Monday, April 27, 2009

Get Siegfried

So...just a few words about Saturday's Gotterdammerung matinee before I have to get back to whatever it is that I get paid for these days:

Wow. Hearing Gotterdammerung live (this was my first) is radically different than listening to it in the privacy of your own home. The detail of the soundworld created by the constant interplay of leitmotifs is just completely overwhelming. Parts of Gotterdammerung that I previously sort of glossed over, i.e. the orchestration under the big Act II crowd bits, revealed themselves as marvelously intricate and entertaining. I found myself totally fixated on the trombones--the Met orchestra ones are AMAZING right??? The splendor of the orchestra in general was really on display. I mean, it seems like EVERYONE has a brutal exposed line at some point in Gotterdammerung...maybe not each person in the strings, but definitely every wind player and that has to be like 75 PEOPLE AT LEAST. But the whole thing was a perfect seamless web, like a 200 piece chamber group (that horn who kept f'ing up Walkure two weeks ago either got his shiz together or was off for the day).

I didn't really have time to think about the big picture reading in relation to other Gotterdammerungs in my head, because Jimmy was giving me exactly what I was craving: a reading of just mind blowingly exquisite detail. Levine kept the balance pretty good throughout, though there were a few of the moments with no singing to contend with where he just let the orcehstra do a real ff and that shit was really REALLY loud. Maybe the loudest sound I've ever heard out of the met pit. It was pretty awesome.

As for the singers. As you've probably heard already, Dalayman's Brunnhilde kicked a great deal of ass. The group takeaway (a certain Mr D'Annato will probably go into better detail on this if he writes it up UPDATE: And he has) was that this was a lot more fitting than the Isolde some other people saw and were using as a basis for skepticism about this run. But Gotterdammerung is clearly in a sweet spot for her. If the lower registers don't cut through quite enough, once she gets above a certain line, the voice just explodes with a super secure, loud, and exciting top. Everything was in place for the immolation and she didn't show a hint of strain. It was also a very convincing performance acting n' stuff wise. Her raging about in Act II, topped off with a scintillating oath on the speer, reminded me of the great Gwyneth Jones version of that scene on the '76 Chereau Bayreuth tape.

Franz was fine in Acts I and II. The dawn duet was very confident, though the barky edge is always lurking. Anyhow you can can hear it and all, and I prefer not to look a Siegfried in the mouth. But by the time he got to the woodbird recounting/death scene, which is all one really cares about for him after the dawn duet several hours prior, he was suddenly running on fumes. The final "I'm comin' home baby" section, punch #1 in the emotional one two punch of the third Act, was more or less ineffective on account of him not really singing it at all. Clearly, that is a way difficult thing to do, not helped by lying down and all, but this just didn't work and the final result was poorer for it. Borderline Siegfrieds of the world: maybe one time you should try to mark the speer oath and save it for the death scene. People would knock you during the second intermission but they would leave with a much better impression. Maybe it doesn't work like that, but just sayin', if you have the choice.

Other singing notes: Tomlinson's Hagen was way enjoyable and great acting wise, though the higher areas have sounded richer elsewhere. Points for a super creepy rendition of one of my favorite Gotterdammerung moments: his "here i sit guarding the hall" bit near the end of Act I. Point deduction for a pretty meh "i thought I killed that guy why is he still moving around" noise in Act III. That's like the second best non-singing noise in the ring after Sieglinde's ecstatic "he pulled out the schwert" squeal back in Walkure. Yvonne Naef did a pretty good Waltraute though I didn't really engage with it since that scene is so freaking boring. Jeez. Flag that for the editing pile along with the neverending gimmick about Siegfried hearing Mime's murderous thoughts in Siegfried Act II. The rest of the Gibich family aqcuitted themselves admirably.

Finally, let me just say that the spectacular spectacular at the end of the Schenk Gotterdammerung truly does not disappoint. I mean, I've seen the old video, but they do some of it in close up and you really have no idea what a totally boffo piece of stagecraft it is, and in the opera house no less. Miss Saigon eat yer heart out. LePage's video installation or whatever has its work cut out for it.


Boy, there sure are a lot of plot holes in Gotterdammerung aren't there? And one gets 6 hours to ponder them. Now, its possible the translations don't get the real gritty plot details, but I'm skeptical. Just two quibbles I was chewing on, feel free to correct/disagree in comments:

1. People need to get clear on what the Ring actually does. It's sort of OK in the other operas where it is not being passed around so much, but as a plot device it just gets way out of hand in Gdams. Waltraute seems to think if Brunnhilde throws it back in the Rhine Valhalla will be saved. She eventually does just that, but Valhalla still burns up. Does Waltraute just have bad information or something? Brunnhilde seems to think the Ring has superhero powers or something, as she tries to defend herself from faux-Gunther with it. But that clearly does not work as he just plucks it off her finger.

The bigger issue is the conflict between scenario 1: the ring is all powerful and the person who gets it will rule the world, and scenario 2: anyone who gets the ring gets killed. I mean, how long do you have to keep it until world domination and the likely immunity benefits of that status kick in?

Or maybe the ring just doesn't do anything? Maybe it only has the value people give it and people (and gods) are such assholes that the idea that it is valuable leads to everyone offing everyone else? Maybe its sort of like...spacecash? Clever Wagner...

2. So, is it just Siegfried's fuck-up that he pockets the Ring he takes off Brunnhilde's finger when he's faux-Gunther, instead of giving it to real Gunther when he hands over Brunnhilde? But if so, why does he eventually settle on the real story, that he originally won it from a dragon? Does he think to himself "that's odd, how did Gunther's wife get that ring I won?" but try to gloss over it while Brunnhilde is calling him out in public? I mean, him being sort of a careless wife-stealer would go with the territory, but it is kind of a weak pretext for the whole thing coming apart. Are we supposed to believe that Gutrune's whammy eliminated everything between when the woodbird first mentioned Brunnhilde and when he got off his boat at the Gibichung house? But THEN has some additional short term memory consequences? Weaksauce.

PS, I would sort of love to survey the Siegfrieds of the world and find out how big the discrepancies are in their explanations of what is going through the charachters' head at this point.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Much ado about YouTube

Oh man, Greg Sandow is really beating himself up over having to admit that the YouTube Symphony stunt concert thing didn't actually result in terribly impressive music making:
So here's what I heard. (I'd first thought, when I contemplated writing this, that I'd be kind, and not go into detail, because I loved the musicians so much. But given the hype, I''d rather be honest.) Right at the start, when the orchestra began with the third movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony, there were details unattended to. Small notes were obscured. And the strings were underpowered, compared to the rest of the orchestra...
Does he really feel the need to agonize over sparing the performers' feelings? The feelings of a pickup orchestra of promising amateurs given 3 days rehearsal? More to the point, is it even worth critiquing such a thing as a legitimate concert? This was a cool marketing gimmick by YouTube. It should get a fluff piece, not a legitimate review. I mean, the only way you can be really disappointed about this is if you shared a little bit in the Internets triumphalism which YouTube marketing flacks must surely have been feeling (and who would blame them for such things? that's their job). It's hard not to see this in the context of Sandow's trademark reflex of short changing the traditions of classical music. Building and rehearsing an orchestra of less than professional musicians is a labor intensive business that won't just disappear if you sprinkle some internets on it. So getting disappointed when this is shown to not even be on the same footing of a run of the mill university orchestra is just...kind of bizarre.

This is only part of his issue with the concert though. Perhaps more than the poor playing, it is the excessive praise for the whole endeavor, which is, understandably, part and parcel of a marketing event put on by a private Internet company.
But as things were, the actual playing got a little lost in the sea of self-congratulation. (None of which, I want to stress as strongly as I can, was the musicians' fault. Nor did they participate in it, though the use that was made of their videos helped create the problem.) And there was something very sad in this. To overpraise things, to make them seem better than they are -- and to do this so relentlessly -- degrades standards, just a little.
Now, its a wee bit rich to hear a man who regularly exhorts orchestras to just play louder when they aren't reaching their audience talking about degrading standards. But snark aside, I don't think we should really be worried about the YouTube orchestra. Sandow brings up Andrea Bocelli in comments as an example of the sort of standards creep the YouTube orchestra could lead to. But no one is talking about the YouTube orchestra trying to steal the NYPhil's market share. It was a onetime gimmick.

And you know what? While it is mildly annoying that some people don't properly categorize crossover classical pop stuff for what it is, and it is double annoying when you have to sift through it in the dwindling classical section, Andrea Bocelli is hardly degrading the standards of the opera world. He's in his own crossover classical pop element, and while there's money to be made by blurring the edge a little bit, there's no army of Bocelli's ready to displace the Met roster.

Thinking that Bocelli somehow impacts the taste of the real opera world is troubling in a different way though: because some people start to think that real opera should be able to garner the same CD sales and marketing cachet that the crossover pop world is able to command when that's just never going to be the case, and shouldn't be our goal. Bocelli's 3-minute doses of popera aren't some kind of gateway drug to buying four hour opera sets. Let the Bocelli fans be.

All of which is to say, by confusing what the lines are, Sandow isn't able to appreciate the real import of this marketing stunt, which represents something really powerful and great for classical music. Not some masterplan to get people interested through a flawed one-shot orchestra gimmick, but because it calls attention to the powerful role YouTube and other Internet outlets are playing in cementing an international community of classical music enthusiasts.

Clearly, YouTube has been a powerful force for allowing fans to experience footage of historical performers that is often only available on overpriced DVDs or fleeting PBS specials. More importantly, it allows fans to watch videos of current top artists...YouTube is a revelation for the opera community of course, which can build hype around current singers in a way impossible before. But beyond this, being able to watch great amateur, semi-professional, and up and coming professional musicians is a remarkable way to build enthusiasm around concerts at the local level, and around artists who often don't have the luxury of publicity outlets that their pop colleagues do (local rock radio stations, a viral homemade CD culture, lots of bars to play in).

YouTube clearly recognizes that this is a legitimate lofty purpose for it to emphasize, and has chosen to celebrate that with a high profile "in reality" event, perhaps the greatest recognition a virtual enterprise can give. So who cares who the thing turned out?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Last ride

Well, the audience out there in radioland was not too impressed with Saturday's Walkure, but all in all it was a pretty successful outing in-house. Based on the handful of Wagner I've seen live, I feel like there's a sort of minimum floor for such things, and once that is met, the whole thing basically takes off, i.e., I am REALLY eager to get to a point where I can stop fretting about whether it is good enough and can just bask in the big-dub Wagner of it all.

Just to be contrary, I'll start with the orchestra. Jimmy wasn't making a HUGE impression on me Saturday...everything was nice and in place and stuff, but it didn't feel like much more than the normal polished classiness one expects from The Band. EXCEPT for this guy on the trumpet. Wow. It was like a Heppner CrackTM horn edition. Dude even whiffed that exposed line the first time you hear the sword motif or whatever. Hopefully they've sent him to whatever penalty box RV is languishing in these days so he can think about what he's done.

JMo, as you can imagine, is near the end of the line. But let's very clear: his Wotan is a towering thing--it has nothing to do with his Scarpia butchering of recent years. The big monologue was gripping, and the Act III dialogue through the Leb Wohl--some of it almost like a whisper (with Jimmy showing maximum sensitivity in restraining the pit so that you could hear all the nuance)--was at times almost unbearable in its bitterness and grief. Not like I still don't want to see this, for instance, but what a tremendous valedictory Wotan this was.

So, as we all know, Botha was out, hopefully sharing a giant divan with Christine Brewer somewhere, and Gary Lehman, last seen riding the scenery in Tristan, stepped in. Lehmann has a seriously powerful instrument, which certainly helps make his Tristan Act III so compelling. But sometimes it was a bit much in the friendlier confines of Walkure Act I. It's a good, exciting sound, but I wanted some more Botha creaminess. That said, he's a fine actor and I don't doubt that I would have sacrificed a lot of the kinetic energy he created with Waltraud for the Botha cream. It should also be noted that his sweet business in Act II was quite enchanting.

Oh man. Waltraud Meier is such a good time on stage. Yes, there are whole swathes of the voice that get lost in the orchestra. And no, the middle is not priddy. But when it is go time, she GOES. As J noted, her top bears an uncanny resemblence to Karita Mattila's thrilling upper reaches, all shivery coolness and hummingbird vibrato. Oh, and when Siegmund pulled the sword out she hit the deck and started writhing around on the floor. So crazy and so perfect. Like her Nordic colleage Waltraud doesn't know how to stop at boring ol' opera. She does THEATRE.

As fer that new Brunnhilde in town. Theorin is quite good. Clearly a notch above the Watson/Gasteen baseline. She's a strong actress too (nice chops all around in this show, really). Now, I would be lying if I said I didn't miss the Brewer "Wall of Sound" I'd been pining after since the Lyric Frau last just feels so nice on the ears. But Theorin was secure up and down the role, earned a solid B+ on her Hojotohos, and, when it really mattered, made a big sound that was decidedly a thrill. Her and Morris had a nice chemistry that brought home all the pathos of the final scene.

I guess everyone's ready to get rid of the nasty old Schenk production, and yeah, you can be traditional and also have a bit of style, and this really doesn't. But it feels a bit strange to think that major houses are just DONE with traditional Ring productions. But compared to my experience with the Washington Ring, where you have to spend a lot of time wading through superimposed layers of meaning, its nice to just focus on, you know, the Ring. It doesn't need to be as bombastic as this, but a naturalistic production isn't the WORST thing.