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.

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.


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