Monday, March 28, 2016

The old lady

Roberto Devereux - Metropolitan Opera, 3/24/2016
Polenzani, Radvanovsky, Garanca, Kwiecien / Benini

This premiere was an event, but not - as Maria Stuarda was (in the best way), a one-woman show. Polenzani, Garanca, and Kwiecien provided the first strong side cast of the trilogy, one that could hold attention even with the queen offstage. But, whether from nerves, indisposition, or something else, Radvanovsky's breath didn't have the effortless full-scale pop that usually rings the house - and the bodies of those listening within - like a bell. She powered through the night, and bore the drama and crowd adulation quite well, but we'll see what this week's performances bring.

David McVicar's staging brings an interesting conceit, perhaps building on his Cav/Pag: courtiers are always watching, whether from the ground (the more public scenes) or from the onstage rafters (the more private). Only at Devereux's final scene, as he expects human intervention that never arrives, are they wholly absent, making for a striking effect one might recall from an proper staging of Manon Lescaut. McVicar, acting as his own set designer, and costume collaborator Moritz Junge (who also worked on Cav/Pag) have made the most handsome of the Tudor productions without departing much from that period.

More on further viewing.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Met Council Finals 2016

A pretty well-developed group this year: though only a few stood out, none did anything really objectionable either. Keep that in mind as you read the comments below.

Brian Vu (baritone, 26)
The first of four (!) baritones gamely kicked the show off with an energetically phrased and acted Largo al factotum. His focused, dark lyric sound registered well in the house, but Valentin's aria showed the still-somewhat-basic state of his (non-comic) interpretations.

Emily D'Angelo (mezzo, 21)
The most notable voice of the afternoon was this young Canadian lyric mezzo's: just hearing her clear, slightly-rippling sound actually gave me gooseflesh. Comfortable on stage, D'Angelo registered both the comic contrasts of Rosina's music lesson and the overheated seriousness of Erika's question with equal aplomb. She's still young, and the extreme ends of her range might do with more development, but D'Angelo seems already to know (and communicate) - musically - who she is. Let's hope the magic in her tone remains as her career launches.

Sol Jin (baritone, 30)
The second baritone and first Merola singer was, as the only thirty-year-old in this young group, a bit of a ringer. The Korean hasn't wasted those years, either: his interpretive faculty is hugely developed. Actually, at the start it seemed perhaps to have been too developed, as Jin let his emotional-scenic conception of Di provenza get in the way of its musical shape (and even, at some phrase ends, pitches). But he did build to a magnificent climax, and eased any concerns with a barn-burner of a sing through Yeletsky's aria. Jin's sound, though not quite a match for, say, Peter Mattei's in 2011, is quite strong enough for his interpretive authority to cast its spell.

Lauren Feider (soprano, 23)
I like Feider's basic sound - medium-weight, focused, and (when finished) pretty versatile - but she's not a finished product. She negotiated the difficult hurdles of the Strauss pretty well (though not with perfect uniformity), and showed a bit of warmth in the Britten, but what Feider didn't manage was to show much of an interpretive perspective in the process. Also, she was one of the less comfortable on stage and in her physical presence.

Sean Michael Plumb (baritone, 24)
Plumb, a Curtis Institute student and the third baritone, had the most naturally expansive sound of the baritone group, making for an easy, well-sung account of the Donizetti. The Tchaikovsky was probably a bit too heroically aggressive for him at this point, though he may grow into it.

Jonas Hacker (tenor, 27)
Despite doing many things correctly and showing a nice breath, this AVA singer's instrument seemed, at this point, too small-scale to work properly at the Met. There was just too much effortfulness in Hacker's sound here, especially on top, and he was therefore unable to convey much overall shape or idea.

Theo Hoffmann (baritone, 22)
For this local (Juilliard) product and final baritone of the day, I had the same impression as for Hacker - insufficient vocal scale to make either the delicacy of the Korngold or the intensity of the Gluck really tell in the big house. Hoffmann is young, though, so who knows what may come.

Jakub Jozef Orlinski (countertenor, 25)
I found the Pole-by-way-of-Juilliard's singing rather monochrome, as countertenors characteristically are, but also surprisingly labored in the Handel's coloratura. Home-team enthusiasm from the crowd notwithstanding, I found Orlinski quite ordinary compared to 2012 winner Andrey Nemzer.

Yelena Dyachek (soprano, 24)
This Ukrainian by way of California was entirely trained in the USA, so I probably shouldn't call the wide vibrato that mars too many of her notes "Eastern European"... Dyachek, like Feider but unlike her fellow Merola singer Jin, is a work in progress. She has the largest-scale voice of the women (and perhaps of everyone here), and it's not really tamed - different sounds and productions came out at various points, especially in the Mozart. (Interestingly, the best parts of that for her were the tricky coloratura passages.) The Tchaikovsky, unsurprisingly, was much more natural, and showed her voice in the best light. There are still seams, though, and a long way to go before the voice is whole and wholly nice to hear.

*     *     *

The judges - six from the Met, three from other companies - picked D'Angelo, Jin, Plumb, Orlinski, and Dyachek as winners. A friend joked at intermission that Orlinski would win no matter what, as countertenor finalists always do... unfortunately, this was correct. The rest of the choices were fair. As in previous years, the obvious winner(s) - here D'Angelo and Jin - were kept in suspense until the end: after Plumb, Dyachek, and Orlinski were announced, hostess Deborah Voigt miscounted the remaining winners (saying one instead of two) before making Steve Harvey jokes with guest singer Eric Owens. Amusing, I suppose, unless you're waiting in the wings with your heart beating out of your chest!

Antony Walker accompanied admirably.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The rivals

Cavalleria Rusticana
Pagliacci - Metropolitan Opera, 2/6/2016
Urmana, Costa-Jackson, Lee, Maestri / Luisi
Frittoli, Berti, Gagnidze, Lavrov, Stevenson / Luisi

This David McVicar production, the under-recognized success of last season, returned with some cast changes in 2016. In its original run, George Gagnidze sang both baritone leads and Marcelo Alvarez sang both tenor leads, which was a neat but unrevealing stunt. Here there was no duplication, just two groups singing to strong effect.

McVicar's Cav is revelatory from its very start. The circle of chairs that form the initial scene suggest, as no literal staging has done, the mutual examination and ever-imminent rivalries of a one-square town. Everyone snoops, everyone is jealous... until the circle dissolves into daily bustle. Eventually the dangerous all-human circle is transformed in the Easter service into a pure, singing whole: the adoring ordered ranks facing the divine sign before them (in joy) instead of each other (in potential rivalry). But the fallen girl Santuzza's (self?) exclusion holds the tension of the setup just outside the church, and as she's reabsorbed into the scene it forms, in Mama Lucia's tavern, into small groups with that original danger now again close. And, rivalry now enflamed by Santuzza (carrying out her own, non-face-to-face rivalry with the walk-on Lola), the men circle again as Turridu's group faces Alfio's before their offstage duel.

The crowd shapes, all by themselves, reflect at every point the tension of the tale, and McVicar's minimalization of other visual elements (including the color palette) give this part of the double-bill a primal character.

The latter part - Pag - is quite different in style, and the meaning of the shift didn't become clear to me in the show's original run last season. In this revival, absent cast crossover between halves, it's obvious: the bare-bones human scene of the first part has acquired a self-reflective layer, the play-within-a-play that dominates the opera and production. It begins in the prologue, where Tonio appears as emcee (with mic) before what's later revealed to be the troupe's show curtain, and as the curtain rises on apparently the same town square a half-century after Cav we see more mess, more color... and the electrical and telephone wires that signal modernity. In this new world, the troupe's truck and its stage occupy and expand the Cav-era altarpiece's position in the community: center, focus, and maintainer of its peace.

This centerpiece, of course, moves. It reflects and makes light of the viewers' rivalries and frustrations rather than just dissolving them for a time. And perhaps because of this there's a more pervasive peace and relaxation in the town. The locals sit in orderly rows facing the performance, but before then even the troupe's arrival is enough for a festive welcome. (Of course, the performance is going on even during this welcome, as the silent members of the troupe, in a very nice addition by McVicar, help unload and unpack the truck Three Stooges-style.) But those who don't get to watch the show - primarily Canio and Tonio, more or less analogous in their rivalries to Alfio and Santuzza respectively - still feel the old poisons of jealousy and envy.

*     *     *

Roberto Alagna was originally scheduled to sing Canio in this run, before Kaufmann's cancellation from Manon Lescaut pulled him into that dud. His replacement was Marco Berti, whose work in the radio matinee seems to have elicited some negative responses. Now in Verdi his lopsided force-to-refinement ratio can certainly be faulted, but in the house, in this less orderly context, the huge unfettered sound of his despair made for a great and appreciated success. Call him "Barco Merti" if you like, but with affection.

The scale of Berti's work matched, as an Alagna success would have not, that of the night's most thorough success - spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee as Turridu in the double bill's opener. With veteran mezzo-turned-dramatic soprano Violeta Urmana now hindered by declining high notes as well as her characteristically deliberate, longer-time-scale approach that works better in Wagner, it's left to Lee to convey the urgency of the story. This he did magnificently, making the climax of the action - Turridu's farewell to his mother - the emotional and sonic climax as well.

All others did their bit effectively as well - not least Marty Keiser, Andy Sapora, and Joshua Wynter, who reprised their actual (silent) clowning in Pag from last season's original run.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

The decorator

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 2/12/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

It will perhaps be common opinion that this new production of Puccini's first great masterpiece fell apart with the late cancellation of tenor Jonas Kaufmann. But in fact I suspect it was doomed much earlier than that, specifically when director Richard Eyre came to the conclusion that
"Manon is not an innocent" at the beginning of the opera[...] "I've always thought that she's getting sent to the convent by her father, because she's been with too many boys in the village, and she's getting a reputation."
(From William Berger's preview piece in the current Playbill.) This choice, though reasonable as psychological extrapolation, led Eyre's production fatally astray in several different ways.

First, shifting Manon's nature at the start of the action to better account for what's later breaks the structure of the story. This opera, like all of Puccini's, is an artfully constructed work, perhaps his most profound. As I wrote at the previous Met staging:
Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it not only over the sea but thereby, in the fourth act, beyond human society altogether. The effect is perhaps not even as "Italian" as it is modern -- at least as remarkably so as the Wagnerian influence on the score.

Puccini and his gaggle of librettists and script doctors -- who here assembled perhaps (along with La Forza del Destino) the most unfairly-maligned libretto in the canon -- set up the contrast of this "desert" finale with an extraordinary set of three preceding acts. They do not, of course, tell a thorough story (only Acts II and III straightforwardly follow each other, and it's in this least eventful gap that Puccini put the opera's intermezzo). But each enacts the characteristic action of the opera (and maybe of opera itself) -- Manon becoming, as she needs, the center of an attentive crowd -- in ever-less-innocent (and ever-more-striking) form. Puccini repeatedly and memorably juxtaposes the soloists' own expressions (particularly Manon's) with a watchful chorus' background. He of course used the chorus in other memorable ensembles later, but never as repeatedly and singlemindedly as for Manon Lescaut. When it's wholly gone, at the end, the absence is stunning, almost incomprehensible: in a sense, that's the true (and fatal) desert.
She must be innocent at the beginning, whether that would be likely in a real-life example or not, because Puccini calls back to that innocence as both immediate (in musical echo) and large-scale (in the progression of the acts) contrast. With Opolais's Manon bizarrely vamping even at the initial flight, there's no light to contrast with the greed, desperation, and death that follow.

Second, focusing on Manon's likely psychology ignores Des Grieux's -- and the audience's. He never sees her innocent first love, never witnesses flashes of it on later meetings (though she still sings about it, as the text and music haven't changed), so what keeps him attached to her even as everything else around her becomes wretched? Even worse, why should we in the audience feel sympathy for the comeuppance of a thorough narcissist? The production's only answer seems to be something along the lines of "she's hot".

Third, the lack of contrasting elements gives Kristine Opolais pitifully little to work with. Perhaps a different soprano might have come up with something else to play up, but deprived of her character's most obvious inner conflict Opolais ended up giving the same energetic but joyless one-note stage performance in every act.

*     *     *

Looking more closely at Eyre's direction of Opolais brings us to what may be the main issue: the overall conceit. What surprised me throughout this opening night was how a production that looked so tantalizing in the promotional glimpses could end up so lifeless. The problem, it turns out is that "film noir" is a fruitful conceit for set and costume design ideas, but an empty one for stage direction. You can dress your soprano as an old Hollywood femme fatale, but you can't in any useful way carry over physical presentation from film into an art where singers are seen from a fixed perspective at rather long distance while projecting their voices into a huge, if resonant, space. And yet the incoherent emptiness of the stage interaction suggests that Eyre and his associates were content to limit personal direction to some failed stabs in that direction.

Nor is the directorial failure merely one of doing too little: in the middle acts it's Eyre's additions that step on Puccini's story. The Act II dance lesson is given a hugely cynical treatment, with Manon's admirers, (non-textual) dance partner, the dance, and Geronte himself rendered as unsympathetic lechers. As with Eyre's cynical take on Manon, this is somewhat plausible psychological extrapolation that is contrary to both the opera's text and its sense. For this scene intentionally echoes the audience's own experience of the opera, and to have the viewers - and viewership itself! - therein shown as wholly contemptible and held by the heroine in contempt is pure poison. (In the 2008 run Mattila's irrepressible thrill in their admiration, as shallow as it and they may have been, contrarily made instant sense of Manon's tragedy and evergreen appeal.) Act III is a simpler failure. Here the team had apparently spent so much effort on the costumes and brazenness of the prostitutes that they allowed this business to hide and sideline the here-drab heroine.

We are a long, long way from the ultra-specific acuity of Eyre's Carmen and even Figaro. Perhaps it's just having fewer and less explicit events to work with than in those operas - most of the stuff we remember from Massenet's setting occurs between the acts. But the disparity in attention and achievement between the visual and human sides of the staging - opera as interior decoration - seems all too in line with the characteristic Gelb-era production, from the Lepage Ring to Kentridge's Lulu. There is a skeleton for a successful Manon Lescaut production here... But it would require a full overhaul of all the personenregie, probably without Eyre's involvement.

*     *     *

Musically, Luisi was excellent, as were singers in some of the smaller roles: Brandon Cedel as a Sargeant, Richard Bernstein as the Captain, and debuting 2015 Met Council winner Virginie Verrez, though debuting tenor Zach Borichevsky did not impress. Unfortunately the principals were less satisfying. Opolais was probably the best, but as strong as her well-grounded sound was through its bottom and middle, she went repeatedly flat on higher notes. Massimo Cavalletti was adequate but not particularly appealing, which leaves Roberto Alagna. Alagna's voice can more or less still sustain a weight sufficient for Puccini's Des Grieux, but only at the cost of a monochrome, ugly tone without steadiness or line. To be frank, he sounded finished, and though Gelb's decision to emergency sub Alagna in for the run after Kaufmann's cancellation might have prevented some pre-run ticket returns, it - barring some miracle after the opener - has done everyone a disservice.