Monday, November 21, 2011

Romeo at LA Opera

OK...going to start digging out of my blog-hole in reverse chronological order.
Saw LA Opera's Romeo yesterday, sans main draw Vittorio Grigolo. The company served up a fun surprise sub though, in Charlie Castronovo, in town for a gala the previous night--he was unfamiliar to me but apparently a big hit in their Il Postino the other year. The reviews made Grigolo sound like a supreme exponent of the lusty Italian Romeo, so I imagine Castronovo's fine French styling and longing puppy-dog looks actually shifted the overall impression from Sonny to Tony quite a bit. Castronovo's lyric tenor has that plaintive edge ideal for Romeo, and never degenerates into anything close to shoutiness, even when the demands of the score get less polite. I thought at times he had trouble cutting through the orchestra, but this seemed to disappear when he stood on the upper levels of the set, so I'm going to tentatively blame the quality of the Chandler pavilion acoustics in the middle of the orchestra. And since you ask, rest assured that the hottniss level was preserved in Grigolo's absence, as Castronovo is also really, really, really, ridiculously good looking and had no trouble popping off that shirt for the bed business (prediction: in 10 years no one even mildly fugly is going to be let anywhere near big time productions of this show).
His costar, Nino Machaidze, has many things going for her--a big formidable sound that is brilliant on top and agile throughout, a generosity with the fireworks throughout money numbers like the poison aria (though choppy phrasing prevented this from being a real home run), and of course, the hotniss. But these are relatively generic pleasures and she never really offered a believable Juliet. R&J is pretty indestructible as warhorses go, but for the final tomb scene to deliver its emotional payload and not just some priddy sangin', we need to really pity Juliet as a vulnerable child meeting a gruesome end. Some judiciously deployed restraint is really all that is required to get there but Machaidze's attempts at coquetry had all the credibility of a courtesan who doesn't think she's fooling anyone (the Penthouse Executive Club midtown tunnel billboard makeup scheme she had going on--see above--did not help things either). There's certainly no disputing she's a charismatic stage presence, but I would like to see her in something that takes more appropriate advantage of her special qualities.
The production transplants the action to the 19th century (in France maybe?), an attempt, as we learned in the preconcert lecture, to better align the work's gothic, romantic themes with the period in which they are at home. But its one of those situations where you suspect the move was really made because 19th century costumes are easier to procure than Renaissance, as none of the rewards of the updating are exploited with too fine a point. The physical production is organized around multi-story skeletal structures that are moved to create different spaces. Useful enough, but the ultimate effect, as it usually is with this trick, is to dissolve any atmosphere that might have been generated. Probably budget-friendly, though. The direction was effective enough, with an appropriately boisterous fight centerpiece. Judgment is reserved on the spotty chemistry of the leads during their scenes together, for obvious reasons.
I'm glad to say Placido's work in the pit was far less distracting than last month's Tosca debacle. No doubt, there's more life to be had in this music under other batons and some showpieces really suffered from the lack of momentum (sorry Stephano the page cover!), but a few coordination hiccups aside, he supported the singers sensitively and without incident.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Washington Bach Consort plays Pergolesi, Bach, and Graupner

A very engaging take on the Pergolesi Stabat Mater from Washington Bach Consort this afternoon (the composer's second most famous work, I believe). J. Reilly Lewis' ensemble captured the driving energy that characterizes many of the work's movements with great verve and precision as well as the often overwhelming beauty that belies the modest forces required. Its easy to see why this is Pergolesi's masterpiece--there is a rich variety to the movements and the emotional communication is immediate and powerful. Also, for those who like their Italian baroque full of decadent, unbearable tension (and who doesn't), it's like suspension city up in this b***h.
Soprano Agnes Zsigovics, performing in both the Stabat Mater and a setting of Vergungte Ruh by Christoph Graupner (a contemporary of Bach) combined a warm, ringing sound with an unwillingness to hold back the kind of firepower sometimes missed in this music. Countertenor Daniel Taylor delivered some beautiful sounds in the upper part of his register and acquitted himself well in the Stabat Mater, but a setting of the same Vergungte Ruh by J.S. Bach was less successful. With the caveat that the countertenor voice is a mysterious thing about which I would not feign understanding, Taylor frequently sounded poorly supported here, resulting in some choppy phrasing and a weak, often inaudible lower register. Indeed, the Bach in general was a bit of a snoozefest.
Scott Detra, organist for the Washington National Cathedral, rounded out the program with a thrilling reading of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor (BWV 542).

Saturday, November 05, 2011

New Siegfried

Some quick thoughts on yesterday's Siegfried HD cast. The movie theatre is very kind to the LePage productions, I think. Among other things, the swooping cameras can get into the trench area between the apron thing and the machine, meaning the awkwardness of the setup is not a constant bother. So take this faint praise for the production with a grain of salt: I think this is the most successful outing of this Ring so far. The audience is asked to endure almost no time with the hideous naked Machine, which I'd wager might almost allow for some suspension of disbelief from the Family Circle. The projections are set for much longer periods, mitigating the "whatsit gonna do next" dynamic that so cheapened Walkure and Rheingold. And elements like final conflagration for the love duet and the deep forest background for Act II were quite lovely (funny how this was the instance in which the videoz most faithfully mimicked the plastic shrubbery of the Schenk, no?)
Which is not to say it is "good". There are still unforced errors aplenty, including, but hardly limited to: the need to over-choreograph Wagner's transition music with stage business ranging from the merely distracting (Siegfried's one-man fire dueling over the Act III scene transition) to the downright boneheaded (the extremely misguided stealing of baby Siegfried in the opening material); the inability to leave well-enough alone when it comes to video gimmickry (I'm not a hater I swear, a little bit of 3D woodbird would have been fine with me, but when things cross into Zippideedoodah territory you've gone too far); the weird fussy staging choices (Wotan's speer is really a poster tube with the runes rolled up inside? And he has to take them out when he talks to Erda? And then Siegfried doesn't bust the speer but the left over metal rod? Wha?); and the refusal to use all these alleged magical powers to solve some of the most obvious staging challenges of the piece ($45M and we get a hilarious talking snake head for a dragon, gotcha). But the biggest trouble is that we still have zero evidence that this Ring has any sort of an aesthetic, much less an interpretive, program in place. We are not witnessing a vision for the Ring; we are witnessing an ambitious but pointless formal experiment in stagecraft.
But these shenanigans were mostly forgiven on account of a winning afternoon music-wise, for which we can chiefly thank last-minute Siegfried Jay Hunter Morris and slightly last-minute maestro Fabio Luisi.
Morris' Siegfried is a joy in a part where "less-awkward than others" is considered a triumph. He brings out the beauty in Siegfried's music in a way rarely heard, lingering lovingly over phrases that often get a bark. He sounded a bit less fresh than on the prima broadcast (because who wouldn't) but still maintained a remarkable level of security throughout, never delving into that danger, danger fake throaty business that is the Siegfried's most common weapon. As if that weren't enough, he credibly portrays Siegfried's naivete and wonder in a way that goes beyond the standard "middle-aged dude bouncing around" delivery. Truly, he had the HD audience eating out of the palm of his hand (his ability to look the part doesn't hurt either) by the end of the show, a feat I'll admit I didn't quite think possible. Here is a Siegfried that is not overshadowed by his colleagues with lesser assignments but is truly the star of his own show. Complaints that his voice is a shade too light for the role, or might be underpowered in house could be valid but also I don't care. JHM is operating at the forefront of research in the field of Siegfried portrayals and should be celebrated for it.
Luisi likewise deserves great credit for his energetic, propulsive reading of the score, the kind of reading that makes one question how this opera could ever get a reputation for dragginess. I suppose he might be guilty of TOO much momentum at times--there are some magisterial moments lost in the fray here.
The supporting men in this dudeliest of operas were uniformly strong. Perhaps Luisi's gentler accompaniment was what Terfel needed, or the Wanderer just lies in a better place for him, but I detected little of the shoutiness that marred his Rheingold and Walkure outings. And where the stentorian authority needed to make those Wotans resonate seemed to escape him, the Wanderer's shadings of regret, humanity, and desperation were beautifully drawn out. Gerhard Siegel has been appropriately praised for his musical singing of Mime, though he perhaps suffered most from the production's lack of a clear concept. Eric Owens and Hans-Peter Konig supplied vocal luxury to spare in Alberich and Fafner.
This was a success for Voigt, though I don't think anyone is unclear about the fundamental discord between where her voice is right now and the demands of Brunnhilde. Still, she seemed to be working very hard to keep things in the right place and it paid off handsomely (moreso during the HD cast than on opening night, where she appeared to be wisely and aggressively cutting her losses). She also seems much more alive to the dramatic demands of the Siegfried scene than the Walkure Brunnhilde, which felt like it never came together beyond a very general level. Vocally, I don't know if the good work here says one way or another how she'll fare with the big Gotterdammerung sing. But acting-wise I'm certainly looking forward to what she does with the part.
P.S. Not that I don't appreciate Renaay's time, but could we maybe transition into having these HD cast intermission interviews done by professionals? There's a whole group of people who get paid specifically to ensure public/recorded interactions are not painful to watch. Hire some of them.