Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Nuits d'été and other voyages: Joyce DiDonato/NYPhil

The promise of Joyce DiDonato's "Nuits d'été" drew me to the last in this series of concerts by the New York Philharmonic; I was pleasingly surprised by the vitality of the program as a whole. The sensuality and exuberance of Berlioz and Mussorgsky were preceded by a contemporary divertissement. Steven Stucky's "Son et Lumière" was aptly described by the composer's note in the program as an entertainment. Its textures, defined by glimmering strings and playful percussion, underwent whimsical metamorphoses. On this first listen, I noticed no apparent direction or climax to the piece, which was somewhat disorienting, but it was still enjoyable.

After latecomers were admitted came my main event: Berlioz' gorgeous cycle "Les Nuits d'été," six songs set to texts by Théophile Gautier, and tinged with just enough irony to save the lush romanticism from feeling overindulgent. The orchestra, I felt, could have explored more of the subtleties of the piece, but they did create a beautiful tapestry of sound. DiDonato, to my delight, was alert to both the work's intensity of emotion and the shifts--and layers--of its moods. In addition to radiance of tone and liquid phrasing, DiDonato brought to the songs a sensitive restraint which made the rich orchestration and extravagant language seem only the most suitable ways of communicating intimacy. "Villanelle" unfolded from flirtation to ecstasy; "Le spectre d'une rose" had its sensuous syllables sensually caressed. The dreamy waltz rhythms of the remembered ball were nicely handled by the orchestra, as well. The dark gravi of "Sur les lagunes" were delivered with unexpected authority. DiDonato made this a (self-)hypnotic narrative of obsessive grief, carried on the dark currents of the orchestra. Brighter color returned to the voice for a poignant "Reviens, reviens..." but by the third repetition of this plea in "Absence," its hope was acknowledged as delusory (and I got teary.) By "Au cimetière," of course, the beloved is only a tremulous ghost, a presence less real than the white dove, the yew tree, and the marble tomb. This haunted mood was shaken off utterly for "L'île inconnue"; DiDonato's body language became freer, and the joyously uninhibited fantasies of fresh love were celebrated in her flirtatiously showy description of a boat freighted with citrus, piloted by angels. The orchestra evokes memories of old loves; but the breeze is rising and new voyages await.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

La gente paga: operas and their audiences

Parsifal and Gurnemanz (c) Pach Brothers, NYC, 1903
Whether through reports on peanut-eaters at an early twentieth-century Parsifal or on bean-counters at today's opera companies, debates on how opera is performed and perceived have been much with me of late, most recently via the stimulating community of fellow opera-lovers on Twitter. In a Munich symposium last week, general director of the Bayrische Staatsoper Nikolaus Bachler claimed that he (in implicit contrast to Peter Gelb, also present) showed the public "what they need to see, not what they want to see." That American opera companies are more dependent on private donors than their European counterparts, with often detrimental consequences for artistic boldness, is a much-lamented truism. But does Bachler's barbed comment not present a false dichotomy? The monolithic (wealthy, aged, arrogant) opera audience has never been more than a myth; and perhaps it has never been further from reality than today.

Friday, February 17, 2012

È'un fior che nasce e muore: NYCO Traviata

David Pomeroy (Alfredo) and Laquita Mitchell (Violetta) Photo (c) Pavel Antonov
New York City Opera, now peripatetic, but at least functioning, has started its spring season with La Traviata. The production was tame, the seats were subsidized, and the house was full. Laquita Mitchell led the cast with a spirited portrayal of Verdi's doomed courtesan. Jonathan Miller's production was created in 2009 to be shared by Glimmerglass and Vancouver; in this revival, at least, it was little more than a washed-out backdrop to the events of the plot. Perhaps in part because of patchy and slipshod supertitles, quite a number of first-time opera goers around me were left somewhat confused as to what was actually going on. (To the friend I had taken along for her second opera, I explained during the interval, which came in the middle of Act II, that Alfredo had a sister.) Under conductor Steven White, the orchestra gave a very fine performance, which helped the emotional energy of the evening considerably. The intensely felt passions of the drama were most fully present in the warm strings, the passionate and tender woodwinds, the reckless brass.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The undoing of women? Pasatieri and Poulenc at Opera Manhattan

The ambitious Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre is filling this weekend with a triple bill of dramas for "women on the verge." The project pairs two shorter works of Thomas Pasatieri--his 2007 song cycle Lady Macbeth, and 1980 monodrama Before Breakfast--with Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. As well as being seasonally appropriate (for those who are, like myself, heartily fed up with foil-wrapped chocolates and paper sentiments for February 14th) the program was musically rich, and emotionally devastating.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
I am more familiar with the text of each of the works presented than with the musical settings created for them. The insinuating melodies of Lady Macbeth, sensual and almost jazzy, had me considering Shakespeare's well-known words from a new angle. Sofia Dimitrova created a portrayal of a woman trapped in an unbearable situation, for whom power is an aphrodisiac. Pasatieri subverts "Ye ministers of night, unsex me here" with unmistakably sexy music, which echoes throughout the remainder of the songs, even as Lady Macbeth descends into madness, fighting all the way. Dimitrova's plush, rounded soprano embraced the eroticism of Lady Macbeth's daring the powers of hell and earth to stop her, balanced between confidence and desperation. Even in fixation on her guilt ("All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand") it is far from certain that she is not, still, aroused by the promise of greater freedom implicit in the metallic, vital smell of blood.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ernani: Ogni cor serba un mistero

Verdi's Ernani, a politically provocative opera which enjoyed great popular success in the years following its 1844 premiere, exists today only on the fringes of that portion of his oeuvre likely to be known through performance. The thrilling edginess which Verdi and his audiences saw in the plot (based on a play by Victor Hugo) can be obscured by its manifest implausibilities. But the music is engaging and imaginatively melodic, and Verdi's capability of suiting musical convention to the needs of his drama (and making it bend to do so, if necessary) is displayed advantageously. Pier Luigi Samaritani's 1983 production for the Met tends towards the ponderously monumental, but the cast of the current revival ensures this Ernani is an exciting night at the opera.

I admit to being relatively unfamiliar with Ernani's score, but I was pleasantly surprised by the energy and attention to detail which Marco Armiliato and the orchestra brought to it. Dramatic momentum was admirably maintained, and significant details emerged eloquently. The chorus had restrictive choreography, but contributed solid, vigorous singing, notably in the patriotic Act III chorus, "Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia." Noteworthy was the contribution of tenor Adam Laurence Herskowitz in the role of Don Riccardo, the king's messenger. He conveyed an appropriate sense of urgency to his various announcements, with a clean, ringing sound and good diction. The opera centers, however, on the relationships--intensely personal and inevitably political--binding the four principals.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Operatic duels, showdowns and face-offs

As even I was compelled to notice, there was a sporting event this past weekend which involved many of my neighbors (not to say much of the country) in passionate partisanship. I observed this so far as to take a break from working for the sake of compiling a list of epic operatic confrontations.

Sometimes La Forza del Destino seems to be little more than a string of confrontations, but Verdi saves the most intense for last, when the revenge-breathing baritone tracks down our unfortunate hero.  He's out for blood, and means to have it. Alvaro begs him to be resigned to the misfortune that has pursued them both, but the baritone insults him for a good five minutes, and it all ends with vows of mutual destruction, which Corelli and Bastianini manage to make exciting and menacing despite being planted motionless and not looking at each other:

Verdi's convention of mutual insults culminating in an off-stage duel appears again at the finale of Il Trovatore's first act. The director of this Covent Garden decided to make the duel with steel coincide with the vocal one. This fits the music, but makes the singers have to worry about footwork and ripostes at the same time as some rather demanding music. (Manrico has a mullet, and the smooth-voiced Di Luna seems to be in better physical shape than his gypsy rival... does anyone know if this production was trying to invert the usual audience sympathies?)

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Tragic Women and Sexy Ladies: Susan Graham at Carnegie Hall

The recital which Susan Graham brought to Carnegie Hall last night united a wide variety of moods and musical styles around famous female figures from literature, and a few literary females. From Purcell to Poulenc and beyond, Graham gave vivid life to the personae of the songs. With beautiful legato phrasing and dynamic control, she created a series of emotionally rich portraits, with Malcolm Martineau as her worthy partner. Purcell's "Tell me, some pitying angel," set to the text of seventeenth-century Anglo-Irish poet Nahum Tate, is a richly imagined monologue for the Virgin Mary. Based on the episode where her son, at the age of twelve, is lost (to her) for days in the crowds of Jerusalem, this text has Mary, with some bitterness, meditating on the contrast of this desperate human problem with the grace she had been promised. There is no general rejoicing now, and no angel responds to her cry. Purcell's magnificent musical architecture, and Graham's directness, both in fierce outcry ("Gabriel! Gabriel! He comes not") and interior reflection ("I trust the God; but oh! I fear the child") saved it from religious sentimentality.

Berlioz' La mort d’Ophélie takes as its text the scene depicted by countless pre-Raphaelites: the madness and death of Ophelia, who drowns, singing, amid her flowers. Here, even as Gertrude (the narrator) seems to seek to evade horror in description, the piano creates an eerie and uneasy atmosphere, with harmonies plaintively unresolved. Ophelia's own melody is echoed by singer and piano in turns, until it dies into silence. After this second extended scene, we were given a set created from the Mignon-inspired melodies of six composers (making me think I really should try Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre again.) First, Schubert's "Heiss mich nicht reden," a Lied the apparent simplicity of which belies its haunting beauty. From Schumann's Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister was taken one of the less frequently excerpted songs, "So lasst mich scheinen," which Martineau and Graham handled with admirable delicacy. This restraint was also very welcome in the selections by Liszt ("Kennst du das Land") and Tchaikovsky ("None but the lonely heart.") Graham did full justice to the extravagant sensuality of the former, and the romantic melancholy of the latter, but rather through expressive phrasing and vocal coloration than overt theatricality. The set concluded with two contrasting settings of the same text, Duparc's wistful "Romance de Mignon" and Hugo Wolf's tempestuous, intense "Kennst du das Land." It is to Graham's credit that she explored so effectively the range of possible moods and meanings within the enigmatic verse.


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