Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nights at the Opera: 2011

Time blurs strangely together towards the end of the academic term, and I can't quite believe it's late December already... but I seem to have seen my last opera of the year, so it must be true. To cheer the longest night of the year, here's 2011's non-hierarchical, gleefully subjective round up of some of the past year's highlights: great nights, standout performances, and exploring the city's many opportunities for opera.

5 Great Nights

Not without difficulty, I've picked out a handful of the nights that reminded me of opera's glorious possibilities, by surprising me with their musical excellence and emotional immediacy. In alphabetical order:

Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw this glorious gem in September, and it set a standard that the rest of the autumn never quite reached. The ensemble work of Les Arts Florissants was precise, elegant, and passionate, evoking seventeenth-century splendor and creating timeless enchantment. The production is now available on DVD.

Bluebeard's Castle, with the New York Philharmonic. Including a concert performance may seem like bending the rules, but so much of Bluebeard is about perception and imagination that I thought it worked well. Lighting was used well, and the musical values were superb. Esa-Pekka Salonen drew fiery and subtle playing from the orchestra, Gabor Bretz was a charismatic Bluebeard, and Michelle DeYoung a stunning Judith, emotionally rich and vocally luxurious.

Don Giovanni, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This production, seen at the Mostly Mozart festival, has been the year's most talked-of among my friends, often to the detriment of more costly and less creative endeavors. Ivan Fischer was behind the idea which had the cast clad in contemporary evening dress, moving among dancers who formed the sets, reflecting the titular antihero's view of the world. There were allusions to classicism and romanticism, there was very fine singing, especially from Laura Aikin as Donna Anna, and Fischer led the BFO in a hair-raising, fire-and-brimstone reading of the score in its Prague version.

Die Walküre, at the Met under James Levine. I'm breaking a bigger rule here, and ignoring the (non-)contribution of the production. But the performances I saw gave me a list of indelible moments--the twist of anguish in grüße mir Wälse, for instance--and their dramatic sweep was irresistible. The orchestra gave of their best under Levine's leadership, and the performances were deeply moving, from Siegmund and Sieglinde's first entranced encounter to the finale through which I sobbed. Twice.

Wozzeck, another highlight of Levine's curtailed spring schedule at the Met, a stunning, searing performance of Berg's claustrophobic masterpiece. All of the singers inhabited their roles fully, and sang them excellently.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rataplan, rataplan! Fille du Régiment returns to Met

Machaidze, Brownlee, ensemble (c) Met Opera/Marty Sohl
The good old Twenty-First is back at the Met this winter, lifting spirits as always. Laurent Pelly's production flirts with kitsch, but I'm fond of it; its slightly off-kilter whimsy is a good fit for Donizetti's lighthearted, lightly caricatured hijinks. Yves Abel led the orchestra this time around, in a reading which was sympathetic to the characters' emotional troubles, but always seemed to know there was another joke around the corner. Maurizio Muraro reprised his turn as Sulpice, and was joined by Ann Murray as the Marquise, Lawrence Brownlee's ardent Tonio, and Nino Machaidze as the titular heroine. Kiri Te Kanawa was present as an irrepressible Duchesse de Krakenthorp.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Harmonie du soir: Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall

Karita Mattila's Saturday night recital offered an evocative selection of sensual art songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (full listing here.) Partnered with Martin Katz, Mattila spun hypnotic melodies of fin-de-siècle seduction. I was bewildered, however, both by the number of empty seats and by the behavior of those who were there. In the first half of the program, applause from all levels came after each song, persistent, but sounding almost perfunctory. There was welcome silence during the Sallinen set, and then applause after two of five songs by Joseph Marx. I wanted to tell the applauders to take a glass of absinthe and relax, and let Mattila and Katz work their magic uninterrupted.

Poulenc, date unknown
The first half of the recital was devoted to cycles by Poulenc and Debussy, both structured around the texts of a single poet to whose work the composer was specially drawn. Poulenc's Banalités, with texts by Apollinaire, comprised a series of vignettes united by wry wit rather than mood, from the lightly satirical "Chanson d'Orkenise," to the sensually languorous "Hôtel," through the poems to place that are "Fagnes de Wallonie" and "Voyage à Paris." The last song in Poulenc's cycle, "Sanglots," moves the furthest from realism, taking the listener through a series of romantically morbid images. The virtues of Katz' sensitive accompaniment were on full display here, as he let single notes and richly rolling chords convey equal intimacy of despair. Debussy's Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, setting poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, continued our odyssey into impressionistic treatments of romantic love. Although Mattila's voice sounded somewhat exposed and fragile at the top, she sang with beautiful coloration of tone throughout, and admirable attention to text. (I was glad of having the texts open on my lap, for I didn't catch every syllable, but she treated the many examples of wordplay or extended metaphor with intelligence.) Here, too, Katz was her worthy partner in drawing out the expressive richness of Debussy's harmonies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quello freme, questa è pazza: Barber of Seville at Amore Opera

After Mozart and Mercadante earlier this autumn, Amore Opera's "Fall Figaro Fest" is concluding with the beginning of the story, and Rossini's indefatigable factotum. The staging all but winked at the audience, treating the fourth wall like a curtain to be pulled aside to say: isn't this all a glorious joke? It is, of course. The orchestra played energetically for Richard Owen, but sounded unfocused and ragged at points (an opening night liability, perhaps.) The humidity was a problem for the string players, but they battled it valiantly, retuning at the interval. One aspect of the performance which struck me as peculiar was that it was performed in Italian and English, with recitative in English and the rest in Italian; the easy flow of Rossini's music resulted in a number of non sequiturs in bilingual conversations. (Apparently this performance tradition endures from Amato Opera.) The supertitles broke partway through, and my neighbors seemed to be grateful for the English, which had a "cask of Amontillado" joke but left out the cheese and macaroni. Still, Barbiere's conspiratorial ensembles, conspicuously exchanged letters, and silly disguises don't strike me as particularly dependent on word-by-word comprehension. I have special respect for the singers dealing with the mental gymnastics of using two languages in rapid alternation. Amore Opera's mixture of veteran and up-and-coming singers gave broad, engaging performances, and to judge by the reactions of those around me in the audience, good times were had by all.

In smaller roles, Sanford Schimel made a fine Fiorello, and Pavlina Horakova brought an expressive, distinctive mezzo to Berta. Alan Smulen was a slightly dry but solid Bartolo, aptly fussy and unafraid of making the deluded doctor openly ridiculous. Jörg Schnass sang Don Basilio with fine diction and vivid theatricality; "La calunnia" was given with appropriately oily glee. The Rosina of Elizabeth Treat was pert without being precious, using her bright, agile soprano with confident flair. She had fine chemistry both with her ardent suitor and with the charming Figaro. Andrew Whitfield sang the role of Almaviva with vivid engagement (giving just a hint in the first act of the wandering eye and weak will which lead to such grief later on... but letting the audience forget that in the charm of the rest of the performance.) Whitfield has a warm, pleasant timbre, and he sounded freer as the evening went on, interacting well with the other singers. Scott Lindroth's Figaro was often covered in the outdoor scenes with the Count, but this was rectified subsequently. Lindroth was appropriately cheeky, conveying sly self-satisfaction through well-shaped phrases. It all ended with half the population of Seville in Rosina's room, celebrating successful conspiracies and joyful prospects. The opera runs through January 1.

Curtain call photos:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Special: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

This Sunday Special, Gentle Readers, is brought to you thanks to my Aunt Dorothy, through whom I have discovered a Berlin-based vocal ensemble reinventing Christmas carols. But before I get to the Berliner Solistenchor, there is Bach. Don't tell the liturgical police, but I'm a week late, as this cantata was written for the first Sunday in Advent, to celebrate the beginning of the new church year. Still, I am a believer in Bach at all times:

Isn't it lovely? The useful Bach Cantatas website has extensive information on it here. In considerably simplified form, it survives in many Protestant hymnals, making it a candidate for the creative talents of the Berliner Solistenchor.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Le veau d'or est toujours debout: Faust at the Met

For Faust's much-touted return to the Met stage, the Met orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin gave Gounod's score of their best, and brought out the best in it. There was fine singing, as well, with René Pape a standout as a magnificent MéphistophélèsDes McAnuff's production, however, lacked coherence, and lacked likewise a clear central idea to give either intellectual or emotional urgency to the drama. As a gentleman in front of me in line for champagne at the interval observed, it's hard to get romance going in a chemistry lab. If McAnuff had picked a chemistry lab of the early twentieth century and stuck to it--the Devil with an offer for unscrupulous career advancement, Marguerite as a bachelor girl secretary, perhaps--this might have been more effective. Going a less literal route could work as well. But the religious and romantic sentimentality of the central acts was left untouched, and, as far as I could tell, played without irony and without commentary, which made very little sense in this context. Also, I can't help but take issue with a production that chooses to evoke two of the twentieth century's greatest collective traumas--the First World War and the detonation of the atom bomb--and then not integrate them in the drama in a way that makes it clear how they affect the characters.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Die alten, bösen Lieder: Ian Bostridge at Carnegie Hall

Bostridge; photo (c) Simon Fowler
Ian Bostridge and Thomas Adès created an extraordinarily rich, revelatory program at Carnegie Hall on Monday evening (complete program listing here.) From the outset, their partnership was characterized by a boldness in interpretation which brought intensity and intimacy in equal measure. John Dowland's "In Darkness Let Me Dwell," with its struggle for articulacy, its embrace of "hapless joy," set the tone for the evening; Adès' own "Darknesse Visible" was given without any pause, rising out of the eerie silence, shivering with sounds jarring and haunting. Bostridge's assurance with text and sense for phrasing brought an aptly hallucinatory feel to György Kurtág's Hölderlin setting. The liquid, exquisite opening of "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" was brought out of the silence created by the previous piece, guiding us into a Dichterliebe that, initially dreamlike, would become increasingly like a fevered nightmare. The incisive, often ironic edge to Adès' playing supported Bostridge's savage interpretation, most notably in "Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome," in the delirious "Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" and the bitter, furious attack of "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen." Bostridge's cycle was fascinating throughout, bringing a wonderful range of vocal colors and unexpected twists to the phrasing. "Die alten, bösen Lieder," with its anticipation of death, descended almost into sprechstimme, a chilling, comfortless eulogy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Goethe, Gounod, and Faust

"French composers love those German sufferers that then they can bring to joy." --Jonas Kaufmann (Opera News interview, 2011)

"Die unbegreiflich hohen Werke / sind herrlich wie am ersten Tag." - Faust 249-250

Delacroix, "Mephistopheles devant Faust," 1826
Gounod's Faust was the first work performed at the Metropolitan Opera House, in 1883. The 1859 opera enjoyed an almost unrivaled popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; George Bernard Shaw famously complained that a professional critic in London had to spend approximately a decade of a twelve-year career listening to Faust, and that he himself had been nearly blinded by prolonged exposure to Mephistopheles' red spotlight (his full Faust-assessment can be found in this book.) In Gaston Leroux' Phantom of the Opera, Faust is the opera chosen to represent both vocal virtuosity and dangerous sensuality (a connection emphasized in this film adaptation.) In Jean Renoir's film about WWI, Grand Illusion
, it is presented as plausible that "Anges Purs" would be known by every French officer. Critical interpretations of the opera often cluster around the question: how did Faust achieve such status?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Io spero ancora: La Bohème charms again

Cafe scene from Act II, Susanna Phillips as Musetta (c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Despite disappointment at last year's La Bohème, I went again on Tuesday, and I'm glad I did. My own enjoyment of the evening was augmented considerably by the fact that I was there in the company of a friend for whom this was her first opera. She loved it, and having someone to comment in the intervals on how impressive the street scene was, or how beautiful the lovers' reconciliation under the snow, helped me appreciate it as well. The "business" in Franco Zeffirelli's apparently deathless production seemed less fussy to me this year, too. Louis Langrée led the orchestra in a beautifully sensitive reading of the score, with nice shaping of phrases and real delicacy of touch. I was happy to hear the music receive the attention to detail I think it deserves (I still await a performance of Bohème where I actually hear the final chords of each act.) The quality of the vocal performances ranged from respectable to excellent; the latter adjective is awarded, not lightly, to Hei-Kyung Hong's deeply-felt Mimi.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Der bleiche Mann ist ein Vampyr! Marschner rarity at Liederkranz

The opening night of the Liederkranz Foundation's production of Der Vampyr was a treat for me, and the rest of the audience seemed equally enthusiastic. I overheard a great many "I don't know this opera at all; do you know it?" conversations in the foyer, but there was also the gentleman who, at the interval, was comparing its chord structure to that of Der Freischütz, and noting how indebted the role of the vampire was to that of Don Pizarro. Der Vampyr, an 1828 work of Heinrich Marschner is, of course, interesting for its place in the development of nineteenth-century opera, but it's also dramatically and musically engaging on its own terms; no passion for its much-touted anticipation of Wagnerian leitmotivs is required. With limited theatrical resources, but considerable creativity in using them, the Liederkranz crafted a fine presentation of this seldom-performed opera.

The plot of Der Vampyr is based on an English short story, and follows a trajectory of high Schauerromantik. Exploration and explanation of the characters' emotions in romances and arias makes up a significant part of the score (although the most dramatic scenes are through-composed, moving away from the structure of alternating Sprechgesang, arioso singing, and chorus.) In contrast to the original material, and another opera based on it, Marschner's work (with libretto by his brother-in-law) ends not with madness and death, but with happiness for its young lovers, achieved through rejection of the ineffective patriarch's authority and the taboo of oath-taking. The triumphant moral is: ,,Wer der eig'nen Kraft vertraut, fest auf Gottes Hülfe baut, den kann Nichts erschüttern!"

Friday, November 18, 2011

Nabucco: non implora che la vita del suo cor

 True confession: I like Nabucco. While it may not have the structural elegance and masterful pacing of later Verdi, I find its experimental exuberance very exciting. Not only is there lots going on in the score, but the libretto (by Temistocle Solera) contains fascinating layers of ambiguity and ambivalence. So I got myself into standing room for the last performance of this season's run of the opera at the Met. It was a fine musical evening, weighed down somewhat by the ponderous production. Paolo Carignani and the Met orchestra took the music seriously and played with admirable emotional sensitivity (I loved the gorgeous cello solos especially.) I thought the tempi a little slow at the outset, but that may have been biased by the desire to have the coughers and pawers-in-plastic-bags around me shut up. And Zaccaria does go on. Since I've already written a mini-essay on Nabucco's wealth of interesting ideas about religion, political power, and gender (as perceived by me) I'll limit myself here to saying that I didn't see exploration of any of the above by Elijah Moshinsky's production. This may have been partly due to careless revival direction; the blocking and gesturing flirted dangerously with caricature. Having the Israelites and Babylonians with their characteristic architecture on opposite sides of the Met's giant turntable did, I suppose, suggest parity or mutual dependence between these apparently antithetical political and religious systems... but that's being generous.

The singers, to their credit, managed to transcend this awkwardness to a significant degree. Elizabeth Bishop, as Fenena, warmed up to display a pleasingly rich, dark-hued soprano, and her expressive singing helped make Fenena credible as a soprano with a backbone. Carlos Colombara sounded a bit dry at the top of his range, but he had excellent gravitas and admirable vocal agility as Zaccaria. This was my first time hearing Yonghoon Lee in a full role, and I was impressed from his first notes onward by his sweet, bright-toned tenor. More variation in coloring might have helped give the role dramatic depth, but he was a pleasure to hear. Elisabete Matos, as Abigaille, had the unenviable task of taking on one of those roles to which the adjective most frequently applied is "impossible." Having heard a hum of excited anticipation, I was somewhat disappointed, but I don't have comparative evidence. I thought her pitch could turn erratic and her sound rough at the top of her range, but she had thrilling chest tones, and really impressive agility on the passages of runs required. Also, Matos used her voice adventurously, diving across octaves with reckless commitment. As a coherent dramatic portrayal, I felt the Nabucco of Željko Lučić came together better. He sang solidly throughout his range, authoritative and compelling in the first half, and with touching lyricism in the scenes where the deposed emperor battles for his sanity. The production limited the dramatic vocabulary of the role sadly, but I was still impressed. 

The non-eponymous central character of Nabucco, though, may be the chorus. Of course, there is "Va, pensiero," and it was introspective and impassioned and lovely, but there is also a lot more. As Israelites and Babylonians, the chorus comments, exclaims, supports, rebels, and judges throughout. And the forces of the Met did so very well, with incisive, expressive singing, perhaps most strikingly in the final chorus to Jehovah, sung without the orchestra. It was a treat to hear the excellent Met chorus, for once, in a starring role.

Curtain call photos:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Dark Sisters: Blaze a trail beyond the canyons

Seeing Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters at Gotham Chamber Opera was an unexpected opportunity, and, as it turned out, a deeply unsettling experience. The plot could be described as a fantasy on themes from the headlines, exploring and imagining narratives behind the 2008 raid which took 400 children from a Texan FLDS community into custody, following allegations of physical and sexual abuse. Transforming these events and the commentary on them into an opera has yielded intriguing results. Muhly appears deeply aware of the (problematic) histories of opera's focus on the suffering and singing of women. Dark Sisters is a work which is intensely focused on both, but also on the power of histories and myths--individual and collective--and on the tense issue of how narrative is controlled, often by men for women. With the first explosive, destabilizing contact with the outside world before the curtain's rise, the music is left to deal with the tensions resulting from, and revealed by, the dramatic event. The music given to the small ensemble (led sensitively by Neal Goren) is strongly atmospheric, and more than a little unsettling. Strings murmur ominously; a solo cello wails. There are strong contributions from grouped and solo woodwinds as well (nice oboe work) with brass only occasional, but dramatically effective. The ensemble also features a harp, a piano, chimes, and a wind machine. One curious characteristic of the opera is that, although the music certainly changes in texture to indicate shifts in mood and atmosphere throughout, there is not a strong evolution in the style of the music to follow the crisis-punctuated disintegration of the community. The precise, poetic libretto of Stephen Karam works symbiotically with the music; it might seem exaggerated or heavy-handed as a play; the music gives it nuance and ambiguity. The nature of the drama works against both dramatic eruptions and strongly individualized voice writing, although the latter does, as it were, break through.

The set was simple, and usually empty, with a raked stage colored like the red Texan earth, and projections depicting the changes in a large and troubled sky. In fine operatic tradition, portents in nature echo the cataclysmic events of the plot; the distressed opening ensemble takes place during a lunar eclipse.  Movements throughout are strongly stylized; changes from this deliberate and limited vocabulary of physical expression signal trouble (Rebecca Taichman directed, and made the choreography clear and expressive.) The first act takes place entirely within the household, and within the women's imaginations. In the second act, the opera audience is suddenly a television audience confronted with an all-too-familiar invasive news program. The role of the prodding reporter is doubled with that of the prophet (reinforcing the theme of the male control of narrative, and the breakdown of that control.) The wives grouped together in the interview room were seated on stage; projections were used to show us the probing, interpretation-imposing closeups of the TV reportage as they sang. It is in this scene that the final fracturing of the community begins; when the curtain falls several scenes later, the long-term effects of this fracturing are still unclear.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Che fascino! che accento! Adriana Lecouvreur

The melodramatic plot of Adriana Lecouvreur is easily parodied, but its music is less easily dismissed. With fine and passionate singing, Francesco Cilea's verismo concoction was given vivid life by the Opera Orchestra of New York. Alberto Veronesi led the orchestra with fine feeling for the energy and emotion of the score. A brisk pace and light touch in the first and third acts, especially, helped set off the emotional crises in which Veronesi was not afraid to luxuriate (not to say wallow.) There were some issues of clarity, and the orchestra was perhaps, on the whole, a bit loud, but it was a fine performance. The New York Choral Ensemble did a creditable job with the difficult task of being an excitable crowd while in serried ranks on bleachers. The self-conscious historical detail and oft-repeated motifs of the score might have faltered in their effect were it not for the accomplished and emotionally intense performances of the singers. Angela Gheorghiu displayed vocal daring--and temperament to spare--as the titular diva, and Jonas Kaufmann sang the role of her cavalier thrillingly.

If you really feel you need a synopsis of the opera, you can find one here; there's also a handy diagram which sums things up even faster. Adriana's theatrical colleagues acquitted themselves respectably enough. Craig Hart, once fully warmed up, was a convincingly autocratic prince, if not a particularly threatening one (his role suffers somewhat in concert, as it usually involves a considerable amount of stage action. The same is true of the abbé; my impatience with the latter is probably due more to role than singer.) Ambrogio Maestri made an excellent Michonnet; the buffo leanings of the role were minimized in his warm and sympathetic portrayal of Adriana's confidant. His baritone was warm and supple, and he sang expressively throughout, with a poignant "Ecco il monologo"; his Act III admonishment to Adriana ("Noi siam povera gente") I found very moving. Anita Rachvelishvili gave a spirited and forceful performance as the Principessa di Bouillon. The size of her voice was impressive, and her diction was good, but she struggled with intonation problems throughout the evening. Still, her dramatic commitment was fierce, and she had good chemistry with the other principals.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Udite, udite: Richard Tucker Foundation Gala

In his opening remarks on Sunday evening, Barry Tucker thanked the loyal audiences of the Richard Tucker Foundation Gala who made the concert a tradition. From the comparatively cheap seats, I enjoyed it for the first time, (upgrading from the Foundation's free citywide concerts.) The all-star lineup had undergone some serious shuffling in the weeks and even days preceding, but I had no reason to complain of the final results. Angela Meade was feted as the Tucker Award winner, and surrounded by colleagues of international stature (Opera Chic provides additional background.) The chosen selections relied more on star power than subtlety for their success, but the latter was not wholly lacking, and the former was often a delight. Members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra provided sensitive support, playing with fine energy throughout under the leadership of Emmanuel Villaume. Their opening bacchanal from Samson et Dalilah was played with panache, employing sensual rubato in the woodwinds and embracing the clashing of brass and cymbal with gusto. After this orchestral prologue, the evening was turned over to the singers. The program seemed to be organized more around the singers' need for rest than around shared themes in the selections, with occasionally curious results. The overall quality, however, was high.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Se vuol ballare: operatic histories of the French Revolution

Verily, Gentle Readers, opera follows me around, even into the fastnesses of the library. I have been spending the past week immersed in the historiography of the French Revolution, and uncovering some intriguing aspects of opera history in the process. The eighteenth-century opera house was a theater of political representation and an arena for political debate; the disappearance of the ancien regime glories of Lully and Rameau were precipitated more by changes in public mood than changes in musical taste. The public debates over the style of Gluck vs. that of Piccini were as heated as more overtly political disputes (if not quite at the level of the mid-century querelle des bouffons.) The 1774 premiere of Iphigenie en Aulide caused furor not only because of its style, but also because of its subject matter. (Go here to hear Clytemnestre defy the authority of a king and father.) Piccini's rococo dramas were immensely popular. His Italian style, however, was decried by those who wanted natural simplicity and national character in their music. Here an excerpt from Piccini's 1760 work "La Cecchina, ossia la buona figliuola:"

As seen in the above clip, the opera flirts with social transgression despite the subtitle: La Cecchina, a sweet-tempered maidservant, is in love with a marquis. Shall their union be prevented by class boundaries? Fortunately not... as she turns out to be the daughter of a baron. Rousseau himself penned a musical drama entitled Le Devin du Village, extolling sentiment and simplicity. Gretry, meanwhile, was quoted with inflammatory effect at a military banquet, where an aria from Richard Coeur-de-Lion ("O Richard, o mon roi") was sung in commiseration with Louis XVI at "the universe being arrayed against him." And so, indeed, it might have seemed to be. The much-touted changes in mentality which facilitated the social revolutions of the end of the century find eloquent utterance in Mozart. After years of defying tyranny in opera seria, Mozart has Figaro kick over the cart, with a little help from Beaumarchais:

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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lieto evento: Anna Bolena at the Met

The modern performance history of Donizetti's Anna Bolena has been defined by its divas. For its first performance at the Met, Anna Netrebko took on the titular role and made it her own. David McVicar's austere, imposing sets worked to keep the drama moving inexorably forward. Having experienced his smart, sexy Trovatore, and admired his Salome, I was surprised by the extent of its traditionalism. Still, it was sleek and mostly unfussy, and Personenregie seemed solid (I do wonder how many of Anna's dramatic moments may be attributed to the director, and how many to the diva.) The Met orchestra were on excellent form, and Marco Armiliato's conducting was supportive, if not electrifying. There was much fine singing--notably from Tamara Mumford as Smeton--but Netrebko was without question the strongest presence.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dolci e bei momenti: snapshots from the Met gala

The Metropolitan Opera season has officially begun! Let joy be unconfined! Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor (to quote Groucho Marx in "A Night at the Opera.") I've been humming Donizetti for the past twenty-four hours, and may not come down from my opera high for some time yet. Last night's Anna Bolena was a great occasion: there was the frisson of feeling that one was part of an Event; there was the sense of homecoming accompanying the "firsts" of the season: approaching that facade, seeing all the familiar front-of-house faces, and climbing all the stairs before settling into the standing room places at the top of the Family Circle; and most importantly, there was a heck of an opera performance. But before I get to writing up the performance, here are some snapshots of the audience.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Allons, allons, accourez tous: Lully's Atys at BAM

Les Arts Florissants. Photo (c) Pierre Grosbois
At the conclusion of Wednesday's performance of Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, I was standing in the last row, clapping and shouting to express my delight and my gratitude; but I might as well have been silent upon a peak in Darien. My only previous acquaintance with Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera (Really Shameful Confession) had been through Les Arts Florissants' 1987 recording. Experiencing the ensemble's live performance of the work was a revelation. The device of employing the sumptuous decor and costumes of the ancien régime made sense of the opera's masques and dances, and its earnest debates on love and reason, tyranny and freedom, duty and desire. The magic of the evening, though, lay in the miracle of its coherence: orchestra, singers, and dancers together created an elegant, expressive performance.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Opera and religion: assorted thoughts on Nabucco

Persian warriors depicted on the Ishtar Gate (Pergamon Museum, Berlin)
I apologize, Gentle Readers, if it seems less than gracious to emerge from blog silence with such a weighty topic in tow. But here I am, seething with thoughts! Nabucco being one of the first operas on the Met's fall schedule, I thought it was high time I got to know more of it than "Va, pensiero." I did so thanks to a musically brilliant performance from La Scala, under Muti, with Renato Bruson as the titular king, and Ghena Dimitrova an astonishing Abigaille (DVD.) The production was a curious (if undeniably, even excitingly grand) affair, with costumes and decor appearing to be inspired by Assyrian art and architecture, possibly descriptive passages from the Old Testament, possibly medieval representations of biblical scenes, possibly nineteenth-century Orientalist fantasies, and almost certainly Star Trek. The cumulative effect was visually stunning; the architecture, especially, was gorgeous. But there were huge amounts of exploration not being done. It seems to me that, even before discussing possibilities for complicating Verdi's drama, acknowledging the ambiguities and complexities inherent in it would be a herculean task for any director. If you feel like bearing with me while I mull over some of these ambiguities and complexities, Gentle Readers, read on!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Damrau, Thielemann, Strauss: Poesie

My expectations of Diana Damrau's most recent recital disc were stratospherically high. Damrau is a singer whose technique and musical intelligence I admire, and here she is partnered by none other than Strauss-specialist Christian Thielemann leading the Münchner Philharmoniker. At first listen, I was a little disappointed; the rich detail and intense passion of Strauss's lieder did not come through with the clarity I expected. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say "in the manner I expected," since more, and more attentive listening led to a revision of this judgment. Not all of the songs come through with equal individuality, in my opinion, but Damrau's security of phrasing and excellent diction keep them on a firm footing throughout. With Thielemann and the orchestra I cannot find fault; dynamics and tempi were handled with nuance and insight. Indeed, Damrau and the other musicians seem on this disc to do the reverse of tearing a passion to tatters: subtlety and restraint allow the rich intensity of Strauss's "miniatures," as Damrau calls them, to shine, perhaps differently than the listener expects them to.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dov'è eravamo? September miscellany

September is upon us, Gentle Readers, and with it the return of additional academic responsibilities.  This autumn will be the second half of my preparation time for the oral exams for which I have been studying throughout the summer. I'm also teaching two classes, full to bursting with students who need to acquire skills, and who I hope will acquire some enthusiasm for the subject. I know, it's nothing to do with you... except that all this activity will probably result in a somewhat pared-back blogging schedule. The other possibility is that I will go slightly insane and attempt to take refuge in my familiar rituals of attending classical music events, resulting in a frenzy of emotionally overwrought responses to same. Stay tuned to find out what happens! In any case, I'll be enjoying the glorious golden weather and the autumn fruit, and I hope you'll be able to do likewise. I'll take this opportunity to note that subscribing to posts in some form (whether by RSS feed or following the blog) will save you the trouble of checking back for posts that aren't here. For now, though, Gentle Readers, I leave you with Keats and Rilke, and one of the few lesson scenes in opera which does not involve disguises and/or crazy hijinks.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mistress, Queen, Romantic Heroine: The Many Roles of Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn: 16th century portrait
Anne Boleyn has proved as fascinating to posterity as she was to Henry VIII.  Scholars and dilettantes, poets and painters, have been fascinated by the second of the (in)famous English king's wives, the first to be executed... and that after accusations of plotting regicide, and committing adultery with no fewer than five men, including her own brother.  The subject is temptingly sensational, as a glance at a list of fictional works concerning the unfortunate queen demonstrates. The debates are virtually inexhaustible: how credible did the charges against her have to be? were they only a means to a desired end? desired by whom? I won't pretend to answer all these questions, but in honor of the 1 month countdown to the Met Opera's season opening performance of Donizetti's opera (I'm excited!) I present a brief summary of Anne's political and posthumous career.

Among the many historical inaccuracies of Donizetti's thoroughly Romantic opera, perhaps the most striking is the unanimous sympathy expressed by the chorus of courtiers for the queen herself. In actual fact, the factionalism of Henry's court was lively, bitter, and, in some scholarly interpretations, the chief cause of Anne Boleyn's downfall and eventual death.  During the years of Anne's favor with the king (longer than their marriage) members of her family and their allies were granted influential positions; such influence attracted envy, and in the years of Anne's uneasy position as Henry's mistress, it would be all too easy to claim that the king's judgment had been led astray by his passion. Even after her marriage and accession to the throne, even after the death of Katherine of Aragon, there were those who persistently referred to her as "the Concubine." What of Anne herself? Much ink, scholarly and otherwise, has been spilled in attempting to analyze her character and her motives. I personally find her more credible as player than pawn.  In fictional accounts of her story, naturally enough, legal innocence has been equated with good character, the definition of which is, of course, relative.   Modern novelists have read between the lines of her story to find a vivacious heroine whose attempts at self-expression and self-assertion brought her downfall.  For the Romantic movement which influenced Donizetti, however, she was a heroine of a very different sort.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mozart's Sister: sharing a room with genius

Based on the above trailer, I suspected that René Féret's film "Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart" (U.S. release under the title "Mozart's Sister,") might be a bit predictable, even a bit cheesy. But it also seemed to promise gorgeous costumes, elegant filming, good music, and a title heroine defying early modern gender role expectations. So when it arrived in NYC this past weekend, I went to see it with a friend. In many ways, I was pleasantly surprised; the narrative was more carefully constructed and nuanced than I was expecting. And it was a lovely film to watch: the quotidian detail was nicely handled, the color palettes evocative, the acting subtle. Still, I found it less than satisfying. Its story is of course largely speculative, but as Virginia Woolf wrote at the outset of A Room of One's Own, fiction may contain more truth than fact. What I found irksome was the apparent difference between the story the film seemed to me to be telling, and the story it seemed to think it was telling.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Getting to Glimmerglass: notes and photos

The first thing I noticed about the Glimmerglass Festival, I noticed sometime before getting there: it's in the middle of nowhere. More precisely, it's in the middle of rural New York, reached by a succession of two-lane roads meandering through a succession of small towns. The program explains that the opera house (built in 1987, a little more than a decade after the festival's inaugural season) is located on farmland donated by a late chairman of the Glimmerglass board. The program also emphasizes the festival's local roots and ongoing local connections; I'd be interested to know how large the audience catchment area is, as it is quite a trek to get there, and not directly accessible by public transportation. If the festival is building its success off a primarily local audience, that's fascinating in itself.

Now, if one has the means and leisure to make Glimmerglass the centerpiece of a vacation, it is an awfully nice spot in the middle of nowhere. It's almost directly on the shore of Lake Otsego, and the somewhat self-consciously quaint, but still charming Cooperstown, is only a few miles removed. A post-opera stroll along Main Street (where Zerbinetta and I crossed paths with several other audience members) revealed the Cooperstown specialties to be bed-and-breakfasts, baseball, and ice cream. This being dairy country, the ice cream was great. Also tempting is the presence of a nearby brewery. Obviously I don't have the means or the leisure to do a Glimmerglass weekend, but although getting there was a hike, the festival does offer a 50% student discount on tickets.  Now, a half price ticket is my kind of offer, and I don't think it's too widely taken advantage of; I suspect Zerbinetta and I may have knocked a few decimal points off the average age of the matinee audience.

Photos and more:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Medea, aspra ben tu punisci

Medea, Euripides' brilliant, brutal drama, has been adapted as an opera more than once, and no wonder. Here's the plot: Medea is a sorceress, of royal and divine blood. Aphrodite makes her fall in love with Jason.  Medea helps him complete a series of impossible tasks, marries him, and flees her country with him; they end up in Corinth. Here, Jason takes it into his head to marry the king's daughter. Medea, feared and ostracized as a barbarian and sorceress, pleads the justice of her cause in vain. In revenge against the faithless Jason, she kills his bride. Then, she kills the children she bore him: to save them from a worse fate at the hands of her enemies, or to punish their father... or both. Luigi Cherubini's 1797 opera has orchestral passages of tempestuous foreboding, confrontation between Medea and Jason crackling with the threat of violence, tense political drama in her pleas to the king of Corinth, and a great scene with the chorus invoking the gods' blessing on Jason's new wedding, while Medea demands of the same gods their aid in accomplishing her vengeance. Although Medea is given passages of anguished inner debate about the fate of her children, the orchestra is busy foretelling doom. It all ends with the entire chorus being terrified and ineffectual (hey, it's based on Greek drama, what did you expect?) and portents in heaven and on earth.

The last performance in this year's run of the opera at Glimmerglass did not quite capture this sense of fateful urgency and human anguish. For a start, there was the production. There was one unit set with sliding doors at the back and some geometric shapes to liven things up. A serpent alluding to Medea's earlier deeds twined across the doors, and the sun hung prominently in the sky on the backdrop. The Golden Fleece, once brought in by the Argonauts, hung in the center in a rather ominous manner (here a golden helmet with rams' horns; vague memories tell me this may be based on scholarly research/speculation, but it's not in Graves.) The Personenregie was hardest on poor Glauce (the second wife); it turned her into a hapless creature with fewer brains than a sheep, easily distracted from her forebodings and sense of guilt by shiny things, and prone to giggling with a gaggle of maidservants. This made me more than a little angry; it undermines the suspense of wondering if Glauce will take the robe and crown of Apollo which Medea has poisoned, diminishes the tragedy of Glauce as a struggling, sympathetic character, and adds scenes of implausible giggling.

Then there was the business of classical allusion. If you know that Medea is the granddaughter of Phoebus Apollo, then the sun which marks the passage of time, and ends bloodily eclipsed, adds a layer of drama; otherwise, it seems a bit pointless (or this was my assessment, having remembered about halfway through that Medea was descended from the sun god.) Then there are the Furies. They first appear at the finale of Act I, darkly shrouded women wearing Medea's costumes for Acts II and III, respectively. This could be an interesting way of engaging the debate about whether the characters are driven by fate or their own choices, and pointing to the complexity of Medea's personality, but I didn't think it was very clearly developed. They spent a lot of time standing around being darkly shrouded. And there were only two of them. A quick Google search surely could have established that the Erinnyes, or Eumenides, or Furies (they are called all three in the libretto) are three, and that they specialize in driving people mad, aggressively. If not snakes and a scourge, could we at least have had some scary face paint and menacing gestures? But I'll end this rant and get on to the music.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tosca: La cosa bramata perseguo

Il convegno: Hempstead House
The Tosca I attended on Saturday evening was the first performance in the North Shore Music Festival's inaugural season. I enjoyed myself  immensely; the performance was passionate, but my reasons for estimating the evening as a rousing success are external as well. The audience seemed to consist primarily of couples and families who had chosen to attend for the sake of a nice night out at the venue; to judge by the response to the pre-performance question, few had seen Tosca before. Several I spoke to (and more I overheard) were attending their first opera. And to judge by the applause, they loved it. I was fascinated by the concept of going for new audiences with what struck me as a proposal harking back to the nineteenth century: come out to a stately home, have a nice meal, socialize with neighbors and peers, hear world-class music. I was also fascinated by how well it worked. That it did so was, of course, substantially due to the quality and passion of the performance.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mozart, Beyond: "Jupiter" and Vesperae Solennes de Confessore

Iván Fischer, in a recent interview, offered the following paradoxical definition of Mozart's work: that it lies beyond categorization. This might seem closer to platitude than analysis, but I found myself pondering it as I reflected on Tuesday night's performance. Sacred or secular? Transcendent or exuberantly earthly? Under Fischer's baton, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra approached Mozart's music without an ounce of false reverence, and created a thoroughly involving performance. This was my first time hearing the "Ave verum corpus" in a concert hall. Fischer waited for the audience to settle into (relative) silence before beginning. The orchestra and singers from the Concert Chorale of New York gave an inward, passionate performance. It may be a piece of less than five minutes' duration, but it's a gem, and I was grateful that it wasn't tossed off as a prelude to the body of the concert. (It's one of my favorite "Music at Communion" pieces.) Fischer kept his baton raised to preclude applause, and the organ played during the choristers' withdrawal. We were allowed a few moments of silence and refocusing for the magnificence of Symphony No. 41.

For magnificent it was. Fischer led with unflagging energy (I couldn't help but grin, watching his enthusiasm,) and the orchestra responded in kind. The first movement was propulsive without seeming too weighty, the different sections playing off each other delightfully. Its energy built steadily to the climax; again, a generous pause preceded the transition into the andante. Here, too, I felt the orchestra found the fullness of emotion at the heart of the movement without over-indulgence or caricature. The third movement was splendid without being excessively stately, the contrapuntal glories of the fourth were magnificent, celebratory, festlich... and the whole was more than the sum of its exquisitely composed parts.

I confess to not knowing the Vesperae Solennes de Confessore well; on this hearing, the work seemed to me a gorgeous example of Mozart's talent for making a piece a stronger example of its genre by pushing that genre's boundaries. Fischer led the orchestra in a detail-rich account; tempi were brisk, but not rushed. The Concert Chorale (directed by James Bagwell) contributed confident, responsive singing. The soloists (Lucy Crowe, Helen Karloski, Brian Dougherty, and Scott Wheatley) not only contributed fine individual work, but the colors of their voices blended very nicely in their ensemble passages. This was my first chance to hear Crowe live, and I was most impressed. She had sweet, secure sound, and exhibited impressive control in the agile coloratura demanded by the "Magnificat" as well as the more lyrical, more famous "Laudate Dominum." The triumphant "Amen" was a joyous affirmation. We applauded heartily, and were sent out a little more hopeful than we arrived.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Don Giovanni: A torto di viltate tacciato mai sarò

The man, the myth, the opera: approaching Don Giovanni is no easy task.  But "approach" is too timid a verb for what the Budapest Festival Orchestra did with Mozart's monumental, genre-challenging score, here performed in the Prague version. Under the baton of Iván Fischer, the BFO's interpretation was characterized by brisk tempi and forceful dynamics. The score's humorous touches were handled deftly, but this reading emphasized the passionate seriousness of Mozart's work. Especially noticeable to me in the strings was a fearless romanticism, unexpected but very welcome. From my balcony seat, there was a balance issue from time to time, but with an orchestral performance this full-blooded and thrilling, I minded hardly at all (and less, perhaps, than I should have.)

Budapest, Palace of Arts/Zsuzsanna Peto
Jessica Waldoff, in Recognition in Mozart's Operas, has called Don Giovanni the most "discussed, deliberated, and disputed" of Mozart's operas. Elsewhere, Andrew Steptoe observes that Giovanni "ranges from transcendent demonic hero to trivial philanderer, and critical opinion has been equally divided." The staging of the festival performances, designed by Iván Fischer, acknowledges the ambiguities of the work: actors, clad and painted in white, shaped their bodies to define the set and to become props, as well as serving as dancers and chorus. According to Fischer, this choice was made to represent the realm of the opera from the central character's perspective: Don Giovanni's world is defined by bodies; I thought this minimalist approach worked very well. The lack of scene-changes kept the pace of the drama relentless, its episodes clearly related in logical, inexorable succession. The action of the piece is quite literally set in motion when the seducer, clad as an adventurer in a black cape, tips a statue reminiscent of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne onto the Commendatore, fatally wounding him. Another advantage of the staging was that it diffused the potential for skepticism at the Commendatore's appearance ("It's only a white costume/makeup...") Quite obviously, that is not the point. When the Commendatore does at last appear, the impossible apparition is composed of all the actors, who had previously formed Don Giovanni's chair and dinner table; his entire society, his entire environment, is arrayed against him.


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