Saturday, March 31, 2007

Seville Blows

So, I also got to catch the second to last Barbiere last weekend, and truth be told, between JDF, Peter Mattei, Joyce Dx2 and such a lovely production, I was feeling remarkably charitable towards it around the 50 minute mark. Had I misjudged? Was I wrong to say it should be consigned to the dustbin of history? That it was a malignant leech sucking the blood from repertories around the world?

This Barbiere certainly takes a valiant stab at overcoming the usual lamenesses. It boasts a spare, elegant production that doesn't oversell the thin story; singers that can actually, you know, sing all the notes; and direction and singers with comic instincts sharp enough to actually breathe some life into the dessicated farce bits. And I mean, what's not to love about an opening in which you get to hear JDF sing both Ecco Ridente and that other pretty song? Good deal right?

Well, I thought so. And then we got to one of the parts where they go back and forth about some stupid letter thing for like 15 minutes, and I was reminded why I said all those mean and also correct things in the first place.

The way I see it, comedy in opera falls into three categories: 1) Those pieces which may or may not have the funny left in them, but there's really no way of knowing, since all the funny bits are done in that arch funny-esque style which is used to represent farce in historical works but isn't actually intended to make audiences laugh. Which isn't a bad thing per se. Comedy is hard, and it's reasonable sometimes to just revive good music without going the distance to exhume old comedy. 2) Then there are pieces which are often done in aforementioned funny-esque style but which, in the hands of capable actors and directors, can actually be delightful and truly funny comedies again: think the Met's Cosi or perhaps last year's Don Pasquale. 3) And finally, there are those pieces which, despite the best efforts of everyone involved, just aren't going to be funny ever, ever, again. It's not their fault. It's just the nature of comedy. 10 years is a long life span for funniness, to say nothing of 200 years. I feel Barbiere falls into this last category. I mean, maybe things would be different if 80 percent of the music wasn't simply a tiresome byproduct of that unfunniness, but it is, so they aren't.

OK. Enough ragging on it. You know it's not personal, right JDF? It's not your fault your rep is connected to some played out operas. I would hate to think I've done anything to offend you and that--oh mercy--that aching honey awesome voice. Like, you have to wonder if Joyce DiDonato, standing two feet away from the orifice producing that sound, doesn't come just a little bit in the last scene. If sun-dappled sweetness was a lethal weapon, he'd be a murderer.

Joyce for her part was splendid as well--I was really into a mezzo voice for Rosina. Peter Mattei, with his usual delicious sound, turned in a completely original Figaro. The jocky camraderie between him and JDF in the first act was pitch perfect. If only they hadn't been up against the drag that is the rest of Barbiere. I mean, not like I won't be there when they come to Chicago next year. K. Back to the Helena b-cast.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Annie Get Your Speer

Despite my inability to resist that, the DC Walkure did not pick up where Rheingold left off with the insufferable old west stuff. However, I don't know how the WNO or Francesca Zambello's people put together the godawful video projections that are threatening to be a staple of this "American" Ring, but they seriously need to get a handle on this before someone comes up with the money for Siegfried. In a production that otherwise scored some significant improvements over last year's craptastic Rheingold, the video component was terribly ill-concieved.

And it's not just that it's in bad taste to intersperse extremely literal video sequences with metaphorical stage designs. I mean, they look like they were created using a Make-Your-Own-Music-Video booth at the mall from around 1991. During the running through the forest sequences, before the first act and between Act II scenes 1 and 2, we got what was quite clearly the product of some guy running around Rock Creek Park with a video cam vigorously pushing of the sun flare effect button. During the Ride of the Valkyries, there were seriously like silohuettes of bomber planes and parachuting men in different sizes and different shades of lilac and yellow bouncing around the scrim. It looked so dumb I had to close my eyes at one point just to avoid going into Act III all pissed.

This and a few other mis-steps (i.e. a lame device whereby fallen warriors are denoted with big placards imprinted with a multicultural gallery of faces) are really a shame, because as I said, this production has a lot more going for it than the first installment.

The first act is no huge revelation: Hunding's house as suburban prison and Hunding as nightmare asshole husband. But there was something more specific here that made it unique, a sort of Blue Velvet inspired, dark underbelly of hyper-bad 50's decorating taste, cheap looking leather jackets and rifles thing that resonated with story. It did what modern interpretations of the Ring should do: used contemporary motifs to subtly evoke the archetypes in the story. It's not about making it "accessible" to modern audiences or anything so trite, it's about opening the audience's mind to the universe of possibilities contained in these characters. Last year's Rheingold, with its "everyone find a buddy in the AP American History textbook" approach, demonstrated what not to do--try to wed the story to some overly specific historical or social program.

I grew fond of the first scene of Act II, which was a standard Wotan as CEO thing. Kind of a no-brainer, but I thought the set, a board room with a huge picture of turn of the century lower Manhattan peeking through dramatic clouds, was handsome. And again, it's ok for Wotan to be a CEO in that scene as long as the rest of the story isn't forced to conform to it. Scene II had the duel thicket under a highway with a cornfield in the background. I kept thinking a specifically suburban highway embankment, perhaps lit by the glow of big box store neon signs, would have been more clever, but I was basically ok with it.

Act III was the least successful--after the intolerable opening sequence, the concept was a very mushy militaristic thing, with Valkyries in paratrooper outfits and Brunnhilde's rock painted with helicopter landing pad colors. Despite the Nazi and Apocalypse Now associations that everyone seems unable to shake, it never ceases to amaze how little Wagner's brand of bombast seems to fit with the depths of 20th century war and annihalation which no one could have dreamed of in the middle of Europe's peaceful century. Kudos, though, for the big-time fire effect at the end. I do hope Alan Held still has eyebrows by the end of this run.

So that's it for the production. 'Progress' seems like too strong a word, but I didn't leave thinking 'abject failure' like last time.

And now to the small matter of the sangin':

Anna Kampe: Anna Kampe's Sieglinde was surely the breakout highlight of the evening. Between a stunning voice packing cool Mattila style radiance and splendid acting, she was a great match for the Flamingo's Siegmund. I have no idea how big the voice is, since everyone sounds deafening in the Kennedy Center OH, but it's a great sound, and she she is a tremendous singer.

El Domingo: I mean. It's just the goddamndest thing. I feel like singing with him must be almost unnerving, like if your grandpa opened his mouth and out came this super-hot 30-year old voice. The others were good, as I'll get to, but the Act I closer between him and Kampe probably produced the most unmitigated vocal excitement of the evening. Not that I know from German really, but if I had to give an opinion, this seemed like a less on night for Domingo's Deustch abilities. Not that I gave a rat's ass, of course.

Alan Held: Really a first-rate Wotan from Alan Held, vocally and dramatically, and especially appropriate to this size production. He turned the Act II monologue from an obligatory retread into something really exciting and engrossing, and honestly had me seeing it a whole new light. Likewise some of the more repetitive stretches in the the Act III convo. Now, it's true he doesn't have that special dark chocoloate resonance you want in your really top-tier Wotan. And it showed especially in "Der Augen Leuschtendes Paar" which lacked the glue necessary to really hold things together. But overall it was a terribly effective performance.

Linda Watson: Hmm. The jury is still out on Linda Watson. I remember really liking her on the Bayreuth bcasts last summer. I acknowledged the pitchiness (ht: Randy Jackson) but I loved the rich upper register and the chrome plated spine running top to bottom through her range. The spine was in evidence in DC, for sure, but I found myself really not liking the sound of her top. Now, I am more than prepared to be indifferent to any given Brunnhilde's upper register and love everything else. A real beloved top in that role seems kind of reserved for the select immortals. But I don't think I can sign on to a sound I actively find abrasive. Now, she's totally a great actress, and, despite the pitch problems (which seemed here mostly a product of exhaustion) I was down with the rest of her voice. And I mean, we could be listening to Jane Eaglen for the love of god, so let's not be flip about a solid Brunnhilde. But I dunno...more data points are called for.

Elena Zaremba: Tommassini I think called her wobbly, and to be sure it was on the big mean pointy voiced side of the Fricka spectrum rather than Christa Ludwig side. But I think I'm into that sort of thing where Fricka is concerned, so brava.

WNO Orchestra and Heinz Fricke: Mixed feelings here. As far as Fricke is concerned, for every moment I thought was really fine, and these were mostly in the gentler portions of the score, there was another moment where I was thinking "man, he really phoned in that passage." Also, the magic fire music was almost bizarrely rushed. Of course, comparing the one live performance I've seen to the myriad classic recordings in my head isn't really a good basis for criticism, so I'll just say that Fricke had some nice moments, but this Walkure reading leaned toward sweat on the brow rather than organic miracle of sound. On the other hand, J and I listened to the Karajan 1951 Act III on the drive home, and I found myself discovering many new ways to appreciate that incredible reading. So thanks for that.

Thankfully, the orchestra has definitely solved the power problems which plagued it during Rheingold--big moments here were duly big and satisfying. But, uh...we need to talk about the horn section. Serious pitch and crispiness issues all over the place. I never realized how important horns are to Walkure until I heard them suck like that. Get it together, people.

Phew. Well, that's probably more than you wanted to hear about a production you probably aren't going to see. But it was my first live Walkure, so there were some things to be said. Barring the little issue of how they are going to pay for it and who the hell they are going to get to play Siegfried, I'm looking forward to Round III...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The All-knowing Scallop

J: so wait---you are coming to NY and then going down to DC right?
A: yes
J: when do you get here?
A: Tuesday
J: are you doing interviews?
A: one in DC on Friday
J: Weds night is a Barbiere
A: I was thinking about that
A: I'm tempted by that Chenier
A: but I have to be at the interview at 10
A: love that Vurmana
J: for serious
J: it's sort of too bad you're not here for a Helena
J: like
J: the production is lame
J: have you looked at pictures?
J: but the singing is so great
A: no
A: are there clear pictures?
J: *pics*
A: um
A: otay
J: I mean...
J: *pic*
A: you know, if a character is called the omniscient
mussel, you should really have someone pop out of a gd shell
J: the Omniscient Mussel is all "well, this is awkward"
A: ha
J: that black thing is the OM
A: right
A: I see no shell
A: no life size shell, at least
J: and NO IDEA who the guy running is
J: this is never explained
A: jeez
A: and what boring ass smocks on everyone
A: that looks dumb
J: it really does
J: the audience commentary was great
J: "what is that guy running?, she entered on a bed...where are they now?"
A: haha
A: I wonder how many more craptastic volpe premieres there are in the pipeline
A: I would have liked to have been there when they let Gelb in on the secret designs
A: "Why is that guy running? Well did we already build it? How big? Crud."
J: haha

Monday, March 19, 2007

I Lost 135 Pounds for THIS?

The small older woman in front of me spoke quietly:

"Oh God...," she said wearily, as the curtain opened on the 2nd act of Thursday evening's prima of "Die Ägyptische Helena".

Oh God, indeed.

Now and then it's amusing to consider what would happen if you gave a bunch of immensely pretentious undergraduate theater students a wad of cash, a huge scene shop, and a wildly impenetrable text. While I'm not totally certain how that particular scenario would shake out, I have a feeling it would look at least somewhat like this.

Ohhhh boy. This is one freaking ugly production, folks. It's sort of like....Disney's Tomorrowland with a hint of pre-remodel sea foam green lobby of Alice Tully Hall. In a word: Boooo. Now, much like Maury, I can't bring myself to full-fledged boo-ing. But, a few quiet boo's and giggles between my companion and myself certainly proved satisfying.

The boo's, however, were reserved exclusively for the production. Musically, it was really a very fine evening. Torsten Kerl, the weakest link (Goodbye.), mercifully excused himself and his throat infection after a rocky first act. He was replaced by the very solid Michael Hendrick, who, given the opportunity to sing the entire role may or may not prove to be fairly awesome. And what do you know--a glance at the Met website tells us he will indeed sing the role tomorrow evening. Good news. Now I have plans tomorrow night.

Damrau was in excellent form, as usual. I have to admit--I'm a pretty big fan. She really has a Voice That Won't Quit™. And oh, how I do love a Dependable Singer. Damrau exists somewhere well beyond the dependable, however. And how nice to hear her in Strauss again. It was, after all, her Zerbinetta that at least partially prompted the creation of the Wellsung blog.

One D. Voigt was the real star of the evening. Going out on a limb...I'm going to say that in SOME ways, her performance in this trumps even her Chicago Salome. Not that I find a ton of value in pitting two excellent performances from the same singer against one another but...this role is pretty freaking merciless. She sings it with total ease and confidence. Obviously I enjoyed Salome a lot more--the production was less retarded, and please, it's goddamn Salome.

Anyway, Voigt is the queen. Of everything. And it's terrific that she is a a good sport about this stupid production. Like, she had to have nearly lost her lunch when she first saw the plywood comet or the Omniscient Mussel Covered in Tar.

Speaking of the Mussel of Dreams--poor, poor Jill Grove. Act one: covered head to toe in tar. Act two: in confectioner's sugar. She sang well, though the OmniMuss isn't exactly the role upon which to build a career or anything.

Overall, I'm giving this thing the thumbs up. Yes, the production sucks. A lot. And yes, the libretto makes NO sense. And no, no one would say it's Strauss' finest score. But there are lovely moments. Voigt and Damrau tear it up.

And really, outside of Dresden, are we ever going to see this again?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Strauss, Cheaper!

So....I know ticket sales are up this year, but has anyone noticed that the blue plate special this week appears to be the Ägyptische Helena prima?

What the F? I suppose the if-we-mount-it-they-will-come-(at-least-on-the-first-night) philosophy that seems to have driven ticket prices of new production premieres into the stratosphere is not totally panning out...

The other Helena performances seem to be selling nicely.

Anyway, my full price tickets and I will be there on Thursday.

Saturday, March 10, 2007


Arg. Well, this is a severely late review of Lyric's Dialogues of the Carmelites, which J and I took in two (or three) weeks ago, but it still has two shows left, so I feel compelled to represent.

This is a lovely production: minimalist, classy and blessed with moments of really stunning beauty. In one scene, when the sisters are informed of their sentence, they are dressed in all black--then slowly recede into the crowd of citizens, becoming indistinguishable in the dimming lights, only to reemerge from the crowd in brilliant white robes. Wow. And the lighting design throughout is an ever fascinating essay in shades of blue, gray, and white, thoughtfully enhancing the careful shading in the story. I shall say it again. Why the h can't City Opera pull off productions like this? This production pulls off more elegant moments, armed more or less with only nun get-ups, than NYCO had in its whole season last year.

Also, Felicity Palmer is a rockstar. Clad in a shroud, hair a scrappy blond mop, she OWNS the stage as the Old Prioress. Her death sequence is one of those rare marriages of opera and the sort of balls out acting that would be at home on the straight stage. It is shocking, at times nauseating, and completely chill inducing. Awesome.

As J noted at the time, it's a bit harder to feel too strongly about the other vocal parts of Carmelites. Bayrakdarian as Blanch-a de la Forc-a was no doubt excellent, as was Pat Racette in the Mother Superior/(New Prioress?) role. But the real beauty in Dialogues doesn't lie in the solo writing, but in Poulenc's stunning orchestral and choral effects. These are brought off tremendously by the ensemble and the Lyric band, under Andrew Davis, who masterfully structures Poulenc's patterns for dramatic impact.

Just to ensure you're getting it fair and balanced, though, some downsides: 1. the guillotine woosh sound was a bit too ambiguous for my tastes. Maybe a woosh-thud would solve this problem? J says he thinks its actually a manipulation of some percussion instrument that's written into the score, tho, so maybe I am out of luck. 2. they have the nuns doing this kind of tai-chi dance as they are singing the Salve Regina and getting gets a bit old after like 74 executions. 3. not really a downside per se, but sopranos in nun costumes are really hard to tell apart, and the plot involves some confusing shifts in the nun-archy. Read the notes BEFORE the lights go down if you're not familiar. And tell me if you understand how promotion works in the convent. I feel like one of them gets passed over for Pat Racette but I don't know who or for which post.

Long story short: Poulenc kicks ass; don't wait for the DVD.