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