Friday, April 25, 2014

The wound

I Puritani - Metropolitan Opera, 4/18/2014
Peretyatko, Brownlee, Aniskin, Pertusi / Mariotti

When one sees Bellini's final opera, it's hard not to draw comparisons with 1835's better-known mad scene masterpiece, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. British civil strife, lovers from opposite sides, political machination, an interrupted wedding resulting in madness, etc. But where Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano (later librettist for a number of Verdi operas including Trovatore) perfectly and tautly draw the forces of im- and interpersonal necessity that crush Lucia, Bellini's attempt to drag his dramatically undistinguished librettist Pepoli to triumph is less than complete. Still, there's a surprising payoff to Pepoli's weakness: the poor focus and flimsy construction of Puritani's dramatic bits leave the field free for its Romantic-lyrical solos to set the tone without much competition, in a way almost unheard in the rest of the operatic canon.

The show is, of course, bookended by the tenor's arias of satisfaction and harmony, the first of which ("A te, o cara") may be the only part of the opera familiar to most listeners (or at least those raised on tenor highlight albums). But for all the wonderful opportunities these present, the bulk of the show's musical and scenic interest is in Elvira's lamentable state. This abandoned bride, like Lucia or those other fragile operatic madwomen, finds herself in terrible disharmony with the world... but fortunately for her and for us, the crushing forces in her opera are not so swift and insistent and final as in others'. Instead they pause and withdraw and even listen in as she -- and Bellini -- spin out the timeless lament of Eden (here in its fragile Romantic guise of personal romantic communion) lost. How quickly other concerns here are dropped at the onset of these sounds -- like those of a lost, oblivious Orpheus -- to reappear transformed at the end of the act in the affirmative tones of patriotism...

Much depends, then, on the soprano, and newcomer Olga Peretyatko (wife of this run's conductor) is a pleasure to hear in the part. The control and range of her voice are extremely impressive, the tone and timbre less so but good enough. As one might expect with her husband in the pit, she does quite well with Bellini's lines and phrases... what she doesn't have is the direct from-the-heart eloquence for which Elvira's part seems to beg. But Peretyatko's virtuosity, though perhaps better heard in a sharper-edged role, still does much here. (The last revival of Puritani unfortunately featured a soprano who couldn't sing it in tune at all.)

Lawrence Brownlee, better than I've ever heard him, was the main star, and the main reason to see this show. Not only did he match Peretyatko for virtuosity and musial focus, but he did so with a tone that would now be the envy of most tenors who can't touch that ridiculous high F in the finale, not to mention all of those who can. I sort of wish there'd been some operatic version of the Leo Messi youth HGH treatment that could have made Brownlee an even bigger (both literally and otherwise) star, but vocally there's not much more one might hope for.

Belorusian baritone Maksim Aniskin also debuted, filling in reasonably well but unexcitingly for the ailing Mariusz Kweicien. Michele Mariotti, as in his debut two years ago, conducted in a sensitive and singer-friendly way.

Not Norma, but still a treat.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Soldier and servant

Wozzeck - Metropolitan Opera, 3/17/2014
Hampson, Voigt, O'Neill, Hoare, Bayley / Levine

While writing my account of Matthias Goerne's first and only Met Wozzeck, I did wonder several times whether the novel perspective I was crediting to his particular interpretation was not perhaps something that had been present in the other Wozzecks I'd seen, just in a form that I'd had no eye for then. Seeing Thomas Hampson sing the part soon after, however, cured that nagging doubt. For here was that familiar downtrodden Wozzeck again in life, and with him the terrible airless version of the tale familiar from modernist tradition.

That's not to say that Hampson doesn't have a particular idea of the character. He's an odd fit: by temperament he comes from the perspective that the genesis of Wozzeck omitted, having neither the apocalyptic early-romantic absolutism of Büchner (1830s) nor the deliberate modernist brutality of Berg (1920s). Between their two eras reigned the accord between civilized society and late-romantic art that, for better and for worse, continues -- though the institutions (not least the Met itself!) and attitudes born in that time -- to shape our experience of the aesthetic. (I've written a fair amount about this accord in recent years, from its resentful mid-course expressions in Tchaikovsky and Wagner to its vaporization, just before the opposite force of modernism crashed fully in, within the symbolist abstract of Debussy/Maeterlinck and Hofmannsthal.) One would have aligned Hampson with this accord even if one did not know his biographical course: in performance, from his earliest years, he's been beautifully refined and balanced to the point of noticeable artifice, a manner he's kept as his baseline even as he's integrated direct stark expression. That he turns out to have lived as an expat in Vienna for many years, and that his recent renewal of familiarity with local stages turns out to coincide with the legal storm that overtook his more-or-less aristocratic spouse -- these are just (interesting but gossipy) confirmation.

In any case Hampson gave us a Wozzeck bounded by uprightness and servility, suggesting his Germont (or, OK, his Germont's valet) fallen into a most shabby state. If Goerne's Wozzeck retains long-forgotten residues of romantic night-communion, Hampson's continues -- no matter how bizarrely and cruelly trampled -- to bear ineradicable traces of the dignity of service, most movingly in offering his wages to Marie. This persistent orderliness is, in a sense, military and therefore appropriate for Wozzeck's place in the world, but it's at bottom civilizational, and fits oddly with the story as told. For when the Fool brings the motif of "blood" to the beergarden scene -- anticipating the jealous murder to come -- it's generally no surprise: for Berg's overheated modernist humanity blood is never far, and lurking everywhere... but to this impersonal doormat of a Wozzeck it's neither lurking nor inevitable but basically stumbled-upon. In Hampson's rendition, all of Wozzeck's relationships make sense, but his crime doesn't.

*     *     *

Two very different leads told very different stories on stage, but James Levine was the key to the success of each. Here it was not only the beauty of sound he characteristically gets from the Met Orchestra nor his familiar command of larger- and smaller-scale forms that mattered, but also, above all, the sense of numinous significance he imparts to all moments of his favorite works. Backed by Franz Welser-Möst's matter-of-fact accompaniment Goerne's Wozzeck fell flat, but with Levine and the Met one saw him in his properly contrasting element. And if Hampson offered an unusually bloodless Wozzeck, the orchestra filled in that crucial element throughout.

The rest of the cast, too, was excellent each time -- not just Deborah Voigt hitting Marie's contrasting moods nor Simon O'Neill hitting the Drum-Major's one, but all the character work, including two of the Met's "what are they doing here in such small parts" recurring treasures: Richard Bernstein as the first drunk apprentice and Tamara Mumford (again, bizarrely, in a less-than-virtuous role) as Margret. Less familiar but also impressive were Englishmen Clive Bayley (debuting here in the Goerne performance) as the Doctor and Peter Hoare as the Captain, whose alternately hectoring and fearful bullshit about the "guter Mensch" suggests, incidentally, that Büchner would not much have liked the long civilizational accord he did not live to see quite inaugurated.