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.