Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tech trial

The Met is offering a free trial of their computer-based Met Player system this weekend, beginning at 5PM ET tomorrow. Anyone who owns a home theater PC or doesn't mind watching or hearing entire operas at a desk should definitely look into it -- despite the spotty catalog (where's the Strauss!?), having a significant chunk of the Met broadcast archive available on demand is a treat.

However, the universe of HTPC owners and desk-listeners is pretty limited and is likely to remain so even among A/V enthusiasts. Given the proliferation of TV-connected devices (and TVs) able to stream internet video content -- every HD Tivo and pretty much every new Blu-Ray player offers Netflix on-demand streaming or some equivalent -- the Met should be doing everything in its power to adapt Met Player to these channels.

Meanwhile the Met continues to be behind in Blu-Ray releases, with last season's moviecasts still only available on the outdated DVD format. Given Blu-Ray's marked video and audio superiority and how well Blu-Ray players sold over the recession-limited holidays, there's no good reason for the house to let its HD content lie fallow so long. (A DVD is worse quality than a DVR recording off of PBS HD, making it a waste of money.)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Valhalla's newcomers

Die Walküre -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/28/09
Dalayman, Dohmen, Pieczonka, Domingo, Naef, Pape / Levine

[post on the April 6 performance here]

Last night's Cycle 2 performance of the Valkyrie had, amidst other cast turnover, two house role debuts: Albert Dohmen as Wotan and Katarina Dalayman as this opera's Brünnhilde (she sang the "Götterdämmerung" version of the character on Saturday's matinee broadcast). Both did a surprisingly good job.

Dalayman first: whatever vocal not-quite-thereness one might have detected on Saturday (though Wellsung Alex had a more positive summary), for this version of Brünnhilde she has all the necessary tools. She is strong from top to bottom, able to make an impression in both entrance and "Todesverkündigung" -- and, finally, the long closing dialogue -- without forcing. The basic warmth of the middle is very appealing, and she can blast through the orchestra with trick top notes when required.

So ideal, right? Sort of. She can sing every bit of the role, but seems fairly lost with the physicality, neither still enough for grandeur nor purposefully energetic enough for young-athlete-Brünnhilde. Nor is her character interaction much to speak of... The character of her Brünnhilde never comes clearly into focus, either by acts or phrases.

One must, however, note that this is just Dalayman's third run of Valkyrie ever, with the second being a lone performance last month in Stockholm. Given more time and opportunities to make these three big parts her own, she may yet become their complete exponent.

Albert Dohmen, by contrast, has been singing Wotan for ten years now. And he can, in fact, sing Wotan, even at this big house where he didn't make much impression as Jokanaan in 2004. In sound, after a restrained and tentative early warm-up period, he outdoes James Morris... But Dohmen's performance is best enjoyed on its own. Comparing to Morris has one noticing that there's still a touch of middle-manager in Dohmen's Wotan, a bit of bluster in his rage, etc. Mind you, it's taken decades, but at this point Morris' version has been pared down so that there is no longer anything in it -- not gesture, not emphasis, not sound -- that's not Wotan, nothing in which the spirit of long command and activity does not stir. Dohmen isn't there yet. Furthermore, not only his character but Dohmen himself is unpreposessing, making not much interpretive impression beyond singing and connecting the notes as written.

And yet, with two leads more notable for voice than art, their act -- the final one -- told most strongly of the opera's three. With James Levine's orchestra fervently pronouncing the back-and-forth weave of motifs underneath, just properly singing the vocal lines is enough. Not all, but enough.

*     *     *

Of the returnees, Adrianne Pieczonka was the most happy surprise (though I did like her previous attempt). She cannot compete with Waltraud Meier's tragic heroine (Sieglinde as Elektra!), but her warmer, more womanly Sieglinde is beautiful and at least as valid. Her bio lists performances of the Marschallin, Ariadne, etc., and I'd love to hear her here in these parts.

I think I might have liked Placido Domingo's Siegmund better from Family Circle standing or thereabouts. He's still in pretty good voice, able to attack each note with nice bright tone and hold the two "Wälse" cries, and does better in not running out of gas than in the last Ring (though he does tire by Act I's end). But he looks very, very old and has no appreciable chemistry with Pieczonka. I miss Botha.

Rene Pape and Yvonne Naef, Hunding and Fricka respectively, were (unsurprisingly) excellent. Naef should be hired by the regular Met company, not just for Ring seasons. I think they've already promised the next Troyens revival to Susan Graham, but surely there's room for another cast...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


One and three quarter Ring cycles -- and more -- remain in the season, but it's not too early to think about what's playing nearby over the summer. Below I've listed known opera choices within semi-reasonable driving distance of New York City. If I've missed some, please let me know.

[UPDATE (4/29): Another Tanglewood program added, thanks to a commenter.]
[UPDATE 2 (5/29): Castleton Festival in VA added.]

Opera Company of Philadelphia's Rape of Lucretia (June 5-14 in Philadelphia)
Stars Tamara Mumford and Nathan Gunn.

Boston Early Music Festival's Poppea (June 6-14 in Boston, and June 19-21 in Great Barrington, MA)

New York City Opera's Magic Flute, La Navarraise, and mixed aria program (June 25-27 in downtown NYC)
All in concert with orchestra. Casting unknown.

The Princeton Festival's Midsummer Night's Dream (June 20 and 28 in Princeton, NJ)

Wolf Trap's Cosi Fan Tutte (June 26-30), Ulisse (July 24-28), and "multimedia" concert Boheme (August 7) (all in Vienna, VA)

Lake George Opera's Butterfly (July 2-12) and Don Pasquale (July 3-11) (both in Saratoga Springs, NY)

The Castleton Festival's Turn of the Screw (July 3-5), Beggar's Opera (July 5-18), Rape of Lucretia (July 10-12), and Albert Herring (July 17-19) (all in Castleton, VA)
All-Britten lineup includes his arrangement of the Beggar's Opera. Lorin Maazel conducts all first nights and the July 4 Turn of the Screw; casts not announced. I assume the Lucretia production is the same as Philly's in June, which actually originated (also with Mumford) at the Castleton venue (before it became a "festival") in 2007.

Opera New Jersey's Lucia (July 10-26), Abduction (July 11-24), and Mikado (July 12-25) (all in Princeton, NJ)
Lucia stars Lisette Oropesa, while the Mikado features ACB's Yum-Yum.

Tanglewood's concert Meistersinger Act III (July 11) and staged Don Giovanni (July 26, 27, and 29) (both in Lenox, MA)
For the Wagner: James Levine, James Morris, Johan Botha, Hei-Kyung Hong, Matthew Polenzani, and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as Beckmesser.
For the Mozart: Levine conducts a cast of relative unknowns (Morris Robinson is, it seems, the Commendatore) on the first two dates, and a Tanglewood Conducting Fellow takes his place for the last.

The Metropolitan Opera's summer recital series (July 13-August 14 in NYC parks)
Mostly young singers, though the Central Park version has Paulo Szot (and Oropesa again).

Glimmerglass Opera's Traviata (July 18-August 25), Cenerentola (July 19-August 23), The Consul (July 25-August 24), and Dido and Aeneas (August 2-23, all 11:30AM) (all in Cooperstown, NY)
Mary Dunleavy is Violetta in Jonathan Miller's new production of Traviata.
Tamara Mumford is Dido in Miller's new production of the Purcell.

Caramoor's Elisir (July 18) and Semiramide (July 31) (both in Katonah, NY)
Lawrence Brownlee is Nemorino for Elisir and Idreno for Semiramide. Angela Meade and Vivica Geneaux play Semiramide and Arsace, respectively, in the Rossini.

Bard SummerScape's Les Huguenots (July 31-August 7 in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY)

Mostly Mozart's New York premiere of A Flowering Tree (August 13-16 at the Rose Theater)
John Adams music: promising. Yet another Peter Sellars libretto/production: not promising.

Im wunderschönen...

I had not expected to hear an overpoweringly great rendition of Schumann's "Dichterliebe" Saturday night at Carnegie Hall. For all the superstar quality of bass Rene Pape's voice and career, I had never before heard of him doing a full lieder recital here or elsewhere. And in fact he programmed it like a man making a first big splash into the field: beginning with three songs from Schubert's late "Schwanengesang" (D957) (including, of course, "Der Atlas"), touching on Wolf with the later Romantic's three Michelangelo songs, then offering a bunch of Schubert's greatest hits before turning to Schumann's cycle after intermission.

The first half, though, was both gratifying in itself and a hint of what would come. All the songs being in his native German, Pape had no difficulty with texts or diction, and his magnificent voice, both delicate and beefy at once, shone to nice effect in the familiar music. Interpretations were mostly straightforward, but with one decided theme, most noticable in the Schubert miscellany: his was the most misanthropic "Einsame" I've heard; "An die Musik" was more tormented than gently sentimental; "Lachen und Weinen" was remarkably short of the former; his "Musensohn" was, frankly, Satanic; and so on. The fierce defiance in Schubert's setting of Goethe's famous "Prometheus" was, of course, fittingly rendered.

Yes, the evening had its unity, and what was not explicit in the first half's programming became so in the singing: rapture and melancholy (both so strong in the Wolf songs), torment, defiance, sarcasm -- all the elements of Heine and Schumann's masterpiece were presented piecemeal beforehand. And so too the great overall theme of "Dichterliebe": love, unhappy love.

At this point it's difficult not to think of the rumors floating around concerning Pape's (recently difficult, so they say) private life. How much truth there is in them, I don't know. Pape certainly sang like a man touching huge personal concerns -- looking and sounding, for example, as if he'd actually lose it in the songs following "Ich grolle nicht" -- and if he in fact wasn't, then all the more glory to him for such performance skill.

In any case, the unsettled and angry undercurrents that didn't quite fit Schubert chestnuts were wholly at home in the Schumann. But they didn't dominate -- actually, the opposite. Schumann's (and Heine's) alchemy transforms the pains that were once love back into their original stuff as the story works the reverse, so that tenderness and anger strengthen -- and open new space for -- each other in any strong performance. And Pape, though again more direct in general approach than anyhow refinedly exquisite, gave love whole voice along with its unhappiness.

It was as great a performance as I've ever heard of this Romantic summit: in this case I didn't even mind that Pape is a low voice (his bass, as noted above, has a remarkable lightness with its strength) or that he passed on the climactic high note (of "Ich grolle nicht"). Brian Zeger accompanied with admirable command and songfulness throughout, lacking only a bit of the Satanic in the wedding music (of "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen").

What could follow such success -- and proportionately huge cheering? Strauss, of course: his "Zueignung", sung here with a radiant combination of relief and relish. But that wouldn't satisfy the audience, and Pape finished with one more encore -- in English, this time, breaking the German spell: Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening". Twice again love, but in a more thankful vein.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Another anniversary

Don Giovanni -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/24/09
Mattei, Ramey, Wall, Frittoli, Breslik, Bayrakdarian, Bloom, Aceto / Langree

It was not only the Met and Placido Domingo who celebrated anniversaries this season: 2008-09 also marked twenty-five years of Samuel Ramey singing with the Metropolitan Opera. (He debuted, with Handel himself, in Rinaldo.) Last night's performance as Leporello was Ramey's final outing of this anniversary season, and the company marked it with a small but well-received ceremony after Act I. Peter Gelb came out, congratulated Ramey, and presented him with an antique score of this very opera (in which he and Ferruccio Furlanetto alternated the leads here in 1990).

The performance itself was similar to that of April 13, with Joshua Bloom returning from the fall cast as Masetto. Isabel Bayrakdarian was, again, not great but this time wasn't awful either, so I'll chalk last time up to acute distress. Erin Wall still struck me as an odd vocal mix -- combining fullness and force with very little lower reinforcement -- but it is, within its scope, such a live and big-house-loving sound that this seems an odder nit to pick (particularly in the fairly high-lying part of Donna Anna). Chest sound or no, there's no lack of color or depth to the timbre: she's the one woman of this cast I'd particularly like to hear again. Seeing Mattei once more drove home the difference between his plentiful stage activity and his immediate predecessor's: where Erwin Schrott's Giovanni would swagger and move because he wasn't connected, Mattei's did it from zest and ever-renewed pleasure. Yes, yes, his appetite oversteps the world and heaven's bounds, but in so doing it affirms wine, women, and song as mere pathology doesn't.

Ideal combination cast of the season: Mattei, Ramey, Wall, Graham, Polenzani, Leonard, Bloom, Aceto. But I'd have given much to have had Levine conduct the opera once more.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Levine's cancellation last night

James Levine dropped out of last night's Das Rheingold at the last minute, leaving John Keenan to conduct (quite well, apparently) in his place. Stage director Michael Scarola posts on Opera-L that it was just a stomach bug. I -- and other Ring ticket holders -- hope so.

UPDATE (4/25): And a slight correction.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Role debut

There are, it appears, still unsold seats to tonight's Met performance of L'Elisir d'Amore. It is Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja's first (and, this season, only) Nemorino here, an event I've looked forward to since the season announcement. His other Met lead -- the Duke in Rigoletto, which he's sung here in two seasons now -- shows off a tenor's tone, elan, high notes, and charisma, but Nemorino gives opportunity for real feeling and bel canto delicacy (of which he showed much last season as Macduff). It's the truer test of communication.

Absent some as-yet-unannounced substitute appearance (and I don't think he sings Hoffmann), Calleja won't sing at all at the Met next season... So for fans or the curious, it's this or a long wait.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Audition afterthoughts

Seeing the documentary in the theater left me with some thoughts neither in my original 2007 Met Council Finals post nor in last week's movie preview.

First, the sound: I thought only the rehearsal segments (particularly Michael Fabiano's) gave some sense of how the singers really sounded. The actual competition footage was useless -- was that the standard footlight miking they used? Whatever it was, it (among other distortions) made Jamie Barton and Amber Wagner seem about the same volume, and... they're not.

Second, the stories. It was interesting to see that Alek Shrader hadn't actually worked up the Fille aria before (making his success with it more remarkable), that Ryan Smith knew the Cilea cold but -- probably because of his layoff -- was having an issue finding a second good aria (you could tell), and that Disella Larusdottir felt she really underperformed on finals day (Anne Midgette, whose post on the movie is here, indicated as much).

Third, I thought Keira Duffy "won" the movie's consolation prize -- you know, the most charming onscreen despite not winning (and did the same judges who picked Barton really knock Duffy's voice size!?) -- but search engine hits here seem to be a three-way tie between Shrader, Smith, and Amber Wagner, with Fabiano in fourth.

Fourth, Nicholas Pallesen (whom I personally would have picked as a winner that day) is singing the lead in Juilliard's production of Falstaff (conducted by Mrs. Peter Gelb, and with 2009 winner Paul Appleby as Fenton) this week.

On the whole, I thought Susan Froemke did a nice job in both providing compelling backstage footage of the finalists and process and shaping the same into a promotion for both the Met and these singers. There was some sleight of hand in this, but that's to be expected. It also does seem to me that winning on finals day is not all-important (and Morris Robinson, for example, didn't even make it past Regionals), but making that point would have drained out some of the tension. (And perhaps it was that important for Angela Meade, because the win may have been what allowed her to emergency debut at the Met in one of the dramatic coloratura leads she needs to sing to be hired.) Besides, having a national audience watch you triumph onscreen -- that's something for your career. How sad that Smith can't enjoy it.

Having Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Thomas Hampson offer thoughts from the Olympian heights of their current success was a nice transition out, but not hugely enlightening. Though it was interesting to hear that Pierrot's song was Hampson's calling-card even during audition days... Make it happen, Met, make it happen.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not quite the last ride?

If you didn't listen to this afternoon's broadcast of Siegfried from the Met, James Morris noted in an interview that the Otto Schenk production of the Ring, though scheduled for retirement next month, will not be scrapped thereafter, leaving open the possibility of yet another revival at some point. (Are there other stages large enough to fit a full Met production?)

UPDATE (4/19): Maury has a report from the house.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Triumph of the off-topic diva

A reader emailed me yesterday to note that ABT has promoted ballerina Veronika Part to principal. After tribulations that led last year to an announced departure (soon basically withdrawn), this conclusion is glory indeed.

(Amusing, too, that the British dance writers in London gave her a rather fairer shake than the one here in New York.)

In any case, if you have a chance to see her performances this summer -- particularly the Swan Lake with Roberto Bolle -- you should take it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Brief DG report

Don Giovanni -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/09
Mattei, Ramey, Wall, Frittoli, Breslik, Bayrakdarian, Shenyang, Aceto / Langree

[posts on previous casts this season: here and here]

Short post this time. Peter Mattei fantastic as ever in his signature role: virile and suave, a treat for the ear as the classic seductive Don. He actually makes the finale count, but I long to see him again in a production that gives coherent context. Samuel Ramey still has something left, particularly in this part that doesn't have long exposed legato bits. Quite a good Leporello, as most of late here have been. Raymond Aceto also good as the Commendatore, though he doesn't actually get to appear on stage for the second act (he sings from the pit while an actor stands behind the big mirror). Barbara Frittoli not bad as Donna Elvira; as in her Fiordiligi some years back she acts the part while approximating the tough vocals in a reasonably commendable way. If I hadn't heard Susan Graham actually nail the part last fall I'd probably have been impressed here. Isabel Bayrakdarian -- Zerlina -- as poor as I've ever heard her (she was quite good four years back), with a shockingly strained and threadbare sound. One hopes it's just the cold going around at the Met (it's felled seemingly half of the Ring cast and Luciana D'Intino to boot).

Besides these returning veterans, three Met debuts last night. Erin Wall (Donna Anna) was audibly coughing during her second aria -- another cold victim? She still showed a bright, reasonably flexible soprano that easily filled the house. I assume it was a cold that kept her from having any chest mix in the sound, though, because this made for an odd overall impression: more like a huge high soprano than a dramatic coloratura or fuller lyric. Good actress, audience loved her. Pavol Breslik (Ottavio) very good in the ardent middle-European tenor style, not as refined as Matthew Polenzani but appealing in his direct way. Bass-baritone Shenyang (Masetto) quite nervous and unimpressive for his opening aria; showed some of his Cardiff-winning sound in the second act but the role may not sit well for him.

Conductor Louis Langree much better this time around, actually whipping up real excitement for the climactic descent to hell. His (and the orchestra's) soulful accompaniment to the slow arias was a delight.

Hunding is in the house

A reader of this blog informs me that Rene Pape has, in fact, arrived in town to sing his scheduled Ring parts (Fasolt and Hunding) and that ambitious Carnegie Hall lieder recital.

Monday, April 13, 2009

2007 revisited

(Disclaimer because the movie bills itself as "a suspenseful competition narrative": don't click on the links below -- except the very first -- if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Next Sunday's special Met moviecast goes back two years to the 2007 Met Council Finals, the climax of the house's annual and national young singers' competition. What we saw then was one of the more talent-packed and interesting Council Finals events in memory -- the two since were a relative snooze -- with two obvious winners and one inexplicable one among the field. What we'll see now is, it seems, the backstory. I hope the apparent focus on three of the tenors doesn't background the most exciting voice of the bunch: the big soprano of the aptly named Amber Wagner.

I don't know how much "where are they now" the film will have added since the initial filming, but one of the non-winners is now in the Met's Lindemann Young Artist program (where he joins the most unfairly passed-over non-winner from the previous year, John Michael Moore). Meanwhile, one of the winners had a less happy fate.

Friday, April 10, 2009

No Coote

You've probably already found this out if you have tickets (or if you follow Steve Smith's twitter), but Alice Coote's Easter Sunday recital at Alice Tully Hall has been cancelled.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

New names

In an announcement that should shock no one, Rolando Villazon is officially out of the remaining performances of Elisir, having cancelled the first two a while back. More intriguing are the replacements lined up for the non-Calleja performances: Barry Banks tonight and Lindemann grad Dimitri Pittas for the three after. They are two different sorts of tenors: Banks high and light, Florez's deputy for Fille and Sonnambula these past seasons, and Pittas -- who managed to make a big impression as Tybalt in 2005 before being the non-Calleja Macduff last season -- more forceful, with a steel in the voice that destines him for the heavier side of the lyric tenor canon.

Both seem good choices to sing Donizetti's comic favorite.

I suppose it's fair at this point to start speculating who exactly may be singing the title part in December's new Met production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann. Unfortunately the tenors who seem to me best-fit -- Klaus Florian Vogt, who has sung Hoffmann elsewhere, and Piotr Beczala, who lists it as "in preparation" -- both appear to be otherwise engaged at the time (Vogt in a Tote Stadt in Frankfurt, Beczala in a London Boheme). We'll see...

UPDATE (6:30PM): I guess this is one reason Roberto Alagna wasn't drafted to sing in Elisir opposite his wife.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Ave atque vale

Die Walküre -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/6/09
Theorin, Morris, Meier, Botha, Naef, Tomlinson / Levine

[post on the previous Walküre revival here]
[UPDATE (5/9): post on a subsequent Walküre -- the last of the season -- here]

The Met during Ring-time is almost a wholly different company. Lead singers arrive who've not been seen since the last Ring, James Levine is always at the helm, audience and orchestra are ever-alert, and the star of stars is... James Morris. Not the James Morris one hears in other Met productions -- this year, for example, as Gremin and in a few Gala bits -- the forceful and authoritative but audibly aging singer whose vocal mannerisms have made for many detractors. No, this James Morris is someone else: tone cleared, breath strengthened, line firm, his rendering of Wotan's words and music is as fit and natural as some old god's own. It is almost unbelievable to say this, but Morris last night sang Wotan as well or better than he ever has, showing not weakening but improvement since the 2004 cycle (and I think, though my memory of it's getting patchy, even 2000!) and quite eclipsing his last-season portrayal. Yes, we finally have a Met Ring scheduled with the much-anticipated next-generation Wotan (Bryn Terfel), but on the current evidence the man about to have his 40th Met anniversary (Morris debuted in the 1970-71 season) should be far from finished with the Met Ring company. If these are Morris' final full-Ring Wotans and Wanderers here, what a way to end.

The other biggest triumph was by a Ring-only singer: Swiss mezzo Yvonne Naef as Fricka. I remember her being good for both Levine and Gergiev (in his Valkyrie-only season of 2004-05) five years ago, but this latest incarnation is revelatory. In this ongoing Golden Age of Mezzos we've not been short of excellent Frickas -- the last two in New York were Larissa Diadkova and Stephanie Blythe! -- but Naef shines even among these. She makes Wotan's wife not only compelling but wholly sympathetic, not just harridan and plot device but fully co-equal sufferer and protagonist. Naef seemed to me in looks, sound, manner and phrase uncannily like a mezzo Dorothea Röschmann, and what could be better than that?

The Act I trio were hardly less impressive. Most surprising, perhaps, was John Tomlinson as Hunding. Tomlinson is actually slightly older than Morris, but his bass -- as one heard at the Gala -- is as full and solid as ever. But voice is only part of it, here just deepening his enactment of the most masterful and authoritative of Hundings. This warrior feels assured of his might and place, backed by kin and Fricka: he can take dark pleasure in the irony of finding his enemy at his own hearth attended by his own wife, and taunt Siegmund without a hint of the sort of villainy that could consider breaking the forms of hospitality with an instant attack.

Waltraud Meier -- who debuted at the Met as Fricka -- was, as ever in Wagner, excellent, a bit clotted at the very top but no more so than, say, Karita Mattila on a lesser night. In fact I seemed to hear Mattila's timbre elsewhere in her voice as well, and actually the entire Sieglinde portrayal was not far from what the Finnish soprano might have offered. (Again, I mean this as a compliment.) Johan Botha didn't look much like Meier's twin, but he sang at least as well. As with his Otello, I feel his virtues here may be underappreciated: the combination of a big, spacious, easily ringing voice and scrupulous, almost refined musicality is difficult to register. He can sing and be heard as Siegmund with real dynamic range, and he uses it -- and a rhythmic sense -- to good effect. Botha's surprising and distinctive crescendi on the two shouts of "Wälse" reminded me of his willingness some seasons ago to try ending "Celeste Aida" as written... Not what you'd expect from a beefy heldentenor who still can't much act. (As Siegmund, acting-wise, he often makes a good Siegfried.) But singing the role Wagner wrote does much. This may be his best role yet.

Not least, of course, was the debut of Swedish soprano Irene Theorin in the title part. The voice isn't necessarily ideal, but the overall portrayal was a success. Of course, vocally Brünnhilde is a part for which none (except perhaps Frida Leider) are or have been ideal, and it's a matter of choosing the tradeoffs one prefers. Theorin's top is clear and piercing, at times perhaps a bit shrieky, but less so than, say, the current Deborah Voigt's. No audibility issues there, anyway. (No trill, though, if you're wondering.) Below that there is a warm vibrato which at times -- particularly in the lower-register parts of her dialog with Siegmund (the famous "Todesverkündigung") -- is the only thing carrying her sound through the orchestra. Ideally perhaps the voice is better suited to Sieglinde than the Valkyrie, but she carries the whole thing off pretty well. The physicality of the role is a plus: like Olga Sergeeva or the young Hildegard Behrens, Theorin has no problem hopping around and exulting like the young jock Brünnhilde is. She's in fact unabashedly and wildly expressive in her relations to James Morris' Wotan, and though the personal chemistry between the two hasn't yet caught full fire, her acting in the last act helps carry the finale to its full heights.

There was some of the apparently unavoidable bits of trouble in the brass, but the strings (including Rafael Figueroa in the first-act cello solo) and winds played marvelously for Levine, who seems to savor each turn of feeling (mostly agony) the score brings forth. Of the supporting valkyries Teresa S. Herold's strong mezzo/contralto made the biggest impression (as Rossweisse). Great and long cheers after, including a curtain call for -- I believe -- Otto Schenk, the original creator of this soon-to-be-retired production. Whether it was his doing or that of this revival's assistant stage directors (Gina Lapinski and Paula Williams), the unsatisfying cast-set disconnect of some past revivals was not at all present here.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The girl who knew too much

Rigoletto -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/1/09
Frontali, Damrau, Calleja, Aceto, Mumford / Frizza

I went this time for the tenor, but the emotional effect of Verdi's Rigoletto most depends on its soprano. And while Diana Damrau's performance as Gilda was in some ways outstanding, it fell short in this respect. Gilda's role in the scheme of the show is clear, and mentioned in seemingly every program note iteration. As the author of the original play (Victor Hugo, in fact) put it, "[Rigoletto] has two pupils -- the [duke] and his daughter: the [duke], whom he has trained to vice; his daughter, whom he has reared for virtue. One destroys the other." As simple and elegant as that -- something even the least inquisitive soprano can convey.

But Damrau introduces a novel element: her Gilda is from the start nervous and agitated, preoccupied even as she greets her loving father. It is clear that this is a girl deceiving her father, and it shows some acuity on Damrau's part to pick up on this relatively neglected thread. For Gilda is concealing something from Rigoletto -- her developing romance with the (incognito) Duke -- and for her to show worry about it during her reunion is a neat piece of psychology. And yet it's quite wrongheaded: worry or no, one hears in Verdi's score Gilda caught up in her father's love as she is later in the Duke's, responding to the former in a heart-racing, liberating reunion duet that purges for a time the fetid atmosphere of court and curse. Here Damrau is (as ever) correct and precise, but neither warm nor responsive -- and worse, she continues to fidget with spunky sitcom-heroine anxiety, trying to arrange the situation to some clever and happy end -- Gilda as Norina or Rosina.

Child of virtue this isn't. In fact it makes nonsense of the rest of the story. For Gilda's innocence isn't just romantic or sexual but moral: not having been taught about the corrupt and tragic world, it's probably never even occurred to her that there could be any more-than-temporary incompatibility between her own happiness, her father's, and her beloved suitor's. (And here, the Disney princess portrayal of Damrau's immediate predecessor Aleksandra Kurzak was exactly right.) Her sacrifice at the end is powerful because it is her first moral act, made with the understanding she did not have beforehand. (Kurzak did less well here.) But from the start, unfortunately, Damrau knows more about Gilda's position than she does. So Damrau's version never has any innocence to lose -- and therefore even the Duke's attraction begins to lose its sense. What particularly draws him if not the pre-lapsarian self-satisfied wholeness of Gilda's love and bearing? (Yes, as we later see, he chases anything that moves, but his declaration in "Ella mi fu rapita! ... Parmi veder" is quite clear.)

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Bizarrely, the cast member who could best project Gilda's fundamental wholesomeness is probably the mezzo playing Maddalena, seductive accomplice and sister to the assassin Sparafucile. It's been oddly entertaining over recent years to see Tamara Mumford go through character parts for which her looks and remarkable voice, at least, seem a natural fit: adulterous femme fatale Lola (Cav), gypsy moll Matryosha (War & Peace), and now Maddalena. (The encore at her recent recital -- the Seguidilla -- seems to indicate that Carmen may at some point -- perhaps she's covering it next season? -- be the climax of the series.) There is a certain sensual element in her portrayals (not least through the actual rich sound), and the characters' emotions are directly and pointedly expressed, but there is a distinct lack of the lascivious, giving these not-quite-respectable characters an unexpectedly dignified integrity. In any case, Maddalena's main job -- providing rich, rhythmically precise accompaniment before and during the last-act quartet -- Mumford handles with aplomb.

Raymond Aceto does less well as the assassin brother, not objectionable but in no way as interesting a Sparafucile as his predecessor Mikhail Petrenko. Roberto Frontali remains from January's cast, and is actually somewhat better in the lead part this time: a bit more dynamic variation at climaxes, and a bit less flailing at the top notes. He doesn't have the full Verdi instrument of a Zeljko Lucic, but he makes the most of it. (Unfortunately, his nervous wreck of a Rigoletto -- interesting before -- combines poorly with Damrau's nervous wreck of a Gilda.)

As the more or less one-dimensional Duke, Joseph Calleja (of whom I've raved enough of late) sang each act with ever-increasing authority and focus, finishing with a show-making display in the quartet and the bedtime "La donna e mobile" fragments afterwards. As last time -- and despite a new round of new cast coordination issues -- Riccardo Frizza conducted with almost as much fire and spirit as the much-missed Asher Fisch in 2005. It's too bad that he (and I'm fairly sure by now that it was his decision, given Damrau's stratospheric skill) again kept out the soprano's big quartet-capping high note...

UPDATE (4/5): For some reason, Mumford has been replaced for the remaining performances by the original Maddalena this season, Viktoria Vizin. Strange -- did something happen last night?

UPDATE 2 (4/5): Never mind? A commenter states that Vizin was originally scheduled for subsequent performances anyway. This may well be correct, though I do seem to remember seeing otherwise. Ah, memory.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Erin Wall's Met debut

I was away from the computer this evening, and only just now saw the news of Erin Wall replacing Soile Isokoski in this month's Peter Mattei-led Don Giovannis (Wall will be Donna Anna, and the originally scheduled Anna will sing Donna Elvira). Between this and the implausibly sonorous Cardiff winner/Lindemann artist Shenyang's debut as Masetto, not even Louis Langree's all-too-civilized conducting could keep me away.

(To be clear, I have heard only reports of her voice, but it was a privilege to read her for the short time she was online.)

UPDATE (4/14): A post on the debut performance is here.

UPDATE 2 (4/28): Another post, on the last Don Giovanni of the run, is here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Rhinemaidens

It still has not quite dawned on me that the Met's Ring season has -- as a post at Anne Midgette's new WaPo blog called to mind -- in fact begun, though it's a week until the next iteration (Iréne Theorin's unexpected Met debut in Valkyrie). The last presentation here in New York was from Gergiev and his neon goth caveman production for the Mariinsky. (Actually, it's not half as interesting as that may sound -- basically just cheesy hodgepodge -- though some improvement may have been accomplished before its London appearance this summer.)

The last Met ring was in spring 2004 -- before this blog began -- but the 2007 Mariinsky visit did inspire some general thoughts on Wagner's cycle.

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Meanwhile, two of this revival's three Rhinemaidens -- Lisette Oropesa, Kate Lindsey, and Tamara Mumford (Lindemann grads all, from high to low) -- were engaged by the other Met for its spring concert series. Mumford's recital was two Saturdays ago: an excellently sung but underattended event. Perhaps Lindsey's recital this Friday will get better turnout. Lindsey is more than just a great characterizer of pants roles -- though she certainly is that -- just as Mumford is more than the full-voiced character mezzo that's been her Met career to date (continuing tonight with her Maddalena in Rigoletto).