Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Rienzi with the National Philharmonic

I was hoping the National Philharmonic's presentation of Wagner's Rienzi this past Saturday would have signaled the end of my Rienzi virginity, but due to circumstances beyond my control I was only able to see the second half. Add to this the fact that the deeply (and wisely) cut score for this concert staging basically constituted a highlights show, and, well, I think I can only claim second base.

Rienzi is perhaps best understood as what would happen if you took Tannhauser and subjected it to the Hollywood producers that give notes on stuff like Fast and Furious 7. There are really a huge variety of interesting musical ideas, and lots of delightfully recognizable Wagnerisms, but any breathing room in the drama has been rigorously excised in favor of nonstop grand opera thrill ride action, an event-heavy plot, and stock characters that leave little to the imagination.

But music certainly worth hearing, especially with the compelling forces marshaled by National Philharmonic chief Piotr Gajewski. The big draw of the evening was Issachah Savage in the title role, who I think its fair to call a DMV favorite, but has also recently appeared in things like the Goerke Toronto Walkures last year. His big irresistible tenor fits beautifully in the Lohengrin/Walther/etc Wagner parts, with enough heft to impress but still sweet and ringing throughout. Rienzi's big 11 o'clock number in the Fifth Act, which recalls the familiar motif of the overture was a gorgeous showcase for his sound and was met with appropriately thunderous applause. Here's his Mein Lieber Schwan. Oh and a little big of his great sounding Bacchus here. You know you want more.

Also notable were Rienzi's ladies--Mary Ann Stewart gave a passionate account of heldentrouseren role Adriano, while Eudora Brown impressed as Rienzi's sister, Irene. They cut that slightly creepy "Shades of Walsungen" scene in the Fifth Act with Rienzi (again, wisely), so by missing the first half I probably missed a lot of the Irene stuff that remained, but thankfully got to hear her soaring contributions in the latter half ensembles. Gajewski led a rollicking account from the Philharmonic and assembled choral forces, delivering what can only be called a crowd-pleaser--something I'll wager Rienzi is not often accused of.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Turandot at the Met

Zerbinetta makes a pretty good case for adding Franco Zefferelli's Turandot production to the list of petty crimes against humanity (say, above Tevas and socks but after the first Transformers movie). And while she's not wrong, it's also important to note that this production is a totally gonzo yet honest version of the opera Puccini and librettists Adami and Simoni created, imbued with all the cross-cultural thoughtfulness 1924 had to offer.

Now that we're all on the same page, here's what I don't want to see when the Met someday takes this production to a field far away from flammable structures and burns it down: some neutral, de-contextualized Turandot that tries to boil it down to the "timeless human story" at its core. I will accept Turandots that try to deconstruct the snot out of the material, and I will accept Turandots that swim around in a 1920s fever dream of the Orient like Scrooge McDuck in his money pit. But I will not accept a Turandot that tries to divorce the material from its cultural trappings.

Look, this isn't some hard and fast decision rule for all Europeans clumsily dramatizing other cultures. Something like Butterfly has its problematic material that any director needs to confront when producing it 100 years later, but there really is a winning argument to be made about why its characters are timeless human portraits that transcend their context. Our appreciation for Turandot comes in spite of the fact that it would be easy dustbin of history material if not for its very considerable musical interest. Modern productions shouldn't get to punt on that.

So, the big draw of this first Turandot tranche (the complete run is being shared with Stemme and Lindstrom as well, plus a bonus Jennifer Wilson evening), was a role debut for our beloved Christine Goerke, following up on her celebrated Dyer's Wives at the Met two years ago and subsequent triumphs in Wagner and Strauss in various North American locales. After a little warm-up cautiousness, Goerke hit her stride and that unique, softly rounded sound poured forth, making for a stunningly warm and musical reading of a part that naturally leans to the strident and brittle. The vocal awe her Turandot inspires owes less to shock and more to how she is able to use that full voice and incredible stamina to keep the musical momentum alive. If there's a tradeoff, it's that she doesn't quite have that terrifying top most people prioritize in their Turandots. Her high note approaches were tentative at times, the results tended to decrease in volume, and felt a bit strained relative to the freedom that characterized the rest of her range. Goerke's second Act scene was suitably authoritative but her third Act capitulation to Calaf's advances was the most compelling, a welcome little touch of humanity amidst all the frantic shenanigans filling the stage. That exchange, sort of a trashy version of the end of Siegfried where you don't care what happens to anyone, got me thinking about sneaking to Houston for an early look at her Brunnhilde #2.

Marcelo Alvarez is one of those singers that gives one a feeling of solidarity; almost of continuity with the past--say, 1985. One likes to imagine walking into some stodgy, big ol' Met revival of a warhorse on any given Wednesday in the 80s of yore and hearing the kind of big, crowd pleasing singing that is a maybe a bit less distinctive than the guys at the top but undeniably satisfying. Yeah, Alvarez' Calaf is basically always shouting and churns out his music in little overexcited phrases, but damn its a great sound, and listening to that big voice tumble through the throngs of chorus and orchestra over and over again just doesn't get old.

Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava was a powerful, passionate Liu, though I'm afraid Liu probably gets the shortest shrift of any character in this production, drama wise. James Morris is still kicking it, bringing some extra polish and pathos to Timur here with his patented Dadsing techniques. Great work as well from the Ping/Pang/Pong trio.

Finally, Paolo Carignani presided over a reading in the pit that exemplified the best kind of controlled chaos possible with that big unruly band. He may have benefited a bit in comparison with the shaggy Carmen last weekend, but his chops and sheer "rightness" of his feel for the music shone through in chorus after challenging chorus whipped into a precise frenzy.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Not Dead Yet/Carmen at WNO

It has been a while I know, but rest assured I have been making all the usual new season resolutions to do a better job of not neglecting this space. And as an added motivation to get back in the game, I was very graciously invited to review the WNO's season opener Carmen over at Parterre Box!

I’ve found myself at a number of Carmen productions over the last 18 months (a Jonas Kaufmann-less Saturday matinee at the Met last spring, a Wolf Trap young artist production, and, most recently, a minimal chorus-less outing in Atlantic City which turned on an affair between Carmen and Micaela), and besides putting me over the annual advisable quota for any particular warhorse, it has given me some time to ponder the current state of the Carmen enterprise...

Check out the rest here!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

St. Lawrence String Quartet at LOC

The St. Lawrence String Quartet presented the final installation in a series of three concerts at the Library of Congress' Coolidge auditorium last night with the second public hearing of a major new work by John Adams (Coolidge, not Luther, whose work was being featured across town at the Atlas), his String Quartet No. 2.

Adams, who was on hand to introduce the piece, has delivered an enthralling, eminently satisfying work that deserves to be an instant classic in his catalogue. Built on two small fragments from Beethoven's Op. 110 piano sonata and a nub from one of the Diabelli Variations, the quartet kaleidoscopes around these bits of familiar information in a richly imaginative procession of ideas. Adams' driving sense of rhythm is always present, animating some edge-of-the seat, feverish passages that dissolve and reassemble these motivic germs at blistering speed in the Allegro molto and the finale. But the Andantino also contains wandering moments of haunting stillness. Of the two occasionally deserved complaints that come to mind about Adams' work--eschewing  minimalist austerity in favor of a playfulness that is fun but forgettable and overindulgence in a slack emotionalism that can overstay its welcome--neither can have any place in an honest evaluation of this earnest, winning piece. The St. Lawrence Quartet made exhilarating sense of the work's intricate details and brought the house to its feet.

The rest of the program was a delightful introduction to the group, which I had never heard before. The opener, Haydn's Op. 33 "Joke" Quartet was brimming with ideas and a welcome refusal to take things too seriously. Obviously kind of a prerequisite given the topic, but even before the well-handled "payoff" at the end, this was Haydn at its most inviting with no trace of portentousness. Meaty second half Dvorak (here the Op. 61 Quartet in C major) can sometimes feel like a chore when the most interesting programming has been saved for the first half, but the St. Lawrence doggedly kept the audience's attention, digging out all the naked Brahmsian beauty on offer in the Poco adagio e molto cantabile. An encore was a final fugue from one of Haydn's Op. 20 string quartets.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Matthew Polenzani in Recital

Matthew Polenzani has been a constant presence at the Met for well over twenty years now, frequently inspiring reviewers to adjectives like "reliable" and "always X" that are no small achievement on the fickle operatic stage. The reasons why the Met and other leading houses around the world keep returning to him, are clear enough: that winning marriage of a light, attractive sound with plenty of ping, volume capable of filling the biggest Met-sized barns, and an easy stage presence shows no signs of dissolving anytime soon. He is the kind of singer that makes everything look effortless without stopping to assure you its difficult, and yes, that kind of thing can be easy to take for granted.

So it was a welcome treat to hear Polenzani take on unfamiliar rep in an intimate space last Wednesday with collaborator Julius Drake at the piano, in a recital presented by Vocal Arts DC. Perhaps the least successful selection of the evening was the opening number, Beethoven's "Adelaide" (Op. 46), a tough choice for a lead off that Polenzani had trouble making sense of while still in warm up mode. But things quickly corrected themselves with two winning sets of songs by Franz Liszt. Polenzani and Drake, who have recorded a volume of Liszt's songs, easily made converts of the room. Both sets, a grab bag of texts by German poets and a French series on poems of Victor Hugo, entrance with intimations of Debussy and other things to come. Polenzani carefully etched the character of each in thoughtful readings--marred only occasionally by the opera singer tendency to punch up the volume beyond what the recital will bear.

The second half offered a set of amuse-bouches by Erik Satie, slightly more substantial settings by Ravel that allowed Polenzani a bit more of a chance to deploy his more familiar lyric gifts, and closing with a curious set of Barber songs. Encores did a nice job of balancing a bit of indulgence without sacrificing the overall tone of the evening. Reynaldo Hahn's familiar "Parquetto" from his songs of Venice, offered something adjacent to the Italianate splendor we love in Polenzani's Alfredo without taking us out of the recital setting.

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


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.