Monday, February 28, 2011

Opera at the movies: Aida from La Scala

Caught that 2008 Zefferelli Aida w/ Bobby, Violeta Urmana, and like 10,000 other people at the West End Cinema here last night. It's on DVD here.
This is a sumptuously sung production. Urmana's virtues are well known, but the beauty of her voice here manages to awe nonetheless, demonstrating a creaminess that just don't quit. Unfortunately, her Aida is a tad whiny. Not that I don't want pathos, but when she starts to be a BUMMER I'm out. As for Bobby, I think we should all just agree that for whatever reasons "Celeste Aida" brings out the worst in his voice and that it doesn't matter because that is not really a great song anyway and everything that comes after is pretty spectacular. The shadow of that uncontrolled pingless hooty sound may lurk, but in stretches of riveting, unflagging passion like his 3rd and 4th Act scenes here it is all but forgotten. Ildiko Komlosi, who I don't know at all, offered a womanly, regal Amneris, and a great Act IV monologue and scene with Radames did some preemptive thunder stealing from the death scene.
The production is the Zefferelli joint that opened the 2008 season and it is some good red meat spectacular for the most part. But you know, there IS a line between opulent and busy, and this time out you find yourself somewhat desperately looking for the casino exit about 10 minutes before the end of Act II. I don't object to the shininess of the sets, though things do get a tad claustrophobic at times. The really berserker part is that Zeff decides to hang these metallic horizontal bars to frame the whole set, because, apparently, the absence of sparkly shit in the 40 feet above people's heads could not be allowed to stand.
The big dance numbers are...labor-intensive, but kind of a drag on video. This being Italy, they go all in for the black face, which is neither here nor there for the most part, but starts getting a bit absurd in the big Act II showpiece featuring legions of "Africans" in complicated masks and bodysuits. It looks a little something like this:
But then! Amidst all the mildly racist dullness, Roberto Bolle appears--no bodysuits need apply--and the next 10 minutes become the Roberto Bolle's rockin' bod show, ultimately scoring him bigger applause than any of the lumpy ol' singers:
The overall video production is superb quality, though as many have mentioned, there are a lot of "artistic" moments cut in of flowing drapery and soft focus closeups of all the fake-ass golden Phthah tchotchkes. I don't object to these shots when used judiciously, but it often gets ridiculous, as during the final scene, when the camera can't keep its attention focused on the oh so boring shadowy tomb set for more than 10 seconds at a time without switching to some supernumerary's gold lame arm netting. That annoying tic aside, however, the camera work offers a nice balance of closeups and full-stage views so you can soak in/OD on the magic.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Butterfly at WNO

Props to WNO for giving great Butterfly this evening, in what is definitely its most consistent production so far this season, due in great measures to a very exciting A-cast. Mind you, with two full casts of the main principals, plus another cast for the Young Artist program, this effort is veering close to La Boheme on Broadway territory, and future iterations may not fare as well--but whatever: tonight's lineup was the real deal.
Catherine Naglestad gets both thoughtful AND ravishing points for her Butterfly. This is a great voice for the part: she maintains a sweet edge and easy, very pure sound even when pushing the volume. But she also knows how to deploy great fx where appropriate, and had the audience in pin drop mode with her pianissimos on several occasions. If there are some money transitions missing here and there, she gives every reason to think they'll be added in time. Particularly appreciated the lovely, restrained reading of "Un bel di" and some very credible coquettishness.
Her fine partnership with Alexey Dolgov set the standard for the evening. Dolgov offers an awfully attractive light n' easy sound that makes for an extra insidious Pinkerton. I mean, it's one thing when Pinkerton is basically Cavaradossi in nice fitting trousers and belts you into submission--but an irrepressible, urgent, youthful sound like Dolgov's is the more devastating. At the curtain calls, the audience couldn't help but respond with some tongue-in-cheek boos. Michael Chioldi's Sharpless and Margaret Thompson's Suzuki were both first-class as well, rounding out a principal cast with nary a weak link.
Philipe Augin led the WNO Orchestra in a lush, sensitive reading, with energy only flagging a tad in the beginning of the Act III before recovering for a wrenching finale.
The elegant, tasteful production, from San Francisco, is really about all one needs in a Butterfly before one gets into the puppet children/floating lantern/Butterfly as space hooker territory. There are thoughtfully choreographed screens, a priddy raining petals moment, a big scrim in the back that does a dawn effect after the humming chorus and then goes red when she kills herself--it may sound like Butterfly by the numbers, but it is done with nuance and skill and the overall effect is fully satisfying.
One particularly nice touch is the slightly more explicit eroticism of the Love Duet. The screens part to reveal a starry sky and a modest twin bed--Pinkerton's classy contribution to the marriage chamber--and the blocking revolves around Pinkerton, in an increasing state of undress, sweetly cajoling her to get in the bed. It's a gentle choice but it makes the scene richer and more honest. With a chaste Love Duet, the sequence can seem false, given what the libretto clearly tells us about Pinkerton's motives, and you know, him being a douche and all. But the erotic moment has its own truth, and Puccini's rapturous music fills in the space between the naked facts of the story and the fleeting emotional world of the characters to create something real and poignant, even if we can already see the tragedy in motion. Also--when the Americans get back they are hanging out in the room with the bed which must have been REAL awkward for Kate.
Anyhow, very strong showing from the company tonight!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Nixon at the Met

Clearly a bit tardy on this, but wanted to say something for Internet posterity about Nixon in China, because it really is a marvelous thing. My familiarity with "new" operas is far from encyclopedic, but it's the first time I've seen an opera successfully use the language of the modern American theater--and the effectiveness of that marriage was something of a revelation.
Here is all the casual avant-gardism, fluid treatment of time, space, and relationship to the audience, artful synthesis of found and created text, and voracious historical appetite that defines so much new theatre in all but most retrograde Broadway enclaves. Language dominates this approach--it drives the imagery and atmosphere of the work and asks the audience to wrestle with not just a script but a text. Yet the song-based musical theatre, which prizes concision and surgical deployment of ideas, is not ideally suited to this medium. An operatic score, on the other hand, is a perfect complement to a dense, meandering text and can develop the complex, long form structures that serve such a fractured narrative.
Judging from some of the commentary, its interesting how frequently the piece's deliberate artifice is misunderstood--a symptom, I think, of a hesitance to accept opera's ability to perform at this level of sophistication. Opera's place in the modern musical theatre is strange in this respect: the most notoriously "artificial" of art forms is assumed captive to the dullest sort of naturalism (but, you know, with singing).
But Nixon takes seriously the possibilities of opera to go beyond simple narrative and allow its characters to describe a rich inner landscape and Goodman, Adams and Sellars use these possibilities to interrogate a very particular emotional space. The work tracks its characters as they turn inward in the face of a fundamentally artificial and impossible cultural confrontation. The fluidity of the operatic form allows for the constant disintegration and dissolution of the political and performative spaces they occupy. See the remarkable first Act scene between Mao and Nixon, in which Nixon's pragmatic American sympathies are dwarfed by Mao's all-consuming politics, scored by Adams with increasing grandeur and dread. Or the inspired gesture that closes Act II, in which the boundaries of the noxious propaganda ballet directed by Mme. Mao break down and the Nixons enter the performance, rendered bewildered and helpless by the alien politics and history they have stepped into. But the surprising third Act upends this dynamic--taking us into a fully interior space where the characters drift away from the political towards their personal histories.
The effect of the evening works on several levels--a provocative window into public and personal history, a meditation on our attempts to understand the world through politics, and a deeply affecting emotional observation of the central characters' humanity (not all good, obviously). In short, it demonstrates unequivocally how intellectually and dramatically rich a modern opera can be, and for that deserves what will hopefully become a permanent place in the Met's repertoire.
To digress for a second: so why did Dr. Atomic, a work with similar aspirations, suck so hard? First and foremost, there is the vast gulf between Goodman's carefully wrought Nixon libretto and Sellar's lazy hodge-podge of found sources for Dr. Atomic. Again, the text is dominant in a work like this, and the moment it sounds phoned in, or strikes a false note, as was the case with all that tangentially relevant Renaissance poetry Oppenheimer and Kitty kept singing to each other, the whole thing falls apart. Dr. Atomic also failed to have the courage to sustain the kind of non-naturalistic architecture of a work like this. Instead, Dr. Atomic kept returning to fairly standard "scenes" with arias that tried to advance the timeline of the story, wedged into a bunch of unconnected choruses and half-monologue type things. But this kind of hedging results in the worst of both worlds: a drama with little urgency, and a lot of elements that are confusing outside of an integrated whole. Finally, there is a certain postmodern-y sensibility that is key to this kind of work: a willingness to allow the audience to "discover" individual voices and histories as they emerge, and make their own connections. That's not synonymous with political even-handedness, as some have charged Nixon, but with the integrity of what is being presented. But Dr. Atomic violated that sensibility repeatedly with its morass of didactic messages (the nadir being that scolding Native American nanny, of course). A heavy moral hand is good for say, Tosca, but its death to a work that is trying to deal honestly with historical themes.
Musically, the Met performance left a bit to be desired but was generally very fine. Adams led a grand, persuasive reading of his score, though one left feeling some of its full power was not exploited. I'm still not clear on what the amplification situation was, but the balance between singers and orchestra was way off for much of the first Act. Maddalena started out with the vocal issues everyone has talked about, but they were a small price to pay for the kind of authority and depth he brings to this part. Kathleen Kim nailed the difficult Mme. Mao part but with some cautiousness which, from the old recording sounds, like it is part for the course in this role. I don't know if it is feasible, but I'm adding a Mme. Mao who can sing the part like the best Brunnhildes as an addition to my fantasy list. The rest of the cast was uniformly strong...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Joyce DiDonato at the Kennedy Center

Joyce DiDonato's KC recital last night reiterated (for anyone who has been living in a cave for the last couple years) that she is the real deal--a compelling interpreter and stage presence armed with an exceptionally pure voice and assassin-like technique.
She and collaborator David Zobel designed an interesting and well paced program that reminds one of the unique and refreshing programming freedom that vocal recitals enjoy. This was not to be a program based in the operatic repertoire with which she has taken so very many names (I like this flabbergasted Maury account of her 2009 Carnegie Hall show) but a song recital with operatic shout-outs that highlighted a broader set of skillz.
She kicked it off with some gauntlet throwing--the "Scena di Beatrice" by Haydn--that showcased the full range of her operatic abilities, sans opera. I suppose these sorts of pieces never fully satisfy in recital, but it was nonetheless a marker to be reckoned with. Next up was the first salvo in a series of selections showing off lesser known but very fine works of Rossini, which seemed aimed directly at any haters in the audience (guilty). Here was a lovely, thoughtfully observed quartet of Rossini songs, which DiDonato brought out with some knowing characterizations and beautiful phrasing. Here's Freni in the first selection, "L'invito":
She also dazzled in the next set, selections by a turn of the century French composer, Cecile Chaminade, especially the beautiful "Viens, mon bien aime!" and this virtuosic one about summer and birds (you can imagine).
The second half opened with some more unexpected and amazing Rossini: the treatment of the Willow Song for his Otello. This is a completely gorgeous sequence--what even is the rest of this opera like??? This selection probably included the most seductive music making of the evening--the tightly (but not excessively) controlled, successively quieter final passages had the whole house in rapt silence. Now, I don't want to sound like I'm making a lame reference to her Midwestern roots...but...arg here it comes...the thing about DiDonato is that her vocal power comes from a very pragmatic place. That means that things like soft high notes don't have the kind of head-swimming glamour they might elsewhere; instead there is a forthright precision that shocks in the coloratura stuff she is known for, while that earnest immediacy wins you over in things like the Composer (see below).
Everyone was excited for the following Reynaldo Hahn sequence about Venice, but these might have been the least persuasive. Not sure what the right approach is here, but she was taking a casual, veering close to pedestrian, tack that didn't offer much to draw one's attention. The final trio of Serenades (Pecci, Leoncavallo, and Di Chiara) demonstrated DiDonato's considerable charms--recital funny business is no easy task (combining as it does the terrifying nakedness of the art song recital AND standup comedy) and if not as carefree as her comedy on the big stage, she definitely pulled it off.
Zobel had what I think is the ideal touch for a collaborator in any recital setting. Ever aware of the need to complement the other instrument on stage, he never let the piano drift into the harsh tones and excessive dynamics which always turn jarring and distracting when competing with the solo voice. Not that the piano was static by any means, he drew a wealth of elegant colors to complement DiDonato.
She didn't get into the familiar operatic territory until the first encore, the last aria from Donna del Lago. Having already disarmed the Rossini skeptics in the audience with those interesting late songs, she reminded everyone why she is so (uniquely?) celebrated in this work--the ridiculous technique of course, but also the seriousness and dignity that she imparts to Rossini's music. The final encore was "Over the Rainbow", a gesture to the anniversary of Vocal Arts DC, which was about 75 percent deeply touching and 25 percent maudlin, which are pretty good odds for that kind of thing.
She also peppered the evening with a steady stream of earnest, endearingly twee banter, such that I'm thinking DiDonato may have a second career as an opera-show version of Delilah, which now that I think of it, seems to be all I've ever really wanted from the radio. Maybe the Sirius channel should start diversifying...
Update: Downey and Midgette also enthusiastic (she doesn't really inspire a wide range of opinions)...

Friday, February 11, 2011

NSO with Radu Lupu: Smetana, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky

Heard the recent NSO program Thursday night. The bookends for this series, Smetana's Overture to The Kiss and Tchaikovsky's Manfred suite (yes, THAT Manfred) were robust if somewhat static demonstration opportunities for the orchestra, but more about them later. The Beethoven Piano Concerto #3, with Radu Lupu, was the real highlight of the evening.
What is that Lupu magic? One couldn't help but be taken aback by his first entrance--that distinctive sound, in which each exquisitely balanced chord says so much, immediately changes the terms of the performance from something satisfying yet familiar to something elusive and mysteriously beautiful. I struggle at times to really hear Beethoven's piano music afresh, and Lupu is a precious if very specific antidote to that problem. If others seek a mountain-traversing clarity in their Beethoven (or at least one that always has mountains on the brain), Lupu's strolls through the woods, ambivalent about weightier landscape issues.
But if that made for a fascinating central performance, it did not necessarily make for an integrated whole, with the NSO doing its part solidly but not really complementing the deep thoughts going on downstage. Lupu's engagement in return was sporadic, at times conducting a tad, at others suddenly picking out a woodwind with which to share a passing moment.
The opening Smetana piece was not terribly interesting, and I'll agree with Downey that the driving approach was not doing it any favors. I was pleasantly surprised by how engaged I was on the Tchaikovsky, though. It's a concert piece organized around some 19th century claptrap that's seriously risking irrelevance. The program notes seemed to be having a good time with this, helpfully offering some choice quotes from the original scenario, i.e., how the second movement illustrates when "the alpine fairy appears to Manfred in the rainbow of the waterfall" and then how the third brims with the sounds of "the life of Alpine hunters, full of simplicity, good nature and a patriarchal character" (I'm thinking they vote Republican). But 21st century snark was no match for Tchaikovsky's skill in writing irresistible theater music. And Noseda, who clearly brought some of the abilities that have distinguished his work in the opera house to bear, led an earnest, relentless reading that was hard to dismiss in all but the most indulgent passages.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


I was lazy about mentioning at this time, and moreover, I wasn't at a live show so what do I know--but it looks like Sieglinde protested here and here against all this ragging on SRad for being flat and I feel compelled to provide some solidarity.
Look, people: ragging on singers for being flat who otherwise give great performances is just lame. Are you Sondra Radvanovsky's rehearsal pianist? Do you have to sit next to her at choir? No. Then I guarantee whatever minor, subjective flatness you're hearing is not that big a deal to you. Obviously, I'm not saying that noone has pitch problems, but there's a difference between pitch problems that are obvious and pitch problems that only you and a handful of other people with magic bat ears like yours can distinguish. Pointing out the former is fair game, but one should think long and hard about how maybe so-and-so's voice just sounds like that before going to press with the latter.

WNO Announces

Hrm. I guess we'll just agree to call this a retrenchment season:
  • Tosca (Dallas): Racette/Ushakova, Porretta/Hughes Jones, Held/Hendricks; Conductor Domingo/Gursky
  • Lucia (ENO): Coburn/Petrova, Pirgu/Dolgov, Chioldi/Mulligan, Palazzi/Pecchioli; Conductor Auguin
  • Così ("Seattle"): Futral, Pokupic, Prieto, Tahu Rhodes, Shimell, Kemoklidze; Conductor Auguin
  • Nabucco (New): Vassallo, Boross, Panikkar, Chauvet; Conductor Auguin
  • Werther (TBD?): Meli, Ganassi, Foster-Williams, Robbins; Conductor Villaume
On the rep and personnel front: it looks like the one A-lister of the season will be Pat Racette in the opener (at least out of the pit--I guess for consolation we get more time with Plastico on the baton). Slightly less boldface names include a welcome Alan Held as Scarpia and Futral and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Cosi--I find Futral solid and look forward to hearing TTR in person so that's cool. I also note that Sean Pannikar who did a great Narraboth in the fall is back in a bigger role for Nabucco. Have really been enjoying Auguin so far so it will be nice to hear him conducting so much. Rep choices obviously leave some variety to be desired: all Italian with just the mildest respite in Werther (and Cosi).
On the production front: I'm personally looking forward to seeing Nabucco and Werther on stage for the first time. Speaking of Werther, that TBD production is ominous--this company WILL get a production to the stage by any means necessary but "Werther: IN CONCERT!!!" just doesn't sound as fun. The Nabucco production is by the team who did Hamlet the other year, which is not hugely promising. There were some intriguing moments in that show but the more I think about that production the more I feel like it was exercising its freedom to look cheap and ugly without any real ideas to redeem it (and no, updating to a nondescript fascist period is not an idea anymore). The Cosi is that modern-dress Jonathan Miller production that has been making the rounds for years (much to the chagrin of some people). If the company can overcome any alleged suckiness in the production and bring the same sense of humor and light it brought to Nozze last year, that could be a season highlight.
So, no obvious stinkers to leave out of a subscription (better than this year for me--I am still on the fence about Pasquale). That said, I think its safe to say DC isn't going to be a destination city for opera travelers next year. People seem willing to get on board with some curtailed ambition for the time being (i.e. Midgette is more forgiving than I would have expected) but WNO PR Department, please use this season as an opportunity to get everyone juiced up about future seasons, m'kay?