Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Gheorghiu, Destroyer of Worlds

I know everyone and their mother did this at the beginning of the month, but I finally got to the Gheorghiu Traviata. And she wrecked me, yo.

Perhaps it is her uncanny ability to know when to throw away a phrase in the service of a bigger payoff; perhaps it is the fact she has, say, a bjillion different vocal colors at her disposal to match every emotional nuance; perhaps it is that sterling silver knife through butter top that never fails to surprise and shatter.

Whatever the cause may be, by the third act she had ditched this mortal coil of sad opera death and become herself a whole new universe of soul-wrenching opera sad. Such that I wanted to tell her very wonderful but still terrestrial fellow principles, Jonas Kaufmann and Anthony Michaels-Moore, to stop yelling at the dying woman.

It doesn't necessarily work at all times. I got that she wasn't going to break character just to give the one random set piece number the what for, but her Sempre Libera still sounded insubstantial against the confidence one desires there. I didn't notice so much on the broadcast, however--perhaps the mics ironed out the inconsistencies caused by singing to the back of the stage so much.

But WHATEVER. Anyone who can take those well trod notes and make me weep into my Met-titles like a little girl is genius.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


A little behind the curve on Tuesday's "Pasion" but shall interject nonetheless.

I enjoyed the Pasion this time even more, I think, than I did two years ago at BAM. The star of the show is really the glorious choral writing, where Golijov's skills of hybridization shine the most. A-Ross ain't kidding when he mentions Bach in this review of the work's 2001 premiere. The double-choir numbers especially are as powerful and integral to this work as their counterparts are in the Matthew passion. While the material is basically the Latin American pop sound that appears in a purer form elsewhere in the piece, the counterpoint and and rhythmic complexity of the choral parts consistently bring them further into unexplored territory.

Tuesday night presented an exceptionally strong showing. The orchestra was brilliant. Spano was great, very confident and precise without giving up any looseness. The soloists were consistently strong, especially Reynaldo Gonzalez Fernandez. At times I loved Luciana Souza...at others I wondered what it would be like to have a more consistent voice doing the part. Some things lost, some things gained I imagine. She also probably suffered the most from too noticeable amplification. I feel there's a future for this piece where the amplification is perfectly deployed only to properly balance the electric instruments. This wasn't quite there yet. As for Ms. Anne-Carolyn Bird, what can be said about the sheer purity and heart breaking sweetness in that voice in the big "Lua Descolorida" aria? It made my room spin. But then again, she met David Bowie so she probably doesn't need my props.

I recall that after the BAM production I was fairly anti- the dramatic lighting and choreography elements, which I found half-assed. I didn't feel as strongly this time. I think the quasi-stagey elements make one focus on the importance of experiencing this live. Still, I would be interested to see the piece really set on its own two feet, perhaps with some slight cuts in the dance improvisation parts. I would venture it can more than handle it, and it would no doubt serve as a boon to the work's longevity.

As to the question of what the "Pasion" is exactly...I don't put much stock in the whole "Golijov is teaching classical music how to be entertaining and forcing it to reckon with popular sounds" line, whcih strikes me as too easy and several times too broad. I think it's better understood as a sort of musical conceptual art piece--through the careful juxtaposition of formal elements and musical material from disparate cultures, Golijov allows his audience to consider the sources in new ways. Approached in the Western concert hall, the fine-grained details and subtle turns of rhythm and tonality in Golijov's interpretation of his Latin source material sparks a new appreciation for the versatility and depth in that music that can't be found in casual listening. At the same time, the way Golijov's familiar sounds perfectly inhabit the Western liturgical oratorio tradition reconnects us with that tradition's great and accessible storytelling power, a feat unlikely to be achieved through the avant-garde heavy language of much contemporary Western music.

Dispatch from the b-cast

Let me just note for posterity that Olga Borodina made my Dalila dreams come true today after a partly disappointing showing by Maria Domashenko earlier. Borodina understood the caress in every line--her seduction of Samson was the life-sucking tractor beam it should be. Forbis was again very interesting...I don't think it's the sound I'd want for every Samson ever, but I don't want it to stop either.

Maestro Villaume's flailing aside, this was a nice opportunity to focus on the Met band, which was at their best today. To zero in on just one very small example--consider the little four note figure the strings play over and over in the lead up to the big Dalila aria in Act II. Most times I've heard this, it is what it is--but in the hands of the Met orchestra there is a subtle dynamic change from mezzopiano to mezzoforte and back again, and each note's dynamic is perfectly in proportion with the others. Played over and over again. Each time perfectly in proportion. It ceases to be a four note figure and becomes an organic experience. Wow.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

White Bed Revisited

Hello. Long time no post. As work has really heated up over the past couple of weeks, our dear Alex has had to bear the heavy burden that is the maintenance of the Wellsung Blog. He would never let down our tens of tens of readers.

Clearly there is much up on which to catch.

First things first. Against my better judgment, I dragged a co-worker to the Tuesday evening performance of Romeo et Juliette. There was some purpose here besides testing one's endurance for an opera performance that feels like a longish planetarium show...in a sorta second rate planetarium. Alex and I attended the prima in the fall. So of course we missed Natalie Dessay, who has turned out to be sort of the only reason to attend this particular production. Certainly the only reason to attend it *twice*.

Despite the occasional beautiful moment, this is not an opera I have grown to love. I mean, let's be honest, I have heard it approximately twice, and one time with an underprepared, understandably nervous cover. Regardless, I am just not that psyched about it--and this production, other than the awesome floating white bed of wonder, sort of bugs the crap out of me. Moreso than it did the first time around. Oh, how we have grown up since October.


But the purpose here is amazingly NOT to beat a dead horse and gripe about old news. Rather, it is to express how immensely fond of Natalie Dessay I am. Definitely a burgeoning ND fanatic. I have heard her on a handful of recordings, my favorite perhaps being the Sinopoli Ariadne auf Naxos, with her effortless "Großmächtige Prinzessin" anchoring the two-disc set. This was, however, my first live Dessay. I will defer to our friend the NYC Opera Fanatic's delightfully enthusiastic detailing of the evening, as it is truly a spot on assessment, at least of Dessay. She is my favorite sort of Diva: a sprightly, smart performer who fully inhabits a role while her delicate yet present, unencumbered voice just works its magic.

She was paired with Fernando de la Mora's Romeo. He was a nice surprise. He lacks a certain amount of focus up top, but the notes are there, and the voice quality in the middle is consistent and energized. I was totally pleased to hear him, and so was the Tuesday night crowd. I do not share NYC Opera Fanatic's unabashed optimism about the flowering of his career, but I do think he is a very respectable tenor.

Anyway, Onward! Possible Samson this weekend, to see if Borodina can be heard over the orchestra (Alex's chief complaint about Domanshenko last week). Podles this weekend at Avery Fisher, Forza on Tuesday, and Mazeppa prima on 3/6.

Secretly, I sort of want to close my eyes and wake up for Lohengrin, which remains a full two months away.

Save Pumpkin.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sweeet Emmeline...(oh-oh-oh)

For those of you who enjoyed the AmTrag but haven't had a chance to hear Picker's Emmeline, here's a little taste.*
  • A fine example of Picker's choral writing, "To Cheerfulness Inclining" mp3

  • Comme toujours, Pat Racette tears it up in this aria opening the second act mp3

  • Matthew (tenor Curt Peterson) tells how it was in Kansas mp3

  • And in the proto-Zajick part, mezzo Anne-Marie Owens takes Pat's baby away mp3
The recording is Santa Fe Opera under George Manahan. Full details, synopsis, are here, buy it here.

*limited time only...while supplies last

Monday, February 20, 2006

A very wellsung president's day to you and yours

A: hey
J: hello
A: how is office?
A: President's day is such a weak ass holiday
J: it is
J: but like
J: EVERYone gets it off
J: except me and Fred
A: are you doing very important work that could not have waited until tomorrow?
A: man, there is like no way in hell that Bush is working today
J: haha
J: no way
J: he's all "it's my day"
A: haha
A: they're all "um, sir, it's not like 'mother's day'"
J: haha
J: what was on those fries again?
A: cheese
A: ranch dressing
A: scallions
A: bacon bits
A: hmmm
A: I think one more thing
A: I was really into those
J: they were so great
A: in honor of president's day, I am going to do the most laundry that has ever been done before
J: oh wow
J: of all time
J: ever
A: basically
A: outside of the army at least
J: hah
A: is it nasty cold today?
J: it is chilly
A: nuts
J: 33 degrees
A: I am over this
J: it will be back in the mid-high 40's later this week
A: good
A: we need to maybe drive to nature next weekend
A: if it is not so hatefully cold
J: yeah that would be nice
J: somewhere with some snow perhaps
A: I just need me some forest
J: yeah
J: maybe Delaware Water Gap
A: good one
A: PS, Janacek has nice piano music
A: I got some
J: oh neat
A: it's less adventurous than the operas, it seems, but just very beautiful and well done
A: time to begin the MOST LAUNDRY EVER DONE
J: (ba bum buuuuuuumm)

Friday, February 17, 2006

"I wanna be where the people are..."

A: I have been watching a nice Rusalka
A: I didn't realize it was like the Little Mermaid
J: it is?
J: are you at home?
A: no
A: watching this week
A: I'm not sure if it ends like the little mermaid yet
A: and they are "water nymphs" instead of mermaids
J: huh how funny
J: maybe you will hear from more grad schools today
A: and instead of "Kiss the Girl" we get "Jiz tyden dlis po boku"
J: hahah
A: "Part of your world" is (I think) this song called "Hastrmanku, taticku!"
J: that is so odd. I wonder if it is also based on the Hans Christian Andersen faerie Tale
A: looks like
A: (nice use of faerie)

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Quality time with Dagon

A bit after the fact, but Samson on Tuesday night was something of a mixed bag. As promised Clifton Forbis' dark-hued tenor is worth the trip indeed. The voice is gigantic, easily mistaken for a baritone on the street, and grounded like a mountain--thus, the thrill of hearing him launch it into the stratosphere really doesn't get old. He is also a fine actor, and good thing too, as he is largely left to shoulder the drama alone here.

Maria Domashenko certainly has the dark chocolate sound you want in your Dalila, but she isn't much of an actress. Her 'characterization' basically boiled down to a bag of stock "vampy ho" gesticulating--and sure, there ain't much more to Dalila than that in the end, but there's gotta be something truly sinister and seductive there for Samson's coeur to ouvre to in the second act. Forbis was certainly doing his part in fretting over it, but against Domashenko's thin charms the reponse was more "dude, you need to put yourself together and just bail already." There's also the small problem of her nearly inaudible middle register. Poor Emmanuel Villaume was doing his part to quiet the band for her--often to a fault--but to no avail. No bones about it, her voice just has zero cutting power in 40-60 percent of the required range.

I had never seen this production, and went back and forth about it--i.e. I was real, real sick of salmon tones about 15 minutes into Act II, yet the mesmerizing Orgy des Thongs in Act III had me eating every snarky thought I've ever had regarding lamo French ballet interludes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Great f'd up opera love

In honor, or more likely to spite, Valentine's Day, a few opera characters looking for love in all the wrong places:

  • Kundry tries the ol' "Too bad about your mutter...wanna do it?" line...it kind of works. mp3 (Kollo/Ludwig/Solti)
  • Tannhauser tells that pansy Wolfram what he thinks of his "hohe Liebe." mp3 (Domingo/Schmidt/Sinopoli)
  • Marie takes a break from her boyfriend's descent into madness by submitting to the lust of a sadistic drum major. Way to make those healthy choices, Marie. mp3 (Silja/Uhl/Bohm)
  • Thrown in the river by lousy cockteases Alice Ford and co., Falstaff gives it up for his real love: getting trashed. mp3 (Gobbi/Karajan)
These of course limited by what I had on hand. Your own nominations for most sad and misguided opera romances welcome below.

Monday, February 13, 2006

News from the Gelb era

Tommasini does a nice job this morning calling out the elephant in the living room of Sunday's big Gelb article: the absence of new commissions on the agenda. As A. Ross noted yesterday, despite the many inspired ideas floated (the ticket price structure changes, the big name conductors, the big name theatre directors, the movie theater-cast thing) there's just not much here to get excited about music wise.

The more I think about it, it's actually quite distressing that Gelb's plan for reviving grand opera in the 21st century seems to be collaborating with the leading creative lights of every artistic discipline except opera itself. That doesn't leave a lot of hope that Gelb's Met is going to catapult the art form into the twenty-first century or shore up its twentieth century legacy, and its hardly very "daring". It also belies a fundamental misreading of complaints about the Volpe era. Lame productions are of course bothersome, but there's only one metric you need to know to indict Volpe on charges of hideboundness: four new commissions in three decades.

To answer Tommasini's question about Gelb's proposed high-brow Broadway workshop, it is indeed not the Met's job to help Broadway with its own issues. Just think for a second about the impact of the Met funding a high-profile project development program for the stable of contemporary composers Alex Ross suggests--John Adams, Kaija Saariaho, Thomas Adès--with the final goal of either a Met production or a production at some partner company. It would immediately make the Met THE hotbed for new opera in North America and generate publicity for contemporary opera for years to come. Why should an opera house spend that capital on developing Broadway talent?

Mind you, I am a big fan of envelope pushing musical theatre composers, but they have very different battles to fight. Those composers need to be writing with the goal of retaking territory on Broadway, not the opera house. Furthermore, it's hard to imagine any of these very viable Broadway composers wanting to put something on the Met stage with no chance for an extended run, no Tony conisderation, and no Broadway-level exposure. If the pieces in question are really written as 'opera' they probably won't be palatable or flexible enough to warrant a life on Broadway and will end up dying a noble death in the Met or the Vivan Beaumont. At the end, you just have energy being sucked from Broadway and focus and funding being sucked from new opera.

As for Osvaldo Golijov, I agree this is thin consolation. I enjoyed the Pasion at BAM several years ago, and have tickets to go again this month. But naming Golijov as your one commission from the classical camp is a fairly transparent bid to do 'new music' without engaging new music all the way. Now, I find the whole 'classical' or not thing with Golijov quite silly. His work is obviously a very different and very unapologetic animal: an aggressive hybrid. There's no question that the modern concert hall or opera house can handle it, and those venues are very right to support it. But ultimately it is what all hybrids are: instructive, iconoclastic and by definition an end in itself which lies just outside the traditions from which it pulls. That's not quite the same as explicitly moving the ball forward for contemporary opera.

Finally, I would question how much 'new' can really be accomplished by throwing theatre talent at the standard repertoire. I'm sure there will be some neat things, and I'm glad stinker productions like this year's Romeo and Juliette will be less likely. But unless you go the way of Regietheatre, designing for standard opera just doesn't engage theatre artists to the same extent as letting them shape new works. Reinvigoration for the Met repertoire for sure, but not for the opera world at large.

Of course, I'm not saying Gelb should sacrifice a shiny coat on the Met's bread and butter for a new music crusade (yeah mixed metaphors). But if part of his mission is to pull in the audiences which will do BAM, downtown theatre, and high-brow musical theatre, yet stay away from the Met, I think this strategy will only get him so far. At least as far as its daring-ness is concerned, the Met should focus on making the case that new grand opera is a vital part of the contemporary performing arts scene and worth investing in. Otherwise we're just talking window dressing.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

That was quick

Just watched the DVD of this 2002 Simon Boccanegra with Claudio Abbado conducting, Karita Mattila as Amelia, and Carlo Guelfi as SB. While he's maybe not my favorite ever, its a very lovely sound and there's no hint of the pitch/stamina/take your pick mess on display at the recent Rigolettos. Did he really go from solid to oh-man-this-is-kinda-upsetting in four years?

P.S. Mattila kicks ass here.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


A: whoa...have you seen this?
J: who the hell is that?
A:that would be la voigt
A:looking like one sexy motherfucker
J: except
J: NO! Make it go away!
A: "shakin dat ass...shakin dat ass"
J: hah! eww
A: it is quite a day for those at the intersection of opera fetish and chubby fetish

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Don't Cry For Me, Violetta -or-I Am The Boss of You

In September, a friend said to me, "You really need to make an effort to see the Gheorgiu Traviata. I played it for my students, and even the ones who never show up cried."

At the time, I had already sort of categorized this star-centric incarnation of Verdi's heartbreaking-est of scores as just that: a sort of novelty event that would be perfectly pleasant, filled with anticipatory buzz, and ultimately leaving one with a small sense of disappointment.

As is often the case, I was truly mistaken.

Despite a rather "sing out Louise!" start, Gheorghiu's Violetta was pretty much out of this world. Light as air, yet full of rich, sexy tones, I found myself thinking "I finally get it. THIS is what a knock-out lyric sporano sounds like live." I know it sounds oversimplified. I think it may not be, really. She is just a damn good singer who is all but perfect in this role.

On a sidenote, I find her to be one of the more amusing divas. There were things about her curtain calls last night that gave me the giggles for the remainder of the evening. She did this sort of hilarious Madonna-on-the-balcony-in Evita thing with her right arm, bent at the elbow at a 90 degree angle, knuckles facing the crowd, followed by enthusiastic waves and eye contact with the Balcony Boxes...as she calmly stood on the stage for an unusually (and delightfully) long time to accept the love. In the last curtain call, Ms. G was the boss. She was leading the cast rather forcefully by the hand about the stage, ensuring each side of the house had their turn to spew glory. And...*ahem*...spew we did.

The love, however, was not reserved for the tragic heroine alone. Jonas Kaufmann's Alfredo was met with -almost- as intense a flood of approval. This, folks, is a good tenor. It is a very grounded, powerful, and remarkably consistent voice that only showed weakness in the highest of registers. As an actor, he brought a fair bit of emotion and hormonal energry to the role, and was well paired with Gheorghiu's appealing doses of high drama.

Anthony Michaels-Moore turns in a very capable Germonthttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif. It is a big voice, and despite a few awkward attacks, very listenable.

A successful evening, indeed. I am considering going back for some Dunleavy...or some Hong...maybe even a little D. Croft?

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Hello there

Our apologies for the lack of action as of late. Something about January-February that makes one remember one's office actually pays one for certain services.

Just wanted to note that Emmeline, Tobias Picker's first opera, has been an enjoyable listen. There's a lot in common with AmTrag--a mezzo singing about God, a factory scene, Pat Racette getting knocked up--but quite an achievement nonetheless. The beauty of Picker is that he always ends up one step ahead of those who would musically dismiss him--of course you can say its Copland regurgitated by Stravinsky or some BS--but goddamn the man writes affecting opera. NOT musical theatre, mind you. I know musical theatre, and this ain't it. But honest to god opera--although he is A) not stuck in the idiom of 1950s academics or B) John Adams. I don't really know what's going to happen here, but it kind of feels like a living breathing opera tradition. That is a neat feeling.

On the Mozart tip, I've been hitting up the 1963 Bohm Cosi. As promised, it's awfully magical. That said, I guess I would quibble with the following: I'm very glad that today's tempi are faster in certain places; Alfredo Kraus sounds extremely nice in some places as Ferrando, but in others he is either sloppy or too heavy; Hanny Steffek's "funny" Despina voice is actually skip the track annoying. That said, the ensemble parts are sublime beyond words, Elisabeth Swarzkopf makes Fiordiligi happen in a way I didn't know possible, and Christa Ludwig's Dorabella is solid as an f'ing rock.

That's all for now. J should currently be watching a certain Miss Gheorghiu expire, so look for more later...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Now, With Even MORE Zauber™

On the eve of a triple-header this past week of Flute-Flute-Bergerac, I decided the only sane way to manage my opinions would be in one brief follow-up post. And here we are.

Having missed it last season, I went to Taymor's oh-so-Magic Flute carrying a fairly significant bit of anticipation, and an impressive assortment of preconceptions, both positive and negative. In the end it was, as I expected, totally delightful and over the top. My biggest sentiment afterward, directed in good humor at critics and blogger friends, was something to the effect of "Dear Everyone, Lighten up. Love, Jonathan". I find a lot of humor in people getting so uptight and uncomfortable about a production that is essentially three+ hours of highly imaginative, visually stunning frivolity. It undeniably works with this text and even moreso with Mozart's music. It's just sweet enough, just scary enough, and frankly just senseless enough to perfectly support what is in essence a musically sophisticated vaudeville piece.

And I have to speak to this pervasive argument--the sort of "silver-bullet-no-one-can-argue-this" statement I find so many making about this production: "It distracts from the SINGING" Oh, the singing! Right, right, the singing. God forbid there should be something...ANYTHING to look at while Nathan Gunn inaudibly sings "Der Vogelfänger Bin Ich Ja." I think if anyone NOT insistent on being just a bit above this likeable production actually stepped back for a moment they would realize that it is only "distracting" from the singing when the singing itself is not so hot or, in the case of Gunn and Christy, not so audible. I never for a moment was distracted from Miklosa, Dunleavy, Cutler or Robinson who all turned in very fine if not wholly overwhelming performances (with the possible exception of Robinson, who is about as good a Sarastro as I can recall).

To throw my critical hat in the ring, however, I will say that some of the costumes were retarded. There was a gaggle of choristers at one point that looked like they were in a choir at some sort of Gay Christian Summer Camp in Santa Cruz. If you missed them, they were standing just upstage of the construction paper nuns and just stage left of the felt fingers.

Onward! Last night I had the unexpected pleasure of seeing, and hearing for the first time, Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac. I gotta admit, I was poised to not like this one. An unpopular cover starring in an obscure opera by a composer known almost solely for his massively edited (thanks Toscanini) last ten minutes or so of Turnadot. At best, I expected to find it a sort of bearable curiosity. Instead, I was delighted to find it a rather lush, emotional piece with two great roles. Unfortunately, Domingo was again "Indisposed" last night ("In the Shower, In the Bathroom"). His cover, Antonio Barasorda, has a sort of unpleasant, wobbly, though not unlistenable voice. I would, however, like to hear the piece with a stronger tenor.

The real star of the evening was Sondra Radvanovsky as Roxane. A particularly savvy opera fan recently turned me on to the wonders of this American soprano. She is sort of that hard to find perfect balance of presence and delicacy--creating a beautiful sound yet never losing full command of the stage. Having only heard her (at least recently) in a couple acts of a ho-hum Die Fledermaus several weeks back, it was nice to see her sing something with significantly more heft, both musically and emotionally.
br> Zambello's production is tasteful and has a sweet, not overly obvious storybook feel to it. I also noticed that the bakery scene in the second act looks remarkably like the set for MARTHA. I did not, however, receive a free Michelin guide, or even a Mario Batali cookbook on the way out.

Afterward, I popped into Tower and picked up a Dialogue des Carmelites recording I have been wanting. It was on sale...I listened to it as I was drifting to sleep last night and woke up to the repeated guillotine *whacks*, which, at 3AM, I found particularly disconcerting.