Sunday, October 26, 2014

Ich habe genug: Bach and Brahms with the BSO

This past weekend took me to Boston; having learned that Bryn Terfel and Rosemary Joshua would be performing in Brahms’ Requiem with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it was to the first of their concerts I repaired on Thursday night. A poignant “Ich habe genug” was paired with Brahms’ sweeping choral masterpiece, and it was interesting to compare the emotional complexities and musical modes of expression in the two pieces, with their different relationships to the tradition of German sacred music. Another unexpected revelation was the performance of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, who offered a compelling and nuanced exploration of Brahms’ vast harmonic and emotional landscapes.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Compiersi debbe l'opra fatale: Macbeth at the Met

This won't end well. Macbeth, Act II. Photo (c) Met Opera
What a difference a performance makes. I saw Verdi's Macbeth at the Met a few seasons ago, and left feeling somewhat worn out by a sense of incoherence. Last night, I left exhilarated. I'm still less than impressed by Adrian Noble's 2007 production; it works smoothly and effectively, but I'd like a stronger connection drawn between the dysfunctional court (the system is broken before the Macbeths take a dagger to it) and the plundered landscapes and disillusioned populace. And I still don't fully get the dowdy, vicious witches, like a misogynist/nightmare version of St. Mary Mead gossips (maybe my problem is trying to "get" the Macbeth witches.) In any case, this time, Verdi's opera emerged as a grippingly unorthodox whole, thrillingly played and sung. The Met orchestra, under Fabio Luisi, took control from the first moments; their playing was clean, propulsive, and nuanced. Gothic-cliché shivers were sent down my spine as the orchestra clairvoyantly mourned the destruction, or underpinned festivities with ironic gaiety. Fabio Luisi conducted with fearless brio, and all the sections worked admirably together to create a well-proportioned melodrama. (I borrow the word melodrama from a Luigi Dallapiccola article on Verdi's musical language, printed here.) The chorus was likewise excellent--intelligible, energetic, and creepy. The prophecy scene was appropriately uncanny; the murderers' chorus and "Macbetto, Macbetto ov'è?" were standouts. "Patria oppressa" also made an unusual impression on me, but this may be because I had been talking about the Risorgimento that morning. The casting of the principals, moreover, was luxurious. Anna Netrebko deserves the plaudits she's been getting for her deliciously unhinged Lady, but there wasn't a weak link among the principals.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Le Nozze di Figaro: E schiatti il signor Conte...

Act II: Majeski, Mattei, Abdrazakov, Petersen. Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
The season having been saved, the Met opened with an engagingly sung, orchestrally luxurious Nozze di Figaro. I don't think I know anyone who loves opera and doesn't love this one, where polish and depth are never at odds. I'd witnessed with pain the disintegration of the previous production, but was worried by a casual invocation of Downton Abbey in promotional materials for this one; the villa of the Almavivas is not Downton; it's Gosford Park. In the event, Richard Eyre's glossy 1930s setting proved essentially traditional in its choreographic and interpretative choices. The direction was, to its credit, sensitive to the music, and the relationships between characters and space were well-expressed. There were even moments in individual performances that made me consider text and melody anew: always especially welcome in this inexhaustibly rich opera. Although I wished the emotional stakes of the production had been higher, it was at least not naive about misogyny or economic exploitation, and there was a nod to interwar Orientalism. More might still have been made of the social tensions brewing in the house and outside it, a stronger structure given for the benefit of subsequent revivals (and audiences.) There is no wireless; there are no newspapers, no magazines anywhere. For all Eyre's talk of the electric atmosphere of the '30s, there was very little evidence of it in the relationships between the characters, or in the production.

James Levine's chemistry with the Met orchestra is always a delight to hear. Their Nozze was characterized by unusually deliberate tempi (sometimes, to my mind, less than successful; sometimes, as in "Non so più," revelatory.) The orchestral reading also had a sense of ceremony that I don't often associate with this opera, where everything is to play for. The orchestral detail was invariably gorgeous, however, with the woodwinds deserving special acclaim for their evocation of atmospheric and emotional background. The harpsichordist was a humorist, providing commentary on the not-infrequent sequences of concealment and conspiracy. Although there were sometimes slight discrepancies between singer and pit tempi in arias (surprising to me, but minor,) the matching of stage movement to orchestral punctuation was unerringly precise. Levine and the orchestral forces, as well as the singers, deserve credit for the nuanced and expressive phrasing of the recitative.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Richard Tucker Day: A reverential mission and a free concert

One of my favorite things about Tucker Foundation events is the relentlessly informal atmosphere that pervades the preliminaries, regardless of how showy the arias or sparkling the gowns in the ensuing recital. To mark Richard Tucker Day on Thursday, the foundation sponsored two free concerts; to the second of these, held in the evening, I went with the Beloved Flatmate (emerita.) The auditorium of the New York Society for Ethical Culture (pictured) turned out to have favorable acoustics, and we were able to slip into a third-row seat without any trouble. While smaller than the audience for the Gala, this one was noticeably younger and more diverse, as I was pleased to note. Despite the line stretching well down the block for admission, I was surprised that there wasn't a larger turnout for a free concert with musicians of this caliber. Rising young artists and headlining stars gave mostly-showy pieces from a cross-section of the operatic repertoire stretching from early Mozart to Boito and Bizet, and, in the second half of the program, ventured into hits from American musicals to great effect. Bryan Wagorn, at the piano, proved himself an able and versatile accompanist.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Johannisnacht 2014, Mainz
 A Confession, Gentle Readers: sadly, the last few weeks of the regular opera season around here coincided with successive academic conferences I was rushing about to. Thus, the last few weeks of my time in Germany, which I'd dreamed of filling with irresponsible and irrepressible opera-going, have coincided with the beginning of the Sommerpause, or summer break. Alas. Unable to do anything about this but shed a quiet tear over the Frankfurt season brochure as I consign it to the carefully-sorted trash, I am thus attempting stoicism as I pack all my worldly goods. I'm hoping to be officially moved into NYC (again!) by the beginning of August, in good time for the last hurrah of the city's festivals. I have academic work to do, aged relatives to visit, and nuptials to attend, however, so the length of my own summer break in opera-going is as yet uncertain. Although I have not yet found an apartment, I do know that the women with whom I will be sharing living quarters in the coming year also like opera and opera-going. First things first. And opera-going again soon. But for now, a brief Sommerpause between the excitements of German houses, and whatever New York has to offer.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Old forms, new festivals: Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen

One of the things I love about this region is that there always seems to be room for another music festival. The Chamber Music Fest Rheinhessen was founded by the Flex Ensemble, a young quartet that entrepreneurially set out to create this opportunity. The weekend included masterclasses, children's concerts, and genre-crossing collaborations with other artists; Friday's opening concert, which I attended, was an evening of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century piano quartets. I never feel as though I hear enough live chamber music, and it was a treat to hear a vigorous young ensemble playing it in an assembly hall packed with music professionals and community members ranging from elderly couples to young families.

Friday, July 4, 2014

La liberté pour nous conspire? Guillaume Tell

Fighting over the future: Guillaume Tell, Act III. Photo © Bayerische Staatsoper
A confession, with apologies to those whose opera-related obsessions center on bel canto: thrillingly-sung Rossini is not a phrase that ordinarily trips from my tongue. For Wednesday night's performance of Guillaume Tell at the Bayerische Staatsoper, however, no less a word than thrilling would do. I went in with few concrete expectations, but I'd never heard Michael Volle live before, and having heard Bryan Hymel live once, I couldn't pass up the chance to do so again. So, after a morning on a train and an afternoon in the archives, I found myself directly under the ceiling of the sold-out house; following the example of fellow-students in the last row, I clambered up on the railing in front of our seats in order to see (disclaimer: my view was partial due to the angle, and occasionally interrupted due to the fact that my calf muscles could not handle constant rail-balancing.) Despite a production more impressive in concept than in execution, it was a musically and emotionally engaging evening, in which all the principal singers gave performances of remarkable passion and precision.


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