Saturday, January 31, 2009

Classical Onegin

Eugene Onegin -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/30/09
Hampson, Mattila, Beczala, Semenchuk, Aleksashkin / Belohlávek

In Robert Carsen's brilliantly suggestive production of Onegin, conductor Vladimir Jurowski was once (2001-02) insistently, magically lyrical; some years later his countryman Valery Gergiev was, when "on" (and I think the very first night of the run may have been best), febrile and dramatic. On this occasion Czech conductor Jiri Belohlávek is neither unlyrical nor undramatic, but more thoroughly -- well, having already mentioned two of three classical poetic modes, one could do worse than to dub Belohlávek's style here "epic". There is an ever-present solid undercurrent to his management of time that seems to keep his phrases proportioned to each other and makes scene after scene build in cumulative effect, as each mood -- from the well-trod homilies of the beginning to the emotional tug-of-war at the end and the dances (from peasants to local gentry to Petersburg high society) interspersed throughout -- gets its due in its place. His overall equanimity brings out a touch of Pushkin's broader, more varied scope in Tchaikovsky's tightly focused lyric scenes.

Belohlávek's overall conception is whole and balanced enough to contain and frame (without toppling) the huge impassioned outbursts in the three leads' performances. Czech tenor Piotr Beczala, as Lensky, makes an excellent impression, if perhaps one not as well-focused as Ramon Vargas in the last revival. The aria ("Kuda, kuda") was, of course the highlight: after an early near-mishap, Beczala combined truly gorgeous soft singing with a forceful plaintive squillo at the top of the staff. This wide effective dynamic range and a certain liquid quality to his sound give him some impressive tools in this lyric tenor repertoire. My only gripe is that as a character, he seems -- like nearly all of his predecessors -- more a poetic man (sensitive and vulnerable to currents of feeling), and perhaps a modern one at that, than an actual romantic poet: once one has seen the distraction from mundane things suffusing Vargas' Lensky, one misses it in others.

Karita Mattila is, well, herself. The question going in was whether the character of Tatyana was big enough for her explosive spirits. It turns out that it is -- and the person who emerges from their meeting is glorious: not a more-or-less ordinary (if dreamy) woman in extremis but an extraordinary young woman who for the first time shows her true scale. There is, as ever, pathos in the letter scene, but rather more this time of the gripping awe Mattila inspires in full physical and vocal flight: this Tatyana is sister to her Eva and Elsa and Chrysothemis and Jenufa and even Salome, ready not exactly to submit to fate but to challenge it and bear, if necessary, its blow.

It comes, as it must, from the chilly, not-quite-real facade of Onegin, played to perfection by the chilly, not-quite-real standard affect of baritone Thomas Hampson. But in Hampson, at least since his terrific Amfortas in the 2006 Parsifal, remarkable outbursts of agonized suffering can overpower that standard affect when wanted. This side, too, finds good expression in the opera: when, in the last scene, his and Mattila's characters trade emotional blows... well, Hampson is not the more impressive, but he holds his own. The two here inspire a mutual fever pitch that needs no allowances.

Now with such a Tatyana it is not surprise (and in fact many don't carry this part of the role off) but inevitability that she becomes a grand figure, in the particular case by marriage to Gremin. In this one-aria part I think Sergei Aleksashkin does an admirable job, clear in voice and expression as he lays out the virtues of Tatyana, the vices of society, and his unreserved love for the former. Also effective in his one aria is tenor Tony Stevenson, who as Triquet gives Tatyana the ridiculously but winningly shaped French praise she's too preoccupied to much accept. Meanwhile I didn't think much of Ekaterina Semenchuk, but perhaps she just does too good a job singing a narrow if flighty character. On the other hand, her Pauline and Daphnis (in the fall's Queen of Spades) were also pretty limited.

The production, incidentally, seems to be in the revised form shown on (and perhaps done for) the moviecast and DVD/Blu-Ray. I'm not sure why the original letter scene conclusion -- with Tatyana spinning around under stars -- was chopped and remains unrestored. In this case, though, Mattila ended up rolling around a bit on the fallen leaves, a sensual touch that's probably a more fitting climax for one of her characters than just the spinning.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Stephanie Blythe was in magnificent voice last night for the season's second-to-last Orfeo. My impressions of the whole were more or less the same as last time, but there was some performer turnover.

First, James Levine left (he's conducting, as previously noted, Verdi's Simon Boccanegra with the Boston Symphony), allowing Kazem Abdullah to make his Met debut. Abdullah, a 29-year-old from Dayton, unfortunately -- perhaps trying too hard to make an impression on his debut -- overconducted for much of the evening, leading an enjoyable but relatively airless performance. He did relax somewhat by the second half, and gave Blythe more room in "Che faro" (though not as much as one's traditionally heard on record), which may please those who objected to Levine's brisk tempo. But even then the dances were neither as precise nor as sprightly as for his predecessor. Of course, 29 isn't even an infant by conductor standards, and few look good in direct comparison to Levine.

Second, Heidi Grant Murphy was replaced as Amor by Ying Huang. Huang (or is it Ying?) has a sound uncannily reminiscent of Murphy's, if a bit fuller-bodied. She apparently didn't, however, get the memo that ornamentation in this production is supposed to be somewhere between zero and near-zero, throwing in some wild elaborations during her aria. (Yes, the ornamentation restriction may have been Levine's decree, but the other singers kept to it even in his absence.) This made the character even more of a bizarre figure than the pink polo and all-over glitter did.

Hearing Blythe at length is, of course, a treat.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Wan love

I've meant to write about the both accomplished (in performance and music) and frustrating (in drama, or lack thereof) concert revival of Antony & Cleopatra that was New York City Opera's entire season, but I'm not sure I can analyze it more thoroughly or insightfully than Mark Adamo did eleven days ago. So do read that, if you haven't.

It seems to me that Barber and Menotti found much in the atmosphere of Cleopatra's Egypt -- overheated, like their unconvincingly-northern Vanessa, but appropriately so here -- but were not much sympathetic to the drier, crisper, more martial virtues (and vices) of Antony and Caesar's Rome. But the two war in Antony's spirit (he got to the pinnacle he reached because of the original strength of his Roman virtues) before they war on land and sea, and the Roman half's virtual omission in the revised version used by NYCO neuters not only the story but the romance, which takes on a certain sickly shut-in character thereby.

The crash

Maury, Sieglinde, and pretty much every voice on the internet has commented on tenor Rolando Villazon's painful Act II wipeout in last night's Met Lucia.

I wasn't there, because Anna Netrebko can no longer sing fiorature in tune. In any case, the question is: what now? Villazon apparently recovered for a decent (if down-transposed) third Act, but I assume that barring some miraculous recovery it will be too much of a risk to put him on the air for the moviecast less than two weeks from today.

Met GM Peter Gelb actually has two tenors on hand who've sung in the production. Giuseppe Filianoti (now in Rigoletto) did it last spring -- but he has his own vocal issues. Piotr Beczala, who is supposed to be in the Onegin revival that begins Friday, won much acclaim as Edgardo here in October. I suspect Gelb will just substitute Beczala, though he could also fly in somebody like Joseph Calleja (scheduled for Edgardo here in a few years, and spending much of this season singing it in Germany) and avoid disrupting another production's cast. (Incidentally, Marcello Giordani -- who sang in this Lucia production's premiere -- will be in Levine's Boston Symphony performances of Simon Boccanegra over the next week.)

If I were GM, though, I'd also at least consider cancelling the live broadcast and moviecasting the 2007 opening night performance of Lucia (with Natalie Dessay and Giordani) instead. The master (from the plaza and Times Square simulcast) definitely exists, as the mad scene was released separately on DVD as a bonus to a Dessay CD. Probably won't happen, though, as the lure of the new is strong.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Rigoletto -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/24/09
Frontali, Kurzak, Filianoti, Petrenko, Vizin / Frizza

It wasn't a Rigoletto for the ages, but a cast of relative unknowns put on a more than creditable performance of Verdi's warhorse Saturday night at the Met. Another unknown led: debuting conductor Riccardo Frizza, an Italian both young and promising. He got a vividly colored and lively sound from the orchestra, and worked well with the singers -- though the last degree of timing and time-control wasn't yet there. (We'll see if and how this changes as the run goes on.) On the downside, he took maybe a too "authentic" approach to the text, opening out some usually cut Rigoletto-Gilda bits that don't do much and axing Gilda's quartet-capping high note. (Spoilsport!)

Roberto Frontali, last seen as Ford opposite Bryn Terfel's Falstaff, was scheduled to sing only the April performances of Rigoletto, but Željko Lucic's cancellation moved him into this one winter performance as well. (The others now have George Gagnidze -- of whom I've never heard -- in the title part.) I thought he both made and limited the performance: the first with his satisfying Verdian force in the voice's middle and his unusually wracked portrayal (this Rigoletto's nerves are, as they probably should be, frayed from his double life even at the start, driving his cruel jests and then his obsession with the curse); the second with a vocal range that doesn't really encompass the part's high notes. Quite good, on the whole.

Aleksandra Kurzak, who sang Blonde in Mozart's Abduction last spring, is something of a find as Gilda. The Polish soprano has a top-to-bottom soft-grained character to her sound that combines with a trace of quick vibrato to impart an appealing (non-voluptuous) sensuality to her singing. It also keeps her from any high-soprano hardness even on top notes. On the other hand, the same soft-grainedness seems to keep her from dominating ensembles and orchestra, though she can easily, as in "Caro nome", project high notes into the house on her own. There is little hardness to her stage persona either, which is excellent at the beginning (Gilda as Disney heroine!) but makes her self-sacrifice at the end more pathetic than excessively noble (it should, I think, be both). In a sense she's the anti-Diana Damrau (with whom she not only shared that Abduction but is sharing the part of Gilda this year)... Tastes will vary but for myself I'd usually choose to hear Kurzak.

It's unfortunate that much of the question with Giuseppe Filianoti is his relative vocal state. After an auspicious debut Edgardo three-plus years ago, he came back to that part here last spring after a big illness, sounding not quite recovered in voice. He's since nevertheless kept moving to heavier roles, and this plus the odd dropping from La Scala's opening continues to inspire worry.

Filianoti's is a hyper-intense style, reminiscent of Neil Shicoff's, and there's a fine line between high-intensity singing and high-stress. For the first half of his part, he sounded wholly in control, with all the well-communicated stress and urgency being his character's ardent nature. But from "Possente Amor" (which seemed to sit uncomfortably in his voice) until the end, something seemed to slip and he was fighting for the high notes, in which a shouted -- even screamed -- character now lurked (though he nevertheless continued to hold them for full duration).

I heard something distinctly worrisome in this, but we shall see. In any case, the good was very good.

Mikhail Petrenko was an excellent Sparafucile -- strongly sung, and full of his character's odd fiery professionalism. As his sister, the Met's hiring of debuting mezzo Viktoria Vizin might indicate that they now want a Maddalena who looks like she actually could lure a stranger to his death with her sex appeal... Or not: Vizin in fact has a nice full voice with an appealing lower register. (But her looks don't hurt.)

The house was, incidentally, totally full. Apparently Verdi is recession-proof.


A friend pointed out that Carnegie Hall's 2009-2010 season is up at their website. It looks good for fans of Erwartung...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

DiDonato takes Manhattan

I was planning to wait until after her Sunday program, but last night's all-Handel Joyce DiDonato concert at Zankel Hall (at Carnegie) demands a few words now.

The first half was impressive enough, with selections from Teseo (as, of course, Medea), Imeneo (not to be confused with Idomeneo...) and Serse (Xerxes) showing off her sometimes-thrilling vocal and expressive faculties. But the program's second half was from two operas she's sung complete on stage in recent years -- Ariodante and Hercules -- and on another level altogether. Any one of these arias -- "Scherza infida", "Cease ruler of the day to rise", and "Where shall I fly?" -- performed as here would have made for a notable evening, but all together... A great performance, and a great event. The endless and endlessly shaded agony of her Ariodante aria is still in my ears.

To close, two encores, in between some charming patter (DiDonato seems, incidentally, to be hosting this afternoon's Orfeo moviecast) and a sales pitch: "Ombra mai fu" (of course) and "Dopo notte", in this latter bopping her head a bit to the accompaniment while perhaps (as her introduction suggested) releasing all the strange and not-wholly-transformed energy accumulated at the close of a tour singing mad scenes.

I haven't yet heard the CD, but if it's a fraction as good you should buy it. But of course what we New Yorkers need is a full Ariodante...

UPDATE (2:15PM): If you don't already have it, J&R still has a bunch of discs at the implausibly low price of $8. Buy in person or online. At this price, buy two!

UPDATE 2 (1/25): Maury offers an analytical account of the event. Worth reading.

The three faces of Orfeo

I saw Stephanie Blythe sing the role, and it changed the sense of the whole show from last week's cover performance.

Levine is still terrific, and his leaving the post-moviecast performances to Kazem Abdullah (of whom I've heard nothing) makes these latter a bit iffy. The singing of the chorus is still a highlight.

But Blythe is a huge, huge force. And not just in the voice, which though satisfying, full, even, and not lacking reserve force does not overpower with sound alone -- in this part, anyway. She sings the plain but expressive lines of the opera's original Vienna version with an unforced tragic gravity... Something we also see in her person. More surprising to me -- though perhaps it shouldn't have been -- was the unforced masculinity of her Orfeo. She is helped in this, I think, by her fleshiness: as a man, in her hands, it becomes her substantiality, the ground and proof of Orfeo's strong spirit -- akin to what one saw in, say, Churchill.

This combination -- her masculine gravity -- quite eclipses the more pop-ish trappings Mark Morris and Isaac Mizrahi have put on her character in this Met production. Blythe's Orfeo is, despite anything or everything, a tragic figure, and that side of the tale -- and the show -- again comes to the fore in her person.

But this also foregrounds contrasts that her cover's less-defined portrayal let stay obscure. The first encounter with Amor, for example, is now truly jarring, with Orfeo's palpable grief interrupted by a phenomenon from a wholly different universe. Heidi Grant Murphy's Amor, goddess of perkiness, is a figure from popular TV, as far from Blythe's Orfeo as Zerbinetta from Ariadne. But in that opera the two characters fail to interact (which is the point): here they must, for the story's sake, but on this stage the connection is perfunctory. Neither Blythe nor Murphy breaks her character's personal spell to accomodate the other's.

Amor has drawn some comment, but no less odd was the presentation of Eurydice. Whether by direction or personal choice, Danielle de Niese seems to play Orfeo's lost wife as if she were Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore: Euridice as comic siren, a lovely flirt and pain in the butt. Again, the juxtaposition is jarring -- domestic romantic comedy next to the literal struggle of life and death.

This revival thus offers all three modes of drama -- the tragic, the comic, and the popular -- allocated among the three main characters. As a whole, it's a strange but compelling experience. Now one might say this heterogenous mix is par for the course for a postmodernist director like Mark Morris, but to no small extent Morris has only played up what was already in the Gluck. As the last post noted, Amor -- and especially Amor's role in providing a happy ending -- was a crowd-pleasing add-on to the myth in the first place, the original tale providing Orpheus no solace when his wife again fell. (He was, by a number of accounts, thereafter torn to bits by dissatisfied orgiastic women -- Maenads -- which seems to me a great metaphor/example for the limits of pop-style celebrity adoration... This is, sadly, not in the opera.) Similarly Euridice's antics on the ascent perhaps take their cue from her "jealousy vs. love" lines in the libretto's final scene and her previous repeated invocation of the proper forms of love.

I might perhaps prefer a darker whole, with an innocently crushed Euridice and a more awe-inspiring Amor, but I'm not sure that would be as faithful to the piece. And besides, the shifting and clashing modes and moods here give great scope for Morris' engrossing and enlivening dance work.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Che faro senza...

Orfeo ed Euridice -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/14/2009
Chavez, de Niese, Murphy / Levine

Whatever may have been the case in previous performances, Wednesday's revival of Orfeo at the Met had a strong and certain protagonist: James Levine. With excellent cooperation from the orchestra and Donald Palumbo's chorus, he led a fresh and moving performance of Gluck's opera. Levine's own particular hand on the tiller was evident from start to end -- clear both in texture and rhythm, encouraging phrases within that frame, and recreating the successive moods of the piece as if his own.

Director-choreographer Mark Morris is responsive to the score's turns as well, and with one exception found effective physical complements to the opera. Of literal action and scene Gluck's opera is (intentionally) short, and the group dances of Morris and his company make for a stimulating alternate form of scene. Their joy -- and the musicians' -- at the end is infectious: it was no coincidence that most of the audience left the theater pleased and exhilarated an hour and a half after having sat down disappointed.

*     *     *

Of course, Morris remains who he is -- a good-natured (choreographically, anyway -- I have no idea of his person) postmodernist whose lapses are overwhelmingly more of cutesiness than the reverse. So the one element of Orfeo he doesn't seem to get is Orfeo himself. The familiar myth doesn't show him as ur-pop star, but as tragic hero: though his music can overturn earth and heaven, it can neither unlink attention from death nor erase his own human compulsion to behold and grasp his beloved. So while it's quite right for Morris and Isaac Mizrahi to dress up Amor -- whose deus-ex-machina intervention for a happy ending was a contemporary add-on Gluck apparently didn't like anyway -- as a perky pink polo-clad cupid, making Orfeo himself into a black-wearing silly-haired emo-country moper slinging a guitar is just confused. And not just Orfeo's dress, but his introduction: the first chorus/dance, with Orfeo and the chorus mourning, is the least effective of the night, with Morris seemingly reluctant to sound at all the note of stark piercing grief.

And still the show worked -- and even despite Orfeo's singer being not much more distinct. In this pants role Kirstin Chavez, whom it seems I last saw about three years back replacing Susan Graham in An American Tragedy, this time replaced the ailing Stephanie Blythe. I quite liked Chavez then, and this time she still had the good qualities, showing the appealing tone of a real American mezzo. But this part is less of a fit: though she's no soprano-sans-top, Chavez lacks the contralto depth in the chest by which Orfeo may communicate so much. In fact the need to really sound these low notes, here not perfectly integrated into the rest of her voice, seemed to be a cumulative strain on her, so that by her big aria ("Che faro") she was actually having pitch issues. (She recovered well by the very last scene.) Nor was she particularly commanding -- Levine led the way, even (especially) through this last aria -- though it seems unfair to ask that much from a cover.

Chavez was paired with Aussie Danielle de Niese as Euridice. de Niese sang well, but her energetically insistent way with the music didn't preclude the (rather destructive) thought that the couple's failure to make it back might have been more from Euridice's willfulness than tragic necessity...

But it's hard to read much into Orfeo and Euridice's interaction because it may have been another element to which Morris didn't much work out -- it is, after all, a long sequence showing Orfeo in tragic torment. Personenregie, so crucial to this key confrontation, seemed this night quite absent. Was it left behind with the cast change or just done poorly in the first place? I'll see when Blythe returns.

*     *     *

Of course, this is the part most discussed among those who didn't attend: after a NYT Tommasini rave (joined by Silverman of the AP) for Blythe that must have spiked ticket sales, the much-overlooked star mezzo failed to sing the very next performance. Of course it's not her fault -- there must be a bug going around the house, as Gheorghiu had cancelled for La Rondine the prior night -- but it was unfortunate. Doubly so, given that the original run had been covered by Tamara Mumford, a young mezzo with a Ferrier-like contralto chest timbre who might have made a huge splash in this spot.

Still, what happened happened. Chavez sang well enough, the show was still a success, and Blythe will presumably return by moviecast time if not sooner.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Completing the circle

After Gerard Mortier changed his mind about becoming New York City Opera's general manager, surely it's fitting that George Steel changed his mind about not taking the job...

More later.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Out of sight

Last month I noted co-concertmaster David Chan's unusual star turn -- complete with curtain call -- in the Met's new Thaïs. It was a rare visual acknowledgment of the company's biggest asset: a pit band at once virtuosic, unitary, and capable of eloquent -- and, when required, unabashedly romantic -- solo playing. The pleasure of these elements -- particularly the orchestra's physical sound in person -- has carried (for example) more than a few otherwise-disappointing Wagner performances, assisted successes in all repertoires, and occasionally (as in the last premiere of Die Frau ohne Schatten under Thielemann, in which Chan and principal cellist Rafael Figueroa were unforgettable) taken prime honors. The (far from disappointing) Tristan later that December week showed why: though Barenboim's approach and person on the podium were unfamiliar, the orchestra that day gave not only a coherent overall sound but memorable solo turns by numerous wind players (including English hornist Pedro Diaz, given a program credit for the piece) and assistant principal violist Milan Milisavljevic.

Over the years I've enjoyed seeing, when not sitting at Orchestra (floor) level, which players of the double-sized and constantly substituting Met Orchestra are participating in the particular performance. So I couldn't help but notice the recent absence of Michael Parloff, long-time principal flute, from the pit. The December and January programs in fact omit Parloff from the orchestra altogether, listing the two remaining flautists as acting principals and designating the second of them as occupant of "The Beth W. and Gary A. Glynn Chair, in honor of Michael Parloff" with no further explanation. Nor have I found clarifying news announcements.

Where'd he go?

*     *     *

In another unexplained absence, impressive-voiced Verdi baritone Željko Lucic appears now to be out of the whole run of Rigoletto. Here's hoping the legendary "TBA" doesn't turn into Juan Pons (whom, I should note, I've liked in other things)...

Thursday, January 08, 2009


For some reason, every Met performance since Christmas seems to be the scene of a similar problem. In the words of teenage operablogger CaroNome after the December 27 Thaïs:
IN THE WORDS OF A FAMOUS TENOR “SHUT UP WITH YOUR DAMN COUGHING.” For goodness sake, people. During intermission hack up your lungs for all I care, sneeze until your brains come out, but when the lights go down I want SILENCE! It wasn’t just an occasional sporadic cough or sneeze, but every time someone coughed it would send a chain reaction of “Okay, then I can cough/sneeze now too.” Sometime’s it would go on for minutes until I wanted to scream! Seriously, opera fans, it’s not that hard to cough at intermission, or to keep quiet for the short amount of time the singers were on stage!
Love always,
CaroNome of Score Desk
I don't have a specific explanation, but there definitely seems to have been a change from before Christmas to after that's continued even through this week. And perhaps even this truly bizarre incident (people forcing their way into the auditorium during an act and then loudly tripping in the dark!? -- really?) is part of the recent trend...

Perhaps the semi-break in the schedule later this month will return some self-control and self-awareness (many of the chronic coughers, throat-clearers, etc. seem actually oblivious to the fact that everyone -- including, often, the singers -- can hear them) to the house.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Portrait of the poet as a deer in the headlights

For those who are interested (and search engine hits show that some are):

Tenor Massimo Giordano, who's taken over the January 6 and 10 Met performances of La Boheme from Ramon Vargas, has all the notes -- including through the passaggio, where Vargas this fall sounded a bit recessed even at his best. So he can and does sit confidently on the big single notes in Rodolfo's part (except for top Cs) to nice effect. Unfortunately Giordano is flummoxed by having to put notes together into any sort of phrase or line. For a native Italian tenor singing his third principal part at the Metropolitan Opera, his musical instincts are at best raw, and definitely disappointing. Shouldn't he have mustered up some grace and ideas for at least "Che gelida manina" by now?

On stage, he -- as in Traviata -- has the near-constant look of a likeable young guy in way out of his emotional and experiential depth. This has the virtue of being at least true to an element of Rodolfo, but it pretty much cuts off any engagement with his Mimi (Maija Kovalevska again, of course), who might as well be interacting with a wall. (Yes, this was the first night of a mid-revival cast change, but Giordano never got more interesting as La Traviata's Alfredo either.) Kovalevska's death scene last night was nevertheless remarkable, with Mimi this time suddenly playful in the course of her happy remembrances and conductor Frédéric Chaslin (who's gotten better and better during the revival) drawing out an exquisite final thread of strings before the big final crash...

I don't know whether this substitution for the originally scheduled Vargas was a case of Vargas having to be elsewhere or the house wanting to show Giordano off. If it was the latter, that's unfortunate: he's not ready for prime time.


La Rondine -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/3/2009
Gheorghiu, Oropesa, Alagna, Brenciu, Courtney / Armiliato

La Rondine doesn't add up to much because it doesn't go very far: Puccini began by emulating Viennese operetta, wound up referencing a bunch of other famous shows, and never, unfortunately, let himself veer too far from stock genre elements. As the opera's characters ever threaten to disappear into their own cardboard cutouts, so the tragic and truly dramatic undercurrents in music and story never quite emerge, always returned by Puccini to the piece's tide of slightly ironic wistfulness.

But for all that, the Met's current production -- from Toulouse and London, and most recently seen in San Francisco -- is almost irresistible. The cast is right: the lighter, clearer voices of debuting tenor (and 2001 Cardiff winner) Marius Brenciu and Lindemann grad (and 2005 Met Council Finals winner) Lisette Oropesa are a good foil for the main tenor-soprano couple, who themselves are in fine shape. This time Roberto Alagna takes the vocal prize (or, to be specific given the couple's historically mercurial turns of form, he did on Saturday), singing with excitingly ardent tone throughout. His wife Angela Gheorghiu, for whom this production has been touring around the world -- with and without her husband -- sounds good but didn't have the sort of physical impact Puccini might have imagined from his intended first Magda: the paint-peelingly loud Rosa Raisa. (Though hearing Raisa's unilluminating work on record has one wondering if this choice was a sort of joke.) At any rate, when this quartet harmonizes in the unimpeachable centerpiece of the opera -- its second-act drinking song -- Puccini's greatness is given a worthy airing.

*     *     *

Though her husband may sound the best, Gheorghiu makes the show -- perhaps even more than any predecessors. La Rondine is yet another work associated here with Lucrezia Bori, who besides being the Met's most prolific Violetta and perhaps foremost Mimi gave La Rondine's American premiere here (with Beniamino Gigli, left) in 1928 -- an event of which one may see photos and reviews here and a small related piece here. Bori also spread Rondine to San Francisco and Ravinia, and a 1934 Ravinia Festival broadcast of Act II (which I may post) survives. Back at the Met, the piece was revived for Bori in 1936 -- her farewell season -- after which it sat unheard until the current production debuted here this New Year's Eve.

Bori, last great scion of the Borgias, was personally sophisticated enough to become a Met board member and later chair of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, but by all accounts (sound and text) seems to have had a delicate and "adorable" (as one 1928 reviewer put it) and unaffectedly communicative manner that let worldliness sit lightly on her onstage. And so she was also the renowned Manon (who, at least in Massenet's version, must be maximally and uncalculatedly charming exactly as she's selling out love for wealth) that Gheorgiu is not.

But Magda, the heroine of La Rondine, is not Mimi, the self-effacing bohemian who loves a youthful love unto death (although Rodolfo does call Mimi a swallow in Boheme's last act). Magda's a woman who, having chosen rich but emotionally cool accomodation, dreams of and then plays at young passion, becoming "Paulette" to win the young newcomer from the country. With Gheorghiu there is no question of Magda being, at bottom, more than transiently Paulette: she remains the fierce and clever and spotlight-grabbing soprano world stages have long seen. But in playing a woman who herself plays a more innocent character, Gheorghiu layers an interesting element of herself into the show. She takes lively and evident pleasure in the "Paulette" bits -- does this double or merely portray the pleasure Magda herself takes? I don't know how far back she originally left her own naive romantic abandon, but it's fascinating to watch Gheorghiu grab again at it -- ostensibly on her character's behalf -- moment-by-moment in her voice and body, and not just via the path of the plot. The generally indelible effort and calculation of her portrayals show still in her Magda but become, given the situation, the natural truths of that character: no matter what she is the worldly Magda, not Paulette, and Paulette's bliss can't be hers for long. No more-straightforwardly-charming soprano could offer this wrinkle... And perhaps such an opportunity is part of why Gheorghiu's championed this particular obscure Puccini opera.

*     *     *

Ezio Frigerio's sets for Nicolas Joël's production are probably its most striking feature. The art deco columns and glass of Acts I and III are quite nice, but the disco cafeteria of Act II was a serious error. What romance is in a place where one can practically smell the institutional floor cleaner?

Incidentally, despite Puccini's intention to be "more entertaining" and "more organic" than Strauss' Rosenkavalier, for a shamelessly light one-off I'd take Intermezzo over La Rondine any day. Although... if the language fit, Christine could be a great role for Gheorghiu.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Computerless reading

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The best of times, the...

2008 turned out to be a grim year for opera companies, but a very good one for the New York operagoer. From the Valkyrie and Manon Lescaut at its start to the second run of La Boheme continuing now, 2008's two half-seasons never went long without some memorable success, despite one company retiring from the field early. (In between was a fairly barren summer, though in fairness I missed July's imported highlight.) What might we remember? Enough that a bit-by-bit post seemed too much of a laundry list.

In the pit, Wagner and Puccini -- and Massenet. Lorin Maazel in Walküre last January, his return to the Met after a 45 year (!) absence. (Maazel's work in this Wagner opera was a real success, though I won't be hearing any more of his performances after his revolting comments a month or so later.) Daniel Barenboim's much praised Met debut -- conducting Tristan in November and December, after Levine's own Tristans in March. Both seemed energized by fortuitous turns of cast -- Waltraud Meier singing her first Met Isolde for Barenboim, and Ben Heppner and Deborah Voight finally appearing together as originally scheduled for Levine -- with Levine's approach, setting out the opera as if three unbroken fiery breaths, more to my way of experiencing music.

Puccini gave us two Nicola Luisotti's triumphant debut in the March-April performances of La Boheme. Massenet? David Chan's playing of the Méditation from Thaïs stole the show from two huge stars and put an orchestra member at last on stage for a well-deserved bow.

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Singers? The chorus first: under Donald Palumbo's new leadership it did well in many scenes, but none so unforgettable as Puccini's early dramatic masterstroke -- Act III (the deportation scene) of Manon Lescaut.

Among the men, things both short -- two pure displays of song, and one impressive stunt -- and long. Were tenor Joseph Calleja's Golden Age singing in his Macbeth bit part or Rene Pape's ever-great King Marke (in the first two Barenboim performances of Tristan) the year's peaks? Or perhaps it was Juan Diego Florez encoring "Ah mes amis" in La Fille du Régiment... Though I'm afraid the overall disappointment of that production weighs down the memory of Florez (and has basically already effaced from my mind Natalie Dessay's success there too). Of course, others impressed headlining successful revivals: Johan Botha with his first, nearly effortlessly sung Otellos here, and Ramon Vargas -- unscheduled -- showing all the essential élan of Gustavo in Ballo. And most of all Ben Heppner, for two nights Tristan in both voice and character -- in a rendition so clear and convincing that it ruined my enjoyment of his not bad successor Seiffert.

Among the women, Karita Mattila repeated her 2004 triumph in Salome, with somewhat less voice (and body) but more shading and ease of character. But we knew it would succeed, though a success like the October 7 performance perhaps can't be foreseen. Similarly, we knew Renee Fleming's Desdemona would be an event. Both memorably debuted roles this year as well, Mattila an apt attention magnet as Manon Lescaut and Fleming a vocally luxe Thaïs. Meanwhile Natalie Dessay continued her debut season here as Lucia, but as in Fille, the spring revival of this Donizetti piece was less of a production than it could have been (and, in the particular case, was -- in 2007). But it was two other house role debuts that really showed their singers' possibilities: Susan Graham's tortured Sesto (in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito) had Met audiences actually going wild for opera seria, while the unorthodox portrayal of Anja Harteros as Violetta (in La Traviata) shed rare new light on Verdi's sometimes too-familiar masterpiece.

The Harteros success reminds me of two other things I was glad to have seen. First, Ruth Ann Swenson made an impressive farewell of sorts in a March performance of Traviata. Swenson seems already set to return to the Met, and no matter how much of that day's emotion was in the occasion, I hope she can recapture what she found her way into doing. Second -- and, of dozens and dozens of performances, I think this (specifically December 22, though I also saw others) may have been the highlight -- Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska illuminated and refreshed La Boheme in some of the same way Harteros did for La Traviata, letting us hear and see Mimi (and therefore the piece) anew and more vividly than ever. (The not-quite-awake matinee transmission that began 2009's Saturday broadcast season didn't much convey the flavor: there was a Sirius broadcast of that December 22 performance which even Close Miking Syndrome shouldn't be able to ruin.)

Kovalevska's 2008 work was, it seems, mostly seen by tourists and operatic newcomers. And why not? I doubt any who saw it will long resist returning to the opera. Over the years they'll learn that Boheme is not always like this: that sometimes it's a story of constricted horizons and not inner spaces; that showoffs and clods and routiniers can make some success -- and even Big Points! -- in this near-unkillable piece; that most don't expect or even want any more; and that if they themselves want the sorts of pleasures in this run, the casts to provide them are rare and far between.

(Or perhaps every other season or so will henceforth bring a Kovalevska Boheme.)

Friday, January 02, 2009

A New Year

2009 has begun, but 2008 is proving more resistant to glib summary than one might have expected. A post should nevertheless follow in the next day or so.

Meanwhile, best New Year's wishes to all of my readers.