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 Jean-Baptiste Barrière. 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. Light projections onto it 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.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Blogging Backlog, or, from Deutschland to Dissertation

As the Monty Python peasant says, "I'm not dead yet!" A mixture of malaise in cultural readjustment and madness in dissertation-writing, however, put me very nearly out of commission for late autumn opera-going. Thanks to friends pulling me to opera, however, I did get to see three operas at the Met, which deserve more than belated notes here, but I thought they deserved at least notes.


  • Death of Klinghoffer. I even started a blog post on this one. And I'm sorry I didn't finish it, as it was a theatrically gripping, emotionally powerful experience. The opera (admirably, I think) resists the imposition of narrative, the interpretation of narrative, allowing the characters to offer their own competing claims in turn. The production is less comfortable with such ambiguity (and ambiguity is not even quite the right word; Keats called it "negative capability.") Anyway, I thought it was great, with Paulo Szot a standout as the compassionate, remorseful captain.

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.

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