Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The New Walkure

So…about that Walkure premiere last Friday. Not a home run, music wise, but a lot going for it:

Voigt confidently meets the role’s basic demands (this premiere should really silence the shrillest doubters) and, for sheer vocal appeal, is clearly in a superior class than your Gasteens and your Watsons. But if her top notes can still capture that steely purity, further down the staff things grows hollow and pinched. More problematic was the fact that her reading Friday was fairly pedestrian; passages meant to bloom with careful dynamics came off as secure but blunt. Hopefully this is attributable to needing some time to grow in the part (and the run) and not a sign that the level of security she achieves comes at the price of the finesse that really makes the part exciting. Her Brunnhilde wasn’t quite as superficial as fall’s dramatically flat Salome’s in DC, but the overall impression just isn’t terribly authoritative as of yet.

As expected, Terfel is much better served by the Walkure Wotan than the Rheingold one. While that coveted “deity timbre” is clearly not on the table, and the spectre of barkiness can never quite be dispelled, his interpretation offers some undeniable pleasures, like a bitter, haunted Act II monologue and a melting “Der Augen Leuchtendes Paar” that reminded everyone why his casting seemed like a good idea in the first place.

Kaufmann and Blythe are the principles that really deliver without reservation. My small quibble with Kaufmann is that his Siegmund has lots of potential for a great portrayal but would benefit from a bit more freedom and lacked something in the seduction department (Jimmy wasn’t doing him any favors in the pit, mind you). That said, if you see him don’t say anything because with that remarkable voice he should clearly be owning Met Siegmunds for the next decade or so. Blythe is a total pro in this music and offers the complete Wagnerian package—her booming Fricka combined spine-tingling sound with jumbo-sized doses of spite and indignation (I was up against the wall in Fam Circ and could hear her rattling the paneling). Westbroek’s Sieglinde sounded excellent in the first Act but was apparently ill—her fancy cover was Margaret Jane Wray who drove things home with little missed.

Hearing the Met Orchestra play this music with all their exceptional precision and warmth is always a privilege, though Levine turned in a somewhat subpar performance on the heels of his riveting Wozzecks. The problems, as others have noted, were most pronounced in the first Act, which never really managed to catch fire as it should. One can take slower tempos in Act I, of course, provided the payoff is a richer experience of the score, but Levine’s heel-dragging was carried out in rigid four-four time, largely smothering any opportunities for the sensuality and abandon called for. Acts II and III picked up substantially, but I still could have used a little more feeling and sweep in the big Act III moments.

* * *

As far as the production goes: sorry, but I’m out. I wanted to be a good sport about this new Ring, and last night’s Walkure made a much bigger effort than the fall’s Rheingold, but it also proved just what a mess the thing is.

To go back to basics: an opera production follows a certain aesthetic or conceptual frame in order to highlight and enhance intellectual and emotional aspects of the piece in question. In some productions, your Chereau Bayreuth Ring for instance, the visual language helps to articulate a fairly specific interpretation (the industrial revolution setting driving the audience to consider the political and historical currents in the Ring). In something like the New Bayreuth productions of the 50s, severe aesthetic parameters encourage a dialogue with the Ring's past productions and challenge the audience to appreciate it anew without all the baggage.

Even the hyper naturalistic Schenk Ring is far from “neutral” in its production values—it delivers emotional impact by heightening the romantic use of nature that permeates the piece (e.g. Wotan is like an awesome mountain, Siegfried’s puberty is like a sunrise, etc). Its claims to authenticity are as much a konzept as anything, engaging the audience in questions about whether an “authentic” representation brings us closer to or narrows our experience of the piece. And, of course, whether “authentic” is even a worthwhile or possible goal.

The aesthetic of this LePage ring is: “making the big set machine look like whatever we can manage, hopefully pretty”. It is an anti-production, a production without an idea in its head, and unified only by the constant desperation to pull off pleasing looking things within the meaningless parameters of its physical materials. Its most ambitious claim is simply that it can be done—that it will live up to vague promises to astonish. The experience of watching it, waiting Gollum-like for the meager thrill of a spinning plank or fleeting sparkly graphic, is intellectually deadening—an astonishing conclusion to reach while watching a piece so rich with dramatic and intellectual possibility.

Yes, on the surface it seems to be going for some of the same territory as the Schenk production, and there are some nice looking bits to be sure, particularly the trees/snow setup for Siegmund’s opening run through the forest. But any gestures in this direction are just a convenient way to provide some cover for its empty soul. No one really aiming to present beauty and nature onstage—implying an experience that is seamless, elegant, and inspiring to look at—could justify mounting a production which routinely asks the audience to watch the unadorned planks in all their horrible nakedness.

With the needs of the machine reigning supreme, it is perhaps not surprising the extent to which the normal considerations of stagecraft are sacrificed or neglected in this production. The machine generally constricts the singers’ playing space to 10-15 feet between the raised apron and the whirling planks of death, and within this narrow band they are choreographed with a shoddiness embarrassing for such a major stage. Key blocking moments (i.e. the final Brunnhilde/Wotan moment) are played clumsily and have little emotional impact; elegant solutions of routine staging challenges (i.e. how to make Brunnhilde’s getaway at the end of Act II mildly plausible) are simply not attempted (she stares at Wotan’s back for 90 seconds from two feet away before slowly gathering her things and walking off).

Also, the lighting is bad—for long stretches the singers look like they are being illuminated by the Met’s work lights. Even when things are a tad more deliberate, the lighting design does little to evoke the dramatic locale or moment. Consider the Valkyrie horse gimmick: so, yes, the Valkyries each “ride” a plank that bobs up and down kinda like a big horse head. But that’s it. They are bobbing up and down on a uniform brightly lit set that does nothing to evoke a night sky or horses or whatever. The point of this “coup-de-theatre” is not to bring to life this improbable moment onstage—it is to “inspire” the audience to clinically examine the bobbing motion, determine it is like horses, and applaud. Theatrical illusions are supposed to awe by persuading the audience that extraordinary things (helicopters landing, cats flying tires, etc) are happening onstage—LePage’s Ring defines illusion down.

Another complaint: even more so than Rheingold, this Walkure features a number of moments in which one fears for the safety of singers or extras. That’s not to say they are sacrificing singers’ safety for the production—I’m sure everything is on the up and up—but it points to how the design team’s concerns lie with creating apparent thrills rather than real visceral excitement. Audience members may be impressed that you hung someone upside down 30 feet in the air, but if done poorly they don’t actually enjoy it. Take the final scene on the rock: stunt double Brunnhilde is shuffled to the top of the machine, gingerly laid down (attached to some kind of invisible harness) and then very slowly lifted to be upside down and vertical, to get the effect of the audience looking down on top of the mountain, with the whirring planks doing a poor imitation of fire on all sides. By the end of the whole clumsy set up, shown in excruciating detail with little sense of surprise, the audience is simply glad that not-Voigt hasn’t fallen to her death.

But I’ll stop there. I have no problem with a “traditional” Ring, and certainly not a “traditional” Ring that tries to get where it is going with novel means instead of papier-mâché boulders. But there needs to be a destination—some vision for the 17 plus hours of the Ring that gives it a life or meaning that could never be achieved on a concert stage. The disturbing thing about LePage’s Ring is that it isn’t derived from any vision for the Ring, but a narrow vision for a spectacle which isn’t even very spectacular.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Urban Arias III: Glory Denied

Before saying a word about the final Wozzeck performance at the Met last Saturday, I just want to give a shout out to Tom Cipullo's "Glory Denied", the last installment in Urban Arias inaugural season, which I neglected to review after the fact.
Suffice it to say, this was a great way to send off the first round of what promises to be a very enjoyable institution for DC. The piece, for a quartet of singers and chamber orchestra, deals with the story of Jim Thompson, the longest held Vietnam POW, and his wife, Alyce, who left him for another man during his captivity, and is a fine example of the dramatic and musical possibilities of the form. The cast led by Michael Chioldi in a commanding performance, made a strong impression as equal to both the dramatic as well as musical demands of the piece, while the orchestra under the direction of Robert Wood achieved fine balance with the singers without sacrificing the many interesting details in Cipullo's score.
If I could register two quibbles, they would be Jim's bitter aria on his return to a changed country--I'm sure one day the rhyming list of postwar cultural touchstones will be acceptable again but for now its hard to take these things seriously when it just puts "We Didn't Start the Fire" in your head. Here the gimmick seems too glib and out of place with the otherwise earnest, plainspoken libretto. Also, Urban Aria's otherwise efficiently and elegantly staged production suffered from a stream of intrusive, poor quality overhead projections. I get that this is tempting when dealing with quasi-documentary material, but it just never works, people.
Anyhow, looking forward to seeing what next year's season will be...
P.S. For a more detailed discussion of the opera, see this Parterre review of a Chelsea Opera production from the fall.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Urban Arias II: Green Sneakers

So, second evening at Urban Arias, for another piece by Ricky Ian Gordon entitled "Green Sneakers", was decidedly less successful than the first installment, though certainly a well put together production.
The show's problems largely have to do with Gordon's piece itself, a very personal meditation on his partner's death, and honest and serious work that is nonetheless limited by a fundamental mismatch between the content he draws on and how he executes it. The trouble isn't the music--Gordon's musical language here, call it "sentimental Britten" (I mean that in a nice way), is perfectly engaging on its own terms. But unfortunately it is a limited way to convey the dramatic material he is working with, a series of scenes from the period leading up to and following his partner's passing.
I'm afraid there's no way to do this without a lot of bad generalizations, but here goes. The musical language of opera and its derivatives communicates a lot of things well--desperation, ecstasy, what's on deities' minds--a result of opera's closer alignment to abstract music. Opera's strength, first and foremost, is direct communication via music (for this reason, opera librettos can suck pretty hard and not impair the overall effectiveness of a work). Does that mean dramatic content isn't important in opera and we'd do just as well to listen to Traviata with everyone singing solfege? Of course not. But the content exists more to signify a dramatic corollary to the music than engage us directly in its language and details, in the manner of a play.
Which is all well and good, but not very ideal when it comes to communicating highly specific, contextual emotions, like say, the mixture of resentment and pity that derives from being in a stupid mall shopping for athletic wear for your terribly sick partner when you really need to get back to rehearsals for the show you have opening, to take one of the poignant episodes Gordon describes. The image of this scene, not the music, is what is what is primarily memorable, and turning operatic firepower on that image just results in a lot of bluster where there should be simple, effective clarity. Fortunately, we have a whole art form that is attuned to just these situations: the modern musical theater song.
Now obviously there is a wide gray area between these "opera" and "musical" archetypes where the actual art gets made, so I'm not saying that the painful details of Gordon's work would be better expressed through showtunes or crappy imitation rock songs. But on the grand spectrum of drama + music, Gordon has chosen a position that is too abstract for the familiar, intimate details he has gathered, details that a style with greater focus on text and the accessible, specific emotional gestures of modern musical theater writing would excel at bringing forward.
I know there is a lot of baggage wrapped up in these claims and I really ought to go back to office work, but I'll mention one revealing moment near the end of the piece that cemented my thinking: Gordon's character sits at the piano and plays a scrap of piano melody that hews closer to a musical theatre sound than anything we have heard so far, and the emotional impact of the piece seems to click into place immediately, and makes us realize just how emotionally inert the rest of the piece had been up to this point.
Baritone Ian Greenlaw, who sang the role of Gordon's character, offered a likeable stage presence and warm baritone well-suited to the conversational style (although he strained noticeably at the upper end of his range). But in a story like this we need some sort of coherent personality to engage with emotionally, and in large part due to the issues described above, he simply never registered as a credible character. The dramatic effect of this is offputting, as the confessional details of the monologue become information conveyed by a third party, rather than the testimony of a specific person the audience can identify. The Adelphi String Quartet provided a reading of strong Gordon's score that demonstrated a lot of musical interest.
Excited to check out the final Urban Arias installment, "Glory Denied", on Sunday!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Urban Arias I: Orpheus

Imma be late to the party on this one. Saw the last perf of the inaugural show of a very exciting new development: a company called Urban Arias devoted to presenting chamber opera (mind you, this should not prevent anyone from naming their urban demographic-targeted romance novel the same).
So, it probably gets old when reviews of chamber opera always start with some fawning about the joy of hearing big time voices in lil' spaces, but for people who live in places where the motherlode of their operatic experiences occur in auditoriums that could credibly host professional basketball tournaments, the necessity of small-scale stagings like this "Orpheus and Euridice" by Ricky Ian Gordon needs to be acknowledged.
Gordon's piece, for soprano (Euridice), clarinet (Orpheus), and piano is distinguished most by the exquisite writing for its constituent parts--Elizabeth Futral's aching soprano and the remarkable emotional range of Todd Palmer's clarinet weave about each other and combine to thrilling effect. Gordon inhabits the unassuming musical language he lays out with great skill--but is this derivative or lightweight (Midgette makes note of such sentiments here)? One grows tired of interrogating every tonal piece of new music for whether it is sufficiently "hardcore", or *gasp* "Broadway". Suffice it to say that I think Gordon has very little interest in cheap musical appeal in this piece and every commitment to creating something that is both enriching and honest.
Experiencing Futral up close was a delight. This was a very fine vocal performance, but I was particularly struck by the quality of her overall characterization. I know there's been talk about opera singers' acting skills recently. But to some degree, the kind of acting available in a theatre or movie just isn't possible for opera singers, who must work through their voices and through gesture rather than characterization. But Futral demonstrated her ability to give both a compelling vocal performance and the kind of physical acting critical for a production like this.
Moreover, the stage direction (by Kevin Newbury) achieved precisely the level one hopes for in a work like this--understated in accordance with the modest forces but confident and inventive in its stage craft.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Butterfly at VA Opera

So, DMV opera companies (or at least 2) seem to be all about redeeming themselves with solid Butterflies this spring. And with the cherry blossom madness upon us (as indicated by the crappy traffic by the river and the chicken "cherryaki" on the Old Ebbits menu) what can one do? VA Opera served up a satisfying version yesterday, as driven by an excellent cast.
Sandra Lopez does not hail from the school of Cio-Cio San's concerned with producing a sound that always comes from a beautiful place, such as the Cio-Cio San Catherine Naglestad presented at WNO earlier this year (sorry, going to be that kind of review, its in my head). That means that her first act included a bit of a rocky warm-up and a Love Duet that was solid but not especially notable. But about three minutes into Act II, one realized how fully she was to own the emotional center of this show (as your Cio-Cio San should, of course, but there's a big difference between "should" and really doing it). With her chief weapon a throbbing, commanding upper register that fully embodies the tortured emotional swells of Puccini's score, Lopez created the kind of high stakes vocal (and emotional) intensity that Butterfly thrives on. I quibbled that WNO's Act III dragged a tad, but there was little danger of any dragging when Lopez was onstage--she is a vocal actress to watch.
Brian Jagde, heard at SFO in Vec Makropoulos in the fall, brought the most luxe voice to the cast, distinguished by a velvet middle and secure, passionate top, even if the journey up there is still a bit eager. His sound is a pleasing middleground between your slightly less than credible barnstorming Pinkertons and your super sweet lightweight Pinkertons--a combination of vigor and plushness that makes me eager to hear his Alfredo or Edgardo. I only wish his characterization had incorporated a bit more of the self confidence justly earned by that killer voice.
The rest of the principals were also noteworthy. Levi Hernandez offered a fine, lyrical Sharpless, and Magdalena Wor's rich mezzo imbued her Suzuki with the necessary gravity. The high musical standard was matched by the pit, where Joseph Walsh led the orchestra (members of the Richmond Symphony) in a reading that credibly plumbed both the sensitivity and savagery of the score.
If the WNO's Butterfly (sorry again) production exemplified the Butterfly-by-the-numbers aesthetic at its most elegant, the VA Opera was generally that same approach at its most serviceable, and risking garishness at times with great washes of pink and turquoise on the all white surface of the set. The periodic introduction of a large cherry blossom branch added some much needed texture.
Dramatic direction was solid, particularly in the choices of the blisteringly staged climax: Suzuki mans up and ends up handing Butterfly the knife, who doesn't kill herself until after Pinkerton's cries. He then runs in, rips down a screen, and finds her slumped over. But some of the more substantial indulgences didn't hang together. Points are due for allowing an actual curtain between Act II and Act III, and for the thoughtful choice of staging the instrumental opening of Act III as Butterfly's dream during the night. But the dream sequence didn't have much to offer in terms of interesting stagecraft--instead we get Trouble, and a dude in a suit billed as 'Future Trouble', chasing butterfly props (groan). The piece gives us just about enough of opera's most famous child prop to tug at our heartstrings without becoming total tripe--I'm afraid any more time spent pondering his fate just serves to dilute the main drama.