Sunday, May 24, 2015

Reading List: Master Singers

I jumped at the change to review the recent volume: Master Singers: Advice from the Stage. The structured collection of commentary from professionals at varying stages of their careers is designed to bridge the gap between academic methods of singing learned in the studio, and the practice of singing on the opera and concert stage. This is not to remove one jot or tittle of the law, but rather to add to it. Advice from a starry host is then thematically organized by chapter, which adds to its usefulness for the singer. Enthusiasts, like myself, might find the most interest in the first three chapters, as they focus on the craft that results in what we see and hear.

The text is edited by Donald George and Lucy Mauro, a singer and a pianist, respectively, and both professors. A lot of work has clearly gone into this, as the chapters are subdivided into helpfully specific sections on, e.g., passaggio. Each such section is framed by a question posed to the singers--whether in person or in writing--who could then choose whether and at what length to respond. (The introduction observes, naming no names, that some answered every single question, which strikes me as positively saintly.) The conversational tone of each singer seems to be preserved with often startling immediacy; George and Mauro say that they edited the singers' words as little as possible.  The contributors, as well as topics and operas covered, are indexed and cross-indexed for reference. Although Americans predominate, the singers come from a variety of linguistic and national backgrounds, offering a helpfully diverse range of experiences and traditions. Christine Goerke, for example, in responding to a question about creating varieties of tonal color, observes that "Americans have fallen into this 'make beautiful sounds all the time' thing." Singers from multiple fachs respond, and David Daniels and Ewa Podleś add the perspectives of countertenor and contralto to those of sopranos, mezzos, tenors, baritones, and basses.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Don Carlo: il di tremendo

On Saturday, I went to the last performance of Don Carlo, and what will be my last performance of the Met season. It was an evening both grand and thrilling, with a musical and dramatic force that reminded me forcibly of what opera's capabilities are. The performance of the Met orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin was nothing less than world-class, and was supremely exciting. They played with drive and nuance throughout, and from the beginning, Verdi's motifs were highlighted and treated with great dignity. Individual and section highlights, too, were all gorgeously handled, honoring both the forward momentum of the score, and its suspense. The singing, too, was excellent; my companion repeatedly asked who the casting director was, which drew my attention to my ignorance of this process. But those responsible certainly deserve praise. This was indeed a cast not only universally strong, but with good chemistry, and some choreography new to this iteration of Nicholas Hytner's 2009 production. More than once during the evening, I found myself thinking that the Met would do well to have more such productions in its rotation: visually striking, thoughtful in interpretation, and with a strong dramatic arc that still leaves room for adaptation to individual singers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Cav & Pag at the Met

The opera season and the academic year are hurtling towards their respective conclusions, and so, although I got to see David McVicar's new production of the Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci pairing on the 18th, it is not until now that I am organizing my ramblings. I'm glad to have seen the productions, welcoming the change from their rather dusty predecessors. Having read publicity advertising the fact that the two operas would be set in successive generations in similar southern Italian settings, I was expecting an exploration of destructive ideals of masculinity. But--despite this apparent gesture towards exploring commonalities and continuities--the productions were surprisingly different from each other in visual and dramatic style. Paradoxically, I found the bright, crowded, insistently specific Pagliacci much more effective in presenting the opera's underlying themes than the dark, curiously opaque stylization of Cavalleria Rusticana. The singing in both casts was fine, although Marcelo Alvarez, playing what must be two of the operatic canon's most unsavory tenor roles, was curiously lacking in brutality or charisma. For me, at least, it was Santuzza and Nedda--powerless in their yearning--who emerged most vividly in vocal and dramatic terms.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Great Globe Itself: The Tempest Songbook

Photo (c) Gotham Chamber Opera
Gotham Chamber Opera's latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more. A co-production with The Martha Graham Dance Company, the evening's program was directed and choreographed by Luca Veggetti. The narrative of The Tempest is so deliberately surrealistic that I found the resistance of narrative in the program engaging, rather than the reverse. To this Shakespeare aficionado, the interpolations by Dryden sounded strange, but it was these interpolations that much of the 1712 incidental music, attributed to Henry Purcell, was designed to set. The Purcell and Kaija Saariaho's 2004 Tempest Songbook for soprano, baritone and period instrument ensemble intertwined in fascinating ways. In this version, it was receiving its world premiere, and I loved the textures of harpsichord, recorder, and archlute (archlute!) in Saariaho's unconventional harmonies. It was at Saariaho's suggestion that the two pieces appeared thus interwoven, and the dialogue between them was musically rich and intellectually stimulating.

The creative set design was by Clifton Taylor. It seems almost a misnomer to call it minimalist, so richly multivalent was the globe that hung elegantly suspended by ropes reminiscent of the fated ship's rigging. Video projections onto it, by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, were skillfully used to evoke globes of the kind so beloved at the courts of early modern Europe, with seas and continents shifting under maps of the zodiac, charts of the stars. Images of the singers and dancers also often appeared there, mirroring and amplifying the action on the stage. The music of Purcell and Saariaho appeared in alternate sections throughout most of the evening, with a suite of Saariaho's songs in the second half of the hour-long program, which was performed without intermission. From a fairly straightforward presentation of the initial scenes of The Tempest, with the panic and anger of the Bosun, and the terror and sorrow of Miranda, the structure became increasingly impressionistic, with Saariaho's music allowing Ariel and Caliban (for instance) much more time than the source material gives them.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Manon: c'est la l'histoire...

Rooting for these crazy kids: Manon and her Chevalier, Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
I attended the opening performance of this season's Manon at the Met, and for fans of stylish, passionate singing, the rest of the run promises to be magnificent. Laurent Pelly's stylish, sinister production I found even more effective in revival than (apparently) I did in its first run. The bourgeois brutality and hypocrisy of which Manon and Des Grieux fall afoul were apparent from the first. And the setting in the fin-de-siècle, with its bustling urban spaces, conspicuous consumption, and religious anxiety (to say nothing of precarious social mobility and the precarious position of women in the public sphere,) really does work remarkably well. My customary raptures over the orchestra must in this case be modified. Their sound, while aptly lush, could be unfocused, and there were occasional lapses in stage-pit synchronization over the course of the evening. Emmanuel Villaume was, however, responsive to the singers in their (many!) challenging arias, and ensembles were well-supported, so matters may improve over the course of the run.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Blogging Backlog: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Hoffmann (Grigolo), struggling with writing and the human condition. Photo (c) Met Opera
Gentle Readers, I am the most delinquent of bloggers. I saw this season's Contes d'Hoffmann twice, and wrote of it neither after the first performance in the run, nor after the last. I took enough notes here, though, that I'd rather not let them (longer) languish, especially as the performances at the beginning and end of the run yielded rather different experiences, both interesting, and both engaging. I am almost the last person to wish to praise Bartlett Sher, whose productions have so oversaturated recent seasons at the Met (and will, alas, apparently continue to do so.) However, I really do like this Contes d'Hoffmann production, in its gaudy shamelessness, in its willingness to let disturbing images sit unexplained. I hadn't seen it live since 2010, and I enjoyed it again. The Kleinzach song, of course, remains a problem--callous young men mocking a dwarf as a ludicrous figure--but there was a brief moment, at the end of the first performance, when it suddenly appeared as a despairing, horrifying commentary on the human condition.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Nights at the Opera: 2014

However belatedly, I decided to round up a personal "best of" list for the last calendar year. It's always an enjoyable experience of revisiting... particularly poignant for me as I looked back on the last of my German opera-going (for now.) Due to my own relative restraint (not to say remissness) in attending, I've limited myself to a top three in my usual categories.

Standout performances:

Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. Selecting one of her performances was difficult, as she was one of the most reliably exciting singers in my Frankfurt season. But her Charlotte, in Werther, was not only richly sung, but intensely intelligent and intensely sensual; showing Charlotte as a lively, trammeled spirit, rather than a domestic saint, was much appreciated by me!

Anja Silja. She's still got it. She may have invented it. In Aribert Reimann's Gespenstersonate, she made parrot noises and commented on the human condition, and I was thrilled and terrified.


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