Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Don Giovanni at WNO

Late to the party on this one too, but WNO gets retroactive props for the Don Giovanni it presented in its second foray of the season. I know it's a bit unfair to compare Anna Bolena's pretty tunez and reasonably interesting characters with the unending parade of WIN that is Mozart's masterpiece, but let's hope it is this production, and not the prima, that is the harbinger of things to come this year.

WNO offered some exceptional Mozart several years ago, in the Figaro directed by Harry Silverstein*, and this production shares many of that outing's virtues: strong singing, a charismatic ensemble, and direction that gets the human scale and humor of Mozart's comedies just right (for the purposes of this good-feelings review, let's forget the irretrievable lameness of last year's Jonathan Miller Cosi).

Directed by John Pascoe, this Don Giovanni makes a strong case for the Donna Elvira-led interpretation, portrayed here by the great Barbara Frittoli. Mostly clad in a sort of superhero get up comprised of tall boots, trenchcoat, and corset, the production foregrounds the tension between Elvira's clear agency as an individual and her lingering attraction to the Don--a complicated mix of sexual desire, sympathy, self-sabotage, and self-sacrifice. Basically, it's Don Giovanni as proto-Buffy**, though the older work is definitely the darker one. Whereas Buffy's tortured love for her vampires turns on the status of their souls (complicated in the case of Spike by his "mimicry" of a soul due to the chip in his head), Donna Elvira can't be so sure. Mozart and DaPonte's Don never reveals the slightest shred of a soul--he is utterly un-self aware, almost an animal. Elvira's love for him is entirely her own invention, yet the deepest, most heartfelt demonstration of feeling in the entire opera--we are left to to wrestle with the fundamental irrationality of her actions as well as our empathy. A throwaway gag in this production, that Elvira is actually carting around the Don's child, was clever but served as a distraction from this richer point.

Fine portrayal aside, Frittoli's voice is perhaps not what it was in her recent prime. Her first appearance, "Ah, chi mi dice mai," was compelling but not entirely comfortable, though thankfully this seemed to be a warmup question--by the time "Mi Tradi" rolled she was in exquisite control. The strength of the women in the cast continued with Megan Miller's Donna Anna, who brought a lot of excitement to the role's considerable demands. Finally, we had the wonderful Zerlina of Veronica Cangemi, who, despite a bit of a rough start with that brutal entrance, turned in sexy, beguiling renditions of both "Batti, batti and "Vedrai, carino" that were a highlight of the evening (could have done without some excessively vulgar business assigned to Masetto during these numbers). Regarding the men: Ildar Abradzakov delivered just about everything one needs in a Don, from lusty virtuosity in the patter numbers to the requisite bear-croon in the seduction songs. The other standout was tenor Juan Francisco Gatel, offering nuanced, finely crafted versions of "Dalla Sua Pace" and "Mio Tesoro," while driving home Don Ottavio's earnest dullness (Gatel's relatively small size besides Megan Miller's statuesque profile in glamorous evening dresses seemed a fitting look for this pair).

WNO music director Phillipe Auguin was a welcome sight in the pit for this production, and quickly banished thoughts of a somewhat routine overture with a beautifully felt performance that allowed his singers to make the most out of their respective turns.

*Somehow I missed this at the time, but back in the day I was in the children's chorus for a string of operas he directed for DePaul University's music school!

**Sorry, don't fight it.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Anna Bolena at WNO

And no, I did not miss Anna Bolena, though it is gone now. For the record, Radvanovsky did not disappoint in arguably the starriest turn of a WNO season resting heavy on its diva cred. Her distinctive sound is always a pleasure in my book, and that built-in sob she has is a natural ally for Donizetti. Unfortunately, the whole thing never managed to catch much fire thanks to a variety of shortcomings that outweighed some not inconsiderable positive qualities.

Perhaps the first mistake was not allowing for some regular cuts in the opera (specifically in the final scene for the tenor, so Downey tells us). Not saying the whole uncut business couldn't be compelling (different strokes and all that), but it would require more dramatic firepower than this cast or production had at its disposal. Radvanovsky, despite her musical virtues, is not always a dynamic stage presence, and coming at the end of a long night, her priddy but static final scene had the audience restlessly casting about for someone to enter with the axe already. When Anna Bolena feels considerably longer than the intermission-less 4.5 hours I spent in Einstein on the Beach the following evening, ur doing it wrong.

Sonia Ganassi, whom we enjoyed quite a bit in Werther last year, was a standout among the rest of the cast, with a flexible, urgent sound that provided a Seymour that was a worthy counterweight to Radvanovsky's Bolena, though the potentially explosive duet scene stopped somewhere in the neighborhood of admirable. Mezzo Claudia Huckle also shone in the trouser role of Smeton, the court musician who pines after Anna.

As far as the men are concerned: I assume I heard Georgian tenor Shalva Mukeria in the role of Percy since there was no B-cast and I don't recall an insert (I saw the 9/21 show), but I'm having a hard time reconciling the general praise elsewhere with what I heard--a respectable but pedestrian voice for most of the evening, certainly a notch below the tenor obtained for Lucia last year, and one which ended up demonstrating significant strain by the time the final prison aria rolled around. Points for Oren Gradus, as Henry, for being the only one onstage who seemed to really throw himself into the staging choices--vocally he was solid throughout but his honey-less tone is a bit of a chore in this music.

But the chief strike against the evening was the production, directed by Stephen Lawless. There were thoughtful elements here--I was down with the balconies of spying courtiers, though not sure if the allusion to the Globe in the set design was clever or just convenient--but on the whole it was fairly hideous. The vast expanses of cheap unfinished looking wood, liberal use of antlers, and wan, unfocused lighting evoked nothing so much as a 5th generation Williamsburg bistro several weeks before opening. Yikes.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Jupiter Quartet at the National Academy of Sciences

After a two year hiatus, the magical auditorium in the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue is presenting concerts again, starting with today's program of Mozart, Bartok, and Brahms from the Jupiter Quartet. The ceiling of the auditorium, a giant shell composed of 240 separate panels which maximize sound distribution (more at the link) makes for an incredible chamber music venue that preserves the warmth and immediacy of the instruments with remarkable clarity throughout the hall. The only problem now is the criminally meager season of concerts available to the public--what the frack do we need to get a piano up there already?

The Jupiter offered a charming romp through the lead-off Mozart (K. 575). This is the kind of playing that makes me reconsider my general apprehension about live Mozart chamber music--simple (or so it seems) and casual, yet utterly seamless, and still controlled and fast enough to maintain a sense of urgency. Especially in the final Allegretto, where the players trade lines in an increasingly intricate sort of game, the Jupiter demonstrated the joys of Mozart played with almost an improvisatory sensibility, never succumbing to that dull heavenly metronome business, which is death. A stunning performance of the Bartok first string quartet followed, a rich, aching Lento followed by a muscular Allegretto, and the whirlwind finale, where we finally get a view of that unmistakable Bartok sound.

The Brahms in the second half (the String Quartet No. 1) was, as usual, something of a letdown. (Maybe its me?) The group seemed to be having trouble getting the balances right to bring out the interplay between voices that gives the piece its structure, and for long stretches we just got a lot of Brahmsian-sounding mush. The Brahms-pummeling tendency was not as strong in the Jupiter as it is in some folks, but it wasn't entirely absent either, and the relentless speed made it hard to tell whether the final impression was enlightenment or just exhaustion. Points for beautiful work in the Poco Adagio movement, though.