Saturday, December 12, 2009

Seasonal Interlude



The Shepherd's Farewell, Berlioz, from "L'Enfance du Christ"

Smyooth Myusic

A: how was elektra, yo???
J: oh it was good
J: Bullock was good but not hottt
J: Voigt kinda summoned fat voigt!
J: which is a good thing
A: oh word??
J: she sounded way way better
A: nice
J: I thought G--- was going to die
A: "I call on thee, spirit of fat voigt, rise now..."
J: hah
A: die how?
J: just with general elektra excitement
A: kewl
A: his review is great
J: it's really fun
A: hmmm
A: how wuz felicity palmer
J: she's really great
A: i think i have to do the 22nd or the 29th
J: if you do the 29th I'll go with you
J: I fly to chicago in the morn for Kitty Kabs
A: indeed!
A: that is exciting
A: its really an amazing role for her
A: more complex than jenufa is in a way
J: yeah I'm way excited
A: where are you sitting
J: in the $136 orch seats. row HH.
J: basically the Carmelites seats
A: right
A: worth it

As You Don't Like It

So, I saw some things in the past week, starting with From the House of the Dead and, um, Hair, in New York last Saturday, and concluding with As You Like It at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here on Wednesday. While the latter two are somewhat off topic, I shall start with them first for reasons of relevance (lord knows when FTHOTD is coming back) and ease of review writing.

In the case of "As You Like It", this is owing to the incredible and vast suckage of this production. Now, I want to be clear that this really doesn't reflect on anyone in the truly excellent cast, which was filled with a great assortment of committed and skilled actors. No, this is exclusively a case of directorial misconduct in pursuit of the cheap laff.

The opening scene of this "As You Like It" involves a sort of faux old movie gimmick, which was somewhat inexplicable, but quickly forgotten. The first 40-50 minutes of the production is cast in a Puritan milieu, which is a perfectly good, neutral historical period for Shakespeare. The production is spare, but handsome, and we are clearly dealing with a set of actors committed to the task of inhabiting these mercurial characters and delivering Shakespeare's words with insight and passion.

And then, the characters flee to the forest to escape their various fates, and the whole thing becomes an opportunity for the Shakespeare Theatre Company to demonstrate how much worthless bang they can give you for your buck. Under the rubric of "escape to the forest" being synonymous with an "escape to the uncharted land of historic America", this production casts each successive set of scenes in a different period of American history. So for 15 minutes they are in the Civil War era South and they are all doing Gone with the Wind accents. Then they are all cowboys. Then they are on a steamboat. Then they are all silent movie actors. Any of the actual "drama" constructed during the first forty minutes is flushed right down the toilet in the service of this absurd gimmick that allows them to put the characters in different silly costumes and make them speak in different silly voices that elicits kneejerk laughter from the audience. This isn't a play. This is dress-up.

In the past year or so that I've been going to Shakespeare Theatre Company's productions, I have often been highly impressed. Their Twelfth Night, Dog in a Manger, and Ion last season were inventive, playful, and honest interpretations of classics that earned whatever gimmicks they indulged in. But this production, and the wretched production of "The Alchemist" I suffered through earlier this fall were both pure chicanery. Shakespeare Theatre Company, please stop this madness and start acting like you trust your audience to appreciate the classics on their own terms and not as vehicles for cheap and vulgar sitcom caricatures. Productions like this are an embarrassment.

Phew. OK. Hair and FTHOTD thoughts coming soon.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Strauss in Amsterdam

So, about that Dutch Salome...Parterre has a clip, natch.

First things first: Opera of the Netherlands is housed in the Het Muziektheatre, a modern hall at the southern end of the city's old town. I got a very nice seat on the fringe of the orchestra for less than the price of the Met balcony, tho I think it might have been partial view for the supertitles (surprisingly only in Dutch, since it seems pretty clear that language has about 50 years tops before everyone gives up the ghost and starts speaking English.) Audience (for a Sunday matinee) was probably a notch more hip than your usual Met or Lyric audience, like the usual oldsters plus the monied end of the BAM crowd.


Anyhow. The Salome on view is a fascinating production by Peter Konwitschny, a high practitioner of the sorts of things we apparently will NEVER be able to handle here. Here's a bit of an interview with him.

In Konwitschny's concept, Jochanaan is never down a cistern, but rather a guest at Herod's dinner party of debauched gangsters--something like the last supper of the Patriarchy. While he is clearly conflicted, he is really no more than another face of the male power structure which keeps the other women in the play--Salome, Herodias, and the Page--in a constant state of fear/degradation. Konwitschny makes explicit a dynamic which Strauss and his libretto strongly suggest--it is after all, at base, a tragedy about Salome's innocence, regardless of how much depravity one finds in her, and we can't help but sympathize with her against Jochanaan. Here, we are led to understand his cruelty as part of the same sick universe in which female sexuality is both a commodity to be abused as well as a dangerous threat to the status quo.

As Konwitschny begins to engage in deeper subversions of the superficial action-- Herod executes Narraboth, and Jochanaan uses his death as a chance to appeal, in vain, to the better nature of the other guests--he introduces a distinction between the play as it is being performed, and a sort of transgressive space outside the play which he uses to posit an 'alternate' conclusion.

After a frenzied dance of the Seven Veils which includes the entire cast trying desperately to escape the play and then (I think) slaughtering each other, Salome receives Jochanaan's head as usual--but then hands it over to him so he can think about what he's done. The dining room set begins to recede from the proscenium and he is left alone with Salome on an empty stage, confused and lost. Through this violent reversal, Salome has saved him, wresting him from a his sick institutions, and facing him as an equal. Removed from the brutal machinery of the play, they acknowledge their love for each other, and run off together. And in a way, isn't that how it really ends? With ecstasy and rebirth and the overwhelming joy of finally understanding?

Now, mind you, the subtext was flying pretty fast, and I was working from memory of the libretto, so this really just scratches the surface of the richness of Konwisthny's conception.


At the same time, one must point out the inherent failings in such an enterprise. While I really was quite intrigued and sort of touched by the ending, there was nary a shred of that overwhelming emotional experience that non-bizarro universe Salome is designed to produce. There was also a lot of gratuitous regie bullshit--Narraboth's corpse getting sodomized by everyone onstage, Salome helping Herod do heroin, an extra gory Jochanaan head with bonus shoulder still attached (actually, I kind of liked that), etc.--which came off as the usual finger to the audience that tends to sour one on an otherwise very interesting and nuanced project. (To their credit, a few courageous Dutch patrons did send that gang-rape a little boo.)

Annalena Persson was a so-so Salome. Vocally capable enough but not much going on in the sumptuousness department. I kind of think she may be a pretty great actress, though it is hard to tell, when you're ready to judge a SALOME and instead you get a KONZEPT. She, uh, was really convincing when she reversed that male gaze, I guess? That said, girl was game for ANYTHING, so credit is due there.

Primary vocal honors went to Albert Dohmen's rich, magnificent Jochanaan. None of that shouty business that plagues so many of them, but instead a warm commanding tone that brought out many of beauties of the part that you know are in there but don't necessarily get a chance to appreciate in performance. Dohmen also really got the characterization Konwitschny seemed to be going for here, bringing many human touches to Jochanaan's initial weary resignation, tortured questioning, and final revelation--i.e., that him and Salome should totally get married and have babies.

Additional shout-outs to another great Narraboth by Marcel Reijans (of all the challenges of the opera world in 2009, not enough good Narraboths sure isn't one of them, is it), and a Herodias (Doris Soffel) who made more effort than most to sing through the shrieking, to nice effect.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Janáček in Chicago

Hey y'all. Back from Chicago, where I stopped home for Thanksgiving after five days in Amsterdam for a friend's birthday. More on the regietastic Salome I saw at the Nederlandse Opera later--for now, some thoughts on Lyric's current production of Káťa Kabanová, which I saw Saturday...

Káťa Kabanová has a lot in common with the more popular Jenůfa--nice but flawed girl vs. provincial assholes in two-bit town--though it is decidedly the less 'feel-good' of the two. That said, the heroines are really quite different. Where Jenůfa is simple and naive, a creature of the village who, through hardship, reveals great moral depths within herself, Káťa is doomed to never reconcile herself to the hypocrisy and deceit of the village. She is cursed with an artistic soul in a universe devoid of true and pure sentiment, and it destroys her.

The fit of Karita Mattila's voice to the music of these two characters is surely one of the more exquisite things one can experience in an opera house right now. In Káťa's long monologue in the first act, telling of the cherished internal life being crushed under the heel of her married life, Mattila creates moments of such jaw dropping beauty and intensity you almost can't believe your ears. Mattila's Káťa is a woman driven to frenzy by a problem she can't figure out--how she can live, and be expected to live, in the world without any real feeling. Mattila draws you deep into Káťa's terrible dilemma, her voice pealing out of the nervous mass of Janáček's score to reflect the sunlight for a moment before it is consumed again. Chicago people: four shows left. No excuses.

Mattila was well paired with the very exciting Brandon Jovanovich as Boris. I've never seen him before, but looked up him up after Will mentioned him in comments the other week, and was pleased to hear him fulfill all the promises of those youtube videos. Warm and passionate voice and way loud. Can't wait for more of him.

Supporting cast is uniformly strong--can't get quite as excited about the Kabanicha as the Kostelnicka, but Judith Forst was shrill and suffocating and all that good stuff. Special props to the rich-voiced Tichon of Jason Collins.

Great work in the pit from the Lyric orchestra and conductor Markus Stenz--if Jenůfa is more lyrical, the KK score evokes a more varied landscape for its play, at times sensuous, weary, and cruel, and packed with fascinating detail. The production, an early 90s show from the Met, is basically on target. The sorta faux hinted perspective thing with little buildings at the back of a severely raked stage looks like crap from the balcony, but it provides the kind of simple, neutral platform on which Janáček seems to work best, so fine.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hey! (hey) You! (you) Get into my schiff...

Well, I was really hoping to get back to the WNO Ariadne for the last perf on Friday, but hateful office things intervened, and I didna make it. But in the interest of completeness, my thoughts on the one I did attend, a few weeks back:

So, as reported elsewhere, this production had its flaws, but I was really in love with both cast and production by the end of the evening. Maybe I'm starving for Strauss, or maybe I just wanted WNO to have a hit (after the allegedly lame Falstaff and lame-fest Barbiere), but blemishes and all I had a much better time than the last time I saw Ariadne.

For Ariadne to work as a play, it seems, it really needs to be legitimately funny. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy a production that gives short shrift to the humor--its short enough and the music is real purdy after all. But the true dramatic effect doesn't click unless, like the Mozart comedies, the deep abiding humanity of the piece flows directly from the atmosphere created by the farce--it has to feel like a truth revealing itself amidst the simpler pleasures of life. This WNO production (originally from Seattle) does a tremendous job of not taking itself too seriously, and letting those simpler pleasures do their part.

This was partially the work of the production which, while not terribly handsome (e.g. Kristine Jepson is rewarded for her wonderful Komponist with a hideous ill-fitting suit and Stuart Smalley wig) has great direction in the comedy elements and some effective conceits (e.g. the audience on stage during the Opera).

Irene Theorin (seen as Brunnhilde in Walkure at the Met and Siegfried at WNO last year, and in the "Gotterdammerung without the Rhine" here the past two weeks) was a compelling Ariadne--the woman has a ginormous voice, especially in the relatively puny Kennedy Center Opera House. Yes, the volume was fairly subdued well into Act II as some reviews have pointed out, only finally breaking out on the soaring patches of "Es Gibt ein Reich", but it seemed like a clear choice to me, and an effective one at that. Maybe she's not an ideal Ariadne who can bring the cream at all times, but she was committed and funny and all the beauties of the role were in place.

As noted above, Kristine Jepson was a marvelous Komponist, and certainly the best cast in the show, as this is one of her specialties. Her sound is rich and passionate and the reading very intelligent, really everything you could want in the role. Susan Graham: you're great, and I'mma let you finish your career, but you're going to need to relinquish this at the Met at some point. And when you do, Jepson is going to be all over that shiz.

Lyubov Petrova turned in a way enjoyable Zerbinetta. So the voice doesn't really approach the Battle/Dessay standard for prettiness in the part. It DOES sound effortless and exciting, and, as I mentioned after the lackluster Covent Garden Zerbinetta of Gillian Keith, if "Grossmachtige..." doesn't sound effortless then what's the freaking point? Petrova worked it to within an inch of its life, in a good way.

As appears to be the misfortune of the run, unemployed Siegfried #1, Par Lindskog, bailed on the show. Revealing once again WNO's dicey understudy program (everyone remember pantomime Siegfried?) the replacement Bacchus, Corey Evan Rotz, was bumped up from Scaramuccio. This was clearly a bit of a stretch, but Rotz kept the show going, made some nice sounds if within a limited range, and, thankfully, chose his battles carefully in the last 10 minutes. And really, 10 minutes of dicey Bacchus was not nearly enough to torpedo such a winning production.

WNO? More like this, please.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Musicians from Marlboro at the Freer Gallery


Musicians from the Marlboro festival (to which we make plans to go every summer after longingly looking at their website in a cold winter month and then never make good on it...check out their website, it is some serious summer classical music festival porn, no?) offered a program Thursday at the Freer Gallery. The first half was a Mozart flute quartet plus three 20th century works. The second half was Brahms' piano quartet in C minor.

The Mozart that opened the program was a bit of a revelation for one who A) is used to being underwhelmed by Mozart chamber music in concert and B) hates the flute. This was not your standard pretty-melodies-layered-over-the-metronome-beat Mozart playing. There was a great sense of tempo, far more malleable and alive than one expects in this music. Moreover, there was something in the sound that felt entirely "classical"--while unmistakably more evolved than say, Telemann, there wasn't a hint of overweening romantic excess for the sake of excess. All in all, a really unique and committed reading.

The following trio of 20th century works was the heart of the evening. The first, "Mirrors" by Kaija Saariaho, was the furthest afield, featuring the decidedly creepy effect of flautist Joshua Smith whispering phrases in French over the half wuffled half played flute line. But there's no denying the foggy, tortured combination of flute and cello textures was compelling. The second piece, by Toru Takemitsu, most evoked the Debussy reference Smith made in his introduction to the three pieces, pairing a sensuous, damaged viola solo over neat jazzy chords in the piano.

And then to close the circle, violinist Soovin Kim played the Louange de l'Immortalite de Jesus from Messaien's Quartet for the End of Time, which was, to use a word, transcendent. I don't really know how violins work, but Soovin was able to coax this remarkable, immaculately pure sound from his instrument, extremely fine and with virtually no vibrato. That sound, modified only ever so slightly to be more expressive as the violin's line develops further, was the perfect vehicle for the pure white light of Messaien's work. The audience was ecstatic.

I was less enamored of the Brahms which made up the second half. Brahms seems to me most alive when played as great prose--this was more like abstract art, or perhaps an action movie. They seemed desperate to find something viscerally thrilling in the quartet rather than letting it speak for itself. The dynamics were too extreme, and the momentum of the piece nearly ground to a halt between sections, forfeiting the great structural forces which make Brahms so rewarding. Mind you, the violent dynamics weren't savage--everything sounded very wonderful, it just failed to add up to much of a coherent whole. The exception was the gentle Andante, which would tolerate none of the agenda imposed on the other movements and was quite exquisite.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Totenhaus!

A: was house of the dead tonight?
J: yes!
J: it was great
A: neat
A: i don't know it at all
J: it's really neat
A: kewl
A: um...what is the deal with this opera "The Excursions of Mr. Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century"
A: "Some critics have also pointed out that the moon excursion has a basic flaw in the plot: there is no real “hero” to balance out Brouček, who is the “villain” on the moon."
J: HAH!
A: one can see how that might be problematic
J: Yeah I feel like
J: Janacek wrote Jenufa and Kata Kabanova
J: which are awesome
J: and From the House of the Dead, which is harder to love musically but very very cool and exciting
J: and then like really fucking random shit
J: like OSUD
J: and SARKA
J: and the Manipulative Little Bitch
A: of course, the Loco Tiny Ho
J: hah
A: you've listened to Sarka right?
J: yeah it's nice
J: but too short to perform maybe
A: maybe they could double bill it with Cavallierra Rusticana sometimes
A: call it Cav-Sark
A: for short
J: such a good idea
A: but maybe announce it as a last minute change
J: or a double bill of OSUD and Bluebeard's Castle
J: oh I forgot about Vec Makropulous
A: right
J: that can be done on its own
J: and Bonkers Wee Slut is long enough to do on its own, but all the characters are fucking animals
A: is that opera for children or what?
J: not specifically
A: nice comments about it on parterre
A: tho i suppose it will still be poorly attended
A: if mattilla in jenufa couldn't fill seats...
A: i like how they used to do salome as a double bill
J: that would make for a long night
A: maybe it was like salome and then gianni schicchi
J: hah totally
J: Sal-Pag
J: the production nicely homoeroticizes some shit
A: indeed
J: the older dude gets freed
J: and the younger dude has been knifed and keep singing "you're my father"
J: but I think they should translate it to be "you're my daddy"
A: hehe
A: you know what's his name in the bcast booth is going to be making that joke by the end of the run
J: hah Will Berger
J: totally
J: people really cheered for that production
J: which was a nice change
J: even though there's like weird mimed rapes and such
J: with like....guys in drag "putting on a play"
A: bondy's all "what's a guy gotta do?"
A: you boo scarpia w/ hookers and you cheer this?
J: hah
A: tho i imagine there is nyet a lot of intersection between those crowds
J: yeah, that's probably true
A: PS, this is a neat if nutty looking lohengrin
A: by the same guy who did that parsifal i sent a while back
A: with KFV done up to look exactly like old-skool lohengrins
J: Röschmann as Elsa!!!!
A: yeah dude
A: that sounds clutch
J: totally fetch
J: I want that so bad
A: "At the beginning of the third scene of Act 3 the people's consciousness is awaking. The military fanfares sounds from all sides causing anxiety and verzweiflung."
J: there's a good pill for acute bouts of Verzweiflung.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fine Arts Quartet at NAS

In general, I don't have a ton of interesting things to say about string quartet performances, but feel I should at least give a shout out to the very nice program of Haydn, Bruckner, and Schumann given by the Fine Arts Quartet at the National Academy of Sciences yesterday afternoon.

First things first--have you even been to this auditorium (left)?? I don't have the best ear for acoustics--I notice when they are bad, but above a certain level in a modern concert space I can't really distinguish the good from the great. That said, the acoustics in this auditorium in the main NAS building off the mall are freaking phenomenal. There's a detailed explanation of the technique used here. We were about 100 feet back from the stage, and the sound of the string instruments was absurdly present and warm, as though you were sitting next to the instrument, and yet it was coming from all around you. Really, the acoustics were entertainment enough--it's honestly the best room I've ever been in for chamber music. Unfortunately, looks like they only do three public shows a year.

Anyhow, I won't dwell on the program too much. The interesting Brucker quartet on the program, only discovered in 1949 from the program notes, had some really lovely moments despite my general (though largely unjustified) indifference to Bruckner. The Schumann Op. 41 No. 1 which made up the second half of the program was very beautiful, particularly the adagio with its aching viola line played movingly by the Quartet's newest member. The encore was an invigorating rendition of the last movement of Shostakovich's 1st string quartet, which kind of left one hungry for what the group can do with 20th century fare.

UPDATE: Charles Downey Sophia Vastek (who felt the afternoon left quite a bit to be desired) points out at Ionarts that the concert page for NAS linked above has the remaining performances in their season taking place at the National Gallery instead of that magical auditorium. WTF NAS?

PS, here's that priddy Adagio from the Schumann:

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Götterdämmerung: Two nights only...

Well, as we all know, the cost of this infernal recession now stands at 10.2% unemployment and exactly one complete Ring Cycle. Watching the first installment of WNO's very enjoyable "Götterdämmerung - IN CONCERT" last night, though, I preferred to think of more romantic reasons for the spare presentation--perhaps they had a full production in the bag, but on the eve of the big show, the mean ol' Republicans in Congress heard about the new and improved and topless Pocahontas-Rhinemaidens in FZ's production and decided to padlock the warehouse, but then Irene Theorin and Alan Held and the rest of the WNO gang got together and decided they didn't need any fussy old sets to tell the timeless story of Götterdämmerung, and decided to just go ahead and do the show in their street clothes on a bare stage and it was a big success and they all learned the true meaning of Christmas. Or something.

In any event, musically this installment held its own, and surpassed in some areas, the previous WNO Ring installments. I continue to go back and forth about Irene Theorin, but its mostly forth at this point. She's a convincing actress, of course, and when she hits her mark, the soaring lines are definitely more rich than strident and a cut above other work-a-day Brunnhildes who have the stamina and accuracy but not a crumb of the vocal splendor one so desperately wants. Some local observers were complaining about her too-quiet middle and lower register in the recent Ariadne here (which I really loved, despite some faults) and I think one must conclude that a) she really doesn't have much juice down there, but b) the woman appreciates, and knows how to work, a good piano. The low-key portions of the immolation scene, for instance, were quiet and lovely and quite surprising. But then again, I imagine the Theorin nay-sayers on Ariadne probably don't care too much about her lower register here.

So, not sure when this happened, but seems the tenor troubles made plain during the Ariadne run with the previously engaged Siegfried(s) may have been too much, and they called in Jon Frederic West. Now, I can see how at the Met, with the full Wall of Sound in effect, West's voice may come off a tad small, but in the Kennedy Center its just the right size and sounds great. He's extremely lyrical and precise, and except for an occasional back-of-the-throat thing he does to keep big notes in check it is a sweet, winning tone with none of the strained hootiness one is used to suffering at Siegfried's hands. He is also a total goofball. While using the score a lot more than the rest of the cast due to shorter preparation time (I imagine), he also chose to mime the shit out of everything, "Our Town" style--he even tried to hold onto the Speer for Theorin to grab in the oath section, only to be left hanging--cold, Irene, just cold. Oh, and when Brunnhilde finally turned to notice him in Act II, he did this amazing big dumb "how ya doin'" grin that elicited a huge laugh from the audience. I suppose in a full production, one might label this "bad acting", but in the context of the scrappy quasi-concert setup, it was awfully enjoyable.

Gidon Saks made quite an impression as Hagen, with a large, booming sound in the middle-lying passages and an irrepressible portrayal which came off despite the obvious limitations. This Hagen was inviting and masterful, sinister but not repellent, manipulating the other characters through the force of his personality and intelligence rather than simply taking advantage of their stupidity and blindness. It must be said, though, that the lower register was a reach for him, and one missed the basso splendor of the Hagen who can go deep and sound like he could hang out there all day.

The rich Waltraute of Elizabeth Bishop also deserves a mention. It's a hit or miss scene, I think, and she made it quite compelling, both in her sad portrait of Wotan and in the fiery scolding of Brunnhilde, where Bishop expertly captured the haughty superiority coloring Waltraute's desperation. Another great half-staging moment: when Brunnhilde finally tells her to get off her rock, Theorin pointed off stage, Waltraute picked up her score and stalked offstage in her concert gown and heels with ATTITUDE.

As for the Gibich kids, I think we can all imagine what a great Gunther Alan Held makes, so I will leave it at that. As for Gutrune, let me just say that this Bernadette Flaitz totally nails everything that is funny and ludicrous about Gutrune, i.e., everytime she comes onstage its the operatic equivalent of a Stacy alert. People, can we start agreeing that Gutrune should actually be played as a character part, like Mime? It's all there in her music, you just need to have the courage to not make her a lame romantic side character but rather the ur-hose beast.

Philipe Augin turned in a thoughtful and exacting performance from the pit, in the Wagner-as-chamber music vein (in keeping with the WNO's modest forces). Augin rarely let a motif get by with rushed or perfunctory phrasing--the opening and dawn transitions in the first and second acts were masterfully built from their constituent parts with many beautiful details revealed. His Funeral March needs to be highlighted for special praise, instead of going for the savagery (not that that's a bad thing) he put together a mesmerizing essay on the microdynamics of the passage. Were I to quibble, I'd say at times he failed to capture the appropriate momentum--for instance, the meat of the Act II confrontation scene plodded and the Act II chorus lacked some of the rollicking bravura drive it can achieve.

The WNO orchestra played with great distinction and responsiveness, save for some occasional messiness in the exposed brass lines, and really, what are you gonna do? One does note that the wall-shaking one wants in parts of Götterdämmerung just isn't possible here, but that doesn't make it any less credible a performance.

As for the "production", WNO did a good job with a tricky situation. Keeping the orchestra in the pit and only the relevant singers on stage (against some of the cloud backdrops from previous installments and minimal lighting) did a lot to focus one's attention on the story, despite the lack of, you know, sets. And while there were some silly (but delicious) moments, as described above, there were also a couple of inspired choices. For instance, instead of having Siegfried do his death section with the vassals et al. standing around, the front scrim came down and Jon Frederic West sang it alone, sitting in a chair illuminated by a single spotlight. The effect of having this exquisite moment--usually accompanied with the tenor sprawled in some godforsaken position, covered in sweat, making excessive death gurgles, and about an inch from expiring himself--done perfectly straight brought it an intimacy that was quite haunting and emotionally affecting. Likewise with two of Brunnhilde's moments: the section before the trio at the end of Act II and the entire immolation--both done with Irene Theorin standing alone at the center of the stage. I have to imagine this setup would be a bit of a chore for someone coming to Götterdämmerung fresh, but for someone reasonably familiar with the proceedings, there were lots of interesting opportunities to meditate on the piece without the constant grinding of scenery and rustling of bearskins. One wonders what else might benefit from the recession treatment...

UPDATE: Hmmm...Charles Downey of Ionarts differs with my assessment of the comedic gifts of last night's Gutrune:
The supporting cast was equally strong, with the exception of the flimsy Gutrune of Bernadette Flaitz, who seemed ill.
In hindsight, I suppose one should tread carefully with one's conclusions about a singer who appears to be mining their company debut in Götterdämmerung for maximum laffs, but something about it was working for me...

UPDATE II: Some other positive and thoughtful reviews in from WaPo, WaTi, and Wagneroperas.net. There seems to be general consensus that Jon Frederic West was straining by the end, but I honestly didn't hear it. His death scene was subdued but hardly inaudible, and as described above, this was an arresting choice. Maybe I'm just used to "straining" in this part meaning "blowing vocal cords and making ungodly screech noises" and I can't tell the gradations anymore.

At any rate, with this kind of coverage, next week's encore is going to be a hot ticket. Pretty nice coup for a plan B...

Vogt

Great assessment of the K. Flo-Vo conundrum from jfl at Ionarts:
Vogt is a stranger bird, altogether. With his odd, or perhaps lacking, technique, one wonders how many trained but struggling tenors listen to him thinking: “I’m stuck in the boonies and he’s got a world class career with that!?” Well, the difference is that whenever his voice ‘fits’, he has something no one else does. Since the listener/viewer only cares about the result, not what went into it, that’s more than sufficient. Klaus Florian Vogt’s special quality—“strange” doesn’t begin to describe its chorister-metallic-behind-the-forehead-bell-like character—certainly takes getting used to, but when he’s playing outsiders or introverted characters (Lohnengrin, Walter von Stolzing), that’s easy, because its distinctive character makes immediate dramatic sense. For it to make sense as Florestan, it will take longer than two arias in one evening. With him in that role, there is at least no doubt who’s wearing the pants in the two characters’ relationship—not just during, but also before and after his incarceration.
That pretty well expresses my feelings after the Met Lohengrin a few years back and the Bayreuth Meistersingers I've listened to on the radio. You can use "ethereal- space-alien-like" as a prefix for any portrayal he does like you can "lusty" for Domingo's roles. But once you hear that sound you need it again and again...

PS, here's a clip, though of course it doesn't get at how freaky loud that sweet voice sounds in the opera house:

Friday, November 06, 2009

Gotterdammerung for under $100 a day!

A: WNO just sent a nice preparatory note for gotterdammerung reminding ticketholders of its length and telling them about how they can get food
J: hah
A: and somewhat erroneously calling it a "once-in-a-lifetime event"
A:considering it is a somewhat pedestrian cast and there are two performances
J: yeah and that it's downgraded from a full production
A: "Rarely, if ever, is Gotterdammerung mounted with so little to recommend it...you won't want to miss it!"
A: "Where most companies would just walk away, WNO delivers! Be there!"
J: it's so true
J: like, learn to fold gracefully
A: "I mean, at least its still Gotterdammerung, right? A singular event!"
A: huh
A: Sondra Radvanovsky is Gutrune in this 2000 Gdams on sirius
A: random
J: huh
A: that part makes luxury casting really boring

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Siegfried Follies

A: hey
A: you are def not traveling for siegfried, right?
J: nah
J: I think I will skip
A: k
J: maybe for Ragtime tho
A: just wanted to check before
A: i pull a trigger
A: right
A: newt gingrich was sending twitter updates from the premeire
J: hah!!
J: what did he say?
A: he made a joke (i think) about siegfried waterboarding mime
A: tho that might actually happen
A: i couldn't tell from the review
J: hah!
A: apparently the siegfried was sick, but the cover didn't know the blocking or something
J: oh man
A: so he sang it from offstage while the main guy acted it out
J: weird
J: the whole thing??
A: that's what it sounded like
A: does a place like WNO not rehearse a cover for siegfried?
J: they are just in way over their heads with this Ring
A: yeah
A: jeez
A: wapo: "While MacAllister's Siegfried gave it his all, Lindskog's Siegfried, confronted with a whole lot of woman, finally let hormones trump his puzzlement and ended up rolling around with her on the stage so energetically that his body kept the final curtain from coming fully down until Theorin prompted him to roll out of the way."
J: oy
A: may just go thsi evening and get it over with
J: I am trying to figure out is Macallister is that awful tristan I saw
A: this video of obama at a burger place today is fun
A: hm
A: i don't know if this is quite pc
J: heh
J: I'll tell you this much
J: that exhibit sounds dull as dishwater
A: SERIOUSLY
A: in celebration of the WNO's production of turandot, we preesnt a panel discussion around the themes of Puccini's work entitled Turandot: Brutality of the Chinaman
J: National Geographic Presents "Brutally Decapitate Your Suitor: An Examination of China's Rich Cultural Past"
A: i would really like it if they unearthed a bunch of puccini's turn of the century asian porno
J: esp if they all looked like Jane Eaglen and Ghena Dimitrova, but Chinese
A: haha

Klavier Trio Amsterdam and "Riskiness"

So, per the Douglas McLennan post I discussed below, I kept thinking about his suggestion that the performances we encounter today may not be "risky" enough. The idea of "riskiness" in classical performances sort of stuck in my craw, because it seems like a pretty poor descriptor for many of the performances I find most memorable.

Clearly, "riskiness" in its most common meaning is a good criterion for certain works...no use seeing an Elektra that refuses to take any risks, right? But as a blanket expectation, it makes me think more of the best in Madonna than the best in, say, Andras Schiff. I want to leave a performance of Bach saying that it was exquisite, or shattering, or transcendental, but not necessarily "risky" which implies, to some degree, aesthetic choices deliberately designed to jar an audience, as much for the disorientation itself as for any deeper aesthetic value. Again, it certainly has its place, but I'm skeptical about it as an all-purpose artistic goal, especially when we're talking about the performance of centuries old masterpieces. Calling Vivaldi "risky", even when you have everyone onstage naked, just always sounds like desperate marketing to me.

Then I went to a concert given by the Klavier Amsterdam Trio the other night (this time at the French embassy, as opposed to the Corcoran concert reviewed here). Folks, if you're looking for a definition of risky concertizing, then I have the trio for you.

The whole affair started innocently enough, with Klara Wurtz playing a brilliant but sweet rendition of the Bach Partita No. 1. I have sort of a hard time objectively reviewing Bach beyond saying that it worked and I was in total rapture or it didn't work and I was bothered. This worked. Then Joan Berkheimer (on keys) and Nadia David (on cello) came out and did Dvorak's Sonatine Op. 100, followed by Ravel's Tzigane, with Berkheimer on violin and Wurtz back on keys. This was not the sort of performance one finds on a studio recording. Both pieces were very raw, very passionate, and totally heedless of proasic niceties like ensuring a consistently priddy sound. And both efforts were totally captivating. Berkheimer's violin in (the?) Tzigane crackled with cutting sounds of great emotion and seductiveness, juxtaposed with almost terrifying ones. Nadia David in the Sonatine sawed away at her cello with abandon, chasing, almost desperately, this really deep, rich, exciting sound she is able to produce. After the break was the main event, Dvorak's Dumky trio. Again, this was not a performance aimed at having the harmonies lock in perfect equilibrated balance, this was a performance about wringing some blood out of the thing. And blood they wrang.

Anyhow, definitely some risks being taken there, and with quite thrilling results. Still, I wonder if we benefit more from understand a performance like this as a distinctive interpretation, instead of an exercise in boundary pushing...

Morris out

Caught the very end of tonight's Walkure, the last Leb Wohl for J-Mo. Oh, it was a little raggedy I guess...whatever. It's sort of amazing that for two decades he's been the face of this production, indeed, one of the institutions of opera in New York in the late 20th century.

It's the obvi thing to post, but c'mon, tell me it doesn't get you just a little choked up still. This vulnerable, rash, conflicted, overwhelmingly human portrayal has defined Wotan for a generation of American operagoers, and kept the Ring alive in our minds:



UPDATE: JSU has a lovely closing paragraph about Morris at the end of his review of last night...
He deserved all of the huge ruckus (and love) he inspired at curtain calls -- and more -- but I thought his performance and success here to be almost beyond applause, the sort of thing at which one just goes home in quiet disbelief. He visibly trembled this time as he grasped Brünnhilde at the last -- was it as himself, or as Wotan? What difference, at this point, could there be?

Monday, May 04, 2009

Some thoughts on recordings


A swell post from Douglas McLennan here. (Though I thought we were doing a moratorium on titles including violence to classical music, i.e. "the death of/"who killed"/"the death throes of", etc...)

McLennan raises two points: 1) that the excessive focus on perfectionism in classical studio recordings is problematic and that we should think about a return to live recordings, and 2) that the perfectionism performers seek in the studio may lead to less risky, more homogenous live performances.

I find the second point a bit less convincing. Besides recordings, I can think of a lot of reasons why performers turn in performances which seem more homogenous today--the general level of technical proficiency is higher, competition is greater, and jet travel means you (and the audience) have constant opportunities to assess that competition. International concertizing is a high profile, winner-takes-all profession like any other. As there are more people in the world who are reaching for that brass ring, the prerequisites for entry, those things that entrants can ensure are optimized, are all pushed to the limit, i.e., if you want to be Babe Ruth in the 21st century, the first thing you need to do is lose some weight and stop drinking in the club house. A highly idiosyncratic performer prone to dropping notes just can't make it past the profession's gatekeepers anymore.

But the reasons for better accuracy at least aren't all bad. Today we place a lot more emphasis on performers' fidelity to the composer's score, a benefit of which is that we now actually get to hear what they wrote. I'm pretty sure I heard an interview with Horowitz somewhere where he told a story about some great pianist of the previous generation coming up to him after a concert and being all "WTF. How am I supposed to keep up with you when you're playing all the notes?" (or something to that effect). The advent of studio recording has certainly played a part in this, but I think its hard to disentangle its effect from the whole.

The first point, is the more interesting one, I think, and an area where the opera world may have some lessons for the rest of the classical music world. Opera fans, of course, REALLY love their live recordings. And not just live recordings, but live snippets of all size and quality. Even if one tends to be a wuss about hardcore archival material (like me), there is still a huge amount of great quality live material out there for even the casually interested fan.

Now, live opera recordings don't really compete with studio sets on the store shelf (to the extent that such shelves exist anymore) but the studio sets aren't a substitute for a healthy live recording scene: instead, they serve as reference documents. Opera fans learn about new singers almost primarily by hearing live performances, either snippets on the Internet or through broadcasts and rebroadcasts of live performances. And these recordings are considered far superior to studio efforts in capturing what is exciting about a singer. Its widely acknowledged that you could learn virtually nothing about the experience of seeing Angela Gheorghiu live on a stage from one of her antiseptic studio records. This understanding helps live performance stay at the center of the opera experience, and, I think, inspires some of the excitement and commitment in its fan base that other areas of classical music would like to replicate.

Opera, of course, has an advantage here. The discrepancy between a studio opera or recital recording, with all of its polished edges and preternatural stamina, is so clearly different than the live experience, with its epic struggle between singer and orchestra and myriad opportunities for spectacular failure. Still, there are more mundane, even trivial things that help live recordings achieve that connection. The sound of a live hall. The applause. And yes, the little imperfections that show up. They don't have to be wrong notes--it could be the momentary lapses in coordination that result from an attempt to take a movement at a breakneck pace. A conductor engaging in overindulgent pauses that might seem excessive in the studio but gives the performance extra drama. These are the little things that help bridge the gap between the unreality of riding the subway with your headphones in and being engaged in a performance as though we are there, with the performer, communicating directly. That is the heart of experiencing classical music, and getting back to it should be at the center of the artifacts we create.

Of course, its odd to talk about elements of the live experience as somehow variations on the normal experience when, unlike with pop and rock recordings, the classical music studio recording is by definition a fantasy. One assumes in rock music that all bets are off for whether what one is hearing on the record was performed in one take at the same time. Sure, there is a spectrum, but we expect modern pop musicians to make use of the full possibilities of the studio to create their work, unconstrained by what would be feasible live with no prerecorded elements or mixing voodoo. The recording is the thing--that's what conquers our imagination.

But with classical music recordings, no matter how much you know about how the tracks are pieced together, you can't help but trust the illusion that the piece you are listening to might have happened in a concert hall. And while that illusion can produce many brilliant valuable documents (clearly, I would not give up those meticulously produced Glenn Gould recordings for anything), the document isn't really the thing: it is the live performance. So there is something fundamentally problematic about trying to maintain a vibrant live performance culture when your audience has this notion of a perfectly polished vaccuum-packed sound in its head. More audience members fail to see the utility of going to a live performance if they are simply expecting that flawless sound, while those in the audience have trouble engaging with the performance as a live event, and not just an approximation of the reference recording playing in their head. While conductors and musicians are making choices all the time that make live "live", appreciating those choices unless they are glaringly obvious seems more difficult.

But what to do? More high profile live recordings would be certainly be great. For piano in particular, it would help to blunt the impression of endless re-recordings of the catalogue. Moreover, there is something about a live piano recital recording that really connects a listener to the live experience--the juxtaposition of repertoire, the excitement of being in the same room with the virtuoso--I know I count some live recital recordings as among my most beloved. Record companies could also do more to enable live footage of recitals. You can watch Mattila in almost all of her major roles on Youtube, but there are only a handful of good live clips of Pollini. There are clearly more opportunities to get video of Mattila out there, since operas are broadcast more frequently, but you'd think an enterprising label could do a lot to make up the difference.

Clearly, the economics may be against this. And, as McLennan notes, a lot of performers may insist on strict control of their recorded material out of fear that audiences will be critical of any slip ups (which seems to me a highly irrational fear, but OK). But the current situation is far from ideal. Watching virtuoso performers in person is a sensational experience that truly can't be captured on record. Recordings need to be an incitement to have that experience, rather than a barrier.

Speaking of making live "live":

Monday, April 27, 2009

Get Siegfried

So...just a few words about Saturday's Gotterdammerung matinee before I have to get back to whatever it is that I get paid for these days:

Wow. Hearing Gotterdammerung live (this was my first) is radically different than listening to it in the privacy of your own home. The detail of the soundworld created by the constant interplay of leitmotifs is just completely overwhelming. Parts of Gotterdammerung that I previously sort of glossed over, i.e. the orchestration under the big Act II crowd bits, revealed themselves as marvelously intricate and entertaining. I found myself totally fixated on the trombones--the Met orchestra ones are AMAZING right??? The splendor of the orchestra in general was really on display. I mean, it seems like EVERYONE has a brutal exposed line at some point in Gotterdammerung...maybe not each person in the strings, but definitely every wind player and that has to be like 75 PEOPLE AT LEAST. But the whole thing was a perfect seamless web, like a 200 piece chamber group (that horn who kept f'ing up Walkure two weeks ago either got his shiz together or was off for the day).

I didn't really have time to think about the big picture reading in relation to other Gotterdammerungs in my head, because Jimmy was giving me exactly what I was craving: a reading of just mind blowingly exquisite detail. Levine kept the balance pretty good throughout, though there were a few of the moments with no singing to contend with where he just let the orcehstra do a real ff and that shit was really REALLY loud. Maybe the loudest sound I've ever heard out of the met pit. It was pretty awesome.

As for the singers. As you've probably heard already, Dalayman's Brunnhilde kicked a great deal of ass. The group takeaway (a certain Mr D'Annato will probably go into better detail on this if he writes it up UPDATE: And he has) was that this was a lot more fitting than the Isolde some other people saw and were using as a basis for skepticism about this run. But Gotterdammerung is clearly in a sweet spot for her. If the lower registers don't cut through quite enough, once she gets above a certain line, the voice just explodes with a super secure, loud, and exciting top. Everything was in place for the immolation and she didn't show a hint of strain. It was also a very convincing performance acting n' stuff wise. Her raging about in Act II, topped off with a scintillating oath on the speer, reminded me of the great Gwyneth Jones version of that scene on the '76 Chereau Bayreuth tape.

Franz was fine in Acts I and II. The dawn duet was very confident, though the barky edge is always lurking. Anyhow you can can hear it and all, and I prefer not to look a Siegfried in the mouth. But by the time he got to the woodbird recounting/death scene, which is all one really cares about for him after the dawn duet several hours prior, he was suddenly running on fumes. The final "I'm comin' home baby" section, punch #1 in the emotional one two punch of the third Act, was more or less ineffective on account of him not really singing it at all. Clearly, that is a way difficult thing to do, not helped by lying down and all, but this just didn't work and the final result was poorer for it. Borderline Siegfrieds of the world: maybe one time you should try to mark the speer oath and save it for the death scene. People would knock you during the second intermission but they would leave with a much better impression. Maybe it doesn't work like that, but just sayin', if you have the choice.

Other singing notes: Tomlinson's Hagen was way enjoyable and great acting wise, though the higher areas have sounded richer elsewhere. Points for a super creepy rendition of one of my favorite Gotterdammerung moments: his "here i sit guarding the hall" bit near the end of Act I. Point deduction for a pretty meh "i thought I killed that guy why is he still moving around" noise in Act III. That's like the second best non-singing noise in the ring after Sieglinde's ecstatic "he pulled out the schwert" squeal back in Walkure. Yvonne Naef did a pretty good Waltraute though I didn't really engage with it since that scene is so freaking boring. Jeez. Flag that for the editing pile along with the neverending gimmick about Siegfried hearing Mime's murderous thoughts in Siegfried Act II. The rest of the Gibich family aqcuitted themselves admirably.

Finally, let me just say that the spectacular spectacular at the end of the Schenk Gotterdammerung truly does not disappoint. I mean, I've seen the old video, but they do some of it in close up and you really have no idea what a totally boffo piece of stagecraft it is, and in the opera house no less. Miss Saigon eat yer heart out. LePage's video installation or whatever has its work cut out for it.

***

Boy, there sure are a lot of plot holes in Gotterdammerung aren't there? And one gets 6 hours to ponder them. Now, its possible the translations don't get the real gritty plot details, but I'm skeptical. Just two quibbles I was chewing on, feel free to correct/disagree in comments:

1. People need to get clear on what the Ring actually does. It's sort of OK in the other operas where it is not being passed around so much, but as a plot device it just gets way out of hand in Gdams. Waltraute seems to think if Brunnhilde throws it back in the Rhine Valhalla will be saved. She eventually does just that, but Valhalla still burns up. Does Waltraute just have bad information or something? Brunnhilde seems to think the Ring has superhero powers or something, as she tries to defend herself from faux-Gunther with it. But that clearly does not work as he just plucks it off her finger.

The bigger issue is the conflict between scenario 1: the ring is all powerful and the person who gets it will rule the world, and scenario 2: anyone who gets the ring gets killed. I mean, how long do you have to keep it until world domination and the likely immunity benefits of that status kick in?

Or maybe the ring just doesn't do anything? Maybe it only has the value people give it and people (and gods) are such assholes that the idea that it is valuable leads to everyone offing everyone else? Maybe its sort of like...spacecash? Clever Wagner...

2. So, is it just Siegfried's fuck-up that he pockets the Ring he takes off Brunnhilde's finger when he's faux-Gunther, instead of giving it to real Gunther when he hands over Brunnhilde? But if so, why does he eventually settle on the real story, that he originally won it from a dragon? Does he think to himself "that's odd, how did Gunther's wife get that ring I won?" but try to gloss over it while Brunnhilde is calling him out in public? I mean, him being sort of a careless wife-stealer would go with the territory, but it is kind of a weak pretext for the whole thing coming apart. Are we supposed to believe that Gutrune's whammy eliminated everything between when the woodbird first mentioned Brunnhilde and when he got off his boat at the Gibichung house? But THEN has some additional short term memory consequences? Weaksauce.

PS, I would sort of love to survey the Siegfrieds of the world and find out how big the discrepancies are in their explanations of what is going through the charachters' head at this point.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Much ado about YouTube

Oh man, Greg Sandow is really beating himself up over having to admit that the YouTube Symphony stunt concert thing didn't actually result in terribly impressive music making:
So here's what I heard. (I'd first thought, when I contemplated writing this, that I'd be kind, and not go into detail, because I loved the musicians so much. But given the hype, I''d rather be honest.) Right at the start, when the orchestra began with the third movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, there were details unattended to. Small notes were obscured. And the strings were underpowered, compared to the rest of the orchestra...
Does he really feel the need to agonize over sparing the performers' feelings? The feelings of a pickup orchestra of promising amateurs given 3 days rehearsal? More to the point, is it even worth critiquing such a thing as a legitimate concert? This was a cool marketing gimmick by YouTube. It should get a fluff piece, not a legitimate review. I mean, the only way you can be really disappointed about this is if you shared a little bit in the Internets triumphalism which YouTube marketing flacks must surely have been feeling (and who would blame them for such things? that's their job). It's hard not to see this in the context of Sandow's trademark reflex of short changing the traditions of classical music. Building and rehearsing an orchestra of less than professional musicians is a labor intensive business that won't just disappear if you sprinkle some internets on it. So getting disappointed when this is shown to not even be on the same footing of a run of the mill university orchestra is just...kind of bizarre.

This is only part of his issue with the concert though. Perhaps more than the poor playing, it is the excessive praise for the whole endeavor, which is, understandably, part and parcel of a marketing event put on by a private Internet company.
But as things were, the actual playing got a little lost in the sea of self-congratulation. (None of which, I want to stress as strongly as I can, was the musicians' fault. Nor did they participate in it, though the use that was made of their videos helped create the problem.) And there was something very sad in this. To overpraise things, to make them seem better than they are -- and to do this so relentlessly -- degrades standards, just a little.
Now, its a wee bit rich to hear a man who regularly exhorts orchestras to just play louder when they aren't reaching their audience talking about degrading standards. But snark aside, I don't think we should really be worried about the YouTube orchestra. Sandow brings up Andrea Bocelli in comments as an example of the sort of standards creep the YouTube orchestra could lead to. But no one is talking about the YouTube orchestra trying to steal the NYPhil's market share. It was a onetime gimmick.

And you know what? While it is mildly annoying that some people don't properly categorize crossover classical pop stuff for what it is, and it is double annoying when you have to sift through it in the dwindling classical section, Andrea Bocelli is hardly degrading the standards of the opera world. He's in his own crossover classical pop element, and while there's money to be made by blurring the edge a little bit, there's no army of Bocelli's ready to displace the Met roster.

Thinking that Bocelli somehow impacts the taste of the real opera world is troubling in a different way though: because some people start to think that real opera should be able to garner the same CD sales and marketing cachet that the crossover pop world is able to command when that's just never going to be the case, and shouldn't be our goal. Bocelli's 3-minute doses of popera aren't some kind of gateway drug to buying four hour opera sets. Let the Bocelli fans be.

All of which is to say, by confusing what the lines are, Sandow isn't able to appreciate the real import of this marketing stunt, which represents something really powerful and great for classical music. Not some masterplan to get people interested through a flawed one-shot orchestra gimmick, but because it calls attention to the powerful role YouTube and other Internet outlets are playing in cementing an international community of classical music enthusiasts.

Clearly, YouTube has been a powerful force for allowing fans to experience footage of historical performers that is often only available on overpriced DVDs or fleeting PBS specials. More importantly, it allows fans to watch videos of current top artists...YouTube is a revelation for the opera community of course, which can build hype around current singers in a way impossible before. But beyond this, being able to watch great amateur, semi-professional, and up and coming professional musicians is a remarkable way to build enthusiasm around concerts at the local level, and around artists who often don't have the luxury of publicity outlets that their pop colleagues do (local rock radio stations, a viral homemade CD culture, lots of bars to play in).

YouTube clearly recognizes that this is a legitimate lofty purpose for it to emphasize, and has chosen to celebrate that with a high profile "in reality" event, perhaps the greatest recognition a virtual enterprise can give. So who cares who the thing turned out?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Last ride

Well, the audience out there in radioland was not too impressed with Saturday's Walkure, but all in all it was a pretty successful outing in-house. Based on the handful of Wagner I've seen live, I feel like there's a sort of minimum floor for such things, and once that is met, the whole thing basically takes off, i.e., I am REALLY eager to get to a point where I can stop fretting about whether it is good enough and can just bask in the big-dub Wagner of it all.

Just to be contrary, I'll start with the orchestra. Jimmy wasn't making a HUGE impression on me Saturday...everything was nice and in place and stuff, but it didn't feel like much more than the normal polished classiness one expects from The Band. EXCEPT for this guy on the trumpet. Wow. It was like a Heppner CrackTM horn edition. Dude even whiffed that exposed line the first time you hear the sword motif or whatever. Hopefully they've sent him to whatever penalty box RV is languishing in these days so he can think about what he's done.

JMo, as you can imagine, is near the end of the line. But let's very clear: his Wotan is a towering thing--it has nothing to do with his Scarpia butchering of recent years. The big monologue was gripping, and the Act III dialogue through the Leb Wohl--some of it almost like a whisper (with Jimmy showing maximum sensitivity in restraining the pit so that you could hear all the nuance)--was at times almost unbearable in its bitterness and grief. Not like I still don't want to see this, for instance, but what a tremendous valedictory Wotan this was.

So, as we all know, Botha was out, hopefully sharing a giant divan with Christine Brewer somewhere, and Gary Lehman, last seen riding the scenery in Tristan, stepped in. Lehmann has a seriously powerful instrument, which certainly helps make his Tristan Act III so compelling. But sometimes it was a bit much in the friendlier confines of Walkure Act I. It's a good, exciting sound, but I wanted some more Botha creaminess. That said, he's a fine actor and I don't doubt that I would have sacrificed a lot of the kinetic energy he created with Waltraud for the Botha cream. It should also be noted that his sweet business in Act II was quite enchanting.

Oh man. Waltraud Meier is such a good time on stage. Yes, there are whole swathes of the voice that get lost in the orchestra. And no, the middle is not priddy. But when it is go time, she GOES. As J noted, her top bears an uncanny resemblence to Karita Mattila's thrilling upper reaches, all shivery coolness and hummingbird vibrato. Oh, and when Siegmund pulled the sword out she hit the deck and started writhing around on the floor. So crazy and so perfect. Like her Nordic colleage Waltraud doesn't know how to stop at boring ol' opera. She does THEATRE.

As fer that new Brunnhilde in town. Theorin is quite good. Clearly a notch above the Watson/Gasteen baseline. She's a strong actress too (nice chops all around in this show, really). Now, I would be lying if I said I didn't miss the Brewer "Wall of Sound" I'd been pining after since the Lyric Frau last year...it just feels so nice on the ears. But Theorin was secure up and down the role, earned a solid B+ on her Hojotohos, and, when it really mattered, made a big sound that was decidedly a thrill. Her and Morris had a nice chemistry that brought home all the pathos of the final scene.

I guess everyone's ready to get rid of the nasty old Schenk production, and yeah, you can be traditional and also have a bit of style, and this really doesn't. But it feels a bit strange to think that major houses are just DONE with traditional Ring productions. But compared to my experience with the Washington Ring, where you have to spend a lot of time wading through superimposed layers of meaning, its nice to just focus on, you know, the Ring. It doesn't need to be as bombastic as this, but a naturalistic production isn't the WORST thing.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Watch out 'prentice, Peetah Grimes is glaring at you...

A: just saw the wno peter grimz
J: oh!
J: and?
J: man that Michael Steele is a douche
A: pretty good
A: nice pat racette time
A: christopher ventris was the pg
A: who sounded v nice
A: excepting some rough patches
J: it's a tough sing
J: I loved what's his face who sang it at the met last year
A: oh yeah
A: he sounded nice
J: esp the end part where he's all "Grimes grimes grimes grimes griiiimes"
A: ha
A: i like that part
J: me too
A: when the woman speaks to him the first time after that she should be all "grimes grimes grimes?"
A: just to fuck with him
J: hah
A: the chorus was great
A: how did they do that falling off the cliff thing at the met?
A: it was way dumb here
A: like, the boy just fell off the back of this four foot tall hut
J: they fall off the cliff?
A: and there was this little "EEEEeeeee...." noise
A: when he dies
J: heh
J: I totally don't remember what the Met did
A: the child thrashing was also minimal, relative to what it sounded like there
A: it was mostly really severe pointing
J: haha
J: stern looks

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Gala Postgame

J: woo
A: that was SO entertaining right??
J: it was neat
J: nothing was totally amazing, though the Dessay Traviata bit was awesome
A: heppner's fried sounded great
J: oh huh--it was very quiet in the house
J: but he didn't crack
A: interesting
A: i was loving it on the radio
J: DV is so freaking loud
A: d-vo's brunnhilde does not really excite me tho
A: oh yeah?
J: so so loud
J: I was way into her until the very last note
J: the other two insane high notes were excellent
J: anyway, Christine is gonna show us how it's done
A: yeah dude
A: i can't wait for that s***
J: hah Mary Kate Olsen was there
A: that renee tote stadt sounded really nice
J: so pretty
A: they are so close to having a whole tote stadt
A: when is it going to happen
J: I know.....
A: i don't know who would be paul
A: but between thamps and renee making the songs like calling cards
J: I'd be bummed if T Ham were the Harlequin
A: well, prepare youself
J: hah
J: it's such a small part; would he do it?
A: yeah, perhaps not
A: it would def be funny if he was all "get gelb on the phone...tell him i fucking OWN harlequin at the met"
J: he's screaming on the other end with white face paint and huge black eyeleashes
A: haha

Gala 4

So, am I being naive or is this a crazy enjoyable gala? That Renaay Marietta Lied, was, to borrow a phrase from our RNC chairman, "off the hook."

Gala 3

PS, listening to this on crappy computer speakers sux. My laptop can in no way handle Dessay's top. Also PS, why isn't this on TV here in real time? Time was, I wager, that all public stations on the eastern seaboard would have carried something like this live. At least the possibility of seeing a rebroadcast of Met stuff is better in DC than Chicago, where the WTTW has become a glorified infomercial for shitty music DVDs you wouldn't be caught dead purchasing.

Gala 2

Real plush ode to zeff tenor section...the Calleja/Che Gelida Manina was gorgeous...everytime I forget how magically light + rich his voice is. Giordani's Nessun Dorma was real meaty too. That's what it sounds like P. Potts.

Gala

OMG...I am so gay for Ben Heppner's Siegfried. I know it turns out that 50 percent of mentions of him have to do with the spectacular spectacular vocal blowups, but JC this is amazing.

D-Vo...eh. What I'm fantasizing about now is a Heppner-Brewer matchup. Assuming I love her as much as I expect to next month, that could be SICK.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Le Sacre du Sonnambula

J: you really missed quite a scene at the Met tonight
A: yeah?
A: do tell
J: well the new Sonnambula opened with Dessay and Florez
J: and Mary Zimmerman directed it
J: and the whole production was basically mocking how retarded Sonnambula is
A: heh
J: and it was cute and fun
J: and hilarious at the end
J: and Sonnambula is not a comedy
J: so anyway
A: way to redeem yourself MZ
J: the traditionalists in the audience were NONE too pleased
J: and this shit was seriously boo'd
A: whoa
J: like major major boo-age
J: the curtain call ground to a halt
A: hardcore
A: !
J: like, no one took a second bow
J: and it was like a huge Dessay/Florez thing and they were way awesome and everyone was nuts for them
A: damn
A: who knew people were willing to go out on a limb for frreakin' sonnambula
J: so after the curtain call abruptly ended
A: jes
J: well
J: there were these 40ish gays next to us
J: who turned around and sassed the crabby old Long Island people boo-ing behind us
J: this was balcony btw
J: and an argument ensued about whether it was OK to boo like that
J: and it got heated and tons of people were weighing in
J: wow
J: and then finally one of the gays goes "oh whatever! pleas just go back to Long Island."
A: !
J: and the crabby old guy
J: goes "yeah? well go back to Greenwich Village...or CHELSEA! WHERE YOU LIVE!!!"
A: oh snap
J: and the gay guy just calmly said "wait...that's supposed to be a bad thing?"
A: heh
A: nice
J: man
J: that was nuts
A: its like the rite of spring premeire but for...sonnambula
J: at the end Dessay just puts on this hilarious like swiss miss dress and starts dancing around like a crazed fool
J: it's so excellent
A: hah!
A: that is good

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Albums from the deep

Ripped this meme-note thing off Facebook, as it seemed like a good blog exercise. The instructions are:

Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good. Tag, you're it.

So just to be clear, you don't have to be proud of them or even really like the specific recording anymore, but you do need to be able to identify a period where you listened to the record, cassette tape, CD, or computer file over and over again ad nauseum because you just couldn't get enough. To that end, I think it is also nice to arrange them chronologically in the order you heard them. I like that there are 15, so you can get a good chunk of time in...of course, 15 allows you to be a little bit choosy about what you include, but do try to make it interesting.

Here's what I'm going with:

  1. Roxette - Look Sharp
  2. La Boheme - Beecham; Bjorling, De los Angeles
  3. Counting Crows - August and Everything After
  4. Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto - Rachmoninoff himself playing, Philadelphia?
  5. Bob Dylan - Nashville Skyline
  6. Simon and Garfunkel - Sounds of Silence
  7. Cosi fan Tutte - Ostman; Drottingham Orch
  8. Grateful Dead - American Beauty
  9. Sweeney Todd - Orig. B'way Cast
  10. Phoebe Snow - Greatest Hits
  11. Well Tempered Clavier Bk 1 - Glenn Gould
  12. Leonard Cohen - Greatest Hits
  13. Nanci Griffiths - Other Voices, Other Rooms
  14. Lohengrin - Solti; Domingo, Norman, etc.
  15. Old Crow Medicine Show - OCMS
  16. Brahms Requiem - Previn/RPO

Oops. That was 16. Oh well. Anyhow, I don't think I'm going to tag 15 people (tagging has grown excessive, no?), but I would sort of like to see what Maury and Lisa Hirsch and Patrick the PW have to say about this, so you may consider yourselves tagged if you pass by this way. The rest of you should just do it if you feel so inclined, in comments or at your own space...