau love duet and, thereafter, jarringly un-regal. Perhaps in compensation, she seems endlessly focussed on holding her body still: whatever the reason, this mostly just makes the performance more remote.

The low-voiced characters of Don Carlo are, unfortunately, satellites in the Carlo/Elisabeth-centered plot. They can't make the whole evening work.

*     *     *

The last revival here had somewhat smaller names -- Radvanovsky, Margison/Villa, d'Intino/Urmana, Croft, Furlanetto, and Burchuladze -- but vivid performances all around, and left one with a sense of the opera's greatness. That this revival leads some to doubt Verdi is depressing.

Monday, December 04, 2006


As my comments on tonight's Don Carlo will likely restrict themselves to the performance, please indulge the re-linking of my thoughts on the opera itself, from the time of the last Met revival.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A leaner, meaner Mozart

Memorable recitals by its Ilia and Idamante made for anticipation for that side of the renewed Met Idomeneo. And there was fire from that quarter. But maybe most memorable on the night was the excellence of a much-maligned singer: soprano Alexandra Deshorties.

I don't think any fan has forgotten the infamous booing incident four years ago, where a heckler was tossed from the Met, apparently for expressing his displeasure with Deshorties during a performance (of Mozart's Abduction). The incident has stuck, in part because the suspicion (fair or no) that the guy might have had it right was never quite dispelled by subsequent outings.

For this reason I was actually surprised to find her still on the Met roster, and maybe she's one of the singers rumored to have been axed by Gelb for future seasons. But however such things may be, it's fortunate that James Levine (or whoever it was) kept engaging her through this Idomeneo.

The technique-in-progress seems finally to have worked itself out, with no pitch issues, odd breaks, or much to complain of past an occasional constriction in the upper register. (Actually, this seemed to afflict a cross-section of the cast this Wednesday.) And what's revealed? A lean, Mozart-weight but hefty voice over a large span, with flexibility and a bite that encourages -- not offends -- the ear. The dramatic sensibility and convincing fire-eating manner were always there, but are sharpened to an amazing point with everything else working. (And it's not just forward motion -- her mad scene was the most uncannily self-aware version of unhinged-ness I've seen, and in the best way.)

Both fast and slow, angry, dreamy, and disintegrating, in this impossible part she was one of the finest Elettras, period. Enough of old stigmas.

*     *     *

That, obviously, accounts for "meaner". "Leaner" was in the other new principals: Magdalena Kožená and Kobie van Rensburg. Both aurally and... ocularly, they broke unmistakably from their predecessors. The bad? Neither commands the sort of luxuriant sound that Kristine Jepson and Ben Heppner can produce. And Rensburg took stage responsiveness a bit too far, wiggling along to "Fuor del mar" so as to almost spoil his virtuosic account of the music. The good? Everything was quicker, fleeter, more energized. Rensburg isn't a veteran Wagnerian tenor with a huge following, but then again he isn't a tenor who's been singing Wagner for decades and Mozart not in a while. Kožená...

If Hollywood made a movie of Idomeneo, Kožená herself might well be cast as Idamante (beating out Orlando Bloom and Jude Law). It's uncanny how well she fits as the young, impulsive Cretan prince, bright youth against the darker experience of Dorothea Röschmann's Trojan princess Ilia (who is clearly the elder in this incarnation of the relationship). In a sense, it's simple hair-color-coding, but it adds up. Kožená's singing is still not luxuriant -- though the range of sound and color widens over the evening -- but it's dynamic in a way that jolts awake the previously-somnolescent first act, even inspiring Levine. That's not what matters to everyone, and some may find her acting less detailed than Deshorties' or even Röschmann's (the latter is terrific naturally, but given only one note to work with by stage director David Kneuss and the revival crew), but that's to quibble. You have to see her.

I feel I've recently gone over my quota in praise for Dorothea Röschmann, so I'll leave that to Maury this time.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


The Met ended its run of Madama Butterfly earlier this month, and that I haven't written about it reflects more on the author than the performances. Butterfly usually leaves me indifferent, and did so again this time.

So when I say that Anthony Minghella's production was, if a bit overreceived in its initial press, a big success, you might add salt to taste. His strength was the image: the clean framing and relative boldness of the stage pictures spoke well for his film director's eye. For this alone he'd belong at the Met. The content I found more mixed. Each Act (and he divides Act 2 into Acts 2 and 3, stopping at the Humming Chorus) begins with a short pantomime: some sort of Japanese dancer (Butterfly? who knows), a remembered domestic scene before Pinkerton's departure, and, in the most interesting directorial addition of the night, a dream dance between a puppet Butterfly and (I think -- it's been weeks, I'm afraid) a Japanese-ized Pinkerton. This latter was odd, but affecting; the other additions just seemed extraneous. The puppet Trouble? Eh. Gimmicky, but not bad. At any rate, Minghella definitely deserves a return.

As for the cast... Much has been written about Gallardo-Domas' singing. She doesn't have the vocal heft to win the day on sonic impact, but besides that I found her more than adequate on the occasion. As an actress, she has never been more than generalized, but here she was throwing herself into the rehearsed Japanese-ish gestures with real ferocity. And yet -- they seemed just that, rehearsed gesture, rarely connected to the human and very Italian currents onstage. It seems unfair but I reacted to her much as I did the puppet -- much more grateful, of course, for the intense and sophisticated effort, but still more "huh, that's interesting" than emotional catharsis.

The performance I saw had Dwayne Croft, thankfully, in good voice and better character as Sharpless. Ascher Fisch conducted well, as usual, while it was great misfortune that one of tenor Marcello Giordani's really good nights was wasted on the ungrateful Pinkerton. (The super-variable Giordani seems to be in a good season, though one never can tell with him.)

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Seeing, hearing, and reading

Australian blogger Pavlov's Cat (whom I found through what appears to be an unrelated spam trackback, but never mind that) has a long, interesting post elaborating some of the memories and associations floating up for her during a recent State Opera of South Australia performance of Nabucco. It's worth a read. (She's no Lieutenant Gustl.)

*     *     *

It occurred to me during Sunday's Kožená recital that my main experience at a musical performance is of time -- rhythm, breath, tempo and phrase. (At an opera-flavored event, human presence shares the bill.) I hear the sounds distinctly and constantly but as a supporting element, only sporadically prominent (I do focus in at times, mind you, even absent noteworthy display) and mostly carrier rather than itself the headlining content. I'm fairly sure others experience music from the sounds up, and it's interesting how this makes for different reactions to many performers.

*     *     *

Meanwhile an opera-moderate friend has noted that the endlessly analytic style of this blog rarely takes time to explain terms or background or even what it is exactly I'm describing, making it difficult to grow more opera-fluent via reading.

Now I've tried to gloss more esoteric passing allusions with a link, though I suppose links themselves could come with more regular explanation. But I wonder if other readers are also finding my bouts of concision occasionally overdone, or my words actually jargon-filled.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Magdalena Kožená is back in town, preparing next week's Met reboot of Idomeneo. (Other changes include Kobie van Rensburg for Ben Heppner and Alexandra Deshorties for Olga Makarina.) If Sunday's recital is any indication, she is in fine form. She sang a straightforward program -- some Mendelssohn, Schumann's Frauenliebe, some Faure, and Dvorak's Gypsy Songs; then three encores, two by Dvorak -- with delicious sound and life and unbroken focus. I've often found the latter coming and going in her performances, making them somehow disappointing. But not today -- she was wholly present, in her best self, all afternoon.

And who's that? Sonically, I heard more mezzo-ism than Maury found on her CD. Of course, that could mean anything in a category that includes Diadkova and Bartoli: I don't think Kozena is quite at the latter's Mezzo-In-Name-Only pole, but then again it wasn't a question that occurred to me as such. (I was more wondering whether it would be she or the next singer in the series -- Angelika Kirchschlager -- who'd display the lighter, higher voice.)

But it was her interpretations that had me fixed, and what they revealed about her art. Frauenliebe und -leben, I think, gave an accurate glimpse of the whole. Kozena is unhesitant in responding to the moods of the piece, and its thread of desire suits her well. But as game and responsive as she is, neither spirit nor instrument follows Schumann's protagonist into extremes of joy, sorrow, self-abnegation, or conceit. There her person seems to balk, and her beautiful sound to strain in vain for stronger coloring. (Even the straight-toned climaxes of the last song seemed more clever than anything else.)

It's the middle where she shines: melancholy states across which quick moods flash. Faure songs showed the more refined side of this gift, and the Dvorak the earthy. And the emotions she drew forth therein were no less strong for lacking abandon.

It was a wholly pleasant and satisfying success on her part. The only sour note was otherwise-commendable accompanist Malcolm Martineau's bizarre bursts of face-making (at the audience!) at the ends of songs. What was that?

*     *     *

Writing of this event, though, reminds me of my lapse in not yet mentioning the finest, most moving recital here in many years (of late, I can only compare Matthias Goerne's stunning pair of May 2000 afternoons): Dorothea Röschmann's October 12 performance at Carnegie (Zankel) Hall. Kozena's future Idomeneo co-star followed a somewhat strange duo recital here this spring with this solo program:
Schubert's Lady of the Lake songs (D 837, 838, 830, and 839), two of his Mignon songs (D 877 #2-3), his Gretchen fragment (D 564) and famous spinning song (D 118)

Mahler's "Das irdische Leben", "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen", and "Lob des hohen Verstandes"

Berg's Seven Early Songs
And two encores, on which -- beyond recalling that the latter was a famous slow Romantic song, done spellbindingly -- I've unfortunately blanked.

In some overly clever sense one might call Röschmann Kozena's shadowy double. To experience Röschmann is sometimes to be overpowered by nothing but abandon, though on this evening she had her sound, vocal climaxes, and balance as well -- and so many of her strongest effects are carried on that dark shimmering lower register. (The top, though she is certainly a soprano, shows less character.) Where sharp feelings of personal character are secondary to mood and color, as in the Berg songs, she might on a lesser night leave one wishing a singer more like Kozena -- able to focus naturally on those other matters. But her Mignon, her Gretchen, and even her Ellen are transcendent in their unalloyed feeling; beyond comfort and any sort of pleasantry, they are piteously and terribly and most wholly human. As is their vessel.

In Mahler too -- she makes even the ass a feeling character.

Graham Johnson was an excellent accompanist, though his temper's more objective than his singer's. Not to knock either, but hearing Johnson and Martineau reminded me that my favorite current accompanist is actually Warren Jones...

*     *     *

Is Ilia, then, the darker and more desperate of the Idomeneo pair? Ideally: maybe, maybe not. But I've no doubt that Röschmann and Kožená can make great opera from their contrasts.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Bashful cell-owner syndrome

Has anyone noticed the unfortunate trend of people not shutting off ringing cell phones at the theater? Instead, the owners squirm and put on innocent faces, as if not reaching for the offending device could keep them from being identified as culprits.

You're not fooling anyone, jerks.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

They sang, too

The second real surprise of Friday's new Barber was that the most impressive singer -- Peter Mattei -- isn't really even a Rossini singer. He gets through the divisions well enough, it's true, but unlike his co-stars he'll never be booked for coloratura facility alone. Good thing he has good looks, better sound, and the ability to dominate the stage...

The other principals did pretty much what was expected. If you like them, you'll like them, which I do -- with caveats. Juan Diego Florez, for one thing, began the night with his seemingly-customary bout of pitch issues, though this did eventually settle. As usual, I found his refinement, fluency, and control admirable, while not being able to shake memories of Vargas-as-Rossinian. To my ears, Florez's sound is pleasant but unremarkable and somewhat lacking in masculinity. (Yes, there are women who disagree -- strongly -- with this assessment.) Diana Damrau, whom perhaps only I faulted in last year's Ariadne, was just as fluent-but-heartless here. But though her control reigned throughout, actual tone on the acuti varied quite a bit.

The lineup sort of echoes the spring's Don Pasquale, which I found such a trial. A great baritone, Florez, and an uncharmingly attractive female lead, plus a low-voiced figure of fun. But that's not entirely fair. For one thing, John Del Carlo was an excellent Don Pasquale in his lone evening last season -- infinitely more human than the first-cast Alaimo, if less vocally clear -- and he does similar work here. For another, Damrau hasn't been encouraged to chew scenery quite as uninhibitedly as Netrebko did; her outbursts come mostly in the form of semi-appropriate flamenco posturing. It still reeks of sitcom, but the antics have moved up from sidekick (total nuttiness) to lead (must leave room for romantic subplot).

I suppose the third surprise was how lively and un-routine Maurizio Benini's conducting turned out. After some really unimpressive Met outings, last spring's Luisa Miller and this Barber may constitute a more promising trend.

*     *     *

So how does it add up? It depends, I think, how much you like the current cast. The production's no draw. If you're neither a Damrau nut nor a Florez completist, I suggest waiting for hugely talented American mezzo Joyce DiDonato, who might give the whole proceeding a more human kick. It could use one.

(That is, I suppose I agree with all the negative bits from here, here, here, and even here.)

I promised thoughts on Butterfly, but that will have to wait.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Under the weather

Sorry about that -- more comments on Barber (and Butterfly, in fact) tonight.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. Sher

The real surprise of last night's Barber of Seville premiere was how much a tasteful, inoffensive, even mostly pretty production could sap the vigor from Rossini's evergreen comedy. Bartlett Sher's Met debut production isn't abominable, but it gets in the way more than it helps. He's failed to improve on the previous John Cox staging, which wasn't that great to begin with.

Leading up to the show, much was made of the one bit of novelty that Sher did add: the walkway ("passerelle", they called it) around the pit, which extends the stage forward a bit. The Met-staff-penned Playbill piece on Sher suggests that it (with "the careful placement of the doors") "work[s] together to subvert audiences' psychological relationship to the Met's performance area." Eh? In truth -- not so much. The walkway is almost exclusively used to simulate a very conventional cinematic effect: the close-up. That is, it's Sher's way of fading out the very literal and unsprightly scene he's set in the rest of the Met space.

Which is not to say that Sher and set designer Michael Yeargan have come up with an overly static physical backdrop. Actually, it's the opposite: particularly in Act I, the flying, swirling door frames and other mobile props (most notably a giant Figaro trailer towed inexplicably hither and thither by admiring women) swallow the characters -- and action -- whole. It's almost impossible to imagine anything significant being done amidst that bustle, and it's to Peter Mattei's great credit that he made his Largo tell nonetheless. It is no space for dramatic interaction.

So Sher's virtual close-ups are a try at compensation. But while the scene-change-for-solo is a useful and occasionally brilliant trick (the stars coming out for Tatyana's letter scene was a Robert Carsen masterstroke), as a production's bread-and-butter technique it's a cheat. Characters and their emotions are thereby repeatedly isolated from context, which may make sense in the semi-solipsism of hyperromantic art but in Rossini -- which is all about finding the most hilarious and free absurdity exactly within strict confines -- is just deflating.

*     *     *

Thoughts on the actual performance tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Gelb does his bit

The Met returns to the non-PBS portion of television tonight, as PlaybillArts tells us:
The Late Show With David Letterman presents its first piece of fully-staged opera tonight -- and America's flagship opera company makes its Letterman debut -- as the Metropolitan Opera performs the finale from Act I of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia ("The Barber of Seville").
(This is, of course, a preview of Friday's new production premiere.)

On the other hand, Butterfly aside I've seen little to no promotion by the company of the other things it's been doing this year.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mattila light

Unlike, say, his Frühlingsfeier, there's no *bang* in Strauss' Four Last Songs, no point of dramatic concentration for Karita Mattila to do her thing. Strauss here actually employs the opposite aesthetic: dramatic dissolution, where personality fades into refined twilit sensation. As such the cycle's been best served by those whose personality seemed liable to float off into the ether in the first place, most notably Lisa della Casa (but also more reserved, sound-based sopranos like Gundula Janowitz and Kiri te Kanawa).

Mattila's CD version (on the same disc as that remarkable Frühlingsfeier) plainly showed, if I recall correctly (my collection is otherwise engaged), the mismatch, with her strong sound and presence just overpowering the delicacies of the songs. Friday's Carnegie Hall concert with Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra found her more accomodating, but with still-mixed results. The lightening of sound and purpose (though there was one Mattila Moment in "Beim Schlafengehen") worked well enough to suggest Strauss' concept, but she therefore didn't make much impact, and the words often didn't register over the orchestra. Long stretches might as well have been by some nameless soprano, not the star actually onstage. A waste, I think; there's other Strauss I'd much rather hear from her.

Anyone tired of the recent slow-as-possible school of VLL accompaniment for which Christoph Eschenbach -- whom, incidentally, I (like Steve Smith) think was ill-treated in Philly -- is the poster boy would enjoy the precise, clear, and fairly brisk approach that Jansons brought to the accompaniment. It only lacked, from the orchestra, really refined transparency of texture. The songs were followed by an account of the Rosenkavalier Suite that started so-so -- so cleanly done, but Jansons won't let a balancing relaxation enter waltz phrases -- but was capped by a heartfelt and deeply un-dry account of the Trio. Jansons isn't, it seems, a natural Strauss conductor, but he has his virtues.

An excellent evening, almost despite Mattila's contribution.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The groundhog says

Three more years of Lincoln Center construction.

New York: the world's capital of scaffolding.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The morning line becomes the afternoon line

One thing ticketing changes at this year's Met have done is effectively eliminate the weekly standing room ticket ritual. Standing room is now sold on a day-of basis, and the rezoning (on weekdays) of much of Family Circle as $15 seats has made them less important.

Anyway, except for galas and the like the standing room line had already become less important -- with the drop in sell-outs of late, one could usually get whatever standing place one wanted without going to the Saturday morning ritual, and often on the evening of the performance.

But what would an opera house be without endless queues? Maybe it was for this that Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman bankrolled the Met's new rush ticket program. The 200 spots that took over an hour to sell out on the offer's first night now seem to generate a line that begins in the early afternoon and is full-blown -- if not necessarily full -- well before these tickets actually go on sale (two hours before the evening's curtain). Note that last I checked this early line is, like the now-defunct standing room edition, not by the box office but down on the concourse level beginning just off the staircase to the box office.

I haven't tried it enough to say which orchestra balance tickets end up being offered in the program (some are much better than others), nor when the last person to get a ticket will get in line, but line length may make it a bit of a waste unless you're a student or otherwise unoccupied tourist. It's an experience, though, I'm sure.

Friday, October 20, 2006


A poisonous if well-trafficked site that doesn't need my hits reports the rumor that Peter Gelb is clearing the roster of, well, pretty much every American principal singer not favored by PBS.

Now I wouldn't be surprised at this happening, but the information seems neither complete nor necessarily reliable. So we'll see.

I am fairly sure, though, that Gelb has less catholic tastes in opera than his predecessor. This is unfortunate. The Met is too large to be a one-aesthetic house.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Speedy and complete recovery (I hope) to follow

A commenter pointed out this unhappy news item: Ruth Ann Swenson's imminent breast cancer surgery. (How odd that it's so public! -- but it seems a hardly-avoidable part of being famous.) As per the title, I wish her a quick and thorough return to health.

Note that she plans to be back singing here -- as scheduled -- this March.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Happy happy

It's not that I didn't see La Gioconda -- I've been to the revival, twice in fact, and rather liked it each time. It's that for all the enjoyment there is in the opera -- and with this cast, there's a lot -- I twice felt I'd finished digesting the thing before the performance was actually over. You know, somewhere in the last act, when the whole Romeo-meets-Trovatore-meets-Ballo-meets-Tosca (which, yes, hadn't been written yet, but never mind) plot finishes banging itself out, one's mind starts to drift, and tote up what it all adds up to... which, despite any clever glossing, isn't much.

But that's a silly knock (even on a silly opera) when the evening before that brings more honest opera content than some whole weeks. Bertrand de Billy -- for his willingness to be wholeheartedly serious with iffy material, perhaps the second most valuable conducting asset at the Met -- may exaggerate when he says Gioconda needs six of the best singers in the world, but only a little. (As proverbially with Trovatore, four should suffice.) At any rate, while the men here may just be (pretty good) stand-ins for that title, the women seem actually to deserve it: Borodina typically flawless, Mishura richer than I'd remembered, and Urmana maybe too vocally impressive to ever sound desperate. The piece -- moment-to-moment a succession of great operatic sounds and situations -- gives them all plenty to work with. Isn't that enough?

Judging by the applause, of course, you might actually only need one of the best dancers in the world. But not even the debut of young Danny Tidwell is going to get me to the house next Wednesday to find out...*

(*No knock on White, Machado et al. intended; this is mostly a shout-out to Maury.)

One word about the production: Act 3 features the most blatantly (and amusingly) obscene curtain arrangement I've seen on the Met stage. If anyone can dig up a picture, I'd be grateful.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Once more, with feeling

I took my own advice and caught the Met's revival of Faust. Despite the mixed success of the original, this was an unqualified success, where everything one hoped went right and nothing one feared went wrong. Go see it.

Perhaps most surprising therein is Ruth Ann Swenson. Once the greatest of Three Name Soubrettes, she's had a number of iffy years in transitioning from the stratrospheric to the classic lyric soprano range. Her spring success in Elisir may have signaled renewed vocal comfort, but she's ever been the same sort of performer: remarkable sound, not much else of note (beyond, naturally, superb soubrette-isms). Easy to knock, but I've always been a fan.

But Marguerite turns out to be almost as ideal a role for her as, say, Adina: she outshines her predecessors in this production in nearly every way. Vocally, after a bout of uneasy pitch to start (through the Thule song, as I recall), it was as one would've expected. Clear, resonant top notes and no trace of tiredness even in dominating the closing trio. The surprise is that she makes far more dramatic sense of the whole character arc.

Part of it is that the production (Andrei Serban's, as edited by -- it appears -- Stephen Pickover) now gets in her way rather less than it did Isokoski and Villaroel's. Act 2's nihilistic excess is total, and the women in what look like abayas still jar in the soldier's chorus, but on the whole this incarnation of the Faust looks almost spare. (Perhaps it was lowered expectations, as with Flimm's Fidelio). The premiere's biggest laughingstock -- the devil's white, codpiece-bearing bodysuit worn in the Cathedral scene -- seems to have been reduced, spray-painted in darker shades, and generally de-emphasized (less crawling, climbing, and writhing). There's actually room for Marguerite to make an impression now, and she does.

And Swenson appears to make a virtue of necessity in tracing Marguerite's development. She lacks the acting chops to make much of particular dramatic moments, so she doesn't much try, instead showing a near-continuous line from innocence to madness. Her Jewel Song, for example, is neither calamitous nor fulfilling for Marguerite: it's just the song of an innocent girl with no idea what shadow is entering her life. Her vocal ease sells it, of course (though I suppose I should mention that the trills aren't as well-defined as they once were), and the choice pays dramatic dividends when her equally straightforward love, horror, sorrow, and madness appear in similar style. All the elements connect -- on the scene-to-scene level on which Gounod and his librettists devised it.

*     *     *

But enough on Swenson. The men are at least as much the stars of this revival. Ildar Abdrazakov, best-known so far as Mr. Olga Borodina, satisfies as Méphistophélès in a way that Rene Pape (for all his plaudits) really didn't. Abdrazakov is a more Gallic devil, ironic and amused, trusting his firm and surprisingly spacious bass to carry the dramatic elements without forcing. Over the course of his evening Pape wore himself and the audience out with generalized Germanic intensity, while Abdrazakov's worldly appeal won all over here. As with Swenson, of course, the sound itself had a lot to do with it...

In the title role Ramón Vargas sings well, but his voice is smaller than, say, Roberto Alagna's (the predecessor in this production) and he consequently works within a narrower dynamic and coloristic compass in the part. That said, it's a pleasure, and he and Swenson make a natural pair.

Two singers made their Met debuts at this Tuesday performance. Finnish baritone Tommi Hakala (Valentin) has an impressive enough instrument and presence that one easily forgives him for letting histrionics interrupt his natural flow of sound. He'll be back, I think. Meanwhile French mezzo Karine Deshayes was as good as Siébels tend to be during this great mezzo glut.

Bertrand de Billy took an act and a half to really warm things up, but was afterwards admirable.

*     *     *

This is, of course, just the sort of thing in which the Met is supposed to excel: deluxe casting in grand romantic fare. For once, it does -- for the ear and even for the heart. It would be a pity if the season's string of non-sellouts continued through this.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Idomeneo et al.

Mozart's Idomeneo begins at a high emotional pitch, but it's not until the next act -- when Dorothea Röschmann's Ilia sings, heart-rendingly, of her joy -- that the current Met revival warms up. Or so it went Thursday, on the show's season premiere. James Levine and company didn't quite pick up where they'd left off from last year's transcendent Cosi (and, before that, Clemenza), but the evening improved from act to act until its most satisfying finale.

Not that anyone was bad, least of all vocally. Olga Makarina is too light of voice to make much of Elettra's outer-act arias, but she hit all the notes and did a commendable "Idol mio" in between. Ben Heppner, who had his troubles at the end of last season, sang the title role well despite starting fairly constricted and never quite showing the vocal sheen that made him famous -- and, judging by crowd reaction, beloved. Everyone else sang unreservedly well, from newcomers Jeffrey Francis (a most elegant Arbace), Simon O'Neill, and (Met Council winner) Lisette Oropesa to the offstage Stephen Milling to yet-unmentioned lead Kristine Jepson. But beyond that...

Though Radames' "Celeste Aida" is the most famous cold start, Ilia's opening recitative and aria may be comparably tricky -- right from the curtain, she must convincingly rage and swoon while delivering huge chunks of exposition for the audience. Röschmann did well with these hurdles, but it wasn't until her early second- and third-act arias that she seemed to communicate Ilia's emotions moment by moment. (At her best, she's been about live currents of feeling borne on dark, quick-vibrato sound.)

But what dramatic energy was onstage was almost all Röschmann's. Jepson, whose energy and spontaneity I'd admired last as Siebel, wasn't able to reproduce that within the much more complex character of Idamante. So the compromise of a notes-but-no-bite Elettra, certainly acceptable in a part that almost always demands compromise, left a surprisingly low quotient of drama on stage. Perhaps each singer could have shown more (Heppner, actually, did well considering his natural limitations as an actor) with more from the others to work off of. But it is Röschmann -- and then the chorus -- from which the dramatic heat comes; the other leads seem simply to reflect it. (By the end, mind you, that was enough, though Elettra's exit didn't -- as it can -- crash through the entire notion of opera seria.)

Levine, too, seemed off the mark. Not that he erred, but no phrase surprised me with its life as almost every one in Cosi had. And surely the singers' lack of dramatic inspiration wasn't wholly their own.

I may be exaggerating the faults. It was a satisfying evening, as I said, particularly from the stand-and-sing perspective. But if you can only do one, wait for the next cast: not only Magdalena Kožená but time should improve the current mix. For a Röschmann fix before Thanksgiving, there's this.

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On a different topic: I passed on seeing last night's dress rehearsal of Faust (and don't review rehearsals anyway), but after the then-overlooked end-of-last-season performances of Elisir (which, yes, I never got around to writing up either) I wouldn't be at all surprised to find Ruth Ann Swenson again on her best form in the Gounod. Silly production notwithstanding.

Season three

This post will index all of my commentary on the 2006-07 Metropolitan Opera season.

(Other posts can be found in the archives-by-date, on the sidebar.)

Opening Night
Idomeneo, and its alternate cast, and more, and more
La Gioconda
Il Barbiere di Siviglia -- production and cast
Madama Butterfly
Don Carlo, and more
La Boheme
The First Emperor
La Traviata
Jenufa -- at curtain, first performance, second performance, third through fifth performances
I Puritani
Eugene Onegin -- tenor and others
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Simon Boccanegra
Die Ägyptische Helena
Il Trittico

Friday, September 29, 2006

(Because this is the 21st century)

Reading Beverly Sills' Met program piece (not on PlaybillArts, as far as I can find) on getting opera singers pop star coverage got me wondering:

Who's going to be the first opera star on MySpace?

UPDATE: Ah hah -- Anne-Carolyn notes that there already are a bunch. Good sign; I'm tickled.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Doubling down

Wellsung J is back, with his mind strongly on the social strand of opera experience. So, following his cue, let's put aesthetics to the side for a minute.

One of the more important facts of Gelb's first term is this:
Seventy-seven per cent of the Met's available tickets were sold last season, down from 93 per cent in 1999-2000.
Most of that decline occurred in one season -- because of 9/11 -- but it's troubling that the trend has not yet reversed itself despite our current boom economy. Volpe's general reaction was to bunker down, cut expenses and get more from the current operagoing base. Gelb seems to be pursuing the reverse course: to spend some money, do more things, and make a splash.

Will it work? Well, the price cuts Gelb has instituted at the low end (upper Family Circle seats are now $15 on weekdays -- as cheap or cheaper than standing) should up ticket sale percentages by themselves, without necessarily improving revenue. So any numbers that come out should be taken with salt... Still, his other moves seem to indicate that he has a good grasp of the marginal (potential) operagoer.

His choice of Broadway and middlebrow movie directors to do new productions, for example, seems perfectly to target the particular segment of the Times-reading population here that should be going to (more) opera but isn't. The actual Hollywood star power at opening night surely helped considerably; raising that event's profile via advertising, the open dress rehearsal stunt, and the simulcast venues was a smart move.

But the latter, I suspect, was about more than just local press. It seems to me that Gelb is not only aiming at local operagoers but visitors as well -- particularly foreign ones, whose numbers at the Met have (again) dropped considerably since 9/11. Times Square is a sort of joke to locals, but its visibilty around the country and abroad is substantial... And I saw a lot of foreign press there.

Finally, the singers Gelb has by all accounts chosen to push through the first part of his term -- Anna Netrebko, Angela Gheorghiu, and Diana Damrau (have I missed any?) -- are all known and very popular quantities in Europe; Netrebko seems even to have hit quasi-pop-star status there (and it, unfortunately, shows). Whether or not this is an intentional bid for foreign tourism, it certainly can't hurt.

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What's to complain of, then? (Besides how Gelb's strategy could adapt to lean-growth years.) Aesthetically, these changes are, as I long-ago noted, quite mild. And yet, I do wonder how total this commitment to marketing may be. Will talent -- particularly singing talent -- not yet celebrated or Euro-approved be given lead chances? One thing I've missed from Gelb is any sort of discussion of or commitment to American singers.

The Lindemann program continues, of course, and tonight is Lisette Oropesa's debut. I'm off to that.