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