Saturday, June 26, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The awakening

(Another year, another post on this blog's official off-topic diversion.)

Tchaikovsky, Vsevolozhsky, and Petipa's Sleeping Beauty is, among other things, a girl's coming-of-age story: the trouble starts when she draws blood, and it's not until true love takes its step that shadows are banished and the couple can be grandly seen off into marriage by the (other) story-characters of childhood. The many young New Yorkers who took in ABT's performances (in a production much improved by editing) last week may or may not have been particularly receptive to the specifics, but I at least (since, as I've noted, I don't actually know anything about ballet) got to thinking on what characters these onstage princesses -- visions of future, past, or ideal youth and maturation, perhaps -- actually were revealing.

Monday's Princess Aurora: Gillian Murphy. She was the most teen-like of the bunch -- a happy and energetic youth, wonderfully decorative in her spirited elaborations, and remaining essentially such through trial and glory. The gravity in this particular show was offered by the Lilac Fairy, Veronika Part. If Aurora shows who a girl is and becomes, the Lilac Fairy -- who deflects and transforms Carabosse's curse and guides the Prince safely to the rescue -- shows what world we live in, by what arts happiness might be conjured. With Part's Lilac Fairy both grandeur and a certain grave wisdom make the joyful ending on which she insists all the more valuable.

On Wednesday night Part was Aurora, one full to overflowing with life and reverence: for the occasion(s), for the other participants, and most of all for the mystery and glory of the young womanhood newly shining from her in Act I, developed and deepened in the dream of Act II, and fulfilled to all promise in Act III. If the girls and boys who attended this show (even the ones who nearly wrecked later acts with poorly-timed whining) find encouragement to grow into such vivid spirits, the city will be a more interesting place.

Friday's Aurora was Paloma Herrera, another energetic youth of a princess -- perhaps (to be unsubtle) more the jock to Murphy's cheerleader/prom queen -- who again held to her basic underlying character in ups and downs. The lyrical but precise authority of Maria Riccetto's Lilac Fairy meanwhile suggested a more elegant salvation.

If Murphy and Herrera were noticeably-teenaged Auroras, Alina Cojocaru's Saturday matinee princess was very nearly a child. The poise and sweet delicacy of Cojocaru's dancing makes the first-act Rose Adagio a wonder, but after that there's nowhere else to go: her persona is not only wholesome but unblemishable and thoroughly virginal (even the offending spindle barely makes contact -- it wouldn't dare, would it?), and in the adult territory of the later acts she's got nothing to work with.

This was, in a sense, a fitting match to Stella Abrera's matinee Lilac Fairy: her victory via niceness and gently pretty dancing came perilously close to reducing the story to its Disney popularization. Abrera's earlier Lilac Fairy -- for Part on Wednesday night -- was a less happy match, with her character receding in the face of Part's huge personality.

Finally, Saturday evening brought Bolshoi star Natalia Osipova (yes, the one who got mugged earlier last week) for her first Aurora anywhere -- and despite the debut (and last-season's somewhat one-note Giselle), a more clear sense of Aurora's path than usual. This princess was the born, radiant belle of the ball -- and the town, and the kingdom -- who learned the wonder of desire in Act II before being overcome by its directed fulfillment in Act III. (Osipova here put her own personal star power to very fine use, taking it as the starting point for the character.) Her happiness was guided by the firm, minimal-nonsense wand of Michele Wiles, whose Lilac Fairy even Carabosse should have known better than to cross.

With two great and memorable danced characterizations by Part and Osipova, it was a better week than most at the Met.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

One reason to leave the Met by the plaza side...

Osipova mugged last night after Sleeping Beauty

Surprised it happened, but not surprised that it was on the Amsterdam side (the back). She must have stayed a few hours after the performance, though, since it ended before 10:30PM and not "early Tuesday morning".

Monday, June 14, 2010

The big fish

The Philadelphia Orchestra finally got a young charismatic conductor to say "yes": Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who made such a great impression here leading Carmen, is its new Music Director as of 2012. Great for Philly -- if he enjoys the meat-and-potatoes programming the locals there want. As for us, it should keep him nearby for more stints at the Met...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Before I forget (guest edition): La Scala's Rheingold

Not too far in time but rather more distant than usual in place, a reader sent this guest review from Milan on last month's La Scala Rheingold.

As this appears to have been a trial run for Pape in Wotan, perhaps his vocal success in the part means we'll see him do it here in the not-too-distant future.

*     *     *

Das Rheingold, Teatro alla Scala, May 26, 2010

One good decision in Guy Cassiers' production of Das Rheingold at La Scala was to have Alberich just be an unkempt, ordinary middle aged guy. Without the usual troll costume, this Alberich, especially as well sung and as dynamically acted by Johannes Martin Kraenzle, was the most sympathetic and interesting depiction of that character I have seen and heard. He was buffo enough to get laughs from the audience and the Rhinemaidens, but not a cartoon-ish character. Renounce love for riches? Sure, if those are the kind of bitches one runs into at the Rheinhessen, why not?!

There were other nice touches such as a cynical and dandy-ish Loge dancing in the water as everyone ascends to Valhalla at the opera's end, but Cassiers is such a literal director that he ruins the night by having ballet dancers on-stage for most of the opera miming and gyrating next to the singers, even during Wagner's evocative subterranean music for the descent to the Nibelheim. It's like Cassiers and his choreographer, Sidi Libi Cherkaoui, read a bunch of opera books which say that Rheingold is the gloomiest and least lyrical chapter of the Ring, and they believed it and needed to overcompensate by treating it like an overwrought ballet.

The worst was Cassiers' concept of Wotan as a self-effacing dead-beat which only made me wish that Rene Pape's first outing in this role was at the Met's now retired Otto Schenk production, which has the rare virtue of letting Wotan be a god. It is hard to imagine Pape getting upstaged throughout the night, but in this production, he is. His actions on stage were stiff and static, and a semi-naked hairy male dancer shadows his moves while he is arguing with Fricka. I was hoping he would kill many of the dancers with his spear, but alas, no.

Dressed in a dirty suit, this Wotan was too mortal to command any authority or awe, and perhaps too cognizant that stealing the Ring is a bad decision. It's unfortunate because Pape's Wotan is beautifully sung, and a most bel canto treatment of the part, but if he's not allowed to be a god or even threatening, he might as well be singing Rigoletto.

The bass that stole the show was Kwangchul Youn as Fasolt, who sang forcefully and with real menace. A much more dignified fellow than Wotan, his was a Fasolt of brute elegance and authority. Unfortunately, Timo Riihonen as Fafner was too light for the role.

The tenors in this production were all good, especially Stephan Ruegamer's lyrical and charismatic Loge who moved around the stage like a demented pixie. He was lucky to have no dancer assigned to him. Anna Larsson's Erda makes her entrance like a tree sprouting up from the stage, and although she was good, I wished for more authority and steeliness in her singing of this role. I had last heard Anna Samuil as Musetta at the Met in 2006 and she was an appealing and dynamic Freia worth fighting over.

Daniel Barenboim and the La Scala Orchestra gave a mostly skillful rendition and sounded great during the last the ten minutes which made one almost forget all the bad direction of the show so far. Only the opening music seemed rushed and unmagical, like Barenboim wanted to get those notes over with. Maybe waiting for the protesting stagehands (lecturing the audience) to get off the stage made him antsy.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Before I forget: The class of 2005

The Magic Flute -- Metropolitan Opera, 9/30/2009
Phillips, Klink, Maltman, Miklosa, Zeppenfeld / Labadie

The Marriage of Figaro -- Metropolitan Opera, 11/30/2009
Oropesa, Pisaroni, Dasch, Leonard, Tezier / Luisi

I suppose that after the movie more people know about the 2007 Met Council Finals than any other iteration of the event, but to my mind it was less memorable than 2005's version. Two of the 2005 winners starred in the Met's Mozart revivals this fall, with generally happy results.

*     *     *

No longer new, Julie Taymor's production of the Magic Flute has worked through its early issues to become a well-functioning Mozartean machine, quite capable of entertaining the Flute crowd without any notable stars. That September's revival had a reasonably good and interesting cast was almost incidental.

Sonically, the night took a while to get on track. Though 2007 winner Jamie Barton blended nicely with veteran First and Third Ladies Wendy Bryn Harmer and Tamara Mumford, the prince they were rescuing wasn't such a prize. Matthew Klink, who made his debut earlier in this run, was certainly audible and professional, but he lacked grace and control -- basically a drag as Tamino. English baritone Christopher Maltman, on the other hand, sang well enough but was a glummer and less comically commanding Papageno than one would have wanted. Even veteran Queen of the Night Erika Miklosa was off her usual high standard in her first-act aria.

Things improved, however, for the latter part of the show. The Sarastro -- Georg Zeppenfeld -- was the best of the male singers by far, impressing in his own debut run with the company. (He's not yet up to Pape, Moll, or the like, but certainly deserves a return engagement.) Miklosa eventually reappeared and nailed the Queen's second aria. Meanwhile, Kathleen Kim was luxury-cast as Papagena and Susanna Phillips brought some heart to the show as Pamina.

Phillips, who has since won the Met's own Beverly Sills Artist Award, made her post-Met Council debut the season before as Musetta, but of course Pamina is a much different part. There's very little showiness: a lot goes on inside her, but there's not much actual action. Phillips here not only sang beautifully but brought an appealing (neither delicate nor fire-eating) and ever-visible interiority to the character in her woe and happiness.

After last season's poor efforts in Don Giovanni, Bernard Labadie's direct and well-breathed conducting was a relief. He showed well in both the opera's expression and its gravity, not allowing Sarastro or the crowd scenes to get bogged down in over-solemnity. A good evening -- despite the Tamino.

*     *     *

As well as Labadie did, however, Fabio Luisi's Mozart conducting a few months later put it and other recent non-Levine efforts (in Mozart, at least) seem pedestrian. From the overture onward, the stick of the now-Principal Guest Conductor (a position he was announced for only after Levine's spring injury -- interview here) brought not only energy and clear textures but a rare vitality to every phrase. Though I still wish Pierre Boulez could have been convinced to do Lulu (the Boulez-conducted Carnegie Hall concert just after the last spring performance had the Met Orchestra playing better than I've heard since Levine took the Boston job), Luisi's four productions in '09-'10 were all carried off pretty admirably.

The cast was a mixed affair, with the servants doing well and the aristocrats not. The latter first. Ludovic Tezier has been a fine Marcello, but as the Count he lacked the charisma -- either vocal or personal -- to make the character's sordid lechery count for much. His wife this time was the debuting German soprano Annette Dasch, whose apparent European success I can't understand. Yes, she is attractive, has a substantial enough sound, and was certainly game and responsive in acting the Countess, but she simply could not sing the arias (or her part of the Letter Duet) in tune, coming to grief in every exposed slow part (and yes, that's most of the role). Perhaps she'll turn into a decent Wagnerian or something, but as a Mozart singer she was a flop.

Luca Pisaroni and Lisette Oropesa made a much more pleasing pair, he an earthy but musical force as Figaro, she perkily charming and able to project her personality much more strongly than in her surprise Met Susanna two years earlier. It wasn't the revelation of Oropesa's Lucia last summer in Princeton, but it was a promising indication of her delicious light lyric voice's ability to carry a lead in the big house. (If Dessay's vocal trouble continues, the Met may need a substitute Lucia...)

Also very good was Isabel Leonard, a gangly but ardent Cherubino who didn't quite eclipse recent memories of Kate Lindsey and Joyce DiDonato. Luisi and the cast made the ensembles seem effortless, making for pure pleasure outside of the Count and Countess' solo struggles.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Before I forget (a series)

There are many reasons why impressions from the season's performances don't get posted at the time, and may never go up. But -- however it happened -- this week I'll be attempting to clear out my backlog of notes, fragmentary posts, etc. by finishing and posting reviews from the just-concluded New York season before the details fall entirely out of mind. First up, tomorrow: a show from the Met's very first week.