Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The future

The other shoe dropped at the Metropolitan Opera last week, with James Levine now officially out (effective next month) as music director. At the moment, nothing is much different, with the only lineup change a year from now in the new Carsen Rosenkavalier, now to be conducted by the prolific TBA.

The change will come when a new man takes up the post. We approach the tenth anniversary of Peter Gelb's sole management of the house, and with the press alternately cheerleading and distracted by side issues and Levine hampered first by his Boston work and later by his much-discussed health problems, Met offerings have more and more reflected Gelb's and only Gelb's idea of the art. The general aesthetic stagnation has characterized most of the latter half of Gelb's tenure. (2013's Parsifal and Falstaff were stupendous exceptions... there has also been some glorious singing, but most of it's been by those Gelb did not himself prefer.)

Whether or not the new music director will have the experience or weight to much affect the course of the institution right away, his institutional presence and likely longevity in the post make it probable that this will be the single most important decision of the Gelb era. The most characteristic choice would have been Fabio Luisi - skilled, European, and interpretively chilly - but fortunately that's much less likely now. To me, the wonder is that the current obvious choice would be a good one: young French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who debuted here as the best part of the Eyre Carmen in 2009 and took over at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. Though his operatic repertoire is still limited, each of his Met runs has been electric, balancing a natural sense of the larger-scale shape with the dramatic urgency and fire too often missing in the house. He's also - and it seems to matter as far as getting the job - young, engaging, and easily marketable. Philadelphia offered an optimistic-sounding statement that didn't exactly answer the question (as indeed they couldn't).

I have, of course, heard complaints about Nezet-Seguin's imprecise technical stick work, which may be why we see a name like Gianandrea Noseda, a former Gergiev protege, also prominent in the rumor mill. Noseda wouldn't be a terrible choice for the same reason that he wouldn't be a particularly good choice: although he's proficient and certainly has been exciting at times, he's still a little musically faceless. If we're to look at recent guest conductors besides Yannick, Nicola Luisotti (currently at SFO) and Daniele Gatti (about to take over at the Concertgebouw) made much stronger impressions in recent years.

We'll see.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Elektra: a comedy for music

Elektra - Metropolitan Opera, 4/14/2016
Stemme, Pieczonka, Meier, Owens, Ulrich / Salonen

Though I came into the house thinking on previous Elektras (including, of course, Christine Goerke's epochal account at Carnegie Hall in October), the actual event looks more significantly back to Esa-Pekka Salonen's and Patrice Chereau's 2009 Met debuts in Janacek's setting of From the House of the Dead. Like that show we get supertitles projected onto stage walls near the characters (Met titles are disabled, though the onstage words must be illegible from far away) and a maximally drab, cheap-looking, and relatively featureless physical production. The echoes mark this as the third attempt by Gelb and the Met this season - after Lulu and Manon Lescaut to go back to the well from which they got a well-received production in the past. All made their directors' previous successes look worse in retrospect.

For while the subpar choices in Chereau's Dostoevsky/Janacek show were decorative ones that did not impede the course of the opera, here Chereau and Salonen's choices worked together to remove the bloody, compulsive, tragic, Dionysian character that defines this piece. Chereau himself is, of course, dead, and not having seen the original 2013 run of his version I leave some space for the possibility that the followers and adapters who've had their hands on this staging deserve some or much of the responsibility. But surely the drabness of not only the costumes but the allowed body language was largely his, as certainly was the literalizing dullness of having Aegisth's death (and Klytemnestra's body) onstage and Elektra's non-death end with her sitting down on a stone bench as Orest inexplicably walks out the front gate (a really silly re-explanation of Chrysothemis's final cries).

In any case Salonen's conducting indisputably drives the show. It is, in its way, incredibly accomplished. He draws out details and textures with a control and clarity that speak volumes of his skill both in conceiving the score and in obtaining a unity of purpose from the orchestra. And yet... that's all he seems to be interested in. In achieving these ends Salonen homogenizes the emotional extremity of the piece - Elektra's primal cry of loss and accusation, Chrysothemis's desire for desire, Klytemnestra's creepy, poisonous dreams and hangers-on - all are rendered within a narrow expressive range so as to make Strauss's explosive score into well-crafted film music that reflects these distinct impulses only indistinctly at a remove. Indeed, as I listened through the actually boring first half of the performance, I believed Salonen was too-cleverly extremely-slow-playing the buildup to the Recognition and subsequent series of climaxes, which in their frenzy would justify to most the non-tragic dramatic slackness of the initial scenes. No such luck: though Eric Owens and Nina Stemme did their best to make something of the Recognition, interest from the pit only really perked up during the later semi-comic scene with Aegisth. This was, in fact, rendered exquisitely, and I'd certainly be interested in hearing Salonen conduct a later Strauss opera (perhaps he could draw a proper civilized comedy out of Egyptian Helen?), but the main point of the opera is nevertheless missed. By a mile.

The main cast (particularly Waltraud Meier, whose Klytemnestra came closest to being distinct) seemed each to be working in the proper vein for his or her character, but again the orchestra limited their expressive range with a sound not only emotionally homogenized but too loudly so.

One closing jeer to whomever decided to pipe the (choral) shouts greeting Orest after the slayings into the house over speakers.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Two Puccinis

Manon Lescaut - Metropolitan Opera, 3/8/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Cavalletti, Sherratt / Luisi

Madama Butterfly - Metropolitan Opera, 4/2/2016
Opolais, Alagna, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon

The end of Manon Lescaut's run here was less awful than its beginning. No, the production didn't get any more palatable (and I should mention, as I didn't last time, that the couple ending up in a bombed-out version of their initial meeting spaces further misreads the linear progression of the story into a circular one), but Roberto Alagna had worked himself up to singing des Grieux more respectably. This, unfortunately, made Kristine Opolais's lack of success more evident. Her Manon won't even look at des Grieux, much less engage emotionally with him.

But her Butterfly works. Her interpersonal affect is still relatively chilly - not reserved, as would befit the young Japanese girl, but oddly disengaged - and so the first act is the least engaging. The next acts, however, play more to her strengths. Here Butterfly's emotional course is set - a full-throated longing reversed on itself - and backed up by pit and production. So the energy and full-force sound (most expressive in its middle) Opolais pretty easily maintains through this arc becomes an unmissable virtue, and the lack of expressive detail (musical or physical), fatal to her Manon Lescaut (who must fascinate), becomes secondary.

Alagna, too, is helped by the specifics of this later Puccini opera. Pinkerton just isn't as strenuous a sing as (Puccini's) des Grieux, nor is the relatively unvaried vocal color he shows even at his strongest these days particularly missed in this role. It's a bit odd for the American soldier to be significantly shorter than his Japanese teenage bride, but Alagna does convey Pinkerton's youthful carelessness quite well. (In fact, given Opolais's characteristically imprecise acting, he often seems younger than Butterfly!) Meanwhile, it seems like Dwayne Croft has been singing Sharpless forever, and his account is as admirably humane as always.

The main thing that changed since Manon Lescaut, though, is the quality of the production. There's really no such thing as a performer-proof show, but this first and only Met production of Anthony Minghella has proven pretty close. As long as the singers are working with the opera and not against it, the images and framing of the production tell its story in stark, powerful form. And whether the principals pay attention to detail or not, the setting's little touches are preserved in the character parts - and the odd but distinctive movements of the puppet son.

Debuting conductor Karel Mark Chichon kept everything moving in the right direction and with the right proportions, but wasn't particularly outstanding. The credit for this event's success seems principally to be Minghella's.