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.