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.