Friday, February 25, 2011

The gift

Lucia di Lammermoor - Metropolitan Opera, 2/24/2011
Dessay, Calleja, Tezier, Youn / Summers

To be present when a person does anything as well as tenor Joseph Calleja sings Edgardo in the Met's revival of Lucia is one of the great joys of life -- and not least of the reasons we bother with opera. For over time, as the tale finishes unfolding, opera is largely about man's limits and fragility... but in time, for the duration of any particular moment or breath or aria or even evening, it can become the space of the opposite: man's magnificence, his mastery, his spirit that doesn't need more than the brief span it's given.

Calleja sounds great -- the characteristic quick vibrato is currently less forward, more the ground of his voice, aiding his sound's depth and fullness in a fascinatingly still-buoyant way -- but he basically always sounds great. No, it's the particular lines and phrases of Donizetti's greatest hit that demand and reward the bel canto mastery with which the tenor once made much of a single aria in Macbeth. Here, Calleja makes Edgardo's difficult music seem utterly simple. The wonder isn't that he nimbly passes the purely vocal hurdles that smashed Rolando Villazon's career just two years back, but how thoroughly Calleja's senses of proportion and detail (well-assisted -- as didn't happen in Boheme -- by the conductor, here Patrick Summers) make a profoundly simple whole (or a series thereof) of his evening's sing.

*     *     *

Just three seasons ago at its premiere, it was of course Calleja's current costar -- French soprano Natalie Dessay -- who illuminated and justified this production, giving explosive humanity to the show's modern-flavored taxonomizing of Lucia's disintegration. That was a triumphant return after vocal distress and then surgery, but her troubles returned after a time, costing Dessay basically all of 2010. That she's again returned to headline this show is much, but over time, as I've said... The original success, in any case, is not yet again hers.

Make no mistake: it's no slackening in spirit or understanding, and those who haven't before heard Dessay's vision of the role will find much to appreciate. But though she can -- a single balky high note in the middle notwithstanding -- again basically sing the part, the marginal erosions of firmness and ease since her last good run just put her sound on the wrong side of beauty. (The Mad Scene now seems to sit as uneasily in her voice as the first two acts always have.) More importantly, they've correspondingly eroded the range of her vocal expression, so that this time she couldn't again stretch Lucia's psyche as excruciatingly, unprecedentedly far as she did that first opening night.

If Dessay's voice firms up, the will is still there for a magnificent success. If if stays in the same shape, it's still an account worth seeing. And if it markedly declines... Well, I'd hope for an interesting replacement (Lindemann grad Lisette Oropesa was stunning in a smaller theater), but fear Gelb would turn to one of the chilly Euro-sopranos who've already failed here as Lucia.

*     *     *

Patrick Summers, as mentioned, does a nice job in the pit, providing his usual fleet and firm accompaniment with a fair amount of inflection. Korean bass Kwangchul Youn is true luxury casting as Raimondo, giving the part far more gravity and pleasing vocal heft than usual. And French baritone Ludovic Tezier, who's been up-and-down here (Marcello quite good, Figaro Count quite bad), is a nice fit both in voice and temperament; he plays more of a haughty Enrico, not as prone to rage as Mariusz Kwiecien's production original.

There are six more shows, culminating in the March 19 moviecast. See as many as you can.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The 2011-2012 Met season announcement, annotated

This is getting to be a habit. Ring cycles are at the end; other operas are listed in the order of their first appearance. Some one-off cast combinations are omitted.

Anna Bolena (new David McVicar production)
Netrebko, Garanca, Mumford, Costello, Abdrazakov / Armiliato (opening night through October, February)
Meade, Garanca, Mumford, Costello, Abdrazakov / Armiliato (October)
Not thrilled with the performers (Netrebko's bel canto days are long past), but McVicar should make even a non-Levine opening interesting.

Lucic, Guleghina, Lee, Colombara / Carignani (September through early November)
Lucic, Cornetti, Diegel, Belosselskiy / Carignani (November)
Many, many more chances to see Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee. Russian bass Dimitry Belosselskiy debuts in the November performances.

Il Barbiere di Siviglia
Mattei, Leonard, Camarena, Muraro, Burchuladze / Benini (October)
Pogossov, Leonard, Kudrya, Muraro, Ramey / Benini (late October)
Pogossov, Damrau, Lee, Del Carlo, Furlanetto / Benini (February)
Mezzo Isabel Leonard plays opposite two debuting tenors -- Javier Camarena and Alexey Kudrya -- in the fall; soprano Diana Damrau takes over as Rosina in February with a non-Korean tenor named Lee (Colin, in this case).

Don Giovanni (new Michael Grandage production)
Kwiecien, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas, Bloom, Kocán / Levine (October-November)
Kwiecien, Pisaroni, Rebeka, Frittoli, Erdmann, Vargas/Sledge, Bloom, Kocán / TBA (November)
Finley, Relyea, Rebeka, Dasch, Leonard, Polenzani, Shenyang, Morris / Davis (February-March)
Rumor had Maija Kovalevska as Anna, but fellow Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka sings all performances in this debut run. Elvira is less promising, with Barbara Frittoli hit-and-miss and Annette Dasch inexplicably back after being utterly unable to sing Mozart in tune in her debut. And no Peter Mattei? At least the tenors (including Bruce Sledge, officially scheduled for a show after filling in admirably this season in Cosi) should be good -- and James Levine, whose Mozart has been missed.

Siegfried (new Robert LePage production)
Voigt, Bardon, Lehman, Siegel, Terfel, Owens / Levine (October-November)
Gary Lehman made his Met debut subbing for Ben Heppner three years ago, and he gets his first headlining Wagner run here in Heppner's place (though switched in rather further in advance). In fact, Lehman's the only tenor scheduled to sing Siegfried (the opera) at all next season, with the alternate Siegfried (the character) -- Stephen Gould -- only doing some Götterdämmerung performances.

Croft, Durkin, Josephson, Walker / Anzolini (November-December)
For those now hooked on minimalism, the Phelim McDermott/Julian Crouch production of Glass' opera returns.

Fleming, Blythe, Scholl, Davies, van Rensburg, Shenyang / Bicket (November-December)
The last Stephen Wadsworth production I actually liked, back at the start of this blog, though again the Met will miss a chance to showcase a star mezzo as Bertarido. Not sure what Fleming's vocal glamor quotient will be this fall in this elaborate part. Met Council winner Anthony Roth Costanzo has one scheduled debut performance in December replacing debuting countertenor Iestyn Davies.

La Boheme
Hong, Pittas, Phillips, Markov / Langree (November)
Gerzmava, Pittas, Phillips, Markov / Langree (November-December)
Mostly Mozart director Louis Langree is about the last person I would have pegged as a Puccinian, but I'm sure he'll show better than Roberto Rizzi Brignoli did this season... Hibla Gerzmava made a big debut impression as Antonia in this season's Hoffmann revival.

Faust (new Des McAnuff production)
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Braun, Pape / Nézet-Séguin (end November-December)
Byström, Alagna, Mulligan/Braun, Pape / Nézet-Séguin (December)
Poplavskaya, Calleja, Petean, Furlanetto / Altinoglu (January)
Another semi-new production by way of ENO, but the casts promise much. The Gheorgiu/Alagna avoidance contortions allow Swedish soprano Malin Byström to make her debut beside the big names.

Madama Butterfly
Zhang, Smith, Salsi / Domingo (December)
Zhang, Smith, Salsi / Abel (December)
Racette, Giordani, Naouri / Domingo (February-March)
Just a reminder: Domingo can't conduct. If you must see Racette, go February 25 when Marco Armiliato leads things. French baritone Laurent Naouri (Dessay's husband) makes his debut in February as Sharpless.

La Fille du Regiment
Machaidze, Brownlee, Muraro, Te Kanawa / Abel (December-January)
Can the Met really sell this with only one big name (and in a non-singing part!)? We'll see. Meanwhile, this isn't exactly the meatier role I wanted for the interesting newcomer Machaidze.

Hansel and Gretel
Kurzak, Lindsey, Brubaker, Martens / Ticciati (December)
Kurzak, Coote, Brubaker, Martens / Ticciati (end December-January)
The season's childrens' presentation features several casts and the debut of British conductor Robin Ticciati. I'm guessing that the one performance in which soprano Aleksandra Kurzak is listed as conducting herself is a database glitch.

The Enchanted Island (new McDermott & Crouch production)
de Niese, Oropesa, DiDonato, Daniels, Costanzo, Domingo, Pisaroni / Christie (NYE through January)
Another New Year's Eve gala premiere, but this one looks hard to dislike in any case. Jeremy Sams wrote the Shakespeare-flavored libretto for this baroque mash-up -- amazingly, it's the first presentation of Joyce DiDonato in baroque music at the Met.

Racette, Alagna, Gagnidze / Franck (January)
Racette, Antonenko, Morris / Franck (January)
Young Finnish conductor Mikko Franck debuts.

Götterdämmerung (new Robert LaPage production)
Voigt, Harmer, Meier, Lehman, Paterson, Owens, König / Levine (January-February)
Voigt/Dalayman, Harmer, Meier, Gould, Paterson, Owens, König / Levine (end January-early February)
The last installment of LePage's Ring cycle. Katarina Dalayman (magnificent in this piece two years ago) has one performance and Stephen Gould two.

Meade, Licitra, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto / Armiliato (February)
Angela Meade gets her own run (except February 10, which is TBA) of the early Verdi cabaletta classic. Not sure how Licitra's going to manage the ferociously difficult title tenor part.

Urmana, Blythe, Álvarez, Ataneli, Morris, Bisch / Armiliato (February-March)
A solid lineup for the old war-horse. February seems to be Armiliato month at the Met.

Borodina, Didyk, Galouzine, Gagnidze, Kotscherga, Abdrazakov / Petrenko (February-March)
Borodina and her husband headline the all-former-Soviet cast for this gloomy exploration of a puritanical old-Russian death cult.

L'elisir d'amore
Damrau, Flórez, Kwiecien, Corbelli / Renzetti (March)
Well-sung, I'm sure, though I'm not sure how convincingly a Damrau-played Adina will fall for the dope. Conductor Donato Renzetti hasn't been at the Met since his debut over 20 years ago.

Michael, Pittas, Hampson, Groissböck / Noseda
Having done really difficult mezzo/soprano roles all over Europe, Nadja Michael debuts in another one here (Lady Macbeth). Thomas Hampson as Macbeth himself? Huh. Maybe, though I wouldn't have thought of it.

Manon (new Laurent Pelly production)
Netrebko, Beczala, Szot, Pittsinger / Luisi
The second semi-new-from-London show of the season, this one from Covent Garden. The last (Massenet) Manon I remember here had Renee Fleming and Marcelo Alvarez in their very best form, maybe ever. I'm not terribly enamored with either of this new couple, but it may add up to something, particularly led by Luisi.

Das Rheingold
Terfel, Owens, Margita, Siegel, Blythe / Levine (April)
One non-cycle night in revival before the sequential Rings begin.

La Traviata
Dessay, Polenzani, Hvorostovsky / Luisi (April-May)
Though it may be interesting to see what Dessay and Hvorostovsky do with the brutalism of the show, and though the musical side is well-covered, don't go. A review of last month's run will be posted here soon.

The Makropulos Case
Mattila, Streit, Reuter, Fox / Bělohlávek (April-May)
Judging by the ecstatic reviews of Mattila and Bělohlávek in San Francisco's production a few months back, this should be the highlight of the season (as their collaboration in Janacek's Jenufa was in 2007).

Billy Budd
Gunn, Daszak, Morris / Robertson (May)
John Daszak debuts as Captain Vere in this infrequent Britten revival.

*     *     *

The Ring (complete cycles)
Voigt, Lehman/Gould, Terfel, König, Westbroek, Skelton, et al. / Levine (April 7-24)
Dalayman, Lehman, Terfel, König, Westbroek, Kaufmann, et al. / Levine (April 26-May 3)
Voigt, Lehman/Gould, Terfel, König, Westbroek, Kaufmann, et al. / Levine (May 5-May 12)
Dalayman makes Cycle 2 the best choice.


A bit of illness is holding up a full post here on yesterday's 2011-2012 Met season announcement (here in print or here in Flash pictures), but two non-production matters caught my eye:

First, to quote the press release,
In response to customer requests for an earlier start time, the curtain time for most weekday performances this season will be 7:30 p.m
A lot of people seem to have wanted this switch from 8pm -- I wasn't one of them. An impossibly early supper or stuffing oneself hurriedly at intermission (and for those who work New York hours, the move makes the latter more likely) makes operagoing a drag.

Second, next season's three Ring cycles are all equally spaced out. No single-week runs or matinee sequences as has been standard in rerun years. So beware, if you're planning to travel for a cycle.

On the whole, not much seems to happen before April, but Katarina Dalayman's return in a full set of Brünnhildes is great news.

The dance

The Bartered Bride -- Juilliard Opera, 2/15/2011
Claire, Appleby, Bisch, Lewis / Levine

It wasn't for nothing that Juilliard Opera included choreographer, City Ballet alum, and celebrity beau Benjamin Millepied in its starry production lineup for Smetana's best-known opera. The show -- the first flower of Juilliard's collaboration with the Met's Lindemann program, announced three years ago this month -- owes its unity and its best production moment to his dances. That's not the worst sort of show, but it's not quite the best either.

The Bartered Bride, like most comedies, is about belonging -- or, rather, integration: the reconciling, not utter effacing, of one's finite and infinite hopes to the complex and not-quite-immovable demands of civilized human necessity and vice versa. (A story of reconciling with the rather more immovable demands of natural necessity -- like, say, Věc Makropulos -- usually ends in death and isn't a comedy.) Here that civilizational process is given the physical metaphor of dance. The first two acts' scenes are set with character dances -- the organized, intricate whirl of society's body around the central couple -- and the lovers themselves follow up in similar manner. Jenik, after vowing to win Marenka's hand, works on his dance steps in the "outdoor" space behind where her parents try to set her fate; Marenka herself does a more frustrated solo bit later on as she's beset by opposition. The start of Act Two shows the place of both Marenka's suitors at once: Jenik -- who hasn't yet found his winning course -- sits glum in his central chair as the general dance goes on around him, while Vasek, a bumpkin fresh from the country, cannot help but jostle and trip as he moves in that hectic space. And when Vasek is won in the next act by another life and woman than what had been set for him, it's not by her looks so much as by his unexpected ability to join fluently with her and her circus company in their show-off number (and the subsequent offer to join her act as, well, the dancing bear). Until that point, none of the leads had been able to find their place in the general motion -- no wonder Vasek's sudden triumph (and its clever realization by Millepied and the cast) brought down the house.

Using Millepied's choreography in this way is, I think, to director Stephen Wadsworth's credit, and Wadsworth himself deftly handles the non-dance choreography of the town locals. But while also drawing excellent individual performances from the comic leads -- tenors Alexander Lewis (who steals the show as Vasek) and Noah Baetge (the Ringmaster) and bass Jordan Bisch (an amusingly self-satisfied Kecal) -- Wadsworth critically fails at the heart of the piece. Layla Claire as Marenka and Paul Appleby as Jenik do well with others, but their central romance seems -- bizarrely -- an afterthought in this show. The pair's given no physical language for their rocky relationship and not even a loving, relieved embrace at their final triumph -- only an all-too-clever reveal of them necking under a table at curtain call. Perhaps there's some performer-based explanation, but with this young and seemingly game and responsive cast it's hard not to give blame as well as credit to the director.

*     *     *

The biggest name, of course, was James Levine, who despite his bad back (he couldn't leave the pit for curtain calls) is conducting the run of this Juilliard show. This was the greatest pleasure of the evening, as his presence energized the young orchestra to spirited life in the motion of Smetana's opera.

The young singers -- mostly members or recent alums of the Met's Lindemann program -- also accounted well for themselves. If Appleby and Claire weren't able to play mutual passion, they each sang well enough, with Claire's live top notes proving the most expressively interesting instrument of the night. (She also has an attractive face & figure not evident as the Don Carlo page.) The comic leads, as above noted, did well all around... except they, like the lovers, had to fight the English-language text. Doing the translated version may be traditional here, but in J.D. McClatchy's new translation it just seems dated. That the patter-rhythms of the music don't match well to our speech may be unavoidable, but McClatchy provides little verbal spark or originality to justify his own rhymed rendition. Perhaps the original Czech is similar doggerel, but if so I'd prefer the privilege of not having to hear and understand (the cast has unfortunately good diction all around) every empty word, particularly in the sublime music of Marenka's famous Act Three aria of despair.

*     *     *

As an official Met show this would be worthy, but I hope that if/when, as rumor has it, the production actually makes its way (enlarged) to the big stage across 65th Street, the star tenor and soprano take the romance part into their own hands... and, if possible, insist on Czech. Until then, this particular run continues tonight (Thursday) and on Sunday afternoon -- officially sold out, but there were some empty seats so returns may be available.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Twice briefly (without Vargas)

Simon Boccanegra -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/20/2011
Hvorostovsky, Frittoli, De Biasio, Alaimo, Furlanetto / Levine

Half the success of this show was made in advance when the cast was assembled. But while Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Ferruccio Furlanetto, and James Levine were predictable successes, the other leads weren't. Scheduled tenor Ramon Vargas was ill, and replaced by Met debutant Roberto de Biasio. And soprano Barbara Frittoli, after an auspicious start in the house in the '90s, has never really satisfied since.

That an emergency replacement tenor can be as good as de Biasio is a happy sign of the times. The Sicilian tenor not only has a strong and pleasant voice but showed a fairly well-developed musical sense despite the likely lack of rehearsal. I did miss Vargas' recently unerring sense of character (again, no knock of de Biasio, who had little chance to develop a rapport with the rest of the cast), but most of the crowd seemed to be buzzing about the need to see the new guy again. I agree, though the field these days is strong.

Frittoli, meanwhile, sounded much refreshed after her poor vocal showing a year ago as Micaela -- which, at the time, seemed to be part of a larger and more disturbing vocal trend. I'm not sure where her voice will go from here (and reports since this revival debut seem to be mixed), but her clearly produced and phrased performance here was a most welcome surprise.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky sang the eponymous former corsair beautifully, but I'm not convinced that Boccanegra plays to his real strengths. For all his exquisite shape of phrase, Hvorostovsky is most compelling when some dangerously strong emotion (usually rage) explodes from his usual civilized surface -- witness his Onegin, or di Luna, or Renato. Boccanegra, for all his pride and checkered past, spends most of his onstage time conciliating passions, not indulging them, and only his reminiscence of the sea near the end seems to engage Hvorostovsky in full.

An excellent night for Verdi singing and playing.

*     *     *

La Boheme -- Metropolitan Opera, 1/31/2011
Kovalevska, Phillips, Beczala, Mattei, Scheunemann, Shenyang / Armiliato

What a relief to be in the reliable hands of Marco Armiliato after Roberto Rizzi Brignoli's misguided overconducting! Not to say that Puccini is obvious or easy or does not reward refined conductorial touches: Nicola Luisotti's runs of Boheme and Fanciulla showed the power of a great baton. But though the ever-solid Armiliato doesn't make the show (as Luisotti did), he doesn't ruin it either (as Rizzi Brignoli was coming all too close to doing). The change in the pit is for all remaining performances, so perhaps Gelb (or the musicians) had had enough.

Piotr Beczala's Rodolfo is new to me. He lacks refinement here but sings with the familiar middle-European tenorial ardor that makes for a fairly appealing character . Like remarkable debutant Yonghoon Lee (in Don Carlo), Beczala is strong in shaping the full span of a phrase to where it should go -- though he doesn't, of course, have the Korean's overpowering spinto ring.

Peter Mattei is as excellent a Marcello as one would expect, mellifluous and personable but with flashes of his Don Giovanni darkness. Sopranos Maija Kovalevska and Susanna Phillips are (also expectedly) good, though without yet finding the complete magic of their last Bohemes together.

I may end up catching another of Beczala's performances, but I expect the Vargas shows at the end will be the more interesting -- if he stays healthy.