Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Was war einmal

Der Rosenkavalier - Metropolitan Opera, 4/13/2017
Garanča, Fleming, Groissböck, Morley, Polenzani, Brück / Weigle

Robert Carsen and his production colleagues for this new staging of Rosenkavalier were, on this first night, greeted with a mix of boos (which, unlike some previous directors, he took with grace) and bravos. Both partisans were more or less in the right - more's the pity, as Carsen's prior Met efforts (Onegin and Falstaff) were unqualified triumphs.

*     *     *

The musical side was, if not quite a triumph, certainly a success. Renee Fleming basically reprises her 2009 interpretation, which eased my worry that the most publicized Marschallin of her day would never actually give an outstanding performance. Nor, as one might have feared after Merry Widow, has her voice noticeably diminished in this role: though, as with many lyric sopranos in Strauss, the lower end of her part sometimes has difficulty being heard, Fleming still has the breath and lyric beauty for the Marschallin's role, which her sound was probably too fat for at the beginning of the century in any case.

The rest of the cast seems well-chosen to complement its central figure - Elīna Garanča (Octavian), Günther Groissböck (Ochs), and Erin Morley (Sophie) all succeed from panache, characterization, and well-shaped singing rather than any overwhelming depth or beauty of sound. And all do succeed, though only Groissböck's vigor of person (weakish low notes notwithstanding) really stands out among recently-seen alternatives. Best for pure ardent vocalism was Matthew Polenzani as the Italian Singer.

Sebastian Weigle, who just came off a successful run in the Met's Fidelio revival, does well with the bigger shapes and transitions of the work (and doesn't make any huge misjudgements like de Waart's super-slow final trio in 2009), but the actual sound he gets from the orchestra is a bit coarse, less satisfying than what we heard in Fidelio.

*     *     *

Carsen's production is built around a visual symmetry similar to that in his Falstaff, where the images from the first scenes reappear, transformed, in reverse order around the central scene. The elaborate scene-by-scene mirroring in that show brought to mind the palindromic construction of Berg's Lulu. This show's symmetry is less complex - with one set per act, the last simply echoes the first - but it suggests Berg's 1930s masterpiece even more strongly, both in its progression from high to low and its concomitant introduction of modernist tropes. And therein lies the problem.

Notwithstanding the transposition to 1911 (the year of composition), the first act in this show is quite faithful to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's creation. Of the two major purposes of moving the staging forward in time - recounting the original story in a context more familiar to the audience and adding/substituting new story elements - the change here serves the former, providing mostly just different clothes and hairstyles for those onstage. The furniture and decor look back to the past, the personenregie would suit pretty much any production ever, and the only distinctive bit of staging is a lowering of lights into a spotlight on the Italian Singer - with the servants and visitors listening, rapt (recalling the Ivor Novello piano scene from Gosford Park) - as he sings his first verse. A nice touch, though the asymmetry it creates with the more plainly staged second verse is a bit jarring.

The second act introduces the first significant changes. Faninal's home, modeled (per the program interview) on the relatively stark early modernism of the Looshaus, is a huge shift not only for its hard, unornamented black-and-white surfaces but for the big artillery piece that begins in and later (on Ochs's servants' disruption) returns to the stage's center. Faninal delivers his initial words to Sophie while leading a shooting-party of his rich friends across the stage, while he later passes out rifles to Ochs's retinue.

The germ of this stuff is in the text: Ochs mentions in the first act that Faninal made his fortune in the arms business. But Hofmannsthal's story is about the social subordination of real wealth and real power, not its ascendance, and this architectural flaunting of a new aesthetic (vs just new money) does not fit. Again, however, the personal direction of the main characters is as appropriate as ever, with Erin Morley's wholly sincere Sophie as sympathetic as in 2013. So - boos for its initial stage-picture notwithstanding - the real jarring change is the invocation of actual war in the act's second half. The doctor tending Ochs's small wound isn't comic but in full white surgical garb (with mask) and accompanied by similarly-clad assistants and a gurney, while the Ochs entourage mimics, during their threats to the offstage Octavian, crawling through a trench.

After these visuals, the particular degraded mirroring of the first-act set we get in the final act isn't a huge surprise. The imperial/aristocratic portraits that decorated the Marschallin's boudoir have become painted nudes in a cross-dressing proprietor's brothel - which transform, in the scare-the-Baron segments, into glass windows showcasing strippers. We are clearly past the bounds of not only 1740's Vienna but also 1911's.

Now it's true that the unfamiliar trappings of 1740s-ish productions rarely convey the sense of seediness that drives Faninal's outraged reaction and make an even more dramatic contrast for the Marschallin's surprise entry, and so again one might consider this an exaggerated rendition of a point actually in the text. Not so much the other changes in the last act. First, instead of Octavian (as "Mariandel") dodging Ochs's advances, here Mariandel is the aggressor, pawing and dry-humping (and trying to fellate) Ochs as he squirms uncomfortably. Though clever and seemingly in tune with the zeitgeist, having Octavian even the score with Ochs in this way - by making him the object of another's unwelcome desire rather than by leading on his own - breaks not only the characters' arcs and the "Viennese masquerade" flavor of the segment but the crucial symmetry of the opera. For Octavian/Mariandel puts off Ochs with a travesty of the melancholy sentiments with which the Marschallin pushed him off, a reversal that prepares Octavian (Ochs, as the comic foil, leaves the stage just as he entered at the show's start) for his transformation and reconciliation within the climactic trio.

The one really indefensible change is left for the end. After the sex show hijinks, we again return to normalcy with a straightforward staging of the Marschallin-Ochs confrontation, his exit, and the lead-in to the trio. It's here that the high-to-low motion of the opera's action reverses course, as the Marschallin clears away plotting and counter-plotting with firmness and generosity. We hear it in the music, too, as the broad ditty of refusal with which "Mariandel" starts putting off Ochs ("Nein, nein, nein, nein, I trink' kein Wein") reappears, transformed, as the sublime opening to the musical-emotional climax of the piece ("Hab' mir 's gelobt"). But we don't see it in Carsen's staging: after the Marschallin leaves the young couple (incidentally, having her make eyes here at the Commissioner on the way out is another too-clever exaggeration of a hint in the text) to bring Sophie's father, they sing the final duet while making out on the brothel bed. When she and Faninal return, the young couple do not follow them out after the duet's second verse for the social triumph the Marschallin has planned - Faninal getting to parade an even more desirable engagement and the great lady's favor in a ride through Vienna - but continue to make out (with little apparent regard for hygiene) until the scene splits to show the oncoming Great War. We close not with betrothal and social resilience but fornication and violence - the compulsion-driven modernist world of, say, Lulu.

*     *     *

The problem here is that Der Rosenkavalier is not naively historical - the product of some undereducated, less-than-wholly-self-aware savant(s) - but is, in fact, a more profound reaction to its context than any historicizing revision could be. If anyone could sense the end of the old world coming, it was Hofmannsthal and Harry Graf Kessler (later a player in Weimar Republic politics). But what they and Strauss shaped from this was not some invocation of the stark future - even Hofmannsthal's later wartime opera embraces the world in a way quite far from modernist - but a dream of what has been, an apologia for the aristocratic era of Europe so vivid and poetically truthful as to outlive not only the war that ended that era in real life but the modernist aesthetic that the war and its successor catapulted to preeminence.

Der Rosenkavalier has survived because it distills a social and cultural order from within, on its own idealized terms. War (the Ottomans, we might remember, were at Vienna's gates just three generations before the 1740s), lust, the disreputable and desperate: these things exist in the opera's world and text but only as contrast, not as the significant matter. Also, of course, present is the all-destroying passage of time... but the opera, unlike this production, is not a slave to that. At this staging's curtain we are, I presume, supposed to react in shock and resentment at the breaking of the peace, but the Marschallin's words and the very existence of the opera teach us otherwise. Our losses to time are neither complete nor completely permanent. And how we bear our losses... Well, it should be more graceful than this.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 2017-18 Met season announcement, annotated

Productions are in order; bold indicates a debut; I may have omitted some one-off cast combos. On the whole: as exciting as this season is weak.

Norma (new David McVicar production)
Radvanovsky, DiDonato, Calleja, Rose / Rizzi (September-October)
Rebeka, DiDonato, Calleja, Rose / Rizzi (October)
Meade, Barton, Calleja, Rose / Colaneri (December)
Having middling '90s throwback Carlo Rizzi in the pit instead of the 2013 revival's Riccardo Frizza is about the only less-than-thrilling element of this opener. Three premiere principals who've proved not only star-quality sound but bel canto mastery, interesting alternate ladies afterwards... And David McVicar is not only an brilliant director but one who has done great things with Sondra Radvanovsky particularly, from 2009's Trovatore to 2016's Donizetti queens.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Grigolo, Morley, Hartig, Volkova, Erraught, Naouri, Mortagne / Debus (September-October)
I rather liked Grigolo in this season's Romeo, but this Bart Sher show requires him to sustain a character for longer stretches than the Gounod opera, making his choppy sense of phrase more of a liability. Still, there are enough elements that could go well (including new-to-the-house Irish mezzo Tara Erraught as Niklausse) on top of an excellent production.

Die Zauberflöte
Schultz, Lewek, Castronovo, Werba, Van Horn, Kehrer / Levine (September-October)
Müller, Lewek, Castronovo, Gunn, Walker, Kehrer / de Waart (November-December, family version in English)
The conductors should make both the regular and "family" versions work. Besides returning names (including Kathryn Lewek, the best Queen of the Night I've ever heard), South African (by way of Juilliard) soprano Golda Shultz's debut as Pamina should be interesting. Incidentally, Rene Pape is scheduled for one performance of Sarastro on October 14.

La Boheme
Blue, Kele, Popov/Borras/Thomas, Meachem/Simpson, Rock, Soar/Rose, Plishka / Soddy (October)
Hartig, Kele, Thomas, Meachem, Rock, Rose, Pliskha / Soddy (November)
Yoncheva, Phillips, Fabiano, Lavrov, Rose, Plishka / Armiliato (February-March)
Some new faces debuting in this eternal Zeffirelli production, most notably Oxonian conductor Alexander Soddy and American soprano Angel Blue. But the surest bet is the last cast, with young Americans Susanna Phillips and Michael Fabiano in roles they've made their own.

Turandot
Dyka, Agresta, Alvarez, Morris / Rizzi (October-November)
Serafin, Yu, Alvarez, Tsymbalyuk / Armiliato (March-April)
Some unexpected casting choices here. Oksana Dyka, decent but somewhat faceless in this season's Jenufa, at least has done Tosca and Aida here before. The alternate Turandot, Martina Serafin, was last seen here as an enchantingly responsive Marschallin! Since then she's taken on the really big parts, though not at the Met: Abigaille, Brünnhilde, Lady Macbeth, and Turandot. Could go well... or not. Hei-Kyung Hong reprises one of her signature roles once with each cast.

The Exterminating Angel (new Tom Cairns production)
Luna, Echalaz, Matthews, Bevan, Coote, Rice, Davies, Kaiser, Antoun, Portillo, Moore, Gilfry, Burdette, Van Horn, Tomlinson / Adès (October-November)
The two prior operas of Thomas Adès have not lacked good music nor good libretti: it's the combination of these into an interesting, human opera that hasn't quite come off. Perhaps a show based on a Luis Buñuel movie (and directed by the librettist) will do the trick. There is, in any case, an impressive lineup of British and American vocal talent involved.

Madama Butterfly
He, Zifchak, Aronica, Bizic / Bignamini (November)
Jaho, Zifchak, Aronica/Chapa, Frontali / Armiliato (February-March)
So after doing one emergency sub performance (for Ruth Ann Swenson in Traviata) at the Met in 2008, Ermonela Jaho never appears here again... until a decade later, when she headlines a revival of Butterfly. The fall run brings new Italian conductor Jader Bignamini.

Thaïs
Pérez, Borras, Finley / Villaume (November-December)
Ailyn Pérez, an outstanding Mimi this season, takes a full-on star vehicle opposite Gerald Finley. They don't quite have the name recognition of Renee Fleming and Thomas Hampson, for whom this show was made, but this could be one of the stealth successes of the season.

Requiem
Stoyanova, Semenchuk, Antonenko, Furlanetto / Levine (November-December)
I don't recall recurring concert performances scheduled as part of the season before, but if any plotless piece could work this way, it's Verdi's famously dramatic-operatic Requiem. These shows will be almost a generation after the April 29, 2001 performance at Carnegie that everyone who attended will still wax on about (shouldn't the Met or Carnegie release a recording of this at some point?). Levine then had Renee Fleming, Olga Borodina, Marcelo Giordani, and Rene Pape at or near the height of their powers (though Giordani was a bit of a weak link, and I'd like to have heard how Ramon Vargas did in a similar performance on the Met's Japanese tour). Here it looks like Aleksandrs Antonenko will be an upgrade at tenor, but mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk - another singer not seen at the house for a while - is an odd choice, not having impressed in her appearances so far.

Le Nozze di Figaro
Plachetka, Karg, Willis-Sørensen, Pisaroni, Malfi / Bicket (December)
Abdrazakov, Sierra, Yoncheva, Kwiecien, Leonard / Bicket (December-January)
The names in the latter cast may be more recognizable, but I suspect the former (with debuting German soprano Christiane Karg as Susanna) may provide more of Mozart's ensemble glory.

The Merry Widow
Graham, Groves, Chuchman, Portillo, Allen / Stare (December)
Graham, Groves, Chuchman, Stayton, Allen / Stare (December-January)
Not a bad cast for the most cast-proof show the Met has debuted in decades. Who knew that comic timing drives comedies? Young American conductor Ward Stare debuts in the pit.

Hansel and Gretel (family version in English)
Oropesa, Erraught, Zajick, Siegel, Kelsey / Runnicles (December-January)
McKay, Gillebo, Zajick, Siegel, Croft / Runnicles (December 28)
Good casting for a kids' piece.

Tosca (new David McVicar production)
Opolais, Kaufmann, Terfel / Nelsons (NYE-January)
Netrebko, Alvarez, Volle / de Billy (April-May)
Netrebko, Alvarez, Gagnidze / de Billy (May)
I believe Sondra Radvanovsky was originally supposed to headline this new production, which attempts to wash away the much-hated Luc Bondy version of 2009. Instead we get Kristine Opolais, the least interesting part of both Richard Eyre's wretchedly bad Manon Lescaut and Mary Zimmerman's otherwise-brilliant Rusalka. (She has succeeded in more direct Puccini, though.) But perhaps it doesn't matter - except as a what-if - when Jonas Kaufmann and Bryn Terfel have shown themselves of carrying this piece on their own. And though she has less male star power, I think Tosca might be a very good part for Anna Netrebko.

Cav/Pag
Semenchuk, Alagna, Lučić; Kurzak, Alagna, Gagnidze, Arduini / Luisotti (January)
Westbroek, Alagna, Lučić; Kurzak, Alagna, Gagnidze, Arduini / Luisotti (January-February)
I'm not sure whether the Alagna who shows up will be the no-voice one of the Manon Lescaut premiere or the respectable-sounding and insightful one of the end of that run and Butterfly, but his inconsistency has been characteristic since the beginning of his international career. McVicar's rendering of the double-bill is outstanding, and San Francisco's Nicola Luisotti has done magical things in his too-rare Met appearances.

L’Elisir d’Amore
Yende, Polenzani, Luciano, D'Arcangelo / Hindoyan (January-February)
Both Yende and Polenzani have an emotional transparency that should work excellently in this piece.

Il Trovatore
Lee, Agresta, Rachvelishvili, Kelsey, Kocán / Levine (January-February)
Lee, Agresta, Rachvelishvili, Salsi, Youn / Levine (February)
Anita Rachvelishvili moves up a vocal weight class with her first Met Azucenas (she did her first performances of the part recently in London), opposite two baritones moving up from Marcello to Di Luna. But with outstanding Korean spinto Yonghoon Lee in the title role and Levine in the pit, this is yet another promising staple.

Parsifal
Vogt, Herlitzius, Mattei, Nikitin, Pape / Nézet-Séguin (February)
The most significant revival of the season. Yannick Nézet-Séguin will go from "Music Director Designate" to the actual thing in 2020, but he's debuting German repertory cornerstones until then. This spring it's Flying Dutchman, but next year he'll lead the first revival of the most significant and successful Met Wagner production in a long, long time: Francois Girard's 2013 Parsifal. (Not least in that success was Daniele Gatti's intensely concentrated conducting, so there's a lot to live up to there.) He has the low-voiced end of the original cast, with Peter Mattei's Amfortas, Evgeny Nikitin's Klingsor, and René Pape's Gurnemanz all returning. The new parts of the cast are significant as well: dramatic soprano Evelyn Herlitzius finally makes her Met debut as Kundry, and Klaus Florian Vogt returns to Wagner a dozen years after making the most stunning - and most stunningly ignored - Met debut of our era as Lohengrin. (Vogt does return to the Met before this, in next month's Fidelio.)

Semiramide
Meade, DeShong, Camarena, Abdrazakov, Green / Benini (February-March)
Good cast for a Rossini rarity. After her scheduled performances of Italiana this season went to debuting Italian mezzo Marianna Pizzolato, I do wonder whether Elizabeth DeShong will in fact sing these performances as Arsace.

Elektra
Goerke, van den Heever, Schuster, Morris, Petrenko / Nézet-Séguin (March)
Christine Goerke's titanic concert performance of this early Strauss opera with Andris Nelsons and the Boston Symphony (October 2016 at Carnegie) dwarfed the dull, homogenized new Met version last season. The change from Salonen's civilizing version to Yannick Nézet-Séguin's characteristic visceral style should do much, and Goerke's ability to sing through the cacophonic title part lyrically can't be missed, but full success may require a revival stage director unafraid to depart from Chereau's drab vision.

Così fan tutte (new Phelim McDermott production)
Majeski, Malfi, O'Hara, Bliss, Plachetka, Maltman / Robertson (March-
Though the cast looks good and the visuals interesting, David Robertson was responsible for the worst-conducted night of Mozart I've ever heard at the Met, so I'll wait and see. The production is new to the Met but already debuted at ENO.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Peretyatko, Grigolo, Cavalletti, Kowaljow / Abbado (March-April)
Pratt, Grigolo, Cavalletti/Salsi, Kowaljow / Abbado (April)
Yende, Fabiano, Kelsey, Vinogradov / Abbado (April-May)
I was listening to Pretty Yende last night in Puritani, thinking that the Met should hire her for Lucia... and here we go. She gets the better Edgardo in Michael Fabiano as well: the role depends far too much on line and phrase to expect much on the whole from Vittorio Grigolo (though the Italian will surely deliver exciting high notes).

Luisa Miller
Yoncheva, Beczala, Domingo, Petrova, Vinogradov, Belosselskiy / Levine (March-April)
Sonya Yoncheva's manner is a bit on the chilly side to get all the pathos of the title part's great duets, but the men involved should make much of this early Verdi.

Cendrillon (new Laurent Pelly production)
DiDonato, Kim, Coote, Blythe, Naouri / de Billy (April-May)
So, we're officially in the part of Joyce DiDonato's career when she makes big houses put on silly shows. Good cast, seems charming enough, and though Laurent Pelly (Fille, Manon) hasn't done a really good production here, he hasn't made any terrible ones either.

Roméo et Juliette
Hymel, Pérez, Deshayes, Hopkins, Youn / Domingo (April-May)
Interesting cast, very good production, but Domingo in the pit is a deal-breaker. If you have the itch, just see Yende and Costello next month (which has many fewer good alternative options than spring 2018).