Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Is this a prank?

It's not who's doing it, it's what he's doing:
When the commission came through from New York's Metropolitan Opera, [Rufus] Wainwright became inspired by the most obvious of tales: a day in the life of an opera singer. Prima Donna will explore "the construct of the diva, from Maria Callas to Norma Desmond, and the Jean-Jacques Beineix movie Diva, from the 80s. And God darn it, there's a bit of me in that too".

Wainwright will be composing the opera as well as writing its libretto - in French.

Possibilities: leg-pulling; not-for-the-main-stage; improbable success; disaster.


The author of that much-discussed WSJ piece last week blogs her reaction to the big Fille aria:
I’m not an opera expert, but I’ve been paying a lot of attention to it lately, as I reported an article about the Metropolitan Opera for the Wall Street Journal. So when The New York Times posted a recording of the "Ah! Mes Amis” aria sung by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez during the performance of “La Fille du Regiment” at the Met on April 21, I clicked on the link. In it, Florez hits high C, which is about as high as men can reach, nine times. You hear the crowd roar, and you hear Florez do it all over again. I felt a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
The correspondent who sent this link notes that Florez encored the piece again last night.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The general manager's drama

A few notes on yesterday's long WSJ article on the Peter Gelb administration:
It may be the first piece to break the spell of positive press that's attended the beginning of his Met tenure. Being a financials-focused piece in the Journal, it probably won't break the Gelb cheerleading at the Times and elsewhere, but who can tell?
It was written a while back -- most obviously the interview with Gelb himself -- and not updated. Note this, about La Rondine (in the same traveling production for Gheorghiu to be presented by the Met next season):
"If the SFO does transmit it" -- which has been announced -- "we might think twice about it. Angela is starring in 'Elixir of Love' next year and we might go with that."
Except San Francisco already did moviecast it (no one went), and Rondine is already confirmed for next season's Met HD list.
Is it coincidence that the two years of rising box office receipts discussed in the piece occurs with a historic rise in the Euro relative to the dollar? (Previously discussed here.) Of course, Gelb's promotional efforts perhaps helped the Met take advantage of the revitalization of foreign tourism (which took a big drop after 9/11), but exchange rates will not be so favorable to the house forever.

It's too bad the author didn't think to ask about this.
Finally, a word on the moviecasts. A year ago, I lamented the possibility of their cinematic values replacing the sonic and theatrical ones on which live opera thrive. This still seems to me an essential concern, but in another sense the whole enterprise is an important and perhaps inevitable raising of stakes in the Met's competition with other opera houses.

The San Francisco and La Scala offerings barely seem to have registered -- though there are interesting claims that they don't really need to -- while the Met versions continue their wild success. The difference is obvious: the Met is able to leverage its existing brand and -- thanks to its decades-long series of worldwide radio broadcasts -- association with the Saturday matinee timeslot (Saturday evening in Europe) in a way other houses can't.

This brings two things besides ticket sales. First, it helps Gelb's star-focused casting policy, giving the Met -- as radio broadcasts did, in their day -- the largest possible stage to offer sought-after singers. Second, the moviecasts, the subsequent DVD (and, inevitably, Blu-Ray) releases, and the press attending these, improve the prominence of the house among those who consume opera products (recordings, news, etc.) all over the world (but also including New York). And from that: not just more ticket-buyers from abroad, but perhaps more donors too.
Of course, very little of this has to do with the art itself. Pardon the detour.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The winner

To surprisingly little fanfare, tenor Matthew Polenzani was recently named as this year's winner of the recently-created Beverly Sills award. (His predecessors: Nathan Gunn and Joyce DiDonato.) Teenage operablogger "CaroNome" describes an "awww" moment from a recent broadcast interview (which I heard, too):
After blowing me away in last years "Magic Flute", he captured my heart during a Sirius broadcast during which he was asked what opera character he was most like. To this question he replied, "I am most like Romeo because I have loved like that. Every day my love for my wife grows stronger." Or something to that effect, and he went on for a few minutes in that fashion. Margaret Juntwait hit the nail on the head when she said, "Every woman listening just went 'aaaahh.'"
Though it seems like he's been doing big parts at the Met for ages -- his David here was tirelessly beautiful -- I suppose he's only recently begun making a splash in the standard romantic leads.

Wasn't it not too long ago that people complained there were no tenors? It seems ridiculous now.

Gelb's star strategy hits Brooklyn

So does this replace the entire Met-in-the-Parks series?
Two of opera's biggest stars, soprano Angela Gheorghiu and tenor Roberto Alagna, will perform together in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on June 20 at 8pm, together with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, in what is anticipated will be one of the Metropolitan Opera’s largest outdoor concerts in company history.
Looks like it. Not a great loss: any way you slice it, the concerts are amplified, and the lazy atmosphere of the parks series wasn't great for the brand. Adding a touch of event-ness can't hurt.

The surprise ball

Not too long ago, Maury wrote me that Ramon Vargas "[i]s the new Bergonzi". Now he tried to take back the sentiment later upon hearing another Bergonzi record, but there's something to it. Vargas (though always now audible) will never have the loud-louder-loudest physical impact of certain tenorial rivals, but -- at least in the seemingly reborn form we've seen since last year's Onegin -- his command of everything else is amazing. Word, sentiment, volume and above all phrase: he shapes, caresses, expands, and connects his phrases in simultaneously grand and refined style.

So he was last night in Un Ballo in Maschera. But the vocal outpouring may have been the least impressive thing: though a late substitution for this last performance in Ballo's run (he's in town rehearsing next month's Clemenza), Vargas inhabited the part (Gustavo/Riccardo) and production as if its originator, more physically energized, comfortable, and active than I've ever seen him. What's more, the ensembles -- particularly the tricky Act I parts featuring the tenor -- actually went more crisply than I've yet heard in this production. Yes, Vargas has sung Ballo this season in Houston, Florence, and Munich, but to step in here with such ease and panache is stunning.

(Actually, other unscheduled star substitutions this season -- Giordani in Romeo and Alagna in Aida -- have also been successes. Maybe the Met should throw these in more often...)

*     *     *

Of course, Ballo is in some sense a conductor's opera, inviting a benevolent dictator to impose his spirit on the proceedings as King Gustavo does on his court. (Toscanini's recording of the piece is still the greatest among a pretty commendable bunch.) Gergiev protege Gianandrea Noseda is not exactly the man for this. He commands every discrete expressive element in the opera -- urgent intensity, springy (and sinister) jauntiness, and lighter shades, lilting or lyrical -- along with its finer-grained demands. But the overall spirit's sort of blank, for which Noseda's tendency to overdo the urgent onrush doesn't quite compensate.

That said, Noseda did very well indeed last night in the tricky ensembles, including the love duet. I thought that on Saturday and in the fall he was taking them too gingerly, but with Vargas in place of Licitra he blasted the company through them with all the fearless elan one could want. What a difference a flexible-voiced, musically sophisticated tenor makes? Or perhaps the fact of Noseda's birthday -- for which he was serenaded by last night's cast at the end of curtain calls -- helped.

Soprano Angela Brown seems to have improved enormously since the November Aida that was my first live hearing of her. Then, her instrument sounded like some scattered good notes in search of a voice; now it's strong and pretty even from top to bottom, with a nice warmth in the middle. And even sounding a bit congested as she did last night (did she get a touch of what knocked Licitra out?), Brown showed lovely soft singing, dynamic contrast, and long breath in her arias. My only sonic gripe is that the top notes cut but don't really ring out -- others seem to like this sound, however.

Brown has improved on stage, too. The casually contemporary mannerisms that stuck out like a sore thumb in Aida have been replaced by stock operatic poses of nobility, but this is a significant advance. She seems willing to do more, but first things first.

Ofelia Sala was a bit livelier in these last two performances, but remains an essentially earthbound Oscar. At least she could be heard, however: you'd be surprised how many Oscars here couldn't.

After all these years, sadly, it seems the legendary Charles Anthony has at last lost it.

Finally: Dmitri Hvorostovsky. When people throw around the phrase "not really a Verdi baritone", I wonder: would they have said the same about, say, Giuseppe de Luca? Lots of people sounding nothing like Leonard Warren have excelled in the Verdi parts.

And yet, the phrase popped unbidden into my head for much of Hvorostovsky's Renato (Anckarström). Thomas Hampson, another baritone tagged with the same words, has of late (most recently in Ernani but no less in last season's Boccanegra) used the grit that has entered his voice to fashion an unconventional but convincing sort of aural Verdian persona, but Hvorostovsky's gone through no such change. Hvoro has his control and his beautiful voice, and much of the first two acts of Ballo seem to find him struggling with the wrong vocal tools, ploughing ahead in a way that sort of works but doesn't optimally flatter himself.

Yet when Renato breaks off from marmoreal declamation and sings the last act's agonized "Eri tu", Hvorostovsky's near-decadent command and breath (though the latter would be more impressive if his air-gulping were less amazingly loud) pay big dividends. Worth it? I think so, particularly paired with birds of a feather in Vargas and Brown.

*     *     *

Ballo has arguably Verdi's greatest tenor ("Di' tu se fedele") and baritone ("Eri tu") pieces as well as his greatest love duet. All got their due last night: another highlight of what's been a great half-season.

UPDATE (4/25): A comment below reminds me that I forgot to mention Stephanie Blythe as Ulrica. She's been excellent through all the Ballos: in the winter she was almost the only reason to see it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The hidden ball

Maybe it was the Pope. Salvatore Licitra spent last Saturday morning doing this

and returned to the Met that evening to headline a performance (of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera) that was, on the whole, more satisfying than the glitzy Fille premiere two days later.

Licitra's biggest trouble may be his own potential. When everything works, his spacious, strong sound and naturally ardent phrases make him a terrific Italian tenor, deserving much of the hype with which he first arrived. But even when he's off, he occasionally manages some remarkable little thing -- a diminuendo, an eloquent phrase -- that recalls his better form. This has the paradoxical effect of ruining my enjoyment of the evening -- mediocrity is OK until one's reminded of what's missing.

What I heard of his winter performances in Ballo was in this latter vein -- just skilled enough to be unbearable. But Saturday he was really good. Perhaps -- unless it was just temporary Papal inspiration -- he'll do well in Trovatore after all.

Unfortunately, he won't get to repeat the performance tonight, having cancelled. Ramon Vargas is substituting, and I'll save the rest of this review until I see this evening's show -- which I do recommend to anyone considering it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

And now, Bellini

If Fille turned out to be less earth-shaking than one might have hoped, next season brings yet more Natalie Dessay:

La Sonnambula finale, from the 2006 Volpe Gala

Of course, expectations may again be a problem for those of us who were at this gala and have been anticipating the full thing ever since.

The son-in-law

In a sense it's sheer absurdity to carp about a performance of La Fille du Régiment where the high-wire bit everyone knows was not only nailed but sung even better again as an encore. But then I've never yet let absurdity deter me here.

There's actually little to knock sonically. The singing is a feast, if you like the leads, and even if you don't (particularly), it's admirable all around. We learn that Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez can sing -- and well -- while doing gyrations, being carried about, etc. High notes are held, etc. etc. Felicity Palmer, a great dramatic singer not long ago, well continues her comic turn (she was also Mrs. Sedley in Grimes) as the Marquise de Berkenfeld.

And I suppose I should be thankful that the much-hyped import production (from London by way of Vienna) of Laurent Pelly et al. isn't as low and broad or busy and broad as recent homegrown attempts at bel canto comedy. But though it's not particularly objectionable and seems to engage the singers well and happily in its business, the wild accolades it seems to have gotten abroad are a head-scratcher. The mountain range made of maps that's the whole Act I set (it returns as the base for Act II's interior) is cute but not enough for the big Met stage, which, as here unrestrained, also swallows up most of the (much-praised) sentimental interplay. The update to circa-WWI is well and good -- it's the most recent time the aristocratic stuff that presents what passes for the opera's conflict can make sense -- but doesn't add anything.

Of course, the fact that an opéra comique -- done with dialogue -- actually got laughs in the vast Met space is a success of sorts. Then again, it didn't help that the dialog-only character (the Duchesse de Krakenthorp, played by Marian Seldes in a late substitution for Zoe Caldwell) was distractingly and loudly miked.

The glitzy red carpet gala and the scarcity of tickets for this run helped the event atmosphere, and I suppose it's a measure of Peter Gelb's success in his star-grabbing scheme that one can feel at all ho-hum about this convergence of talent.

In the larger scale of "events" the opening seemed quite far from, say, the epochal appearance of Gilbert Duprez or even the 1972 Met run of this very same opera. No one's sense of the world changed. But it was a good show.

UPDATE (3PM): Steve Smith agrees (thanks for the compliment!). Maury talks more about the singers (and I mostly agree, except I think Florez's account of the aria was an order of magnitude better than that of any of the auditioners who trot it out here annually).

Friday, April 18, 2008

The world of Lucia

I am attending Monday's premiere of La Fille du Régiment and so skipped today's open house/dress rehearsal. So instead of impressions of the Dessay preview event, I offer this re-review of Lucia that I'd intended to post a month ago.

*     *     *

Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" is not only one of the great outpourings of tune in western history -- to my ears, the greatest -- but an exemplary externalization of the romantic. The heroine's beset self and subjectivity break, but remain the visible and absolutely essential thing to both us and her story's other characters. (Compare to poor Wozzeck, drowned to little notice in his proto-modernist tale.)

Such an work invites -- even more than most, for as long-ago posted there are many true angles on opera -- two distinct ways of experiencing it: as song and as drama. The previous production's premiere gave us, via Ruth Ann Swenson and Ramon Vargas, an admirable version of the former. Mary Zimmerman's new production this season aimed squarely at the latter, and much of the negativity directed at it is a result.

Things begin, of course, with the cast. Natalie Dessay was once an immaculate voice as well as the consummate vocal and physical actress she is today, but surgery has taken off some of the sonic sheen. Meanwhile her voice has darkened and deepened from the stratospheric days, but she still lacks ideal force in the middle to make the first two acts' singing luxuriant. The third act's Mad Scene sits much better in her voice. but the high-note purity of old is absent...

This is not news, of course. Neither is her tenors' common -- as different as Giordani and Filianoti otherwise are -- impulse to sing in an all-out, hyper-intense style, nor the youthful baritone's similar choice. But the production itself comes down on this side, intentionally or not. Zimmerman was knocked for, among other things, not understanding the singers' details of the opera, and in a sense it's fair. Not only the theme but the method of her production was restraint -- the "clever scripted physicalizations of each passage", as I put it after opening night, really accumulated -- and though none of the business was particularly traumatic, neither singers nor audience were ever really free to slip into the familiar lines of bel canto enjoyment for which many hoped.

*     *     *

Over the life of a production, of course, only the most physical contributions of the production team -- sets and costumes, mostly -- last. The actual direction tends to be followed less and less, so that anyone who prefers more traditional stage behavior need merely wait a bit. So it was last month: after months off, Zimmerman's Lucia came back with a new conductor, new tenor, and simplified stage business.

Despite Filianoti sounding perhaps not quite recovered after surgery and acute medical trouble, the March mini-run was a sonic success. And yet the drama had fallen off: even the Lucia-Edgardo interaction had been more charged when it was Dessay and the wooden Giordani. What was going on?

Part of it, I think, was Levine's absence. But at least as much was the shift in stage action. What seemed a detailed script for leads and chorus in the fall had, by this return, been relaxed almost to loose guideposts. It was a more straightforward and familiar evening, the Lucia one expects to see -- but with more intensely present principals. (And I suspect the San Francisco run with Dessay and Filianoti will be similar, though with the latter perhaps in stronger vocal form.) An ideal combination of sorts, admired much with the director's hand now less visible.

But Lucia's dramatic part -- even more than, say, that of Grimes (where what's with him -- the sea -- is much) -- depends on the vividness of the forces against her. She is delicate, they implacable -- in Cammarano's underrated adaptation of Scott, this is the romantic self/world conflict, and ratcheting it up heightens the pathos. In the world, she's ruined, but in the tale she nevertheless gets her say -- and even their homage.

Zimmerman's success was to find, in her Victorian re-setting, vivid and audience-graspable forms of the constricting strength of Lucia's world. Greatest in the enacted sextet (for which even complaining singers had real praise), her touches were valuably present also in the dreamy dance for Lucia and Edgardo's Act I-closing duet, the physical not-quite-comfortableness of the two otherwise, the contemptuous body language of the chorus through Edgardo's Act II appearance -- all among the things sanded down or elided for the spring performances, making Lucia's contrasting explosion of sensibility tell less strongly. The life-blood of a strong rejecting universe pumped strongly onstage in the fall, but it's a thing convention easily diluted.

*     *     *

Embedded below is Dessay's appearance on Charlie Rose last fall. Unlike others, I found much of her actual interview segment more self-congratulatory than insightful, but the mad scene clips at the beginning (this is, in fact, the part noted in this post) and end must be seen. They are from opening night, and the availability of the entire mad scene video as a bonus to this CD suggests that the Met could issue the whole evening's performance. They should: neither Diana Damrau's chilly fluency nor Anna Netrebko's off-pitch narcissism next season are going to compare to this.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A possible Met future?

New York magazine has a long piece on John Sexton's plans for Abu DhabiNew York University.
"NYU was aware of our local culture and rules and guidelines, and our policies on Israelis or homosexuality were clearly not a concern for them," says Mubarak Al Shamesi, director-general of the Abu Dhabi Education Council, which is coordinating all the emirate’s university projects.
There's a reason why it's the second-tier brands in America that have chosen to take this devil's deal. For a flagship institution like the Met and/or Lincoln Center to even be considering it is mind-bogglingly shortsighted.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Irritating formatting bug fixed

The squashed line spacing after a quote or divider was not intentional, and is now corrected. I found the fix here.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Return to love

Tristan und Isolde is the story of a second meeting, so I'm not sure why I thought this year's Met revival would be a non-event. I -- having seen the much-anticipated 1999 premiere -- felt the same of Ben Heppner's first return to this production five years back, and skipped it. But that was with the disappointing Jane Eaglen; this run promised not only Heppner's reunion with this Tristan but with Deborah Voigt -- the two hadn't really sung together at the Met since the once-infamous Wilson Lohengrin's premiere a decade ago. (They were both in the 2003 Troyens triumph, but Cassandra and Enee don't actually interact.) Ah, the promise of that time! --What better way to enter Wagner's story?

For we hear it begin in the Prelude -- before the action proper -- and the opera moves mightily to return to and recreate that decisive point: where Isolde and the wounded Tristan first join eyes, recognize their love. Love, we discover, disarms Isolde's vengeance, but the two acknowledge it no further, and remain socially divided.

But neither much likes that practical course and its implications, and on their second meeting (the opera story proper) it's not long before we find each -- now believing the other no longer loves -- ready to die, willingly taking what they believe to be the death potion. But instead it's the drink that again reveals their love, and sets them on course for what they most want: a return, come what may, to that initial scene -- to undo their mistake in choosing against the love that there appeared. And so, at last, when Isolde and the wounded Tristan again join eyes...

*     *     *

But who knew it would be this arduous for the Heppner-Voigt reunion to in fact take place? Heppner again the victim of bizarre medical misadventures; Voigt another soprano acutely sick; a different cast every show; one replacement Tristan who didn't do well, another who did but had to shake off a nasty knock from stage malfunction, and a third flown in for a debut seen all over the world; and, in the end, one final performance with the two scheduled stars. What was in danger of becoming ugly farce turned, with Gary Lehman's stunningly unexpected success, into an offstage drama to remind all that the Met was still a place where things happened. And this last performance? Memorable for itself, in fact, though the remarkably focused and expectant audience surely helped.

On that night the performers, with help from Dieter Dorn's uncluttered production, presented Wagner's opera with remarkable clarity of sound and action. Levine and the orchestra, Voigt and Heppner, and the whole supporting cast -- including Michelle DeYoung, filling in for her sick cover, and Matti Salminen, in his apparently final Met performance (at age 62) -- seemed of one undistracted mind in setting the work forth from beginning to end, act by act in rapt, fiery lines.

That was the whole. Of the details, the leads' vocal states have generated the most commentary. It's of course true that neither sounds as they did a decade ago, perhaps the sonic peak for both singers. In those years Voigt's sound was almost hypnotically rich and calming, while the most successful of Heppner's 1999 Tristans were an assault of lyric beauty on the part such as may not have been heard before or (well, unless the mind-boggling Klaus Florian Vogt somehow gets there) since. Those are gone, with both now touched by not only age but vocal crisis and weight loss: for Voigt the weight loss caused the crisis, while for Heppner it was his response to stopping the crisis-inducing medication.

I am, as I've said, maybe the only person who likes the basic new Voigt sound. Its sharp edge gives her more chances to shape her sonic character, and Isolde seems to be the first time she takes advantage of it. Voigt unleashes Isolde's anger in a (mostly) unselfconscious way unthinkable in her placid old days, and it works -- the scale is right. But something in her singing of Isolde registers, I think, as less pleasant than it is -- the opposite of how Heppner's sound works for Tristan. Perhaps this is just to my ears. Or perhaps it's this: Heppner's remarkably happy way with Wagner's consonants covers many of the sins his killer part turns up, while Voigt's doesn't. Or something else... At any rate, though her Liebestod was excellent, Voigt's was a success savored more by others than by me.

Heppner sounded remarkably strong for someone who'd been sick for weeks and whose adjustment to his post-crisis voice had not yet, to my years, stabilized. In fact I think he finally has (perhaps, in part, by regaining weight) stabilized things, but whether or not this Tristan signals the future, it was remarkable: a greater performance than his originals. The voice finally just worked -- no longer just lyrically but with an expanded expressive range to go with the duller colors he's had to add. It's equal to Act I's stoicism, Act II's rapture, and Act III's madness; ringing and strong at climaxes and throughout the duet; and ever clear in word, phrase, and character. And though -- I assume on account of his real infection -- he didn't rip off the Act III bandages, Heppner used his body throughout more effectively than I remember him ever doing.

I think I'll be seeing the fall's Queen of Spades now.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sunday, April 06, 2008

The low blow

Perhaps the self-important bullies who are apparently making a habit of booing Met covers should do everyone (including themselves) a favor and remove themselves from the opera universe. As an unapologetic advocate of booing, I can only say: Stop. You're discrediting the practice. Boo the composer, the director, Domingo, Fleming, Levine, or even Gelb if you've got the guts. Don't boo the cover. To do so isn't standing on your rights, or upholding standards, or anything of the sort; it's just showing the world what a jackass you are. And to do so before the final curtain just turns the rest of what ought to be a musical-dramatic performance into a stupid contest of wills that has nothing to do with either singing or music.