Friday, December 28, 2007

Much ado about nothing

Betrand de Billy and Natalie Dessay -- with intermittent help from Ramon Vargas -- tried to make something serious of the Met's current Roméo et Juliette production two years ago, with mixed success. The present revival (as heard last night) aims for nothing at all more than the sound of Gounod's operatic writing, but -- thanks to Paul Nadler, Anna Netrebko, and, above all, great American tenor Matthew Polenzani -- is fairly glorious thereby.

The parts fit the leads. After last season's Puritani disaster, Netrebko is wise to appear in a role for which coloratura and bel canto precision is a sideline (foregrounded only in the famous waltz), not the main event. She is not exactly expressive, but the more dramatically-driven pacing of her pieces lets her deploy the sonic bludgeon of her big ringing voice to best effect.

*     *     *

As an actress, Netrebko is interesting but not exactly effective. It is amusing to return to Anthony Tommasini's 2002 review of Netrebko's company (though not house) debut in War and Peace, where he wrote:
Though a lovely young woman, she was not well served by Mr. Konchalovsky's direction, which must be responsible for the silent movie clichés that marred her portrayal.
In fact, Konchalovsky -- unless he's somehow been directing every one of her roles here since -- got a bad rap. Though they have, mercifully, been toned down in this production, "silent movie clichés" are exactly Netrebko's onstage metier.

Yet the real problem is not her physical vocabulary but its deployment. Her performance is almost entirely narcissistic, failing to connect with, adapt to, or often even acknowledge the presence and actions of anyone else onstage. I've noticed this phenomenon before, but in this production it reaches an almost admirable zenith of purity. Perhaps it's the contrast with her co-star, whose physical as well as sonic expression is pure, unforced, and unhindered. Polenzani's almost puppyish eagerness goes totally unregistered on Netrebko's body and actions, even in their love scenes -- a surreal sight. (I wonder if Netrebko's narcissism would have been even more surreally interesting paired with a tenor himself self-regarding -- that is, in this case, Alagna.)

Even odder, perhaps, is what happens between Netrebko's bouts of "silent movie cliché". When she's not trying thereby to grab attention, she is totally blank -- not the standard opera-singer "waiting for my cue" receptivity, but complete, almost uncanny blankness, as if she's not actually present. It's difficult even to see her onstage in these portions; the eye and mind find no purchase thereon. It's as if she's performing in her own highlight film. Perhaps it ensures that her fans only notice and remember her "best bits", but to a non-fan it's just bizarre.

*     *     *

With such a heroine there was no chance of the story and drama's success, but the sonic success of the night was quite real. Much kudos to Paul Nadler, who shaped the score unobtrusively but with real romantic feeling. And the smaller roles were well done all around, from Charles Taylor's Capulet to Nathan Gunn's Mercutio to the ageless Robert Lloyd's Frère Laurent and Kate Lindsey's again perfectly boyish Stéphano. (The night was something of a showcase for the Met's Lindemann Young Artist program, with graduates Taylor, Gunn, Lindsey, David Won, and of course Polenzani himself.)

But Polenzani was amazing. His singing is so seemingly simple and uncomplicated -- beautiful, open, and direct of phrase and expression -- that there's little I can say about it except "listen". He maintained his high level through the whole evening, with sound never more vibrant and glorious than at the very end, for the climactic tomb scene.

The performance went out on Sirius, and Monday's (with the same cast) will be on both Sirius and a live internet feed, so if you get a chance (live or rebroadcast) to hear Polenzani: Listen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas to all

I feel odd enough offering critical material as it is, but more so today.

So for those at the family hearth: eat well and be happy. For all readers: may the season's joys find you.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Notes, slightly stale

Thanks, Steve.

*     *     *

Great moments in subscription management: I not only had a ticket to Matthew Polenzani's recital on December 2, it was my main reason for subscribing to the series (at the worst "Lincoln Center" venue) in the first place. Naturally, I completely forgot and have no opinion to offer. I suppose this means I have to catch one of Polenzani's (Domingo-free) Romeos next week. I'll save Netrebko thoughts until then.

*     *     *

The year's final Figaro wasn't up to the rest of the run: comic and musical timing seemed, for some reason, slightly out of sync -- making what had been historic merely quite good. Perhaps it was simple performance variation, perhaps fatigue, but reading that it was Bryn Terfel's final Figaro anywhere suggests another explanation -- and has me just glad that I saw it.

"And it's an odd conflict, really, because I feel it could go to a deeper place, but in fact we are going to a shallower place."

Alice Coote gave an interesting interview to Opera News.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Twenty-five and three

As of this morning, I have been posting to this blog for three years. It has always been something of a solitary, contrarian project, and I thank you readers for bearing with me.

A bigger landmark, at least for me, was revealed by a program I turned up a few months ago: this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my first visit to the opera. It was the Met's Tannhäuser with Tatiana Troyanos as Venus, and though my impression at the time was inconclusive, my current fondness for emotionally responsive, quick-vibratoed singers may have some primal lineage.

*     *     *

Below is a selection of posts from the last year, which I will also append to the previous years' list. Note that I've omitted most Met reviews, as they are listed separately on the sidebar.
Review -- recitals by Kožená and Röschmann*
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
(* posted before last year's roundup, but so close that I had no reason to include it at the time)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Led around

Is there some sort of requirement by Peter Gelb that he only be interviewed for publication by writers who don't actually know about opera? The unintentional comedy in this and this is pretty high.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Kitsch

Perhaps inside the comically awful Stephen Wadsworth production of Iphigenie en Tauride there is a great Robert Wilson production trying to get out. The erasing, and even drowning, of all connection and contrast by a uniform overlay of quasi-dramatic plastique works for Wilson as much as it (unmistakably present here) makes nonsense of Wadsworth. But then, the semi-new Met show (Seattle debuted it earlier this season) is far from the point where the Wilson gestalt would appear and work. It would, for one thing, have to abandon Thomas Lynch's handsomely literal set -- which would be a pity, as this is the best part of the presentation -- and the occasionally goofy but commendable costumes of Martin Pakledinaz. More importantly (and positively), it would require that the three principals -- Iphigenie, Oreste, and Pylade -- not constantly (well, in between randomly striking stock poses of agony) swoon into and paw each other and even the goddess Diana (!). For Wilson's art, like the Greeks', respects and even fetishizes the space the tragic stage opens up between the individuals thereon. And rightly so: not only truth but stage sense is in accord, as such space is the necessary barrier against which the characters' struggle to stay connected and whole finds force. Otherwise, as here, you get kitsch.

Of course, one can do Gluck's dark opera in an un-Greek, un-Wilson, etc. way, as dark melodrama. But this requires not only a production cleaned of all fluffy stock gesture (not just for singers and chorus -- a depressingly large amount of choreographer Daniel Pelzig's contribution falls under this rubric too) but a sureness of dramatic line and response that neither the director nor his leading man (Domingo, as ever, substitutes a stagger and raised arm for engagement on the stage while showing a still-amazing voice) evidence. Only Susan Graham seems prepared to chart such a pared-down, moment-to-moment course, but she is both weighed down by the aforementioned plastique and given little to work with by castmates. (Paul Groves, as he did in the last Domingo vehicle, just seems bemused amid this dramatic mess.)

It's too bad, as debutant conductor Louis Langree (known here for his Mostly Mozart work across the plaza) led a remarkably vivid musical evening.


UPDATE (11:50AM): It occurs to me that my mention of the "erasing [of] connection and contrast by a uniform overlay of quasi-dramatic plastique" isn't exactly plain English. So I offer the words of a correspondent making more or less the same point:
[The] singing was great, but the action on stage was so high pitched and melodramatic throughout, that it was difficult to follow the narrative arc of the story or get emotionally involved in the characters' problems. Instead of /\ it was all just /

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

And you thought Sirius was big...

I haven't figured out the details, but see for yourself: Met Broadcasts at Rhapsody.

Note that it goes back to the infamous Ponselle Carmen.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Run, don't walk

If you're in the area and haven't already planned to see the latest Met Figaro, do so immediately. The best incarnation yet of Jonathan Miller's production, it is everything a Mozart opera should be: joyous, energizing, moving, and very much an event. The cast is simply terrific from top to bottom, and, unlike some other all-star ensembles, works together marvelously. Although Philippe Jordan's conducting has advanced from poor merely to decent (slow passages still sag and some of the fast are far too rushed), it hardly makes a difference. The musicality of the singers is all.

Most surprising, to me, were the ladies -- not least recent Lindemann graduate Kate Lindsey. She has a well-trained, pretty voice, but not necessarily an obvious star instrument. Yet in every other respect -- phrasing, sense, spirit, and bodily presence, which is to say in being Cherubino -- she may be the finest Cherubino I've seen or heard, outshining the likes of Graham, Mentzer, and DiDonato, in this production and even bigger names before. She has the physicality down without too much exaggeration (dear ladies: a little of the bowlegged thing goes a long way, particularly when it's amplified by the fact that you have hips), and adds a few amusing touches: failing to sing along with the girls in Act III and popping in with Don Giovanni's party music in Act IV.

But the evening's Countess, Anja Harteros, rightly got the biggest ovation. The German soprano made her debut here in the same part four years ago, and somehow I don't recall the ecstatic notices that should have followed a performance like this. With a spacious, full-colored instrument that may be (getting?) a bit large for the part, she sings her arias with amazing control and feeling. But "feeling", for her, is all over -- in the Countess' sorrow she radiates melancholy and hurt sensibility from every part of her body, while simultaneously appearing composed and regal. (She flirts and lets Cherubino get close, but actually rolling around with and making out with him, as Robin Guarino had Hong do in the early-fall revival? No chance.) An ideal Marschallin, perhaps, but also, I think -- if next season's rumor is true -- the one to dispel Maury's Traviata malaise.

I am, of course, kicking myself for missing the chance to see Harteros next to a similarly present, responsive, dark-voiced singing actress (Dorothea Röschmann, her Susanna in 2003) but perhaps that could have been too much of a good thing. Ekaterina Siurina is a bright contrast: shiny in voice, demeanor, and phrase, her efficient if temperamental Susanna (with perfect comic timing, she takes a swing at Marcellina when she thinks she's been had) is a perfect foil to the nuts around her.

Simon Keenlyside is another revelation. He's an entirely different Count from the usual successful sort: not oversexed and overhandsome but mannered, complex, slightly ridiculous, and emotionally volatile in body and phrase in a way that very few male performers are (or allow themselves to be) onstage. He and Harteros are the most high-strung of couples, and it's mesmerizing to watch.

It's almost unfair to have Bryn Terfel on top of all of this, so I won't say much. He's offhandedly casual and doesn't much aim for grace, yes, but these are both part of his amazing charisma and an excellent fit for Figaro, particularly a Figaro among the other characters here present.

Supporting parts were just as impressive, not least the Barbarina of ACB. Not just well-sung (under the lyric surface, she's got the core of steely sound to carry in the Met) but well-played.

*     *     *

The one change I didn't like was the elision of the Act I intermission. Act II of Figaro is one of the high points in all of Mozart and should be heard fresh, not as the back half of a Rheingold-scale marathon. Fortunately, the current cast makes it impossible to tune out or lose the thread.

I can't wait to go back.


UPDATE (4:45PM): I forgot to mention that yesterday was apparently a Gay&Lesbian Singles night. Now I'm neither gay nor a lesbian, but considering that the two events of this sort the Met's done so far have been at this and the best of Mattila's Jenufas, I'm starting to think I should be at that Peter Grimes...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mattila in London

"In a one-shouldered black dress banded with crystals, frozen white bouffant and scarlet fingernails she towered majestically over Salonen, next to her a cowering shrimp in his habitual curry-house waiter uniform."


Words and picture above brazenly lifted from Intermezzo, a tireless and rarely-less-than-amusing London concert blog. (See also her coverage of ENO's "Aida and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"...)

This has, if you're wondering, very little to do with what's going on in New York, except -- in its appealing account of the Saariaho presentation -- as a reminder that one shouldn't always ignore the NY Philharmonic.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The hothouse

There is little of the north in Samuel Barber's Vanessa: none, perhaps, but the arid heat of a stuffy over-fired winter drawing-room. The bracing northern chill is mentioned but never breaks into the characters' universal fever pitch of feeling, neither as contrasting mood nor clarifying space between. There is even less of Isak Dinesen therein: her unflappable God/storyteller's-eye objectivity -- in which all of her characters, however miserable, seem quite pleased to be caught -- whether born of Denmark or the clear Kenyan air, is nowhere to be found. (Despite the explicit credit, I think Barber and Menotti are, in spirit, even less true to her Gothic Tales than her ape Peter Høeg, who's been rewriting them as tales of political correctness. She left early from the only performance of Vanessa she attended.)

A better frame for the Americans' concoction may be the staging Menotti did at Spoleto, where the piece was sung in Italian and set in an upstate NY house not unlike their own. Emotionally, melodically forward and as a whole short on rhythmic contrast and impulse, Barber's opera sounds like a late transplant of verisimo despite its less naturalistic setting. The libretto's theme -- noncommunication -- is a near opposite thing, but the relentlessness of story advancement makes theme's felt effect substantially less. There is no room left, neither in surface nor sense, for the fruitful contrasts of, say, Pelleas. (From which we learn, to no surprise, that Menotti was no Maeterlinck...)

In other words, qualities that make the piece work so well in excerpt also make unrelieved hours of it rather hard to take -- at least for me. Your milage may vary.

*     *     *

The cast sang well enough Thursday, but it was no accident that the night's biggest hand went to baritone Richard Stilwell. Only he, in the supporting part of the Doctor, bestowed on his character the divine spark of spirit that Menotti could not.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Violetta

Violetta is a star who discovers that she can no longer be a person. (She knew it all along, but who turns down an interlude of honest romantic happiness?) Renee Fleming is a star who insists on being a person: the single-mom, down-home image -- and self-image! -- etc. Never shall the twain really meet, but if you don't mind that, the current Traviata revival at the Met is about as good as you'd want, well sung all around (Polenzani is terrifically sincere as always, and Croft still has the resources to carry his wonderful phrases) with few hitches. Fleming does all of Addio del passato, which I appreciate.

It is tears that are somewhat lacking. But then, I (like my seat-neighbors, from what I've been able to tell) haven't been so moved by other big names in the part either, nor even up-and-comer Krassimira Stoyanova (who did, mind you, sing memorably last season). Perhaps they've learned our modern lesson too well: the star can have everything -- family, happiness, success. But that's a pop star's story, not a tragic heroine's. And who chooses the latter who doesn't have to?

(Fortunately and unfortunately, some still have to.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Two recent news stories

Look at this (previously blogged here)...

In light of this.

(Yes, they're two different emirates -- under the same legal system.)

Money does not erase barbarism.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The curtain

Posting habits have been lax, I know, after opening-week excitement. Part of it has been circumstance, part inattention -- I read through schedules again Sunday to discover I'd not only missed the first performances of both Vanessa and Fleming's Traviata, both of which I meant to catch, but all performances of either Zajick or Borodina as Amneris. (Plus Alagna's walk-on night as Radames, which apparently turned out well.)

But looking back, I see that previous Octobers show similar lulls. I wonder how much of it has been the absence until now -- delayed, of course, another week this year -- of fall night's full dark curtain, enfolding us for hours daily until 8PM becomes time for stage-lit dreams.

More to come soon.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Is there a City Opera audience?

One learning about opera by reading reviews in the local press might find many aspects of opera blogging puzzling. One is this: why is New York blog coverage so relentlessly Met-centric? Almost every production, new and old, gets scrutinized, while even galas and premieres across the plaza pass with little notice. In print, meanwhile, both -- each in its little compass -- are dutifully covered with the same range of anodyne descriptions and mini-judgments.

Part of it's idiosyncratic, of course: blogs reflect individual tastes, which happen in this case to align a certain way. But such alignment reflects idiosyncratic responses to an unmistakable difference.

*     *     *

It was in sitting at a recent City Opera performance of Cav/Pag (one with this year's Tucker winner Brandon Jovanovich, who -- as far as one can tell in that juiced house -- sounded impressive despite a certain lack of Italianata) that I put my finger on it. There is certainly, for better or worse, a Met audience: an amalgamation, yes, but a coherent and meaningful one. And OONY, for example, has an audience some might find a bit too characteristic. But City Opera? True, at times it's a venue of Flanigan fans or the like, or the city's traveling pack of event-hounds encamps at some production. Yet the general impression is something else -- more living room than theater. They -- we -- watch, and applaud, and often seem pleased or moved afterwards, but there's an oddly detached undercurrent. It's an audience that's perhaps heard rumors about its own shape and existence and gives them some credit, but chooses mostly unconcern about such things. And so -- because every performance is also the story of an audience -- life-and-death urgency hardly ever makes it past the footlights here.

Sometimes I think it's the State Theater, a place seemingly designed to turn a public into a mass -- look at the undifferentiated sea of humanity in that huge rectilinear expanse of the only real intermission space... How different from the curves and niches of the Met. Or perhaps it's the inevitable outcome of running the country's biggest regional opera next door to the world's biggest international opera. Or...

Or maybe I'm wrong. But I think I'm onto something.

Is Gerard Mortier, then, the best person to get New York City Opera's audience to recognize themselves as such? I'd be surprised if he is -- assuming it's the current audience he at all wants. But we'll see.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Welcome New Yorker readers...

I'm under the weather and haven't been able to write of late, but it seems bad form to greet people with a two-week-old throwaway post.

At any rate, please see my two years' archived highlights to sample what has been posted here.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Less Lucia

It seems the live Sirius-cast of tonight's Lucia that was scheduled to take place was yanked without comment and replaced with a rerun.

Anybody know what's going on? Could it have to do with Giordani's rumored illness?

UPDATE (10/8): The non-broadcast seems to have been part of some previously-arranged schedule shuffle. In fact, Giordani was apparently healthy enough to steal the show as Romeo the very next afternoon (after singing Friday's Edgardo), while it was Mariusz Kwiecien who was replaced just before Friday's Wolf's Crag scene by unexpected debutant Stephen Gaertner.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Mortier

As many of his remarks as I find silly or worse (including some in this very article), Gérard Mortier gets one big thing right:
Mortier told the audience of directors, theater administrators and dramaturges that encouraging audiences to see opera onscreen was giving up the crucial element of the art form, the live experience, according to a report from Deutsche Presse-Agentur.

"We shouldn't bring opera to the movies; we should bring people from the movies to the opera," he said.
Gelb's idea, of course, is to do the latter via the former. Whether it works, or whether the tail wags the dog, we'll see in future.

Incidentally, the New York Sun carried a more City Opera-specific piece on their new general manager a few weeks ago.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Green eggs and ham

I found myself disappointed with the performance of almost every man in last night's Met revival of Figaro. Most of all in Philippe (son of Armin) Jordan, who had possibly the least impressive conducting outing this Jonathan Miller production has seen since its 1997 debut. (Best? Probably one of Edo de Waart's in 1999 or James Levine's in 2003 or 2005.) Still nevertheless professional, of course, for if he's worst it's among a remarkably well-turned-out group. But too often Jordan got in his own and the singers' way with inexplicable lurches and lags in tempo, vague pit-stage coordination, and an apparent preference for coaxing exquisite small phrases from the orchestra over maintaining the shape of a piece. He drew (from, incidentally, more or less the same players Levine used for Lucia) a forward but unrevealing sound, and while this Nozze showed more energy and forward momentum than his Don Giovanni two years back, they were more bluster than pep. Act 2's second half built to its climax fairly tightly and without too many hitches; the rest was more moments than the whole of Mozart's masterwork.

Also disappointing was Uruguayan bass Erwin Schrott in the title role. He doubly so, for his instrument and sound are undeniably impressive. But his overactive hamming, for a while refreshing (as a bit closer to the gesticulating quick-talking Latin factotum we might recognize as the Barber of Seville), soon tried my patience. Yes, he's Figaro -- but Mozart's is a Figaro who feels, whose fear of losing Susanna is and must be wholly real. In Schrott's case, this human element fails to appear from the caricature.

But in this he's definitely been more than encouraged by stage director Robin Guarino, who has fully farce-ified this revival. Figaro has the most business, but additions like the Countess rolling around on the floor with and actually kissing Cherubino in Act 2 (in this version, the Count's suspicion about her is pretty well-founded) abound. The amount of loose comedy makes it feel like week 5 of the revival (Met comedies' stage business tends to get looser and looser as a run goes along) and not the season opener. What will it actually look like by week 5? Who knows.

Michele Pertusi sang decently enough, but lacked the fire and dark sexual energy that predecessors -- most often Dwayne Croft or Peter Mattei -- have brought to the Count. Because of the other circumstances, that sort of driving force in the cast was much missed.

*     *     *

The women were much better, though having to battle conductor and stage directions kept any from shining at her best. Most impressive was probably Hei-Kyung Hong, whom I've heard both very good and very bad as the Countess. This was much to the good side, her arias as clear as ever (despite some weak spots, the tone is solid) and as honestly felt as anything this evening. Anke Vondung made a solid -- if somewhat straitlaced, though less so than Alice Coote last year -- Met debut as Cherubino, with a very American-mezzo-like sound. I liked debutant Kathleen Kim (Barbarina) a lot. Two other debuts: Robin Leggate (Basilio) and Ashley Emerson (a bridesmaid) -- both sounded fine but I couldn't tell at that length.

Finally, the Susanna -- Lisette Oropesa -- didn't get a program mention, just a printed slip. Her voice took about an act and a half to warm up (or relax), but she sounded good in the classic pingy soubrette-warbly way after that. As for character and feeling, she did about as well as anyone else on this night. Pretty good for a last-minute sub whose previous Met experience consisted of a Cretan bystander in Idomeneo and Trittico's nun #16, but not as much as one might hope for in future (perhaps when she's actually officially engaged ahead of time). But that goes for the entire evening -- I'm not sure even Röschmann's Countess could have made the whole more than it was: a night of easy laughs and few tears.


UPDATE (10/5): Edited to clarify whom the Countess was kissing.

Season four

This post indexes commentary here on the 2007-08 Metropolitan Opera season. It will be updated as new reviews are posted.

Opening Night, the second performance of Lucia di Lammermoor, its spring return, and more
Marriage of Figaro, and its later cast
La Traviata, and its later cast
Iphigenie en Tauride
Roméo et Juliette
Die Walküre
Manon Lescaut: piece, performance, and last performance
Carmen
Otello
Peter Grimes -- and more
Ernani
Tristan und Isolde
La Boheme
Un Ballo in Maschera: Licitra; Vargas et al.
La Fille du Régiment
La Clemenza di Tito
Macbeth
The Abduction from the Seraglio

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The treacherous "and"

This is ungracious, I know -- and a bit late. Still, at the beginning of the season I've repeatedly heard this conjunction obscuring both truth and sentiment: "Sills and Pavarotti".

Sills was a great local figure, perhaps a national one too. She fully deserved the night of tribute she got at the Met. But one cannot seriously say "Sills and Pavarotti" unless in reference to one of the fantastic performances they did together of, for example, Lucia. ("Caruso and Pavarotti", "Björling and Pavarotti" -- yes. "Domingo and Pavarotti"? -- even Domingo fans, I'm sure, have their doubts.) Luciano Pavarotti, in some not-entirely-metaphorical sense, was opera, and his death was a world and opera-historical event. Even famously parochial New York cannot do without acknowledging his hors concours significance.

If Sills got a night, Pav should get -- what? I hope Gelb and company have something in mind, because it's disgraceful that his death, looming large in the hearts of so much of the audience and the opera world, has gotten no more recognition at the Met than opening night's moment of silence shared with the local favorite who nevertheless sang ~300 fewer performances there than he.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Short report

Dessay last night was in form from the very beginning, and Giordani actually sang his final scene with good intonation and some nuance. The force of the evening as a whole sagged at the end of Act 2, however, with Giordani barely getting his curse out (on Monday, it was his best moment).

I'm not sure how I failed to take in this detail Monday about the production's most essential moment: as she lies down rapt singing "Al fin son tua, al fin sei mia," the chorus presses, gawking, upon her. She doesn't notice, but amid the white tie crowd in which every one of the women is wearing long gloves, she takes off her own gloves in pure expectant ease.

I'd tell you to go see her, but her fall appearances are already sold out.

Must see again

Maury tipped me to the rumor on the internets that 23-year-old Lisette Oropesa may be replacing Isabel Bayrakdarian (as Susanna) in the Met's October Figaros.

Anyone who's heard Oropesa at the 2005 Met Council Finals or in her recitals and bit parts (where, incidentally, her sound has easily filled the Met) since knows she is a remarkable singer of rare charm and early artistic maturity. (She continues to develop and learn her vocal instrument, but her sense of phrase, word, and manner is already whole.)

If Gelb doesn't try to throw in a "name" at the last minute, the Figaros that seemed superfluous without Dorothea Röschmann may again be a must-see.


UPDATE (9/29): It's official. Oropesa sings Susanna next Tuesday and Saturday, while the legendary "TBA" takes the rest of Bayrakdarian's October dates here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Woman in White (or, Sex and Lucia)

For the first half of Monday's Met-season-opening Lucia, it seemed that the previous production it would most resemble was Jürgen Flimm's uneven Fidelio: constrained by striking but literal physical design, and concerned more with clever scripted physicalizations of each passage than showing the spirit of the whole. But the evening turned, oddly, in the most Flimm-echoing sequence: an added-in groupphotograph scene.

It was attached to -- of all things! -- the famous sextet. The production is set in Victorian Scotland. So while the principals sing (inwardly, it seems) of their shock and stress at this big confrontation, a wedding photographer is neatly and obliviously arranging all of them but Edgardo into a tableaux memorializing the just-signed marriage contract.

At this point I began to think that Mary Zimmerman had made her first jarring misstep. For she had so far shown a defter hand than Flimm, avoiding his clunkier touches and finding more life within the limited framework (the Act I physical interplay between Lucia and Edgardo, for example, was perfect). But to make such a pointlessly stagy interpolation, and one, to all appearances, lazily ripped from Flimm's Fidelio!

But there was more at stake than just putting the principals through their onstage paces. Having sat them down before the camera (and this is still in the middle of the piece), the photographer decides that the image is not complete. He waves everyone else at the event over, and they clump around the wedding party, forming a confident, coherent mass on one side of the stage, with Edgardo alone on the other. The image is striking and moving: enacting Edgardo's own tragic position, it treats his part in the whole tragedy as something true and meaningful, not (as usual) simply a stock plot touch. His fatal romantic isolation contrasts strikingly with Lucia's fatal romantic suffocation -- here, she is in the picture, and faints at its taking (after the end of the piece) -- and the depiction clarifies the thematic relatedness of the whole story.

It also makes perfect sense. For the Victorian setting, while allowing perhaps a bit too much early luxuriating in familiar accoutrements, puts more life in the social scenes than shown by any production in recent memory. Here the chorus (and perhaps some of the credit is due new Met chorus master Donald Palumbo) doesn't just fumble around looking vaguely "period": it acts with a specificity and confidence only possible in a not-yet-forgotten milieu -- and one, of course, remembered for its confidence. Its natural, orderly, almost indifferent closing up of ranks against Edgardo in the sextet scene is as perfect as his stunned, disorderly staggering after his curse (and the lonely Victorian armchair which sits in for Wolf's Crag). Act 3's choral reaction shots are as convincing.

And not just the chorus: the period's social norms are a language (familiar to most of the audience) for all the cast to use. So Enrico's fear of social ruin is quite vivid in these terms, helped by the excellent, if somewhat shakily constructed, set of Act 2. His bullying of his dependent sister is similarly pinned down. But it is Lucia and Edgardo who are shown in clearest relief. Act 1's unmistakable sexual tension between these not-yet-consummated (in this production, anyway, as the setting would suggest) lovers sets up the evening's most piercing musical-theatric moment: as, to the glass harmonica's return, the mad scene suddenly slackens from fear and expectation to simple bliss, so goes the entire tension Natalie Dessay has carried in her body for the entire piece. "Al fin son tua, al fin sei mia," she sings with the night's most perfect breath as she lays down on the prompter's box -- at last I am yours, at last you are mine -- and it all dissolves into the present-tense bliss of complete sexual satiety, imagined into truth at last. Of course this is where the chorus interjects!

*     *     *

After that, what's left? She turns worse, sings faster. Imagines a baby. Is tranquilized by a doctor (the same actor who was the photographer?) and passes out again, this time for good (and to a storm of applause). Edgardo has his part left, of course, and he gets an excellent dark isolating frame for his double aria.

Then the one decision which seemed dicey, and probably -- coming at the end of the evening -- colored many reviews of the production: Lucia, as the fountain ghost had done in Lucia's Act 1 aria mentioning it, appears as a ghost (white clothes, white makeup) onstage and inspires Edgardo's suicide. The first (similarly decked-out) ghost, and its literal appearance and costuming, well fit -- and, I thought, helped -- the Victorian gothic aesthetic of the whole, but this was a bit much. (It prompted a production note in the program, which by the first rule of production notes...) Zimmerman had done so well (see above) in contrasting the two lovers' paths that joining them at that late hour seemed out of left field.

But perhaps this was a result of the performers' dynamic. With this lead couple Marcello Giordani -- no matter how much he adopts a hyper-intense vocal style that, on this night, veered rather too close to tuneless bawling -- is the straight man, the solid figure on whom Lucia fixes. His Edgardo, it seemed, probably enjoyed the intricacies and solid practical business of politics, his family oath and passion for Lucia being deviations -- if even more intense for that reason -- from his normal being. When Giuseppe Filianoti -- whose Edgardo will (probably) be as dark and passionate as Dessay's Lucia -- takes over the part, the piece will take on a much different shape.

*     *     *

About the singing I've less to add. As Arturo, debutant Stephen Costello didn't quite make the jaw-dropping impression Matthew Polenzani did last decade, but showed off a very promising voice with a quick vibrato a bit like (though not quite as distinctive as) Joseph Calleja's. The other men were good (though Giordani swerved between "quite good" and "bad") but not able to escape Dessay's orbit. And she, in fact, started out unpromisingly. "Regnava nel silenzio" showed a somewhat clotted tone, which continued through the rest of the act. Now I didn't expect Dessay, at this point in her vocal life, to be bouncing huge clear perfectly-focused notes off the ceiling all night like Ruth Ann Swenson, but even her trills in "Quando, rapito" were heavy and labored.

Was she conserving energy for the end? Who knows? Perhaps the whole evening would have gone on in that vein, if her -- and the audience's -- spirits had not been bouyed by her unscheduled slip-and-fall near the end of that cabaletta... which she worked perfectly and thrillingly into flow of the piece. Even when not at her sonic best, Dessay understands performance -- but more on that anon.

At any rate, she improved act by act until a stunning mad scene which showed that her focus, passagework, trill, and top -- if not what they were when she took the Met by storm -- are still solidly there. We shall see how it holds up to the intensity of her performance (and the more-than-physical drain it imposes) over the run's long course.

*     *     *

The chorus sang as well as acted terrifically. Orchestral soloists Deborah Hoffman (harp), Trudy Kane (flute), Nathan Hughes (oboe), Anthony McGill (clarinet), Jerry Grossman (cello), and Cecilia Brauer (glass harmonica) were all good. James Levine, whose first Lucia this was, handled the rhythms and climaxes of the piece very well (the sound and coordination with the singers goes pretty much without saying). I did find it odd that he really played up the ironic indifference of the orchestra near the end of Act 2. But I've already forgotten exactly where, I'm afraid -- the perils of taking one's time over a review.

It was a great evening. Dessay's Lucia is an amazing creation, one thoroughly supported by this production. I suspect things will get even better as the run goes on. I'll be seeing it again tonight.


UPDATE (9/29): Corrected info on the ghost's sole appearance.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Yes, I went

Since I've been asked: Yes, I was at opening night. Yes, a post is forthcoming. It will be long, and up by tonight.

UPDATE (9/27): My definition of "tonight" clearly needs realignment.

Friday, September 14, 2007

You may be right

With City Opera having already begun their performances, the 2007-2008 opera blogging season must surely soon begin.

A number of events precipitated this blog, but the proximate one may have been a dinner I had with a number of other opera devotees. Their perspectives, quite strongly and reasonably held, were different from my own but equally unrepresented in any public discourse. So one of my first posts was on different ways of experiencing opera, many of which I thought underserved by press and internet alike.

Which is to say, dear readers, I'd be thrilled and heartened if you contributed your contrasting thoughts as this season progresses: either in comments here or, if sufficiently inspired, in new blogs of your own creation. You may, after all, be right.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Impossible

It seems impossible that Luciano Pavarotti is dead, as nonsensical a thing as Hercules or James Bond being gone. It was not for nothing that "Nessun Dorma" became his anthem, Calaf's cry of confident triumph taken as the great tenor's own. And he did triumph: even as his voice faded, his stardom transformed a bit and continued to grow, and his legendarily boundless appetite produced a new marriage and child even at the end. Such a one mortal and dead? Quite implausible.


"Nessun Dorma", 1980


He was a man and a singer before the halo of celebrity descended, of course. The private man, who has gone, perhaps only his family knew. But the performer was the event of our lifetimes, as great an Italian singer as has ever lived. Some sniffed (and still do) that he was no "musician", for he couldn't learn parts from a score. But in actual time -- when it matters -- he was superb, with an Italianate command of phrase and rhythm (not to mention diction, tone, and pitch, which were unsurpassed) which rivals (including The Other Guy) could and cannot, for all gifts and study, match. Similarly, it is said he was no actor. Sometimes, perhaps. (But really?) But even apart from his often gripping musical characterizations (listen to any early Edgardo, for example -- the SFO one with Sills is mind-blowing), he was perhaps the most dramatically aware singer of our age: attuned like no one else to the dynamic of performer and audience, the high-wire energy that fueled their love and his glory. When not distracted by later infirmity, he -- with his character -- was as vividly present in the moment as any, and -- within a repertory approximately coterminous with personal sympathy -- more natural than most.


Act I Lucia duet with Sutherland, 1972


But it is the sound that is incomparable, the clear, unmistakable, lyric tenor sound glorious through the passaggio and top. Even the echoes of its former greatness made some late 90s performances worthwhile, and a blind guy has built a huge career on a certain similarity of basic timbre. There is nothing words can add except that those interested in history may have been underrating Pavarotti for a long time out of respect for the past. Now he too is part of history, and may shine brighter than ever.

From, of course, the 1967 studio set of Fille

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The first bad news

While waiting for some truly awful news to drop, I note this darkening of the Met fall schedule.

Röschmann should be far more celebrated here than she is, but cancellations haven't helped. I hope she recovers and returns soon.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Guest review -- Capriccio at the Edinburgh Festival

I have been tied up with non-operatic obligations and haven't been able to post or answer emails of late, but a correspondent at the Edinburgh Festival asked me to post this review from last week. All words after the divider are the guest reviewer's, not mine.

*     *     *

Richard Strauss : Capriccio
Cologne Opera
Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne
Markus Stenz – conductor
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
30 August 2007


The drop shows an eye, and in the pupil of the eye, an image of German troops marching down the Champs Elysées in Paris. The familiar opening sextet begins, and the drop lifts to show an office; a high-ranking Nazi official sits behind a desk doing paperwork, a woman, close-cropped hair, stern grey suit, sits before it reading a German newspaper. She is clearly disturbed by something she is reading, but refrains from comment when an officer/servant appears to tidy something away. When he is gone, she drops the paper pointedly in front of the official, and leaves. He glances briefly at the paper, but puts it aside, then extracts some documents – identity papers – from a hiding place. A Jewish woman and man enter, and pay him for the documents. The woman also presses upon him a pearl and diamond choker; he’s reluctant to take it at first, but then accepts it. Two men in fedoras and black leather dusters – SS agents – appear next. They toss the official’s paperwork around contemptuously, and leave behind some sort of order, and a gun, without, however, seeing the money. He puts the money and choker away in a lacquer box, and takes from the box a small vial of what seems to be poison. Then a red velvet curtain conceals his office, and Flamand and Olivier, in 18th Century costume, discuss the charms of the Countess Madeleine from “backstage”, as if none of what we have just seen has ever happened.

So begins Christian von Götz’s new production of “Capriccio” for Cologne Opera, premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival this week. Most of this production takes place in a factitious historical period – we’re looking at a play within a play within a play. In that sense, the occasional reminders of its 1942 framework tend to be more of an irritant than anything else, and the whole opening dumb-show casts a very long and somewhat aggravating shadow.

Yet there are notions that emerge very clearly, and very successfully, from that initial set-up. Madeleine’s meditation on the importance of words versus music is purely escapist fantasy, surrounded as she is by the money taken from desperate fugitives, the pearl choker around her neck. When she leaves at the end, under arrest, the “Count” dead, her household composed of brown-shirts, her self-interrogation is all the more poignant.

Most striking, however, perhaps, is La Roche’s great monologue. Although nothing in the staging at that point evokes the contemporary setting, the context suddenly becomes vibrantly clear, and every word comes across as the nearest thing to an apologia for his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis the Nazi regime that Strauss ever issued. “Capriccio” remains a difficult work to stage, even if taken purely at face value, because it is impossible to ignore just when it was written, or the deliberately anachronistic idiom in which it is written. It’s been close on 25 years since I saw my last (and first) production of “Capriccio”, and that too was set in the 20th Century, though in the mid-30s. The text and the music are so period-specific in their references that to update it seems ludicrous, yet it’s perhaps precisely because they’re so specific that one can do so with impunity – the sense of play-acting, of an elaborate fantasy, carries the notion through regardless. It worked then, and it works here, though the bulk of the action is more or less visually returned to its ostensible period of origin, c. 1775.

It helped, of course, that the production was well served musically, with a strong ensemble cast. Gabriele Fontana (Madeleine) does not have the most beautiful timbre, but brought a vitality to the role that served her well, while Michael Eder rose splendidly to the occasion as La Roche. Of the others, while there were no weak links to speak of, Dalia Schaechter’s rich-toned mezzo stood out particularly as Clairon, while the stuffed Sharpei plushie she carted around occasioned considerable amusement in the audience. An Edinburgh Festival engagement certainly allowed this provincial German company a few resources in terms of singers it might not otherwise have been able to command, but there was a cohesion present, right down to the smallest role, that Europe’s finest opera stages could envy. Small wonder half the world’s young singers seek apprenticeship in Germany’s opera houses.

Most memorable, however, was the Gürzenich Orchestra. It’s tempting to overplay Strauss, and wallow in the luscious harmonies, but then he easily becomes indigestible, and there are pages of considerable complexity in “Capriccio” that do not allow for the least bit of self-indulgence. There was none here; Stenz and the orchestra provided a reading of the utmost clarity and finesse, the texture clear and luminous, with great beauty of tone, and crystalline precision in the tricky octet and sextet passages. Here was a full-scale orchestra playing with the delicacy of the chamber orchestra of “Ariadne auf Naxos”, entirely appropriate to the context, stylish, graceful, and sweetly painful. If ever “Capriccio” needed an advocate to prove that it is not, and never was, intended as a blinkered retreat from reality into sugar-coated fantasy, then this was it.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Bad timing

This began several months ago, but I keep forgetting to blog it.

It appears that New York Magazine has started complimentary subscriptions for Carnegie Hall subscribers.

Why bother, now that they've dumped the one thing a music lover would have wanted to read?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Buy, buy, buy

It appears that the great Met Opera box office pileup will be tomorrow, though with all full subscribers getting early single-ticket access, the pickings for certain shows may be limited.

One may notice that Gelb has carved out "Premium" sections at every level except Family Circle, where a "Front" section was separated last season. (To be fair, the Family Circle split maintained the old price for Front and lowered the price for other seats.)

For those wondering what exactly "Premium" means (besides a chance to charge more), I believe the following is correct:

LocationSeats
Orchestra PremiumRows A-T, all center section seats and first two seats to left and right thereof [UPDATE: see below]
Center Parterre PremiumAll boxes, first row
Grand Tier PremiumRow A, center two sections
Dress Circle PremiumRow A, center two sections
Balcony PremiumRow A, center two sections

Note that Orchestra Prime has pretty much been gutted, while the effect above Parterre is fairly minimal -- except, I suppose, to those with longtime front-row subscriptions.

UPDATE (8/19): A commenter notes that Orchestra Premium may just cover the eight seats (two per side per aisle) adjacent to each aisle, in the specified rows.

UPDATE 2 (8/20): Maury braved the pileup and offers an evocative account.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Ring, afterthoughts

Over its full weeklong course, Wagner's Ring has so many -- and so many sorts of -- musical and dramatic felicities that a complainer might be told, as of the weather: "If you don't like it, wait five minutes." (Well... maybe thirty.) Even on the scale of a single opera, each evening presents a different kind of story -- a creation/origin tale, a tale of the desperate, a youth's adventure tale, and (in substantial part) a tale of archaic intrigue -- so that most will find something to love or admire.

All this is true, and yet the whole -- or, specifically, the bits Wagner put in to connect the stories together -- is such unrelieved hokum that one can't be silent. I don't mean the leitmotivs, or the musical textures derived therefrom, which are a huge pleasure throughout, but the fabled "dramatic unity" of the cycle, the "significance" that a certain kind of Wagnerian never tires of rattling on about.

A glance into Wagner's sources, for example, shows that amidst the usual alterations, combinations, and rearrangements, there are two threads which Wagner made up of whole cloth: the power and danger of the ring (including Alberich's renunciation) and the whole Wanderer/burning of Valhalla business. And what do these threads add? Not drama. When Wagner claimed that "the characters owe their immense, striking significance to the wider context", he had it quite backwards. Characters owe their immense significance to appearing in the flesh onstage. It is the "wider context" that draws its significance from the characters'.

At any rate, we learn from Wagner's additions to "wider context" that commerce is fundamentally incompatible with love and virtue. We also learn that the existing (and despite any anachronism, the events of the Ring are clearly meant to be experienced as now, not "a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away") order is unsalvageably corrupt -- not least due to the above -- and would even itself be pleased by some fiery cleansing end.

It is Romantic narcissism writ large, in other words: the particular 19th century disgust with the bourgeois, non-absolutist now that powered many another work and movement. -- Not least Tristan, of course, and it's in fact that work's glory and lasting appeal; but what Wagner there honestly plays as utter rejection of the daylight world is, in the Ring, dressed up in ill-fitting public bombast (compare Isolde's rapture with Brünnhilde's sermon). It would be funny, if such political transposition of absolutist yearnings had not repeatedly (and to this day) had mind-bogglingly awful consequences.

It still is funny, I suppose, that this stuff is still a particular favorite -- especially in Europe -- of the nabobs of the now, who may now be entertained by a Wagner scion so devoted to the absolute that her solution to the "troublesome" Meistersinger is (by all reports) to eliminate its comedy! What could be more absurdly fitting? Except Meistersinger -- which affirms the public as deftly as Tristan does the private -- deserves better.

In a sense, the Ring does, too, though the problem's not directorial meddling but the librettist-cum-composer's own muddle. Wagner's persistence in doggedly rounding and fleshing out his outline all the way to completion added, as I began by noting, enough riches (particularly musical) that the whole project surely remains of value. Even if one can't take it seriously.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Things I didn't mean

I half-expected to be rebuked for implying some of the following in my last post, but as usual I've drawn rather less criticism than anticipated. (Whether this shows agreement, apathy, impenetrability, or something else I'm not sure.) Still, clarifications might help.

First, I have little to say on the superiority or inferiority of high versus popular culture. They're different, and while they may serve the same general purpose for humanity, the different means by which they go about it make their appeal and specific role different too.

Second, while resources and venue now tend to reflect the needs of a particular cultural mode, I don't think they necessarily form the border between the two. (Remember "Wellington's Victory"? -- The reverse, high-cultural expression in pop clothing, is also possible if beyond the scope of this blog.) For example, despite concert-hall presentation, DG record deal, and skillful writing for classical instruments and voices, Osvaldo Golijov is quite clearly a popular musician. That is to say: opera being 99% a high-cultural genre, if you're looking for a savior (or future) of "opera", Golijov isn't it. I'd go so far as to say that unless he's been looking to change his aesthetic tune for a while, the Met shouldn't be spending its limited new-music resources on him.

Third, obviously this and the preceding post are not a complete theory of cultural modes. More tidbits do turn up if you search the blog for "popular"...


UPDATE (8/2/07): A commenter notes this possibly-apropos review.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The road to...

I usually don't blog this sort of thing, but when a reader brought this recent article to my attention, I thought I might -- for once.

It's mostly an honest personal history of the author's love of music. For decades he was into the new currents on the popular side, and in fact became a journalist in that field. But when his brother died,
I stopped listening to music altogether. It was not that I didn't want to listen to music, simply that I couldn't.
The main thing that woke him from the stupor?
When I first heard it, it pinned me against the wall. It was Beniamino Gigli singing 'Mi par d'udir ancora' from Bizet's opera, The Pearl Fishers. [...] Some might say Gigli is a bit of a ham, but there is nothing in rock'n'roll that compares with his rendition of 'Mi par d'udir ancora' for sheer emotion, not even Van Morrison's young voice on 'Astral Weeks', or James Carr's majestically stoical delivery of 'The Dark End of the Street'. No, 'Mi par d'udir ancora' is something else entirely, something uncanny and almost overwhelming in its powerful fragility.
So he ventured into this new world. And there he offers a familiar sort of complaint:
I have problems, too, with the air of elitism that surrounds classical music. I would even go as far as to say the main problem with classical music - the same goes for opera and theatre - is its audience. And, before the letters start flooding in about my inverted snobbery, let me just say that anyone who still thinks classical music is not elitist should take a look around them when they next take their seat at a live performance.
*     *     *

Now it is certainly true that the perceived "elitist" stuffiness (though I think it's more the latter than the former) of the form is a large element of what keeps many individuals out of concert halls and opera houses. But what exactly should be done?

The answer, I think, is "very little". The matter is not simply of demographics or mores but what the mores mean. High and popular art audiences show different behaviors because the relations between and among artists and audience members are different. High art is and aims to be experienced by each hearer/reader/viewer as a mortal individual: the fact of the mass (and, to the extent one identifies with a protagonist, one's own inclusion in that mass), where it appears, is a source of terror, released in tragic disaster or comic laughter. Popular art works otherwise, experienced by each as part of the ever present-tense and therefore immortal "people", in whose unity and triumph one finds bliss.

So of course an opera or concert audience is formalized, a bit distant, and stiff: it cannot be otherwise and still function. In their contents we're reminded we are at risk, dangerous to each other and ourselves -- the necessary context to that uncanny blend of abandon and fragility the author heard in Gigli. Such an audience simply won't (at least not before the climactic final resolution) show the same openness and camaraderie as one bathed from the start in the comfort and triumph of belonging, for whom danger and disaster are neatly outsourced to the oppressive villain.

This means, then, that a certain amount of formality (if not necessarily the exact brand now existing) is not only unavoidable in non-popular art audiences but essential: without love, rules are necessary. So one danger is that attempts to "demystify" and "unstuff" the concert experience will just encourage boorish behaviour -- and I think this has, to some extent, already happened.

*     *     *

But the more important fact is that between high and popular art, the audience members' experience is truly different -- different things are asked, different expected, different relationships created. It is, for most in this day and age, a strange and wholly novel mode of listening (or watching, etc.) and interacting, to which one must be motivated to adjust. The writer here found motivation in his dissatisfaction with his old options, and in the epiphany with Gigli. And so...

I'm reminded of this months-past post by Kim Witman:
If our hip cyber-efforts don’t bear any real relationship to the product, we won’t keep a single new recruit past the first performance. Even if we get the attention of a new patron, and s/he buys a ticket, if the experience doesn’t live up to the promise of the über-sexy marketing, we’ve won the battle but lost the war. This by no means makes any of the many kinds of satisfying opera experiences inferior. Just incongruous with some of the hype that's beginning to be generated. Sell opera for what it is, and neither apologize for nor mislead folks about what it isn't.
The observation seems dead on, but I would go further. To sell opera for what it is means realizing that it's not part of the common entertainment spectrum, best marketable as "just another" Hollywood movie, or Broadway show, or whatever. (Sure the Paul Potts video -- which has now spawned a pre-release #1 album -- has had explosive viral popularity, but absolutely essential to that was the classic pop-culture triumph-of-the-underdog frame in which it was presented. Though exposure helps, the desire to experience Nessun Dorma inside the actual high-culture context is quite separate, and still about where it was.) It means converting people, not away from their current likes but into something new and incongruous (not just the art, but high art altogether), which means getting new patrons into the shows most likely to trigger conversion experiences.

This may be what frustrated me most about Gelb year one. Is he trying to recruit a young, vibrant audience or the fuddy-duddies of the future? Because between Mattila and Silja (and Silvasti, and Belohlavek) in Jenufa and a wretchedly-sung Puritani, who could better taste the sublimity and visceral grip of opera from the latter? And yet... which got zero promotion, and which endless hype?

*     *     *

Incidentally, I hope the author of this article is finding his way often to Wigmore Hall (though unfortunately Dorothea Röschmann doesn't seem to be scheduled next season). For the melancholiac, nothing beats a good lieder recital.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Klaus Florian Vogt watch


Tomorrow morning (Eastern Time), the most remarkable Wagnerian tenor I've ever heard will sing Walther in Meistersinger, live from Bayreuth.

Who's Amanda Mace?

UPDATE (7/25): Is Sachs clacking away on a typewriter? (Must be... Hence the booing.)

UPDATE 2 (7/27): Uh oh -- check out Vogt's present schedule. Is this wise? The instrument he has is hugely precious and surely already enough in demand for him to turn down excess engagements.

Ring, second half

If cycle one of the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring didn't really start until midway into Valkyrie, it was for a while debatable whether it would actually ever finish. Despite some game performances by a mostly overtaxed cast (under pressure, Siegfried Leonid Zakhozhaev was swamped and Brünnhilde Olga Sergeeva pitch-wild, though both were otherwise fairly appealing), Friday's performance of Siegfried never really went anywhere. Tanovitsky's Wanderer was fairly symptomatic, reverting to the low-impact vocalism and aimless gesturing he used in Rheingold.

Matters weren't helped by the very worst set of the production. Gergiev's Ring basically turns cheesy unspecificity into a virtue, and it's the agonizing clumsiness of the Act 3 Siegfried set -- featuring a central statue surrounded by giant wriggling sperm -- that made it bomb. (The decision to costume the Valkyries as skunk-haired goths throughout made its worst impact here.)

But Götterdämmerung belongs to the orchestra, and the Ring's second half finally got its star turn the next day. From the opening measures through Siegfried's deal with the Gibichungs, Valery Gergiev finally took command. Exulting, as if on first discovery, in the expanded sonic palette Wagner offers in this last installment, he led the orchestra in as electric and dramatically charged a performance as I have heard from him. Though the rest of the night never again reached that height of focus, it was a most satisfying evening of music.

The cast did better all around too, from Sergeeva -- a bit steadier at climaxes, and with plenty of strength at the end -- to Evgeny Nikitin (Pogner in the latest Met Meistersingers) as a memorable Gunther to the new Siegfried, Victor Lutsuk, whose voice had a real power and virility (but not much subtlety). And the production, though, as Maury complained, blank at the end, showed well with a very archaic/tribal look for the Gibuchungs.

Afterthoughts later.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ring, first half

In some important sense the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring's first cycle this summer at the Met didn't start until partway into Act 2 of Die Walküre: Fricka's entrance, to be exact. Larissa Diadkova's mesmerizing performance of her argument -- the first real star turn of the cycle -- seemed to energize not only the rest of the cast but Gergiev himself. The remainder of Walküre demanded the more-than-polite attention it got: a real triumph.

The production, for better and worse, doesn't demand much attention. Based on some rearrangeable long archaic "stone" statues (sometimes decor, sometimes plot landmarks -- Hunding's tree, Brünnhilde's rock -- and positioned every way including overhead), matching light-up rock-like things, and groovy '70s lighting, the physical design is neither difficult to transport, grimly everyday-looking, nor based on any obvious and irritating conceit. On the other hand, the lack of a strong directorial hand (the production is credited to Gergiev and set designer George Tsypin) has its drawbacks: for one thing, the singers look pretty much on their own, going about stage business in various and not-entirely-congruent styles. In fact the most remarkable thing about Diadkova's Walküre bit might have been that it inspired the first convincing and focused stretch of physical reaction from Wotan (the young Alexei Tanovitsky), which actually lasted halfway into his dialog with Brünnhilde.

Tanovitsky, though his voice could use more heft, actually did well from this point, far better than most feared after the low-energy low-impact Wotan of the previous night. More betrayed by vocal lightness was Oleg Balashov (Siegmund), who despite a generally pleasant sound failed to register at climaxes ("Wälse!" was essentially inaudible). The women, led by the aforementioned Diadkova, did well -- Mlada Khudoley (Sieglinde), new to me, seems a bit unpolished but had plenty of force on top, and her willingness to emote might be seen to better effect with actual direction. More on the singers, perhaps, when the cycle concludes.

Gergiev's orchestra is so far quite responsive, thundering, wailing, and raging at his command. As one might expect, they don't sing with the same sweetness as Levine's Met Orchestra (or even Gergiev's Met Orchestra), but despite some stray horn-pitch issues it's an interesting change.

*     *     *

I have much to say on the piece itself, but next week.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Word from out west 2

This is several weeks late, but still quite relevant. Another correspondent (different from this one) attended San Francisco Opera's June performances and, by a stroke of fortune, was able to report on an unexpected contrast.
I was surprised to find that they use amplification. I hadn't known that before I arrived, although I remember there was a big brou-ha-ha about something like this on Opera-l a few years ago. By amplified I mean that there were 3 microphones suspended over the orchestra pit at various heights (but I have no depth of field vision, so I can't really vouch for exact placement). Funny thing: the amplification was not working/used on 6/13 so I had the chance to hear both an amplified and an unamplified Don Giovanni. The air conditioning was also broken, so we in the audience got to commiserate with the performers.

The house is about 1/2 – 2/3rds the size of the Met and I had seats in various sections of the balcony (right, left, and center—rows 1- 10). The sightlines were generally pretty good, but if you're on the sides, about 1/3 of the stage is truncated. Also, that high up, part of the back stage is out of view.

As for the sound: without amplification the balcony sounded quite a bit like Dress Circle seating at the Met. There were dead spots on stage where you couldn't hear the singers, and other spots where the orchestra tended to swamp the singers even if they could be heard.

The amplification tended to alleviate this. I asked one of the ushers about this, and he said it was put in to compensate for the acoustics (I still don't credit that "all the other houses do it," as he said though—but I suspect it's a sticky subject for them). With the sound boosted, my ability to hear everyone was much better, and I think it flattered rather than actually distorted the singers; voices were all pretty much where you expected them to be and in correct proportion to each other—they got quieter the farther back on stage the singer. I suspect one can thank some good technicians for that.
(Emphases mine.) Why, I wonder, had I never before heard of this? Has it been well covered in the Bay Area local press?

Yesterday's news

Anne-Carolyn Bird has a terrific post about the awful Jerry Hadley news (which I'd hitherto missed).

It may sound callous or dull to note this, but it's odd that the tragic finality a singer (often) portrays onstage must, for success and life, be so carefully deferred off. On the other hand, one finishes and dies nonetheless, in the end...

Doings far away

A correspondent in Moscow sends notice of young (~25) Russian soprano Anna Aglatova's triumph as Liu in yesterday's Bolshoi performance of Turandot. No clips seem to exist of that role, but here she is in a bit of the Jewel Song:

A more substantial video -- "Tornami a vagheggiar", from a 2005 competition -- can be seen here.

Most Russian imports here seem to be through the Gergiev pipeline, but who knows?

Monday, July 09, 2007

With my speaw and magic hewmet...

The Toronto Star notes that we've hit the 50th anniversary of "What's Opera, Doc?":



No word on whether this provided inspiration for Gergiev and company.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Looking forward

The Mariinsky (Kirov) Ring begins next Friday. I'll be there, with mixed expectations.

Jay Nordlinger already offers a curtain-raiser.

Monday, June 18, 2007

End of an era

Being allergic to June, it's been a while since I've posted -- long enough that this item is no longer news. But I can't let Peter Davis' (involuntary) departure from the periodic critics' roster pass without notice. Others have praised his technical grasp and knowledge, but such things were in my experience properly transparent to a reader, who was more likely to notice the perspective and coherent, independently considered assessment they aided. He did, for the most part, a terrific job with his method -- zooming in on the essential, what made a show go wrong or right -- picking out details stimulating even to a disagreeing mind.

With his release after 26 years by New York magazine, the city's opera criticism has lost not only its doyen but perhaps still its most interesting contributor. I hope we might read more from him in some form, and not just in the retrospective mode of his singer-history book.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Word from out west

A roving correspondent offers this text message review of SFO's Don Giovanni opening last night:
Van den heever, the last minute donna anna was great -- has a creamy nilssonesque voice. T[wyla ]robinson good too. Screens made balcony feel like economy class air plane cabin
Opera-L already has some longer accounts.

(David Gockley's video screen idea was previously considered here.)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Apparently, it's a trend

I was wondering why the search engine hits for "Karita Mattila nude" were up again: it seems her tour of Flimm's Fidelio production -- mind you, she's not nude in this one -- has taken her to London. (And if you haven't seen it, go.) Hence pieces like this interview, in which we discover a certain similarity to Renee Fleming:
I ask for her future plans – only to hit a surprise. "I’m working on a jazz project," she beams, "Four concerts, with the best Finnish resources."
Huh.

Incidentally, until the Met and DG get on the ball and release the Salome DVD, those looking for nude shots from that production will have to buy this book.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Next

The 2006-2007 Met season has come to an end (and I'll have one catch-all post with most of the things I failed to post) but its successor begins in four months.

As much as one might question the direction of Peter Gelb's managership on the whole, its changes may, in this transitional period when the names and habits of old continue next to the new, make for a most enjoyable 2007-2008 season. As one perceptive Opera-Ler has observed, one of Gelb's policies appears to be to ride his stars until they drop. This may prove unwise in the long run -- it is, for one thing, part of the homogenization discussed in the previous post -- but its short-run appeal is obvious. We will see Natalie Dessay star in two new productions, Renee Fleming in two Verdi revivals, and so on. Even La Boheme is cast with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas (who also stars in a revival of Clemenza) for its entire run, and the most "why are they bothering?" production -- a new Macbeth with Andrea Gruber -- has an interesting lineup of men including a later cast of Joseph Calleja, Carlos Alvarez, and Rene Pape.

Almost all productions have, in this manner, a star or two to grab one's interest. Only, I think, the Norma has nothing to recommend it but the surely-to-be-abused music. That is, barring ill health... Dessay's cancellation from last Sunday's Met Orchestra concert (where Michelle DeYoung filled in admirably) got me to wondering what Gelb might do if she had to withdraw from one or more of the new productions. Let Anna Netrebko massacre another half-learned bel canto role, perhaps? Let's hope we don't find out.

As for myself, I'm most looking forward to Lucia (opening night is the "event", but the later combination of Dessay and Giuseppe Filianoti should be explosive) and Ernani, wouldn't miss Röschmann's Countess or Mattila's Manon Lescaut, and will probably end up seeing everything else besides Romeo (note the "conductor"), Norma, First Emperor, and Satyagraha.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reflected tastes

If Peter Gelb has made a watchword of the "theatrical", it's only to be expected. It's after all of a piece with his own tenure at the Met. He himself has had the leading role, strongly present while battling the Bad Old Days on the scene of... well, not necessarily the physical house, but the virtual Metropolitan Opera that exists in the newspapers and in the mind's eye of many never even there. And so he has given Natalie Dessay more prominence than ever, despite her post-surgical instrument; kept faith with Karita Mattila, including (apparently) a Luc Bondy Tosca for 2009; and has perhaps raised the energy level on the audience side of the house (though the relative dearth of new bloggers may suggest the opposite).

But if actual implementation of Gelb's stated goals has at times shown itself to be skin-deep or counterproductive, that too is of a piece. For as I noted from the beginning, Gelb has used and needed the appearance of change more than actual change. So when actual change, too, turns out to be about appearance, why not? (But let me be plain: neither plastic beauty nor advance reputation are "theatrical". Theater, as I've noted endlessly from this blog's third post, is a matter of presence, not surface or history, and trying to pass the latter off as the former shortchanges new operagoers.) In this vein, for example, the nominally audience-building ventures of moviecasting and rush tickets turn out to be principally enjoyed by old, often retired men and women of long acquaintance with opera and the Met who, though perhaps enjoying some frisson from participating in the putative future of opera, are by no means themselves that future. (Incidentally, I wonder if attendance has actually increased by more than what Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman's gigantic subsidy prompted.) The productions turned in by Broadway imports Bartlett Sher and Jack O'Brien were undramatic clunkers. (I do, mind you, expect much better from Mary Zimmerman for the season-opening Lucia.) And so on.

*     *     *

And yet it seems true that Gelb is de-emphasizing singing per se. For the moment it is tempered by the fact that his aesthetic ideas remain subordinate to financial reality -- that is, the need to accomodate audience-drawing legacy stars of Stimme -- but I believe it will grow more pronounced over time. Would a Stephanie Blythe (rightly singled out by Alex Ross as a counterpoint) ever in fact get a Met debut today? How about in 2012, if it's still Gelb's house?

From one broader perspective, this may simply be the end of American (that is, Met) exceptionalism in operatic aesthetics. Of course a generalization doesn't capture every production or every year over time, but the long-discussed truism that the Met has, compared to the great European houses, been rather more interested in physical sound than dramatic-theatrical elements seems, on the whole, fair. Part of this was the houses (both huge), part -- in a bit of touching irony -- the last mass media framework (the Texaco broadcasts), part the sort of singers more often grown here. But it goes deeper, I believe -- after all, vocal-theatrical legend Olive Fremstad was American, and forced out of the Met by Gelb's greatest predecessor Giulio Gatti-Casazza long before broadcasts began (though not long before Gatti-Casazza went on to dump Claudia Muzio, the greatest vocal dramatist we can hear on record).

For while opera was -- and still, largely, remains -- a court or governmental institution in Europe, it has been here a private enterprise, subject to the individual tastes of ticket buyers and donors and subsidized by government mostly indirectly through those tastes (the tax deduction).

Now it should come as no surprise that the circles of bureaucrats, intellectuals, and elite tastemakers in charge of state-backed opera have, collectively, tastes and priorities rather distinct from those in the broader and not-much-overlapping group of people who spend their own privately-earned money -- often quite a lot of it -- to support the art here. (Of course, this apparently has come as a big -- and nasty -- surprise to many a Euro-mandarin who's come to head an American arts organization, most recently Pam Rosenberg in San Francisco, so maybe it's not so obvious.)

What is different is not, I think, the range of tastes within a group -- every view in my original taxonomy is held, I think, everywhere -- but their balance. Many people come to the opera, give money, and stay loyal to the art because they just love the physical pleasure of the right voice. These are not, except perhaps for Jay Nordlinger, the people who end up writing opera reviews, not least because this sort of pleasure is too elemental to be verbal. I know a bunch of people like this: they may thrill to Jenufa as much as anyone, but in the end what they really want is to hear an echo of some particular primal tenor/soprano/whatnot sound that means "opera", preferably in a comfortingly familiar piece.

This perspective on opera is not, as I say, well represented in the official discourse, though it sort of runs amok on Opera-L (and the wierd hair-splitting and absolutism on such matters reinforces my sense of the futility of talk thereon). But something like it is probably held by most of the domestic audience. Here, where administrators are accountable, that has mattered -- what has been on stage has generally reflected this public taste.

*     *     *

And yet this singer-centric traditionalist view has never sustained the Met on its own. There have always been additional draws, and additional threads: glamour, novelty, one sort of musico-dramatic rigor succeeding another. The house has needed all of these to stay afloat.

But none before Gelb have proposed to set one of these principles above singing, to Europeanize the house and its sense of opera. For though Gelb is American, with a much better understanding of American institutions than Gerard Mortier is likely ever to show, and though he may make odd bragging pronouncements about European houses, his respin of this house and its values clearly reflects a European sensibility. His imported new stars (Damrau, Netrebko, Gheorghiu), the emphasis on looks and versimilitude, and not least his taking for granted or worse the wishes of his core audience speak for themselves.

Now the reason for all this is clear: the core audience is stuck and -- with the post-9/11 drop in foreign tourism -- insufficient, while the marginal audience is the group that loves novelty, both real and imagined. But as a politician who keeps his eye always on putative swing voters may find himself abandoned by his base, so Gelb may find a nasty surprise in his house's future. Maybe not -- perhaps the repeated boom cycles of the "new economy" have created a entire class of novelty-loving arts-lovers-with-money -- but then it would just be opera that suffers.

In this thicket Gelb may be hampered by his sincerity. Why shouldn't he, as he seems to, believe in theatricality -- the true live charge of opera -- as its true being? As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I pretty much do myself. And yet the other perspectives on opera are also true, and there's no reason seasons shouldn't cater to all, in sequence or together. A man of his press savvy can surely sell all of opera's truths. The art is too big, too varied for a global monoculture, particularly one against the wishes of so many enthusiasts.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tongue tied behind his back

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn't to tweak his prominent teacher-predecessors, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, that Matthias Goerne has taken such a haphazard approach to song texts. Even at his best he's been at times mealy-mouthed, and if last night's Carnegie Hall appearance showed him in reasonably good diction, it introduced a new element: bits of paper inside the piano, from which he seemed to study the words between and even during songs. (He still botched some.)

For despite putting aside their obsession with word and word-effect, despite himself fumbling with cue cards and word-memory lapses, Goerne illuminates the poems set by the great lieder composers at least as well as his forebears. Last night his uncannily beautiful instrument precisely registered every textual image and turn in mood, without giving any moment priority over the song's whole or losing the line of musical or dramatic focus. It is this latter, I think, by which he excels even Fi-Di: shorn of the odd postwar obligation to represent the institution of song, Goerne can uncompromisedly embody, e.g., the whole void with which Brahms' songs stoically cohabit. Next time, for a bigger challenge, might he start singing everything to "la la la la la" a la Rossini?

Christoph Eschenbach, ill-treated by the Philadelphia set, provided both measured and sympathetic accompaniment. The evening was a feast of collective focus, after which it seemed the crowd might call the players endlessly and happily back for ovations.