Saturday, December 28, 2013

The catfish king

Two Boys - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2013
Spence, Coote / Robertson

Nico Muhly's much-lauded and -promoted piece isn't all bad -- there's about half an act of impressive music. But it's not very operatic, and the libretto stinks.

The good has been much praised, and accords with Muhly's pre-operatic experience: the choral interludes, mostly in the first part... sonically interesting, well-constructed, etc. But they carry no drama, and Muhly seems to shy away from more individual writing elsewhere. For named characters he does nicely emulate the po-faced dryness of classical recitative, but the personal, moment-seizing expression of aria appears -- unfortunately -- not at all.

If the music is a mix, the drama is all bad.
Craig Lucas (librettist here) is no stranger to writing for the stage -- his work over the decades spans plays, musicals, and screenplays of more than a little success. But this piece seems more the result of a bet or dare than a considered attempt at operatic drama. How -- the creators might have jokingly speculated over a boozy brunch -- how might one present child sex on stage without getting in trouble for it? Well, one would make the child the aggressor, of course, and the adult in law barely one in fact. One could then smokescreen with suggestions of adult-adult sex, gross and explicit ones at that. And then at last the deed... well, must (even if pointedly) black it out, though the figures remain on stage from before to after. And if any complain? Ahh, a true story. Can't argue with truth!

In fact the above circumstances and arrangements do substantially blunt the issue... but it's still, inescapably, a story centered around child sex. And all the qualifiers are neutralized and more by the actual presentation on stage: the younger (13-14 in actual life) is played by a boy soprano who looks about ten, while the elder (16) -- here played by debuting tenor Nicky Spence though from all accounts Paul Appleby's presentation in the rest of the run wasn't materially different -- is made up unmistakably as the 30something he is, in this case rather resembling Philip Seymour Hoffman circa Happiness. Utterly repellent.

Perhaps even more offensive is the libretto's half-baked affront to storytelling. The overall setup of the show in the middlebrow form of the age -- police procedural -- could actually have gone somewhere. But what starts out as a dark, hyper-serious procedural in the vein of The Killing and Broadchurch spontaneously and inexplicably transforms midstream into an episode of Castle, as the detective's batty mother gives her the big climactic clue to the case. On seeing this bathetic turn I didn't know whether to laugh, facepalm, or spontaneously boo. I suspect all three at once would have been the proper response... could a vet like Lucas have actually meant this seriously? (But if not, what was such a joke doing in this show?)

The piece's transposition of the action backwards a year and a half from its real-life date -- from late 2003 to early 2001 -- is an odd sideline. 2001 was many, many years into the A/S/L era, and a year after the AOL-Time Warner merger that put the burgeoning internet into headlines everywhere. It hardly seems long enough ago to qualify as the halcyon era of ignorance.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The diva

Tosca - Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013
Radvanovsky, Tamura, Gagnidze / Armiliato

I know she's been working on them in parallel, with performances of this part around the world since the last Met run, but it's near-impossible at this point to view Sondra Radvanovsky's current run as Tosca separately from her triumph this fall as Norma. Those Normas made her stardom quite, quite visible, and so the backstory to her character here now needs no explanation -- Tosca appears, she's the diva, and that's that. But Radvanovsky has improved the active part of her performance, too, and quite thoroughly. The shapes, colors, and vocal stresses of Puccini's music, seemingly still new to her three years back, now sound from her throat as naturally and idiomatically as Verdi always has.

It's a tremendous whole: she's become the great Tosca her sound and character suggested from the first. Almost as satisfying, though, is how Radvanovsky continues to work and improve well into her international career. The full-grown dramatic sense she showed in Norma (and again in this), the continued sharpening of her vocal control, the comfort outside her bel canto roots here... what a welcome contrast to others who've audibly regressed as their fame has grown.

Opposite her Tosca on this night only was the Cavaradossi of new Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura. Tamura has actually covered at the Met before, but this was his first actual performance. His bio shows him having spent much of the past five years singing Otello, which given his rather short big-house resume had me concerned. But in fact his voice showed no real signs of early blow-out, and it turns out that -- perhaps due to his voice type and/or an early career change from natural science -- he's actually about the right age to be singing that stuff.

In any case, it seems an awful waste --- both to have had him sing so much of his career in small European houses and to have so much of this run (including this Saturday's matinee broadcast) sung by Marcelo Giordani. For Tamura has a naturally spacious voice that blossoms in the cavern of the Met, along with a fluidity of sound and production that Giordani hasn't shown since before he was a house regular (I really liked his sound in those early years, though). It took Tamura much of the first act to settle down in this debut, but he did pretty well going full blast cheek-to-cheek with Radvanovsky... and one can't say that about most. I'm not suggesting Kaufmann and Yonghoon Lee should fear for their bookings (and I'm as thrilled as anyone at the prospect of a Radvanovsky/Lee Ballo next season), but instead of covering the Met's utility Italian tenor, Tamura should at least be that guy. But I'd also really like to hear his Bacchus.

George Gagnidze's Scarpia was similar in its virtues to the one with which he opened this production. That lizard coat seems to have disappeared along with the floozies' more risque miming, though. Marco Armiliato is, as ever, solid and good with shape and singers.

Those who read the previous post about Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Emperor may note that the proto-modernist foregrounding of compulsion in Tosca (and Puccini generally, though it's a comic sideline in Boheme) makes the "bad guy" Scarpia more the central/action-carrying male figure here...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

High and low

Empirical experience with the world tells me that it's not typical that I've always found Hofmannsthal's Emperor a more naturally familiar figure to my understanding than, say, Cavaradossi, but things of that sort sometimes slip my mind as I solitarily draft and write these notes. So it was only upon discussing the Met's rather stupendous Frau revival with a friend that I hit upon its main flaw: whoever is responsible for its direction now (I believe this is, as discussed before, revival director J. Knighten Smit) has an excellent and detailed grasp of the lower world, but no such clarity about the upper. So the Barak family and their dynamics are impeccably in focus, while the Emperor and Empress are just in the hands of their performers, parts without an overall whole.

Torsten Kerl -- the Emperor -- is probably most affected by this, for notwithstanding his general aural appropriateness he's a bit too regular dude for the part. This is where the revival's cut of the Emperor's horse really hurts: with neither that big visual cue nor much clarity of personal interpretation, and with an unusually firm and forthright Barak in Johan Reuter, the distinction between Emperor and everyman -- their different roles in the story/allegory -- is lost. But Schwanewilms isn't helped either: the arm-waving she really really seems to like (her return show after Miller's appearance erased any doubts about that) needs to be either reigned in or connected to other elements on that side of the show, and there's no one to do that.

Meagan Miller, on the other hand, found in the lack of overall Emperor-Empress conception the opportunity to shape the show herself. Her alternate-cast Empress last Saturday offered a much clearer character trajectory than Schwanewilms' in the other performances, with the shock of having to become a morally responsible being coming, rightly, in bits through to the agonized spoken climax (where Schanewilms, relentlessly flighty before, incongruously springs a fully-trained philosopher-cum-rhetorician -- and yes, this is partly Hofmannsthal's fault, but one must make sense of it). And so though she sort of crashed into tough high stuff (like the D) where Schwanewilms more artfully ducked, and though her voice had some unsettlingly broad vibrato/wobble like Irina Lungu the night before (I don't remember this quality in Miller's Danae at Bard a few years back, so was she perhaps improperly compensating for the big house?) Miller was simply a more successful Empress than Schwanewilms, one around whom the show better and movingly built.

*     *     *

The difficulty Kerl, the director, and some of the less-gruntled viewers may have had stems from the fact that the Emperor, despite his title, is a LESS worldly figure than Barak, not more. Barak and wife are, despite the fantastic setting, rather familiar figures from the world -- you may recall their spinoff opera, Intermezzo, which Strauss wrote immediately after FroSch. The titled characters, despite such titles, aren't. For there is never a question of the Emperor ordering Barak or anyone else (besides the Nurse) around, nor any suggestion that he's a good, bad, indifferent, or indeed any kind of ruler: his title and position are only there to insulate him from everyone else.

What the two couples embody isn't so much positions in the world as positions of the world. For the Dyers it's all-too-close, and their faults arise therefrom: Barak too much mistakes his wife for the (rest of the) good in the world, and she mistakes him for the bad in it. For the Emps it's far off, vague, and so their troubles are more unmixedly within -- and in the immense space between even lover and beloved that Hofmannsthal's symbolist colleagues (and he himself -- note the lovers' quarrel in Rosenkavalier Act I) had worked so hard to open out.

And indeed there is -- and should be -- more Rilke than Siegfried to Hofmannsthal's Emperor. He is, near-fatally, something like the ideal appreciator of the Empress as she is, his hunt spiritual & symbolic -- the play (as he states up front) of his desire for her. What intoxicates him is that he can continue to pursue her, seemingly without limit: despite nightly consummating their union she remains... not virginal, exactly, but mysteriously integral without end in her pre-lapsarian perfection. (Last time I called the Empress sister of the Marschallin, Countess Madeleine, et al., but she is, to start, perhaps even more akin to Maeterlinck and Debussy's Melisande -- opera's most strikingly evasive amoral heroine.) It was, we may note, the Falcon's temporary breach of this perfection that angered the Emperor even though it had thereby won her for him.

It's Ariadne auf Naxos (going one opera backward in the Strauss canon instead of forward) rather than Intermezzo that illuminates the trouble here: if the magic of transformation is, as the Composer there unforgettably sings, the secret (mystery) of life, that is also what the imperial couple have rejected in their endless honeymoon. The Empress mentions a shape-changing talisman, lost in the "drunkenness of that first hour", but it was not only her form that was in that moment fixed. Both of them have cooperated to prolong that decisive hour indefinitely -- through to the start of the stage action proper -- down to their set roles therein: he in pursuit, she passively content after the rush of flight. (Compare, incidentally, how the action opens on Lulu and Dr. Schoen's marriage -- n.b. her animal metaphor!) The world threatens to eclipse the Dyers' individual selves, but their counterparts above allow their present selves to eclipse the world -- the perogative, for a while, of the rich or solitary.

But in life as in this story, it takes more than mortal resource to continue the same way forever. Only the divine and aesthetic may do that -- for mortals the only permanence is death... or ossification. In the terms of the tale, the Falcon's swipe had already brought Keikobad's daughter over to the side of the mortal/transient/disintegrable, and it was foolishly blind of the Emperor to continue to pay her homage as if it had not, as if she could have been brought into his grasp any other way (that is, in her original mythical form). Nor can the daughter/Empress, as she perhaps hopes upon hearing the deadline, go back to flitting in animal form while still retaining her husband, no more than her fixer could in any non-abominable way arrange for her to have the sign of mortal transformation (the shadow) without (as the Nurse so strongly advocates in their Act III argument) in fact changing anything else. The entire stage action occurs, for the married pair, in the hyper-prolonged moment of their decisive meeting, with the identities of Keikobad's (more or less divine) daughter and the (more or less mortal) Empress temporarily and unstably coexisting... so that resolution requires one to take the fore. And so she becomes the Empress proper, embracing transformation for both herself and her husband...

*     *     *

But the Symbolist angle tells us something else -- perhaps a why. If Emperor and Empress are recognizable, in their respect for mystery and inner space, as the symbolist poet and his ideal, their story seems not only exploration of a particular personal dynamic but critique of an aesthetic that Hofmannsthal famously mastered and even more famously (in English-speaking countries, anyway) left by forswearing lyric output for the stage.

Symbolist output of course has its own internal logic, but from our distant vantage it's perhaps most usefully viewed as a late station in the history of Romantic subjectivity -- or rather the scenes thereof. For the Romantic self was born in the Edenic no-place-in-particular which one might call "nature" by day and "night" by dark. But it had, after a while, to find its place in the world, and within mere decades had settled into alliance with the "civilized" against the proto-modern developments that were transforming the great and small facts of not only American but European life at the time. (This long-ago-forged inclination to the side offering to save collective meaning from the cold, alienating forces of arithmetic and cause&effect unfortunately continues to stultify and impoverish creatives to this day.) So as resentful and pessimistic as the portrayals of this late 19th-century milieu and its fantastic cousins became, there was, for these late Romantics, no getting away from it for long.

It's at this late juncture that we find the symbolist move -- to strip away the temporal elements of the scene. That meant, of course, the recognizably contemporary elements could be dropped, but not only those: in more sophisticated works place and time themselves fade from the scene as do even, at the limit in Mallarme et al., the particular identities of poetic self and its object. And so in, for example, Maeterlinck and Debussy's symbolist masterpiece Pelleas and Melisande, we see subjectivity's last form before it would return both bolstered and permanently sidelined (compare Alwa to Pelleas, Wozzeck to Golaud) by modernism... alive, as at its early-Romantic birth, in a no-place-in-particular, but now one in which interpersonal communion (or even, with Yniold or Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos, communication) is infinitely difficult rather than Edenically obvious -- and the distance and stasis thus sustained is simultaneously despair, glory, and protection from the modern(ist) tide.

And yet this timelessness, too, was an artefact of its time, of the deep backwards leisure sustained in Vienna or willed in Paris, and could no more sustain itself indefinitely than the Marschallin could by stopping her clocks. So whether it was aesthetic, philosophical, or historical (it was, as many note, a WWI work, premiered in 1919) reasoning that brought Hofmannsthal to its birth, Die Frau ohne Schatten shows -- finally -- not just the melancholic presentation/renunciation of this anti-temporal perspective (Der Rosenkavalier, 1911) nor its transformation by stage-magic from the negative permanence of death/isolation to the positive of literal divinity (Ariadne auf Naxos, 1912/1916) but its full re-entrance into the change and renewal of mortal existence, bringing the Empress from beloved and bride to wife and mother and the Emperor from seeker to father. (Wernicke's restoration/glorification, at the end of the original production, of the Emperor's desire-in-action -- the Falcon, who precipitates the action of backstory and story -- brought this strongly to the fore, and its cut by Smit in revival was a huge loss.)

*     *     *

Whatever flaws this incarnation had, a good FroSch is unique in the canon of not only Strauss and Hofmannsthal but opera generally. With luck we won't have to wait another ten years for the next revival.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fall and rise

Falstaff - Metropolitan Opera, 12/9/2013
Maestri, Oropesa, Meade, Cano, Blythe, Fanale, Vasile / Levine

As many around the world may discover today, there have been few shows in Met history as thoroughly joyous and satisfying as this one. James Levine seems again miraculously at the peak of his powers, the cast -- particularly Ambrogio Maestri and the women -- is a treat for the ear both solo and in ensemble, and director Robert Carsen, whose first Met masterpiece (yes, that just-retired Onegin, though it was even better before the changes for broadcast) never quite got him the esteem he deserved, responds to Verdi and Boito's blend of humanity and clever construction with his own surplus of both. The play of his images of more-or-less-civilized plenty within a scene-for-scene visual symmetry worthy of some great Lulu staging makes for the finest production of Peter Gelb's tenure.

(Notice, that is, that Carsen's main visuals reprise themselves in reverse order around the central scene of the bourgeois Eden -- that is, the Ford family kitchen -- from which the fat knight is ejected. What we first see as Falstaff's bed, the stag's head at the restaurant entrance, and horse pictures on the club walls become... well, you'll see, but the fact that his grand white bed has not yet reappeared reminds eye as well as memory that Falstaff's trial -- and perhaps the only weak sequence of the show -- is but temporary.)

On this second night, the short Serban Vasile (in his Met debut!) cut an amusing but not inappropriate figure as Ford. Not sure how the originally-scheduled Franco Vassallo was supposed to look.

If you ever thought that Falstaff was dry, or that the modern Met couldn't do comedy, or that one would never hear a commanding Levine evening again... go and rejoice in how wrong all that was.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The doe

Der Rosenkavalier - Metropolitan Opera, 12/10/2013
Serafin, Sindram, Rose, Morley, Cutler / Gardner

I have said much already about this opera, mostly in 2009's post on the Marschallin and her world, and so I'll leave this brief so I can return to my second long post on Frau (holiday, illness, and two other stupendous productions that I still plan to write about -- along with one not-so-stupendous one -- have forced delay).

Martina Serafin is, if not a pitch-perfect Marschallin (the last bits of the trio showed notable strain), about the ideal one emotionally. She was such a wonderfully expressive and reactive Sieglinde in her spring debut that I feared she might, by temperament, take a similar approach to this character. A foolish worry, it turns out, with the first native Wiener(in) to sing this most Viennese part here since... well, further back than I can pinpoint without digging through the archives. Everything -- strong or subtle -- is both felt and held in balance in Serafin's person and her clearish sound, as it should be. The Marschallin is a comic character by nature, one who seeks -- and finds -- balance after each storm, and with Serafin even eye-rolling and visible tears (among which she does not lose her composure) strengthen rather than detract from that core showing. And her use of the fan...

And so the parts that make a good Rosenkavalier great -- the closes of Acts I and III -- came off beautifully. Only... the show was not otherwise on that level. Full credit to Gardner for not doing a saggy final trio (though he teased it with a loooong lead-in), but for most of the night he seemed to be conducting Frau rather than Rosenkavalier: much attack and energy, but frankly unforgivable sloppiness in ensembles. One does not have to drive Rosenkavalier forward, for the motion is all within its dance rhythms. One must simply and precisely distill them from the mass of notes -- and Gardner's sloppiness does the opposite.

Daniela Sindram, debuting in this run, would be a perfect Octavian -- she has the character, manner, and looks down, and is quite affecting in her portrayal -- except that in the Met's big barn she lacks vocal impact or glamour. (Yes, Susan Graham is again missed.) Too bad. Peter Rose does have enough force to make an impressive overall show as Ochs, but doesn't have the money note at the Act II curtain... ah well. But his interplay with Serafin in Act III is terrific, with him crossing the line/trying her patience a little more on each exchange until she's forced to lower the boom. Eric Cutler was good enough as a somewhat overdirected Italian Singer (the levee scene has often fallen prey to that at the Met), and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen a fun and strong if (on this night) somewhat inconsistent Faninal.

Best besides Serafin (and the ever-authoritative Richard Bernstein as the Commissary) was a late fill-in for this run, Lindemann grad Erin Morley. She, too, lacked some vocal force -- especially in conversation (the high stuff was fine) -- but in character and delivery she was near the standard of 2009's Miah Persson, the modern ideal as Sophie.

Stage direction this time -- Robin Guarino as ever, but with Jonathon Loy and Tomer Zvulun this revival -- was, as I've suggested, a bit overdone for the levee but clearer and better than usual (with a very nice touch of the intriguers dancing off) for Act III. But who the heck cut out the Turks and Croats from Act II!?

*     *     *

After such complaints, what can I say? Mostly that Serafin is likely (though one might argue for Denoke) the best Marschallin here since at least 1990 (Felicity Lott, in the famous Carlos Kleiber revival). One shouldn't miss her light up the show -- and, if one has only seen Fleming et al., clarify the character -- even if that means putting up with Gardner stepping on his not-super-sturdy ensemble cast elsewhere. Last night of the run is Friday.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Rigoletto - Metropolitan Opera, 11/15/2013
Hvorostovsky, Lungu, Polenzani, Volkova, Kocan / Heras-Casado

A listener could, depending on one's emphases and tastes, reasonably find each major part of this revival either successful or unsuccessful, and it's hard to say which thread dominates. Let me clarify...

Irina Lungu, Gilda.
Good: acts well, looks the part, full-size sound. Bad: broad wobbly vibrato already.
Oksana Volkova, Maddalena.
Good: singing, acting. Bad: she was such a good Olga that it's hard to picture her as an assassin's sister now.
Matthew Polenzani, Duke.
Good: characteristically lovely lyric sound. Bad: too nice for the Duke, money notes aren't at the top.
Pablo Heras-Casado, conductor.
Good: energetic. Bad: noticeable ensemble and stage/pit coordination issues.
Stefan Kocan, Sparafucile.
Good: OK, everything. He's great.
Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Rigoletto.
Good: With a hump and ridiculous bald spot, Hvorostovsky seemed thrillingly liberated from the burden of being the handsome "barihunk" sex symbol. This particularly energized the court scenes, in which he found a specificity and nervous presence I've never before seen in this warhorse. Bad: There's little straightforward about Hvorostovsky, and so if you expect his "private" interaction with Gilda to reveal his unmasked direct fatherly truth rather than another intense but not-fully-revealing persona, well, prepare for disappointment. Also the usual thing about his voice's perhaps too-coherent/uniform texture that doesn't really expand out for Verdian climaxes...

Personally I found Hvorostovsky fascinating and illuminating to watch (only problem is I can't think of too many other "ugly guy" roles for him), Lungu uncomfortable to hear, Heras-Casado's ensemble trouble a drag, and the rest fine. But your milage may vary.

Note that the remaining performances feature another new Russian soprano (Sonya Yoncheva) in place of Lungu.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The revival

Die Frau ohne Schatten - Metropolitan Opera, 11/7/2013 & 11/12/2013
Schwanewilms, Goerke, Komlosi, Kerl, Reuter / Jurowski

The premiere of this landmark production a dozen years ago -- just months before director/designer Herbert Wernicke's untimely death -- was a visual-dramatic triumph aided by music, with Christian Thielemann and the Met Orchestra taking the sonic honors over the mixed cast. Its revival two years later was reduced in all aspects, with neither J. Knighten Smit's revival stage direction nor Philippe Auguin's dry conducting nor the even patchier cast meeting original standards. This time Vladimir Jurowski is blessed with a fundamentally well-cast group of singers, and leads them with fire and an impressive orchestral palette in a musical triumph. With this in place, it's not fatal but merely regrettable that the revived production again just shows the magnificent skeleton of Wernicke's work, without quite the focus or daring of its original incarnation.

Debuting soprano Anne Schwanewilms shows both sides of the matter. Without question she has better basic tools for the Empress than her predecessor Deborah Voigt: with a reasonably cutting but basically middle-weight voice, more delicacy and flexibility in emotional expression, and a bit of mystery in her person, Schwanewilms is able to show the character's sisterly relation to the other great heroines of Strauss (the Marschallin, Countess Madeleine, et al.) along with her flight from and confrontation with a thing as foreign to her as to her brethren -- a true moral question, one that does not present itself almost pre-answered in social garb. (For amoral charmer Manon is also a sister, though one from a less ordered universe.) This is more or less enough, and a fine core for the piece, but while Schwanewilms' willingness to act and make specific points is great, the specific stuff she enacts seems out of place -- made for a quite different production of Frau than the one she's in. Others have, I think, commented on the bird-style arm-waving of the first acts (which I was terrified would continue into the finale, when she's supposed to have embraced humanity with the shadow business), but even stranger to my eyes was the outburst of German Stage Acting in the here-uncut frozen Emperor scene. Here her sudden rhetorical fluency was hugely jarring not just because it's usually cut to nothing, but because Schwanewilms began by enacting and thereby foregrounding her character's flightiness and moral childishness. To have her sound so comfortable and self-aware in her dilemma afterwards was an unexplained reversal.

It's hard to blame the singer for this, however, and it was on the whole a successful and promising debut. But the night belonged to Christine Goerke, who's the first Dyer's wife in long memory to remind us that this was originally a Lotte Lehmann part. Goerke's portrayal is in fact so fundamentally warm and vulnerable that it may go a bit too far, eliding some of the temperament and difficulty of the character (who was after all, modeled after Strauss' wife) rather than just balancing them with the humane (as Gabriele Schnaut effectively did in 2001). But this error, if it is one, does preserve the basic cool/hot split between the Empress and the wife, and it's hard to resist Goerke's equally warm and humane singing in a beastly part. As touching as anything else on the night was her genuine emotional/cathartic reaction to the storm of applause at her bow.

Though his firm bass-baritone impressed as aristocratic jerk Prus in The Makropoulos Case, I wouldn't have expected Johan Reuter to be such a successful Barak. He leads the men here, with a sound just as firm but still encompassing the humane warmth of the Dyer.

Torsten Kerl was a pretty good Menelas in The Egyptian Helen, and he's a reasonably good Emperor here. (Some will -- painfully -- recall John Horton Murray's massacre of the part in 2003 (and some of 2001) and sigh in relief.) Kerl maintains a nice tone and timbre throughout -- even in the usually-cut hard stuff in Act III -- and he phrases pretty well... he just can't blast for effect when called to do so. That's fine, though the de-stoning solo loses something. Ildiko Komlosi doesn't have a huge range of color or volume, but, like Schwanewilms, uses the lesser weight of her voice to bring out a bit more of the eloquent Hofmannsthalness of even this villain character than I recall from Reinhild Runkel et al.

The best, most memorable soloists in 2001 were in fact Met principals David Chan (violin) and Rafael Figueroa (cello), whose work in the Water of Life and Falcon scenes respectively illuminated the Empress and Emperor's hearts better than the actual singers. Chan returns in this run, as excellent as ever, but as well as the Met's other cello principal Jerry Grossman does here, he doesn't efface memories of his colleague's warmth and tonal/emotional depth. Nor, I suppose, does Jurowski vis-a-vis Thielemann, but to compare seems unfair when the Russian (1) forces a fully uncut revival, (2) encompasses the violence and drive of the piece (particularly in the interludes) as well as its delicacy, and (3) inspires a coherent and beautiful sonic whole. Perhaps the end isn't as fervent as it could be, but perhaps that too will arrive in the next weeks.

*     *     *

The most striking and affecting thing about Wernicke's production on its debut wasn't its glorious images and effects and visual scenes -- many of which have been borrowed by subsequent productions -- but the sheer unbridled sincerity of the whole. Perhaps it takes a genius to not hide behind ample cleverness and technical effect and just, e.g., have the Emperor ride across the stage on a white horse, and later finish the piece by lighting the auditorium ceiling from the stage to include the audience in the celebratory circle before having the falcon swoop across in a colorful combined splash of stage and story magic. Revival director J. Knighten Smit and his assistants aren't such confident geniuses, and so they have cut the horse and the closing falcon appearance and just given us the starkly impressive bones of the show. This is still something -- a huge and significant landmark that you all should see -- but the effect, though more in the Gelb-era style, is unfortunately less complete than the original's. Nor, I think, would Wernicke have let Schwanewilms stick to just production-agnostic acting, as she does in ignoring the magical blue heaven of stars that the show gives her before she invokes them in protection...

*     *     *

The second night brought: somewhat less arm-flapping, somewhat less shock at curtain from Goerke (though equally good singing), and a somewhat more full house. We'll see how things progress from here.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The tightrope / the passenger

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/18/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza
Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 10/24/2013
Meade, Barton, Antonenko, Orlov (d) / Frizza

Perhaps it's from some listener fatigue on my part, but one of the more striking things about last Friday's Norma seemed to be how much everyone else therein must have realized that this was Sondra Radvanovsky's show. Not just in billing or number of notes or decibel level, but in actual significance: the possibilities of the run turning out to be "about" someone else instead of or in addition to the named heroine -- always in the air at a first night -- had by this third week dissipated. So the air seemed a bit let out whenever the star was offstage, even as Aleksandrs Antonenko and Kate Aldrich rumbled through their love duet with full force and excellent accompaniment from Riccardo Frizza. They did their thing professionally and with no lack of skill, but only Radvanovsky dared to test the moment -- over and over, even this late in the run, continuing to respond to the challenges of the part and the by now frankly adulatory audience -- with new attempts at the boundary of what she or any singer can do. This time it was the big first cabaletta that exploded into the ear with yet-unheard fire, and if this first-act aggressiveness required Radvanovsky to dial back the excesses she'd previously delivered in the second act (instead of blasting with/over the chorus through their entire call for war and blood, she stuck just to her written bits until blasting a high note at the end) it was worth it not least because she went for it.

Only... in this cast, no one but the conductor Frizza seems fit to join her on that tightrope, in the glorious madness of the now. Antonenko is a wonderfully forceful and solid foil even when vocally a bit off, but that's it -- he's a foil, not a co-conspirator. Traditionally it's the Adalgisa who catalyzes the duets, but Aldrich is just overmatched, and while James Morris has set more than just rocks on fire as Wotan, well, here he doesn't get to play Wotan.

November 1 is unmissable even as a one-woman show, but with another more equal participant it (or its re-revival, if the Met isn't stupid) might be historic. I suppose we can't wait for Yonghoon Lee to take up Pollione, so it would have to be an Adalgisa.

*     *     *

Now last night's new-cast Norma probably requires both a fair evaluation and a just one. To be fair, Angela Meade is surely the second best Norma this production has seen: she can actually sing the part, with good volume and a pleasant, consistent, and more conventionally lyrical basic sound than her predecessor. There is a worrisomely broadening vibrato at the top of the staff, attempts to float high notes are touch-and-go on support and intonation, and she doesn't get everything one can from Bellini's score, but Meade certainly does the opera enough justice to make the it work. This has been rare over the years, and if we hadn't seen her predecessor, we might think it unreasonable to ask for more than what Meade delivers in any particular season's attempt...

To be just, however... this doesn't even turn out to be Meade's show. It's Jamie Barton, now apparently fully transformed from near-inaudible Council Finals winner to next in the line of great American mezzo honkers (as Dolora Zajick ages and Stephanie Blythe reigns), who most impressively compels eye and ear -- but if she hadn't stolen the show, Antonenko might himself have done it. Meade's account is a traversal, a negotiation -- not a dare.

Her weakness in this seems to me unfortunately tied to her appeal. Meade's basic sound is a comforting one -- clean, straightforward, not luxuriant but self-contained. Unlike Radvanovsky's disconcertingly vibrato- and air-borne sound, ready to arc to the next turn of phrase or feeling, Meade's notes seem settled in place even for the span of her coloratura. And yes, this makes it really uncomfortable when the aforementioned flaws in Meade's production crop up, but I don't think ironing them out would make for much more success as Norma. The real problem is that this settledness pervades Meade's musical and dramatic approach, so that the great non-sonic triumphs of Radvanovsky's account -- contrast and dramatic responsiveness -- are conspicuously absent. Perhaps it's unfair to expect a comparable dynamic range -- Meade seemed to sing most of Act I between mp and mf, not the ppp and fff we've been hearing, and didn't dare any of the messa di voce stuff (that is, a crescendo and decrescendo on the same long note, one of those absurdly difficult tests of full bel canto mastery) -- but gone too were the contrasts of mood and feeling: the cabalettas, shorn of their ecstasy, seemed like out-of-character showoff, and while she can execute attacks and follow Frizza in his energetic tempi, she's just along for the ride, even smoothing out rather than finding the thrill of these musical turns.

Dramatically Meade has the classic stimmdiva lack of bite and specificity. Again, though one can excuse her lack of high-priestess command that it took Radvanovsky many productions to internalize, the lack of fine attention to the emotional moment(s) is a big loss. The final scenes were most affected. Here Radvanovsky had, in the last few shows, been so seemingly charged by the energies of piece and of audience that she went for an emotional precision perhaps greater than what her production and colleagues could really support... Meade, while offering probably her best singing of the night (though no blasting over the chorus, even at the end, in case you were wondering), expressed only generalized rage followed by generalized sorrow, so that the transition seemed one of those inexplicable twists that people use to make fun of opera and not the sublime tragic resolution we had seen for three weeks.

These limitations didn't hurt Meade in the gloomy, largely passive part of Anna Bolena -- and indeed they may have helped. But Norma is singularly difficult for a reason, and, fairly or no, it's disappointing that Meade didn't more push her limits in this encyclopediac role. Again, note Meade's mezzo colleague: though uncongenially cast in range, figure, and likely even character (I haven't much seen her, but she seems rather too assertive for an ingenue), Barton went for broke on the (too-)high stuff, threw herself admirably even into the acting of Adalgisa's conflicted love and repentance, and seized her time on stage as Meade did not. And though Barton had less over the evening to do, her clear full resonant tone was the dominant force in the at-last-well-blended duets, which, not least for her presence, were the highlight of this evening.

Ievgen Orlov, a young Ukrainian bass with a nice, full, very Slavic sound, sang Oroveso in place of James Morris. Nice debut, will see how he develops.

Even with a better Adalgisa and a more balanced show, of course, Monday's repeat of this cast is very far in priority behind Friday's return of the originals. I hope you can see the latter.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The blank page

Eugene Onegin - Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013
Kwiecien, Netrebko, Beczala, Volkova, Tanovitski / Gergiev

It's strange irony that the great stage actress Fiona Shaw, who's made her name with a rare and forceful talent for the extreme, is credited with directing an Onegin that, at least in its current incarnation, is most notable for the quiet details of its social-comic background. It's not her doing that the leads fizzle or that Gergiev feels obligated to make up for any exciting bit with a followup of utter slackness, but given these things we at least get a bit of the social observation that makes up much of Pushkin's original text. That's something... just not enough to justify a season-opener or moviecast.

I've seen sopranos fail or fall short in singing Tatyana, but I've never before witnessed one who seemed not to want to try. When Anna Netrebko started off the first act completely blank, I thought it might be the sort of lying-low she's used at the start of Manon and elsewhere to contrast with her more forward turns. But -- amazing to see -- even the letter scene brought neither urgency nor any particular emotion... nor, despite some impressive awake-at-last pit work by Gergiev, even the intensification of presence to signal the seizing of her scene -- just more routine phrasing and slightly louder singing. Nor is this just some misguided emphasis on Tatyana's rural backwardness: her high-society incarnation is no less blankly sullen, and only by the far-too-late final scene do we see traces of sonic-dramatic life.

How could Netrebko so utterly miss having a character? Perhaps she went literally by the descriptions her nurse and family give in the first act: pale, quiet, shy and downcast. That's fair enough, as far as it goes, but to look at this as Tatyana's central truth is to miss the crucial point of Romanticism, the significance of its characteristic subjectivity: that we are not merely our social manifestations, that not only our souls but our personal experience of existence may be significant -- and communicable. It's a contested subjectivity -- by indifference, rejection, competition, consequence, physical limitation, and, most characteristic in Romanticism's transplantation to the foreign space of Imperial Russia, the social order itself -- but one that's never far from the Romantic foreground. Particularly in this opera, in this very scene: Tchaikovsky has not only shaped the epic verse-novelist's view of the Pushkin original into lyric scenes, but has put the central (letter) scene inside the heroine's enflamed subjectivity as it cries for the intimate extra-social connection of communication. That she does not find it -- or rather, with tragic irony, finds it only asynchronously -- doesn't make what's revealed in her a null.

In fact it almost doesn't matter what the inner truth of Tatyana turns out to be: the opera has made sense here with the mercurial fragility of Solveig Kringleborn, the rapt earnestness of Renee Fleming, and the explosive frame-bursting grandeur of Karita Mattila. What matters is that she has one, and that the Letter Scene opens it out to us. Netrebko's doesn't.

Making matters worse is the cipher of Mariusz Kwiecien's Onegin. Yes, Onegin is meant to be a bit of a cipher, who until that second meeting with Tatyana may not himself know who, if anyone, he is and what, if anything, he wants. But he's a worldly cipher, one who begins having swum in the social sea so habitually that if his suavity ever lapses it's from jadedness or irritation, not awkwardness. Kwiecien, by contrast, offers a strangely alien (though somewhat reminiscent of his zestless Don Giovanni) Onegin, whose social manners and mannerisms seem constructed and imperfectly learned rather than second nature. And though it's awkward and assembled (and not, that is, attractive), we never do see what lies underneath... making Tatyana's attraction as wholly arbitrary as his rejection. Is this supposed to be Onegin as closet case, in an echo of Tchaikovsky's life experience? Unfortunately that -- or whatever is going on here -- makes nonsense of the actual events and thematic symmetry (he does become more attracted, after he's lost his social confidence and mooring, just as she becomes unable to reciprocate as she's gained hers -- again it's the classic Romantic contest between social and intimate existences) of the actual opera, which can't survive a lead couple with no connection or chemistry.

*     *     *

Hardly less fatal to Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is poor conducting, which Valery Gergiev provides in surprisingly full measure. Netrebko and Kwiecien are relatively new to their parts, but Gergiev led what was honestly one of the great runs of Onegin (as one can still see) not too long ago. This time -- for this moviecast matinee, at least, though reports suggest similar work at the other performances -- he seems to have lost his grip on the whole of the piece. Like Netrebko, he begins with a slack blankness -- seemingly attempting to show the soporific backwater comfort of the Larins' by sonic demonstration -- and though he does perk up more than she for notable sequences, he insistently returns to laxness with each new scene. Gergiev has used a similarly broad range of tempi before, but never so haphazardly or without overall dramatic perspective. Perhaps he was spooked by the protest (the current audience is protective and adulatory), or is bored of the old war-horse, or is as nonplussed by Netrebko as I was. In any case, he's no help.

Best here were the second couple. Bolshoi mezzo Oksana Volkova -- the premiere Maddalena in last season's new Rigoletto is something like the ideal Olga, about the only part that's been poorly cast here over the years. Piotr Beczala is, if anything, a better Lensky than he was for the otherwise much more successful 2009 run, closer to the specific joy and tragedy of the character while retaining his pleasingly plaintive lyric sound. Alexei Tanovitski (formerly spelled Tanovitsky for his Met appearances) as Gremin was more memorable than he was here as Wotan and less memorable than as the friar/ghost of Charles V. John Graham-Hall was a good Triquet, and I can't believe Larissa Diadkova is already at the point where she's singing the nurse (well enough, but really?).

*     *     *

It's not entirely clear to me how much Shaw and her collaborator-predecessor Deborah Warner are to blame for the wrongheaded and energy-sucking characterizations offered by the leads. In any case, they and their production colleagues do mostly provide a nicely textured human and physical background to the central drama that should (and in some future revival undoubtedly will) appear, though it in no way betters the evocativeness and lyric/realistic alternation of Robert Carsen's previous show. (Adding the second intermission back is no favor either.) Some of the directorial touches go too far -- having Onegin and Lensky embrace after they sing that they can't have that moment of connection and forgiveness is inane -- but that, too, can be remedied over time.

Next month's cast will have in Peter Mattei an Onegin long on suavity and outer charm (as well as, when called upon, unforgettably tortured singing). But I'm having a hard time thinking of a lyric soprano less temperamentally suited to Tatyana than Marina Poplavskaya, though I'm sure she'll at least go all-out in the Letter Scene. (Is Tatyana joining Marguerite as a part that everyone finds easy to cast except Gelb?) And Villazon... well he wasn't "back" a year ago, and I'm not sure why it would be different now. We'll see.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The fire

Norma - Metropolitan Opera, 9/30/2013 & 10/4/2013
Radvanovsky, Aldrich, Antonenko, Morris / Frizza

It was always clear that she had the pieces. That huge, instantly arresting sound, providing self-evident significance to every note. The marriage of force and flexibility (including trill!) in a true dramatic coloratura instrument. The control, the feel for the bel canto line, and the thrill of rhythmic attack... even a sort of dramatic gameness. But one would not have thought that the most indelible fact of Sondra Radvanovsky's triumph as Norma last Monday would have been the sublime extended musical-dramatic concentration of its last fatal scenes, as striking a feat as Joyce DiDonato's a season ago in Donizetti's four-years-later masterpiece Maria Stuarda.

For not since the first advent of her stardom in those too-little-seen Luisa Millers a dozen seasons back has Radvanovsky seemed so wholly at one with her part. Perhaps it took all the great parts in between -- most recently (Trovatore's) Leonora, Tosca, and Amelia -- to accustom her to seizing the action with the grand abandon of her characters. (And we in fact see bits of these previous assumptions in the private rage and desperation, public grandeur, and the interplay between these states that define this Norma's story.)

Vocally, Radvanovsky goes for big contrasts, to an extent one has not seen her try in a single night. The transition between the restraint and shaded control of Norma's public "Casta diva" to the explosive private emotional display that follows from the cabaletta is felt as well as observed, as she unlooses full sonic force for the latter. Similarly, the turn from slow to fast in her first duet with Adalgisa ("Ah sì, fa core, abbracciami") is so instantly marked by the thrill of forward motion that its message of release is clear just from rhythm. Many such touches abound, but most striking of all is the climactic pianissimo "Son io"... as Norma/Radvanovsky finally accuses herself in the way least familiar to us and to her.

*     *     *

It's even more to Radvanovsky's credit that she triumphs now in a revival production -- and not one of great note, but a workmanlike John Copely show that, before this season, had only seen failure. (She didn't get much dramatically out of a similar attempt at Vespri some seasons back.) In fact it's not a bad physical production: moon shapes and themes are clearly emphasized above the stage; it's just that the human action below is still a bit of a jumble. (That said, better this than David Alden's sense-free Ballo.)

But though no David McVicar was present, excellent musical colleagues were. Italian conductor Riccardo Frizza has had some moderate success here in Rigoletto, Trovatore, and Armida, but none of that was really noteworthy. Here, he is sharp and orderly, giving proper detailed expression to both the long and the urgent phrases of Bellini's opera without pulling the singers around. Excellent work. Tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko is just the sort of big, dark-ish, confident voice one wants to hear as Pollione -- not too complicated (though seeing Yonghoon Lee in this would be interesting), but not as wholly stiff as, say, Giordani became over the course of his Met ubiquity. James Morris sounds a bit old and rhythmically inflexible as Oroveso, but he's always sounded off in non-Wagner appearances: in any case he retains his authority. Tenor Eduardo Valdes and new-ish Anglo-American soprano Sian Davies are as good in the sidekick parts as one expects from the Met.

The only lapse here is, as usual, Adalgisa, the big lyric soprano part eternally miscast with mezzos. To be fair, Kate Aldrich is (though a lesser singer) a much more appropriate choice for the role than the original in this production, Dolora Zajick -- Aldrich at least looks and can act the ingenue, and her lyric mezzo is more sonically plausible than the grand dramatic was. But the high notes aren't easy, she's far from an equal partner with Radvanovsky in the duets, and, well, even if one accepts that Radvanovsky is sui generis, Aldrich's somewhat grainy sound (perhaps because overtaxed) blends poorly with the star's unmistakable squillo. Unfortunately, as Gelb's Met is likely too set in its ways to hire, say, Ruth Ann Swenson, we're stuck with this approximate Adalgisa doing her best.

*     *     *

Gelb's Met is probably too set in its ways to somehow movie- or even radiocast this landmark revival either, so make sure you catch it in person. Radvanovsky seems to be getting only more confident, and though you likely won't see the awed emotionality in her bows that we got last Monday, any successful Norma is an event.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A beginning

I didn't attend last night's event, though given the absentee director and Gergiev's characteristic variability the future iterations that I do see may be much different. (It is, incidentally, amusing that it took one of Putin's more offhand bits of villainy to foreground the Russian conductor's long-deplorable enthusiasm for the strongman.)

But Onegin yesterday was merely the showy resumption of the Met's general activity. Tonight's Cosi brings back the man whose virtues have been too long missed at the Met: James Levine. And it features, as my long-ago preview noted, the opera that reached, in its last Levine revival, perhaps the peak of the great conductor's entire Met tenure.

However tonight actually goes, it should be momentous.

Monday, May 06, 2013

The week in NY opera (May 6-12)

The end... for a while anyway. As usual (or not), it more or less ends in fire and flood.

Metropolitan Opera
Valkyrie (M), Giulio Cesare (T/F), Siegfried (W), Dialogues (Th/SE), Twilight (SM)
Actually, this 2012-13 Met season ends with the guillotine on Saturday night. Before then, though, is most of Ring Cycle 3.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The week in NY opera (April 29-May 5)

This week brings, among other things, the most interesting Fleming program I can remember.

Metropolitan Opera
Giulio Cesare (T/F), Rigoletto (W), Twilight (Th), Dialogues (SM), Rheingold (SE)
The second-to-last week of the season brings the final Rigoletto and the first Dialogues of the Carmelites -- which always revives well, but has sold much better this season than I recall from the past. Ring Cycle 3 starts Saturday night with Greer Grimsley as Wotan; Deborah Voigt and debuting tenor Lars Cleveman will join him in later installments next week.

Carnegie Hall
Collegiate Chorale Song of Norway (T)
Renee Fleming et al. "Vienna: Window to Modernity" (SE)

The WWII-era Grieg mashup by Hollywood/Broadway operettists Robert Wright and George Forrest plays -- in concert, but with dancing -- tonight. Saturday, Fleming is joined by Jeremy Denk, the Emerson String Quartet, and other string players as they evoke Vienna from the time of late Brahms and Wagner to early Schoenberg to unknowns from the '30s. This rich song repertoire has always suited her well -- better, to my ear, than the cooler Strauss parts that has been much of her operatic diet.

Peter Jay Sharp Theater
Juilliard Opera The Cunning Little Vixen (T/Th)
This actually opened with a sold-out premiere on Sunday, but the new Emma Griffin production of the Janacek opera (in English translation) plays twice more this week.

OT: Carnegie Hall
Richard Goode recital (W)
Beethoven's last three piano sonatas and some of his op. 119 bagatelles.

The birth of... tragedy

Die Walküre - Metropolitan Opera, 4/26/2013
Dalayman, Serafin, O'Neill, Delavan, Blythe, König / Luisi

The plot of Wagner's Ring cycle begins, of course, with Rheingold, but story doesn't enter the picture until the first act of this opera. Perhaps Wagner saw it clearly himself in calling Rheingold the preliminary night, for though he recalled better than most that story first came with divine protagonists, he seemingly found it impossible -- as, in his telling, do they themselves -- to assign his gods and spirits much of the terrible transformative revelation that is story. Instead they get reflection and machination and obscuring transformation -- and it's perhaps productive to consider the first parts of the Ring a demonstration of this as inescapable divine role: on the first night, Alberich thinks he has rather a neat conquest story, but is foiled straightaway by Loge and Wotan's tricks and turns wholly to long plotting himself; Fasolt, too, perhaps senses the glimmer of some half- or misrealized story in his dealings with Freia, but that too is squashed by his murderous brother's claim of sole possession and long immovable brooding (to reappear much later as a speedbump in Siegfried's story). Meanwhile Wotan's adventures seem to happen only offstage and in reflective retelling after the fact; on stage, he is limited to his straight path at every turn.

Only with the human Wälsungs do we see a story proper take shape -- for themselves as well as for us. For while we see an extended reunion/recognition sequence play out between the siblings, they (and thereby we again as well) are called to remember that life is not a row of arbitrary and unbearable fortunes, misfortunes, and obligations but potentially -- that is, while a story goes -- the scene that shows us meaning, identity, and the great union of these that is love. And the lesson spreads, as Brünnhilde moves from the divine position of observation and manipulation to choosing/desiring story's fruits (love -- and though she doesn't yet realize it, transformation and new identity) in Act II before, in Act III, seducing Wotan with the promise of the great future tale of Siegfried's return as the only one who can reach her rock to claim her.

(And so it plays out in the next opera, but Brünnhilde's experience of the discouraging part of human life is only deferred. For after the glorious story of her and Siegfried's reunion and recognition closes, the pair continue to exist... and are sucked into the morass of misfortune, machination and entanglement from which the Wälsungs' desperate story emerged in the first place. Unfortunately that story-deficient concluding installment is blown up way beyond Rheingold to Meyerbeerian size.)

*     *     *

Though less starry than some previous performances, this second-cycle revival was in the fine Met tradition. Things started slowly, for of the first-act players only Martina Serafin -- debuting in the house with these Sieglindes -- carries much of the tragic story. Hans-Peter König sings well but hasn't much menace in either voice or person (the costume still makes him look like Santa) as Hunding, while Simon O'Neill -- healthy at last -- has a nice enough (though a touch monochromatic) bright sound but his phrasing's sort of stiff and in timbre and stage persona he seems too young and wide-eyed for Siegmund. But how much Serafin manages alone! Her voice is so firm and expressive through the middle and so well conveys the flux and import of the story: when she herself narrated "Der Männer Sippe" the drama at long last (Siegmund's earlier long shouts to his father notwithstanding) ignited for the evening's duration. Add to this her similarly expressive dramatic presence and Serafin is the most (only?) exciting new middle-weight soprano here since Anja Harteros vanished from these shores. Serafin's high notes don't quite like to be blasted over full Wagnerian orchestration, but I expect and hope that the more civilized top deployment of the Marschallin will show them happy under less duress.

Act II brought the other principals. I've praised Voigt in this because she knows what points to make as Brünnhilde and the voice still works well enough considering. But it's absurd that she continues to get twice the shows and (via broadcast) some gigantic multiple times the exposure of Katarina Dalayman, who has become really really good in this role with no considerations or allowances needed. This time it was the absolutely easy lyricism of her heart-to-hearts with Wotan that was stunning, and her almost-as-easy transition to the loud stuff. Even without a trill, Dalayman marries as well as anyone and better than most the youthfully impetuous lightness of Wotan's favorite daughter to her grand scale and situation.

Mark Delavan, neglected by the Met in favor of imported mediocrities even after some amazing shows across the plaza (he's actually reprising his biggest NYCO triumph -- Flying Dutchman, which he did there in 2001 -- in Princeton this summer), finally got some spotlight this season with two Ring cycles and a villain role in the Zandonai rarity. He's still, I believe, only a few Wotan cycles in career-wise, but the raw material and overall understanding are there and he can certainly hold his own playing with and off the female stars around him. His domestic byplay with Fricka and (in the happier act) Brünnhilde is funny and actually touching, and he traces a very particular and individual arc with Dalayman in the final scene, with Dalayman not relaxing at the beginning of the farewell, but only -- in ecstatic relief and excitement -- when he finally gets around to mentioning the bridal fire.

Fricka sits too high for Stephanie Blythe to really use her gooseflesh notes, but she does well in the part anyway. Fabio Luisi conducts with more fire than I recall from previous years, but it's a texturally and dramatically lighter account and I'd still rather have had Levine or Gatti at the helm. The Lepage production... well, it's a revival, so we don't have to think about it -- and idea-free as it was all along, the production is significantly more enjoyable as uncontemplated wallpaper.

Serafin, Dalayman, and Delavan carried the show, and though the first returns for one last round next Monday, I'm not sure I can recommend it without the other two. I'll be at Rosenkavalier though.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The week in NY opera (April 22-28)

Somehow it's Sweden week...

Metropolitan Opera
Giulio Cesare (M/SM), Twilight (T), Rigoletto (W/SE), Rheingold (Th), Valkyrie (F)
Ring Cycle 1 closes Tuesday with its only non-matinee performance before Cycle 2 (the one with Katarina Dalayman) has its first two installments.

City Center
NYCO La Périchole (T/Th/SE)
City Opera-in-exile wraps its Offenbach run and its season.

Carnegie Hall
Nathan Gunn recital (M)
Oratorio Society of NY War Requiem (M)
Misoon Ghim recital (M)
NY Philharmonic concert (F)

Monday: Gunn's recital at Zankel, postponed from February, is all in English. Meanwhile Britten's big piece is performed on the big stage while the Korea Music Foundation presents mezzo Ghim (who's sung in Korea and with regional companies here) at Weill.
On Friday, Renee Fleming and the local band premiere (in between some warhorses) Swedish composer Anders Hillborg's song cycle to Mark Strand poems.

Alice Tully Hall
Swedish Chamber Orchestra concert (Th)
A Swedish dramatic soprano not in this season's Ring performances -- Nina Stemme -- sings a bunch of orchestral songs between some instrumental fare.

Friday, April 19, 2013

In darkest Vegas

Rigoletto - Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/2013
Gagnidze, Oropesa, Grigolo, Iori, Herrera / Armiliato

Ever seen someone get lost on stage on the way to his curtain call? I hadn't, but tenor Vittorio Grigolo took a wrong turn Saturday evening and ended up trapped behind the car, house left. He backtracked and made it to the front, but then, after the bow, instead of going to his designated lineup spot house right he ran all the way right off the stage. This made for an amusing "wasn't he supposed to be there?" moment for soprano Lisette Oropesa after her bow...

Through this hilarity, Grigolo's strongest trait -- his basic eagerness -- was evident. In the moment, he's less the bizarrely overhyped Domingo protege and more a young man thrilled by the success of the day. And in fact he doesn't do badly in this show: he's gone from a revival-wrecking hyperactive squirrel (in his 2010 debut Boheme) to a reasonably enjoyable hyperactive puppy.

The Duke requires less ensemble spirit than Rodolfo, of course -- next season's Boheme moviecast lineup remains inexplicable. But after a nervous and rhythmically overeager "Questa o quella", Grigolo actually delivered his best work in the next scene's duet with Gilda, honestly ardent and working with his partner instead of always just reaching for quick effect. His subsequent solos and part in the great last-act quartet were enjoyable enough, but more for his healthy sound than any particular musical shaping or insight (he still lacks the feel for the underlying movement-in-time of Verdi's lines and phrases). He doesn't much illuminate the show, but he doesn't detract from it either.

The sense of the action is left, as usual, to the father and daughter. As Gilda 2005 Met Council winner Lisette Oropesa gets her first romantic-era lead in the house, after earlier doses of Gluck and Mozart (as well as a bunch of Rhinemaiden appearances and the like). Her success has several parts, but the most important is probably the one where Diana Damrau totally whiffed: Oropesa offers the Gilda the story needs to make sense. Damrau gave another remix of her characteristic Gilda -- too clever by half, manipulative, and dismissive of Rigoletto's care. (This time we saw more frustration than wit, and a strange channeling of Mary Katherine Gallagher.) This is certainly one way Gilda might turn out, but it's the least interesting version of her: without love and virtue in the picture, only lusts and headlong impulses, why object to the Duke's court at all? Oropesa's Gilda is the necessary antithesis -- the "child of virtue", as Victor Hugo put it in explaining his original play -- and a very human one. Her Gilda is sympathetic and empathetic and inspires the best in her father and the Duke, but feels the pains of the world no less, whether moved by her father in their duet, or visibly shocked and traumatized (in an echo of her great Lucia) in the middle act, or just wholly deflated by disillusionment by the end of the quartet (thereby making unusual musical-dramatic sense of the choice to end without the standard interpolated climactic high note). But even in the extremity of these latter acts Oropesa's Gilda has that other, rarer quality of youth that Damrau's boundary-testing teenager omits: she still believes in virtue and goodness and -- even more rare -- continues to counsel and act on these qualities in the face of their opposites.

Oropesa also has, perhaps more noticably for some, a pure light lyric soprano that is as balanced and classically expressive as recent decades have seen. The sound still isn't big (not even at the top -- she's not a lyric coloratura with big top yelps), but it carries properly throughout without apparent limitations on color or dynamic variation. And the appeal is distinctive: yes, charming chirpers are always with us, but rarely married to Oropesa's expressive timbre and seriousness of characterization and purpose. Her "Caro nome", finished quietly with an apparently infinite trill a la Erna Berger, was the night's show-stopping highlight.

George Gagnidze, this run's Rigoletto, also lacks a bit of sheer sonic force -- his instrument is pointed for high climaxes, not full throughout in the classic "Verdi baritone" style of his predecessor Zeljko Lucic. Unfortunately, while Gilda's essential bits are done with a cooperative or silent orchestra, her father's big solo moments come quite deliberately over a greater roar from the pit, and his inability to master that with his own roar is a letdown. Still, he at least puts the character reasonably well forward, being less afraid than his predecessor to appear the schlub. However, I hope someone told him not to keep shifting his weight in the last scene (or better yet to sit/kneel on the ground), because bouncing the trunk of a car up and down while talking to his dying daughter therein looks ridiculous.

Enrico Giuseppe Iori, making his Met debut, played a more thuggish Sparafucile than has been the norm here of late; his sound was full enough though lacking the character of predecessor Stefan Kocan. Nancy Fabiola Herrera did her usual solid work as his sister. In the pit Marco Armiliato was lively and exciting as well as expectedly solid and sympathetic.

It's difficult to overstate how much the whole Met audience -- from longtime patrons to opera newbies -- seems to like this new production. (Now that the awful "Arab curse" nonsense has been scrubbed from the titles, there's not much reason not to.) Perhaps Gelb will learn the lesson that, his own characteristic production tastes aside, representational maximalism is what sells at the Met... but perhaps not.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Save yourself

If you're considering going to Les Arts Florissants' current Brooklyn run of the Charpentier rarity David et Jonathas, don't. It's by far the worst show of theirs I've seen, a huge step down from recent efforts in Brooklyn and elsewhere. Andreas Homoki's production takes a piece of somewhat elusive appeal in the first place and infantilizes it into wholesale nonsense: even the part that should go hand-in-glove with the company's aesthetic -- the pastoral celebration that kicks off the action -- is muddled into ineffectiveness. As for loyalty, duty, envy, nation vs. individual attachment, or whatnot... Homoki has no eye for any of it, preferring to focus exclusively on his invented weepy-domestic backstory and his endlessly repeated Death Star trash compactor set effect. (It's less interesting than it sounds.)

The orchestra plays as well as usual for William Christie, but there's a lot less vocal interest than one expects from his company. Don't waste an evening with this flop.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The week in NY opera (April 15-21)

Metropolitan Opera
Rigoletto (T/SE), Giulio Cesare (F), Siegfried (SM)
Literally only one show before the weekend, but it's good. Full post on Rigoletto today or tomorrow.

City Center
NYCO Moses in Egypt (T/Th/SE)
NYCO La Périchole (Sunday 1:30pm)

City Opera-in-exile finishes its run of the Rossini rarity and premieres its new Christopher Alden production of an Offenbach operetta.

Brooklyn Academy of Music
Les Arts Florissants David et Jonathas (W/Th/SE/SuM)
Bill Christie's company offers baroque opera again, this time by Charpentier.

OT: Carnegie Hall
Maurizio Pollini recital (Sunday 3pm)
Chopin and Debussy. Also, Thielemann and Dresden play two concerts during the week.

Monday, April 08, 2013

The week in NY opera (April 8-14)

A nasty cold will keep me from tonight's OONY show, alas.

Metropolitan Opera
Giulio Cesare (T/F), Valkyrie (SM), Rigoletto (SE)
Cesare and the matinee Ring cycle continue, while Rigoletto returns with a wholly new cast (George Gagnidze, Lisette Oropesa, and Vittorio Grigolo).

Avery Fisher Hall
OONY I Lombardi (M)
Yet another 2007 Met Council Finals reunion, with Angela Meade and Michael Fabiano headlining this early Verdi opera-in-concert.

City Center
NYCO Moses in Egypt (SuM)
City Opera-in-exile opens its weeklong run of this Rossini rarity with a Sunday matinee in midtown.

Carnegie Hall
Isabel Leonard recital (T)
Spanish and American songs by the young American mezzo.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

The week in NY opera (April 1-7)

Metropolitan Opera
Faust (T/F), Traviata (W/SE), Giulio Cesare (Th), Rheingold (SM)
So, new production of Handel's Caesar&Cleopatra opera. On the one hand: David McVicar (Trovatore, Maria Stuarda). On the other hand: David Daniels is about the worst possible casting for the title part even among countertenors, with a voice way too high for all Senesino parts including this one even in better days. Also, no Stephanie Blythe.
The matinee Ring starts this week. Unlike the others, it's just regularly -- not embarrassingly -- undersold.

Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Wagner excerpts (F)
Paul Appleby recital (F)
Elina Garanca recital (SE)

The 2009 Met Council winner covers four languages at Weill the day before the studied mezzo star sticks to German Romantic in the big hall. Meanwhile, the BSO concert with Michelle DeYoung wouldn't be so notable if its conductor hadn't been substantially responsible for maybe the greatest Parsifal success, well, ever.

OT: Carnegie Hall
Boston Symphony Mahler #3 (Th)
Daniele Gatti tries his hand at Mahler's most expansive symphony the night before the aforementioned BSO Wagner concert.

UPDATE (4/4): HERE Arts Center
Smashed (T/F/SE)
Now fully funded, OOT's new opera premieres this week in Soho.

Friday, March 29, 2013


Back in the days when Brooklyn was still cool and Maury was still blogging about opera, a group of singers with more training than formal performance opportunity held a regular gig of arias-as-pop-standards in the back room of Freddy's Bar. Well, that Freddy's is now an empty space adjacent to the basketball arena (there's a replacement to the south), but Opera on Tap has since gone national and is raising funds for a new opera premiere next week.

The piece, as is appropriate, is about anti-alcohol crusader Carrie Nation, and the fundraiser is at indiegogo. Six days and about $5000 remain for the campaign as I write this.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The week in NY opera (March 25-31)

Metropolitan Opera
Faust (M/Th), Traviata (T/SM), Otello (W/SE)
A commenter mentioned the prospect of a Traviata review. Unfortunately, dear readers, I'd do anything for you but I won't do that -- despite the positive reports I've heard about Damrau's vocal shape therein, I'm permanently avoiding this production. Otello, in its last week this season, on Wednesday has the unfamiliar Italian baritone Marco Vratogna in place of Thomas Hampson as Iago.

Avery Fisher Hall
LA Philharmonic The Gospel According to the Other Mary (T)
The latest John Adams/Peter Sellars show gets its local premiere, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

Carnegie Hall
Dmitri Hvorostovsky recital (W)
Lawrence Brownlee recital (Th)

The Russian baritone sings Rachmaninoff and Sviridov in the big hall a day before the American tenor sings a mixed program at Zankel.

The Box (189 Christie Street)
Gotham Chamber Opera Eliogabalo (T/F)
Last days of the run.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The week in NY opera (March 18-24)

Sorry, I'm slow sometimes when interesting stuff is later in the week.

Metropolitan Opera
Traviata (M/SM), Francesca da Rimini (T/F), Otello (W/SE), Faust (Th)
Faust starts, with yet another tenor (Piotr Beczala) appearing opposite the bizarrely miscast Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite. I don't expect him to have any more success than his predecessors Jonas Kaufmann and Joseph Calleja, though. This is the last week for the Zandonai rarity.

Sylvia (Th/F)
The waterside venue presents a new short psychodrama-opera by Julia Adolphe, who also conducts.

The Box (189 Christie Street)
Gotham Chamber Opera Eliogabalo (T/Th/SE)
The run continues from last week.

OT: Carnegie Hall
Jeremy Denk recital (F)
Denk is the most interesting late Beethoven player I've heard... here it's Bartok and Liszt as well as op. 111.
The SF Symphony musicians' union has successfully cancelled the orchestra's scheduled Carnegie shows this week.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The week in NY opera (March 11-17)

Well, Parsifal is over. May be a while before the next really interesting offering.

Metropolitan Opera
Otello (M/F), Francesca da Rimini (T*/SM), Don Carlo (W/SE), Traviata (Th)
It's the battle of the bizarre Verdi casts this week, with Thomas Hampson as Iago with an all-new cast since the fall and Placido Domingo as Germont (!!!) opposite Damrau's Violetta in a revival of the Met's worst production. Perhaps Domingo might refuse to play Germont as the cartoonishly abusive caricature Willy Decker has installed? That would be nice, but even with Nezet-Seguin in the pit I doubt this show can be saved. Don Carlo closes its run with two final performances.

* Tuesday's (starred) Francesca 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
Stephanie Blythe recital (M)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Th)

Force-of-nature Blythe sings an all-American program tonight in the big hall: more serious stuff in the first half, more pop on the latter. The semi-staged revival of Previn's opera is conducted by Patrick Summers and has a starry cast, including Renee Fleming, Susanna Phillips, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, and Anthony Dean Griffey.

The Box (189 Christie Street)
Gotham Chamber Opera Eliogabalo (F)
The fancy mini-company offers a piece from near the dawn of opera: Cavalli's long-obscure Eliogabalo, here given with decadent-court atmosphere at a downtown nightspot. Interestingly, Sunday's Met Council standout Brandon Cedel is listed as a performer (though likely in a bit part). The run continues through the end of the month.

OT: Avery Fisher Hall
NY Philharmonic B-minor Mass (W/Th/F/SE)
Alan Gilbert's solo lineup for this Bach piece is pretty impressive: Dorothea Röschmann, Anne Sofie von Otter, Steve Davislim, and Eric Owens.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Met Council Finals 2013

As last year, the program details are above. Instead of discussing the singers in order of appearance, though, I want to comment this time by voice type.

Sydney Mancasola (25, California)
Rebecca Pedersen (21, Utah)
Tracy Cox (27, Texas)

Though these three were the only women in the finals, they represented their sex well. Mancasola, who's at AVA, gave two of the afternoon's best performances, really lively and fluent and in the moment and of course vocally impressive. The instrument itself has more body than I expected from what she picked to sing -- her role in Hoffmann was Antonia/Stella, not Olympia -- and though she has a easy top extension it's the ringing-the-huge-house size of her high notes that most impresses. Trill was faked in the Fille, but better as Gilda. Attractive, too: huge star potential here.
Pedersen actually had the hosts Eric Owens and Sondra Radvanovsky effusive while waiting for the judges: as they observed, it's sort of ridiculous that she sounds like this at 21. While still a sophomore at BYU, Pedersen -- who, by the way, looks better on stage than her headshot might suggest -- has some affiliation with Dolora Zajick's Institute for Young Dramatic Voices, and it's clear why. Her covered, vibrato-borne sound hasn't fully grown up, but already has a balance and a charge to it that can turn to bursts of agility at one moment and cutting through orchestral mass at the next. And incidentally, it may have been inadvertent but I liked that she stayed onstage to milk the well-deserved applause a bit: done within reason, there's a graciousness and grandeur in this that American sopranos sometimes miss.
Cox did really well with the Ballo bit, which emphasized her natural affinity for Verdi's line and rich, expressive middle voice. Her top is less pretty, though, and the Barber selection that was her second aria unfortunately played to this weakness more than her strengths.

Michael Brandenburg (26, Indiana)
The lone tenor was an audience favorite, and it's not hard to see why: his unabashed veristic phrasing made quite an impression. Unfortunately there was something in his basic production that I couldn't stand -- my anatomy isn't good enough to tell you exactly what was going on, but his vowel sounds were abominable. Perhaps this was due to indisposition, but if not, no thanks.

Efrain Solis (23, California)
Sang well and the basic sound was pleasant, but -- at least in a house of this scale -- he seemed to have to go all out all the time, restricting his range of sonic color to near-monochrome. (Not strained but unvarying.) Merola-bound.

Richard Ollarsaba (25, Arizona)
Musa Ngqungwana (28, South Africa)
Brandon Cedel (25, Pennsylvania)
Thomas Richards (24, Minnesota)

I can't remember any similar pile-up of voices in this category before. The first three offered a sort of direct comparison -- Ollarsaba and Ngqungwana each sang one of Cedel's selections himself -- with interesting differences. Ollarsaba (about to start at Lyric's YAP) had (along with facial hair he really should shave off) a nice big framework of a voice, but the textures and colors haven't really filled out. If this happens, he has serious potential, but for now this limitation plays poorly with his otherwise interesting natural patience in phrasing (if he's not in a hurry, it should be more variedly interesting as he goes along... though the mood-shifts in the Figaro provided contrast for him in that piece).
Ngqungwana (another AVAer) was another audience favorite that I found unenjoyably flawed. He has an impressive loud sound, but temperamentally he's the opposite of Ollarsaba and just presses too much. This was destructive both musically (no legato or long phrases) and in the sound per se (an unpleasant pressure-induced vibrato particularly noticeable in parts of the Massenet).
Cedel, who was a George London winner last year, was the most satisfying of the three. His voice is just beautiful: musical, polished, with a full range of colors -- clearly, I thought, the male star instrument of the afternoon. And he uses its full resources so thoroughly and with apparent ease; his work in the Rachmaninoff actually brought to mind Peter Mattei's magnificent recent sounds as Amfortas.
Not competing in the same ground was Richards (also going to Merola). His voice is a bit limited compared to these others, but if Cedel offered impressive examples of the art of singing, only Richards brought -- with his use and understanding of word, story, and character -- the art of opera to its fullest appearance. His Claggart aria was great and moving, even if he couldn't dominate the orchestra at all turns. I doubt he'll ever lack for work in opera -- though whether he'll be a star at the international level is another matter.

Matthew Anchel (25, New York)
He very much is, I think, who he is: precise, musical, with a precise & musical but not dominating instrument and presence. Perhaps he'll develop more star stuff as time goes by (remember when Furlanetto was a modest-voiced Mozart singer?), but in a strong year like this one it wasn't a bet the judges were likely to make.

*     *     *

I would have picked Mancasola, Pedersen, Cedel, and Richards as winners -- this year or any other year. All of them were in fact selected, but the judges -- four Met folks and the Pittsburgh Opera General Director -- also picked Brandenburg and Ngqungwana. (This left Mancasola twisting in the wind backstage for rather a long time, as she was called last in a competition where there aren't usually six winners -- and after the hosts had spent a while trying to pronounce Ngqungwana's name.) The Met absolutely loves loud and raw low-voice projects like Ngqungwana, whom I knew would be picked despite his issues... we'll see if they (or AVA) can, as they believe, refine his singing.

In other years, I think Ollarsaba or Cox or even Anchel might have had a shot. Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised if any of the finalists makes good. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing Mancasola and Cedel again... and seeing whom Pedersen becomes.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Last trip to Monsalvat

I've already talked about Parsifal's tenor, other singers, its conductor, and some elements of the production. A few more thoughts.

If you wondered why Carolyn Choa's choreography got some particular praise on opening night, it's because all the reviewers sit on Orchestra level. While the overall arrangements/physical designs of Francois Girard and set designer Michael Levine seem to have been optimized for a tier or two up (you can't see the pool of blood at all from the floor, and the circle of knights is much more impressive seen in perspective of its full depth), Choa's Act II work is wholly coherent only from the two-dimensional view in Orchestra, which puts all the Flower Maidens and their patterns in one undulating line -- it's decent but a bit scattered from anywhere else. Perhaps the moviecast caught the good angles of all the production parts, because there's no single seat that does it.

As for meaning... Girard's production does add/amplify one thread of story that's not explicitly in Wagner: the differentiation (indeed, literal division) between men and women we see from the staged prelude to Parsifal's dissolution of it at the time of the final rite. I don't think this is exactly meant to be sinister -- it is revelation that first distinguishes them (via what we see to be a true religious experience), and if there is anything amiss in this first scene it's Parsifal's (befuddled) presence. For he if he's not a latecomer his youth and foolishness are inexplicable -- having his Act I incomprehension be an echo makes it less interesting, not more -- and if he was always already present in the scene his multiple arrivals at Monsalvat should not be so disruptive. In any case, Parsifal seems still to be acting within the framework of the initial differentiation in Act II: although his compassion/identification with Amfortas turns out to be the fated source of wisdom and power, compassion with Kundry and her sob story turns out to be temptation. Only when he returns as holy re-creator of the social & ritual order can he dissolve this distinction, too, as part of the dead-ended previous state. (Perhaps he had in mind that divine nourishment or not, the order would eventually literally dead-end without births.) And so it makes perfect sense that Kundry now is included in the rite, and that Parsifal's compassion now can encompass her long suffering and release as he releases Amfortas.

As you might expect from a show that depicts two distinct ritual orders being born, the religious signaling of this Parsifal never quite commits to being (or not being) wholly "about" anything more specific than religion per se. On first view one might take this as the least Christian version of the show possible, but of course there's still a spear, still a Grail, crosses being worn by Kundry, and nothing obscuring or disrupting the very Christian (or at least Christian-mythical) themes in Wagner's text. Other traditions are in fact similarly offered piecemeal rather than in whole, and what's amazing is that it doesn't seem like a lazy concatenation of tropes, even when (in Act III) Gurnemanz is offering his glorious and moving invocation of Good Friday noon as Parsifal sits in a yoga meditation pose while the dual superimposed moons behind him create the empty circle one might recognize from certain Buddhist variants... The meta-thread of creation and re-creation (above) and the unifying reverent seriousness of the acting carries things through.

*     *     *

I suspect I would have enjoyed Tuesday's performance more if I hadn't already absorbed previous iterations of the show. Asher Fisch was, as I'd predicted, more straightforward in his conducting than Daniele Gatti, and I suspect I'd have appreciated the truly beautiful tone and uncluttered shape Fisch drew from the players if I hadn't grown accustomed to the way his predecessor seemed to wait for the hurt -- or emptiness -- itself to speak (in still-coherent tones from the orchestra, generating the same tension between sound and sense exemplified on stage by Mattei's stunning Amfortas). This production, in particular, with its austere last act, seems to have been fit not only to Kaufmann's Parsifal but Gatti's version of the score.

Micaela Martens -- replacing the ill Katarina Dalayman -- had a spot of trouble near the end of her first Act II exchange with Parsifal, but her substantial rich mezzo did well through Kundry's part as a whole. She didn't quite have Dalayman's firm presence on stage and in the production's details, but it's hard to expect that sort of comfort from a cover. Again, not seeing it beforehand would probably have eliminated the unfair comparisons... If you haven't gone to this show yet, you certainly should -- tomorrow, if you can, or to Wednesday's moviecast rerun.