Thursday, April 29, 2010

Actually, I suspect he's right

Via Intermezzo, an interview with Marcelo Alvarez:
His greatest vitriol is reserved for opera bloggers, whose continual criticism and sniping gossip, he says, damages singers. "Perhaps you sing one bad performance and these websites attack and blow it out of proportion. They always write: bad, bad, bad!" he rants, drowning out the translator in English. "Some artistic directors read these sites and a lot of contracts go." This hasn't happened to him, and he cannot give me a direct example but, he says: "I know it has happened. This is the real cancer of our opera world."
On the one hand: responsiveness to what actually happens is good.

On the other hand: if administrators are actually dumb enough to follow the groupthink and negative one-upsmanship that dominate most opera-talk communities, they're being mind-bogglingly irresponsible.

Addicted to love

Armida -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/27/2010
Fleming, Brownlee, Banks, Osborn, Volpe, Miller, van Rensburg / Frizza

A quick post to note the remarkable form of lead tenor Lawrence Brownlee in Tuesday night's performance: contra my misgivings last time, Brownlee offered clear and impressive singing from beginning to end, with a sound that occasionally recalled the young Ramon Vargas -- himself a supreme Rossini tenor before he moved on to become the most stylish lyric voice of our time. Brownlee's acting is still pretty simple, but the comparison to Juan Diego Florez was not necessarily fair. It has seemed to me that Florez's superiority in heartfelt lyricism has gone hand-in-hand with a reluctance to stray from the sensitive lover's persona. (Perhaps his darker, less sympathetic role in next season's Le Comte Ory will change this.) Brownlee shows less finesse but handles the disparate sides (heroic, proud, love-besotted, love-detoxing) of Rinaldo's character with aplomb.

On this night, Barry Banks sang two tenor roles, filling in for the ill Jose Manuel Zapata at the start before singing his original last-act character. Also impressive, though the latter part sounded more comfortable for him.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Bryn Terfel, superstar

Tosca -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/20/2010
Racette, Kaufmann, Terfel / Luisi

As I suspected on opening night, opera isn't necessarily that complicated: bring enough vocal star power and a so-so show will ignite -- never mind everything else. Bryn Terfel brings about that much star power all by himself: the cancellation dramas and all that shouldn't, when he actually performs, distract one from the monstrously impressive instrument he has. As Scarpia he just drops all the interesting characterization that his predecessor Gagnidze offered (is Terfel just too decent to really play a man of sociopathic appetite? -- his Don Giovanni was existentially daring, not a lech), which is unfortunate but somehow irrelevant, as sheer force of sound and personality sweeps other considerations away.

On top of that was tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who wasn't much less impressive. At the premiere Marcelo Alvarez was as usual strong and well-characterized, but Kaufmann showed a wild vocal-personal force that brought down the house. His sound is (still) dark and covered, but so mobile and freely expressive despite that... A thrill to hear.

Racette, too deserves credit. I suspect Karita Mattila -- if she'd not gotten injured -- would have done well playing with and off of these two, but Racette actually did succeed, and was in good voice herself. More important than sound here is character: Tosca's mix of grand artifice and self-pity is the classic Puccinian frame into which Racette has always slipped naturally, while Mattila made listeners, at least at the opening, see her contortions in getting there.

Fabio Luisi, filling in for James Levine (also out with a back injury), conducted brilliantly. Luisi is more associated with Verdi and Strauss, and though I'm sure he's done many Toscas, his account sounded a bit like that of a man speaking in a foreign language in which he's been well-schooled: a lot of touches interestingly apart from convention in the initial acts, though not as thoroughly re-imagined in the last as Levine.

I still believe those who booed to glorify the Zeffirelli production misunderstand opera, but now I think maybe it doesn't matter. Design is merely design, but the unamplified human voice remains at the center of things.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Duty's call

Armida -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/16/2010
Fleming, Brownlee, Osborn, Volpe, Zapata, Miller, van Rensburg, Banks / Frizza

Rossini's 1817 opera Armida, like Wagner's Tristan und Isolde nearly half-a-century later, kicks off with the second meeting of a war-divided couple. In each tale, love flares up again at the reunion, against all obligation, and -- well, the resemblance isn't complete. The reunion does not, in Armida, send us all the way down the infinite abyss of Romantic subjectivity the way Wagner's masterpiece so famously does: Rossini was not so thoroughly the 19th century man, and in his work an older virtue eventually wins out. Duty, which against all sense apologizes to Tristan (showing its complete overthrow), reappears in the form of Rinaldo's two comrades, who convince (and drag) him to follow the higher, more sober road and reject the decadent love of the sorceress Armida.

But Armida herself does go down that rabbit hole, and I suspect it was her third-act-long madness in the face of abandonment that most strongly drew superstar Renee Fleming to this rarity. It is a rare opportunity -- extremity of expression in Fleming's own characteristic emotional key (as Der Rosenkavalier and even La Traviata are not) -- and she seizes it well, doing exciting credit both to herself and the underappreciated non-comic side of Rossini.

Getting there, however, takes a while. Before her last-act misery Armida is the string-puller of the story, her florid music a display and a seduction. Years of Manon, Thais, and general stardom have made Fleming happily comfortable in this sort of vehicle, but the part doesn't sit perfectly in her current voice: the fioritura is admirable but not as precise and exciting as a Rossini specialist's, and much of the part (written for Isabella Colbran, later Rossini's wife) sits low, where Fleming's sound now gets a bit mushy. Perhaps only Fleming can sell the opera, but a mezzo like Joyce DiDonato (no stranger to operatic madness herself, and one who has recently released a Colbran CD) might have made more of the first two acts.

Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, too, takes a while to hit his stride. He seemed good but not quite star-quality in his debut run as Almaviva in 2007, and I'm not quite sure this has changed. His initial recitatives certainly impressed, but the rest of the first act's obstacle course (through alternately amorous and heroic music) was more well-negotiated than compellingly characterized. Also -- though this isn't particularly his fault -- Brownlee's precise sound doesn't naturally blend well with Fleming's richer timbre in their duets. On stage there's not much chemistry either: he's slimmed a bit and looks more the romantic lead, but is not yet the expressive actor that, say, Juan Diego Florez has become.

In any case, the lead pair did well enough in Act 2, but the highlights there weren't theirs. After bass-baritone Keith Miller nearly stole the entire show as the singing and dancing leader of the rat-looking demons (pale rats in flak jackets, actually), the act's second half was dominated by the production's one great success: the ballet by which Armida entertains Rinaldo in her pleasure palace. Whether dreamed up in broad outline by Mary Zimmerman or left in ideas as well as particulars to choreographer Graciela Daniele and associate choreographer Daniel Pelzig, this part of the staging was a treat for anyone receptive to dance. At first -- and for a while -- it's a lovely comic-pastoral treatment of sensual desire, but, in a re-imagination and recapitulation of Rinaldo's situation, the gross and sinister eventually arrives, so that... Well, you should see it.

In the end, of course, Rinaldo eventually finds himself again, and the next act's heroic music when he's finally dragged back to his senses brought Brownlee's finest singing of the evening. By this point we've heard four other notable tenors: Met debutee John Osborn (who's actually been singing Rossini's Arnold in Europe) impressively forceful for his fach, Jose Manuel Zapata a bit constricted but with a pleasant darker tone, Kobie van Rensberg as enjoyable as ever after a bit of warm-up, and Barry Banks -- whom I thought, at least until Brownlee showed his stuff in this last act, might have been the better pick for Rinaldo.

(The real coup, of course, would have been Florez, who's engaged for next season's Rossini rarity but isn't in this one. Though -- as the show itself proves -- we don't lack for quality Rossini tenors, none currently can make the notes count for so much as he. Listen to his recording with Kasarova of the famous Act 1 love duet -- which on Friday went for relatively little -- for a taste of what's missing.)

Riccardo Frizza conducts well and straightforwardly, with star-quality (as usual) instrumental solos by Rafael Figueroa and David Chan. If you can stick through a slow buildup, the latter acts of this show offer both excellent singing and real dramatic reward.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wet eye, dry eye

La Traviata -- Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/2010
Hong, Valenti, Hampson / Abel

Tuesday was, for the most part, a "dry eye" Traviata night at the Met -- that is, despite much nice individual work, not wholly successful. Or perhaps I personally have been spoiled by the magnificence of Anja Harteros last season, for most of what I said in praise of Hei-Kyung Hong's Violetta three years ago still applies. She lacks force, but has the refinement and unforced, touching believability that more famous sopranos don't always have in full.

But this time it didn't add up to as much. Perhaps it was the unscheduled appearance, subbing for Angela Gheorghiu early in a run Hong was supposed to take over weeks after. Perhaps it was the further passage of time, eroding Hong's voice that small but decisive additional amount: her need to shepherd the voice through almost all of the first two acts is now quite evident. Or perhaps it was her fit (or lack thereof) with the night's colleagues. Whatever the ultimate reason(s), the show lacked the urgent energy that ignites and inflames audience emotions.

I suspect it was a combination of all these factors. Traviata needs a motor, and though that's often up to the soprano playing Violetta, a sufficiently ardent Alfredo or vigorous conductor can drive the show as effectively. Perhaps three years ago Hong's colleagues mattered less, but in her current lightened vocal state she needs assistance -- as Gheorghiu's spellbinding onstage energy does not -- and doesn't get it. Which isn't to say they're bad -- they just too much duplicate her virtues instead of complementing them.

James Valenti, one of the 2002 Met Council Finals winners, has matured into a musical bearer of the impressive liquid voice he showed eight years ago. He's perhaps a bit too musical, in fact -- or rather, perhaps too into his own musical control. Sometimes a bit of blunter, less exquisitely shaped singing would have been more effective. He's also extremely tall, which -- for the first time since John Hancock took over the Baron's part in 2006 -- took away the physical menace of Baron Douphol (whose immediate dislike of Alfredo one might take here to be the pique of a man used to towering over his rivals...).

Thomas Hampson has become a near-perfect Germont. There's something of the feminine in his virtues that doesn't quite work for Schumann's Dichterliebe (more on that later), but for this embodiment of upright society it adds an ideal touch. Hampson's Germont is a true believer, not just in the rightness of his plea (and in the order of things it represents) but in the later-proved-unfortunately-untrue assurances he offers Violetta in her renunciation. But it's the slightly smarmy Hampson manner that lets him convincingly marry this to real personal sympathy with the heroine -- and the lately-evident truthfulness of his suffering that gives his requests of her and his son real depth.

Yves Abel, the fourth conductor in this run, showed admirable refinement from the very first bars of the overture, but, while he was never quite lethargic, neither did he make up for the lack of any singer driving the onstage action (Hampson was closest, but Germont only appears for one act).

I missed this afternoon's broadcast, but it occurs to me that all the non-Hong cast might make perfect foils for Gheorghiu's opposite, un-passive approach to the Verdi classic.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What does The Nose mean?

Well, it depends.

The Nose the story/opera means a bunch of things, not least of which is the (extremely funny, in this case) reduction of man when social leverage continues to have its bite despite and because of the utter failure of rationality. That this may not be far from the true experience of Russian life -- whether in the 1830s, 1930s, or today -- is of course the point.

The Nose the William Kentridge production means, well, another bunch of things, but not least "in the beginning was the word", as public scenes of cathedral, newspaper office, and railway station are quite literally rendered from their essential texts (Bible, newsprint, and train schedules respectively). On top of this architectural language are more unruly tangles of words: borrowed, assembled, made up; in Russian, English, and a mix; texts, slogans, piled on top of graphics and each other -- and even costumes -- exhilaratingly to animate the visual face of the production. Having subtitles visible onstage (or on a little ledge below the main action) here was a neat further bit of word overflow, the opposite of Patrice Chereau's lazy/willful non-adaptation to the house for the earlier Janacek.

The Nose the first truly crossover-audience hit of the Gelb regime means, perhaps, that the outreach and cross-marketing to other culture-consumption segments -- kicked off at the very start of his tenure -- has begun to pay off. Not having a moviecast and subsequent video version was an odd outcome, however: with the production heading off to be re-mounted in France, the media cash-in may fall to another company. But perhaps the Met's retained exclusive video rights for the show's inevitable revival.

I also, as it turned out, agreed with everything in the earlier guest review.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Lonesome Ariadne

[Expect some old reviews here for a while as I clear out the backlog.]

Ariadne auf Naxos -- Metropolitan Opera, 2/8/2010 & 2/15/2010
Stemme, Kim, Ryan, Connolly, Ryan / Petrenko

Acres of velvet greeted this show on February 8, a problem the Met more or less successfully papered over by the next week. On the one hand, it's understandable: none of the principals yet has the sort of local name recognition (Nina Stemme is, of course, much bigger abroad) that puts butts in seats, while the opera itself appeals strongly to cognoscenti but is, again, unknown to the casual operagoer. On the other hand, the revival of Elijah Moshinsky's now-classic production brought together a uniformly strong cast for the most successful Ariadne here in a while.

Stemme first: best known for singing the big Wagner parts in Europe, the Swedish soprano actually made her debut here a decade ago, singing Senta opposite James Morris' Flying Dutchman. Her voice then seemed a bit small for the house, but it's now strong and full through the whole of Ariadne's substantial range.

In fact Stemme's success here was largely due to pure vocal strength. Ariadne's part (as previously noted) is half lyric solos, half Wagnerian shouting match with Bacchus, and it's in this latter part that Stemme really shines. Interestingly, the scale of her soprano allows Stemme to be more refinedly warm and vulnerable as the volume and accompaniment swells -- naturally full-voiced, she never has to just go as loud as she can to keep up.

She catches the character too, and though -- as with other recent Met Ariadnes -- the great lyric beginning is not quite tragic, not quite the lament and rapt death-invocation of a woman wholly at the end of her rope, Stemme's Ariadne is at least princely, knows herself to be born to some grand and awful destiny. Even in the forced interaction with Zerbinetta et al. that this production pushes on its Ariadne (the direction has not much changed from five years ago), Stemme does not (as predecessors did) break her character's spell -- instead, she reacts with a decided impishness that ever-more-strongly proclaims her status.

It helped, of course, that Stemme was paired with a most honest coquette of a Zerbinetta in Kathleen Kim. The recent Olympia gives us a Zerbinetta who's neither showing off nor showing up Ariadne, but living and preaching her own credo with utter sincerity -- and, despite full measure of worldliness and happy vulgarity (until the static Attila premiere, it seemed every Met production this season would have onstage dry-humping, and this revival was no exception), not a bit of cynicism or world-weariness. Those who expected a more Mephistophelean contrast to Ariadne may have been disappointed, but Kim's Zerbinetta was as memorable as her other recent outings.

The February 8 performance was, in fact, Canadian tenor Lance Ryan's Met debut. He was scheduled to begin the week before, but this revival got off to a poor start when Ryan got sick and had to be replaced by a less satisfactory Bacchus. The role is, of course, a prime exhibit for Strauss' proverbial dislike of tenors, and difficult even for the best. On his debut night, Ryan sounded so good -- clear, young, and powerful -- in his early offstage shouts of "Circe!" that his ordinary onstage singing was a disappointment. (I believe offstage parts are mike-assisted at the Met, but it shouldn't have made such a difference.) A week later he sounded reasonably good throughout.

Mezzo Sarah Connolly gave a fully realized and detailed performance of the Composer with no flaws (even the high parts that usually remind us of the part's soprano character -- Lotte Lehmann herself premiered it -- were easily handled) that lacked only the divine fire of genius.

The real strength of the Met showed in its roster of bit players for this revival. Not just the nymphs -- Erin Morley, Anne-Carolyn Bird, and Tamara Mumford -- but the whole supporting cast sang beautifully and well. Most notable among the men were tenors Tony Stevenson (the Dancing Master) and Sean Panikkar (Brighella): Stevenson excellent as ever in character parts, and Panikkar, though still not wholly refined in style continuing to show a standout clarion instrument.

Kirill Petrenko was fairly routine in conducting the previous run of Ariadne, but did better this time: though still generally taking the textural approach to the piece (like Kempe's famous recording), Petrenko didn't lack much in dramatic momentum, and brought some sensitivity to the final half-hour of Wagnerian crescendo.

*     *     *

Next May's return brings more star power, particularly in the pit with Fabio Luisi (whose Lulu this spring should be most interesting). But Stemme has become a remarkable singer, and her absence -- both in that Ariadne and in the season's Wagner selections -- is unfortunate. Of course, given last year's Ring cast shakeups, it's not impossible we'll see Stemme somehow. I'd love to hear her Walküre Brünnhilde.

[UPDATE 4/9: I'm told by someone who should know that Bacchus is not mike-aided for his initial offstage music. So more credit to Ryan, then...]

Friday, April 02, 2010

Not April Fool's

For those who were wondering, the calendar has reached April 2 and the Met website still shows Karita Mattila, apparently suffering from back issues, out of her remaining Toscas (to be replaced by Patricia Racette) and Leonard Slatkin out of the remaining Traviatas (to be replaced by a number of people including Yves Abel).

Racette has done well here in Puccini (though not so well in Verdi), so the show may still work... if the most fragile and important back at the Met -- James Levine's -- makes it back on time. Meanwhile on last night's evidence the Tosca to see in April may be in Colorado, but more on that in a full post.