Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Tis the season

A reader emailed some days ago to ask if I had information on Rachele Gilmore, who made her unscheduled Met debut substituting for Kathleen Kim (Olympia) in the pre- and post-Christmas performances of Hoffmann. I've no personal experience, but YouTube does tell the tale:
Kim has recovered, but last night found illness knocking out the most important part of the cast: tenor David Pomeroy (who'd actually sung most of the dress rehearsal) made his official Met debut as Hoffmann himself in place of star Joseph Calleja. Pomeroy seems to have done OK, but let's hope Calleja is better by Saturday's final performance.

Meanwhile, as you may have heard, tenor Roberto Alagna -- also ill -- failed to get through Monday night's dress rehearsal of Carmen and merely acted the latter part of the show. Whether he'll recover to sing in tomorrow's production premiere/New Year's Eve gala (the cynical might think this the least bloodthirsty audience the house could arrange for a risky production) -- well, who knows? It's that time of year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

elektra

Elektra -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/10/09
Bullock, Voigt, Palmer, Nikitin / Luisi

When I say that debuting soprano Susan Bullock is missing the one essential thing required for an effective Elektra, I don't really mean the scope and force of her instrument. It's true that her voice can't happily cope with the high portions of the role and really only showed well in her actual recognition bit ("Orest! Orest!"), but I've heard worse sounds turn into more. No, what Elektra needs is to be the main character, to dominate the proceedings in some way (vocal or not) so as to make unmissable the raw nerves, near-hopelessness, and -- at the end -- pent-up joy from this princess' ten years of dogged, degrading, exhausting, all-consuming, and -- unmistakably, as we hear one of the servants proclaim at the start -- grand refusal to make peace with outrage (her father's cold-blooded murder and the usurpation of his kingdom). What's fatal is not the smallness of Bullock's voice but the smallness of her persona, lacking abandon and inner life in the character's expressions of extremity. Though (or because) well-schooled, she's just too much an untragic and unheroic vessel even to approximate this tragic heroine.

That said, Bullock is let down by a number of others in the production. First, I suppose, was stage director David Kneuss. Besides botching the recognition scene (and more on that in a minute), he or whoever it was who worked with Bullock on the dance bits failed to come up with something that didn't look unintentionally awkward (and most unrapturous) when executed by her.

Second was Evgeny Nikitin, the Orest. He sang reasonably well in yet another Rene Pape role (Pape sang the part with Schnaut and Voigt in the last Met revival), but his acting was from a different (and definitely not German) operatic genre altogether, and not a compatible one. Whatever one might think about his un-authoritative, skittish take on Orest on its own (it seemed interestingly to highlight the character's youth, but definitely lost an opportunity to compel compared to the more assured character Pape and Alan Held presented), it failed in its key purpose: he and Bullock generated about as little chemistry and mutual awe in the all-important recognition scene as one could have imagined.

And finally, Fabio Luisi. He drew out a wonderful and fascinating tapestry of sound from the orchestra, but if ever a cast and night called for the conductor to take command of drama and forward motion, this was it. He didn't: in fact he continued to give phrases and textures space, as if to heighten the contrasting impact of a mega-climax at the end. Of course no such climax happened. As with Kneuss, perhaps what Luisi was doing would have encouraged and enflamed a different cast, but by this opening he surely knew what he had.

Things weren't all bad, of course. Felicity Palmer was a gripping Klytemnestra and Deborah Voigt -- the Chrysothemis -- sounded better than she ever yet has with her new (post-fat) voice. But unless and until Luisi decides to make this Elektra run his show or Peter Gelb steals Katarina Dalayman from Sweden (is this her role debut tomorrow?), I'd avoid it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Verisimo redeemed

Il Trittico -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/09/2009
Racette, Blythe, Licitra, Lucic, Corbelli, Pirgu / Ranzani

(Trying to keep this short, because like apparently everyone else I know I'm going to Elektra tonight.)

This was a satisfying revival of Puccini's triptych, certainly better than the 2007 premiere at which Jack O'Brien ducked his director's bow like a coward. Even not in pristine voice (though I think she just doesn't have that top note for the Suor Angelica climax), Patricia Racette brought a life and theatrical presence to the soprano leads as her predecessors really had not. It wasn't quite the electrifying success one might have wanted, but not every night gets there.

In Tabarro, tenor Salvatore Licitra was as energetic as usual (as he was in stealing the show at the premiere) in verisimo, but also not in strongest voice. Meanwhile Željko Lucic's habit of downplaying the harsh, baritone-villain element of his characters has a more interesting effect here than it does in Verdi operas: paired with a more emotionally subtle than usual Giorgetta in Racette, their relationship as a couple takes on a surprising realism. Of course, with his (mostly) less-than-brutal jealousy a certain impact is lost, though as always listening to Lucic's voice is a pleasure.

Suor Angelica was well-sung -- by Racette, force-of-nature Stephanie Blythe, and the rest of the habit-clad cast -- but the all-too-literal appearance of the child at the end looks as schlocky as ever, and after the excellent singing this time is even more jarring. I don't think I'll ever be able to enjoy this opera in this production.

Finally, Gianni Schicchi revealed a really promising new singer: Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, whose house debut was in this run. Time will tell whether Pirgu has the endurance and variety of sound to triumph in a full night's role, but as Rinuccio he was near-ideal. More, please. I think I'm finally warming up to Alessandro Corbelli's self-effacing Schicchi (though the opposite would certainly be welcome), and the piece also brought conductor Stefano Ranzani's best work: detailed and lively here, where in the previous installments he was detailed and perhaps insufficiently visceral.

*     *     *

I'm always a bit perplexed when I hear the not-so-rare sentiment that more opera these days should be in the verisimo mold. The general formula -- "low" setting plus extreme emotional outcries -- does its best to make its characters into slaves of their outsized (often near-pathological) desires (a view of humanity also seen in later, more self-conscious forms of modernist work -- see, as its greatest operatic example, Berg's Lulu). But man is more than a tortured beast, or strives to be so, and as characters in story even more so: stories began with divine (or quasi-divine) protagonists and it is a very late thing indeed that this has been forgotten enough to make a "realist" or "veristic" goal seem plausible or even natural. And so as Trittico moves forward in its realization of man's godly aspect -- first as religious longing and frenzy, then with the thorough divine laughter that even breaks the fourth wall -- it moves (in Puccini's original settings) backward in time, from the 20th century to the 17th to the 13th, closer and closer to the liberating first truths of story. Puccini, fortunately, could not be a verist for long. (Which, incidentally, is why Mimi's imagination is so crucial.)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Hoffmann (after)

Les Contes d'Hoffmann -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/03/09
Calleja, Lindsey, Held, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova, Oke / Levine

The true value of the Met's new production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann may take several revivals -- and, perhaps, a tenor less spellbinding than Joseph Calleja -- to reveal itself, but after last night's premiere I would call it at the least the greatest (and perhaps the first) native triumph of Peter Gelb's term as General Manager. (Butterfly, Trovatore, and others were imports that played to much acclaim before arriving.) And certainly when one includes the cast contribution, this is the event of the season so far. If you can't get tickets, at least see the (unfortunately to-be-censored) movie version later this month.

*     *     *

His Met debut Barber of Seville was antiseptic, but that seems to have been a trial run for director Bartlett Sher. His work for Hoffmann retains some of the tics of that Barber (door frames, etc.) but this time shows a fittingly operatic imagination lacking in that first try.

Sher's Hoffmann opens with a tableau of ruinous desire: mostly-nude women sprawl -- as if mannequins, or in the aftermath of a debauch -- on the floor and on the benches that will, when the scene turns from vision into reality, become Luther's tavern in Nuremberg. (Seriously: I'd never expected to see a passel of pasties prominently featured at the Met -- wasn't it just yesterday that the skin content of Moses & Aron had to be tuned way down?) Meanwhile Hoffmann's writing desk sits, covered with papers, downstage left, where it will remain for all but the Antonia act, for which it's temporarily displaced by Antonia's own piano -- also covered with papers.

This is the basic schema of the opera -- doomed-to-fail desire versus the artistic recompense for its failure -- and Sher sets it out strikingly. The initial women stir, others (clothed) appear -- unidentified, but later shown to be visions of Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta -- and in the poet's corner the Muse goes to sing her intent: she will wean Hoffmann from his ruinous attachments and lead him to success in art.

And in a sense the three Hoffmann stories within this frame tell of desire's basic perils: Olympia (the doll) is about the possibility of bestowing love on someone worthless and ridiculous; Antonia (the too-frail singer) about the awful potential consequences of desire's consummation (though yes, she is ultimately done in by the singer's desire for glory and not romantic desire per se); and Giulietta (the courtesan who steals Hoffmann's shadow) about the possibility of grasping both of the previous perils and yet choosing ruin.

The art, of course, is in the telling itself, both by Hoffmann within the story and by Offenbach, his librettists, the cast, and the production team in our world. In this case Sher, set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber have, as most predecessors, found varied and striking elaborations for the various settings and acts while maintaining a unifying base: the black floorboard space that underlies all locations, the artist's paper-strewn surface, and Hoffmann's dark suit and coat (the outfit -- though thankfully sans hat most of the time -- much seen in ads).

Sher writes of his first inspiration for the production being Kafka, but there is no trace of that left in what's actually onstage. The 1920s do get a decent airing -- the half-dressed half-sinister decadents are more than a little Weimar, and one might associate Hoffmann's outfit with Chaplin or Magritte, who both flourished in that decade -- but there's no Kafka. The other stated influence -- Fellini -- is fairly present in spirit, helping the stunning and fantastic stage pictures Sher creates in the Olympia and Giulietta acts (the latter with another -- this time applause-inducing -- surprise display of flesh). In between, oddly enough, is what seems to be an homage to Carsen's great Onegin here, with a field of white, characters seen by their shadows, and minimal scenery...

Sher et al. do add one thread, or rather raise it out of subtext: Hoffmann's difficulty fitting in (and eventual ejection from all the milieus outside the tavern), as Offenbach had had difficulty as an artist and a Jew. This got a bit too cute at the end, with Hoffmann picking up the white cloth the revelers had been using to act out Kleinzach and himself wearing it to evoke a tallit (he does take it off at the very end when he sits down to his art), but other elements -- like the separate space created by his desk in each scene -- work well.

More on the production when I see it again soon.

*     *     *

The cast was the side that had the most upheaval, but one wouldn't have known it from this premiere. Rolando Villazon for Hoffmann became Calleja -- who, though prodigious in gifts, had never sung the part before in his life. Anna Netrebko as all the heroines became Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Netrebko as Antonia/Stella, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta. Finally, Elina Garanča for the Muse/Nicklausse became Kate Lindsey and Rene Pape as all the villains became Alan Held. James Levine, after recent back surgery, did recover in time to conduct the premiere as scheduled.

Calleja first. I've had huge expectations of him since his 2006 debut, and while his bit in the 125th Anniversary Gala created yet more believers, he's still only 31 and had never sung a role of nearly Hoffmann's weight or length before anywhere, much less at the Met. And yet, while I agree with Maury that he -- particularly at the beginning of the night -- was a touch cautious and didn't show quite the freedom and rhythmic/expressive mastery one has heard from him in Italian pieces and from others here, Calleja makes the show, and would make it a must-see even if Sher's staging were leaden. When he sings -- which is much of the long night, and he makes it through without issue, even sounding strongest and most free at the end -- the show is about little else but sitting there and taking in his implausibly spacious golden-age sound. It's the sort of experience that justifies the otherwise-laughable tenor cult and all its otherwise-inexplicable trappings, the sort that makes me regret not having been able to take an opera novice or two to this performance.

Calleja, as in his Elisir, also does well conveying the straightforward, earnest love and desire of his character. (It is the addition of this true-feeling central character that transforms the hijinks around him -- much of which might otherwise fit in the frothy operettas that long made Offenbach famous -- into serious and even sinister stuff.)

His ladies did reasonably well, though as perhaps appropriate for this unified production telling Hoffmann's story none were able to really compete with the hero. Kathleen Kim came the closest, but Olympia's dazzling aria has often taken the laurels (not least for Natalie Dessay in 1998). On the strong and full-voiced (as opposed to delicate/elegant) side among Olympias, Kim pulled off her showpiece well, particularly the end. This plus the charm she showed in making a splash in Rusalka has me excited to hear her Zerbinetta later this season.

Netrebko, fairly wisely, stuck to the regular soprano part (Olympia is high-soprano and Giulietta a mezzo) among the heroines. After sounding surprisingly poor and even old -- ungainly, unsteady, with pitch issues and little distinguished sound beyond the huge high notes -- in the initial aria ("Elle a fui"), she improved through the act to a pretty good (and quite loud) climax (though the repeated clutching and re-clutching at the papers as she died was a bit much).

Gubanova sang quite well in the least grateful heroine part (Giulietta). The real mezzo part in the opera is, of course, the pants role of Nicklausse. Kate Lindsey was, as ever, excellent in male attire and, as ever, sang with admirable style and panache. In this opera her instrument isn't on the same dominant scale as, say, Calleja's, but that fits: Nicklausse is Hoffmann's sidekick, not the other way around.

Alan Held did well as the villains, musical and plausibly menacing despite his not-so-dark basic sound, but didn't make much of his big Venetian solo ("Scintille, diamant"). Alan Oke sang very well -- not least in Frantz's song parodying Antonia's musical ambition -- but probably didn't get as much applause as he deserved because he blended in to the other bit players at curtain call.

Levine's firm hand was welcome in this kaleidoscope of moods.

*     *     *

There is a lot in this production and in this opera, almost too much to take in at once. Fortunately, it runs until January 2. Unfortunately, it's pretty much all sold out. Still...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Watch this space

To be posted this week(end): reviews of some Mozart performances and that premiere tonight.

Not to be posted this week, or perhaps ever: review of Dorothea Röschmann's Carnegie Hall recital, which has been postponed to April 12. Yes, that's the night of the Armida premiere at the Met -- a poor rescheduling choice for a vocal event. I'll see which I end up attending in the spring.

The happy recitalist

Recital (Brahms, Wolf, Hahn, Mahler) -- Alice Tully Hall, 11/29/09
Kirchschlager / Jones

Perhaps it was Warren Jones (for Malcolm Martineau), perhaps the greater notice that it was to be a solo recital, perhaps something else, but Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager's performance yesterday was quite the opposite of the uncomfortable forced march she led through Romantic song three years ago. On this Sunday both she and her program were poised, forward, and lively -- a much happier combination.

Not that the atmosphere was wholly placid: in fact, the whole event was charged (particularly at the start) with a certain nervousness that contrasted interestingly with the calm sonic appeal of Kirchschlager's singing. And yet at every point she seemed bent on turning this energy into an impeccable joy -- and it mostly worked. Even the coughing that prompted an awkward admonishment from her last time this time prompted a joke, as she spoke of wanting to cough herself between songs and then actually doing so (to much laughter).

Instead of -- as last time -- a long jumble of Schumann followed by a long jumble of Schubert, Kirchschlager and Jones did four later-Romantic groups of songs: 7 by Brahms, 6 by Wolf (from the Mörike set), Hahn, and Mahler (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn). The Brahms was well-sung but perhaps a bit too insistently presented to capture his full appeal, but the rest of the program suited Kirchschlager's strengths as a performer.

Her best expressiveness, I think, is musical: she's game for all sorts of turns and elaborations on her pleasant sound. Her acting is well-judged, well-shaded and hardly inhibited but more self-effacing than overpowering either in her own persona or in the characters'. And the words are -- well, perhaps this was the cause of some nervousness. For whatever reason she seemed to be battling them a bit, not only changing (from, I assume, memory lapse) but blurring the German from time to time, if not quite swallowing the text wholesale in the sometime manner of Matthias Goerne.

On the whole, despite both word slips and a certain unease on high notes, Kirchschlager served the late Romantic program well. The highlight, I think, was in the Wolf songs, where she perfectly caught the mix of reverie and ecstasy of "Auf einer Wanderung" to begin a set that finished with his more single-mindedly rapt (than Schumann's familiar version) setting of "Er ist's".

She finished with two encores, though I'm afraid I've the first has already slipped my mind. The second was Brahms' famous lullaby, a fine send-off. Warren Jones, with whom Kirchschlager seemed to have good rapport, was as ever both an expressive and delightfully precise accompanist.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Unamplified again (2)

As previously suggested here, Tommasini took a victory lap for the new City Opera acoustical arrangement.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Hoffmann (before)

As you may have heard, one of the more unsettled new productions of recent memory becomes even less certain as Joseph Calleja withdrew from this afternoon's public dress rehearsal of Hoffmann. Only a precaution, one hopes! At least one reader offered basically positive thoughts on the whole, but feel free to comment if you were at the Met earlier today.

Friday, November 13, 2009

From the House...

From the House of the Dead -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/12/09
Margita, Streit, Hoare, Mattei, White / Salonen

Much-lauded director Patrice Chéreau has never before done a show at the Met, and on the evidence of this Janacek premiere one suspects he's never seen a show there either. Perhaps at the previous stops of this touring production his step of putting supertitles onstage (projected on the dull grey walls) in the general vicinity of the characters seemed brilliant, but it's no accident that this house uses individual subtitle screens instead. Not the least reason is that there's no spot (except perhaps dead center where singers are) from which every member of the audience can clearly make out titles -- and having the words moved from left to right and back again only makes things worse, messing up one section of the audience after another with titling hidden behind a wall or some other feature. This was a terrible idea, and I'm surprised Peter Gelb or some other Met veteran didn't have it cut.

Besides this distracting, unnecessary, and possibly illegible underlining, the production was mostly what one might have expected. Drab grey sets, check. Modern clothes of indeterminate time and place, check. Full frontal male nudity, check. Physical direction emphasizing earthy brutality and roughness, check. Not that these are bad choices, mind you, but they're the predictable ones. The show did end on a sour note when Chéreau didn't bother having the eagle fly off: the thing being a wooden model anyway, most of the prisoners pretended to see it go off to the left while one guy just folded it up and put it behind his back. Cheap.

Oh, but the music, and the opera! That was something to hear and take in. Where other operas lengthen time, Janacek's shortens it: the endless grimness of a prison camp becomes an evanescent near-vignette, conveying the essence of the life without any of the tedium. One mini-story shifts to another as if in a dream, which Chéreau's production highlights by running the action mostly together with little sense of time transition. And the musical language should be familiar to any who know the composer's earlier works.

All the performers serve Janacek well, including debuting singers Stefan Margita and Peter Hoare and of course debuting conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, who well continues the recent house tradition of excellent Janacek conducting. But the show is stolen by baritone Peter Mattei, whose character Shishkov gets the fullest and last story: a tale of love, not-quite-love, and bloody jealousy that -- in Mattei's hands at least -- is not far from the essence of opera.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Unamplified again

The news that City Opera's home will now be free of artificial sonic sweetener (that is, miking, as indirect as it may have been) is both surprising and welcome. Anthony Tommasini, take a bow!: as I noted years ago, getting rid of this "enhancement" has been a persistent crusade of his since it was first introduced to the State Theater a decade ago.

Now, to see if the company can find enough money to survive for another decade...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Marie Theres'

Der Rosenkavalier -- Metropolitan Opera, 10/16/09
Graham, Fleming, Sigmundsson, Persson, Vargas / de Waart

Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Marschallin is essentially -- she's not the Empress Maria Theresa, but as a namesake she stands in for her -- at the apex of her social universe, at a time and place in which that was incalculably important. She bears her husband's title of "Field Marshal", but he is far off and in any case seemingly more engaged in hunting than actual warfare. While he is gone the world is hers, and it's a world where "soft" power reigns to an extent hardly imaginable after the Great War's aftermath.

Hofmannsthal sets it up as clearly as you'd like. Though its existence of course depends on hard objective matters like soldiering and war (the shadow of the absent Field Marshal), value in this universe is quite securely held elsewhere: in blood, land, title, and a good name -- prizes of birth or consent, not pure force. In their grasp Faninal, who is not only hugely wealthy but has gotten so by backing the empire's literal power as military supplier, is reduced to comic obsequiousness and impotence. These all, by contrast, strengthen the Marschallin, who rules even the opera's lone authority figure -- the Police Commisioner -- by respect and personal suasion.

And who could be more fit for this lofty position? For the Marschallin incarnates not only the prized values of her universe, but its professed virtues: with all her standing and power she is not just beautiful and well-dressed but patroness of the arts, generous to widows and orphans, patient and attentive to her old relative, resistant to gossip and maliciousness, and honestly if not-quite-conventionally pious. At her levee -- and in her opera -- the chaos of the world is ordered by her sympathies into the coherent and beautiful whole one would like this long past to have been. (For Hofmannsthal's libretto is as much apologia for the soon-to-end era as anything else.) Only one thing is excluded: herself, as a person with her own desires, and past, and future. She indulges this personal self with Octavian, but both she and we soon learn that their connection is, for her, just that -- an indulgence, not an essential.

It's Baron Ochs, of course, who triggers the crisis, because she can (herself) do nothing about him. The Marschallin incarnates the best possibilities of propriety, and so when propriety allows and even covers the Baron's gross behavior, she is stuck with it. For Ochs is Marschallin's opposite, the incarnation of their past's vice: where she transforms social value into social virtue, he unabashedly appropriates it for himself, extracting every personal benefit from his rank and privilege. (Mind you, he doesn't, like Don Giovanni, cross into actual criminality -- this is a comedy. He just gropes a lot, and tries to grab Faninal's fortune and poor Sophie.) To indulge her personal disgust with him would be to erase their essential distinction, and so the Marschallin can't. As far as she's in charge of it, Ochs is able to exploit the social system -- and she knows it.

Octavian, however, is not so bound. Whether because he's a man or because he's young or simply because he was born with a different character, his direct and natural reaction to injustice is to fix it, whether by (counterproductively) trying to console the Marschallin or by telling off Ochs or, finally, by wrecking the Baron's engagement. But this latter sort of social disruption needs subsequent reordering, and so...

When the Marschallin reappears onstage in Act III, she is ready to deploy her social power against Ochs, and in fact does so, gaily but implacably dismissing his whole marriage scheme. What has changed? Well, he has allowed a giant and embarrassing ruckus to arise, always a bad social move. But what else? Is she at last indulging her own distaste, or -- as Ochs insinuates -- simply siding with her lover in this tug-of-war? Or is she, perhaps, upholding young love?

The choice is hers, even after she has dismissed the Baron, for there are still virtuous and selfish purposes the act can serve. And -- well, she is who she is, and it's not Ochs-like in the least. But the cost of virtue is what she'd foreseen in the first Act: she has to give up Octavian, an acceptable personal indulgence vis-a-vis merely her marriage, but no acceptable reason to intervene with Ochs nor stand between the young lovers. It's not the end of love, surely -- Octavian, as the creators noted, won't be the last. But for the moment she lets him drop to enter her role of social avatar, transforming what has happened into the just confirmation of Octavian and Sophie's perfect match.

(And so those, beginning perhaps with Lotte Lehmann, who've tried to make the Marschallin's final "Ja ja" momentous are quite wrong. By the time she has withdrawn and reappeared with Faninal, her personal aspect should have disappeared wholly into the conventions of her quasi-parental role. "Yes, yes", she says, sympathetically but with an essential blankness, her drama already offstage.)

*     *     *

Opening night or not, I never quite feel the season has begun until its first unexpected success -- and while others were long sure this revival was to be a triumph, I was not. Renee Fleming's last run here in the part was about a decade ago (early 2000), and one of the worst interpretations the role has received: seeming not to get the Marschallin's character at all, Fleming tackled it with the same full sound and near-hysterical emo manner that she might have used for Desdemona or Violetta. (This doesn't work.) She battled her un-Straussian tendency to less-than-great effect last fall, and I feared a repeat.

And that by way of saying: I've rarely been more glad to have been more wrong. Last Friday's show -- and her part in it -- was not all great, but enough hit the mark to make for a tremendous whole, a performance to remind one of the piece's irreplaceable appeal.

*     *     *

In Act I -- a soprano tour de force of varied emotion, mood, and singing -- Fleming was great, in a way I would never have expected. Whether consciously or from vocal development, she has lightened her voice throughout, never overpowering the subtleties of text and phrase with overripe tone. This is a real change, but the development of her phrasing and her expression of the Marschallin's moods has been no less than revolutionary. Whether it was superior coaching, Robin Guarino's stage direction for this revival, the influence of conductor Edo de Waart, or just the life perspective gained by the passing of time, what had seemed opaque to Fleming a decade ago is now transparently grasped and expressed the whole Act through. Her Marschallin is human -- she flares near anger twice -- but each time we can see it dissipate in the character's natural reserve of cool reflectiveness. She smiles, and sings with a smile, and feels the joyful waltz rhythms as she did not last time. And the hardest but absolutely essential emotional arcs -- the long, discursive, hot-and-cool buildups to dual climaxes of mixed relief, melancholy, and rapture (first at the end of her monologue and then again after the act-closing scene with Octavian) that are the heart of the opera -- these were overmuscled and went awfully awry in 2000, but Fleming now navigates them with precision and real understanding. Glorious.

Act II brings the other happy surprise of the revival: Miah Persson. As everyone seems to notice right off, the Swedish soprano is pretty much an ideal Sophie, both in voice and person. In sound she's not a miscast high squeaker -- the Presentation of the Rose doesn't even hit high C -- but has the live richness by which the heavenly state of her mind expands out into the listener's ear. Even more impressive is how firmly she nails Sophie's character -- neither flighty nor hyper, but a quick and emotionally responsive idealist, one who truly believes all the fine things she's been taught. (The unfortunate part where the higher-ranked man can act like a pig without anyone daring to call him on it was apparently left out.) "Aber die Ehe ist ein heiliger Stand" (But marriage is a holy estate), she sings, and she really means it. What young man wouldn't want to confirm such a girl's high estimation of the world?

Susan Graham's Octavian was great a decade ago and it is, if anything, even greater now. The breadth of colors and feelings she's shown recently in Clemenza (as Sesto) and Don Giovanni (as Elvira) carry over here, and her characteristic emotional directness is just right for Octavian.

Perhaps weakest of the main cast was Kristinn Sigmundsson, who was still pretty good. He sings the rougher, more boorish variant of Ochs (the legendary Richard Mayr was more suave and charming, but it's a tradition that's fallen off), though well and not without a residue of social nicety. Sigmundsson has a relish for the part and a nice sense of rhythm, but lacks the outsize vocal or personal presence that distinguished some of predecessors.

Ramon Vargas phrased with his usual ardor as the Italian Singer but seemed still be be suffering from the indisposition that had kept him out of the dress rehearsal the week before. But all the small parts were -- again surprisingly -- deftly handled. Met Council winner Rodell Rosel made his Met debut in the run as a strong-voiced and slightly crazed Valzacchi, while Wendy White did her usual good work as Annina. Further -- perhaps, again, one should thank Robin Guarino -- the production has finally decided to stop trying to make a joke of the noble widow and orphans, and in fact has gotten the details so right that the Baron's bastard son Leopold is now ideally handled (Stephen Paynter plays him as a dimwit who's himself smitten with Sophie -- and perhaps Mariandel! -- and not the mere troll we've seen in the past)!

*     *     *

Yet as well as the first two acts go, the last does not quite measure up. Fleming, for one, does not seem to have grasped this part of the Marschallin's role as strongly as she has the first act. Or, rather: she seems to be trying to get it right (she now keeps a strong basic physical composure, with rather less fidgeting than before) but does not quite hit the mark, at times reverting to dark heavy tone and basically snapping at the Baron as she tells him off (the text says the Marschallin here is gaily superior, which considering the great gulf in their standing is naturally correct). Perhaps, as intimate as she may have gotten with the beset Marschallin, Fleming is less comfortable with the Marschallin as exerciser of social power.

In any case, a full-blooded account of the Baron's exit waltz sweeps the previous action away before the finale. Here as elsewhere conductor Edo de Waart (a late substitution upon Levine's back surgery) was excellent, providing the waltz-rhythmic backdrop (and occasional foreground) to the story as Levine has not always done (and, I fear, Levine may not do when he returns). de Waart avoided extremes of speed or expansiveness but kept a well-sprung liveliness throughout, adding much to the evening... Until, unfortunately, the trio.

Perhaps modern audiences simply haven't heard the famous Rosenkavalier trio performed at a proper, non-draggy tempo? Because judging from the talk afterwards, this version was about as popular as these gilding-the-lily ones usually are when trotted out at galas and the like -- which is to say, very. Yet while the singers handled it fairly well (and perhaps the speed was even their request), as usual the lack of speed drained much of the life from the thing. Strauss' sonic indulgences need more well-defined time, not less.

And yet by the time Octavian and Sophie wrapped up the long show with their final duet, the overall success of the night was pretty obvious. Only unexpected illness kept me from going again tonight, and I expect I'll try again even without de Waart.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

There he goes...

I wasn't at Tuesday's Rosenkavalier, but positive reports from that and Friday's dress rehearsal may get me to see Edo de Waart's version of the piece before he departs.

But here is the long-contemplated appendix to my February post on Lisa della Casa: that great Marschallin at the 1960 opening of Salzburg's Festspielhaus, in the monologue and closing duet of Rosenkavalier Act I. Sena Jurinac is Octavian.

I'm not sure if the embed widget works, but I believe the download should.

Act I (conclusion).mp3

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The end of the QXR era

Tonight at 8PM, the sale of WQXR arranged in July makes itself heard on the air. The deal was a three-way transaction: the New York Times company, continuing to hemorrhage money in the Pinch Sulzburger era, sold the WQXR name and website to WNYC (formerly a classical-music competitor, now long since taken over by the public radio talk-talk) and WQXR's most valuable asset -- its place in the middle of the dial and 6000 watt broadcast license -- to Univision Radio. WNYC also got the frequency (105.9) and 600 watt broadcast license heretofore used by WCAA, the Spanish-language channel that will take over the WQXR spot. So: the Times got money, WNYC got a station called WQXR at 105.9, and Univision Radio got to put its Spanish-language programming at 96.3FM with 10 times the watts.

WNYC's press reports have been fairly positive -- the "new" station opens this evening with a live concert from Carnegie Hall -- but it hardly disguises the literal marginalization of classical music radio in the city. And yet... It's hard to be depressed. I -- like many of my readers, I would guess -- grew up listening to WQXR: it was my parents' background music of choice. But it's been a long, long time since I've listened: CDs, mp3 players, internet radio, and now the Met Sirius channel have provided much more of the narrowcast musical experience I've wanted than the ever-more-watery broadcast model of QXR. Even Met radio broadcasts are better heard on the internet streams of stations that don't use huge dynamic compression for drive-time friendliness.

Listeners not comfortable with newer options may, of course, be harmed. But that is an ever-shrinking population.

At any rate, please remember that Met broadcasts will be at 105.9, not 96.3.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ouch

I got this press release a few minutes ago:
James Levine to Undergo Surgery for Herniated Spinal Disc

Mr. Ronald Wilford, Chairman of Columbia Artists and James Levine’s manager has announced that Mr. Levine will undergo immediate surgery for a herniated spinal disc. The procedure necessitates withdrawing from his scheduled performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera.

Mr. Levine has withdrawn from performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston on Tuesday, September 29 and Saturday, October 3 and from Carnegie Hall’s opening night performance on Thursday, October 1. Mr. Levine has also withdrawn from performances of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera on October 6 and 10.
Let's hope he recovers quickly from this latest back issue.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Less Gagnidze

So it seems that last night's performance of Tosca (also featuring an unscheduled Levine cancellation) had George Gagnidze singing the first act and only acting the second while Carlo Guelfi sang from the side. Very odd, and I hope this won't launch another set of revolving door casts as in the last years' Tristans.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The awful truth

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 9/21/09
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Levine

Is Tosca beautiful? Probably, for Cavaradossi lovingly remembers her beauty, but it is her eyes that inspire passion in her admirers -- and not just the physical form on her face, but the spirit shown therein. It's by the storms of feeling seen in her dark eyes that both Cavaradossi and Scarpia are inflamed and ensnared.

For the 2009-2010 season's opening night, the Met seemed to have bet on a similar sort of appreciation for her namesake opera. As it turned out, however, the negative reaction (mostly -- whether from variations of politeness, engagement, or aesthetic -- from the upper sections of the house) to Monday's new production dwarfed even the justified boo-fest for Mary Zimmerman's insult last season. Furthermore, every last booer seems to have put his opinion out on the internet. It seems that "Tosca" is loved in a rather different way than Tosca herself.

*     *     *

Director Luc Bondy is, despite some hilarious misunderstandings to the contrary, no sort of avant-gardeist. In fact he is a realist, arguably more so than his predecessor Zeffirelli: only where Zeffirelli's interest is in decorative detail, Bondy is primarily focused on the psychology of the piece and its characters. And although she dates the very beginning to an Elektra the year before, one can see Bondy's influence on the flowering of Karita Mattila's great phase in the 1996 Chatelet production of Don Carlos, long a DVD staple (and given that it was an early HD experiment, shouldn't a Blu-Ray be out by now?). Thirteen years ago she -- and the rest of the cast -- was not only gratifyingly precise in character and interaction but as explosively expressive as at any time since.

Now as then, the psychologies of the characters -- even the small ones -- are sharpened and foregrounded. The contempt and contemptibility of the Sacristan, Spoletta as evil's indispensable functionary, even the bland more-or-less sympathy of the last-act jailer (here combined with the firing squad leader) are sketched in full clarity, perhaps not least for not being drowned in a vast accumulation of historical set detail. But this is hardly the stuff of boos or bravos.

It is Scarpia's part that is here most sharpened, to vivid but apparently controversial effect. Scarpia is, as he himself notes, a man of power and appetite -- it is no coincidence that Act II begins with him eating, as Act I begins with Cavaradossi too engaged with art, love, and politics to eat -- and Bondy mercilessly puts it onstage. So, in a remarkable tableau, Act I closes with Scarpia -- after his famous cry that Tosca makes him forget God -- blasphemously and licentiously embracing the processional statue of the Virgin as the Church crowd recoils. Act II opens with Scarpia taking his supper in the easy company of three trollops, who tend to him a bit (the Met's first blowjob scene was apparently cut/made more ambiguous since the dress rehearsal) during his aria. This latter scene recalls nothing so much as Tony Soprano at the Bada Bing club, though the decor and clothing are broadly colorful and neutral, not brassily vulgar.

What the decor is not is elaborate, eye-catching, the High-Renaissance masterpiece that is the actual Palazzo Farnese. It offers no relief, lends no false gentility to Scarpia's gross perversion of power and position. It's for this, I think, that the Act II set got so much grief.

*     *     *

As the gross and appreciative elements in Puccini's men -- here so decisively split between Scarpia and Cavaradossi -- are sometimes combined in a single character (e.g. Pinkerton), so the imperious and vulnerable elements of Puccini's women -- sometimes split between two characters (Musetta and Mimi, Turandot and Liu) -- are here, as in Manon Lescaut, combined in the title character. But while Manon Lescaut is a seeming naif who is fatally and inexorably tied to the grand, Tosca -- despite the stabbing -- is a grand excitable diva who is really a softie, disastrously out of her depth in the game of life and death Scarpia, Angelotti, and Cavaradossi are playing. (For what else is the meaning of "Vissi d'arte"?)

Bondy again gets this right -- the way Scarpia so easily dupes her in Act I is dead on -- but it goes against the strengths of his lead soprano. For Mattila is sui generis today in her sincere concentrated abandon in emotional extremity. But while Tosca honestly feels the passionate and excited responses she offers to her wild situation, there's always a bit of artifice mixed in, an extent to which her high emotional pitch is true to neither herself (again, look at the aria) nor the world she's in (for once, the long dramatic irony of the last Act is played straight in its perfect eerie tone). That sort of grand humbug is not Mattila's strength; her greatest virtue undercut, she offers a perfectly fine interpretation that lacks the scale of her recent Jenufa, Salome, Elsa, or, yes, Manon Lescaut.

*     *     *

But why, in fact, the angry reception? For some booing was heard after Act II, perhaps the musical and dramatic success of the evening. George Gagnidze had sung and acted Scarpia with relish, tenor Marcelo Alvarez had delivered a stirring "Vittoria!" and maintained his usual firmness of characterization as Cavaradossi, and Mattila had sung well and put her electric nervousness to good use at last, registering the enormity of the stabbing and its antecedent events in the tense rest of her body. Who could object?

Ah, but Bondy had dared to omit the crucifix and candles by which Tosca dresses up her killing in a bit of post-hoc piety. (He, like Zeffirelli before him, also omitted her deliberately washing her hands of blood and fixing her hair, but never mind that...) To be honest, I can scarcely believe people are serious in claiming this as some sort of deal-breaker.

Crucifix and candles are, of course, part of the familiar and comforting wrap of nostalgic historicity in which much of the audience is used to seeing the stark and shocking story of the opera. It is at bottom, as Bondy himself observes in his program note, an unpleasant story, so much so that as one thinks on it one wonders how "Tosca" came to be beloved at all. Yes, there is Puccini's gorgeous music, but the dark and evil presence of Scarpia is strong even in the ear. And Puccini doesn't employ the quick rhythms and cabalettas by which Verdi sounds the exhilaration of doom.

Bondy offers, as is his wont, the dark psychological currents of the piece, unmistakably presented. And, aside from the misconceived freeze-frame "jump" business at the end, I think it works fairly well. But as audiences take different sorts of pleasure in the art, a production that is just the one thing is bound to dissatisfy many.

Unconventional productions that triumph at the Met often do so by offering sheer physical beauty, in design and sound, to make up for the lost pleasures of the familiar. While the current cast certainly sounds good, its virtues are more of character: Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann may transform things when they arrive in the spring. And the design, though reasonably handsome, is hardly the wonder one got with Wernicke's FroSch or Minghella's Butterfly -- its most striking element, Scarpia's wonderfully sinister crocodile coat, is too subtle to be seen by most in the house. (But the movie cameras will pick it up.)

*     *     *

And still I suspect that Monday's reaction had less to do with the particulars of this production and more to do with Franco Zeffirelli. Though one of his worst Met productions, his "Tosca" is beloved largely because it buries the evil and shocking elements of the story in its mass of comforting -- and, yes, beautiful -- details. To have a Zef production replaced by a show that strips things down was bound to inflame his fans, regardless of the quality (or lack thereof) of the result.

Because of this, and because of the pile-on effect among the critics, I doubt we'll know what's actually in this show for a while. It would not entirely surprise me, however, to see Bondy's "Tosca" return at some point in triumph, as the last epic boo-barrage I attended eventually did. I'd be even less surprised to see the show get a good reception next month in movie form.

One last note before I end this too-long post: unlike too many other production teams, Bondy and company did not cower from their boos or hide behind Levine or the leading lady's skirt. In fact, they came out -- with a smile, I think -- to receive the boos again in the plaza curtain call! For this, at least, one should commend them.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

2009-2010 Met season preview

This is mostly the text of my February post after the initial season announcement, with some edits to reflect changes since then. Cast changes in those months are highlighted.

Note that not every cast combination is listed below -- just most of the recurring ones.

Tosca (new Luc Bondy production)
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Levine (opening night through October)
Mattila, Alvarez, Gagnidze / Colaneri (October -- 3 out of 5 performances)
Mattila, Kaufmann, Terfel / Levine (April)
Dessì, Giordani, Gagnidze / Auguin (end of April-May)
New: No more complaints about Juha Uusitalo, who's been mercifully axed from this production (though not -- yet -- the spring Flying Dutchman) at the last minute. Both of Karita Mattila's casts have potential, at least with Levine in the pit; Daniela Dessi, who might be an interesting Italian contrast, is saddled with the uninspiring baton-work of Philippe Auguin.
As for opening night itself, I expect those yearning for a specific Puccini sound will complain as they did about Mattila's Manon Lescaut. But Tosca has been a star singing actress' part for a long, long time, and Bondy has inspired Mattila to some of her best work.

Figaro
de Niese, Relyea, Bell, Skovhus, Leonard / Ettinger (October)
Oropesa, Pisaroni, Dasch, Tezier, Leonard / Luisi (November)
de Niese, Pisaroni, Dasch, Tezier, Leonard / Luisi (December)
John Relyea has been intolerable in the title part, and as curious as I am about unknown debutant Dan Ettinger, I'm sure Fabio Luisi will impress in the pit here. Wait until November and Lisette Oropesa's likely less-affected Susanna.
New: de Niese, who sang well but un-touchingly as Eurydice last season, sings the three December Susannas for which Oropesa had been originally scheduled. Note that Met Council winner (as seen in "The Audition") Angela Meade (of all people) has a one-off Countess in the first of these.

Magic Flute
Phillips, Klink, Miklósa, Maltman, Zeppenfeld / Labadie (September)
Kleiter, Polenzani, Shagimuratova, Gunn, König / Fischer (April)
New: Susanna Phillips (another, most memorable, Met Council winner) is in as Pamina; Genia Kühmeier is out. I'm not sure why, but I'm not complaining either.

Aida
Urmana, Zajick, Botha, Guelfi / Gatti (October)
Urmana, Zajick, Margison, Guelfi / Carignani (end of October-November)
Papian, Zajick, Licitra, Guelfi / Carnignani (April)
Not bad casting -- and some fairly promising conductors -- if you crave the Met's grand Aida. So much for the internet rumor of Salvatore Licitra being finished at the Met... Though I do think Johan Botha is the better bet here.
New: Note that the first group will be the performers in the moviecast.

Barber of Seville
DiDonato, Banks, Pogossov / Benini (October)
DiDonato, Banks, Vassallo / Benini (end of October-November)
Damrau, Brownlee, Vassallo / Benini (February)
I saw the amazing Joyce DiDonato in this production two years ago with Lawrence (the sometime DJ) Brownlee as Almaviva and Russell Braun as Figaro: a pleasant show all around, though DiDonato's was the only major star instrument on display. I suspect these casts will do similarly, though I wouldn't sell Barry Banks short. Conductor Maurizio Benini has grown on me a bit.
New: I doubt DiDonato will be able to top the whole singing on a broken leg/in a wheelchair thing from Covent Garden this summer, but who knows?

Der Rosenkavalier
Fleming, Graham, Persson, Sigmundsson, Vargas / Levine (October)
Fleming, Graham, Schäfer, Sigmundsson, Cutler / Levine (January)
Librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal rolls over in his grave as Renee Fleming reprises her emo Marschallin. The rest of the cast is promising, though, particularly in October. This Strauss opera has never been one of James Levine's strong pieces.
New: Perhaps Levine assistant Jens Georg Bachmann's sole conductorial outing (October 22) could liven things up?

Damnation of Faust
Borodina, Vargas, Abdrazakov / Conlon (October-November)
What a cast! Too bad about the production.

Turandot
Guleghina, Giordani, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Lindstrom, Giordani, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Guleghina, Porretta, Poplavskaya / Nelsons (November)
Guleghina, Licitra, Kovalevska / Nelsons (January)
The Met is doing 16 performances of this (in)famously over-the-top Zeffirelli version of Puccini's opera, all but one conducted by the young Latvian newcomer Andris Nelsons. But to see this show without seeing Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska as Liu would be criminal.
New: The moviecast is in November. As I said, criminal.

From the House of the Dead (new Patrice Chéreau production)
White, Margita, Mattei, Streit, Hoare / Salonen (November-December)
Janacek+Dostoevsky+Salonen+Mattei = must-see+great press+empty seats

Il Trittico
Racette, Lucic, Blythe, Corbelli, Antonenko / Ranzani (November-December)
Racette, Lucic, Blythe, Corbelli, Licitra / Ranzani (December)
Patricia Racette stars in all three operas in Puccini's triptych, and -- with Stephanie Blythe, who stole the show last time -- may finally bring Jack O'Brien's literal production to life. Very promising, though debuting conductor Stefano Ranzani is unknown to me.

Tales of Hoffmann (new Bartlett Sher production)
Calleja, Held, Lindsey, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova / Levine (December, including first night Gala, and January)
Calleja, Held, Lindsey, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova / Keenan (December)
Early rumors had Anna Netrebko attempting all the heroines in this, but she's wisely left high-coloratura Olympia to Kathleen Kim and mezzo-ish Giulietta to Ekaterina Gubanova.
Sher's first production at the Met wasn't so impressive, but perhaps he's learned from it. Obviously Levine's performances are the ones to see; his sciatica-induced cancellation drained the life out of an excellently cast (Shicoff, Swenson, Terfel, Mentzer) 2000 revival.
New: Unsurprisingly, originally-announced tenor Rolando Villazon isn't singing Hoffmann: the remarkable Joseph Calleja is. More surprisingly, Rene Pape and Elina Garanca (the latter now singing Carmen instead) aren't going to be in this production either, being now replaced by Alan Held and Kate Lindsey. Held has some big shoes to fill but the other changes are, I think, probably for the better (performance-wise, that is -- not box-office).

Elektra
Bullock, Voigt, Palmer, Schmidt, Nikitin / Luisi (December)
Luisi did well with Strauss' Helena, and he plus the excellent supporting cast should make much of the show whether or not debuting English soprano Susan Bullock crashes or triumphs in the name part -- and whether or not Voigt, who is no longer the creamy-voiced marvel of the 90s (as in the telecast with Behrens), can make Chrysothemis work in her new voice.
New: With Held tied up singing the four villains in Hoffmann, Evgeny Nikitin replaces him here as Orest.

Hansel and Gretel
Persson, Kirchschlager, Langridge, Plowright / Andrew Davis (December-January)
This is a pretty starry lineup for a kids' presentation (with attendant 11AM matinees).

Carmen (new Richard Eyre production, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon)
Garanča, Alagna, Frittoli, Kwiecien / Nézet-Séguin (New Year's Eve Gala through January)
Borodina, Jovanovich, Kovalevska, Kwiecien / Altinoglu (end of January-February)
Borodina, Jovanovich, Kovalevska, Rhodes / Altinoglu (February)
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Kovalevska, Kwiecien / Altinoglu (April-May)
Yes, Angela Gheorghiu's first Carmen attempt onstage anywhere. A better fit for her temperament than Micaëla, but a stretch for her voice. Barbara Frittoli sounded sufficiently poor in her 2007 Suor Angelica that I've wondered why she's still getting big engagements here. In the other cast, Olga Borodina can certainly sing Carmen but seemed bored in her last one: perhaps the new production -- and not injuring her foot -- will energize her a bit. 2007 Tucker-winning tenor Brandon Jovanovich makes his debut opposite, which should be interesting, and Kovalevska's Micaëla has already outshined Borodina once. Much will depend on the two debuting conductors.
New: Whoops! Gheorghiu's big Carmen debut won't happen until April, as she's decided she doesn't want to sing with her husband any more. Elina Garanca withdrew from Hoffmann to take up the title role, which is... interesting. We'll see the London reviews for her and Alagna this October.

Stiffelio
Cura, Marambio, Dobber, Ens / Domingo (January)
This obscure Verdi opera was only moderately interesting when Domingo was actually singing in it and James Levine conducted. Now, account for the mind-boggling gap between Levine and Domingo-as-conductor... A definite miss.

Simon Boccanegra
Domingo, Pieczonka, Giordani, Morris / Levine (January-February)
Domingo sings baritone! -- and not just any baritone part, but the great title role of this Verdi opera. Whether it works or not, it's an event -- though I'll be surprised and cheered if it's as good as the last revival.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Stemme, Ryan, Kim, Connolly / Petrenko (February)
Low-glamour but high-promise cast in a great opera and production. Kirill Petrenko's conducting last time was routine.
New: Out (as Zerbinetta) -- Aleksandra Kurzak, charming in last season's Rigoletto. In -- Kathleen Kim, who almost stole the show in Rusalka, and might well steal the show in Hoffmann earlier in the season.

La Fille du Régiment
Damrau, Florez, Palmer, Te Kanawa / Armiliato (February)
If you want to hear this Donizetti piece again, the singing here's bound to be good. Dame Kiri is in a non-singing role, however.

La Boheme
Netrebko, Beczala, Cabell, Finley / Armiliato (February-March)
Netrebko, Beczala, Swenson, Petean / Armiliato (March)
Will get a lot more press than this season's revival, but won't necessarily be as good. The role of Mimi suits Netrebko's current voice, though.

Attila (new Pierre Audi production)
Abdrazakov, Urmana, Vargas, Alvarez / Muti (February-March)
Abdrazakov, Urmana, Vargas, Alvarez / Armiliato (March)
This is not only conductor Riccardo Muti's Metropolitan Opera debut but the house premiere of this Verdi rarity. Don't miss it, and buy your tickets to Muti's performances early. Intense young tenor Russell Thomas has one performance (March 19) in place of Ramon Vargas -- both should be interesting.

The Nose (new William Kentridge production)
Szot, Geitz, Popov / Gergiev (March)
This is the Met premiere of this early Shostakovich piece, and the debut of all three principal singers as well as the production team. If Gergiev makes you nauseous these days, there is one performance (March 25) led by his fellow Mariinsky conductor Pavel Smelkov. Very interesting, though by no means a sure bet.

Hamlet (new production imported from Geneva)
Keenlyside, Dessay, Larmore, Morris, Spence / Langrée (March-April)
Another Natalie Dessay showpiece, with another Natalie Dessay mad scene. Who can resist?

La Traviata
Gheorghiu, Valenti, Hampson / Slatkin (end of March-April)
2002 Met Council Finals winner James Valenti finally makes his company debut as Alfredo. Gheorghiu's Violetta and Hampson's Germont are likely familiar, but by the time of this revival it will have been a dozen years since Leonard Slatkin conducted at the Met.

Armida (new Mary Zimmerman production)
Fleming, Brownlee, Ford, Zapata, Banks, van Rensburg / Frizza (April, including first night Gala, and May)
Fleming in her element -- Rossini's take on Tasso. Don't miss, and buy your tickets early.

Flying Dutchman
Uusitalo, Voigt, Gould / Ono (April-May)
See note on Tosca. Tenor Stephen Gould's debut is interesting, but this revival's likely a miss unless Uusitalo shows well in the Puccini.
New: Or unless he doesn't sing this either...

Lulu
Petersen, Lehman, von Otter, Morris / Levine (May)
The greatest, most gorgeous (particularly when Levine conducts it) modernist opera gets a surprisingly starry cast.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Gagnidze fans, rejoice

A reader notes that unimpressive baritone Juha Uusitalo is out of not only Monday's opening night gala of Tosca, but the entire run. George Gagnidze, who sang Scarpia in last year's NY Philharmonic Tosca, will now sing in all non-Terfel performances.

Monday, September 14, 2009

One week

The happiest thing about opera is that it occurs in the now -- palpably so. The experience of the operagoer may well, as familiarity grows, expand to enclose future (the near pleasure of getting one's tickets or wondering what the season may bring, as well as the more distant games of what future lineups would be pleasant to see, or what some singer or conductor might become over time) and, of course, past (both the vast art history in which musicologists swim and the closer performance nostalgia into which many a devoted fan has sunk) but these are secondary to the existence of a performance in the present, as the many and various times of a house full of people sync into a single now as each makes his way through the music and story, the sounds and meanings made on that specific occasion. It's this now created each night anew that is important: the great mystery that makes everything else about the opera world tolerable.

All this by way of saying that if you've been away from opera for the summer months -- or longer -- or have never seen an opera at all (if by some chance someone of that description is reading this blog)! -- you may have missed some number of great performances and rather more less-great news and gossip, but none of that has any bearing on what you may or may not experience at to the Met season-opening Tosca next Monday. (Or, of course, any other performance.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

102 minutes

Via the History Channel, eyewitness video footage from this day in 2001.

A "Day of Service"? What a grotesquely vile perversion of memory. Watch the footage instead.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Recreation

After his failure last season in Don Giovanni (partially redeemed later), I wasn't sure what to expect from Louis Langree's Mostly Mozart efforts and -- though largely for other reasons -- missed most of them. But last night's performance of Haydn's Creation (in English) was indisputably successful, with Langree leading the festival orchestra, the Concert Chorale of New York, and three very pleasurable soloists: Carolyn Sampson, Matthew Polenzani, and Peter Rose (all, of course, native English speakers). The only glitch was an included libretto different at many points from what the performers were singing.

No surprise in Langree's conducting success, I suppose: Haydn's masterpiece is almost an experiment in how far one can go without the Satanic element, not just in story -- he ends it just before the temptation, expulsion, and all that business -- but in overall aesthetic as well. Don Giovanni, though less than a dozen years older, breathes a far different air.

*     *     *

I hope to catch up on a number of unposted summer topics in the next week or so. Then, a revision/update of the 2009-2010 Met season preview.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Beyond Meyerbeer and Wagner

Les Huguenots -- Bard SummerScape, 8/05/09
Spyres, Deshorties, Morley, Lenormand, Schroeder, Volpe, Bindel / Botstein

Giacomo Meyerbeer's blockbuster of 1836 is, these days, more often mentioned than performed, and I was glad to see a fully staged version at last, apparently uncut. But all the committed and commendable efforts of the performers couldn't turn this Grand Opera into great opera.

Meyerbeer's defenders (and more and more seem to have been appearing these last decades) generally blame the eclipse of this long-time operatic king of Paris on Wagner, and it is again in this general context that Leon Botstein and Bard presented this revival. Many of the corrective points the defenders wish to make -- that Wagner learned much from Meyerbeer, that his later slurs were in bad faith, etc. -- are surely true (much of the nonsense in Twilight could perhaps have been avoided if Wagner had taken a better model of what Big Opera was about) and academically important, but that doesn't mean we're wrong to have stopped listening to Meyerbeer either.

In fact, this performance didn't get me thinking about Wagner at all, but about another great opera composer who didn't quite succeed in conquering Paris. Verdi's Don Carlos is now -- by some odd twist -- not only the one French grand opera firmly in the repertory, but seems at this distance to have been written as a sort of corrective to the genre's epitome. (Though written many years before Verdi's first Parisian piece and three decades before the original version of Don Carlos, Huguenots was ubiquitous in Paris -- and elsewhere in Europe, including Berlin and Vienna -- for a long, long time after its premiere.) Don Carlos picks up more than a few of the potentially disastrous threads in Huguenots -- the dimwitted tenor "hero" whom others somehow admire despite his more or less screwing everything up; the soprano's marriage to the wrong man; the full-throated anti-clericism; the wild and extreme swings of mood and sound; intrigue at a Valois court (Elisabeth, the soprano lead of Don Carlos, was in fact the elder sister of Marguerite de Valois who is the second soprano of Huguenots: a marriage between Marguerite and the historical Don Carlos was actually contemplated after Elisabeth married his father instead); etc. -- and makes of them a magnificent tragic whole. Huguenots itself... doesn't.

Of course part of the difference is that Meyerbeer set a libretto by Scribe and Émile Deschamps, while Verdi's text was fashioned after Schiller. But each composer presumably got just what he wanted: Verdi's own touches, for example, are all over his Don Carlos libretto (not least in the bizarre ending). And the musical contrast is just as distinct: to my ears Huguenots contains one really impressive episode -- the Act IV love duet between Raoul and Valentine -- and a lot of decent but ultimately forgettable and forgotten virtuosic filler. But Verdi must have liked that duet too, because today it sounds an early draft of the Elisabeth/Carlos reunion... which doesn't come at an utterly hilarious juncture of the action.

By Act IV, the tenor Raoul has, from his own boneheaded conclusion-jumping, not only ruined Valentin's life by refusing to marry her, but thereby broken his own oath, insulted the Queen and Valentine's family (her father, at that point ready to make peace, thereafter leads the slaughter of the Protestants), and inflamed a civil conflagration that will soon kill him and everyone he cares about. Valentine nevertheless has saved Raoul's life (from a plot by her father), and the Queen's revealed to him how badly he screwed up in the first place. Raoul comes on (full of self-pity), after a sorrowful aria by Valentine in her new husband's home, and is quickly rushed off to hiding. He overhears a plot by the Catholics, and returns from his hiding-place to tell Valentine he has to go save his fellow Protestants... Until she tells him she loves him.

At this point one can only laugh. He's ruined her life and horribly insulted her from pique, and despite this she's exposed herself to yet more ridicule and hatred by saving him from her father... and now he's suddenly swayed (not to apologize or make amends, mind you -- being a tenor hero apparently means never having to say you're sorry) from a much more important duty by "I love you"!? That the music soon rises to a higher level than the rest of the piece makes the scene even more surreal.

With all good will, we have to face that Meyerbeer's dramatic sense was that of, well, Joel Silver: great at getting like clockwork from one big over-the-top kaboom to another, but with no sense of when too much -- piling up crowd scenes, plot twists, and long virtuosic displays upon themselves -- becomes absurd. Botstein attempts to rescue Meyerbeer from himself by celebrating the "ironic distance" created by this pileup of artifice. But the piece itself isn't ironically distant at all: its mode isn't winking elegance but the voluptuousness of ever-more-bloody emotionalizing. Meyerbeer himself may have taken an ironic view of his effect-conjuring, but it's anachronistic to suggest that he was some postmodernist intending us to do the same. Botstein, it seems to me, reads Huguenots as camp.

This does, I think, get close to the mystery of the opera's rise and fall. For as Hollywood-style popular art, many of the inanities fall into place: Raoul is a fawned-upon blockhead because he's there to satisfy a certain Romantic hero wish-fulfillment fantasy of men in the audience (the drawn-out Act I finale hardly makes sense otherwise), Marcel's bloody intolerance (symmetrical with the most extreme Catholic's -- he'd no doubt have led the slaughter had the positions been reversed) is celebrated because he represents oppositional chic, etc. But tastes in popular art change more decisively than in high culture, and even if it would swing back the audiences that might make this stuff a hit don't look to opera for their fix these days.

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In any case, the singers did well. Although perhaps only Lindemann soprano Erin Morley (Marguerite de Valois) and young-ish bass Peter Volpe (Marcel) showed the pure sonic glamour that Huguenots might have showcased in ages past, everyone sang well or better. The particular triumph, though, was of Europe-based American tenor Michael Spyres, who not only survived the torturous and punishing role of Raoul but showed an impressively expressive middle voice (which reminded me a bit of the young Alagna's) throughout. I'm not sure how he'd fare in a Met-sized hall, but I'm at a loss to think who could have sung the part with any more style or vocal pleasure here. Botstein and the American Symphony supported the cast and work with relish.

The production was less happy. I guess it was notable for being the first opera production I've seen with MMA (mixed martial arts) in it, but otherwise it's best forgotten. Director Thaddesus Strassberger seems to have taken his aesthetic cue from Meyerbeer's too-muchness, piling on pretty much every anti-clerical bit of religious imagery one could think of (well, there was no child molestation at least). So Act II's genre gypsy interlude turns into "Scenes from a Paris Banlieue" (the gypsy girls gang-attacked for being insufficiently "modest"), while Act IV's weapon-blessing scene has a distinct lack of weapons being blessed but does include one of the two MMA fighters (are they supposed to represent the aggressiveness of men vs Marguerite's love-court? the Catholic-Protestant conflict? -- who knows...) being strung up, speared, and put in a crucifixion pose. And it's no surprise by the time of the last-act massacre that we're shown no actual men being massacred but sexual violence (by monk-robed Catholics, of course) with, downstage, four naked women dressed up as Jesus on the cross.

But other aspects of the production are much too little: everyone but Valentine is outfitted in costumes either drab (all the men, the uni-color ladies at court) or ridiculous (Marguerite in her Act III reappearance, apparently wearing something borrowed from Julie Taymor's Queen of the Night), and one of the grand spectacular scenes (Marguerite's ball that starts Act V) is totally cheapskated out of the show, being essentially unstaged (the curtain is used, and only Raoul is seen at all). Did Bard run out of money? Meyerbeer at least realized the need for scenic variety.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bori sings Rondine (a test)

I'd mentioned possibly posting this back in January, and we'll see if this method works. The live performance of the Puccini opera (Act II) is from 1934: besides the great Lucrezia Bori (more on her in January's post) as Magda, we hear Mario Chamlee as Ruggero, Florence Macbeth as Lisette, and Marek Windheim as Prunier.

Act II.mp3

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Technical difficulties

I was finalizing my post on Lucia this morning when I noticed the blog wasn't loading properly: it seems the Googlepages file purge has finally hit, zapping the css and favicon files that I had uploaded there for simplicity. (In non-tech terms: all the formatting info vanished.) I've reverted to an old old template that doesn't require off-site files but, as you may notice, it's a bit buggy. (E.g. the color scheme switching is broken again.)

I'm working on a more elegant permanent solution. If anyone knows a good place to host blog-related css and favicon files for hotlinking, please send me an email.

The RSS feed should remain unaffected.

UPDATE (7/14): OK, I think I found a hosting fix. And an opportunity for other stuff, perhaps. For some reason color switching is still down, though.

Teenagers of Lammermoor

Lucia di Lammermoor -- Opera New Jersey, 7/10/09
Oropesa, Boyd, Dubin, Casas, Candia, Stayton / Ching

As often as she may break down onstage, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is apparently indestructible. A few of the right elements and a performance hits home, whether on a grand world stage or in a regional performance where the chorus looks like some high school AV club (with a corresponding level of seriousness and menace), the tenor blows his most important high note, and the show cuts not only the Wolf's Crag scene but the Raimondo-Lucia scene while featuring some real "Huh!?" moments from the director.

These all, as you may guess, were part of Friday night's Opera New Jersey summer opener in Princeton. And yet it was a success, a real taste of opera's glory. What was needed? Just a fairly handsome and functional traditional physical production by set designer Carey Wong, costume designer Patricia Hibbert, et al.; a conductor (composer Michael Ching) who could hold the young ensemble together; and... a star, of course -- a soprano to seize one's attention on the unhappy title character's behalf.

This was Lisette Oropesa's first Lucia anywhere, and though I've heard her (including at the 2005 Met Council Finals) display a musical maturity far beyond her (now twenty-five) years I half-expected a work in progress with only intermittent flashes of whole success. But while I'm sure her account of the part will deepen, her performance this night was not only already a success but one identifiably her own. Her voice strengthened act by act, but Oropesa had no problem with the singing even from the start, showing an easy trill and confidence through the part's range. (Though she's obviously in the lighter line of Lucias, Oropesa's voice doesn't naturally sit super-high.) And her character snapped into focus as soon as Edgardo stepped onstage: between them he is the wild one, temperamental and touchy, with her dropping her own moody fancies to gently calm and cajole him on their love's behalf. The knife that kills her unwanted husband begins a long, long way from this young girl's hand.

It's even more unfortunate, then, that her scene with Raimondo is omitted. I've never seen this cut before, but whether it was for one of the performers or overall length or some other reason the decision was apparently made beforehand -- the program's plot synopsis does not include the chopped action. What's lost is not only a lovely bit of music but an essential point in the story's development: with Raimondo -- her priest and ally -- at last counseling her to give in and marry her brother's choice Lucia is alone against both earth and heaven, a siege she has not the heroism to resist.

She is nevertheless, of course, at last provoked to reject this married outcome in the most decisive way, and the subsequent mad scene is where Oropesa best shone. It was as coherent and moving an interpretation as I've heard anywhere, but perhaps more importantly utterly commanding throughout in person and character (though again in a gentler, less wild way than, say, Natalie Dessay's overpowering depiction of sexual un-repression). Lucia's dreams and desires, squashed over the previous acts, finally get their airing before her end, and they turn out in this case to be surprisingly wholesome. She plays the imagined wedding fairly straight (with the right touches of innocent joy), and it is heartbreaking when Edgardo's rejection eventually dawns on her. "Spargi d'amaro", the final part of the scene, is preceded by a chilling laugh (the final cracking of sanity), and the pyrotechnics -- capped on this night by a dead-on final high note -- well depict her conclusive dissolution.

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Best of the remaining cast was baritone Eric Dubin as Lucia's brother Enrico: as in last month's Rape of Lucetia (where he played Junius), he sings well and characterizes his ambitious, less-than-virtuous role with some real zest. Also commendable were bass Rubin Casas, a late substitution as Raimondo, and Taylor Stayton, who despite some unsteadiness on top showed a promising tenor instrument and stage presence as Lucia's short-lived husband Arturo. Paul Nicosia as Normanno and Cathleen Candia as Alisa left on me little impression beyond youth.

It is hard to dislike Jonathan Boyd (singing Lucia's doomed lover Edgardo): he is so unreservedly ardent, and seems to inspire Oropesa to intensify her characterization. But his singing, though forceful, seems something of a mess, with not much bel canto style to channel and elaborate the ardor, and a high note technique that was iffy on the night. Act I went well, but the climactic curse at the end of Act II -- yes, the A and B-flat that undid Rolando Villazon -- was squawked out, and the climaxes of the last act's double-aria finale sounded effortful and a bit too falsettish (if still loud and full). Boyd did, as I said, catch the character, and thus contributed not a little to the success of the show, but it would be better if his vocalizing caught up.

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Director John Hoomes lays on the show's traditional base some overtly "directorial" elements that don't much help. The beginning I thought designed to confuse: over the short orchestral introduction we see, in fuzzy light, a pair of young lovers eagerly meeting at the well -- and then the man stabs the woman. This is, of course, the backstory to Lucia's ghost tale (and we see a ghost dutifully projected onto the stage for various bits of Act I), but with the explanation coming a whole scene later, the relevance is long unclear. Given that the opera actually starts with the backstory of Edgardo meeting Lucia and the search for his identity, their past meeting would seem to make more sense.

But the real head-scratcher comes at the end: being, apparently, one of the few people who liked Mary Zimmerman's interjection of Lucia's ghost into Edgardo's closing suicide, Hoomes has Oropesa come out herself from the left (after he stabs himself, though) as, I guess, the ghost. Unfortunately, Hoomes also likes to show corpses (Arturo's bloody body is carted down the staircase before Lucia arrives) and by the time Oropesa comes out Lucia has already appeared on stage, dragged in on a bier on the right so Edgardo can address his final aria directly to her corpse. And not a covered corpse, either: he pulls the sheet off her head and shoulders to reveal a body double with the same reddish hair/wig and outfit. In other words, Lucia is on stage twice at the same time, looking exactly the same on both sides (and incidentally nothing at all like the projected ghost)... How did this not get edited out?

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I have no idea if Oropesa could or will ever sing Lucia at the Met, but that seems more reason to see this show.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Moviecasting crosses genres

If you didn't see the interesting article in Friday's WSJ, London's National Theatre is entering the HD moviecasting market with four live* play transmissions beginning on Thursday. The list of US venues is here.

Unfortunately this first show -- Racine's Phèdre (in the Ted Hughes translation) starring Helen Mirren -- is already sold out in its only same-day venue in New York City, but both Walter Reade and BAM will show it delayed in July.

Incidentally, the Met is offering summer reruns of its own shows beginning late August in the Lincoln Center plaza.

(* Live, I believe, in Europe, but delayed until the evening here.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Summer addition

I'd somehow overlooked that the end of June brings three opera-in-concert programs from NYCO as part of the River to River Festival: Magic Flute (shortened kids' version, in English), La Navarraise (seriously!), and a mixed aria show. These are now on the summer opera listing.

Please, incidentally, pardon the insufficient editing of the previous post -- it was bizarre personal happenstance earlier in the week combined with having to run out that evening to see (an unforgettable) Giselle.