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.