Friday, August 31, 2012

Ah che piatto saporito! Eating near Lincoln Center

Trifle in a big bowl! The happy diners of Albert Herring
I’ve been asked often enough for recommendations of dining establishments to visit before or after an evening at the Metropolitan Opera that I really don’t know why it’s taken me this long to put together a post on it. You should know, in surveying it, that I’m a happily omnivorous graduate student, frequently facing the prospect of killing two hours between the distribution of rush tickets and the raising of the chandeliers. Hence, I’m likely to pass over a number of choices that might seem obvious to more affluent gourmets, or visitors in the mood for a treat, in favor of more modest Hell’s Kitchen spots. With this caveat, then, Gentle Readers: here are a few of the restaurants I happily patronize on the nights I don’t take a picnic in my pocket.

Italian Warhorses (special caveat: this is an incomplete list in several ways. I happen to live in a neighborhood where I can get excellent Italian on the cheap, so my knowledge of these restaurants is small, and my praise commensurately reserved.)

Terrazza Toscana: here the lighting is soft and the wine list good. The ingredients are good, and there are a number of vegetarian options.

Puttanesca: This place is a little more modern in feel than the Terrazza, with standard recipes spiced up in the details. 

Fiorello’s: The Beloved Flatmate and I stumbled in here after this Tosca performance. That I remember very little about it is doubtless attributable to my emotional state at the time; the pasta was warm and comforting.

Vive la France

Just opposite the Met is a stable of establishments run by Daniel Boulud. Bar Boulud is sleek and romantically lit and not really for graduate student budgets, but its menu is tantalizing and its desserts downright thrilling. The Epicerie Boulud is a very welcome addition: its location makes sprinting across the street in time for the curtain a stress-free prospect, and its menu options are both exciting and affordable. The pre-made sandwiches, hot and cold, are tasty (the sausage merguez is a favorite) but choosing generous slices of pate and pointing to crusty breads is even more fun. If you're feeling extravagant, you could get a tiny slice of opera cake to take along for an interval treat.

Chez Napoleon: The presence of this family-run establishment, on 50th St. just off 9th Avenue, is betrayed by a battered sign with the emperor’s iconic hat on it. A reservation might be advisable if you have your heart set on vichyssoise. I don’t think it’s impossible to go wrong with this menu (and the prix fixe is good) but the vichyssoise stands out.

Landmarc: French-American may seem like an odd, if not a sacrilegious hyphenated cuisine, but here it actually works. The salads are excellent, the steak good, and the caramels that arrive with the check addictive.

Seville and beyond

Thursday, August 23, 2012

La Divina Discounted, and other news

I have a collection of late summer miscellany for you, Gentle Readers! The first piece of news you may already know, but it's good enough that I feel justified in passing it along just in case. In these weary days of clinging and lingering summer, EMI is giving opera-lovers a treat analogous to the fruit merchant discounting your strawberries and throwing an extra quart in for good measure: lots of Maria Callas for 99 cents (sic.) Puccini, Rossini, and Donizetti are each well-represented, with justly famous arias alongside lesser-known assumptions (not only both of Liu's arias, for instance, but also "In questa reggia." Do not mess with this Turandot.) The quantity and variety of the Rossini and Donizetti serve as a reminder of just how much bel canto Callas did. There is also a surprising-to-me quantity of French opera: not only Gounod's Faust, but Berlioz's, not only Carmen, but Charlotte (the letter scene.) Just don't listen to it all at once, or I won't be answerable for your emotional state. Have a glass of ice water to hand, or something. Two vaguely connected anecdotes: the first time I heard Callas sing "Senza Mamma," I called my mother, who became instantly convinced that something was terribly wrong as she could tell I'd been crying. Also, this collection comes recommended by the fact that even before I heard about it from EMI, I'd heard about it from an opera acquaintance I ran into downtown at Dialogues. Update: it appears that this offer is open only to those in the US. My apologies for any hopes vainly raised, Gentle Readers.

Meanwhile, the always-dangerous Arkiv Music is offering up a bumper crop of temptations with its Summer Clearance Sale. There are abundant recital discs cheaply priced: for $7 you could have, for example, a disc's worth of Pavarotti singing verismo, or Bryn Terfel singing Handel, or perhaps English art songs (text! so much glorious text!), or a compilation of Thomas Quasthoff singing lieder (don't hesitate to clear out the stock, Gentle Readers.) Mysteriously large numbers of Cecilia Bartoli and Roberto Alagna discs are available, as well as Placido Domingo singing operetta-ish ballads (hey, why not?) There is also so much Beethoven on offer (Uchida! Pollini!) that one might easily become overwhelmed and just get a giant Box of Beethoven. What about Schoenberg's Gurrelieder featuring Jessye Norman and an et al that includes Troyanos? Then there are operas! Lots of operas, most of them at about half of their usual price. I did mention, didn't I, that it was dangerous? Excitingly, I do get my first paycheck in months at the end of this week... which means that, once again, the academic year is upon us. As ever, I'm torn between a feeling of ticklish elation and vague foreboding. Soon, all too soon, I will be surrounded by a pile of student papers and several empty tea mugs, whimpering faintly about comma splices and sloppy logic. I already have my first event of the opera season bookmarked, though:

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

From Bach to broken branches at Mostly Mozart

I loved the performance at the Mostly Mozart Festival I attended last night, not just because it allowed me to bask in a perfect late summer evening and pretend that the academic year was still only a distant shimmer on the horizon. The pieces given were loosely linked by the influence of J.S. Bach on his successors (so the program note); what composer, I might ask rhetorically, has not been influenced by Bach? This could perhaps include the evening's soloist, Stephen Hough, who gave the New York premiere of his own 2010 sonata, "broken branches," in what the program called a pre-concert recital. (I have conflicting feelings about the format of this. I hope it might tempt in some audience members wary of new music, but it also seems to savor faintly of making such works wait around in an antechamber before being formally received into the canon, and the status of main event. Your thoughts on this, Gentle Readers, are welcomed.) The sonata itself I found emotionally involving and evocative. Consisting of linked sections within a single movement, it alludes to Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path" and to John 15. It is hardly too much to say that any composer's note referencing a sixth-century Latin hymn is guaranteed my intellectual enthusiasm. Melodic themes were rearranged, fragmented, questioning each other, eventually emerging through tempests of glissandi to a quieter inquiry that floated off the upper end of the keyboard into silence. Striking throughout was not only the precision of Hough's playing but the variety of colors he drew from the keys. It's quite the week of faith and doubt in music for me!

The evening continued with Bach--foremost composer, perhaps, of faith and doubt--in the form of Mendelssohn's arrangement of JSB's Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major. Andrew Manze led the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra in a performance of considerable beauty, if not brought as close to the bone as Bach can be. I especially appreciated the liveliness with which the dance movements were shaped, giving their dignified progression an appropriately festive feel. The famous air in the second movement was played with affectionate engagement by concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini.

Following this, Mendelssohn's piano concerto no. 1 was given with surprising and welcome impulsion from the orchestra and Mr. Hough. No too-restrained mannerism here: swift tempi and dynamic give-and-take made this a performance that felt unusually lively and spontaneous. I was, again, struck by the precision of Hough's playing, and his gift of emphasizing the turn (or return) of a musical phrase with a slight shift in volume or tone. Generously, he gave the enthusiastically applauding audience an encore, making Liszt's Träumerei simultaneously more delicate and more profound than I had imagined it as.

By this point, my companion and I were thoroughly pleased... and we hadn't even gotten to the Mozart! The Jupiter symphony was given with verve that did nothing to undermine its nobility. The strings were notable for their use of dynamic nuance, and the cohesiveness and energy of the ensemble were both admirable. The playful woodwind solos, too, were delightful. This performance was Manze's Mostly Mozart debut, but he seemed to have a fine rapport with the orchestra. With the exception of a few cell phone offenders and early leavers (who are these people?) the audience seemed to be engaged as well, hardly sounding consumptive at all, and heartily applauding at the evening's close.

Sneaky photos of post-Mendelssohn bows. Note how happy everyone looks!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

On ne meurt pas chacun pour soi: Dialogues des Carmelites

Ensemble, Act II. Photo (c) Dell'Arte Opera

Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites is a work that I love: its structure is (to me) something of a marvel, its music is gorgeous and gripping, and its characterization, both through the music and the libretto, is brilliant. I was delighted, therefore, to hear it live for the first time, performed by the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. (Information on further performances is here, for all the rest of you complaining about the tragic brevity of the Met's run in spring.) With limited resources, they gave a performance notable for the commitment of its principals. Dell'Arte's orchestral forces were small, but sensitively led by Christopher Fecteau. The brass was afflicted with wobbles, but the ensemble as a whole did a fine job of sustaining dramatic momentum. Sets and costumes were minimal, but Victoria Crutchfield's direction was thoughtful, with the choreography of the nuns representing the tensions within their common life, as well as the affections and habits that bound them together.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Viva la liberta: Don Giovanni at the ROH

Keenlyside as Don Giovanni.
Photo (c) Catherine Ashmore
I confess I approached the DVD of Francesca Zambello's Don Giovanni for Covent Garden with some skepticism. For one thing, I wasn't sure how Zambello would handle a work of Don Giovanni's density. For another, I had trouble imagining Simon Keenlyside's assumption of the Don. Keenlyside is an accomplished and intelligent musician whom I've been moved by in a number of roles... as thoroughly nice, if not actually self-sacrificingly noble characters. My skepticism, however, proved unjustified. It takes a little time for Zambello's directorial perspective to become clear, but the story that she has Mozart's opera tell is an interesting one, with the three women as joint protagonists with the Don himself. (This works surprisingly well.) And Keenlyside, in addition to singing with elegance and gusto, created a thoroughly amoral Don: cunning and exuberant, and boundless in sensual appetites (until the curtain calls, when he gave his Leporello an impromptu bear hug and helped the frail Sir Charles Mackerras on a step created by the sets. Niceness will out!) That said: the production may judge Don Giovanni too charitably, and I may judge the production itself too charitably, having been recently bored and bored again by Michael Grandage's kitschy creation for the Met. These caveats in place, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed it. More subtle visual cues could have helped put across more precise ideas, but the casting was very fine, Mackerras' conducting was a joy, and the singers were admirably committed to portrayals of their characters specific to Zambello's concept.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Son noto nell'universo: Elisir d'Amore on DVD

Adina and Nemorino (Ekaterina Siurina, Peter Auty) at Glyndebourne
I confess, Gentle Readers, to suffering from late-summer doldrums. There's comparatively little opera being performed in the city, and there's a great deal to be done before the academic year recommences. I'm trying to pretend, though, that the regular season is almost here, and directing my pursuit of opera on DVD to productions of operas featured by the Met in their upcoming season.  First on my list as on the Met's, then, is Donizetti's charming comedy L'elisir d'amore (incidentally a good antidote to the doldrums) in Annabel Arden's production for Glyndebourne in 2009. The production updated the setting to the 1930s, but without affecting the dynamics of the action considerably: this is still a rural community where Adina is just enough set apart, by class and education, to be intimidating for the likable farmhand Nemorino. The soldiers are Mussolini's blackshirts, but (disturbingly to me, as well as disappointingly) the production doesn't seem to have much to say about what this means. I could understand a directorial choice that showed class solidarity between the enlisted soldiers and the farmhands as overriding or mitigating the potential danger from the fascist state, but I didn't see that happening here. By far the most interesting (not to say the only interesting) feature of the production was the treatment of Dulcamara, here accompanied by a mute, tattooed, top-hatted assistant (James Bellorini.)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Reading List: Parsifal

I discovered Jim Krusoe's Parsifal serendipitously, while browsing along the shelves of the local library. Intrigued by the title, I picked it up; having picked it up, I put it down as little as possible before finishing it. I've been picking it up at intervals ever since, wanting to savor particular phrases, or remind myself of how certain revelations are sequenced in the narrative. The tone is imperturbably absurd, and Krusoe's style is allusive, irreverent, and expressive; the prose is studded with small, pleasurable surprises. Our hero, the holy fool, navigates a world where few events are easily explicable, yet transcendent meaning seems to hover not too far out of reach. I laughed aloud more than once at such gems of sentences as: "In other words, Parsifal thought, How would you like it if your place of residence was encircled day and night with a ring of dead and judgmental Aztecs?" I also lost sleep over the darkness and brutality of the book's events, the cumulative effect of which settled in slowly. If you're likely to be inconsolably disturbed by terrible things happening to children, Gentle Readers, I would advise you to proceed with caution. Otherwise, I recommend this book enthusiastically, as an entertaining and thought-provoking work on the power of perception, on good and evil, on spiritual and physical blindness, on the beauty of fountain pens, and on the perils of flying kitchen appliances.


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