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.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

A look

I listened to Saturday's Parsifal broadcast at home, so I don't know which details may have been highlighted or obscured or actually revealed to be something different (possible!) at movie theaters, but my favorite character bit of Francois Girard's staging is the look Parsifal gives Kundry in Act III -- actually, the whole sequence. Parsifal has staggered slowly on stage, been hailed as a stranger by Gurnemanz, and, having at last registered that he can -- for the first time in who knows how many years -- stop, put down the spear and prostrated himself to kiss (pray with his head to?) the ground. And he uncovers his head, and begins to rise -- and now it is Kundry who prostrates herself. But here Parsifal gives her a look: a look between those who'd been adversaries in a former existence. There's no enmity or rancor in it -- those, if they existed, were long burned off in his years of sorrow -- but an uncanny blend of acknowledgement and bond and far-off recognition and perhaps, already, the compassion that he'll take up later in the act as he comes fully to himself. Nor does he glance meaningfully in her direction when he speaks of the curse, though she remembers who pronounced it and (as Wagner, I believe, specifes) turns away.

In fact, almost everything about the outer acts' staging is successful. Like that other recent Wagner production, the set is dominated here by video projection, but unlike his French-Canadian colleague Girard keeps the show firmly fixed on the most important operatic special effect: people. So Act I focuses on the collective movements of the knights' circle, its formal breathing and gesturing and, at last, opening out into the Grail ritual before wholly dissolving. Their human presence sets the real scene of the place, while the slow transformation of the background images provides an analogue/relief/intensification of similarly slow-paced developments in the pit -- particularly in Gatti's interpretation. Similarly, the broken state of the circle in Act III opens the stage for the momentous meeting of three solitary individuals who -- as in the last act of Meistersinger -- expand their wondrous harmony to encompass the now-reforged community which, by the finish, is the world. Again the images translate the instrumental contribution, though astronomical images appear at action-highlighting points in each outer act.

Act II restricts the video even further -- there's some bubbling, but it's in a narrow strip up the middle -- and relies almost entirely on the chorus/dance group of Flower Maidens for background, but the basic concept here is off. The pool of blood, the spears, the bare stone walls: softness seems here to have been deliberately and thoroughly expunged. This is, obviously, rather against Wagner's written setting of the seductive garden with, you know, flowers... and doesn't, apart from that, add much besides simple contrast (which could have been arranged in countless other ways). Parsifal's temptations here are all of fellow-feeling -- simple lust, remorse/love/compassion for his mother/Kundry, and compassion for the unmasked Kundry -- and it's odd, to say the least, of Klingsor to have set a trap so unconducive to such a course. (And if, as some have suggested, the triangular bloody set is a giant genital bit, the forest of sharp spears makes it the least tempting version ever.)

One thing that perhaps troubled only me: by very cleverly transforming/widening the stream-bed into the canyon-path to Klingsor at Act I's end, Girard has actually closed the geography of the opera. Acts I and II take place in fairly definite spatial relationship to each other (one can see the walls of what seems to be that same canyon just outside Klingsor's lair), making the subsequent decades of wandering before Act III a bit obscure (yes, yes, a curse did it... but how?) -- though Parsifal does reappear this time walking overland from the far horizon, making it clear he took a different path. Is it not inexplicable magic/divine grace that Parsifal found his way to the Grail in the first place, much less returned to the not-straightforwardly-findable (even when uncursed) Act I space? I tend to this view, and it's one of the mysteries I used to like about the previous beautiful and literal production, but the sight of Parsifal following some thread (blood? the feeling of incompleteness? something else?) to his next fateful scene is also compelling.

More after tonight's show.

Micaela Martens

The aforementioned American mezzo is substituting for Katarina Dalayman as Kundry tonight. I'll be there to report.

I do hope the orchestra has had some rehearsal with the new conductor Asher Fisch, who after all has a rather different basic style than Gatti.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The week in NY opera (March 4-10)

Everyone enjoy the weekend trip to Monsalvat, I trust?

Metropolitan Opera
Francesca da Rimini (M/SE), Parsifal (T/F), Don Carlo (W/SM)
Met Council Finals (Sunday 3pm)

Maestro Gatti has left the building, but Parsifal runs two more nights with Asher Fisch in the pit. Meanwhile Francesca da Rimini (Zandonai's, not Rachmaninoff's or Tchaikovsky's) plays here for the first time in a generation.
The house is dark Thursday, but there is a Jonas Kaufmann signing event at 4pm in the store. Sunday is the annual Council Finals concert, this time hosted by 1995 winner Sondra Radvanovsky.

Carnegie Hall
Ensemble Matheus baroque concert (W)
Alek Shrader recital (F)

The French group includes Handel and Vivaldi arias in its baroque show at Zankel, while the 2007 Met Council winner presents a mixed recital at Weill.

Alice Tully Hall
CMS recital (F)
The local Chamber Music Society offers a program of romantic songs culminating with Brahms' (four-singer, two-pianist) Love-Song Waltzes.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The petty zoo

Powder Her Face - New York City Opera, 2/17/2013
Cook, Riemer, Ferguson, Boehler / Stockhammer

Perhaps it was chosen because it could be done with a small contingent of musicians -- four singers and chamber orchestra (assisted by two actors, and a gaggle of naked extras) -- and because it fed off the publicity from the Met's Thomas Ades production, this NYCO production of Ades' first opera was certainly interested and well-executed enough. If only the show had more to it...

Not to say it's poorly composed or constructed. In fact, the biggest take-away is how little Ades evolved from this opera's 1995 debut to the premiere of The Tempest almost a decade later. Yes, he of course became more fluent in his virtuosic school-of-Berg handling of texture, color, and ever-more-complex forces, but aesthetically he's remained who he fully was in 1995: a modernist out of time, with a great musical palette for absurdity and compulsion and force but little facility for the humane side of existence. Only his librettists' aims changed.

Philip Henscher, whether by choice or happy coincidence, seems to have tailored his libretto for Powder Her Face to the composer's strengths. So we get -- well, basically, Lulu's human zoo: lust, greed, envy, jealousy, moral posturing... But even in '95 it was many decades too late to take these modernist tropes wholly seriously the way Berg did, and so instead of tragedy we're left with literal emptiness: the Duchess is evicted, and though there's a space here where Ades might have written an emotional climax to sum or contrast or enlarge the parade of petty-compulsive humanity that's passed, no such thing comes. It's perfect, in its way, but nihilistically so.

Meredith Oakes, librettist for the Tempest asked for more -- for deep love and wrath and repentance and forgiveness -- but it was precisely in these human elements that Ades could not deliver proper sonic expression. It's the inhuman island in the background and its spirits that have his full attention: the human stuff is dutifully turned to as it comes, but carries little of the charge the Shakespearean situations demand.

So more praise to Oakes for writing the more satisfying libretto, or to Henscher for writing the one more fit for Ades? I'm not sure. But neither opera satisfies.

Friday, March 01, 2013

A ramble through Inquisition Spain

Don Carlo - Metropolitan Opera, 2/28/2013
Vargas, Frittoli, Smirnova, Hvorostovsky, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Maazel

If the current Parsifal is an uncompromising & uncompromised excavation of Wagner's score, his libretto, and their themes of guilt, blood, sexuality, compassion, error, their hard-won overcoming, ritual, etc., the contemporaneously-running Don Carlo is more like a safe motor tour through similar territory. For as much blood and sorrow as there is in Verdi's creation after Schiller, it's expressed this time in more muted terms.

The singers (many reassembled from the scheduled 2011 Boccanegra group) are the revival's strength: equal to the original bunch, they share a characteristic sorrow that sends Verdi's lines to the heart. The characteristic expression of Ramon Vargas is as usual a joy to hear and see: his Carlo is neither idiot (Botha's) nor trainwreck waiting to happen (Alagna's) nor loose cannon (Lee's), but a dreamer in a high-stakes harsh reality (sort of a male equivalent to Tosca), allowed just that moment of unaccustomed joy at Fontainebleau before he is crushed by the blow of fate...

...and a bizarre stage interruption. For just as Carlo and Elisabetta had learned of the new marriage plan and were about to launch into how awful everything was, a fat stagehand in a t-shirt strolled onto the stage, blasted the fire the couple had been chatting by with an extinguisher, and walked back off. Despite stunned laughter from the audience, the leads successfully resisted the urge to crack up themselves and carried on through the finale.

In any case, Vargas gives a lovely and heartfelt lyric interpretation, though those seeking the huge arcing force Yonghoon Lee delivered will obviously be dissatisfied. Barbara Frittoli stands in a similar relation to her immediate predecessor Marina Poplavskaya: less forceful and sonically penetrating (the Italian soprano's high notes come, but aren't exactly clarion), more human and sensitive, with that strong common current of sorrow in this cast's approach. I worry every time she's cast in a lead, but Frittoli is now on something of a hot streak -- that Boccanegra, the fall Clemenza, this... Her acted portrayal is similar, less fighting her fate than struggling to stay upright among its hazards -- her physical failure at this, when she faints at Phillip's accusation, has a moral force here that it often lacks. Her chemistry with Vargas was terrific throughout, their first encounter perhaps the most persuasive and moving I've seen.

This change in the character of the leads actually brings them more in line with Ferrucio Furlanetto's 2010 version of Phillip -- carried over to this revival -- who in his private lament is more intimately devastated than thunderous, though he still has the full volume for the latter. (Every new run one fears it's finally the year the 63-year-old bass finally crosses over into wooliness... but that hasn't happened yet.) The Russians offer a bit of contrasting flamboyance: in Dmitri Hvorostovsky it's mixed with his characteristic enigmatic composure, in Anna Smirnova it's -- well, she doesn't make a huge character impression, but being able to blow through both of Eboli's arias is still pretty amazing (as we've seen over the years, the heavyweights can't do the first, the middleweights the second, though it's too bad Borodina didn't sing the part here before her top started to go), and if she gets a bit shouty this time in the first I still shouldn't complain. Eric Halfvarson is still his amazing scary self.

*     *     *

A satisfying cast, and who knows what human depths a drama-oriented conductor like Nezet-Seguin might have gotten from them all. But Lorin Maazel was in the pit, to rather odd effect. Five years ago, in Valkyrie, he did well, but the overall dramatic thrust that materialized over that course of that evening never did show up here. In fact his conducting sounded rather old and bored: the sound appeared, as did all the phrases, but small details of phrase were continuously rendered with such apparent self-satisfaction that one wondered (especially at the end) if Maazel realized there was an opera going on. Dramatic forward movement he left to the singers, which with this cast was fine in their turns, but quite eroded any cumulative effect. And so we got all of the tunes of Don Carlo, a generous amount of its sorrow and melancholy, and only a light sprinkling of its drama.

That's not nothing, and it's worth hearing, but don't expect that full cry of tragic despair.