Sunday, November 27, 2022

Don Carlos in Chicago

Despite some solid casting Lyric's first take on the 5-Act French language Don Carlos (seen in its last iteration on November 25th) was not so much a revelation as a reminder about what a slog this show can be. I think a lot of the blame has to go to Lyric MD Enrique Mazzola on the podium, who conducted a performance that seemed to be trying to convey how important and momentous a show this is but just ended up sacrificing any sense of momentum or excitement in the music. For all it's epic sweep Don Carlos still operates by the same musical logic as other Verdi potboilers and it needs to be played with an eye towards building tension and milking the drama like usual. There were a few glimmers of life in random places like the Posa-Philip scene and stretches of Act IV but the norm was plodding and uninspired. Endless pauses in transitional moments added to the sense of stasis. The length of the piece and relative lack of showpieces means you really have to sell the musical tension in every scene, but this reading felt  content to coast on the obvious greatness of the music. 

Perhaps even more than the Met's outing of the French language version last year, the text sounded very mushy and more like a factor that inhibited the singers than one that enlivened the drama. I remain convinced that the French can be great given some of the recordings I've heard, but we are clearly at an early stage where any routine collection of principals is not really prepared to sell the French text, and one sorely misses the expressiveness they might have been able to deliver in more familiar Italian (maybe?).

Some takes on the principles:

  • Joshua Guerrero has the right natural sound for Don Carlos to be sure and he was mostly a pleasure to listen to, though at times there is a tightness in the top half of the voice that verges on uncomfortable. Character-wise this seemed like an attempt at playing up the moody, neurotic version of Don Carlos and ending up with something that just felt inert. The tempi from the pit certainly didn't help, with big moments like the opening Fontainebleu aria and the Act 2 scene with Elisabetta DOA.
  • The beauty of Rachel Willis Sorensen's voice is undeniable, though in most of the early part of the evening she was dogged by twin handicaps of noticeable caution and thinning of the sound in Elisabetta's big soaring moments and a volume level one notch softer than what most of her counterparts were putting out. That said, she seemed to address some of these issues by the final Act and "Tu che le vanità" (sorry too lazy to look up the French names) was legitimately engrossing.
  • Clementine Margaine's vocal presence and dramatic commitment as Eboli popped hard against the lukewarm temperature onstage and in the pit--at times you could almost feel her trying in vain to push the whole opera into a higher gear. This was surely the most confident and stylish vocal portrayal of the evening, with all the pungent turns, dynamic creativity, and generally irresistible energy I remember from her DC Carmen a few years back. That said, the Veil Song had lovely moments but also included some strong choices that seemed like maybe an attempt to sell the piece on something other than its own merits. While her "O Don Fatale" was absolutely a highlight due to Margaine's exciting vocalism, the great climax wasn't as fully locked in as one might have hoped, no doubt due in part to a lack of inspiration and responsiveness from the pit.
  • Dmitri Belosselskiy's Philip had the welcome heft to fill the hall and the right gravitas for the part. The big Act IV scene was one of the first really moving stretches in this production, even if the aria didn't quite come together as an integrated whole, I think in part due to a limited sense of that Verdian line, but perfunctory pit business was certainly an issue here too.
  • I liked Igor Golovatenko's Posa quite a bit, with a warm musical sound and nice sense of legato. "Per me giunto è il dì supremo" was a bit pedestrian.
  • Solomon Howard, very familiar to DC audiences, was a very compelling Grand Inquisitor and a counterpoint to my recent complaints about casting very young singers in (very) old roles.
There has been a lot of ire directed at the physical production, which I suspect may be in part an expression of disappointment in the snoozy musical presentation. But it is definitely not good. Apparently before David McVicar foisted his off-putting Met Don Carlos on New York audiences' eyes he was testing out his theory that the audience should experience the visual analogue of the characters' pain and hopelessness in real time with this 2007 prod for Frankfurt. The set, entirely composed of white bricks, looks a bit like a neglected Eastern European sauna. Little platforms of bricks raise and lower at times but except for one platform representing Carlos V's tomb it is unclear why they are doing this. One might be ok with looking at this for 4 hours if it was used more creatively, but it was not. I'm not calling for 10 sets and realistic ramparts or whatever but the lack of creativity in some of these budget post-COVID stagings is worrying.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Il Trovatore at Washington National Opera

I'm afraid this Il Trovatore was a bit of a rocky start to Washington National Opera's 22/23 season, with the company assembling some good fundamentals but turning out an inconsistent show overall. 

Latonia Moore's Leonora was the big draw here, and for good reason--the voice is a gorgeous fit for Leonora, combining an unimpeachable top with a rich chest sound that easily filled the KC Opera House. But unfortunately the big numbers just never made it past the level of a beautiful voice singing beautiful songs. These should be vocal and dramatic events driven by whatever the diva in question has to share, but Moore seemed to be largely coloring within the lines of the perfunctory tempi coming out of the pit. Also, she had a tendency to slide between notes in the more coloratura passages--making a bit of a hash of the cabaletta to Tacea La Notte and generally marring that beautiful sound with a sense that she wasn't fully in command where the score gets a bit thorny. 

Dramatically she was fine if a bit generic through the first Act or so, but really found her footing in the final confrontations with di Luna and Manrico which showed off some exciting Verdian fire. Hopefully the warm up was an artifact of opening night and more of that late energy will find its way into the rest of the portrayal later in the run.

Manrico was Gwyn Hughes Jones, who has one of those curious tenor voices that easily fills the hall despite an inherently light timbre that seems like it couldn't possibly be associated with that degree of volume. It is a generally appealing sound with a nice ping in the top, though can occasionally veer into too much of an unpleasant nasal quality. Ultimately I think his voice is just miscast for Manrico, who needs more heroic heft in his sound to balance the heavyweight female voices he spends most of his time competing with. While "Ah, si ben mio" isn't quite in the same league as some of celebrated statement pieces for the other principals, as with Moore, this was again some very pretty singing without a lot of style or dramatic urgency.

Christopher Maltman is of course familiar from lots of Don Giovannis, though is apparently moving into more Verdi per his bio, appearing as Count di Luna here. It's a big, imposing sound that is excellent for di Luna's authoritative presence in the ensembles and confrontations, and Maltman has a great facility for bringing out the text. But...he just lacks that extra element of vocal suaveness that makes the Verdi baritone parts special. "Il balen del suo sorriso" does not need to serve Hvorostovsky-levels of decadence but it does need to be a little prettier and more irresistible than what Maltman turned in Saturday night. His di Luna was also a pretty one-note villain, which, watching it again I realize is really 90-95 percent of the role on paper, but that's why the great exponents of the role know that you need to milk those rare opportunities to show something different for all they are worth.

That leaves Raehann Bryce-Davis's Azucena, which really stood apart among the principals on opening night for bringing vocal excitement and a top-to-bottom level of consistent characterization and commitment. She delivers a vocally complete Azucena with a deliciously cutting chest voice and ample power on top, but also memorable stylistic choices in Azucena's go-for-broke madness moments, sassy moments, etc. Other quibbles with the evening aside, finding a singer really owning and running with a great new take on Azucena is extremely exciting, and I hope Bryce-Davis has many more of these lined up.

Elsewhere in the cast we got the ridiculous luxury casting of Ryan Speedo Green, who is really in town for Orest in Elektra next weekend, as Ferrando. It's sometimes hard not to zone out during the prologue but he had me very hooked.

To be clear, the musical issues were broader than the principals and it really seems like this Trovatore may have just been a bit under-baked for opening night. Coordination problems with the pit cropped up in a number of scenes, and the big Act 2 finale had such a plodding disjointed feel that it seemed like the only explanation was some element of caution to make sure things didn't go off the rails. 

Perhaps that will clear up as the run goes on, though it was hard to tell what conductor Michele Gamba would have in store under more comfortable conditions. The oom-pah orchestra material definitely had an energetic verve, but for most of the show one did not get a sense of his capacity to really build drama in the scenes at more than one speed. As noted, whether a function of the singers or the leadership or both, readings of the big arias came off as very straightforward. Chorus work apart from the coordination issues was strong.

And then there is the production. So, if folks remember, right before the shutdown, WNO's 2020 spring season had Don Giovanni running at the same time as Samson et Dalila, and they shared the same set by Erhard Rom, sort of a deconstructed office building/sterile modern space, using different projections and configurations for the two shows. It worked well enough in the Don Giovanni where the contrast with traditional costumes seemed to echo the production's focus on modern "me too" themes, but now it appears WNO has revived that set again for this Trovatore (again with period costumes) and I am trying to figure out whether there is even an attempt at any artistic justification here or if they just own the set and times are tough. 

They've re-dressed it here and there with medieval Spain stuff and have added some new projections (including some effective animations for the exposition sections), but that just seems to emphasize that the modern set is not really supposed to have meaning within the production? Certainly wasn't picking up on much directorial intent beyond putting a serviceable Trovatore into the available physical space. There are also these huge gray walls that look like the side of the office building which they fly in for some of the scenes done upstage which are...very not good to look at. 

I now have a sinking feeling this set is also going to be used for the Elektra that opens next week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Michael Spyres in Recital

Michael Spyres took a night off from his celebrated run in the Met's Idomeneo revival to open the Vocal Arts DC season in a compact program of song cycles from Berlioz, Beethoven, and Liszt.

Spyres' rendition of Berlioz' Les Nuits d'Ete was a fine showcase for his distinctive "baritenor" and the range of colors he is capable of producing with it. After the half, An die Ferne Geliebte was elegant if a bit forgettable (tough being the classical transition piece between two romantic-era powerhouses). For such a distinctive sound, Spyres is something of a chameleon, employing a whole different approach and set of seemingly period-appropriate(?) effects for each cycle. 

After the tasteful Berlioz and Beethoven, Spyres offered Liszt's spectacular Tre Sonetti del Petrarca for the final cycle. Vocal recitals by opera singers tend to withhold something a bit more explicitly operatic for the big finish, but rarely has the reveal been as dramatic as it was here, with Spyres unleashing 20 minutes of big, overwhelming sound only hinted at in the earlier part of the program.

For his single encore, Spyres gave "Fuor del Mar," the number from Idomeneo that has been getting him so much attention on the New York stage the past two weeks. Without the pressure of filling the Met, this was a bit more unified and less gutsy than the version I heard Spyres do in the house, though still thoroughly exciting. Hopefully this doesn't HD-style cannibalize any DC audience members that were thinking about a trip for one of the final shows...

Thursday, October 06, 2022

Medea at the Met

The Met’s opening night production of Cherubini's "Medea" played to the house's strengths: putting great singers in comfortable surroundings and letting them do their thing. Medea is ripe for more thoughtful interrogation than this McVicar joint could provide, but this was undoubtedly the right vehicle for the company's star-driven opening night and it came off splendidly. 

The superstar at the center, Sondra Radvanovsky, delivered all the big-time Medea one could ask for, serving utter command of the stage but also depth of characterization and attention to detail. Radvanovsky does not deliver CD-perfect sound on stage but the vocal excitement and awe she can create is far more important, and any idiosyncrasies were easily folded into the character. Besides the vocal demands, this is a treacherous acting assignment for a singer. Maintaining a feverish emotional pitch through I dunno, 10 - 20 oaths of revenge, may be the easy part—Medea must also sell whiplash turns of emotion and maintain audience interest through long monologues that rest entirely on the lead. Radvanovsky made all of this highly engaging.

This is also a production that does not provide a lot of distractions from its lead. The last/first time I saw Medea onstage was in Simon Stone's utter waste of a production at the Salzburg festival pre-pandemic. Stone's fussy, hyper-realistic take (sorry now I'm going to complain about this old production) constructed elaborate modern-dress scenarios which buried the leads under so much cinematic detail that most scenes were already done by the time you had figured out how the text fit to the scenario you were observing.

McVicar, working with a straightforward unit set showing the walls of Crete which open to reveal the inside of the palace, mostly just lets the leads play the scenes in front of a static set, which I was very grateful for, at least this time around. A few bits were pushed too far—Medea slithering around on the floor when she initially crashes the wedding didn’t need to go on for so long, some of the upstage tableaux, like Glauce’s gory demise, overstayed their welcome, and Medea’s interpretive movement under the Act III prelude was too on the nose. Least forgivable was the choice to have Medea curl up with the corpses of her children at the end, even though the libretto clearly states she has gone down to the river. Blocking that so clearly contradicts the text needs a good rationale but it was hard to find a justification besides injecting a bit of sympathy for this…checks notes…*vengeful child murderer* in the last seconds of the show. But mostly this was a non-interventional production that just worked.

Elsewhere in the cast: it feels odd to say Polenzani didn't "stand out" but that is the fate of basically everyone who is not Medea in this show. He was absolutely Radvonovsky's equal in their ensemble work, especially the big duet that ends Act I. The show makes you wait perhaps a bit too long before Medea shows up and by 30 minutes in you could feel the audience's attention starting to wander a bit. I assume that was Cherubini's plan all along, because if the Medea-Jason duet comes off the way Radvonovsky-Polenzani delivered it the audience collectively kicks itself for being doubters just moments later. Polenzani shines in this heavier rep by maintaining much of the delicious pingy sound familiar from his Mozart days, though here he sounded a tad shouty and careless at times. Despite having his cake and eating it too at the outset of the plot, Polenzani’s Jason was almost as bedraggled and sulky as Medea, never letting the audience forget that he has been compromised and brutalized by tragedy as well. 

Michele Pertusi was an imposing Creon, perfectly sitting in that intersection of gravitas and vocal luxury that one expects in supporting authority figures at the Met. I complained last week about how the dad in Rossini's Otello was cast with a perfectly pleasant young artist which cost the dynamic between Desdemona and her father some credibility. Pertusi's imposing father neatly validated that observation a few days later. I know there are economics at work here for smaller companies and getting young artists exposure in these roles is important, but companies should think about the impact as well.

Janai Brugger was a luminous Glauce reaching just a bit at the top of her otherwise very satisfying Act I showpiece. Ekaterina Grubovna’s Neris was gorgeously sung, but I grew a bit distracted in her major Act II aria.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Cantate Chamber Singers in Bethesda

Wrote about Cantate Chamber Singers' March concert for WCR:
Victoria Gau, now halfway through her first season as music director of the Cantate Chamber Singers, led the chorus in a unique program interspersing (mostly) 20th century choral selections among the movements of Mozart’s Requiem, Sunday night at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church in Bethesda.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Don Giovanni at WNO (2020)

Quick thoughts on WNO's new Don Giovanni last night...

I walked into this show erroneously assuming WNO was bringing back the very successful production from ~2010 or so but this an entirely new (and somewhat less successful) joint. For some reason this new production sets the action in a hyper-modern that looks a bit like a law firm lobby, while keeping the costumes in the standard vaguely 18th century feudal aesthetic. It's not terrible, just somewhat puzzling. Why not just put everyone in modern dress?

The key directorial intervention is a series of ghostly female figures in white that represent Don Giovanni's victims, appearing at various points throughout the show and ultimately acting as the avenging spirits dragging DG down to hell. This seems perfectly fair, if not especially unexpected or particularly inventive in light of the topical #metoo frame being added to Don Giovannis far and wide these days. 

However, and this is a hair-splitting quibble, but figures in white trudging around REALLY suggests that these are ghosts. At the risk of being dragged for being a Don Giovanni apologist (he's definitely terrible and deserves to be sucked into hell! etc), he's not, you know, technically a serial killer, in which case ghost victims would make absolute sense. This "misapplied" image also seemed a bit off in light of the production's very weak characterization of DG himself, of which more below. Also, I couldn't help thinking about showgirl ghosts from Follies, which is a very odd recurring image to have in one's head during a production of Don Giovanni.

On the plus side of the casting ledger we got the exquisite Donnas Anna and Elvira of Vanessa Vasquez and Keri Alkema, respectively. Vasquez, a 2017 Met Council winner, demonstrated an exquisite, silvery sound here, with thrilling unforced security across the role's demands, and an especially fiery quality in Anna's recitative. My one regret was the plodding tempo for her "Or sai chi l'onore"  which prevented her from getting real traction in the piece and doing something more with it.

Alkema's Elvira was probably the highlight of the evening for me, and represented some closure after Amanda Majeski's pretty but ultimately inert Elvira in Chicago back in the fall. For the character to work, Elvira can't be merely "conflicted"--she has to be a hot mess. In addition, it's important that she reads decidedly older than Donna Anna, and that her desperation in part comes from that place. She has to be a more vulernable and pathetic character than simply a pissed-off version of Donna Anna. It's not always pretty, but the impact of a generic Donna Elvira vs. a Donna Elvira who understands the parameters of the character is night and day. Alkema appears to get all this, and boasts a rich, fascinating voice and sense of vocal artistry to boot. Her "Mi Tradi" was by turns sobbing, defiant, and melancholy, a real triumph that fully exploited the emotional possibilities of the piece.

Kyle Ketelson possibly garnered the biggest applause of the night, with an exceptionally watchable Leporello reminiscent of an late-90s Seth Green character (I mean this in the best possible way), far removed from your standard-issue exasperated buffoon Leporello. In a production which did not generate much organic comedy, his ability to inject personality and great comic timing into his interpretation of the part was a major asset.

In the "perfectly pleasant if not particularly distinguished" lane, we had Vanessa Becerra, whose pretty soprano offered an appropriately light and youthful quality sound for Zerlina, and WNO young artist alumni Norman Garrett, whose substantial yet flexible baritone was a nice fit for Masetto.

Now for the less good. Ryan McKinny has had a good track record at WNO, with fine back to back appearances in the Ring Cycle and Figaro a few years ago. He has a lovely sound most comfortable in a slightly high lying baritone space but not lacking for volume, and a sensitive approach to text.

But he was a curiously absent Don here. I'm not sure if how much of this was directorial direction but his Don Giovanni felt at times like a disinterested observer of the mayhem he was generating, delivering little in the way of either the menace or seduction theoretically driving that mayhem. Directorial direction certainly seemed to come into play in the lead up to the party scene which had him not just drinking, but actually drunk and maybe a little sleepy and over it as a result of all that drinking. "Fin ch'han dal vino" was staged(?) as a careless mess, with McKinny seeming to stumble over words. 

Perhaps this made sense in the broader strategic context of this production, with its #metoo framing: portraying DG as some kind of virile, malignant force of nature actually validates his crimes, instead we should see him as a sad little man remorselessly exercising his ill-gotten privilege and destroying people's lives as a byproduct. 

I'm not opposed to this take, though it creates some practical problems for the mechanics of the show as some of the basic motivating impulses for scenes fall flat and the other characters' reactions to DG don't make much sense. Moreover, a focus on DG's accountability at the hands of his victims, as attempted here, doesn't feel that cathartic when his villainy doesn't register as strongly. I could imagine a production being really creative and deliberate about this choice and making it work, here it mostly felt like part of the plot was missing.

Or maybe I am overthinking it and McKinny is just not cut out for this role and the outsized personality it requires. Musically, he also had difficulty in the lower reaches of the part. I appreciate as much as the next person a really gorgeous and lyrical "La ci darem la mano" but there seems to be a pernicious trend afoot of casting Don Giovanni's that don't really have this lower heft because they sound nice up top, and that's not really the part.

Also in the problematic arena was tenor Alex Shrader, who struggled through Don Ottavio. Shrader sang the tenor part in the National Symphony Orchestra Messiahs here before the holidays and unfortunately the vocal challenges he had in those performances are still evident. He has a very attractive sound in the middle voice, but occasionally suffered cracks and needed to switch into a very light head voice to reach everything above the staff. Overall his volume was an extremely noticeable notch below the rest of the cast. "Il mio tesoro" was cut. Not sure what is going on here but hope he is figuring out how to work through it.

Evan Rogister, the new WNO principal conductor (or whatever they are calling it) led an uneven performance in the pit. The opera house orchestra sounded very nice in parts and there were a lot of moments of sensitive shaping from Rogister, but this opening night performance was also rife with coordination problems in both individual sections and ensemble moments like the first Act finale. A disproportionate share of this seemed to fall on McKinny's head so perhaps this was also a rehearsal issue, but there is a lot of tightening up to do here (good thing that WNO has scheduled something like 12 of these shows). There were also some annoyingly pokey tempos, including the aforementioned aria for Donna Anna and the finale which remained stuck in a low gear, perhaps out of an abundance of caution to not let the evening's final moments unravel.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Brentano String Quartet at Wolf Trap

Thoughts on the Brentano String Quartet for WCR:
Wolf Trap presented the Brentano String Quartet Friday night, with a thoughtful take on Beethoven anniversary year. The program was organized around Beethoven’s Op. 132 String Quartet in A minor, particularly its celebrated third movement.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

WNO's American Opera Initiative

Thoughts on WNO's 20 minute opera evening for WCR:
The American Opera Initiative, Washington National Opera’s program devoted to developing new work, presented its annual set of 20-minute commissions Friday night at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theatre. While the results are frequently mixed, these evenings always offer a welcome opportunity to understand how composers of the moment are addressing familiar challenges.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Don Giovanni at Lyric Opera

Quick thoughts on Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Don Giovanni (the performance on Saturday November 30th) which impressed with overall high musical values and a first rate cast but was also just a little bit boring.

Lyric deserves props for assembling a really tremendous cast here, each of the principals formidable rising or recently established important exponents of these roles on the stage today. In this heady company, Rachel Willis Sorenson’s Donna Anna stood out among the women, her ample, steely soprano a great vehicle for a relentlessly anxious, broken Donna Anna.

Ying Fang has a gorgeous sound, a bright soubrette timbre but with healthy weight behind it, which she used in service of a particularly beautifully sung Zerlina. I’m not sure if she really got to a place that was more than (very) pretty, though. This was truly about as good as one could hope for as far as beautifully sung renditions of Zerlina’s music, but the layers that transform this character from comedy to something more meaningful did not quite register.

Amanda Majeski needed a moment to calibrate her voice for Donna Elvira’s treacherous opener, but settled quickly into a creamy, attractive sound with plenty of edgy bite for Elvira’s self-righteous Act I declarations. Unfortunately her rendition of “Mi Tradi” failed to deliver on this early promise, Majeski offering a curiously inert, effortful performance in which the piece seemed to be getting the better of her (also unfortunate were some smudged pitches in the final runs). Don Giovanni can be a long evening (when did we stop doing two intermissions for Mozart?) and by the time Elvira’s final statement rolls around the audience in sore need of big enthralling moments in the final string of arias. This “Mi Tradi” did not get there.

Lucas Meachem turned in an intimidating, highly musical Don. His sound leans a shade lighter than the deepest, bass-inflected Dons, so instead of thundering we get a much more agile, nuanced take on this music than expected. Rarely have I heard the Don’s “seducer” arias sound more compelling. Moreover, his Don is a disturbingly familiar modern character, a sociopath but also the smartest person in the room and completely in control of his agenda.

Ben Bliss has a near ideal sound for Don Ottavio, though he was noticeably a notch quieter than the rest of the cast. His very lovely but not particularly distinctive takes on Ottavio’s big arias also fell a bit flat. Not helping was a feature of this production that has some of the big arias performed in front of the curtain, which tended to raise expectations. Matthew Rose’s Leporello rounded out the high quality cast though had repeated coordination problems with the pit.

James Gaffigan’s leadership in the pit was very fine at points, with a brilliant overture and exciting, stylish conducting, but he also contributed to some of the lack of momentum that detracted from the evening, with curiously slow tempi at times and repeated retreats into four-square phrasing. 

The production, directed by Robert Falls, randomly updates the action to Spain in the 1930s, which may be something of a trend with the Met’s art deco Marriage of Figaro. The production design has its moments, as in an overflowing garden for the graveyard scene, but its  “fragmentary realism” approach, with elements of the set lavishly realized against a bare stage sometimes conveyed “we wanted to wow you but didn’t have enough budget to finish the job.” The imposing whitewashed structures have a sterility about them that grows bland by the end of the night.

Falls’ chief dramatic intervention here is to really step up our repulsion for the title character, dramatizing Don Giovanni’s abuse of his victims in graphic detail. During “Fin ch'han dal vino,” Don Giovanni chokes and slaps a woman kneeling before him while another feels him up from behind. In the final scene, Zerlina’s maid wriggles bound onto the back of the stage, apparently having become a full-on sex slave since her earlier seduction, and proceeds to writhe around through the entire scene until rescued by Donna Elvira on her way out.

These are shocking, grim things to put onstage, and they immediately draw our attention from whatever musico-dramatic action is occurring in the story at that moment. The concern seems to be that a finer point needs to be put on Don Giovanni’s loathsomeness, that an “honest” staging needs to underline what a monster he is lest the audience think he is merely a lovable cad.

I can sympathize with this impulse to some degree. Don Giovanni is an indictment of abusive power and male violence but nonetheless has an ambivalent, shifting relationship to enabling ideas about the allure of power and suffering. I think a production that found inventive and shocking ways to lay bare the power dynamics submerged in the farce could be very revealing.

Unfortunately, this production doesn’t seem to be trying to engage us in a deeper reading of the  work as much as it is simply hedging its bets. The souped-up monstrousness of Don Giovanni blithely coexists with a fairly routine production, down to goofy choreographed bits in the group numbers. By the end, the more transgressive material for the Don seem like crude attempts to stack the evidence against the character, simplifying the narrative rather than complicating it further.
Which brings us to a final rant.

We’re really getting to a breaking point with Don Giovanni stagings where the sexy blocking is so repetitive you can almost predict when someone’s about to get straddled. There’s just so. much. rubbing. all. the. time. Also so much dropping to the floor and pretending to almost bang, so many hands up skirts, and so many neck gnawings. These staging tics fail to evoke anything that looks like an authentic, sexually charged scenario, frequently make the singers look uncomfortable, and undercut the singers’ ability to convey some of that sexiness through the music. We need a moratorium on excessively randy blocking now; hopefully that will give directors a chance to come up with some novel ways to stage these scenes.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Hamlet at WCO

I wrote about Washington Concert Opera's Hamlet for Parterre:
Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet isn’t the rarity it once was, with a handful of notable productions in recent years, including the Met in 2010 and here at Washington National Opera in the same year, featuring Elizabeths Bishop and Futral, plus Sam Ramey (!) as Claudius. (I’ve been thinking this decade went by quickly but maybe not?) Read the whole thing here...

Saturday, November 23, 2019

NSO plays Puts and Strauss

My take on the NSO's premiere of Kevin Puts' "The Brightness of Light" with Renee Fleming and Rod Gilfry on Washington Classical Review:
On the heels of their big Wagner outing, the National Symphony Orchestra and music director Gianandrea Noseda offered another ambitious vocal program Thursday evening at Kennedy Center: the Washington premiere of a new NSO co-commission by composer Kevin Puts, with soprano Renée Fleming in a starring role. Read the rest...

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Wagner (highlights) with the NSO

Some quick reactions on Tristan Act II last night at the Kennedy Center…

There was much to enjoy in this exploratory outing for Goerke’s Isolde, as well as some challenges. It was a real joy to hear her in a concert setting again for the first time in a while. She may not bowl you over with volume in a huge opera house, but in a (slightly) smaller hall you can really appreciate the full heft of her sound. The true excitement here, as is appropriate, was in Isolde’s pealing high music. Goerke’s distinctive quick vibrato continues to differentiate her in Wagner's big moments, bringing a soft, plush texture that is a great vehicle for emotional communication. There was something of a warm up period here, where the sound was confident but a bit on the dry side. But that resolved itself  and by the time the meat of the duet had arrived she had settled nicely into warm, blazing top notes that made the big finish exhilarating.

However that top often seemed disconnected from the rest of the voice. She seemed to have difficulty cutting through the orchestra in the middle and lower registers to the extent that  it was a bit difficult to follow the through line of the music in parts. While the top felt sufficiently free, the effort elsewhere left an overall impression of a lot of work going on. Noseda was not helpful in this respect, driving the NSO at (what were admittedly very fun) full bore with few compromises for the singers, though when the orchestra did dial it back, you could still catch moments of those rich middle register tones. Here's hoping that as she spends more time with the role she can get to a place that feels more comfortable across her range.

A concert performance doesn’t really lend itself to a full dramatic evaluation, but, as she has with some of the other Wagner heroines, Goerke seemed to be keying into a more vulnerable side of Isolde, which I found quite compelling. (Just kidding Stemme unhinged emo princess you’re the only one for me I swear!)

If Goerke was trying some stuff out, Stephen Gould was making big-time Wagner singing look like another casual Wednesday night down at the pub. He may not be the most dynamic Tristan (concert presentation caveats of course), but no matter how unruly that orchestra gets dude is gonna blast Tristan into the back row with only a hint of manly strain. Which is not to say he only has one setting--there was some really lovely singing at quieter dynamics too. I was also impressed with baritone Günther Groissböck who offered a very musical Konig Marke (gotta love having a hot Marke next to a more, er, standard Tristan, like damn girl I guess that potion really worked), and Ekaterina Gubanova’s clarion Brangaene.

As noted above, I hope Noseda is a bit of a better accompanist for the singers when this program repeats. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy what the orchestra was doing. Noseda delivered an urgent, muscular Act II and the NSO was in top form with really passionate, committed playing and excellent solo work (though the offstage hunting horns had some problems). The only disappointment was that we couldn’t hear them take on the rest.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Akhnaten at the Met

Late 20th century nights at the Met feel like some kind of temporary truce between warring New York artistic factions. And so it was for the premiere of Philip Glass’ 1985 opera “Akhnaten” Friday night, which found the hip and (often, though certainly not all) under 60 crowd improbably slumming it on the Upper West Side to honor the original downtown master finally seeing this landmark 35 year old work getting some recognition uptown.

Akhnaten is the third opera in the “Portrait Trilogy” along with Satyagraha and Einstein on the Beach, but in format and musical language Akhnaten and Satyagraha are really a pair relative to the far more out there experimentation of Einstein. Glass’ subject here is the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten, who, according to the scraps of evidence that survive, briefly overthrew Egypt’s polytheistic religion for monotheism.

As with Satyagraha, Glass sets evocative pieces of text that broadly capture different ideas and events related to the subject. Here he draws us into the drama and mystery surrounding the political cult of Ancient Egypt, as well as Akhnaten’s idea of monotheism. It is a fascinating and varied score, combining periods of long meditative stasis with pounding, exhilarating choruses that create real action with only the thinnest outlines of a plot declaimed by a narrator.

Perhaps the one misstep is the segue to the epilogue, in which the narrator becomes a modern university lecturer describing what evidence is left of Akhnaten before the haunting final trio sung by the ghosts of Akhnaten, his queen, and his mother. I can appreciate the idea of confronting the audience with how much what we've just watched is really an academic fiction, but I don't know if it justifies breaking the magic of the piece with a psychiatrist-at-the-end-of-Psycho-style explanation. Moving straight from the action to the otherworldly final chorus would be a lot more effective.

Phelim McDermott’s production is just what one might imagine “BAM goes to Lincoln Center” entails (In a good way!). The basic language of the production is symbolism and abstraction, but the catwalk set and its compartments allow for a bewildering array of chorus members and supernumeraries to get involved. There’s a cool scrim that creates sort of an ancient hieroglyphics effect with real actors. Kevin Pollard’s dazzling costumes give ancient Egypt via Victorian times via star wars, and of course there is a whole jumpsuit clad juggling troupe. There are so many arresting visual moments here, from the Act I finale when Akhnaten in his giant gilt hoop skirt get-up, framed with LED sun rays, announces his new religion, to the iconic image from the production photos of Akhnaten climbing a set of stairs in an endless gauzy red robe before a giant red globe representing Aten.

Does the production sometimes try to do too much? Does one sometimes wish the production had taken one thing off before it left the house? Maybe. It’s a very different show, of course, but feels a lot less cohesive than the McDermott’s Satyagraha production for the Met. The fact that the most resonant stage imagery come in the more economical second act, when the catwalk set is largely sidelined, suggests the production’s focus wanders a bit in the big group parts of Act I and Act III, which seem more concerned with getting a lot of cool stuff onstage than clearly conveying some meaningful fusion of stage tableau and music. There are also moments in the outer Act crowd scenes (Akhnaten fighting the old guard priests, Akhnaten later being hounded by the old guard) where the dramatization of the action gets awfully literal, as though after getting hordes of people in place there wasn’t time left to come up with more creative ways to convey the ideas. The “avant garde” elements of the production seem to be ultimately more of a convenient aesthetic option than any kind of deliberate approach shaping the production.

Also I was sort of ambivalent about the juggling, which worked beautifully in a few places (especially the *group juggling with beach balls* during Act II), but raises the specter of a Diane Paulus’ Pippin revival-type situation, where the director doesn’t trust the material and needs to juice it with stuff that is entertaining in its own right regardless of what show it’s in. But ultimately I think these are quibbles. This is an exceptional piece of stagecraft and the kind of delightfully gonzo thing the Met really excels at when it wants to.

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo’s performance is as much an achievement of physical as of musical drama. From his arresting entry, slowly descending a staircase completely nude, eyes locked into the horizon, he establishes himself as the mesmerizing presence at the heart of the production some 20 minutes before he sings a note. When his distinctive countertenor sound does show up, it is hard to imagine another singer in the role. It’s a very particular, highly focused, slightly nasal sound that makes a much more forward impression than a more typical countertenor timbre, and unmoors the character from specific gender or age to great effect. His big second act aria, sung in the vernacular of the audience, was an overwhelming moment, Costanzo unearthing painful devotion and ecstasy in service of/oneness with his deity.

J’Nai Bridges, in a Met role debut as Nefertiti, made a wonderful vocal partner for Costanzo, especially in their second act duet, another key highlight. Akhnaten and Nefertiti, dressed in identical translucent red robes with long trains extending into the wings, sing a duet of long lines that intertwine in rapturous chromatic harmonies. Elsewhere in the cast, soprano Disella Larusdottir’s Queen Tye had some warm up challenges early on, but settled in well, beautifully supporting the central trio in both the end of the Act I and the finale. Zachary James, in a spoken role as the narrator, and the rest of the supporting cast were superb. Glass’ music sometimes seems deceptively easy to an audience, but requires huge amounts of stamina and consistency from singers. Hearing Glass' music performed at this level with major operatic voices is truly a rare treat.

The high level of the principals was echoed by the Met chorus and orchestra, led here by Karen Kamensek. Minimalism certainly seems like a misnomer for Glass’ work when applied to the highly complex choral and orchestral demands of this work, but Kamensek managed to hold things together with ease (except maybe some coordination issues with the offstage percussion?) while capturing the sense of epic timelessness in the score.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Christian Gerhaher at the Kennedy Center

I reviewed Christian Gerhaher's all-Mahler recital for Washington Classical Review:
Longtime collaborators baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber returned to Washington Friday night to continue the survey of the songs of Gustav Mahler they began here two years ago at the University of District Columbia. Mahler’s songs have many lives, whether in the various piano and orchestra arrangements provided by the composer himself, or immortalized as material for his symphonies. Given Gerhaher and Huber’s reputation for exceedingly sensitive, thoughtful readings of the lieder repertoire, this recital promised a view of these works at their most sparing and intimate. Read more...