Monday, December 31, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 31-January 6)

Metropolitan Opera
Maria Stuarda (M/F), Troyens (T/SM), Turandot (W), Barber (Th/SE)
The new year brings a new David McVicar production -- the second in what seems to be a full cycle of Donizetti's three "queens". Tonight's Maria Stuarda is not just this and the annual New Year's gala, however: it's also the first truly feature appearance by American mezzo superstar Joyce DiDonato. As excellent as she's been in recital and in comedy, it's tragic drama that's most fully shown her talents. (Internet live-stream of tonight's premiere -- 6:25ET.) Meanwhile Les Troyens has its final two performances with not-Giordani substitute tenor Bryan Hymel, and Turandot returns with Irene Theorin, Hibla Gerzmava, and Walter Fraccaro as Calaf.

Avery Fisher Hall
Opera Orchestra of New York Andrea Chenier (Sunday 4pm)
The year's first OONY show stars Roberto Alagna and a singer of whom I'd not previously heard, Arkansas-by-way-of-Vienna soprano Kristin Lewis.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 24-30)

As you might expect, Christmas week is rather slow.

Metropolitan Opera
Barber (WM/Th/SE), Troyens (W/SM), Aida (F)
Last performance this season of Aida.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The lost year

The eighth year of this blog's life has been the most precarious, with months and months of not-quite-posting at its start. There is much, in retrospect, I'd like to have written up in full -- no show more than the Manhattan School of Music revival of Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles, a review I'd probably have completed if I still had a working VCR at hand to check my old Met videotape. Nevertheless, at least this handful of posts seems worth revisiting:
On Manon, Manon Lescaut, and Laurent Pelly's production of the former
On Janacek's tragic version of The Makropoulos Case
On the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera
On Verdi's Requiem in performance
That I've been dissatisfied with the Gelb years since their beginning has been no secret, but he did soon after use the groundwork laid by his predecessor to preside over one of the great seasons in Met history -- 2008-09, its 125th. In this decade things haven't gone so well, but the most discouraging development from a commentator's perspective was how repetitive the missteps (and associated complaints) began to be. I'm glad to have offloaded some of that in the third post above.

Meanwhile, a word of appreciation for the readers who have continued (or begun!) to take in these words: I started this project to found what I'd not previously found -- a space for appreciation and thinking on what is in opera and opera performance, free from the factionalism and old-or-new conventions of other opera universes. I was never quite sure whether and how much this would appeal to anyone else, and want to thank you all for finding this a sympathetic project. For beyond my own limitations as a single individual with finite time and insight, I realize that the cooler format here omits not only the foolish tendencies of group opinion but its ability to deliver the pleasure of belonging -- something on which the modern world seems to run as much as the old did, if not more.

(That said, please feel free to comment!)

Monday, December 17, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 17-23)

Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house... Actually, there are a lot of performances of the Messiah this week, but it's not my favorite Handel.

Metropolitan Opera
Troyens (M/F), Barber (T/SM), Aida (W/SE), Don Giovanni (Th)
Super-compressed summary of my two half-finished posts on Les Troyens: the piece is uniquely glorious and shouldn't be missed, but Giordani and Luisi make rather less of the performance than what could be (and was). How that balances... up to you. Meanwhile the parade of 2007 Met Council winners continues with Alek Shrader in the kids' English-language version of Barber (again, as usual for these holiday shows, with a strong young cast overall), and Don Giovanni finishes its run (with the outstanding Donna Anna of 2005 winner Susanna Phillips). The week's Aidas bring Hui He and Dolora Zajick back into the female roles.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Long ago

Aida - Metropolitan Opera, 12/12/2012
Monastyrska, Borodina, Alagna, Gagnidze, Kocan / Luisi

While most of this Aida was certainly pleasant, about the only part of it more than that was also agonizingly less than what it was.

Ten years ago Olga Borodina was at the top of the mezzo heap even in the ongoing Mezzo Golden Age. A luxuriant, even sound from top to bottom combined with an even more luxuriant vocal approach made her an unrivaled treat for the ear, and her middle-weight voice had the flexibility for Rossini and the force for Verdi. The capper was to be Didon in the Met's first Les Troyens in decades, with Ben Heppner and (as ever) James Levine. But that never happened -- Borodina got pregnant, she withdrew from the 02-03 season including Troyens, and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson got (and seized) the Met chance of a lifetime.

Borodina has, of course, had great successes since then, but as her 30s passed into the 40s, high notes have marred her perfection and become a recurring issue. They were no problem in the early 2006 Aida, but her much-anticipated house role debut as Eboli at the end of the year found them on and off. And now...

Her work as Amneris never did rely on the paint-peeling volume or high note blasts of her colleague Dolora Zajick, but a judicious amount of each complemented the royal stage business and use of exquisite soft tones to make, on the whole, a more humanly effective whole of an Egyptian princess. Today (well, Wednesday) the bottom and middle of Borodina's voice are as luxuriant as ever and, when allowed to work their magic alone, are still the magic of the production. But when high notes appear, as they must, the effect is now spoiled: they themselves have a pressured quality that disrupts the even flow of tone; Borodina's cautious lead-up interrupts her commanding phrasing; and, well, the final cry of the last-act judgment scene should be more than just instantly touched.

Perhaps she has better in reserve. Some of her colleagues were clearly leaving something for Saturday's moviecast -- most obviously newly-arrived tenor Roberto Alagna, who wasn't bad but clearly wasn't going to waste one of his really good nights on this dry run. Conductor Fabio Luisi, as I observed this morning, was meanwhile just starting his torturous run of four straight shows in the pit for three different operas -- and here some autopilot is surely excusable. That said, I really was astounded by how unusually pedestrian not only the phrase-shaping but the actual tonal quality of the Met's orchestral playing turned out this time: I suspect not only Troyens but Aida itself would have benefited from a reliable dedicated presence like Marco Armiliato's in this show's pit. Ballo ended last night, but both Troyens and Aida will continue to play over the next weeks, meaning that Luisi never will get to focus on just one of the pair.

Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska -- who debuted earlier in this run -- can sing Aida reasonably well, but her voice, though decent in size, is a nervous one without much fat in the middle, a poor fit for this lyrical wallow of a part and opera. Baritone George Gagnidze looks surprisingly tall in this company, but Amonasro doesn't give him much space for scene-chewing. Stefan Kocan, luxury cast as Ramfis, has as welcome a sound as ever.

If that's not enough eastern Europeans for you, the choreography seems to have reworked by ABT's choreographer-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky.

*     *     *

Luisi did just (a few hours ago, on Friday night) deliver the zippiest Ballo of the season, so perhaps he, Alagna, and Borodina have some nice surprises saved up for this afternoon's moviecast. But it may be that Sonja Frisell's production, the Zeffirelli-topping epitome of Met big realism, will again be broadcast in a less-than-ideal show... which is fine as long as it continues to run past its imminent 25th season. Like all the old warhorse productions this year, its virtues are starting to seem, in the current context, subversive and new.

Amber Wagner

So did you ever wonder what Sondra Radvanovsky would sound like if she'd been born a full-on dramatic soprano (big Wagner, etc.) instead of the classic dramatic coloratura (Verdi from his beginning plus, you know, Norma) she in fact is?

Well, it turns out that the answer is basically "just like Amber Wagner". Or, rather, the felicitously-named Wagner sounds basically just like what you'd get if you put the soprano she covered (and, for last night's final performance, replaced) in Ballo into (baby) full-dramatic shape. There's slightly more chest-grounded fullness (something Radvanovsky, like most well-trained American non-dramatics, didn't use much at all while young) from the bottom, a slightly less-easy extension at the very top, and the top otherwise hits with a slightly more direct physical impact than Radvanovsky's astonishing and somewhat unsettling ringing of the whole house. (And, oh yes, she's built a bit more stoutly -- though not at all so that it's an issue, especially for a real dramatic.) But the basic, rippling quick-vibrato timbre is recognizably akin, as is Wagner's way with the text: in the rapid, dialogue-heavy parts of ensembles you could close your eyes and imagine Radvanovsky still there. And even the basic ballpark vocal size & volume!... though seeing Radvanovsky as Amelia again recently reminded me of just how easy it is to under-remember the thrilling scope and texture of her instrument.

But make no mistake: Wagner is her own singer with a prodigious gift of her own, and a pretty glorious performer already in her own right. On stage right now she's basically just a singer -- the action isn't unnatural but it's not at all what you notice -- but that is, if not yet as good as her predecessor on the whole, quite enough. She has, so far, turned out exactly as I hoped from her 2007 Met Council finals win -- where she lapped the field, including Angela Meade, on sound quality. She still does. See her in everything you can.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Luisi marathon

It occurred to me at the start of last night's Troyens that after the Saturday matinee moviecast of Aida, Fabio Luisi will have conducted four consecutive performances at the Met -- of three different operas, in the space of under four days.

This is, as I'll soon discuss, not good.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A significant passing

Lisa della Casa, the greatest of Strauss sopranos, died yesterday at the age of 93.

The appreciation I wrote for her 90th birthday has my thoughts, though the documentary video linked therein has now (sadly) been pulled from YouTube.

For those of you reading on a non-Firefox HTML5 browser, a bit of Der Rosenkavalier:

And, less well-known but in line with tonight's show at the Met, Donna Anna's arias from Don Giovanni (in German):

Monday, December 10, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 10-16)

Not much going on at other venues (if you're a Susanna Phillips or Elizabeth Futral fan, they're singing Phillip Lasser songs at the 92nd St Y Tribeca tonight), but it's an eventful week at the Met.

Metropolitan Opera
Clemenza (M), Don Giovanni (T/SE), Aida (W*/SM), Troyens (Th), Ballo (F)
Last call for Clemenza and Ballo this season, with the latter offering the house lead-role debut of big-voiced 2007 Met Council winner Amber Wagner. Meanwhile the moviecast streak continues with an Aida that surely anyone who's been to NYC in the past decades has seen... though perhaps not with Roberto Alagna, who's now in as Radames.
The biggest event, however, is the first revival of Francesca Zambello's great production of the Berlioz epic Les Troyens. A return with Susan Graham as Didon has been rumored on and off since the show's unforgettable 2003 premiere with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in the part, and though the star power in the rest of the cast has been reduced (the original had Polenzani as Iopas!), it's great to see it -- and Graham -- finally back.

* Wednesday's (starred) Aida 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.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The week in NY opera (December 3-9)

Metropolitan Opera
Aida (M/F), Ballo (T*/SM), Don Giovanni (W/SE), Clemenza (Th)
It's Hui He's turn as Aida, a role she debuted in 2010. Borodina is in imperfect vocal state and Marco Berti has already been replaced by Carl Tanner, but... it's Aida. Ballo and Clemenza are pretty good, but Don Giovanni (see post immediately below) is the best show of the Met season.

* Tuesday's (starred) Ballo 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
Collegiate Chorale Beatrice di Tenda (W 6pm)
This show (note early start time!) is largely a 2007 Met Council Finals reunion, with the most unjust loser (Nicholas Pallesen) and the most unjust winner (Jamie Barton) joining the singer most benefited by the win, no-longer-quite-immature dramatic coloratura Angela Meade. Throw in fearless American tenor Michael Spyres (remember Huguenots?) and you have the main cast.

Alice Tully Hall
Andreas Scholl recital (SE)
Scholl's voice was no match for the Met auditorium last year, but this much smaller venue may let him better show his musicality.

Morgan Library
George London Foundation recital (Sunday 4:30pm)
Mezzo Vivica Genaux and bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch offer a bunch of solo selections and one duet.

The Nutcracker (F/SM/SE/SuM/SuE)
The last-act staging gets bogged down and ABT's top men aren't in this run, but seeing official off-topic diva Veronika Part do childlike joy (12/8 and 12/16) is worth it all.

High definition

Don Giovanni - Metropolitan Opera, 11/28/2012
Abdrazakov, Schrott, Phillips, Bell, Siurina, Castronovo, Soar (d) / Gardner

This is neither the most urgent, nor the grandest, nor the most starry Don Giovanni the Met has put together over the years, but it might still be the very best. What it is -- to be clear -- is the best, most precisely, and most satisfyingly delineated incarnation I can remember, successful in every way that last month's Figaro failed and more, and an unreservedly recommendable triumph.

It starts, as ever, in the pit. As in his Carmens here two years ago, ENO music director Edward Gardner provides precise, measured, almost chamber-textured conducting. If he does not provide the wild daemonic electricity that, say, Nezet-Seguin might have offered, he also does not step on and bludgeon his singers as David Robertson did. Instead Gardner gives them a framework, a well-delineated space for their own work -- and they take it.

That they do and did is to the great credit of each -- all the applause at curtain was well-deserved -- but the essential catalyst seems to have been one who did not get a bow: revival stage director Louisa Muller, whose first title-page-credited Met work this seems to be (she has assisted on other shows here in the past, including the original version of this production). Muller, against the coarsening tide of the time, has worked with the cast to bring forth a feast of humanizing detail, in tune with and making visible not only the individual characters of performer and role, but Mozart's music itself. From the very first Anna-Giovanni confrontation on the balcony, scenes that tradition has allowed to become homogenously just their "gist" have been more precisely opened up to show multiple and various relations and moods (simultaneously at times, successively at others) -- as emotions flash or slowly work their way across each player's body and musical line. (In the most extended and striking example, simple positioning shifts allow Phillips and Castronovo to play her solo "Non mi dir" as a wonderfully revealing and believable couples' fight/reconciliation.) Some of this may have been trying to appear in the original premiere, but, perhaps due to revolving casts, not much did. The work of original director Michael Grandage and designed Christopher Oram in providing the most detailed frame of the Gelb era remains as helpful as I thought it would be. (The one physical flaw -- the dead Commendatore's silver braiding that looks too much like a skeleton shirt -- has been nicely patched by the ghost's keeping his arms within his cloak until the fatal handshake.)

Some players, of course, need no particular frame of conductor and show. Ekaterina Siurina is always clearly who she is: a wonderfully uncomplicated -ina/-etta. Her Susanna was a significant part of the last great Mozart/Da Ponte revival (that fall 2007 Figaro), and, character-wise, Siurina's happily familiar (she does not, as Mojca Erdmann did, break ground -- but it doesn't matter) way with this -ina is, as one would predict, firm ground for the volatility around her. And yet, whether from long unjust absence or growth over time, it had not occurred to me that her sound would be so big, so clear, so quite as delicious as her nice-soubrette phrasing. There are limits: sometimes one wants complications. (Yes, it turns out that "Siurina" may be Russian for "Ruth Ann Swenson".) But the opera world in which Siurina isn't the obvious first-choice Russian Adina is a crazy one.

Opposite her, as Masetto, debuts British singer David Soar, who has a tenor's name but a lyric bass instrument, which he -- well in the spirit of this revival -- isn't afraid to use to whiny-toned effect. Is he basically a character singer? Though he's quite good at it, he showed flashes of a voice for more.

If this run does lose proportion and disintegrate, I fear it will be from Erwin Schrott loosening up too much and breaking the ensemble dynamic. But that didn't happen this first night, and unless&until it does his Leporello will be one of the show's amazing highlights. What served him so poorly in the title part -- the pile-on of tics that could not add up to a significant (anti)hero despite his lead-quality instrument -- is, within this role and context, the basis for his greatest night at the Met. Schrott does not, I should already note, merely tic: in accord with the rest of the show, everything has its place, including non-action and non-reaction. In fact it's the slackness of his default deadpan that is most and almost endlessly amusing, providing priceless contrast for an ever-imminent facility in plastique great and small, mild and jarring. If his voice -- which sounds great here -- goes the way of Netrebko's last beau's, Schrott may yet have a future in cinematic comedy.

His master is nearly as drastically transformed from his last Mozart appearance: where, in the just-closed Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov looked pressed and harried all night, he seems now perfectly in his element, filling stage and ear with confident seduction and star shamelessness. Was it the conducting? An aversion to low comedy work analogous to Schrott's affinity for the same? A chemistry as harmful there as is obviously successful here? Hard to say, as an observer, but Abdrazakov is back to his impressive form.

Most bizarrely precise on stage is Emma Bell's Donna Elvira, who presents unmistakably as English. This isn't exactly in accord with the text, but does nicely pin down the never-quite-wholly desperate quality of Elvira's desperation. Bell lacks the moral-emotional force of predecessors Susan Graham and Dorothea Röschmann, but that didn't actually turn out to be essential here. Her actual singing and negotiation of Elvira's hurdles was above average and improved as the night went on.

Finally, the noble couple of Suanna Phillips' Donna Anna and Charles Castronovo's Don Ottavio benefitted much (perhaps most) from being presented precisely and seriously. Her trauma-victim Anna (the gut-punched reaction to both her father's death and her recognition of the killer is excellently done) is the more wounded of the ladies, and the more forceful. Phillips sings the part with a lovely even sound rarely managed by an Anna, and though it may actually be a bit lovelier than one would prototypically want, the physical cues here let her coherently present a hurt rather than vengeance-besotted woman.

Meanwhile Ottavio here is, for Castronovo's lovely laments (his wonderfully plaintive First Prisoner in Beethoven's Fidelio seems to have been the first and only time I've previously seen him at the Met) more personally closed than usual -- he is very much a man of his context, one in which the justice of humans is powerless and the supernatural must intervene -- until that really touching back-and-forth of this revival's "Non mi dir" (not changed musically -- it's in fact a complement). Appealing sound too, strongest in a warm midrange.

*     *     *

The Met usually succeeds with Don Giovanni by rolling out the star power -- and, in fact, it did so as recently as the spring (with Andrew Davis, Finley, Terfel, Polenzani, etc.). It rarely is able to transmute the parts into the ensemble magic that has come out so regularly in its Figaros. But -- not least due to the best revival direction I can recall, and some of the best "Personenregie" by anyone in the Gelb era -- this run is a terrific exception, and yet another reason to regret the preservation of last season's absurd moviecast cast. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The artist is not present

La Clemenza di Tito - Metropolitan Opera, 11/16/2012
Filianoti, Garanča, Frittoli, Crowe (d), Lindsey, Gradus / Bicket

It's hard to dislike mezzo Elina Garanca, but it's hard to like her past a certain point either. The daughter of a prominent Latvian voice teacher, Garanca is every bit the coach's son: heady, impeccably schooled, and willing to work and try at most anything. Put at her disposal the full-scaled, even, adaptable voice she in fact possesses and stardom is a matter of course. And yet -- and yet the moment is not hers. For whatever reason, that last crucial indicium of a star fails to appear, and even the triumph of Garanca's musically impeccable "Deh, per questo istante sole" is one for the broadcast mikes only. In the house one listens in vain for the central, personal point of agony behind Sesto's outcries of stubbornly uninformative sincerity, the opera-house magic that made Susan Graham's incarnation a human revelation and event.

An unfair standard, perhaps, but the rest of the current cast presented their own characters in much sharper focus. I've knocked Barbara Frittoli in the past -- including in last season's Don Giovanni -- for iffy vocal state and occasional lack of focus, but she is remarkably in her element in the tricky part of Vitellia. Not only does she hurdle the technical obstacles while sounding again as good as in the first of her 2011 Amelias, but Frittoli embodies the monstrously self-involved villainess with an ease and elan that make not only Garanca but her predecessor Vitellias seem a bit monochrome. Meanwhile, for much of the first act and in her solo bits of the second, Lindemann grad Kate Lindsey was seriously threatening to steal the show as Annio, something I hadn't even imagined possible in Clemenza. In vocal size and physical impact the American mezzo can't compete with her Latvian colleague, but in an actual show I think I'd prefer to see Lindsey every time: she is not only the finest of the Met's pants-role players, but seizes the moment and presence of her time in the dangerous spotlight with abandon. And Giuseppe Filianoti -- well, he did start in a rather rough vocal state, but he too embraced rather than shied away from the title character's singleminded display of moral hygiene and wound up giving about as good a Mozart performance as one could ask from a veristically inclined lyric tenor.

Debuting soprano Lucy Crowe, as Servilia, didn't get the space to make this sort of impact, but she -- unlike, it seems, her more hyped countrywoman Kate Royal -- can actually sing well and beautifully. Nice traditional clear sound, more presence on the bottom than one might expect given her repertoire, and comfort with the emotional demands of the sincere soubrette part -- a good addition. Harry Bicket's airless pit work was the only drag on the 2008 revival's triumph, but he's significantly more relaxed and sympathetic this time around, actually one of the show's real strengths and allowing the Met winds to work their characteristic magic. And Ponelle's production! Like all pre-Gelb shows still extant, it shines brighter than ever surrounded by detail-stripped look-alikes.

It's a good show, but the early Gelb-era decision to fast-track Garanca while marginalizing Graham and ignoring Joyce DiDonato seems sillier than ever -- and moviecasting this incarnation instead of 2008's is a loss for those limited to such media. (But at least Graham is at last getting her Troyens revival this season, and DiDonato headlines the next big Donizetti.) Of course, from her early years one would hardly have pegged Karita Mattila as the great stage performer of our time... but from Garanca's history so far, I think it more likely that the mezzo learns to fake embodying the stage charge than that she actually does it.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The week in NY opera (Nov. 26-Dec. 2)

A very slow post-holiday week.

Metropolitan Opera
Aida (M/Th), Ballo (T/F), Don Giovanni (W/SE), Clemenza (SM)
Continuations except for Don Giovanni, which brings American soprano Susanna Phillips along with the return of Russian bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov, this time with (presumably) a more sympathetic Mozart conductor than David Robertson. Erwin Schrott is this time in the more character-appropriate part of Leporello.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 19-25)

Babar or Wozzeck? Your choice tonight to kick off this Thanksgiving week.

Metropolitan Opera
Ballo (M/SE), Clemenza (T/SM), Aida (F)
Clemenza is good, but not the revelatory experience it was in its previous incarnation. Radvanovsky's Act 3 aria still brings down the house in Ballo. Aida appears for the first time this season, with debuting Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska in the title part.

Avery Fisher Hall
Philharmonia Orchestra Wozzeck (M)
Concert performance with Esa-Pekka Salonen on the podium, Angela Denoke as Marie, and Simon Keenlyside as Wozzeck. What are you waiting for?

Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Juilliard Opera Cosi fan tutte
Last of three shows that began last week.

Simone Dinnerstein recital (M)
The local pianist plays Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and (with some colleagues) Poulenc's "The Story of Babar the Elephant".

Monday, November 12, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 12-18)

Lots of things on this week as the concert schedule returns to normal.

Metropolitan Opera
Ballo (M/Th), Figaro (T/SE), Tempest (W/SM), Clemenza (F)
It's the final week for The Tempest and Figaro -- don't miss the former, if you haven't yet seen it. Hearing Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky in Ballo is probably worth the non-production... probably. Meanwhile the Ponnelle production of Clemenza -- last seen with an amazing Susan Graham star performance four years ago -- returns with Elina Garanca as Sesto. Harry Bicket's conducting was the least impressive part of that run, but perhaps his sense of the piece has deepened since.

Carnegie Hall
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique Missa Solemnis (S)
Joyce DiDonato Drama Queens (Sunday 2pm)

The glibness of John Eliot Gardiner's overpraised recording decades back has me doubtful, but performances of this Beethoven landmark aren't common enough. The event of the week is probably Joyce DiDonato's Carnegie program the following afternoon. Her last NY baroque concert was in the smaller Zankel space, and a mesmerizing display of art at which her (excellent) studio album only hints. This time she's got a new album and the bigger Stern Auditorium in which to work her magic. There are, amazingly, still lots of tickets to be had.

Alice Tully Hall
Bernarda Fink recital (W)
The mezzo sings Schumann, Mahler, and Dvorak.

OT: Avery Fisher Hall
Philharmonia Orchestra Mahler 9 (Sunday 5pm)
If you have the endurance, you can probably walk from Carnegie to Lincoln Center in time to see both DiDonato's concert and Salonen conducting Mahler 9. I'm not sure how many concertgoers are excited by both prospects, though...

Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Cosi fan tutte (W/SM)
Just on cue, as I put up this post I got an email reminder of this Juilliard/Lindemann co-production's opening. Like the 2011 Bartered Bride, this show features direction by Stephen Wadsworth and a star conductor. Back then it was Levine; this week it's NY Phil chief Alan Gilbert. He and the young cast are certainly promising, but Wadsworth has to date consistently failed to engage with the feminine and heterosexual-romance aspects of operas he's directed... and Cosi, though cynical and partly parodistic, mines almost no other ground.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The dog ate my production

Un Ballo in Maschera - Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012
Radvanovsky, Alvarez, Hvorostovsky, Kim, Zajick / Luisi

So this production would, I think, be best explainable in two ways:
(1) The Met is running low on money and drastically cut the budget so that David Alden could only afford this shabby display.
(2) Alden had director's block, couldn't think of any staging ideas for months and months, and finally just decided to throw half-remembered bits of other recent Met productions together and call it a show.

If, as is sadly likely, neither of the above apply and this was seriously the considered work of Alden and his team, all the boos they got were well-deserved. And these weren't angry or offended boos at some conceit or idea. They were "are you kidding me!?" boos of disbelief that something so lame and half-baked could be presented as a finished, full-price product.

*     *     *

The worst part is, of course, that the cast showcased by this premiere is so good. Two of the three main principals -- Sondra Radvanovsky and Dmitri Hvorostovsky -- are the cream of today's crop, and they are both in very fine voice. Radvanovsky's instrument has filled and evened out from top to bottom with a true Verdian soprano sound, and as always she rings the whole house at any level of her vast dynamic range. Hvorostovsky was not quite convincing as Renato/Anckarström four-plus years ago, but he's really grown into the role: where in the 2010 concert he made the Ballo bits work with personal force, he now can use both personal and sonic; there's no lack of color or dynamic range even in declamation.

Marcelo Alvarez isn't quite the Gustavo/Riccardo of one's dreams -- is Calleja's May run in Frankfurt really his first!? -- but he's very good in this: precise in rhythm and ensembles, good at using word and dynamic accents, and with a pleasing and surprisingly firm lyric sound. Kathleen Kim is both audible and sprightly, something her predecessors haven't simultaneously managed in forever. Ulrica's initial aria sits poorly in Zajick's current voice but there's a lot of good stuff after that. And American bass-baritones Keith Miller and David Crawford as the conspirators bring some much-needed kick to the bottom end of the ensembles.

What's missing? That incandescence where spirit takes over from sound and detail-management. Perhaps it's Luisi (who has everything but that spark of genius), perhaps it's the weight of the lifeless new production, perhaps it's the start-of-run feeling out period after Sandy has hindered preparation. We'll see in the next month as the run continues.

*     *     *

The production did provide a bit of viewing fun: figuring out which bits were lifted from what. The basic stage configuration (the first two acts are on the exact same set) of bare tilted almost-converging floor/ceiling seems to be from Minghella's Butterfly; the surreal civil servants in hats from Lievi's Cenerentola; the women's chorus in the Ulrica scene taken wholesale from Noble's Macbeth; the color palette from Pelly's otherwise forgettable Manon; the ugly decorative wallpaper and use of uniformly-attired chorus in a threatening way from that Decker Traviata, the contemplation area downstage left from Sher's Hoffmann; the physical direction (particularly for Radvanovsky, who's sprawled on the floor a lot) from McVicar's Trovatore... and did Alden venture beyond the moviecast repertory to lift the mass of mirrors for the last scene from the high-point of Volpe's tenure, the too-long-absent Wernicke production of Frau? That's a nice thought. The rest is Generic Gelb Production, with its "near-doctrinaire avoidance/elimination of representational detail (as in Islamic art, words and abstract designs are permitted) in sets though not in costumes, and of course a general tilt to the crass and vulgar in stage direction." The Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene occurs when the sailor requests Ulrica read his fortune.

It's not completely absent of good points: the stage layout does aid the singers' projection (though Radvanovsky doesn't need it), and the first scene of the final act finally provides a more intimate space for action than the full-stage emptiness that's endemic to Generic Gelb and the rest of this production. (It is, however, just a plain white room with tilted floor/ceiling.) But the bad predominates. Least helpful, perhaps, is the contribution of debuting choreographer Maxine Braham, who seemed determined to squash any potential outbreaks of elegance or elan by making not only the singers but the actual dancers look silly in... deconstructed square dances, or whatever that was. (Kim made her dance material at least amusing by throwing in some Olympia bits.) Or perhaps the nadir is the contribution of Alden himself, who apparently didn't bother figuring out how to block the final act: Gustavo, it turns out, is able not only to read a tiny note from halfway across the stage without opening it, but to carry on a private conversation with Amelia while the two are on opposite sides of the massive dance floor, looking away from each other.

As for the idea that the dark and macabre should predominate in a production of Ballo -- well, I think it's quite wrong, but this unserious production isn't much of an occasion to evaluate it. None but the performers come off well here -- including subtitler Cori Ellison, who coarsens (and thereby destroys) the sarcastic joke of the second act's closing laughing chorus.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The island

The Tempest - Metropolitan Opera, 11/6/2012
Keenlyside, Luna, Leonard, Shrader, Oke, Burden, Spence, Feigum, Del Carlo / Adès

Rich and strange it is, but not entirely in a good way. Wonderful music and an excellent libretto... that don't quite add up to great opera together.

Composer/conductor Thomas Ades has an remarkable musical gift, conjuring as varied and fluent a torrent of sound as Strauss or Berg. Meredith Oakes fashioned here a libretto of sound and interesting structure and much in the text and scenic setup to chew on. But they are not, perhaps, for each other. For the characters and their drama don't seem to engage Ades: he gives their expressions audible effect, to be sure, but they are mostly secondary elements in the show's broad aural course. Ariel's turns are brilliant, others more humanly plain, but none guide the whole flow of sound, even in the final act where Ades dials the orchestral stuff back for some intimacy. Indeed only once do music and text wholly engage and the great operatic moment appear, and that's in the middle of the middle act -- Caliban's dream invocation of the island.

This, along with the lovely and evocative finale in which Caliban appears like Capriccio's M. Taupe from the prompter's space to re-inherit the island (with Ariel) does suggest one sort of musical-dramatic unity, alluded to in the program note: the island itself as the central musical figure and, er, grounding presence in the proceedings, upon which the humans' troubles are a passing episode. But while this is interesting and enriches our picture of the two spirits, it puts to the side most of the stuff we're actually watching in the opera... and indeed, that's the experience.

Shakespeare's Tempest certainly has room for this kind of conceit, and perhaps someone else might radically rewrite it to really centralize these themes in the actual stage action, but Oakes did not do so. Instead she very cleverly and librettistically reassembled Shakespeare's story elements -- but still in a very human and human-focused manner. Ades dutifully and sympathetically set these human bits, but his brilliance is in all the sonic doodling he did over and around and between them.

It's an excellent show to see and hear: besides the libretto and music, every member of the cast is a pleasure (though Isabel Leonard's English diction could be more comprehensible), and Robert Lepage, it turns out, can actually turn out a nice production when his video toys are (mostly) left aside. (There is, of course, the obligatory multilayered scaffolding.) And it suggests even finer things in the future. But if Thomas Adès is Strauss, he has not yet found his Hofmannsthal.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The week in NY opera (November 5-11)

The hurricane cancelled half of last week at the Met, but the dangling crane on 57th has forced a Carnegie Hall shutdown that's still ongoing. At least power and most of the subways are back in and around the venues...

Metropolitan Opera
Turandot (M/F), Tempest (T/SM), Figaro (W/SE), Ballo (Th)
David Alden's Ballo debuts, with an excellent cast and Luisi in the pit. You can see The Tempest on Election Day (and I may actually end up doing this) or at the moviecast this weekend. This incarnation of Turandot is pretty good for what it is; the Figaro isn't.

Avery Fisher Hall
Richard Tucker Gala (Sunday 6:30pm)
Along with this year's Tucker Award winner Ailyn Pérez (not yet much heard in the city), the lineup includes Abdrazakov & Borodina, Filianoti, Giordani, Finley, Hvorostovsky, and Schrott.

NYU Skirball Center
Vox 2012 (Th)
This year at the new opera showcase: bits of operas by John Zorn, Moto Osada, Christopher Weiss, Evan Meier, James Stepleton, and Osnat Netzer. Too bad it's up against the Ballo premiere!

UPDATE (misread my calendar last week...)
Frick Collection
Toby Spence recital (Sunday 5pm)
The British tenor makes his New York recital debut in a program of German lieder, capped off by Schumann's Dichterliebe.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The week in NY opera (Oct. 29-Nov. 4)

With Sandy approaching, who knows how many of these performances will actually take place?

Metropolitan Opera
Turandot (T/F), Tempest (W/SM), Figaro (SE)
Figaro (grossly mishandled by Robertson) was supposed to play tonight as well, but that's been cancelled. Turandot, whenever it manages to begin, will bring the company debut of this year's Met Council Finals sensation Janai Brugger. I meant to see The Tempest on Saturday, but Figaro left such a bad taste in my mouth that I skipped it. This week, perhaps, if the real-life tempest permits.

Carnegie Hall
Opera Lafayette L'invitation au Voyage (F)
Chamber vocal selections by this French-themed company based in DC; features soprano Emmanuelle de Negri, recently seen with William Christie's company in Atys and a Rameau double bill.

Murray Perahia recital (F)
Classical/romantic program by the now-veteran classical/romantic pianist.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The replacement

Otello - Metropolitan Opera, 10/16/2012
Amonov, Fleming, Struckmann / Bychkov

After a dress rehearsal in which he was a bit cautious but in no particular distress, tenor Johan Botha fared poorly on Otello's opening night. His indisposition left him out of the remainder of the run -- except, perhaps, this afternoon's moviecast, surely a nerve-wracking return if it happens.

His replacement in the title role? A Russian from the Mariinsky: Avgust Amonov, who made his Met debut three days before this performance. Yes, he was pretty good. No, he's not the next _______. In fact, he (like Botha) is on the lyric side of the sing, with a nice basic sound in which one can hear the Bacchus he's sung elsewhere. But unlike Botha, Amonov doesn't have a big clarion ring to his lyric instrument, and the demands of Otello do restrict his colors and prevent big statements. Still, contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, it's a pleasant sound... or was on this night.

His other "unlike Botha"s may have been to his benefit. He's not a stand-and-sing paragraph phraser, but has some sense of dramatic character development even as a late cover. Definitely held up his end of the show, and an Otello I wouldn't mind seeing again given sufficiently good support.

Here Amonov had two amazing co-stars. Falk Struckmann seemed to me insufficiently menacing and impressive as Pizarro a dozen years back, but time has changed his capabilities. When he chews the scenery now as Iago, the vocal impact is as great as the dramatic -- and I'd love to hear his current incarnation as the Fidelio villain. Meanwhile Desdemona is still probably Renee Fleming's best operatic part, one in which she invariably finds her focus by Desdemona's great final double aria.

Bychkov's conducting depends on the moment: though he always seems to get the huge loud climaxes up, the material in between may be urgent or slack. This night, he was a bit of both, though the cast change may have thrown things off -- we'll see what happens this afternoon.

Elijah Moshinsky's revived production, like his Makropoulos Case last season and Queen of Spades the season before, brings into sharp relief the limitations of the current Gelb directorial stable.

You blew it up!

Le Nozze di Figaro - Metropolitan Opera, 10/26/2012
Abdrazakov, Erdmann, Kovalevska, Schäfer, Finley / Robertson

Wait, no joke? The Met managed to ruin Figaro? Seriously!?

Yep. I hadn't thought it possible. Jonathan Miller's production debuted with James Levine and an all-star cast, but quickly adapted to all sorts of personnel. Big names, small names, Levine, not Levine, the show rolled on. (Best Figaro: probably Furlanetto. Best non-Levine conductor: undoubtedly Edo de Waart.) But not this time. David Robertson is finally the conductor who makes nonsense from Mozart's sense, intentionally removing all traces of breath, sentiment, line, reflection, rapture, and, well, anything besides an endless monotonous chugging-forward from the piece. At this point it's impossible to get the Met Orchestra to sound bad in this material, but Robertson turns what should be the ebb and flow of feeling into sonic cacophony. I was initially inclined to point fingers at Gregory Keller's unsubtle stage direction and Christine Schäfer's bizarrely grim and glum Cherubino, but by the end I wondered if they were just trying to keep up with the pit's insanity. Mojca Erdmann (the second Lulu in the cast!) is miscast -- Susanna repeatedly hits the sour part of her voice -- but the rest of the cast was quite good... given what they had to work with. I'm amazed that Ildar Abdrazakov kept up with the silly, breathless tempi Robertson set in his last-act aria.

Ensembles also seemed under-rehearsed, but from all evidence that's not going to fix Robertson's anti-Mozartean pit work. He makes Mozart boring. Avoid.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Deliver me

(Verdi) Requiem - Philadelphia Orchestra, 10/23/2012
Poplavskaya, Rice, Villazon, Petrenko / Nézet-Séguin

James Levine, Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcello Giordani, Rene Pape, and the Met Orchestra and Chorus performed this piece a dozen seasons ago at Carnegie Hall (the afternoon of April 29, 2001) -- an orchestral show not, in my concertgoing, equaled since. Last night wasn't that, but it was definitely something.

Verdi's Requiem Mass, ostensibly for Alessandro Manzoni, capped off the composer's great mature run of operas, which gave us an amazing string of dramatic masterworks -- Boccanegra, Ballo, Forza, and Don Carlos -- in succession before closing with two odd works, Aida and this sacred piece. In fact Aida is probably the less dramatic of the pair: true to its dream of old monumental Egypt, the opera's characters can hardly even consider struggling as events roll to implacable doom, instead reflecting and lyrically responding to the spectacle as it proceeds. Within the Requiem, it's true, the solo singers have lost names & histories, and are dwarfed by contact with the limitless. But Christianity is and has, in a way likely unprecedented, been fundamentally concerned with the event -- and not just the ritually recreated & celebrated event(s) of its founding, as most religions are, but the ever-newly-enacted event of each individual soul's salvation/damnation. Even at the final, most hapless moment -- the day of judgment -- we are not (Calvinists aside) in a ritual roll-call but at the end of a live event, full of dramatic emotions and disruptions and the echo of decisive struggles.

Verdi seizes on this essential kernel to set the grandest of his great dramatic scenes: the Sequentia (Dies Irae), the heart and longest part of this piece. It is great and grand and terrible, but also endlessly personal, the close of each individual soul's event&story. And so in the greatest performances we hear the irreducible impassioned individuality of the solo voices as they move through those familiar Verdian turns...

On this night, only soprano Marina Poplavskaya's instrument carried this kind of charge. For all my complaints about her Met ubiquity and sometimes-infuriating humorlessness, Poplavskaya certainly has the tools -- musicality, sonic scale, a range of dark and cutting tones -- to make much of a dead-serious part like this one (or Elisabetta): and she did, lack of warmth and some imperfect top notes (she actually had to cancel the first Philadelphia performance due to illness) notwithstanding. Mezzo Christine Rice and bass Mikhail Petrenko have very nice, well-groomed voices, but didn't deliver much beyond that.

The most famous of the soloists was probably the worst. Rolando Villazon almost crashed on the very first line of the "Ingemisco", was missing and sliding around between pitches all over the place, and generally sounded like he'd patched together fragments totaling maybe 2/3 of a tenor voice: most of the bottom, not much of the top (which was never, volume-wise, a strength), and danger in between. The singer once notable for exquisite breath and control is still in a sad form to witness.

But the evening was Nézet-Séguin's (or, as the program notes would have it, "Yannick's" -- understandable given pronunciation issues). If his conception lacked some of the life-and-death urgency and particularized detail certain of his elders have brought (and perhaps the good-but-not-great solo lineup was significant), it nevertheless astounded by its coherence and sonic & conceptual clarity. The audience responded with rapt silence through the end and terrific enthusiasm afterward.

It's the same story as Nézet-Séguin's Met debut Carmen: I can't wait to hear what he does with this stuff both now and over the years.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 22-28)

Nothing tonight, but tomorrow is one of those evenings in NYC where too many things happen at once.

Metropolitan Opera
Tempest (T/SE), Trovatore (Th), Figaro (F), Otello (SM)
Short week, perhaps because of two productions beginning: The Tempest, in its house premiere, and Figaro, featuring Ildar Abdrazakov and perhaps the only real lyric soprano cultivated during Gelb's tenure -- Maija Kovalevska. Meanwhile Trovatore wraps up its fall run (it returns in January with a wholly different lineup of singers), and the moviecast Otello gives Johan Botha one last shot at recovering from his illness...

Carnegie Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra concert (T)
Gabriel Kahane concert (Th)
Marlis Petersen recital (F)

Call me a reactionary, but Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first Carnegie show as Philly's music director -- Verdi's Requiem, no less -- seems more tempting than the first of many Met evenings of The Tempest. But is Villazon seriously going to sing it? Composer/songwriter/performer Gabe Kahane has a classical/hipster pop show at Zankel Thursday, while the very German soprano Marlis Petersen offers a recital themed on Goethe's Faust the following evening at Weill.

Le Poisson Rouge
Metropolis Ensemble concert (T)
An Evening with Thomas Ades and "The Tempest" (F 6:30pm and 9pm)

The former show features a mini-opera on Tesla, a rearrangement of Berlioz's Nuits d’Ete sung by Keira Duffy, and a new song-cycle by Mohammed Fairouz sung by Kate Lindsey. Lindsey returns Friday, joined by the composer/conductor of and singers from the Met's Tempest, for a remix on the opera and other Shakespeare-themed stuff.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 15-21)

Metropolitan Opera
Carmen (M/Th), Otello (T/SM), Trovatore (W/SE)
It's the last week for the current cast in Carmen -- the excellent Yonghoon Lee, the not-so-excellent Kate Royal, and the mostly-excellent Kyle Ketelsen all are gone when the show returns in February. Trovatore should also be good. Tomorrow is the last weeknight performance of Otello with the current cast.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

Carnegie Hall
World Orchestra for Peace Solti centennial concert (F)
It is, I think, entirely appropriate in its irony that an body called the "World Orchestra for Peace" will be conducted by the music world's most shameless Putin bootlicker, last seen celebrating the Russian invasion of Georgia. If your nose doesn't register such stenches, Angela Gheorghiu and Rene Pape offer delicacies for the ear.

Alice Tully Hall
Les Arts Florissants Charpentier motets (F)
William Christie's company offers, this time, not opera but French baroque sacred pieces.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The standard

Il Trovatore - 10/4/2012
Jones, Giannattasio, Zajick, Vassallo, Robinson / Callegari

The premiere of McVicar's Trovatore at the Met had big stars; this revival lacked them, to the point of serious box office impairment. But the result this time reflected pretty well on the standards of the house even on lesser-name evenings.

Most impressive may have been baritone Franco Vassallo. I was decidedly unimpressed by his Belcore four seasons back, but his di Luna presented him in a totally different light. In fact, between his naturally robust sound, straightforward engagement in the character's villainy, and facility for both the lyric and declamatory sides of his music, Vassallo may have been the best di Luna I've seen in this production, outdoing both Hvorostovsky (intense but vocally taxed) and Lucic (alternately too lyric and not lyric enough).

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones and Italian soprano Carmen Giannattasio had, depending on how you cared to look at it, either complementary strengths or complementary weaknesses. Jones gave basically a brighter-voiced version of Marcelo Alvarez's production-opening performance: intensely satisfying in the lyric and conversational portions of the role (thanks to a feel for the Verdian phrase that also served him well in ensembles), but lacking at climaxes. For Alvarez these punctuating high notes weren't easily reached; for Jones they just lacked force, particularly compared to his partners. How I would have liked him to break from expectation and sing both verses of "Di quella pira", giving pleasure more in the phrasing than in the obligatory high note... instead, of course, he sang one hasty verse before an impressively long but unimpressive-sounding high-note finish, the tone of which actually got away from him at the end.

Giannattasio does not lack for volume or high-note resonance: in fact her voice may rival Sondra Radvanovsky's wondrous instrument in natural scale. Just hearing her pop off big ensemble-capping high notes is a pleasure... but what leads up to that point is less exciting. She is not quite finished, both vocally (not entirely even in sound from top to bottom, still -- like most young singers -- unwilling to use chest voice) and musically, where she really could not compare to Jones. ("D'amor sull'ali rosee" was quite spoiled by her letting the end of each phrase sag.) The raw material for an excellent Verdi soprano is certainly there: besides the size and volume, she has a natural liquid flexibility that makes the cabalettas natural fodder. But she won Operalia a decade ago, has had major engagements for years and years, and though 34 isn't old, it's old enough to wonder if how and when she might make the last, oh-so-important refinements to turn her from a case of infuriatingly underutilized potential into a major and indispensable star.

Though she was, I believe, scheduled to debut the first week, this second performance of Trovatore turned out to be Gianattasio's debut -- perhaps this (or whatever caused the initial cancellation) affected her performance? In any case she seemed quite moved at her very positive curtain call reception (though perhaps she's a better actress in real life than Paula Williams' revival stage direction -- which put Gianattasio through McVicar's familiar postures for Leonora but had/let her recast them as hesitant instead of decisive -- let her express)...

Dolora Zajick of course carries over not only from the premiere of this production but from many years of false starts before that when casting anyone but Azucena properly seemed unlikely. The 2009 premiere found her showing, perhaps for the first time, some age: this revival finds her having adapted well to the years' changes. Her singing is again clear throughout, with no fraying tone to be heard, and if it's lightened a bit on top, the chest still hits with massive force.

Morris Robinson is a forceful -- if not dramatically onrushing -- Ferrando. Daniele Callegari conducts with a nice overall sweep and some fine ideas that may come to fruition later in the run -- when the ensemble hiccups that popped up in the show's second half will presumably have been exorcised. This same basic cast, with Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu in place of Giannattasio, has a few more peformances this month. Certainly worth catching.

*     *     *

Every good performance, like this one, convinces me a bit more that Il Trovatore is the most indispensable of operas. As I wrote after the premiere,
Verdi's much-derided opera has brothers, lovers, and a mother, but lacks one of his most persistent figures: the father. Whether divided and beset as in Rigoletto (both he and Monterone), stylish and daring (and metaphorical) as in Ballo, all-too-solid as in Traviata, or -- well, one could go on indefinitely -- the father sets the tone for his opera's world. Here, in Trovatore's story, he is wholly absent: dead of heartbreak, overthrown (in a sense) long ago by gypsy machinations. And so too in the piece itself: gone is the responsible worldly figure that makes our daylight world what it is -- ordered; rationally explainable and advancing; free from witchcraft, ghosts, and meaningful coincidence. But it is not just the shadowier stuff that he keeps off, but the oldest magics: rhythm - story - sacrifice. So here Verdi unleashes them all as no other could -- and too few since have at all dared to try -- for a nap-of-reason draught more intoxicating even than its near-contemporary Tristan's.
An art incapable of such a potent, primeval draught seems hardly worth the trouble.

Friday, October 12, 2012


The long post below alludes to it, but I should mention it as news: according to the Met, James Levine will conduct the orchestra again in May and three productions (Falstaff, Cosi, and Wozzeck -- three of his greatest pieces) next season.

Fingers crossed, knock on wood, etc.

Met season preview, part 3: life without

It is not a bad season -- to look at before the fact, anyway. But the most significant thing about the Metropolitan Opera's 2012-2013 is likely to be the most significant thing about its 2011-2012: the absence of James Levine.

A year ago the news came as... news, and in stages: a foretaste in spring, from the usual on-and-off issues; then the awful accident and cancellations for the first part of 2011-2012 in September; then the thud of no appearances at all. For many months -- until the announcement just last night of an eventual return, in fact -- Levine's absence has been the unspoken cloud hanging over the house. Fabio Luisi was appointed principal conductor last season, so the facade of continuity remained. And yet...

The problem for Peter Gelb and the Met is that Levine's work and presence in the pit was the core of the company's identity for decades. Singers, productions, production fads, and even general managers came and went, relying on the musical-sonic foundation provided by Levine and the orchestra he built and polished over many consecutive seasons. And not just his colleagues: for regular Met-goers, Levine's performances of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, and the modernists were a pleasure one could anticipate as well as savor every year -- the one part of the experience that would not fail.

Yet it's not that Gelb and his administration have handled this crisis poorly: Luisi is as distinguished an emergency deputy as one could imagine, and circumstance has parked Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the first really plausible successor I can recall, just down the Turnpike at the Philadelphia Orchestra. The house continues its decade-long trend of trying out interesting new conducting talent, though with mixed results. But Levine's presence has been particularly important to Gelb's administration, because Levine maintained in his domain virtues Gelb otherwise is and has been reluctant to offer and value: warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and -- of course -- Americanness.

For all Fabio Luisi's prodigious skill and clarity, he's not that kind of counterweight. Luisi is, in fact, exactly of a piece with the Gelb administration's favored artists: a bit cerebral, a bit chilly even in his excitement, and impeccably European in pedigree. His substitution for Levine has put us now thoroughly in the Gelb era.

*     *     *

It's perhaps not quite coincidence that dissatisfaction with Gelb's administration is now part of the operagoing air. Spring's Opera News kerfuffle aired the extent of this development: not only did the public roundly slam the Met, but the press as well, with hints that even Tommasini at the Times may be growing tired of carrying the company's water. Why? Well, I noted at the start of Gelb's tenure that he holds a specific and far-from-universal vision of opera, and subsequent years seem to have borne this out. One could recognize the family resemblance in his productions years ago: tall blank walls, high narrow staircases and platforms, dim lighting and strong colors, near-doctrinaire avoidance/elimination of representational detail (as in Islamic art, words and abstract designs are permitted) in sets though not in costumes, and of course a general tilt to the crass and vulgar in stage direction. (Some house edict seems to have extended the latter element to revivals as well, creating the Obligatory Gelb-Era Humping Scene.) This can be fantastic -- as in, most recently, The Nose -- and is catnip to a certain segment of New Yorkers, but is contrary to the way a large (perhaps majority) portion of the Met audience takes in and appreciates visual information. And yet the alternatives -- though ever more important, as the Met rolls out its biggest and most war-horsey traditional productions (Turandot and Aida) many times this season to weather the poor economy -- are vanishing faster than they used to, thanks to the uptick in (new, Gelb-style) premieres from Gelb's co-production program.

Even the shows seemingly designed for traditional appeal do not quite scratch that itch. For not only do Bart Sher's comedic efforts (his louche Hoffmann -- the one show where he wasn't tasked with aiming for faux-traditional -- was quite good, though very much in the Gelb-era manner) and the Lepage Ring -- the most prominent efforts in this vein -- largely remix the same anti-traditional visual syntax, they in fact rely on theatrical distancing effects (video screens, frames, play-within-a-play additions) that present the story under glass, or in big quotation marks. Straightforward warmth, beauty, realism still aren't on the table, and so as traditional experiences, these new shows fail where their predecessors (often) succeeded. (Of course, they don't succeed as critic-pleasing fare either, and I can almost imagine Gelb striding bloodily onto the stage demanding "Are you not entertained!?" at their premieres.)

Some form of this complaint is now regularly aired with each premiere. But the corresponding trend in casting has been less remarked upon. For while respecting the biggest stars already in the house, Gelb brought a certain kind of singer to the fore from the start, and continues to do so today. His original favorites have largely run their course: Angela Gheorghiu crashed and burned with this administration as she did with Volpe's, Diana Damrau has failed to become an audience draw despite much exposure and press, and while Anna Netrebko still sells tickets, she does so now more as an opera celebrity than as notable artist or (as silly as it is to mention) sex symbol. Behind them, though, the Met continues to bring in and promote sopranos in their mold -- e.g. Nino Machaidze, Hibla Gerzmava, and of course the now-ubiquitous Marina Poplavskaya. As much as I like these interesting East-European singers with interesting voices, it would be an awful loss if their virtues displaced the Levine characteristics I mentioned above -- warmth, attention to beautiful sound per se, and Americanness -- in this aspect of opera as well.

The Met is closer to this point than one might think, at least among sopranos. Look at Faust: yes, Gheorghiu's cancellation/firing left the house looking for a late replacement, but Marguerite is a, perhaps the lyric soprano part, one that any singer with a voice and an iota of charm should carry off. (The greatest success in recent memory was classic soubrette-stimmdiva Ruth Ann Swenson.) And yet the Met chose Poplavskaya -- for all her virtues, the seemingly least-charming singer on its roster, and one with a functional rather than beautiful tone -- and not only let her sink the new production last season, but engaged her to ensure this season's revival is just as much of a dud. Why? When so many lyric sopranos with the classic lyric soprano virtues are out there, it's hard not to see this as a deliberate sign of what the house values and intends to value. (One might also take Kate Royal's unpleasant to hear Micaela in this vein.)

(Met Council winners do seem to get a shot, though, so let's hope Susanna Phillips seizes her long-in-coming Donna Anna and Janai Brugger turns out to be a hit as Liu.)

*     *     *

It's possible, of course, that Levine will, as the Met just announced, return next season hale and strong enough to make this interregnum a distant and unfortunate memory. I certainly hope so -- and even reading of his eventual return has chased off some of the gloom that inspired this piece. But even with Levine in the pit and assuring the vitality of his house, the artistic one-sidedness of the elements outside his domain will, if it continues, continue to frustrate and limit its success. For Gelb's problem, with or without Levine, remains what I noted five-and-a-half years back: the art form exists and is enjoyed in too many different ways for a single approach to be enough. Gelb's single way has shown its limits, and yet is growing ever closer to swallowing every other path. What now? Well, if I were Gelb I would look to find new approaches, with a few more shots at a real, sincere traditionalism -- beginning with a replacement for the worst production in the repertory, the unwatchable Traviata. And I'd think more about presenting beautiful voices... and I'd make sure Nezet-Seguin learns the Verdi canon as fast as possible.

I'm pretty sure the latter will be covered -- as for the rest? Unlikely, but we'll see. As I said, dissatisfaction is in the air.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 8-14)

Metropolitan Opera
Trovatore (M/F), Otello (T/SE), Elisir (W*/SM), Carmen (Th)
The big event is, of course, the return of Botha, Fleming, and Bychkov in an Otello that was one of the highlights five seasons back. Trovatore, despite its relatively no-name cast, is pretty good -- elaboration to follow.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

* Wednesday's (starred) Elisir 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
Met Orchestra concert (Sunday 3pm)
Bychkov again, this time in Wagner and Strauss. Eva-Maria Westbroek sings the former's Wesendonck songs.

Monday, October 01, 2012

The week in NY opera (October 1-7)

Metropolitan Opera
Elisir (M/F), Carmen (T/SE), Turandot (W/SM), Trovatore (Th)
Same shows as last week. Carmen is good. Trovatore, which is hideously undersold and lacks star casting, at least has an excellent recent production.

Link for weekend ticket lottery drawing here; enter by midnight ET.

Le Poisson Rouge
Gotham Chamber Opera: Orientale (M/W)
A baroque-romantic-exotic traditional music/multimedia mashup.

Alexander Kasser Theater (Montclair State University)
Dog Days (F/S/SuM)
I feel a bit bad about not seeing or mentioning the premiere of this show last weekend, but the new opera by David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek plays again this week. The trailer below may help you judge for yourself whether it may merit an out-of-town trip (bus service does run from Port Authority):

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Slow burn

Carmen - Metropolitan Opera, 9/28/2012
Rachvelishvili, Royal, Lee, Ketelsen / Mariotti

Leads Anita Rachvelishvili and Yonghoon Lee are, it turns out, who we thought they were: a pair of astonishing-voiced singers who can carry any production. Rachvelishvili still hits some pitch issues at the top of her range, but the main body of her sound is as fully and gorgeously textured as any mezzo in this Golden Age. Lee, meanwhile, shows here as strongly as he did as Don Carlo that he's something like an ideal romantic spinto tenor: he feels -- and of course shapes -- these parts' great tragic phrases so strongly, so grandly, that the striking squillo of his tone and the full expansiveness of his high notes come almost as obvious corollaries. More, please.

The other headliners were mixed. Best was American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen, who in addition to being an appropriately handsome Escamillo was the most vocally authoritative one since Rene Pape about a decade ago. Less good was the Micaela, Kate Royal. She phrased just fine, but even a vibrato-aficionado as I -- Calleja, Radvanovsky, and Röschmann may be my favorite operatic sounds -- found little to enjoy in Royal's actual singing. Unlike these other vibrati, Royal's does not seem the healthy individual expression of a strong support, but something less felicitous. I hope she's indisposed or not entirely recovered from her last pregnancy or... something, because otherwise I'm concerned for the state of English ears. Her sound did not blend at all well with Lee's, but that at least makes a sort of dramatic sense.

Debuting conductor Michele Mariotti was somewhere in between. The current principal conductor at Bologna showed a number of virtues: precise control of ensembles, firm rhythmic sense, and the wisdom not to get in his singers' way -- and, indeed, helping them make much of slow climaxes of the piece. And so on this night the highlights were the Micaela-Jose duet, the Flower Song, and similar still segments throughout, here done with a rare unity and concentration. But despite all that -- and despite fairly snappy accounts of the first- and last-act preludes -- Mariotti seemed to have little interest in giving the piece an overall shape, quite happy to let the colorful bits slack unhurriedly, as if in fact on a hot Spanish afternoon, and to let the more urgent portions approach but never quite cross over into excitement. This appears to be Mariotti's legitimate view of the piece, and he shows skill in bringing it to life, but it's a letdown after how Nézet-Séguin opened the production three seasons back.

So the show falls into scenes, which is not the worst thing given the way its cast brings them successively to life.

*     *     *

Lee will, it seems, be back in the not-too-distant future for revivals of Ballo (new later this season) and Trovatore. In this interview from last year (around the Nabucco revival) one can see him talk about the time before his big break: fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Met season preview, part 2: who's on

Collated from the February and August posts, with some further noted changes. As in previous years, operas are listed in order of first appearance. Some one-off cast combinations are omitted.

L'Elisir d'Amore (new Bartlett Sher production)
Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien, Maestri / Benini (opening night through October)
Netrebko, Polenzani, Kwiecien, Schrott / Benini (late January through early February)
Anna Netrebko gets a second consecutive opening night.  Nemorino is an excellent part for Matthew Polenzani, but I don't expect this to be any more satisfying for non-Netrebko fans than her previous shot (when her voice was better suited to such parts) at Donizetti comedy. I'd grade Bartlett Sher as one-for-three at the Met so far (Hoffmann yes, Barber and Comte Ory no), but his misses are at least inoffensive. I suspect Maestri will be the more humane option as Dulcamara.

Guleghina, Gerzmava, Berti, Morris / Ettinger (September through early October)
Theorin, Brugger, Giordani, Morris / Ettinger (October 30 through early November)
Theorin, Gerzmava, Fraccaro, Ramey / Ettinger (January)
Maria Guleghina seems to be herself again after an atrocious Turandot run several seasons ago, but the tenor lineup isn't exactly exciting. The Lius are more interesting: Hibla Gerzmava, an exciting live-voiced Antonia/Stella and Mimi here already, and Janai Brugger, debuting soon after showing off a glorious lyric soprano instrument in this year's Met Council Finals. Brugger replaces another young black soprano, Takesha Meshe Kizart, whose baby dramatic-coloratura sound I'd certainly still like to hear again.

Royal, Rachvelishvili, Lee, Ketelsen / Mariotti (September 28 through October)
Scherbachenko, Rachvelishvili, Schukoff, Rhodes / Mariotti (February)
Scherbachenko, Rachvelishvili, Richards, Rhodes / Mariotti (February-March)
Young old-school mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili gets two runs, the first with excellent young Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee and the second with debutants Nikolai Schukoff and Andrew Richards...  A much more appetizing revival than the Turandot.

Il Trovatore
Giannattasio, Zajick, Jones, Vassallo, Robinson / Callegari (September 29 through early October)
Yu, Zajick, Jones, Vassallo, Robinson / Callegari (October)
Racette, Blythe, Berti, Markov, Stamboglis / Callegari (January)
Wasn't Anja Harteros supposed to be in this?  Sondra Radvanovsky definitely was (in October), but she'll now be rehearsing for Ballo instead. Now October brings Chinese soprano Guanqun Yu, a second-prize winner in this summer's Operalia competition..  Still, the men are more worrying, particularly for fall: Gwyn Hughes Jones hasn't done much, and it's hard to imagine the same Franco Vassallo who previously couldn't make an impact as Belcore now turning in a commanding di Luna.  Angela Meade has a single performance as Leonora on January 16.

Fleming, Botha, Fabiano, Struckmann / Bychkov (October)
Stoyanova, Cura, Dolgov, Hampson / Altinoglu (March)
Fall run:  revival of a classic 2008 cast, not to be missed.
Spring run:  hallelujah, the Met's finally cut bait on Domingo's "conducting" travesties! Still a more odd cast, though now intriguing.

The Tempest (new Robert Lepage production)
Luna, Leonard, Davies, Shrader, Oke, Burden, Spence, Keenlyside / Adès (October-November)
I know nothing about this piece, but I'm pretty sure it can't be as irritating an attempt at unwriting the original Shakespeare as last season's Enchanted Island was.

Le Nozze di Figaro
Kovalevska, Erdmann, Schäfer, Finley, Abdrazakov / Robertson (October-November)
Very promising cast for this revival, though Mojca Erdmann is again in a part that's perhaps not quite high enough for her voice to shine.

Un Ballo in Maschera (new David Alden production)
Radvanovsky, Kim, Zajick, Álvarez, Hvorostovsky / Luisi (November)
Radvanovsky, Kim, Blythe, Álvarez, Hvorostovsky / Luisi (November-December)
Radvanovsky and Hvorostovsky: two great (contrasting) tastes that taste great together. If only the run had Calleja to round out a full dream cast... not that I expect Marcelo Alvarez to be any less than enjoyable & professional, as he was with these singers in the McVicar Trovatore premiere. Whether Alden's production will be helpful, incidental, or ruinous is another matter.

La Clemenza di Tito
Crowe, Frittoli, Garanca, Lindsey, Filianoti, Gradus / Bicket (November-December)
It's Garanca, not Lindsey, as Sesto. Not sure this is for the best.

Monastyrska, Borodina, Berti, Mastromarino, Kocán, Sebestyén / Luisi (November)
He, Borodina, Berti, Mastromarino, Kocán, Sebestyén / Luisi (December)
Monastyrska, Borodina, Alagna, Gagnidze, Kocán, Sebestyén / Luisi (December)
He, Borodina, Alagna, Gagnidze, Kocán, Sebestyén / Luisi (December)
Many different parts around Olga Borodina's Amneris. I suppose Fabio Luisi's appearance in this war-horse means he's serious about the Met commitment.

Don Giovanni
Phillips, Bell, Siurina, Castronovo, Abdrazakov, Schrott, Soar, Aceto / Gardner (late November through December)
After a spate of more baritonal Dons, Ildar Abdrazakov brings his bassy charisma to the part. Erwin Schrott, whom I've elsewhere found lacking in the humane element, is an interesting and perhaps inspired choice for Leporello. Exciting to see Susanna Phillips get a big Mozart part here again.

Les Troyens
Voigt, Graham, Cargill, Giordani, Cutler, Croft, Youn / Luisi (December-January)
It seems that Susan Graham has been waiting forever for this revival -- and in fact it will have been almost a decade since that magic first run with Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson's great Met triumph as Didon. Not sure what vocal form the other principals will show, but I think I'll miss Matthew Polenzani's utterly perfect Iopas this time...

The Barber of Seville (abridged holiday version)
Leonard, Shrader, Pogossov, Del Carlo, Bisch / Abel (December-January)
As usual for these holiday shows, the casting is pretty good.

Maria Stuarda (new David McVicar production)
van den Heever, DiDonato, Meli, Hopkins, Rose / Benini (New Year's Eve through January)
Finally, a big Joyce DiDonato bel canto vehicle -- and with the heralded debut of soprano Elza van den Heever to boot. McVicar's Anna Bolena was tasteful and literal and dull, but his promise of a "freer" physical production for this Donizetti installment is a good sign.

La Rondine
Opolais, Christy, Filianoti, Brenciu, Croft / Marin (January)
Kristine Opolais was supposed to have debut in last season's Boheme (as Musetta), but didn't for whatever reason. There's good music in this opera, but I'm not sure it will be half as interesting without the meta-angle that Angela Gheorghiu brought to its last run. Incidentally, Ion Marin hasn't conducted at the Met since 1993.

Le Comte Ory
Machaidze, Deshayes, Resmark, Flórez, Gunn, Ulivieri / Benini (January-February)
The least appealing Florez vehicle to date gets a revival with the impressive but perhaps miscast Nino Machaidze and no Joyce DiDonato.

Rigoletto (new Michael Mayer production)
Damrau, Volkova, Beczala, Lucic, Kocán / Mariotti (late January through February)
Oropesa, Herrera, Grigolo, Gagnidze, Iori / Armiliato (April through May 1)
I don't think the first cast can work (excellent singing, poor fit-to-part), and Vittorio Grigolo's unbearable and overhyped debut has me quite wary of the otherwise-promising spring lineup. As for the new Las Vegas-set production, who knows?

Parsifal (new François Girard production)
Dalayman, Kaufmann, Mattei, Nikitin, Pape / Gatti (February-March)
Dalayman, Kaufmann, Mattei, Nikitin, Pape / Fisch (March)
When the most doubtful part of a cast is Jonas Kaufmann (who wasn't that great in his last Wagner outing here), you've got one heck of a promising show. This is Girard's first big-house/standard-rep show; he of course directed the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

Don Carlo
Frittoli, Smirnova, Vargas, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Maazel (February-March)
A cast that perhaps should have been the premiere lineup... but is seriously diminished by Sondra Radvanovsky's replacement by Frittoli. (Not sure why, since it's two months after the final Ballo.) And too bad it's not the previous production that's being revived...

Francesca da Rimini
Westbroek, Giordani, Brubaker, Delavan / Armiliato (March)
Mark Delavan returns! Not sure how well the rest will go.

La Traviata
Damrau, Pirgu, Domingo / Nézet-Séguin (March-April)
Promising young tenor (Saimir Pirgu) and the season's only scheduled appearances by great conductorial hope Yannick Nézet-Séguin, but it's already past time for Gelb to kill this insultingly stupid & bathetic Willy Decker nonsense under the rubric of having many and rapid new productions. Violetta and papa Germont allow a range of voices, but Diana Damrau and Placido Domingo nevertheless aren't the most obvious choices for these either...

Poplavskaya, Boulianne, Beczala, Markov, Relyea / Altinoglu (March-April)
Another good tenor, but the rest isn't inspiring. I really liked Marina Poplavskaya's Elisabetta, but her utter humorlessness is a terrible fit for Marguerite.

Giulio Cesare
Dessay, Coote, Bardon, Daniels, Dumaux, Loconsolo / Bicket (April-May)
Dessay's Cleopatra worth the rest? Depends.

Dialogues des Carmélites
Leonard, Racette, Morley, Bishop, Palmer, Appleby / Langrée (May)
This show always works, but I'm not sure Louis Langree is the man to conduct it.

The Ring
Voigt, Morris, Delavan / Luisi (Cycle 1)
Dalayman, Morris, Delavan / Luisi (Cycle 2)
Voigt, Cleveman, Grimsley / Luisi (Cycle 3)
Mark Delavan's Met return is in fact rather huge, with two Ring cycles. The casting as a whole is a bit less starry than this year's, but the staging kinks may have been worked out by 2013.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The week in NY opera (September 24-30)

With City Opera reduced to a sadly shrunken half-existence, this will mostly be the Met this season.

Metropolitan Opera
Elisir (M/Th), Turandot (T/SE), Carmen (F), Trovatore (SM)
A new, opening-night production plus some grand warhorses. Carmen is probably the most promising of the bunch, with two young fantastic lead voices: Anita Rachvelishvili, who already seems a veteran in this, and Yonghoon Lee, who's impressed me more than any other middleweight tenor since his debut as Don Carlo two years ago -- Jonas Kaufmann very much included; in fact Kaufmann appearances since then have had me wishing it were Lee instead.

Turandot does have a promising lineup of shouters (and actually Hibla Gerzmava is rather more), if you'd like that. The rest? We'll see.