Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Peter Threw a Party. Everybody Came.

The Wellsung blog aspires, in the new season, to crawl out of our deep hole of obsolescence. We will attempt to post with our former regularity and provide frank, unfiltered, and on occasion, thoughtful comments on the season's offerings.

One major shake-up: My dear friend and blogging buddy Alex has moved to Chicago. Yes, it's as depressing as it sounds; thank goodness for those $39 each way fares on Southwest. Alex will now officially head up the Chicago office of Wellsung, while I keep the home fires burning in New York. Between him and me, and regular offerings from my parents in San Francisco, we should be able to cover a lot of territory between now and June.

And of course, we will still IM with a frequence and level of sophistication approaching that of middle school girls. So, um, stay tuned for that.


HOLY CRAP. Last night was insane!!

Me likey the Gelb.

A quick note on the event--the parade of celebrities, video screen simulcasts, tacky rich ladies in f-ing ugly kimonos (yes, the Upper East Side dusted off their finest KIMONOS (Kimoni?)), Melissa Rivers interviewing Licia...well, maybe she was there. This was spectacle at its finest. The whole thing had me giggling from the moment we emerged from the 1 train. The best part of this whole circus was that everyone truly seemed to be having a total blast. It made me really happy. It truly felt like a massive celebration of a massive rethinking of the way opera is marketed and perceived by the general consuming public. I am hoping the message I took away from the frenzy is in fact the intention of the new administration:

We're not going to mess with the product. We ARE going to make sure people know it's here and accessible.

I hope I'm right--fingers nervously crossed on this one. I am 100% in support of building audiences, as long as the quality of the work remains at the highest possible level. We shall see. I am optimistic.

As for Madama Butterfly (oh right, that.)...

I have no criticisms of this heartbreakingly beautiful, perfectly conceived production by Anthony Minghella. Every design element is in perfect harmony with the others, and the performers' movements within these elements result in some of the most sublime theatrical moments I have seen on any stage in this city. It is truly breathtaking, and a massive, massive accomplishment. Mr. Minghella and his team of designers were unquestionably the stars of the evening.

James Levine, in his one-performance-only appearance as the conductor of this production, lead the orchestra in an energized, intelligent reading of one of Puccini's most emotionally wrought scores. It was Mr. Levine's first outing conducting this particular piece in its entirety. He has certainlhy faced many a more daunting challenge, but met this one with elegance and apparent ease.

On a slightly more troubling note, the singing was on par with neither the production's artistry, nor the event's bombast. Marcello Giordani's Pinkerton had some lovely moments, as did Dwayne Croft's Sharpless and Maria Zifchak's particularly robust reading of Suzuki. They all turned in very solid, reliable, and unremarkable performances. But on to the lady of the evening...

I am sorry to report that Cristina Gallardo-Domas is sort of a mess. She has nothing on top, and lacks the breath support to survive key phrases. Consequently, several of the piece's more iconic moments fell flat. REALLY flat. She was missing notes here and there by upwards of a whole step. When she DID reach them, she couldn't sustain them anywhere near their full value. This is supposedly her "signature" role. Considering that, I'd think she would at least be able to at least sing all the notes. Perhaps on a night with less pressure she will deliver something a bit more solid--all eyes were truly on her, and that can't be easy.

That said, this is one of those rare productions that is unquestionably worth experiencing regardless of the very real vocal shortcomings of the leading lady. And the crowd seemed to like her more than I did, anyhow.

Then again...wearing that costume, under that brilliant lighting plot, and descending Minghella's massive raked stage toward an audience more hungry for a thrilling evening that any I can remember...you could stick just about anyone up there and they'd be likely to get a standing ovation.

Any takers?


Anonymous said...

Well, well...I would certainly think twice before writing something like this. It is truly puzzling that just two years ago Cristina won the Olivier Award for her Butterfly in the Royal Opera, and now, in you opinion, she is "sort of a mess . . . lacks the breath support to survive key phrases . . . missing notes here and there . . . etc."

This is my question for you: do you think that Maestro Levine's "energized, intelligent reading . . . with elegance and apparent ease" influenced in any way the final musical result of last night's performance? Who in your opinion is ultimately responsible for Cristina's "lack of breath support to survive key phrases"?

Anonymous said...

I was at the dress rehearsal and she sounded even worse. How much pressure is that?

Maury D'annato said...

Anonymous #1: dude, were you there? I don't care if you produce Laurence Olivier himself from behind a potted plant to commend the performance of C G-D; she was a mess.

p.s. blaming Levine? Seriously? Listen, I've heard some singer-unfriendly conducting (Eschenbach, love him as I do, can set out some impossible hurdles for mortals with fixed lung capacity) and Levine is just not guilty of that.

Jonathan said...

Thanks, Anonymous #2. She is truly sub-par, regardless of who was in the pit.

Anon #1: Most of the score here was actually at a quicker clip than my ears have grown accustomed to. If anything, Maestro Levine was helping our leading lady.

As far as the Olivier--congratulations to her. They are Theatrical achievement awards, much like the Tonys in New York. They have very little, if anything, to do with one's vocal abilities. Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1 back here, with more questions. You guys got me going on this one; so, bear with me.

First, to Anonymous #2; I don't remember ever talking about any "pressure"; plus, I don't remember having a different conductor at the dress rehearsal either; so, what is your point? Stick to the subject!!!

To Maury D'Annato; of course, "dude", I was there, and, at that, much closer than you can ever get to. And since you decided, for whatever reason (how about - not being able to make any judgment whatsoever?!?), that you are "not going to weigh in on Levine's management of it, though it sounded fine and idiomatic to me. Someone else will know. The joy of being a minor opera blogger is you can defer and delegate", why are you getting so bent out of shape because of my "delegated" work?

Now, how about this snippet from the FT.com:

Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera, New York
By Martin Bernheimer
Published: September 26 2006 17:55

". . . Minghella’s essentially cerebral concept found a jolting contradiction in the pit, where James Levine enforced unusually slow movement and surprisingly sentimental accents. This, not incidentally, was the first Butterfly of his 35-year tenure at the Met; also his only Butterfly of the season. Puccini may not be Levine’s forte. . ."

And how about this from the NY Sun:

Death of a ‘Butterfly'
September 27, 2006

". . . What had gotten into conductor James Levine, I don't know. Shortly after the curtain was raised, I had to ask, "Does he like the opera or not? And, if not, why is he taking it out on the score?" He conducted most of Act I brusquely, impatiently, and even crudely. He had no time for Puccini's beauty or charm. This was not a matter of trimming excess, which is a Levine specialty; this was a simple refusal to appreciate. Toscanini at his most brutal wouldn't have conducted this way.

All through the opera, Mr. Levine cheated Puccini. Where was the grandeur when the Imperial Commissioner came in? Where was the gaiety of the wedding crowd? Where was the menace — the orchestral menace — when the Bonze entered?

In the Love Duet, Mr. Levine sighed decently, but he was still stiff, without any rhapsody and rapture. And in the Flower Duet, there was almost no ecstasy, no tingle — no nervous excitement. The ending of that wonderful piece was slow and lifeless.

And even the basics were uncovered: For example, soprano and orchestra were badly not together in the aria "Un bel dì."

In the music of Butterfly's all-night vigil, Mr. Levine was strangely cold and unfeeling. In that great Suzuki-Pinkerton-Sharpless trio, he completely let the climaxes go by. The dawning on Butterfly of what is going on was stilted, static, and unmusical.

Mr. Levine was disappointing even down to the last note: that chaotic "wrong" chord, which underlines that the world is out of whack. It had zero power.

I had not thought it possible for Mr. Levine — the all-understanding and all-expressing — to conduct with such indifference. . ."

And then this from The Guardian (not sure), a few years back:

" . . . It helps that Antonio Pappano is her conductor. Always attentive to his singers, he knows when to hold back, when to go for broke. As he builds the tension through the closing moments, Gallardo-Domas leads the orchestra to the very edge, and despite her flapping spasms, the fall of the curtain brings a sense of catharsis. Hers is not a conventionally beautiful vocal characterisation, but it forces us to realise just what has been at stake for Butterfly. A single performance rarely redeems a production; hers comes close. . . "

No lack of breath support, no mess, no missing notes, etc.

To all of you: If you are conducting the show and your singers are running out of breath, you are doing something wrong!

Any takers?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #1, again; I cannot wait for Peter G. Davis' take on this performance!

Maury D'annato said...

I guess I'm getting bent out of shape because you're being such a prick about it, most likely. It's kind of fun, though, to relive the good old days of rec.music.opera though when Dan Kessler's last word on why his taste was better than everyone else's was always that he could afford better seats.

Bernheimer finds him slow, Nordlinger finds him brusque and impatient, makes reference to trimming excess and having no time for Puccini. Which point were you trying to make? And by what logic is a failure of breath control most likely the conductor's fault?

Incidentally I like and respect Martin Bernheimer. You, senator...

Jonathan said...

Anon #1: You're like living, breathing microfiche. Excellent sleuthing work. I prefer, whenever possible to not rely solely on other people's opinions to form my own, though, so here is my mercifully brief response:

C G-D is a perfectly mediocre singer. I think you have pointed out some interesting and negative assessments of Levine's work (you have not made them yourself, but you HAVE meticulously gathered them.)

Regardless, I have heard singers in all variety of taxing roles getting through no matter WHO was in the pit.

I am willing to accept our differences in terms of Levine's interpretation. But C G-D's poor singing can't be blamed on the pit. It's a thin, weak voice that has somehow managed some good press.

Now, if I go to one of the Asher Fisch's performances and she is miraculously good...well then let's talk.

winpal said...

I find it amusing that some posters choose to be "anonymous" on a site where everyone is contributing under a nom de blog anyway, feel compelled to use third party opinions to validate their own, and on top of it all, lord it over others as to where they sit. There are so many complexes at work here that Freud's head would spin.

JSU said...

I suspect it's an interested party.

Jonathan said...

Hmm, the English is too good for it to be C G-D herself. :)

Anonymous said...

Jonathan, didn't my first comments amount to an opinion? Just referenced others to show you that there are people out there who could actually tell something about conducting.

A hint for all of you - from where else can one observe Met's performances?

Maury D'annato said...

I mean, the stage, but I can't see why you'd be lording that over me. The sound's bound to be a lot more balanced out in the house and I've never expressed (or indeed felt) any desire to be a singer or a super beyond the odd daydream of my debut as Klytamnestra.

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