Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ring Revisited: Cycle III Walkure at WNO

This past Wednesday’s Die Walkure added Nina Stemme, fresh off her widely praised New York appearances in Elektra, to WNO’s Ring Cycle line-up, putting DC in the enviable position of getting to compare three very strong but very different Brunnhilde’s in as many weeks.

For Cycle I, due to a last minute substitution, we got Christine Goerke’s sensitive and emotionally vulnerable Brunnhilde, wrapped up in a gorgeous plush sound. Catherine Foster’s Cycle II Brunnhilde was somewhat lackluster and dramatically inert, but her brilliant silvery top notes delivered reliable thrills, especially in the climax of Siegfried and the heavy artillery demands of Gotterdammerung.

Now we have Stemme’s intense Vaklyrie--a driven servant who enters the opera with little trace of the mortal woman she is to become. In this Brunnhilde’s Act II crisis, we witness a woman suffering a violent break with the person she thought she was, an echo of Wotan’s own crippling moment of introspection so memorably brought out by Alan Held in this Rheingold (gods take this stuff hard). As Stemme goes to carry out Siegmund’s sentence, we see her doubled over in physical pain at the contradiction she must enforce. The Act III dialogue is a grinding slog of self-discovery, Brunnhilde groping tentatively towards the understanding that her fate has been separated from Wotan’s forever.

Stemme brings the character to life through a stunning vocal performance. If one had to bucket the Brunnhildes we’ve heard this month, Stemme and Foster share a similar, more traditionally penetrating timbre than Goerke’s unique creamy sound. But Stemme sets herself apart with a brilliant technicolor depth at the top of her range and a bevy of delicately shaded dynamics. Though she seemed a bit tentative at first in connecting to the top of the voice, she quickly overcame these obstacles to deliver a vital and complete portrayal.

After struggling with allergies last week, Held came roaring back to form with a definitive run of his flawed, domineering Wotan. Auguin allowed the Act II monologue to marinate more than he has on previous evenings, and Held followed suit, with a dynamic reading that pushed the boundaries of what this sequence can achieve. My Ring newbie seatmate was especially impressed with this at the intermission, and was duly horrified when I shared that the LePage production pairs this (potentially) brilliant piece of vocal theater with a cartoon. By the end of the scene, Held has created a toxic mix of frustration, self-pity and resentment that is oppressive in its intensity, the deity version of a William H. Macy character who knows the jig is up.

If at times this commitment pushed his voice to its limits, he held onto control throughout and turned in a moving final scene with Stemme. For just one little example of Held's artistry, see the section that begins “So leicht wähntest du/Wonne des Herzens erworben…” where Wotan briefly sympathizes with Brunnhilde’s first taste of love, before scolding her for enjoying what has only brought bitterness to his life. Held vividly illustrates this short passage by incrementally shifting the color of his voice from a melting mezza voce to a brassy snarl as he turns on his daughter.

Meagan Miller’s final Sieglinde was also her best. “Du bist der Lenz” was ardently felt, the final bars spun with a sumptuous legato line, while Act II reached a new level of disconsolate frenzy. Her sound may fall short on the easy beauty that one expects of Sieglinde, but she wields that sound with the abandon needed for a fully satisfying assumption.

If one could patch together a Walkure supercut from the last few weeks, I would pair Miller’s final Sieglinde with Ventris’ seamless performance in Cycle II. After his steady contributions in previous weeks, it was a surprise to find him sounding somewhat vocally tired in the final show. He also seemed to have trouble syncing up with Auguin, who wanted to add some extra final night juice and couldn’t get on the same page with Ventris, though these issues didn't mar another exciting Act I finale. Auguin put forward perhaps his most exquisite ending yet, with a shuddering, serotonin flooding climax at the drawing of Nothung (slightly worried what’s going to happen if I stop getting this weekly dosage and the weather stays so depressing).

Raymond Aceto had a strong final night realizing the production’s particularly sadistic take on Hunding, while Elizabeth Bishop scored an impressive triumph in her final traversal as Fricka. Bishop left the proverbial blood on the floor in her scene Wednesday, and some of the cutesier directorial touches ended up looking very petty indeed next to the majesty with which she imbued the scene.

In my review of the Cycle I Walkure I criminally omitted a discussion of the Walkuren themselves (though others most certainly did not), but the strong WNO lineup deserves further mention. Spurred on by driving tempi in the pit, this cast delivers a high-octane start to Act III that rightly outshines the fun staging with the parachutes. Standouts include rich, high volume Hojotoho’s from Lori Phillips’ Gerhilde (who makes clear in a few measures that she is also covering Brunnhilde for this run); the warm urgent mezzo of Domingo Cafritz young artist favorite Daryl Freedman; and this production’s Erda, Lindsey Ammann, whose spectacular low notes make for an instantly memorable Schwertleite (quick someone do a list of biggest names to play Schwertleite).

The updated version of this production continues to reward in many ways. This time I was particularly struck by the care with which Zambello has choreographed blocking beats to take advantage of the music, some surely inspired by the original stage directions. Churning music in the opening prior to Siegmund’s entrance is set to Sieglinde staring mournfully from the screen door of her hut; a suddenly quiet passage near the end Act II provides an opportunity for Wotan to cradle the dying Siegmund; the several bars of tonally ambiguous transition music leading into the magic fire music catches Wotan bereft and alone in a cold spotlight against the back of the stage; and so on.

I still object to those blasted transitional projections, though, and have finally put my finger on what that “flight of Siegmund through Rock Creek Park” projection looks like, i.e., a budget karaoke background for Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf.”

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ring Revisited: Cycle II at WNO

I know we're already halfway through Cycle III, but here are some outstanding thoughts on the 3 of 4 installments of Cycle II I was able to take in last week (only one Siegfried for me, I'm afraid).

Tuesday’s Cycle II Rheingold (May 10th) confirmed the myriad pleasures offered by this cast as well as the overall strength of the production—indeed, I’m tempted to say that this Rheingold, so often cringe-worthy in its original incarnation, now qualifies as the most consistently rewarding evening of this Ring, as far as design and direction are concerned.

The later evenings, though they certainly have their strengths, suffer from: 1) too much heavy handed environmental stuff, which sometimes pairs well with Zambello’s character direction, but can also come off as shallow, clumsily imposed meta-material; and 2) the sense that these individual scenes, however insightful on their own terms, fall short of a cohesive vision.

But Rheingold keeps both of these tendencies at bay, presenting an exploration of the work's ideas that feels organic and true to the characters, and the bigger concepts are framed by just a few well-chosen references (as discussed last week, Rheingold is the biggest beneficiary of skillful editing of the original production). Zambello delivers a refreshingly engaging take on an opera that can be decidedly less compelling than the rest of the cycle.

It also just works well as attractive theater. See the opening Rhine sequence, which doesn't boast the kind of technical daring one often sees lavished on this scene, but still manages to be both effective and beautiful. The Rhine is created through extensive smoke effects that seem to billow towards the front of the stage and obscure the bottom halves of the Rhinemaidens and Alberich. A straightforward but elegant solution to the problem of avoiding constant awkward swimming movements during this scene. After the Rheingold is stolen, the golden tinge that pervaded the scene during the Rhinemaidens ecstatic chorus slowly drains away, the first of many stunning lighting coups that play on enriching and dissolving the color palette.

Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.



In their second outing, Rheingold’s key antagonists seemed a bit off their game. Alan Held, who begged indulgence in the following night’s Walkure, was apparently suffering from allergies, which manifested as an additional labored quality in his sound. Likewise, Gordon Hawkins felt short on support during portions of the opening scene, though he re-established his authoritative Alberich for Nibelheim and the curse scene.

While I thought Elizabeth Bishop sounded a bit tentative at the premiere, here there was no question that this was the same rich, generous sound we heard during the Cycle I Walkure. On second viewing one also had more opportunity to appreciate what a tremendous stage animal she is, easily standing out with small comedic moments on a packed stage.

William Burden’s Loge was again a highlight, receiving perhaps the most enthusiastic applause of the evening besides Philippe Auguin. Burden’s refined, lieder-like approach sets Loge’s music apart from the bluster going on all around him, heightening the contrasts between between the other characters' relatively simple motives and Loge’s complex support for the gods he despises. Burden's winning presence holds these conflicting impressions in balance, establishing the trickster demigod as much more than grease for the plot wheels, and perhaps the most interesting character in the show.

Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.



The big news the following night (May 11) was Catherine Foster’s only appearance as the Walküre Brunnhilde. If Foster isn't quite in that rarefied tier of get-on-a-plane Brunnhildes, her bright, gleaming sound lands her comfortably in the still very exclusive tranche of singers that can deliver this part with beauty and a high degree of vocal security. She sounded even better than expected on the evidence of last week’s promising Siegfried snippet, the pealing top notes supported by a steady if not particularly distinctive middle range.

Unfortunately the rest of her portrayal doesn’t always live up to the promise of the raw vocal materials. Foster seemed unable to find the bloom in Brunnhilde’s vocal lines, settling for 4-square phrasing that seemed to lag the orchestra rather than ride its momentum. Consistency was also an issue, with the occasional support brown-out appearing out of nowhere.

More problematic is that one just rarely gets the sense that things are life and death for this Brunnhilde. Foster is a slightly batty, idiosyncratic stage presence which might be rather appealing in other settings but here feels like a distraction, never allowing us to fully believe in the character's nobility or urgent situation. At other times she overplays her hand, for instance, becoming too imperious and dismissive with Wotan during their long scene together and upending the core power dynamic in a way that doesn't feel justified or thoroughly prepared.

Overly-busy direction may also be a problem here, with some cutesy touches emerging in this run that were not in the premiere, for instance shoulder bumps to punctuate the Act II Hojotohos, Brunnhilde tugging on Wotan’s duster at one point during Act III, excessive Wotan head petting in “Der Augen,” etc. (Perhaps the cleaner version last week was a positive side effect of Goerke speed-learning a simplified form of the blocking?)

These limitations crept into her Gotterdammerung Brunnhilde on Sunday as well. The Dawn Duet was curiously inert and the final scene was largely perfunctory until the final push. Thankfully, the fireworks in Gotterdammerung are never too far away, and it's hard to quibble with acting choices when you're being transported by Foster at her magnificent best. And with that, I'm going to table my other thoughts on Gotterdammerung for next week's Parterre review of the final installment with Nina Stemme.

So back to the Cycle II Walkure. Christopher Ventris made a strong play for the evening's MVP. While he already proved himself a huge asset to this roster, he was in even better form for this second run, the underwhelming climaxes of the premiere now unqualified successes. Where the previous week he seemed a bit thrown off by the unsentimental clip at which Auguin took the “Wintersturme,” here he offered a lilting, musical reading of the big tune.

Like Alan Held, Meagan Miller's Sieglinde found herself on the BI (Begging Indulgence) list for Cycle II, though any drop off from the previous week was hard to detect. The Act I closing sequence was a chill-inducing delight, only marred by a tempo a hair too pokey in the pit.

Held's announced allergy troubles were definitely evident Wednesday. Though the trademark intelligence he brings to this part was always present, he came up short on power when needed, and he was unable to effectively build to some of the chilling climaxes that were so affecting in Cycle I.

Some (very) stray thoughts on Cycle II:
  • Everyone in this mythical America sure loves their shin-length leather coats. Are opera productions singlehandedly keeping the leather duster industry in business?
  • With all the wolf talk and climactic moon imagery in Act I, how long until we get a werewolf Ring? The Gods are vampires and it’s a Twilight style battle? Nevermind...please don't do this.
  • If this is a feminist Ring, Siegmund is definitely its resident woke bae. I love how this production plays Sieglinde's falling for Siegmund as bonding over an analysis of patriarchy rather than his ability to "save" her. It feels like the kind of unexpected, transgressive flavor Wagner wanted for this relationship (in addition to, you know, the incest).

Monday, May 09, 2016

WNO Ring Cycle I

Here are links to my reviews of the first three installments of WNO's Ring Cycle #1 at Parterre.com:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Elektra at the Met

For all the buzz surrounding the late Patrice Chereau's staging of Elektra, premiered two years ago at the Aix-en-Provence festival and now at the Met, there is nothing particularly revolutionary in its concept or  presentation (not that there's anything wrong with that). Rather, this production earns its distinctiveness the old-fashioned way, through the accumulation of small choices and thoughtful approaches to well-known story beats.

Visually, it is almost aggressively neutral. A simple courtyard set in pastel washes is only out-blanded by the costumes, seemingly raided from a 1997 Ann Taylor. The lighting design avoids the pervasive gloom of so many Elektra productions, but doesn't substitute anything approaching natural light. This absence of setting appears to be exactly where Chereau wants his characters, a canvas on which to build the engrossing, frequently moving interactions that he creates for them.

Chereau's insistence on an honest dramatic accounting for the relationships between Elektra's characters isn't too much of a departure from the way most directors approach Elektra today. Chereau just takes this idea to its logical conclusion, obsessively stripping out any indulgent vestiges of Elektra as ancient world slugfest.

See, for instance, Chereau's deeply subdued take on the Klytamnestra scene here. Who would believe this much pity for Klytamnestra can be wrung from the score? Waltraud Meier's Queen isn't driven by the usual extravagant paranoid egotism but, pathetic, blinkered self-concern. One kept expecting her to ask Elektra why she doesn't try doing something pretty with her hair for a change.

It's not a choice without consequences, and the scene delivers the thrills which it is usually good for only occasionally. At the cost of fireworks, though, the production buys a valuable insight into Elektra's character. Here the turn on Klytamnestra is devoid of the usual smart aleck glee--Elektra is only capable of vengeance anymore, and lures Klytamnestra into a sadistic emotional trap out of instinct as much as anything. Her lack of pity for Klytamnestra becomes much more than a point on the score board, it becomes a poignant emotional fact about the character.

This sense of wounded humanity permeates the production. The deeply affecting recognition scene presented a stolid, severely non-heroic Orest (Eric Owens), who nonetheless inspires the lingering loyalty of the servants. Upon recognizing her brother, Elektra's first instinct is to escape, the emotions of reunion painful. Her tender words after the recognition are sung to herself, with little illusion that Orest's return represents a chance for her to experience human feeling again.

Likewise the chilling and enigmatic ending. Chereau denies us the usual catharsis of Elektra's feverish dance and surprise death swoon. Here, she attempts a few steps and then retires catatonic to a nearby bench. Orest, his vengeance done but his agony at the hands of the Furies only beginning, just walks away, with no acknowledgment of Elektra or her sister (an intriguing solution to Chrysothemis final cries of "Orest!"). As the orchestra boils over with pent-up fury, the characters are left empty and directionless, a challenging ending, to be sure, but it rings true.

The Met has assembled a formidable cast of singing actors for this production, led by Nina Stemme's tremendous portrayal of the title character. Stemme's coming Ring Cycle in DC has justly been the most hotly pursued of the run. If her middle register can get lost in the orchestra from time to time, it is all forgotten when her voice expands into a full and impressively assured top. "Allein" meandered a bit as she warmed up (not assisted by Salonen's slow tempi) but by Chrysothemis' entrance things had clicked and she delivered a vocal performance of uncommon beauty, consistency, and stamina. The club of Elektras one should get on a plane for is relatively small at any given time, and right now it looks like the membership is her and Goerke. 

I've been all up in this recording for the last few weeks, and went into the premiere with Rysanek's obscenely buttery Chrysothemis in my ears, which was maybe not the best choice in hindsight. Adrianne Pieczonka brings a very different sound to Chrysothemis, full-bodied but a bit astringent on top, exciting, but no butter. She wields it with abandon though, and was a committed partner for Stemme, powerfully embodying the production's take on a more canny Chrysothemis, who appears to be no stranger to the abuses of the palace and has perhaps spent a few nights in the yard herself.

As discussed above, the great Waltraud Meier is tasked with the most polarizing interpretation in the show, a subtle and sympathetic Klytamnestra. Anyone who thought this role heralded a confident move into second career shriek-fests for the 'Traud will be sorely disappointed, as she focuses on restrained beautiful singing throughout the part, as well as her expected but ever impressive capacity to bring text to life. There have been complaints about volume which are valid to some degree, though it is hard to disentangle how much of this was a deliberate choice versus some evidence of her current vocal estate.

My most recent memory of Eric Owens was his somewhat thankless turn in WNO's middling Lost in the Stars production, so it was refreshing to see him back in a major league assignment so soon. His emotionally inert Orest was another key choice in this production, and he effectively gave us Orest as angel of death, a tormented man who has returned to his home and family with the sole purpose of murder. Owens' dark baritone makes a strong impression in this role with an uncompromising color that reminds us Orest shouldn't be interchangeable with Jokanaan, but is something grimmer.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, a rare treat at the Met, led a distinctive reading in the pit. As Chereau sought to get inside the personal lives of these bloody archetypes, Salonen lingered over the smaller scenes, abandoning momentum in order to allow character interactions to bloom organically. The finale here had a ferocious transparency and momentum, awesome but almost self-effacing, to the extent that's possible for the end of Elektra.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Javier Camarena in DC

I wrote about Javier Camarena's Kennedy Center recital for Parterre.com:
Singers who loom large in the theater have an interesting challenge in translating that intensity to the recital hall. Sometimes we get only fleeting glimpses of that bigger personality amidst tasteful lieder selections; others just import the volume and dramatics wholesale from a bigger space, resulting in performances that can be impressive but overbearing.
Read the whole thing here...

Saturday, March 19, 2016

NSO plays Brahms and Beethoven

One of my earliest experiences with the NSO was a concert I attended during the pre-Eschenbach days shortly after I arrived in DC, perhaps the spring of 2009. I went because Brahms was on the program, and, while not necessarily expecting Brahms at the level of what I had just come from in Chicago, was pretty taken aback by what I encountered. Though hardly counting myself as the most critical ear when it comes to orchestral music, it was impossible to miss the out-of-whack balances, tinny sound, and lack of excitement on the stage or in the hall.

I'm happy to say that, 7 years of NSO concert-going later, that evening feels like a distant memory; whatever you may think of Eschenbach, his years in DC have been a boon to the band's overall sound and consistency. However, after hearing both Symphonies 1 and 3 under Eschenbach and the first piano concerto under Osmo Vänskä last night, there is still work to do in the Brahms department.

To be fair, the problems in the first piano concerto were mostly localized in the first movement, that ever ambiguous, halting statement Brahms saw fit for his first orchestral utterance. Conductors must work minor magic to make sense out of its melodic fragments and capriciously shifting colors and Vänskä just never found a firm footing from which he could build momentum with the orchestra. He was not helped by inelegant contributions from the horns and a general lack of commitment coordination in the strings.

Vänskä seemed palpably relieved to move onto the Adagio and elicited some beautiful, very focused, piano sounds from the strings, though perhaps slowing things down to excess at some points. The Rondo was a confident romp, with exciting precision in the exposed passages for the strings, though winds and horns never quite caught up.

Russian Nicolai Lugansky, whom I've never heard before, offered an engaging, measured reading of the solo part. Apparently people refer to him as "cold," most infuriating of all adjectives for a pianist, but his temperament seemed just right for the Brahms, which easily suffers from additional melodrama. See for instance that first entrance, in which the piano answers the orchestra's outsize turmoil with an anemic, meandering little figure. One could easily get caught up in the throes of the anguished orchestra part and ham this up, but Lugansky's reserved introduction was the more unexpected and haunting choice. While clearly possessing the technical chops for flashy virtuosity where needed, Lugansky prioritized intimacy and "Brahms-sized" emotion throughout with appealing results.

I was mildly considering bailing after the Brahms, but was glad I didn't, as Vänskä turned in a winning Beethoven 'Pastoral' Symphony after the half. Vänskä looks to be one of those consummate micromanager conductors, tirelessly trying to tune each dynamic and color as the orchestra hurtles forward, and the NSO seemed to relish the challenge. Vänskä carefully developed the constituent parts of the Allegro, highlighting delicate dynamic gradations and building up a tight transparent sound in the climax. This exacting approach never devolved into preciousness though, and Vänskä was able to pull out a lusty, go-for-broke storm section, and a warm, well-earned Allegretto.

Friday, March 11, 2016

NSO plays Picker, Liszt, Brahms

16th Street and Columbia Rd, Washington.

The NSO kicked off its first post-tour show with an engaging world premiere by composer Tobias Picker, best known for his operas "An American Tragedy" and "Emmeline." Entitled "Opera Without Words for Orchestra," Picker actually wrote this out as a short operatic work before removing the libretto to leave a purely instrumental piece. And indeed, the pleasant effect of this piece will be familiar to anyone who has sat through some of the dull stretches of "American Tragedy" and thought "wow this score is pretty solid, if only i could mute this book report of a libretto for a little while." Picker's work offers a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of textures and references, from passages of propulsive dissonance to lyrical, jazz-infused writing for solo strings. If at times there is a feeling of trying to fit too much at the expense of more clearly articulated ideas, "Opera Without Words" rarely drags and offers much to appreciate. Hopefully the NSO will program this again soon.

The balance of the first half was devoted to Liszt's second piano concerto, featuring Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Eschenbach presided over an exciting, very severe allegro agitato, followed by a dreamy allegro moderato with beautiful interplay between Thibaudet and principal cellist David Hardy. The penultimate Marziale is Liszt in trashy exuberance mode, and Eschenbach pushed things perhaps too far--frequently drowning out Thibaudet and precipitating at least one orchestra snarl. Things tightened up for an appropriately breakneck finale.

The NSO has been playing Brahms First Symphony a lot the past few weeks as part of their tour repertoire, heard at home in an erratic performance during one of the tour tryout evenings. Tonight they gave Brahms 3rd in a more assured take. Eschenbach has the right feel for the sturm and drang of the first movement, conjuring relentless anxiety and big satisfying swells from the orchestra, though the strings weren't always able to maintain coherence and beauty amidst all the agitation. Eschenbach relished the languid pace of the second and third movements, taking things maybe a bit slow for some tastes but I appreciated his patience in letting the quiet details in these passages unfold at their own pace.

The anguished fourth was a (mostly) controlled whirlwind, at its best achieving an exhilarating momentum and thrilling unified sound. Despite two weeks on the road together, though, the orchestra and Eschenbach seemed at cross purposes at several points, with several seemingly unanticipated gear shifts leaving the band in disarray. It's hard to go wrong with the 3rd's devastating, unexpectedly quiet coda, and this one mostly satisfied, though never quite reaching that hushed stasis that makes for such a chilling contrast with what has come before.

In a bizarre programming choice, the NSO then tacked on Hungarian Dances #3, #10, and #16, for a combined 7 or so minutes of bonus music. It's unclear whether someone felt the 3rd didn't make for a long enough second half (though it was already past 9 after a 7 PM start), that the end of the 3rd was too much of a bummer to end a show with, or whether some obscure union rules were in play, but none of the players seemed in the mood for these bonbons after the emotional catharsis of the 3rd. Odd.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

WNO Announces

Kennedy Center, Washington.


You can't quite blame a company for taking the proverbial cigarette break after serving up a big historic Ring cycle, and WNO's 2016-2017 line-up is definitely a less ambitious affair than the current season, though redeemed in part by attractive casting and an admirable focus on contemporary work.

We get two chestnuts to bookend the season, Marriage of Figaro and Butterfly, both of which WNO hasn't done since 2010-11. Figaro gets opening night, in a production "adapted" from this nondescript-looking Glimmerglass effort from a few years back. Casting keeps this one interesting, with two intriguing WNO debuts: Amanda Majeski's Countess and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna. Oropesa made a fine impression here several years back with Washington Concert Opera in Verdi rarity I Masnadieri but she is long overdue for time on the mainstage.

Butterfly closes the season out, in a production imported from SFO (as was the tasteful 2010 incarnation). This time, the production is designed by Jun Kaneko, responsible for the video-projection driven/primary color-laden Floot the other year; we'll see whether that's a good look for Butterfly. The lead is shared between one unknown and one very well known quantity: Albanian Ermonela Jaho, of whom I am completely ignorant, and longtime Met veteran Hei-Kyung Hong. Peenk-air-ton offers a contrast as well, with Brian Jagde's big hearty sound swapping nights with Dimitri Pittas' light elegant tenor. Auguin conducts.

Fille du Regiment fills the wild card Donizetti fluff slot--an opera seen at WNO only once before in the 06/07 season. WNO has procured a first-rate A-cast here, with Oropesa back again and Lawrence Brownlee taking the role of Tonio.

The most distinctive programming is reserved for two American works, representing WNO's contribution to the JFK centennial that is being used to unify a lot of activities across the KC next year: Jake Heggie's popular "Dead Man Walking" and "Champion" by jazz musician Terence Blanchard. WNO seems to be economizing to get two contemporary productions onstage, as the press release notes these shows will use "many of the same designers and scenic elements." Kate Lindsey, assuming the role of Sister Helen Prejean, is the standout casting here.

I was lukewarm on Heggie's Moby Dick but am excited for DMW, and certainly support WNO's efforts to highlight the most successful American works out there. As for "Champion," I'm not familiar with Blanchard's music, but props to WNO for foregoing a musical offering this year in favor of a second contemporary work. Rounding out the contemporary offerings will be the company's regular evening of 20 minute new works and an hour-long premiere by Mohammad Fairouz.

Will try to circle back to other aspects of the new season later this week...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

"Lost in the Stars" at WNO

I wrote about WNO's "Lost in the Stars" production for Parterre:
Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s 1949 musicalization of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country has found a tentative home on the opera stage, attractive to companies eager to fill their musical slot(s) for its highbrow pedigree, star vehicle potential, and relevant political content. Washington National Opera is the latest to try their hand at Lost in the Stars, but despite a strong cast and sympathetic direction, this latest incarnation isn’t able to overcome the flaws of this intriguing but problematic work.
Read the whole thing here...


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Met Council Finals Mid Atlantic Region



Sunday's Met Council Mid-Atlantic finals were dominated by a group of exceptional bass/baritones, with all but one of those competing walking away with a prize. In an afternoon brimming with talent, the low voices set themselves apart with polished, distinctive voices, and natural dramatic flair.

Anthony Schneider, a first place winner who will continue on to semifinals in New York, brings to the table a unique, resonant sound, well represented in Il lacerato spirito from Simon Boccanegra, and demonstrated agility and personality in "Quand la flamme de l'amour" from Bizet's La Jolie Fille de Perth. His co-first place finalist, tenor Jonas Hacker, first offered Una Furtiva Lagrima, demonstrating formidable control in a series of impeccably executed dynamic effects, though his voice lacked that final touch of warmth needed for this music. The judges wisely chose "Here I stand" from Rake's Progress as a second aria, and there were no qualifications here--Hacker's incisive power and facility with text seems a natural fit for exciting Britten and other 20th century fare.

Second place went to bass Timothy Bruno, a current young WNO young artist this season, who has participated in the various young artist-staffed new work presentations. Bruno's pitch-black sound is distinctive for sure, though it was a perhaps a heavier color than one wants in his first aria, "Solche hergelaufne Laffen" from Mozart's Entfuhrung. Another round of Boccanegra fared better, with Bruno producing a very exciting second helping of "Il lacerato spirito."

Third place was also a tie. Baritone Andrew Lovato was perhaps my personal favorite among the considerable bass-baritone talent on display. "Ya va Lyublyu" from Pique Dame was devastating, Lovato carefully shading his voice to great effect throughout the work. The Tanzlied from Die Tote Stadt was a fun second choice, and a great chance to show off the capabilities of perhaps the most refined low-voice onstage, though it would have benefited from more subtlety.

He shared honors with baritone Armando Pina, who turned in a winning, if slightly generic, sound. His lead-off "Ya vas lyublyu" couldn't quite compete with the detailed pathos of Lovato's account but was nonetheless an impressive assumption. "Hai gia vinta la causa" was similarly sturdy.

Mezzo Briana Hunter was perhaps a surprising omission from the winners circle. In "Elle et la, pres de lui" from Thomas' Mignon, she showed off an ample, compelling sound, only marred by a bit of inconsistency in the high notes, some of which sounded great, while others felt a tad uncomfortable. Her follow-up, "Una voce poco fa," represented the most accomplished coloratura singing of the afternoon, and demonstrated a winning stage personality. Soprano Raquel Gonzalez also stood out among the women, with a sophisticated, smoky sound in "Come in quest'ora bruna" and "Stridono lassu" from Pagilacci.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

NSO plays Brahms, etc.



A few belated words on the NSO show last Saturday. This was the second of two weekends led by Eschenbach, his first appearances since the announcement that Gianandrea Noseda will succeed him at the NSO's helm. The program featured the second group of works that the NSO will take on tour to Europe this month--the overture to Der Freischutz, Schubert's Symphony No. 8, and Brahms First Symphony.

Anne Midgette rightly questions what the deal is with going all the way to Europe to play a bunch of Central European Top 40 hitz to the locals. Except for a contemporary work by Christopher Rouse this is the reddest of red meat programming. Do European promoters expect American orchestras to prove they can hack it? Sort of the opposite of how we expect Czech orchestras and conductors do the Prague Symphony and Dvorak all the time?

Anyhow, the first half Schubert and Weber were fine, but I was in it for the Brahms. Eschenbach came out swinging, highly attuned to the rollicking push and pull of the first movement and its restless lurching between meters. This was full blooded but tightly controlled Brahms that wasn't shy about playing up the fundamentally unpleasant nature of Brahms' first official statement in symphonic form. The second movement, with its balance of repression and release, benefits from a slow burn and holding something back, but Eschenbach took the bait and went back to the generic emotional swell too often. Things went downright haywire in the final bars which slow to a point of stasis, such that Nurit Bar-Josef's violin solo seemed oddly rushed and cursory, perhaps a tempo miscommunication issue? The allegretto was fairly scattered as well, with shifts in tempi that had the orchestra stumbling over itself at times. Thankfully Eschenbach was back in form for the closing movement, and led a truly exhilarating rush to the finale.

It sounds like Friday's run was much tighter, so perhaps an off-night or just trying some stuff here before heading out on the road...


Wednesday, February 03, 2016

David Daniels Sings Brahms, Hahn, and Purcell

I wrote about David Daniels recital for Vocal Arts DC last weekend for Parterre:
Washingtonians enjoyed a happy reunion this past Sunday with David Daniels, a lucky substitution for the originally scheduled Alexander Tsymbalyuk on the Vocal Arts DC calendar. Daniels isn’t exactly a regular on DC stages—he last graced the opera house in 2008 opposite Placido Domingo in Handel’s Tamerlano (a rare Baroque foray for WNO)—but contributing to Ruth Bader Ginsburg lore will get you everywhere with this crowd.   
Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Met On Demand: Damnation of Faust



First time I had seen this production, which I narrowly missed in house back in 2008. Robert LePage's video driven production of Berlioz' oratorio was a big hit at the time, soon to be remembered as the "good" LePage production after opinion polarized over the first installment of his Ring. (Though Tommasini dropped some good shade at the time: "To judge from the rousing ovation Mr. Lepage received, this innovative production looks to be a popular success...")

No doubt this is a more effective, immersive use of video than the subsequent Ring productions, which suffered from the fundamentally off-putting Machine set and a mismatch with the pace and dramatic constraints of the Ring. Berlioz' fantastical meditation on the Faust myth, never intended for the stage, makes much more sense as a purely sensual experience, and a perfect fit for the possibilities of LePage's visual approach.

All that said, and admitting the difficulty of judging this kind of production on video, I was surprised at how frequently I found myself blaming the effects for the difficulty the work had grounding itself and gathering any momentum. While succeeding with a more unified aesthetic approach to the video aspects, LePage hasn't figured out what makes dramatic sense here any better than the Ring. Too often the production drives you to distraction rather than enhancing your experience of Berlioz' work.

The work is a feast for orchestra and chorus, and the Met's crack forces, led by Levine, make this a memorable production even before the soloists are taken into account. Love the hell chorus section where the civilians of the Met chorus, no buff supernumeraries in sight, have to take off their shirts and sing about demons with mean looks on their faces for (what feels like) 20 minutes. Great chorus work and a weirdly unsettling piece of stagecraft.

Giordani sounds great in Faust's music, delivering the delightfully predictable old school vocal swagger that gets him the big bucks, though his acting chops are a shade blander than his colleagues when subjected to closeup HD. He keeps it together for most of the show, though when the going gets more strenuous he noticeably straddles the line between effortful-but-legit and wait-I-don't-think-this-sounds-good-anymore territory.

This is a sweet-spot role for Graham and she proves again why she is the consummate Live in HD professional, sounding great and hitting all her marks as Marguerite (note how long she holds her beatific face as she has to climb a ladder all the way to the rafters facing camera at the end). "Professional" of course can cut two ways, and if you have trouble getting excited about her, this will not change your mind.

John Relyea, still the man to beat when it comes to 19th century devil characters, frequently threatens to steal the show with his codpiece and the unflagging silky-manly sound he serves up for Berlioz' Mephistopheles.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Musicians from Marlboro play Beethoven, Penderecki and Brahms


Cover of first edition of Brahms piano quintet, with four hand piano arrangement.

Amidst some nasty pre-snowmageddon precipitation, musicians from the Marlboro Festival served up the first of their two off-season tour shows at the Library of Congress Wednesday evening, injecting a bit of that gentle Vermont summer into crappy mid-Atlantic January.

Having made it to Marlboro the last two summers, I will disclose that I have fully drunk whatever the audience version of the Marlboro Kool-aid is. Whether it is the time that participants are able to lavish on a single work, the sense of camraderie, or the bucolic setting, there is something very special about Marlboro performances (obligatory link to Alex Ross' article from a few years back). Time and again one finds a depth in precision, blend, and articulation that ensures these performances are never boring, and it is enough to keep audiences (and musicians) traveling back to the country to get another hit of that sweet sweet chamber music drug. Happily, the stuff they export shares many of these winning qualities, too.

Beethoven's String Trio in C-minor, op. 9, featured the gorgeous blend of violinist David McCarroll, violist Daniel Kim, and cellist Marcy Rosen, in a reading both aurally decadent and musically engrossing. The first half also included Kryzysztof Penderecki's 1993 quartet for clarinet and string trio, adding the violin of Emilie-Anne Gendron, and Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. This fascinating piece covers huge thematic and emotional ground in its brief running time, and the quartet brought out moments of tremendous beauty (Gendron's solo in the closing Larghetto) as well as controlled frenzy in the second movement.

The second half featured a bit of unabashed luxury programming in Brahms' late Clarinet Quintet, famously composed near the end of his life after he had considered giving up composing. His collaboration with the clarinettist Richard Muhlfeld stayed his retirement and produced some of the most beloved works in his entire output and enduring pinnacles of the literature for the instrument. I will also note that this past summer in Vermont, I heard Rosen lead a performance of the Brahms String Quintet in F Major that immediately ranked in my top Brahms encounters of all time, so needless to say, this was an exciting prospect.

The Marlboro crew turned in a furious first movement, reaching for blistering fortes that immediately belied the "autumnal" modifier usually applied to this work. If things got a bit aggressive at times (and McGill occasionally seemed overextended trying to compete with the strings), the choice made sense in the striking contrasts with those moments where the movement slows to catch its breath. The Adagio offers the most intimate and individual writing for the clarinet, and McGill provided a solo of overwhelming beauty and quiet touches of personality. The interplay here between solo and strings, the epic push and pull of emotional tension, all unfolded with irresistible vitality. After a gentle Andantino, the group delivered a moving closing Con Moto, by turns yearning and ambivalent, a palpable chill descending with the arrival of the final dark figures in the strings.

Monday, January 18, 2016

NSO plays Eller, Prokofiev, and Sibelius


Esteemed Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi took the NSO's helm this past weekend in the first subscription concert since the announcement of music director designate Gianandrea Noseda (and the bittersweet end of conductor roulette). Thursday's show opened with "Five Short Pieces for Orchestra" an attractive mid-century work by Heino Eller, an Estonian composer championed by Jarvi, which offered a compelling showcase for the NSO strings.

The highlight of the evening was Prokofiev's first Violin Concerto, featuring a mesmerizing performance by Latvian violinist Baiba Skride. Skride and Jarvi created fine tension in a restrained, inward facing first movement, bringing the audience in close to catch the hushed solo. Skride then abruptly shifted gears for the raucous second movement, skillfully highlighting Prokofiev's biting sarcasm and giving free rein to harsh earthy sounds in the blistering passage work. When the third movement finally turns to indulgence, Skride delivered a pure, beguiling sound for the doomed cocktail music of the finale.

After the half, Jarvi opened with a raw reading of the first movement of Sibelius' Symphony #2, heightening the contrasts between the scattered motivic fragments that run into and over each other and eliciting some especially fine piano dynamics from the orchestra. A heavy hand in the grim second movement was perhaps too much at times, and the plodding tempo might have been partially responsible for some muddy sounds in the brass. Thankfully things snapped back into place for a precise scherzo and exquisite solos for oboe and clarinet, capped with an appropriately irresistible climax leading into the Finale. Here and there transitions felt overly generic and on-the-nose, but overall Jarvi brought the work to an exhilarating close.