Monday, March 31, 2014

Met Council Finals 2014

The program is above. I'll discuss the singers in order.

Christopher Lowrey (countertenor, 29)
The Brown- and British-trained Lowrey made a decidedly flat impression in the Partenope selection. Despite the acoustically friendly wood backing behind the singers and what seemed like particular efforts by Armiliato to keep the orchestra down, Lowrey's voice just didn't sound out well over the orchestra. Divisions, phrase, and the rest were unobjectionable but also undistinguished. Lowrey did much better in the slow Rodelinda bit, though the sound was still a bit cloudy. Sort of a trill.

Rexford Tester (tenor, 24)
Great name, and in contrast to Lowrey he did sound clearly into the house, but the well-defined sound and focus of his lightish-lyric instrument was the only thing I particularly liked from Tester. The rapid coloratura bits weren't quite on pitch in the Rossini... this wasn't an issue in the Stravinsky, but in that one he showed his current limitations in force versus the busier orchestra.

Amanda Woodbury (soprano, 25)
In Donna Anna's scene the Kentuckian showed all the elements of a successful big-house dramatic coloratura of the lighter sort -- breath, all the notes, enough steel in the sound to carry well, sort of a trill -- but didn't put them together into much of an overall performance. Perhaps she, like the other singers to this point, was nervous? In the second half Woodbury scored a huge and hugely unexpected success with Ophelia's Mad Scene: trills for days, dramatic clarity, and an even more impressive coloratura display. (It seems petty to note that she went through a few different high note productions in the intro here before settling into a nicely integrated sound by the end.) I'm very curious as to what she'll end up actually singing/turning into.

Patrick Guetti (bass, 26)
What, you need words? Like Sydney Mancasola last year, the most obvious winner was an AVA singer, who in this case already has a bass instrument as full-limbed as he is -- not to mention an already-developed sense of how to use its full dynamic range. The Met could drop Guetti into a Simon Boccanegra revival tomorrow and his Fiesco would not embarrass its predecessors (most recently James Morris and Ferrucio Furlanetto). And he's comfortable out there, having way more fun as Basilio than you'd expect at a pressure-packed event like this. Incidentally, Guetti showed both impressive low-note and high-note climaxes in the respective pieces.

Rafael Moras (tenor, 26)
I liked the Texan's basic clear open coversational sound, but he seemed to go out of tune and was overphrasing in the Donizetti. As Romeo the phrasing was better, but pitch issues remained.

Nicole Haslett (soprano, 25)
The local (NJ by way of NYU and the Manhattan School of Music) soprano was one of the most impressive in the first round, where she sounded more than a little like the Met's recent wonderful Nanetta, 2005 winner Lisette Oropesa. But the rhythmic glitch Haslett quickly got over to start the Verdi turned into full-blown recurring imprecision in the Strauss, which was probably a poor choice anyway: it's really hard to just launch into the aria without the recit (not sure whether this was her idea or the judges' requirement), and she doesn't really have the trills or trick high notes Zerbinetta requires.

Yi Li (tenor, 29)
This first of two Chinese singers presented a stronger, larger-scale sound than the two other tenors', but it was also unremittingly... strong and effortful-sounding despite his periodic efforts to lighten it for lyric effect and contrast. His less-than-great legato didn't help. The Traviata worked anyway, because of Verdi's basic rhythmic regularity, but the Werther aria really highlighted his less appealing points.

Julie Adams (soprano, 26)
The soon-to-be-Merola singer brought the only real rarity of the afternoon, an aria (the mother's) from Debussy's one-act student piece on the Prodigal Son. Adams actually seems to have done a production of the work already in school, but it showed off well her dramatic concentration and the way both her phrasing and sound can shift seamlessly between gleaming focus and more languid suspension. Mimi's familiar third-act-of-Boheme aria was fantastic, one single long moment of character... as it should be.

Ao Li (bass-baritone, 26)
I was and am of two minds about this younger Chinese singer (by way of San Francisco Opera). On the one hand, he was one of the stand-outs on the performing side of this lineup. Musically he shapes lines strongly, has very nice diction, and uses the words -- both in Italian and in Russian -- terrifically to enhance the effect of his phrases and phrase-turns. He's a really enthusiastic actor, going for it perhaps a bit too hammily as Leporello but making the Aleko scene more dramatically engaging than both of last year's attempts combined. On the other hand, I'm not sure the actual size and quality of his voice matches his ability to use it... it's certainly pleasant, but enough to carry him to a big career? Not sure.

*     *     *

Woodbury, Guetti, Yi Li, Adams, and Ao Li were picked as winners by a larger-than-usual judging lineup (four Met people plus folks from SFO, Utah Opera, and Houston). (Again like last year, the most obvious winner -- Guetti this time, Mancasola then -- was left hanging as the last one to be announced.) This seems mostly fair -- I'd probably have only picked Woodbury, Guetti, and Adams, but Ao Li certainly did well. Yi Li seems like the Blake Bortles of this Council Finals -- a big-voiced prospect who may or may not get his stuff together. (The Met loves this sort of project, though.)

Who knows, though, how anyone will develop in the full-staged-operas phase of a career? Perhaps one of the Regional winners who wasn't even picked for this Finals round will turn out to be the biggest star... though I don't see how Guetti could miss.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The forgotten Romantic

Die schöne Müllerin - Carnegie Hall, 3/5/2014
Goerne / Eschenbach

Wozzeck - Metropolitan Opera, 3/6/2014
Goerne, Voigt, O'Neill, Hoare, Bayley / Levine

Thomas Hampson's illness (which continued through the following performance) brought together this strange but fruitful sequence of two evening performances at the start of the month.

Matthias Goerne gave his recital five days after a concert Wozzeck on the same Carnegie Hall stage, but neither he nor his audience knew, at the time of this Schubert performance, that the next day would bring him to a reprise of Berg's opera in a full Met staging. There was something nevertheless a bit of the dark later flavor to his Schubert. He and Eschenbach seemed from the start disinclined to a straightforward tracing of the cycle's course as they led off with little of that joy in rhythm and forward movement celebrated by its first song. Instead it was deep rapport with the brook -- river, it seemed here -- that quickly shaped the show, with the poems' external event and effect more incident and obstacle to the central element than their true carrier. And in that center was the recurring core of Goerne's lieder-singing greatness: his expression, in exquisite tones and breaths, of unqualified Romantic subjectivity itself. But here, with Goerne, the subjectivity doesn't -- as the song-cycle does on its face and as many have successfully performed it -- wish to adopt (or hide behind) the youthful naive manner of its protagonist, but instead presents & recognizes itself as coeval with the creation of the world, with the timeless water itself. If, say, Dorothea Röschmann embodies -- even in recital -- the tragic subjectivity of man in the onrushing moments of the story, Goerne embodies -- or at least is never without -- the prophetic subjectivity of man in the eternal moment of the storyteller.

It seemed a bit stark in the Schubert, but Goerne's similar work the night after brought out a surprising Romantic strain in Berg's Wozzeck. In sonic aesthetic, of course, it's no surprise: the beauty of Berg's writing has long been recognized, and with James Levine in the pit the orchestral background is an ever-present treat for the ear. In story, though, the proto-modern fragments of Büchner -- as turned into a newly coherent piece of modernist stagecraft by Berg 80+ years later -- have generally just been rendered as stark tragic compulsion: the human forces (and only, except for ironic purposes, the basest and most violent) on and of the poor title figure amplified by the natural ones of lunacy and death. With Goerne, however, Wozzeck's abjection does not quite efface his core innocent subjectivity, which periodically appears in flashes to make of him something like a Romantic wanderer in his own ruin of a life, or in the long-forgotten ruins of the Romantic itself. Here again he finds nature as the contrast and antidote to human perfidy, and if the water now only offers him the peace of death, well -- that's basically all that the miller boy got even back in the day. That nature has gone from babbling beloved confidante to eeriely and opaquely unfathomable presence is not, in Goerne's presence and singing, so much: he and it still seem to recognize each other as fellows, no matter what modes they now adopt.

It occurs to me that this hint of past perspectives is probably in fact more true to Büchner and Berg, each with the fire of Romantic subjectivity in him despite the expressions they felt compelled to adopt, than is the usual pathetic/compulsive reading. But more on the piece and the other performers after I see Hampson's version tonight.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Salome - Vienna Philharmonic, 3/1/2014
Barkmin, Konieczny, Henschel, Osuna, Siegel / Nelsons

The Richard Strauss revivals leading up to his 150th birthday this June have brought real success at the Met, which perhaps will continue through Arabella in the spring. But if no other tribute had been offered, this Carnegie Hall concert of Salome would have more than sufficed.

It was, as much as anything, a demonstration of the art of conducting Strauss. Andris Nelsons has done some good at the Met -- most recently a the pit portion of a magnificent Queen of Spades -- but in neither that nor the Turandot machinery he guided beforehand did he manage to show the mastery of color and mood he demonstrated in the first five minutes of this Salome. The previous night's Wozzeck (set to be conducted by Daniele Gatti before shoulder injury forced his cancellation) had an excellent cast undermined by the oddly relaxed quality Welser-Möst brought to even Berg's most harrowing turns, but Nelsons' work was notable for its breadth of expression. Nelsons immediately conjured from the Vienna players the prodigious Strauss soundscape -- with so many of the moods, turns, and juxtapositions famous (in different combination) in his later output already present -- and led them through phases of tension and relaxation -- keeping a grip on the mood when he relaxed on the playing -- that built to a tremendous and frenzied Dance (with rather amazing "Schwung") and final scene. Neither of the two Met runs of the last decade -- as great and as landmark as they were -- offered the like, with Gergiev (2004) ever a bit nervous and Patrick Summers (2008) edging, outside of the grand moments, to the clinical.

But the night was also the revelatory introduction of soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin to New York. This is the German's first year singing on the world's great stages, but -- if this calling-card role is any indication -- far from her last. Barkmin's voice isn't obviously forceful, but it has an edge that carries at least its higher part over the orchestra. The rest was near-ideal: unfussily lyric timbre (still with the lightness of youth), suitable looks (particularly in her turn-of-the-century outfit), and an uncanny impersonation of a teen absolutely corrupted by absolute spoiling (even within the limited stage aspect of a concert performance) all combined for an extraordinarily classical Salome, one seemingly performed -- even without the Dance -- just as Strauss had imagined her. (Yes, for those who have seen Karita Mattila inimitably render the final scene as the simultaneous expression and meltdown of all human want and satisfaction... Barkmin didn't deliver that. But she was nevertheless a wonder.) I've no idea what she might sound like in more "regular" roles, but when Barkmin already sings Ariadne and the Janacek rep, who really cares? Let's hope this accelerates her Met debut.

Also impressive was emergency debutant Tomasz Konieczny, who replaced the ill Falk Struckmann as John the Baptist. Konieczny, already a Vienna State Opera regular, has a nice focus and ring to his bass-baritone sound, and a youthful appearance that gave his exchanges with Salome a novel cast. In fact the only weak point in this imported-from-Vienna ensemble was the First Nazarene, where young Adam Plachetka can't yet summon the force and authority of Morris Robinson (who nearly stole the two Met runs).

A resounding triumph for players, singers, and conductor. If only concert performances offered proper solo curtain calls at the end...