Saturday, December 13, 2014

Meistersinger at the Met

As Wagner's only comedy, Meistersinger is the thing that is not like the other things in the Wagner canon. Where the other operas present a variety of strange and damaged relationships that easily transcend their 19th century trappings and feel immediately relevant, Meisteringer (at least on its surface) trades in a bunch of dated patriarchal bullshit. While one might be able to dismiss a lot of the ahistorical reasons that Meistersinger makes us uncomfortable, you're still never quite sure how invested you are in this story about someone's boring pretty daughter and the 16th century dudes that alternately want to hit it with her and/or offload her. With any luck you get distracted by the glorious score before going too far down that rabbit hole.

So I was pleased at how truly moving I found last Tuesday's installment of the old Schenk production, currently getting a final airing before Herheim's Meistersinger arrives in 2019. Seeing the thing live for the first time, I really got just how much everything turns on the depth and complexity of Hans Sachs, and in German baritone Michael Volle (who shares the role with JMo for the run) the Met has a truly great interpreter of this role. Volle, who had his Met debut in Arabella last year (which I missed for some stupid reason), offers an eminently watchable, relentlessly intelligent Sachs, at once melancholy old man, sarcastic grump, and serious thinker. Not to mention the voice is always sure and beautiful--despite such a punishing stretch of singing he never slipped into the wooly sound that tends to plague Sachses.

OK. So you have an insightful, penetrating Sachs, there are full size old-timey German houses on stage, and the chorus and orchestra sound great. Now you want better Evas and Walthers too? I've seen this production taking some flack for Johan Botha and Annette Dasch as the young couple, and while not entirely wrong, let's not get greedy. Also, let's admit that part of the problem is comparing this outing to the widely distributed 2001 incarnation featuring Ben Heppner, arguably the greatest Wagnerian of his generation in this rep, and Karita Mattila, world's greatest singing actress, in some awfully decadent casting.

Here's what I want from an Eva and a Walther: voices. I want a Walther that applies a real big voice to the priddy songs and serves up a nice generic level of heroic in the rest. I want an Eva who can handle the demands of the part with ease, especially her quintet stuff, while avoiding that mewling quality that reminds you what a drip that character is. So maybe Annette Dasch is like a really top of the line 50s era Eva who mostly stares blankly and gets led around by the orchestra. And maybe Johan Botha's scenes with Michael Volle remind one a bit of what it would look like if Daniel Day Lewis did a movie with Rob Schneider. So what. Botha sounds great as he bangs through the Preislied, launching that big bear of a voice up the staff and coming away with consistent W's. Dasch has the perfect light, ever so slightly pinched timbre for Eva, and sounds lovely in the ensembles.

The rest of the cast offers much to appreciate as well. Paul Appleby, last seen on the Met stage in Nico Muhly's Two Boys, delivers a bright and affable David, while Hans Peter Konig is an ideal Veit Pogner. The orchestra and chorus, so integral to this behemoth, sounded wonderful. Levine's work stood out in the brought profound beauty and thoughtfulness to the finale, as well as the third act prelude, though early slow pacing did not help with Meistersinger's draggier bits.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Florencia en el Amazonas at WNO

WNO opened its season this past Saturday with Daniel Catan's 1996 opera, "Florencia en el Amazonas," a sort of riff on the stories of Gabriel Garcia Marquez by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain. Fresh off her acclaimed Elektra at the Proms, Christine Goerke starred as the titular mysterious opera singer in a production directed by Francesca Zambello, previously seen in Los Angeles.

Some might carp about this being "easy" contemporary opera but the appeal of Catan's music is undeniable. The shimmery textures alternating with soaring lyricism make one think of Debussy, or at least all the really money parts of Debussy. But the music always manages to keep our attention without devolving into the syrupy.

The libretto follows the individual issues of the passengers of a river boat en route to a rare recital from the fabled singer. Florencia, on board unbeknownst to most of the passengers, pines after a lover who may be lost in the jungle; Rosalba (Andrea Carroll) a writer who is obsessed with the singer, yearns to finally hear her and gets involved with the captain's restless nephew (Patrick O'Halloran); the captain (David Pittsinger) tries to straighten out his son; and unhappily married couple Paula and Alvaro (Nancy Fabiola Herrera and Michael Todd Simpson) are trying to reconcile their differences.

The promised Gabriel Garcia-Marquez-isms abound throughout the piece, most notably in the character of Riolobo, a sort of omniscient Amazon trickster character who narrates much of the action. Riolobo is a great device, establishing from the outset that this show won't devolve into the kind of cinematic literalism that is often a ticket to dullness for contemporary opera (See Trag, Am). Recognizing the inspiration behind the meandering pace and quirky story beats certainly helps, but its unclear if the story works because the ticks are familiar to us or because the libretto really succeeds on its own terms. A clunky Act I finale, in which the principles reiterate their motivations to minimal dramatic effect amidst a storm on the river, suggests the former might be the case. But if some of the stories feel phoned in, others achieve moments of real poignancy, like the unexpected reuniting of the married couple. But these are mostly thoughts that come later. The important thing is that Florencia nevers feels labored--more or less, the libretto manages to match the diaphonous textures in the score.

And of course, all of this is moot when Christine Goerke starts singing Florencia's glorious music. Catan has written a truly great showcase for the dramatic soprano here, with two stunning set pieces anchoring the beginning of the first and second acts, plus a Liebestod-esque finale. Goerke took some time settling into the punishing first aria, with a few rough placements here and there, but once she hit gear, she excelled at her usual mesmerizing standard. Supporting cast was strong all around--special shout out for Patrick O'Halloran's bright energetic tenor in the roustabout captain's son role.

The production is attractive if frustratingly literal at times. The action takes place on a huge "realistic"  steamboat which turns on a stage revolve to reveal different rooms and scenes, with attractive projections showing the progress of the Amazon and adjust with the position of the boat. A set of dancers, perhaps unnecessarily dressed as Amazon "natives," represent Piranhas, waves, logs, etc. Carolyn Kuan led a persuasive account of the score from the WNO orchestra.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

More Glimerglass 2014: An American Tragedy


To recap: An American Tragedy premiered back at the Met back in 2005 as the opera world was still reeling from Carl Sagan's Romeo and Juliet. A Volpe-era commission from composer Tobias Picker and librettist Gene Scheer, the Met gave it an impressive launch, with a big Broadway style production (directed by Zambello), and an aughties all-star cast of American singers: Nathan Gunn (in the bathing suit that launched a thousand Arts & Leisure puff pieces), Pat Racette, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick. I was into it.

Cut to 9 years later: Zambello has brought a streamlined version of the piece back to Glimmerglass for a welcome second hearing with a strong cast of young singers. On the plus side--there's still a lot of engaging material here, even without the splash of the first production. On the other hand, the limitations are clearer this time around--and perhaps insurmountable in the long run.

The great promise of "AmTrag" is Picker's music. Not sure what label you would put on it--perhaps something like "lyrical minimalism"?--but in any event it does a great job of depicting the dread-filled emotional landscape of the story, while maintaining the capacity for displays of great emotional power by the principals, for instance, Roberta's scorching material in the end of Act I ("Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyde Marry me Clyyyyyyyde"). Set pieces like the church scene, in which Roberta's effort to publicly confront Clyde is woven in with the congregation's hymn, and Clyde's mother's gripping aria that carries the finale further demonstrate Picker's skill. Yet while I was again pleasantly taken with the depth of the music, its hard to ignore that the troubles of the libretto.

It's just all so relentlessly...literal. The cinematic/epic Broadway-style approach to the story spawns an endless procession of discrete little scenes that dutifully spin out the plot, but nothing really happens during any of them. The major revision in this version, the removal of a series of opening expository scenes with a childhood Clyde, seems to be trying to compensate a bit for concerns that the show doles out a lot of plot at the expense of drama, but I fear it's not enough.

The big showpiece arias in the first Act--Clyde's thing about fast cars and Sondra's "New York has Changed Me"--are prime examples of how poor a job this libretto does at finding dramatic incident worthy of the kind thoughtful melodrama Picker/Scheer seem to want to write. Both fall flat, unable to gin up much interest with material that does little to give us more insight into the characters than we've already gathered. If Scheer allowed Clyde a moment to wear his heart a bit more on his sleeve, perhaps reveal to the audience a bit more about his sociopathic lust for ambition that will lead to his later amoral acts, we might be engaged, but instead we get seven minutes of the non-surprising information that this social climber thinks nice cars are good. One emotional punch that did land cleanly was Roberta's heartbreaking material at the beginning of Act II, when she grows increasingly distraught that she has been abandoned by Clyde. Her text here is done as though she is reading letters she has written to Clyde, and in part I think it works better because of the easier marriage between emotional content and declaration that Scheer allows himself for this conceit.

The production, directed by Peter Kazaras, is spare and effective (clearly they blew their wad on that big light up barn map of NY state for Ariadne), though the spartan approach on some things, like the drowning scene, made one fondly remember the clever big budget version from the Met. The three main principles, Christian Bowers (Clyde), Vanessa Isiguen (Roberta), and Cynthia Cook (Sondra), all members of the Glimmerglass Young Artist program, offered a skillful reading of what is surely a difficult score. Isiguen deserves special praise for bringing a compelling sound and notable stamina to that character's punishing scenes. Patricia Schuman, playing Clyde's mother made a solid go at this role, so unforgettably sung by Zajick in the premiere, but it is clearly a tall order for any mezzo without Zajick's unique upper extension, and Schuman had a rough time in her upper register.

Kudos to Zambello and Glimmerglass for revisiting this work, which surely deserved the additional hearing that the Met canceled at some point. While my enthusiasm was certainly more measured this time around, Picker deserves continued support and the show, with its juicy principle roles and Americana source material, ought to be a consideration for American companies looking to produce tested, accessible recent work.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Glimmerglass 2014: Ariadne auf Naxos


Headed to Cooperstown last weekend to catch this year's Glimmerglass productions of "Ariadne auf Naxos" and "An American Tragedy," my first trek to the festival since performances of "Jenufa" and Stephen Hartke's "The Greater Good" way back in 2006.

Ariadne, and more specifically, the glory of Christine Goerke fresh off her breakout Met season, was our real reason for attending, and while Goerke didn't disappoint, the production made sure you had to wade through a lot of dreck for the pleasure. As you may have gathered elsewhere, this production, helmed by festival head Francesca Zambello, presents the entirety of the Prologue, as well as the commedia dell'arte portions of the Opera, in one of those zany English "adaptations" that try to "connect" by inserting modern local references and a bunch of punchline driven humor. 

Now, I'm not uniformly opposed to this sort of thing--a liberal English adaptation can be a nice way to occasionally present opera for children and/or newcomers, salvage otherwise hopelessly dated/uninteresting material (Fledermaus), or just have a little fun with a property that has assumed untouchable warhorse status (Zauberflote). But Ariadne? Hugo von Hoffmansthal hasn't even been in his grave for 100 years and its already cool to just mess around with his very careful, deliberate work as you see fit? Especially when its still a fair bet that a large majority of audience members at any given show are seeing the work for the first time? I'm not trying to be the purity police here, but it felt very, very wrong.

But good taste wasn't the only casualty here. Ariadne's virtuoso vocal writing is very carefully married to its German text, and forcing the singers to shoehorn a clumsy English libretto into Strauss' soaring lines resulted in a jumbled mess musically. Catherine Martin seemed to have the right stuff for a solid Komponist, but it was more or less impossible to judge, as the tin-eared adaptation robbed her Act I finale of any of its natural momentum. Martin did her best to scavenge what she could from the text, but where the finale should send you off to intermission swooning with anticipation for Act II, we were left bitterly nursing our discontent. If not quite as big a trainwreck, the crueler loss was "Großmächtige Prinzessin," or, as it will now forever be known in my head, "Don't THINK Me Disrespectful..." (!). The chances that a summer festival like Glimmerglass is going to serve up a great Zerbinetta are pretty slim, which is fine--Rachele Gilmore ably took on all of the parts challenges and supported it with a lively stage presence. But again, I'm loath to judge anyone wrestling with the thornier problem of how to make endless bars of devilish coloratura work while singing the word "surrender."

And its even more of a shame because this perfectly serviceable production would have been fine otherwise. Sure, the overall concept (wealthiest man in Vienna's house = barn in upstate NY, har, har) is a tad cutesy and indulgent, but hey, its August--they are allowed. Zambello has concocted a raft of effective, frenzied stage business nicely suiting the prologue, and the Opera hits all the right notes with moments of lyrical beauty as well as great jokes in the troupe-Diva interactions. Another choice--to have the composer read as a woman wearing trousers rather than a woman in a trouser role--is a great option for modern dress productions and should be more routine.

What else? Bacchus (Corey Bix) had a robust but not terribly pleasant sound (sort of a curdled thing going on), but to his credit he maintained stamina and sailed through the bits where prettier Bacchusses often run aground. The Glimmerglass orchestra, which sounded lovely the following afternoon, was rough throughout Ariadne for some reason. Poor coordination in the strings, frequent misfires in the horns and an overall thin squeezebox sort of effect added to the musical problems onstage. The first half or so of the Prologue also seemed to plod dreadfully, though I'm not sure if that should be chalked up to the conducting (by Kathleen Kelly) or discomfort with the unfamiliar timing required by the new book.

OK, after throwing all that shade, it is worth remembering why we came. La Goerke was in marvellous, thrilling voice for the Diva--the kind of sound that finds you in your bad place, perhaps brooding over poor directorial choices, plucks you out of the muck, sits you up, and makes you forget all your misgivings. In the little Glimmerglass barn her voice was vast, hard to contain, stomach butterflying. Moreover, this Ariadne was a great opportunity to appreciate what a natural stage creature she is--she carried a significant portion of the comedy in the Opera, delivering hearty laughs with skillful execution of her assigned funny business (which this show really needs to balance all the faux laughs that come out of the extended troupe stuff).

Next up, AmTrag...



Friday, January 31, 2014

Sigh

A bit late to the newest iteration of this old party (via Lisa Hirsch). There has been solid slagging all around, but after sufficient hole poking in the "classical music is dead" premise/arguments, the real question that emerges is: why do people love trolling classical music so much?

As much as some people would have you believe, the classical music story doesn't fit so neatly into a story of obsolescence and creative destruction. Classical music isn't the horse drawn buggy or chemical film development--its consumers are purchasing an experience from which they derive psychic satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, and sure, in some cases vindication of some pretty corrupt politics. The point is, culture lives in a world with the laws of supply and demand, but that doesn't mean its bound by the most reductive version of that story.

I mean, this seems like a pretty clear distinction, so why do we get "... is dead" articles instead of "state of ..." articles? I blame liberal self-loathing--the same kind of action that keeps David Brooks in business. The bait operates on two levels. The first is the classic case, the liberal who really doesn't care about classical music (which is fine!) but who occasionally cultivates their inner 17 (or 33) year old ready to throw anything overboard that hints at the establishment or the rich. The second is the actual classical music listener, who, conditioned by years of rightwing conditioning and centrist positioning, secretly questions the legitimacy of their latte-drinking and volvo driving preferences. Denigration of their pleasures and cultural touchstones is the price of living in a blue state after all, so just chuckle politely and take your medicine.

As far as clickbait goes, this can be annoying, but we're all mature enough to suffer a little angst while reading the internet. The bigger issue is that this imaginary debate sucks the air out of real coverage of a sector of the economy and the culture that actually matters to a healthy portion of the culture-interested classes of major cities. Slate readers are the kind of people that live in big cities, peruse the culture pages in their local papers, even cross paths with their music institutions once in a while--but instead of a letting a million Slate pitches blooming about what really makes orchestras sound good we get this tired garbage designed to get readers' goat.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Goerne and Eschenbach play Schubert

After kicking myself for two (?) years for having missed the Matthias Goerne/Christoph Eschenbach Winterreise in favor of choir rehearsal or some other garbage, this evening's rendition of Die Schone Mullerin offered some long-awaited relief. My only live experiences with Goerne thus far have been in the context of large scale symphony concerts. While no doubt rewarding given his always thoughtful singing, these outings have generally been marred by a pushy-shouty edge that just doesn't jibe with that molten voice one knows and loves from his recordings.

Rest assured, nothing of the sort was at issue in the Terrace Theater tonight. Goerne in Schubert, live, in an intimate space, is pure lieder-magic. That special velvety voice surprises again and again with its sound, but its never beauty for the sake of beauty. Goerne delivers these songs with a staggeringly complete level of emotional detail, each coming alive with such varied and specific feeling that the hour plus of music feels like it passes in 20 minutes. What's more, he digs deep into Schubert's complicated psychological portrayal, bringing out the miller's melancholy and passion, but his simmering resentment toward the object of his affection, too. Schubert draws an uncanny portrait of the wrathful "nice guy" that is all too familiar to internet users of today, and Goerne evokes this with disturbing clarity.

There will be some griping about Eschenbach as partner, as his contribution isn't that CD-quality smoothness we expect from recital pianists. He smudges stuff here and there, and some of the more challenging passages teeter dangerously close to breakdown. But I'd take what a lesser-rehearsed Eschenbach serves over the alternative every time. Together, he and Goerne deliver a level of emotional and dramatic consistency between voice and piano that one rarely gets to hear in recitals where the pianist is focused on being the dutiful accompanist. There was a vivid quality to this reading where we usually get one dimension, and that is due to Eschenbach's great musical intelligence and his constant search for those truthful moments that bring us closer to the emotional core of the piece.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

I Masnadieri at WCO

I Masnadieri, Washington Concert Opera, September 22, 2013
Walker; Thomas, Oropesa

Well, thanks to the GOP I have a lot of time on my hands right now so thought I'd go back and finish this post about the first of the two Verdi rarities WCO is doing this season, I Masnadieri, from last month...

The libretto, from a play by Schiller, doesn't make for a very good opera, but, set to a lot of solid early-mid period Verdi, it is at least bad in interesting ways. It's not that I Masnadieri's forgettable principals have so much more personality than beloved stock characters elsewhere, but here we find them systematically shorn of that choice or relationship that makes for compelling drama. Love interest Amalia stands steadfastly by her man Carlo even though he's rashly started rampaging with the bandits, but up until the surprise stabbing ending, this really seems like the noble choice. Carlo himself seems like a better bet, but his tragedy turns on his shame in joining the bandits, who, with their campy choruses, seem about as threatening as those South Pacific roughs. His failing father, Massimiliano, might have driven home this shame point, but unfortunately they don't have a scene together until late in the play, when a bewildered Massimiliano (having been imprisoned in a tomb by the evil brother) doesn't even recognize Carlo as his son. As for that evil brother, Francesco, we get three acts of unmitigated mustache-twirling and then, out of nowhere, comes a compelling monologue about dreams of hell signifying some sort of burgeoning guilt, but our window of interest is long past. It makes one appreciate the skill with which a piece like Trovatore takes similar raw materials but delivers an immortal potboiler instead.

The evening's Carlo, Russel Thomas, offered the evening's greatest vocal attraction--a big swashbuckling sound that provided pleasure throughout Carlo's solid if not terribly memorable numbers. Only real point of reservation were some unrefined sounds in his piano singing. Lisette Oropesa was perhaps the best known name onstage given her growing list of Met roles (though I think I've only heard her Woodbird via HD). The sound is distinguished and highly controlled with a bit of astringent edge, capable of blossoming wonderfully in the top of the voice. She made handy work of the role's coloratura components, though more admirable than effortless. Mind you, its hard to imagine Amalia's cumbersome opening aria, written as a showpiece calling card for Jenny Lind, coming off much better.

WCO offered a fine array of lower-voiced men to round out the cast, all of which deserved praise, including Scott Hendricks as villain Francesco, Hao Jiang Tian as the unlucky father, and a short but memorable turn by Solomon Howard as the priest who denies Francesco absolution.

Maestro Antony Walker made an excellent case for many of the work's constituent parts, particularly the ensemble closing the first act. The WCO orchestra followed him dutifully through some ambitious tempi that really showed off the momentum Verdi creates, marred only by a few brief moments of fuzziness for the strings. While the choral parts ultimately tend to detract from the overall thrust of the drama, high props must be given to the group assembled here, particularly the men, which kept the precision and musical values high through a great deal of material, including a particularly challenging extended a cappella chorus.



Sunday, September 22, 2013

Because the Night...Tristan at WNO

Tristan und Isolde, Washington National Opera, September 18, 2013
Auguin; Theorin, Storey, Bishop, Rutherford, Schwinghammer


Well, DC's love affair with Phillipe Auguin shows no signs of abating if this past Wednesday's Tristan und Isolde (the second outing of this run) is any evidence. Auguin and the WNO received probably the biggest applause of the evening and it was well deserved, too. Again and again, Auguin found that Wagner sweet spot, maintaining a constant momentum while never noticeably shortchanging that critical stillness where needed. The WNO orchestra sounded gorgeous throughout, save, oddly, some pitchiness on a few of the solo violin parts.

The production, from Opera Australia, is straightforward but handsome, keying primarily off the first act's ship deck but abstract enough to serve for the other locales. There is a water feature, which is nice, but the finest moments came with some of the lighting effects, which brilliantly illuminate the monochrome set at choice moments, for instance, a spectacular sunrise for the end of the Act II duet. The blocking is restrained, allowing a focus on the music. The staging of the prelude, however, in which Isolde enters with Tristan early on, only to nap through the next 7 minutes or so, seemed like the worst kind of counterproductive prelude staging, where the audience was teased with enough stage action to distract from the music, but then given nothing of substance to make it worthwhile.

Deborah Voigt's cancellation had a happy ending, as the DMV got another chance to hear Irene Theorin, one of the heroes of WNO's memorable/infamous Gotterdammerung: In Concert several years back. She duly dominated Act I, with a thrilling conclusion to the curse narrative. Others may excel in sheer beauty of sound, but Theorin's solid, passionate sound ensured the big moments of Act I soared as intended.

While the orchestra remained in top form, the Act II duet was less successful vocally, with both Theorin and her Tristan, Ian Storey, encountering balance issues with the pit. Where Theorin's challenges seemed most likely a bit of miscalculation, Storey's limitations felt more fundamental. At forte, within a limited band, he turns out a great sound in a sort of rough and tumble Clifton Forbis mode. But getting traction on the delicate piano dynamics of the duet was a challenge. Getting this passage to fulfill its potential in real time always seems tremendously improbable, and this performance was no exception--significant effort notwithstanding, the magic didn't really click until shortly before the final climax. Baritone Wilhelm Schwinghammer offered a compelling Koenig Marke to close the Act. (Wagner skeptic friend at 2nd intermission: "That was the best part! At least he had some good points to make...")

While not ideal for Act II, Storey acquitted himself admirably in the great Act III sequence for Tristan, providing his scarred, granite voice providing a durable, effective vehicle for Tristan's madness. James Rutherford contributed a particularly sympathetic Kurwenal. Unfortunately, the castle invasion sequence ended up being a bridge too far for this intimate production, with clumsy handling of the scores of knights. I'm sure there's a production out there that gets this right, but how refreshing would it be to have this moment staged as a spasm of really cathartic violence instead of a string of slightly doofy opera fights? Great closing Liebestod from Theorin.

A winning night overall, and what a delight to start the season with something meaty rather than, say, warmed-over Tosca!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wagner Bicentennial Peeps Diorama

Stop what you are doing and go vote for our Die Walkure-inspired peeps diorama on the Washington Post website:



For the record, Chereau, Wieland Wagner (an anti-peep diorama), and Zambello (for some local flavor) were considered as other jumping off points, but the team reached a compromise to not be complete nerds, and we went with kitschified Schenk.

Vote early and often!

Update: A few more pics, full gallery here. Here's Wotan waiting just off stage to lay the smack down on Peephilde...


The orchestra...


And still hanging around beneath the stage are some of Nibelungen, and just offstage above is a very melancholy looking Peep-glinde...


And here's some more detail of the audience:



Saturday, March 16, 2013

Manon Lescaut at WNO

So, before I get into the show itself, I must admit to being an in-house Manon Lescaut newbie. While seeing the thing staged didn't exactly make me a convert, I definitely have a better appreciation for where its virtues lie, especially when the indomitable Pat Racette was making the case.

Her success was perhaps slightly tempered by a somewhat middling cast around her--one was more or less biding the time til she opened her mouth again--but surely a success nonetheless. The part sits beautifully in her voice, and the audience sat in rapt attention at the delicate shading she brought to each of the big moments, not least of all her "Sola, Perdutta, Abandonnata." That said, there's certainly room for her to take the character deeper--there isn't too much breathing space between flighty and somber in that second Act, and Racette hasn't quite thread the needle on how to make the whole thing click, while the desperation of Act III was credible but not quite distinctive yet.

Her Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev, delivered a big beefy sound where it counts, but inconsistencies plagued the rest of his performance. He had an awfully rough time getting started, and once there still managed to frequently slip into muddy intonation and choppy support. A limited bag of FX and sense of nuance also meant the arias were pretty static. Though credit is due for his work in Acts 3 and 4--his palabale anguish and ringing upper register made for a fine partner to Racette and the Le Havre/Louisiana desert sequence resonated in a way that the Act II reunion did not. (Though to my newbie vantage point, this scene feels generally problematic, with the audience poorly set up to sympathize with the lovers in the absence of any other material showing Des Grieux and Manon in love, something Massenet's iteration does quite well.)

Musical values were reinforced by Philipe Auguin in the pit, who delivered a warm, precise reading of the score and brought the best out of the WNO band. As his sophomore year draws to a close, Auguin's presence on the podium continues to guarantee an evening of high musical interest.

This revival is the work of director John Pascoe, who also brought us the fall's very effective Don Giovanni--unfortunately both dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities feel muddled here. Making sense of the 19th century values that drive the Manon story is a challenge for thoughtful modern productions of either of the great settings, and with obstacles like the leaden coquetry business in the first Act, this challenge should not be underestimated.  Yet these questions are really central to how the work is presented: how should we engage the "fallen woman" narrative? What does our sympathy for Manon and ostensible identification with Des Grieux mean? How do we understand the character's choices relative to the male authority figures which shape and bind her path at every step?

Pascoe doesn't offer many clear ideas on these fronts, but rather seems to actually dig in around a deliberately non-inquisitive reading. Take for instance the cloyingly nostalgic device of a Disney-enchanted-castle size piece of parchment paper upon which Des Grieux' narration from the original novel appears, which splits apart to reveal each scene, and sometimes closes halfway to frame one of the key arias (props where due--the last is an effective choice). Watching Puccini's great personal statements for Manon delivered, literally, through the prism of Des Grieux' pen is the kind of setup another production might have a field day with, but alas, I think here we are supposed to take it at face value.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

New Parsifal at the Met

Caught the final night of the new Met Parsifal last Saturday and will add my voice to the chorus that has rightly praised this production's thoughtfulness and superior musical virtues. After the debacle of the LePage Ring, the Met really needed to prove it could still do right by Wagner, and with this show, they have unquestionably shown that they can.

The cast speaks for itself, bringing together some of the finest exponents of these roles available today. Kaufmann's unique baritone-flavor tenor brings a very different color to the music than the traditional blazing heldentenor sound, which aligns nicely with the bleak sobriety of the production. Pape's Gurnemanz is pretty much the gold standard, of course--listening to that unceasing outpouring of lush legato you can only pity whoever has to eventually step into his shoes. Dalayman was loud and awesome, as is her wont, even if Act 2 didn't quite catch fire the way it did last time with Waltraud.

But the revelation of the evening, at least for me, was Peter Mattei's Amfortas. Mattei's rich, urgent sound and beautifully precise realization of this part has, I think, permanently banished Thomas Hampson as the default Amfortas I hear in my head, and for that I thank him (and no, I don't really mean that as a burn on Hampson, whose Amfortas is a reminder of all the good things about him and very few of the bad, but it's just been way too long since I got excited about Amfortas, you know?) To boot, Mattei offered a searing physical performance the likes of which one rarely sees in the opera house, a testament to both his acting chops and the direction.

As for the production by Francois Girard, it gets some big things very right and at least one thing pretty wrong--a success to be sure, but a qualified one...

In Girard's vision, the grail knights inhabit a barren world devoid of any nature or sustenance, indeed of any evidence of the divine save for the magic spear and goblet talismans anchoring their bleak outlook. The knights spend most of Act I hunched in a tight, insular circle, a symbol not of equal brotherhood but of society feeding on itself incessantly. Moreover, while there are more women than usual in this grail zone, they are pointedly segregated upstage, suggesting that the all-male society of the grail is more a symptom of its sickness than its purity. These are simple gestures painted on a simple setting, but Girard deftly evokes a sense of utter spiritual deprivation.

Given Parsifal's affinities with science fiction, one is tempted to see this wasteland as a post-apocalyptic landscape or some other exotic locale. Yet Girard tells us plainly that the world presented on stage is a metaphor for our shared society. As the prelude begins, we see a black reflective surface dimly displaying the auditorium, which lifts to reveal the cast in rows mirroring the audience in their seats. Sure, the pat "these characters are...YOU" moment can be heavy-handed, especially when introduced as a reveal to stoke some point of cognitive dissonance. But the intention is honest here--simply informing the audience of the parameters of the interpretation presented.


The problem really lies with Act II, which places Klingsor and the flower maidens in a shallow pool of blood somewhere below the parched grail landscape, and is meant to represent a journey into the actual wound of Amfortas. Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities has an incisive critique of the situation here:
Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.
OK, this is going to get a little real, but I would go even further and argue that the images Girard plays on by staging Act 2 "in the wound" actually makes for a disturbing affirmation of the work's most retrograde tropes. By staging Kundry's seduction in a pool of blood, on a pristine white bed which grows progressively soiled with blood, Girard has realized Parsifal's rejection not just as a rejection of lust in the name of empathy for Amfortas, but as a moment of visceral body horror. Following this logic, Amfortas' wound is the "wound" all women have, the wound from which all sin originates, and the font of unnatural blood that serves as the evil counterpart to the blood Jesus shed on the cross to redeem man from that sin.

Now, in another production, one might be inclined to read this as an attempt to reveal and reject those tropes, as meta-commentary on the disturbing gender politics which run through how Parsifal is constructed and received. But I'm skeptical that that level of commentary is in this production's DNA. It seems more plausible that the no-doubt inspired gimmick of going INSIDE THE WOUND was too good to pass up and the full ramifications of that choice were never really reconciled with the more subtle ideas that the topside acts play around with.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don Giovanni at WNO

Late to the party on this one too, but WNO gets retroactive props for the Don Giovanni it presented in its second foray of the season. I know it's a bit unfair to compare Anna Bolena's pretty tunez and reasonably interesting characters with the unending parade of WIN that is Mozart's masterpiece, but let's hope it is this production, and not the prima, that is the harbinger of things to come this year.

WNO offered some exceptional Mozart several years ago, in the Figaro directed by Harry Silverstein*, and this production shares many of that outing's virtues: strong singing, a charismatic ensemble, and direction that gets the human scale and humor of Mozart's comedies just right (for the purposes of this good-feelings review, let's forget the irretrievable lameness of last year's Jonathan Miller Cosi).

Directed by John Pascoe, this Don Giovanni makes a strong case for the Donna Elvira-led interpretation, portrayed here by the great Barbara Frittoli. Mostly clad in a sort of superhero get up comprised of tall boots, trenchcoat, and corset, the production foregrounds the tension between Elvira's clear agency as an individual and her lingering attraction to the Don--a complicated mix of sexual desire, sympathy, self-sabotage, and self-sacrifice. Basically, it's Don Giovanni as proto-Buffy**, though the older work is definitely the darker one. Whereas Buffy's tortured love for her vampires turns on the status of their souls (complicated in the case of Spike by his "mimicry" of a soul due to the chip in his head), Donna Elvira can't be so sure. Mozart and DaPonte's Don never reveals the slightest shred of a soul--he is utterly un-self aware, almost an animal. Elvira's love for him is entirely her own invention, yet the deepest, most heartfelt demonstration of feeling in the entire opera--we are left to to wrestle with the fundamental irrationality of her actions as well as our empathy. A throwaway gag in this production, that Elvira is actually carting around the Don's child, was clever but served as a distraction from this richer point.

Fine portrayal aside, Frittoli's voice is perhaps not what it was in her recent prime. Her first appearance, "Ah, chi mi dice mai," was compelling but not entirely comfortable, though thankfully this seemed to be a warmup question--by the time "Mi Tradi" rolled she was in exquisite control. The strength of the women in the cast continued with Megan Miller's Donna Anna, who brought a lot of excitement to the role's considerable demands. Finally, we had the wonderful Zerlina of Veronica Cangemi, who, despite a bit of a rough start with that brutal entrance, turned in sexy, beguiling renditions of both "Batti, batti and "Vedrai, carino" that were a highlight of the evening (could have done without some excessively vulgar business assigned to Masetto during these numbers). Regarding the men: Ildar Abradzakov delivered just about everything one needs in a Don, from lusty virtuosity in the patter numbers to the requisite bear-croon in the seduction songs. The other standout was tenor Juan Francisco Gatel, offering nuanced, finely crafted versions of "Dalla Sua Pace" and "Mio Tesoro," while driving home Don Ottavio's earnest dullness (Gatel's relatively small size besides Megan Miller's statuesque profile in glamorous evening dresses seemed a fitting look for this pair).

WNO music director Phillipe Auguin was a welcome sight in the pit for this production, and quickly banished thoughts of a somewhat routine overture with a beautifully felt performance that allowed his singers to make the most out of their respective turns.

*Somehow I missed this at the time, but back in the day I was in the children's chorus for a string of operas he directed for DePaul University's music school!

**Sorry, don't fight it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Anna Bolena at WNO

And no, I did not miss Anna Bolena, though it is gone now. For the record, Radvanovsky did not disappoint in arguably the starriest turn of a WNO season resting heavy on its diva cred. Her distinctive sound is always a pleasure in my book, and that built-in sob she has is a natural ally for Donizetti. Unfortunately, the whole thing never managed to catch much fire thanks to a variety of shortcomings that outweighed some not inconsiderable positive qualities.

Perhaps the first mistake was not allowing for some regular cuts in the opera (specifically in the final scene for the tenor, so Downey tells us). Not saying the whole uncut business couldn't be compelling (different strokes and all that), but it would require more dramatic firepower than this cast or production had at its disposal. Radvanovsky, despite her musical virtues, is not always a dynamic stage presence, and coming at the end of a long night, her priddy but static final scene had the audience restlessly casting about for someone to enter with the axe already. When Anna Bolena feels considerably longer than the intermission-less 4.5 hours I spent in Einstein on the Beach the following evening, ur doing it wrong.

Sonia Ganassi, whom we enjoyed quite a bit in Werther last year, was a standout among the rest of the cast, with a flexible, urgent sound that provided a Seymour that was a worthy counterweight to Radvanovsky's Bolena, though the potentially explosive duet scene stopped somewhere in the neighborhood of admirable. Mezzo Claudia Huckle also shone in the trouser role of Smeton, the court musician who pines after Anna.

As far as the men are concerned: I assume I heard Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria in the role of Percy since there was no B-cast and I don't recall an insert (I saw the 9/21 show), but I'm having a hard time reconciling the general praise elsewhere with what I heard--a respectable but pedestrian voice for most of the evening, certainly a notch below the tenor obtained for Lucia last year, and one which ended up demonstrating significant strain by the time the final prison aria rolled around. Points for Oren Gradus, as Henry, for being the only one onstage who seemed to really throw himself into the staging choices--vocally he was solid throughout but his honey-less tone is a bit of a chore in this music.

But the chief strike against the evening was the production, directed by Stephen Lawless. There were thoughtful elements here--I was down with the balconies of spying courtiers, though not sure if the allusion to the Globe in the set design was clever or just convenient--but on the whole it was fairly hideous. The vast expanses of cheap unfinished looking wood, liberal use of antlers, and wan, unfocused lighting evoked nothing so much as a 5th generation Williamsburg bistro several weeks before opening. Yikes.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Jupiter Quartet at the National Academy of Sciences

After a two year hiatus, the magical auditorium in the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue is presenting concerts again, starting with today's program of Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms from the Jupiter Quartet. The ceiling of the auditorium, a giant shell composed of 240 separate panels which maximize sound distribution (more at the link) makes for an incredible chamber music venue that preserves the warmth and immediacy of the instruments with remarkable clarity throughout the hall. The only problem now is the criminally meager season of concerts available to the public--what the frack do we need to get a piano up there already?

The Jupiter offered a charming romp through the lead-off Mozart (K. 575). This is the kind of playing that makes me reconsider my general apprehension about live Mozart chamber music--simple (or so it seems) and casual, yet utterly seamless, and still controlled and fast enough to maintain a sense of urgency. Especially in the final Allegretto, where the players trade lines in an increasingly intricate sort of game, the Jupiter demonstrated the joys of Mozart played with almost an improvisatory sensibility, never succumbing to that dull heavenly metronome business, which is death. A stunning performance of the Bartok first string quartet followed, a rich, aching Lento followed by a muscular Allegretto, and the whirlwind finale, where we finally get a view of that unmistakable Bartok sound.


The Brahms in the second half (the String Quartet No. 1) was, as usual, something of a letdown. (Maybe its me?) The group seemed to be having trouble getting the balances right to bring out the interplay between voices that gives the piece its structure, and for long stretches we just got a lot of Brahmsian-sounding mush. The Brahms-pummeling tendency was not as strong in the Jupiter as it is in some folks, but it wasn't entirely absent either, and the relentless speed made it hard to tell whether the final impression was enlightenment or just exhaustion. Points for beautiful work in the Poco Adagio movement, though.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Shadows and Prog

If you haven't already, you really ought to read Dave Weigel's 5 part rumination on the movement that was progressive rock in Slate. Besides many fun anecdotes about the genre's crimes of absurdity, the story Weigel tells about prog's ultimate rejection and marginalization seems useful for our purposes here. Prog was, after all, the great attempt to use the materials of rock in the service of music with "classical" ambitions--a rejection of the 3 minute pop song in favor of composed, large-scale formats, greater rhythmic and melodic complexity, and subject matter that delved into abstract and spiritual concerns. Moreover, prog often explicitly aligned itself with the classical tradition--Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's debut LP includes substantial material from Bartok, Janacek, and Bach. In the 1970s, these references weren't so foreign to British (and American?) teenagers and 20-somethings.

Weigel lays some blame for prog's mainstream demise at the feet of prog itself, for tempting self-satire as bands sought to outdo themselves in weirdness and inaccessibility, and some more at the homogenizing tendencies of the music business, which eventually realized it didn't want to be in the business of providing FM real estate to the occasional half hour transcendental opus. But he also points to the viciousness with which rock tastemakers turned on the genre in favor of the primitive sounds of punk. Punk's own merits aside, prog seems like a clear victim of a pop chauvinism which classical enthusiasts are sure to recognize.

Now before anyone gets upset, let me emphasize that I'm not trying to get into some old pop vs. classical nonsense, and anyhow, no one beats the last several hundred years of the Western classical music establishment in the chauvinism department. But rock music does have a peculiar self-limiting hangup here, and one that seems cruelly at odds with both the natural maturation of artists' ambitions to try bigger, more challenging things, and audiences' interests in being challenged themselves. Let's just say there's a reason the "rock opera" stubbornly abides as an aspiration, no matter how the forces of cynicism and coolness may disparage it...