Monday, February 27, 2006

Under wraps

James Panero offers an interesting tidbit -- with picture! -- from Joe Volpe's forthcoming book, about Karita Mattila's famous nude moment in Salome two years back.

(Incidentally, it appears that the promised DVD of that production won't come out until after the Volpe book...)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Forza in the press

I don't usually agree with Jay Nordlinger's reviews, but find this -- from his review in today's NY Sun -- quite delightful:
If you don't like "Forza," you don't like Verdi. And you probably don't like the Italian repertoire. I won't go so far as to say you don't like life.
Well, I might.

When the NY Times, on the other hand, puts forth something as ridiculous as this, I mostly wish vilaine fille were posting more. My skill at invective is insufficiently sharp.

(Other press accounts from Bernheimer, Clive Barnes, and the AP's Mike Silverman.)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


The force of Piave and Verdi's La Forza del Destino is strong enough to survive mutilation at Verdi's own hand (with Ghislanzoni, this time); given enough sonic meat on the bones of its score, it can survive all sorts of performance follies as well. So the current Met revival, which premiered last night, offers a thorougly mixed bag in its parts but still packs a serious dramatic punch.

Best, perhaps, are the singers. Deborah Voigt's new voice may frustrate those expecting the previous version, but it serves her well as Leonora. The lighter, more liquid middle moves easily through the part, and if the top shows more vibrato than it's done, it well suits the desperation of her character. When called for -- "La Vergine degli Angeli", the start of "Pace, pace" -- the pure version of the Voigt sound still appears. Combined with her new physical ease, this is Voigt's first post-surgical role triumph.

Her tenor partner, Salvatore Licitra, provided both good and bad. The first act brought a congested, uneasy sound that had me worrying that this uneven tenor was on one of his very poor nights. But the problem cleared as the evening went on (though it lingered in some high notes), and he eventually delivered the easy large sound and natural feel for the role that made such a huge impression at the Carnegie Hall concert Forza some years ago. (For the quantitatively inclined, I might put this performance, on the whole, at about 80-85% of that one...) Perhaps he's recovering from illness and will show full form later in the run.

Mark Delavan is such a natural fit for the character of Carlo di Vargas that it seems nitpicky to note that the part asks for more agility than his voice really has. Padre Guardiano, too, finds an excellent exponent in the late-career (but sounding quite good) Sam Ramey, as does the more comic priest Melitone in Juan Pons. (Pons -- also impressive of late in Aida -- seems liberated in Verdi's character parts; as Rigoletto and Falstaff, he was overwhelmed.) Lyric mezzo Ildikó Komlósi, as Preziosilla, shows good rhythmic sense but lacks the lower- and middle-voice force to make a real impression.

As impressive as any of these excellent sung performances was the solo playing of clarinetist Steve Williamson and some of his Met Orchestra colleagues. Credit to conductor Gianandrea Noseda for giving them the room to phrase. But though the Italian-born Gergiev protege gets this and many other details of sound and phrase right, his episodic, helter-skelter approach to the whole nearly undermines the performance. Crowd scenes lack the rambunctious energy and momentum -- is he embarrassed by them, or has there just been insufficient rehearsal? -- they need to offset and contrast the tragic solo bits. And he lets Leonora's monastery scene -- the heart of the opera -- sag badly, leaking energy at every pause and working against (not for) her progression from barely articulate desperation through the stirrings of hope (and regular rhythm) via Guardiano to frenzied, ecstatic relief.

Meanwhile Giancarlo del Monaco's sets -- and stage mechanics -- are showing their age. About the only interesting feature is the saints depicted in the monastery courtyard, while stage hands quite audibly intrude on the action a few times. The lighting, too, could be adjusted up some lumens.

But Verdi's masterpiece works on such a powerful, elemental level that all such problems are missed opportunities, not fatal flaws. The revival is moving, and very much worth seeing -- and hearing. Just don't expect a Marinuzzi (or, indeed, Levine) in the pit.

(Some words about the opera's endings, its "plausibility", and so on to follow in another post.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006


The long and enduring popularity of Verdi's Aida has, I suspect, more than a little to do with its remarkably lyric character. Not merely the quality and profusion of its tunes -- outstanding even for Verdi -- but the absence of certain dramatic qualities make the piece quite a different listen than, say, Forza or Don Carlos. As perhaps befits the ancient Egyptian setting, the main characters exert little on the fatal developments of the plot, in fact showing no interest in doing so or otherwise engaging in the central agon. Instead they offer personal -- lyric -- commentary on the unfolding situations, unburdened by the sense of having to do anything about them. It is up to Amonasro to push the plot forward, but his intervention is short-lived. How could it not? Public things are here experienced as spectacle, seen but not to be touched, especially by a guy who only appears halfway through the opera.

This all goes down quite easily for audiences, who themselves get spectacle and lyric reaction without the disruptive energy of an actual contest. The tenor and soprano, too, may succeed on pure beauty of sound and line, though the mezzo Amneris -- who feels the need to affect events, though she isn't shown actually doing it, and finishes with the most memorable hapless-reaction-scene of all -- generally shows something a bit more energetic.

On the other hand, a taut, symphonically dramatic account by the conductor is welcome, tightening some of the slack that can accompany outings of this warhorse. In the Met's current Aida, which I saw on Monday and will be broadcast in a few minutes, James Conlon sets the tone admirably in this style. It may not have been the case in the fall, but he and the orchestra are now on the same page, from the lyricism and transparent textures of the preludes to the rhythmically confident march strains, well-shaped climaxes, and further lyrical bits that follow.

The cast is pretty much what one might have expected. Olga Borodina, clearly the star of the show, can apparently sing everything but presents such a unitary face -- sound, phrase, gesture, and indeed sub-gestural body language -- as the scorned Egyptian princess that one can hardly imagine her otherwise (until one sees her Dalila, Eboli, etc.). Johan Botha makes Radames seem easy, finding a touch of trouble only when he attempted a soft finish to "Celeste Aida". (I know how it's written, but why not shout out that high note as every other tenor does?) His Radames is young, effortlessly powerful, and somewhat good-naturedly stupid -- not an unconvincing take, though it's not far from Botha's stage persona in every other role I've seen. Juan Pons is much better as Amonasro than as any of the lead Verdi parts he's been singing for the Met, and bit singers Kwangchul Youn (Ramfis) and Jennifer Check (the offstage Priestess) acquit themselves well.

The problem, as it often has been of late, is Aida herself. Andrea Gruber unfortunately reminded me why the term "squally" is often trotted out against sopranos one doesn't like, missing note after note and failing utterly to connect the ones she hit. She did improve a bit as the opera progressed, and there were some good pleasant notes she connected on -- where she showed the full vocal size for the part at the Met, which is a plus -- but the whole was... disconcerting. I've no idea how the broadcast will sound. Has Gruber blown out her voice for good? I hope not.

Still, on the whole, between Conlon, Botha, and Borodina -- and not least Verdi -- it was a memorably good evening.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

My bloody Valentine

(Night After Night got there first, so a few quick words mostly agreeing with that account.)

Handel operas can be something of a trial: all those repeat-laden solo arias leave little behind which a poor singer can hide, and little distraction for an audience subjected to one. Of course, they also give plenty of space and occasion for a great singer to seduce with tone, and display her full range of vocal color. The most "authentic" thing in Handel performance is star quality.

Hercules isn't an opera, of course, being from his later English-language period. Nevertheless, as the hero's jealous wife Dejanira mezzo Joyce DiDonato comes close to this ideal, showing power, finesse, and a straightforward ease in seeming unhinged. Being still just in cutesy pant parts at the Met, it's a pleasant shock to see just how deep and broad her talent is. DiDonato makes the show -- see her. (Incidentally, despite general convention she gets the last solo bow.)

The rest of the cast is never less than pleasant, often more. It's always good to see William Shimell in something substantial, and the lean, pure, but not insubstantial soprano of Ingela Bohlin is another happy discovery. William Christie conducts with unceasing life and energy, and his orchestra leader Patrick Cohen phrases his third-act solos well.

BAM's electronic acoustical "enhancement" system, of which I've previously complained, seemed either off or on good (that is to say: minimally noticable) behavior. There's no reason for there to be empty seats at this, especially for the first nights of a four-performances-in-five-and-a-half-days (insanity!) run.

And no countertenors (well, except for the chorus)? Go.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The not-quite-post-Times era

What, bloggers are offering serious thoughts on this already? To me -- beyond the relief that nothing self-evidently horrible was put forth -- it seemed a lot of making-a-media-splash noise, indistinguishable from any other. The real effect of Peter Gelb's tenure will be seen over time, in the day-to-day life and habits of the company.

If there's anything of note, perhaps it's that Gelb has scheduled and highlighted for press consumption things likely to excite the New York Times. A dash of smart Hollywood, plus artists with a New York (and NY Times) reputation -- these are the non-operatic infusions he's publicly lined up.

Although Gelb has also planned changes -- internet offerings, etc. -- which may speed up the decline of the Times-dependent broadcast model, the day of its obsolescence has not yet come. Until then, it should be good for the Met that its GM knows how to push old media buttons... As long as he doesn't confuse marketing and mission.

UPDATE (4:30PM): The full house press release is here, with complete details of the next season. Comments on this soon.

UPDATE 2 (2/15): Seriously, there's nothing the Times loves more than the opportunity to do an "ooh, those reactionary people are worried" article... Or twenty.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Despite cancelling entire runs of Samson and (so far) Cyrano -- the latter a vanity vehicle mounted solely for his benefit -- Placido Domingo has been "conducting" much of the current Met run of Rigoletto. This seems a very, very poor deal indeed for the house, but even worse for its patrons. Domingo, for obvious time- and training-related reasons, has a tenuous grasp at best of conducting's technical elements. Matters of texture and phrase are simply beyond him: the orchestra runs, to the extent it does, on autopilot. It's plausible that Met management is cynically cashing in on his name recognition, but I suspect that this farce of a podium engagement was Domingo's price for singing two revivals. Which he now won't.

I'm sure there is a backstage story to this somewhere, and would love to hear it.


One can't but admire Angela Gheorghiu for the breadth of her expressive palette, and its judicious application. She effectively blends details from different emotions and expressive traditions -- I think I'm agreeing with Maury here -- without committing too far to any one: an interesting change from her predecessor in the role (other vocal marvels have resorted to this sort of expressive shortcut too, with less pleasing results). But one can't love Gheorghiu either, for almost the same reason: she never commits herself wholly to any moment, never shows more at risk than her impressive control. (Somehow her refusal to do the "Addio del passato" repeat seems another example.)

This isn't another dig at her vocal size, though a real house-shaking climax or two would have gone a ways to filling the gap. I've seen less impressive vocal endowments bring more of the audience to tears. But they were unhampered by the burden of being a star.

Jonas Kaufmann made a fine house debut here as Alfredo. Though the dark baby-heldentenor voice seems a bit odd on broadcast, his first visual impression -- the shock of that scarcely-believable Kenny G mop -- stamped his character indelibly as young.

The stage director for this revival, Kristene McIntyre, seems to have instructed Anthony Michaels-Moore to play Germont as even more stiff and wooden than is traditional: his discomfort and closedness at Violetta's Act II plea to embrace her is total. This makes sense in realistic terms, but, with Michaels-Moore's vocal interpretation being along similar lines, sucks much of the back-and-forth energy out of potentially the most important scene of the opera. Here, though sung in duet, it is experienced essentially solo, with only Violetta reacting. (Michaels-Moore did, however, perfectly embody the dignity of an emotionally wooden man in his impressive "Di Provenza".)

Marco Armiliato conducted well, with good attention to detail, but lacked the poetic touch other conductors have brought. One might say the same of the whole performance.

*     *     *

On opening night, incidentally, the sets caused quite a ruckus of applause and admiration among the audience, particularly when the Act III bedroom rose up to reveal the now-dusty Act I living room downstairs. Apparently Gheorghiu has attracted first-timers to this Traviata production -- a good sign.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

What on...?

If you think you saw a short post here yesterday afternoon that's since disappeared, you're not alone. Meanwhile blogger seems to be showing November's news. Not good.