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


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."
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 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...


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 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