Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Shorter Fidelio

Karita: Super enjoyable, often awesome. She is a constant joy to behold onstage. The sound is always distinctive, somehow managing to project a disarming warmth through that trademark silvery peal.

And yet, perhaps there's something lacking though when she's called on to deploy the real punishing firepower stuff? The sound loses focus at the top? There's something imprecise about the attacks? We can't quite finger it. Elsa will be an interesting opportunity for comparison.

Heps: Brilliant. I'm so stoked for his Lohengrin I can taste it.

Alan Held: Yet another great reason to be excited if he does his Wotan in the DC Die Walkure-homa next year.

Jennifer Welch Babidge: Boy is that a thankless character. She spends the whole first act almost getting accidentally gay married and doesn't even get a line to tie up her plot when Fidelio goes reverse Crying Game on her. Still doesn't excuse a vibrato that sounds like the CD is skipping.

The Pit: Decidedly not a top of their game night for the Met orchestra under Jimmy replacement Paul Nadler. Not that I can fathom how anyone manages to pull off a successful reading of Beethoven, run a really difficult entire opera at the same time, all while trying to make good on an intimidating cover job. But the shortfall in control and larger vision was pretty noticeable. Some uncharacteristically graceless playing from the string section too.

The Production: Neither here nor there until the laugh out loud staging silliness at the end. What's with the closing chorus dance party?

In sum: I still think it's kind of lame. The impression of opera by committee is really strong in person, like that Word document in your office that everyone edits to within an inch of its life. But at the same time you just have to respect the people that can make those insanely difficult numbers work. I have a feeling that when this is done poorly, it gets really, really bad. So props for a very solid if at times lackluster show.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Shoot-out at the Valhall Corrall

Long story short, the new 'American' Ring business at the Washington National Opera really, really doesn't work. With some notable exceptions, it isn't "oh god look away the humanity" bad, but more like "Well that doesn't really work now does it? Who thought of that??? Weak."

I guess on paper a Ring that is broadly 'evocative' of American themes and history isn't so bad. But this crosses lines. This isn't evocative so much as stuffing, willy-nilly, the greatest hits from AP American history into the most surface reading of Wagner's social critique. This results in all kinds of cognitive dissonance. Alberich is a prospector? I thought he was the petty capitalist? Wotan is Gatsby? Does that mean the Ring makes Wotan new money?

Obviously, the production team led by the otherwise awesome Francesca Zambello doesn't really care what we do with those questions, but I'm thinking Wagner, who had an opinion or two about history, would have cared how people found his analysis relevant to American society. And this Gatsby-slavery-old westy-railroad mush doesn't do anyone any favors. Indeed, I'm thinking this should actually have the Master spinning in his grave sooner than Eurotrash productions that might be vulgar but at least know their place.

At other times, the 'Americanizing' is just absurd, as when they sneak old-westernisms into the super-titles. Again, a bad idea to start with, but if you were really going to be serious about a concept called the 'American' ring shouldn't you do it in translation? Like, we can hear them saying "Rheingold," what the f does "Pure Gold" even mean? Or, when they are obviously talking about Alberich turning into a Wurm, and this big rattlesnake shows up. Does that mean Fafner is going to be Snake too? Yes these things are quibbles, but like, its the Ring. You should really try to cut down on the sloppy compromises.

Also sucky are the lamo screen savers during the prelude, which imbue perhaps the most sublime musical description of creation ever written with all the profundity of a high school science film montage. These are followed by projections during the interludes that fly us Lord of the Rings CGI helicopter shot style back and forth from Nibelheim. They are ugly looking and way too literal.

In fact, the whole thing just looks kind of cheap. Bah. Done now.

Musically, things went pretty well. I had no great love for Heinz Fricke and the orchestra, and the smaller size really did impact the sound one expects here. All in all it was fine tho. Gordon Hawkins' Alberich was exactly how I like 'em, with not a trace of sniveling Mime--just a strong, exciting voice that serves an imposing, well rounded character and formidable opponent for Wotan. Elizabeth Bishop's thrilling, mightily self assured Fricka was also a standout.

Now, I'm not going to marry Robert Hale's Wotan anytime soon. He tends to give you grande when you asked for venti. But we can totally go out a few times. Ditto for the thoughtful but not earth shaking Fasolt and Fafner of Jeffrey Wells and John Marcus Bindel. Erda-jawea had kind of a big wobble but I was ok with her.

So, bottom line, if you want to go see Das Rheingold this isn't going to kill you. They sing nice. But, in 2014 or whatever, when this whole mess is done with, let's agree that an 'American Ring' stays in the bad idea file, ok?

Friday, March 17, 2006

With is Extra

If it has seemed lately that Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, arguably the crowning artistic achievement of the American musical theatre, was likely to spend its old age in the opera house, then consider the current revival Broadway's resounding objection. John Doyle's production, which I saw last week, is Sweeney's pumping theatrical heart laid bare--as though you had pared back the skin of Sondheim's music drama to watch how everything works underneath. The effect is rather breathtaking, and while by definition a far cry from the platonic Sweeney, it is deeply compelling and a stunning testament to the power of this work.

The performances of Michael Cerveris and Patti Lupone follow brilliantly from the bare bones aesthetic. Each effortlessly strips away what operatic excess exists in these characters to arrive at the dark cores which propel the plot. Cerveris' Sweeney has had the humanity hollowed out of him by revenge and bitterness, and the audience understands fully that even his lighter moments are no more than a murderer's thin attempts to get closer to his victims.

Lupone's Mrs. Lovett is perhaps even more remarkable, considering the death grip Angela Lansbury's characterization has on this role. But this isn't the batty and sympathetic Mrs. Lovett who operates in an alternate moral universe. Here she is defined by one simple fact: a gaping void of personality smack in the center of her soul, a void which leaves her a moral cripple. As the beggar woman says, she has "no pain in her heart", and that creepy absence, so unflinchingly portrayed by Lupone, lets us easily believe she can commit the crimes she does.

However, it shouldn't be understated that this Sweeney naturally leaves something to be desired. There's just no getting around the fact that the actors as orchestra gimmick, while done ingeniously for the most part (props to arranger Sarah Travers) can't help but leave you with a hollow shell of the full experience of this score, which, in Jonathan Tunick's orchestration, is surely the most spectacular noise to ever grace a Broadway pit. For those of us who can sit there with the original cast album playing in our heads, its possible to make do and notice some interesting things. But to someone unfamiliar with the score the impression must be a far, far cry from the way this music should be experienced.

The singing is better or worse depending--Lupone, Lauren Molina as Johanna, and Alexander Gemignani as the Beadle are the standouts. On the other side, Benjamin Magnuson, while a talented performer, falls well short of the lyric requirements for Antony, and, in a bizarre choice that doesn't work, Pirelli is sung by a woman. But the biggest loss is where it hurts the most. Either through limitation or choice, Cerveris basically avoids the serious vocal writing for Sweeney altogether. Especially in the soaring lines of places like the "Now he'll never come again" sequence, it's a bit like watching your Wotan give "Leb Wohl" the Rex Harrison treatment.

Those reservations notwithstanding, however, there should be little doubt that this is some of the most exciting musical theatre to be seen this or any year. Do it!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Adventures in storytelling

J: Subject line of some Spam I just got:
J: She spits on the cock to lube it up and wraps her boobs around it, then plays with her pussy while getting tit fucked. message from Lydia Jacob
A: haha
A: um
A: thanks Lydia
J: that is so narrative for a subject line
A: indeed
A: I kind of like that
J: it is hilarious
A: a little story in the subject line
J: about titty fucking
A: I mean, in many inboxes you probably just get the part about lubing and wrapping...you need to actually open it to find out
J: right....but not when Lydia Jacob is in charge
A: although the titty fucking is a bit predictable
J: yeah saw that....cumming a mile away
A: more interesting might have been
A: She spits on the cock to lube it up and wraps her boobs around it...later, they watch a movie and make sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

They ought to put a warning on that opera

A: good summary of the end of Siegfried: "Also in the third act, Siegfried finds Brünnhilde where Wotan had sentenced her to an enchanted slumber, on the top of a mountain surrounded by fire. There was real fire on stage. Built in to the rock. It was SO COOL. They fall in love. She’s his aunt."
A: from the seattle ring
J: "They fall in love. She's his aunt"
A: although I guess she isn't really
J: oh good I thought I was remembering wrong
A: in that sieglinde and brunnhilde have different mothers
A: is that still an aunt?
A: or is that like first cousin once removed?
J: well, your parents cousins' children are your first cousins once removed
A: hm
A: I think the rules breakdown somewhat when there is incest and multiple wives involved
A: Brunnhilde is like a half-sister to both Sieglinde and Siegmund
A: so maybe she is a 'half-aunt'
J: huh makes sense
A: seems like a legitimate term
A: per google
A: it's only a 1/8 blood relationship as opposed to a 1/4 blood relationship
A: that's totally not as gross
J: it is less gross
A: dang
A: the idea of doing it with my aunt just popped into my head
J: eww
A: gah
A: ok
A: gone

Monday, March 13, 2006


Needless to say, James Levine's rotator cuff is now uncontested for the #1 spot on the official Wellsung shit list. Let's just hope the universe sees fit to rechannel a tenth of that man's art into other vessels over the next several months, or it is going to be a cold spring indeed.

The situation is this: we've got about ten hours of Wagner coming down the pike with our names on it. And not just any ten hours, but ten hours we have been madly fantasizing about for the balance of a year. Ten hours which have shimmered like a beacon of opera goodness in dark hours of lameness and half-assedness (*cough R&J cough*). Ten hours which shall bring to fruition nearly a year of wandering in the wilderness of Wagner on record, nibbling despondently at woodland roots and berries while all the time yearning in vain to feast upon the hearty meats of live performance!

So whoever they get better not fuck it up.

La Cieca's network of informants says Asher Fisch is the likely pick. I liked his Rigoletto fine, but Wagner? Any inklings, people? At dinner the other night, G mentioned Gergiev might be in contention, which I think I would be into. Vincent at Wagner Operas floated a bunch of fun names before the official word came down, but I suppose one shouldn't get attached, considering rescheduling these people on a month's notice is only slightly less improbable than an honest sentence escaping the lie hole Scotty McClellan calls his mouth.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying: best wishes to Maestro Levine for a speedy recovery and come back soon!

Friday, March 10, 2006

Janacek on Rye

J: I can't quite figure out mattila's voice
J: it is very very pretty
J: but like, it sometimes feels unenergized
J: but it is truly a beautiful instrument
A: I feel you
A: I am really interested to hear it live
J: hmm it is better on headphones
A: huh
J: I feel like it will be a weird voice for Elsa
J: like just not enough balls
A: interesting
J: but everyone like creams themselves for her Salome
J: and that takes serious nuts
A: the most recent idea I have of it was that Boccanegra DVD
J: oh how was that?
A: I definitely had an impression of cojones
J: oh good
A: moreso than that Meistersinger I have
J: like this Jenufa is great but there are moments where I feel like I just want a little more guts.
J: and a little less Anja Silja
J: who may I reiterate I cannot believe is taking time out of her busy schedule to return from the dead for a run as Kostelnicka next season
J: when she was already in horrible voice 15 years ago
A: Ummm...I guess I'll have the Jenufa--but could you make the Mattila extra spicy and go easy on the Silja?
J: haha
J: and if you could just leave out the Jerry Hadley altogether

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

More Mazeppa De-brief

A: so, not a lot of love for Mazeppa production wise
in general or the T review?
A: basically all the press coverage was anti it seems
A: and Sieglinde
J: huh
J: I would never have thought intergalactic
A: yeah...I don't know where he got that
A: I guess the ponytails are kind of star trek in a way
A: but the cossacks came up with it first
J: right
J: he had lots of nice things to say about the opera and the singers at least
J: whoa
J: the original concept of Maria cradling Andrei but not knowing who he is is pretty neat too
J: damn
J: I fucking loved that opera
A: yeah
A: that is great
A: the way they did it with her singing to the freaky mannequin thing, while it worked, is kind of less dark than that
A: huh
A: there seems to be really only one modern recording of it
A: with Gergiev
J: yeah some of the same singers are on it I think
A: oh wait...there's also this from 1994
J: nice cover
A: hello 1994
J: I just sent you an mp3 of Ghena Dimitrova singing the end of Mazeppa
A: whoa
A: lovely
J: it is not as drawn out and wonderful as it is in the actual opera. it is off some recital disc.
A: right
A: I can't believe its two years til that Salome
J: wait which Salome
J: we shd go next year to the Voigt one in Chicago
A: the Met one
A: with Mattila I guess?
A: that is going to be one hot f'ing ticket
J: totally
A: you will have to keep it away from the others lest they get singed
J: hah

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Mad about Mazeppa

Let me be the second (of people sur les internets at least) to applaud the Met for turning in a stunner with the house debut of Tchaikovsky's Mazeppa last night.

It should be noted that both opera and production take an Act to really get warmed up. There's a considerable amount of exposition to take care of, and also funny hair pieces to come to terms with, and, while enjoyable enough, the overall impression is neither here nor there. There's also the requisite "cossack feast dance" number which is about exactly as entertaining as you're thinking. It is done in super shiny gold Hammer pants, but they don't help that much.

That said, from the Act II curtain on, the show takes off and never looks back. The hour and a half or so of the Second Act is tightly constructed opera goodness of the highest order, while Act III is shivery and haunting and stays with you for a long time. It's the kind of story which only the Russians really do right--the ruthless excercise of power, descents into madness, an unflinching pessimism about the human condition--and all driven by Tchaikovsky's riveting, endlessly inventive score. Highlights include an off the hook extended aria for Mazeppa in Act II (the splendid Nikolai Putilin); more or less every time Olga Guryakova opens her mouth, but especially her sweet insane lullaby in Act III; and a fantastic chorus number opening the third scene of the second Act--the scene culminating in a finale which left me literally slack jawed. Miss this, and you are simply forsaking one of the most hair raising moments of the season.

And no doubt that hanging jaw owes a lot to this tour de force production by Yuri Alexandrov, with sets by George Tsypin. As mentioned before, the first Act has some missteps, but the other two compensate for that in spades. The design here has a logic of its own that one might be inclined to resist at first. Everything is over the top, the connections are often dim, the colors are impetuous and sometimes maddening, the textures veer wildly between the opulent and the cheap...did I mention we're in Russia? Exactly. This is stagecraft that smuggles itself piece by piece into your brain then suddenly congeals and steps on all your neurons at once.

The big weak link of the cast was tenor Oleg Balashov, who redeemed himself un peux in the end, but just couldn't pull it together for the most part.

Back to the praise tho--not that I have much for comparison, but I thought Gergiev did a splendid job in the pit, pulling all the crazy outsized drama and pinpoint articulation to be had from the vast varied score. Shout out to the full Met brass complement, who crowded into the pit for the barn-burner "Battle of Poltava" prelude to the third act.

Methinks the only real questions remaining are A) why the hell did this take so long to get produced and B) when are your tickets?

Update: Jeez. Well apparently the production (tho not the performance) didn't go over so well in other, if not most, quarters. Sieglinde, Tommasini, the Philly Inquirer, and the Sun all take turns busting on Alexandrov/Tsypin. (On a different note, one Vivien Schweitzer at Bloomberg opines that now that New York has finally seen this long-neglected masterpiece, the Met really ought to think about cutting it due to the many empty seats in that third act. Riiight...OK...don't you have a bond market to cover or something ?)

I'll reiterate that the first act, which seems to be coming in for the lion's share of demerits, had its problems, and would agree that Tsypin is very possibly suffering from a case of acute scrim use disorder (ASUD). But on the whole, I maintain this is a legitimate reimagining that never conflicts with the opera's intent. Plus, it makes some bona fide big theatrical gambles work in the opera house, without distracting from the flow of the performance (except for maybe the too noisy snow)--not easy to do.

Oh, and just a note to R&J--don't you worry about Tommasini calling this 'intergalactic'. You're still the hands down front runner for best 2005-2006 operatic salute to Carl Sagan. And no cossack in a mylar miniskirt is goining to take that away from you.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Samson to Ewa Podles: You are My Destino

Working Backward.

Echoing the sentiments of Alex and Maury: Must I really write about La Forza del Destino? What a mess. Not the performance really, just....you know...the opera. I don't know it very well, but I imagine the VOX recording I purchased for reference off Amazon for $1.99 will remain in its plastic shrink wrap.

Voigt sounded great, especially her splendid fourth act. So, I suppose all was not lost. Though why on earth her Met season consists of Leonora in this creaky heap of a production and a few Toscas (Tosce?) remains unclear. And knowing I have to wait a year to hear her sing something I am excited about only enhances the frustration.

Licitra--I don't totally get the deal with him. His Radames earlier this season was at least of consistent tone and of seemingly healthy vocal production. Tuesday night was like....well, you know in college how on the night before finals a lot of schools do this thing where like everyone leans out of their dorm room and lets out stress by screaming at a predetermined time?--the "primal scream" is what we called it at Columbia. Well, Licitra walked a fine line between singing the role of Alvaro, and doing the pre-finals primal scream. Both are neat. But I just found it so baffling. It is one of the most tense, uncomfortably produced vocal sounds I have heard in a long time. Yet, when it frees up it is absolutely glorious. So, there is clearly some sort of inconsistency in technique here. There is no way he is going to be able to keep this up. I predict he will have blown out what he has left within 2-3 seasons.

Delavan and Ramey both turned in listenable if unremarkable performances. Though in a couple of musically and dramatically dreadful moments, I was able to entertain myself by counting the pulses per second in Ramey's vibrato. I think he averaged about 2-3.

I can barely remember what I had for dinner last night (tho I think it was honey baked ham and american cheese on a roll, Kettle chips, and a seltzer), but I can certainly remember what I did on Sunday. I had my first real introduction to the astonishing Ewa Podles. Singing with the not-great-but-perfectly-good Moscow Chamber Orchestra, Ms. Podles had the crowd in a shockingly undersold Avery Fisher Hall screaming like a stadium full of me at a Dolora Zajick concert...er...point being, the crowd went wild. Like, insanely wild.

And never has a wild crowd been more justified. WOW. This is a f***ing magnificent voice. I mean, the woman sings like a fine baritone. She has richness and power in the lowest of registers--to a seriously shocking extent. There is almost something a bit freakish about it. But in the end, completely wonderful. On the program: A Rossini Cantata from Joan of Arc, Mussorgsky's Songs and Dances of Death, and works for chamber orchestra by Haydn, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. Ms. Podles also did two encores, not in the program--one of which I know was by Tchaikovsky, though I missed the title. Brava.

Kicking off my mezzotastic last weekend were Clifton Forbis and *Olga Borodina* in Samson et Dalila. . It's a swell opera; not my favorite. Clif and Olg's really delivered, however, and I was glad I spent the 3.5 hours in standing room orchestra. A first. Despite the inflated labia on display on the drop at the top of act II. Not only that, but it was my first time ever at the Met on a broadcast day! What a treat. The afternoon's "DVD Extras" were a panel with Rufus Wainwright, and of course the quiz.

Ok, I am running out of steam. Question: Where does Margaret Juntwait hide at those things?
Answer: (She is a disembodied voice)

The Destino Made Me Do It

Look...I'm sorry, but that opera is kind of weak. It's not that I had a bad time per se, but all in all Verdi just f's up a little here. I mean, Forza is certainly sitting on top of a very wonderful, tho maybe not top 5, three-hour opera, but you can't really get around those clunker chorus scenes, can you?

And it's not like the man couldn't write a kick-ass chorus scene. I mean, he pretty much stands alone on that count. But the chorus scenes here ain't like that. With the exception of the tavern sequence in the second act, which seemed promising, they are dramatic lame ducks. It's like he meant to splice the chorus bits with the adjacent ensemble numbers, but the two got separated at birth and are now living on opposite sides of the country, totally unaware of the other yet making uncannily similar life choices.

I don't put much stock in some other criticisms I've seen floated. Apart from the fact that he is an *Incan prince*, the plot is hardly more contrived than a lot of other Verdi stories (one question tho--why does she refuse to go into the convent in Act II? J suggests: she wants to keep open "the option of boning").

I think the drawn out plot structure is very interesting. Especially in Alvaro, Verdi is masterful at creating music for the same character from radically different vantage points. With obvious exceptions, most of Verdi's characters really do unfold in a short time frame, and it is neat watching his style succeed in describing a bigger arc.

The trouble is he seems to feel this isn't enough to effect the passage of time. Instead of broadening the scope however, the detours from the central action just make the whole thing feel artificially inflated and dramatically unsatisfying.

But then again, Verdi doesn't really need my markings at this point, now does he?

The current production is fine, but nothing to write home about. The painfully literal set does its job save for the dopey effects in the battle scene (J: I thought Les Miz closed?) and the schlocky mountain hermitage in the last.

DVoigt sounded good, but it wasn't until her late appearance that I thought she got voigt-tastic--and even then, still somewhere short of a voigt-sation. Also, a bit hard to appreciate the new bod under a burlap sack monk get-up. Licitra has a very big pretty sound, so it is too bad that he A) insists on pushing the stuffing out of some top notes, and B) seems to randomly decide he just don't give a fuck about ending a phrase cleanly. G thought Delavan wasn't at his best, and I can see that. Still very nice tho.

Update: Maury gives it an extended 'meh' here.