Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The question

The question of the week (or month, or decade): does New York really want a neo-modernist, reductive, deliberately graceless and anti-humane Eurotrash production of La Traviata, one that replaces all of Verdi's moods and relationships with cartoonish brutality and compulsion?

The Met has done Willy Decker et al. a favor by improving on the original Salzburg cast, and -- as it did for Richard Eyre's Carmen last season (a differently-flavored and quite good show) -- protected the premiere by giving it the audience most inclined to react favorably or at least politely: Friday's New Year's Eve gala.

But the question remains. One would hope that the impulse that (wrongly, I think) rained boos upon a more appropriate and psychologically acute revision of Tosca would here put itself to good use in laughing or booing Decker's one-dimensional travesty off the stage, but perhaps some will be cowed by the show's famous European success.

We'll see soon enough.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Year six in posts

I admit, when I reread posts from more than a year ago I sometimes wonder that I had such interesting and clear thoughts. When I read more recent writings, I more often bore of my own current tics and tropes. But since, dear readers, you don't have to live inside my head, I offer some of the highlights here since last December:
Review -- Carmen
On Riccardo Muti and Verdi's Attila
On Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet
Review -- Rossini's Armida
On the April revival of Tosca
On Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
OT: a week of Sleeping Beauty at ABT
Review -- Robert LePage's Opening Night Rheingold
On OONY's Mascagni/Massenet double-bill
On Verdi's Il Trovatore in revival
On Strauss' Intermezzo at City Opera
On debuting tenor Yonghoon Lee as Don Carlo

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Pelléas et Mélisande -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2010
Kožená, Degout, Finley, White, Palmer / Rattle

I hate to turn away from the thorough musical triumph of Friday night (and last week's roster of guest conductors was stupendous, perhaps unprecedentedly so), but my pleasure in listening was offset by dissatisfaction with the eponymous couple's characterization.

What Stephane Degout (Pelleas) and Magdalena Kozena (Melisande) -- who both sang well -- lacked was innocence. Degout is a more red-blooded Pelleas than usual, and there's something hinky from the first about his presence around Melisande. Kozena, meanwhile, sounds beautiful but is visibly sulky and all-too-evidently engaged in a silent war with her spouse and/or the world. Together with a more-morally-forceful-than-usual Golaud (Gerald Finley, magnificent here), they tell the story that's the shortest distance between their three points: Pelleas and Melisande are getting it on (or something), Melisande is miserable with her marriage and lies ever-intentionally to Golaud, and Golaud does the obvious thing by finally running his rival half-brother through with a sword.

This reading is psychologically coherent and even sensible, and if it was stage director Paula Williams who encouraged it of the cast (Jonathan Miller, I assume, was out of the question for this revival of his original) she showed some insight. Nevertheless, it (perhaps from being too sensible) squashes the interest out of Maeterlinck and Debussy's story, which has rather different occupations than its verisimo contemporaries. For Golaud's scene at her window is not a Philip-II-finds-Carlo's-picture moment (though I still think Don Carlo[s] an interestingly similar opera to Pelleas): it's a rejection of the possibility of having that moment at all. The distance between people is too great, in this space, for the revelatory truth certain to be seized like that -- whether it's of betrayal or love. So it comes out in the fourth act that Pelleas has never, to that moment, spoken love to Melisande... It's not exactly coincidence that he's killed soon after.

Together with the suggestions of guilt is a repeated thread of innocence: Golaud dismisses the hair business as childish; Arkel goes on about Melisande's essential innocence; and after the killing Golaud himself again seems (at least partially) of that view. The current revival laughs it off (or inspires the audience to, at least in the middle acts), but the thread is prominent in the performance history. At the Met, for example, casting of Melisande from the first (Lucrezia Bori, who monopolized the part for a decade) has been largely the province of great delicate and charming singers -- e.g. Sayao, Blegen, von Stade, and, surprisingly ideally in 2000, the suggestive blankness of Dawn Upshaw. And so we've seen Melisandes who are not merely indeterminately guilty/innocent -- Schrödinger's soprano -- but actually, to the limit of their strength and life, beyond those categories altogether. This, too, is a psychological type, and not merely among sociopaths or the self-serving.

This alternate pre-lapsarian dimension, like the mystery of the ultimate truth -- both shortchanged this go-round -- is no accidental feature of Pelleas. The playwright and composer felt the call of the coming modernist Zeitgeist as strongly as any verist, but went the other way (even though their musical and dramatic techniques were themselves innovative): less "real", less straight-line, less psychological, with the subjective individuals -- no longer fit to be subjects themselves in the plain -- adapted for the new age with an enfolding, elaborated wrap of opaque mystery impenetrable even (and especially) to the classic modernist trope, sexual compulsion. To strip the characters of this rare symbolist wrap and show them as, well, sexually-compelled figures of modern psychology misses the point. (And now that modernism itself has become boring, it's stale.)

But again, the musical side is fantastic. I've never been Simon Rattle's biggest fan, but he, the singers, and the orchestra deserve a thorough listen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


While the notable birthday of the weekend was Fanciulla's 100th, this blog did complete its sixth year of posting on Sunday. I've actually been too tied up in operagoing to compile the usual "year of posts" -- which should follow soon -- but I did wish to thank my readers without further delay.

So my thanks to all of you who continue to read the impressions and meditations I have at the opera. I hope they remain as interesting reading for you as the process continues to be for me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Because a friend asked for ten words...

Modernism is authority.  Postmodernism is anti-authority.  Each has its absurdities.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

My California

La Fanciulla del West -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2010
Voigt, Giordani, Gallo / Luisotti

It's a success that might have pleased Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the world premiere a century ago this Friday: not the greatest cast, not a showy production, but a conductor's triumph in summoning not only the sound but the spirit of a Puccini masterpiece -- here, the underappreciated Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West). SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti has made this undersold revival an event to equal or better the season's big-name extravaganzas.

That's not to knock the cast, who all come through to find the story's heart. The singing is all good enough, sometimes better, but that's almost beside the point. Forget that Deborah Voigt's post-fat voice still has its issues -- Minnie is a role she was born to play, the first big character that really seems to fit her own. She's so naturally fresh and bright even as she handles a barful of hard-drinking men, and there's nothing overwrought in her outburst at the newly-revealed Ramerrez: it's the wounded cry of love's first deep hurt. Marcello Giordani is in fine sonic form, but more impressive is the desperate sincerity his sturdy character shows in the solo moments. Even Lucio Gallo was decent vocally (less good on high notes), and managed to catch the not-quite-villainous menace of Rance. The miners were strongly cast, not least Dwayne Croft as Sonora and recent rat-king Keith Miller as Ashby, and forged a convincing communal space for the opera.

But everywhere and in everything was the incredible tapestry of sound Luisotti wove from this score. He got, as in his last appearance (a more famous Puccini -- Boheme), amazingly sensitive playing and texturing from the Met Orchestra, but this time outdid himself in a proportioned control of phrase, line, and ensemble that seemed to hold every performer infallibly in the flow of Puccini's magic. So supported, "good enough" from each was more than enough for the music to shine and the story to tell.

It is, of course, on the whole a tale about redemption -- the motif for which is the first tune to materialize in the prelude -- but for the principals there is first transgression. Sheriff Rance and Minnie between them hold the camp's destinies in hand: he protects the miners' worldly existence, while she ensures their civilized and moral aspect. But neither sticks to the part. Rance tries to use his mastery of what is (he commands law, guns, and money...) to buy what's not properly for sale or mastery -- Minnie's favor. And when Ramerrez/Johnson (whose initial intention to rob the camp sets off the crisis) arrives, Minnie not only minimizes and begins to abdicate her moral guardianship (talking down her place in life and falling in love with the outsider who will take her off), she outright cheats Rance to save Johnson's life -- and avoid having to marry Rance.

But while Minnie first brings redemption into the opera proper -- its music plays as she gives her early Bible lesson, that no one is beyond it -- Johnson's the one who precipitates the resolution as well. The redemption tune appears again as he changes his mind and vows to protect the miners' gold at Act I's end, and yet again as he agonizedly confesses himself to Minnie in Act II. The latter plea doesn't win her over immediately, but when he's subsequently shot Minnie begins to protect him from Rance despite knowing what Ramerrez/Johnson has done.

And she's perhaps right, if you look at the thing: having reformed, Johnson's no longer a worldly threat to the miners but a moral one -- the agent of their mine community's potential dissolution -- and therefore of Minnie's jurisdiction and not Rance's. But her first method can't be right... And at last, in Act III, Minnie (and Puccini -- Belasco does it differently, at least in his post-hoc story version) hits upon the masterstroke: appealing to their better natures, she offers the miners in lieu of herself -- no longer able to guide them in any case -- the opportunity to participate in a great and indelible moment of forgiveness and humanity. When Sonora takes it up, Johnson calls the men his brothers, and Minnie (with Puccini) makes a full invocation of redemption and love, it's as overpowering a finale as there is in opera, recalling the not-entirely-dissimilar end of Jenůfa. And, in fact, Jiri Belohlavek's 2007 work in that opera may have been the last guest effort to equal Luisotti's last night.

I feel sad for anyone who comes out of this remarkable revival with little but knocks on the score, vocalism, or whatever. My only knock is that the Met can't force Luisotti to stay in town and perfect the run of La Boheme.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The prince

Don Carlo -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/3/2010
Lee, Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin

Alexei Tanovitsky (the friar/ghost) this time struggled through his Act II opener, but otherwise Friday's performance was rather similar to the production's opening night... Except, of course, for an entirely different leading tenor.

One difference between Yonghoon Lee and the other Carlo, Roberto Alagna (the two are alternating through the run), was apparent before the Korean newcomer, in his second night at the Met, opened his mouth: Lee is much taller (he's also, the ladies seemed to think, fairly handsome). But the sound is even more different. For while there are certainly other qualities (generally appealing) to it, the initial impression (also appealing) of Lee's voice is that it's nothing but squillo. There's a base of dark (but neither baritonal nor Jonas-Kaufmann-super-dark) tenor sound at the core, but it's the ringing emanation that hits the ear on pretty much every note. Those starved for a real spinto tenor in this great lyric tenor era should be thrilled -- and, judging by a curtain call that outdid even Furlanetto's, they are.

The squillo also, unfortunately, swallows most of Lee's diction, and the near-conversational musical eloquence that Alagna commands here in both large and small touches is also lost. In fact, though Lee certainly can sing softly and even has a trill, the less all-out parts of Carlo's role are hit-and-miss: conversational exchanges went for nothing, the bottom of the voice could disappear, and though he handled Act V's closing duet with Elisabetta with wonderful softly-sung concentration, Lee was unable to sustain the long lines of Act III's (mistaken) serenade of the veiled Eboli. But that's mostly just to say that Lee doesn't also have the virtues of a lyric tenor. He does, in full measure, have the essential trait of any worthy spinto: the ability to shape and hold the grand phrase, to feel where and how Verdi put his tenors' impassioned climaxes -- and to deliver them.

*     *     *

Lee's acting was equally distinct. His starts a vainer prince than Alagna's, one spoiled by the admiring unrealities of a court. Alagna's Carlo waits sincerely for Elisabetta's reaction on first revealing his portrait, but Lee's indulges a pleased flourish of "here I am!" before she looks. And so it seems that the disappointment of Fontainebleau (where the ladies' outfits look more and more ghastly each time out) was the first real thwarted inclination of this prince's life, and he accordingly takes it at first with petulance and hurt vanity -- not the existential angst with which the trauma hits Alagna's prince.

But we see it ripen and take root into something real. The scene with Keenlyside is again (as for Alagna) strong, but the dynamic is interestingly different: Alagna is eloquent but ever about to spiral inside himself, while Lee is just as nervous as his baritone -- making the contrast now one of a man who has mastered his neuroses (Rodrigo/Posa) vs. a man who is at last feeling their true sting (Lee's Carlos). By the time Lee reappears in the next scene to confront Poplavskaya (Elisabetta), he's a pretty convincing wreck, with his (characteristic, and therefore never-quite-gone) note of self-regard now supplemented by a bitter, desperate, and somehow still-noble self-pity.

By this point Lee's bodily movement has picked up as well... Though he's a tall man and doesn't try to duplicate the amount of activity of a small one, Lee isn't afraid to fly and stumble across or off the stage as his character's emotional state seems to demand. As with his singing, when he's not animated by full passion the body stuff doesn't always click and can be a bit stiff, but when Lee is so charged it all works.

*     *     *

Everything written last time about the production, conductor, and remaining cast still applies. As for the tenor options, both deliver excellent performances of different types: you can't go wrong unless you've a blind spot for one sort of singing or the other.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The bohemians

La Boheme -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/1/2010
Stoyanova, Calleja, Dehn, Capitanucci, Tiliakos, Groissböck, Plishka / Rizzi Brignoli

This second of four La Boheme casts this season is what the previous was not: a beautiful and convincing telling of Puccini's ensemble piece. Much credit to two supporting members of the ensemble -- debuting singers Dimitris Tiliakos (Schaunard) and Günther Groissböck (Colline) -- whose characters were clear, distinct, and lively from the moment each stepped on stage. That they don't necessarily better their predecessors vocally (I found Tiliakos appealingly mellifluous, but Groissböck's coat aria wasn't the highlight Shenyang's was), doesn't matter: they make the show work.

Against this more telling backdrop I saw Fabio Capitanucci -- who debuted with the previous cast -- more clearly. Here what was general dissatisfaction last time has revealed itself to be a specific complaint: Capitanucci's Marcello is all good-nature, without even a bit of the darkness that should make his fiery romance with Musetta go. His way is appealing enough, but it's not clear what the two see in each other. One might make a bit of the same complaint against Ellie Dehn's Musetta, but the 2005 Met Council Finalist used her looks, her quick manner, and her now nicely-polished soprano instrument to sell the familiar character well.

The leads are no surprise: Joseph Calleja has, as ever, his magnificent sound, diction, and sense of line, and fits in very well with the boys in their antics. His classicist sense of proportion (despite, unfortunately, taking the high note for Act I's finish) seems to apply to his role, as well, and he doesn't try to take over the entire ensemble show. Nevertheless he does some pretty good agonized acting in Act IV...

Puccini's show is properly Mimi's, and Krassimira Stoyanova does strongly -- even better, in snowy Act III: she gets Mimi in extremis wonderfully & movingly well. The outer acts weren't quite at that level, but very good. Stoyanova sings with real understanding and feeling throughout, but too often here it's overlaid with a set of more conventional emotive and fidgety gestures that tell a less interesting story.

Rizzi Brignoli now has the Met Orchestra and a surprising amount of the new cast on the same page as his conducting, but I still think his constant shifts of time and tempo are doing more harm than good. No, it doesn't get in the way of long concentration in the slow meditations of Acts III and IV, but the more extroverted exchanges need a firmer, more consistent base, and touches like holding off on Mimi's death chord for ages seem just needlessly cutesy.

*     *     *

Despite the successfully tear-jerking performance, what many will remember from Wednesday's show is the extra half-intermission. At first, the pause between Acts I and II dragged long... and then a woman came out to explain that there was some technical issue and they'd be continuing soon. Time dragged on again... and she came out again, with another call for patience. Time dragged on yet again... and she popped out again, the lights came up, and something about "having the intermission now" was announced.

Of course, the Act II/III and Act III/IV transitions are really too elaborate to do without further intermissions, so after less than 10 minutes (probably the amount of time it took to fix whatever needed fixing) the intermission-end-warning chimes (there are two at the Met, usually at 8 and 4 minutes before time) began to sound. As the Grand Tier restaurant had not, apparently, been warned of this, however, a bunch of people had just been brought their intermission meal/dessert. A torrent of chimes and usher requests did not (as you can imagine) manage to get these people into their seats before something like the full 25/30 minutes had passed. (So why did the house bother to try cutting the intermission short? No idea.)

In any case, Act II went on, none of the singers were too thrown from having to warm up some extra times, and the night -- after two subsequent scheduled intermissions -- simply ended rather later than it was supposed to.

UPDATE (2:45PM): I forgot to mention the audience, which is even more full of tourists and opera newbies than the usual Boheme. I must admit I take nearly as much pleasure in the harumphing of the (insufficiently) scandalized Eurosophisticates at Zeffirelli's literalistic masterpiece as I get displeasure from the shocking amount of flash photography at the start of the first two acts.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


Don Carlo -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/22/2010
Alagna, Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin

I'd rather talk about any detail of the new Met Don Carlo's comprehensive musical triumph than its one inadequate element: the new production itself, half-successful and wholly unnecessary. But since it's a novelty (in this country, anyway), let's start there.

British director Nicholas Hytner picked, for his Met debut show, an excellent lighting designer (Mark Henderson) and an unfortunate set and costume designer (Bob Crowley). It's Henderson who provides the one real visual coup of the piece: the St. Just monastery -- rendered with lighting and particle effects to make a modern video game designer proud -- which by a near trick of light and decor we see first from one perspective and then its reverse. And it's Henderson's lighting that makes the other successful scene: Act III's nighttime garden rendezvous.

The rest, whether at Hytner's instigation or Crowley's own, is high undetailed walls and other big single-color elements -- what seems increasingly to be the Gelb era's house style -- but executed blandly and marred by frankly ugly color choice. The awful fur-trimmed outfits of the Fontainebleau femmes (and aren't most of them supposed to be local peasants and such? -- the uniform fancy clothes sink their plea to Elisabetta in not-otherwise-interesting irony), the hideously garish orange of the court ladies' gathering (eclipsed, by the Posa-Philip duet, by timely dark-red lighting -- one might suspect a bias against the women), the neither ominous nor stark gold-and-orange/red of the auto-da-fe... The later actual costumes are good in a historical vein (and the men's are positively handsome), but the physical show is, at best, a mixed success.

The part more directly attributable to Hytner is also mixed. The performers act well, but they've shown themselves pretty good at it elsewhere and what the show has them do in terms of blocking and byplay is pretty conventional. The biggest challenge -- the auto-da-fe -- is bogged down early by his having little idea what to do with the chorus on its own, but he catches the pageantry as a whole quite well as the scene goes along. (The addition of a priest speaking prayers and an ultimatum during the march is a nice touch; the end reveal of the burning bodies isn't bad as moments of intentional grossness go.)

All of this would make a decent if imperfect addition to the Met production roster if it were not replacing the greatest Verdi show the company had: John Dexter's 1979 staging, simultaneously grand, intimate, handsome, detailed, and clear; equally and uncompromisedly traditional and theatrical; still undimmed after decades of life. Hytner's effort does not measure up even with the glamour of youth.

*     *     *

Any replacement was likely to fall short of the Dexter production, but the change offered at least one great opportunity: to get the opera as it was written -- in French. This didn't happen, of course, despite the great Francophone conductor and Don Carlos (we've all seen the Bondy video, I hope) in the current production. And that (with related textual niggles) is the only other caveat I have: the performers' side is, if "ideal" is an unfair word (there's always a missing great one would like to see participate), as much of an unmarred triumph as one is likely to see in the imperfect world of opera.

Roberto Alagna continues his post-breakup string of hits in the title part. His singing is better than ever -- clear and strong throughout, with an eloquent command of phrase that seems as effortless as simple speech -- but his presence at the center of the drama is even more important. Carlo has plenty of opportunities in the story to show himself a schmo, but if he is one, the passionate attachment of Elisabetta, Eboli, and Posa become farcical. Johan Botha's goofus of a Carlo ruined the show; Alagna's ability to make Carlo -- like Hamlet -- count for something without managing to do anything fuels it.

Alagna's Carlo -- simultaneously passionate and passive, sucked ever inwards as events whirl around him -- excellently complements baritone Simon Keenlyside. Keenlyside is a less-seen sort of Posa (Rodrigo): a nervous but humane fanatic who's learned some courtliness, not some suave nobleman who's turned his appeal to a pet cause. (Hvorostovsky and Hampson almost seduced Eboli in their Act II chat; Keenlyside simply distracts her.) Meanwhile in debuting mezzo Anna Smirnova we finally have an Eboli who shows well in both the elaborations of the Veil Song and the vocal and moral force of "O don fatale"... She could have a bit more elegance (an eyepatch might have helped on the visual side), but who cares?

Another Russian, soprano Marina Poplavskaya (Elisabetta) is not quite new, but she hasn't been featured as prominently as she is this season, headlining both this and the new Traviata import. She is very, very good in the part: if the instrument sounds a bit assembled and doesn't convey the pure thrill of song, it's quite thoroughly assembled and fit for carrying darker emotions. She, a haughtier queen than most to start (her Act II farewell is both tribute and unabashed accusation), has -- like Keenlyside -- a strong rapport with Alagna, and though their voices are more naturally contrast than complement the duets repeatedly catch fire.

Basses Ferruccio Furlanetto (Philip) and Eric Halfvarson (the Grand Inquisitor) were perhaps best of all. Furlanetto trusts his own natural force of voice and character enough to offer a direct, wounded "Ella giammai m'amo" with considerably more hush than bluster -- it brought down the house. Alexei Tanovitsky, who actually sang Wotan here three-plus years ago, made a strong debut as the friar (Charles V). Smaller debuts were made by Layla Claire (the page) and Keith Harris, Tyler Simpson, and Eric Jordan (three of the six Flemish deputies).

French conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin made a huge splash last season leading Carmen, but this production -- particularly the last two acts, taken in essentially scene-length breaths of inspired sound -- shows him equally in command of a grander, more varied piece. And this is the beginning of the run...

By all means go, but don't worry too much about being in a seat where one can see everything.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


Cosi fan tutte -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/17/2010
Persson, Leonard, de Niese, Sledge, Gunn, Shimell / Christie

The Met's last revival of Cosi, five seasons ago under James Levine, may have been something like the high-point of his entire Met tenure, at least in musical spirit: after decades of cultivation and before piled-up Boston and health absences (the back problems go back, of course, but his Boston appointment began in 2004), Levine had the orchestra playing for him with not only luminous seamless sound but ever-renewed attention to the breathing of Mozart's musical and emotional phrases. Adding the sympathetic production and the excellent, well-prepared young ensemble cast gave us the show of the year and of many others besides. That the current revival led by William Christie isn't at that level doesn't mean you shouldn't see it.

Part of the charm in 2005 was the intense sincerity -- temperamental in Guglielmo (Mariusz Kwiecien), devoted in Ferrando (Matthew Polenzani) -- of the two men's affection. The new cast, with the same stage director (Robin Guarino), presents a much different aspect. The soldiers' main feature this time is a hearty and youthful male vulgarity: a thing not incompatible with deep feeling but at odds with its extended expression. So while this interpretation makes psychological sense of the bet and the deception (it was surely not the first prank agreed upon while tipsy), it doesn't bring us into intimate sympathy with the two as its more overtly sincere predecessor did. Still, within this framework the soldiers are well-characterized, with Ferrando (as the music reveals) the more pensive and inclined to real feeling. Substitute tenor Bruce Sledge not only sang strongly -- despite the originally-scheduled Pavol Breslik's commendable ardor, there was no sense of drop-off -- but played Ferrando with this core of feeling. (With his nice Met-sized sound, I'm guessing that Sledge's mostly regional career is on account of his moderate gut: to me he suggests a lyric-tenor scale Botha, not least in youthful but dignified carriage.) Meanwhile Nathan Gunn fully indulged both his character Guglielmo's delight in the nonsense and the staging's emphasis on physical motion (these Turks are hardly gentlemanly in their extended groping, pressing, and so on).

On the ladies' side, it is clear this time that Fiordiligi is the prize. Not that Isabel Leonard songs poorly or makes any bad impression as Dorabella: quite the opposite. But given soprano Miah Persson's display of spirit, Fiordiligi is here the leader even in spoiled nonsense -- her initial declaration of friskiness setting the tone. From this through the grand opera seria rhetoric of "Come scoglio" (surprisingly for last season's great Sophie, the low notes are pretty evenly there) and the perfect long concentration of "Per pieta" (the show's best part) and all the uncertainties between and after Persson shows all the lively depth and quickness of feeling that made a winning Sophie, and a solider (though it's by no means vast) voice than one might have expected.

The men, too, acknowledge Fiordiligi's eminence -- at least unconsciously -- when they return in disguise. Whether both are marveling in her display at "Come scoglio" or Guglielmo alone is raging in jealousy at the Act II start, there is a recognized inequality that makes the end exchange both appropriate (Ferrando does seem the better temperamental match) and particularly bitter for Guglielmo.

The two intriguers are about perfect. Danielle de Niese is as well-fit for the saucy dissembler Despina as she was ill-matched to tragic Eurydice. William Shimell is a firm austere prophet of Enlightenment. All blend together successfully.

This revival is also conductor William Christie's Met debut, and while he doesn't merit the raptures to which some are regularly brought by him, he is very good, particularly in the slow introductions and arias -- and more so as the night goes on. The whole is polished, accomplished, and insightful, but whether because of or despite Christie, it lacks the overpowering humane element we saw in 2005.

Friday, November 05, 2010


It can be nice sometimes to see a show I can't write about, except to note that Wolfgang Holzmair is in fact out as Don Alfonso and William Shimell -- who worked with Christie in that amazing BAM Hercules with DiDonato -- is in.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Local edition

Intermezzo -- New York City Opera, 10/31/10
Dunleavy, Pallesen, Bidlack, Klein / Manahan

Bottom line first: Leon Major's production of this Strauss rarity is -- as it was in its 1999 debut -- the most charming show I've ever seen at the opera, and its current deeply-undersold state is a travesty. Don't expect any grandiosity, but do go. Now the details.

*     *     *

Richard Strauss knocked out his domestic opera at the end of the Great War, right on the heels of completing two great Hofmannsthal collaborations: Die Frau ohne Schatten and the revised (with new prologue) standalone version of Ariadne auf Naxos (originally an interlude to a Moliere adaptation). The libretto, in this case, was his own, and much is often made of its unusual everyday realism -- adapting a farcical episode from early in Strauss' own marriage. But what's really striking is the opera's continuity with Strauss' better-known works. Musically, not only does Intermezzo's conversational style derive from the Ariadne prologue but one hears in the material both echoes of the past (Rosenkavalier, Frau) and premonitions of the future (Arabella, Capriccio) -- and not the worst bits of those, either. Literarily, too, the piece is another re-spin of the formula Strauss carried through from Der Rosenkavalier to Capriccio: a not-always-humorous comedy about relationships, centered around an incarnation or two of his prime subject, the Eternal-Feminine.

It is, of course, a rather more earthly version of the formula, with exactly none of the subtle and high-minded exploration of myth, civilization, and art that Hofmannsthal and his successors put into the collaborations. Instead we get Strauss' characteristically plain and bemused view of the humanity around his temporarily upset household.

So it's little surprise that the eternal feminine here appears in a rather local and temporal form (very different from Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Strauss' wife in FrOSch as the Dyer's wife). But Strauss' music, particularly in the great orchestral interludes, tells us in unmistakable detail that as absurd, exasperating, and oblivious as "Christine" (Pauline) may at times be, she shares the same heart and infinitely-shaded cares as her grander imaginary siblings. And how could she not?

*     *     *

In this season's revival, Mary Dunleavy stars as a beautifully-sung and essentially charming Christine. She lacks the grand self-absorption that made Lauren Flanigan the utter center of the original run, but charm and flightiness make their own sense. And if Dunleavy does not dominate, it's also because the rest of the cast--including young baritone Nicholas Pallesen, an unjustly passed-over finalist in the now-famous 2007 Met Council Finals--makes an equally strong impression, without weak links.

George Manahan gets a commendable sonic sheen from the City Opera orchestra, if not quite the strongest waltz rhythms etc. (it's neither, after all, Levine's Met nor the Vienna Phil). He does, however, share with most of the principals blame for the one noticeable flaw in this revival: despite employing Andrew Porter's English translation and an all-American cast, and despite Strauss' expressed concern for the audibility of this deliberately conversational piece's text, the comprehensible-diction percentage of the show was about 15 points lower than it should have been. (And Dunleavy was, contra Steve Smith, one of the prime offenders.) Neither conductor nor singers should be making the audience of a native-language show depend on the supertitles, and more care in holding down accompaniment volume on the one hand and emphasizing clear diction on the other would here yield big theatrical dividends.

That said, as the bottom line already suggested, there's no excuse to miss this delightful show (if the staging of the ice-skating scene doesn't win you over, you may be Scrooge). In fact, we and NYCO should also be selling Intermezzo to those suspicious of the elaborate grandeur of standard opera fare...

Carried away

Il Trovatore -- Metropolitan Opera, 10/26/2010
Álvarez, Racette, Cornetti, Lucic, Tsymbalyuk / Armiliato

Despite personal prowess in battle (he wins a tournament to impress Leonora, and bests di Luna in their duel), Manrico -- the troubadour of the opera's title -- is a terrible military commander. Assigned between Acts II and III to hold the fort his side has captured, he is baited by di Luna into ditching his positional advantage and assaulting di Luna's defensive position, with predictably disastrous results for himself and his men.

We're not really supposed to think about this, of course: we're supposed to be carried away, as Manrico's men themselves are, by his call-to-arms outburst "Di quella pira", one of the most exciting arias (well, cabalettas) in Italian opera. Indeed, Manrico and di Luna embody a classic Romantic duality (di Luna is as hapless with love as Manrico is with calculated action) in which we, like the heroine, are supposed to choose the poet. (Other Verdi operas show variants: in Ballo, for example, both sides have our sympathy; in Don Carlo(s), there is a third intermediate figure -- Posa (Rodrigo) -- bridging the worldly, unloved Philip II and the naive, all-desired Carlo(s); etc.) If, as this schema goes, full sensibility excludes full sense and vice versa, it is the Romantic task to remind us in full inspiring color what's lost in the ever-encroaching reign of the latter. If Il Trovatore doesn't -- if we more think about Manrico's blunder than we feel his rage and excitement -- it's failed.

*     *     *

David McVicar's current Met production gets this strongly correct, but the current revival cast doesn't bring it off as well as the original. The gypsies do well enough, particularly the Manrico himself, tenor Marcelo Alvarez. Vocally solid and appealing, he is nevertheless not one to carry away an audience with sheer force of sound and rhythm. But he uncannily embodies the character depicted by Gutierrez, Cammarano and Verdi: not stupid, but guided and easily carried away by strong feelings and imaginings in the moment. His reaction to his mother telling her awful tale of death and misguided vengeance? Horror and pity for her, that she must relive (and have lived) a story like that. He is too caught up in his sympathy to realize what her having tossed the wrong baby into the fire means about him. When it begins to dawn on him at last, Azucena (well knowing his temperament) distracts him easily not just with a protestation of love but by setting him off on his own exciting story -- of his duel with di Luna. Similarly his intense and fatal rejection of Leonora in the last Act, and so on. Alvarez's coherent character makes sense of moments all-too-often presented as laughable, and his presence holds the show together. And heck, he does a credible attempt at a trill in "Ah si ben mio".

American mezzo Marianne Cornetti also catches her character admirably: her Azucena is neither monster nor mastermind, but one believably weary of being pursued and driven on by a horrific past moment. She doesn't have much variety of timbre, but she sang forcefully, well, and with real forward dramatic motion nonetheless.

The rest of the cast didn't sing poorly, but none had much of that exciting unbounded spirit that animates Verdi's night story. Zeljko Lucic finally decided to show some inner bad guy, but he still didn't much energize the ensembles and more or less shouted his way (not entirely unsuccessfully, mind you) through his big aria "Il balen". Ukrainian debutee Alexander Tsymbalyuk had a nice promising sound as Ferrando, but neither his opening ghost story nor his later bits showed the relish in story-telling that Kwangchul Youn used to kick the original production off. The other debutee was Lindemann singer Renee Tatum, who made more of an impression than most (she did have that necessary fire) as Inez.

American soprano Patricia Racette, the evening's Leonora, was announced as singing sick before the show. I was disappointed -- why not hear a healthy cover, presumably Julianna di Giacomo? (In fact, at Saturday night's performance Racette actually did cancel after two acts, leaving di Giacomo to sing the last half of the show.) She sounded sick in the first two acts -- unable to sustain breaths or quite reach high notes -- and her first slow-fast cantabile-cabaletta sequence (the enraptured and excited "Tacea di notte ... Di tale amor") went for little either musically or dramatically. But Racette has always been more about pathos than musical excitement anyway, and even if she had been healthy I suspect this and the subsequent trio-confrontation with her and the two men wouldn't have thrown the sparks seen between Radvanovsky, Hvorostovsky, and Alvarez.

The second part of the one-intermission evening (the third and fourth acts) found her in much more congenial territory. Leonora's second great sequence -- "D'amor sull'are rose", the Miserere with offstage tenor and chorus, and her subsequent cabaletta -- is largely contemplative, the infinite internal pause that eventually took over romantic opera, and Racette sang it all with renewed voice and moving emotional abandon. Flat final high note of the initial part notwithstanding, this was the high point of the night.

Marco Armiliato is a very good accompanist in the pit, but his even-keeled straightforwardness is perhaps not the best fit for pushing a balky Trovatore cast forward.

*     *     *

It's not bad, on the whole, but unless there are mass cancellations the spring edition (Radvanovsky, Zajick, Alvarez, Hvorostovsky, and Levine) should bring out much more of Verdi's irresistible force.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Posts this week

I'll of course be at Intermezzo's City Opera opening today, but posts on Il Trovatore and Boris Godunov at the Met are also forthcoming.

Not (just) for children

Puss in Boots -- Gotham Chamber Opera, 10/2/2010
Mushegain, Sierra, Verm, Pfortmiller, Burdette / Goren
L'enfant et les sortileges / La chute de la maison Usher -- Pocket Opera of NY, 10/15/2010
Merdinian, Eskandani, Royal, Mitchell, Rivera, Kranak, Smith, King, Peritz, Kuttler, Hartnett, Peters, Rohrs, Bangstad, Horowitz / Hsu, Lee
Roberts, Okaly, Royal, Rivera / Hsu, Lee

October brought opportunities to see two smaller New York companies, each in a distinct phase of existence.

At ten years old, Gotham Chamber Opera is already pretty established -- artistically, at least (I don't know the finances). Its eclectic projects have been attracting well-known collaborators -- next season, for example, brings a new Nico Muhly opera co-commissioned with Opera Co of Philadelphia (and Music-Theatre Group, an organization unknown to me).

This fall's production was another eclectic blending of work and names: a children's production in a children's Broadway theater (the New Victory), featuring some theater-side folks and Blind Summit Theatre, the London bunraku puppet group remembered by local operagoers for the wooden Trouble in Minghella's Madama Butterfly. The double- and triple-cast lineup featured young singers you might see at (and recognize from) a good regional production, including (for example) one Lindemann grad and a recent Met Council winner. The rare piece, in this case, was a setting of "Puss in Boots" (El gato con botas) by Xavier Montsalvatge, a composer likely familiar -- if at all -- only from his excellent songs.

It could have been a disaster, but the disparate parts in fact added up about as well as one could have wished: the music (well led by conductor and company artistic director Neal Goren) turned out to be a sunny neoclassical romp, the singers uniformly good (this evening show starred the one Cat I hadn't previously heard, but she -- mezzo Karin Mushegain -- was quite good; meanwhile even Nadine Sierra as the Princess was reasonably tolerable for this skeptic), and -- a wardrobe malfunction for the puppet Cat notwithstanding -- the well-imagined physical comedy of the production seemed to delight both adults and children. (The absurd Alice-in-Wonderland court of the King was a nice touch.)

The only caveat? Well, it was done as a kids' show, and the very small amount of non-G rated content in the piece was altered or glossed over to that end. (The Cat, for example, does not actually kill the cute rabbits he brings as an offering to the King.) Still, it turned out to be a pleasant treat, if a sugary one.

*     *     *

Pocket Opera of New York -- a company in its second season -- took a very different tack with its children's opera presentation. The stage direction of Hofstra's Isabel Milenski magnified every bit of the inner modernist in Ravel and Colette's "L'enfant et les sortileges", turning a basically charming tale of childhood wonder (and, yes, budding sexuality and guilt) into a truly disturbing piece about the usual 20th-century hangups (sexual compulsion, violence, a bit of blasphemy...), unfit for any child's viewing. It was an interesting and memorable take, well sold by the young cast, but the whole was sort of joyless: some things are best left as subtext.

Milenski's all-out approach paid huge dividends, however, in the second part of the double bill. Debussy's partial, very free, and unfinished short adaptation of Poe's "Fall of the House of Usher" is something like a bizarro-world version of his completed operatic masterpiece Pelleas, with the fate-laden mystical space between Maeterlinck's characters warped, in the Poe, into claustrophobic madness. The performers here -- particularly baritone Ricardo Rivera, intense and commanding as Roderick Usher -- seized well on the dramatic opportunities of lunacy to put together a great short fragment of no-holds-barred opera.

PONY's youth showed in its limited resources: both operas were done before 65 seats in the back of the Bechstein (piano) Showroom, accompanied by a four-hand piano reduction rather than an actual orchestra. But the resourceful and atmospheric lighting of Lucrecia Briceno seamlessly turned the ad hoc stage into operatic spaces, and the musical preparation seemed undiminished. Anyway the company, led by director Jimmy Smith, doesn't lack for ambition: Handel's Alcina is planned for March -- in, I believe, a somewhat less tiny space.

*     *     *

All performances were in English, though several other performances of the Montsalvatge were in Spanish.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The rain in...

Cavalleria Rusticana / La Navarraise - Opera Orchestra of New York, 10/25/2010
Guleghina, Swann, Dunn, Alagna, Almaguer / Garanča, Alagna, Savage, Abdrazakov / Veronesi

Though Cori Ellison's program notes rightly note the Carmen/verisimo lineage of Massenet's now-obscure "La Navarraise", its particular Spain may remind more operagoers of Verdi's: not the courtly world of Don Carlo(s) (at the Met again next month), but the site of madness and ever-recurring battle we see in Il Trovatore (at the Met again tonight) and La Forza del Destino. (Battle sounds and effects are a prominent, elaborately-orchestrated feature of Massenet's opera.) But while in the earlier Verdi masterpieces we see madness and extremity run wild when the protective father is killed at the start, it is here the father (and the alternate father figure of the general) who not-quite-knowingly command the monstrosity. It seems to me amusingly characteristic of the worldly and very French Massenet to have chosen and made of this wild Spanish stuff a tale about, of all things, class distinction (and a woman's extreme reaction thereto). It's a good and very interesting opera, but I can see why it's not as popular as its Italian verisimo contemporaries: Massenet was neither modernist nor proto-modernist, and so presents the themes of sexual compulsion and murder (which underlie the proto-modernist verisimo of "Cav" and "Pag" as much as the high modernist Wozzeck or Lulu) with an unsettling sort of po-faced irony rather than zealous true belief.

*     *     *

In last night's performance the Massenet was preceded by Mascagni's more straightforwardly veristic "Cav", done here well in a straightforwardly veristic manner. Maria Guleghina, good to say, seems more or less to have recovered from the wretched state she showed in last season's Turandot: the top has been reconstructed and dialed back a bit, but it has renewed force, and as here as Santuzza she even showed some nice soft singing. She wasn't perfect -- the space between loud and soft has some audible gear-shifting, and as a soprano she lacks the easy low notes to make Santuzza's duets tell -- but Guleghina was solid enough, and more effective than I remember from her last Met Cavs.

The entire cast was making OONY debuts, but Guleghina and Roberto Alagna are of course more-than-familiar to New York audiences. Mexican baritone Carlos Almaguer (who seems to be a regular in German houses), on the other hand, is new -- and welcome. Though in other repertoire his intense, hyper-virile singing might be a bit much (perhaps he can also do subtle -- we never found out), it made for a gripping Alfio. Mamma Lucia was Met old-timer Mignon Dunn, and Lola was her student Krysty Swann, who packs a not-quite-finished but impressively-scaled dramatic mezzo voice into a rather-less-than-Zajick/Blythe-sized frame.

Alagna has his ups and downs, but yesterday was mostly up, climaxing with an electrifying farewell to his mother -- just the sort of melancholy he's best at.

After the break, Massenet's opera was given the straightforwardly all-star treatment one might hope for from the Met. The tenor lead (Araquil) doesn't have as much self-awareness/self-loathing for Alagna to sink his chops into (character-wise, it's more of a Filianoti role, consumed by his own emotional reaction), but he again sang well, and Ildar Abdrazakov was as usual commanding as Araquil's commanding General (Garrido). Without props or staging, mezzo star Elina Garanca (last seen, of course, opposite Alagna in Carmen) didn't really hit the closing madness of her eponymous girl from Navarre, but she certainly sang the heck out of the part.

*     *     *

Finally, Eve Queler got NEA honors last Friday, but it was new conductor and "music director designate" Alberto Veronesi who took her long-familiar place before the OONY forces last night (Queler was, of course, in the Carnegie Hall audience). She wasn't, at least in the last decade or so, as bad a conductor as some detractors used to claim, and as the recent Tsar's Bride well showed, she had a nice sense of orchestral color. One issue OONY performances did have was that tempo transitions tended toward the ungainly: Veronesi does better at this, but the approach and virtues are (so far) otherwise the same straightforward singer-supportive ones we saw under Queler.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mimi and the dwarfs

La Boheme -- Metropolitan Opera, 10/16/2010
Kovalevska, Kizart, Grigolo, Capitanucci, Parks, Shenyang, Plishka / Rizzi Brignoli

On reading the season announcement I was sure this was to be the season of Boheme. Met management had, it seemed, finally realized that they had a potential Mimi for the ages in Maija Kovalevska and engaged the lyric tenor riches of our day: Joseph Calleja (though he doesn't, unfortunately, actually sing with Kovalevska), Piotr Beczala, Ramon Vargas, all already names to conjure with -- and a wild card, former popera man Vittorio Grigolo. On seeing the first performance... Well, the Puccini magic we saw in 2008 may reappear, but it won't be for a while.

It wasn't a great day for the three debuting Italians. Grigolo has very promising sounds in his voice, to be sure, and the instrument got stronger and more authoritative as the night went along. That said, he basically ruined the night's performance. Acting and phrasing throughout with all the composure of a hyperactive squirrel, the 33-year-old Italian could neither carry a single phrase to completion without some overdone breath or dynamic emphasis nor ever (until a nice clutch with Marcello at the very last) ease up his stage fidgeting long enough to engage with his castmates. Just as he fails to join and assist Puccini's phrase-built musical framework, Grigolo disrupts the setting and story's coalescence with his monomaniacal to and fro. (His physical presence is not otherwise compelling.)

Nerves at a big house debut? Perhaps, but reports from elsewhere suggest that this is, in fact, his characteristic way. And it fits his background: the need to be maximally "interesting" moment-to-moment, the cultivation of a narcissistic stage persona -- these are characteristic of mass-market pop aesthetics, though utterly destructive in opera. (Acquired bad habits or expressions of underlying affinity? Who knows.) Perhaps he'll be able to turn his gifts to better use, but given how he's being rewarded now it seems unlikely... (And consider that he basically needs to learn how to express a musical line and how to play with others onstage -- which is to say, how to be a musician and an actor.) We'll see, but I doubt Rodolfo will ever be a good fit.

Well-traveled conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli (another debutant) seems to be a believer in flexible, ever-shifting tempi and has some ideas in this vein that either (1) have not yet been wholly absorbed by the cast and Met orchestra or (2) are a disastrously poor fit for La Boheme. Nicola Luisotti he's not, and he (or the insufficient absorption of his conception) was as much to blame for the flat evening as anyone.

The third new Italian was Fabio Capitanucci, who made little impression as Marcello. In fact, the supporting bohemians were a surprisingly flat lot -- Capitanucci (about 35) and young Lindemann singers Edward Parks (a 2008 Met Council Finals winner) and Shenyang may have interesting voices in development, but none was able to bring the sort of personality to their parts that we'll see from, e.g., Peter Mattei in February. Shenyang did nevertheless give a sensitively-felt sing of Colline's coat aria that may have been the male musical highlight of the night.

Also somewhat out of place was the fourth debuting performer, young black American soprano Takesha Meshe Kizart. She had by far the most interesting sound of the debutees, with a strong, quick-vibrato dramatic coloratura middle that suggests a big future. But though she's already singing Verdi's two Leonoras (yikes!), the top isn't fully formed (and more of a blast than seductive) and she's too well schooled to be using much chest voice at the bottom yet (so it's inaudible). Definitely one to watch -- and it was a pleasure seeing her delight at her well-cheered debut -- but Musetta isn't going to be a staple role.

*     *     *

Comparisons, then. To me the first is Massimo Giordano, who did his best to massacre the last few Kovalevska Bohemes. But the contrast is more revealing. Giordano is sort of a classic tenor ox, decent enough but bereft (so far) of ideas and grace. Grigolo is more skilled, this is clear. But Grigolo had a worse effect on the show, perhaps for that very reason. Giordano generally (though not always) knows what he doesn't know, and sticks to basic stuff. Grigolo knows a bunch of tricks, but has no clue when he's supposed (or, as almost always, not supposed) to throw them in. He thinks he's a much better musician than he is, which is deadly.

Press flattery has ventured a mention of the now-crashed Rolando Villazon. But this is silly: yes, Villazon was nervous and energetic, but that was half the story. If Villazon couldn't control his feelings or his vocal health, he always (when healthy) commanded the musical line and used his breath well to spin long phrases. And his energy was always directed and shaped into the tale, never just look-at-me restlessness.

And Pavarotti!? Only one who only remembers/imagines Pav-the-spectacle could make such a bad joke. For anyone who heard or hears his performances, the truth emerges: forget the pure stupendous sound (which Grigolo doesn't approach anyway) -- Pavarotti was great because of his incredible bel canto musicality (something he was born with and polished over many pre-superstardom years -- and something his rival Domingo couldn't match for all the latter's work and facility for learning). He was simply incapable of singing a bad Italian phrase. Nothing, absolutely nothing in Grigolo's performance last night hinted at that trait -- quite the opposite.

(Anna Netrebko is perhaps the most interesting comparison, but that's for another day. Let's just say I'll be pleased if all of Grigolo's upcoming engagements are opposite her with Domingo in the pit.)

*     *     *

If you want to hear a serious "next Pavarotti", wait until Calleja sings Rodolfo in December. If you want to hear a great performance of La Boheme, you may have to wait until the all-around casts (with, yes, great Swedish baritone Peter Mattei as Marcello) of January and February. I have no idea what the press will say, but Grigolo is certainly the weakest of the season's four Rodolfo options. There is no reason to see this show until he leaves.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

While trying to get to La Boheme...

I discover that a Michael Jackson concert has broken out.

UPDATE (10/17): Image updated.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Sooner or later

Notwithstanding all the cast changes covered in last month's season preview post, the biggest personnel change of the Met season will be on display tonight, as the new Boris Godunov premieres with Stephen Wadsworth as director instead of Peter Stein. Wadsworth's pros and cons aside, it's surely better to have Rene Pape doing the version he's done before instead of staring all night at the prompter (as he's done for new roles in the past).

I'm still boycotting Gergiev, so I won't see the show for some weeks. Readers are, of course, welcome to offer their thoughts before that in the comments below.

*     *     *

This Met season had barely begun when more news began to leak of the following years' plans. Besides, of course, the Robert Lepage Ring parts 3 and 4 -- which, given the planned use of the same high-tech unit set for all four operas, should be reasonably low-hassle -- the most striking bit might be the inevitability Sondra Radvanovsky fans have been either awaiting or dreading for years: Norma, two seasons from now. She's certainly more vocally equipped than her recent predecessors, but the show's whole success may depend on finding a Pollione who ignites her dramatic fire the way Dmitri Hvorostovsky does.

UPDATE (9PM): I really should read the news more often. Legendary Norma Joan Sutherland died yesterday.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Third Hoffmann's Tale

Les Contes d'Hoffmann -- Metropolitan Opera, 10/06/2010
Filianoti, Lindsey, Abdrazakov, Mosuc, Gerzmava, Shkosa, Sorensen / Fournillier

In 1999, Placido Domingo's Operalia competition gave prizes to three tenors -- aged 21, 25, and 27. The eldest, blessed with rare dramatic abandon and engagement, was first to superstardom -- until his intense temperament abetted a vocal crash&burn from which recovery looks desperately unlikely. The youngest -- and most sonically gifted -- is more bel cantist by temperament, and will bring his golden-age lyric tenor voice to Boheme, Rigoletto, and Lucia this winter. And the middle one, a singer with both hyper-intense and bel canto sides -- well, his fate has fallen between the others' as well.

The three took turns in this one place: each the face of the Met's Tales of Hoffmann. Rolando Villazon (the eldest) was the lead featured, with prominent pictures, in the original production announcement preceding last season. But even that was after his Lucia meltdown, and so it was little surprise when he was dropped. Joseph Calleja (the youngest) has been admirably cautious in his career development, so his taking on the long heavy role of Hoffmann (far more taxing than anything he'd done here) was a surprise... But to open a prominent new Met production (with moviecast) is something, and in fact he made a success of the actual show, one of 2009-10's highlights.

This season Giuseppe Filianoti (the middle) has taken the lead, and as I noted in the season preview, it was impossible beforehand to know what to expect. He made a worthy splash in 2005 (as Lucia's Edgardo, another common thread we'll see again in February), but the big illness-driven crisis soon after (attributed at the time to peritonitis but in fact apparently thyroid cancer) had him seemingly headed in the wrong direction even after years of recovery, with even his effective singing being more vulgar and one-dimensional than what he'd early promised. Last year's worrisome performance of Rigoletto's Duke could have portended the worst in this -- again -- much more taxing sing.

*     *     *

But we didn't get the worst of Filianoti -- we got something like the best. Not just high notes but all of his singing was fully commanded: fearless and phrased with all his characteristic intensity, while no longer lacking in grace or vocal support. Only a few on-but-raw notes near the end of the first act recalled the iffy years, but they seemed more choice than struggle. I no longer doubt his future -- or his present.

Direct comparison to Calleja is probably unfair to both. The thread of opulent sound that makes him always the center of the world is Calleja's advantage over pretty much everyone, but Filianoti's plangent tenor well grounds his complete, serious, and more familiarly dark portrayal of the Romantic poet. Calleja's Hoffmann was, on the whole, sunnier: more than a touch naive in his ever-renewed sincerity and love, he honestly could not (well) see each blow coming. Filianoti's physical and musical expressions show a more tortured soul, who jumps at each attachment half-fearing and half-expecting some familiar yet shattering disaster.

The darkness of Filianoti's Hoffmann colors the whole show, but the heroines -- three new eastern Europeans -- fit the new scheme. For Elena Mosuc (whose debut this was) this was unfortunate, because Olympia really should be more outrageously colorful. Mosuc has the notes but is still an iffy fit: the voice has a nice womanliness and is strongest below the trick top, making her probably a nice exponent of human roles (she's singing Liu and Mimi elsewhere!) but not much of a mechanical chirper. Nor does she seem a natural comedienne, being rather more earthbound with the funny robot business than Kathleen Kim (last season), Natalie Dessay, and other predecessors. Between this and Filianoti's seriousness, some of the first act's wild sparkle -- so evident in the original run -- was lost.

But the Antonia of Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava was superb. If Anna Netrebko could sing in tune... And get through the starting aria... And have a bit less bludgeoning power but also less coarseness... Ah, forget the comparison. Gerzmava's is a live soprano voice, a bit but not hugely Slavic (more like the much-missed Anja Harteros, perhaps), and pretty spacious (with some reserved force). She started out pretty but conventional and warmed up to a deeply moving death scene: one to watch.

Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa, a late replacement for Olga Borodina as Giulietta, did well in as the third-act heroine, as did Joel Sorensen as the four servants. The other major parts -- Nicklausse/the Muse and the four villains -- were familiar Met faces Kate Lindsey and Ildar Abdrazakov, singing to their usual high standard. Abdrazakov really relishes these satanic roles -- he was a better Mephistopheles than Rene Pape -- and he doesn't try to match his predecessor Alan Held for sheer dark intensity because he doesn't have to. The personal and vocal force he now commands shines throughout the show as a satanic contrast to Hoffmann and his Muse.

New conductor Patrick Fournillier shaped the piece well. Despite the relative lack of contrasting Act I joy-in-absurdity with this cast, the evening adds up to quite a lot.

(For thoughts on the production, see last season's post.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

In the beginning

Opening night has brought out, as it does, even some people who were supposed to be gone (the latter with a giant pile of news that deserves a more thorough look soon), but there isn't, in fact, much to write about. The show succeeded, because (there's no "[a]ctually" or "however"/"oddly" about it) it was quite deeply traditional, certainly more so than any Ring production you'll see outside the United States.

If we learned anything from Robert Lepage's Damnation of Faust, it was that he has little interest in the singers (and characters) in these shows except as figures in his setscapes. And if Lepage and/or the Met learned anything, it was that because of this unbalanced interest, he should be given license to create stunning setscapes -- insofar as they don't swallow the singers or their doings. Thus we got no fewer than four assistant stage directors -- and, as one would expect, no particularly singular perspective from that end of things (though there were some nice touches). It was the stage picture that was most individual.

But that, too, was largely traditional. For all the elaborate and famously expensive machinery and software used in the show, its most striking view -- the white midair bridge towards Nibelheim -- was a old-school shot of lighting and contrast. In fact, between the impressive burst of tech wizardry at the beginning (the pebble-displacing, underwater-bubbling Rhinemaidens) and the impressive wizardry-that-wasn't at the end (the Valhalla malfunction left us only with a soothing '70s-style rainbow light show as the gods walked offstage), Lepage's screens and projections became mere swirling shadow-clouds behind the gods and the detailed but static red-earth caves of Nibelheim itself, and his revolving set mostly an acoustical aid for the singers. Walls and wallpaper, in other words, and the lesson here is apparently that it's very expensive to make a unit set that doesn't look cheap or cheesy. (The men's costumes could use some help on that front, though.)

*     *     *

Given a helpful and engaging stage (and not a tyrannically overstuffed one), the singers and house directors had room to play out their mostly standard business. The here-unabashedly sympathetic Fasolt (Franz-Josef Selig) got some unexpected attention, with Freia (Wendy Bryn Harmer, making a notable impression) more sympathetic to him than usual -- and more affected by his murder. The rest of the body language was perhaps a bit too much stock-Wagnerian, but that's the Ring.

In fact, though the gods got star casting, the show was stolen by Eric Owens' Alberich, who showed enough of the divine spark for his role as the series' demiurge (it all starts, after all, with the Rhine-daughters' mostly-innocent flirting) to make some real sense. None of the others did poorly, but Bryn Terfel -- an almost literally unbelievable source of thrills in the spring's Toscas -- seemed rarely interested in what was going on, showing a bit of life only on hitting conflict near the end. But Rheingold is only really accessible to listeners familiar with the whole subsequent cycle: Terfel, I assume, will find more to his part when he learns and sings Wotan's later variations. Valkyrie does, after all, offer more red meat.

Season seven

This back-dated post indexes the blog's commentary on the 2010-2011 Metropolitan Opera season. It will be updated as new reviews are posted.

Season preview

Opening night: Das Rheingold
Les Contes d'Hoffmann
La Boheme, and a later cast
Il Trovatore, and a later cast
Cosi fan tutte
Don Carlo, and the second lead tenor
La Fanciulla del West
Pelléas et Mélisande
La Traviata
Simon Boccanegra
Lucia di Lammermoor
The Queen of Spades
Le Comte Ory
Die Walküre

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 2010-2011 season (again)

So with less than a week before Opening Night, let's see what's changed on the schedule since February, shall we? Cast alterations since the original season announcement are underlined. Commentary has been updated where necessary.

Das Rheingold (new Robert Lepage production)
Terfel, Owens, Siegel, Croft, Selig, König, Blythe, Harmer / Levine (opening night through October; March-April)
The Met's first new Ring in decades -- a big event even if Lepage's tech tricks prove to be as soporific as they were in Damnation. Every show is sold out except opening night.

Tales of Hoffmann
Filianoti, Lindsey, Abdrazakov, Christy, Gerzmava, Shkosa / Fournillier (September-beginning of October)
Filianoti, Lindsey, Abdrazakov, Mosuc, Gerzmava, Shkosa / Fournillier (October)
Mr. Borodina (Abdrazakov) still -- happily -- stars as the villains, but the lady herself is out as Giulietta. Albanian mezzo Enkelejda Shkosa makes her house debut in Borodina's place. The show's success will mostly depend on Filianoti's vocal state: when I last saw him here last year, he sounded not yet recovered from his illness-prompted vocal issues of the year before. Let's hope the big engagement is a sign there was no permanent damage. Patrick Fournillier debuts in the pit.

Ataneli, Schäfer, Meli, Silvestrelli, Surguladze / Arrivabeni (September-beginning of October)
Gagnidze, Schäfer, Meli, Silvestrelli, Surguladze / Arrivabeni (October)
Meoni, Machaidze, Calleja, Kocán, Chávez / Arrivabeni (January)
Lucic, Damrau, Filianoti, Kocán, Herrera / Luisi (April-May)
The addition of last season's baritone revelation Giovanni Meoni (replacing, as he did for his debut, Carlos Alvarez) makes the January cast now a must-see. Young Italian tenor Francesco Meli (who sang this last year at Covent Garden) makes his house debut before more familiar Dukes take over. Also debuting: soprano Nino Machaidze and conductor Paolo Arrivabeni.

Boris Godunov (new Peter Stein production)
Pape, Antonenko, Semenchuk, Nikitin, Balashov, Petrenko, Ognovenko / Gergiev (October, March)
(Rene Pape is now listed for all performances.) Pape, a bunch of Russians, and an impressive-voiced Latvian (Antonenko as the False Dmitri) try Mussorgsky. Note that Pavel Smelkov is conducting one performance each in October and March.

La Boheme
Kovalevska, Grigolo, Kizart, Capitanucci / Rizzi Brignoli (October-November)
Stoyanova, Calleja, Dehn, Capitanucci / Rizzi Brignoli (December)
Kovalevska, Beczala, Phillips, Mattei / Rizzi Brignoli (January-February)
Kovalevska, Vargas, Phillips, Mattei / Rizzi Brignoli (February)
Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais, originally in three of the four casts, is out, replaced by two Americans: Takesha Meshé Kizart (debuting) in the fall and Susanna Phillips (Musetta in the 2008 revival) in January and February. Four remarkable casts, though unfortunately Kovalevska (peerless today as Mimi) and Calleja don't sing together. Having Peter Mattei as Marcello for the third and fourth iterations is serious luxury.

Il Trovatore
Racette, Cornetti, Álvarez, Lucic / Armiliato (October-November)
Radvanovsky, Zajick, Álvarez, Hvorostovsky / Levine (April)
As good as Racette is, florid Verdi isn't her strength. Still a promising alternate fall lineup, though, before April's not-to-be-missed premiere cast reprise (this time with Levine!). Note that Julianna Di Giacomo (heard last season in Stiffelio) will do one Leonora on November 11.

Don Pasquale
Del Carlo, Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien / Levine (October-November, February)
I loathed this production when it opened, though Del Carlo did do much to make it work in his sole performance of the run. And Netrebko's bel canto outings since then have only grown more vocally iffy.

Garanca, Jovanovich, Cabell, Relyea / Gardner (November-December)
Vizin, Jovanovich, Hong, Relyea / Gardner (December 9)
Aldrich, Alagna, Kühmeier, Szot / Gardner (January)
Hong in for a pair of Micaelas (one on December 4th with Garanca as well), and the TBA Escamillo turned out to be Paulo Szot (last seen without his Nose). Otherwise it's a reshuffling of last season's Joses and Carmens, though the conductor and Micaelas aren't as exciting. It will be interesting to see how Garanca and Alagna fare in this without Nézet-Séguin.

Cosi fan tutte
Persson, Leonard, Breslik, Gunn, de Niese, Holzmair / Christie (November-December)
From Sophie to Fiordiligi? Holzmair at the Met? With Christie in the pit?
So many oddities, it almost has to work.

Don Carlo (new Nicholas Hytner production)
Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Alagna, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin (November-December)
Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin (November-December)
The Met is scrapping its finest Verdi production to bring over Hytner's cheesy Lego sets? With a great Francophone conductor and tenor and it's still in Italian? What a waste.
That said, it'll probably still be really good. (But still a waste.)

La Fanciulla del West
Voigt, Giordani, Gallo / Luisotti (December-January)
Uusitalo out, but Lucio Gallo (last seen as a mediocre Escamillo) adds no glamor to this centenary revival. Luisotti in the pit again for Puccini is a treat, but the onstage lineup isn't exactly Destinn, Caruso and Amato.

Pelléas et Mélisande
Kožená, Degout, Finley, Palmer, White / Rattle (December-January)
You'd be crazy to miss this. Probably will sell badly, though, despite Rattle and the amazing cast.

Magic Flute
Phillips, Miklósa, Thomas, Gunn, Robinson / Nielsen (December-January)
Like this season's Hansel&Gretel, this is a really good cast for a kids' version.

La Traviata (new Willy Decker production)
Poplavskaya, Polenzani, Dobber / Noseda (New Year's Eve through January)
Poplavskaya, Meli, Dobber / Noseda (January)
Decker's famous Salzburg Traviata arrives -- minus the stars (Netrebko and Villazon) who made it famous. This may be for the better.

Radvanovsky, Álvarez, Struckmann / Armiliato (January)
Urmana, Licitra, Morris / Armiliato (March-April)
Wouldn't have imagined Urmana as Tosca myself. Radvanovsky, yes. In fact, the Radvanovsky performances now look like one of the season's highlights.

Simon Boccanegra
Hvorostovsky, Frittoli, Vargas, Furlanetto / Levine (January-February)
The men's names speak for themselves.

Nixon in China (Met premiere with Peter Sellars production)
Maddalena, Kelly, Fink, Brubaker, Kim, Braun / Adams (February)
Ahh, the days when John Adams realized he needed an actual librettist.

Iphigénie en Tauride
Graham, Domingo, Groves, Hawkins / Summers (February-March)
Kitschy, over-the-top production + excellent music = ?

Fleming, Brownlee, Osborn, Siragusa, Banks, van Rensburg / Frizza (February-March)
"TBA" turns out to be Italian tenor Antonio Siragusa as Gernando (the José Manuel Zapata part in Act I). Most of the same players from the Rossini show that did well in the spring.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Dessay, Calleja, Tézier, Youn / Summers (February-March)
Dessay and Calleja should provide fireworks -- if Dessay is healthy (what's plan B?). Stephen Gaertner does one Enrico on March 12.

Roméo et Juliette
Gheorghiu, Beczala, Boulianne, Meachem, Morris / Domingo (March)
Undeterred by his inability to draw audiences from the pit in this season's Stiffelio, the Met saddles yet another impressive cast with Domingo's subpar stick work.

The Queen of Spades
Mattila, Galouzine, Markov, Mattei, Zajick / Nelsons (March)
Yet another incredible cast you'd be crazy to miss.

Le Comte Ory (new Bartlett Sher production)
Florez, DiDonato, Damrau, Resmark, Degout, Pertusi / Benini (March-April)
Don't know the piece, but the cast is certainly something.

Fleming, Kaiser, Braun, Rose, Connolly, Larsen / Davis (March-April)
The Countess is a tricky part, particularly for one of Fleming's instincts. But she did eventually make a success of the Marschallin...

Goerne, Meier, Skelton, Siegel, Fink / Levine (April)
I believe this will be Goerne's first appearance at the Met outside Papageno's bird suit. But even he, Waltraud Meier, and James Levine will be hard-pressed to sell out Berg's early modernist masterpiece -- or maybe not, considering the gratifying reception Berg's Lulu got in the spring.

Die Walküre (new Robert Lepage production)
Voigt, Terfel, Westbroek, Kaufmann, Blythe, König / Levine (April-May)
Again, an event no matter what.

Orfeo ed Euridice
Daniels, Royal, Oropesa / Walker (April-May)
Australian conductor Antony Walker debuts in the pit. Kate Royal debuts as Euridice. Countertenor David Daniels, though not lacking for fans, is vocally all wrong for the lead part.

Ariadne auf Naxos
Urmana, Kim, DiDonato, Smith, Allen / Luisi (May)
This season's revival was surprisingly good (Stemme was better than Urmana is likely to be), but Luisi in the pit adds another dimension.

Monday, September 13, 2010


For those who can't wait two weeks for Met-affiliated singing, three Lindemann singers are giving a recital at Bryant Park this Wednesday at 6.

A revised season preview post will be up soon.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

As it happened





*     *     *

If the raw truth of even modest and non-fatal events (e.g. the performances that are the usual subject of this blog) demands domestication to the polite but stupid half-truths of civilized life, so much more the shattering truth of nine years ago. There's something to be said for that (though not for those encouraging such domestication and forgetting), but not by me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A subset of a subset, part 2

Am I the only person unhappy that there doesn't seem to be an Android music player app that supports the Composer field?

UPDATE (9/3): This one seems to do it.

Friday, July 30, 2010

For those who saw the Mostly Mozart opener(s)

How was Louis Langree's "Haffner" so much more alive and spirited than his work with the Met?

(Yes, I've seen some summer operas. No, they didn't seem to require posts -- not even of the "Before I Forget" sort.)

Thursday, July 01, 2010

If it's July...

Then summer opera season must be here. Although there were some interesting local offerings in June, the meat of the reasonably-local schedule seems to arrive this month.

The Castleton Festival's Il Trittico (July 2-24), Turn of the Screw (July 3-11), and Beggar's Opera (July 15-17) (all in Castleton, VA)
Puccini invades the formerly all-Britten opera fest.

Lake George Opera's Carmen (July 8-18) and Viva la Mamma (July 9-17) (both in Saratoga Springs, NY)

Wolf Trap's Turk in Italy (July 9-13) and Midsummer Night's Dream (August 13-17) (all in Vienna, VA)

Glimmerglass Opera's Tosca (July 9-August 24), The Tender Land (July 10-August 21), Figaro (July 17-August 22), and Tolomeo (July 18-August 23) (all in Cooperstown, NY)
Lise Lindstrom looks to be promising Tosca, if you can bear another one.

Caramoor's Norma (July 10-16) and Maria di Rohan (July 24) (both in Katonah, NY)
Angela Meade as Norma.

Opera New Jersey's Don Giovanni (July 11-August 1), Don Pasquale (July 17-August 1), and Faust (July 18-31) (all in Princeton, NJ)

The Metropolitan Opera's summer recital series (July 12-29 in NYC parks)
Mostly young singers again including documentary star Michael Fabiano.

Lincoln Center Festival's La porta della legge (July 20-22)
Need more Italian contemporary opera in your life?

Tanglewood's concert Abduction from the Seraglio (July 23) and staged Ariadne auf Naxos (August 1, 2, and 4) (both in Lenox, MA)
All were supposed to be conducted by Levine, but his recovery from the latest back issue continues. Abduction, starring last summer's revelatory Lucia Lisette Oropesa, will be conducted by the Canadian Opera Company's Johannes Debus, while the first two Ariadnes gets a star replacement in Christoph von Dohnányi (the last will be led by a conducting fellow of the festival).

Bard SummerScape's Der ferne Klang (July 31-August 6) and The Chocolate Soldier (both in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY)