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.