Monday, July 31, 2006

Look Guys, They Named a Boat for Us

I sort of expected our Glimmerglass weekend to be a sort of mid-afternoon snack; something low carb and possibly bland to appease the operappetite between Tanglewood/Caramoor and the start of the new Met season. It was not so.

I am going to let Alex's assessment of The Greater Good be the Wellsung party line. I will throw in that even in the less-horribly-conceived-than-the-rest first 30 minutes or so, I still found it basically lame and cutesy (vocal lines such as: "I'm c-c-c-cooooold. N-never been so c-c-c-coooold", etc).

The pinnacle of this opera's depserate pandering for some connection with its audience comes near the end, when, in an oh so selfless act of sexual martyrdom, Boule de Suif, the afternoon's "Whore With a Heart of Gold" has sex with a hot German soldier. The poor darling.What happens is this:

While they have sex, the violin section mimics the sound of a mattress squeaking. This goes on for three full scenes. The lights go down, the lights come up. Someone comments on how long they have been having sex. Everyone giggles. The lights go down. The lights come on. Someone ELSE comments on how long ty have been having sex...etc etc. All the while, the poor violin section is making the stupid bed squeak sound.

Ok, no more to say about that--on to the real centerpiece of the weekend.

Don't ask me what my top five favorite operas are, it will make me panic. I will tell you, that as that sort of list changes and fluctuates, Jenufa always remains damn close to the top. So, as Alex pointed out--in any successful production of this piece, the biggesst accolades really must go to Janacek. This idea is helpful to me as I really try to zoom in on what makes me love opera--for me it is always going to be more about the piece itself, with the hopes that a given execution of the piece will bring it to life in a way that does it justice. I guess this speaks to why I can't really roll with the Bel Canto. It's music that, to my ears, has little reason to exist without a vocal acrobat to dazzle us with runs and high notes. I find myself, at times, listening to Bellini or Rossini and wanting to scream: "Just sing some fucking scales and be done with it!!"

I guess this is why, as my tastes slowly develop, I find myself leaving heavily toward the Germans--specifically Wagner and Strauss (big surprise, I know). I can listen to a dozen Salomes at this point and discover something new about the piece every time. And with every listen, I feel more strongly that the music and text are perfectly wed and truly inform each other--as opposed to listening to a dozen recordings of, say, I Puritani, where there is some fun in listening to how a given singer can survive a given passage, but little to be gleaned from the piece itself.

All of these are broad generalizations and are really truly only about my personal tastes. Alex and I just listened to so damn much Strauss and Wagner in the car to Glimmerglass, that after two Caramoor Bel Canto extravaganzas, I have this sort of thing on the brain.
br> There is a point here: Jenufa, to me, falls firmly in the category of pieces that stands on their own merits--and that when it is brought to life with artists who understand its sublimity, we are fortunate to be there to witness it. As one of my truly favorite operas, and as it was my first time hearing it live, I was beyond thrilled with what I heard aznd saw Saturday night.

Jonathan Miller's understated new production basically leaves the opera alone. It plucks it from a rural Czech village and sets it in the rural U.S.--tho the precise time period was unclear. As Alex said brilliantly: "It was basically a way for them not to do the whole thing in Czeck peasant outfits". Exactly. The production was unobtrusive and nice to look at.

Maria Kanyova sings a sensitive, vocally confident Jenufa. I heard her earlier this year in Chicago Opera Theater's Nixon in China. Her Pat Nixon was perhaps even a bit more brushed up at that point than her Jenufa--but in Chicago we saw the final performance, and here we saw the first. Kanyova's voice has the power it needs for a small, acoustically helpful house like Glimmerglass--but I imagine it could get lost in a bigger setting. She made legitimate acting choices which completed the package.

Roger Honeywell and Scott Piper, as Laca and Steva, respectively, both gave vocally strong performaznces. Honeywell was the more impressive of the two. Once he it his stride somewhere around mid-act one, he brought real guts and drama right up until the end. Laca, in the end, is the meatier of th two roles.

The real star of the evening was Elizabeth Byrne and her impeccably sung, totally terrifying Kostelnicka. It was pretty intense in that little house hearing a woman who still sings Brunnhildes (yes, that's her) sing Kostelnicka. She struck the balance between being totally over the top and intense and actually SINGING the role, which was refreshing. Maybe I will cover my ears and imagine her ballsy voice this winter while trying to listen to Anja Silja bark her way through it.

The orchestra, under the seemingly capable baton of Stewart Robinson, held it together for the most part but was never wildly impressive. I get the sense the Glimmerglass orchestra is not the company's strongest feature--but perfectly adequate. No complaints.

In the end, it is Janacek who takes the evening. We were a lucky audience to hear this brilliant piece with an ensemble of intelligent artists. Hopefully the Jenufa momentum will keep trucking. If the audiences in New York and DC in the coming season respond in kind with the audience up in Cooperstown Saturday night...I imagine its place in the rep will only become more prominent.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Glimmerglass report

Perhaps I will say more later, but as I'm sure J is going to have words to spare about the Jenufa which opened Satruday at Glimmerglass, I will leave it at this. This Jenufa goes on the very short list of most exciting time spent in an opera house all year. Screaming, giddy, clapping til your hands hurt bravas go to Elizabeth Byrne's Kostelnicka--if there's a more thrilling Kostelnicka to be had dramatically or vocally out there, please let me know, because anything more intense than Byrne's searing reading might well induce seizures. Cheers for the rest of this committed, exemplary cast as well, and cheers above all for Janacek. Note to the opera universe--people given Janacek done properly will flip the f out. You might be able to reel them in with yet another Boheme, but give them a soul bruising Janacek and they'll go home wondering where opera has been all their lives.

Before the memory dissipates though, I want to say a few things about "The Greater Good", the premeire by Stephen Hartke we saw earlier today. It is not a good opera, in fact it put me in a rather foul mood despite the sunshine and lake and general upstateness that followed it. But it was interesting in its badness. While J will not be as charitable, my interest was actually quite piqued for the first 45 minutes or so.

The opera is based on a Guy de Maupassant story about a party of bourgeois couples fleeing the Franco-Prussian war and the kindly but infamous whore among them who must decide whether she'll take one for the team. The bulk of the first act is dominated by an extended scene in the carriage trasnporting them to Le Havre. Both the vocal lines and the score are erratic, scattered, punctuated by short piercing moments of harmony and reckless percussion. The scene, staged cleverly in a carriage set which is broken apart and moved around to give the illusion of different perspectives, takes its time in this state, patiently forcing its audience to enter the piece's mood of isolation and bleakness. Yet, eventually, as the group grows hungry, and the whore Boule de Suif generously shares her stash of food, the musical components begin to take shape, in a chorus of surprising beauty as the couples sample the food, and in the opera's first aria--a captivating monologue in which Boule de Suif reveals some of the past which has brought her to this point.

If not so terribly distinctive, this long opening sequence is nonetheless a solid piece of writing.

How unfortunate then that the writers proceed to piss it all away. Once the carriage scene is completed we are dumped into a virtually meaningless, pleasureless, and countless succession of scenes which attempt to tell the balance of the story in cinematic detail. And herein lies the problem. With obvious exceptions, the successful opera hinges to a great extent on its ability to construct a series of extended musical and emotional arcs. Opera has the luxury to do this because the richness and complexity of the musical language available to it can command our attention for these unbroken spans.

This is a categorical difference from the musical theatre, in which (with obvious exceptions) the self-contained number is the organizing princple of the drama and the score. Here, one has the liberty to tell a story in as many scenes as one has numbers, or more. You can get closer to the strucutral freedom epitmoized by film, where the drama can be broken into small components which closely approximate the literal plot.

But apply this reasoning to opera, and you get something like the dismal spectacle we witnessed today, in which a composer tries to actually sustain complex music for the inanities required to set each new scene. Listening to people intoning good morning over and over to each other, relaying useless information, and all other sorts of filler does nothing but gradually impoverish both music and drama of any new ideas. "The Greater Good", which didn't necessarily have so many ideas to begin with, started flailing musically and dramatically in this manner shortly before the halfway mark and never looked back. By the end the torturous second act the greatest good was no doubt getting the hell out of there.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Tank: Ready.

By my calculation, I have to wait a full 271 days to hear what I anticipate will be the euphoric culmination of my last two weeks of concert-going:

Elektra--with Ewa Podleś as Klytamnestra.

I'm pretty hot for both right now--Madame P and Elektra have managed to get me all worked up on two consecutive weekends.

Most of you probably caught the broadcast of Elektra from Tanglewood on WQXR. They rebroadcast it last night. The only working radio in my apartment is a $29.99 boombox from Radio Shack. Considering my only other option was my tiny little iBook speakers, I went for the boombox. Even with the slightly oddly balanced recording (the voices were REALLY forward) and the crummy little radio, I was grinning for a straight 97 minutes. More than anything, I appreciated the memory jog to last weekend, when Maury and I were in fact there for this overall stunning performance. A couple observations:

Brewer's Chrysothemis came off better on the radio than it did in person. I think the subtler ways in which she was displaying her vocal committment and characterization got a little lost in the 5500 seat + lawn Music Shed at T-Wood. I think I'm into her. I hope the California audience at Festival del Sole this weekend realizes how lucky they are--she flew in as a last minute replacement to sing Strauss Four Last Songs for an ill Flem-ball.

The harsher edges of Lisa Gasteen's voice came through on the radio--somewhat less so in person. Regardless, t fact that she even gets through the role is damn impressive, and that she does so while conveying an alternating sense of vengeance and mourning is all the more remarkable. I look forward to her Brunnhilden.

Felicity Palmer stole the evening--both in person and on the broadcast. Her Klytamnestra was appropriately campy and...well she was fucking nuts. Yet she managed, at 62, to deliver a potent, accurate interpretation of the role. She was in as good a voice as any of the rest of them up there. And a hell of a lot more fun.

Levine and his orchestra squeezed every imaginable bit of fire out of this score--and as you well know, that is a lot. The whole thing could not possibly have been more exciting.

Unless of course it was staged, with Ewa Podleś as Klyt.

Clunky segue into Saturday evening at Caramoor.

Ditto to most of what Alex said. Though I am less sold on Manucharyan. I think I perhaps read his delicacy as a bit unenergized, though he pulled few surprising high notes out of his ass that were totally lovely and impressive.

Ewa P was obviously awesome. This sort of stuff is perfect for her, and she for it. Though as Alex pointed out, it will be even more of a treat to hear her sing a role in something slightly less lame. I am not a fan of the Bel Canto. There just isn't anything "Bel" about it. I can take something like Tancredi more than I can take, say, I Puritani, which I dutifully sat through two weeks prior. I guess it was sort of awesome to hear Sumi Jo sing scales and trills for 8 hours, but I'd rather listen to something with a bit more soul.

I digress for now. Point being--Spring '07, here we come. It'll be swell to hear Podles in a more fitting setting: in a bald cap, scaring the crap out of us while singing Strauss and cackling.

Sign me up.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Tan that creedi

Another delightful night at Caramoor for the Poodles Tancredi. I am glad to report my full conversion to the order of Podles. Diz-amn. Yes, there is the vocal agility and the freakish range and the ever enjoyable slav-tasticness. But oh mercy that bottomless tone...truly one of those handful of voices you feel you can just walk around in for a spell. Every moment is so committed--there is no just pretty, or just drama, just that sweet spot in between that really makes opera a joy.

Some mixed opinions from our section about tenor Yegishe Manucharyan, but I thought him a delight for the consistency of his delicate touch. Georgia Jarman's Amenaide, if not particularly distinctive was thouroughly professional and engaging. Daniel Mobbs continues to hook it up...his NYCO dates are definitely on the calendar for next season. Laura Vlasak Nolen, in the role of "other low voiced lady" on stage had her work cut out for her, but performed wonderfully. Last and unfortunately kind of least was Emily Sinclair, whose smaller by half soprano fulfilled the requirements but didn't really compete with the rest.

While I didn't not like this as much as other Rossini, I still disliked it a fair amount, so the musical experience ain't much to write home about. Some interesting program notes, though, about how the tragic ending was a late and fairly controversial addition, as italian opera of the period didn't really "do" tragic endings. It's fairly obvious in the opera when Rossini crosses out the original last three pages and writes in the "bummer" music, but it still ends up with a nice sense of class, fitfully abetted by Caramoor's error prone lighting effects.

Our compatriots in the cheap seats were, um, considerably more lively than the crowd for Puritani (Yes, I am looking at you Mr. black fan waving first-Brava compulsive in row AA), but good natured on the whole. Minus the older duo between J and I who always picked the moment of exquisite silence in unaccompanied passages to make comments to each other. Coming next weekend: A little thing called Glimmerglass Jenufa. Aw. Yeah.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Just a short note on the Caramoor Puritani earlier enriching time had by all, save perhaps for the "classical music date" assholes in front of me who talked almost nonstop for the entire performance and were deaf to my polite shushes. Just so everyone's on the same page: if you're sitting on grass, light talking/other activities are tolerated. If you're in a chair and under a tent, even if you can hear crickets, standard concert hall etiquette prevails. This is understood, right?

Anyhow. Leading the Orchestra of St. Luke's, Will Crutchfeld at the podium set the tone for a finely detailed and quite thoughtful evening. Sumi Jo tore it up to satisfaction as Elvira, although for my money the real stand out was Barry Banks--I'm a bit regretful now I missed his big Pasquale stand in earlier in the year. He really gives the bel canto the full throttle treatment, which I think would have made up for parts of Ernesto where I'll admit I thought JDF a tad too precious. A substantial honorable mention goes to Daniel Mobbs' wonderfully sensitive Giorgio (or whatever the character that has the really nice aria at the beginning of the second act is called). Weston Hurt as Riccardo was ultimately a tad plain for my taste, but no denying a nice sound.

The rest were strong as well. Naturally, one has to be ok with that amount of bel canto to enjoy, but I am, and I did. And Caramoor is real purdy, if you haven't been. This is just the warm-up mind you...I hope to have my first Poodles experience there on the 22nd.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson

We must count ourselves among those who will forever wonder what experiencing this artist live might have changed in our perception of the world and ourselves. But we can glean some sense of our loss from those who have generously reported on the awe felt in her presence. Do read Maury's elegant tribute .