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...

Monday, October 28, 2019

Otello at WNO

For my first opera outing on American soil in two years (!), I took in Washington National Opera's very strong Otello season opener Saturday night. Famous for DC sightings were in short supply I'm afraid, aside from diehard RBG (who entered to a raucous standing ovation). I did, however, spy an extremely brazen mouse who apparently likes to hang out around Orchestra row T on the outside left aisle during shows (paging KC maintenance).

This ENO/Royal Swedish Opera/Teatro Real co-production, directed by David Alden, has been around the block a few times (gotta love a production pedigree that sounds like a multilateral trade agreement) and was familiar to me from watching this vid years ago. It is conceptually tame relative to some of Alden’s other work: the unit set and late Victorian costumes plant us squarely in generic Europe times and things unfold in a fairly straightforward fashion from there. But I enjoyed the moody atmosphere and found it effective at keeping the central dramatic triangle in the foreground. Staging of the Act I crowd material was particularly well handled, creating a sense of claustrophobia and menace within the limited set space. Perhaps less successfully, the Act II peasant/children’s chorus for Desdemona is all sung offstage while several silent children/soldiers mutely offer her the flowers. I can see how the usual masses of choristers onstage at this point distract from the brewing tension for the subsequent scene, though it also gets tiresome to listen to that much offstage choir.

(Directorial pet peeve sidebar: you know that thing where the leads in opera productions frequently end up canoodling on the ground? Where the scene is a living room with perfectly good furniture but everyone ends up pawing each other on the floor and showing off how good they are at singing on their backs? This production takes things one step further, where we are asked to believe that, at the end of Act I, Desdemona, in her nightie, is so moved by passion that she decides to lie down and then make out with Otello on what has been established as cobblestones that are surely extremely wet from having just been the site of 1) a storm and 2) a drunken melee. C’mon.)

The most striking thing about this production is the extreme lighting that is something of an Alden trademark. The design makes use of harsh white washes to create a stark, expressionistic look and  interesting shadow effects. It also has the practical benefit of allowing Otello to “hide” in Act II by simply stepping into the shadows rather than ducking behind a piece of set. At other times, it felt a bit misguided, as singers got caught in darkness for no discernible purpose (though it seemed like there were also some opening night kinks in play).

But back to that cast. Appearing for the first time with WNO, regular Met fixture George Gagnidze’s assertive, even baritone soared through Iago’s music. His “Credo” offered plenty of throwback vocal grandeur, filling the house with charismatic sound and tossing off those big forte flourishes with ease. Indeed the vocal package is so appealing one might be forgiven for not noticing that his characterization for Iago is ultimately a bit generic.

American Leah Crocetto matched Gagnidze in vocal glamour and then some, turning in a Desdemona of really special beauty. The voice is gorgeous to be sure, but one was also struck by how much she understands how to create a sense of vocal drama over time as Desdemona wanders in and out of the story. Her voice rarely more than a silvery thread in happy wife mode well into Act II, her first real emotional outburst was overwhelming in its directness and intensity--more than one sparkly patron in my vicinity audibly gasped. I am sometimes lukewarm on the Willow Song; too much reliance on the pretty melody at this late stage in the drama can feel cloying. Not a problem here: Crocetto’s delicate phrasing and engaged reading made this and the subsequent prayer made Desdemona’s final statement both enthralling and heartbreaking.

An Otello with no tradeoffs is a very rare thing, and Russell Thomas’ assumption was no exception. While he has successfully brought together the pieces needed to pull this off, at least as of now, those pieces haven't cohered into a vocally unified whole. In his comfort zone, Thomas’ warm tenor was a joy to listen to, finding the legato sweetness in this part that can easily be lost with heavier voices. But he seemed to be reaching for low notes, while some of the quick turn mezza voce and high piano effects e.g. in the Act I duet were not well integrated and wavered around the pitch. As for those big punishing passages that find Verdi creeping into Wagner’s turf, Thomas carried these off with gutsy, exciting singing (except perhaps for that brutal opening bit which was still clearly in warm-up mode). Yet it was clear, for instance when matched with Gagnidze for the duet at the end of Act II, that his voice is still probably a size smaller than what the part really calls for.

Interpretation-wise this is a strong if not particularly distinctive portrayal. Thomas pulled off some good foreshadowing bits in the first Act that laid a bit more groundwork for Act II’s sudden paranoia, and the subsequent descent was fully realized. (Watching Otellos lose their shit at Iago’s slightest provocation sure makes one want to complain that a given actor’s turn isn’t believable, but rewatching this one is struck at how hard it is to make something gradual out of Otello’s Act II material.)

Supporting cast was strong all around but special attention must be paid to former WNO young artist Deborah Nansteel, who threatened to steal the final moments of the show with an Emilia of particularly righteous fury.

Italian maestro Daniele Callegari’s leadership in the pit was a special highlight of the evening. In Act I he refused to indulge anything less than the blistering tempi that make this music really exhilarating, while still managing to deliver the overall transparency and precision that allowed one to appreciate lots of details from this fascinating late Verdi score. The Act III chorus sequence was expertly built to an overwhelming climax. WNO Chorus and Orchestra both excelled here, gamely meeting Callegari’s demands. He also proved a sensitive accompanist for the singers, never allowing the balance to get out of line despite a wide range of voices to contend with.

(Full disclosure: I once had the pleasure of being raked over the coals by Callegari as part of a very non professional opera chorus backing up a Wolf Trap Aida. If you ever want some real fast lessons on how Italian opera works just try to show up and sight read that impossibly delicate Act I men’s chorus at a casual mezzo piano for someone like Callegari. See how that works out for you.)

Friday, February 15, 2019

Wagner in Abu Dhabi

So, here’s a thing that happened the other weekend: the august Bayreuth festival followed other marquee western institutions like NYU, the Louvre, and Shake Shack to the United Arab Emirates, offering two concert presentations of Die Walkure in Abu Dhabi. Living in India at the moment I don’t get a lot of live opera opportunities, so a quick popover seemed justified, no?Abu Dhabi is Dubai’s sleepier sibling. The downtown looks sort of like 80s Phoenix punctuated by gigantic futuristic statement skyscrapers. Endless malls have every Western store one could dream but don’t seem nearly well-attended enough to break even. Most of the conversations I had in my 36 hrs on the ground were about where someone was from in India. It’s a funny place (and by funny I mean sometimes very disturbing).

The venue was the auditorium of the fancy Emirates Palace hotel, famous for its several billion dollar construction cost and general gildedness. Perhaps more of the local set went to the first show, because for this second installment the audience was perhaps 85 percent Europeans and Americans. Bonus points for the Bavaria-themed intermission refreshments including Weissbier on tap and pretzels.

But anyhow, the show. In the absence of a staged production or specific cast presented in Bayreuth, I suppose a more accurate descriptor for this presentation might be “The Bayreuth Festival presents…” Given that the festival musicians are drawn from orchestras around Germany and are probably otherwise occupied in February, I suspect this may have been more of an extended pick up band than, like, the exact group in the pit last August? Also, the forces for this tour were somewhat truncated (only 2 harps!) for concert purposes. Leading the band was conductor Markus Poschner, who directs the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, though not sure how he relates to the festival outside of this tour. That said the cast certainly included a number of bona fide Bayreuthers, with Catherine Foster and Stephen Gould headlining.

Because concert presentations can’t just leave well enough alone, the show was accompanied by a full length film dramatization. This was ostensibly directed by Katharina Wagner herself, though this was less Katharina Wagner, radical provocateur, and more “Ach this middle east thing is coming up and they gave us all this cash...quick get a camera, take some actors into the woods this weekend, and get them to do meaningful looks in slo-mo.” Not poorly done as far as low-budget opera dramatizations go, I suppose--if this was backing up a Buffalo Symphony “Wagner in Concert” show you would probably be impressed that they really went all out this year. But kinda chintzy for the Bayreuth brand. More annoying is that, despite investing a bunch in this video, they couldn’t deign to offer supertitles, an especially egregious omission in a cross-cultural concert. On the other hand, the actor they had playing Brunnhilde was serving like a Carrie Mulligan/Brownstein forest pixie vibe that was really working for me and it’s possible I am now going to think of her face during all future Walkure sittings.

I got to spend a while with Catherine Foster’s Brunnhilde during the Washington National Opera Ring a few years back, and was very pleased to hear it again. Now, sometimes when I try to think of what to say about Foster it sounds like a backhanded compliment, e.g. “Bayreuth sure is lucky to have her, when you think about the string of problematic Brunnhildes that came before!” Or: “Wow, she sounds just so accurate in this part. Really great stuff.” The thing is, I really do think she sounds lovely--it’s a warm, full sound that blazes into a clarion, unforced top (barring the occasionally muffed Hojotoho). Perhaps it’s because she clearly has the goods that I’m more aware of what’s missing, i.e. that last mile of dramatic engagement both in the vocal line and general stage presence. Which is certainly not to say she brings nothing to the role, the Act III monologue from “War es so schmahlich...” in Abu Dhabi was especially compelling and finely felt. Still, the odd square phrase or slack climax is enough to pull one out of the moment and reinforce that for all the considerable achievement of her Brunnhilde there is another layer missing. But I’m not complaining, I swear.

Daniela Kohler, an upcoming Sieglinde at Bayreuth, proved a nice vocal complement for Stephen Gould’s seasoned Siegmund. Gould’s earthy tenor was in fine form, delivering an ur-example of the robust Siegmund type, capped with one of those never ending Waaaaaalse’s that is all the more exciting for being just a tad unwieldy. Kohler matched him with a womanly Sieglinde distinguished by an urgent attractive, middle--not an effortless sound but that is part of the appeal. That effort got the better of her at the top of her range however, where the voice tended to thin out rather than bloom.

Egils Silins offered a solid if a bit of an anonymous Wotan, though I’ll admit I find it tough to assess the subtler virtues of a Wotan portrayal without being able to follow the text for the Act II material. The Fricka scene popped though, thanks to his chemistry with partner Christa Mayer’s gloriously haughty goddess. It looks like her Ring work has been mostly Erda focused but Fricka should clearly be on the agenda.

Conductor Markus Poschner had perhaps a challenging assignment here. There was an uncanny alignment between the dramatization video and big entrances/motif statements in the score, which seemed to suggest there was some deliberate attempt to time the music to the video? That’s cool, I guess, though probably not a best practice for getting to good, organic sounding Wagner. Whether it was that or just playing it safe under tour conditions, pokey, aimless tempi were a problem in some of the longer scenes. Things perked up in the climaxes, which were genuinely thrilling and showcased gorgeous sound from the orchestra. The Act III finale foundered, however, as Poschner kept trying to do these huge ritards right before the big climaxes, a cheap substitute for building real tension over time.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

I wrote about the Glimmerglass production of Xerxes for
The late-mid 1730s were transitional years for Handel, to put it nicely. At the dawn of his 50s, the composer was confronting financial troubles and an English public whose tastes were rapidly forsaking Italian opera in favor of English burlesque works on the model of The Beggar’s Opera (something called The Dragon of Wantley, in part a send-up of Handel’s Giustino, was the toast of the 1737 season). Though still dabbling in the opera game, Handel was already turning toward the oratorio form which would dominate his creative output for the rest of his life.

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Auguin out at WNO

As though we didn't have enough news to fret over, WNO announced today that Phillipe Auguin would make the move to "emeritus" status after next season, concluding his eight year run with the company.

Mind you, eight years is a respectable tenure, I don't know the details, and with only 5 shows a year one is bound to feel a bit shortchanged and disappointed when one likes the principal conductor in question. The more unsettling part of the article is how artistic director Francesca Zambello describes the break:

WNO has turned in solid work over the past 8 years (about the period I have been in DC), mostly commensurate with companies of similar import. There have been a lot of competent, well-cast, somewhat forgettable productions of the standard rep, some decided misfires, and some noble if usually unsuccessful delving into more adventurous work. But when one thinks of moments when this company punched above its weight and created work of a superior musical value, those moments, last year's Ring chief among them, are largely associated with Auguin's leadership. I have no idea how things have gone down behind the scenes, but for WNO's public and its critics, I think its safe to say Auguin has been synonymous with WNO at its best in recent years.

So it is jarring to find Zambello taking a lukewarm stance toward Auguin in her quotes above, suggesting his superior handling of the most ambitious works WNO has tangled with lately is different than what WNO is looking for in a music director. And more jarring still is what she offers as where the company is headed instead: American works and mini-commissions. WNO's efforts on these fronts are laudable enough but the company has shown little talent in picking contemporary American works in recent years, while its new commission program is nice but decidedly a side show for the holiday months while big traveling musicals take over the opera house. I'm sure all those stuffy WNO subscribers from McLean are going to love this new plan.

Anyhow, this does not feel like a serious comment, but rather a dodge papering over a less than amicable parting. What's worrying is what this unceremonious explanation says about the organization's investment in shoring up its musical future. Auguin's time with WNO has meant a lot to this organization and its audience and giving him the ol' "we've decided to go another direction" brush off betrays a worrying lack of appreciation for that fact.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Beczala at UDC

Belated review of Piotr Beczala's Vocal Arts DC from May...

The star tenor recital is perhaps a higher stakes affair than, say, the comparable baritone event. A safe program rooted in your stage repertoire is nearly guaranteed to score a success with your audience, so branching out into less familiar terrain is an especially gutsy move (while your low-voiced colleagues have carte blanche to program whatever spinach they see fit.)

In a recent recital presented by Vocal Arts DC, Piotr Beczala grasped the opportunity to do something far afield from his stage roles in the first half, presenting the entirety of Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.”

Quickly dispelling any concerns that the big sound he deploys in the opera house would crush these delicate songs, Beczala assumed a surprisingly gentle and scaled down vocalism here, while preserving an appealing core of the warmth and ping. Indeed, Beczala only opened up into the more full throated we are used to seven pieces in, for the “Ich grolle nicht,” a thrilling touch for the restraint that came before.

This restraint came with something of a price in balance with Beczala’s collaborator at the piano, Martin Katz. Now, I like a robust piano contribution in a recital, especially in a work like this, where the riches of the accompaniment often rival the vocal line. But I’ll admit that preference was pushed to the limit here, with Katz boldly giving full (and glorious) voice to the piano despite Beczala’s light touch.  

Ultimately, Beczala’s “Dichterliebe” offered lots of thoughtful detail and earnest feeling in the moment, but these pieces probably need an additional layer of insight to stand apart, especially in moments like the dark imagery of the final song. I wouldn’t mind hearing a tasteful if predictable reading like Beczala’s again, but I’m not sure I would gain any deeper insight from it.

After the half, Beczala quickly made the audience forget any lingering equivocations about his Schumann, in songs by the late romantic Polish composer Mieczylaw Karlowicz.

Clearly relishing the chance to sing in his own tongue, serving the kind of throwback handsomeness that you and your grandma could easily bond over, Beczala inhabited the naked emotionalism of these songs with an infectious joy. These melancholy pieces (sample lyric: “Your words flowing toward me/Are like a prayer at the side of a coffin/They evoke shivers of death”) encourage a certain amount of indulgence, and Beczala complied, adding a hint of attractive sob in the voice or a shivery falsetto where appropriate, like the climax of the tender, gorgeously shaped final number, “I remember quiet, clear golden days.”

Heading south with a series of selections from Dvorak’s “Gypsy Melodies,” Beczala abandoned the smooth seduction of the Karlowicz set for a more rough-hewn sound in these character songs. Two of the lusty middle selections, “The string is taut” and “Wide sleeves and wide trousers,” were particularly extravagant, Beczala pushing a broad tone and delightfully reckless volume levels, but never crossing the line into ugly. The penultimate, unabashed tear-jerker “Songs my mother taught me” was a highlight as well.

Beczala returned to polished form for the final set, four surprisingly touching songs by Rachmaninoff. Like the Karlowicz selections these emotionally generous works seemed especially well-suited to his sensibilities, including a hushed, intimate reading of “Lilacs” and a thrillingly dramatic rendition of “Sing not to me, fair maiden.”

For his two encores (a treat for D.C., which seems hard pressed to muster more than a single courtesy bonus selection these days) Beczala indulged the audience with some Italian, starting with Leoncavallo’s “Mattinata.” While I certainly enjoy Beczala in his bread and butter rep, it was also a reminder that I sometimes find the sound of his Italian a little too broad and unidiomatic, a curious sensation after 40 minutes of his gloriously confident Polish, Czech, and Russian. By the irresistible second encore, Caruso barnburner “Core ‘ngrato (Catarì, Catarì),” this minor quibble had been thoroughly forgotten.