Monday, December 26, 2011

Faust, cast 2

Faust - Metropolitan Opera, 12/23/2011
Byström, Alagna, Mulligan, Pape / Nézet-Séguin

It works, it works, it works! Never mind the vocal issues -- that Alagna is (as was announced at the worst possible time) indisposed and that Malin Byström is, um, a mezzo. Having a pair of leads actually interested in telling the story makes all the difference.

It's the virtues that stand out. Alagna in French has a conversational-improvisational way with phrases that puts even his difficulties in a favorable light. Met debutante Byström, with her lovely mezzo sound and disconnected/iffy top notes (and fake trill, which makes me wonder how the dramatic coloratura stuff she sings might go), in any case inhabits the part of Marguerite more completely and continuously -- from flightiness to rapture to... everything else -- than any predecessor I can remember, and certainly more so than the all-too-grounded Poplavskaya. Between them they bring the charge of significance to the whole of the opera, and their engagement in Act III as well as the latter acts brings out even more of conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin's magic. (This show was, I think, his finest work here since Carmen.) Even the production, for all its suboptimal choices, makes its real strength clear: an (apparently) unironic appreciation and awe for the power of traditional Christian piety. (It's not really from Goethe's text, but is much of what makes the actual opera tick.)

Vocal force for the evening was provided by not only Rene Pape but baritone Brian Mulligan, who has been singing at the Met since 2003 but got his first real solo chance here. His firm, masculine, easily Met-sized sound was the evening's revelation, and deserves more opportunities than the single cover's performance he got here.

Mulligan won't be back on Wednesday with the rest of this cast (Russell Braun, who lacked the vocal force to make an impact in Valentin's lyric parts, returns), but the magnitude of Friday's success makes the second and last Alagna/Byström Faust a must-see[-again].

The week in NY opera (Dec. 26-Jan. 1)

Another slow holiday week for opera.

Metropolitan Opera:
Hansel&Gretel (M/ThM/FM), Butterfly (T/F), Faust (W), Fille (Th), Enchanted Island (SE)
Due to the holidays there are 11am matinees on Thursday and Friday, but no Saturday matinee. The only big change from last week: the debut of The Enchanted Island, a baroque mashup on the frame of Shakespeare's Tempest. Seems promising, though as with other shows they've loaded the deck in its favor by premiering it for the New Year's Eve gala crowd.
Don't miss the second and last Alagna/Byström Faust on Wednesday.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 19-25)

'twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house(s)... Well, not much was going on. Except the usual Messiahs.

Metropolitan Opera:
Fille (M/SM), Faust (T/F), Hansel&Gretel (W/SE), Butterfly (Th)
I've heard much good about Liping Zhang's Butterfly, and with Yves Abel conducting this week and next, it seems worth a look. The big change, though, is Malin Byström's Met debut in Friday's Faust -- perhaps she and Alagna for Poplavskaya and Kaufmann will bring the non-Pape portions of the show to life.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 12-18)

Metropolitan Opera:
Fille (M/Th), Faust (T/SE), Butterfly (W/SM), Hansel&Gretel (F)
Two new arrivals: Fille du Regiment, with Brownlee and recent arrival Nino Machaidze -- unfortunately in another chirpy part not hugely suited to her serious talents -- and the holiday/English-language Hansel&Gretel. Two conducting debuts: Robin Ticciati in H&G and Pierre Vallet in Saturday's Faust. One show you should keep avoiding until Domingo is out of the pit: Butterfly.

Carnegie Hall:
Chiara Taigi recital (M)
Iestyn Davies recital (Th)

Taigi, the winner of OONY's Vidda Award and Selika in that company's March L'africane, sings operatic material accompanied by Eve Queler and some OONY players; Davies -- the better (and not entirely by default, though Scholl was poor indeed) countertenor in this season's Rodelinda -- offers British and German songs and some new traditional-song arrangements by Nico Muhly.  Both of these are in the small Weill hall.

Avery Fisher Hall:
Little Orchestra Society Amahl and the Night Visitors (Saturday 11am/1pm)
Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera, for kids.

Monday, December 05, 2011

The week in NY opera (Dec. 5-11)

Metropolitan Opera:
Butterfly (M/F), Faust (T*/SM), Rodelinda (W/SE), Boheme (Th)
Madama Butterfly appears for the first time this season, but with Placido Domingo in the pit. He still can't conduct, and his presence in the month's-end Handel mash-up likely isn't selling any further tickets, so why is the Met still (embarrassingly) indulging him? Meanwhile with Faust and Rodelinda so imperfectly cast, the one show of note this week may be the last Boheme of the season. Sopranos Hibla Gerzmava and Susanna Phillips are marvelous therein, and though the men aren't really up to the bohemiennes' standard (lead tenor Dmitri Pittas seems either unwell or to have developed flaws in his voice he hadn't previously exhibited), they're fully in the show's spirit. Backed by Louis Langree's well- and much-shaped conducting, it's a "wet eye" run despite all flaws.
* Tuesday's (starred) Faust is the one just before this Saturday's matinee moviecast, which means that the camera equipment and lights will be out in force. Do not sit in side orchestra, front orchestra, or side parterre -- the house is not interested in optimizing patron experience on these nights, but in making the eventual broadcast go well.

Carnegie Hall:
Karita Mattila recital (SE)
Even if the material (French stuff, Sallinen, and Joseph Marx) isn't necessarily that interesting, Mattila herself always is.

DiCapo Opera Theatre:
Iolanta (Th/SE)
A new production of Tchaikovsky's one-act opera.

Friday, December 02, 2011


Faust - Metropolitan Opera, 11/29/2011
Poplavskaya, Kaufmann, Braun, Pape / Nézet-Séguin

If all's well that ends well, this new Met Faust was a worthy success: the final scene, as often, wrapped things up in excellent style and strong feeling. But before that...

This time it's not at all Rene Pape's fault. Since his participation as Mephistopheles in the previous Met Faust's premiere six-and-a-half years ago, Pape has actually learned the part and made it -- and the opera -- his. No longer does he stand, wait for the prompter, and sing: now we see the full range of Pape's sounds, moods, and personality, and he rules every scene he's in.

Nor is it the fault of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who again conducts excellently, nor even of baritone Russell Braun, who is decent if undistinguished as Valentin. Mezzo Michele Losier in fact shows well in her small part (Siebel).

No, the main problem here lies with the two lovers, who between them had neither chemistry nor lyric feeling. As Marguerite, the now-ubiquitous Marina Poplavskaya was a pretty good Jenufa. With Jonas Kaufmann -- well, like one of those eye trick images, now that I've seen him as flawed I can't un-see it. Here he was strong, correct, but uninspired for the first Act, crooned awfully in the love duets for the next Acts, and launched some impressive climactic high notes for the last two. So the show's last part -- with Marguerite dramatically distraught and Faust given phrase-capping high notes -- played to their strengths, but the entire romance arc about which the story revolves was, well, nonexistent, flat, and boring. It's not really clear to me why either of these singers is even doing these parts: lyric phrasing & lines are not the pair's strength.

Des McAnuff's new production doesn't really demand much comment. There's a bit of a "concept" frame, but it's fairly innocuous as far as such things go, and is a decent fit for those modern folk who -- like Goethe himself -- have a hard time really believing in damnation or tragedy proper. The main problem is that it's ugly -- the green lighting for the Walpurgisnacht was a big mistake -- and looks cheap, more on the ENO budget scale (where, in fact, the production originated) than the Met's. It's not as stupid as the Andrei Serban production it replaced, but that had a crude vulgar vigor that this sadly lacks. We saw it at curtain call, where the production folks were neither particularly bravoed nor booed, but mostly given polite, dead applause. Yes, it's not even worth booing.

I did like debuting choreographer Kelly Devine's "Thriller"-zombie dance during the Golden Calf song, though.

*     *     *

This was, of course, supposed to have starred Gheorghiu and Kaufmann -- before Gheorghiu got tossed in the lead-up to another Gounod opera (Roméo et Juliette) last season. Even if she can't actually sing the part these days (and maybe she can), one can't help but think that Gheorghiu would have again at least made Kaufmann more interesting.

Wait for the next casts -- perhaps Swedish newcomer Malin Byström is the Marguerite that Poplavskaya is not. But do see Rene Pape before he goes, even if his replacement (with the Calleja cast) is the ageless Ferruccio Furlanetto.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Being Angela Gheorghiu

Adriana Lecouvreur - Opera Orchestra of New York, 11/8/2011
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Rachvelishvili, Maestri / Veronesi

I had not rushed out this review because, among other things, I'd thought it self-evidently the first great night New Yorkers have had this season. Apparently this sentiment was not universal, but that's opera fans for you.

From audience response in the hall, one might have thought the prime success to be Jonas Kaufmann's. Contra Maury, though, I disagree. Kaufmann -- both in voice and phrasing -- sings in grand fragments that for many (most, perhaps, given his current popularity) suggest, like some ancient ruin, a grander whole than can any full rendition. But it's not a full rendition, and as impressive and impeccable as Kaufmann may be at climaxes and as much as his characteristic persona may bolster this fragmentarily-presented grandeur, Kaufmann frustratingly leaves a lot of musical and expressive possibility on the table.

No, the evening was Angela Gheorghiu's, and thoroughly so. With Gheorghiu -- more than any other singer I can think of -- the process of her art is visible on the very surface. Results vary: where, as in Boheme, simplicity is wanted, it's not really within Gheorghiu's power to deliver. On the other hand, in a more fit part (like Rondine's Magda) Gheorghiu's hyperdeveloped artifice -- and the peculiar form of sincerity with which it fits -- can be near-incomparably rewarding. It doesn't have to be the most elaborate part: layering her high-stakes business into a part can give even the rustic duality of Elisir's lead flirt Adina unexpected and moving depths. But in fact Adriana Lecouvreur is the ideal Gheorghiu part, even more so than Rondine... or at least it was on this occasion.

Gheorghiu and Kaufmann in fact did the piece a year ago in London, to I believe good notices -- though not necessarily so good as to overshadow the cancellation drama associated with the run. Here, at Carnegie Hall, liberated from repetition and staging and all of the machinery of a full opera production in a house, we got face to face with Gheorghiu's full engagement in a role.

Adriana, like Tosca, is a performer, a theater person full of great impractical urges and moods. But unlike Tosca (who is caught in Real Events and does not do well), Adriana lives -- for the duration of the opera -- in a world suited to her character if not her happines: a back- and around-stage world that's all intrigues, rivalries, and passions. In this world she is (and can be without ridiculousness) both naif and intriguer, priestess and victim, exalted and humble. Her apparent rivalry with fellow-actress Duclos turns out to be imagined, but the hidden one with the Princess de Bouillon turns out be real -- and fatal.

It's this rivalry that defines Adriana, and I think attracted Gheorghiu. Love is the prize, but the fight itself is on the social battleground of status. Here Adriana is the underdog: her artistic prowess is acknowledged and gives her a place, but it's a vague, amorphous one, not to be set easily in that world against the grand eminence of the Princess. And yet she wins: humiliating the Princess in the latter's own home and, eventually, getting her high-noble beloved to ask for her hand in marriage outright, political consequences be damned. But then she dies, because one in her position can't have a more-than-transitory victory... or something like that. (It's usually best not to dive too deeply into the "why"s of a Scribe story.)

Gheorghiu, an underdog romantic heroine? One might have struggled to believe it during that London run, not only for her elaborate and visible style but for the obvious worldly superstardom decorating all her appearances. But on this night, in New York, in her first show here after publicly becoming persona non grata at the Met for the second straight administration, one could believe... well, not perhaps that Gheorghiu was today a humble and humble-born servant of the muses with no solid place in the world, but at least that she might sincerely see herself that way, or want to, even as she wove her elaborate magic.

And weave she did, from Adriana's wonderful entrance song, wonderfully presented, to a final-act love duet with Kaufmann so compellingly sincere (on both sides -- in stark contrast to what we saw from Kaufmann on Tuesday) that I wondered if we weren't witnessing something a public really shouldn't. It's for triumphs like this that Gheorghiu's name was made, and will perhaps be remade again here.

*     *     *

Anita Rachvelishvili's retro presence (last seen here in Carmen with Gheorghiu's on-off-and-is-it-on-again-now spouse Roberto Alagna) was an excellent foil as the Princess. The young Georgian mezzo's voice isn't quite settled at the top or bottom extremes, but the sheer consistent weight and texture of the sound and her fiery way with a phrase made her a joy to hear throughout. Also welcome was baritone Ambrogio Maestri: his pleasant sound and humane touch as Adriana's mentor and secret admirer rounded out the show well.

As for the opera, well, it is pretty much nonsensical in its actual turns, but the scenes it provides are all effective and dramatically sensible as they come. Maury's comparison to Gioconda is fair, though a great Adriana -- as here -- provides a unity to the piece that's difficult with the Ponchielli opera.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 28-Dec. 4)

UPDATE 11/30: spotted Sunday's event on my calendar this time

Metropolitan Opera:
Boheme (M/F), Faust (T/SE), Rodelinda (W*/SM), Satyagraha (Th)
Tuesday is the gala Met premiere of Des McAnuff's ENO-import Faust, with Jonas Kaufmann as the first of the show's three star tenors this season. In Levine's extended absence, Yannick Nézet-Séguin's work therein may turn out to be the first conductorially-exciting event of the season. Meanwhile, those interested in Rodelinda should be careful: Wednesday's (starred) show is the one just before this Saturday's matinee moviecast, which means that the camera equipment and lights will be out in force. Do not sit in side orchestra, front orchestra, or side parterre -- the house is not interested in optimizing patron experience on these nights, but in making the eventual broadcast go well.

Carnegie Hall:
Ian Bostridge recital (M)
Collegiate Chorale Moïse et Pharaon (W)

Bostridge's main-hall appearance is accompanied by composer Thomas Ades, whose own work is on the program, helping to balance by obscurity some well-known peaks of the song repertory (Schumann's Dichterliebe and part of Schubert's Schwanengesang). But the really elaborate rarity is on Wednesday, with a concert performance of Rossini's opera in French. The cast includes James Morris, Angela Meade, Marina Rebeka, and others...

Alice Tully Hall:
Michele Losier recital (Th)
The French-Canadian mezzo (a Met Council finalist some years ago) sings an all-French program.

Frick Collection:
Renata Pokupić recital (Sunday 5pm)
Schumann, Faure, Kunc, Barber, and Weill.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 21-Nov. 27)

As one might expect, it's a slow schedule this Thanksgiving week.

Metropolitan Opera:
Boheme (T/F), Rodelinda (W/SE), Satyagraha (SM)
Local favorite Hei-Kyung Hong as Mimi on Tuesday; exciting Russian newcomer (last seen as Hoffmann's Antonia) Hibla Gerzmava for the rest of the run beginning Friday.

Safe travels and happy Thanksgiving to all!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The new emperor's shirt

Rodelinda - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2011
Fleming, Scholl, Kaiser, Blythe, Davies, Shenyang / Bicket

The Met premiere run of Handel's opera seven years ago occasioned this blog's first review, largely concerned with the scandal of David Daniels -- that show's Bertarido -- offering less to the ear than any other big-name, critically praised lead singer (who hadn't wrecked his/her voice between hiring and performance, that is). But even the 2004 Daniels would have been preferable to last night's version of Andreas Scholl.

It's not that Scholl can't sing. He can, and he phrases well. It's just that his voice is too weak to carry a lead at the Met, both in timbre and in force. The latter was particularly evident in "Vivi tiranno", Bertarido's climactic last-act aria, which struggled dreadfully to be heard even over Harry Bicket's modest and well-conducted Handelian forces, but the lack of even an approximately distinguished tone-quality was just as damaging throughout. Perhaps his voice has had better days, but at the moment Scholl is doing the house and this revival a disservice.

As in 2004, the secondary countertenor outshines the lead. Iestyn Davies, in his Met debut, shows as clear and full a sound as one can expect from this characteristically monochromatic voice type along with good musicianship. I'd call it a promising debut except that the inauthentic practice of using falsettists in Handel seems to me as unwise now as it was in 2004 (or, indeed, 1725). If I must hear a countertenor somewhere, though, Davies is clearly a better option than Scholl (notwithstanding the latter's fame).

If Renee Fleming's voice sits more comfortably in the title part now than it did in 2004 (when the role was unflatteringly low), her style has this time slipped into the phrase- and pitch-bending stylings that make purists furious. I wasn't furious, but I wasn't thrilled either.

Most affecting and involved, perhaps, was tenor Joseph Kaiser. I would never have guessed him to be a notable Handelian, but he sings both with clean technical skill and the full measure of Grimoaldo's torment in his crucial last-act monologues. What Kaiser doesn't have is a true star-quality sound to amplify these other attributes into an unmissable whole. (It is still, let's be clear, an order of magnitude better than Scholl's.) Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang does have a star sound -- I've witnessed it elsewhere, and he won Cardiff for a reason -- but he still hasn't quite worked out how to produce and use it consistently over the course of a full production at the Met.

Closest to a full-spectrum success on the night was, of course, Stephanie Blythe. But by Blythe's standards it was an ordinary success, not outsized like her Orfeos or the mini-roles in Trittico. This is one show she can't singlehandedly carry.

Stephen Wadsworth's production has had its original nonsense (gratuitous chest-baring, etc.) mercifully excised and stands as a fine example of his work. But since when does a director get a curtain call for a show's second revival!?

*     *     *

Like Don Giovanni earlier in the year, this would have been a much better production with, say, Susan Graham starring instead of the European import.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The week in NY opera (Nov. 14-Nov. 20)

Not much to my taste this last week before Thanksgiving. Those excited by Handel or new works may feel differently.

Metropolitan Opera:
Rodelinda (M/SE), Satyagraha (T/SM), Nabucco (Th), Boheme (F)
Rodelinda (with Fleming and Blythe) and La Boheme (with a lesser-known cast) make their first appearances this season, while Nabucco closes (Guleghina's already gone, but Lee and Lucic remain).

Carnegie Hall:
The Theater of Early Music Handel arias/duets (T)
Baltimore Symphony Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher (S)

The former ensemble is countertenor Daniel Taylor's, and he alternates and duets here with soprano Deborah York.

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (899 10th Ave.):
Dark Sisters (T)
Final performance of the premiere run.

Juilliard School (Peter Jay Sharp Theater):
Kommilitonen! (W/F/SuM)
US premiere of this piece by Peter Maxwell Davies and librettist David Pountney. I suppose the student theme of the piece is in accord with its commission by Juilliard and London's Royal Academy of Music.

Rubin Museum of Art (150 W. 17th St.):
Numinous City (W)
Concert performance of Pete Wyer's work in progress. Includes a panel discussion with the artists and the main character -- and, for a bit more, a guided tour of the Himalayan-focused museum by said main character (a former Tibetan nun) (!).

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Becoming who they are

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera, 10/28/2011
Meade, Costello, Abdrazakov, Gubanova, Mumford / Armiliato

Il Barbiere di Siviglia - Metropolitan Opera, 10/29/2011
Pogossov, Leonard, Kudrya, Muraro, Ramey / Benini

It's a treat to hear what soprano Angela Meade has become. I'd somehow missed her several Met appearances since the famous 2007 Met Council Finals that opened the door to the 2008 emergency substitution that launched her career here. At the time she was a work in progress, the impact of the sound not quite matching the dramatic coloratura repertory she would have to sing. Four-and-a-half years later and her voice is a formidable whole, totally focused and clear from top to bottom and a pleasure to hear at all times. Most impressive, to my ears: the absence of the typical young singer's reluctance to really sound chest notes. On the other hand, the top is nice but not (as with other singers) climactically outstanding, and the trills this time were rather fakey, but that's nitpicking. Meade can really sing any of these parts, and I'm looking forward to her run of Ernani (with, for three of six nights, last season's very good emergency tenor debutant Roberto di Biasio replacing the tragically dead Salvatore Licitra) in February.

Stephen Costello also first stepped on the Met stage in 2007, in his case as Arturo in the Met's opening-night debut of the current Lucia. His expressive middle voice made quite an impression that evening, and it again serves him well here. His high notes, however, aren't made of the same stuff, and we'll see if the early bel canto tenor stuff that highlights them will continue to be for him.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov not only sang well but looked perfectly like Henry VIII, bass-baritone Keith Miller impressed again as Anna's brother, and mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova (as Jane Seymour) made a nice foil to Meade in this bigger chance than her debut as Giulietta. Marco Armiliato conducted, as ever, with a firm and helpful hand.

With all these really good voices present, it's either to the glory of this house or the absurdity of its and the opera world's casting system (and, to be fair, lack of feature parts) that the greatest, grandest sound and singing of the show was in the small if significant pants part of Mark Smeaton. I've known that young mezzo Tamara Mumford would be fantastic from the very first time I heard her sing, but whether she'd be recognized and allowed to fully show her talents -- that's still to be seen.

What did the evening lack? Drama, more or less. Donizetti and Felice Romani provide some charged scenes (of which the performers made much) but the whole -- basically another court cautionary tale -- doesn't hold together particularly well. It isn't helped by David McVicar's production. Unlike his bold and vigorous Trovatore, McVicar's work here is bland and monochrome: a more tasteful version of what Nick Hytner gave us in last year's Don Carlo. The fact that drives the story -- Bolena, in a classic tragic trope (see Simon Boccanegra, for example), is herself a usurper, as the chorus reminds us at the very start, and her downfall comes from and with regretting that initial choice -- is dulled and obscured by the all-too-tasteful (if also nicely girth-obscuring) costuming and absent character-direction.

*     *     *

The next evening's Barber was a similar tale on a lesser scale. Isabel Leonard's mezzo was more defined and interesting than I'd yet heard, and though she can't singlehandedly carry a Barber in the same way as, say, DiDonato she's definitely a plausible major-house lead. Debuting Russian tenor Alexey Kudrya has some nice sounds in the middle but the top is actually sort of a trial, making Rossini not the best fit. Whether Cessa piu resistere (the final-act aria, used to better effect by the heroine as Cenerentola's finale) was cut because of this or some other reason I'm not sure. Rodion Pogossov is a decent "busy" traditional Figaro (though, obviously, no Mattei), and I enjoyed the professionalism of Maurizio Muraro's comic work as Bartolo. Samuel Ramey is still trooping on, though at this point he sounds depressingly like the old version of Paul Plishka (who himself was rather better in his youth).

The week in NY opera (Nov. 7-Nov. 13)

UPDATE (11/12): Not sure how I missed tonight's Angelika Kirchschlager recital with Thibaudet at Carnegie. Nor had I seen that I'm quoted in the recital series brochure...

A number of new opera offerings this week, as well as the usual Met stuff and a big OONY event.

Metropolitan Opera:
Don Giovanni (M/F), Satyagraha (T/SE), Nabucco (W/SM)
Siegfried has come and gone (post later today), as have Maria Guleghina and Yonghoon Lee in Nabucco. With Kwiecien's Giovanni disappointing (again, more later) and Gerald Finley's last version -- admittedly in a long-ago production -- almost unwatchable, that opera is less promising for the rest of its run as well.

Carnegie Hall:
Opera Orchestra of New York Adriana Lecouvreur (T)
NY Lyric Opera Theatre Mozart selections (SE)
Amigos De La Zarzuela Zarzuela concert (Sunday 2pm)

If you're (understandably) finding the Met week a bit short on star power, Tuesday night's OONY performance with Gheorghiu and Kaufmann may be the thing. The other events are considerably more modest, both in the small Weill space.

Cary Hall, The DiMenna Center for Classical Music (450 West 37th St.):
American Lyric Theater The Poe Project (Th)
I reviewed, several years ago, an early public event in ALT's "Composer/Librettist Development Program". This seems to be one of that program's subsequent fruits: a concert presentation (with full orchestra) of three short operas on a Poe theme, set to texts by three of the librettists from that initial debut -- Quincy Long, Royce Vavrek, and Deborah Brevoort.

Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College (899 10th Ave.):
Dark Sisters (F/SE)
Premiere of Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam's new opera. According to the press blurb:
In a world where personal identity is forbidden, Dark Sisters follows one woman's dangerous attempt to escape her life as a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous sect based in the Southwestern United States.
This material doesn't seem the most promising basis for an opera, but who can really know in advance? Very good young cast.

Bruno Walter Auditorium (Amsterdam Ave. entrance of Lincoln Center's library):
New York Opera Forum Il Trovatore (Sunday 1:30pm)
Young singers, concert version.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The stranger

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 10/31/2011
Kwiecien, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas, Bloom, Kocan / Langree

Those hoping that the originally-scheduled lead of this new production to provide a more integrated portrayal of Giovanni than his predecessor were not, unfortunately, so rewarded. In fact Mariusz Kwiecien seemed to be in a different show altogether. Not for him the telling and interesting interactions with the human environment Grandage so nicely places around Don Giovanni, the world the unscrupulous nobleman was born to enjoy and exploit -- nor even the thrilling opposition to its norms with which Bryn Terfel made such success a decade ago (as one can see on DVD). Kwiecien's Giovanni is neither suave nor malevolent, energized neither positively nor negatively by his milieu, interested neither in the surrounding women, bantering with Leporello, nor food & drink (he, unlike Mattei, never actually eats during the dinner scene), and mostly notable for aloofness and bursts of blank anger. A dangerous man, perhaps in line with current "realistic" ideas, but the take is uninteresting, unrewarding, and quite at odds with the production. He sang well, but not well enough to make up for all of this. Perhaps lingering back pain was to blame? I suspect and fear not.

The decision to first cast Kwiecien -- and to put him up front in the moviecast -- makes even less sense when one sees him standing a head shorter than Pisaroni -- with whom, despite all rehearsal, there's not much chemistry. Very odd.

The rest of the cast was mostly unchanged. New conductor Louis Langree was good, catching the spirit of the piece much better than in his last run.

*     *     *

Reader Carol Prisant wrote, about my original review post:
At Don Giovanni last night, I took particular notice - per your complaint - of the Commendatore's costume. There's more of a rationale for the "skeleton" effect you observed than you may have realized, because that's actually silver passementerie on his uniform, and it appears on his cuffs as well. I think the intention may have been to suggest a corpse, but the gentleman remains a commander, even in death.

That aside, I agree with your general assessment of this production. (You might have mentioned Ramon Vargas, though. The best Ottavio I've heard in years!)
I do agree that Vargas has been great, and Mattei's absence this time really made the show his. As far as the Commendatore, though, I think this officer idea is the intention (and a sensible and clever enough one in theory), and when one looks for it one can see traces on the cuffs, but absent similarly silver epaulettes it's difficult to see anything but the bad Halloween costume in his whole figure. One hopes this will change sooner rather than later.

Far from the madding crowd

Siegfried - Metropolitan Opera, 11/1/2011
Morris, Voigt, Terfel, Siegel, Bardon, König, Owens, Erdmann / Inouye

Despite the substitutions, despite the almost comically literal visions for which Robert Lepage deployed his huge mechanical-technical apparatus, despite the heavyhanded video crew that ruined far too many seat views and nearly ground the show to a halt with a series of loud camera orders during the performance, and despite the production mishap midway through Act III that, among other things, caused Brünnhilde to have to walk across the stage, sans armor, to her resting spot -- well, despite all of that, this Siegfried was the success of the season, the first real touch of opera's divine spark.

The substitutes, first of all, did well. American tenor Jay Hunter Morris doesn't have the prettiest natural sound, but it's decent enough, hardly ugly, and sounded well over the orchestra. The performance itself was better than that: Morris sang through the entire daunting part of Siegfried without deterioration or faking, flagging neither for the declamatory forging song in Act I, nor the lyrical reflections and duet with the bird in Act II (though this was the hardest), nor the final duet with the vocally fresh Brünnhilde. His character's enacted boyishness is a bit one-note -- missing the subtle variations and responses of Christian Franz -- but it does fit. Conductor Derrick Inouye, meanwhile, shaped each line -- and the piece as a whole -- both beautifully and urgently. It didn't have the layers of texture and overall sound that Levine's Wagner has brought, but the orchestra played very well for him, and I'd be surprised if Luisi's performances were much better.

It's surprising how well this second iteration of Brünnhilde fits Deborah Voigt's new voice. The unhappy tones at the top still crop up, but the weight of the voice is still solid through the part's range, and she does pretty well with the shifts in mood. Bryn Terfel is somewhere between his Rheingold and Valkyrie selves: vocally strong, as in Valkyrie, but not quite engaged with what's going on, as in Rheingold. He's still finding his way through the Ring, so the next rounds may be better. The supporting men are again excellent -- Eric Owens still good in a smaller Alberich appearance, Gerhard Siegel an interestingly Beckmesserian Mime, and Hans-Peter König with a proper Fafner voice.

The decision to have König appear transformed back into giant form and give his dying words on stage and unamplified was about the only notable good decision in this new production. At this point one it's all what one expects, and though there aren't any big insights (obviously) or any visual marvels (unless a scheduled one failed to appear when the apparatus went wrong in the last act), it's all pretty enough and doesn't get in the way of the tale.

And what a tale! Seeing Siegfried solo, not sandwiched between its more famous relatives, this time brought the series' quirks better into focus. For Wagner's uneasy relationship with civilization -- so unbearable to see in Götterdämmerung -- is as evident here as in that sequel, if more benignly. Siegfried grows up -- wins greatness, fortune, and a bride -- without ever actually meeting anyone or even being seen by anyone not directly tied to his story. This makes some mythical sense (though the Boy Who Went Out To Learn Fear did so in a much more recognizable and populated world), but is not at all in accord with man's traditional story, in which civilization appears, if nowhere else, as the great testing ground and obstacle to love. Wagner knew this well --- he wrote that story himself as well, in Meistersinger (positive, as Sachs navigates Walther through the tight-knit city world) and Tristan (negative, as duty and Melot's searching eye twice halt the course of love at first sight), the two operas he wrote between the acts of Siegfried. But he simplified the course of things here nonetheless.

Why? The answer, I think, goes both forwards and backwards. Looking ahead, we see in the sequel that Siegfried, for all his one-on-one/face-to-face prowess, is fatally undone in his very first contact with civilization, quickly becoming a pawn of Gibichung intrigue. Wagner, having started from this conclusion (writing his libretti backwards, from the only actual source material, before writing the music forwards), needed to round out Siegfried's original path for a fully rounded story, and did so quite well. That seems sensible. But going backwards, one wonders -- why did Wagner begin from this conclusion? For the most strange thing about the Ring, which one immediately notices even without being able to put one's finger on it, is that although it often touches on and discusses clans and civilizations, and though it contains a lineup of characters recognizable therefrom (Fricka, as I've noted, isn't all that distant from papa Germont), the cycle itself doesn't, until the all-too-Meyerbeerian final installment, actually present any such thing on stage. Nearly all significant action is through intimate dialogues, Wagner's strength from the beginning... In fact, if we look at his output, we see that Wagner was really bad at public scenes: blustering too much, never quite conveying the shifting moods, the quick full joy and rage and sorrow of a crowd as Verdi and his Italian predecessors so naturally did, and never really showing anything except a contest. (The great and awful success of Meistersinger is in expanding that entry point -- the contest -- so much that it can encompass everything else that's human.)

The interesting thing, then, is that Wagner ended up -- for whatever reason -- attached to a scene and a topic contrary to the natural course of his talents. So perhaps that's how we should take his statement about "the characters owe[ing] their immense, striking significance to the wider context": that he could literally not stand writing this Germanic-civilizational nonsense without elaborating beforehand in a way more in accord with his inclinations. Only after taking the story back before the dawn of time, writing prehistory after prehistory without the burden of recognizably organized human relations, could Wagner get around to confronting the civilizational question, providing both his yes and no, and writing amazing music to the dramatic mess he'd created for himself in the more confused state shown by Götterdämmerung's (again, all-too-Meyerbeerian) libretto.

And so: Siegfried, who here stands happy, as great as he can be, without and before any entanglement in the vaster/smaller, more complicated world his creator afterwards felt obligated to address. In here, instead: birds, dragons, wicked stepparents, and the love of one who waited just for him.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Notes on the first month of Nabucco

Maria Guleghina: indeed rejuvenated after a scary low two seasons back.
Yonghoon Lee: a young Corelli!?
Paolo Carignani: nicely idiomatic, as in his 2008 Traviata debut.
Everything else (including chorus and nominal lead Zeljko Lucic): rip-roaring success in this new Met warhorse.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The week in NY opera (Oct. 31-Nov. 6)

Metropolitan Opera:
Don Giovanni (M/Th), Siegfried (T/SM), Nabucco (W/SE), Satyagraha (F)
Louis Langree conducts the final four fall Don Giovannis, with one hopes more vigor than his last run in the show. Derrick Inouye and official Levine fill-in Fabio Luisi split the last non-Ring Siegfrieds (the moviecast of which is this week's matinee). Wednesday's Nabucco is the last chance to see Maria Guleghina's Abigaille this season, while Saturday's is most notable for starting at 9pm (!!!). Satyagraha -- in a striking production -- begins a seven-show return to the Met on Friday.
I'll be at at least one of each except Satyagraha, so more thoughts on those afterwards.

Carnegie Hall:
Remarkable Theater Brigade: Opera Shorts (F)
The Opera Shorts program (in the small Weill hall) is, as you may guess, a pile of short new operas, in this case by William Bolcom, Tom Cipullo, Jake Heggie, Marie Incontrera, Mike McFerron, Christian McLeer, Anne Phillips, Patrick Soluri, and Davide Zannoni.

Avery Fischer Hall:
Richard Tucker Gala (Sunday 6:30pm)
Yes, it's the annual Tucker Gala, with all the stars in or available for the city at this time of year. Scheduled this time: Blythe, Giordani, Guleghina, Yonghoon Lee, Lučić, Pape, Poplavskaya, Terfel, Zajick, and this year's honoree Angela Meade, just off some impressive Puritani performances (more on these soon).

Andras Schiff plays, among other things, Beethoven's Diabelli Variations on Carnegie Hall's big stage Monday night.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The week in NY opera (Oct. 24-30)

And tenor week begins! If only Roberto Alagna could have scheduled something here this week as well...

Metropolitan Opera:
Anna Bolena (M/F), Don Giovanni (T/SM), Barber (W/SE), Siegfried (Th)
Jonas Kaufmann recital (Sunday 4pm)

Lots of cast changes this week. Netrebko is done with Anna Bolena until February -- Angela Meade, one of the 2007 Met Council winners spotlighted in The Audition does these last fall performances after taking over to reported success on Friday. Unfortunately Mattei is also done in Don Giovanni, and we'll see what originally-scheduled Mariusz Kwiecien has to offer here. Mattei's also still out of playing Figaro (he didn't do last Wednesday's either, unfortunately), though Russian tenor Alexey Kudrya debuts midweek as Almaviva. Thursday, of course, is the big recent change: instead of debuting with one-time-sub Gary Lehman in the title part, the new Met Siegfried features Jay Hunter Morris, who debuted in one of those amazing 2007 Jenůfas.
Sunday offers the first solo recital at the house in quite a while: Jonas Kaufmann, not in opera but Romantic song.

Carnegie Hall:
Thomas Florio recital (Sunday 2pm)
Fouchécourt/LeRoi duo recital (Sunday 7:30pm)

Florio is a young baritone of whom I'd never heard; legendary French high tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt shares the stage with French soprano Gaële LeRoi that evening. The headline event of the week -- an Anna Netrebko recital scheduled for Wednesday in the big hall -- was cancelled last Friday for doctor-ordered rest.

Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street):
Joseph Calleja CD release event (M)
I suppose if you're reading this post, you probably already know that Calleja is, in my estimation, the most special of a great current generation of tenors. Not just a perfunctory bash, his show at the downtown 2-drink-minimum venue will apparently feature performances by Calleja, Luca Pisaroni, soprano Katie Van Kooten, violinist Daniel Hope, and an actual chamber orchestra. For those outside the city, there's also a live NPR webcast, after the recent coverage of Calleja on that network.
Even if he doesn't bring the magic of, say, last season's Edgardo, it should be fun.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The women (featuring the men)

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 10/13/2011
Mattei, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas, Bloom, Kocan / Luisi

While not exactly one of the show's great nights at the Met, last Thursday's premiere of Michael Grandage's new Don Giovanni production was, for the house, something perhaps more important: the reappearance of a solid frame in which good and great performances of Mozart's perennial can continue to be offered.

Marthe Keller's excessively genteel Don Giovanni monopolized the Met stage since 2004, inspiring at times similar dramatic evisceration in the pit. Grandage's replacement production comes from the same general place -- the recognizably civilized world in which both Mozart and his creation grew up, rendered in moving set segments -- but all the significant details are recast. Keller's recurring trope was emptiness: the large expanses of featureless brick (unfortunately presaging the Gelb era as a whole), the meaningless stage-business elaborations (most notably the double- and triple-length exchanging of costumes for the serenade scene, all to no enlightening effect), and, of course, a finale in which the stone guest fails to appear except as a barely-visible lipsynching apparition in a mirror (which mirror also takes the place of hell, the devils, etc.). Perhaps we were meant to dream these spaces full of more interesting happenings than the actual show was willing to provide us... Grandage and his set/costume designer Christopher Oram actually render a filled-in scene, and it's a very particular human one.

His moving parts are in two pairs: two flat half-walls that come together out front, and two concave-curved half-walls that come together (and apart) behind. Each of these half-walls is a three-by-three grid of square panels (with a single one-by-three center column of panels sometimes appearing between the halves in the rear), and each of the panels is colored in a different pastel shade. It's a little like watching a backdrop wall of children's blocks. (The visibility of the coloring, though, comes and goes with the lighting.)

But this is not another flat, more clever-than-engaging set like those in last season's Don Carlo. The distressed and weathered-looking border between the squares adds visual inflection, as well as an echo of Jonathan Miller's now-familiar Figaro production. But most of the character is within the panels themselves, which are in the form of Spanish balconies, from which the players appear, climb, observe, and are observed. These familiar Spanish details help us place the people who appear thereon: some familiar -- Giovanni's initial business on and descent from Anna's balcony is a bit physically tricky, and couldn't have been good for Kwiecien's unfortunate back -- and others not. Grandage's biggest liberty is his staging of the catalog aria, during which the scene opens for the first time to wholly reveal the rear panels... which themselves open to reveal the recalled conquests Leporello is counting.

They don't look quite displeased -- which is one running theme of the production -- but it is these women's dressed and accessorized collective presence that makes the strongest effect. For Don Giovanni, at least, the world isn't empty but rather prominently full of the female form, and Grandage creates that around him. First in the catalog, later in the crowd and party scenes, and even at the supper for the Commendatore -- at which six of the eight footmen are in fact women -- the womanizer has his necessary context.

When the statue does, arrive, though, it's in the one real mistake of the production -- a skeleton-shirt that looks just like a cheap Halloween costume/t-shirt. This could use a change. The maximalist fire show at Giovanni's descent to hell, however, is a welcome relief after Keller's mirror business.

*     *     *

The cast, meanwhile, was more notable on the men's side. Don Giovanni is the part Peter Mattei and his height, charm, and seductive baritone were born to play, and he does it memorably here -- though short rehearsal has resulted in an incarnation that seems not quite native to this particular production. This should change, if he continues in the part. Mattei still has fine boyish chemistry with his Leporello, Luca Pisaroni, who's an enjoyably no-nonsense servant, neither too broad nor too grand. Ramon Vargas is yet another fine Ottavio (the Met's done well here of late), with remarkable breath and phrasing in Il mio tesoro that brought down the house, while Stefan Kocan again was a plus as the Commendatore.

The ladies were a more mixed success. Best was debutant Mojca Erdmann, who though not vocally imposing in Zerlina's middle-of-the-road part (she threw some flourishes into the end of "Vedrai carino", apparently to alert listeners that she's really a high soprano) played the most nuanced version of the character I've seen. Per Erdmann and Grandage, Zerlina isn't the dime-a-dozen town flirt or trollop too often presented by the lazy, but a live mixture of sense (she instinctively moves to settle Masetto even as she herself is unsettled), naivete, groundedness and sensibility whose one weak point -- old fantasies of the nobleman who'll take her away from it all -- Giovanni knows unerringly how to hit. When we see her charge and thrill to this suddenly-unfolding possibility it's not lasciviousness but the limit of her common sense that's exposed -- and actually makes her more charming.

The other debutant, Marina Rebeka, sang strongly and intelligently as Donna Anna, but -- as, to a lesser extent, with Tamar Iveri years ago -- I found her basic vocal production really unappealing. It's not a easy sound, with almost a female countertenor character that failed to grow on me even after she tamed some early hootiness. The rest of the audience, for what it's worth, seemed to approve.

Finally, Barbara Frittoli was about as successful as in last year's Carmens: that is, she performed well despite being not quite sound in the actual singing. Elvira is a difficult part, and audiences have made vocal allowances for years, but after the unqualified back-to-back successes of Susan Graham and Dorothea Röschmann, it's hard to go back to those old ways.

Perhaps Levine would have gotten more out of Frittoli: she sang with him regularly, including in the Cosi six years ago that was something like the high point of the entire Levine era. In that run she still had sonic flaws, but the Met Orchestra played at a level of sound and phrase it's rarely touched since, natural and gorgeous breaths coming one after the other to touch the simultaneous highs and lows of Da Ponte's story.

That didn't happen last week, and may never happen again. Fabio Luisi, in the first of what's sure to be a string of unfair but not unwarranted comparisons, conducted with his usual precision, a nice bit of energy, and some really well-managed phrasing in the slow intros to the second act's arias. He's significantly better in this than Louis Langree or Lothar Koenigs, but still... New York audiences have been spoiled, and Luisi doesn't bring either the daemonic or sublime elements (or both!) to the fever pitch that Levine's Mozart has unforgettably shown.

Still, it's a good start to a production that should see more casts and conductors before it's done. Let's hope Mattei remains.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The week in NY opera (Oct. 17-23)

Metropolitan Opera:
Don Giovanni (M/SE), Anna Bolena (T/F), Barber (W/SM), Nabucco (Th)
The new Don Giovanni is good (many more words on this in the afternoon). Mattei continues to fill in for at least the two performances this week -- while also headlining Wednesday's Barber of Seville. Figaro qua, Figaro là! Saturday's Barber is Rodion Pogossov.

Carnegie Hall:
The English Concert (Th)
Layla Claire recital (F)

Harry Bicket conducts the former group with countertenor Andreas Scholl in a mostly-Purcell program at Zankel the day before Lindemann soprano Claire makes her official NYC recital debut at Weill.

Various locations:
NY Opera Forum L'Italiana in Algeri (Th/SM/SuM)
Young singers, concert version.

Colin Davis and the London Symphony play two big choral pieces on the weekend at Avery Fischer: Beethoven's Missa Solemnis Friday and Britten's War Requiem on Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (noon): sorry, transit nightmares are tying up the day. No DG review until tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Where he belongs

The most absurd thing about Thursday's Don Giovanni was that it would have been the Met's second new production in a row premiered by somebody other than the greatest Don Giovanni of the age. (The Zeffirelli version before that was before his time.) So while it's awful that a back injury has sidelined not only the conductor but the previously-scheduled lead Mariusz Kwiecien (a fine singer-actor in his own right), having Peter Mattei on the stage in his best part Thursday -- and not in one of his pleasant but second-rate parts tonight and Friday -- is only fitting.

See you all there.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The week in NY opera (Oct. 10-16)

Metropolitan Opera:
Anna Bolena (M/SM), Barber (T/F), Nabucco (W/SE), Don Giovanni (Th)
The Met season's third week brings its second premiere (Michael Grandage's new production, now conducted by Luisi instead of Levine, with debuts by Marina Rebeka and Mojca Erdmann) and its first Saturday matinee moviecast (the season-opening Anna Bolena).

Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street):
Gotham Chamber Opera and Nico Muhly Conspire (Th)
The unwieldy name is at least descriptive -- a local chamber opera group and young composer Nico Muhly get together to play Muhly, Mozart, Purcell, Sibelius, and Glass. Among the participants: once and perhaps future blogger ACB.

DiCapo Opera Theatre:
Tosca (F/Su)
Last of four performances.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Esprit de corps

Atys - Les Arts Florissants, 9/20/2011
Lyon, Reinhold, de Negri / Christie

William Christie and his company, seen at Lincoln Center in a Rameau double-bill in March, brought their forces -- including two of the leads from March -- to Brooklyn to kick off the BAM fall season last month. The piece? Not amusements by Rameau but a single four-hour work from the decade before Rameau's birth: Lully's rather more grand and weighty Atys.

Atys is, in a sense, a rebuttal to my complaint about the French baroque last time: by no means merely elegant, the opera tells of a dutiful and upright man driven by love to a fatal conflict with king and god. Its story -- at least in this most general sense -- isn't so far from Norma's or Don Carlo(s)'s or any number of other classic operatic tragedies'. But the telling is essentially different, for the court origin of the show permeates form as well as content.

It's the form that's most striking. Atys may be a tragic character, but his tale is only incidentally experienced as one: his figure and fate do not loom large before us as events progress to their awful end. Instead, charged personal scenes ever dissolve into the true musical and rhythmic life of the piece -- its orchestral and choral ensembles and dances, and the glorious central dream ensemble. Its strongest moments are presented as they're meant to be experienced: collectively, as part of the grand court orbiting Louis XIV. The pleasures (refined, covert, stately, raucous, fleeting), sorrows (melancholy, sublimated), terrors (covert -- of course), and not least pride of the courtier existence are given wondrous voice, but the show ever returns faithfully to the limits this perspective sets. The characters themselves do not -- their course runs the full tragic course -- but they don't set the opera's tone; their suffering is, until the end, furtive and their expressions transient. Only the goddess gets to air her unhappiness without such interruption, at the memorable Act III curtain.

As before, the contrast with Tchaikovsky is instructive. Petipa's French-Russian story-ballets -- most famously set to Tchaikovsky's music -- are basically the last survivor of court art in the West. The court roots are evident even in the cut and watered-down renditions we often see here: in the grand, colorful, and sometimes suffocating pageantry of the civilized acts; in the use of the observing king/queen/dignitary to frame character dance sequences therein; and even in the elaborate hierarchies within the companies that perform these shows. But it's the Romantic parts that make these shows, the white dream acts in which hierarchical civilization itself dissolves and the leads stand before us -- and each other -- in all their personal subjectivity. These spaces are what's missing from Atys, and so for a modern viewer watching Lully's opera is disconcertingly like watching Swan Lake (well, OK, La Bayadere) minus the lake. The leads are ever enmeshed in their context, never freely a deux.

(As an aside, the romantic in romantic ballet also strongly colors that form's pre-romantic court spaces as well: the enactment/doubling of the court theater relationship on stage wouldn't be necessary if that arrangement itself weren't in doubt after the romantic rediscovery of self; and in fact one might see the basic ballet metaplot as the European romantic's discontent with the great alliance he made with the mannered world for a century -- or more, we see its anachronistic affinity to this day -- after this initial explosive discovery... but that's going far from the subject.)

Of course Lully's protagonists get neither full-throated arias nor elaborately virtuosic solo dances to aid their individuation, but the era's general limitation on form isn't coincidence -- it accords perfectly well with the aims of this piece. So too do the details of the story -- its content. Lully's opera tells, in its most basic outline, of the classic court danger: a well-placed courtier falls (fatally) from his rank when his desire conflicts with his lord's. But the details are arranged by librettist Philippe Quinault to make the moral not so stark, the fear not so salient. The ruler's powers are here divided between two characters -- the wronged king Celenus, betrothed to Atys' beloved, and the goddess Cybele, jealously but unrequitedly in love with Atys -- and the more visibly representative earthly lord is assigned only the social and personal part. The ultimate power of the ruler, over the life and death of his subjects, whether for good reason or not, is here -- more palatably for all concerned -- only in the hands of the imaginary goddess (that is to say not, as in real life, in the hands of the same king). That this allocation allows the dream interlude and story to air another classic court danger -- the vengeance of a spurned lover -- is doubly fortunate. Furthermore, there's the turn later of Atys ultimately falling victim to yet another court pitfall, the abuse of ministerial power... These rearrangements and misdirections do more than the prologue's effusive direct praise to make the show Sun King friendly.

*     *     *

It's not, of course, only to imperial Russian taste to look back fondly at the particular joys and sorrows of the French court eras. Not only modern France -- where Christie's company is based and well appreciated -- but modern New York (as one can hear from Christie's reception every year) has a cadre of connoisseurs whose aesthetic inclinations run in this direction, not least Ronald P. Stanton who seems to have funded this revival of Jean-Marie Villégier's 1987 wonderfully and appropriately elaborated production himself. The difference, of course, is that New York has no permanent companies to elaborate these ideals. It's no surprise, I think, that a city built on commerce and finance has more of a taste for upheaval and violent individual expressions than for works deliberately excluding (or limiting) those elements, but this Atys -- like many shows built for a particular minority taste -- is a great one-off.

Christie's counterbalance -- and that of "early music" productions more generally -- to the old and somewhat alien social landscape of the court is ever to recreate it on fresh new talent. Atys presents, of course, many familiar Les Arts Florissants veterans, but its prime female lead -- the goddess Cybele herself -- is given to a mezzo with the company's young artists' program, Anna Reinhold. She acquits herself excellently, and though the particularly vocal demands of the piece aren't great, her Cybele comes closest to having the sort of individual tragic presence with which one traditionally associates opera.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The week in NY opera (Oct. 3-9)

Still no great variety of events. Carnegie Hall opens its season with another Gergiev show, but no opera.

Metropolitan Opera:
Anna Bolena (M/Th), Barber (Tu/SM), Nabucco (W/SE)
Reshuffling of last week's shows.

Dicapo Opera Theatre:
Tosca (Th/S)
It's the curtain-raiser of this small company's thirtieth season.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Season eight

This back-dated post indexes the blog's commentary on the 2011-2012 Metropolitan Opera season. It will be updated as new reviews are posted.

Season preview

Don Giovanni, and another cast
Anna Bolena
Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Faust, and another cast
The Makropulos Case

Monday, September 26, 2011

First week of the NY opera season (Sept. 26-Oct. 2)

With City Opera in exile, James Levine re-injured and in limbo, the least appetizing Met season in memory even before Levine's mishap and consequent cancellations, tenor Salvatore Licitra recently dead in a scooter accident, and the entire European financial system (a vital indirect source of Met revenue, among other things) perhaps set to implode, this is the gloomiest start to an opera season I can remember. Nevertheless, big opera returns, as does this weekly feature. A revised Met season preview will shortly follow, along with a post on Atys.

Metropolitan Opera:
Anna Bolena (M/F), Nabucco (Tu/SE), Barber (SM)
I confess I have no interest in seeing the new Donizetti production with Netrebko, whose bel canto days are a distant memory. Garanca's pregnancy-induced cancellation has deprived the rest of the intriguing cast of some star power but not, perhaps, much musical interest, as mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova gets a meatier part for her talents than her appearance in the 2009 Hoffmann offered; meanwhile tenor Stephen Costello gets to show if the buzz from his 2007 opening night Arturo was warranted. We've already seen Nabucco's exciting tenor -- Yonghoon Lee -- in a cornerstone role, though of course Ismaele doesn't sing nearly as much as Don Carlos. Still, he and the rest of the cast -- including Lucic, an apparently-rejuvenated Guleghina, and, in a tiny tiny debut part, 2007 Met Council winner Amber Wagner -- should give the Met's most recently-discovered warhorse some life. And yes, the only real reason to see yet another Barber revival is Peter Mattei in the title part, but that is a good reason.

Please note the new, less civilized start time of 7:30PM for non-gala evening shows.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


The first big operatic show of the season is next week's Atys at BAM, but tomorrow brings a Fashion Week diversion: Pocket Opera of New York's collaboration-mashup with BOOK HOMME's spring collection (2pm at 157 W24th St., RSVP by email). Electronic Monteverdi (Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria), a Greek-fisherman-inspired menswear line, and -- probably of most interest to readers -- the singing of countertenor Nicholas Tamagna will be on display.

Those who've followed this blog from the beginning may know that I have a pronounced lack of fondness for the countertenor voice, but Tamagna impressed considerably in this company's March staging of Alcina -- one of the dozen or so shows last season I meant to write up but didn't. Mind you, I'm not sure how much of the dramatic and character skills Tamagna showed in the fully-staged Handel will get aired in this context, but there are less entertaining ways one could spend a New York afternoon.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


If, in the wider world, the process of papering over the terrible impolite truths of September 11 with repellent attempts to be inoffensive is well advanced, the blogger who begat my own blog-writing offers a different proposition:
The story of September 11 must for all time become the story of how a certain date became unspeakable to al-Qaeda and its followers; a tale of how this day of all others, became the blackest day in the history of Islam. It should forever be a date that can never be mentioned without arousing a deep sense of shame throughout the Middle East so that in generations hence, people should still come up to strangers unbidden and say, "I'm sorry for September 11." Until then it is unfinished business.

We have no right to forgive. We have no right to forget. We have no right to move on until this final condition is met. That in the holy of holies of our civilization’s enemies, in the innermost recesses of their sanctum sanctorum they should say with heartfelt ardor: never again. Never again. Never, ever again.





Wednesday, September 07, 2011

New page

As perhaps with many of you, I only sporadically follow opera during the offseason, so it wasn't until the Met emailed me its cancellation of Levine's conversation next week that I discovered, belatedly, that things had become this serious:
Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine has canceled his fall conducting engagements after reinjuring his back, and Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has been named principal conductor.
Even though I don't really want to see him as a long-term first option in the pit, Luisi has done well or better in most of his engagements here. I wish him well for the season.

In more blog-specific news, I've finished the summer hiatus. Unlike, you know, City Opera, a lone electronic pamphleteer can vanish for a while and reappear pretty easily. But that's a topic for another post...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Cardiff: Final (June 19)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
The Final - 19/6/11

BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Jac van Steen (JS) / Lawrence Foster (LF) (conductors)

Meeta Raval (LF):
D'amor sull'ali rosee ("Il Trovatore", Verdi) / Sola, perduta, abandonnata ("Manon Lescaut", Puccini) / Beim Schlafengehen ("Vier letzte Lieder", Strauss)
Coming on first was the best possible option for Meeta Raval, it allowed her to do her best unhindered by our opinions of the other finalists, and as a result, she made a decent show. The voice is really quite pleasing, and I'd be perfectly happy if my local opera company chose to engage her, but she is not Singer of the World material. Her Leonora was agreeably sure, with some nicely floated top notes, but it wasn't terribly clear exactly what feelings she was trying to express. Worse in that line was the Puccini; again, nothing wrong with the notes, but this was hardly a desperate, despairing and dying Manon - not until the last page or so, from "No, non voglio morir", did the aria come alive. Similarly, "Beim Schlafengehen" made a pleasant noise, but said little of significance. This is a nice voice, but she needs to work hard on her interpretation.

Olesya Petrova (JS):
Nyet, bit'ne mozhet! ("The Tsar's Bride", Rimsky-Korsakov) / Re dell'abisso ("Un Ballo in Maschera", Verdi) / Voi lo sapete, o mamma ("Cavalleria Rusticana", Mascagni) / L'amour est un oiseau rebelle ("Carmen", Bizet)
Once again, two notes into her Olesya Petrova's first aria, and you could feel the audience relaxing with the thought that here was a worthy finalist. Her first choice was interesting; up until a month or so ago, I'd have said that only devoted lovers of Russian opera would have any knowledge of this opera, but then the Royal Opera staged it in May, and it was broadcast on Radio 3 last Saturday (11/6/11). Not that this made the work precisely familiar, but a little less exotic than previously. Petrova's big, warm voice filled the hall comfortably with Lyubasha's anguish and determination, the sound coming smoothly and easily. She let it drop to Stygian depths for Ulrica's invocation, and she was enjoying herself with this, playing it up, as Ulrica is meant to, to impress her largely credulous public. The the timbre cleared to take on Santuzza. she wasn't quite as intense in this as I'd have liked, or perhaps not quite at the right times; the first "Io son dannato" wasn't completely believable, though the second was, but the voice soared effortlessly. Finally, the Habanera was interesting, if a trifle disconcerting. First of all, her French was rather better here than for her Dalilah, but there were still one or two really odd vowel sounds, and at least one that forced a false break of phrase. Secondly, this was not an interpretation that would be satisfactory on stage, it was too frivolous and flirtatious for a real Carmen. The Habanera is a declaration of intent, even one of war; this was a great big come-on. In this context, however, it was fun, and a crowd-pleaser. Win or lose, Petrova is a singer worth the displacement to hear, and I think that she simply needed this competition to get her name out there, which I hope has been successfully achieved.

Hye Jung Lee (LF):
Tornami a vagheggiar ("Alcina", Handel) / A vos jeux, mes amis... ("Hamlet", Thomas)
We had indulged in a lot of speculation after Thursday night as to what Lee might choose to perform for her Finals programme, given the nature of her voice, and I was amused to find that I had guessed right about the Handel. That, unfortunately, marked the limits of my enjoyment of this programme. The Handel was correct, but too lightweight. I'm perhaps too used to non-Baroque practice in this aria, but I thought Lee could have put more vigour into the sound, and I certainly hoped she would do so for Ophelia's Mad Scene. Regrettably, the lightness persisted, and more irritating still, there was an unevenness of projection, so that her vocalises came through far more clearly and strongly than her other singing. Add to this an inaudible text, and we got a performance that was ill-focused and unsatisfactory. A great disappointment after her sterling performance last Thursday.

Andrei Bondarenko (JS):
Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Mozart) / O Carlo,ascolta ("Don Carlo", Verdi) / Fin ch'han dal vino ("Don Giovanni", Mozart) / Ya vas lyublyu ("The Queen of Spades", Tchaikovsky)
Bondarenko has been one of the unquestioned favourites of this competition from the moment he opened his mouth earlier in the week. He is a true performer, he loves the audience, loves to catch them and hold them, and uses everything in his power to do so, usually very successfully. "Rivolgete..." (the 3rd this week) was vivacious and good-humoured, though I stand by what I said on Wednesday night, that he could have done with a couple more years under his belt, just in terms of sheer power. That said, the top already rings out with vibrancy and fervour. His Posa was very good - this is an aria that can descend into mawkishness very easily, but Bondarenko managed a fine quality of unforced sincerity. Also, if you've never felt an audience melt, you should have been sitting where I was when he sang that opening "Io morro...". Spine-tingling. Then, very regrettably, he committed his worst mistake of the competition, and tried Don Giovanni's Champagne Aria. I think what happened was that he was so concentrated on getting around the rapid flow of words, and the right devil-may-care-with-an-edge attitude, that he forgot to project the voice itself. At any rate, it sounded like he was singing in the room next door, and that, I'm afraid, put paid to any chances he might have had at the title. Although Yeletsky's aria was well phrased and quietly noble, the damage was done.

Valentina Nafornita (JS):
Regnava nel silenzio ("Lucia di Lammermoor", Donizetti) / Song to the Moon ("Rusalka", Dvorak) / Je veux vivre ("Romeo et Juliette", Gounod)
A young woman's programme, expressing the feelings of other young women with great variety and that truly remarkable soprano voice. Her Lucia flowed easily, the runs and trills completely integrated into the vocal line, the top notes emerging flawlessly and effortlessly. The shade of Dame Joan Sutherland hung heavy over Cardiff this year, she was associated with the competition for many years and was a passionate supporter, and to sing Lucia here, just months after Sutherland's death, was to invite the most dangerous of comparisons, but Nafornita could and did take it unflinchingly and successfully. The yearning in her Rusalka was luminous and tender, and as for her Juliette, this really was an adolescent girl, brimming over with exuberance and sweet daydreams. She needs someone to tell her to move about a little less on the concert platform, and some refinement of interpretation, but really, the defects are few. That voice is a beautiful, shimmering thing that is already fully matured in its current range, and while the bloom of youth will eventually fade, hopefully, with the right management, it will be replaced with something equally compelling in later years.


Vox pop in the hall (and I include myself in this) was pretty much unanimous in favour of Nafornita, and if the jury was going to be daft enough to give the prize to someone else, then it had better be Petrova, or there would be a riot. Fortunately, the jury was not daft at all. Valentina Nafornita is the Cardiff Singer of the World 2011, and very well-deserved too. She was also awarded the Audience Prize, which is a telephone vote by the members of the public both present in the hall, and watching/listening via the BBC to the competition, who could choose their favourite performer from all 20 competitors. Well, I did say that Nafornita was young and beautiful, as well as having that voice. ;-)

[And much thanks to my correspondent for these reports. I'll definitely be on the lookout for Petrova, Nafornita, and Bondarenko here. - ed]

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Cardiff: Song Prize Final (June 17)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me.  The posting delay today, however, is mine -- my apologies. --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Song Prize - Final - 17/6/2011

Simon Lepper (SL) / Llyr Williams (LW) - accompanists

A word about the accompanists, before commencing my survey of the Song Prize Final. Of the 20 contestants for the Cardiff Trophy (the "main prize", if you like), 16 signed up for the Song Prize, and 15 actually appeared. Now, candidates may bring their own accompanists, but it is at their expense, and over the years fewer and fewer independent pianists have appeared on the roster. Instead, the competition supplies three "house" pianists to meet the needs of the contestants, and if you make it through to the Final, you stay with the accompanist you began with, for obvious reasons, hence the presence of two or more pianists during the evening. The standard is never less than good, but for the last few competitions, Llyr Williams has been offering his services regularly, and Williams is not only a first-rate accompanist, he is one of the very best (though most discreet) pianists the UK currently has to offer. Although Lepper is a fine player, he is simply not in the same class. This did, to my mind, impact somewhat on the performances, though I don't think it affected the end result too much.

Leah Crocetto (LW):
Pace non trovo (Petrarch Sonnets No. 1, Liszt) / Chanson d'avril (Bizet) / Die Nacht (Op. 10 No.3, Strauss) / Cacilie (Op. 27, No. 2, Strauss) / The man I love (Gershwin)
Leah Crocetto's opening number was a case in point of the accompanist having a major effect. Liszt's songs frequently have a piano part that is every bit as important as the vocal line, if not more so, and the Petrarch Sonnets, in particular, exist in piano transcriptions that are regularly performed in concert. Crocetto made a very nice noise, but it was Williams that captured the true poetry of the piece. I don't think he was remotely trying to show Crocetto up, it simply couldn't be avoided given the nature of the music, his own considerable talent, and perhaps a little lack of experience on Crocetto's part that would have allowed her to impose herself more effectively. The Bizet was charming, the first Strauss not terribly convincing, but the second was better, though not quite achieving the kind of radiant wonder it really requires. Then she started in on the Gershwin, pulling that big, creamy voice in and "up" - upper chest voice, rather than full diaphragm. This was certainly the right move for the Gershwin, not to sound too operatic, but she was also actually much more involved with this song than any of the others, which left a slightly odd impression.

Maire Flavin (SL):
Widmung (Op. 25, No.1, Schumann) / Lorelei (Clara Schumann) / Chanson triste - L'invitation au voyage (Duparc) / La souris d'Angleterre (Rosenthal) / The Lake Isle of Innisfree (Philip Martin)
Flavin committed a tactical error here. This programme is virtually identical to the one she sang in her qualifying round; she replaced a Copland song with the second Duparc. I had thought it was actually in the regulations that you could not repeat material; obviously not. Nevertheless, nobody else did, so it looked a bit like laziness or complacency, it invited comparisons with her own earlier performance, for better or for worse, and the best number by some way was the new one, "L'invitation au voyage", which got a warm, expressive reading that I would have liked to hear applied to the other Duparc, as well as most of the rest of her recital. The launch of "Widmung" was rushed, the Clara Schumann was interesting, but only moderately so, and Rosenthal's English Mouse was entertaining, but should have been clearer. There was nothing wrong with her French in the Duparc, but she seemed unable to carry that clarity through to the Rosenthal. She ended her section with an unaccompanied setting of a W.B. Yeats poem, as a nod to her home country, which lacked mystery. As in her concert round, the voice is bright, well-placed and attractive, but there is a lot of work to be done still in terms of expressivity.

Andrei Bondarenko (LW):
In der Fremde - Intermezzo - Waldesgesprach - Die Stille (Liederkreis, Schumann) / Autumn - Russia cast adrift - Simon, Peter - O my homeland (Russia Cast Adrift, Sviridov)
Bondarenko's Schumann was only moderately successful. There was some odd phrasing in the first, and a hint of iffy intonation in the last. Intermezzo was nicely tender, but he didn't take the dramatic ballad of Waldesgesprach as far as it can go. Despite a rich, round tone, the different voices of the poem (narrator, knight and siren) were not sufficiently differentiated. His Sviridov, on the other hand, was excellent, giving his very fine voice full reign, with an almost breathless stillness in the first, real excitement in the second, a much surer grasp of the dramatic nature in the third (verging on the gothic, without ever letting the voice distort) and a strong, anthemic quality to the fourth. This was compelling singing and interpreting.

Valentina Nafornita (SL):
Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne (Op. 4, No. 4, Rachmaninov) / Le temps des lilas (Chausson) / Widmung (Op. 25, No. 1, Schumann) / Les filles de Cadix (Delibes)
In terms of sheer beauty of sound, Nafornita is still the most impressive singer of this competition to my mind; however, the recital platform is not her natural domain. The Rachmaninov was too-tightly controlled, instead of that lyrical flow that I'm sure she can produce under the right circumstances, but did not here. The Chausson is one of those songs that can be tediously long is not given a great deal of the right sort of attention, but here there was just a uniform melancholy, without much relief. Curiously, she made exactly the same mistake on "Widmung" as Flavin, and launched into it too precipitously, then had to throttle back, which really spoils the effect. And finally, although "Les filles de Cadix" had a nice, flirtatious lilt to it, there was no text. I know I said I'd stay off my high horse with regards to diction, but this is a song recital! The texts are sort of important! All that said, it would almost be tempting to listen to that lovely, lustrous soprano voice sing a laundry list.

Olga Kindler (LW):
Muzyka (Op. 34, No. 8, Rachmaninov) / Stehe still! (Wesendonck-Lieder, Wagner) / C (Poulenc) / Fleur jetee (Faure) / Im Abendrot (Vier letzte Lieder, Strauss)
I had a lot of hopes for this programme. In many ways, it looked the most interesting, but it was also in the hands of the one singer who had cracked under pressure in her concert round. Kindler didn't actually crack, but she didn't really connect either. The Rachmaninov was a strange, sparse piece that never quite spoke to me. The first part of the Wagner was a little messy, Kindler not completely in control of the stormy opening, though she settled down later. Her timbre had grown very dark, however, and she had trouble lightening it enough for the Poulenc. "C" is one of his very finest songs, but her phrasing was off, and she did something a little odd on "delaissee", towards the end, that I would need to see a score to verify, and didn't like the sound of. Again, the stormy nature of the Faure got away from her, and if there was a prolonged silence at the end of "Im Abendrot", it was more for Williams' quietly ecstatic coda than for Kindler's reading of the song itself. There is a lot of potential here, but perhaps a problem with discipline, and this was a disappointing presentation.


Nobody had really imposed themselves outright, there were pluses and minuses in every performance. Of the five singers, only Flavin and Bondarenko really sounded like they belonged in a recital. I thought Bondarenko's programme a little limited for a competition, and the Schumann an unwise choice, while Flavin, as already mentioned, had probably lost points because she repeated her programme, but they were still the best of the bunch.

Andrei Bondarenko was named Winner of the Song Prize 2011, a popular choice with the audience.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Cardiff: Concert Four (June 16)

[As in the rest of this series, all non-bracketed text is by this blog's correspondent on the scene, not by me --JSU]

BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2011
Concert Four - 16 June 2011

Orchestra of Welsh National Opera
Lawrence Foster (conductor)

Enzo Romano (bass-baritone, 31, Uruguay):
E una coas incredibile ("The Italian Straw Hat", Rota) / Non piu andrai ("Le Nozze di Figaro", Mozart) / Bottom's Dream ("A Midsummer Night's Dream", Britten) / La calunnia ("Il barbiere di Siviglia", Rossini)
Romano was clearly out to entertain. All of his programme was solidly turned towards the comic, and he was putting in a lot of busy-work to illustrate his pieces, which was a bit distracting. His hands, in particular, were everywhere, Danny Kaye-style, pointing, fingers fanned out, clutching his face in mock-perplexity. What became immediately apparent was that the voice lacks resonance, and the top is too tight. Also his timbre can become a little unfocused at times. His worst piece was "La calunnia" - it's an aria for a basso-buffo, and Romano simply wasn't deep enough. His best piece was the Britten; he made Bottom an endearing fool, rather than an irritating prat (which is all too easy to do), and his English (despite a fairly thick accent) was remarkably clear.

Maire Flavin (mezzo-soprano, 28, Ireland):
Nobles seigneurs, salut! ("Les Huguenots", Meyerbeer) / Parto, parto, ben mio ("La Clemenza di Tito", Mozart) / Cara speme, questo core ("Giulio Cesare", Handel) / Sein wir wieder gut ("Ariadne auf Naxos", Strauss)
Although these are all trouser-roles, there is a good variety of expression required for these arias. Flavin is a high mezzo with a bright, clear timbre and well-supported top. The Meyerbeer left me rather cold, but it has never been one of my favourite numbers, and I had high hopes for Sesto's magnificent aria from "Clemenza". There was nothing wrong with the singing; the voice had the full compass of range required, the coloratura was fluid and accurate, the phrasing good, but again, it was just so much reasonably agreeable noise. The Handel produced some very beautiful sounds, and a fairly impressive stillness to its slow-moving line, but just when you wanted Flavin to really throw herself into the Composer's Monologue, the same problem of a lack of connection with her material deprived it of its soaring exaltation. Nothing wrong with the singing, technically, but nobody really home.

Leah Crocetto (soprano, 31, USA):
Che il bel sogno di Doretto ("La Rondine", Puccini) / Sombre foret ("Guillaume Tell", Rossini) / Hear ye, Israel ("Elijah", Mendelssohn) / D'amor sull'ali rosee ("Il Trovatore", Verdi)
The Puccini is another of my least favourite arias, which seems strictly designed to allow the soprano to demonstrate she can float her top notes. Crocetto certainly can, the voice is a fine, even, clear-timbred soprano which is well supported throughout the range. My problem with her was that her programme was all much of a muchness. She is not without expression, but we largely only got one colour of it, plangent wistfulness. The extract from Elijah was a little more promising, but it's not the most exciting music ever written, and while her Trovatore was certainly the strongest item, I really wished she had picked "Tacea la notte", with its cabaletta, which would have enlivened things considerably and let us hear what else she may have under her belt, which I hope she will duly demonstrate tomorrow night for the Song Prize.

Davide Bartolucci (baritone, 24, Italy):
Di Cupido impiegio i vanni ("Rodelinda", Handel) / Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo (Mozart) / Bella siccome un angelo ("Don Pasquale", Donizetti) / Una voce m'ha colpito ("L'inganno felice", Rossini)
This is a darker baritone, more like Vasile, but without his resonance, and far too tight, not just on top but right through the range, as well as being pretty much under-parted in all his arias. The aria from Rodelina was a rare occasion to hear a villain sing, but here it was just another exercise in futility. He took a long time to settle into "Rivolgete...", and never achieved the charm and good humour of Vasile. Malatesta's honey-sweet encomium of his "sister's" merits was spoiled by the tight sound, and it was not until the Rossini that we really got any notion of Bartolucci's potential. The tight sound had not changed, but he had worked at this; it was alert, reasonably precise and focused. Not nearly enough to carry him through this competition, but enough to hope that a few more years' work (and he's still very young) will improve matters for him.

Hye Jung Lee (soprano, 27, South Korea):
Grossmachtige Prinzessin ("Ariadne auf Naxos", Strauss) / I am the wife of Mao Tse Tung ("Nixon in China", Adams)
This was a brave, and very risky programme. When you have less than 20 minutes to impress, spending three-quarters of that time on a single number is what I call putting all your eggs in one basket, and it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to pull it off. But after an evening where all the other singers had sort of been singing in a single mode throughout their programmes, the sheer variety of moods required from Zerbinetta came as a breath of fresh air, as did Lee's silvery high coloratura voice. The vocalises were effortless, the very top notes absolutely sure, the German could have been a bit clearer and there were one or two imprecisions in passing notes here and there, but this was the liveliest, most interesting performance of the evening by quite some way. Adams' Madame Mao requires a voice of pure steel to power through that thundering orchestra, and Lee was a little light, at least in this hall, but on stage in an opera house and standing above the pit it could well be a different story. She negotiated the constant leaps with pinpoint accuracy, and the fearsome conviction of the aria was well conveyed. She even thought to bring a prop - the Little Red Book - which was a nice touch.


For this last preliminary round, there could be no hesitation about the winner; Lee was the only singer who was not only competition-standard technically and vocally, but also brought a real sense of characterisation to her pieces.


The finalists for Sunday's concert are as follows:

Olesya Petrova
Meeta Raval
Valentina Nafornita
Andrei Bondarenko
Hye Jung Lee

And, yes, you may colour me extremely surprised. I can only assume the jury felt they absolutely HAD to have a candidate from Concert Two go through, and under those circumstances, Raval was the only option. However, it almost seems cruel to me. Unless all four of the others catch laryngitis between now and Sunday (not completely beyond the realms of probability!) I don't see that Raval stands a chance. On the contrary, she runs every risk of coming off looking decidedly third rate, which would not be deserved. The guide lines of the competition say that the finalists must be judged solely on the merits of whatever programme they present that night, and their preliminary rounds should not be taken into consideration. That's always struck me as a bit of a tall order, though of course one can do one's best to forget what has already been heard. My spot prediction right now is between Nafornita and Petrova, but it will all depend on choice of repertoire, and performance on the night.