Tuesday, September 28, 2010

New Rheingold

To start with a caveat, it's not very fair to judge a Ring production on its Rheingold. Perhaps in a high-konzept outing you can glean some good information about whether the gimmick has some basic validity or not, but in a traditional interpretation, you don't get to audit any of the climactic moments which tell whether a staging is capable of complementing and enhancing the emotions at the Ring's heart. Because it is Rheingold. And Rheingold is kind of boring. Wagner is probably rolling in his grave at the thought that opera companies' routinely produce his "teaser nite" on its own and then make audiences wait months or years to get to any of the red meat.

Jumbotron LePage, as yet unbooed. Turn back Robert!

That in mind, I think the jury is still out on the new Ring staging on the evidence of last night's Rheingold. It's not bad or offensive by any means (the booing, at least according to my booing philosophy was totally unwarranted), but the dearth of coherent ideas should raise concerns that the staging is gambling on isolated visual ideas that don't add up to much. A selected list of my quibbles:

1. The "character" of the set machine is unclear. The set works best when it successfully mimics a setting, particularly in the Nibelheim scene, in which it is heavily disguised by a projection, and the much advertised "stairway to Nibelheim" setting. During the long sequences in front of Valhalla, however, the machine is constantly adjusting to accommodate different entrances and such, including a needlessly busy Freia-burying sequence. Is the moutain side moving around on its own or what? There needs to be SOME discipline imposed on the set elements for visual coherence, here it just seems like they felt the twisty business wasn't getting enough of a workout.

2. The set machine is ugly. While there are sequences where the "moveable blank set + amazing projections" really comes together, like the afore-mentioned Nibelheim scene, without these disguises it looks like a bunch of big pointy grey shapes. It reminds one of nothing so much as the kind of "mountains" a high school would build that didn't have the wherewithal to make papier mache mountains happen. If a major selling point of this Ring is technical wizardry and beauty, it needs to be said that long stretches are pretty dismal to look at.

3. The production makes odd choices about the stagecraft problems it wants to solve. The floating staircase descent to Nibelheim scene, for instance, while cool, is not something you're really dying to see acted out. Wagner pretty much tells you what he wants the focus to be in the incidental music by including all those cool anvil sounds. Why go to town on a boffo piece of stagecraft that can only end up competing with what's there? And then, in the following Nibelheim scene, instead of coming up with some great solution for the always-problematic Alberich transformations, they just default to having Alberich duck under the stage and trotting out a big snake tail prop, a bit of jokeiness totally out of character with the rest of the production.

So I'm going with a provisional conclusion that, while the production team has created some innovative stage elements that are both impressive and tasteful, they haven't been able to bring them together in the service of a seamless vision. Nor have they been able to sufficiently refine those elements to the point where they complement the opera rather than draw attention to themselves.

The Ring deserves boffo stagecraft, to be sure, but it also deserves a degree of consistency that allows the viewer to focus on the presentation as a whole. This Ring is erratic in doling out the inspiration, leaving some stretches over-nourished and others starved.

We'll see how Walkure goes.

Some of these people are famous.

Anyhow, onto the actual sangin'.

Bryn Terfel had some strong moments as Wotan, but I'm questioning how good of a fit this is for his voice. I certainly thought it was a good idea on paper. Everyone likes Bryn Terfel singing those nice English art songs, who wouldn't want that swell voice singing "Der augen leuchtendes paar"? But daydreaming about Wotan's five minutes of ballad makes one forget about the other 8 hours of heftier fare. Maybe the other shows will treat him better but I suspect Terfel's instrument is at the limit of how light of a baritone can legally carry the Wotan label. And it showed--Terfel frequently sounded like he was pushing the sound out. It didn't sound UNpretty, but you were constantly aware of his agitating to be heard.

This bolstered the general impression his Wotan made, which is way far out on the smarmy jerk end of the spectrum. With those long greasy locks covering his face and a sort of hunched, ambling gait that underplays his height, he cuts a decidedly swarthy figure for a deity. It will be interesting to see where he goes with it in Walkure, but the base note definitely seems to be Wotan as frustrated, desperate, none-too-bright, thug.

Stephanie Blythe was awesome, as usual, and the house went crazy for her at the curtain calls. Silver lining of sitting in Fam Circ row ZZ: the beautiful acoustics up there transport Blythe's voice with thrilling immediacy. I feel like maybe we're friends now.

If anyone dominated the proceedings, though, it was Eric Owens' masterful Alberich. This was the most memorable characterization of the evening. If the default Alberich interpretation flows from the slapstick business in the opening scene, Owens' performance flowed from the curse scene. Which is as it should be, I think. Watching a performance like Owens' leaves no doubt Alberich is the most interesting character in Rheingold--while Wotan and the rest are still dominated by simplistic motives of greed and fear, Alberich makes choices, displays real self-awareness, and serves as our window into the rich mutli-faceted characters that emerge in the later operas.

Levine performed to a rapturous reception. When was the last time an opera conductor anywhere in the world has achieved a relationship of such boundless love and loyalty from his audience? Anne Midgette wrote something a little while back wondering if we should lament the shortened tenures of today's maestros. I was skeptical, thinking that classical music organizations are simply reflecting the general trends in executive leaderhip, and how can we really gauge the extra value that tenure adds anyhow? But you can't deny what a remarkable thing Levine and the Met Orchestra are, nor that they make the most exciting big-time music in New York, hands down. The pit did not disappoint this evening, at times putting to shame the mixed-bag stage business above, at times gently cajoling "hey there friends, we're playing THE MF'ING RING CYCLE DOWN HERE just so's you don't forget." Levine and this orchestra manufacture awe like its their freakin' job.

Sigh. Back to work.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

Verge Ensemble at the Corcoran

Saw the first concert of the Verge Ensemble's season at the Corcoran this afternoon. Great playing by the ensemble members, though I found the program a mixed bag.

There was a lot to like in the first half. David Smooke creates a rich and involving sound world in his Hazmat Sextet (listen about halfway down the page here)--a kind of impromptu Rite of Spring carried out by the birds of an unidentified planet. The second offering was a video set to a sound design created by Ken Ueno (animation by Harvey Goldman), a mesmerizing sort of essay on the violent properties of bubbles (watch it here)--the unsettling sounds Ueno creates evoke violent, fundamental processes replicated across natural, mechanical, and human experiences. The last piece on the first half was Another Face, by David Felder, a dazzling turn for solo violin describing the psychological anguish of duality (excerpt here), which was played with great skill and depth by Lina Banh.

I'm afraid I need to put on my Philistine hat for a discussion of the second half pieces by Wesley Fuller and Eric Slegowski--both of which I found fairly tedious. Fuller's (phases/cycles for viola and computer) pitted the violist against an electronic track in a series of back and forth interactions, all painstakingly documented in the program notes and motivated by various weighty allusions. The description gave the piece a sort of playful cast, but there was little playfulness or wit in evidence--indeed, there seemed to be little interest in directly engaging the audience to understand the properties of the dialog as constructed. An interesting "experiment" if you will, but without a lot of interest for non-scientists.

The Slegowski piece (Resonance), a trio for wind, cello, and piano, suffered as well from higher aspirations. I have no doubt the plan announced in the notes--"an overarching form of expansion and contraction...movements connect with one another on both a micro- and macro-structural level...an organic evolution that characterizes the work in its entirety"--was executed as promised, but for practical purposes the work felt like an endless procession of anonymous little phrases, here fast, here slow, now soft, now loud, at once overwrought and meaningless.

To be taken with a grain of salt, as I have difficulties with works like this, but they always strike me as conceptual art works that bear only a passing resemblance to chamber music. I would actually be quite curious to hear these two in some kind of installation setting, but the traditional concert format seems like a terrible vehicle for works which don't offer many rewards for intensive, purposive listening.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Ballo at WNO

A second-hand Ballo production with a star no one is dying to hear does not exactly a splashy season opener make. But on the plus side it: 1) wasn't Barber (which last year kept me out of the opera house til November) and 2) was really a very solid effort, if not quite exhilarating.

The production, which comes from Colorado or something, is, um, efficient. Everything's been moved back to Sweden as originally intended before censors made Verdi set it in Puritan New England. The scenes at court, which are dominated by this back wall of big whitewashed tiles and a deteriorating ceiling, kind of look like they take place in a subway station. Those basic wall and ceiling elements shift about and have a go at suggesting the other settings (witch hut, brooding moors, Renato's house) but it is never much to look at. The excellent lighting, however, has a very distinctive Nordic shadowiness, and and goes a long way towards salvaging the meager raw materials.

When Licitra's voice is firing on all cylinders, his Riccardo has the most juice of anyone onstage. Hearing barn-sized voices ringing out in the KC opera house just doesn't get old and he's got that natural pro's charisma to boot. Unfortunately, the overall package is marred by bouts of unfocused sound, some inelegant planning (Riccardo's arias are hard, yo), and pitchiness here and there.

After that, Tamara Wilson as Amelia was probably the standout of the evening. The sound is taut and attractive and very exciting throughout, with only a bit of strain on top to contrast with the ease everywhere else. She doesn't quite have the knack for milking the big numbers in a way that makes them showstoppers yet, but that can't be too far off.

Milking issues were a problem in Renato's material as well. Here's a very strongly sung portrayal by Luca Salsi, authoritative, rich, etc., but when we got to the big Act III number where you want that great Verdian moment of heartbreak amidst the thunder, they kind of plowed through it.

Elena Manistina's scene-stealing Ulrica also deserves a shout out, though putting the action back in Sweden forces one to spend that entire scene thinking about how this random native witch lady ended up in Sweden in the first place. And how she deals when it gets really cold.

Daniele Callegari handled things nicely in the pit for the most part, I think (judging orchestral prowess in middle period Verdi is not a strong suit, I'm afraid), though a number of the ensembles were dicey where they should have been thrilling and climactic. Also, just as a public service announcement, sitting in the orchestra on the extreme right under the balcony makes the orchestra sound really canned in that space.

Opening night at WNO is naturally a more sedate affair than the paparazzi-mad decadence of Met, but we were bummed at the total absence of famous-for-DC sightings, which may indicate either a disturbing lack of opera enthusiasm from the current administration or weird DC hangups about going to a gala on the dread 9/11. Come on people, if it's an elitism issue, just remind reporters that they had to perform Gotterdammerung IN FRONT OF THE CURTAIN...

Update: Kagan was there and we missed her?!?!? Arg!