Thursday, February 28, 2008

In other news...

It seems Diana Damrau will be next season's Lucia.

Shouldn't the complete Met season announcement be soon? I wonder if the Netrebko pregnancy business is what's holding it up.

Lindemann grows, Juilliard Opera Center shrinks?

Or at least I think that's the upshot of this article.

(Of course there's also a "more foreigners, fewer Americans" subplot. Incidentally, Lindemann this year has an Italian singer -- soprano Grazia Doronzio -- for what seems like the first time ever.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Where are they now?

Maury floated an idea:
It might be fun to go back to the first year I went to this event and see what those folks are doing.
2005 wasn't the first Met Council Final I attended, but it was the first one blogged here. (Maury's thoughts at this post.) I was inspired to do some quick googling, so...

*     *     *

Mari Moriya: covered and sang a Queen of the Night at the Met last season. Won some other competitions, and has been singing high soprano leads in various regional venues -- including, next month, Opera Ireland.

Joseph Kaiser: seems to have made it fairly big.

Elona Çeno: at Yale. [UPDATE: apparently not any more.]

Michèle Losier: had a bit part in the Met's Iphigenie. Doing all sorts of stuff otherwise, though nothing really huge.

Susanna Phillips (winner): recently graduated from Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artist program. Has been doing all the Mozart heroines at Santa Fe and elsewhere.

Rodell Rosel (winner): also a Lyric Opera of Chicago young artist graduate, and has been doing his character tenor thing in Chicago, Houston (soon), etc.

Ellie Dehn: last year's George London Award winner (Phillips, incidentally, won in 2005); seems to be covering everything at the Met of late (including last season's Aithra) and doing big things at other big US houses. There's some press on her of late, from her Minnesota run of Roméo et Juliette opposite 2002 Met Council Finals winner James Valenti.

Lisette Oropesa (winner): in her third (and final) year in the Met's Lindemann program. Endless bit parts here, along with her first Susanna earlier this season. Looks like she has a few Gildas in New Orleans next month.... Still just 24.

Jordan Bisch (winner): also third year in Lindemann. Still just bit parts and covers, I think.

*     *     *

So it looks like Kaiser and Dehn have advanced the most after making the competition finals without winning. Having not heard them since, I wonder how they sound now.

Phillips seems to have her career well launched in her first post-YAP year; I hope she still has that magic tone. Oropesa is young and still in the Met nest, but was an amazingly mature artist from the beginning. Bisch is still developing.

UPDATE (3/4): As you may have noticed, Phillips will debut next season as Musetta.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Support your local blogger(s)

Those not already booked for Otello or the Susan Graham/CSO concert should perhaps note that baritone and blogger Thomas Meglioranza is singing a Naumburg-sponsored recital at Weill tomorrow evening. The program looks interesting, not least the "Craigslist-Lieder" he mentions...

Also, she hasn't posted about it in a while but soprano and blogger Anne-Carolyn Bird and friends are scheduled for a benefit concert this Sunday, on the occasion of her 8th birthday.

Met Council Finals 2008

Yesterday was the 2008 edition of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert. It again featured nine singers, but the format reverted to the older practice of having one aria from each, an intermission, and then another round of arias. All sang in front of a stage-filling wall (with entrance doors) from the upcoming Peter Grimes production. The order and program was as follows (though Ray, not Karanas, sang last in the second go-round):

René Barbera (tenor, 23)
"Ah! mes amis" (Fille du Regiment)
"Una furtiva lagrima" (Elisir)

Carolina Castells (soprano, 25)
"Oh quante volte" (Capuleti)
"Klänge der Heimat" (Fledermaus)

Christopher Magiera (baritone, 24)
"Hai già vinta la causa?" (Figaro)
"E allor perchè" (Pagliacci)

Jennifer Johnson (mezzo, 23)
"Must the winter come so soon?" (Vanessa)
"Parto, parto" (Clemenza)

Edward Parks (baritone, 24)
"L'orage s'est calmé" (Pearl Fishers)
Pierrot's Tanzlied (Tote Stadt)

Simone Osborne (soprano, 21)
Mařenka's aria (Bartered Bride)
"No word from Tom" (Rake's Progress)

Dominic Armstrong (tenor, 28)
"Ah, la paterna mano" (Macbeth)
"Kuda, kuda" (Onegin)

Stephen A. Ray (baritone, 23)
"Come Paride vezzoso" (Elisir)
"A woman is a sometime thing" (Porgy & Bess)

Daveda Karanas (mezzo, 28?*)
"O prêtres de Baal" (Prophete)
"When I am laid in earth" (Dido & Aeneas)

[* The program listed her as 23, but that seems implausible as she graduated from college and was a Met Council Regional Finalist five years ago, in 2003. I have read that she is 28, though this too may be incorrect.]

Barbera, Johnson, Parks, Osborne, and Karanas were named as winners. The only obvious stand-out, to my ears, was Parks. Everyone else, winners and non-winners alike, had their ups and downs, and one could have made a case for selecting -- or not selecting -- almost any of them.

René Barbera, for example, cleanly and uncomplicatedly produced a nice, pingy tenor sound (though I found the actual timbre undistinguished, it's the sort of thing that can do much in this house). But the Cs in the Fille were, though pleasant, hardly effortless, and he seemed to have not much at all to say in the Elisir.

Carolina Castells started most promisingly with a rapt and musical account of Giulietta's cavatina: well-breathed and well-shaped in Bellini's style, it was the first memorable account of this well-trod piece I can recall in this sort of event. But the Czardas showed her off very poorly, her voice lacking the force and beauty-at-declamatory-volume to make a good impact over Strauss' orchestra. I'm not sure whether dancing around on stage in this second piece helped or hurt.

Like pretty much every other young baritone I can remember, Christopher Magiera failed to make much of the Count's aria, sounding here both vocally and emotionally too small. But the Pagliacci selection was much better, and showed a bit of Italian style.

Jennifer Johnson's warm mezzo was, similarly, not much of a presence in the Barber piece, though the basic sound did appeal. Sesto's aria, however, was fantastic, perhaps the biggest success of the afternoon: precisely felt, shaped, and sung to Met clarinetist Jessica Phillips' accompaniment.

Edward Parks had the best sound of the afternoon -- one not unlike the young Thomas Hampson's. He also showed fine stage and dramatic presence, not by huge gesture but in a natural comfort and rapport with the crowd. An obvious winner, and one to watch.

The only winner who surprised me by the judges' selection was Simone Osborne. Nothing against her exactly -- she has the pieces of a remarkable voice -- but they remain pieces, impressive and unimpressive sounds abutting each other. Similarly, while many of the phrases in her two selections were turned well, she seemed content to sing one after the other, with no musical or dramatic line connecting the whole. At 21, she has the time and raw materials to excel, but isn't there yet.

Although the older tenor and (perhaps) oldest singer in the competition, Dominic Armstrong sounded more the work in progress. He looks like a big, powerful guy and has a virile, baby-dramatic instrument but from the odd vibrato he seems to be pressuring it, particularly in his technically variable top. That said, he showed real lyricism in the Tchaikovsky.

Stephen A. Ray's sound seemed short on overtones and sort of died in the house, though one could hear a nice growl on the bottom. He seems comfortable on stage, if a little hammy.

Daveda Karanas offered the only real unusual selection of the afternoon -- the long and involved Meyerbeer showpiece. She did well technically, showing an appealing medium-weight voice of impressive range, general flexibility, and reserve power. Her fast fioritura wasn't the most precise and her trills were basically faked, but that's nitpicking. Dramatically she's more likely to hold attention by her sonic command, a la Olga Borodina.

*     *     *

On the whole, it was a promising but relatively unexciting year -- no one was bad, but none (perhaps save Park) would have stood out in, say, last year's lineup of finalists.

Incidentally, it seems one of last year's non-winners, tenor Matthew Plenk, is now in the Met's Lindemann Program. Just making it this far seems to do much.

UPDATE (7PM): Maury has some thoughts. Also, I forgot to note conductor Stephen Lord's consistently sensitive and warmly-phrased accompaniments. Is this his first appearance at the Met?

UPDATE (2/26): The Met's press release confirms that Karanas is 28.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Moor unchained

As bad as he was in last season's Don Carlo -- and only Maury's fairly positive account kept me from following my wish to never see him in Italian opera again -- so successful is tenor Johan Botha in the current Met revival of Otello. It doesn't necessarily make sense: this last great tenor creation of Verdi's is rightly considered one of the most difficult operatic roles. But Botha's almost careless ease with the vocal hurdles makes the whole come off remarkably well.

He is not, let's be clear, the dark-voiced hyper-intense Otello many here have come to expect after decades of Domingo. But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the first place, part of Domingo's intense affect came -- even in his younger days -- from passage after passage pushing him to the limit. Botha has a much more spacious, "squillante" instrument that establishes his heroic significance by its very scope and unfettered ease. Indeed, the brighter sound and easier top notes are of a piece with his overall vocal fit, and in fact return to the powerful but relatively bright-toned (un-baritonal) tradition of not only the Met's greatest Otello -- the supremely musical Giovanni Martinelli -- but the part's creator Francesco Tamagno, who was also a noted Arnoldo (in Rossini's "Guglielmo Tell").

Now Botha doesn't have all the advantages: he (still) can't actually act. But somebody, presumably stage director Sharon Thomas, has trained him to limit the damage by avoiding the bad gestures or actions that would stick out and break the spell. And this is enough, here, for all of the character's love, pride, jealousy, confusion and rage are in Verdi's score, and every moment where Botha's (non)acting draws a blank is quickly followed by music his ringing tenor illuminates.

And what sort of Otello is thereby shown? Well, the cliche division of the part -- as with other Verdi tenors -- is between warrior (of the Esultate) and lover (of the duets). But one might also profitably distinguish between Otello the veteran (of battlefield, council-chamber, and all public things) and Otello the neophyte (of courtly love and intrigue). By character, voice, and natural inclination Botha's characters show their youth, and it's no less the case here. Now in years he has enough age to wonder if he's too old to appeal to Desdemona, but in experience it's not much to believe that slavery, exile, war, and advancement in a strange court and caste have kept Otello a hapless youth in his heart's first attachment: of men's esteem he is sure and knows his worth, but of a woman's -- the sine qua non of (most) men's existence -- how much then is he still unsure, still thrall to the harsh closed life in which such intimate trust looks impossible short of a miracle?

Like Elsa, Otello first touches, then fails to believe the miracle, but both up and down elicit tremendous lyric response. As Martinelli himself noted, the amount of lyric singing -- which Botha actually and properly delivers -- in the part dwarfs the dramatic declamation -- which Botha delivers, too, in sound at least. If one can accept that his physical presence and phrasing highlight the neophyte Otello, leaving the veteran side to Verdi and vocal impact, Botha delivers a big success, promising yet more for the future.

*     *     *

In Renee Fleming he has a Desdemona also rich in sonic glory, but that is a starting point. The passive pathos of the character suits her as perfectly as the lighter mixes of Strauss do not, and it is, as ever, a triumph. If Act IV's double aria did not, last night, have the complete spellbinding focus with which she sang it at the 2002 opening night gala, that's likely just the variability of performance: it was still terrific. If you haven't seen Fleming's Desdemona, you must.

Carlo Guelfi's Iago was precisely, if not hugely or recklessly delineated. Conductor Semyon Bychkov got iffy notices at the run's start, but whatever ensemble issues he had seem to have been worked out. Yesterday he was a great plus, bringing animal vigor and life to each phrase and line in the orchestra.

Put aside your preconceptions and go.

Borodina foot watch

It seems she's cancelled this afternoon's Carmen broadcast as well.

I haven't seen anything in the press about the seriousness of the injury.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Both pianist Alfred Brendel and soprano Deborah Voigt got huge ovations at Sunday's Met Orchestra concert. But then, they would have gotten similar ovations whether they performed memorably or awfully: there's a fair bit of sympathy and self-regard in the usual Carnegie Hall reaction. That's not to say, of course, that the performances were awful. But indulge my impertinence a bit longer.

I admit I've not been hugely fond of Brendel, and perhaps lack the sympathy necessary to grasp the spirit of his almost-farewell appearance. But my main reaction was actually befuddlement: why did he choose to play Mozart's K491 of all things, and with this orchestra? For Levine, as you might expect, opened this C-minor concerto with a storm and stress tutti that showed the piece as foretaste of not only Figaro and Magic Flute, but the next year's masterpiece Don Giovanni. And after this intensely dramatic start the soloist offered... well, rumination. The piano part is a calmer, less heaven-storming thing, but Brendel's idea of the piece seemed neither complement, comment, or even contrast to the conductor's, but one narrowly indifferent to it. Surely he'd have been happier with one of the major-key concerti.

As an encore, on the other hand, he offered with great success Beethoven's Op. 33 #4: an almost chaste aural pleasure of the sort given by the opening Webern set.

For Voigt I have much sympathy, not least because I may be the only person who likes her newer voice. The pre-surgery one was fat and rich and luxuriant, but not much for carrying emotion. The new one is sometimes acidic, but the edge not only cuts through orchestras but has an ever-shifting nature that suggests new avenues of character volatility. And yet... Voigt, whatever her appearance, is still herself, and at least at the moment does not seem the right singer to take advantage of her new sonic endowment's plusses. Her Salome on this day was impressive for making its way through Levine's pitless (and pitiless) full-volume orchestra, but lacked any sense of derangement or sexual frenzy; in the matter-of-factness of the character's moral abasement Voigt (particularly in her get-up) made Salome seem a bit like the third troubled Spears sister.

In between the cheers for these soloists was the real treasure of the afternoon: a clear-but-fiery account of Berg's cubist Mahler 9, his Three Pieces Op. 6.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The gypsy queen

It's hard to say what was representative after a performance of Carmen (Saturday evening's) in which the star -- Olga Borodina -- injured her foot at Act I's close. (She missed the subsequent curtain call, delayed the next act's curtain, and had management offer an explanation after the second intermission.) How much did this affect not only her performance but the rest of the cast's? Hard to tell. So take the rest of this post with salt.

That said, Borodina's Carmen is pretty surely not for everyone. The wild sensuality that makes Acts I and II go is not exactly her thing: her voice has huge sensual appeal, of course, but always noticeably in hand with a control that complements her naturally imperious stage manner. (The pleasure in listening to Borodina is not least in her pleasure at showing off this masterly control: this is why, perhaps, evidence of fallibility -- like her recently-fraying top -- disproportionately spoils it.) So even on two good feet I've not seen her push the wildness of the character, the rhythmic or dramatic excitement by which less vocally-endowed mezzos make their impression in Bizet's big hits. The dark reflectiveness of her Act III solo calls for less of this; it suits her strengths well, but in this case not necessarily the audience's.

For this seemed to me the greenest audience I can remember at the Met, with a palpably large contingent of novice or infrequent attendees who -- though not ill-behaved or anything -- were apparently trying to figure out what the heck was supposed to be going on in all of this. Was the impact of her glorious sound lost on them? Would they have been happier with a different sort of protagonist? Again, hard to tell.

Tenor Marcelo Alvarez, who had a big triumph his last time at the Met, seems to be in a transitional phase. We got this Carmen because he dropped Hoffmann from his repertory, and his beefed-up voice, at its best both forceful and seductive, doesn't at the moment seem to have the free top notes that he showed, e.g., in that 2005 Manon. Still, the utterly specific pathos and derangement of his Don Jose in the final act was a marvel.

Lucio Gallo was a mediocre Escamillo, with little to commend him besides fairly loud high notes (audibility elsewhere wasn't so good). That said, he hardly deserved the boos some wretched ass gave his Toreador song. (And note: I'm generally pro-booing.)

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume did his job with some energy and generally good ideas -- the non-singing portions were very snappily handled -- but was too often an inconsiderate accompanist. He led, on the whole, a surprisingly incoherent evening music-wise, which one can't entirely blame on the hodgepodge performing edition.

Finally, if you haven't already seen the show you've missed an almost revelatory Micaëla from Maija Kovalevska, whose character shines through Zeffirelli's production static as prominently as her voice now cuts through the orchestra. I like Stoyanova -- the alternate Micaëla -- but Kovalevska's the best in at least a decade.

*     *     *

I see that Borodina has cancelled tonight's performance, presumably due to the injury. My apologies for not getting word of the possibility out sooner, as I'd meant to.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Under construction

I finally decided to try updating the blog template again. Things may look odd for a while.

I still can't figure out why the blogger navbar on top won't stick to the top of the page; if anyone knows please send me word.

UPDATE (5:45PM): Never mind, I fixed it.

UPDATE (2/20): Now the paragraphs after a break are losing their spacing (see the Manon Lescaut post below). Any suggestions?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Previous posts on Manon Lescaut: short and long
Performances seen: 1/29, 2/9, 2/12

Though she can (as we remember) be very still, there is a nervousness to Karita Mattila that some will never love. In her acting, it's usually compressed for dramatic purposes into the explosions of sound and sense I've called Mattila Moments, but it's ever-audible (or nearly so) in her voice. The listener wishing to luxuriate in an ideal wash of sound finds little purchase: there's too much forward motion in the restless vibrato and dramatically transparent coloration of her instrument. So some will complain that she's not sufficiently "Italianate", though she does a terrific job in this particular opera. Puccini drew his heroine, as just noted, "almost exclusively in extremis" -- which is not to say ever-tortured but always near some decisive near-exaggeration of feeling. Though perhaps not as ideal as Jenufa or Lohengrin, it's a series of good opportunities for Mattila.

For Manon Lescaut is not merely one in extremis but one who draws attention, and Mattila, more than anyone else -- and not least because of that nervousness -- draws one's eyes inexorably to her person. Take the Act II dance lesson, for example: no matter how offhand and insolent her behavior or strong her protestations of boredom, this Manon Lescaut so evidently thrills in their spotlight that the onlookers' rapture makes perfect sense. Isn't the secret of life more life? She, anyway, has it -- is charged with it everywhere -- and flaunts it, for both them and us.

*     *     *

You could say Marcello Giordani has the opposite qualities. As forcefully and committedly as he might sing -- and he's been much better in this run than his last years' average -- with as much Italian tenor sound as he has, he remains, as he was in Lucia, a stolid figure. But Des Grieux has his would-be-sensible side, and so Giordani works in the part.

Fellow tenor (via SFO's Adler Fellowship) Sean Panikkar made his debut as Des Grieux's fellow student in Act I, and showed a clear and easily-produced -- if also somewhat raw -- instrument. Other supporting singers also did well.

But the chorus is the key to this piece, and under first-year-here director Donald Palumbo did terrifically after the first night's tentative Act I. They seemed to follow James Levine's lead in emphasizing elegance and transparency throughout, even in the heated tour-de-force of Act III's roll call scene (which, incidentally, Puccini adopted from the novel's very beginning). Levine is, of course, excellent, and cellist Rafael Figueroa as warm and clear as ever in his solo.

*     *     *

I had not until last night seen the performance of an production just before it was to be movie-cast -- and after this one, I'll likely avoid them in future. It was not a bad experience, but quite aside from the distraction of a front-row camera (with bright monitor) and two pneumatic/hydraulic camera rigs pumping up and down on each side of the stage (an odd, odd sight), the evening had too much of the air of a dress rehearsal. And not merely for its technical preparations: the performers too seemed -- at least until the very end -- not as engaged as I'd seen them, whether from distraction or saving (consciously or not) for the more prominent performance this Saturday afternoon. A good evening, on the whole, but not up to its immediate predecessors.

Incidentally, the actual horse-drawn carriage on which Manon, Geronte, et al. make their Act I entrance was missing from last night's performance. A one-night foul-up or pre-emptive editing to head off possible on-air horse droppings? We'll see.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The desert

Massenet's Manon never makes it out of France: she dies on the road to Le Havre, before she can be deported. Her opera, too, remains essentially French, its passions ever circumscribed by the play of social expectations. (Prevost's original novel is more extreme in its events but as much, if not more, wrapped up in the French context and mores -- and incidentally, the lovers don't get more than six miles outside of newly-founded New Orleans.) But Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it not only over the sea but thereby, in the fourth act, beyond human society altogether. The effect is perhaps not even as "Italian" as it is modern -- at least as remarkably so as the Wagnerian influence on the score.

Puccini and his gaggle of librettists and script doctors -- who here assembled perhaps (along with La Forza del Destino) the most unfairly-maligned libretto in the canon -- set up the contrast of this "desert" finale with an extraordinary set of three preceding acts. They do not, of course, tell a thorough story (only Acts II and III straightforwardly follow each other, and it's in this least eventful gap that Puccini put the opera's intermezzo). But each enacts the characteristic action of the opera (and maybe of opera itself) -- Manon becoming, as she needs, the center of an attentive crowd -- in ever-less-innocent (and ever-more-striking) form. Puccini repeatedly and memorably juxtaposes the soloists' own expressions (particularly Manon's) with a watchful chorus' background. He of course used the chorus in other memorable ensembles later, but never as repeatedly and singlemindedly as for Manon Lescaut. When it's wholly gone, at the end, the absence is stunning, almost incomprehensible: in a sense, that's the true (and fatal) desert.

*     *     *

True to his Italian roots and stated intentions, Puccini offers a more impassioned account of the Manon story, showing her almost exclusively in extremis -- and with few of the subtle character touches she gets in Massenet's first few acts. But there's an interesting distance, too, brought by the thematically repetitive nature of the action. Again and again Des Grieux's jealous love meets (with Lescaut in between) the group attention on Manon, and whether nostalgic and sentimental (Act I), brittle and glittering (Act II), or movingly agonized (Act III, one of Puccini's greatest dramatic inspirations), none of the particular arrangements holds exclusive truth. Even before the solitary finale, we are far not only from the unproblematic (if not problem-free) existence of Massenet's Manon in her France but the straightforwardness of Italian verisimo. If Puccini's heroine is less subtly drawn, she and her world get more dimensions.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


For various reasons I've not yet been able to attend further performances of Manon Lescaut. I did make it to another sort of communal event, but that (though previously mentioned here) is not quite on topic.

More soon.