Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A note on Seance

It's likely I won't see City Opera's NYC premiere production of Stephen Schwartz's Seance on a Wet Afternoon (ending this weekend). A reader did send this report:
I thought the sets for SÉANCE was excellent, and the singers were enthusiastic, but the work suffered from the fact that Schwartz also wrote the libretto, and it probably would have been more successful as a one-act. I like an evil female protagonist, but if you have one it's a good idea for the opera to end promptly once she does the deed. Instead Schwartz tests audience sympathy with a prolonged ghoulish and sentimental denouement. The staging of the finale brought to mind the Zimmerman "Lucia" but instead of the triumphant tragic love of a skittish virgin bride, it is that of a clingy mom.
Mark Adamo's contemporary dual-threat success doesn't change the overall history of composers' libretto attempts letting down their own music.

It's been a strange year at NYCO, neither popular nor particularly ambitious. There were, of course, budget issues, but if the new administration has a coherent and memorable vision for the place, it hasn't appeared yet. Nor, in fact, has next season's lineup -- except for the Rufus Wainwright announcement.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The week in NY opera (Apr 25-May 1)

Metropolitan Opera:
Walküre (M/Th), Rigoletto (T/SE), Trovatore (W/SM), Orfeo (F)
Although the show is a success and worth seeing, it may not have been such a great idea opening a not-humanly-engaged director's new Valkyrie production with a cast so top-to-bottom inexperienced in its roles. There's admirable spirit in this cast's doings but lots of potential nuances are missed absent guidance or experience. Rigoletto (conducted this time by Fabio Luisi) and Orfeo (another David Daniels revival, unfortunately) begin their end-of-season runs this week, while Trovatore ends with two final performances (including a matinee moviecast) that may or may not feature tenor Marcelo Alvarez. Whether it's Alvarez or able fill-in Arnold Rawls as the eponymous troubador, however, if you dislike this revival you don't actually like opera.

New York City Opera:
Seance on a Wet Afternoon (T/Th/F/SE/SunM)
The second and final week of the run. It's gotten poor reviews but did prompt an amusing post by Mark Adamo and, um, Mark Adamo.

Carnegie Hall:
Schwarz/Fink/Schade/Quasthoff recital (M)
Sophie Karthäuser recital (Th)

The four-singer recital (in the big hall) is of Brahms' wonderful Liebeslieder Waltzes -- both sets -- plus some related stuff. Karthäuser's program (in the really small hall) is half German, half French.

Juilliard School (Peter Jay Sharp Theater):
L'heure espagnole/Gianni Schicchi (W/F/SuM)
Regular school production, not the all-star affair of their Bartered Bride.

A pile of choral stuff this week, with Elijah (Oratorio Society, Wed.) and Dvorak's Sabat Mater (NY Choral Society, Sun. matinee) at Carnegie Hall and Carmina Burana (National Chorale, Fri.) at Avery Fischer. Also, Thomas Hampson sings Crumb (!) at Alice Tully on Friday.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The surprise debut of Arnold Rawls

Il Trovatore - Metropolitan Opera, 4/23/2011
Alvarez/Rawls, Radvanovsky, Zajick, Hvorostovsky, Kocan / Armiliato

So the all-star cast of the Met's Il Trovatore was rolling along, with most of the virtues of the production premiere (though without David McVicar's actual directoral presence, some of the dramatic sharpness had been traded for vocal machismo -- which, given the opera, was fine). Stefan Kocan, impressive already this year as Sparafucile, used his character-soaked bass to be the first plausible successor to the original Ferrando Kwangchul Youn, while Sondra Radvanovsky brought the house down with her first solo scene (Tacea la notte... di tale amor), as she always has with her second.

Cue the expectant audience, back from the night's sole intermission (between Acts II and III), faced with a man in front of the curtain. Marcelo Alvarez is ill, he says, and Arnold Rawls will make his debut as the replacement Manrico. Rawls has just found out, and so needs to dress and prepare.

Alvarez had actually sung the first half well, with the firmness of voice and character that made him the strongest part of this season's fall revival. But we'd seen this two years ago: Alvarez dropped out midway, replaced then (and for the following performance) by Philip Webb for his debut. Webb was plausible, but not much better than the singer we later saw making a hash of Normanno through the otherwise vocally magnificent Calleja/Dessay/Tezier/Youn Lucia.

Arnold Rawls, as many quick smartphone searches discovered, is an American tenor who's sung mostly in American regional houses. His only prior engagement with the Met seems to have been covering Marcello Giordani in Manon Lescaut. He'd sung Manrico elsewhere, of course, but there's not much sterner a test than coming on cold for "Ah si ben mio" followed immediately by "Di quella pira". At the sold-out Met.

Fortunately, Rawls turned out to be more Gary Lehman than Philip Webb. He's not as polished a tenor as Alvarez -- the voice isn't as thoroughly even and whole, and his Italian vowels aren't the greatest. But he confidently filled the big house with his spacious clear voice, and capped off "Di quella pira" with an endless, nerve-free high note. He showed good underlying musicianship, and even -- with, I assume, no rehearsal whatsoever -- acted the finale reasonably well. (His approximation of a trill in "Ah si ben mio" wasn't great, but he tried something there.) A stellar debut under huge pressure.

Rawls' success got me to thinking about the vagaries of career opportunity. It's likely that anyone with the truly off-the-charts sound of, say, Joseph Calleja will get his chances everywhere no matter what, but a small fraction of even international names have that sort of singular quality. Most have, instead, a compilation of above-average virtues ever polished and improved into a characteristic whole -- something not necessarily evident on a short impression or from pedigree. The superstar of a smaller house may be swallowed whole by the Met, while a solid performer elsewhere may be just as solid here -- or may have improved her art to have crossed into greatness.

Rawls himself has, as I've said, room to improve and I suppose the fact that he was the one on call and in fact got his chance validates whatever system got him on stage last night. But the fact that a Verdi tenor -- the most famously high-valued voice type -- of his basic Met-scale gift has been working obscurely in the regional round shows that either we actually have opened another golden age of tenors (and I'm open to this possibility) or that something isn't quite right. (He's not fat or particularly wooden onstage.)

Note that Rawls is the second emergency debut tenor I've seen this season (after Roberto di Biasio in Boccanegra); both, along with second-time emergency replacement (after a 2003 Almaviva) tenor Bruce Sledge, were better than the guy whose agent hyped him to the NYT as "the next Pavarotti". Rawls was, I think, the best of these three (or four, if you like), and though he wasn't quite up to the debut standard Yonghoon Lee set in Don Carlo, I certainly hope he gets more chances at this level and the development that implies. Gary Lehman is, after all, premiering both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Met next season.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Valkyrie notes

Die Walküre - Metropolitan Opera, 4/22/2011
Voigt, Terfel, Westbroek/Wray, Kaufmann, König, Blythe / Levine

Let me do this very quickly, since I'd seriously rather think about tonight's Trovatore.

Voigt: Voice still coherent and effective in the middle and bottom, where the meat of this role sits. Plays young well. The whole thing really worked (surprisingly), probably the best of the big sings on the night. Other Ring operas sit higher, where the less happy sound can happen, but who cares for this run?
Terfel: Has the sound, gets the role, overacts at times, not on the same plane as Morris last time but who is? He wastes vocal force at times but he's got it to spare. Looking forward to hearing him develop in this.
Kaufmann: Great high notes, excellent moral force in the Act II "Todesverkündigung", low notes not much, could improve legato and phrasing through Act I.
Westbroek: Sick, no comment since I haven't heard her live before. Wray: Nice fill-in, without the problems on top she's occasionally had.
König: Looks like Santa Claus, and the costuming unfortunately accentuates this. How menacing can Santa Claus really be?
Blythe: Sonically awesome, as always. Nice ram chair she slides in on too.

Levine: Always delivers in the last act. Great to see him make it on stage for curtain call.
Lepage: The overall conventionality of the show is getting humorous. Not enough eye-catching electronic detail (the Act III midair ride -- a good basic idea -- could have used some color sprucing it up), but the use of the long panels as individual trees in a forest for the Siegmund scenes was nice. Nice fire at the end, spoiled by totally unnecessary blinding yellow lights straight into audience eyes.

In the beginning

Capriccio - Metropolitan Opera, 4/7/2011 & 4/19/2011
Fleming, Rose, Kaiser, Braun, Connolly, Larsen, Makarina, Banks / Davis

Strauss and Krauss' Capriccio is one of the more difficult operatic masterpieces to "get" at first listen: not because of any obscurity in its expression, but because of its very clarity in an aesthetic model not much shared elsewhere. Anyone can appreciate the moonlight music and final monologue, but -- as I've seen in this run -- by that point all too many have become sleepy (like La Roche during the sextet-overture) or fidgety or actually left after two-plus unbroken hours in the theater.

So what, if anything, are those two hours of buildup -- and the piece as a whole -- about? All the program notes helpfully point us to the words/music (or music/drama) debate, but if this is the crux, it hardly plays out satisfyingly: the poet-suitor and composer-suitor both make their pitch (personal and professional) relatively early, and not only is elaboration thereafter lacking but the piece concludes without a definitive answer! Nor is it particularly about a love-rivalry, as our experience with other opera might suggest: again, the second half then seems like long digression -- and on top of this, each suitor cuts too small and civilized a figure to be much of a romantic lead.

Nor, despite its chronological finality, is Capriccio Strauss' farewell to opera. For he had already written that, in the greatest music that was ever almost-but-not-quite spoiled by a horrific wooden libretto (and three viciously difficult principal roles): the final act of his previous opera, Die Liebe der Danae. Jupiter's monologue there is his magnificent renunciation of life, the stage, and everything else -- Strauss' late personal version of Wotan, Hans Sachs, or the Marschallin. And it was Danae, though earlier-written, that was the last attempted Strauss premiere: the wartime cancellation of the 1944 Salzburg Festival prevented its official debut, but Strauss and some others were able to see his opera-composing career close with a momentous dress rehearsal.

Having already written an end, Strauss instead found a beginning: the literary skills of conductor Clemens Krauss, whose quick wit and understanding revived much that was impossible with the clumsy but Nazi-approved pen of Joseph Gregor (the aforementioned wooden librettist of Danae, and Daphne, and Friedenstag). And so Stefan Zweig's kernel of a words-or-music piece turned into this new attempt called Capriccio, finished in 1942. It was a backwards-looking journey.

Capriccio, in fact, goes all the way back, to the beginning of all things -- not the world per se, but to Strauss' world, which is to say opera. Not merely historically, though that too -- the characters praise the birth of recognizably-modern opera in Gluck -- but personally and thematically as well. We see all the figures of a life in the opera world, transposed into well-mannered shapes: the poet-librettist (Hofmannsthal -- with whom Strauss' opera masterpieces began -- and Zweig), the impresario (Max Reinhardt, Strauss and Hofmannsthal's collaborator in both music and the founding of the Salzburg Festival), various patrons, dilettantes, prima donnas, and performers, a prompter, and even an amusingly opinionated chorus of servants. Strauss arranges and rearranges these players in ever-more-formally-intricate combination until an opera -- and, thus, opera itself -- shakes out.

We first hear it about to happen with a horn tune, as Countess Madeleine's brother intones that an opera is an absurd thing. When it recurs, the Countess herself is calling composer and librettist to their task in rather more sanctified terms. And, at the last, the tune kicks off the moonlight music as the finale begins. What has announced itself? Opera, at last -- the full operatic experience, in its no-longer-to-be-deferred glory... but also in its essence and beginning -- the primal operatic scene, the true beginning to complement an already-found end.

This operatic ur-scene has (in Strauss' rendition at least) words, music, romantic complication -- but these turn out to be secondary. What's needed, for him, is the eternal-feminine, the central female figure contemplating her feelings and fate. What exactly those turn out to be doesn't much matter.

*     *     *

This first revival of John Cox's 1998 Met premiere production is, thankfully, done in one long act -- without the intermission both the premiere and the 2005 City Opera production inserted at the serving of chocolate. We therefore see the piece in its full shape, as artists' inspiration turns to the vagaries of realization before we witness the mysterious climax-cum-origin. There are, unfortunately, a few cuts -- including references to Strauss' Ariadne (itself revived next month) and Daphne -- presumably to keep the piece from running too long without a break.

Strauss, never much of a conquering modernist, has shrunk both of his creative figures -- poet and musician -- to salon dimensions, giving the impresario and Countess full opportunity to seize the show. Neither does so here, so it remains basically an excellent ensemble piece with the main personality that of conductor Andrew Davis. He does a fine job, but I would have liked to see either a stronger La Roche (Eric Halfvarson was magnificent at NYCO) or a more engaging Countess: Renee Fleming, as usual, tries hard but doesn't quite know what to do with herself when she's alone up there. It's not quite as awkward as the 2008 opening night, but the business with the rose, the business with lying down on the seat... these come off as exactly the contrived bits of business they in fact are. Fleming, too, wants the piece to be simpler, to be about romance or choice or something she can use her full-bore tone to hit, but it's unfortunately not. She gives a nice approximation of what the Countess' role would be if it were that sort of opera, but this doesn't much engage the currents of what actually does go on in the piece.

Still, with a nice ensemble all around, Mauro Pagano's handsome sets, and Andrew Davis' impressive work in the pit, it's a nice rare chance to see Strauss' masterpiece in full.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The dull seducer

Le Comte Ory - Metropolitan Opera, 3/24/2011 & 4/21/2011
Florez, Damrau, DiDonato, Resmark, Degout, Pertusi / Benini

Never has so much excellent singing been so intolerably boring as in this just-concluded Met premiere run of Rossini's Comte Ory. At fault: a concerted and largely successful effort to erase any trace of drama from the already-problematic opera -- and to replace it with sitcom-level posturing. Remember this show when Gelb next trots out his mantra about the dramatic.

What's worst is that the prime culprits have shown themselves capable of much better. Director Bart Sher followed his needlessly busy Barber with a much better second Met show: the memorably dark Tales of Hoffmann. This Rossini, however, brought him back to the rote production language of that forgettable Barber -- mute servant role and all -- this time wrapped in a cute but pointless meta-production conceit of seeing the show as if in a smaller old-style theater with hand-done effects, prompting from the sides, etc. Characters' entrances and exits are well handled, but there's no actual character to any of them. With costumer Catherine Zuber also reprising designs from that Barber, the only hint that Sher et al. did something as full of sense as Hoffmann is in the heroine's pink/violet-haired attendants (showing a lot less flesh here than there, even with the stocking display to begin Act 2)... Sher seems to have had one idea here besides the big conceit, and it's a poor one -- to throw away the actual musical and dramatic climax of the show on a stupid extended threesome joke.

The actual written ending of the piece has, in its mistaken-identity aspect (Isolier takes Adele's place as Ory attempts to seduce her) and play on the pants-role part of its mezzo lead Isolier, a generous serving of farce. But it is funny for schadenfreude at Ory's comeuppance, as his cleverness overextends himself to make him ridiculous rather than formidable -- the exploiter of disguise is himself taken in by disguise. It is entirely in accord with the rest of his failure here that Juan Diego Florez plays a version of the climax that erases its point. For Florez, as ever, is oh-so-conservative about his stage persona, which remains as goofily teen-heartthrob as ever. About the only good part of that Sonnambula disaster was the prospect of the Peruvian tenor continuing to embrace a more adult and heartfelt sensibility, but his Ory showed serious regression. He at least improved noticably by the run's end, but even yesterday it seemed impossibly difficult for Florez to embrace the fact that he's the bad guy, with each half-moment of full conniving quickly taken back with a long span of "come on, how cute am I doing this?" clowning. The show could and should have been a chance to really subvert the Florez persona and the audience's reaction to it -- and he may even have said as much in early interviews -- but he simply can't resist pandering to this audience reaction for any extended period.

Yes, Florez sang brilliantly, but because he evaded the villain role nothing was at stake and he was boring. Diana Damrau got, among other things, the fullest-scale Rossini solo showpiece and did well with it. As well as Joyce DiDonato sang in ensembles, she was allowed -- disappointingly -- no solos of note. Stephane Degout and Michele Pertusi were, however, and sang well in them.

For all its press and box-office success (and don't get me wrong, there's much to be said for any show that sells most of its tickets these days), this run is surely the artistic low point of the Peter Gelb era. Gelb's previous failures at least tried new things along his proclaimed line. But here, less than five years from his ascension to sole General Manager on the effective spin of renewing the "drama" element in Met productions, we find Gelb selling the exact sort of dramatically empty, idea-free, singer-exploitation-vehicle sitcom with which Joe Volpe closed his reign. Yuck.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Die schöne Müllerin - Alice Tully Hall, 4/3/2011
Polenzani / Drake

Though I've long thought its successors Winterreise (also by Schubert to Müller's poems) and Dichterliebe (Schumann and Heine) the peaks of the Romantic song cycle, the pure Edenic appeal of the genre may come through most purely in Schubert's first cycle: Die Schöne Müllerin. Or at least it did as magnificently performed this month by American tenor Matthew Polenzani.

From Rousseau to Wordsworth to countless Germans, the Romantic and proto-Romantic occupation with nature conceived it as more than just some escape -- whether from burdensome social forms, as in pre-Romantic aristocratic pastorals, or from encroaching economic and industrial order, as in later naturalist and environmentalist conceptions. Romantic nature was both teacher and ideal locus for the Romantic self, and thus -- well, let's look at the actual cycle.

Embarrassingly for some modern observers, Die Schöne Müllerin presents Romantic subjectivity in its most hapless light. The young wandering mill-hand is wracked by love, (brief) joy, and jealousy over a girl (the lovely miller's daughter of the title) whose affection for him is reluctant, brief, and perhaps (on an extreme unsympathetic interpretation) entirely imagined. For this he pitches himself into the brook. Such ineffectuality has left the protagonist open to unsympathetic claims of mental imbalance, stalking, etc. But that looks at the matter backwards. For as most have unhappily discovered at one point or other, the truth and strength of one's subjective feeling is only occasionally related to the degree or length of reciprocal sentiment. And authenticity of subjective feeling is exactly what Romantic song -- this Romantic song -- is trying to sell. The rest, in a good performance, doesn't matter.

In fact, the general lack of overt success or approval make for a more pure Romantic experience. The song-cycle, like its protagonist, stands for its appeal on little more than truth and wholeness of feeling: absent, here, are the authority-bolstering supplements of later Romantic classics -- full fathom of extremity and alienation (Winterreise), ironic self-awareness matched to feeling (Dichterliebe), landmarks of conventionally-recognized domestic bliss (Frauenliebe), or any sort of historic, mystic, or mythological dress-up (every Romantic opera ever).

What Die Schöne Müllerin does have, what guides its expression throughout, is of course the brook, ever-present in both the piano and the text, from the infectiously rhythmic wandering (learned, the first poem says, from the water's motion) of the beginning to the its own wistful/funereal lullaby (which opens into the rest of nature) for the deceased at the end. In between, the brook has an additional role, perhaps its most important: it receives the protagonist's confidences, it hears his joys and complaints -- unproblematically.

For as little purchase as the protagonist's feelings may have on his beloved's, as unprepossessing as he might otherwise be in the world, the channel of love and communication between him and the brook is never closed. That is, the mill-hand never can doubt his audience, and this essential relation shows the glory of Romanticism's dawn: sure his sincerity will find echo in the receptive heart of his listener, the poet invites one freely to hear his joys and woes and reflections as they are transformed in the magic circle of his personal Eden. (Later, as it becomes no-longer-to-be-overlooked that one's listenership can be as fickle as any beloved, the relationship is more halting -- by the end of Winterreise we're in a much different spirit of art-offering.)

*     *     *

It's not for everyone, of course, and that goes for singers as much as listeners. But the unprepossessing sincerity with which Polenzani always presents himself is allowed perfect expression here (just as it was wasted in Traviata). Add his excellent diction, his uncomplicatedly beautiful lyric voice, and the deep affection he seems to have inspired in the New York audience and he's as ideal an exponent of this cycle as there's ever been.

The encore, after a number of tumultuous curtain calls, was Schubert's Im Abendrot, another famous glimpse of the Romantic Eden. In this text it's poet and God whose relationship nature proves, but the certainty and satisfaction are familiar ones.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The week in NY opera (April 18-24)

Not sure how I forgot to list the CSO Otello last week, except that I was sick beginning last weekend. Didn't see any opera (or the recital I had tickets to). This week should be different.

Metropolitan Opera:
Comte Ory (M/Th), Capriccio (T/SM), Il Trovatore (W/SE), Die Walküre (F)
Comte Ory and Capriccio close their runs, the latter with a matinee moviecast this Saturday, while Trovatore and Valkyrie begin their sold-out returns to the Met. Trovatore brings back much of its great original cast, while Valkyrie is of course installment #2 in the new Lepage Ring that began opening night.

New York City Opera:
Seance on a Wet Afternoon (T/W/F/SM/SuM)
This first opera by musical theater composer Stephen Schwartz premiered at its commissioning company, Opera Santa Barbara, in 2009, but gets its first New York performances now. It also brings Lauren Flanigan back to the house at which she used to be ubiquitous.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The week in NY opera (April 11-17)

Not much this week, except for German rarities at the Met.

Metropolitan Opera:
Capriccio (M/F), Tosca (T/SE), Wozzeck (W/SM), Comte Ory (Th)
Wozzeck ends its two-week run at the Met. See it.

Alice Tully Hall:
Sarah Connolly recital (Th 7:30pm)
The British mezzo interrupts her run as Clairon (the diva in Capriccio) to give this recital, which replaces Damrau's cancelled program in February. Schumann in the first half (including Frauenliebe) and English material in the second.

Monday, April 04, 2011

The week in NY opera (April 4-10)

See the post below this one for a review of Boris (very brief), Pique Dame/Queen of Spades (at length), and some Rameau.

Metropolitan Opera:
Tosca (M/F), Comte Ory (T/SM), Wozzeck (W/SE), Capriccio (Th)
James Levine is actually still scheduled to conduct all four performances of this two-week run of Wozzeck -- it's Matthias Goerne who's cancelled, replaced in the title part by Alan Held. About Comte Ory, a commenter wrote: "I feel stupid that I wasn't offended by the boringness/cheeziness/lameness of the production." I actually feel like a spoilsport that I was, but seeing regression from Florez (acting), Sher (production), and the Met's choice of Rossini works all in the same show was too much to take, at least after a month of Lucias and Queens of Spades.

New York City Opera:
Elisir (T/SE), Monodramas (F), Where the Wild Things Are (SM)
Final week for the first two shows; the latter appears to be a childrens' concert version.

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

Maurizio Pollini cancelled what looked to be the instrumental recital of the season (Beethoven's last three sonatas tonight) and wasn't, unfortunately, replaced again by Jeremy Denk (whose late Beethoven needs to happen more often), but Leif Ove Andsnes is playing op. 111 at Carnegie Hall on Thursday.

Oh to live in Paris!

Boris Godunov - Metropolitan Opera, 10/30/2010
Pape, Antonenko, Petrenko, Ognovenko, Semenchuk, Nikitin / Smelkov
The Queen of Spades - Metropolitan Opera, 3/11/2011 and 3/21/2011
Galouzine, Mattila, Mattei, Markov, Zajick, Mumford, Kuznetsova / Nelsons
Anacreon (1757) / Pygmalion - Les Arts Florissants, 3/12/2011
Buet, Bayodi-Hirt, de Negri, Lyon / Christie
Lyon, Bayodi-Hirt, de Negri, Thomas / Christie

Though it, like Tchaikovsky's three operatic masterpieces, derives from Pushkin -- in this case a play, not staged in the author's lifetime -- Mussorgsky's famous operatic version of Boris ever threatens to be the most leaden of experiences, what with all the noble droning and Russian self-pity cut only occasionally with low comedy and foreign intrigue. It's up to these peripheral characters to keep the conflict at a boil, and though tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (the false Dmitri) certainly has personal force as well as vocal, he was let down this season by his uninspired Polish co-conspirators Marina (Ekaterina Semenchuk) and Rangoni (Evgeny Nikitin, last seen as a bizarrely wimpy Orest -- but kudos to him for stepping in to finish the final bit of this run). Rene Pape is a great bass, but ultimately Boris is stuck in his own show.

Tchaikovsky, rather less burdened with having to deliver extra-large doses of Russian-ness in his subjects, took for his most famous operas (Onegin and the just-revived Queen of Spades) Pushkin works set in a less miserably and soulfully "authentic" but just as characteristically Russian milieu: the country and city worlds of the nation's gentry. Before last century's vanguard murdered or exiled them, the inhabitants of this curious universe lived lives that those of us concerned with what is can hardly now credit -- as compatriots (on the one hand) in land and political conditions with those long-suffering Russian masses, while quite of a piece (on the other hand) with their better-remembered western counterparts in basic concerns and occupations. In this universe balls figured largely -- the vital break from boredom, in the country; the scene of things, in the city -- as did other flowers of idleness: promenades, the joys and vapors of romance, gambling, and the one form of approved (and therefore still substantially idle) male work -- commissions in the army. And, from Peter the Great's time: France, and the French language.

Tchaikovsky spun these all into perfect melancholy harmony in his operatic version of Onegin, but the Queen of Spades, composed a dozen years later, is an amazing outburst of contrast. Like Onegin -- and Tchaikovsky himself -- this opera's main character is not quite in tune with the genteel Russian world. Hermann, in fact, is an overt outsider: without particular wealth or position, he stands (literally, in Elijah Moshinsky's excellent production) at this world's fringes, close enough to see and desire but not close enough to partake. He is an officer, but this alone only gets him near enough to the card table to watch his richer (and more careless) comrades wager stakes he can't afford; only lets him walk among the well-dressed idlers, eyeing passing beauties without the introduction to speak to them or the name or money to think of making one his wife.

And yet, in Romantic fashion, the world and he compete -- for Tchaikovsky has lavished his love and genius on both sides. The contest, at first, is for the heart and life of a young woman: Lisa. Though more definitively of the genteel world -- and, in an important sense, its highest flower -- she too finds herself unhappy, dissatisfied and melancholy even in the domestic apotheosis of her engagement to Mr. Perfect (Prince Yeletsky, a character I believe invented by Tchaikovsky) and the homage of her young circle therefor. It's this dissatisfaction that gives Hermann his chance -- but Tchaikovsky meanwhile gives her original setting its full musical due in a series of genre numbers added on to Pushkin's more direct presentation. So we see St. Petersburg society at play in a park, in domesticity at Lisa's (playing both melancholy song and a Russian dance tune for which the girls are immediately reprimanded for being improperly peasant-y), on display at a ball, and -- perhaps most memorably -- enacting its weightless Rococo ideal of love in the long pastoral play-within-the-play entertainment of Act II. As in Verdi's Petersburg-premiered opera (Forza), these genre additions present a certain confident wholeness within which the contrastingly late-Romantic protagonists cannot themselves find peace.

By the time of the ball Lisa has resolved to sacrifice honor and peace for Hermann, but he is already distracted. For perhaps he'd seen her as the lovely distant embodiment of all that his fringe state kept at frustrating distance, but up close Lisa turned out also to be the key to a more tantalizing thread -- perhaps the very basis of her universe's existence: the ur-secret that is her grandmother's knowledge. For it goes back -- as Russian mannered life did itself -- to France and the French court; its outlines give a shape to the darkness that one suspects at the heart of any prominence; and its acquisition offers Hermann the sudden power to overturn his position wholesale, to go from marginal to plausible with one giant haul at the card table, with no risk but his soul. And so it turns out he neither has nor wants some alternate world center -- no idyll of love nor distant doomed kingdom (contrast, say, Forza's Alvaro, who's accompanied by at least the echo of his father's unacquired crown) -- but simply seeks, with all his ever-less-sane might, to get to the center of the social world to which he's resentfully attached. With this revelation the contest is conceded; Hermann's eventual doom is sealed, as is Lisa's. As she says, at her end, she's tied her fate to a demon's. For both of them there is only the death and darkness that pervades the third act.

But for all that Hermann finds the center, and it's hardly less eerie than his own incipient madness. Stealing into the Countess' room with Lisa's key, brings him -- and us -- into her mind writ large: swaddled now in macabre (but catchily-tuned) obsequity, the old Russian noblewoman turns ever toward the past -- her past, in the only place that mattered, or matters... Versailles.

*     *     *

The Met, too, lavished its incomparable resources on the two poles of the opera's being. Tenor Vladimir Galouzine is not uniquely the Met's: he has made a specialty of the main part, and with good reason. Domingo and both the younger and older Heppner have sung well and effectively as Hermann, but never before in this production have all the varied turns and conflicts and shades of Hermann's self been laid out so clearly. Tchaikovsky wrote for the tenor a mighty part, whose terrible compulsive being dominates first Lisa and then the entire opera -- for in Pushkin's story Hermann is taken less seriously: the ironic tone never drops, there is no tragic fate for Lisa, and both apparition and Hermann's desire for money are presented quite matter-of-factly. Galouzine rewarded Tchaikovsky's grander task for the tenor and his madness with full unstinting, un-"managed" vocal and personal force, sonically fresher on the first night than on the second-to-last, but no less impressive on the latter. And yet how far he was from mere barking, how quickly he turned -- in the height of his madness -- to deliver a remarkably lucid (if still mad) and crisp account of his new credo (What is our life? A game!). It wasn't the purely exhilarating thrill of Calleja's Edgardo, but Galouzine's performance was, in its own dark way, as awesome.

But the Met did just as well with the Russian world to which Hermann's fatal pursuit is contrast. The chorus, as it often has under Donald Palumbo, showed itself now to be a great strength -- most of all in the men's prayer at Hermann's final downfall. The supporting cast this time was shockingly well-assembled: not only familiar faces Peter Mattei as Yeletsky and Tamara Mumford as Pauline (and the most earnest and sprightly Daphnis in ages) shone, but also debuting soprano Dina Kuznetsova (Russian by way of Lyric Opera of Chicago's young artists' program), who in nearly stealing the show as Chlöe (!) got me wondering how she hasn't yet been hired for non-cover leads here. Dolora Zajick used her remarkable instrument well to make the Old Countess formidable without going into a parade of tics.

In between is Lisa. In Karita Mattila's hands she is again more vivid and clearly-defined than her previous incarnations in this show (excluding, of course, Mattila herself, though her Lisa was overshadowed at the production's original run by the last bows of another theatrically gifted soprano): restless, perhaps chafing at the limits of a young society girl's world, but visibly pained at having to deceive and abandon the good Yeletsky. One wonders what contrasting path a more naturally placid and outwardly compliant persona might find in the role, though such a performer would have exactly the problems in Lisa's harrowing final scene that Mattila doesn't. Mattila, who almost seems comfortable only in extremity, gives the full measure of Lisa's desperation and desperate hope (including, I think, an echo of the Letter Scene as he first reappears) in the final scene -- by which point she, too, is outside her native social universe, with no alternative but the darkness in which Hermann is already caught.

Andris Nelsons got very good sound and solo playing from the orchestra without pushing tempi or rhythms in any unusual way. But the show was really the grand success of Elijah Moshinsky, whose wonderfully appropriate tableaux at last had the cast to illuminate it beginning to end. From the vast lace backdrop of the girls' gathering to the stylized court uniforms of park and ballroom (except, of course, for poor Hermann) to the frame in which Act II takes place (and Hermann literally walks out of) to the use of space and lighting to make the Countess' room the correlative to her mind to the barracks mad scene, Moshinsky's understanding and use of the opera's structure, contrasts, and themes is exemplary. If Hermann's daemonic presence is Galouzine's, Moshinsky gave him the space to use it -- and the contrasting frame of social order that a Gelb director like Decker would have mangled.

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The day after the Queen of Spades began its run, William Christie's Les Arts Florissants presented actual Parisian baroque entertainments at Alice Tully Hall. Composed by Rameau, these little (sub-hour-length) opera-ballet acts are just what you might expect from having seen Tchaikovsky's pastiche: love-plots in neoclassical garb, featuring as many dances and musically interesting mood shifts as possible given the strictly vestigial conflict. (Christie's group offered choreographed entrances and exits in the space before and behind the players, but no actual dancing.) They were also, as one might expect from Christie's previous work, pure joyful delight as performed by young soprano Hanna Bayodi-Hirt and her other clear-toned and expressive colleagues, and even touching within the works' small measure (particularly certain recitatives and instrumental bits). But as refreshing as it is to see the coherently, sophisticatedly, and joyously superficial world that demanded these works conjured again today with such sympathy, I did feel more than one twinge of Lisa-style dissatisfaction with its very perfection, its limitation on sorrow and inelegance. Forget Paris -- let me hear England.