Friday, October 28, 2011

Ich lausch dem Gesang: Siegfried at the Met

Despite some very fine singing, and some very fine orchestral playing, the Met's new Siegfried was less than fully satisfying. Robert Lepage promised hyperrealism, and this he delivered; the Machine has come into its own as a representational set. But that is all it is (and it nearly ground to a halt, with ominous clanking, between the second and third scenes of Act III; that Siegfried did not fear the fiery cliffs was indeed impressive.) The visual influence of Fritz Lang was apparent, and I was reminded of a cherished childhood possession, The Story of Siegfried. This is more than a failure to provide a clear and consistent interpretation; this is a problem. Siegfried is the only one clad completely in "medieval" costume; the rest are more directly inspired by the nineteenth century. I find it hard to believe that anyone charged with directing the Ring could be unaware of, or insensitive to, the problems in depicting Mime and Alberich in working-class clothes of the nineteenth-century, and then making them unrepentant and unsubtle schemers against our nature-child hero. Worse: Mime is made into a child-stealing hunchback. This allows Lepage to visually echo, in the dying Sieglinde's futile reach for her child, the dying Siegmund's reach for his wife. But: that is not how you deal with the question of whether or not Mime is an antisemitic caricature, Robert Lepage. [Update: Likely Impossibilities has a post about this.] After this, Brünnhilde as Pre-Raphaelite fantasy--Waterhouse would have been proud of that radiant, autumn-haired woman, shift-clad in a meadow--seemed positively innocuous. The few non-literal touches in the staging--Wotan causes the sun to turn blood-red in Act I, and unrolls the bark from around his staff in Act III--I found more confusing than illuminating.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sui maccheroni il cacio v'è cascato: Barbiere di Siviglia

My theory that it's impossible to leave a good Rossini performance without a smile on your face (and at least one fragment of melody stuck in your head) stands. Despite some less-than-inspired conducting from Maurizio Benini, Wednesday's Barbiere made for a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with fine singing and fine acting from all. Isabel Leonard's vivacious, brilliantly sung Rosina was a delight, as was Rodion Pogossov's irrepressible Figaro. Bartlett Sher's production could be accused of having a gimmick or two too many, but I think the frothy exuberance of it suits the plot and music well.

The conducting of Benini did not strike me as rising to the level of the singers. Tempi were workmanlike, and there was not much dynamic nuance, either (the orchestra almost covered the singers at a few points.) I think I noticed Isabel Leonard and Samuel Ramey giving subtle cues to keep the conductor with them during their arias; this helped. Rossini's score still triumphed, but I wished it had been handled with a lighter touch. The singers, thankfully, handled Rossini's bel canto flourishes and no less extravagant comedy with panache. Maurizio Muraro gave a splendid buffo turn as the deluded Dottor Bartolo, with a warm, solid bass and a perpetually put-upon air. The Don Basilio of Samuel Ramey, who sang with comedic relish and vocal assurance, was likewise a treat.  Ramey's vocal gravitas was used to hilarious effect when the rest of the company is trying to pack him off to bed, and "La calunnia" was a delight.

Alexey Kudrya, in his Met debut, made an ardent Almaviva. He sang with great musical sensitivity, and his serenades to Rosina were lovely. ("Cessa di più resistere" was omitted, which I thought very wise, given that Kudrya sounded somewhat thin at the top of his range.) Isabel Leonard gave the best performance I've heard from her; she handled the challenges of the score not only with skill, but with grace and wit. Rosina's runs and trills were executed beautifully, and were made an integral part of Leonard's vivacious portrayal. Rodion Pogossov was her theatrical equal: a cheeky, charming, and apparently tireless Figaro. With vocal charisma and agility, he was quite plausibly the indispensable engineer of events he claims to be. He shone especially in the duets with Kudrya and Leonard (and of course in their hilarious trio.) It may be cold and rainy in New York, but in sunny Seville, all's right with the world.

Curtain call photos:

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Maltese Tenor: Joseph Calleja launches CD at LPR

Having eagerly awaited the U.S. release of Joseph Calleja's new album, I ventured down on Monday to hear him perform at Le Poisson Rouge in honor of its launch. This was, for me, an adventure outside my comfort zone. Walking down Bleecker Street, I passed the building with the suited men in clipboards supervising its entrance, which was further presided over by an oversized fish skeleton. I was sure it couldn't be the place I wanted. It was. "Where do I get my ticket?" I asked the man who stamped my hand. "That is your ticket," he said pleasantly. Oh. The staff were friendly and accommodating to me and the other confused-looking folk who were clearly outside their usual concert-going habitat as well. I'm still not sure how I feel about black paint on the walls. "It was like a scary Bond villain lair!" I wailed to the Beloved Flatmate later. "Or... a club?" she said. Oh.

Propped against a pillar, I tried to take deep breaths. Calleja was greeted by the audience with enthusiastic applause, and greeted us in turn with warm cheer which did much to help me relax. In addition to singing, he provided buoyantly good-humored banter throughout the evening. (Announcing the album: "The original project concept was The Three Maltese Tenors, but the other two candidates were a dog and a falcon.") And then he sang. "Ma se m'è forza perderti" was the bold opener, and for me one of the highlights of the evening. Calleja's rendering was elegant and impassioned, and I understood every syllable.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Poetry in the Pity: Britten's War Requiem with the LSO

I was not in the forefront of the standing ovation for Sunday's performance of the War Requiem. This was because I was shaking and my legs had gone rubbery. My Really Shameful Confession is that, in listening to recordings, my admiration for the ambition and intelligence of the piece remained somewhat detached, not to say dutiful. The reading provided by Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra was taut and unsparing. Strings shivered; there were fearful fanfares and sad bugles; the percussion was appropriately terrifying. There were angular, angry crescendos that were as much barbed wire as cathedral spires; pianissimi hushed with reverence, and hushed with fear. The London Symphony Chorus was likewise superb, with sharp diction, impressive dynamic nuance, and great attention to the needs of the text (the eerie "Dies irae" comes to mind particularly.) The American Boychoir, performing offstage, contributed sensitive work as well.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Missa Solemnis: Beethoven with Sir Colin Davis and the LSO

"Even as I apologize for my bad handwriting, I ask God to pour his blessings richly on Yr Highness' head. Your new career, which is so concerned with the love of humankind, is surely one of the finest [schönsten], and Yr Highness is sure to be one of the finest examples--in secular or spiritual affairs--in it." --Beethoven writing to the Archduke Rudolph, 3 March 1819.

In preparing for Friday night's concert with the London Symphony Orchestra, I read about the work's genesis (Beethoven was a writer of surprisingly entertaining letters,) happily cycled through recordings, and dutifully consulted the Cambridge handbook. Then I went, and lost myself in sound: sound solemn and exultant, earthy and sublime, reconciling those apparent dichotomies in a way unmistakably Beethoven's own. This was my first time hearing the LSO live, and I was impressed by their clean, full sound and by the grace with which details emerged from the whole. The orchestra seemed keenly attuned to Davis' impassioned conducting. Despite very deliberate tempi, the energy of the piece never flagged. The contrasts built by Beethoven between the movements, and even between sections of movements, were emphasized, but these contrasting parts came together to form a magnificently coherent whole.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

La bella scena: I due Figaro at Amore Opera (U.S. premiere)

Amore Opera's season continues ambitiously, with the American premiere of I due Figaro, an 1826 opera by Saverio Mercadante. Following the recent rediscovery of the manuscript score in Madrid, Mercadante's work returned to the stage in Salzburg this summer under the auspices of Riccardo Muti (production video here.) The festival of Figaro operas Fred Plotkin speculated about at the time is now being brought to the stage by Amore Opera. I due Figaro postdates Rossini's Barbiere, and its narrative is the latest of the Mozart-Rossini-Mercadante triad, but it is based not on the third part of Beaumarchais' trilogy, but on a French play of 1795. Mercadante's setting of the libretto by Felice Romani not only exploits its comedy, but explores its emotional subtleties. The controversial plot sees Count Almaviva's attempts to assert himself as a domestic tyrant aided and abetted by Figaro. The latter is considerably changed here from his earlier incarnations: he wants to remain in his master's good graces, and earn a considerable fee, by promoting the suit of the socially ambitious lackey who wants to marry Inez, the daughter of the Almavivas. Inez, however, loves another: Cherubino, who has grown into a handsome and self-assured colonel (and is still a mezzo.) Poor Inez despairs with the extremity of the adolescent she is, and Rosina wants to help her daughter marry for love ("What misery," she sings in her aria, "to marry for convenience alone!") The hundred tricks in this opera, though, are chiefly carried out by Susanna. As the latter says, "Alfin siam femmine, cervello abbiamo"; after all, we are women, and are clever. This explicit overturning of the right order of the world--the libretto plays extensively with the idea of the household as a microcosm of society at large, and the count's 'rightful place' at its head--scandalized conservative regimes of the early nineteenth century, and makes for delicious and thought-provoking comedy.

Whether thanks to longer rehearsals or the bel canto experience of conductor Gregory Buchalter, the orchestra seemed more coordinated and energetic in the Mercadante than the Mozart. There were a few moments where stage and pit threatened to come unstuck, but on the whole things were carried off smoothly and with sensitivity to the nuances of the action. The staging (put together by Nathan Hull, who must be as busy as Figaro himself) was straightforward, wittily emphasizing the piece's comedy. Spanish dance rhythms abounded; this local color was reinforced for the fandango-ignorant audiences of the twenty-first century by dancing where possible, and deployment of fans by the ladies. In the ensembles, especially, I found Mercadante's style reminiscent of Rossini (which I mean to use as a stylistic point of reference for this unfamiliar score, rather than a 'poor relation' slight.) In a number of instances, the tone of the music undermined the stated irony of the characters' actions... or their stated sincerity.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Folle Giornata: Le Nozze di Figaro at Amore Opera

"This is an awfully long opera," said the man seated behind me at The Marriage of Figaro on Friday, "but there isn't a bad bit in it." Amore Opera has opened their third season in style with what is arguably the most transcendent of human comedies, a gem among gems of the operatic repertoire. The cheerful good humor shared by staff and audience seemed a fitting tribute to Mozart's masterpiece. The informal hospitality of hors d'oeuvres and wine shared by chatting groups of friends and strangers made the lobby of the Connelly Theater seem a sort of natural extension of the count's household. The intimate size of the theater (which seats just a hundred) also contributed to the cozy atmosphere of an evening which had clearly been prepared with love.

José Alejandro Guzmán, conducting, was attentive to singers and players, correcting for coordination more than once. The orchestra sounded noticeably ragged at times, but this may improve over the course of the run. The game string section was done no favors by the humidity of the warm room, which caused some tuning issues. I could have looked for more nuance in dynamics and tempi, but the playing supported the action on stage. Generally, this emphasized the comedies of the piece rather than its tragedies (and, parenthetically, I was surprised by what I perceived as a lack of eroticism. Perhaps this may change as the singers settle into the production.) All of the singers were done a disservice by the English translation. A majority of the audience seemed to be unfamiliar with the opera (to judge by the synopsis-checking that was going on around me, and the breathless suspense with which my seat neighbor followed the concealments of Cherubino) so I see the point, but I was constantly hearing Da Ponte's beautiful Italian in my head. It's not, of course, that English is inherently ill-suited to being sung, but having the musical phrase that should open out into "contenta" end in "as I am" thwarts its emotional effect. And "Should my dear master want some diversion" just does not breathe irony and defiance like "Se vuol ballare, signor contino."

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Don Giovanni: Cogliere io vo’ il momento

Amid a plethora of painted shutters and dancing peasants, it was the Don himself who brought the color and life to Thursday's Don Giovanni at the Met. Michael Grandage's staging was Sevillian and serviceable. The lighting by Paule Constable reflected the progress of the unfolding day, and used chiaroscuro to suggestive effect, echoing the plot's preoccupation with identity mistaken and revealed. The casinetto is a richly appointed townhouse among the many which slid into different configurations as the action progressed. The opulent eighteenth-century costumes (Christopher Oram) made social distinctions clear. But, although the production was not entirely unreflective, I still found it somewhat unsatisfying. It was clear that Grandage was aware of the gender and class hierarchies shaping the plot, but his own ideas on these subjects weren't strongly developed in visual terms. Many episodes of the dramma giocoso were played--I thought--too close to comedy, but that may be largely a matter of taste. I found the hellfire of the finale grotesque rather than terrifying. Fine singing and exciting orchestral playing made for a dramatically engaging evening, but I wish the production had been helping more.

The Met orchestra and Fabio Luisi gave a vigorous account of the score which did not sacrifice detail to its generally fast tempi. From my vantage point, I couldn't see Maestro Luisi moving between podium and harpsichord, but transitions occurred seamlessly. The chaos of the party in the Act I finale was handled brilliantly. Delicacy in intimate or introspective sequences was savored, and the ominous chords of the Commendatore were delivered with bone-shaking relish. (To those around me who whispered during the overture: now you know the fate of malefactors; I hope you are suitably chastened. To those who were hastening down the aisles before the closing ensemble... be warned! Be warned!)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Russian Romanticism at Carnegie Hall: Gergiev and the Mariinsky do Tchaikovsky

Spring Plowing: Alexsey Venetsianov, 1820s
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, despite or because of the widespread popularity of much of his music, has often been regarded as a composer of more passion than profundity. I confess that I've even wondered from time to time whether my own regard for him wasn't at least partly the result of really, really good emotional manipulation via the seductions of Swan Lake etc. The Mariinsky Orchestra is currently performing a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, bringing a powerful reminder of Tchaikovsky's skill and creativity with the symphonic form. In Monday night's concert, the pairing of the third and fourth symphonies provided a fascinating journey through the many moods of Romanticism.
"I am now composing a new symphony, but am taking it steadily, not spending all my time on it, and taking long walks." --Tchaikovsky in a letter to friends, summer of 1875 
In the first half of the concert, the third symphony charmed with a robust, Romantic pastoralism. Although the symphony is sometimes known as the "Polish," the adopted dance forms of its five movements evoked a robust rusticity which (however artificially constructed) did not have the specific national connotations which that title suggests (see this article by R.S. Edgecombe for more context on the use of dance forms such as the waltz in the Romantic symphony.) Thanks to the musicians of the Mariinksy, this seemed full-blooded rather than merely quaint. The dark-hued strings evoked fields ripe for the harvest, and the well-handled woodwind solos the dancing with which the harvest was celebrated. The romanticism I always associate with Tchaikovsky was indeed present, but in the exuberant celebration of nature and those who lived close to it, worlds away from Sturm und Drang. The tempest was to come.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Interval Adventures: Wagner with William Berger

Josef Hoffmann: Das Rheingold

This past week, the Beloved Flatmate and I enjoyed the rarity of a Friday night out... listening to a talk on staging the Ring! Thanks to the Met Opera student program, this was free of charge for us; it may have been for the larger public as well, but I wasn't able to find that information. Our entertaining (yes, really) and informative speaker was William Berger, author of, inter alia, Wagner Without Fear. Mr. Berger, diplomatic throughout, offered a historical overview of Ring stagings, divided into three categories, which he purposefully created and compromised almost in the same breath. (The Beloved Flatmate and I were taking mental notes on pedagogy, too.) Our three sample productions were all from Bayreuth: 1876, Josef Hoffmann; 1951, Wieland Wagner; and 1976, Patrice Chéreau. They were characterized, respectively, as representative, abstract, and conceptual... but before we got too far into all that, we began, appropriately enough, in the River Rhine.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sunday Special: Autumn in the Air

It's a beautiful October afternoon in NYC: days of rain have resolved themselves into crisp, windy weather, with sunshine slanting through clouds. I am, predictably enough, indoors doing work. On the bright side, I have a pot of tea, a nest of blankets, and some gorgeous music. Hopefully the following clips can contribute to your own Herbststimmung.

The first choice and the most obvious is Mahler, Das Lied von der Erde, "Der Einsame im Herbst." Equally obvious choices were Bernstein and Ludwig to interpret it: 

Next is the gorgeous Rachmaninov song, "Harvest of Sorrow" (op. 4 no. 5.) Here's Christa Ludwig again, which I attribute more to a surprising dearth of versions on YouTube than my own favoritism. If you have recommended recordings of Rachmaninov songs, do please share, Gentle Readers.


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