Thursday, May 31, 2012

Totus ardeo: De Falla and Orff with the NYPhil

Atlantis, as pictured by Athanasius Kircher in "Mundi Subterranei," 1669
This evening marks the first in a series of three performances of an imaginative and exciting program by the New York Philharmonic, under the leadership of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana is paired with selections from Manuel de Falla's final (unfinished) work, Atlantida, a "scenic cantata" combining poetic laments for the fall of Atlantis with visions of Columbus' transatlantic voyage on behalf of the Spanish empire. Under the baton of Frühbeck de Burgos, both works were brought to vibrant life by the Philharmonic, in sensual, powerful performances. As I attended the general rehearsal, the following cannot be a review, but I did want to put down some notes on what was a very impressive musical experience. Getting to see the orchestra--and the very fine forces of Orfeón Pamplonés--at work was a treat. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Reading List: The Metropolis Case

As promised by the title, Matthew Gallaway's novel is an elaborately allusive one, drawing on art and architecture, science and philosophy, politics and history, and most of all opera. This literary concoction is less a novel of ideas, however, than an exuberantly erudite adventure novel. There is also more than a whiff of magic realism about it, as the narrative incorporates the improbabilities of several opera plots, and even the glorious impossibilities that opera often seems to promise. Although the title refers to Janáček's Makropulos Case, it is Tristan which is most deeply woven through the narratives of the novel. The opera's history--and the dream of its potential to make and and alter history--shapes the lives of the novel's characters, and gradually brings their lives together.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Salome: Man könnte meinen, sie tanzt

"Salome with the Head of John the Baptist"
Aubrey Beardsley
Richard Strauss' masterpiece of desire dangerously thwarted, and still more dangerously indulged, was brought by the Cleveland Orchestra to Carnegie Hall on Thursday in an eagerly-awaited performance. In addition to the powerful Jochanaan of Eric Owens, the evening boasted the Salome of Nina Stemme, sensual and searingly intense. The orchestra, under the leadership of Franz Welser-Möst, gave a performance of both beauty and power. The sound of the Cleveland forces was invariably beautiful, lushly, even obscenely so. The warm, shimmering clarity of the strings was a pleasure; the brass and woodwinds were both strong. What I missed--and I may be in a minority here--was a sense of Unheimlichkeit, an orchestral tension reflecting the mood of impending doom articulated by the Page, and later by Herod himself. Still, the tension escalated with entry of Salome, and ignited with on-stage confrontation (if one can call it that when the participants aren't looking at one another) of the princess and Jochanaan. My desire for more sounds to creep down the spine and chill the blood may be a matter of personal taste. I was on edge throughout the final scene, with its beautiful tapestry of sound disrupted by unsettling eruptions of percussion and shivers in the woodwinds. The dance of the seven veils was pulse-quickening, and the orchestra did summon brutal violence for the crashing, magnificent finale.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Life, Death, and What Comes After at Opera Manhattan

Kala Maxym (c) Opera Manhattan
Opera Manhattan's spring festival packs an emotional punch, or rather three. The triple bill features short twentieth-century operas in widely differing styles, united by their focus on emotionally and psychologically fragile female central characters (not to say their emotional and psychological disintegration.) In the hands of Opera Manhattan's artists, these were presented as narratives of strength, as well as weakness. The evening began with Poulenc's "La Voix Humaine," Kala Maxym reprising her role as Elle, which she also sang with the company in February. Tristan Cano played the piano rendition of the score with impressive nuance in tone, supporting the emotional trajectory of the piece, sometimes articulating the truths which the singer cannot. The monodrama was staged by Sarah Fraser, between a sofa and a disarranged bed. Letters are scattered over the floor--some lost among the bedclothes--relics of the relationship. Maxym's characterization was thoughtful and vivid; especially at the outset, "Elle" is anxious, fretful, preoccupied, distracting even herself from the central reality. There was the suggestion of vacillation between her public and private selves, as she wandered from the living room to the bedroom, and the boundaries between past and present blurred. Maxym's French was intelligible and expressive, and she used variation of tone color to powerful emotional effect. Strong and passionate in recounting the dream sequence, with warm high notes, she also demonstrated sensitive diminuendo, notably in speaking of the hotel at Marseilles where she and her lover had been happy. There are things, she says, which cannot be imagined without breaking the heart.

Menotti (via G. Schirmer)
The second opera on the program was Giancarlo Menotti's rarely performed "The Medium" (synopsis here.) The eerie score (for a chamber orchestra of 14) was played in a piano reduction by Kathryn Olander. The opera had its genesis after Menotti attended a seance at the home of acquaintances who were bereaved parents. To his surprise, the composer noted that the mother seemed to see and speak with her daughter: "It was not she who felt cheated, but I." The drama is vivid in quotidian detail, its libretto, also by Menotti, dense with underlying significance. The choreography of Opera Manhattan's production, John Schenkel, was intelligent and eloquent of the characters' emotional histories. Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau, habitués of the seances, emerged as repressively pragmatic, insistent that everything be performed within its proper parameters, lacking the imagination to be disconcerted when this becomes literally impossible. Mrs. Nolan, the newcomer, was sung and acted with great eloquence by Anna Petrie. The mute Toby was given a passionate and nuanced portrayal by Parker Scott. His body language was extraordinarily expressive, and he had good chemistry with Monica (Megan Candio,) who plays on the threshold of adulthood. Candio has a sweet-toned soprano, and gave a touching performance as the naive Monica. She took a few minutes to warm up fully, but gave a haunting account of the dark lullaby. The scene where she and Toby waltz was of (for me, literally) breathtaking sensuality, and the way they found each other was beautiful. We never learn the true name of the mentally fragile medium who is so afraid of her own dead. To Monica she is simply Baba; to her clients she is Madame Flora; to the audience she remains an enigma. We know only that she has seen too much, and learned to survive. This complex role was sung with lots of character and hybrid style--much use of Sprechstimme in dialogues--by Elizabeth Moulton. Thanks to the force of her presence, the seance was genuinely eerie; thanks to her dark mezzo, her drunken, desperate monologue was mesmerizing. Confronted with her unimaginable reality--that the dead who sink down into the earth can speak--she is finally shattered by the weight of all she has lived through.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Opera in film: The Man Between

It's film noir weather in NYC, and with Fr. M. Owen Lee's Opera Quiz Book as my guide, I discovered "The Man Between," directed by Carol Reed of "The Third Man" fame. Lee's tantalizing teaser, from lists of films which use opera to underline an emotional point, or underscore a nuanced dramatic situation, is as follows:

Staatsoper, East Berlin, post-war, pre-wall. Onstage soprano launches into final scene from decadent German opera. Cue for black marketeer Ivo Kern and kidnapped Englishwoman Susanne Malleson to leave box for sinister streets in attempt to escape to Western sector.

Berlin. Still from "The Man Between"
This I had to see. As in the case of Reed's more famous "Third Man," a postwar city is perhaps the most significant character of the drama, shaping the lives (even, dare one say it, the souls) of the human actors whom we discover there. Filmed largely on location, "The Man Between" shows us a Berlin where banners in praise of Stalin flutter over bombed-out buildings and freshly-built guard towers. Children play in ruins, and spies hide there. An English military doctor is kept fully occupied with refugees. There are still nightclubs and cafes and skating rinks. James Mason is Ivo Kern, amoral opportunist extraordinaire. I say amoral... it would perhaps be more precise to say that he has decided to ignore his conscience because it is an instrument of torture. He wears a coat with an astrakhan collar. When inhabiting his public persona, he can be devastatingly charming; trying to keep his skin whole despite the best efforts of gangsters and police to make it otherwise, he is curt, with a blazing intensity of cynicism the sources of which are only gradually discovered by the audience. To summarize the tortuous plot would give important things away; it is, in the end, a drama of individuals.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Věc Makropulos

The plot of Janáček's Makropulos Case is driven by intrigues legal, historical, and--not least--sexual. The Met's current revival of the 1926 opera is powered by a performance of radiant intensity by Karita Mattila. Elijah Moshinsky's 1996 production is sleek and effective, with Art Deco lines to the claustrophobic lawyer's office, a self-satirizing sphinx backstage at the opera, and (seen above) a sleek apartment which dissolves in the denouement. Central to the production was the image of the diva, and the question of how she is seen by others and herself. Jiří Bělohlávek led the Met orchestra in an account which seemed to emphasize romantic sweep and mysteriously shimmering detail. I speak (Really Shameful Confession) from a position of almost complete ignorance of the score, but I savored the brio and sensuality of the performance.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Billy Budd: Farewell, old Rights o' Man

Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Last night's Billy Budd was one of the stronger all-around efforts I've seen recently at the Met. John Dexter's production has a straightforward Horatio Hornblower aesthetic, but is efficient and structurally clever. The set used space well, underlining the reality that the many-leveled ship is a confined, complex, and dangerously authoritarian society. The claims that fate (or institutions) can absolve individuals from responsibility, and that divine justice renders human injustice less rather than more culpable, were consistently undermined. This may be more due to the performers than the production. There was good energy on stage and in the pit, keeping the emotional tension as well as the ideological stakes of the performance high.

David Robertson led the orchestra in a performance both powerful and powerfully eerie. I thought the delicate moments of the score well-handled, with nicely judged details, especially from the woodwinds. Robertson was attentive to the singers, (and could often be seen mouthing the text of the libretto along with them.) The overall tone was meditative rather than urgent, but I thought it worked. The men of the Met chorus outdid themselves in excellence; the interval audience was abuzz with comments on their superlative performance. From the first, uncanny "Heave away, heave" to the final, inarticulate murmur of outrage, the chorus sang with excellent diction and powerful expression. Theirs was perhaps the standout performance of the evening. This was my first live Billy Budd, so perhaps those more familiar with the opera would say that it is inevitable for the chorus to emerge vividly as a collective protagonist, oppressed by the same systems which enable Billy's unjust execution... in any case, this struck me more powerfully than it ever had in listening to recordings.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Goerne and Andsnes: Death (and life) at Carnegie Hall

To be perfectly frank, Gentle Readers, I went into Matthias Goerne's Tuesday night recital with some doubts as to how a program constructed using selections from the Rückert-Lieder, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the Kindertotenlieder, as well as Shostakovich's settings of Michaelangelo sonnets (Op. 145,) would work. In the event, Goerne and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes gave a bold, gripping, and ultimately haunting performance. Whether hallucinatory or bitterly realistic, these meditations on the transformations of death were beautifully realized by pianist and singer. I was repeatedly astonished--and fascinated--by Goerne's powerful and flexible instrument, and the variety of emotional colors found by Andsnes in the piano part. The Mahler selections I know relatively well; the Shostakovich I knew not at all; interwoven, they proved emotionally powerful and philosophically stimulating.


MAHLER "Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Morning," Op. 145, No. 2
MAHLER "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Separation," Op. 145, No. 4
MAHLER "Es sungen drei Engel"
MAHLER "Das irdische Leben"
MAHLER "Nun seh’ ich wohl, warum so dunkle Flammen"
MAHLER "Wenn dein Mütterlein"
MAHLER "Urlicht"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Night," Op. 145, No. 9
MAHLER "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Immortality," Op. 45, No. 11
SHOSTAKOVICH "Dante," Op. 145, No. 6
MAHLER "Revelge"
SHOSTAKOVICH "Death," Op. 145, No. 10
MAHLER "Der Tamboursg'sell" 

The first four songs were dreamily meditative, tones of melancholy becoming increasingly prominent in "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" and "Separation." Goerne's use of text, and Andsnes' muted playing, suffused the final stanzas of the Mahler with a dreamlike awe. The influence of hymnody on "Es sungen drei Engel" was apparent in the style of Andsnes' playing, as well as the harmonies. The folktale shape of "Das irdische Leben" was belied by Goerne's dark, savage delivery, at a somewhat faster pace than I am accustomed to hearing. The last line, describing the child on the bier, was delivered not as an exclamation point, but as an expression of inconsolable disbelief that the unimaginable had happened. "Nun seh' ich wohl" was an aching threnody. Thereafter came another emotional turning point, with Andsnes' accompaniment for "Wenn dein Mütterlein" reminiscent of a Bach prelude in its clarity and purity. "Urlicht" was beautifully filled with silences, with Goerne's phrasing long, unstrained, suffused with deep longing, and deep confidence.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Die Walküre: der Gottheit nichtigen Glanz

I am becoming a Walküre completist. With my mother, I attended Saturday's matinee at the Met, but will make this a brief report. Let me pass over the Lepage production in comparative silence (for once!) It is so very dull, so lacking in any apparent imagination except the visual. The only fresh insight it has inspired in me is: I really need to go to Germany. Saturday's orchestral performance seemed slightly cool, with a lyric melancholy that served the latter two acts better than the first. Coordination issues, however, were noticeably improved from the previous cycle's Walküre. Luisi and the orchestra were notably supportive of Frank van Aken, making his Met debut as Siegmund. I regret to note that the Machine's Walkürenritt configuration drew applause from the audience, but the Valkyries themselves contributed excellent work, with strong and exciting singing. (My mother opined moreover that Eve Gigliotti deserved awards for bravery, "getting back up on the horse" with a vengeance after the Machine bucked her in last year's run.)

Hans-Peter König made an impressively stentorian Hunding, coarsely possessive of Sieglinde, coarsely threatening towards Siegmund, and singing with diction that dripped with contempt. Stephanie Blythe was impressively rich-voiced as ever as Fricak; the constraints of staging her in her chariot are increasingly irksome to me. Eva-Maria Westbroek made a very touching Sieglinde. Her ardent singing was notable for beautiful tone and phrasing, especially in the first act. She sounded slightly fatigued by the end but still very expressive (I admit to tearing up at "O deckte mich Tod, dass ich's denke.") Frank Van Aken's Siegmund was indisputably valiant, and admirably engaged, but vocally underpowered. He has a bright voice which I might gladly hear in a smaller house, but here he sounded rough at the top of his range. Lack of rehearsal or nerves might account for his errors of omission and commission with the text; I found these distracting. Bryn Terfel's Wotan continues to be incredibly exciting. At Saturday's performance, his god was visibly and wildly despairing. Terfel did growl in places for effect, but sang expressively and responsively. His treatment of text--intellectually and emotionally nuanced--continues to delight me. ("Götternot!" gave me chills.) The Abschied was sung with beauty and power, and acted with profound tenderness and profound sorrow. Even as Brünnhilde begs for a softening of her sentence, Wotan reaches out as if to take her hand. Throughout the fraught dialog, Wotan himself seemed on the brink of weeping... and I sobbed. Katrina Dalayman gave a vocally solid performance as Brünnhilde, if not (to me) a terribly involving one. She sang the second act with accuracy, but without much ardor. Dalayman did bring warmth and sweetness of tone to the final scene. I was an emotional mess as the fire rose around Brünnhilde's cliff, which may be no bad way to leave a Walküre.

Curtain call photos:


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