Thursday, April 27, 2006


After an odd weeklong silence, Opera-L was finally abuzz Tuesday with talk of the Met's Lohengrin revival. Interesting to see more opinions. It's somewhat jarring, however, to read confident conclusions as to principals' vocal essences when this third performance was -- sonically speaking -- quite noticably Heppner's most and Mattila's least in-form evening of the run. (Not that either sounded bad at any point.)

Of course the phenomenon will repeat Saturday, when the close miking and dynamic compression of broadcast will add their own distortion. Nonetheless, strong opinions will take hold.

On the other side, performers surely know that most of each evening's audience will have just that particular impression for maybe the next year or more, and without being privy to the nuances of one's physical state at the time.

I've tried to include qualifiers in blogposts that go on isolated samples, though I'm sure I've neglected this at times. And though I don't much like extreme hit-and-miss performers, I do find the general unpredictability and uncertainty of the art positively stimulating. -- This is part of what charges an audience before the event, an energy with which some can do wonders (and which unfortunately fells others).

Friday, April 21, 2006

Thursday, April 20, 2006

As promised

I've expanded my post on the Met's revival of Fidelio -- see below.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Volpe's last triumph

I was living elsewhere on the east coast in 1998, so when a friend told me that Karita Mattila had really made something of Elsa in the fall's Robert Wilson Lohengrin revival, I still passed. I'd been at the production's infamous premiere that March, and though I didn't hate it enough to boo with the rest of the crowd, enough of it struck me as agonizingly silly to make quick reprise doubtful. Mattila, too -- though she had turned the corner years before -- I associated with her prior incarnation, that well-schooled but unexciting soprano who'd graced the stage for the dozen years after Cardiff.

So I can't say what happened seven years ago. But last night's likely even more remarkable: Mattila and company have made that notable flop of the Volpe era into its last great success.

How much of the original remains, I don't know. (No new assistant directors or the like are listed in the program.) As I recall, Wilson intended the poses and wavy hand movements to be not merely anti-naturalistic but actually alienating. This plus the austere, static, and almost color-free set design were deadly in the hands of the premiere's mostly stand-and-sing cast, for whom in-mood sets and gestures are necessary to buttress sonic illusion.

For this cast, though -- most of all Mattila and debuting soprano Luana DeVol -- the distancing and tortuous poses are (as here revived) near-ideal frames. They isolate and resist, but do not (again, as here revived) bar nuances of physical response. In fact the resistance encourages them, dares each performer to continuously push back -- vocally and fine-gesturally -- against this formal tether. The result is the densest performance I can recall; so much happens in such a small space, at an emotional pitch heightened by the called-for control. Just to see Mattila's arms in Act 2 is more than the entirety of Schenk's Don Pasquale (or, indeed, most of his Ring...); the whole is more even than her work in other stagings where her engagement floats free, or comes linked just to climaxes. And such dense concentration caught up the whole cast (chorus included), who if not so minutely engaged were yet present with remarkable collective focus.

And so, the glacial non-movement of Wilson's physical production seemed more sensible. Even the end, criticized at the time for showing neither Ortrud nor Elsa expiring, made some sense as we saw that live stage presence of Mattila's, amplified all evening in her physical labors, simply ebb away on hearing Lohengrin's account.

This was DeVol's Met debut, despite a long career (including Bayreuth) in the big Wagner parts. Her voice, despite any technical litany (to start: is it one voice, or fragments?), has to my ears all these fascinating and (at low-mid volume) beguiling textures in it. She makes much of them, and is an interesting complement to the clear-toned but similarly volatile Mattila; I'd much like to hear them paired elsewhere. Still I'm sure she'll be controversial, particularly to those listening for a certain sort of aural beauty.

But the evening was about something quite different, and any beauty-based review is, I think, serious misrepresentation. Even Levine fill-in Philippe Auguin's somewhat dry sound mattered less than his responsiveness, and the countless gradations of feeling he caught in characteristically objective style.

For those with senses to hear and see such things: go. (Before the cast implodes from stress.) The radio, I'm afraid, will be more misrepresentation. A telecast/DVD would be fantastic -- if last night's fairly traditional bunch can be roused, anyone can -- but I'm afraid the Met lacks money and DG lacks sense (they're still sitting on the "full Mattila" Salome).

UPDATE (2:30PM): The event draws bloggers forth in praise: Steve Smith, Jonathan at Wellsung (and more), Maury, and even the long-absent Sieglinde.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Five Fidelios

As Met Mattila Month approaches Phase Two (expensive lights! wriggling hands! a spear twirling in midair!), perhaps I might recap Phase One.

Karita Mattila was supposed to sing six performances; she did four. James Levine was supposed to conduct the run; Paul Nadler did so. Cover Erika Sunnegårdh was supposed to get one performance -- the last; she did three including the broadcast, and got a huge amount of media coverage to boot.

Beyond those broad facts were the actual events. I'd long anticipated this run as a chance to see Mattila's Leonore without thinking so much about Jürgen Flimm's production: after several runs, a bit of touring, a telecast, and a DVD, its flaws and follies are by this point fait accompli, something a repeat operagoer can more or less tune out. (I did overhear others, new to Flimm's take, stumbling over it.) The orginal run started fairly well -- you can get the gist of this from the DVD, which captured early performances -- but ended with a string of incandescent dramatic successes for which I lack sufficiently purple prose. Seeing one of the latter got me going to all* of Mattila's New York performances since.

[* Subject to circumstance, of course, and the fact that no sane person should see seven Salomes in a month.]

What most stood out this opening night was Paul Nadler's extremely brisk tempo choices and his even brisker phrasing. He's perhaps the best of the Met's no-name conductors, able to get good sound from the orchestra and to keep things moving well. But this time the absence of contrasting repose -- even in the quartet and the prisoner's chorus -- made Levine's cancellation more noticable: he, as indeed Peter Schneider in the last revival, had made much of Beethoven's slower writing without hurrying it forward. Further, many involved -- singers, chorus, and even parts of the orchestra -- seemed unprepared for Nadler's desire to press ahead over and over.

Second and third performances were better: more together and with a touch less haste, showing more of the virtues of Nadler's brisk conception. It seemed everyone was finally getting on the same page. Then, of course, the lead changed.

*     *     *

Sunnegårdh was nervous from the first at that broadcast-cum-debut: everyone in the house could feel it. There was this tense sensation that something really unfortunate was likely to happen. It was almost worse: when she got very lost in her big aria and had to stop, for a moment I wondered if she wasn't going to be able to continue at all... But she did, and only made one minor flub afterwards (fumbling the words to "Ich bin es nur noch nicht gewohnt", as oddly enough Mattila had done that Tuesday). She came back much stronger for Act II, and finished well.

There's much one could say about Sunnegårdh's voice and prospects, but I think this excellent Opera-L post pretty much covers it. The instrument is still unfinished, though, so who knows? As an actress I found her very interesting. Mattila's Leonore -- or, rather, Fidelio -- is so masculine that the breakdown she has upon finishing the deed seems quite natural. Sunnegårdh is more conventional, more feminine: one can see that Marzelline likes her Fidelio for his androgynous sensitivity, more Leonardo DiCaprio than James Dean. Act II is more desperate than heroic, and there's no post-rescue histrionics. But it's all quite natural and nuanced, and so easily done for her first time onstage in the part.

The supporting cast was strong throughout this run. Most praise to Alan Held, whose audible menace showed the value of a real (if still maturing) heldenbariton as Pizarro. Rene Pape succeeded with an unconventional, brilliantly acted, almost tortured Rocco in the original run; here Kristinn Sigmundsson was a fine conventional (fatherly, dark-voiced, somewhat jovial) one. Both Florestans did well, Richard Margison impeccable after a softly taken "Gott!" and Ben Heppner even better, as heroic as he's ever sounded and an order of magnitude better than he did six years ago. Gregory Turay was near-ideal as Jaquino -- not too pretty -- but Jennifer Welch-Babidge sounded a bit under the weather herself as Marzelline (Amy Burton, in her one performance, showed a clearer but somewhat harder sound). And for once, both prisoners (Lindemann tenor Russell Thomas as the first and unknown-to-me John Shelhart as the second) impressed in both voice and soul.

*     *     *

Mattila. She sang terrifically while healthy and quite strongly even upon returning (for the fifth performance I caught) with a bit of illness left over. It was the dramatic element that showed her distress: the live circuit between her and the audience, almost invariably "on" at huge strength, was that night surprisingly dimmed. (That is, she was just really really good.)

Always she's now entirely in the part, if perhaps a bit too noticably into the over-freshened details of the stage business (it's nice that the confrontation choreography had gotten cleaned up, but the re-highlighted banana-eating and picture-pulling are perhaps a bit too specific -- the wearing away and easing of this stuff over a run helps a lot of dramatic productions, though comedies may thus disintegrate). But as the Lohengrin shows, what Mattila has actually to do is pretty much irrelevant: that she has some framework to channel dramatic energy is the thing. So it works -- mesmerizingly.

I should mention that she took each evening's bow more or less "in character", hugging the tenor and Sigmundsson right off with a huge smile on her face. It didn't seem affected at all, but something -- after all that'd come before -- she'd have had to work on resisting. Also in character, perhaps, was her reluctance to take more than a short bit of audience adulation.

*     *     *

That this post, even, sort of skipped over mentioning how historically great is Mattila's assumption probably explains some of the wierd mix of coverage. (About which... Could it be possible that more English-speaking people -- not necessarily opera fans -- know of Sunnegårdh today than knew of Mattila six years ago?) Much of the rest is this: newspapers, despite acquired pretentions, are still essentially pop-cultural organs, promoting underdog stories and bored by mere excellence. There's some of that in blogdom too, of course. But presumably our readers take more interest in the actual content than the average Arts&Leisure section browser is supposed to.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Introducing... (!?)

Those who recall the dull and unfortunately acid-toned soprano who marred Charles Mackerras' 1999 stab at an "authentic" Lucia may be shocked by the Met's current run of Figaro. Its star has the same name, same attractive face, and yet sounds entirely pleasant as Susanna -- and better than that, even, in "Deh vieni". Could this be the same Andrea Rost?

OK, enough of that: yes. Rost turns out to be pretty good -- her main failing is occasionally singing too soft-grainedly to be heard in ensemble -- and contributes much to the successful and moving revival I saw last night. Still, I'd put her as the least of the featured "new" performers.

Alice Coote, the Cherubino, debuted just Wednesday. The sound is pleasant and strong but straightforward -- a bit plain. (Imagine Susan Graham with a lot less height and a touch more hip...) As an actress she was thorough and serious, wholly in the character but without much of a smile. (A valid choice.) She seems to be doing quite well as a recitalist, so perhaps I'll catch her next solo appearance here.

Most interesting, I thought, was conductor Mark Wigglesworth. Having debuted at the Met this fall, he still doesn't naturally get the best textures from the Met orchestra, particularly its strings. Still, his phrase and rhythmic senses were really something -- I most look forward to his return engagement.

But the evening was about something else: the trials of the opera's noble couple, often an afterthought. On this night, with Soile Isokoski and Peter Mattei more emotionally volatile than the usual Countess and Count -- in a convincing, superbly-sung way, of course -- audience focus couldn't help but be on them.

(Or was it John Relyea's fault for playing the title character as a charmless ball of resentful insolence? Again, valid choice. But not particularly enjoyable.)

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Tragedy is easy...

Maybe the old saying about the relative difficulty of tragic and comic is right: with a much less starry cast, less hype -- and for a correspondingly smaller audience -- the Met followed last Friday's flawed Don Pasquale with a much more successful presentation of Verdi's early masterpiece Luisa Miller on Saturday night.

The evening began with the bug that seems to have swept the house: a house representative (not Volpe) announced that Veronica Villaroel, the night's Luisa, was singing through something and, presumably, requested indulgence. This was unnecessary. Only hardness at the very top showed the work of illness; the rest of her voice was remarkably clear, resonant, and much more mobile than I'd have expected from the verista -- simply a pleasure to hear all around. Her tenor partner Eduardo Villa (filling in again for the sang-one-act-in-the-run Neil Shicoff) seemed more like the ailing one, sounding rather less than himself until the final act.

But on this night it was the dynamic between Luisa and her father that drove the evening. On the occasion I found Carlos Alvarez a bit narrow in sound, but his control, presence and rapport with Villaroel were excellent. And she didn't just sound good and act well, but showed a live rhythmic sense that doesn't get much play in some of her other roles. Even routinier Maurizio Benini did well, giving the audience its good share of early-Verdi raciness all evening. Perhaps he's learning to use the Met Orchestra's resources better over time.

Karen Slack's unexpected debut and broadcast as Luisa went well and was certainly news, but I'm a bit surprised that Villaroel's success in the run didn't draw more notice.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

...and starring Fran Drescher as Urkel

The official "news" from last night's Don Pasquale premiere is surely of its ecstatic reception, and the unexpected pull-out of Juan Diego Flórez before Act III (followed by the successful substitution of Barry Banks). My contrarian thought was more like this: someone has to tell Anna Netrebko that she's not nearly as irresistible as she thinks she is.

With the unfortunate encouragement of Otto Schenk's directorial crew, Netrebko spends her entire stage time flouncing, flapping, and slinking around in a way having very little to do with her character and rather too much with the out-of-control sitcom sidekick archetype. This is well and good when her character is "in character" as Sofronia, but Netrebko makes little distinction. It's the same schtick from beginning to the breaking-the-fourth-wall end.

Vocally one can't argue with the control she shows of her instrument -- how she gets it to jump through hoops on command -- but again it's impossible not to notice how thick and unyouthful the basic sound's already become. Still, this part was on the whole commendable.

The trick with Donizetti's opera is that it can come off as unpleasantly cruel, and may actually be that way. To offset this, houses have long cast personally charming singers as Norina (including, at the Met, the greatest of them -- Lucrezia Bori) and Ernesto. Florez certainly held up his end, singing appealingly (if with a bit of forcing in Act II) before his sudden withdrawal; Banks, too, deputized nicely for "Comè gentil". From the past we know Netrebko's not without charms, but she overplays Norina here so as to make one wonder how Ernesto could have apparently real feelings for such...

But the production as a whole emphasizes the cartoony, sitcom aspect of Don Pasquale and downplays the undercurrent of feeling. Simone Alaimo sings this title role very well, but his emotions are more a tic than any sort of real Falstaffian outburst. Who comes off best? Mariusz Kwiecien, who sounds absolutely amazing (again).

Maybe I'll like it more next time. Now if you'll pardon me, I have to rush to the matinee of Fidelio.

UPDATE (4/2): Some official pictures here.

No Mattila today

Total unknown Erika Sunnegardh will deputize for the broadcast.

So it seems she's Thomas Sunnegardh's half-sister?

UPDATE (4/27): My thoughts on her performance here.