Friday, February 28, 2014

The beloved

Werther - Metropolitan Opera, 2/18/2014
Kaufmann, Koch, Oropesa, Bižic / Altinoglu

Recital (Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, et al.) - Carnegie Hall, 2/20/2014
Kaufmann / Deutsch

I hope -- and it does seem to be the case -- that Jonas Kaufmann enjoys being a star. Because on last Thursday's evidence, it's quite unlikely that he'll now find an audience willing to treat him as anything else.

It didn't have to be so: the last opera-celebrity moonlighter daring Dichterliebe at Carnegie was Rene Pape, and that 2009 recital was not only the greatest live performance of the lieder-summit I've witnessed, but quite possibly the greatest I've encountered anywhere, live or on record. But that was a different time, a different audience. Perhaps it was that the listeners for Pape's recital conditioned by one of the great half-season runs in the city's musical history to be attentive, present, playing their part in an indelible musical moment. But perhaps the difference is Kaufmann himself, for it was just at the start of February (at the English Concert's Theodora) that I was privileged to be part of a truly great Carnegie Hall audience, one that was at least as afflicted by the current winter bugs as last week's group but nevertheless achieved a rare rapt hush through the long da capo forms of Handel's oratorio.

Kaufmann's audience was, it turned out, excellent at one thing: showing and bestowing love, affection, and appreciation on the tenor. And so, in classic celebrity recital style, the real interest arrived with the encores, of which there were six (with regular bows in between, btw, no charging ahead into consecutive offerings) -- four by Richard Strauss for his anniversary, one more Schumann, and a cute Lehar wrap-up -- each delivered to, if anything, ever-intensifying audience enthusiasm that could have kept Kaufmann there all night. But before that earnest outpouring, during the actual artistic content of the night, it was as abominably bad an audience as I've witnessed in New York: ostentatiously coughing, fidgeting, rustling programs, letting cell phones go off for their full duration twice (and I mean you, gray-haired woman in second tier, far house right), and on the whole unable or unwilling to concentrate or let Kaufmann concentrate for more than one -- at most two -- song(s) at a time. What they wanted was easily-digested celebrity recital, and they weren't going to settle for more.

For his part, it wasn't only his fame that made Kaufmann the center of this sort of event. He sang with an increasingly impressive tone, his characteristic dark timbre, a surprisingly impeccable coherence of phrase (on a per-song basis), and remarkable sensitivity... but without one big thing: the command needed to make the show about him or his music rather than the audience and its love. Whether it was the desire to please or not to offend or simply to mirror audience sensibilities within the bounds of his pre-chosen program I don't know, he followed what one might call a decisively nineteenth-century course, adhering to Romanticism's compact with the mannered (of which I recently traced the last phases) with a surprisingly milquetoast Dichterliebe interpretation -- all songs rapt, touchingly felt, nicely formed... but quite drained of the bitterness and anger that show this subjective self's sterner side. (I call it nineteenth-century because twentieth-century modernism rediscovered and highlighted and even gave pride of place to this forceful strain, though of course it was ever present and accessible within the original.) Where Pape balanced tenderness and rage, intensifying the truth of both in their contrast, Kaufmann, shrinking the latter, delivered a whole no bigger than his audience was willing to easily take.

One wondered, in fact, if he was going to end up in a celebrity recital, making all-too-salonish use of his dark grand timbre, why Kaufmann bothered programming the serious stuff at all. Was he unaware of the actual atmosphere in which he'd sing, or is his pretending not to notice part of his charm? I doubt I'll see enough of his solo shows to come to a definite answer.

*     *     *

Perhaps, in fact, the problem was the opera that currently has his attention, which dictates a role for the Romantic outsider quite of a piece with the one he filled two days post-premiere. In Massenet's Werther, adapted very prettily to the opera-composer's era ([pre-]Impressionism and all) by Richard Eyre et al., the main character is a walk-on fantasy blank. Turning Goethe's direct epistolary form on its head, here no one cares -- or, with the one great exception of the show's big aria, even finds out -- what's going on in Werther's head. "Oh yes", one might recall as the big tune starts, "that Ossian baloney." But aside from that one brief glimpse, Werther's actual self is shut out of his own opera. He has, in fact, been turned into the fantasy Man Not Taken -- that daydream of the married since women had time to dream -- whom one might be glad (and sad, but mostly satisfiedly glad) to see still in one's orbit, reminding one of what is not but perhaps could have been. Because he's just a fantasy figure, the Man is incompletely fleshed out, his attention unnaturally fixed in the only angle in which it's interesting for the daydreamer to see him -- that is, directed to his non-possession of her.

As this fantasy figure, called upon to be compelling while allowed to show no actual character, Kaufmann scores what must be recognized as enormous personal success -- not least in singing with beauty, force, and coherence throughout. He is, in fact, very good at being interesting as nothing... one only wishes he could bring himself, despite his admirers, to be interesting and something at the same time.

*     *     *

The show -- and indeed Werther -- might have acquired more depth with a clear Charlotte, but Sophie Koch, filling in at rather long notice for Elena Garanca's pregnancy cancellation, provides no such thing. Her sound was pleasing and full enough, but as character she's as nondescript as Massenet's Werther is written. Charlotte actually provides a couple of angles one might take in making something of her fateful rejection -- wilful, perhaps, or people-pleasingly weak -- but none of them are essayed here. It's an unfortunate contrast to Lisette Oropesa, whose two post-Runner's World interview parts (Nanetta in Falstaff and Sophie here) have shown energetic and precise delineation of her soubrette characters... and no fall-off in voice from her newfound slimness. David Bizic makes a nice debut as Massenet's even-more-cardboard-than-his-Werther Albert.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The clown

L'Elisir d'Amore - Metropolitan Opera, 2/1/2014
Netrebko, Vargas, N. Alaimo, Schrott / Benini

In a season with the profound pleasures of Frau and Falstaff, there's also been room for delicious guilty enjoyment. And as great as Hvorostovsky's "hey, I get to be ugly!" Rigoletto was in that vein, Erwin Schrott's work in Elisir deserves particular mention. He's been disappointingly empty or worse in dramatic parts, but between his masterful physical-vocal reactiveness as Leporello last season and his channeling of Johnny Depp as Dulcamara here, well... I'll recommend the Uruguayan bass in any comic role, no questions asked. (With luck, next season's new Figaro will leave room for him to indulge the ex-barber's farcial side.)

Schrott's predecessor, Ambrogio Maestri, was of course an indispensable part of Levine and Carsen's Falstaff triumph, but Maestri's humane forthrightness the launch this show a season ago was perhaps not exactly the best fit for the opera's nonsense. This time Schrott's wild Dulcamara provides contrast to the as-ever-heartfelt work of Ramon Vargas, who despite an announced cold made the show succeed. He has been around a while -- that 1999 Edgardo opposite Swenson's Lucia was the other recent sensation in that part -- but it was not, I think, until about that 2007 run of Onegin that Vargas really became who he is: not just a near-ideal phraser and characterizer in his lyric parts, but the colleague par excellence, who inspires his sopranos to their best, most heartfelt selves. And so, though Anna Netrebko is no longer a bel canto singer (and her assault on Adina's soubrette solos the least happy part of the evening), she was as alert, straightforward, and sympathetically honest here as she never was in the new Onegin.

As Belcore, Simone Alaimo's nephew Nicola blustered with more force than I remember his uncle ever having. A surprisingly successful evening.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The 2014-15 Met season announcement, annotated

Let's take a bit of time on this snowy afternoon to look at yesterday's season announcement. As usual, productions are listed by first appearance. Some off-cast combinations may be omitted.

Figaro (new Richard Eyre production)
Abdrazakov, Poplavskaya, Petersen, Leonard, Mattei / Levine (September-October)
Schrott, Majeski, de Niese, Malfi, Kwiecien / de Waart (December)
Levine opens the season, as he should, with an excellent male cast and a somewhat odd but not impossible female cast for this new Figaro. As for the second bunch, I've knocked Erwin Schrott's Figaro in the past, and still have little hope for dramatic parts, but his excellence in comedy since then offers hope. Edo de Waart conducted some of the best Figaro performances that the last Met production had.

La Boheme
Scherbachenko, Papatanasiu, Hymel, Kelsey, Lavrov, Soar, Maxwell / Frizza (September-early October)
Opolais, Papatanasiu/Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (November/early December)
Gheorghiu, Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (December 10/13)
Opolais, Yoncheva, TBA, Kwiecien, Arduini, Soar, Del Carlo / Frizza (January)
Wait... Gheorghiu is back!? (I still suspect her Mimi will be too much Musetta, but...)

Lucic, Netrebko, Calleja, Pape / Luisi (September-October)
Wait... Netrebko is singing Lady Macbeth!? Nice cast the rest of the way around.

Rachvelishvili, Antonenko, Hartig, Cavalletti / Heras-Casado (September-early November)
Garanca, Alagna, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (February)
Garanca, Kaufmann, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (March)
Rachvelishvili has the beefy Aleksandrs Antonenko opposite her this time, while Garanca gets the tenor star power. Hei-Kyung Hong spells both primary Micaelas (Anita Hartig and 2012 Tucker winner Ailyn Pérez) for a performance each.

Magic Flute (not the kids' version)
Yende, Durlovski, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Pape / Fischer (October)
Persson, Lewek, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Selig / Fischer (October-November)
2013 emergency debutant Pretty Yende and 2009 definitive Sophie Miah Persson split this return of the Magic Flute into adult-show circulation.

Death of Klinghoffer (new Tom Morris production)
Martens, Panikkar, Szot, Opie, Allicock, Green / Robertson (October-November)
After selling child sex (in Robertson's last show in the pit), surely the scapegoating murder of an American Jew won't be a big deal for the Met.

Monastyrska, Borodina, Giordani, Lucic, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (October-November)
Moore, Urmana, Giordani, Dobber, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (December-January)
Dyka, Urmana, Berti, Lucic, Kocán, Orlov / Domingo (April)
I mean, it's interesting to see that Urmana is singing Amneris now, but all of these casts are irritatingly flawed. 2006 Met Council winner Marjorie Owens is, incidentally, doing one performance (January 2) in place of 2000 winner Latonia Moore.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Westbroek, Jovanovich, Very, Kotscherga / Conlon (November)
Remember when Graham Vick shows were a thing? Actually, this should be an interesting revival.

Barber of Seville
Maltman, Leonard, Brownlee, Muraro, Burchuladze / Mariotti (November-December)
I'm not sure Christopher Maltman is much more of a natural Figaro than Peter Mattei was, but at least they aren't wasting Mattei. Leonard and Brownlee make for a very nice young lead couple though.

Reuter, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December)
On the one hand, Levine conducting Meistersinger is self-recommending. On the other, the one and only run of Annette Dasch at the Met showed her unfortunate inability to sing in tune. Somehow, even after her 2012 scheduled Donna Elviras were taken over late by Ellie Dehn, her agent has gotten her this prime return booking. What on earth? There are many, many excellent German lyric/jugendlich-dramatisch sopranos.
Perhaps as sad is the lack of the old star power that carried these shows. Not just Mattila (who opened this production) or James Morris (but seriously, where's James Morris?) but the greatest David I've heard live or on record -- Matthew Polenzani -- is missing this time.

La Traviata
Rebeka, Costello, Tézier / Armiliato (December)
Rebeka, Demuro, Tézier / Armiliato (December-January)
As hard as the Met might try to top it, this is still its worst, most bathetic production. Don't see the show until there's a new one.

Hansel and Gretel (childrens' version in English)
Schäfer, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (December-January)
I still have never gotten around to seeing this. Sorry.

The Merry Widow (new Susan Stroman production)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / Davis (New Year's Eve through January)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / TBA (January)
Graham, de Niese, Gilfry, Costello, Opie / Luisi (April)
Yup, that's Broadway's Kelli O'Hara making her Met debut as Valencienne for the winter run of this operetta. Given that importing Paulo Szot from Broadway has worked a lot better for Gelb than importing directors and librettists therefrom, I suppose I should be worrying about Stroman's ability to adapt Julian Crouch's wild visual ideas. Her staging couldn't possibly be worse than the last Merry Widow here, though.

Tales of Hoffmann
Grigolo, Gerzmava, Lindsey, Hampson / Abel (January-February 5)
Polenzani, Luna, Phillips, Maximova, Deschayes, Naouri / Levine (February 28-March)
The Met is making a huge bet on as-yet-unimpressive/unproven media hype beneficiary Vittorio Griogolo, though it's obviously no sure thing he's still singing this when this surprisingly good Bart Sher show returns. He gets the more interesting supporting cast, with Hibla Gerzmava -- who sang just Antonia/Stella in 2010, now getting free reign to try the other two heroines as well, Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, and Thomas Hampson as the villains. Matthew Polenzani gets Levine in the pit but a less well-defined supporting group (and no moviecast).

Iolanta / Bluebeard's Castle (new Mariusz Trelinski productions)
Netrebko, Beczala, Markov, Azizov, Tanovitski; Michael, Petrenko / Gergiev (January-February)
Musically, a great double bill. Production and performance... may turn out to have great moments, but I think the Bartok in particular is betrayed by externalizing the action.

Don Giovanni
Mattei, Bisaroni, van den Heever, Bell, Lindsey, Korchak, Plachetka, Morris / Gilbert (February-March)
As I've said, the Met should have Mattei do Don Giovanni every season... perhaps now in rotation with Onegin. This time Alan Gilbert strolls across Lincoln Center Plaza to conduct, perhaps bringing the fire that too many of his early-music focused predecessors have lacked.

La Donna del Lago (new Paul Curran production)
DiDonato, Barcellona, Flórez, Osborn, Gradus / Mariotti (February-March)
Great job by DiDonato getting this Rossini opera finally onto the stage of the Met.

Damrau, Grigolo, Braun, Testé / Villaume (March)
Damrau as the fragile, indefatigably-charming Manon? I really don't see it, not even in this modernist-izing production.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Shagimuratova, Calleja, Capitanucci, Miles / Benini (March-April)
Calleja's last (2011) run as Edgardo was the bel canto tenor performance of a generation. Go. See. This.

Meade, Meli, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine (March-April)
James Levine conducts most of the revival of this wonderful, under-appreciated opera that gave Angela Meade her debut. I suppose this is being revived for Domingo to attempt the baritone part of Charles V, but the success will largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part.

Don Carlo
Frittoli, Gubanova, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (March 30-April)
Frittoli, Krasteva, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (April)
Rumor had it that this was going to be the French version this time, but no such thing is indicated. In any case, the cast and conductor are pretty great, even if the old production will still be missed. Though lead Yonghoon Lee is about the best spinto tenor going, it's nice to see Ricardo Tamura (who sang a Cavaradossi here last year) getting another Met performance.

Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci (new David McVicar productions)
Westbroek, Álvarez, Lucic; Racette, Álvarez, Gagnidze, Meachem / Luisi (April-May)
Marcelo Alvarez had his acting seriousness turned against him by David Alden's dumb-as-dirt Ballo a season ago, so it's nice that he'll get to work with the brilliant McVicar in this new show.

Un Ballo in Maschera
Radvanovsky, Stober, Zajick, Beczala, Hvorostovsky / Levine (April-May)
No Yonghoon Lee (despite rumor) in a match of vocal-moral force vs force, but Beczala's easy charm and Levine's conducting may make a musical whole out of what, in its original run with Alvarez and Luisi, was less than the sum of its parts. (But oh what parts Radvanovsky and Blythe provided even then!)

The Rake's Progress
Claire, Blythe, Appleby, Finley, Sherratt / Levine (May)
Levine gets a brief revival of another 20th century classic.