Wednesday, November 28, 2007


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 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.