Friday, October 29, 2010

Addio, senza rancor

Last night marked the 1221st performance of La Bohème at the Met, the 398th in Franco Zeffirelli's production.  I had never seen La Bohème, ever.  So I went.  But I left dry-eyed.  And I didn't go in expecting to be disappointed or disdainful; I went in hoping to be childishly delighted.  But the production (in my opinion) often crossed the line from thoughtfully detailed into distractingly fussy.  To be fair to production and performers, the fact that I failed to be drawn into the narrative had much to do with the audience.  I didn't hear the final chords of any of the acts.  I believe there was applause after every. single. aria. and. duet, interrupting the flow of Puccini's music and drama as misplaced periods interrupt a sentence (sorry.)  And applause for the Act II set drowned out "Aranci! Ninnoli! Caldi!"  I feel as though I aged about thirty years towards being an Opera Curmudgeon last night.  I also emerged with a persistent, niggling worry.  I am glad that there are "non-opera-goers" who decide that they want to invest an evening in getting tickets, getting dressed up, and Seeing La Bohème At the Met.  But... what if they decide that opera is quaint?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Love, Death, and Local Color: Cavalleria and La Navarraise

I blame the scaffolding for the lighting.
I could also claim it's an artistic effect.
The Opera Orchestra of New York's much-anticipated return to the musical landscape was, for me, actually a Planned Event rather than Spontaneous Frivolity.  The orchestra, conducted by Alberto Veronesi, played with energy and sensuality, if not faultlessly.  There were a few brass wobbles, and I thought I noted one missed cue.  Veronesi seemed to have very clear ideas about how both verismo operas should sound, however: atmospheric and unabashedly, urgently emotional.  His website is still under construction, but according to Opera News he will be officially directing the OONY from next season onwards.  Technical faults are fixable, so I look forward to good and exciting things.

Usual caveats in place about the fact that I am feeling my way into the vocabulary, not to mention the more technical aspects of musical appreciation, I found the singing of Cavalleria curiously uneven.  The sexiest thing about Lola was her red dress (nerves, maybe?)  Alfio, Carlos Almaguer, seemed to have a nice timbre, but this was masked by a tendency to bellow, which affected intelligibility as well.  Veteran artist Mignon Dunn was a treat as Mamma Lucia, vividly characterized and sung.  Maria Guleghina sang a Santuzza I wanted to like more than I did.  With a warm tone and dramatic commitment she created a Santuzza with uncommon understanding of herself and Turiddu, and a resulting gentleness which was quasi-matronly.  Even phrases like "Turiddu mi tolsi l'onore" were more informed by fond memory than by present anguish.  (Quite a contrast with Waltraud Meier, who created a Santuzza straight out of a Greek tragedy, fierce and rawly passionate.)    Interesting as she was, though, she was occasionally inaccurate, and more than occasionally nigh-inaudible, which I found puzzling and disappointing.  Alagna sounded darker, stronger, and more focused than when I heard him in a run of Cav/Pag at the Met last spring.  (And I heard him from the orchestra, thanks to rush tickets, so the potential problem of his not-very-large voice getting lost should have been obviated?)  At any rate, I was quite impressed.  Curiously, he was the only performer on book for Cavalleria and I missed the unrestrained energy of his on-stage Turiddu.  Still, he sang vividly, and "Mamma, quel vino" was sung with a sob in the voice, urgent with desperation and remorse.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


On Saturday, I finally made it to Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Met, with original orchestration and the restoration of some censored scenes, in Stephen Wadsworth's production.  The libretto (in Russian) may be found here; images from the current production here.  Shameful Confessions up front: I am not familiar with this opera at all.  I frantically skimmed some background reading and gave the Karajan/Ghiaurov recording a listen-through, and that was it, not counting a childhood encounter with the clock scene on LP thanks to my Respected Father's ideas on High Culture (it is still as viscerally terrifying as it was then.)  So I arrived ill-equipped, but eager.  Unfamiliar as I am with the score, I can only say that under Valery Gergiev's direction, it seemed fluid, evocative, and nuanced.  Pacing and balance were problem-free as far as I noticed, and the music came across as emotionally powerful: tense, humorous, mysterious, and achingly empathetic by turns.

Friday, October 22, 2010

True Symphony: Gergiev leads Mariinsky in Mahler's 8th

Fluchtdrang war sie, daß er es sich eingestand, diese Sehnsucht ins Ferne und Neue, diese Begierde nach Befreiung, Entbürdung und Vergessen,--der Drang hinweg vom Werke.  --Thomas Mann, Der Tod in Venedig

It is simplicity itself, the true symphony, in which the most beautiful instrument of all [the human voice] is led to its calling. --Mahler, correspondence on the Eighth Symphony.

Tome on marriage litigation stuffed into my purse, guilty knowledge about the hours of the open library I was missing stuffed to the back of my mind, I sped downtown last night for the only concert in this week of Mahler at Carnegie Hall that I could possibly make.  Valery Gergiev led what I think can safely be called his orchestra, that of the Mariinsky, with soloists from the same theater and Orfeón Pamplonés, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy.  I was told at the box office that, by request of Maestro Gergiev, holders of the ten-dollar student tickets would be seated in the first rows, rather than in the back of the balcony.  I was thrilled.  I love being able to sit in Carnegie at all for that money, but actually walking into the beautiful gold hall, rather than climbing up the back stairs and trying not to bump my head on the ceiling and sitting with my knees jammed against the row in front of me, was a real treat.  It did affect the balance of how I heard the music (the choirs probably rode over the orchestra more for anyone who wasn't sitting practically underneath the first violinist) but such issues were counterbalanced for me by getting to watch the conductor and the musicians... and feeling the music of the climax vibrating through my bones.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kommt, ihr angefochtnen Sünder

My plans for the next few days are as follows: reading a monograph on the development of Europe in the Middle Ages (yes, all of it.) Then another one about marriage and canon law.  Then writing a lecture. Then guiding a museum tour.  Then giving a lecture.  Then attending a seminar.  I do not know when I will next go to the opera.  This is rather sad.  But here is some nice Bach:

Is anyone interested in forming a committee against dubious wardrobe choices?  I know Definitely the Opera has addressed this important issue.  And Magdalena Kozena's dress is a lovely color and appears to be a nice cut... but all I can think of looking at those sleeves is Anne of Green Gables.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Triste ou folle

I had two main reasons for wanting to catch the fall run of Hoffman at the Met: firstly, reviews and word-of-mouth praised the tenor, Giuseppe Filianoti, with remarkable warmth and unanimity.  Secondly, after seeing the rebroadcast of Bartlett Sher's production, I really wanted to experience it in its natural habitat.  Photos from this season's run, focusing on the principals, may be found here; from the past season, containing more striking images of ensembles and tableaux here.  Well, and also Kate Lindsey.  I may have mentioned before that I adore, covet, and salivate over this outfit.  I really wanted to experience her panache in person too.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit

Carnegie Hall sent me and the Beloved Flatmate a flyer advertising "A Transcendent Evening of Brahms," to feature the Alto Rhapsody, with Stephanie Blythe, and the Deutsches Requiem with soloists Erin Morley and Eric Owens; to these blandishments we were far from indifferent.  The first piece on the program was the rhapsody, a piece with which I was unfamiliar (and the program notes provided very little help.)  Subsequent attempts at research turned up fairly little (Wikipedia page here, "detailed listening guide" here.)  The Cambridge Companion to Brahms will be my next stop.  Update: see the comments section for a fascinating (and conveniently accessible) reference provided by Zerbinetta.  The evocative text was excerpted from Harzreise im Winter.  I do love Goethe, but I would never have guessed he could remind me so much of T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets.  Maybe it was the setting.  Stephanie Blythe is maintaining her perfect record of being fabulous when I've heard her.   She here produced an almost chilly sound, without sacrificing fullness, remote, while still compassionate; the voice of a Miltonian angel, perhaps.  The transition to a plea for divine mercy at the end seemed almost abrupt, given the bleakness of what had gone before, but she characterized it with equal conviction.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Addio del passato

Opera Chic brings the news that, while I was happily observing Verdi's birthday yesterday (by listening to Traviata for the millionth time), the woman who was my first recorded Violetta, Dame Joan Sutherland, passed away.  Tributes have been multiplying since.  Update: Jessica Duchen has shared links to an in-depth interview on her blog.  Frankly, I was surprised at my own reaction.  Why should I feel bereft?  Clearly, I came into opera-listening a generation too late to hear her live.  But she was still part of my landscape; she was there, a venerable presence, a diva larger than life and fully human.  She died not suddenly, but rich in years which were richly lived.  My own sense of being thrown off balance in the wake of some profound change doubtless has much in it that is egotistic.  But I--even I, who knew her only through still-miraculous recorded sound, reported anecdotes, and unearthed interviews--shall miss her being there.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The shape of sound: Debussy, Sibelius, and Lindberg at the NYPhil

Last night, I went to hear a much-advertised program comprising Debussy's Prélude à l’après-midi d'un faune, Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor, op. 47, and Magnus Lindberg's orchestral work Kraft.  (I then resisted the temptation to title this "A faun, a fantasy, and a Finn.")  Admittedly, none of this is opera, but it was exciting, so I thought I would share, with the caveat that I am, if anything, less qualified (because a less habitual listener) to review orchestral works than opera.  Still... it was a very interesting night out.  (An unfortunate drawback to the listening experience was that I was seated next to two snorers and behind a row of talkers; there was applause after the first movement of the Sibelius, and defections began approximately halfway through the Lindberg, growing gradually less surreptitious and more numerous up until a scant few minutes before the piece's conclusion.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Der Sänger klugen Weisen

Der Tannhäuser, Codex Manesse
Univ. Heidelberg: Cod. pal. Germ. 848
October already, and the academic year is rushing me towards the central Middle Ages, and, this week, a curious confluence of my professional and opera-related passions, as I come to the study of courtly love.  Suddenly Tannhäuser and the Sängerkrieg are appearing with mention of manuscripts instead of musical motifs.  Although the Minnesänger are not a specialty of mine, I have been fond of them ever since an undergraduate course on high medieval German literature.  A digital facsimile of the gorgeous Codex Manesse, a.k.a. Große Heidelberger Liederhandschrift, may be found here, full of poetry and portraits, including those of several of Wagner's protagonists.

Shamefully flighty, I wandered from the paths of focused scholarship into a rereading of the Tannhäuser libretto, where I was charmed to find a connection of the narrative with nature very reminiscent of much medieval secular poetry, as well as (of course) different types of "courtly love."  (Recommendations of favorite Tannhäuser recordings are eagerly solicited, as I am acquiring an itch for deeper acquaintance with the work.)  Scholarly ink has been spilled on the relationship of Wagner's drama to the historical originals of his characters, and their music.  The historical Walther von der Vogelweide, I suspect, would hardly have been disconcerted by Tannhäuser's passionate declaration.  Here, for instance, is one of his most famous songs, praising the pleasures of a lovers' tryst under a linden tree. Wolfram von Eschenbach's lieder are charming (at least to me!), as well as somewhat more earth-bound than "O Du mein holder Abendstern."  The latter, however, is hardly less firmly associated with Wolfram for me.  I love Thomas Quasthoff's interpretation, but this version by Bryn Terfel, shared on Opera Cake, is a current favorite, a perfect antidote to stress or distress.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Interval Adventures: traditionalists and twentysomethings

Verdi, portrait by Giovanni Boldini, 1886
At Rigoletto on Wednesday night, much of my energy was occupied with herding ducklings (i.e. one undergraduate and two freshly-minted M.A. students who were enthusiastic opera novices) in the intervals, but this paid off, as their reactions to the evening ranged from quite pleased to rhapsodic and starry-eyed.  To be fair, they didn't really need herding, but I felt a sense of Solemn Responsibility, as well as the enthusiast's desire to make sure they saw "The Triumph of Music" and benefited from the Ezio Pinza water fountains.

In the second interval, we encountered a startling apparition.  He was full of Dark Prophecies about the Future, yet personally, as he told us, from the Past.  The beloved flatmate and I decided on Imprecating Opera Specter as his official title.  The I.O.S. materialized at our elbow to tell one of our ducklings, who was (rather touchingly over-)dressed in his family tartan, that he should really be at Lucia di Lammermoor.  "I have been coming here for decades," he said, rather lugubriously, "and it used to be that everyone on stage was dressed that way."  I pointed out that Mary Zimmerman's production still had the chorus in hunting costume, if non-ubiquitous kilts.  Or I started to.  "Do not mention that name!" boomed the Opera Specter.  "That woman is death!"  He then unleashed upon the bewildered opera ducklings a torrent of invective against all the "minimalist, abstract, updated, modern Eurotrash" which creeps into the Met like a disease.  "Mary Zimmerman!" he exclaimed, returning to his original target.  "And her ilk.  They make a nonsense of the works.  I hope you're not her daughter!"  I took my opportunity, and spoke up. "When it comes to La Sonnambula," I said, "I thought that it was less coherent and therefore less effective than it could have been.  But Lucia, while it may not be a brilliant production, I thought was inoffensive."  (I don't think it's brilliant, but I rather liked the incorporation of the over-the-top Gothic visual vocabulary of Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries.  Whether through silent cowardice or discreet valor, I did not say so.) "Well," said the I.O.S., "well, you're right, it wasn't too bad."  And he melted away to his seat, leaving the beloved flatmate and me to opine, sotto voce, to the ducklings that things could be minimalist without being abstract and modern without being either, and that no aesthetic had a monopoly on bad productions.  It was quite an adventure.


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