Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Puccini at 150

The birthday was yesterday. Given the mess that seems to have overtook the Rose Theater "gala", the continued magic of Maija Kovalevska in Boheme was the most fit local commemoration. This time Ramon Vargas was in somewhat stronger voice.

Although it was a Puccini anniversary, I couldn't help but think how I'd love to hear Kovalevska and Vargas (and -- why not? -- Kwiecien) together in Mascagni's L'amico Fritz. Or, if OONY or the like can't make that happen, at least the Cherry Duet at some gala or other.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The bohemian girl

La Boheme -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/18/2008
Kovalevska, Phillips, Vargas, Kwiecien, Hakala, Gradus, Plishka / Chaslin

In one sense, Puccini's La Boheme is the easiest of operas to appreciate, as any glance around the newcomer-filled auditorium during any Met run could tell you. In another, it's the most difficult -- particularly for the otherwise more culturally sensitive. Perhaps the opera is the victim of its own success: isn't it too much, this haze of sentimentalizing around the piece, the subsequent part-Romantic/mostly-pop hallowing of bohemia as the place -- too often cozily, shorn of the opera's tragic narrative for comfortable wish-fulfillment consumption at all hours -- not to mention the generations of self-satisfied imitators (and worse) in its cultural wake? And if the material's too much Puccini himself (of course) pulls no punches -- tune after glorious tune, delineating emotions of life and death, within a symphonic texture and organization that's almost too well-crafted to believe; nor does Zeffirelli's masterpiece of a production, the lazy knocking of which seems obligatory for any critic wishing to polish his or her credentials. And the singers! Who can deny some impulse to write off the piece as poor taste or overripe or opium for the bourgeois striving if and to the extent these ostensible free spirits turn out not just to be clods, but monochromatic clods visibly intent on high notes or strutting or general self-aggrandizement?

Yet the piece endures, surviving poor renditions and condescension alike. Year after year audiences are transfixed by the bohemians as -- because! -- love and death knock, together in the person of a cold-handed sun-besotted girl, on Rodolfo's door. And sometimes...

As last spring's revival brought the sonic scope and cohesiveness of Puccini's score again undimmed to the ear, this current run shows how well the piece can work as musical drama on stage. Puccini's sonic inspirations seem here effortlessly incarnated as human-dramatic ones by the singers, without a bit of insincerity or routine or look-at-me grandstanding. If hype and publicity can detract from La Boheme's honest appeal, it may be fitting that the finest overall cast the piece has seen here in two decades or more is appearing without much of either.

*     *     *

Twenty-nine-year-old Maija Kovalevska has grown since she, fresh off of winning that year's Operalia, debuted at the Met as Mimi two years ago. As her February Micaëla suggested, what was then promise has blossomed into something remarkable. In the first place, her voice is about a size and a half louder these days -- not from any sort of forcing, but simply louder and more audible by maturation. It means not just that she can be heard, but that a larger range of shades and effects is open for her lyric soprano's audible use. The colors of darkness and twilight in its timbre have thus multiplied, but also the more ringing clarity (particularly on top) on which she sometimes calls.

The Mimi she builds with these is spellbinding: fresh and tranquil, but achingly heartfelt; imaginative, not bland; and with a palpable Italianata that nevertheless keeps her inside this lyrical, unaffected character. In Mimi's great solos and ensembles one recognizes the remarkable thing one hears in Kovalevska's current teacher Mirella Freni and other great predecessors -- most strongly, I think, in Met legend Lucrezia Bori, who sang the part some seventy-odd times with the company: the character's refined peace is transformed at climaxes, unforcedly opening out inside some few notes with the infinite colors of some never-before-sensed dimension. So we are privileged to hear -- first when she mentions the April sun's first kiss and the scent of her rose and then again repeatedly later -- the vast joys she feels within the bounds of her small room and life, the immeasurable inner space in which -- as she says, before the end -- she loves Rodolfo as deeply and infinitely as the sea.

It is the sort of success that sets the opera alight, has grown New Yorkers reaching for their handkerchiefs through Acts III and IV, and rehabilitates Puccini even for the most doubtful -- but I wonder if the lack of visible (her acting, aside from some well-placed attention given to falling and cough spasms, is pretty transparent) or audible showiness will keep Kovalevska from getting the plaudits she deserves. In a sense, it doesn't matter, because the company believes in her and is bringing her back again and again, but... We'll see.

The other soprano, Susanna Phillips, also won the Operalia competition -- in 2005, the year before Kovalevska -- and was a Met Council Finals winner that year to boot. But she is younger (now 26 or 27, I'm not sure) and Monday's first night of this revival was in fact her Met debut. In 2005 she sounded like a major voice, and apparently Phillips hasn't taken many vocal wrong turns since: in easy-sounding control and production, radiant clear sound all the way up and down, and whatever else you might want, her voice still stands out. In manner she's still the open, naturally musical, and naturally charismatic singer we saw at the competition, as comfortable commanding Musetta's large share of attention onstage as holding and elaborating the high-note climaxes of her famous waltz. Her Musetta's a fairly generous and spirited one, more ditz than shrew in her changeability. Word (not yet reflected on Brad Wilber's compilation) is that she's to sing Pamina next season, but some future Manon could be irresistible.

The men are familiar, and good. Ramon Vargas was fighting through some difficulty on top, but he delivered as necessary. As last time he sings with grace and all the expressive urgency of his recent form, and inhabits the part earnestly and seamlessly. Mariusz Kwiecien, Tommi Hakala (last, I think, seen debuting in Faust two years back), and Oren Gradus do well in the other bohemian roles, sharing a certain pleasant leanness of spirit and voice that suits the bunch.

*     *     *

Conductor Frédéric Chaslin doesn't exactly get in the way, but his isn't the complete conception that Nicola Luisotti brought to the pit last season. Chaslin does well with both the expansively detailed orchestral tapestry and the big lyric currents, but under his baton the two elements don't ideally coexist, each coming out by stepping on the other in turn. So each moment is well handled, but the Acts don't add up as well in sound as they might.

Such coherence may improve with repetition, but even if it doesn't this is a great and irresistible revival. Note that Vargas is only singing through the January 3 matinee broadcast: the subsequent two performances will feature Massimo Giordano as Rodolfo. Unlike Vargas, Giordano actually is a clod, but his cloddishness was actually turned to unexpected advantage in the season's earlier Traviata. Again, we'll see.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Siegfried und Isolde

Waltraud Meier is... some large fraction of an ideal dramatic soprano. The remainder is some less hit-and-miss notes (mostly on top), some extra force, and a truly distinguished sheen to the sound. Nevertheless she's by far the most effective exponent of Isolde the current Met production has seen, and her debut last night in the part was the sort of huge success to make reprise performances superfluous. Well, maybe not quite superfluous.

*     *     *

It should come as no surprise to any who've seen her that Meier, despite coming cold to the revival, was the most dramatically engaged performer on stage. For the first part of the opening act it felt a bit like she was feeling out the production and how to adapt her embodiment of the character to its frame. But by the time she sank limp and dead-eyed into Brangäne's support after uttering her wholehearted curse, Meier seemed completely at home -- and more Isolde than anyone in a long time.

If she's been worried about her voice in this big house, it worked -- at least for one evening. She finessed some bits, some notes did -- as for everyone -- get buried, and she had a tricky moment in the post-potion rapture, but she had telling notes from bottom to top, got to the finale with plenty of voice to sing it cleanly, and of course made the most of the notes that came out. Her individual portions of the three acts all naturally demanded and rewarded attention: an active and responsive Isolde, convincingly by turns proud, hurt, and angry, then impatient and in love, then -- by the end -- rapt in a not-at-all-lewdly orgasmic transfiguration.

Truly remarkable for someone who'd just flown into town to sing her very first Met Isolde.

*     *     *

The rest of the cast was a mix. I almost feel ridiculous knocking the Tristan, Peter Seiffert, because in many years one would beg to have a tenor who can sing his way through the part without shouting and with an audible (because pingy) but pleasant and basically clear lyric sound (though not, to be sure, with the remarkable lyric beauty of early Heppner). But Meier's presence raises the stakes, and Seiffert's idea of his character is just impossible. His Act I Tristan is all "Tristan der Held", without a trace of the "Tantris" who came wounded to Isolde before that fatal and decisive moment in which their eyes first met (to which the action, language, and music of the opera ever seek to return). With the energetic and arrogant carelessness of a victorious athlete he bounds around, apparently buying his own PR. This befits the young Siegfried, but as Tristan it's nonsense: Tristan still, as he cryptically hints to Isolde before drinking the potion, loves her, but his return to the outside world bound him to duty and obligation. In Wagner's scheme the potion doesn't create the mutual love, it allows the characters to indulge it (or, more precisely, to attempt to recreate the world in its image). And yet no sign of love is audible or visible in Seiffert, and therefore no reason for him to be so unhappy as to accept the cup of (he thinks) poison.

The obvious contrast is Ben Heppner, whose portrayal this spring was not just well-sung but deeply conceived and inhabited. He begins grave, stoic: outwardly resolute, but -- plain to the audience -- as internally roiled by emotion as Isolde herself. The potion, as Tristan notes upon drinking, is a release: either way, one side will have won, whether by the external squashing the internal for good (by his death), or -- as he does not expect -- the internal being let upon the world and reasserting dominance, regardless of external consequences (by the philtre). And Heppner acts lightened, liberated from duality, and even more so as the long-impeded love shines out (not least from his all-important-to-the-story eyes). Seiffert, sad to say -- and perhaps assistant stage directors Gina Lapinski and Stephen Pickover are somewhat to blame -- just starts pawing and smooching Isolde without psychic revelation.

But let's say one goes along with the somewhat traditional misunderstanding of the potion as the origin of their love. Acts II and III still require a lovestruck Tristan, and it's not Seiffert. There is no night in him -- neither in his voice, nor his phrases, nor his actions -- and his fate of dying for love seems ever some cosmic joke, a thing picked for ultimate incongruity with his self, which never does change from Act I. His desire for Isolde seems some combination of randiness and self-satisfaction, his philosophizing thereon a humorous put-on. Did he brew the fatal potion himself, as Tristan at one point (metaphorically) claims in Act III? Not even a little bit. The whole business of falling in love and dying of it -- even to the very end, in his actual death -- seems some weird external compulsion in which he has no convincing part.

I've gone on too long. He did, I think, sing well, which is more than most Tristans can say.

Supporting players also sang well, particularly Michelle DeYoung as Brangäne -- warmer, I think, than in spring, and with a nice physical rapport with Meier -- and Kwangchul Youn as King Marke -- sound not as pointed as Rene Pape's, but very impressive in the house and used with surprising subtlety. No complaints there.

*     *     *

Finally, conductor Daniel Barenboim. He got a huge ovation to start, after each intermission, and at curtain calls his noise outdid all but Meier's. On the other hand, a significant number of people at this run haven't been all that impressed.

Both sides may, in their way, be right. Barenboim's Wagner is quite far from James Levine' (and, indeed, Loren Maazel's -- the last guest Wagnerian). Levine shapes on the scale of a scene, even a Wagnerian Act, phrasing strongly but always keeping the proportion of the whole; but Barenboim gives each phrased gesture its independent completeness, piling these often disparate wholes together as building blocks for long forms in a sort of musical pointillism. The styles seem to appeal quite strongly to different ears: Barenboim's fans find his approach more natural and organic, while I (for example) find myself getting a bit seasick; Levine's detractors find his complementary focus on glowing sound dulling (I find in this music that the persistent evocation of a most transient thing -- sweet physical beauty in soundwaves -- induces the Wagnerian longing); as (you will have guessed) a Barenboim naysayer I find his characteristic sonic excitement (from the ever-shifting play of tempo, attack, and phrase) more obfuscation than revelation; etc.

In any case, the evening was, I think, a great success on Barenboim's terms. Were that my ears and brain better wired to appreciate it: to those unhappy with the Levine aesthetic, for example, it must have been a revelatory breath of fresh air.

*     *     *

So, a remarkable one-off? Maybe. If I were Peter Gelb... Meier's now actually in town, and Queen of Spades is ending this afternoon. So if Seiffert and Dalayman were indisposed again for just one performance, couldn't...?

OK, probably not. But it would be something.

Friday, December 12, 2008

On this day I begin my blog's fifth year

As has become traditional, on this blogoversary I offer some highlights from the past year's posting:

On Puccini's Manon Lescaut
On Johan Botha as Otello
On Peter Grimes as sea god (see second part of post)
On Ernani and Verdi's later tragedies
Review -- Ruth Ann Swenson in La Traviata
On Tristan & Isolde and Heppner & Voigt
On Ramon Vargas' unscheduled appearance in Ballo
On Jonathan Miller's jealous realism
Review -- Anja Harteros in La Traviata
On Gerard Mortier's abandonment of City Opera

Thanks to all those who have read, commented on, linked and recommended this site so far.

One more spin of the revolving door

A reader points me to this link, noting that Waltraud Meier flew in from Germany last night to sing tonight's Isolde. Meanwhile Peter Seiffert is back as Tristan.

I believe Meier has, as the reader pointed out, been avoiding the role here on purpose. But a one-off is surely less risk than a whole run, and she's sung it often with Barenboim before.

This has the makings of an event.


Despite a very promising lineup for Verdi's Requiem at Carnegie Hall, everyone in New York (which, as it's audition season, may include much of the country's opera population) seemed to be at Monday night's premiere of Thaïs, in a production new to the Met but previously seen with these principals in Chicago. And most, I suspect, got what they came for -- but not all that much more.

It is difficult to believe that Massenet's opera was based on a novel. One expects such works to have an overabundance of incident and character interest... But unlike other French-novel-derived pieces like La Traviata and Massenet's own Manon (not to mention the fascinatingly unorthodox Manon Lescaut of Puccini, premiered the year before this piece), nothing changes between the scenes of Thaïs -- and nothing happens in them either. The opera lumbers predictably along, each act doggedly working to a capping climax of drama that (despite being in sight the entire time) doesn't quite come off.

It's not helped, in this aspect, by the inoffensive if fairly handsome John Cox production on display. Maury has already covered the notable visual bits (Renee's outfits: Lacroix darling Lacroix; sets, lighting/color scheme, and other outfits: apparently shared with Flimm's Salome, though less interesting without that production's glass), but at least as obvious is Cox's lack of interest in sharpening Massenet's story or dramatic course. Though it does cut most of the ballet, the production neither propels nor connects the action; its physicality is piecemeal and conventional. In some cases this sort of economy is a virtue: some directors see one story in everything (and we can only hope it's an interesting one), while some few see a variety -- to see none at all at least does no active harm. (Cox's turntable-based Barber, for example, was more effective and true to Rossini than the busy, overthought Bartlett Sher production with which Peter Gelb replaced it.) Here it's less useful.

Jesus López-Cobos wasn't going to fire up the evening either. Though he accompanied sympathetically from the pit, his interest in the score seemed more in the textural play of the score's passionate, elegant, and lyrical elements than in dramatic urgency.

*     *     *

But why spend so much time talking about such things? The run is a vehicle for Renee Fleming (and, to a lesser extent, Thomas Hampson), and anything more would be gravy. And though her impersonation of the title character doesn't really have the bodily eroticism of the old-timers described by Peter Davis in his curtain-raiser, she delivers.

The part calls for her to be fascinating and seductive, and Fleming does it with her singing. Though it's almost shocking to me that her top is now merely mortal (she missed the two Ds in the final scene, though it didn't seem so important at the time), the sensual star quality of her voice remains. And even the Flemingisms of manner and phrase well suit this explicitly theatrical character who goes from indulgence to asceticism with admirable wholeheartedness.

Hampson -- as the monk who jealously converts Thaïs but finds himself converted in turn -- did well, in fact getting stronger as the night went along. Whether this was just the course of things or his instrument simply responding to being (gradually) freed from having to sound composed and warm, I'm not sure, but his agony was as stirring as it's usually been of late.

The tenor role, Nicias -- Thaïs' worldly man of the moment -- was well filled by Michael Schade. The role is fairly high and doesn't require any outrageous beauty, and seemed to highlight his virtues more than the Mozart and Rossini parts he otherwise does. Leah Partridge sang the high phrases of her even smaller part ("La Charmeuse") with an appealing clarity and focus. Alain Vernhes made his Met debut here as the head of the monastic sect but left little impression. Also debuting -- as one of Nicias' girls -- was Lindemann singer Ginger Costa-Jackson (who, to some confusion, has also been known as Ginger Jackson and Emilia Costa).

*     *     *

The stars on stage did their part. But the biggest star of the night might have been the man who got the first curtain call, not the last: violinist David Chan, whose solo playing in the opera's most famous excerpt (the "Méditation" between the scenes of Act II) was the highlight of the evening. Met broadcast reruns have reminded me of late how great Raymond Gniewek (concertmaster from 1957 to 2000) was in these long solos, but Chan's playing (he's one of the two current Met concertmasters) is itself terrific: elegant, warm, and long-breathed, about as good Massenet as you could want.

UPDATE (1:15PM): An anonymous commenter (and not to hector, but please see this post) notes that Laura Hamilton was the violin soloist last night. Given the size and importance of this solo part (and the fact that he/she gets a curtain call), perhaps the Met should start listing the violinist in advance on its public cast lists...

UPDATE 2 (12/15): To dispel any confusion from the above update -- David Chan played performance #1 (about which I initially wrote), Laura Hamilton performance #2 (which had already happened before I made this post). I might return to opening review posts with the performance date(s).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Name tags

There's been much of value -- and, fortunately, not much poison -- posted here in anonymous comments over the years, but with (for example) two or more Anonymouses talking to each other in the recent Don Giovanni post, the potential for confusion is now getting a bit high.

I may someday have to shift comments to registered IDs only, but -- despite the OpenID system making the registration business much less onerous than it was -- I'd rather not. So, as you comment, please at least choose a more or less unique name/pseudonym for yourself and enter it into the "Name/URL" box[es]. I'm personally more fond of names or nonsense strings (or names plus nonsense strings) than opera-referencing aliases, but whatever works.

UPDATE (12/15): As this is as close as I hope to get to having a "comments policy", I should note my one substantive request:
No grudges.

Friday, December 05, 2008


The Met's press release today:
Beginning December 8, every Monday through the end of the Met season in May, opera-goers can sign up for the "$25 Weekend Tickets" drawing at the Met's web site. The drawing from all the entrants will be held on Tuesday morning and winners' names posted on the web site by 12 noon. Winners may then call Met Ticket Service at 212-362-6000, or go to the Met Box Office, to buy their $25 tickets, which must be paid for by Wednesday evening at 5:00 p.m. The tickets will be for Friday and Saturday night performances only, and will vary in number each week depending on the availability of tickets for that weekend’s performances. Thirty-one performances will be offered on the "$25 Weekend Tickets" program.
The program was suggested, unsurprisingly, by Agnes Varis (of the Rush Ticket subsidy) and underwritten by the Met's board. Seats will be in Grand Tier (!) and Orchestra. Two per person.

La Scala on Broadway (corrected)

I'd somehow thought it was to be tape-delayed, but La Scala's moviecasting partner (Emerging Pictures) has in fact set up a live relay of their opening night (Don Carlo) todaySunday at noon ET. The venue in New York is Columbia's Miller Theater.

I'm not quite sure what the audience is for a show on a Friday at noon (or earlier, out west), but if you're interested...
UPDATE (12/6): Thanks to intermezzo for correcting my rather embarrassing confusion of "5" and "7".

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Don of the dead

I was at Monday's return of Don Giovanni, with much the same cast except for two new women (Tamar Iveri as Donna Anna and Dorothea Röschmann as Donna Elvira) and a conductor -- Lothar Koenigs -- making his Met debut. Tenor Mark Thomsen also debuted in place of an indisposed Matthew Polenzani. The evening was, unfortunately, a bust.

The new women did their part. Iveri is a sound and admirable singer, and the higher-lying Donna Anna fits her voice better than Vitellia did in the spring. I praised Susan Graham much as Elvira two months ago, and it's true that the mezzo fullness of her low notes is now missed, but Röschmann has her own success. (I'd never before quite realized how affecting Elvira's recits could be.) Vocally she took a bit of her first aria to warm up, but was in secure voice all night and showed a spaciousness of sound that bodes well for bringing her light-Wagner successes to the Met. In chararacter she showed the same transparent-seeming abandon as always, and in a better overall production I'd be eager to see it again.

Thomsen's debut was less auspicious. He showed a recessed sound and struggled to get through Ottavio's two difficult arias. And perhaps Koenigs had the same first-performance-of-a-run problem that other visiting conductors have, but he didn't show much either. It's true that he didn't try to civilize the score to death as Langree did, but until nicely shaping the final scene he showed little fire or particular insight.

All of the returnees did well... Except, unfortunately, the title character. Erwin Schrott is still swaggering vocally and physically for the called-for moments, but seems now to be phoning it in, disconnected not only from the action but from himself. Even the one real display of character -- Don Giovanni's hyper, physically-manifested nervousness before the Commendatore's arrival -- is now gone, and everything seems like a stock gesture. Yes, his voice and pecs are impressive, but... If you ever wondered what would happen if Derek Zoolander played Don Giovanni, this is your chance to find out.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Unsurprising but still discouraging: No FroSch next season. I predicted it, but I'd rather have been wrong. The season looks much less promising.

On the upside, perhaps it'll have a better cast attached to it when eventually revived: Voigt had the notes and sang the part in tune, but the Empress fit her poorly as a character. Does the change from Frau to Elektra means she'll finally be tackling that killer part?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tristan turnover watch

Yup, Gary Lehman tonight. A return to last season's carousel? We'll see.

UPDATE (12/5): Lehman is scheduled again tomorrow. For what it's worth, he sounded quite good over Sirius on Tuesday, getting stronger act by act.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A return

So the rumor is confirmed: Dorothea Röschmann, hitherto the Met season's most notable female absence, is singing Donna Elvira beginning next week.

I don't suppose somebody could engage her for a last-minute recital here too? You can hear her from London last week online for about six more days.

UPDATE (12/2): Oops, the BBC thing only works inside the UK. Too bad.

Festive schedule

The press release on the Met's 125th Anniversary Gala hasn't yet appeared on their own website, but Broadway World has it. There are lots of interesting production tidbits, but here's the cast and program:

Charles Gounod: Faust
"Vin ou bière" chorus from Act II: Metropolitan Opera Chorus
"Le veau d'or": James Morris (Méphistophélès)
Jewel song "Ah, je ris de me voir": Angela Gheorghiu (Marguerite)
Trio from Act V "Alerte, alerte": Sondra Radvanovsky (Marguerite), Roberto Alagna (Faust), John Relyea (Méphistophélès)

Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
"Ch'ella mi creda": Plácido Domingo (Dick Johnson)

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
Duet "Silenzio! Aida verso noi s'avanza": Maria Guleghina (Aida), Stephanie Blythe (Amneris)

Modest Mussorgsky: Boris Godunov
Boris's Death Scene: René Pape (Boris)

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
"Va, pensiero": Metropolitan Opera Chorus

Georges Bizet: Carmen
Final duet "C'est toi...c'est moi": Waltraud Meier (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don José)

Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
"La donna è mobile": Juan Diego Flórez

Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo
"Ella giammai m'amò": James Morris (King Philip)

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier
Trio "Habt mir's gelobt": Natalie Dessay (Sophie), Deborah Voigt (the Marschallin), Susanne Mentzer (Octavian)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Don Giovanni
"Finch'han dal vino": Mariusz Kwiecien

Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Final scene "Ja, Wehe! Wehe!": Plácido Domingo (Parsifal), Thomas Hampson (Amfortas)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Zauberflöte

Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi
"O mio babbino caro": Maija Kovalevska (Lauretta)

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Queen of Spades
Yeletsky's aria "Ya vas lyublyu": Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Duet "Figlia, a tal nome io palpito": Angela Gheorghiu (Amelia), Plácido Domingo (Simon)

Richard Wagner: Siegfried
Final scene "Ewig war ich": Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Ben Heppner (Siegfried)

Giacomo Puccini - Three Tenor Arias
La Bohème - "Che gelida manina": Joseph Calleja (Rodolfo)
Tosca - "E lucevan le stelle": Aleksandrs Antonenko (Cavaradossi)
Turandot - "Nessun dorma": Marcello Giordani (Calaf)

Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
"È forse lui...Sempre libera": Natalie Dessay (Violetta)

Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Final scene "Niun mi tema": Plácido Domingo (Otello)

Erich Korngold: Die Tote Stadt
Marietta's lied: Renée Fleming (Marietta)

Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Final scene: Yvonne Naef (Fricka), Kim Begley (Loge), Garrett Sorenson (Froh), René Pape (Wotan), Lisette Oropesa, Kate Lindsey, and Tamara Mumford (Rhinemaidens)
Meanwhile, I'd like to wish all my American readers a happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ins and outs

It looks like San Francisco Opera's ideal ensemble for La Boheme may have unravelled, with tenor Joseph Calleja's website announcing his cancellation from his dates there with Maija Kovalevska (a much preferable Mimi, from my experience, to Gheorghiu), and Nicola Luisotti not conducting two of those performances anyway. The company's website still lists Calleja, Kovalevska, and Luisotti together on November 29, but I'm not so optimistic.

On this coast, Massimo Giordano, whose recent run in Traviata was mixed at best, will replace Ramon Vargas for the end of Kovalevska's December-January run in Boheme here at the Met.

Of course, this downgrade in Mimi's love life might be quickly forgotten if the rumor Maury passed on about next month's Donna Elvira TBA turns out to be true. Internet rumors have been 0-for-the-season so far, but...

The voice

Weeks ago, amid feasting repeatedly on the stage radiance of Anja Harteros, I got to experience a show featuring a very different star: contralto Ewa Podles. She made two appearances with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, though not actually at Lincoln Center -- construction has moved their concerts off-campus to the Society for Ethical Culture's CPW auditorium.

Podles, of course, is not much to look at, either on purely visual criteria (she's unapologetically short, stout, and frumpy) or for drama (she just stands there). This, it's said, is what kept her from the Met between her long-ago debut and her appearances this fall in Gioconda. And there's something to this criticism, except that when she opens her mouth it's quite beside the point. Her sound can more or less be described (better by others than by me), but whatever else one might say of it, it's so obviously and primarily significant that by it alone she deserves presence on whatever stage she might grace. Even now, as the registers sound more and more dissimilar and other signs of age creep in, it's difficult to register much besides surprised pleasure as the stunning sound washes over you for minutes at a time. (Mind you, sound doesn't always carry the day: her attempt at "Der Abschied" a decade or so back was an unintelligible disaster.)

She was actually taking part in an odd mixed CMS program, with uninspiring solo cello and harpsichord bits before Podles and a string quartet closed the first half with Respighi's "Il tramonto". If there's more to this piece than warmed-over early Schoenberg, it didn't show here -- though, as mentioned above, there was much in the performance to arrest the ear. The second half was more complete success: Janacek's "Pohadka" was well played by David Finkel and (especially) Wu Han; Bolcom's "Dream Music #2" (for Harpsichord and Percussion), maybe the most interesting piece of the night, was evocative and authentically dreamy, recognizably of the 1960s without being particularly dated; and finally Podles again sang in Peter Jaffe's string-quintet-and-harpsichord arrangement of Haydn's well-known "Arianna a Naxos".

Here again Podles made no use of the bodily or even fine textual means by which other singers make their point, but in this straightforward scene of sweet desire and bitter abandonment they turned out, at least for her, to be unnecessary. All vital drama and feeling were packed into the overpowering, all-encompassing span of her elemental sound, climaxing in a final "barbaro!" that still rings in my ears today.

I've heard that this may have been her last New York concert appearance. I'm not sure it will, but if so, the event was at least captured for recorded release.

No rest for the Giordani

The Met season wouldn't be complete without Marcello Giordani randomly showing up in another opera. Two Saturdays ago, it was Madama Butterfly, the current production of which he helped premiere two seasons ago. This time he replaced Roberto Aronica as Pinkerton, a day after having sung Faust in the new Damnation. He was admirably solid, but the show -- as it should be -- was the Butterfly's.

Cristina Gallardo-Domas premiered the production with Giordani, and meticulously executed its Japanese-isms to the letter. Patricia Racette starred in two revivals -- last season and again this fall -- and her approach is much freer. Coincidence, or the privilege of not having to be first? In any case, Racette is more effective in the part, despite -- or maybe because -- her impersonation is more a general impression of smallness and restraint than the meticulous small walking, gesturing, etc. of her predecessor. Gallardo-Domas sold the production, but Racette sells Puccini: all things connect to the emotional line of Butterfly. The tremulous timbre that disappointed as Elisabetta cuts movingly here, and though her climactic top notes aren't huge, the clarity of feeling in the build-up almost has us hearing them that way. In body and voice, her Butterfly's nearly bursting with spirit, as all but Pinkerton can easily see.

This was my second experience with Anthony Minghella's Butterfly production, and the circumstance of the particular encounter (that is, seeing it back-to-back with the new Damnation) had me wondering if my earlier praise wasn't too guarded. Perhaps it's not visionary -- though the end-of-Act-I love duet staging, culminating in the flower petal curtain, may come close -- but everything works, and the stage elements' framing of the singers is at once eye-catching, dramatic, and helpful to their projection. How odd that the movie man made such a theatrical show, while the much-praised theater director gave us mere would-be cinema!

And not just the production showed well, but the piece. Helped by Patrick Summers' clear-eyed control (and surprising fire) in the pit and a terrific supporting cast (not least, as ever, Dwayne Croft's Sharpless), Butterfly on this occasion added up to quite a lot. Still not my favorite, but a real occasion of real opera.

UPDATE (1:15PM): It seems Giordani sang the two subsequent Butterfly performances as well.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tech moment

Posts are coming on the Podles concert, Butterfly, and probably tomorrow's Traviata, but at the moment I'm pleased by a silly Gmail feature.

Yes, finally my email can again look the way email is supposed to.

(It would be nice to be able to adjust the tint a little, though.)

Monday, November 17, 2008


I've been getting numerous hits in the past few days from searches on tenor Ryan Smith, whom I noted in the 2007 Met Council Finals and last season's Ernani. Back then I'd guessed he was bound for the Lindemann program, but life turned out differently. Instead of the Met's young artist program he headed to Lyric Opera of Chicago's. Then, per a story in today's Chicago Tribune,
[a] day after Mr. Smith moved to Chicago from Atlanta, he was hospitalized and later told he had lymphoma.
Aged 31, he died in Chicago on Wednesday.

UPDATE (9PM): The Atlanta Journal-Constitution had a story Saturday.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Through a screen darkly

It seems the press isn't prepared to say it, but I will: the new Robert Lepage production of Berlioz's Damnation of Faust is boring. Soporific, empty -- and, least forgivably, literal. The musical preparation and delivery of James Levine, Donald Palumbo and his chorus, Susan Graham, John Relyea, and Marcello Giordani go for naught in a presentation that in fact has less impact than a concert performance.

One cannot just pass the buck to Berlioz himself. Yes, he wrote not an opera but a series of scenes connected (if at all) by dream logic, but within each bit his idiosyncratic musical dramaturgy holds as characters emerge seriatim from the illogic into song. But here drama is entirely suppressed by a production overlay that flattens the human element twice over: literally, first, by confining all action to a basically two-dimensional grid of shallow stacked boxes that's the whole stage set; and then by distraction, hiding and dissolving the figures amid and into ever-changing CGI before and behind them. The effect is more of dolls in a cutaway dollhouse than of men and women locked up with fate, and though this is true to a part of the Berlioz piece, it's that very part that kept the thing offstage all those years. Damnation needs its drama spotlit in the opera house, not hidden.

What we get, instead, is the opposite of drama's human urgency: the empty tranquilization of banal (if pretty) images on screens. Again, even onscreen there is neither actual perspective (after an admittedly memorable underwater light shot in the first part) nor the expansive play of allusion and perspective a more imagined visual accompaniment would provide. Birds, water, grass, a house, withering trees, horses, hellfire -- as complement to the human drama, this flat world would be fine, but as substitute it's thin stuff indeed. And the one human touch -- having Susan Graham (cursed, it seems, to get directors who try to make her disappear) actually climb a ladder at the end -- is far more interesting and effective than the much-noticed trick of turning her into wallpaper for her last solo. That's no coincidence: opera depends on the scale and force of the human figure as much as it does on the scale and force of the unamplified human voice.

It is odd indeed that Peter Gelb, who's much expounded on the importance of drama and theatricality in opera, should be entrusting his most notable new production -- the Ring -- to a man whose work here shows little, if any, interest in such things.

UPDATE (11/17): Intermezzo has photos -- and similar thoughts. I should mention that the one part of the production I did like was Karin Erskine's old-school costuming, particularly the outrageously retro devil outfit and hat.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

On the chopping block

With City Opera in limbo and many smaller companies around the country considering closing, it's no surprise that budget problems have hit the Met as well. Today we find that the Ghosts of Versailles revival (and revision) has been axed and the cast switched over to Traviata:
None of the new productions planned for next season would be affected, [Gelb] said, but some revivals being planned may be replaced by cheaper productions.
I fear that some of next season's other notable revivals may be next to get the chop: specifically Herbert Wernicke's work of genius in Die Frau ohne Schatten, scheduled at last to be revived (uncut, I'd been hoping, unlike the disappointing first revival) with another real Strauss conductor, and the familiar John Dexter version of Berg's Lulu. The former is, as I recall, quite elaborate and never quite sold out despite critical raves, while the latter has never sold well despite its beauty and Levine's consistent championing.

I hope I'm wrong, of course. The Wernicke Frau might make a terrific movie presentation. (Though adjusting its lighting effects for the cameras might ruin the show.)

UPDATE (11/14): I'd meant to say this explicitly -- whether or not Wernicke's FroSch is suitable for on-camera moneymaking, I believe it's the greatest production the Met currently has, the high-water-mark of the Volpe era, and as such deserving of not only unaltered revival but prominent place in this season's 125th Anniversary Gala.

But not for me

Via Score Desk, we discover that the Met has entered the ever-popular online quiz field with its "Ask Figaro" feature, which suggests an opera to see based on a grab-bag of odd personal questions.

There's definitely amusement in it, but in my case it picked Madama Butterfly -- probably my least favorite Puccini. (Manon Lescaut? Sure. But not Butterfly.) Of course, maybe the machine knows something I don't, because I am in fact going to see Patricia Racette take her turn in the Minghella production this week.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

If I ran the zoo

Like some of the commenters here, Mark Adamo has apparently put some thought into what he might do as City Opera's general manager. In his case, though, he's gone so far as to list actual productions to be mounted.

I don't know if he's at all serious (having "composer" and "librettist" already covered, why not "impresario"?), but I'd hire him. The company needs both vision and a sense of the possible from its head, and his suggestions -- whatever one might think of any one in particular -- show both.

(And yes, I've recently told Maury that this will soon officially become the "link Mark Adamo" blog.)

Subtraction by addition

Serbian baritone Željko Lucic, Germont in the remainder of the season's Traviatas, may be the best singer (as such) therein. But his addition to the cast of this revival (in place of Andrzej Dobber) may also have harmed its overall success.

His virtues first: the full, overtone-rich sound of a "real Verdi baritone" (in this piece, at least -- upcoming performances as Rigoletto and Di Luna will tell the tale), used with admirable legato and a certain rhythmic-dramatic alertness not much shown by his predecessor. These add up each night to a ravishing "Di Provenza" that may now be the vocal highlight of the opera. But Germont is not Rigoletto: he does not carry the dramatic weight of his piece.

Lucic, in fact, may be not wooden enough to make the key scene (Act II scene 1) work. Or, rather, what a lesser baritone conveys here with his limitations -- the implacable respectability of the man as he asks Violetta to give up his son -- finds no expression in the forceful but pleasant mellifluousness of Lucic's performance. In fact he is so responsive, so spirited that it throws off the opera's scheme: why does this man have the heavy's part when, after all, he's clearly more interesting and sympathetic than his callow son? (Massimo Giordano's expressive limitations don't help.) The scene can contain -- and use -- this irony, but Lucic and Anja Harteros have not found their way to it, neither musically nor dramatically. They may yet do so, of course, but the mostly unchanged stage direction of recent revivals -- which calls here for an almost maximally unyielding Germont -- is a real obstacle.

Maury noticed the tenor Giordano crooning in the third act several performances ago. In fact he's thrown in this exaggerated attempt at dynamic contrast in each performance I've seen: most recently (Thursday) it had spread all the way to "Un dì felice", where it compounded an evening-long bout of flatting all the slow parts. He earned the boos some gave him at curtain calls.

UPDATE (11/13): Commenter Cameron Kelsall notes that Dobber (the previous Germont) will return for the very last performance this season -- next Thursday.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Programming note

I won't be able to see the new Met Damnation of Faust until next week. Its premiere was last night, and Mark Adamo already has a thoughtful review.


So after following his plan as incoming general manager/artistic director to gut this season, it seems City Opera has been rejected by Euro-mandarin Gerard Mortier. As I suspected when he was first announced for the post, the culture clash did the union in, as it did Pam Rosenberg and San Francisco's: it looks as if Mortier was simply not committed to dealing with the financial end of things, necessary here as it is not on the other side of the Atlantic. When money dries up, plans must be adjusted; furthermore -- particularly given his ambitious plan for a budget 50% over the company's historical norm -- it was his own very real responsibility to ensure funds for this stuff even in a downturn.

Of course, the credit crisis (lately compounded, in a bit of irony, by the Obama election) brought things to a head sooner than one might have predicted, but the result itself isn't a surprise.

The short-term fallout is unfortunate, with next season's lineup being completely scrapped. It
was to have included Messiaen's "St. François d’Assise," Stravinsky's "Rake's Progress," Glass's "Einstein on the Beach," Janacek's "Makropulos Case," Britten's "Death in Venice" and Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande."
Of course, after this mostly modernist season delighted connoisseurs among acres of empty seats, he might well have been fired anyway.

The Met will be doing the Debussy and the Janacek in upcoming years, but I doubt it will ever do Messiaen's opera. Too bad.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Morandi's tabletop theater

So, two consecutive posts sans opera, why not a third?

The other Met's show of Giorgio Morandi runs through December 14. While I know almost as little of art as I do of dance, I found it quite striking.

Others have seen him through the lens of minimalism or abstraction. Unsurprisingly, given this blog's preoccupations, I was both taken and surprised by the unmistakable dramatic element to many of his still lifes -- particularly those of the 1950s. There are no humans per se, but the forms -- bottles, small boxes, and vases -- there suggest present life on his lit tabletop stage.

The accompanying wall texts are (unlike Morandi himself) overwrought, but that's only slight distraction.

Pseudonymous confessions

A pair of bloggers "tagged" me with one of these informational memes. I'm not intentionally ignoring them. However...

I'm afraid the only odd fact I can share is that I'm really, really protective of my privacy here. Friends tease me about it, which makes a certain sense: I've passed up blogging certain events because they were so small (and all those present identifiable), turned down radio interviews, and missed out on free tickets. I've also been rather worse in spreading the word about opera blogging in general than I'd like. All silly, no?

Nevertheless, so I remain. Perhaps, at least, it helps keep the blog on topic (despite this digression).

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Not quite an election day post

Via some PR person in my inbox, a (presumably) Obama-supporting arts blogger wrote a post on Sarah Palin that's actually funny (and neither angry nor mean).

But maybe it's only funny to fans of Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" sonata, which said blogger (the soon-very-famous Jeremy Denk) is playing next Tuesday at Zankel.

Friday, October 31, 2008

...and her cousins

Last week I wrote on Anja Harteros' turn in La Traviata, which I'll likely see again tonight. Left out of the post: that in describing her Violetta -- long-breathed; rare, grand, balanced and without self-pity; and unforcedly expressive in sound through a nice top -- I've also described the ideal heroine of Strauss and Hofmannsthal. In "Der Rosenkavalier" this heroine learns (as in Traviata) that love, like life, is transient; in "Die Frau ohne Schatten" she finds that she must nevertheless engage and commit herself to each; in "Arabella" it is put upon her to regenerate her family (and her -- and the artists'! -- doomed society); and by "Capriccio" (not, of course, by Hofmannsthal, but as previously noted very much after him) she's given a sort of apotheosis as the mysterious eternal-feminine muse and origin of (their) art.

Of course, each of these parts has distinct vocal demands that Harteros' instrument may not, in any particular year, quite hit. But we can dream.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Professional critique

Via patioboe, composer Mark Adamo (whose sense of operatic theater I admire) writes about Doctor Atomic, and about writing about Doctor Atomic.

Very interesting.

Violetta the Great

Last season I wrote of the heroine of Verdi's La Traviata:
Violetta is a star who discovers that she can no longer be a person.
But which of these parts is the truth of her character? Is she a party girl struck by her soul as by a god, or a more sensitive spirit caught by circumstance in the whirlwind life? Verdi and his (insufficiently praised) librettist Piave do not say, but each soprano gets her chance to choose at the first act's close. Between the contemplative "Ah, fors'è lui" and its famous rapid-fire cabaletta "Sempre libera" all of Violetta's life is elaborated, tilted in one way or another by her singer's inclinations.

Anja Harteros, making her Verdi debut at the Met (her only part so far has been Mozart's Countess), clearly sided with the private version: hypnotically rendering "Ah, fors'è lui" with telling natural gestures and a voice that finally seemed to warm up, before launching into the cabaletta with flushed determination... and forced, not-truly-convinced body language. The fireworks of "Sempre libera" was not, as with some singers, the part where she finally woke up and engaged the role. Quite the opposite: though she acquitted herself just fine in the obstacles, they were just that -- her character's (vocal) attempt to go through the elaborate motions of her worldly existence.

How then did such a woman end up as a standard-setting party set fixture? Well, circumstance, of course. But Harteros characterizes this side of Violetta's fate as well, in a most unusual way. This is the true, astounding fact of her Violetta: she cannot but be grand in all she does. (And so all pay her homage, in the sadly limited way each knows.)

Hers is a Violetta with zero self-pity, zero overt tear-jerking. (And I do not mean to slight these things, which most expressively successful Violettas have used to huge effect here.) Yet it's not an instrumental version, divorced from feeling except at underlined big moments (the renunciation to Germont, "Amami Alfredo", the Act II finale, Act III's letter and "Addio del passato", etc.), nor a dessicated one limiting feeling by some notion of taste. Each crucial and extreme point (like all others in between) is felt, embodied, expressed by Harteros: only, at the same time, there rises in her (unforced) a proportionately powerful grandeur -- of body, of inflection, and not least of long arcing musical line -- as balance. It is unlike any Violetta the Met has shown in (at least) decades.

But it works. In the endlessly expressive breaths and phrases of her duets with Germont; the way her "Amami Alfredo" turns mercurially into an affectionate vocal caress; the way she, though nervous, wears the Baron's obscene wealth to Flora's party -- including an unmissable tiara -- easily, almost as a (demimonde) queen, making Alfredo's insult not just personal and womanly but also a sort of lèse majesté; the way her speech suddenly gains composure and firmness when Dr. Grenvil enters at Act III's start; the way her recitation of the letter approaches singsong, more a familiar bedtime poem than some huge cause for wailing; the way her voice nobly swells as she hands over her portrait; and in the almost sibylline manner she finds in uttering this (Alfredo's future) and, elsewhere in Act III, her own doom: in and through all of these (and other) touches is a compelling, thoroughly imagined, and tragic story told. And it's amazing how many lines and musical moments make new and surprising sense under this story: this isn't the only true Violetta, but it's certainly one that fits.

*     *     *

Harteros is much helped by the sympathetic debuting conductor, Paolo Carignani (Milanese by way of Frankfurt Opera). He is a conductor with ideas, expressed sometimes by fluctuations in tempo but perhaps more characteristically in, for example, the light and singing orchestral introduction to "Un di felice". Carignani's ultimate potential we'll see later in the run (ideas from a new guest conductor sometimes take a while to materialize in full), but he seems promising.

The other principals, though they fit their parts, aren't exactly guys with big ideas. Tenor Massimo Giordano has the limitations of a stereotypical tenor: stiff and not a subtle actor despite some straight-ahead enthusiasm, he has a pleasant woody sound that's admirable but a bit monochromatic. (He's also self-involved, losing much of my goodwill afterwards with an almost Gheorghiu-esque bout of applause-milking.) Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber has a somewhat idiosyncratic, not-quite Italianate tone, but complemented Harteros admirably in their duets and well embodies the wooden rustic father (even the near-shouting at the close of "Di provenza" seemed in character, though it did show his vocal limits).

It's true, neither charged the stage proceedings while Harteros was absent: I spent a good amount of that time wondering what would happen if she'd played opposite a lover of great responsiveness (e.g. Polenzani, Vargas) or force-of-nature sound (Kaufmann, Calleja), and a Germont of unmistakable authority. But she is so different from them in spirit that the Act II end takes on an interesting new cast, with her hurt (and yes, given her collapsed but not debased mien after Alfredo throws the money, her suffering here is more contemplative than tortured in any case) also one from a disillusion -- from her one hope Alfredo's utter inability to comprehend her -- that foreshadows the disillusion with herself (and her dreams of life) at the next act's close.

*     *     *

What's left to say? Harteros' voice took much of Act I to warm up, lacking its forceful carrying ring through the beginning; after that it still wasn't classically Italian but carried her shades of feeling on its vibrato and on her breath. To my mind it's a miracle that one who can be the rare sort of person Harteros' Violetta is onstage, opening long-unheard sonic-expressive vistas in the part, can also sing well and powerfully enough to be a star in this house. Perhaps it will take a bigger miracle for her to be more appreciated for this than bashed for the standard thing she is not, but I suspect those who actually see her -- and yes, you must -- will see.

UPDATE (3:35PM): Things I forgot to note -- Giordano sang his Act II-beginning cabaletta, "O mio rimorso" (sans interpolated high note at the end), but Harteros omitted the repeat of "Addio del passato". Stage Director Kristine McIntyre did fairly well preparing the revival, with additional business for the Baron and the Marquis to start Act I and Act II scene 2 respectively being nice touches.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Olga squared

Two ladies named Olga -- Makarina and Borodina -- headlined Opera Orchestra of New York's concert version of "The Tsar's Bride" last Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. It was a surprising and gratifying success.

Borodina is, of course, the superstar, and she had a fair share of the glory. Her glorious mezzo showed some coarseness -- surprising, for such a controlled and commanding vocalist -- at full volume this evening, but her engagement in the dramatic story of her character Lyubasha was exemplary, much stronger than is sometimes the case in non-Russian stuff at the Met.

Makarina, who has a remarkable story of her start in New York, was more impressive than I've yet seen her. The very top notes could perhaps have been more precise and focused, but her way with this Russian ingenue part (Marfa, the title character) was really beguiling.

All the other singers did well -- including tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan as Marfa's beloved Lykov, whose appearance at the event kept the internet rumor mill at 0-for-the season -- but perhaps most notable was soprano Meagan Miller, whose clarity of voice, phrase, and purpose made much of a small messenger role (Saburova) late in the opera.

But the real story was the music, and the orchestra. I've skipped the past few seasons of OONY, but before that I had heard nothing from Eve Queler to suggest she could get her band to so well bring out the full range of colors and melancholy songfulness of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera. She, or they -- or both -- have grown. And the piece itself: previous Rimsky operas here have been pretty rough going for me, so it was a shock to hear how great and directly appealing this score is. It deserves a staged run here -- and all over the world.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Perhaps it was me

And I may be jaded, but despite the blogland praise, in the house (for last night's end-of-run Salome) I thought the overall focus and energy wasn't up to the level of last week's barn-burner (probably the best I've seen in either year), with Mattila yesterday sounding (sometimes excitingly, it's true) close to the bottom of her vocal gas tank.

Still, holding her to that peak standard would be ridiculous, and the maximal playfulness and abandon of last night's physical portrayal was something.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Less than meets the ear

I actually saw Don Giovanni a week and a half ago. Its current cast may be the best at the Met, top to bottom, in a long while. So why isn't the whole as memorable as prior incarnations of the piece?

It wasn't exactly what one might have feared. Erwin Schrott, the Uruguayan bass perhaps best known for being the father of Anna Netrebko's baby, was, unlike in Figaro, well-cast in the title part. Though the Fabioesque shirt-removals and pronounced swaggering gestures were a bit... obvious, they aren't out of line with the more legendary, less realistic figure of Don Giovanni. The character is always seen in action and in context, never alone -- his serenade is to an offstage woman -- so the impression that he is always seeking an effect, a distraction in Figaro, is here mostly fitting. (And aligned with his intent: Schrott states in an interview with the Met that he believes Don Giovanni to be empty and incapable of real emotion.)

Vocally he was young, strong and sure, again perhaps not inwardly seductive but neither lacking appeal. He was well-matched with Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, his Leporello, who was amusing as well as fluent. (Though I might like a bit more force at the bottom of a Leporello's range.) Joshua Bloom's debut as Masetto was also strong, but the best of the men was tenor Matthew Polenzani as Don Ottavio. His first act aria, "Dalla sua pace", reached in its repeat the hushed union of feeling and sound that makes hours in the theater worth it.

Susan Graham came off best among the women, and might have been the best -- most affecting, anyway -- Donna Elvira I've yet heard. Those complaining about her (not particularly objectionable) top notes seem to have forgotten the desperate approximations that have haunted this part over the years. Graham negotiates the florid bits with style and warmth, but her real strength is in the character: not at all hapless, as Graham sings and embodies it, but -- like, though not to the heights of, her Sesto's last season -- tortured by an unmistakable current of real feeling.

Krassimira Stoyanova sang well, as usual, though without similar dramatic presence as Donna Anna. Isabel Leonard, the Zerlina, would have a career for her Keira Knightly looks even without much of a voice, but she has that too. (And unlike the last striking face in Zerlina, the future Mrs. Teddy Tahu Rhodes actually takes the part seriously.)

That all were a pleasure to hear perhaps hints at a problem: though ever lively and tasteful, conductor Louis Langree didn't much register the daemonic element in Mozart's score. It was a deficiency echoed by the production, which is just too genteel for its own good -- its endless brick walls and candelabra-bearing servants leaving no room for even Masetto and Zerlina's peasant rusticity, much less the career and fate of the title character. (In director Marthe Keller's one notable deviation from the text, the Commendatore's visiting statue is turned into a mere figure in a mirror, which updates the supernatural touch by sucking the viscerality out of it.) Add to this the blankness that Schrott and stage director Gina Lapinski left under Don Giovanni's external display -- his uncontrollable, spill-inducing trembling as the Commendatore is about to arrive is a nice touch, but this physical reaction is about all that's offered -- and the tale shrinks to not much more than social comedy.

Still, it's a good sing. Perhaps debuting conductor Lothar Koenigs will make more of the show in December's performances.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Getting to know you

If tonight's Met performance of Salome was not the event of the season, it's going to be one heck of a season.

Given that (per commenters here, at least) Patrick Summers was, in fact, a legitimate last-minute health replacement in the pit, it stands to reason that he would be below par in the first performances. And while previous engagements have me doubting that his "par" in Strauss is up to, say, Christian Thielemann's, it appears that it's not as low as the level of this run's beginning either.

Tonight for the first time the key orchestral passages were given real space and independent life: the interlude after the Salome-Jokanaan confrontation, the Dance -- finally given its erotic perfume in sound -- and most of all the accompaniment to the last scene, where the echoes and transformations of Salome's earlier lines (to the live Jokanaan) sang out with the terrible implacable longing with which Karita Mattila first uttered them. Previous outings have been fairly leaden until this finale, but not this one.

Perhaps now comfortable with Summers as well as prompter Donna Racik, Mattila too seems more free, even more energized (if, in the dance, more relaxed) and willing to go out on a limb for the moment. But the most memorable touch this time, which gave the last scene a coherence to which even last week's more "demented" performance couldn't compare, was small. Just as she noticed the prophet's closed dead eyes and started questioning him (well, his severed head) thereon: a tiny gesture and inflection in the voice as she began, just as a youth familiarly addressing her doll. Perfect, and perfectly awful.

It may have been better than any of the Gergiev shows I saw in 2004.

UPDATE (10/9): Incidentally, unlike last season's pre-moviecast performances, there were no flying cameras test-driving the video feed to the distraction of those attending this particular show.

UPDATE 2 (10/9): Sieglinde was there, and had a similar reaction. (Though the big simulcast -- with, unfortunately, limited dance exposure -- is this weekend.)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

What was that?

The oddest thing about Sunday's Met Orchestra concert was the inordinate time -- what seemed like minutes each iteration -- James Levine spent between movements of the Messiaen piece ("Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum") doing... something. Nodding off? Meditating? Catching his breath? Remembering what came next? Whatever it was, it also involved much face-wiping, and was disconcerting to see from the Carnegie Hall seats: many in the audience seemed to think he was keeling over with some health issue.

Fortunately, Levine seemed fine (nothing odd at all to the eye) upon his return after intermission to accompany Christian Tetzlaff in an excellent account of the Brahms violin concerto. Tetzlaff's narrow but white-hot tone illuminated a clear and dramatic interpretation of the piece that fit his choice of the Joachim cadenza (for the usual broadly romantic accounts I prefer to hear Kreisler).

But Tommasini wouldn't speculate on Levine having "little feeling" for Messiaen if he had been present for the Met Orchestra performance of that same wind-brass-and-percussion piece almost a decade ago. An unforgettable event.

More tomorrow on Don Giovanni and some further performances of Salome.

UPDATE (11:30PM): The pauses appear to be written into the score. See the comments.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Stratas report

In what looks to be its second-to-last issue (though in light of the imminent global meltdown, this seems a smaller concern), the New York Sun published Fred Kirshnit's account of Thursday's Town Hall event featuring Teresa Stratas.

It includes this tidbit about something which, like the original Mattila Salome (filmed but unreleased), the Met really should offer for sale despite overlap:
However, Ms. Stratas, who canceled often, did not feel up to the broadcast [of Berg's Lulu] and Levine had to go with a substitute, Julia Migenes-Johnson. For three decades, the general public never saw Ms. Stratas as Lulu, a major missed opportunity.

But the dress rehearsal was taped, and the Guild showed a section of it on Thursday.
I know a number of operabloggers are Stratasphiles -- did any attend?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The silent company et al.

The Met has kicked off its 2008-2009 season, but this year it will be the only opera company at Lincoln Center. New York City Opera, in an interregnum year before the arrival of Euro-mandarin Gerard Mortier, has essentially canceled its entire season while the New York State Theater is renovated. The schedule shows talks and orchestral concerts around the city, but only one actual opera: Barber's Antony and Cleopatra (Flanigan, Rhodes) in concert at Carnegie Hall in January.

This means that OONY -- this season offering The Tsar's Bride (Borodina), a Ferrucio Furlanetto concert, Rienzi (Flanigan), and Medea (Millo) -- will provide more operatic content than NYCO. So, in fact, will the New York Philharmonic, which brings a week of Elektras (Polaski, Schwanewilms) in December.

Unfortunately, the season's most promising and anticipated operatic non-Met event -- mezzo Joyce DiDonato's "Furore" program (Handel mad scenes) with Les Talens Lyriques in January -- was booked for Carnegie's fairly puny Zankel Hall. How did that happen? Given that the event could easily have filled the main hall (Stern Auditorium), it's no surprise that it's already sold out.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What they said

OK, I had my fun, but maybe a bit more about last night's Metropolitan Opera actual-season opening Salome is in order.

On the singers, I agree with Maury's post except I'm fairly sure he was there when I heard Bryn Terfel's Jokanaan. I knocked Ildikó Komlósi in the season preview, but she was dead on as Herodias, quite an improvement from 2004's surprisingly too-staid Larissa Diadkova.

On the conducting, Sieglinde's reaction is more or less my own: Mikko Franck couldn't have been worse than this, could he? Patrick Summers certainly isn't Gergiev (conductor of the production's 2004 debut), which on the one hand means no Putin-lionizing embarrassments but also means none of the creepy, febrile energy that saturated the original run.

Karita Mattila's 2004 opening night of this was an unforgettable ecstatic success, but comparisons are useless. Even over a plain orchestral backing, Mattila communicates Salome's perversity to full gross-out levels. Missing it might be more perverse.

UPDATE (5PM): Forgot to mention -- here or in the productions overview -- that I actually like Jürgen Flimm's staging of this Strauss opera. The evocative, cleanly-textured set is an effective base for the goings-on. The weakest part, I'd thought, was Doug Varone's choreography for the dance, but it (though seemingly unchanged) somehow sat better this year.

The Met season ahead, part IV -- productions

Although its most interesting night may involve productions of the distant past, the Met season that began with Monday's gala includes six house production premieres, including one house opera premiere -- John Adams' Doctor Atomic. Of these, only Mary Zimmerman's La Sonnambula is not a co-production, and I believe only it and Doctor Atomic have not (in one form or another) previously bowed on other stages.

The Opening Night moviecast featured preview segments for the first two new productions: Penny Woolcock's staging of Doctor Atomic and Robert Lepage's "reworking" of a Damnation de Faust first done elsewhere.

The staging of Berlioz's Faust piece looked, as in previously released stills, both interesting and visually arresting. The cast looks good but not great, but Levine's presence in the pit makes this a no-brainer.

The Doctor Atomic bits, on the other hand, hardly soothed my concerns. Though one might discount this devastating Doctor Atomic review from the fair-minded Alex at Wellsung for being at least in part a knock on Peter Sellars' world premiere production and not this new Woolcock physicalization, neither Adams nor Woolcock seemed to have a new angle on the piece itself. About the actual bomb neither appear to have anything to say except how awfully horrible it was, which leaves the Oppenheimer ledger something like this:
Minus: Possibly destroyed the world
Plus: Liked poetry, had authentic Native American maid
But of course the Manhattan Project, despite initiating a danger that haunts us to this day, also saved millions of American and Japanese lives and enabled a favorable and relatively bloodless outcome for the Cold War. Telling Oppenheimer's wartime story without engaging these facts -- which perhaps make him more interestingly and operatically tragic, and certainly not less -- is just unserious.

*     *     *

After these only Sonnambula of the "new" productions seems particularly promising for the staging itself. All certainly have worthy casts, however.

Of the revivals, I would say that Lucia di Lammermoor (Zimmerman), Madama Butterfly (Minghella), Tristan und Isolde (Dorn), La Boheme (Zeffirelli), and Eugene Onegin (Carsen -- but only if they undo the lighting changes made for the 2007 moviecast run) have notably good productions, while Don Giovanni (Keller) is notably weak. But much will depend on whomever does stage direction for these revivals: much can be gained or lost from these often-unnoticed contributions.

*     *     *

Of course, much of a show's success is in some unpredictable alchemy -- who inspires (or impedes) whom, who gets sick, who arrives in good form and bad, who adapts and who doesn't to changes and adversity, etc. etc. If a season were just the sum of its forseeable parts, there would be little fun in going. Fortunately, it's not.

Minimalist Salome review

It was gross.

(In a good way.)

UPDATE (5PM): More here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Opening night

Fearing that I wouldn't like a significant portion of the program and being curious about the alternate presentation (my previous reservations thereon being here and here), I watched this year's Met season opener from a Manhattan movie theater. If you missed reading about it, soprano Renee Fleming sang Act II of Traviata, Act III of Massenet's Manon, and the final scene of Capriccio.

Technically, the show was mixed. Epic fail at Traviata's start: it took until halfway through the first scene for subtitles to appear. More jarring, though, was director Gary Halvorson's addiction to the moving footlight-level camera (the technical name of which escapes me), which he used to constant and disorienting -- even woozy-making -- effect during this scene. Unfortunately all camera trickery failed to find an appropriate angle for the second scene's final tableau, which absolutely demands that all three principals be put in the same shot. Instead we got an incoherent mess. Awful.

The next two segments were better-shot, with the low-level moving camera actually being put to good use during Vargas' prayer-aria in the St. Sulpice scene. As for the non-operatic bits, we could have done without the 40-minute Met infomercial (with additional product placements!) before the action, but if it works as marketing, sure... The Martha Stewart drink-mixing demo in the last intermission crossed some line of decency, however.

Still the overall effect was, for the first two acts, hugely successful. The transmitted soundtrack is oddly shaped, and one misses at least some essential 15% of the singers' real sound (particularly the physicality of Fleming's in climaxes), but the singers -- most of all Fleming herself, despite a couple of memory glitches -- seemed energized and inspired by the occasion and, in Traviata, by the presence of James Levine. Both Traviata (with which Fleming and Vargas so memorably opened the 2003-04 season) and Manon were really moving, even framed by infomercial frippery and Lagerfeld's awful Manon dress. (Not to knock hosts Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt, who did well with what they had.) Incidentally: both of the Traviata cabalettas were cut, which was a bit odd considering that at least the first has been done regularly at the Met of late. I assume this was both to keep the focus on Fleming and to protect Vargas who came out cold to his aria.

The Strauss was another matter. He and librettist (and greatest of Strauss conductors) Clemens Krauss crafted a work of art about art -- specifically Strauss' own idiosyncratic notion of opera. They add complication upon complication to the piece's initial poetic-musical seed until, from a comic Octet, they strip all away almost to anticlimax. What's left, by the end, is the prime element of Strauss' art: neither words nor music (the ostensible focus/decision point of the story) but the eternal-feminine -- musing on her own existence.

But Fleming in this place is curiously empty, all too ready to fall into embarrassing tics (the cocktail-party laugh, the thing that looked a bit too much like vogueing) and unironic emotionalizing. The Countess, like Der Rosenkavalier's Marschallin, muses into her mirror, and though I think they (and the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten) are essentially the same person, this opera makes quite clear what sort of character is its star. "You look back at me a bit ironically?" the Countess asks her reflection as she tries to decide, "I want an answer and not your questioning look!"

Smilingly ironic silence as the expression of a heart in love: though Fleming's lush voice isn't built to sound this combination, she could at least enact its phrases and externals. And I believe she tries... but the experience is too far from her own being. The Countess' exterior emptiness (blankness) is a pregnant one, full of (and protecting) the possibilities she holds in balance and does not (cannot, for the Empress, which is her problem) allow love's compulsion to touch -- and full, for Strauss, of the art born therefrom -- but for Fleming it's a vacuum, uncomfortable to put on and quickly filled by whatever comes to hand. The constant close-up perspective of the moviecast highlighted the issue.

Nor was she helped, this time, by conductor Patrick Summers, who led a literal and seemingly underrehearsed account of Strauss' orchestral part. Sometimes I think a really strong Straussian hand -- these days Thielemann, or perhaps Luisi -- could do something remarkable with and for Fleming in these roles, but Summers is far from that ideal.

On the whole, it was a worthwhile evening -- even in transmitted form -- with excellent stretches of performance. It's hard to imagine better promotion for Thaïs and the Levine-conducted shows.

[Related past posts: Fleming in Traviata (2007); Fleming in Manon (2005); school-of-Fleming soprano Pamela Armstrong in Capriccio (City Opera 2005)]

Season five

This post indexes the blog's commentary on the 2008-2009 Metropolitan Opera season. It will be updated as new reviews are posted.

Season preview: conductors, female singers, male singers, productions

Opening Night
Salome, short and long; and more; and more
Don Giovanni, a later cast, the spring cast, and more
La Traviata, and more
La Damnation de Faust
Madama Butterfly
Queen of Spades
Tristan und Isolde
La Boheme and its later tenor
La Rondine
Orfeo ed Euridice, without Blythe, with Blythe, and without Levine
Rigoletto, and a later cast
Eugene Onegin
Il Trovatore, and more, and a later cast
La Sonnambula, and more
Die Walküre, and a later cast, and the last performance
L'elisir d'amore

125th Anniversary Gala

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Met season ahead, part III -- the men

(Part I - Part II)

While -- with some exceptions -- the female half of this current Met roster is dominated by the talent of the (later) 1990s, the men's portion is more newly arrived. The most prolific lead (by production -- I haven't had the patience to count actual evenings) this season will be tenor Piotr Beczala, who made his debut less than two years ago as the Duke in Rigoletto. (I only caught that run's other tenor, but Maury was impressed.) Beczala stars in Lucia, Onegin, and Rigoletto again (though this one just for one evening), making it quite likely that I and a whole bunch of other Metgoers will see him this time around.

Now some of these performances may have been substituting for Gelb favorite Rolando Villazon -- who returns from a long hiatus in January -- but he himself didn't debut here until 2003, becoming ubiquitous on his return two years later (also in Rigoletto). Villazon's is certainly one of the stories of the season: whatever you make of his vocal chops, it's hard not to like the man, and the personal-vocal crisis (from which he may or may not have emerged) that felled him last year is a terrifying thing indeed. Whether or not some drama with her contributed to the crisis, the January performances of Lucia -- in which Villazon sings Edgardo -- will be not only his first since at the Met but his first since with Anna Netrebko. Afterwards he's scheduled for L'Elisir d'Amore.

Also scheduled for Elisir (though only one performance) is another young tenor who may already be the man to watch: Joseph Calleja. Calleja, who debuted here in 2006 in -- what else -- Rigoletto, will have turned 31 by the time he reappears in Rigoletto -- and that one Elisir -- next April. His instrument's combination of easy spaciousness, bel canto control, and a throwback vibrato-bearing timbre must be heard -- in person! -- to be believed: I don't want to jinx him, but to my ears Calleja seems by far the most talented Italian-rep singer since Pavarotti.

Last of the doubly-engaged young tenors is Giuseppe Filianoti, who shares Rigoletto with Beczala and Calleja before singing in La Rondine. He impressed in his 2005 debut as Edgardo, but a medical crisis and consequent surgery left his singing somewhat forced and unbalanced on his return in the same part in last season's new Lucia production. With luck, he will return to his debut form, though the increasing heaviness of his repertoire is a worry.

Incidentally, Villazon, Calleja, and Filianoti were all winners in the same year at Placido Domingo's Operalia competition: 1999. They were then 27, 21, and 25 respectively.

*     *     *

Of course, more veteran stars haven't all been put out to pasture. Domingo himself sings two roles -- Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur (his debut role four decades ago) and Siegmund in Ring Cycles 2 and 3, as well as having some presumed part in the company's 125th Anniversary Gala that also honors his 40th season. Ramon Vargas, whose performances last season were among its highlights, sings two-thirds of opening night and an entire run of La Boheme. The workmanlike Marcello Giordani seems no longer to be the Official Tenor of the Metropolitan Opera, but does star in the new production of the Damnation of Faust and part of the Madama Butterfly revival. And, rounding out the tenors, Roberto Alagna sings some of his wife's performances of La Rondine before returning for the tenor leads in Cav and Pag.

Low-voiced men's maturation cycles make it unsurprising that familiar names recur in that part of the roster. Thomas Hampson, for example, appears in opening night, a new production of one of the few operas where the baritone is the leading man (Thaïs), and perhaps the most promising of the season's revivals (Onegin with Karita Mattila and conductor Jiři Bělohlávek): one can as well say the season is to be his as anyone else's. (As I rather like his current grittified incarnation, I think this is a good thing. Others seem to disagree.) Elsewhere one can hear Dwayne Croft twice (opening night, Butterfly), John Relyea twice (Damnation of Faust, Cenerentola), Rene Pape as King Marke (Tristan) and two different Ring roles, Mariusz Kwiecien twice (Boheme, Lucia), and basses Kwangchul Youn and James Morris in seemingly everything under the sun. Ring Cycles 1 and 3 feature what may be Morris' house farewells to a signature part he's sung for decades -- Wotan/the Wanderer.

But even among the low-voiced one sees new blood multiply engaged. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, a.k.a. Mr. Olga Borodina, has shown himself a fine singer since his little-noted 2004 debut and will, after subbing for James Morris in last Thursday's Verdi Requiem, sing one performance of Leporello in Don Giovanni along with a bunch of Raimondos in Lucia. Even more prominent is baritone Željko Lucic (a debutant two years ago in Gioconda), who will accomplish a Verdi trifecta by singing Germont (Traviata), Rigoletto, and di Luna (Trovatore).

*     *     *

Actual debuts are to be made by quite a few leading men. Perhaps most momentous is tenor Christian Franz as Siegfried in Ring Cycles 1 and 2, though tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko's debut opposite Renee Fleming in Rusalka won't be small. Other debuting men, in more or less substantial parts: Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo plays Jokanaan opposite his countrywoman's Salome; Don Giovanni brings the debut of not only Australian bass-baritone Joshua Bloom (Masetto), but later tenor Pavol Breslik (Ottavio) and golden-voiced Lindemann bass-baritone Shenyang (also Masetto); baritone Vladimir Stoyanov sings Enrico in the early Lucias before returning for a smaller part in Queen of Spades; Eric Owens debuts as General Groves in Doctor Atomic and then sings Sarastro in the kids' Magic Flute; baritone Gerd Grochowski sings Kurwenal in the Barenboim-led Tristan; veteran Italian baritone Alberto Mastromarino comes to the Met as Tonio in Pagliacci; and the Ring cycle concludes with another debut in Götterdämmerung -- bass-baritone Iain Paterson as Gunther.

*     *     *

Despite this litany of names, some true established stars only appear once and thus have yet to be mentioned -- Matthew Polenzani (Don Giovanni), Ben Heppner (Queen of Spades), Juan Diego Florez (Sonnambula), Bryn Terfel (only appearing, bizarrely enough, as Dulcamara in Elisir), and too many others to list.

A contrasting pair is at the center of Don Giovanni, which besides a weak production (its Zeffirelli predecessor was much better) and a slew of big names in the supporting parts features two rather different singers in the title role. First is Erwin Schrott, whom we -- thanks to his association with Anna Netrebko -- are bound to see more of, for good or for ill. Sonically, as last year's Figaro showed, there's little reason to complain, but he seems inclined enough to character-busting overacting that following her example any further could make him just unwatchable. On the other hand, Don Giovanni is a narcissistic, sociopathic cad, so a lack of humanity might work. To a point.

The other Giovanni -- Swedish baritone Peter Mattei -- is something like the platonic ideal of the traditional Don previously embodied by, e.g., Ezio Pinza. His charisma and vocal command are as seemingly effortless as his handsome appearance: for this Don Giovanni seduction is natural, and villainy is something he occasionally deigns to indulge. It's a conception perhaps closer to the heart of a more Romantic age, when Don Giovanni was almost (or more than almost) a hero... (These days one's more likely to squirm at his abuse of position and the unwillingness of his peers to think badly of one of their own.) But with Mattei the embodiment rings strongly true in any context, and every operagoer should see him in the role at least once.

*     *     *

In a sense it's not a huge surprise, given this season's repertory, but the absence for a third full season of the singer who had the most astounding and successful house debut of the age -- receiving the endless shouts, floor- and wall-pounding, and thunderous applause of those who knew they'd seen a glorious, paradigm-shattering event that "success" barely even describes -- is little short of disgraceful.

Where on earth is Klaus Florian Vogt?